Saturday, November 18, 2017

Holding up the sky

     My friend Rob in New York City first pointed them out to me, so I think of them as a Manhattan phenomenon. Maybe they are, though they're in Chicago now in numbers.
     "Power umbrellas," he called them—those jumbo, sidewalk-spanning circular awnings that a small but significant percentage of pedestrians downtown feel obligated to carry. Golf umbrellas, migrated from the links to the city. 
    Though lately, they seem even bigger—not golf umbrellas, but patio umbrellas, practically, reflecting the bottomless desire of those with much to get more, to manifest themselves and spread out into space, endlessly. Other people are free to get out of the way.
    That might just be my perception. With the election of a bully, liar and fraud to the presidency, whose values are a nauseating mash of vanity, money worship and empty status lust, I suppose it would be natural if I got a little touchy about my fellow man laying claim to more sidewalk than is his right. 
     What if we all carried these ludicrously huge umbrellas? There would be tangles, injuries, fights. Nobody would get anywhere. They're counting on most people being happy with what we have. They always do.
     I am late to this, I know. The alarming trend was pointed out exactly a decade ago in the New York Times, in a slyly-titled "The Collapsible Colossus." 
     Time was that the regular-size umbrella, 40 inches to 48 inches in diameter, ruled the market. Now, “everybody’s moved up to a 60 and 68,” said John W. Aycock, owner of
     The article, by Micah Cohen, quotes umbrella store owners saying men—and it is invariably men—come in asking for the biggest umbrella they've got. Carelessly wielded, they cause eye injuries beside a sense of economic inferiority. 
     Now "umbrella" is an odd word. I tried to imagine where it's from, and drew a blank—Dutch? Navajo?—which is embarrassing, because, as my handy Oxford reminded, it has a familiar root: "umbra," is Latin for shade. Of course, like "penumbra," the shadow between light and dark. I knew that.
    Interestingly, the first definition has to do, not with rain, but sun, reflecting its sunny Roman roots: "A light portable screen or shade, usually circular in form and supported by a central stick or staff, used in hot countries as a protection for the head or person against the sun." That goes back to 1611. The next definition has umbrellas as "a symbol of rank or state" in some Asian and African countries—makes sense, since the person with a servant holding an umbrella over their head, blocking the sun, must be a person of rank. Only the third definition holds umbrellas up as "a portable protection against bad weather," 
    Both Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary and Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary mention sun first, though Webster goes on to point out that they are made of whalebone.
    But are these capacious canopies rude? Earlier this year, Scientific American examined the entire umbrella manners question, with "The Complexities of Using an Umbrella in New York City," by Krystal D'Costa. Most of the article examined how passersby carrying umbrellas negotiate past each other on crowded city streets. Though giant umbrellas are addressed:
The size of one's umbrella matters too: it should be proportionate to the height of the person, unless you want to draw the ire of your fellow pedestrians. A shorter person carrying a golf umbrella occupies a greater radius on the sidewalk—which is a big deal when it’s raining and people are looking to move as quickly as possible to their destinations. They also make it difficult to adhere to the subconscious rules that guide umbrella encounters. Given the berth, a golf umbrella should be lifted above oncoming traffic as a courtesy, but it may be harder to do that for a shorter person in this instance. Honestly, golf umbrellas may just generally be problematic. Even if used by a taller person, they may wind up dripping on an unsuspecting person standing on the fringes of the umbrella’s radius.
    "Ire" seems the wrong word. When I see someone lofting one of these enormous false ceilings skyward, I do not feel anger so much as amazement and a kind of sorrow. Really? 
      Envy doesn't figure into it—I can buy a golf umbrella—but honestly, think about it. Lofting one of those monsters, you are holding up far more umbrella than you need to keep yourself dry. In a sense they are reverting to their original form, as markers of status, at least to the carrier. Though an umbrella is toted around closed far more than it is held open, and when not being used a large umbrella is just dead weight—a reminder that when you try to maximize your advantage beyond what is your due, and flaunt your status, the person often most inconvenienced is yourself. 
    The titan Atlas was punished, remember, not by being condemned to hold up the earth, as he is often depicted doing, but by being forced to hold up the sky. Why someone would voluntarily condemn himself to a similar fate is a mystery. 

Rockefeller Center, New York City


Friday, November 17, 2017

Watching men watching men building buildings

Photo by Tina Sfondeles
    This was fun. Make sure you watch the video, posted on the Sun-Times web site. 

     Alex Griffiths works but doesn't get his hands dirty.
     The 40-year-old Brit has a job related to computers in the clean, abstract digital world at the 1871 high-tech business incubator at the Merchandise Mart.
     That, he said, partly explains why he paused on Orleans Street, just north of the Chicago River, one morning to gaze down into a construction pit and watch equipment digging up great mounds of mud.
     "It's fascinating to watch," said Griffiths. "This is something physical."
     Physical is the word. Six stories of basement parking being dug out of the muck at Wolf Point, the start of what will be a 60-story, $360 million tower. A big John Deere 350 excavator and a trio of smaller pieces of digging equipment look like a family of dinosaurs feeding at the edge of a swamp. Every minute or two another passerby stops to watch.
    "I think it's because we all wish we were driving one of those big backhoes," says a second man, who didn't want to be identified, a reminder that there is an element of idling to the observation of construction.
     "I don't want my kids to know I'm doing this at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday," he said, puffing on a cigar.
     "See how skilled they are," he said, gesturing toward what is, in essence, a bucket brigade with heavy equipment. "You go home at the end of the day, you've accomplished something."

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Women and religion, pt. II

Stevenson Memorial, by Abbott Handerson Thayer (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

    The key to writing a column is to say some things and not others. You can't explore every tangent. There isn't room, or reader interest. Make your point, move on. 
    Often, however, nuance is lost. In Monday's column, for instance, on religion and sexism, when I was listing the ways various religions hold women down, I originally gave the Baha'i a pass—they actually do stress the equality of the sexes. That seemed fair. But there wasn't room, so it had to go. Nor did I have the luxury of mentioning that, along with regularly oppressing women, faith also sometimes enriches them. 
    One reader stepped up to point that out, in a way I felt went beyond the standard "What about the Clintons?" response, and since she did so lucidly and sincerely, I thought I would share her remarks:
Dear Mr. Steinberg,
     As a woman, mother of three daughters, and grandmother of 5 granddaughters, I feel compelled to respond to your article today by adding another view.
     I have found freedom to be all I want to be, respect for the unique qualities inerrant in being a female human being, and courage to stand up to those who would disrespect my womanhood all in my faith as a Christian. 
     Jesus elevated the status of the woman he came in contact with through his time of ministry. He dispersed a crowd ready to stone a woman "caught in adultery" (where was the man she was caught with?) by asking her accusers "he who is without sin, cast the first stone".
     Jesus encouraged women to learn from his teachings alongside the men who also followed him at a time when women were not part of formal spiritual or intellectual training. Mary of Bethany, Martha, and Mary Magdalene were some of those women who followed Jesus.
     Jesus engaged in conversation with a woman who was an outcast (a Samaritan) and offered her the "water of life". He used a poor widow as an example of true sacrificial giving, in contrast with the wealthy Pharisee of the religious establishment. 
     My Christian faith has given me a strong sense of my worth as a person. I am free of the stigma any cultural bias may project on me based on my ethnicity, community, education, economic status, or any other designation. I am a child of God, the Creator of the Universe.
     Have men dominated women under the supposed authority of religion?  Absolutely, much to their shame. Have men hidden behind their "religion" to perpetrate acts of sexual abuse? Yes. Does the current administration contribute to a tone of "consequence-free misbehavior", as you stated? Most likely.
     Yet these sins against women and abuse of authority are not rooted in true Christianity. The word "Christian" means "Christ like". Jesus Christ taught "the greatest love is to sacrifice your life", and "do unto others as you would have them do to you".
     Does this sound like institutionalized repression? I think not.

     Gayle Barker Woody

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Can a 'normal person' become governor?

      J.B. Pritzker gave another $7 million to his own gubernatorial campaign Friday.
     Which, doing the math, is roughly the equivalent of me spending $700 on a plumber.
     Except it isn’t, my finances being a lot more close to the bone than his. I miss $700 more than he misses $7 million.
     We both get value for our money. I get a new boiler pump. And Pritzker airs TV commercials like the one I saw Monday night, a poignant spot with melancholy piano music and J.B. talking about his mother, who died of alcoholism. A medley of emotion, trying to humanize the billionaire.
     It works. He comes off as very lifelike.
     Which is more than what could be done for Gov. Bruce Rauner, who couldn’t be rendered human if Leo Burnett and J. Walter Thompson rose up from the grave and gave him the head-to-toe buffing makeover that Dorothy Gale gets upon arrival at the Emerald City.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Books on the nightstand

     When an opponent's king is under attack in chess and cannot escape to safety, the victorious player announces "checkmate!" 
      Now that's an odd word, "checkmate." What is being checked? Who is mating?
      Nobody. "Checkmate" is a transliteration—a foreign phrase spelled out in English letters—of the Arabic shah-mat, or "the king is dead," a relic of the game's ancient Persian origins, hidden in plain sight.
      If you find that interesting, I have a book for you: It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by British writer Tristan Donovan (St. Martin's: $26.99).  I noticed its attractive cover in the New Books section at the Northbrook Public Library a few weeks ago and took it home, where it came in handy after I was laid low with a bad cold over the past few days. There's nothing quite so comforting as an engaging book to distract yourself from your ailments.
     I've always loved games, from when I was cutting my teeth on Candyland—that lovely block of Neapolitan ice cream!—all the way through the usual suspects: Trouble, Mousetrap, Monopoly, Risk, Clue, chess, checkers—to more esoteric games, like 3M bookshelf games Breakthru and Twixt. One of my best friends gave me a wooden game as a wedding present—Cathedral—and its been on our coffee table for 27 years. I play Scrabble daily on Facebook, and have six or seven games going at a time. When my wife and I were discussing what we wanted to do when the boys were home from college over Thanksgiving, I said, "I wouldn't mind getting in a game of Settlers of Catan."
     Games are little frames to live in; they add significance, companionship, fun and satisfaction to life, an activity that I might not be able to win at, generally, but I sure can win at Scrabble. So I'm a soft target for this book, and Donovan delivers.
     He takes his time, starting with the games discovered in Egyptian tombs before diving into chess, a Siberia that some writers get lost in, but giving us just enough and no more, making all sorts of connections I'd never seen suggested, such as the queen becoming a powerful piece around the time that queens in England and Spain were exerting unprecedented power.  
Original Staunton knight
Elgin Marbles
     He answers questions I never thought to ask, like where the designs for the classic Staunton chess set came from: "The knight continued the neoclassical theme by echoing the straining horse that pulls the chariot of the moon goddess Selene in the Elgin Marbles, which had been removed from the Parthenon in Greece and placed in the British Museum in 1816."
     The book doesn't neglect recent history, as with the almost-too-detailed description of how Prince Alexis Obolensky revived backgammon as a game of the jet set in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember we all trotted off to college with slim backgammon briefcases in the last 1970s; but I never realized we did so because we had been indoctrinated by a Russian nobleman.
     Not that It's All a Game merely digs up entertaining minutia about games. Donovan uses each particular game to shed light on the historical contexts surrounding it.  Before we're allowed to play Risk, we get a history of war games, from the German Kriegsspiel to the unexpected role that Japanese war-gaming played in the success of their attack on Pearl Harbor. 
    The Game of Life becomes a disquisition on middle class ambition. Those who can't attain Millionaire Acres end up in a tiny house, "destitute and disgraced" and "reduced to living on Social Security." Monopoly began as The Landlord's Game,  Illinois-born activist Elizabeth Magie's effort to publicize the dangers of monopoly capitalism and promote a land value tax. Players were supposed to be horrified that only one player got all the money while the rest went broke.
    They weren't. The game morphed as players made homemade sets, many in the economics departments of schools, until the early 1930s when Charles Darrow—who contrary to received wisdom did not invent the game at all—copied a set from a friend, got an artist to improve the graphics, and sold it to Parker Brothers (I was pleased that Donovan's research agrees with mine, for my Chicago book, that Dowst Manufacturing, makers of charm bracelet figures and Cracker Jack prizes, was tapped for the original game tokens. He doesn't mention it, but the tokens were originally freebies given away to children by laundries; the flat iron in Monopoly came form a token designed for the Flat Iron Laundry on Halsted Street). 
    There's quite a bit of Chicago in the book, such as the sad tale of Marvin Glass and Associates, the toy company created by Glass, a brilliant but troubled man. 
    Donovan doesn't quite come out and say it, but The Landlord's Game languished while Monopoly became wildly popular for the same reason regular folk today shrug off programs that would help them while coddling the rich whose ranks they dream of joining.
     "If Monopoly seemed like a celebration of dog-eat-dog capitalism, that's because that is really what people wanted it to be," writes Donovan. 
     The book isn't perfect. He winds up the story of each game with their experiments in brand extension—Star Wars Risk and such—which strike traditionalists as money-grubbing and wrong, but doesn't get into the emotional heft that each game carries, the cool, wood-tiled purity of Scrabble, the time-frittering, someting-to-do-while-you-drink-beer quality to backgammon. Games are tactile, or should be. My Clue set has an actual lead pipe: real lead, soft, you could bend it. 
     Lost in all the history is something of the joy of games, the memory of being with your pals and waking up with a Risk army pressed into your cheek (I became acquainted with the game in the early 1970s and looked long and hard for an old set: I didn't want the new plastic pieces; I wanted the old, wooden pieces. It mattered). 
     The history of Scrabble is outlined, and the compiling of Scrabble dictionaries, but its strange, almost compulsive allure is hardly hinted at.  People love this stuff; Donovan seems to only find it fascinating.
     Not to complain. It's All a Game is fascinating and worthwhile. I'm still racing toward the end, so can't give the book a full summation. To me, games are like breakfast cereals, one of those products interwoven with childhood, melding nostalgia and delight. Donovan gives the world of games the serious historical treatment it deserves, while offering up whimsical tidbits, like how Marvin Glass and Associates gave the world both wind-up chattering teeth and fake vomit. Or how, in 1949, when Parker Brothers brought out Clue, it refused to advertise the product in magazines because they were worried about being publicly associated with a game based on murder. 


Monday, November 13, 2017

Today's sins against women rooted in religion

"Oedipus at Colonos" by Jean-Baptist Hugues (Musee d'Orsay) 

     Religion fancies itself as manifesting the word of God.
     And with frequent evocation of morality, much soaring architecture and oft-inspiring music, it regularly does exactly that.
     However, a skeptical person — me for instance — gathering together all doctrines, could be forgiven for viewing orthodox religion as something else: an elaborate system to dominate women.
     Women get the short end of the stick in every major faith. The Judeo-Christian tradition certainly stumbles out of the blocks. No sooner is Eve crafted from Adam's rib — to give him a lackey, remember — than she gets mankind booted from the Garden of Eden, earning her painful childbirth and divinely ordained second-class citizenship forever ("And he shall rule over thee"). The starting gun to an endless series of indignities commencing with Genesis and rolling right up to Louis C.K.
     I won't take the time to outline the degradations served up by Islam, except to note that when Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive — in 2017 — it was considered a breakthrough. For all its spirituality, in Buddhism enlightenment is seen as something that doesn't happen to women.
     Thus, indignity over good Alabama Christians rushing to support Senate candidate Roy Moore after he was accused of molesting teenage girls seems naive, and makes me wonder: You are paying attention, right? Most Southern Republicans no doubt draw the line at exploiting teenage girls. But it also fits into the overall right-wing policy of scorning what real women actually want: equal pay, reproductive rights, health care, to not be treated as sexual playthings by any man who crosses their path. In their place is put what religion-addled men imagine women want, a second-class citizenship halfway to victimization. Sexual intimidation in this context isn't a lapse; it's baked into the system. Not a flaw, as the techies say, but a feature. Much of religion resembles the old-fashioned "virginity check" — an assault disguised as insistence on purity. It's no accident that one of Moore's defenders cited the story of Mary and Joseph as if it offered exoneration.

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Coincidence happens

     "Do you realize," my wife said, "that the flowers you bought match the flowers on the pitcher exactly?"
      I stared dumbly in the direction of the bouquet.
     "Pink roses and yellow tulips," she prompted.
     "Of course," I said, improvising. "I thought that matching the pitcher would ... umm ... enhance the overall aesthetic effect."
      We gazed at one another. 
     "No, that's a lie," I confessed. "A complete coincidence. I picked out the pink roses because they looked best, and then added the tulips because the yellow and pink seemed to go together."
     At Mariano's, by the way, which has good prices on flowers—the roses were $10 for a dozen, the tulips a couple bucks more. The pitcher was nowhere in mind—in fact, I initially put them in our Dior vase, then only moved them into the pitcher because the cleaning ladies were coming and I didn't want them shattering our good vase. Sometimes they break stuff.
     The coincidence lingered with me though. I don't think we give random pairings—the flowers perfectly matching the vase—enough attention, which is why there is so much magical thinking in the world. You dream most nights, the days and weeks and months pass by, and odds are that, eventually, one of those dreams will correspond with something that happens later in the day. It doesn't make you a seer. It's just a coincidence.
     If I had to teach a high school class, I think I would call it "Accidents and Fabrications," and focus on the important, undervalued role of chance and deceit in our lives. We see too much imaginary order and supposed truth, and too little actual randomness and mendacity.
     That sort of thing happens a lot. I'm writing this on my new iMac, which I brought home last Sunday afternoon. An hour before I set it up, my old iMac, which had worked faithfully for eight years, bricked. Just died. Couldn't turn it on. All my files and photos, thank goodness, was backed up on a 1 terabyte Seagate hard drive—always, dear reader, have a back-up. But still, of all the times for the old machine to give up the ghost.
     "Maybe it was jealous of the new arrival," a colleague speculated.
     Yeah, that has to be it. Hell hath no fury like a computer scorned.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     The moment I set eyes on this dim and cluttered place I thought, "Mmmm, could it...?" I know I'm batting zero when it comes to stumping readers on the Saturday fun activity—you just nail it every time. 
    But this is off-the-beaten track, almost the definition of off-the-beaten-trackiness, this private space in a public place, and I thought it might possibly provide a little challenge. At least it provided an excuse to bring back the Fun Activity for a special, one-day-only appearance to test my hypothesis.
     Where is this shabby room? Since I imagine someone will nail it at 7:01 a.m., I'll need a prize ... how about a volume from the official Kennedy assassination report? Sure to distinguish any coffee table. I'm cleaning out my office for the big move next week and just can't take it all with me. Someone will cherish the thing. Or not. Hard to tell.
    Anyway, place your guesses below. Good luck. Have fun. 

The Vital Role of Snacks in Recovery From Addiction

     The Saturday Fun Activity is back for a surprise visit—I found myself in a location that I thought might stump you. And since that, traditionally, the Fun Activity doesn't post until 7, I thought I would let you know, and give you something to consider until then: I'm speaking about recovery at Harper College a week from Tuesday, and, well, to be honest, I'll feel silly if it's just me. Please do consider coming. Not only is it free to attend, but there are snacks and, really, who doesn't like snacks? In fact, that is the theme of my talk: "The Vital Role of Snacks in Recovery from Addiction."

     Kidding, the talk is titled, "Recovery is the True Path of the Hero," a theme which I'm looking forward to discussing, ideally with you, Nov. 21. And yes, there really will be snacks.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Being alive is heroism aplenty

     In truth, we are but sentient gnats, crawling around an enormous, churning, steamy globe which, in turn, is itself a mere warm speck hurtling through the black and frozen void of  a generally empty cosmos utterly indifferent to us, we moist splats of life that ooze and wheeze and shudder for a single instant and then vanish forever.
     So of course we try to puff ourselves up, concocting awaiting heavens filled with ornate glory. Of course we conjure golden deities lavishing their divine attention on our endlessly significant selves. Four score years of messy life is not enough, we are not satisfied just to exist, that highest of honors and rarest of privileges. No, we need to also be brave, strong, peerless, both the apex of nature and the pinnacle of humanity, standing on the heads of our lessers, basking in their praise. 

     Saturday is Veterans Day. Patriotic soul that I am, enamored with tales of action and courage, I was excited to stumble upon one of those amazing tales so apt on such holidays: an aged vet, his heroic deed unsung, the story told now, just in time, before the waves of time and memory roll over the champion. I made my phone calls, then visits, conducted my interviews, took my notes, transcribed my recordings, scoured the internet, read dozens of pages of material.  I began to write. I had tears in my eyes. Thrilling stuff. Heroism.
     It was 4 a.m. Thursday when my eyes, now dry, blinked open and I thought: "What if this isn't true?"
     Because really, as much as I dug, it came down to an amazing story that one man was saying, richly detailed, filled with verisimilitude, facts and dates and places, official-looking documents that, on closer inspection, did not quite prove what had been claimed. It was an incredible tale, which was the problem. Incredible is very close to "not credible," or should be.
     I'm not going into the exact details, not to be coy, but because the story isn't in the paper, in part, because we don't want to out the guy. A major metro daily is a big bazooka to turn on an individual whose crime is, in essence, losing touch with reality, concocting a self-flattering fantasy and taking it to market to see if anyone will buy it. We're not the sheriff of old men basking in unearned glory. A few hours of frantic extra digging showed that not only wasn't it true, but other people already knew it wasn't true. "The entire story is fiction" said one historian I found at the last minute. "His claim is preposterous."   
     I can't remember ever yanking a story in this fashion, and as much as it represents a fuck-up on my part—I was rushing to make Veterans Day, and should have done this work last week, should have pressed harder, sooner. But I was mesmerized by the narrative, incredulous at the idea that someone could construct it all out of whole cloth, and certain that as I beavered away through his story that the verification I needed would present itself on the next page, just around the next corner.

   It didn't. 
     My bosses saved me, because I was happy to serve up the entire complicated mess as it was, a steaming bowl of contradiction, as a story that might be true, might not—you decide! You got a tale of heroism plus, as a bonus, a nagging mystery to unpack. I convinced myself it was even better this way. Complicated and enigmatic, like life itself. 
     That just won't fly, the editors chorused. Keep digging. I did, and on Thursday afternoon found one, two, three smoking guns. A damning archival document dredged out of a military web site and my two concurring historians.
     I felt so good, almost proud, standing at the edge of that cliff, pinwheeling my arms. Let me tell you why. We judge the media by what they publish, but we should also judge them by what they do not publish when a story falls below our standards. The rampant speculation, fabrication and distortion that geysers online, particularly from the Right Wing press, is anathema to those of us in what they glibly slur as "fake news." We sweat this stuff, or try to. 
     Up until yesterday, I was worried that any doubt I cast on his story would be seen as insulting a hero, and I had an answer ready. Challenged, I would say this:
     The soldiers who we honor today were not fighting for the flag, not to venerate a piece of colorful cloth affixed to a stick. Rather they fought—and fight—for the freedom of thought that the flag represents, and what can be freer than to look at a thrilling tale and ask, "Is this true? Is the hero really a hero? Are the facts as they are being presented really facts?"
     Some leaders demand loyalty, blind obedience even. They tilt their heads back and puff out their lower lips as if they were Il Duce. That isn't America. America is a lean Yankee, stepping back and squinting his eye and examining the goods. Is this real? Is it quality? Or are you pulling the wool over my eyes, mister? We are a dubious country—at least those of us who haven't become eager dupes—and should always be proud of that. Skepticism is American. Credulity is not, or shouldn't be, though it too often is.
     So no column in the paper today. By the time the story was spiked it was after 3 p.m., and I was tapped. I put on my jacket and my cap and walked out into the gathering Chicago evening. The city was glittery in the twilight, the people rushing home, dark forms under twinkling lights. I felt oddly happy, the relief of a guy who almost stepped in front of a bus but then didn't, who pulled back or, rather, was pulled back by the steady hand of a heroic passerby. 
    It is a buoyant thing to be in the truth business, working with people I respect, who had my back, and in general a boon to be alive and to not feel the frantic need to be glorious or a hero or live forever. They suffer from a curse—born of deep insecurity and feelings of unworth, no doubt—a kind of addiction, as we see in people who have achieved wealth and fame yet find it never enough. Who need nine houses, or would scorch the planet and kneecap democracy so they can get an extra $10 billion in the next fiscal year. Breaking their teeth, King Midas style, on their golden fruit. 
     Give me real fruit. I hope I can continue mushing my face into a dripping melon, unseen and unremarked upon, grinning with simple satisfaction, blissfully ordinary, unheralded, mundane. That I can amble into my own decrepitude and, unlike this guy I got to know over the past few weeks, not find myself clawing at life as it recedes, trying to dig up a false distinction that I don't deserve, claiming to have secretly written "Infinite Jest" or beaten Barack Obama at pick-up basketball or won two Pulitzer Prizes. 
     This is not to pooh-pooh soldiers who do heroic things. That is definitely important, and something they should be proud of, assumed they did what they are supposed to have done, and something they should be honored for doing, especially today. Though a word to the wise: let others do the honoring. It's already suspect and half curdled when the praise comes from the hero himself. That said, to point out that we who never got the chance to rescue our crew mates and defeat the Germans single-handedly should not despair, nor be tempted to conjure up imaginary greatness for ourselves. There is a heroism in facing quotidian life, and we all do it, earning our medals the hard way, in anonymous solitude and silent struggle, every goddamn day.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Leaves falling like rain

     For a supposedly rational guy, I have my share of mystic habits. I will, presented with the opportunity—a clear night sky—wish upon a star. Or, after chicken, break a wishbone or, after a Chinese meal, not only read the fortune cookie fortune, which could be written off to social pressure but, if it seems propitious, also tuck it away for future private contemplation. 
     And those are the more mainstream occult rituals; I have a few kabalistic quirks that I assume are unique to myself. For instance, in the autumn, I like to catch a leaf during its transit from the tree to the ground. Meaning, while in the air—just scooping off the earth won't do. 
     Achieving this feat somehow is "good luck." I have no idea how long I have been doing it or when the tic started. It seems an artifact from a solitary boyhood spent wandering around the de-populated but treed streets of Berea, Ohio in the early 1970s. 
      Grabbing a leaf in flight is more difficult than it sounds—leaves are asymmetrical, and twist and jink their way through the air, falling as if avoiding your grip.
     Actually, "falling" is too passive a word to describe what happens to leaves in autum. Despite the season's common name "Fall," gravity isn't pulling the leaves down, nor is wind pulling the leaves off. Rather the trees are flinging them away, using special cells located where the leaf stem meets the branch called "abscission" cells, whose name shares the same root as "scissors"  and which perform the same function: cutting away the dead, no longer productive leaves so as not to sap scarce winter resources until new ones can grow in the spring.
     Whether we consider them falling or being tossed away, leaves were fluttering down in abundance Wednesday morning. Returning from my walk with Kitty, I noticed the cimmaron ash that I planted 17 years ago and has now attained a 40-foot height thanks to religious applications of expensive anti-ash borer elixir, was dropping its leaves at a prodigious rate. They fell like rain, in bunches.  I hurried over and ... 
      You know, the fall vs. cut duality is also echoed in the type of the tree: "decidious," meaning trees whose leaves fall, a word whose Latin root, cadere, to fall, is very close to cædere, which means to cut, and is the root of "decide," harkening back to when making a determination was equated to cutting through the knot of a problem.  (It's a shame it wasn't the other way around, because the "æ" in cædere is a dipthong called an ash, which would be fitting to my tree and I better stop now).
    Where were we? Ah yes, leaves, from my as-yet-unkilled ash, raining down. So much that they made noise. I positioned myself under the tree and, with golden oval ash leaves practically pelting me, raised my hands up, fingers spread, Kitty's leash looped around one wrist. The first three or four eluded me, but I managed to catch one, if "catch" isn't taking too much credit—it veered into my open hand and I closed my fist around it and snatched the thing.
    Good luck achieved, I released the leaf to join its friends and headed inside to breakfast, though not before shooting a brief video to document the phenomenon. 


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Students learn to be much more than farmers at Chicago Ag

      If your lettuce wasn't an enticing shade of green this summer, maybe the problem is you weren't fertilizing with fish poop.
     The rows of lettuce at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences were so appealing, it was all I could do not to tear off a leaf and pop it into my mouth. That seemed rude, so instead I fled over to peer into the murky depths of one of the four big tanks where tilapia swim, generating their contribution to agronomy, their soiled water used to water the plants. The fish themselves eventually are fried at a school party.
     The Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network was holding a symposium at the school Monday about the city's role in food and agricultural education, and invited me.
     While bad-mouthing Chicago Public Schools is a constant theme in both public life and journalism, and not without reason, the system's pervasive problems have a way of obscuring gems like Chicago Ag, as students call it. 
     The school sits on 72 acres in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood, half of which is planted with crops. Last summer the school raised sunflowers, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, both orange and pink (for breast cancer awareness), Swiss chard, kohlrabi, broccoli, peppers, watermelon, cucumbers, mustard greens, cabbage, onions, okra and soybeans.

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Joan Sanford shows the Chicago High School of Agricultural Sciences' cannulated cow.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Trump: An opportunity as well as a curse

     Yes, Wednesday is the first anniversary of Donald Trump being elected president of the United States.
     And yes, were I so inclined, I could don sackcloth, dab myself in ash, and squat at the city gates, beating myself on the head and wailing. 
     I could go the "Nakba" route—evoking the word Palestinians use to describe the founding of Israel, "catastrophe." And there is no question that a Trump presidency has inflicted lasting damage on this country.
    But lots of people can be counted on to express that. And to be honest, my heart isn't in it. We are heading for catastrophe, too. But we also now clearly see what for years could be ignored. And you can't fix a situation that you don't yet recognize.
     Sometimes terrible occurrences can have good results. Something awful happens, but then you become aware of it, and change and things get better. And if there is one thing that is true about Donald Trump, as I've said before, he's a symptom and not a cause. He is the same lying, bullying fraud he has always been, subtle as a brick, obvious as can be. 
      Nearly half of America voted for him anyway.
      That is the terrible part. America elected him. He spread his goods—xenophobia, malice, deceit, delusion, ignorance—and 63 million of us signed on up. 
      The question now: is Trump our rock bottom? Or are there hells below this one?
      At least we now get to see what it's like to have a leader like him. Where those qualities take us. The sort of people who will support a Donald Trump—81 percent of Evangelical Christians. Imagine how that will sit in elections to come.
     Lots of people are in denial—that's what got Trump elected in the first place—but not everybody is. Trump's poll numbers are at historic lows. Pushback is enormous and immediate.
      I don't want to put too rosy a spin on it. Refugees have been turned away, healthcare undermined, haters emboldened. The Republicans are busy suppressing voting rights, skewing the system to bind the whip in their minority hand.
      All troublesome. But we are not watching the American Reich rise. Not yet anyway. The marchers in Charlottesville found themselves outed on Twitter and lost their jobs. Red-hatted gangs of thugs are not prowling the streets. ObamaCare was not repealed. The line-the-pockets-of-the-rich tax reform seems too horrible to actually pass. When you look at whatever environmental regulation or safety policy is being scrapped, odds are it was enacted five years ago. We aren't going back decades in time, not yet anyway. 
     Maybe we had to go through this to get to the other side. And I'm not even convinced that Trump is the nadir. We could get Ted Cruz and who knows what kind of Trump 2.0, more polished, more effective. There are hells below this. If Donald Trump, elected one year ago, is the rock bottom that we bounce up from, then America will have gotten off lucky, again. I can't tell which, because I live in an area where revulsion with Trump is the norm, and I've pretty much filtered out all his fans by now.
     This is a process. The election of Donald Trump is an x-ray with a big tumor on it. The tumor was already there. Better that we found out, and as painful and terrifying as this treatment is, it is treatment nonetheless. We can't say our problems are hidden from us anymore. The situation is painfully clear. Success is uncertain. But the battle lines are drawn. We see the eyes of everything ugly in this country, staring starkly back at us. Recognizing electorate who would embrace this, has to be the first step in fixing whatever the problem is, in building a better country. Trump didn't have to happen, but he did, and it is an opportunity as well as a curse.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Federal government tries to blind Chicago to grim gun statistics

     When Republicans are shrugging off the need for any kind of rational gun policy — not that they ever consider it — they enjoy mentioning the high murder toll in Chicago and pretend that doing so proves their argument.
     “I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country. That certainly hasn’t helped there,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Oct. 2, drop-kicking the issue in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre.
     “The most stringent gun laws in the U.S. happen to be in Chicago,” Donald Trump tweeted in 2014. “and look what is happening there!”
     What is happening here is that Chicago — though banning gun sales but not gun ownership — is ringed by suburbs pumping guns into the city and by states whose lax gun laws provide a direct pipeline to the city’s streets.
     Legal gun sales are a big part of the problem. The Sun-Times outlined that situation again last week. According to the second “Gun Trace Report,” the work of the Chicago Police Department and the University of Chicago Crime Lab, more than half of the 27,500 guns recovered by CPD between 2013 to 2016 came legally from 5,000 federally licensed gun shops in Illinois and other states; almost a quarter from Indiana.

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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Noooo! Not the . . . time change!

    Is it me? Or did Daylight Saving Time seem to end extra late this year? It didn't, still the first Sunday in November, just like last year and the decade before. Maybe a flashback from prior to that, when it was the last Sunday in October.
     Change is hard, as this column from 2009 recounts. And just a reminder, since it can be hard to get your head around. The amount of daylight doesn't actually change. What we do, besides getting an extra hour to sleep, is shift the framework of time we use, so that dawn comes earlier. Sunrise was 7:27 a.m. Saturday, but 6:28 Sunday, after the time change. It was done for a variety of reasons, but the most convincing was so that kids wouldn't have to go to school in the dark. 
     Don't worry, you'll get used to it. Or not. 

     Americans seem to be supporting President Obama's efforts to extend health coverage to all U.S. citizens. Yet we can't get rid of the penny. We are happy to let the government run the military, trust in its competence, content to place the lives of our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, in its care. Yet running some banks is beyond federal abilities.
     I don't understand people—we're so strange, so inconsistent when it comes to change. Huge issues fly past us—a debt that will burden generations unborn is laid upon our shoulders without a murmur. But we get rattled twice a year by the moral implications of Daylight Savings Time. The great engines of daily journalism can cough and sputter without raising alarm outside of those who are actually drawing a salary from newspapers. But just try to suggest we shift over to the metric system and listen to the general public howl of complaint and concern.
     My theory? It's BECAUSE we can't bear to grapple with the big stuff that we make such a fuss over the small stuff. Unable to forestall death, we distract ourselves by slathering our wrinkles with cream.

Nobody misses South Parkway Blvd.
     When Marshall Field's became Macy's, my heart sorrowed along with everyone else's for the long-time Chicago merchandising icon, and raged against the brash Manhattan interloper, which chucked our beloved green comfort object, apparently, to save money on shopping bags.
     That is, until a clutch of change-adverse Chicagoans started picketing the State Street store, demanding it go back to being "Field's."
     "Save it for Darfur," I grumbled, abruptly welcoming Macy's into my heart. Now that the traditional adjustment period has passed, I can actually say, "Meet me at Macy's" without having to once again go through all five Kubler-Ross stages of grief (Must I? Oh all right: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance).
     So while I'd have happily called the Sears Tower the Sears Tower for the rest of my life, I cannot pretend that calling it the "Willis Tower" is a rend in the time/space continuum.
     Alas, this is not a universal opinion. My electronic village square at Facebook tells me that groups such as "Chicagoans Against Willis Tower" (34,253 members) and "I Refuse to Refer to the Sears Tower as the Willis Tower" (6,292 members) and at least 20 others have sprung up to lobby for the status quo.
     Of course these are groups that assemble with a few keystrokes—I bet if you asked them to gather in an actual physical location and donate a dollar, you'd end up with nine people.
     Plus, their easily expressed call to the ramparts is ridiculous—"Chicagoans, let's take a stand! The Sears Tower will forever overlook Chicago." Yeah, right.
     First, it's hypocritical. I am absolutely certain that if the Willis Group approached any of those Sears Tower boosters on Facebook and offered to pay a quarter of their rent in return for calling their abode "The Old Willis Place," that every single one of them would leap at the deal. I sure would.
     Second, it's futile. Question: How many aggrieved e-mails from Chicago will it take to persuade the Willis Group in London to NOT rename the Sears Tower? Answer: none, because a dozen or a million are the same in these cases. If you're going to lobby pointlessly in a time-wasting exercise of appealing to the deaf, then send your e-mails to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and demand that he free enslaved Tibet. At least your empty exercise is for a noble cause.
     The Berghoff is gone. Marshall Field's is gone. Meigs Field is gone. Now the Sears Tower is gone, and why not? When was the last time you went to a Sears store anyway? If you really care about the Sears name, go to a Sears right now and buy a socket wrench set. Otherwise, stop crying; it's embarrassing.

                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 16, 2009

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Wagner the feminist? "Walküre" a sort of "Thelma & Louise" on the Rhine.

Elisabet Strid
     "I haven't read the synopsis yet," my wife said, as the lights lowered at exactly 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Civic Opera House, an early start for the debut of Wagner's "Die Walküre"
     "Don't worry about the plot, it's nonsense," I said. "Just enjoy the music."
     A moment later, I was about as close as bounce-in-my-seat excited as I ever get. Then again, Sir Andrew Davis had just dug his spurs into the flanks of the Lyric Opera orchestra and it sprang forward into the fluttering, insistent "storm" prelude—if you're not familiar, think a a distant cousin of the pulsing arrival-of-the-shark motif in "Jaws."
     Not that you need Cliff Notes to understand what's going on. There is Sieglinde, sung with power and precision by Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid, making her Lyric debut. She's chained to an enormous ash tree, arching priapically across the stage, yet does her best to be hospitable to a guest, wounded warrior, Siegmund, who, perhaps through his own good breeding—his dad's a god, we discover—never says, "Hey, what's with the big chain?"
     At the end of "Rheingold," the first part of the Ring Cycle, performed at the Lyric last year, Sieglinde was forced to marry the brutish Hunding who — you know, I 'm not going to wander off into the thicket of the plot and lose you. Not just yet anyway. 
    Let's just say that, an hour later, during the first intermission, I quipped. "That was the most elaborate ode to incestuous adultery in musical theater." Or should it be "adulterous incest?" Either way, my wife, always a quick study, explained she knew that Siegmund and Sieglinde were brother and sister when Hunding said he recognized a familiar gleam in his guest's eye. (The names aren't quite the giveaway they seem in print because Siegmund is coy about his name, calling himself "Woeful.")
     Even listening to beautiful music for five hours, the mind tends to wander, and during "Walküre" I found it idly exploring two separate rooms.
Christine Goelke, singing Brunhilde, contemplates her suitors.
     The first was picking out all the mythological story lines either touched upon by or lifted from Wagner—Norse mythology, of course, with its treasure and dwarves ("Walküre" is the second part of Wagner's epic four-part "Ring of the Nibelung," "Nibelung" being a Teutonic word related to either a dwarf or a race of dwarves) Greek mythology (Wotan and Fricka being the Norse version of Zeus and Hera) with some King Arthur (the sword in the stone, er, tree) and even Sleeping Beauty, with all that maiden-awakened-with-a-kiss business. 
    As for stories lifted from Wagner, the Lord of the Rings, of course (the ring, the dwarves) plus aspects of Harry Potter (such as the sword that only showed up in times of duress, and the practical side of the fantastical, like the giants demanding the ring as payment for constructing Valhala, like the most demanding contractors ever) and even Star Wars (the brother and sister hot for each other though, unlike Leia and Luke, realizing the connection stokes the passion of these two instead of quenching it).
     The twins, by the way, belong to Wotan—sung with complex humanity, almost tenderness by bass-baritone Eric Owens—and the second act features him in black tie, in a cool grey deco-ish Valhalla suspended midway between the proscenium arch and the stage. being browbeaten by his wife Fricka (who is hellbent against Siegmund and Sieglinde for their incestuous union—hypocritically since, at least in the Greek version, she herself is both Zeus' wife and sister).  
    Fricka isn't happy about how he's about to come to the aid of Siegmund when he battles Hunding, and wants him to call off Brunhilde and her eight Valkyrie sisters.
    The second act had me thinking—and I think this connection is a first in music criticism—of Henry Winkler, aka "The Fonz." Director Garry Marshall and I once got to talking about his TV show "Happy Days," and he was saying how Winkler was excellent at "laying pipe," aka coming on stage and explaining complicated plot developments in way that wasn't too tortuous on the audience. In Act 2, Wotan gives the back story to how we got this point. 
   After I finished playing Name the Mythic Reference, I wandered into What-is-this-all-about? Yes, yes, a bunch of Nordic (and German and Greek) heroic hooey. But what's it mean?  As the opera progressed, a single revelation came to mind, and I'm going to present it just as it came to me, an admittedly crude epiphany. 
     We were in the 3rd Act act—spoiler alert!—Siegmund's dead, and Sieglinde is fleeing Wotan's wrath. Brunhilde helps her, because, well, she carrying her ... nnn, doing the relationship calculus... bastard half nephew, the future Siegfried. The two women clasp hands, powerfully, and I think: "Oh, this is a chick flick. Or rather, a chick opera." 
    I know that's a stretch, but hear me out. 
   Look who moves the action in "Walküre." In Act 1, Sieglinde escapes her chain (somehow, we don't see it done) drugs her husband Hunding, arms his enemy with some kind of holy sword, and then the two head off for hot Teutonic incest in a springtime wood in winter. No shrinking Madam Butterfly she. 
    In Act 2 Fricka ("Frigga," by the way, in Old Norse, leading to our term "Friday") looking like a 1940s movie goddess, browbeats Wotan into calling off his Valykuries and tacitly allowing the death of his son. He orders Brunhilde to stand down, but she disobeys him, forcing Wotan to deploy his spear and do the deed himself.
     Act 3 opens with the famed "Ride of the Valkyries" set effectively by director David Pountney into a chilling abattoir,  the valkyries in blood-soaked white dresses riding full-size metal horses through the air above slain heroes wheeled around on gurneys by orderlies in bloody aprons and masks, a bracing corrective of field hospital gore to balance all Wagner's war-father nonsense. 
     Then we shift into a kind of Teutonic "Thelma and Louise" as Brunhilde goes completely off reservation, rescues Sieglinde and whisks her to safety. Then, when Wotan shows up to punish his wayward daughter, her sisters form a #MeToo defensive ring around her, brandishing children's chairs, a lovely distaff touch. As Wotan sentences Brunhilde to marriage to whatever dolt of a man can push his hairy way through the ring of flame he sets around her, a motley collection of loutish supernumeraries closes menacingly in. Ugh, men.
     Reader Michele Kurlander, in the Facebook remarks on this post, pointed out one other significant aspect that, perhaps tellingly, I overlooked during the opera: 
Brunhilde wouldn't be at the top of an unscaleable mountain surrounded with a ring of fire so only her juvenile heroic nephew can get in—but instead would be wandering among the hairy dolts, sans Goddess powers, just waiting to be grabbed up—if she hadn't been so clearly smarter and more articulate and more all knowing than her horny Fricka-whipped daddy and almost talked him totally out of punishing her at all! Talk about woman power!
     That too. Wrapping up (the primary drawback to Wagner is that it's just so hard for anybody involved to stop) as I said in the beginning, the plot is best ignored. And really, it's the ... seventh reason you go to a Wagnerian opera, the first seven being, in order of importance: 1) music; 2) voice; 3) acting; 4) scenery; 5) costume; 6) set and 7) the story.
      Edie loved it, by the way, in those words: "I really loved that." Though she missed the horned helmets promised in Bugs Bunny (there is a certain joy in finding expected cliches in a famous work. I explained that for the past few decades directors generally drop the horned, or winged, helmets in order to appear a la mode). As for me, I'm planning to see it again in a couple weeks. Because really: how often do you get the chance? 

Friday, November 3, 2017

China now, Facebook later? ‘A new model of totalitarianism’

     Halloween is over, but there's still a lot of scary stuff out there.
     Among the continuing terror attacks — as opposed to good old-fashioned homegrown mass killings, which somehow don't count — and Congress sharpening its shears to fleece the middle class and Donald Trump doing what Donald Trump always does, it takes the heart of a lion just to uncurl from your fetal ball, stand up and face the day.
     So I hate to add one more worry.
    But have you ever had two unconnected aspects of life resonate with each other? One big and one small? So they seem to mean something?
     Like last week's Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and a blog post of mine being kicked off Facebook.
     The congress, in case you missed it, sealed Xi Jinping as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. Immediately "he proclaimed the regime’s intention not just to become the world’s leading power, but to establish a new model of totalitarianism," according to a Washington Post report.
     At the same time, I went to Facebook and posted Monday's column on the sale of Howard Tullman's art collection, containing many, many naked women.
     I wouldn't dream of trying to run a photo of his art harem in the paper. Newspapers defer to our older, more conservative readers, and nudity upsets them. But the internet? Another story entirely. I splayed a particularly flesh-filled photo atop a post on my personal blog — paintings, drawings and watercolors, remember. Then I posted it on Facebook, which featured the photo atop the entry.
     For exactly two minutes.
     Then Facebook yanked the post down, declaring it a ....

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The photo that Facebook wouldn't publish

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Chief was past retirement age a decade ago

     The controversy over Chief Illiniwek, the former University of Illinois mascot banned by the NCAA a decade ago, was "back with a vengeance" last Friday, as the Champaign-Urbana school's homecoming parade was disrupted by anti-chief protesters, and an informal chief was forced to flee under police escort. 
     Looking over the controversy in my column, I have to admit it didn't bring out the best in me. Good Clevelander—and lifelong Chief Wahoo fan—I backed the chief for years, promoting the idea that history belongs to everyone and anyone can take it and put it to whatever uses they please. History isn't "owned" by the group that comprises it now. 
    But that view lacked empathy, and while I rarely wince at columns I've written in the past, I wince at those. Because I changed my mind, eventually, with some guidance by my colleague Steve Patterson, who is part Native-American, I came to realize I was making a category error: the chief isn't a creative character facing criticism: he's a brand logo whose time has passed.
    Even the columns where I get behind scrapping the chief have a certain edge to them—I got a lot of harsh flack from activists, and tended to bite back. Three such moments:

     Get rid of Chief Illiniwek. It's enough already. I like tradition as much as the next guy, and hate to see the grim Native American activists and their anti-U.S. view of history win. But when you get a major national college accrediting body saying that the Chief might undermine the value of a University of Illinois education, it's time to cut the cord.
     He's a mascot. He's supposed to be fun, not be this source of constant dreary conflict year in and year out. Sure, he's a tradition, but pick anything else—an apple, a cowboy, a shoe— and in 100 years that will be the tradition.
     You think if people stopped buying Planter's peanuts, turned off by its lying, dandified Mr. Peanut (it just struck me—the top hat, the spats, the monocle; he's gay, isn't he?), that Planter's wouldn't dump him in a moment and create Gomer Goober or whatever? Of course. The U. of I. is a business too, and when a mascot turns too many people off, it's time to call Leo Burnett and order up a new one.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 27, 2004

     Activists often have an uncanny way of perpetuating the very stereotypes they claim to be fighting, and unwittingly presenting a more negative image of their group than the supposed slurs they are fighting against.
     Take Native Americans outraged over Chief Illiniwek, the beleaguered Indian mascot of the University of Illinois.
     Now, I've gone on record in the past saying that the university should dump the chief, not out of any particular concern for the bruised feelings of activists—a vindictive, joyless lot, I can tell you, based on personal experience. But just because the chief has become a perennial liability, as a logo, and when your brand is dragging business down instead of promoting it, it's time to get rid of the mascot or at the very least take the kerchief off of Aunt Jemimah.
     Myself, I think they should change the chief into a cowboy: Cowboy Bob. He could do a lariat demonstration before games. The kids would love it.
     Though getting rid of the chief will help the image of Native Americans. Not by removing the dance, which strikes me as rather benign. But rather by muting the protests, which inevitably cast Indians in a harsher light than the thing they are complaining about.
     The grandson of the chief who sold his ceremonial outfit to the university is now demanding they give it back, even though the school paid $3,500 for it. There is an obvious echo of the old cliche about . . . you know what, I'm not even going to go there.
        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 21, 2007

     OK, I'll say it: There was always something a little, um, odd about the guys on the pep squad. I know it's athletic, in a way, and I know they get free tickets, and can show school spirit, and hang out with the female cheerleaders, if they want to. . . .
     But still . . .
     And these two guys at the University of Illinois, trying to preserve their right to dress up like Chief Illiniwek by filing a lawsuit, claiming that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees their right to prance around before athletic events . . .
     That's just crazy.
     I don't have a right to—oh—dress as Cowboy Bob, the mascot I hope will replace Chief Illiniwek, and demonstrate my skill at lariat twirling before games. Someone has to control what goes on at games, and that someone is the school.
     Chief Illiniwek—whom I supported for years—has become a burden, and a surreal, pointless issue that only gets stranger and stranger. If he is retired after Wednesday—as it seems he will be—then we may all say together: "At last!"
        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 18, 2007