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.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

When does the surprise stop?

Black Warrior
 by John James Audubon (born Haiti, 1785)
     So Donald Trump runs a campaign based on racism. His very first remarks, Day One, castigating Mexicans as criminals and rapists. He constantly winks and tweets at the vilest form of white nationalist haters, inviting them to enjoy the prospect of an acceptability not known in this country for 100 years. 
      And yet we're surprised. We seem to be surprised to hear him on Thursday, in the Oval Office, refer to "shithole countries" such as Haiti and El Salvador and parts of Africa. 
     Why is that? Is this complicated? What's not to get? Why is it so slow to sink in? 
     There is an aspect of racism that is just hard to believe, that is hard for the modern thinking American to realize forms the basis of the worldview of people like our president and his supporters. 
     "Shithole countries."
     Set aside the obscenity for a moment. The logic, to stretch the term, of such a statement is the central fallacy of white supremacy: You are where you come from. Nationality is destiny. To be a good person you must come from a good place, because bloodlines are destiny. And good places are white places. Because, being white, we need white faces around us. Diversity is genocide. That's a quote. "Diversity is genocide." They are so insecure about themselves that every difference undermines their existence.
     So if real Americans don't come from shitholes like Haiti or African nations, where do they come from? Oh right. From Germany, like Donald Trump's grandfather, and the Scandinavian countries, from Great Britain and a few other traditional sources of white people. Except of course if they're Jewish. Or Catholic. 
      You do realize that we all come from "shithole countries." Nearly all of us. Every black or brown person, every Jew and Muslim, every Italian and Irish immigrant—maybe not now, but in the day. 
     You don't have to be a bigot to support Donald Trump. You just have to frame reality a certain way. I ran into plenty of Jews at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, yarmulkes firmly bobby-pinned to their heads, going all out for Donald Trump, willing to overlook the fact that he is making our country more dangerous for Jews and every other minority with a puff of hope and a focus on his slightly-more-fervent-than-Hillary support of the equally-right wing administration currently in power in Israel.  The kind of Jews who pinned on their WWI medals before being loaded into the truck.
Red Shouldered Hawk (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     You just need to be ambitious. Marco Rubio, senator from Florida, which has the largest Haitian population in the nation, stared at his shoes after Trump made his remarks. 
    Or value your job. 
    Raj Shah, the deputy press secretary, whose parent immigrated to this country from India, which is not Norway either, issued this statement defending the president: 
     “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people. Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.”
     The classic shifting of the discussion away from the undefendable toward something that almost makes sense, or might, if you ignore the central point. Trump is a racist. His supporters are either racists or willing to be blind to racism. Like most feel-good drugs, it takes a momentary high—the boost of unearned self-approval—at the risk of enormous long term harm. They would undo our nation and our modern world to maintain their fragile sense of superiority. They are in the act of undoing it now.
     I'd like to end with something hopeful, but I got nothing. Vote every Trump-enabling Republican out of office this November and fight for something better. This isn't who we are, yet. But it is who we will be, if we don't stop them. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Chicago honors immigrant from nation Trump scorns

    Lying has become so routine to the Trump administration that nobody even bothers to press the issue. When Trump tweeted that he isn't visiting London because "he is no big fan of the Obama administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for 'peanuts,'" the media dutifully pointed out that in the actual factual world the deal was struck under George W. Bush. 
    But there was no need to confront the president, no need to quiz him whether that lie, or delusion, or whatever it was, is even the true reason for avoiding the city, or could it possibly be how deeply unpopular he is in Britain? One lie begets another. When you're Donald Trump, avoiding the truth isn't a hobby, it's a full-time job. Two thousand documented lies in the past year. He's never going to say: "I can't visit England because I might have to confront the odium that Europeans reserve for me."
     He can't come to Chicago for the same reason. The last time he tried, for a campaign rally a year ago March, the rally had to be scrubbed because the protest was so intense. Trump didn't dare show his face. 
     I doubt he'll ever visit here. I almost added, "Not if he's smart." Since smart left the Trump building long ago, let's just say he's too cowardly. And credit him for knowing where he's not wanted. 
     If the president needs a facile excuse for never visiting the largest American city between the coasts, he can at least fall back on something true. Chicago has a bust of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, our first permanent non-native resident, right in the heart of downtown, at Pioneer Court, on Michigan Avenue just north of the DuSable Bridge. Du Sable, you probably know, was an immigrant from Haiti, one of those "shithole countries" that Donald Trump doesn't want sending any more immigrants to this country. Du Sable was living here a century before Donald Trump's grandfather left Germany.  
    Oh, and Trump also denies using the phrase "shithole countries." Even though a bunch of congressmen and senators were there and vouch that he said it. Dick Durbin, looking ashen and horrified, as are we all, confirmed it. These are ashen and horrifying times.

When dogs disappear, they take a piece of our hearts

Teddy, center, with (left to right) Ella, Dalya and Catherine Barron and Barnaby.

     Where do lost dogs go?
     What lonely roads do they travel? What hardships endure?
     Teddy is a mixed breed poodle who came to live with the Barrons in Northbrook. When they got him in early November, Teddy had already seen his share of woe — rescued from a breeder, he had never been outside the barn where he lived. The Barrons adopted him from a shelter to be a companion to their dog Barnaby. Teddy was timid. He startled easily.
     On Nov. 27, Dalya Barron, 7, came home from school and walked Teddy. All it took was a loud noise — a roofer's nail gun — to set Teddy running. He pulled the 2nd grader to the ground, she let go of the leash.
     Teddy was gone.
     The search started immediately. Dalya's mother Catherine Barron started going door to door. When she finished that first day, she looked at her Fitbit: she had walked 15 miles.
     Her husband, Dani, printed up 500 fliers, and they stuck them everywhere. Northbrook, Glenview, Highland Park.
     Such publicity is considered key to getting your dog back, but there is a downside.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Sometimes you just play pool

    I have problems that nobody else has.
    Well, maybe not nobody. I haven't met everybody. 
    Let's say problems that I assume are unique to writers doing the kind of writing I do.
    For instance, I can have a hard time figuring out whether I'm working or not. Whether something should be written about or just enjoyed. Private or public? My wife, at odd moments, will say, "I don't want to see that in the paper." Invariably at something I would never dream of putting in the paper.
   And sometimes I have that thought myself.
    Last week, when I went to meet a reader at Chris's Billiards, it was because he had read a reference of mine to "second tier treasures," to spots like the old Division Street Russian Baths, that feel as if they could slip away at any moment. Chris's was another one, he said. Would you like to see it? Sure, I said. I'll let you in on a secret: I tend to go where I'm invited, because I don't get that many invitations to go places. Not to places I want to go, anyway.
     Plus I'd be meeting a person. I like meeting people, in the main, unless I don't.
     To be honest, the idea that it might be a column, or a blog post, or something, did not occur to me until he started to explain how to play 9-ball. I had never played 9-ball before, always 8-ball. However he explained the rules of 9-ball—I can't tell you what that was, because I didn't write it down or tape it—made me wish I had a record of it. A week later, I remember only the wish, and the narrow triangle of nine balls set within the rack.
     We had just met. I'm not so far gone I'd walk into a billiard hall with a tape recorder in my hand. I could have whipped out my notebook and written down some of what he said, after the fact. But I was trying to absorb the rules. My notebook stayed in my pocket.
    We shot pool, we talked about our kids and our jobs, about the city and growing up and life in general. I can't reconstitute that conversation either.
     I wrote one sentence down: "This is really the last one left." Big pool halls in Chicago, I assume. I did take a few photographs.
    When I got home, I realized that Chris's is featured in Amy Bizzarri's "111 Places in Chicago That you Must Not Miss." A book I just wrote about last month, when I went to get a cup of coffee in Englewood. I was kinda glad I didn't know, that I hadn't gone to check another place off the list. 
     Leaving, after 90 minutes of pool, I had been conflicted. On one hand, I had lost an opportunity: This interesting pool hall, featured in "The Color of Money," with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise.  A vast, cavernous space, with pool tables and snooker tables and dark recesses.  
    And on the other, I had deliberately given work the cold shoulder. I was ... I realized with an inner smile ... doing something normal.  I'm allowed to do that. You can't work all the time and shouldn't try. Sometimes you just have to relax, and shoot some pool. Even noble Homer dozed.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Has electing one super rich egomaniacal TV star to the presidency taught us nothing?

Metropolitan Museum of Art
     A thought experiment:
     So I buy a grizzly bear cub to keep as a pet in my home in Northbrook. He's a cute, energetic little fellow, bustling around, knocking over the occasional table lamp but generally manageable. Time goes by, and he grows bigger. One day I'm late doling out the raw steak from Costco and "Smoky," as I've named him, goes berserk and mauls me, chewing off my right hand.
     I recover, eventually. The bear, alas, has to be put down. 
     So I'm sitting there, flipping through the channels, holding the remote in my remaining hand. I pause at the Nature Channel to watch a documentary about tigers.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
   "Hmmm, tigers," I think. "Beautiful animals. You know ... a Bengal tiger would make a great house pet, and things have been so quiet since Smoky left..."
     Stop right there. Based on the information above, what would you think of me? You'd think that I'm an idiot, right? You'd want to grab me by the lapels, haul me out of my chair, and scream, "Enough with the wild animals, okay? Haven't you gotten the message yet?"
     How is than any different than the past few days, as Democrats, twirling in the blast furnace hell of a Trump presidency, turn their red-rimmed eyes to the heaven and fix upon ... Oprah Winfrey.
     Sunday night she delivered a speech at the Golden Globe awards.
     "A new day is on the horizon!" she said.
     "Oprah for president!" a colleague cheered, though in his defense he might have been summarizing the zeitgeist rather than adding his support.
     "Our next president?" The Washington Post asked Tuesday.
     "She would absolutely do it," said Stedman Graham, Oprah's perpetual escort.
     Of course she would do it. Everyone wants to be president; it's the biggest affirmation life can be bestow, assuming the election of Donald Trump hasn't ruined it, the way Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize forever tarnished the honor.

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Beauty to brokenness

     I'd never heard of McPherson guitars before I went to see Trace Bundy play at the Old Town School of Folk Music last October. There's no reason why I should; I'm not keeping careful track of music in general or guitars in particular. I wouldn't have noticed these were any different but for their distinctive bean-shaped, off-center sound holes.
     Bundy played an easygoing, virtuosic set, which had him keeping time to himself by beating on the body of the guitar, and deploying, then tossing away, a variety of capos, which otherwise were perched on the head of the guitar like splayed fingers, making the guitars look a little like Struwwelpeter's hands. He mentioned that the black guitar was made of carbon composite, which seemed something new.
     Before introducing his last song, "Joy & Sorrow," he said something along the lines of "There is a deep beauty to brokenness."
     At which point, his guitar somehow failed—I wasn't sure if it was the microphone pick-up, or what, but he tried to shift to the second one, and that failed too. The audience couldn't hear.
     So he shifted to a different song and played it acoustically, without amplification. And he was right, there was a deep beauty to it, though not the one intended. I don't blame the guitars, which can run up to $20,000 a throw. Sometimes things go right by going wrong. Assuming it wasn't all part of the act. If it was, we fell for it.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Is that a new battery in your iPhone or are you just glad to see me?

     Yeah, the Sun-Times pays me a salary, helps with health insurance and provides an office. All of that is nice.
     But the really great perk of the job is this: a phone.
     Not merely for the money saved, whatever that might be. But for sparing me the constant vigilance and heartache that wrangling a mobile phone seems to require.
     Every year my younger boy contrives to break his phone — accident, as he insists, or intentional, as I suspect, who can say? I'm not God.
     The mishap requires a descent into the Pepto Bismal pink perdition of the T-Mobile store, a nightmare of waiting and forms, a cross between visiting the ER and buying a house.
     The company phone spares me that. It also frees me from the temptation to upgrade. Whenever a pal shows off some useless bell and whistle on his new Apple X — and several have — it's all I can do not to grin goofily, whip my old phone out of my back pocket and crow, "Yeah, but mine has a feature that yours doesn't: It's freeeeee."
     The downside to a company phone is a certain peasant resignation when it comes to managing the device. When the gizmo began suggesting I update the software, my head swiveled to our tech guru. Do it?

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Ghost in the machine

Work pod, 1871 tech incubator at the Merchandise Mart

     I won't mourn the workplace. There's enough old people mourning stuff that's changing on Facebook. Having to show up a specific place at a set time, to work under the eye of supervisors ... it was a kind of tyranny. How much more freeing then, to know what you need to do, when you need to do it, and just do it, on your own schedule. Is that not being a professional?
      A kind of tyranny, or so I imagine. To be honest, being a reporter has always allowed one to range far afield. You're supposed to be out there, digging, not hanging around the office looking busy. I remember, I was living in Oak Park, so it had to be almost 30 years ago. It was my day off, in the evening. There was some kind of police action on Harlem Avenue. A chase. The paper phoned and I hurried over. Two things stick in mind: one, realizing I was between a group of cops, guns drawn, charging down the street and someone else fleeing in the opposite direction, and immediately flattening myself against a wall as they hurried past. And the next day, laughing on the telephone to a friend, saying, "Only at the Sun-Times can you be lying in bed, in your underwear, on your day off at 5 p.m. and still end up writing the front page story for the next day." 
      I can do my job anywhere. I can open my eyes in the morning and work through my column in my head, turning the writing of it into more of a transcription job, almost mere typing. I've written the column on airplanes, in ship staterooms. I once conducted an interview while getting a prostate exam. 
      Yet I still routinely make a point of going into the office. I'm not sure why. Nostalgia perhaps. To show I still value my job. An expression of the hope that unexpected encounters might occur, that ideas are exchanged, information shared in a non-virtual way. Things happen. Last Thursday was a good example. I was writing about the cold. I was flipping through books on weather history, and almost thought I should stay home to be close to my materials. It was as cold in Northbrook as in the city. But the most people were downtown,  so I bundled up and went. 
      As it turned out, when I went to work, there was a press conference on the deep freeze at the office of emergency management. So I went to it, and it added a bit to my story. I was glad I took the trouble.
      The online world discourages that. You flip open your laptop and you're there, both everywhere and nowhere. It's the playing field we all compete upon, more or less, more and more.
       Were I doing my job at peak efficiency, I would write column after column about Donald Trump, tweeting them with all my might. I certainly would never waste time going into the office, or traveling to places to talk to people who weren't the president or observe things that had nothing to do with politics. That's so antique—like dipping candles.
       I'm looking at my stats from yesterday's blog. At midnight, I posted a column on the gross anatomy lab at Loyola University's medical school. It was almost a decade old, but few of my readers would have read it. It was reported, from the room with the bodies, talking to the teachers, the students, ruminating on life and death, the grandeur of the human body and the requirements of respect and faith.
       Seven hours later, I woke up, read Donald Trump's jaw-dropping tweet about what a stable genius he, if nobody else, considers himself to be. Aghast, like everybody else, I fired off a cri du coeur reaction, like 100 other agonized cries of thinking liberals. That post quadrupled the traffic of the anatomy class post—four times as many readers.
       On one hand, you could say, "Why not?" The house is on fire, people want to know where the fire department is, not watch a travelogue to Myanmar. 
       On the other, the house is always burning, so people in the media need to perform a bit of mental gymnastics. Yes, clicks are important—the metric that dictates advertising, which pays everybody, or would, if only there were more of them. But if you focus only on clicks, you're cobbling together memes mocking Donald Trump's hair and glorying over kittens or whatever. And lot of people do that already, vast boiler rooms of them filled with youth chained to laptops, all around the world. 
       Is it wise to compete with that? Technology wins. I know that. And it's a tremendous resource. My co-author and I wrote our last book for four years, in Google Doc and over the telephone, and never met in person until the day before the book launch party. That worked. 
      But we did meet eventually. That was important, to me anyway. The human element is important and, I believe, will always be important. Michael Ferro's dream of some algorithm churning out stories and videos won't be able to bring to journalism what human creators bring to it. It'll always lack a certain something—the human touch, the ghost in the machine. You can fake it, and you can fool some people. But you won't fool everybody. That's my hope, anyway. My plan. It might not be much of a plan, but I'm sticking with it.
      Thus I go into the office, stiff-arming the suspicion that I'm doing so out of some mock heroic notion of work for a newspaper ... whoops, multi-platform storytelling dynamic bitchain synergicity system. 
          I like the picture above because you have the woman isolated in her pod, earbuds screwed in, laptop open. And through the wavy glass, there are people meeting. Not virtually, but physically. I really don't think it will go out of style. I keep thinking about Space Food sticks—we were going to take our nutrition through pills. A dream some nerds keep alive with their Solyent Meal Replacement drinks. But it isn't a trend, it's a quirk, because guess what? People like food. They like making food. They like eating food. Real food. Just because something is possible and convenient doesn't make it desirable. I love the Internet. I love having the choice of grinding out something at home and then reading on the sofa, or girding my loins and plunging out into the clangorous physical world. I'm glad that on most days I choose the latter rather than the former. I think it's the right choice. Err on the side of living.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The president believes he is a genius

   I know, I know. It seems both redundant and naive at this point to say that the president has lost his mind.
     Thank you, Captain Obvious!
     But looking at his tweets this morning. O.M.G. The only other individual I know who calls himself a "genius" also spends his days racing around the Southwest, chasing the Road Runner. 
    Yes, to expect modesty from Donald Trump at this point. And it is established that he somehow manages to hit rock bottom and keep digging.
    But a genius?
     "And a very stable genius at that!" That has to be a title of one or more of the 500 books someday parsing how a once proud nation could allow itself to be led by this brittle incurious ego-maniac. Assuming, of course, that we're allowed to publish books.
    Who calls himself a genius? The very act is self-indicting. No truly smart person would say that, intelligence being, in part, knowledge of how much a person doesn't know. The point of Wile E. Coyote's claim is, he's not a genius. Putting it on his business cards proves it. He can't even make the damn Acme products work properly. 
     Trump's pathetic bleat of self-love is in reaction to Michael Wolff's caustic new book, which, like the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, isn't saying anything people don't know. Rather, in classic the-emperor-has-no-clothes style, is saying what everyone already knows: the president is an erratic idiot, utterly unsuited to the job.
    Okay, not everybody. Some people, many people, deny it, vigorously. His family, his staff, those with a vested interest in manipulating the government and, not to forget, the masses of the duped, those who put put their faith in Trump and now cannot recognize that they've been defrauded. The money is gone, the Nigerian prince vanished into cyberspace. Easier to cling to the dream than to admit you were deceived. Occasionally I'll encounter somebody on Facebook wondering when Trump's followers figure it out, and I jump in and point out, with conviction: Never. They never figure it out. They're like those peasants in Russia still mooning over Stalin.
     Don't forget Fox News. They make a fortune catering to these people, chewing up the mash of hysteria and fabrication and then vomiting it into their audience's eager baby bird yaps. I watched a few minutes of Sean Hannity last night—the first time—and it was like holding up a naked baby with diarrhea while rushing toward the diaper table. No wonder so many Americans have shit for brains: look at what goes into them. Look at the disgusting pap they feed on.
     I haven't read Wolff's book—I don't plan to. Enough people are ripping through it, sharing whatever gems are found. You can get a contact high just scrolling through Facebook. And besides. Happy is he, as Kierkegaard says, who didn't have to go to Hell to know what the devil looks like.
     And we still have three years to go. Or seven. If you think this circus of dysfunction means Trump can't win in 2020, think again. All the Democrats have to do is to veer into their own version of tribal crazy, and we'll fall right back into the same hole. If you think it isn't possible, you aren't paying attention. 

'The humanity of our cadavers'; Med students give somber thanks to donors

Fasciculo di medicina, Venice, 1493 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     I've begun writing another long-form medical story for Mosaic—my fourth. Which always puts me in a good mood. I'm not a medical writer, but find such stories challenging to report, and fun to write. Nothing focuses your attention like a corpse, and if you can't find a way to make such a story interesting, then you're in the wrong business. I've always liked this story, for its juxtaposition of the physicality of the cadavers with the spirituality of the ceremony. Though the heads, flayed apart like ghastly flowers, took some getting used to. 

     The ceremony is in 10 minutes, but the exam is tomorrow. So rather than idly wait to honor the former tenants of the bodies they have been dissecting for the last 10 weeks, 145 first-year students at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine are busy, crowding around 18 cadavers in the brightly lit room, poking and prodding, using the remains as fleshy 3D road maps to the densely packed, vastly complex systems of veins, arteries, nerves, ducts, glands, muscles, tendons and other elements that make up the human body.
     "Probably a genioglossus of the tongue," says Andrew Hantel, gently lifting a stringy beige mass of flesh atop the neck of a cadaver, its skull gone, the trisected head peeled back like a banana skin.
     "Where is the horn of hyoid?" asks Wes Barry, referring to a bone that supports the tongue.
     The class is "Structure of the Human Body," better known as gross anatomy, for centuries the cornerstone of a doctor's education (the name has nothing to do with disgust; "gros" is French for "large"). For most of that time, medical students had to use stealth when acquiring bodies to dissect, plundering fresh graves and bribing officials at pauper's hospitals.
     Stritch gets its bodies in a far more direct manner, paying $1,500 apiece to the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois.
     While books and computers are helpful—entire human bodies can now be explored online —it isn't the same.
     "We have a lot of computer resources," says Dr. Frederick Wezeman, director of gross anatomy at Stritch. "But the actual experience of dissection is elemental to the learning of medicine. Nothing can really replace anatomical dissection by the student."
     Students in olden days had a habit of treating cadavers irreverently, placing them in comic poses—playing cards or smoking pipes—and photographing themselves clowning around with them.
     That's taboo today. The practice at Stritch—and many medical schools worldwide—is to conduct ceremonies of thanksgiving to those who donated their bodies, though the actual beneficiaries are not the donors but the students, who hopefully will become better, more caring doctors when confronted with living patients.
     "We try to keep the students focused on the fact this is a human being, as opposed to just an anatomical specimen," says Dr. Wezeman.
     "The students understand that these cadavers aren't just meat," says the Rev. Jack
O'Callaghan, senior chaplain to the medical school, who enters the room just before 8:30 a.m., when the cadavers are covered with white shrouds.

     The ceremony begins with Sister Brenda Eagan, director of the university ministry.
     "The first time you gathered in this anatomy lab, everyone looked nervous," she says. "That was Oct. 12, and you gathered here to bless and thank these silent teachers for offering themselves."
     She is followed by Dr. Wezeman.
     "Someone, some time ago, before you arrived here as a medical student, after thought, prayer, conversation, reflection and emotion but with full intention, made a decision on your behalf," he says. "You thus became a beneficiary of a gift from a total stranger. . . . We hope you will always remain appreciative for this gift."
     The 23rd Psalm—"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death"—is read, and a pair of students, Mona Patel and Dan Micheller, offer reflections.
     "We must not forget to recognize the real contributors here, which are these respectable bodies before us," says Patel. "Their one altruistic act has changed many things about us. . . . I wonder if they knew that they are gifts that would not only allow us to open a body full of anatomical structures, but a whole new chapter into our personal development. . . . I value that this stranger, whose real name I will never know, has allowed me to examine, palpate and learn from his human body. . . . What I really would have loved to do is hold my cadaver's hand and say a sincere 'Thank you.' "
     "It's been 10 weeks since we first set foot in this anatomy lab," says Micheller. "Ten weeks since formaldehyde became our scent of choice. Ten weeks since the beginning of our remarkable journey. Ten weeks since we unzipped those white plastic bags, lowered the wet sheets and were introduced to our traveling companion and true anatomy teacher. . . . Take a moment to think about the things we get to do every day—from feeling the unique texture of lungs, to peering inside a human heart—things others can only imagine. In this process, it's easy to view the cadaver as a biological specimen, however, at the same time, minor details—bright pink nail polish, whiskers on an old man's cheek—remind us of the humanity of our cadavers."
     While these students avoid the mockery of bygone days, they are still students, and do indulge in a bit of gentle lightheartedness by naming their cadavers—Gertrude, Sally, Mildred—"old people's names," explains one, apt since the majority of donors were elderly.
     As soon as the ceremony concludes, the sheets are drawn back and the students return to studying—in the morning, they'll confront these same bodies, with numbered tags marking structures they will identify—or fail to identify.
     "Where's the inferior laryngeal artery?" asks Drew Benjamin.
     Emil Fernando expresses a sentiment that isn't surprising in students who, having crammed to learn each strand of a human body, are now confronted with the real thing and required to name any given part.
     "Everything looks the same!" he exclaims, gazing hard into the jumble of flesh.

        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 23, 2009

Friday, January 5, 2018

You believe your wild improbabilities, I'll believe mine

A Section of the Constellation Cygnus, (August 13, 1885) by Paul Henry (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Taylor Swift lives in my basement. I saw her. Well, saw a flash of something once out of the corner of my eye on the stairs. But I'm convinced it was her. I've also snapped a photograph — it looks like a murky blotch, because it was dark, but it's definitely her. I know it. Some nights I awake to catch a scurrying sound, which seems like a few faint notes of "Shake It Off" filtering through the walls. It's the only explanation.
     Convinced? Would it help if I point out that I am a professional journalist, for whom honesty and observation are vital skills?
     No? What's the matter? Closed-minded? Hostile to Swift, an intelligent and talented young woman? Can you prove she isn't there?
     If you don't believe Taylor Swift lives in my basement, then why would you — or anybody — ever believe that UFOs are visitors from outer space? A far more incredible claim, incidentally, since there can be no question whatsoever that Taylor Swift exists somewhere. The same could never be said about visiting space aliens.
     Why is this important? As if 2017 hadn't been a carnival of fabrication already, thanks to the current occupant of the Oval Office alone, in mid-December came news of a government program investigating UFO sightings, and Navy pilots' encounter with — something unexplained. Exactly the sort of mixture to add fuel to the fires of uncritical belief: a secret program, a murky video, testimony from Top Gun types.
     The murky photographic evidence — is there ever any other kind? — is of a "white tic tac" that appeared in 2004, supposedly, on the cameras of a U.S. Navy pilot, Cmdr. David Fravor, whose encounter off the coast of San Diego while flying a F/A-18F Super Hornet was enough to immediately convince him that whatever he was seeing was "something not from this Earth."
     That's quite a leap.

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

"Be strong, be clean."


     When I heard on the radio that Thomas Monson died Tuesday, I immediately knew who he was, even before the newscaster identified him. Not just for the reason many do—he is cited in a line in "I Believe," a song in the wildly-popular 2011 musical "The Book of Mormon"—"And I believe that the current President of the Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God"—but he also has a cameo in "The Quest for Pie,"
my as-yet unpublished memoir of traveling out West with my boys in 2009. We pull into Salt Lake City and, of course, head directly to the Mormon Temple, where soon we were treated to Monson's take on pornography.

     “Let’s get started,” said Sister Cross, a missionary from Australia, a tall, handsome, broad-shouldered woman with reddish brown hair who looked like an Olympic swimmer.
     “Welcome to Temple Square,” chimed in Sister Sarah, a missionary from Japan, petite and dark-haired. Both wore long skirts, short-sleeved white blouses under sweater vests, kind of a demure 1950s schoolgirl look.
     We had arrived at downtown Salt Lake City perhaps an hour before.
     The young woman behind the desk at the Peery—and wow, these Utah gals are good-looking—tapped at her computer, and happily welcomed us a day early. The boys got their own suite—I had one a floor above. Suddenly, everything was gravy. The car was safely parked—on the street across from the hotel, no parking problems here, apparently—we decided to walk to the Mormon Temple, the lone point on our agenda. Because really, what else is here?
     We walked the six blocks from the hotel—pure blue skies ahead, the streets wide and completely empty of pedestrians. Walking must be an exotic practice in Salt Lake City. Lots of construction going on, cranes everywhere. Kent, charmingly, thought the Mormons were a brand of Jews, since they had a temple, which I only realized after he pointed out a large Jewish star worked into the architecture. I did my best to explain what Mormonism is—a funky outshoot of Christianity, with golden plates and Joseph Smith. Many people consider them strange, but in my view they are only unfamiliar. All religions other than your own are strange when you first learn about them, and it is one of those tragic ironies of human nature that a person can cleave to the most rococo faith, jammed with the most elaborate rigmarole and hushed mystery hoo-ha, which of course are believed sincerely as merely the ineffable will of the Lord God Almighty made manifest, and that person can nevertheless turn with a snarl to mock someone else for belonging to a bizarre cult.
     That’s a big reason religious conservatives are often so hostile to other faiths—not because they’re so different, but because they’re so similar, and it’s a short leap from seeing how ridiculous other beliefs seem to beginning to suspect how ridiculous your own are, too. Thus other faiths must be ignored or trivialized or suppressed because respecting them will, eventually, cast doubt upon your own. It’s easier to burn others than to question your own.
     Our guides engaged us—a strategy to draw the marks in. What, Sister Cross asked the boys, did they know about Mormonism? I stepped in, offering that I had tried to explain Mormonism to them in the car on the way over.
     She smiled, indulgently.
     "What did you tell them?" she asked.
     I told her I had said that, in the same way Catholicism is Christianity with an overlay of distinctive Catholic trappings—the pope, the Holy Trinity, transubstantiation and such—so Mormonism takes a base of Jesus-worship and festoons it with the specifics of Mormon history: Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the Angel Moroni, golden plates, a genealogy fixation. . . .
      She said nice try, but no cigar. The key aspect of Mormonism, she said, is that unlike other religions, it has a living prophet, still, to this day, Thomas S. Monson, the 16th living prophet, who traces his ancestry directly back to Jesus Christ and is in regular communication with God.
     The Visitors Center at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City dwarfs the one in Los Angeles, and is filled with large painted murals from moments in Mormon history and idealized depictions of life—“Our Heavenly Father’s Plan For Families” — with happy white people sowing grain, marrying, teaching their children, their faces awash in joy and light, frozen in ecstasy. It reminded me of North Korean propaganda. Even the occasional black or Asian or Hispanic person thrown in for minimal racial balance looked bled white in this setting. The boys and I delicately picked our way over the place—beautifully designed, Smithsonian quality, with maps and mannequins, artifacts, videos, tableaus, models—then signed up for the tour.
     Sisters Cross and Sarah explained to us how God had led Brigham Young to the present location in the 1840s, where he stuck his cane in the ground and decreed this was the spot where he would build his church.
     We were walked through the enormous hall where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs. Music has always been an important part of Mormonism and, given the chilly reception the idea of Mormonism gets in the rest of the country, the choir is something of a goodwill ambassador, or was when I was growing up. Now they don’t seem as big a deal, or perhaps its presence is just overwhelmed by the rising din of society.
     Kent admired the scale model of Jerusalem—Mormons tend to like Jews, even more, it sometimes seems, than Jews like Jews. Ross—who always pays close attention at museums—strayed from the group, going into the little glassed-in booths off to the side where snippets of taped lectures from Monson, the latest prophet in an unbroken line from Young, were being played on TV screens.
     “Be strong, be clean around such degrading and destructive content at all costs,” Monson was saying, in a talk entitled, “Be Clean.” “I add particularly to the young people, my beloved friends, under no circumstances permit yourself to be trapped by the viewing of pornography.”
     “Of all Christianity, this is my favorite faction,” said Ross.
     The missionaries were obviously poised for us to express interest in Mormonism—maybe whisk us off to a special chamber for further instruction, or that baptism I had waved off in Los Angeles. Yeah right, I thought, that’s going to happen. It’s an insult, really, how these folk expect you to readily drop whatever dogma you’ve believed all your life, and your forebears before you, and accept their faith based on some murals and a few lines of ballyhoo. But I suppose it does happen. Soft-willed visitors must sign up on the spot. I wondered if it goes the other way, wondered how many guys try to corrupt the missionary spokeswomen—that must happen too. At least the attempt must happen; I doubt many missionaries are led astray, though you never know. Not the sort of thing I would attempt, though it was entertaining to ponder the concept—they seem to feel entitled to pressure you into considering their way of life, why shouldn’t turnabout be fair play? Maybe God wants you to do whatever the heck you want.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Kokoraleis already free to wander back into mind, bringing his horror

Human Head Cake Box Murder, by Weegee
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     Violent crime is down, yet we don't feel safer.
     Homicides dropped 15 percent in Chicago in 2017; shootings down too.
     Doesn't help.
     Why? Many reasons. First, our murder rate is still very high — 664 people killed in Chicago last year, more than in New York and Los Angeles combined.
     Second, Chicago has become a punching bag, our crime problem as a presidential punchline.
     Third, the media is more attuned to crime. Racism used to prompt the mainstream press to ignore entire neighborhoods, places it now tries to do a better job of noticing.
     Fourth, crime is so awful it resonates, echoing in ways that have nothing to do with statistics. If there were one shooting in Chicago last year, that would be a lot if the person shot were you. Were there just one murder, the world would still become a tragic and dangerous place for hundreds of friends and loved ones of the victim.
     Lastly, not only do we have this last year's crimes to ruffle our sense of security, but crimes from the past have a way of wandering back to disturb us anew.
     "They're letting Kokoraleis out," I said grimly to my wife over the breakfast table.
    "Who?" she replied. Because she never worked at a newspaper. Never, as I have, filled in for the beat reporter at the Cook County Criminal Court, 26th and California. Never sat in the grubby press room, at a little metal desk. Never idly pulled open a drawer and noticed a manila folder labeled "Kokoraleis." Never flipped the folder open and began to read.

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

I'll take two semaphore flags and a 16X Powered Riser Adapter Card

     Once, the challenge was writing the new year on your checks.
     A few days into 1994 you'd still be writing 1993.
     Darn this relentless change!
     Ah, hahahahaha.
     Now we've got new devices and concepts flung at us like overripe tomatoes while the stalwarts crumble.
     I had one of those moments last week when you can almost feel the howling winds of change.
     Friday night, a friend asked my wife and me to stop over for dessert.
     Tea. Christmas cookies. Doesn't sound like the prelude to challenging your concept of the monetary system, does it?
     So we're sipping tea, nibbling cookies. Enter the son, back from college. Up from the basement where he's . . . doing what? Guess! Running a train set? No. Mining crypto-currency? Yes. All the kids are doing it. We adults troop downstairs to watch.
     A metal shelf. And a dozen or so black slabs of video cards, electronics. Glowing red lights. A flat screen spitting strings of numbers.
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Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year's Day

Hercules Resting, Florence, late 15th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     I've always enjoyed New Year's Day more than New Year's Eve. It hardly seems necessary to point out why. New Year's Eve is pressure—the year is counting down, gotta get out, gotta go somewhere fun, gotta then have fun, gotta make the most of these remaining hours of indulgence and excess before the rigor of the New Year sets in and we try to become the people we believe ourselves to be.
     Crowded rooms, friends and strangers, noisy, dark, smoky. Even when I was drinking I never really liked it. Especially when I was drinking.
     By New Year's morning, that has changed. The light dawns. Real life returns, which is celebration aplenty. There are no demands, no appointments, no countdowns—a few New Year's Day parties, low key affairs where you may arrive when you wish or not at all. The day is cold and sunless and still, a beginning, an opening note, pregnant with promise.
     "All is quiet," U2 sings, "on New Year's Day."
     Indeed it is, a kind of blessed quiet, a morning stillness. Little to do, little that can be done. Doing nothing is a vastly under-rated activity. Reposing, reclining, napping, thinking. It's very hard to fuck it up, to do it wrong. Even world class revelers know that the time comes to retreat, retrench, rethink.
     "And if you know what’s good for you, on days like these you sort of hunker down in a safe corner and watch," Hunter S. Thompson wrote. Wise words.
     A time to reflect, to assess, to take stock.
     "Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain, but upon taking of cold," Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary on Jan. 1, 1660. "I lived in Axe Yard having my wife, and servant Jane, and no more in family than us three."
     Thoughts have a way of quickly turning to the future.
     "My wife … gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year."
     She wasn't, as he would discover. Then onto the nation.
     "The condition of the State was thus; viz. the Rump" —perhaps the best term ever applied to a legislative body— "after being disturbed by my Lord Lambert, was lately returned to sit again. The officers of the Army all forced to yield. Lawson lies still in the river, and Monk is with his army in Scotland. Only my Lord Lambert is not yet come into the Parliament, nor is it expected that he will without being forced to it. The new Common Council of the City do speak very high..."
     See how tiresome politics become? How evanescent? How meaningless to all who come after, assuming they weren't meaningless at the time. That's why I avoided year-end summations this year—we all know what happened. Anyone who doesn't know by now never will. Better to stick to yourself.

     "My own private condition very handsome," wrote Pepys, a view common among 26-year-olds then and now, "and esteemed rich, but indeed very poor."
    Sounds about right. 
    "I staid at home all the afternoon, looking over my accounts," he wrote.
     That's a plan. I'm going to do that too. And continue to resist the temptation to look ahead, at least for today. We don't have to squint and attempt augury. We just have to wait and find out. Besides, who can tell? It's been such a random and strange year, of daily if not hourly shocks culminating in a deadening sameness, surprise after surprise pelting down on our sodden, blown-out senses. I wouldn't hazard a guess what will happen Jan. 2, never mind the entire year. For people who press, I say, "I think in 2018 the rubber will really hit the road." What does that even mean? I sure as hell don't know; I suppose, as real and stark as it has been, I expect it to get realer and starker. 
    But not today.  Today the world is born anew, a fresh day, a new year.  A good time to pause, to breathe deep, rest and prepare for the task ahead. Good luck. Coming home last night from our New Year's fun, I parked the car, then squeaking over the snow to the house, looked up at the crisp black sky, the stars twinkling through the -2 degree gelid air. I picked a promising star and wished, out loud, "I hope 2018 is a good year." It wasn't much of a strategy, but it will have to do, for now. Happy New Year.