Friday, January 31, 2020

‘Going to end badly’ — a zombie movie for the Trump era

Bill Murray, right, and Adam Driver in "The Dead Don't Die."
     Can a columnist write for years and never reveal anything personal? I suppose it's possible, but that seems awful dry, not to mention suggesting that you're some kind of Delphic Oracle, delivering truths while hidden behind the mists of Mount Parnassus.
     That ain't me, obviously. I believe personal information is the glue that holds a columnist to his or her readership. Without reference to your own life, you're just a brain in a jar, issuing opinions. You need to occasionally reflect that you have a life, a family, a dog, that you got your hip replaced—details in Sunday's paper—and enjoy pistachio pudding.
    Columnists must take care, however, that these shared details are adhesive rather than repellent. A prime cautionary tale is George F. Will, who in 2009 wrote a column damning blue jeans as "the infantile uniform" of a nation lost to TV and video games. It was standard Will stuff, quoting both Edmund Burke and St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. And then, in the last paragraph, he severed his bond with readers, at least this reader. He admitted that while he did own a pair of blue jeans, he had only worn them once, under duress, when forced to in order to attend a country music-themed party.
     My regard for the man drained away. It colored him, forever. The guy who never wore jeans.
     So I’m pausing before this admission. I think I’m on solid ground. Only one way to find out.
     I had never seen a zombie movie. Not before last month. Oh, I’d caught glimpses, in commercials. I know there’s a TV series, “The Walking Dead.” So I can conjure up images. A lot of lopsided shuffling. Much bloody gnawing of flesh. Not my idea of fun.
     But my older boy was home, and he broke down my resistance by pointing out this was a zombie movie with Tom Waits, “The Dead Don’t Die,” directed by Jim Jarmusch. I love Tom Waits.
     So I watched. “The Dead Don’t Die” (2019) starring Bill Murray, who has made a sub-career adding his celebrity sparkle to small films, and Adam Driver, because he’s in every movie lately, as Chief Cliff Robertson and Officer Ronnie Peterson. The pair are the senior peace officers in Centerville, which begins to have problems due to “polar fracking” throwing the Earth off its orbit. Daylight and nighttime are scrambled, the ants are confused and, oh yes, the dead live, popping out of their graves to eat human flesh.

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Thursday, January 30, 2020

Flashback 2009: Something about the Super Bowl

    After yesterday's post on Mr. Peanut, cherished reader Chris Wood (he's cherished because he ordered my 2015 poster) remarked on Facebook, "Thanks, I'll have a nice story to tell Super Bowl Sunday morning."  Which was flattering, but the story struck me as thin gruel for a bunch of hardened sports fanatics, which I imagine to be the crowd Chris runs in. (You could be cherished too, if you catch my hint...) "I've got a better one," I said, promising to dig up the nugget below, which originally ran under the a-shade-too-candid subhead, "Something about the Super Bowl." And to show you just how sincere I am in my indifference to these things, I am going to guess which teams are involved in Sunday's game, and leave the guess up, knowing it is probably wrong. The ... New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Raiders.*

     It might come as a surprise to those who have spent time around chickens, but the word "fowl" and the word "foul" do not share a common root. The first comes from an ancient word meaning "to fly," while the second from a word meaning "to stink." That they sound alike and describe something that shares both qualities is coincidence.
     On the other hand, turkey, the bird, and Turkey, the country, do come from the same word because settlers in North America mistakenly believed the birds hailed from that land, probably because turkeys seemed exotic and, at the time, all things Turkish were considered exotic, the way that, later, deep-fried fingers of potato would be dubbed "french fries" because they were considered fancy, and fancy stuff came from France.
TV commercial, 1966
     Which leads us to Sunday's big game. It is called the "Super Bowl," and one might assume that the name came from all the college "bowl" games (which, in turn, owe their names to the stadiums they were played in, the Yale Bowl and the Rose Bowl and such).
     But according to football lore, it was Lamar Hunt who gave the Super Bowl its name after seeing his kids play with a Super Ball, the Wham-O toy that was popular in the summer of 1966, when Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, worked on the committee setting the particulars of the first championship game between the AFL and the NFL.
     "My wife, Norma, had given the kids these Super Balls, and they loved them," Hunt said years later. "If you threw one down hard on the concrete, they would literally bounce over the house. The kids were always playing with them and talking about them, and I guess it was just on my mind."
     Which is why there is a Super Ball on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Enjoy the game.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 1, 2009.

* Close. The San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. Well, I guess not all that close. I got that one team came from California...

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Planters’ fake tragedy runs into real thing





     Would any sane person connect the deaths of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others in a helicopter crash Sunday — an all-too-real tragedy — with the PR stunt cooked up by Planters Peanuts: the notional death of its fictional mascot, Mr. Peanut, announced last week and set to be solemnized during the Super Bowl?
     Yes, the internet is fueled by outrage. People online are incredibly touchy. But are they that incredibly touchy? The idea seems — pardon the pun — a little nuts.
     But Planters — owned by Kraft Heinz, somehow co-headquartered in Chicago and Pittsburgh — obviously worried the connection would be made. So it suspended the online publicity blitz, while still planning to run a 30-second Super Bowl commercial Sunday featuring Mr. Peanut’s funeral. So toning down the publicity, out of one corner of its mouth, while blasting it to the world out of the other.
     The whole campaign was a mistake. The smart, strategic route would have been to just quietly put Mr. Peanut out to pasture, the way Campbell’s Soup exiled its tomato-cheeked Kids. Ready to return when needed.
     Given the genuine general public grief about this tragedy — Kobe Bryant, not Mr. Peanut — affecting not only basketball fans, but anyone saddened to see a father of four cut down in the act of being a good parent, it seems Planter’s should have shown some spine, trusted consumers, and ignored any online trolls lunging to cast Mr. Peanut’s death as an insult to Bryant’s memory.
     Ironic. Mr. Peanut was designed to address public scorn, not inflate it. Since everything that could be said about Bryant is being said, I wanted to highlight something the media missed in the first days after Mr. Peanut’s demise: how Planters got an anthropomorphic peanut as a mascot in the first place. Top hat, monocle, and white gloves — kind of upscale for a comestible that at the time was considered food for swine and the poor.

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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Flashback 2004: Fat and happy Big Boy always stands tall

  

     Grant me this, I am consistent. I was in Nexis, trying to find out what happened to the Campbell's Soup Kids—there's no evidence of them on the Campbell's web site—and I stumbled upon my own story, from 16 years ago, mentioning the chubby siblings. 
     My first thought, reading this below was, "They printed that?" Because it seems so exceedingly trivial, even for me. And those four dashes in the opening sentence; I would never do that today, and it's all I can do not to repair it. But if I start trying to clean up old columns, well, that's all I'd ever do. 

Reader Dave Connell shared this photo taken at the
Classical Gas Museum, Embudo New Mexico.
     If you were to walk into my house—please don't!—but say you did—no, I'm serious, I'll call the police—theoretically walk in, that is, and went to the TV room, which is what we call our repository of toys and junk, there you would find, in addition to two young boys who have been watching Spider-Man cartoons so long their eyeballs are swelling shut, there above the shrinelike TV, another shrine of sorts. A series of five standing figurines, each 10 inches tall, each pot-bellied like a Buddha, each in red- and white-checked coveralls. Two holding hamburgers aloft.
     I refer of course to Big Boy.
     Now I know that the Big Boy restaurant mascot is an object of post-modern irony to many people, who keep a Big Boy or two around as some kind of knowing wink at consumer culture.
     That is not why I have five Big Boys at home. I own them sincerely, because I love Big Boy. I always have. I know this will seem very strange to those who consider Big Boy a mere corporate shill, like Colonel Sanders or Michael Jordan or Mayor McCheese. That's why I'm writing this—not just to reveal yet another embarrassing personal detail. But to try to understand what it is about the homunculus that is so appealing.
     What is it about the Boy?
     This comes in the wake of our story Thursday, about the town fathers of Canton, Mich., attacking a 7-foot Big Boy statue in front of a local restaurant, citing zoning against multiple signs.
     The owner, Tony Matar, defended his Boy—it isn't a sign, he said. "It's an icon."
     He sure is. More than an icon. Big Boy is a god (not the God, capital "G"—put down your pens, please—but a god, sort of a fast-food deity. The Spirit of American Burger Plenty).
     Big Boy is often depicted as running, frozen in mid-stride, lofting his enormous namesake burger high above his head. He is our Hermes, our Mercury, the god of travel and double cheeseburgers.
     There are so many reasons to love Big Boy I don't know where to begin. First, he's so happy—beaming like he's ready to explode with joy, eyes goggling, apple cheeks about to pop. Second, that Reaganesque pompadour. So strange and wonderful. And third, he's fat. How many food brand mascots are fat? Campbell's Soup sent their chunky twins to Jenny Craig years ago, Aunt Jemima lost 40 pounds along with her scarf.
     Fourth, the Boy carries a whiff of 1950s California drive-in culture, with its boomerang architecture and leering mascots, like the Pep Boys, Manny, Moe and Jack. Or Big Boy who, now that I think of it, does have a certain malign look about him, like he should have eight arms: Big Rav Boy, the Destroyer. And that appeals, too.
     The power of Big Boy is such that I am drawn to his chain, despite the fact that I've had some of the worst dining experiences in my life at Big Boy restaurants.
     I should stress that I haven't been to every Big Boy in the country—they are different companies regionally, Bob's Big Boy and Elias' Big Boy and Frisch's Big Boy—and I imagine there must be some that aren't lousy. But I've had not one, but several legendary disasters. Once the food never came at all, and we had to eventually get up and leave, the boys weeping with hunger. Another, with a family we vacation with in Ohio, was such a terrible experience that to this day—years later—all we have to do is raise the question of where to eat lunch, and lips begin to curl into mocking smiles, and eyes dart in my direction as I slump and hide my face with my hands, scoured by the memory that it was I, Big Boy's acolyte, who insisted we go there.
     Strangely, these nightmare visits have not soured me on the Boy himself. Even at that Ohio Big Boy, waiting endlessly for our cold food, I had only good feelings for him.
     "If only Big Boy knew," I said, echoing the kind of faith that abused Russians had in their czar 100 years ago, conjuring the image of Big Boy arriving just in time to save our lunch, rushing into the kitchen, a blur of activity, shouting orders, firing people.
     All hail the true burger king!
     To understand the power of the Boy, look at all those other mid-level restaurant chains— Denny's and Hardee's and such. Sure, their food might be better. But what are they in the hearts of America without a Big Boy? Nothing.
     Ronald McDonald is frightening in that way that only clowns can be. I never see him without expecting him to be holding a bloody ax. Wendy's mascots were worse—first that freckled, pigtailed Wendy creature, who looked like the vile Pippi Longstocking, and then Dave, the CEO, who tried to be lovable but you just knew, when the cameras weren't rolling, was screaming at cringing underlings, white spittle flying off his lips.
     That's it. That's the answer. Big Boy is comfort. He is cheeseburgers and malted milk and smiles and rest and safety. But, like so many minor deities, he is only the promise of these things, the promise of paradise. The graven image of delight without the substance.
         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 16, 2004



Monday, January 27, 2020

Illinois can do better on pre-K education

     If Dad brings home a pony on Monday, I’d say when the boys were small, and another pony on Tuesday, by Wednesday his kids will meet him at the door shouting “Where’s the pony?”
     That was meant to illustrate how expectations of children ramp up to meet whatever is done for them, my sympathies automatically siding with fellow beleaguered parents.
     But there’s a harder truth behind that: Children want so much because they need so much. Maybe not ponies, though some reader will no doubt argue that one. But they definitely need food and clothing and shelter and attention and love and vaccinations and storybooks and bedtime kisses and early morning activities and drinks of water in between.
     They’ll take as much as they can get, then put it to good use. They’re sponges, soaking up whatever is poured over them, squirreling it away to fuel their astounding metamorphosis, the magic trick of transforming from squealing, pooping, nonverbal, immobile, lumps of flesh slightly bigger than a meatloaf into fully formed, functioning, aware and decent adults.
     If all goes right. But what if it doesn’t? What if young children don’t get all the stuff they need? We see the results every day. Bad childhoods lead to bad adults, often, which help create the bad situations we must cope with on personal, family, neighborhood, city, county, state, national and world levels.
     Gov. J.B. Pritzker knows this and is expected to push early childhood education in his State of the State address Wednesday.


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Vatican Museum, 2016





Sunday, January 26, 2020

Leaning tower of snow



     Yesterday was busy with so many things that weren't this blog, I don't know where to begin and, frankly, don't want to.
     I did walk the dog, leading to the photo above, which seemed to update the snow tower rhapsodized in yesterday's post. Saturday morning's alarming list to starboard, from my perspective, seemed almost a physical impossibility. Pliant stuff, snow. Plastic and malleable.
     I was right. By the afternoon, the top two spheres had toppled, but there was some good news. My wife took Kitty out (one benefit of the hip surgery has been to diffuse dog-walking duties, which used to be my exclusive responsibility. I'm not sure how long that will last, and I don't really mind dog walking—it's both exercise and a bracing blast of normality—but I do like this whole sometimes-somebody-else-does-it business).
     Anyway, my wife encountered the home owner, shoveling his walk and, having read yesterday's post, inquired about the snow spire. He responded, "That's what happens when your nephews visit from Texas."
     He didn't elaborate, and she left the matter there, lacking the journalistic imperative to grill people. So we have to speculate whether the snow pylon represents Lone Star State ignorance of the conventions of snowman construction, or outsized Texan ambitions, or what. Perhaps just as well.
   

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Snow menhir



     Well it isn't a snow man, that's for sure, this tower of five snow spheres that I passed on my way to the train Friday morning. Not the familiar three ball, feet/torso/head configuration. No coal eyes, no carrot nose, not battered top hat. Can't call it a man, or I suppose, nowadays, a snow person. Mustn't traffic in gender stereotyping.
     So what is he ... whoops, it. I mean "they." A snow...what? Monolith? Cenotaph? A snow pylon perhaps.
     I could knock on the door and ask. I saw three men building it the day before and have to assume they belong to the house. I mean, who builds a snow whatever in the front yard of a stranger? That would be even weirder. Of course, if I had to write the chapter title for the past few years, I couldn't go wrong with "Under Weirdness More Weirdness."
      Can't knock on the door. That transaction is beyond imagination. Almost. Ding-dong. "Excuse me. I was wondering; your snow edifice, exactly what is it? Representationally speaking."
     Better a mystery. One, I admit, I did not ponder too much. A pleasant day, got work done at the office, a promising lunch at the Little Goat Diner with an editor. Then, returning home, there it was. Only a little reduced. Layering another mystery. How did it stay up? In the rain no less. Is it impaled? Upon a broomstick, say?
      And not built in the center of the yard either. Right by the sidewalk. Is that trust?  Or a challenge? Or oblivious? You'd think some malicious person would have knocked it over at some point during the day. Would have succumbed to the overwhelming desire to knock it over.  The thought crossed my mind, but I squelched it. As did everyone else. A very quiet street.
     On the second visit I finally reflected on the tyranny of snow men. They have a lock on the market of snow creatures. Very seldom anything else. The occasional cave or fort.  That's it. No snow bears. No snow trees. In the realm of amateur efforts I mean. I'm not talking about giant snow dragons at some festival in Finland. Though, to my credit, I do recall building an enormous snow bust of George Washington, years ago, with my brother and our kids. A compelling likeness, if I recall. I used a dollar bill as a model. Though if you want to be critical—and who doesn't nowadays?—you could point out that a snow bust of George Washington is, still, a snow man.
     The house, I should point out, is one of those places that changes residents nearly every year. Backs up against the train tracks. And they all must come and go out the back. I swear, I've had a chance to converse with the occupants no more than three or four times in 20 years, and it's always someone different. So it's not like I can casually inquire about the snow obelisk during our next conversation.
     Thin gruel, I know, even for a Saturday. But it was a long week, my first week back after medical leave, and frankly, it's the snow cairn or nothing. I hope I made the right choice.

Friday, January 24, 2020

It’s Restaurant Week — grab your wallets!

Chef Sangtae Park at Omakase Yume
     Chicago Restaurant Week 2020 begins Friday.
     OK, it’s not a week — it’s 17 days, which perfectly reflects the inflation that creeps into fine dining. Seven can easily become 17 by the time drinks and tax and 20% tip and 3% staff health insurance fee — it’s a thing — are factored in.
     For instance. During winter break, I lured my boys home from law school by promising they could each pick a swank eatery and dad would pay. It worked. Both chose places offering a prix fixe meal which, in my naïveté, I thought meant in return for a set amount of money, we’d get dinner.
     Ah, hahaha. Dewy innocence.
     The older boy chose Omakase Yume. It’s hard not to be charmed just walking into perhaps the smallest restaurant in Chicago: eight seats around a tiny wooden sushi bar.
     “It’s very Japanese,” I said, somewhat idiotically, thinking of Suntory Jigger Bars in Tokyo. It was quiet: light classical music, the octet of customers sitting in rapt expectation, watching Chef Sangtae Park create eight perfect pieces of raw fish—amberjack, yellowjack, three kinds of tuna — on oblongs of rice, then solemnly set down a piece before each guest.
     The highlight was salmon, which Park smoked in a rectangular cedar box. A lovely bit of restaurant theater, the woodsmoke delightful, the sushi exquisite.
     The fish was several derivations of freshness beyond standard sushi, it almost seemed a different substance. We mused over the economics of preparing dinner for eight customers and wondered how this place gets fish so much fresher than anywhere else.
     “It must be a separate supply chain,” I speculated, imagining some hardy Japanese fisherman hooking slabs of bluefin tuna off a pier in Yaezu, packing them in ice and jumping on a plane to Chicago, sitting stolidly in his green rubber boots and orange slicker, his insulated treasure perched on his lap.


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Thursday, January 23, 2020

Из России с любовью


    I was friended by a Russian immigrant living in Chicago Wednesday, and thought to share this look at the Russian community, which I assumed I must have posted at some point since it was written in 2007. 
    But I hadn't. So correcting that error, as well as the headline, which I had originally wanted to be in Russian, but the copy desk refused, under the very practical notion that newspaper headlines should be in English (translated, it means "From Russia with love." The original subtitle was: "The Chicago area's Russian population may not be the most vocal, but in terms of sheer numbers, they are a powerful ingredient in our melting pot.")
     I also am including a correction, which ran two days later, and reflects the, umm, vigorous insistence of the Russians who felt overlooked. One of whom shortly thereafter took me to a not-at-all pleasant lunch at the Zhivago Restaurant in Skokie, where I definitely remember playing with my fork, listening to him complain, and musing, "I wonder if he's going to kill me after this...."

OPENING SHOT . . .

     "Are there any Russian-speaking passengers on the train?" the conductor asks over a loudspeaker on a 6:19 Metra Milwaukee North Line.
     I hesitate. My last Russian class was in 1980. A few words linger, a few sentences echo around the old brain. But fluent? Not even close.
     Still, what if it's an emergency? Someone in distress? In seven years of taking the train, I've never heard an appeal for help over the PA system. I stand, shuffling down the aisle, imagining a lovely dark-haired lady, in a violet velvet dress, sobbing hard into a lace handkerchief.
     The conductor, patting her shoulder sympathetically, looks up at me.
     "Something about a Count Vronsky," he implores.
     The actual conductor isn't in the next car, or the car after that. By then I decide the distressed party must be a frumpy, maroon-haired matron with a ticket problem. I groped at dusty words. Gdyeh—"where." Hochoo—"you want."
     Just as I am puzzling over "to go," I reach the conductor, who is alone. He tells me that it was indeed a ticket problem—a woman wanted to get off at a stop that isn't on this run, so needed to be told she had to transfer at a certain station. Another passenger took care of it.
     As I turn to go, a question comes to mind: "Out of curiosity," I ask the conductor, "how many Russian-speaking passengers volunteered to help?"
     "Including you?" the conductor says. "Thirteen."

                                                        - - -

     Chicago is an ethnic city. Yet when the usual suspects of our global melting pot are rounded up—the Irish and the Poles, the Italians and the Chinese—you have to go way down the list, past the Swedes, past even the Cambodians, until you get to Russians.
     I'm not sure why. Russians were flocking here by the 1880s, according to the Chicago Encyclopedia. Most Chicagoans remember or at least know about the old Maxwell Street market. But who realizes it was an attempt by the city's Russian Jews—in 1930, 80 percent of Chicago Jews were Russian—to reproduce the jam-packed shtetls of their homeland? I didn't.  
Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral

     There were Russian Christians as well—Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral was built in 1903, in part, thanks to a donation from Czar Nicholas II. A fund-raiser was held by Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West show included Cossack riders.
     "We still have a liturgy in Slavonic," said Father John Leavitt, dean of the cathedral. "And traditional Russian foods are blessed at Easter."

                                  - - -

     But that is the past. In the present, the Russian population is swelling. The 2007 Chicagoland's Russian Yellow Pages is 598 pages—twice as big as when it began in 2000— with nearly four dozen pages in full color, for lawyers, banks, real estate agents. Chicago has two Russian newspapers, a daily, the Novy Svet, or New Light, and a weekly, Sybota Ploos, or Saturday Plus.
     "There are about 550,000 Russian speakers in the Chicago area," says Alex Etman, who along with his wife, Emily, publishes the phone book and the newspapers. "Russian Jews, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and people from some former republics, Uzbekistan, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus . . ."
     Etman says immigrants who once went to the city now go directly to the suburbs.
     "We went to Rogers Park, then Northbrook, Highland Park, Glencoe. Now it's Buffalo Grove, Wheeling, Mundelein."
     The population of Buffalo Grove, Etman says, is 18 percent Russian-speaking. That strikes me as a very high figure. But village officials don't think so.
     "That may be about right," says Buffalo Grove Village Manager William Brimm. "That may be a legitimate number."

                                                                 - - -

     Russians are very low key, despite their growing numbers. No big parades, no driving around, waving flags out the window. If I didn't see them in droves on the train, I wouldn't know they are here. Why is that?
     "Very good question," says Etman. "The best kept secret about Russians is, Russians always think that they are late. Most of us came at age 30, 45, 50. We didn't have time to celebrate, to make festivals. Russians are a very hardworking segment of the population."
     Some are, some aren't. Some Russian immigrants are burdened with the legacy of 70 years of the ineptly paternal Soviet state, which has left a lingering hands-in-the-lap, when-is-someone-going-to-tell-me-what-to-do complacency.
     "There are two groups," says Svetlana Fastovskaya, Russian service specialist at Omni Youth Services in Buffalo Grove. "One group is very passive and think they're entitled to everything and the government will serve them. The other group is very high achievers, pushing their children. A 'B' is not acceptable."

                                                               - - -

     Another reason the Russian-speaking population is so understated is that it constitutes such a broad range of nationalities—from proud former Soviet commissars to Kremlin-loathing Lithuanians. Unlike most ethnicities, speaking the language does not necessarily make one a fan of the culture.
     "Some will say, 'I'm not from Russia; I'm from Belarus," said Fastovskaya. "In my experience, there are again two groups: one assimilating and don't want to have anything to do with Russian culture, and other very, very connected with Russian culture."

                                                               - - -

     
Myself, I like to celebrate Russian culture over at Russian Tea Time, on Adams. The carrot salad. The squash piroshki. The special tea. I'm not sure how this influx of immigrants is going to affect Chicago, but while we're fixating on Hispanic immigration, it's worth pausing to remember that they are just the largest element of a constant infusion of new blood, making the city the changing, dynamic, diverse place it was, is and always will be.


CHICAGO'S TOP 10 RUSSIAN-SPEAKING SUBURBS:
City                        Pct.
Buffalo Grove      18.7
Highland Park     18.2
Deerfield               16.1
Glencoe                 14.4
Northbrook          14.3
Skokie                    11.6
Vernon Hills .        9.1
Northfield              9.0
Wheeling                8.9
Wilmette                7.2
Source: Russian Yellow Pages

TODAY'S CHUCKLE . . .

     Bob Hope supposedly once went to the Soviet Union to escape the pressure of celebrity, but quickly came home when he realized nobody there knew who he was.
      That experience -- if true -- might have inspired this quip:
     In Russia they treated me like a czar -- and you know how they treated the czar.
                                           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 2, 2007


     Clarification:


     Lots of response to my item about Russians in Chicago -- my favorite was a simple "Who knew?"
     There were cries of alarm, however, that my list of Russian periodicals was incomplete, ignoring the weekly "Reklama" -- Russian for "advertisement" but denoting a newspaper, the way an American paper might be "The Commercial Appeal."
     "The community is so big and so wealthy and so powerful, yet not a lot of people talk about it," said Igor Golubchik, vice president of the company publishing the Reklama.
     He scoffed at the idea—stated by the publisher of a rival Russian newspaper—that there are 550,000 Russian speakers in the Chicago area.
     "There are no legitimate statistics or data," he said, only willing to estimate that there are "more than 300,000."
     "We know there are a lot of Russians, but any precise numbers they get by sitting around, making them up," Golubchik said.
     There are also Reklamas published in Detroit, Miami and Milwaukee, as well as a Polish version.
     "It's a brand," he said.
      Anyway, the Sun-Times regrets the omission, and notes that there are other Slavic publications out there as well, so they won't feel overlooked and complain, too.


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

‘We all pay the cost’ of city violence


     Before I spoke with Dexter R. Voisin, I prepared by counting articles in that day’s Sun-Times. In the first 17 pages, there were 18 local stories.
     Of those stories, eight — 44 percent — involved violence. Five people shot at a barbershop in East Garfield Park. A 23-year-old man shot and killed hours after an anti-violence rally. Two articles on years of legal ramifications following past homicides. The mayor spending $7.5 million on violence prevention. And more.
     An average day. Or as Voisin, who spent 20 years as a professor at the University of Chicago studying urban violence, puts it in his new book, “America the Beautiful and Violent: Black Youth & Neighborhood Trauma in Chicago”: “The abhorrent has become the American norm.”
     Well, the Chicago norm, anyway. New York and Los Angeles both seem to have discovered some anti-violence secret sauce that eludes us. In 2018, Los Angeles’ murder rate was 6.4 per 100,000 residents; New York’s was 3.7; Chicago’s was 20.7.
     Not bad enough to put us in the top 10 (St. Louis, at No. 1, has triple our murder rate). But enough to wonder what’s wrong and how it can be fixed. Voisin, who last summer moved to Canada to be dean of the University of Toronto’s school of social work, sees Chicago urban violence as reflecting centuries of American political violence.
     ”This is really about resources,” said Voisin. “The structural driver of violence is really a resource issue. If you put white kids, Asian kids, any other group of individuals within these enclaves of need, you would have similar results.”
     ”Enclaves of need” is academic-speak for poor neighborhoods.
     ”These enclaves of need were created by America’s violent policies,” he said. “The lack of resources occur within a few ZIP codes. A small percentage of individuals drive gun violence and gang violence clustered within these abhorrent conditions.”


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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

To boldly go where, well, someone has gone before...

     There's always something.
     It was just after 10 a.m. Monday. The emails from readers, agreeing or disagreeing, finding marijuana overblown or everywhere, some glad I'm back, were answered. The column had been Facebookized and Twittered. There were a few minutes before an 11 a.m. meeting. The thought, "I'll need something for Tuesday," bubbled into mind, and not a particularly welcome thought, either. 
     Oh. Right. This thing....
     Well, then, Harry and Meghan .... that whole forging a “progressive new role within this institution" maybe didn't work out the way they thought it would, eh? Like a boyfriend who starts to air his complaints and finds himself dumped, on the curb, a finger in the air, objecting as she marches off. Perhaps a bit startled, now they're cut off, cooling their heels in Canada, contemplating the old sink-or-swim. Did they never watch "The Crown"? Individualism gets crushed in the royal world. Maybe in the world in general. Leading to the eternal truth: Don't quit the day job.
    Nah, not that....
    At 10:10, an email. 

In Celebration of its 90th Anniversary, the Adler Planetarium Unveils New Brand 

    Well, good for the Adler. And what might that new brand be? Can't be worse than Clark the Cub.
    Ah. I see. They're using the old Star Trek Star Fleet insignia. Or so it seemed to me, based on memory alone. But memory is tricky. Onto Google to see just how close a proximity we're talking about.
    Well, I suppose that's defendable. Not quite the same thing.  Both big yellow As. The Adler's yellow is a little more golden. Star Trek's a little more lemon. The Adler A a bit more rounded at the top and acute at the bottom. And there's that little moonish orbit flourish, which is a nice touch.
     So reminiscent. Evocative.  An homage, perhaps. It did make me wonder what the old logo was like. You'd think, after a few decades it would come to mind. No idea. Check Google, zip. Back to earlier emails. Ah. This.  Well, that puts the new logo in an entirely new light. So yes, maybe a little echo of Star Trek—that isn't a bad thing, this is a logo, not a novel. And heck, everything is a little derivative of something else. It's certainly an improvement, and in this age of general deterioration of all values everywhere, any improvement is to be celebrated. So congrats Adler Planetarium, on the new logo. I haven't been to the Adler since the boys were small; something about stars, right? Might be time to go back and nose around. So the new logo worked.



Monday, January 20, 2020

Legal pot in Illinois: not a big deal


     My parents live in Boulder, Colorado.
     News that causes eyes to light up. How awesome, people exclaim. I smile and say nothing. To me, it’s as if I said I went fishing and got mauled by a bear and they replied, “Fishing! I love fishing! What did you catch?”
     Visiting Boulder regularly since 1973 gives me perspective on its changes. Growing mobs of fitness freaks, sprawling tracts of condos, more every year, crowding out the Rockies. I am never reluctant to come home to Chicago.
     I happened to be in Boulder on Jan. 1, 2014, when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana and was struck by the newspapers standing on chairs, cheering. Every part of every paper was tossing fistfuls of confetti.
     The Denver Post’s home section told readers how to cultivate pot gardens. How to bake pot brownies. Even the “fit!” section: “THC: The powerhouse behind your pot!” No aspect went unexplored: Your dog, could its parasites make your pot plants sick? Somehow the comics remained aloof.
     Yes, it’s news. But the media then goes overboard and starts ballyhooing certain minor vices. Take the lottery. Much celebration of enormous payouts. Occasional dutiful whispers about remote odds of winning. When Powerball rolls over, rapt reportage of the astronomical jackpot. Few observe the rollover also means you could have bought every single ticket sold and still lost.
     Now it’s marijuana’s turn. For the record, I’m glad Illinois legalized it. The federal government should, too.
     Being on medical leave, letting my new titanium hip settle in, I’ve had time to read the coverage welcoming legal pot since Jan. 1. Numerous reports of eager customers lining up in the pre-dawn chill. Of the Chicago City Council bickering over divvying up the pie.
     Every opinion expressed, except the one I formed after five years of legal pot in Colorado: It’s no big deal. People who already partake will pay more, get better product, and the state will get a tax bonanza that, being the state, it will mostly squander. A few folks will be emboldened to give it a try.

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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Flashback 1999: Sunday attire raises several color issues


Nightlife, 1943, by Archibald Motley (Art Institute of Chicago)

     You can't write a column in Chicago and not deal frequently with race. At least I can't. I understand that I'm straying into fraught territory, perhaps better left to others. But I find myself curious about things, and want to follow that curiosity, such as in this column from 20 years ago. My view is, if you are sincere and respectful, you can ask questions, such as why African-American men wear bolder fashions.
     The key is to find the right people to share their knowledge. I have no idea how I ended up talking to Geoffrey Holder, who played Baron Samedi in the 1973 Bond movie "Live and Let Die" before becoming the laughing spokesman for 7-Up. Nor can I explain the column ending, which falls flat—a lost opportunity. I definitely remember, in researching the piece, getting the sense that part of the bright and meticulous fashion, particularly for steppers, was a way to manifest yourself in a society that dismisses your existence, your value. I'm not sure why I didn't emphasize that—maybe I lacked the confidence or nobody said it directly—instead of focusing on the "undercurrent of unease" that the topic drew. Perhaps this intro is my attempt at a do-over.


     My wife and I were strolling the boys down Armitage Avenue one bright Sunday morning when we passed Greater Little Rock The Lord Church, an African-American Baptist church, just as services were letting out.
    The men of the congregation were dressed vividly, in suits of purple or mustard yellow or maroon, and I appraised them with the usual blend of curiosity and envy which I regard better-dressed men, which, given my normal state of shabby rumpledom, is just about everybody.
     "Why don't white men have a sense of style?" my wife asked.
      Somewhat taken aback, I said, "I could buy an electric blue suit, too, if you like." But I knew what she meant. A range of fashion seems available to African-American men that is entirely off-limits for whites. The fact is I could never wear an electric blue suit. I would be a laughingstock.
     Frankly, the question seemed among those delicate matters that is not supposed to be addressed at all. One of the lesser ills of racism—though still a real one—is that the idiotic notion claiming certain races are superior is generally met with the palpable untruth that all races are the same. When, of course, we are not the same.
     Hispanics, for instance, often speak Spanish. Not always. Not exclusively. A Finn may speak Spanish, and a person born in Mexico may not. But, generally, groups tracing their origins to Spanish-speaking countries speak more Spanish than people, say, from France.
     I don't think this is the language of hate. In fact, I think we miss a chance to become more familiar with one another by shutting our eyes to our differences. For years, I was puzzled by what struck me as the oddness of certain names some African Americans gave their children: Jolinda, and such. After stewing on it for years, I finally gathered my courage and asked an African-American colleague, who explained that parents will often take their own names and combine them. Thus John and Linda yield Jolinda. It made sense to me, and I learned something by asking.
     The question remains: Is the popularity of colorful suits among African Americans and their absence among whites a real phenomenon?
     "I would have to say it is a phenomenon," said Willie Scott, a designer for R. Kelly, Isiah Thomas and other celebrities. "African Americans are bold, and boldness means bright colors. African Americans are really into fashion. I don't want to say other races aren't. But we are a little more apt to step out of the norm."
     Distinguished actor Geoffrey Holder finds nothing bold about wearing bright suits "if you can pull it off."
     "If a woman can wear red and a woman can wear emerald green and a woman can wear turquoise blue, why can't a man?" Holder said. "My wife does not dress me—so many men's wives dress them. They want to fit into society so they have to wear the uniform like the rest of society. Brooks Brothers is the uniform for a banker. But I am not a banker. I dress to suit my height and the color of my skin, I dress for the room I'm going to, the space I'm taking over. I dress for my moods, and I wear the colors that I'm lucky in."
     Scott said that dark skin is enhanced by bright color.
     "Certain colors look very nice on African-American men," he said.
     But even on them, he said, it's important to save flashiness for the proper occasion—a night out, or a concert.
     "You need to pick the right time and place," he said. "You don't want to walk into IBM to get a job with your red pinstripe suit."
     I detected an undercurrent of unease and realized, belatedly, that the colorful suits are looked down on by more conservative folks.
     "Absolutely," said Eunice Johnson, the matriarch of African-American fashion, who has been running the Ebony fashion show for 41 years. "A lot of young men just like to be seen rather than heard. Some people are more ostentatious than others. I certainly don't know any men who wear light blue suits and orange suits. Nobody in our fashion shows wears anything like that."
     An older gentleman I approached on Wabash Avenue was wearing pinstriped royal blue slacks, jacket and a matching homburg hat. He wouldn't give his name, but he spoke with a quiet dignity.
     "I'm a stepper," he said. "Stepping is a dance, and I'm part of that subculture. This is just the way steppers dress. . . . I just love colors."
     I ended my investigation genuinely uncertain. Are such matters better examined or left ignored? There's a phrase in Yiddish: shanda fer de goyim which basically means "An embarrassment in front of strangers." It's used to describe anything Jews do that reflects poorly on the religion. If a writer from Ebony called me with questions on Jewish religious art, as reflected by merchandise sold at temple gift shops, I could speak on the subject but would feel a creeping sense that this isn't going to end up a big splashy advertisement for the religion.
     Such discomfort is valuable. Hiding behind false politeness is too easy. I certainly learned something. This is what I learned, sitting in Willie Scott's office, realizing how fabulous he looks and how threadbare and ridiculous I look, dressed in my reporter's rags: I've got to get a better wardrobe.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 17, 1999

Saturday, January 18, 2020

In restaurants we find significance

Rustic duck terrine with Swiss chard at Cellar Door Provisions

     
    Well ... the boys are back at school.
     Sigh.
     Quite the winter break. A solid month. Fun was had. We went to a movie—the weirdly-hallucinogenic "Cats." We ate Lou Malnati's pizza. Twice. We played Settlers of Catan and Bananagrams. We had a big sprawling Hanukkah party, attended a bris. We rang in the New Year. In the middle, I had an new hip installed. They took over dog-walking duties, as per plan.

     We hit our favorite places: Francesco's Hole in the Wall, twice. TAVA in Morton Grove. Blufish and Fuji Yama, where we were sad to discover Irene, the stern overseer, has retired. Just when she had finally come to accept us....
     Fancier restaurants were occasionally involved. Some, the boys went to without the old folks. The younger met a friend at Booze Box ("Good name," I muttered) the self-described "Japanese small-dish and drinking establishment celebrating savory, Japanese Izakaya-style small plates and Japanese street food that is meant to be casual and intentionally full of texture, fat and salt" (maybe it's a translation issue) located under Sushi Dokku. 
     
     Speaking of translation, the older boy met a friend at Avec, leading to my inevitable remark:  "I remember when it was still called 'With'..."
     That isn't much, as far as jokes go. An eye-rolling, dad joke. But it's my joke, and I'm sticking with it. "With," of course, would be a puzzling name for a restaurant, and the idea that it would then go upscale, develop pretensions, and start calling itself "Avec"—"with" in French—maybe you have to be me to think that's funny.
     That crack pretty much sums up my approach toward pricy dining. I try to bring a little Midwestern clear-eyed skepticism to the process. Or at least as much as I can and still go, and have fun, or try to. Can't spend all our money on painful medical procedures....
     The truth is, I'd never go, left to my own devices. I never wake up thinking, "I'd really like to drop $500 on dinner tonight." Nor my wife. But the boys coming home is an increasing rarity; my strategy, rather than the typical parental lay-on-the-guilt-until-they-crack approach, is this: if they have fun while they're here, maybe they'll come home occasionally. 
     So their visits are a kind of permission, a fog of goodwill that gets puffed over chi-chi eateries we would otherwise view harshly were my wife and I to slide ourselves to chew the chow. Not that we would ever do that. Typically, when I see a list of new restaurants, I've never been to any, never heard of any, and don't plan to go. They could open a restaurant called "neil" featuring all the favorite dishes of my youth and I'd look at the food porn color photo, read about the Michelin stars and James Beard awards, muse "I should go there someday" and then forget all about it.
    The boys, however, both really like high-end restaurants. Restaurants are their marker of significance, and I told them to put their heads together and figure out a few places they wanted to try over Christmas break. Whatever they picked would be a whole lot cheaper than flying to Mexico and going out to eat at the Ixtapa Denny's.
     They came up with three: Elske, Omakase Yume and Cellar Door Provisions. Naturally, I had never heard of any of them.
     The first two I'm going to parse next Friday, in my column in the newspaper which (talk about burying the lede) resumes after medical hiatus on Monday. 
    Our final fancy dinner, which, perhaps to their relief, won't fit in the paper, was last Saturday night at Cellar Door, a tavern-like farm-to-table place on Diversey. Interesting little dishes —roasted beets, poached salmon.  A rustic duck terrine with chard. (It was weird. On Tuesday, I could feel the column-writing circuits start to hum, to glow red, as if something unplugged were now  plugged in. Suddenly, the systems booted up and we were back in business).
    Some Cellar Door offerings were a tad too rustic. My older boy tasted his Fable Farm Fermentory Emanation cider—made from "foraged apples," aka apples found rotting on the ground—and suggested my wife might like it.  
    "It tastes like fermented garbage," she said.
    "It tastes like how garbage smells," my younger son elaborated, handing the glass back, his face twisted in disgust. 
    "Exactly!" the older boy said, brightly. "But in a good way!"
     The server was a Gen Z type in a stocking hat and hoodie flat-aspecting  the food over. At least she swung by frequently, which was enough. I liked sitting in the window on a stormy Saturday night, watching the snow fall (I might be a cheap date, as in my post-surgery mode, I still like anything that involves getting out of the house).  When she asked how our dessert was, and we told her that our ice cream so salty we could not eat it, she barely registered the complaint—her expression said, "Unhappy? Tough, here's your bill." My philosophy is, don't ask if the answer isn't going to spark some kind of reaction. Then again, I have a drawer full of t-shirts older than she is, so I suppose the need for some latitude is to be expected. We all must learn our trades, and if this finds its way to the Cellar Door folks, well, let me spill the beans: friendliness can be hip, too. Maybe it was my fault; I skew old for the room's demographic by a good 20 years. Maybe the chill was intentional, the point being: we can't have all these old people eating here, driving away business. Message received.
    Looking back, I all-too-well grasp the scam aspect of expensive restaurants—both places that served bread charged extra for it. Omakase Yume appears presents itself as a prix fixe restaurant, as you'll discover next week, but that's more theoretical than real. The prix fixe meal is only the beginning. Not to complain. Dining out costs money, and you're paying both for food and to forge memories. Though this crop of new places makes me even more secure in my general strategy of returning again and again to those few restaurants I already know and love. Not that any of these places were dogs. But they weren't the oh-my-God-I-have-to-come-back-here-and-eat-MORE experience of first encountering, say, Green Street Smoked Meats. Which is why I always go to new restaurants, when asked. Because one of them might be Green Street Smoked Meats. Unless you're open to new experiences, you'll never discover anything. Bottom line: the boys were happy, which made my wife and me happy, and if they want to come back for spring break, well, the offer stands.   

Friday, January 17, 2020

Profiles in Cowardice

Chamber of Deputies, by Honore Daumier (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Here's what I will never understand.
     Senators are smart. Even Republican senators. They see the ruin awaiting Trump toadies. The smoldering hulks that used to be Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, et al. Those in prison or heading there.  The inversion of Rudy Giuliani from the nation's mayor to a clown's consigliere. The contempt Trump holds for his staunchest allies, the without-a-second-thought with which he disposes them when convenient. The harsh judgment of history awaiting. They must know.
    And yet Sens. Mitch McConnell and Susan Collins. They grovel and scrape and cast off whatever principles they might have had. Just as Reps. Jim Jordan and Devon Nunes and Kevin McCarthy did during the trial in the House. Because ...
    They do it because ...
    Well, at this point they've been doing it for years. Sink or swim with Donald Trump. Chalk it up to habit. Is that it?
    They do it because ...
    Their jobs, right? They figure they'll be primaried by some more zealous Trump supporter, and their pro-Trump constituencies will give them the heave-ho.
     Granted, being senator is a good job. Salary: $174,000 a year. But not that good. It's less than what a new attorney gets at a top firm straight out of law school. There must be better jobs. Most of the senators are millionaires already. They aren't living off their salaries.
     So the power then. Power to ... what? Sink with Donald Trump? Is this the job they thought they signed up for? Is there nothing else? But what about their pride? Their sense of duty? Honor? Religion? Patriotism?
     Empty words.
     The Senate trial is an opportunity, or should be, or should have been. Spouting love for the Donald out of one side of their mouths, they could have given in to responsibility, to the Constitution, then to the overwhelming evidence of guilt. Aren't any of them sly? Apparently not. Not a sigh. Not a raised eyebrow. Nothing, but kowtowing, groveling, in-the-dirt-obeisance.
     You'd think somebody would. Just one. But no. Even Mitt Romney, who occasionally musters a limp, weak tea protest before drawing it back. Susan Collins used to give lip service to her morals before caving in. Now she doesn't even do that.
     A most disgusting show of cowardice.
     Who opposes Trump and wonders if they are doing the right thing? And worries how the future will look back on us? Anyone? I don't.
     Certainty doesn't mean much, I suppose. Tap any Trump supporter on the shoulder at a rally and they are 100 percent certain in their full and unconditional support. So I hesitate to present my certainty as significant. That's one of the many hall-of-mirrors nightmares of this era. There is no term that can be honestly applied to Trump that he hasn't already tossed off in all directions.
     But I am certain that opposing Donald Trump is a patriotic duty, almost sacred in its alignment with all concepts of democracy, freedom, morals, human decency. I have no doubt whatsoever that no matter what occurs in this country, it is something I will look back on with pride, or my children will look back on with pride, and if that is in conflict with the general consensus, it will mean that Trump has triumphed—as he might—and we are still in the dark age that follows. But that dark age will end because all dark ages do.  The story can't end with Trump winning. It can't it can't it can't. Enough people will stand up, vote, resist. It has to happen.
     I can't understand it. I love my job, but if my bosses told me I had to ballyhoo Trump, I would give it up. Go do something else. Greet people at Home Depot. At least I hope I would. You can't predict your own courage with absolute certainty. Nobody expects himself to be hiding in the pickle barrel when the bugle sounds. But I like to think I would stand tall. People do such things all the time, leap into rivers to save drowning people, walk the point on patrol in Afghanistan. Run into burning buildings, charge up dark staircases, guns drawn. Not that I'm comparing rhetoric to actual physical heroism. But putting yourself at risk for a cause. Why is heroism so common in some professions, and so rare in others? So scarce in the United States Senate? This could have been their moment to shine. Instead it is their moment of shame.
    I'll never understand it.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The mayor puts her foot down


     Watched the presidential debate Tuesday night. Not much to add to the general roar. The whole thing seems beside-the-point right now. One of these candidates will have to defeat Donald Trump. Or lose to him.
      Or Michael Bloomberg will swoop in and do the job. Though that seems improbable, no matter how many commercials he runs.  Besides, is another self-absorbed billionaire really the answer to whatever our country's real problem is?
     The next day, discussing the outcome with my younger son, he mentioned that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is at a disadvantage compared to Joe Biden, since black Americans won't support him, because he's gay, and African-Americans have a particular animus toward gays.
     According to common wisdom. The idea is that, being devout church going folk, they hold the prejudices of the Christian faith a little tighter than most.
     The common wisdom. But is it actually true? I went looking for numbers. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that while 62 percent of white American adults support same-sex marriage, only 51 percent of black American adults do.
     A gap, though not a huge gap. Maybe the effect is magnified because it is more surprising to see blacks being homophobic—just as it is surprising to see them being anti-Semitic—because the of the charmed notion that, having been subject to such prolonged and systemic bigotry themselves, blacks might be more reluctant to inflict baseless hatred upon others.
     Pretty to think so. I don't see much evidence of that being true for any minority group. Racism is a kind of false power, and sometimes disadvantaged groups are even more quick to resort to it, having little else to boost themselves than to jeer at someone they can consider lower. Jews certainly have suffered tremendously at the hands of history, and while Jews, as a group, have certainly worked toward aiding the struggles of other minorities, they also, as individuals, are perfectly capable of expressing the vilest prejudices.
     There was an example of black anti-gay bias on display this week in the Chicago City Council. Mayor Lightfoot sponsored a resolution to look into whether LGBTQ businesses are discriminated against when doing business with the city. During committee debate Tuesday, several black aldermen took turns looking askance at it. Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., questioned whether white gay men can be considered victims of prejudice at all. "I don't think they're discriminated against," he said, incredibly invoking “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” an Adam Sandler yuck-fest where two straight firemen pretend to be gay to gain benefits. He wondered: how can you even tell whether a person is gay or not? What if people are making it up?
     On Wednesday, at the general meeting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot stood up and was having none of it.
     "I don't normally speak during City Council debates," Lightfoot began, in an angry rebuttal. “As a leader, as a black gay woman proud on all fronts, I have to say I’m disturbed by the nature of the committee discussion and the nature of the discussion here today...I will be silent no more on any issue when people say and do things that are offensive and racist, I feel I have an obligation to speak and so I am.""
     I won't go into her whole remarks. They're brief; you can watch them here. But I have to say, I continue to be impressed with Lightfoot. Yes, she is only standing up for her own, and that is not exactly a profile in courage. It is the least anyone can do. Still, she is without a doubt standing up. Often, when a person from a minority group comes to power, they promptly ignore that group, figuring their support is secure. Barack Obama was an example of that—not exactly going out on a limb to help black Americans. But Lightfoot doesn't seem as if she's going to fall into that rut. Good for her.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The squirrels win a round

    Human beings have a genius for ignoring warning signs.  In matters big and matters small.
    An example of the former is found if you've been following the for-the-textbooks corporate meltdown at Boeing over the 737 Max, with mocking emails painting a corporate culture 180 degrees opposite to everything they purported to be. Negligence that will end up costing a thousand dollars in real losses for every buck saved through corner cutting and betrayal of their standards. You wonder why there wasn't one adult in the room, screaming bloody murder over this act of corporate sepukku. Who quit in protest? Nobody, apparently.
     Why? Because they're humans, and humans tend to shrug and overlook. Look at climate change. The whole world being destroyed before our eyes. Ho-hum, from some quarters.
     Nor does the issue have to be huge to spark willful blindness. We run the gamut, from leaking levees to fraying shoelaces. We see the trouble brewing. We think: "I should do something." Then do nothing. Even on tiny matters.
     As an example of small negligence, consider the bird feeder in my backyard. On Wednesday, I looked outside and noticed that my foolproof anti-squirrel system—a clear shower rod supporting a circular baffle—had collapsed, the thin plastic of the rod finally being degraded by the elements. It had done so a couple times before, and I had always managed to rig it back up. The thing to do would be to buy a new rod, but that would take a trip to the hardware store and $5 or $10.
     "I'll have to fix that before a squirrel gets in," I thought Wednesday, doing nothing.
     Then Thursday, this. A loathsome squirrel, face down my bird food. My birds' food. He must have shimmied up the pole (the shower rod keeps squirrels from grabbing the pole with their powerful, robber's hands) and pried off the cover. These squirrels are so devious, I wouldn't be surprised to find one picking a Yale lock.
     I should, I thought, stride outside and immediately fix it. But that would involve putting on boots. Which would require first putting a sock on my right foot. Which is still a task that requires concentration and not a little pain. I made a mental note to take care of that ASAP.
     Friday, the squirrel was back, bird feeder diving again. And I resolved, the very next time I'm outdoors, to be driven—I can't yet drive—to the hardware store and grab a new pole, get things back in shipshape order, so that the feeder can serve the valued members of the Steinberg yard community, aka birds, and not provide further energy to the loathed and already plenty hyperkinetic interlopers whose presence might be tolerated, but should never be encouraged, even through inaction.

 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Strange interlude 2008: The house without bling

     This post-surgery recuperation is taking longer than I expected. Two full weeks now. Apologies. It's frustrating for me too. But I have to kinda take my body's lead on this thing, and the body says, "chill." Some stretching exercises, some physical therapy, and I'm done for the day. Even posting this seems almost a bridge too far, but I think I can manage. It's hard to read much, never mind write anything. Maybe next week.
     Thank goodness there is royal scandal, although honestly, it quickly morphed, in my eyes, from some nutty British crown-watching kerfuffle, to Something Significant About Race, influenced by this revealing Afua Hirsh piece in the Sunday New York Times, and BuzzFeed's jaw-dropping comparison of press coverage of Kate Middleton v. Meghan Markle. 
     I'm tempted to just leave it at that. But this is my blog, and I should join the party. So I wondered what, if anything, I wrote about Prince Harry over the years, and found this, when the Drudge Report outed him during his military service. Frankly, the fact he served in a combat zone should buy him significant goodwill, and my prediction is that Harry & Meghan's recent pushback against the racist British press will someday be seen as among their finest hours. I left in the breakfast table conversation about bling because, well, I had to. For the record, the younger boy is the least ostentatious 22-year-old I ever met. So I guess my anti-bling pushback worked.

OPENING SHOT . . .

     See? Journalists aren't quite the scum you think we are. For 10 weeks, Britain's Prince Harry had been fighting with his unit in Afghanistan, and the normally rapacious and cut-throat British media kept the whole thing in a cone of silence, until his cover was blown by the Drudge Report (is Matt Drudge having a good week, or what? First the American media swallows his Obama-in-a-turban photo, hook, line and sinker, then he eats the British press' lunch and leaves them muttering about bad form).
     In return for not turning a blaze of publicity that might get the 23-year-old royal killed, the British media was granted access to take photos and conduct interviews with him. It seemed a win-win situation all around. Perhaps their role in hounding Harry's mother -- Princess Diana -- to her grave gave the Brits a rare sense of duty.
     Is it bad that Drudge blew his cover? Well, somebody had to feed the news to him, so if Drudge knew, it was hours away from hitting other Web sites anyway. Still, the whole episode shows that restraint is possible, even in this day and age.

STUDS TERKEL IS NOT BLING

     "Dad, can we get Bling Water?" asks the 12-year-old, the Sun-Times spread on the kitchen counter before him, open to news that the Trump Hotel is selling water for $25 in crystal-encrusted bottles.
     "No," I say. "We are not a household that embraces bling."
     He keeps talking, but I am lost in reverie. My boy, 15 years hence, 350 pounds, wearing a sequin baseball cap turned sideways. Bedecked in gold pendants and chains, he sits on a folding chair in a circle of large, similarly-appointed men.
     "Sure we had love, a roof over our head, food on the table," I say, out-loud to the kitchen, approximating his voice, channeling the future scene, where he brushes away a tear as sympathetic, bejeweled hands are placed on his shoulder. "But we had no bling. My father never valued bling. I hated him for that."
     My wife, the cheerleader of the status quo, jumps in.
     "We went to the opera last night," she says. True—'The Barber of Seville.' Lovely. "The opera is bling."
     "The opera is not bling," I insist.
     "We sat in Studs Terkel's seats," she continues—the guy next to us told us that Studs once sat where we were sitting. "That's bling."
     "Studs Terkel is not bling!" I spit, fiercely. "He's a literary icon but not bling. He's 95. He has red socks."
     "Studs is a fan of the Red Sox?" says my wife, puzzled.
     "No he WEARS red socks!" I retort. "Red socks are not bling."
     "I think red socks are kinda bling," she says, deflating.
     "Why can't we get the water?" my son persists. I expect the Marx Brothers to burst in at this point. Somebody has to lay down the law.
     "I am de faddah," I say, in my best Laurence Olivier in "The Jazz Singer" voice, "and I say, we hef no bling in zis household."
     I glance from boy to boy.
     "You kids . . ." I begin, my voice dripping contempt. "With your bling, and your hip, and your hop. I forbid it! I will not hef der hip und der hop."
     And I storm off to work.
                                        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 2, 2008