Monday, June 30, 2014

Supreme Court gets religion

Latin for "Hear the other side."

     Well, enough birthday cake and self-administered back pats. There's a world out there. The folks at the paper's Early & Often political site asked me to react to the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling, and this is what I wrote:

     Religion keeps pushing.
     That’s what religion does. That’s how something becomes a religion and not a collection of strange ideas held by a few scattered and marginal groups. By pushing, hard, for centuries and never giving up.
     Faith will use any legal means, and whatever non-legal means, it can to push you into the fold, or get you to behave as if you were.
     In eras when it can stone you, it stones you.
     In eras when you can be ostracized, or shamed, or put in the stocks, it does that.
     In 2014, it declares that Hobby Lobby, a family-owned corporation based in Oklahoma City that sells arts and crafts supplies at a nationwide chain of stores, is not only a person, but a religious person, and its right to keep its employees from easy access to the contraception it scorns trumps those employees rights to easily get that contraception.
     And on Monday the United States Supreme Court went along, ruling that the owners of Hobby Lobby, joined by a Pennsylvania furniture maker, are within their rights when opting out of Affordable Care Act including contraception in a spectrum of benefits, since birth control violates the company’s religious beliefs....

To continue reading, click here.

One more time!

Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,
ninety-nine bottles of beer.
Take one down, pass it around,
ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall.

Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall,

ninety-eight bottles of beer.
Take one down, pass it around,
ninety--seven bottles of beer on the wall...

I sang the song all the way through once, beginning to end, down to that very last bottle of beer on the wall. I was 17, working in the kitchen of the Bob Evans restaurant in Berea, Ohio. My job was to bake biscuits, batch after batch, hour after hour, and, well, in that era before iPods, heck, before Walkmen, one sometimes sang to oneself. 

Or at least I did.

Eventually I hit upon this old, endless camp song, and went the distance.

Which came to mind when I thought about today, June 30, being end of the first year of this blog, Every goddamn day.

I can see why. Both are exercises in persistence.  You have to keep singing, keep writing, to tell yourself it's somehow meaningful, or at least worth doing. I did indeed go the distance, every goddamn day, bare none. So ka-ching, the digit turns tomorrow, Year One in the bag...

The odd thing is, it wasn't hard. Unlike many writers, I actually like to write, the physical sitting in a chair, mashing words together and molding the thing into something half decent. It's fun—I probably shouldn't use that word. How good could something be if you have fun doing it? People who are having fun, well, you wonder how much gravitas they really possess. Which is fine. I'm not going for gravitas.

What am I going for? Something interesting. Or amusing. Or both. To have a little thoughtful piece of something, along with a picture, for you to read and see, every day. And it's working, as far as I can tell. Readership grows, slowly. Some 40,000 hits a month now—more than 42,000 in June, the best yet—which is about 30 percent more than the first few months when this began.

Not a lot of complaints, which is gratifying, in this gotterdammerung of griping that is the Internet. I've tried to be my own critic, asking myself whether writing it every day, every goddamned day has made me watered-down, facile, repetitive, trivial. And I don't think so. At least no more than when I'm on top of my game. I never cringe when I go back and read something I've posted previously. I hope that isn't an alarming complacency. Satisfaction sounds very close to self-satisfaction, to smugness. But the thing feels about as good as I can make it.

The most surprisingly thing is that I was never stuck. Posts were like picking raspberries—you might have to dig into the leaves a bit, at times, but there's a lot of juicy stuff there, if you look for it. About a third came from things I was writing for the newspaper, which didn't mind my posting them here, so long as I link to the paper's site and don't just swipe my own work.

How did the blog do? We are all about metrics—probably the worst thing about the Internet age; we care so much about being popular that we don't think about being good. But looking at the stats, this year the blog has had ... checking ...385,676 hits; 1,056 visits day, on average. I usually write one post a day, but sometimes events demand a second, for a total of 420 posts. The most successful, Welcome to the Steinberg Bakery, a comment on businesses that feel their religious freedom is being impinged having to serve gay customers, drew nearly 10,000 hits. The pieces often have staying power. Its follow-up, Welcome back to the Steinberg Bakery, was posted at the end of March, but got 2,000 hits on Monday alone, thanks to the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision (and a much-appreciated retweet from Dan Savage). 

In late December, I posted a six month assessment. Then we were averaging 914 hits a day, and I was hoping that by now they'd have more than doubled, to 2,000. What I got was an extra 142. Not the success I was hoping for, but it will have to do. A little more than a thousand people a day.

So small ball, in the wide sweep of the Internet. Nothing went viral, no six figure days. I am happy to nail my thousand hits by lunch, feel extra satisfied if it gets to 1,500, and thrilled at 2,000 and beyond. My victories were humble ones. Alex Ross, the New Yorker's music critic, weighed in on a piece I wrote about opera. David Axelrod retweeted something I wrote. Dan Savage was a frequent supporter. Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post. Eric Zorn at the Tribune was supportive, and Nancy Nall Derringer, and other bloggers I respect. I like days when the blog sends out a ripple. Some days it doesn't. Some days it feels like singing in the shower, but those days happen in the paper too, and being a professional means soldiering through those days and waiting, crouched in your foxhole, for the illusion of relevance to return.

I did make a little money from it—Eli's Cheesecake ran paid ads in November and December, and BasketWorks traded a cache of black Moleskine notebooks for ad. Not much, but I used part of the cheesecake money to commission a poster from Hatch Show Print in Nashville, and I got a kick out that, selling a few dozen, and giving the others away to publicize the blog in a fashion I found satisfyingly retro. Some places have had them up for six months. I plan to print up a new one for 2015. The poster made me happy. Heck, the tubes I sent the poster out in made me happy. They're solid tubes.

My wife has encouraged me to stop at some point—hang up the "Gone Fishin'" sign in August and pick the thing up in September. But then it wouldn't be every goddamn day, would it?  I think it's okay to haul something good out of the archives, when relevant, and so long as I don't do it too much. I'm going to replay my home repair series in August, since it'll be new to most readers, and I will appreciate the breather. That said, I believe showing up every day, getting in the traces and pulling the plow. On days when I hit the wrong button ("Save" instead of "Publish") and the new post doesn't go up at midnight, someone complains. True, it's only one reader, but I don't want to keep him waiting. 

A thousand people seems like a lot to me. If a thousand people showed up at your door every morning, you'd find a way to say something to them. Many a minister labors over a sermon that not 10 people, never mind 100, never mind a thousand, will hear. Kindergarten teachers sweat their lesson plans for two dozen 5-year-olds. So I can't see pitching this so I can have an extra half hour a day to play Candy Crush Saga. If I keep it up, maybe next year we'll be doing that 2,000 a day, on average, then 4,000, then 8,000. There are successful ventures that have had slower starts, though none come to mind. You can't quit your way to the top.

Disappointments? I wish the thing resonated more. The readership seems pretty local to the Chicago area, with a few expats in California. I wish the newspaper would tuck the blog somewhere on its web site. It feels a snub that they don't, but maybe it'll work out for the best, in the long run. If the paper had its imprint on it I couldn't say "fuck" when the occasion calls for it. 

What else? The Google Blogger system froze up after I created my template, so I can't change the fonts or the colors. I've tried to figure out what the problem is, but can't, so that's maddening.  Then again, they provide this platform for free, so I suppose I shouldn't complain.

Back in that hot kitchen at Bob Evans, when I finally neared "One bottle of beer on the wall," I had an inspiration. I got done, paused for one second, then called out, "One more time!" and began to sing the damn thing a second time.

Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,
Ninety-nine bottles of beer...

So here we go into Year Two. One more time! 

At least.

But first.

Thank you everybody who took the time to read what I had to say this past 365 days. And thank you to everyone who will read in the next year. If it's half as fun to read as it is to write, then you're enjoying yourselves a lot. As my friend Rick Kogan likes to say: onward.

—Neil Steinberg

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Family ties, literally

     "At least I brought my shoes home."
     Spoken with a certain defensiveness, almost a note of pride. Hey, cut me some slack dad, I've got the shoes.
      Time: 11:15  p.m. Maybe 11:30. Earlier this week.
      Place: our living room in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook. At dinnertime, our 18-year-old former high school senior, on the cusp of heading off to college, had announced that he and some pals would be eating their dinner at Prairie Grass, Sarah Stegner and Rohit Nambiar's excellent restaurant.
      Some kind of two-for-one burger special had caught their frugal teenage eye. Kids like bargains. 
      That was 7 p.m. After 11, we started to worry. A long time for dinner. A text went unanswered. Finally we got the word: at his pal Jacob's.
      So now he's back, sprawled on the coffee table—a sturdy coffee table, he's comfortable there—and a thought strikes him.
     "Oh," he says to me. "I left your tie at Jacob's house."
      My boy works a summer job in a law office downtown. He owns no ties of his own—well, a brown bar mitzvah tie, but that's it. Rather than go out and equip him with a new tie wardrobe he might never again need—not a lot of call for tie-wearing in California—he just uses mine, which is fine; I hardly wear them anymore myself. So I wasn't distraught by the news one had gone off reservation. Okay, you left my tie at Jacob's. Just bring it back, eventually.
      Though a troubling thought did bubble up. I didn't suspect it so much as say it as a kind of minor punishment.
     "Was it because I asked you to hang them up this morning?" I asked, half seriously. Yesterday's tie —a red paisley—had ended up a crumpled ball next to the computer in the living room. I had meekly hung it up, but while doing so pointed out that the least he could do is return the things he borrows. I mean, as it is, I have to tie them for him, which is already an indefensible paternal indulgence. He's 18. Not only do I tie the tie, but I then have to slip it around his neck and tighten it, quickly tucking the tie under the back collar; the hardest part, I can tell. There's some tactile discomfort and I try to get it over as fast as possible while he tries not to twist away. To be honest, I kinda like the process. There really isn't anything much else he needs me to do for him anymore; pay the bills and shut up. So the tie business is really the last vestige of physical parenting, of snapping on rompers and pulling on little socks and wiping his nose. A long time coming, as they say, it'll be a long time gone. Maybe he feels that way too, deep down, because every time I suggest he let me teach him how to tie a tie for the love of God, he waves the idea away. Soon but not now.
    What's so hard about tying ties? Not to get all back-in-the-day, but I learned how to tie a tie because I was playing Mr. Darling in the Camp Wise production of "Peter Pan," so not only had to tie it properly, at age 15, but tie it properly onstage in front of 200 people, while reciting lines. "This tie, it will not tie, not round my neck. Round the bedpost, yes, 10 times I've tied it around the bedpost...."
    Or words to that effect It's been almost 40 years. My dad didn't teach me, he was 100 miles away. I don't remember who did; maybe I figured it out myself.
    Anyway, it struck me that, instead of returning it to the tie rack in my bedroom closet as requested, like a decently-raised son would do, he hadn't even returned it to our home. Perhaps even vindictively. The tie was across town, no doubt crumbled in a ball beside Jacob's computer.
     I cast him a doleful look.
     "At least I brought my shoes home," he said, earnestly, sincerely.  That brightened my mood immediately. I'm not sure where that came from—perhaps from the fact that he carried them. Black Oxford wing tips, no doubt uncomfortable as midnight approached, so kicked them off as he ... what did the boys do again? Oh right, poker and ping pong. I looked at him closely. Sober. Alive. Returned under his own power with no intercession from the police necessary. One should count one's blessings.
     "Well, try to get the tie back from Jacob at some point."
     Though to be honest, it is a purple tie with yellow bursts on it. I don't know what madness had gripped me to buy it in the first place. I haven't worn it in years, and probably will never wear it again. If he had dumped the tie in the trash and never told me I'd have never missed it. But he doesn't have to know that.
     Oh, and he brought the tie home a few days later, leaving it for me to find in a crumpled ball on the coffee table. I wordlessly hung it up. I'm going to miss that.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saturday Fun Activity: Where IS This?

     Chicago has so many famous buildings.
     The Water Tower and the Willis Tower  
     NBC Tower and  and Trump Tower
     And those are just the buildings with "tower" in their names.
     Some are modernist monsters:
     The Hancock and the Aon Center
     Some are beloved old  treasures
     The Monadnock and the Marquette
     And some are in between new and old
      Like Marina City
     This building is none of them.
     I've walked past it for years.
     And never given it a second glance.
     Never really looked at its perfect blue rectangular grid
     Until now, thinking: "That'll stump 'em."
     I can't imagine anyone knowing its name.
     Though, merciful, there is a clue tucked in.
     I'll add another one at 12 noon.
     If it stumps you
     Which I hope it will
     For once
     Post your answer in the comments section
     And remember, you can only win once per year
     So good luck
     Winner will get ... lunch with me at Harry Caray's
     If you're interested
     I told its owner I'd slide by soon
    And this will guarantee that I do.
    Assuming anyone guesses this correctly which
    If history is any judge
    They will. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

What is it like to step on a landmine?

     Rahmatullah Merzayee was 11 years old, almost 12, when, walking home from school in Kabul, Afghanistan, one afternoon, he stepped on a land mine.
     “After the explosion, I looked up and saw ... I don’t know the exact words,” he said. “I saw a dark environment, a windy dark, like a breeze, all around me. When I touch my legs I felt nothing. I can’t explain in words.”
Rahmatullah Merzayee, left.
     Merzayee, now 28, spoke to me over the phone from Mozambique, where he is attending an international conference on land mines, officially a mouthful: The Third Review Conference of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, running through Friday in Maputo, the nation’s capital.
     The conference drew more than 1,000 representatives from nations around the world, and the news, surprisingly, is good for once: since the signing of a global mine ban treaty in the late 1990s, production of mines has almost stopped, casualties have plummeted, and countries such as Mozambique that are riddled with land mines from past conflicts have made great strides in removing them, according to the International Committee to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for its work.
     One less cheerful point is that the United States, while pouring money into combating the harm caused by land mines, is still not among the 161 nations that signed the ban.
     “The U.S. has two diplomats here, but we have nothing to report,” said Chris Walljasper, a Medill student who picked up his graduate degree on Saturday and got on a plane Sunday for Mozambique, where he’s preparing for the fall, when Northwestern’s National Security Reporting Fellowship program focuses on the issue of anti-personnel mines.
     The old argument is that the U.S. needs land mines to stave off the North Koreans. But in a world of fast deployment forces, that's not a convincing reason, and military experts have claimed that mines constrict defense more than help. Their scant value must be weighed against the fact that mines are active for decades and deliver horrific injuries to civilians — half of victims are children — far more than they harm combatants. "People put them there and then leave them behind," said Dr. Jeffrey Ackman, chief of staff at Shriners Hospitals for Children Chicago, which sees many land mine victims. "They cause a tremendous amount of damage, devastating injuries, more so in peacetime than in wartime because nobody suspects them."
     In addition to physical damage, Ackman said mines often cause great psychological harm, as villages in developing nations tend to have little access to prosthetics or rehabilitation services, and the loss of a limb often consigns victims to lives of beggary.
     After Merzayee stepped on a mine, a taxi driver rushed him to a hospital, which saved his life but amputated his legs at the knee, the first of seven surgeries. He was in the hospital for five months, and though he received top-notch follow-up — a charitable group flew him to Germany to be fitted for prosthetic legs — it was still hard to bear.
     "I felt isolated; I became unable to do anything in my life," said Merzayee, who walks with two canes. "I will be a burden for myself and my family. I felt really disappointed, felt that I am alive just breathing, not really living, not like an active person. There is nothing I can do for myself, for my family, my community. This land mine changed my life completely, I cannot do anything for my life. That was my feeling."
     But he made progress. "After a year I could stand on my legs and come back to Afghanistan and started school." Since 2008, he has worked for Afghan Landmine Survivors. "This organization is involved in advocacy and awareness," he said, hoping that mines will become beyond the pale of warfare, like poison gas.
     "The United States is a country that is a big donor for other issues around the world," Merzayee said. "[The U.S.] signing would mean we will have a world completely free of land mines, and it will encourage other nonsigners, like Russia and China, to join this treaty. If the United States joined, it will mean the world will be free of land-mine production. No stockpiles, no land-mine victims. We hope that the United States can take the lead and others will follow."
     It's a little late for the U.S. to take the lead, except in the sense of being ahead of Russia and China. One hundred and sixty one nations have traded use of a crude, almost antique weapon that mostly maims children for the moral high ground and signed the land-mine ban. We can too.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

San Francisco gnashes teeth over loss of Lucas museum

   John King, of the San Francisco Chronicle, posted this insightful analysis about how his city's leaders bungled snaring the George Lucas museum. "While Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel methodically assembled a well-connected task force to explore sites within his city that might captivate the billionaire filmmaker, [SF mayor Ed] Lee made no public gesture in Lucas' direction until early May," King writes.
     And while seeing San Francisco's teeth-gnashing was almost enough to make me proud of Chicago's nimbly snatching it away, I stand by my skepticism about what King refers to as Lucas' "still-vague" museum of narrative art. Maybe it'll be something wonderful, and maybe it'll be the future Flash Gordon Museum, another white elephant that Chicago ties itself to for 75 years because of our civic habit of marrying in haste and repenting at leisure.
    To be frank, seeing Mayor Rahm Emanuel's vigorous courting of Lucas, I wish he had put a bit of that energy into persuading Chicagoans that this is a good idea. But, as with closing schools, the mayor seems to assume that people will simply trust him, or that making his case to the public is somehow beneath him. And there is a point that, once you invite the naysayers and Friends of the Park sorts in, the name of action can be lost in a fog of bickering and debate. So give the mayor credit for plunging forward, the public be damned. We've got the museum, now, and can only hope that Lucas doesn't make it just a shrine to himself, his work and his art collection—that has to be a temptation, or why else is he doing this—and remembers to create something that visitors who never heard of Obi-Wan Kenobe and friends will want to see.
    Let's put it another way. Marshall Field created the Field Museum. It's about nature, not the history of department stores. Let's hope that Lucas gets this, and hope is about all we can do now.

Rarer than a rock star: book design icon visits here

     When Doubleday asked for my input about the cover design for my first hardback book in 1994, I replied, in an Oliver-Twist, please-sir-I'd-like-more stammer,  "Well, I'd like Chip Kidd to do it." 
     I knew that was swinging for the fences, but I was young, and didn't quite realize that my request was like a used car dealer asking the local advertising agency slapping together his late night TV commercial to get Mick Jagger to record the jingle.
     Kidd is the rock star of book jacket design—turning out, in the words of Publisher's Weekly, "creepy, striking, sly, smart, unpredictable covers that make readers appreciate books as objects of art as well as literature."
     He's the one book designer whose work really lodges in the mind—it's been more than 20 years since I saw his treatment of Leslie Fielder's classic, Freaks, but it stayed with me, for obvious reasons. 
     Actually, Kidd is more than a rock star, since there are many rock stars, but there is, to my knowledge, only one famous book jacket designer, Chip Kidd.
     I had the chance to ask him Wednesday: why is that? Why should he be the only book designer of renown?
      "But there're a lot," he objected, after he finished laughing. "I don't know how to answer. There are so many terrific designers working today. There's definitely a second, a third generation." 
      We were talking because he's headlining the 10th annual Printers Ball this Saturday at the Hubbard Street Lofts, 1821. W. Hubbard, a celebration of books, posters, zines, cards and good design in general.
     The event runs from 4 to 9 p.m.  You can find a full schedule of the workshops, readings and performances by clicking here. Kidd speaks from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and then signs his new book.
     And what will he talk about?
     "That's a really good question," he said. "I'll be in conversation with my dear friend Dana Arnett, a brilliant graphic designer and partner at VSA Partners. We'll probably just show and talk about recent and work and upcoming stuff." (According to the schedule, they'll discuss Go: Chip Kidd’s Guide to Design and to give us a preview of his forthcoming book, Judge This.)
    What else does Kidd have in the pipeline?
   "I've designed the new Haruki Murakami novel," he said, referring to Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, out later this summer.  Kidd also did the cover for the Japanese surrealist's previous novel, the best-selling 1Q84. He tends to design best-selling books, or perhaps best-selling authors tend to demand him; Oliver Sacks has it written in his contract that Kidd must design his book jackets. Nice work if you can get it.
   "I've been lucky enough, for all intents and purposes to be working nostop for 27 years," said Kidd, who is on staff at Knopf. "I still get these wonderful opportunities to work on books, a lot of which are very popular."
      I asked him if he was worried about the rise of ebooks, pointing out that there are no book covers on a Kindle. 
     He laughed again.
     "No, I'm not worried about Kindles," he said. "If you look hard enough, you can find the cover. Everything that I work on gets scanned, and becomes either a cover or an icon on the screen, and you double click to make it bigger. It doesn't change the design process. It's still the same. I read the book and try to make something."

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Supreme Court gets one right

  We are used to an unbroken series of small losses on the privacy front—cameras everywhere and data breaches and Facebook jamming advertisements into our lives in some new and troubling way. But Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling is a biggie when it comes to our future as citizens who have even a fig leaf of privacy to clutch in front of ourselves. My bosses asked me to react to it, which explains this rare midday blog post on our Early & Often political web site, which you should really be checking out regularly if you are not already.

     Making phone calls is perhaps the least significant thing that phones can do nowadays.
     My iPhone is a camera and a correspondence file, going back for years. It’s a digital recorder that has interviews with the mayor and assorted politicos on it, plus photos of my children and other personal data.
      I wouldn’t want a cop, pulling me over for a balky taillight, to be able to search it willy-nilly on a fishing expedition, looking for illegality, the same way he can glance into the back seat.
      The law was murky on this, and on Wednesday, in a major victory for our endangered privacy, United States Supreme Court ruled that police need a warrant if they want to search your cellphone.
      “Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court. 
       “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life’… The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant.”

     To continue reading, click here.

Pssst: guns are dangerous

Bedroom in house about to burned at UL, Northbrook.

     Department of Homeland Security ...
     Gosh, that’s an awful name, isn’t it? It’s been around for almost a dozen years, and I’ve never gotten used to it.
     Anyway, Department of Homeland Security officials announced they’re seeing ...
     I’ll tell you why it’s such a bad name. Have you ever, ever, referred to this great country of ours, the United States of America, or America for short, or the U.S. for shorter, as your “homeland?” Have you ever said anything like, “I like to travel abroad, but it feels great to get back to my homeland”?
     Of course you haven’t. No American has. Pretend you’re writing a play, and I gave you the line, “We must fight for the homeland!” What kind of character would you create to utter that line? A proud Soviet officer? A jaded Nazi colonel? It sure wouldn’t be a U.S. Army Ranger who would say that.
     You wonder what kind of bureaucratic imbecile came up with the name. The same person, perhaps, who changed The Medill School of Journalism to “The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications” or who called the Bloomingdale Trail “The 606,” which will never be popular.
     Sorry. Department of Homeland Security officials say they’re seeing greater numbers of armed dopes trying to bring guns through airport security checkpoints, a reminder of what a Bad Idea a gun-carrying nation truly is, and how the sober, level-headed in our country — what few of us remain — do everyone a disservice by shrinking before NRA fanatics for whom packing heat represents patriotism at its zenith.
     I heard the news on the 7 a.m. CBS radio report at WBBM-AM. Like most nonzealots, I shrugged it off. Not as bad as those buffoons carrying their AK-47s into Targets to revel in the fact that they can.     
     Like most Americans, I’ve surrendered the fight. Our congressional leaders are bought and paid for by the NRA. Nothing to do but take cover and pray it passes.
     Which it may. This isn’t the first time Americans have armed up, a fact I was reminded of less than an hour later. On the 7:36 Metra into Union Station, I fled the bad news of today, losing myself in my book, “Brann and the Iconoclast,” Charles Carver’s 1956 biography of William Cowper Brann, the great 1890s poison-pen journalist, whose Waco-based Iconoclast newspaper gleefully scourged and scandalized.
     Then this paragraph, discussing nicknames given 1890s Waco, leapt out of the book and gave me a revivifying slap across the chops:
     "'Six-Shooter Depot' was a title bought with the blood of hot-tempered citizens who adjusted their differences according to a relaxed interpretation of the dueling code of the Old South. In the days of the cattle drives following the Civil War, Waco lay close to the Chisholm Trail, and the town supplied the drivers with recreation, which often involved high-spirited killing of one another. This buoyant mood lasted through the century - as long as guns were a usual item of wearing apparel."
     Well, well, happy days are here again!
     I don't say it much anymore, because nobody is listening who isn't at the same time hocking spit to prepare a formal reply, but I will, out of habit, restate the key, undeniable fact regarding the carrying of firearms:
     The moments when having a gun is useful are very, very few, even for police officers. Even for soldiers, one can serve years in combat zones and never fire a shot.
     The rest of the time, every second, the gun is a threat to the owner, no matter how well-trained, and a threat to whatever passersby the owner might, through mistake or anger, feel obligated to shoot. The romance of guns blurs this fact. It would be clearer with any other precaution: If I carried a welder's mask 24/7 so I'd be ready to look at the sun during an eclipse, you'd think I was an idiot. But at least I'm not going to drop the welder's mask and maim myself, which happens quite frequently with gun owners.
     The redeeming quality of Americans is that, while we have proven ourselves all too willing to embrace nutsoid self-flattering fiction, eventually the truth will dawn on us. Look at gay marriage. After decades of legal repression and social persecution, suddenly the basic fact - there's no reason gays shouldn't get married that isn't mere Bible-based bigotry - became clear, and society shifted. Some states (Helloooo, Indiana!) haven't read the memo yet. But they will.
     Ditto with guns. They're dangerous and don't help beyond whatever gild-the-lily ego boost owners get from swaggering around armed. Someday we'll figure that one out.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Notre Dame: Very Catholic and in Indiana

     Lucky is the parent who enjoys the process.
     While I could portray last year's exploration of potential colleges—14, count 'em, 14 campus visits, from Wash U, in St. Louis to Dartmouth in New Hampshire, quite a lot really—as an ordeal, the truth is I vastly enjoyed touring these historic campuses with my family.  And though Son No. 1 did decide to go to a school, Pomona College, that we hadn't visited together, an irony for certain, it was still fun and interesting to explore these places that I had heard about all my life.
     To be honest, the information sessions did tend to blend together, and our tour guides did eventually blur into one interchangeable coed, fiercely proud of her ability to walk backwards, dubbing all good things "awesome" and using "actually" as an every-other-sentence intensifier. 
      I will admit that setting about to do it again, a second summer in a row, for Son No. 2, a rising high school senior, was sort of like running a marathon, collapsing over the finish line, sprawling for a moment, then shakily getting up, turning 180 degrees and loping off to do another.
      But it must be done.
      So we found ourselves at the University of Notre Dame last Friday.
      Yes. I know. Not my choice. If I had two associations in my mind with the renown university that is near—though not in, let's get that straight—South Bend, Indiana, the first is football, and the second is Catholicism.  And while my younger boy did play for a season in junior high school, he has no great affection for the sport, nor has he shown an interest in religion in general, never mind Catholicism in particular. But it's a brave new world we're living in, and you can't very well expect religious sorts to adapt to modern life if we seculars aren't willing to at least see what they have to offer. 
      Besides, he is leaning toward business, and Notre Dame has a highly-regarded business school, not to mention a tight-knit buddy network of graduates, which couldn't hurt in the scrabble up the greased pole of life. Its Mendoza College of Business is so popular, according to Mary, the spritely young lady leading the information session, that, new this year, prospective students must declare when applying whether they are interested in attending and, if so, whether they are willing to still go to Notre Dame and study something else if they don't get into Mendoza. Perhaps finance, Mary suggested, evoking in my mind a grumbling limbo of in-but-not-quite Notre Dame students dwelling on the chill periphery of their heart's desire, trying to replicate the Mendoza experience with economics courses and what stray Mendoza class they can jam themselves into. To keep the business school from being overwhelmed, Notre Dame now limits yearly admissions to 550 students, meaning that more than a quarter of each incoming class is there for business.
     That seems reason enough to attend.
One of many redheads
      "You can be the Jew," I told my boy, half-jokingly. "They must need one." (Actually, they do. According the U.S. News and World Report, Notre Dame, among the nation's top 25 universities, has the fewest percentage Jewish students, while 82 percent of the student body is Catholic). Not to devolve to stereotypes, but I saw more carrot-haired young men in our three hours on campus than I've seen elsewhere over the past three years. "The Fighting Irish" is more than just a motto.
      Trying to get with the program, I told my lad that we'll happily show up once a year to take in a football game with him. I went to a Notre Dame game once, the only previous time I'd been on campus, and found it an epitome, a finely honed ritual of pomp and grandeur that you don't really have to care for football to appreciate. The extra tall Irish Guard, the golden helmets, the fan frenzy, I felt like I was in ancient Rome to watch a mock naval battle at the Colosseum, or an anthropologist transported back in time and permitted to observe the Mayans sacrifice atop their pyramids. It was an amazing thing to see.
      The only drawback was, the team didn't play half as well as the band, a perennial problem, I understand.
      My younger boy shot me a cold look and said, "The hell you will," or words to that effect. A newly-minted 17, he's ready to push back at the world, which at the moment consists pretty much of his mother and me. 
      After the end of a film that brought tears to my eyes, the tour guides introduced themselves and—rather charmingly—displayed their favorite dance moves, then let the visitors pick which one they'd follow. Most went with the various buff athletic sorts (one strapping young man spoke at length about his involvement in inter-mural sports, only belatedly remembering, after the next guide had begun talking, to mention that he is studying physics). My younger son chose a slight, bespectacled tour guide, Sam B., whom we later agreed was hands down the best guide we've had in more than a dozen schools, including such places as Princeton, Yale and Williams. A philosophy major with three years of Latin under his belt, he had none of the blathering bonhomie of most guides. Instead, he enthused about having had the chance to go to a monastery in France to study Gregorian chants.
      Given the reputation of football at Notre Dame, I thought both the info session and the tour showed an admirable restraint. Sam did point out Touchdown Jesus, the famed mural, and mentioned that students are allowed to buy game tickets, with the freshmen sitting nearer the end zone, advancing toward the 50 yard line as they rise toward being seniors (except for grad students, who are tucked back by the freshmen). Parents are also permitted to purchase tickets to one game a year, usually against Navy. I shot a glance at my younger boy, who seemed a bit abashed, as if suspecting for the first time that wanting to go to a game was not just a freakish desire of his own intrusive father, but might be a trait shared by other parents.
      When we got to Knute Rockne Memorial Gym, our guide observed that it was named for the famed coach. 
     "Known as the 'winningest coach in college football,'" Sam said, with almost a sneer, then added. "I don't like 'winningest'. That's not how gerunds work."      
      "Finally, a real person," said my older son, who gamely tagged along on the trip to wrangle our dog. 
      Notre Dame still has sex-segregated dorms, which isn't quite the blue sidewalks for boys and pink for girls at Bob Jones University, but seems a charming anachronism, though Sam pointed out that visiting hours are from 9 a.m. to midnight, which struck me as time aplenty for resourceful undergrads.
     The school also holds 140 masses a week, every dorm has one, though students are not compelled to go, a policy that they are perhaps more proud of than they should be in 2014. "I have many friends who are not Catholic," Sam revealed, trusting us to not judge him too harshly.
       Notre Dame's campus itself is new and deluxe-looking, well-manicured and obviously the result of a flowing cataract of grateful alumni cash (though, when the mother of the other student on our tour asked if we could see a dorm room, which are shared by up to six students, Sam told us they were "locked." It might be the first college in our experience which didn't show off a dorm—some schools start there and show several—and when I related this puzzlement to my neighbor, whose business works closely with colleges, he tossed his head back and laughed, explaining that the dorms at Notre Dame are notoriously "crappy and old" and that's why they don't let visitors see them. He added that Notre Dame has lost hot football prospects who quailed at the thought of living in the dorms). 
     I was surprised to learn that Notre Dame doesn't have a Greek system, which seems out-of-place considering how big football is there. 
     "Maybe the place is one vast frat," I mused. 
      We passed through the Jordan Hall of Science, opened in 2006, with cathedral-like stonework, including, on our way in, Madam Curie venerated with a full-body statue, like a saint, as she ought to be.  I noticed that the displays inside pointedly hail evolution, and the age of the earth, as if to say, "We might be religious, but we don't blinder ourselves with it."
     Walking out, I noticed Galileo given the same treatment, which seemed ironic, given his suppression by the Catholic church. 
     "Galileo," I whispered to my older son, pointing. "All is forgiven."
     "He recanted," he replied, dryly. 
     In my capacity as encouraging dad, I try to be supportive of my kids, and sang the official party line on Notre Dame: a fine school my boy would be lucky to get into. I kept that up, a breezy banter as we walked to the car. 
     Though my older son, acting as a sort of Greek chorus, did speak my hidden thoughts as we ambled across the tree-lined campus.
     "It's very, very Catholic," he said. "It's also located in the state of Indiana."
     Hard to argue that.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The shot that started World War I


     Like most people, I studied World War I in junior high school then let the subject go fallow—well, except for reading John Keegan's "The First World War" when it came out in 1999. But even that was a while back, so I appreciated the chance to reacquaint myself with this epochal and tragic event. Which is the purpose of anniversaries, to force us to contemplate hard histories we'd rather forget, and all too often do. 

     Six assassins lay in wait that morning, armed with pistols and bombs, along the archduke’s route in Sarajevo, hoping to strike a blow for Serbian nationalism.
     It was June 28, 1914.
     The first two men failed to act as Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Franz Joseph, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, rode past with his wife, Sophie.
     The third threw a bomb that bounced off the open retractable top, rolled under the car behind and blew up.
     Incredibly, the official schedule continued, with the kind of mechanical lockstep that would bring about the enormity of World War I, whose centennial begins with the actions of the fourth assassin, Gavrilo Princip.
     Forty-five minutes after the initial attack, with the royal couple on the way to visit the wounded, the motorcade turned by mistake down the street where Princip lingered. The chauffeur put the car into reverse so it came to a stop in front of the 19-year-old Serb, who fired twice from 5 feet away. The first shot cut Ferdinand’s jugular. The second killed the duchess.
     Thus was set into motion a clockwork of ultimatums followed by military action that drew in other nations, bound by various alliances, to enter what became the first global war, stretching from Japan to Brazil.
     On July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared a war of retribution on Serbia, which had armed the assassins. Within a week, Serbia’s ally Russia declared war on Austro-Hungary. So Germany declared war on Russia, then France and Belgium. Then Britain declared war on Germany.
     In some ways, the world was vastly different then. Leadership in Europe was dominated by royalty. Italy and Greece had kings, Russia a czar, Germany a kaiser—an "emperor."
In some ways, it was familiar; 1914 was 99 years after a great European conflict, Waterloo. The U.S. president was another bookish Democrat, noted for his oratorical gifts, a good writer without much experience in foreign affairs, a fact he acknowledged.
     "It would be the irony of fate," Woodrow Wilson noted in March 1913, "if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs."
     The Great War, as it was called then, might be viewed today in the golden light of nostalgia, as an era of wood and fabric biplanes, plumed helmets and cavalry charges. But WWI was a blood-soaked horror, as 19th century military tactics met 20th century weapons like the machine gun, the tank and poison gas. Certain battles yielded 60,000 casualties a day.
     For the next four years, until the guns fall silent on Nov. 11, 1918, you'll be hearing a lot about World War I. Yes, it has passed from living memory—the last surviving U.S. WWI vet, Frank Buckles, died in 2011.
     But the war is not dusty history. It shapes our world to this day. From the artificial borders drawn in the Middle East, to the expectation that America will ride to the rescue in a crisis, again, as we see right now in Iraq,World War I lingers.
     It was the first war brought directly to civilian populations, with zeppelin bombings of London, German atrocities in neutral Belgium and U-boats sinking unarmed ocean liners.
     Nearly 10 million people died in World War I, and tag another 50 million in World War II to the toll, because the second world war was, without question, a continuation of the first. "It cannot be that two million Germans have fallen in vain," WWI vet Adolf Hitler wrote, digging the graves for four million more.
     While America was not nearly as affected as Europe, it was affected nonetheless. The impact on Chicago was profound. Its German-American population, the largest immigrant group at the time, was at first vocal in support of the Kaiser (joined, oddly, by Chicago's Irish, inspired by their loathing of Britain). After the United States joined the war in November 1917, it took a low profile the country never really emerged from, inspired no doubt by rabid anti-German sentiment, such as when the Chicago City Council scrapped Germanic street names including Berlin, Cologne, Frankfort, Rhine and Bismarck Place, part of an overzealous war effort that the city would look back on with chagrin.
"A city which needed but a hint of something required by the soldiers to so overdo the supplying of that need that at times it became an embarrassment," a 1929 history of Chicago noted.
     The Great War stoked Chicago's manufacturing might and, in the process, got the Great Migration really rolling, as men going to fight overseas left jobs to be filled here.
     "The migration had begun before then, but that's really where the spigot opens up," said Elliott Gorn, professor of history at Loyola University. The influx of blacks, particularly those in uniform after the war, sparked race riots that jarred the city in 1919 and led to its current configuration.
     "At that moment, Chicago made the decision that black folks will be segregated on the South Side," Gorn said.
     One lingering question is whether, had the archduke not been killed, would the war still have occurred? Given the rise of Germany and the general belligerence that was unleashed, it's tempting to answer an emphatic "Yes."
     In May 1914, Wilson sent his political adviser and friend Edward M. House to Europe to assess the situation. "It's jingoism run stark mad," House wrote to Wilson from Berlin. "There is some day to be an awful cataclysm."
     Others aren't sure.
     "My view is, it certainly is an open question," said John Boyer, professor of history and dean of the College at the University of Chicago, who speculated that, without Ferdinand's assassination, tensions might have "led to regional or localized conflict instead of a four-and-half-year war.
      "This didn't have to happen. Certainly not a World War I in 1914," he said. "Some of these empires would have lasted longer. But unfortunately, he didn't miss."


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gone fishin'. Well, not fishin'. But gone somewhere.

     I woke up this morning on South Bass Island.
     Which you're probably never heard of.
     It's just north of Sandusky, in Ohio.
     Kind of a Midwestern Fort Lauderdale.
     Very party centric.
     But that isn't why I come here.
     I come here because a pal's family has a house.
    A number of houses, actually.
    Nothing fancy.
    A cluster of white structures, slamming screen doors, wide-open windows allowing in cool breezes.
    And a tremendous 1947 Buick convertible.
    Hidden in an old barn, as such cars should be.
    It turns heads whenever we drive it to town.
    A nice feeling, sprawled in the front seat, watching the town go by, heads turn.
    Where we head to the antique carousel.
    Which we don't ride as much as we used to.
    But we still ride.
    And salt water taffy. And pizza. And ice cream.
    We've been very lucky, having this place to go, all these years.
    Kent learned to ride a bike here.
    And I flipped a kayak once.
    And I rode a jet ski for the first and last time.
    Not that it wasn't fun.
    But I don't come here to do anything.
    Except sit in a chair, read a book, occasionally look up at the flat blue line of the lake.
    That's what summer is for, doing nothing.
    An underrated activity, in our go-go-go world.
    Back in the days, my buddy and I would hit the bars.
    And the wineries.
    Ohio wine.
    Which is just as awful as it sounds.
    Though one gets used to it.
    Just as one gets used to not drinking it.
    And while I do miss it.
    A little.
    I can't say I miss it a lot.
    The island is still there.
    And the lake.
    And the town.
    And the houses.
    And my family.
    And my friends.
    And summer
    Which are, after all
    What's important.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

      This is the sort of thing you never notice, until you do.
      Of course, who could fail to notice a large golden man struggling to take the cap off an enormous bottle of wine.
      Or whatever it is he's doing. 
      Actually, I know. 
      But  don't want to give away the game.
      Though I imagine someone will recognize this fellow fairly quickly.
      Provided they frequent the spot where this guy is found.
      Which they probably don't do as much as they used to. 
      I sure don't. 
      If I can avoid it.
      Though I found myself there the other day and lingered.
      Long enough to snap his picture.
      Which wasn't really hard.
      Since he wasn't moving very fast.
      Which I suppose is typical, given his environment.
      Where is he? And what's he doing?
      While my gut tells me it'll be answered quickly.
      If history is any judge
      And given that the ones I think will be hard in reality aren't.
      Maybe the one I think will be easy will turn out to be a stumper.
      The winner will receive .... hmmm.... a copy of my blog poster, since I'm hot to get rid of them. 
       To clear the decks for next year's poster. 
       Which I'm already looking forward to.
       Remember to post your guess below. 
       And be patient—I'm not sure if I'll be on the grid Saturday, so I might not be able to confirm the answer until Sunday.  
      Play nicely together.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Bus accident.

     It wasn’t much as far as accidents go.
     No fireball. No fatalities. No screeching tires. In fact, one car wasn’t even moving, according to Bruce Hopkins, who was sitting in his blue Volvo wagon at the intersection of Courtland and Hermitage earlier in June, his 3-year-old son strapped in the back seat. They had just been to a class at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
     A Chicago Transit Authority bus, trying to turn left, bumped into his car.
     “The side of the bus is getting closer and closer, and I’m thinking, ‘Surely not,’’’ Hopkins said. “Surely they’re going to realize it’s too close. I’m tooting my horn and thinking: ‘Hang on. This isn’t going to happen.’”
     As the alert reader will suspect, from the “surely not” and the “hang on,” that Hopkins is British, married to Natasha Loder, the Midwest correspondent for The Economist, someone I’ve shared a number of pleasant hours, trading tales of Rahm Emanuel. That’s how the story came to me, but not why I’m writing about it. I’m writing about it because of what happened after the bus hit Hopkins’ car.
     The driver of the bus got out and accused Hopkins of driving into her.
Rather than being indignant, Hopkins really pegs himself as a fair-minded Brit by sympathizing with the dissembling driver.
     “What really struck me,” he said, ignoring the bus, “is why would a bus driver feel, laying aside the potability that they genuinely believed that a car stopped at a four-way stop sign was moving, why would a driver not feel able to say, ‘Sorry, mate.’ The level of fear somebody must feel that they can’t admit a simple mistake. People are generally decent.  Why would somebody make something up about something so trivial?”
     Why indeed. He went online, where all our answers dwell, and found bus "drivers, after a third accident, they're fired."
     Actually, like much online, that isn't true.
     It's four. CTA drivers get four accidents before they're sacked, to use the U.K. term.
     "If you have four minor accidents within two years, you can be discharged," CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said. "If you were to have a major accident, you can be dismissed for up to one serious accident."
     Being British, Hopkins was not so much aghast at the minor damage or inconvenience, as the fear in the driver's face.
     "It seems terrible," he said. "I don't think a little scrape where nobody was hurt merits such a thing, or the fear of such a thing, particularly in a country such as America where losing your job can be disastrous for them and their family. Their health care comes with their job. People with chronic illness are going to die."
     See, that's why we Americans are so loath to get an overseas perspective, to read magazines like The Economist (really, you should, it's like having an extra brain). Because then we have to gaze into the mirror, full on, at just how screwed up we are. Get in a fender bender and your children may die.
     "Why is the driver put in a position where they feel it's necessary to not come clean about it?" Hopkins persisted. "What is CTA policy? Do they have instructions to deny liability? It wouldn't surprise me."
     I asked Chase if they tell drivers to deny liability. Perhaps inevitably, she denied it.
     "Our operators are definitely not instructed to deny anything," Chase said. "There's no truth to that." She also pointed out that buses are silly with cameras, so assessing what happened is not much of an issue.
     "If need be, there are disciplinary procedures," she said.
     Hopkins is concerned, but not for himself.
     "In the global scheme of things, if the worst thing to happen in summer is the day your Volvo gets a bit of a scrape, the American dream still has a decent pulse from where you're standing," he said. "It's troubling that someone would feel it necessary to not be able to fess up to simple misjudgment where nobody was hurt. Probably happens 100 times a day, every day. It should be no big deal, and it is ridiculous to be that upset about it. That's what insurance companies are for. There shouldn't be these severe consequences.
     "I don't believe the driver is a bad person . . . " he continued. "I kinda feel someone's got to be incentivized by fear of consequences. The system shouldn't be arranged that way. America should have a socialized health care system, so [if] somebody loses their job over something trivial, their dependent with a chronic health condition doesn't die."
     But that isn't the American way. Speaking of which, the CTA reviewed the bus' video and this week told Hopkins what he already knew: The accident was their fault.