Friday, January 31, 2014

Cold weather flames scorch University of Illinois chancellor

     With temperatures predicted to be as low as 15 below zero Monday, many schools canceled classes. The University of Illinois did not. 
     “Classes and operations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will proceed as scheduled Monday, Jan. 27,” Chancellor Phyllis Wise wrote in an email to students, faculty and staff. “Please use caution as you travel in and around campus during what is forecast to be an extremely cold and windy day and night.” 
     A simple communication. But on the Internet, with its easy anonymity and its tendency toward snark, if not outright cruelty, simple things can get complicated quickly. 
     Student complaints immediately began popping up on Twitter. “I’m still not going to class tomorrow,” wrote someone tweeting as “Mr. Wilso.” By 10 p.m., a few students started to vent their ire on Wise who, like all administrators, is not universally popular.
     “Yo Phyllis,” Ryan McGuire wrote. “if people die, that’s on you.” Critical comments were aggregated under the hashtag “#F---Phyllis” — no dashes in the actual tag of course. Wise is both a woman and of Asian descent, and those qualities were remarked upon, sometimes in the same tweet.
     “Asians and women aren’t responsible for their actions,” said one tweet. Another compared her to Kim Jong Un, a third to Hitler.
     Some students started pushing back.
     “Aside from the fact that #F---Phyllis is racist & sexist, I’m sad that more of you don’t have critical thinking skills & a survival instinct,” wrote Mikki Kendall.
     At 2:49 a.m. Monday, the hugely popular social media aggregator BuzzFeed posted a detailed account, setting the whole tawdry Twitter moment in amberunder the headline "After Being Denied A Snow Day, University of Illinois Students Respond With Racism and Sexism."
     It noted that a parody account for Wise "racked up over 1,000 followers in a few minutes" and 7,000 students signed an online petition demanding class be canceled.
     If it weren't for the BuzzFeed article, the Twitter paroxysm over this might not have reached the level of an incident, never mind news. But it did. Wise reacted in an essay posted Thursday on the Inside Higher Ed website. She wrote that making unpopular decisions is part of her job, and while only about a dozen students made comments that were "vulgar, crude and in some instances racist and sexist," the attacks disturbed her not on a personal level, not because they reflect upon the university, but for what they say about the online world.
     "What was most disturbing was witnessing social media drive a discussion quickly into the abyss of hateful comments and even threats of violence," she wrote. "I shudder to think what might happen if that type of vitriol had been directed at a vulnerable member of our student body."
     The Internet is a vast social experiment that has become increasingly pervasive for 20 years. The question is: Will it coarsen society or will society master it, or will the two coexist, as they do now, in uneasy alliance?
     Maybe the problem is that we still pay attention to this stuff. Society was pretty coarse before the Internet. People scrawled slurs and obscenities inside bathroom stalls. It just wasn't considered news.
     The fact is that almost any online comment board can veer into poison and hate. If a 7-year-old is run over by a bus and killed, the comments section afterward will inevitably include, if not be dominated by, people jeering at the child, making catty remarks, crude jokes or dragging in irrelevant topics.
     One can assume these same people would not make those statements directly to the grieving boy's parents, might not even think through the process enough to realize that, of course, they'll read this garbage and be further hurt. Or maybe posters are confident that their anonymity will protect them from repercussions, or just don't care. The solution could be to have people identified on the Web, but that would create a whole new set of problems. You wouldn't want to undercut the next Arab Spring to keep people from posting mean remarks online.
     Wise was in New York on Thursday being honored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The university - though it has a code of student conduct that contains the words "respect for the dignity of others" and claims "It is the policy of the University not to engage in discrimination or harassment against any person because of race, color, religion, sex" - considers the offensive tweets free speech and plans no disciplinary action. Most of the university's 43,000 students went to class Monday. No weather-related injuries were reported.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A study in roasted root vegetables

      Beauty is found in unexpected places. It can strike you while leaning over a pan in the kitchen, such as this arrangement of roasted root vegetables — carrots, onions, garlic, parsnips, plus an eggplant — that my wife was preparing the other day. The color, first: the gentle earth tones, punctuating by the dramatic orange of the carrots. The exclamatory flourishes of the gently purple onion strips. The pale green sprigs of rosemary.  The juxtaposition too — the varying sizes of the circles, the uniform distribution of the types and colors—she had shaken them up in a bag with olive oil—which actually holds something of a key because, in my opinion, something beautiful carries a secret message, a meaning, locked in its physical attraction, hidden there, waiting to be figured out. In this case it is in the uniform distribution of the vegetables. Notice that they are not piled in the pan, but lain — none overlap, except for a few of those exuberant onions. Which means, when you pause to consider it, that somebody — my wife — did not cut and carelessly dump those discs of vegetables into a pan, willy nilly, but carefully set each slice in, just so, to be roasted with the maximum efficiency and effect, so no vegetable would shield another, leaving it undercooked. So an element is the care about ordinary things, about small details, which is itself beautiful and that the vegetables wordlessly reflect. And finally a kind of innocence. Just as a model, heavily made up and posing for a magazine fashion photo tends not to have the kind of unforgettable loveliness that someone caught off guard at the exact perfect moment can, so there was an unconsciousness to this study in root vegetables, an innocent joy. When I said, "Wait here for a second, let me get my camera," my wife, who had just created this tableau, had no idea what on God's earth I'd be photographing. She stood with puzzled patience as a I snapped a few shots, then told her she could put the pan back in the oven — another minute, not quite roasted to perfection. Only when I showed her the picture did she say, "Ohhh."
     Of course, like most men, I underestimate the work and deliberation that women put into creating something beautiful. When I ran my accidental arrangement theory by my wife, she replied, "I always cook according to color..." Not so accidental after all. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Divvy Diary: "The air felt almost solid"

     A balaclava cuts your peripheral vision, which is just as well, because that helps with the and-away-we-go swan dive of trust you must execute to make a left turn in rush-hour traffic on a Divvy bike from Lake Street onto Wacker Drive. A quick leftward jerk of the head, more symbolic ritual than actual glance to see if you’re about to be creamed by a truck. 
     Tuesday morning, 9 a.m., five degrees below zero. I had considered staying home. But our mighty nation was not forged by men staying home, padding around in their slippers and keeping track of the temperature on The Weather Channel. So even though, stepping out the door, the air felt almost solid — something jellied, frozen — I took a big searing lungful and headed toward the train station. 
     Being outside for more than a minute was like doing the breaststroke in liquid nitrogen. At first. But you get used to anything. 
     The Metra gods were smiling, and we got downtown only 20 minutes late (going home, it would be 40 minutes late). Finding out whether Divvy was up and running seemed a doable cold-weather task. Three weeks ago, when it was minus 15, they shut the system down — to protect Divvy workers, they said. But it was 10 degrees warmer now and besides, there is a certain boy-who-cried-wolf quality to official reaction to extreme weather conditions the second time around. The first is expected. The next seems unnecessary, an awkward blend of timidity and luxury. Chicago Public Schools leaders were denounced for closing too tardily earlier in the month and risking children’s lives, then damned again this week for closing at all, with aldermen idly speculating that the schools should be kept open as a day care center for kids whose parents have to work. Bad idea. If you’re going to do that, you might as well keep the schools open and teach the kids who show up. Remember, on an average day, 9 percent of CPS kids don’t come to school whatever the weather. It would be nice to think that parents concerned their kids might freeze on the way to school due to the extraordinary weather would keep them home while the rest could go. But if CPS could rely on that level of parental oversight and discernment, then half its problems would be solved.
     The first bike port outside Ogilvy Station stayed red, and I thought the system was down. What kind of weaklings and cowards are running this thing? But the next: green. While I rolled my bike out, a second heavily bundled idiot, to my surprise, took one too.
     “Nice day for it,” I said, always the conversationalist, and he grunted something through his face mask and yanked the bike. 
     I eased the blue bomber onto Canal and began pedaling north. Traffic backed up turning right onto Lake, and I threaded my way forward. Riding a Divvy in subzero weather is like whitewater rafting or exploring a cave — something that sounds a lot more daring than it actually is. The trip took five minutes versus 15. I never felt cold because my full attention was focused on not being crushed by a cab. The streets are dry.
     Since last I wrote about Divvy, the Montreal-based supplier of the bikes and assorted docks and systems, the Societe de Velo en Libre-Service, called “Bixi” for short (a mash of “bike” and “taxi”), filed for bankruptcy, claiming $46 million in debt, in part because two disgruntled customers, Chicago and New York, withheld $5 million due to problems with the software. The middleman between the city and Bixi, Alta Bike Share of Portland, Ore., insists the mother ship’s financial woes won’t affect the bikes. Perhaps, but it already has affected the perception of the system, from cheery civic embellishment to potential parking-meter-scale disaster. Or maybe it’s just me being cranky; I like the bikes and would hate to see the system fall apart. 
     While I was on the topic, I checked with the city to see if we’re any closer to having a sponsor for Divvy. New York got $42 million from Citibank to brand its bike system. Chicago got nothing. The city says it’s more complicated than that.
     “We got $25 million in federal grant money that paid for the initial build-out of the system,” said Peter Scales, Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman. “Because we had those grants, we didn’t need a sponsor at the outset to fund the equipment purchases and were able to establish a brand that was uniquely Chicago.”
     I guess. Though I don’t see why the city couldn’t have gotten both the federal cash and a lucrative sponsor. With all our money woes, are we not monetizing whatever we can? The new bike share system should have been a no-brainer. Scales said the city is still looking for a sponsor, which strikes me as sort of late. But better late than never. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The NATO 3 farce

    When the NATO protests were going on in Chicago, in May, 2012, I thought they were, for the most part, pointless street theater by young people looking to inject a little drama into their lives by splashing around in ours. They weren't particularly worked up about NATO per se, not about Western nations banding together in a defensive organization—that's what NATO supposedly is—so much as complaining generally about living in a 21st century Western capitalist society. The protest seemed an unfocused Mardi Gras, the prom for the Occupy Chicago movement, then still camped at at LaSalle and Jackson, demanding, well, something. Attention. Thus the protests splintered off into all sorts of tangental issues, like the people who lay down in the street off Michigan Avenue and covered themselves with chocolate syrup to decry, if I recall correctly, some kind of coal tar pollution somewhere in Canada.
     As with Richard J. Daley in 1968, the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanual, made the situation worse through his heavy-handedness, trying to push through City Council all sorts of new regulations that would hamstring protesters and saddle them with huge fines. They seemed a match set, the big talking protesters hot for attention, and the cautious mayor, afraid of grungy kids getting their messy fingerprints all over his shiny World Class City.
      So the marchers marched, the cops watched, the world yawned and the meetings transpired more or less without major incident.
      Just when the whole thing is beginning to recede into memory, comes the official prosecution of the "NATO 3," a trio of Floridian mopes arrested after boasting to undercover Chicago policemen about shooting arrows and slingshots, for making molotov cocktails under the cops' close supervision.
     As my colleague Mark Brown has crisply pointed out in a series of columns, even fanned by vigorous police cheerleading, the weak mopery of the defendants hardly approaches the level of crime, never mind terrorism. 
     But just as Occupy Chicago served a purpose, almost despite itself: to hold a mirror to the inequities in our society, and draw attention to aspects we comfortable lumpenproletariat choose to ignore, so these supposed terrorist cases have value, too. They give pause to the thinking citizen, highlighting a continuing danger to our freedoms: overzealous policing. Notice the ponds where the government is  always fishing for terrorists -- in protest groups, in mosques, in coffee shops (laughably targeting the granola and patchouli oil anachronism of the Heartland Cafe, as Mark also chronicles). You have to wonder, if the feds started infiltrating church groups and paramilitary organizations, how easy would it be to goad a few soft-minded fools to tip-toe up to illegal acts and then be arrested. My bet: pretty easy.
      None of these people on trial are Lex Luthor, none did any harm, despite their big talk, and while a sentient government would have slapped them on the wrist and turned them loose long ago, we do not have that government, and thus they face decades in prison. Frankly, the prosecution is a good thing, because it reminds us that those protests, despite their ludicrous street-theater aspects, did have a point, lurking under all the hyperventilating hyperbole. Power corrupts. The Chicago cops are trying to rationalize all the effort they put into skulking around hotbeds of 1960s activism by bagging this trio. Is there anybody following this case who is sincerely hoping these guys are taken off the street? Anybody who thinks three prison spaces should be used for them, and not for more dangerous actual criminals? Last time I looked, bad intentions were not a crime. If they were, we'd all be in prison at one point or another.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Chicago the best spot for Obama library

David Axelrod already has quite an assemblage of Obama memorabilia here.

     We in the inky newspaper trade are famous for disdaining our brethren in public relations. Though, having dipped my toe in that world, I know there are lessons for us there: Be direct. Be honest. Address the elephant in the room.
     And as someone who often tasks himself with the trick of making something that is interesting to me also interesting to the average reader, I use a PR technique: When you’ve got a dull story to tell, marry it to something interesting. Think of it as the Spoonful of Sugar Trick. The best example of this is when Dramamine, the motion-sickness pill, created a roller coaster team and sent it across the country, knowing that news organizations that would shrug off a mere nausea medication jostle to set up their cameras at dawn to catch a group of attractive young folk pitting themselves against the local theme park’s coasters.
     Thus when I found myself trying to tell what is perhaps the most tedious story ever committed to a book — the death of the men’s hat industry, in Hatless Jack, I thought to tell it to through a subject that people actually did care about: John F. Kennedy who, despite popular impression, was actually the last American president inaugurated in a silk top hat.
     The book involved a lot of research, from the Library of Congress to the British Library in London. I flew to Boston to spend a few days beavering in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum and so, as somebody who has actually used a presidential library, I ought to put my two cents in regarding Barack Obama’s future library.
     Lynn Sweet wrote Friday about the mayor’s efforts to bring the library here, and how the library is “the University of Chicago’s to lose given its very close ties to the Obama family and its long list of wealthy potential donors in the Obama orbit.”
     Those factors are significant. But I want to toss another reason into the hopper, based on experience: Chicago must get it because Chicago is the best location.
     God bless Hawaii. I'm sure it's very nice, particularly this time of year. Obama was born there, we can all agree (actually we can't, and there's a book in that, one that will be researched here at the Obama library).
     But Hawaii is nothing if not off the beaten path. When I went to the Kennedy library, I dug in my pocket, bought a ticket, booked myself into a hotel. Had it been in Hawaii, I guarantee you, I wouldn't have bothered. Chicago is in the center of the country.
     Sweet also mentioned Columbia University in New York. Obama can't put his library there because, having been on campus in August, I can report: There's no room. Columbia is shoehorned in as it is. You couldn't add a coffee shop. Were there a spot to build it, the cost would be extraordinary. Chicago has lots of affordable land around Hyde Park to create a worthy edifice for Obama.
     Those of you used to yanking information off the Internet might wonder: Who cares where the library is? Won't everything in it just be online? Answer: No. Just as the mass of hieroglyphics in the basement of the Oriental Institute have never been translated, so much, maybe most material in a presidential library will be unscanned, papers and documents and notes and letters.
     There was a moment of research glory in the Kennedy library I'll never forget. My hat book begins with a man standing up and waving a clipping during a 1962 stockholder meeting for the Hat Corporation of America. I found the scene in a 1962 Wall Street Journal story. I knew a few details, no more.
     In Boston, I was going through envelopes containing letters of complaint to Kennedy, randomly searching for stuff about hats. And here was a letter to his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, demanding to know why the president was posing for fashion spreads. In the letter, a folded up rectangle of newspaper that I immediately realized was the exact same clipping being waved on the first page of my book. Right there. I could look at it, study it, use it. I gasped, overjoyed.
     People come to cities for many reasons. Millennium Park and the big stainless steel bean come to mind. Rahm Emanuel is right to grab that library. Not only is it good for the city, good for the U. of C. neighborhood, but it'll be good for the researchers who must use it. Fifty years from now, some young man writing Doorjamb-Gnawingly Insane: Those Who Hated Barack Obama will paw through boxes of handbills and letters and hand-carved hate effigies that are brought to him. Unless the stuff really is all scanned online, and then I suppose you can put the library on Mars and it wouldn't matter. But we still want it here, the only logical spot to honor our logical president.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

To survive it at all is a triumph of the heart

Extra clothing I wore to go out into the cold last week:

Keen hiking boots

SmartWool socks
Under Armour long underwear 
Fleece lined spandex long underwear top
Eddie Bauer Ridgeline Parka
REI Fleece
Polo undergloves
Ski gloves
Spandex skullcap
Polarctic hood
Ear muffs

Extra clothing my 16-year-old son wore:


     The realization hit me as he blew past with a "Bye pop!" I was on the curb, dressed for the South Pole, walking the dog, in her own little blonde fur coat. My boy was being picked up by our neighbors, carpooling. He had a backpack slung rakishly over his shoulder. But no gloves. No hat. No boots. A grey t-shirt under a Patagonia spandex long-sleeved top. Jeans. White sneakers. 

     "Have a good day at school," I called after him.
     My wife would have ordered him to wear a coat, pointlessly, even as he was driven away. But I gave that battle up long ago. Suffer the consequences of your actions. Be cold then.
     He obviously feels it is a small price to pay for whatever psychic warmth he gets from being underdressed.
     Maybe the joy of not being like me. That must be part of it. 
     Yes, there is a practical difference in what we are dressing for. The day is the same. But I have to walk, not just the dog, but later the 12 minutes across the Loop, from Union Station to the Sun-Times. When the wind chill is 20 below, that can be a very long 12 minutes. He only has to stumble the few feet from the house to the curb, the car to the school. My trip is like the ordeal in a Jack London story; his, a frigid flash, like a helmetless Dr. David Bowman blasting through the emergency airlock in "2001: A Space Odyssey." He isn't outside for 15 seconds.
      But there is also a deeper philosophical difference. I think he would walk the mile to school like that. In fact, he has, not quite in this weather, but nearly. And at Glenbrook North, all the boys dress like him. I see them, standing outside the school, hands thrust in jeans, hunched over, waiting for their rides. They would die before they would put on a puffy parka like mine. 
     Why? Trying to be tough. To be cool. Defying the cold, challenging it.
     To be young, which means challenging life, where you can. Making yourself cold is a perfect example—a test without true consequences. They don't really freeze. It only feels that way.
     Me, I don't want to be cold anymore. Been there, done that. Trying to be cool is like making faces at a tree. There's nobody to impress. And I see the true cold awaiting me, the eternal cold that awaits us all. No need to rush to meet it early. The people I see downtown gloveless, hatless, benumbed, are careless. "It's never too cold in Chicago," I rebuke them, when they complain on the elevator. "You're just underdressed."
     That said,. teens have a different code. I can admire the resolve that my boy shows -- I don't argue with him, I've spent too many years doing that. He's 16, he can dress as he pleases. 
     Standing at the curb, bundled thickly, watching the car drive off, holding the leash to a ridiculous little dog, I thought — my apologies — of a few lines from Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus:

                                Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened
                                like winter, which even now is passing.
                                For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
                                that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.

     "Like winter, which even now is passing." Now that's a cheery thought in this deep freeze. And the days are getting longer -- people remark upon it. No more midnight murk at 5 p.m. It doesn't descend until 5:30 p.m.
     Though it's still cold as hell. Well, not quite. I expect hell to be colder. Until then, the cold is a challenge to us all, to keep going, as if it weren't happening. A challenge to adults dressed for it, and to the younger folk who are not, but instead defy the cold, out of pride, and as practice, to hone their ability to face a cold world, a hard world that will certainly crumple them up too, and leave them old, in layers of wool and fleece and cotton, shuffling stiffly through the frozen Chicago winter, savoring it, or trying to, even the coldest winter in 20 years, knowing that that with all its depth and length, the cold will not last—nothing lasts—and the winter of 2014 is neither cold nor long, not compared to the endless winters lying in wait for all of us, young and old. Let's enjoy it, best we can, if we can, while we can.

Postscript: Sunday morning, bagels and cream cheese,  orange juice and smoked fish. Mozart on the stereo. My wife and younger son — the older still asleep of course. Son II and I get up to shovel and, getting dressed, I mention that today's blog post is, in part, about getting dressed for the cold.  It isn't as if he'd ever read it. My wife says something along the lines of: we adults have more experience, more savvy.
     "That's only part of it," I say to her. "He's testing himself against the world. I've already tested myself against the world, and..."
     "Lost," my 16-year-old interjects. 
     Another dad might go for his belt. That's not the kind of ship I run. Besides, we all know where he gets it from. "Yes," I reply. "Exactly."


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Great theater awaits up a steep staircase

     When the weather is this lousy, the tendency is to cocoon, to stay inside, climb under the covers and not go out for any reason. That's a mistake, particularly if where you're not going is to see live Chicago theater. Because usually it's something worthwhile, even great, each production an experience that is here for a short time, then gone forever.

     A reader sent me an email about Divvy. “Have you tried taking your bike on the el?” he wrote, signing it, “David Zak, executive director, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, Jan. 9 to Feb. 9.”
     I wrote back that, with only 30 minutes use, muscling a Divvy on the L is a bad idea, adding, “Where are you doing ‘The Children’s Hour’? I’ve always wanted to see it.”
     All I knew about “The Children’s Hour” was that it is about teachers accused of being lesbians. I never had a burning desire to see it, filing it away with “Waiting for Lefty” under “1930s Plays I Haven’t Seen.”         
     But I like to check off classics, the way some men visit various ballparks. Zak said it was playing at the Collaboraction in Wicker Park. Which for some reason did not dissuade me from attending.
     “Collaboraction” doesn’t quite scream “grab those tickets and go,” does it? I wish every bright-eyed fledgling Chicago drama type forming a new theater tempted to call it “The Rectal Itch Players,” or “SaveTheWorld,” or whatever edgy name they think up over a couple of bottles of red wine, would consider tired suburbanites pondering whether to haul themselves off the sofa and attend. (I’d call mine “The Comfy Chair Theater,” but people would think we did only Monty Python. Maybe the “Ample Parking Playhouse.” We suburbanites worry a lot about parking).
     My wife and I parked easily near the Collaboraction (shiver) and happily strolled up Milwaukee Avenue to the Flatiron Arts Building, curiously goggling all the tattoo parlors, yoga studios and other marginal enterprises exuding warm life. I gotta get out of the Loop more, thought I. Climbing the stairs to the Collaboraction (no, let me guess, for "Action through Collaboration," and since "Acticollab" sounds like a kind of staph infection, "Collaboraction" it was).
     The Collaboraction ( bleh) space is what you'd expect—rambling and dirty and cluttered, with sliding metal doors and strange offices and walls jammed with student (God, I hope) artworks. In the theater itself, some 50 chairs around a neat, spare set. The lights dimmed.      

     My expectations were zero.
     And then the damnedest thing happened.
     The play began.
     "The Children's Hour" is about two woman running a school who are accused by the original mean girl of being lesbians. The teachers, played by Britni Tozzi and Whitney Morse, undergo an amazing transformation from calm authority figures deftly managing their crew of chatty students, to broken victims of cruel events outside their control. Theater on this scale leaves no distance—the actors were 5 feet away—and you could study their faces: Tozzi's streaming with tears and black mascara, Morse's frozen with shock. Michelle McKenzie-Voight was marvelous as Mrs. Lily Mortar, the clueless old biddy who starts all the trouble, one of those performers so good you just assume she's really like that.
     Chicago is so rich in theater, but most of the attention goes to the Steppenwolf and the Goodman and the big Loop Broadway shows. But the truth is you can blunder up almost any staircase, by utter chance, and see something really extraordinary. I had been reluctant to go to "The Children's Hour" because it involved leaving the house, and now it is an experience I will never forget. It scared me to think that I might have missed it. Don't. "The Children's Hour" runs until Feb. 9, and if you're wondering if the 80-year-old play seems dated, the bad news is: not at all. The front page of The New York Times on Thursday had a story about teachers being fired because they're gay.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Why are American women letting their rights slip away?

This is one of those columns where I've been meaning to make this point for a while, but the proper opportunity never came up. Then a PR representative from Planned Parenthood asked if I wanted to talk to Jane Curtin, the TV actress and comedienne. "Umm, sure," I said. "About what?" It was such a busy week, that I promptly forgot that she was calling until the phone rang and it was her — very smart and smooth, and we had an interesting conversation. 

     What’s wrong with women?
     I know I risk being called a sexist. But just look at the situation.
     Consider any random men’s group. For instance, take the ... ah ... National Rifle Association. The NRA has some female members, it says, but it won’t release data; we can assume the NRA is predominantly male.
     How does the NRA stand up for itself?
     Tooth and nail. Fang and claw. Take a bullet that nobody in their right mind needs — a .50-caliber military-grade bullet, for example — and let the ability to own that utterly legal bullet be threatened. Let the government say, “You know, we probably shouldn’t let such high-caliber ordnance be sold to the public ...” and the NRA does what? Scream and cry and rush the ramparts, writing letters, holding protests, puffing that little change into a vast conspiracy to shear them of all rights and dignity and stick them in concentration camps.Who is Villain No. 1 to the NRA? The evil entity rubbing his hands together cackling wildly, hot to yank away the public's guns? That would be Barack Obama. And what has Barack Obama done in the past five years to keep a single bullet away from the gun-obsessed portion of the public? That would be absolutely nothing.
     Now, back to women.
     What's wrong with women? Their rights, not to own as many guns as they can afford but to control their own bodies, won after a century of struggle and effort, are being systematically nibbled away all across America by Republican state legislators keen to drag the country back to the bucolic, male-dominated Eden of their imaginings. They've conjured this notional harm — to unborn fetuses, whom nature sloughs away by the millions every day undecried — and use it as a spear point to push into the heart of women's rights to control their daily lives.
     Wait, there's more. The Republican Party — one of the two big parties in our country, if you aren't paying attention — has made rolling back abortion rights the cornerstone of its 2014 midterm campaign.
     Where's the howl? The "Occupy" movement did a far better job of standing up against, well, whatever was bothering them.
     In their defense, women are busy living their lives, working, raising families or both. Some fuss in Texas just doesn't send them to the ramparts in Chicago. Mostly, that is.
     "Texas is far away, and everybody knows Texas is nuts," said Jane Curtin, of "Saturday Night Live" fame, plus other hit TV shows. Curtin called me to help Planned Parenthood — which would be the NRA of women's rights if it had an army of foaming fanatics, but it doesn't, depending on us rational people, always in short supply — promote its honor Thursday of Sen. Dick Durbin who, despite being a man, acts if women are adults who can make life decisions.
     Scary times, eh Jane?
     "I think it's pretty scary," she said. "When have rights ever been taken away?"
     Umm, I thought, lots of times and places. Women in Muslim countries who could go about freely in decades past but now find themselves cowering in purdah. But manners held my tongue, a big factor here: Who wants to go to bat for a procedure like abortion? Which is exactly why fanatics use it as a hammer to beat down women.
     "They're chipping away, as much as they can, in bits and pieces, this surge of laws on the books and rights being stripped," Curtin said. "If people would understand what was going on. ... All of this work they did, and [achieved] Roe v. Wade. The thought of taking it away I find pretty frightening. It's becoming virtually impossible for women to have control over their reproductive health. It's a scary time."
     Yes it is. And I don't understand why more women aren't terrified. If a distant state, crazy Texas for instance, passed a law that said you couldn't join a synagogue until a minister told you a few Bible stories, I'd be panicked. If in Florida a new law required photos of slaughtered cows to be displayed over the Kosher food section in supermarkets, since cows feel pain, that would be a fire bell in the night. And I'm not religious.
    Last year 22 states enacted 70 abortion restrictions. The Supreme Court is weighing the right of zealots to abuse women entering clinics. My gut tells me that as these intrusions grow, the sleeping might of female citizenry in this country will stir and manifest itself by pushing back. But they're sure taking their sweet time. "It's a woman's prerogative to be late," I tell my wife, when she tarries getting ready to go out for the evening. "But don't push it." Don't wait too long on this. The curtain is already up and the performance of that classic, "Let's Force Women Back in Time," is well underway.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Big show coming soon ... er, eventually

Christine Goerke

   Yes, I have read Dante's The Divine Comedy. All 14,233 lines. And War and Peace. Twice. Three volumes of James Boswell's Life of Johnson. The Iliad, Odyssey — also twice— and The Aeneid. And Moby-Dick, Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest which, combined, are nearly as long as Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, which I also read, but only the first 1,100 pages. I quit, not quite half way through — I just got tired of carrying the thing — to my eternal regret, because I actually really liked it.  Proust's childhood was a whole lot more interesting than mine.
      So I am a fan, obviously, of massive works of art, and you don't need a master's degree in psychology to understand why. Two reasons come to mind. Big books immerse you in a world, and worlds are by definition big, or should be, and take a long time to assemble. A blog post just won't do it.    
    And yes, to be honest, massive works are a challenge, the way Mount Everest is a challenge to those physically inclined. I would never strap on oxygen tanks, grab my ice axe and head off up the mountain. To me, those people are tossing their lives away. I suppose many people view those of us who read thick books as tossing our lives away too, slowly but more certainly. Maybe so. 
     But like a mountain, a massive work calls to you. Not by its pure massivity, mind you. There are plenty of works that are long, multi-part 19th century romance novels and such, that have fallen into deserved obscurity. 
     But certain long works endure into our Twittery time, not because they're big, but because they're also good. Very good, wonderful, something that becomes clear when you gird your loins and finally sit down and read them. If they weren't, they'd be forgotten. People don't hold onto these things because they should, but because they have to. War and Peace is the template for every Barbara Cartland novel that followed. It isn't tedious -- well, much of it isn't -- but filled with love and conversation, with blood and battle, with war and, umm, peace. It's a great book. That sounds obvious, but so many years of it being a "great book" sometimes obscure that. Tolstoy knew his stuff.
     Thus when the Lyric Opera held its press conference last week to annouce that it will be staging the Richard Wagner's entire The Ring of the Nibelung, I was there.  If they made big foam horned helmets, the way they make big wedges of cheese, I'd be wearing mine, and I've never even seen Wagner's four-part epic cycle; when the Lyric last performed it, 10 years ago, I hadn't quite sunk into my present opera addiction. I considered going, back then, but didn't. 
    This time, of course I will, and it is a sign of how much I have yet to learn that, while I knew they wouldn't be announcing that it was going to be present next year — too soon, obviously —I hoped maybe it would be coming by 2015/16. Guess again. The first opera in the cycle, "Das Rheingold," will be staged in the 2016/17 season, with the other three, "Die Walkure," "Siegried" and "Gotterdammerung" performed in each subsequent season, with the whole megillah, as Wagner definitely would not say, being performed — three complete Ring Cycles — in April, 2020.
     Mark your calendars.
     At the press conference, General director Anthony Freud cut to the chase.
    "Wagner's Ring is one of the most iconic and fascinating music and stage works ever created," he said. "It represents the high water mark of our art form. It's unique in its scale and complexity, its fascination and, indeed, its ability to hook an audience."
     I appreciated the "hook an audience" part, a little whiff of P.T. Barnum in all this high culture. The Lyric, locked in the same life-or-death struggle that every arts organization faces in this age of Angry Birds, has to think of that too. You need to put the slop where the pigs can get at it. It can rationalize scooping up the groundlings with "The Sound of Music" later this season (a progression, or, if you prefer, decline, from "Porgy & Bess" to "Showboat" to "Oklahoma" to the von Trapps, which, for me, crosses an aesthetic Rubicon on the slide toward "Miss Saigon." But that's another post). Yet at the same time it can charge itself with the task of conquering this massive edifice of Teutonic bombast and excess—think 500 costumes—certain that that the I-Survived-the-Ring-Cycle crowd will break the doors down to get in. Of course we will.
     Why? Just to do it? To prove they can endure? In part, yes. But nobody sits through 15 hours of opera just to do it. Traffic school is also a time consuming ordeal, and you don't see people lining up to pay for the privilege, at least not voluntarily. For me, the first and last consideration in any opera is the music, and Wagner is off in another realm of power and weirdness. Sir Andrew Davis, who will conduct, nailed it with his opening remarks.
     "Wagner takes the Nordic sagas and makes them extremely modern," he said. 
     That is the key word: "modern." The Ring was composed in the 1850s and 1860s, a time when, in American, popular music consisted of barbershop quartets and banjos and "Oh! Susanna." Meanwhile, Wagner starts his masterpiece with this incredible sound, that Henry W. Simon calls "136 bars of rising sequence in an undulating 6/8 rhythm based entirely on the E-flat tonic chord," a low, vibrating hum that's like the whole blood-soaked, mechanized Frankenstein's monster of the 20th century about to be born, fluttering one red eye, stirring to life and straining against its restrains.  To me, you'd go to hear that sound alone, the first minute or two, and the fact that you have to sit through the next two and half more hours — "Rheingold" is the shortest of the four—well, nothing's perfect. 
    Of course, there is more—flying maidens, giants, a gold-mad dwarf. Alberich, the gnarled villain, who gets the cold shoulder from the Rheinmaidens, so steals their gold, renouncing love for power (a path the Germans as a whole would be skipping down soon enough). 
     To me, a novice, there's a joy in seeing the archetypical moment of an art form. In ballet, it's "Swan Lake," with those four white swans, arms interlocked, bobbing up and down en pointe. In jazz, it's Dizzy Gillespie, in a beret and heavy glasses and his soul patch, head tilted back, eyes closed, blowing his horn. And in opera it's the lady with the braids and the spear and the horned helmet—remember, "the opera ain't over until the fat lady sings?" That fat lady is Brunnhilde, to be sung in the upcoming Ring by soprano Christine Goerke, who was at the press conference and answered the opera press's  questions — mostly about scheduling, sadly. Listening to her speak in a normal New York accent, well, it was a bit of let down, like hearing David Copperfield discuss what kind of mirror he uses to make the elephant disappear. 
    I knew better than to ask any questions. I almost said, "You're going to wear the horned helmet, right?" But that might have been stupid and, besides, if they don't, I'd rather find out during the show — no doubt when she emerges from a cloud of dry ice, madly pedaling a unicycle and wearing a bicycle helmet, or whatever godawful odd twist they come up with — than know ahead of time, and spend the next five years brooding about it. 
     The thing with these longer works is, you have to adjust yourself to their pace. For the first 100 pages of Infinite Jest, I thought it was an artless Thomas Pynchon rip off. Then the magic kicked in and I thought it was genius. Ditto for Moby-Dick, where, the first 50 pages, there's a lot of sighing, on the part of the reader, and thinking, "yes, yes, whales." But then it draws you in to its unique realm. Maybe that's what sets these epic works apart. There is nothing like them. You wouldn't say, "that's the novel that's sort of like Remembrance of Things Past"  because there's nothing like it. There's nothing remotely like The Divine Comedy. And there's nothing like Wagner's Ring (thank God, because it's hard enough to cope with the one). To return to the great great Henry W. Simon, my go-to guy on opera:. "The Ring of the Nibelung is the greatest work of art ever produced by a single man, or the most colossal bore, or the work of a supreme megalomaniac," he writes. "It has been called all three repeatedly—and the epithets are by no means mutually exclusive."
     That sounds about right. To those who find the time demanded by the Ring unimaginable, a question: what would you do instead? I probably spent 20 hours this month playing on-line Scrabble, and never once had to contemplate the role of myth and man, power and ambition. I bet there are 15 hour of Bulls games on TV this week; nobody marvels at the discipline needed to watch that.
      No point in belaboring this; we've got three years to wait. But even if you never consider going, and most readers won't, you should take pleasure that it's being done at all, since we worry about the culture of the old fading in light of all this technology. While an army of technicians no doubt are working at this very moment to, oh, perfect a GPS suppository so your refrigerator always knows where you are and what you just ate, there is a small team of people in Chicago — highly-paid, supremely-talented people who dedicate their lives to this stuff—who are pouring their energies for the next five years into putting on a 145-year-old show, sung in German over 15 hours, a performance that not one Chicagoan in a hundred would dream of seeing. That's dedication to art. Yes, I've gone on too long about the Ring but, given the subject matter, I suppose that's only fitting. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Where was the word of God in those men?"

     The Roman Catholic Church is not above the law.
     It was above the law for many years — for centuries, in Europe, it was the law. And here it certainly acted as if it were a law unto itself. For many, many years.
     But not anymore.
     The church, as the 6,000 documents released Tuesday by the Archdiocese of Chicago make abundantly clear, felt that laws about rape, about child abuse and molestation, somehow did not apply to priests. That the police did not have to be notified when children were raped. That men whom it knew were a danger to children could be moved from one spot to another. Put in one position of trust and then, when that position was betrayed, slid easily into another. And another. And another.
     The Chicago church did so — we have to believe, we have no reason not to believe — not out of any inherent evil so much as from a blindness to where its true moral duty lay. Church leaders were trying to protect their church, to protect themselves. And by protecting their criminal priests, and themselves, what they ended up doing was hurting the church to an extent they couldn’t imagine, damaging its reputation and sapping it of hundreds of millions of dollars through lawsuits. Hurting it far more than it would have been hurt had the allegations simply come out when they were made. There is an almost biblical irony to that.
     The documents show how this happened under the leadership of three Chicago cardinals: John Cody, Joseph Bernardin and Francis George. Cody's tenure was already under a cloud due to financial malfeasance. George's has been marred by his pugnacious personality. But Joseph Bernardin was beloved, respected, far above the others, and it is painful to realize that he is culpable too. When he was accused of sexual abuse, he handled it in a forthright, pious way. But not all such accusations were so handled. And the sin, hidden for years, festered.
     If you're looking for bright spots, none of the accusations is after 1996, when the scope of the problem began to be abundantly clear. Perhaps that means there aren't more. Perhaps those are coming. You might point out that society in decades past did not fully grasp the magnitude of the damage caused by child sexual abuse, that it, generally, had difficulty dealing with such matters with force and candor, and that the church, being part of that society, also shared its flaws. That doesn't excuse what the church did, but it may help explain it, a little.
     Just a little. The church is a moral organization, or pretends to be, and yet it did not act morally. It put the interests of priests who betrayed their faith and their flock above the children of parishioners. That is a horrendous sin. Not only is it bad ethically, but it's bad policy, and the church has suffered, is suffering and will suffer for it, though not, it always must be remembered, anywhere near as much as the lonely, frightened, violated victims of these priests suffered. They are the true victims, and since the church at first tried to ignore them, attention should be paid to them now.
    Pope Francis has called sex abuse "the shame of the church." Just last week, according to Vatican radio, he said:
     "But are we ashamed? So many scandals that I do not want to mention individually, but all of us know. . . . We know where they are! Scandals. . . . The shame of the church!
     "But are we all ashamed of those scandals, of those failings of priests, bishops, laity? Where was the Word of God in those scandals; where was the Word of God in those men and in those women? They did not have a relationship with God! They had a position in the church, a position of power, even of comfort. But the Word of God, no!"
     Those who would rush automatically to defend the church, again, should remember that automatic defense of the institutional church, no matter the crime, no matter the facts, is what created this ceaseless nightmare in the first place. Catholic doctrine speaks of sin, and that the expiation of sin is through confession and repentance. These documents coming out can be considered a kind of public confession - forced, yes, but there nonetheless, now, the dark crimes being brought into the light. The penance is to redress these wrongs where they can be redressed, and to see that they do not occur again and - the hardest part - to understand the failings that led to them, because these failings still too often guide church actions. These abusive priests not only hurt the children in their care, they hurt the church that they supposedly served. Each of us must chose whom to support now: the rapists or the victims. There is no third choice.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Who knew it would get cold in January?

     Metra has been apologizing a lot lately, explaining that last week's severe weather caught them off guard and, umm, left them reeling, apparently. The air was too cold. The snow was too fine. Which the loyal Metra customer might be tempted to shrug off — generally the trains run on time — except that the railroad does lots of things in a cack- handed way. This is only the latest example. 
     The Union Station tracks are hellacious. The ceiling leaks -- not drops, but dribbles, showers of God-knows-what-liquid right in the middle of the dark, dank, crumbling platforms. Every time it rains -- not an extreme rain, just a rain rain. 
    The platforms are loud. They're smokey -- Metra can't seem to ventilate the place. Nor can they get the people out. The station doesn't seem designed for disembarking passengers from trains, and thus they must crowd together and wait in enormous lines, shuffling up the stairs and toward the light and air. It's dreary, and dangerous, and after some panic causes a stampede and kills 17 people, remember that Metra had been warned explicitly about the deathtrap — right here, on Jan. 21, 2014 — and did nothing. 
     It goes on. There is no signage that tells you, when you get off the train, which way is the Madison Street exit and which way the station -- or, rather, there is a sign, but it's so poorly designed, high up and out of sight, that nobody notices it. Metra generally has not mastered the entire art of communicating words to people. That's slightly understandable on the platform, where the deafening din, which would be illegal to inflict upon unprotected workers in factories,  drowns out any attempt to communication. But it's that way in the station too, where I noticed this gentleman, during the cold snap earlier this month, using a bullhorn attempt to inform the milling, confused crowd about the bolloxed  schedule. You'd think they'd get the whole "speaker" technology down by now.
    It's perhaps too easy to connect Metra's present woes with the mess over the summer related to the expensive firing of former CEO, Alex Clifford. But listening to the Metra counsel rhapsodize about Michael Madigan's 1st Amendment rights to bully government workers into giving raises for his chosen pets, and attending a farcical hearing of the House Mass Transit Committee, you came away with the sense that none of these people were lying awake at night trying to figure out how to keep the switches from freezing up come  January. They were padding their pockets and plotting their escapes. 
    Metra offered Clifford $718,000 to go away quietly. I bet that would defrost a lot of door mechanisms. Me, I'd have let him air his, as it turns out, completely legitimate complaints, and hired a few more clean-up crews. 
     In Metra's defense, they have a lot of hard-working, decent, friendly conductors (and a few pompous, theatrical, crusty old jerks, but they're tolerable). They generally do a good job. But not always, not consistently, and not lately. 
     The temperature supposed to hover around zero again today. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

It's hard to believe what the Right will believe

     The devil makes work for idle hands, as the Puritan fathers used to say, praising the protective power of hard work and keeping busy. Nowadays, they’d say the devil makes copy for idle eyes.
Such as late Friday, when, weary with tilling the reasonable world, I wandered over to the Drudge Report to see what was doing in that fun house Hall of Mirrors, and noticed this headline: “REPORT: 41k Canadians flee country over health care system ...”
     Which caused me to think — perhaps the first thought applied to that particular item — Canadians flee ... to where? Where are those Canadians fleeing? Surely not here.
     Intrigued, I clicked on the link, and was brought to The Daily Caller, a “24-hour news publication providing its audience with original reporting, in-depth investigations, thought-provoking commentary and breaking news.” Nine million visitors a month. 
     The story begins: “Every year thousands of Canadians have no choice but to seek medical care outside of the country’s single-payer health care system,” then cites a report from the “free-market Fraser Institute.” How many Canadians do this? Exactly 41,838 became “medical tourists” in 2013, it says, who “sought care outside of their hockey-loving country.” That is the extent of The Daily Caller’s in-depth investigation. The rest of the article speculates about the reasons Canadians would leave: “concerns about quality, seeking out more advanced health care facilities, higher tech medicine or better outcomes.” 
     In case the meaning of this is lost on The Daily Caller readers, it quotes the director of health policy studies at Fraser, who spells it out: “That a considerable number of Canadians traveled and paid to escape the well-known failings of the Canadian health care system speaks volumes about how well the system is working for them.”
    “A considerable number.” Now that’s an interesting phrase. Kinda vague, compared to a specific figure like “41,838.” So let us ask one of those probing, in-depth questions that The Daily Caller suggests it likes to ask: Just how considerable is that number?  
     Are 41,838 Canadians a lot? 
      How could we determine that? Well, we could compare it to another country. Are there any other countries nearby? Yes. The United States. The United States is directly south of Canada. The two share a border. (And if I seem to have clicked into simplistic language, remember, right-wingers will be reading this. I want them to follow along).
     And do medical tourists also leave the U.S. looking for health care in other countries? Yes, they do. Is that a knowable number? Yes, it is.
     The Centers for Disease Control estimated about 750,000 Americans travel abroad to seek medical care, primarily because it is far cheaper.
     But wait, you might ask. While 750,000 is far more than 41,838, is not the U.S. a far more populous nation than Canada? Yes, it is. The population of the United States is 311 million, while the population of Canada is 35 million. Which means, there is one medical tourist for every 414 people in the U.S., while in Canada, there is one for every 836 people.
     Meaning, if medical tourism is a sign of poor health care — as The Daily Caller claims with its insultingly simple bit of agitprop and the Drudge Report brainlessly echoes and trumpets — the problem is twice as bad in the free-market United States as in socialized-medicine Canada.
     And this doesn’t even factor in that the numbers come from the Fraser Institute, a group dedicated to boosting corporations and running down government, research paid for by Exxon and the Koch Brothers.
     None of this matters to the Right, of course. They form their conclusions first — government bad, Obama bad, immigrants bad, gays bad, women bad — then venture out into the world in their junkie scramble to find something they can twist into proof.
     The sad thing about the whole health care debate is there was none. President Obama tried, and to a degree succeeded, to bring the nation into line with every other industrialized nation on earth by offering health care for people who need it. And the Republicans fought like dogs to stop him and now, having failed, are trying to roll it back. I wouldn’t have believed there would be a dozen people in the country gullible enough to be against American citizens having health care, wouldn’t believe adults would cling to our broken, expensive, erratic system just because their corporate overlords told them to. But they do just that, embracing any idiocy that scratches their itch. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Talk about justice delayed...

     A surprising number of murder victims are killed by their own family members — 25 percent in 2011, according to FBI statistics.
     That’s nothing new. Go back to ancient Greece. If you look at the family of Agamemnon, King of Argos, not only did he murder his daughter, then was killed in revenge by his wife, Clytemnestra, but she in turn was killed by their son, Orestes, in retribution.
     Was Orestes right to kill his mom? Justified or no, some wanted his head. His defense: Apollo told him to do it.
     If that situation intrigues you, you are in good company. Some of Chicago’s most respected legal minds will argue that case Jan. 29 to benefit the National Hellenic Museum, which pairs Dan Webb, of Winston & Strawn, and noted personal injury lawyer Robert Clifford for the defense, facing the prosecutorial might of former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and Patrick Collins, of Perkins, Cole, in a trial overseen by Judge Richard Posner, of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, joined by two other judges.
     It is the same A-list group that tried Socrates last year to benefit the museum, an event that attracted a thousand people and reverberated across the country.
     "The trial of Socrates really captured the attention of a lot of people nationwide," Clifford said. "We're reproducing the program for the American College of Trial Lawyers." I was a juror on the Socrates trial, voting — to my vast surprise — to condemn the philosopher, based on Fitzgerald's ironclad case against him. I'm sitting on the Orestes jury, too, though so is everyone else in the room.
      "This story is really the first time that Greek democracy evolved to where there was judgment by the community, by the people, and the right to trial by jury," said Clifford. "Up to this time, it was a bloody society based on revenge and family."
     A bloody society, which, I must point out, many gun fanatics dream of returning to. I'm not sure why the Second Amendment should trump the Seventh Amendment, which gives us trial by jury, but while vigilante justice is celebrated in some quarters, actual deliberative justice gets second-guessed and ridiculed. I'm not expecting the trial of Orestes to change that, but it is a timely reminder that we should respect jury trials more than we do.
     All of this high-priced legal talent is volunteering their time, a reminder that, like jury trials, lawyers get a bad rap sometimes.
     "First and foremost, this is intended to benefit a worthy cause, the Hellenic Museum," Clifford said.
     Having seen it last year, there is nothing jokey or ad hoc about the proceedings. These guys come prepared, and the event is fascinating to watch and participate in.
     "For the lawyers, it helps us raise awareness of principles; it's a real privilege to be involved in something like this," Clifford said. "It keeps you engaged, on your best scholarship. All four lawyers will spend time reading things different than modern-day briefs. It enriches you as a person, helps your set of trial skills. It's not the same thing as a real trial, but your juices are flowing and it helps you maintain your edge when you do go into the courtroom."
     The trial will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Jan. 29 at the UIC Forum. Go to to buy the $100 tickets without hefty service fees that don't go to the museum. The $50 student tickets must be purchased in person at the museum gift shop with a student ID.
     "Duty, honor, revenge, justice," Clifford said. "All these concepts are in play here."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Buy my poster

     I love posters. They catch your attention. They freeze a moment — an event, a time, an era. They are art, or can be. They convey useful information. Posters are the predecessor of newspapers, which began as handbills stuck on walls, and — encouraging to those of us who linger in the inky professions — they not only remain, but thrive in the electronic age. 
Atlas Stationers, 227 W. Lake St., Chicago, a cool, family-owned store,
crammed with office supplies and neat stuff.
     When Eli's Cheesecake advertised on my blog in November and December, I decided to take the money Marc Schulman paid for the ads and roll it back into my blog, in the form of marketing. And the very first idea I came up with — perhaps damningly—was to make a poster. Something hand-typeset. There was a pleasing symmetry to that: the old supporting the new. I phoned a few letterpress shops in Chicago, but never heard back from them.
      Undaunted, I contacted the mothership of poster printing: Hatch Show Print, of Nashville, Tennessee, a busy and growing letterpress shop that has been turning out posters, for circuses and country music acts and, now, a blog, continuously since 1879. They have an unrivaled collection of wooden type, some characters six feet tall.  In November, I wrote this post about them, and commissioned Hatch to make my poster — after I endured the customary two-month waiting period, that is.
     I sketched out the poster, and Hatch's Laura B. produced the poster at right from my design, printed on heavy stock paper. Working with her was pleasant beyond words. I'm biased, of course, but I find the result very handsome. Only 100 were made, and I've signed and numbered them, 1 through 100. Most I'm either giving to friends and supporters of the blog, or putting up around town, in simpatico places of business around Chicago, in the windows of friendly stores. Not only is it lovely art, I tell the at first skeptical proprietors, but if they put one up, I will photograph the poster and post the picture on the blog, where they will enjoy a blaze of publicity, and people will consider them hip. I'm thinking through the ethical/legal aspects of also plastering the posters in public spaces—that'll be a separate entry. What's the point of a poster if you don't cook up some wheat paste and slap it up on a brick wall, somewhere? The question is where. And I suppose "if" too. One must act morally. 
     When I announced my intentions last November, several readers signed up to buy the poster sight unseen —I have a list of their names, and will contact them individually. But I'm also offering a few for sale to the public for the quite reasonable price of $15, plus $6 shipping and handling (aka, postage and a sturdy mailing tube). I'm planning to sell 40 and then stop. 
    If you would like one, send a $21 check to me, Neil Steinberg, at 2000 Center Ave., Northbrook, IL, 60062. If you're in a different country, send an international money order and add and extra $5 — $26 total — for the international postage. Make sure to include your name and address. While I would never suggest that the poster's scarcity will make it valuable someday, well, stranger things have happened. When I'm dead and the things are selling on eBay for a thousand dollars a pop, you'll wish you had bought one now. And if they're never worth more than $15, or two bucks, or a dime—my hunch—it'll be something you'll enjoy looking at for quite some time, and remind you which blog you should consult on a daily basis.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What happens next?

     There is a schism when it comes to the American Jewish support for Israel, between the old-school, United Jewish Appeal, whatever-Israel-does-is-right line of thinking, and an emerging, newer, J-Street, get-your-act-together attitude that tends to attract younger, more progressive Jews. I find myself straddling the two, though shifting toward the latter. If something you care about is hurtling toward ruin, cheering them as they sail over the cliff is not my idea of "support." And the Israeli government doesn't help its case by a black-or-white, for-us-or-against-us mentality that tends to ignore the idea of a middle perspective.

     What happens next? 
     A child’s question, really, something naive, blurted out when the tale goes on too long. Cut to the chase, Daddy. How does the story end?
     The last time I bothered talking to Israeli leaders in Chicago — more than two years ago — I sat down with the then consul general and trotted that question out, my device for cutting through the endless seesawing of blame. Forget blame, forget history — that’s done, the rope both sides use to play tug-of-war as the years roll by and nothing happens. Stipulate history as having occurred; what about now? You’ve got these 4 million Palestinians living under your control, in Gaza and the West Bank, for approaching 50 years. What is going to happen to them?
     At which point there was a lot of talk about settlers and land and the two-state solution and how there is no Palestinian leadership with which to make peace.

All very true; none of it an answer. 
The Palestinian leadership, or, rather, “leaderships” since there are several, can’t come up with an answer either. They issue a wail of grievance, some legitimate, some not, one heard again last week when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died, years after suffering a stroke. They brand him a mass murderer for allowing Christian militia to slaughter Palestinians in Lebanon in 1983.
     Yes, yes, all true. But what do the Palestinians want now? You would think, as oppressed as they supposedly are, they would be hot to push some immediate practical solution. But they're not. Their vision involves the Jews magically vanishing and the country returning to them in its 1947 condition; not that it was theirs in 1947 either, mind you. If there's a Palestinian plan besides the Israelis handing the whole country over to them on a platter, I haven't heard it.
     No wonder I've barely mentioned Israel since ... November 2011, because nothing has changed, and stasis is, well, "boring" is the wrong word. How about "tragic." This situation is the definition of a tragedy — those involved squirm against their natures but do nothing definitive as fate bears them toward their doom. This is a situation penned by Arthur Miller.
     For Israel, pulling out unilaterally just gives the terrorist minority freedom to lob rockets into Israel, again. To stay continues the civic nightmare that ebbs and flares.
     So where does that leave us? Israel could keep going in this fashion. The world scowls, but luckily for Israel, its existence is not a referendum. The world doesn't have to love Jews in order for them to survive. My filter for viewing the situation can be summed up in four words: "They hated us before." Before Israel was created, a good number of otherwise civilized countries viewed the Jews who had lived there for centuries as a foreign presence who could be guiltlessly killed. Kind of how the Palestinians generally view Jews to this day. That is the key that unlocks the mystery of a world that yawns off centuries of atrocity in most places but sits up, takes notice, and waves Israeli misdeeds as proof of ineligibility to exist. And the Palestinians? They're lucky in that, unlike, oh, the Kurds, their jailer is the Israelis, who the world, for reasons mentioned above, keeps on a short leash. Otherwise they might languish in limbo forever, like Turkish Kurds and, guess what? They still might.
     Shall we end on an optimistic note, false though it may be? As a Jew, I have a dog in this race: I liked to think that Judaism means something, that it isn't just the brand of people in power in a particular sliver of land in the Middle East. Judaism isn't just matzo balls, but an attitude toward justice, in theory, so that if grinning history places 4 million unhappy people under your authority, you don't just shrug their lives away and push them into increasingly small, impoverished and desperate corners of a land they don't own. You figure it out, eventually. Israel has tried — that old devil history, creeping in — and it hasn't worked. But guess what? Israel has to keep trying. It has to figure it out, using that vaunted Israeli strategic thinking that once got it out of pickles like this. What happens next? The fence was smart — define a border, keep the bombers out. Now they have to take the next step, move from this problem to the next set of problems, whatever it will be.
     Never leaving is not a forever strategy. The Palestinians have an advantage over the Kurds or other recipients of the short end of history's stick in that a swath of the world is happy to make them the poster children for the Further Crimes of the Jews. But they shouldn't mistake that dubious honor for actual concern about their lives and future. That, they must come up with themselves. It would be a good start. What happens next?