Saturday, March 24, 2018

Visit to the woodshed

     I invariably turn down invitations to luncheons and dinners, because they're time-consuming and tedious. The food is mediocre and the speeches are so-so, especially when I am the one doing the speaking.
     But since the election of Donald Trump, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken on the role of the American Free State, filing 100 lawsuits this past year, fighting for our country's core values during the twilight of amateur despotism that is descending upon our nation's capital, and I eagerly accepted an offer to attend Friday's annual luncheon.
      No sooner had I got my name tag at the Hilton than I ran into Daniel Biss, accepting condolences from the faithful for his recent defeat in the governor's race. We chatted briefly and pleasantly—I had gone to bat for the increasingly antique notion that government should be run by people with actual experience running government. He liked that, though when I asked him to sum up how he is doing now, he moved off without a word, smiling sphinxlike.
    A minute later, heading into the ballroom, my beeline toward Table 127 put me on a collision course with J.B. Pritzker and his running mate, Julianna Stratton. I could have fixed my eyes forward and hurried past, I suppose, but that seemed the way of the coward. A path I am fully able to tread. When he came by the office, I had actually flattened myself against a wall, to avoid him. 
    But you can't do that forever, and now he was the Democratic challenger. Might as well get this over with. So I slapped my best Dale Carnegie smile across my mug and headed into the woodshed to be chastised.
     "Howdy Governor," I said, shaking hands. "I hope we can put all the unpleasantness of the primaries behind us."
     Unpleasantness, I hasten to point out, emanating entirely from me, writing various uncharitable—if not unkind if not cruel—things about J.B. Pritzker simply because I sincerely believed them to be true, based on my glancing assessment of the situation and my desire not to accept the status quo.
     Malice is the coin of the realm, online, and if you are going to be in the opinion business, you'd better have a bucket of mud at the ready.
     Not all believe that, of course. Some journalists view elections as horse races, and like to bet on the winner, certainly never saying a harsh word, currying favor in the dubious theory that it increases access and authority. Or they let others do the dirty work, acting as mere conduits. Don't blame me I just report the stuff. I knew Pritzker was going to win, but bespattered him anyway, for what I considered his deficiencies. Facing the music afterward is the price you pay.
     Pritzker was good about it. He said he was surprised that I had backed Biss. I reiterated my whole experience-in-government-is-good notion, and tried to pour oil on the waters. 
     I should have mentioned that I supported him in the bugged-phone-call-to-Blago controversy, in an article in that infamous lawn jockey issue of The Reader. He hadn't said anything wrong. But it slipped my mind—these political kerfuffles are delicate as dew and evaporate with each new dawn. Instead I told him something I had told Rahm Emanuel, whom I am also highly critical of, primarily because he so often fails as a human being and as a civic leader.
    "If I stand on my chair and cheer from the start, then I'm just one Jew supporting another Jew, and it means nothing," I said. "If I'm critical initially, then it might actually have some kind of significance if I come around at the end, when it matters."
     Or words to that effect. I didn't take notes.
     "But Biss is Jewish," Pritzker observed.
     Good point. I hadn't thought of that. I took another tack.
     "You know, after I wrote a book about my father, he didn't talk to me for six months..."
      What I was trying to say is that fondness and sharp observations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. That approach didn't work either. I cut to the chase.
     "You're the man standing between Illinois and four more years of Bruce Rauner." I told him, adding that I admired the brio of his acceptance speech. "If you are going to take Vienna, as Napoleon said, take Vienna."
     Here Pritzker surprised me.
     He said, in essence, that he didn't want to merely be the guy who isn't Bruce Rauner, but he wants to be elected on his own merits, and if I were more familiar with him, I might actually know what those were, and we would have to work on that.
      That impressed me, as had his acceptance speech Tuesday night. He was more forceful than on the commercials. He might not be what I had assumed him to be—a hand puppet for the various Democratic forces behind him. Pritzker surprised me by how nimble and engaged he was—every time I bumped into Rauner and tried to talk to him, to reach out, I drew back a handful of slime—and it dawned on me that I hadn't been fair to Pritzker, judging him by his TV commercials and my biases about hereditary wealth.
     I'm not the Jedi Council, I call things as I see them, but those initial impressions can be off base and can change. When I first heard the name "Barack Obama," I conjured up the image of a man in a dashiki, dark glasses and a big afro, tossing a black power salute, which was very far from the soft-spoken, clean-cut law professor who showed up in front of the editorial board.  We are all going to be stuck with J.B. Pritzker during his struggle to send Rauner back to the Land of Bad One Term Republicans, along with Peter Fitzgerald and Mark Kirk, so we might as well get to know him a little better. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

When Trump is re-elected, we'll remember "An Enemy of the People"

Tadeus Langier, Zakopane
by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Saturday evening, out on the town, we had finished dinner and were strolling to the theater. I was about to draw my wife's attention to the dead body on the sidewalk across the street, then thought better of it.
     We were on the northeast corner of Dearborn and Lake, heading to the Goodman Theatre, attempting to cross west, when we came upon the tableau. The cop standing beside the corpse gestured for us to go south instead. We took his direction. Acting on instinct, I raised my iPhone up and snapped a photo: cop, yellow tape, 7-Eleven, police SUV, and a body wrapped in a white sheet.
     It didn't take a sleuth to figure out where it came from. Balconies directly above. It was St. Patrick's Day. We had threaded our way through mobs of costumed revelers, lining up to get into places I never imagined anyone would line up to get into. Moe's? Really?
     So either suicide or tragic, booze-induced, hey-look-I-can-balance-on-this-railing accident.
     A photo wants to be shared. I considered posting it to social media, Facebook and Twitter, with a wry remark about Chicago on a Saturday night. But I immediately dismissed that idea, for a value that doesn't get touted as much as it should: because there are people other than myself, friends and family members of the man on the sidewalk. They were about to get the worst news of their lives. Why add a note of indifference if not mockery just so I can flash sardonic?
     Lately I've been thinking that people can be roughly divided into two types: those who sympathize with others and those who don't. Those who can shift their perspective away from themselves to contemplate the condition of someone else. And those whose small well of sympathy is drained dry sprinkling concern over themselves and those immediately around them.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Night of the Living Politically Dead

"A witch carrying a child on her broom,"
by José Guadalupe Posada (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    There was considerable good news from Tuesday night's primary, so I'll limit myself to the top two. No. 1 the dispatch of Joe Berrios to the dustbin of history, just for the promise of real reform to a sinkhole of nepotism and corruption, followed closely, No. 2, by crude Republican hatemonger Jeanne Ives, who just now came blinking onto the statewide stage, underfunded and lacking a soul, and yet nearly unseated the most unpopular governor in America, Bruce Rauner, through the sheer force of her appeals to the lowest kind of fear and bigotry endemic in fearful, bigoted Red Illinois. 
    She lost, but it was a near thing, 51.4 to 48.6 percent. The Resentment Wing of the GOP promptly announced they were taking their ball and going home. Ives refused to phone Rauner to congratulate him, another small kick at civilized society and democratic traditions, the kind of scorched earth gracelessness that has come to define the party.
     “Governor Rauner can talk to himself in the mirror and look at himself and decide whether or not he’s proud of what he’s done all around, from his governorship to the way that he ran his campaign," she told fawning radical right cheerleaders Dan Proft and Amy Jacobson. "I really don’t care, to say anything to the Governor at this point, quite frankly."
     Then, asked if she'd vote for Rauner nevertheless, Ives showed must how roiled her resentments are.
     "I've said I will vote for him," she replied, her voice dripping contempt. He sucks, but he's got my vote.
      I dipped into the show to check Ives' quotes and, as usual with conservative radio, it was an earful of malice and self-immolation.
      "You want the Rauner Republican party, you can have it," said Proft. "Bumbling idiots, cowards and sell-outs."
      Every bullfrog tries to puff himself up into something bigger, but it had a whiff of truth when callers suggested they represented an army of fellow Illinoisans who find Bruce Rauner too much of a hippy-dippy liberal to bother voting. 
     "They're not going to get anybody out to vote now that Jeanne lost," said Joe from Mnooka.
     Some couldn't bear the prospect of surrendering just because they lost.
     "Why are we talking like this is over?" said Nicole from Bourbonnais. "Why aren't we talking about a write-in campaign? We shouldn't be giving up. There's still enough of us left that say, 'No matter what, we do not want Rauner back.'"
     We're of a mind on that one, Nicole.
    I had never listened to Proft's program before, but was the same tissue of bluster and ignorance that's de rigueur (“required by custom,” Dan) in far right talk radio. Proft was waxing on how close the primary was. then ventured: "I don't believe there's an incumbent governor who's ever lost in the primary. I don't think so."
      Umm Gov. Dan Walker in 1976, paving the way for Republican Jim Thompson. Both within human memory and kind of a big deal really, though admitted 42 years ago, and thus over the edge of the event horizon for some, apparently, vanished into the unknown, forgotten and unaccessible land of the past, next to the Here be Dragons on the mental map. 
     Ives' phone call to the station was the highlight. She predicted this is only the beginning of her tremulous hordes rising up and marching boldly back toward the lost Eden of 1950s America, where they're more comfortable.
    "The grass roots is waking up," said our latest Joan of Arc. "This is not the end."          
    Really? It sure smells like the end, both for Ives and, come November, Rauner, who will go back to being an obscure rich guy with nine houses and a heart the size of a gumball. 
     Still, if the Trump fiasco has any lesson, and it has 100, it is that confidence is risky. The wounded serpent is the most dangerous, and just as Ives clutches at the curtains and refused to leave the stage, so we can't expect Rauner to go quietly, and one hopes that J.B. Pritzker is smart enough to keep campaigning hard, to run as if he's afraid he might lose. Don't ease up just because your opponent is a political corpse being gnawed on by the cadaver from the next GOP grave.
     The Democrats shouldn't underestimate Rauner, or give up on him, even if half the Republican Party has. At least for the moment. Never underestimate the Right Wing talent for lying in order to create an effect. Give them eight months to contemplate the prospect of Gov. Pritzker, and perhaps Bruce Rauner won't look quite as loathsome as he does today. Ives' inability to see that would be in keeping with her general myopia toward all things human.
     "He's ruined his run in November already," Ives said. "We said that on the campaign trail. It's not like I was lying to anybody... He's unelectable in 2018. My husband's not going to vote for him. There's no way. He cannot be elected."
     From your lips to God's ears, Jeanne. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Heaven, with donuts.

     You know where I never, ever eat? Dunkin' Donuts. And do you know why? That's right, because their donuts suck. Puffy oversweet yeasty things, or mushy, oversweet cake. Or so I recall. It's been years years since I've put one in my mouth. My wife says their coffee is still good, but we'll have to trust her there, because I'd never event get coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts because I might accidentally order a donut while I was there. And that would be bad.
     You know where I go every time I'm in the vicinity, as if drawn in by a tracto beam, because their donuts are just the best? That's right, one of the three Huck Finn Restaurants on the Southwest Side.
     Sunday morning, we drove a young Southern cousin to Midway, so she could fly to New Orleans and deliver a chemical engineering paper. (Betcha didn't know I had a Southern cousin, eh? Well I do. A senior at Alabama. Roll Tide!)
     We had to leave at 6:15 a.m. to get there, and my wife happily volunteered to go with me. Again why? Because she is a wonderful person? A sweet and supportive wife? Certainly true.
    But that's not the reason she went. 
    Again Huck Finn's. Because while I certainly could bring donuts back, and have, she wanted to try out the full breakfast. Frankly, I'd be happy with a couple donuts, but I am flexible, particularly when it comes to ordering more food. Sure honey!
     So we went, dropped the cousin off, slid over to the Huck's at 67th and Pulaski, the place just starting to fill up, with older couples and kids still in their St. Patrick's Day gear, a lady cop at the counter and various salt-of-the-earth Chicago types in watch caps and Teamsters jackets, all reading the Sun-Times. 
    My wife and I shared an excellent spinach and mozzarella omelet and has browns and big fluffy pancakes and bacon and cup after cup of good hot coffee that kept coming because it's the kind of place that keeps the coffee coming. You never have to ask; it's just there. 
     After, we ordered a dozen donuts to go, mostly the old-fashioned, crispy on the outside, glorious on the inside, the variety that first drew us to Huck Finn's. A dozen's too many for two people, but they freeze well, and Edie bestowed a pair on her sister and brother-in-law, just to let them share in the wonder. (We do that kind of thing. Last week her brother delivered a pair of Victor Lezza cannoli and a pound of cookies from Elmhurst, because you really can't go to Elmhurst and not swing by Victor Lezza. It would be wrong. And then once you have some, it's selfish not to share. 
    Rarity is a blessing. I'm glad Huck Finn's is way the heck on the Southwest Side. It would be dangerous in Northbrook, and eventually might even lose its charm. The way Krispy Kreme was once exotic and special and hard-to-find, a purely Southern thing. Then one opened in New York City and in a flash they were everywhere and there was never any point to eat one because they were available in every supermarket and the mystery was gone. Scarcity is discipline for those of us who don't have it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


     "Where's a good place to eat around here?" I asked Ed, the man at the front desk of La Reserve, a charming 1850s bed and breakfast off Rittenhouse Square. He took a pad of Post-It notes and jotted "Marathon, corner 19th & Spruce St." 
     "Take a left then a right," he said.
     A nice old section of Philadelphia, four-story brick townhouses, one after another, grand pianos spied in warmly-lit living rooms. Spires. Oval windows.
     The restaurant was at the corner, where it was supposed to be. A well-dressed older man came by walking his dog. 
     "Excuse me," I said. "Is that a good restaurant?"
     "Yes," he said. 
    "Thank you," I said, and crossed the street and went in, feeling his eyes on me, as if he were shocked that there wasn't a second part, maybe the scruffy guy in the leather coat and cap hitting him up for money. 
     The dining room was dim, and so I took my seat at the brighter bar, spread the book review on its concrete surface. A hip place. Directly across from me was the name of the bar, "MARATHON" in big white letters.
     "Do you carry non-alcoholic beer?"
     "No, we don't," she said. "How about an Arnold Palmer?"
     "Sure, thanks."
     She fussed behind the bar. I put in a plug for actually stocking non-alcoholic beer: St. Pauli Girl. Beck's. 
    "It's quite good nowadays," I said.
     "We're out of lemonade, which is too bad, because it's good lemonade."
     "Water is fine." 
     I looked at the specials, the menu.
     "Can I have a dinner salad, and the pork chop?"
     "Vinaigrette all right?" 
      "Vinaigrette is fine."
     I gazed at the name of the bar a bit more. She strayed into my zone of the bar.
    "So," I said, "'Marathon. Is that the battle, the plain, the race, the song..." There is a Jacques Brel song called "Marathon"—"...or..." a thought occurring to me as I spoke, "...the gas station?"
     She looked at me.
    "I don't know. I never thought to ask."
    That sincerely surprised me, and I spoke without thinking.
     "How long have you worked here?
    "Six years."
    Had I had insulted her, by pointing out her lack of curiosity? It felt that way. That hadn't been my intention. I was just curious, not as common a sentiment as could be wished. I turned my attention back to my newspaper. How could you work there for six years and not wonder?
     The pork chop was very good—seared on the grill and drenched, I had failed to notice when ordering, in a bourbon reduction sauce, which to be honest was like a phone call from a former friend. Hey, remember me? Yes, great to hear from you, we must have lunch one of these days. Grilled Brussels sprouts, mashed sweet potatoes.  I read my paper, sipped my water with determination, and tipped well, by way of apology.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Race to the bottom: voters puzzled by primary slugfest

     "Who should I vote for? JB, Kennedy, Biss? No one impressed me at the WBEZ debate."
     I blinked at the question. Messages firehose at me all the time—on Facebook, Twitter and email, now a distant third, nearly occupying the tenuous position that letters written in blunt pencil on blue lined notebook paper once held.
     But this was coming in over iPhone Messenger, from somebody with my phone number. In the next line, he ID'ed himself. My old college roommate. Ah. 
     As a professional journalist, I couldn't summarize the 2018 primary election more eloquently than he did in 16 words. Then again, he was a political science major. Months of increasingly wild accusations, millions and millions spent on grim, black-and-white TV commercials and what are we left with? A sulfurous smell hanging in the air and three not-so-appealing choices. I'm not certain which of these guys to vote for and I've had long conversations with each. 
     The opening question is telling. It assumes, as I do above, that the only election of interest is the Democratic primary. That's true. (I was tempted to tease my friend with, "Aren't you a Republican by now?" But that seemed cruel). Compared to the Democratic slugfest, the Republican primary has been a muted sideshow. Or make that, freak show, starring Jeanne Ives in a tent off the midway, a lady tattooed head-to-toe with vile and shameful appeals to the bottom rung of the Republican Party, using every racist code in the book short of semaphore flag: Immigrants are murderers. Transgender people are predators.
     Who can blame anybody for tuning out this Punch and Judy show? I prefer to experience the election as a civilian, primarily through the relentless TV and radio commercials. Pritzker scored points early by swinging hard for Obamacare enrollment, his money stepping in for the delinquent Trump administration firing back at Trump's immigration slanders.The idea of a rebel stronghold in Illinois, based on emergent state power and the bottomless Pritzker fortune, is something I could get behind.

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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Own the sin

     All of life, never mind human existence, is a patchwork fuzz on a single rock twirling through a cosmos of such cold immensity that we can't even conceive of it. 
     Nor do we really want to. Just the opposite. Each individual tends to puff himself up as much as possible, to the limits of plausibility and beyond. We are living in the Golden Age of Grandiosity, with a rich, famous president who obviously isn't satisfied by what he has attained, preferring—no, compelled—to live in eternal yearning, fantasizing ever greater accolades for himself. 
     While Donald Trump is an extreme, we all imagine ourselves more splendid than we actually are, or ever could be. I know I do. And I hope I'm not alone. Though I believe I've gotten better in my later years. Less self-absorbed. I think giving up drinking helped. You get in the habit of seeing things clearly, or trying to.
     Yet sometimes the two systems, the old grandeur and the new realism, do clash. Such as a couple weeks ago. I popped into Target for some Skull Candy earbuds. I had lost mine—a lapse that once would have bothered me more than it does now. I'm not perfect, I'm allowed to lose stuff. 
     Trucking through the aisles, I noticed this dog food—the same dog food we haul to Petsmart on Skokie Boulevard to buy for $11.49, here for $8.99.
     My heart swelled. Wow, what a bargain! I grabbed the bag thinking, What a coup! This really makes my day!
     Then some part of me stood back, aghast, arms folded, shaking his head. Really? Finding cheaper dog food. That's your gold standard of excitement nowadays? 
     Deflating, I tossed the bag in my giant red plastic cart and pushed it guiltily away. Immediately thinking: okay, what's the point of that? Both being a petty, small change kind of guy, excited to save a couple bucks on a bag of puppy chow and being so pompous that I can't even enjoy the pleasure of doing so? Stuck between two worlds.
     Yup, that sounds about right. Own the sin, as the colonial moralists used to say. And to be honest, the reproach faded, and I was left with satisfaction, and a new place to shop for dog food. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Era of Contempt, Redux

     Never underestimate the key role that sexual panic plays in both American history and, alas, current events.  
     Whether it is a cause or an effect of our nation's endemic racism—probably both—I cannot say. But the reason races couldn't go to school together, or, even worse, share that swimming pool, was the unbearable prospect that your kids might fall in love with someone of a different race, do the nasty, causing ... oh, I don't know ... the universe to collapse upon itself, I suppose. And the reason those gays can't get married is, never forget, that their doing so just kicks the supports right out from under your own marriage. Bake a wedding cake for Brad and Steve one day, find yourself cruising the Halsted leather bars, entirely against your will, the next.
      So while I wouldn't directly credit recent advances in gay rights—particularly the unexpected, almost incredible advance of transgender Americans from shunned freaks to semi-accepted participants in the national story—with the staggering national embrace of the bolus of fraud, bullying and deceit that goes by the name Donald Trump, there must be a connection, as eloquently, if unintentionally conveyed by my new favorite reader, Alan P. Leonard of Tinley Park. 
     You might remember Mr. Leonard from last Saturday. His letter last week drew more than twice as many readers as anything else I've written over the past month. I share it now in the sincere hope that there are more to come. Frankly, I'd be a fool to offer up anything else, and if Mr. Leonard wants to continue to write to me, I will happily post his letters and split the profit I make from the blog on the days that he appears.
     This is even better than the Saturday Fun Activity, because I don't have to send out a prize to the lucky winner. Today, we all win. Enjoy.

Friday, March 16, 2018

International Home + Housewares show: ‘You put it online; if it sells, it sells’

Andy Berger
     The show is so vast, it can go so many ways. For a while, walking around, I thought I had nothing, just a bunch of random images and interviews. Then I decided to focus on dog devices. I only decided to bookend two interviews with 67-year-olds with very different views of the market after I sat down and started working. One funny aspect that I couldn't fit into the story had to do with Andy Berger's company, which I first heard, understandably enough, as "Max's International." After he corrected my error, I asked him if it was named for the Axis powers the United States fought in World War II. No, he said, he never thought of that—he thought his products were the hub the world turned on. He didn't consider the Germany, Japan, Italy definition until after the company was up and running and a lawyer pointed it out to him.

     The baby lay motionless on a green mat. I paused.
     "Brand new," said Andy Berger, owner of Axis International in Des Plaines, hurrying over. "It's remote control."
     The baby was a doll; the mat, designed to soothe fussy infants to sleep, though when Berger tried to demonstrate how it works, it didn't.
     "Might be out of batteries," he said. "A heartbeat sound, and it whooshes."
     Graco this was not. The International Home + Housewares Show at McCormick Place offers everything from huge corporations displaying products known the world over, to plucky entrepreneurs ballyhooing items that might not even be on the market yet.

    While I too scope out the latest — KitchenAid's "Color of the Year" is "Bird of Paradise," the love child of coral and peach — I prefer to excavate the deeper substrata of commerce.
     "I've been doing this 35 years," said Berger, 67. "My biggest hit is that tank-top hanger. Sell 'em by the thousands every week."
     The show, which ended Tuesday, lacked a certain hum.
     "The older I get the slower it seems to get," Berger agreed. "The whole market changed. There's less and less brick and mortars. It's all internet. We do so much business with companies like Amazon, Zulu. You don't even have to talk to them. You put it online; if it sells, it sells. If it doesn't, they don't care. I hardly have to travel anymore."
     That isn't good?
     "You lose that interpersonal touch," he said. "It's all automated. You try to deal with Amazon, they don't talk to anybody."

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Good news: Lucas museum breaks ground somewhere other than Chicago

     Those who hooted down the white carbuncle that movie mogul George Lucas wanted to erupt next to Soldier Field can take a measure of vindication from the architectural illustrations released ahead of Wednesday's groundbreaking for the Star Wars creator's new Museum of Narrative Art.
     Gone is what Chicago wits dubbed "Jabba the Hutt's Palace" or "Space Mountain" when they were sending the project packing two years ago, replaced by a pair of joined ovals that looks very much like a star cruiser designed to dock at Spaceport Soldier Field. An homage perhaps.
     So maybe the old design wasn't so avant-garde after all.   
Architect's rendering of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles
    Not that the new design, also by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, is much better—a bacterium caught in mid-mitosis. Inside, some vaguely familiar curving ceilings that, naturally, were praised to the skies by beneficiaries of the estimated $1 billion project.
     “The building itself will certainly be an icon of 21st century design,” said museum president Don Bacigalupi, perhaps before he got a good look at the interior, which looks more like an icon of Space Age design circa 1962, specifically, the TWA Terminal at JFK.
     This doesn't even touch upon the supposed purpose of the museum itself, the "narrative arts" an omnium gatherum category designed to enfold Lucas' vast holdings of "Star Wars" memorabilia, his Normal Rockwell and American illustration collections, and give the endeavor a sense of significance that just off-loading his keepsakes into a permanent home obviously lacked.
     And we can savor that the ground-breaking is being held in Los Angeles, in Exposition Park and not the $10, 99-year lease on Chicago's lakefront that the Park District and the City Council happily handed Lucas. The museum is a better fit for L.A., with its movie industry, and other vanity museums, like The Broad collection of contemporary art, and the Getty Museum and Villa.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Many schools support Student Walkout. And then there's Northbrook...

Snap the Whip, by Winslow Homer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” Dr. Johnson once quipped.
     This can happen even when the person is not quite a man, or woman, but a teenager. A high school student, say, and the threat isn't the certainty of being strung up in two weeks but the possibility of being gunned down in the indeterminate future.
     Never underestimate the motivational power of the prospect of being killed. Or of having your friends killed.
     We saw it in the Vietnam era, when college students set down their bongo drums and picked up protest signs.
     We saw it this past month — in just 30 days — as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did not merely mourn 17 slain classmates, nor limit themselves to piling teddy bears. Instead they pushed past their inert elders and took on our country's insane gun culture and the National Rifle Association.
     And we'll see it Wednesday, with the National Student Walkout, when students at thousands of schools leave class for 17 minutes, one minute for every murdered Parkland student. It a litmus test of the mental agility of school administrators whether they embraced this rare moment of youthful solidarity or fought it.
     As my colleague Lauren FitzPatrick reported, Chicago Public Schools gave tacit approval. “I want to make sure our students have an opportunity to express themselves and engage thoughtfully in this national dialogue," CPS CEO Janice Jackson said.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Toast Bags and Garbage Pantz

2018 Home + Housewares Show

     This year I almost skipped the Home + Housewares Show, despairing at ever topping last year's riff off Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Common Things." But that seemed the coward's way. So I spent a long, footsore day there Monday, and came home too pooped to do anything other than cast around into the past and dredge up this look at the 2012 show, published six years ago today. Not my most compelling work, I know, but not without interest—particularly since every trend I noticed has sputtered out, as far as I can tell. Seeing the flatness of this fires me up to try to come up with something better for Wednesday.

     Perhaps you have been vexed by slices of bread leaving crumbs in your toaster and frustrated by the appliance's inability to make toasted cheese sandwiches.
     Or, more likely, you haven't.
     Either way, those days are over, thanks to the boldly named "Toast Bag," an envelope that encases bread before it is inserted into a slot in a toaster, one of tens of thousands of products both ordinary and exceptional showcased this weekend at the enormous 2012 International Home + Housewares Show at McCormick Place.
     "Your toaster remains clean," the package trumpets.
     "These are 100 percent Teflon," said Tom Geyskens, an account manager at ICB, the Belgium company selling Toast Bags. "This is our design. We invented this."
     Which was news, and not welcome news, three booths over, at Planit Products, which offered "toastabags" ("American Style Grilled Cheese in Your Toaster").
     "They copied ours," said Caroline Kavanagh, director of Planit, located in Malvern, England, "the bastards."
     Spend five hours marching through the Housewares show—not nearly enough time to begin to cover its vastness—and you will notice how ideas echo through the industry.
     A dozen different collapsible water bottles, such as Vapur, "the original foldable water bottle." Most are flattish, but the Viv, from France's Charles Viancin, is an attractive soft round bottle whose band fastener holds the rolled-up bottle in a tight bundle.
     Meanwhile, other manufacturers tack in the opposite direction - Copco offers a sturdier, hard-plastic version of brand-name water bottles, and Japan's Takeya is selling the Classic Glass Water Bottle "inspired by the iconic American milk bottle" though no dairy would have dreamed it might someday retail empty milk bottles for $24.99.
     Several manufacturers are rolling out segmented bowls designed to separate cereal from milk. "Never eat soggy cereal again," promises the Obol, sold at Brookstone.
     While most products are familiar—booth after booth of fine knives, regular bowls, plates and pitchers—the new always stand out. A pet bowl with three squat round posts, designed to make dogs eat slower. Perhaps the boldest new product in the show, which you may file under Solutions to Problems You Never Knew You Had: "Garbage Pantz"—bright fabric sleeves designed to wrap around outdoor trash cans.
     "Where do you keep your garbage cans?" challenged Ana Meyer, president of the New Jersey company, who demonstrated her commitment to her product by wearing it as a dress. Garbage Pantz designs range from blue jeans to team logos to a scratching dog saying, "I'm itching to recycle."
     Not knocking things over seems important. "Never spill again," the Mighty Mug promises. Bibo is "a wide-based universal stabilizer" designed to keep you from crying over spilled milk. Colleen Costello invented "Flippt," a collapsible rubber ziggurat that holds shampoo or condiment bottles upside down so the product will collect by the spout. Is she worried about ketchup bottles already being designed to stand top down?
     "Not everyone's going in that direction," said Costello, of Dayton, Ohio, tying herself with other hometown inventors such as the Wright Brothers and Charles Kettering, who invented the electric car starter. "In Dayton, Ohio, inventing is in our DNA."
     "Can I be honored to show you my product?" said Lisa Blackburn, a Dallas attorney who invented the bagFormR, an oval container with a notched lip designed to hold plastic bags open, so they can be filled or serve as a "disposable kitchen bowl."
     Now "bagFormR" is not the most elegant name. More established companies try to inject pizzazz into their products by borrowing pizzazz's plentiful z's: Homz (ironing supplies); Blitz (cleaning supplies); Zing (colorful kitchen utensils) and Twiztt, a line of cookware with distinctive features, like measurements printed inside a pot.
     Some names clunked. "My Drap" is a line of fancy cotton napkins that come serrated on rolls. "It's Catalonian," said Allen Uhler, My Drap's American importer. "We thought about changing the name."
     When I came across "ToastaBags" at a booth run by Boska of Holland, I knew it was time to leave the show, which runs through Tuesday but is open only to its 60,000 registered attendees and not the public. To its credit, press material for the Dutch company—which is licensing the product—reads, "ToastaBags zijn in 2008 in Engeland uitgevonden" which, translated, is: "ToastaBags were invented in England in 2008."
                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 12, 2012

Monday, March 12, 2018

Calls to denounce Farrakhan are yesterday's news in Chicago

Jews in a Synagogue, by Rembrandt (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

      You must always check the date on news stories popping up on Facebook. It’s embarrassing to register shock — James Garner dead? Oh no! — only to be informed that he passed away in 2014.
     So a week ago, when I noticed a CNN report headlined “Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan delivers anti-Semitic speech,” the first thing I did was see whether he delivered the speech in 2012 or 2002. I mean, talk about an evergreen headline, right?
     Feb. 25, 2018. Nation of Islam Saviours’ Day. In Chicago. Prompting me to then wonder if the local papers covered it. Nope. Which makes sense. A big city, this, statewide elections looming, plus the continual drip-drip-drip of corrosive national news, like acid leaking out of a car battery. Where on the list of priorities would you put an 84-year-old cult leader saying what he always says?
     Not that any reporter worth his salt wouldn’t leap to attend a Farrakhan rally. I highly recommend the experience, having drawn that short straw years ago. I’m glad I did. Louis Farrakhan is a powerful speaker, in the classic Fidel Castro model: carrying on for hours and hours, puffing and preening. He holds his audience rapt, with occasional trips to the sales tables to fortify themselves with bean cakes.
     It’s quite a show. You can say a lot in three hours, and Farrakhan does: about dignity and self-reliance and power, heavily spiced with a farrago of conspiracy theories. Eventually, he reaches for the Jews like a man scratching a rash. The latest instance classic third-person Farrakhan:

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

There's more to Irish Chicago than turning the river green

                               Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale
                               As though 
some ballad-singer had sung it all; 
                                                                        —W.B. Yeats
     Green beer and leprechauns, step-dancing and corned beef. Who decided that St. Patrick’s Day always has to be the same?
     Not to take anything away from Bushmills, soda bread and “Danny Boy.” Fine in small doses once a year.
     But there’s so much more to Irish history in general and Chicago Irish history in particular, wonders that never get hinted at, even leading up to the day when big buttons proclaim everybody is Irish.
     Such as? For instance? We could mention … oh, to pick one example … the Chicago woman whose acclaimed beauty landed her face on Irish banknotes for half a century.  

       What, you don’t know the story? Well, pour yourself a Jameson, laddie, pull up a stool, lass, because Hazel Lavery, as Yeats observed in verse, is the stuff of legend, only it’s true.
     The currency is not the half of it. She was friends with George Bernard Shaw and neighbors with Winston Churchill, whom she taught to paint, a lifelong comfort against his “black dog” of depression. She was rumored to be the lover of both freedom-fighter Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins, leader of the Irish Free State, which some believe she had a direct hand in creating.

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Era of Contempt

     People try to soften the sting of whatever humiliation Donald Trump is inflicting upon the nation today by pronouncing it "the bottom," but that is based on the giddiest kind of optimism, the faulty logic that just because our leadership has sunk to a startling new low, it can't get worse. 
     When in fact, if a stone is sinking, experience tells us it'll keep going deeper and deeper. Yes, there's a hoped-for bottom, somewhere, in theory. But merely being deep underwater doesn't mean we're there. Stones don't bob back up to the surface just because they've sunk a long way.
     With a new low every day, or nearly, there is no reason to even suspect that today's depth will not be exceeded by worse tomorrow. I would be sincerely delighted if I believed this is as bad as it is going to get.
    But I don't. Rather, it will go on for years and years and get worse and worse and this country will be severely damaged. We're damaged already, in ways we haven't begun to consider.
     That said, I am human too, and like to comfort myself, when I can. Not by saying that today is as bad as it'll get, but by remembering that it must end. It has to. Not now, alas, not even soon, but someday. 
     Someday it'll be over and we'll have the luxury of looking back and wondering what it meant. Someday there will be history books, I hope, and one chapter in those as-yet-unlived histories will be about now. And as is common with such texts, the chapter will begin with a descriptive phrase. "A Nation Sundered" for the Civil War, and such.
     For our current betrayal of American values and norms, I'd like to nominate "The Era of Contempt." Because that is the basic operating principle here: yes, there is ignorance, and vanity, and greed. But those are specifics, related to a particular situation or three. Contempt — visceral disregard and scorn—is the overarching principle, the general theme. It's what Donald Trump appeals to and has always appealed to. It's why he was elected. He touched Americans in a certain spot and they reacted with a purr. He stroked the meanest, basest, most scornful and scoffing core of many Americans, and told them it was okay be like that. In fact, it was great.
     And they believed him. Believe him. Always will believe him. Why would they not?
     His followers manifest this sneering disdain like tuning forks. It's really all they ever say. I hear it every day. They do not write to argue, or observe, or reflect. They write to mock, to ridicule, not realizing that, to an outside observer, since the ridicule is coming from a person such as themselves, really, how much weight can their thoughts be given? Not only don't I write back, but I'm not even tempted to write back anymore. And say what? "You know, the low opinion of someone going hog wild for a bully, fraud, liar and most likely traitor just doesn't carry the heft you seem to think it does."
     In their defense, their opinion certainly counted in November, 2016. It's counting now, on an international scale. 
     Why bother talking back? Even if you would score points—and you can't, even if you could defeat them rhetorically—and you won't—well, congratulations: you bested a moron.
     So I silently put such people in the filter, where they gibber to each other, sometimes for years. Every few days I look in the spam filter, like a man looking at eels swimming around a watery pit. Letters still arrive, and I tend to throw them away unopened if they don't have a return address, and most don't. Maybe open them and read I line or two if I'm bored.
    But this one had a pre-printed sticker, with name and street address—Alan Leonard of Tinley Park. So I started reading, maybe because the handwriting is so neat. And that purple stationery. I read to the end, and decided it is in some ways an epitome, a classic example of its genre. It should be presented for your shock and edification. I originally said, "for your entertainment" but it really isn't funny. Rather, it is funny, but it shouldn't be. That future history will not be kind to us, and this is why. Should we survive this era and anyone bother to write fact-based histories, which is not the certainty it was two years ago. 
     No comment is really necessary, though you are free to remark upon its various wonders. It wasn't the only letter he sent me this week. Once they start, they seem to have trouble stopping.

Friday, March 9, 2018

What's with tomato soup and grilled cheese?

Morton's, 3/8/18
      The 100 lucky winners of the Sun-Times Night at the Opera contest had a wonderful time Tuesday at Lyric Opera of Chicago — the voices were tremendous, the music thrilling, the staging ... umm ... made us appreciate all the more the voices and music. At the pre-show party, waiters passed around crab cakes and lamb burgers — thank YOU Jewell Events Catering — and cups of tomato soup with cubes of grilled cheese sandwich.
     The soup was really, really good, which made me feel really, really guilty.
     Why? Because January, National Soup Month, is come and gone. February was cold, a good time to talk about hearty fare. Yet here March is flying by and I haven't shared my thoughts on tomato soup. Every time I try, Donald Trump, flailing in his high chair, gets his hands on another cherished aspect of democracy and smears strained carrots all over it. 
But we seem at a lull in the chaos. So let me whip this in the paper and be done with it.

     I really like tomato soup, particularly this time of year. Not because it's the best, most sublime fo
odstuff. I wouldn't even argue it's the best sort of soup. I just like it. A lot. If I visit a restaurant, and they have tomato soup, I'm almost compelled to order it.
     Why? Curiosity, mostly. Tomato soup is the measure of a restaurant. If they can't do that, they can't do anything. Some places nail it — Petterino's, RL. I was having lunch at the Kitchen with owner Kimbal Musk, and launched into my tomato soup spiel.
    "Some places make it taste like spaghetti sauce," I said. Their soup is quite good, and Musk called the chef out to talk about the recipe and draw a promise that their tomato soup will never change.
     Sometimes I order it when I don't even want it. I was meeting ... drawing the veil ... a certain grand lady of my acquaintance, a blue blood benefactress, at the Farmhouse in Evanston so we could trade cruel political gossip, and noticed they have tomato soup. With it, we split a grilled cheese sandwich — grilled cheese goes with tomato soup the way milk goes with cookies.
     Why is that?

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Visiting Mayan ruins


     "Caracol" is Spanish for "snail," our guide told us, and the Mayan ruins we were approaching in jolts and sways were so named, he continued, either because of the snails found on the ground there everywhere, or because of the jarring van trip over pot-holed roads to get there.
     A joke, that second part, certainly. Though I was glad he mentioned it, since I otherwise might have overlooked the pale dime-size shells that were indeed everywhere, and quite beautiful. While I'm all for not stripping natural locations bare of their treasures, I did bend over and select a promising shell as a souvenir of my a week in Belize at the end of January. Judge me if you wish.
    It's odd. I think of my life as pretty much an unbroken shuffle through unbroken routine and relentless work, and it is, for the most part. But there are exceptions, and as I wondered about subject matter for today, it occurred to me that I hadn't mentioned visiting Mayan ruins, which is perhaps the definition of out-of-the-ordinary. I suppose because I felt that doing so falls under the rubric of "travel writing" and thus of not much interest to anyone. You probably are never going to Belize so why would you care? I'd be like one of those oblivious hosts pulling out the slide projector and the screen and a few boxes of carousels for his squirming guests. The dimmed lights, that hot slide projector smell, the thunk of the machine cycling through the static, dull photographs.
     So I'll make it quick. Since it might be worth alerting people to their presence.  I certainly had no idea. I mean, I knew they were there, vaguely.  Hunkered down in Mexico, in Central America, the sort of thing that blissed-out spiritual types seek out, I don't know, to get closer to the sun or something.  Not something I'd ever act upon or even consider acting upon.
     But we had a niece's wedding to attend—at a small Mayan ruin—and being nothing if not a practical person, I decided I wanted to make the most of being in the vicinity and a) hike in the rain forest b) explore a coral reef and 3) visit a Mayan ruin. 
      Actually, we went to two. The first was called "Lamanai" Yucatec Mayan for "submerged crocodile," and yes, we saw those too, on a 25-mile boat trip down the New River to get there.  The trip itself was an adventure, the guide stopping to point out birds and sleeping bats and various spots of interest.
     Lamanai is in a nature preserve, and the hike in had much to recommend it—our guide plucked leaves from an all-spice tree and had us chew them—I always thought "all-spice" was a melange of spices but it's not: it's a tree that tastes like a mix of cinnamon,  nutmeg and cloves.
     The pyramids loomed ahead of us as we hiked. There is a lot of really steep climbing, expansive views and the collective weight of history. The Maya lived for over 3,000 years at Lamanai, from 1500 BCE to Spanish colonial times.
     After our trip to Lamanai, in the Northern part of the country, I felt a little bad that we planned to go to Caracol, near the country's western border with Guatemala. I blithely assumed that nothing could be more incredible than what I had already seen.
    I was wrong. Caracol far outpassed it— far bigger, first of all. Not just a pyramid or two but entire complexes, plazas, patrolled by Belize soldiers to guard against Guatemalan infiltrators. Carvings of priests and birds had been recovered, and were on display. The trip itself was an adventure, going and coming —on the way we stopped at the utterly fantastic Rio Frio Cave on the way in, and paused to swim in rock pools on our way back.
     It put everything in perspective, somehow, to stand in front of a carving that someone chiseled 1300 years ago and reflect just how effaced their history is, how lost: whether a period is recorded or lost might depend on whether a stone plaque toppled back, and was preserved, or forward, and had its writing washed away in centuries of rainfall. The mute, green covered hillsides of the pyramids seemed a kind of judgment. 
     We assume such places fell to Spanish invaders, but Caracol was abandoned around 1050 AD, a reminder that no outside force can hurt a society as much as it can hurt itself. A lesson  I knew already, but it was worth flying down to Central America to see it in such dramatic and beautiful fashion. Plus seeing all there was in Belize, a country I had barely heard of, reminded me of just how much world that I, a moderately well-traveled guy, had not only never traveled to, but never wanted to travel to. Better get busy.

Rio Frio Cave


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

‘Long Way Home’ turns ‘Odyssey’ into homage to Chicago

Chloe Johnson (photo courtesy of Chicago Children's Choir)
     “The Odyssey has always been with me,” Emily Wilson writes in a note at the beginning of her new translation of the epic Greek adventure — the first into English by a woman — explaining how her elementary school put on a children’s production when she was 8, which inspired her to eventually learn Greek and Latin and study at Oxford.
     On that scale, I’m late to the party, having only discovered the book in my mid-30s, when Robert Fagles published his masterful translation.
     Like many classics, The Odyssey is not only a thrilling adventure story, but a lens that can be used to view contemporary life.
     All the confusion over gun control, for instance, is clarified by a single, utterly true sentence at the beginning of Book XIX, “Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin.” (“Iron” refers to swords; the sentence is commonly translated: “The blade itself incites to deeds of violence,” though I can’t find where originally).
     And just to show how flexible the classics truly are, that exact same passage can also be used to support gun advocates, since it occurs as Odysseus is hiding the suitors’ weapons so he can more easily kill them.

   You’re allowed to use the classics however you please — that’s half the fun. They belong to everyone, and almost everyone has taken a crack at The Odyssey or its hero, Odysseus. Plato commented, Dante condemned (sticking Odysseus way down in the 8th circle, with the frauds, for “the ambush of the horse.”). The plot has inspired everything from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Dueling hells

     "Faust" by Charles Gounod opened Saturday at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Tuesday 100 lucky winners of the Sun-Times "Night at the Opera" contest will enjoy it with me. It's one of my favorite operas—I love the music—and this production has a new twist: the old guy  who sells his soul to the devil is no longer a philosopher, but an artist. Noted contemporary artist John Frame does the scenery, some intriguing short films and most delightfully, masks for Mephistopheles's little helpmates.
     This is the third Lyric production of "Faust" that I've seen. The first was in the early 1990s, when great bass Sam Ramey owned the devil role. The second was a decade ago, when the "Lyric" presented not one, but two "Fausts," a non-coincidence I couldn't help but explore in this 2009 column. 

     When this column is done, hot from the oven and ready to be served, I go over it one last time looking for repetitions, which irk me. A word can be repeated powerfully ("Yes I said yes I will yes") but it also can foul an otherwise serviceable sentence. ("I set the chemistry set on the table and was all set.") 
     Thus it seemed odd to me — if to no one else — that the Lyric Opera's upcoming 2009-10 season includes both "Faust," by Gounod, and "The Damnation of Faust," by Berlioz. 
     Two Fausts? How did that happen? There are hundreds of operas to chose from. 
     " 'Faust' was the first one we picked," said Lyric General Director Bill Mason. Scheduling operas is a delicate mix of art and commerce, based on what singers are available, what sets are free, and achieving the right blend of crowd-pleasing favorites and cutting-edge new productions. 
     "We wanted to do a Berlioz," said Mason, and they puzzled over which one. "The Trojans"? "A monster," said Mason. Others were considered and rejected before "Damnation" was suggested. 
     The coincidence did give them pause (that's a relief — I'd hate to think they first noticed after they printed up the posters). 
     "We thought, 'should we have two Faust stories in the same season?' " said Mason. "But the more we talked about it, the more we thought it was interesting and a good idea. You've got this great epic by Goethe, you see these two French composers, what elements they chose to use and how they fashioned their libretto out of it." 
     The basic story is the same — aging scholar Faust sells his soul to the devil to regain lost youth and score a pretty maiden. How they handle the tale, however, differs from the first moment. 
     "In 'Faust,' in the first scene, Faust sees a vision of Marguerite, falls in love with her and immediately consigns his soul to the devil," said Mason. 
     "As men will do. . . " I ventured. 
     "But in the Berlioz, Faust doesn't agree to give his soul to the devil until the very end when he sees she's in prison to be executed. The first one is pure lust, the second a more altruistic thing." 
     Mason pointed out that there is a third major Faust opera — "Mefistofele" by Boito -- and it would not have been unimaginable to include that one as well. 
     "The infernal hat trick," I said. 
     "I wish we could have done that," he said. "That would have been fun, too." 
     Too bad—can't you just see the posters? The Lyric's Satanic Season. 
                                         —originally published in the Sun-Times, June 1, 2009