Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Jussie Smollett situation reminds us: An example is not proof

                                                                   Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

     In an era when everyone’s talking, all the time, silence is a privilege.
     A radical thought from a person paid good money to blow off his big bazoo.
     But never on command. I’m fortunate in that I rarely must comment on any given situation. My boss never shifts the stump of a wet cigar in his mouth and barks, “Steinberg! Your take on the Kershpungen Kerfuffle! Online in 30 minutes!”
     Not yet anyway.
     I do believe in comment, but after reflection. Time is our friend. We are allowed to think about stuff, to see what develops. We don’t have to argue every murky, fluid situation. We can just wait and find out.
      I’d never heard of either Jussie Smollett or his TV show “Empire” before Jan. 29, when the young actor reported being attacked in Chicago. Such things happen — Wrigleyville is next to Boystown, and in the summer, carloads of suburban bully boys are known to assault pedestrians whose step isn’t as heavy as theirs.
     But that wasn’t the situation here. It was 20 below. There was preparation beyond drinking a case of Old Style: a rope, and bleach. And, most incredibly, claims that this is MAGA country, which it certainly is not. Donald Trump won’t show his face here.
     Nor was this any random young man on his way home from Sidetrack. This was a celebrity.
     I try not to engage in Facebook tug-o-wars. Better to read and not react. But I came upon a string of comments from people horrified at this attack. Doubts were being raised and the doubters reviled. They needed support. I thought carefully, then wrote:
     “This is a very strange set of facts. Not a typical Chicago crime.”

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"Will you be enjoying Nantucket Sea, Himalayan Pink, or, ahem, common table salt tonight?"

     Sunday night we met old friends at a restaurant in Glenview. Gusto, an Italian place with a nice atmosphere and hearty, homemade food. Their choice; I hadn't heard of Gusto, never mind been there. But they said it was a favorite, and our experience there proved their judgment sound, starting with the arrival of the bread: fresh, warm, braided, friendly little rolls. 

    Bread serves a time-honored function in the restaurant experience. It takes the edge off the hunger that sent you there in the first place. It is a small gift of welcome from the owners to their guests for the evening. It is the first indication diners have of the excellence going on back in the kitchen.
    I limited myself to one roll, by an act of will, saving myself for the dinner to come. Though not without casting a covetous look or two at the basket, fortunately out-of-reach across the table. I was glad for that when dinner arrived, a plate brimming with rigatoni, pomodoro sauce, meatballs. Pure and lovely. When I got down to the last tube, I looked around and said, "I think I'll take the rest home."
     Everyone laughed.
     Gusto wasn't the only restaurant I went to for the first time last week. The previous Tuesday, I met a friend for our monthly strategy lunch. We usually go to The Dearborn: convenient, new, excellent food and service. But we had had to reschedule several times—busy men!—and we couldn't get a reservation on short notice.
     So he suggested Steadfast, on West Monroe. I had never heard of it, and went with the excitement of trying someplace new. In many ways similar to The Dearborn. Hip, new, or at least opened in 2016, which is new to me, since I probably have cans in the back of my fridge opened in 2016. 
     Both featured Cuban sandwiches, and I was about to order one, for comparison purposes, when I was seduced by an Asian salad with thick soba noodles, as well as shaved vegetables, salted peanuts and miso vinaigrette. I'm a sucker for soba noodles. Throw some herbed chicken on top and you're only out $18—well, my pal is out $18. He always pays, and when I tried to pay, he looked hurt—he's a few clicks up the food chain than I am— and wouldn't let me do it.
     Bread was on the menu, which is a thing nowadays, as restaurants try to find new ways to monetize the dining experience. For a while they weren't giving you bread. Some places asked, other places expected you to ask. It seemed fallout from so many people doing low carb diets, from restaurants tired of wasting bread. Now they've taken a new tack, and are trying to sell it back. Girl and the Goat does the same thing.
     "House baked artisan breads." I asked my pal if we should give it a go, and he was enthusiastic.
     The staff of life pictured above arrived. I selected the reddish bread—a roll, really. It was pleasant and slightly sweet. Beets were involved, I believe the server said. But not so good that I worried myself excessively about trying the others. One was plenty.
     Don't get me wrong. I liked Steadfast. The salad was excellent, and enough to drive me back. I wrinkled my nose a bit when I asked the waitress why the place was called "Steadfast" and she just shrugged, as if the explanation for the name of where she worked is unknowable. A mystery. If you're going to give your restaurant a quirky name, at least acquaint the waitstaff with why. If they can't do that, what else can't they bother to do? The full name is Steadfast at The Gray, by the way, named for the boutique hotel that you will explore, as I did, trying to find the bathroom. Fairly elegant, and you can get a bed for $180 a night (Not that I required one on the hike to the john; but the place is swank, and I wondered).
     I hope I'm not alone in flinching at pricy bread. Maybe that makes me Old School. I never got used to charging for water either. To me it seems another step toward the day when the napkin sommelier will glide over, snap open a case, and start brandishing swatches of cloth and raving about Egyptian cotton and thread counts and the Thai Black Silk Option and such while I hold up my palms and say, "Oh no no no, plain white napkins will do." His expression freezes, the smile dying, and he snaps the teak case shut with a dismissive clap. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

White whale and wide wall: American obsessives Ahab and Donald Trump

Ahab, illustrated by Rockwell Kent. "In the mid-20th century, he's an argument against totalitarianism," said Will Hansen, curator of the Herman Melville exhibit at The Newberry. "And now he's this demagogue leading us over the cliff."

     Even Ahab, the great figure of self-destructive obsession in American literature, gets pushback, immediately, while he’s still selling his quest to the doomed crew of the Pequod. He displays the ounce of Spanish gold belonging to whoever first sights the white whale and nails it to the mast. The crew cheers. But Starbuck, the young chief mate — and future eponym for a famous chain of coffee shops — isn’t huzzahing with the rest. He’s scowling.
     “What’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck,” Ahab demands. “Wilt thou not chase the white whale? Art not game for Moby Dick?”
     “I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow,” replies Starbuck. “But I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.”
     It might be a stretch to compare Ahab and Donald Trump. One man is sun-bronzed and lean, the other orange-dyed and stout. But the two men do share a leadership style — both issuing “orders so sudden and peremptory.”
     And Ahab’s white whale does resonate with Trump’s wide wall. When Starbuck elaborates his objection, “To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous,” he is referring to the unreasoning whale.
     Echoed by the dumb thing of Trump’s wall, which is stupid because it is racist, unnecessary and expensive. Most Americans, like Starbuck, are clear-eyed enough to oppose such vengeful folly.
     Moby Dick is on my mind, having walked through the excellent “Melville: Finding America at Sea” with organizer Will Hansen, The Newberry Library’s director of reader services and curator of Americana.
     “The great American secular Bible,” he said, pausing before, “the first editions of Moby Dick, first published in London.”
     “It was fairly common in the 19th century for American writers to first publish in England, probably because America had no copyright protections,” Hansen said. "England was starting to get more copyright protections, thanks to Dickens, if you first published in England it was thought you had a better case to sue if somebody pirated your work."

To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

"It is a grape."

    I love, love, love going to the supermarket. Always have, back to the day when my mother and I would visit the two groceries that existed in our world, Pick & Pay or A & P. I was almost an adult before I discovered that you could buy food from a place that didn't have an ampersand in its name.
     Back then, the joy was just to hang with my mom and maybe score a black and white cookie at the Hough Bakery at the back of the supermarket. Now I like to study the products. Because you never know what you might find, like the orange box of Zante Currants on the right above. 
     If you grew up on the things, forgive me. But I had never heard of them, the unfamiliar product made even stranger by the oh-so-familiar Sun-Maid logo. It's like you saw an orange bottle of Heinz Mooshpa. A sauce of some kind,  apparently. 
     Of course I bought a box. "Tiny, tart and dark to taste," according to the Sun-Maid web page, which says they are made from the Corinth grape. I had heard the term "currant" before, usually describing something found in bakery items, a perception Sun-Maid validates, noting, "For many, they’ve become the preferred delicacy in healthy baked good recipes, like scones, cookies, breads, muffins and rolls."  
     But "Zante"? That is the true thrill: "A name of one of the Ionian islands, anciently Zacynthus," according to my Oxford English Dictionary. Used in the names of certain products. "Zante wine, wood, etc."
     The OED's first citation is from some business publication from 1615, but I knew I could do better, quickly stumbling upon a 1913 publication, compiled by Michael F. Tarpey, called "Levantine Grapes Commercially Known As Currents."      
    It quotes one Dr. Gustav Eisen, curator of the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and an expert on horticulture, who testified that he had "made the Zante current one of the objects of his researches and studies" and that the fruit can be found mentioned in English documents dating back to 1333, as there was "considerable trade carried on between the Venetians and the English in Northern Europe generally in a fruit that was known as the 'raisin of Corinth.'" 

     A modest publication of only 40 pages, "Levantine Grapes" nevertheless begins more boldly than many novels: 
     Every discussion of tariff brings up the "Zante currant" question.     The "Zante current," miscalled, is not a currant.     It is a grape. Currants grow on a bush. Grapes grow on vines. The misnamed "Zante currant" is in no sense analogous to the American currant. The misunderstanding arises from a corruption of its French name "Raisin de Corinthe," or Corinthian grape.
      The book was directed at Congress, its purpose, it stated ,was "convincing legislators and the people that this question should be understood and finally settled." Of course money was involved. "Levantine Grapes" worries that reduction in tariffs on Zante currents would pose "a severe, if not mortal, blow to an industry which, as yet wobbly upon its feet, promises to become a prime industry."
      They must have won their case: the flood of cheap Greek dried fruit must have been effectively deflected, as the Sun-Maid Zante currants were grown, not in Greece, but California. Honestly, I could plunge deeper into pre-World War I grape tariffs, but I have . sense it's time to wrap it up.
      Before we leave our topic, I have to point out that the island has a cameo in The Iliad, no less, in Book 2, translated by Robert Fagles: 
Next Odysseus led his Cephallenian companies, gallant-hearted fighters, the island men of Ithaca, of Mount Neriton's leafy ridges shimmering in the wind, and men who lived in Corcylia and rugged Aegilips, men who held Zacynthus and men who dwelled near Samos...
     See why I love shopping? One second you are weighing grapefruit in your hand to see if it's juicy enough to merit buying. The next you catch the faintest echo of an early 20th century trade tussle then, better, a clank of bronze, a whiff of sea salt, carried across the globe and the ages by tiny grapes that might not have dried in the Ionian sun, but are the descendent of fruit that once did.    

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #27

      I could go all Benjamin Franklin on you and ask whether you think the sun above is rising or setting, and then use that as a measure of optimism. (Franklin famously mused whether the sun on the back of George Washington's chair at the Constitutional convention was rising or setting; he thought it ascendant).  
     But Tom Peters sent this, calling it "Frigid Sunset." The sun can be mocking, when its so cold, though this photo doesn't really convey "cold" to me. I asked Tom to elaborate on it, and this is what he said:
It's a wetland just south of Deer Creek Golf Course in University Park on Old Monee Road just east of Western Ave. I have driven by it over the decades on my way to and from work at the post office and now the flower shop down in Beecher. It is a favorite stopping spot for migrating water fowl in the Spring & Fall and home to many geese, egrets and blue herons. I was fortunate enough to see an immature bald eagle fly over on one of my trips home from work, that made my day.
     Tom's right about eagles making your day. I haven't seen many—usually in the UP. 
     Franklin's bit about rising or falling, by the way, is a little trite. A person who sees a sunset is not, by definition, less optimistic than a person who sees a sun rise. He, or she, might be just looking farther ahead, to the challenges and rewards of the next day. Might be wishing an end to a particularly taxing day that has gone by. I know many an American is eager for our current historic period to wind up as soon as possible and bring something better to come. That is surely optimism. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Jason Van Dyke’s sentence was fair — Kwame Raoul is wrong to challenge it

     Just when the Laquan McDonald case finally seemed to approach what they call “closure” in the tragedy biz, with former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke sentenced to 81 months in prison, meaning he’d serve three years and change for pumping 16 shots into the teenager on Oct. 20, 2014, along comes our new Illinois attorney general, Kwame Raoul, to kick over the can brimming with human heartache and ask the Illinois Supreme Court for a longer sentence.
     And worse, from my perspective — self-referential perspective, sure, but what else is new? — is that now I have to write about it, having managed to studiously avoid the whole thing, mostly, mucking around with Roman philosophers and British dukes and whatever shiny trinket I can find to distract myself and maybe you.
     The whole story is just so grim. From 17-year-old McDonald staggering around Pulaski Avenue on a school night, clutching his 3-inch knife, to the first wave of cops somehow managing to keep their distance until Van Dyke races up, ponders the situation for a full six seconds, then empties his automatic into McDonald, to the gauzy veil of lies ritualistically tossed over the crime, reflexively, out of habit, not just by officers on the scene, but by the superintendent, the mayor and a shrugging City Council, which licked its thumb and peeled off $5 million of your tax money, handing it to McDonald’s family, who might not have been taking as careful care of the teen as you or I might, while he was alive, but who were scrupulous about keeping their yaps zipped until a journalist — no wonder everybody hates us — dragged the video into public view just in time for Christmas 2015.
     Sure, during the trial, as people agonized over the possibility of a police code of silence — could it possibly exist? — I thought of piping up, “Are you people insane?” The code of silence is the CPD, body and soul. But anyone who knows anything about Chicago already knows that, and I try not to traffic in the obvious.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Mancow bites minister: radio host brings down Harvest Bible founder

Mancow Muller, left, being baptized
in the Jordan River by James
MacDonald (Photo courtesy of
Mancow Muller) 
      When disc jockeys and pastors clash, usually it is the radio personality who gets the worst of it, facing outraged listeners, fleeing advertisers and summary firings from nervous station management.
     But after the self-described "wild man of Chicago radio" Mancow Muller— since last month on WLS 890 AM — took issue with his former spiritual guide James MacDonald, founder of the Harvest Bible Chapel , it was the senior pastor of the mega-church who lost his job, officials of the 12,000 member church with seven locations in the Chicago area announced "with great sadness" Wednesday.
     MacDonald had said he was taking an "indefinite sabbatical from all preaching and leadership” in mid-January.
     “I am grieved that people I love have been hurt by me in ways they felt they could not express to me directly and have not been able to resolve,” he said in a statement.
     "I'm upset that I was duped by a con man," said Muller, who wrote a 2,200 word condemnation in the Daily Herald at the end of January against the man who baptized him in the River Jordan. He said how once MacDonald "taught me forgiveness, trust, being authentic and taking a stand for what's right," but that Muller later came to see "an environment of thievery, and a smarmy actor out front, a guy who ... was brutal to everyone he thought was subservient."
     On Tuesday, Muller referred to the largely conservative, largely Republican church as "the cult that's called Harvest" on his radio show, demanding it refund money to the faithful, and encouraged listeners to join a class action lawsuit that he said he was starting.
What has MacDonald actually done to cause him to be let go?

To continue reading, click here

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

And the greatest musical moment I’ve ever seen belongs to … Laurie Anderson

     I’ve seen a lot of great musicians perform.
     Bruce Springsteen, back-to-back with saxophonist Clarence Clemons, cooking to “Rosalita.” Annie Lennox, her carrot hair crewcut-short, keeping time with drumsticks over her head, singing in a bar in Cleveland. I’ve seen Leonard Bernstein conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and Muddy Waters sing the blues. I’ve seen Frank Zappa display his shambolic virtuosity, twice, and Yo-Yo Ma play cello so sublimely the audience cried. Or maybe that was just me. Once, at a party, Tony Bennett made a surprise appearance, stood within arm’s reach and sang, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I’ve heard distinctive singers from Joe Cocker to Joe Strummer, of the Clash. I’ve seen Elton John pound the piano on “Bennie and the Jets” and Ray Charles caress it, singing “Georgia on my Mind.” I’ve listened to David Bowie noodle a synthesizer and heard Loretta Lynn warble “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I’ve heard Dizzy Gillespie play the trumpet, warming up in his hotel room. Alone with me.
     So yeah, I’ve been around. But without question, the best musical moment I’ve ever seen was something performance artist Laurie Anderson did in Colorado in 1983, and since she’s doing a rare show Sunday in Chicago, I hope you don’t mind if I revisit the memory.
      I had become acquainted with her the year before, when “Big Science” came out. I remember seeing the album in the window of Vintage Vinyl in Evanston, and marching in to buy it, though I had never heard her music.
     Why? I’m abashed to say this — it feels creepish in 2019 — but I thought Laurie Anderson was a babe. The short spiky hair. The big white sunglasses. Cute as a button.
     In my defense, I was 21

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What is it about cars that makes us love them?

     This is my second piece from the special Chicago Car Show magazine that was included in Sunday's Sun-Times. 

     It was the sound.
     The growl of the 650 horsepower, supercharged V8 engine of the Corvette Z06 as I mashed the gas pedal, sinking into the red leather seat. All that power. From zero to 60 in under three seconds. The roar seemed to reach into my skin, grab my bones, and shake them.
     Of course, this being the 21st century, even that howl of raw power is actually under fine-tuned control. A few taps and the “Engine Sound Management” screen pops up, offering four modes, “Stealth,” “Tour,” “Sport” and “Track.”
     “Stealth is for when you are on long highway trips, and get tired of the noise,” said George Kiebala, owner of Curvy Road, an exotic sports car time share in Palatine. If you want the joy of driving that Corvette super car, without having to actually buy one, Curvy Road allows you access for a fraction of the cost.
     And why would anybody want to do that? Why spend $1,000 to drive a car that can go three times the legal limit for a few days?
     Maybe that is best answered by what Louis Armstrong supposedly said when somebody asked him to explain jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
     That said, let’s try.

                                                              • • •

     What is it about cars that makes us love them?

To continue reading, click here.

Corvette Z06

Monday, February 11, 2019

Maybe someday a special beef dish will also be named after Jeff Bezos

Bust of Wellington, by Sir Francis Chantrey
Metropolitan Museum of Art
     Arthur Wellesley is no longer famous. Though I imagine his title, “The Duke of Wellington” raises a glimmer of recognition in the public mind, not due to the man himself, alas, but for the beef-in-pastry dish apparently named after him. History can be cruel that way.
     Wellesley was the brilliant, Dublin-born British military leader who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Big in his day. “The last great Englishman,” Tennyson dubbed him.

    He also visited prostitutes. Women who, then as now, had a habit of cashing in twice on their famous customers; once for their services, again in print. Nor were their friends more scrupulous. When London pornographer John Stockdale wrote to the Duke, demanding money to excise passages involving him from London tart Harriette Wilson’s pending reminiscences, Wellington scrawled “Publish and be damned” across the letter and returned it.
       Supposedly. The actual letter does not exist. “The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson” were published in 1824, with the Duke of Wellington foremost among the parade of famous men marching through her bed.
     Only the fullness of time will determine whether Jeff Bezos’ performance last week rises to a Wellingtonian high standard for panache. Though Bezos did the Duke one better, disseminating himself the entire correspondence from American Media Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer, which Bezos claims was blackmailing him. The Enquirer, it has been established, serves as a protective shield around Donald Trump, buying up rights to salacious stories from women he seduced, for example, then burying instead of publishing them.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hot Cars in the Coldest Month

     The Sun-Times has been producing an occasional magazine to enhance our Sunday paper. In December, they asked me to write about manufacturing in Illinois, and today's edition includes an attractive publication about Chicago and cars, to mark the start of the Chicago Auto Show.
     I was happy to write this piece about 126 years of automobiles being shown off in Chicago, and another about our love for cars, which I'll post here Tuesday. But if you can, try to pick up Sunday's physical paper, because the special section has a lot more than just me in it: Richard Roeper on the Tucker Torpedo which, betcha didn't know, was manufactured in Chicago during its brief, memorable existence, as well as issue editor Ryan Smith on auto racing, driverless cars, local car collections, tons of photographs, and much more.

     In a jab at the “White City,” the faux Roman splendor of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition that disgusted modernists at Adler & Sullivan, the architects painted their Transportation Building orange, with a yellow arched entrance dubbed "The Golden Door."
     Through that door were 17 acres of 19th century America in motion: huge locomotives and street cars, handcars and sail cars, wagons and harnesses. Studebaker of Chicago showed off their latest buggies. Models of ocean steamers and famous bridges were on display, as well as historic modes of transportation from sleighs to sedan chairs.  

     And tucked in a corner, almost entirely ignored, a delicate Daimler quadricycle: the first four-wheeled, gasoline-powered automobile on public display in the United States. Along with it, a second car, an electric.
     The opening note in a century-and-a-quarter symphony that would, in the 20th century become as distinctly Chicago as deep dish pizza, the Blues or skyscrapers: the Chicago Auto Show.
     A constantly-changing car circus that almost defies description, a burst of summery sparkle and hot horsepower in the middle of dreary, frozen winter, the Chicago Auto Show draws millions downtown to ogle thousands of cars — from economy boxes like the first 2-cylinder Honda to a Packard with a V-16 engine. From steam-driven cars to a concept car to be powered by an nuclear reactor.

To continue reading, click here. 

Housekeeping note

     Because the story I'm featuring Sunday, on the history of the Chicago Car Show, isn't going live on the Sun-Times' web site until 5 a.m., it can't be posted here until after 5 a.m., aka, when I wake up. So those night owls tapping sleeplessly at their computers between 12 a.m. and 5 a.m. and expecting to find comfort here will be disappointed, except of course for this little notice. My apologies for a situation beyond my control, but I can't link to a story that isn't online yet (and I have to link to them, because they pay for the things).
    Thank you for your understand, and for reading If you are looking for something to do in these wee hours, why not order a delicious Eli's Cheesecake for yourself or someone you profess to love, using the ever-wakeful link at left? The ad will only be up for another week, and I want the kind folks at Eli's to get, if not their money's worth, then at least a shimmer of value for their investment.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #26

     Vanity is a two-edged sword.
     One edge is the desire to manifest yourself, to project your ego, which is responsible for most of the art and literature in the world, is the reason people leave their homes and strike out into the world. A laudable thing, to take the thimbleful of you that is bubbling around in your head and contrive to somehow paint the world with it.
      The other edge is the desire to manifest yourself, all over a perfectly nice "L" car. To not care that your tag is just going to be a blocked window for someone inside, or, rather, that the Chicago Transit Authority will have to expensively remove it, taking up a lot of time, and jacking up the cost of transportation for all of us.
      Which is more significant? I wouldn't dare try to say. The self-absorbed person starts to tell a story, and maybe the listener is fascinated, or maybe the listener is bored. Or one is fascinated and another are bored. By the same story. It depends on the skill of the teller, the inclinations for the listener. It changes with time and place. How you feel about graffiti depends on how you feel about society, capitalism, art, color, cities, trains.  I deeply admire Banksy; the above, not so much, though I sympathize with the urge that sent some kid doing it. We want to leave our mark on the indifferent world.
    These were taken at the CTA rail yard at Harlem/Lake terminal, by regular reader Francis Mullen, a rail operations switchman. He suspects they might have been done at the 63rd and Ashland yard and then moved to Harlem/Lake.
     Asked for some thoughts on the photos, he replied:
     "I don’t understand why this medium appeals to them. It’s our policy not to send these cars in service so their exposure is mostly limited to their forums. There is a cost to society, however, in that when we are short cars for service the supervisor is forced to adjust his schedule to spread the gap. So a 15 minute headway becomes 20. A severe shortage will produce noticeable delays. There’s also a cost to the shop janitor that puts aside her normal duties to clean these enormous paintings with some nasty chemicals. It takes hours to finish. I think these guys are thoughtless and arrogant in pursuit of their impish thrills. Buy some canvases already."
     Then, a few minutes later, added,
     "Besides the Kilroy was here aspect, I wonder if the transitory nature of their efforts adds to the thrill."

     I hadn't thought of that. They value them because they are fleeting, the way that Buddhist monks spend hours creating these elaborate sand mandalas, sing a little song, then sweep them away. Could be.


Friday, February 8, 2019

A woman is marrying her dog on Valentine’s Day — but wait, there’s more to it

     We get two daily newspapers delivered at home, the Sun-Times and the New York Times. I always read my own paper first — loyalty — and then turn my attention the Grey Lady.
     On Sundays, I start with the news section, then on to what I still consider “The Week in Review,” then the book section, magazine and business, working my way down through the various substrata of descending significance until I end up at the lowest sub-chamber, Style, with its dubious celebrations of flyspeck fads, grotesque genuflection to tasteless wealth, and enormous full-color Ralph Lauren ads for glitzy sequined, epauletted get-ups that would make Michael Jackson cringe with embarrassment.
     At the back of Style, the marriage announcements — “Vows” — which I don’t read so much as scan, occasionally dipping into one to check the job statuses of the happy couples, tsk-tsking over their well-off parents and gold-plated, The-World-is-Mine careers. I glance at all the photos, skipping past the same-sex couples, pausing at the comfortably hetero duos to reassure myself that the brides-to-be are not as pretty as my wife — Ha! doing better than you, pal! — a vindictive little game rigged so I always win.
     The Times also does news stories spotlighting certain couples about to be married, and last Sunday one stood out: Lilly Smartelli, posed with her arms around her groom-to-be: Bernie, a 9-year-old mixed breed cocker spaniel poodle.
     She is marrying her dog, this Valentine’s Day.
     Let me pause here, to give you time to form your immediate reactions, which I will go out on a limb and predict are: 1) the world is going to hell; 2) people are crazy; 3) the Times has slid into tabloid sensationalism.
     Am I correct? Of course I am.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

2007 flashback: Maritime law vs. the love boat

      I don't want to spoil the opening joke of this column. Just to say, after you read it, and want to immediately act, there is the convenient Eli's Cheesecake link to the left. This ran back when the column was a full page, and I've left in the original section headings. Though I'll warn you, it runs a thousand words, and if it seems to go on forever, well, yeah, it seemed that way to me, too. Nobody says you have to finish the thing, but I'm including it all for anyone so inclined.

Opening shot

     There are three key issues relating to Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which, while perhaps striking the average reader as tedious in the extreme, are in fact so important to our global ocean habitat that I'm going to devote my entire column today to carefully analyzing them.
     Issue No. 1 relates to seabed mining provisions . . .
     Nah, not really. I just wanted to drive away the fair-weather reader. Why should the easily discouraged benefit by the secret knowledge that I'm about to impart?
     Today is Wednesday, Feb. 7. Which means—and I don't know why you need me to point this out, but apparently you do, because otherwise you'd wait until the last minute, as always —that a week from today is Valentine's Day.
     Time fleets. You've already blown your New Year's resolutions. Christmas was, as usual, a depressing disaster. Valentine's Day is your last chance before the Mother's Day/Father's Day nexus to get it right.
     Here is my central piece of advice: Whatever gift you're going to buy, get it by Friday. Don't wait.
     Because forethought is three-fourths of the present, particularly in longtime relationships, when surprise is most elusive.
     Those who procrastinate—who tell themselves, "Hey, I've got a whole week"—wake up and it's Feb. 14 and they're in a rugby scrum for the last gleanings at Fannie May's. They end up with sagging White Hen carnations.
     Sure, it's a challenge to grab the paddles and deliver a jolt to romance. I don't know what you should do for your sweetie; I have a tough enough time thinking up something to wow my wife, never mind wow yours. But whatever it is, do it by Friday. Time is fleeting.

Recherche du froid perdu

     Smell is the most nostalgic of the senses. A certain scent of boiled hot dog and baked bean, and I am cast back to the Fairwood Elementary School lunchroom, my pudgy hand hesitating above a plate of ice cream sandwich halves, bisected and sold for a nickel, trying to pick one where the lunch lady's slice faltered, making it a quarter-inch longer than the others.
     Or preparing for the weather Tuesday. The walk from the station to the office Monday had been like blowing bubbles in a bowl of cold acid. So I wrapped my Irish lambswool scarf around my face.
     One whiff of that breath-moisted wool and I was transported back to the white moonscape of my boyhood, to that frosty suburban noplace, kicking a chunk of snow down the sidewalk, wearing a brown corduroy Mighty Mac coat and a hat knitted by my grandmother, a hat whose pompon had been snipped off, at my insistence, as a show of maturity.
     Why do young people equate casting off their clothing with coolness? Figurative coolness, as opposed to literal. Shuffling up Wacker Drive, I noticed that the underdressed pedestrians were invariably in their 20s, youngsters braving the elements hatless, gloveless, wearing a thin spring jacket instead of the Eddie Bauer Gore-Tex Ridge Line Robert Falcon Scott Edition Arctic Coat System I wore.
     Bundle up, people. It's cold out there. There's nobody to impress. We wrap our children so thickly because we love them and don't want them to be cold. Dress yourself like somebody loves you, and the cold weather will bring only warm memories.

The more the merrier

     They don't invite me to the editorial board meetings anymore. I detract from the air of gravitas, apparently.
     Then again, you didn't have to actually be in the room with Todd Stroger Monday to see his problem at Cook County.
     Passing in the hallway was enough.
     It was like a lackey convention. Too many to actually cram into the board room. So they sat, thumbing their BlackBerrys, or talking into cell phones, or wandering about, examining the photos on the walls.
     I couldn't tell who was an underling and who was a coatholder, who was playing security and who was somebody's ne'er-do-well cousin. But they made quite an assemblage. One reporter counted eight—in my view, there might have been 80.
     All vanity, of course. When Sen. Dick Durbin, who has become one of the most powerful politicians in America, arrives for our periodic breakfasts, he is usually by himself, as befits a politician in a democratic society.
     Then again, Durbin is a savvy statesman, not a flailing, tone-deaf whelp like Stroger, padding the payroll with his relatives even while under close scrutiny, just like his father did. Who can't even grasp that just as charity begins at home, so does economy.

The readers speak

     I don't normally print fan mail—it violates my air of Christ-like humility. But this e-mail, sent under the heading, "Sometimes you're ok" is too splendid not to share:

Mr. Steinberg,I read your column most days depending on my mood, and I am glad to see that you are less of a jerk than you used to be. I always like when you write about your sons. I do want to commend you for the very nice piece you wrote on MLK day. I was a little surprised to be honest.Paula Taylor
Today's chuckle

     Vol. VIII of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud is titled Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, and it struck me as a stroke of brilliance—or a sign of desperation—to pull down the light blue book and see what it might have to offer.
     I only wish space permitted me to do more than suggest how spectacularly unfunny most of Freud's jokes are, undone by a near complete shift in cultural references—nobody eats salmon mayonnaise anymore, there are few marriage brokers, we don't know where Galicia is, never mind the reputations of Jews there. Then of course there are nearly insurmountable problems because of translation, which the editor struggles in vain to overcome.
     "In the German the first syllables of 'spas' [Bader] and "brooms" [Besen] sound alike," he explains, unhelpfully. "And in the German proverb the last word is 'well' [gut]."
     Oh I see! Ah-hah-hah.
     But there are enough funny Freud jokes—or at least funnyish jokes—to warrant launching Freud Joke Week, if only to justify my plowing through the damn thing.
     Much of what he presents as jokes are actually pithy phrases, such as the following, which might not be humorous, but certainly is true:

Human life falls into two halves. In the first half, we wish the second half would come. In the second half, we wish the first one were back.
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 7, 2007

"Nice country you've got here, shame to have anything BAD happen to it..."


     I wrote this before I realized I had gotten an old pre-Valentine's column ready to go, months ago. Well, no rules against filing MORE than once every goddamn day. Just don't get used to it. 

    Yeah, I listened to Tuesday's State of the Union address, the whole 80 minutes, though they seemed like 800. I couldn't understand fellow Dems who "boycotted" it or stayed away with a flourish of self-importance, as if Trump would miss them. That's why we lose. We don't stare the thing we're fighting in the face. I sent out a few aghast tweets, lost in the vast ocean of Twitter snark, for all the good that did.
    A few aspects stood out. The way Trump, representing his entire generation of American exceptionalists, returned again and again to the theme of World War II—he brought in three D-Day vets to sit in the chamber. Highly ironic for an isolationist president who adopted "America First," the slogan of Lindbergh and all the crypto-Nazis who didn't want to enter the war at all. You'd think the man wasn't withdrawing American power and influence from the world stage with both hands. 
    Then there was his prattling on about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, which I'm sure his adviser, the Jewish fascist Stephen Miller, thought a delicious piece of gaslighting, and no doubt drew chortles from the gang at Stormfront and 4Chan. Make no mistake: Jews fall for this shit as readily as anybody else. I'll never forget running into them, yamulke proudly in place, at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Of course they had their reasons.
    To me, the only part of the State of the Union that seems significant the next morning was his thinly disguised pleading to be let off the hook for whatever crimes the Mueller investigation has been laboriously cataloguing.
    "The decision is ours to make," Trump said, early on. "We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction. Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness. "
     That would be resistance to him, remember, and his bigoted, ignorant, vindictive policies. Vengeance against him, for selling out his country to the Russians. 
     As bad as that was—the rhetorical equivalent of "Don't struggle, honey, and it won't hurt," the worst was coming. This:
     "Our country is vibrant and our economy is thriving like never before. Friday it was announced we added another 304,000 jobs last month alone, almost double the number expected. An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous, partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just does not work that way."
     As naked a threat as any thug ever delivered to a corner grocery store: "Nice place you've got here, Pops, I'd hate to see anything happen to it." Drop the investigation or I'll shoot the economy. 
     The poll numbers were astounding. Yes, not scientific. Yes, those who watched were a self-selective group, perhaps skewed toward Trump supporters, who can watch him speak without tasting a little vomit in their mouths. But still. I've said it before, I'll say it again. Trump is going to win in 2020. He is going to roll the disorganized, bickering Democrats, rushing first to Bernie, then to Beto, some drawn by Howard Schultz, others to Joe Biden, the whole anthill going in a hundred directions, unifying only to utter a quavering Charlie Brown shriek of "How can we lose when we're so sincere?" after it's all over.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Gutenberg to BuzzFeed, ‘theatre of information’ changes, and so do we

 Gutenberg Bible, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

     Gutenberg went bankrupt.
     Forgive me for leaping to today’s point so abruptly. But I want to get that on the table right away, for those readers who shrug after a few lines and rush off to “Pearls Before Swine.”
     That fact is important, yet overlooked. The average reader is vaguely aware that Johannes Gutenberg was a 15th-century German who printed the first book using moveable type, a Bible, now rare — 49 copies, to be exact. (So rare, there are none in Illinois: two pages at the Newberry Library; one at The Art Institute. Otherwise, the nearest copy is at Indiana University.)
     They do not know that Gutenberg started printing Bibles in March 1455 and by November had gone bankrupt and lost his printing press.
     I mention this now, in this moment, as digital media is being rattled by failure and mass firings: 1,000 employees sacked in recent weeks at BuzzFeed, AOL, HuffPost and Vice Media. Newspapers are shedding staff, as technology relentlessly undercuts the established order, and nobody can figure out how to stop the process. Flash: We can’t. The old way is over. A few living fossils might survive; I’m hoping to become the horseshoe crab of Chicago media. But generally, we’re sailing off into a new world and never going back.
     BuzzFeed, et al., are in the same business Gutenberg was in — selling words for money — and grasping his struggles might give us insight into our own.
     Gutenberg’s Bibles were expensive — 20 gulden, when a stone house in Mainz went for 80 gulden. Think $100,000 in today’s money. Printing these books took time, and getting the monasteries who bought copies to pony up took even longer. The new product worked — people wanted printed books — but money was slow in coming.
     Sound familiar? Early printers struggled to figure out how to keep their heads above water.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The best grapefruit EVER!

     Humor often doesn't translate well, and sometimes the funnier the moment, the more delicate and difficult to dig up and transplant.
    So from the start, I want to acknowledge that it will take a bit of careful spadework to move this from memory and make it blossom here. Perhaps the humor will be lost. But we will try.
    First, context. I eat a grapefruit, almost every day, at breakfast. Several reasons: I like grapefruit. They're low in calories and filling: 120 calories for a big honking softball-sized fruit. And then there is Vitamin C, and that wonderful tart smell. I've lauded grapefruit here in the past.
    To feed this habit, we are constantly toting five-pound bags of grapefruit home from the supermarket. Grapefruit aren't always good: they can be dry, or too sour. Sometimes I buy one, test the batch, then later return for more. It takes effort.
    My wife doesn't eat grapefruit as much, but she will snack on oranges. Which is a novel practice to me. I would never, ever reach into the refrigerator, pull out an orange, and eat is as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. Just not something I do.
     A few days ago, my wife cut up an orange and sat down at the kitchen table where I sat, reading the newspaper. She offered me an orange section. It was a perfect-looking orange, the perfect color, the surface glistening with juice, all without flaw.
     I accepted her offer, held the section to my mouth—as kids we'd tuck the skin behind our lips to make orange smiles, but I didn't do that. I bite it. The orange was very sweet, ripe, rich, wonderful.
     I wasn't about to take more sections. That would be poor thanks for her having offered me one. But now I was hungry, hungry for oranges, so I did something unusual. I went into the fridge, removed my own orange, and cut it into sections, of course offering her one to replace the one she had offered me. Nearly 30 years of marriage; manners are important.
      My wife observed that it was unusual to see me eating an orange. Usually I'm a grapefruit man.
      "I like it..." I mused. "It's sweet. It's like the best grapefruit ever." 
     My wife collapsed into laughter, declaring this the funniest thing I had ever said. I'm not sure why. I think it's the grapefruit-o-centric view of oranges, seeing them as a smaller, sweeter version of grapefruits. A naive, a sweetness itself perhaps. But anyway, she was laughing about it a day later, and I thought I would try to pass it along, knowing that I would almost inevitably fall short.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Trans folks are lucrative Night of the Living Dead threat to frightened faithful


     There are not a lot of transgender citizens of the United States — figures I see hover at around half a percent. Still a significant number of people: about 1.5 million. But not like they’re crowding me.
     Looking over my 58 years on earth, I can’t think of any interaction whatsoever outside of my duties as a professional journalist. None that I noticed. No doubt I have run into trans folks and been unaware.
     What I’m trying to say is, the existence of transgender Americans has not been rattling my windows, certainly not the way it does certain individuals who profess to be religious. To hear them describe it, the transgender community is a kind of Night of the Living Dead assault, an inexorable force on the march. That people exist who do not identify with their birth gender is an earthquake, a revolution, one they will not tolerate, this pickaxe aimed at their own wobbly sense of self. It is something terrifying. Something to be stopped.
     Last week I received an email from Brian S. Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. His effort to stop gay marriage was a flop, so, like the March of Dimes shifting from polio to birth defects, he re-deployed his forces in the fight to keep the world exactly as he imagines it should be.
     Brown’s letter begins:
Dear Friend — I have been saying for a while that the push by LGBT extremists to impose gender ideology on society has reached insane proportions. Take what is happening in California, for instance.
The Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee of the California Legislature, a Democrat, has declared that people who testify before the committee will be prohibited from referring to another individual using male or female pronouns such as ‘he’ or ‘she,’ ‘him’ or ‘her.’ Instead, the rules now require the use of the pronouns, ‘they.’ The rule change was made to endorse gender neutrality so that “transgendered” and “non-binary” people are not offended with the use of a pronoun that doesn’t fit their gender identity.

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Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sometimes less cold is plenty warm


     It was 7 degrees out Friday morning when I went to walk the dog.
     "It's still cold outside!" my wife cautioned me, from the warmth of our bed.
    Yes, yes, dear, I said, nevertheless refraining from putting on the ski pants I had worn for the past half dozen dog walks. Or the glove liners. Or the scarf wrapped around my face. Or the shop goggles.
     Seven degrees. Not much. But 29 more than the day before.
     I clipped the dog to her leash and we left the house. Outside and it was ... nice. It felt pleasant. Walking down the street, smiling, I thought of an old tale, that goes like this:

     A young husband living in a small studio in Wicker Park goes to see his rabbi with a problem...
     (Yes, traditionally these stories take place in a nameless village in Poland. But times change, and I try to keep up).
     "Rabbi," the young man says. "My apartment is so small. And now with the baby, it is even smaller. Life is unbearable. What should I do?"
     "Do you have a chicken?" the rabbi says.  Of course, the young man says, I have a chicken, out in its chicken coop in the alley.
     (Okay, these traditional Jewish folktales do not translate that well to modern American life, but bear with me).
     "Bring the chicken in the house with you," the rabbi says.
     The young man does so. The next day he returns.
     "Rabbi, I did what you told me to do, and brought the chicken in. But now it's even worse. The chicken is flapping, feathers flying, the baby howling, my wife complaining. With all due respect, this was not a solution to my problem."
     "Wait," the rabbi said. "Do you have a goat?"
     The man admits that he has a goat.
    "Bring the goat into the apartment."
    You see where this is going. It makes a good camp story. You can add as many animals as you like: a donkey, a cow, a horse, though those last two wouldn't really belong to a poor man. You can be descriptive, with the flapping chicken and the braying mule and the chomping goat. The poor young man, desperate now, returns to the rabbi. "Please, rabbi, this is madness!" the man says, at his wit's end.
     "Fine," smiles the rabbi. "Now take them all out of the house."
     The story ends the next day as the man returns, grateful, and thanks the rabbi for the miracle he has rendered. Without the animals, the apartment no longer seems small.

     The story is about relativity. Twenty below was really cold. Dangerously, painfully cold. Seven, on any other day, would be bleepin' cold. But after 20 below, it felt balmy. Here's the interesting thing. Later in the day it was 20 degrees above zero. And that felt fine, but not as nice as it had Friday morning. And Saturday it was 40. And while that was certainly an improvement, it didn't have the joyous release that 7 degrees had. The closest I can figure is that people adjust after changes. Twenty below seemed miserable for two days, and 7 was a release from misery. Once you have been released from misery—7, 20, 40—you're free, and the rest are just details.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #25

     I don't think I took any photographs during the astoundingly cold pair of days we had midweek. It was just ... too ... cold. I'd have to take my gloves off. Madness. In fact, Wednesday and Thursday, I left the house six times: to walk the dog. Otherwise, the cold seemed in my bones, and I sprawled around the house, too tired to even read.
     But reader Nikki D. stepped into the gap, snapping this Wednesday, noting:
     I took this today during the polar vortex cold, and it's an unaltered photo. This is the view of my side yard, our neighbors are there in the background. It seemed as though it was too cold for colors, almost like I stepped into a film noir.  
     "Too cold for colors"—I like that. Poetic. That could be the title of a children's book, something starting in the black and white winter, with perhaps a trace of bluish snow, then bursting into floral yellows and reds and purples come spring—Friday morning certainly felt springlike, a balmy 7 degrees...
      Scale is hard to tell in this photo, at least for me. Is the tree small, a crab-apple perhaps? It looks that way, at first glance. Or is it large? It seems to grow if you compare it to what seems like a brick outdoor stove nearby.
      Anyway, I don't want to overthink this one today. Thanks to Nikki for sending it in, and I encourage other readers to get off their cans and share a shot or two of their own. It's a game anyone can play. 

Friday, February 1, 2019

What’s next? ‘Hi, this is a scam! Grab your wallet so we can cheat you!’

"First Scene of Thieves," by Gror (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     My iPhone rings. An 800 number, calling me. Which might as well flash a red “SCAM!”
     But I am a curious sort.
     “Dear citizen …” an ominous robotic voice begins. “Due to a certain suspicious activity, we are forced to suspend your Social Security number to immediate effect. Due to this your benefits will be cancelled …”
     I’ve received this call 14 times over the last two weeks of January.
     “In order to connect with a Social Security administration officer, press '1' now,” it continues. “In case we do not hear from you, your Social will be blocked permanently. Press '1' now, and you will automatically be connected with a concerned department official.”
     I admire that “concerned” — a nice touch. Who doesn’t want to believe there is a soul in the government who cares? Once I broke down and pressed “1,” though the person I then connected with sounded, to me, not so much concerned as confused. A harried drone in a Third World basement boiler room. They immediately asked for my Social Security number. “You’re the one who called me,” I said, hanging up.
     “Social Security numbers do not get suspended,” the Federal Trade Commission points out on its web page devoted to this scam. “Ever.”
     Are there people who don’t know this? Apparently so. Which raises the question: Why base your scam on something a halfway savvy person knows to be false?  
"Second Scene of Thieves," by Gror (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     For exactly that reason. Because scammers want to weed out those with discernment. Fraud isn’t about duping everybody. It’s about identifying the most credulous, the choicest marks, and going after them. It’s a manpower issue. What scamster wants to laboriously lead a would-be mark along, only to have him balk at buying $3,000 in Apple gift cards to pay off a delinquent tax bill? Falling for the obvious initial gambit means you are more likely to keep giving, information and even cash.
     Scams fall into two categories: fear and greed. The Social Security number is a fear scam. The terrifying and mysterious government is about to drop kick you into oblivion. There are similar scams involving the IRS, which will never call you demanding payment. Or Com-Ed, calling to say your power is about to be cut.

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