Thursday, January 31, 2019

It isn't the cows

Metropolitan Museum of Art
    It's amazing how long you can know something without ever thinking about it.
    For instance.
    Chicago, "hog butcher for the world," yadda yadda. Union Stockyards. We all know it. Cows to slaughter. "The Jungle." Familiar to us all.
     So what was the revolutionary part? The big breakthrough that allowed Chicago to kill all those cattle?
     The chutes? The pens? The hooks? The railroads?
     No.
     Don't feel bad if you don't get it. I'd never get it; I never even thought to ask before Tuesday, and I was reading about ...
     No, before I give away the game, lets do a thought experiment. You run a Chicago slaughterhouse. It's 1877. The cows show up, I don't know, from Kansas, and Iowa, and wherever cows come from. They're led, snorting and foaming, into your slaughterhouse. Where you have all these big Lithuanians with cleavers, Stav and Jurgis and whatever. They kill the cows, and the pigs.
     Then what? Think. It's August. You have all these dead cows and pigs in a bloody heap in your slaughterhouse. What do you do with them?
      Sell them, right? Where do you sell them? To whom? Chicagoans? It's a big city, but we can eat enough to make you a titan.
      Hint: "hog butcher for the world."
      Right. You sell your beef and pork to the world.
     How do you get it there?
     On trains, right?
     So it's August, you kill all these cows and pigs, cut them up, load the meat on trains and ship it to points East.
     Do you see a problem? What happens to the meat? It spoils, right, in about six hours. Which is why the meat slaughtering industry was seasonal. You didn't slaughter in summer. The meat went bad too fast.
     Okay, enough mystery. You need to cool the meat. Which is why, in 1877, Gustavus Swift sent an open railcar filled with sides of beef in the dead of winter back to his former home in Boston. To show it could be done. And how he shipped meat for the next five years, until contracting with the Michigan Rail Car Company to design special insulated rail cars to hold ice, yet keep it from touching the beef and turning it black. He had to set up ice depots along the way to replenish the ice, and overcome resistance from the railroads, which preferred bulkier (and more profitable) live animals, as well as public revulsion with "mummified" meat (butcher shops would display signs, "No Chicago dressed meat sold here") which he did by selling it for far less, since it cost less to ship. Swift was the Uber of his day: a big chain driving out the locals with a vast system.
     It was an enormous organizational effort. Swift "had to buy ice-harvesting rights in lakes all over northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin so that he might have the ice for chilling his beef and loading the ice boxes of his cars at Chicago," his son recalled. "He had to develop icing stations all the way across the country to his markets in the East—the railroads would not build them. Then he had to get the ice-harvesting facilities to supply these stations. he had to build ice houses of huge capacity."
     The railroads wouldn't build them because they preferred shipping live cattle—more profit. But Swift wanted to maximize the value he was shipping. Swift also pushed other innovations: butchers did not typically display the meat they sold. Swift wanted customers to see it, which meant they came to value particular cuts and pay more. He almost didn't care what people paid for his beef, as long as they bought it and became customers. As I said, the Uber of his day.
     "Dressed beef profoundly disrupted the traditional American beef trade," William Cronon observed in"Nature's Metropolis." "Dressed beef brought the entire nation—and Great Britain as well—into Chicago's hinterland."
    But not without resistance. In 1887, the Butchers' National Protective Association was formed with the central purpose of deflecting Chicago beef.
    Not to get lost in the details. What's important to remember is, it was the ice that changed things particularly the car designed by Andrew Chase, at Swift's request: Chase used ice to chill air that chilled the beef. Suddenly slaughtering cattle was a year-round business, a round-the-clock business, since any refrigerated rail car that left Chicago with an empty cubic foot of space was wasting money. Which also led to the huge, consolidated system, because it was expensive to create and maintain this cold supply chain, first with ice, then with mechanically refrigerated cars and warehouses. Driving the small fry out of business.
     Swift's competitors leapt in. Philip Armour created the Armour Refrigerated Line in 1883, and by 1900 it owned 11,000 refrigerated railcars.
     This was supposed to go into yesterday's column. But I had that opening sentence about freezing to death, and sailed off from there, and this was all so complicated, that I never got to what I thought was the most interesting part. Just as well, because I get to tell you now. History, like life, is not fair, and it does not always emphasize the most interesting part. We think it's the cows. But it's not; it's the ice.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Someone is going to freeze to death Wednesday: don't let it be you





     "Freezing to death" is actually a misnomer, since humans begin to die of cold if their core temperature drops below a summery 85, long before ice crystals form.
     But it's too common an error to hope to correct now, and with the Chicago area expected to be plunged into a hellish 20 below zero—the high for Wednesday is predicted to be a record 14 below—this seems an apt moment, among the warnings to stay indoors (my plan) or bundle up in layers if necessity or foolishness lures you outside, to give careful consideration to the long tradition of fatal cold, and the rich literature it has inspired.
     "Hellish" for instance, was not a casually chosen adjective. Despite its famous flames, Hell is often frozen in Dante's travelogue. In the 9th circle, he comes upon figures encased in ice, describing a scene that will no doubt be reproduced on CTA platforms citywide today: "I saw a thousand faces after that/All purple as a dog's lips from the frost/I still shiver, and always will, at the sight."
     And in the lowest pit of Hell, Satan himself is buried to his chest in ice.
     But those people are mostly fictional. Browsing over a century plus of Chicago deep freeze death reports, those real souls most apt to die from cold tend to fall into broad categories: the old, the poor, the old and poor The impaired, typically drunk. The mentally impaired are also vulnerable—in January, 1979, two 8-year-old boys boys, clad only in their pajamas, slipped out of the Joseph P. Kennedy School for Exceptional Children in Palos Township, were locked outside and froze to death on the stoop. It was 5 degrees below zero. Nor where they the only state charges to die that year.
     Hypothermia as a form of suicide is not unknown. In 1898, Maud Alexander, 30, "concealed herself in the dark entrance of the vacant Horse and Harness Exchange building, 1633 Wabash avenue, last evening, and sought to freeze to death," according to a report in the Tribune. "I want to die," she told the policeman who discovered her and saved her life, explaining that she was "friendless and had no money."
     About 25 people die in Cook County every year from exposure to cold. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Illinois is in the top five states for number of cold deaths, though ranks 15th per 100,000 people. About 1,300 people die a year of hypothermia in the United States, 2/3 of those being men, since men are more prone to impairment from substances and what is considered an adventurous spirit.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Au revoir L'Affaire Covington

Medusa, by Damien Hirst
 
     Last week, I asked the paper for Monday off, because I would be in Raleigh researching a story, and didn't want to be distracted. But I had time in the airport Thursday, and so wrote the following about L'Affaire Covington, thinking I might run it Monday. But the government shut down ended, I came back a day early, Covington suddenly seemed Old News, and a profane, Trump-loving cabbie gave me a column I felt more topical than this. It's a little rough, but will have to do on a Tuesday. And if not, well, there's always tomorrow. 

    One of the glories of my job is that I don't have to swing at every pitch. If I feel I'm going to dribble it into the dirt, or a topic is coming in a little tight and inside, I'll let it sail by and wait for another more my liking.
     The Jason Van Dyke verdict? Pass. With the entire city in full cry, I didn't feel anything to add, or, rather, my perspective seemed too minor league. To me the triumph was that he was tried at all. Six years and change isn't much of a sentence, but it's an improvement over nothing, which is what Van Dyke certainly would have gotten had that video not been released. Also, at the back of my mind, it's a policeman on duty trying to do his job. Whatever else you can say about firing 16 shots, it isn't something someone does after carefully weighing the options. The shame is the man was too afraid, or too hyped up, or too something, to simply pause. 
     Never underestimate the power of waiting. Those boys from Covington High School in Kentucky, caught on video in some kind of exchange with a Native-American man? The first critics who leapt out of the blocks, attacking and defending, what was the point? Initially, the incident was cast as mockery, and the internet exploded in condemnation. The main kid in the video, was to be hounded to his grave for that smirk.
     With Twitter lighting up like a pinball machine, I thought I would join the fun. My initial thought did not pass the smell test—let's say it was an unkind observation about the level of Jesus-like love that one can expect from the inmates at Catholic boys schools. That's the thing about unkindness—it's impatient, it wants to leap, it feeds on itself, and encourages others to join in without really thinking either.
     But I did think, and what I thought was: "Don't say that." So I didn't. Upon reflection, I decided to tack the other way, and find someone to sympathize with.
    "Call me a softie," I wrote, but I can't help feel a little sorry for the administrators and teachers at Covington school, who did not expect to see their national reputation turned to shit in a day.
    Or words to that effect. I had to quickly deleted it as a blunderbuss of contempt was fired in my direction. "Apologist!" cried someone I don't know, while someone I do know crafted a mocking parody. Usually deleting ill-advised tweets is pointless—it's already been copied and passed around derisively. But I figured, I don't need this, and returned to the living world: assuming that hasn't become online, and the flesh and pancakes world just a squishy necessity until we become brains-in-jars wired into the Internet.
     Before I weigh in on my actual opinions on Covington, let me explain a theory that I have, based on lots of interactions with bigots. I believe the central harm they do is to themselves. Sure, they sometimes find a victim and inflict damage, such as was directed supposedly at Nathan Phillips, that Native-American drummer—if being elevated from complete obscurity to nationwide lionization can be considered a kind of harm; it strikes me as ample compensation for an awkward five minute encounter.
    But day in and day out, the people the bigots are hurting are themselves. They're the ones always around, forced to squint through their tiny keyhole of a perspective at the wide green world. As the Covington Affair unfolded endlessly—the boys may yet show up at the White House to meet with their spiritual leader—a profound sadness settled in. I couldn't muster any anger toward them and was disappointed that so many of my fellow libs could. My main thought was: how poorly prepared they were to encounter the world, one filled with all races and backgrounds. Some are hostile, such as the Black Hebrews who supposedly catcalled them, priming them for this interlude (though how being insulted by group A allows you to then mock Person B is something of a mystery). Some are enigmatic, like a chanting Native-American beating a drum in front of you. The impulse to mock what you don't understand, on full display here, will not serve those boys well.
    Unless it does. Unless it carries them to the presidency. It certainly didn't hurt Donald Trump. I have the sneaking suspicion that I'm working off an old playbook. When raising my boys, nothing earned stronger paternal disappointment than when I thought they were being cruel or deceptive. I hope I didn't hobble them for the nation we are becoming.
     I focus on Right Wing lapses plenty, though the Left has nothing to feel good about here. The Left reflected what I call Slasher Movie morality. You know how slasher movies work (or did, I understand there are also variation on the classic theme)— establish a bad guy, who does these horrible things, and then the hero finally gets the upper hand, and inflicts all the sadism and brutality on the bad guy that we supposedly condemn him for doing. Only it's alright, because he deserves it.
    The Trump era is an open invitation to be vindictive. The question isn't, "Does the person you are heaping your scorn upon deserve it?" The question is, why are you doing it? Toward what end? And does the act say more about you than the person you are supposedly condemning? Because everyone deserves contempt, more or less, at one moment or another.
   

Monday, January 28, 2019

"Let them know Africans do love Trump"


    "Everyone here loves Trump," said the friend I was staying with while working on a story in North Carolina. "Even black people."
     How do you know? I thought, but did not say—guestly manners, and I suppose the restraint that puts Democrats at a permanent disadvantage in our current national tug-o-war. 

     I had barely seen a person, never mind a person of color, during my stay in this lovely suburb of Raleigh. Lots of tall, straight southern pine trees—growing telephone poles is big business here. Many old tobacco smoking sheds, little rough cabins preserved as a hint of the rustic charm being pushed out by suburban sprawl. But most people were obscured behind the tinted windows of wide-hipped Ford F-150 pick-ups.
     The government shut-down finally ended while I was away, and the victory for Nancy Pelosi and the Dems was being ululated on the pages of the liberal media.
     But the permanent opposition is having none of it. My friend roundly damned Pelosi while I pursed my lips, and is convinced this re-opening is but a three-week pause before Trump, master tactician, presses his struggle anew. Meanwhile, United Airlines sent an email pointedly suggesting I slip home early, ahead of Monday's polar vortex snowstorm. So I gratefully changed my flight, to find O'Hare oddly congested for Saturday night at 9 p.m.
     No matter. I confidently dialed American Taxi, with the relief felt when you spy your mother's face at the window. I was practically home.
     American Taxi let me down. Rather than briskly dispatch a taxi, an automated voice informed me they were short of cabs. It took my order, yes, and said they'd send a text. But no text came as I stood shivering outside. Only one or two American Taxis slipped by. Not promising. I called American Taxi back, busted through the electronic shells and found a real person, who told me there is a shortage of cabs. Several times, while I tried to pry out the information I needed: would there be, not only cabs available some time in the foreseeable future, but a specific cab available for me? And when might that be? He wouldn't say, and eventually I realized I was on my own. The government is being run by a egomaniacal fraud. Congress is seized up. And now, betrayed by American Taxi. It was as if they had snarled, “walk!”

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Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Oriental Institute is no doubt next

"Western Gentleman in Oriental Costume" by unknown British painter
Metropolitan Museum of Art


     Workmen changed the letters on the sign of the Oriental Theater Wednesday night—a Facebook friend sent me a video of himself and a pal, having just seen "Kinky Boots," heckling the workers.
    "Blasphemy! Sacrilege!" one cried, while the other chimed in, "Boooo! Boooo!"
    Yes, change, how we hate it, sometimes.
     The official renaming, to the James M. Nederlander Theatre, is Feb. 8—my pal Chris Jones has a comprehensive story in the Tribune. He explains that there is no reason to get all weepy over the loss of the "Oriental" name; that wasn't even the original name of the  original theater in the site: The Iroquois Theater, the one that notoriously burned in 1903, with a loss of 600 lives, which puts disputes over names in context.
      "Oriental" has to go because the term is now considered offensive. I don't have a dog in this race, but my opinion on the subject was well-expressed by Jayne Tsuchiyama in the Los Angles Times in a 2016 piece headlined "The Term 'Oriental' is outdated, but is it racist?"
     She quotes Erika Lee, , director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and author of "The Making of Asian America: A History:" 

"In the U.S., the term 'Oriental' has been used to reinforce the idea that Asians were/are forever foreign and could never become American. These ideas helped to justify immigration exclusion, racial discrimination and violence, political disfranchisement and segregation." Lee also claimed that continued use of the term "perpetuates inequality, disrespect, discrimination and stereotypes towards Asian Americans."
     Tsuchiyama doesn't buy it.
     "I don't see it that way," she writes. "I see self-righteous, fragile egos eager to find offense where none is intended."
     Racial analysis has a strict set of rules, manners and conventions.
 Tsuchiyama, being Asian herself, has standing to take strong stands that I couldn't prudently adopt.  Though even unfettered, I wouldn't put it that strongly, not only because it would be unwise, but because I have a vague sympathy for those who indulge in such semantic hurtmongering. We're all scrabbling around in society, and there is an immediate power and dignity that comes from objecting to something, from insisting you are being wronged somehow. That's why the Fox crowd, no matter the topic, always veers into their own victimization, whether notional, as is usually the case, or in certain instances real.  It's easy, rewarding, and many people itch to plug into it. Who knows, it might even be sincere. This is not to deny actual oppression. Asian-Americans of course have suffered their share of discrimination, from the abuses against Chinese railroad workers to World War II Japanese interment camps. But there are people who leap to object. The word "oriental" is dying out on its own, as Tsuchiyama notes, and trying to back form it into something offensive is of marginal utility.
     The Federal government banned the word from official documents and now it is being scrubbed from a marque in Chicago. I'd like to say that human tolerance is thereby improved. But I don't see the connection. Maybe the reason we agonize over the frills and trappings is because we can't get close to the heart of the problem.


Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #24

Todd

     You never get a second chance.
     Unless you do. 
     I was sitting in the The Pit in Raleigh, North Carolina, with my old friend Bob Ringham, when I saw this dramatic hairstyle slide past the window, atop a young man riding a scooter. Scooters are the thing in Raleigh, apparently.
    I drew Bob's attention to the stiff ridge of pointy hair as its owner disappeared.
    "Odd," I said. "Mohawks were a way to broadcast punk rebellion in 1977 and, 40 years later, they still are."
     I wanted to elaborate how they never aged, like other rebellious cuts, the DA, which went from genuine tough guy Rebel-Without-a-Cause talisman to toothless coiffure sunk in nostalgia and the mock heroic. A mohawk is still strange; like a tantrum in hair, a way each generation expresses anew its displeasure with the world.
     A few minutes later, he was back. I couldn't let a second chance slip by. I quickly stood up excused myself, hurrying outside and introducing myself, mentioning Chicago and this blog as if they were charms. He said his name is Todd and apologetically said his girlfriend had just been in a traffic accident and he had to go. Though nicely, nicely enough that I implored, "Two seconds," and he posed, briefly, in profile as instructed. In the first two photos, his magnificent crest was lost in the background but, for this final frame, I dipped my knees and silhouetted it against the sky. And then he was gone, off down the street.
    "I hope she's okay!" I called after him, and returned to the restaurant, where I was met by an inquisitive waitstaff.
    "Do you know that guy?" one waiter said. 
    "No," I replied, "we just met."


Friday, January 25, 2019

Where's Neil?



     I'm not the man in motion I sometimes pretend to be. In fact, fairly homebound and glad of it, partially because I can be bad about doing all the planning necessary for a trip. I'm out-of-town today, working on a story. But before I left, my wife and I had an exchange that made me smile: 

     She: Could you send me the address where you're staying?
     Me: I don't know where I'm staying.
     She: Well then, could you tell me what state you'll be in?
     Me: North Carolina.


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Flashback 1998: Aunt leaves cache of trinkets—and mystery




   Occasionally, I'll reprint an old column and someone will ask me how I can remember something written so long ago. And the honest answer is, often I don't, but just blunder upon them, looking for something else.
     But this one I did remember, after 20 years, and went looking for. I'm posting it because I'm out of town, on assignment, and the 23rd anniversary of my column is Saturday, so I figured I would fill the gap with some of my favorites. This is one of my favorites, for reasons that I think will be obvious if you read it. If I had to write it again, I'd start with the the third paragraph, beginning "Alice-Lu Unthank lived alone..." and delete the first two as unnecessary.

     "Unthank"—what an odd name. Only now does its symbolism strike me. 

     Most people lead quiet lives, privately. Modest lives unseen, except by their families, if even then. Lives of love and loss and remembrance.
     But every once and a while, a life breaks open for all to see.
     Alice-Lu Unthank lived alone, in a single bed in a tiny room with file boxes of yarn, bolts of felt, knitting needles and embroidery supplies piled around her, up to the crumbling, cigarette-stained ceiling.
     The retired secretary lived in a two-bedroom flat on Addison Street. The second bedroom was as sparse as hers was cluttered, the beautiful mahogany furniture polished, the double bed made, a brush and comb set neatly on the dresser, as if she were expecting at any moment the room's former occupant, Unthank's father, John J. Joppeck, dead for 20 years.
     "She kept a room for him, as if he was here," said her niece, Penny Young, of Williamsburg, Va. "Like a shrine. I've seen photographs of his dresser when he was alive. It's the same now."
     Unthank, who died March 16 at age 83, left behind no children. Her husband died in 1949. She adored her niece, whom she last saw in 1985. Young was surprised to learn she had inherited her household possessions. She inherited, along with the engagement rings and the gold watches, the melancholy task of shutting down the apartment. She was here, doing that, all last week, and is stunned by the strangeness of what she found, the flotsam saved by her Aunt Alice, a woman she barely knew.
     Not just the huge amounts of handicraft supplies, the hundreds of pattern books, shelf after shelf. Not just the dozens of hand-knit afghans, all labeled and sealed in plastic bags. Not just the shock of seeing her own high school portrait, framed, or an urn containing ashes of a dog named Penny.
     Rather, what prompted Penny Young to call a newspaper were the ornaments—hundreds of them, all made by hand by Joppeck. Ducks and bunnies, hearts and butterflies, napkin racks and spoon racks, toast holders and note holders. Some on display, the bulk—and there may be 1,000—wrapped in brittle newspapers, decades old, stored in careful layers, in box after box after box.
     "I'm in shock," she said. "It's more than I can take."
     Each piece is signed on the back, "JJJ," dated and dedicated to "ALU"—Alice-Lu Unthank. Some have little notes of appreciation, or praise. Behind them all, as best Penny Young can figure out, is a sad tale of a broken family.
     Joppeck and his wife, Nell Kugelman, divorced on Feb. 5, 1927, after 16 years of marriage. Alice-Lu was 13. Young found the papers in her aunt's careful collection of documents. They list the grounds for divorce as "extreme and repeated cruelty," but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. You needed to list some sort of reason then.
     Joppeck disappeared and his oldest daughter did not see him again until March 22, 1966, when they met again at Nell's funeral at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside.
     Father and daughter got to talking. They had several lunches. Soon they were living together. And he started making the ornaments and tokens, almost every day, until his death about a decade later.
     "He made them for her to show love, because he left her," said Young.
     The tokens are not art. "You either like them or you don't," said Young. Many are imitations of cartoons—squirrels, deer, clowns, all vaguely Disneyesque. They are made from old apple crates and bits of wood that Joppeck, a painter and paper hanger, would scavenge. The hangers on the back are made from beer can pull-tabs.
     Young found a heart-shaped locket containing a picture of Alice and a man. At first Young thought it was the deceased husband, Wilson Unthank. "I went, 'Oh my God, this isn't Wilson,' " she said. It was John Joppeck.
     In light of his 40-year absence, the hundreds of tokens have a desperate, guilty quality. And there are indications that Unthank carried anger. Certain accusations in a letter in a strongbox, the details of which aren't to be mentioned.
     Young plans on keeping a curio cabinet Joppeck made, and some of the better wooden trinkets. The others—hundreds of them—she couldn't bring herself to throw away. As luck would have it, she doesn't have to. Her aunt, who left typed inventories of everything in the house, left the phone number of a yarn store. Young called, hoping they would take the yarn—hundreds of skeins and balls of it, ready for somebody to knit.
     Lynette Opolka, the owner of Midwest Discount Yarns, at 5723 W. Irving Park Road, agreed to take the yarn; she plans to donate it to the Veterans Hospital and other charities to use for patient projects.
     Opolka is also taking most of John Joppeck's trinkets. She'll give them away to anyone who stops by her store and asks for one. So you can share a bit of the mystery, if you like. I took a duck and a rabbit.
     I walked out of Alice-Lu Unthank's apartment, thinking about love and knitting and the temporary tyranny of things. No matter how well-ordered your world, no matter how neat the labels, your prized possessions are only a few decades away from the auction block or the resale shop or the dumpster.
     Many of us won't even get the benefit of a Penny Young—a decent, caring person who tries to dispose of our treasures with a little dignity.
     "It's killing me to look at this," she said.
     Balls of yarn. Bits of wood carved like ducks. Old legal documents and prayer cards from funerals. We leave behind so little, and so much.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 24, 1998

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

One hint a policy might not represent America at her best: Nazis love it.

     The past, the past, what do we do with it? Push it down and it bobs back up.
     I was cleaning my desk at home—a walnut roll-top, cubbyholes and odd drawers and secret compartments, bought when I was 14 with five years worth of paper route savings. It's big: the entire Oxford English Dictionary fits on top with room to spare. The thing tends to accumulate junk. I was re-arranging piles of files when I came across a creme colored envelope. Inside, an invitation to my high school commencement.
     "Wednesday evening, June fourteenth. Nineteen hundred and seventy-eight..."
     Where did that come from? It didn't sit there, unnoticed, for 40 years? Did it? I hope not.
     I tucked the invite away and pushed onward with my clean-up.
     Hanging from the bulletin board, a Congressional candidate's flyer. Nothing is more disposable than campaign literature after the election is over, but this, well, I just couldn't throw away. I took it down to admire anew.
     "A SPECIAL MESSAGE TO YOU FROM ARTHUR JONES" it blared. "YOUR CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE FOR CONGRESSMAN."
     The Nazi, if you recall, or alleged Nazi, if you're feeling charitable. The guy who throws birthday parties for Hitler.
     A flag, of course and a photo of the U.S. Capital.
     "WHERE I STAND:" and a dozen bullet points.
     Guess which is first? C'mon, guess!
      No, not "Make English the Official Language!" — because nothing imperils the greatness of a country like having more than one language spoken there. That's fifth. Though I would argue that propping up your native tongue and defending its supposed purity is worse than un-American, it's French. They're big on that.
     Not "No Amnesty for Illegal Aliens!" That's fourth. What a handy word, "illegal"—the bigot's friend, the open gate through which a truckload of fear and hate is driven. The fig leaf hiding—in the mind of the bigot—his obscene shame.
     Enough preface. Drumroll please. Arthur Jones' Numero Uno—whoops, where are my manners? That's Spanish. And Italian. The Number One reason he felt he should be elected:
     "Build The Wall!"
     Of course it is.  Both obvious and demanding explanation.
     Why would a Holocaust-denying, immigrant-hating, anti-Semitic wack job like Jones care about building Trump's Wall? Because he's concerned with stemming crime and the flow of drugs? That's what Trump has been tweet-blasting for days.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Dogs at work




     Nothing beats going out on a story.
     Yes, the telephone is helpful: quick, often necessary, and usually you have to settle for that. Voices on a line. Email is easier and worse—harder = better in journalism, as in so much of life—because people writing emails tend to sound like minor functionaries crafting official statements.
     But visiting tops them all because being there answers questions you never think to ask.
     For instance. At the end of last year I was writing a big piece on manufacturing in Illinois, and I decided to focus, among several companies, on PBC Linear in Roscoe, Illinois. The PBC stands for "Pacific Bearing Corporation." Why them? Bearings seemed hard core industry. They just said "industrial" to me in a loud voice.
     So I drive out to Roscoe, find the company. The secretary summons Tom Schroeder, chief operating officer and son of the founder, and as we step into the office, dogs come running to check me out. They have a "dog-friendly" office and, true to promise, these are friendly dogs; well, indifferent anyway, mildly curious, which is friendly enough. Why? Basically because Schroeder wanted to bring his dog, and it only seemed fair to let anybody else who wanted to bring a dog as well. A fair boss, miribile dictu. The dogs give a warmth to what otherwise could have been a bland and starkly functional corporate place. They lend humanity, ironically enough. Had I done my business over the phone, I never would have thought to say, "And dogs ... do you have dogs in your office?" While their web site does say they are "dog-friendly" that wouldn't catch my attention the way seeing a pack of dogs loping around the headquarters did. 
     The practice is highly unusual. A small, but growing phenomenon: only 7 percent of employer allow pets in the workplace in 2016, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, up from 4 percent two years earlier. 
    That's it. That's all I have to say at the moment. Dogs in the office. But more, you know, tomorrow. I hope.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Worried books are dying out? Naperville's Sourcebooks has good news

   
Dominique Raccah, far right, and her staff at Sourcebooks ponder new logos for their expanding children's division.

     Nine sheets of paper. Each bearing five logos, differing in color and font, arranged on the sand-colored carpet last Tuesday in the CEO's office in one the largest commercial book publishers in the United States, located not in New York, where the book trade traditionally congregates. But in Naperville.
     "Nikki, how do you feel about the light orange?" asks Dominique Raccah, publisher, CEO and founder of Sourcebooks, huddling in her office with seven top staffers, all gazing at the logos. "Because I'm not feeling it. I can be either the dark orange or the pink for Wonderland. But the light orange does not feel robust enough to me."
     "I definitely like the orange better than the pink at this point," says Nicky Benson, publishing manager, who will jointly run the new Wonderland imprint. "But I can see how you would think the light orange is harder to see."
Dominique Raccah was born in Paris. Her family moved
 to the U.S. when she was 9; she came to Chicago
to study at University of Illinois—Chicago Circle.

     "I think it's too similar to our logo orange," says Kelly Barrales-Saylor, editorial director, of kid's nonfiction
     "It is our logo orange," said Chris Bauerle, director of sales and marketing.
     The logos they're pondering didn't exist a few days ago, and in a few hours a few will be shared with the world and featured in a Publishers Weekly article on Sourcebooks' success—selling so many children's book, it is dividing the business into four imprints.
     If anyone is feeling pressure, it doesn't show: there is laughter and back-and-forth critique for 15 minutes.
     "What's really different about Sourcebooks is we're entrepreneurial and agile," Raccah explains.
     Raccah was a former Leo Burnett researcher who, in 1987, struck out on her own as a publisher of financial sourcebooks—hence the company name. By being nimble and collaborative—and at one low point taking a mortgage on Raccah's home—the company has managed to thrive during changing times. For the first two years, Raccah was Sourcebooks' only employee. Now the company employs 139 staffers—3/4 of them women—and parking at their headquarters can be tight. They've had yearly double-digit growth for a decade, thanks in part, to a course change a dozen years ago, when Sourcebooks published its first children's book.
     "Our children's business is now 53 percent of our business, our children's list was up 28 percent last year," says Raccah. "We are the 12th largest children's publisher in the country."
Why kids books? Despite the impression that young people fixate on screens, and the narrowing of childhood that has been so devastating for toys companies, books are different.

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sing to me, muse, of tears and the man

Achilles Removing Patroclus' Body From the Battle by Leon Davent (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     That Gillette commercial, clumsily challenging men to rise above traditional toxic patterns of masculinity... honestly, I'm loathe to set out over such well-trampled ground. But someone needs to point this out: Those supposedly rigid norms that men are held to, the clenched jaw stoicism, the anger, the violence, ... well, they aren't so rigid. 
     Ever read "The Iliad"? Epic Greek poem of male warfare? By Homer? Supposedly blind bard? The one whose very first word is "μῆνις"—rage. A male domain if ever there were, particularly compared to the more feminine "Odyssey."
     That wrath belongs to Achilles the great warrior, "murderous, doomed." The very first thing that happens to our hero, at the beginning of Book One, is he gets in a rather catty argument with his fellow warriors over women ("Desert, by all means—if the spirit drives you home!" King Agamemnon sneers, in Robert Fagles' fine translation). A priest has visited camp, bringing ransom for his daughter, who had been seized in a raid and given to Agamemnon. It gets complicated. But the priest is sent packing, then prays for the gods to back him up. They do, and the Greeks relent. Agamemnon is deprived his prize and so says to Achilles, in effect, "Fine, if I'm losing mine, then I'll take your girl" and claims Briseis, who had been snatched and handed over to Achilles, who is not happy with this development, considering the loss of weaving and other services. (This is starting to sound like the plot line for an episode of "As The World Turns.")
    So what does Achilles, the alpha male warrior hero, do? Stalk off, flop down on a beach and cry to his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, who helicopters in:
     So he wept and prayed and his noble mother heard him...Suddenly up she rose from the churning surf like mist and setting down beside him as he wept, stroked Achilles gently, whispering his name. "My child—why in tears?"
     Achilles sniffs, in essence: "Aw ma, the guys were mean to me, and took my toy and it's not fair!"
     I thought of this reading Saturday's New York Times, of all places, and the four, count 'em, four pages given over to Colin O'Brady and Louis Rudd's epic traverse of Antarctica in November and December, on skis, pulling their supplies on sleds.
     Specifically this, at the very beginning of their trek, a moment which, buried in the lionization of their manly accomplishment, might be missed by those who saw the article, deep in the paper, on the front page of the Sports section.
     On Nov. 3, a Twin Otter sea plane lands them on the Ronne Ice Shelf, on the western coast of the continent. 
     Let O'Brady, 33, pick up the tale, in classic, heigh-ho bluff manly style:
     "That first day I'd been pulling for about two hours. I could see Lou in the distance going a bit faster than me, but it wasn't about the race at that point. I didn't know if I could pull my sled across Antarctica. I didn't know if I could pull my sled for another hour."
    So he does what hardened adventurers since Achilles has done: seek female guidance, in this case whipping out his satellite phone and calling his wife, Jenna "in tears."
    O'Brady's narrative suddenly takes the tone of a 7th grader girl talking about her difficult day:
    "And she's like, 'Where are you?' I 'm like, 'I've only gone two miles since the plane. I'm half a mile from the first waypoint. Should I just camp here?' And what she said was really crucial: 'Get to the first waypoint. That will feel like a victory for today.'"
     There you have it. Few things are more manly than skiing to the South Pole and then across the subcontinent. You wouldn't think crying would be involved. As this story gets recounted, no doubt the part where he phones his wife two hours after the start, crying, and she has to say, in essence, "Pull yourself together bub and keep skiing," will get overlooked. 
     But like Achilles on the beach, it is a key moment, at least in my view, and as part of masculinity as anything else. Those focusing on the inevitable knee-jerk right reaction to the Gillette commercial are picking the easy, low-hanging fruit. Being a man, like being a woman, is difficult and complicated, and always has been. And I'm not downplaying the violent and aggressive parts that need toning down. Though part of doing so is realizing the sensitive parts, the crying and collaboration, have always been there, hiding in plain sight.  An important part of being a man, like being a woman, often  and always, is expressing your feelings, no matter what those are, and relying on your loved ones for help at crucial moments in your life—I know I have in the past, do continually now, and always will.  Masculinity was never the grunting cave man brutishness some consider it to be.



Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #23


 
     I don't know if I can rightly call myself a Thomas Pynchon fan anymore.
     Oh, in the day, I diligently worked my way up the Everest of "Gravity's Rainbow," with its dumb names and goofy songs and endless serpentine sentences coiling back on themselves. I marveled at his Cornell short stories in "Slow Learner." I did something while reading "V." that I've never done while reading a book, before or since: flung it away, with a flick of my fingers, revolted, with a "Yeech!" at its graphic descriptions of atrocities in the Congo.
     And the top, "The Crying of Lot 49." Brief, accessible, with funky Oedipa Maas and her husband Mucho. So hip, so ahead of its time—published in 1964, I believe— looking at the city below, thinking of printed circuits and computer code. And the hidden conspiracy, the post-office based Trystero system, back before too many ordinary Americans began embracing any cracked plot suggested to them as preferable to the messy truth. How I loved it, with their telltale scrawled Thurn und Taxis muted postal horn. The orange marks above look a little bit like it, and I stopped to admire them, and wonder if it might not be the hidden hand, finally revealed.
    I haven't read it, oh, in 20 years, easy. I'll have to give it another go. 
    But after that, I soured on Pynchon: "Mason & Dixon" didn't seem worth reading, not complicated, just obtuse, and I gave it up. Then he started doing cameos on "The Simpsons" and his famous privacy just became a kind of schtick. Finally, David Foster Wallace and "Infinite Jest" came along and ate Pynchon's lunch.
    So of course I paused to savor these scrawls—communication line markers, judging by their color. (I know this because of my secret journalist superpower of looking stuff up. The American Public Works Association distributes this handy key).
     Now that I've given the banal explanation, I feel I've let you down. I should have concocted a wild conspiracy to explain the marks: landing strips of alien spacecraft. Some portion of you would believe it, and your lives would be embroidered with wonder. Oh well, too late now.
   

Friday, January 18, 2019

Two years in: Is American great again yet?

National Museum of American History—Smithsonian Institution

     You know what Sunday is, right?
     No, not the Super Bowl — geez, you’re worse than I am.
     That’s … the first Sunday in February.
     This coming Sunday, Jan. 20, is … wait for it … the second anniversary of the Trump presidency.
     And you without a gift.
     Don’t feel bad, these things sneak up.
     Two years down.
     Only … six to go.
     Ha ha! You thought I was going to say “two to go,” didn’t you? You believe he’s out in 2020, if not before? Pretty to think so. But if this historical epoch has taught anybody anything—and I’m not convinced it has—it’s the infinite human capacity for self-delusion, and a bottomless genius for misunderstanding what is going on right before our eyes.
     From where I’m sitting, Trump wins in 2020.
     Handily.
     Why? Lots of reasons.
     First, he’s the incumbent. History favors the incumbent: 19 presidents have run for re-election since 1900 (including Gerald Ford, who was technically running for his first election, since he was never voted in). Fourteen won, five lost—Taft to Wilson; Hoover to FDR; Ford to Carter; Carter to Reagan, and George H. W. Bush to Clinton.
     So statistics give Trump almost 3-to-1 odds of winning.
     Second, the Democrats display every indication of the disarray we’re so good at. All sorts of long-shot Dems are already throwing their hats in the ring. Bernie Sanders won’t go away. Add a strong third party candidate or two and the Left is a bunch of cats in a barrel scratching at each other as they go over the falls.


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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Why focus on what the president does and says?



     I was surprised by the amount of reaction to yesterday's column—quite a bit, considering the opening line is in Latin. Entirely positive, which was not surprising, considering it was about being polite to those who are nasty to you.
     Okay, not ENTIRELY positive. There was this, from a Mary Loconsole, under the subject heading of "Huh??????":


Hello,

     I just got done reading your article today regarding Twitter. And you’re right – I normally do not read your articles because I find them very “Debbie Downer” in their content…ALWAYS going back to Trump and what he did and what he said and blah, blah, blah…FYI: After over 2 years, I think people get the gist of how he is so they pretty much have already made up their own minds about him. All you do is incite hate for the President of the United States on a daily basis, and that is really a shame – believe it or not, it doesn’t make you look good at all. There are MANY other upbeat topics you can write about and share with your readers, but no, you choose to dwell on the same old thing day after day…B-O-R-I-N-G!!!
     And what I find particularly ridiculous is your statement that the “smallness of biting back like Trump does in not a sign of power, but evidence of enormous weakness….uh, excuse me, but THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DO EVERY DAY!!!
     You came off looking like a total fool….
     Have a nice day!

To which there really was only one conceivable response:


     Thanks for writing.

     NS

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The ancient Romans knew how to handle Twitter better than we do


     “Pusili hominis et miseri cum est repetere mordentem,” Seneca writes, in his essay on anger. “It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.”
     That’s a little strong. While I hesitate to disagree with the master, I have to. Yes, smallness and sorriness define retribution, as they define much of the anthill we call human existence.
     But there is also a strength to biting back. Someone flips you the bird, you automatically return the gesture. Laudable? No. But it does show pride.
     Standing your ground is a reflex, no doubt traced back to baboons on the savanna fluffing their fur to look bigger. The question is: Is it a reflex we can afford to indulge in our social media age? Because we certainly do, big time. The biters and the bitten, toe-to-toe, blasting away.
     Consider how much human effort, brainwork, emotional frisson, not to mention typing, is spent in online disputes. Billions of times a day, total strangers conducting their snarling, personal-yet-anonymous broomstick sword fights.
     Toward what end? Are we debating? Having a conversation? Or merely flailing at each other?
     Who benefits? Twitter, Facebook and the social media companies certainly do. We, not so much. We are unpaid gladiators performing our tiny verbal combats for their profit, so others can read the advertisements between our spats.
     Writing for a daily metropolitan newspaper, I receive blowback continually on all platforms. Letters and phone calls, Facebook posts and email and Twitter.
     That’s good. I want reaction. I used to read them all, reply to them all. But lately that practice is starting to seem antique, like a 19th century president meeting with whoever turns up at the White House and asks to see him.
     My motto used to be Warren Zevon’s line, “The name of the game is be hit and hit back.” Now my mantra is: Don’t let the poison in. Don’t read negative emails, never mind react. Bail out as soon as the language sours. Block and forget. It isn’t as if the person writing is open to persuasion. That’s so 1980s.
  

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Flashback 1999: "To love and not to count the cost"

Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Ed Burke is going to be in the headlines for a long time, as the wheels of justice slowly grind him into gristle. I can't say I'm shedding any tears. But I've long been an admirer of his wife, Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, and my heart goes out to her. I met her nearly 20 years ago, when I was a half reporter/half columnist, so low on the Sun-Times totem pole that I worked Saturday nights. 
     Back then, the Burkes were controversial because they had become foster parents to a black child, "Baby T," and the child's biological mother, finding out the powerful couple caring for her baby thanks to her own neglect and, sensing opportunity, tried to claw the poor kid back.
     The city desk sent me out to cover a speech by Judge Burke, and this resulted.  Note: the Burkes eventually got the child back, and raised him to maturity. Those looking to condemn the Burkes in all things often lump in their decision to care for a foster child, as if it were somehow disreputable, as if they had kidnapped the boy for their own nefarious ends, rather than saved him from a life of neglect. 
     That's ridiculous. I never doubted her good intentions, and think of it now that the couple are receiving general scorn. I find it mitigating, as the lawyers say, and remember having tea with Anne Burke after this. By the time she was done lauding the importance of foster parentage, I was ready to go out and sponsor a child myself. I soon recovered my true, much smaller nature. But I'll never forget the passion and sincerity with which she spoke about the need to help others.


     A reporter was sent to do a story on a prize French poodle arriving on the zeppelin Hindenburg. Hours later he staggered back to the office, his hair singed and face sooty.
     "No story," he said. "The thing exploded and I couldn't find the poodle."
     I made that up, long ago, to illustrate the way reporters, intent on one story, sometimes miss another.
     It happened again, almost, Saturday night, when State Appelate Court Justice Anne M. Burke spoke to a dinner given by Uhlick's Foster Parents United, a foster parents group.
     Burke was herself a foster mother, raising the child known to the public as Baby T, until the original mother, a former drug addict, reclaimed the child after a court fight.
     Burke never had spoken publicly about the situation. This speech—my editor said—delivered to foster parents, might be the opportunity she was looking for to open up.
     I noted that judges are not known for their unwise personal revelations—unwise because the case has not yet completely played itself out, and any grabs for public sympathy might not be well-received by the judge. But it was a quiet Saturday night, so I went.
     The dinner was in a small room in the basement of the Hyatt on Ashland Avenue. Taped music. Balloons. Nothing fancy.
     Burke and her husband, Ald. Edward Burke, came in. They sat and chatted, then Burke was introduced.
     She spoke, not about herself, but about foster parenting.
     "Through your love and generosity, the lives of the most vulnerable and fragile children are strengthened and protected," she said. "Being a foster parent is both a unique responsibility and an incalculable act of love."
    "Love" was a word she used again and again. She urged the foster parents to not let whatever bureaucratic problems they encounter sidetrack them.
     "It is so critical for us to continually remind each other what the real focus of our attention is—to love and not to count the cost," she said. "Everything else is irrelevant—even the unflattering publicity."
     That's the closest she came to talking about herself_negative publicity surely can't be a very big problem for the average foster parent, though it certainly was for the Burkes, who were rewarded for quietly sheltering a child and loving him by having their home picketed.
     Still, it was not enough. Not personal enough. No story. I capped my pen and listened.
     "When we love like that, we change the world for that fragile infant, for that shy little child, for that bright and gifted toddler who looks to us for safety," she said. "To be able to make the world safe for another is a great gift. A sacred trust. I believe it comes from what is deepest and most substantive in each one of us. It arises out of that pool of goodness that is in the heart of each of us. Such power is transformative. It heals and makes whole."
     Burke said that the good news is that children all over the state are succeeding because generous adults open their hearts to them. The bad news, she said, is there aren't enough adults for the swelling numbers of children in need. It is a tough job and only the rare person is willing to try.
     "Loving is not always easy. It has a price. But that has always been the case. For each of us, the generous people who made a difference in our lives are the ones who didn't stop to total the cost," she said. "It is no accident that households built on love thrive and grow. It is no accident that homes fashioned by a generous spirit are filled with hope. It is no accident that families bound together in love survive the unexpected surprises in life."
     She finished her speech. The foster parents applauded heartily. Burke was given a plaque. I slipped out and found a phone and called the office.
     "No story," I said.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 29, 1999


Monday, January 14, 2019

Phyllis Smith was a good bartender and a great friend


Phyllis Smith, right, shakes hands with Gov. Jim Edgar at the Taste of Chicago. Sam Sianis is at center.

     “How’s the family?”
     Phyllis always asked. About Edie. About the boys. Any why not? She had met them all. My parents too. She’d been to our house.
     Still, she surprised me by asking now; it was I who called, spurred by bad news.
     I gave a brief update then cut to the chase.
     But you, Phyllis, how are you?
     “Ehh,” she said. “I’ve had better days.”
     Yes, she had.
     Phyllis Smith was a bartender, for more than 20 years at the Billy Goat Tavern and then at Harry Caray’s in Lombard. She was “a tough lady,” in the words of Goat owner Sam Sianis, with a blunt manner and a big, braying laugh she unleashed often.
     “A Chicago character: the real old-school bartender,” said Grant DePorter, owner of Harry Caray’s. “That would be her.”  

    And if that’s all Phyllis was, I wouldn’t be writing about her now. There was a fine Chicago journalistic tradition of chronicling bars and their denizens, what they say and did, as if it mattered, from Mr. Dooley to Mike Royko. But that tradition, like newspapering itself, has gone into steep decline.
     Nor is booze so charming a topic. As a recovering alcoholic, there is something queasy about rhapsodizing your bartender, even one as good at topping off a drink or listening to a woe as Phyllis.
     Were Phyllis simply a bartender, I wouldn’t bother.
     But she was also my friend. We kept up for a dozen years after she served me my last drink. Nor was it just me.
     “She took great pride in her work and in her customers and their lives,” said her daughter, Laurie Manzardo.

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Churchill in Chicago

 

     When we were small, my mother had an expression she used to suspend our frenzied searches for some missing toy:
      "You'll find it when you're not looking for it."
      Cold, comfort, if I recall, when Lucky Pup had gone AWOL. But there is a certain truth, particularly when it comes to those odd bits of information that resist solving instantly on Google.
      For instance: I keep a ragtag assemblage of historical figures in the back of my mind I call "People Who You Don't Think of as Visiting Chicago." They consist of personages who are somehow difficult to picture on Chicago streets: Oscar Wilde, Col. George Armstrong Custer, Dylan Thomas, Golda Meir, who lived here.  Charles Dickens almost got here, but St. Louis was a bigger deal when he made his vaunted visit to American in 1842, so he went there instead, setting foot in Illinois only at Cairo.
     I had always included Winston Churchill on the list, though couldn't put my finger on any evidence. He got around a lot, particularly as a young man. It made sense.
     On Thursday I had lunch with a pal at the Union League Club, in their soaring Lincoln Ballroom. I admired the rich blue walls, and felt that whatever drudgery life consisted of, at the moment I was sailing in style. At one point, during our mutual exchange of dire observations about our troubled mutual profession, I swept the room with my hand and observed: "On the other hand, we're here now!"
     They make you check your coat at the Union League Club, and afterward, I retrieved mine. It was cold and I planned on hiking over to Iwan Ries, to fill the time before the train with the consolation of a cigar. I paused just before the revolving door to put on my gloves and hat and zip up.
    And my gaze fell upon this plaque.
    Well, there we go. Complete with the photographic proof offered above. As I typed the part about Google not being helpful, I thought I had better do that check-it-out reportorial thing, and instantly came to this detailed historical assessment of Churchill's three, count 'em, three visits to Chicago, in 1901, 1929 (when he stayed at The Drake) and 1932.
     Hmmm...the article was posted in 2006: no doubt my curiosity about Churchill dates to long before then. I seem to remember riffling through the index of a few thick Churchill biographies, looking for a Chicago reference.
     Mere trivia? Perhaps. Though I don't think it's a stretch to use it to raise a larger question related to the immediate knowability of things. Could the shaky role that verifiable fact plays in our current political woes somehow be related to the ease with which truth can be ascertained? Economics tells us that abundance is inversely proportional to value. When facts were difficult to dredge up and verify, they were held in regard. They had high worth. Now that the truth is in each of our pockets, on our cell phones, 24 hours a day, they seem less substantial, and more and more people turn to their own private fantasies, which of course have less abundance, and thus perhaps more perceived worth, because they are rare, sometimes unique, having been freshly made up. An interesting possibility.

     

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #22



     Look at the photo above. What do you see? A jazz quartet, right? 
     The quartet performing last Saturday consisted of Nickolas Kaplan, on trumpet, Kevin Fort, on piano, John Sutton on bass at Chad Willetts on drums.
     But sitting in for a few songs—or rather standing, looking through the window was John Mondlak, the man in the white beard at right. More about him later.
     My wife had been talking about going to Le Piano for a long time, the new jazz place that has opened up in East Rogers Park in the old No Exit space, and we crowded into a prime booth—the Frank Sinatra Booth. The place has been open a month.
     A few thoughts.
     First, it's a lovely space: high ceilinged, inviting, with that wall of windows. Music every night. A $5 cover charge (which I notice people on Yelp still somehow manage to complain about. What do they want it to be, a dollar? Can you even imagine that. The doorman stopping you: "It's a dollar to get in." Yelp, I swear, I should create a Yelp page for Heaven, if it hasn't been done yet. "The Pearly Gates gave off a glowing luminescence that I found unpleasant. And the glissando of harps welcoming the saved into their eternal reward kept me up at night....")
     Second, a good vibe. The drummer, Chad Willetts, is also one of the owners, and at one point he made a little speech, and greeted the crowd and led the room into a round of "Happy Birthday" to someone celebrating a birthday. The room was crowded and the service sporadic, but adequate.         
     Third, the food. We contrived to eat dinner there, ordering the various small plates and trying to assemble them into a meal. I'd advise against that. Drinks and snacks is a more suitable use, at least while the kitchen works out its kinks. The wine was very good, I am told. The charcuterie plate could have used a pot of mustard, or something, though the cheeses were good. The fingerling potatoes were very good, the steak, less so. An $8 (or $5, or whatever it costs) loaf of bread should be better than what was served up. But they just opened, and no doubt are getting the kinks out.
      Fourth, returning to Mr. Mondlak—at least that's what I thought his name was. Communication was difficult. I asked him about the music and he mumbled something incoherent. The only word I caught was "Beatles." I asked him if he had anything he wanted to communicate to the public, and he said, "God is love. God is the totality of the universe." Makes as much sense as anything.
     East Rogers Park is a gritty area, and there are those who would lump the opening of Le Piano as the dread "gentrification." First, that is premature, judging by the active and highly varied street life passing by.  Second, a right extended to one should be enjoyed by all, and if any random person can show up and lay claim to a piece of real estate and call it home, then the owners of Le Piano should be able to do the same, despite the role of money and mortgages and vigorous effort.
      If you didn't see Mr. Mondlak in your initial glimpse of the picture, don't be too hard on yourself. There's a lot of that. When he was at the window, I had a hard time seeing anything else, and eventually went outside to talk with him, or try to. He stood there for a long time, listening, and I can't say I blame him. Chicago has only a few small jazz venues: Andy's downtown, The Green Mill in Uptown. Tough competition, now that I think of them, but Le Piano makes an encouraging start. With the Heartland closing a block away, a reminder that the city grows, changes, moves on, and we change with it.

Friday, January 11, 2019

We know Donald Trump lies a lot, but why?



     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     An interesting question, not often asked, despite the Trump era being a Golden Age of Deception, a veritable Liapalooza, with the president telling a dozen fibs a day, or more. Lying so predictably that before his address to the nation Tuesday, dramatizing his demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall, the networks struggled to form a plan to address the rain of falsehoods certain to come. Fact checkers were standing by to refute the lies before they were uttered, the way that color commentators are in place to describe the action sure to unfold on a football field.
     But is this the only way lying can be handled? The media, with its dumb ox tendency to strain forward, plowing the rut it always plows, has for years kept careful track of each presidential untruth, counting them, tallying them up, as if points will be awarded at the end.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     While keeping score, the process of lying, itself, its utility, is rarely addressed. We prefer to shake our head at each one-that-got-away whopper, and ponder whether it is a deliberate, cynical fabrication or sincere delusion, as if that really matters.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     Yes, it is important to refute Donald Trump’s specific lies. Most immigrants, illegal or legal, are more law-abiding than natural-born citizens, despite the horror stories the president recited. Most drugs come through airports or checkpoints, hidden in cars and trucks, not across the desert. Most terrorists arrive on a plane or, let us never forget, are native born.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Instant communication anywhere in the world"



     Years ago, walking across the Orleans Street Bridge, I passed a homeless man slumped before a styrofoam cup. In his hand, a cell phone. 
     It seemed a significant moment, since mobile phones, when they first showed up, were accessories of the rich. It was considered arrogant just to take one out and make a call. To be seen doing it, in a public place like a restaurant, as if you were so important you couldn't wait to make your phone calls in private. As if you wanted everyone to see and admire you. 
     So this homeless person having a phone, well, it seemed a symbolic shift, an elephant step toward our then-unimaginable world where every 7-year old, every Somalian fisherman, every one almost everywhere has a cell phone. (Not quite. This year the world count of cell phones is expected to hit 5 billion, meaning some 65 percent of the earth's population has one).
     This was before I was in the habit of snapping photos of such things. Nor did I have the presence of mind to talk to the homeless man, try to find out who he was calling. Now I can't even recall the year.
     I've come to regret that lapse, and vowed to not let similar technological turning points slip by unnoticed. 
     So I have to point out what happened in the Steinberg household Saturday: We gave up our land line. That is not the newsworthy part, in fact, we are late to it.  In 2016, for the first time in the better part of a century, since the number of telephones exploded between the world wars, more U.S. households were without a land line—50.8 percent—than had one.  
     The noteworthy part, to me, is not that it happened, but that it was so unexceptional. As nostalgic as I am, or was, the decision was a no brainer. Losing the landline saved us close to $500 a year. The only calls we got were scam artists, charities, and scam charities ... and my mother, who smoothly transitioned over to calling my cell, something she had already learned to do when I wasn't at home.
     In the days since, I've adapted easily myself. A few small changes—mainly carrying my iPhone around more at home, in case somebody calls. The portable phone stations—we had three—are in a pile, ready to be dumped in the bin on electronics drop-off day at the Village hall. 
     AT&T was smooth and efficient—not only did we cut our landline, but we lost cable, which required installation of fiber optic lines for broadband. Their guy was out for hours, unfailingly polite, explaining what he was doing, trying to build a relationship.
     Yes, I still have my trusty black rotary dial phone on my desk, the handset embossed "BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY: NOT FOR SALE Western Electric." Bought for $5 on eBay, years ago. I used to be able to dial out, not so long ago. The thing was probably made in Chicago, home to the giant Western Electric Hawthorne works, that at one time employed 45,000 people (the Eastland disaster, remember, was on a Western Electric company outing).
     I think I'll keep it there, for a little while longer anyway, symbol of ... what? I'm not sure anymore. Of the transitional telephone generation I represent: arriving after party lines, toward the end of alphanumeric phone exchanges—dial CAlumet 5-6969—and before princess phones and push button dialing. Long distance was a big deal, and expensive, and there were human operators you could dial, part of the mystery and romance to the phone company.
     And danger, a sense of menace from The Phone Company, or TPC, for those who remember "The President's Analyst," an unfairly forgotten 1967 James Coburn vehicle—unfairly because it was ahead of its time, in that it postulated a troubled president, and an insidious gun culture. Running from the various shady forces trying to get him, Coburn hides out with a typical America family, the Quantrills.
     "These are liberal times," the dad intones, darkly, before his son bursts in brandishing a .357 Magnum, earning this delicious paternal rebuke: "Darn it Bing, I told you not to play around with my guns. No, I do not want that in the house, that is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now put that right back in the glove compartment...."
    Bigger than governments and intelligence agencies, the all-powerful The Phone Company, is hoping to implant micro-telephones directly into your brain.
    "Why all you have to do is think the number of the person you wish to speak with an you are instant communication anywhere in the world," marvels TPC's leader.
     They couldn't know that, with computers, the numbers themselves would no longer be necessary, once they were plugged in and attached to a name. At least we still have names. For the moment. 


The President's Analyst, starring James Coburn, center.