Friday, February 24, 2017

Who do bullies bully? Whoever bullies can.

     Like a toddler casting aside a toy he has tired of playing with, the Trump administration has tossed xenophobia out of its crib, for the moment. That’s good. But it then picked up sexual panic as its guide while casting government policy. That’s bad.
     The issue of students using bathrooms they are comfortable with exists only in the minds of hysterical parents worried about crimes that never actually occur. And, of course, religious fanatics looking for someone to oppress. But that’s enough for our new alt-right federal government, meticulously working its way down the list of cheap symbolic victories, to turn its attention to a new enemy: transgender students.
     After the Justice Department on Wednesday revoked federal guidelines that schools must allow transgender kids to use bathrooms according to their sexual identity, it’s a good idea to pause, step back and play connect the dots. President Donald Trump’s first month was roiled by his bigoted, unnecessary and illegal order restricting travel from seven Muslim countries. His second month now starts out by addressing another non-problem: the tiny percentage of children using bathrooms assigned to a gender they consider their own instead of ones belonging to the gender they were born into. In between, he announced that undocumented immigrants will be rounded up and deported by the millions.
What do these actions have in common?
     Well, the administration would say that Trump is addressing the nation’s most pressing problems, which apparently involve the risk of Syrian families finding refuge here, migrant workers picking strawberries unmolested, and fifth-graders struggling with gender issues using the bathrooms they would like to use.

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Democracy Dies in Darkness

      One of the first things I do every morning is check the Washington Post to see what new assault against American values the Trump administration has cooked up overnight. It's a great newspaper—I subscribe and you should too. 
    When I looked this morning, even before the news registered, I noted the change in the masthead above, featuring the paper's new slogan.
     Journalistic sorts are debating its aptness. Some find it "awesome," others, melodramatic. A Huffington Post political editor jokingly tweeted the new HuffPo slogan, "The night is dark and full of terrors." 
     Hmm. It is dramatic.  But if the online world teaches us anything, it's that understatement and nuance end up working at Panera Bread. It's arresting, but perhaps rightly so. "Don't tread on me" worked wonders for the Tea Party. I would argue that despite reporting on the gathering tragedy in this country and world, journalists still don't emotionally grasp what it means. The president is out to kill the media and impale its corpse on the White House fence—how's that for a slogan?—because he's driven bonkers by even the slightest rumble of digression as he vomits forth his lies. We are, as Hunter S. Thompson would say, like a wild beast thrown into a sawdust pit to fight for its life (another contender).
     The media reports the iceberg, the gash, the listing ship, but doesn't quite understand the implications of the freezing water all around. They are, for instance, still going ahead with this year's Correspondents Dinner, a creaky Washington insider tradition that was ethically squishy before the president, who might not even show, labeled them "the enemy of the American people." That's like insisting on holding afternoon tea in the lifeboats, because it's on the ship's schedule. I can't imagine going. Then again, I can't imagine accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor from Donald Trump, not if I threw myself on a grenade to save my buddies.
     Maybe it's "darkness," which does have a whiff of the poetic. Not to play editor, but you could cut it in half, "Democracy dies,"  and sum up our moment just as succinctly and perhaps with more power. Because that's what we're seeing. It isn't dead but, at Monty Python would say, "it isn't at all well."
     Then again, the whole concept of slogans is fusty. "All the news that's fit to print," sounds as old-fashioned as a butter churn, in an era when a guy can brag about grabbin' 'em by the pussy and get elected anyway. 
    The "Democracy dies..." line has been bandied about by Bob Woodward, the Post's legendary Watergate reporter and editor, and that alone should cast suspicion on it, as his reputation is kinda checkered. Post spokesperson Kris Coratti told CNN it will be used online, and perhaps in print too. "We thought it would be a good, concise value statement that conveys who we are to the many millions of readers who have come to us for the first time over the last year. We started with our newest readers on Snapchat, and plan to roll it out on our other platforms in the coming weeks."
     How corporate. I too have a concise values statement about the business—"You've got to put the slop where the pigs can get at it"—but I'm not sure I'd want to see it under the Sun-Times masthead.  (The Sun-Times does have a slogan, "An Independent Newspaper," which is soft-spoken and I suppose could use freshening, though, in this day of media behemoths, that's actually quite an important distinction and something to crow about). 
   If we do change it, I'd put my bid in for "Death to Tyrants," but the Secret Service might pay me a visit, and I'd have to explain I mean only political death. I hope Trump lives to be 90 and sees his name a codeword for betrayal, like "Quisling."
    I do like the spirit behind "Democracy Dies in Darkness." Though, if forced to choose, I'd have to agree with those who find it a misstep.  When the dry facts are that the president of the United States is a cruel fraud and pathological liar who, along with his neo-Nazi buddies, are tearing at the heart of America, pithy slogans just sound trivial.  Arby's can say, "We've got the Meat," but the Mayo Clinic shouldn't dub itself, "The Illness Blasters."
     Plus, there's that alliteration—almost always annoying. "Trump Teaches Totalitarianism" is true too, but kinda kindergarten. Second, it's sort of a downer, isn't it? Why not "Freedom Grows in the Sunlight"? Darkness is certainly falling and Democracy shudders every time it gets an injection of poison from nice old Dr. Trump. I'm just not sure I want to be reminded of that every single time I look at the Washington Post. The news stories do that already.

What's a dog owner to do?

     You know what's really hard to locate on February grass? Dog shit. It blends right in, among the muddy splotches and wet clumps of leaves, and once you take your eye off it, well, it's gone
    I was walking Kitty Wednesday morning down Walters Street when, having done her business a few blocks earlier, she stopped a second time. She sometimes stops a second time, which is why I always bring two bags, just in case.
    Well, not always. As Kitty assumed the position, I dug my hand into my blazer pocket. But no bag. Maybe it fell out when I grabbed the first bag, which I had already disposed in a convenient trash receptacle. Maybe I only grabbed one leaving the house.
    As you might have guessed from reading my column, I am a pathologically responsible person. I pay my taxes, vote, recycle, hold doors for ladies and men, do everything I think is required of a member of society. I would no sooner leave my dog's waste on somebody's lawn than I would burn a cross on it. 
     So what to do? I was miffed but not panicked. I looked up, noted the address and the approximate location of the deposit, and hurried west on Walters, scanning the gutter for some kind of useful debris. There's usually a scrap of plastic blowing somewhere.
    What I found was a copy of the Wall Street Journal, snugly doubled-bagged, in front of a house. I stripped off one of the bags, and walked the paper up to the front door, where I propped it up on the porch.
     I did ponder the ethics of this. I was taking a bag, but newspaper bags are usually trash for non-dog owners. I had second thoughts about moving the paper -- yes, making access to it more convenient as penance for skimming the bag. But what if the owner gazed out the door, saw no paper out front, thought it wasn't delivered and ever went to retrieve it, not noticing it right next to the door? I almost turned around and put the paper back on the curb. But fortune favors the bold, and too much responsibility can be suffocating. I decided to live with my minor misdeed, particularly since it was committed in the name of neighborhood cleanliness. 
    I marched briskly back to the address, a pleasant yellow house, to set matters right. Only the poop wasn't there. I scanned the ground closely. It all looked like dog shit, more or less. I made a few passes back and forth, leaning over, gazing hard. Kitty giving me a few impatient looks. Or maybe they were judgmental. Or quizzical. Hard to say. She's a dog.
    A minute passed. I was loathe to leave. I hate people who don't pick up after their dogs. They're like people who don't signal when driving. Making the world a worse place through indifference. And we already have a world that's a worse place, thank you very much all you folks who don't realize how we have to all care about other people and consider the effects of our actions on them and think and participate in order to live in a decent society.
    I must have been walking like Groucho Marx at this point, bent over, examining the ground when ... well, you know what happened, right? No, I didn't step in it, though that's a good guess. I did consider, on the spot, that the best way to find it would be by closing my eyes and blindly walking over the area, confident that would certainly locate the waste underfoot. But I was not willing to go that far. Besides, how would I pick it up after stepping in it?
    No, the obvious next event was the home owner came out—a friendly-looking lady, hefting a 20-pound bag of dog food to her car, so at least she was on the team. She said something like, "Cute puppy, see you too having a stroll there," or words to that effect, conveying curiosity about what I was doing, and I explained that the dog had left a mess, I didn't have a bag, I had run home -- a shorthand I like to think, more than a lie; somehow "so I stole a plastic bag off a neighbor's newspaper" seemed like it would make matters worse — and she waved it off. "Don't worry about it," she said. I could have said, "I worry about everything," but what I actually said was, "Just so you know it was inattention, not indifference."
     Even after she got into the car I lingered, really wanting to leave this campsite the way I found it —I was in Scouting as a lad, that could be part of the problem. Then I had a thought, the doggie-doo version of Peter Singer's controversial view of infanticide *—I would rationalize not picking up Kitty's poop, here, due to carelessness on my part, by cleaning up after someone else at first opportunity.  Thus the universe's quantity of neglected dog messes—a bane on pedestrian life —would not be increased because of me.  The problem was rationalized. And so, with a clear conscience, I headed home.
* In 1993, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer sparked a firestorm of controversy by suggesting that babies not be considered alive until they were 30 days old, since they lacked self-awareness, and suggested that it would be morally-defensible for their parents to kill them, if deformed, provided they had another baby to replace it, thus the world would not be short one baby.

Postscript: On Thursday morning, as promised, I scooped up the first carelessly neglected dog waste I came across. And here's the interesting part. It was not without a shudder of revulsion. Because this was not Kitty's dainty doggie doo, but a mountainous mound from some big dog. Which really made me smile after I bagged it up and headed toward a nearby Dumpster. We are comfortable with crap that's familiar, while revolted at the unfamiliar. When really, it's all the same shit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

It's freakishly warm in Chicago, it's all my fault, now eat your noodles.

"Uncle Vanya," is at the Goodman Theater until March 19.
Marton Csokas as Astrov and Kristen Bush as Yelena. (Photo by Liz Lauren).

     And if you're wondering if it occurred to me that I was writing a column combining a Wisconsin snowblower and a Russian play, well yeah, it did. How did that happen? Well, it was warm, and I saw the play, and at first I thought of writing about just the play, and what it said about life. But the weather is such a big deal, or should be, and somehow the two fused in my mind. I think it's stronger than if I just stayed with the weather, or the play, particularly in these distracted times. Or maybe the weather is a lure. Everybody reads the weather stories; not everybody would start reading a column about "Uncle Vanya."

     You know what's not causing this freakishly warm February?
     Global warming.
     Whoops, I mean "climate change." The term "global warming" fell from favor because every time it snowed some congressman would gleefully sneer, "Twelve degrees outside! Some warming, huh?"
     So while it's possible that this heat wave is a symptom of our steadily warming planet, it isn't part of the mountain of science proving mankind's complicity. One piece of evidence isn't proof. Which doesn't keep those hoping to justify themselves from pretending otherwise.
     The explanation for this mid-winter week of springtime — 71 degrees predicted for Wednesday — that I've been offering to friends is: It's my fault.    
The might Ariens Sno-Thro 24

     This is how I did it. On Dec. 10, after years of resisting, I finally buckled to my wife's pleas and bought a snowblower. A massive, orange, steel, assembled-in-Wisconsin Ariens snowblower, with a halogen light and its own little shovel for clearing the chute. I think the little shovel sealed the deal for me.
     If I were Fox News I'd finesse the story so that as I muscled the thing into the garage, the sun came out and it never snowed again. In truth, which always puts bumps in your tale, I used it four times the first week, for minor snowfalls. But never again.
     In the years I didn't have a snowblower, I assumed that once I had one, it would make me an advocate for blizzards. That the machine sitting idle in the garage before a dry driveway would be a rebuke. But that isn't how it turned out. The machine is, as my wife points out, "insurance" and it's working fabulously.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Flashback 2004: Our vanishing toy stores

     The American International Toy Fair winds up in New York City today, reminding me that in the go-go '90s I actually convinced my bosses to send me there to report on the action. How, I can't imagine—probably offering to stay on a friend's couch to cut expenses. 
     I remember the fair so clearly. Particularly entering into the Marx Toys area, which made a Ft. Apache cowboys and Indians set that had been the coveted joy of my 7th birthday. They had one set up, exactly at it was on that sun-drenched June day.
   "It's the SAME!" I marveled.
    "We use the same molds," the president of Marx told me.
    But here's the odd part. When I went back to look at the column I wrote from my expensive trip to New York, it's not worth re-reading, Dry, ordinary and not-up-to-standards. Maybe the travel had thrown me, or I was off my feed. 
     So I found this toy-related column from 2004, which I'm running in honor of the Toy Fair—and, to be honest, since I'm coming off the novo-virus, and can't imagine writing anything.  If the story about the bear sounds familiar, it's because I told it in this September 2014 post about old stuff I love.
    Though look at that first sentence, with its awkward exclamation mark, maybe the subject to toys sparks such enthusiasm that it overcomes my professional discernment.
    Can't let that be true. I'll have to ask my boss to send me next year, to see if I can't write something worthwhile about toys.

     Chicago is losing her toy stores! I keep waiting for the story to break out of the business section ghetto and be seized by television and the chattering classes, but it never does. So I'll have to put my shoulder to the stone and roll. First that enormous Toys R Us flagship on State Street shut down, then FAO Schwarz on Michigan went bye-bye, and now Zany Brainy and Noodle Kidoodle -- toy stores, though they tried to present themselves as some kind of High-Toned Science and Learning Centers -- all have gone belly up. What's going on here?
     First, a sop to the few that remain, so they don't send out pained hoots of existence. Yes, there's Galt Toys at 900 N. Michigan and a few KB Toys and others I'm not thinking about.
     But downtown is becoming slim pickings. The loss of FAO, Toys R Us and the others should not occur without somebody, if not mourning, at least pontificating.
     Not that I'll particularly miss FAO Schwarz. First, they constantly blared that dreadful parody of Disney's dirge "It's a Small World" at anybody who walked in the door. If you haven't heard the song ("It's a world ...") then count yourself blessed ("... of ...") because it carves itself into your mind and haunts you to the grave ("!").

     GI Joe doesn't count as a soldier
     Second, I once asked a clerk for lead soldiers. I had bought some for the boys at Hamleys, the immense toy store in London. It seemed more a gift for myself than for them, but they surprised me by liking them. I thought -- silly me -- FAO might sell them.
     "Oh no," a clerk fretted, fluttering his hands. "We wouldn't carry those." War toys! You'd think I'd asked for napalm. As if the world will become a more violent place if my boys get a few more troops of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
     Third: I had purchased a Steiff teddy bear from FAO for my younger son's birthday. Steiff makes these gorgeous, durable and hugely expensive mohair toys. I had some as a kid, and so underwriting their vast cost for my own boys struck me as a stab at tradition. I remember what I paid for the teddy bear -- $160 -- due to my wife's shocked, rage-suppressing "why-do-you-always-do-this-to-me?" reaction, and the way I, with rare matador smoothness, deflected her ire into sentimental tears with one apt sentence.
     "When you see the bear in your grandchild's crib," I said, "it'll seem like a bargain."
     My older son surprised me by saying he wanted a teddy bear like his little brother's. Sensing trouble, I asked him if he meant a bear similar to his little brother's -- a Steiff bear, perhaps looking a little different, since they make about a hundred styles. No, he said, with the certainty of youth, he wanted That Exact Same Bear.
     Filled with hope, I ran to FAO Schwarz. They were cleaned out, and a clerk gave the not-my-table shrug that passed for service.
     With time dwindling, I had a desperation-stoked flash of brilliance. I plugged into Google "Steiff teddy bear" and the serial number off the button in the bear's ear (Steiff toys have a little brass button in their ears; don't ask, it's another tradition), and up popped a toy store in -- I kid you not -- Coon Rapids, Minn. Selling the exact bear I wanted, for $30 less than I had paid for my FAO bear a year earlier. Two days later, it arrived in the mail.
     That's why toy stores are dying. Why buy a $200 Xbox (if that's what they cost; I've struggled to keep my boys away from it with the same fervor that parents of teens use to keep them off drugs) when, with a little planning, you can skip the trip, skip the store, save money and have the toy in hand a few days later?
     Not to be simplistic. They have the Internet in London, too, and Hamleys is still there. I'm sure our addiction to soup-to-nuts emporiums such as Target is part of it.
     And the aforementioned Xbox has to be a factor. It's the last toy you ever have to buy. My impression is that once a kid has one of those, they take it into a room, close the door, and don't come out until puberty hits.

Plug in the kids and forget 'em
     That can be a good thing; parents can talk, read, fly to Paris while the kids remain mesmerized. Still, my wife and I have been resisting. Once, when the foyer was a clutter of shattered block castles and scattered lead soldiers (sure, I let the boys play with them, and sure, the occasional arm gets twisted off. But how many kids in the world are doing that? I take a certain anachronistic pride).
     We looked over the mess, and she said, "Once they get an Xbox, they won't play with toy soldiers."
     Ouch. "Never," I vowed. Let every other kid go on Ritalin and Xboxes. I managed to straight-arm the every-kid-in-school-has-one argument, and deflected the unvarnished, constant begging.
     But one night last week, I discovered the boys on their knees carefully arranging piles of change and crumpled dollars — literally counting their pennies, pooling their resources to attain their beloved computer game god.
    Even stone hearts break. "They'll be freaks enough just based on parentage," I told my wife. "Let them have their Xbox. I spent years playing Risk -- that wasn't exactly learning French, was it?" And anything that gets two brothers, 6 and 8, to cooperate with each other can't be all bad.
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times Jan. 9, 2004

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hard to honor a man who never stops honoring himself


     Monday is Presidents Day: Happy Presidents Day! If the holiday has a certain redundant, dubious air about it, that might be because it comes one week after Lincoln's Birthday, and is a fairly recent development: far newer than, say, Sweetest Day, which goes back to 1921.
     Only in 1968 did Congress pass the "Uniform Monday Holiday Act" to "benefit the nation's spiritual and economic life" by creating three-day weekends out of Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays. The House Judiciary Committee noted that observance could be detached from actual birthdays "without doing violence to either history or tradition." Officially, it's still "Washington's Birthday," but it somehow morphed into common use as "Presidents Day," so ad hoc a holiday that nobody can seem to agree whether "Presidents" deserves a possessive or not.

     A day of honor, though, starting with our current chief executive, Donald J. Trump, whose inspiring rags-to-riches story hardly needs repeating. At 70 the oldest man to ever be elected president, and also the first immigrant. He was born in Soviet-occupied East Germany in 1947. His father, a Russian solder, Ivan Trumpovich; was not married to his mother, a 17-year-old Bavarian bar maid, Helga Schneider, who brought him to this country as a teenager in 1962. Trump worked in a series of used car lots, perfecting his English, saving his money to purchase an abandoned gas station, beginning his career in real estate....
     Oh, none of that is true—except Trump being the oldest man ever elected president. That's a fact. Though reading the above, I bet you did not think, "This is untrue. More fake news that we have become accustomed to constantly seeing in the lying press." Because despite what our new president says about the media, the sneering contempt he ladles on the institution whose job and duty is to catalogue his missteps, deceits and blunders, people still expect not only truth but perfection from the press. If I make a grammatical mistake, if I say "we journalists" when I should say "us journalists" readers will gleefully wave it over their heads, sneering and hooting in sincere outrage, speaking of fish wrap and carelessness. It's the most curious duality: to insist that something is routinely dishonest and unreliable, then fall shrieking to the floor at its most trivial slip from the highest standards of excellence.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Their glory days

"The Country Election" by John Sartain, 1854 (The National Gallery of Art)
The blue banner reads, "The Will of the People the Supreme Law."

     This is the interesting thing about Donald Trump's view of the media...
     I take that back. There are enough interesting things about Donald Trump's view of the media to keep an army of historians and psychiatrists busy, and no doubt they are already hard at work, the poor devils...
     This is one of the interesting things about Donald Trump's view of the media, the interesting thing that I want to talk about today: he doesn't believe what he's saying. Obviously, and I'll tell you why. If he sincerely thought that "the media is the enemy of the American people" who told "lies" and "FAKE NEWS," then why is he spending 77 minutes talking to them in a press conference Friday? Why let them in the White House at all? If he really wants to talk directly to the American people, banish the lot and let your Twitter finger do the talking. 
     The truth of course, is that Trump's condemnation of the media is really a condemnation of the facts that the media is reporting, on the chaos and incompetence of the Trump administration, how badly it has stumbled out of the blocks and is just lying there in the dust. 
     In a world where consistency mattered, Trump would be painting himself in a corner with the whole "FAKE NEWS" bit. Because what happens should he ever do anything right, and the media swoons over his skilled handling of a situation? What would he do then?
    What he would do is break out in that smirky grin of his, shrug his shoulders, turn his palms to the sky and say, "Hey, they got one right for once!" 
    And his fans will guffaw and nod along with him and eat it up, as they always do.  Which is why Trump says what he does about the media. It gives his supporters, always hot to pour scorn on somebody, a big pinata they can hit to their hearts' content. The media represents everything they dislike, they are told, and now they are given permission to dutifully kick it, not noticing that they are being trained to cover their ears and hum so as not to even hear, never mind perceive, the truth about their president.
    We are entering a cruel, frightened era. Trump is a mean man who delights in making others seem small so he can tell himself he's big. The currency he offers is contempt, and his followers welcome the chance to accept it, ape his ways and spend freely. Seldom do I hear anything from a Trump supporter this isn't dripping with spite, with anger, with eyes-narrowed disdain. In that—and I've said this before—we shouldn't focus on Trump. We should focus on the people who have placed their bets on him and who will follow him, no matter what he says or does, who will ignore his misses as hits and his idiocy as sense. Those people were here when Trump showed up, and they''ll be here when he's gone. They viewed the eight years of Barack Obama as an unmitigated disaster, and they will view the eight years of Trump as the pinnacle of success. These are their glory days, whatever happens. They will not be denied the enjoyment of them, and if reality does not conform to their desires, they'll imagine a new reality that does, Trump will tell them it is so, and they will believe him. Nothing can change that.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Maybe we deserve it, maybe we deserve better

     As a journalist, I have access to all sorts of cool Secret Squirrel stuff unavailable to the average person. A healthy skepticism, for one...
     Sorry, cheap shot. I was actually thinking of Nexis. Nexis is a database of world media. The kid brother of Lexis, the case file database for lawyers. When you search Nexis, all the crappy aggregator web sites and fake news spoodle and insane partisan deformations never even get their foot in the door. You're looking at real articles that paid journalists produced using professional standards for publication. It makes a difference.
     As the wheels and gears started spinning wildly on the "well-oiled machine" of the Trump administration this week, like a cheap tin toy about to fly apart, I noticed I was looking away, distracting myself. No, no need to watch his farce press conferences—supposedly, I didn't see them—with Benjamin Netanyahu and then his 77 minute meltdown Thursday. When you know someone is a brittle, bullying liar, you really don't need to keep logging more instances of fragility, bullying and deceit. I get it. 
    Although the reaction to the second press conference was such jaw-dropped shock that I found myself circling back to watch snippets, just to confirm. 
    The word that kept coming back to me was "unfit." I logged into Nexis, set the time parameters for one year before the election—Nov. 8, 2015 to Nov. 8, 2016—then plugged in the words "Donald Trump" and "unfit."
     Because if one word of the mountains of apt criticism Trump has justly received, "unfit" seems to say it all. It kept echoing in my mind. The man shouldn't be president. He should never been allowed to be president. He should never have been allowed to run.   
    A big red notice that my request turned in more than 3,000 documents--the computer in essence saying, "That's a tall's going to take me time."
   Of course. No worries. I'm just fishing. I added "president." Still more than 3,000 hits. So I added "bully" and culled the herd down to 326--about one story every day.
     The top hit, since it ran Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016, was a column by a man I'd never heard of. Philip Martin, at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Titled "Fat, Drunk and Stupid" it began, "I have a bad feeling about this," and was a last minute plea against voting for Donald Trump.
     He summarizes the deficiencies of Hillary Clinton—not fabulous, just never connected with people—explains why Trump will probably win Arkansas and come "perilously close" to the presidency. 
     Then this:
   For the last time, I want to say it plain: Trump is unfit to be president. He lies. He cheats. He's a bad businessman and a bad American. He's a bully who keeps score and you shouldn't trust him around your teenage daughter, much less the nuclear football.
     Either you see that, or you don't.  Late Friday he called the press "the enemy of the American People." And you know what happens to the Enemy of the People, don't you? He heads Saturday to a campaign rally—he needs public adulation to survive, apparently, the way a vampire needs human blood. It'll be in an airplane hangar, and I imagine the hangar will be filled with people. I imagine they'll have no trouble filling it with people. 
     The Martin observation was repeated in every paper in America all through 2016. But people had tuned the media out. The lying mainstream media. When the history of this sordid and humiliating period of American history is written, I hope historians note that journalists were standing on a chair, banging garbage cans over our head, shouting to the rooftops, trying to avoid this. America, to its shame, voted for Donald Trump anyway, with its eyes wide open, staring at his hideous personhood, believing what he told us and not what we saw so clearly. Some of us, anyway.
    Why? They wanted a change. They were tired of the old ways, the business-as-usual politics. It wasn't that they didn't have a valid complaint, they did. It's just that their solution will make the problem, make all of our problems, so much worse. America is like a man who burns his house down to get rid of the mice. Like a person who has a genuine ailment—say cancer—and then hires a shaman to spray fragrant oils on the soles of his feet. You're sorry they're sick. You understand the fear in that. But they're embracing a quack and don't know it. I'd add "yet," but that would be wistful. If we know one thing about error is that it tends to compound. The majority of people would much rather dwell in wrongness than admit being mistaken.

    Martin ends this way:
     Anyway, tomorrow is coming. And no matter what happens, no one is coming to take our guns. No one is going to make us any greater than our spirits will allow. Make no mistake, we are getting what we deserve. We need to start taking this stuff seriously, we need to stop listening to those who tell us we're the best and the brightest and that nothing is our fault.
     To paraphrase Dean Wormer, fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through history, America.
     From "Animal House." Perhaps an unfair reference, as Trump is a teetotaler -- kind of gives us teetotalers a bad name, huh? People often talk about drinking as an escape from the Trump monstrosity, and I'd join them if I thought it would shorten his administration by an hour, but I don't see how it would. So as bad as the Trump years will be for you, remember, I have to endure this sober.
     "Unfit." It echoes. I noticed E.J. Dionne's column in the Washington Post a few days back: "Admit it: Trump is unfit to serve."  Well duh. Though odd that people are just noticing. He's no different than when he ran. Only now he's president. 
     Though I might take exception with the idea that we deserve it. Even though I recall writing the exact same thing. Maybe we allowed it to happen. Not just last November. For years, decades, allowed money to overtake government, allowed the powerful too free a hand. Mocked the idea of experts, of competence. 
     Do we deserve this corrosive clown show of a government? A flailing, incompetent president, his Dick Tracy hall of villains staff?  This groveling Congress? Maybe we got what we deserved in November. But maybe it changed us. Galvanized us. Maybe seeing what we ended up with, we are now, trying to be a people who deserve better. A little late. But better late than never.

Friday, February 17, 2017

"An Enemy of the People"

     Donald Trump called the media the "enemy of the American people" on Friday. The temptation would be to shrug that off with all the toxic, self-serving, mendacious things that pour out of the president's mouth in a septic stream. 
     Is he going to spend four years doing this? And will it work? 
     Me, I took instant comfort, thinking of Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," his response to the public scandal raised by his play "Ghosts." In "An Enemy of the People," a small town doctor, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, learns that the town's mineral bath is contaminated. He's pressured by the mayor, Peter Stockmann, his older brother, and assorted town folk not to reveal what he knows, but he does anyway, and is condemned for doing so. 
    "Sheer imagination, or even worse!" Peter Stockmann tells his brother, in language that sounds positively Trumpian. "The man who can make such vile suggestions about his own town is nothing but an enemy of the people."
    The point of the play is that sometimes the majority—or in our case, about 46 percent of the population—embrace a poisonous lie, and it is the moral duty of the minority, be it those working for the press, or even a single individual, to stand up for what is true and right. 
    Once again, Trump, in lashing out at those who would hold him to the standards of truth and American democracy, pins a badge of honor on those he wishes to undermine. 

Day of Facts — Scientists and researchers speak truth to power

Robert Martin, emeritus curator of the Integrative Research Center at the Field Museum, from a video created for Day of Facts.

     Facts can delight: A car dashboard is so named because buggies and wagons had a tilted board in that position to block mud kicked up by horses’ hooves.
     Facts can warn: Smoking cigarettes will, on average, shorten your life by 10 years.
     Facts can inspire: If you quit smoking by age 35, you can claw those lost years back.
     A relevant fact is a powerful thing. In that spirit, Friday, Feb. 17, has been dubbed the “Day of Facts” and 270 cultural institutions in the United States and 13 other countries have signed up to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to share important facts.  
Turkish manuscript from 1600, showing a map of the Americas
with the south at the top, illustrating the long history of cultural
exchange between Islam and the West (Newberry Library)

    “The idea is for libraries and museums and archives across the country and around the world to post mission-related content as a way of reassuring the public that, as institutions, we remain trusted sources of knowledge,” said Alex Teller, director of communications at the Newberry Library. “It reflects recognition among a number of different institutions that while our missions haven’t changed, they’ve taken on a new significance in an era of alternative facts.”
     Those words sound carefully weighed. And for good reason. In this atmosphere of official vindictiveness, there is a real risk of payback. So I asked directly: Is this a reaction to Donald Trump?
     Teller sighed....

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

The big wind at the center of the storm

     This week's Time magazine cover, even more apt in light of Thursday's detached-from-reality Trump press conference. It's by Tim O'Brien, who readers of the blog might remember as the artist behind this Little Golden Book parody. 
     Afterward, colleagues, their jaws hanging open, came by my office to ask if I had seen it. I hadn't—I was prepping my column for tomorrow. And given that I know that Trump is a pathological liar and bully, egomaniac and incompetent, somehow forcing myself to view each new example of these qualities, live and in real time well, it can seem like self-flagellation. I just want whatever damning evidence there is of his utter corruption to the Russians to come out, so he can be swept from office, the sooner, the better. Until then, comfort in the arts. 

It isn't April 1st yet, is it?

     On the first April Fool's Day this blog was in existence, I pretended to be in the midst of Kittens in Yarn Week. A comment, I suppose, about the dumbing down of the media.  So it was with a flash of recognition that I got this in my in-box late Wednesday. The heart breaks. And just as newspapers are boldly stepping up in the epic battle to bring down the unfit bully and Russian catspaw, Donald Trump, our own local media conglomerate, tronc (for readers elsewhere: the once respected Tribune Publishing renamed itself "tronc," well, I suppose, because that sounds more like something that would be the source of what regular reader Jakash immediately dubbed a "kitty newslitter.")
     Yes, I know. We're all cooking in the same pot. And newspapers always have had the trivial. The comics weren't exactly The Pentagon Papers either. The Sun-Times prints big posters of sports stars, though I might argue that top athletes are still news figures as opposed to, say, a Pekinese with a bowl of spaghetti dumped over its head. Papers do what they must to survive. Still. Must the Tribune's parent do this? The email went on to inform potential subscribers:

    Which leads me to this question: Do we need the editors of the three of the top newspapers in the country to scour the web for cute animal stories? Isn't that what Facebook is for? And what aren't these editors doing while they're culling "inspiring animal news"? (And inspiring in what way? Just the idea inspires me to want to bite a towel and scream). 
     Sigh. Power to them. I'm sure it'll be very successful. In fact, the question isn't "Do we need newspaper editors to pick our cute kitty stories?" The question is, "Once we're being force-fed our steady stream of 'endearing pet stories and inspiring animal news,' will we need anything else?" Consume too much fluff and you're not hungry for dinner.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

U.S. sells more corn than anybody; guess who buys it?

     It's time to play The Fact Game!
     How do we play? First, throw out a fact:
     Corn is a kind of grass.
     Just like rice, wheat, oats, or other cereal grains. Don't let the large seed head — the corn cob — fool you.
     Is that true? Untrue? Well, I read it in a book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland by Cynthia Clampitt.
     "Corn is big grass," writes Clampitt, early in her charming, engrossing book. "It grows faster than other grasses. Its large leaves make it better at capturing sunlight than other grasses. . . . So it's really impressive grass, but it's still grass."
     It sounds right, is written by a noted food historian and printed in a book published by University of Illinois Press, confirmed by a second source (". . . of the grass family" says the Enyclopaedia Britannica).
     I'd say: Fact!
     Again, again! Let's have another "fact":
     The United States is the No. 1 producer of corn in the world.
     Do we accept that as fact? It's good to be No. 1. So yes, we do!

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Unhappy Valentine's Day, for those who lost loved ones

     I have been fortunate, in that I've seldom had to resort to the shadier practices of the journalistic profession. No sneaking photos of the deceased off the mantle during a wake, no pretending to be an assistant coroner to get information.
      The sketchiest thing I ever did, in my opinion was for this story: lurk in a cemetery and accost mourners communing with their dead loved ones. I had heard that cemeteries were busy on Valentine's  Day, and that seemed the best way to go about researching it. To be honest, the bereaved didn't seem to mind the intrusion. It didn't bother them nearly as much as it bothered me.

     "I love you," Ed Caldario said, out loud, in front of the stone marking his wife's grave. Weeping, he set down red tulips.
     "I always brought her flowers on Valentine's Day. She loved flowers. I used to send them to her at work."
     For the fortunate ones to whom Feb. 14 meant only kisses, romantic dinners and funny valentines, it might be good to pause and remember that for other Chicagoans Valentine's Day was a bittersweet time of fierce love tempered by loss and sorrow.
     By noon Sunday, Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside was dotted with big heart-shaped arrangements of flowers, plastic valentine decorations and poignant valentine's cards.
     "For the one I love," read the cheery preprinted valentine affixed to a stick before the grave of a woman who died in her 70s. To the generic message of affection, her husband added: "We love & miss you very much."
     Pasquale D'Andrea took his hat off and crossed himself as he joined his wife Angela in front of the grave of her parents.
     "Valentine's Day is a day to remember loved ones," said D'Andrea, of Berkeley.
     Isabel Riveria and her sister, Mary Mendez, brought along a gardener's trowel to tidy up the grave of their nephew, Efrain Perez, who died nearly five years ago at age 18. They also brought some liquid laundry detergent, to clean off the reddish marble marker.
     Riveria said the Valentine's Day visit to Perez's grave is a yearly tradition, as is the visit to the grave of her brother. She said it doesn't detract from their other Valentine's Day festivities because they don't have Valentine's Day festivities anymore.
     "We don't party since they passed away," she said. "We don't celebrate the occasions like we used to."
     "Special days like this, it makes my mother real sad," said Mendez, who brought a red plastic heart reading "Happy Valentine's Day" to plant by the grave. "We try to keep it real quiet."
     Not too far away was the grave of a baby who lived for three days in 1986. Someone thought to bring a heart-shaped helium balloon, with metallic silver on one side, "I Love You!" on the other.
     The balloon was tied to the grave by a ribbon, and it twisted and struggled against its mooring in Sunday's strong breeze, as if trying to break free from earth and fly away.
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 15, 1993

Monday, February 13, 2017

Love, soldiers, gypsies and free tickets to 'Carmen'

Associate choreographer Sarah O'Gleby at rehearsal for "Carmen" (photo by Andrew Cioffi) 

     "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle . . ."
     "Love is a rebellious bird," Carmen sings, during her famous entrance in the beloved opera, "Carmen," which opened at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Saturday.
     Just in time for Valentine's Day.
     What does "love is a rebellious bird" even mean? Later she explains: Love; you wait for it, it never comes. But stop waiting, there it is. Think you've caught it? It's gone.
     Sounds about right.
     This is the ninth year the Sun-Times and the Lyric have joined forces to bring 100 lucky readers to "A Night at the Opera," and this is perhaps the most exciting yet because, well, it's "Carmen." Spain. Handsome soldiers. Saucy gypsies. Men fighting with knives. Women fighting with knives.
     And the music. The soul of Spain distilled as only a Frenchman, Georges Bizet, could do it.
    We're going Feb. 28, and there's a party beforehand. Details about how to enter to win one of 50 pairs of free tickets are online. You can enter every day, and if I were you, I would.

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

When you see a Bob Falls play, you remember it

Robert Falls directing "Don Giovanni" at the Lyric.
     What I really wanted to do was ... direct. No, kidding. What I really wanted to do was conduct the interview with Bob Falls to mark his 30th anniversary at the Goodman. But my colleague Miriam Di Nunzio snagged that plum. As a consolation prize, though, she kindly allowed me to write about some of my favorite Falls productions. This is in the Sunday Sun-Times.

     It has been more than 30 years since I saw my first Robert Falls' production. While I haven't seen most of his output, I've seen many, and remember them all. They lodge in the mind because, well, he takes the raw material of a playwright's art, whittles it to a point and thrusts it into your eye. I could discuss 15 hugely memorable Falls' productions, but I have room for five.
     1. "In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison" (1984): Performed in the small Goodman Studio Theater, you almost had to dodge William L. Peterson's spittle as he ranted and bashed his head against a filing cabinet. The lights came up after, and my friends and I blinked at each other, amazed to find ourselves back in the real world, in a theater, apparently, after having been hijacked into another realm by Falls' powerful staging.
     2. "Hamlet" (1985): Aiden Quinn walked onto the stage with a can of spray paint and, back to the audience, methodically began to paint "TO... BE... OR ... NOT... TO... BE..." He turned to the audience, jerked his thumb at the dripping paint. "That's the question!"
From the opening scene, in total darkness, the guards on the castle ramparts, cutting the night with their flashlights, to Gertrude, gazing at the king on a green room monitor, her face a Nancy Reagan mask of adoration, to Del Close's Polonius, a bumbling alderman, the play was one daring directorial choice after another.  My favorite: Ophelia, late in the fourth act, drawing on her face with makeup, hiking up her dress. My immediate thought was "She's crazy!" and then — duh! — it's Ophelia. Of course she's crazy. Falls makes the familiar new again...

Brian Dennehy with Pamela Payton-Wright in Goodman Theatre's 2002 production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night." | LIZ LAUREN PHOTO
Brian Dennehy with Pamela Payton-Wright in Goodman Theatre's 2002 production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night." | LIZ LAUREN PHOTO

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Black History Month: Why does society value white lives more?

     They call it Black History Month, though public attention has a way of petering out in the early days of February, ground down by the pro-forma parade of familiar icons—Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. Though I suppose they must be fresh revelations to a certain segment of the population, unfortunately, and we shouldn't dismiss anything that slides them under the public nose. 
     But history—black or white or whatever hue it's cast in—shouldn't be rote. Not something dull you memorize. It should live, and be real, and talk to us, and relate to our present moment somehow. Otherwise what good is it?
     Look at this relic of the Civil War, the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, by August Saint-Gaudens. The original version is a bronze on display on Beacon Street next to Boston Commons—this is the later, plaster version, in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I noticed it last June.
The Latin inscription translates as "He left all to save the Republic."
     Shaw was a 25-year-old Harvard graduate, the son of wealthy abolitionists, put in charge of the first all-black Union Army unit assembled after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Its formation was controversial—racial biases were such that some felt blacks would not follow orders or comport themselves well under fire—and two of Frederick Douglass's sons joined the 54th.

     Their first battle was a suicidal storming of Fort Wagner, the well-defended battery that guarded Charleston, South Carolina. On July 18, 1863, Shaw led the charge and was killed almost immediately. Half the men in his 600 soldier regiment were killed or captured.
    "Not a man flinched, though it was a trying time," Lewis Douglass wrote to his wife. 
     Saint-Gaudens, America's greatest sculptor, spent a dozen years on the sculpture, hiring African-American models to pose for the 16 figures of the black soldiers. On the Boston Memorial, an inscription on the monument begins, "The white officers taking life and honor in their hands cast in their lot with men of a despised race unproven in war." As a reminder of just how despised, when the monument was unveiled in 1897, it contained the names of the white officers who fell, but not of the black officers, though their heroism was noted, and the fact that for the first 18 months they were unpaid. 
     Therein lies a tale. When the War Department approved the idea of black soldiers, it paid them $10 a month, versus $13 for white, and black soldiers refused the unfair slight, until Congress decreed that all soldiers, of whatever race, would receive equal pay. (The pay stand-off was a theme in Edward Zwick's melodramatic film about the 54th, "Glory.") Some 200,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army in the Civil War. 
    Three hundred black men killed or captured. One of those wounded, William Carney, became the first African-American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. Awarded in 1900 for his role in the battle—Carney snatched the flag from its hurt bearer and, though wounded himself, carried it aloft throughout the fiasco. "Boys," he said afterward, "the old flag never touched the ground." 
    But the monument is to Shaw, whose body was pierced, pierced with bullets, was stripped and thrown into a mass grave with the corpses of his troops. Still, the inclusion of the marching men he led in his memorial was nearly incidental. Saint-Gaudens almost depicted him charging on horseback, alone, but was deterred because the charge was on foot, so the scene depicted is him leading his regiment out of Boston, on the way to fight, past the very spot where the bronze memorial stands.
     The Irish-born sculptor did a masterful job--some call it the greatest American sculpture of the 19th century, and when the version above was displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1900, Auguste Rodin is said to have taken his hat off and stood before it, head bowed in silent veneration. It represents a heroic view of memorializing war that Maya Lin ended with her Vietnam Memorial, a black gash of stone that Robert Lowell predicted in "For the Union Dead," his marvelous poem about the Civil War, memory and the Shaw monument, in these lines:
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
    You can read the entire poem here, and should.
    But his work also reminds us that American society holds the personhood of African-Americans cheaper than whites. It did so in 1863, and in 1897. It also did so in 1989 when Edward Zwick made "Glory" ("I didn't understand why it had to be told so often from the point of view of the 54th's white commanding officer," Roger Ebert writes in his review of the film. "Why did we see the black troops through his eyes — instead of seeing him through theirs? To put it another way, why does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor?")
    Good question. And why does that primacy of white lives over black persist today? Knowing what we know now, why do we still act the way we do? Another good question. 



Friday, February 10, 2017

It's easier to wear a red hat than to actually be great

Caroline Brennan speaks with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Women and children make up more than 70 percent of the Syrian refugee population (photo by Sam Tarling)

     The first word Caroline Brennan learned in Arabic was iidhlal —"humiliation." She was visiting refugee camps in the Middle East.
     "Apologizing that they didn't have more to offer, which I would never expect," said Brennan, emergency communications director for Catholic Relief Services. "They say, 'This is who I am. Hospitality is part of my culture and you're a guest here in this place.' How people show themselves is a stunning thing. When you see it, against a backdrop of madness."
     I phoned her because I was curious how those in the refugee business are faring in the current political climate. We were talking about what refugees actually are like, as opposed to what frightened people who never met any imagine they are like.
     "It was in 2011, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon," said Brennan. "I was meeting this woman—the refugee camp was just a sea of women and children. She didn't have anything, a makeshift tent, pieced together. She was reaching into the air, wanting to offer something. I felt like she was reaching for tray of tea but into thin air. She ended up plucking a flower out of the ground, giving it to me. When you're talking about loss, they're not talking about a savings account. Not even a a home. A deeper sense of loss. She was telling their story. Everyone wants to tell you about the house they had, the number of rooms they had, the garden they had. It's so important to them that you understand: they had a life before; that this place they're in doesn't represent who they are."
     This place they're in doesn't represent who they are. There's a lot of that going around.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

The dark before the darkness

     Maybe we are making a mistake focusing on the president and what he does.
     Not that it isn't important. It is.
     And when each day—sometimes it seems each hour—brings some jaw-dropping breach, well, hard not to pull up a chair, lean in close, and gaze in horror at the endless train wreck loop.

     But at this point, it has to be a given. Each new development is a shock but not a surprise. He's lying to make himself seem more successful than he is. Over and over. That's what he does. That's what he's always done. He's locked in cathexis, in a trance with his own reflection, and wants to draw us into his fantasy world. So we're in a trance too.
     Trances are bad. What I find more interesting is not the president, but the millions of Americans who got behind him, voted for him, and are sticking with him, if not cheering then quietly supporting him.     
     They are. Have you ever heard of someone who supported Trump and is now having qualms? The tiniest reservation? A second thought? Ever read a quote along the lines of "Whoops..."? I find that something worthy of at least some of the holy-fuck-look-at-that attention lavished on the latest tweet. Because if the media is fact-checking for the benefit of those who are already aghast at Trump, they are just gilding the lily. We need to think about those who look at Trump's flailing first weeks in office and nod with approval.
    Maybe the reason we don't look at that is because his supporters are even more ominous than the man they are supporting. What if Trump is only the first of a series of Trumplike leaders to come?  It isn't as if we were fine before, or we'll be fine after, not that we can indulge in the luxury of even considering after. 

      Nine out of ten Republicans trust Donald Trump. Game, set, match. As long as those supporters are there, we'll never get to "after." Through blind party loyalty, economic desperation, fear, ignorance and what I calling "framing"—focusing on a very narrow part of the total picture—they're not only backing, they believe a demagogue who is opposed to much of what makes America a free democracy: the press, the courts, a non-political military, public education, NATO, science, social services, affordable healthcare...there's more, but you get the idea.
     When do these people wise up?
     And now the bad news:
     They never wise up. I can't imagine it. If they could, how did they get to this point in the first place? I keep thinking of Stalin. Died in 1953. Pushed policies that caused mass starvation in the 1930s. Purged intellectuals. Killed maybe 10 million Russians. Made pact with Hitler.
     His approval ratings today? Forty percent. Yes, some of that is due to Putin propaganda, trying to soften up the public, to stoke nostalgia for tyrants like himself. But still. You would not think it possible. Germany might have served up a Hitler, but at least they're not still swooning for him. In the main, excepting certain pockets of East Germany where they're working themselves up to try to get him back.

     These are dark times. And while I don't agree with Rahm Emanuel's over-flip assessment that Democrats should "take a chill pill"—what a contemptuous expression to come out of a contemptuous man's piehole—I do believe that this is only the start. If I thought this moment right now is as bad as it gets, I'd have a big Trump Party, because this so far is feeble. Some travelers inconvenienced—not to diminish the pain of others, which is always temptingly easy. But not the Inquisition either. And a lot of incompetents, zealots and haters named to his cabinet. Scary, but just a start. My sense is, these first disorienting weeks are only the dip after the long climb up the hill on a roller coaster. A feint, before the true plunge begins.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Souvenirs of falling stars

     The timing could not have been better.
     A week after the Field Museum unveiled its new interactive meteorite display, a green fireball went streaking across the night sky above Sheyboygan, being captured on a number of squad car dash cams.
     Well, maybe a little better.
Philipp Heck

    "One could hit the Field Museum," mused Philipp R. Heck, a little wistfully. "A small one. Then it could be the Field Meteorite."
     Heck is the museum's Robert A. Pritzker Associate Curator of Meteorites and Polar Studies. If you're wondering about the connection between rocks from the sky and global ice caps, ponder the challenge of trying to find the meteorite that fell to earth Monday morning. It landed in a spray of debris in Lake Michigan. "If the lake were frozen, I might be out there right now looking for it," said Heck, holding a satellite photo map he received that morning from NASA showing the meteorite's "strewn field," the area where pieces might fall. A region of maybe 50 square miles where you would have to comb the lake bottom, 150 feet down, looking for rocks the size of peanuts.
     Or you could go to the South Pole—as Heck has, helping the Indian government develop its meteorite research program—where the shifting glacial ice has a way of consolidating meteorites and offering them up.

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