Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Flashback 2010: It was a year with no cake, no cookies

     Articles for Mosaic, the British web site of health and science run by the Wellcome Trust, the largest medical charity in the world, take months to complete. So it was with satisfaction that I answered the editor's last—I hope—queries Monday and sent in my latest story, about obstructive sleep apnea. One thing I had to check was this column, published in the early days of 2011, about losing 30 pounds to help combat OSA. I thought I should put it up here, so the article, when it is posted some time in December or January, can link to it. I'll snip this intro off before then. In the years after this column ran, I heard from a few readers who lost weight using my strategy, so maybe it'll help someone in the coming New Year. 

     Unlike you, I kept my New Year's resolutions.
     All through January and February, the gusts of March and the rains of April, when most earnest vows are already long forgotten, into May and June, I pursued my goals, cruising through the summer and fall until now, when success lies glittering at my feet.
     True, I only had two resolutions, but they were good ones: lose 30 pounds and snag another book deal. I nailed them both, losing 30.4 pounds on the East Bank Club scale by Tuesday, and coming to terms with a publisher.
     Check and double check.
     Achieving these resolutions was supposed to make it a better year, and it did, big-time, and since some — though not all — aspects of my success may be transferable, I thought I should pass along a few helpful tips, if only as a smokescreen to all this blatant bragging.
    First the diet. I have been dieting, off and on, for, geez, nearly 40 years, and I think those consistent failures were helpful in providing determination that it work this time. I turned 50, and if man can’t apply himself to something with purpose at 50, he never will. It’s bad enough to be growing older without growing fatter too. Get it done, I thought.
     I also brought a special attitude to this attempt. The beauty of being an alcoholic (now there’s two concepts you just don’t see paired in the same sentence very often) is that you master — eventually, if you work at it — the crucial concepts of a) avoiding bad stuff completely because you don’t want a little, you want a lot and b) doing the right thing consistently over a long period of time.
    I realized that, as with shots of whiskey, I didn’t want one cookie, didn’t want one scoop of ice cream, but lots of cookies, and lots of ice cream. Thus, last Jan. 1, I banned a whole range of foods from my diet — no cookies, no candy, no ice cream, no cake, no doughnuts. My goal was three pounds a month — very slow, very gradual, the way I put it on. There was no rush. I bought an electronic scale, watched what I ate, counted calories and waited for success to baby crawl into my open arms.
     What else helped? I had a debilitating condition — sleep apnea — and a doctor said, if I lost 30 pounds, it might go away. That’s where the 30-pound goal came from, and it was a huge motivation, for me. I suppose some people whose doctors tell them similar things ignore them. But you can’t ignore that mask, a fresh shock every night that I despised. Losing the weight did the trick. No more mask.
     What else? I drank case after case of Fresca, which tastes good and has no calories. Countless containers of Haagen-Dazs chocolate sorbet at 130 calories a half cup.
     I knew I was serious when I turned down cupcakes from Sprinkles, doughnuts from Deerfield’s Bakery, dark chocolates from See’s.
     I permitted myself pie — first because you don’t encounter opportunities for pie nearly as often as opportunities for cake or doughnuts and second, honestly, what is life without pie?
     Sure, there were rare lapses. Kent’s 13th birthday in June at Margie’s — while I initially contemplated miserably nibbling a scoop of sherbet, having lost 25 pounds by then, I thought, “the hell with it,” and sinned boldly: a scoop of vanilla with bittersweet hot fudge sauce. There was that slice of lemon bread on the Fourth of July that was really lemon cake, and an orange Sunkist Fruit Gem at Kent’s bar mitzvah I told myself I needed to give a good speech, plus some hamantaschen at Purim I classified as small pies, due to the fruit filling.
     But not one cookie, not one chocolate.
     My clothes swam — a dieter who lost 50 pounds advised me to give them away, and I did. It’s nice to be constantly told how great you look, although people get so enthusiastic at times I feel like I was Jabba the Hutt before.
     There’s a downside to losing weight — initially your body doesn’t like it. You have to adjust to being smaller, and at times I felt, not thinner, but diminished; this tiny reduced person, particularly since you don’t lose weight in your head. For a while I felt like an alien overlord. Not that I’m complaining — I picked losing 30 pounds because I knew, if I accomplished it, I’d be happy, at least for a while.
     And the book? The University of Chicago Press asked me to write a book — about Chicago, for you fans of irony — and I said “Yes.” As I mentioned, not every aspect of keeping these resolutions is transferable.
    A shiny new year — 2011, incredibly — awaits. My resolutions for next year flow from this year’s — keep the weight off, finish the book, though I’ll try to find a third.
     What would you like to do? If I can, you can.

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 2, 2011

Monday, November 18, 2019

Losing the war doesn’t mean he didn’t fight

”To have a problem in common is much like love and that kind of love was often the bread that we broke among us. And some of us survived and some of us didn’t, and it was sometimes a matter of what’s called luck.”
                             —Tennessee Williams, Memoirs
     Only one friend stopped by that first week after I was allowed to come home. Then again, Michael didn’t have very far to go: out his front door, turn left, walk a few steps, knock on mine. Bearing two cans of raspberry soda water and a bag of potato chips.
     We sat on the porch and talked. Which is what you most want to do when you first go into recovery: talk and talk and talk, trying to sort out how the greatest thing in your life has suddenly became the worst. And how now you have to give it up, somehow.
     It was October, 2005. I don’t remember anything we said. But I do remember, when we were done, Michael hugged me. He was much taller, a good four inches, and I got a face full of plaid flannel. Geez, I thought, not only do I have to give up booze, but now I gotta hug guys too?
     We started going to meetings together. Sometimes walking to the church around the corner in the warm autumn evening. Sometimes he would pick me up in that big old Cadillac he inherited. An inverted echo of high school, but instead of a buddy with a car coming to get me so we could hang out and drink beer, we were two 40ish men on our way to sobriety meetings in the Northwest suburbs.
     Meetings, meetings, meetings. I hated them. Michael liked them. He had a sponsor, and worked the 12 Steps, an eager advocate of How It Works.
     Only it didn’t work. Not for him. Not long term. For some reason, sobriety didn’t stick with Michael the way it has stuck with me, so far. Who knows why? Genetics, luck, something else. 

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Sunday, November 17, 2019

Flashback 2003: A dirty joke to honor today's greatest humorist

Allen & Ginter cigarette card,1891 (Metropolitan Museum)
     A surprising number of readers said they enjoyed yesterday's joke. That's why I used to run them at the end of the column,  for a number of years—the brainchild of Michael Cooke, by the way—as a bit of music hall fun. I was walking a cigar up Shermer Saturday afternoon with a pal, who remarked upon the naughtier version of that joke, and I said how I once ran a somewhat risque joke in the paper. I was emboldened to print it because Garrison Keillor was coming to town with a show of dirty jokes. In 2017, he was fired from Minnesota Public Radio for alleged harassment of female coworkers. He denied the misbehavior, and I can't judge whether he is the aggressor or the victim. But I do know he was an original America comic voice, and I would hate to see his work fall from popularity because of his personal lapses. 

     I know only one dirty joke, but it's a good one. The chicken joke, I call it. Normally, I'm not the dirty-joke-telling type—too inhibited and awkward. But my chicken joke is special, beloved really, though, now that I think of it, not exactly family-newspaper material. Maybe later . . .
     Left on my own, I would never be bold enough to tell a dirty joke in my column, except that Garrison Keillor, of NPR fame, is hosting an evening of "bawdy humor" Monday at the Steppenwolf. Maybe that surprises you—it's like Norman Rockwell painting a scene of civic turmoil.
     Which, of course, Rockwell did. In the same way people try to marginalize Rockwell by forgetting, for instance, his painting of black girls hurrying past a mob during the civil rights era, so those dismissing Keillor as a folksy yarnsmith, his Lake Wobegon a bit of kitsch Americana alongside Reader's Digest and Currier & Ives, ignore his sharp and edgy material, usually because they've never heard or read him.
     I've done both, and I think he's a genius. Don't be fooled by the bumbling Lutheran pastors and clueless senior citizens of his radio stories. Keillor is slyly subversive. Like his outraged teenager nailing 95 complaints about small town life on the church door (and, really, how many Martin Luther puns does one get in life?), Keillor has issues with the town he so obviously cherishes. During the Gulf War, he offered a stark parable of dissent about the one boy in high school who refused to wear a yellow ribbon supporting our troops.
     He also wrote the funniest baseball story since Ring Lardner, a joyous, unhinged, taunting victory strut celebrating the Twins' championship. "My team won the World Series," he began. "You thought we couldn't but we knew we would and we did, and what did your team do? Not much. . . . You thought we were quiet and modest in the Midwest but that's because you're dumb, as dumb as a stump, dumber than dirt."
     Keillor will last—if I had to pick three humorists since the Civil War who will still be read 100 years from now, I'd say Mark Twain, James Thurber and Garrison Keillor. Who am I missing? H. L. Mencken? Maybe. But his references are so obscure now that half his pieces already read like Chaucer. Robert Benchley? Still funny, yes, but who reads him? To survive, you have to create a world, and Keillor's main setting—the mythical American small town trembling on the brink of extinction, its residents caught in the final moments before the modern behemoth steamrolls them away--will remain. Just as we yearn toward Huck and Tom, free on their raft, so our nation will--as we wander, rootless and placeless--grope back toward Lake Wobegon.
     Dirty joke alert: Skip this part!
     OK, on to the joke: A timid man goes to a brothel. He tells the madam that his wife is out of town and that for this, the lone transgression in his life, he wants the wildest thing she has to offer.
     The madam thinks, puffs her cigarette and casts an appraising eye up and down the timid man.
     "I have a chicken . . ." she says at last, "who will give you a back rub" (for our purposes, though "back rub" is not the act in my non-family newspaper version).
     The timid man agrees, and is ushered into an elegant room—circular bed, a big mirror on one wall. A small hatch opens and the chicken is shoved in (this is why I love this joke; the poor, bewildered chicken, skidding into the room, feathers flying). The man tries to … umm … interact with the chicken. But it's just a chicken. Nothing much happens. Still, the next day, he thinks, "That was fun." He returns to the brothel and sidles up to the madam.
     "Um, excuse me," he stammers, "is the, ah, chicken available?"
     "No, I'm sorry," coos the madam. "The chicken is with a customer. But, if you like to watch, there's a woman in the next room wrestling with a dog." Again, in the version I tell, it is a more specific form of wresting-like activity.
     The man is ushered into a dim room with a one-way mirror. Another patron is seated before the mirror, gazing raptly through it. The timid man joins him, and together they watch a woman rolling around with the dog. "This is incredible!" exudes the timid man.
     "You think this is something," says the first man. "You should have been here yesterday. There was a guy trying to get a back rub from a chicken."
     Dirty joke over: safe to read now.
     Another great thing about Keillor is how he rescues so much that falls by the wayside in our culture. Old pop songs and spoken stories, singalongs and, yes, raunchy jokes. It is safe to say that I would have spent my career, such as it is, and never been bold enough to tell my chicken joke, were I not given strength by Keillor's example.
     Not that Keillor is perfect. He loathes journalists, for instance. He has his reasons, I suppose, but it still stings, personally, and seems ungracious. Were I a comic genius, at the top of my craft, producing deathless humor entertaining the world, I think I'd extend a little pity toward the middling mediocrities brushing against the hem of my robe as I stride by.
     But that is quibbling—no wonder he hates us. I'll be in the audience Monday. Tickets are sold out, sadly, but he'll be back, and then there are all those books and tapes and radio programs. You shouldn't miss him just because you think you know who he is.

          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 3, 2003

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Flashback 2006: Took shot at a politician, got call from a man

     Monday's column on the tempest over the Daily Northwestern daring to cover a news story mentioned that I once got was chewed out over the phone by Barack Obama. Regular reader Holger Meerbote was skeptical: "Barack Obama really called and yelled at you?? Over what, may I ask?" I sighed, and was about to explain it all, when I remembered I wrote a column about it—how could I not?
    It was back when my column filled a page and ended with a joke. I've kept the joke because it's an oldie but a goodie.

     The late Steve Neal was vigorous and unrelenting in his attacks on Sen. Dick Durbin. Eloquent, razor-sharp keelhaulings, again and again, for Durbin's bobbling O'Hare reconstruction, for his not commanding respect, for a variety of sins. This did not go over well with the senator. I remember Durbin once showing up for an editorial meeting. "Where's Steve Neal?" he demanded. "I want to see him!" You could tell he was angry. I, as the junior member of the board, was dispatched to Steve's office to go fetch him. But Steve had vanished, through luck or design, a skill I wish I could master.

                                                            * * *

     Late Friday afternoon. The Sunday column's in. Nothing much to do but clean off the desk, best I can—it never gets clean, or even close—drink one last cup of coffee, and call it a week.
     Phone rings. Barack Obama, from Africa. As if he's in the next room, as the cliche goes. My skin goes clammy, and I get a sinking in my gut, the way it felt when, as a kid, I'd get in bad trouble. Oh no. . . .
     He's mad. Not hopping mad, or temper-flaring mad, but steely, calm and controlled mad. We've crossed paths before, but that was politics, he says, and this is personal, and he's offended.
     "I didn't mean to offend you," I say, weakly, and that's true. I thought I was parsing the Gordian knot of racial politics. I presented his trip to Africa not as the sincere personal odyssey that the seal pack of journalists following him are describing, but as calculated political theater.
     Only Obama didn't read it that way. How could he? He saw it as my suggesting he's ashamed of his mother. Or neglecting his grandmother, whom he visits regularly. He was just Downstate, he says, just in Cairo—the press certainly covered it, though of course not to this extent. It wasn't the big deal Africa is because he only gets to Africa once every 14 years.
     I try to explain to Obama—I don't know about his personal life. I'm speaking of images, of politics, of how America views race, a subject that endlessly fascinates me. I didn't think he'd be offended—heck, I didn't even think he'd read it. Africa is far away, or used to be.
     He knows politics, he says, he knows the give and take. But we're friends, and this is over the line.
     "I'm sorry," I say, surrendering. "How can I make it up to you?"

* * *

     After Steve died, I felt duty-bound to take up the Durbin beat, to seize the bastinado and go after the senator. It was easy and fun.
     Then one day, the senator's office called—would I like to have breakfast with him?
     "You realize who you're calling?" I said. Yes indeedy.
     This put me in a pickle. I knew if I started taking meals with Durbin, I would never be able to lay into him the way I once had.
     On the other hand, a senator calls, you go. At least I do.
     At breakfast, Durbin waved off past misunderstandings. He was either sincere or masterful—probably both. Either way, I decided he wasn't the bad guy I once thought he was. We've been pals ever since. Co-opted? Educated? Probably both.

* * *

     Frankly, I can't even write about Obama's call without being aware that there's an undercurrent of bragging on my part—look at me, not an anonymous mediocrity trying to fill his space, but a real pundit, phoned up by God's chosen vessel in American politics, all the way from Africa on a Friday afternoon. Well, that's journalism. People hate us for a reason.
     In our defense, like politicians, we have various audiences. Readers who dislike Obama— and I've got 'em in droves—wonder who's paying for the trip, why he isn't at home, bringing the bacon to Illinois, instead of campaigning in a foreign land. They applauded my candor.
     Those who revere and respect Obama—and I've got them, too—hooted and questioned what I could possibly be thinking.
     My wife is among the latter group—she ran me over the coals so thoroughly Friday morning ("Africa is interesting. . . ," she said) as if warming me up for Obama, I asked her if she was on retainer.
     And me? I meant what I wrote when I wrote it—I always do—but I'm not the Jedi Council. Half the time, I write something because I'm trying to figure it out. I don't always succeed.
     After our phone call, I reeled into the newsroom, green around the gills, and bumped into the editor.
     "What's wrong?" he asked, reading my expression. I told him, and he grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me around and sent me back here to write this.
     As the sky darkened, I found myself thinking about my own father. I took a trip in his honor, too, once. We took his old Merchant Marine ship across the Atlantic together. I thought I was writing a book of remembrance, of love and reconciliation. He hated it. He thought I was lashing out at him, and didn't talk to me for a year. I was shocked.
     I wish I could portray that oblivious quality as courage—I write, and consequences be damned. But that isn't it. I never think of the consequences; they always surprise me.
     When I parsed Barack Obama, the politician, I never imagined I'd offend, and hear from Barack Obama, the man. Very few politicians would do that. I've been slagging Mayor Daley for years, and not a peep out of him. Frankly, I prefer it that way. But Obama is extraordinary—everybody knows that—and we expect great things of him. I certainly do, and if I resist joining the hallelujah chorus, well, that's just me doing my job as best I know how. It's nothing personal.


Nancy Rudins, of Champaign, offers this one:

     A guy goes to a supermarket and notices a beautiful woman smiling at him and waving.
     He's rather taken aback because he can't place how he knows her—he'd certainly remember a face like that.
     She walks over.
     "Do we know each other?" he says, tentatively.
     "I think you're the father of one of my kids,'' she says.
     The man is shocked. His mind races back to the only time he has ever been unfaithful to his wife.
     "My God," he says, "are you the stripper from my bachelor party when I laid on the pool table, with all my buddies watching, while your partner whipped me with wet celery???"
     She looks into his eyes and says, "No, I'm your son's math teacher."
                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 27, 2006

Friday, November 15, 2019

Impeachment: A boring train wreck well worth watching

Rep. Adam Schiff begins the impeachment hearings.

     I loathe meetings, conferences, seminars, conclaves — assemblies of all kinds. I avoid trials, whether civil or criminal, religious services, whether of my own faith or others, and political rallies of all stripes. Anything that traps me so I must sit, be silent and listen to people talk for an indeterminate time.
     Thus I was surprised, mildly, to find myself Wednesday at 9 a.m. CST parked in front of CNN to watch the beginning of the House Intelligence Committee’s public hearings on whether Donald Trump should be impeached. The “This is history!” imperative must have overridden my natural disinclination to watch parliamentary proceedings. The president is being impeached. It’s like the moon catching fire; who doesn’t step outside and look up?
     “It’s 9:02,” I tweeted. (Because really, if a thought goes unexpressed nowadays, does it even exist?) “You’re late. [C’mon] Dems, get with the program.”
     Be careful what you wish for.
     Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., gaveled the hearing to order and spoke for 36 seconds.
     “It is the intention of the committee to proceed without disruptions,” he said, then was interrupted by Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, asking about the “rules of engagement,” as if this were some kind of battle, which of course it is.
     But an odd sort of battle, a battle where the outcome is unimportant. Anyone who understands that the president put his own interests ahead of the nation’s already knew it Tuesday. And anyone who refuses to see that derailing American foreign policy to grease your chances in the next election is an impeachable offense will never grasp that fact, not after a thousand hours of damning testimony. Not after a century.
     The question, Schiff said, is “what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people can come to expect from their commander in chief?”
     Ooh, ooh, me, me! I know! Two minutes later it hadn’t started, and I was growing impatient.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Flashback 1998: Confronting the horror in this political jungle

Bill Clinton, National Portrait Gallery
     America has impeached four presidents and I've written about three of them while the process was unfolding (Andrew Johnson was before my time).
     For Nixon, I was a 13-year-old budding journalist, recording thoughts in a green clothbound notebook lifted from NASA, where my father worked. 
     "As I sat in music class with Mr. Zagar we were listening to the radio when the teacher turned the station we heard the news that Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew has just resigned," I wrote, in cursive, a forgotten skill. "At first I was exstatic [sic] but now I'm not so sure this is a good thing. While I hate Nixon, his vice president, and all the assorted crooks, thugs, tuffs [sic], and assorted evil doers and phone tapers [sic] that associate themselves with Nixon, I feel that unexpected bad things might happen like the fall of American democracy or Nixon seizing the government, but those are remote possibilities."
       Twenty-five years later I had just begun writing a column at the Sun-Times, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton was something to be endured. There are a few errors in the column as well: "Wozzeck" is only 90 minutes long, thank God. And showing off, I name-check Joseph Conrad and quote T.S. Eliot. But can you find the Dante reference as well?

     If you've ever sat through a really terrible opera, one of those four-hour jobbies, always modern—say "Wozzeck" by Berg—that the Lyric Opera seems to feel compelled to inflict upon its audience, periodically, perhaps as penance for the joys of Mozart and Verdi, then you might have already struck upon my technique of escape visualization.
     It is the second act. Having spent the intermission begging my wife to leave and salvage what remains of the evening (she refuses, out of the charmed notion that the performers, 100 yards and two balconies away, will feel badly if we do), I slump down in my red plush seat. The opera unfolds, hideously.
     So I leave, not in reality, but in imagination. I narrow my eyes and go through the process: getting up, murmuring apologies, sliding down the row, trying not to grind my butt in the faces of seated patrons.
     Quick-step up the aisle. Pass through the door into the light. The relief of the unmobbed coat check desk. The giddy reunion between man and coat. The rush down the stairs. The careful noting of the crooked beige plastic electric wall socket plates in the lobby, an amazing lapse amid the glorious marble and brass (I'm going to dip my toe into philanthropy some day and raise the money to buy the Lyric a half dozen real brass socket covers for its lobby— the Neil Steinberg Memorial Wall Plates). The final release into the revivifying night air.
      I found myself engaging in a similar escape last week, when struck by the tsunami of the Lewinsky; Tripp tapes, followed hard by the typhoon of the impeachment hearings. (We never have thought of a proper name for this nightmare, have we? Maybe we should take a cue from Conrad, and just call it the Horror).
     How will this end? When will the face of the general public—turned away in relief since the elections, now roughly grabbed and shoved, like a naughty dog, back into the noisome mess—once again be permitted to turn skyward and view the stars?
     My personal moment of squirming despair came Thursday. I was in a cab, on Lake Shore Drive. Of course, the radio was turned to Ken Starr (all radios and televisions were; you could keep up with the farce by just walking down the street, like with the Cubs in a playoff game).
     Cab radios only have two volumes, tantalizingly soft and eardrum-piercing loud. Straining to hear Starr's pious palaver, I asked the cabbie to turn the radio up. As punishment, I was forced to endure Starr's voice sawing full volume through my head for the rest of the trip.
     When will this be over and what will that be like? Can we conjure up a scenario that, like a fantasy tiptoe out of the opera house, can give us a bit of balm against the nightmare grinding out before our eyes? Since relief tarries, might we not at least imagine relief?
     My first impulse would be to say: No, it's not possible. Steven Calabresi, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University, floated a scenario in which the Senate would still be arguing this issue in January, 2001. And that was his short version. He also suggested the Senate could hold some sort of hearing hounding Clinton after he leaves office (after? after!) to legally bar him from holding future office.
     With all due respect to Calabresi, he's out of his mind, showing the sort of oblivious wish-fulfillment that has led the Republican Party to the precipice and is now inspiring them to leap over into the abyss.
     If this nonsense is still being debated into 2001, there won't be a Republican in Congress to vote on the matter. Bank on it.
     As with all moralists who periodically grab the reins of the nation and drive us toward a cliff, they don't get the idea of a gray region. The moderate mass of America doesn't think in absolutes—we're trying to get through the day, which often requires compromise, a concept lost on zealots. Abortion is bad, but banning it is worse, so the rights of the fetus, such as they are, are trumped by the rights of the mother. Smut on the Internet is a problem, but appointing a committee of bluenoses to try to sweep it clean is worse. Clinton lied under oath, but he lied under oath about his sex life in a proceeding that grew out of a garbage lawsuit mounted by his enemies who hated him prior to all his supposed crimes and only hate him more now.
     But it will end, right? I bring you good news. It will. The inquiry will grind on, the Republicans trying to expand it, desperately. But society, which cares little now, will begin to care less. The hearings will continue, but we won't notice them anymore. New developments will get pushed to the back pages, to the last segment before the weather. Newspapers will run a small box, back by the astrology tables: "Today is the 147th day of the impeachment hearings. Rep. Hyde said . . ."
     This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 22, 1998

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Daily Northwestern’s unfortunate apology

     This was an unusual column. My first inclination, Wednesday morning, was to open up with both barrels on The Daily Northwestern. That went online. Then Medill Dean Charles Whitaker issued a powerful defense of the student newspaper, which is separate from the university, outlining the enormous badgering and pressure the staff faced from their classmates for covering the story. That put the situation in a new context, and I clawed the column back and wrote a more nuanced, if less funny, 2.0 version. Nothing to be ashamed of there. I wrote the first column on deadline with the information I had at hand. When that information changed, I revised my assessment of the situation. A policy I heartily recommend to any and all.


Dear Northwestern:

     Hi? How ya been? Thriving, I know. That new music center? Fan-tastic.
     I’m good, thank you for asking. Old now. But hanging on. Still cranking out a column, just like I did for The Daily Northwestern in the early ’80s.
     Sorry I haven’t written in, gee, 37 years. But I’ve been busy, working, in the real world. At a newspaper. Which isn’t easy. Readers don’t always like what I write. Barack Obama once called and yelled at me. Trump fans fill the spam filter with brutalities. Last week my son’s old kindergarten teacher wrote a nasty letter. You need a hard shell, and to focus on your goal: telling a good story.
     You know what was a good story? Former Trump attorney general Jeff Sessions coming to Northwestern’s Evanston campus Nov. 5 to speak, or try to. It was difficult, with protesters pounding on doors and breaking windows, tussling with campus cops. More evidence the Left can have the same authoritarian tendencies as the Right.
     The Daily covered the event, which is what newspapers do. They cover events.
     Protesters caught in the act didn’t like the idea of being documented. They might get in trouble, so harried The Daily staff until it clawed back their names. Unsatisfied, they pushed for a jaw-dropping apology that instantly became notorious for its crushed capitulation.
     The Daily admits covering the protests, then concedes: “We recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced.”
     What harm? The harm of having your public misbehavior reported? That’s called living in a democracy.
     “Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive,” the mea culpa continues. “Those photos have since been taken down. On one hand, as the paper of record for Northwestern, we want to ensure students, administrators and alumni understand the gravity of the events that took place Tuesday night. However, we decided to prioritize the trust and safety of students who were photographed.”
     Isn’t that what Counseling and Psychological Services is for?
     Worse follows:
     “Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy.”

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Flashback 1996: Gramm puts foot down right on son's career

Jeff Gramm performs in South Korea. 
     A Chicago public high school asked me to speak at its career day next month. My initial inclination was to  decline—it would take a full day, and I'm not sure I can in good conscience encourage anyone to go into professional journalism. 
     Then I reconsidered, thinking that I might be able to say something about the value of pursing a passionate career long shot versus a safe, though less fulfilling path. And besides, who knows what I'll learn from talking to the students? That is, if I can remember to shut up long enough to listen to what they have to say. I told the school I'd do it.
    At the same time, I stumbled across this column from my first year as a columnist, that speaks to the subject. After the column, we'll catch up with what happened to the budding musician over the past 23 years.

     Hey, Jeff Gramm! Don't listen to your old man, Senator Phil. He was full of beans last week when he said he's giving you an entire year to become successful as a rock musician. One year to try music after you get your diploma, at the ripe old age of 21, and he's going to put his foot down and insist that you become a lawyer or a doctor.
     I read what the Texas Republican told the Dallas Morning News and could feel my jaw tighten: "I don't want him to look back 20 years from now, when he's lancing boils or doing wills . . . and say, 'I wonder if I could have been a big rock star?' "
    That's very generous of him. Very GOP. He's implying, of course, that in 20 years you're going to be either a boil-lancer or a will-maker, that your rock ambitions—your first recording is coming out in November—are a chimera and a lark, doomed to fail.
     Thanks, dad.
     Why do parents always do this, generation in and generation out? Listen Jeff, when you were in kindergarten, my father wanted me to go into computers. "They're writing their own checks," he said. He was right, of course, but that didn't matter. I didn't want to go into computers. I wanted, for some crazy reason, to be a writer. My father thought I was insane, and anticipated exactly the same failure that your dad is so helpfully predicting for you. Now, after it has all worked out, he's proud.
     Pressuring your kids to follow in your footsteps is a combination of ego, love and stupidity. It should come as no surprise that my father was a scientist. And gee, coincidence of coincidences, Jeff, yours happens to have been an academic. Small world. I guess having someone carry on the family genes isn't quite enough—you need somebody to pass your professional books on to.
     Now, I'm not saying that law and medicine aren't honorable professions, and you might eventually decide to go into either. But it should be up to you. Senator Dad should have the restraint not to make grand pronouncements about your career in public. But then, he's a Republican, and they like to blow off their big bazoos.
     Sure, music is risky. But law and medicine are no guarantee, either. I know people who flamed out of medical school and are on public assistance now. I know people who never made it past the bar exam despite the agony of repeated attempts.
     And even those who get through law or medical school aren't exactly tripping down the primrose path. Look at the number of lawyers who end up pitching their careers. I know a guy who quit the law and opened up a mustard shop in Wisconsin.
     Jeff, let me tell you a story.
     I went to Northwestern, a hive of ambition just as crawling with achievers as your University of Chicago. There was a guy in my class named David Friedman. When David got out of school, he decided to go into balloon twisting. He became a clown.
     I pitied David, but felt especially sorry for his folks. Four years at Northwestern—a fortune in tuition—down the drain. For what? So David could make balloon giraffes for 5-year-olds at birthday parties. Nice career move.
     But a funny thing happened. David got really successful. He traveled the world twisting balloons. His clown character, Silly Billy, became a New York fixture. He licensed the character out. He built a Silly Billy empire. He was profiled, glowingly, in the New Yorker. He made a bundle.
     Now, of course, it could have worked out otherwise. No guarantees in balloon-twisting either. He could have been just another anonymous clown, standing on a milk crate on the street corner. But you know what? Still, he would have been better off doing what he wanted than going into a field he didn't care about.
     Even if music turns out to be a difficult, unprofitable living (and it's a good strategy to count on that, and for a lot longer than a year) you might still like it, even if it cheeses off old dad (maybe especially if it cheeses off old dad). I'll bet there are 1,000 lawyers and doctors in Chicago who would walk away from their careers, right now, today, if they could be playing behind chicken wire in a Texas honky-tonk tonight. More like 10,000.
     I don't know how your dad plans to enforce his edict next year. Maybe he expects you to hop on command. Maybe he doles out a stipend and intends to yank it back.
     Take my advice. Let him. You only get one life—a life that dad and mom were good enough to give to you. Don't allow them to fearfully demand it back at the last minute. Have faith in yourself and, trust me, they'll fall in line, eventually.
     And besides. We already have too many doctors and lawyers who went into the profession to please their parents.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 28, 1996

     Jeff Gramm's first album, Aden, named for his indie-pop group, was dubbed "an underrated classic" by one critic. The group put out three more, and performed until 2001. Then Gramm went to business school and into investing—he's now a respected hedge fund manager, author of a well-reviewed 2016 book, "Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism." 
     I caught up with him on Twitter. Like most dad's, his father's bark was worse than his bite.
     "He didn’t really enforce the one year deadline!" Gramm wrote. "I played music pretty full time (while temping to pay the bills) until late 2001."
     Does he regret the time lost, playing music when he could have been, oh I don't know, crunching numbers, or whatever it is hedge fund managers do?
     "I think being in a touring band was an incredibly valuable life experience that definitely helped with my investing career," he wrote. "No doubt."

     Phil Gramm, by the way, is doing well at 77, and has no regrets concerning his public skepticism about his son's choice of career.
“I knew Jeff would be successful," the older Gramm said. "I just wanted to live to see it.”
     There you have it. If I impart only one thing to the students, it is to get the single-straight-path-to-success notion out of their minds. Finding your life's work can be like fishing: you usually have to cast your line a number of times before you snag a keeper.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Veterans Day: Talking with one of Illinois’ 628,000 vets

Robert Richmond

     Robert Richmond was 17 when his grandmother took him to the Army recruiting station and signed the papers.
     The year was 1955. The Korean war had just ended.
     ”I went to Korea 16 months,” he said. “I got over there in July of ‘55. I was on the clean-up.”
     Why did he enlist?
     ”There wasn’t anything going on around here,” said Richmond, who grew up on the South Side, near 37th and Indiana,
     I met Richmond last week on the No. 3 King Drive bus. I noticed his Army baseball cap and we got to talking. He was on his way downtown on a few errands and I tagged along.
     Richmond, who like most vets never saw combat, has no regrets about enlisting. He’s glad.
     ”Yes,” he said. “Because it gave me the ability to be a man. Responsibility. I learned how to get up in the morning and do manly things. Things that I needed to do, like taking care of myself.”
     Richmond is one of about 628,000 veterans living in Illinois, according to the Veterans Administration, with 20.4 million veterans nationwide.
     The bus stopped at Randolph Street.
     ”Coming out, wheelchair,” he called out, working the joystick on his electric chair.
     First Richmond visited —choosing my words carefully—a social organization whose commitment to anonymity is equal to its commitment to temperance. To buy a commemorative coin for himself—18 years in January—and one for a relative.
     ”It’s a blessing,” he said, of the anniversary. “It’s a miracle.”

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Sunday, November 10, 2019

Enigmatic beverage

     Wednesday night I was meeting my buddy at the Super Burrito on Western Avenue to have dinner, catch up, then proceed together to an art opening at Tony Fitzpatrick's Dime Gallery across the street. I got there early, or he got there late, and I had some time to kill so drifted over to the refrigerator case. There was this bottle and, reassured by the big "0.0 %" on the label, I figured it was some species of Mexican non-alcoholic beer and worth a try. Even the worst of the stuff isn't bad, a belief that had never led me wrong, up to this point.
     The lady popped the cap off. I took a slug as I headed to the table. Peach. It was a peach flavored non-alcoholic malt-based beverage.  Which would be bad enough if actual peaches were involved in its manufacture.  But I highly doubt that. Some peach-colored chemical perhaps. Peachobufalliconate.
     It wasn't vile, exactly. I could sip the thing as I waited. Or maybe it was vile but I could still manage to ingest the stuff. Either way, I wasn't happy about it, particularly after I noticed the peach-colored label on front. I mean, they had tried  to warn me.
     Squinting at the label on the back of the bottle, I realized this is a product, apparently, not of our great sun-baked neighbor to the South, but Jordan, Israel's border-mate.  At least I think Jordan. The print was shiny and very small.
   Here's the interesting part, and why I'm writing this. Going online to find out more about Mood Peach Malt Beverage, I found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a reference. Not a photo. Nada, which is very rare for a manufactured product. Maybe it's the most popular drink in the Muslim Middle East, lauded in countless Arabic web sites. Though I kinda doubt it. Anyway, I was wondering if anybody has any information on this stuff, because I got nothin'. And if an appreciation for malty faux peach is a particular passion for cultures not my own, well, no insult intended. We are all allowed our individual tastes, at least in this country. I have never been to Jordan so can't speak for it. Maybe this is the national drink. If so, they really should get something online in English, where I can find it. Maybe it's an acquired taste; if so, I will have to take your word for it, because I'll be damned if I ever take another sip of the stuff. My buddy eventually arrived, and I ordered a horchata and a carnitas burrito. Both were very good. 

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: National Geographic

     It's flattering, I suppose, that regular reader Tony Galati would suspect that perhaps I would know someone who has a need for 11 linear feet of The National Geographic, a near complete run from 1976 to 2011. I seem to go in those circles. And double flattering that he didn't even ask whether I myself wanted them. I am a book-type, but leaping to acquire this seems, to me, as hoarding. 

     Not that I don't appreciate the magazine. I do, and have lauded a recent issue—last year's daring look at a face transplant. But I didn't fall under its sway growing up, the way I did, say, for the New Yorker. And even the New Yorker: I read my copy, then throw it away. Then again, the entire run of the New Yorker is available online, going back to 1925.
     As is the National Geographic, going back to 1888, including the maps. They're available online to subscribers.
     But I understand Tony's dilemma. Objects have a sway over us; they acquire us as much as we acquire them. They exert pressure, a mute demand. I asked Tony: why not just throw them away?
     "That might be their ultimate fate," he replied, "but it feels something like throwing out books. I always thought that they were worth saving for the photography, if nothing else. But I've reached the point where I realize that my life isn't infinite, and I'm never going to have any practical use for all the stuff I've collected over the years."
     No, life is not infinite, and I've found myself extra reluctant to acquire things—tchochkes, in my people's parlance. When I went to Europe for two weeks I came home with a shoe horn as a souvenir: an Italian leather shoehorn, to be sure, a memento from a leather shop in Florence that my wife just loved. But otherwise, I was content with the memories. And photos. I don't get rid of those, which explains Tony's fealty to his magazines. Then again, they take up the corner of a chip the size of a gnat.

     This issue—keep the tangible thing well represented electronically or pitch it—has been huge for a couple decades. Not just volumes of old magazines, but card catalogues, even artwork. I was at a school where the kids' fingerpaintings and smiley suns get scanned and put on a thumb drive that goes home, and the originals are tossed. That gave me pause. It's hard to put a thumb drive on your refrigerator. 
     It was my idea to post photos of the magazines here, and see if anybody is interested. Tony said he might even deliver it to the interested party, a measure of his commitment to see this wealth of information to a good home. Though even that phrase, "a wealth of information" sounds dated, doesn't it? We carry an infinity of information in our back pockets, for all the good it does us. I would study ever page of these old magazines if I thought the answer to our quandary were hidden somewhere there, how the diffusion of information has coincided with the coarsening and dumbing down of our country and world. Maybe it is there, somewhere, waiting, and you're the person to find it. Anyway, you know how to reach me.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Hard choices for mayor over new police boss

     Last April, when she still a candidate for mayor, I asked Lori Lightfoot why she would want to leave her cushy berth at a big law firm to play urban problem whack-a-mole, a game impossible to win.
     What I meant was, why condemn yourself to a series of bad choices? The recently-settled strike of the Chicago Teachers Union being a perfect example: She could give the teachers what they want and drive Chicago deeper into its pit of bottomless insolvency. Or hold firm and let the teachers walk, meaning 300,000 kids would start rattling around the city, each a wrong step away from blundering in front of a bus or a bullet and becoming a tiny body set at Lightfoot’s doorstep. She tried to split the difference and the teachers struck.
     I spent the strike manfully suppressing the urge to write a column that began with me marching into my boss’s office and demanding my own 16 percent raise. I would then share with a delighted reading public the eye-rolling rejection and bum’s rush I’d certainly be given. But frankly, the man has enough worries without his employees cooking up stunts then dragooning him as an unwitting participant.
     Now Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson is retiring, which has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with his being found slumped behind the wheel of his car after a festive dinner. And another jump-out-the-window-or-drink-poison decision is dangled in front of our still sorta-new mayor. Promote from within the department? The Matt Rodriguez Method. Or seek someone from the outside the force. Let’s call that the O.W. Wilson Gambit.
     Promote from within and you get men like Johnson, whose qualities I dare not characterize without being accused of slandering the guy as he grabs his cardboard box and hurries out the door with all the dignity he can muster. Perhaps the tactful route to recall what Johnson said last year when asked about the Code of Silence in the Robert Rialmo trial:
     ”I’ve never heard an officer talk about code of silence. I don’t know of anyone being trained on a code of silence.”

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Thursday, November 7, 2019

What if Trump won't go?

The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan by Lucas Kilian (Metropolitan Museum)

     It is still too early to even dream about defeating Donald Trump in 2020. Yes, flipping the Virginia state House and Senate from red to blue and winning the governor's office is a good sign. Yes, it is encouraging that Trump came out swinging for Matt Bevin, the Republican governor of Kentucky, and then he lost. Yes, there could be signs that the GOP might discover, to their shock, that welding their party to a liar, bully, fraud and traitor runs the risk of alienating voters. Even Southern voters.
     So yes, the news this week is good. But relief is premature. Any president has a built-in advantage, even one as toxic and unfit as Donald Trump. 

     Good signs, but only that. And if they lull loyal Americans into a false sense of security that the fight for the soul of this country might be won quickly, easily, or at all, then it does more harm than good. Trump could win, and history flow in his direction for years and years and years. And the winners write history.
     Still, there is one worry that can be put to rest now. I've heard several friends speculate about what happens if "Trump refuses to go" after his, please God, defeat in 2020. I don't know if they mean clings to the desk, weeping and wetting himself, or tries to lead some kind of coup d'etat after his electoral defeat.
     I reply that we are still a nation of laws and that, at 12 noon, EST on Jan. 20, 2021, if Trump loses he will stop being president and White House security will find some way to flush him out.
     Maybe my faith in America is blinding me. But I can't see Trump leading a military overthrow. He lacks the guile. Which might sound odd about such an inveterate liar, but Trump's falsehoods are ad hoc, spur of the moment, say-any-words-that-sound-good type of lies. Plotting an overthrow of the government is, I think, beyond him. He would tweet about it and give away the game. ("Big coop tomorrow! Very hush-hush. Which sounds better? Dictator or caesar?")

    Yes, he has fans in the Armed Forces. But look at the faces of those generals during the staged photo-op in the situation room last month. Are they going to violate their oaths, turn their backs on everything they believe in, and commit undeniable treason, all out of loyalty for a man who has no loyalty to anyone?  It's one thing for Bevin to refuse to concede defeat after the Kentucky secretary of state called the race for Democrat Andy Behsear. That's just being a poor loser. It's another thing entirely to try to negate the outcome.
    There is another way to spin the possibility of Trump clinging to power. Let's say it happens. Trump loses the election, but somehow remains—denying its legitimacy, military overthrow, whatever. Fox News declares him king. His base bows down. 
     Can that work? And if it does, we deserve it. Really. Because if that is how the United States of American ends, if that is how our nation derails, crumpling at a few taps from an erratic, ignorant buffoon like Donald Trump, then how real, how solid, how precious a structure could we have had in the first place? If that can happen, if there is even a chance of that succeeding, then it all was an illusion anyway, and we might as well join all the other nightmare totalitarian dictatorships that so clot the world, because our freedom was never real, and our vaunted laws were a sham. It was all a dream. I don't believe it possible. But that doesn't mean I won't be on the watch for it, and ready to fight against it with all my might. We all have to. The man is capable of anything. Anything. There is no bottom, no low beyond which he will not sink, if we let him. Never forget that.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

How did all those balls get into the bog?

     After this was submitted for publication I heard back from the Village of Northbrook engineers—yes, the area was created for stormwater management, "a wet bottom detention basin" in their evocative phrase. And to my delight, this is an instance of vigorous journalism having positive effect in the real world. After I inquired, they went to examine the marsh (not difficult; it's directly across the street from Village Hall). They discovered that it is "plugged"—it should drain in a day—and they will coordinate with the school to unplug it. For a moment, I imagined that my belief that nothing I write ever has any impact on the real world needed to be amended. Then a sharp-eyed reader observed that it wasn't the column, but the inquiry, that set the gears of diligent habitat husbandry into motion. Maybe next time....

     One reason we moved into the ramshackle 1905 farmhouse my family has inhabited for nearly 20 years in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook is its proximity to Greenbriar Elementary School, one block away. It gave an excellent grounding to our two boys, slingshotting them into the stratosphere of first academic, then professional success.
     They’re gone now. But I remain, a spectral late middle-aged man haunting the neighborhood. A dog owner, during our daily walks we sometimes drift toward Greenbriar. Though never during school hours, not after a jarring incident five years ago. The dog and I were ambling along an empty sidewalk between the building and the parking lot one afternoon, minding our business. Suddenly the school doors burst open and we were surrounded by kids. Really, it was like Rush Street the moment the Bulls won their first championship: empty, whoosh, mobbed.
     Children jostled to pet the dog,. Before I could get out of there, a woman strode over and informed me that strangers are not permitted on the grounds during school hours. I felt like Peter Lorre in “M.”
     She did not command me to leave that instant. Nor did I clap my hand to my heart and declare, “I am a Greenbriar parent emeritus!” Instead I hung my head, aghast, and fled.

     But 7 a.m. Saturday we had the place to ourselves, so vectored through the schoolyard, past the lovely little wetland next to the playground. It wasn’t there when my kids went to school, but installed later as an encouragement—I imagine—for migrating birds and besieged bees. As an educational tool and not—I hope—a moat to keep scary neighborhood men off the property.
     Admiring the miniature marsh, I noticed a ball, yellow, among the grasses. Then another. Then a third. I began to count. Five, 10, 15, 20...more. At least two dozen balls, of all sorts: kickballs, footballs, basketballs. Plus a pink hulu hoop, floating in the fen.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Key Lime Juice Episode

    "I saw my opportunities and I took 'em."
    A good prankster, like a corrupt Tammany Hall official—the quote above is from New York's notorious George Washington Plunkitt—must know when the moment is right. A good prank presents itself as a fleeting opportunity. The window opens, and you must leap.
     First, some background is in order: among my sons' many marvelous qualities is an enjoyment of baking, particularly the younger one. Breads, souffles, pies; a key lime pie at Thanksgiving with enough regularity—the past three, four years—that it has become a family tradition.
     It being November, and jumping the gun on the prodigals' holiday return, my wife went to buy a bottle of lime juice, a necessary ingredient for key lime pie (I suppose he could use actual key limes instead, but I try not to look a gift pie in the ... wherever you'd look a gift pie. The crust perhaps). 
     There was a hitch in her plan, however, because Nellie & Joe's Famous Key West Lemon Juice looks very much like Nellie & Joe's Famous Key West Lime Juice (can they both be famous? I sense some commercial puffery at work here). Unpacking a bag last week, she let out an oath. She had bought lemon juice. Oh well, she said, making the best of it. When life gives you lemon juice, make lemonade.
      Last Sunday she returned to Sunset to try again. I stayed at home, writing. When she returned, I heard the back door slam and went into the kitchen, as is my habit, to examine the haul, under the guise of helping put the groceries away. I started removing bags of fruit, cans of this and that. My wife went back to the car for more groceries. I reached into the bag and removed the bottle of lime juice.
    What would you do? Do you even see the prank there, shimmering, like a diamond in the dark? Waiting to be seized? Maybe not. Maybe you have to be of my frame of mind.  I hurried to the refrigerator, removed the lemon juice purchased the week before, replaced it with the lime juice, and put the lemon juice in the bag. It would have been better had I left it, but I was thinking on the fly. Assembling my face into a neutral mask of tedium, I continued removing food items—Cheerios, frozen vegetables—as she returned.
     She bustled a bit, I waited until the exact moment, as her attention swung in my direction, to remove the bottle and cast it an idle glance, then a second one, surprised this time.
    "I thought you were getting lime juice," I said, turning the label to her.
    The next three seconds I will shield from the public record. She was not happy, so vigorously irked that I immediately revealed the prank. And here is the second important skill for the prankster: know your audience. She laughed, sincerely, and admitted that I had gotten her, and this was in keeping with my fine tradition. Not every wife would feel that way. She wouldn't always feel that way. But my timing, again, was perfect, so much so that she brought up one of the foundational stories of our relationship.
      For a few years, while we were dating, I drove a cool white Volvo P1800. In the trunk was a steel thermos that had been rattling around there for as long as I knew my wife-to-be. Months, if not years. She eventually, in that female imperative toward rational living, urged me to take the thermos out of the trunk.
      One day, when she said that, I said, "Okay" and took the thermos into the kitchen to be cleaned. But first, I unscrewed the top, poured a steaming cup and took a sip, while she gawped in shock.
    "It's still hot!" I marveled. 
    Earlier that morning, unbeknownst to her, I had removed the thermos, cleaned it, poured in fresh coffee and returned it to the trunk. Worked like a charm. No column or book I've written impressed her as much as that prank. 
     Life doesn't always deliver the surprise and amazement we wish it would. Sometimes we have to help it along, seizing our opportunities as they present themselves.

The 2017 effort, middle pie, back row. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

‘They cannot relate’ — 40 years since Iran hostage crisis

Jacqueline Saper's engagement photo
     On Nov. 4, 1979, the United States Embassy in Iran was located on Tehran’s Takht-e-Jamshid Street in a neighborhood of upscale stores. Which is why Jacqueline Saper, now of Wilmette, happened to be a block away at the start of one of the epochal events of the past half century: the Iran hostage crisis.
     Saper was 18 “and a half,” a newlywed, shopping for cologne for her husband.
     ”The embassy was huge, with red brick walls and a dark green iron fence,” she said. “The American consulate always had long lines. I noticed the crowd was different. They were very angry, shouting ‘Death to America! Death to America!’”
     America, if you aren’t old enough to remember, had welcomed the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Rez Pahlavi, deposed that January, to be treated for cancer in New York. President Jimmy Carter allowed him in with reservations.
Saper at 21. 
"What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?” the president asked, with the half-foresight of those who see the pitfalls they will topple into.
     Young Iranian radicals scaled the walls and cut open the gate. The Marine guards, ordered not to fire, spread tear gas and fell back. The invaders initially planned to hold the embassy three days. Most of the hostages ended up being held 444 days.
     Saper sensed this wasn’t the usual street drama.
     ”Living through the Islamic Revolution earlier that year, I was used to seeing unusual things,” Saper said. “This seemed worse. I was afraid of stampede or tear gas. The embassy was guarded by armed Marines.”
     What did she do?

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Sunday, November 3, 2019

Chicago Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe mural is almost done. No, really.

It should be done by next week.

     The Andy Warhol show is up. It opened Oct. 20 at The Art Institute of Chicago.
     The huge Warhol mural on North Michigan Avenue publicizing the show, though, is not quite up.
     Jeff Zimmerman is working as fast as he can.
     “Just a lot of moving parts,” he says. “The city, the alderman.”
     Plus: the weather. Pesky OSHA concerns. And the river of pedestrians walking directly underneath him. Care is required. 
     “Michigan Avenue is right there,” he says. “A million people walking by, and I have not dripped on anybody.” 
     Then again, Zimmerman is facing a much bigger challenge than Warhol tackled when he took a publicity still from the Monroe movie “Niagara” and silkscreened it.
     You can’t silkscreen a wall. The surface at 663 N. Michigan Ave. is 70 feet by 70 feet — nearly 5,000 square feet, a little bigger than an NBA basketball court. It’s also 150 feet in the air.  

     Working on scaffolding, Zimmerman and his team used a chalk line to create a grid of two-foot squares, a compromise between artistry and deadline.
     “The real way to do it is do it on paper. to scale, then transfer it to the wall, rather than the grid,” Zimmerman says. “Things float around on a grid. But there’s just no time. I wanted to do a one-foot grid, but we’d still be up there, snapping [chalk] lines. Something’s gotta give. That would have had us start painting in mid-November in Chicago, and even I don’t try to paint outside after mid-November in Chicago.”
     If you get the sense Zimmerman knows his way around the side of a building, you’re right. His murals have gone up across the city — from the Oak Street Beach pedestrian tunnel to along The 606 / Bloomingdale Trail. He’s been doing it for decades, unlike certain, ahem, underskilled newcomers.

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Jeff Zimmerman

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: Leaves

     The snowstorm predicted for Thursday came, cutting down the number of wee cops and miniature firefighters who showed up at our house in the evening.
    "Take two," I'd say, extending my big bowl of Mounds and Paydays (my wife's favorites, selected with leftovers in mind). Thinking ahead, I put the car away to keep it from being encased in ice.
     By Friday, the snow was gone. But the blizzard blown leaves remained. Leaving the house, I was stunned by this expanse of leaves, uninterrupted by the car which normally would be there.
    Wait a sec. "Leaving the house ... this expanse of leaves..." I never juxtaposed those homonyms before. A good moment to play my favorite game (well, among my favorite games): Which came first? Leaves, the flappy plant appendages, or leaves, the third-person simple singular present verb that means, ironically, both going and allowing something to remain (in the sense of, "He leaves the book on the table")? And is there any connection? I can't believe that departure, or staying, was named after what happens to tree's plumage in the fall, or that that huge swath of botany was labeled by its fall from sky to ground. I mean, they don't really leave so much as relocate a few feet southward. They haven't left. They're still there.
     The short answer is neither. The first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is a meaning that didn't leap to mind: "1. Permission asked for or granted to do something." As in "to take your leave" with a citation from 900 A.D. The root, the dictionary notes, is the same as "love," the Old English leaf meaning "pleasure, approval."
     Which explains belief, not to forget sick leave, military leaves, and "leave of absence" which the OED traces to 1771. Next we get "leave" as in "allowing to remain." To leave your soup untouched.
     Not until definition No. 7 do we get "To go away from, quit (a place, person, or thing); to deviate from (a lie of road, etc.)." The earliest citation is in 1225, but in a form of English so old it uses letters I can't reproduce. The earliest sharable use is 1557, "leif the toun,"
     Now onto "leaf," which the OED first defines, somewhat cryptically as "An expanded organ of a plant, produced laterally from a stem or branch, or springing from its root; one of the parts of a plant which collectively constitute its foliage."
   That showed up in 825 A.D., in the Vespers Psalter: "swe swe leaf wyrta hrede fallad."
   No, I couldn't translate that, though I did try. If you want to take a crack at it, be my guest.
   Before we take our ... ah, before we depart from this subject, I have to mention that leaf as in a sheet of paper in a book is almost as old, 900 A.D., meaning we've been calling the things on trees and the things in books the same name for more than a thousand years.
    Samuel Johnson, in his great 1755 dictionary, by the way, begins his definition with leaf, the foliage, illustrating it with some lovely lines from Shakespeare:
This is the state of man; today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes, tomorrow blossoms.
    Then he moves on to pages from a book. Third, a definition fallen from popular usage, "One side of a double door," and then yet another definition that had slipped my mind: "Any thing foliated, or thinly beaten." As in gold leaf.
     Which seems a good place to stop and circle back, taking one more look at these golden leaves. They're a mingling of elm and ash leaves, and yes, I treat the ash tree, a cimarron ash I unwisely planted 20 years ago, against the ash borer. That's why it's still with us, dropping leaves mightily, this year all in a mighty storm-driven whoosh, all over the driveway.