Saturday, November 30, 2019

‘My name is Bryce Weiler’ — blind broadcaster helps teams to see the disabled


 Bryce Weiler talking to the Arkansas State women's basketball team.


     The Arkansas State’s women’s basketball team has had a long day: the 70-mile drive from Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Memphis, Tennessee. The flight to O’Hare. The journey downtown. Now they are on the second floor of Giordano’s on Rush, waiting to try that institution’s notion of the famed Chicago deep-dish pizza.
     But first-year coach Matt Daniel has one more hurdle for his Red Wolves.
     ‘‘I didn’t tell my kids at all. I wanted it to be a surprise,” Daniel says. “I wanted to catch them off guard.”
     The surprise is his dinner guest, a 28-year-old man from Downstate.
     ‘‘Everybody listen,” says Daniel, standing up. “This is Bryce. Bryce is a friend of Coach D’s. He’s also going to do radio tomorrow with Mr. Merritt. He has an interesting story about his background. Listen to what he’s saying, OK?”
     ‘‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” the young man begins, speaking over the clatter of the busy restaurant, his shoulders hunched, arms straight down at his sides. “My name is Bryce Weiler. I was born four months premature. I was born at one pound, two ounces. Being born at such a small weight, doctors first thought that I wasn’t going to be able to survive at such a small weight. But after they realized I was a fighter, they decided to . . .”
     His friend Maggie Walsh silently steps behind him, takes him gently by the shoulders and repositions Weiler two steps to the right.
     ‘‘. . . They were going to do whatever they could do to try to save me. I became blind, maybe too much light, maybe too much oxygen, caused the retinas to detach.”
     The team listens attentively, even as the spaghetti course arrives, prelude to the cheese tire that Giordano’s considers deep-dish pizza. When Weiler asks for volunteers to try his collapsible white cane, two players leap up.
     Blind sports fans are not unknown — Craig Lynch was a blind Cubs fan who ended up reporting from the press box for 30 years. Others are scattered across the country. 


To continue reading, click here.

Bryce Weiler, right, and Keith Merritt broadcast a DePaul-Arkansas State women's basketball game.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Flashback 2007: A boy's best friend; Drew's mother might not know best when it comes to his guilt or innocence

     Need a Day-After-Thanksgiving lift? An overcast November Friday pick-me-up? Here you go: Drew Peterson is both forgotten and still in prison. Remember when it seemed like the newspaper couldn't publish an edition without the spouse-slaying suburban cop's fat florid mug all over the front page? Ah, good times. I happened upon this old column with a poignant, post-Thanksgiving Chicago scene and, rather than just run the item, I thought I would give the entire page-spanning epic, just in case you've got time to kill today. while your body tries to digest the offense committed against nature yesterday. Remember Michelle Shocked's words of wisdom: "Except for the holidays, it's a fine time of year."

OPENING SHOT . . .

     Once I found myself on a ship, sailing to Martinique, chatting with the South African golfer Gary Player. He seemed an affable fellow, and so I was emboldened to ask him how he could go around the world representing his country's vile apartheid system. Player's answer stuck with me: "Nobody ever asked Arnold Palmer how he could be an American golfer with the Vietnam War going on."
     Good point—you can belong to something, take pride in it, and yet not be personally responsible for its every flaw. Sort of my reaction when readers challenge me about a particular aspect of this newspaper. I tell them that I don't run it, and that my ability to influence its decisions is pretty much limited to writing this column.
     Take Tuesday's front-page expose on Drew Peterson's mom, Betty, who—stop the presses—is not only certain that her boy is innocent of any misdeed, but felt moved to lecture the putative victim that she's ashamed of her for causing this mess for her dear son.
     "I could swear on a Bible that he would never hurt anyone at any time," she added.
     Is that not the classic lamentation of the mom of the accused? Is there a felon in prison today whose mother isn't convinced he's not guilty? Peterson's mother being certain of his innocence is not only not front-page material, but instead is completely without any significance whatsoever. God bless mothers everywhere, but their opinions on the guilt or innocence of their offspring must be taken, not with a grain of salt, but with the entire jumbo blue canister tucked under the arm of the Morton Salt girl.

Not that anybody asked me.


     The per capita quota of purple-hooded jackets, pink backpacks, and sippy cups shot up in the Loop this week, as the annual Children's Crusade hits downtown, a juvenile tsunami created by the combination of Thanksgiving break, the beginning of the holiday season, and early onset cabin fever.
     There were six children on my train car this morning, and I slid into the open seat behind a mother and daughter—the seats around children on Metra trains are invariably vacant, as my fellow commuters cringe in disgust away from the prospect of their reverie on charts projecting market data for flummox couplings in fiscal 2011 being perchance interrupted by a childish squeal of glee.
     I always flop gratefully into those empty seats. Because I have been annealed through the furnace of my own two boys, and enjoy nothing better than to park behind some toddler and her escort and wait, patiently, until she inevitably sends up a wail, and her haggard parent, trying in vain to quiet the tot, eventually looks up with that tentative expression of entreaty, her curiosity over how her offspring's fit is going over on those nearby overwhelming reluctance to perceive the newspaper-ruffling tut-tutting of the heartless commuters. At that moment I like to smile sympathetically and say, "Been there." (Dante says half of heaven is made up of Jews; this is how they get there.)
     The girl in the seat in front of me wasn't crying, but sat on her mother's lap, perfectly composed, taking in her surroundings with huge blue eyes that matched the blue bow in her hair and were a shade darker than her blue cable knit sweater and whale-studded dress.
     "This is your first time on a train," her mother asked. "How do you like it?"
     "It's so beautiful," said the girl, flapping her hands in all directions, as if to take in the entire car. Then her attention shifted to her mother, and she flapped her hands at her.
     "But you're more beautiful," she said.

Kids at church

     Going south on Des Plaines Street in Ed McElroy's Cadillac, the Great Chicagoan himself at the wheel. The rococo splendor of Old St. Patrick's Church looms to the right.
     "The oldest church in Chicago," says Ed, of the structure, completed in 1856. "And the prettiest. Ever been inside?"
     I think for a moment.
     "Steve Neal's funeral," I say.
     "Right," says Ed. "I was there. I gave you a lift."
     A red light at Adams. I turn to look at the church, batting away somber memories. At that moment, the front doors of the church fly open and children -- boys and girls, about 5 or 6 years old -- pour down the steps. They are in uniform, white shirts, blue pants or dresses, some in scarlet jackets. The boys are wearing paper Pilgrim hats, with the big buckle on them, the girls, more demure folded blue caps. There are a lot of them -- it's Grandparent's Day at Old St. Pat's -- 600 kids from Frances Xavier Warde School, attended by 400 admiring grandparents.
     The new priest, Father Tom Hurley, takes his position on the sidewalk, resplendent in his cream-colored robes with colorful embroidered trim, nodding and smiling. But it's hard to even look at adults with so many bright, boisterous children, each face aglow with a look that can easily be translated as "Thanksgiving!!!" as they are shepherded toward the buses.
     "They don't know what's ahead of them," says McElroy, 82. Now there are several ways to interpret that statement, but I detect a touch more somberness than I'm used to from the glib speechmaker and master of ceremonies, and so I take it to mean: Life hits you upside the head like a sap filled with lead shot.
     "Well," I say, unexpectedly sallying to the defense of the future. "There'll be good things, too."
     The light changes. We take a right on Adams, and head toward Carmichael's and lunch.

Today's chuckle
     We need a sour sorbet to get all that child-induced sweetness off our palates. This is from Kathleen Madigan:
     Kids? It's like living with homeless people. They're cute but they just chase you around all day long going, "Can I have a dollar? I'm missing a shoe! I need a ride!"

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 21, 2007 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Candor is a privilege



     Aunt Marsha and her daughters won't be at our Thanksgiving this year. They're from the New York branch of the family, have never come to visit and never will. Too good for us, I suppose.

     But if they were there, or we there, I would not delve into their support of Donald Trump, which I learned about from my mother. "Hey Aunt Marsha, you're an idiot carrying water for a traitor" does not seem something that the hospitable host would say, particularly not to an aged relative. I don't even say that to strangers, not much, not anymore.  Why bother? If they were open to suasion, they wouldn't believe as they do. No need to descend into abuse; they're better at it. They have more practice.
     This simple truth seems not to be so easy for people to grasp, based on the number of articles in what was once called the popular press—and now is what? The unpopular press?—on how to talk about the Trump enormity over the holiday table.
    Here's a thought: don't.  Not to offend my colleagues in the news trade, but why? Candor is a privilege, not a right. I have to respect you to spend time birddogging your errors. So if you are lost in some delusion: astrology, religion, an unmerited faith in con men and traitors like-oh-for-instance-Donald-Trump, I will not take your hand and try to lead you away from your folly. Why bother? You're lost, and if it were in my power to guide you out, I would. But I can't. It would only upset you and annoy me, like the old joke about teaching pigs to sing ("Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.")
     Sure, it's annoying for some loudmouth uncle to channel whatever psycho-fucking-bullshit was featured last night on Fox News. It can be difficult, I imagine.  But not as difficult as snapping at the bait. Because that's what those opinions are: traps, dug for anyone careless enough to fall in. That's what most of the Trump dynamic is about: finding someone to abuse and bully so you can feel better about yourself. 
      Let me tell you a trade secret: there's no need to play along. You can completely ignore the mean, the crazy, the ignorant. Let them find their victims elsewhere. I have a spam filter filled with harsh people talking to themselves, like lunatics sitting in windowless cells, howling, gabbering to the wall. You know when I read their emails? Never. Almost never. Only if I'm stumped and want to reach in and find something stupid to set upon a plinth for people to laugh at.  My eyes don't fall on one in 50.
     This might hurt their feelings. Boo fuckin' hoo.They might feel neglected. I wouldn't know. They might complain. No doubt they will complain, that I'm just too timid to behold the wonder of their magnificent truths. That's fine. Let 'em complain. I won't read those either. Because between the frictionless malice of social media and the validation for caustic lunacy that comes with Donald Trump, we find ourselves in a Carnival of the Mean and Dumb. But just because they're dancing doesn't mean we have to clap. Time is finite; don't waste it on fools.
     You have to protect your boundaries, to not let the poison in. 
     Not a very Thanksgiving-like sentiment, I know, and I'm sorry. The truth is, I had a full, fun day Wednesday, finishing up a special, double-length sports column for Saturday, then picking the boys up at the airport, collecting my parents and hanging around, having fun, going out to a festive Greek dinner. Conversation ranged from whether a contract carries extra weight because it's written in blood (no, there's case law; California, naturally) to what kinds of soup would make good names for children (Chowder for a boy, Jambalaya for a girl) to who Sloopy is in the song and why she needs to hang on. Nobody was mean. Nobody was stupid. Everybody played nice together like a string quartet. Thursday is one of my favorite days: Thanksgiving, starting with me whipping up stuffing for 27 guests. I hope you have an enjoyable one, and thank you for reading this past year. I hope you are not saddled with a crazy, mean person, or are that sort of person yourself. If you are, and you're reading this, and since I am in essence a hopeful man, I will observe that just because everyone is staring into their plates as you prattle on doesn't mean they are awed by your eloquence. Perhaps some reflection is in order if only you could, you know, do that sort of thing.  



     

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Students give thanks for America and Sullivan High

Melak Alhajmani, 16, (far left) a junior from Iraq, smiles at Oyinea Alonge, 17, from Nigeria, while students give thanks during Sullivan High School’s third Thanksgiving celebration.


     Before tucking into dinner at Sullivan High School’s Thanksgiving celebration last week, Sarah Quintenz, leader of the Rogers Park school’s International Academy, asked the 180 participants — students, teachers, alumni, guests from the community — to stand, hold hands, and give thanks.
     She started us off in English.
     ”For food, for raiment, for life, for opportunity, for friendship and fellowship, we thank thee O Lord,” said Quintenz. “Bless the cook and bless the dishwasher.”
     That drew a chuckle from the kids, whom she then asked to give thanks, each in their own native language. 
Chance Uwera, 16, left, and Josiane Irafasha, 19,
     ”Iman ihey umah dishey ... ” Chance Uwera, 16 began at our table. Next was Josiane Irafasha, 19, both speaking in Kinyarwanda, one of four official languages of Rwanda.
     ”Thanks, for having a life,” translated Uwera. “God bless everyone who’s here and in the whole world.”
     A world well-represented among the 650 students attending Sullivan, long a magnet for immigrants.
     ”Sullivan’s probably one of the most diverse schools in the city of Chicago,” said principal Chad Thomas. “We have kids from all over the world — over 40 languages spoken here.”
     In 2017, partly in reaction to growing anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States, Sullivan decided to hold a school Thanksgiving. Among those celebrating their first Thanksgiving dinner last week was Shahin Keliby, who thanked her parents and “the American government.”
     ”They allowed us in and we are here,” said the senior, 18, a Muslim from Burma. “Three years and two months.”
     The event, organized by the Friends of Sullivan, reflects the diverse face of our country’s future.

To continue reading, click here. 

Shahin Keliby, came to the United States from Burma "three years and two months" ago.




Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Puzzling socks, weird toys, and other perils of being generous



     Sunday morning, kitchen. The husband making coffee. The wife sorting a stack of mail into two piles, pitch and pay. She mentions Northbrook has a program where anyone over age 55 gets $5 off a cab ride.
     I make a face. Is that really intended for us? Are we not above that?
     “Every five dollars counts!” she decrees, briskly moving to the next letter.
     Do I want to give to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism?
     “No.” (The “Let-them-nuzzle-the-Tribune’s-ass-on-somebody-else’s-dime” is unvoiced.)
     The Anti-Cruelty Society?
     “Are we forgiving them for Vronsky?” I ask. A beloved cat we rescued from their clutches. “They wanted to kill him.”
     “I give every year,” she says. Asking my opinion is, apparently, more symbolic than functional.
     As I’m escaping upstairs she calls after me.
     “And do that Santa, presents-for-kids program this year without grumbling.”
     I freeze, wounded.
     “I always grumble. It’s a holiday tradition.”
     ”No need to put on a curmudgeon act.”
     “It’s not an act.”
     “You’re sweetness itself ...”
     No sane husband is going to argue with that. OK. Fine. When stacks of children’s letters appear in the lobby of the Sun-Times, I do something unprecedented: march over and grab the first letter off the pile. None of the usual careful sifting, trying to ID the tot requesting easy-to-find, inexpensive presents. I will bring joy to ... a 6-year-old boy.
     His letter begins:


To continue reading, click here.


Monday, November 25, 2019

Friendly dogs

   

      Have I mentioned that my dog made a friend? It's true. Sarah from up the block. Or Sara from up the block, no "h" at the end. Not premeditating writing about her before this moment, I haven't yet bothered to check whether she uses that final, optional "h."
     The dog doesn't care of course. The owner might. But I'm not ready for the owner, whom I'm still on nodding terms with, to be introduced to the anything-that-happens-between-us-could-end-up-splashed-online-and-maybe-in-the-newspaper-too aspect of being acquainted with me. Could be off-putting.
     So "Sarah," for the time being.
     We seem to be on the same schedule, this neighbor and myself. Almost every morning and many afternoons Kitty and Sarah joyously greet one another, their tails going like metronomes, sniffing mightily, circling like wrestlers, sizing each other up, near mirror images of each other, while her owner and myself gaze at the sky and do our own measured, polite verbal sniffing, mostly about the weather.
     Hey wait a second, you might be wondering about now. Why are we reading about my dog and not a post on the topic that was promised yesterday?
     Allow me to explain.
     Sometimes, when I'm telling the subject of a story what day it will run, I will pause and remember to add a caveat.
      "Unless the Willis Tower topples over."
      Meaning, this is the news business, or what's left of it, and something could happen between now and then to nudge your story aside.
      But Sunday, when I wrote that today's column would be about our Letters to Santa program and the ordeal of buying toys for a tot, I overlooked my own policy of caution, forgetting that a) The paper might not want to run Letters to Santa columns two days in a row, no doubt to obscure the sharp fall-off in quality and emotional intelligence between Mark Brown's adult take on the subject and my own juvenile maunderings and b) More pressing news might push a topic like the week's second Letters to Santa column out of the paper.
     Or both, as I was told by my editor, and I chose to believe him. I suppose I could have gone all Jay Mariotti on the man and insisted that Monday is my day, goddamnit, and if they don't want one particular column—a column that they themselves asked for!—why then I'll just sit down and write another column, about a different topic! Because if you are not in the paper, you might as well be dead. There's always Donald Trump, always some jaw-dropping departure from cherished norms, such as... checking his Twitter feed ... nope, I stand corrected. Just dozens and dozens of tweets and retweets that it seems a painful waste of precious human existence even to read once, never mind write about, including five retweets of something calling itself Buck Sexton, maintaining his innocence, his popularity, his support. Dull as dirt.
     Honestly, I'd rather stick with the two friendly dogs. The president will still be crazy tomorrow. The secretary of the Navy resigning is a big deal, yes, a sign of the crazymaking dysfunction radiating out from putting a bad man in a high place. But that deserves a column all its own, on the relationship between being doing a good job and being willing to quit it.
     So no column in the paper Monday, and since I make a rule never to scoop myself here by running a column before it goes online, you'll just have to wait until Tuesday too.
     Which leaves us ... where?
     Oh right, dogs.  I can't communicate how glad I am that Sarah's owner recognizes and values the bond of affection growing between our two dogs as much as I do. Other dog owners ... treading carefully here ... well, let's just say they do not seem to grasp the importance of small social interactions, whether between dogs or humans. The dogs sniff, the humans chat, it's a beautiful thing. You walk away with a brighter view of the world. To me. And to Sarah's dad. To others, they are far too busy and important, in their own perception if nowhere else, to waste their time in such a fashion. They see us a block a way and flee. Seriously. Vector off 90 degrees in the opposite direction. Kitty strains in their direction, seems a little puzzled to see them fly away, and strains toward them. I lean down, give her a comforting pat, and say in what I hope is a voice just loud enough to carry: "Don't feel bad Kitty. That's not a friendly dog!"



Sunday, November 24, 2019

Flashback 2010: Santa has all those elves to help him

     Thanksgiving hasn't even arrived and already Christmas is placing its demands. And on a Jew yet. Then again, we in the newspaper biz have to look a little further down the road than most, to make sure we stick our landings, and don't run the Christmas Special on Dec. 27.
     In that spirit, Today the paper is rolling out its annual Letters to Santa Program—let's see Craigslist do that! Mark Brown kicks off the effort Sunday, and I'm in the line-up right behind, striding to the plate to take my swing on Monday.
     After writing tomorrow's offering, I looked at a few efforts from years past. Consistent in tone, I'll grant myself that. Though 2017 was particularly prickly, leading me to wonder if I perhaps am—shudder!—mellowing with age.
      Anyway, grinding out a few larger projects, and not at all feeling like writing anything more complex than this intro for today, I wondered what other Letters to Santa columns I had stashed in the vault, and found this relatively innocent effort from 2010, worth recalling only for its re-visiting of an American classic that you might not have opened in too long.

     If you could give a child you never met a book, what book would you give?
     It matters, I suppose, that the child is a boy, 8 years old, as he mentions—no doubt under instructions—in his letter to Santa.
     "Dear Santa," he begins. "My name is"—I suppose I should shield the name—"I go to Mayo School. I am a 8-year-old boy. I will love to have a book, a teddy bear, and I will love to have a bookbag for Christmas. Thanks Santa."
     Usually I dodge the do-goody Christmas stuff. But this year someone asked me directly to help with the Sun-Times Season of Sharing, which answers children's letters to Santa. The "No" caught in my throat. So I got a letter asking, not for a mitt or a puzzle or something easy, but a book, which stuck me with the metaphysical question, "which book?"
     My first impulse was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. All the kids love Harry Potter, and it would make a satisfying tome for this lad to heft on Christmas morning.
     But an 8-year-old—that's young. Harry Potter might be a little dark.
     The cover letter explains that the letters are from the Wabash YMCA Child Care Program, that 95 percent of the children live in poverty, and many are in single-parent homes or being raised by grandparents.
     In that light, the message of the first Harry Potter book—do nothing and a world of wonder will show up unexpectedly and pluck you out of your dire circumstances—may not be the most helpful advice to give a child perhaps facing a steeper climb up life's hill than most.
     Which made me think of Charlotte's Web, the E.B. White classic about a naive pig, Wilbur, who avoids a date with the chopping block due to the caring, effort and cleverness of his friends, first a little girl named Fern, and then a grey spider named Charlotte.
     In addition to the story, there is the farm itself, which may be a revelation to a city kid. Fern washes with a bucket and a sponge.
     "The barn was very large," writes White, who knew his way around a farm. "It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope."
     Wilbur is teased ("Pigs mean less than nothing to me," sniffs a lamb) but stands up for himself. The book offers a variety of evergreen messages, from "People are very gullible" to "summertime cannot last forever."
     I stopped by the Book Bin to buy the boy a copy, and was presented with one of those gut check choices that discourage me from doing this kind of thing: paperback or hardback? The paper was $6.99, the hardback $10 more.
     "Kids don't really care about the tactile quality of books, do they?" I wondered aloud, eyeing the paperback, tempted to save 10 bucks. But what kind of gift is a paperback?
     "Do unto others . . ." I said, buying the hardback. If you're going to pass a book down the generations, it needs to be sturdy.
     The teddy bear was easier—big, soft and with a beige scarf that says "Bear."
     I pictured a "bookbag" as a squarish affair with a flap, but my wife said what the boy means is a backpack, and we found one that was sort of an urban camouflage that would appeal to the budding survivalist in every boy.
     By that time I was having second thoughts about Charlotte's Web, just looking at the cover, with a placid-faced Fern holding Wilbur. It's a book about a girl. I bought this poor boy a book about a girl. Though I comforted myself that, at 8, the whole anti-girl thing hasn't kicked in too strongly, and if he reads the opening sentence—"'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."—he'll be hooked.
     My wife dug into the mass of books left from our  boys' single digithood: Spiderman, Freckle Juice by Judy Blume, the On the Run series. Sweetening the pot, just in case.
     The cliche is that helping others benefits the giver, and I can vouch for that. I have no idea whether this lad at Mayo School will take to Charlotte's Web, but my Monday was embroidered by re-reading the book for the first time in a decade. Maybe he'll find comfort in it too and, if not, there's always the teddy bear.

         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, December 15, 2010

Saturday, November 23, 2019

They'll be here soon—are you ready?


     The boys are coming home Wednesday!
     I can hardly wait.
     Although my enthusiasm is tempered with a certain ... sense of ... ah ... caution.  A pause, to remind myself. It's been a few months. Adjustments are probably prudent. Calibrations, in the whirligig of words that is me.
     They are full grown adults now, used to living on their own. In silent apartments full of text books. I have to let them settle in, adjust to being under their parents' roof once again. I should tread gingerly, and not try to  mess things up, the way I often do, by, you know, saying stuff to them.
     What kind of stuff? Hard to predict, before the fact. Prior to the offensive words actually being articulated. Then the problem is all too clear. Sometimes the culprit is the most innocuous expression of goodwill, the most ordinary cliched greeting or farewell. 

    I was looking over unpublished bits and pieces tucked away on the blog, and came across this exchange, taken from life this past summer as my youngest was going out the door one morning. I believe it stands on its own without need for further explanation:
     "Go get 'em!" I said, in what I imagined was a tone of  carefree bonhomie.
     "Go get who?" he replied, clearly annoyed.
     "Umm, whoever needs to be gotten," I said, struggling.
     "I'm an intern," he said, incredulous, almost angry. "There's nobody needs to be gotten."
     "Alright then," I said, forcing a smile. "Have a good time doing whatever it is you're going to do."
     And he was gone.


Friday, November 22, 2019

Impeachment hearings: Do you respect law or power?

The Mona Lisa is continually mobbed. But if you go to visit this treasure of the Louvre, you can have it all to yourself. Even though it's the most significant artifact in the entire museum. Any idea what it is? 

      A few years ago, my brother went for an afternoon pick-me-up at the Protein Bar near City Hall. As he was ordering, Rahm Emanuel came in and stood behind him. My brother finished his order and stepped aside. The mayor asked for the exact same protein drink. A moment passed, Rahm talking on the phone glued to the side of his head. The clerk handed Rahm a beverage.
     ”Hey,” my brother objected as Rahm vanished. “That was my drink. I was here first.”
     The clerk shrugged,
     ”He’s the mayor,” he said.

     That is power in a nutshell. You could study every Protein Bar employee manual and not find one word suggesting a policy to nudge bullyboy local officials to the front of the line. They don’t have to spell it out. It’s understood.
     I offer this story because it meshes with the impeachment hearings going on now in Washington. They could seem a bewildering spectacle unless you understand them as a tug-of-war between two utterly opposite views of our society.
     Do we live by rules-based egalitarianism? A nation of laws, customs and procedures? “Hey, I was here first.”
     Or by the exercise of raw power by those who hold it, aided by their eager enablers? “He’s the mayor.”
     The answer is: both, in conflict. Ideally in balance, though power always has the advantage, because it’s usually in your immediate self-interest to bow. Those who play along get a bigger slice of pie. The resisters often get nothing. So if you need to drop the values you’ve clung to your entire life in order to jam your hands in the goodie bag some bigwig is shaking in your direction, well, so be it. Goodbye values!
     Let’s look at the impeachment charges laid out in detail by a string of reliable witnesses:
     In July, President Donald Trump held up $392 million in military aid to Ukraine trying to blackmail its president into announcing publicly that he is investigating Joe Biden and his son. This contradicted the strategic interest of the United States, but was in Trump’s personal interest: to win re-election in 2020.
To continue reading, click here.
 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Flashback 1994: Agency Offering Free Groceries to Its AIDS Clients

The Afternoon Meal by Luis Meléndez Spanish (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Sometimes I post old articles because they resonate with some current event, or I think they're unique enough to merit re-reading. I'm sharing this ordinary news story because it is blown up and on display in the window of Open Hand Chicago's Groceryland, celebrating its 25th anniversary today.
     I'm still in touch with Open Hand founder Lori Cannon: in fact, I attended a party honoring her recently. She's as feisty and determined as ever, decrying budget cuts making it harder for Open Hand to feed the needy.

     "Just in time for the anniversary, and to kick off the season of service and gratitude, the CDPH slashes our food budget by $200,000," Lori writes.
    
Groceryland moved to 5543 N. Broadway, so if you want to send money, send it there, zip code 60640. Make the check to Heartland Alliance Health /Food & Nutrition division and earmark it to the North Side Center, as they now have four, the only city in the United States to have that many.
     "Despite the recent kick in the teeth I remain committed to serve my clients as I always have—with dignity, self reliance, variety and tasty grub," writes Lori, who has fed 15 million meals to Chicagoans. "Twenty five years is a good start huh?

     For six years, Open Hand Chicago has been delivering hot meals to people with AIDS. Beginning today, the organization is doing something that can be even more helpful -- letting people make the meals themselves.
     "Not everyone is bedridden; not everyone is homebound," said Lori Cannon, one of the founders of Open Hand and the manager of its new North Side Grocery Center. "There are a lot of active people with AIDS who need a little help, and if they can get here, we have a beautiful order of groceries for them."
     The center, 3902 N. Sheridan, is giving free groceries to Open Hand clients who prefer to have more input in what they are eating. Organizers hope this will keep them eating nutritiously.
     "The opening of the grocery center represents a major step forward in AIDS nutrition services in the city," said Sam Clark, executive director of Open Hand. "The center will give our clients a greater sense of dignity and self-determination. They'll be able to cook for themselves or have food prepared for them according to their individual taste and cultural preferences."
     The center is painted in cheery colors of baby blue, lime green and bright yellow, and accented with fun touches, such as a mounted fish sporting orange polka dots and a gold earring.
     "Our clients spend so much time in Public Aid offices, in doctors' waiting rooms," Cannon said. "We wanted the place to be cheerful and warm."
     Initially, the center will serve about 45 clients a week, with that number rising to 100 or so by next year, when similar centers will be opened on the West and South sides. To receive food from the center, people must either be enrolled in the Open Hand program, which serves about 900 meals a day, or be recommended by a social worker and meet eligibility requirements.
     Allison Long, 25, is a center volunteer.
     "Being able to cook for yourself gives you more freedom, dignity and a sense of independence," she said. Except for Cannon, the center will be staffed by volunteers.

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, November 21, 1994,

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Playing cards deal elegant new designs

  

    This story was impoverished, somewhat, by having to make it fit into the paper. I could only hint at just how fascinating Jonathan Bayme is, nor the world of whimsey he's creating around theory11: they put on shows in New York City, and go that extra mile, such as tucking hidden scavenger-hunt type games into their products, in one instance for those who thought to pull apart the boxes the cards come in. Let's put it like this, I plan to write a future post about his stationery.
    But I was happy to get this in the paper, a column whose main point is: "Look at these cards."

     Playing cards are not hard to find. Almost every household has a few decks. We have seven just in two drawers in the coffee table in our living room: three Bicycle Standard, one unopened; two with pictures of kitties, one in 3-D; two souvenir decks (Nashville, New Orleans) and a football-shaped deck, a favor from some long-ago birthday party. I’m sure I could hunt up more. 
     That’s plenty, since I never play cards or think about cards.
     Until recently.
     An ad popped up on Facebook for Provision Brand Playing Cards by theory11, showing an elegant, gold and orange trimmed box, prompting a thought I’ve never had before nor imagined possible:

   “What beautiful playing cards. I want those cards.”
     I clicked on the link, and marveled at a picture of an ace of hearts, the heart being held by a knight’s gauntlet. It was both new and old, different yet familiar.
     “Our original intention was to create cards for magicians,” said Jonathan Bayme, CEO and founder of theory11. “We were doing instructional videos for magic on the web.”
     The goal was to “make magic look cool and modern and relevant,” which is not easy.
     “People still associate magic with cheesy, hokey silks and canes and top hats,” said Bayme. “We thought: How do we combat that? What if we use tools like playing cards, which look cheesy, with pictures of baby angels on the back. They don’t look sophisticated and modern.”


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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Flashback 2010: It was a year with no cake, no cookies


     This is the column that ran in 2011 about my apnea-inspired diet. It became a part of my article for Mosaic on obstructive sleep apnea, so I thought I would post it here, for people who wanted to read the full piece.

     Unlike you, I kept my New Year's resolutions.
     All through January and February, the gusts of March and the rains of April, when most earnest vows are already long forgotten, into May and June, I pursued my goals, cruising through the summer and fall until now, when success lies glittering at my feet.
     True, I only had two resolutions, but they were good ones: lose 30 pounds and snag another book deal. I nailed them both, losing 30.4 pounds on the East Bank Club scale by Tuesday, and coming to terms with a publisher.
     Check and double check.
     Achieving these resolutions was supposed to make it a better year, and it did, big-time, and since some — though not all — aspects of my success may be transferable, I thought I should pass along a few helpful tips, if only as a smokescreen to all this blatant bragging.
    First the diet. I have been dieting, off and on, for, geez, nearly 40 years, and I think those consistent failures were helpful in providing determination that it work this time. I turned 50, and if man can’t apply himself to something with purpose at 50, he never will. It’s bad enough to be growing older without growing fatter too. Get it done, I thought.
     I also brought a special attitude to this attempt. The beauty of being an alcoholic (now there’s two concepts you just don’t see paired in the same sentence very often) is that you master — eventually, if you work at it — the crucial concepts of a) avoiding bad stuff completely because you don’t want a little, you want a lot and b) doing the right thing consistently over a long period of time.
    I realized that, as with shots of whiskey, I didn’t want one cookie, didn’t want one scoop of ice cream, but lots of cookies, and lots of ice cream. Thus, last Jan. 1, I banned a whole range of foods from my diet — no cookies, no candy, no ice cream, no cake, no doughnuts. My goal was three pounds a month — very slow, very gradual, the way I put it on. There was no rush. I bought an electronic scale, watched what I ate, counted calories and waited for success to baby crawl into my open arms.
     What else helped? I had a debilitating condition — sleep apnea — and a doctor said, if I lost 30 pounds, it might go away. That’s where the 30-pound goal came from, and it was a huge motivation, for me. I suppose some people whose doctors tell them similar things ignore them. But you can’t ignore that mask, a fresh shock every night that I despised. Losing the weight did the trick. No more mask.
     What else? I drank case after case of Fresca, which tastes good and has no calories. Countless containers of Haagen-Dazs chocolate sorbet at 130 calories a half cup.
     I knew I was serious when I turned down cupcakes from Sprinkles, doughnuts from Deerfield’s Bakery, dark chocolates from See’s.
     I permitted myself pie — first because you don’t encounter opportunities for pie nearly as often as opportunities for cake or doughnuts and second, honestly, what is life without pie?
     Sure, there were rare lapses. Kent’s 13th birthday in June at Margie’s — while I initially contemplated miserably nibbling a scoop of sherbet, having lost 25 pounds by then, I thought, “the hell with it,” and sinned boldly: a scoop of vanilla with bittersweet hot fudge sauce. There was that slice of lemon bread on the Fourth of July that was really lemon cake, and an orange Sunkist Fruit Gem at Kent’s bar mitzvah I told myself I needed to give a good speech, plus some hamantaschen at Purim I classified as small pies, due to the fruit filling.
     But not one cookie, not one chocolate.
     My clothes swam — a dieter who lost 50 pounds advised me to give them away, and I did. It’s nice to be constantly told how great you look, although people get so enthusiastic at times I feel like I was Jabba the Hutt before.
     There’s a downside to losing weight — initially your body doesn’t like it. You have to adjust to being smaller, and at times I felt, not thinner, but diminished; this tiny reduced person, particularly since you don’t lose weight in your head. For a while I felt like an alien overlord. Not that I’m complaining — I picked losing 30 pounds because I knew, if I accomplished it, I’d be happy, at least for a while.
     And the book? The University of Chicago Press asked me to write a book — about Chicago, for you fans of irony — and I said “Yes.” As I mentioned, not every aspect of keeping these resolutions is transferable.
    A shiny new year — 2011, incredibly — awaits. My resolutions for next year flow from this year’s — keep the weight off, finish the book, though I’ll try to find a third.
     What would you like to do? If I can, you can.

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 2, 2011

Monday, November 18, 2019

Losing the war doesn’t mean he didn’t fight



”To have a problem in common is much like love and that kind of love was often the bread that we broke among us. And some of us survived and some of us didn’t, and it was sometimes a matter of what’s called luck.”
                             —Tennessee Williams, Memoirs
     Only one friend stopped by that first week after I was allowed to come home. Then again, Michael didn’t have very far to go: out his front door, turn left, walk a few steps, knock on mine. Bearing two cans of raspberry soda water and a bag of potato chips.
     We sat on the porch and talked. Which is what you most want to do when you first go into recovery: talk and talk and talk, trying to sort out how the greatest thing in your life has suddenly became the worst. And how now you have to give it up, somehow.
     It was October, 2005. I don’t remember anything we said. But I do remember, when we were done, Michael hugged me. He was much taller, a good four inches, and I got a face full of plaid flannel. Geez, I thought, not only do I have to give up booze, but now I gotta hug guys too?
     We started going to meetings together. Sometimes walking to the church around the corner in the warm autumn evening. Sometimes he would pick me up in that big old Cadillac he inherited. An inverted echo of high school, but instead of a buddy with a car coming to get me so we could hang out and drink beer, we were two 40ish men on our way to sobriety meetings in the Northwest suburbs.
     Meetings, meetings, meetings. I hated them. Michael liked them. He had a sponsor, and worked the 12 Steps, an eager advocate of How It Works.
     Only it didn’t work. Not for him. Not long term. For some reason, sobriety didn’t stick with Michael the way it has stuck with me, so far. Who knows why? Genetics, luck, something else. 

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Sunday, November 17, 2019

Flashback 2003: A dirty joke to honor today's greatest humorist

Allen & Ginter cigarette card,1891 (Metropolitan Museum)
     A surprising number of readers said they enjoyed yesterday's joke. That's why I used to run them at the end of the column,  for a number of years—the brainchild of Michael Cooke, by the way—as a bit of music hall fun. I was walking a cigar up Shermer Saturday afternoon with a pal, who remarked upon the naughtier version of that joke, and I said how I once ran a somewhat risque joke in the paper. I was emboldened to print it because Garrison Keillor was coming to town with a show of dirty jokes. In 2017, he was fired from Minnesota Public Radio for alleged harassment of female coworkers. He denied the misbehavior, and I can't judge whether he is the aggressor or the victim. But I do know he was an original America comic voice, and I would hate to see his work fall from popularity because of his personal lapses. 

     I know only one dirty joke, but it's a good one. The chicken joke, I call it. Normally, I'm not the dirty-joke-telling type—too inhibited and awkward. But my chicken joke is special, beloved really, though, now that I think of it, not exactly family-newspaper material. Maybe later . . .
     Left on my own, I would never be bold enough to tell a dirty joke in my column, except that Garrison Keillor, of NPR fame, is hosting an evening of "bawdy humor" Monday at the Steppenwolf. Maybe that surprises you—it's like Norman Rockwell painting a scene of civic turmoil.
     Which, of course, Rockwell did. In the same way people try to marginalize Rockwell by forgetting, for instance, his painting of black girls hurrying past a mob during the civil rights era, so those dismissing Keillor as a folksy yarnsmith, his Lake Wobegon a bit of kitsch Americana alongside Reader's Digest and Currier & Ives, ignore his sharp and edgy material, usually because they've never heard or read him.
     I've done both, and I think he's a genius. Don't be fooled by the bumbling Lutheran pastors and clueless senior citizens of his radio stories. Keillor is slyly subversive. Like his outraged teenager nailing 95 complaints about small town life on the church door (and, really, how many Martin Luther puns does one get in life?), Keillor has issues with the town he so obviously cherishes. During the Gulf War, he offered a stark parable of dissent about the one boy in high school who refused to wear a yellow ribbon supporting our troops.
     He also wrote the funniest baseball story since Ring Lardner, a joyous, unhinged, taunting victory strut celebrating the Twins' championship. "My team won the World Series," he began. "You thought we couldn't but we knew we would and we did, and what did your team do? Not much. . . . You thought we were quiet and modest in the Midwest but that's because you're dumb, as dumb as a stump, dumber than dirt."
     Keillor will last—if I had to pick three humorists since the Civil War who will still be read 100 years from now, I'd say Mark Twain, James Thurber and Garrison Keillor. Who am I missing? H. L. Mencken? Maybe. But his references are so obscure now that half his pieces already read like Chaucer. Robert Benchley? Still funny, yes, but who reads him? To survive, you have to create a world, and Keillor's main setting—the mythical American small town trembling on the brink of extinction, its residents caught in the final moments before the modern behemoth steamrolls them away--will remain. Just as we yearn toward Huck and Tom, free on their raft, so our nation will--as we wander, rootless and placeless--grope back toward Lake Wobegon.
     Dirty joke alert: Skip this part!
     OK, on to the joke: A timid man goes to a brothel. He tells the madam that his wife is out of town and that for this, the lone transgression in his life, he wants the wildest thing she has to offer.
     The madam thinks, puffs her cigarette and casts an appraising eye up and down the timid man.
     "I have a chicken . . ." she says at last, "who will give you a back rub" (for our purposes, though "back rub" is not the act in my non-family newspaper version).
     The timid man agrees, and is ushered into an elegant room—circular bed, a big mirror on one wall. A small hatch opens and the chicken is shoved in (this is why I love this joke; the poor, bewildered chicken, skidding into the room, feathers flying). The man tries to … umm … interact with the chicken. But it's just a chicken. Nothing much happens. Still, the next day, he thinks, "That was fun." He returns to the brothel and sidles up to the madam.
     "Um, excuse me," he stammers, "is the, ah, chicken available?"
     "No, I'm sorry," coos the madam. "The chicken is with a customer. But, if you like to watch, there's a woman in the next room wrestling with a dog." Again, in the version I tell, it is a more specific form of wresting-like activity.
     The man is ushered into a dim room with a one-way mirror. Another patron is seated before the mirror, gazing raptly through it. The timid man joins him, and together they watch a woman rolling around with the dog. "This is incredible!" exudes the timid man.
     "You think this is something," says the first man. "You should have been here yesterday. There was a guy trying to get a back rub from a chicken."
     Dirty joke over: safe to read now.
     Another great thing about Keillor is how he rescues so much that falls by the wayside in our culture. Old pop songs and spoken stories, singalongs and, yes, raunchy jokes. It is safe to say that I would have spent my career, such as it is, and never been bold enough to tell my chicken joke, were I not given strength by Keillor's example.
     Not that Keillor is perfect. He loathes journalists, for instance. He has his reasons, I suppose, but it still stings, personally, and seems ungracious. Were I a comic genius, at the top of my craft, producing deathless humor entertaining the world, I think I'd extend a little pity toward the middling mediocrities brushing against the hem of my robe as I stride by.
     But that is quibbling—no wonder he hates us. I'll be in the audience Monday. Tickets are sold out, sadly, but he'll be back, and then there are all those books and tapes and radio programs. You shouldn't miss him just because you think you know who he is.

          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 3, 2003

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Flashback 2006: Took shot at a politician, got call from a man




     Monday's column on the tempest over the Daily Northwestern daring to cover a news story mentioned that I once got was chewed out over the phone by Barack Obama. Regular reader Holger Meerbote was skeptical: "Barack Obama really called and yelled at you?? Over what, may I ask?" I sighed, and was about to explain it all, when I remembered I wrote a column about it—how could I not?
    It was back when my column filled a page and ended with a joke. I've kept the joke because it's an oldie but a goodie.

     The late Steve Neal was vigorous and unrelenting in his attacks on Sen. Dick Durbin. Eloquent, razor-sharp keelhaulings, again and again, for Durbin's bobbling O'Hare reconstruction, for his not commanding respect, for a variety of sins. This did not go over well with the senator. I remember Durbin once showing up for an editorial meeting. "Where's Steve Neal?" he demanded. "I want to see him!" You could tell he was angry. I, as the junior member of the board, was dispatched to Steve's office to go fetch him. But Steve had vanished, through luck or design, a skill I wish I could master.

                                                            * * *


     Late Friday afternoon. The Sunday column's in. Nothing much to do but clean off the desk, best I can—it never gets clean, or even close—drink one last cup of coffee, and call it a week.
     Phone rings. Barack Obama, from Africa. As if he's in the next room, as the cliche goes. My skin goes clammy, and I get a sinking in my gut, the way it felt when, as a kid, I'd get in bad trouble. Oh no. . . .
     He's mad. Not hopping mad, or temper-flaring mad, but steely, calm and controlled mad. We've crossed paths before, but that was politics, he says, and this is personal, and he's offended.
     "I didn't mean to offend you," I say, weakly, and that's true. I thought I was parsing the Gordian knot of racial politics. I presented his trip to Africa not as the sincere personal odyssey that the seal pack of journalists following him are describing, but as calculated political theater.
     Only Obama didn't read it that way. How could he? He saw it as my suggesting he's ashamed of his mother. Or neglecting his grandmother, whom he visits regularly. He was just Downstate, he says, just in Cairo—the press certainly covered it, though of course not to this extent. It wasn't the big deal Africa is because he only gets to Africa once every 14 years.
     I try to explain to Obama—I don't know about his personal life. I'm speaking of images, of politics, of how America views race, a subject that endlessly fascinates me. I didn't think he'd be offended—heck, I didn't even think he'd read it. Africa is far away, or used to be.
     He knows politics, he says, he knows the give and take. But we're friends, and this is over the line.
     "I'm sorry," I say, surrendering. "How can I make it up to you?"

                                                             
* * *

     After Steve died, I felt duty-bound to take up the Durbin beat, to seize the bastinado and go after the senator. It was easy and fun.
     Then one day, the senator's office called—would I like to have breakfast with him?
     "You realize who you're calling?" I said. Yes indeedy.
     This put me in a pickle. I knew if I started taking meals with Durbin, I would never be able to lay into him the way I once had.
     On the other hand, a senator calls, you go. At least I do.
     At breakfast, Durbin waved off past misunderstandings. He was either sincere or masterful—probably both. Either way, I decided he wasn't the bad guy I once thought he was. We've been pals ever since. Co-opted? Educated? Probably both.

                                                               
* * *

     Frankly, I can't even write about Obama's call without being aware that there's an undercurrent of bragging on my part—look at me, not an anonymous mediocrity trying to fill his space, but a real pundit, phoned up by God's chosen vessel in American politics, all the way from Africa on a Friday afternoon. Well, that's journalism. People hate us for a reason.
     In our defense, like politicians, we have various audiences. Readers who dislike Obama— and I've got 'em in droves—wonder who's paying for the trip, why he isn't at home, bringing the bacon to Illinois, instead of campaigning in a foreign land. They applauded my candor.
     Those who revere and respect Obama—and I've got them, too—hooted and questioned what I could possibly be thinking.
     My wife is among the latter group—she ran me over the coals so thoroughly Friday morning ("Africa is interesting. . . ," she said) as if warming me up for Obama, I asked her if she was on retainer.
     And me? I meant what I wrote when I wrote it—I always do—but I'm not the Jedi Council. Half the time, I write something because I'm trying to figure it out. I don't always succeed.
     After our phone call, I reeled into the newsroom, green around the gills, and bumped into the editor.
     "What's wrong?" he asked, reading my expression. I told him, and he grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me around and sent me back here to write this.
     As the sky darkened, I found myself thinking about my own father. I took a trip in his honor, too, once. We took his old Merchant Marine ship across the Atlantic together. I thought I was writing a book of remembrance, of love and reconciliation. He hated it. He thought I was lashing out at him, and didn't talk to me for a year. I was shocked.
     I wish I could portray that oblivious quality as courage—I write, and consequences be damned. But that isn't it. I never think of the consequences; they always surprise me.
     When I parsed Barack Obama, the politician, I never imagined I'd offend, and hear from Barack Obama, the man. Very few politicians would do that. I've been slagging Mayor Daley for years, and not a peep out of him. Frankly, I prefer it that way. But Obama is extraordinary—everybody knows that—and we expect great things of him. I certainly do, and if I resist joining the hallelujah chorus, well, that's just me doing my job as best I know how. It's nothing personal.

TODAY'S CHUCKLE

Nancy Rudins, of Champaign, offers this one:

     A guy goes to a supermarket and notices a beautiful woman smiling at him and waving.
     He's rather taken aback because he can't place how he knows her—he'd certainly remember a face like that.
     She walks over.
     "Do we know each other?" he says, tentatively.
     "I think you're the father of one of my kids,'' she says.
     The man is shocked. His mind races back to the only time he has ever been unfaithful to his wife.
     "My God," he says, "are you the stripper from my bachelor party when I laid on the pool table, with all my buddies watching, while your partner whipped me with wet celery???"
     She looks into his eyes and says, "No, I'm your son's math teacher."
                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 27, 2006

Friday, November 15, 2019

Impeachment: A boring train wreck well worth watching



Rep. Adam Schiff begins the impeachment hearings.

     I loathe meetings, conferences, seminars, conclaves — assemblies of all kinds. I avoid trials, whether civil or criminal, religious services, whether of my own faith or others, and political rallies of all stripes. Anything that traps me so I must sit, be silent and listen to people talk for an indeterminate time.
     Thus I was surprised, mildly, to find myself Wednesday at 9 a.m. CST parked in front of CNN to watch the beginning of the House Intelligence Committee’s public hearings on whether Donald Trump should be impeached. The “This is history!” imperative must have overridden my natural disinclination to watch parliamentary proceedings. The president is being impeached. It’s like the moon catching fire; who doesn’t step outside and look up?
     Two minutes later it hadn’t started, and I was growing impatient.
     “It’s 9:02,” I tweeted. (Because really, if a thought goes unexpressed nowadays, does it even exist?) “You’re late. [C’mon] Dems, get with the program.”
     Be careful what you wish for.
     Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., gaveled the hearing to order and spoke for 36 seconds.
     “It is the intention of the committee to proceed without disruptions,” he said, then was interrupted by Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, asking about the “rules of engagement,” as if this were some kind of battle, which of course it is.
     But an odd sort of battle, a battle where the outcome is unimportant. Anyone who understands that the president put his own interests ahead of the nation’s already knew it Tuesday. And anyone who refuses to see that derailing American foreign policy to grease your chances in the next election is an impeachable offense will never grasp that fact, not after a thousand hours of damning testimony. Not after a century.
     The question, Schiff said, is “what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people can come to expect from their commander in chief?”
     Ooh, ooh, me, me! I know!


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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Flashback 1998: Confronting the horror in this political jungle

Bill Clinton, National Portrait Gallery
     America has impeached four presidents and I've written about three of them while the process was unfolding (Andrew Johnson was before my time).
     For Nixon, I was a 13-year-old budding journalist, recording thoughts in a green clothbound notebook lifted from NASA, where my father worked. 
     "As I sat in music class with Mr. Zagar we were listening to the radio when the teacher turned the station we heard the news that Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew has just resigned," I wrote, in cursive, a forgotten skill. "At first I was exstatic [sic] but now I'm not so sure this is a good thing. While I hate Nixon, his vice president, and all the assorted crooks, thugs, tuffs [sic], and assorted evil doers and phone tapers [sic] that associate themselves with Nixon, I feel that unexpected bad things might happen like the fall of American democracy or Nixon seizing the government, but those are remote possibilities."
       Twenty-five years later I had just begun writing a column at the Sun-Times, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton was something to be endured. There are a few errors in the column as well: "Wozzeck" is only 90 minutes long, thank God. And showing off, I name-check Joseph Conrad and quote T.S. Eliot. But can you find the Dante reference as well?


     If you've ever sat through a really terrible opera, one of those four-hour jobbies, always modern—say "Wozzeck" by Berg—that the Lyric Opera seems to feel compelled to inflict upon its audience, periodically, perhaps as penance for the joys of Mozart and Verdi, then you might have already struck upon my technique of escape visualization.
     It is the second act. Having spent the intermission begging my wife to leave and salvage what remains of the evening (she refuses, out of the charmed notion that the performers, 100 yards and two balconies away, will feel badly if we do), I slump down in my red plush seat. The opera unfolds, hideously.
     So I leave, not in reality, but in imagination. I narrow my eyes and go through the process: getting up, murmuring apologies, sliding down the row, trying not to grind my butt in the faces of seated patrons.
     Quick-step up the aisle. Pass through the door into the light. The relief of the unmobbed coat check desk. The giddy reunion between man and coat. The rush down the stairs. The careful noting of the crooked beige plastic electric wall socket plates in the lobby, an amazing lapse amid the glorious marble and brass (I'm going to dip my toe into philanthropy some day and raise the money to buy the Lyric a half dozen real brass socket covers for its lobby— the Neil Steinberg Memorial Wall Plates). The final release into the revivifying night air.
      I found myself engaging in a similar escape last week, when struck by the tsunami of the Lewinsky; Tripp tapes, followed hard by the typhoon of the impeachment hearings. (We never have thought of a proper name for this nightmare, have we? Maybe we should take a cue from Conrad, and just call it the Horror).
     How will this end? When will the face of the general public—turned away in relief since the elections, now roughly grabbed and shoved, like a naughty dog, back into the noisome mess—once again be permitted to turn skyward and view the stars?
     My personal moment of squirming despair came Thursday. I was in a cab, on Lake Shore Drive. Of course, the radio was turned to Ken Starr (all radios and televisions were; you could keep up with the farce by just walking down the street, like with the Cubs in a playoff game).
     Cab radios only have two volumes, tantalizingly soft and eardrum-piercing loud. Straining to hear Starr's pious palaver, I asked the cabbie to turn the radio up. As punishment, I was forced to endure Starr's voice sawing full volume through my head for the rest of the trip.
     When will this be over and what will that be like? Can we conjure up a scenario that, like a fantasy tiptoe out of the opera house, can give us a bit of balm against the nightmare grinding out before our eyes? Since relief tarries, might we not at least imagine relief?
     My first impulse would be to say: No, it's not possible. Steven Calabresi, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University, floated a scenario in which the Senate would still be arguing this issue in January, 2001. And that was his short version. He also suggested the Senate could hold some sort of hearing hounding Clinton after he leaves office (after? after!) to legally bar him from holding future office.
     With all due respect to Calabresi, he's out of his mind, showing the sort of oblivious wish-fulfillment that has led the Republican Party to the precipice and is now inspiring them to leap over into the abyss.
     If this nonsense is still being debated into 2001, there won't be a Republican in Congress to vote on the matter. Bank on it.
     As with all moralists who periodically grab the reins of the nation and drive us toward a cliff, they don't get the idea of a gray region. The moderate mass of America doesn't think in absolutes—we're trying to get through the day, which often requires compromise, a concept lost on zealots. Abortion is bad, but banning it is worse, so the rights of the fetus, such as they are, are trumped by the rights of the mother. Smut on the Internet is a problem, but appointing a committee of bluenoses to try to sweep it clean is worse. Clinton lied under oath, but he lied under oath about his sex life in a proceeding that grew out of a garbage lawsuit mounted by his enemies who hated him prior to all his supposed crimes and only hate him more now.
     But it will end, right? I bring you good news. It will. The inquiry will grind on, the Republicans trying to expand it, desperately. But society, which cares little now, will begin to care less. The hearings will continue, but we won't notice them anymore. New developments will get pushed to the back pages, to the last segment before the weather. Newspapers will run a small box, back by the astrology tables: "Today is the 147th day of the impeachment hearings. Rep. Hyde said . . ."
     This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 22, 1998