Sunday, February 18, 2018

It isn't as if we're ALL for Lipinski

Ichabod Crane
     A few readers expressed shock on my Facebook page that the Sun-Times would endorse Dan Lipinski. While I generally try to stand behind the paper—we're all in the boat together, pulling on the oars—this is a case where I have to set my face into a blank expression and mutter "sorry, not my table," as I hurry past. I'm not on the board. I don't make these decisions.
    But as people were also explaining to me the sketchy circumstances of Lipinski's elevation, I found myself  grumbling, "I know, I KNOW!" and thought I should dig out a few examples of my handling of the man, to illustrate that we might have lapsed on this race, but generally have done our part in the past and might do so again in the future. Even noble Homer dozed.

     Perhaps due to my own manifest bodily deficiencies—eggplant nose on a garbage can head teetering on a Baby Huey physique—I tend to notice personal flaws.
     When the Jedi Council sits around, for instance, trading tales of Sen. Peter Fitzgerald's shortcomings as a politician and legislator, I am apt to chime in, "And he's got that awful facial tick."
     Or when Rep. Rahm Emanuel—whom I admire—first visited, to be quizzed about his views, I had to restrain myself from chirping, "What happened to your finger?"
     Childish, I know. Even more starkly so on Wednesday, when college professor and hereditary Congressman Dan Lipinski stopped by to introduce himself. The mood in the room was somber, as befits a subversion of the democratic process, and as my colleagues established that he was going to stick to the ludicrous tale of how his father, Rep. Bill Lipinski, just happened to decide to retire so his son could miss the primary and run against a sham opponent, I fixated on his looks.
     An unsettling, bird-like quality to the man—rail-thin, glittering, deep-set eyes, a prominent Adam's apple. Like a character from literature, and I struggled to conjure which one. Then it hit me—Ichabod Crane, the guy from the Washington Irving tale, fleeing the Headless Horseman. He had the same timidity, the same lack of ... something.
     He spoke in bromides. "I believe my job is to help my constituents," he said. "My campaign is about what I'm going to do for the people." Golly.
     He said how he will be his own man, then explained his goal of finding a perch on his dad's congressional committee.
     The more I studied this frail, awkward-speaking academic (his poor students; the heart breaks) the more I felt an odd pang of sympathy. Clearly, he wasn't burning up the scholarly world, even down in the backwater of Tennessee. I'm convinced that, rather than run the risk of his son ending up behind the counter at Wendy's, Bill Lipinski decided to plunk him into a comfortable berth. He got his boy a good job, and while the U.S. Congress is supposed to be more than a sinecure for one's relatives, this can't be the first time it has happened. I can't see into the future. Maybe Dan Lipinski will surprise us, and surpass expectations. He certainly will, now that I think of it. He couldn't do worse.

                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 20, 2004


     Six years ago, when Rep. Bill Lipinski bequeathed his seat to his son, the fortunate boy visited the editorial board to try to charm us. I described the meeting this way:
     "College professor and hereditary Congressman Dan Lipinski stopped by to introduce himself. The mood in the room was somber, as befits a subversion of the democratic process, and as my colleagues established that he was going to stick to the ludicrous tale of how his father, Rep. Bill Lipinski, just happened to decide to retire so his son could miss the primary and run against a sham opponent, I fixated on his looks.
     "An unsettling, bird-like quality to the man—rail-thin, glittering, deep-set eyes, a prominent Adam's apple. Like a character from literature, and I struggled to conjure which one. Then it hit me—Ichabod Crane, the guy from the Washington Irving tale, fleeing the Headless Horseman. He had the same timidity, the same lack of . . . something. He spoke in bromides. 'I believe my job is to help my constituents,' he said. 'My campaign is about what I'm going to do for the people.' ''
     It turns out, what he is going to do for the people is make sure that not one federal dollar finds its way to an abortion clinic, even if it meant that the 57,000 voters in his district without health insurance never get any. He was one of the Democrats who said he was voting against health-care reform, out of his concern for life.
     It was surprising to see Lipinski making a stand—sort of like a guy who crashes your party turning around and complaining about the dip.
     Six years ago, I concluded that, considering the low expectations for this Tennessee carpetbagger, "he couldn't do worse."
     I stand corrected. He has done worse. The Sun-Times regrets the error.
                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 22, 2010

"The sense of its necessity"

Four Men Aiming Guns—Cheyenne drawing from the Maffet Ledger, Oklahoma, circa 1880 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    Is it me? The giddy optimist secretly curled up inside and hidden within my perpetually-disappointed, curmudgeonly shell. Or does the agonized cry of helplessness following the massacre of 17 students and teachers Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. feel a little different? A little less helpless?
     It certainly is different, because of the immediate, active role the surviving students took in pushing back against the usual Republican palms-to-the-sky shrug and muddled, vague talk about mental illness and it being continually too soon to talk about anything substantive.  That felt different. Perhaps significant.
     Too soon to tell, of course. And if history is any judge, we cry and fulminate, shake our fists to the sky, ask why God why, then revert to form.
    And yet.
    Maybe the habit of opposing the horrors of the administration of Donald Trump ($30 million from the gun lobby) and the venalities of Marco Rubio ($3.3 million) and Mitch McConnell ($1.25 million) and the rest have made apathy a little less acceptable. 
    Maybe the hollowness of the nothing-we-do-will-be-1oo-percent-effective-so-let's-do-nothing argument rings extra hollow. Maybe people are realizing they don't apply that non-logic to anything else, alas. (No wall across the Southern border will keep out all illegal immigrants so lets not waste money building it). 
    Maybe we've finally realized that unless we mobilize we are never, ever going to stop this. And just as it has happened again and again, it will happen again and again. And again. And again. 
    Maybe we're okay with that. We've vowed change and allowed nothing to happen before. There is always Newtown, and all the rest, mute testimony to our failure and inertia. The Republicans not only do nothing but get re-elected on a clear platform of never doing anything, no matter what. The solution to guns is always more guns, as brilliantly parodied in that Onion piece about gorilla sales skyrocketing after a spate of gorilla attacks.
    The truth is clear. Other countries don't go through this. Just us. Special America. The gun manufacturers have sold this lie, that guns are needed to stave off government overreach and raging criminals, even while the government contracts and crime falls, generally, to historic low levels.
       What was it Lord Byron wrote?   
And the commencement of atonement is
The sense of its necessity. 
     Many Americans know it is necessary. Big time. Most of us do, really. But is that enough? I am not so naive as to think any of this will be easy. But where we stand is all so clear: the Republicans are paid agents of the enormously-profitable gun industry, and they have sold our children's lives, and will continue to do so until somebody stops them. Until America rises up and stops them. Maybe now is the time.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Auto Show Spectacular #4: Motoring to Sycamore in a new Bentley

     The Auto Show is in Chicago, winding up this weekend, and to celebrate I'm running some of my favorite car columns.
     This one is special; it directly resulted in the creation of the blog you're reading. 
     After it was printed, one word stuck in the craw of the publisher at the time: "friend." He came to see me. "Why are you writing columns promoting your friend's business?" he demanded. I explained that George Kiebala was not my actual friend in the traditional sense of the word. I had met him exactly twice, both times so he could hand over a car for journalistic purposes, here and when I wrote a story about driving a Ferrari for Michigan Avenue magazine. "Friend" just seemed an apt term of affection for anybody who would loan me a $185,000 car.
     I might have gotten off the hook had I left it there. But, warming to my topic, I floated a question of my own, something along the lines of, "And how come when you asked me to write about the Tesla S, I didn't respond, 'Oh you mean the Tesla that Michael Ferro owns? The Tesla produced by his pal, Elon Musk? The Telsa that he's an investor in? You want me to write about THAT Tesla?' No, I just wrote the column. Why when it comes from you, it's journalism, but when it comes from me, it's corruption?"
    Boom.  A week's suspension. Which so shocked me. Not so much I told anybody at the paper. I just began doggedly reporting stories. But I also began think that I was going to be pitched into the water soon and had better build a boat. I took a web domain name I had bought, created a blog around it, and two months later debuted. So it all turned out okay in the end. 

     A buddy throws a yearly party, which is good. Parties are good. But the party is in Sycamore, which is bad. A lovely town, Sycamore, but when storytellers of old coined "in a land far, far away," they had Sycamore in mind. OK, it's only 60 miles west of Chicago. Still a haul, especially if you plan on coming back; then it's 120 miles round-trip.
     Usually I solve this dilemma by not going to the party, which works, but is not all that friendly. This year though, well, we went to dinner and had such a fun time, I resolved I would get myself to his party, 120 miles or no.
     My mind—as regular readers know—can work strangely. I automatically strive to embellish life, to add pizzazz. So I thought, "Well, if my wife and I have to drive this 120 miles, then we might as well drive it in style."
     Which is where another friend, George Kiebala, comes in. George owns Curvy Road, an exotic car timeshare company in Palatine. It's like a condo timeshare, only for luxury cars, though you don't actually own part of the car but part of the car's use for a year.
     It works like this: Rich folk who own really expensive cars—Ferraris and Lamborghinis and such— often don't drive them much since they're always working to stay rich. Yet they don't want to sell their babies. So they turn them over to George, and he pairs the cars up with semi-rich folk.
     Four springs ago, I borrowed his Ferrari 355 F1 Spider. It was fun. My boys slightly altered their general opinion of Dad as some stone loser in a dying trade. George told me to come back any time. Every spring since, when the weather warms, I remember his offer but chicken out. Driving a super-fast car that belongs to someone else is a palm-moistening experience, at least for me, whose mind skips nimbly ahead to the bad as well as the good, to imagined encounters with bridge abutments and unhappy police officers and tickets for felony speeding. So I put it off.
     Into that mental mix add Sycamore, and those 120 miles.
     For those who pay, Curvy Road isn't cheap—you pay a $1,250 membership to join for three years, then purchase either a one-tenth share for $12,000 or more, depending on the car, or a one-fifth share for $18,000 or more, based on a 40-week year (leaving a dozen weeks for maintenance, delivery, etc.; the owner gets to use unbooked time). In other words, at least $3,000 a week for four weeks, or $2,250 a week for eight. Still a boatload of money for working folk, but far more affordable than the jaw-dropping sticker price of these cars.
     George tried to interest me in an Audi R8, a mid-engine monster sportscar with a glass hood. He took me out on a test spin. There was lots of laughter—joyful laughter, nervous laughter, oh-my-god-we're-gonna-die laughter. And while I enjoyed the experience, if only for its sheer terror, I preferred the 2013 Bentley Continental Twin Turbo GT V8, a brand new $185,000 coupe that belongs to a surgeon but could be mine, briefly, for driving-to-Sycamore purposes.
     "Bentley has always been the thinking man's Rolls-Royce," said George, with approval, during our test drive. The level of quality is amazing."
     That it is. The interior, flawless brown leather from cows that are not fenced, to avoid hide damage. Eucalyptus wood dashboard. A clock that is basically an $8,000 Breitling watch. Double-paned windows.
     "This is seriously a work of art," said George. "It's like riding around in a museum."
     A museum that leaves other cars at a light like their tires are nailed to the road. Cautious sort that I am, I fretted about insurance. George assured me I was fully covered. Besides, "A car like this, your awareness is heightened by an imaginary bubble around it. In 14 years, I've had virtually zero incidents. It's been unbelievable."
     My awareness certainly was heightened driving away from his Palatine headquarters in my new Bentley. I was keenly aware of how lucky I am, and laughed loud and long at fate that, even for a day, let me behind the wheel of this baby.
     On my block, the neighbors were outside, thank you God. They walked over as in a trance. "Beautiful," one sighed.
     Soon my wife and I were cutting through the cornfields—or whatever fields, I'm not a botanist— heading to the party. And there an interesting thing happened. I parked in the driveway. We mingled and nibbled and sipped and chatted. Conversation went here and there, and I puzzled over how to guide it toward the deluxe ride that had brought us, the better to bathe in its reflected, undeserved glow. But I was so warmed already, it wasn't a priority. I didn't have to brag or tell anybody—I knew. Suddenly it was time to go—a Bulls game to watch with the boys—and as I encouraged my wife toward the door, I found myself holding the elaborate Bentley key fob, not down at my side, but sort of up, before me, almost chest level, in both hands, as if I were fiddling with it, but actually just sort of displaying the winged "B" - that's what these fobs are for, I realized. No one noticed, and I didn't thrust it under anyone's nose, which normally would not be beyond me. But I was so centered, so in the zone, it wasn't necessary, and we drove home in our beautiful car.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 26, 2013 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Party with the devil without selling your soul; win tickets to "Faust"

The Lyric's new Faust uses a dramatic set design by renowned sculptor John Frame (Photo courtesy of Cory Weaver)

     Given our national tendency to embrace the incredible, and entertain the possibility of almost any conceivable scenario, no matter how fantastic, it is perhaps surprising there is not widespread speculation that Donald Trump has sold his soul to the devil. That would solve the mystery of how a third-rate Manhattan con artist, laughingstock and poster boy for glittery 1980s venality could become, in short order, a best-selling author, television star and president of the United States.
     Plus, it would explain his notable lack of a soul.
     Perhaps the entire idea of signing away your immortal spirit to Satan has lost popular culture currency, a regrettable development I am happy to try to correct, in my own modest way, on Tuesday, March 6, by bringing 100 readers to the Civic Opera House see one of my favorite operas, “Faust,” by Charles Gounod, performed by Lyric Opera of Chicago.
     The story, in case you are unfamiliar, is a legendary tale told most famously by Goethe.
     Goethe’s original version begins with shades of Job: Satan makes a bet with God that he can corrupt his favorite human. The curtain goes up on Gonound’s opera with the philosopher in despair. The Devil offers him youth and love and — spoiler alert — Faust signs the bargain.
     The plot, however, the duels and dances, is not the main reason I like “Faust.” Rather it is what is always my first consideration in opera: the music, which in”Faust” whirls in sinister menace and races with hell-bound drive.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

J.B. Pritzker is (not) a racist

     For a number of years I wrote for the Chicago Reader, both the BobWatch and the True Books columns, and occasional columns and features. Then for a number of years I didn't, for the simple reason they weren't interested in my writing for them. Now my old pal, Mark Konkol, is editor. He asked me if I would write on this topic, and I said, "Sure." It's good to be back in the Reader. 

     Do you remember the word Bobby Rush used to describe anyone who might question the selection of toothless political hack Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama's vacant senatorial seat?
     Think back. Almost a decade ago. December 2008.
     Rod Blagojevich was out on parole, having already so badly mangled the deliberation process that he was muscled out of his Ravenswood home in handcuffs by the FBI. Still, he insisted on appointing a senator, as his final obscene gesture to the state he'd betrayed.
     Anyone with an ounce of personal integrity cringed away from the poisoned chalice Blago was proffering with both hands.
     But the septuagenarian Burris, who had space on his pharaonic tomb to list another accomplishment, grabbed it eagerly.
     No? Don't remember? It was a long time ago.
     Rush, after thanking God that a black man had been made senator, urged anyone in the U.S. Senate who might oppose the former attorney general's appointment not to "lynch" the man.
     He went there. Easily. From long practice. Because really, the only reason a person would not want a 71-year-old undistinguished political functionary dropped into a seat in the United States Senate had to be racial hate.

     To continue reading, click here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Americans have always agonized over tipping

     Tipping is back in the news. The Sun-Times ran a full page analysis on Monday.
     “Fourteen years ago,” Ohio journalist Connie Schultz began, in a column syndicated across the country, “I wrote a column about a tip jar in Cleveland and how the managers took all the money….”
     She goes on to discuss the Labor Department’s latest efforts to make it easier for tips to flow into the pockets of management and not, necessarily, to the workers for whom they are supposedly intended.
     There’s no reason why our view of the topic should stop in 2004. Tipping has been an issue of heated debate in this country for over a century, with the discovery of who really benefits from tipping being a reliable scandal that, though periodically revealed, somehow never quite sinks into general public
     “The bestower of this always reluctant largess is a notably unsophisticated person if he thinks that it goes to the young man or woman who collects the coin,” the New York Times noted on Aug. 31, 1917. “Neither one or the other receives more
 than a minute weekly salary, paid by the corporation that employs him or her. All the rest, and by far the larger amount … is divided between that corporation and the proprietors of the hotels and restaurants.”

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Auto Show Spectacular #3: Blowing about town in a new Nissan Leaf


     The Auto Show is at McCormick Place this week. To celebrate, I'm revisiting some of my favorite car columns. Such as this, from 2011, where I become the first civilian in the Chicago area to drive a Nissan Leaf. Or at least tried to be.

      "Here's your key," said the man from Nissan, my first adjustment to the brave new world of electric cars, since what he handed me wasn't a key at all, in the sense of something metal that slides into an ignition and turns, but an oval fob.
     The fob had buttons to lock and unlock a 2011 Nissan Leaf, the all-electric car debuting in Chicago this weekend. But to start it, all that was necessary was for the fob to be near the ignition, an orange push button.
     Which led to the second adjustment. Starting the car caused the dashboard to spring to life, chirping a brief electronic fanfare, but nothing so industrial as engine noise. It drives silently—a slight electric whine if you mash on the accelerator. There are no pistons to rattle, no tailpipe to roar.
     I dropped the Nissan guy at the train—the plan was for me to drive it for a few days. I came home, parked in the driveway, and the Leaf passed its first big test: the neighbors.
     "What's with the car?" said the boy from next door, who stopped playing basketball and sauntered over to admire the sky blue vehicle. I explained that this is the new Nissan Leaf. No gas tank! No emissions!
     "Cool," he pronounced. By then the silent alarm that new cars emit—like a dog whistle - drew a crowd. The boy's mom. Then Bill from across the street. I popped the little nose hatch to show off the charging outlet.
     "Very cool," Bill said, adding the headlights remind him of a French Citroen.
     My oldest boy burst out of the house, barefooted, demanding a test drive, and we blew around the leafy suburban paradise in my Leaf. The car accelerates briskly.
     If I had to predict challenges the Leaf will face, I'd say first, the 100-mile range on a charge. Americans like to pretend they live in a world of infinite possibility. We don't like limits. That's why speedometers go to 160.
     Second, the $34,000 price tag; a lot for a small car, though that will no doubt come down while the single-charge range goes up. 
     Shortly after we returned, my wife needed to go to the grocery. The Leaf was blocking the driveway. I might as well take her. The boys wanted to come along for the ride.
     So now my family is sitting in the car. I push the button, the dashboard leaps to life. All the windows are open—to savor the engine silence—and I notice the air conditioner pumping out chilled air. Frugal soul that I am, I press the AC "ON/OFF" button and then try to put the car into reverse. Nothing.
     I try again. I could put the Leaf into neutral, but not reverse or drive. Sweating, I work the stumpy shifter. Warning lights glow across the dashboard. An enigmatic "PS." I turn the thing off and on. That normally works. Nothing. Dad killed the electric car.
     I jog inside and plug "Nissan Leaf" and "won't start" and "PS" into Google. The first page is a "Leaf Wiki" saying that this spring several hundred Leafs had a problem where, if you turn the AC off, the car goes dead.
     "What to do?" offered this advice:
     "Your best bet is to call Nissan road-side service to have the car towed/transported to a Nissan dealer."
     I phoned my Nissan guy, who said, more or less "whoops," and sent a flatbed truck. This is where not laying out 34 grand helps.
     My wife still needed to go to the supermarket, and since the car would go into neutral, she, my younger son and I pushed it off to the side so she could slide by in our gas-guzzling yet functional Honda. I appreciated the Leaf's agile maneuverability as I steered it through the open driver's door.
     A few thoughts: No new technology ever arrives without setback. Ford Model Ts could break your arm when you cranked them. In the pantheon of car design flaws, with exploding gas tanks and unstable SUVs, the Nissan AC Button of Electric Death is but a footnote.
     I still think this car is the future. Republicans can rage against global warming all they like. But the animals are moving north, away from rising temperatures. The science is there, and while that might not affect someone who believes the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, for the rest of us, change is coming.
     An hour later, the Leaf was gone. My gut tells me I'll never hear from Nissan again,* which is a shame, because I did like the car, and wish I could have driven it more. Nissan told me they pushed up unveiling the Leaf in Chicago because the city has been so progressive about electric car charging stations - I was excited to see what charging it up is like.
     The Leaf is a sporty little vehicle, when operational, and I hope its debut here this weekend is a big success. But a practical tip: if you are tooling your Leaf around town, and the air conditioning is on, well, just leave it.
             —First published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 22, 2011

* I underestimated the daring of the Nissan Corporation. Even after this ran, they followed up with a second Leaf. I didn't touch the AC.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Fox News shares the blame for our national fiasco

Natasha, foreground, and Gizmo, in a characteristic pose.

     We have two cats, Natasha and Gizmo. Old cats, given to lazing on our bed all day. But occasionally one will, in a burst of industry, drag a freshly killed mouse out of the inner recesses of our 110-year-old farmhouse and leave it in a conspicuous spot. A present.
     Social media is kinda like that. There is always some eager soul who finds a hurtful comment about me in the enormity of the internet and leaves it on my doorstep.“Gosh, isn’t this awful?” they say. “I thought you’d want to see it.” Why yes, yes it is awful. Thank you for sharing.
     No human birddog is even necessary anymore. It’s now done automatically.
     “Neil Steinberg’s tweet was featured in Fox News” happily informed me.
     Oh goody. Thanks! I never look at Fox News. I haven’t the stomach to see reality so deformed. It’s like looking at photographs of spoiled food. Something that should be appealing — the news — rendered noxious by corrosive agents.

     Sighing, I turned my attention to “Mainstream media attacking Trump’s ‘dumb’ idea for military parade” by Brian Flood.
     True enough. As if spurred by an accidentally accurate headline, Flood begins his analysis this way: “The mainstream media have suddenly taken a drastic stance against parades.”

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Auto Show Spectacular #2: A week in the fastest production car on the road

     The Chicago Auto Show opened this weekend. To celebrate, I'm re-visiting some of my favorite car-related columns from years past. There are a few things that make me wince—those six dashes in a single sentence in the second paragraph. But generally I'm surprised and pleased at how much, at 24, my narrative voice was the same as it is now, and there are a few novel metaphors that I am proud to have coined.

     "Would you like a 1985 Corvette?" the Chevy man said, flashing a smile that was friendly and kind.
     "Yes, please," I answered, sensing my journalistic integrity melt away like a snowman in the spring thaw. I knew the scenario: they give me a new 1985 Chevrolet Corvette—fastest production car made—and I drive it around for a week —350 cubic inch V8 under the hood—and write an article—top speed of 155 mph—drooling with praise about this car, using phrases like "ultimate expression of man's love affair with the automobile" and "sleek styling that dropped jaws like a gallon of Novocain."
      Would I take the bait? Hell yes. Some cyborg might be able to pass the opportunity or, worse, drive the thing and then produce a dry essay on the perils of excess. Not this cowboy. Pleasures in life are to be taken and enjoyed, and driving a Corvette is about as pleasurable as something can be.
     WELL here goes:
     On Tuesday, I parked my little Citation—also a Chevy, but related to the Corvette in the same way Morris the Cat is related to a cheetah—in back of the office. Then I climbed int the cockpit of this metallic blue low slung beauty. I fired up the engine and gingerly, very gingerly, applied my foot to the gas pedal, my head smacking against the driver's window as the car bucked and surged around a corner.
     Driving in traffic was like trying to ice a cake with a shovel. I quickly discovered a thing or two about the Corvette. Hitting the gas pedal with any conviction caused the rear end to do a little jig, until the fat Goodyear tires managed to dig in and catch. Then zing. It was as if God grabbed the car by the belt and the scruff of the neck and heaved it forward into space. Almost as if you could project the car ahead by thought alone. One moment I would be idling at a stoplight, sneaking glimpses to the side to see if anyone was ogling the car. The next: hurtling forward, the digital dash ticking upward, my heart pounding as traffic became a bunch of specks in the rear-view mirror.
    The week I drove the car strange things started happening to my mind. Having been content to plunk along at a sane four-cylinder speed for years, I realized that incredible rates of acceleration were not at my fingertips.
     Then there was the thrill of being nestled in the middle of a command center of $27,000 worth of electronic goodies, from the all-LED digital dashboard that glowed a gentle gold and green, to the Delco Bose stereo system that had the friendly quality of extending the radio antenna whenever it was turned on.
     It was frustrating to lurch and crawl through downtown traffic. As soon as I got it out in the open and began roaring down the dark back roads of the northwest suburbs, I knew what was in store for me, sometime during the week. it would happen. The Total Speed Lust Experience. I saw the blank third digit of the speedometer, and knew what I had to do.
    But not the first day. I parked in my garage, and stood, waiting for the interior lights to click off. The lights stayed on for a few moments, to help the driver out of the car. Marvelous.
     The next morning, the day seemed unusually fresh. I dressed, grabbed a few cassette tapes, and vowed to push the car to its upper limits. I stood before the garage door a moment, musing on what was inside. Somehow, on that day, even the garage seemed like something out of an Andrew Wyeth watercolor. I pulled the door open, the ball bearings rattling an overture, and there is was. One new Corvette, all mine, temporarily, through the glittering generosity of public relations. The car's control panel gleamed through the back window, which popped up with a pleasing pneumatic "whoosh."
     The moment came that evening.
     I was traveling along North Avenue. It was dark, and I had finished a long day at work. Some plodder was creeping along, and I swung around and hit the gas to pas. Before I knew what was happening, the car had reached the range of unprintable speeds. Something urged me on, as if primal forces, or the car itself, had taken control. I rammed the accelerator down, and the engine emitted a joyful, fearsome noise. It sounded like the very soul of capitalistic techno-frenzy, screaming out a battle cry, as the lights along the side of the road blurred and fell past.
     Suddenly I was alone. For one glorious moment, nothing existed. Only silence. Top of the world.
     The the image of being dragged, in leg-irons, before a West Chicago judge filtered into my mind. Class X Felony Speeding. I shook myself, like a man fighting to wake up from a dream. I pressed the brakes, and watched the numbers slowly tumble down. Back to the world of normal speeds, like a diver rising up from the murkiest depths, leaving behind the wonder, back up to the dry, normal world.
    I checked my rear view mirror. No Mars lights. A sigh of relief. Can't let that happen again, I thought, picturing my lame explanation, "Well, you see, officer, ummm, I'm a reporter and, ah, I just thought I'd see just how, umm, fast..."
     I noticed that the people who I let drive the car always laughed. The raw power would make them giddy and, weaving their way around traffic, they would laugh and reflect back to the muscle cars they drove as teenagers—the Barracudas, Boss 429 Mustangs, GTOs and Z28 Camaros.
     The Corvette is out of the range of most people. Which is probably a good thing; if Corvettes became widely-owned, the roads would quickly become a chaos of rocket sleds explosively smashing together and flying off the road into drainage ditches. (Or, as a Journal photographer put it, shouting above the sound of screaming rubber. "If I had this thing I'd either be in prison or dead!")
      At the end of the week, it came time to give the Corvette back. This seemed so unfair. I had gotten used to complete luxury—the range indicator, telling me how many miles I had to go until the next fill-up. The variable-speed wipers, demurely pulling themselves out of sight when not in use. The electric windows, flip-up headlights, lighted vanity mirror, and a dozen other perks and fripperies. I would miss feeling like a god, snaking my way through traffic at will, blowing lesser beings off the road with a single undiluted blast of power.
     The Citation had sat for a week, in the cold, neglected and alone. I meant to start it up occasionally, to keep the battery charged, but with Corvette keys jangling in my pocket, who could think of a little front-wheel drive econobox?
     I parked the Corvette, ran my hand over the fiberglass fender, and climbed into the cold vinyl interior of the Citation. It felt odd to so suddenly move from the Corvette to this Spartan environment. No tilt-a-wheel, no tinted windows. Just an AM radio and the same linear speedometer found on every car since the Model T.
     At least it started right up, and I muttered a prayer of thanks to the Chevy Corporation as I took the Citation out into the night. I required a moment to get used to it again, riding way up in the air on this little four-cylinder toy, something like being perched on a concert slab pulled by a donkey.
     I suppose there are people who can sit back, haughtily, and scorn something as common as a machine, as juvenile and artless as the love of a car. But is just that—a love—at the core of America's affection for automobiles, a fascination that causes monuments to excess, like the Corvette, to be adored by many and purchased by a few. And, like all loves, it is not really a good or bad thing. It just is.
     As time went by, the thrill of my week with the Corvette has faded into memory. And yet, sometimes, while I'm poking along through slow traffic in my Citation, I'll get a far-away look in my eyes, and suddenly Corvette thoughts will come racing back into my mind, like the remembrance of a brief, wonderful love affair, now long past.
       —Originally published in the Wheaton Daily Journal, Feb. 24, 1985

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Chicago Auto Show Spectacular: #1. All revved up, nowhere to go

1948 Tucker Torpedo (Smithsonian Museum of American History)
     The Chicago Auto Show opens at McCormick Place today—assuming you are reading this Saturday, Feb. 10.   
      While I make a point of going to the housewares show, the auto show is such a mob scene that I studiously avoid it. Though occasionally the paper dispatches me, and I manfully try to do my best, such as this report—I'm proud for noticing the aspirations to elegance of any car can be gauged by the grandeur its makers lunge for when describing "white."
     But skirting the show doesn't mean I don't get excited about cars. I do, and have fun when the opportunity arises to write about them. The show is open until Feb. 19, and during its run I'm going to share some fun, auto-related columns from years past. 

     Some sort of cosmic malevolence has always kept me from appreciating automobiles.
     I want to. I try. But the effort inevitably falls flat.
     I just came from five hours of wandering around the Chicago Auto Show. There was only one car that I kneww ahead of time I rather liked, just for its styling—the new Audi TT Roadster. Sort of like a Volkswagen Beetle for guys. When I realized that you could sit inside the cars, I opened the door of a very promising silver TT and got inside.
     Or tried to.
     The same cut-down roof that gives the car its low-slung line makes the car nearly impossible to get into. I had to fold myself in half and shove my body in, dragging my head against the frame. And I'm not quite 5 feet 9.
     In general, actually seeing the vehicles took the sheen off the idea of owning them. As rugged as the Hummers look, a peek inside shows that the driver and passenger seats are about a yard apart, separated by a chest-high central console. Your passenger might as well be in the next lane.
     As I strolled, I became more interested, not in the vehicles themselves, but in the ballyhoo used to push them. For instance: They seem to be running out of car names. The contender for the "Impact" award for a bad car name goes to the Chevy Avalanche, which denotes not just mountains, but mountains sliding down on top of you.
     The Echo Reverb—an economy model from Toyota—was runner-up, though I also appreciated the name of the sound system in the signature Sony vehicle from Ford: Xplod, pronounced "explode."
     I administered what I called the "white test." You could tell how pretentious a car is by what term the company applies to the color white.
     For instance, while Saturn calls white "white," Ford calls it "Oxford white." Moving up the scale, Cadillac has "white diamond" and Porsche, "Biarritz white." Rolls-Royce can't even utter the prosaic syllable "white." For them, it's simply "Artica." (And yes, it's true, the Silver Seraph does come with one of those little doughnut spare tires, as opposed to a full-sized spare).
     The color of the future seems to be yellow. Most every concept car is that hue. Saturn's concept car is the horrible gold of a 1959 refrigerator. Daewoo's Sporty concept is the same greenish yellow found on the reflective strips on firefighter turnout coats.
The most arresting color I saw was a Ford Taurus painted "chestnut clearcoat metallic." It looks like radioactive chocolate pudding. Ford also has a jarring "autumn orange" that's hard to describe. Not quite a burnt orange. Maybe a little toasted.
     There is a good deal of inadvertent humor at the show. The centerpiece of Secretary of State Jesse White's display is a sort of shrine to White—his portrait, 2 feet tall, flanked by flags and mounted on a white wooden tableau.
     The highlight, for me, was noticing Trooper C.T. Pfotenhauer at the State Police display pushing sober and safe driving. The booth is located directly across from the 208 mph Lamborghini Diablo VT Coupe at Shell's exotic car display.
     "They do it to us every year," sighed Pfotenhauer, who was nonplused by the speed of the Lamborghini, particularly compared with the range of a police radio. "The bottom line," she said, "is can they outrun Motorola?"

          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 15, 2000

Friday, February 9, 2018

"This is life most jolly"

     This storm is nothing. Then again, most winter storms are nothing, as Shakespeare reminds us, at least when compared to the storms of the heart. What wind can freeze you the way other people can? Anyway, I thought of this song of Lord Amiens, and decided to share it.

Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude.
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho, sing heigh-ho, unto the green holly.
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then heigh-ho, the holly.
This life is most jolly.
Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot.
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho, sing heigh-ho, unto the green holly.
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then heigh-ho, the holly.
This life is most jolly.

                                       —William Shakespeare
                                          As You Like It
                                          Act 2, Scene 7

If you can't come to the gas station, the gas station will come to you

Jacob Menard
Miguel Anzo
     Jacob Menard is a lanky 25-year-old who works for his uncle Gerald at Amazing Lock Service. He sports a stainless steel post through his right eyebrow, a number of tattoos, and an understated blue stocking cap advertising Cresco, a Chicago medical marijuana dispensary.
     The young man drives a gray 2013 Volkswagen Passat. On Monday, he contrived to get the car’s gas tank filled without the vehicle ever leaving its parking space behind his uncle’s shop at 3165 N. Halsted Street.
     This feat was achieved through Yoshi Inc., a new automobile fill-up and maintenance service that began operating last year in Atlanta, Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles and San Francisco, expanding into Chicago on Feb. 1.
     They approached me to cover their launch last week. I asked if I could instead see an average customer.
      “You do have customers, right?” I said.
     I expected a corporate lawyer having his Land Rover topped off in a downtown office building parking garage while he racked up the billable hours. 
     I didn’t expect a fresh-faced kid who works as a service technician and sings hip-hop on the side. Why would a guy like that pay $20 a month for a service to deliver gasoline to his car? (the first month is free) charging the average per gallon rate AAA is reporting that day? What’s wrong with gas stations?

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

"We are all people"


     Chicago has its share of great museums.      
     There is the Art Institute of Chicago, of course, a world class institution, up there with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre and the British Museum. You can visit it again and again and never get tired of going.
     There is the Field Museum of Natural History, certainly worth regular visits, particularly for the special shows, like the recent Tattoo exhibit, or the one on Haitian voodoo.
     Even the Museum of Science and Industry, though it tends to cater too much to popular tastes only vaguely related to science—relics of the Titanic!—and has a tendency to lean back and let corporations have their way.
     Those three are enough, and both visitors and local residents have a tendency not to stray much beyond them.
     Which is a shame. There is a a galaxy of what I think of as The Lesser Museums that warrant periodic visits. Places like the Museum of Contemporary Art, or the Oriental Institute, or the National Museum of Mexican Art. 
      Not to forget the Chicago History Museum, the former Chicago Historical Society, where I stopped by Monday because I was in the neighborhood, reporting on a story, and had seen an email about the museum's exhibit on race. That's a big target, and I figured, it being Black History Month, and race being a constant source of societal agita, I should swing by and give it a look.
      "Race: Are We So Different?" was designed primarily for school groups. Lots of text. Lots of open space. Short on the artifacts that we older folk like. Some slave manacles. 
     Not a lot of surprise. The emphatic answer —spoiler alert!—to "Race: Are We So Different?" is no, we're not, at least not physically. Socially, yes, economically, big time, and that is certainly a lesson worth conveying. Although my hunch is that the city school groups coming through already have a pretty good idea about how the American deck is stacked against minorities, who are blamed for failing to thrive at a game where the rules are written against them at the start.
    Otherwise, the points the displays were making—race is a social construct, not a biological fact; you can't tell a person's race from his skeleton—were not earth-shattering. Good if you didn't know it; sort of preaching to the choir if you did. At best a worthwhile reminder.
    One aspect of the exhibit did stick out from the homogenized, run-through-the-museum-exhibit-machine texture of "Race: Are We So Different?" Students were asked to fill out blank index cards.
    "What's your story?" the display inquired. "Do you have a story or idea about your varied heritage you'd like to share? Jot it down, drop it in the slot, and we'll add it to the comment book."

      The students shared, not so much stories, as unvarnished expressions of pride and enthusiasm.
      I found myself reading card after card, enjoying the wide range of ethnicities and nationalities mentioned. They were kashmiri and Japanese/Mexican, "Afro-Latina,"  They drew flags, portraits.
      Many expressions of enthusiasm. "I am PROUD to be PINOY!
     You could see the way racism—perhaps inspired by our current president—filters down to children, the seismic rumbles it sends.
"I am an 8th Grader who is very ready for high school – a new start. I am a girl, but my best friend used to be a guy. Recently though, he has changed. He is making Hitler jokes, black jokes, and gay jokes of the worst kind. He will not stop, even though I have confronted him about his racism at school."
     Most evocative were these tales of bigotry, brief, almost poetic, heartbreaking narratives: "I was at the beach and somebody whispered, don't go by him because I am black."
     The sort of incident you just know stays with a person for a lifetime.
    "I have been told to 'go back to Tokyo' by a stranger on the train. I’m Vietnamese and French-Canadian."
    "I was called Frijalero" refers to a Spanish word, "frijolero," that literally means "one who prepares beans," or "beaner" something you would fling at at Mexican to suggest they haven't advanced far from whatever village they may have come from.
     But generally they were positive, proud, hopeful. A reminder that just as hatred has to be taught, so does shame. The natural thing is for people to feel good about their heritage, whatever it is. 
    Some were so simple and forceful, it was almost poetry: "Ignoring it won't make it go away." 
    Won't make what go away? Hate? Racism? Difference?
    Racism always feels antique—we ask ourselves, how can this be, in 2017? Just as people marveled at what was happening in 1962 an 1937. 
    Hate is both very old and very current. In November, 2016, those in our country who fear more than love grabbed the wheel. The kids filling out notecards at the Chicago History Museum are a reminder that someday soon those who love more than hate are going to grab the wheel back.
    Or as one visitor wrote:
    "We are all people." 
    That's such a simple lesson. Why do so many have such difficulty understanding it?


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Republicans deny just about everything EXCEPT the Holocaust. Generally.

      We don’t have accent marks in English. None of those little slashing lines peppering French — the accents aigu and grave. None of those rumbling double-dot umlauts found in German.
     Thus people could almost be forgiven for mispronouncing “Holocaust denial” by stressing the first word: “Holocaust denial.”
     That rolls off Republican tongues. Pronounced that way, the Illinois Republican Party can muster indignation that perennial candidate Arthur Jones is an admitted anti-Semite as revealed in the Sun-Times by my colleagues Lynn Sweet and Frank Main. Jones is a man who denies the Holocaust, and yet is on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the 3rd Congressional District since he is running unopposed.
     If only refusing to acknowledge unpleasant facts were limited to anti-Semites blind to the historical end product of their hatred. To those who, perhaps through a lingering vestige of humanity, flinch at seeing their philosophy put into practice, squeezing their eyes shut to what is actually the best-documented atrocity in history, thanks to those meticulous Germans.
     But denial is a big tent. Lots of room in there.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Rules of the Road: Slow down at Yield signs, Nazis

     Kudos to my colleagues Lynn Sweet and Frank Main for tracking down Republican candidate for Congress Arthur Jones, flipping over his rock, and hearing what is on the mind of the Holocaust-denied and Nazi. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art
     Reading their piece, I noticed that Jones protested the opening of the Illinois Holocaust Museum in 2009. Which means he's an unnamed member of the supporting cast that inspired this column, one of my favorites. Yes, I noticed that Bill Clinton's quote describes much of Donald Trump's base. It was at a time when my column ran over an entire page in several parts, with a joke at the end, and I've kept that structure.


     Today is Adolf Hitler's birthday -- it does creep up on you, doesn't it? And here I am without a gift or anything.
     He would have been 120, for those keeping count. It's also the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School.
     Not a coincidence, of course -- the teenage killers planned it that way. Hitler is a magnet for the unstable, the weak-minded, the cruel. It isn't hard to imagine why. Talk about a boost to the old ego -- the biggest loser in the world can suddenly have a historical giant as a personal pal, with an entire cast of suddenly subhuman inferiors to scorn.
     You can just see today's celebrants, gathered in windowless rooms, lighting the candles on their homemade sheet cakes (those swastikas are tough to make in icing!) for a quick round of "Happy Birthday to You!"
     What should we, the non-crazy, do to mark this special day? Well, I would be so bold as to suggest that we, too, consider a bit of celebration. Because Birthday Boy once conquered much of the world, his fascism was triumphant. Then Hitler was crushed, thanks in great part to the good old U.S. of A, and his beliefs were exiled into the realm of mental illness. His followers are scattered, marginalized, and the sort of people who don't realize that getting a tattoo on your neck is a bad career move.
     Every year that's still true is a happy birthday, in my view.


     Driving requires split-second decisions—who yields to whom when merging onto the highway, whether to speed up through the yellow light, and of course what to do if there are Nazis.
     It has been a while since I've studied my Rules of the Road, but instinctively, you see Nazis, you slow down and try to find a place to park.
     I had just hopped into the car after four hours outside in the penetrating cold at the dedication ceremony for the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and was not keen to return to the cold rain.
     But Nazis! How often do you get to talk to Nazis? Maybe a dozen of them, in jackboots and black cargo pants, waving red and white swastika flags at the corner of Harms and Golf roads Sunday afternoon. I slowed, leaned over, gazing carefully, locking eyes with a round-faced, heavy lad of about 14.
     Just as I was about to ease the car onto the shoulder, a different emotion kicked in—screw 'em. Who cares what they have to say? Why give Nazis the platform they seek, so they can spout their pathological philosophy?
     I kept going, slowed down, thought of doubling back, kept going.
     On the one hand, you can't make up the kind of twisted psycho spew these people serve up—they indict themselves, if you let them.
     On the other, happy is he who didn't have to go to hell to know what the devil looks like. There is something perverse in shucking two hours of earnest, intelligent speechifying by leaders and politicians, only to turn around and collect the thoughts -- to strain the term -- of a gang of jackbooted yahoos protesting a museum.
     Besides, confronting a gang of Nazis at the side of the road might not be smart, from a practical point of view. "Columnist in bloody brawl with neo-Nazis." Can't have that.
     What kept me driving was remembering something former President Bill Clinton had just told the crowd of 12,000 people. He explained these Nazis more clearly than they could ever explain themselves:
     "The capacity for evil has to be stirred," Clinton said. "Folks who are ripe targets for the stirring are people who are insecure -- insecure psychologically, insecure financially, insecure politically. They are more vulnerable to false claims by power mongers. . . . The neo-Nazi groups in Europe and other hate groups around the world, if you really look at them, they basically were made up of angry, uncertain, insecure people looking for someone else to blame, cultivating, in their own minds, a phony victimhood to justify hurting others."
     The only word of Clinton's I'd quibble with is "were"—the neo-Nazis aren't a "were," alas, but an "are," as was clear Sunday to anyone passing the corner of Harms and Golf roads. They may be a rarity, but they are still with us, and while they are so far from their Nuremberg glory days as to be almost laughable, what they represent—the idea that the life of Person A is diminished by the polluted presence of Person B -- is a philosophy by no means limited to those wearing jackboots, brandishing swastikas and eating birthday cake today.


     Guy and Gary, cold, soaked to the skin but giddy with excitement, return to their Cicero basement and drape their big Nazi flag over the sofa to dry.
     "Well, I think that went extraordinarily well, wouldn't you say?" says Guy, putting up the tea. "I'm glad those Jewish vermin at least saw that we were out there!"
     "Indeed," replies Gary, who suddenly looks troubled. "Although. . . ."
     "Although what?" Guy asks, laying a concerned hand on Gary's shoulder and squeezing.
     "Wouldn't the presence of Nazis down the street dramatically underscore the need for a museum like this in the first place?"
     The two young men gaze at each other.
     "Oh," Guy says. "Those wily rascals!"
     "They tricked us into showing up, and we didn't even know it!" says Gary.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times April 20, 2009

Monday, February 5, 2018

‘Time on Fire’ shares cancer’s lesson: Life is ‘the sweetest candy’

Station Hospital, by Robert Sloan (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Distant friends are like distant comets. Gone for long periods. Then suddenly back, lighting the darkness for a time before looping out of sight again.
     Which is why a friend who retired to Florida, but in November was in town and stopped by the newspaper — whoops, multi-format storytelling platform — surprised me by phoning last week. Off-schedule. I was puzzling over this when she texted: Where are you? That got me on the phone, the cold hand of unease squeezing my shoulder.
     Some preliminary chat. Then she let it drop: cancer, one kidney already gone, a pea's worth of Mr. C. discovered in her lungs. Chemo started.
     My turn to say something.
     "That's terrible," I began, then tried to reel it back. "Losing a kidney . . . well, humans are designed for that. That's why we have two. And cancer . . . people shrug off cancer nowadays. It's like having an unpleasant hobby."
     I told her about one of my older son's best friends since kindergarten, now 22. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in August, back at school, prognosis good, by January.
     "What's your address?" I asked. "I'm sending you a book."
     The book I send to all my friends facing cancer is "Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors," by Evan Handler, a 1996 memoir that begins this way: 

     "I'm afraid it is not good news," is what he said. "It is bad news. It is in the bone marrow. It's an acute myelogenous leukemia."
     And just like that, Handler, then a young Broadway actor, is exiled to the land of sickness.

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