Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Nature is not cruel


     I didn't even try to take a picture of the eagle that swooped in front of our pickup truck.
     It was early morning Saturday. I had planned to hike the road before breakfast. But Ben, who took it upon himself to whip up breakfast, announced there were no eggs. Which made preparing his menu of pancakes and eggs problematic. The solution was to go into town, but he was a newcomer—from New Jersey—and wasn't quite sure where it was. Hoping to go on my walk, I at first tried explaining. I tried calling up a map on the phone—in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the Internet can be a work in progress. I got a white space with a line on it. 
    "I'll go with you," I gamely said. He said it wasn't necessary, which only steeled my resolve. 
    "If you go alone, you'll never get back," I said.  We got into the truck and rumbled down the long, long drive, firs and oaks and ferns flashing green past us on both sides. 
     As we turned onto the road, the eagle zoomed up from the shoulder and flapped its wings in slow, powerful beats just ahead of the car.
     "Keep up with it," I urged Ben, and we did, for 10 glorious seconds before the eagle peeled off. I considered the bird's appearance as a kind of cosmic reward, for my going along as navigator. 
     I've seen eagles up here before, in the same place, leading us up the road. Icing on the cake to what had already been a memorable trip, bird-wise: I spotted a pair of wild turkeys on our way in. I've never seen a wild turkey that wasn't capitalized and in a glass with ice.
      The trip to the store in Ontonagon was uneventful, except for the guy behind us in line who excitedly announced there was drag-racing going on, right now, at some fairgrounds nearby. I think he expected us to thump our kneecaps and exclaim, "Well, tarnation, let's GO!" And to be honest, the thought did cross my mind. But there were eggs to ferry back, pancakes to eat and friends awaiting.
    Afterward—almond-flavored pancakes, who knew?—I had my walk. There, by the side of the road, just where we had encountered the eagle, was a smear of feathers about 10 yards long. Obviously, we had interrupted its breakfast, though it must have made off with it—there were no remains, and I never saw the beak of the eagle, only its hind end. 
      I almost drew a connection between the nobility of the eagle—a hunter, a predator—and the cruelty of nature. But that isn't true, only an interpretation that humanity assigns to it, in our constant effort to get everything to reflect our own precious selves. Nature is not cruel. Nature just is. 


Monday, September 16, 2019

Well, this, for starters...

     My readers occasionally send gifts—often really nice stuff, like handmade easels and homemade English muffins.  Books they're written and drawings they've done. Sometimes portraits, quite good ones, given the subject matter. I always mean to write back and thank them. Sometimes I even do. But the race to get something half decent in the newspaper has a way of pushing everything aside, and then there is this blog. Every. Goddamn. Day.
      Last week I received this sign, sent by a reader. To be honest, I was more impressed with the quality of the sign itself—enamel over metal—than  by the sentiment expressed.  It wasn't cynical at all, but rather ... well, quite positive. It was suggesting that we need to focus on doing good for other people, and that can't be right. Then there was that bothersome "shall"—"What shall I do this day?" Quite fey in 2019. A question that you really have to be pressing your hands against both cheeks and sighing in order to express properly. Plus "this day." Not "today," but "this day," an echo of "Give us this day our daily bread." Practically a prayer. Ewwww....
     What to do—not "What shall I do"—with it? I flipped the sign over. On the back it read:
     Curious, I jumped online. Best Made Company is a hip concern with stores in Manhattan an Los Angeles. It's "About us" section offers nothing specific, only that their "customers are makers, adventurers, tinkerers, and curiosity seekers who only want one thing: quality." I bet they are.
     A little digging shows they started in spring, 2009 as a boutique axe company, founded by two Canadians, Peter Buchanan-Smith and Graeme Cameron. I'm not immune to quality axes. I've got one. But there are axes and there are axes. But let's put it this way: a Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe, stamped by the craftsman who made it, a fantastic tool I have rhapsodized here previously, costs $172 from Highland Woodworking. Five times the price of an axe you can grab at Home Depot, but a beautiful tool that's worth it.
     The Best Made Hudson Bay Axe goes to the next level. It costs $348, a little more than twice as much as the Gransfors Bruks. That seems excessive, almost grotesque.

     The sign, I couldn't help noting, cost $32. A lot for a little sign, and quite a compliment from the reader, who explained in a lovely note that she was moved by the column I wrote about a woman who altruistically donated her kidney to a stranger, to do her part to offset the carnival of vileness that is the Trump era.
     Tossing the sign in the trash seemed wasteful. And an insult to the reader who was not only so thoughtful, but shelled out 40 bucks to buy and send the thing to me.  I felt obligated, almost trapped.
     But "WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO THIS DAY?" Was I now committed to looking at the thing for the rest of my life? I decided to bring it home and consult with my wife. She'll know what to do. I showed her the sign and mused that I might put it up somewhere. 
   "Oh it's beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Put it up in the kitchen." 
    Okay then I swallowed hard and did.  After screwing it into the wall—a central location, just as you walk in—I thought to research the phrase.  
     Turns out the sentiment goes back to at least Benjamin Franklin, who before he was a Founding Father was a busy Boston printer, creator of "Poor Richard's Almanac," coiner of admonitory sayings. He claimed to begin each morning at 5 a.m. with thanks to God, followed by asking himself what good he should do that day,  and ended each day asking what good he had done. 
     So what's so bad with that? For a selfless person, nothing. But as somebody with a rather inflated sense of self, with a full time job wandering through his private Hall of Mirrors with a chamois and a bottle of Windex, the vow of helping others well, it seems insincere.  And unrealistic. Maybe I could insert a strategic "for me" with a Sharpie—"WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO for me THIS DAY?"
   No, no. That would throw off the purity of the design. And is probably a bad life strategy as well. I mean, look where it has gotten me. 
   Not that I'm against doing good for others and some days it does happen, mirabile dictu. But to be so intentional about it, so public, to ballyhoo the thing like that, raising the question on the kitchen wall. To set it as some kind of goal, to intend to do it, premeditated. That's a big step. 
     What good shall I do today? Well, I put up this sign. And wrote this post. That's a start.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Illinois Tech (aka IIT)

      Illinois Tech—or it is IIT?—is very proud of their Mies van der Rohe buildings. And rightly so. But they're also very proud of their new Kaplan Institute, particularly because it is light and not dark, mostly white, with splashes of color, such as these cushions in its amphitheater-like space, designed to look like giant Post-It note pads.
    Designed by IIT—or is it Illinois Tech?—alumnus John Ronan, it opened in October and is the first new building on campus in 40 years.  It's called the "Kaplan Institute" because 1965 alumnus Ed Kaplan kicked in $11 million for it.
     I was on campus Tuesday researching an unrelated story. But the Illinois Tech—or is it IIT?—folks were so proud of the new place they had to show me around, including the second floor, where they have fancy glass that ... I'm not sure what it does ... has dots that expand on sunny days to keep the sun from heating up the place too much, and contract on cool, cloudy days to let the heat and light in. Or some such thing.  Compressed air is involved.
     There's a lot more to it; study rooms and 3-d printer labs, a big area to construct prototypes. IIT—or it is Illinois Tech?—is pushing the snazzier latter name over the former. That's a good thing—Illinois Institute of Technology is a mouthful, and IIT can too easily be confused with UIC. But they seem to still have a foot on the dock and a foot on the pier, with lots of signs and banners reading IIT, and others reading Illinois Tech. I suppose it can be both, the way Northwestern and NU are the same place.

     Embarrassingly, Eric Zorn covered this topic, far more thoroughly, four years ago. 


Saturday, September 14, 2019

Flashback 2012: A late-night romp with exotic models

     An Ohio teen, Hannah Jones, came home early from college late last month and thought she would surprise her mother. She did. Her mother was indeed very surprised, and shot her. Only winged the young woman, thankfully. But a reminder that people who really cared about the safety of themselves of their families would ditch their guns, since owning a gun ramps up the odds that you'll shoot yourself or a loved one. It made me think of this column, which, to my surprise, I have never posted here before.

     Between the time the back door opened with a metallic "kathunk" and when it closed with a dull "knuhtak," I was on my feet, in the early morning bedroom dimness.
     I gazed across the sleeping form of my wife, at the clock on her night table: "5:03." My first waking thought was, "cats," the usual source of nocturnal disturbance: cats knocking cups into sinks, cats chasing each other howling through the house. Cats. 

     The next sound was a very human treading of feet downstairs. My second thought was a grim, "That's not a cat."
     I reached into the night table for a weapon.
     Many prudent men keep a handgun at their bedside. Houses are broken into. Horrors occur. A man must protect his family.
     And though I am certainly a prudent man, I am also a mathematical fellow, and can do numbers: the odds of bad stuff taking place in my leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, of dangerous situations that can be resolved by my being armed, are minuscule—say a 10-second window every 20 years, if that—compared to the low-level threat posed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by the weapon itself. "The blade itself is an incitement to violence," as Homer put it. Plus accident: the possibility that, reaching into the drawer for a pen, I would manage to fire the handgun and blow my kneecap off. Owning a gun in Northbrook makes as much as sense as owning a grenade.
     Yet many people, indulging in their Clint Eastwood fantasies, don't see it that way.
     Anyway. For reasons mathematical, I reached, not for a pistol, but for a black Mag-Light flashlight. Not the most potent weapon, true, but a 10-inch-long steel cylindrical club that at least instilled a tiny bit of confidence—and isn't that what weapon ownership is all about? To calm our insecurities? Why otherwise would people assemble, not one gun or five, but whole arsenals, plus bottled water and dried food and God knows what else. A desperate, futile attempt to feel protected.
     The flashlight was satisfyingly heavy in my hand, thanks to its trio of D batteries, ready to bash whoever was making those footsteps.
     At the bedroom door I saw the downstairs lights were blazing. A second possibility, after cats, stirred at the back of my mind.
     "Ross, is that you?" I squeaked, my voice suddenly thin and anemic.
     "Go to bed," my 17-year-old commanded, tossing a pile of calculators, pens and notebooks onto the kitchen table, then looking around at the downstairs, lit up like a cruise ship.
     "Why are all the lights on?" he asked
     "Your mother probably left them on for you," I said, meekly complying with his command, climbing the stairs, limply holding my flashlight. "Turn them off before you go to sleep."
     Not that I would have shot him if I had a gun, mind you—I like to think that I would be the sort of gun owner who takes a gander at what he's shooting. But doesn't every gun owner tell himself that? Yet teenage boys creeping in at dawn are still blown away by sleepy dads, far more, I'd bet, than the number of potato-nosed villains in black and white striped shirts and soft caps, caught dead-to-rights, with the family silverware in a sack over their shoulders.
The reason

     OK. OK. I know my audience. I can't just have my kid waltzing home at 5:03 a.m. without SOME explanation.
     But it's delicate . . . and as much as readers say they enjoy reading about the boys, they just don't appear here all that much anymore. They're studying a lot, or slumped on sofas, flipping through magazines or watching TV. There isn't much to say. I try to respect their privacy.
     He was coming home so late because . . .
     Oh, this will be hard to believe. I have a hard time believing it. When I was 17, and crept home with the dawn, it was not for this reason or anything like it. But kids nowadays . . . I'm no dupe; I've considered other scenarios, just to see if there is any chance an alternate might be possible. I wish there were. But there isn't.
     OK. Here goes: The 15th Annual High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling, run by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications. Each team—he and three pals—picks a problem and has exactly 36 hours to answer it. They were at a buddy's house crunching numbers all night. After he had slept, my wife's attempt to pry more information resulted in exactly one sentence, an exasperated, "We were modeling gasoline prices, mother." And that was it.
     Don't get me wrong. I'm proud. Though I worry he's frittering away his youth, and have encouraged him to pursue other, umm, non-mathematical activities ("Think of it as a new skill set you could master," I said, wanly). But with kids, you have to accept what you get, and as strange as it is, at times, I'm not complaining. I'm just glad I didn't shoot him.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 26, 2012

Friday, September 13, 2019

Flashback 2000: Miracles of not-so-modern medicine


     You've probably never been to the International Museum of Surgical Science on Lake Shore Drive. Few people have. I've been twice; last year, so I could compare it with Philadelphia's notorious Mutter Museum. And the first time, for a party in 2000.

     The bone crusher caught my attention.
     A massive, chrome device with a pair of hooks that go over a limb, holding it in place, and a threaded rod tightened by a steel bar, that pushes down, breaking the arm or leg so it can be reset. The thing was dated to 1918, though it seemed as if it belonged to the Middle Ages.
     The intriguing contraption was just one of the eye-popping—sometimes literally—displays at the International Museum of Surgical Science, located, along with the International College of Surgeons, in a grand pair of side-by-side mansions on the 1500 block of North Lake Shore Drive. The museum is a perennial favorite in the pantheon of offbeat Chicago sites.

    I had always intended on visiting, someday. But the years passed, then decades, and the desire never coalesced into action until free food and beverages were thrown into the mix.
     Then I was there in a heartbeat, joining the throng celebrating the publication of Secret Chicago (ECW Press, $ 17.95), Sam Weller's guide to odd, little-known places in the Chicago area.
     As is inevitable with such guides, the book is a curious mix of genuine hidden treasures, such as the museum, visited by as many as 20 people a day, and better-known locales, such as the Art Institute, or that obscure gem known only to the 4 million people who somehow discover it, Taste of Chicago.

     While I enjoyed the museum, I don't know if I would recommend it to everybody, particularly the faint of heart.
     True, it has a certain naive charm. In an era when most museum exhibits are ultra-slick endeavors, assembled by teams of academics and funded by multinational corporations, the surgical museum is endearingly rustic, almost crude, in a cobbled-together way, between the rough stone statues in its Hall of Immortals, and the haphazard jumble of displays, identified haltingly with handmade labels, all skewed and fading.
     But the folksiness of the place also contributes to its chamber-of-horrors feel, the way the serenity of a town in a Stephen King novel underlines the nightmares building below the surface. I had heard about the uteral and kidney stones on proud display, but was caught off-guard by the vivid oil paintings of unspeakable pre-modern surgeries, not to mention the saws, knives and, of course, that bone crusher.
     I left the place intrigued by a pair of questions.
     First, why is the museum there? As flush as the International College of Surgeons, which runs the museum, must certainly be, it also must be tempted to cash out on such a prime piece of real estate and put its museum, oh, in Navy Pier or Woodfield Mall or some place where people could actually get at it.
     Short answer: They can't.
     "Of course the buildings are landmarks," said Dolores Leber, a museum associate. "That's why we're in the place we're at. It's the perfect site for high- rises, but being a landmark . . . .       And second: Sure, that bone crusher seems barbaric. But how do they reset bones now? For all I know, every hospital in America has a bone crusher.
     They don't.
     "Things are much more sophisticated," said Dr. David Beigler, an orthopedist at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He said the problem with a device such as the bone crusher is you never know where the bone will break. Nowadays, they'd operate, going in and cutting.
     Still, the process is not without its throwbacks to the past.
     "We do have a wire saw that you operate with two hands called a 'giggly saw,' " said Dr. Brian Cole of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. "It's sort of a prehistoric device."
     Dr. Cole had no idea, however, what the ominous "giggly" in "giggly saw" refers to. That's the problem with this profession. You solve one question, and another pops up to take its place.
         —Originally published May 18, 2000 in the Sun-Times

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Flashback 1994: Cultural Differences Hamper Health Care

Station Hospital, by Robert Smullyan Sloan (Metropolitan Museum)
     "Medical stories are always interesting," I told my wife, justifying the hours I've been spending downtown this week, researching an upcoming column at a Chicago hospital. Between that, and a big piece due for Mosaic early next week, I'm going to have to phone in the blog for a few days. Since I'm in a medical mode, a few medical stories from the hazy past, including this, which I found out about through contacts in the Russian emigre community.

     They complain of serdtsa boleet -- literally "heartache" -- or pitchen boleet, a pain in the liver. They wave mysterious bottles with Cyrillic labels and demand valerian, an herbal tranquilizer rarely used here since the 1800s.
     They are immigrants, mostly Jewish, from the troubled, fractured land that once was the Soviet Union. Their steady influx into Chicago—3,000 last year, 14,000 in the last seven—has created a massive health care challenge for local social service agencies and affiliated hospitals.
     "They're sick folks," said Joan M. Schulhoff, director of Jewish Federation programs at Mt. Sinai Hospital, summing up the general health of the immigrants.
     "We are seeing many more problems than had before, because of the deterioration of the economy of the former Soviet Union. We are seeing more untreated cancer, untreated heart disease, untreated diabetes."
     Mt. Sinai and Michael Reese Hospital treat without charge any Soviet immigrant with a serious medical condition for the first four months they are in the country. Sometimes it's longer.
     "Any urgent or emergency care," said Carol S. Goldbaum, director of Michael Reese's department of social work. "We're not piercing ears, we're not doing breast reconstruction. We do cardiac bypass, radiation therapy, anything that has to do with cancer. Cataracts or glaucoma if they're looking at permanent damage unless something is done."
     The program is set up under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, under contract with the state to provide health care for all refugees.
     Mt. Sinai provides $1.5 million a year in unreimbursed services, and Michael Reese as much as $1 million. The federation spends $2.5 million a year on immigrant health care, including the money it gets from the state.
     "We've been refugees for thousands of years—we know how to do this stuff," said Joel Carp, associate executive director of the federation.
     Many of the new immigrants are elderly relatives of people who came to this country years ago.
     Naum Zhits and his wife, Tslya, both 68, spent only one night under the roof of a relative in Highland Park before Tslya, who has a history of heart trouble, needed to be rushed to the hospital. Less than a week after leaving Minsk, she is in Michael Reese awaiting a triple bypass.
     For those with less urgent needs, the first step is a screening at the Touhy Health Center, run by Mt. Sinai. Doctors have two goals—ascertain individual health care needs and spot public health dangers—syphilis, AIDS, even leprosy.
     It is no vain exercise: One-third of all the immigrants are carrying tuberculosis.
     Ed Gilmore, a physician assistant, helps examine the 30 patients a day coming into Touhy.
     A major challenge is dealing with the myriad differences in medical culture. The Russians, for example, often are averse to taking aspirin. But many are addicted to tranquilizers. "It is an over-tranquilized population," Schulhoff said.
     Then there are the aftereffects of Soviet medicine with which U.S. doctors must deal.
     "Oftentimes their doctors lacked the facilities to perform necessary tests, so they made diagnoses 'from the ceiling,' " said Gilmore, using the Soviet slang term for a doctor sitting back in his chair, gazing skyward, and making up a significant-sounding diagnosis.
     An important part of this care is teaching new patients fundamentals of nutrition and preventive care, and how to use the U.S. medical system.
     Caregivers have been sent to Berlitz courses so that they have at least a rough understanding of Russian.
     It helped Gilmore one recent day, as he examined 8-year-old Ilya Samovskiy.
     Gilmore set the boy at ease with a magic trick, and proceeded to examine him, speaking a mixture of English and poorly pronounced Russian. "My bad accent amuses the old folks," he says. "They like it a lot."
     The boy's condition, he tells Ilya's mother, Galina, is "ne seriosna," -- he just has a slight fever -- and Gilmore perscribes "Tylenol, two tabletski."
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times April 4, 1994

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Quaker Oats quietly touches up its iconic oatmeal man

Out with the old, left, in with the new and slightly different. 

     Maybe because we’re both gents from Ohio who ended up working in downtown Chicago. Maybe because we’re men given to chubbiness and self-promotion.
     But the Quaker Oats Man is on my radar. Always has been. So when my wife came home with a container, the moment it was removed from the Sunset Foods bag I noticed something amiss. I set the old and new cylinders together on the counter.
     The new Quaker Oats man is different. Windblown, for starters, his white neckerchief flapping in the breeze. His complexion paler, with rosier cheeks; his predecessor had a uniform, peach quality. The image a little smaller, his face a little thinner too, more of a distinct chin. Behind him, a faint image of farmland has been worked into the deep red background.
     Could I have missed the big announcement? Online, there was nothing but a brief mention in a trade magazine earlier this year. I found more hoopla from 2012, when they last fiddled with his image. Trimming five pounds, according to Quaker, which let slip that in-house, they call him “Larry.”
     Seven years is awfully quick to redo Quaker’s icon. Calls and emails were fired at Quaker — headquartered in Chicago — and PepsiCo, which bought the brand in 2001.
      While waiting, I started to dig, beginning with Quakers. Formed in Britain in the 1650s, George Fox called his sect “The Society of Friends.” They immediately got in trouble for failing to bow and scrape to officialdom, and were beaten and jailed. After Fox told a judge he should “tremble at the word of the Lord” the judge called him a “quaker,” derisively. Eventually the sect started calling themselves Quakers — a kind of defiant rebranding, the way gay people started proudly referring to themselves as “queer.”

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Something new under the sun: Hoplark HopTea

    For a guy who doesn't drink, I spend a lot of time in bars. Which raises the question, What do you drink in a bar if you don't want to drink booze? Club soda is zupped down in a heartbeat. Regular sodas are either sugary or vile. Non-alcoholic beers are surprisingly good nowadays—Beck's, St. Pauli Girl, Clausthaler—but not every bar stocks them. Lack of demand, I suppose.
     Craft mocktails can be quite good, redolent of mint or basil or cucumber, particularly at a chi-chi restaurant like The Dearborn in the Loop, my new favorite go-to place.
     But both of those have drawbacks: calories for one.  And they also can be hard to find.
     I was far from the Loop, however, last spring, sitting in a sushi bar in Boulder, Colorado, when the bartender, considering my strange interest in beverages non-alcoholic, suggested Hoplark HopTea, iced tea that is brewed like beer, with zero calories, zero sugar and zero alcohol.
   Introduced in June, 2018, made right there in Boulder, it had a surprising, refreshing, kindy beerish, kinda tealike taste.  It was complicated, and took time to drink, which is kinda the point. You can buy HopTea at a number of Whole Foods around Chicago, as well as other locations, as detailed on their web site.
     The restaurant, just in case you ever get to Boulder, was Japango on the Pearl Street Mall. I liked the food, the service, the ambience, and the cylindrical tank filled with jellyfish.  So much that, with the broad range of Boulder restaurants at our fingertips, we went back the next day to have lunch at Japango a second time. Good call.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Turning away from wonder to gaze at matters Trumpian

     The word “placebo” is not only from Latin, it is Latin, an unaltered Latin word meaning “I will please,” the first person singular future indicative of placere, “to please.”
     It wasn’t originally used to describe a sugar pill pretending to be medicine, of course, but a part of Vespers, Book of the Dead, taken from the line, Psalm 114:9 in the Latin Vulgate Bible: “Placebo Domino in regione vivorum,” or “I will please the Lord in the land for living.”
     By 1200, it was used to describe flatterers — Chaucer names a character in The Merchant’s Tale “Placebo.” By 1811, it was a term for pills with no medical value but offering psychological benefit. 
     OK, OK, Donald Trump. Do you think the media wants to natter on obsessively about him? Others perhaps do. But not me. Gazing into Trump’s world is like directing a flashlight down the hole in an outhouse while the Northern Lights flash and flicker in the heavens right outside.
     But focusing elsewhere, no matter how fascinating, also feels like describing a pretty flower when the school next door is burning. Worse, your entire country aflame. I was going to write today on last week’s Alabama debacle. You know the particulars if you’re paying attention. With Hurricane Dorian turning up the East Coast, Trump said Alabama was in peril when it wasn’t, the risk already past.
     A small error. Worth correcting only because people in Alabama could be alarmed by the president suggesting a deadly storm is bearing down on them. A normal human being would dismiss it with a shrug.
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Sunday, September 8, 2019

Lighted balloons

    Did you have a good summer? Now that we're hurtling into September, hard to believe it's almost gone. For me, spine surgery carved out a big two-month chunk, cancelling two vacations and sucking up all my attention and energy. That was unfortunate.
     But I did have one beautiful day. Center Avenue had a block party a few weeks ago. It was a marvel of planning—thank you Carla, thank you Tanya, thank you all the other neighbors who helped out. Not only the usual tables of food and tubs of cold drinks, but live bands. A fire truck and bouncy house for the kids. Games. My oldest boy was in town, and we all hung out, chatting, eating, listening to music as day turned into evening, then into night. I think I spent eight hours, from setting up to the last stragglers sitting around a fire pit in the front yard. Playing corn hole. Dancing in the street—really, how often do you get the chance to dance in the street? Not often enough.
     After dark, someone produced something I had never seen before. Lighted balloons. I hope that doesn't tar me as hopelessly out of it, and that you haven't been enjoying LED balloons since the 1950s. I'm sure you'll let me know. But they were new to me. Not only did the balloons glow sooth shades of blue and green, but they changed colors. I'd never seen anything like it. Finally, a new technology that isn't menacing.
      A tiny girl—5, 7, it's hard to tell anymore—walked up to me and, with heartbreaking solemnity, presented me with one, saying, "Would you like this balloon? Please take it." You can't very well say no to that. I accepted it with a bow.
     Though once I had the balloon, there was a difficulty: what to do with it? I carried the balloon for a bit, giving it a few tentative tosses into the air and catching it. But that got old. I didn't want to cast the balloon away, not after that little girl had so earnestly entrusted me with it. It would pop on the ground. And be my fault.
     Then I had a brainstorm. There was a low branched tree in the yard where the block party was centered. I took the string from the balloon and wrapped it around a branch. A good idea spread. Other people automatically followed my lead—that never happens—and soon the tree was festooned with balloons, all gently changing colors. It was gorgeous. When I think of the summer of 2019, I'll think of that.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

This might not be the outrage Patti expected, but it’ll have to do

     Friday was the rare day I had two columns in the paper, the second being a quick hit ordered up in response to Patti Blagojevich shaking her fist at the heavens for the unfairness of life. A few readers found this harsh, feeling pity for Patti and her fractured family. They might not realize that it was her father, Dick Mell, who inflicted Blago on the state in the first place, as a wedding present. She had plenty of opportunity to spare him, and herself, and us, this endless drama. Sympathy is misplaced.

Coincidence can be a satirist.
 A reader sent in this, which ran
 in the paper the same day. 

     Oh, Patti. Do you really not get it? After all these years? You “cannot even wrap” your head around former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, having his indictment dismissed while your hubby is seven years into his 14-year prison term? (That is, assuming Donald Trump, friend of frauds and crooks, doesn’t commute his sentence as a big wink to his cronies that he has their back.)
     Shall I explain it then? OK.
     First, Schock’s acts were penny-ante — Super Bowl tickets and fudged expense reports. It was not trying to sell a seat to the United States Senate, and doing a botched job at that. The harm of a crime matters — a guy who takes a sledgehammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta is in more trouble than somebody doing the same to a plaster Elvis. Both guys are swinging hammers. Schock got a fancy office; Illinois got Sen. Roland Burris. Those are not equal harms.
     Second, Schock played ball with the feds. He cut a deal. He did not prance and preen and glory in the attention, the way your husband did. He did not go on “Dancing with the Stars.”
     Not that Rod didn’t have a point. Sure, he only did the kind of horse-trading politicians do. But into an open FBI tap he knew was there.
     Third, what makes you believe the legal system is fair? Murderers walk while mopes sit in stir for decades over a $50 stick-up. Dan Rostenkowski committed petty thefts over postage stamps and office chairs — and ended up in the joint. (Taking it, I might add, with far more grace than Rod, who practically had to have his hands pried off the radiator as they dragged him to prison, like Jimmy Cagney going to the chair in “Angels with Dirty Faces.”)

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Friday, September 6, 2019

Ping Tom Park part of a growing Chinatown

Artist Anna Murphy finishing mural at Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown.

     Nobody calls the near West Side of Chicago “Jew Town” anymore. The great-grandchildren of the merchants who sold ... well, just about everything ... at the sprawling open-air market on Maxwell Street have scattered — to Rogers Park, then Skokie, then everywhere.
     Many of the city’s old ethnic enclaves were shattered by supposed “progress,” whether the Italian community on Taylor Street, bulldozed by the expanding University of Illinois at Chicago, or the heart of Bronzeville, cut out by CHA high-rises.
     Chinatown is an exception. Not only has it preserved its ethnic character — 90% of the neighborhood’s residents are Asian, most speaking Chinese at home — but it’s growing, despite, and in some cases because of, setbacks it suffered.
     “Chicago’s Chinatown is really interesting,” said David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center, a community center in Chinatown. “Philadelphia and New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston — every Chinatown is within blocks of the financial district and City Hall, and every one of these cities would say their Chinatowns are dying.”
     Chicago’s Chinatown was originally jammed into two blocks of Clark Street in the Loop. But in 1912, rising rents and white hostility prodded the Chinese community to move, wholesale, to Wentworth and Cermak.
     Bad then, good now.
     “If we were at Clark and Van Buren and wanted to expand at all, we couldn’t,” said Wu. “A hundred years ago, it wasn’t nice to be pushed out of your community. But now Chicago’s Chinatown is the only one flourishing. It’s more like a normal community, without huge pressures of gentrification.”
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Thursday, September 5, 2019

Bee careful

     Nick and Nora Charles don't carry the cultural heft they did when I was growing up, and the "Thin Man" series of 1930s black-and-white detective movies were a staple of UHF television.
     As played by William Powell and Myrna Loy, they seemed the ideal married couple, for their swank deco apartment, their frequent martinis, and exuberant wordplay.
     I never had a swank deco apartment. The frequent martinis proved troublesome, and have long ago gone by the wayside. But my wife and I do manage a bit of wordplay, now then.
     Particularly in the Chicago Botanic Garden, where we like to spend hours walking and talking. It's like being in heaven, and you don't have to die. We went twice over Labor Day weekend.
     A favorite spot is the circular Rose Garden. Maybe because I had skipped my standard rose garden joke. "I didn't make any binding commitment to come here," (think about it) I felt poised, when my wife offered me the perfect slow pitch.
     "Be careful for bees," she said, smelling a rose.  "They're out in force."
     She could picture her husband swooping in to smell a perfect rose and ending up with a nostril full of bee. Sometimes my whole life seems like that.
     "That's why they call them 'bees,'" I replied. "Because you have to 'bee careful.'"
     Some might have groaned. You might be groaning now. But my wife thought that is funny, or has been conditioned to think that funny. She laughed, and then realized she was laughing.
     "That's why you love me, because I'm easy to please," she said.
    "No," I corrected her. "That's why you love me."
     She laughed even more.
     Okay, not Nick and Nora Charles. But we enjoyed it. And "I didn't make any binding commitment to come here" translates into "I never promised you a rose garden." A reference to the country song. Maybe it gets funnier after you've heard it 50 times. Maybe not.
     Labor Day happened to be our 29th anniversary. The garden was mobbed, the line of cars backed onto Lake Cook Road, the parking lot jammed. Once inside,  we joined the wonderfully diverse crowd the Botanic Garden draws: black and white, Hispanic and asian, wedding parties and orchid societies, brides and quinceañera teens posing for photographs. 
    Usually, the throngs taper off quickly as soon as you get away from the front entrance. But not Monday. Even in the far reaches, the winding paths and well-wrought bridges were bristling with strollers: young couples, old couples, parents and young kids in strollers, large, extended families. Sometimes that's annoying. ("Hell," I like to say, quoting Sartre, "is other people.") But the weather was so perfect, I didn't object to sharing the Botanic Garden with the big crowds.
     "I don't mind the other people," I informed Edie, as we walked.
     "What other people?" she replied.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

No, this will not be on the test.

     Hi kids! How was school? Hope you had a good first day. Hope the rain didn’t mess things up too much.
     Kidding. I know students don’t read the newspaper. Not when they can endlessly flip through Instagram posts on their smartphones and check out what their friends are doing.
     So OK, none of the some 360,000 students enrolled this year in Chicago’s 642 public schools are reading this. A shame. Because if I remember correctly, students can feel cut off. I wish they knew they are actually a major force in the city, by numbers alone: 13 percent of Chicago residents are enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools. If CPS were itself a city, it would be almost as populous as Cleveland which, with 385,000 residents, just nudges past. Fold in Catholic schools, and the “City of Chicago Students” becomes the 47th largest city in the country, surpassing Oakland or Minneapolis.
     See what you miss, not reading the paper? OK, you don’t see. A survey last year found only 2 percent of American teens read the newspaper.
     Who are these people? As with any large city, CPS is too vast to generalize, ranging from 3-year-olds in pre-kindergarten programs excited to learn about the color blue to 18-year-olds learning to fertilize with fish poop (not a made-up example: the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in Mount Greenwood had four large tanks, raising tilapia, when I visited. The wastewater was being used to nourish the school’s crops).
     From elite high schools like Northside College Prep, where it is not unknown for suburban families to lie about their addresses, trying to sneak in students, to Consuella B. York Alternative High School, which families work equally hard to keep their kids out of: it’s the high school inside Cook County Jail.
     Whatever grade or school, just paying attention in class can seem a lot to ask. To also follow the news is a bridge too far. I get that. The news is so chaotic and ... granular. It unfolds so slowly. Nothing like a video game, where you hurtle through a colorful tube of geometric shapes flying at you and then on to the next, even harder level. That’s accomplishing something!

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Flashback 1999: "Right choice is in eye of the beholder

Mattress Show Room, W. & J. Sloane (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     Decisions are hard. You have to make a choice, then live with it. At least they are for me. I know there are people who breezily acquire tattoos, shed jobs, buy cars, sell homes, without a moment's qualm. I envy those people deeply. They don't know how lucky they are. Even when I make a major decision easily, I can never be sure that a backwash of cold regret won't swamp me the next day. The Mattress Story came up twice in the past few weeks, and I realized I'd never posted it here. That oversight is now corrected.

     Went to buy eyeglasses the other day. I had mangled my current pair roughhousing with the boys, and while the glasses were still wearable, they threatened to snap at some moment of maximum inconvenience. Why not cleverly sidestep the crisis by getting a new pair first?
     But buying glasses is itself a crisis, or at least a tough decision. It's like buying a new nose. They perch on your face for years and years, defining you. And they cost almost as much as a new nose, which only makes the decision more difficult.
     Of course I told myself the Mattress Story, even before I got to the store, for support and inspiration. The Mattress Story is one of those cherished family tales used to define a person, in this case my brother Sam, the decisive executive.
     This was about 10 years ago. He had just moved from Tokyo to Chicago and was living with me on Logan Boulevard, sleeping on the sofa. He needed a bed. We visited a mattress store on North Halsted Street. Sam immediately flopped backward on a mattress/box spring set, closed his eyes, spread his arms, and seemed to doze for a second. Then his eyes snapped open and he popped up.
     "This one is fine," he announced. He moved to the cash register, taking out his wallet. This astounded me, shocked me. "But what about that one?" I said, wedging myself between him and the register, pointing to another, randomly chosen bed. "Or that one." The store offered about two dozen beds.
     "This one is fine," repeated my brother, a little impatiently. I began to protest, agog, but he stayed on his feet, paid for the mattress, and left.
     I could never do that. Never, ever, ever. I would have to carefully lay on each mattress, from the $100 aqua foam pallet destined for a fleabag motel, to the $2,500 deluxe luxury model, all gold and satiny braid, which I could never buy anyway. I would narrow them down to two choices that were completely identical, then agonize, back and forth between them, sweating and mumbling and flopping from one bed to another until a crowd gathered and I just picked one to end the embarrassing ordeal, so I could flee the store, heart palpitating, already regretting my decision.
     So you can imagine how an eyeglass store, with its hundreds of frames of all sizes and varieties, would pose a problem. I tried to coax my wife along to make the decision for me, but she was too savvy. "You can do it," she said.
     And I did, in my fashion. I actually, sincerely liked the first frame I touched. Stylish. Handsome, in my estimation. I thought about buying that one and being done with it. But no. That is not my way. I had to carefully examine every single frame in the store, forcing myself to select a second choice, which I then spent 20 minutes comparing to the first choice, sitting before a mirror, putting on one pair, then the other, then my present pair, again and again and again, polling the clerks, the optometrist in the back, flipping a coin at one point, contemplating running out to get my wife.
     And then I bought the first pair I tried on.
     But life offers compensation. While I agonize over the big-ticket items—I'm sure many people have less anxiety deciding to move abroad than I do choosing a sofa—at least there aren't too many of those decisions. It's not as if you buy a new car every week. And the small, what's-for-lunch questions are a breeze for me.
     I flop open the menu, pick something, usually a club sandwich on wheat toast, snap the menu closed, and am whistling and drumming my fingers, along with the waiter, while my wife silently stares at the menu as if it were written in a foreign language. And am I sympathetic, based on my own difficulties with certain decisions? Of course not.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 13, 1999

Monday, September 2, 2019

Can we stop sugarcoating horror now?

     With the anniversary of the start of World War II nearly upon us, a New Jersey publicist sent me an email last week, pitching the feel-good story of Dutch teenage girls seducing and killing Nazi officers.
     My first thought was: “It’s always the anniversary of some World War II event. The beginning. The end. Pearl Harbor. D-Day ...”
     My second thought was: “Yeah. Sept. 1. Sunday. Thanks for the advance notice. Making it ... 75 ... no, started 1939 ... 80 years.”)
     Girls killing Nazis. Tempting. Who wants to swim the depths of horror? To risk drowning in humanity’s bottomless evil? To realize just how tenuous our foothold on civilization’s shore? Very human to pluck at thrilling tales of heroism, bobbing on this sea of gore.
     But can you do that too much?

     The media rushes so quickly to comfort that it overshoots reality. What used to be a ray of relief from general horror has become the main event. And not just regarding the Holocaust. We’re too keen to put the bright spin on atrocity. Ten seconds of shock, then straight to “Wind Beneath My Wings” and closure.
     I’d suspected it before, after mass shootings, like the one Saturday in Texas. The grim law enforcement chiefs assemble around a podium to share what little is known about the killer. But not before they put in a plug for first responders — didn’t they work great together? Kudos all around for a job well done!
     Then the heroes are trotted out, dead or alive. The media can’t celebrate those fast enough, people who shielded their loved ones, who herded the terrified schoolchildren into an empty classroom and cowered in the darkness. Humanity at its best!

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Sunday, September 1, 2019

Flashback 2011: Cutting out a kidney is gloopy work

     This is the second of two parts about Rachel Garneau's kidney donation in 2011. The first part is here. Of course I wondered how the donor has been faring in the eight years since; I tried to track her down, scouring Facebook and Nexis and calling the Notre Dame media affairs office. But nothing yet. 

      Before you can remove a kidney, you first have to find it. Which is easy enough in a general sense—Dr. Yolanda Becker wrote her initials in purple pen on Rachel Garneau's lower left abdomen, roughly above where her left kidney should be.
     But a human body is not a car engine. Not everything is in the same place. Laying eyes—or the laparoscopic camera used to see in the body—on the kidney itself is harder, like trying to find a shy hippo in a jungle thicket.
     Readers met the patient on Monday. If you thought the 20-year-old Notre Dame junior seemed blasé describing why she decided to donate a kidney to whoever needed it, you should have seen her at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday as she ambled into the lobby of the University of Chicago Medical Center's Bernard Mitchell Hospital, wearing black sweatpants and aqua flip-flops, clad in an air of utter calm.
     "I'm ready," she said, when asked, displaying no anxiety or apprehension whatsoever. The strongest emotion she showed was when the anesthesiologist told her she could keep the purple pen used to bird-dog her kidney.
     "Yes!" she exuded. It was indeed a nice pen.
     An hour later she was naked, unconscious, lying on her right side while nurses draped her body with blue paper coverings and padded her with yellow foam to prevent nerve damage from being in one position too long.
     At 7:33 a.m., transplant surgeon Dr. Piotr Witkowski took a scalpel and made a small incision in her stomach. In all, four small keyholes were cut there, to insert a tiny camera, a Maryland clamp, a stapler and a harmonic scalpel that uses ultrasound to cut and heat to immediately cauterize what it has cut.
     Her abdomen was inflated with carbon dioxide to create room so doctors could see. The operating room lights were turned off, except for one over the instrument tray, and it was eerie to be in an OR with the lights low, the surgeons and nurses all gazing at images on an HD color flat-screen monitor.
     What they were seeing is hard to describe. Up close, your guts are a gloopy, drippy, glistening jelly, a grotto of strands and lumps, an orange, gray, yellow, purple and maroon mess.
     Dr. Becker worked the scope. Dr. Witkow­ski manipulated the clamp in his left hand, the scalpel in his right, sometimes putting a little body English on it, like a pinball player. He easily spent two hours cutting away at what looked like thick plastic spider webs of mucus, tugging with a tiny clamp and cutting with a scalpel with a 1/2-inch blade.
     "Oh that's the artery right there," said Dr. Becker—getting to the kidney and cutting it out is a two-person job, with a third surgeon standing by. The operation's cost, $50,000 or so, is covered by the recipient's insurance.
     The clamp opened and closed like a blind metal crocodile, its serrated teeth grabbing the viscous material, while the bird of the scalpel came in to nip it apart, giving off puffs of steam. The kidney was well-hidden, at first.
     "Watch that vessel, it's underneath," said Dr. Becker. "Can you make a hole up here?" She has done this procedure—a nephrectomy—at least 100 times, and spoke of the various organs as if they were individuals. The touchy spleen, the adrenal gland that "doesn't like" being nudged—and the pancreas is even moodier.
     "The pancreas is the bitch of the abdomen," she confided.
     Eventually, the kidney is separated from Garneau's body except for a vein, the ureter and two arteries. Most kidneys have one artery, but remember, bodies vary. Some have an extra artery (and that's just the variety of nature. With multiple transplants, since dysfunctional kidneys are left in place, a person can end up with four or five kidneys).
     This kidney was heading to New York for a recipient whose loved one sent a kidney to Wisconsin, called a "cluster" donation.
     The doctors made a four-inch incision in Garneau's abdomen and only then, when it was open and ready, at 10:30 a.m., did they staple off arteries and the vein and cut them.
     Dr. Becker nudged the kidney into a little bag—imagine a small fishing net with a baggie at the end—and pulled it out of the incision. Using her hands to remove the kidney would be too perilous. "Kidneys are slippery, like newborns," she said.
     The kidney was drained of blood and filled with solution. Rich Cummings, procurement coordinator, put the kidney in a plastic jar, packed the jar in ice, bagged it and put it in a cardboard box marked "RUSH! Perishable."
     He walked the box briskly down the hall to Jim Damopoulos, of Sterling Courier, who took it downstairs and put it in the back of his Dodge Caliber and drove off to O'Hare to put it on a 1 p.m. United flight to New York, where the kidney was scheduled to meet its new owner at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 1, 2011

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Flashback 2011: Giving stranger a kidney; 'I'm really looking forward to it'

Detail from "Still," by Damien Hirst, at the Art Institute of Chicago

    Last week, I wrote about a woman who donated a kidney to a stranger. Which reminded me: I had been here before, not only focusing on a young lady making an "altruistic" donation, but observing the surgery at University of Chicago Hospitals. I enjoyed revisiting the pair of columns, and thought you might too. Today we meet the donor, tomorrow we watch the surgery. 

     Before the sun comes up Tuesday, Rachel Garneau's boyfriend will drive her from her home in Elmhurst to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where a surgeon will operate on this perfectly healthy 20-year old college junior and remove her left kidney.
     Typically, this kind of donation is made to save the life of a loved one—you give your kidney to a brother or sister, for instance, suffering from kidney failure. Or, if you are not a suitable donor for your relative, you give a kidney into the national donation system, and somebody angling for a kidney for their loved one gives one to yours, forming a "cluster" of donation that can involve half a dozen people.
     But Garneau's four siblings are fine. She doesn't know anyone who needs a kidney. She just wants to donate hers.
     "We have a young lady, an incredibly generous person who said, 'I want to give up my kidney to just anybody,'" said Dr. Yolanda T. Becker, the transplant surgeon who will perform the operation and director of the hospital's kidney program.
     "I'm excited," said Garneau, a few days before the surgery. "I'm really looking forward to it."
      Altruistic donation of a kidney is not as rare as one might imagine. Nearly 1,000 people have done it nationwide. There is a website, Matchingdonors.com, that says it facilitated 100 organ donations and has 2,000 people signed up hoping to donate.
     Still, the number of people willing to give kidneys is nowhere near the need. The waiting list for kidneys nationwide has 82,000 names on it, and with dialysis such a taxing procedure, 12 people a day die in the U.S. waiting for a kidney to become available.
     Garneau is majoring in anthropology at Notre Dame, and is planning to study in Rome in the fall. She plays intramural volleyball. Eventually, she'd like to spend a few years in the Peace Corps, then start a family.
     What inspired her to consider this now?
     "I honestly don't remember what got me into this at all," she said. "I first started thinking about this three years ago, when I was 17. I've never known anybody who had kidney problems, I never knew anybody who had serious medical issues. One day, I started thinking about it, doing the research ... a few hours later, I went downstairs I told my parents I wanted to donate my kidney."
     Her mother and father reacted the way most parents would.
     "They sort of ignored me at first because they thought I was joking," she said. "When they realized I was considering it, they said, 'No. End of discussion.' They said the surgery is risky, what if you get hurt? What if you die? It seemed one of those things you say on a whim."
     But she persisted. Why?
     "Honestly, I don't know," she said. "I don't think it's a religious thing. I was raised Catholic. I never really felt like God was a part of this, necessarily. I guess it could be, but I never really felt that way. I decided to do it. I got this idea in my head and it won't go away. I can't not try to do something. My family has always been very giving, very charitable toward others. That could be a part of it."
     This kind of altruism is certainly nothing new for Garneau. When she was 15 she told her parents she wanted to help people overseas.
     "I decided I wanted to volunteer in Africa," she said. "They let me go with a friend for a month when I was 16. I went to Ghana to work in an orphanage."
     Her father, who works as a meat cutter, declined to be interviewed; her mother, a special education teacher, died suddenly in 2008 from an infection picked up in a hospital a month after she was diagnosed with leukemia—though Garneau points out that she decided to donate her kidney before she knew her mother was sick.
     Garneau approached the hospital last fall and assumed she'd donate her kidney by Christmas.
     Instead, she had half a year of interviews and medical tests.
     "We really put her through the wringer to make sure it was something she really, really wanted to do," said Dr. Becker. "The potential donor is seen by a social worker, a psychologist, a living donor advocate, to make sure we are not doing anything bad."
     The hospital held an ethics conference with two dozen doctors, nurses, social workers and psychologists to discuss the case.
     "Some were arguing very vehemently that there is no medical benefit to her," said Dr. Becker. "Some people felt she was very young."
     Many would-be donors are sent away.
     "About 30 or 40 percent we reject, for all kinds of reasons," said Dr. Becker. "They don't realize just what they're up against. We want to give them multiple opportunities to ask questions or back out. We made her come back almost half a dozen times. She's so unusual, so young. We want to make sure we're protecting our donors. I'm not going to whack somebody over the head and take their kidney out."
     What about the Hippocratic Oath, what about "first do no harm"?
     "She's an adult," said Dr. Becker. "She gave me permission. I did speak with her father, just to give him the facts. The operation is risky—any time you operate, there is a minute but very real chance of death. Still, I feel very comfortable that this young lady has given informed consent. She knows what she's getting into. If I didn't feel comfortable, I wouldn't proceed."
     Dr. Becker has done this before. I wondered how she felt, taking a kidney from a perfectly healthy young woman.
     "To be honest, in some ways it's more stressful to take one out of healthy person than to put one into a sick person, because you are taking something away from that healthy person," she said. "It's not an operation they need to have done. They're not sick. There is a slightly added level of stress."
     I mentioned to Dr. Becker that, in my view, if Garneau were signing up for the Marines we wouldn't think twice of applauding her selflessness, even if she were going to fight in Afghanistan, where she could possibly be injured in a far more grievous way than losing a kidney (your remaining kidney enlarges to pick up the slack, and since kidney disease typically strikes both kidneys, having an extra is only useful in the case of physical trauma, like a car accident).
     "That was the argument brought up at the ethics conference," she said. "It's less dangerous than going to Iraq and getting shot."
      Garneau couldn't quite put her finger on her exact motive. What does Dr. Becker think of what Garneau is doing?
     "I just think she's on a higher moral plane," she said. "She's great. She's awesome. She is just an incredibly generous person who saw this is the right thing to do."

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times May 30, 2011

Friday, August 30, 2019

Latest Trump move on border wall is straight out of Hell

Statue of Dante in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence.
     Almost any reaction to the daily doings of the unhinged, untruthful, craven, cruel, possibly insane, probably criminal, confirmed fraud we call our president can be justified at this point, from simmering outrage to protective indifference.
     And heck, I should add that unyielding enthusiasm is a common reaction that can also be justified — because you can rationalize anything. I hear every day from readers who believe passionately that Donald J. Trump is the best president the United States has ever had or could ever have, particularly when compared to the infamous criminal regime of Osama bin Obama.
     You think I’m joking? Let’s reach down and hook an email wriggling in today’s Spam filter.
     “It seems that people with morals are the underdogs these days,” Vicki Falsey writes to me and half the Sun-Times masthead. “So all the people that voted for Trump and love him don’t have a voice. Since Trump has gotten in office, your paper has been writing these disrespectful articles about the president. I cannot imagine anyone ever writing anything this ignorant about the worst president to ever be in office, Obama. Just so you know, Obama was the worst thing to happen to our country. He brought it down. Insurance will never be affordable again for the working class people. But, no one and I mean no one disrespected him. You would have lost your jobs if you said anything negative against Obama and his wife. Yet everyday, you mock and insult the president. You should be fired.”
     There’s more, but you get the point. And no, I didn’t argue with her. To what purpose?
     So to recap: many reactions to our leader, across a broad spectrum. That said, I believe my personal reaction to Wednesday’s jaw-dropper must be unique.
     The news: that Trump is so desperate to have a few miles of new border wall by election time, as a sop to his xenophobic base, he ordered aides to seize private property (“Take the land,” he said), skirt environmental concerns, and not to fret about any crimes they might commit (“Don’t worry, I’ll pardon you,” he told them).

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Thursday, August 29, 2019

You don't seem to have a face

      All this social media stuff. What a waste. Arguing with strangers. Talking to ourselves, talking to computers, listening to computers, gazing at analytics that don't mean anything.
      I was postponing doing meaningful work Wednesday morning, and glanced at the portrait associated with my gmail account at the newspaper. My column bug from, gee, maybe 10 years ago. Maybe more. Out-of-date. The paper had a photographer shoot a new one earlier this year. They don't always use it, but it can take a long time for old stuff to work its way out of the system, and I'm not one to complain.
     This, I could change myself.
     So I clicked on the portrait, and the system easily pointed me toward inserting a new photo. I dragged in the new shot, jiggled with its positioning, clicked "Set as profile photo." Nothing. I tried a second time. That's when I noticed gmail's explanation of the problem.

    "Are you sure people will recognize you in this photo? It doesn't seem to have a face in it."
    Well, lah-de-fuckin'-dah. It sure seems like a face to me. But then, I'm biased. Older, sure, grey in the beard. But my face, and I'm sticking with it.
     Will people recognize it? Heck, some days I hardly recognize. I can't speak for all "people"—there's too much of that going around as it is.
     Annoying? Sure. But, honestly, I'm glad the system is so inadequate. I'm sure someday people will go to prison on this kind of error, but right now there are still a few bugs in the system, and that day isn't quite here yet, though the Chinese are rushing us toward it. Nor are they alone. This week it was learned that Amazon's Ring security system is partnering with 400 police departments, handing over images snatched from your doorbell camera for the "new neighborhood watch." An Orwellian phrase if ever there were, because that used to mean you watching the neighbors, and now it means strangers watching us all.
    Another reason not to have a doorbell camera.
    The third time, I got the photo to be accepted, using a very human strategy: I tried again, altering nothing from the first two attempts. Only this time it worked. Third time's the charm, as we used to say when we, you know, used to say stuff.
     There are still a few bugs in the system, thank God. The day this all works smoothly will be a scary day. Not that we'll notice anything is wrong.