Sunday, May 20, 2018

Wrestling with identity politics

I'm in the middle, second row, dark shirt; Harry Cuthrell is behind me to the left, Bernard Neally two guys to the left of him; Bill Grayson is the third wrestler right of me, his head slightly tilted.

     My column on graduation weekend at Pomona got a lot of feedback last week, particularly after 
a colleague wrote a response: "White privilege is getting to write a column about the time you felt left out."
     The assumption behind that phrase—"the time you felt left out," as if there were only the one—stuck in my craw, but I didn't want to argue. I'd had my say, now she gets hers. That's how it works, and in the range of unfairness, this was something I could accept with grace. So I retweeted it, mentioning my experience of not lettering in 9th grade wrestling, a sly wink to telegraph, "We all have our woes." 
     My former editor, Andrew Herrmann, said he'd like to hear more about my season as a wrestler.
     Hmm... I don't usually take requests—I'm not a short order cook. But it seemed a story worth telling on a Sunday, perhaps one that can move the discussion along, about exclusion, and effort, and "white privilege." I don't want to re-open the debate. But it isn't as if the issue is going away either. 

     I grew to hate being a fat kid. You're no good at sports. People make jokes. It's unattractive. Uncomfortable. My right upper arm had stretch marks. I had to buy my clothes in the Husky Department. 
     So I tried to do something about it, starting at age 15.
     I joined the junior high school wrestling team.
     The idea was to force myself to exercise.
     And forced to exercise I was. We all were; we had to run "wind sprints." Run a certain distance—to the center of the gym, back, then to the far end, touch the wall, and run back. If everybody didn't do it in a certain amount of time, then we all had to do it over again. And again.
     Wind sprints were awful. You haven't suffered until you've made the entire squad do extra wind sprints because you're so out-of-shape you can't do one in the allotted time. Winded—I guess that's where they got their name—sucking air, humiliated and receiving the angry glares of your teammates.
     Still, I endured. I had made a commitment. I wanted to stick it out. Besides: I liked being on the team. I belonged. We had uniforms, these black spandex body suits. We had headgear. We wore special shoes. We struggled. Guys wrapped themselves in the mats, sweating, trying make weight. It was dramatic: I remember Wayne Carroll slamming his locker, crying, after losing a match. This was important.
     One practice, drilling a maneuver designed to roll your opponent over, using your head as a lever, I was trying it out on Mr. Reese, the assistant coach, a mountain of a man, and something snapped in his back. He had to be taken away in an ambulance. I felt sorry for hurting him, sure, but there was also an unspoken coolness involved. I might be a fish, but I had sent Mr. Reese to the hospital. He was a huge guy. 
     What I hadn't thought of was that I'd have to wrestle in meets. Against other schools. But that was the general point.
     At 191 pounds, I was a heavyweight. There were three other heavyweights. Bernard Neally and Harry Cuthrell, football linemen keeping in shape in the off-season. And Bill Grayson, who, I seem to recall, lived in the youth home.
     We wrestled each other, every week, to see who got to go to represent the school that weekend. Each opponent was a unique experience. Bernard would stand there, hands on his hips, and order me to shoot in—"shooting in" was the term we used for the lunging motion to go at someone's leg. Rather than trying to evade me, Bernard would just stand there, tensing his tree trunk of a leg. I would wrap myself around it and try to lift. It was like trying to lift a fire hydrant. He would stand there, tell jokes and laugh while I squirmed and struggled to budge his leg. Then he would pin me.
    Harry Curthrell was even stronger. I remember shooting in, and he did something with his hands, a quick motion, and suddenly the blue mat was where the ceiling had been, and visa versa. Then gravity did its thing. In a comic the sound would be written as: "WHUMPF!!!"
     And Bill Grayson, the worst of all. You get points in wrestling, for reverses, for getting on somebody's back, for holding on—"ride time"—they called it. You can win on points and never pin the other guy. Bill would hardly do anything, and let me rack up the points, do everything but pin him—I'd be winning, I don't recall the score, say 20 to 0. Then they would mark the last 10 seconds of the match—I remember them tossing a rolled up towel, to signal the approaching end. At that point he would come to life and pin me. He knew that I knew that if I could hold on for those last 10 seconds I would win. Finally win. But I never held on. I couldn't do it.
    It seemed cruel.
    So I never got through wrestle-offs. Never competed against another school in a match. But I lasted out the year. Went to every practice, every match. At the end of the year, at our banquet, every guy on the team got a white sweater with a big blue "R"—for Roehm Junior High School—trimmed in gold. Except me, since I had never actually wrestled against another school. Thus I didn't earn a letter, alone among the 57 kids on the team in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades. I remember wondering why they couldn't cut me a break—I was on the team, right? I had done my best all year. I had stuck it out. That sweater would have meant a lot to me. But I understood, rules are rules. 
     It's sort of a woebegone story, which is why I haven't told it before. I don't like painting myself as a victim. And it's a minor exclusion, compared to the larger injustices and tragedies of life. Compared to actual sorrows, it's nothing.
     But like all people, I don't compare my personal sadnesses against the weight of all human sadness, don't measure my life against the full spectrum of all lives. It was significant to me.
    Nor was it the only time I felt cut out. I hate to list them all. But since the subject was raised, and not my me, maybe it's overdue, in a society where slights and sufferings have become a strange sort of currency, chits we flash to show how ... well, disadvantaged we are. Because that makes us somehow worthy, somehow better, almost morally pure, in our own eyes at least. 
     Not that all of them add up to being disadvantaged. But they do show that my colleague's imagination—he's a white guy, he's sitting pretty in the white guy club—is out of kilter with reality, with my reality as I experienced it. Everyone is privileged, compared to someone else, and maybe one reason why the speakers at Pomona College were so insistent about trotting out their bona fides of disadvantage was to obscure, to themselves if no one else, that they might have had humble beginnings, but they're making up for it now, and have ascended into the elite. Most Americans still don't go to college at all. Most people in the world live in poverty, or nearly. Their parents might have struggled, but they went to school in heaven. They're now the advantaged, holders of privilege, whether they like it or not, and no amount of blowing kisses at the kitchen staff will change that. Slagging others based on your own assumed superiority is sort of what the privileged do, and if that assault is based on your ancestors coming over on the Mayflower or on their wading the Rio Grande is only a matter of personal style.
      We all have our privileges, and our exclusions, and they seem very tangible to ourselves. I was not only fat, but the sole Jew in my elementary school—being Jewish isn't considered a minority anymore, I suppose because many Jews do well. Like Asians, we've succeeded so much we've voided our minority status card. Maybe so. But that doesn't mean being Jewish doesn't put you on the outside Christian society, squirming while the rest of the class sings their carols and goes to their church camps. People still fucking hate us, and part of that hate is pretending all Jews are bankers and movie makers and George Soros, basking in privilege. All the obstacles of being a minority and none of the contact cool. Or so it can seem.  One reason my upbringing was so solitary is because half of my extended family was back in Poland, buried in a pit. If that isn't a disadvantage, what is?
    I don't see the utility into making your struggles into a kind of reality show competition. Maybe it's just the human joy of running down the lives of others, sight unseen, in using your story, whatever it is, to bludgeon those you resent for the easy path you assume they enjoyed. I'm not looking for sympathy. Instead, I'm asking: why does your struggle need to trump mine? What is the point of you finding your voice if the first thing you say is that others are somehow no good because they didn't climb the mountain you climbed? How do you know your path is steeping than mine? Why do we have to be in competition at all? That's the part I don't understand. So you can come out ahead? Okay, I tap out and yield; you come out ahead. You win, pinning me in the suffering competition. Now what?
    Once we're done comparing hardships, we need to seek commonalities. We must tire of bickering and find ways we are similar, rather than highlighting differences. That's what bugged me about the Pomona graduation. I did not, as some leaped to assume, resent the hoopla over these various ethnicities and groups. Good for them. I applauded. But what bothered me was the consistent shattering the student body into its component pieces in order to show off each sparkly shard, without ever making the slightest effort to gather the fragments back up and show how they  might fit together into a cohesive whole, into something that everyone can be a part of. Because I believe they all fit together, somehow. They have to. 


Saturday, May 19, 2018

And how's that working?

"The Death of the First Born" by Erastus Salisbury Field (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     If on Friday morning you tapped Texas dad Antonios Pagourtzis on the shoulder and asked him why he owned the guns that his 17-year-old son Dimitrios would soon take to Santa Fe High School and use to kill 10 people, he would have no doubt replied, "To protect my family."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Skip the wedding, reflect on how Chicago once hated British royalty

     Are you kidding? Get up at 6 a.m. Saturday to watch a royal wedding?
     Another royal wedding? Didn't we just have one of these, what, just seven years ago? How many more do we need?
     And no, I'm not drawn in by the bride's Northwestern connection — hail to purple, hail to white and best of luck to all fellow alumni. But it's important, with all the crazily-obsessive media attention building for months, to give permission to ignore the festivities, even sneer at them. To remind ourselves that not only do Americans reject the notion of royalty — it's kinda how our nation came to be — but Chicago has a particular history of despising British aristocracy.
     The oft-cited quote is Mayor William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson's threat against King George V: "If George comes to Chicago, I'll crack him in the snoot." The common assumption is that this was a tossed-off remark, perhaps to appeal to Irish voters.

      It was not. Rooting out the British menace was the linchpin of Thompson's 1927 mayoral bid, what one historian called "one of the most absurd campaigns ever waged in an American municipal election."I will not rest until I have purged this entire city of the poison that's being injected into the heart of American youth," Thompson said appointing a gambling buddy as special commissioner to weed British influence from Chicago's libraries and schools.
     Needless to say, Thompson won. A reminder that Donald Trump didn't invent getting elected by damning foreigners, he merely refined it.
     Ridiculing the English is uniquely satisfying and consequence-free; I'm surprised people don't do it far more often. While most nationalities have weaponized their cultural pride, the English can be mocked openly, boldly denounced as swine, provided of course you reach for the proper literary fig leaf, such as D.H. Lawrence's deathless rant: "Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates ... the sniveling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulseless lot that make up England today."

 continue reading, click here.    

The photographs are "Distortographs" of William Hale Thompson by British photographer Herbert George Ponting, mostly known for his Arctic photographs of the Scott Expedition. In 1927, he patented a lens attachment he called  the “variable controllable distortograph ... a revolutionary optical system for photographing in caricature or distortion,” submitting these photos of Thompson along with his application. While I have found no evidence connecting Thompson's anti-English campaign to these creations, due to the timing, a link seems likely.  (Photos used with permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The word police

Stephanie Izard
    A future column I'm working on necessitated a stop by the Chicago Ideas seminar at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tuesday night. I was hoping to talk to an executive in attendance at "The Future of Food in America," a panel discussion between Stephanie Izard, the chef behind Girl & the Goat, and Sam Kass, a nutrition advisor at the Obama White House, moderated by ABC 7's food reporter, Steve Dolinsky. 
     Since I wasn't particularly interested in the topic, I probably shouldn't assess how thoroughly it was covered—in the future we'll be eating less meat, ideally, and toward that end Girl & the Goat is serving hamburgers that are 25 percent mushroom, which seems like a good idea. 
     Seeing Izard reminded me of a column I wrote about her a dozen years ago, when she was starting out. Afterward, we had a chance to chat. "I still haven't read The Odyssey," she said, when I reminded her of the item below, and I put in a plug for Emily Wilson's new translation. 
     I understand ironic restaurant names. So many places are burdened with ordinary names such as Ma's Family Restaurant or the Steak and Potatoes Grill or whatever, that a hip chef wants to stand out in the crowd. Thus we get eateries with odd names like Barbed Wire or Gristle or Slop Sink.
     For me, the gold standard of winking eatery names is the University of Colorado at Boulder's student center cafeteria, which is called the Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill— Packer being one of the few Americans ever found guilty of cannibalism, convicted of dining on several of his snowbound traveling companions during a harsh Rocky Mountains winter of 1873.
     College students eat that sort of thing up—sometimes literally, during "Alferd Packer Days" when they have, in years past, constructed life-size Packers out of chopped liver and set at them with crackers.
     So I understand irony.
     But "Scylla"? The "yelping horror" of The Odyssey? A beast known for gobbling up men alive? That seems to be pushing it.
     When I heard that a seafood place named "Scylla" had opened up on North Damen, I found myself running back to consult the epic poem. Circe, finally releasing Odysseus from her clutches, warns him: whatever he does, stay away from "the grisly monster."
     "No one could look on her with any joy," explains the goddess. "She has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down, and six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each, each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset, packet tight -- armed to the hilt with black death!"
     But Circe isn't done yet.
     "Scylla's no mortal,'' she continues. "She's an immortal devastation, terrible, savage, wild. No fighting her, no defense—just flee the creature, that's the only way."
     Can't you just see that in an ad? "Outstanding" -- Pat Bruno. "Terrible, savage, wild" -- Homer.
     Restaurants cost money—often somebody's life investment. I just couldn't imagine, with the menus being hand-lettered and the lighting fixtures agonized over, even the most ironic chef, going through lists of possible names—"'Clytemnestra?' No. 'Medea?' No.—Hey, 'Scylla!' That's snappy. The good old yelping horror. Yeah, that's it. We'll call it 'Scylla.' "
     I phoned Stephanie Izard, Scylla's chef and owner, who laughed when I told her why I was calling.
     "Basically, when I chose it, it was early on in reading about Scylla," she said. "I saw her as a sea monster in the Mediterranean, not really realizing the extent of her evil. Since then I've read more about it. . . ."
     So a failure to do one's homework—sort of like naming your daughter Anna Karenina Smith because you never got to the end of the book.
     Any regrets?
     "I still like the name—it always brings up questions,'' said Izard, 29. Like why you'd go to a restaurant whose name suggests—at least to the tiny fraction of Chicagoans familiar with the tale—a hideous doom to be avoided at all costs?
     "We don't want to send that message out," she said.
      Can't say I blame her.
                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 10, 2006

     Postscript: And as a reminder that you never know what part of a column will touch people, after this ran, I received a letter from a 15-year-old reader, saying her name was Karenina, and could I pass along her interest in meeting other girls of the same name. I did.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

You mean you’re NOT an undocumented immigrant? Take your diploma and get out

    It wasn't that the graduation festivities were without value—a class day speaker was very candid. A political science professor read from the Declaration of Independence. But those too were mitigated—she was being candid about her lack of employability after four years in college. The professor first pointed out that the Declaration of Independence has value, despite author Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, since John Adams, who helped, was anti-slavery. As if the concepts depended on the moral purity of who wrote them, which is pretty much where we are at nowadays. But by the time I cut it down to 700 words, this is what was left. Make no mistake: our family had an enjoyable graduation weekend, but there was a constant cloud of the school's own creating, which I tried to capture here. Based on some of my email, you'd think I'd written a hate polemic. 

    Southern California houses don’t have gutters. Not enough rain. I wish I could say I noticed this, with my keen journalist’s eye. But it was my wife who, strolling around the lovely college town of Claremont, an hour east of Los Angeles, pointed it out. That happens a lot.
     What I noticed was the sign for the “Black Graduation Ceremony” two days before the full commencement at Pomona College, the liberal arts school where my kid got his degree on Sunday.
     The sign was the first thing I saw stepping on campus, and set the tone. What could black commencement be? Like black proms at southern high schools? A sign of fracture and exclusion? Even here, at an epicenter of inclusion? Pomona placed 9th out of 2,475 colleges on a ranking of the most diverse schools.
     I started with my kid: what gives? He said that there are several separate graduations—also a “Lavender Commencement” for LGBTQ community. No big deal. He was entirely non-plussed, as if I had asked about some mundane aspect of student life: and all these backpacks, what are they for?
     We had come 2,000 miles to attend three events. The first, a pair of brunch receptions for the Economics and International Studies departments—his degree is in both. His teachers were outgoing, we got to meet friends and classmates we had only heard of.

To continue reading, click here.

My colleague at the Sun-Times, Alexandra Arriaga, wrote a response to this column. While I don't agree with how she characterized my column—I was wondering why the separate commencements were necessary at one of the most inclusive colleges in the country, not complaining I wasn't invited—it is worth reading. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


     Epicures are odd people.
     My older son likes fancy restaurants, and he is all Michelin stars this, and coq au vin that.  The swank place we dined at Sunday night to celebrate his graduation was picked, in part, for its steak tartar, which I think of as "raw ground meat."
     Then Monday, heading for LAX and, we have a little extra time, and it's pushing noon, and he suggests, "Hey, why don't we stop at the In-N-Out Burger by the airport?"
      I've spent months in Los Angeles, but can't say In-N-Out Burger is on my radar. But it seems to be a cult of some sort, stoked by rarity—the chain only operates in six states: Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Texas,  Utah, and the mothership, California.
     Sure, I say, it's your graduation. 
     What should I get, I ask my son.
     Burger with animal sauce.
     "Animal sauce?"
     "A mayonnaise-based sauce," he says.
     Sounds a bit Big Mac-ish. But OK. When in Rome ... (Actually, "Animal Style" means extra sauce, mustard-grilled patties and extra pickles. "Mustard-grilling" is when they slather the patty with mustard before flipping it. Who knew?)
     We get in line for the drive-thru—no spaces, no time. We order four burgers—$12.81. Enthusiastic workers hand us a squarish bag. When my wife looks inside the bag, she explains, "The burgers are unwrapped; they just put them in the bag!"
     Immediately I think it has to be some strange Californian law to cut down on waste. But rather, upon closer exploration, it turns out the burgers are combat wrapped for a car culture—only half covered, so you can grab the paper-wrapped half and immediately mash the burger into your face, which is what I do as I steer toward the car rental return, only a few blocks away.
     It is a distinctive burger—fresh bun with a thick round bottom half. Lots of lettuce and fresh tomato. The rest ... well, it was okay, but then I ate it with one hand while driving toward the Avis drop off. Whatever excellence mustard-grilling imparts is lost on me.
    Avis, incidentally, wraps its corporate arms around us as we arrive. Alex—I didn't catch his last name—but he is just, well, extra-friendly. He tries harder, as the slogan goes, and it is appreciated. I don't have much car rental loyalty—I think of them as all the same. But Avis now stands out, because it has Alex greeting customers as they bring their cars back at LAX.
     The In-N-Out burger chain is older than McDonald's. Founded in 1948 (their 70th birthday is this Oct. 22) while the McDonald's Corporation started in 1955, and originated the drive-thru, being the first burger joint to use speakers to take orders from motorists in cars.
     Oddly, given the vaguely sexual overtone of the name, "In-N-Out," the owners are fundamentalist Christians who cite Biblical verses on the burger packaging. For some reason, this doesn't bother me—it's their company—since they don't seem to harass their workers or try to undermine the rights of their customers.
     No great epiphany here—we got into Chicago late to find monsoon season upon the city— except that value has to do with scarcity. In-N-Out are certainly beloved, but if they were on every street corner, like McDonald's, that ardor would no doubt fade: familiarity breeds contempt.  I don't think my experience Monday will knock White Castle out of its preeminence in my heart among quirky hamburger chains. But it did help redeem the state's reputation, fast-food wise, which had been so tarnished by a few bad experiences at Bob's Big Boy and Denny's. Anyway, it's good to be home, college graduate in tow. He hasn't slept under our roof for five months. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Waitlisted for dumplings

     We drove half an hour to Monterey Park, a sprawling city east of Los Angeles that is 2/3 Asian, in order to sample the authentic soup dumpling at Mama Lu's Dumpling House, one of my older son's favorite places to eat. 
    The restaurant was exactly what you'd expect: crowded, clatter, not many caucasians. Although I got one surprise: instead of a harried host jotting down names on a pad, this computer maitre d', where we tapped in our name ourselves and registered to be notified when a table became ready.
     Another job down the tubes. I've grudgingly accepted ringing up my own razors at CVS and bagging my own nails at Home Depot. Resistance is futile. But somehow this seems straying into a new area.
     It was extra odd finding it at a small Chinese dumpling place and not, oh, McDonald's, or some other big corporate chain, which have been experimenting with having customers key in their own orders, to make up for the lack of minimum wage drones. Why here?
     We plugged in our phone information, were told the wait would be a half hour, then strolled down Garvey Avenue to see what the wait was like at the second Mama Lu's Dumpling House, five blocks east, speaking of quirky. I must have been tired from our trip, because I didn't even probe why there were two restaurants with the same name half a mile apart. I gazed at the streetscape—lots of travel agents and nail salons, with signs heavy on Chinese characters. It was like being in Taipei. Mama Lu's II was even more jammed, and no sooner had we turned to go, than we got a text telling us we had a minute to claim our table.
     The boys hustled ahead, and didn't get there in a minute. Our spot in the queue vanished. But due to some old-fashioned, low-tech humble entreaty to an actual human being on my son's part, we got the next table and didn't have to re-enter our names and begin the process all over again.
     I'd like to think the electronic sign-up practice won't spread to restaurants generally—you can eat at home, and if you are going to be greeted with a computer screen, next the dumplings will be cooked up by robots in the back and served by drones. Something of the experience is lost. I always consider service—someone greeting you, someone being friendly to you—an intrinsic part of the dining out experience. 
      They were very good dumplings—a blurp of hot soup in the middle—which I suppose is the important thing. The friend fish was also excellent. The fried cubes of coconut bread, well, I assume that's an acquired taste. The only unsettling aspect, that computer sign up....
     Then again, I squirmed when the New York Times put a color photograph on the front page. It might have seemed wrong, at the time and for a moment, but we got used to it, and after all these years I'm ready to admit that, yes, it was an improvement.
      Several other California-style developments caught my eye this trip. Our room had a "Clean Remote"—obviously reacting to the news that television remotes are the filthiest spot in the room, because they're difficult to clean, this one bragged "The Clean Remote has been designed specifically to make it easy to clean and disinfect."
    Not that they necessarily do it. But the potential is there.
 .    I also spied more EXIT signs at floor level, which puzzled me the first time, but are obviously designed to but of more use to patrons crawling through smoke-filled halls. Smart but not the most pleasant image to have when you're checking into your motel.
     It's always a challenge to decide whether a social shift is a loss, a deterioration, or just new. When people began saving a nickel a gallon on gas by pumping it themselves, the loss of the guy who pumped your gas and checked your oil seemed a step toward the abyss. Now, you don't want some odd guy to start pawing around your car. It's intrusive. A reminder that while it's easy to see our systems changing around us, it's harder to see ourselves change within those systems. Which is true for more than technology. Assuming we ever get rid of Donald Trump and his cohort of quislings and traitors, we'll then have to address how we ourselves have changed, perhaps against our will, perhaps without even realizing it. But changed nevertheless, and certainly not for the better.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Graduation flashback: Taking a pass on a 'bar ritzvah'


     Birth might be the last life transition done without ceremony of any kind. A few phone calls to family and friends, a photo of the new life taken on the day of delivery. Then you collapse at home in exhaustion and relief. The ceremonies don't start until ... well, for Jews, a week later, with the bris, a party marking circumcision.  Rather soon actually.
     Then the yearly gong of birthdays. The dress rehearsal of lesser graduations—from pre-school, sometimes, junior high, then the main event, high school, when suddenly the bright sun that has filled your sky for 18 years becomes a distant star, sometimes glimpsed in the night sky, more often not.
     My older boy graduates from Pomona College today, and, busy with festivities, listening to speeches, meeting his friends and teachers, and eating, eating, eating, I thought I would mark the occasion here with a transitional column from when he was growing up. This one was about his bar mitzvah. I've left in the joke that used to appear at the end of my columns.

     A co-worker asked how my son's bar mitzvah went. Very nice, I said. Then she flashed a little smile—a smirk, really—and inquired about its theme, which I took as a polite way of wondering whether it was one of those grotesque North Shore extravaganzas that one hears about.
     I explained, again, that it had no theme—well, "Judaism," I suppose—but there were no hired dancers, no fog machines, no hot air balloons or sit-down dinners for 300 at the Four Seasons with the bar mitzvah boy's bust done in chopped liver, like a butter cow at the state fair. It wasn't built around the Bears or the movies or NASCAR.
     This news invariably disappoints—people are keen for new details of the spectacles I think of as "bar ritzvahs," the pop bands and minor celebrities engaged, the self-flattering theme parties, the money spent. Within the last week, I've had acquaintances tell me of bar mitzvahs where a film was shown involving the actual actors from "Lost"—dad is in the TV business, apparently—and one where it was rumored Green Day would perform.
     Such tales are a harmless way to indulge in the pleasure of reflecting on the spendthrift idiocy of others. But they are also a reminder that somehow bar mitzvahs have lost their good name.
     Part of this might be a kind of prejudice—assuming that any bar mitzvah party will have tables named after various local shopping malls projects an unfair stereotype of crassness onto Jews that is only partially deserved. Indulgent gentile parents throw huge birthday parties for their children, some of which are captured cruelly on that MTV reality show "My Super Sweet 16." Yet strangers do not greet news that one's daughter has turned 16 by asking whether she wept because she got a BMW M5 and not the even-pricier M6.
     I should be clear that a confluence of circumstance helped keep us from hosting a bar mitzvah blowout—first, we are not wealthy, which always helps ensure that a person is a critic of excess instead of a perpetrator of it. We settled in Northbrook, which is more proletarian than the New Trier catch basin, where activities involving children—school, athletics, religious events—too often are twisted into Darwinian, king-of-the-hill blood sport.
     Second, with the gathering economic disaster, this did not seem the time to indulge in resource-burning Semitic potlatches, which weren't going to happen because, third—and most significantly—neither my wife nor my son felt inclined to show off.
     Nor did I, having made a conscious decision that this wasn't going to be about me. I didn't invite any work associates, explaining to those who complained about being left out that it was his bar mitzvah, not mine.
     Looking back, none of the moments that stick out involve commerce. None of them induce a wince. The rabbi invited my son's friends up to see the Torah as Ross read from it, and they gathered around and gazed wide-eyed at the ancient scroll. At one point, half of the congregation got up and danced—one of those dipping, hand-holding hora-type dances, not "The Locomotion." My son played "Hatikvah" on the viola.
      My most significant contribution to the event—well, besides paying for it, pricy enough, even though the party for his friends was held at the Brunswick lanes in Northbrook—was persuading him to do it, and I must admit the task was neatly accomplished.
     My older son's view of God seems on par with the average adult's belief in Santa Claus—a risible bit of cultural baggage that some people actually take seriously—and he was initially reluctant, wondering why he had to go through this time-consuming ritual at all.
      I delivered the Team Speech. Three thousand years ago, something happened in the desert. From generation to generation, this thing was passed along in an unbroken chain—no one in the Middle Ages decided, "Hey, I'm going to become Jewish because it's so much fun. . . ." The chain reached unbroken from Moses to my father, for whom this stuff occupies an even tinier corner of mind than it does mine, which is saying something. He nevertheless felt obligated to pass it on to me, and now I was passing it along to him. Because you just never know—it might come in handy someday.
     "It's like you're going on a hike in the jungle," I said, groping for a metaphor. "And I say, 'Take along this inflatable rubber raft.' And you say, 'That's stupid, dad, I don't need a raft— it's heavy. I'll be in the forest. There's no water.' But you indulge me, and carry the raft with you, even though it's a bother. Then you come upon a river you must cross. . . ."
     Not the most sophisticated theological argument. But it worked—well that, and dangling the prospect of presents. Looking back on the bar mitzvah, I can honestly say I wouldn't have done anything differently, and I'm sure not every parent who hired fire-eaters and rented out Navy Pier for their kid's bar mitzvah can say the same thing.


     The party planner had promised a unique bar mitzvah, and so far she had been true to her word. The chartered jet had landed in Tanzania. The line of elephants had been waiting, and then set off toward the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, where the ceremony would be held at twilight. The father of the bar mitzvah boy was on the last elephant, swaying along the trail.
     After traveling for an hour, the elephant train abruptly stopped. The father sat, waiting, for a long time. Finally, he shouted to the person on the elephant ahead of him, "What's wrong?" The question was passed ahead from elephant to elephant. After 20 minutes, the reply worked its way back toward the dad. The guy on the elephant in front of him turned and said, "We have to wait—there are three other bar mitzvah parties ahead of us."
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 8, 2008

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Flashback: Lincoln relic or just old hat?

Abraham Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     My former colleague, Ray Long, reports in the Tribune that the financially-troubled Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield is considering unloading some of its stuff. I've never been a fan of the library, which cast itself as more of a cut-rate Disneyland for downstate rubes than a serious institution dedicated to scholarship, and their intellectual laziness over their expensive piece of old haberdashery is a perfect example of why. Long puts its this way: 

        "The Taper collection included a beaver fur stovepipe hat that library officials are satisfied that Lincoln wore, though some critics are not convinced there is empirical evidence of an attachment to Honest Abe."   
      Which to my ear is a study in understatement, akin to, "Many critics consider 'Harry Potter' to be a work of fiction." The moment I heard the topper might be up for sale, I thought of this old column. Let's put it this way: were I you, I would think twice before spending too much for that hat. 

     People lie. They dissemble and prevaricate. They fool themselves and others.
     The history of fraud is long. One of the best passages in Loyal Rue's "By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs" involves the explosive popularity of holy relics in the Middle Ages: 

Response to the 'discovery' of these relics was so intense that even more spectacular finds followed: the staff of Moses, manna from the wilderness, the bodies of Samuel the prophet, St. Peter, St. Paul, Mary Magdalene, hanks of hair from the Virgin Mary, vials of her milk, blood from the birth of Jesus, pieces of the cross, the crown of thorns . . . eventually there were enough fragments of the cross about to build a battleship, and enough of the Virgin's milk to sink it.
     Just as those who "found" these relics had to deal with impolite questions—such as "How did Mary Magdalene's body come to be buried in France?"—so possessors of more recent relics go through contortions trying to justify their venerated objects. In the wake of Dave McKinney's stories in the Sun-Times, it has been joy to watch the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield shimmy, trying to escape the obvious conclusion: that no real evidence links the top hat they claim was worn by Lincoln to the 16th president. 
     Yes, it is his size, and yes, it comes from the Springfield hat shop that Lincoln patronized. But to accept that as proof of anything is to believe that every 7 1/8 hat sold in Springfield back then must have belonged to Lincoln. That's like saying that every sandal from Roman times was worn by Jesus.
     The library claimed, at first, the hat was given to an Illinois farmer, William Waller, during one of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. This ran into a problem when the Sun-Times pointed out a 1958 affidavit claiming that the hat was given to Waller "during the Civil War in Washington." Now they had two stories, a conflict, like the three churches that each claimed to own a head of John the Baptist.
     We need to remember that, as with holy relics, Lincoln memorabilia is an area famous for fraud and forgery—I once watched as the late Ralph Newman, a renowned Lincoln expert, dashed off a convincing Lincoln signature, to show how easily it could be done.
     In November, Dominican University gave a seminar, "Lincoln Fakes & Forgeries," where speakers addressed deception in the wake of a portrait that for decades was thought to be of Mary Lincoln but turned out to be a fake.
     "Not just paintings, but handwriting, photographs, printed documents, stories, and supposed family relics of the Lincolns have been passed off as authentic since Mr. Lincoln became president," the university noted. "Some of these items show chutzpah; some show greed; and some, a sincere yearning to be associated with greatness."
     These words were printed next to a photo of James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Lincoln Presidential Library, who spoke at the seminar. Thinking he must be an expert in this, I phoned him, and had one of the more unpleasant conversations I've had with anyone in recent years.
      "I've already said all I have to say," he snapped. He must be referring to his limp remark to Dave McKinney that the hat's provenance "cannot be proven or disproven."
      I hope they engrave that on the plaque. Cornelius did not sound like a confident man in proud possession of a national treasure. He sounded like a man running from truth.
     "If this hat came into my shop with that story, to be consigned, I wouldn't do it because I could not prove it," said Dan Weinberg, owner of Abraham Lincoln Book Shop.
      I can see why the Lincoln Presidential Library folks are snarly—they spent millions on an old hat whose link to the 16th president is at best notional. (The whispered, more-likely story is that the hat morphed into a Lincoln relic 50 years ago, during the Civil War centennial). That can't be helped now without going back in time, and the proper time travel technology just isn't here yet.
     What happens next is what worries me. The museum is committed to passing off the hat as genuine, perverting the idea of historic scholarship. We cannot tolerate that. My late colleague, Steve Neal, insisted that qualified professionals run the library. He fought to keep it from being a nest of George Ryan cronies. It is sad that it takes a Chicago newspaper, again, to remind them that, as tempting as it is to tap dance around their mistake, they risk turning the museum into a P.T. Barnum cabinet of dubious wonders. And once they go down that slippery road, the sky's the limit. If they display this hat as Lincoln's own now, someday they'll be displaying feathers from Lincoln's angelic wings collected in heaven. The millions wasted are still too cheap a price to sell our state's soul.
     "You have to be true to history if you're going to be in this business," said Weinberg.
     Do we honor Lincoln by fetishizing this expensive old hat? Or by being true to history?

                           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 27, 2013

Friday, May 11, 2018

Flashback 1998: TV's latest 'British invasion' is putting children in a trance

     My older son Ross graduates from college in a couple days. I haven't seen him in ... more than five months, as he used the past two school breaks to study in London and travel in Israel. There was a time when I worried about not seeing him for five minutes, as this column, almost exactly 20 years old, is a reminder. 

     The Teletubbies show began in England in 1997 and came here the next year. There doesn't seem much to be thankful for in our media world, but we can thank providence that the Teletubbies came and went—production ended in 2001— without leaving much of a lasting impact, though they did have their uses. As it is, having not seen a show in nearly 20 years, sometimes when I notice a couple rabbits on a green lawn I'll flinch, remembering.

     "Bye-bye Ross. Bye. Daddy's going to work now. Bye. See ya."
     Nothing. My 2-year-old son's head doesn't turn. His face doesn't deviate a degree from staring directly at the object of his affection: "Teletubbies."
     I walk over to his chair, lean down low, and whisper in his ear: "Bye-bye. See you. Have a good day!" Nothing. Eyelock. He doesn't even blink. The Teletubbies dance and sing.
     And here's the horrible part. I glance up from the slack, inert face of my mesmerized son to see what he is watching. Then I start watching the Teletubbies. Tinky Winky. Dipsy. Po. La-La. They bump their pear-shaped bodies together. They tumble. A baby face smiles down from the yellow sun. Periscope-like speakers rise up from the lawn and make ringing, Orwellian pronouncements.
     That was the week before last. Day One, their debut in Chicago, on Channel 11, Baby-sitter to the World. I linger for a minute or two, compelled by the bright colors, the endless repetition. It is all . . . so . . . weird. I almost sit down, my mouth hanging open, and take in the entire show.
     Instead, grabbing myself by the nose, I manage to jerk my head away. My gaze torn from the set. I flee the house, stumbling toward work, another concerned parent confronting the Teletubby menace, the most ominous development out of England since bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
     Yes, children aren't supposed to watch TV. Never watch TV. Never eat sugar. Never a minute unobserved. Instead they should spend their days capering creatively with their devoted caretakers: a full-time mother, two white-haired grandmothers, a few doting aunts, and a groom to look after the pony.
     But whose life is like that? I feel lucky that my wife is a stay-at-home mother. If occasionally (OK, habitually) Ross ends up parked in front of Channel 11 for an hour or three during the mad morning rush to care for him and his younger brother, to get me out of the house and do 1,000 other things, well, it's better than leaving the boys to scrabble for themselves in some Lord of the Flies day care center or subject them to the questionable mercies of an unemployed teenager plucked off the street.
     A little "Theodore the Tugboat," a little "Arthur" and the day is well under way. Why shouldn't Teletubbies join our pharmacopeia of TV Tot Narcotics?
     Yes, I find their blinking eyes and gaping mouths off-putting. But the show isn't designed for me, is it? If it were, there would be dancing girls. (Now there's an idea: a show for kids where the alphabet, counting and colors are taught by a cast of scantily clad models from Victoria's Secret and Chippendales. Something for everybody.)
     Like anything new, the Teletubbies offer the agonizing question of whether this is an unacceptable invasion that must be resisted, or just something new that we will eventually come to love.
     Perhaps I'm influenced by all the commotion that preceded Teletubbies. It was the biggest deal in Britain since Diana went for a drive in Paris. There were controversies -- one actor was fired for not being sufficiently Teletubby-like. There was the issue of whether the Teletubby with the purse is gay. (It was an echo of when a minister here demanded to know just what the heck is going on between Bert and Ernie on "Sesame Street." Stupidity knows no borders.)
     Day Two. Ross actually complains when "Barney" comes on— "Teletubbies! Teletubbies!" he says, demanding that I conjure them up "Right now!" I actually feel a sympathetic pang for the now-scorned purple dinosaur, whom I certainly hated as much as anybody when he first debuted.
     But enough viewings can adjust you to anything. I suppose I'm sympathizing with my captors, the TV version of the "Stockholm Syndrome." Having seen every single "Barney," by now I can actually sit through a show without having to entertain myself by imagining I am part of the gang of "Clockwork Orange" thugs who corner Michael in a gritty high school breezeway on his way home from the Barney set.
     Day Three. My worries that the Teletubbies are Video Heroin are replaced by a sort of Bad Parent Epiphany. With my wife having bolted for the supermarket—supposedly—an hour before, and the time of my departure for work drawing near, I prop Ross before the shrine of the Teletubbies, set a bowl of oatmeal in his lap, and tiptoe off to take a shower.
     I would never have done this before, but my confidence in the hypnotic power of the Teletubbies is that great. I trust them with his life.
     As quick as the shower is, I have plenty of time to imagine my beloved boy snapping out of his trance the moment the bathroom door shuts. I see him hopping to his feet and racing directly to the nearby, tragically available a) lye; b) sharp kitchen knives; c) dry-cleaning bag; d) open window.
     I return to find him in the same position I had left him. His hand is on the tablespoon, but he hasn't raised it to his lips. A Teletrance. I look at the set. Hmmm, what a pleasant little band of happy fellows!
     It is too late for me and my family. But you, who haven't yet seen the show, can still save yourselves. The Teletubbies are coming! They're here! On the air now! The toys will soon be in stores! Do something before it's too . . .
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 19, 1998

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Today in Trumpland

     Notice how ineptly Donald Trump paints himself into a corner by assuming the success of his negotiations with North Korea. Putting himself—and the country he leads, unfortunately—in a position of weakness before talks, scheduled for mid-June, even begin.
     Trump says he'll walk away if it doesn't go well. But how can he do that when he is already taking a victory lap for something he hasn't yet done and might never do? As is his habit.

    One of the many problems with living in a fact-free world: you can pretend you've already done what you will never actually do.
    And people believe him. 
    A reminder that to focus on Trump and his flaws are wrong. There will always be another Trump in the wings, and if we continue susceptible to people like that, there will be no salvation of us.
    In the meantime, Trump has to make whatever concessions he will make, elevate the North Korean pariah to an international respect he doesn't deserve—Trump's already done that—and declare the whole thing part of his unbroken, if imaginary, chain of triumph.
     Freeing three American hostages is all well and good. But that shouldn't overshadow his alienating our closest allies while embracing the strongman dictators he yearns to become. Did you notice how Trump mentioned that the men he had just freed supported him? That's how hungry for any shred of validation. Look! These guys I just sprang from a North Korean prison approve of me!
     You can see by how Trump made a spectacle of the hostages' arrival—being personally on-hand at 3 a.m. and genuflecting before the dictator who finally released them.
     “We want to thank Kim Jong Un, who was really excellent," Trump gushed.
     It is Kim Jong Un who should be thanking Trump, for all the favors and benefits bestowed. I suppose that's coming.

Autocrat of Time

     Few notions regarding history are more mistaken than the idea that we are on a descending spiral of laxity, where more and more is permitted, and standard after standard of taste and decency are abandoned. 
      I think this is because we assume that certain trends in some areas apply to all manifestations of expression. Yes, obscenity spreads and becomes more common. Moviemakers fretted over Rhett Butler saying "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," at the end of "Gone With the Wind," in 1939, while now all TV channels except the big three broadcast networks relish whatever dirty words they see fit. 
   But there are sub-currents. For instance, nudity was more acceptable in general media in eras gone by than it is now. I remember seeing microfilm of the Sun-Times original coverage of the 1955 Schuessler-Peterson killings, where the paper published photos of the naked bodies of the boys in a ditch, lightly airbrushed. Something we would never do today, out of consideration for the families of the victims and the knowledge that the paper would be torn down brick by brick by outraged readers if we did. 
    On the other hand, clothed corpses are another matter. I noticed that the CBS Evening News, once the platinum bar of excellent, didn't blink last month to flash a photograph of Prince's body, sprawled in his Paisley Park mansion, to illustrate a minor story about how no one was being charged for providing the drugs that lead to his death. I don't believe that would have happened a decade ago. I'm not pleased it happened now, but I am of an earlier age.
    Turn your attention to this watch advertisement, which I glimpsed on the back cover of the July, 1927 issue of American Magazine, a popular, mainstream general interest publication at the time similar to The Saturday Evening Post. Notice anything unusual? Try to imagine Timex or Hamilton running it now, and the outcry it would evoke, as much for the sexism as the nudity.
     Although I should point out a detail about this ad, if you can tear your eyes away from the windblown flapper: the watches are for both sexes, men and women. The ad is designed to appeal to both and, indeed, advertising studies show that women look longer on a photo of a naked woman than men do. Gloria Steinem said it's because the women are automatically comparing themselves to the picture.
     So are we better now, having shelved this kind of thing? I tend to disapprove of anything that reins in creativity. Rules are generally made to be broken. And standards change quickly. When this blog started, almost five years ago, I would encounter people who were troubled by its slightly risque title. Now I never do. Which means either tastes are changing; or my circle is narrowing. Or both. 


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

‘O nation miserable!’ — ‘Macbeth,’ prophecy and the Chicago mayor’s race

Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth
     You don't have to be Harold Bloom to analyze Shakespeare. Anyone can do it. For instance, I believe the entire character of Othello and the root of the play's tragedy can be comprehensibly summed up in two words: he's stupid.
     His subordinate Iago, envious and bitter at being passed over for promotion, lays a crude trap and Othello falls in, eyes open.
A critique which Bloom, famed literary critic and scholar, agrees with, in more ornate terms: "He so readily seems to become Iago's dupe...Othello is a great soul hopelessly outclassed in intellect."
     In other words, he's stupid.
     The details can be parsed in any play, which is also part of the fun. With "Macbeth," for instance, now on stage to great effect at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, we can argue whether Macbeth is undone by the witches' prophecy; fresh from victory, noble Macbeth encounters the Weird Sisters, who tell him he'll be king of Scotland.
     Are the crones predicting Macbeth's certain future or merely goading him toward it?
Bloom considers Macbeth a pig trussed for slaughter, forced along the chute that fate and his scheming wife have set for him. I'm not so sure. Maybe I just don't like predestination. But any resistance Macbeth might have felt is undercut by that fatal prediction, "All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king!"
     The prediction dooms Macbeth as much as his wife does. He's supposed to be king, so naturally goes about the bloody business. I flashed on that augury while reading the Sun-Times front page Tuesday: "LIGHTFOOT'S BIG STEP" it trumpeted, with Fran Spielman's careful analysis of why the former police board president seems to be joining the pack baying after Rahm Emanuel's job.
First I felt the tickle of hope. Is Lightfoot the chosen one to deliver Chicago from the clutches of Rahm Emanuel, that charmless man, who can be easily imagined wandering the fifth floor of City Hall, trying to rub Lacquan McDonald's blood from his hands. "Out, damned spot! ... What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" (Since vagueness allows anyone to interpret wildly and then criticize the product of their imaginings, let me be plain: Emanuel didn't kill McDonald, just sat on the evidence of his killing for a year, either through willful ignorance or desperate complicity).

To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Flashback 2007: Delightful and unexpected; Family vacation to Tennessee -- yes, Tennessee

     I was puzzling over what to write in the paper Wednesday and, through some random brain circuitry quirk, got to wondering what Eddie Montgomery is up to.
       Montgomery is the surviving half the Montgomery Gentry country music duo—his partner Troy Gentry died in a helicopter crash last September. I saw them on stage twice, and admired their powerful performance and honest, intelligent music. 
     Turns out that in February, Montgomery issued an album they had finished just before Gentry died, and not only has been touring, solo, but as chance would have it is coming to Bloomington, a mere 140 miles from Chicago, this Saturday night, playing at the Grossinger Motors Arena. Tickets are available.
     That seemed reason enough to dig deeper. So much of concert music is canned bologna  nowadays, I thought the Kentuckian's performances in the wake of Gentry's death might be more genuine and heartfelt than the standard fare.
    "I know I'm supposed to be a big badass outlaw or whatever," Montgomery told Rolling Stone in March. "But when we hit the stage a couple weeks ago without him, I was so nervous. I was like 'Oh my God' – I thought I was gonna get sick. But finally I felt him in there, and I started smiling."  
     Monday I contacted Montgomery's management and asked to talk to him for a few minutes about how he's holding up without the man he's been harmonizing with for so long—the duo officially formed in 1999, but they played together for decades before that. Maybe I'll hear from him Tuesday, most likely I won't on such short notice, but as I tell the boys, "It's called "trying.'"
     There aren't many groups that I like, but Montgomery Gentry songs are a few cuts above, and I quote them from time to time in the column. Now that I think of it, I would have included the recovery anthem "Some People Change" in my recent book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise," but after going through the time and expense of tracking down Beth Nielsen Chapman and paying her a fortune for "Save Yourself," I didn't have the heart.
     No matter, in checking what I wrote when I first encountered the group, I came upon this travelogue to Tennessee, and thought it merits posting.

     The day before we left, I walked a cigar down Wacker Drive.
     Why go on vacation at all, I wondered, when it is so very pleasant right here? What sights could be possibly better than these? Especially in Tennessee, of all places?
     Ah, well, I concluded, with a melancholy puff. People do these things. The boys and the wife are looking forward to it -- she has her heart set on climbing some mountain and staying at a lodge there. Might as well go without complaint and see what happens.

                                                                  - - -

     Nashville has its own Parthenon. Who knew? A full-scale replica, not of marble like the one in Athens, but concrete-studded with pebbles, smack dab in the center of a city park. It's huge.    

     Inside, a 42-foot-tall statue of Athena, facing a pair of 24-foot-tall, 7.5-ton bronze doors so skillfully hung you can move one with your pinkie.
     Delightful and unexpected -- here, in the Bible Belt, where people put Ten Commandments magnets on their SUVs, they erected an enormous pagan temple with a gilt Greek goddess in the center.
     And this was just the first morning of the first day. 

                                                      - - -

     My experience with country music began and ended 20 years ago with "Coal Miner's Daughter." But we were here, so why not go to the Grand Ole Opry?
     A great show. Impressive how they draw the audience into their 80-year tradition with a short film and a Minnie Pearl imitator revving up the crowd. They welcomed us to their 4,252nd consecutive performance, then got down to business with a blast of fiddle and a brace of blur-legged dancers.
     Acts came and went. White-haired pros with half a century at the Opry mixed with ingenues making their debuts.
     "This song is going to be on my new album, and I'd like to do it for you," said Jennifer Hanson, a leggy lass, touchingly sincere, introducing a tune called "73" that outlines the fracture of her family, its title referring, courageously, to the year she was born.
     Then a duet called Montgomery Gentry burst onstage. A driving beat, great lyrics -- especially "Lucky Man" -- sharp showmanship and twangy music. I had never heard of them before but instantly could tell that these guys were good. We bought their new CD and couldn't stop listening to it as we drove across the state.

                                                              - - -

     Homemade biscuits. Moon Pies. Sweet tea. Goo-Goo Clusters. Fried strawberry pie. Fried banana pudding. Turnip greens.
     Carthage. Alexandria. Tennessee's ancient world motif isn't limited to the Parthenon -- 170-year-old wallpaper at Andrew Jackson's home shows scenes from mythology. No doubt an attempt back then to lend classical luster to a frontier nowhere.
     Fishing barefoot in a river. Riding horses through dense woods. We spent three days hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, whose beauty defies words—trees covered with delicate lichen and moss, banks of wildflowers, 10-mile-wide mountain vistas. The boys, whom I expected to drag their feet and pine for TV, instead surged ahead, particularly the older kid, as if he had been waiting his whole life for this. We went from worrying he'd refuse to climb to worrying he'd skip off a cliff.
     We stayed at the place my wife dreamed about—LeConte Lodge. No electricity, no roads, it's supplied by pack llamas. Toward evening, we watched the mist roll eerily up the mountainside, just like smoke.

                                                                   - - -

     After the park, Pigeon Forge, a godawful, endless strip of chain restaurants and go-kart tracks that makes Wisconsin Dells seem like the Garden of Eden. One could easily juxtapose it to the Smokies and make a compelling argument for the extinction of the human race.
     Too easily, and just as Tiger Woods doesn't practice two-inch putts, so I don't traffic in the obvious. I made the best of it and taught Kent how to shoot pool.
     Besides, that's where we saw the Dixieland Stampede, Dolly Parton's revival of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Any experience that includes live thundering bisons and a piglet race supposedly redeciding the outcome of the Civil War cannot be all bad.

                                                                       - - -

     "Martin Luther King stayed in a motel?!" marveled Ross, as I tucked him into bed in our room at the Peabody. Ironic -- to him, King is a famous person, so of course he would stay somewhere fancy, like the Peabody, with its famous lobby-dwelling ducks and its duckmaster with his red jacket and gold-headed duck cane.
     I was explaining that tomorrow we'd visit the National Civil Rights Museum, cleverly carved out of the shell of the Lorraine Motel, where King was murdered in 1968.
     Like the whole state of Tennessee, the museum far exceeded expectations -- a vivid, throat-clenching, eye-misting experience. We spent three hours there -- the boys learning the saga for the first time, me picking up information I didn't know: For instance, King was stabbed by a deranged black woman in 1956. He later laughed off the incident, which seems the right approach to such situations.

                                                                       - - -

     Much of the country is still woods, and driving across its vastness was supremely reassuring. During the trip, the London terror plot unfurled, and the standard crew of flag-waving cowards took to the airwaves to announce that the only way to combat terrorism is to preemptively renounce the freedoms that terrorists oppose.
     Fools. It's a great country, and while we certainly can be harmed, we'll win in the end, if we keep faith in ourselves.

                                                                     - - -

      Memphis has a pyramid. Who knew? And of course Graceland. I went; how can you not? And since the place has been picked clean, culturally, there didn't seem any point to criticize. So I just went and enjoyed. It actually was interesting, and I learned stuff. His life, despite all the buffing, seemed hollow. By the time Elvis was my age, he had been dead for five years, and I decided that, all things being equal, I would rather be me than be Elvis, a revelation worth driving 1,900 miles to receive.

                                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 15, 2007

Monday, May 7, 2018

'Don't give advice' and other useless, unheeded commencement suggestions

     Welcome friends, family members, residents of Chicago and environs.
     This is the commencement season.
     They have already begun, these solemn ceremonies, grand processions and groaning brass overtures, at institutions great and small, and will continue for a month and a half, from Loyola University Chicago, all this week, until ... Northwestern University, bringing up the rear, Friday, June 22.
     I'll be at NU, seeing the younger boy off into the world. But first, I'll be at Pomona College in California. Two boys, two commencements, boom-boom, one after another. Because the younger lad flashed through college in three years, itself a lesson on the value of paternal advice, since, when he raised the idea, I urged him to linger and enjoy college. You'll have a lifetime to work.
     He shrugged and did what he wanted. That's what kids do.
     Leading to my first piece of advice for commencement goers: don't give advice. Really, don't. The grads don't want to hear it, probably won't hear it, and you're giving it anyway, not based on their lives, but yours. We pretend we're trying to spare them our mistakes, but what we're really doing is trying to pick the music for a party we're not invited to.
     No matter. Advice will be given. Speakers famous and obscure will don black robes and puffy velvet hats, and share wisdom. Dream dreams. Live life.
     But what about the audience? Who speaks of our hopes?

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