Sunday, March 18, 2018

Own the sin

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

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Era of Contempt, Redux

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Good news: Lucas museum breaks ground somewhere other than Chicago

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

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

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

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

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

To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Toast Bags and Garbage Pantz

2018 Home + Housewares Show

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

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

Calls to denounce Farrakhan are yesterday's news in Chicago

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

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

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

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

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

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

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Era of Contempt

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

Friday, March 9, 2018

What's with tomato soup and grilled cheese?

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

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

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Visiting Mayan ruins


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

Rio Frio Cave


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

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

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

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

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Dueling hells

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

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

Barbie: You always hurt the ones you love

     Saturday we revisited comforting the Ken doll on his 50th birthday. So it seems somehow fitting to pivot to Barbie, and I happen to have this article Forbes assigned me in 2009 on Barbie mutilation, part of a Barbie 50th birthday package. Approaching a story such as this requires a plan: should I quiz female friends? Present myself at playgrounds and try to talk to girls? That seemed a bad idea. I scoured academic websites and posted a request on Facebook, and was surprised at women lining up to tell me about cutting up their Barbies. An early lesson in Facebook's value as a widely-flung net.

     A young girl bakes her Barbie doll in the oven. A San Francisco bar invites patrons to have at the dolls with knives. A New York artist drives nails into Barbie, calling it sculpture.  

     What's going on here? How did Barbie, history's most popular doll, celebrating her 50th year as a beloved plaything for girls worldwide, become an object that females of all ages cut, burn, bend, spindle and mutilate? And what does it all mean?
     Let's start with girls. Barbie is, after all, supposed to be a toy. In 2005, researchers at England's University of Bath, conducting a study of how children play, were surprised at what girls do to their Barbies.
     "The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving," writes Dr. Agnes Nairn. "The girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a 'cool' activity in contrast to other forms of play with the doll."
     The study's conclusion--that the abuse means that Barbie is a "hate figure" among 7- to 11-year-old girls--sparked debate all over the world.
     Some felt that Barbie was merely getting her due as a poor role model; others argued that battering a Barbie is no different than, say, battering a red wagon--only with a cultural touchstone like Barbie, we notice.
     The study's conclusions "smack of academic overanalysis," Anastasia de Waal wrote in The Guardian, "of grown-ups getting too excited about the symbolism of child's play. ... Testing the versatility and robustness of one's toys is neither new nor sinister."
     While the study emphasized the hostility suggested by hacking something apart, the girls actually told researchers they didn't despise Barbie so much as feel they had outgrown her.
     "The most readily expressed reason for rejecting Barbie was that she was babyish and girls saw her as representing their younger childhood out of which they felt they had now grown," said Nairn.

To continue reading, click here.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Trump flips the bird to Chicago business and American trading partners

      When we kids asked our mother which of us were her favorite child, she didn't tell the truth — me, obviously, I knew in my heart.
     Rather she would lie, spreading her hand wide, wiggling her fingers and asking which finger she loved most. They must teach that ruse in Mom School, though it doesn't make sense: Who wouldn't prefer their index finger over their pinkie?
     But we bought it; we were kids.
     The government pretends to take that same impartial attitude when it comes to American industries. All are valued; how could it be otherwise?
      But it is otherwise. Like the barnyard critters in "Animal Farm," all are equal, but some are more equal than others. To see the result of this favoritism all you have to do is go to 4656 W. Kinzie St. and survey the weedy expanse east of Cicero Avenue.
      The largest candy factory in the world used to be there. For almost a hundred years, the E.J. Brach plant had thousands of employees — over 4,000 at its peak — turning out millions of pounds of Chocolate Stars and Jelly Nougats, Candy Corn and Conversation Hearts, and my favorite, Sundaes Neapolitan Coconut, those sticky rectangles of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
     All gone, a shadow on a map — the ghost plant sketched by a few streets that mysteriously vanish, such as Kenton north of Kinzie. The Brach factory closed down in 2003, thanks largely to congressional efforts to prop up the sugar industry, which is big in places like Minnesota (sugar beets) and Florida (sugar cane) but not so big in Illinois. Sugar in the United States costs two to four times as much as in the rest of the world, thanks to the U.S. government.
      So Brach is gone. (You can see part of the factory being blown up as Gotham Hospital in "The Dark Knight.") Wrigley exiled chewing gum production to Mexico and China in 2005.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Everyone called her "Sis."

Tiffany dome inside the Chicago Cultural Center

     Met my wife at the Cultural Center Friday after work, to rendezvous before dinner and a show. I got there first, and poked around a bit—how can you not?—and was reminded, yet again, what a beautiful slice of 19th century opulence the place is. 
     When she showed up I resisted, manfully, telling her, yet again, how Richard J. Daley's wife saved the place, the only time she ever contradicted him in public, basically saying "The hell you will" after he announced it would be torn down and replaced with one of those godawful slabs of brutalism they were throwing up in the early 1970s.
     Between that, and today being Chicago's 181st birthday, I thought I would disinter this 2003 slice of Chicago history, which includes the story of Sis Daley saving of the Cultural Center (which might over-dramatize the case: Daley just said he wanted to tear it down. It wasn't as if the wrecking balls were on their way). 

     She was the mother of seven children, and she raised them right.
     That Eleanor Daley, whom everybody called "Sis," was also the wife of one Chicago mayor, Richard J. Daley, and the mother of another, Richard M. Daley, might be more important to the history books.
     But for Mrs. Daley, who died Sunday evening at the age of 95, family always came first, and the city loved her for it. She created the pedestal of solid home life that allowed her husband--and then her son, who lived at home until he was 27 years old--to reach great political success.
     "We cannot understand Daley unless we understand the love story, simple and old-fashioned, at the heart of his life," Eugene Kennedy wrote in his biography of the late mayor. "Eleanor Daley was not a person who complemented Richard Daley; she matched him almost exactly in conviction, devotion and toughness."
     In recent years, she remained physically active, going to museums and outings, and was the beloved matriarch of the expanding Daley clan, particularly her 20 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
     "When I talk to my kids, the first question is always, 'What's up with Grandma?" said son William Daley, who was then the U.S. secretary of commerce, at Mrs. Daley's 90th birthday in 1997. "It's amazing the way the younger kids are attracted to her. They seem to get such a big kick out of her and her out of them. She's been the rock of our family."

        Mrs. Daley was in the public eye for more than 40 years without a breath of scandal or even criticism. She was admired even by many of the Daley clan's most fervent political rivals. Mayor Harold Washington once called her "a wonderful person who is part of our history."
     In the 13 years between the time her husband died and when her son took office, four mayoral administrations kept the police guard outside her famed Bridgeport bungalow, long after real concerns for her safety had passed, almost as a symbol of the city watching out for its respected collective mother.
     This is not to say she couldn't be outspoken. The press wanted to know her opinion about everything, and, on rare occasions, she gave it. Asked about abortion in 1971, Mrs. Daley, like her husband a devout Roman Catholic, said: "I would rather have a baby on my lap than on my conscience."
     She also would sally to the defense of her husband when he was under attack, particularly in later years.
     "I'm telling it to you straight--there was no setback of any kind," she said to a reporter in 1972, after her husband's faction was ousted from the Democratic National Convention--perhaps the most humiliating defeat of his career--and Daley was said to be in seclusion at their Michigan vacation home. "He never did. How can you be in seclusion with seven children and your in-laws?"
     Eleanor Guilfoyle, the seventh of 10 children of an insurance agent and his wife, was born at 29th and Throop in Bridgeport on March 4, 1907. She was given the nickname "Sis" at an early age by her siblings, who had difficulty pronouncing her given name.
     She graduated from St. Mary High School and never attended college, though St. Xavier College awarded her an honorary degree in 1963.
     It was in Bridgeport that brown-eyed Eleanor met Richard J. Daley at a Sunday afternoon baseball game in Mark White Square in 1926. Her brother Lloyd, an old friend of Daley's, made the introduction. The future mayor squired her to a dance at St. Bridget's Hall that evening.
     The two courted for a decade, going to picnics and church socials. The future Mrs. Daley continued to live at home, working as a secretary at the Martin-Senour Paint Co. during the day and caring for her ailing mother at night. Meanwhile, Richard Daley was slowly earning his law degree, taking night classes for 11 years at DePaul University.
     "Daley had this great romance with Sis," the late Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz once said.
     "He was my first and only love," Mrs. Daley later said of her husband, the only man she ever dated.
     After Daley opened his law practice, the two finally married, on June 23, 1936, in St. Bridget's Church in Bridgeport. Mrs. Daley took a cool view toward her husband's 1955 bid for mayor.
     "I have never taken much interest in politics," she told the Chicago Sun-Times before the election. "I suppose if Dick is elected, I will have to be more active. Of course, I would be happy for him."
     Still, she had found a perfect match in Richard Daley, who, if more interested in politics than she, nevertheless shared her devotion to family. At exactly 10:15 the night of his first inauguration in 1955, the new mayor turned to Mrs. Daley and said, "Mom, we've got to get the youngsters to bed." And with that, the Daley family left the celebration.
     "My mother told me there was never a single day in her life that my father didn't tell her that he loved her," said their daughter Patricia. "There was never a day he didn't say, 'I love you, Sis.' "
     The Daleys lived first in an apartment at 3333 S. Union and then moved to a building, since torn down, at the northeast corner of 35th and Emerald. On Nov. 1, 1939, they moved into a red-brick bungalow, built to Daley's specifications, at 3536 S. Lowe in Bridgeport.
     There, in a house usually off-limits to reporters and most politicians, they raised their seven children: Richard, William, John, Michael, Patricia, Eleanor and Mary Carol. And there Mrs. Daley continued to live for the decades after Richard J. Daley died.
     When her husband became mayor, Mrs. Daley said, a reporter told her she would have to turn her children over to someone's care while she attended social functions as Chicago's first lady.
     "Dick and I sat down then," she said. "And we discussed whether I would have to attend all the social functions. 'No,' he said. 'It's up to you to decide if you want to attend.' And I said, 'Fine.' I attended many functions. But when my children were small, I couldn't get on that noon luncheon circuit. I had children coming home at noon, and then they'd come home at 3 o'clock, after school."
     The Daleys made another important decision.
     "We decided," said Mrs. Daley, "that any social functions with politicians, or visitors coming to the city--[the mayor] would entertain them downtown. You wouldn't open up your home to have it a showcase or an open house, people dropping in at all hours. This was a home for our family."
     If she ever yearned for the limelight, for a career beyond her family, she never admitted it publicly.
     "For a mayor's wife, Sis Daley is a rare species," the Chicago American's Lois Baur declared in 1965. "She is not a joiner, a politician or a social butterfly. She is a wife, a mother, a homemaker, and, you suspect as you observe her quiet manner and lovely brown eyes, sometimes the soothing leveler to Hizzoner after a hard day at City Hall."
     One social occasion Mrs. Daley did take pride in was the brief visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Chicago in 1959. She made sure her children were presented to the queen during her 14-hour sojourn here, and afterward kept an oil painting of the Daleys' encounter with royalty above the mantle in their home. She also attended John F. Kennedy's inaugural and later met the president.
     Mrs. Daley earned a reputation of being fiercely loyal to her husband and bristled at any news item the least bit derogatory. One of her pet peeves during his early days as mayor was the way commentators described him as "fat."
     "He's not fat. He photographs much larger than he really is," she told a reporter in 1960.
     She was also affected when her husband's policies led to protest in front of their bungalow, such as the civil rights picketing of the Daley home in 1965. In 1966, Mayor Daley delayed announcing his candidacy for re-election citing concerns, perhaps genuine, for his wife's health.        

     The biggest stir involving Mrs. Daley took place in 1971 when, shopping at the National food store near her home, she noticed a display of paperback copies of Boss, the highly-critical biography of her husband written by Mike Royko, then a columnist with the Chicago Daily News.
     She considered the book "trash" and "shallow, secondhand hogwash" and wasn't about to let it be sold in her local grocery store. She turned a cardboard sign promoting the book face down and arranged all the books so their covers did not show.
     Then, Mrs. Daley sought out the store manager and said that if the book wasn't removed from the store, she would take her business elsewhere. The next day, the chain pulled the book from all of its 200 stores. The ban became national news--fueled by a gleeful Royko--and the company later rescinded it.
     Mrs. Daley made local headlines again in February 1972 when she appealed for the restoration of the 83-year-old main library building just days after her husband had announced that he favored tearing it down and building a new library on the site. The mayor eventually relented, announcing that the library building--at Randolph and Michigan--would be restored and used as a cultural center.
     On Dec. 20, 1976, the last day of her husband's life, Mrs. Daley accompanied him to the annual mayor's Christmas breakfast with city department heads at the Bismarck Hotel. The department chiefs had kicked in to send the Daleys on a trip to Ireland, land of their ancestors. The couple, married 40 years, spent most of the event deep in conversation with each other, "like young lovers," a waiter recalled.
     That afternoon, at his doctor's office, Daley collapsed and died. Mrs. Daley rushed to the office with several of her children. Informed that her husband had died, Mrs. Daley said: "Now we all have to kneel down and thank God for having this great man for 40 years," and led the children in prayer.
     For the next two years, Mrs. Daley spent most of her time with her family and was rarely seen outside her Bridgeport home. But in 1979, when her son Richard ran for the office of Cook County state's attorney, she ventured out on the campaign trail. She attended political functions, shook hands all around and agreed to her first interviews in years.
     She drew crowds of admirers wherever she appeared, and it became apparent she was a political asset. At President Jimmy Carter's request, she campaigned for him in his failed 1980 re-election bid.
     After the campaign, Mrs. Daley said she was planning to write a book about her and her husband, using diaries and scrapbooks she had kept since 1955. It would recount their public and private lives, she said, and it would be "a love story."
     She never wrote the book, however.
     Mrs. Daley re-entered the spotlight when her eldest son was elected mayor in 1989. She was greeted at his first inauguration with "thunderous" applause, and appeared at a variety of political events.
     In 2002, a teary-eyed Mayor Daley marveled at his mother's resilience, memory and indomitable spirit after a health scare that saw Mrs. Daley rushed to the hospital amid fears of a stroke.
     "She always recalls; she's got 99 lives. I mean—it's amazing," he said.
     Survivors include six of her seven children—her daughter, namesake and close companion Eleanor Rita Daley died early in 1998—as well as her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

     — Originally published in the Sun-Times Feb. 17, 2003

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Welcome to 50, Ken; now the fun begins

    One benefit of the steadily fluttering calendar pages is that Facebook serves up columns from years past, based on whatever today's date happens to be. 
     Another is that time's effacing hand scrubs clean, allowing me to experience my own writing with the fresh eyes of any other reader. They're both suited to my biases—they should be, I wrote them—yet also new discoveries. 
     I would envy anyone who thought to view the Ken doll's 50th birthday through the lens of that bard of lumpen middle age, Philip Larkin. That the writer was me, well, age is not without its compensations. 

     Ken, you're 50? My God! Welcome to the club, old bean. I reached the big 5-O last June. Where does the time go? I hope you finally scored with Barbie and didn't just spend the past half century squiring her from prom to mall in her pink Mustang, only to be shown the gate of that Malibu Dream House as soon as G.I. Joe stops by. Barbie seems the type.
     That would be hard to take: 50 years since Mattel introduced you, 50 years dwelling in the shadow of the world's biggest clothes horse, the doll world's Stedman Graham.
     But then accepting the disappointments of life ("the unbeatable slow machine that brings you what you'll get," as British poet Philip Larkin calls it) is what 50 is all about.
     Or least our 50. Everyone's 50 is different. Barack Obama's 50—coming this August means being president of the United States, which must soften the sting somewhat.
     Maybe not so different. President or poet or plastic doll, the cumulative story of your life drains the bitterness out of 50, or should, as it dawns on you: This Is It, good and bad.
     At 50, you begin to notice the husks of used years, discarded behind you. "I have started to say/'A quarter of a century'/Or 'thirty years back' " Larkin writes. "It makes me breathless/It's like falling and recovering."
     Not to me. To me, there is a wonder to gazing back that far. Thirty years ago? 1981—the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Approaching each story as if it were a difficult ring puzzle, shaking it. Parading my 21-year-old self by the disinterested, flanneled Wisconsin lovelies.
     Bleh, I'm happier now, doing this. There are two ways to view doing the same thing for 30 years. 1) You can wonder why you haven't gotten it right yet or 2) You can realize: Gee, I've been doing this for so long; I must like it.
     Work strikes me as essential to a tolerable 50, Ken, old sport. I know you've been through many professions - airline pilot, actor, whatever. I suppose that makes for a rich life. Me, I find myself contemplating that Noel Coward line, "Work is more fun than fun."
     At 32, work for Larkin was a day job he pictured as a toad and resented. "Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?"
     By 50, employment had changed for him. "Toad Revisited," begins, "Walking around in the park/Should feel better than work" and ends, "Give me your arm, old toad/Help me down Cemetery Road."
     At 50, old age, while still distant, has taken out the instruments of torture and displayed them before you. Yet somehow, this doesn't bring fear so much as focus. There is no point in getting all worked up over nothing, the way younger people do. Happiness studies reveal a U-bend in life—you're pretty happy in your 20s, get more miserable as you age, bottoming out at about 45—on average, though I can vouch for that - and then progress steadily upward in contentment until 70-year-olds report they're happier than 30-year-olds. It turns out that wrinkles aren't so bad after all.
     Not an issue for you, Ken, is it? You seem a permanent—what?—26? I remember 26, struggling, rudderless - I think being forever stuck at that age would drive a fellow mad.
     In "On Being Twenty-six," Larkin deems it the age "when deftness disappears," a fallen state requiring 54 somber lines to relate ("A last charred smile, a clawed Crustacean hatred, blackened pride...") while 25 years later, he dispatches 50 in 15 breezy lines: "The view is fine from fifty/Experienced climbers say" happily trodding downhill toward death.
     Ah death. Not a concern for you either, Ken old squire. Nor, to be frank, for me.
     I've read enough Seneca to take the sting out of thoughts of being dead—you don't go around bewailing that you weren't here 200 years ago. Why beat yourself up because 200 years from now you won't be here either? That seems an ungrateful response to the gift of ever being here at all.
     Besides, 50 isn't as old as it once was. In "What Fifty Said," Robert Frost says "Now I am old" contrasting, how, when young he "went to school to age to learn the past," but "now that I am old my teachers are the young ... I go to school to youth to learn the future."
     That's the ticket, Ken. How you view what's to come is usually a good thermometer of how old you really are—if the future is a menacing blur, a scary fracture from the comfortable and decent past, then you aren't seeing it properly and need to look again.
     No rush. Robert Frost was 50 in 1924, meaning he had only another 39 years left to write poetry. I'd sign up for that. As for you, Ken, old chum, well, maybe it's time to give Barbie another go. To yearn for something, to try, despite past failure and slight hope of success, is not too far from being young again. You've been at it this long. Why quit now?

            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 2, 2011

Friday, March 2, 2018

Chicago shaped a Taiwanese leader

Annette Lu

     As Chinese president Xi Jinping cements his perpetual hold on power, the world's most populous nation searches for ways to exert its growing strength, and its attention falls, as always, upon neighbor Taiwan. I was fortunate enough to visit Taiwan almost 15 years ago. An associate asked to read a profile I wrote about the vice president of Taiwan, so I'm posting it here for that purpose. But feel free to read it as well.

     Annette Lu does not look like a woman who could open her mouth and start World War III. Petite, soft-spoken, she has a fondness for knitting, and keeps a bag of afghans made during her years in prison tucked away in her enormous office.
     Indeed, most of the time, the University of Illinois graduate and vice president of the Republic of China speaks with the measured formality typical of Asian politics.
     "On behalf of the people of Taiwan, we really appreciate President Bush's goodwill and assistance," she says, relaxing in a lacquered chair in a reception room in the Presidential Palace.
     But as with so much in political life here, appearances deceive. Amid her tendency toward Chinese aphorisms and 1970s-era feminist rhetoric lies a blunt message that—more than Islamic terrorism, more than the hot-button issues of the Middle East—holds the potential to draw the United States into the next global war.
     "Taiwan remains as separate and independent as any other sovereign state no matter what," she says. "Under the name of Republic of China, or Taiwan. Recognized or unrecognized . . . we exist."
     To understand the daring of those words, the knife blade that Taiwan—and with it the United States—balances on, some background is necessary. Communist China considers Taiwan a renegade province, a breakaway state destined to return to the fold, and has committed itself to use military force, if necessary, to keep Taiwan from declaring independence. Lu's words draw right up to a line that many think would provoke an immediate, military response. In the meantime, Beijing heaps scorn on her far beyond the usual rhetoric, with the state-controlled press referring to Lu, at times, as a "lunatic" and "scum of the nation."
     Nor do they limit their reaction to words. The election of Lu and president Chen Shui-bian—whose platform leaned toward independence—was enough to send the communists lobbing missiles into the Straits of Taiwan,one of the "tests" that are in fact expressions of official unhappiness and demonstrations of military might.
     The United States, in turn, has announced it would meet any communist attack against Taiwan with a strong military reply, setting up a dynamic where armed conflict between the superpowers is somewhere between inevitable and unthinkable.
     Nestled in the shadows of the two superpowers stand 23 million Taiwanese, living in a wealthy, Westernized democracy, but a young one, only a decade removed from its first true, two-party election, a transit from authoritarianism aided significantly by Annette Lu. Her life, extraordinary as it is, running through an amazing series of contrasts—Illinois farm town and Chicago; Harvard and a solitary confinement cell; feminist activism and the male world of high elected office—also presents a handy primer for the complex history of modern Taiwan.
     She was born Hsiu-lien Annette Lu (it is common for Taiwanese to assume English first names) in Taoyuan, about an hour from the capital, in 1944, when Taiwan was under Japanese occupation.
     Then as now, female babies were not highly prized in Chinese culture, and Lu's parents—middle class business people—tried to sell her, twice. Both deals fell through.
     At the end of World War II, Taiwan was returned to the Chinese Nationalists who—as the Japanese had—used Taiwan as a colony to be exploited, siphoning off funds to battle Mao Zedong's Communist rebellion. In 1949, the Communists defeated General Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, and the Nationalist army and government fled to Taiwan along with several million supporters. For the next 20 years, the Nationalists—through their party, the KMT—claimed sovereignty over all China, awaiting the popular rebellion they expected to return them to power. It never came.
     By the late 1960s, however, China, pushed to the brink of ruin by its Cultural Revolution, began to take a different approach toward the West. About this time Lu, an outstanding student, graduated from the National Taiwan University and headed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a master's in political science. She chose the U. of I., she says, because it was one of the few American schools with any significant population of Taiwanese students.
     She was disappointed, she says, with the bleakness of Urbana. Chicago, however, was another matter.
     "Chicago was very attractive to me," she says. One of the attractions of Chicago was public protest—which had been brutally suppressed back home.
     Lu, who rose to national prominence in Taiwan as an outspoken feminist, credits the tumultuous women's movement she discovered in Chicago for putting her on the path to political power.
     "There was a national convention of women organizers held in Chicago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the suffrage of American women," Lu says. "My feminism was enlightened in Chicago in the summer of 1970, and I began to speak up."
     Returning to Taiwan, Lu spent the next six years working for the government and becoming increasingly outraged at the role of women there.
     "When I got home I was shocked there were debates over how to prevent women from attending university," Lu says. "The authorities thought it was a waste for women to attend college. I decided to take up the issue. "
     She began agitating to bring American-style freedoms to Taiwanese women. She didn't get far.
     "I was totally frustrated," she recalls. "So I went to Harvard."
     While Lu was studying the Constitution, Richard Nixon was opening the West to the People's Republic of China. The PRC was willing to thaw relations, but demanded derecognition of Taiwan as its price. In 1971, Taiwan was booted out of the United Nations, and the next year communist China took her place. The "Shanghai Communique" of 1972 turned the established order on its head—instead of there being one China, with Taipei as its legitimate head, there was now one China with what was still called Peking as its theoretical authority.
     "Before 1971 was the myth that the Republic of China represented the whole China," Lu says. "And after that another myth was created that the PRC represented Taiwan."
     As Taiwan was being frozen out by the Western nations which, one by one, chose huge markets over democratic freedoms, its own authoritarian regime was shifting. Chiang Kai-shek—who died in 1975—had, in the last years of his life, begun turning power over to his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who was much more willing to permit reforms than the aging generalissimo had been.
     In early summer of 1978, Lu was working toward her fellowship at Harvard Law. But she couldn't concentrate on her studies.
     "I worried that the United States would derecognize Taiwan soon. From my research I knew it would happen," Lu says. "However nobody at home was aware of that because there was no freedom of the press at all, so nobody at home knew of that."
     She consulted with her faculty adviser.
     "I consulted my professor, and said, 'Do you agree if I gave up my fellowship?" remembers Lu. "He said, 'You're nobody here. But perhaps you'll be somebody at home. Why not go home?' "
     She did, but soon discovered she wasn't in America anymore.
     "The spirit of the First Amendment educated me that I should have the right to criticize the government," Lu says. "So I criticized it. I was charged with sedition."
     In 1979, Lu was found guilty for a 20-minute speech she delivered—on "Human Rights Day" ironically enough—as part of a famous protest known as the "Kaohsiung Incident." A group of activists had, in delivering their addresses, touched off a riot.
     Lu first was kept in a military prison and then, after her conviction—she received a 12-year sentence—at the ironically named Benevolent Rehabilitation Center.
     "It was certainly not as bad as the Gulag, however it was nothing comfortable," Lu says of her 5 1/2 years in prison. "The first stage was totally incommunicado. That was horrible. No one else to speak with, to talk to, with the exception of interrogators: two men and two women. They kept interrogating me, day in and day out and nothing to do."
     Her mother, shocked by Lu's arrest, grew ill. While she was ailing, Lu went on a hunger strike, trying to see her, to no avail. The government produced a doctor who certified that Lu's mother was not really ill; the next day she died, still a painful thought to Lu.
     While in prison, Lu wrote books, sometimes on toilet tissue, which were smuggled out of the prison.
      "Many of my books were banned right after they came out," she says. While in prison, Lu developed cancer, and her illness, coupled with pressure from groups such as Amnesty International, led to her being released with less than half her sentence served.
     She returned to a Taiwan starting to recoil from the corruption and violence of the Chiang Kai-shek years, a nation realizing that democracy was the road out of international isolation. Lu again took up the cause of women in Taiwan, setting up help hotlines and organizing career workshops for women (and, to be fair, cooking competitions for men).
     As in America, publicity can turn to political power. In 1992, Lu was elected to the legislature, representing her home district of Taoyuan. It was the first election where the old Nationalist Party—the KMT—was seriously challenged by a new party, the DPP, which grew out of the same opposition group that had sparked the Kaohsiung protests.
     In the late 1990s, Lu became an adviser to President Lee Teng and served as a magistrate.
     She returned—in an unofficial capacity, of course—to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention in 1996.
     "Chicago changed so much," she says. "It's beautiful now."
     She was added to the presidential ballot of Taiwan's DPP in 1999 mainly to draw on her popularity—much in the same way that Geraldine Ferraro was named the running mate of Walter Mondale. But unlike that ill-starred pair, Chen and Lu won.
     Lu's tenure has been anything but placid. She touched off a major sex scandal when—supposedly—she phoned a reporter and said the president was having an affair with his secretary.
     Lu's feminism is of a type that might strike many Americans as extreme—"Marriage is not the best choice for women," says Lu, who has neither wed nor had children—and she is not famous for her humility.
     "In many countries the women's movement didn't start until democracy has been in practice," she says. "I would say, thanks to my efforts, Taiwan started both feminism and democracy simultaneously."
     She is proud that she is the first elected female vice president to wield power in 5,000 years of Chinese history and hopes that someday someone in America will follow in her footsteps.
     "I thought you would have had a female vice president sooner than us," Lu says. "I think I run faster than my sisters in the states—I came from prison to a palace. But my sisters in America still have a little way to go."
     As with most Taiwanese leaders, she is very concerned about the Taiwanese money and manpower now flowing to the mainland.
     "No one can really stop it," she says, "it is a tide."
     But she sees the Taiwanese as crucial, as managers and workers, to the rapid economic growth of China—
"Without support from Taiwanese, China wouldn't be able to take off so quickly"—and thinks self-interest will keep the mainland, despite their harsh rhetoric, from attacking Taiwan.
      The larger question, she says, is whether that investment will bring the two nations closer to peaceful coexistence, or merely strengthen China and hasten the day when it tries to seize Taiwan.
     "For the past five decades, the PRC has always played two cards toward Taiwan—carrot and stick," she says. "People here are used to that. Yes, they are increasing their military, their ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan.On one hand, they prepare to intimidate Taiwan or even attack Taiwan. On the other hand, they smile on us. They try to seduce the Taiwanese people to go to the mainland and spend money, to contribute to their development."
     That is why, she says, Taiwan needs to be militarily strong and why the United States needs to help.
     "It's certainly in the best interest of the United States to safeguard Taiwan," she says. "Taiwan is one of the best allies the United States has. If Taiwan is taken over by China, then China will be in and out of the Pacific, a continental hegemon and a marine power that would be very much a threat to the United States."

COMING MONDAY: Part II: Security: Taiwan on the Knife's Edge.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 14, 2002