Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A scary spider adventure for Halloween

     Maybe I’m doing this whole column-writing thing wrong.
     I try to choose interesting topics. But maybe I’m dancing to music nobody hears. There are worrisome hints.
     One day earlier this month, I posted two items on Facebook. The first was an in-depth look at a hospital emergency department, written after hours spent observing, talking to doctors, nurses, patients.
     That column got 13 comments and 18 "likes."
     Then I posted a photo of a spider.
     ”Anyone able to ID this bad boy, noticed on our front porch?” I asked.
     That got 78 comments and 40 "likes."
     Readers, it seems, care about spiders.
    Fine. I can do spiders.
     The obvious question is: what kind of spider are we talking about? How do you go about identifying a spider?
     ”I love that question! It’s a great question” said Petra Sierwald, associate curator of arachnids and myriapods—spiders and centipedes—at The Field Museum.
     She directed me to the Field’s online Common Spiders of the Chicago Region. I didn’t have to hunt long: my new neighbor is No. 2, Argiope aurantia, or yellow garden spider.
     Spiders have complicated sex lives. A male spider will wrap a fly in silk and mate with the female while she’s busy eating it. If no bug is handy, he’ll wrap a pebble in silk and trick her, deceit on a near-human level. 

     The worry about spiders is, like snakes, whether they’re poisonous. Illinois’ 800 or so types of spiders are benign.
     ”You are pretty safe,” Sierwald said. “Driving a car is far more dangerous than encountering a spider.”
     Yet half the Halloween displays seem feature huge, menacing spiders. Why are people so afraid of spiders? We should be terrified of bees instead—eight times more Americans die of bee and wasp stings than spider bites. Where does this fear come from?
     ”Certain things we are evolutionarily prepared to develop phobia of,” said Dr. Stewart Shankman, chief psychologist at Northwestern Medicine. The threat from spiders might be less now, but “throughout history more people get hurt by spiders than stoves.”
     Shankman noted that fears are transmitted from parent to child—your mother screams because of a spider, that scares you too.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Night of 1,000 Jack-O-Lanterns

     "My wife is going to count how many pumpkins there actually are, and if they have fewer than 1,000, she's going to file a class action lawsuit," I said, to our friends as we entered the Chicago Botanic Gardens' "Night of 1,000 Jack-o-Lanterns." 
     Kinda lame, as far as wry remarks go. But I was a bit nervous—coming here was my idea, and I really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into. The Botanic Garden began this event in 2016, and it wasn't on my radar at all, even though we're members. but the bag of swag they gave me for judging the Spooky Pooch contest earlier this month not only contained a way cool Chicago Botanic Garden members' baseball cap (Sorry CARA Program, you've been displaced) but a quartet of tickets to this event, a $72 value. 
    So we asked some friends who had invited us to dinner whether they wanted to take a field trip afterward, and they gamely agreed.
    The smattering of small, regular-sized pumpkins soon gave way to ... what can I call them? Show pumpkins. Huge, intricately-carved pumpkins, dozens and dozens of them, lit from within and so skillfully done we wondered if lasers weren't involved—I decided that had to be impossible, given the uneven surface of the pumpkins.
    The ornately carved pumpkins were grouped thematically: first Dia del Muertos pumpkins, followed by "Botanimals," animals whose names were also parts of the names of plants, like the "Dandelion" at left. Classic movie monsters, even notable Chicago gargoyles. There were pumpkin carving experts showing off their art, and scattered food stands and bars.
     I was amazed at how mobbed the place was—the thing is sold out this year. Which might be disappointing, individually, but does carry some general good news: despite the grip of social media around our throats, lots of families will still turn out to ogle well-decorated pumpkins. 


Monday, October 21, 2019

Lee Bey’s plea for South Side architecture

     Lee Bey is a reporter.
     Yes, he wears other hats — architecture expert, urban planner, lecturer at the School of the Art Institute, photographer of growing renown.
     But a newspaperman is what he was when he joined the Sun-Times in 1992, and he remains true to the basic imperative of reporting: Tell people something they don’t already know.
     This educational process began, for me, with the very first photograph in his new book, “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side.” (Northwestern University Press: $30). A simple, flat-faced building with a sloping roof. At first I thought it was some 1950s geometrical whimsy; the caption reveals it to be the Lavezzorio Community Center, 7600 S. Parnell Ave., designed in 2008 by Jeanne Gang — the most famous architect in Chicago today, whose Aqua Tower opened to raves in 2009. 
Lavezzorio Community Center
     ”It’s a fine little building that should have ridden Aqua Tower’s slipstream to some modest fame, at least,” Bey notes.
     That it didn’t — I had no idea Gang’s community center exists, and I pay attention to this kind of thing, or try to — is the point of Bey’s new book. Just as America still can’t seem to wrap its head around the fact that black lives carry the same weight as white ones, so Chicago’s architecture south of Cermak Road rarely shows up on our cultural radar, even though it should.

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Sunday, October 20, 2019

Flashback 2000: Drugs damaged little Leanna from the start

     With the Chicago Teachers Union strike, I was looking at columns I've written over the years about the public schools, and noticed this column. It's the sort of thing that sticks in the mind. My mind anyway. Not only cradling little Leanna as a drug-damaged infant, but sitting in front of the television, half listening to a local news report about a 13-year-old girl dropping dead in front of her 7th grade classroom, snapping to attention when they mentioned her name.
    "That's my cocaine baby!" I shouted to my wife. I hate to make a sad story even sadder, but I realize now she would have been 33 years old had her mother not taken those drugs. I'd draw your attention to the reaction of the principal: It isn't easy teaching children, not if you do it right.

     Delores Dorsett smoked herself into labor on a crack cocaine binge. Doctors tried to stop it, but two days later, on Mother's Day, 1986, her daughter Leanna was born.
     Like many cocaine babies, Leanna was born with problems, the greatest being she was three months premature, and weighed 1 pound, 13 ounces. She lost several fingers from the umbilical cord wrapping tightly around them and cutting off the blood. She had a club foot. She was so damaged that doctors had to test her blood to determine she was a girl.
     I met Leanna and her mother that autumn. On Fridays, we would go together to Northwestern University's Perinatal Dependency Clinic. Delores Dorsett had an addict's openness. She would answer any question, and slowly it dawned on me that she had spent her life talking to officials, and I was now one of them.
     When I first saw Leanna, she was 3 months old and weighed 5 pounds, 6 ounces—underweight for a newborn. She was a shocking baby, with huge, desperate eyes that bored into you. While the terrible cocaine withdrawal at birth had passed, she was still jittery when you held her, writhing and crying and fussing, though her doctor wasn't sure if it was due to the cocaine or being born prematurely.
     Her mother was then 30 years old and had seven children. Leanna wasn't her only child harmed by cocaine. Nor did Leanna's birth end Delores' addiction. When Leanna came home from the hospital after nearly three months of intensive care, Delores prepared for the occasion by smoking crack.
     For more than a dozen years, I thought about Leanna Dorsett. Wondered what became of her. She was such a small spark of life, facing hard odds, right off the bat. Beaten up in the womb.
     My naive optimism told me that everything would be all right. I would wait a decent interval of years—and those years just snap by—until she was 18, or maybe even 21. And then I would swoop back into her life and find out.
     I truly believed, or hoped anyway, that she would be a college senior somewhere, bright, vivacious, the missing fingers the only hint that she had to battle her way into this unhappy world.
     Would it be fair of me, I often wondered, to present myself at all? This unexpected person, the observer, exploding into her life to tell her that her mother was a drug addict, that she had to be swaddled tightly to give her the sense of security that most babies have naturally but cocaine babies have lost, a balm to her shattered nerves?
     I pondered the matter from time to time. But really there was no rush. The years still stretched ahead. Maybe she would appreciate learning the truth. To have mysteries finally illuminated. Maybe she would resent it. Who could tell? I always believe that the truth helps. But what if your truth is an awful truth?
     That debate doesn't matter now. Leanna Dorsett collapsed and died last week in her classroom at Garrett Morgan Elementary School, where she was in the seventh grade.
     "She was a beautiful young lady," said her foster mother of six years, Claudette Winters. "She liked to dance. She liked music. She liked all her classes."
     She said the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services never told her that Leanna was a cocaine baby.
     "No, they didn't," Winters said.
     That's par for the course for DCFS. Sometimes they tell the parents. Sometimes they don't.
     "It would depend on the case," said Audrey Finkel, the deputy chief of communications for DCFS.
     Leanna's foster mother should have been told.
     "Absolutely," said Dr. Ira Chasnoff, who treated Leanna as a baby and is now president of Children's Research Triangle, an independent organization working with high risk and drug-exposed children. "Any family who is asked to foster or adopt a child needs to have a complete history. It has tremendous implications for the child's ongoing health and education. So even if the child is perfectly healthy, but having behavior problems, you can understand the behavior in context. So often we see children put on medication—Ritalin is an easy out—when what they need is a specific type of therapeutic approach to help manage their behaviors."
     The medical examiner's office said Friday that autopsy results are inconclusive. And while experts don't know that being a cocaine baby could cause a 13-year-old to die suddenly, it certainly might.
     "We know early on that children exposed prenatally to cocaine have an increased rate of cardiac arrhythmias," Chasnoff said. "We've followed a bunch of children and found they have cleared up by 6 months of age. We have not found any of the children having them at an older age. But I think it's possible."
     Leanna Dorsett was buried Thursday. Her classmates and teachers remembered her not as someone who was dealt an unfair blow, but as a beautiful child whose inherent goodness managed to shine through adversity.
     "There's a lot of broken hearts at the school," said public schools CEO Paul Vallas. "The principal is a veteran, and she's distraught."
     The principal, Dr. Inez G. Walton, wept as she spoke of Leanna.
     "She was still a little wide-eyed girl, a very cordial child, well-mannered, well-dressed," Walton said. "She was a loving child, she tried to please. Everybody just really cared about her because of that. She had problems in terms of academics, because she was physically challenged. She had a lot of operations. But she was a child who would hug. She was just a joy to have in the school, truly a joy. I've lost children before, and all of it hurts. But not like this. This just shook everybody. The engineering staff. The people in the lunchroom. They loved her. This little girl touched everyone in that school like she was an angel on a mission and her mission was to touch people, and she did."
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 23, 2000

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Saturday snapshot: Leaves and snow.

     "Winter arrives abruptly in the Northwoods," regular reader Tony Galati wrote last week. "Thursday it was 67° up here. When I drove up Saturday, it was snowing."
     I wouldn't know—I usually go to the Northlands in September, to visit my buddy Rick's place in the UP, though looking at Tony's photos, taken around his cabin in Oneida County, Wisconsin, it made me consider, not for the first time, relocating in that vicinity permanently. I'd have to give up my job, of course, but I'm approaching that point, now still a spot on the horizon. A buck goes a long way up there.
     "It's 36 degrees," Tony writes. "Got a fire going, feet up, and an easy to read book. Retirement is a good thing."
     No doubt. In Canto 27, Dante has Guido da Montefeltro recount that, when he gave the false advice that consigned him to hell, he had come to that part of life when it is time to calar le vele e raccoglier le sarte — “lower the sails and coil the rope.”
    Sounds nice.
    "What a beautiful metaphor!" agrees 14th century Bolognese scholar Benvenuto da Imola, in his early commentary on The Inferno. "The mariner, who has been on a long voyage, must steer for a safe harbor where me may find rest."
    He's talking about eternal salvation, not Lake Superior. And that isn't the only view on the subject of how a man should grapple with age. There is of course Yeats, who cuts the other way. 

    "An aged man is but a paltry thing," he writes. "A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing."

    That sounds more my style. Clap hands as long as you can. Besides, I need the money.
     That is perhaps too weighty a reflection to hang on the delicate beauty of these photos. Plus I quoted those lines of Dante's in late August; repeating myself, another ominous sign. But these leaves should be the focus today. The words are just little black decorations to go beside them. Thanks Tony for sending these gorgeous pictures. 

Friday, October 18, 2019

Hope to miss class today? Guess again.

"The Watch" by Hebru Brantley

     Don’t be scared. The flat, floppy, beige thing that some adult just handed you is called a newspaper. It’s how people learned about stuff long ago, before phones. Don’t bother dragging your finger across the page—the text won’t change, and you’ll only smudge your fingertip.
     Fun fact: phones used to be called cell phones, because they communicate to a network of towers that cover hexagonal areas, or cells. The towers hand your signal off from one to the next as you move past, say, on your way to school, were you going to school. Though you may not go today because Chicago teachers and staff are on strike.
     Welcome to the Chicago Sun-Times Virtual Schoolroom. I am Mr. Steinberg, and I’ll be your teacher for the next six minutes, or until you lose interest and wander off. Though if you stick here to the end, I will share the secret to writing well.
     And yes, writing well is something you will need to do someday. Not a column in a newspaper, God knows, but maybe an email to a potential employer or a love note to a special someone. If it’s poorly written, the job or heart you seek might go to someone else.
     First, a lesson in the value of school. We are going to conduct an exercise. I’d like you to pair off—you can enlist your brother or sister if nobody else is around, or the parent who handed you this newspaper (a compound word, formed by combining “news,” from the Latin nova, or “new” and “paper,” from the Latin papyrus).
     This is why kids hate school, isn’t it? All this irrelevant information. You don’t find it cool that the term we use today, paper, echoes back to ancient Egypt, papyrus, leaping across 2,000 years in a single breath? No? Not even a little bit?
    See, this is why teachers are always pushing for more. Teaching is hard

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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Flashback 2012: Lessons from the last teachers strike

Unions join picketing teachers, Chicago, 1983
     With 30,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union now officially on strike (though the mayor's press office is calling it a "work stoppage," because that sounds better, to them, I guess). This is the first time the CTU has struck in seven years, and I've been revisiting the columns I wrote in 2012. In this column, I try to put the strike in context of past strikes.

     So what does history tell us the city of Chicago and mayor Rahm Emanuel can expect now that the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike for the first time in 25 years?
     To set the stage: Ronald Reagan was president. Our school system was a national shame—the secretary of education, William Bennett, would soon deem the Chicago Public Schools the worst in the nation—"I'm not sure there's a system as bad as the Chicago system," are the words he actually used, noting that almost half of Chicago public school teachers sent their own children to private schools.
     The strike occurred Sept. 8, 1987, exactly 25 years ago, and would end up lasting 19 days, the longest ever.
     Teachers strikes weren't the rare occurrence back then that they are today—the 1987 strike was fourth since 1980, the ninth since 1970—teachers had walked out for 15 days in 1983, for 10 days in 1984. A high school senior in 1987 would have already lost nearly 10 full weeks of school due to strikes.
     The situation was similar around the country. It was a season of walkouts—20 other teachers strikes were going on in four states at the same time, though the collective students affected in those strikes, 260,000, didn't come close to the 435,000 student who attended CPS then, about 8 percent more than today.
     The length of the strike, following the recent past strikes, finally broke the patience of Chicago's parents. Parents rebelled—they organized their own huge demonstrations, formed "freedom schools," and demanded Mayor Harold Washington resolve the situation. That was probably the biggest impact of the strike, and something Emanuel ought to bear in mind. The city will only tolerate so much.
     When the 1987 strike occurred, negotiators weren't even close. Teachers were asking for a 10 percent raise the first year, a 5 percent the second. The district was offering what was effectively a 1.7 percent wage cut.
     Union president Jacqueline Vaughn called the board's proposal "unrealistic." The board used a stronger word.
     "I am tired of raping the system to satisfy the desires of employees," said finance chairman Clark Burrus.
     As the strike dragged on, student athletes missed games, college-bound seniors predicted they'd be packing for college while still attending high school, and everyone worried about baking in un-airconditioned classrooms, which they would.
     The strike was settled on Oct. 3. The teachers agreed to a 4 percent raise in the first year, with the second-year raise contingent on funding being found somewhere. Superintendent Manford Byrd said the agreement would mean the immediate layoff of 1700 teachers and staff. Funding for the bus system was cut so severely it had trouble getting kids to school, particularly as the school year stretched far into the summer.
     Washington immediately began organizing the groundwork that would lead to massive school reform, but his untimely death on Nov. 25 removed him from the scene, an escape from political consequences that will probably not be available to Emanuel.
     Within a year, Gov. Thompson had signed a school reform law that created local school councils that gave parents a much greater say in the operation of their school.
     The last day of school in Chicago was June 30, 1988, the latest the school year had ever gone. Students and teachers suffered alike. Teachers fell ill, or quit. At Yale Elementary, 7025 S. Princeton, at the end of one sweltering day two teachers announced they weren't coming back, and they didn't. Students quit too—one class that was supposed to have 35 had only 8, by the last week.
     Yet in some important ways, not much has changed.
     In 1987, 43 percent of incoming Chicago freshmen would drop out of high school without graduating. Today's drop-out rate is 39.4 percent, the lowest it has ever been.
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 10, 2012

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

‘One Day’ — ace writer spins gold from an ordinary Sunday

     What do you do when you’re the best, the very best, at what you do? When you’re a writer who has done the hard work, enjoyed a stellar career, received the plaudits — not one but two Pulitzer Prizes.
     Where do you go from there?
     You could forgive Gene Weingarten had he, at 68,, furled his sails in some snug harbor. After all, this is the man who talked star violinist Joshua Bell into standing at a Metro station in Washington, D.C., playing his priceless Stradivarius violin for tossed coins. A mere prank in the hands of a lesser journalist, Weingarten and his colleagues at the Washington Post turned it into a meditation on values, beauty, and how we spend our limited time on this earth. That earned his first Pulitzer.  

     He is also the guy who took a story most readers can’t flee quickly enough — kids dying in hot cars — and put their parents’ heartbreak on the page, earning his second Pulitzer.
     How do you top that?
     If you are Weingarten, who has a funny as well as a serious side, you find a challenge equal parts epic and implausible. You try to do something virtuosic. “A stunt, at its heart” as Weingarten himself admits. The journalistic version of a swan dive off a tall ladder into a teacup.
     ”I set myself a goal that I wasn’t sure I could hit,” Weingarten told me.
     He drew slips of paper out of a hat, selecting a random day between 1969 and 1989 — old enough to be a challenge, recent enough to provide living witnesses. That date was turned out to be Dec. 28, 1986. Then he dug into records, interviewed 500 people, worked six years and produced a riveting collection of stories pivoting on that date: “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America” (Blue Rider: $28).

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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Strike flashback 2012: The one school stat that nobody’s discussing

    With a good possibility of Chicago's public school teachers striking this Thursday, I thought I would look back at my coverage of the 7-day 2012 strike. 
    It's very rare that I read an old piece of mine and think, "Man, that's cold." But there are moments in this column that, well, let's say they're not overflowing with sympathy. The sixth paragraph, crudely stereotyping parents of CPS students, I would certainly claw back if I could and replace with something more nuanced. It sounds almost Trumpian. Then again, I'm not paid to coo the party line, and I called it as I saw it at the time. The current drop-out rate, by the way, is about 22 percent, which either shows dramatic progress in seven years, or a skillful cooking of the numbers or, most likely, a little of both.

    If I ran a hospital where 40 percent of the patients who checked in died rather than getting better, how long would you allow me to debate the details of our doctors’ salaries, our hospital care guidelines, or specific room amenities before you raised a finger and said, “Hey, let’s talk some about that 40 percent dying part. Because that would seem far more important than whether your doctors buy their own scrubs or not.”
     That’s basically my attitude toward the spectacle of the 2012 Chicago teachers strike. Teaching is hard, and teachers deserve respect, and I am not saying that 160,000 of the current 400,000 Chicago public school students will drop out because they have lousy teachers. If I had to guess, I’d say for every student driven off by mediocre teaching — or no air conditioning, or lack of counselors — there’s another who would have been lost were it not for a great teacher. Maybe two.
     But that dropout number sits there and ticks. I’ve seen it cited as high as 44 percent; as with all statistics, there’s an amazingly wide range of opinion regarding what the true figures are and what they represent.
     Whatever the actual number, it’s been ignored lately — the only story I saw it in was mine, plus a William Bennett column quoting me (queasy company to keep, I admit). Maybe part of the game is we have to assume students want to learn, that they are coming to school to soak up good teaching. Otherwise, what’s the point of sweating all this? In light of 40 percent of students dropping out, why bother with teachers at all? Why not just hire security guards — cheaper, less training required — to keep an eye on teens as they sit in classrooms watching TV, awaiting the inevitable moment when they shrug and wander into the street to live whatever kind of life you can live without a diploma?
     There is an argument that the crux of the problem isn’t really teachers, good, bad or indifferent; it’s parents. If your parents are paying attention to you and care about your education, then you’re generally going to be fine, no matter what kind of school you go to or what caliber of teachers you find there.
     But if your mom’s a drug addict and your dad’s who knows where, then you could be set down in the front row of Freshman Success A01 at New Trier and you’d still most likely screw up, and quickly, too, because you couldn’t cope with this strange new world.
     The Sun-Times did a survey, years ago, of kindergarten teachers, one that made a huge impression on me. It asked teachers to evaluate how prepared Chicago 5-year-olds are when they arrive for the first day of school.
     There were kids who didn’t know their colors or couldn’t count to 10. Some kids didn’t know their own names, only what street tag they went by. The best teachers in the best schools in the world couldn’t help kids like that catch up, and while those were the exceptions, you can’t give teachers an impossible task and then punish them for not doing it. Which seems to be what often happens.
     The dropout rate in Chicago is about 40 percent. Any idea, any clue what the national average dropout rate is? Brace yourself for another shocking figure that isn’t seen much:
     About 30 percent. About a third, which is almost as bad as 40 percent. Something has gone very wrong in this country if we can’t get one out of three kids to finish high school.
     Public high school, that is. Private schools are an entirely different matter. The National Catholic Education Association reports a dropout rate of 0.9 percent, or a 99.1 percent graduation rate. Why the difference? Is teaching so incredible at Catholic schools that their students are kept engaged and studying, then sent off to college with a fancy diploma and a pat on the head? Perhaps.
     Or maybe any student whose parent cares enough and has the resources to get him or her into a private school is going to do well.
     The strike is going to be resolved, maybe as early as Friday. If not, then next week, or eventually. What will not get resolved — we sure haven’t resolved it yet — is the staggering failure and human potential tragedy represented by that 40 percent dropout rate.
     Why haven’t we? Because it’s hard. Because it cuts to the very core of society. Failure among Chicago public school kids is acceptable to the rest of the city and country because it’s not their kids. The dropouts don’t even look like their kids, generally.
     On the national level, we have one party pretending we all begin at the same starting line, and anyone who gets ahead deserves it, while those who fall behind can be justly ignored. But that’s simply a lie. The playing field is skewed. My kids exist in an education-rich culture where students scramble over each other to strive, to succeed, to grow and learn. While a few miles away, 40 percent of students and their parents don’t even grasp that without a high school diploma, your chances are somewhere between little and none. That problem is going to exist long after the cheer goes up and the strike is over.
                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 14, 2012

Monday, October 14, 2019

The mocking laughter of Trump’s base

     Winston Smith isn’t sure why he is writing his diary in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” For the future, he speculates, “for the unborn.”
     For whatever reason, he sits down to describe an ordinary evening at the movies:

April 4, 1984. Last night to the flicks All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him. first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water. audience shouting with laughter when he sank...
     That scene flashed into mind, watching Trump perform his repugnant fear mongering act in Minneapolis last Thursday, as he bragged:
     Since coming into office, I have reduced refugee resettlement by 85 percent. And as you know, maybe especially in Minnesota, I kept another promise. I issued an executive action, making clear that no refugees will be resettled in any city or any state without the express written consent of that city or that state. So speak to your mayor.
     He said this because the mayor of Minneapolis, like the mayor of Chicago and the mayor of any big city worthy of the name, welcomes immigrants, particularly refugees, as the essential future American citizens that they are and always have been.
     ”Consent given” tweeted Mayor Jacob Frey. “Immigrants and refugees are welcome in Minneapolis.”
     Patriotic Americans embrace immigrants not only because it’s the right thing to do, but out of self interest, because immigrants built this country. To act otherwise is as anti-American as undercutting the military or the press or the justice system—three elements of society Trump has continually attacked, trying to dim the light they shine on his betrayal of our country and all that it represents.

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Sunday, October 13, 2019


     I don't go to parties much. Some combination of my not wanting to go to parties and those who throw parties not wanting to invite me to them. Mostly the former, since I do get asked, periodically, to parties that I don't attend, since doing so requires time and effort and, as I said, as a rule I have no interest, for a variety of reasons: I don't drink, so the free booze dynamic that inspires so many is off the table. Plus the food at parties is usually less good than the food I can get on my own. Then there is the whole challenge of meeting people and, well, as a young man of my long acquaintance used to say, "People are the worst."
     But sometimes a new factor enters the equation. Like last Thursday, I put on a sports coat and headed downtown to go to the Landmark Legacy Project (Un) Gala. Yes, I am a supporter of their cause: to draw attention to LBGQT history so often overlooked, still, in schoolbooks, through their Legacy Walk pylons in Boystown and various other projects and events. Important work in a country that at times seems all too determined to shove the whole LGBQT+ cohort back into the closet. Which is impossible; the closet's too small.
    But that alone would not have prompted me to go. 
    I went because Lori F. Cannon, who was being honored with the Legacy Advocate Award, asked me to go. A force on the Chicago gay and lesbian scene since, well, forever, she's doled out millions of meals, mostly through Open Hand/Chicago.  Anyone who, among her various nicknames, has been called "The AIDS Angel" is okay in my book. But most of all, she's just one of those people that you don't say no to. At least I don't. Cowardice might be involved. Having seen her features darken with contempt a dozen times while she outlines the multitudinous personal failings of someone who has fallen from her favor and landed with a thud on her expansive enemies list, I would never want to be one of those unfortunates. Besides, she's always been a big fan of mine, and I value that in a person.
     So here I was in the Chez Event space—a clean, modern two story white cube-shaped room on East Ontario.  Lori gamely introduced me to a series of people, the majority of whom regarded me blankly or with utter incomprehension. She could have been saying, "This is Neb Steebryxzn. He's a contortionist for the Shekadence Soo-Tee." People either drifted off with a shrug or fled as if I were on fire. 
    Luckily, there was a fellow journalist whom I could compare notes with on the ever-declining state of the media—Matt Simonette, managing editor of Windy City Times, and that helped. Usually a politician is good for five minutes, and I oozed over to State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (12th) and tried to talk with her, but it didn't quite work. The conversation never gelled, and I had to retreat. My fault I'm sure. 
     Lori gave detailed, Deuteronomy-level explanations of complex relationships and community network dynamics of a score or two of people whose names and significance immediately shot past me—it was loud. I did go up and speak to the mayor's liaison to the gay community about how Lightfoot's style contrasts with Rahm's, and to someone at Rush University Medical about their gender re-assignment program. I told him I'd love to write about that, and he said he'd get back to me, and who knows, maybe he will. Anything is possible. 
      Most people were dressed in what I would call sharp business casual: smart jackets, bow ties, hats. My blue blazer with gold buttons put me on the dowdier, work-a-daddy end of the scale, but was fine for my purposes. I was perhaps the polar opposite of a young man directly in front of me as the festivities started. He stood out for his silvery jacket, silver pants tucked into black boots, and matching intricate silver hairstyle. I photographed him from the back—I prefer my subjects to be oblivious of my presence—easier all around. But, deciding that this represented a lack of fortitude on my part, I approached him and asked to take his picture. 
     He was very happy to consent, graciousness itself. He said he name was Patrik—"like the saint"— Gallineaux, and he is the LGBT manager and ambassador for Stoli vodka, one of the hosts of the evening.  That must be a sweet gig. He lives in San Francisco, and we talked about the challenges of living there—he was lucky enough to find a rent-controlled apartment, he said, entirely by accident.  I apologized for being unable to enjoy his product, though I had done more than my share in my day to reduce the  world's surplus of Stolichnaya, and brought up the current vogue for NA beverages. "A golden age of non-alcoholic cocktails" is a phrase I actually uttered, causing my old self to spin in his deepening grave.  I sung the praises of Fre non-alcoholic wine, quite the boon companion to cheese, and he either was genuinely interested, or feigned genuine interest in a practiced and convincing manner. I tried a few full-face photographs, but they didn't quite capture the glory of the man. I thanked him, and as the party began to go into full swing, figured my energies could be better spent savoring the warm, almost summer-like evening just beginning to unfold on Michigan Avenue, so thanked Lori and headed down to the street. 


Saturday, October 12, 2019

Mail call

     One of the many aspects of journalism that have been done in by the internet are letters to columnists. There isn't space to run them, and besides, anyone who still has a job as a columnist at a newspaper is too grateful to be employed to risk the "Gone Fishin'" aspect of printing readers letters.  They can hear their boss sneer, "You know, if you don't want to do your job, I can find someone who does..."
    Oh, some papers still have comments section, but those are labor intensive, requiring more effort to pluck out the obscene, the racist, the crazy and unfathomable, than was required to write the piece itself. Most publish a few carefully-culled letters to the editor and call it a day. 
     While I do take a certain lepidopterist's interest in the wackier missives, lately I really make a sincere effort to not to read them at all, to delete my Spam filter without a glance. Because reading the stuff, well, it can make a boy sad. And if you react with anything bordering on the censure they deserve, half the time they'll go shrieking to your boss, showing off the boo-boo, complaining they've been ill-used. Because nobody cries like a bully. So why bother? What's the upside? Nobody learns, nobody changes.
     Yesterday's column on Rev. Jim Wallis, and his commonsense observation that you can't follow both Jesus Christ and Donald Trump, drew more than the usual reaction. Which I was ready to ignore. But before 9 a.m. I got this, from regular reader Kevin Illia.
Neil, Good Morning! Wait for it! Wait for it! I am talking about the"Blow-Back" to your column. Please write about it. I can only imagine the type of comments you will receive. Have a Great Weekend! Kevin
   He sounded so excited. And he said "please." So I steeled myself and looked in the spam filter, and was not disappointed. The very first message,on the top of the page, was this all-caps bulletin from Robert Craig:
    Yes, a lack of statistics regarding synagogue attendance, that is the germane point here.  Is that enough? One more. Okay. Move to the next one, from Jim Courchene, who to his credit can use the shift key:
Hi Neil,

Not sure if you were able to catch the best speech ever given yesterday by your President. Just have to ask when your hatred of this great man and the millions of voters who have elected our leader and who has done so much good for our country is going to end. God bless you and hope you can tone down your hatred in the future. It has been many years that you continue to belittle and shove you hateful opinions down your Sun Times readers throat.
Have a good day and I like to see you stop such hateful writtings one day. Going to be 5 more years and I feel you may loose your sanity all together like all your violent hateful protesters that create havoc across our country.

      He's referring to the repulsive hate speech Trump gave in Minneapolis, where he bragged about turning away refugees and slurred Ilhan Omar, the congresswoman from Minneapolis who has the audacity to insist on being both Muslim and American. As a matter of fact, I did watch parts of it, sickened and thinking of Orwell's "1984," and the cinema audience cheering while the refugee boat is bombed in a newsreel. 
      There are worse—mean, vindictive, throwing the old mud—but I don't want to give them the compliment of attention, and will leave those to your imagination.       
       Happy Kevin? You no doubt see why I'm usually content to leave them in the filter, unread and answered. Why go to the trouble? And it's only fair; they never consider what I have to say—failure to evaluate the world around you is how a person ends up supporting Donald Trump. I don't expect reality to ever dawn; to move forward, our nation will have to go around them, or over them, with them wrapped around our ankles, crying all the while, they way they did for eight years while Barack Obama tried to help them get health insurance. Though frankly, that is, as Jim suggests, probably five years away, at least. This can't be easy, and if you imagine we're near the end, think again. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Trump or Jesus? Christians can’t follow both

Rev. Jim Wallis

     Many Christians pluck a line from the Bible and pretend that it is the entirety of Scripture, using the command as a club against anyone who makes them uncomfortable. Their religion is a green light from God Almighty to harass gays, plague women, and of course support Donald Trump, the living embodiment of their faith.
     “I love him so much I can hardly explain it,” said right-wing pastor and Trump adviser James Robison.
     Many echo Robison; 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.
     But there are also Christians like Rev. Jim Wallis.
     ”There is a conflict between the politics of Jesus and the politics of Trump,” Wallis said. “Racial bigotry is a deal breaker for the Gospel. White nationalism, which Donald Trump embraces and champions, isn’t just racist—it’s anti-Christ. Dehumanizing immigrants isn’t just racist—it’s anti-Christ. Demeaning women isn’t just sexist—it’s anti-Christ. At some point, Christians have to ask themselves: Are the teachings of Christ going to be followed or not?”
     Nor is Wallis alone: 90 Christian leaders joined him signing a call for this Sunday, Oct. 13, to be a National Day of Prayer “for the truth to be revealed through the impeachment inquiry.”
     ”For the sake of our nation’s integrity and the most vulnerable in our society, we call on fellow Christians to support the current impeachment inquiry,” read the statement. “Now is the time to shine the light of truth.”
     Wallis is coming to Chicago to promote his new book, “Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus” though it really is a homecoming.


To continue reading, click here.

Blog header: Christ as the Man of Sorrows with the Symbols of the Passion, circa 14th century, from the San Pietro Martine conservatory in Florence.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Isn't that the bird that rises from the ashes?


    What the public remembers and what actually happened can be two very different things.
    When I wrote Monday's column about the former Museum of Science and Industry renaming itself in honor of billionaire Ken Griffin, in return for $125 million, I focused on the futility of naming institutions after oneself, grasping at the will-o-wisp of mortality that eludes you no matter how many plaques are forged. I didn't raise the issue of whether Griffin is a good or bad guy because, frankly, I didn't know. While you typically can't go wrong assuming a rich guy is also a selfish jerk, there are exceptions, and I had plenty to chew on without considering that aspect.
     That didn't keep readers from weighing in, some damning him for ego, others lauding him because he did a generous thing. And then there was this:
Dear Neil, in your column about Ken Griffin's largesse in donating a small part of his vast fortune to the Museum of Science and Industry in order to preserve his legacy you neglected to mention how he fought his wife tooth and nail in Court in order to deprive her of maintenance and child support for herself and their children. Poor thing—he could hardly afford to be a gentleman not to mention a good provider for his family. Now he is trying to rehabilitate his tarnished image. No good. Ken. You are a cad and always will be. Print this, Neil. Mary Lusak. P.S. I think the Museum of Science and Industry is a big bore too

     Normally her curt "Print this, Neil" would have turned me off. I am not a short-order cook. I don't take orders. But that did spark a hazy recollection: something about child support. Did I overlook a significant aspect to this story? Endowing a museum while his own children sell matches in the street? If that is the situation, then elaboration is called for. 
     But it wasn't. Griffin and his wife, Anne Dias Griffin, divorced in 2015. Support was never the issue, since she was already rich herself, having started a hedge fund before meeting Griffin, and had already received $40 million from him. What flashed in the public eye, and my reader was recalling, though distorted, if not completely inverted, was that Griffin's soon-to-be ex-wife was asking for $1 million a month in child support for their three children, a figure which included $300,000 for private jets, $160,000 for vacations and $2,000 for stationery.
    So the issue was never milk for the baby. Besides, this all got worked out, the divorce settlement was agreed upon and the matter was covered in brown paper and rushed from public view. Though it says something about the power of negative suggestion that Griffin was tarred as a deadbeat, when in reality he was balking at paying $7,200 a month for restaurant bills. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Flash: Lindsey Graham shows signs of spine!

Could Lindsey Graham have found one of these?
     Slavery is bad. I think we can all agree on that. We don’t want to be slaves.
     Yes, when referring to the slavery of others, consensus breaks down. I haven’t seen a group of GOP senators put on burnt cork and break into a rousing chorus of “Swanee” (”HOW I love ya, HOW I love ya, my ... dear old ... Swanee!”) marching vigorously in place, knees and white-gloved fists pumping.
     But that wouldn’t surprise me either. At this point, nothing should surprise anyone, even though it does. “I, in my great and unmatched wisdom,” the president tweeted Monday. Golly. How could you not be surprised? Who would want to live in a world where that was accepted with a shrug?
     Don’t answer.
     Maybe I assume too much. Just as I could not imagine anyone defending the prospect of living in chains, so I would not have previously thought it possible to defend inviting other countries to jump into the American electoral system.
     But there was our president and his Dick Tracy rogue’s gallery of supporters, first denying Russia’s obvious undermining of the 2016 elections, then lining up to rationalize his pressuring Ukrainian officials to join the Republican National Committee and start digging up dirt on Joe Biden, his most prominent opponent in the 2020 election.
     That is the Usual Bad News, the permanent fog of corruption that this week was cut by a flash of hope: prominent Trump sycophant Lindsey Graham at long last objecting to something, even though Donald Trump did it.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Flashback 2012: Hedy and Mort, a match meant to be

     Longtime Chicago media maven Mort Kaplan—he was known for guiding the campaigns of Paul Douglas, Dan Walker, Alan Dixon, among many others—died Friday and was buried Monday. Getting in line before the funeral to express my condolences to his signifiant other, Hedy Ratner, I checked out the crowd, and noticed Christie Hefner, who smiled and gestured toward the front of the room. There was the column below, blown up and displayed on an easel. A person forgets, doing this three times a week, how important it can be to others, and I felt honored to be included among the framed family photos and the flowers. Mort drew a good house, I should note, standing room only, with a solid smattering of the well-known—not only Christie, but Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, sitting front and center with personal finance columnist Terry Savage. I took a seat next to Elaine Soloway, the former Jane Byrne press aid whose ex-husband was the model for the transgendered main character in Amazon's "Transparent." My former boss Joyce Winnecke was a few rows back, as well as a variety of PR sorts—Rick Jasculca, who spoke, and his partner Jim Terman, and no doubt others I didn't see or didn't recognize. 

     Once upon a time, a couple fell in love and decided to get married, even though 44 years passed between the falling in love part and the getting married part. In a magical kingdom called Chicago . . .
     Aw hell, it’s Hedy Ratner and Mort Kaplan, and if you know them — and everybody seems to (“Everyone knows Hedy,” agreed Mayor Rahm Emanuel) — then you know the standard conventions of romance go out the window. Both have such strong personalities, they not only do things that most people never do, but they do things that most people never even think of doing.
     Such as?
     Such as going out to dinner at two different restaurants, so Mort can dine at one (steak) and Hedy can dine at another (salad).
     Such as dating for four decades, off and on, and then celebrating her 70th birthday last year by gathering 120 friends at a hotel “to attend a surprise ceremony,” the invitation read. The couple greeted their guests in regular clothes, then slipped away and re-entered the room, she in a white bridal gown and veil, he in a white tux, standing before clergy, exchanging vows but not getting married, to the shock of everyone gathered there.
     “I am obliged to pronounce you status and quo,” deadpanned Rabbi Aaron Freeman.
     Or, in some ways the capper, this Sunday evening at Orchestra Hall when, in defiance of all expectation, Hedy and Mort will really, truly tie the knot. Or so they claim . . .
     “This is a story about bashert,” said Hedy, slipping into Yiddish. “Bashert is fate, it’s destiny. It was truly destined. Four decades ago, Mort and I met. It was love at first sight and it’s been this wild ride ever since, a stormy fabulous relationship. We’d split up, then come back together and then split up. We probably did that a dozen times. Finally, 20 years ago, we decided we should be together.”
     That’s her side. What about Mort’s side?
     “I don’t know if I have a side,” he laughed, a nod at Hedy’s big personality. “We’ve been on a magic carpet ride for four decades.”
     Or is he being modest? He did, after all, once put up a billboard at the corner of Chicago and State declaring his love: “To Hedy: A parfait in a world of pound cake, Mort.”
     Hedy was born in Chicago, went to nine colleges, earned five degrees, got married twice, plunged into the women’s movement in the 1970s, is founder and co-president of the Women’s Business Development Center.
     Mort, a graduate of DePaul, served in the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps during the Korean War. He ran a big PR business, Morton H. Kaplan & Associates — it was his idea to have Dan Walker walk across Illinois while running for governor — was first chairman of the Illinois Arts Alliance, became professor emeritus at Columbia College. He got married, had three daughters.
     Mort, I don’t know well. Hedy, I’ve spent countless hours sitting across from in editorial board rooms. Petite, curly blonde hair, when she stopped by my office last week, she rode her bike — she rides a lot — in a gray silk dress, wearing a large purplish flowing shawl, a mother of pearl necklace and a teardrop diamond pendant. She showed off her engagement ring the way Betty Boop would — arm straight out, hand at eye level, bent down at the wrist, fingers splayed. When I marveled over how she could bike in that outfit, she lifted up her dress with both hands to reveal hot pink bike shorts.
     Last year’s faux wedding began as a party.
     “I wanted to do something really spectacular,” she said. “We always do parties, everyone expects that from us. So last year we sent out invitations celebrating my birthday. We never explained. We did a fake wedding.”
     That was a joke. Now it’s serious. So what changed in a year?
     “A couple of things,” said Mort. “I had a stroke in January, and something happened in that period that I did not like. She wanted to get a prescription filled, and one doctor said, ‘Who are you? You’re the girlfriend.’ And I said, ‘She’s not the girlfriend!’ She was the quarterback of my recovery. She pushed me and pushed me.”
     “I told him . . .” Hedy said, “ ‘I want my Mort back.” ’ So much so that she — and if you know her, this is the most incredible part — proposed to him, down on her knees.
     “I said, ‘I want to think about it,’ ” laughed Mort, who eventually said yes. “It just seemed like it was time. A lawyer friend told me there are a lot of benefits, later in life.”
     The purple print on the outside of the invitation reads, “This time it’s for real.” Not to quibble, but I would have said “this time it’s official.” It seems as if it’s always been for real.
     “It’s like we’re young lovers,” Hedy said. “He’s going to be 81, I’m going to be 71, and we still, we never stop talking, we never stop laughing. Our lives are filled with Yiddishkeit [Jewish culture], politics, culture, art, music, theater. But mostly laughter.”
“I don’t know if you’ve heard the term bashert,” said Mort. “This is bashert.
                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 29, 2012

Monday, October 7, 2019

Someday Ken Griffin will be as famous as Daniel Cook

     There were only a few protesters. Clumped together on the sidewalk outside Macy’s on State Street, holding signs that read, in essence, “Save Marshall Field’s!” Not the store — it had already been sold, lock, stock and Frango mints. But the name. They were protesting the new owners changing the store’s name to Macy’s.
     And in that single moment, any sympathy I might have had for their cause drained away. I could practically feel it pooling at my feet. I’m as nostalgic as the next guy, if not more so. But with all the wrongs in the world, to wake up, lace up your sneakers, paint signs, go downtown and stand in the street to protest the subtraction of one sequin from the little nostalgic tapestry shimmering at the back of your mind, well, it’s almost obscene, right?
     After that, I became an immediate adaptor of name changes. Guaranteed Rate Field? Sure! Willis Tower? You betcha! There is no John Hancock Building — it’s “875 North Michigan Avenue,” now, thank you very much.
     So when the Museum of Science and Industry — make that the former Museum of Science and Industry — announced it will henceforth be known as the “Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science and Industry” thanks to an infusion of $125 million from the richest man in Illinois, I smiled and thought, “Great!”
     Nor am I alone.
     ”Griffin is donating $125 MILLION dollars to the museum,” Gail Torkilsen commented after a story about the change. “Nice. No one should be upset. Thanks Mr. Griffin for your gift. I’m proud of you.”

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

‘Code yellow: Trauma in the emergency room’

Mount Sinai medical personnel treat a stabbing victim (Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia)
     In July, I read a story in the Sun-Times mentioning that the emergency department at Mount Sinai was "on bypass," meaning that trauma cases had to go to other hospitals. "They must be really busy," I thought, phoning the hospital and inviting myself to visit the ER. At first Mount Sinai's spokesman balked, citing patient privacy, HIPAA laws, the usual reasons. "That's a shame..." I mused, or words to that effect, "because what you do is important. And wouldn't it be nice if more people knew about it..." That started an email  conversation that led to this story. Kudos to Mount Sinai's Dan Regan, who eventually said "yes," trusted us, and stood uncomplaining for eight hours while Ashlee Rezin Garcia and myself collected the words and photographs for this story. Thanks to all the professionals at Mount Sinai who opened up to us or at least tolerated our presence, particularly to Raquel Prendkowski, whose candor and leadership made this more than a description of medical procedures. Thanks to Ashlee—a true professional and a pleasure to work with. Thanks as well to John O'Neill, Paul Saltzman and everyone else at the paper who helped make this pop on the Sun-Times site—wait until you see it.

     “What is your name? Can you tell me your name?”
     The first question that people are asked as they are rushed into the emergency room at Mount Sinai Hospital is a ploy. The nurses and doctors hovering alongside the rolling gurney aren’t really interested in that. Not now, with life potentially hanging in the balance. Besides, they probably could get the person’s name from a wallet in the bloody clothes being stripped or cut away.  

     What they really want is to prompt the patient to speak, or try to.
     If they can, “That tells us they’re breathing fine and their lung sounds are clear because they can talk to us,” said Raquel Prendkowski, emergency department director for Sinai Health System. “We want to see if they’re audible.”
     Marco Munoz, brought in on a recent warm Tuesday night, can mumble his name. But his left lung is not clear thanks to the knife plunged into his chest 15 minutes earlier in K-Town.

To continue reading, click here.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Strike Flashback 2012: A strike is a stain that never washes off

Storytelling class, Thomas Chalmers Public School
    The Chicago Teachers Union set a strike date for Oct. 17. Instantly I wondered about the last strike, in 2012, and figured I'd better glance at how I covered it. The circumstances that brought about this pre-strike column are worth mentioning: Rahm's press secretary Tarrah Cooper drove me to this school and ordered me to look around, so I could see what was at stake. I knew I was being played, but couldn't help writing about a school I'd never been to. It also shows the difference between Rahm's aggressive approach toward the media, at least at first, and Lori Lightfoot's more laissez faire attitude. While I haven't quite given up on her, I've never heard from her press folks either and don't expect to. Perhaps that is a commentary on how the status of the newspaper has degraded in seven years. Or perhaps the Lightfoot team is not on its game.

     Banners from colleges—Harvard and Michigan State, Howard and Yale—hang from the ceiling in the second floor common corridor at the Chicago Vocational Career Academy on East 87th Street. The idea is that every day, as they come and go, students will see the goal— college— above their heads but not out of their reach.
     "We have 300 new freshmen coming in, so we're really proud," said Principal Douglas Maclin, showing off a new culinary arts center. "Last year we only had 134, so with the new STEM program"—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, pairing the school with a business partner, in CVCA's case, Motorola—"we nearly tripled our enrollment."
     More than 400,000 students attend Chicago Public Schools, a number difficult to really grasp. If our school system were a city, it would be bigger than Miami.
     That city may—or may not—be plunged into disarray on Monday, when the Chicago Teachers Union is set to strike. That's why I was at CVCA, a last minute push by the administration to try to illustrate what is at stake here.
     It's a compelling argument—the school year just started, the students are learning.
     Of course, others would also be deeply affected by a strike. I count four groups and one person with a lot to lose here. There are the students, of course, who began school Tuesday with a lengthened day and other improvements, such as STEM magnet schools that offer community college degrees—Chicago has five such schools; I visited another, the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, so brand new they haven't put up a sign yet.
     There are the teachers, led by their fiery president, Karen Lewis, who passionately points out, and not without cause, that all these advances are also demands—a longer workday, longer work year, without either input from them or a comparable raise in pay.
     There are the parents, who not only want their kids studying but, in many neighborhoods, want them off the street, out of harm's way, and in case of a strike the board and many churches are trying to give them safe places to go.
     Fourth, there is the city, its reputation already flecked with blood because of the murderous summer of 2012, or at least by the media's reaction to it. A city that strikes is not a City that Works. It's never a good thing.
     Which leads to the person, Rahm Emanuel, who wants to avoid a strike, not just because it's bad for students, bad for teachers, bad for parents and bad for the city, but—and he would never admit this, but it has to be true—it would be bad for him, for his reputation. A strike is a stain that never washes off. It could be resolved in an hour and it would still be a strike on his watch. Tap a Chicagoan on the shoulder and ask for a salient fact about the Jane Byrne administration, and after a mention of camping at Cabrini Green, they'll say "school strike" (or "transit strike" or "firefighter strike.") Nobody forgets strikes.
     I'm a good union man, and understand the value of a strike threat. It's designed to extract every dime that tight-wad bosses are willing to pay to have employees keep working. Done right, a strike is a real possibility that's about to happen, really and truly, with picket signs printed and employees in their hats and coats at the door, eyes on the clock. Then it doesn't happen—the clock stops at midnight for the Come-to-Jesus moment, the deal is struck, handshakes all around, the news goes out, a cheer goes up, workers and bosses are grimly satisfied that they got the best deal they could, and everybody lurches onward.
     A strike should be like "Waiting for Godot"—everyone talks about him but he never shows up and then the play ends. A strike that actually occurs means failure. Someone didn't follow the script. Maybe the mayor overplayed his part. Maybe Lewis really does want to pull that pin on the strike grenade, on general principles. Or maybe—I suspect this—she's a better actor than she lets on.
     The longer school day is undeniably a good thing—getting paid more would be nice, but as someone who hasn't gotten a raise in years, I'm one of the many wondering what planet teachers live on. I live on Planet Glad to Have a Job. While I don't want to be suckered by a couple showcase schools, the energy and effort I saw there are undeniable.
     "I really want to be valedictorian," said Kayla Kopplin, 17, a CVCA senior. I popped into Honors Algebra 1, to watch freshmen taking a diagnostic test involving a mosquito who flew 0.6 miles and then had to stop.
     "We did a thinking problem before that—normally I'd have to go straight to test time, and I would have nothing else other than test time," said Megan Payne, a 6-year CPS veteran teacher. "So the extra time allows me to actually get something in that is engaging and talking and the kids are working."
     She has a stoical view about Monday.
     "For me, whatever's going to happen . . . " she said, pausing, "it's going to happen. I'd rather be here in the classroom with the kids."
     I suspect most people feel that way.
                                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times Sept. 9, 2012

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Economist fights for freedom in Chicago

Zanny Minton Beddoes 
     Forbes magazine listed her among its 100 “World’s Most Powerful Women.” A graduate of Harvard and Oxford and, since 2014, the first female editor-in-chief of The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes is in Chicago to host the Open Future Festival, “a global summit on the role of markets, technology and freedom in the 21st century” this Saturday at Union Station.
     Though when we spoke, I put a different spin on it.
     ”A day of speeches in a train station...” I ventured. “That sounds very 19th century in this social media age. What do you hope to accomplish?”
     ”I hope it’s 19th century married to 21st century,” she replied, noting that the event will be Livestreamed and posted to YouTube. “We were founded in 1843 and started the first Open Futures Festival marking our 175th anniversary. We wanted to have a chance to re-make the case for open society and open markets. We want to do it by engaging in a global conversation with both supporters of our world view and our critics.”
     Speakers range from Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to Ryan Fournier, co-founder of Students for Trump. From Bhaskar Sunkara, author of The Socialist Manifesto, to Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman who survived an assassination attempt in 2011 and is now a gun control advocate.
     ”It’s important to get different people of different ages in a room together to discuss the future of technology, capitalism, free speech and identity politics,” Minton Beddoes said. “We want to engender the discussion.”
     What discussion? It seems discussion is the one thing that isn’t happening in society today. 
Everyone alternates between digging their own ideological trench a little deeper and lobbing shells at anyone who isn't exactly like their own precious selves.
     "I think there are some people who are looking for new solutions, who are debating," Minton Beddoes said. "There is an awful lot of polarization, a lot of people in their own echo chambers shouting at the opposition. That's really who we are trying to address."
     She tries to hear all sides.
    "Whenever I come to this country, I force myself to watching MSNBC for 15 minutes, and Fox for 15 minutes. It's not very fun."
     I almost interrupted her with, "I couldn't do that if you put a gun to my head," but kept quiet.
     "It gives me a window into the polarized nature of this country. It's very striking," she said. "I left in 2014, and it's much more polarized. Two different sets of people having two different conversations with very little willingness to reach across and have an intellectual debate."

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