Friday, November 16, 2018

Want this cute robot dog? Tough — Illinois law keeps Sony from selling it here

     My brother was in Tokyo a few weeks ago, looked at this robot dog, and noticed the line about it not being sold in Illinois. He mentioned it to me, and I started to probe into why, and stumbled upon next week's Supreme Court case. As I often say in this job, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. 

     Meet Aibo, Sony’s new robotic dog, introduced in the United States in September.
     Cute, right? Sits on command. Plays with his cute little pink ball — Aibo loves pink. Scratch his cute round head and he dips it and wags his cute tail, adorably. He has a camera in his nose.
    Would you like to own Aibo, maybe to liven up your Gold Coast apartment without the bother of taking an actual living dog on unpleasant, windswept walks in the wintertime?    

     Too bad. You can’t have him. And not just because of the price — about $3,000, a night on the town for Chicago’s nouveau rich.
     No, you can’t have Aibo because nobody in the state can buy him. Sony won’t sell him in Illinois. It says so on Sony’s Aibo website if you try to order the little pup:
     “This product is not for sale or use in the State of Illinois, and may not be shipped to purchasers in Illinois.”
     Aw, gee. We know Illinois has problems. But are we so screwed up that multinational corporations won’t sell us a dog? Illinois is the only state in the country where Aibo is not sold.
     What makes us so special?
     Meet the 2008 Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Without going too far into the legal weeds...

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

What would you grab in a fire?

    The California wildfires causing such devastation have drawn attention, concern and sympathy across the country—well, except for Donald Trump, who saw them as a chance to lash out at the state for ... well, forest conservation, insanely enough. It was almost funny to see him suddenly start heaping praise on first responders, trying to cover for his initial mean-spirited slam.
     Our Fearful Leader notwithstanding, it's impossible to avoid being caught up in the drama of the raging fires in the Golden State, the courageous efforts to battle the blazes, and the sight of ordinary people forced to flee their homes, sometimes at a moment's notice.
     Which raises the question, if only in the back of the mind: what would you take? Confronted with the same situation—the fire approaching, you have to run for your life, what would you grab going out the door?
     Having pets, that's easy. I would grab the dog, try to corral the cats, get them in the van and get out. Nothing else in the house is worth the time it would take to pick up.
     That's something of a fudge, I suppose. Given a couple minutes, I could come up with something. An armful of old journals—they're irreplaceable, and useful in reconstructing the past, which I sometimes do. I might grab our wedding album. But really, with Facebook, so many photographs are safe online (not to mention about 40,000 I have tucked safely in iCloud) that fire doesn't pose the threat to memory it once did.
     At least I assume they're safe. It's always remotely possible some computer worm or sun storm could wipe out the Internet. But I doubt it....
     That said, I didn't want to take chances. I do have 10 years worth of jottings on the boys, when they were small, that I did worry might go up in smoke if the house burned down. I didn't see the need to worry, in this day and age, so spent the hour it took to photograph each page, then transfer the pictures onto a thumb drive and toss it in the bank vault (this was before the iCloud). It seemed prudent.
     Part of me worries this is a sign of shrugging age. Isn't anything precious? But to be honest, I believe it reflects proper values and priorities. Once you've cleaned out the home of a departed relative, as I have, the grip of things loosens. It's just stuff.  Like money, it's just not that important.
     The realization is something of a comfort really. Dozens of people have died in the California fire, a few no doubt because they were lingering to load up their cars with crap. Maybe the fires just moved so fast, maybe they didn't realize it, and I don't want to criticize the dead. But I like to think that before the fires were 10 miles away I would be camping out at a Motel 6 somewhere if I humanly could. That might not be possible for everybody. But if it is, that seems the path of prudence. You can always buy new stuff. You've got the one life, and it's foolish to risk the latter for the former. Grab the wife, grab the pets and get out. That sounds like a plan.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In November, the leaves fall and the president violates cherished traditions

     The trees are bare. Dry leaves blow around the yards, the gutters. Leaves of all sorts. Maple leaves. Oak leaves. Big catalpa leaves and tiny linden leaves. Yellow ginkgo leaves. Serrated elm leaves. Oval ash leaves. Buckeye and hickory and persimmon. Beech and redbud and poplar. Many, many leaves.
     Of course there are, you might be grumbling. It’s November. Get to the point.
     The point being that belaboring what everyone already knows gets dull. Which is why I haven’t been commenting on Donald Trump lately. Once we’ve established — and boy have we ever — that the man is a liar, bully and fraud busily trampling cherished American institutions, each new instance of deceit, intimidation, chicanery and blasphemy, well, at this point it’s just another leaf in a huuuuge pile.
     Over the weekend, however, Trump violated a norm so long established that, speaking personally, I felt a kind of awe. It was impressive. While the world leaders went to the American cemetery in France to mark the centennial since the end of World War I and honor Americans killed, Trump stayed in his room. The White House explained that it was raining: “logistical difficulties caused by the weather.”
     The Internet erupted with photographs of Barack Obama in a downpour, drenched to the skin, doing what leaders do. No need to stop there. Begin at the beginning: George Washington, riding to his inauguration in … c’mon, anybody? … New York City. In Philadelphia it began to rain, and his entourage urged him to get into a carriage. The Father o
f Our Country waved that off. He would remain on horseback, like his escort.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A whole new meaning to "Watch on the Rhine"

Cody McCullough
     All things considered, the Internet is the best way to publish the written word. You have all the space you need. The work goes everywhere instantly. You can fix mistakes immediately. 
     There are of course drawbacks. Speed can be the enemy of accuracy. And all that room is an invitation to verbosity. Space is unlimited, but attention spans are not. Being forced to keep it short by the limits of physical space is a blessing. At least for now. I am always cutting my column to make it fit, and that is typically an improvement.
    Although you do lose things. I had to cut back on Sister Zanin's personal history in my column on Mother Cabrini yesterday, for instance, losing the four languages she speaks, the hostility she had to overcome in this country and the scars it left.
    Or in my column on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice (which ran on Saturday so I could get an extra 300 words) I limited my remarks about the war's effect on fashion to what I thought was most surprising: the trench coat, named for the trenches that officers wearing such coats spent time in.
    I considered mentioning wristwatches as well. But no space. Which is the glory of this blog: there is always another day.
    So let's have at it. 
   Prior to World War I, men generally carried pocket watches, strapless timepieces attached to a chain, typically tucked into their vest pockets.
     Precise timing became of crucial military importance in World War I: the assault had to begin at a certain moment, over a front miles long. But it is difficult to fumble around in your vest pocket while holding a rifle. Or while sprawled on the ground. Increasingly soldiers took to wearing their watches on their wrists. 
     Not that wristwatches began with World War I; it was a practice noted during the Second Boer War, 1899 to 1901. Wristwatches had a distinct military flair—a 1902 Omega ad called them "an indispensable item of military equipment.” This became widespread during the First World War, particularly as soldiers began taking their fashion cues from flying aces. Pilots could not carry pocket watches, their vests were buried under thick leather and lambskin jackets. Though the most famed watch of World War I owed its inspiration to a different new development in military technology—the famed Cartier "Tank" watch, created in 1917 and based on the overhead view of a Renault tank.
    Having written none of this, I stopped by American Legion Post 791 in Northbrook Sunday afternoon, to view their display of WWI memorabilia. There I ran into Cody McCullough, a World War One re-enactor from Manteno.  We got to talking, and I mentioned the wristwatch/World War I connection, which prompted a legionnaire overhearing our conversation to scoop a small, dried-out leather item from a table top and bring it over for our inspection. 
     Of course. A watch was expensive, and infantry soldiers could not be expected to equip themselves with the latest fashion just because they went to war. Thus this band designed to hold your pocket watch.  Such "wristlets" had been worn by British soldiers for 40 years. The sort of transitional stopgap than any student of shifting technology has to savor, like those little wheeled stands that people used to tuck under galvanized metal garbage cans before they realized they could construct them with attached wheels.
     Pocket watches linger on as affectations and items of nostalgia. The U.S. Army did not stop including a watch pocket in its uniform trousers until 1961, a fact that I should not know off the top of my head, but that I do.

Monday, November 12, 2018

'If we turn away from our brothers and sisters, we turn away from God'

     The contrast would look trite in fiction.
     Facing Lincoln Park, the luxurious Lincoln Park 2520, where condo prices soar toward $6 million a unit. The building, opened in 2012, has two pools, a movie theater and a private garden. Designed by Chicago architect Lucien LaGrange, the center 39-story tower is flanked by a pair of 21-story wings, given a distinct Parisian air with its metal mansard roof.
     Nestled behind — the building actually wraps around it — and sharing the same address is the National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. It’s the former chapel of Columbus Hospital, shuttered in 2001; when the 3-acre hospital site was sold to developers, the stipulation was the shrine would be preserved.
     And it is, having re-opened in 2012. No pool, but the first American saint’s upper right arm bone displayed at the altar in a glass and bronze reliquary. The bedroom where she died in 1917. Her bed, where prayers for the sick are sometimes tucked under the pillow, and it is not
Sister Bridget Zanin
unknown for a sick child to be laid upon the mattress in hope of a cure.
      Born in Italy, Cabrini dreamt of working in China, but was sent to the United States instead, arriving in 1889. The contempt held for Italian-American immigrants at that time can hardly be overstated. They were seen as not white, lower than even the hated Irish, sometimes lynched — the largest mass lynching in the United States was of 11 Italian-Americans in New Orleans in 1891.
     Cabrini, undeterred by all this, traveled the country, starting convents, schools, orphanages and hospitals. She was made a saint in 1946 — 100,000 people attended the celebratory mass at Soldier Field....

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day, 2018


     The small town where I grew up had a triangle downtown instead of a square, and at its center was a statue honoring those who served in the Civil War, the typical Union Army soldier standing at attention upon a plinth, holding his rifle. When World War I came around, many memorials echoed that alert soldier, with doughboys at attention, ready for action, eternally.
     George Julian Zolnay took a different approach when commissioned by the Kiwanis to commemorate the fallen of Davidson County, Tennessee. His statue features a corpse, a dead doughboy, covered protectively by his mother.  It's located in Nashville's Centennial Park, not far from their very odd scale beige concrete reproduction of the Parthenon in Athens, complete with 42-foot statue of Pallas Athena—Zolnay sculpted some 500 feet worth of frieze figures on that displaced pagan temple. 
    Born in Hungary in 1863, he came to the United States to participate in the 1893 Columbian Fair, fell in love with this country, and stayed, becoming a favorite sculptor of the Southland—he sculpted the statue of Jefferson Davis that adorned his grave. Zolnay also returned to Chicago, becoming director of the Chicago School of Fine Arts there. 
     The Armistice—the end of hostilities after the first World War—took place at 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918 (the famous "11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.") But Armistice Day wasn't established until a year later, President Wilson's declaration echoing the indifference to lost life that allowed the war to drag on in the first place. There's nothing in it about horror or futility, rather smug self-congratulation at the "splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns" with which our country threw away its young men and capital. The tens of thousand dead and maimed is a source of "solemn pride."
     Armistice Day was expanded to honor World War II veterans after 1945, and in 1954 Congress, seeing that the wars would just keep rolling on, changed it to "Veterans Day" to save themselves the trouble of legislating each new crop of war-weary survivors. It is technically different than Memorial Day, as that holiday is designed to honor those who died, while Veterans Day honored those who served, though those two purposes get muddled. Most soldiers never see combat, fortunately, yet their very real contribution to our nations are not exactly highlighted today. There are no statues to stateside quartermasters, though I imagine a lot of grateful troops on the front lines wish there were.
     And to give the final dusting of dreary practicality to what started out as a spiritual event, observance of the holiday was kicked to Friday, if Nov. 11 fell on a Saturday, or to Monday, if it fell on a Sunday like today, with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971. In other words, no mail tomorrow, not that anybody cares about the mail much anymore.
     So not great art by any stretch of the imagination. What redeems the statue, for me, is the look of stunned grief on the woman's face, a kind of hollow-eyed yet fierce grief. It is true that no war monument matched the true nature of its subject until Maya Lin's radical black granite gash of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. But lesser artists groped toward it. I wouldn't group this statue among fine statuary, even judging by the lowered bar of public monuments. But glorify war it does not.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #14

     I could have written about the centennial of Armistice Day without actually visiting the Elks Memorial at Diversey and Lakeview. But I knew it was a singular space, rococo, enormous and empty, from when we lived three blocks away at Pine Grove and Oakdale. I wanted to make sure it was still open, and still as unpopulated as I remember.
    Yup. I showed up an hour before they closed, and the log said I was the second visitor. The docent told me they get 500 visitors a year. An Elks official later changed that to 500 a month, either way, that still constitutes a very few people for a dome almost as large as the Jefferson Memorial. I'd bet not 1 out of 100 Chicagoans knows it's there, and not one in a thousand has gone.
    I took photos for my column on the effects of the war on Chicago, but also couldn't help but snap this little tableau, set up in a side chamber that featured cases of military memorabilia from America's 20th century wars. The memorial was completed in 1926, and dedicated to the 70,000 Elks who served in World War I and the thousand who died in the war. It was subsequently re-dedicated to include veterans from World War II, in 1946, and later to vets from our more recent wars.
    To be honest, the general emptiness, while no doubt a source of unease for the Elks, is fitting. The essential truth of those who die in war is they are gone and don't come back, and what better way than an ornate hall empty of people. Perhaps that is what inspired someone to set up this ill-advised tableau of mannequins, which only made things worse.
     We give a lot of chin music to the sacrifice of our soldiers and sailors, air force and marines. But that supposed respect doesn't extend to, oh, visiting a gorgeous shrine set up in their memory. Of course a 100 years is a long time. Their parents, their brothers and sisters, their wives, are gone. The only people who could mourn now—really, the ones most affected, whose loss is greatest—are the children never born to the soldiers who never come back. With the right eyes, they crowd the empty hall of the Elks Memorial, sealed off from the living world they never were permitted to enjoy.

Friday, November 9, 2018

100 years since the end of World War I, a bloodbath that shaped Chicago

The Armistice: The Field of Battle, Europe, November 11, 1918” by Eugene Francis Savage (detail) in the Elks Memorial in Lincoln Park. 

     World War I glows in American memory. Handsome doughboys in leggings and wide-brimmed hats. Dashing air aces like Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker in white silk scarves, piloting those wonderful wood-and-wire biplanes with their evocative names: Sopwith Camel, Curtiss Jenny.

The Elks Memorial is only a little shorter than the Jefferson Memorial
     Yes, terrifying tanks and machine guns and barbed wire. But those songs! We can still hum the songs. “Over there, over there, send the word, send the word, over there.” We’re wearing some of the fashions a century latter, even if we don’t know it. Where do you think the “trench” in “trench coat” comes from?
     War nostalgia is a particularly perverse form of human folly, and must be resisted. Savoring the pomp and drama that is certainly there, while glossing over the incomprehensible human cost, the death and suffering and loss, is a grotesque insult. It’s like envying someone whose spouse has died because of all the goodies at the funeral.
     Thus with the centennial of the end of World War I this Sunday, the famed “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month,” we are obligated to remember the war fully, not just its joyful conclusion. The full scope and horror, and deep significance that echoes today.
     World War I was a bloodbath of incomprehensible proportions: 37 million casualties. Almost 9 million killed. Two million French soldiers died; 460,000 at one battle, the Somme. The French Army lost 27,000 men — half the number of Americans killed during the entire Vietnam War — on the first day of the Battle of Frontiers, Aug. 22, 1914. Another 2 million Germans.

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The clock at the bottom, stopped at 11, marks the end of the war.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sure Disney is fake; but it's such GOOD fakery

     On Election Day, I posted a photograph of myself wearing a Mickey Mouse "VOTE" pin. A reader saw it and mentioned that her daughters works for Disney World, which reminded me that I had visited there with my family, almost a decade ago. My reaction to the place might surprise readers—it certainly surprised me. I've never posted this column on the blog. In this uncomfortable political moment—is there any other kind lately?—I thought it a good time to dredge this out of the vault and share it with you.

     ORLANDO, Fla.—"Doesn't Disney World remind you of McDonald's?" my 13-year-old asked, as the Disney Magical Express, aka a bus, neared the sprawling theme park's main gate. "Aren't they based on the same ideals of sameness?'
     I twisted the iPod buds out of my ears—I was fortifying myself for arrival at the Magic Kingdom with Mozart's "Requiem Mass"—but didn't answer, my eyes fixed on the archway as it loomed. I was not, yet, in DisneyWorld. I could, still, turn back. I had never, technically, been to Disney World. But once I entered, I will always have visited, a stain I could never erase. "Better you than me," our neighbor had scoffed, and more than one reader proudly announced they would never, ever go, as if it were a moral imperative.
     I stayed on the bus. We entered the kingdom. There was a smattering of applause, the way people clapped when a different bus I once rode rolled into Jerusalem.
     We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, its majestic, soaring lobby filled with African art. There were giraffes and zebras grazing on the savannah outside our balcony. A few hours later we were watching tigers—real tigers—frolic and wrestle amongst overgrown temple ruins.
     This isn't the travel section, but enough readers asked me what Disney World was like that I should try to relate a bit of our stay.
     Those who haven't been there invariably invoke its falsity—it isn't the real world, it's Disney World. That's absolutely true. If Disney were trying to approximate the actual Africa, they would need to place 5,000 desperate refugees living under plastic tarps in their savannah instead of antelopes.
     In that light, reality suddenly seems over-rated. What those who haven't been don't realize is Disney offers some very well-done falsity, giving you a taste of things that, without Disney, you might never experience at all.
     For instance. For the handful of hardy souls who have actually hang-glided over the Golden Gate Bridge, I'm sure the Soarin' ride at Disney is a pale imitation of the actual experience of winging across San Francisco Bay.
     But for those of us who never have and never will, it was jaw-dropping—and I don't mean "jaw-dropping" as cliched metaphor, but as dry description. My mouth was hanging open.
     Walt Disney created the original Disneyland, he said, because he wanted somewhere to take his two daughters, and as a place to bring your kids, Disney World works fabulously. Everyone could satisfy a different goal while still being together. My teen wanted thrills, so we hit Space Mountain and Expedition Everest. The 11-year old wanted grub, so we ate churros and Mickey waffles.
     My wife wanted to master the Disney system, with its Fast Passes and secret codes, and delighted as each activity she meticulously planned months earlier—the Cirque du Soleil, the popular restaurants—found favor with her family.
     And me? I was also interested in thrills, grub and family. But I wanted something to think about, and DisneyWorld offered a college seminar: Faux Reality and Its Visions of the Future.
     If you approach Casablanca—the real one—from the sea, as I have, you are confronted, not with minarets, camels or tents, but with an unbroken chain of modern high-rises. It looks like Miami. The Moroccan section of Disney World, on the other hand, might be small and fake. But at least it looks exotic.
     I savored that one of the wonders offered, sincerely, by Siemens in its "Project Tomorrow" exhibit —"Going to the mall? Your car will find a parking space and valet park itself"—is mirrored, precisely, in a black and white 1950s newsreel clip shown ironically in the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater.
     Disney World often told us to "celebrate your dreams," and I did stop, standing on Main Street, USA, while the parade was passing, to wonder what indeed my dreams might be. They aren't as threadbare as those served up by Siemens, thank God, but not much sharper either, and I resolved right there to cook up better dreams, an insight worth going to Florida for.
     None of the drawbacks people warned us about proved significant. The lines were short, sometimes nonexistent. The crowds, rather than being jammed with rude, grotesque fellow citizens, had a surprising number of sleek, button-nosed French families. I considered whether they came as an expression of Gallic contempt. But they seemed to be having fun, and my guess is they came here grasping at a classic American experience, the way my wife and I hurried to the Follies Bergere in Paris. It wasn't because we thought French ladies still wear crinoline skirts.
     Too many highlights to list—those tigers, great 3-D shows, good food. The drawbacks—a few tired attractions, two of which broke down while we were on them, one incoherent laser extravaganza which locked Mickey Mouse in a Manichean struggle with the forces of evil.
     If I had to single out a single best moment, it was one morning, waiting for a bus. A common Disney World experience that turned suddenly extraordinary when my teenager implored, "Tell us a story." He hadn't asked that in years, and I pulled out one of the chestnuts the boys used to love to hear, and told it one last time.
          —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 6, 2009

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

‘Borne back ceaselessly into the past’ — Trump, racism and ‘The Great Gatsby’

     Tom Buchanan does not shine in “The Great Gatsby.”
     Rather, he lurks in shadow, eclipsed by Jay Gatsby, the pink-suited millionaire mobster of the title, not to mention Buchanan’s wife Daisy, an effervescent flapper based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great love, Zelda Sayre.
   Buchanan was a Yale classmate of the 1925 novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, who calls him, “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven,” a rich brute in riding clothes, “a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat.”     

      Fitzgerald gives Buchanan exactly one intellectual passion.
     “Civilization’s going to pieces,” Buchanan interjects violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
     Carroway hasn’t, so Buchanan explains:
     “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

     A thinly-disguised reference to an actual book, “The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy,” written by Lothrop Stoddard, published in 1921.
     Almost a century old, yet as if ripped from the headlines.
     The bad thing about World War I, Stoddard writes, is how it weakened “white race-unity” and set the stage for “the subjugation of white lands by colored armies.”

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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

An Election Day prayer

      Are prayers like wishes? In the sense that, if you share them with others, they won't come true? I'm not sure what the official policy is, religious dogma not being my speciality. But my guess is no, since so much of praying is done in public. Nobody ever shushes a congregation appealing to God so as not to undercut their entreaty.
     A reader wrote to me on Monday:
     "Woke up around 3 o'clock one morning this week finding myself praying about the election. Is that a sickness?"
     No, that's natural. If you love this country, you want to see it delivered from the Trumpian madness now, before it moves from a shameful near-miss to a nation-wrecking disaster. 

     It's too late to avoid the former. And the latter is a definite possibility no matter what happens today. Do not underestimate the ancient forces at work here, the ugly prehistoric energy that our president is tapping into to bring vitality to his zombie cult. 
     But trouncing the GOPs at the polls Tuesday would be a step-away from the abyss. I don't believe in God, never have for a second (though am not an atheist, for reasons I've explained before). To be honest, I have difficulty accepting that others believe in God. Really?
     Still, inspired by my reader, I did something unusual, something I have only done a few times in my life. I got down slowly on my knees, clasped my hands in front of me, and began:
     Heavenly Father,
     Or Mother, as the case may be.
     Trying not to fixate on the gender of Majesty Incarnate
     Something of a liberal vice....
     Start again.
     Divine God.
     Of whatever orientation celestial
     Who watches over us.
     Cast all Republicans into the pit of electoral defeat.
     Send Bruce Rauner packing back to his nine mansions.
     Make Peter Roskam eat the cold gruel of not-enough-votes.
     Defeat Ted Cruz utterly in Texas.
     Despite the damn polls.
     Let the Democrats take control of House.
     And, heck, the Senate too.
     You are the Lord Almighty.
     You can do it.
     Just as you freed Jews from Egyptian bondage.
     Free those who still care about American freedoms
     From the chains of Trumpian demagoguery. 
     And towel-gnawing imbecility of his followers.
     And for this we will praise You.
     And ourselves, since we got off our liberal asses
     And did it.
     With Your help
     Or without.
     Who can say?
     Just in case, we invoke You.
     Our mighty Fath...ah, Moth...ah Parent.
     Who watches over us
     And saves us from our follies
     We beseech you.
     Whether out of sincere belief.
     Or just to be thorough.
     In case beseeching gets you off the sidelines 
     and into the game.
     And if it doesn't.
     Well at least we tried. 
     And we'll get them.
     Next election. 
     If there is a next election.

     And yes, I spoke that aloud, on my knees, hands clasped.  Covering all the bases. Now the ball's in ... Their court. And yours. Go vote if you haven't already. And pray. It couldn't hurt.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Can anybody play the fake news game? Donald Trump's secret Russian childhood

By Sergey Sudeykin (Metropolitan Museum)
     Donald Trump was born Dimitri Brataslav on Nov. 12, 1941 in the Soviet city of Smolensk. His parents died during the brutal winter of 1942, and he was raised in a state orphanage, where his proclivity for English and his ability to shift shape caught the attention of the NKVD, or secret police, which spent five years training him as a sleeper agent until, at age 15, he was smuggled into the United States, landed on Long Island from Soviet submarine and placed under the care of Brooklyn developer Fred Trump who, in return for $50,000 a year in US dollars, agreed to raise the boy as his own son, the idea being the lad would eventually help the Russians gain access to the New York real estate market and the New Jersey porn industry...
     Oh, none of that is true. But I was considering the farrago of conspiracy theories and the daily blunderbuss blast of falsehoods—the president publicly lies, on average, 10 times a day, according to the Washington Post's count—and I got to wondering: Why do Republicans get to have all the fun?      To continually fabricate any nonsense they feel props up their otherwise unsupported and unsupportable causes? Why can't Democrats, facing an entrenched movement of growing white nationalism and anti-minority hysteria, avail ourselves to similar tactics?
     Sure, it's dishonest, and wrong. But how tempting. We could simply make stuff up. Join the party, so to speak. From the vast troll farms of their Russian pals, manufacturing Facebook pages and tweets by the thousands. Up through Fox pundits tossing out any fear as a possibility: George Soros, funding the Central American caravan! To every GOP leader saying whatever they like: we'll protect health care for those with pre-existing conditions! Secure in the knowledge that whatever Fox nodding head they're talking to is never going to reply: "What? The caravan might be infected with smallpox! That's insane! The disease entirely eradicated decades ago."
   I mean, how would Republicans reply if Democrats started also conjuring delusions? That the press is lying? That the news is fake?
     Ah, ahahahahaha. See, that's the problem with their boy-who-cried-wolf strategy. It's predicated on Democrats being honest, generally. And that is something the definition of a Democrat. Exist in the living world, try to help real people other than yourself with their actual problems. Works for me.
     Some say our honesty and decency ties one hand behind our backs, skews the playing field. It is unfair. If you're up against a skilled cheater, you can either cheat or lose.

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Sunday, November 4, 2018

Barber Shop story

     "Let me tell you a story," said Leonel Hincapie, the proprietor and staff of the Magic Scissors Barber Shop in Northbrook. He stopped cutting, and settled himself in a chair across from me.
     This was unusual. Not just unusual, unprecedented.
    Typically, our conversation begins with my entering the shop, several blocks from my home.
     "Hello Leo," I'll say.
     Sometimes there will be a customer, usually a man far older than myself. Sometimes not. Sometimes the barber will be in his chair, almost dozing.
     "Do you feel like a bit of business, Leo?" I'll say. Or something like that. Then I take my place in the seat, and tell him how I want my hair cut: same as always. That's about it. I'll close my eyes. WFMT plays soft classical music. Occasionally, I will ruminatively pick up a clump of cut hair and blankly examine it. He will say something about the gray. I will chuckle and cast the clump away. The haircut takes a long time, a half hour at least. The warm lather on the back of my neck signals we're reaching the end. Afterward, I thank him.
    "Thank you for your art," I'll say.
    But this was something different. Leo was sitting across from me, in the customers' chairs. I paid close attention.
      "I am from Colombia..." he began—I knew that. What I didn't know is that he grew up on a farm. A coffee farm. He left the farm, he said, and came to America, many years ago.
     "Ten years ago, I went back," he continued. To his father's old farm.
     "Did you meet anyone you knew?" I asked.
    No. But the coffee trees were still there. And he carefully collected 20 beans from the trees located on his father's old farm.
     Back in Northbrook, he planted the beans.
     "Nineteen of those 20 beans died," he recalled.
     But one lived.
     He showed off a tree in the corner of the shop, lush and dark green, maybe five feet high.
     That was it. I got up, still wearing the barber's drape, admired the tree, and congratulated him on it. Then I sat back down. He continued with my haircut.
     Not much of a story, I suppose, as far as stories go. Not heavy on plot. But I have thought about it since then, maybe because it is so simple, so enigmatic.
     And it does have a point, and the point is this:
     The tree lived. The 19 others didn't. But this one did. Not only that, but it was a coffee tree in the corner of a sleepy barber shop in Northbrook. How many times over the years have I sat next to that tree, thumbing through Chicago magazine, waiting my turn? Never realizing that the plant next to me was a precious memento of a South American boyhood, long ago.
     Now I know. And so do you.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #13

     Today's snapshot, an enormous pyramid of autumnal glory, comes from Tom Peters, who took it last week on Second Street in Momence.
     Thank you, Tom.
     There is comfort in the turning of leaves in the fall.
     For their beauty, of course, the amazing yellows and reds, oranges and, in the case of the burning bush in the back of my house, a bold magenta.
     But also in the fact that they take place at all. That life whirs through this yearly cycle of birth and death, flourishing and shutting down. Something regular, predictable, dependable.
     Thank you nature.
      If only our politics would be as orderly or as predictable. The sprouting of liberal freedoms, slow but blooming progress, then the chill November of extremism, and following winter of nationalism, despotism, as certain populations become uncomfortable with the idea of everyone competing on a level playing field as equals, and try to push down the people who are scrabbling up.
    We don't know, at what point in the cycle we are. Is this the end of February, with bleakness all around, but spring lurking, mischievously around the corner? Or is this the first cold breezes of late October, with months and months of icy suffering yet to come?
    Who can tell? Nobody.
    The changing of the leaves reveals a subtle strategy we might bear in mind. In temperate climates, trees tend to keep their leaves, replacing them gradually in three- to five-year cycles. And why not? The sun is out, it's dinner time. But in our colder regions, when long cold, sunless winters make production of nutrients of scant benefit, trees don't even try to make food, preferring to withdraw useful chemicals from their leaves and then shake them off after the first few frosts, resolving to try again in the spring, when conditions are better.
     Smart. Nature tells us to work hard when condition are favorable, but if there is a barren stretch ahead, to go fallow, save our strength, and reserve out energies for when they can do the most good.
     This is one of those times. Unlike the unavoidable arrival of winter, we all can make a tiny difference, harnessing our warmth against the gathering totalitarian bleakness. Show your true colors. Vote on Tuesday, for America and against fear.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Trump immigration stance bad demographics, bad economics — and immoral

     Their children were grown. The house, empty. My parents missed having kids around, so they hosted a student from Japan, a young woman, part of a group of a dozen staying around town. Not long: six weeks or so.
     During her stay, the group took a trip to Niagara Falls, but the student staying with my parents refused to go.

     After the tears and drama, the reason was revealed. Half of Niagara Falls is in Canada. Another country. She was ‘chosen-seki,’ the descendent of Koreans who came to Japan when it occupied Korea between 1910 and 1945. Her grandparents were Korean and, as far as the Japanese were concerned, so was she, as would be her children, and their children, into eternity. She worried about going through customs with her friends; somebody might see her passport, discover her shame.
Harajuku district, Tokyo
      Sound cruel? It is. It’s certainly un-American. We don’t judge people by measuring their grandparents. The law is, if you are born on American soil, you’re an American citizen. It’s written into our Constitution; the 14th Amendment, Section 1: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
     Donald Trump’s campaign was built on fear of immigrants, from the moment he proclaimed Mexicans criminals and rapists. Faced with possible rebuke at the polls Tuesday, he returned to stirring up fear and hatred, demonizing a band of Central American refugees walking toward this country.
     Promising to dispatch 15,000 soldiers to spend Christmas waiting for them didn’t do the trick. So Trump is talking about unilaterally abnegating part of the Constitution (Gosh, is that a thing? Because then gun control becomes easy).

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Studs Terkel: Luminary for the little man

Studs Terkel, by Steve Musgrave (used with permission)

     Facebook is much and rightly maligned. But it does bring the past to your doorstep every morning. Wednesday it shared this status from Oct. 31, 2008—"Neil Steinberg salutes Studs Terkel, who died this afternoon"—necessarily terse, no doubt, because I was busy writing the below (or, more accurately, giving it a final once-over, since I had written it years before).
     Of course I knew Terkel, ever since he had me as as guest on his radio show in 1995, been to his jumbo bungalow on Castlewood a few times. I welcomed catching sight of him, sheaf of papers under his arm, cutting across Daley Plaza with his red socks. He was an oddly comforting presence. Though attempts to turn him into a warm, avuncular figure were always in vain: he was at heart a hard ass, a union man, a fighter, and a vastly important Chicago writer.

     Studs Terkel turned the voice of average Americans into a font of history.
     The Pulitzer-Prize winning author, television pioneer, theatrical actor, longtime radio host, unrepentant leftie and friend of the little man, died peacefully at his home on the North Side of Chicago on Friday afternoon.
     He was 96.
     "He had a very full, eventful and sometimes tempestuous life," said his son Dan. "It was very satisfactory"
     Studs—calling him "Mr. Terkel" always seemed overly formal—was a character. He liked to wear a red-checked shirt, a rumpled suit and had a stogie jammed in the side of his thick-lipped mouth. He enjoyed a martini well into his 90s.
     Though his dozen books were national best-sellers—Division Street America, and Working and The Good War—Studs was best known to many Chicagoans as an interviewer who hosted a talk show on radio station WFMT from 1952 to 1997.
     He was born in New York City, ironically enough, on May 16, 1912, and christened Louis Terkel. When he was 8, the family moved to Chicago, where his parents, Sam and Anna, ran the Wells-Grand Hotel.
     He later said that while he was "legally born" in New York, he came alive when he moved to Chicago.
     Studs spent his youth among the odd collection of hotel guests, some seeking work, others avoiding it. He credited his unusual residence with sparking within him an interest in the personal stories of regular people.
     He graduated from the University of Chicago School of Law, though he never practiced.
     Studs instead turned his energies toward the theater, appearing in 1934 in the groundbreaking Clifford Odets play "Waiting For Lefty."
     During the Depression, he worked on the Federal Writers' Project and performed in radio soap operas, usually portraying a gangster.
     It was around this time that he adopted the nickname "Studs" after James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy.
     While still a struggling actor in Chicago in 1939, Studs met and married a social worker and activist named Ida Goldberg. The couple had one son, Dan Terkell, who later added an extra "l'' to his last name. Ida Terkel died in 1999.
     After he served in the Army Air Forces in World War II, entertaining troops, Studs began a pioneering broadcasting career in television and a 45-year association with WFMT.
     "Studs' Place," an NBC program airing from 1950 to 1953, helped establish Studs as a nationally known personality. "Studs' Place" was a loosely plotted comedy set in a fictional Chicago barbecue joint. But Studs' past came back to cut short his future in television -- his socialist activities of the 1930s were seized upon by witch-hunting anti-communists who pressured NBC to drop his TV show, despite solid ratings, and Studs was blacklisted and unable to find steady work for the next several years.
     "To give you an idea of the fear," Studs told the Sun-Times in 1976, "an important soap opera producer once asked me to do some test scripts. I did them, but the sponsor said, 'No, we can't use him.' The producer berated me, as if it were my fault, 'How come you didn't tell me?' That's how deep the fear was."
     Unable to find work in television, Studs eked out a living making speeches.
     But even there, Studs was often hounded by Edward Clamage of the Illinois American Legion, who would tell sponsors of Studs' talks that they were hiring a "dangerous subversive."
     "Sometimes I would get canceled and other times they would let me speak," Studs recalled. "Then I'd write a letter to Clamage: 'Clamage, it comes to my attention that you are at it once again. Thanks to you, my fee was raised from $100 to $200. I owe you an agent's fee. Signed Terkel.' It wasn't true of course, but it made him furious. It was a way of getting back."
     Studs credited his blacklisting experience for his future prominence as a writer.
     "In a strange way, it helped me," Studs recalled. "I probably would never have gotten into writing books otherwise, or into WFMT. I was never publically pilloried; I was able to continue to make a living."
     He developed an interviewing style often referred to as "oral history," becoming a virtuoso of the tape recorder.
     Studs' first major work was Division Street America, in 1966. Later books included Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), Talking to Myself (1977), American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980) and The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, which won him his Pulitzer in 1985.
     His last book, P.S.—Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, is being published Monday.
     Studs also was a recipient of the Peabody Award, the Prix Italia, the UNESCO Award for best program on East-West values and the University of Chicago Communicator of the Year Award.
     Studs once said of his writing technique:
     "A tape recorder is a revolutionary instrument. It's no good for a talk with a movie actress or a politician, because they're so plastic. But a tape recorder on the steps of a housing project is something else again. There a person who a moment ago was just a statistic starts talking to you and becomes human, becomes a person. Then it gets exciting."
     Studs said in 1980: "If there's something I want to do, it's create a sense of continuity -- that there is a past and a present and that there may be a future. And that there isn't any present unless you know the past."
     As far as social justice goes, "I'm on a quest," he said. "I'm Don Quixote. Of course I want to tilt at windmills. I want to tilt at other things. It's the Don Quixotes of the world -- call them the seekers of the ideal -- who keep the juices going, give them pepper, the salt, change it for the good."
     His son said a celebration of his life will be scheduled in a few months.
                                                      - - -


     "He was somebody who made you go away a better person. . . . Even people who were ideologically opposed to him loved him once they met him. Right-wing people, once they met him, treated him as their favorite lefty. . . . If you got in a cab with him, he'd have the cabbie's whole life story by the time you got out." 
    —author and historian Gary Wills, to whom Studs dedicated several books

     "Michelle and I were deeply saddened to learn about the loss of Studs Terkel, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. Studs was not just a Chicago institution, he was a national treasure. His writings, broadcasts, and interviews shed light on what it meant to be an American in the 20th century. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him, all who loved him, and all whose lives were enriched by the American stories he told."
     —Barack Obama

     "He was larger than life, yet he spent his life giving voice to ordinary people. Even at his 90th birthday, he could (and did!) regale the crowd with a 20-minute monologue covering everything from McCarthyism to show biz.'' 
     —Playboy Enterprises Inc. CEO Christie Hefner, who hosted a 90th birthday party for Studs

     "Studs Terkel was part of a great Chicago literary tradition that stretched from Theodore Dreiser to Richard Wright to Nelson Algren to Mike Royko. In his many books, Studs captured the eloquence of the common men and women whose hard work and strong values built the America we enjoy today."    
       —Mayor Daley

     "He had so many magnificent qualities—literary, personal, creative, political—it's almost too impossible to say how he will be best remembered. He was a total human being and a total Chicagoan." 
     —political consultant Don Rose, a frequent co-worker of Studs

     "He could touch places in people that they didn't even know were there. . . . I think that the thing [about Studs] that will last the longest is that he helped people learn how to listen to themselves and each other with respect and see value in their lives and in their work and in their thoughts and in working together.'' 
     —author Sydney Lewis, a WMFT Radio colleague and transcriber of several of Studs' books

     "The memorable Louis 'Studs' Terkel spoke to Chicago and stood for Chicago. And today we mourn his passing. . . . He will be greatly missed.'' 
     —Gov. Blagojevich

     "He had an ability to make ordinary people famous and make famous people ordinary. . . . He also was able to step back and let the person he was talking to take center stage.'' 
     —Thom Clark, president of Community Media Workshop, which founded the Studs Terkel Community Media Awards

                                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 1, 2008

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"Voting for empathy ... The future. We can do better than than this."


Government Bureau, by George Tooker (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Either you sympathize with other people.
     Or you don't.
     That's it.
     That's our entire political moment right now.
     The rest, as Hillel said, is commentary.
     So here's mine.
     The key word in the first sentence is "other." Other people, different from yourself. Because empathizing with yourself and those exactly like you is easy.
     And ineffective.
     Tribalism was fine when humans lived in tribes. Building the modern world required putting aside prejudices and working together. Those who found it within themselves to say, "You know. . . this guy might be black ... but he could actually be a soldier, a professor, a quarterback. Let's give him a try" did better. Societies that made the leap did better.
     Lose sympathy and you suffer. Britain fled the European Union because enough Brits were convinced that membership meant a Turk might move in next door and, oh I don't know, do Turkish things. Smoke a hookah. So they blew up their own economy.
     We're next. The Republicans are at war with The Other: immigrants, Muslims, gays, Jews, blacks. Anybody who doesn't meet their hidebound notion of what an American should look like.
     The truth isn't on their side, so they lie, rationalize and blame-shift, while drumming up bogeymen to distract voters. It's happening in every race. Pick one one:
     The 6th District, Republican Rep. Peter Roskam against Democratic newcomer Sean Casten. Once, Roskam would be merely a bland GOP non-entity, endorsed by the NRA, calling climate change "junk science." The usual.
     Now the stakes are higher... 

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Outside the box: A visit to Chicago Mailing Tube Co.

     I had to call Chicago Mailing Tube Monday, related to a project I'm writing for the paper. To my amazement, I realized that I never posted the column I wrote about my visit there, 11 year ago. That seems a tremendous oversight, considering how much affection I have for their product—sturdy, sharply-made cardboard mailing tubes.
     Perhaps the visit is a worthwhile distraction, too. I don't know about you, but there is only so much time I can fret about our country declining into a feral state, and there is a comfort in the poetry of tangible objects. Back then the column covered a full page, and ended with a joke, so I've left it in, though I seem to think my audience consisted for politically-savvy 6-year-olds.
     Ken Barmore, by the way, passed away early in 2015, just shy of his 98th birthday.

     If you glance north out of the window of a commuter train shortly after it leaves Union Station, you might notice a sign with sleek stainless steel letters spelling out "CHICAGO MAILING TUBE CO."
     And if you are of a certain frame of mind, after seeing that sign for a sufficient number of years, you might begin to idly wonder about the cardboard tube industry, in general, and about this low brick factory in particular.  

     After a few years of speculation, you might find yourself climbing the stairs to the spartan second-floor offices of Chicago Mailing Tube, where you will meet Ken Barmore, 90, who bought the company in 1949.
     "There wasn't much to buy," he recalls, "one machine and six or seven people—nobody knew anything about the company."
     Chicago Mailing Tube was founded by three partners in 1902. Back then it sold a lot of snuff boxes—squat cylindrical containers similar to what holds chewing tobacco today. The containers were delivered by horse and wagon, and the company still proudly holds several city licenses for delivery horses.
     No horses anymore, but it does have 40 or so human employees, and a number of spectacularly complex machines, producing cardboard tubes in near-Dr. Seussian splendor: ribbons of paper flying off enormous spinning spools, puffs of steam, rivers of glue pumped from 3,000-gallon vats, pneumatic hisses and roaring spindles.
     The process is called "spiral winding"—3-inch strips of brown paper are coated with glue and then wrapped tightly around a metal core, or "mandrel," then squeezed by thick rubber belts.
     "The pressure is terrific," says Barmore, pointing to belts compressing the tubes. "You get a finger under there, it's going to be flat."
     Cutting tubes precisely is one challenge of their manufacture—lengths sometimes need to be within a tiny fraction of an inch if they are to be used in manufacturing, say to hold industrial wire.
     "This is a competitor's tube," Barmore says, standing among a forest of tubes in the "sample room," appraising a cylinder as tall as himself. He eyes the end carefully. "It's got a bad cut on it. It isn't square. A lot of companies, they couldn't use that."
     We think of tubes holding paper towels and toilet tissue, but they also hide in plain sight -- as Parmesan cheese containers, charity cans, crescent dough packages and masking tape roll cores. Tiny tubes hold bundles of wires in cars, and huge tubes form concrete pillars in construction.  

     "We used to make cores for machine-gun bullets for the Joliet arsenal," Barmore said.
     The brown paper in the tubes is 100 percent recycled and always has been -- Chicago Mailing Tube was green before green was cool.
     "We've always used recycled paper," Barmore says. "Fifty-seven years. It's a lot cheaper." How much cheaper? Between half and a quarter the cost of new paper.
     All the rejects, the poorly cut tubes, pieces of scrap, are fed up a conveyer into a grinder— it sounds like frozen turkeys raining down on a tin roof—then baled into enormous six-foot cubes to be returned to the mill to be pulped.
     How does a man get into the cardboard tube trade?
     "I wanted to get into the farm machinery business, but I couldn't make any kind of a deal," Barmore remembers. "I'm a farm boy, from Monroe, Wis. A dairy farm. I know cows."
     Why not stay down on the farm?
     "I hated it," he says. "I hated milking cows."
     This was during the Great Depression—Barmore is Monroe High School Class of '34—when collapsing milk prices had farmers dumping milk at the side of the road because it wasn't worth selling.
     "Things were very bad," he says. "Believe me, it was hell."
     He got a job candling eggs for $12 a week, repaired farm machinery, drove a bus in Rockford, found himself in charge of ordering coal for Central Illinois Electric and Gas.
     "How many pounds of coal to make a pound of steam, how many pounds of steam to make a kilowatt," he says. "I was figuring that out." Too many other jobs to list.
     Businesses are handed down, but his son, Tom, didn't want to make cardboard tubes.
     "He's a CPA—he didn't want to go into it," Barmore says. "He was not interested in tubes."
     Did that bother him?
     "I didn't want to be a farmer, so I figured, if he didn't want to make tubes, that's his business."
     But he has a grandson, Keith Shimon, who runs the business now.
   "I thought it would be fun, and it has been fun," says Shimon, 33. "It's been a lot of work, but it's been fun."
     Cardboard tubes are a $2 billion to $3 billion industry, according to Kris Garland of the Composite Can and Tube Institute based in Alexandria, Va.
     Competition from Asia is slight because of high shipping costs. A cardboard tube is expensive to ship.
     "It's kind of like we're shipping air, and the 10-inch tubes really fill up a truck," Shimon says.
     Thus, factories tend to be regional suppliers, much in the same way that local potato chip companies have stayed in business because nobody wants to ship potato chips very far.
     Technological progress has helped—better machines—and hurt the industry. Architects who once sent their plans in sturdy tubes now hit the send button instead. The American textile trade moving to China also hurt, because there is no need to make centers for bolts of cloth.
     Chicago Mailing Tube tries to stay ahead of a changing world by being nimble.
     "We pride ourselves in how fast we can react," Shimon says.
     "Customers call up today and the trailers go out tomorrow," Barmore says.
     Really? I ask.
     "Really," he says.

     I confess, I cooked this one up myself, in tribute to today's special topic. Apologies in advance:
     Q. What do you call toothpaste that is dozing at a briefing by former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card?
     A. A Card-bored tube.
                      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 18, 2007