Monday, July 22, 2019

Old Books from My Library #1: "Amusements for Invalids"

"In which I assumed all responsibility for what was to take place." 

     I need a new series here while I'm on the mend, and given the necessity of spending most of the day on the sofa with heat packs bunched under my neck, I've had to come up with something easy to write and, I hope, pleasant to read. 
     Toward that end, I've struck on a week I'm calling "Old Books from My Library." Titles that I've cherished for decades, which you've almost certainly never heard about. This seemed the most apt way to begin.

      Hospital stays used to be epic adventures of weeks and months. Now they can be very quick affairs. The first surgeon I consulted about my neck said the work could be done out-patient, and only as the full scope, danger and delicacy of the situation emerged did the surgery become more complicated and I ended up spending nearly four days at  Northwestern Memorial.
      Back in the days when long stays were the rule, there was a species of books intended to be given to convalescents. I used to have a nice little collection of these books, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, filled with jokes, some quite racist, and puzzles and Boy Scout quality projects to be completed abed.  
        One is "Speaking of Operations," a 1926 effort by now-forgotten humorist Irvin S. Cobb. It's still quite readable and— file this under the "Change, How Nothing Does"—there's a bit, complete with illustration, involving the ritualistic pre-surgery indemnification. A doctor quizzes the patient, making "a few inquiries of a pointed and personal nature" and then "immediately after that he made me sign a paper in which I assumed all responsibility for what was to take place the next morning."
       Another is a large volume called, naughtily, "Fun in Bed,' a 1932 carnival of distractions edited by Frank Scully, replete with short stories and jokes. Now that hospital stays are measured in hours, I got a kick out of a section in the book titled "My Diary." It begins "My First Day" and ends, optimistically, "My Eighteenth Day."
     The book was a great success, leading to "More Fun in Bed" and even "Fun in Bed for Children," which begins with a note "For Mother and Father": "This book is intended to answer the small patient's questions: 'What can I do now?')
      My copy of Scully has flown, along with a few others. I took giving my collection away to convalescent friends—they seem to strike the proper tone of uniqueness and thumbing your nose at illness. I gave "Fun in Bed" to Roger Ebert when was recovering from his surgeries at the Chicago Rehab Institute. He adored books, already had about everything in the world he wanted already, and I told myself that he'd enjoy the arcaneness of the thing, its instruction on how to make birdhouses and sealing wax novelties. Maybe he even did; he impulsively grabbed a copy of Sherlock Holmes he had been reading and inscribed it to my boys. He was that kind of guy, more generous on his worst day than most people are on their best.
      One book that I could never bring myself to give to anyone, for obvious reasons, is "Amusement of Invalids" by Mary Woodman, subtitled, "Countless Ways of Turning Dullness into Happiness," published by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. It begins in a pleasingly direct manner that has more than a whiff of self-promotion. The Preface, in its entirety, reads:
     An illness is an irksome business, but it need not be made a time of thorough misery by indulging in absolute inactivity. There are a thousand and one ways of banishing monotony and deriving pleasure from misfortune, as is plainly shown in these pages.  If, among your friends, there is one who has the misfortune to be an invalid, send him or her a copy of this book. It will be the means of providing many rays of sunshine.
    Today we have Netflix for that. But this book, published in 1929, gives the rudiments of working leather and cutting silhouettes, doing beadwork and learning to sketch. The complexities of stamp collecting are explained, along with more dubious arts such as palmistry and understanding a person's character through the study of handwriting—quite the fad in the 1920s. The bedridden are encouraged not only to learn to play the banjo, but to attempt to construct one himself abed.
      There is a chapter on how to listen to the radio: "When you have fixed up your set and have recovered from the first shock of delight, study the subject of wireless more deeply."Chapter 21 is about making fancy boxes. 
     A commercial imperative runs through the book. Woodman not only expects you to pass the time productively, but to profit from your activities. Those bead necklaces and candies you're making? Sell them! ""They can be turned into a source of revenue, and naturally, there are not many ways in which an invalid can make easy money." 
    "Here is a chance for all invalids to improve their mental value in the commercial world," she writes. The apex of this, for me, is chapter IV, "Fretwork," where the indefatigable Woodman instructs her invalid to set up a stepladder next to his sickbed, clamp a work surface to it, and set to making fretwork—decorative lattices of wood—using drills, saws and files.
     Chapter XXII is entitled "How to Write Poetry," and as writing decent poetry is a tremendous, almost impossible, challenge, even among established poets,  it caught my particular attention. The chapter contains a phrase certain to shatter the heart of the stoutest blogger today—"Payment for acceptable verse rules high..." I think maybe she meant "runs," or perhaps that's a British usage.
     Flowers, love, absence or death are dismissed as potential poetic topics, being hackneyed themes "done thousands of times" and of little interest to modern editors. 
     The trickiness of rhyme is addressed—"thought" rhymes with "dough" but not with "cough," despite appearances. Alliteration is a poet's friend, "Artful Aids to Beauty" and Mighty Mimic of Mankind" are offered with approval as examples to "be studied carefully."  Poetic license seems to consist of the occasional contraction, "over" into "o'er."
      The book was first published in Great British—the chapter after poetry, on using your recovery to become a professional short story writer, has the large checks sent by grateful editors in pounds instead of dollars. I tried longer than I should have to find any kind of biographical information on Mary Woodman, and bumped into several reviews, from publications such as The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review. She was taken seriously. The March 10, 1930 Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer decrees, "Anyone who has to look after a not too seriously ill invalid will find some useful suggestions in Amusements for Invalids."
    Otherwise, a brick wall. The British Library has a "chat service" where, mirabile dictu, you are instantly connected to an actual researcher. He provided me with a list of Woodman's books held by the British Library, from "Efficient Housekeeping" to "100 Varieties of Sandwiches: How to Prepare Them" to "How to Make Artificial Flowers."
     But did not, however, answer my question about Woodman's life (now that I think of it, maybe I was interacting with some form of artificial intelligence). He (or should it be it?) did refer me, as a certified hard case, to what they call a Reference Enquiry Team. I appealed to them for whatever biographical scrap they could uncover. They have promised to respond within five business days. They've got two left. 
     Until then, time to move on to the current world. 
     Lest we smile to much at Woodman's quaint suggestions, a regular reader this morning offered me the following unsolicited advice. 
     "Learn a magic trick," Steve Temkin urged in a text. "There's no shortage of available online instruction and you don't need anything more than a deck of cards or some coins..." He offered some suggestions for books or videos.
    No need. I have my Woodman at hand. 
    Admittedly, I approached "Chapter IX--Tricks With Cards" with a shiver of dread--I am notoriously bad at magic tricks. Were there anyone who read or remembered my second book, "Complete and Utter Failure," they would know it begins with my humiliating attempt to perform a simple trick as a small child. Let's just say it was not my forte.
     Despite this handicap, I tried to learn a few magic tricks before my first son was born, out of the perhaps charming, perhaps unhinged notion that of course magic tricks were necessary skills a new dad should have at his disposal to captivate and delight his offspring. I failed utterly. 
    This was no different. I gingerly navigated downstairs and secured a pack of cards, and sawed through passages like "Take any odd number of cards which is a multiple of three (e.g. nine, fifteen, twenty-one, twenty-seven). Deal them face upwards in three heaps, asking a spectator to note one card and to tell you in which heap it is. Pick up the heaps, with the indicated heap between the other two, and repeat the process twice. When you spectator points to a heap for the third time, you may know that his chosen card is the middle one of the heap..."
      To no avail. 
     Still, I hope by now the attraction of old books is clear. I could select half a dozen novels published this week and none would offer an image as poignant as Woodman's 1930s invalid, propped on pillows on an iron bed. The windows, open to admit a breeze, relay the sirens and horns and hubbub from the busy street below, while our patient, tongue in the corner of his mouth with concentration, goes at fretwork with a wood file. Nor of myself for that matter, sitting unusually straight in my office chair, thickly ruffling through a pack of cards, failing utterly to clutch at the magic that has eluded me all my life.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Rabbit vs. squirrel

     Do-overs are rare in photography. If the Hindenburg explodes while you're still loading film into your Speed-Graphic, well, tough. It's not like you can show up at Lakehurst the next day and hope for a second chance.
      So a couple weeks ago, when I missed out on taking documentary evidence of the rabbit vs. squirrel struggle over seeds scattered beneath the bird feeder outside my kitchen window—amazement rendered me inert—I never dreamt a second chance would occur. 
     But occur it did, Saturday, with my younger son announcing that they were back at it, and I sprinted to the window in time to photograph some of the action. Had I been thinking I'd have switched to video, to capture the distinctive hopping behavior of the bunny. But I'm satisfied that I got something. 
     There may be scientific literature on combat between rabbits and squirrels, but I'll be damned if I can find it. I did run across a charming 2008 children's tale, "Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War & Peas" by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Scott Magoon, where the two, both gardeners, come to blows over a dispute involving missing vegetables: 
     "You've ruined my garden, and my house!" cried Rabbit, giving Squirrel a push. "You are my sworn enemy!"
     "Well, you've ruined my garden, so you deserved it," said Squirrel, giving Rabbit a push. "You are my sworn enemy."
From "Rabbit & Squirrel" illustration courtesy of Scott Magoon
     The only other rabbit/squirrel conflict I could find is alluded to in Watership Down, Richard Adams' improbable best-selling 1972 leporine epic. The despotic General Woundwart "fought rats, magpies, gray squirrels and, once, a crow" before finally flinging himself at a dog, with the expected result. 
    Otherwise, rabbits and squirrel are mostly on their own, with rabbits by far better represented in popular culture: rabbit ear TV antennas, the Playboy Bunny, a popular vibrator. The once-common euphemism for pregnancy, "The rabbit died," referred to the Friedman test, where a woman's blood was injected into a rabbit, with certain changes in the rabbits' ovaries revealing if she were pregnant. Though rabbit didn't die, it was killed, to check its ovaries to see if the structural changes were present that would be caused by hormones in a pregnant woman's blood. So, pregnant or not, the rabbit ended up dead. A common occurrence—rabbits are one of the most hunted mammals in North America, and some species are considered endangered. 
      Literature clearly favors rabbits—Flopsy, Peter Rabbit, Pat the Bunny, to name a few. Watership Down isn't even the only rabbit-o-centric best-selling novel—John Updike did a series of five Rabbit books (thought that was just the nickname of his main character, Harry Angstrom, given in childhood for "a nervous flutter under his brief nose.") 
     Rabbits also have a significant presence in TV and movies—with Captain Kangaroo's Bun E. Rabbit on the small screen,  to cinema's Harvey, Roger Rabbit, and the killer rabbit in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."  
     Not to forget the top bunny of them all, star of both TV and the movies, Bugs (whose character, some readers might not realize, was a loose take-off on Groucho Marx).  
Laqan kachina
     Squirrels are are far more marginal. No culture has a Christmas Squirrel. Although, the Hopi Pueblo do have a squirrel kachina spirit, Laqan, who, almost needless to say, is known for its "noisy and aggressive behavior" and would "frequently spread gossip, instigate trouble between other animals, or annoy others with their rudeness and bossiness."
     Sounds about right.

     Though to be fair, Native-Americans also honored squirrels as caretakers of the forest, and viewed them as messengers. And despite squirrels twitchy, aggressive, rat-like demeanor,  rabbits seem to carry more disease, including rabbit fever, and in general are greater pests, particularly in Australia.
     I've already gone on record with my hatred of squirrels, and am not surprised that the odious animals are relegated largely to second-tier cartoons: Scrat, the voracious squirrel who I suppose could be considered the star in "Ice Age," Rocky, the Flying Squirrel, from the early 1960s Cold War parody cartoon "Rocky and Bullwinkle," certainly has the intellectual advantage over his dim-witted companion. Not to forget Hammy, voiced by Steve Carrel, in "Over the Hedge," a modest 2006 effect. 
      Sick of this yet? I know I am. It's like Vietnam; I've gone in full of good intentions and now can't find my way out. 
     Patience, we're almost there. But I can't let the subject drop ("Please, do, Neil," you're no doubt thinking. "There's always tomorrow.") without mentioning "The Great Rupert," a truly strange bit of black and white B-movie treacle starring Jimmy Durante. The film that hinges on a talented squirrel who befriends a family of down-and-out vaudevillians. Watch this clip of Rupert doing a Scottish jig. Really, take a look. And we think we live in strange times now.
    Ready to cry "uncle"? But wait. Aren't you curious to know how "The Great Rupert" was received at the time? Movie-goers might have been less sophisticated in 1950, but they weren't dolts, right? 
     Or maybe they were.
     "The Great Rupert," now at the Palace, may not be the year's most humorous film..." begins Bosley Crowther's review in the April 14, 1950 New York Times. "...nor is it the last word in slickness, so far as script and production are concerned. But within its acknowledged limitations of the modest, low-budget comedy, it is a wholly ingratiating item."
     Not having viewed the entire movie, nor willing to do so, I'm in no position to argue. The worst thing Crowther calls the "The Great Rupert" is "a little stiff and vaguely amateurish." Which, now that I think of it, is exactly how I'm feeling at the moment. Maybe I—and you—will have better luck tomorrow.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Chicago wowed in 1969 by both moon landing and by watching it on TV

From A Trip to the Moon, a 1902 French film by Georges Méliès.

     This piece ran in the paper last Sunday. As a curious sidelight, after it was published, while looking for moon-related articles to post here, I noticed that I had written a story commemorating the event 20 years ago. While far shorter, the 30th anniversary not being the big deal that 50 is, apparently, it contained a few tidbits that I've worked into the story here, so you're getting a richer stew than the Sunday readers. Interesting, both pieces end with the same quote. When I saw it during my research a few weeks back I instantly thought, "That's the ending," and I guess that's as true now as it was in 1999.

     Sunday, July 20, 1969, was a special day at White Sox park — “Homecoming Day” with Nellie Fox, Al Lopez and “his old gang of cliffhangers,” who’d won the pennant 10 years earlier, returning to be honored between games of a doubleheader against Kansas City.
     The presence of the heroes of 1959 and the sunny, warm weather helped swell the crowd to 17,420, though almost 5,000 of those were unpaid thanks to free tickets given to “A” students.
     There was also that business on the moon that day. News came in the seventh inning of the first game that the Eagle lunar lander had set down on the Sea of Tranquility at 3:18 p.m. Chicago time. Play was halted and the exploding scoreboard set off in celebration. 
     Chicago was in some ways the same, in some ways quite different 50 years ago, when, the necessity of baseball notwithstanding, the city and world were transfixed by the first man to land on the moon. Chicago was more crowded — 3.3 million people, 20 percent more than today. Construction on the John Hancock Building was completed, the Sears Tower not yet begun.
      If you remember the moon landing as a huge, jubilant public celebration, you are mistaken — that was Aug. 13, when the three Apollo astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, stopped in Chicago for a tickertape parade. Two million packed downtown for it. Never one to leave anything to chance, Mayor Richard J. Daley had requested the visit on July 11 — five days before the Saturn 5 rocket even took off from Florida.
     The day of the landing, the Loop was almost deserted.. Only a few people clustered around TVs in store windows. "Did they see God yet?" asked a little girl. First, it was a Sunday. Second, the moonwalk originally was supposed to take place at 1 a.m. Chicago time.
     Third, and most importantly, the historic event was happening on the moon. Everyone on earth had the same perspective — as viewers glued to television sets. About as many households had TVs then — 93 percent versus 97 percent now — though the tendency was still to gather with family or friends to solemnize the event and experience history together. The biggest public event was 3,000 people gathering at the Adler Planetarium to watch the landing on their televisions. 

     Perhaps the most common emotion was amazement. Remember, older Chicagoans had memories of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight not quite 66 years earlier, in 1903. So the astonishment was as much about TV’s ability to convey it as with the landing itself.
     ”We were all there, bound together by the miracle of communication that intertwined all the other miracles of technology that marketed man’s first step on a celestial body,” the Chicago Daily News said in an editorial. 

     ”The medium reached its electronic apogee Sunday night by bringing in a picture — a live, moving picture — of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon,” Sun-Times columnist Paul Molloy wrote. “There has been nothing like this in the full history of broadcasting.”
     Not that television was alone in patting itself on the back. The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial, headlined "The Tribune's Own Great Feat," suggesting that its coverage of the landing was an event equal to the landing itself.
    But television had the advantage of near-instantaneous coverage.  
In Northbrook, dozens of moviegoers left just before the end of "Goodbye, Columbus" to watch TVs in the lobby.
Imagining the hundreds of millions around the world watching, Molloy suspected that “many had to be repeating over and over again: ‘Am I really seeing this? Is it really happening?’”
     That was the reaction of Kathy Slatek and her friends from Morton West High School. ”It was hard to believe it was live,” said Slatek, who was 15. “I couldn’t make it sink in that it was really happening.”
     Steve Dmytriw, 16, and friends from Tuley High School “sat awed” watching TV in their backyard and talked about whether they’d make the journey, given the chance.
      ”I’d go,” Dmytriw said.
To continue reading, click here.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Flashback 1999: Just enough space here to squeeze in Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the moon (NASA)
     Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I'll share here the story that ran last Sunday in the paper on what Chicago was like on July 20, 1969. Until then, I realized that one of those Apollo 11 astronauts who walked on the moon, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, called me on the phone once, or make that twice, responding to an article I had written about the moon missions.

     Buzz Aldrin called this week. Twice. Which was not the amazing part. The amazing part was that I tried to duck the calls, telling his handler that I had just, the day before, talked with the Apollo 8 astronauts, so unfortunately my column's quota for 1960s space nostalgia was used up for the time being.
     Even as I was doing it, as politely as possible, I was watching myself, stunned at how fast the incredible becomes mundane. In a flash.
     If Plato showed up at your door this morning, you would of course be thrilled -- excited that he came in, sat down and talked about the ideal city all morning. Splendid. You serve him coffee on the good china.
     Even more incredible, he shows up again the next day. A life changing experience. Four hours on reality. You videotape it.
     The following day, again with the Plato. He talks about education. You phone up a few friends and tell them to hurry over.
     But by the fourth day—I guarantee it— you'd find yourself waking up and thinking, "I sure hope that Plato guy doesn't show up today. I've got a lot of errands to run."
     That's how people are. Not that I wasn't interested in talking to the second man to step on the moon. But I figured, he's busy, I'm busy, why waste both our time if the conversation isn't going to end up in the newspaper?
     But I took the calls from Aldrin anyway. You sort of have to. That's why those space guys do so well in business. When a fellow who has been to the moon calls, you talk to him, even if he's only promoting his plan to put tourists into space.
     Thank goodness Aldrin wasn't selling vacuum cleaners. We already have six at home -- seriously, six vacuum cleaners, of varying configurations and power, if you count Dustbusters. Don't ask me why, ask the wife. Still, if Aldrin were selling vacuums, we'd have seven.
     Instead, he has a program called ShareSpace. He wants to get the space shuttles privatized, build hotels in space, and start flying "citizen explorers" up to those hotels. There aren't enough rich people who'll pay huge ticket prices for a quick trip to space, so some seats will be apportioned by a kind of lottery; you pay $10 or $20, you get a shot at getting on a flight.
     He talked about it at great length, the way that semi-retired guys who are in the grip of passions will. There would be side benefits.
     "By bringing down the cost of access to space, we open up exploration to much more affordable means," he said. "Once you have spacecraft in orbit, it is relatively easy with low-thrust engines to journey to the moon and to Mars. Recycling reusable spaceships is the key to reducing the cost barrier."
     OK so far -- I wouldn't bet my money on it happening, but then I thought cell phones were a fad. His main purpose seemed to be to get those "citizens" into space for their own good. The science was secondary. Aldrin, who has visited the North Pole and the wreck of the Titanic, sees putting people in space as the next logical development in the adventure travel business.
     I have trouble with that, just as I had trouble with the Apollo 8 astronauts calling the moon landing a political gambit first and a scientific quest a distant second. Did he, I wanted to know, agree with that? That we school kids had been duped into believing humanity was learning something by all this? What good was going to the moon?
     "The value, as I've been trying to tell people, of the space program, of Apollo anyway, was not the rocks that were brought back, but that people were excited about it," he said. "There was a sense of involvement, something that touched them, affected their lives. People remember where they were when there was the landing on the moon. That's an enrichment of people's lives."
     So the whole thing was entertainment? A really, really expensive pageant to get Americans to feel good about themselves and forget for a while the nasty old Soviet Union and that terrible war in Vietnam.
     "I wouldn't want to call it 'entertainment,' " he said. "I would call it participation in historic activities, in events of significance. If you witnessed the Hindenburg airship explode, if you listened to the radio when Pearl Harbor was attacked, these were catastrophic events, major events in history. So many times the news is about adverse events happening, but occasionally there were achievements of great success."
     We went into space to generate good news. Lovely. And now, one of the space pioneers wants to see that every stock trader with $ 50,000 to burn can get an 8-by-10 glossy of himself in a jumpsuit, giving the thumbs up, floating around his hotel lobby, grinning like an idiot.
     Just like that pesky dead philosopher always showing up at your door, there can be too much of a good thing. I think that space travel will lose value once people flock to it as a lark, the same way that mountaineering has lost a lot of its cachet
     And now we're talking about going to Mars. Why bother?
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 6, 1998

Buzz Aldrin on the moon with the American flag (NASA)

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Yasso bars: addictive, in a good way

Drew Harrington, left, and Amanda Klane met in kindergarten in Easton, Mass.
and went on to found the Yasso brand of frozen Greek yogurt treats.

     Most columns get written then slapped immediately into the paper. This one lingered. I first wrote it, oh, in early June, but kept bumping it for other things. With the country falling apart in big chunks, the time never seemed right to stop and deliver a panegyric to a frozen novelty product. Every time I read it, I thought, "I can do better than that." That happened half a dozen times.
     Then I went into the hospital, a week ago yesterday, and so unleashed my seven-part "The Joys of Summer" to keep the EGD faithful entertained while I went under the knife, a process which, rest assured, I will describe to you when I'm good and ready. So I turned this in, instructing my boss that he was to decide if it were worth printing. He decided it is, apparently, and I was rewarded with a number of readers expressing gratitude, several running out immediately and trying Yasso bars themselves and giving enthusiastic reports. Except of course for those who hate everything I write and let me know after every column under the charmed notion that their opinion carries value beyond the comedic (I've taken to playing Robert Glomb's voicemails for my wife and son, to our general delight at a sneer so intense we sometimes worry the poor man will strangle. Or maybe that should be "hope.")
      Anyway, this ran in the paper Monday, and will be my last column for a while. There's a tug-of-war between my wife, who wants me out the full six weeks the doctor recommends, lying on the sofa, eating Yasso bars and watching old movies, and me, who would return tomorrow,  though I sincerely believe that my wife would crack my spine back open with her bare hands, if I actually try that. So let's assume, in the spirit of compromise that makes healthy long-term marriages, we'll end up splitting the different and  I'll be back in the saddle by August.  In the meantime, well, I'll come up with SOMETHING here. I always do.

     Most diets fail. Know why? Because you can only suffer so long, shunning carbohydrates and nibbling celery. The world drains of color, life loses savor, and you slip back into your bad old ways.
     Not that I am suggesting that anybody diet, or try to be thin, or that being thin is better than being fat. Oh, no no no no. I’m not falling into that trap. Nowadays nothing is better than anything else, at least on the superficial level bruited about in newspaper columns, and this one does not engage in fat shaming or any other kind of shaming. It’s a free country, or was. Do what you want.
     I want to be healthy. I lost weight a decade ago after being diagnosed with sleep apnea and unable to breathe at night without a mask, which I hated. The doctor, exasperated, finally let slip that if I lost 30 pounds, it might go away. I did, and it did.
      My diet worked in part because I realized that I had to reward myself, to place daily metaphorical carrots to keep me eating real ones.
    Credit two products:
     One is Fresca. I drink one almost every day. It’s like a gin and tonic, only no gin. Or tonic. Or calories.
     And the other?
     Yasso bars.
     Now reading the above, you have one of two reactions. Either, “God, I LOVE Yasso bars! I think I’ll have one right now.” Or “Heck, Neil, what’s a Yasso bar?”
     Let me tell you.

To continue reading, click here. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Joys of Summer #7: Baseball


    Being America's pastime does not mean that baseball is our nation's most popular sport. Oh no no no. That would be football, by a wide margin—so wide that if you added college football as a separate category, that would beat baseball too.
     No matter.  Baseball is religion and ritual, summer and sunshine and lazy afternoons at the ballpark.  It is tradition and history, our country as it was and, so long as there is baseball, always will be. "Baseball is a 19th century pastoral game," as George Carlin explains in his essential comedic bit "Baseball v. Football." 
      Baseball is summer as in "The Boys of Summer," Roger Kahn's great book about the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s. And yes, I read it when it came out in 1972, revering Gil Hodges, pitying catcher Roy Campanella, paralyzed in a car accident, no doubt the first time that tragic concept ever entered my young mind. At the time my taste in baseball literature ran to lighter stuff like "Strange But True Baseball Stories" by Furman Bisher, tales of Eddie Gaedel, the midget Bill Veeck sent in to bat and similar fare, a book I notice three feet from where I'm sitting now. I was 12, and at the height of my baseball fandom, which was tough to do when you lived in the western suburbs of Cleveland, your team is the hapless Indians, laboring year after year under the curse of Rocky Colavito,  and your father was a nuclear physicist.   
      Baseball cards were important. Buying and collecting and trading them. I had a whole team of Jewish players, otherwise divided the cards by years, thick chunks wrapped in rubber bands, the edges gently rounded. I think my favorite card was Harvey Haddix, the Pirate who pitched 12 perfect innings and still lost. He seemed like Christ on the Cross, or St. Harvey.
      My father had his own baseball memories. He was a Giants fan; his favorite player was the Big Cat, Johnny Mize. But that's about it. No miracle at Coogan's Bluff, no heartbreak move to San Francisco. As he explained it, the Giants hired loathed Yankees manager Leo Durocher to run their team in 1948, and that was it. My father never recovered from the betrayal, the cognitive dissonance, with Satan suddenly in charge of your ballclub. That seemed the end of baseball for him. He never took me to a game, or played catch, that I remember. I'm sorry that never happened, I would have liked that
     My mother filled the void, a little. She was an Indians fan when that meant something. World champions in 1948, when she was 12. A classic series against the Giants in 1954, including Willie Mays classic behind the back running catch.   
      Her father Irv was an Indians fan too, and once, sometime in the mid-1960s it was arranged for my grandfather and I to attend a game, though the only fact about that game that lived in family lore was that I ate two hot dogs, and thus removed from the opportunity of ever going to a game again. It was my fault.
      I loved those 1950s players—Bob Feller, Larry Doby, and of course Al Rosen, the sluggin' third baseman who was Jewish. Like many Jewish kids, I had an affinity for Jewish stars, a thumb in the eye of the common stereotype that I embodied, as Jews as bespectacled and unathletic. I think my Little League career lasted a week, but I still have my Sears glove hanging on the door, a simple, five finger model, the glove Charlie Brown wears. Every half decade or so I go over it with neatsfoot oil, to keep it limber.
      Most people aren't that good at baseball, which is why, when we talk about the sport, we don't mean the slipshod pick-up games we play but the far more polished pro games we watch. Far too polished, now, it seems, the game given over to agents and metrics, drained of that pastoral quality that once clung to it. 
      Though not much of a fan, I had my moments. One fine summer afternoon in 1973, my father generously consented to drop me off at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the biggest venue in baseball, where I met my friend from summer camp Alan Lictschien, or something similar to that, and we took in a double-header against the Boston Red Sox. Afterward, we lurked in the parking lot outside the stadium—you could do that then—and got the player's autographs, intercepting them as they headed for their Corvettes and Porsches. I got both my hero, Gaylord Perry. I read his memoir, "Me and the Spitter," and Carl Yastremski, who I liked, I believe, for his distinctive batting stance, bat held utterly vertical. I also liked Boog Powell, a heavy has-been, cast-off from the Orioles, but a star by Indians standards, and catcher Ray Fosse who, like so many Indians players, showed great promise until he didn't.  I seem to recall being a member of the Buddy Bell Fan Club one season. I also saw Henry Aaron hit his 704th home run against Montreal in 1974, a moment that shows up in my book on Failure for reasons I won't go into. That must count for something. 
     There's more, but you get the idea. I went to a game in Japan, the Nippon Ham Fighters versus the Sebu Lions at the Tokyo Dome (baseball teams are named for companies instead of teams in Japan). I was deeply jet lagged that day, but remember how the crowd stood in block section, like students at college football games, chanting percussive cheers. "Ni-pon Ham! Ta-Ta-Kai!" 
     Add 10 million more little facts like that and you can be a baseball fan. It proved too time-consuming for me, and while I can admire and envy the devotion to the sport of a guy like my pal, literature professor, baseball expert and Cubs season ticket holder Bill Savage—we literally met and became friends because of "Casey at the Bat"—it is the kind of envy I extend toward someone who speaks German. I wish I could do that. It would be wonderful to read Rilke in the original But my envy is not so much as to actually learn German. Every few years I'll go to a game, usually when a pal gives me a pair of tickets. It was easier when I lived in the city. I would go on my own. I used to work the night shift, and I remember one afternoon I took in an afternoon game, then arrived to start my evening fresh from Wrigley, unshaven, in a Hawaiian shirt and no doubt with a few beers under my belt. 
     I can still see our city editor at the time, the gentle, courtly Southern gentleman, Steve Huntley, stand up, and take the long, slow walk to my desk, and utter a few sorrowful words which I have thankfully forgotten but certainly amounted to, "Don't do that again."
     I think I've made my point. I could share with you the tale of taking my oldest son to his first game, but it's a set piece of my Chicago book and, frankly, I'm not up to retyping the thing. Besides, if you haven't read the book, well, hell, get with the program.  You can order it here, $6.32 used and free shipping. I think I'll pick up a few myself, to hand out to strangers. It has two really good baseball stories about both my boys. The youngest has his photo on the mound at Wrigley Field on the wall in Harry Caray's, and if you want to know how it got there, read the book.  
     In parting, I'll share you a more recent father-son baseball tale. Father's Day occurs shortly before summer, but it's close enough for baseball, as the saying goes. My wife flew my older boy in from New York City as my Father's Day present, and after our family brunch I prevailed upon both boys to go into the front yard for a game of catch. We hadn't done that in, oh, maybe 10 years. The older boy didn't have a glove, but he's a southpaw, so I gave him the first baseman's mitt I bought to play catch with the younger when he was in a park district league. I raced up to my office and grabbed my Charlie Brown mitt from where it has hanging, at the ready, from one doorknob or another, for the past 50 years. We tossed the ball around for maybe 30 minutes. Quite well, in my estimation. The throw and the solid "thwack!" At a respectable distance, catching it most of the time. I thought of taking a photo, or asking someone to take a photo, but that sometimes sets them off and besides, no photo could ever capture how it felt, the golden glow of love and connection that I felt talking and throwing and catching, the arc of the ball, the grab, stretch back, and release. I can't say what it meant to them—indulging the old man, no doubt, exchanging eye-rolling glances. But it meant a lot to me, as does baseball, which you can love though not being a fan, the way you can stray far from your faith and still be a member. Baseball is a practice greater than the sum of its parts, the players and managers and ballparks, the bats and balls and gloves, the fans and games and scores and inning and outs and walks and runs. A thing like nature itself, like summer, green and alive, current yet ancient, complex beyond any individual comprehending, but available to the youngest child. And no matter how long you're gone, how far you stray, it's always ready to welcome you home on any given summer day.


Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Joys of Summer #6: Picnics

    Of course it has to French, picque-nique—the word practically can't be pronounced without a Gallic flourish—and originally the word referred exclusively to something one did in France.
    "We stayed here till 17th," Miss Cornelia Knight wrote in her autobiography, "and on the previous day went to a pique-nique at a little country house not far from the town." 
     The town being Toulon, and the year being 1777.
    It's clear from the context—the winds were high, they danced afterward—that Miss Knight's picnic was indoors. Prior to 1800, what made something a picnic was the various participants bringing items on the menu; what we call today a "pot luck." After 1800, the essential aspect of picnics being outside crept into use.
     I probably reveal too much about myself to say that the idea, "Hey, let's take our lunch, drag it outside and eat it lying down on the grass," is not one that I frequently, or ever, suggest. Half the time when my wife suggests we go out on our back deck and eat I have to struggle not to say, "But that takes effort. And the food is right here!"
    But to Ravinia, or the Blues Fest, well why not? Food helps pass the time.
    For families, a picnic is practical on several levels. It's cheaper than a restaurant and invariably better too—most of our family picnics were committed during automobile journeys, where we'd find a well-situated picnic table and break out the cooler. Behavior is also less of an issue. If the kids want to run around after eating, if dad wants to shut his eyes, it isn't the same as in a restaurant. No one is watching. 
     Which also, for the young, is what makes picnics associated with romance. I'm not sure exactly what is going on in Edouard Manet's infamous 1863 paintingLe Déjeuner sur l’herbe, "Picnic on the Grass"—nobody is, though the situation is sketchy enough that the work was rejected as too scandalous by the Salon that year. Let's just say that no one in the painting seems too concerned that the food has tumbled out of the basket. 
    In literature, picnics are even more louche, to trot out another term the French like. In D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, the pretense of eating is done away with entirely—Paul and Clara set out on their picnic along the River Trent without bothering with the formality of securing food or a blanket and, honestly, neither are missed. Picnics are not meals at home, so flexibility is important and accommodations must be made. A picnic in Nabokov's Ada is where Ada and Van Veen get it on, never mind that she's 12 and they're brother and sister.
     I would have sworn that one of Anny's "perfect moments" in Jean-Paul Sartre's surprisingly readable only novel, "La Nausee" involve a picnic, but I'll be damned if I can find it. Maybe you'll have better luck, and if you do, please let me know. 
     I never went to church, but of course know of church picnics, primarily through "Porgy and Bess," George Gershwin's great American opera. Much of the second act involved Catfish Row preparing for a church picnic on Kittwah Island. It allows the evil Crown to drag off Bess, but not before the one-two punch of a joyous ode to clean living "I Ain't Got No Shame" followed by a companion paean to sin, "It Ain't Necessarily So." ("The things you are liable, to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so.") 
     Finished? I've barely started. Picnics are a classic cartoon trope, along with desert islands and dungeons, though they are less funny now that beer comes in pull top cans—a lot of amusement seemed to be wrapped up in forgotten church key can openers, though the humor of that eludes me now. 
     Still, I think we've plunged enough for a summer day. Lying on the grass is beyond me at the moment, but I did sit on the front porch briefly Monday, which felt like triumph. A nice roast beef sandwich consumed under a clear blue sky in a sylvan spot sounds pretty good about now. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Joys of Summer #5: Hiking


     Normally, when I go to write these things, I pause for a second, muse momentarily, then nod briskly once and dive into what I have to say. The path is clear.
    But here, oddly, I sat a moment, pursing my lips, gazing into the middle distance. How to explain hiking? The immediate response seemed to be to invoke the line I sometimes fire at readers who ask insincere rhetorical questions, Louis Armstrong's supposed quip to some weisenheimer who demanded he define jazz: "If you have to ask, you'll never know."
     What is there to say? You go to a place and walk. The place should be beautiful, yes, but it doesn't have to be. I can't recall every going on a hike that wasn't. Are there trees? Fields? Clouds? Vistas? Flowers? Then it's beautiful.  The hike makes it beautiful.
     Why? Because it is a rare moment in your life when you are not getting or spending, not doing routine tasks, neither idling nor exercising, or some combination of all these things. It doesn't matter where you go, or when. You can hike in fall, when the colors are turning, or spring, when life stirs anew, or even winter. But summer is best, the warm weather, the free time. The above is Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, where we went last summer after setting our youngest up at Virginia Law.
     I supposed it helps to be prepared. I have an excellent pair of hiking boots—Keen's—that make me happy to lace on, happy to walk in, happy every time my eye caresses their perfect lines. They want to walk, and lucky is the person who happens to have their feet inside them.
    A water bottle. A bag of trail mix. A day pack with a jacket. You go into nature prepared, and maybe that is part of hiking's appeal. You don't need a coffee grinder, or a snow blower, or a gallon of Tide, or all the thousand possessions and supplies and accoutrements you clutter your life with. You've got a pocket knife and a lighter, so are prepared to face  whatever life might throw at you that day.
    Hiking makes everything precious. Think about it. At home you've got an infinity of water a tap turn away. And you value it .... not at all. On a hike, you heft your water bottle, feel there is a good eight ounces left, enough to get you down the mountain to the parking lot. You feel blessed, lucky, prudent for not guzzling it all on the way up. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Joys of Summer #4: Family vacation

     One irony of this column is the boy who yawned at Times Square now lives in Greenwich Village.

     WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis.—When we took the boys to New York City earlier this year, they were not impressed. "Big deal!" the 6-year-old snorted, standing amidst Times Square's strobing, Blade Runner advertisements and crush of humanity.
     "I want to stay in the hotel room!" the 4-year-old later whined, sprawled in front of the TV.
     The city didn't make much of a mark on the boys. At home, they never mentioned New York and seemed not to recall they'd even been there.
     Now, the Dells, that's another matter. Our past visits were sources of constant fond reminiscence, coupled with urgent pleas to return.
     So here we found ourselves, once again, in the parking lot of Tommy Bartlett's Robot World. The boys surge forward, like bloodhounds nosing a fox.
     "I love Robot World!" the older one exuded.
     "Robot World is the coolest place!" shouted the younger.
     I shambled after, smiling sheepishly at my wife. Once, we vacationed in Paris, in New Orleans, in Martinique. Now, we're at the Wisconsin Dells, staying at the Wilderness, "America's Premier Waterpark Resort," an enormous hive of water slides and game rooms.
     What amazes me most is that I like it. I'm happy here. The bone-deep cheesiness of the place does not depress me, as it once would have. Maybe it's maturity, or resignation, I'm not sure which.
     This is our third trip to the Dells, and the ironic pose needed to shield myself for the first two trips is no longer necessary. I am genuinely excited to breakfast at Mr. Pancake. And the reason I am excited to eat at Mr. Pancake—you might not see it coming—is they have really, really good pancakes. Big and fluffy and homemade. The kind that take the sting out of a 186-mile drive.
     Sure, Robot World is a hodge-podge of optical illusions culled from a defunct science museum, salted with a smattering of low-rent robots of the lightbulb-and-garbage-can variety. But you know what? The boys liked it better than the Statue of Liberty.
     The Dells are an unfolding of hidden delights. Perhaps the biggest concentration of 1950s motels in the world—squat structures straight out of Nabokov, with names like Twi-Lite and Flamingo, heralded by achingly cute neon signs ("FREE TELEVISION"), ringing pools whose curving slides are a question mark as to how these places can still exist in the shadow of all those new mega-water parks such as the Wilderness. (They survive, I eventually realized, because the water-park hotels are so expensive that they've priced themselves out of the market for families that need to pay $50 or so for a room if they want to have anything left over for go-kart racing and roller-coasters and bungie jumping and rides on the Ducks.)
     We even glimpsed a bit of the natural beauty that got the Dells going as a tourist attraction in the first place, 100 years ago. Like most tourists, we didn't bother seeking nature out, but it found us in the most unexpected place: the entrance walk to Tommy Bartlett's Water Thrill Show, which turns out to be a cathedral of enormous pines, hushed and cool and not at all what you would expect to usher you into the inner sanctum of Wisconsin kitsch.
     I had never seen the Thrill Show before, perhaps because it struck me as the Seventh Seal of Midwestern, middle-class bourgeois Hell. I'd see the show, and before I knew it I'd be eating bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches and collecting Hummel figurines. Besides, I thought the kids would be bored by water skiing.
     They weren't. They loved it, at least the first half. The show is an oddly self-referential affair, a celebration of the history of water skiing and of its own history--the various forgotten world's fairs the show participated in (Seattle 1962!) and, of course, Tommy Bartlett, the radio announcer who swiped the idea of a water show from Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., and brought it back to the land of clear spring waters.
     The boys liked the speedboats and clownery, and I savored the show as a pure form. One doesn't get much chance to see a chorus line of gals doing the can-can on water skis, never mind a flag-waving pyramid streaking by to "The Stars and Stripes Forever."
     We even experienced "A Wisconsin Moment." My wife wanted to take the boys to a fancy restaurant, so we got dressed up and went to the swank eatery attached to the resort--"Field's of the Wilderness," they call it. It had the trappings of sophisticated dining--the handblown wineglasses, the tuxedoed staff, the three forks. But instead of the forks being different sizes--dinner, salad and appetizer--they were a trio of hefty, heavy dinner forks, identical in size. Maybe that isn't enchanting to you. But, for me, it really was the highlight of the trip. Three big honking silver forks, one after another, triplets, next to the plate.
     It's the kind of thing that melts in with the other memories--like the boys joyously tubing down fake rapids, or pitting themselves, feverishly, against the arcade games--to form the image of a summer vacation. Ancient Greece is gone, but the civilization that is Wisconsin is still there, waiting for anyone bold enough to explore.

                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 12, 2002

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Joys of Summer #3: The Beach


New Jersey Beach, by William Trost Richards (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     This is an odd artifact, nearly 30 years old. And while it's a fairly flaccid piece of writing, it is interesting for its circumstance. 
     I hope.
     The summer of 1990 the Sun-Times was launching Sizzle, a magazine designed to appeal to young people. I was in my late 20s, so counted as a young person, or at least youngish, if you squinted, and so either volunteered or was asked to write something about the beach. I wrote the below despite that fact that a) I hate going to the beach and b) I almost never go. It's more of a fantasy than anything else, perhaps based on one hour of one afternoon with my pals shortly before graduating Northwestern. Of course the paper didn't publish it. To be honest, I feel a little squeamish posting it now; but then "squeamish" is a condition of life lately. I must have cared about it enough to print out a dot matrix version that has slept in a folder all this while. Vanity. But given the situation on the EGD medical front—I might get out of the hospital today, unless I don't—it's this or nothing. I hope I made the right choice.

    Ideally, you would never go to the beach. The beach would be there, outside your door, and you would wander onto it whenever the mood struck you, to think fine thoughts and watch the herons twirling over the shimmering sand.
     Having to go to the beach is more problematic. There is nothing intrinsically comfortable about a stretch of hot sand, never mind the usually long and difficult trek to get there.
     Comfort must be brought along, and comfort is chairs and coolers and towels and novels and umbrellas. Ice, bottles, food, utensils, sun block, shades and musical devices. Comfort is heavy.
    Which leads to the first and only each rule: Go with people. The thought of going alone might be enticing—you, silhouetted against the blue waters, a beacon of attractiveness and mystery.
    At the beach, alone, magnificent.
    But that isn't ever the case. Alone at the beach, you soon start to feel like something the waves washed up. A dead jellyfish. An old can. Nothing.
     A crowd makes you feel significant and, besides, you need people to help tote all the stuff. People to tell you that your shoulders are turning maroon. people to play Frisbee with and to hand you a cold beer when you don't feel like making the effort of reaching your hand all the way into the cooler.
   And that is the state you wish to attain on a beach. The laziest, sleepiest, most somnolent sort of near-coma you can possibly achieve.  Because you have spent so much energy lugging this stuff from the car, then setting up, and swimming and tossing the Frisbee and capering in the surf (another reason to go with a group. Have you ever seen somebody caper in the surf alone? They look like an idiot) you can then flop on the beach like an exhausted runner and rack up quality beach time.
    That is why we go to beaches in the first place.
     Where else can you wake up, all sleepy and disoriented, like a 4-year-old arising from nap time? You dig your watch out of .a sneaker. It's 4 p.m. You look around. Your friend are all scattered around like a pile of sleeping cats, their sand-crusted sides rising and falling in slumber.
    You fish in the melted ice and grab one of the remaining cold bottles. At the sound of the sloshing water, your friends start to stir and murmur. The sun is getting low. You think: evening. Dinner. Going out. First, a nice, cool , invigorating shower—maybe the best shower you ever had in your life, maybe with all your friends. Then dinner. Perhaps the best dinner you've ever eaten. The whole bunch of you, fresh and clean and wearing crisp new summer clothes, laughing together at your collective wit and mutual intelligence, heading into a wonderful restaurant after a day at the beach ,brown as beans and ready to party.
    That's what beaches do. they jumpstart your life. otherwise, why would people bother?

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Joys of Summer #2: Hot Dogs

     I love hot dogs—who doesn't?—and have written about the humble frank on a number of times over the years, whether attending Hot Dog University, or dipping into the ketchup controversy, alluded to yet again below. I somehow never shared this visit to the mothership itself, the Vienna Beef factory. Gold Coast is gone, alas, except for a tiny outpost tucked into a remote corner of Union Station. And Vienna Beef moved its factory to Bridgeport in 2016. No hot dogs, or solid foods of any type, for me at the moment—but I'll be looking forward to my next one, some time in August. Or September at the very latest.

     Another Fourth of July come and gone, and have you reflected on your deep personal debt to the humble hot dog? I thought not.
     Despite this being peak wienie season—nearly half of all hot dogs are consumed between Memorial Day and Labor Day—and despite Chicago being a world center for hot dogs, somehow the mild little sausages don't get proper credit, their significance ignored in their home town, drowned out in the choruses of praise for other Chicago standards, such as pizza.
     To add insult to injury, the only references I noticed to hot dogs over the holiday weekend were several reports on a hot dog eating contest—on New York's Coney Island, of all places, sponsored by Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, whose franchise on Rush Street quickly withered and died in the face of superior local fare.
      "Chicago is a hot dog town," said Tom McGlade, a senior vice president at Vienna Beef, the largest of several frankmakers in the city. "We have 1,800 hot dog stands—more than the number of McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's combined."
     That gets overlooked, since none of those hot dog stands have the advertising clout of the burger giants. Most of Vienna's marketing goes into hot dog stand umbrellas and those eye-catching posters of giant hot dogs.
     There are many noteworthy stands, such as Gold Coast Hot Dogs on State Street, known for the tendency of visiting Hollywood stars to send their underlings to Gold Coast to fetch bags of chardogs back to their luxury suites.
     And Murphy's Red Hots on Belmont Avenue, whose owner, Bill Murphy, found himself tapped as the Col. Sanders of the Japanese hot dog after he stepped out from behind the counter to greet a group of Japanese customers at his stand. They turned out to be a team of food executives scouting the American hot dog scene before introducing the fare to the frankfurter-starved Japanese millions, and Murphy's friendliness earned him a goodwill trip to Japan.
     Despite the famous quote about how people who like legislation or sausages should never see either being made, I couldn't resist inviting myself over to Vienna's North Damen plant, where more than 100 million hot dogs a year are sent forth to gladden the hearts of a weary world.
     "Before I came to work here, I always thought hot dog makers were sweeping bugs off the floor, tossing in cow's noses and pig's toes," said McGlade, standing in front of a vat of 2,500 pounds of ground beef. "You can see how clean our beef is."
     Indeed. The meat looked as attractive as a ton and a quarter of ground meat could. Surround it with a hundred loaves' worth of toast points and a few dozen pounds of chopped egg, pop open a few jeroboams of champagne, and you could have the largest steak tartare party in the world.
     The beef arrives in big hunks from Vienna's own slaughterhouse in Harvard, Ill. I was taken aback when I saw a worker with a metal hook at the end of his arm use it to pull a chunk of meat toward him so he could trim off the fat with a big curved knife. The perils of industry, I thought.
     Then I noticed that all the other workers had hooks, too, and I quickly realized the hooks were held, not attached.
     A computer monitors the mixture to make sure it is 80 percent beef, 20 percent "sweet brisket trimmings"—a fancy way of saying "fat."
     Garlic, spices and salt are added and the mixture is pulverized until it ends up an unappetizing beige gel, which is then packed into casings.
     After the dogs are cooked, they turn the rich, enticing mahogany color people associate with beef franks.
     "No dyes," McGlade said. "It's a miracle." McGlade demonstrated that they are pre-cooked and don't need heating by plucking one off the line, snapping it in half, and taking a bite.
     Vienna takes credit for the invention of the famous Chicago Style Hot Dog, a frank buried under a mound of yellow mustard, neon green relish, chopped onion, tomato wedges, a pickle slice, hot peppers and a dash of celery salt.
     "It's a nice combination of sweet and crunchy and hot," said McGlade, who personally likes his dog with jardiniere and Grey Poupon mustard.
     You think that's odd? I like mine with mustard and ketchup, and eat them that way even though every person I've ever mentioned this to recoils in utter visceral disgust.
     I've come to accept ketchup on hot dogs as a perversion unique to myself, and will continue the practice until they pass a constitutional amendment banning it, and probably beyond.
     Then there is the entire question of charred vs. boiled.
     But that's an entirely different column. Hot dogs, thank God, are one area where consensus is not needed. You can enjoy your hot dog with whipped cream and a splash of Tabasco and it won't disturb me a bit. It's summertime. We should all relax.

                —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, July 9, 1997