Monday, December 31, 2018

A New Year’s political lexicon to help decipher 2019

     Anyone sorry to see 2018 go? A show of hands. Anybody? Didn’t think so. While the year was fine for me, personally — anyone who climbs to the top of a Mayan pyramid in Central America, hikes the Appalachian Trail in Virginia and sees both sons graduate from college in a single year isn’t in any position to complain — it does hurt to see our once great nation rolling in the mud of humiliation day after day.
     The biggest recommendation that can be made for 2018 is the lead-pipe certainty that 2019 will be worse, as the dogs of justice close in on an ever-more isolated Donald Trump while his adult minders flee and his defrauded base, lost in their own private dreamworld, howl outrage.
     They yell in a language all their own, one that often needs translation. This month dictionary companies have been trotting out their “Word of the Year,” but those really are not helpful, divided between faddish terms that will never gain popularity — Cambridge Dictionary chose “nomophobia,” the fear of losing your phone — or endorsements of the obvious. Oxford Dictionaries chose “toxic” as its 2018 word of the year.
     Gee, ya think? Why focus on a single word? I believe it would be more useful in our struggle to get through 2019 to understand changes in common words. Words whose definitions have become deformed, by those whose entire lives are an ongoing assault on factuality and meaning.
     So here I present my 2019 political lexicon, a highly abbreviated but I hope still comprehensive list. All usage examples are taken from actual emails or tweets sent to me:
     agenda: n. An imaginary coordinated directive that dictates the otherwise ordinary, independent actions of members of a despised group, often used to characterize gay people attempting to lives their lives. “The Democrats are committed to advancing the LGBT agenda and forcing the rest of America to accept, support and pay for it.” (National Organization for Marriage).


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Sunday, December 30, 2018

The one word from Trump that reduced Mueller to blubbering jelly: The State of Blog V



      Even someone viscerally against the Orwellian abuse of language has to be careful the practice doesn't rub off. Troubled times tend to be absorbed by osmosis, resist though you may. 
      So as I contemplated today's analysis of the fifth full calendar year of the blog, my first thought was "Bad is good."
      Can that be right? 
      The bad part certainly is. 
      After four years of steady, double-digit growth, everygoddamnday.com hit a wall in 2018. Things were clicking along, June, July and August all above 70,000 hits a month. Then the numbers stallled, and began to slide. By November and December, we were back in the 50s, and the average for the year was 65,893 a month, a couple thousand less than last year.
     What happened? It's possible that, having run out of things to say, I became repetitious and readers turned away. I certainly get tired of myself some days. Maybe the practice of reading for meaning has fallen from favor, and the time once spent here is now spent on Facebook watching videos of people in foreign countries being narrowly missed by careening trucks.
     Or ... speaking of Facebook ... someone working there, and at Twitter, might have turned a dial. The readership numbers are sluggish, they can't get airborne. Some days I can feel the weight, sitting on my back, as I vigorously flap. Mother Jones, in its state-of-the-publication report earlier this month (see, it isn't just me) blamed Facebook for fighting so-called "fake news" by muffling all news:
     And then Facebook delivered the sucker punch. This past January, Zuckerberg announced what amounted to the end of the “perfect personalized newspaper”: Facebook was pivoting back to baby photos. The algorithm would ramp up the number of posts from friends and family and dial way back on news. Not just the fake kind. Any kind.
     Today, you are far less likely to see posts from Mother Jones or any other publisher than you were two years ago, even when you’ve specifically followed that page. Facebook reach for most serious publishers has plummeted—so much so that some are even breaking their rule against disclosing internal analytics. Slate recently revealed that it sees 87 percent fewer Facebook referrals than it did in early 2017. Many other news organizations have taken a hit in the same r
ange.
     In that light, EGD's stumble is not only explained, but perhaps even a sign of strength for not being far worse. Hence my bad news being good. So it isn't quite in the same league as "War is peace."
     And besides, I've always insisted that this endeavor is not metric driven. Here is my chance to prove it. The blog as an outgrowth of my newspaper column, and an outlet for creativity. Not to mention a chance to do something routinely. I used to feel guilty of periodically filling a day by reposting old columns that are germane to this or that topic. But the Tribune reprints old John Kass columns in its actual newspaper, and they were shit the first time around. So nothing to feel guilty about. I certainly like reading them again, and I wrote them.
     So how was the content in 2018, to use a word I dislike ("content," though "2018" isn't high on my list either)? Three of my top ten all time best-read posts are from this year, led by this plea to help the Guildhaus, which got almost 10,000 hits (and, I should blushingly point out, raised $20,000 for the sober living facility in Blue Island).
     I believe it's been a varied, interesting year. In January, we gazed out this window in Paris and visited Belize to learn about the Mennonite community unexpectedly found there.  In February EGD ran a series of columns marking the auto show, including getting behind the wheel of a Bentley. In March we visited Mayan ruins one day, and talked tomato soup with the folks at Campbell's the next. In April, the Apollo 8 astronauts discussed circling the Moon, and by May we took in the Ivan Albright show at The Art Institute.  
     In July, I drove down to Granite City to hear Donald Trump speak, and I'm proud that, rather than regurgitate the preconceived notions I had brought with me, I talked to people and reported on what unfolded in front of me.
     We had dinner at Alinea, coffee at Caffe Regio in New York City, and hiked Stony Man Trail in the Shenandoah National Forest in Virginia. 
     Again and again, I kept up what I hope was a steady directed fire at the Trump abomination, brass rhetorical shell cases flipping over my shoulder as I tried to keep a bead on the slipperiest politician ever, jinking back and forth, emitting obscuring clouds of prevarication. Nobody is going to care about this blog 100 years from now—they barely care about it now, as I write the thing—but if anybody does, I hope it's because of the rhetorical ack-ack fire I marshaled in support of cherished American values, against the assault of the president backed by wave after wave of the defrauded dupes who'll back him to the end. 
     That's grandiose, and I apologize for it. Wherever the beating heart of significance might be, we are far from it. However. There is an EGD community, of sorts. Tate birddogging my mistakes every day, Grizz and Shari and Thomas and Tony and Paul and Sandy and Coey and Bitter Scribe and all the rest. Thank you reading this thing, and taking it seriously, and adding your own spin on the conversation. Thank you for course to Marc Schulman, at Eli's Cheesecake, who has supported the blog since its inception. Thank you to my bosses at the Sun-Times, whose complete indifference to this blog has been their greatest gift. Thank you to my wife for no longer suggesting that I just chuck the thing and go back to knitting.
     So in 2018, the blog, like the country, did not thrive, but it did, again like the nation, endure. And that is certainly an accomplishment. My plans for 2019 are to hold my position until relieved. Or, in the immortal words of Dr. Johnson: "I will be conquered; I will not capitulate." I suggest you do the same.


     
     

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #21




     Friday I bought a ticket to fly to Raleigh, North Carolina next month, to report on a story. A beautiful part of the country, one I'm looking forward to visiting again—readers might recall our family trip to Marshall, North Carolina four years ago.  So it seems a perfect time to run this photo of Gabriela and Sofia, submitted by faithful reader Sandy Klemp, who writes: 
     The photo shows Gabi and Sofi looking out onto Grandfather Mountain in Linville, North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains.... Linville is about 18 miles SW of Boone, North Carolina. Boone is one hour from the edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s quite brilliant in Spring and Fall and is home to Appalachian State University.
    The nickname for ASU students, by the way, is "The Mountaineers," and the school has its own climbing wall and a "Base Camp" in its student center where kids can sign up for all sorts of excursions—rock climbing in the Linville Gorge, mountain biking, white-water rafting on the French Broad River—which, now that I think of it, I've done. I recommend it. Thanks Sandy for sharing the photograph.


Friday, December 28, 2018

Encyclopaedia Britannica, in business 250 years, hoping for 250 more




     December certainly snapped by, nearly. Did you celebrate the Illinois Bicentennial earlier this month? Me neither. The event left me cold, and I sense I’m not alone. Residents of Illinois aren’t like those of places such as Colorado or Maine—no strong collective identity. Instead, we’re Chicagoans or Downstaters, proud Illini alumni or denizens of Kane County. A guy on my block has an “Ohio is my home” bumpersticker. I’ve never seen anything similar for Illinois and don’t expect to.
     The state bicentennial wasn’t even the only big Illinois anniversary this month. There was the 250th of the oldest business based in the state … anybody? … Encyclopaedia Britannica, founded in Scotland in 1768, transplanted to the United States in 1901, falling under the control of Sears Roebuck in 1920, then donated to the University of Chicago in 1943, its continuing corporate contortions since then based in Chicago.
     As a reference geek, I am the proud owner of not one but two sets — the beige-bound 1964 edition, in boxes in the attic, which my parents bought to prove we were educated people and I couldn’t bear to part with, and a 1998 edition within arm’s reach of my desk. I like it because it gives me clear, concise information often obscured by the muck on the Internet. When I went to Carbondale last year for the big eclipse, I boned up on solar eclipses and the sun with my Britannica. The way-cool fact that helium was discovered in a spectroscopic analysis of the sun — helios is Greek for “sun” — was cribbed out of the Britannica.
     Sears is a tottering ruin. But Britannica is still going strong, according to CEO Karthik Krishnan, who marked the anniversary by chatting up the media.
     “Britannica is doing great,” he said. “We had an outstanding year this year. Instead of waiting for people to come to us, we’re focusing on how to get where people are and providing them information in a meaningful way.”
     Isn’t that what the internet does?


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Thursday, December 27, 2018

"As imposing as an alp"—RIP Mary Cameron Frey

Mary Cameron Frey, left, with former Sun-Times
managing editor Joycelyn Winnecke
     I was sad to hear that my former Sun-Times colleague Mary Cameron Frey died Wednesday. She was a doyen from another era, the intersection of upper crust society and daily newspaper journalism. I once proposed a story to Chicago Magazine to be called "Great Dames" that would feature Mary and Eppie Lederer and Margie Korshak and other assorted majestic women, all gowned and collected for a group photo. I can't imagine who'd be in that photo today.
     You can read her obituary in the Sun-Times here.
     Mary had a memorable cameo in my recovery memoir, "Drunkard," which I will reprint here to give those who didn't have the pleasure of knowing her a sense of what she was like.

     "Neil!" calls Mary Cameron Frey, the society columnist in the office next door. She is a grande dame, wealthy, in her sixties.
     "Yes, Mary?" I answer, stripping off my coat and tossing it on a chair.
     "I need to have a serious talk with you."
     "I'll come over seriously," I say, bustling around the corner. 
     "Sit down," she orders. I quickly sit, regarding the colorful stack of large gardening books on her desk.
     "Peter Baker is coming back."
     "I know. I'm excited."
     "He's a drunk."
     "I'm a drunk." 
     "He is what they call in the Catholic Church 'an occasion for sin' and he is going to lead you astray."
     Mary is wearing her standard office uniform, which I think of as "Hyannis Port Casual"—khaki pants and a light blue Polo man's shirt, her steel-gray hair made up as if for a cotillion, every strand sprayed into place, so she can slip away after work, throw on a dragonfly green ball gown, and be all set for the Women's Auxiliary Board of Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Annual Glitter Gala and Silent Auction.
     "I can sin on my own," I say, thinking about my recent relapse. "Look, Peter is the only boss I've ever worked for in my whole career who cared for me and helped me."
     She makes a sour face.
     "I've cared for you," she says, which is true. For years, I thought of Mary as the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, for her habit of ordering about photographers at charity events and brusquely banishing nonentities from pictures as if not being famous and rich were embarrassing personal flaws. But Mary showered me with e-mails while I was at rehab. At first I suspected she was fishing for dirt. But after a while—reading the genuine concern, the way she signed them "love"—it dawned on me that she might actually be sincere, and that while Mary may have imperiously treated me as the help before, my fall has touched some chord within her and she truly cares.
     "You're not my boss."
     "That's true, but I'm watching out for you, and Baker is no good. I don't know why we're bringing him in here. I've been at black tie dinners where he shows up in an open-necked orange shirt."
     I should have laughed at that, but one doesn't laugh at Mary Cameron Frey. She's as imposing as an alp.
     "His father was a coal miner," I say.
     "My father was a simple man and I'm sure yours was too," she says. "That's no excuse."
     "My father was a nuclear physicist," I mutter.
     She says she has a dear friend who never stopped thinking of alcohol, never. He goes to two meetings a day.
    "That'll pass," I say.
     "It's been thirty years."
     "Im lucky then, because it's not an issue for me," I say, mustering bravado. "We'll play racquetball."
     "He's coming here to play racquetball?"
     "He brings a vibrancy to the paper. Ten marines get killed and we put it back on page 42. The Tribune had it as their line. Baker won't make that kind of mistake."
    "Well, we'll see what he does here. But you"—and she aims a lacquered fingernail at me—"watch yourself."
    "I will," I promise, backing out.
     "You know I love you and I don't want anything to go wrong," she calls after me. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Garry McCarthy tips his hand

     So let's say I'm planning to rob a bank—I'm not, so don't be alarmed.  
     But hypothetically, say I'm going to. I don't want to pull the heist alone, and risk straining my back, lugging all that loot. So I recruit my pals, Bugs and Ox. We case the joint, as we criminals like to call locations we're going to rob, we divvy up roles. Bugs and Ox go into the bank, and since I'm the mastermind, l reserve for myself the task of driving the getaway car. Seems safer.
     But inside the bank, things go wrong. Ox trips over a free toaster display, falls on a security guard and crushes him. The poor guard dies. The law says that not only can Ox be found guilty of the guard's death, but so can Bugs and even me, outside in the idling car, because I'm a participant in the crime that caused the death.
     That makes sense. When you're robbing banks. What about lesser crimes? Out on bail, awaiting my trial for the bank heist, I carelessly jaywalk. A police officer heads in my direction to give me a ticket and is killed by a bus. Also murder? The basic facts are the same: a lesser crime that results in the death of someone.
     You see where I'm going with this.
     Edward R. Brown is accused of discharging a gun into the air on Dec. 17. Responding to the gunshot, officers Conrad Gary and Eduardo Marmolejo were struck by a South shore Line commuter train and killed. Their deaths cast a pall of public grief over Chicago's holiday season.
     Brown, who has no criminal record, was charged with felony aggravated unlawful use of a weapon and reckless discharge of a firearm.
     This was not enough, speaking of reckless, for former police superintendent Garry McCarthy. He went on right wing talk radio Sunday to demand that the 24-year-old, who has no criminal record, be charged with more serious crimes "up to felony murder," though how doing that either brings the dead officers back or reduces the future occurrence of stupid acts that draw attention of the police is a mystery, one perhaps answered by the fact that McCarthy is in the scrum of candidates running for mayor. He personally condemned his mayoral opponent, in the scrum of 21 candidates now and perhaps one-on-one after February, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and her protege/state's attorney, Kim Foxx.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Lightweight

     Did you get what you wanted for Christmas? Did you run downstairs and grab the packages under the tree, rip off the wrappings and squeal with delight?
    Good. Must feel nice.
     I certainly didn't, and not just because I don't celebrate Christmas and don't exchange gifts with anyone.
     This year, I wanted something in particular, as readers of my Dec. 12 column on the Banksy sculpture contest might recall. A worthy charity raising money for refugees, Choose Love, was holding a lottery. For just a £2 donation (about $2.50) you could guess the weight of the boatload of refugees that Banksy made for Dismaland, his 2015 take-off on The Magic Kingdom.
     It seemed worth doing. How many people would enter? And I wanted the thing, thought it was beautiful, and hoped that thinking the problem over would give me a leg up.
     They gave you a bit of information: photographs, plus the length, 90 centimeters, or almost a yard long. They said it had a commercial fiberglas hull and the figurines were resin over foam.
     I'll bet it's light, I thought, focusing on the foam. I did some research. Remote control boats of a similar size sold on eBay weighed from 7 to 10 pounds. Of course they had battery packs and remote controls. The Banksy boat didn't. So maybe the missing battery would balance out the figurines. I scattershot my 20 or so guesses—one every day—between six and 11 pounds. 

     I considered myself clever.
 

   The contest ended at 10 p.m. Dec. 22, Greenwich mean time, and I must admit, I checked my email folder for the announcement that I had won. Checked the spam folder—sometimes things go to spam. Looked for news announcements. Nothing. Nothing Sunday.
     Not that I expected to win. Rather, I was alive to the possibility.  Okay: I mused on how good that would feel. Pictured the special exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The tasteful plaque, thanking its owner, aka me, for loan of the artwork.
     Okay, I told myself. Just because the contest ends Saturday doesn't mean they'll announce it Saturday, I reasoned, deciding to wait patiently. I imagined the email, informing me I had won...
     Sure enough, Monday, Christmas Eve, an email arrived, with the subject line, "The Banksy Boat raffle is over! Unfortunately you didn't win—but thank you so much for donating. Here's how much it weighed"
     Smart. Tear the bandage from the wound. Don't cause confusion.
     "The correct weight was 11692.2 grams, as weighed by KCL Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Science." 

     Or 25.7 pounds. My estimate was about a third of its actual weight. Some less than a third.
     Ouch. 
     That resin must have been heavier than I thought.
     This is not, I had to remind myself, an indictment of trying to think things through. Sometimes you do and the logic is off. I had certainly been right about it being a good shot, as far as lotteries go. Choose Love said it raised £90,000, or 45,000 entries. Good odds compared to the infinitesimal chances of the lottery.
     And as I pointed out in my column, had I won it, there was the complicated task of getting the dingus back home and figuring out what to do with it, insuring it and protecting it and the like. So in a sense, not winning can be considered a gift. Not exactly the gift I hoped for, true. But not getting what you want is also an essential part of Christmas, I am led to understand. Part of the magic of the holiday is squinting at what you received and convincing yourself it's really what you wanted all along.



Monday, December 24, 2018

A Christmas Metra Miracle



     Christmas stories tend to involve a selfish man, whether Ebeneezer Scrooge or the Grinch. I suppose the man doesn't have to be selfish—George Bailey comes to mind. He just needs to be a man, with all the implications of dimness that being a man implies.
     For today's purpose, that man will be me. Though Christmas season approaches, our hero goes on with his usual routines, working and grumbling. In my case, I'm particularly armored against the holiday, because I'm Jewish. No tree. No presents. No nothing.
     I take that back. Every year there is the Chicago Sun-Times Letters to Santa Program. The paper invites readers to take a photocopy of a handwritten letter from an elementary school pupil, then go out and buy gifts for that student. Every year the paper asks its top columnists to write a column urging people to go out of their way, dig deep, buy presents for needy Chicago schoolchildren, every year I do, with what I hope is a certain amusing-though-very-real reluctance.
     My colleagues weighed in. Mary Mitchell wanted to help them all. "Each one tugs at my heart." Mark Brown shone, tracking down an adult who had received these presents, wrote about what it meant to him. “I was that kid,” Adrian Gonzalez told him, of being a needy child 22 years ago.
     A high bar. But this year I was all set. I would expense the presents—turn in the receipts, include my boss's aghast response. A bit of holiday fun, then of course end up paying for it myself. 
     But the paper didn't ask. That surprised me. I was disappointment and liberated. Freed from the obligation: no pawing through the pile of letters looking for something suitably heart-tugging. No schlep to Target with the wife, no squinting at childish scrawl, trying to figure out what was being requested. No being confronted with some heretofore unimagined realm of toys, "A Mister Poo-Poo-Dee-Doo Dispenser?"

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

Flashback 2002: Dan Ryan's, a Taste of Chicago in Taipei


     Strange to see Dan Ryan in the news this past week. Stranger still that he was brought up by Bill Daley, who suggested  renaming the Dan Ryan Expressway in honor of Barack Obama. It must be a bad idea, since Bill Daley is suggesting it. Half naked play for African-American support (while, at the same time, revealing how stupid he thinks Chicagoans must be) half sign of how out-of-touch Daley is (cause the really big issue facing the next Chicago mayor is how to honor the former president). 
     Right after Chicagoans expressed the above, in a dozen places and ways, the next question was: who's Dan Ryan? A reminder that these supposed honors become meaningless identifiers. I knew Ryan was Cook County board president, but not due to the highway, but because the name is used, as something of a non sequitur, by a chain of steakhouses in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. This snippet ran in the business pages.


     TAIPEI, TAIWAN: "Warning," reads a line on the menu at Dan Ryan's Chicago Grill, "we serve American portions."
     Not really. While you can indeed get a piece of steak that outstrips the thumb-sized beef bites that typically accompany Chinese dishes, the Dan Ryan steak, though tasty, is still rather anemic compared with the formidable footballs of meat encountered back home at a Gibson's or a Smith & Wollensky's.
     But back home is 5,000 miles away, and homesick Chicagoans, as well as locals searching for exotic foreign fare, have kept Dan Ryan's—named for the president of the Cook County Board who died in 1961—in business for a decade now.
     Besides a large oil painting of the former highway builder, Dan Ryan's, of course, sports a Chicago decor—a Vienna hot dog sign, an Illinois flag, framed front page of the Chicago Herald Examiner. Over the bar, official portraits of Rich Daley, Jane Byrne and Harold Washington.
     Chicago is associated with pizza in much of the world, but in Asia, the city is synonymous with steak. There are five Dan Ryan steakhouses, three in Hong Kong, one in Singapore and this one in the capital of Taiwan, where it is not even the sole Chicago-oriented steak restaurant: there is also a Capone's Chophouse & Cabaret.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 16, 2002

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #20

 


     Reader Coey (her "nom de blog"—"a
 lady's name should only appear in the newspaper three times, you know" she explains)  sent a trio of arresting photos, taken earlier this month in Olympic National Park in Washington State: her timing was good; much of the park is closed now, due to storm damage. 
     She writes:
     It's a spectacularly beautiful place, and we were fortunate enough to be there when the temperature and sunlight were such that, in some places, the deep greens were set off by a dusting of snow...I'd add that Olympic National Park is well worth a visit. I knew next to nothing about it before we went on a trip to Seattle, and the diversity of natural beauty there is something to see. There are three distinct ecosystems, so something for everyone!
    So have you looked at the photo? Good.
     Now look at it again, closer. I chose this one of the Hoh Rainforest's Hall of Mosses because of the people in it. You might not see them at first glance—I didn't. But look harder—there are two, and noticing them completely changes the scale of the photograph. And reminds us that sometimes we have to put in a little effort to perceive the people involved in any situation, because we don't expect them, or they blend in too well to their background. Often they're there, if only we look hard enough. 

    Thanks Coey for sharing this. EGD welcomes submissions for The Saturday Snapshot, even though there is a backlog, and appreciates the patience from those who have already offered photos. I'm working my way toward them.





I


   

Friday, December 21, 2018

Pink laces, longer hair and significantly smarter: welcome to girls hockey


Avery Knueppel, 13, was inspired to play hockey by her father and grandfather. She says boys were not "super kind" to her when she began playing but have learned to respect her. |


     Do girls play hockey differently than boys?
     Yes, according to Jenny Fitzpatrick, who has both a son, Mac, 14, and a daughter, Caitlin, 10, playing youth hockey.
     “The girls really play smart,” she said. “More brains, less brute.”
     “Significantly,” added Forrest Knueppel. “I have a son that plays as well, and I’ve been coaching. For the longest time, I’ve said: If all kids were as easily coached as my daughter and all girls I’ve coached, our job would be a heck of a lot easier.” 
Kyla Schneider, left, at practice.

     “They listen better,” said Steve Holeczy, a coach of Squirt hockey—the levels are Mite, Squirt, Pee Wee and Bantam. “They mature a little better, so they’re not screwing around, when we ask them to do stuff, they’re very attentive. Skillwise though, it’s very, very equal.”
     “The girls seem to have a little more solidarity as a team,” said Alicia Sharun, 14, who has played on both all-girl and co-ed teams. “I like girls better. I feel I can communicate more with them.”
     Despite the growing popularity of girls hockey, people still assume hockey players are boys.
     “The big differences are, whenever I talk to friends about it, they assume it’s a son, assume I have two boys,” said Fitzpatrick.
     But girls do play hockey, which is why I stopped by the Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills to watch the Ice Dogs practice and to talk to the girls, their parents and coaches.
     Only eight of the 300 players at Glacier are girls. Nationwide, the ratio is about one in seven: of 382,514 kids participating in USA Hockey last season, 60,983 were girls.
  

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No. 26, Kyla Schneider, 10, listens to coach Steve Holeczy during a practice at the Glacier Ice Arena, in Vernon Hills. Like many girl hockey players, she was inspired to try the sport through family: her father, Eric, is general manager at Glacier. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Gee Bee's Moment of Glory

The Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster R-1.



     I mentioned the Granville Gee Bee in Monday's column about the USS Zumwalt because it was an example of a cool airplane: my favorite, in fact. I figured it was pretty obscure, and was pleasantly surprised when several readers chimed in their agreement, one sending me a photo of his mailbox, built to look like a Gee Bee. I mentioned to another that I had written an article about the Gee Bee, many, many years ago, and he went in search of it online, even though I told him it predated the Internet and he wouldn't find it. 
     He didn't. While I am not a big fan of sharing juvenilia, I try not to frustrate readers either. So I tramped down to the basement and dug this up, from a publication called Nostalgia Scrapbook, dated April, 1986. Its utter mediocrity can be forgiven—I was 25, and hadn't learned the importance of banishing cliches from your writing.
    The notes in my folder are interesting. How did I get these photographs, in the years before the Internet? Effort. I called the Smithsonian. And the Cleveland Public Library Photo Collection. And the Berea Historical Society (my hometown was next to the airport where the air races were held). The Bettman Archive, the Springfield (Mass.) Library and Museum. Finally, I ended up getting them—I was proud to make this leap—from the archive at United Technologies, which owned Pratt & Whitney, the makers of the engine for the Gee Bee.
    I also phoned Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle, at his home on Cass Street in Monterey, California, to produce an utterly mundane biography that I will spare you here, so don't ask. Having taken the American hero's time—he led the famous first bombing raid over Tokyo during World War II—I should have come up with something better. But we all have to start somewhere.
  
     After World War One, aviation left its wire and wood infancy and burst into a giddy adolescence. In the '20s and '30s speed was king and the various air races—the cross country Bendix Trophy, the Schneider Cup for seaplanes, the 100-miles closed-course Thompson Trophy—were enormously popular.
     The nation viewed the planes, and their pilots, with intense interest. But, of all of the famous racing pilots, and all the famous racing planes, no pilot gained more acclaim than Major Jimmy Doolittle ... no plane neared the notoriety of the Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster. 
     Thus, it was a special moment in the annals of air racing when the famous pilot, who had flown so many planes, and the infamous plane, which was to claim so many lives, came together for a few days during the 1932 National Air Races in Cleveland.
     The Gee Bee had burst onto the scene the year before, at the 1931 races. Nicknamed "the flying milk bottle" and "the bumblebee," the yellow and black Spirit of Springfield, flown by Lowell Bayles, roared around the triangular Thompson course at what the New York Times called an "exceedingly fast time" of 236.239 mph, 35 mph faster than the winner of the year before.
Zantford Granville
     "Exceedingly fast" is an apt description; the plane was definitely faster than it was safe. The chunky racer had tiny wings—75 square feet of wing area to lift 2,280 pounds of plane—and a stubby tail to reduce drag from wind resistance.  
     Into this plane, no longer than a subcompact car, was dropped a massive engine—an 800 horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp T3D1—twice as powerful as usually put into a plane that size.
     As one observer noted, the Gee Bee had "no center of gravity."
     The pilot of the Gee Bee in its first victory was also its first victim. In December, 1931, Bayles sought to top his Thompson win by grabbing the speed record set by the French in 1924. During the attempt the right wing of his Gee Bee buckled, sending the plane into the ground at 300 mph.
     Fragments of the plane were thrown 600 feet. An unforgettable newsreel of the crash shows the fiery explosion hurling Bayles' flaming body from the wreck. The cause of the crash was never determined, but experts at the scene guessed the extreme stress simply ripped the tiny plane apart.
     It was odd that this volatile plane should find itself in the hands of a cautious pilot such as Jimmy Doolittle. Having learned to fly on a Curtis Jenny in 1918, Doolittle first came to national attention in 1922 when he attempted to cross the country by air in less than a day. Doolittle was a skilled, professional pilot and won many contests, including the Schneider Cup in 1925 and the first Burbank-to-Cleveland Bendix Trophy in 1931.
     A strange twist of fate put Doolittle in the Gee Bee for the 1932 races. He already had a plane—a Laird Super Solution—but while training in Kansas, a week before the races began, the Laird's retractable landing gear jammed up in flight. Doolittle was forced to make a wheels-up landing, damaging the plane enough to make competition the next week impossible.
     Meanwhile, Russell Boardman, the pilot of the Gee Bee R-1 went into the hospital after he spun out in a different Gee Bee.
     Zantford Granville, whose little factory in Springfield, Massachusetts produced the Gee Bee, called Doolittle on August 27 and asked if he would pilot the R-1 in the races.
     Doolittle knew the reputation of the plane—he had seen the film of Bayles' death—but he needed a plane and the Gee Bee was the fastest thing in the air. He flew to Springfield August 28 to pick up the R-1, and left for Cleveland the same day.
     During practice runs, the Gee Bee's temperamental nature began to show. Doolittle needed all his skill to keep the plane under control—it had a tendency to do sudden snap rolls.
     "It was the touchiest plane I had ever been in," Doolittle later recalled in his autobiography. Flying it was like "balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger."
     September 1 the races began with the "Shell Speed Dashes." Planes needed to average 200 mph around the course to quality for the Thompson race. Doolittle's average time on his first run was 293.193 mph, breaking the old land speed record by 15 mph.
     But, on landing it was discovered that race officials had not install a barograph on the plane. The device measured altitude, and was required to make a speed record official.
     September 3 dawned hot and muggy, the sun hidden by high clouds. It was a perfect day for flying, except for a slight ground haze and an 8 mph crosswind over the course.
     Doolittle had not planned to fly—he had already qualified, and thought he might burn up the Gee Bee's engine before the big race. He watched other pilots make their runs.
     William N. Enyart, a race official, walked over to Doolittle and told him that, if he wanted, there was time for him to make a flight. Doolittle calmly nodded, and walked over to where Granville and officials of the Pratt & Whitney Engine Company were already fussing over his Gee Bee Super Sportster R-1.
     Doolittle flew once over the course, then turned out a mile over Lake Erie, returning with the throttle full out, just 50 feet above the ground, barely clearing a grove of trees.
     After maneuvering to avoid a passing squadron of Army planes, Doolittle threw his Gee Bee over the course, "flashing past the watchers like a meteor."
     When he landed, after six laps, he had set a new official world's speed record: 296.287 miles per hour.
     The Thompson race, two days later, was almost anti-climactic. A crowd of 50,000 people in the stands, plus thousands more on tops of cars, clinging to trees, and dotting hillsides beyond the airport, saw Doolittle beat the fastest field ever assembled for the races, including Lee Gehlbach in the sister Gee Bee, the R-2.
     It was Doolittle's last race. Perhaps, it was flying the cantankerous Gee Bee. Perhaps it was the fact that photographers hovered around his wife and children during the race, waiting to snap their reaction should the plane crash. But, after Doolittle flew the plane back to Springfield and "gratefully got out," he announced that it was time for aviation to leave the "thrills-and-spills era ... and give attention to safety and reliability." Doolittle was finished with air racing. he was, however, to go on to other, even more thrilling exploits.
     A Gee Bee never again won a race, although three more men died before this fact was borne out. The R-1 flown by Doolittle rolled over and crashed during the 1933 Bendix Race, killing Russell Boardman. In 1934, Z.D. Granville was killed attempting to land his Gee Bee in Spartansburg, South Carolina and the last Gee Bee, the Spirit of Right, crashed in the 1935 Bendix Race, killing its pilot.
     The Gee Bee's speed record lasted exactly a year and a day, until broken by James Wedell in his Wedell-Williams 44 at the 1933 Nationals. 
     As Doolittle predicted, the days of the great air races were numbered. Racing was suspended at the outbreak of the Second World War, and though efforts were made to resume it afterwards, planes were now too fast to fly around pylons. Also, the war had handed the development of aviation technology over to the military and big business, which did not want to display their newest planes in public spectacles.
     But, we are left with the memory of a brief, amazing era; of splendid planes, like the muscle-bound Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster, and of brave pilots, like Jimmy Doolittle.

 


     

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Put down that tiki torch, take up a harpsichord!




     There are several ways to characterize my Sunday night.
     First, it was musical: horns and chorus, a performance by Music of the Baroque.
     Second, it was religious, Christian specifically, as this was a Christmas concert, with tunes such as Bach’s “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” and “Ave Maria” by Robert Parsons.
     It was architectural: we sat in the vast sanctuary of the Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook, though “chapel” is a rather paltry term for such soaring marble splendor.
     And finally, it was connubial. My wife, who has been on a Music of the Baroque kick, suggested going — our third concert since summer — and I, dutiful spouse, agreed, particularly because she had never seen the inside of Techny Towers, and I was eager for her to see this unexpected European holy space incongruously situated in the leafy suburban paradise.
     All those elements were at play.
     What I did not consider the evening being was “white,” a part of white culture, even though the performers and sold-out audience did indeed all seem to be white. Not until I foolishly checked my email during intermission, and read one of a weekend’s worth of reader agony regarding my Friday column about how supporters of Donald Trump will plague our country long after his orange hugeness is tossed upon the ash heap of history.
     “Donald Trump is president today because Barack Obama, by any number of measures, was the worst president in U.S. history,” wrote … well, he never did sign his name. He then offered up the standard Fox News laundry list of supposed Obama flaws, ending, with this delicious conclusion. “Perhaps worst of all, he took campus politics and made them a national phenomenon.”
     Safe spaces — thanks, Obama!

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Sam Kebede as Puck, left, watches Melisa Soledad Pereyra's Hermia held back by Tyrone Phillips' Lysdander in her brawl with Cristina Panfilio's Helena in Chicago Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." 


     The Chicago Sun-Times has had small roles in a number of big productions, such as movies and TV shows. From that cameo headline in The Fugitive to an entire TV series, Early Edition, a late 1990s bauble built around tomorrow's newspaper magically delivered today.
     Not to forget plays. Forgive me for starting my remarks about Chicago Shakespeare's Theater's consistently excellent A Midsummer Night's Dream by focusing on a trifle: my inky mothership's brief appearance in this colorful and creative, funny and frolicking production that opened at Navy Pier Friday. Nothing big: for a minute or two the paper is ruffled by Snug the Joiner,  playing "Lion" in the sweetly ragtag amateur band's Pyramus and Thisby play-within-a-play. "Slow of study," thanks no doubt to the Old Style he keeps swilling, he sits back and checks the paper, the way any regular Chicago Joe would.  
    Not that this was the play's highlight. Far from it. I could easily point to Sam Kebede's radiant, athletic, sexy Puck, or Joe Dowling's generally joyous and frolicsome direction. But for me, the zenith has to be Cristina Panfilio's marvelous line reading as Helena, part of the ill-starred love quartet at the heart of the comedy. I can't remember hearing Shakespearean verse tossed off so easily, so naturally and conversationally. Her back-and-forth verbal duel—clad in their underwear yet—with Melisa Soledad Pereyra's Hermia was as raucous and enjoyable a piece of theater as I've seen in a while. Shakespeare, done right, should always be fresh. 
     I wasn't reviewing the play and hadn't planned on writing anything. So I'm not going to give full credit where due, nor react to Kris Vire's review in the Sun-Times, which gave the show the backhand as busy and confusing. My wife reviewed the review, with a blunt, Anglo-Saxon barnyard term, and I didn't argue with her. This was only the most recent of regular putdowns that this particular play has been receiving for centuries. Samuel Pepys, seeing a production in 1662, noted in his diary he had just witnessed "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.
     Pepys was wrong.  Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom all but calls it the Bard's best work. "Nothing by Shakespeare before A Midsummer Night's Dream is its equal and in some respects nothing by him afterward surpasses it. It is his first undoubted masterwork, without flaw."
     That might be a bit over the top—the play-within-a-play put on by the endearing band of rustics goes on too long, but then, again, it's probably supposed to. And if elements are insipid and ridiculous, are we not now living in insipid and ridiculous times? Perhaps our era's defining characteristic. So maybe reality has caught up with all this magic forest silliness. I didn't have the trouble following the play, and thought Puck radiated charm and personality. Not only was this particular comedy a whole lot of fun, but it redeemed the realm of Shakespearean comedies for me. 
     I've always been a passionate fan of the tragedies: give me King Lear, Hamlet, Richard III, the bloodier the better. But this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is so beguiling, so smooth and musical, it made me for the first time re-evaluate that preference. With real-life tragedy unfolding all around us in the news, a good laugh in a magical forest is almost mandatory, and this play provides it. This is the comedy where Bottom—here granted the innocence the character deserves—famously transforms into an ass, a process that the entire American body politic has been undergoing for the past three years. The good news is that — spoiler alert — Bottom returns to being fully human by the end. We should all be so lucky. 

     "A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Jan. 27.


     

Monday, December 17, 2018

USS Zumwalt, ‘a slab-sided techno-iceberg’ of a ship, has Chicago-area captain

USS Zumwalt

     Everyone can name a cool car: Ferraris and Porsches race into mind, or even the Tesla S, with those sleek door handles flush to the body.
     And cool planes? That’s easy. There’s the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the Harrier Jump Jet and my favorite, the Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster, with its stubby wings and knob of a tail.
     But a cool ship?
     What would that even look like?
     Meet the USS Zumwalt, the Navy’s futuristic $7.5 billion stealth-guided missile destroyer. Commissioned two years ago to general wonderment (one military writer called it “a slab-sided techno-iceberg from the future”) at the end of November it received a new captain, Andrew Carlson, the pride of Romeoville, making this a good moment to introduce you to both, starting with the ship, of course.   
Captain Andrew Carlson

     “She’s an amazing ship to drive,” said Carlson, over the phone from San Diego. “She’s super sleek, likes to go fast and go straight, with the tumblehome bow, cuts through the water very cleanly.”
     “Tumblehome bow” — a new term for you, right? It was for me. Patience. We’ll get there.
     First we have to meet Captain Carlson.
     He was a straight-A student at Romeoville High School, where his father was principal. He was first in a class of 408, a three-team athlete who also sang in “Camelot.” Carlson graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1995. His wife Heidi and four kids now live in San Diego, but he has a younger sister in Hyde Park, and his wife has family in Evanston and Glenview.
     Back to the ship, the first of what will be three “Zumwalt-class” ships. Those two pods on the fore deck are actually 155 mm guns: the housing swings away in action for the guns to fire. It has 80 guided missile pods and has a top speed of 33 knots. The uncluttered design is intended to make it hard to detect by radar. It is said to have the profile of a small fishing boat, though like everything in the Navy, that too is controversial. There is no shortage of experts who say the ship is as easy to spot as a battleship, which leads to the hotly debated “tumblehome hull.”

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Flashback 2006: Skipping into candy land

Vandal Gummy, Red, by WhisBe
      The Ferrara Candy Company announced last week it is moving its headquarters, and 400 employees, from Oak Brook Terrace to Chicago, specifically the Old Post Office, which is finally getting its long-awaited overhaul, after years as one of Chicago's most recalcitrant white elephants. 
     That reminded me of my visit to their Forest Park factory, a dozen years ago, and I dug it out of the archives. 

     Do you know how they make gummy bears? Of course you don't. You probably think they use metal molds to form the little squishy ursine confections. Ha! Of course not. The actual process is . . . Well, I'm not sure I should tell you. Because it's so staggeringly cool, maybe it should be a secret only a few of us really plugged-in cool guys know about. . . .
     I didn't learn the secret of gummy bears until I went through Ferrara Pan Candy Co. in Forest Park. A dream of mine, to visit the home of Lemonheads and Red Hots and Atomic Fire Balls (There's an un-PC candy name for ya!) and gummy bears and sour gummy worms, which are made . . . no, no, not yet!
     The production line is vertical—that is, it uses gravity to cut down on the need for pumps. Sugar and corn syrup and flavorings and colorings start at the fifth floor, then are blended and mixed and cooked on lower levels, which feature tons and tons of a certain white granular staple.
     "One thing you've got to have is lots of sugar," said John Conversa, the plant manager, showing off one of a pair of two-story sugar silos, 16 feet across. "I believe this one holds 600,000 pounds."
     Sugar—or more precisely, our government's shortsighted and punitive sugar tariffs—have driven many Chicago candy companies to Mexico.
     Family-owned Ferrara Pan stays here, although it does have factories south of the border, and its more, shall we say, sugar-intensive candies are made there, such as Atomic Fire Balls, which are basically pure sugar with a heart of plutonium-239 (joking; they only taste that way).
     Not that sugar aplenty isn't being used at Forest Park; the factory goes through 200,000 pounds—the contents of a single rail car—every day.
     The dynamics of the plant are interesting enough to fill up three columns. Parts look just like a ship's engine, all pipes and retorts and gauges. What they're basically doing is removing moisture, taking liquid ingredients and cooking and drying them until the result is a miniature distillate of sweetness and flavor.
     Much of that flavor is sourness, which means acidity, and, as Conversa says, "Acid is very hygroscopic," meaning it draws water, so keeping tabs on the water content of the candy is very important.
     An extra 2 percent of moisture is the difference between a jelly bean that will sit happily on the shelf for years and one that will immediately begin to break down—"sweat" is the candy maker's term. Sweating candy is bad.
     Jelly beans, incidentally, are built up like pearls, around a center, a process known lyrically as "engrossment."
     They actually use three different types of sugar, increasing in fineness, to get the hard sheen on the outside, the way you would switch to finer sandpaper to finish a wooden desk.
     But I was going to tell you how they mold gummy bears. No, not a metal mold—imagine trying to pry a warm, sticky gummy worm out of THAT. No, they take corn starch, mixed with a bit of oil to make it clump like wet snow.
     Machines spread the beige starch in a low tray, then take a plate bearing hundreds of little steel bears and press their shapes into the starch, the way wet sand forms footprints. Then the trays slide under hundreds of little spigots—the whole place is automated—and the nozzles blurp just enough sweet/sour liquid to fill each bearlike impression. The candies are set aside to harden, then the trays are flipped over, the nascent gummy bears have their cornstarch steamed off, and are on their way to be packaged for their rendezvous with your mouth.
     Like most kids, I have an innate preference for the chocolate family of candies. But going through Ferrara Pan gave me appreciation for the whole sour/gummy subgenus.
     They truly are a wonder and, more so, a Chicago wonder.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 30, 2006

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #19


    
     I saw this photo and just gasped: hoarfrost on a stand of trees, taken a couple years ago by Tom Peters from Steger-Monee Road, just north of Momence.
     "I deliver flowers for a shop in Beecher so I spend a lot of time on country roads in the southland," Tom writes.

     Somehow, even the idea of flowers being delivered in rural areas jostles with our preconceptions. I'd think that the close-to-the-soil types would grow their own, or be too practical to pony up for a bouquet. But upon reflection, that can't be true. 
     What really makes this photo, in my opinion, is the use of color. The line of white trees cutting across it. The faint green of the grass, just barely pushing through the frost in the foreground. And then, off to the left, the pop of that deep, lucious, soul- renewing red, like a ruby set amidst a palmful of snow. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Grab a squeegee; cleaning up after Trump will not be easy

     “Government is like a pump,” Adlai Stevenson said during the presidential campaign of 1952. “And what it pumps up is just what we are, a fair sample of the intellect, the ethics, and the morals of the people, no better, no worse.”
     That’s true, sadly, though a hard truth to stomach in the era of Trump. Eww, yuck. Where did that come from?
     Oh, right; it came from us. Half of us anyway, nearly.
     We’ve become so accustomed to this daily spew of presidential bile: rage tweets, bald lies, outrageous claims, the whole wretched vomitorium, that it’s easy to become frozen in the moment, staring transfixed at today’s slurry, bubbling up from the depths, hardly daring to hope that at some point in the indeterminate future the man is going to be booted off the stage.
     And then what?
     Cue the celebration, right? Like the end of a Star Wars movie: trumpets blaring, banners flapping, Ewoks dancing, Luke and Leia exchanging coy smiles.
     That’s what people seem to anticipate, with growing expectation, as Robert Mueller picks off Trump’s confederates one-by-one, and the bloodhounds of justice bay, closer and closer. The end is in sight!

     Pretty to think so. If you are feeling that way, well, spoiler alert. You might want to stop reading here.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Void filler


     My sense of humor can be ... odd at times.
     We finally got chairs for the kitchen, to replace the counter height quartet that, after 15 years of sledgehammer onslaught from Steinberg posteriors, had begun to wobble. The new chairs, from Pottery Barn, came individually packed, carefully wrapped in styrofoam sheeting. The space between the chair back and the seat was filled with these smaller boxes, each box empty and labeled "VOID FILLER" I suppose to prevent customers from assuming that something was supposed to be inside and then complaining that whatever they imagined wasn't there.
     "This is just what we need!" I exclaimed to my wife. "I felt an absence ... I couldn't put my finger on it. And now we have this!"
    With the boys away in law school, well, I'll admit, a chunk of life seems missing. I didn't want to complain—with the real losses and tragedies happening every day, the less said about this lacuna, the better. All is as it should be.
    Still ... the void was real. It would manifest itself toward dinner times where I might—or might not—wanly inquire of the wife, "Hear from the boys?" 
    And she would say yes, she had gotten an email from this or that boy about this or that concern. A couple pebbles to suck on for a day's trudge through the empty nest desert. 
    Often not even that. Nope, nothing, they're busy, I'm busy, we're all busy, beavering away at our work. Which fills the void nicely, except when it doesn't. And for that, I have these convenient boxes. 
     Actually, I don't. My wife took one look at them. "Ha ha," she said, and instructed me to dispose of them. Which I did. 



Wednesday, December 12, 2018

If I win that Banksy, will I own it, or will it own me?



     Who are the most important artists in the world?
     No, this isn't a trick question. Though I wouldn't blame you for sensing a trap and responding: "Nobody. None of them are important." Because if poetry, in the much-quoted phrase of Auden's, "makes nothing happen," that goes double for art, hung in galleries, traded for money, admired and revered, but essentially outside the slipstream of human history, with its wars and hunger and scrabble up the greased pole.
     That stipulated, you could still list those who are a big noise in the art world and thus considered them important: Damien Hirst, with his cows in formaldehyde; Jeffery Koons, of giant chrome inflatable bunny fame (I hope that last phrase is as fun to read as it was to write).
     Had you asked me, I'd have said, "Banksy," the London graffiti artist turned global trickster. But I've been asking everyone I run into if they've heard of Banksy and most haven't. Can you be important if people don't know who you are? Sure, ask Tim Berners-Lee, inventor, in 1989 of something that came to be called the World Wide Web.
     Who is Banksy? An anonymous, more or less, British graffiti artists whose stencil wall paintings hit a sweet spot between spare beauty and pointed social commentary. A dove in a flak vest on a wall in the occupied territories. Security forces going through Dorothy Gale's wicker basket. A masked protester hurling a bouquet of flowers.
     His work is also a running commentary on artistic value, an essential subject in a world where a supposed Da Vinci can draw $450 million at auction. Banksy paints on buildings, mostly, in essence giving his work away. Some building owners paint them over, while others break out concrete saws and cut them out. There's a fascinating documentary, "Saving Banksy" about what happens after the artist does a spate of paintings in San Francisco.

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