Friday, October 19, 2018

New York Stories #5: Miznon

New York City
    So how does the Miznon in New York City measure up to the one in Paris? Not quite as well, I'm afraid to report.  At least not cauliflower-wise.
    Last year, visiting our older son at the Sorbonne, we ended up in La Marais, "The Swamp," the old Jewish quarter, (birds of a feather...) where we jammed ourselves into Israeli chef Eyal Shani's outpost of "Mediterranean street food." (The original, not the second one opened earlier this year).  It was wall-to-wall—commotion and aroma and a mild roar of French and Hebrew. But we claimed a spot at the bar, and ordered the speciality of the house, despite its unpromising premise: roasted cauliflower.
Miznon, Paris
     You wouldn't order it, would you? I sure wouldn't. But it was, I was firmly told, what people order. You have to. It's obligatory. Always surprising what you'll do when told you're supposed to. "Get the bucket of raw cow brains—Buzzfeed said it was exquisite..."
    Maybe that's because people know. The wisdom of crowds. The roasted cauliflower was an epiphany.  If you can't imagine eating and entire cauliflower with a knife and a fork, well, trust me, it's that good. The broccoli I had insisted on also ordering—I like broccoli—was an anti-climax, superfluous and sad. My wife viewed the vegetable as if it were a personal flaw of mine, after that superlative cauliflower, which we not only ate, in transport, but then cherished the memory of eating, and tried reproducing the wonder ourselves at home but couldn't come close. We suspect it's somehow treated—steamed, soaked, something—beforehand.
     When I saw that a Miznon opened earlier this year in Chelsea Market, not far from my older son's law school ("It's following him!" I said) giving it a try was my primary mission during our trip to New York.  See the boy, then get that cauliflower and, oh I suppose, go to a museum or a play or something. I couldn't tell if I wanted the jet-setting joy of going to both locations (there's also an outpost in Tel Aviv) or just wanted the pleasure of tasting that roasted miracle. 
New York
Paris
   You can't go home again. Maybe the surprise of that first perfectly prepared cauliflower can never be recaptured. Maybe the vegetable itself wasn't as good (although it should have been; cauliflower are in peak season in the fall). My wife pointed out that this didn't have the delectably-charred leaves. We still gobbled up the thing (well, I did, as she pointed out, without a smile, later). We also ordered the "bag of beets"—roasted beets, which weren't that bad. Or at least I wasn't blamed for them.
    The restaurant was very loud—some kind of DJ blaring some kind of sounds, music apparently—and we quickly moved on try out a nearby taco place that had received high marks. Having been to Tel Aviv once, that's plenty for a lifetime, and I have never been tempted to go back for any reason. Not until I realized that if I go, I could complete the hat trick, Miznon-wise. Suddenly, the Promised Land beckons. I can be strange that way.
   


Thursday, October 18, 2018

New York Stories #4: Washington Square Park





     Every university has a quad, an open green space for students to relax in. New York University's just happens to be Washington Square Park. A public space for more than two centuries, originally as a cemetery—some 20,000 bodies are thought to rest somewhere beneath its hexagonal stones.
     Famed New York developer Robert Moses wanted to extend 5th Avenue right through the park—the sort of monstrous deference to the automobile that so hobbled cities in the middle of the last century. He failed, but even then cars could drive under the arch until 1971.
     Speaking of the 1970s, I have grim associations with the park—I remember pausing to watch someone shoot up in a car right outside it, the waxy white arm gleaming in the dim light from the street. It still has its expected cast of addicts and lunatics—one went berserk while we were walking past and ended up lying in West 4th Street, shirtless, screaming at the traffic, while we averted our eyes and hurried on.
     But generally Washington Square Park has a more sedate vibe, helped during our final stroll before heading to the airport by this gentleman and his piano. I never got a look at his face, so can't confirm my suspicion that this was Colin Huggins, "The Crazy Piano Guy" who sometimes shows up in the park with an 800-pound baby grand. It could be him. Or not. When I asked him if it was difficult to drag the piano around, he replied, "What's difficult is the years it took me to learn to play so I could do this," a very New York answer.
    Though honestly, as singular as Huggins is, I like the notion of there being multiple Washington Park piano players, all vying for the same real estate. That's New York for you.

   

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

New York Stories #3: Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge



     Two very different songs came to me in Brooklyn.
     The first was perhaps inevitably, given my generation, when I realized we were not only in Brooklyn, but Brooklyn Heights.
     "But Patty's only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights...." 
     The "Patty Duke Show" theme song. My wife was amazed I remembered it. But I have a mind for that kind of thing.
     The other came as we shopped around for bagels. That was the idea—take the subway to Brooklyn, sample bagel places, return walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Edie had Googled "best bagels in Brooklyn" and had a list, and I was following along. As good a way as any to pass a Saturday morning, though we decided that none of the actual New York bagels were as good as the ones at New York Bagels on Dempster Street.  Too big and airy, not dense and chewy enough. 
     We ended up walking down Montague Street. I noticed a plaque—here was where Arthur Miller wrote his first Broadway play. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with the information, but it did drive home what street I was on, and evoked a line from Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue."
     "I lived with them on Montague Street, the basement down the stairs, there was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air."
     Must have been nice. But don't look for a plaque—while Dylan lived in Greenwich Village (on 4th Street, hence "Positively 4th Street") I couldn't find any evidence he lived with anybody on Montague Street, which dead-ends into the riverside promenade. It was just a story he made up.
    My wife and I took a right, then found our way to the Brooklyn Bridge and walked across.
    For some reason we were surprised to find it crowded, though of course it would be. How many sights in New York are famous, historic and, oh yes, free?
     Jammed, the pedestrian half anyway, with enough bikes blowing at top speed along the bike lane to keep walkers packed onto their side.  Someone is going to get killed there, one of these days, if they haven't already.
     We bought a bag of cucumbers and a bag of mangoes to munch. 
     Halfway across the bridge I noticed something truly extraordinary: a plaque to Emily Warren Roebling, who completed construction of the bridge after her husband, chief engineer Washington Roebling, became ill, a victim of the bends, it is believed, having taken over from his father, John Roebling, the bridge's designer, who died, of tetanus. after his foot was crushed while surveying the site, one of dozens of men who perished during its construction.
     The New York Times, in their series of belated obituaries celebrating overlooked women, included Emily Roebling, even though she was not overlooked, in her time. “How the Wife of the Brooklyn Bridge Engineer Has Assisted Her Husband,” read the headline of one article after the bridge opened—she was the first person to walk across the completed bridge, carrying a rooster—it is said—for good luck.
     I pointed out the plaque to my wife, worried she would take the epigram, “Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman," in the wrong light. But she seemed unperturbed by it.


     


   

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

New York Stories #2: The Accessibility Project



    You can't go to New York and not see a sign that, well, just encapsulates its attitudinal, 24-hours-a-day, go-go-go sensibility.
    For years, there was that wonderful, "Don't even THINK of parking here."
   Or this update on the familiar handicapped access sign. I never considered just how static the neutral human figure in that chair really was until I saw this. Just as Chicago can seem like a hopping place until you hit New York.
     As with all good graphics, the second you see it, you know what it is intended to convey: that disability and dynamic action are not incompatible.
     Of course there is a story behind this symbol. It isn't exactly new.  Newish.
Showing its age
     The original "International Symbol of Access" was created in the 1968 by Danish design student Susan Koefoed.  Around 2010, the Accessible Icon Project began collecting more dynamic symbols, such as those at the MOMA and Marshalls, of all places, which showed a speeding wheelchair with little motion bars.
     Since then, they've been promoting the updated logo as a kind of guerrilla art project, slapping new versions over existing signs.
     Progress is slow. The status quo has its own weight and momentum. Despite eight years of promotion, the old symbol still predominates—I'd never seen the new one until I came to New York—New York state officially adopted the more active logo for its public buildings in 2014.
     Still, this seems like the future. Something you can't embrace if you don't know about.
   


Monday, October 15, 2018

New York Stories #1: Caffe Reggio



     I'm working on a big project for the paper this week so, in lieu of the column, I'm presenting some observations from my recent visit to New York City.

     Once I visited an old Italian barber in Sandburg Village.  This was years ago. He surprised me by serving an espresso and a biscotti while I had my hair cut. It seemed very civilized, the tiny cup and saucer, the hot liquid, the sweet biscuit, the snip of the scissors.
     I didn't think of the nexus between barbering and espresso again until last week, in New York City.
     The cab from LaGuardia dropped off us at West Third and MacDougal, in front of the law school. We had time to kill—the boy was at class. 
     "Let's wait there," I said, pointing to a bright green storefront across MacDougal, "Caffe Reggio." My wife and I rolled our suitcases in that direction.
      Inside was a small, dark, space. Metal ice cream parlor chairs, white marble tables, black marble floors. Dark oil paintings. Busts. Pleasant classical music playing. My wife ordered a latte. I ordered a double espresso and a pair of the small round cookies I had noticed in the case. They serve a glass of water with your coffee—civilized. The orange-rimmed china cups and sugar bowls are emblazoned with the name of the cafe. Civilized.
     And so it began. Five, count 'em, five mornings in a row, begun at the Caffe Reggio, founded in 1927 by Domenico Parisi, the man—it is said—who introduced cappuccino into the United States.  Originally he ran a barber shop in the space, selling espresso to customers as they waited for their haircuts. Balancing the 20 minutes of work to give a haircut, and the one minute to prepare an espresso, both costing 10 cents, Parisi eventually let the barber shop go by the wayside. The space was elegant yet casual, compact yet spacious. It felt like we had stepped out of the stream of time, into another dimension.
     "It's worth coming to New York just to sit here," I said, on the first day.
     A small door to the left of the counter, with a hand-painted plaque above it. The profile of a man—Dante, clearly. I went over to read the words printed there: "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate..."
     I don't speak Italian, but I recognized the phrase, and the Canto number above confirmed my suspicions. Among the most famous lines in literature: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." The inscription above the gates of Hell. A bathroom joke.
    Our son arrived, all smiles—he had never been here before, why would he?—and we departed for his quickstep tour the campus.
     But the next day we were back. My wife had a plan—walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, sample Brooklyn bagels—but we needed caffeine to send us on our way. I opted for coffee, and it came in a huge cup. Biscotti this time. Branching out.
     "Do many customers notice the Dante joke?" I asked the waitress.
     "Every second person," she said, flatly. Ouch. Pedantry is punished.
    The third morning we had breakfast: sharing a "Crepe Reggio," filled with fluffy ricotta cheese. Delicious. The fourth day we met a friend there for breakfast and sat talking and catching up for almost two hours. Nobody rushed us. An omelet this time.
     Back in Chicago, I delved into its history. Bob Dylan was a patron.  So was Jack Kerouac. The room had cameos in movies such as "Godfather II," "Serpico" and "Shaft"—Isaac Hayes' famous soundtrack includes a song, "Cafe Regio," a reminder that musicians are not known for their proofreading skills. The place figures into Andre Aciman's "False Papers." The Egyptian author would return, sometimes several times a day, trying to master the ache caused by a girl he courted at Caffe Reggio, "Seeking to recover something I felt I lost there."
    To me, it was the opposite. I felt I found something there, a certain calm, a place of temporary belonging. Edie immediately understood. "Every day we have coffee there is a happy day," she said, on the last day, when we made a point of heading there before meeting our son for lunch.
    Four out of five days I sat in the same chair, facing the open green door. There was always a customer tucked next to the door, and I took to slyly snapping a photo of the patron. Chicago has much to recommend it, but there is no place like this, where time has stopped or, rather, is measured out in coffee spoons. Nothing remotely like it.






   


   
   

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Saturday Snapshot #10

 
Photo by Tony Galati

 
     The Saturday Snapshot kinda got bigfooted by news yesterday. Originally, I had just intended to run the photo of the Lyric strikers and call it day. But a musician pal called me, and I spoke to him, and an orchestra spokeswoman called me, and I spoke to her, and before I knew it the thing had developed into something more. 

    For a few hours I left the "Saturday Snapshot" headline, thinking it wry, a more-bang-for-your-non-buck kind of thing. But then it just seemed silly, a slight on the juicy content below, and I wrote something more descriptive, not that it churned the media waters.
    Turning my attention to today, I just was experiencing a rare frisson of what-the-fuck-do-I-write-now? when faithful reader Tony Galati offered up this lovely photo of a leaf-strewn road in Oneida County, Wisconsin, which he describes as "West of Eagle River, east of Minocqua, south of St. Germain, north of just about everything else in the state."
     When I told Tony I would run it today, he replied:
     "Sometimes I lose track of what day it is when I'm up here, but I'm pretty sure tomorrow is Sunday. Sunday snapshot? Is that allowed?"
     I assured him that I had checked with the boss, and it was indeed allowed. To be honest, I kinda like the idea of the Saturday Snapshot running Sunday. Given the insanity of our times, it seems a welcome departure from norms that doesn't harm anybody, for once.

    Autumn is a great time of year, with color everywhere, reminding us that things change, continually. Sometimes even for the better. A notion to embrace.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Real life drama comes to the opera: union musicians on strike

Cellist Sonia Mantell, left, and bassist Greg Sarchet picket Thursday in front of the Lyric Opera.

     I have friends among the musicians of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, and also know people in its management, so would hate to take sides between the hard-working artists who create the magic and the haughty taskmasters who control it.  Both sides merit equal consideration, and besides, my opinion is probably colored by the way I am often treated by the Lyric back office as I try to write about their productions—indulged when I'm singing the party line, given the backhand if I write something that displeases them. I've taken 100 readers to the opera every year for the past decade but decided, this year, that it's just too much bother, and let the practice drop, not that anybody at the Lyric seemed to notice or care.
    And now, as it turns out, there might not be a season anyway, due to the strike that started Tuesday, so no loss to the paper's readership, except as part of the greater loss to the city's cultural life. which is considerable.
    It was in this spirit of utter neutrality that I stopped by the musicians' picket line Thursday afternoon to assess the situation. It was not as dreary as most picket lines, because of the high spirits and continual music which the Chicago Federation of Musicians strikers offered to passersby for free, an arrangement that their overseers would no doubt like to continue. I posted a brief video of a brass quartet of strikers performing Le Jeune's "Autant En Le Vent."
     The issues are complicated, and are set out at the orchestra union's web site here. Chris Jones also wrote a typically-excellent analysis of the situation in the Tribune here.
     I did my part by speaking with Amy Hess, spokesperson for the Lyric orchestra.
     "We are on strike because we truly believe a world class opera company like the Lyric needs a world class orchestra," she said. "Management has been demanding cuts that would forever diminish the quality of the orchestra and the quality of opera the company can produce."
    The nub of the issue is reducing both the size of the standing orchestra and the frequency of performances—a decade ago it was 90 a year, this season, 56. The radio broadcasts are also being scrapped.
     "We the musicians feel the slash and burn agenda management seems to have is going to destroy the company," said Hess.
     The Lyric opera management of course feels differently.
     "Lyric’s proposed terms would preserve musicians’ jobs that are among the highest paid and best working conditions in the region," the management said, in a statement. "Stated simply, the contract changes we seek are necessary for the financial future of Lyric. We urge the CFM and its members – our musician colleagues in this great artistic endeavor at Lyric – to accept our offer before further financial losses force a different outcome. It is the only path forward."
     You can read the full statement here.
     I don't want to be too flip about this situation. I'm assuming it'll be resolved sooner than later, that ill feelings will be put aside and joyful collaboration will return. But anyone who has seen his or her share of Verdi and Puccini knows that the potential for tragedy is always lurking around the corner with opera, and this situation feels a bit more fraught than usual.  

     The Lyric Opera is a tremendous asset to the city—when Boeing decided to locate its headquarters there, its executives picked Chicago over other candidates such as Denver or Dallas because, they said, they liked our opera. The greatest talents of the past 90 years have sung—and played—their hearts out on stage and from the pit at the Civic Opera House. It's a shame to see the magnificent facility fall silent when it should be alive with music and make-believe heartbreak. I'm hoping my union brothers and sisters who work hard to stay at the pinnacle of their profession, and the Hunger Games Herods setting the rules, can come to an understanding soon.


From left to right, musicians Mark Fry, Mark Fisher, Bill Denton and Matt Comerford, striking members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, perform Le Jeune's "Autant en le Vent" at their picket line in front of the Civic Opera House, Oct. 11, 2018.




Friday, October 12, 2018

Big company welcomes kids — but not everyone would

GenderCool Project participants Chazzie (from left), Daniel, Landon, Gia, Nicole and Stella gathered at the Cliff Dwellers Club after their appearance at Conagra Brands. The group encourages acceptance of transgender youth.

     Six young people, ages 12 through 17, sitting on a pair of leather sofas at the Cliff Dwellers Club on Michigan Avenue, talking about their day: Chazzie, Daniel, Gia, Stella, Nicole and Landon.
     Regular kids, in most regards — maybe a little more poised than typical middle- and high-schoolers. Each shakes hands firmly, making eye contact. They come from across the country, Massachusetts to Texas, and had just visited one of the largest corporations in Illinois.
     "We met the CEO," said Stella. "That was pretty cool."
     "It was really fun," said Chazzie. "Because they gave a lot of food."
     They'd better; they sure have enough. The company was Conagra Brands, the $8 billion packaged food giant headquartered in Chicago, and the kids are part of the GenderCool Project, a non-profit group working to show transgender youth for what they are most of the time: not victims of bullying, not suicides, not individuals whose bathroom habits are fair game for public critique, but unique individuals filled with enthusiasm and creativity.
     The effort was begun early this year by two Chicago-area women, Jen Grosshandler and Gearah Goldstein, in reaction to the Trump administration decision to trash school guidelines for transgender students.
     "If we don't tell their stories, then people will think that anyone who identifies as transgender is not right," said Grosshandler. "It's not true."


To continue reading, click here.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Forbes Week #3: The Power of Large Numbers



    The Internet was a very different place a decade ago, as this piece illustrates. The public was still wrapping its head around the concept that you could produce something enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people and not get anything for it. While services like YouTube have gotten better about sharing the bounty, we are still seeing the big social media services hoover up profits that used to go to creative individuals.
    Speaking of which, this was the last piece I wrote for Forbes, unless I'm missing one. When I tried to track down the editors I had worked with, they had all been fired. That sort of thing used to happen a lot.
    This originally was posted Sept. 24, 2008.

     Judson Laipply's act has been seen by nearly 100 million people. Matt Drudge boasts a daily audience of 25 million. Sen. Dick Durbin's mail from constituents in Illinois shot up 700%.
     Those huge audience numbers impress us. There is strength in numbers because they exude a power, implying fame, wealth and significance. Nothing testifies more to the popularity of an entertainer, the success of a Web site or the significance of a cause than counting the millions of people who are paying attention.
     But how much should they impress us? What do those big figures mean in a digital age, and do we tend to give them more importance than they actually deserve?
     Take Judson Laipply. His name probably means nothing to you, but odds are you've seen his "The Evolution of Dance," a six-minute clip of the trim, balding Clevelander gyrating to 30 snippets of songs that long topped the YouTube chart of most-watched videos of all time--viewed a staggering 99,451,300 times and counting.
     If those were record sales, it would be equivalent to the splash the Beatles made in 1964.
     But 100 million YouTube views are not record sales or movie tickets or a network TV audience. Laipply makes no money from his online success, at least not directly.
     Someone does profit from all those eyeballs--YouTube runs ads for Revlon and Circuit City and other top companies. But its split with content providers such as Laipply remains 100/0, so the only benefit the motivational speaker received was indirect.

To continue reading, click here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Forbes Week #2: Dude, Where's My Videophone?

     Often freelance jobs are one-shot deals. The list of publications I've written one article and no more for stretches from Sports Illustrated to Brides to the New York Times Sunday Magazine. But Forbes liked my piece on Dante and failure, and asked me to follow up with the stumbling history of video telephones, which STILL haven't taken off and, I would suggest never will.  This was originally posted on Forbes online Oct. 15, 2007. 

     Today, the future is cloudy. But we all know what it used to look like: sleek people in Spandex catsuits talking to each other on wall-sized video telephones.
     That's how they chatted on Star Trek. And on The Jetsons. And 2001: A Space Odyssey. And a thousand other science fiction films, books and TV shows.
     Yet video telephones never took off in real life, even though they have been pushed on the public for more than 40 years, since the first "PicturePhone" was demonstrated at the New York World's Fair in 1964 with a hook-up between the Bell Pavilion and Disneyland in California.
     When the PicturePhone was rolled out as an actual service, later that year, people were expected to line up to use the wonder, having first made reservations at a PicturePhone center in New York, Chicago or Washington, D.C., where they could ogle someone in a distant city as they talked, at the rate of $27 for a three-minute call between Chicago and New York, or about a day's pay for an experienced high school teacher at the time. The company stressed the usefulness of the phones in allowing proud grandparents to see new grandbabies and deaf teens to chat in sign language.
     Cost and inconvenience kept the service from taking off, but AT&T—which ended up spending more than a billion dollars developing video telephones—persisted, ignoring futurists who quickly put their finger on a central problem holding back the devices.
     "Will you be able to see as well as hear the person at the other end [of the phone line]?" wondered Arnold B. Barach in his 1962 book, 1975 and the Changes to Come, which accurately saw the rise of cable TV and call-waiting. "Such a service could be arranged now, but until there is a popular demand for 'phone seeing' to go with telephone calling, it is not likely to come to pass. Prospects of that demand developing in the next 15 years are not considered especially promising."


To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Forbes Week #1: Looking Failure in the Face

Statue of Dante, Florence, Italy
       Anyone who writes a book wants it to echo. And while my books are certainly not reverberating around the world and over the decades, they do vibrate quietly at certain times in certain places. Twenty years after it was published, "Complete and Utter Failure" stuck in the mind of an editor at Forbes, enough that he would ask me to write something on the topic, which was enjoying one of its periodic revivals in interest. I think that the opening sentence was inspired by the novelty of writing for a business magazine—this was posted  in the online edition March 2, 2007, and later ran in the print magazine itself, which pleased me greatly, since in that far off era it meant they paid me a second time.
  
    Dante Alighieri had a very bad fiscal 1302. His mission to Pope Boniface VIII ended in a betrayal, political rivals burned down his home in Florence and he was forced to flee into exile and condemned to die if he returned, accused of the rather ordinary and unpoetic crime of skimming money off municipal road repairs in his capacity as superintendent of widening and straightening roads, one of the many mundane duties the poet performed for his beloved native city.
     But Dante made the best of it. While scrounging his living, he began writing Inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy, inventing a fiery Hell and meticulously placing his enemies--including Boniface--one by one into it. The public embraced his creation. Dante was celebrated, both in his lifetime and without pause for the next 700 years, lauded as one of most important writers of the modern world, a titan alongside Shakespeare and Cervantes.
     All in all, a fair recovery.
     We all fall down in our lives at one point or another. Some stay down; others get back up. Failure is such a common human experience that it is difficult to find a general observation about it that doesn't sound trite, like something off a high-school locker room wall. "Winners never quit, and quitters never win." "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." And on and on.
     Despite all the truisms about failure, and despite it being universal, we still tend to ignore failure. We leave the disappointments off our resumes, and we overlook them in the lives of others.
     How many people, watching Steve Jobs announce the iPhone, the latest hot product from computer giant Apple , paused to remember that he was once a notorious has-been? 
That in 1985 Jobs was forced out of the company he co-founded before blowing $100 million on NeXT, a start-up computer company that arrived stillborn?
     Not many. Because success eclipses failure. We think of George Lucas as the creator of Star Wars, not the guy who produced Howard the Duck. When we see Dustin Hoffman chatting with David Letterman, he is the star of The Graduate and Tootsie, not the star of Ishtar, one of the biggest bombs ever made.

To continue reading, click here.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Sailing the ocean blue was only a start: Columbus Day more complex than it looks

Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus, 
by Sebastiano del Piombo (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

   Columbus Day, again, and time for the ritual re-staging of the Italians v. Indians skirmish, two marginalized groups fighting over a shred of dignity. I wish the Italians could gracefully give in and find somebody else to honor—hint: Fermi—but they are as yet  incapable of that. Time will do the dirty work, as it always does: I can't picture the younger generation caring about their special day, but maybe I give them too much credit. Holidays come and go; Columbus Day has passed its sell-by date.

     Once upon a time, American history was a simple story we told to feel good about ourselves. George Washington chopped the cherry tree; Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Problems arrived only to be solved—slaves were hardly mentioned until right before Lincoln freed them.
     The nation was run by white Anglo-Saxon men, and naturally they cast themselves in all the hero roles.
     Eventually, the forgotten supporting cast grew tired of being in the shadows—women got the vote, blacks demanded civil rights, immigrant groups inserted themselves into the American story. That's why Monday is Columbus Day, one of just 10 federal holidays.
     "I'll tell you how it happened," said Dominic Di Frisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans. "The Italian immigrants arrived after the German immigrants, after the Irish immigrants. They saw events like the Von Steuben parade and decided they needed a political hero. Christopher Columbus is not much of a figure in Italy. They said, my God, this country is named after him—the District of Columbia, Columbus in Ohio, in Georgia. He was the hero, a symbol of Italian pride, the first immigrant."
     Columbus was on coins and stamps. Chicago held its World's Columbian Exposition.
     So what changed? Why is Columbus now frequently a villain? Well, the same process that put Columbus Day on our calendar—heretofore marginalized people insisting their part in the story be told—kept going, to include Native Americans. They don't feel Columbus discovered anything—the Indians knew they were here all along—and given how quickly the Europeans began murdering, enslaving and pushing aside indigenous peoples here, to them there isn't much to celebrate, which is why there's a card widely posted on Facebook: "Let's celebrate Columbus Day by walking into someone's house and telling them we live there now." A fair synopsis of what happened, minus the genocide.
     And yet perhaps because I learned the 1970s history catechism, where national unity trumps the complaints of each individual group, I feel for the Italians, who just want to be part of the story and celebrate themselves without having to wipe the blood of the slaughtered off their hands every October.
     What bothers me most about the "Let's celebrate . . . " card is the casual declaration of free-floating guilt that we liberals seem to have mastered. What are you saying? You're sorry the nation was founded? At least Native Americans have a reason to say that, though, like everybody else, their narrative is also self-serving - heavy on "Dances with Wolves," light on the hearts-torn-out-atop-pyramids-to-honor-
Quetzalcoatl.
     The Aztecs were the most violent state in recorded human history, so it isn't as if, had Columbus never arrived, the American Eden would remain to this day. To post that card is hypocrisy. Europe's still there. Go back if you feel so guilty about living here. I sure don't. My ancestors never killed an Indian or owned a slave. They were selling rags in Poland when all this was going on, and America was the golden door a handful fled through before the most cultured and sophisticated society in Europe put the rest in ovens. That still doesn't prompt me to show up at German Unity Day and wave pictures of Auschwitz. The past is a lousy place to live.
     So I have sympathy for Italians on Columbus Day; though really—Columbus, Balbo, Berlusconi—there is a pattern of clinging to bad choices here.
     "He was one of the great navigators of history, and we've taken that away from him," said DiFrisco, "and reduced him to some kind of bloodthirsty, syphilis-spreading marauder, and that is not the case."
     Not the entire case. We live in a time when heroes are ritualistically tarnished and, frankly, everybody is better off with the more accurate, though less flattering, narrative than with the pretty story. It's easier for me to grasp the current inability of the government to confront our problems when I consider that it was formed on a lie—"All men are created equal"—that skirted the issue of slavery, kicking it down the pike to explode 75 years later. Ignoring our biggest problems is an American tradition since 1776.
     "Columbus Day is an Italian pride holiday," said Di Frisco. "We decry that fewer and fewer schools have it off. Here's a man who planted the flag of Christianity on the shores of the new world and teachers are systemically taking the image of Columbus we all knew and they've turned him into a villain."
     Speaking of the flag of Christianity . . . but space grows short. Happy Columbus Day.

                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 10, 2011

Sunday, October 7, 2018

A little buddy for our friendly, many-friended river

 

     Given the number of times I've been to The Art Institute, or the Museum of Contemporary Art, or the Field Museum, or the Chicago History Museum, or even such obscure institutions as the International Museum of Surgical Science, or National Mexican Museum of Art in Pilsen, it surprises and saddens me to consider the museums in Chicago that I still haven't gotten to, like the DuSable Museum. 
     I crossed one long-missed museum off my list last week in completely serendipitous fashion. I was strolling along the busy River Walk, on my way to an appointment on the Gold Coast, thinking, "For all the things Rahm Emanuel didn't do, he certainly did do this," when I bumped into the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, a little facility tucked into the southwestern pylon of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, steps down from Wacker Drive.
     I had a little time. I had a little money—the six dollars it takes to get in.
     As longtime readers of this blog know, I'm a fan of bridges—my very first post on EGD was an ode to the bascule drawbridge—and I was happy to quickly explore this tiny, five floor museum. I only had about 20 minutes, but I still learned far more than I have spending hours in larger museum. My favorite bit of information was that the energetic advocacy group, The Friends of the Chicago River, was named after the headline of a 1979 article in Chicago magazine headlined, "Our Friendless River," an inspiration to every writer or editor who ever puzzled over making a headline both sing and fit.  Sometimes these things resonate...
    It was also interesting to learn that our famously polluted Chicago River is no longer poisoned by industrial waste so much as by run-off—weed poison and spilled oil and such washing from our yards and streets and into the river, particularly during storms. A reminder that what you toss in the gutter ends up in our river.
     The views from the big round windows were a novel perspective on Michigan Avenue, though they could use a cleaning. 
     The bridgehouse museum (I'll be damned if I'll utter the colonel's hated name more than I have to, just because Trib money is somewhere behind this) isn't big on artifacts—a few bulky switches, gauges and levers from days gone past. The highlight is the actual mechanism of the working bridge, which you can see go through its paces whenever the bridge rises or falls, a treat I plan to enjoy as soon as I am able. The small museum is big on historical and environmental information, and warrants a revisit to study its riches at leisure.

    

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #9



    Faithful reader Tony Galati sends along this snapshot of two New England salts, along with this explanation:
     I've been transferring some old Kodachrome slides to digital. I just did these from a 1972 trip to Nantucket that I took with a buddy the summer I graduated. The town of Nantucket was filled with really old people, hippies, and other assorted characters. We were somewhat of a minority. What better reason to travel?
   While this pair of gentlemen look as sharp as tacks, they offer an opportunity to plug a marvelous article in this week's New Yorker, "The Comforting Fictions of Dementia Care," by Larissa MacFarquhar. The story represents top notch reporting and beautiful writing about a vitally important subject, and I can't recommend it enough. It's almost a philosophical work, focusing on the untruths told to dementia patients to make their lives more endurable, and f you want to make the story even more unsettling than it already is, ask yourself, as I did, what it might suggest about the lies we tell each other and ourselves to get through our days.


Friday, October 5, 2018

Waiting for justice that might never come

Set, "Waiting for Godot"
   

     So now we wait.
     The Senate is expected to vote on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court some time over the weekend.
     And the Jason Van Dyke murder trial for the shooting of Laquan McDonald has gone to the jury.
Two events that mesh together, and not just because they are reaching their climax at the same time.
     Both involve the intersection of justice and politics, obviously. Both have been churning social media like a washing machine gone berserk, as partisans argue and evaluate. Like the famous blind men running their hands over an elephant, everybody describes what they perceive before them, never suspecting that the conclusions they reach are based on where they were standing when they began their exploration.
     Waiting is hard. The Kavanaugh hearings went on for only a few days, but transfixed the nation, with Christine Blasey Ford's testimony creating a rippled national shock that for one moment seemed to cut through our national divide into warring camp. Then our division returned, like the metal man in Terminator II, reconstituting itself, the red eye winking to life, raging back in the afternoon with Kavanaugh's angry, deeply partisan rebuttal that demonstrated his unsuitability for the court far more dramatically than the possibility of a 34-year-old drunken attack.
     The Van Dyke trial has been gathering steam for three years, since the release of the video cast a pall over Christmas 2015, and lit the fuse on the implosion of Rahm Emanuel's mayorship. The jury might have delivered its verdict by the time you read this.
     Both situations pivot around figures of authority: Kavanaugh, a right wing judge picked to push extremist positions like overturning Roe v. Wade, constraining voting rights, and unleashing the power of money to control even more than it does. Van Dyke, a cop, holding the power life or death in his hands, literally, working in a city with a national reputation for shootings and unsolved murders.

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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Flashback 2000: Near-disaster of biblical proportions

     Facebook isn't the font of fascination it once sorta was. Too many ads. But I glance at it anyway, just to see what's going on, though most of my friends seem to be either expressing outrage—can you BELIEVE what they've done now?—or nostalgia: do you remember caramel bullseyes? (Or a combination of the two, condemning the modern world because kids can't play with Jarts anymore). 
     Others like to put big block memes asking unusual questions. I typically ignore those. But a few days ago I noticed this query on a friend's page, and instantly thought, "Yes! Yes I have!" As outlined in the column below.


     There is no punctuation in the Bible. The Hebrew original, that is. No vowels, either.
     It leads to, umm, flexibility when it comes to interpretation, and scholars have happily frittered away the centuries debating the meaning of this or that particular passage.
     The line that best illustrates this process is from Genesis 22. God, in an antic mood, tells Abraham to go sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Abraham leads the boy to the mountaintop to do the bloody deed. Isaac, who is no fool, can't help but notice that something is amiss.
     "Behold the fire and the wood," he says. "But where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"
    Abraham answers: "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."
    Only that comma, of course, isn't in the original text. So he might have been telling Isaac that his doom is near: "God will provide himself the lamb. For a burnt offering: my son."
      Sure, it's a stretch. But if you spend enough time thinking a certain way, especially when you're young, it makes a lingering impact on your mind, creating a certain perversity of outlook.
     For instance: A current radio ad for an eyeglass store has this tagline: "For people who can't see paying a lot for glasses." The moment I heard it, I smiled, thinking they were slyly communicating that their business overcharges people with bad vision: "For people who can't see, paying a lot for glasses."
     This trait is not always benign. In fact, this week it very nearly cost me hundreds of dollars, not to mention depositing tons of unwanted dirt in the backyard of my new home.
     The previous owners had an above-ground pool. Before I could picture myself lounging by the cool waters, my wife, the lawyer, announced that the pool was a big circular drowning pit, inviting our children and the children in the neighborhood to a watery doom. So out went the pool.
     Leaving behind a hole, 20 feet across and about 6 inches deep. The hole needed to be filled. I saw, at long last, after a quarter-century of neglect, a chance to put all those years of geometry to use. The equation for the area of a circle is branded on my brain: area = 
π r2.
     I'm tempted to go into all the math, but as this is a family newspaper, I'll skip over the complexities and cut to the chase: by multiplying pi and the radius first—perhaps influenced by my youthful biblical bickering—and then squaring them, instead of squaring the radius first, and then multiplying by pi, I managed to get about 900 square feet. A figure three times as large as it should have been.
     Not an abstract, point-off-the-quiz mistake. But a truck-dumping-three-times-as-much-dirt-as-I-need mistake.
     Luckily, I caught it in time, through my natural need to check and recheck things. I realized I was wrong by imagining a square the same size—20 feet across. The area of that, of course, would be easy: 20 x 20, or 400 square feet.
     So how is it, I wondered, stepping back from the brink, that a circle of the same size would have more than twice the area?
     Finally figuring it out, I called the dirt store, which is an experience for a city kid. One phone call, and a big dump truck shows up at your house, the back filled with seven cubic yards of topsoil, which cost $170 and weigh 14,000 pounds.
     The truck dumped it in a pile 4 feet high, in the center of the hole left by the pool.
     And then it began to rain.
     "Better get that dirt spread," the driver said, climbing into his cab. "Because once it gets wet, it turns to muck."
     Which is where we shall leave the author, amateur biblical scholar and math whiz, frantically shoveling this pile of moistening dirt in the driving rain. A humbling experience and, believe it or not, a tonic for a guy who works with his brain all day, and not always successfully at that.

            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 22, 2000

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

We don't want nobody nobody sent. But we do want onion rings on our salad

  


     What's more Chicago than a salad with onion rings?
     I know you're thinking, "Deep dish pizza. " Or "a hot dog with relish and onions and mustard and all that other stuff Chicago dogs are supposed to come with."
     But that's Cliche Chicago, the food stuffs that once represented the city and to some still do. Even an idol of granite is worn away by excessive worship. Every time I hear a radio commercial for a bank trying to pander to the locals by invoking either deep dish pizza or Chicago dogs, those icons seem a little more dubious, inauthentic, corrupted. 
     Maybe you had to be where I am when looking at my salad: The Palace Grill on Madison, opened in 1938, with its chrome and red vinyl, its black and white checkerboard floor, yet true to its name as the residence of royalty. At least a particular kind of Chicago royalty: hockey players and cops, due to the proximity to the United Center, for the former, and for the latter, across the street from the Office of Emergency Management, plus various cop credit unions and training facilities nearby.
     I'm the least coppish, most unhockeylike person imaginable. But even I take on a certain swagger ambling into The Palace. Of course, the welcoming presence of George helps a lot—George Lemperis, the owner, whose cousins bought what was then a 19-stool Skid Row diner in 1955.  George makes intense, almost feverish eye contact—really, it's like he's about to punch you in the face—then offer a firm handshake as if we were sealing a real estate transaction.
     "I'm meeting so-and-so's guy," I drawl, naming a Chicago politician.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Hairy Who?

Untitled, by Suellen Rocca
     My intention was to take the bus from 900 N. Michigan to Union Station Monday afternoon. But as we passed The Art Institute, I saw the Hairy Who? show had opened, so hopped off, figuring I'd catch a later train.
      I learned something right away, before I even got through the museum lobby. The six Chicago artists who formed the colorful 1960s art movement, listed on the banner—Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—did not, as I had always thought, include Ed Paschke. I don't know where I got the impression that he was part of the group; he just seemed to fit, I suppose, along with Roger Brown, who wasn't involved either. 
    I vaguely knew about the Hairy Who?artists, glanced here and there over the years. Looking at so many of their paintings and drawings, not to mention comic books, chairs, posters, and all the other self-promotion. I couldn't help feeling ... I'm going to hell for this ... underwhelmed. The artwork had a sensibility that echoed everything else of the era, from "Yellow Submarine" to late Salvador Dali, all amateurish and derivative and slapdash. The little glyphs and hollow-head doodles made me think these people were the best high school artists ever.
     That's too harsh. Gladys Nilsson had a certain children's book illustration whimsey, a Richard Lindner-y quality that I admired, or tried to. And I could see Paschke's lucha libre wrestlers and static-wavy TV images prefaced in Karl Wirsum's work. This moment really is the only coherent artistic movement to come out of Chicago, which doesn't elevate it so much as condemn us. Maybe we really are the hicks those New Yorkers consider us to be.
      As I moved through the galleries—it's a big show, on two floors of the Art Institute—I started to suspect that perhaps the true genius of the group was not in any one image, even in any one artist, but how these half dozen managed to band together and, collectively, puff their talents, such as they were, into something celebrated half a century later. That takes doing. That's certainly art, of a sort.

Hairy Who? 1966-1969 runs through Jan. 6, 2019.


The Great War of the Wonder Woman, by Gladys Nilsson

Monday, October 1, 2018

Christine Blasey Ford may yet be more important to history than Brett Kavanaugh




     “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” Abraham Lincoln supposedly said when meeting Harriett Beecher Stowe in 1862.
     She wasn’t, of course — the mechanism for the Civil War had been set in motion with the founding of our country, 80 years earlier. Its creation an untenable balance, with an equal number of slave states and free states together in a nation supposedly based on liberty. The conflict was inevitable; Stowe merely wrote a book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” that helped galvanize Northerners against an injustice all too many were willing to accept.
     The question of slavery seemed settled in 1865, with the defeat of the Confederacy. Though the question of who is a person, who counts, is still the essential issue of America, asked again and again throughout our history — should these former slaves be allowed to have careers in the military? To go to school with white kids? Should employers be obligated to hire them? And what about women? Are they human beings fully formed enough to vote? To fight as soldiers?
     The most recent instance unfolded dramatically last week, as Brett Kavanaugh was not waved onto the Supreme Court by his fellow members of the powerful, ruling class, but instead found himself confronted by an accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who claims he tried to rape her at a party when they were both teenagers.
     Does it matter? Does she matter? How you answer the question depends on where you stood before asking it. The Republicans, having elected a man who admits molesting women, and contort themselves to tolerate any lie and ignore any infamy, say “No.” They didn’t even want to investigate her claims, because a year into the #MeToo movement, such questions are better left to Hollywood.
     Democrats disagree.

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