Friday, August 31, 2018

Hate Donald Trump? No way. It's more a sense of luftschlossmoddermüde



     There are 171,476 words in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, from common—the definition of "set" runs 22 closely-packed pages—to pleasantly obscure: "aglet," for instance, the hard tube at the tip of a shoelace.
     Quite a lot, really. But not enough to cover the range and complexity of human experience, judging from other languages, which have words for concepts that we can't express in a single term. The Japanese word mibojin comes to mind: it means "widow," though its literal translation is "not-yet-dead person" with all the obvious implications of superfluousness: a woman without a husband is just sitting around waiting to die.
     Perhaps another language can serve up the elusive word to describe how I'm feeling toward Donald Trump. Readers certainly offer their opinions:
     "Why the hate for TRUMP every single day" writes J.T. Kozlov, forgetting his interrogative punctuation.
     "Your level of anger and hate is debilitating," Stephen Hardy writes.
     "All you do is write about how you hate Trump," writes Ron Olovich.
     I could give 100 more examples, but you get the idea.  And I'm sure many people no doubt do hate him. But I don't hate Donald Trump, never have. I don't even blame him for our current sad national state. If we elected a dog as our president, would you blame the dog? I wouldn't.
     I know why they suggest hatred—they have plenty. Hate makes sense to them. Projecting hate upon the president's critics meshes with their frothing, head-exploding "libtard" reaction they like to imagine is provoked by Trump's unending vandalism against our country, its laws, traditions and values.
     Back in the non-fantasy world, all the libs I know are in full if grim possession of their unexploded heads, though of course giving those heads frequent sad shakes of amazement.
     "Amazed" is closer to the mark, but not quite right. "Shocked"? Not anymore.
     What's the right word?

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

A restaurant should be beautiful

Calavera, 1438 W. Chicago Ave.

     A successful restaurant is like a stool, in that it rests on three legs.
     The first is the food, of course. Delicious, unusual, satisfying—something good you can't make at home.  I'm sure somebody can make Thai beef & broccoli at home, but me, I'm heading for Star of Siam.
      The second is service. The person bringing you the food should be brisk, effective and, ideally, show a little flair. Fall down on this aspect and the first doesn't matter—the food at Greek Isles is great, but will have to be savored in memory, since we're still never going back. I wasn't even there when my wife and her sister were handled rudely by a waiter. Just her description was enough. Besides, Athena is practically next door. 
     Bad service turns customers away, while great service, on the other hand, cements love for a place. I went to The Dearborn, a new, airy bistro at 145 N. Dearbornfor the first time a few weeks ago. Pretty good. I returned Wednesday and our server, Matt, did something both appreciated and rare, if not extraordinary: he waved me off something on the menu. "You don't want that," he said, making a face. Then when he brought our drinks, and set them down, the table wobbled, slightly. He apologized, rushed off, and returned immediately with wedges, kneeling down and bracing the table. In 40 years of eating out I've never seen a waiter do that. And so The Dearborn enters the rotation of My Places.
     And finally, the one that gets forgotten: the atmosphere. The Dearborn must have paid a fortune on glazed tile and fancy light fixtures and exposed beams. You're happy just sitting there; the fact they serve you food is a lagniappe, an added bonus.
     That third leg is one that I pay particular attention to, since those opening new restaurants too often don't. There is a space a block from my house in Northbrook that has seen three, count em, three restaurants come and go in five years. The first, My Pi, served pizza that wasn't anywhere near Lou Malnati's just up the street. The second, Agave, was a Mexican Restaurant that couldn't hang its own sign straight. The place had bare walls—maybe a single colorful paper mache lizard, maybe a sombrero. That's it. I remember sitting there, on my one obligatory visit, thinking "Who would start a Mexican restaurant and not decorate it?" The third, Drumstix, fell short on both food (fried chicken should be crisp) and decor. The tables were metal painted to look like wood; no doubt the idea was to create that warm farm house feeling while saving a few bucks. I pressed my fingers to that cold metal table and thought, "A year, tops" which was about right.
     Which explains why this colorful report from Block Club on Calavera, which opened a month ago, made me resolve to visit the place as soon as I could. 
     "Calavera" is Spanish for skull, and is a prominent feature in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, brightly decorated, often rendered into sugar and intended to remind us of the sweetness of life and the colorful personalities of our beloved departed. They aren't considered morbid, but whimsical, just as the holiday is not really a festival of death, but of the circular nature of life. 
Sandra Rodriguez
     The restaurant was entirely empty at 12:45 p.m. Tuesday, and we were greeted by owner Sandra Rodriguez. We started with guacamole and homemade corn chips, then moved to a selection of enchiladas and chicken breast with mole. I got a glass of horchata. 
     My lunch mate thought the chicken was terrific and loved the mole. I'm not a food critic, and it wouldn't be fair judge a place after only one visit, particularly one that has been open for just a month. The chips were warm and thick, the mole complex, the horchata served in a jar with a light sprinkling of cinnamon and a note of rosewater. Otherwise, ... well, I'll withhold judgment, except to say that I hope in time the food will be as finely executed as the artwork. 
    Besides, you should decide for yourself. We sat there for an hour and not a blessed soul walked in the door—just as we were leaving, at 2 p.m., a lone diner appeared. That isn't right. Every person takes a shot at their dream, but it doesn't matter how good the food may be if nobody stops by and eats it. So if you are in the vicinity, please consider visiting Calavera, 1438 W. Chicago Avenue. Admire their paintings and grouped incidental objects, say hello to Sandra Rodriguez and get something to eat. Let me know what you think. I certainly plan to circle back and continue my investigation.


      

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Toastmasters speak the global language of humanity, ambition

Dr. Hill Krishnan, of New York City, spoke about the need to keep trying at the Toastmasters International
speech contest semi-finals.

     James Traywick is wearing a dark gray suit with a bright yellow pocket square, a lemon yellow shirt, a bow tie with a sliced lemon motif and, we will learn later, is carrying an actual lemon in his jacket pocket.
     The retired Chicago public school teacher, 69, belongs to seven local Toastmasters clubs, and was among 30,000 members around the globe who entered this year’s speech-making competition. He’s tried several times, but this year was the first year he was among 106 who made it into the semi-finals, held last Friday at McCormick Place, site of Toastmasters International’s 87th annual convention.
     “It’s such a safe environment to make mistakes in,” said Traywick, of the organization. “To improve your speaking ability. That was the emphasis for me joining, and it has been a really great experience.
Ena Agbahovbe,

     Founded in California in 1924, Toastmasters has 357,000 members in 143 countries. About 1,700 were at the convention, attending networking lunches and talks with titles like, “How to Get What You Want: Influencing Others Into Action.” The halls were crowded with men in three-piece suits and white Arabic thobes, women in colorful dresses and flowing chadors, entire districts clad in matching outfits: maroon golf shirts on a group from Northern California, goldenrod dashikis on 20 Nigerians, including Ena Agbahovbe.
     “This is my first time wearing something like this,” said the petroleum engineer from Lagos. “In our culture, when we’re having a big ceremony, we like to dress similarly, to show we’re like a family.”
     He joined Toastmasters two years ago.


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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Happy anniversary, Kitty!

Kitty, relaxing in her suite at the Palmer House Hilton. 

        Eight years.
        Eight years ago today: Aug. 28, 2010. The bar mitzvah had been a great success, the luncheon afterward at Prairie Grass consumed and paid for. Now the only thing left to do was collect the boy's present. It had to be done quickly, like jumping out of a plane, lest nerves undo my resolve. In my journal that night I described it this way, "2 Petsmart for leash, puppy chow. Get name tag, 'Kitty' cut by laser. Picked up puppy. Not stressful. Dog never barked. Fell asleep in Kent's arms in back seat."
     That "not stressful" was worth mentioning because it was surprising, to me. Somewhat amazing even. I thought a dog would ruin our lives. 
     And so the adventure began. The 3 a.m. walks in the rain. Back to Petsmart for training both pet and owners. It was effort, yes. It was at times uncomfortable, yes. But it was all somehow necessary and, even, wonderful.
     Eight years. What's to say? Either you get dogs or you don't. Before I didn't. Now I do. Dogs enrich your life, add purpose and meaning. That time we stayed with her in a hotel downtown—the Palmer House was promoting its dog-friendly services and invited me to a sleepover—was as close to being a celebrity as I will ever come. Every eye in the grand lobby swiveled in her direction with interest and delight, and I mused on suddenly finding myself as a fussy older man with a little dog. At Miller's as we walked past, the barflies tapped on the window and waved and smiled.
      She was the perfect dog for us. Sweet, loving, energetic. People mistake her for a puppy still, though of course she is now in the definition of middle age. Eight is half of 16, which evokes the haunting line of Mary Oliver's, "How many summers does a little dog have?" 
Drying a wet dog
     A lot, I hope. This is the end of her ninth. 
     But a dog doesn't worry about the future, and I've learned a lot from having a dog. Walk frequently. Eat food. Smile if you can. Don't worry so much. The future comes whether you worry about it or not.
     Walking falls to me. She fixes me with a look, and I somehow just know. I almost said, "She doesn't even have to speak," though frankly, if she started talking, it would only surprise me a little. As it is, we communicate.
     Walks morning, noon and night—well, right after waking up, right before dinner and right before bed. We have a ritual. A big, seven-block circuit in the morning, watching our neighbors back their Jaguars and Audis out of their driveways and rush off to work. A shorter walk later in the day, maybe nipping around back, by the village community garden. Then toward downtown, around what I called "The Point," a triangle of flowers and grounds cover across from the train station. Sometimes the spirit moves her and we head downtown to make a loop through the park.
     What's she thinking? Who can say? She has a brain the size of a walnut. "I'm a dog" perhaps. What am I thinking? With my far larger brain? Not much more. "I have a dog. We're walking." Often, this year, I've been listening to books on Audible. Chekhov skewering a "journalist of minuscule reputation" with such specific skill I suspect we must have met, that he must have seen my office and peered into my heart.
    Here, the dog helps. I've certainly taken good care of this dog. Nobody can say I haven't. She could lose a pound or two—my fault, diverting chicken from atop my salad. But not fat. By no means fat. 
     A dog is a kind of exquisite timepiece, a clock I set ticking shortly after Kent's 13th birthday that will, if we're lucky, start ringing a couple years after he leaves law school. I'll look up then, astounded and heartbroken and ask myself where the time has gone. A question that sits there now, to be honest, waving its hand, trying to get my attention. But I won't call on it just now. 
     

Monday, August 27, 2018

TV and the 1968 Democratic convention: 'They hated us for showing it to them'


Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, by Naim June Paik (Smithsonian American Art Museum) 

     This book was so bottomlessly fascinating I just had to share. Among the facts I hadn't room to include: Thomas Hart Benton did courtroom drawings at a kidnapping trial for NBC. At the 1952 Republican convention in Chicago, Robert Taft hired "all available models" to dress in cheerleader outfits as "Belles for Bob" and hold signs in front of any live TV camera they could find. Television cameras took 15 minutes to warm up, and after NBC's PR department tried to dub the first entirely mobile camera a "walkie-lookie," a newspaper writer offered up a more popular moniker, the "creepie-peepie."

     We can't come close to agreeing about what's happening in this country. Illegal presidency of a pathologically narcissistic would-be tyrant? Or Golden Age of proud true Americanism reclaiming our stolen birthright? You decide!
      Given the gulf in perspectives of what's happening right now, what are the chances we'd agree about the few crumbs of history we carry around on our shirtfronts? Nil.
     The next few days mark the 50th anniversary of Chicago's 1968 Democratic National Convention, from Aug. 26 to 30 of 1968. To get myself in the mood, I've been devouring a fascinating 1991 memoir, "Out of Thin Air," by Reuven Frank, then president of NBC News.
TV affected the 1968 convention. Then again, TV always does. The four networks began on May 1, 1948; ABC, NBC, CBS and the short-lived Dumont. Those new networks, thanks to the miracle of coaxial cable, could only reach 17 stations in seven cities on the East Coast, from Boston to Richmond, but that was enough to sway the choice of where the 1948 Democratic National Convention would be located.
     "When the manager of WFIL-TV, Philadelphia ... pointed out that a third of America ... would be 'within reach' of a television set, San Francisco, which had more hotel rooms, withdrew its bid," Frank writes.
     Anyone who thinks that the dawn of television was all Edward R. Murrow speaking truth to power should read this book. I couldn't tell if my favorite moment was R.J. Reynolds, sponsor of NBC's Camel News Caravan, forbidding shots of "No Smoking" signs, real living camels (nasty) and anyone smoking a cigar, requiring Frank to get special permission to air an interview with Winston Churchill.  Or Texaco writing a news report that Chet Huntley read word for word.
     Then comes the 1968 convention.

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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Gene & Jude's is right not to serve ketchup

Gene & Jude's, 2720 N. River Road, River Grove.

     Google Map offers alternate routes if traffic gets bad. But I'm more of a stay-the-course kind of guy. So when it suggested Friday that I slip off 294 and onto Mannheim Road in order to save four minutes on a trip to Oak Park, I ignored it. 
      At first. But I could see traffic building ahead, and four minutes is four minutes. So I touched Manheim Road on the little map and the directions reoriented themselves, taking me overland, down River Road and, to my surprise, past Gene & Jude's.
    It was about 10:40 a.m.
    I knew it was somewhere. I had been hearing of Gene & Jude's for years, as a mecca not only of franks and fries, founded by a city worker in 1946, but the center of the High Church of No Ketchup, an orthodoxy that I have always met with fierce apostasy. But I never expected to roll right past the place. To be honest—and this is embarrassing to admit—I always assumed the place was in a distant corner of the map, way to the southwest, down by Oak Lawn somewhere, by the "Here Be Dragons." 
      Of course, I felt unease, a vague concern. I had heard—or read, or perhaps just imagined—something about hectoring signs. At Gene & Jude's, you couldn't even get ketchup for your fries. The idea being that some might then contaminate your hot dog. I don't think I've ever eaten a french fry without ketchup. What would be the point? I love ketchup. There, I said it.
     The Oak Park interview went well, was over in about 45 minutes, and I was on my way. I got there shortly after 12 noon. Prime time. 
     The place was mobbed. Twenty people in line, all salt-of-the-earth sorts. An Elmwood Park police officer with bright pink handcuffs on his belt. There seemed to be a story behind that and I almost asked him about it, then thought better. The line moved very fast. 
     "It's almost like a shrine in here," said an egg-shaped guy in front of me, to his buddy. That is true. A certain purity. The choices are "Hot dog & fries," "Double dog & fries" or a corn tamale. Or you could get just fries, and a variety of drinks. That's it. No burgers. No brownies. You could dress your dog with mustard, relish onions or a sport pepper.  Your choice.
     I could paint myself as a weisenheimer and lie, and say I considered asking for ketchup, just to go with the fries. But that wasn't happening. The clerk repeated my order back to me: "hot dog, mustard and relish," and a Diet Coke with a tone of ... I'm not sure what. Questioning, or censure. I almost thought I did it wrong somehow. "It's my first time here," I explained, sheepishly, and he reassured me that I had done fine. Maybe I under-ordered. Most people seemed to be getting double dogs, but I wanted the basic Gene & Jude's experience. 
You can catch a glimpse of hot dog to the upper right.
     They serve their hot dogs buried in fries—"Depression-style" I've seen it called— wrapped and inserted into a brown paper bag. I took mine, tried to hand money to the guy who handed me the bag, which is how it's usually done. But he directed me to pay another clerk—specialization keeps the line moving. "I could take it from you," he deadpanned, "but then you wouldn't have money to pay for lunch."
     I liked that; it showed spirit.
     I took my brown paper bag and repaired to the white formica counter. The fries were hot and good and perfect, slightly well-done to give them flavor and interest. They looked like they should taste greasy but they didn't. 
      The hot dog had snap to the casing. To be honest, I inhaled it all so fast—hungry—that I barely had time to register the details. I was also listening to the conversation all around me.
     "I told her, 'You're too young to be unhappy,'" a man explained to his buddy—paternal advice to a teenage daughter, I would bet. I considered intruded with, "And how well did that work?" but thought better of it.
     What surprised me about Gene & Jude's is that there was no harsh sign condemning ketchup. I somehow expected that. "NO SEATS," is their slogan online, "NO KETCHUP NO PRETENSE NO NONSENSE." But I didn't see that at the stand. True to their beliefs, they didn't make a big deal about it. Also good. Nobody wants to be yelled while they're eating.
     There was a sign saying that they take cash only, and that is something to bear in mind if you go. Bring cash. My lunch set me back five dollars.
     I left the placed buoyed, thinking I have to bring my wife here to try those french fries. She loves fries. I really don't love them, generally, though I liked these fries very much. Very very much. I even felt as if my mind was expanded a little bit. Make no mistake; I still believe that condemning people who use ketchup is unbefitting the proud citizens of a free nation. But Gene & Jude's french fries are so good, they can be consumed without ketchup—easily. That's the way they should be served. I found myself picking up every crumb of potato, down to the last speck.


     
  

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #3

Beecher, Illinois (photo by Tom Peters)


     This, from regular reader Tom Peters—thank you Tom!—reminds us that we need to expand our idea of natural beauty. We have no trouble recognizing parks and forests as lovely; some of us don't, anyway. But farmland fails to meet the cut. Perhaps because it is cultivated—not raw, pristine natural beauty, but curated by man. Perhaps because, under certain circumstances, it can look bleak—fallow in winter, mile after mile of barren fields. But then again, so can the most gorgeous national park, as someone who has hiked out of Yellowstone through a hazy, humid morning after a sleepless night can assure you. 
     Tom employed two photographer's tricks that are worth mentioning. First, he stopped the car—a lot of people aren't willing to do that, both being in a needless hurry and, I suppose, for valid concerns about the safety of pulling over to the side of a road, even momentarily. He also took a number of exposures and picked the best. The results speak for themselves. 
     This scene of amber waves of grain and fluffy white clouds was captured in Beecher, a village just under three square miles in Will County, about 50 miles south of Chicago. 
Katharine Lee Bates
     "Amber waves of grain" is of course the second line of "America, the Beautiful" whose lyrics began as a poem written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates, a 33-year-old English  professor at Wellesley. She was inspired by Pike's Peak, the "purple mountain's majesty" in the song, but also, as the year of composition hints at, by a visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, whose White City shows up in the final stanza as "Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears."
   Speaking of human tears, the rest of the original poem went like this:
America! America!God shed His grace on theeTill nobler men keep once againThy whiter jubilee!
     While "Thy whiter jubilee" could easily be the heading for our current sad chapter in American history, it was swapped a decade later for the closing lines we are all familiar with, "And crown thy good, with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea." A nobler, if less readily attainable ambition. 

  

Friday, August 24, 2018

If you saw an 8-year-old walking a dog, would you a) go "awww" or b) call the cops?


2004: Police intervention not necessary
Marshmallow, the terror of Wilmette
      When my older son was 8, he wanted a dog. I refused. “You’re not asking for a dog,” I’d say. “You’re asking me to pick up dog crap twice a day and I’m not gonna do it.”
     My father grew up in the Bronx. He never had a dog. I never had a dog, had no experience with dogs, and sincerely believed a dog would ruin our lives. No dogs.
     Besides, I argued: Who’d care for it? Not me. I’m a busy man. He, a small child, couldn’t be relied upon to help.
     I thought this sealed my argument. But the future law student saw an opening. He would prove me wrong. He could take care of dogs. He would show me by starting a dog-walking business.
     “Go ahead,” I said, thinking that would be the end of it.
     To my vast surprise, he went ahead. Next thing I knew, he was rushing out at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning in July to call on his first customer, a family down the block.
     I drifted to the street in time to see him arrive, leading Lady, a black-and-white spaniel, his little brother marching behind. They proceeded to walk Lady up and down the block for half an hour.
     Nobody called the police. Which is more than Ted and Corey Widen of Wilmette can say after allowing their 8-year-old daughter to walk Marshmallow, their Maltese puppy, around their block. A neighbor called the cops.


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Thursday, August 23, 2018

"Cowardice is stronger than common sense."


     How's your summer so far? Mine is going pretty good, thank you. Did you look at the calendar and think: last week of August? How did that happen? I sure did. I hope you got something done. Me ... I ... well ... not much in the way of fixing anything around our old house. The tomato garden was a total flop. I'm starting to suspect the ground is poisoned, that I need to dig up the earth and start again with fresh soil.
Anton Chekhov
     Though I am accomplishing something; I'm almost done working my way through all of Anton Chekhov's short stories—thank you Audible! With about 70 under my belt, some 20 hours' worth, I noticed something interesting: I'm both enjoying them immensely, yet couldn't name a single character. A lot of befuddled middle aged men. A number of solemn children. Some unfaithful wives. Maybe that's the fault of listening versus reading, while walking the dog or doing the dishes or taking the train. Maybe it's all the unfamiliar, polysyllabic Russian names. What makes it enjoyable is the specific descriptions of mundane Russian lives: the long thin noses, the money woes, cluttered homes, glistening meals. 
     Only one story made an impression on my enough for me to remember its title: "The Dependents." In the story, an impoverished peasant owns a skeletal horse and a gaunt dog—the "dependents" in the title. As the tale begins, the animals are hungry and our poor old man is cursing at them — he doesn't have bread for himself, never mind parasites! He goes to the neighbor, they drink tea, he asks the neighbor to borrow a bucket of oats. The neighbor says, sure, he'll give him oats. But, you're a poor man: how can you keep animals? You should bring them to the slaughterer. Otherwise, there's no end to it. The poor man makes a spot decision, decides to go to his niece's farm and live off her charity. He leaves the animals behind, with the gate open. They can fend for themselves. But a few miles into his trek, he hears footsteps, turns and sees the faithful horse and dog trudging after him.
     At this point I paused, to ask myself "You're a writer, Neil. What would you do in the story?" Why of course, I'd have the poor man lead the animals back to his hovel. Feed them off his neighbor's charity. Life continues as it is.
     A Chekhovian ending, and not what Chekhov does. Not at all. The poor man leads the animals to the slaughterer. The horse is promptly killed, the dog, snarling and leaping to his friend's defense, is killed too. The poor man sets his own head on the stunning block, in remorse the reader assumes, and the story ends. I cried.
     Which is why we're still reading Chekhov more than a century after his death.
     I'm more familiar with the plays, and toss lines around, "It's been a long time since we had noodles" when appropriate and sometimes when not. Only one sentence of the short stories burrowed into my consciousness, though its a good and apt one for this week, as the legal system draws attention to the criminality and corruption of our president. It's in a story called "Panic Fears," and the sentence, though six words, could be the heading in our chapter of American history: "Cowardice is stronger than common sense."
       Every farmer I talked to along I-55 from Chicago to Granite City said the same thing: "He's a businessman; I trust him." To which it took all my professional deportment not to grab them by the shoulders, give them a hard shake, and shriek, "Are you insane?"
     Agrarian types, judging by Chekhov, are known for their baseless folk beliefs. Still, at some point, by now, you'd think that some Republican leaders would begin cringing away. And the only reason I can explain their not doing so is fear—fear that his base will defeat them in a primary. Fear that Trump will tweet mean things to them, or the corporations that write fat checks to their campaign funds will pull back, hungry for the increased profits that Trump's environmental and business deregulation bring.
    People must know what is right, and just be too afraid to do it. "Cowardice is stronger than common sense."
     Or am I being too optimistic? Perhaps they don't even know anymore, can't differentiate right from wrong, true from false. That, alas, is also a possibility.


 
   

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

If only Republicans could confront their fears, over ice cream







     Only afterward did it strike me.
     I had been to the belly of the beast, the heart of darkness, the nightmare haunting Republican America.
     And didn’t even realize it, at the time.
     It happened last week.
     A friend of my wife’s was having a party at a bar in Highwood.
     The Wooden Nickel. Big, boxy place. One hundred and 18 years old, the bartender told me when I was ordering a tequila for the birthday girl.
     We stayed an hour. Talked about kids. Others ate dinner. Bar food. Burgers in baskets.
     The fare did not look appealing to us.
     Highwood is known for restaurants, my wife said, as we left. Let’s drive around, look at restaurants.
     OK, I said. 

     We drove around. Nothing called out to us.
     Then I saw a pink-trimmed building.
     La Michoacana Ice Cream Parlor, 2641 Waukegan Ave., just steps over the border in Highland Park.
     “Let’s have ice cream for dinner,” I said.
     My wife wasn’t so inclined, but said I should go ahead.
      Inside, we saw it wasn’t your standard malt shop. There is a big currency exchange, first of all. A gaggle of teenagers stood chatting at a case of frozen treats.
     “Do you have horchata ice cream?” I asked. I really like horchata, a sort of cinnamony Mexican vanilla. Usually it comes in the form of a drink.
     They did. I bought a small scoop. $2.25. In a cup. Two spoons.
     We repaired to a corner. I started on our ice cream.
     T
hat’s when I noticed it....


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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

"Rather a means to an end"

Protesters close a road at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland
     For a long-established daily newspaper columnist, I can bring a startling naiveté to my job.
     For instance...
     Writing Monday's column casting shade on the idea of protesters blocking the highways to O'Hare International Airport on Labor Day, the idea that the reverend organizing the protest would see the column, care a bit if he did, or immediately respond, never crossed my mind. Not for a second.
     Maybe that's humility, or obliviousness, or something else.
     But he did see it, care and respond.
     I could argue with Rev. Livingston's rebuttal to my column. But I've had my say, and now I will give him his:
Mr. Steinberg here is my rebuttal to your article:
     #OHareSHUTDOWN as an act of civil disobedience is not our end objective but rather a means to an end. Our demands are focused on the equitable distribution of resources and opportunities for all Chicago and the lack of – which has created our ‘Tale of Two Cities’. We cannot talk about reducing the fruit of violence and ignore the tree of corruption that produces it. Mr. Steinberg from my reading of your opinion you are focused on the inconvenience we will cause – “Inconveniencing travelers won’t help the cause of fighting violence; instead it will make it easier for unaffected Chicagoans to look other way.” I too am concerned about the inconvenience our actions will cause travelers but for the greater good – saving human lives – moreso the inconvenience to the airline companies who cannot look the other way unaffected.
     Our action juxtaposes the generational and ignored inconvenience of the poor, challenged and disadvantaged over and against the inconvenience of the airline companies. Our hope is that this action will help to intensify the spotlight on the racism and segregation that still thrives in our ‘wonderful city by the lake’. The Manhattan Institute of Policy Research states that, “Chicago remains the most racially segregated city in the country.” The inconvenience felt by the airlines will be heard by the powers that control our tax dollars, by those who continue to perpetuate the segregation of people and resources in this city – as well as by the many persons of faith and goodwill.
     In your article you reference the upcoming Golden Anniversary of the 1968 Democratic Convention but notably your opinion failed to mention two of the main emotional drivers of the convention’s upheaval: The Rev. Martin Luther King, a man who fostered many societal inconveniences and Senator Robert Kennedy, a man whose life had become inconvenient for the status quo – both who were assassinated just months before the ’68 convention. In the shadow of this Golden Anniversary we have no protest fetish — protests are often not understood by those who don’t feel denied. The deaths of these two men ripped the hope of a future, already bloodied by Vietnam, from the hearts of men and women of every age, color and creed. So, when it comes to joining an act of civil disobedience, we, the great-grandchildren of former slaves and former slave owners — no matter our number — respond to cynicism about our protest against Chicago’s Tale of Two Cities with these words “Why not me?”
                                         —Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston, Coalition for a New Chicago

Monday, August 20, 2018

Plan to block O’Hare resonates with 1968 protests, and not in a good way



      What did sleeping in a city park have to do with ending the Vietnam War?
      A lot, apparently.
      To some people, that is, a long time ago.
      Many, actually, based on the thousands of protesters who insisted on occupying Lincoln and Grant parks, 50 years ago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which will be much in the public eye over the next week as it nears its Golden Anniversary. For four nights, protesters tried to stay in the parks past the 11 p.m. curfew, and the city sent police to clear them out.
     I wish interest were mere nostalgia for the days when hippies clashed with baby blue helmeted cops.
     But instead it seems ripped from today’s headlines, like 
“Lake Shore Drive protest leader vows to shut down O’Hare traffic on Labor Day.”
      The Rev. Gregory Livingston, who led protesters to shut down Lake Shore Drive Aug. 2, now plans to reprise his triumph on the highway leading to O’Hare International Airport on Labor Day, Sept. 3.
     But before we consider that, let’s reflect a moment on that convention protest. The Democrats were nominating benign political hack Hubert Humphrey, despite his not having run in a single primary. The Hump was expected to continue LBJ’s policy of miring us deeper into Vietnam. Young people, required to fight and die in that war, were not happy about this.
     Had Mayor Richard J. Daley let them protest, violence could have been avoided. But he wanted to keep his city under control — his control — and squashed the protests, magnifying them.
     Eventually, cities learned that a softer touch works far better. Which is why Rev. Michael Pfleger was allowed 
to shut down the Dan Ryan
 July 7, and Rev. Livingston could lead a tiny band of followers to close Lake Shore Drive. Because dragging them away would look bad.
      Still, it’s hard to get enough of something that doesn’t work, and it’s tempting to continue blocking roads, the way the kids, clashing for three nights in August 1968, went full throated into the fourth. It wasn’t about the war anymore; it was about the protests. 


To continue reading, click here.



Sunday, August 19, 2018

The whole world was watching

     When the paper asked me to write a Sunday story commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, I at first despaired. How to compress such a sprawling, complicated mess into the span of one newspaper story? And how to make something so familiar interesting again? But I happened to know someone who was there—Abe Peck, my old Medill professor. And talking to him, I realized, "I need a cop to balance him." And the rest sort of fell into place.

     Abbie Hoffman is dead. So is Jerry Rubin. Tom Hayden, too. Their fellow protesters who disrupted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the last days of August 1968 are either gone or have become the very thing they once viewed with contempt: old.
     But Abraham Yippie is very much alive at 73. 

      “It’s a long strange trip, from Daley/Nixon to Donald Trump,” said Abe Peck, now a professor emeritus at Northwestern’s Medill School, surveying the 50 years from today’s roiling political scene to when he was editor of the Chicago Seed underground newspaper, his pronouncements signed “Abraham Yippie.”
     Mayor Richard J. Daley is dead. So are police Supt. James B. Conlisk and his deputy, James M. Rochford. The public officials and police officers who thought they were protecting their city from an onslaught by hippies, communists and radicals are gone or scattered.
     But Officer Robert Angone is very much alive at 78.
    “It was a big joke,” said Angone, then a tactical cop assigned to the Gresham District, now retired to Florida. “The SDS, Jerry Rubin’s group, Abbie Hoffman’s group — they were in a competition to get the attention they wanted. They wanted to get arrested the most, yell the loudest. We had all these goofy factions going on.

       The generation that didn’t trust anybody over 30 is now in their 70s and 80s. Their crew-cut contemporaries who didn’t trust those with long hair are the same. The divide they both gazed across with mutual incomprehension and disgust is very much with us, as the earthquake events of their era reach their golden anniversaries — traditionally the moment when human memory begins a steep decline and dry history picks up the story to carry it forward into eternity.
     But before that happens, stand on Michigan Avenue, in front of what was then the Conrad Hilton Hotel, and feel your eyes sting from the tear gas. Cock your head and listen, hard, for the chant, faint at first, but returning to the roar it was in Chicago that final week of August 1968.
     “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching…”


To continue reading, click here.


Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #2

Bud Biliken Day dancers (photo by Vic Speedwell)


     When I asked readers to offer snapshots for this new Saturday feature, I had no idea the quality I would be getting. Beautiful nature shots, fun travel photos. I was gratified to receive hundreds of submissions.*
     But far-and-away the best, in my view, is this photo of dancers waiting for the Aug. 11 Bud Billikin parade, sent by Matt Grosspietsch, who writes:

     My wife Vic Speedwell took the attached photo at yesterday’s Bud Billiken parade. Vic is a Physician Assistant at Heartland Alliance and spent the morning doing back-to-school health screens for kids at the parade. She did not see much of the parade as she was busy with her colleagues screening over 80 kids, but she did find time to take this great photo.
     I like the matching uniforms, shoes, and hairdos. I especially like the variety of expressions on the kids’ faces as they await the start of the parade and it makes me regret not having been there to see them march.
I asked Vic if she had anything to add, and she elaborated:
     I was cycling to a meet-up location at the Bud Billiken parade and had to stop for this fabulous group. When I asked if I could take a picture of them, some said “sure” and some said “whatever.” They are the Empire dance team and earned huge cheers from the crowd. I love their Beetlejuice/Nightmare Before Xmas/Zombie costumes. 
     Which leads to a final point. As a white person contemplating this photograph, to me it seems to have an unintended racial subtext. When I first saw this photo, I thought, "If I ever had to illustrate an article on the challenge of being a black person navigating white society, I couldn't do better than this." Obviously not the message the dancers are trying to convey. So here's my question: is that an appropriate reaction and, if so, how much does that aspect make this an intriguing photograph? Discuss. 
    Oh, and please keep those pictures coming. I'll continue posting them on Saturdays as long as I have a snapshot worth sharing.


*Due to a production error, the number of photos submitted was grossly overstated in the opening of today's post. In reality, only about a dozen photographs were sent in by readers. Maybe fewer than that. Say 10. Or eight. Whatever the actual figure, everygoddamnday regrets the error, and regrets the common vanity and hunger to be more significant than one actually is that inspired it. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Halfway house helped thousands find sobriety; now it needs your help

Guildhaus executive director Kevin Lavin, under a photo of the halfway house's founder, fireman Jack King.
     Over the past few years, I've gotten to know Kevin Lavin and become familiar with the good work going on at Guildhaus in Blue Island. I don't rattle the cup much, but I'm rattling it now. If you want to donate right away, without taking the time of having your heartstrings plucked like a harp, you can go straight to their GoFundMe page here. Otherwise, you'll have to read this story and then hurry to help out, as I did.  It's important.

    One of the best things about being a recovering alcoholic is it makes you more inclined to help others.
     Even if you don't particularly want to. Even if you're kinda busy.
     Doesn't matter. You have to. Because you know that someone helped you when you needed it. Passing that help along is just basic fairness. So even the most self-absorbed, sorry-not-my-table kind of guy—me for instance—talks to the messed-up drunk who phones out of the blue. Goes to lunch with a stranger and makes the pitch for the hard path.
     Or, in this case, drives the 99-mile round trip to sit in Kevin Lavin's office at the Guildhaus in Blue Island to hear his bad news.
    "Financially, we're in a very serious position," said Lavin, executive director of the South Side halfway house. "What happened was, we started the new DUI outpatient center, which was a drain. It hasn't come to what we thought it was. That was part of it. Part of it we started falling behind on our taxes  ... we were working from loans we borrowed from people. Now we're upside down."
     Located in an old bottle factory across from the Cal-Sag Channel, the Guildhaus has beds for 22 residents, plus its addition, Guildhaus II, sleeps 26. It was founded 30 years ago by a retired Chicago firefighter, Jack King. Some 18,000 alcoholics and—increasingly—addicts have gone through the Guildhaus, and if each one dug into his pocket and found $20 their problems would be solved.
     Lavin is a former commodities trader—you might remember his story from a couple Thanksgivings ago. After getting sober himself, he quit the world of finance and joined Guildhaus, which runs a residential, 12-step treatment program that requires counselors and therapists, administrators and assistants. All that costs money. Every year, Guildhaus runs about a $200,000 operating deficit. At first, he could pass the hat to his old pals.
     "The first year I did it was easy," Lavin said. "The second year you go back to the same guys, it's not so easy."
     While I was there, I had dinner with the residents—chicken, creamed corn, bug juice. Hearty, but nobody stays here for the food.
     "For me, it's the blend the people, the counselors, the family atmosphere," said Mike. One resident had been through rehab 10 times—it's a struggle even when you have help.
  
To continue reading, click here. 




Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Review Fortnight #3: "Irons in the Fire"

Estes Park, Colorado 

   I remember writing this review of one of my heroes, John McPhee, and being daunted by the thought that he would read it. So I tried to find the right balance of fanboy praise and legitimate criticism. 
     Thank goodness I've finished the beast of a feature I've been writing for the past few days. Now all I have to do is cut a thousand words out and we'll be good to go. Which means I should have an original column back here Friday. Thank you for your patience.

     I used to puzzle as to how John McPhee wrote his books. Did he carry a tape recorder up that tree? If so, how did it catch conversation above the roar of the chain saw?
     Did he take notes in that canoe? If so, how did he paddle?
     Maybe he just remembers everything. Maybe—sacrilege!—he makes some of it up.
     Ultimately, it doesn't matter how McPhee, a staffer at the New Yorker, writes his books. The important thing is, he writes them, and here they are, amazing works of reporting and composition, on subjects from citrus fruit ("Oranges") to Alaska ("Coming Into the Country").
     In one classic piece, "The Search for Marvin Gardens," McPhee intercuts between playing a game of Monopoly and touring the decaying reality of Atlantic City itself, the model for the game. I can't imagine a writer reading the essay and not feeling a pang of inadequacy at the cleverness of the concept, the skill of McPhee's interviewing. I sure did.
     At such times, returning to the question of technique, I suspect that McPhee is God. The God metaphor has proved helpful in recent years, as McPhee veered into the dry realm of geology.
     He knows what he's doing, I would tell myself, falling back on the Mysteries Defense. It isn't for us mortals to question him. If we find certain topics difficult to digest, that's our fault.

First-rate McPhee
     But this attitude wears thin, and it was a relief that McPhee's 25th book, "Irons in the Fire," is first-rate McPhee with not so much geology.
     In the title essay, McPhee heads for Nevada cattle country to patrol with the state brand inspector. That might itself sound dry, but McPhee crafts his story into something out of Zane Grey, complete with lawmen getting the drop on bad guys as they reach for their shooting irons. ("You will die if you grab that gun," says one).
     McPhee clearly adores these people, and fills the chapter with small, precise observations. "Christopher Collis, aged 10, crewcut, removes his spurs, hands them to his mother, and runs into the pasture to assist his father."
     The other major essay, "The Gravel Page," looks at forensic geology. Yes, it contains sentences such as, "The assemblage included hypersthene, augite, hornblende, garnet, high-titanium magnetite, high-temperature quartz."
     But these literally and figuratively rocky passages are redeemed by the forensic—buried bodies and criminals on the run. McPhee swoops from Japanese World War II balloon bombs to the murder of Adolph Coors III to Mexican drug kingpins, born aloft by his awe for experts who can look at a handful of pebbles and determine where in the world they came from.
     A description of a toppled tree in his essay on the largest virgin forest on the East Coast contains the best McPhee simile in the book: " ... you find whole root structures tipped into the air and looking like radial engines." (Not as good, perhaps, as the "gin-clear water ... cold as a wine bucket" in his book "Coming Into the Country," since most readers nowadays don't know a radial engine from a radial tire.)
     Speaking of tires, the book contains a trek through used-tire disposal, touring the nation's giant tire dumps as if they were national parks. The "tires are so deep they form their own topography—their own escarpments, their own overhanging cliffs."
     Two other chapters are slighter, briefer affairs—a look at the mason repairing Plymouth Rock, and a visit to a blind writer who uses computer technology.

Occasional missteps
     And one essay completely fails. "Rinardat Manheim," I finally figured out, was written from the vantage point of an exotic car dealer (with McPhee's comments confined to brackets). Handing the narrative reins to some guy who describes three different models of car as "the ultimate exotic" must have seemed a good idea.
     The occasional misstep is the price of experimentation. Only rarely does McPhee make a choice that, though clever, stops you cold. The sentence "Waggoner was grata" was one. I eventually figured out he was playing on the phrase, persona non grata, a distraction equivalent to the author bolting into the room and slapping the book out of your hands.
     Pulling a sentence out of McPhee and complaining about it, however, is ingratitude on par with challenging God to defend athlete's foot. McPhee has written some of the best books of reporting of the past 30 years—"Oranges" and "Giving Good Weight" and too many to name.
    Whether "Irons in the Fire" serves to satisfy the unquenchable McPhee craving of us long-time faithful, or sends novices hurrying to explore his previous masterpieces, the book is, like the Earth itself, a finely wrought wonder whose possible flaws only remind us of how lucky we are to have it in the first place.

—Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 18, 1997

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book Review Fortnight #2: "Apocalypse Wow!"

I Am Temple window, Chicago.
  

   I bowed out of writing my usual Wednesday column, which is rare, perhaps unprecedented, for me. But this big Sunday feature I'm working on just won't gel, and I need to get it under control. Luckily, I have a number of Plain Dealer book reviews from the late 1990s all teed up and ready to go. Such as this one, reprised a little reluctantly, since it hoots at a book by James Finn Garner. Garner is a Chicago writer, and a Facebook friend, and I hope, should this find its way to him, he realizes, as they say in The Godfather, that this isn't personal. It's just business.


     Give this much credit to all those UFO fanatics, millennium-fixated mystics and assorted true believers congregating at the edges of society, clamoring for a spot in the mainstream.
     At least they're sincere.
     Whichever ludicrous bit of doctrinaire ignorance they cling to, no matter what lunatic philosophy they arm themselves with against an indifferent cosmos, they inevitably seem to believe it whole-heartedly.
     Until the next thing comes along.
     Sincerity, in fact, is their problem. No iota of doubt troubles them, no hesitation enters their minds, as they endorse dogma that most rational people wouldn't consider in their giddiest moments.
An apt attempt 

     So it is perhaps apt that James Finn Garner, the Chicago performer whose "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories" trilogy sold millions of copies, attempts to deflate the entire realm of earnest gnostic hoo-ha with a blast of razzing insincerity.
     His new book, "Apocalypse Wow!," is a sort of Baedeker of millennialism, delivered with more sly winks and elbow nudges than a season's worth of "Monty Python's Flying Circus."
     "So slap on your rocket packs, kids, and come along as we try and figure out just what will happen when the year 2000 pounces on us ...," he writes. "All it takes to discern these mysteries is an open mind and a credulous nature."
     Does it ever. What follows is a quickstep through the year 999, Nostradamus, papal prophecy, Millerites, global pole shifting, Jehovah's Witnesses, Edgar Cayce, tea-leaf reading, Atlantis, pyramids, UFOs and on and on.
     Garner obviously doesn't believe a word of it, though at times his delivery is so dry he almost seems to. On the previous turn of the millennium: "Rivers swelled with floods greater than anyone had ever seen. Earthquakes split the ground and swallowed up whole cities. Epidemics swept through the countryside that put the plagues of Egypt to shame. The sun appeared twice in the sky. Fire and rock rained from heaven. Poodles walked on their hind legs and played the banjo."

Footnotes to humor
     That last sentence is a joke, and in case we miss it, he has a footnote, "Just kidding. Banjos hadn't even been invented yet."
     Now if this seems funny to you, go out and get Garner's book. For me, it quickly became tedious. So much so that I found myself mapping his sense of non-sequitur humor, which I diagram as: Fact A; Fact B; Fact C; a Banana.
     Granted, Garner has chosen a tough topic for himself. The loopiness of the paranormal crowd makes them almost beyond parody. Not that American Indian rituals or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are off-limits for humor. It's just that the payoff of Garner's jokes— "SATURDAY: Channeled a previous life as a peasant baby in 18th-century China. Died within two days from dysentery. Just our luck!"—doesn't seem sufficient reward to offset the grimness of the subject.
     What the book could have used is some reporting. For a moment it seemed as if Garner was actually going out into the real world to encounter the odd people and beliefs he is mocking. And he may have. Or not, to use Garner's favorite blow-off shrug phrase. It's difficult to tell.
     Humor is, if nothing else, a counterbalance to reality. By not taking a firm position, Garner slides into the very morass of muddy thinking he is trying to satirize. He accomplishes something I did not think possible: His hipper-than-thou smirking and indifferent wandering from subject to subject actually makes the tedious, stand-by-your-cult crowd seem, by comparison, to possess a sort of steadfast dignity.

      —Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 11, 1997

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review Fortnight #1: "The Writer's Desk"

Hamburger stand in New Haven, Connecticut 
     The middle of August. Ugh. I don't know about you, but this whole working thing is starting to get on my nerves. What better than to put put out a big "Gone Fishin'" sign and leaving this space blank for a couple weeks. 
    Not my style, alas. Besides, not working isn't really on the plate. I've got a big project I've got to crank out for the paper by week's end that won't write itself.  
    So to make life easier all around, I've dubbed the next two weeks Book Review Fortnight, and disinterred book reviews I wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the late 1990s. I imagine you haven't read any of them, don't remember them if you did, and never heard of the books they discussed. As an added bonus, about half are pans, and criticism is far more fun to read than praise. I'm impressed that even with writers I admire—John McPhee—I manage to find fault; I guess I was sort of a hard-ass at the time.

     The coy approach to "The Writer's Desk" would be to begin by rhapsodizing about the top of my own sturdy cherry computer table. There is a fierce Indonesian carving and a baseball signed by Hank Aaron and a photograph of my son and a little blue "Don't Give Up the Ship" flag purchased at Put-in-Bay for $2 one fine summer day.
     But you don't know who I am, so you probably don't care what my desk looks like. Such indifference is part of the problem with Jill Krementz's book of photographs of authors at work.
     Not that Krementz's authors are unknown. Quite the contrary. Most are among the biggest names in literature: John Cheever and Toni Morrison and Tennessee Williams and John Updike, who wrote the introduction. Thrown in is a seasoning of newcomers, such as Veronica Chambers, and obscure poets (are there any other kind?) such as Nikki Giovanni.
   But while you might recognize many of Krementz's 55 subjects, at least by name, odds are you won't care about more than a handful. And little in the photographs themselves, or the accompanying text, is well-wrought enough to spark interest.
     The fault is not with the authors, of course, but with the photographs. You don't need to like Bette Midler to appreciate Annie Leibovitz's photo of her covered in rosebuds. But you have to be fan of Jean Piaget to enjoy the sight of him lighting his pipe.

      That said, three of the pictures are outstanding: E.B. White, in a dim cabin whose window reveals a bright Maine bay. John Cheever, his right hand completely displaced by a glass of booze. The glass looks attached to the wrist, and supposedly was.
     And Pablo Neruda, busying himself at a Napoleonic desk with a floor-standing flag beside. He seems every inch the South American bureaucrat—undersecretary for metaphor in the Ministry of Poetry, perhaps.
     Closer examination reveals—God, could it be?—his Nobel prize, its display box open, set facing the visitor's chair, screaming to be admired.
Majority not rewarding
     Krementz is an experienced photojournalist with a number of books to her credit. Yet the majority of the photos here do not reward careful examination. Bernard Malamud dials a phone at a desk in a room. Terrence McNally types. Archibald MacLeish uses a pencil.
     Several of the photos struck me as jokes, to be charitable, or lies, to be not.
     George Plimpton rolls a piece of paper under the platen of his typewriter, oblivious to two babies on the floor behind him. Terry Southern wears sunglasses in a darkened room, drinking a big whiskey, with three different editions of "Candy" scattered about, perhaps for inspiration.
     Does this reflect reality? Does Susan Sontag actually sit upon a narrow backless bench and write? Does William F. Buckley weave his magic while talking on a telephone in the back of a limousine? Did Eugene Ionesco really write with a huge, comical, ostrich feather pen, ignoring the typewriter at his elbow?
     The brief accompanying paragraphs, cribbed from the Paris Review and other literary interviews, provide scant insight.
     "I have no work routine," says John Irving. "I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come," says Toni Morrison, whose photo is typical. She is seen on a couch, writing in a spiral notebook. In the background, dark forms: a chair and, perhaps, a table. Morrison is right-handed.
     I do give Krementz credit for eventually clearing up the mystery of how this book came to be. In the acknowledgements, she personally thanks Random House boss Harold Evans, and drops the fact that Kurt Vonnegut is her husband and John Updike her dear friend, whom she loves and has photographed on 39 occasions.
     A vanity publication. Now it makes sense.
     Had Krementz told the circumstances surrounding the taking of these photos, that might have provided worthwhile insight, or at least some interesting stories. As it stands, the book is more of an in-joke. Hubby Vonnegut is shown in his bathrobe, doing the crossword puzzle, which I'm sure got a big laugh among the gang at Martha's Vineyard.

     —Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 2, 1997