Monday, March 31, 2014

Why debate details when big issues divide?

     Were I to ask you what color seat you would like on your bus trip to Cleveland, you would probably reply, “But I’m not going to Cleveland.” 
     Were I to insist, fanning a few fabric swatches before you — maroon, a powdery blue, hunter green — you would answer, “It doesn’t MATTER what color, because I don’t want to take a bus to Cleveland!”
     Sadly, this simple logic escapes us when it comes to matters political. We fall to debating specifics — the color of the seat — ignoring a key overarching fact: Some of us want to take the trip; others don’t. 
     The original intention of this column was to look at the state of Illinois with a cool, dispassionate eye and ask: Is Bruce Rauner right? Are we really much worse off under Gov. Pat Quinn? Rauner points to our 8.7 percent unemployment, second highest in the nation. The Quinn people, however, observe that when he took office, it was 11.4 percent. Rauner focuses on the bloat of government, Quinn on how much has been cut.
     Who’s right? The bottom line is, for purposes of conversation, that it doesn’t matter. These stats are specifics: the color of the seat. And no number or group of numbers is going to make Rauner supporters shift to Quinn, or Quinn supporters decide that a rich guy with no experience in government is qualified to run the state. I won’t say which side I’m on, but you can guess. 
     What decides our default, which bin, Republican or Democrat, we live in? I could be a cynic and say it’s your parents’ political party. Most follow the leanings of their parents and never question it.    Having been born blinking into one particular camp, we just shrug and spend our lives there, plucking reasons to justify it as they float by. 
     But pretend, for a moment, that we could actually make the choice. What puts us in one party or another is not pegged to the unemployment levels in Illinois or what the tax rate is, but how you answer the following simple, Cleveland-or-no, five-word question: Is government good or bad?
     Not just Illinois government. All government. If you think government is a good thing, in the main, then you’re a Democrat. You want preschoolers to get that cup of free morning gruel, want rehab clinics for drug addicts. A disaster strikes — and Illinois has been hit with 11 natural disasters since   Quinn took office — and you want the government to show up with backhoes and fresh water. If companies are selling tainted meat, then you want the USDA to be on them like a cloud of hornets.
    If you don’t like government, you’re a Republican. You want to cut taxes and slice deficits until there isn’t any money to fund all those programs that only help people you wish didn’t exist anyway. If companies are selling tainted meat, well, then people should be savvy enough not to buy it. 
     The situation is more complicated. Some government programs bug Democrats: farm subsidies for instance. And Republicans embrace Medicare, out of self-preservation, and blow kisses at the military, as if it weren’t as purely a government function as the National Endowment for the Arts.
     Me, I’m Democratic by breeding — my parents are Democrats; my father, in fact, worked for the government, NASA, for most of his career. And by choice. I make that decision by what I call the Baby Conundrum. If you find a baby on your doorstep, you either a) raise it yourself b) take it to the nearest church or c) call the cops. 
     To me, a) is strange and nobody would do it; b) is theoretical and while Republicans pay lip service, they never call their church to report a fire. The rational person answers is c). You want a government that cares for abandoned babies (fetuses aren’t babies, your Pavlovian bell isn’t ringing) and schools them and treats them when they’re sick. I’ve never heard an argument that explains why that logic falls apart as they get older. To me, the Republican stance against the Affordable Care Act is a shameful nadir of cold-hearted wrongheadedness that someday will be seen as being in keeping with their stance on race and women, and the entire litany of wrongheaded, selfish notions they’ve clung to until the second they’re pried out of their soft little hands. 
     Getting back to Illinois. I would be for Quinn because he fixed the pension mess that grew under his forebears of both parties, and he signed marriage equality into law even though his faith dictated otherwise. That’s another dividing line: Is religion a private matter? Or a whip to make your neighbors/employees do what they don’t want to? Dems to the left, GOP to the right. Oh, and consider a trip to Cleveland. Friendly folk, remodeled art museum. It’s very nice. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Welcome back to the Steinberg Bakery


     "Welcome to the Steinberg Bakery. May I help you?"
     "Yes, some rye bread please..."
     "Seeds or no seeds?"
     "We use only the finest Hungarian caraway seeds. You can't buy them in this country. A friend's nephew is with the Hungarian consulate. He brings them over in the diplomatic pouch. Rich, pungent, meridan fennel seeds..."
     "Okay, seeds then..."
     "Sliced or unsliced? The unsliced loaf stays fresh longer. But we offer sliced as a convenience for the customer."
     "Sliced please ... "
     "Of course. Always with the easy way. The convenience. Good for sandwiches. Planning a to serve sandwiches at a special gathering, are you?"
     "Isn't Gabby here today? I thought she works on Sundays."
     "Normally yes. But today she has her ... little visitor."
     "Her little visitor?"
     "Yes, you know, her ... ah ... time of the month."
     "Her period?"
     "Shhh, yes. If you insist, but please, I've got angel food cake rising."
     "What does that matter? Does it make her too ill? Tell her Mrs. Mendelssohn was in and asked about her and hopes she feels better."
     "No, not that. Not ill. She feels fine. The intru...visitor. It renders her unclean."
     "Unclean. Leviticus 15, verse 19: 'Whenever a woman has her m-m-menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days.'"
      "I don't see how that..."
     "''If you touch her during that time, you will be defiled until evening. Anything on which she lies or sits during that time will be defiled...'"
     "But isn't that..."
     "Look around you, Mrs. Mendelssohn. Look at the Steinberg Bakery. What do you see? Everything is clean. Everything. Clean. Do you think that is by accident? No. It is not an accident. The floors, swept twice a day. The coolers, the racks, the shelves. We pride ourselves in that."
     "Couldn't she..."
     "Now yes, the actual Biblical passages do not technically forbid a woman who is in that way from working in a bakery...oh, here's your rye bread, with seeds, sliced. Anything else?"
      "Oh thank you. Yes. You have kolatchke?"
      "Raspberry, apricot, strawberry..."
      "Let me have ..."
      "Apple, blueberry, cherry..."
      "A half dozen cherry please."
      "Lemon, cinnamon, cheese..." 
      "Six cherry. Please."
      "... and prune. Six cherry it is. Anyway, it not being specifically forbidden. I tried to be accommodating. But look how narrow it is behind the counter. People bump into each other. One touch and I am defiled, Mrs. Mendelssohn. So many rules, with the women, and it falls to the man to enforce them; hiring them hardly seems worthwhile sometimes. Still, I told Gabby she could work if she didn't sit down.  But it's a long shift, and she kept sneaking rests on the chair."
     "Is that so..."
     "The chair had to be burned, in the Biblical fashion. It got expensive. Have you ever tried to find acacia wood? It isn't easy, and not cheap, I'll tell you that. So now she just doesn't work those days. A week a month I lose her. I keep track on this chart here."
     "That doesn't strike me as fair to her."
     "Not fair? What is not fair to her? She has a job. Nobody put a gun to her head and forced her to work in the Steinberg Bakery. Our reputation is pristine. People line up to work here. Men anyway. Women, not so much. Still, what about fair to me? Why is it the religious for whom fairness is always forgotten? Why do the men always suffer? Should I pay good money, pay a woman good money, so she can pollute and poison the Steinberg Bakery in the eyes of God once a month? Why should I pay for anything that undermines my sincere religious beliefs? The folks at Hobby Lobby certainly don't do that. The Hobby Lobby machers don't feel the need to pay for things that go against their faith. If Hobby Lobby, a store that sells pipe cleaners and glitter and styrofoam balls can withdraw from the government insurance program, can sue the United States of America, the country that we all love, claiming that some crazy contraception device that only a kurveh would use and that doesn't even affect a fertilized egg, not really, if they can decide it is in fact abortion, if they can play around with the health care of thousands of employees based on their own farkochta religious beliefs, why should my sincere and actually-endorsed-by-the-Lord-God-Almighty-instead-of-cooked-up-later-by-frauds beliefs be held in any less regard?"
    "Well, I should be going now..."
     "I mean, God forbid they should pay for anything of which they don't approve. God forbid that one penny of their money earned selling pots of paste should go to anything that doesn't reflect their own whims happily back so they can nod and smile, admiring them. Because they're special, Mrs. Mendelssohn, they're the one true religion that the entire nation was designed to coddle and flatter. They are they stars of the show. The rest of us, we're nobody. We're the scenery. The chorus. Even though the government certainly asks the rest of us to pay for things we don't necessarily like. Oh ho, yes! Churches pay no tax. But the grips and the stage hands and the supernumeraries, we pay the freight. The Steinberg Bakery, we pay tax — plenty of tax. Am I not then, in a very real sense, underwriting those churches? With my cash money? My taxes also pay for the schools, schools which teach kids all sorts of nonsense that I do not subscribe to—schools that serve their kids Chips Ahoy Cookies at lunch time. I have seen it with my own eyes! That serve them white bread puffed full of air. Bread that tastes like nothing. A slander on the word 'bread...'"
     "If I could just..."     
     "Yet I support that. It seems this Lobby Hobby wants it both ways: part of society, when it serves them, when it comes to having their streets plowed so that more big trucks full of stickers and glass beads and woodburning sets can get to their enormous warehouses full of crap. But when government policy strays against their reproductive whims, they sue." 
     "Ah yes, well, I had better be going. That's all today." 
      "Of course, Mrs. Mendelssohn. Right away. The bread, $3.99, the kolatchke, $5 for the half dozen and I put in an extra one.  That's $8.99, plus 80 cents tax to buy public school lunches made of bread I wouldn't use to wipe the counters at the Steinberg Bakery. That'll be nine dollars and seventy-nine cents, please. Out of ten."
     "Well tell Gabby that I said hello."
     "I will, when she returns, five days from now. Twenty-one cents is your change. And believe me, Mrs. Mendelssohn, I'm not happy about this either. I have things to do today. But faith is faith, and either we honor it or we don't. I am the true victim here, being forced to handle both the front of the shop and to mind the ovens in back. Last month, I lost eight pies—blueberry pies, the best, made from the choicest Michigan blueberries, grown especially for the Steinberg Bakery at sun-kissed blueberry patches outside of Ludington. These pies burned to cinders because Mr. Helmholtz came by for his weekly order, and we got into a conversation, a fascinating conversation about Psalm 119 and the need to constantly be mindful of God's law. I will be honest with you: I forgot about the pies. If Gabby had been here, she would have whisked those pies out of the oven at the precise moment of golden crusted perfection. Very good, she is, about timing the pies. But when she is not here, she is not so good. I should have garnished the cost of the lost pies from her wages. But I try to be a considerate boss. Though in matters of faith, there are no considerations to be made. God is very clear about that. I really should not hire a woman at all. You lose one week out of four, at least until they reach a certain age. But I try to run the Steinberg Bakery in the progressive fashion."
     "Umm, yes, right. Well goodbye then."
     "Yes, goodbye. And you'll see what I mean about those caraway seeds. Such seeds you have never seen."


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Saturday fun activity — name the palindromes


     People assume that the hard part about writing books is the writing part. And there is a certain challenge there. But having written, gee, eight books now, with the ninth on the way, I can tell you that writing books is difficult in the same way that dieting is difficult: it isn't any one moment that's especially challenging, but doing what you need to do to accomplish the task, day in and day out, and persisting even when results seem slow in coming. 
     No, the hardest aspect of "writing books," is not the writing part, but the books part, when the tangible object is published. The new book comes into physical being, and then you have about two minutes to make something happen, to generate buzz and heat and interest during the brief window when the book lingers in stores -- what stores are left — and at the top of web sites, before your book, your baby, your joy and heartbreak, sinks into the slurry of forgotten tomes, never to be seen again. 
     It engenders a certain sense of, well, panic. The moment is now. You've done all this work. You love the result. The clock is ticking. 
     A nightmare really. I used to say that having a book published is like having your children kidnapped and held for ransom at bookstores. They're tied to a chair, whimpering into their gags, struggling against the ropes, waiting for you to do something. You can, diabolically, see them. But you can't rescue them, not by yourself. Someone has to help you. Now. Under these circumstances the slowness of friends to react can be maddening. "What, your book?" they drawl, scratching, stretching, as if they had forgotten. "Oh yeah, man. that's right, I umm, meant to, ah, slide over to the Book Hutt and get it, but these old egg cartons needed to be painted..." and you just want to grab the person by the shoulders and shake them, then draw their face close to yours and shriek, "Buy my book, buy my book ... or, or, or... I'm going to kill you right now."
    Thus I traipse off to book signings, buy books I have no interest in, and in fact will never read, and can't get rid of, because they're signed to me. I remember, years ago, walking down Wabash Avenue to the old Kroch's & Brentano's book store, where Roger Ebert was signing his novel, The Phantom's Mask. The co-worker I had dragged along, to boost the show of support, quizzed me: Why were we doing this? Roger was already rich, already famous. Lots of people would be there. He didn't need us.
     That's not the point, I replied. Friends buy friends' books. It's a moral duty. They're splashing around in the lake, drowning, dying. You've got the rope. Throw them the rope.
     And because I'm a newspaper columnist, that adds an additional level of responsibility. Friends also promote friends' books, or try to. They at least look at them. Thus I found myself, with a bit of gee-I-hope-no-one-is-watching-me apprehension, sitting on the Metra 5:12, opening Carol Weston's new novel, Ava and Pip (Sourcebooks: $15.99). The novel is intended for junior high school girls, which kinda puts me out of its target demographic. No matter. I have known Carol for 32 years, since I walked into her lilac-colored farmhouse on North Ashbury Street in Evanston and rented a room to live in during my senior year at Northwestern — and what a glorious senior year it was, full of sophistication and fun, thanks to Carol and her husband, the playwright Robert Ackerman. Champagne brunches. Dinner parties. Drama. 
     Opening the book's package,  shrugging and sliding it on the shelf, unread, was just not something I was willing to do.
     "DEAR NEW DIARY," the book begins. "You won't believe what I just found out."
     What follows is a witty, warm, wonderful story about Ava, a smart 5th grader in a family addicted, as families sometimes are, to puns and wordplay and palindromes—words and phrases spelled the same way, backward and forward, such as the first man's introduction to the first woman in the Garden of Eden: "Madam I'm Adam." 
      I might have opened the book due to the obligations of friendship, but I kept reading on the book's own merits. I was drawn into Ava's world, her problematic older sister, Pip—why ARE older sisters always such trouble? Her well-intentioned dad, her too-busy mom. Especially her voice, her mind, the way Ava puts things. Here's her description of a boy new to school: "He has as many freckles as Pip and is the kind of boy who's cute if you're the kind of girl who notices. Which I'm not." I love those last three words; the girl doth protest too much, methinks.
      Reading a friend's book is obligatory—finishing is not. Books get started and set aside; I don't write about them all. I can't. I know a lot of writers and, besides, my internal value system is such that, if a book disappoints, I can't stand on a chair and sing its praises insincerely. That doesn't do anybody any favors. I remember my late pal, Jeff Zaslow, gingerly inquiring about The Girls From Ames. I had written about his previous books, but not that one. A silence. "Too many girls from Ames," I finally confessed, as kindly as I could. "I couldn't tell them apart." He seemed to understand. 
     So while I started the book out of one kind of duty, I finished it out of another—it's a good book, with real characters and a compelling story. I had to finish it. As with all good books, I was both eager to find out, and reluctant to have it over, noting with sorrow the dwindling pages. Maybe I don't read enough novels — the last one I read was The Circle by Dave Eggers. But I was charmed to spend time with the 5th grader created by Carol—the advice columnist at Girl's Life for 20 years, she knows of what she speaks—as Ava navigates her world of slumber parties and mean girls and a library writing contest she enters with a tale ... well, I don't want to give too much away.
     Lest my judgment be too constricted by the cords of friendship, whenever I write about a friend's book, I require myself to dig up a criticism, and with Ava and Pip, that is easily done: I thought things worked out perhaps a little too well, a little too neatly. Not to reveal the ending, but let's just say Ava isn't left weeping on her bedspread, neglected by her mother, nor do we see older sister Pip muscled into a straight jacket and dragged off to a mental hospital, writhing and screaming like Frances Farmer. Everybody turns out to be really nice, even supposed mean girl Bea. My impressions of family and school life and life in general are a bit more fraught and unresolved than what Carol presents, so if you are looking for Death of a Salesman, this ain't it. But few 5th grade girls are, I imagine, and I am sincere in that, in the flaw department, that was about all I could come up with. 
     Being a writer, I found the palindromes like little gifts, scattered throughout the book, and rather than puzzle you with a mysterious location today—which keep getting solved before I wake up on Saturday—I thought I'd share three examples from the book, represented by these three pictures. Had I been able to find a photo of some very old cats, I'd have gone with "Senile felines"— I think that was my favorite— but I couldn't, so I offer up these three. Your only hint: the guy in the white suit is Teddy Roosevelt. Figure them out—remember, your answer will be spelled the same, backward or forward—post the answers below, and the first one who gets all three correct will receive one of my blog's limited edition, hand-set, signed and numbered posters, which are going fast. Good luck.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Religious freedom doesn't mean being free to force people to follow your religion

     The arc of history bends toward freedom. If you want to understand what has happened over the past decades and centuries, what is happening now, keep that premise in mind. In the past, people were controlled by institutions, which dictated the details of their lives, telling them how to worship, work, dress, think, behave.
     Then gradually, individuals stood up and claimed the right to make those decisions.
     Look, to take one example from Chicago history, at Pullman, the South Side neighborhood that once was the company town for the Pullman Palace Car Co., which manufactured luxury railroad sleeping cars.
     If you worked for Pullman, you lived in Pullman’s town by Pullman’s rules. George Pullman chose the books in the library you could read; he decided what church you could attend. He didn’t like drinking, so residents could not buy liquor. The only bar was at the Florence Hotel, named for his daughter — the idea being that visitors might want to drink, but his workers could not.
     Few today would cast an envious eye on Pullman. We in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook don’t say: “You know, Allstate is big here. Let’s let them decide what kind of birth control we use.” That wouldn’t fly.
     Yet, right now, in 2014, a case is being discussed by the United States Supreme Court whether Hobby Lobby, a chain of 500 arts and crafts stores, can decide for its 13,000 employees what kind of birth control they use. The company is required to provide health care under the Affordable Care Act and is trying to opt out because some employees would make decisions that are not in keeping with their employer’s religious beliefs. That is a given in most places, but the owners of Hobby Lobby consider it oppression.
     In case you think this matters only in far regions, there are 23 Hobby Lobby stores, plus one opening soon, within 50 miles of Chicago, and if the law goes in the company’s favor, it could affect not just employees but everyone with a boss.
     The company is owned by zealous Christians, who argue that by letting their employees have full health care coverage, which includes such contraception as IUDs and morning-after pills, which the company owners view as a kind of abortion, it would violate the company’s religious rights.
     The company’s religious rights. Versus the rights of the people employed by it.
     Wonder how the case will work out?
     Repeat after me: The arc of history bends toward freedom. (A familiar ring to that; maybe I’m channeling Martin Luther King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That too).
     Funny. If the issue were something far less significant — say, the type of toothpaste Hobby Lobby workers could use under their dental plan — there would be clarity, and the case would have been laughed out of court. But the issue becomes more clouded because it involves a religious scruple — abortion or, in this case, contraceptives — and because the restraint is being forced on women, a group whose rights are still open to debate.
     The women on the court see this clearly. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked, could not employers object to any medical procedure: blood transfusions, say, or immunization?
     The Hobby Lobby lawyer said the courts would evaluate each case, which is no doubt true, and a glimpse of chaos.
     “So one religious group could opt out of this and another religious group could opt out of that, and nothing would be uniform,” Justice Elena Kagan observed.
     Exactly. There are many religions in this country. Some people are so in thrall to their own faith they forget that and try to claim that the nation should favor one, invariably their own, oblivious that to favor one would be to favor all. If a Muslim-owned company tried to insist its female employees wear veils, Hobby Lobby would respond in vibrating horror. Yet it would blithely force its own will on employees. Hypocrites.
     You don’t have to go back to Pullman’s day to find companies dictating the details of employees’ lives. If a flight attendant grew too old, or gained weight, or had children, an airline would simply fire her.
     Little by little, freedoms were won — first for men and, then, lately, obviously only partially, for women. The battle continues.
     This case is really very simple to decide. Ask this question: Should individuals be allowed to make their own religious choices? Or should their employers choose for them?
     A toughie, I know. It’s so hard to give others the freedom you demand for yourself.
     How does this end? Hobby Lobby loses. Maybe not this case, now, but eventually. Because, as I said at the start, the arc of history bends toward freedom.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Chicago Stuff You Don't Know #2: City Hall and the County Buildling

The County Building to the left, City Hall to the right.
     Things are not always what they appear in Chicago. The statue of Grant is in Lincoln Park, while Grant Park boasts a statue of Lincoln. If you're looking for the Wrigley Company, don't look in the Wrigley Building, Wrigley Field or Wrigleyville. It's now on the north end of Goose Island. Wacker Drive goes north, south, east and west. 
      It can get confusing. 
      When people say they're going to City Hall to get married, they're really going to the County Building—they're attached. The two buildings looks monolithic, a single structure comprising an entire city block, bounded by Randolph and Washington streets, to the north and south, and Clark and LaSalle, to the east and west.  
     But they aren't. They are actually two completely separate mirror image buildings, built at different times.
      Approach from the northeast and you'll see a cornerstone that says "ANNO DOMINI 1906" -- the County Building, built first, after its predecessor, one day in 1905, suddenly sank 10 inches, ruptured its gas lines and exploded, due to shoddy construction from corrupt, corner-cutting contractors. Its replacement was built and occupied before the City Hall was even begun -- you can see its cornerstone on the southwest, that says "ANNO DOMINI 1909."  Though identical, the County Building cost 50 percent more to construct.
     The whole often mind-boggling story is laid out in a surprisingly good book, Glory and Government: Chicago's City Hall 100, by Edward M Burke and Thomas J. O'Gorman (Horto Press).  Chicago's City Hall has been on that spot, at the corner of Randolph and LaSalle, since the 1840s. And while Burke—yes, that Ed Burke, the city's longest serving alderman—and O'Gorman can be entertaining about the scandals and corruption of years past, for some reason, when they reach the present day, a certain discreet silence settles over them.   To be expected, I suppose. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Chicago Stuff You Don't Know #1: The naked baby

    Last November, I was writing a profile of Rahm Emanuel for Esquire, so spent time sitting around the mayor's outer office, waiting to see him. Eventually, after sifting through the boostery pamphlets scattered around and chatting up the cops and bodyguards who were also waiting, my attention was be drawn to the Seal of the City of Chicago, a big disc of bronze behind the security desk. It is the usual melange of symbols that must have appealed to early 19th century types: an Indian, peering off into the distance, a ship under full sail, a sheaf of wheat, a shield, a Latin phrase ("Urbs in Horto" or "City in a Garden"). All ordinary and expected.
    But one feature seemed downright strange. Right at the top center, floating above the
rest: a baby. A naked baby on an open shell. A massive helmet of hair on the tot, but a baby nonetheless. What's with that? Venus as a infant, perhaps? No digging was necessary to solve the baby mystery. The plaque to the lower left spills the beans: "The Nude Babe In The Shell Is the Ancient And Classical Symbolism Of the Pearl, And Chicago, Situated At The Neck Of The Lake, Signifies That It Shall Be 'The Gem Of The Lakes.'"
    Okay then. And you thought the online world had capitalization problems.
    Not everything about the seal is on the plaque. When it was created, at the city's founding in 1837, the design committee named by William B. Ogden, the city's first mayor, explained that the ship symbolizes "the approach of white man's civilization and commerce." (A reminder that symbolism has always been a high priority in Chicago, often to our eventual detriment. It isn't as if Ed Burke invented the practice). The ship must have somehow must have come to the attention of aldermen Allan Streeter and Robert Shaw—perhaps while waiting to see Harold Washington— who in 1987 condemned the ship for representing "institutionalized racism." (As opposed to the more individualized racism practiced by a guy like Shaw, currently running a Quixotic campaign for mayor, who once told the Chicago Defender that a white person should not lead Chicago because whites "don't know how to be fair"). The two demanded the ship be replaced with a cameo of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the black man who was Chicago's first permanent settler. Never happened. 
    Still, the seal could use a makeover. The City Council might want to appoint a committee. Sign me up. I see some kind of bold graphic blue and white "C" set against a neon background.  Or, better, scrap the rest and just keep the baby. People love babies. But lose the strange hairdo. 
    This baby-on-the-city-seal business is not the most practical information, true, but you never know when it may come in handy.
    "Honey, guess what!!! We're going to have a baby!" 
     "Funny you should mention babies—did you know that there is a baby, nude, in repose, and resting on an oyster shell, on the official seal of the ..."
    Well, maybe not.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chicago City Council to end Ukrainian crisis

Many people seem to believe that tiny symbolic gestures add up to something real. Maybe sometimes they do. But my hunch is that usually they only make the gesturer feel better and inflate the chimera that something has been accomplished.  Maybe it's better to do nothing and not fool yourself, rather than to fill a teaspoon with salt water and act like you've done your part in emptying the ocean.

     I, Neil Steinberg, am against aggression.
     Officially, and for the public record.
     Particularly aggression across national borders. That’s the worst. One country should not dominate another militarily. I oppose that with my full moral authority as a columnist. It’s bad policy.
     Let it be known.
     Not just bad in general, but bad specifically, in regard to Russia, which should not be violating Ukrainian sovereignty. Here and now I formally demand that Vladimir Putin cease all bellicose activities in Crimea and return to the pre-March 2014 borders.
     There, I’ve said it.
     If that seems out of character, I’m only following the courageous example set by the Chicago City Council, which, once again, is poised to try to project its moral authority from the corner of La Salle and Randolph streets, echoing across the globe, to rattle the windows of oppression and exert what influence it can on the enormous, grinding gears of world events.
     “It’s only a symbolic act,” said Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who called out of the blue with the dramatic news Friday morning. “What little we can do to put ourselves on record.”
     The act he is referring to is the withdrawal from our sister city relationship with Moscow, one of 28 cities around the globe that Chicago is bound to in sororal affection through Chicago Sister Cities International.
     Such a dramatic foray into international affairs could not happen unopposed, of course, and Chicago’s longest-serving alderman said there were shadowy forces at work, opposing the council’s bold action.
     “My staff is telling me that some dweeb from the mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs is trying to force the chairman not to have a hearing,” Burke said.
     When I pressed him — after shaking off the shock of hearing Ed Burke say “dweeb,” which is like hearing Genghis Khan say “booger” — trying to find out the name of this obstructionist Putin-coddling dweeb, Burke balked. He said that, if necessary, he would bring up the matter in his own home turf, the Finance Committee.
     “I guarantee you, there will be a hearing,” he said, then pointing me toward the City Council’s Committee on Human Relations chairman, Ald. Ariel E. Reboyras (30th).
    “I can give you part of it,” Reboyras said, after he stopped laughing. “Right now, we will decide something today whether we roll out this hearing, or we don’t roll it out, as stated.”
     World events have revivified a typically sleepy area of city government.
     “It’s crazy, because the Committee on Human Relations is the least active committee in City Council,” he said. “As the world takes a turn for the worse, I’ll be busy.”
     Washington-based Sister Cities International said in a statement that besides Chicago, 75 other U.S. cities are paired with Russian cities, while 23 partner with Ukrainian cities, and the group reminded the public that sister city partnerships “are not, nor have they ever been, an explicit or implicit endorsement of policies, laws, or actions of the partner community” such as seizing neighboring territory, and hoped “that all sister city members, municipal officials, and individual citizens maintain the perspective that it is better to support community ties such as sister cities as a way to constructively communicate with one another, and continue to search for a peaceful resolution to tensions through civic engagement.”
     Don’t count on that.
     The program encourages personal exchanges, but also international trade.
     “I don’t know we’re going to be doing any trade or development with Russia any time soon,” Reboyras said. “If nothing else it sends a message that we’re not in support of what’s going on.”
     Underline “if nothing else.”
     Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who met for an hour with Ukrainian leaders Thursday, is honorary chairman of Chicago’s Sister Cities. His office pondered the issue mightily Friday, but did not in the end issue a public statement, symbolic or otherwise, on the matter. Which makes you almost appreciate the City Council going out on a limb like this.
     Late Friday, word came.
     “We’re going to hear it,” Reboyras said. “Tuesday, March 25, 1:30 p.m., City Council Chambers. We’re going to hear two resolutions — to suspend the City of Chicago Sister City, and a second, related, resolution to call on the U.S. government to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.”
     Much opposition to that one? “We’ll decide then if we’re going to pass this,” he said. “There’s not too much talking right now.”
     I want to publicly take issue with that.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"We're supposed to go swimming"

     Daily journalism used to be dying. Now it's more of a chronic condition, like diabetes, that responds to treatment and allows for a full life with certain limitations. The metaphor I use is that newspapering is like the M.C. Escher staircase that keeps going down and down but somehow never reaches the bottom. It was a really good job for a really long time and, for me at least, still is. That's enough; more, that's plenty. As for the future, well, it isn't certain but—bulletin—nobody's is. Just some people are more confident than others.
    Thus it's okay to indulge in nostalgia and self-congratulation, occasionally, such as today, when I mark my 27th anniversary on the staff at the paper. Sometimes that seems like a failure of imagination or courage. But I think in general it is a good thing, something to recognize. On Monday morning, March 23, 1987, the 26-year-old version of me put on his coat and tie, took the L in from his apartment in Oak Park, then read every plaque between the State and Lake L stop and the Sun-Times Building at 401 N. Wabash, killing time, because I was so early. I reported to Kevin Hellyer, who gave me an assignment: write a 15-line story about a dog show. And away we went.
     Looking back over 27 years at the paper, the best part was being sent places I would never otherwise be, and finding things there that were unexpected. I'm not sure if this is my "favorite" story, but it's the one I'm most proud of, in some ways, because what I was sent to do—cover the opening ceremony of a new pool—was very different from what I ended up focusing on. Most things I write have no effect whatsoever—that's an article of faith with me. But this one did: an embarrassed Park District invited the kids back, and gave them an ice cream and pool party. I was happy about that.

     Within sight of the city's showplace swimming pool, shimmering a cool and tantalizing blue, about 200 city children sweltered uncomfortably for three hours in the midday sun Thursday, waiting for permission to go in.
      It never came.
      Instead, they were a captive audience for a Chicago Park District ceremony to celebrate the $4 million rehab of the pool, now christened the Washington Park Aquatic Center, at 5530 S. Russell.
     It wasn't supposed to work that way. The kids, from the Washington Park Day Camp, were told when they arrived at 10 a.m. that they would get to swim for an hour before the noon ceremony.
     "We think they did a great job with this pool," said Tamika Tate, 11, wearing her bathing cap and suit, towel at the ready, at 11:30 a.m. "I wouldn't miss one single day."
     But Tamika and the other kids were instead put to work blowing up the white, blue and aqua balloons that dotted the eight-lane, 50-meter  pool, used for Olympic trials in 1936.   The pool's new shallow area grades up to a "zero depth" concrete beach and is decorated with 11 beautiful and inviting fountains. 
     "They're frustrated because they can't get in the pool," said Debra McKenzie, the playground supervisor for the Washington Park Day Camp. The kids were then told they could swim for a while after the ceremony.
     Nearby, a new 36-foot, double-loop water slide - the only one in the city - stood next to a diving pool that was supposed to have three diving boards but doesn't, because the bottom is too shallow to meet state code requirements.
     "I don't know what happened," said park Commissioner Joe Phelps. "The Park District is investigating."
     The ceremony kicked off at noon with an opening address, an invocation blessing the pool, the singing of the national anthem, then the introduction of the master of ceremonies and the many special guests, who included outgoing Supt. Robert C. Penn Park District President John W. Rogers Jr. and Ald. Arenda Troutman (20th).
     All had things to say.
     "I would clearly be remiss if I did not acknowledge and publicly thank an individual I worked with very, very closely over the years," said Penn, who proceeded to to do so, as balloons periodically exploded in the sun. He said this was his last public appearance "unless we can come up with some event we can dedicate tomorrow."
     "I'm bored, sitting right here," said Nakita Clayborne, 9.
     "We're supposed to go swimming today," said Sequita Stuart, 10.
     "It's hot out here; I want to get in the pool," said Seneca Scott, 11.
     ". . . I would be remiss if I didn't mention another person . . ." said Penn, who did so.
     After the speeches, entertainment. A water ballet. And a dance by the Washington Park Steppers.  And the formal handing over of a gold life preserver from one Park District official to another, who could not be accused of performing for the television cameras, since there were none.
     By the end, after 1 p.m., the water slide was inaugurated by several high Park District officials, including Commissioner Margaret Burroughs, who vowed to bring the slides to parks around the city.
     "It's great, great! Oh boy, I love it!" she laughed, dripping and wet, after taking the plunge.
     By that time, the 200 children were filing out of the pool area. It was time for lunch.
     "Maybe tomorrow," said McKenzie, leading the kids away.

                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 16, 1993

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"I don't like bank robbers who kill moms in banks"

    The God of Daily Newspapering must have wanted me to feel crummy about what I do last week. First I uncovered a story where an 11-year-old student who won a big science prize might not have done anything extraordinary after all. Not wanting to rush to slur a kid, I set that aside to think about it, and promptly this pail of slime fell into my lap. I thought of just ignoring it.  I hate the dredge-up-the-ugly-past-of-some-schleb-trying-to-get-through-the-day story. It had already in the papers, down in Champaign, nobody had picked it up, and it isn't as if this guy were Eichmann. Plus I wasn't a big fan of the Javert who was dropping a dime on this guy—he had the gimlet-eyed intensity of a fanatic, and reminded me of the people who say I shouldn't be allowed to hold my job either. But I took the long stroll to the city editor's desk, ran it all by him, and he said we should go for it, which is the right call, in that this is something people don't know about that touches on important issues. 

     The phone rings. David Thomas, formerly of Orland Park, now of Honolulu. Do I know that the University of Illinois is employing a 1960s radical and terrorist as a teacher?
     What, another one? I wonder. No, Bill Ayers was at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This one is at Urbana-Champaign. Different schools entirely.
     James Kilgore is at the University of Illinois Center for African Studies. Forty years ago he was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that, most famously, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst but also was involved in a series of crimes — the assassination of a school superintendent, several bank robberies, including one, that    Kilgore participated in, where a housewife, Myrna Opsahl, was shot and killed.
     “I don’t like bank robbers who kill moms in banks,” Thomas said. “I was a student at Champaign. I love the University of Illinois. I think it’s one of the top universities in the world, and it’s shocking that anybody would hire somebody like this. He has no place at a world-class university.”
     Kilgore’s presence is no secret. A News-Gazette column by Jim Dey last month detailed Kilgore’s history, sparking several indignant letters and tipping off Thomas. Go to the Illinois website and there, under the Center for African Studies, with its kente cloth header, is “James William Kilgore,” author of “We-Are-All-Zimbabweans Now,” in African Arguments and “After Marikana: A Luta Continua,” in Dissent.
     His African expertise came after Kilgore fled the country to evade arrest in 1975. For a quarter century he was Charles William Pape, a University of Cape Town professor, writing a textbook and three novels.
     Kilgore was arrested in South Africa in 2002 after 27 years on the run, extradited to California, where he served six and half years in High Desert State Prison for Opsahl’s murder during the bank robbery.
     Kilgore is 66 years old now. He declined a request to talk about this.
     After his release, he went to Urbana-Champaign because his wife, Teresa Barnes, is on the history faculty there. He started as an affiliate researcher — a volunteer. He was hired five years ago, as an adjunct instructor, and works part time on an hourly basis.
     “He’s a partner hire,” Thomas said. “They’ll hire someone’s spouse to keep everyone happy.”
     “That’s not correct,” said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs. “If you are a spousal hire, there’s a fund where it would come from.”
     The school stands behind Kilgore.
     “He does a great job,” Kaler said. “He’s very well-respected among students. He served his time in prison. He is very remorseful. He didn’t do the shooting. He is a good example of someone who has been rehabilitated, if you believe in second chances and redemption, he’s someone who helps prove that’s the human thing to do. A child of the victim said he has served his time and should be allowed to go on with his life.”
     That would be Jon Opsahl, who told the Associated Press in 2009 that Kilgore is an idealist who “got in with the wrong crowd” and, “I wish him well and I’m glad he served his time.”
     This is the part where I show my hand. We have no death penalty in Illinois; most everyone who goes into prison comes out; and while we demand they turn their lives around, we seem to also resent the ones who do. I asked Thomas, did he feel that Kilgore shouldn’t be allowed to work anywhere?
     “He can do a lot of things,” Thomas said. “He can be a janitor. He can join a volunteer organization that repents against murdering. . . . I agree he served his time, the court has spoken and I respect that. However, we don’t have to hire him at a state university.”
     Thomas and I spoke for over half an hour. He made perfect sense, but there was a moral outrage that struck me as punitive and seemed based more on speculation.
     “This is out of control,” he said. “This bank-robbing murderer is now teaching. I’m worried about 2034, this out-of-control maniac with a license to teach affecting [life in] 2034.”
     Were that true, it would be an issue whether Kilgore were a felon or not. But there is no evidence that anyone complained about his teaching. To me, digging up past misdeeds, no matter how grave, and using them to denounce strangers is vindictive.  
     “I don’t want someone who once owned a pipe bomb and was convicted of it in a federal courtroom teaching 18-year-olds from Schaumburg and Arlington Heights,” Thomas said. “That’s wrong.”
     Wouldn’t that all depend on what he’s teaching? Life is a long time, and people change.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fred Phelps, accidental gay activist

     Fred Phelps died this week, the patriarch of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, which is basically his extended family, and whatever other sick individuals feel moved to latch on. When I heard the news — the adjective "welcome" strains forward in its seat, waving its hand, going "Oh! Oh! Oh!" wanting to modify "news," but we'll ignore it — I thought a moment, then sent this Tweet:
     "Noted gay rights activist Fred Phelps died today. Ostensibly leading a hate group, he encouraged tolerance by showing where bigotry leads."
     I truly believe that. When the definitive history is written of the incredible progress gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people have made over the past 10 years, there should be a paragraph or two about Phelps because he, better than anybody, drove home in a public and unmistakable way the ultimate expression of anti-gay bias. He was like one of those guys smoking a cigarette through the hole in his neck in the American Cancer Society TV commercials. Something loathsome you couldn't stop looking at. Fred Phelps' inadvertent message to the world was: You can fool yourself all you like, but here's where you end up. With me.
     I've long known that racists and bigots, while inflicting undeniable harm on others, hurt themselves most of all. Hatred is a symptom of ignorance, of confusion. They live stunted, unhappy lives, locked in cathexis, concentrating on the thing they dislike most. Who would want to live like that? Fred Phelps and his sorry, abused and misguided family are Exhibit A for tolerance. The only reaction is sympathy and love — if you hate them back, justified though you would be, you're missing the point, a little, and playing their game. And they play it better.
     This is not a new idea. I've been urging this for a while but, alas, it's a notion that retains its utility over time. This was written about a different odious bigot and published in the Sun-Times 16 years ago, but the concept holds true for the Westboro Baptist Church which, unfortunately, cannot be expected to die along with Fred Phelps:

     We're making the same mistake we always make about the Ku Klux Klan. 
     It looks like they'll be speaking in Cicero next Saturday. And the reaction, as always, falls into one of two camps. First is the head-in-the-sand approach, summed up by Judge Ellis E. Reid who, in allowing the Klan to speak at the town hall in Cicero, suggested that residents "go to Gurnee Mills, go shopping" during the KKK rally. 
    The second response comes from those organizing protests, painting signs, hoping to show that unbiased Americans can scream louder than a bigot with a bullhorn.     
     I would like to suggest a third approach: Just go and listen. Watch the Klan members closely. Hear what they are saying and squirrel the images away for future reference. You might learn something.     
     I don't mean "learn something" to suggest that there is anything valuable in the insane race ramblings of the Klan. Their appeal, as always, is strictly limited to marginalized losers desperately trying to blame their own inadequacies on some outside force.     
     Rather, I think that people, particularly those who have experienced prejudice — blacks, Jews, other groups — should go hear the Klan. Because racism is usually so maddeningly abstract; it prowls the halls of schools and companies, it shows up as a pamphlet, as a shout from a passing car. It is a rare opportunity when someone such as a Klan member stands up, still, in a public place, and provides a face to such evil, a face that can be studied, closely.     
    Let me tell you the story I have in mind: When Jonathan Haynes was on trial for murdering a plastic surgeon for giving patients "false Aryan beauty," it came out that Haynes had written a letter to a Bridgeport racist named Joseph Dilys. I was dispatched with a photographer to Dilys' home to see how he fit into the squalid tale.     
    I'll be honest: I was afraid. I had never met Dilys, but I had heard of him — he was a notorious anti-Semite. He was somehow involved with Haynes, this murderer. I sat in the car outside his house on Union Street and screwed up my courage to go in.     
     Just as I was walking up to the door, two Chicago cops were coming out. I told them who I was and what I was there for. "Do you think it's safe to go inside?" I asked. One of the cops gave me a long look I wouldn't understand until later. "Oh, I think you'll be all right," he said.     
     I rang the bell. A young woman — Dilys' granddaughter, or niece or something — answered it. In a moment, there he was, and he ushered me into the living room.      
     He was an old man, in his underwear — a strap T-shirt and boxer shorts. He was missing a leg, and hopped around on a crutch. He had a big, open sore on his neck. It was not a good look.    
      One wall of the living room was given over to shelves, crude bays each holding a stack of photocopied fliers. Dilys gave me a variety, denouncing Israel, denouncing Jews, praising Nazis, the usual.     
     He proudly showed me a series of rubber stamps he had made up. "THE JEWS KILLED KENNEDY" read one. He was smiling at me. He didn't even realize that I am Jewish and I didn't tell him. 
     I felt as if I was getting a glimpse into a secret world. You see this kind of garbage shoved under the windshield wipers of your car, set on the ledge of a urinal in a bus station. You wonder where it comes from. I looked around the living room, and at Dilys, with his open sore and his faded underwear, and thought, happily, "Of course, this is where it comes from. It comes from places like this. From people like him."     
     It was a very liberating thought, one that has come back to help me again and again over the years. I'm not saying that professional racists are harmless — there is always some weak-minded person who reads this stuff and suddenly feels the eternal truth has been revealed.     
     Rather, they are tiny and marginal, both compared to the mainstream and compared to what they once were. When you see a photo of the pathetic handful of Klansmen who will no doubt be at the rally, think of the thousands of Klan members who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1920s. Today, they are a feeble shadow of themselves, a dying breed.     
     If I ran things, junior high school civics classes and church youth organizations would take field trips to Cicero to see the Klansmen. They would time history projects around the rally, take photographs and bring box lunches. They would sit cross-legged on blankets, listening attentively while the Klan leader and his three or four teenage sidekicks, looking ridiculous in their white outfits and Iron Cross shields, ranted and raved about white purity and the evil Jewish conspiracy and race mixing and the waves of untermenschen ruining our country.     
     Afterward, there would be questions. A 9-year-old girl would ask about their upbringing — did their parents feel this way? A boy in a Cub Scout uniform would ask whether they felt their unkind beliefs about other races were not at odds with their profession of Christian love. People should study these Klansmen while we can; it isn't as if they'll be around forever.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 8, 1998:

Saturday fun—where IS this?

     Work on Friday was fun, but hard. A long day. I wrote not one, but two columns—Sunday's and Monday's—and they were columns that required more than the usual amount of interviews and double-checking. Plus a couple Voices posts and other assorted tasks and conversations. 
      By the time I put on my jacket, flipped the lights off and started stumbling toward the train, I felt done in. Really, I had to focus just to walk down Wacker Drive toward Union Station. Even on  the Metra, it took an act of will not to let my head just roll off my neck and go tumbling down the aisle, drawing peeved looks from my fellow commuters. "Is this yours?" someone would sniff with disgust, toeing the head in my direction.
      After an eternity, we arrived in Northbrook. The block home. When I walked in the door, a package waiting. Usually you have an idea about what a package is. You're expecting something. But this ... blank. I hadn't ordered anything from Amazon. I wasn't expecting anything.
     I tore off the wrapping, took a look at the above photograph, nicely framed, and began to laugh and laugh. It felt like I hadn't laughed like that for ages. "Harry, you are a good egg!" I said, aloud -- my cousin Harry had sent it, as a surprise. I recognized instantly where he had affixed my blog poster, because I had been there—spent a few days there, in fact, researching my first book. That's your hint. Where is this place? The first one to post below gets a copy of the selfsame poster. This is a hard one, I hope. Good luck. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

"I don't think it's over" -- Senator Durbin on the growing crisis with Russia

     Before we work ourselves into too tight a knot over what we should have done to keep Russia from seizing Crimea, here’s a sobering thought from Sen. Dick Durbin, fresh from a quick trip to Ukraine.

     “I don’t think it’s over,” he said, referring to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to claw back parts of the Soviet Union.
     “What happens if the next target for Putin is a NATO ally? What if it’s Lithuania?” he asked. “I do believe we would keep our word there.”
     At the moment, that doesn’t seem likely.
     “More likely Moldova,” located between Ukraine and Romania, he said. “It’s got a kind of suspect national identity — that’s what the Russians will argue, anyway. Like Crimea, Russia already has a military presence in Moldova. And if you look at the map, it would put Ukraine in a bad position. They would be surrounded.”
     When you think of senatorial junkets, Hilton Head and the Caribbean come to mind. The severity of the situation is underscored by the fact that eight, count’ em, eight U.S. senators raced over with minimum comfort.
     “We went on a military passenger plane,” Durbin said. “We left Thursday night, flew all night, arrived in the morning, had meetings all day, hit the sack Friday, meetings all day Saturday, then back.”
     No golf? No leis? No festive dinners?
     “It was a commitment,” he said. “There was no fun. Typically on these, at least you do some shopping. That didn’t happen. I literally had a 10-minute stop at a street vendor.”
     Three Democrats and five Republicans took the trip, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. What they found was not encouraging.
     "Here is Ukraine hanging by a thread, the army is just a shell of an operation," Durbin said. "When they asked us for aid, here's what they asked for: fuel, tires, sleeping bags and food. You think to yourself, 'Oh man ...' They don't have basic rifles, or guns for the police." Durbin is pushing to send aid. Of the 150,000 Ukraine troops, 6,000 are ready to fight, he said. Given Ukraine's reaction so far, it's hard to imagine their forces resisting the Russian army.
     "They're never going to hold them off, and I don't think many will die trying," Durbin said. "All we can hope is the West makes serious noise and Putin decides not to go further." Fat chance. Our hands basically tied, I asked what Illinois' senior senator thought of the mouse shriek of partisan outrage that greeted Putin's aggression back here.
     "The premise on their side is that it happened because Obama is weak," Durbin said. "Then you say, 'What would you do that is strong?' 'Oh, I don't know ...' When Obama asked for more military authority to stop Syrian chemical weapons, Republicans opposed it. Whatever he wants, they want the opposite."
     Given Putin's recent bellicose, passionate statements about how Russia has been cheated by the West, it doesn't seem likely he's done yet. And bad as our military options are, the economic options are worse, hurting our economy as well as Russia's.
     "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Moscow has 900 members," Durbin said. "Fifty of the top U.S. corporations are there—Boeing, Caterpillar. This cuts close to home. I don't want to see it reach that point. And it's easier for the U.S. than Europe, which is so wedded to Russia regarding energy."
     So what can we do?
     "Freezing travel of oligarchs, make life uncomfortable for the ruling classes."
     That'll bring Putin to his knees. Speaking of freezing travel, I asked Durbin if it were true that he's been barred from Russia.
     "Yes. I'm on the banned list. The first country that banned me was the apartheid government in South Africa. So when Putin made this decision, I've been telling folks the Groucho Marx line: 'I've been thrown out of better countries than this.' "
     The bottom line is that ruler-for-life Putin has the whip hand, at the moment. He can push as much as he likes, and the West's options for response are bad and worse.
     "He's on a mission to restore the Soviet empire," Durbin said. "He's a serious-minded guy. The president once said, if you want to analyze Putin, start with that he was a colonel in the KGB."
     Durbin said we have to realize that what seems to be inexplicable aggression to the world is, to Putin, smart politics.
     "John Kerry told me a handful of people around Putin are hard-liners who want to restore the empire," Durbin said. "It's a popular sentiment, if you can divert the [Russian] public's attention from the economy to some grandiose restoration of empire. It's been done throughout history."