Tuesday, April 30, 2019

South American Diary #14: Quesos


      I do not speak Spanish. 
      So when I went into this tiny shop in the small seaside town of Castro in Chile I did not know what the sign meant. I might not even have noticed it. I was looking for lapis lazuli jewelry, and scarves, and whatever other presents I might find to bring back home.
     But as a professional journalist and generally quick on the uptake, I immediately figured out what sort of establishment I found myself in.
     It was very small. And while I was taken with the display of inventory, and the calm of the proprietor, I am not the sort that I could just reach into my pocket, take out my phone and start snapping pictures. I was dealing with a human being. Dignity must be maintained.
     Thank goodness the guide from the bus was there. I asked him to negotiate a deal. Two dollars worth of cheese, please. While the owner reached for brown paper, I asked if I might take a picture of the owner. I could. I asked his name. "Don Juan." Maybe so. Maybe a pseudonym, a nom de fromage.
      The cheese, by the way, was excellent. Don Juan sliced it into convenient sticks, and I handed some to what shipmates were shopping nearby and ate the rest myself, one fresh, creamy slice after another. But I was particularly taken with the shop itself. Those quiet loaves of cheese on the shelves—like objects in a Joseph Cornell box. There seemed to be a lot of cheese here for a town so small. He must sell it all. 
      A person doesn't travel halfway across the world to go to a cheese shop. It would look silly on a schedule of adventure and exploration. But I can't communicate how glad I was to visit this place, how surprised and happy it made me. To meet these stolid cheeses and serene owner. To sample the cheese.
      Heading out, I snapped a photo of the red storefront, with the sign I had overlooked going in: "Quesos." 
     Do I have to actually say it? For the record, I suppose, yes, I must indeed. 
     Spanish for "Cheeses."


     




Monday, April 29, 2019

Don't panic, Democrats: Joe Biden is here to save us, maybe




     As the 2020 presidential election looms into view, like an iceberg on the horizon, some liberals are muttering that if Trump wins again, freedom will crumble and democracy collapse. Which is both an exaggeration and defeatist, twin sins Dems suffer from enough without advertising them, apparently as an attempt to spur ourselves to confront a task that should require no exaggeration to take seriously.
     Is not the prospect of four more years of Donald Trump motivation enough? Do we really need to toss in the death of the Republic to keep focused?
     Besides, the essential truth — and this can't be said enough — is Trump is a symptom, not a cause. The United States reached a certain level of dysfunction and then conjured him up. First the rock split, then the demon emerged from the sulfurous crack.
     Maybe we must experience the presidency of Ted Cruz to understand that.
     Ample evidence can be found in George Packer's 2013 book, "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," where a cast of fellow citizens illustrates our national shattering. Some are ordinary — Dean Price, son of a tobacco farmer, chases the will-o-the-wisp of biofuels. Tammy Thomas, navigates her Rust Belt ruins. Some are famous — Newt Gingrich, whose Dems-are-traitors worldview did so much to poison American political discourse.
     And some straddle the two worlds. Jeff Connaughton is a University of Alabama business student when he is first wowed by a young senator named Joseph Biden.
     Readers of "The Unwinding" grow disillusioned with Biden along with Connaughton, who works for him. And that is before Biden plagiarizes a speech by a British politician. Connaughton's moment of grim realization comes when, after his years of loyal service, Biden won't place a phone call to help him.
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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Flashback 2009: Showing the world: Blind people shop

     
     Ali Krage, who we met briefly yesterday while reading "Romeo and Juliet" in Braille, stuck in my mind at age 16, navigating the halls of Willowbrook High School with astounding dexterity or, below, plunging into a Best Buy to pick up a DVD for her sister.   
     Plus she wanted to be a writer—that's a memorable ambition in any teen.  I couldn't post this without finding out where she is now, a decade later. 
     I'm happy to say she followed through on her writerly ambitions.
     "I write guest posts for the Easterseals blog," said Krage, now 26. "It's fun. I like it."
Ali Krage
      She's a student at Northern Illinois University, living on campus in DeKalb, studying human development and family science.  
     "I only have one semester left," she said, adding that she's hoping to become a mental health counselor. 
    She still likes to read, but more audio books than Braille, which tend to be big, thick, heavy multi-volume sets. 
    "No way I'd be able to lug those around," Krage said. "The only Braille I typically read now are exams."
     She started school studying criminal justice at College of DuPage, where she was the only blind student, then transferred to NIU, where she lives on campus. "They have a pretty large disability community here," she said. "That's one of the reasons I chose the campus." 
     Here are a couple of deft essays by Ali, this one on dating blind people, and "7 Advantages of Being Blind."


     "Nice to see you again," I say, shaking hands with Ali Krage, a sophomore at Willowbrook High School.
     Though I had met her before, writing a story about the classroom of visually impaired students she attends, I immediately do sort of a mental backflip, thinking, Whoops! "Nice to see you again." Good work, Mr. Sensitive. Maybe not the best thing to say to a person who is completely blind.
     Apologize or blunder forward? I blunder forward, musing that one advantage of a physical disability is you at least know what your challenges are, while the rest of us have to confront our limitations anew at random times during the day.
     That kind of interaction is actually the reason I'm here. As a blind child, Ali needs to practice going out into the everyday world, and the visual world needs practice—as my trouble even saying hello amply demonstrates—adjusting itself to the people with visual disabilities.
     It's an open question who has more trouble.
     "You still get the stares, the stigma," says Christopher Weinman, an orientation and mobility specialist with SASED, a DuPage County service cooperative.
     Brittany Koresch, a teacher at Willowbrook, marvels at the overreactions her blind students can evoke from the public.
     "They jump out of your way and go against the wall," she says. "We've been to restaurants where people pay for our food."
     "And that's bad?" asks the media sponge, long accustomed to dining out on somebody else's dime.
     "You don't want the pity, though," Koresch explains.
     "There's something called 'learned helplessness,' " says Weinman. "The majority of our kids are helped so much, by family and friends, that they're getting older, and they lack skills they should have already."
      Such as the ability to go to a big store to make small purchases. So Ali and Weinman pile in a van and drive to the Best Buy in Lombard.
     "Do you know how much you were given?" he asks.
     "Sixty dollars," she says. Three twenties. "I'm buying the movie 'Quarantine,' and I have to find a data card for my sister."
     Ali phoned Best Buy the day before to tell them she was coming. Sometimes that helps; sometimes it doesn't. She once had a store—a Border's—say they couldn't help her, and Weinman called back to read them the riot act—or, more precisely, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that stores take reasonable steps to assist customers such as Ali.
     "Ordinarily, they're pretty good about it," says Weinman. "We tend to choose stores like Wal-Mart or Best Buy, where there are greeters, so the minute she walks in, she can say, 'Can you help me locate these items?' "
     In front of the Best Buy, Weinman gives Ali a small walkie-talkie—she can communicate with him if she gets in trouble—and leaves her at the door.
     "I don't get out of the car," he says. "I like the lesson to be as if a taxicab dropped them off."
      "What's the most important thing?" he asks Ali.
     "To go with them," she says.
     Weinman explains she shouldn't just stand there while the clerks go fetch her purchases, but accompany them through the aisles.
     "It forces Ali to grab the arm of a stranger—[blind kids] can be nervous about taking the arm of someone they don't know—and makes the public more aware of working with a blind person," says Weinman, who is always telling his students: "We have to show the world that blind people do shop."
     Ali unfolds her white cane and walks briskly inside. A man in a yellow shirt and a headset is stationed at the door, and beckons a manager.
     "How you doing, miss, how can we help you?" the manager says. "Do you need someone to help you around the store?"
     After a brief wait, a pert salesclerk, Gisell DaSilva, 21, appears. Ali takes her arm, and they stride into the vast store.
     "Is there anything specific you're looking for?" DaSilva asks.
     First on the list is "Quarantine"—like many teens, Ali is a big fan of horror movies; her mother or sister describe the action to her.
     "Very, very scary," DaSilva says.
     Then to the memory chip aisle, where, after some deliberation, they find the right one.
     DaSilva rings up the sale. "Do you want the receipt in the bag?" she asks, then leads Ali to the door.
     Back in the van, Weinman goes through the post-mortem. It turns out that Ali just took her change but didn't have DaSilva count out and identify the bills—three fives and a one.
     "Being a blind person, it's always important to ask what bills you get," Weinman says. "You've gotta be a self-advocate and say, 'What bills are these?' "
     "I tried my best," says Ali, who shows off the DVD of "Quarantine."
     "I want to watch this movie so badly," says Ali, and I smile—"watch," that probably means I was OK with "nice to see you."
                               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 19, 2009

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Flashback 2009: Blind kids on the brink of being shown the door



Pair of eyes, bronze and obsidian. Greek, 5th century BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     I dug up more vintage columns than were needed during my trip to South America, but  didn't want to simply toss this pair of columns back into the vault. 
     So for today, a visit to a class for the profoundly blind; tomorrow, we go shopping with one of the students from the class, Ali Krage, and catch up with her today. The really astounding thing about this column is that the parents of these blind children didn't know they were getting the boot until they read about it in the paper. The Vision Room, to answer the question of several readers, was moved to Addison Trail High School.

     Joe Lamperis reads quite well for a boy with no eyes.
     "I am blind, legally," he explains. "I was born with anophthalmia"—a rare condition where infants develop without eyes.
     "They had to put these in," he adds, casually referring to the handsome blue eyes he seems to have.
     Glass? "Plastic, actually," says Joe, 16.
     He reads by running his fingers over the tiny raised bumps of Braille, sitting at his desk in a small classroom in Willowbrook High School.
     Officially it's "The Program for Students With Visual Impairments," but at Willowbrook they call it "The Vision Room." This room serves the region's most severely visually impaired students -- 92 school districts in DuPage and western Cook County together send just 22 students here.
     The program has been at Willowbrook in Villa Park for 10 years, but with the high school undergoing extensive reconstruction, the blind students will have to find another place to study come autumn.
     "We told them over a year ago that we could no longer house their program due to space constraints," said District 88 Supt. Steve Humphrey.
     Parents of the blind children have not yet been told about the pending move nor the current lack of anywhere for them to move to.
     "We haven't communicated to the parents yet," said Michael Volpe, executive director of the School Association for Special Education in DuPage County, which runs the program. "We wanted, hopefully to get a solution." The Vision Room is not a traditional class where one teacher leads a group of students. Rather it is a home base, where blind students come and go, receiving one-on-one guidance, since their abilities range widely, from Reginald Harris, 20, who is autistic and sits matching toothbrush cases, to Beatriz Chavez, 19, who is attending College of DuPage next year, and has the white hair and pink eyes—and related vision problems—of albinism.
     "Mr. C., I need your eyeballs," she says. "Mine hurt." Mr. C—teacher Mario Cortesi— slides over to look at the economics textbook she's studying.
     Computers and tapes help, but mastering the 180-year-old Braille system is still an essential skill.
     "They have to touch those words and feel them to learn to read," says Nick Hildreth, a teacher.
     Joe learned Braille when he was 4.
     "It was exciting for me and my family," he explains. "I read for pleasure. I read for education. I love reading." As does Ali Krage, also 16, who lightly places her delicate hands on what at first seems like a blank page and draws her left index finger swiftly across the subtle raised dots.
     "Unless thou tell me how I may prevent it," she reads—lines from 'Romeo and Juliet'—"If, in thy wisdom, thou canst give no help, Do thou but call my resolution wise." She is reading the 32nd of 41 volumes of "Elements of Literature, Third Course." Braille texts can run 80 volumes, and storing them is a challenge, as is getting materials that are both current and relevant. A teacher hands Ali a Braille copy of ESPN The Magazine from last November.
     "Oh joy," says Ali, with typical teen sarcasm, handing it back. She too started reading Braille as a toddler—as with any language, those who begin later have a much tougher time.
      Nearby, Mike Wade sits laboriously translating a sentence in Braille—"I enjoy going to Outreach"—using an egg carton and golf balls to help him understand the tiny Braille grids.
     "I?" asks Mike.
     "You got it," says Cortesi, guiding his work. "You missed a letter, though. Can you feel the 'O'?" Ali says she often prefers Braille books to books on tape, because she can proceed at her own pace, though there are drawbacks. "I'm tired of reading," she once told her twin sister, Nicole. "My fingers hurt." Ali heads upstairs to collect some biology notes, which her teacher has transcribed into Braille for her.
     "We just finished evolution and now we're studying bacteria," she says, admitting that biology is not her favorite subject. "It's really visual," she complains. "There are a lot of diagrams." Those who assume the teens' situation is somehow grim haven't met kids such as Ali, or Michael Hansen, 17, in his third year of high school.
     "Most of us blindy types do it in five years," he says breezily. "I consider myself a junior when it's to my benefit, a sophomore when it's to my benefit." Michael plays the cello and the piano and heads off to the music room to perform his "Lamentation in A Minor, Opus 7." He sits at the piano, folds his white cane into four sections and places it on the rack intended for sheet music, and begins his composition's haunting quiet passages and crashing Rachmaninoff-inspired chords.
     Though blinded by glaucoma, his eyes swollen, milky and often painful, Michael is steadily upbeat. Returning to the Vision Room at the same time as Joe, Joe's white cane momentarily tangles in Michael's feet.
     "Sorry, I didn't see you Joe," Michael deadpans. "I must be going blind in my old age."     

     "You ARE blind!" exclaims Joe, whose sense of irony is not as keen.
      The blind students navigate the halls with confidence—even Ali, a freshman, who spent hours of orientation, feels her way around the school. She and her classmates will have to learn a new layout next fall.
     "We're just out of space," says Humphrey. "We're at a point where the program's gotta be moved." As to where they'll go, "we've got a couple of nibbles," says Volpe, adding that District 88 has been "very helpful and positive." "They're trying to work with us," Volpe says. "It's important to the kids—it's tough enough to make a transition from one high school building to another without also having to leave the district." Comment at suntimes.com.

Today's chuckle . . .
     "You can't do anything about it, you might as well laugh about it," says Michael Hansen, rattling off the following:
     A blind man with a seeing eye dog walks into a convenience store. He grabs his dog by the tail and starts swinging him in a big circle.
     "What are you doing!?!" asks the horrified clerk.
     "I'm just looking around," says the man.

                                                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 18, 2009

Friday, April 26, 2019

Not only the oldest but one of the best: Mike Nussbaum on acting at 95



   “The longer you live,” a gravedigger sings, tossing skulls from an old grave in the new production of “Hamlet” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, “the sooner you bloody well die.”
     That line is not in Shakespeare’s play, but a winking bit of business added by director Barbara Gaines, apt for the character but also something of an in-joke, since the actor doing the singing is Mike Nussbaum, who is 95 years old.
     “He’s not only the oldest actor working on stage in America, he’s one of the best,” said Gaines.
     The senior member of Actors’ Equity has a resume long enough to make three thespians proud. He’s appeared in productions at Chicago’s top theaters for nearly half a century and had noteworthy small roles in hit movies such as “Field of Dreams,” “Men in Black” and “Fatal Attraction.”
     And oh yes, he made his splash in the premiere of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” in 1975 and went on to star in “Glengarry Glen Ross” on Broadway.
     “It’s wonderful to work with Mike because, like any artist, like any actor, he’s just unusual,” Mamet told Chicago magazine. “You’re constantly saying, ‘My God, where did that come from?’ It’s not coming out of a bag of ‘acting moments.’ That’s all bullshit. It’s coming out of — who the hell knows where? You either got it or you don’t, and Mike certainly does.”  

     Not only does Nussbaum still have it, but he somehow guards his dramatic gift from the cruel physics of age and mortality. “I’m lucky,” he explained, relaxing backstage before Tuesday’s performance. “Genetic luck. I work out and I try to eat sensibly. I gave up smoking about 50 years ago. It’s just pure luck.”
     Luck, and some help. Nussbaum was married for 54 years, but his first wife died in 2003. He married again, and Julie comes up when I insist there must be something else beyond stretching keeping him going. He admits there is.
     “A great woman,” he said. “Probably one of the main reasons I’m able to do this.”
Why?


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Thursday, April 25, 2019

South American Diary #13: Blue ice


Asia Glacier, Chile

    Pollution does more than merely spoil the environment. As bad as sooty air, plastic-clogged beaches and poisoned rivers are, there's another insidious element that can get overlooked. Pollution gets into your head, into your mind, twisting your expectations of the natural world, so that when I first saw these stupendous glaciers in Chile I thought, "Tide."
     As in detergent. 
    My frame of reference for things that looked like this was blue tinted plastic wrap and blue laundry soap and blocks of old styrofoam. 
Clear glacial ice
    It was difficult enough for the brain to process these enormous sheets of ice, some 200 feet tall and a half mile across. Their tint being, not just pale blue, but a dozen shades of azure, from powder to royal, made it seem not a thing in nature, even though it was entirely natural. Then add the seams of crushed rock, picked up in their slow journeys across the landscape, and the glaciers at first seemed not the pristine wonders they were, but dirty, littered, polluted themselves.  
     It took time to get used to them, to accept their majesty on its own terms and see them for what they are. 
     And more time still to understand where that blue comes from. 
     Powdery snow looks white because it's fluffy, puffed with air, allowing the multifaceted snow crystals to reflect the entire spectrum of colors which, mixed together, look white. (If you don't believe me, take a peek at the classic science class "Newton's disc" experiment).
     Or, better yet, pour yourself a glass of beer. The liquid is brown, the foamy head is white. Why? The bubbles in the foam, reflecting light.
      Glacial ice is old—the snowfalls from 10,000 years, or 100,000, each season compressed for millennia under the crushing weight of the seasons that followed. Over time, the air is pressed out, making the ice very clear, and thus able to let more light in deeper, where it is trapped instead of being reflected, particularly the reds: glacial ice absorbs red light six times more efficiently than blue light, which bounces back into our awestruck and disbelieving eyes. 

Garibaldi Glacier, Chile

   

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

RIP Rahm Emanuel: "the most Chicago of Chicago mayors"



 
     After the funeral of a college classmate, her sister asked me how the Catholic ceremony compared to Jewish rites. I thought a moment. There were the bouquets of flowers piled atop the coffin, buried along with it. That was different, and haunting, but not what I mentioned.
     "We tend to say something around the grave," I said.
     "I asked the priest if we could do that," she responded. "But he said 'No.'"
     And you listened to him?! I thought, and almost said aloud, but held back, out of respect.
     We Jews are indeed a chatty, argumentative race, no doubt about that, and we guide our clergy as much as our clergy guides us. Maybe more.
     So even though I am convinced that the ideal way to solemnize Rahm Emanuel's departure from the mayor's office is with stony silence—for the city to cough into our collective fist and fix our gaze on the middle distance until he goes away—I'm not going to do that.
     First, because of the certainty that Rahm will spend the next few weeks in hyperkinetic victory laps, huffing in circles around City Hall, both hands raised for high fives that aren't returned by passerby who twist away in revulsion as he flies past, legs and jaw churning, uttering the same constant stream of self-congratulatory spin he's been coasting along on, like a slug producing its own smooth track of slime, for the past eight years.
     And second, well, can't have a column that's five paragraphs long. My job has forced me to contemplate Rahm and, like any proctologist with a full day's schedule, no point in complaining. Might as well roll up our sleeves and take a look.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

South American Diary #12: Pablo Neruda



     The ship docked at Valparaiso. The shuttle got us to the airport in Santiago by about 11 a.m. My flight boarded at 7 p.m. Before I could even pose the question, Michael had proposed an answer: Pablo Neruda's home, then lunch.
     Worked for me. Actually one of Pablo Neruda's homes, La Chascona, built for his mistress and future third wife, Matilde Urrutia. The tour guide on our bus to the airport sternly warned us against using Uber—it was illegal and we would be arrested and sent to jail—so in the spirt of rebellion, that was the mode of transportation we took.  

     My experience with Neruda had been limited. I read and enjoyed his "Ode to Common Things," 25 poems on spoons and pliers and such, and used it in 2017 as a guide to the Home + Housewares Show, which pleased me immensely, if no one else.
     I read his "The Poet's Task" in Robert Pinsky's splendid collection, "The Handbook of Heartbreak," and fell in love with it, so much that I used the poem as a spiritual guide to my memoir about my father, "Don't Give Up the Ship." The poem was originally the epigram of the book, but two weeks before publication some lawyer at Ballantine figured out that while I had gotten permission from, and paid, the translator, Alfred Corn, I had not also secured permission from the Neruda estate. Faxes to Chile ensued (this was 1999) and the estate said, eventually, No. Because Corn had never received permission, and thus they would not grant it now. Instead they wanted me to use some vastly inferior translation, which I declined to do. It's irrational, but I often felt that the book's complete failure was the result of "The Poet's Task" not being at the front.
     I tried not to blame Neruda, who died in 1973, personally for this, and largely succeeded. It helped to learn at La Chascona about the Nobel laureate's vigorous life and travels, and about his political heroism, pushing for democracy in Chile, and how after the military coup, junta goons sacked his house, which his widow lovingly restored. It's well-worth seeing, not at all regal, but whimsical and rambling and homey and inviting, like the poet's work itself.
     This is the logical place to end my South American reminiscences. A dozen is enough. Though I'm still planning to do two more, something about climate change for the paper, and that should be ready soon. And something about glaciers and the color blue. Otherwise, thank you for enduring old columns while I was getting my sea legs, then going along with me on this South American Diary. I'm going to end with "The Poet's Task," which I feel comfortable reprinting here, since I did pay Alfred Corn, and if the Neruda Estate wants to complain, well, they know where to find me.

The Poet's Task

Whoever isn't listening to the sea this Friday
morning, whoever is trapped inside some
house, office, factory—or mistress
or street corner or coal mine or solitary confinement:
to that person I make my way and without speaking or nodding
come up and spring open the cage; and something begins to hum, faint but insistent;
a great snapped-off clap of thunder harnesses itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam;
the hoarse rivers of the ocean rise up,
a star shimmers and trills in its rose window,
and the sea stumbles, falls, and continues on its way.

Then, with destiny as my pilot,
I will listen and listen harder to keep alive
in my memory the sea's outcry.
I must feel the impact of solid water
and save it in a cup outside of time
so that wherever anyone may be imprisoned,
wherever anyone is made to suffer in the dying year,
I will be there, whispering in the ceaseless tides.
I will drift through open windows,
and, hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saving, How can we get to the ocean?
And, without answering, I will pass on
the collapse of foam and liquid sand,
the salty kiss of withdrawal,
the gray keening of birds on the shore.
And so, through me, freedom and the sea
will bring solace to the downcast heart.
                 —Pablo Neruda, translated by Alfred Corn

Monday, April 22, 2019

Are you being tracked? Burned by lasers? Maybe you are a ‘Targeted Individual’




     Strangers are following you. Teams of them, coordinating their surveillance. Recording you. Attacking you with sonic devices. Maybe burning you with lasers. Maybe implanting grain-sized trackers inside your body. You can feel the hard bumps under your skin.
     You are alarmed, naturally, and turn for help to those you trust: your family and friends. Maybe law enforcement. Only they don’t believe, you. They might even act like you’re the problem. Like you’re crazy.
     Welcome to the world of Targeted Individuals, a loose confederation of those, in their words, subject to the “growing crimes of organized stalking, surveillance, abuse and electronic harassment.”
     I first met Targeted Individuals last August, passing a protest in the Loop marking “International Targeted Individual Day.” I took a flyer, showing the fearful blue eyes of a weeping woman.
     "INFORM YOURSELF," it declares. "SHARE. DEMAND CHANGE."
     Calling spokeswoman, “Ella Free,” started with a surprise.
     “A good portion of people who claim to be Targeted Individuals are actually mentally ill,” she said. Straight to the elephant in the room. “So many of them, people have the same story: it’s interesting that a person isolated is having a very similar scenario.”
     She meant “interesting” as in “persuasive” — these people are describing the same thing, therefore it must have basis in reality. That logic doesn’t hold up.
     “People who are paranoid start to latch onto the same kind of delusion,” said David LaPorte, a professor of psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “This is not uncommon. When airplanes first started, people started having delusions they were being followed by airplanes. The computer has been a huge issue that leaked into paranoid delusions. Every technological advance becomes fodder for paranoid individuals.”


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Sunday, April 21, 2019

South American Diary #11: The church at Nercón


  

     Happy Easter! 

     I've got a holiday treat for readers of all denominations: a visit to the Our Lady of Grace Church—Nuestra Señora de Gracia—in the town of Nercón, Chile. Made of local cypress and larch about 1890, it is one of 14 distinctive wooden churches on the island of Chiloé which, together were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The official citation reads:
The 14 churches of Chiloé represent the only example in Latin America of a rare form of ecclesiastical wooden architecture. They were built on the initiative of the Jesuit Peripatetic Mission in the 17th and 18th centuries and bear testimony to a successful fusion of indigenous and European culture and technical expertise. 
     I've only seen one of the other 13 — the lemon yellow Church of San Francisco De Castro, beautiful too, though on a larger scale, and painted, on the outside, so its grandeur seemed a little forced after the stunning simplicity of the church at Nercón.  UNESCO produced a video featuring a few of the other churches. 
     Makes me wish I could return and see them all, though it's hard to imagine how any of them could be sweeter than this imposing-yet-humble wooden structure, built by seafaring missionaries on this island, which historian Renato Cárdenas called “a distinct enclave, linked more to the sea than the continent."
     That would explain the sailing ships suspended from the ceiling, a practice found in Scandinavian churches honoring the vessels so important to parishioners' lives, though in the New World it's thought they also symbolize the ships that conveyed them to their new homes. Something I had only seen once before, in a small ornate stone church in Quebec City: Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.
     The colors inside, particularly the intense blue of the side altars, were particularly affecting, as were the folk art figures, the bare wood, the careful carpentry: while it is not true the church is built without nails, there are not as many as you'd expect.

    I was so focused on taking photographs of the place, I neglected to quiz the woman who opened the church for us. That was  a mistake. I assumed I'd find background online, but I there isn't a lot. Someone should write a book on these churches.  I'd do it, in a heartbeat.
     People purporting to be faithful talk about humility a lot, but often that ideal gets lost in the gold-leaf grandeur that religious leaders feel obligated to plaster over themselves and their surroundings. 
     Our Lady of Grace Church reminds us that there is beauty in simplicity, in minimalism—and few things are simpler than a cross—in natural materials in their natural state. Just to put a coat of paint on this church would be a desecration. It achieves a harmony with the nature buffeting it, very much like a ship itself, a tight vessel designed to be battered by the woes of the world and convey the souls sheltered within to a safe, snug harbor. 
    So here's hoping that this Easter—if you celebrate it—you can look beyond the grand  trappings, the lacy bonnets, if people still wear Easter bonnets, the overflowing candy baskets and dripping spiral hams, and connect with the basic message and suffering, redemption and rebirth that is at the heart of the Easter story, or so I've been led to believe. All who suffer are not redeemed, but the possibility is always waiting for those who seek redemption.
     


   


Saturday, April 20, 2019

South American Diary #10: Marion



    "There is a God," announced Marion Kaplan, arriving, camera in hand of course, onto the  windblown early morning top deck of the RCGS Resolute, traveling north through the Falcon Fjord.
     While I wasn't willing to join her in any leap of faith, and didn't know her well enough yet to realize she was being literary rather than literal, I allowed that the austere scenery  spread out before us in shades of blue and gold was indeed fantastic.
     "On the day I booked, this is what I imagined," she said, referring to the One Ocean Expeditions voyage through the fjords of Chile. 
      I had no reply because, in all honesty, on the day I booked I hadn't imagined anything. I didn't know a fjord from a Ford. I am not a traveler prone to pre-meditation, seldom pausing to ponder where I am going or what might be there. I certainly never considered that the other passengers aboard the cruise would provide an important aspect of the adventure, if not quite to rival the scenery, then certainly a way to fruitfully occupy the periods between exploring ice-choked waters in Zodiac boats and clomping around coastal bogs and ogling moss-covered rockscapes.
     When Marion first joined the large round white clothed table where I was sitting, on the second dinner of the expedition, I didn't peg this 80ish, five-foot-tall woman as someone I wanted to get to know better. She mentioned, in her proper Queen's English, that for the past 25 years she has lived in Southwest France.
     "Are there any French people there?" I inquired, tartly, perhaps trying to show off my scant knowledge of the area. "Or is everybody English?"
     But Marion wasn't going to be distracted by snide dinner companions. Finding herself in the company of journalists, she brought up a particular friend of hers who had covered the Nuremberg trials. 
     That shut me up and caught my attention. The Nuremberg trials just don't get tossed out as dinner conversation much anymore, though we didn't linger there, but sped on to her shooting photographs in Africa for Time and Life, and  the half year she spent aboard Arab dhows—ancient sailing ships, the last echo of the tradition of plying spice routes that went back to antiquity. She traveled from Kuwait to Mombasa and then down the African coast, first as a passenger, then as crew.
     She didn't mention it, but I later learned the odyssey ran in the September, 1974 National Geographic. 
     After a number of years abroad, in 1962 she decided to go home, she told us. Money was tight, so she hitchhiked. By herself. From Johannesburg to London.
     "How long did that take?" I asked. 
     She pondered a moment.
1966, Salisbury, Rhodesia
    "About two, two and a half years," she said.
      The next morning at 6 a.m. I was online, looking at her photographs, such as this from Rhodesia. And I ordered one of her books "Focus Africa," which contains an account of her epic adventure in thumb-waving.
      She wasn't Dorothea Lange, but she wasn't bad either, and I felt a certain kinship with her on that account. I'm not John McPhee, but I do what I can. We're both mid-level craftsmen who managed to brush our fingers against the fabric of history as it unfurled around us. Perhaps she more than I.
      In her brief accounts of her career during conversations aboard the Resolute, she failed to mention certain significant aspects, like being on the scene in Uganda during Idi Amin's coup, and taking his portrait, several times, or having tea with Robert Mugabe. She never mentioned climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a girlfriend, sleeping in caves , a detail revealed in a bravura paragraph from "Focus Africa" that bears repeating in full:
     I passed my days with people who welcomed me, moving on before the welcome grew cool. I slept in some strange places: in, under and on the tops of trucks, in caves on Mount Kilimanjaro, in the bush and in deserts, in a police station in Uganda, a priest's cubbyhole in the Congo, a barracks in Nigeria; on the floor of a train, on the hatch of a schooner and the deck of a dhow, in filth on a Nile barge, in comfort on a Congo riverboat; in a maternity house in Khartoum, a war victims' hostel (l'Association des Amputés et Mutilés de Guerre de Sénégal) in St. Louis and missions of all denominations, in village huts and crowded quartiers, in embassies and private homes all over Africa.  
Congo, 1968
     Sharing the evocative name of the Senegalese hospital proved to me we were on the same page. Her politics in the 1982 book easily bear the strain of being transported to 2019. A kinship with the Africans she meets—she lets the Sudanese women on that Nile barge try on her bra—and barely suppressed contempt for the white rule of the British in Rhodesia and for the mercenaries wallowing in blood in the newly-independent Congo, where she "learned at first hand what I had always suspected: that the strong pictures warfare makes, of tough men and smoking guns, can be an illusion, a mirror image of macho. There were few 'real men' in that overarmed assortment of misfits and numbskulls."
     I grew to appreciate such frank assessments during our two weeks as shipmates. When the ship stopped at Puerto Eden and we eagerly went ashore to meet the last surviving members of an indigenous tribe, she refused to go, she said, unwilling to join "a bunch of wealthy foreign whites" as they "ogle an impecunious native," a practice she dubbed "neo-colonial." 
     In her book, several times she encounters English club ladies, who marvel that she would accept a ride from a black truck driver. What if she were attacked? (She was, and her description of the event—the last three lines of a 12-line paragraph—has to be one of the most understated attempted rapes in the wide sweep of English literature: 
     "....In Marrakesh a couple of goldsmiths who had accompanied me around the suq and the great Djemaa el-F'na with its marvelous open-air entertainment—storytellers, contortionists, snake charmers, worldly and unworldly amusements—set upon me with intent on the way back to my back-street hotel. But theirs was a very small car, and my pigtails and trousers, shrill screams and clawing fingernails won out. There it is: my only nasty experience." 
Paleo-anthropologist Richard Leaky
      Speaking of unpleasant experiences, I did have one with Marion, which either must or shouldn't be told, and since I'm not sure which it is, I'll let you decide. 
     Having met Marion, I spent the next week seeking her during meals out and savoring her candid observations. It isn't often one can talk to someone who photographed both Robert F. Kennedy and Haile Sellasie, Emperor of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah, descendent of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, at least in his own estimation. She seemed to appreciate the company of Michael Cooke and myself, as fellow journalists, and a relief from the prattle of ordinary tourists.  
     It was after a lecture by Ian Goodwin, an Australian glaciologist and climatologist, that I found her on on deck, standing at the rail, watching the ceaseless ocean rush past. 
     "What a waste!" I exclaimed. He spent an entire hour telling us about the glaciers he was studying and nothing more. "A babble of specifics," is how I put it, complaining that he never pulled back to give the big picture, never uttered the kind of concise, quotable sky-is-falling warning required for any proper newspaper story on climate change. 
     Marion disagreed. She said she was glad someone is studying these topics, and obviously understands them better than either of us. I left her, a bit ruffled that my pal had not agreed with me, but giving it no more thought.
    Until  dinner.
Haile Sellasie
     Michael and I joined Ian to talk more about his presentation—it turned out he is concerned not just about climate change, but about the risk that climate scientists are skiing over their tips, in essence, issuing  warnings that might undercut their reliability since they'll be found true for our grandkids more than for us. 
     Marion drifted over and we beckoned her to join us.
     "He hated your lecture!" she told Ian, sitting down,  pointing in my direction with what struck me as malicious glee. I collected my jaw off my lap and tried a bright spin: not "hated," certainly, just didn't understand, and wished it had a broader scope rather than limited to what he knew and had studied. Marion would have none of it, and drove her point home.  No, no, no, Neil was quite clear in his condemnation.
      "Marion, you're being ghastly," I finally said, and managed to wrench the conversation into other areas. 
     Later in dinner, she seemed to sense that perhaps she had exhibited bad form, and observed that she would no doubt die soon.
    "Not soon enough," I muttered, sotto voce, an ire I carried into the next day, when she perched nearby, obviously expecting us to continue our usual conversation. I gave her the cold shoulder. The honesty I so appreciated when directed at those not myself felt quite different when focused on me. It felt like betrayal.  I was done with her, and imagined pitching her book into the trash, unopened, when I got home.
     But that quickly faded. As deep a well of resentment I no doubt possess, it tends to be thin gruel over any protracted period. "Save grudges for the 7th grade," I like to say. 
    I grew hungry for our previous conversation. There was the deference due to one's elders, the unavoidable fact that, while I was still sitting crosslegged, singing about the colors of the rainbow in kindergarten at Fairwood School in Berea, Ohio, Marion was tagging along after mercenaries rampaging through the Congo, using live 9mm bullets as earplugs to cut the noise from their gunfire.  She forged her own travel papers, and did herself up in a slinky dress, high heels and heavy makeup to wobble her film past border guards who might confiscate it.  Once Kenneth Kaunda, president of Zambia, interrupted his own speech to tell his band of young followers to stop roughing up Marion and another photographer. "No, no," he shouted. "They are all right. I know them. Leave them in peace."
     So we returned to our old habits, though I did make a point to never say anything to her I wouldn't want widely disseminated. We never spoke of that encounter again, and I gave her a warm hug as we parted, jotted down her email, and received an invitation to look her up in Southwestern France, which I appreciated but would never follow up on.
     The Resolute was docked at Santiago, Michael and I were off the ship, through customs, and about to board our bus to the airport when I saw Marion Kaplan for what must be the last time. She was far behind everyone, but gamely hurrying to catch up, best she could, her camera slung around her neck, at the ready. I snapped a farewell photo.


     
   

Friday, April 19, 2019

It’s too easy to say, ‘Bob did it’ — Chicago safety experts on Notre Dame fire




     Opportunities for do-overs are rare in the column biz. The scribbling finger of Time rushes on, and each new situation tends to be unique.
     But sometimes the chance does arise. When Notre Dame Cathedral burned in Paris Monday, I leaped onto social media, with everyone else, saying the first thing to pop into mind, like everybody else.
     “How could this happen?” The question answers itself. The scaffolding! It was the roofers. I remembered a column written in 2006 when the Pilgrim Baptist Church burned, inspiring me to flip open my tool box and grab the 2-pound sarcasm drilling hammer: “… city officials speculated that roofers working on the church just might have touched off the blaze. Gee, ya think?” I wrote, almost gleeful. “You mean the guys with blowtorches working at the exact spot the fire broke out? Now there’s a theory. It’s ALWAYS the roofers …”
     Chicago is a city of laborers, contractors, masons, pipe fitters, plumbers, iron workers, crane operators, site foremen and, yes, roofers. Perhaps some after-echo of every single one of them looking up from their Sun-Times in 2006 and muttering“schmuck” caused me to set down the hammer, pick up a phone and actually do my job.
     “It’s awfully easy to say, ‘Oh, Bob did it,'” said Tim Fisher, director of the American Society of Safety Professionals, based in Park Ridge. “I was a firefighter. I’ve investigated hundreds of incidents, and very rarely did I find an incident caused because of negligence — usually something went with it, a series of circumstances that compile.”
     For example?
     Fisher recalled a fire where a cement mixer shorted out and set fire to lumber stacked nearby.
     The blame belonged … where? To the guy in charge of maintaining the mixer? The person running it? The worker who stacked the lumber? Or the foreman overseeing them all?
“In this organization, we don’t believe in blaming the worker,” Fisher said. “We believe a lot in identifying what we call the ‘key factor.'”

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

South American Diary #9: In the company of rare birds

Crested caracara , near Serrano Glacier in d'Agostini Fjord (Photo by Jacqueline Windh)
  
     No matter how much you love birds, they never love you back.
     I'm not sure how that unspoken truth factors into the widespread appeal of the avian segment of the animal kingdom, but it must. Birds play hard to get, their quick transit through their air so different from our earthbound plodding. People are everywhere; birds, not so much. Certain humans yearn for what glimpses we can catch of them. They have beauty and grace and we ... get to look at them, sometimes, if we're lucky.
    As a guy who glories in the range of ordinary birds to be found in the Chicago area—cardinals, sparrows woodpeckers, bluejays, robins, herons, ducks, hawks, vireos, finches—of course I'd keenly anticipate what wondrous birds I'd encounter cruising the coast of Chile. 
    And I was not disappointed.  It started with a pair of kelp geese, a coal black female and her snow white male, seen on a rock on our first Zodiac foray from the ship, just past the Garibaldi Glacier. A slow-moving falcon called the caracara (above) was a common sight, as were albatrosses. We saw red-footed cormorants and once and—though I missed it, alas—a pygmy owl.
Simon Boyes (photo by Jacqueline Windh)
     The voyage—of the RCGS Resolute, under the auspices of One Ocean Expeditions—had its own resident ornithologist, Simon Boyes, who has been leading bird-watching tours since 1977, and done some 300 trips on all seven continents. 
     "When I was about 12, I found my love of birds," he told us, at the expedition's start. "I found I had to know what everything was called. I had to know, for some strange reason it motivated me all the time. You need to know, what they are, these little things hopping along the rocks." 
     I was intrigued that Simon read classics at Oxford.
      "It was useful for studying the scientific names of birds," he explained, noting that he preferred Greek to Latin, which did not surprise me: in his history, Herodotus turns his attention to birds, to ibises and ducks, as well as creatures less tangible: phoenixes, winged snakes and doves that speak with human voices.  
    Simon had no interest in being interviewed, at least not by me—the media is in trouble when bird-watchers draw away from us in distrust—but I managed to ask him about Oxford as an institution. 
    "I thought it was terrible," he said. "It was just so pre-historic."
    In his opening talk, Simon noted that three Wilson's storm petrels had already gotten stranded on the upper deck.
     "There's lots to look at, lots to learn about," said Simon. "I hope I can encourage you to share my love of bird-watching."
    And so we did. I loved hearing Simon talk about birds. He spoke of the sooty shearwater—"We have seen plenty and we probably will see more"—and the steamer duck, both flying and flightless, including the etymology of the name which, to my surprise, was not a nod toward their eventual culinary preparation.
     "Reminds some folks of a paddle steamer, which is how they got their name."
     I let the bird names wash over me: the dolphin gull and the Chilean skua, the Andean condor and the black chested buzzard eagle. The variable hawk  and the green-backed firecrown, a hummingbird that I would later see, hovering directly in front of my face. (At least I think that's the variety of hummingbird I saw, a foot from my face for less than a second).
    Simon would give us a detail or two about each bird and move nimbly to the next. The last part of the name of the thorn-tailed rayadito means "little striped one," aptly enough.  We met the the dark- bellied cinclodes, the fire-eyed diucon (below) and, a favorite, the dark-faced ground tyrant. Then on to the long-tailed meadowlark, the black-chinned siskin, and the Chimango caracara, which I would see several times, on the wing and perched in trees above our heads. 
     "There are no crows in Chile," said Simon. "So these birds take the niche of crows, cleaning up the eco system." 
     Simon mentioned the magellanic oystercatcher and the Southern lapwing.    
     "We may come cross the two-banded plover," he speculated, before flashing a photo of the grey-breasted seed snipe.
    "Not a true snipe," he sniffed, with a trace of censure, followed by its slightly smaller cousin, the least seedsnipe. The rufous-chested dotterel and ... prophetically in my case -- the South American Snipe.
The South American Snipe
    Prophetic because, a few days later, I found myself plodding through a marshy grassland  beyond the Falcon Glacier. A pair of my shipmates had paused, gazing down at a spot in the tall grass. There was the slightest movement,. They moved off, but I stayed, slowly tracking the little guy  through a screen of blades. It was amazing how well he was camouflaged. Just a flash, a form, then vanishing again. 
     But I stood still, up to my ankles in water, and as he ambled off, I gently followed him, sloshing along. For one moment, he came into plain sight, distinct from the grasses, and I took his portrait. Then he was gone again.
     I had always heard of snipe hunts, but didn't imagine I'd participate in one, never mind be successful. I rushed to show the photo to Simon, and he confirmed my identification, with what I thought was a touch of asperity. My hunch is that, in his eyes, I somehow wasn't worthy of the prize. This was his profession, after all, and if anyone finds a snipe, it should him, and not this dabbler, this bulbous-nosed American dabbler. It almost sounds like a variety of bird, though were that the case, Simon no doubt would have warmed to me a little.


A fire-eyed diucon, seen at  Puerto Edén, Chile (photo by Jacqueline Windh)



     
     

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

"Explore our creativity"—street art should not just be saved, but encouraged

Santiago street mural


     I'm back from my trip to South America, one aspect of which meshed neatly with current events in Chicago. This is today's column in the paper—my South American Diary series will continue tomorrow, and on off days when the column doesn't appear, until I've exhausted the material I gathered, which will probably be sometime in May.

     Yes, I was chagrined when I realized that Chicago's historic mayoral election on April 2 would find me up a Chilean fjord on a research ship, gazing at glaciers. Not exactly ideal place to take the political pulse of the city.
     In my defense, when I accepted the invitation, I had no way of knowing the contest wouldn't be between Bob Fioretti and Paul Vallas, or some similar head-scratcher. Besides, the Sun-Times has a very deep bench, and I knew it would cover the election just fine without me.
     Besides, travel is broadening. It gives fresh perspective. For instance, Saturday, I had a few hours to kill before the flight home, so ducked into Santiago to visit a home of poet Pablo Neruda. En route, I couldn't help but be impressed by the street art: colorful, dramatic, and everywhere.
     The seed of a thought—Chicago has many murals like these, but could use more—had barely been planted when news came Monday that Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) has finally succeeded in creating a City of Chicago Mural Registry, to list approved artworks so that Streets and Sanitation doesn't accidentally remove them.
     The registry was sparked last year when the city, trying to woo Amazon with a flurry of housecleaning, erased several significant murals, including a piece by French street artist Blek le Rat that Cards Against Humanity founder Max Temkin commissioned for the popular party game's Elston Avenue headquarters.
     "Every so often Streets and San would roll up with a soda blaster, and we'd run out and say, 'Don't take it down! Don't take it down!" said Temkin. "The morning when Mayor Emanuel was touring the Lincoln Yards site with Amazon they just came in the middle of the night and did a wholesale clean-up."
     Hopkins began compiling a list of street murals, which turned out to have a second use
     "People were saying, 'How do I access this list of art? I'm going to be in Chicago next week. I want to go see it,'" said Hopkins. "I realized we had a tourism opportunity on our hands. What started out as an attempt to assist Streets and San employees morphed into a cultural phenomenon."


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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Flashback 2006: Roofers again at scene of crime

Notre Dame roof and spire, 2017, destroyed in a fire on Monday

     Forgive me for interrupting my South American series. But the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral Monday was truly a shock, one that has to be addressed. Modern life has reduced fires everywhere, in homes and factories, never mind near-millennium-old icons such as the most popular tourist destination in France.
     The initial fear might have been terrorism, but I had a different suspicion, one that, while not confirmed, is given credibility by the scaffolding around the church roof. I wrote this when the great Pilgrim Baptist Church burned. You'd think people would learn, but they never do.  
     I remember hearing from roofers who felt ill-used when this ran, so phoned a few roofing and contracting safety associations looking for their perspective. My sense is it'll be a long wait. 

THE ROOFER DID IT

     The heart breaks to see a tragedy like the fire at Pilgrim Baptist Church, for the twin loss, both to the architectural history of the city and to a vibrant spiritual community. But there is one aspect that almost makes a person have to smile, albeit a cynical, head-shaking curl of the lip. That was when city officials speculated that roofers working on the church just might have touched off the blaze.
     Gee, ya think? You mean the guys with blowtorches working at the exact spot the fire broke out? Now there's a theory. It's ALWAYS the roofers. Do you realize how many public buildings burn during roof work? Two years ago, the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton caught fire. In 2002, we almost lost another Louis Sullivan building, the magnificent Carson, Pirie Scott Building downtown, when roofers set the place on fire, and exploding propane tanks sent burning debris showering onto State Street. In 1999, it was another black church, St. Stephen AME Church, one of the oldest African-American churches in the city, that was burned, destroying the roof and charring the walls. I'm telling you, roofers are worse than the Klan.
     OK, that's a bit extreme. It isn't always the roofers. Countless roofers are reading this now, with their coffee and doughnuts, waiting for the supervisor to show up, and if there were ever a group that could tar and feather a guy, it's roofers. So we should recognize that other trades also torch the places they're supposed to be fixing. In 1998, the 120-year-old Barrington United Methodist Church burned to the ground when workers repairing a window burned a hole through the wall. Old churches are generally tinderboxes that could be set on fire with an ice cube.
     That said, roofing is a particularly nasty, smelly, extra-dangerous business involving open flames and hot tar, which burns like napalm.
     So, don't blame the roofers—but maybe an extra level of caution could be exerted when repairing the roofs of irreplaceable cultural treasures, particularly old churches. Say a guy standing there with a hose. Or at the very least, the minister, watching carefully, his left hand on a cell phone, ready to call 911, and his right hand on a Bible, praying with all his might. I would if it were my church.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 9, 2006