Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Era of Contempt V

Five Butterflies, by Wenceslaus Hollar (1646) Metropolitan Museum of Art 
     A lepidopterist is, as any Nabokov fan knows, a butterfly collector. It is fitting that the colorful stationery bearing Alan P. Leonard's latest missive to this column has butterflies on it. Because I always think of myself as a lepidopterist when it comes to processing hateful mail. I try to bring a connoisseur's discernment to their ravings, a protective measure to keep the poison within from raising a welt on my delicate mental skin. I net the odious thing, put it carefully in the killing bottle, using tongs, then pin the little corpse to a board and admire its patterns, its grotesque variegation. 
      We met Mr. Leonard last year, with three emails I dubbed "The Era of Contempt."  As with the one below, they were informed by fear of those whose sexuality is at variance with his. 
     You may find them herehere and here, if you are so inclined. 
     They proved decidedly popular, as freak shows often do.
     Then two months ago, he was back, with a racist screed decrying the looks of Michelle Obama (an revulsive scrap of classic 1859 bigotry that one just doesn't expect to see expressed publicly by someone proudly signing his name. A shocking anachronism, like finding a child with rickets).
      This one, as he makes clear, is in reaction to my June 10 column about Boston's idiotic "Straight Pride" parade. The twist is that he doesn't sign his name, perhaps forgetting that he has written four times before, with the same stationery and his distinctive block printing. 
      As before, I paused, wondering if it were somehow cruel to share Mr. Leonard's thoughts, to stretch the term. The man is afraid, as haters are at core. A shameful fear he has to share, trying to alleviate it. The usual terror of his correspondence ratcheted up a notch as, for the first time, he signs his letter with a nom de guerre, "A normal person." As if it were normal to write anonymous notes to newspaper columnists, venting your bile and your sexual insecurity.
     Which it sorta is, sadly. But still. I don't have to take the bait. Isn't posting the letter itself a minor cruelty? "When battling monsters," as Nietzsche reminds us, "make sure not to become a monster."
     Perhaps. But if so, it is cruelty with a higher purpose. It is not monstrous to print a letter sent to a newspaper, nor to note that hatred is an acid that, increasingly, eats up the possessor more than the object. I believe airing it is therapeutic, if not for him, obviously, at least for us. Don't be like this.
    And lest we feel too superior, lest we chuckle too much, remember this: these are the people running our country now. These are the people we let take charge.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Trump calls the tune, and his fans dance

      You gotta dance with them what brung ya.
     I’m not given to rustic turns of phrase, especially those including colloquialisms like “gotta,” “brung” or “ya.”
     Yet there is truth here.
     After — golly — four years of continually condemning Donald Trump as a liar, bully and fraud, I believe now, with his circus-like announcement Tuesday in Florida of his quest for a second term, is a good time to pause and give credit where due:
     Donald Trump is a master.
     A master what? Well, liar, bully and fraud, for starters. Those who don’t see that by now never will. But that is a huge, unwavering group of Americans — tens of millions. Time to tip the hat and acknowledge something I have not previously recognized: what a good liar, bully and fraud Donald Trump really is.
     A master of his craft, really. A genius. Begin with his skill as a liar. Democrats tote up his lies like some disturbed individual counting the passing cars, oblivious to the fact that the total doesn’t matter. Nearly half the country doesn’t care. Trump has rendered the truth un-important for his followers, and that is a feat I did not previously think possible. But obviously, tragically, it is.
     How does he do it?
     By force of personality. He can say one thing today, another in an hour, then contradict both the next day. Anyone rude enough to draw attention to this is attacked by himself and his crew of lackeys and bootlickers, who have sold their souls for access to his presence, not to forget our version of State TV, Fox News. The mushroom cloud of controversy forms with a “whump,” rises into the air, floats away and is forgotten. The past is a vapor, reality a dreamworld inhabited by losers. You can choose truth or you can choose Trump.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Two tickets to Chicago

    Ritual is protective. Doing the same thing, the same way, all the time, might be timid. And it might be dull. But you cut a groove of experience, the walls of which prop you up as you hurtle forward. 
     Depart from that groove, well, you're free to roam, sure. But also free to careen into trouble.   
    When riding the Metra, the conductor appears at the front of the car and cries, "Tickets please!" 
     I pull out my iPhone, assuming it isn't already in my hand, tap on the Ventra app, summon a new ticket up, and wait.
     And wait.
     Not long. A minute or so, as the conductor works his way toward me, my eyes upon him 
     That's how I do it. But it's also time wasted. Why not, I thought pop into another app, and fidget with that while waiting? I had something I wanted to explore, the app associated with my new Bose headphones—birthday gift from the wife. Then I would return to the ticket at the proper moment.
    I considered pulling out a paper ticket—kept in the wallet in case of phone freeze and other related emergencies. But no need. I've got this.
    The conductor approached. The Bose app had shunted me to iTunes which would not let me go. I mashed at the phone, impotently, and by the time I got to the ticket the conductor was looming above me. I mashed another button, showed him the ticket. 
    As he left, I realized I had somehow, in my panic, purchased two tickets.
    $6.40 down the drain.
     There is an inverse between the minuteness of a woe and its reverberation. The county might be run by a crook, but that is not my doing. This was. I explained what happened to my wife, who was nonplussed.
    "Forget it," she said. "Price of a cup of coffee."
    Not any coffee that I'd buy.
    My next thought was to appeal to the conductor. Show him my error and ask for a physical ticket I could use on the train coming home this afternoon. But the aisles and entryway were filled with commuters—the trains have been shorter lately. I'd have to push past them. The conductor would be busy.
    To my credit, I forgot all about it the moment I left the train station. I had planned to phone Metra—I can't be the first goofus to waste an electronic ticket. What is the procedure, the protocol? But I didn't call Metra. There was a column to write, a friend to meet for lunch. We sat at a table by the river on a perfect June day.
     Then to Union Station where, slipping onto the train, it came back to me. My Gaffe. I took a seat at the very back of the car, by where the conductor usually set up shop. He was a man perhaps 20 years my junior, all business, like most Metra conductors. I explained The Situation to him.
    "No worries, happy to help out," he said, explaining that he would waive the need for a ticket on the way home. "We always try to do what we can."
     A few minutes later he came through the car, collecting tickets. And though we had an agreement, and I had used my two tickets that day, as he came toward me, it felt odd, almost illicit. I didn't like not handing over a ticket to be punched. It felt wrong; I had to remind myself not to summon a ticket up again, the third for the day. I remembered traveling in with the engineer once, in the cab, for a column. The conductor came up to the engine to collect not only my ticket, but the Metra PR guy. Even conductors have to show tickets.
     But I endured. Later, talking about it with another conductor, he pointed out that conductors tend to know the people who ride their trains. Even if not by name, they know who is there habitually and who is not. You show your ticket dutifully for almost 20 years, taking pains to make sure you are ready at the proper time so as not to inconvenience or delay the conductor, well, it buys you goodwill on the day you screw up.


Monday, June 17, 2019

On traffic lights, beehive and vaccinations


     Think about traffic lights.
     They hang at intersections in every city and town, endlessly cycling through green to yellow to red, then back to green again, telling drivers when to stop and go.
     Silent sentinels, automatically observed and unquestioningly obeyed. Like idols really.
     Like gods.
     Let’s say this situation genuinely offends my understanding of my faith, which commands “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” and warns against the worship of false idols. Let’s further say that I take to setting up a ladder at stoplights in the middle of the night and painting the lenses black.
     God, in His infinite wisdom, will direct traffic safely through the intersections.
     How will society react to this sincere expression of my religious faith? Will it respect me? Or will it throw me in jail?
     Jail, and rightly so. Because my ability to practice a particular personal belief stops when it harms other people and tears down social order.
     The above, metaphorically, is the exact situation regarding vaccines — well, maybe not the painting-over part. So let’s say I drive heedlessly through red lights, aghast at the imposition society would inflict upon my personal freedom. 

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Put the moss in context: A visit to Clever Rabbit

     My younger son turns 22 today. So Friday night we took him out for a birthday dinner. His girlfriend is a vegan so he selected a restaurant with a deep vegetable menu, Clever Rabbit on Division Street in Wicker Park.
     Not purely vegetarian, but "veggie-focused," which should have been a tip-off. I always say that vegetarian restaurants must be excellent, that mediocrity is a luxury they can't afford, because otherwise nobody would go there. With meat on the menu, indifference has a foot in the door. 
     But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The place has a pleasant, severe aesthetic, and I admired a wall of moss by the host's station.
     "Is it alive?" I asked our waitress.
     "It's still alive, but not living," she replied. 
      That isn't a contradiction to someone who just turned 59.
     "I know the feeling," I said. 
      After we ordered, I excused myself and went over to take a photo, first asking permission of the host, a young man in his mid-20s.
      "May I take a photo of the moss?" I said.
      "Everybody does," he sighed. 
       Oh. There is a certain small shame in doing what everybody does, but I took the picture anyway, already feeling conspicuous. Then I compounded the error.  I liked the close-up detail, but felt the moss should really be placed in context.
     "Do you mind if I include you in the photo?" I said. He said he didn't, but something about his manner, which I took as an embarrassment, a frost, made me feel he really did mind, but was indulging a crank.
     I had made another mistake.  
      I retreated to the table, but the encounter percolated, slightly. I decided to lay out the situation for family feedback.
      "It was if he felt I were some creepy old guy taking his picture for some strange purpose," I said. "I'm tempted to go back and try to explain that I'm not. I just wanted to put the moss into context for my blog. But my sense is, that would only make matters worse."
      Everyone heartily agreed that yes, it would make matters worse, and I should let it go. Which I did.  We enjoyed a festive meal, with much laughter and conversation.
      Dinner consisted of a variety of plates—carrot dumplings and wings, for appetizers, then a rhubarb tart, asparagus and burrata, a cheese plate, a burger that we cut in quarters and shared, except of course with our new vegan addition, who had plenty to eat, she claimed. I tried both of the two non-alcoholic cocktails on the menu, and they were fine. Service was desultory, and while we had a good time, that was more our doing, without much assistance from the Clever Rabbit.  The place opened two years ago, and while it is a pleasant space to sit, it wasn't one of those restaurants you love at first nibble and are keen to go back to.  Maybe that explains the unenthusiastic service. It's almost as if they know.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

"Gootchie-gootchie goo."

Madam Roulin and her Baby, by Vincent Van Gogh
Metropolitan Museum of Art
     There are more ways to screw up a newspaper story than you can shake a stick at.
     Checking one thing, you overlook something else.  Confident in one scrap of information, you don't check it, but it's nevertheless wrong, your certainty be damned. Stick your finger in one leak and water pours out another. Tread softly where you ought to stamp hard, push hard against something you ought merely caress. Use a word that means one thing, to you and readers seize on a different meaning and, waving it over their heads, assign you a string of imagined malign motives to go with it. You mean to check a fact, but forget to do so, or do check and still somehow manage to get it wrong. 
     I would never be so bold, for instance, to put communications expert Abdon Pallasch's name in the paper without checking the spelling, even though I've known him for 20 years. since he was a colleague at the paper.
      So last week, using his name, I checked it, again, noted how it was spelled, again, and promptly dropped the "c."
      He was very civil about it. I leapt to correct the misspelling, reader sneers about "Medill Fs" fluttering in the back of my mind like luna moths around a porch light, brushing them away by taking comfort in the fact that I didn't neglect to check it. I just failed to stick the landing.
      I checked it again, just now, to be sure. It's right. Abdon M. Pallasch.
      I hope.
      The same week, I wrote something about encountering a pregnant friend, whom I described as "big as a house," which, in my male eyes, was a synonymous for "very pregnant," which she was, given that she gave birth three days later.
     Turns out "big is a house" is, if not quite an insult or the language of hate, is some species of body shaming. Readers complained, and sprang to her defense on Facebook.
     Ouch. I was trying to be nice. If I thought it wasn't nice, I wouldn't have said it. I apologized to her.  She was very civil about it.
Alexys Fleming
     Then there was something that never got in the paper that was almost scary, like a speeding CTA bus brushing past my cheek. 
     In the same column describing the birth, I mentioned the most influential online presence in Chicago, a 26-year-old make-up artist named Alexys Fleming. I described her as "an almond-eyed beauty" because, well, look at her.
      It seemed a dry, neutral, journalistic description of reality as set before me. It seems "almond-eyed," I was told by a concerned editor, is a slur against Asians, Which I didn't think was relevant here, since she isn't, or doesn't seem to be, Asian. But such niceties are meaningless in the free-fire zone of social media. Unfamiliarity with the catalogue of offense and purity of heart are no defense, I thanked the editor and took the offending words out, along with "beauty" while I was at it, since, upon reflection, males commenting upon the attractiveness of females, particularly those half their age, is no doubt an invitation to objection as well. Why hand somebody a mallet and lower my head unnecessarily?
    Then in Friday's column, I quoted myself saying "Gootchie-gootchie goo" while poking a silicon fetus doll. It was an accurate transliteration of what I uttered. Transliteration can't really be wrong. "Hanukkah," "Hanukah," "Chanukah," and the dozen other variants are all stabs at חנוכה.
     But was what I said proper? It never occurred to me to ask. But it occurred to others.
     Reader Jim Lanham writes, in a form almost amounting to a poem:
Isnt it coochie coochie coo?Never (unless im crazy)heard it as gootchie?Source? This could be an interesting story in itself
     Sighing, I contemplated my reference library. There was a Betty Boop, 1920s, makin' whoopee tone to "coochie coo," so I started with my Oxford 20th Century Words. 
    Bingo, first try:
     cooch n (1910) a type of erotic dance. US slang. A shortening of hootchy-kootchy (1898) in the same sense, who origins are obscure. Also used as a verb.
      Which would endorse "coochie coo." Looking for anything close to "gootchie," I found "goo-goo eyes," defined as "amorous glances," which makes matters even worse. And people think of etymology as a victimless crime. Trying to find the derivation of the baby babble uttered spontaneously brought a creepy vibe to innocent teasing of ersatz babies. 
     The "t" seems idiosyncratic to me, a rare variant: online, it's usually "goochie-goo" though there is a flyspeck town of Gootchie in Australia, or was. I couldn't find any current references to such a place.
     It gets worse.  As I thought about "gootchie goo," I began to suspect it might have a shade of mock Indian—whoops, Native-American—speech, along the lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's once-famous  poem "Hiawatha": "On the shores of Gitche Gumee/Of the shining Big-Sea-Water..."
    So shades of inappropriate eroticism AND bigotry. Just lovely. I'm lucky to have survived last week with my job intact. It's amazing one is able to write at all, and while my career doesn't seem to be blowing up over "gootchie goo," it's only a matter of time. Ignorance of the law is no defense.

Friday, June 14, 2019

This cute baby wants me to run your life

      A reader sent a pair of babies to me at the newspaper this week. One white, one brown, delivered in a padded envelope.
     What should I do with these babies? Enroll them in pre-school, I suppose. Never too early.
     Though pre-school is expensive. Maybe we should bond first. I pick one up — the white one, judge me harshly if you must — and wiggle an index finger against its tummy.
     ”Gootchie-gootchie-goo!” I say.
     The tummy feels rubbery. That can’t be good. Maybe I should consult a pediatrician. Though any doctor would probably icily observe that my babies seem to be made of silicon. Those darn vaccines ...
    Does that mean they are not real babies? I don’t know. They look like babies, and by the standard of religious fanatics opposing abortion, something that LOOKS like a baby IS a baby.
     Even if it’s not.
     The babies came with an explanatory letter, from Anthony L. — I’ll shield his full name, since I don’t exhaust my entire store of kindness on the fetuses of women I’ve never met. He claims my column on May 20 about the deceptive practices of those fighting to curtail women’s reproductive rights “is FALSE NEWS and you should correct it.”
     False? My goodness. In what way?
     ”In this article you state that a first trimester fetus (Latin for baby) is the size of a watermelon seed. Since you do not normally fact check your articles, I thought I would make it easy for you to see. I sent you a white and brown baby. The model is 10 to 12 weeks in size.”

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Flashback: 2009: Woodstock ruined my life

     Those hoping to throw a 50th anniversary Woodstock concert hit another snag this week, losing their upstate New York venue. Added to their loss of financial backing and of their production company, you'd almost think fate was trying to give them a hint: move on.
     No such luck. The Baby Boom has been clinging to and venerating their great moments of youth for decades and are carrying that practice into their senescence, a habit I decried at the concert's 40th anniversary. 

     Screw Woodstock
     Really, I mean it. If you're my age—I was 9 when the three-day concert took place—you noted the 40th anniversary of the key event of our culture's endless 1960s nostalgia by thinking, "Gee, have I really been listening to these goofs celebrate themselves for only 40 years? Because it feels like 400."
     Doesn't the self-regard and self-significance make you want to vomit? OK, 400,000 people gathered for a rock concert and didn't kill each other—big flippin' deal. Ten years later, in 1979, 1.2 million people showed up in Grant Park for a mass with Pope John Paul II, and you never hear them claiming it was a rend in the time-space continuum. Even more people are flocking to the lakefront for the Air & Water Show this weekend, and we don't act like it's some giant epochal moment—just another summer weekend in Chicago.
     Woodstock ruined my life, sort of. Imagine growing up, an impressionable child, watching all those supposedly pivotal 1960s event—Woodstock, the riots at the Democratic National Convention, the moon landing—on your parents' black-and-white Zenith TV in the living room of your suburban tract house in Berea, Ohio.
     It quickly gave the impression that we lived in Noplace, that life, the important stuff in life, was always going on Somewhere Else. That, by 1974, every significant thing that might conceivably happen had already occurred. I had missed the feast but was free to pick over the scraps, had missed the party and arrived for the cleanup, the dismal denouement of the 1970s, a miserable void of disco and leisure suits and meaninglessness, at least by the judgment of the people who had so much freaky fun at Woodstock while we were busy learning cursive.
     Doesn't it ever go away? How long must we gaze raptly at the enormous waddling rump of the Early Baby Boom? Forever? Not that we want our turn, no way—hard experience has made us better than that. Should anyone announce that, for instance, the 1977 World Series of Rock at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was an earth-shattering moment of bottomless significance, at least I'd have the honesty to say, "Hey, buddy, I was THERE, and it was just 90,000 teens guzzling wine out of botas and listening to Peter Frampton."
     How come nobody who was at Woodstock has the guts to say that? Nobody says, "You know, standing in a downpour, cold and hungry and listening to Alvin Lee wasn't really all that magnificent an experience. In fact, it was miserable, and it didn't mean a damn thing."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 16, 2009

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Take cabs while you can or soon there won’t be cabs to take

Uber Eats delivery driver in Santiago, Chile this April. 

     Our flight to Chicago was delayed. So my brother and I retired to a wine bar next to the gate at the Denver airport and ordered the cheese plate. Conversation shifted to arrival home.
     ”Are you cabbing it or Ubering it?” he asked.
     ”Neither,” I said, delighted at the spontaneous riddle I had handed him.
     My brother chewed on this koan.
     ”Ohhh,” he said, realization dawning. I don’t believe he actually said, “Lucky man!” and socked me admiringly on the shoulder, but rather made some kind of appreciative sound I interpreted that way.
     My wife was picking me up. In this frenetic era of Snapchat and Lyft, we still cling to the tradition that you personally collect loved ones arriving at an airport. To not do so is a snub. If my wife were flying home and I told her to take a taxi I might as well make up my bed in the garage.
     This is habit, not law. As the flight delay stretched into evening and the weather soured, she messaged me, asking: do you mind getting home yourself? I did not, understanding her reluctance to be an after-effect of when I came home from South America. She had braved a mid-April blizzard to pick me up at Midway, an experience so harrowing we skipped the ritual glomming of a dozen donuts at Huck Finn’s and simply bolted home.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

'Complaining is part of the fun'


     I wrote this last November but never posted it. I'm not sure why; maybe I didn't think it was up to snuff. Maybe it was simply overlooked. It's somewhat appropriate now, since the older boy is coming home this weekend, for Father's Day, after an absence of ... gee ... five months. Can't wait.

     "Let's play a game!" said my younger son.
     Something of a surprise. I had just finished making a big pan of stuffing.
     "Great idea!" I replied.
     The kitchen island was cleared. His older brother, who arrived about 1:30 a.m., was enlisted in the cause. The game we play, "Settlers of Catan," involves building roads, settlement, trading resources. A lot more fun than it sounds.
     We took turns, each rolling a pair of dice to determine which resources are handed out. We were playing at a kitchen island, and though we rolled carefully, occasionally a die would skitter off onto the floor.
      I rolled, and one die went over the side. On the table the die showed two—two "pips," actually. The black circles on dice are called "pips." The younger boy leapt up and read the die that had tumbled onto the floor.
     "Seven," he said.
     "Okay, nine," I replied, checking the board to see whether that rolled earned me any resources.
     "No," said my son. "The one on the floor is a five. The total is seven."
     "Of course," I said, smiling slightly.
     "There is no 7 with one die," my older son explained.
     I knew that. I know that a die has six sides, one through six. A piece of technology unchanged since Roman times. Amazing, really. But I expected him to read the dice, not add it to the two on the table, so when he said "Seven" I did the addition myself.
     Is there a lesson there? Maybe that expectations can trump our knowledge? Or maybe it's Thanksgiving, and I should just enjoy the game—which I did, and not just because I won, though that helps. I never win—and not think so much.
     There was a moment earlier in the day that I will always treasure. I was making the stuffing. The boys and their mom had been talking in the living room, but I lured them into the kitchen, by taking some of the challah I was cutting into croutons for the stuffing and making it into french toast instead. The family moved into the kitchen to enjoy some french toast.
     The topic was restaurants, with this or that establishment coming under close scrutiny. I wasn't really listening, and then a sentence cut through the kitchen clatter.
     "Complaining is part of the fun," my older boy said. I stopped what I was doing, dried my hands on my apron, and walked carefully around the island.
     "That's my son," I said, kissing him on the head.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Take up the straight man's burden....

     I thought it was a joke.
     A meme, some online wit.
     That’s how news often enters our awareness. As flashes on the horizon, something crouching at the corner of our field of vision. A hoax from the Onion perhaps?
     On the fourth or fifth glimpse: fine, a “Straight Pride Parade,” ha-ha, let’s take a look.
     It’s real.
     Just a permit. Not quite the Parade of Roses, yet. But the internet is nothing if not a hothouse for every cracked notion that manages to poke out of the earth, warmed by concentrated attention and nourished by the scattered like-minded.A group in Boston has applied for a permit to hold a Straight Pride parade on Aug. 31. To push back against Pride parades and Pride Month, which seems a bigger deal this year, perhaps because of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
     Why a Straight Pride Parade? A slap at Gay Pride, at all the underlings and those who support them by suggesting oppressed groups still exist.
     “For them, everything is based upon identity and whether or not one is categorized as a victim or an oppressor,” Straight Pride organizer Mark Sahady wrote on Facebook. “If you get victim status, then you are entitled to celebrate yourself and expect those with oppressor status to defer to your feelings.”
     There is a fragment of truth here — Democrats are big on identity politics, and that is a two-edged sword. We can celebrate uniqueness so much we forget the need to come together about anything.
     The solution is to find commonalities that include everybody. Someone who sincerely felt the unifying impulse parodied by Straight Priders would put their energies into stopping Donald Trump from commandeering our nation’s Fourth of July celebration and turning it into a celebration of himself. The 4th of July is, or was, exactly the kind of event that most Americans could get behind.

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Sunday, June 9, 2019

‘Soulless’ sets out R. Kelly’s abuse of girls


     No kindness goes unpunished.

     The Sunday editor asked if I would read the new book on R. Kelly and, accommodating fellow that I am, I said I would. I wrote this after finishing my column Thursday, so if it strikes you as a little wooden, I agree. Not much gas in the tank when I set to the task, nor much time to polish the result.
    The above is known as self-awareness, and self-critique, with perhaps a bit of humility mixed in. A thing can be flawed even though I myself did it. 
    This blend of qualities I would heartily recommend to the author of "Soulless" who complained, several times and without charm, about the review below, because I suggest the book is not perfect. Spoiler alert: it isn't. 
    R. Kelly is a hometown hero in Chicago, an R&B superstar who grabbed the brass ring of fame and riches. His smooth, sexy songs are loved by millions, the soundtrack of countless weddings and barbecues.
     Or, at least, he was.
     R. Kelly can’t read. He’s a “crude man” who sometimes smells, from not bathing, and trolls suburban malls picking up teenage girls, whom he sexually molests, sometimes on video.
     Or, at least, he did.
     Both descriptions of Kelly are true, though the first image is finally fading in the glare of the second. The serpentine process, 20 years in the making, is laid out in “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly” (Abrams, $26), a captivating if sometimes disjointed journalism procedural by Jim DeRogatis, former music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
     The book starts with an anonymous fax sent to DeRogatis just before Thanksgiving 2000. “I’m sending this to you because I don’t know where else to go,” it begins. “Robert’s problem — and it’s a thing that goes back many years — is young girls.”
     DeRogatis tosses the fax on a pile. But he returns to pull the thread, and the tale slowly unravels, taking on weight and momentum.

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Saturday, June 8, 2019

What's the hurry to get to St. Louis?

Typical St. Louis residents commuting to work in 2019

     Today is "But St. Louis IS Boring Day" at one of my favorite neighborhood watering holes, Wrigleyville's Nisei Lounge. At least it was, back in the day. I haven't been there in many years, but still recall the simple pleasure of passing a Friday afternoon in its dim, modest interior with a cue in my hand, sucking back beer and trading observations of the world as pool balls clacked and the juke box played.
     After the below was published a St. Louis radio station phoned me, on air, and invited me to visit the city and see its wonders. Trying to avoid the trip, for reasons clear below, I said that I couldn't imagine going without my family. So they flew us ALL down, put us up in the presidential suite of the Adams Mark Hotel. We got the full treatment—to a Rams game and that Buster Brown kids museum. As we were ferried across the St. Louis Zoo in a golf cart for our VIP tour, my wife leaned into me, eyes glittering wickedly, and whispered, "Piss off Montreal next...."

     Amtrak wants to send 16 trains a day hurtling at up to 125 miles an hour from Chicago to St. Louis. Which begs the question: Are there 16 trainloads of Chicagoans who want to go to St. Louis every day?
     I doubt it.
     Don't get me wrong. If you somehow find yourself in St. Louis, as I have on six or a dozen occasions, there are things to do. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. That train station mall. The Arch. The Budweiser Brewery Tour.
     I've done the beer tour a few times. Which underscores a vital truth about St. Louis: If London takes a lifetime to master, then St. Louis takes about three days, and after that you find yourself back at Budweiser again. It gets old.
     All told, that doesn't bode well for the idea of high-speed bullet trains flashing between the two cities. I mean, think about St. Louis. What adjectives come to mind? "Sleepy" is one. "Warm" is another. "Muggy," a third.
     St. Louis, by definition, is not a place one rushes to. Whether you get there in an hour or three hours or five hours or a day is pretty immaterial. The very fact that you are going to St. Louis at all shows you have time on your hands. Frankly, I think people would be more inclined to increase the time it takes to get there, not decrease it. They would rather take a flatboat down to St. Louis, twanging on a mouth harp while Huck poles the raft along the meandering Mississippi, than take a high-speed train. I would.  
A shot, beer and this lovely, spot-on t-shirt all for $12.
     High-speed trains work in the East because they connect New York City to places like Boston and Washington, D.C. Each city is filled with people who need to travel in a hurry.
     Running a high-speed line down to St. Louis would be like filling an inflatable kiddie pool with a fire hose—you can do it, but there's a tremendous sense of overkill.
      Frankly, the whole scheme smacks of those suburban mayors who, from time to time, announce that the solution for suburban commuting problems is the creation of a $ 5 billion Disneylandlike monorail system between, say, Oak Lawn and Carpentersville.
     Look at foreign cities connected by high-speed trains. Tokyo and Osaka. Paris and the French Riviera. There is no need to imagine why people in Cannes would want to zip up to Paris, just as there is no mystery as to why Parisians might want to speed down to Monte Carlo.
     But St. Louis? Sure, I can see people there wanting to come here, their Model-A Fords piled high with chicken coops and butter churns and sofas as they snake their dusty way up Interstate 55 to look for a piece of land where they can be farmers.
      That's a one-way trip, unless they give up, overwhelmed at the tall buildings and the fact that their cheerful "Howdy!" is met with puzzled stares. They can lope home to Grandma's kitchen on Greyhound. No need for a high-speed train for that.
     Beyond Missourians who can't cut it here, who else might use that train? A few Wash U alumni heading for nostalgic weekends. Half a bleacher's worth of Cubs fans on game days. Put them together and how many Chicagoans go to St. Louis on an average day? Five? Twenty? A hundred? Tops.
     The entire question is probably moot anyway, since the line would be run by Amtrak, and they have a hard time getting their regular old pokey trains from point A to point B. I can't imagine Amtrak trains reaching 125 miles an hour, unless they're derailing over a gorge.
     Back in the days when Eva Marie Saint ran into Cary Grant on a train in "North by Northwest," there was a purpose and a romance to cross-country trains. Now, sadly, they exist mostly for penny-pinching retirees and acrophobics. The towns along the route where Amtrak says it will be blasting its high speed Chicago-to-St. Louis Cannonball Express are concerned about the increased traffic. They needn't be.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 27, 2000


Friday, June 7, 2019

Ricketts not first owner to go to bat for Republicans

     So baseball fans are grumbling because Todd Ricketts, Cubs co-owner and finance chair of the Trump Victory Committee, is dandling GOP fundraisers at a party Saturday night in a little property of his called Wrigley Field.
     Reaction was swift and predictable. ”BOYCOTT THE CUBS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Jim McDonald demanded on Facebook. “Anyone who goes to Cubs games and spends money is actually supporting Trump. Who do you love more The Cubs or the future of the USA?”
     Oh please.   

     First off, the Ricketts family assumed controlling interest in the Cubs (it was too complicated a financial shell game to call it a “purchase”) in 2009. So the hefty profit off all those $10 beers have been funneling to right-wing causes for a decade. Odd that some notice only now, even claiming to shift their allegiance to the Sox, as if such a thing were possible.
     And remember from whom the Ricketts bought the Cubs: The Tribune Company. Not exactly Ben & Jerry’s. More like Fox News before the American Pravda was a gleam in Rupert Murdoch’s eye. Whether sneering at immigrants or urging isolation, the Trib was a foghorn of right-wing nuttery for decades, stretching back to the days when its owner, Col. Robert McCormick, began each morning licking the boots of Hitler.
     Yet fans still cheered Ryne Sandberg.

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Flashback 2011: Would so many still storm the beach today?

     On July 9, 1944, Corporal H. W. Crayton paused "somewhere in France" to write a letter to the parents of Raymond Hoback.
     "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hoback," he began. "While walking along the beach D-Day plus 1, I came upon this Bible and as most any person would do I picked it up from the sand to keep it from being destroyed. I knew that most all Bibles have names and addresses within the cover so I made it my business to thumb through the pages until I came upon the name above. Knowing that you no doubt would want the book returned I am sending it knowing that most Bibles are a book to be cherished. I would have sent it sooner but I have been quite busy . . ."
     Knowing he had found a book but not its owner, Corp. Crayton put the best spin he could on the situation.
     "You have by now received a letter from your son saying he is well. I sincerely hope so. I imagine what has happened is that your son dropped the book without any notice. Most everybody who landed on the beach D-Day lost something. I for one as others did lost most of my personal belongings, so you see how easy it was to have dropped the book and not known about it. Everything was in such a turmoil . . ."
     His hope was in vain - by the time the Bible arrived, the Hobacks had been informed that both Raymond Hoback and his brother Bedford were killed at Omaha Beach, one of 33 pairs of brothers to die, along with more than 2,500 other Allied soldiers, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, 67 years ago today.
     The standard reason given to remember such sacrifice is to "honor" those soldiers, but given that they are beyond the touch of what we can do or say, I think it's more important that we remember the devotion to country and willingness to sacrifice they manifested, a sacrifice that, thankfully, has not been demanded of most Americans for a very long time—so long that it is a valid concern whether we'd be able to respond in a similar fashion if called upon to do so again. I like to think we would, but wonder if people could ever be as selfless as they were then.
     Bedford Hoback was named for the town he grew up in, Bedford, Va., and 17 of the 30 Bedford men in Company A, 116th Infantry, 29th Division also died that day. It wasn't an accident that they were in harm's way.
     "You know, us Bedford boys, we competed to be in the first wave," said Ray Nance, one of the few to return. "We wanted to be there. We wanted to be the first on the beach."
     Maybe we're smarter now. Maybe we see the futility of war, particularly the wars we're fighting today in Afghanistan, in Iraq, wars that are not so clear cut. They certainly won't end cleanly. There will be no fall of Berlin, no signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri to cease hostilities. We'll just at some point stop and bring the troops home, blundering blindly forward until then.
     Well, that isn't entirely true. As always, we have our history to guide us, a history that shows Americans have always been willing to sacrifice, to rise to the occasion, to defeat evil, to pay a high price, when called upon. We did not choose to enter World War II, the war came to us. I can't say the same about the present wars—the cause might be debatable, the heroism of the soldiers isn't.
     But sacrifice is supposed to be spread out. One of the many awful aspects of the current wars is that the full burden falls on such a small segment of the American population: the volunteer military and their families. The rest of us too easily ignore what's happening. Many people know that June 6, 1944 was D-Day. Can you cite one significant date in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars off the top of your head? I certainly can't.
     The sacrifice wasn't always spread out in the past either. Bedford suffered a greater rate of D-Day casualties than any other town in America. That is why Congress chose to locate the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, dedicated 10 years ago today. The monument depicts bronze figures storming a beach, with one representing Raymond Hoback—whose body was never found—face down in the sand, his Bible spilling out of his backpack.
     Cpl. Crayton ends his letter. "Time goes by so quickly as it has today. I must close hoping to hear that you received the Bible in good shape."
     His parents did. The Hoback brothers' sister, Lucille Boggess, still lives in Bedford, Va., and still cherishes Raymond's Bible.
     "You still think about them and miss them and just wonder," she told a local reporter a few days ago. "What would their life have been like if they had lived?''

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 6, 2011

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

City population grows by one

Frank Robert Schneider Sennett

     Congratulations to proud parents Denise Schneider and Frank Sennett, who welcomed baby boy Frank Robert Schneider Sennett on Sunday, May 19, 2019 at 3:54 a.m. Frankie weighed 6 pounds, 7 oz., and measured 20 inches long. All are doing well.
     And if you’re wondering what they’re doing at the top of the column, well, I originally intended to tag the happy news discreetly at the bottom. Why? Blame nostalgia. Not so long ago the paper boasted all sorts of bold-faced columns: Irv Kupcinet and Bill Zwecker, and of course Mike Sneed, who still runs on Sundays.
     There was a vigorous cosmopolitan swirl to those bold-faced columns. We weren’t a city of anonymous nobodies, hog-butchering and clock-watching unheralded and alone, but a glittering array of celebrities and quasi-celebrities and the connected powerful. Folks who counted. 

      Those days are gone, replaced by ... whatever the heck it is we have now. The top Chicago “influencer” is .... a 26-year-old make-up artist named Alexys Fleming, with 2.6 million followers on YouTube and 700,000 on Instagram. Not to take anything away from her. She seems good at what she does, and if the public is far, far, far more interested in learning how to transform into the Night King from Game of Thrones than in reading semi-witty critiques, the fault is not hers. (There’s actually more to Fleming than that; a diabetic, her ”Dumb Things People Say to Diabetics” video is funny and should be required viewing for anyone grappling with the ailment).
     But I digress. To tuck the news of little Frankie’s arrival at the bottom and let it sit there, to be honest, looked strange. And demanded explanation. And the more I explained, the longer it got and I realized that ... one of my favorite expressions when it comes to writing is a line from Napoleon: If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna. No half-measures, no shilly-shallying.
     So if we’re going to have a birth announcement, let’s do it up...

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Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Don't count those chickens quite yet.

      Boulder, Colorado is a liberal enclave if ever there were one, between the head-for-the-mountains University of Colorado, the swami spiritual Naropa Institute, and the geological layers of hikers and hippies-turned-techies and flush craft beer and herbal tea companies.. 
      The Boulder Book Store is perhaps the emotional epicenter of the town—not a single Ann Coulter best-seller in sight—and there I noticed this big display of oval stickers and rectangular magnets marking 01/20/21, "Trump's Last Day—Not soon enough!" 
       Pretty to think so.
       Maybe it is. 
       And maybe it isn't.
       My people have a term, a kina hora, which translates roughly as "evil eye." Not in the sense of placing a curse so much as knocking on wood. The idea roughly behind, "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched."
     Or, for those slow on the uptake: Trump might get re-elected. Then his last day would be 01/20/25. Not soon at all. That could happen. It's not only possible; it's probable—the president has an advantage, historically, and, say what you will, that asshole is president, and his herd of credulous dupe followers shows no sign of disillusionment.
     Recognizing the fact, that the deck is stacked against our country being delivered from the hands of its shame any time soon, is key to the Democrats' chances. Over-confidence was part of the galaxy of errors that led to Hillary Clinton's defeat. We should try not to reproduce her blunders, though this sticker, like so much going on right now, is not a cause for hope.
     I didn't buy one, but I got in line to buy some Belize chocolate. 
     "How long have you been selling those?" I asked the clerk, gesturing toward the display.
     "Since the beginning," she said, somewhat cryptically. 
     "I hope the date's correct," I observed. She didn't take the bait, but only looked at me, uncomprehendingly. 

Monday, June 3, 2019

Police forced to show courage legislators lack

     Virginia Beach is, to be honest, kind of a dump.
     “A tourist trap” is how I’ve described this unlovely coastal jumble of blockish ocean-facing hotels and pool-heavy motels, neon T-shirt and bicycle surrey rental stands, joints selling fried oysters and fish chowder, cramped stores hawking novelty shot glasses and Virginia is for Lovers beer cozies.
     We only visited because we were looking at southern colleges for the younger boy, and the grumpy dad doing all the driving insisted that he’d be damned if he was going to travel all the way from Chicago to the University of Richmond — lovely campus, great business school, they trust their kids with chunks of the endowment to invest, and the best mascot ever, the Spiders — without pushing 100 more miles and sticking his toes in the ocean for a few days.
     All things being equal, better to swim at Michigan City and save yourself a drive.
     There is, however, on the crowded and over-developed Virginia Beach boardwalk, a curious statue showing three figures, obscured up to their hips by a marble base, each with one hand interlocked, the other reaching down, as if offering passersby below a helping hand.
     It is the Virginia Beach Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Dedicated in 2012, it’s inscribed with 14 names of local officers who died in the line of duty. The bronze larger-than-life figures represent the police, the sheriff’s office and federal agencies.
     I thought of the statue after what Virginia Beach police chief Jim Cervera called a “horrific event of unbelievable proportion” occurred Friday afternoon: a dozen people murdered at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. Shot dead for ... well, whatever unknowable blend of petty grievance and flaring psychosis (and, never forget, easy access to automatic weaponry) causes a person to do such a thing.

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Sunday, June 2, 2019

In new book, John Paul Stevens relates a lifetime of legal reasoning

John Paul Stevens in 2015
     I was engrossed when I heard former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens speak to the Chicago Bar Association four years ago. Reading his new book was less captivating, for reasons I try to summarize in the Sunday paper today. 

     Chicago doesn’t cherish local boy John Paul Stevens as much as it should. Maybe next year, when the former Supreme Court justice turns 100, he’ll get his due.
     Though now is not too early to kick off the celebration by reading his new book “The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years” (Little Brown, $35).
     An unfortunate subtitle — apparently the book was five years in the making, though you’d think in that time somebody at his publisher would have noticed that Stevens places the presidential election of Jimmy Carter in 1978, as opposed to 1976, the year that event took place in temporal reality.
     Not to start with a gaffe in a book that is, generally, an engaging if, by necessity, legalistic account of the key issues that frame our national conversation.
     Stevens is so long-lived, perhaps it can be forgiven if the years blur.
     He remembers going to the 1929 World Series at Wrigley Field and seeing Babe Ruth make his called shot in 1932. His father and grandfather built the Stevens Hotel — now the Hilton Chicago — and, as a boy, Stevens met Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. His first job was as a wandering raisin tart salesman at the 1933 Century of Progress Fair, the fourth star in the flag of Chicago.
     Stevens was invited to become a Navy cryptographer, spending World War II deciphering Japanese communications, then returned to Chicago to get his law degree at Northwestern.

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Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: Missouri justice

     Miscarriage of justice is nothing new in Missouri.
     After the state last week became the latest to enact an abortion ban—for all intents and purposes—denying half of American citizens the basic human right of enjoying sovereignty over their own bodies, faithful reader Tony Galati offered this timely contribution to the blog, these stunning photographs of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, where the infamous Dred Scott case was first heard in 1847 and 1850 on its way for its infamous date with the United States Supreme Court.
     Scott was a slave, born in Virginia about 1799, taken to Missouri in 1830 with his owners, the Peter Blow family. He was sold to an army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, who took him to the Illinois and Wisconsin territories, which were designated free by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
      Upon his return in 1842 to slave-owning Missouri, abolitionist friends encouraged Scott, who was illiterate, to petition the court, arguing that his time as a free man in the territories made him free permanently. 
     Scott's case was filed in the then-unfinished St. Louis courthouse on April 6, 1846. He lost the first trial on a technicality, but was allowed to petition again. The Missouri courts, in a bit of ominous foreshadowing for proponents of the latest law depriving Americans of liberty, sided with the notion of "once free, always free," and Scott won his freedom in this building in 1850. 
     But the case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court by the widow of the surgeon.
     The U.S. Supreme Court, to its undying shame, decided in 1857 that no black person could be a citizen of the United States, a ruling whose wrongness is echoed today in the notion that no woman can decide when she wants to have a baby. It took the Civil War to correct the court's error; who knows what national fissure will be required to put this question to rest? Future generations will no doubt view the current machinations—the dying gasp of compulsory religion in this country—with the same sense of sorrowful bafflement that Americans today view the Dred Scott case.
     Unless they don't. The side of justice always assumes it will win in the end but, if we look around at the world today, we can see that just isn't so.