Saturday, November 30, 2013

Are the Bulls really going to quit now?

A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late Renaissance scholar, Yale president, and commissioner of major league baseball, was correct when he said that the sport was "designed to break your heart." Unlike baseball, in basketball, the heartbreak is more of an accident, an afterthought, a by-product. Maybe because basketball is too fast-paced, or too recently popular, to evoke the deep soul-sickness that baseball can. But it comes close. Even if basketball can't break your heart, it sure can put a few deep cracks in it.

     Life is a long line at a snack shop. You finally get to the front, order your Coke and they hand you a pretzel. Enjoy your pretzel. Life is buying a ticket to Las Vegas and being flown to Dubuque. Change of plans. Explore Dubuque.
     Sports is not life, of course, but a concentrated simulacra of life: thrill, hope, triumph and, yes, disappointment, all packed into one maddening, chaotic, endless enterprise.
     I ignored sports most of my life because I was no good at them, and my father didn’t know a baseball from a basement. But occasionally my interest was sparked. In the 1970s, the Indians. In the 1990s, the Bulls. My wife loved ’em, the city loved ’em, and I tried to love ’em too, though Michael Jordan, excellent as he was, flubbed the hero test for me by being a jerk. He seemed mean, up close, taunting his teammates. Maybe to glory, yes. But nobody wanted to be Scottie Pippen.
     Frankly, I like the current crop of Bulls far better. Derrick Rose is not a jerk. The MVP with the extra gear to the basket. With a quirky supporting crew. Passionate Joakim Noah, scowling Carlos Boozer. And the rest: Gibson. Hinrich. Deng. Not to forget my kid's hero, Jimmy Butler, whom he was cheering from the start for reasons I plumbed but never fathomed. He loves Jimmy Butler because Jimmy is the best.
     We went to a preseason game, yelled our hearts out, then settled in for something new to me: a season where I knew the team, knew the players, knew what was going on.
     Then Rose blew out his knee. Again.
     My first reaction was selfish. Oh, great, I finally surrender to this stuff, reach a point where my question at breakfast is, "Are they playing tonight?" Where tipoff finds me on the sofa, ready to savor the action. Little Neil, a sports fan at last. Now this.
     That lasted 10 seconds. Then I thought of Rose, not the player, but the person. The poor man. How awful this must be. How hard he worked this past year, getting healthy, absorbing the tsk-tsks of the entire city. He's back, not even a dozen games.
     "He looks fragile," I kept saying, watching Rose play. Turns out I was right; the one time I would have preferred being wrong.
     My 16-year-old, whose grasp of sports is more "Moneyball" than athletics, explained why the team will now be broken up so that the Bulls can lose and get better draft picks.
     Can that be true? I'm naive, yes. But that can't be the plan. It feels like surrender. "A seasonlong wake" as my colleague put it. Why can't the team that's left rise to the occasion? Why can't Jimmy Butler become the star my kid thinks he is? They almost did it last year. What are fans supposed to do while waiting for the draft? Watch a lousy scrub team lose? That doesn't sound fun.
     And what's Rose supposed to do now? An outsider would say he's already won, beat the odds, grabbed the brass ring. If he doesn't squander his money, he can own car dealerships and have a happy life.
     Or can he? The road back is even more fraught. Not only is there the pain and struggle of recovery, but once he gets into shape there will always be fear, every time he puts his foot down, it could happen again. It's already happened twice. Einmal ist keinmal, as the Germans say, und zweimal ist immer. "Once is never and twice is always."
     Those are the stakes. Still, I don't see a choice. Rose, like each of us, can't dictate outcomes, only effort. Fall down, get up, maybe shake your fist at the sky and start again. "It's called trying," I tell my boys.
     Last season, without Rose, was still fun to watch. I would rather see Noah and Butler and Boozer flail against better teams and lose than have them shipped to other teams and watch some temporary cast of new nobodies — The Chicago Generals — rack up the losses we need to maybe, maybe, draft a star player. Who'd enjoy that?
     The team can't wait, cargo-cult like, scanning the skies for Rose to return, or for a new draft-pick hero. It has to play hard now.
     My apologies for caring. It is a change, I know, and against character. I've never met Derrick Rose, but he seems a fine young man dealt a bad hand. There are a lot of those. I am confident he will play that hand, best he can. You don't have to win a championship to be a hero. Sometimes your big play occurs when you blow out your knee, again, and are counted out. I do not expect him to quit. He has his job to do, the Bulls have their job to do, and fans have a job, too. "I will be conquered," the great Samuel Johnson, no stranger to adversity, said. "I will not capitulate." That sounds like a game plan. Disappointment comes, adversity arises, yet you somehow overcome. Is that not what sports, and life, is all about?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Chattanooga!

     Three blog posts in a row on Thanksgiving, and not a murmur about Hanukkah, which began Wednesday night. "What's the matter?" the reader might ask, "ashamed?" No, indifferent. Hanukkah is a minor holiday for children that got blown out of proportion ... well, I have an old chestnut that explains it. This piece is noteworthy for where it first appeared—on America Online in 1996. Once upon a time, when the Internet was new and dial-up, if you clicked on the AOL logo, it would give you a surprise, a cartoon, or an essay. The editor of the AOL surprise feature was John Scalzi, who went on to a successful career as a science fiction novelist. I wrote the very first one, in fact, and a number to come, including this one. It hasn't been seen since. Its title is an allusion to the strangled way some mangle the pronunciation of what is also spelled "Chanukah" and I was dumbfounded to get emails from people in Tennessee, confused and angry because they suspected their city was being mocked by a Jew. The first glimmer that when you write online, you also write for readers beyond your intended audience. But they remind you.

     Imagine you move to Mars.
     The Martians are a pleasant lot. Not too different than you, really. They have holidays, just like back on earth. The biggest Martian holiday is called the Grand Galloon; it comes at the end of April, around the time Arbor Day takes place in the United States.
     We won't go into the details of the Grand Galloon—let's just say it has to do with the Martians' deepest religious beliefs. They make such a fuss about it that Martian society addresses little else in the weeks before the Grand Galloon and everyday life grinds to a halt when the great day finally arrives.
     Of course the Martians are curious about you, who have no Grand Galloon. Poor you. How do you live?
     Lest they dwell on this misfortune, the Martian ask about Arbor Day, which takes place at approximately the same time. Tell us about Arbor Day, they say. It's sort of your Grand Galloon, isn't it?
     Well, no, you answer. Arbor Day is not Galloonish at all. It's about planting trees. No big deal.
     The Martians ignore this explanation. At school, they pause from their Galloonery and demand that you stay a few words about trees. You try to point out that Arbor Day isn't that meaningful to you. The Martians smile and give you saplings.
     That's Hanukkah. A tiny Jewish festival. I can think of half a dozen more important dates on the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah marks a Jewish uprising against the Greeks in 168 BCE.* Jews decided to commemorate the event by lighting candles and eating potato pancakes.
     And that's it. Except that Hanukkah occurs in the vague proximity of Christmas—the two holidays are a measly 19 days apart this year. So Hanukkah, or Chanukah, as some spell it, in a futile attempt to capture that garbled Hebrew sound that is neither "H" nor "ch" but a little of both, gets conflated into something it isn't; a rival to Christmas.
     When in fact it really is the Jewish Arbor Day (not literally. There is a Jewish Arbor Day—Tu B'shvat, that never gets talked about since it doesn't arrive around Christmastime, even though it is as significant a holiday as Hanukkah, if not more so).
     There are problems with making Hanukkah into Christmas' Semitic twin. First, Hanukkah doesn't have enough stuff. No good songs, to start. Christmas carols are beautiful—"Oh Holy Night" and "Silver Bells" and "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." I can get choked up just listening to "Little Drummer Boy" and I've never celebrated Christmas in my life.  
     There is no good Hanukkah literature. Christmas has Dickens and the Waltons and "It's a Wonderful Life."
     And Hanukkah? Hanukkah has a song about dreidls, those little tops associated with the holiday. ("I have a little dreidl/I made it out of clay/And when it's dry and ready/Dreidl I will play...") It's a dumb, grating song with only one note in it, and there's no more horrifying, humiliating experience a Jewish child can have than, 50 minutes into a music class filled with the lovely tunes of Bach and Irving Berlin, to have some solicitous music teacher clap her hands together and say, "Okay, now we're going to sing a Hanukkah song," while gazing at the one Jewish child, who is trying to dig a hole in the floor and hide.
     Hanukkah literature consists of a few grim Eastern European tales and Jospehus, the traitorous ancient Jewish historian, recounting his self-serving version of the uprising that he managed to both lead and betray.
     Getting back to dreidls. Dreidls are a strange addition, anyway. They're a gambling game that somehow got grafted onto the holiday and, in an attempt to have something to toss at Christmas, got puffed up into an icon as well. It's as odd as if Easter were associated not only with bunnies and eggs, but with roulette wheels, or pairs of dice.
     This is not to pooh-pooh Hanukkah. Taken on its own merits, Hanukkah has some wonderful qualities, the first and foremost being latkes, those potato pancakes fried and eaten with applesauce or sour cream or, in my case, both.
     Latkes are one of the great philosophical creations of mankind—hot sand salty and starchy and just delicious.
     If given the choice between the Maccabee story and latkes, where I would decided which would be preserved for future generations and which consigned to oblivion, I'd pick latkes in a heartbeat.
    Who knows? Maybe the latkes came first. But Jewish kids were too embarrassed to say that we had an eight-day celebration of potato pancakes. thanking God for them and crowing that we, as a people, had brought them into the world.
     So we tagged the story of the Maccabees and the miracles onto it, and added a menorah ad a dreidl and a few other trapping to obfuscate its real purpose. I wouldn't be surprised. History can be quite cunning that way.

* In the original, I had the uprising a) occur in 70 AD, b) be against the Romans and c) fail, three jaw-dropping errors whose origin I can only speculate (we had a new baby at home, the festival is indeed as minor as I say, so much that even guys like me, fairly well-schooled in my religion, have a loose grasp on the particulars). Not wanting to propagate error, I fixed it in the text, but figured I should own up to the gaffe here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Festival #3: Turkey Day's Feast of Facts

     One of the challenges of Thanksgiving is the problem of just what to talk about for hours with all these strange people who show up for dinner; members of your own family, apparently. I thought I would lend a helping hand. The Bears won't be losing to Detroit today, but otherwise everything is the same as our festival of nostalgic Thanksgiving columns concludes. Have a Happy Thanksgiving, enjoy the day, save room for pie.

     The downside to Thanksgiving can be summed up in two words: Uncle Harold.
     Everyone has an Uncle Harold. Or maybe an Aunt Flo. Whatever the name, they're the distant relative, or relatives, whom you never see and suddenly have to converse with for two hours while waiting for the turkey to be done.
     What to talk about? Certainly not the Bears. Not this year, anyway. So with the challenge of making conversation in mind, the Sun-Times has assembled this selection of answers to 25 intriguing Thanksgiving questions:
     1. So turkey the bird, Turkey the country. Mere coincidence?
     Not at all. Europeans somehow got the notion that turkeys came from the East. The French thought India and called them poulets d'Inde (the Germans, fantasizing even more specifically, placed turkeys in Calcutta, calling them Kalekuttisch). The English -- and you saw this coming, didn't you? -- imagined the birds came from Turkey.
     2. OK, so where DO turkeys come from?
     Scholarly opinion seems to settle on Mexico, where the Aztecs first domesticated the birds. So, in a sense, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is, at its heart, a Mexican feast. Ole!
     3. Turkeys are really dumb, right? They drown looking up in rainstorms?
     The drowning story, according to breeders, is just a legend.
     4. Why do you get sleepy after eating turkey? Is it just that you're so stuffed, or something else?
     Tryptophan, an amino acid in turkey meat, is thought to relax people.
     5. Either way, it isn't any good without cranberry sauce. So how does the great American public vote: jellied or whole berry?
     Jellied. Two cans of jellied are sold for every one of whole berry.
     6. Cranberries are one of only three fruits originally native to this country. What are the other two?
     Concord grapes and blueberries.
     7. Wasn't there some big cranberry scare a long time back?
     In November, 1959, a government researcher announced that a herbicide used by some cranberry growers caused cancer in lab rats. Sauce sales plummeted.
     8. The stores have racks of Thanksgiving cards. That's a recent attempt to commercialize the holiday, isn't it?
     Not according to Hallmark Cards , in Kansas City, Mo. A company spokeswoman said that Hallmark sold its first Thanksgiving card in the early 1920s and Thanksgiving postcards for 50 years before that.
     9. They sell many of those?
     Not really. Industrywide, according to Hallmark, about 30 million Thanksgiving cards are sent, or about 1 percent of the number of Christmas cards.
     10. So where does Thanksgiving rank, card-wise?
     No. 7, behind June graduation and ahead of Halloween.
     11. There are so many classic Christmas songs. Any good Thanksgiving tunes?
     12. Really, none at all?
     OK, "Over the River and Through the Woods" and "Come, Ye Thankful People Come." Or there's folk singer Loudon Wainright III's depressing dirge, "Thanksgiving," which does have the benefit of making your family Thanksgiving truce, no matter how dismal, seem cheery by comparison.
     13. How about movies?
     "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" isn't bad -- Steve Martin and John Candy struggle to get home for Thanksgiving.
     14. How about touching Thanksgiving literature?
     It isn't quite Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but Erica Jong's How to Save Your Own Life, begins: "I left my husband on Thanksgiving Day."
     15. What about Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past? Isn't there a Thanksgiving scene in that?
     No, but the maitre d'hotel at Balbec does carve a turkey "with a sacerdotal majesty, surrounded, at a respectful distance from the service-table, by a ring of waiters who . . . stood gaping in open-mouthed admiration."
     16. All these football games! When did a pious holiday like Thanksgiving get associated with sporting events?
     Always was. At the very first Thanksgiving in 1621, the Pilgrims and the Indians entertained themselves with contests of shooting and archery.
     17. When did big games start getting held on Thanksgiving?
     Baseball was the Thanksgiving Day tradition in the 1860s and 1870s. By the mid-1880s college football took the spotlight.
     18. When did the NFL start broadcasting its games on Thanksgiving?
     That would be 1970, when the leagues merged and got their first national television contract, according to the league office in New York.
     19. But other games were broadcast before 1970, right?
     Absolutely. In fact, the team that will be beating the Bears today, the Detroit Lions, pioneered pro football on Thanksgiving, playing their first Turkey Day game in 1934. The Lions game has been televised since 1956.
     20. Any other neat NFL Thanksgiving traditions?
     As a matter of fact, Thanksgiving is a good time to pull pranks on rookies, such as in 1984, when a Pittsburgh Steeler rookie was sent to team President Dan Rooney to collect the squad's free turkey, which of course didn't exist.
     21. When did the tradition of Grandma slaving away in the kitchen while the men eat mixed nuts begin?
     That's one of the oldest rites of the holiday. The first Thanksgiving, for 150 people -- 90 Indians, the rest Pilgrims -- was prepared by four English women, assisted by a pair of teenage girls. And no dishwasher either.
     22. One more turkey question: Why is dark meat dark?
     More iron, according to one source. More fat, according to another.
     23. The evening news always has poor people lining up for their Thanksgiving dinners, courtesy of a charity. Where did that tradition start?
     An outgrowth of Victorian philanthropy, although back then they made an even greater public spectacle of it. Often the benefactors would gather to watch the poor eat the feast -- the less fortunate sometimes putting on a show of song and recitation first to entertain their hosts. In 1884, a Chicago department store set up a Thanksgiving feast in one of its windows and invited street urchins in to eat it while hundreds of passers-by gawked.
     24. Whipped cream in a can! Who ever thought of that?
     A St. Louis salesman named Aaron Lapin, working right here in Chicago. Lapin was trying to sell a wartime substitute whipping cream called Sta-Whip. Part of the plan was to create a "dispensing gun" that ended up as Reddi-Wip. Between 1948 and 1951, America's consumption of whipped cream doubled.
     25. Once and for all, sweet potatoes or yams -- which is it?
     Unless you're in Belize, you're eating sweet potatoes -- orange, dense, sweet, particularly when topped with marshmallows. Yams are yellowish and not eaten much in the United States. People call sweet potatoes yams, but they're not.

                          -- from the Chicago Sun-Times, November 27, 1997

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Festival #2: Surrender, vegetarians!

Our holiday visit to Thanksgiving columns past continues with this good-natured poke at vegetarians. This was inspired by my brace of nieces, who always seemed to need special non-turkey items on the menu to accommodate their various dietary habits of the moment. I can't recall anybody mocking vegetarianism lately—I hope it hasn't drifted into the realm of unquestionable religious faith. I'd never accuse vegetarians of being humorless and self-important—but let's see if they stand up and make the claim themselves.

     Thanksgiving is a time when vegetarianism regularly emerges from semi-obscurity to flash brightly in the public eye for a moment before returning to its place on the shelf of marginal American idiosyncrasies, like nudism and faith healing, colonic irrigation and dowsing.
     The Thanksgiving feast is such a cherished cultural icon -- the roast turkey, king of the table of plenty -- that the thought of people snubbing it, willingly, is almost unbelievable.
     Of course it makes the news, perennially, like the gold coins in Salvation Army buckets at Christmas.
     And why not? Those of us who have been licking our lips for days, if not weeks, anticipating the warm, moist flesh of the turkey are mesmerized by the notion of those who shun it; viewing them with a mixture of horror and awe, rather the way you view those radicals who set themselves on fire as a political protest. An act of courage, of course. But at what cost?
     Turkey is essential today. Wherever you are -- sailors on the ocean, scientists at the poles, soldiers based in distant lands -- great pains are taken to bring you turkey. No matter who you are, no matter how abject and debased your condition -- felons in prison, the homeless packed into shelters, college students -- indifferent society suddenly mobilizes to serve up platters of turkey. It's almost a human right.
     Yet every Thanksgiving, some stout group of vegetarians is featured pantomiming a Thanksgiving feast, digging into their ersatz tofu turkey, or their soy protein turkey or, among the truly independent, doing away with even the chimera of turkey and eating a feast of leek cakes and yam pies and whatever garden clippings and reconstructed starch molecules they set before themselves and call food.
     I am of two minds when it comes to this. First is an earnest attempt to understand and accept other points of view. Vegetarianism has health benefits -- fat is bad and salt is bad blah blah blah.
     And it has moral justification -- preventing the slaughter of turkeys, nuzzling their young in a humanlike fashion, possessing a language and culture, yaddity yaddity yaddah.
     But that's just the shiny surface, the false face presented to avoid conflict. There is a deeper sentiment, one I keep buried, particularly around the several vegetarians I know, personally, who seem like fine, upstanding people, with no clear signs of emotional disturbance, except of course for a certain reluctance toward eating meat.
     That deeper, more honest feeling can be summed up like this: "It's Thanksgiving for the love of God! What's the matter with you people? Eat some turkey. Park your precious morals and your fine distinctions at the door, loosen your belt, and dig in. What right do you have to cling to your own beliefs on a holiday? How dare you make Grandma prepare some disgusting drumstick-shaped chick pea patties just for you? Join us! Conform! This is a moment to celebrate our collective abundance -- an abundance so rich it allows you to munch grass and without which you would be on your haunches right now snapping shank bones in half and greedily drinking the marrow. Abundance handed to us by God Almighty, don't you forget, who ordained in the Bible that we would eat turkey today with dressing and cranberry sauce then lay on the couch like beached whales watching football games all afternoon."
     There, I feel much better now. I've been meaning to say that for years, and now it's out. Let me apologize right away. I don't really care if you eat turkey or not. In fact, go ahead: Shun the bird. Shun turkey and steak and chocolate and Mozart and fashionable clothing.
     It's a free world. Dress in burlap sacks and go sit outside the gates of the city, eating groats out of a rough clay bowl. That just leaves more of the good stuff for me.
                        —from the Chicago Sun-Times, November 25, 1999

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Festival #1: Holiday treat the stuff of legends

     Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. No tedious religious obligations, no gifts to buy. Just family and food and more family and more food. I used to always write a Thanksgiving column, and since I didn't do a special week this November, the way I did the first four months—just too busy writing to dream up a theme—I thought, for the next three days, I'd reprise a few of my favorite Thanksgiving columns. Though I really never topped this first one, 16 years ago. 
    A lot can change in 16 years. We don't live in the city, so there's no trip down the alley. Thanksgiving isn't held at my in-laws' place; both of them have passed away and are deeply missed. Now it's at our house. 
    Some things, however, stay the same — I still make the stuffing, with apple cider instead of wine. I will admit, as glad as I am that I don't drink anymore, I do heave a wistful sigh at Thanksgiving, and the gleeful tone of this column will tell you why. Nothing to be ashamed of—fun while it lasted, and fun of a different sort now, plus one more blessing to give thanks for.

     How big a scoop of stuffing are you going to heap on your plate when the platter is passed around Thursday?
     If you're like me, it'll be a prodigious mountain, a brown bushel of savory joy, towering above the pale expanse of turkey, dwarfing the mashed potatoes, obscuring the yams, mocking the cranberries.
     I'm a stuffing man. I'm not ashamed to shout it. My entire life the other 364 days a year is just a shuffling, time-killing, joyless trance, waiting until the magic day when Thanksgiving stuffing returns.
     Sure, you are offered simulated stuffing at other times. There is Stove Top. And I have partaken in it, and derived comfort, like a thirsty man in the desert sucking on pebbles. But it isn't the real thing. Real stuffing must be labored over for hours.
     I know, because in my family, I make the stuffing. I am the patriarch, stuffingwise; the granddaddy of dressing. It's the only thing I know how to cook. But, like the idiot savant who can only play Mozart piano concertos, my one skill is sublime.
     I never would have learned of my skill if it weren't for my mother-in-law. A saint, that woman. She can lay out a Thanksgiving dinner for 30 people in the time it takes most people to peel an apple.
     But even family can't just show up holiday after holiday, 10 times a year, year after year, stuff our faces and run out the door shouting thanks over our shoulders without a little guilt eventually setting in.
     So we began volunteering to shoulder responsibility for aspects of Thanksgiving dinner. My sister-in-law took over the pies. And I took the stuffing. Everyone laughed when I volunteered. My mother-in-law prepared a few pans of emergency stuffing, just in case I botched it.
     But I didn't botch it. I nailed it. Stuffing the way it should be, moist but not wet, solid but yielding, savory without any single spice drawing rude attention to itself and ruining the warm and comforting embrace that is good stuffing. Stoical relatives who could read every word I've written without uttering a compliment grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks, their faces wet with tears, babbling praise for the stuffing.
     For a period of years -- five? eight? more? -- the question would be floated during early November. "Is Neil making stuffing this year?" Then it gently transmuted into "Neil is making his stuffing this year?"
     But this year was the crowning triumph: Nobody asked at all.
     You have to have gone through the process of being absorbed into somebody else's family to recognize the bliss in this transformation. The wonder of being taken for granted, of being assumed.        
     Nobody asked whether I'm making my stuffing because everyone knew that I would. I always do. It's a tradition.
     No recipe. Nothing is written. I wing it. First, a couple of days before, I buy a bunch of challah breads; six, eight, depending on the size. These I dice into inch-wide croutons and toast on cookie sheets. Sure, it takes a long time, but so did the Sistine Chapel.
     Onions, celery and peeled apple, diced well and cooked until nothing dares to crunch. Chicken bouillon, for moistening. Oil, too. Mild spices: sage, thyme. And one secret moistening ingredient: red wine.
     I can't tell you how much red wine. Use enough but no more. I'm generally sparing with the wine that goes into the stuffing. The wine that, ummm, doesn't go in to the stuffing, but goes somewhere else, that wine I don't monitor quite as closely, if you catch my drift.
     No apricots. No raisins. No corn bread. Nothing fancy or strange. Leave that to Martha Stewart. If your family is burdened with the tradition of stuffing made from, say, White Castle hamburgers (which people actually use), OK, follow your creed, if you must. I will follow mine.
     Stuffing can't be ruined. You make so much of it, adding batch after batch of raw materials -- more croutons, more vegetables, more bouillon, more spices -- that should one element be overemphasized, it can always be corrected. You can always dice up more bread.
     One would think that the highlight would be the eating. Or perhaps the contemplating of the assembled plate: the bird, the stuffing, the cranberries, the yams, the mashed potatoes, the peas; like beloved actors in a favorite sitcom, each vital, each supporting the other, trotting out for another show, just like the one before, just like the next one.
     But preparation is really the top for me, the peerless thrill I wait for all year. The croutons toasting. The wine glugging, into the stuffing, into other places. On the TV, the parade, hosted by a pair of idiotic showbiz personalities whom I've never heard of previously and will never hear of again. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing.
     That moment is even better than the ecstatic reception my stuffing receives; relatives standing in their places, elbowing small children away, wrestling for the stuffing platter, those at the far end extending their plates out in one hand, the other hand making big arching gimme gestures, or simply pointing desperately at their wide-open mouths.
     The only other comparable moment is the walk down the alley, to the car. No one may carry the stuffing but me. It's heavy. It must weigh 15 pounds. There is the thrill of peril; the stuffing must not be dropped. The aroma steams up, mixing with the crisp bite of the November air. Celestial choirs of angels break into song. Thanksgiving is good. Stuffing is good. And making the stuffing is great.
                              —From The Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 23, 1997

Monday, November 25, 2013

Kyrah won't get her shoes unless you help.

When the holidays rolled around, and it was my turn to take a swing at the obligatory Season of Sharing column, I used to try to dodge my duty. It was back when they urged columnists to wear Santa hats in their column photos on the day their give-generously column ran. The plea seemed pro-forma, and tedious, something that the hard-ass city columnist would best avoid. But I've mellowed, and take more of an agreeable, that-could-be-me-next-year, glad-to-have-a-job-myself approach to these things. This one actually came out okay, in my estimation. The only downside being that now I've got to buy the gifts. 

     Deep within the Cook County Courthouse at 26th and California, Criminal Court Division Presiding Judge Paul Biebel Jr. instituted a specialty courtroom called “Veterans Court,” where those who have served in the armed forces face justice for their various misdeeds.
     And if you sit in Veterans Court for any length of time, as I have, you quickly realize that the reason the court exists is not because veterans are significantly different than anybody else when it comes to committing robberies, for instance, or burglaries, or domestic abuse,. But rather, being vets, they have a range of services available to them — addiction counseling, job placement, emergency housing and such — that regular felons do not. The purpose of the court is to pair them with those services, in the hopes they can turn their lives around.
     Also quickly, even if, like me, you are not a particularly caring or generous person, it will occur to you that the big problem with Veterans Court is that it only offers help to veterans, and that a truly caring society would do this for everyone who screws their lives up so much they find themselves in jail.
    That’s a long way of saying that as much as I’m a supporter of Christmas-season giving and the charitable stirrings it prompts in even the hardest of anthracite hearts, like mine, I can’t dwell very long on the subject without quickly beginning to suspect that the problem with the Christmas spirit of fellowship and goodwill is that it only occurs around Christmas. If then.
    Though I understand why people turn away. It can be so heartbreaking to look. The Season of Sharing program run by the Sun-Times pairs the willing and able with letters from underprivileged Chicago kids. I'm looking at a stack of them now.
     Kyrah, 8; we probably shouldn't use her last name, to protect her from the stigma of being in need, though it's common enough:
     "Dear Santa," she begins. "I would like to have a bady aliv" - this gave me pause. At first I thought she meant "Barely Alive," and I shivered to think what depth dollmakers, inspired by "Twilight" no doubt, had now sunk. The mind reels. . . .
     But a bit of reflection and online sleuthing led me to believe she means "Baby Alive," a doll that comes with diapers, wets itself and - good Lord! — also "messes" in her disposable diapers, ($8.65 for a six-pack, which means they cost five times the price of actual Huggies for newborns). She asks for a few other toys, which she illustrates with drawings, and concludes ". . . and some shoes and a paint set. Tank you."
     "Some shoes and a paint set"? "Shoes" is one of those haunting requests that makes answering these letters both a challenge and necessary. What kind of shoes? What size?
     Daunted, I fled to the next letter. Amanda — not her actual name — first butters up Santa. "You are the best in the whole wide world" and tells him "My mommy says that she loves me very much; she goes to school every day just like me" and frames the gift, not as a favor to her, but to her hard-working mother. "Santa can you help my mommy by bringing me a baby doll with clothes; and a stroller or some dress-up clothes with dishes. I know I will love whatever you bring."
      Hmmm. The third letter did the trick, from an 8-year-old boy named Bernard.
      "For Christmas I would like to have Dragon Ball Z toy and some Legos I would like Yugamon toys too. Thank you," illustrated by some very fine, fierce-looking triangular-headed lads, which proved helpful, because "Yugamon" doesn't exist. A little fiddling online reveals, "Yu-Gi-Oh!" not only does exist, but its spiky yellow-haired hero looks quite like Bernard's skillful pencil rendition.
     OK Bernard, we creative types must stick together. I plucked his letter and sent the other two back to Season of Sharing HQ. Sorry girls, better luck next time.
     If that seems hard-hearted, remember: I'm off to Target to shop for Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh, a ring of hell I thought I escaped a decade ago. What are you doing? So step up; if Kyrah is going to get her shoes, if Amanda is going to get her play dishes, you should stop tsk-tsking miserly columnists prodded out of their indifference by the seasonal dictates of their job, and go be the kind-hearted soul you demand that I be.
     This isn't easy, as you will see when you request your own child's letter to puzzle over by sending an email to or phoning our Season of Sharing office at 312-321-3114. You still have plenty of time. They need the gifts back, wrapped by Dec. 20. But it'll be easier if you don't drag your feet. Not easy, but necessary. Do it.

Photo atop blog: Elmhurst College

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sacre bleu! The French have a point...

Often journalism is a kind of kabuki — a stylized form of storytelling where gesture, expectation and tradition sometime trump meaning. Thus an event like the French government warning their tourists to avoid Chicago's South and West Side can have an arc of action and reaction without the most important aspect ever being alluded to. Here I try to correct that:

     Wellllllll, this is awkward.
     So the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs website issues a security warning for visitors to 16 U.S. cities, including Chicago, advising: “éviter le West Side et le sud de la ville après la 59ème rue.”
     The Washington Post’s GovBeat blog translates that as: “Stay away from the West Side and anywhere south of 59th Street.”
     This is dangled under the nose of our mordant mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who offers up a smooth political response, “Don’t get me started on what I think of the French,” which simultaneously conveys a proud pugnacity without actually saying anything negative; Chicago won’t move up the world-class city ladder by picking fights with Paris.
     And while no American pundit can go wrong dissing the French — though it is impossible to top “The Simpsons’” deathless epithet, “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” — it is my unfortunate duty, even though the Kabuki of journalism dictates that this story dwindled away days ago, as we rush to flutter our fingers at some new trifle, to quietly point out: The French are right.
     Aren't they?
     How can Chicagoans who don't live in those areas get worked up about being told to avoid the West Side and South Side below 59th Street when they usually avoid those areas already, without French guidance?
     The mayor goes, cutting ribbons, wiping the runny noses of toddlers. That's his job.
And I go, tracking stories and following my curiosity, which, a couple years back, prompted me to swing down to East 75th Street to sample Original Soul Vegetarian's Marcus Garvey Burger and Hebrew Fries. (How could you not? Tasty and different).
     Within the not-too-distant-past, needing to go to an apartment at 82nd and Langley to interview a reader, I took the Red Line to 79th and walked the mile. I figured, "It's my city." I didn't feel imperiled; I felt conspicuous, which is not always a bad thing to feel.
     The mayor cited Garfield Park Conservatory and Pullman Park as examples of urban delights that await the Gallic tourist bold enough to venture to the South and West sides. I would argue they are not so much examples as the totality, and a sparse one.
     I recently was at Garfield Park to report on its ongoing reconstruction after being strafed by hail. And while it is bravely open, and I enjoyed being there and could say with confidence that any Frenchman who had a deep love of cycads and ferns would find the place delightful, much is a construction site. I can't honestly say that I would direct my Parisian friends to hurry there from O'Hare. As for Pullman, again, someone with a deep interest in 19th century manufacturing and perhaps the history of labor strife might enjoy it.      The city's own guide to its neighborhoods notes, "There are no food facilities in historic Pullman" and suggests you slide over to Roseland to hit Old-Fashioned Donuts. Which I considered doing, but with the Donut Vault a block away from my office, hauling elsewhere would be pathology.
     There are two issues here: whether a place offers interest to tourists and whether it is safe. For the latter, my take has always been if people can live there, I can visit for an hour. That doesn't mean blundering around obliviously at midnight. The U.S. State Department doesn't warn against Paris, though there are sections where you risk getting your throat slit if you're not careful. But it does tender this advice: "Try to seem purposeful when you move about."
     Actually, "try to seem purposeful" is good general advice, if you are willing to take life lessons from the State Department.
     The hard truth that we don't talk about much is that, civic boosterism aside, there is the lush downtown of the Magnificent Mile and the museum campus, the Loop, the flush North Side, trendy Near Northwest and so many great places in the city that it's easy and pleasant to forget there are spots where Chicago's money and magic never seem to reach. I'm glad we aren't distracting ourselves by castigating the French: I like France, and a Cannes cabbie was once very kind to my wife and me when Delta Dream Vacations booked us in a hotel that was shuttered, with plywood over the windows.
     View the French words of caution - which, all things being equal, the honest Chicagoan admits are basically true - not as an insult but a reminder that we, too, should consider the entire city. The French at least assume people might go there. My initial plan for this column was to take my new favorite train line, the Metra Electric, to 59th Street and ride a Divvy south see what waits there. But there are no Divvy stations south of 59th Street. None. I asked the city bike folks why that is. No answer yet.

Photo atop blog: Too far west for the French? A playground outside the Cornell Square Park Fieldhouse on W. 50th Street, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Nov. 9, 2013.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Connoisseur Trap

    Can you know too much?
     Usually I'd say "No."
     Knowledge builds, expands, allows you to make connections and observations. To better understand this confusing whir of a world.
     There are exceptions.
     I just read the review, "Lyric Opera's 'La Traviata' fails to impress," written by my friend and colleague Andrew Patner, who found Wednesday's performance of the perennial Lyric favorite lacking.
     "With constant and unnecessary racing, tweaking, arbitrary accents and ritards, none from the score and none adding anything to Verdi's work," he writes, of the music.
     All of which flew past me. I am not an opera expert. I can't even tell you what above means, nor what a "ritard" is (from the Oxford: "with a gradual decrease of speed.") But I was at the same performance Andrew attended, and I thought it was outstanding, exquisite, particularly the singing of soprano, Marina Rebeka, who Andrew admitted was "physically-winning" (I'd say something closer to "statuesque and beautiful"). 
    But I'm not disagreeing with Andrew, in the sense that I think he's wrong. Just the opposite. I'm sure he's right. He must be. He's been analyzing this stuff for 30 years, in the Sun-Times and on WFMT, so he knows of what he speaks. 
     Rather, he was right in his frame of reference, drawing from his depth of knowledge. In his sphere, not only did he dislike this production, but didn't even approve of the Lyric staging "Traviata" in the first place. "The 14th in the nearly 60 years of Lyric's history," he notes.
     Is that a lot? Every five years? Given that I've seen the same opera twice in one week, it really isn't all that excessive, again, in my estimation. Later this season, the Lyric is  presenting Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," which I saw when the Lyric did it last in 2006. My reaction was: "Cool. More 'Fledermaus.'"
     Plus, I had never seen "La Traviata" before. That might be the key fact at work here. At least I don't remember seeing it. I have a recording, and have listened to it with continual pleasure. And must have at some point read the synopsis, when I wrote about the opera, because I was bringing 100 readers, who were also there Wednesday night. (They all loved it, gushing, like me, about the splendor and wonder of it. None of them mentioned the ritards).
      But we, unlike Andrew, were coming from a place of ignorance. When Violetta ... spoiler alert here ... leapt up from her death bed, strength and joy returning, for a moment I thought, "What? She lives? Oh good...." But it was just the burst of energy that sometimes comes just before the end, as anyone who has watched someone die knows. My wife wept.
    So I am not bringing a wealth of experience to this. Andrew is, and he is completely right in every regard (except regarding the set, but perhaps this is my pet peeve. The Lyric is in the same hard times we all are, and occasionally, in my view, exhibits what it calls minimalism but what I think of as mere austerity—the tiny witch's house in "Hansel and Gretel," the clumps of red tubing at stage left and stage right in "Parsifal." If you're going to have red tubing, there should be a whole lot of it). Nobody wants to see economical scenery.
    And we didn't, this time. Even before the curtain rose—a wall of lace lit in blue, revealing Violetta lounging on a chair, under a chandelier, dressing for a party. I was in the audience, thinking: "ooooo." 
    So maybe I'm just a cheap date. I was impressed before the curtain went up. Heck, I was impressed by the curtain.
    Is that bad? There is what I will call "The Connoisseur Trap." You are drawn to something because you love it, and you experience it and learn about it, and the years go by. Then one day, your standards are so high, they cut into your enjoyment of the thing that you supposedly love, because you expect so much you are constantly disappointed with the way it is done in our flawed, imperfect world.
      I'm not saying that is the case here with Andrew, whom I deeply respect. Maybe the opera was repetitive and sub-par and anyone with a half knowledge would snap his lorgnette shut in a huff. My son, 18, shrugged it off too, but he's in a shrugging off stage of life. 
    Me, I really loved it, thought it was the best production I've seen in years, and thought Marina Rebeka was fantastic—that might have skewed my judgment—and it would be ungallant of me to let Andrew toss money at her prone weeping form without removing my white glove and giving him a single slap in defense of her honor (And I suppose in defense of set designer Riccardo Hernandez's honor, too. I saw that curving Romanesque wall he constructed and thought: "Yes! Spare and minimal yet elegant and gorgeous. Finally.")
     Nearly 25 years ago, I was a nobody reporter (as opposed to a nobody columnist) still shaking the straw of Ohio out of my hair. I was sitting in the Billy Goat Tavern bitching about what a lousy agent I had who couldn't sell a book about college pranks, when Andrew Patner, a sophisticated Hyde Parker and Wall Street Journal reporter, who had one of the most powerful agents in New York City, David Black, handed him to me with the nonchalance you might tell a stranger the time.  So I don't question him lightly. In fact, I don't question him at all. He's correct. This is about me, defending obliviousness. It is not without value. I am an amateur in this realm, and grateful for it. I'd hope I never learn so much that something like Wednesday's "La Traviata" tastes sour in my mouth. Too much knowledge can be the forbidden apple; it drives you from the garden. And what fun is that? After the audience stood, clapping and cheering and "bravoing" and "bravaing,"  it puzzled me that they'd stop after just five minutes. I was ready to tear my seat cushion out and throw it at the stage, but knew that would be frowned upon.
    So anyway, I hope you—and Andrew—forgive me for wanting to clap just a little more.
    I never thought I'd say this: but sometimes ignorance is underrated. Ignorance can be bliss, to coin a phrase, and bliss is what I go to the opera to find.

Photos courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago @Todd Rosenberg


Friday, November 22, 2013

Lincoln weeping

I knew Bill Mauldin, slightly,  from talking to him on several occasions—I had his phone number, and would call him to catch up around his birthday, the way Snoopy would visit on Veterans Day in "Peanuts."  It seemed fitting that, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, someone should recall his famous editorial cartoon capturing the nation's grief. When I mentioned this to an editor who replied, "What cartoon?" I knew I had made the right decision.

     "The death of a President enters the house and becomes a death in the family,” E.B. White wrote in the Nov. 30, 1963, New Yorker, and when people talk and write about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as they’ve done continually for the half century since it occurred, 50 years ago Friday, it is as a staggering blow of shock and sorrow — similar to what one might feel when an admired, loved and successful son, or brother, or father is cruelly plucked away forever. Where were you when you heard the news?
     Or in terms of conspiracy theories: what happened? The idea of a loser with a mail-order rifle destroying the dream of American Camelot seemed ludicrous and many rejected it. The event, so publicized, generated an ocean of data that could be picked over and theorized by those searching for a truth they found more palatable than the obvious. We’d do it again after 9/11, and will do it eternally as long as people mistake hazy speculation for insight and wisdom.
     Though if you've ever been to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, it's so small, the shot so direct, you go from wondering how Oswald could possibly hit Kennedy to how he could possibly miss.
     I don't remember the assassination. I was 3. To me, the rifle crack is the break between the black-and-white 1950s and the color contemporary world, the Kodachrome Zapruder film ushering in Vietnam and Nixon and everything that followed. It is an invitation to speculate on what might have been instead of understand what was, a bog that many wander into and never leave.
     There are countless stories. Since I'm in the juxtaposition business — the challenge of taking a news event and trying to immediately reflect it in a way that resonates ­— and since I knew him, briefly, I want to tell you about Bill Mauldin, our paper's two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist.
     On Nov. 22, 1963 — also a Friday — he left his office on the fourth floor of the Sun-Times Building, 401 N. Wabash, and went over to the Palmer House hotel, for a Council on Foreign Relations luncheon.
    Shortly before 1 p.m., a woman called for attention and said the president had been shot. Someone at Mauldin's table suggested they all go home and have a drink. Mauldin certainly liked his drink, but instead went back to the office. The Sun-Times didn't run his cartoon on Saturdays and, anyway, the usual 1 p.m. deadline was past.
     But this wasn't a usual day.
     Mauldin's thought process, as he later described it, went like this: Kennedy was Catholic. He considered Catholic religious sculptures - maybe tears streaming down the face of a Virgin Mary statue.
     No. Religious drawings got him in trouble. People are touchy. He then reflected on Lincoln, another famously martyred president.
     The two thoughts, statuary and Lincoln, fused in his mind.
     He asked an editor how long he had. An hour. He grabbed a file photo of the Lincoln Memorial and began to sketch.
     The Sun-Times editors took a look at his cartoon and cleared sports off the back page and ran his drawing over it. News vendors sold the paper back-page up, to display Mauldin's work, which summed up the moment perfectly. A half million people requested reprints, including Jackie Kennedy. Mauldin had already given the original to the publisher. He took it back, whited over his dedication to Marshall Field IV and inscribed it to her. The cartoon, conceived and completed in an hour, hangs in the Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.
     John F. Kennedy was admired because he was articulate and daring, and he would expect that those who remember him, those who revere his memory, be no less daring and no less articulate in the doing of it, and in the conducting of their lives as Americans.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Break the glass — Gov. Quinn signs same-sex marriage bill

     One great aspect of my job is that I get to pick what I write about. Another is that I get asked to do things. I had no intention of attending Wednesday's signing of the bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois — I've kinda covered that topic. But my boss asked me to go, and I'm a "Give the lady what she wants" kind of employee. So I hopped on the Divvy and rode down to the UIC Forum. It was fun — I knew a lot of people there. And the room was suffused with a very warm, boisterous and happy spirit. It was impossible not to contrast the humanity and serious purpose of the people there, celebrating family and life, with the unhinged emails I've been getting from cramped religious fanatics, foaming in detail about the sexual practices that obviously obsess them. Makes you wonder which side is listening to the spirit of God, and which is really possessed by the devil.

     Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president, said it best:
     “Throughout our nation’s history, individuals and groups have fought for equal protection under the law,” she told the thousands of jubilant witnesses gathered Wednesday at the UIC Forum to witness same-sex marriage signed into Illinois law. “The battles to define a person, a citizen, a voter, a marriage. As a history teacher, I firmly believe that marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our time.”
     To her right at the podium were most of the top government leaders in Illinois — not only Gov. Pat Quinn, who would minutes later sign the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act on the desk that Abraham Lincoln used to write his first inaugural address, but Speaker Michael Madigan, his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and dozens of state legislators and constitutional officers.
     You could view it as a political victory for gay people. Or as one step in the very long historical process to which Preckwinkle alluded.
     Once upon a time, everyone stayed in place. To see the remnants all you have to do is look at your last name — the Bakers and Farmers, Smiths and Taylors, were once the actual bakers and farmers, smiths and tailors, professions of locked-in subjects who wouldn't dream of trying to fill any other role than what your father or mother did, the only thing God and tradition intended them to do.
     But some chafed under that. They wanted to be free. And they forced change.
     And that is the entire story of modern life, the past 300 years at least. Institutions and rituals, religions and kings, laws and traditions, slowly yielding to the relentless pressure of the individual yearning for liberty. Yearning to be themselves or, more accurately, yearning to be something else. First the serfs objected to being serfs, and people from dominated countries tired of being dominated. Religions that weren't the main religion asked why they couldn't worship in their desired way. Women, minorities, children, each one being recognized, after years of argument, protest, struggle, to be welcomed by some, held back by others who pointed at the past as the only true and acceptable map for the future.
     And now gays and lesbians, today in Illinois. Quinn, an honorable man, a practicing Roman Catholic, following the strong tradition of that religion toward social justice, signed a law in Illinois so that, as Emanuel noted, "There is no straight, or gay marriage; from now on there is only marriage in Illinois." In June, men can marry the men they love, and women can marry the women they love, just the way it has always been for heterosexual couples.
     As we move forward, we might ask ourselves: Why were these fellow citizens held down so long? For what reason? In the distant past, it might have been limited resources, the need for someone to do the scutwork for free. More recently, perhaps some basic human need to hate and fear somebody. And ignorance that was swept away by realizing that this oppressed group includes our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, or friends and parents. Gays and lesbians, in freeing themselves, offer the entire society a chance to understand itself better.
     So applause to gays and lesbians, for achieving a victory that their forebears could hardly dream of. And applause for the straight community, for sharing — grudgingly, gradually, true, but sharing eventually — the precious gift of sweet daily life, of recognized married relations and solid family life, of acceptance and normality. Because it isn't just homosexuals freed here, but all society, wriggling from the grasp of a powerful, destructive, long-term, hateful bias. Not fully, God knows. But a big step, another big step, in a journey of many steps, big and small.
     This is is the moment in the wedding when the solemnities are done, the cleric closes the prayer book and smiles; the groom, or I suppose now the bride, steps on the glass — symbolizing a break with past sorrows and a bright future; the world shifts, slightly, and everybody cheers.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A newcomer's guide to the opera

     I sort of blundered into the opera. In 2008, Lyric Opera of Chicago produced "Porgy & Bess." George Gershwin's great opera. I wanted to see it, and to write something about its complicated racial history. At the same time, the paper's editor thought I should take 100 readers to the opera, as a stunt. I didn't even particularly like opera. But I grew to—that's the thing about opera, the more you go, the more you want to go.  I suppose it's like an addiction, except one you can happily indulge all your life and you don't have to quit. Also, like addiction, you want to draw people in with you, for company. The Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric sweepstakes is in its sixth year, and I'm glad so many people—600 and counting—have learned a little about what opera's all about.
     Five hours, exactly; from Sir Andrew Davis striking up the orchestra Sunday to when the audience stood potching our hands together to thank the cast for putting on such a vigorous performance of Wagner’s last opera, “Parsifal.”
     And while I don’t want to suggest that savoring every nuance required anything less than complete concentration on my part, there was still plenty of attention, and God knows enough time, left over to let my mind wander to the odd art form that is opera, and to the 100 lucky winners of the Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric contest joining me at the opera house Wednesday for opening night of Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
     Judging from my email, there is a bit of uncertainty about what is required by opera, and as I am in the passing-along-of-relevant-information business, I thought I would offer a quick primer in How to Do It.
     There is only one vital, unbreakable rule when it comes to opera that sets it apart from most forms of entertainment: You can't be late. The curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m., which means if you show up at 7:31 p.m., you find shut doors and a joyless usher, deaf to your pleas, who invites you to watch the action on a nearby TV monitor, which is to experiencing live opera what reading a menu is to eating food. Or so I'm told — I've never been late, through a secret technique I will share with you now called "being early." For instance, for Sunday's matinee, my son and I arrived at the opera house half an hour before curtain, giving us time to stand at the bar downstairs and eat our sack lunches.
     Another distinction: Unlike sports venues, you can bring food to the opera. You can't eat at your seat, but they have tables in the lobby. A couple actually picnicked under a staircase Sunday. I'm not saying roast a lamb or bring a keg — I'm sure the whole thing is frowned upon, since they sell food. But people still do it, on the sly.
     The other concern folks have is parking. Some have written to ask if there is parking in downtown Chicago, and I tell them, yes, there is. You do have to pay money, and that seems to shock some. There are several garages and lots nearby.
     If you've ever been tempted to take Metra, now is your chance. Union and Ogilvie stations are a block west, so long as your train doesn't require you to bolt early; people who do not stay and applaud after an opera are doomed to spend eternity in hell.
     The other item people ask about is dress. Contest winners want to know if they should "dress up." I wore a blue blazer with charcoal pants, a blue shirt and a tie festooned with skulls — with Wagner it seemed apt — and noted with approval many gentlemen wearing similar getups. But you could ditch the tie and the jacket. Some men wore a kind of Dick-Cheney-on-his-ranch ensemble — think moutainy vests, jeans. I'd say whatever you're comfortable in, and many newcomers I talk to are sporting green work pants and plastic Pipe Fitters Local 597 jackets and they have a swell time.
     "La Traviata" is three hours long. I recommend a mint or something you can entertain yourself with by quietly slipping your hand into your pocket, removing a mint and popping it into your mouth. It's good to have an activity, and I probably went through 25 Sencha green tea mints Sunday, which sounds like a lot until you realize it's only five an hour, or one every 12 minutes.
     What else? Oh yes, how could I forget? One other ironclad rule that, unlike Don't Be Late, is not about your enjoyment but about everybody else's: Don't talk. You're not at home.
     As much as you want to turn to your wife and say, "Golly Emma, this isn't half as bad as I thought it would be!" please don't. Because you'll be sitting behind me — that's where all the people who talk loudly in operas seem to congregate — and my limited attention, which I'm manfully trying to focus on the Hunter Entering the Glade, is instead spun 180 degrees in the wrong direction, toward you, and whatever lame, unnecessary remark you are making. That means the person in front of you, aka me, not only won't enjoy his precious time at the opera as much as he should, but will inevitably see that you don't enjoy yours either, by whipping around, staring at you and saying, in a loud voice, "You realize you're not at home, don't you?" Or I'll try to say that and not, "If you don't shut up, I'm going to murder you in your seat."
     Strong stuff, yes. But that's what opera is all about—intense emotions unleashed by the power of music and story, the pageantry and wonderment that Lyric Opera of Chicago offers throughout the season. Enjoy.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 20, 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

There's still more hiding in that closet.

      Twenty-one years ago, I was scanning the classified ads in the Reader, looking for story ideas, when I noticed an ad for a shop on Elston Avenue that sold women's clothing in large sizes to men. "Hmmm," I thought. "Now THERE'S something you don't see every day." It lead to the only in-depth examination the Sun-Times has ever printed about the Chicago transgender community, and gave me a lot of sympathy for people who feel their true sexual orientation is different than the one they were born with. It's a struggle. 
     An interesting social question now is whether transgender folk will be able to piggyback on the advances made by gays and lesbians. On the surface, they are a harder pill for the straight world to accept, just by appearances, plus their numbers are a fraction of the percentage of homosexuals, which makes them even easier to abuse. And many consider themselves straight, which only adds to the confusion. So far they have made surprising progress—a rising tide floats all boats—though expect a backlash.
     Wednesday, Nov. 20, is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a solemn event designed to honor those murdered for their orientation. Whether or not you feel comfortable around such people, I hope everyone agrees it's not something a person should be killed for.
      So now is a good moment to haul this story out of the vault. You'll notice I never mention the word "transgender" — the term wasn't in vogue then — nor do I use the word "transsexual," because I mistakenly assumed they were a subset of transvestism, and I was trying to make the thing as simple as I could. An error I learned when an angry transsexual whom I had identified as a "transvestite" in a photo--a slur, since she considered transvestites to be amateurs—showed up at the newspaper and demanded a correction, which we ran.


     Jenny has sparkling blue eyes, a small, upturned nose and a
cascade of curly blond hair tumbling over her right shoulder.
     With a rhinestone nail charm centered on each red fingernail, a
dab of blush at her decolletage, and deftly applied make-up, it's
easy to believe her when she says she spent three hours getting ready
to go out.
     The shimmery blue and silver dress is custom-made, she says, and
it's easy to believe that, too, since with the spike heels, Jenny
tops out at perhaps 6-foot-7.
     "I'm a bigger girl, I know," she says, smiling radiantly. "I
can't go out to a mall — hey, I've got a football player's
     So instead, Jenny has come here, to a banquet hall on the
Northwest Side of Chicago, where the city's tiny, secretive
transvestite community is having one of its many regular social
functions — this one a dinner and gala pageant to select "Miss
Chicago Gender Society 1992."
     About 110 people — mostly men dressed as women, with a
smattering of wives and girlfriends and boyfriends and even
somebody's mother — mingle and chat, complimenting each others'
dresses, primping at their wigs, sipping drinks.
     Less than 15 years ago, it was against the law in Chicago for
people to wear clothing of the opposite sex. The ordinance was in
place until 1978, when the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the
conviction of two men arrested in 1974 for wearing dresses.
     Today, several hundred people belong to Chicago's two
transvestite groups — the Chicago Gender Society, which admits any
cross-dresser of any sexual orientation, and the Society of Second
Self, or Tri-S, which limits its members to heterosexual
transvestites and is more family-oriented.
     Still, transvestism is one of society's deepest taboos. While
homosexuals have made progress in becoming better understood and, in
places, accepted by society as a whole, transvestites struggle
against a stigma so strong that few feel they can risk even revealing
their real names.
     The president of Tri-S refused to have his picture taken, even
dressed as Naomi, for fear fellow lawyers at his Loop law firm would
recognize him. The president of the Gender Society, posing for a
newspaper picture, quips, "My life is over."
     "I personally don't care (if people know I'm a transvestite),"
says Leslie, a six-footer in a white mini-skirt and hoop earings who
works as a contractor in the suburbs. "But I have to protect the rest
of those people: my 7-year-old son, my wife, my other family
     Most transvestites describe themselves as heterosexual, though
the term sometimes gets stretched a bit. One transvestite at the gala
says he is heterosexual, but adds that he lives as a woman and dates
     Still, many transvestites have wives, families, and are not
effeminate when dressed as men, many say.
     "I'm straight, married, I have a 9-to-5 job, a sales job," says
Jenny. "I battle over turf with the rest of the sales people. I play
    Indeed, one academic explanation of transvestism is that
 it is the ironic result of a sort of super-masculinity.
     "One of the ways we understand transvestism is an attempt to
integrate what are otherwise carefully separate parts of one's self,"
says Dr. Richard Carroll, director of the Sex and Marital Therapy
program at the University of Chicago. "Some men, in most of their
lives, are aggressive and hypermasculine, and it's as if some men
have split off the feminine aspects of themselves so completely they
have to cross dress and play a role to get in touch with the more
feminine part of themselves."
     What is a mystery, however, is whether the strong masculinity is
a cause of, or a reaction to, transvestism.
     "A lot of transvestites will overcompensate in male life," says
Anjelica, who worked for years as a mailman "partly because of the
     Transvestites themselves, who generally say they began dressing
in female clothing at a very young age, describe cross-dressing as a
     "I just have to do it; it's like this urge," says Leslie.
     While transvestites are initially drawn to women's clothing as
an erotic experience, the appeal often changes into a general state
of well-being.
     "The sexual element becomes less important and dressing and
passing as female more important. Just the experience of being
 cross-dressed is associated with a sense of calm, peace, and freedom
from stress," says Carroll. "For many transvestites, the sexual aspect 
becomes less important as they grow older. It just feels peaceful to 
them. Some men describe it like finally being at home."
     Despite the calm transvestites find in cross-dressing, they can
face a variety of severe emotional problems, the result of conflict
between their inner impulses and the outer dictates of society.
Transvestites are thought to commit suicide more frequently.
     Pervasive public ridicule, which can result in physical attack,
also is a problem.
     Then there is the issue of dealing with their families. Some
wives divorce their husbands after learning that they are
transvestites. Others grow to accept it.
     Nicole, attending the Gender Society gala with her husband,
Gloria, was married for four years before she discovered women's
clothing in the trunk of their car.
     "I was devastated — I thought he had a girlfriend," she says,
holding back tears. Learning that it was her husband's clothing came
as a relief. "I thought, `Oh, is that all? We don't have to get a
     Asked if she liked the fact that her husband is a transvestite,
Nicole says: "I understand she has her needs." But some wives
actually feel closer to their husbands when they are in their female
     "In some ways, the partner preferred him when he was
cross-dressed," says Carroll, referring to a high-level business
executive and his wife. "He was calmer, open, more relaxed and more
      And not all transvestites tell their wives. Michele, attending
the gala while his wife of 22 years was out of town, says the wife
has no idea of his transvestism and he isn't going to tell her. "Why
create a problem?" he says.
     Marriage can actually facilitate the development of a man's
transvestism, since it takes him out of the posturing of the dating
world and, not incidentally, provides ready access to women's
     "In the dating scene, you have to be one of the macho guys, a
male male," says one cross-dresser. "When I got married, I didn't
have to go through that ritual, all that pressure trying to find a
    Several businesses in Chicago cater to transvestites. In addition
to a photography studio, a beauty salon and a meeting service, there
is at least one boutique, a nondescript storefront on Elston Avenue.
     Inside the boutique are racks of Cover Girl cosmetics, costume
jewelry, jumbo-size Frederick's of Hollywood-type undergarments and
clothes, mostly culled from secondhand shops.
     "We try to keep a low profile," says the owner, who goes by the
name Karen when dressed as a woman. "They come here because we are
discreet, quiet and no one bothers them."
     While he talks, four men, one at a time, slip into the store and
head to the back.
     In the back of the store are a variety of transvestite
publications on dressing, makeup and feminine deportment, as well as
racks of paperback novels with titles such as "Trio in Skirts," "Girl
for a Week," and "Men in Skirts." Karen describes them as "basically
good, wholesome fantasies," though it is safe to say not everyone
would agree.
     A common refrain heard again and again from cross-dressers is
they are not trying to hurt anybody, just be themselves, living life
the best they can.
     "Once you get over the question of men dressing as women, there
is really very little unusual about it," says Karen, and, indeed,
perhaps what is most unexpected about transvestites is how ordinary
their lives can be, outside of their cross-dressing.
     Karen has a photo album of himself, in women's clothes, posing
inside suburban interiors, mugging with friends at parties, dressed
as a cheerleader, as Little Bo Peep, in an evening gown.
     But in the back of the album are a different set of photos —
Ebbetts Field memorabilia, Stan Musial's locker, a bat once swung by
Babe Ruth — taken during a cherished visit to the Baseball Hall of
Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
     "That's my primary interest," Karen says.
                   Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, May 24, 1992