Monday, May 31, 2021

‘You fight alone, you’re dead.’

Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia


     Memorial Day, on Monday, honors the fallen, as opposed to Veterans Day, in November, which honors living vets. That must be complicated, because some folks always point it out. Which must also be necessary, since others still get it wrong.
     I want to lump the two together and focus on the “honor” part. What does that mean exactly? What does honoring vets, living or dead, look like? Fly the flag, say the pledge —that’s what I do. Post on Facebook old photos of family members who served? Lots of that. Share stories of military bravery on social media, waved under the noses of other people, almost as a rebuke. I double-dog dare you to share this!
     And all this honoring helps ... who exactly? It certainly feels good for the person doing it. Nothing wrong with that. I like flying the flag. Going through the motions of respect has gravitas and the illusion of significance. 
     But honor, in itself, is overrated. Honor is so easy. A solemn nod. A ginned up tear. And back to the TV or barbecue. Everyone is so happy to congregate again; I’m hosting one barbecue and attending another.
     It’s also easy for the holiday’s purpose to be overlooked entirely.
     This at a time when the military is more important than ever. You can argue whether the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made us safer. But I believe to the bottom of my heart that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, and other career soldiers saved American democracy last fall. They never fired a shot, but they stood shoulder to shoulder and kept us from becoming a dictatorship. We don’t know the full scope yet. But we will.
     In the meantime, entertain the idea that all that moist-eyed flag waving might wound the very people it is supposed to uplift.
     “It upsets me when so-called Americans go and fly these flags on these various holidays, Memorial Day and Veterans Day,” said William Hooks, who served for 20 years in the Marine Corps. “They play the game, when the time to be compassionate toward veterans is when one needs bus fare. Who needs a second chance or a job."

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Sunday, May 30, 2021

Popping into Sunset Foods.

 

Ron Bernardi

     Ron Bernardi's four uncles, the Cortesi brothers, started Sunset Foods in Highland Park in 1937. He started bagging groceries there at age 16 in 1959, the year before I was born, and was still at it Friday morning when I stopped by the Northbrook Sunset to pick up some cranberry juice.
     Not that Bernardi, 77, hasn't risen above grocery bagging in the ensuring 62 years. He became not only the manager of the Northbrook store—there are five Sunsets in the Northwest suburbs, all still family-owned—but has been the chain's public face as community liaison, and is perhaps the most well-known, and certainly the most well-liked, person in Northbrook.
     He doesn't officially have a role in running the store, but is still there a lot, and certainly was playing a role Friday.
     Just seeing him is fun. We always pause to chat. A proud Italian, he introduced bocce ball to Northbrook Days, and my family enjoyed many a fierce match because of it. He wasn't around the store much during COVID, for obvious reasons. Or he might have been; we weren't there. After a few quasi-terrified forays into the store early in the epidemic, which had the feel of hurrying into an abandoned and leaking nuclear reactor to grab provisions and rush out, we took to having our groceries delivered to the trunk of our car like many others in the leafy suburban paradise.
     Just shopping in person again felt joyous, and to the cranberry juice I added Zayde cookies from Leonard's Bakery, a pint of blueberries (only $2.99) and a few containers of Arctic Zero ice cream-like substance. Seeing Ron there, bagging away, made the visit complete. I already knew why he was doing it—businesses of all sorts have been scrambling for help lately—but supposition is a fraught endeavor in my line of work, so I had to ask him. I could see he was reluctant to be yanked from the bagger's rhythm, but when he saw it was me behind my mask he paused to answer.
     "It's Memorial Day; don't want customers bagging their own groceries," he said, jumping the gun a bit. "It's called one-on-one leadership. We're a team."
     That's true. I've had more friendly, one-on-one interactions with management at Sunset than I have with all the other stores in Northbrook combined. We live in whatever the opposite of a food desert may be. A food oasis, I suppose. Besides Sunset, within 10 minutes of our house is a Jewel, a Mariano's, a Trader Joe's, a Whole Foods, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something. With apologies to Sunset, I admit I will visit those stores, under certain specific situations. If I happen to pass by for instance. I accompanied my son to get shoes at the DSW near the Trader Joe's, and suggested we stop in and grab a few jars of this tremendous dark fudge sauce they sell, nearing Margie's Candy quality. But the kid wasn't interested so we didn't. Mariano's has an extensive flower section, and I slid by there to grab a bouquet for my wife's birthday. Jewel sometimes has killer sales, or a certain item—say Bays Brioche English Muffins—that Sunset doesn't stock. And Whole Foods, well, I never go in for any reason, on shifting principles: originally because of its mendacious, these-products-were-coaxed-from-Mother-Earth-by-Pueblos pretensions, lately because Amazon gets enough of my dollar without me seeking them out.
     But Sunset is our go-to store. It's close. I love walking over, even though that limits what I can buy. I walked there Friday, though it was raining. It's friendly, and they understand that food is an essential to human existence, and the acquiring of it more than a mere economic transaction. Emotions are involved. The last time I was at Jewel, picking up those English muffins, I also grabbed some Peet's Coffee, on sale for $8.99 a bag instead of the usual $10.99. I double-checked the price on the shelf because sometimes they slap the sale price under any old bag and you don't find out until I'm in front of the cashier. Yup, Major Dickinson's blend. Two bucks off. I almost took a photo of the sign, to show the clerk after I failed to get the two bucks off, but didn't, and regretted it. Sure enough, the discount never appeared when she tallied my groceries up. When I pointed their error out, the clerk said, flatly, "Are you sure it's on sale?"
     I did not have the courage to say, "No, I just like having my ability to perceive numbers and my basic honesty questioned by a cashier." But instead I brightly told her I would gladly go check and snap the photo that I should have taken in the first place. But she mutteringly took the $2 off with the huffy air of someone indulging a fraud, even though I was the one almost cheated and then forced to point out their screw-up. That would never happen at Sunset. Not that a mistake could never happen; they're human. But when one does, they're sincere and apologetic and accommodating, because they're happy you're there, and so are you.


Saturday, May 29, 2021

Chicago notes: Trouble at home.

Part of going home is seeing the things you love, like the
Chagall windows at the Art Institute of Chicago.


    Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey is back in Chicago, on the Northwest Side. But that doesn't mean everything is as it should be, yet. Her Saturday report:



                                         Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around
                                         once in a while, you could miss it.                
                                                                                 — Ferris Bueller.

     Ferris and his girlfriend Sloane stood before the stained glass window pictured here at the Art Institute of Chicago after being transformed by the art they took in that day. You may know that it was created by Marc Chagall, nee Moishe Shagal, whose montages have inspired so many of us over the years.
     A local filmmaker, Hart Ginsburg, says “the power of montage is to create a fluid experience where the heart can open, the mind can wander, and the imagination can run free, untethered by judgment or logic.” You can view Hart’s work at digitaltapestries.site, and I recommend it. There you can enjoy short, beautiful film montages as well as other tools for inner growth and self-soothing.
                              If I create from the heart, nearly everything works;
                              if from the head, almost nothing.
                                                                       — Marc Chagall
     As I tumble back to Chicago looking for grounding, I discovered my new place near Elston & Milwaukee is under a very loud point of O’Hare’s flight path. Friends suggest “ear plugs!” “sound machines!” “you’ll get used to it!” They didn’t realize I have been wearing ear plugs, have two sound machine’s going, and also took hydroxyzine (which I do not like to do), and even so I get woken up at intervals throughout the night to the walls shaking and a big jet engine.
     I have not slept through one night since I moved in last Sunday. I’ve had to take today to just stop. I have decided to clear out— thank goodness I have not yet signed a lease. Given what’s happening I’ve taken today to just stop. I have learned over the years when things get this stressful the only thing to do is chose a different path rather than hammering over and over the same one.
     Watching my thoughts each time I woke up last night was a salve. “I don’t have to think about this right now. It’s time to rest,” I told myself. I put a sound meditation from Insight Timer on to soothe me back to sleep after one ominous rumble. The next time I woke up I caved and took more hydroxyzine (similar to Benadryl, but specifically for sleep).
     We would all prefer things to be peaceful and serene, but that’s not how life goes. Meditation is a tool I use to quiet my mind at the worst of times, and in the best of times. It’s a muscle that grows with use. The purpose of meditation is to find moments of respite from our active minds, and to become fully present in the moment. We often live in thoughts of the past and the future, which can exhaust us and prevents us from enjoying life as it is. Our thoughts can rob us of time. Sure, we have to set goals and solve problems to the best of our ability, but we can also immerse ourselves in the good things around us. Last night I spent hours with my nephew and recognized all along the way how grateful I was for this time with one of my favorite people.
     As Ram Dass says in his meditation called Imagine (available on YouTube; I like the one with music by Boreto), as long as we are locked into our thoughts we are always just one thought away from here. So as I sit here in the chilly apartment I will leave soon (once I figure out alternate lodging), I feel my cold feet in wool socks, cold hands and nose (my winter clothes are packed somewhere in a suitcase in my car), I decided to re-write this blog as a means of finding clarity. 
Pulling my mind out of the actions I will need to take, and instead placing fingers on keys and clicking away. As I told a client today, if we can get to a place of self-soothing and problem solving we will have more peace of mind. We are all getting older and one day will be in bed and we won’t get out. How will we feel OK through the natural process of life if we cannot feel OK when things really are, relatively, OK?
     According to the Mayo Clinic website, some of the benefits of meditation include reducing negative emotions, increasing imagination and creativity, increasing patience and tolerance, managing symptoms of conditions such as anxiety, chronic pain, sleep problems, tension headaches, and more.
     I will now find my space heater if I can, take a hot bath, rest, and regroup. Be well and see you all next week.

Friday, May 28, 2021

A rapist and slaver who did other things


 
     Thomas Jefferson had six children with Sally Hemings. At least. Quite a lot, really.
     How that fact eluded me through a lifetime of reading history speaks to the sort of history I’ve been reading. I knew about Hemings, but not the half-dozen kids.
     If they’re old news to you, apologies. Nothing is duller than being told what you already know. I’m genuinely uncertain whether I need to further identify Hemings as Jefferson’s property. Or ID Jefferson as the third president. It’s true, he was.
     The Hemings story, once a whispered calumny, has been embraced, even celebrated by those running Jefferson’s planation home of Monticello. I visited there last Friday while hanging around Charlottesville, Virginia, waiting for my youngest to receive his law degree. We travelled 800 miles to watch him walk across the stage and be handed his diploma.
      Or so I believed, until reality intruded, as reality will do, eventually.
      I’d been to Monticello several times, and every time the history of the enslaved persons who worked there becomes more prominent, as does scrutiny, given the evil that Jefferson tried and failed to ban at our nation’s founding. Decades ago, the 600 Black people owned by Jefferson were called “servants.” Then they became “slaves,” but that was seen as ... what? Too reductive, perhaps. “Enslaved persons” is now their preferred term, perhaps to finally work “person” into the description.
     Touring Jefferson’s home, I felt as if I were myself two different people admiring the gardens and staring into the wine cellar. One who went to grade school at a time when Blacks show up only fleetingly in American history in the form of Crispus Attucks, who arrives just in time to be gunned down at the Boston Massacre, then submerge until John Brown and the origins of the Civil War.

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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Unoverwhelmed.

 


     "I'm glad we decided to work Saturday," I said Monday, humping yet another bag of trash out of my son's Charlottesville apartment and toward the complex's dumpsters, 100 yards away. "If we hadn't, we'd be overwhelmed. Now we're just whelmed."
     It was pointed out to me that the last word isn't a word. I promised I would check at the first opportunity, suspecting that "overwhelmed" is what etymologists call an "unpaired word"—a word that doesn't exist without their negative (or positive) prefixes. We become "disabled" but not "abled."
     Three days and nearly 800 miles later, back at my home office, I checked my Oxford English Dictionary. Wrong. "Whelm" is parsed for a full column and a half. "1. intr To overturn, capsize. obs." with a variety of related meanings. "To cover completely with water or other fluid so as to ruin or destroy." 
     So in a sense, "overwhelm" is redundant, as "whelm" seems to serve nicely. "To engulf or bear down like a flood, storm, avalanche, etc; hence to involve in destruction or ruin" such as the challenge of condensing the contents of a student apartment into the back of a Honda Odyssey.
     Indeed, many terms which seem to the untrained eye like unpaired words actually have long-forgotten roots. You can be both "gruntled" and "kempt," for instance. Or could be at one point.
     So maybe "overwhelm" is another pleonasm, like "batshit crazy," piling on words for added effect. "Overwhelm," like "overlavish," does means pretty much mean the same its root word. "1. To overturn, overthrow, upset" with a second meaning, "2. To cover (anything) as with something turned over and cast upon it; to bury or drown beneath a superincumbent mass; to submerge completely (usually implying ruin or destruction)."
    "Superincumbent"—this process never ends—means, "Lying or resting upon, or situated on the top of, something else; overlying." It strikes me as a handy euphemism for ... well, never mind. 
     That said, "overwhelm" was simply the wrong word, as we were not ruined, but coped handily. Yes, I felt a pang of guilt—the plan had been to spend Saturday hiking in the Shenandoah National Park. But the temperature was in the mid-80s, we were semi-tired from several hours strolling around Monticello, and the task had begun to grind us down already. We had to conserve energy, achieve our end, return the key and drive home, eventually. Packing instead of hiking wasn't a mistake, as I sometimes say when a reader points out to a word they don't like, it was a choice.
      Though there was a moment of moral victory I have to share. Much pre-trip conversation centered upon whether or not his mattress would fit, perhaps folded, in the back of the van. My wife insisted it would not. My son, imbued with all the optimism and endless possibilities of youth, countered that we would easily get it in. We saw there was no point in even trying, and  dragged it to the dumpster too. Just before we left, he considered the Odyssey and observed "I get the sense the mattress wouldn't have fit anyway." I get the sense he's right.




Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Washington Court House


     We stopped for the night in Washington Court House, Ohio, a small city—population 14,000—whose name demands explanation, particularly since the imposing structure on Main Street is not officially known as the Washington Court House, but the Fayette County Courthouse, Washington C.H. as the name is sometimes abbreviated, being the seat of Fayette County. 
   Rather, the name speaks to the lack of creativity, or excess of patriotic zeal, of those who settled Ohio in the early 1800s. There were lots of place named after the father of our country, and as the state congealed, and roads were built, and the various Washingtons became acquainted with each other, they sorted themselves out as New Washington and Old Washington, Port Washington and Washingtonville and Washington Court House, being the Washington with the court house in it (this one, built in 1885, is the town's third, and still in use).
      With the anniversary of the George Floyd killing, I took particular interest in this plaque located before the courthouse. It seemed a positive that the residents would feel proud enough, or perhaps just compelled, to commemorate the shooting of a lynch mob on a plaque. Though McKinley, who'd become president in 1897 and himself shot in 1901, was being optimistic: there would be dozens more extra-judicial killings in Ohio before the lynch era came to an end in 1937, though it should be noted, because it will be a surprise to some, that about half the victims were white people.
    William Dolby, by the way, served 13 years of his sentence and then was released. The state gave him a $5 bill to start his life anew.




Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Choose wisely.




     "I think the Greenbrier is nearby," I had said, as we drove into West Virginia, coming from the east.
     I've always had a fondness for big old style resorts, and have stayed at a few: The Broadmoor, in Colorado Springs. The Grand Hotel at Mackinac. I was hoping we'd see the famous old hot springs hotel from the road, perhaps plant the seed for a future visit.
     Later, I wasn't thinking about the place when we pulled off at an unnamed rest stop at Mile 182. My wife suggested we walk around the building—we like to walk on trips, shake off the stiffness from the car, stretch our legs, get the blood moving.
The Greenbrier Hotel view.
The rest area overlook.
     We were surprised to find a wooded area, with a path. We followed the path until it divided into a T. To the left, the sign pointed toward the "GREEENBRIER HOTEL OVERLOOK." To the right, the "RESTAREA OVERLOOK," the lack of the proper space somehow seeming apt. That's a no brainer. We headed left. After a very brief walk, we were treated to a view of the sprawling white hotel, the lush green mountains beyond, bright forest in front, piles of white clouds, the blue sky.
     We stood a moment, savoring the panorama.
     I have to admit, I would have clomped back to the car at that point.
     But my wife suggested we see what the other view was like.
     So we returned to the woods, went past the sign, again a very few steps.
     We gazed in a kind of wonder at the rest area overlook, and enjoyed a very different view. A picnic table. A garbage can. And beyond it, the roof of the rest area, as promised, and beyond it the highway, Route 35, with cars and trucks whizzing by.
    We stood and soaked that in, briefly.
     I had to wonder, returning to the car, how many people, not knowing what the Greenbrier is, only went to the right overlook, and missed the one to the left? 
    That's life, ain't it? A little knowledge helps.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Willpower in a box



     Children are a portal to the future. Or should be, in their capacity as members of the next generation you know very well and observe closely. I can't tell you how much I've learned from my boys. My oldest got me drinking Soylent when time is tight. My youngest first informed me that "oriental" is not a word that people use in conversation anymore. He's introduced me to music from the Black Keys to Lizzo. Just now he deposited a gift check using his cell phone. I knew that is possible, having seen him do it before. But I'm not ready for that yet.
     Another practice that the jury is out on is the phone safe. He bought a container to put his cell phone in while he studied law. When I first heard of the practice, I looked down on it, as people tend to do with unfamiliar technology. It seemed to betray a lack of willpower, a swapping of mechanical determination for human control. Somehow seeing the thing: it's a simple white container with a timing mechanism in the lid that sends two plastic tabs out, sealing it shut, made me begin to suspect it's the opposite: owning this is an expression of willpower, removing the temptation to take a break and surf the net by tucking away the source of temptation.
      The makers of the device say it's not only good for cell phones, but "cigarettes, keys, snacks and credit cards."
     Or TV remotes. I've developed a powerful affection for "The Sopranos," having avoided it when it first came out 20 years ago. I haven't yet shirked my writing duties to catch another episode or two. But I can imagine that day arriving.
     Still, I'd be loathe to supplement my will with an electronic hidey hole. 
     Maybe I'm coming to it from a recovery point of view. When I got sober, 15 years ago, I deliberately avoided living in a liquor-free house, at least after the first few months. I would explain to people that it won't work long term to base sobriety on not knowing how to find alcohol. Staying on the path because you never encounter temptation seemed a hollow, fragile, even false victory. So my fridge has always been full of beer and wine I don't drink. I kinda like having it there. It's worked so far...
      Another reason I'd never buy one of these timed safes is that they're quite expensive. The one I found on Amazon, called a "Kitchen Mini-Safe" cost $70. You can see it here.
      The "kitchen" part seems to speak for the device's role in dieting. You can eat two cookies now, then lock the rest away for a day, or two, or five. Which is effective, though extreme.
     I asked my lad about it, and he said that studies back up its effectiveness. Its value, he says, isn't just that it takes away the ability to look at the phone, but stops your thinking about doing so. "It's not about willpower," he said. "It's about concentration."
     So what do you think? Is this a prudent measure? Maybe I'll give his a try in the few weeks he's home.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

‘Jonathan Toews eats his vegetables’

Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia


     There's an interesting backstory to this. After I wrote a column about Rich Cohen's new book about being a hockey dad, Chicago Steel publicist Shannan Bunting, mistakenly believing I care about hockey, approached me with the idea of doing a column on players  billeting during COVID. I interviewed one fine young man. Nothing I could put in the paper. Then another. Again nothing I would print. I politely tried to communicate that. Nevertheless she persisted, suggesting I talk to the Gravenhorsts. 
     Certain I was wasting my and their time, but polite to a fault, I made the call. An hour later we were still talking, and I knew this would be a fun piece, and also knew just where to put it: the Saturday Sports Wrapper, a cornucopia of diverse, in-depth, Sports Illustrated-quality stories, which would take 2,000 words on this subject without blinking. 
     The photos are by the essential Ashlee Rezin Garcai, who also noticed a few details that slipped past me, such as the skinned knuckles and the exchanged smirks. I've worked with many great photographers, from Pulitzer Prize-winner John H. White to Robert A. Davis, who shot personal photos for Oprah, and Eva Longoria's wedding in Paris, and she's right up there with the best of them. 

     Even with no one in it, the kitchen in Marcy and Brian Gravenhorst’s Aurora home gives away the game: Something unusual is going on here. One big bowl is filled with protein bars. Another with Goldfish crackers. A third with clementines. Two large bottles of honey, plus jumbo jars of Nutella and peanut butter. In the fridge, Gatorade. In the oven, lasagna is baking for dinner. Lots of lasagna.

     “I made two pans,” says Marcy.
      A lot of food for a retired couple: Brian is 70, a retired computer programmer. Marcy is 69, a retired special ed teaching assistant. But they are not alone.
     “Should I call the munchkins to dinner?” Marcy asks Brian.  
     “Call the troops!” he decrees.
     Downstairs clomp Lukas Gustafsson, Jack Bar and Simon Latkoczy, three members of the Chicago Steel hockey team. They are the Gravenhorsts’ dinner guests tonight and every night; the three players have lived with the couple for almost nine months.
     “Three 18-year-olds,” elaborates Brian, letting that sink in. “Hockey players are always hungry.”
     Welcome to the world of hockey billet families. The public is so enamored with professional sports, parsing every detail of the National Hockey League’s teams and stars, they might not even be aware of the modest traditions of the United States Hockey League. Here, players are paid literally nothing — which is a step up for them, because before they were paying for the privilege of playing the sport. The USHL is a place to hone their skills, get accepted to a good college and maybe, just maybe, catch the attention of the pros.
     A salary of $0 doesn’t leave much for living expenses, however. This is where billet families step in, to house them, feed them and mother them, performing various practical tasks, like taking a pair of Finns to the Finnish consulate to vote for the first time.
     The Gravenhorsts are the oldest of the Steel’s 15 billet families — sometimes referring to themselves as “hockey grandparents” — hosting for their sixth year. Like many grandparents, the couple sweats the details. Three flagpoles next to their garage display the national flag for each player, greeting them when they arrive, plus the American flag over the front door. The players are supposed to do their own laundry, but Marcy won’t allow that — that would involve teenage males fiddling with her washing machine. They are expected to get their dirty clothes and linen into a clothes hamper which, as any parent of boys knows, is already placing the bar pretty high.
     The Gravenhorsts do this . . . why exactly?
     For Marcy, it is all about hockey.
     “I’m a rabid Chicago Blackhawks fan and have been since forever,” she says. They’d hosted foreign exchange students — for at most a few weeks at a time. Then the Chicago Steel moved to Geneva.
     “They were looking for billet homes,” says Marcy. “We’re not that far from the Fox Valley Ice Arena.”
     And Brian, well, he’s married to Marcy, and then there is the joy of keeping the boys fed.
     “I do grilling, I do ribs, I do pulled pork,” says Brian, “I also do a brisket from time to time, Texas style. We introduce spice to these kids. A lot of ’em have eaten a bland diet all their lives. They really love a brisket.”
     Dinner conversation centers around — any guesses? — hockey.
     “How was practice?” Marcy asks. “What did you guys do?”

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Saturday, May 22, 2021

Kentucky notes: Loud and louder

 

    Somehow "Texas Notes" didn't seem to suit this week's report from former Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey, just days now from her new home. So an adjustment seemed in order. Times change, and we change with them.

     Paducah Kentucky, where the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers converge, has been my home for a week now. Each state I travel through has its own special tone. Kentucky folk seems a bit less prideful than Texans and a bit less laissez faire than Arkansans. They say hello with an unreadable look on their faces indicating “you will say hi to me because we speak to each other here, but I am not going to be too excited about it.” In Arkansas, they ignore you
     While sitting at an outdoor restaurant earlier this week, Harleys and hotrods sharply pieced and jabbed at the silence the patrons were trying to enjoy. The lady at the next table and I looked at each other and shook our heads, and I exclaimed “Whyyyyyy??” When I realized I was not going to win this one, that they were going to keep going on and on revving their engines while we ate their dust I decided to try to join them. I told the lady “I am going to try to enjoy the sound.” She asked if I was joking. I was not, since what’s the point of fighting against the unavoidable? I mean, I could have left and it was my choice to stay.
     One of the culprits was a diner in our midst. He and his girlfriend rolled up on a motorcycle, leather vests and all. He backed the bike into a spot and they jumped off. The noise level was moderate when they arrived. But then the performance commenced. He sauntered back out to the bike and hopped on. As he rode off — I'm guessing to get cigarettes — he revved the engine and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Lovely. Thanks dude. I wasn't not in acceptance. I shook it off and tried to focus on the beautiful sunset.
     When he came back it was a little less dramatic. He got off the bike and I watched his slight frame, which was weighed down by leather, huge goggles propped up on his forehead, and steel toed riding boots. He looked small and unsure under all the regalia. His girlfriend jumped up to open the gate for him.
     I decided I had to talk to them. On my way out he was sitting alone, partner off to the restroom. I said “I am really curious to know what you think about making all that noise with your bike? Does it bother you that it bothers others?” “Not at all!” he said, with a smirk. His girlfriend came and sat back down, also looking amused. They excitedly launched into explaining things to me. “Loud music and loud bikes make us happy, just like peace makes you happy.” That stopped me in my tracks. Nick continued. “I grew up in Joliet [Illinois] and bikes were all around me. I know 80 year olds who still love to ride loud Harleys.” Alli jumped in to share how much she loves loud bikes too. They also shared a bit about how hard it is to raise six kids and find ways to enjoy life.
     I saw them differently after that. Instead of the plebeians who were assaulting me with their fumes, they were a young couple, working hard to support their family, and using the only kind of escape in their repertoire. Sure, I wish they had more to chose from such as Aida and The Art Institute— but they don’t. Who am I to judge? I used to keep earplugs with me at all times to dull the sounds of the screeching subway trains or the loud music coming out of headphones all around me when I lived in Chicago. Seems wise to keep them with me in rural America too.
     I won’t tell you that Nick said he likes “that the noise aggravates people” since I kind of want you to like him, and also because he tried to backpedal from the statement when he realized that it did not sound good. I saw a flicker of wise discernment cross his face.
     I have many more Paducah folks stories but will leave you with my favorite one. While I sat on a restaurant patio with the manager of a local eyeglass shop who told me that he and his wife “are not crunchy but we knock on the door of it a lot” (meaning they are open to whole grains and some good down home health nut stuff), a tattooed man with sparkling eyes sat down to join us. He was raised Southern Baptist here in Kentucky, and found himself in trouble a lot as a kid. 
      “They called the preacher in on me. He told me I have to have faith. But I wanted the facts.” 
      After 33 years working in a factory he realized he needed something more. “In a meditation I went to that much higher level of consciousness and I met God. God is not a white guy in white robes but he’s a giant orb of energy.” This man, David Dean, now offers massage therapy and Reiki healing He sees himself as a channel of good energy.
   The funny thing is I’d looked him up earlier and the only reason I did not call him for a massage is that I prefer female therapists. I set something up with a woman but when I got there today I noticed she did not follow the COVID protocol outlined on her website. In our meet and greet I told her I am vaccinated and she let me know that she is not, does not trust the vaccine and will not be getting it. I told her that I’d have to cancel the massage; it’s the home stretch! I will be hugging my family and beloved friends in less than 48 hours from now and I’ll be darned if I am going to consort with an anti-vaxxer this state of the game. See y’all soon!


Friday, May 21, 2021

Maybe "Lift Up the Wronged Garden"....


     Art gets a bad rap. Ponderous, often. Incomprehensible, or else too apparent. Trivial, derivative, unskilled—the list of flaws goes on and on.
     But art has its place.
     My hometown of Berea, Ohio, is looking good. And we wandered the downtown, where children played and adults relaxed amidst the gazebos, playgrounds and walkways. We headed to the Triangle to assure myself that the plaque to the U.S.S. Maine was still there—I think figuring out what the "Maine" might have been kicked off my lifelong habit of learning about history. We even strolled into the MetroPark, which looked lush and lovely.
     So it is perhaps unfair for me to focus on this little tableau by Coe Lake. The Victims of Crime Memorial Garden.
     But it bothered me, in previous visits, and bothered me again Wednesday. More so because I couldn't put my finger on what the trouble is. That it's a downer? No, bad stuff happens, and it helps to memorialize it. That it passes itself off as a "garden" though has no flowers that I noticed? I didn't think of that until later, puzzled as to what the problem is.
     It finally came to me: artless. "Victims of Crime Memorial Garden." You can't get more direct than that. It's like an urban planner's note scrawled on a city map denoting where the victims of crime memorial garden will go when the proper poetic sorts figure out how to create a fitting tribute that is soothing and appropriate. Only nobody ever did, and through some awful miscommunication the dashed off scrawl became the name of the thing.
     And don't get me started on that grindstone. Yes, Berea was the Sandstone Capitol of the World. And yes, there are a lot of them still scattered around, with every august house sporting one in the garden. And yes, we are proud.
     But did anyone consider the optics of using a grindstone to announce the garden where those ground down by having their loved ones fall to crime seek refuge and comfort? (If indeed it is intended for them. By it's name, it might just be done on behalf of the dead, and we living don't factor into the equation. That would explain a lot).
     Did they consider they were pushing a grindstone under the nose of the ground down? Or at best offering up a historical non sequitur to safe suburban sorts untouched by a whisper of crime as they are reminded that upon an unfortunate few falls the shadow? The optics of that? Perhaps that is what the little garden statuary angel was stuck there to counterbalance, but the poor cherub just isn't up to the task.
     As my wife and I drove east, after a lovely night with our friends, three types of homemade pizza and two types of homemade ice cream—we Ohioans know how to host company—she mentioned in passing the one thing that had bugged her. "The victims garden?" I replied. Bingo. I asked her why. She wasn't bothered by the name so much as the typography.
     "Stark," she said. She had a point. All caps, like something off a bowling trophy. Here a few flourishes and curlicues might have gone a long way. 
     Not that figuring out a proper name is easy. Just as when I criticize a headline, I make myself come up with a better one, on the road the next day I tried to come up with a better one. "Victims: is reductive, like "slaves." It implies that's all they were. "Enslaved people" jars in its own way, I but I get what they're driving at.  Maybe "violence" instead of crime, since I'm assuming it isn't intended for those who cope with graft. "Comfort Those Touched by Violence Garden" seems a start. I'll welcome suggestions—800 miles driven in two days, it takes a toll on the creative abilities.
     So my intention isn't to criticize the Berea civic types who took the minimal time, least effort and lowest possible expense to put this together. Yes, they tried. But c'mon guys, rise to the occasion next time. There is nothing wrong with comforting the bereaved or remembering the fallen. But if you're going to do it, do it right.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

'Man and mother's son take heed'


     Not many events require even the most basic ceremonial dress nowadays. You can be a pall bearer in jeans, get married in a t-shirt. People do it all the time.
     But graduation from college, with the years of efforts and boatloads of money, robes and special hats are still in order, and while I haven't done a study, I'd be surprised if one student in a thousand fails to fall in line, despite being young, a period otherwise associated with nonconformity.
     New York University scrubbed their in-person graduation, but sent my older son a charming velvet cap. There was something vaguely Florentine about the flat, eight-sided flat hat, it spoke of courtiers and dirks thrust into knee socks,. I delved a bit.
     The cap is called a "tam," and is the traditional headwear for doctoral candidates, as opposed to the undergraduate mortarboard and tassel. A law degree is technically a doctorate, "juris doctor" or "doctor of jurisprudence," though lawyers mercifully do not use the title "doctor," for reasons that are murky, a law degree being about as difficult to achieve as, say, a doctorate in education.
      Despite its Scottish name, the academic tam is not descended, stylistically, from the Scottish cap, but from the Tudor bonnet.
     There was no entry for "tam" in my Oxford English Dictionary, but I dimly remembered that "tam" is short for "tam o' shanter," and there is an entry for that. "In full, tam o' shanter bonnet cap," the Oxford explains after letting us know—to my surprise—that it derives from "the name of the hero of the Burns poem of that name (i.e. Tom of Shanter)."
     Scotland's national poet, Burns lived and wrote in the second half of the 18th century, and his heavy local dialect can make the poems thick slogging to modern readers. But I worked my way through "Tam O' Shanter," a tale of drunken camaraderie, and was rewarded with a number of sharp lines. It begins, perhaps oddly, reflecting on the wife at home, growing angry:
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
     "Nursing her wrath to keep it warm" seems a handy phrase to have in your back pocket.
      It gets murkier from there. Tam is, in his wife's estimation, "A bletherin, blusterin, drunken blellum" ("blellum" = "a lazy, talkative person"). After drinking away days at market, he blunders home. He looks into a brightly-lit church, at first hopefully, then finds  some kind of grotesque festival of witches and warlocks and the appliances of murder. He finally makes it home, thanks to his intrepid horse Maggie.
   How did the name of the poem's ne'er-do-well hero get grafted onto a Scottish hat? Being on the road, I haven't had the time to dig deep enough for an authoritative source, but I think we can guess successfully. "Tam O' Shanter" is perhaps Burns' most popular poem, one that might actually be known to non-Scots, and it would be natural for them to attach its title to the odd headgear they were encountering. I've found evidence of that.   
   "Now the milliner's name for a flat broad hat, based originally on the blue bonnet of Scotland," the Cornhill Magazine wrote in 1890, that "now" making it sound a recent development. Though I found a poem in Punch  about the hat in 1880. Before then, the references I noticed were to the verse, not fashion.   
     Checking into this also solved a mystery I had never even thought to ponder. There is a Passover cracker that Manishewitz makes called the "Tam Tam." Not the most Jewish-sounding name.  Yet, probably because I've been familiar with them all my life, I had ever paused to wonder why they call them "Tam Tams." And now I don't have to. 


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

From Babylon to now, fight goes on and on


 
    The Bible is not the gateway to history that some wish it to be.
     The Passover story? Enslaved Jews making bricks, Moses, plagues, escape from Egypt? None of it supported by a shred of historical evidence.
     Oh, the ancient Egyptians were there. The mummy of the pharaoh in Exodus, Ramses II, is on display in Cairo. As are the pyramids. Somebody built them. But the Egyptians who, like the Germans, were sticklers for documentation, are tellingly mum on this topic. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago is jammed with hieroglyphics recording everything from tax receipts to recipes for beer. But nothing about a certain people being let go through means miraculous or mundane.
     That said, it is generally accepted that the armies of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, really did lay siege to Jerusalem in 589 BC, culminating in the destruction of the city, as laid out in 2 Kings 25. Archeologists have found pottery shards, bronze arrowheads and distinctive jewelry, leading them to believe the invasion took place. Score one for the Bible.
     But even if it didn’t, even if those broken pots led scholars astray, the continual warfare over this patch of land can’t be denied. From Assyrians to Macedonians, Romans to Persians, Turks to Brits ... the list goes on and on.
     Which is a long way of explaining why I’m leaping to add my two cents about What Needs to Be Done about the latest bloodletting over Jerusalem and the area around it. Which puts me right in the swim of popular thought, because though loud, neither side has the faintest clue what to do next.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

"The stickiness will always remain."

     Never write in books.
     I certainly can't do it.  Underlining, highlighting, jotting notes in the margins, even folding over the corners of pages, it all seems immoral defacement, like spray-painting graffiti on a Roman temple or carving your name into an ancient oak tree. Galleys—those half-books sent out for review—yes, that's what they're for. They're disposable. Writing in them is like writing on a notepad. Text books too, since they by nature are meant to become dated and replaced by more up-to-date editions.
     We're speaking about physical books here, needless to say. While my wife consumes her continuous reading on a Kindle. But the habit never stuck with me. I'm sure it will, eventually.
     In the meantime. The challenge I have with paper books is, as a writer myself, is when I hit a phrase or thought that I might want to quote, or at least recall, at some later point. I've marked them with business cards, torn scraps, bits of string. Because if you don't, good luck remembering, never mind retrieving the tidbit that caught your interest.
     For the past two or three decades, I and everybody else has had an ideal solution to this problem, so can't let the death of Spencer Silver on May 8 go unremarked upon.
     Silver invented Post-it notes. Or rather, he discovered the not-that-sticky adhesive that led to them. A chemist for 3M, his given task was to concentrate on "creating a new superstrong adhesive." That's what he was supposed to do. What he ended up inventing was a superweak one. Which is a lesson right there. Because rather than sigh and abandon the failure, as most would, 3M set out to find a use for this new semi-sticky stuff, a process which, it is also important to note, took years. During that quest, Silver held seminars at 3M, brainstorming with coworkers about what purpose his not-at-all-super adhesive could have. One was attended by colleague Art Fry, who sang in the choir in a Presbyterian church, and knew how annoying it was when he opened his hymnal and the bits of paper marking his various cues and places would flutter to the floor. In 1974, he had his ah-ha moment.
     More years passed. It wasn't until 1980, a dozen years after Silver found the weak adhesive that didn't lose its gripping power when peeled off a surface, and didn't damage it, that 3M introduced Post-it Notes.
     And even then, they weren't an immediate hit. People had to be taught how to use them. 3M gave away a lot of freebies until people suddenly realized they are for, well, everything. I put one atop a clip I was sending this morning. No need for a paperclip, and nothing encourages brevity like writing on a space 2 x 1.5 inches.
     The ideal size. For me, the original 3 x 3 pads are too big—I'd end up tearing the sheets, to make each last longer. I scatter those tiny pads in every desk drawer, night table, end table and briefcase. I'll peel off 10 and use that thin chunk as a bookmark, peeling off sheets as I encounter the noteworthy, leaving them behind like bread crumbs, marking my way through the book. It's a great thing. Thank you, Spencer Silver. 
You can read the New York Times obit of him here.
    Although ... looking at the photo I chose to illustrate this, my well-thumbed copy of James Boswell's "Life of Johnson," I must point out an irony that would otherwise not be apparent. I prefer this edition of the great biography above all others because it alone, as far as I know, contains marginal notes by Johnson's friend, landlady, and, perhaps, sadomasochistic gal pal Hester Thrale Piozzi. The comments that she scribbled in her copy of Boswell's book, now at the Houghton Library at Harvard (and, from a different edition, in a private collection). My copy is a three-volume set published by The Heritage Press in 1963, and I recommend anyone tackling Boswell to seek it out, as Piozzi adds to the fun. She exclaims, "It is true, tho!" She denies. "Which Johnson never would have done." She elaborates, she ponders, she queries, and takes continual potshots at "Bozzy," whom she obviously despises. It's like having a comments section on a late 18th century work. So amend to my original edict: Never write in books. Unless you intimately know the subject at hand. Then go for it, if only for posterity's sake.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Mauldin urges us to always face the truth

Bill Mauldin

     “Who is Bill Mauldin?” reads lamppost banners outside the Monroe Building, where “Drawn to Combat: Bill Mauldin & the Art of War” opened Friday at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 104 S. Michigan.
     A sad, almost a shocking question. But the truth, which he so revered, is that in 2021, Bill Mauldin’s name will evoke nothing to many, or else be a distant ping. If fame were doled out according to impact, Mauldin would stand today among the best-known Chicagoans.
     Alas, people forget.
     Mauldin not only changed how Americans viewed World War II but how we think about war and the military. At a time when the Army was presenting its shiniest spin, when a photo of an American casualty would never be seen in a newspaper, when cartoons about Army life were Sad Sack peeling potatoes, Mauldin created Willie and Joe, a pair of exhausted, bedraggled infantrymen flat on their bellies in the mud, hoping to live long enough to smoke another cigarette.
     Nor did his influence end on V-E Day. After the war that made him famous, Mauldin advocated liberal causes decades before they became common. Odds are, if you believe strongly in social justice, Mauldin was advocating your core principles before you were born. He was fighting for civil rights when Martin Luther King was a teenager, for gay rights in the mid-1970s. He wasn’t just a cartoonist but an artist, a Chicago artist.
     OK, “Chicago artist” might be a stretch. Mauldin lived most of his life in the Southwest, born in New Mexico, settled in Arizona. But in between, he came to Chicago for a key year to learn his art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. And was an editorial cartoonist on staff at the Sun-Times for almost 30 years.

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

When "batshit" just won't suffice.

  

Metropolitan Museum of Art
     

     Molly Jong-Fast first registered on my radar about a decade ago, when collecting quotes for "Out of the Wreck I Rise," the literary companion to recovery I was writing with Sara Bader. Jong-Fast had told the New York Times something typically concise and piquant about secrecy and recovery that fit right into our chapter about Alcoholics Anonymous.
     "It seems crazy that we can't just be out with it, in this day and age,"she said. "I don't want to have to hide my sobriety; it's the best thing about me."
     After the book came out, we started to occasionally communicate through Twitter. I saw her as a Manhattan wit ("loud, arch and snappishly funny" as the Guardian recently described her), heir to Dorothy Parker. I called her a couple times, when I needed a particularly incisive quote. She never let me down.
     Then Jong-Fast upped her game by joining forces with The Lincoln Project folks, a band of Republicans who never got the memo about the entire party groveling before the great orange godling, and decided to resist the liar, bully, fraud and traitor, no matter how completely their confreres submitted. After COVID locked everyone down, Jong-Fast started a Tuesday and Friday podcast with Rick Wilson, "The New Abnormal," which I recommend highly. It allows me to generally ignore the endless jaw-dropping mouse shriek of the post-Jan. 6, 2021 Republican Party, and instead keep tabs indirectly on important developments via the podcast, at a remove, second hand, filtered through smart, humane people who condense the ocean of bile and deliver it to me in significant drops. The New Abnormal is like the special smoked goggles used to view a solar eclipse: a way to contemplate a fiery phenomenon without burning your retinae or going blind.
     One challenge facing Jong-Fast as she boldly considers the current political hellscape is that it beggars language. If "crazy" seems apt to her when describing a culture where people are embarrassed to admit they're in recovery, what word could she use to talk about Marjorie Taylor Greene? "Crazy" still fits, but it also seems a little inadequate without some kind of intensifier, and one of Jong-Fast's favorites is "batshit." "Batshit crazy"—she used the phrase three or four times in a single program last week.
     Which got me pondering about how Chiroptera guano got associated with madness. Etymology, like the GOP, is a nexus for mistaken amateurism, and online there is a common theory that "batshit" somehow devolved from the "bats in the belfry," an early 20th century trope to jocularly refer to lunacy.
     That strikes me as fanciful. Even "batty" only refers to batlike qualities in my Oxford English Dictionary. I would sooner lump "batshit" in with other "-shit" terms: apeshit, bullshit, chickenshit, horseshit. "Batshit," like much evocative slang, is thought to stem from the military. There's a wink at it in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 with the character "Col. 'Bat' Guano."
     As with "apeshit," (or the current GOP, for that matter) in its original usage, the "crazy" is implied. "Most of America's males were in Korea or World War II or I. They killed, and they aren't all going batshit," Lt. 
William Calley is quoted saying in the 1971 "Lieutenant Calley."
     I found the term as far back as the Fall, 1953 Carolina Quarterly, of all places, in Gabriel Boney's "Epiphany in E Flat." "A coarse voice answered sharply, 'Batshit!'"
     So "batshit crazy" is really a pleonasm—using more words than necessary, for effect. Like "cash money" or "tuna fish." So when did the redundancy, "batshit crazy," begin to be used? It seems to be a creature of the mid-1980s. I found it in the 1985 novel "Night Moves," by Walter Jon Williams:

     "I thought Harvey, the guy who was helping me, was batshit crazy."

      For an even older usage, all I have to do is look at the wall in my office closet, at a cartoon that I've long admired by P.S. Mueller that ran in The Chicago Reader in 1983. 
     "Full blown batshit crazy and still holding down a productive job." It spoke to me (and thanks to Jim Mueller, Pete Mueller's brother, a long ago regular reader who got me a signed print). 
     Allow me to offer Mueller's "full blown batshit crazy" as my thank-you gift to Molly Jong-Fast, to tuck away for when things in our country go from bad to worse, as they very well might. In a few years, when Matt Gaetz becomes the 2024 Republican nominee for president and Evangelicals guiltlessly dance around golden idols of Donald Trump, beating timbrels and buffing it with their long hair, when "batshit crazy" begins to seem, well, tepid, she'll be able to remember this and deploy the more powerful "full blown batshit crazy." What a sad day that will be.




     

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Arkansas Notes: Another Tiny House


     Sometimes things are so obvious that you almost forget to say them. But Caren Jeskey is a rock. As you know, the heretofore Austin bureau chief is driving up from Texas to return to Chicago. But she paused while on the road to file this report, keeping her Lou Gehrig iron woman streak of never missing a post for more than a year now. A feat of consistency, endurance, professionalism and responsibility that I do not thank her enough for, despite how much I, and I know you, enjoy and appreciate it. So put your hands together, and let's applaud her those last hard miles home. Thanks Caren.

     Winslow Arkansas, population 398 in 2019. Why did I choose this as my second Airbnb stop heading to Chicago? Well, it boasted a beautiful view of a large pond nestled in the trees, a boat to paddle around, and endless hiking trails. A cabin in the mountainous woods with a wraparound porch. I was looking for outdoor adventure and it seemed the perfect spot. The host offered me a discount because I teach yoga. 
     The day I headed out to Arkansas, packing up the car heading out of Cooper Texas took about 3 hours longer than I realized it would. Thank you Dad for packing up the car so many millions of time throughout my youth. I had no idea it was quite so arduous. I got out of Cooper 90 minutes after check out time. I left it extra clean and even washed the sheets. 
     I could not help but stop a hundred times on my way to Winslow, even knowing it would be better to get settled in during the light of day. I sang “This Land Is Your Land” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” aloud to myself between long moments of silence along the way. I played Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Tom Petty (my guy, who I got to see in Dallas soon before his passing), Fleetwood Mac. I listened to the radio, and learned a lot about the healing powers of Water. Sometimes I found excellent classic rock and jammed out to the Steve Miller Band.
     I passed through the Pat Mayse Lake in Texas and then up to Hugo, Oklahoma where very apparently pot is legal. I did not get any since 1) I don’t generally imbibe and 2) not sure how Arkansas would feel about it.
     I found myself in the West Fork of the White River in Brentwood, Arkansas. Well well well. I’d just moved from the Brentwood neighborhood of Austin. What a small world. It was nice. I snaked along windy roads with signs that read “25 mph. 1,000 drops.” No matter how hard pickup trucks tailgated me, I honored the suggestions of how not to die.
     Shortly after dark I arrived at what I thought would be my digs for the week. I wound up a bumpy gravel road that became so narrow and twisty I was sure it could not be right; but thanks to GoogleMaps it was. I pulled Cosmica (my trusty steed, a dark blue Honda Civic) into the small driveway to my stone cottage home. I walked in and was overwhelmed with the strong odor of mold, mildew and perhaps cat piss. I was dismayed. I had some screen time with a group of friends and tried to play it up. I showed them around my dank quarters and they did not say much.
     I let them know it was time for me to rest, and said goodnight. I brushed my teeth, washed my face (the sink was very slow to drain), and climbed into the bed of the master bedroom with attached bath. As I lay there, in the dark woods of Arkansas, I told myself I could breathe just fine. But I could not. The odors were overwhelming. I tried to open the heavy screen on the door to the deck but it slammed down. I opened what windows I could. Usually with bad odors you get used to them. Not tonight. The acridity burned my nasal passages. I’d seen some wet kibble on the rug when I arrived; perhaps a raccoon had gotten in?
     After tossing and turning between small gasps of breath I finally decided to retire to the front bedroom. Perhaps that would be better. Alas, not so much.  
I slept fitfully to a cacophony of unwelcome sounds. The bedroom door responded to wind gusts from the opened windows, creaking open and slamming shut a few times before I finally got up to prop it open. Aluminum roofing rattled in the wind just above my bed. A storm was brewing and there were a few guttural claps of thunder that I’m sure came from Beelzebub laughing at me.
     The hosts were lovely. They refunded my money and I found a tiny house in Farmington to retreat to. It’s proved to be a little piece of paradise. Cows and horses grazing in the fields, a big fluffy dog and gorgeous gray cat catching snuggles with me by the outdoor fire pit. I like it here.
     Farmington is about 17 minutes outside of Fayetteville where I sit now to write this post. Three men are sitting at the table next to me at Cheers, a restaurant built in a now defunct downtown post office. The grounds are gorgeously manicured. When I ask the guys what’s special about this particular valley, Pete S. (originally from St. Louis and transplanted here in 2009) says “it’s the Wicker Park of Arkansas.” Say no more, Pete. I am on my way.




Friday, May 14, 2021

Chicago’s less-than-favorite son could rise in Japan

 
    A dozen years ago, through a chain of circumstance too convoluted to relate, the U.S. government invited me to London to speak about Chicago at the Royal Festival Hall.
     Of course there had to be a welcoming reception at Winfield House, the Regent’s Park home of the American ambassador, a mansion whose 12-acre private grounds are the second largest in London, behind only Buckingham Palace. At one point in the evening, I found myself being given a tour of the mansion by Ambassador Lou Susman, a Chicago Citicorp executive who greased his slide into diplomacy by vigorous fundraising for the Democratic Party. His wife had decorated the vast Neo-Georgian interior with their collection of stark modern paintings. Rather jarringly, in my opinion, though I kept that to myself.
     “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and go to take a ....” umm, visit to the bathroom, Susman said. “And I look around and I think: ‘I’m just a Jewish kid from Pittsburgh.”
     That sense of awe at one’s lofty station in life is part of the appeal of ambassadorship. Susman certainly wasn’t rhapsodizing the joys of navigating Anglo-American relations, which began, remember, in revolution, include such dubious low points as the British burning the White House and America standing by while Hitler battered England. The 21st has gotten off to a rocky start, with both populations effectively joining hands and hurling ourselves off the cliff of nationalism and folly, Great Britain with Brexit, and America with you-know-who.
     The prospect of Rahm Emanuel becoming ambassador to Japan has gathered some attention — it was asked about at a White House press briefing on Thursday. Still, it might not happen — neither Emanuel nor the White House will confirm reports. Maybe it’s one of those famous trial balloons. Perhaps Rahm is jealous of the sickeningly sweet puff piece the New Yorker ran a few weeks ago about his brother, Ari, and ginned up some fictive good press of his own.
     Still, an apt time to ponder the question of why Rahm would be dispatched to Japan.

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Good riddance to blue and pink elephant

In addition to being too hot, too cold, too bright and too loud, the Thompson Center clashes terribly with its neighbors, such as City Hall, seen to the right in this unretouched photo.

     Timing is crucial in journalism. The story that explodes in your hand today might be a distant pop on the horizon if lobbed tomorrow. We saw that with the Adam Toledo case, where Eric Zorn was the first off the landing craft, offering a thoughtful, dispassionate column written just before the video became public, only to be cut apart in the crossfire on Twitter. Two weeks later, Mark Brown hit the ground with a column defending the police officer that was even stronger, and whistled his way up the semi-secured beach. It's the difference between jamming your hand into a wasp's nest in June and doing so in January.  Same hand, same jam, the only difference being the key presence or absence of wasps.
     With the State of Illinois putting the Thompson Center on the block last week, on Saturday I licked my chops and set aside my English muffin expose. I've long looked askance at the salmon-and-blue monstrosity, and began whetting my knife and hacking the topic into tasty chunks, a process I completed Sunday morning, turning it in about 10 a.m. with a self-satisfied smirk.  I felt a little frisson of guilt for vivisecting the man along with his work, but Helmut Jahn is a big boy, I thought. He could take it. 
    Actually, he couldn't. Not anymore. My editor, who begins her days scanning the actual news, replied, in essence. "Ummm, maybe you should factor in that Jahn died yesterday afternoon in a bike accident."
     Ah. Did not know that. No column was ever yanked back quicker or with more gratitude. I took a breath, spun around 180 degrees, and wrote the tribute that ran in Monday's paper—also sincere, working in some of the same criticisms, but with the head-bowed gravity the moment demanded. If you haven't read that, do so, and compare the tone with this, the original column that got yanked back; now, 96 hours later, I feel semi-comfortable sharing it here, after a respectful interval and in the more limited confines of the blog, without the imprimatur of the paper. 
     Besides, with Jahn's death throwing fuel on the dying embers of efforts to save the Thompson Center—I'm not sure how that changes anything—it is even more timely to outline the case for taking it down and putting a proper building in its place.  

     This is unsettling. The Thompson Center, that is. Not because it is for sale and probably will be torn down. Good riddance to bad design.
     A few murmurs of dissent from sentimentalists. The Thompson Center is architecturally redundant, since its model, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, whose 22-story lobby ... choosing my words carefully...inspired Helmut Jahn to create his star-crossed homage, is right where it has been since 1967 and not going anywhere.. No need to grieve over a knock-off when the original still stands.
     The hunchbacked beast of a building never fell from favor, since it was one of those rare structures despised from the start.
     “It’s obscene,” Chicago architect Harry Weese said at its 1985 unveiling. “It won’t even make a beautiful ruin.”
     True that. But it did make a quick one. Within a year, its shoddy outdoor pillars, obviously not intended to be touched by human hands, were already “dented, scraped and smudged.”
     Even the workmen who built the Thompson Center hated the thing. “This is an ugly building” one scrawled in graffiti, 17 stories up.
     So the building going bye-bye isn’t what irks me. That’s a good thing. What bothers me is that its demise will mean that my career has bracketed the building. You start to feel old when you outlast public buildings, particularly one 25 years younger than yourself. When the State of Illinois Center, as it was originally called, was built, I was a hustling young reporter. One of the few people who actually gazed upon the Ice Cube—prominent among the SOIC’s raft of design flaws was this Rube Goldberg system that formed ice at night, when the electricity rates are low, and then blew air over the ice, cooling the building. In theory.
     In unforgiving reality, the contraption never worked, particularly since the glass curtain wall served as a greenhouse—to Jahn’s surprise, apparently, though how he managed to fail to consider that blazing object in the sky is a mystery. Ignoring the sun, like ignoring gravity, is not the hallmark of great architecture. There was talk of special glass that was supposed to be installed but proved too costly and was jettisoned. The heat overwhelmed the cooling system, requiring them to both cover the inferior glass with jury-rigged anti-sun sheeting and retrofit in a normal air conditioner. And that was only the beginning. I could fill the column with problems. You couldn’t turn off the lights—programmed by computers, supposedly “energy-efficient,” they left tenants who wanted to dim their offices, say to project slides, to tape black paper over the light fixtures.
     To be fair, there was unquestionable pride in the early years. I would march visitors into the SOIC, shout “Tah-dah!” and we’d just stand there, open-mouthed, watching the glass elevators go up and down—yet another flaw, since so many tourists would jam the elevators that employees couldn’t get to work. And of course, we had the luxury of gawping then leaving. “Scandalously short on user comfort,” is how Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp politely put it. Too hot, too cold, too loud. When the frequent public events were going on below, one state employee said it “sounded like a basketball game was going on outside my office,”
     And that was before the state, in a penny-wise-pound-foolish public display of false economy, allowed the whole thing to decay and deteriorate into a grubby, crumbling mess, so bad that—and I saw this with my own eyes—the carpet in the governor’s office was repaired with duct tape. As were the broken tiles in the plaza outside. When Gov. Pritzker said it would take $375 million just to clean and repair the place, nobody even blinked at the figure. Sounds right.
     There is one argument for its preservation that I feel duty-bound to float. You could view the Thompson Center as a crime scene, making the building itself evidence. Before the wrecking ball takes the Thompson Center down, we could have the show trial right there in the yawning lobby, the way its namesake held public hearings there for accused rapist Gary Dotson (to this day the most memorable moment in the buildings 36 year history, itself reason aplenty to take it down). Think of the drama, setting up a courtroom where the grids of cheap sunglasses and chola hats are usually on sale, next to the big static displays from the DMV and the Treasurer’s Office. There would be Helmut Jahn in the dock, scowling fiercely, in chains. After the evidence is provided, and inevitable guilt concluded, I would feel comfortable arguing for mitigation. Yes, Jahn was 40 when it was unveiled, but that’s babyhood for architects. We could write it off as youthful indiscretion, committed at a time when big hair and padded shoulders eroded our aesthetic reason. The Thompson Center atrocity is mitigated by Jahn’s subsequent good works: Terminal One at O’Hare, the Mansueto Library at University of Chicago. A simple apology would do. Not that this is possible—Jahn has already cheekily written a treatise explaining how he would like to retrofit, yet again, the disaster he inflicted on the city.
     Here’s a thought. If you design a building whose workers had to set up fans and umbrellas seeking relief from the sun cruelly blazing through the giant magnifying glass you put over their heads, at least have the dignity to just shut up and let exasperated Chicagoans finally give your folly the bum’s rush it deserves.