Sunday, December 10, 2023

Flashback 2004: World should mourn if Arafat dies peacefully

"Glad You Dead You Rascal You," by Herbert Singleton (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

     I was looking over old columns to see if I ever wrote anything worthwhile about the latest denizen of hell, Henry Kissinger — short answer, No — when I came across this, written as Yasser Arafat was dying. It still remains current, alas, though I did wince a the part about him having children's blood on his hands. Not the PLO monopoly that it used to be. The part about the budget amazed me — though I'm not sure if that's because I used to get a copy, or that I would then read it. And the God Force stuff is just fun. Back then, the column filled a page, and I've kept the original headings.

Opening shot

    I hope that Yasser Arafat gets better. In fact, I'm pulling for a complete recovery. Even if he's dead by the time you read this, I hope he springs back to life. Re-incarnates. Because there is something deeply unfair in the prospect of his dying surrounded by friends and family in a hospital bed in Paris. Not when, if there were any sort of justice in the world, he would perish lying on his side on a gravel street, howling without company or comfort after having a long splinter of metal blasted through his eye.
     The man is a killer. Not only has he killed people himself, personally, but he plotted and organized murders of hundreds of victims. He is one of the authors of a philosophy of random murder that has inspired millions. That he spent years as a sham statesman, received in the White House and heaped with honors is one of the mind-boggling ironies of our ironic age. The man was given the Nobel Peace Prize, which washed away whatever shred of worth that might have clung to the once-respected bauble after they gave it to Henry Kissinger. They might as well pack the thing in a box of manure and straw when they hand out the next one.
     Arafat's worst crime? He betrayed his own people. He could have led them to peace, and instead led them down a blind alley to self-destruction and disaster.
     When he dies — any moment, judging by the reports — the news media will no doubt focus on Arab mourning. And there will unfortunately be a few Jews leaping around in Jerusalem, grinning and cheering and burning Palestinian flags, though that really isn't our style. But someone should point out what a shame it is to see Arafat go, as opposed to lingering horribly for a long, long time -- maybe just an hour for every child he had a hand in maiming. Because his manner of death is an affront to justice. It makes the most devoted agnostic yearn for a vengeful God and His furnace of hell.

Your tax dollars at work

     The $5 billion-plus-change Chicago city budget landed with a thud on my desk Tuesday.
     It's not supposed to be light reading, but I couldn't help skimming its thousand or so pages.
     What struck me was the wide range of occupations found among the city's 35,919 budgeted jobs, from Mayor (who pulls down a cool $209,915 a year) to the guy who picks up dead rats for the Bureau of Rodent Control (title: "Dead Animal Recovery," which would make a fun business card; wage: a not-bad $26.40 an hour).
     That's about a dollar an hour more than a Tree Trimmer gets in the Bureau of Forestry (I know we have lots of trees, but "Bureau of Forestry"? Urbs in Hortis indeed).
     The list goes on and on. Iron Inspector. Assistant Cable Administrator. Lamp Maintenance Man. Asphalt Raker. There are Caulkers and Steamfitters at the Bureau of Administrative Support, which also employs Hoisting Engineers and Stationary Firemen (who are, I would guess, paid less than firemen who are required to occasionally move).
     A few touches seem positively czarist. The Mayor's Office of Special Events has a Director of Protocol who oversees a staff of three. The Bureau of Streets has a Chief Voucher Expediter.
     I could fill this column and four more with tidbits gleaned from the budget -- do you know we plan to spend $3 million next year for the electricity used by traffic signals? You do now.

Save it for Sunday school

     This may come as a surprise. But I don't believe in electricity. Not in the conventional sense, of charged particles conveying energy. That is a lie forced on children in public school.
     I don't think I've mentioned this before, perhaps because the subject never came up.
     No, in my eyes, what comes out of your electrical socket and runs your toaster is God Force, the ineffable benevolence and power of the Lord Almighty put to practical use for the benefit of mankind.
     I find that makes a lot more sense than the so-called conventional theory of "electricity" -- and it's only that, a theory. I mean, where's the evidence? You can't even see the stuff.
     You might think that I'd have a hard time persuading others to consider my God Force view of electrical power. But I'm encouraged by the headlines. Down in Georgia, the courts are trying to figure out whether the government can slap a warning label on the biology textbooks, pointing out that evolution, like electricity, is only one in a range of possibilities, and we need to keep an open mind.
     Lest you think this debate is limited to Southern backwaters, up in Wisconsin, the Grantsburg city school board has changed its science curriculum to accommodate the teaching of creationism, so as not to limit science classes, in the words of their superintendent, to "just one scientific theory.'
     I'm all for that. Isn't that what education is:? Expanding our knowledge? Why not explore many options instead of cleaving to one party line? Just as the creationist origins of life should, of course, be taught in public schools alongside the theory of evolution preferred by atheists and a few activist judges, so I believe that my God Force electricity view should have widespread public airing. Teach both, and let the students decide!
     Not that I expect the struggle to be simple. For years, I've been trying to get schools to teach, alongside the standard canard that men landed on the moon, the very real possibility that the Apollo landings were a hoax. So far they have resisted. These supposed "teachers" can be so stubborn that way.
             — Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 10, 2004

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Become a better person with cheesecake.

     I try to be the sort of person I want in my life.
     Let me explain.
     If you are not careful, you end up running your relationships on a quid-pro-quo basis. You do for others as you expect they'll do for you. That's a recipe for disappointment, because people are busy, and distracted, and indifferent. So you become busy and distracted and indifferent too.
     The key is to behave how you wish people would behave toward you. Do unto others, etc. What they do in return is their business. Not yours. Thus I try to do small things — project kindness, say hello to people who then pass without a glance. Welcome new colleagues. Promote excellent work of others on social media, even knowing they'll never return the favor. That's alright. I'm not scanning the skies looking for signs on how to behave. I know what's right.
     Set that thought aside.
Cinnamon Dark Chocolate Cheesecake
     Now turn your attention to the left hand side of the page, if you're lucky enough to be viewing the entire blog on a honking huge iMac, the way I do at home. See the new Eli's ad? Went up Friday. Beautiful right. If you click on it, you will be brought to the Eli's home page. There you will seem among the stunning variety of goodies for sale, something called Cinnamon Dark Chocolate Cheesecake. If you are like me, or even if you aren't but have a pulse, you will think, as I did, "I want that!"
     Which brings up a peril I should mention to you. As this blog is sponsored by Eli's at the holiday season, and I am in general a fan of all things Eli's, I also try to maintain my journalistic integrity, and not lose sight of downsides that may exist. For instance, you might have read about my recent visit to Cheesecake World, and its generally positive tone. But there was something ... well, unsettling about the trip that I neglected to mention.
     We were driving away from Eli's. In the trunk was a Tiramisu Cheesecake. And a Passion Fruit Orange Guava sheet cheesecake. I'd have gotten more, but I have a rule — only three cheesecakes in the freezer. (We already had most of an Original Favorites Sampler). Yes, that might be a senseless, self-destructive edict, akin to the Calvinist ban on dancing. But if I didn't limit it to three, then we'd risk having six, and there wouldn't be room for frozen peas.
     Freezer overload is not the downside I have in mind. So I'm driving away from Eli's, having just eaten a gorgeous slice of cheesecake, with
 the promise of many more to come, having just enjoyed the friendliness and deep business insight of Marc Schulman. But was I happy? No. I was troubled, and this is why. This is what I was thinking:
Hot Chocolate Cheesecake
     "I should have gotten the Hot Chocolate Cheesecake."
    Because it sounds so wonderful. Hot chocolate is a flavor you just don't get enough. I once had the frozen hot chocolate at a boutique ice cream parlor in NYC, and know that it translates well to the world of cool desserts.
     But I didn't get it? Why? It all happened so fast. I had my wife and son's opinions to consider. Before I knew it, we were driving away, our decisions made and set in cheesecake.
     And that's the risk of my directing you to the Eli's web site. Let's say you get the Turtle Cheesecake and the Basque Cheesecake, which is my favorite. That means you leave the aforementioned Cinnamon Dark Chocolate and Hot Chocolate untried. And what if you were to, oh, be hit by a bus next week. You're thinking about something else. Cheesecake maybe. You assume the bus will stop at a stop sign and you step off the curb and it hurls you 30 feet in the air. And you're lying, broken, in the slush on Lawrence Avenue, and your last thought is, "Now I'll NEVER have Cinnamon Dark Chocolate Cheesecake."
     I worry about that. So the thing for me to do now is order one or both right away, suspending the Three Cakes Rule. Right? Wrong! Let me refer you to the opening sentiment. Who do I want to be? The kind of guy who indulges his every selfish whim? Who has to immediately experience everything that strikes his fancy? Or a measured, restrained, thoughtful person. Thinking of others. The kind of person who will send the delicious cheesecake that he wants for himself to someone else. Which is exactly what I did: ordered Cinnamon Dark Chocolate Cheesecake and had it sent, not to me, but to a pair of valued colleagues who have been helpful and diligent all year long. They can try the cheesecake for me, and then perhaps tell me what it's like. Meanwhile, by not trying the cheesecake, I give myself a reason to carry on living, by having something truly special to look forward to. Heck, maybe they'll invite me over for a slice and a cup of coffee. I'd like that. And if they don't, well, that's okay too.
     Today is Dec. 9. If you are lucky, there are people in your life you value, who make you less wretched than you would otherwise be — less wretched, perhaps, than you deserve to be. Why not give them the cheesecake they deserve? For Hanukkah. For Christmas. For the heck of it. They'll be better for it. And you know what? You'll be better for it too. Trust me on that.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Work downtown or stay home?


     One of the 50-cent words of which I’m notoriously fond. Means “fortunate accident.” Seems common enough to me. Plus relevant, regarding the high-stakes struggle of downtown Chicago to remain solvent. An issue where I’m torn.
     People discovered they can work at home. The cat is out of the bag. Deal with it. You can work at home. I can work at home, flop my fingers on the keyboard, craft something, call it a day.
     What does going downtown do? Besides waste time and money. Sometimes you take the bother and trouble, only to find yourself at a pointless meeting. The last meeting I went to at our Navy Pier office, eight people had signed up for, but I was the only person to actually appear — stupid me — so the presenter did a one-on-one, imparting little of value.
     But not a waste. I try to multitask. So while I was there, I took a colleague to lunch at Chef Art Smith’s Reunion, which served up fine jambalaya and biscuits. So there was that.
     I’ve been officially permitted to work at home since... 1997. Quite a long time, really. But even though I haven’t been required to go into the office, I still went, ritualistically on Tuesdays, because I didn’t want to be one of those people who never show their face. I found that, go in twice week and you are nevertheless considered “Always there.”
     Since I don’t know what my job entails — that is, no beat, no topics I’m supposed to cover — I never know whence my material might come. I once had a front page exclusive literally fall out of the sky, in the form of a chunk of Union Station ceiling that hit a woman in the head as we waited in line for the Madison Street exit, fracturing her skull.
     I wish I could draw a line between going into the city and writing something effective. But truth is I can spend the day crawling around Lower Wacker Drive with the Night Ministry, write a column vibrating with tragic urban experience, and the readers yawn and flip the page. While let me share a shopping trip to the Northbrook Aldi, and the online world goes berserk, vibrating for days.

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Thursday, December 7, 2023

We got off light ... maybe

     If I want to shock people about the Israel-Gaza war — and there is so much shocking already  — I might mention that I don't blame Hamas so much as I do Benjamin Netanyahu. Then, if I have a chance to get words in before they go off on me, I point out that while Hamas was merely doing what terrorist groups do — cause terror — Netanyahu, as prime minister of Israel, was supposed to stop them. He dropped the ball or, more accurately, took his eyes, and the nation's, off it.
     And this was before evidence was revealed that Israel had direct knowledge of the specific Hamas plans and did nothing. When they merely had a year when Netanyahu tore the country apart, trying to keep his ass out of stir by skewing the judicial system in his favor. Reservists were threatening to resign rather than serve a dictatorship; there was constant talk of how military preparedness would be compromised. Then, surprise surprise, military preparedness was compromised, with horrific results.
     Destroying Hamas is important. But if I had to choose whether to sink the top leader of Hamas into the Dead Sea, or Netanyahu, well, that would be an easy choice. I'd chose the guy who did the most harm to Israel, and is doing it still.
     I bring this up because Sen. Tommy Tuberville, the Alabama Republican, 
announced Tuesday he was ending his farce. In case you haven't been paying attention — lucky you — Tuberville has been blocking military promotions for nearly a year, to register his opposition to the military policy of paying for women service members to go to states where abortion is legal to get the procedure, if need be. Because military personnel can be assigned anywhere, and they can't have their rights as citizens depend on which base they get assigned to, whether in a freedom loving blue state or a women-oppressing red. Tuberville didn't like that, and being a powerful senator, threw the legislative equivalent of holding his breath until the military turned blue. On Tuesday, he let it breathe again. The Senate approved of 440 delayed appointments.
     Mere politics? No harm done? We'll see. Who knows what hidden damage was caused, that'll be flushed out after some unseen disaster. What those key jobs going unfilled for nearly a year did. Gumming up the works of America's military in order to win a victory for your army of imaginary babies was cheap theater, and we're just lucky some adversary didn't take advantage of the disorder it caused within the ranks. As far as we know.  
     Republicans used to be so rah-rah pro-military, it's astounding to see them, under the influence of Trump, to be willing to kneecap the capacity of our armed forces. Expect more to come — Tuberville, in yielding, said he'll still block the appointment of top generals until the military decides to revoke the right of its female personnel to have reproductive medical care. And we should never forget Trump calling for the death of Mark Milley, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for standing up for the constitution instead of supporting Trump's coup. Milley was a hero — he saved our country — and Trump should be in prison.
     One message of Oct. 7 is that vigilance needs to be constant when enemies are resourceful, relentless and creative. Ours are. Like Israel, we're lulled into complacency, so much so that Tuberville's stunt was accepted as business as usual. And Donald Trump is allowed to run again, even as he promises to be a dictator. Even though, we can't know what kind of long term damage Tuberville caused to our military. We do know that the Republican Party will stop at nothing — undercutting our nation's safety, tearing up our democracy, voiding the constitution — to promote its smug fantasy of religious morality. Some things are too important to toy with lightly. Like the military. Or voting. Or health care. Our country's health care system is already feeling the ripple effects of reversing Roe v. Wade. Women who never considered an abortion will die as doctors do contortions trying to follow medical guidelines written by politicians. No terrorist could have accomplished that. No one can hurt us the way we hurt ourselves.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

‘Their resilience is unbelievable’

Sarai Jimenez

   Sarai Jimenez and her family escaped the chaos of Venezuela in 2021, sought refuge in Colombia then, when things got bad there too, fled north, trekking through Central American rainforests, across mountain passes, clinging to ropes at the edge of cliffs, crossing rivers, wading through mud up to their knees.
     They were captured by guerrillas, held hostage, robbed. Then Sarai, now 17, had to wait for months in Mexico before crossing the border, legally as an applicant for asylum, arriving here in July only to confront a prospect that really frightened her: going to a Chicago high school.
     “I thought it was dangerous,” she said, in Spanish. “I’ve seen the movies, and I was scared. I would think, ‘I’m going to get bullied in school.’”
     Instead she found herself in the warm embrace of Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, where some 40 languages are spoken by the most diverse student body in the city, a school with a track record of absorbing every immigrant group arriving in Chicago.
     “Afghans, Syrians, Nepalese ... no one is special at this school because everyone is unique,” said Sarah Quintenz, whose formal title is English language learners leader, but really is just “Ms. Q” or “mom,” the omnipresent source of comfort and rebuke for Sullivan’s 360 or so foreign-born students — about half the school population.
     I ran into Quintenz at Sullivan’s seventh annual Thanksgiving dinner last week and saw a chance to talk about the latest group of newcomers to roil the city.
     “Immigrants plan to come here. They apply for a visa, save money, say goodbye to everybody,” said Quintenz. “Refugees flee. They don’t have any of their stuff. They leave everything behind. They flee to another country, so they take their anger and hostility and sadness to that country.”
     Emotions that complicate the usual teenage angst.
     “They walked. They rode buses,” said Quintenz. “That’s a long time to be thinking, ‘I just left home. I have only the clothes on my back. I hate this. I’m hot. I’m getting eaten by mosquitoes.’ Then they get here, and they’re sleeping in the airport or a police station, or the Leone Park Field House — that’s where most of ours were for the longest time. The kids ask: ‘Is this any better? We’re safer here, but we still don’t have anything. We still don’t have any opportunities. My parents can’t get a job.’”

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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Flashback 2002: Sad day when trip to toy store turns sour

    What did you think of my ballet review yesterday? Honestly, while no one complained, I felt it sort of sagged. I just couldn't get my head around saying something interesting about the experience. I fudged, and dragged in Tchaikovsky's history with Chicago and the Columbian Exposition, trying to smokescreen the fact that I had very little of worth to say about the dance itself.
     I began to wonder if I've EVER written anything worthwhile about the ballet, and in searching came up with this. It isn't about the ballet either, though it mentions the word. But it was so unexpected, and a reminder that not only did people once regularly go downtown to work, but there were toy stores waiting there. That's reason enough to share it. My vacation is officially over today, and I'll have something fresh — in theory — in the paper on Wednesday.

     "A simple 'No' would suffice."
      It was the end of a long day this week. I was rumpled, tired, just another business guy in a creased raincoat, stopping by the Toys R Us on State Street to buy marbles for his kids. My kids like marbles.
     I waited in line, handed the clerk the metal box of marbles. "Phone number area code first," she ordered, in that robotic voice clerks use.
     "Do I have to?" I asked, imagining Toys R Us calling at dinner to hector us about Barbie. "Can't I just buy the marbles?"
     She gazed hard at me. 
     "A simple 'No' would suffice," she snapped.
     I looked at her for the first time. Young. Maybe 19. Black. Eyeglasses. For the next second, I pondered my reaction. The thought bouncing in its seat, waving its arm and going "oh, oh, oh" was a sharp, "A lot of attitude to be coming from the clerk at the Toys R Us."
     But I didn't say that. I took out my money, silently, because I had a feeling of . . . well, it's hard to describe. The Germans call it weltschmerz. A sadness at the world. I obviously wasn't the first customer this young lady had to face. She probably had it up to here with whining white guys in raincoats. She'd probably been itching to zing one of them, and it was my turn. Sure, I could vent at her, and she would either vent back or, realizing that her $5 an hour job might be in the balance, would click into her polite mode, which would be worse.
     I said nothing. That she was black was significant. "She probably hates these raincoated white guys, tramping through here, buying their metal boxes of marbles for their pampered kids at home, refusing to give their phone numbers lest their white suburban idylls be interrupted by other black teenagers in basements, selling magazine subscriptions."
     That's certainly some kind of white guilt. Maybe I should have called the manager over and ratted her out and felt good about it. But the guilt is what I felt. Guilt and a desperate longing for civility. She could have said, "Fork over the phone number, Mr. Potato Head," and, after the initial shock, I would have felt the same urge not to get into an ugly argument with the clerk at the Toys R Us. I paid my money.
     "Would you like a receipt?" she said. This was my chance. I smiled, seizing on a reply. "I suppose I should limit myself to a simple 'Yes,' " I said. She seemed to get my point. She gave a little laugh, and we made eye contact for a second before I grabbed my marbles and rushed away.
     For 100,000 years of human history we clung to our families and our tribes. It's premature, and foolish, to imagine that the past 50 years of enlightenment are enough for us to cast all those things aside.
     In every encounter I have with another person, I coolly note and calculate their race and age and class — in every single one — and as far as I'm concerned anyone who says they don't is a saint or lying.
     Lying or spouting the party line. We tell ourselves we live in a colorblind society — white people do, anyway. That's why we have random checks at airports. What they're really doing is frisking people who might be Islamic terrorists — we seem to be having a problem with the Muslim world; I hope I'm not the one to break this to you.
     But pulling aside every Arab-looking traveler and checking their shoes offends our sense of fairness, so we toss periodic 3-year-olds and grandmothers and congressmen into the mix, as a smoke screen.
     Is it really necessary? My first instinct was that stopping Arab-looking people at airports is not racial profiling. Racial profiling is pulling over a black motorist for driving a Cadillac through Lake Forest and having him spread-eagle on the car until he's found to be the owner.
     I was about to say that's wrong because most blacks driving their Cadillacs through Lake Forest didn't steal them. But then, most Arabs moving through airports aren't terrorists or would-be terrorists or even cousins of terrorists, but assistant managers on their way to Toledo, Ohio, for a button convention.
     This is complex, but of one thing I am certain: better to acknowledge the burden of our prejudices and try to overcome them than to pretend to have a colorblind society that doesn't exist.
     The morning after I bought the marbles, I was hoofing up Wabash on my way to work, still thinking about the Toys R Us clerk, and marvelling at the little ballet of racial antinomy that I, and maybe she, engaged in. A short, swarthy man stepped up to me at Wabash and Wacker and asked, "Can you tell me how to get to Michigan Avenue?"
     I pointed at the Tribune Tower. "You see that building?" I said, resisting the urge to add, "that nightmarish monstrosity of arches and rocks scavenged from the garbage bins of old European cathedrals?"
     Instead I said: "That's Michigan Avenue."
     He thanked me, but before he moved away, I considered adding, "You're looking for the Mexican Consulate, right?" But I stopped myself. Just because the man was 5-foot-1, with a dark complexion and a Pancho Villa mustache didn't mean anything. That was the language of hate. So instead I asked, "What are you looking for on Michigan?"
     "The consulate," he said.
     "In that case," I said, "you want to take a right at Michigan. It's on the west side of the street." I walked off. Two seconds later, I realized he never said which consulate he was looking for.
           — Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 15, 2002

Monday, December 4, 2023

The Nutcracker

Anabella de la Nuez and Jose Pablo Castro Cuevas in "The Nutcracker" (Photo by Katie Miller)
      Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky never visited Chicago. The Russian composer was invited here, to attend the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition in May of 1893. But he begged off, observing that he had just been in America in 1891, when he went to New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore. That would have to do, as he would die that November.
Tchaikovsky's contribution
     Tchaikovsky did, however, heed Bertha Palmer's request of famous people to provide something that could be auctioned off to raise money to build the Children's Pavilion (as did Rudyard Kipling, Henry James and a range of 19th century notables). Tchaikovsky penned seven bars of “Andante cantabile,” then a new composition.
     So it is perhaps apt that his last masterpiece, "The Nutcracker," be sent to the fair in his stead in the Joffrey Ballet's production of the Christmas favorite. This fair-themed version debuted in 2016, and with the city plagued with a variety of problems and dysfunction, barely able to raise some tents to shelter immigrants, it's comforting to recall a time when Chicago built a White City in Hyde Park and welcomed the world to an enormous party.
     The  production opened Saturday night at the Civic Opera House. While being a dance critic ain't beanbag, and I would never presume to bring skill or experience to the endeavor, I thought it might be worthwhile, as a vacation diversion, to marshall a few words about it here. 
     But really, what's there to say about the Joffrey favorite? The audience, being packed with finely-dressed, super-excited families, was itself a holiday entertainment. It was fun just watching the proud attendees take pictures of each other in front of the big tree of gift packages set up in the lobby. The fact that someone also put on a dance afterward was an added bonus. 
     The Joffrey production transports the ballet from an upper class German household to a hardscrabble Chicago family on the eve of the World's Fair, I assume to mirror society's general rejection of all things well-to-do. There is a magic moment early on when the children, given an assemblage of unpromising objects — a bike wheel, a glass sphere, and such — set them on a table, and they become a silhouette of the fair, with its towers and Ferris Wheel.
     The dancers were flawless, as far as I could tell, the costumes lavish. Of course I've seen "The Nutcracker" a number of times, and perhaps familiarity took a bit of the oomph away. There's a moment when the family's paltry, Charlie Brown Christmas tree expands into a wondrous, stage filling marvel I looked forward to and, sorry, but that moment just didn't pop Saturday night the way I remember it doing in productions past. Nor was the battle against the mice as frightening as I would have liked.
     But that's the reaction of someone more skilled at criticism than praise, particularly when it comes to ballet, which I don't attend much. Overall the production is two hours of Christmas magic, lovely to behold, particularly one moment when the stage is filled with falling snow and dancing sugar plum fairies, or whatever they were. Simply marvelous, and a welcome distraction from everything
 going on in the world.  If you've got your tickets — it runs through Dec. 27 — you're in for a treat.
Zackery Manske, Yumi Kanazawa and Hyuma Kiyosawa (Photo by Katie Miller).