Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Washington woes dissolve at your favorite Chicago restaurant


     Food is comfort. And my guess is, a lot of Chicagoans will wake up Wednesday morning and want nothing more than to drop their faces into a plate of warm solace and briefly forget the travesty unfolding in Washington.
     Luckily, it’s Chicago Restaurant Week.
     The event, now in its 11th year, paradoxically runs two weeks, and focuses on the new and the hip. I’m not much help there. I never want to go to a new restaurant. I prefer the same old restaurants. New places tend to be split between those I can’t get into and those I’m sorry that I did.
     So allow me to share my top seven Chicago restaurants — I tried to do a Top 10, but couldn’t jam them in, so plucked out my favorites from the suburbs. (Sorry Prairie Grass; apologies Psistaria). In alphabetical order, so no feelings are hurt though that might be inevitable, since I’m including a downside for each, lest this devolve into press-agentry.

     Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co., 2121 N. Clark: Can you love a restaurant just for its salad and bread? That’s the main meal when my family rush here to celebrate being all together again. The Mediterranean bread, a warm disk of Parmesan-dusted freshness overflowing the plate. Poppyseed dressing. This one of two restaurants I go to knowing we’ll have to wait 45 minutes to get in. Downside: the “pot pie pizza,” a cheesy, overturned bowl of glop.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What do Ohio and Belize have in common?

     Knowledge imparted second-hand—through books, say, or photographs displayed in airports—is inferior to knowledge that is imparted directly, through experience in the living world.
      I encountered a noteworthy example of this during my visit to Central America last week.
     One of the first things I saw in Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, steps away from the tarmac, lining up to go through security, was a large photograph, suspended from the ceiling, of what looked like Amish children.
     Being as instinctively arrogant as any American, I automatically assumed it was some kind of general photo of a scenic local, a banner from Pennsylvania perhaps, somehow scavenged, mis-directed here, and repurposed to decorate this very Third World airport.
      But I passed under it, a caption said something about Mennonites in Belize. 

      I thought no more about it until a few days later, driving out to the Mayan ruins at Lamanai.
     Suddenly the road was busy with horse drawn carts. On either side, fields being tended by men in beards and suspenders, by women in long, homespun dresses and bonnets. 
     And I thought, with genuine surprise: "Oh, there are Mennonites in Belize."
    You'd think that the big honking photo at the airport would have been a subtle tip-off.
     But wasn't.
     The obvious first question is: how did they get there. 
     The short answer: circuitously.
     What started as an offshoot of the Anabaptists in Europe in the 16th century found their way to Russia, then Canada and the United States which, in the 1950s, tried to get the Amish, et al, to enroll in their Social Security program. 
     Which inspired communities of Mennonites to emigrate to Belize in 1958, where they farm and raise animals, as well as build vessels. There are some 12,000 living in Belize now, and I saw quite a bit of them, even at resorts, family groups hanging together, the father with his inevitable beard and suspenders, mom in her handmade dress and bonnet, and a few boys with big straw hats, staring in unashamed, slack-jawed curiosity, almost wonder, at us, as if they had never seen outsiders before.
     Leading to a second question that had never crossed my mind before. I knew of Amish from travel in Ohio and Pennsylvania. And I had heard of Mennonites. They obviously shared social traits—in dress, in speech. Both speak Pennsylvania Dutch or Low German. But what is the connection between the two? Are they rivals, like Shi'ites and Sunni? My uninformed guess was that "Amish" was the larger, general term, and Mennonites were a subset of that, the way that Hassids are part of general Jewry. 
      The truth, as usual, is complicated.
      There are dozens of sects of "Plan People" who avoid the modern world and embrace less complicated lifestyles. The Amish—followers of Jacob Amman, who felt that non-believers should be shunned—split with the Mennonites, who didn't, in 1693, and thus the Mennonites are more receptive toward modern conveniences such as telephones and electricity, and also have an evangelical aspect that tends to send them further afield. 
     I always thought that the Amish/Mennonite model is one that fundamental Islam might want to consider as it continues butting up against the West. Rather than trying to undermine what they consider a hopelessly sinful society, it might work better if they just formed their own enclaves, where they'd be free, more or less, to seek a life they consider ideal. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Vacation's over.

     Upon reflection, of course a dusty grocery on a congested street in unlovely downtown San Pedro, Belize, was not going to have actual Cohiba Esplendidos sitting in a box on the counter for $10 a stick. 
     But in the moment, as I fingered the substantial cigar, that chip of larceny jammed in the heart of so many men gave a little shiver, and I ponied up $20 Belize—the smallest Central American country prudently pegs its currency to the U.S. dollar at a convenient 2-to-1 ratio.
   The cigar looked real enough, with its shiny label proclaiming "Habana, Cuba." And like dupes everywhere, I wanted to believe. The stogie was tucked away for the perfect moment, when the rains subsided Saturday afternoon, before the final dinner of our luscious 8-day excursion among rainforest, rivers and ruins.
     It was only when I popped the thing unlit in my mouth, and tasted a certain ... green sourness ... did I think, "Duh. Smart move Neil." Okay, I thought, deflecting self awareness, putting the bright spin on things, too mellow to allow myself to be annoyed. Nothing to do but shrug, snap it in half and throw the fraud away. A sophisticated man would have known better, but I am not a sophisticated man And anyway: what's another 10 bucks down the tubes in the cost of a vacation like this? In the money-burning potlach of squiring me, the wife, the two boys around the Yucatan peninsula, with drivers and guides and boat captains? Besides, what choice is there? Not too smart to smoke a fake cigar. God knows what's in it, chemicals and such. It could be dangerous.
     And yes, that's supposed to be ironic.
     But I didn't throw it away. I tucked the cigar in my shirt pocket. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Freud said, and while it probably wasn't a Cuban, it still had a certain well-packed quality to it. It had to be good enough to fool people. I try to be fair, even to questionable cigars. Figuring it made sense to give this fellow a chance, I walked it out of the house, down the beach, and to the end of the pier, where the obligatory grass hut looked out over the requisite flat horizon. I settled in a white wooden chair and fired the charlatan up.
The author, in an uncharacteristic pose.
     Not bad. Not bad at all. It burned unevenly, and didn't seem what I remembered Cohibas to be. Yet a mild, serviceable cigar. I didn't fling it away. And a reminder that when the best isn't available, a reasonable facsimile will often do. 
     Just as the vacation might not have really been the rich man's idyll I pretended it was. Certainly an acceptable imitation. It would do. I'd always wanted a vacation where I did nothing, stared at the water, and relaxed. Thinking nothing is actually wonderful, and while I don't want to make a career of it—too many Americans have staked out that territory already—it does make for a welcome change of pace. I even took a cigar-smoking-selfie, as a tribute to my reader Chris Wood, whose Facebook page is studded with them.
     Not that the whole trip was sitting around doing nothing. There was the lovely family wedding that drew us all down there in the first place, and many memorable moments that might bear relating: the unexpected appearance of Mennonites. That larcenous monkey who tried to steal my iPhone. I'll see if my writing engine hasn't seized up from neglect and try to get the thing to turn over, setting a few of those down tomorrow. We got in late, after 10 p.m. Sunday. I wanted to say ... something ... to show I hadn't forgotten you ... at least not completely. I did forget you for long stretches, which was sort of the idea. I hope you didn't forget me too thoroughly, not so much that you won't wander on back. See you tomorrow. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

1990sFest: Day Nine—More than an attitude, big-headedness hurts

     I've been on vacation the past week, handing this space over to chestnuts from that distant era, the late 1990s. This is one of those topics that I'm half-amazed, half embarrassed that I wrote about. I'm flying home Sunday, and hoping to have some fresh content up tomorrow. Thanks for your patience during my absence. 

     The television reporter followed me out into the street.
     "You and your big head were blocking two cameras!" she fumed. I gave her my widest "I don't care" smile and entered into a brief conversation that quickly devolved into a mutual exchange of obscenities.
     Now, I didn't mind being cursed out by a TV reporter — TV reporters are the lowest, rudest people on earth; their cameramen would just as soon club you to the ground with their 20-pound battery packs as ask you to step aside. I was glad I blocked two cameras.
     But the "big head" comment really hurt — as the most painful insults always do — because it is true. I've got an enormous head. Always have. "I had to give birth to that head," my mother said, on too many occasions, never completing the thought because nothing further need be said. Nobody follows up, "I climbed Mt. Everest" with "quite a feat since it is really tall, you know." The listener is expected to understand.
     My head stands out in school pictures, as if a character greeting patrons at Disneyland had slipped in among the normal-headed children.
     I try not to think about huge-headedness. But there are always reminders. The recent redesign of the Sun-Times features section, lovely in every other respect, abandoned my suave "I've got a regular head" column photo for the above Wizard-of-Oz-like orb.
     Or hats. I used to buy normal hats and try to stretch them out. But that was torture — I could feel the headband squeeze every time I moved my jaw. So now I limit myself to Kangol caps, which come in XXL.
     "They also make XXXL sizes," said Edwin Urrutia, manager of Hats Plus on Irving Park Road, who confirmed my suspicions that we melon-heads are a forgotten lot.
     "Most companies don't even go up to an 8," he said, noting that many broad-pated customers find his store only after being turned away elsewhere.
     "I've had customers look all over the place — many stores won't even go as far as extra large," Urrutia said, noting that, as an extra large himself, he knows first hand the pain of trying to find a nice topper.
     "You see a product you like, but they don't even have it in your size. You spend 20 minutes waiting. It's frustrating," he said.
     His pet peeve is baseball caps, which, rather than recognizing the rights of the Brobdingnagian-beaned to boost their teams, instead seem to be shrinking.
     "Fitted baseball caps used to go up to a size 8. Now they only go as far as a 7 3/4," he said. And forget those adjustable caps.
     "One size fits all is actually one size fits most," said Urrutia, who keeps a waiting list of customers to be called when certain styles of hat arrive in the jumbo sizes.
     Richard Alcala, of Alcala's Western Wear on Chicago Avenue, said keeping the largest hats around the store costs a lot of money in inventory, and many stores don't bother, since just one customer in 50 has truly gigantic noggin.
     "We have a hatmaker in Texas who can make a size 9," he said, with a certain pride. "Most people stop at 7 1/2."
     For some reason — chauvinism, I suppose — I assumed Mardi Gras float heads were a male problem, but Alcala finds both sexes are afflicted.
     "This is definitely not confined to men. A lot of them are women," he said. "Hair is a factor, but not only hair. It's not unusual to get a woman in here with a really large head. Of course they don't like to admit it. Who does?"
     Not me. Though I'd would have guessed that women wouldn't mind much. Big-headedness is a central element of being cute, is it not? Think of Charlie Brown, Hello Kitty, baby ducks, etc. All with big heads, proportionally.
     Men don't want to be cute, however. They want to be rugged, handsome, regular-headed. And here I can offer a bit of comfort from the highest authority: Roger Ebert, who once claimed on his television show that movie stars tend to have these really large heads.
     He showed a clip of Clint Eastwood standing with a crowd of people on a courthouse stairway. Clint was a few steps behind the crowd, Ebert pointed out, so his head should have seemed smallest. Yet it loomed above those tiny-headed people around him, demanding attention, creating a focal point for the star.
     So maybe there's an upside to this. Maybe, as a column brand image, my nearly size-8 head will work to my advantage. It's about time.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 20, 1997

Saturday, January 27, 2018

1990sFest: Day Eight — Turns out Big Brother is neighborhood grocer

     Whenever people get tied into a knot over their information being harvested and used, I think of this column. The joke is that our personal details were ALWAYS traded around by our associates. It's the idea that we should be anonymous that's new.
     Oh, and Dominick's Finer Foods is long gone. So mining my information didn't help them, or at least didn't help them enough. 

     Conjure up the standard grocery fantasy: Mr. Cooper, behind the wooden counter in a small store with a pickle barrel and a little bell that jingles when you walk in. "Why hello there, Mrs. Smith," says Mr. Cooper, rubbing his hands together. "We have a nice shipment of cherries today. . . ."
     That image unites the American people as much as the flag does. It strikes a chord even for those too young to remember anything like it, which is most people. The closest I ever got was a hardware store off Logan Boulevard where the owner wrapped my purchase in brown paper and twine and figured out the bill in pencil on the side of the package. I plan to cherish that memory for the rest of my life, particularly when going to the store becomes punching a number into a keypad and waiting for your purchase to slide down the chute.
     Keep Mr. Cooper in mind. We'll get back to him later.
     My local supermarket is Dominick's Finer Foods on North Broadway. I like my Dominick's, in the main. Their cashiers are nice. They've got one, Carlos, who helped my wife with groceries when she was big and pregnant. And once, when the bill was $33.06, and I was fishing in my pocket, filling time by saying, "I've got 6 cents," Carlos riposted, "You've got a sixth sense?"
     Not the best joke, but enough to build customer loyalty.
     Like any relationship, my cozy bond with Dominick's is always being tested. For instance, on the way in I would sometimes grab a cart and take it inside with me.
     Then the Dominick's put up a big sign. "PLEASE BRING A SHOPPING CART INSIDE WITH YOU." Immediately I took offense. What's the matter? Can't Dominick's pay a few minimum wage teens to collect shopping carts and not dump the responsibility onto its customers? What's next? "PLEASE GRAB A MOP BY THE DOOR AND TIDY UP SPILLS AS YOU SHOP"? My affection for Dominick's cooled, for a while.
     Eventually, of course, I was able to rationalize the sign. Dominick's is just appealing to customers' higher nature. This sign happens to be directed toward the operation of the store, but the next one could exhort people to trust in God.
     The latest test came when Dominick's instituted a card: Fresh Values. You give them your name and address and Social Security number and driver's license number and they issue you this card with which you can get discounts and cash checks. Jewel has had one like it for years.
     I saw the new card and felt a chill. I know how these things work. They feed your purchase information into the big Dominick's computer in Northlake, and before you know it there's a hurt little note from Bird's Eye slipped under your door every time you forget to buy frozen peas.
     We live in an information age, and people tend to guard their personal information the way they once guarded their good name. I had no idea what data about my grocery choices would be used for, and didn't want to find out. All I knew was that when the authorities came for the people who buy pickled herring, my name wouldn't be on the list, and I would slip quietly over the border into Denmark.
     My wife, however, ratted me out to Dominick's. Dazzled by the thought of savings, she signed us up, and slapped our new card into my hand the last time I went to the store to get eggs.
     The eggs cost $ 27.30, including the rib-eye steak and milk and smoked turkey and apples and everything else I picked up on the way to get the eggs.
     But I paid only $ 26.01. My Fresh Values card saved me $ 1.29. Who knows what that $1.29 could become, invested wisely in the current stock market. Probably 45 cents.
     Scurrying home, I pondered the trade-off. A clear-cut deal: Dominick's gives me $ 1.29, and in return gets information, which it swears will only be used for its own research purposes.
     "We are not selling lists at all, period," said Nancy Siler, manager of consumer affairs at Dominick's. "The information is extremely limited to a few individuals within the company, who have signed integrity statements."
     If you can't live with that, you can always pitch the card. It's interesting to have a tangible price put on your sense of free-floating paranoia. Vague unexamined anxiety about Big Brother is one matter. Saving a buck and a quarter is another.
     To put this in perspective, flash back to the cherished ideal, to Mr. Cooper at the little grocery. He knew everything you bought, didn't he? If you started picking up boxes of diapers or quarts of gin, he would certainly note it, and probably even blab about it to his other customers, something I can't picture Dominick's doing even in my worst Orwellian nightmare (although it's fun to imagine how they would. A computerized letter, probably. "Dear Lake View Resident: Did you know that NEIL STEINBERG is buying an awful lot of Ben & Jerry's ice cream for a man trying to lose weight. . . .")
     Odd how the misty nostalgic past and the scary anticipated future can end up being almost exactly same thing.

         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 12, 1997

Friday, January 26, 2018

1990sFest: Day Seven—A cultural oddity gets a glimpse of the future

This is faintly terrifying: but with very little effort, I was able to dig into
the center drawer of my desk and come up with my Screenz card.
     We like to think the pathways of technology were clear, that a few far-sighted individuals were able to forge the future, while others missed out. The truth was that nobody knew how the cards were going to fall, and those we think of as prescient were actually just persistent and lucky. It could have gone many other ways, such as this stillborn effort I tried out, once.     

     Every now and then my father abruptly announces that he could have bought stock in McDonald's in the mid-1960s and we'd all be rich by now.
     I'm not sure why he says this — free-floating remorse, I suppose. Squeezing a government pension can do that to you.
     A good son would sigh and commiserate. But I can't help but perversely remind Dad that, in the mid-1960s, he didn't even allow his family to eat at McDonald's, never mind buying stock.
     I can clearly see us burger-craving kids, piled in the back seat of our lime green 1960 Nash Rambler. Waiting while mom pulled over to the side of the road at a phone booth to call my dad to ask permission to take us to a little red and white tiled McDonald's stand. He said yes, finally, but my mother had to argue with him.
     I flash back to my father's failure to recognize the potential of McDonald's whenever I confront a radically new business enterprise, such as the "Screenz Digital Universe," a computer center; coffee house that opened last week on Clark Street, south of Diversey.
     I must admit, I was first drawn to Screenz because I thought it was a cultural oddity, a momentary representation of our infatuation with computers and coffee, a blip on the social screen that I had better familiarize myself with now before it evaporates.
     But as I was shown around the day before it opened, by Screenz' founder, a 29-year-old entrepreneur named Dan Kite, I got the sinking feeling that maybe I was the cultural oddity, and this might just be something that will catch on with people in a big way.
     Perhaps, I wondered, I should go empty my bank account and hand the money to Kite, if only to keep me from an old age of impoverished regret.
     Screenz is a good-looking operation. Large, brightly lit, and done in pleasing purples and yellows. Fashionable metal chairs from Italy; sconces from Sweden. As you walk in, to the right is a small cafe section, where you can buy java — the drink not the software — and bakery goods. To the left, 45 computer stations, each with a jumbo 17-inch terminal, a joystick, a mouse, speakers, a little control board and a headset with microphone.
     "We're the only place outside the Navy using this," said Kite, putting on the headset and explaining how users will be able to communicate with each other — say while playing on the same team in computer games. They also will be able to talk to a centrally located helper, who will guide them when they get stuck navigating the intricacies of the online world.
     Eager to leap into this world, the day Screenz opened, I signed up, charging my Screenz card with $ 10 worth of computer time and grabbing a $ 1.25 coffee.
     Of course nothing at Screenz is beyond what you can do at home. What Kite is counting on is that most people will not have the quick, state-of-the-art equipment they do, nor the wide range of new software. The endless delays of waiting for my pitiful 486 computer, an antique at three years old, are wiped away by Screenz' powerful server and direct dedicated lines.
     Is this enough to get people to go to the place — a clean, well-lighted place — and pay 13 to 19 cents a minute?
     "We are really trying to be the community center in cyberspace," said Kite, who previously established a string of Blockbuster videos and a small software company. "We are focused on making this a neighborhood destination."
     I started in on the games, since I don't have any at home and wanted to know what all the fuss is about. I tried Doom 2, which I'm sure has 100 different levels, each more challenging and wonderful than the next. But I ended up stuck on the first level, having blasted away all my monsters, wandering the computerized maze, lost.
     I suppose I could have sought assistance. But I couldn't bring myself to press my aid button and say: "Help — I'm stuck in maze on the first level of Doom 2." It seemed, I don't know, demeaning.
     So I got out of the "Fun and Gamez" section and headed for "The Knowledgeable Explorer," another of the six zones Screenz has created to help its users navigate cyberspace. I was attracted to the Encarta Encyclopedia.
     Yet, as happens so often with my computer at home, I couldn't make the thing work. This time, emboldened by failing at an educational pursuit and not mere carnage, I donned the headset, and checked in with the helper, who was prompt and friendly in telling me that the Encarta wasn't working just then.
     At least it wasn't me.
     I poked around in various other areas and time slid by, if not pleasantly then at least imperceptibly. Every so often the computer would tell me how much money had trickled away. After about 45 minutes I decided I had better head home to supper. The computer thanked me, told me I had spent $ 6.90 and had $ 1.85 left in my account, which didn't precisely add up, but was close enough.
     The coffee, however, was excellent. The place seemed to be running well considering that it was their first day and, heck, if there are 10,000 Screenz outlets in a decade, it won't be because of me anyway.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 6, 1996

Thursday, January 25, 2018

1990sFest: Day Six—"The struggle never ends for Planned Parenthood"

Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) by Barbara Kruger (The Broad, Los Angeles)

     I'm on vacation this week. One great thing about this job is meeting fascinating people who've spent their long lives doing important work. Peggy Carr passed away only in 2016, at age 103. 

     Peggy Carr was born in 1913 on Chicago's South Side, the third child in four years.
     "My poor mother," said Carr, 83, who has devoted much of her long life to helping women plan their families through an organization that came to be known in Chicago, 50 years ago this month, as Planned Parenthood.
     Three years after Carr was born, her child-weary mother slipped off to a South Side meeting held by contraception pioneer Margaret Sanger.
     Sanger was the New York nurse who started the movement leading to Planned Parenthood and, it might be argued, should be listed as one of the founders of 20th century life, for good or ill, along with Freud and Darwin and Marx.
     Carr's mother had to go in secret because in 1916 a woman could be arrested in Chicago not only for speaking about contraception, but also for hearing about it.
     That sort of oppression is worth remembering in the complicated present, since those who moon for the days of farm wives and their 12 kids churning butter forget that misery often went hand in hand.
     Peggy Carr remembers. While opponents of Planned Parenthood often give lip service to their love of children, sympathy for the plight of children led Carr, and others, to form the group in the first place.
     "My mother was president of the Chicago Orphan Asylum," said Carr. "Here were these neglected, unwanted children. We used to have the children come and play with us; the old orphanage was not far from where we lived on 48th Street. It was always so sad for these children nobody cared for."
     Then, as now, society found it more convenient to ignore unwanted children than to try to keep them from being born.
     "Lots of convents had a revolving door, you put the baby on a little shelf and rang a bell," said Carr. "They came and turned the door around and took the baby away."
     In 1939, Carr joined what was then the Illinois Birth Control League and served as its last president. At the time — and, in fact, until the 1960s — most states had laws either banning or restricting the spread of information about contraception.
     "Women begged their doctors to tell them how not to have another baby, and the doctors told them to tell their husbands to sleep on the roof," said Carr.
     Acting in the margins of the law, the Birth Control League held clinics and women just seemed to know when to show up.
     "They had never heard of birth control, but somewhere they found out and came to us. They may have already had nine children when they came, it meant so much to the women," said Carr. "You saw constant child bearing -- women had 10, 12 babies, and so many babies died."
     Though not a professionally trained nurse, Carr would help in the clinics to teach wives about reproduction and how to prevent it using methods available at the time, condoms and diaphragms.
     "Our clinics were only for married women," she said. "It never occurred to me that we would offer birth control to unmarried women."
     Even when money for professional health workers was available, the workers were not always willing in the early years.
     "You could hardly get anyone to work 50 years ago," she said. "They'd hardly dare tell what they were doing. It took a lot of courage."
     Carr remembers when Red Cross volunteers got in trouble for attending Planned Parenthood programs.
     "They were told never again to appear at a Planned Parenthood program in uniform," she said. "That's how much we were shunned."
     She also remembers the husband of one important Planned Parenthood advocate being called on the carpet and told that unless his wife curtailed her activities, he'd be fired.
     Another longtime Planned Parenthood worker, Geneva Hayden, who joined in 1966, remembers there being a constant struggle just to find a room to hold a clinic.
     "In Markham, we had to set up in the judge's chambers," said Hayden, 60. "There was no other place."
     To focus on the dismal past is to imply the situation is much better today, and it isn't. Simply because you can listen to Peggy Carr without fearing jail doesn't mean that her message isn't blunted in other ways.
     Ad agencies, for instance, that do pro-bono work for other social service groups still shun Planned Parenthood out of fear that clients will object.
     Television, which runs the vilest garbage, can barely bring itself to run ads for condoms. And while accepting the "Life: What a Wonderful Choice" ads from the religious right, TV stations refuse Planned Parenthood's most benign offerings, such as the one that boldly states: "Children have the best chance at a healthy life when they're born into a loving home."
     With such opposition, the next half century will hardly be easier. But as Carr noted, observing a fact that seems to elude so many of Planned Parenthood's opponents: "You can't go back."
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 22, 1997

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

1990sFest: Day Five—"Being nude doesn't make you invisible"

     I'm on vacation this week, so instead we're dipping into some early columns from 1996 and 1997.
     The health club this took place at—the Lakeshore Athletic Club, just north of the Sun-Times—is gone, as are the 401 N. Wabash offices of the paper, of course. The Tribune columnist I refer to, George Lazarus, is also long gone, expiring famously on the Metra, an end that has crossed my mind more than once while commuting on the train. He is famous for complaining, bitterly, of being lampooned in song at the Gridiron Club dinner. Which is also gone.

     Men must feel that being naked makes them invisible. Invisible, or maybe just shrouded in the Cone of Secrecy. That's the only way to explain a phenomenon I've noticed in locker rooms over and over.
     Two guys finish playing racquetball. They clomp over to where I'm getting dressed: alone, silent, pondering what's for dinner.
     After a word or two about the game, they begin talking about their work. They ignore me — a nebbishy guy, fiddling with his necktie — and I of course listen intently.
     And am usually shocked by what they say.
     The most recent time it was a pair of lawyers — I won't reveal the firm, though I could easily read its name, and the lawyers' names, from the business cards they had stuck in their gym bag name tag holders to save themselves the 10 seconds of writing down a name and phone number.
     Lawyer One asks about a certain Chinese colleague. Lawyer Two says the colleague's going back to Beijing. Lawyer One speculates on the reasons why. Lawyer Two mentions he's had the Chinese lawyer over to his house — they played Ping-Pong. Lawyer One muses on the impact that his leaving will have on the firm — it seems he is a rainmaker bringing in business from China. They then discuss their firm's relationship to China and its hopes for the future there.
     My jaw drops open.
     I want to say: You guys are lawyers? Aren't you supposed to be, oh, I don't know, circumspect about this sort of thing? During the O.J. Simpson trial, did Johnnie Cochran and F. Lee Bailey shoot their mouths off at their health club? "Good thing O.J. dumped the knife at LAX, eh?" says Cochran, toweling himself. "Sure makes our lives easier," answers Bailey, slapping Vitalis on what hair he's still got.
     I mean, these two guys didn't know me. I could be a lawyer from a rival firm. I felt like saying, "Gone to China, has he? Maybe I'll ring him up and see if he wants to represent us."
     I don't want to implicate only lawyers. Everybody does it. A lot of our competition goes to this same gym. There used to be this columnist — again, I will draw the protective veil around his identity, though heaven knows he doesn't deserve the kindness.
     Every day he would drape himself in a towel and get on the pay phone and begin yabbing to his secretary, going over his schedule — the calls he was returning, the leads he was developing. His voice echoed off the walls like cannon fire.
     I used to listen in — I could hardly do otherwise — hoping for a tip to rush back to our business department. But he never seemed to be working on anything worthwhile.
    Of course, listening in also can have its perils.
     I remember, I had just moved to Los Angeles — a brief, mistaken adventure. Two guys in a club locker room were discussing the fall of a colleague.
     "He lost all his power," said one man, sadly. "I feel bad for him. He had to move out of his house. . . ."
     Geez, I thought. What a ruthless place! I pictured this poor executive, cashiered by brutal corporate infighting, deprived of his position, even booted out of his high-priced residence.
     Then they continued talking, and I realized: he had lost power, as in electricity. Whoops.
     But the lesson is the same — even though you're wearing a towel, you're still in public, and you never know who's at the next locker, listening.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 20, 1997

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

1990sFest: Day Four—"Love at first byte."

Children Watching Balinese Puppets at the Field Museum of Natural History


     While I'm on vacation, let's squint a few decades into the past.    
     Today, one third of recently married couples met online, as opposed to at a bar or social event. That was very different 20 years ago, when meeting online had an air of something unwise, perhaps illicit. Notice the presence of a certain thick yellow piece of technology now entirely absent from our lives.

     There was a great sketch at Second City recently in which a defiant wife is packing her bags to meet her new online lover. She grandly announces that her online name is Lady Crimson, and her new boyfriend is The Weasel.
     "I have to go to him," she tells her boggled husband. "The Weasel is my soulmate."
     The Weasel turns out to be 14 years old. His mother drives him to the motel. But the funniest part is how her husband just can't get over the moronic moniker of his rival, and keeps repeating it, in agonized wonder, while his wife is leaving. "The Weasel!" he says, clutching his head as if it were splitting apart. "The Weasel?!?!?"
     Public service types always focus on the risk the Internet poses to tender and impressionable children. Warnings are always ringing that the kiddies might stumble across some dirty pictures and, I don't know, be scarred for life.
     What about their parents? What about the risk to them? The Internet's online services such as America Online are a tar pit, an attractive nuisance, an inviting trap enticing the lonely and the foolish to embrace their ruin.
     Exhibit A: The ad for Myers Service Inc., "Chicago's Premier Detective Agency," in the 1997 Ameritech Yellow Pages. Like most phone book ads for detective agencies, it has a pleasant Sam Spade ring to it, listing that the company will trace missing people and investigate backgrounds.
     But one service is something never imagined in Raymond Chandler: "On-line Infidelity."
     "We've been getting a lot of business — it's exploding," said Marty Mroz, director of outside investigations at Myers. "We've been noticing that a lot of people have been meeting on these chat lines."
     Of course they are. The Internet is perfect for those inclined to stray. Anyone with a computer and a modem now has a 24-hour honky tonk in their rec room, and many seem unable to resist wandering in.
     "I see it as an increasing problem," said Jeffery M. Leving, a divorce attorney, who is handling cases involving online dalliance. "There are people who are addicted to the Internet."
     Of course there are. For women, it is a chance to troll for men, free of their often-menacing physical presence. For men, it permits the kind of incremental, hair-splitting approach to whatever qualms they might have about cheating on their wives.
     Exhibit B is Howard Stern. Stern, who has made technical fidelity to his wife the core of his shtick, spends the first 50 pages of his most recent best seller rhapsodizing about the joys of online sex.
     "I like this Prodigy chat concept because here's a way to be with new women and not have a guilty conscience afterward," he writes in one of the few quotable passages of Miss America. "In my mind this ain't cheatin'!"
     Legally, he is right. No matter what is done with somebody in another room, it doesn't become a case for lawyers until two people get together.
     "By definition there is no such thing as online infidelity," said Barry C. Zachary, a divorce attorney. "If there is no contact between the two parties, it cannot be adultery."
     But legalities are moot when the crockery starts to fly. Conducting a relationship online is, perhaps, most comparable to exchanging love letters, and while the lack of physical intimacy might keep your spouse from actually tearing you limb from limb, the odds are that he or she will not be happy to learn of your electronic liaison with the anonymous.
     That assumes the affair is kept online. There is always the temptation to move from the virtual to the real.
     "What's happening is they're finding people they're interested in, setting up these romantic interludes," Mroz said. "It's becoming more and more common in the last couple years; this stuff has been catching on. It's kind of scary that people would do this."
     It certainly was scary for the New York woman who had dinner last week at the apartment of a man she met online, only to be — she says — beaten and raped by the man.
     "You have no idea who you're speaking to," Mroz said. "This person can be a complete crazy person. You can think you're talking to a woman who could be a man, it could be a kid. You don't know who you're speaking to."
     Ah, well. Somewhere, aged computer wizards are shaking their heads, thinking back to the days when they were slaving over those burning electrical circuits and exploding tubes, deluding themselves that they were struggling to bring the world an easier way to calculate large prime numbers and figure out the trajectories of cannon shells. Sorry, guys, you were building a sex toy.
     Had they taken a few psychology classes among the physics seminars, they would have seen it coming. Human nature being what it is, we should never be surprised when libido -- licit, illicit and otherwise -- overwhelms technology. Look in the benign, utilitarian phone book that brought this up in the first place. There are 19 full pages of advertising under the heading "Computers" in the 1997 yellow pages. And 27 full pages of ads for escort services. Draw your own conclusions.

       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 22, 1997

Monday, January 22, 2018

1990sFest: Day Three—Stars shine at Art Institute soiree

     While I'm on vacation, I'm setting the Time Machine for the late 1990s.
     This isn't a column, but a news story. I wasn't invited; Richard Roeper helped me crash the party. The place was packed, and when John F. Kennedy Jr. entered the room, the mob pressed toward him. I wheeled around and headed in the opposite direction, but a young woman caught me arm and asked to be introduced to JFK Jr. I did so, and used to have a photo of us shaking hands, but his face in profile, and mine, provided such a stark contrast I gave the photo away to the young woman, who was also in it. 
    Others were there who didn't make the story—Mike Royko, grumbling about phonies. For years I thought of the evening as the night I met Bill Zehme, which tells you where the nonpareil Esquire writer stood in my esteem.
    The only other thing I can recall is that this story wasn't written, but dictated over a payphone I had managed to wrest away from someone. 

     An A-list group of celebrities — including Norman Mailer, Kevin Costner and Aretha Franklin — joined thousands of well-connected people for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s hot-ticket George magazine party Tuesday.  
August 1996 edition of George magazine
     Nibbling crudites and sipping wine, the guests packed the Art Institute courtyard and rubbernecked to catch a view of celebrities ranging from Chastity Bono to Neil Hartigan.
     Kennedy worked his way through the crowd — flanked by security guards — and praised the party's setting. "I can't think of a better place to have a party than in this beautiful museum," he said. "I'm coming back tomorrow when it's open."
     The party, which featured the music of the rock band Poe, was to promote Kennedy's political magazine, which he started last year.
     Kennedy wore a navy blue double-breasted suit. As he spoke, Joe Silverberg, co-owner of Bigsby & Kruthers, adjusted the host's white pocket square, which was not filling the pocket properly.
     "Why not? What else am I going to do? He's beautiful," said Silverberg, adding that he often pulls stray threads off of people's suits in pursuit of sartorial excellence.
     Across the courtyard, which was minimally decorated, Mailer was talking about Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I have nothing against strong women," he said. All of his six wives were strong women, the novelist added.
     While Aretha Franklin munched on an hors d'oeuvre, Kevin Costner walked up and said modestly, "My name is Kevin and I'm a big fan of yours."
     A waiter reported that the celebrities were entering the party through the kitchen. Some dawdled to sample the food there, he said, including Franklin.
     Christine Gidwitz said, "For Chicago, this is excellent people-watching."
     Among those being watched were Billy Baldwin, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), three Chrisses — Lawford, Rock and Zorich — Sugar Rautbord, William Kennedy Smith, Janet Davies, Eunice Shriver, Eleanor Mondale, Jerry Springer and Juanita Jordan, who reported that Michael was in Los Angeles.
     TV personality Bob Sirott supplied some perspective. "This is supposed to be the most exclusive ticket to get," he said. "So how come everyone I know is here?"
     —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Aug. 28, 1996

Sunday, January 21, 2018

1990sFest: Day Two—"Neighborly thing to do is assume the worst"

19th century French mugshot (MMA)
     I'm on vacation. While I'm off, please enjoy this nugget of the 1990s.

     Talk about your unnecessary and wasteful government meddling. Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan is appealing a judge's overturning of Illinois' community notification law — one of those laws modeled after New York state's "Megan's Law," requiring that local residents be informed when convicted sex offenders move into their neighborhoods.
     Is that really necessary? You mean there are people who don't just automatically assume that their neighbors are criminals and perverts? Who smile and greet them over the hedges without wondering what sort of nightmare atrocities they are secretly perpetrating behind their ghastly floral-print curtains? Who don't glance into their open garages, searching for pentagrams and manacles and drums of acid?
     I don't believe it.
     For my part, I am always on constant alert for criminal activity on the part of my neighbors, without any prompting from governmental authorities. In fact, I wish they would notify me about the neighbors who definitely aren't criminals, so I could stop worrying about them.
     As it is, the slightest sound from next door and I am ready to snap into action.
     "Honey, call DCFS!" I yell, leaping from my easy chair and waving my index finger. "The Schmendersons are abusing their kids again."
     "The Schmendersons don't have any kids," my wife replies, wearily.
     "Aha! So you've fallen for their little scheme," I say, eyes glittering. "That's just what they want you to think, isn't it? The kids are chained in the basement, weaving baskets, waiting for us to rescue them."   
Metropolian Museum of Art

     "The Schmendersons don't have a basement," my wife says. "We've been through this."
     "Aha! So you've fallen for . . ." I begin, but she cuts me off with a harsh look.
     In addition to being suspicious by nature, I can't stand the thought of being caught unaware. I've seen too many stories where, the day after the maniac is brought into the police station, screeching and frothing in a cage, the boob neighbors are trotted out blinking before the bank of news cameras.
     "Gee, he seemed so normal," they gibber. "Yup, I heard those screams and thuds and struggling sounds in the middle of the night, and something that sounded like a radial saw. But I just thought it was the television."
     I can see the headline: "Schmenderson House of Horror" with my picture low on the page: eyes wide, mouth agape, tie under my ear, and the caption, "Neighbor: 'I suspected nothing.'"        

     This must be avoided. Careful monitoring of one's neighbors, after all, is one of the stoutest corner posts of civilization.
     That's why so many wackos come out of farm country and the empty expanse of the Great Plains. They are unobserved, left to their own devices, and they know it. If Ted Kaczynski had lived here, not in rural Montana, people up and down his street would have turned him in as a Unabomber suspect years ago.
      "I happened to be walking my dog in the breezeway next to his garage," the hero would report. "And I heard a funny noise. So I stacked some boxes together and stood on them so I could look through the transom. And sure enough, there was Ted, at his workbench, filing away at something that looked kinda like the trigger mechanism for a bomb. So I went through his garbage, and there was a receipt for . . ."

   Constant vigilance, after all, is what makes for a safe society. We are always being tormented with the statistics from crime-free Japan, where there are about 12 murders a year and where if you drop your wallet on the street good samaritans will wrestle each other to see who gets the honor of returning it to you, elaborately gift-wrapped. What we aren't told about is the intense effort required to maintain that level of safety. When my brother moved to Tokyo, he didn't know the proper way to wrap his garbage when he threw it away. He discovered the proper way, however, after his neighbors formally complained to his boss, who then called him on the carpet and told him to get with the program.
     Just this year, our neighbors to the west built a nine-foot wooden fence between our properties, without so much as a "boo" to us beforehand. "You think they are going to top it off with searchlights and concertina wire?" I asked my wife, as we watched the monstrosity going up like worried East Germans monitoring construction of the Berlin Wall. It was my impression that the wall was about two feet over code, and we briefly considered turning them in to the city.
     But that seemed so unneighborly. You don't want to antagonize people — you never know who you're dealing with. Psychotics are everywhere, waiting to explode at the slightest provocation.
     And besides, I figure the wall protects us from them as much as it protects them from us. And a good thing, too. I've had my doubts about them. They are quiet people. They keep to themselves. That's always a sure sign of trouble.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 12, 1996

Saturday, January 20, 2018

1990sFest: Day One—"Nose for news nets a piercing interview"

     I'm on vacation. As much as part of me wants to leave this space blank for the next week, to show that I can, enough people start their days here that I don't want to disappoint anybody.
    I don't know when I'll be able to vet comments and, alas, can't leave them unmonitored. Please be patient and I'll get them up as soon as possible. 
    This week marks my 22nd year as a columnist at the Sun-Times, and I thought I would reach back to the first couple years, to the foreign shore of the second half of the 1990s, and revisit some chestnuts from the day. I've tried to pick posts that hold their interest, such as this foray into kink.  Notice the rather prescient observation about Dennis Rodman. At the time he was considered a freak; now half the players in the NBA have body art very much like his.

     Some readers may doubt my motives in attending a lecture entitled "Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power." Honestly, I wasn't out for a thrill.
     I had a question in mind. I wanted to know something. I figured that Valerie Steele, a New York cultural historian speaking on that topic last week at the School of the Art Institute, just might be able to answer it.
     I hoped to have nose jewelry explained to me. I live in a neighborhood where, more and more, young people parade about with metallic ornaments dangling from their nostrils.
     Nasal decorations mystify and disturb me—not simply because I find them ugly. But because of my reaction. No matter how many times I've seen them, my brain still goes through the same three-step cognition process: 1) Hey, that girl has a booger hanging out of her nose; 2) No, wait, it's metallic; c) Oh, it's a nose bauble.
     I worry this is a sign of old age—that, at 35, my mind has seized up, and is no longer nimble enough to accept such an innocuous change. Why should a gold sphere worn at the nostril be viewed as any less attractive than one worn in the ear lobe? They're big in India. Why can't I accustom myself to what has to be, at least for some, a fetching fashion?
     Steele didn't say much about nose baubles. She focused instead on the spike heels, leather outfits and rubber unmentionables standard to the fetish underworld, showing how, via high fashion and icons such as Madonna, the marginal has quickly filtered into the mainstream.
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel
   "For the past 30 years, playful incorporation of fetishism into popular culture has been a growing trend," said Steele.
     She traced the bondage-at-Bloomingdales phenomenon to Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in the 1960s TV show "The Avengers." Mrs. Peel was "crucial" to the emergence of fetishism into pop culture, Dr. Steele said, showing how Peel's skintight cat suit was taken from an English bondage uniform. "The television producers thought the full-face mask was too kinky, so they lopped that off," Steele added.
     I imagine Steele's lecture 20 years from now will include a slide of Dennis Rodman, in full tattoo and regalia, along with an explanation of how Rodman was a pioneer of the body decoration that no self-respecting member of the class of '16 will be without. Rodman is an amazing figure, when you consider how unimaginable he would be in professional sport even 10 years ago. What today strikes us as weirdness might someday be seen as vision and guts.
     Steele showed a slide of a turn-of-the-century Viennese fetish shoe whose 11-inch heel was not meant for walking, but for . . . well, for something else. She explained how the important thing was not so much the shoe, itself, but the meaning given to the shoe.
     "A fetish is a story masquerading as an object," she said. "This shoe symbolizes a story, a fantasy."
     Steele didn't intend it, but I think her comment also explains the fantastic prices being paid for the flotsam and jetsam of Camelot at the Jackie Onassis auction in New York. Both are using an object to reach toward an unattainable fantasy.
     Afterward, I asked Steele if she saw a connection.
     "It's not a sexual fetish but it is a fetish," she said. "Clearly, the overvaluation and ritualization of objects that evoke the Kennedys. They touched these things. He sat on that chair. He used that golf club. It's like a relic of the saints."
     About 75 people attended the lecture, mostly students from Gillion Skellenger-Carrara's class, "The Art of 20th Century Dress." Among them was Rachel Parker, who sported six piercings in each ear, two nostril posts, two nostril rings, a chin ball, a tongue barbell, pierced nipples, two tattoos and a few ritual scarifications, plus long hair dyed a vibrant orange and green.
     Here, I thought, is the person to explain nose decoration to me, and indeed she was astoundingly candid, pulling down the front of her black sweater to show off the scarification on her left breast, which she administered herself with a razor.
     "I know I won't regret anything I've done," said Parker, 21. She said that while she started scarring herself at 14 as "a way to hurt myself, an escape," now she has been decorating her body for so long that it has become part of her identity. "It's not like I have a choice. This is the way I am."
     Ironically, Parker does not approve of nose festoonery, nor pierced belly buttons, nor any popular embrace of the adornments that set her apart. She sees it as an assault on her dignity by upstarts.
     "I find it annoying," she said. "It's a trend. Trends fade and go away, and I'll have a really big party when that happens. It can't go on much longer."
     I hope not. I walked away thinking how odd it is, that both of us -- this young girl with the pale blue eyes, pretty under all that metalwork, and myself, 35, unpierced, untattooed but plenty bewildered -- can't wait for society to proceed in exactly the same direction.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 28, 1996

Friday, January 19, 2018

Pritzker joins scary bogeymen Capone, Blago and Madigan

     The Bulls played Golden State Wednesday night. A good game, where what is supposed to be a building-year, hope-for-a-top-draft-pick-and-better-days team gave the world champions a run for their money, particularly that flurry at the end of the first quarter, putting the good guys ahead, 40-38.
     For a moment, victory seemed possible.
     But doing well for a spell is not the same as winning. Not only did my wife and I have to sit through the painful third quarter Bulls meltdown, but the first two of what will be endless reiterations of a black and white Bruce Rauner commercial casting J.B. Pritzker as some kind of nefarious underworld figure, part Al Capone, part Tony Accardo, caught in an FBI wiretap conspiring online with incarcerated felon Rod Blagojevich.The ad is a masterpiece of the dark arts. Soon downstaters will be muttering "Pritzker" as the embodiment of all that is sleazy, the way they invoke the name "Madigan" with a shudder of disgust, as if he sat at the right hand of Satan, controlling all (which, alas, is not far from the truth).
     I'm a naif when it comes to politics. The whole process confuses me. I can't offer the foggiest guess why Bruce Rauner would run for office again. His plan was to become the Illinois Scott Walker — a beloved and successful champion of the triumphant right, sticking it to those union bosses, opening the state to 21st century thread factories. But instead, after three years spinning his wheels in a ditch, he's our C. Montgomery Burns, enemy of children and the handicapped, the least popular man to call himself "governor" since Herod.
     The Democratic candidates, well, what can I say that isn't obvious? J.B. Pritzker, having cannily birthed himself to a family of vast fortune, has spent $42 million toward attaining what would be, in essence, the most expensive internship ever.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

This year I'm on the next Treadmill out of Fatville

From "Janine" by Clarity Haynes (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.)

     You never know which column is going to resonate in someone's life. Last week I got an email from a reader, Brian Sirois:
I’m writing my bio for a new website and I’d like to include a link to the article you wrote on Jan 5, 2003 entitled “This year I’m on the Next Treadmill out of Fatville”…That article, which still hangs on my fridge, served as inspiration to turn my own health around. So much so, that 10 years later I switched careers and became a fitness instructor. I stopped chasing big paychecks and started chasing my new-found passion for fitness and helping others...Is it possible to include a link?
     As it turned out, it wasn't. The paper's archive isn't online, for reasons mysterious. Not only is it not online, but whatever librarians we had at the time never migrated it to Nexis. So it is utterly gone. I might have it in a paper file somewhere in the basement...
      Before I went down to look, I asked Brian if he'd scan the column on his fridge and send it to me. He did, and I typed it in—I try to be a full-service columnist.
     I was struck by the candor of the thing. Not a lot of pulling punches. The diet didn't work in 2003. Or 2004. In 2005 I would stop drinking, which helps a lot when it comes to dieting. But even then I needed to be diagnosed with sleep apnea before I shed 30 pounds in 2009 and kept it off in the eight years since. Nothing like being unable to breath at night to serve as an inspiration.
     Anyway, here is the column that Brian wanted to link to on his site. I hope it continues to be inspiring to people. It contains some blunt assessments on fat that might be considered fat-shaming, today, but wasn't then. Nor do I consider it so now—a person is entitled to his own perspective on the desirability of being obese—and if you believe differently, well, that's what the comments section is fo

     No sooner had I taken off my coat, pulled up the Venetian blinds, settled in front of my desk and began wondering what to do first to start off this brave new year of 2003 then the phone rang.
     It was a magazine reporter and he had a question: Aren't New Year's resolutions a joke? This whole idea of arbitrary beginnings and fresh starts: Isn't it somehow ridiculous. There was a smile in his voice.
     This is what's called in the profession "trolling the bait." It was an invitation to me to lean back in my chair, turn one palm toward the ceiling and craft a witty agreement, mocking all those painfully sincere vows, all those dopes who believe—tee hee!—who really believe that, with a click of the calendar and a gust of will, they can suddenly become the sort of person they aren't now and probably never have been, but would like to be. To his surprise, and mine, I didn't bite.
     "Actually," I said, "I take this entire New Year, new leaf thing pretty seriously. I diet. I go on the wagon and try to pull myself together. Sorry."
     We shifted to another subject—he wasn't interested in my disagreement; you don't tend to include counter-arguments in that sort of story.
     After I hung up, I was struck by my seriousness this year. I have to be. Never slim to begin with, 2002 was, as Queen Elizabeth would say, my annus horribilis,which is not Latin for my gigantic ass, but the only thing to call a year when you—OK, me—suddenly gain 20 pounds.
     Well, not suddenly. It only seemed that way. One moment I was cruising along near 200, as I had been for years, and suddenly I was 224.
     At least I'm not alone. As I bought a scale last week and learned the awful truth, a men's athletic magazine listed the fattest cities in America. There was Chicago, No. 2, right after Houston, of all places.
     The general media impulse was to milk the Chicago, City of Broad Backsides news for yucks. Red Streak, the training wheels version of this paper, wrote a mocking—albeit creative—front-page article taking a scrappy "wait-till-next-year" view, with weight-gaining tips and taunts for Houston. The headline was, "Hey, Chicago, feed your face."
     Not me. I took the arrival of the New Year as an unexpected rescue rope, tossed to me by the same indifferent society that sells Krispy Kremes and Sam Adams beer. I'm getting off this bus even if I have to eat less and exercise to do it (there is a third vital element, often forgotten, that I'm keeping in mind: Eat less and exercise over a protracted period).
     "Hey, Chicago, feed your face." That was written by a thin person. A fat person knows that fatness is a personal tragedy. It is ugly, unhealthful and a personal shame that you only need pass a reflective surface to have pop up, unexpectedly, to wave and chirp, "Hey, remember me?"
     This may sound harsh, particularly in a nation (and city) growing fatter by the minute. I am aware that there are some people, many people, who have been so fat for so long and tried so hard to do something about it that, like longtime residents of Milwaukee, they finally sighed and gave up and told themselves that, heck, this isn't so bad. Maybe the problem isn't them. Maybe they're beautiful. Maybe the problem is a crass and craven society that adores thinness above all.
     That might make you feel better, just as a pack of Sno-Balls might make you feel better, but that doesn't make it so. It wasn't a crass and craven society that left me gasping for breath after racing my boys around the house a few times. That's fat, and I wouldn't even have the gumption to admit it in the newspaper if it wasn't coming off, this year, and staying off forever. I may sound foolishly certain, but foolish certainty is where I'm putting my chips down and keep them.
     That's the beauty of resolutions and a new year. It forces you to pause and look at yourself—rather like buying slacks, really. It hands you an opportunity to shuck off your old life and try to be different.
     It worked for me last year. I was discipline itself, for the month of January, lost 13 pounds, and was so pleased with myself that, mistaking progress for success, I dropped my guard and shot back up and more.
     That's what fatness is. It's dropping your guard, a guard that, sadly, because of 100,000 years of genetics trained to jump through the hoops of austerity, has to be kept up by a big portion of the population.
     Yes, at one level, the magazine reporter is absolutely right—the idea of a new start is somewhat delusional. I am the same weak vessel today that I was Tuesday night, guzzling Moet & Chandon and gobbling little hot dogs wrapped in dough. I did not, as I told myself, setting down the champagne at the stroke of midnight, morph into an iron-willed creature of self-discipline and clean living.
     But I wanted to. I don't know about you, but I get so tired of myself. (Maybe you get tired of me , too—I get letters—but at least you can turn the page. Me, I'm stuck). I'm tired of being lardboy. Of wondering as I pause to drive my hand up to the wrist in one of the bowls of candy that my colleagues try to keep filled on their desks, despite my presence, whether they notice me stopping by to load up. Of course they do. Bear that in mind, if the New Year isn't inspiration enough, to those of us who need to lose 40 or 60 pounds, remember this: They notice. Everybody notices. The muu-muu is not slimming. Your wife does indeed mind. You're fat. Deal with it. If I can do it, anyone can.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

'Enthusiasm for Trump hasn't diminished one bit' downstate

Chuck Griswold, as mayor of Fairfield in 2017, chairing a Rotary meeting.

     Saturday is the first anniversary of the inauguration of Donald Trump.
     Since my views on his administration should be familiar to the careful reader, I thought I'd mark the occasion by looking beyond myself.
     If you list Illinois' 102 counties by how they voted in the 2016 presidential election, at one end is Cook County, which voted 74.4 percent for Hillary Clinton. On the other, Wayne County, 275 miles due south, voted 84.3 percent for Trump.
     You might recall that one year ago I visited Fairfield, population 5,000, the Wayne County seat. It was pleasant and informative. In getting to know a small, tight-knit community, I met the mayor, the newspaper publisher, the bank president, the police chief. They were pretty much of one mind.
     "It's kinda nice having a nonpolitician running the country," said one retiree having his early-morning coffee at the Barb Wire Grill on Main Street.
     One year on, has anything changed? How do they assess the Trump presidency so far? Still kinda nice?
     "Most people I know haven't really changed their opinion of Trump yet," said L. Bryan Williams, who owns an insurance company. "He says a lot of cringe-worthy things that some of us wish he wouldn't. But, by and large, we're judging things by what we're seeing regarding unemployment dropping, the price of oil is higher, more job opportunities throughout America — sadly none to Wayne County yet."
     The price of oil being higher is a good thing around Fairfield.
     "That's important to us," Williams said. "A lot of people here work in the oil and gas business."

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A window in Paris

Hotel des Grandes Ecoles

     The bottomless idiocy of the top three forehead slapping aspects of the latest twirl-the-nation's-guts-on-a-stick moment of the eternal Trump hall-of-mirrors nightmare can best illustrated by ...
     Aw, fuck it.
     I was reading Trump's tweet blaming "Dicky Durbin" for scuttling the chances of a bill to save his own DACA program, when I stopped, and thought: enough. No mas. At least for today.
     Last spring I had the enviable task for finding a good hotel in Paris. I was hampered by the fact that I didn't have a lot of money to spend—two boys at private schools, one of them spending his spring semester at the Pantheon Sorbonne, which explained the trip to Paris. I justified it by pointing out that we were so far into hock at this point that a little more wouldn't matter.
     Luckily, I knew just where to look to find a deal. I visited Messy Nessy Chic, the wonderfully off-beat and stylish Parisian blog run by British ex-pat Vanessa Grail.
     Sure enough,  there was the Messy Nessy Chic Paris Hotel Guide, where one hotel stood out: the Hotel des Grand Ecoles—literally, "Hotel of the Great Schools." In an old convent school at 75 rue Cardinal Lemoine. An easy stroll to the Sorbonne. Right by Rue Mouffetard with its bakeries and butchers.
    "Romantic, beautiful and homey," MNC summarized. 
     You tell me if they exaggerated. Here is the view from our bedroom window.
    I will be honest. Printing this picture is the entire purpose of the post. The rest are just words, filler to explain and justify. The iron rail. In the foreground, the gorgeous purple flowering redbud. In the background, white-barked birches. 
     I didn't spend an awful lot of time gazing out of the window, true. Not with Paris waiting to be explored. Just enough to breath in the day in the morning. But on our way out I did have the presence of mind to snap this photograph. It really looks more like a stage set than something real. But it was real.
    So I guess that's your task for today. It's snowy in Chicago, but not as cold as of late, and I'm sure there is snow-covered beauty aplenty out there to be seen, to be appreciated. Pause and look at it. This too is life.  
     I bought no souvenirs on my trip—well, a shoehorn in a leather shop in Florence because my wife insisted I buy something. A postcard of the painting of Dante in the Duomo. But otherwise the trip was too memorable to require tchotchkes. I carry the trip with me in its own pocket of memory, and pull it out when our American ordeal just seems too much. I'm not there now, but I was there, not so long ago.
     The yammering yam in Washington won't go away a second sooner because we spent his entire administration continually howling in justified shock at his endless string of corrosive wrongness. But that can't be good for the health of people who are sensitive to the rights and wrongs, the beauties and ugliness of the world. Evil can be like a spotlight—it'll blind you if you stare into it too long. I was really, really glad I took those two weeks, met our son in Rome, went to Florence and Venice and, finally Paris. Really, really glad my wife and I got the best baguette ever pulled from an oven and pulled chunks of it from a white paper bag as we walked to the Metro station. Really, really glad I have the memories and photographs to remind myself of it. I'll think about that baguette on my deathbed.
    Donald Trump is a racist. He is a bad man, surrounded by weaklings and cowards and supported by those who have stuck their heads so far up their asses that no light can reach their eyes. I heard from a bunch of them Monday, their bleats of anger and confusion echoing across my spam file. That's the situation yesterday, and today, and tomorrow. But don't let it bring you down. The good is still there too. It may be removed from us in time and space, but it exists somewhere now, and we can recall it whenever we like. 



Monday, January 15, 2018

King's lofty words ring hollow on his day in 2018

      "I have a dream," Martin Luther King Jr. told that enormous crowd at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character ...."
     No. King's soaring words ring hollow this Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018. In an America squirming under a president elected on a platform of barely concealed bigotry. With a president who, last Thursday, stood in the Oval Office and obscenely demanded our country accept fewer immigrants from black- and brown-majority countries and more from white ones, King's dream of tolerance seems as far away as ever.
     What did King do? What victory did he achieve? Won the right of black people to dine at luncheonettes that aren't in business anymore? To ride at the front of rickety buses bouncing along broken up roads in America's dying cities?
     Prejudice is like water. It finds a way. Blocked from one path, it pushes to another. If your faith doesn't permit you to keep blacks from sitting in your restaurant — a legal argument used in King's time — then maybe it allows you to refuse to bake a cake for gay weddings.
     That doesn't seem much improvement in half a century. The 50-year anniversary of King's assassination, America's reward for his struggle to lead our nation away from hatred, is April 4. Expect more lofty words echoing against deaf ears, sliding unfelt through hardened hearts.

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

How many Poles does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Cell, by Judith Glickman Lauder, Metropolitan Museum of Art
    "How many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" 
     I only remember the set-up, not the punchline. I was a child in the western suburbs of Cleveland, and the first version of the old joke I heard was directed toward the residents of Parma, whom we in tonier Berea considered ourselves better than because their dads wore white socks and blue work shirts with their names—invariably ending in "-ski"—embroidered over the chest and worked at the Ford plant or as janitors, while ours wore white shirts and black ties and worked in offices. 
     Except of course for my best friend Ricky, whose dad was a fireman, and Danny, whose father was a janitor at the hospital, yet wasn't in the same category as those Parma janitors.
      The joke wasn't phrased exactly like that. I believe we said, "How many Polacks  does it take to screw in a lightbulb" at a time when such bigotry went unchallenged. We had no trouble saying it because we believed, based on no personal experience, that Poles were dumb, would trouble with that lightbulb, along with other woes. Every joke with a dumb guy in it was about a Pole. 
     And here's the kicker: we were Polish.
     Partially Polish, anyway. My grandfather was born on a farm in Bialystok in 1907, my grandmothers in that great muddied zone of Austro-Hungary. My father's father claimed to be born in the Bronx, but who could tell? In essence the same place. 
     Of course many if not most Poles wouldn't consider us Polish at all, our being Jews. But that's a separate column. The point is, we were sneering at people very close to ourselves, for qualities of unsophistication that we ourselves possessed. My grandfather wore white socks. He slicked what hair he had and worked in a factory, Accurate Parts Manufacturing, in Cleveland. I'd never dare call him a Polack.
     Why were we this way? Immaturity? We were children, remember. It isn't something my parents would join in. Insecurity? The joy of being mean to people. To look down the ladder of society and feel the comforting hope that there was someone lower than ourselves.
     So it isn't that Donald Trump invented baseless bigotry, invented tribalism. We all suffer from it. But we also grow out of it. Most of us do. The only time I would use the world "Polack" now is with pride, describing myself, and even then I feel like I'm putting on airs. 
     We don't expect this kind of bigotry in our leaders. No publicly anyway. Not unashamed. Thus the shriek of outrage that greeted Thursday's "shithole countries" comment was more one of the horror of The Thing Out of Place. The orange in your hand opening a single cyclopian eye and staring at you. The walls bleeding. The president of the United States, too ignorant and arrogant to be ashamed, letting his schoolyard bigotry out to dry in the Oval Office, the yellowed undies of his hateful psyche flapping in the wind for all to see.  
     His die hard supporters let out a cheer—goll-damn, maybe they can let their cramped little hatreds out of the box to stretch their legs too! They hate living in an American ruined by black people, Hispanic people, Muslim people, fill in the blank.  
      It isn't that this hatred is so foreign. Just the opposite: it's so familiar, like a trail of toilet paper stuck to the shoe of some glamorous actress on the red carpet. We know what that is. We just don't expect to see it there.
     Familiar, yet still a shock, the way knowing Donny is a bully is one thing, and seeing him pound the shit out of some smaller kid on the playground quite something else. Because real people are being hurt. Donald Trump and his supporters are setting immigration policy for years to come. His judges will decide important cases. People are going to die in war zones around the world who might have found refuge in the United States. People like my grandfather and maybe yours, certainly millions more. 
     The thing with Trump is, we can get worked up as we like. We can vent on Facebook, shake our fists at heaven, demand impeachment now. Next morning, the man's still president. The smoke clears and the Terminator is unharmed. All we can do then is work on ourselves, and admit, the prejudice that so disgusts us is not as alien as we like to pretend. It certainly isn't unique to the president who, always remember, is not a cause but a symptom.