Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween has always been a time of civic horror

     The low drumbeats of societal dread seem muted this Halloween. Oh, the Tribune scraped together a lengthy, usual-suspects story of panicky "hyperparents" forcing their children to trick-or-treat in church parking lots, to protect their precious ones from non-existent perils. 
     But beyond those freakish exceptions, the general hand-wringing seems fairly well confined to far left angst over sexy costumes for girls, a much more tolerable concern than worrying about your children being murdered by strangers.
     As with all holidays, Halloween is a time of nostalgia for many adults, who look around at the terrifying present, weigh their self-imposed anxieties for their kids, and then flee in their minds, back to an imagined better time.
     An editor did that 20 years ago. Chicago and neighboring suburbs were talking about banning or restricting Halloween—not much of an issue this year—and he asked me to take a look at the simple, wholesome pleasures of Halloweens past. What I found was that Halloween has always been a time of civic horror—mostly perceived, periodically all-too real—going back nearly a century. And the irony is, the halcyon past was far more brutal than the ooh-scary world of today. This story of mine originally ran in the Sun-Times Oct. 29, 1993 (I've cleaned it up in spots, to make it read more smoothly):

     Kids still may be frightened of goblins and ghosts at Halloween, but parents are scared of a menace even more threatening:
     The City of Chicago has compiled a list of 500 alternative Halloween events, to remove the need for children to go out in public collecting candy. The events are aimed at avoiding incidents of tainted candy, lurking strangers and accidents.
     "It's a changing world today," said Cynthia Sproul, of Lombard, explaining why her two daughters, ages 10 and 15, generally attend parties instead of trick-or-treating. "You have a lot more single-parent families, a lot more divorced families, a lot more children unsupervised."
     Sproul has a better reason than most to fear Halloween. Eight years ago she was chaperoning her daughters while they were trick-or-treating when her youngest daughter, Karen, then 2, was shot in the head by two boys playing with a BB gun.
     She was not permanently injured, but to this day her mother finds trick-or-treating "hard to condone."
     Dr. Robert Schleser, professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said: "We look for a time or a place that we imagined was what we really want—peace, security, community. But it's a fantasy."
     In fact, the idea of trick-or-treating as an innocent activity is hard to find in reality, at least in this century. Consider the following statement:
     "It is indeed a sad comment upon our times that an entire community has to fear for their children's safety during what should be a happy time."
     The statement was made in 1972 by Forest Park Mayor Howard R. Mohr at Halloween. In that year, parents and officials waged a virtual war against trick-or-treating, the result of widespread reports of candy tampering the year before, of Chicago area children supposedly finding razors, needles and ground glass in their treats. One boy was hospitalized with mescaline poisoning.
     As always, the suburbs were swiftest to react. Also in 1972, Elk Grove Village imposed fines of up to $200 for trick-or-treating beyond curfew, Oak Park passed a resolution asking parents to accompany children, and Lombard businesses distributed penny or nickel coupons for candy.
     Ten years earlier, city fathers also were trying to reduce trick-or-treating, which at that time went on for days. "There is growing agitation to keep the doorbell ringing down to just the one night, instead of spreading it out over the weekend," a news service reported in 1961.
     The 1950s were a time of chilling Halloween stories. The Friday before Halloween, 1954, readers of the Daily News woke up to a front-page headline that read: " 'Trick or Treat' Girl Found Slain" above a story about 6-year-old Karen Mauk, whose strangled nude body was found in a cemetery, her Halloween candy scattered about, her costume, a paper hat, nearby.
     In 1933, the entire uniformed Chicago Police Department was placed on the street for Halloween, but still trolley poles were ripped out, windows broken, streetcar tracks greased and fences set on fire.      
     The Oak Park Police arrested 300 boys who were on a window-breaking spree.
     In 1924, two Waukegan motorcycle policemen died after hitting a heavy log placed across Butrick Street. The collision hurtled the two into the path of a car.
      Only Halloweens near the turn of the century have taken on the image we all seem to miss, and that was reported long after the fact, a common pattern.
     "It was good clean fun," remembered Vincent Gadacz, in a reminiscence published 20 years ago of Chicago Halloweens. "We made sure no one was around a haystack or garbage pile we set on fire. We would have died if anyone had been hurt."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Divvy bikes will be out this winter; will you?

For die-hard bicyclists, accustomed to ripping around the city on their French 20-speed racing bikes, the Divvy bikes are laughable dreadnoughts — heavy, clunky, with only three speeds. Which is two speeds more than every bike I've ever owned in my entire life, each a Schwinn balloon-wheel cruiser with coaster brakes, not terribly different than a Divvy. (Actually, just two, now that I think of it: a green Typhoon, with twin newspaper baskets, growing up, and black Cruiser now. Which speaks to their endurance if nothing else). That does much to explain why I'm having so much fun with the Divvy bikes. It's like having a forgotten childhood pastime revitalized, adopted citywide, and added to your job description. Next, Chicago will be organizing kickball games in the middle of Wacker Drive and the paper will encourage me to not only cover them, but to play. Until then, another Divvy Diary...

     Winter’s coming. Only a nip so far, a taste of the low 30s, a kiss of frost, then a scramble back into the arms of the sunny mid-50s, which felt like spring.
     But don’t be deceived.
     Winter is coming, full bore, winter in the Midwest, another nasty, brutal, sleet-slinging three months of put on your Vibram-soled boots and your Eddie Bauer Ridgeline Parka, lower your head, lock your gaze at the trough already shuffled in front of you and start trudging Chicago winter.   
     The question I get asked, again and again, as the human face on the city’s Divvy bike-share program, is this: What’s going to happen to the Divvy bikes in the winter?
     You might guess that they’d be put away until spring, along with the sailboats, sidewalk cafes, sleeveless dresses and all the other harbingers of Chicago the eight months a year when its livable outside.
     No need to guess.
     I put the question to Elliot Greenberger, Divvy’s deputy general manager.   
    “In terms of the winter, all our stations will remain open, but we'll reduce our bike fleet on the street to match ridership," he wrote via email.
     How is that going to work? If there are problems with newbie Divvy bicyclists blundering the wrong way down one-way streets and along Lake Shore Drive, playing the role of Sweet Pea on wheels at a Popeye cartoon construction site, what's going to happen once it snows? I figure we'll need guidance, and for that I turned to that hearty, tattooed, pierced tribe of bike-in-the-winter free spirits known as bicycle messengers.
     What's the secret to surviving cold-weather cycling?
     "For me, it's staying warm," said Mike Morell, of the 4 Star Courier Collective, a delivery service formed by six messengers in 2005.
     That doesn't mean bundling up in coats.
     "You generate your own heat," he said. "Your core tends to warm up quickly."
     So light layers on the body, concentrating instead on your exposed digits.
     "Toes and fingers are really hard to keep warm," he said. For that, he recommends "a good pair of gloves that keep your fingers next to each other."
     You mean mittens? I asked.
     No, he said. Those pose a problem.
     "You can't shift as easily." The solution? "Lobster gloves," he said, sort of a compromise between gloves and mittens with a split between the ring and middle fingers, forming the hand into a Vulcan salute.
     "Live long and prosper," Morell said. "It works well for biking, and you still have the range of motion."
     For your feet?
     "Extra socks help," he said. Plus waterproof footwear. Don't delude yourself that just because it isn't at the moment actively snowing, raining, sleeting or all three, Chicago city biking won't be wet.
     "The ground's always kind of wet and you're getting sprayed," he said.
     Now that you've outfitted yourself, how does biking in the winter differ from biking in the eight months that aren't winter?
     "Just watch out for ice," he said. "The city salts the heck out of the street, still, especially on side streets."
     Pay particular attention to the streets under bridges. "Riding under viaducts, there always seem to be icy spots," Morell said. "It's really icy under the Metra tracks."
     If you find yourself hurtling across ice, don't panic.
     "When you realize you're on a patch of ice, try not to brake or turn," he said. "Try to glide on. Don't do anything sudden: When you freak out, that's when you fall."
     "When you freak out." I liked his certainty.
       Since winter is still a ways away, if you sincerely plan to commute on your Divvy, now is the time to equip yourself. Not only lobster gloves, but consider a thin biking balaclava to keep your face warm if you brave the worst weather. They're thin to fit under a helmet, which you'll need even more than ever. In the winter, you fall. Even experienced bicyclists expect to fall.
     "I'll wipe out a couple times a winter," Morell said.
     That's the bad news. The good news is, when you fall, it won't hurt so much.
     "Generally in winter, you're wearing so much gear, falling off isn't big a deal anyway," he said. "I'm usually pretty padded."
     But it's not winter yet. Not yet. I biked Monday, and it was pleasant wearing fingerless wool gloves and a leather jacket. Winter doesn't start until Dec. 21. But the average temperature in Chicago in November is 40 degrees. And November starts Friday.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is that a spire or are you just glad to see me?

The Chrysler Building has a spire. 
     People love tall buildings.
     Which could be seen as odd, given that God doesn't seem to like tall buildings at all, at least not in the Bible, in Genesis, where He reacts to the attempt to build the first skyscraper, the Tower of Babel, by scrambling human language — up to that point, everybody spoke the same tongue — for the specific purpose of keeping us from ever reaching toward the heavens again. 
     Didn't work. We're still at it, in that selective way we have of ignoring Biblical strictures that go against our grain. The honor of being tallest is so coveted that — in a way that is almost Talmudic — the question of who's got the biggest one is not a simple matter than can be settled with a measuring tape. 
    (Of course, the "who's got the biggest" leads to another, Freudian interpretation, which one of the readers of this column, which appeared in the Sun-Times Monday, added, "It isn't the size, but what you do with it." Which serves for buildings too).

      Math problem: 
One World Trade Center doesn't (ST photo)
       If Chicago has a building, the Willis Tower, that is 1,451 feet tall, from the pavement to the roof, and New York has a building, One World Trade Center, that is 1,368 feet tall over the same distance, which city has the taller building? 
      A clever second-grader would gaze at those numbers for a moment, perhaps crinkling his freckled nose cutely, then exclaim, “Willis Tower!” and he’d be right.
      Alas, the world is not run by clever second-graders.
     That is why the people who built the WTC have dubbed the 406-foot-tall mast they’ve bolted atop the building a “spire” — aka, an integral part of the building’s architecture that should count as the structure’s official height — and through a combination of politics and misplaced Sept. 11 pity might just pull it off, as the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat ponders whether to accept the deception, which can be easily seen by just looking at the damn thing.
     Among the charmed arguments that its builders have floated is the novel notion that since the building originally was designed with an actual spire, but alas, economics whittled it down to the needle of nothing actually atop the actual building in the actual world of the real, that means the design should somehow factor into the decision.
     That's nuts. If plans count, then heck, drag out Frank Lloyd Wright's drawings for a mile-high skyscraper, pretend it was built here, and lay claim to the title that way.
     And how much is that distinction really worth, anyway?
     How much civic pride do we take from the Willis Tower being the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere?
     A lot? No. I'd say, "a bit." Sometimes, guiding visitors, I will sweep my arm in the tower's direction and say, in sort of an avuncular chuckle, "Tallest building in the Western Hemisphere."
     That is a fallback, of course, from the Tallest Building in the World. But these are fallback times, and just as pride in a good career in a solid industry was replaced by, oh, pride in a good day job where you can keep the bags of chips you haven't handed out at the end of the day, so we need to take our satisfaction where we can.
     And I don't think it's sour grapes to observe that the striving cities that have actually built really tall buildings do not, on the basis of that, draw lingering significance. Taipei 101 surpassed the then-Sears Tower in 2004, becoming the tallest building in the world, a title it held for six years, and I'd wager lunch not one American in 10 can guess what country it's in. Nor has Petronas Towers skewed the world's gaze to Kuala Lumpur. Being 1,200 feet taller than the Willis Tower didn't jam the Burj Khalifa into awareness half as much as being featured in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" did.
     The Council on Tall Buildings is based in Chicago, which you might think would tilt its hand in our direction, but it's one of those groups with international pretensions, obviously, and might give the plum to New York just to prove it doesn't have local bias, in the same way that the International Olympic Committee is based in Lausanne but has never brought the Summer Games to Switzerland and probably never will.
     I called Anthony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings, but he was in China, natch. He told the Wall Street Journal that failing to rule in favor of the WTC would disturb "the vast majority of the entire USA public for whom the 1,776 symbolic height is sacred."
     Not 'round here. You've been reading too many developer's brochures, bub. The vast majority of the entire USA public can hardly bestir themselves on 9/11 to arrange their mugs into a simulacrum of solemnity and remember that something bad happened on that date in the recent past. What they really hunger for is an officialdom — the government, corporations, yes, even the Council on Tall Buildings — that lives in the same reality-based world we do, and acts accordingly. A spire is part of a building's architecture. The Chrysler Building has a spire. That counts. An antenna is a pole stuck atop a building. The Willis Tower has two. Now look at the World Trade Center. Forget politics, forget 9/11 and Bette Midler singing "The Wind Beneath My Wings." That's an antenna, heck, almost a flagpole.
     And if that counts, then the things atop the Willis Tower are twin spires, and we can duct tape some paper-towel tubes to the end and nudge past New York. No matter what the decision is, I'm still calling it the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. Facts still matter.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Or is she just a big gal in a spiky hat?

      The dedication of the Statue of Liberty, on Oct. 28, 1886, was a loud affair, with blaring brass bands, cheering crowds, clanging bells, the vigorous tooting of steam whistles and occasional cannonades from of the flotilla of naval vessels and private boats that had journeyed to Bedloe's Island to witness the dedication of what is still the tallest metal sculpture ever built.
    After the French flag was pulled from the the face of "Liberty Enlightening the World" as she is officially called, a "full fifteen minutes" of cacophony ensued, while President Grover Cleveland stood by, grinning awkwardly, waiting to speak.
    His remarks were bracingly brief, particularly compared to the endless oration delivered by the famously-prolix New York politician Chauncy Depew. 
    The president said something surprising.
    "We are not here today to bow before the representation of a fierce and war-like god, filled with wrath and vengeance," Cleveland said. "But we joyously contemplate instead our own deity keeping watch and ward before the open gates of America."
    No politician would dare utter the phrase "open gates of America" today; even Democrats scramble to outdo each other welding those gates shut. For a nation of immigrants, we have grown alarmingly xenophobic, the sons and grandsons of those who came to these shores, in sad-but-typical pattern, often issuing the loudest calls for the most recent crop of immigrants to be barred, blocked, sent back.
    The original purpose of the statue was to celebrate a century of U.S./French friendship, but even as the ceremony unfolded, it was being repurposed. 
     French ambassador W. A. LeFaivre said the statue "affirms human dignity." 
    "The republics of the past were debased by hostility to foreigners," he said. "Even in the modern world, liberty was during long ages the monopoly of privileged castes or races."
     Haven't quite put that hostility behind us, even 127 years later.
    In those long ago days before the 20th century's global butchery murdered optimism, the statue was seen as evidence of humanity's steady march toward perfection, "the triumph of reason and of justice over the material dominion," as LeFaivre put it. "It means, in brief, the extinction of bloody struggles and the union of all peoples , through the study of science the respect of the law, and sympathy for the weak."
    Not quite. "Sympathy for the weak," another phrase not heard much at political gatherings of any stripe. Shameful to see it uttered so easily by our Golden Age ancestors. And maybe it was hypocrisy, spoken at a time when children worked in thread factories, when women couldn't vote, when bigotry didn't even know enough to be ashamed.
    But at least they said the words. We've made progress, yes, but also seem to have lost the polestar of lofty ideals. We're so busy trying to regain the past we can hardly imagine a future.
    On the program that day was a piece of tripe by John Greenleaf Whittier ("The land, that, from the rule of kings/In freeing us, itself made free/Our Old World Sister, to us brings/Her sculptured Dream of Liberty:")
    A better poem, "The New Colossus," had already been written, three years earlier by Emma Lazarus. She was a Jewish poet, alarmed by Russian pograms, who had recently awakened to the importance of immigration to her people. She was solicited in 1883 to write something to donate to a fundraiser for the base (Congress, tight then and now, refused to appropriate the $300,000 needed to build the statue's pedestal, so the media, history take note, stepped in to fill the void, led by Joseph Pulitzer, mobilizing readers, ordinary Americans, often children, to send in their pennies and nickels and dimes). 
    Lazarus's poem reads:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
    The "twin cities" were New York and Brooklyn, then separate municipalities.    
    Looking at the statue, it seems solid but it's not. The copper skin is 2.5 millimeters thick -- .09 inches, thinner than two pennies placed together. Like the idea it represents, it gives the illusion of solidity, but its actually very fragile, and requires support. The copper skin is spread over a superstructure of iron, at first, now steel after refurbishing.
    Particularly now. The Statue of Liberty's symbolic function has been sapped by years of expropriation, in everything from "Ghostbusters II" to kitschy New York souvenirs. We're forgotten her ideals, and Lady Liberty could use an infusion of respect and wonder that has dribbled away over time.
     Although, that's not so new either. Originally the torch glowed, and the statue, the tallest structure in New York City between the time of its dedication to when the Empire State Building topped out 43 years later, was considered, not just a present from France, not just a celebration of freedom, but an aid to navigation. The original congressional resolution setting aside Bedloe's island for its use also maintains the statue's "future maintenance as a beacon." Originally, the Statue of Liberty was administered by the Lighthouse Board and, later, the U.S. Army, since it had a base, Fort Hood, on the island. Liberty in the hands of the army — now there's a concept.
      And a reminder that liberty -- as a statue, as an idea -- requires effort to maintain.  Freedom, as the vets like to say, is not free. The Statue of Liberty isn't glorious because she is really big.  Even its sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, saw that.
     "It ought to produce an emotion in the breast of the spectator, not because of its volume," he wrote in 1884, while the statue was still in 210 crates and heading to America, "but because of its size in keeping with the idea that it interprets, and with the place which it ought to occupy."  
     Big ideas required big statues, back then. Now ... I'm not even sure we have the national will to talk about our shared beliefs any more. What would those ideals be and what kind of statute would represent them? What would it look like? And how would we feel if we saw the statue that truly represented our convictions of today? It would be a whole lot smaller, that's for sure.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Are you a vet? Can you prove it?

Mellody Frazier, who was an RN with the Navy, registers her discharge
papers with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.
      Veteran's Day is around the corner. It's a holiday that always inspires choruses of lip service to our military men and women, which frustrates me, because talk is cheap, and not necessarily what vets are looking for. So each year, at this time, I try to find something practical to write about that might benefit vets, such as the importance of securing your discharge papers. 

     Call it the last battle.
     After soldiers go through the rigor of enlisting, of training, of shipping out, of maybe seeing combat or, usually, being a cog in the vast military machine, then finally their service completed, and after a few years or a few decades, comes a time when the newly minted veterans must make sure they receive the benefits to which they are entitled.
     Meet form DD-214, informally known as “discharge papers.” A document that tells the world and, most important, the Veterans Administration, that you served your country well and were discharged. With so much depending on that — medical care, pensions, loans, educational benefits, even a military funeral — you would think vets would keep them in bank vaults, and some do. But others lose them or put them in boxes that are destroyed in floods.
     Thus over the summer, Karen Yarbrough, Cook County recorder of deeds, started to reach out to vets, suggesting they bring in their DD-214s to be copied and permanently stored in her office, so the vet always knows where it is. Moreso, the recorder’s office has created a cheery intake center in the Cook County Building, 118 N. Clark St., decorated with patriotic posters, for them to come to.
     "We want to make it as welcoming as possible," said Brian Cross, veterans service coordinator. "We wanted this accessible."
     Chief Warrant Officer Mellody Frazier certainly found it accessible.

     "I love it," said Frazier, who was a naval registered nurse at the Portsmouth Medical Center in Virginia between 1992 and 1995. "It's bright; it's very friendly."
     She brought her form to be filed.
     "I heard about the service and thought I would come back and actually get it done," Frazier said. While she has lived in various places, as military people tend to, "this is my home of record, so I thought I would come here and have my information here."
     Of course there was one more form to fill out.
     "Miss Frazier, just fill out these forms real quick and I'll have you on your way," Cross said.
     "This is like a welcome home," said Yarbrough, who took office in December. "You see their faces light up."
     One might wonder why the VA wouldn't have copies of every vet's discharge papers, and the answer is, a) they don't get them automatically from the Department of Defense, but only receive one after a vet files for benefits, and b) just like the vets they serve, the VA is known to lose paperwork too. Or shred it by accident. The VA "has long operated in a veritable culture of lost paper" according to a 2008 expose in the Tampa Bay Times.
     Yarbrough said her office was not waiting for vets to walk in, but doing "lots and lots" of outreach. "More and more veterans understand the importance of it," she said. "The more we tell about it, the more do it."
     The VA neither discourages nor encourages the practice of filing the forms.
     "It's up to the individual veteran what they want to do with their DD-214. It's always a good thing to hang on to, and always a good thing to have a copy," said Craig Larson, director of public affairs at the Chicago office of the VA. Himself a vet, Larson filed his with the VA in Rockford, where he lives. "They keep a copy for me, in case for some reason I misplace it."
     More commonly, it is a vet's survivors who can't find the DD-214. John Mirkovic, director of communications for the recorder's office, said an all-too-frequent situation occurs after vets have passed away and the family wants a military funeral but can't find the form for the funeral home, which requires one for military honors. Usually, there isn't time to get a replacement from the DOD center in St. Louis.
      Registration avoids that.
     "That way, no one has to go through pain of missing a military funeral," Mirkovic said. "To me, that's the most important thing."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"How then could I unite with this wild idolater?"

     My longtime friend David Seldin, now of Boston, posted this on my Facebook page Friday.
The start of your 10/19 column reminded me of my favorite passage from Anna Karenina — actually my favorite passage in all literature — when Levin meets his son: 
Smiling, hardly able to restrain his tears, Levin kissed his wife and went out of the dark room. What he felt towards this little creature was utterly unlike what he had expected. There was nothing cheerful and joyous in the feeling; on the contrary, it was a new torture of apprehension. It was the consciousness of a new sphere of liability to pain. And this sense was so painful at first, the apprehension lest this creature should suffer was so intense, that it prevented him from noticing the strange thrill of senseless joy and even pride that he had felt when the baby sneezed.     
    Beautiful of course — Tolstoy is at his best talking about the intricate shadings of love (well, that and horses). But a phrase David used, "my favorite passage in all literature," caught my attention. While I recently scoffed at the Poetry Foundation asking Chicagoans for one "favorite poem" -- that seemed so specific, almost anti-poetic — a favorite passage in literature somehow seems a different case. Indeed; I knew mine immediately. 
     But first, I asked the Hive Intelligence what their favorite passages were, and why. They came up with a solid selection. Here are four:
The Morgan Library, New York City

      Nancy Nall Derringer (a fine blogger you can find here) cited Vladimir Nabokov beginning Part One of Lolita:

      Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.        
    She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
      Nancy explained: "And I love it because it was written by a man whose first language was not English." 

       Heather Joy Swanson offered the famous opening line of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice:
     It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
     "This sarcasm just sets the tone for the whole book - so unexpectedly funny at times," she said.

       Lane J. Lubell, being young -- he's Ross' age — cited that bard of impassioned youth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Great Gatsby: 
 I looked back at my cousin who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth—but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour. 
         "I hate to be conventional, but I have to be honest," said Lane.

      One more. One of my favorite columnists at the paper, other than myself, is Phil Handler, who offered several passages from Tim O'Brien's great war book, The Things they Carried: 
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice.... Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.
     Alas, we can't get to all the tremendous suggestions. Thanks to all who took the time.
     Okay, my turn. Chapter 10 of Moby-Dick, "A Bosom Friend." A wonderful character portrait leading up to, for me, what has to be one of the wryest paragraphs in literature. 
    Ishmael returns to the Spouter-Inn to find Queegueg, "quite alone" and whittling at his little idol, "humming to himself in his heathenish way."
      We get to know the fierce tattooed Polynesian harpooner who, like so many with an outwardly fierce appearance, turns out to be sweet and generous, with his own nobility, "a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor." He even looks, to Ishmael, rather like the father of our country. 
    "Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed," notes Ishmael, who is sort of mid-19th century American Everyman smartass.
    They share a smoke, and Queequeg declares themselves friends for life, I'll give the first, to set the scene, but it's the second paragraph, beginning "I was a good Christian..." that I'm thinking of when I think of "my favorite" passage in literature, for its wildly-curving train of thought for its good-natured humor and, to be honest, for the sheer relief I felt encountering it after the first 80 pages of the book, much of that spent by Melville prattling on about whaling: 
    After supper, and another social chat and smoke, we went to our room together. He made me a present of his embalmed head; took out his enormous tobacco wallet, and groping under the tobacco, drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine. I was going to remonstrate; but he silenced me by pouring them into my trowsers' pockets. I let them stay. He then went about his evening prayers, took out his idol, and removed the paper firebrand. By certain signs and symptoms, I thought he seemed anxious for me to join him; but well knowing what was to follow, I deliberated a moment whether, in case he invited me, I would comply or otherwise.      
     I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth — pagans and all included — can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? — to do the will of God? that is worship. And what is the will of God? — to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me — that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.   

     Thanks everyone who offered up favorite passages -- I'm sorry I couldn't list them all, but feel free to add your own in the comments sections below.

Photo atop blog: Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Non-Native-American Guide

     Last week I started thumbing through old columns about my son Ross, who turns 18 today, thinking I would reprint one here. They were so touching, I ended up running a bunch of snippets from over the years, as a sort of greatest hits, in the paper on Monday (you can read it by clicking here). I was pleased that so many readers wrote to say they were moved by it. 
     One column, from June 7, 2002, stood out, illustrating how one of the many beauties of children is the way they force their parents out of their comfort zones and into the world.  I want to reprint it today, as a birthday gift to myself, maybe to him and, I hope, to you too. 

     'Will we need to learn Indian language to communicate with the chief?"   
     The question came from my oldest son, then 5, as we drove to our first Indian Guides meeting last fall. I smiled sadly, glancing at him in the rearview mirror, marveling at the naive assumption behind his question. Life can be so poor compared with possibility.
      I almost didn't sign up for the Guides. Registration, late last summer at the local YMCA, was hectic, disorganized. The fee was $60. My son and I sat at the back of the room on metal folding chairs, waiting for someone to take charge, to make some kind of welcoming speech, something. Eventually we received instructions and a plea for volunteers. I almost took Ross' hand and quietly slipped out the door. That would be my way. I'm not a joiner. But my father signed us up for Indian Guides, 35 years ago. If he could take the time, then so could I.
     Our tribe's first meeting took place in Chief David Nadig's garage early one Saturday. The garage door was open. Ross and I edged up to the group, all of whom seemed to know each other. No one turned to notice our arrival. Again, I almost spun around and left, but made myself stay. A good thing, too. Soon the kids were stringing beads on leather thongs and attaching them to a big banner that read "IROQUOIS,'' our tribal name, and contained the boys' handprints and names. The dads guzzled hot coffee and popped doughnut holes.
Camp Hastings, fall, 2001. Ross is the boy at far right.
     At Halloween we had our first overnight, sleeping in cabins at Camp Hastings. We carved pumpkins. Ross played floor hockey but not four-square ("It's just a simple game of catch," he said, declining, a phrase another father overheard and repeated, amazed). The boys got along immediately, hooting on the hayride, splashing in the pool. The dads were more tentative, navigating the social shoals with dadlike awkwardness--there was no beer to lubricate, no football to watch. We shuffled our feet, talked mortgages, kept an eye on our boys.
     Over the winter there were other events--a winter carnival with an animal show, a craft session making little fringed buckskin coin bags, perhaps a landmark event since, after 75 years of Indian Guides, we may be the last cohort to associate with Indian culture. This past year, bowing to Native-American objections over the obvious insult of being connected with people such as myself and my son, the Chicago-based YMCA announced it is dropping "Indian" from the group's name. I guess we'll make plain leather bags next year. The purge seems voluntary--unlike the Boy Scout vendetta against homosexuality, there hasn't yet been an active scouring of the ranks. Certainly not judging by the Spring Roughout last weekend at Rock Cut State Park. Oh, "Indian" was banished from the commemorative patch--PC Uber Alles!--but otherwise the impact was almost nil. Our lovely Iroquois banner, with the small handprints of our white sons and their shameful Anglo-Saxon names, was proudly displayed. 
     There was a faux tribal closing ceremony led by several war-bonneted chiefs to the sound of drums. We marched by flashlight to a big campfire (hearing the mock war chants of "Hi Howareya! Hi Howareya!'' half Sitting Bull, half Shecky Greene, I conceded a point to all those joyless activists. No one's completely wrong).
    Some 30 braves, all about age 6, sat around the blaze, each holding a white feather they would toss ceremonially into the fire. A chief clad in a war bonnet and golf shirt read a delightfully hokey speech about the Great Spirit and the West Wind (it's a comfort to me to realize that Native Americans don't have larger issues than their expressions being quoted in goofy/solemn rituals in the woods. Next Sinn Fein will come out against Irish soda bread). The speech concluded with an exhortation that a dad is his little brave's best friend.
     At this, my own brave raised his hand. Reflexively timid (no wonder the Indians don't want me in their camp) I tried to shush him, afraid of what his question might be. But one chief had already noticed him. "Yes, young brave," he said.
    "What if your mom is your best friend?" he said. I pressed my fingertips against my forehead. The circle rocked with laughter, and we headed back to our fire for s'mores and stories. The chief told the Sven Svenson story (another ethnic stereotype! We're practically the Posse Comitatus!) and Ross clutched my arm, tired, scared and happy.
    By Sunday morning, as we busied ourselves making pancakes, a transformation had come over the group. Not the kids, but the dads. Sometime in the previous 24 hours, fueled by a perfect lakeside campsite, perfect weather, plus canoeing, fishing, hiking, swimming and great steaks, all in the company of our beloved sons, the dads had coalesced into a real group. We all pitched in. We all, finally, knew each other's names.
     I was tempted to campaign against naming us "YMCA" Guides, which is ageist, sexist and religiously biased, in that order ("Association" can stay). Then I thought I'd like to change it to "Cowboy Guides." We could be Wyatt Earp's Gang. Let the activists chew on that. Instead, I'm letting it drop. I've realized the name isn't the important part. The important part is gathering in a group with our boys and our new friends. June is fleeting, only for a brief time does a boy want to share a tent with his dad, and I can't believe how glad I am that we joined.

Photo atop blog: Ross in the Badlands, 2009. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

AT&T U-verse — solution to a problem you don't have.

     A scream is hard to convey on paper. A little more guttural, a little more Linus-with-his-head-tipped-back, mouth an enormous "O":
     AT&T U-verse "In my day" commercials. You've seen 'em. I've seen 'em and I don't watch television, except for Bulls games. Everybody's seen 'em. They're everywhere. The same set-up. Older kids, early teens, adopting a fake sage tone, watching younger kids enjoying the key U-verse feature, apparently: the ability to move your television from one room to another. Commiserating how they couldn't do that when they were small. (To watch an AT&T U-verse commercial, click here.)
    'Cause that's a big regret in a kid's life: not being able to move the family's gigantic television around.
    Now I'm asking you—yes, you, personally—if you have U-verse, have you ever dragged your HDTV outside? Who the hell does that? And most TVs are what, 50-inches across.  Enormous plasma flat screens. Half the time they're bolted expensively to the wall. They're as portable as stoves.
     And really, why should they be moved outside? Why would anyone want to do that? For a kids party? Really? These commercials always show little kids hopping in front of the conveniently moved U-verse-bundled TVs at a birthday party. Have any of the chuckleheads who conceived these commercials ever hosted a party for kids? Chaos. Disorder. Destruction. Mob madness. When my boys were of the age to have big birthday parties, we hid away beforehand any heavy objects that one sugar-crazed child might use to bludgeon another. Barely helped. Once, the boys pelted each other with boots.
     The last thing I'd do is drag my TV outside so some child could knock it over, probably onto another child, killing him. Not that moving the TV was anything I ever contemplated. Because where's the television, typically? Biggest, most kid-friendly room in the house, right? Finished basement. Rec room. Living room. It's already where you want the kids to be sequestered.
    Besides, giant televisions cost, what,  a couple hundred bucks nowadays? Families already have them in every room large enough to hold one and in a few that aren't. No moving around necessary.
     There's pathology lurking here. Huge corporations have a grim track record of failure when it comes to mistaking what they would like to sell to the public with what people actually want or can be made to think they want. The prime example of this of course is the Picturephone which ... AT&T has been trying to foist on an indifferent public for 50 years. Because really, what do you want less than for whatever person is calling you to also be able to see you? AT&T is still at it. Here's a thought: try hawking your stuff on a selling point that means something to somebody. Say U-verse is ... oh I don't know ... cheaper. Cheaper is always good. And it would be cheaper, too, if you didn't waste a fortune on those "In my day" commercials.
     Or am I wrong? Have you wheeled the TV out to the deck? I am open to the possibility that there might actually be actual people who actually do this. Are there? Hello?

Photo above: At the Art Institute of Chicago; atop blog: viewing the Art Institute's Thorne Rooms.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The home team, losing in the late innings

Corned beef on rye, Schwartz's Hebrew Deli, Montreal

     Before there was science, there was religion, to explain how the universe was created, how animals came to be, why good people get sick and die. Faith filled the empty moments in the day—of which were many—with ritual and requirement, explaining eternal mysteries and softening the frequent tragedy of life. It served a purpose, when life moved at a camel's pace.
     Over the past century, however, science has stepped in to allow us to understand much that religion once handled. The origins of the universe, the nature of disease. And the frantic pace of modern life will latch onto every spare second if you're not careful—which, ironically, creates a new niche for religion, which like any organism, adapts to survive. Now religion is here to slow us down, snatch back a little time from the spinning gears of 21st century living, to help us pause and contemplate what mysteries remain. So though weakened, religion chugs along, changing as it goes.
     Still, when I read the latest example of how faith's still-strong grip on our culture is loosening, I am generally glad. Much suffering, much oppression, occurred in the name of religion and occurs, still. While I wouldn't go so far as to say we are better off without it—there are still those empty moments and nagging mysteries, not to mention the need for community—weakened religion is also voluntary religion, and I firmly believe faith should be something you choose, not something forced upon you by others.
     Thus I was torn, a few weeks back, the Pew Research Center put out a 212 page study called "A Portrait of Jewish America." It might as well have been called "Jews are Toast." It didn't come out and say the religion is circling the drain, but the numbers don't lie. Two-thirds of Jews don't belong to a synagogue, 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews marry non-Jews, almost a fifth of Jewish children aren't being raised as Jews. It's a recipe for extinction.
    Can't very well smile inwardly when other religions dwindle, pleased that the irrational chains are finally being struck off of humanity, the blinders cast aside, then put up a howl when it's my particular sect's turn. And, to my credit, intellectually, I see the Pew study as more of the same. Catholicism fades, Islam loosens its rigid strictures, and of course American Jews drift quietly away (okay, go ahead, insert your joke: "About time they did something quietly...") 
    And yet. . .
    Jews are the home team. Born, raised, bar mitzvahed, wed and too late now for me to simply shrug off the whole megillah. It smacks of betrayal. You have to root for the home team. It doesn't matter if the owner is a tightwad, the coach a bum, the game child's play and nonsense. Nobody in the American League said, "The designated hitter rule is stupid, and besides, we've got football now..." 
    Or maybe they did.
    As with baseball, a case can be made that Judaism is important, culturally—for a long time before globalism started to really mix the world up, Jews were the vanguard of the stranger living amongst you. We were the Other, the observers. That's why people hate us so much. We spoil their uniformity and make them think, which few people want to do too vigorously or too often. Why think when you can believe? Jews were for thinking before thinking was cool, at least secular Jews. The Orthodox, well, let them speak for themselves.
    The study was barely noticed.  Gentile society, of course, doesn't care, and Jewish officialdom, with its dismal track record botching the big issues facing Jews, whatever they are, is already punting this one too, ignoring the growing distance, for instance, between what secular Jews remain and Israel, whose non-policy toward the Palestinians looks shakier to Jew and non-Jew alike, year-by-year. They've been fiddling while the religion burns for years now, and aren't about to stop.
     So recognizing my own bias, why care? It isn't as if there is an intrinsic need for a small Jewish minority to question mainstream beliefs anymore. We set the example, now exit the stage, to join the Shakers. Other faiths will step up. The Muslims are doing a fine job as the new minority American faith on deck, and they can complain about crosses in the public way as loudly as Jews did. Society now has gays to test how much it really believes in tolerance of fractional minorities.
   And there will always be some Jews. A core of Jewishness, kept alive by the hermetically sealed world of the Ultra-Orthodox and the Hasidim. Their society is designed to endure—that's where the whole non-change thing comes in. Sure, we smirk at them for the black hats and wigs and 17th century traditions. But they know that if you swap your heavy black coat for a smart Calvin Klein jacket, you're halfway a Unitarian. As long they exist, there will be a steady stream of secular Jews dribbling away from them, like the tail of a comet.
   Of course extrapolating the current trend into infinity a classic recipe for misreading the future. Maybe this is not a falling star, but a pendulum. We're swinging toward assimilation the past few decades, and then we'll swing back. If you can say one thing about Jews, we tend to endure, no matter what life throws at us. So maybe the flame of faith goes low, then flares up again. If we can survive Nazi slaughter, we can survive American assimilation too.
    No big point to make today. I'm not going to gin up a false alarm, or start going to temple just so Judaism as a whole will glow a few atoms brighter. Life's too short to expend in ritual that you don't savor. All religions fade as their primary purpose—command us exactly how to fill our lives and explain an otherwise incomprehensible world—is replaced by lesser  social and emotional benefits. No one misses the vanished religions of the past—no one mourns the absence of Zeus-worshipping pantheists. All religions are gently fading, and a good thing, too. It only stings a bit more when it's your own home team that's losing in the late innings. As much as the head wants to nod and say, "Yes, yes, that's how it goes," the heart still wants to cry, "Aw c'mon guys, get a few hits, will ya? Doesn't anybody know how to play this game?"

Corned beef on rye, 2nd Ave. Deli, New York City

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Some companies you can't forgive

Photograph courtesy of Lexie Rand
    Sunday dawned and the iMac had trouble snagging the Internet.  Who knows why these things happen? A glitch.
    I did what anyone does under those circumstances: shut off the computer and turn it back on. 
     Still no go. 
     A creeping dread. What if we were cut off?
     I alerted my wife. She suggested powering down the modem, and turning it back on. That sometimes drives the gremlins away. We traipsed downstairs, began pressing buttons. 
    Modem lights no longer blinking, she said we should give it time— to cool perhaps — so we went for our walk in the Botanic Garden. A Halloween celebration was going on—little kids dressed as dalmatians, as princesses.
    It was nice. Still, I was concerned -- my thoughts were of you, of course. If I couldn't get online, I couldn't update the blog. I might miss a day — Every goddamn day, remember? — and not only would your day be just a little less festive, but the trolls hiding under the bridge of Eric Zorn's blog would all leap up and start gleefully dancing around their Malice Pole, cackling and ululating that Steinberg had missed a day, missed a day, missed a day. So yes, I guess I was thinking of myself too.
     "I suppose I could take the laptop over to Caribou Coffee and use their wi-fi to update the blog," I said, as we walked.
    "Starbucks," my wife said. "You'll go to Starbucks."
    "Of course," I said, immediately understanding what she was meant. The Caribou Coffee in Northbrook is radioactive. You can't go in. A dead zone, our own Chernobyl. Oh, the building is there, a block from our house, but it no longer exists as a place a person could walk into and get coffee and a sweet roll and go online. 
    Why? It had, during the recent homecoming week, allowed students from Glenbrook North High School's gay-straight alliance to paint a window, as local businesses will do during homecoming festivities. But when the Caribou manager saw what the students had painted, the rainbow gay pride flag, he quickly washed it off. 
    Parents complained on Facebook. They urged boycotts. The newspapers covered it. I expected the Caribou to do what any sentient business  would -- beg the kids to come back, ply them with brownies and soda, allow them to repaint their window, a bigger rainbow flag this time.
    But no. The Caribou corporate parent in Minneapolis issued the standard, we-welcome-everybody-to-buy-our-coffee BS statement. The Illinois Caribou organization did too. But nothing from the local coffee stand operator, the guy with the most to lose. He should have been going door-to-door in sackcloth, personally apologizing to residents. 
    To me, purely from a business perspective, it is that second lapse that is the true sin. People are human, they err, they let their fears and biases get the better of them. Happens to everybody. But to leave the error sitting there, festering, particularly a business as marginal as a coffee shop—it isn't like coffee is hard to find—in a squishy liberal community like Northbrook, well, that's just unforgivably stupid. "It's worse than a crime," as Talleyrand said, "it's a blunder."
    To people with long memories, such as myself, who sometimes shudders when I see a BMW because of a photo I saw at the Holocaust Museum in 1994 of prisoners in World War II walking the "staircase of death" at a BMW factory, Northbrook's Caribou Coffee is now a hate group, like the Posse Comitatus, and we are never, ever ordering coffee there again. It might as well change its name to Westboro Baptist Church Coffee.
    That might be petty of me. But in the immortal words of Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck," "I ain't no freakin' monument to justice." Maybe there is something about humans that just needs to hate something, and since I can't find it in my heart to despise any particular group of people based on race, religion or nationality, I express that natural tendency to loathe by really getting my back into hating certain companies and their products, and not always rationally either. 
     I will not, for instance, drink Perrier, because it was tainted with benzene. The fact that it was tainted with benzene in 1990 is meaningless. You can get pure water from the tap; what bottled water companies are selling is an idea, and if that idea is "benzene," even faintly, why waste your money? Go for the brands that weren't once poisoned. Time doesn't fade on horrors. Brown's Chicken didn't wait a couple years after the massacre and then try to re-open the shop where it occurred. They tore the building down. Because it would always be tainted.
    Not that forgiveness is impossible. For years I did not fly American Airlines, because American flipped a DC-10 over at O'Hare in 1979, killing 271 people. I didn't even like to fly on DC-10s. But after 25 year or so, the memories of reading the graphic descriptions of body parts being plucked out of the fields around the runway faded, a little, and I grudging allowed myself to fly American, and now I quite like it. 
    But for some companies there is no forgiveness. Ford, and its anti-Semite founder, Henry Ford—as bad as it is to be a fan of Hitler, Ford was worse: Hitler was a fan of him. Or Jimmy John's, rushing to bitch that giving health care to its workers will add pennies to the price of a sandwich. Or Walmart, which is practically a branch of the Chinese Communist party. 
    For me, the lowest rung of chthonic corporate ill-will must be reserved for The Berghoff Restaurant. The Berghoff used to be my favorite place to eat. When out-of-towners came to Chicago for the first time, I would take them proudly to the Berghoff, as if I had created it -- my pal Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker's man in France, and I had our first meal there.
     Then, in 2006, the Berghoff pretended to close, in order to fire its union waitstaff, putting its customers through this elaborate mock farewell, only to reopen, on the down low, a few months later. They did it for a little money. It was if your mother staged her own death and funeral, fooling you kids, in order to get out of some magazine subscriptions she no longer wanted. 
    As with Caribou, the vile initial act was compounded by the indifferent response. The Berghoff never apologized, never explained. Just a big, loud, drawn out, middle finger in the air fuuuuuuuck-youuuuuu to all its devoted, long-time customers. Then turn around, smile broadly, adopt a different tone of voice and welcome them all back in with a sweep of the arm to spend their money there again. No thanks. 
    Still ... I'm a soft-hearted guy. I don't like to hold grudges. Even when right, it still feels petty. And I missed their creamed spinach, their schnitzel. I ran into the Berghoff publicist at the McCormick Place restaurant show a few years back. Let's bury the hatchet, I told her. All that has to happen is for one of the vile Berghoff spawn -- I didn't use those exact words -- to spell out exactly what happened, and in the purifying light of candor, all will be forgiven, and I will lead a joyous procession back to the Berghoff for thuringer and sauerkraut sandwiches and their good homemade root beer.
    No dice. 
    So damn the Berghoff then, the restaurant, the family, the whole edifice of deceit and bratwurst. There is no wrath like the lover scorned. May the avenging god of restaurant calamity smite it, and send it down to the oblivion that has claimed so many far better restaurants. And while the Berghoff lingers, unwelcome, on Adams Street,  a haunt for tourists and the soulless, we turn our faces away from it, the way we'd turn away from a lunatic on the street corner doing something disgusting.
    Sometimes it takes effort. I ran into Newt Minow, the famous lawyer, at a party, and it turns out he is a fan of the column. We decided to have lunch. We chatted in his office for a while, then went down to the street. I found he was steering us toward the Berghoff. Respect mingled with a kind of panic. 
    "Umm, Mr. Minow," I finally said, freezing in the entranceway. "We don't want to eat here."
    "We don't?"
    "No," I said. "Bad karma." I believe that puzzled him a bit, but we walked out, ate nearby at Vivere, on the ground floor of the Italian Village, without having to worry about the ghosts of betrayed waiters spitting curses upon our food.  Our lunch was excellent.

Postscript: The Caribou Coffee in Northbrook went out of business in May, 2014, part of a corporate mass closing of outlets.