Monday, September 23, 2019

Rugby ‘makes football look for little babies’

The Chicago Lions women's rugby team, in black, playing the Minnesota Valkyries. 

     The Rugby World Cup is being played right now in Japan. You are forgiven if you didn’t know; rugby occupies one of the lower rungs of American sports consciousness, somewhere below soccer but above cricket.
     Rugby is also being played right now in Chicago, including a day-long celebration on the West Side last Saturday, as the Chicago Lions Charitable Association — the Lions have played rugby in Chicago since 1964 — unveiled its new J. Tuke Nollman Field at Chicago Hope Academy.
     The action began shortly after 8 a.m., with younger players — organized rugby starts at age 4 — gathering to practice on the special shock-absorbing artificial turf.
     Among them, Keandre Bates, 14, from West Garfield Park, who has played rugby for four years.
     “It’s a challenge at most times. Rugby is really tough,” said Bates. “It just makes football look for little babies. You have to pass backward.”
     “It’s the greatest game out there,” agreed Mike Inman, of North Center, who brought his son Sullivan, 10. “For somebody likes Sullivan, loves to be active, to be out there, tackle, and run, and do it all, this is a great sport for him. At this level they’re just kids running around being kids.”

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A rugby scrum is actually a carefully-structured event. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

When summer's end is nighing

       School begins before summer ends. So we typically sigh for the end of summer during the last days of August, when we are urged to stock up on rulers and pencils and back-to-school clothing. As if summer only exists for children, which in a sense it does, though adults appreciate the warmth and life and sense of possibility. My wife and I are members of the Chicago Botanic Garden, and while we do visit in February as well as July, let me assure you: July is better. 
A. E. Housman
       But summer ends for adults too, at 2:50 a.m. Central Time on Monday, Sept. 23. And for grown-ups, the opening gong of winter can bear an extra element of regret. There is a lovely poem by A.E. Housman, "When summer's end is nighing"—an unfortunate word, "nigh," redolent of the preciousness that poets have rightly banished, replaced by bodily fluids. 
     But to be expected. Housman was late 19th century Oxford don, seemingly a "dried up husk of a man," in Alan Bennett's words, huffing on the dying spark of a youthful, unreciprocated flame. A prig and something of a fraud—he lionized the dead in war but complained when Cambridge took in wounded soldiers. When the philosopher Wittegenstein, feeling the indisputable call of nature, rapped on Housman's door and asked to use the loo, the poet replied "Certainly not." 
     Still, he could be bracingly direct. "The faintest of all human passions," he wrote, "is love of truth." Practically ripped from the headlines, as is his observation that men "think in fits and starts."
      The poem is out of copyright, so I can print the whole thing without guilt, which is more than I can say about reading it:

      When summer's end is nighing
         And skies are evening cloud,
      I must on changes and fortune
         And all the feats I vowed
         When I was young and proud.

      The weathercock at sunset
          Would lose the slanted ray,
       And I would climb the beacon
          That looked to Wales away
          And saw the last of day.

      From hill and cloud and heaven
         The hues of evening died.
      Night welled through lane and hollow
         And hushed the countryside.
         But I had youth and pride.

      And I with earth and nightfall
           In converse high would stand,
       Late, till the west was ashen
           And darkness hard at hand
           And the eye lost the land.

        The year might age, and cloudy
            The lessening day might close.
        But air of other summers
             Breathed from beyond the snows.
             and I had hope of those.

        They came and were and are not
           And come no more anew;
         And all the years and seasons
            That ever can ensue
            Must now be worse and few.

          So here's an end of roaming
             On eves when autumn nights:
          The ear too fondly listens
              For summer's parting sights,
              And then the heart replies.

     A bit treacly perhaps, but to the point.
     Speaking of which, I'm giving a talk entitled "Box Full of Darkness," a line filched from Mary Oliver, at the Northbrook Public Library, 1201 Cedar Lane, this Tuesday.  It begins at 7 p.m., lasts about an hour and admission is free. The subject is poetry and recovery from addiction, and I'll sign copies of "Out of the Wreck I Rise," the book on the subject I wrote with Sara Bader. 
     Though if you plan to go—and I hope you do, I'd feel stupid standing there alone, talking to myself—the library asks that you pre-register here.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

And another thing ...

Destin, Florida anti-circumcision protestor. (Photo by Robert Angone)

     I had a lot of fun putting Wheaton College over my knee yesterday. But when I was done, after finishing the first draft, the column was 1100 words long. One important point got cut out reducing it to the print-friendly 719. I lost professor Larycia Hawkins, the political science professor forced out of Wheaton College in 2015 for wearing a headscarf in solidarity with Muslims threatened by the rise in poisonous rhetoric. In retrospect, I wish I had kept her and cut Wheaton scuttling health insurance for its students, lest one girl use it to buy contraception, since the Hawkins case spoke to the school's trademark stifling of free speech and religious immorality even more than health care did. 
    Ah well, not every choice is the best one.
    And I also lost the thread on how The Bean will be cluttered if we let one in religious fanatic, we let in them all.  Plus freedom of speech never means freedom of speech everywhere at any time. I wrote, then cut:
     The sidewalks of the city are not enough. Chicago doesn't have enough corners, apparently. With 99.99 percent of the metropolis at their feet, of course they'd must come here, where so many lambs aggregate. The question is, how many flock there in order to be endure a religious lecture, and the answer is: none of them.
     The ability to control when and where rights are expressed is inherent to running a city. You may not preach the gospel in the Gehry bandshell—also public space—during a CSO concert, you may not read the Constitution in the middle of Michigan Avenue during rush hour.
    Abandoned as too much of a digression was a passage where I pointed out that just as people pushing for school prayer can only conceive their prayer being allowed, and forget that opening the door also welcomes in a confusion of prayer mats, beads, rituals, prayer times, sacrifices so that nobody learns long addition. 
      Thank goodness Eric Zorn had my back, and expressed it perfectly in his take, the same day on the same subject:
     “Irritation or annoyance of some opinionated minority is unavoidable in public spaces and is never enough to prohibit someone from exercising their First Amendment rights both to express and to hear ideas wonderful and ridiculous,” said a letter to the city from John Mauck, an attorney for the students.
     “Visitors at The Bean who want to enjoy the reflection of Chicago’s skyline will not miss it because they turn their heads for a few seconds,” Mauck wrote.
     No, but their enjoyment of their visit to The Bean stands to be dramatically impaired if the immediately surrounding area becomes a boisterous daily forum for competing religious, political and social activists ululating for attention.
     And that’s what a total victory for the students here might do.
     Well said. Protest used to be about information and entreaty—you were telling the public about a situation and urging them to act. Now a lot of public action, like our political realm, is about manifesting power, showing what you can do—you carry your gun into the store because you can, or think you can. You bully and harangue strangers because, well, that's what you do. Of course they don't like when the afflicted push back. Nobody cries like a bully.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Chicago prays: Let us not be Bible-thumped

     The line snaking through the deafening, dripping bowels of Union Station, waiting to squeeze up the stairs to Madison Street, can take an eternity. When you finally break the surface, into light and air, one more hurdle awaits: the permanent pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses hoping to break you on their rack of literature.
     No biggie. Sidestep them and be on your way. But they are also the opening salvo in the constant barrage of admonition and entreaty that is the price of walking downtown.
     On Madison Street you’ll likely encounter a mendicant or two on cardboard, blessing you for whatever funds you contribute to their meth addiction. And if you’re really unlucky, Joe Scheidler and the entire Pro-Life Action League will be waiting across the bridge, human easels for their five-foot-tall color posters of the diced up fetuses of women they wouldn’t bother to spit on in person.
     That’s life in the big city. Window shopping on Michigan Avenue? Dare make eye contact with a well-scrubbed millennial holding a clipboard and they will bound over, flash you a Colgate smile, asking some inane question — “Do you like animals?” — while snaking a hand into your pockets, metaphorically.
      Finished? I’ve barely begun. State Street is the home of gaunt, Elmer-Gantry-style preachers screaming into blown-out loudspeakers about the fiery pit that awaits cigarette smokers and sodomites. All December much of Daley Plaza becomes a jostling religious anti-science fair, with little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay close by Muslims brandishing their star and crescent and the brutalist steel menorah of the Chabadniks, a decoration Albert Speer might have used at the Nuremberg rallies had the Nazis, you know, been into that kind of thing. Worst of all, the flimsy, anemic glowing red “A” of atheism, a physical manifestation of their feebleness relative to the Biblical passion of the Godstruck. 

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

And you think YOU go through changes...


     "Do you want to see some interesting mushrooms?" my friend Rory said, or words to that effect, over the weekend in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

      I admitted that I did, and followed him into a field of wildflowers—black-eyed Susans, mostly—just off the road to where we were staying.
     The mushrooms were interesting indeed. A big, golf ball-size yellow one, mottled, somewhat resembling Jupiter, and then a similarly colored, but differently configured mushroom shaped like a small pancake.
      I dutifully took photos of both.
      The obvious question then became: what kind of mushrooms are these?
       I figured the internet machine would be of help. I plugged in "Mushroom Identifier," and then clicked on the promising "Mushroom Identification Help" from something called Mushroom World.
       It offered pages of paired photos of types of mushrooms, none of which looked like my mushrooms. The next step was a Google Image search, but that didn't find a mate either.    
      There were a number of Mushroom Identification apps on the iPhone, but they not only wanted money upfront, but expected me to sign up for a subscription, as if ID'ing mushrooms were to be an ongoing concern. Which I do not expect; really, I was just curious about these two. 
     So I plugged in "Yellow Mushroom Upper Peninsula Michigan." The first hit was "Michigan Species List (159)." I assumed "159" to be the number of species described. As luck would have it—it's better to be lucky than good—my mushroom was number three, "Observation 25037: Amanita muscaria var. guessowii Veselý." It included four photos, one looking similar to my first spherical mushroom atop the blog, the other three of a pancaked mushroom. 
      In a note taken 10 years ago, Sept, 8, 2009, the observer, Jon Reck, wrote: " The three bottom photos are from the same mushroom as the top one, 24 hours later. (But you probably knew that anyway)."
     I did not know that anyway. Though now, having found out the name, I was saddled with a new question: Why do spherical mushrooms open? (This curiosity thing can be hell sometimes, a junkie scramble from one puzzle to the next).
     I had a guess—the mushroom mutates in order to drop spores—but a guess is not a certainty.
     So I shot off an email to the Field Museum—I once went on a field trip to Indiana with their mushroom expert, years ago, in the few minutes I was the newspaper's environment reporter. Do they still have one, I asked, and can he answer a basic mushroom question? 
    Waiting, I dug into Jon Reck. Who posts photos of mushrooms for the edification of others?
     "I’m a printer," writes Reck on his mushroom hunter page. "I live in the country on a small lake with my wife and two dogs. Have two grown sons. Enjoy photography and computers. Have always been fascinated by the ever-expanding extremes of the very small and large."
     A few hours passed. I put in a call to the Field to prod them. The Amanita Muscaria is both hallucinogenic and poisonous, which would at first seem to be mutually exclusive qualities. But the toxins are water soluble, and can be drained off, leaving you with, well, whatever hallucinogenic thrill this particular mushroom provides.
     The name "muscaria," by the way, is from Latin musca, meaning "a fly." The common name of the mushroom is the Fly Agaric; it would be used in European countries as an insecticide: crumbled in saucers of milk, the milk would absorb enough poison to the kill flies that drank it. 
    Toward end of day, the museum got back to me.
    "Why does it go from that shape?" said Wyatt Gaswick, a mushroom expert at the Field Museum. "When it's in its spherical shape the gills are just developing.  They're protected by a little membrane that rips away. It expands once it gets older, exposes it to the air so mature spores can drop out, catch the breeze and get from point A to point B."
     Turns out I had guessed correctly. Gaswick confirmed that my seat-of-the-pants identification was also correct. While I had him on the phone, I had to ask: How are mushrooms faring in the face of our climate crisis?
    "It's difficult to tell for fungi in general, because so much basic knowledge—how many species? Their identity?—so much basic research remains undone, it's hard to see patterns. Mushrooms are responding to climate change. Things are starting to fruit in the fall and spring. They should come up in the fall."
    "Fruit" by the way, is the term of art for mushrooms popping up, and quite descriptive of what we are looking at. 
     "Like an apple is the temporary reproductive part of a tree," Gaswick said, "a mushroom is the temporary reproductive part of fungus," the bulk of which remains underground. 
    All told, I was glad Rory called me over.


Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Booby trap killing echoes textbook case

     As a homeowner, you can put a 12-foot-tall fence around your property and top it with coils of razor-sharp concertina wire. The law will make no trouble for you, provided there aren’t zoning regulations regarding fence height.
     But if inside the fence you dig a moat, and line it with spikes, so that anybody brash enough to go over the top of your fence might be impaled, you could set yourself up for serious jail time.
     Why? Anybody? C’mon folks, you’ve got to do these readings.
     Katko v. Briney, a classic legal case on the tip of the tongue of anybody who ever went to law school or who, like me, typed his wife’s law school papers.
     On a July day in 1967, Marvin E. Katko broke into an unoccupied Iowa farmhouse, where the owners, tired of such break-ins, had set a shot-gun on an iron bed frame with the trigger wired to the door and the muzzle pointed toward it.
     The booby trap worked, the shotgun firing into Katko’s legs. The injured intruder sued the farmhouse owners, Edward and Bertha Briney.
     “Did Defendants employ a reasonable means of preventing the unlawful entry of trespassers on their property?” asks the CaseBriefs web site.
     The Iowa Supreme Court said no, concluding, “the law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property.”
     It awarded Katko $30,000 in damages. The Brineys had to sell 2/3 of the land on their farm to pay it.
     Alas, William Wasmund did not go to law school, nor type his wife’s papers, apparently. Nor did the Downstate man pause to ask himself whether rigging a 12-gauge shotgun to the door of a shed on his property was a good idea.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Nature is not cruel


     I didn't even try to take a picture of the eagle that swooped in front of our pickup truck.
     It was early morning Saturday. I had planned to hike the road before breakfast. But Ben, who took it upon himself to whip up breakfast, announced there were no eggs. Which made preparing his menu of pancakes and eggs problematic. The solution was to go into town, but he was a newcomer—from New Jersey—and wasn't quite sure where it was. Hoping to go on my walk, I at first tried explaining. I tried calling up a map on the phone—in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the Internet can be a work in progress. I got a white space with a line on it. 
    "I'll go with you," I gamely said. He said it wasn't necessary, which only steeled my resolve. 
    "If you go alone, you'll never get back," I said.  We got into the truck and rumbled down the long, long drive, firs and oaks and ferns flashing green past us on both sides. 
     As we turned onto the road, the eagle zoomed up from the shoulder and flapped its wings in slow, powerful beats just ahead of the car.
     "Keep up with it," I urged Ben, and we did, for 10 glorious seconds before the eagle peeled off. I considered the bird's appearance as a kind of cosmic reward, for my going along as navigator. 
     I've seen eagles up here before, in the same place, leading us up the road. Icing on the cake to what had already been a memorable trip, bird-wise: I spotted a pair of wild turkeys on our way in. I've never seen a wild turkey that wasn't capitalized and in a glass with ice.
      The trip to the store in Ontonagon was uneventful, except for the guy behind us in line who excitedly announced there was drag-racing going on, right now, at some fairgrounds nearby. I think he expected us to thump our kneecaps and exclaim, "Well, tarnation, let's GO!" And to be honest, the thought did cross my mind. But there were eggs to ferry back, pancakes to eat and friends awaiting.
    Afterward—almond-flavored pancakes, who knew?—I had my walk. There, by the side of the road, just where we had encountered the eagle, was a smear of feathers about 10 yards long. Obviously, we had interrupted its breakfast, though it must have made off with it—there were no remains, and I never saw the beak of the eagle, only its hind end. 
      I almost drew a connection between the nobility of the eagle—a hunter, a predator—and the cruelty of nature. But that isn't true, only an interpretation that humanity assigns to it, in our constant effort to get everything to reflect our own precious selves. Nature is not cruel. Nature just is. 


Monday, September 16, 2019

Well, this, for starters...

     My readers occasionally send gifts—often really nice stuff, like handmade easels and homemade English muffins.  Books they're written and drawings they've done. Sometimes portraits, quite good ones, given the subject matter. I always mean to write back and thank them. Sometimes I even do. But the race to get something half decent in the newspaper has a way of pushing everything aside, and then there is this blog. Every. Goddamn. Day.
      Last week I received this sign, sent by a reader. To be honest, I was more impressed with the quality of the sign itself—enamel over metal—than  by the sentiment expressed.  It wasn't cynical at all, but rather ... well, quite positive. It was suggesting that we need to focus on doing good for other people, and that can't be right. Then there was that bothersome "shall"—"What shall I do this day?" Quite fey in 2019. A question that you really have to be pressing your hands against both cheeks and sighing in order to express properly. Plus "this day." Not "today," but "this day," an echo of "Give us this day our daily bread." Practically a prayer. Ewwww....
     What to do—not "What shall I do"—with it? I flipped the sign over. On the back it read:
     Curious, I jumped online. Best Made Company is a hip concern with stores in Manhattan an Los Angeles. It's "About us" section offers nothing specific, only that their "customers are makers, adventurers, tinkerers, and curiosity seekers who only want one thing: quality." I bet they are.
     A little digging shows they started in spring, 2009 as a boutique axe company, founded by two Canadians, Peter Buchanan-Smith and Graeme Cameron. I'm not immune to quality axes. I've got one. But there are axes and there are axes. But let's put it this way: a Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe, stamped by the craftsman who made it, a fantastic tool I have rhapsodized here previously, costs $172 from Highland Woodworking. Five times the price of an axe you can grab at Home Depot, but a beautiful tool that's worth it.
     The Best Made Hudson Bay Axe goes to the next level. It costs $348, a little more than twice as much as the Gransfors Bruks. That seems excessive, almost grotesque.

     The sign, I couldn't help noting, cost $32. A lot for a little sign, and quite a compliment from the reader, who explained in a lovely note that she was moved by the column I wrote about a woman who altruistically donated her kidney to a stranger, to do her part to offset the carnival of vileness that is the Trump era.
     Tossing the sign in the trash seemed wasteful. And an insult to the reader who was not only so thoughtful, but shelled out 40 bucks to buy and send the thing to me.  I felt obligated, almost trapped.
     But "WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO THIS DAY?" Was I now committed to looking at the thing for the rest of my life? I decided to bring it home and consult with my wife. She'll know what to do. I showed her the sign and mused that I might put it up somewhere. 
   "Oh it's beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Put it up in the kitchen." 
    Okay then I swallowed hard and did.  After screwing it into the wall—a central location, just as you walk in—I thought to research the phrase.  
     Turns out the sentiment goes back to at least Benjamin Franklin, who before he was a Founding Father was a busy Boston printer, creator of "Poor Richard's Almanac," coiner of admonitory sayings. He claimed to begin each morning at 5 a.m. with thanks to God, followed by asking himself what good he should do that day,  and ended each day asking what good he had done. 
     So what's so bad with that? For a selfless person, nothing. But as somebody with a rather inflated sense of self, with a full time job wandering through his private Hall of Mirrors with a chamois and a bottle of Windex, the vow of helping others well, it seems insincere.  And unrealistic. Maybe I could insert a strategic "for me" with a Sharpie—"WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO for me THIS DAY?"
   No, no. That would throw off the purity of the design. And is probably a bad life strategy as well. I mean, look where it has gotten me. 
   Not that I'm against doing good for others and some days it does happen, mirabile dictu. But to be so intentional about it, so public, to ballyhoo the thing like that, raising the question on the kitchen wall. To set it as some kind of goal, to intend to do it, premeditated. That's a big step. 
     What good shall I do today? Well, I put up this sign. And wrote this post. That's a start.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Illinois Tech (aka IIT)

      Illinois Tech—or it is IIT?—is very proud of their Mies van der Rohe buildings. And rightly so. But they're also very proud of their new Kaplan Institute, particularly because it is light and not dark, mostly white, with splashes of color, such as these cushions in its amphitheater-like space, designed to look like giant Post-It note pads.
    Designed by IIT—or is it Illinois Tech?—alumnus John Ronan, it opened in October and is the first new building on campus in 40 years.  It's called the "Kaplan Institute" because 1965 alumnus Ed Kaplan kicked in $11 million for it.
     I was on campus Tuesday researching an unrelated story. But the Illinois Tech—or is it IIT?—folks were so proud of the new place they had to show me around, including the second floor, where they have fancy glass that ... I'm not sure what it does ... has dots that expand on sunny days to keep the sun from heating up the place too much, and contract on cool, cloudy days to let the heat and light in. Or some such thing.  Compressed air is involved.
     There's a lot more to it; study rooms and 3-d printer labs, a big area to construct prototypes. IIT—or it is Illinois Tech?—is pushing the snazzier latter name over the former. That's a good thing—Illinois Institute of Technology is a mouthful, and IIT can too easily be confused with UIC. But they seem to still have a foot on the dock and a foot on the pier, with lots of signs and banners reading IIT, and others reading Illinois Tech. I suppose it can be both, the way Northwestern and NU are the same place.

     Embarrassingly, Eric Zorn covered this topic, far more thoroughly, four years ago. 


Saturday, September 14, 2019

Flashback 2012: A late-night romp with exotic models

     An Ohio teen, Hannah Jones, came home early from college late last month and thought she would surprise her mother. She did. Her mother was indeed very surprised, and shot her. Only winged the young woman, thankfully. But a reminder that people who really cared about the safety of themselves of their families would ditch their guns, since owning a gun ramps up the odds that you'll shoot yourself or a loved one. It made me think of this column, which, to my surprise, I have never posted here before.

     Between the time the back door opened with a metallic "kathunk" and when it closed with a dull "knuhtak," I was on my feet, in the early morning bedroom dimness.
     I gazed across the sleeping form of my wife, at the clock on her night table: "5:03." My first waking thought was, "cats," the usual source of nocturnal disturbance: cats knocking cups into sinks, cats chasing each other howling through the house. Cats. 

     The next sound was a very human treading of feet downstairs. My second thought was a grim, "That's not a cat."
     I reached into the night table for a weapon.
     Many prudent men keep a handgun at their bedside. Houses are broken into. Horrors occur. A man must protect his family.
     And though I am certainly a prudent man, I am also a mathematical fellow, and can do numbers: the odds of bad stuff taking place in my leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, of dangerous situations that can be resolved by my being armed, are minuscule—say a 10-second window every 20 years, if that—compared to the low-level threat posed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by the weapon itself. "The blade itself is an incitement to violence," as Homer put it. Plus accident: the possibility that, reaching into the drawer for a pen, I would manage to fire the handgun and blow my kneecap off. Owning a gun in Northbrook makes as much as sense as owning a grenade.
     Yet many people, indulging in their Clint Eastwood fantasies, don't see it that way.
     Anyway. For reasons mathematical, I reached, not for a pistol, but for a black Mag-Light flashlight. Not the most potent weapon, true, but a 10-inch-long steel cylindrical club that at least instilled a tiny bit of confidence—and isn't that what weapon ownership is all about? To calm our insecurities? Why otherwise would people assemble, not one gun or five, but whole arsenals, plus bottled water and dried food and God knows what else. A desperate, futile attempt to feel protected.
     The flashlight was satisfyingly heavy in my hand, thanks to its trio of D batteries, ready to bash whoever was making those footsteps.
     At the bedroom door I saw the downstairs lights were blazing. A second possibility, after cats, stirred at the back of my mind.
     "Ross, is that you?" I squeaked, my voice suddenly thin and anemic.
     "Go to bed," my 17-year-old commanded, tossing a pile of calculators, pens and notebooks onto the kitchen table, then looking around at the downstairs, lit up like a cruise ship.
     "Why are all the lights on?" he asked
     "Your mother probably left them on for you," I said, meekly complying with his command, climbing the stairs, limply holding my flashlight. "Turn them off before you go to sleep."
     Not that I would have shot him if I had a gun, mind you—I like to think that I would be the sort of gun owner who takes a gander at what he's shooting. But doesn't every gun owner tell himself that? Yet teenage boys creeping in at dawn are still blown away by sleepy dads, far more, I'd bet, than the number of potato-nosed villains in black and white striped shirts and soft caps, caught dead-to-rights, with the family silverware in a sack over their shoulders.
The reason

     OK. OK. I know my audience. I can't just have my kid waltzing home at 5:03 a.m. without SOME explanation.
     But it's delicate . . . and as much as readers say they enjoy reading about the boys, they just don't appear here all that much anymore. They're studying a lot, or slumped on sofas, flipping through magazines or watching TV. There isn't much to say. I try to respect their privacy.
     He was coming home so late because . . .
     Oh, this will be hard to believe. I have a hard time believing it. When I was 17, and crept home with the dawn, it was not for this reason or anything like it. But kids nowadays . . . I'm no dupe; I've considered other scenarios, just to see if there is any chance an alternate might be possible. I wish there were. But there isn't.
     OK. Here goes: The 15th Annual High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling, run by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications. Each team—he and three pals—picks a problem and has exactly 36 hours to answer it. They were at a buddy's house crunching numbers all night. After he had slept, my wife's attempt to pry more information resulted in exactly one sentence, an exasperated, "We were modeling gasoline prices, mother." And that was it.
     Don't get me wrong. I'm proud. Though I worry he's frittering away his youth, and have encouraged him to pursue other, umm, non-mathematical activities ("Think of it as a new skill set you could master," I said, wanly). But with kids, you have to accept what you get, and as strange as it is, at times, I'm not complaining. I'm just glad I didn't shoot him.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 26, 2012

Friday, September 13, 2019

Flashback 2000: Miracles of not-so-modern medicine


     You've probably never been to the International Museum of Surgical Science on Lake Shore Drive. Few people have. I've been twice; last year, so I could compare it with Philadelphia's notorious Mutter Museum. And the first time, for a party in 2000.

     The bone crusher caught my attention.
     A massive, chrome device with a pair of hooks that go over a limb, holding it in place, and a threaded rod tightened by a steel bar, that pushes down, breaking the arm or leg so it can be reset. The thing was dated to 1918, though it seemed as if it belonged to the Middle Ages.
     The intriguing contraption was just one of the eye-popping—sometimes literally—displays at the International Museum of Surgical Science, located, along with the International College of Surgeons, in a grand pair of side-by-side mansions on the 1500 block of North Lake Shore Drive. The museum is a perennial favorite in the pantheon of offbeat Chicago sites.

    I had always intended on visiting, someday. But the years passed, then decades, and the desire never coalesced into action until free food and beverages were thrown into the mix.
     Then I was there in a heartbeat, joining the throng celebrating the publication of Secret Chicago (ECW Press, $ 17.95), Sam Weller's guide to odd, little-known places in the Chicago area.
     As is inevitable with such guides, the book is a curious mix of genuine hidden treasures, such as the museum, visited by as many as 20 people a day, and better-known locales, such as the Art Institute, or that obscure gem known only to the 4 million people who somehow discover it, Taste of Chicago.

     While I enjoyed the museum, I don't know if I would recommend it to everybody, particularly the faint of heart.
     True, it has a certain naive charm. In an era when most museum exhibits are ultra-slick endeavors, assembled by teams of academics and funded by multinational corporations, the surgical museum is endearingly rustic, almost crude, in a cobbled-together way, between the rough stone statues in its Hall of Immortals, and the haphazard jumble of displays, identified haltingly with handmade labels, all skewed and fading.
     But the folksiness of the place also contributes to its chamber-of-horrors feel, the way the serenity of a town in a Stephen King novel underlines the nightmares building below the surface. I had heard about the uteral and kidney stones on proud display, but was caught off-guard by the vivid oil paintings of unspeakable pre-modern surgeries, not to mention the saws, knives and, of course, that bone crusher.
     I left the place intrigued by a pair of questions.
     First, why is the museum there? As flush as the International College of Surgeons, which runs the museum, must certainly be, it also must be tempted to cash out on such a prime piece of real estate and put its museum, oh, in Navy Pier or Woodfield Mall or some place where people could actually get at it.
     Short answer: They can't.
     "Of course the buildings are landmarks," said Dolores Leber, a museum associate. "That's why we're in the place we're at. It's the perfect site for high- rises, but being a landmark . . . .       And second: Sure, that bone crusher seems barbaric. But how do they reset bones now? For all I know, every hospital in America has a bone crusher.
     They don't.
     "Things are much more sophisticated," said Dr. David Beigler, an orthopedist at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He said the problem with a device such as the bone crusher is you never know where the bone will break. Nowadays, they'd operate, going in and cutting.
     Still, the process is not without its throwbacks to the past.
     "We do have a wire saw that you operate with two hands called a 'giggly saw,' " said Dr. Brian Cole of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. "It's sort of a prehistoric device."
     Dr. Cole had no idea, however, what the ominous "giggly" in "giggly saw" refers to. That's the problem with this profession. You solve one question, and another pops up to take its place.
         —Originally published May 18, 2000 in the Sun-Times

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Flashback 1994: Cultural Differences Hamper Health Care

Station Hospital, by Robert Smullyan Sloan (Metropolitan Museum)
     "Medical stories are always interesting," I told my wife, justifying the hours I've been spending downtown this week, researching an upcoming column at a Chicago hospital. Between that, and a big piece due for Mosaic early next week, I'm going to have to phone in the blog for a few days. Since I'm in a medical mode, a few medical stories from the hazy past, including this, which I found out about through contacts in the Russian emigre community.

     They complain of serdtsa boleet -- literally "heartache" -- or pitchen boleet, a pain in the liver. They wave mysterious bottles with Cyrillic labels and demand valerian, an herbal tranquilizer rarely used here since the 1800s.
     They are immigrants, mostly Jewish, from the troubled, fractured land that once was the Soviet Union. Their steady influx into Chicago—3,000 last year, 14,000 in the last seven—has created a massive health care challenge for local social service agencies and affiliated hospitals.
     "They're sick folks," said Joan M. Schulhoff, director of Jewish Federation programs at Mt. Sinai Hospital, summing up the general health of the immigrants.
     "We are seeing many more problems than had before, because of the deterioration of the economy of the former Soviet Union. We are seeing more untreated cancer, untreated heart disease, untreated diabetes."
     Mt. Sinai and Michael Reese Hospital treat without charge any Soviet immigrant with a serious medical condition for the first four months they are in the country. Sometimes it's longer.
     "Any urgent or emergency care," said Carol S. Goldbaum, director of Michael Reese's department of social work. "We're not piercing ears, we're not doing breast reconstruction. We do cardiac bypass, radiation therapy, anything that has to do with cancer. Cataracts or glaucoma if they're looking at permanent damage unless something is done."
     The program is set up under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, under contract with the state to provide health care for all refugees.
     Mt. Sinai provides $1.5 million a year in unreimbursed services, and Michael Reese as much as $1 million. The federation spends $2.5 million a year on immigrant health care, including the money it gets from the state.
     "We've been refugees for thousands of years—we know how to do this stuff," said Joel Carp, associate executive director of the federation.
     Many of the new immigrants are elderly relatives of people who came to this country years ago.
     Naum Zhits and his wife, Tslya, both 68, spent only one night under the roof of a relative in Highland Park before Tslya, who has a history of heart trouble, needed to be rushed to the hospital. Less than a week after leaving Minsk, she is in Michael Reese awaiting a triple bypass.
     For those with less urgent needs, the first step is a screening at the Touhy Health Center, run by Mt. Sinai. Doctors have two goals—ascertain individual health care needs and spot public health dangers—syphilis, AIDS, even leprosy.
     It is no vain exercise: One-third of all the immigrants are carrying tuberculosis.
     Ed Gilmore, a physician assistant, helps examine the 30 patients a day coming into Touhy.
     A major challenge is dealing with the myriad differences in medical culture. The Russians, for example, often are averse to taking aspirin. But many are addicted to tranquilizers. "It is an over-tranquilized population," Schulhoff said.
     Then there are the aftereffects of Soviet medicine with which U.S. doctors must deal.
     "Oftentimes their doctors lacked the facilities to perform necessary tests, so they made diagnoses 'from the ceiling,' " said Gilmore, using the Soviet slang term for a doctor sitting back in his chair, gazing skyward, and making up a significant-sounding diagnosis.
     An important part of this care is teaching new patients fundamentals of nutrition and preventive care, and how to use the U.S. medical system.
     Caregivers have been sent to Berlitz courses so that they have at least a rough understanding of Russian.
     It helped Gilmore one recent day, as he examined 8-year-old Ilya Samovskiy.
     Gilmore set the boy at ease with a magic trick, and proceeded to examine him, speaking a mixture of English and poorly pronounced Russian. "My bad accent amuses the old folks," he says. "They like it a lot."
     The boy's condition, he tells Ilya's mother, Galina, is "ne seriosna," -- he just has a slight fever -- and Gilmore perscribes "Tylenol, two tabletski."
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times April 4, 1994

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Quaker Oats quietly touches up its iconic oatmeal man

Out with the old, left, in with the new and slightly different. 

     Maybe because we’re both gents from Ohio who ended up working in downtown Chicago. Maybe because we’re men given to chubbiness and self-promotion.
     But the Quaker Oats Man is on my radar. Always has been. So when my wife came home with a container, the moment it was removed from the Sunset Foods bag I noticed something amiss. I set the old and new cylinders together on the counter.
     The new Quaker Oats man is different. Windblown, for starters, his white neckerchief flapping in the breeze. His complexion paler, with rosier cheeks; his predecessor had a uniform, peach quality. The image a little smaller, his face a little thinner too, more of a distinct chin. Behind him, a faint image of farmland has been worked into the deep red background.
     Could I have missed the big announcement? Online, there was nothing but a brief mention in a trade magazine earlier this year. I found more hoopla from 2012, when they last fiddled with his image. Trimming five pounds, according to Quaker, which let slip that in-house, they call him “Larry.”
     Seven years is awfully quick to redo Quaker’s icon. Calls and emails were fired at Quaker — headquartered in Chicago — and PepsiCo, which bought the brand in 2001.
      While waiting, I started to dig, beginning with Quakers. Formed in Britain in the 1650s, George Fox called his sect “The Society of Friends.” They immediately got in trouble for failing to bow and scrape to officialdom, and were beaten and jailed. After Fox told a judge he should “tremble at the word of the Lord” the judge called him a “quaker,” derisively. Eventually the sect started calling themselves Quakers — a kind of defiant rebranding, the way gay people started proudly referring to themselves as “queer.”

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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Something new under the sun: Hoplark HopTea

    For a guy who doesn't drink, I spend a lot of time in bars. Which raises the question, What do you drink in a bar if you don't want to drink booze? Club soda is zupped down in a heartbeat. Regular sodas are either sugary or vile. Non-alcoholic beers are surprisingly good nowadays—Beck's, St. Pauli Girl, Clausthaler—but not every bar stocks them. Lack of demand, I suppose.
     Craft mocktails can be quite good, redolent of mint or basil or cucumber, particularly at a chi-chi restaurant like The Dearborn in the Loop, my new favorite go-to place.
     But both of those have drawbacks: calories for one.  And they also can be hard to find.
     I was far from the Loop, however, last spring, sitting in a sushi bar in Boulder, Colorado, when the bartender, considering my strange interest in beverages non-alcoholic, suggested Hoplark HopTea, iced tea that is brewed like beer, with zero calories, zero sugar and zero alcohol.
   Introduced in June, 2018, made right there in Boulder, it had a surprising, refreshing, kindy beerish, kinda tealike taste.  It was complicated, and took time to drink, which is kinda the point. You can buy HopTea at a number of Whole Foods around Chicago, as well as other locations, as detailed on their web site.
     The restaurant, just in case you ever get to Boulder, was Japango on the Pearl Street Mall. I liked the food, the service, the ambience, and the cylindrical tank filled with jellyfish.  So much that, with the broad range of Boulder restaurants at our fingertips, we went back the next day to have lunch at Japango a second time. Good call.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Turning away from wonder to gaze at matters Trumpian

     The word “placebo” is not only from Latin, it is Latin, an unaltered Latin word meaning “I will please,” the first person singular future indicative of placere, “to please.”
     It wasn’t originally used to describe a sugar pill pretending to be medicine, of course, but a part of Vespers, Book of the Dead, taken from the line, Psalm 114:9 in the Latin Vulgate Bible: “Placebo Domino in regione vivorum,” or “I will please the Lord in the land for living.”
     By 1200, it was used to describe flatterers — Chaucer names a character in The Merchant’s Tale “Placebo.” By 1811, it was a term for pills with no medical value but offering psychological benefit. 
     OK, OK, Donald Trump. Do you think the media wants to natter on obsessively about him? Others perhaps do. But not me. Gazing into Trump’s world is like directing a flashlight down the hole in an outhouse while the Northern Lights flash and flicker in the heavens right outside.
     But focusing elsewhere, no matter how fascinating, also feels like describing a pretty flower when the school next door is burning. Worse, your entire country aflame. I was going to write today on last week’s Alabama debacle. You know the particulars if you’re paying attention. With Hurricane Dorian turning up the East Coast, Trump said Alabama was in peril when it wasn’t, the risk already past.
     A small error. Worth correcting only because people in Alabama could be alarmed by the president suggesting a deadly storm is bearing down on them. A normal human being would dismiss it with a shrug.
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Sunday, September 8, 2019

Lighted balloons

    Did you have a good summer? Now that we're hurtling into September, hard to believe it's almost gone. For me, spine surgery carved out a big two-month chunk, cancelling two vacations and sucking up all my attention and energy. That was unfortunate.
     But I did have one beautiful day. Center Avenue had a block party a few weeks ago. It was a marvel of planning—thank you Carla, thank you Tanya, thank you all the other neighbors who helped out. Not only the usual tables of food and tubs of cold drinks, but live bands. A fire truck and bouncy house for the kids. Games. My oldest boy was in town, and we all hung out, chatting, eating, listening to music as day turned into evening, then into night. I think I spent eight hours, from setting up to the last stragglers sitting around a fire pit in the front yard. Playing corn hole. Dancing in the street—really, how often do you get the chance to dance in the street? Not often enough.
     After dark, someone produced something I had never seen before. Lighted balloons. I hope that doesn't tar me as hopelessly out of it, and that you haven't been enjoying LED balloons since the 1950s. I'm sure you'll let me know. But they were new to me. Not only did the balloons glow sooth shades of blue and green, but they changed colors. I'd never seen anything like it. Finally, a new technology that isn't menacing.
      A tiny girl—5, 7, it's hard to tell anymore—walked up to me and, with heartbreaking solemnity, presented me with one, saying, "Would you like this balloon? Please take it." You can't very well say no to that. I accepted it with a bow.
     Though once I had the balloon, there was a difficulty: what to do with it? I carried the balloon for a bit, giving it a few tentative tosses into the air and catching it. But that got old. I didn't want to cast the balloon away, not after that little girl had so earnestly entrusted me with it. It would pop on the ground. And be my fault.
     Then I had a brainstorm. There was a low branched tree in the yard where the block party was centered. I took the string from the balloon and wrapped it around a branch. A good idea spread. Other people automatically followed my lead—that never happens—and soon the tree was festooned with balloons, all gently changing colors. It was gorgeous. When I think of the summer of 2019, I'll think of that.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

This might not be the outrage Patti expected, but it’ll have to do

     Friday was the rare day I had two columns in the paper, the second being a quick hit ordered up in response to Patti Blagojevich shaking her fist at the heavens for the unfairness of life. A few readers found this harsh, feeling pity for Patti and her fractured family. They might not realize that it was her father, Dick Mell, who inflicted Blago on the state in the first place, as a wedding present. She had plenty of opportunity to spare him, and herself, and us, this endless drama. Sympathy is misplaced.

Coincidence can be a satirist.
 A reader sent in this, which ran
 in the paper the same day. 

     Oh, Patti. Do you really not get it? After all these years? You “cannot even wrap” your head around former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, having his indictment dismissed while your hubby is seven years into his 14-year prison term? (That is, assuming Donald Trump, friend of frauds and crooks, doesn’t commute his sentence as a big wink to his cronies that he has their back.)
     Shall I explain it then? OK.
     First, Schock’s acts were penny-ante — Super Bowl tickets and fudged expense reports. It was not trying to sell a seat to the United States Senate, and doing a botched job at that. The harm of a crime matters — a guy who takes a sledgehammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta is in more trouble than somebody doing the same to a plaster Elvis. Both guys are swinging hammers. Schock got a fancy office; Illinois got Sen. Roland Burris. Those are not equal harms.
     Second, Schock played ball with the feds. He cut a deal. He did not prance and preen and glory in the attention, the way your husband did. He did not go on “Dancing with the Stars.”
     Not that Rod didn’t have a point. Sure, he only did the kind of horse-trading politicians do. But into an open FBI tap he knew was there.
     Third, what makes you believe the legal system is fair? Murderers walk while mopes sit in stir for decades over a $50 stick-up. Dan Rostenkowski committed petty thefts over postage stamps and office chairs — and ended up in the joint. (Taking it, I might add, with far more grace than Rod, who practically had to have his hands pried off the radiator as they dragged him to prison, like Jimmy Cagney going to the chair in “Angels with Dirty Faces.”)

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Friday, September 6, 2019

Ping Tom Park part of a growing Chinatown

Artist Anna Murphy finishing mural at Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown.

     Nobody calls the near West Side of Chicago “Jew Town” anymore. The great-grandchildren of the merchants who sold ... well, just about everything ... at the sprawling open-air market on Maxwell Street have scattered — to Rogers Park, then Skokie, then everywhere.
     Many of the city’s old ethnic enclaves were shattered by supposed “progress,” whether the Italian community on Taylor Street, bulldozed by the expanding University of Illinois at Chicago, or the heart of Bronzeville, cut out by CHA high-rises.
     Chinatown is an exception. Not only has it preserved its ethnic character — 90% of the neighborhood’s residents are Asian, most speaking Chinese at home — but it’s growing, despite, and in some cases because of, setbacks it suffered.
     “Chicago’s Chinatown is really interesting,” said David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center, a community center in Chinatown. “Philadelphia and New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston — every Chinatown is within blocks of the financial district and City Hall, and every one of these cities would say their Chinatowns are dying.”
     Chicago’s Chinatown was originally jammed into two blocks of Clark Street in the Loop. But in 1912, rising rents and white hostility prodded the Chinese community to move, wholesale, to Wentworth and Cermak.
     Bad then, good now.
     “If we were at Clark and Van Buren and wanted to expand at all, we couldn’t,” said Wu. “A hundred years ago, it wasn’t nice to be pushed out of your community. But now Chicago’s Chinatown is the only one flourishing. It’s more like a normal community, without huge pressures of gentrification.”
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Thursday, September 5, 2019

Bee careful

     Nick and Nora Charles don't carry the cultural heft they did when I was growing up, and the "Thin Man" series of 1930s black-and-white detective movies were a staple of UHF television.
     As played by William Powell and Myrna Loy, they seemed the ideal married couple, for their swank deco apartment, their frequent martinis, and exuberant wordplay.
     I never had a swank deco apartment. The frequent martinis proved troublesome, and have long ago gone by the wayside. But my wife and I do manage a bit of wordplay, now then.
     Particularly in the Chicago Botanic Garden, where we like to spend hours walking and talking. It's like being in heaven, and you don't have to die. We went twice over Labor Day weekend.
     A favorite spot is the circular Rose Garden. Maybe because I had skipped my standard rose garden joke. "I didn't make any binding commitment to come here," (think about it) I felt poised, when my wife offered me the perfect slow pitch.
     "Be careful for bees," she said, smelling a rose.  "They're out in force."
     She could picture her husband swooping in to smell a perfect rose and ending up with a nostril full of bee. Sometimes my whole life seems like that.
     "That's why they call them 'bees,'" I replied. "Because you have to 'bee careful.'"
     Some might have groaned. You might be groaning now. But my wife thought that is funny, or has been conditioned to think that funny. She laughed, and then realized she was laughing.
     "That's why you love me, because I'm easy to please," she said.
    "No," I corrected her. "That's why you love me."
     She laughed even more.
     Okay, not Nick and Nora Charles. But we enjoyed it. And "I didn't make any binding commitment to come here" translates into "I never promised you a rose garden." A reference to the country song. Maybe it gets funnier after you've heard it 50 times. Maybe not.
     Labor Day happened to be our 29th anniversary. The garden was mobbed, the line of cars backed onto Lake Cook Road, the parking lot jammed. Once inside,  we joined the wonderfully diverse crowd the Botanic Garden draws: black and white, Hispanic and asian, wedding parties and orchid societies, brides and quinceañera teens posing for photographs. 
    Usually, the throngs taper off quickly as soon as you get away from the front entrance. But not Monday. Even in the far reaches, the winding paths and well-wrought bridges were bristling with strollers: young couples, old couples, parents and young kids in strollers, large, extended families. Sometimes that's annoying. ("Hell," I like to say, quoting Sartre, "is other people.") But the weather was so perfect, I didn't object to sharing the Botanic Garden with the big crowds.
     "I don't mind the other people," I informed Edie, as we walked.
     "What other people?" she replied.