Thursday, May 23, 2019

It happens from time to time

Pregnant woman, by Edward Degas
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     I always worry about repeating myself in the column. Probably unnecessarily. Nobody ruffles the paper indignantly and harrumphs, "I READ this same opinion 15 years ago!" But I have my professional pride, too much no doubt, and to me, once you start recycling old ideas, you're halfway to Bob Greene and his 100 columns about Baby Richard.
     So the horror of Marlen Ochoa-Lopez, the pregnant 19-year-old Pilsen woman who was strangled and  her baby cut out of her, evoked, after the normal human shock that such a crime would evoke, a kind of double deja vu. First, the realization that this crime, as staggeringly incomprehensible as it is, has happened before, repeatedly. And second, that I've pointed this out already. Thus I kept quiet.
     For today, I dug up up that column from 15 years ago. It's brief, since the column took a full page and had a variety of parts. under bold faced subheadings. 

    But it does the job.
    On the same day, I ran a vignette about my family life in 2004 that I couldn't drop back down the memory hole without sharing. I'll tag it afterward, as an apology for taking you  to such a grim place. The speaker at the time was 7.

Not the first time

     I shouldn't even bring up the subject of the hideous murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett—the Missouri woman who was strangled and her baby cut from her womb—since there's nothing funny about it.
     But one aspect of the crime should not escape notice. When we first heard of this kind of thing, in the similar 1995 Debra Evans case here in DuPage County, I thought it was so brutal and horrible it had to be a unique occurrence. It seemed a crime of such awfulness it might have happened only once, safely in historic times, the kind of thing that becomes a Greek tragedy, like Medea.
     But these cases are not unique. It's incredible, but true. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens—now in Missouri, in 1995 in DuPage, and also in cases in Ohio, in Alabama, in New Mexico, and probably more that I couldn't find.
     I don't know what conclusion to draw from this, other than as a reminder that there are some hugely disturbed people out there. And while such crimes are still rare, the killing of pregnant women is not—in fact, murder is the leading cause of death among pregnant women and new mothers, eclipsing things such as cancer or delivery complications.
     Researchers are trying to figure out why.

'I'm lying!'

     "Do you really have an earache, or are you faking it?" my wife, trying to shepherd the boys out the door, called after the youngest, who has lately been trying to goldbrick his way out of anything he finds remotely unpleasant.
     I set down the coffee cup, poised to point out the lack of utility of such a question, when his voice, bright with the innocent candor of youth, came chiming in from another section of the house:
     "Faking it!" he announced.
     I didn't know whether to be proud of his honesty or dismayed by his lack of craft.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 20, 2004

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Picking up after your dog is just the start

     Social media gets talked about as if it were one thing. But “media” is plural, and each social medium has different customs and tone.
     Facebook is familial, for instance. You can show unruly guests the gate. On Facebook I mark personal occasions: my wife’s birthday, a son home from school, in a way I never would on Twitter. Twitter is far more public and contentious, a mad free-for-all, like that tomato festival in a small Italian town where everyone is covered in red goo, flinging fruit as fast as they can.
     Then there’s blogging. I maintain a blog whose name, alas, can’t be printed in the paper. Blogging seemed edgy when I began, six years ago, ignoring the unavoidable truth that, if I’m doing something, then it ain’t edgy.
     Now blogging seems a quaint and obscure time-wasting pastime, like embroidery. A place for smaller, more trivial thoughts that have no business gobbling up the scarce real estate of a printed newspaper. Two weeks ago, one blog post began this way:
     “Tuesday is garbage day in the old leafy suburban paradise. Which makes Tuesday a better day to walk the dog, because people roll their big sturdy green garbage cans to the curb, affording me a range of disposal options after Kitty has done her business. No need for carrying the blue New York Times bag with its load of doo, not for long, not on Tuesdays. Detour a few steps over to a can, a tad guiltily, lift the top and flip the bag inside.
     “I don’t know why I feel guilty—it isn’t as if the homeowner will mind, me using their can for such a purpose. Or maybe they would. Of course they would. We can be very jealous of our prerogatives, we suburbanites, and I can imagine some homemaker gazing worriedly out her window. ‘That disheveled man, the one with the limp who is always walking that ratty little dog. He just came by and used our garbage can!’”
To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A star is born, or at least detected, maybe, at The Second City.

Kimberly Michelle Vaughn, singing about the Zodiac
     My wife's birthday was Friday, and she requested we go to dinner at Topo Gigio on Wells Street—truly excellent Italian fare—then take in a show at The Second City.  Our younger son, freshly returned in triumph from his first year at law school, joined us.  
     At Piper's Alley, we were seated in the second row, which made me happy before the thing even began—close to the action—and we settled in to watch the venerable Chicago troupe's 107th revue, "Algorithm Nation or the Static Quo."
     It was the sort of boisterous fun you'd expect from Second City: not genius, not dreck, but a series of sketches and songs designed to poke fun at our current cultural moment. Not the easiest thing to do, considering how our national conversation has devolved into continual low farce, no satire necessary. Though given the overarching premise—something about Facebook and its grip on our lives—let's just say I felt that the evening ended with whole wings of possibility left unexplored. Maybe Facebook is already too closely and creepily intertwined into our lives to step back and observe it with the necessary critical distance. I hope not.
      Some sketches ended too soon. I savored the hard gaze that Nate Verrone, as an Uber driver, shot into his rear view mirror as his passenger, a bubbly Emma Pope, prattled on about her birthright tour of Israel. I wanted to get to know that guy better, but the bit ended almost as soon as it began. 
     Some sketches went on too long: Ryan Asher's bawdy female Trump supporter whipping up a crowd for an appearance by His Orange Enormity, all leg kicks and pussy jokes that went both on forever and nowhere. Donald Trump is gross as he is; he doesn't need to absorb a cheeseburger through his anus. She was much better as a young kid sounding out his mother's boyfriend. Pope and Jeffrey Murdoch also had a sweet moment at an eighth grade dance. 
     One performer stood out—Kimberly Michelle Vaughn. My wife and I afterward agreed that she has the ... I don't what to call it. The sparkle. A certain joyous fierceness, a fire, a look in her eye that just put her on the next level. She was part of an ensemble, singing a loopy song about astrology, yet somehow she just sold it more. I hope her cast mates don't hate me, or her, for saying it.  Maybe they shine more on other nights.  And one hesitates to predict the future, given the crucial role of luck. But now at least I can say I told you so.
    Tyler Davis was also very good—he also has presence—though both he and Vaughn were wasted in a sketch where they endure the clueless goodwill of their new white neighbors. Maybe I didn't like the bit because it skewers the kind of obliviousness of which I myself am guilty. I can't be the judge of that. But it seemed to me a concept done to death decades ago, It was like a cartoon set on a desert island or in a dungeon: it has to be done really well to merit doing at all. 
     Not that an old joke can't be fluffed up and used anew. 
    There was some business at the end of the night when Davis takes an audience member hostage, and fate dictated that the audience member be me. As he quickstepped me out of the theater, he asked me who I had come with, and I pointed to my wife and son. 
     "Which one should live?" he asked, or words to that effect.
      "My wife," I said, immediately. "I have another son."
     That got a big laugh out of the audience. Later, I wondered where the line had come from, and realized, not without a slight shiver of horror, that I was re-casting a trope from Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian.
     In his "Speculations About the Nile," he speaks of what he calls the Land of the Deserters: Egyptian soldiers who revolted from the Egyptians and joined the Ethiopians.  As they fled, their commander tried to stop them. Herodotus writes: 
     Psammetichus heard of it, and pursued them. When he came up with them, he entreated them mightily: he would have them, he said, not desert their household gods and their wives and children. At this, it is said, one of their number showed him his prick and said, "Wherever I have this, I will have wives and children."
    Not quite the same line, but a similar spirit.  The evening reminded me that I should make a point of seeing The Second City more often than I do. Though next time, not on the aisle.

Kimberly Michelle Vaughn

Kimberly Michelle Vaughn


Monday, May 20, 2019

Just smoke and mirrors. No babies. No concern for life. No heartbeats.

The Fall of the Magician (1565) by Pieter van der Heyden (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Magicians creates a world where you can be fooled. The pretty assistant and the flapping doves, the twirled wand and the cloth-covered table — all props to distract your eye from the hidden mirrors, the invisible thread, the palmed playing card.
     That’s why what they do are called “magic tricks.” The audience is tricked. We’re supposed to be: it’s almost bad form to point out the illusion.
     Bad form when contemplating an innocent entertainment such as magic.
     When dealing with a key political issue, however, pointing out the deception is obligatory. The showy distractions need to be understood. Especially with a crucial societal issue such as abortion. For too long we’ve accepted the chimerical world of one side, the long-established artifice of those who would suppress women down for religious reasons.
     You know all the magic props: the wide-eyed Gerber baby. The constantly cooed concern for “life.” And, most recently, “heartbeat” laws.
     In reality, there are no babies: most abortions are done in the first trimester, when a fetus is the size of a watermelon seed. The supposed concern for life is a sham, beginning and ending with fetuses of women they’ll never meet. There’s no sympathy for those actually living.
     And the “heartbeat” laws, such as that passed in Missouri on Friday, the latest in a string of states to ban abortion after about the sixth week of pregnancy, effectively banning it altogether, since most women then are just finding out they’re pregnant. There is no heartbeat: a fetus at that point has not developed a working circulatory system, never mind a heart. Calling whatever rudimentary spasm goes on in a fetus a “heartbeat” is like calling a brick a house.
     Like unskilled magicians bobbling the coin as they pocket it, those opposed to women controlling their own bodies carelessly give away the game. The new Missouri law limits the punishments for abortion to doctors, not the women having the procedure.
     Why? If these fetuses are people, and if destroying them is murder, then why not charge the women, too? In any other murder, they would be equal culprits, given that they conceived, facilitated and paid for the crime.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

"The dangerous power of women"

     Lucky is the man who finds himself in the vicinity of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street with an hour to kill, say before meeting his younger son for lunch at their favorite dim sum place on East Wacker Drive.
      Can there be anything more indulgent than to wander into this palace of masterpieces, without goal or plan, stumbling from treasure to treasure, waiting for something to catch your eye? Because something always does.
Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
     This time it was this picture of Judith, painted around 1540 by Flemish mannerist Jan Sanders van Hemessen. For those unfamiliar with the biblical tale, Judith has just stolen into the tent of the Assyrian General Holofernes and cut off his head. 
    I knew the story, and, seeing her across the room, practically called out her name—"Judith!"—the way one does when recognizing an old friend, hurrying over to say hello and contemplate the painting afresh. What struck me this time was her expression, the way she looks at her powerful arm, her hand clutching that sword. A kind of numb amazement, as if she can't quite believe what she's just done and is capable of doing again. 
     The heroine was a popular Renaissance subject, the placard tells us: "The dangerous power of women was a recurrent and ironic theme in the art of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance in northern Europe."
     Women's power is no longer seen as dangerous. Just the opposite. It is latent, unseen, ignored, at least in the United States, as men across the country, aided, as always, by female confederates gulled to work against their own best interests, conspire to force all women back to the distaff and the loom by revoking their rights to control their own bodies and reproductive choices. They have gotten as far as they have, I believe, because women generally have been pre-occupied enjoying the fruits of their hard-won freedoms, assumed they are permanent, and are not focused seriously enough on the real possibility that our country will indeed march back into the past, where they bore babies based on the dictates of their menfolk, or the vagaries of fate.
     It won't. Women, like Judith, will find their power, late but in time. It has to happen and when it does, I imagine it will be accompanied by the same kind of wonder, almost awe, at the realization of what they've done, what they now can do. The understanding that they had this power all along, literally in their own hands.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Go see "The Winter's Tale" at the Goodman Theatre

Dan Donohue, right brings Shakespeare's mess of a play, "The Winter's Tale" to life as King Leontes, who has jealousy issues. To left Nathan Hosner, as King Polixenes, and Leonides' queen, Hermione, played by Kate Fry, in the kind of close chat that gets them into trouble.  

     I really ought to apologize to Robert Falls.
     As much as I respect the talent of the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, as much as I've been enjoying the plays that he directs for ... golly ... the past 35 years, I went to see "The Winter's Tale" at the Goodman Theatre Thursday night with, well, not a sense of dread, exactly, but a certain air of resignation.
     A sense of doubt.
     This is not "Hamlet." This is not "Richard III" or "King Lear" or even "Romeo and Juliet." "The Winter's Tale" is some strange, unfamiliar, minor, late Shakespeare mish-mash that I had never seen nor wanted to see. Study proved fruitless. An hour conversation with Falls barely nudged my expectations. Even he wasn't certain what the play is about. 
      "I've been working on it for a year and I barely know what it's about," he said, over lunch at Petterino's.
     And I believed him.
     Adding to my unease was this: "The Winter's Tale" is the play the Sun-Times was taking our contest winners to see. I was responsible. We had a lovely party beforehand in the Goodman's Alice space, and I lingered, nursing my spring water, not quite ready to will myself into the theater to see ... what?
     Something about jealousy. A dramatic hybrid: an act of drama followed by an act of clowning. Some monstrosity, neither fish nor foul.
     Well, I mused, heading toward my seat, expectation mingled with unease, if anyone can pull this off, it's Bob.
    Does he ever.  Turns out that his pretending not to know what the play is about was merely a taste of his trademark trickster smokescreen. He knows exactly what it's about, and brought in just the right help to drive the tale home. 
    What I hadn't anticipated, before the fact, is that no director, no matter how good, puts on a play alone. I had overlooked the key role that great acting plays in rescuing dubious material, in this case, the lunge from doting friend to jealous fiend that King Leonites executes at the start of the play, a shift that seems daft on paper, but natural and terrifying when performed by Dan Donohue, making his Goodman Theatre debut. Veteran of 30 productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he marches Leonites into the realm of great Shakespearean tragic figures, along with Lear and Othello and Richard III.
      Leonides' turns on his blameless wife, Hermione, played with perfection by Kate Fry.  Her newborn daughter abandoned to the mercy of crows and vultures, she delivers a riveting speech, explaining how Leonides' threatened punishments for her imaginary crimes are mere nothings. 
     "The bug which you would fright me with, I seek," she says. "To me can life be no commodity ... Tell me what blessings I have here alive, that I should fear to die?"
     Donohue and Fry make the first act work—it's as searing as "Hecuba"— but its highlight is Christiana Clark, as the queen's lady, Paulina. Her angry, courageous keelhauling of Leonides has the audience leaning forward in their seats, hanging on every word.
    "What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?" she spits out, telling him to bring them on. The boatload of contempt she packs into that word, "tyrant" is worth the price of admission.  (Kris Vire calls her performance both "stunning" and "blistering" in his spot-on review in the Sun-Times).
Chloe Baldwin, right, enlivens the second act.
    Then the second act of the play is basically a dance party, a sheep-shearing festival graced by Chloe Baldwin, as the abandoned babe, Perdita, now grown to a sylphic 16. Notice how her youthful naturalness turns formal and rigid when forced to talk to an adult, in this case King Polixenes in disguise.  
      I won't argue that "The Winter's Tale" is ripped from the headlines. But, as to be expected with Bob Falls, particularly during our current national torment, all play choices are political. Just as his last play, Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" was a rebuke practically ordered up by our president, so it can't be an accident that he's now offering a play where, one after another, courtiers who are supposed to be subservient instead stand up to a capricious and powerful despot who has lost his reason. Who one after another hold their ground and say, in essence, "Go ahead and kill me. I'm telling you the truth anyway."
      Only in fiction, alas.
      "The Winter's Tale" is Bob Falls at his best, directing a cast of excellent actors who know what they're doing, with a modern set by Walt Spangler that gives its own drama and austerity to the proceedings. It is really a Chicago theatrical moment not to missed—onstage only for a few more weeks, until June 9.  The word my wife used was "excellent"—three times in her immediate summation of the experience. "The Winter's Tale" is truly excellent, as if an unknown Shakespeare masterpiece were discovered and performed for the first time.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Pardon clears Black’s legal woes, but his stain remains

The Infants Christ and St. John the Baptist Embracing (detail)
The Art Institute of Chicago

     I’m writing this column on an Apple iMac. Not the latest model — it’s from 2012. Quite old, actually — but a good size, 21.5 inch screen, and reliable.
     Fifty bucks and it’s yours.
     No? How about $25?
     Kidding. There are two problems with my selling this iMac. First, I need it to write the rest of today’s column. And second, the computer’s not mine: it belongs to the Chicago Sun-Times. So if I did sell it, contrary to the company’s best interests, the money wouldn’t belong to me, but to them.
     That, in a nutshell, if you puff away the bombast and legalese, not to mention the confusing miasma of conviction and acquittal, appeal and reversal, is the essence of the misdeeds of Conrad Black, former master of Hollinger International, a chain of newspapers that included this one. Crimes Lord Black was pardoned of on Wednesday by his friend and fellow fraud, President Donald Trump.
     Black and his underling David Radler sold off pieces of Hollinger as if they and not the stockholders owned the place. They sold publications and skimmed off cash for themselves, arguing this was OK because the embezzlement was cast in the form of “noncompete” clauses, promises not to undercut the business of the new owners.
     To return to our opening scenario, it’s as if I sold you this iMac for $50, passing $25 to the paper and keeping $25 for myself as payment for promising not to hurt your ability to profit from writing stuff on it.
     “We believe the verdict vindicates the serious public interest in making sure that when insiders in a corporation deal with money entrusted to the shareholders, that they’re not engaged in self-dealing,” Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois at the time, said after the convictions.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Wherever Rembrandt went, there he was

     The informational cards in museums—the preferred term is "wall labels"—are one of the few forms of writing even less respected than daily journalism. They are anonymous, typically. There are no awards, that I know of. Nobody collects them, and they have no life beyond the length of the exhibit they are prepared for, unless they linger, obscure and unread, in a book version of the show.
      So I want to pause, and highlight a particularly noteworthy label at the current Rembrandt Portraits show at The Art Institute, running now until June 3. 
      It accompanies a self-portrait of the great Dutch artist, and begins: "Rembrandt was his own favorite model—and he was always conveniently available for study." 
     Ignoring the "and"—superfluous—I want to focus on "conveniently." There is a modest parcel of whimsey packed into that word. A slight joke: He was always around. Wherever Rembrandt went, there he was.
     I thought of plunging into the Art Institute PR department and trying to find the identity of the writer. But Wednesday was such a nice day—I shouldn't have been in the museum at all, but just popped in to wait before lunch, spending only, oh, 45 minutes before exiting into Millennium Park to savor the advent—finally, finally, finally—of decent spring weather.
    The Rembrandt Portraits show, by the way, contributed to the brevity of my visit. It consists of the four portraits shown above, two from The Art Institute's collection, two visiting from California. That's it. I understand cultural institutions must do what they must do to draw in the groundlings. But really, giving this gathering a formal name and presenting itself as a cohesive exhibition, well, it strikes me as a minor species of fraud. Forgivable, perhaps, if it puts eyeballs on art. But something beneath a mighty enterprise such as The Art Institute. Or so is my opinion, but I am open to the possibility that I might be mistaken. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Easterseals is not only still around — it's big, important and based in Chicago

Mikkel Brill, left, goes over a drill with teacher Libby Mengel at the Easterseals Academy. 

     How are a rectangle and a square similar? How are they different? What about a chair and a table? How are they the same? How are they different? What about a truck and a bus? A pencil and a pen? A tomato and an apple?
     Not the easiest questions, particularly if you are 12 years old and have functional difficulties, such as Mikkel Brill, who parsed these distinctions on Monday, leaning forward in concentration, legs churning with effort, guided by teacher Libby Mengel in room 140 of Easterseals Academy, formerly the Easter Seals Therapeutic Day School, on Chicago's Near West Side.
     The windows behind them are high, designed to admit natural light but not offer views that might compete for the attention of easily-distracted students. The $24 million building opened in 2008 and has a number of other special features, such as extra insulation.
     "Kids with autism get easily stimulated by outside sound," said interim principal Kelly Sansone.
     The academy serves 110 students from age 3 to 22 — the day before their 22nd birthday, actually, when public funding cuts out. Students are referred here from public schools; they cannot apply directly.
     "We had an adult program that closed last January, due to the state funding crisis," said Sansone.
     Easterseals is one of those important organizations flying under the radar of the public, though it really shouldn't, particularly in Chicago, because its headquarters is here — on the 14th floor of the Board of Trade Building. Easterseals celebrated its centennial last month and it is huge: 34,000 employees in 5,000 locations worldwide, the largest non-profit health care organization in the United States. It serves 1.5 million people, focusing on veterans and children with cognitive problems, such as autism.
     "We have a lower profile, but it's steady, said Angela F. Williams, an Air Force vet and judge advocate general lawyer who last year became Easterseals' president and CEO. "Easterseals is that hidden diamond, and everybody needs to know who we are and what we're doing. We're the leading service provider for children with autism."
To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Chicago Hardy Figs

    I plant tomatoes because I like tomatoes, and what better way to eat tomatoes than fresh off the vine? 
    Not that the past few seasons nature has yielded that many tomatoes, at least not to me. But that's another matter. 
    I've been doing better with lettuce. Butter lettuce. It grows and grows, tastes delicious, and has probably saved me hundreds of dollars eating better, cheaper lettuce than I could buy at a store. 
     But figs? I'll be honest: pure chauvinism. Civic pride. I saw the listing of "Chicago Hardy Fig" in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue and felt obligated to give them a try. Because they're Chicago figs. And they're hardy—I suppose if they were "Chicago Fragile Figs" I would have passed. But "hardy" seems a word designed to both describe and appeal to Chicagoans. A hardy lot, in our own estimation. At least something to strive for.
     Besides. Who doesn't love figs? Particularly we kids raised on the venerable Fig Newton (named for the town in Massachusetts, not the inventor of the calculus). I think of them as part of the triumvirate of classic cookies—the Oreo, the Lorna Donne, the Fig Newton. Not as successful as the Oreo, which is everywhere, with its odd and compelling flavors. Not as obscure as the Lorna Doone, who never amounted to much and now lurks in her attic room. The middle, semi-successful child. 
    This pair of plantings arrived over the weekend in good shape, and took to their new potted homes with none of the fallen leaves the instructions warned might come with the shock of transplant. Hardy indeed. We were also advised to plant them in a location safe from "harsh winter winds"—they're supposed to be good in Chicago, right? Is there anywhere safe? Even the winds of May have been pretty flippin' harsh. You've got to be hardy.


Monday, May 13, 2019

Dear Boeing: Repeat after me: 'It's our fault. We screwed up. We're sorry.'

     It's become a Facebook trope: airplane passengers posting photos of their 737 Max 8 safety cards, snatched from seat-back pockets.
     "This does not bode well," wrote Larry Lubell, a Chicago insurance executive on his way to Austin.
     A bit dramatic, given that 737 Maxes are grounded while Boeing tries to fix the software glitches that sent two of them crashing into the ground, killing 346 passengers and crew.
     But also a reminder that even after the technical challenges are overcome, there will be the public relations stain, one that will take much longer to scrub out.
     "Boeing's Tough Sell: Trust Us" headlined a story in The New York Times last Thursday, a tale that does not portray a company nimbly cleaning up its mess.
     "Boeing is facing credibility problems," the story noted. That happens when you not only screw up, but then compound your error by doing a tap dance around the problem.
     Go to the Boeing website. The second item — already a subtle wink that business goes on — promises "737 MAX UPDATES."
     Click on that. Up comes a video of Dennis Muilenburg, chairman, president and CEO of Boeing, his blue eyes harmonizing nicely with his blue shirt; tieless, to show they are in crisis mode.
     "We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 Max accidents," he begins.
     A start. Then again, I am also sorry about any lives lost. Maybe you are, too. That doesn't mean we caused them.
     "These tragedies continue to weigh heavily on our hearts and minds," Muilenburg continues, "tragedies" slyly implying we're talking about acts of God, instead of corporate corner-cutting, though hazily suggesting Boeing might have a closer association with these crashes than you or I do. "And we extend our sympathies to the loved ones of the passengers and crew onboard Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302."
To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mother's Day, 2019

     You don't need to speak Spanish, or know anything at all about the life of Ofelia Barrientos Carcamo. That single word, on the coffee cup to the left, says it all: "Mama." We all know what that means, or should: children you love, who love you in return. A lifetime of joy and sacrifice. An unwillingness to let something so sweet and important go. 
     Which explains the personal items lovingly laid out and preserved, behind glass, at the Municipal Cemetery in Ushaia, Chile, the "End of the World"—that's its nickname—at the southernmost tip of South America. Ordinary things, precious only by association. A pair of spectacles. An oval portrait. 
    The cemetery is generally a ramshackle place, where crosses sag and graves crumble. A reminder that time does its work on the fiercest affections. 
     Many graves are still scrupulously maintained, like little rooms, and you can peek in and see personal effects, the coffins made like beds, with lace covers. As if their occupants are only sleeping, and might wake up, and need their glasses, a tradition that goes back to ancient Egypt, where the dead were buried with their personal effects close at hand, for use in the afterlife.
     Death only has meaning to the living. We love our mothers, not just because they gave us life, but they gave us the meaning that makes life bearable. A meaning that lingers long after they are gone. And long after we are gone, if we do it right, in the children we leave behind. Even at the cemetery, I couldn't help notice, that life continues, always pushing forward, with or without us. It always goes on, pushing out the dead, even as we cling to them.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Sonny and Cher

     I was blathering with a reader about birds when he mentioned something that froze my blood. He referred to a "life list," implying that I had one, since I liked to watch birds. I told him that I certainly do not have a life list and never will. One of the joys of animals in general and birds in particular is that they reflect the natural world, and what is more human than turning the observation of that world into some kind of contest, where you tally the various birds you've seen, keeping score, hoping to best your peers. Pass.
    As thrilling as it can be to spot an unfamiliar species, it also is a strain. You see something unfamiliar at the feeder. The binoculars are grabbed for. Attention is focused. Details are noted to facilitate the process of later trying to identify said bird, all the while under time pressure, because it might flit away at any moment and be gone.
    You know what's a lot less stressful? Ducks. Common as dirt mallard ducks, "the urban duck of the Chicago area" according to my "Birds of Chicago." Of course that is not a distinction particular to Chicago—mallards are among the most widespread birds in the world, and throughout history. I did a deep dive (sorry) into ducks here last spring.
     The boy duck—we've named him Sonny—has the distinctive iridescent green head of the male mallard, called drakes.  The female, whom we naturally dubbed Cher, will not only lay eggs, but later must teach her ducklings to swim: they'll drown otherwise.
    The duo have taken up residence over the past few weeks in our backyard, which floods.
     They're always there. A little shy, they can't manage the dexterity of flying up to my feeder, so they wait patiently below for the seeds that smaller birds jostle out (oh, okay, and for  the big scoopfuls of feed that I toss onto the ground for them, even though this is also a feast for squirrels). Ducks like grain, so much so that they've become agricultural pests. 
     "Mallard"—that's a curious word. The Oxford English Dictionary throws up its hands, a rare show of defeat: "of obscure origin." Though to the OED, that means they trace a first usage only back to 1330, and a paragraph of conjecture contains the priceless sentence, "The bird may under this name have figured as a personage in some lost example of the Germanic 'beast-epic.'" We'll have to save plunging into the beast-epic for another day.
     Cher is more timid—she retreats to the far margin of the yard when I show up. Sonny is almost accustomed to me to me, edging back to the food even before I've finished whatever chore took me to the backyard. There is also a third duck, another male, lurking nearby. We haven't named him yet, but probably should. "Gregg Allman" comes to mind. Too obvious? I suppose. But then, they're ducks. Obvious is kinda what they do. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

A real man needs a ‘REAL ID’ driver’s license. Doesn’t he?

     A letter arrived from the office of Jesse White, Secretary of State.
     “Congratulations!” it began. “As a safe driver, you are currently eligible to renew your driver’s license via Internet, phone or mail, and receive your new driver’s license in the mail.”
     I assumed this meant I could renew my driver’s license via internet, phone or mail, without bringing myself bodily to the license bureau, not one of life’s peak experiences. I remarked upon this to my wife.
     “Oh sure,” she replied. “You could do that. If you were the type of man who would be satisfied with an ordinary driver’s license.”
     I raised an eyebrow, interrogatively.
     But, she continued, if I want the new super duper driver’s license, the “REAL ID” as it is called — which would, under tighter Homeland Security rules, allow a real man such as myself to board a plane to Cleveland without bringing along a passport as if I were flying to Tunisia — I would still need to apply in person.
     Apply in person, I learned during the study that followed, along with a sheaf of supplemental documentation. And thus is our nation made secure.
     What sort of documentation? My passport, for starters, plus my old driver’s license or other ID showing my signature, plus two bills to prove my home address is recognized by the post office and, the cherry on top, my Social Security card. 

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Thursday, May 9, 2019

Between summits

     When I set about to write a book on failure, I wanted to include something about people who got close to their goal yet still missed it. I settled on Mount Everest, because I knew climbers had gotten very near the top of the mountain, within a few hundred feet, yet never attained the summit. 
     Or did, and died on the way back.
     In researching the chapter, I read a lot of books about Everest. And I learned something about mountain climbing: you aren't on the top long. Those who made it to the summit of Everest typically spent 15 minutes, a half hour tops, enjoying the view. Then it was time to hurry back down so as not to die.
     Which meant months of assembling money and equipment and expedition teams, and weeks of slogging through Nepal and setting up base camps. Then days of tortuous effort, up the mountain. All for a few minutes of literal peak experience. Then down you go.
     This seemed valuable for non-mountaineers to keep in mind. You look forward to a certain event—say a big trip somewhere, oh-for-instance South America. And you spend months getting ready. Then a brief time actually on the trip.
     Before you know it, you're back, walking the dog, making dinner, doing your job. Which, even if it is a very cool job—for instance, exploring things that interest you and you feel are important and writing about them in a major metropolitan newspaper so that other people can think about them and maybe feel they are important too—is still a job that must be worked at, and is not as exciting as, oh, watching a glacier collapse. 
     And you scan the horizon, and there's ... more of the same. 
     Which can be, yes, dispiriting, until you remind yourself that peak experiences wouldn't be very peak if they happened all the time. Then they'd become routine, no matter how great they were. 
     Climbing is a skill, as is reaching the peak. But so is waiting, and planning, and trying, and being patient and, often, disappointed. Jiggling the handle of one door, then another, then another, waiting for one to open. One experience is lauded and sought, the other ignored and derided. But they are inexorably linked. Without being really good at waiting, you never reach that mountaintop. One requires the other. Worth bearing in mind.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Facebook boots Farrakhan, but who does he harm? Himself, mostly

Florence Baptistery ceiling

     Honestly? I was sorry that Facebook banned Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan from its global social media platform for his steady patter of anti-Semitic nonsense, which is old as the hills, common as dirt, and lodged, in larger or smaller shards, in the hearts of half the people in the world. Maybe more.
     Not that his twisted worldview isn't harmful. It is. The harm is real. But like most bigotry, like most self-administered poison, it is destructive primarily to the possessor; the career of Farrakhan is ample proof.
     He yearned to shine on a larger stage, to be taken seriously and touch the hearts of millions, and came close at times. But like any addict, either because he was feeling too good or too bad, he celebrated his successes and mourned his setbacks with another heady hit of hatred while good people, revolted, looked away.
     Generally. Some folks like junkies. Find them thrilling, romantic, fun. While Farrakhan's flock of die-hard faithful is small, he is largely tolerated, certainly not denounced, among a larger group of supposedly-decent observers because raging against whites in general and Jews in particular provides them with a low-rent naughty pleasure, a kind of catharsis. They never pause to realize they are doing the exact same thing — diminishing the humanity of a group they don't know based on laughable fiction — that they find so offensive when directed toward themselves. It's not a unique shame — all humans are prone to this, alas — but nothing to be proud of, either.
     When I worked at the Wheaton Daily Journal, a third of a century ago, conservative Christians in that town engaged in a strategy I called "wallpapering the world." They would seek out what they objected to and try to cover it up so they didn't have to look at it, whether Playboys tucked behind the counter at the local 7-Eleven or the College of DuPage performing "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You."

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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

"All global warming predictions are computer based monkey business"

     I laid out the letter below and then went to meet a friend for lunch at Taco Diablo, one of my favorite eateries in Evanston.  Walking to my car, I noticed this mural by Shawn Bullen along the 'L' line, just south of Davis Street. I assumed it had to be brand new—I'm on that stretch of street fairly frequently. 
     No, put up in 2017; I just never noticed it before.
     Typical. There's a lot of that going around. Thinking about how I missed it, it occurred to me that the Internet favors the ugly, the crazed, the extreme. Human nature perhaps. We see, and remark upon, the hostile, menacing stuff—the echo of natural selection, some vestigial protective trait, no doubt—and tend to overlook the beautiful.
     So I thought I would pair these images—which certainly speak to our precious natural world—as a balm, with the letter, which is actually not as crazed as it first seems. Climate scientists I spoke to on my trip were also concerned that they can come off as too extreme, too shrill, predicting disasters that don't come to be, or not for 100 years. Of course they don't have the sneering tone of this letter, the aggressive dismissal of anything that one does not already believe.
    We live in an age of contempt. Why argue when you can condemn? Why educate yourself when you can just express the venom that condemned you to a lifetime of ignorance in the first place? That's a whole lot easier. Yesterday's column on climate change of course was automatically rejected by the people who might benefit from it most. I think this letter can serve to represent them all. Notice how he rejects science in favor of something an old woman told him. I refrained from altering it in any way.

I have studied weather my whole life, any one can do better than a professional weather caster! I live in Palos Hills, home of ‘moraine valley’ carved out by glaciers 20,000 years ago, prior to us being here. No green house gasses by us yet. And yes, the glaciers receded back up north all by themselves, no help from us. I asked a 90 year old lady on vacation in Florida, if the ocean level has ever changed over the years, the beach line. Nope. Hmmm? Almost all you weather climate change dooms day people are very confused over global warming, and natural climate changes, that happen through out time, due to the wobble of the earth and our earth moving around. Dust bowl in mid west during 1800, lasted 50 years, no cars yet just cows farting! Climate change. Ice is forming still, new ice all over the artics, a lot of it. You see the ice falling into the oceans, global warming? A natural phenomenon. You did not see global warming. You can’t even write on paper how much water covers the earth, billions and trillions of gallons, 10 miles deep in the Atlantic trench. All the global warming predictions are computer based monkey business. There are far more scientists who debunk global warming that believe it. Look it up. It’s simply, weather changes. It will get warmer, and it will get colder by natural causes and us, a bitty. (Moraine Valley, natural ice age) who caused it, no body, we weren’t here. One natural volcano dumps more junk into the atmosphere than we can do in a lifetime. Now here comes the science for fools! The earth is alive and takes care of itself unless we don’t nuke it first (far worse fate to worry about). Hurricanes, typhoon, tornado, floods, torrential rainstorms, lightning, wind storms, waves, sand storms, the sun, hmmmm, all the ways our earth cleans itself up, all by itself. It keeps up well. Look at the car you drive after it rains next time, what are all the spots all over it, where did they come from, the earths washing machine on duty! Acid rain too. Don’t worry Neil, the earth is just fine! We get 6 hurricanes one year and crap our pants, oh they are so strong, and the next year we get two and forget? It gets so hot here, and we have the coldest winter on record in the Midwest, oh! There used to be tropic weather up in the arctic millions of years ago, fossils prove it oh my! How could that be? Let nature do its job, it is and will. The earth is 80% water, we only live on 20% of the land, most of earth is barren (deserts, jungles, wasteland). We are a pimple on the earth. I will re write you in 12 years when we all die as Cortez claims, probably an idol of yours,another mis informed taco waitress with a dangerous venu. Be careful those icebergs don’t float into your yard. Don hall

Monday, May 6, 2019

Global warming easy to believe happening before your eyes

Asia Glacier, Chile, April 6, 2019

     Nearly 400 billion tons of ice break away from the world's glaciers every year, one symptom of the earth warming due to humanity pouring pollutants into the atmosphere.
     Or so scientists say. I can't vouch for the entire figure. But I can attest to 1,000 tons or so of glacier loss, the ice mass that broke off the Asia Glacier in Southern Chile on April 6.
     I am certain of that because I was standing uncomfortably close when it happened and saw it: a wide swath of the blue ice face, maybe 150 feet top to bottom and 50 feet across, explode away in a cloud of ice crystals.
     "Up! Up! Quickly!" cried a scientist off the Resolute, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society vessel that had brought us to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
     I turned and, as suggested by informed scientific opinion, ran for my life, scrambling back up the slick, steep rocky outcropping.
     It's surprising how even the most cynical fellow can instantly follow the advice of climate science under certain circumstances. It helped that I also saw the big swell of gelid water, studded with chunks of ice the size of refrigerators, push away from the collapsed mass of glacier, rolling directly toward us, fast.
     We had all been observing the glacier from the relative safety of a promontory. Arriving an hour earlier from the ship by Zodiac boat, a sturdy black inflatable craft, as part of a two-week expedition up the Chilean coast, we gingerly worked our way up the stone face and found comfortable vantage points.
     I had been talking with Ian Goodwin, a climatologist from Australia, who explained that symptoms of climate change in the more temperate regions of the world can be less pronounced than at the pole.
     "Down here in Patagonia, and the Antarctic peninsula, Southern Australia, South Africa, these are the areas where climate change is being amplified, at the Southern ends of the Tropics," he said. "We might be seeing something less than a degree in the equatorial regions, but down here we're seeing 2 1/2, 3 degrees of warming and major shifts...the changes we're seeing here, these are massive retreats."

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Climatologist Ian Goodwin before the Asia Glacier, April 6, 2019

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Maybe he's thinking, "Oh my GOD, what IS this?!"

     Yes, I wrote the below, re-read it and thought, "Man, this is the most trivial shit EVER." I could feel the ghost of Andy Rooney, laying his big, dyspeptic paw on my shoulder. "The torch is passed to a new generation..." 
     So be forewarned. You no doubt have more important things to do, to read, to think about. Go to it, and power to you.
     For the rest of us, however.... at least it isn't long.
     You'd think people designing cereal boxes would step back and examine their work, from a distance, to see how it looks on a shelf. which obviously didn't happen when the current iteration of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch box left the drawing board. Glance at the little anthropomorphic square of cereal gazing down into the bowl, right under the "ch" in "Crunch."
     Fiercely frowning, right? Maybe pulling back in revulsion. It's almost as if he's looking, not into a bowl, but a pit, an open grave with the bodies of his fellow squares, face down, after having been shot perhaps..
     Now look closer. There is a little smile, a black crescent, high up, right under the downcast eyes. What I took for a frown is just a pronounced vein of cinnamon. 
     And who knows? Maybe it's intentional. A bit of cognitive dissonance thrown in to cause shoppers like me to pause, look a second time. That's no doubt giving them too much credit. If intentional wrongness in marketing isn't actually subtle science, it should be. Tuck a single tiny ant in the bowl of cereal and see what happens to sales. 
    Not that it helped here. I've never tasted the stuff, have no intention to—tastes like a bunch of cinnamon wheat crunchy cereal, right? Who wants a bowl of cinnamon? At best you want a dash, a sprinkle on your vanilla yogurt. No wonder the little guy is frowning.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Costly candle.

     Luxury is a scam, right? A trick to see how much more rich people will pay for something that's only a little better than the usual. I've driven a Bentley: nice car. Double-glass windows. Breitling clock. But a price tag of about $180,000. If money means nothing, and you want those windows, and that clock, I suppose you might as well pop for it. What's the difference? But the truth is, a person who can get by with regular windows, and an ordinary digital clock, can drive a perfectly good car and pocket the extra $150,000.
     When I first visited Ancient Aire, the faux Roman baths opened late 2017 in an old factory on West Superior, I was impressed. Big, dim, quiet and, since I was in the media, free. Free is a sauce, a spice, that enhances any experience. I was also by myself, and as I soaked and cogitated, I thought, "I should really take my wife back to this." So I did, last Valentine's Day. Our friends were jetting off here and there, I had this big trip to South America coming up, and rather than fly somewhere nice, we thought we'd explore our home town—a "staycation" Edie calls it.
    Ninety minutes of burbling hot pools and aromatic steam rooms. Plus a half hour massage. Not hideously expensive—$276 for the two of us, plus tips. We couldn't both fly to Cleveland for that. Overall, a positive experience. Indulgent fun. I paid the tab. We were almost out the door.
    But stapled to our receipt, was this little card.  Selling an Ancient Aire candle in a box. For $54.
    That card irked me. It's as if they were saying, "Before you go, we're curious: just how gullible ARE you? After all, you came here, paid a lot of money for, in essence, the hot bath you can take at home. Maybe you'll shell out half a C-note for a votive candle in a black box."
     There's no way to tell scale. Maybe the box is a yard square, but I doubt it. I would expect it to be, oh, three inches on a side . And maybe it smells nice. But really, it would have to release the perfume of paradise to justify that cost. (Checking online: bingo for the size, about 3 inches. And it smells of orange blossoms). 
    It is limited, if that helps. That's what the fine print says, "Limited to 250 pcs. of bathrobes and 250 pcs. of candles."  That wasn't written by a native English speaker, was it? "250 pcs. of candles." You'd think, for $54, they'd perfect the translation in their ballyhoo.)
      I shudder to imagine what the robes cost. ($65, not bad really, though that also underlines the scam aspect of luxury, as if the prices were assigned randomly and not dependent upon market forces). 
      So the candles are limited, but it doesn't say limited by what. The dreams of avarice, I assume.

Friday, May 3, 2019

‘Like Othello on speed’: Falls directs ‘Winter’s Tale’ and I’ve got free tickets

Robert Falls

     Shakespeare can be heavy lifting. All those fardles and bodkins to bear and bare. Modern audiences struggle, though usually they go in with at least a rough idea of what to expect, such as the too-familiar Hamlet, bearing his troubles — fardles — while trying not to end it all with a naked knife, aka, a bare bodkin. King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, all familiar stories.
     But "The Winter's Tale"? I read both an analysis by Harold Bloom and an essay in The Riverside Shakespeare and was still lost; a problem, because the Sun-Times and the Goodman Theatre are giving away 25 pairs of tickets to the May 16 performance.
     I can't urge you to see a play that I don't understand.
     Trying to do better than "something about a king," I had lunch with Robert Falls, who is directing the play at the Goodman.
     Falls, for the unfamiliar, is the bad boy of Chicago theater. His previous foray into Shakespeare, "Measure for Measure," had audiences nearly rioting in their seats. Before that, "King Lear" ... well, the phrase "eyeballs sizzling on a grill" should give a sense of the impact.
     The bar is high. How will "The Winter's Tale" top those?
     "It won't," Falls said. "It's an extremely difficult production. They're all difficult plays. But this one ... we'll see. I'm worried it'll disappoint you, Neil. No eye-gouging. No severe violence. No nudity. No in-your-face stuff."
     Nothing's perfect. But the play — what's the play about?
     "I've been working on it for a year and I barely know what it's about," replied Falls

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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Out to pasture

     Tuesday is garbage day in the old leafy suburban paradise. Which makes Tuesday a better day to walk the dog, because people roll their big sturdy green garbage cans to the curb, affording me a range of disposal options after Kitty has done her business. No need for carrying the blue New York Times bag with its load of doo, not for long, not on Tuesdays. Detour a few steps over to a can, a tad guiltily, lift the top and flip the bag inside.
     I don't know why I feel guilty—it isn't as if the homeowner will mind, me using their can for such a purpose. Or maybe they would. Of course they would. We can be very jealous of our prerogatives, we suburbanites, and I can imagine some homemaker gazing worriedly out her window. "That disheveled man, the one with the limp who is always walking that ratty little dog. He just came by and used our garbage can!"  
     The police have been notified for less. 
      Anyway, this Tuesday, turning down Greenbriar, I noticed this surprising sight. A stuffed white unicorn, corralled in a little pink stall, set out very deliberately on the curb.  The mythical beast just seems out of place—it almost looks photo-shopped above, doesn't it? The square of fuchsia against the green and beige? Believe me, it was very real.
      I try not to anthropomorphize objects. But it seemed a little sad, this equine playmate put  out to pasture while still generally bright and pink and new. Maybe they're hoping someone adopts the beast—it wasn't in the can, after all, where it could have been jammed. Maybe circumstances changed—they grow up fast, kids nowadays. 
     Still, I couldn't help but detect a little sorrow, about the eyes, of the unicorn. It looks dejected, does it not? As if gazing inward, a little stunned, to find itself in that position. A trick of the eye, I am sure. And there is enough real sorrow in the world without ginning up imaginary suffering. That said, I hope somebody rescued it—her?—before the garbage truck rumbled past. Not likely, not in a swank place like Northbrook. No second hand toys for our darlings. A pity. I'm sure there are kids across the city who would have welcomed her with open arms, if only she could have found her way to them.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Forget being hip; you can't even count on a pair that work

     The world is not only getting warmer, it's getting older, too; the planet, plus the thin, scattered organic layer of humans upon it. For the first time in history, more people are over age 65 than under 5.
     Don't blame me. I'm only 58. But I see what's inching closer to me — or rather, I'm plodding closer to it, rolling as I go from osteoarthritis in my right hip. I learned about it five years ago when I banged up my knee skiing in Colorado — a good, youthful ailment! — and the doctor looked at the hip as well.
     "Bone-on-bone osteoarthritis" he pronounced or, in English: the goo that once lubricated the hip socket has vanished to that place where youthful dreams go.
     The prime-of-life approach to medical care is something goes wrong, you fix it. But old person medicine isn't that straightforward. Conditions are chronic and tricky. There are reasons to postpone hip replacement. The surgery, like all surgery, can kill you, whether by botched anesthesia, or blood clots, or infection. And infection is a permanent problem — a mechanical hip can get infected by having your teeth cleaned.
     Artificial joints also break or wear out. If you can push the replacement to 70 or later, the thinking is, maybe you'll get lucky and die before you need another one.
     I had gathered all this folk wisdom before consulting a surgeon last October, the head of orthopedics at ... let's draw the veil ... a prominent Chicago hospital. He showed up with his intern, or valet, or somebody. I made the mistake of betraying knowledge sniffed out on my own, and this seemed to offend him. He shot me that "Who's the doctor here?" look and soon I was back on the street, thinking, "I should talk to a doctor about this."
     Next stop, my own general practitioner. He listened to my symptoms and replied, "Don't wait. Just do it" — easy to say when it's not your hip — and gave me the name of someone at the Illinois Bone and Joint Institute, a massive facility that seemed like it was processing all 340,000 hip replacements done in the United States annually on the day I visited. The surgeon breezed in, looked at my X-rays, said, "You are a perfect candidate for this," and handed me his card. Call and we'll schedule the surgery.

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