Thursday, July 31, 2014

The pen and the wrench

    My wife is busily equipping our older boy for his relocation to college at the end of next month, packing boxes to be shipped off to California. While I have been urging her to practice what I call the Buy-Things-There method—they have Targets and Office Depots in Los Angeles—the fact is there's only a day or two after he arrives before he has to start classes, so in practice, my philosophy will be refined to Buy-Big-Heavy-Things-There.
     Thus my wife showed off this little mesh cup filled with pens, which she was charmed with for its beginning-life-afresh quality. "I bought him this metal cup!" she announced, proudly. I admired it, but noticed that one of the pens was very different than the others—positively wrench-like.
     "I got it at the dollar store," she explained. "The college recommends you provide them with simple tools. I got him a screwdriver too."
     To be honest, I can't imagine a circumstance where my scholar would be prompted to tighten a bolt. I'm not sure he knows what bolts are or that they occasionally need to be tightened. My fault. Still, I was pleased that she had included the wrench, and double pleased with its juxtaposition among the pens. As somebody who manipulates words and thoughts for a living, I have a natural affinity for the nuts-and-bolts physical world, and believe that our general praise for academic excellence we sometimes give the realm of tangible stuff short shrift. I have heard many, many kids, including, sadly, my own, brag about their good grades, but very few—okay, none—brag about building a good chair. I don't know if he'll ever use the little wrench in his cup of pens, but I'm glad it'll be sitting there when school starts, reminding him, subtly, of the quiet, unassuming presence of objects.
     "You're your father's daughter," I said to my wife, a high compliment. I was thinking of 14 years ago, when we bought the house. Her father showed up out of the blue, and gave me a gift. It was a cordless electric drill, the first I ever had. What, I remember thinking, is this for? It wasn't my birthday, it wasn't a housewarming gift. It wasn't wrapped. It was, he knew and I found out, something I would need, a lot. Most practical gift anyone ever gave me, I used it continually for a decade until the drill eventually expired in my hands. My wife cried when we got rid of it. I bought another just like it, because I knew, every homeowner needs a cordless electric drill. 
     Love is many things, but giving people the tools they'll need before they need them is as good a definition as any.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

All told, I prefer my wasps as metaphor

     I’m a cautious person, so nothing bad ever happens to me.
     I’ve never broken my arm. I’ve never lost my wallet, or accidentally set myself on fire, or any of the accidents and happenstance that seem to afflict so many people.
     I’ve developed rituals to help prevent bad things from happening. Stepping out a cab I pause before closing the door and scan the seat, to see if I’ve left anything behind. I suppose that creates a different risk—the cabbie driving away while I’m holding the door, tearing my fingers off, a reminder that trying to skirt one peril sometimes puts you in the path of a worse one, like somebody who jumps away from a speeding bicyclist into the path of a truck.
     But in general, being careful pays off.
     It must be genetic. My father was always a very cautious man. He would no sooner ride a roller coaster than take heroin. My older son, when he learned to walk, would mutter “keh-ful, keh-ful” as he gingerly placed one foot in front of the other.
     But even a careful person manages to bumble into harm’s way, eventually.
     Such as Monday night. Guests were coming over after dinner.  My wife suggested a fire. This being a cool summer, we’ve had a lot of fires in the fire pit in our back yard—a dish of bronze set on a cast iron base that people admire as if it were some exotic accouterment, even though it cost 50 bucks.
     Anyway, lots of fires, going through lots of firewood. The pile was almost gone after I stacked wood up for the fire; down to kindling and one half hollow log, a curving piece of what had once been a large catalpa tree that blew down, years ago. Picture an arc of bark, maybe a foot wide and a yard long. I looked at it, and thought, “I can break this apart and use it to feed the fire while our guests are here.”
     So I stepped on the log, hard.
     It broke easily because of all the wasps living inside.
     For a guy who has trained himself to immediately blurt out quips on the radio, the thought, I’m being stung by wasps was actually slow in forming. I think I was halfway to the house, operating on some limbic fight-or-flight response hard-wired into the cerebellum, before it consciously occurred to me that something bad was happening.
     I burst into the kitchen with a shriek and a cloud of wasps—okay, two or three—in hot pursuit.  My wife, who has her own reflexive instinct, that motherly ability to shift instantly from the mundane to full crisis mode, took charge, ordering me to strip off my shirt, while the younger boy went after the wasps with a fly swatter.
     “Windex,” she decreed, and within three seconds was spraying me with the blue substance on the bites, which were limited to my legs, arms, torso and face.
     “This … really … hurts,” I hissed, arms out. I had often used the term “jamming my arm into a wasp’s nest” to describe the reaction to a column. Now I see what an exaggeration that was. Right wing revanchist trolls have nothing on actual wasps.
     I thought the whole Windex thing was a joke propagated by “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and said words to that effect.
     “It’s the ammonia” my wife explained, hosing me down. It did feel better.
     Actually, it’s a placebo, I later found.
     “Windex is just folk lore,” said Dr. Anju Peters, an allergist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Rubbing with aspirin, copper, none of those has been scientifically studied. There is no data. For a local reaction, ice is best.”
     Peters said that the important thing is, if you have trouble breathing, or feel lightheaded, or your throat is closing up, call 911 immediately; 50 people a year in the U.S. die of anaphylactic shock from insect bites.
     My wife asked if we should go to the ER. I asked myself if I felt as if I were dying: no, we’ll ride this out.
     The boy for some reason stood gawping at one of the wasps as it progressed across the kitchen screen. “Kill it!” my wife cried
     “No,” I said, reaching for the swatter. “Give it me. He’s mine.”
     I slapped true, and the evil thing fell among the drained dishes. Distinctive black-and-yellow stripes — a yellowjacket.
     The funny thing is, despite the utterly random nature of the mishap, even though it didn’t involve any particularly risky behavior — I stepped on a log — it bugged me that I let it occur. It seemed to mean something. Human nature. People have the tendency to assign meaning to random fate, whether viewing their good luck as somehow being an earned reward, or bad luck coming as a kind of punishment. Neither need be true. Sometimes stuff just happens.

Photo -- mayflies, not wasps, at Put-in-Bay, Ohio

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Go out there kiddo"

Maggie Portman (Meg Brockie) puts the moves on Rod Thomas (Jeff Douglas)

     For a person who  just wants to go home and curl up with a book, I sure get out a lot.  
     Blame other people—the most convenient people to blame.
     While I like to attend cultural events, in theory, and invariably enjoy myself once doing them, there's that little hump of committing to go out, the ticket-getting and plan-making, that lately I've been lacking the steam to get over.
     I knew it was getting bad when after I let "Henry V" come and go at the Chicago Shakespeare. Uncharacteristic. Younger Former Me would have never let that happen. But Old Tired Current Me heaved a sigh and let the production smack into the catcher's mitt, the bat resting on my shoulder.  
    That is how it's been. And how it would be still. My saving grace is that, when other people are involved, I leap to my duty, panting enthusiasm like a dog. 
Renaissance Faire

     The weekend before last, we had a young cousin in from St. Louis, so of course wanted to show her all that makes Chicago a far better place than the Gateway to the West—the Art Institute, Millennium Park, the Chicago History Museum and such. She was here for nearly five days, so as a change of pace we headed up to the Renaissance Faire in Bristol, Wisconsin. It was good, sarsaparilla-soaked fun, as it always is, with cast members and visitors lost in private fantasy intermingling, hard to tell apart, and of course the Mud Show, even funnier than I remember, and a new trio of acrobats that had me muttering the highest praise I could think of, "Very Cirque du Soleil-like."
      Or last weekend. I cruised into Friday delighted to have no plans at all. At last! I thought. Then my older boy, on the train into work, asked: are we not going to see "Brigadoon" at at the Goodman? It got good reviews. 
     I almost replied that the Lyric's "Sound of Music" had used up our allotment of musicals that we'd never wanted to see again in our lives yet somehow do for the year, and since that turned out to be inexplicably splendid—the absence of Julie Andrews is a wonderful tonic for a production—we ought not to press our luck. I am not a big fan of musicals—not tragic enough to mesh with my understanding of the world.
  But lately my teenager expressing interest in events that I might be involved in has been pretty much limited to ... ah ... this. So what I actually said was:
    "I was in 'Brigadoon.' In high school. Mr. Lundy. 'There's a gunna be a weddin'." 
    He looked at me, quizzically, like Nipper on the RCA label, and I recovered.
    "Right," I said. "I'll see if I can get tickets."
     I could and did. Goodman's "Brigadoon" was, to my surprise, as good as all the raves said it was. Excellent dancing, the show stolen by Meg Brockie, who played the (checking the thesaurus for a word that means "slut" but won't bring down feminists in Australia upon me) village tramp with great red-cheeked gusto and humor. I am not in love with the Lerner and Loewe songs, with the possible exception of "Almost Like Being in Love," but the choreography and costumes were first rate and it scored as a charming spectacle.  
     Most impressive was the presence of Chicago stage veteran Kevin Earley, playing the romantic lead Tommy Albright, in best the-show-must-go-on fashion, despite the fact that his mother, former Marriott Lincolnshire artistic director Dyanne Earley, had died the night before. There was a moment, at one song's end, when he looked up and smiled, and the audience, most of whom seemed clued in to what happened, applauded warmly.
     Saturday was an impromptu dash to the United Center ("Kent doesn't want to go hang with Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, does he?" I had asked my wife, on my way out to the garden, only to look up with slight puzzlement when she called out, an hour later, "He wants to know when you two are going.")
      By that night, when my wife dragged me to Loyola Park to see "A Midsummer Night's Dream" performed by the Chicago Shakespeare Festival, I had surrendered. Though I had initially resisted when she asked if I wanted to go. ("God no," I said. "Do you?") I have learned that there is an inverse relationship between how little I want to do something and how wonderful it turns out to be. Lowered expectations perhaps. Shakespeare's romp, with its fairies and tangled up love, was perfect for a pleasant sumer night, the crowd colorful and engaged, the Bard with his full compliment of royal tricks—a queen, a duke, quarts of potions and a play within a play, all whittled down to an easy-t0-swallow two hours. "The course of true love never did run smooth." Aint it the truth?
      Society takes the time to warn us of all sorts of stereotyped Bad Men: Stranger Danger, the Phony Nigerian Prince, the Quack Doctors and such. But there is rarely a murmur about the risk of becoming Grumpy Stick-in-the-Mud Dad, a species I imagine is very common and probably causes his share of damage to the collective good of humanity. The one escape hatch to salvation for me is that I've know that kind of guy, and as much as I just want to go home, crawl into bed, and read, I want to be that person just a little bit less, so out I go. Something to think about. The Renaissance Faire runs until Sept. 1. "Brigadoon" until Aug. 17, and "Midsummer's Night Dream" is playing tonight, if you're reading this Tuesday, July 29, in Rilis Park and tomorrow, Wednesday, July 30 in Piotrowski Park. Admission is $24 for the RenFaire, tickets start at $35.50 for "Brigadoon" and "Midsummer's Night's Dream, " the deal of the three, is free. 
     Talking to the Sun-Times Miriam Di Nunzio, Kevin Earley said, “It will be hard [to go out on the stage tonight], but as mom often said, ‘Go out there kiddo. That’s what you do’.”
     That's good advice for anybody. Life is short. Summer fleets. Go out there, kiddos. It's what we do.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Basketball has a shot as alternative to gangs

     Back in the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan coined her “Just Say No” campaign to combat drug use. I remember a social worker explaining to me why it was misguided. If you’re a 16-year-old new mother living in the Robert Taylor homes, she said,  with no job, no education and no future, drugs are the best part of your day, the time when you feel most real and alive, and until they come up with a program to counter that, to offer people a life better than drugs, nothing is going to work.
     I thought of that Saturday, sitting at the United Center, watching the South Side beat the West Side, 46-45, in Joakim Noah’s One City Basketball Tournament.
     It happened to be held right after 11-year-old Shamiya Adams, killed last week while she made s’mores at a sleep over, was buried—Gov. Pat Quinn came from the funeral, and talked about how exceptional she was.
     The extreme tragedy of these cases captivates the media and public—the sweet faces of these innocent victims, usually girls, in stark contrast with the mug shots of the older, tougher, young men who kill them. 
     But in order to hope to solve the problem, or rather, to be less ineffectual facing it, we need to care about those young men, too, to understand that, just as people who take drugs have reasons to do so, that it seems in their best interests, so those who join gangs do so, not out of irrational bloodlust or mere greed, but because it makes sense: a grim, skewed sense, but sense nevertheless. In many places, joining a gang is obligatory, kids have to if they want to stay safe. The gangs offer protection, love, respect, a purpose. Who in Chicago really wants young poor black men? Gangs sure do.
     Mourning the dead is inevitable. But the shooters are also victims of a system that brings them to that moment when they pull the trigger and make the decision to commit some random, violent act that destroys another life and theirs, too often. The key is to get to that person before they do it.
     How? Maybe efforts like this tournament. It really wasn’t a matter of athletic excellence, but these players, Noah explained, were tapped by his Noah’s Arc Foundation, as older guys, in their 20s, who might have influence on younger men in their neighborhoods. Basketball has a powerful allure — it’s one of the rare endeavors that crosses racial and social boundaries in the city, and while I’d never be so naive as to suggest that basketball can stop the violence, it seems to be something that can offer what gangs offer. Gang shooters seek respect; this is respect found through a different sort of shooting.
      The trophies handed out were elaborate. No scrimping here. The impressive thing about Noah’s tournament was how thorough it was. They weren’t just using the empty United Center court. They had real NBA refs. The Luvabulls cheered. T-shirts were hurled to the thousand spectators. The Rockets’ Patrick Beverly coached the West Side team — seriously, prowling the sidelines, shouting. Derrick Rose coached the South Side, just serious, mostly watching.
     “I’m here for the kids,” was all the taciturn star would say, when pressed.
     When a crime occurs, what people usually do is drop their heads and hurry away. It’s the rare person who gets involved. So I give credit to Noah for trying something. It opens him up to criticism — people will say he’s a rich star rushing in to slap a bandage over an enormous problem. But that didn’t stop him; he did it anyway, with the passionate sincerity he brings to the game.
     “This is so important,” he said, at the press conference beforehand. “It’s bigger than basketball.”
     He’s right, both in the sense that slashing the murder rate would be a feat the city could take more pride in than an NBA championship, and in that basketball alone can’t fix it — it’s only one facet in creating that world to counterbalance the false benefit of gangs.
     People do stuff for selfish reasons. I was there, on a Saturday, not to focus on urban violence, but because I wanted my teenage Bulls fan to meet Noah. Kids join gangs for selfish reasons: to find the respect, love, purpose and safety that the world otherwise denies them. We can put a cop on every corner, and maybe we should. But until those kids avoid gangs for selfish reasons, until they can find respect, love, purpose and safety in other places, this problem is going to plague Chicago.
     Cycles repeat themselves. The kids in Northbrook study hard, stay in school and soar away to college because that’s what their world demands they do. On the South and West sides, the world demands they join gangs. Until that changes, nothing changes.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hatching a plan, of sorts

     We live about a block from the railroad tracks—really as close as a person wants his house to be. Very convenient when it comes to walking to the train station, which is maybe a block and a half away. Close enough that, as long as the bells aren't actually ringing when I leave the house, I know I'll make it at a brisk stroll. Though a heavy freight train can rattle our windows, I think that is more a function of dry, ancient window frames.
      Heading to the dry cleaners Saturday morning—we're also close to downtown, and I like to walk on errands— I waited while these  ominous black tanker cars rumbled by, with their red "FLAMMABLE" diamonds, and thought about the derailment in Slinger, Wisconsin last Sunday. Nobody was hurt, but 4,000 gallons of fuel spilled, and 100 nearby residents were evacuated, for their own safety, while they cleaned it up.
      I've thought, over the years, we should have some kind of emergency plan, a bug-out bag ready to go when I hear the defending crash and see the fireball swirling up into the sky a block east. But then I try to think what would be in that bag. A change of clothes? A few bottles of water. Power bars. Money. Socks.
      It seems so trivial. And then the bag would sit there, taking up room, caution incarnate. And then, should a train accident happen, which it won't, we wouldn't be home, or we'd grab the dog, pile in the car and bolt, forgetting the bag. They sell clothes in plenty of places, and power bars, and bottles of water too. Heck, the Red Cross would give those out. As long I had my wallet—which wouldn't be a in the bug-out bag anyway—we'd all be okay wherever we went.  Slap down the Mastercard. Send the bill to the Canadian National Railway. A true blessing. Trying to take plan to take the sting out of any future happenstance, well, it seems like gilding the lilly. So we'll take our chances, unprepared.
       Which I suppose is a plan of sorts. A plan not to have a plan. An acknowledgement that Fate will toss her dice and our little bag won't help us. We plan so we feel we have a bit of control over events that we really have no control over at all. Our plan is to understand that. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

    One of the sadder manifestations of the general weakening of religious faith in this country is the fate of church buildings, often lovely, charming old structures that find themselves without congregants or purpose, slowly declining over decades before falling into decay, if not ruin, then finally torn down, a loss to architecture and to their individual neighborhoods. 
     The few churches being built today are typically constructed in the suburbs, new homes for urban congregations that have pulled up roots and fled, taking their prosperity elsewhere.   
      But when I investigated these gleaming new copper domes this week, what I found was a brand new construction of considerable size, right next to the old church building that it will replace. The new building is scheduled to be completed next year. 
      What's the name of this Chicago church? Were is it? Since my winner last week got so excited over her book, let's give away another—a copy of "Complete & Utter Failure," perhaps my favorite. Make sure to post your guesses below. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Richard Branson is taking a bath

     Richard Branson is taking a bath.
     Or was, 23 minutes ago.
     I know this as a fact because he tweeted a photo of himself, in the tub, discreetly shielded by bubbles, thank God.
     “Right now I’m delighted to be alive and to have had a nice long bath,” he wrote.
    Oh wait, “had”—the bath might be over by now. In fact, by the time you read this, the bath is certainly over. Let’s start again.
     Richard Branson took a bath.
     In a lovely, oval shaped Turkish stone tub that probably set him back $20,000. But the billionaire owner of Virgin Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and hundreds of other companies in the Virgin Group can certainly afford it.
     Thursday morning he tweeted that message and photo; you can see the nice slat wood of the bathroom, a hint of green—Necker Island?—through a window, to his 4.27 million followers, including myself.
     The photo is what got me thinking. Somebody else had to take it.  It’s not a selfie. An assistant no doubt. “Snap me in the bath, Reginald, and we’ll alert the masses.”
     But I don’t want to mock Branson; a nice, exuberant man, by all indications. Three years ago he came to Chicago to promote Virgin Airlines and rode the Blue Line in from O’Hare, giving free tickets to San Francisco to those riding the L with him. 
    “Life is much richer if you say ‘yes’ than if you say ‘no,’” he told the Sun-Times.
     So an affable fellow, as far as tycoons go. He describes himself on his Twitter account:
     “Tie-loathing adventurer and thrill seeker, who believes in turning ideas into reality.” (Were I his media consultant, I’d lose the “tie-loathing” since it dates him, a blow struck in a battle that ended long ago. He might as well say, “white tie loathing” at this point. The younger generation never had ties to loath, judging from the kids packing the elevators in our building: t-shirts, cargo shorts, sandals. Not much left to hate as a workday imposition, though I suppose they’ll find something.  “Dude, I’m so glad to be out of those flip flops I had to wear to the office,” they’ll say, running barefoot on the weekends. “My big toe felt so isolated...”)
     Not that I blame Branson. We live in an age where....

The rest of this post vanished during one of the Sun-Times rejiggerings of its computer system. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"You want war, we want peace"

    "Racists go home! Racists go home!"
     You could not actually hear the Palestinian counter rally from the heart of the pro-Israel rally held in front of the Israeli embassy, in  the middle of Madison Street, just west of Canal, at noon on Tuesday.
    But if you skirted the edges, as I did — less crowded — their amplified chants became clear.
    "Racists go home!"
    Which almost made me smile, because we were home. I suppose they meant in Israel, though it sort of is a universal directive to any situation where Jews find themselves living on a spot. The Germans didn't think they belong there either, and they had lived there for 500 years.
    "Racists go home!" the Palestinians across the street chanted.
     Meanwhile, the pro-Israel side sang "Am Yisrael Chi" — "The nation of Israel lives."
     The official noontime demonstration had broken up and I gravitated along with the mass of blue and white flag wavers across Canal to the unofficial post-demonstration standoff, where the two groups stood shouting at each other, while cops on horses and on foot stood in the street between.
    "Terrorists go home!" the pro-Israel side started up, reactive as always. If there was one major mistake Israel has made in this whole process, is they let the Palestinians, however ill-led, call the shots. Its policy is to wait, see what they do, then respond.
     "Terrorists go home."
     "Racists go home."
     It wasn't lost on me which side I was on, literally. I had gone over to the Palestinians earlier. But their protest was a hotter, more condensed knot of about 150 people on the corner, and I hadn't had the fortitude to insert myself among them. Instead, I snapped a few pictures, talked to one person, and skedaddled away.
     The Israeli gathering was much larger--say 1,000 over a much greater area than the Palestinians': that seemed apt. Not that size matters: Pro-Palestinian rallies have been going on all week, and this was more of a hastily arranged, let's-spoil-their-party kind of thing. I noticed that the police screened the bags of people entering the pro-Israel rally; the unspoken assumption being the Palestinians were safe from bag-carried bombs.
     The "You want war, we want peace," chant threw me a little. Really? And on what do you base that claim? Like much in the Palestinian rhetoric, it had a mere words quality. They way the rockets randomly fired into Israel are called "defensive" or "resistance." Like Republicans, they seem to feel that if they find the right label for something it'll then be okay. The truth is, I've never actually hear anyone in authority on the Palestinian side laying out a map to peace that doesn't involve them magically regaining the country. Even the two-peoples-existing-together rhetoric—the latest and-then-you-give-us-your-country argument—doesn't have a lot of on-the-ground evidence to back it up. If the Palestinians are trying to establish their ability to exist peacefully within a secular state of Israel, they're doing a botch job of it.
     Israel, on the other hand, has a 20 percent non-Jewish minority actually living in peace within its borders. Maybe rather than fighting the Israeli settlers the Palestinians should embrace them and wait. But then that would involve long-range strategic thinking, something the Palestinians are even worse at than the Israelis, which is really saying something.
   "You want war, we want peace," the Palestinians chanted. Others in the pro-Israel faction reacted similarly. Being Jews, they argued, even though the other side couldn't hear. A lady next to me was actually talking to them, almost muttering--even I couldn't hear what she said.
     Eventually the pro-Israel side, again, reflected the Palestinian chant, this time identically, "You want war, we want peace." A little embarrassing, if you ask me. So much for Jewish creativity. But they were improvising on the spot, and the results of that are seldom good, as the situation in Israel shows.
    There was something extra ludicrous at that point, ludicrous about the whole thing. These two groups, screaming their desire for peace at each other. Then get to it, idiots. The idea of protests is to make beliefs known -- the public, telling its careless leaders what the real situation is. If only the czar knew... Though Jews supporting Israel is not exactly an epiphany, nor is Palestinians supporting their own brethren.
     What's the point of protest if nobody but nobody is listening?
      Maybe that's better. Is there a conflict in history where the divisions are not insanely petty and local? Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Serbians and Croatians, Sunnis and Shiites. I couldn't tell a Tutsi from a Hutu if you put a gun to my head, and neither could you.
    Both sides seemed set on proving something to some imaginary impartial arbitrator. The United States? The world? God? They don't realize they're by themselves. The world is not going to bail out the Palestinians. It sure hasn't up to this point. Nor are they going to go away. Both sides are stuck relying on a losing strategy in a game where they both lose, year after year.
     So sad and, if I may, stupid. Maybe that's the path to peace, the message that the world needs to convey back, loud and clear. Not parse the bottomless grievances of both sides. I think there is more validity to Israel's, but then, I'm on their side, and at some point being right doesn't really matter anymore. It's just another road to folly. Maybe that's the central, unsaid fact of the stand-off: it's stupid. That could be concept strong enough to counter-balance the rebellious zeal of the Palestinians, the military pride of the Israelis. A simple chant back, shouted by the world: you're stupid. You're both stupid. The whole thing is stupid. Why don't you stop being stupid and go figure it out, at long last? Because you're blocking traffic, the both of you, on Madison Street.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Meet Hanan

    After I wrote about land mines a few weeks ago, Lurie Children's Hospital said they had a young patient with a similar sort of injury, sponsored by the Palestine Children's Relief Fund. I knew that aspect would throw a curve to some readers, and decided to just step back and tell the story. Though I wanted to mention that I went to their Iftar Friday night, the day after Israel invaded Gaza, and felt welcomed by everyone I spoke with, which, to be honest, was exactly what I expected.

     Hanan is 7.
     She has a gap-toothed smile and loves Hello Kitty, the intensely cute Japanese cartoon character. A spangled Hello Kitty decorated her pink dress, which she demurely protected with a napkin Friday night, holding it in place with one hand while trying to navigate a fork around her dinner plate with the other, until a helpful tablemate taught her the tuck-the-napkin-into-your-collar trick.
     Hanan is a Palestinian from Syria, and came to Chicago in April for medical treatment for her right leg, which was blown off below the knee by a bomb in the Syrian civil war which, in case you’ve lost track, has cost more than 100,000 lives over the past three years and displaced millions.
     She was brought to Chicago by the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.
     “I met her in Jordan when I was on my way to Gaza for a medical mission in February,” said Sarah Alrayyes, media coordinator for the charity in Chicago. “I’ve met many, many kids, and she is a very special and unique girl. She’s extremely smart. She’s just very captivating, really. Anyone who would meet her could not help falling in love. Before I met her, I was warned by our CEO, Steve Sosebee: ‘You will fall in love.’ I later emailed him: ‘You are completely right.’”
     Hanan limped heavily as she went from hug to hug Friday at an Iftar — a Ramadan break-the-fast community meal — at Reza’s, held to benefit the fund and several others.
     Her parents couldn’t get out, but her grandmother took her to Jordan, where an aunt and uncle live.
     “Our Jordan chapter stumbled upon her case,” Alrayyes said. Chicago’s branch of the non-political, non-religious charity brought her case to the attention of Lurie Children’s Hospital, which issued a letter crucial in getting Hanan, who didn’t have a passport, to the United States for treatment.
     "Lurie Hospital has been wonderful," Alrayyes said. "Also Shriner's," which did work to stabilize Hanan's stump so it could be fitted with a prosthetic.
     It's not that they don't have hospitals in Jordan, but the prosthetic leg she got there was rudimentary; it hurt and fell apart; her grandmother had to stitch it together.
     Hanan was afraid of hospitals, understandably, so volunteers brought her to Lurie first to show her around. When she arrived, she worried about crossing the street, because of the tall buildings.
    "Afraid of snipers," explained Kathleen Keenan, Lurie spokeswoman. "We gave her a tour of the hospital and the ER. She wanted to know how many other children would be there, and would she be on the floor. This is all something I witnessed."
     Doctors are fitting her with a more advanced artificial leg: but not too advanced, so she'll be able to get it repaired back home. And of course it'll look great; something very important to Hanan.
    "We're going to make it look almost identical to her other leg," said Jeremiah Uronis, her prosthetist at Lurie, where Hanan also is working on rehabilitation.
    "She doesn't trust her limb at this point," Uronis said. But eventually she will walk so "you wouldn't be able to even tell" she has an artificial leg, which is being made "really heavy duty" because kids are as tough on their artificial limbs they are on everything else.
     While the hope is to return Hanan to her family in Syria for the start of school in September, there are other issues.
    "She is facing emotional challenges right now," Alrayyes said. "She has many fears. It's a traumatic experience for someone being so young; she was 6 years old."
    One problem is that she associates getting better with going back home.
    "She's having some challenges accepting the new leg," Alrayyes said. "She misses her family and wants to go back, but she's also afraid. She keeps asking: 'What if I lose my other leg?' "
     A heavy concern for a little girl to carry.
    "Imagine you're 7 years old, leaving your family," said Dr. Jeffrey Ackman, Shriner's chief of staff and Hanan's surgeon. "You don't speak the language, don't know anybody here and you're going into the hospital to have surgery. These kids are very brave."
     The war in Syria rages on, pushed out of the public eye by the battle in Gaza, which only increases the work for charitable groups like the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund, which provides medical and humanitarian aid there.
     "They're overwhelmed. They're out of supplies. They're exhausted. The doctors and the staff are working around the clock," said Alrayyes, who called the situation dire.
     Whenever these conflicts arise, the tendency is for each side to view its losses with maximum sympathy while dismissing those of the other side as somehow deserved. In the U.S., we make the mistake of following suit, picking sides ourselves, when what we should be doing is focusing on the victims, often children, and urging both sides toward resolution.
    "The adults are fighting," Ackman said. "The adults are at war, and it's the kids who suffer."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Everthing old is new again


     Silly me. I actually took the bait, flopped my fingers on the keyboard, and wrote a new column about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, when all I had to do was dig back into the archives and pluck out a completely-serviceable old one. Here is a column from ... well, I'll let you guess. Read it, see if there is a comma that is no longer relevant, alas. At the end I'll give you the date, as a sad coda. 

     Whatever your motive, attacking nations is usually bad for you. 
     Dangerous even when you're a big powerful country attacking a 
weaker nation, like Nazi Germany when it invaded Poland in 1939. 
     The Germans had high hopes, rolling across the border. But it did 
not end well for them.
     Even a nation acting on high moral principles, such as the United 
States was supposedly doing five years ago when it invaded Iraq, 
will run into trouble. The war is now universally viewed as folly 
that cost the lives of 4,100 American soldiers and --get ready for 
a statistic you don't read much -- some 100,000 Iraqi civilians.
     As bad an idea as it is for nations, it's an even worse idea for 
non-nations. Were I to decide to wage war on America -- say by 
firing homemade rockets from my back deck into the surrounding 
neighborhood -- retribution would be swift. The local police force 
would no doubt surround the house -- a more powerful force, by the 
way, than myself and my paltry homemade rockets. Even, dare I say 
it, a disproportionate force . . .
     You see where I'm going with this. While nobody wants to see 
civilians die, at some point -- and that point seems to be now, at 
long last -- the world is going to realize that by constantly 
firing missiles into Israel, Hamas is calling hell down upon itself 
and its people. The rocket attacks were not fighting for their new 
nation, but forestalling it. A dispassionate observer would note 
that what Hamas is vowing now after Israel's deadly reply -- to 
visit more destruction upon it -- is exactly what they were vowing 
before. Peace will come the day Palestinians decide they would 
rather build a real, limited nation today than die on the altar of 
a theoretical, unlimited future idyll. That day, alas, tarries.
         — first published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 29, 2008 

"We plan and God laughs"

     "Maybe," my wife said, "you should wait until after they work on the pipes. They might tear up the sidewalk."
      The Village of Northbrook was about to begin work on the water mains on our block.
      We were on our knees, pulling weeds in the strip of earth between the grass and the sidewalk in front of our house.
      I pondered this suggestion, torn, eager to get a strip of edging down, then fill the front bed with mulch. As a reward, for pulling all those weeds up. We had really cleaned up the front bed nicely.
     The bed was under our struggling spirea. To the left of our front walk, a massive hedge of vanhoutte spirea, turning to a glorious cascade of white in the spring. To the right, a dinky, devastated remnant I keep reinforcing with more spirea, which keep dying. I'm not sure why. The soil. The light.  
      "I only have one goal in life," I told my wife, recently. "I want that spirea hedge to grow."
     And it did. This year, finally, to my delight, it progressed. Bushes that had been languid stirred, perked up -- my wife credits her cutting them way back last autumn. The vinca ground cover that we planted around the spirea also began to take hold, a line of defense against future weeds. Planning ahead. 
     Time, I felt, for a nice black edging, and mulch of some sort, to further keep down the weeds. Hit 'em with all we've got. My wife and fell to our knees and busied ourselves, happily toiling. Put down the edging or not? 
     "I'll wait and see what they do," I said.
     Enter the Village of Northbook.
     Something about the incoming water pipes. The new water tower puts too much pressure—or not enough—so they're replacing the mains. Which is a cruel joke, since it's the drainage on our street that's horrendous. I've considered buying a canoe. 
      Give the workers credit. They have tried, when implanting this enormous steel trenching support in our front yard, directly over where the sidewalk use to be, to save the spirea. The treads of their machinery brush but do not crush them, not yet anyway. The vinca though are gone, true--stout little oval leaved warriors, just starting to spread out and explore, to live their low-lying lives. And a few of the spirea do seem to have vanished. 
      This is the odd part. I took it all with ... equanimity. No grief. No marching to Village Hall, next door, pounding my fist on the counter. "I have been wronged!" One does not garden, one does not presume to nurture nature, without developing a farmer's hardy composure. Stuff happens. Take your successes where you find them. The spirea as yet, survive, mostly. And vinca is still being sold, by the flat, over at Red's. Nothing a bit of spadework won't fix. In the realm of the government showing up at your front door and doing something bad to you, this was pretty minor stuff. "And then the soldiers came and killed our shrubbery."  
      And the weeds? Completely gone along with the earth that had been under them. Where they once were is a six-foot deep trench. Of course we could have saved ourselves the effort had we known the village was going to swoop in and do our weeding for us with a backhoe. But you know what? Those hours we were working, my wife in a big hat, were some of the most fun of the summer. Sure, we did not in fact accomplish anything. But who does when it comes to yardwork? At best you stem the tide for another day. At least my new edging is still in the back, waiting to be installed, the bags of mulch unopened. I could have meticulously put the stuff down only to see it immediately torn up. But I had a hunch. 
     So at least I guessed right, for once. I had a sense that things would not be going as planned. One should always expect that.  And always cling to the process, which can't be taken away, and not the result, which can. As my late mother-in-law liked to say, "We plan and God laughs." Or, in this case, the Village of Northbrook. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Plan B offers a glimpse, maybe, of Palestinian future

Roey Gilad, Israel's consul general in Chicago
     Yes, there is a connection between the downing Thursday of a Malaysian Airlines 777 jet over eastern Ukraine and the Israeli invasion of Gaza the same day.
     And no, it isn’t the inevitable conspiracy theory, the if-it-helps-you-then-you-must-have-caused-it delusion that the Israelis shot down the Malaysian plane in order to divert world attention from their military action, though that is exactly how the situation coincidentally unfolded.
     To be honest, a preliminary check of the lunatic fringes found not a whisper of this, which surprises me. It must be on the way.
     The Israeli/Palestinian standoff is not an area where rational thought is much rewarded.  The Israelis seem content to play jailer to a restive, belligerent and growing population of 4.5 million Palestinians jammed into the West Bank and Gaza. It is a failure of empathy on Israel’s part, which I’d fault them for more except it is enlightened benevolence compared to the Palestinians, nearly a third of whom elected a terror group, Hamas, to lead them, which makes their cries of injustice ring hollow. If Israel is locked in the outdated land-equals-security calculus, Palestinians keep returning to the same tattered 1947 game plan — we fight you and win everything someday — that has been losing consistently for the past 67 years.
     Meanwhile the world, which doesn’t give a fig about much, doesn’t give a fig about this, except for those who hate Israel on a good day and really, really hate Israel now that it’s drawing blood, for reasons they vehemently insist have nothing at all to do with it being Jewish. Reading their emails and fielding their phone calls has left me with one thought: You don’t have to be anti-Semitic to condemn Israel, but it sure helps.
     So while Israel is dismantling Hamas tunnels and accidentally killing civilians — something Hamas is frantically trying to do intentionally — there will be a next month and a next year. Just because there is no hope now, this moment, doesn’t mean nothing will ever happen and this standoff will continue forever. So let’s ask my favorite question, one I like to bring up only because no one else does: How does this end?
     Everyone has a plan.
     The Palestinians and their sympathizers expect the Israelis to hand the country over and magically vanish, back to Poland perhaps (funny; the same people demanding Israel welcome back descendants of those it displaced in 1948 would recoil in horror if you suggested descendants of the Jews annihilated in 1945 return to claim their ancestral lands. Why is that?) The right wing in Israel is hardly much better; they would like to squeeze the Palestinians into ever-smaller knots of misery as they nibble at the land they feel God Himself gave to them.
     Myself, since Israel is supposedly the adult in the room, I believe it should come up with a plan. Announce that Gaza and the West Bank will be an independent Palestinian nation on such and such a date, its borders will be here. It isn’t ideal, Israel will say, but it’s what we’re giving you — a start — and we’ll be happy to discuss specifics later after you’ve shown you are a peaceful neighbor. If China and Taiwan can do it, so can we.
     That would never work, on one level, because Hamas would reject it. Great. Let them. On another, it would change everything. I was glad to hear Roey Gilad, Chicago’s consul general from Israel, bring up that very idea last week, calling it “Plan B.”
     “Israel would like to separate,” he said. “Israel is seriously considering Plan B: unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.” Support is “stronger than ever.” About time.
     The downside is where the Malaysian airliner comes in. Killing others is so easy. Gilad didn’t mention it, but the problem with quitting the territories is the first thing they always do, as their first baby step toward nationhood, is to attack the powerful Israeli military machine. Not the first step I would take, but there you go.
     The Israelis know, from hard experience, that they’ll have to go charging back in, as they are doing now, to destroy the military capability being flung at them. They have to. Sneak in a few of those Russian missile launchers and economic life would stop.
     But eventually Palestine would get the message, the way Egypt, Jordan et al have. They could move on to the next problems.
     When you puff away the fog of confusion, either that happens, or Israel becomes South Africa. Two choices. I’d pick Plan B.
     Yes, Israel would have to go charging back. But if you look at today’s headlines, they’re doing that anyway. Israel is good at defeating aggressive neighbors. Not so good at keeping them captive. End the latest carnage. Take a breath. Then implement Plan B. Give Palestinians their country whether they want it or not. It’s worth a try.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Remembering Neil Armstrong and July 20, 1969

     Today is the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping on the Moon. That he was the first man to do so hardly needs to be mentioned—the act made him one of the most famous men of the 20th century, a distinction that he carried with enormous grace. Like most people, I always admired Armstrong as much for the dignity he showed afterward as for the feat itself. He never sold out or cheapened his accomplishment. When he died two years ago I wrote this obituary, which appeared in the Sun-Times on Aug. 25, 2012:

     He was the first man to set foot on the moon, and he lived the rest of his life in such a manner as to never detract from that enormous accomplishment.
     Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of Apollo 11’s “Eagle” lunar landing module and onto the powdery gray lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. EST on July 20, 1969, to the amazement of a breathless world.
     “That’s one small step for [a] man,” he said, famously, the “a” dropping out in the quarter-million mile transmission. “One giant leap for mankind.”
     For the next 43 years, until his death Saturday at 82 after complications from surgery to repair a blocked artery, Armstrong conducted himself as a hero should — modest, self-effacing, neither capitalizing on his global fame nor seeking a return to the spotlight.
     That was not only appreciated, it was apt, because Armstrong’s modest demeanor was what caused NASA administrators to pick him for the honor in the first place, selecting him to achieve the capstone of the United States’ epic quest, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
     In a statement, his family described Armstrong as “a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.”
     Neil Alden Armstrong was born on Aug. 5, 1930, in Wapakoneta, a small town in Western Ohio, 60 miles from the hometown of the Wright Brothers, who were his boyhood heroes. Armstrong received his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday, before he learned to drive, paying for flight lessons with his own money from after-school jobs, and became a naval air cadet the next year.
     He studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue — he always described himself as a “nerdy engineer” — but left college to fight in the Korean War. The youngest fighter pilot in his squadron, he flew 78 combat missions, was shot down once and decorated three times.
     After the war, he finished at Purdue and got his masters degree at the University of Southern California. He joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA, becoming a research pilot at Edwards Air Force base, flying hundreds of different aircraft.
     Armstrong retired from the Navy in 1960 and joined the space program in 1962, part of the second class of astronauts. He commanded the Gemini 8 mission in 1966, conducting the first docking of two spacecraft in history, connecting with the Agena spacecraft.
     “Flight we are docked,” Armstrong radioed back. “It’s really a smoothie.” The rest of the flight wasn’t — 30 minutes after docking, a malfunctioning thruster caused the joined spacecraft to spin wildly, required the mission to be aborted and an emergency landing in the Pacific.
     NASA officials, looking for a cool head for the first risky moon mission, remembered Armstrong’s performance under pressure with Gemini 8. He was made commander of Apollo 11, where he was joined by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, who stayed in the command module Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface.
     Armstrong needed his trademark calm during the Eagle’s landing, when a balky computer threatened to put the spidery vehicle into a field of boulders — he switched to manual control, reading out the distance to the uprushing moon, flew past the boulder field and landed softly in a cloud of dust with less than a minute’s worth of fuel remaining in the landing tanks.
     “Houston,” he said. “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
     NASA always said that Armstrong was selected to go out first because his seat was closest to the hatch. But years later, officials admitted that it was his self-effacing demeanor — Aldrin had lobbied for the honor — that caused him to be selected.
     Armstrong spent less than three hours on the moon. He collected rock samples and took photographs — most of them, so he only appears in a few. Armstrong never flew into space again.
     The rest of his life was mostly out of the public eye — Aldrin described him as one of the quietest men he had ever met.
     “On behalf of the Aldrin family we extend our deepest condolences to Carol & the entire Armstrong family on Neil’s passing. He will be missed,” Aldrin said via Twitter.
     Armstrong taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati and served on corporate boards.
     He did make several rare appearances — in 2010, decrying a NASA budget that shed its human space flight.
     “It has been painful to watch,” he testified to Congress. “I believe the president has been poorly advised.”
     He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal. More than a dozen public schools are named in his honor.
     Armstrong was living in Cincinnati at the time of his death. He was married in 1956 and divorced his first wife, Janet, in 1994, later marrying Carol Held Knight. Survivors include his two sons from his first marriage, Alan and Mark. A daughter, Karen, died of an inoperable brain tumor at age 2 in 1962.
     His family’s statement requested that those wishing to honor Armstrong, “honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Divvy: all good fun until somebody gets hurt

     The city recently marked the first anniversary of its Divvy bike-share program with characteristic self-congratulation: “I encourage everyone to celebrate this milestone by getting on a Divvy bike and going for a ride,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, trotting out the statistics — 1.6 million trips taken, 250,000 day passes sold, 23,000 annual members signed up, including yours truly. I’ve taken over 100 jaunts on the Divvy this past year. It’s a fun, convenient, healthful way to get around town.
     But ...
     In one regard the city has failed in its rollout of the Divvy program, by downplaying the importance of wearing a helmet. Perhaps because bothering with helmets cuts down on usage. Perhaps because they spoil the carefree, hip mellow Divvy is driving for. Perhaps — my theory — that Divvy doesn’t make money from renting helmets, yet.
     Go on Divvy’s website and find barely a whisper about the need for helmets, a bit tucked at the end of “Riding Tips.” Divvy is acting too much like a private business and too little like a responsible part of civic life.
     Not that I’m the Welcome Wagon for bike helmets. I didn’t own a helmet for the first 35 years of my life, having grown up in the era when we drank from garden hoses, rode in the beds of pickup trucks and played with lawn darts.
     But after having kids, I realized that if I wanted them to be wearing
their helmets when some careless motorist came blasting out of a side street, I’d better wear one too.
     It’s a big honking Bell helmet, the kind with the vaguely insectoid shape that makes it bigger and harder to haul around. But I do wear it, mostly. I wore the helmet when I met the mayor for a Divvy ride and was surprised that Rahm, usually attuned to optics, had no helmet. Maybe helmets poll poorly.
     My policy: Try to wear one. Usually. Shoot for 90 percent. OK, 75 percent. But sometimes I’ll go for a ride helmetless.
     I’m beginning to wonder if even those occasional breezy-haired trips are unwise. According to a new study, “Public Bicycle Share Programs and Head Injuries,” in the American Journal of Public Health, comparing cities with bike-share programs to cities without, head injuries increased 8 percent over three years, as a proportion of all injuries, in cities with the programs — to more than half of all serious bike injuries — while decreasing 4 percent in cities without them.
     “These programs are great because they promote physical activity, but at the same time they should really offer helmets on-site because this is a matter of public safety,” Dr. Ellen Omi, a trauma surgeon at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, said.  
     Fewer than a quarter of bike riders wear helmets, according to the National Injury Prevention Foundation, a statistic that conceals a bit of good news: Most people ride without helmets and most people are fine. Head injuries are quite rare. Helmets are like seat belts; you don’t need them at all until the moment you need them a lot.
     I asked Divvy spokesman Elliot Greenberger if there are any plans to encourage helmets more.
    “We’re exploring options to make helmet rental or purchase more readily available near stations,” he said in an email. “However we haven’t committed to firm plans. Helmet rental technology is quite new, so we’re looking at technologies being rolled out in other cities as possible options.”
     Until then, Divvy is offering members $10 off certain helmets. A start. But what they really need to do is put some of their marketing muscle, which they had no trouble using to push that special red bike, into urging riders to wear helmets.
     Greenberger said that “out of over 1.6 million Divvy trips served in our first year, we’ve had fewer than 10 incidents reported to us, none of which were serious.”
     “Trips served.” Like they’re McDonald’s.
     A good record. But that also means the serious incident is coming. Don’t let it be you. The bottom line on helmets: They’re a bother and you could view them as a waste.
     Or you can view helmets as a reverse lottery. Some poor soul is going to be cut off by a cab and bounce off Wacker Drive on his head, leading to the severe, long-term, possibly fatal brain injuries that Omi warns of. Buying and wearing a helmet is your ticket not to be that person, laboriously learning to speak again at the Rehab Institute.
     And when that happens to someone, which it certainly will, it’ll partially be the fault of Divvy, the city of Chicago and Emanuel because they could have done more to promote helmet use, but didn’t.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

      It's Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a time of dawn-to-dusk fasting. Observing the fast is considered one of the "Five Pillars of Islam," but it's also a time of celebration and renewal of community ties, particularly at the Iftar, the post sun-down meal. Friday night I attended an Iftar raising money for the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund  at Reza's on Ontario, a very nice group of Chicagoans, and of course plenty of good food as well. It was a lot of fun, and if you the chance to attend an Iftar—Ramadan runs until July 28—I suggest you grab it.
      This photo was taken, not at the Iftar, but inside a mosque, obviously, but which one? My supply of posters is almost gone, so the winner will receive a signed copy of my recent book, "You Were Never in Chicago." Please be sure to post your guesses in the comments below. Good luck.

Friday, July 18, 2014

John F. Kennedy Jr., 1960-1999

    This is the obituary of John F. Kennedy Jr., that I couldn't find yesterday. I thought it merits a second read. It originally ran in the Sun-Times exactly 15 years ago today, on July 18, 1999:

     He entered the world already famous, the only child ever born to a president-elect. His every action warranted a news story. When he first stood up. When he first went to church. When he walked.
     Later, and for years to come in the public mind, he was John-John, the little boy in a short coat, heartbreakingly solemn, saluting his father's casket as it passed by on a day that was both a moment of profound national grief and his third birthday.
     Eventually he was John F. Kennedy Jr., People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive," the admired and ridiculed inheritor of his famous father's name and charm, trying to find a place for himself in the world and its large expectations of him, first as a lawyer, then as a magazine publisher.
     Frequently dismissed as a dilettante, he nevertheless escaped the kind of notoriety that afflicted other members of his extended clan.
     Yet John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., 38, could not escape, apparently, the tragic ill fortune that stalked his family, his small plane crashing Friday on its way to Martha's Vineyard. His glamorous wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister also were on the plane.
     His 1960 birth was a dramatic event. His father, who had been elected president 18 days earlier, had spent Thanksgiving Day with his pregnant wife at their Georgetown home, then got on a plane for Palm Beach, where he was to vacation.
     Two hours after her husband's departure, Jacqueline Kennedy was rushed to the hospital; word reached the president-elect as his plane landed in Florida, and as soon as a new plane could be refueled, he turned around and went back to Washington. But he wasn't in time for the birth of his first son, at 12:22 a.m. Nov. 25, about a month before the due date. The baby weighed 6 pounds, 3 ounces.
     For the nation, the arrival of JFK Jr. was welcomed as a break from the worries of the day. "No bit of news could have stirred such bipartisan excitement," the Chicago Sun-Times editorialized. "We bid him welcome, and wish him a long and good life."
     No detail of that life, early on, was too minor to be reported, from his formula (one tablespoon of powdered milk to two ounces of water every three hours) to his baptismal outfit (the white christening dress his father had worn 43 years earlier) to his first steps ("Kennedy Son Takes Steps to See Dad Off," one story was headlined).
     Three staffers worked full time opening and cataloging the thousands of baby gifts from people all over the world — hundreds of women knitted booties, sent, typically, with brief notes explaining they had done the knitting during the presidential debates, or while watching election returns. In later years, the presidential couple would implore Americans not to send the children presents. There were too many.
     Reports on his progress were part of the Camelot mystique, the joy of having a vibrant, glamorous couple and their young children in the White House. Early public glimpses of John-John came as he peered through the rails of the upper balcony at ceremonial events going on below, near where a sandbox was set up for him.
     The nation saw the little boy and his sister, Caroline, dance in the Oval Office while their beaming father clapped. They saw John-John playing under his dad's desk. President Kennedy would tease him by calling him "Sam." "I am not Sam. I'm John, Daddy, I'm John," he would protest. (It was his older sister who forbade him from being called "Jack.")
     He loved 21-gun salutes. He loved the helicopters and airplanes that the family often traveled on. He loved returning the Marine guard's salute with one of his own. The president called his children "my rascals," and they would come running whenever he called for them.
     John Jr. celebrated his first two birthdays in the White House. For his 2nd, the president of Ireland sent a pony.
     By his third birthday, his father was dead. The evening of the assassination, he and his sister were hurried from the White House by their nurse, Maud Shaw. John-John was told that his father had been killed by "a bad man," but he didn't really understand what had happened. "I don't have anyone to play with," he complained the next day at a private home, missing his father and the staff at the White House.
     Lyndon B. Johnson's first act as president after he returned to the White House from Dallas was to write a letter of condolence to the boy, beginning, "It will be many years before you can read this note. . . ."       

      Kennedy's salute of his father's casket, as it was leaving St. Matthew's Cathedral for Arlington National Cemetery, was one of the many searing images from the days following the assassination. He had been standing next to his mother and, at her prompting, stepped forward and saluted. The date was Nov. 25, 1963: his third birthday. The Sun-Times ran the photo over an entire page.
     After the assassination, the family moved to New York, living first in the Carlyle Hotel. Kennedy began his schooling at the prestigious St. David's School, transferring for third grade to the 330-year-old Collegiate School —  reportedly because St. David's wanted him to repeat the second grade.
     While Jacqueline Kennedy was strenuous in protecting her children's privacy, he remained frequently in the public eye: for skinning his knee, for punching a playmate, for breaking his wrist falling from a pony.
     Not only did the public note his actions, it imitated them. "John F. Kennedy Jr. has let his sideburns grow and the repercussions have been felt all over Manhattan's Upper East Side. Next month, Des Moines," a half-page article in the New York Times began. Kennedy was 6 years old.
     By then, he was correcting people that his name was not John-John, it was "John." His mother had begun calling him "Johnny" when he turned 4, to show he was growing up.
     After Jacqueline Kennedy married shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis in 1968, her children's time was divided between New York and Greece.
     Like his mother, he was plagued by paparazzi, filing an affidavit in his mother's lawsuit against photographer Ronald Galella, accusing the photographer of almost causing an accident while Kennedy was operating a speedboat off the Greek island of Scorpios.
    "Unexpectedly a fishing boat ran directly across my path," said Kennedy, then 11. "I had to swerve and almost capsize in order to avoid a collision."
     He received Secret Service protection, as mandated by law, until he was 16 years old. But that didn't spare him from being mugged in Central Park when he was 13, when a drug addict robbed him of his bicycle. In 1972, a plot by a dozen international terrorists to kidnap him for ransom was foiled before it could be carried out.
     He went to high school at exclusive Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and bucked family tradition and attended Brown University instead of Harvard.
     While at Brown, he was in many ways a typical late-1970s collegian: to pledge Phi Psi fraternity, Kennedy—nude and covered with fish entrails and dog food—streaked across campus.
     He reportedly wanted to attend Yale Drama School, but his mother threatened to disinherit him unless he went to law school. He bowed to her will, enrolling in New York University Law School in 1986.
     After graduating in 1989, he joined the New York district attorney's office as an assistant district attorney at $30,000 a year. "A down in the trenches kind of job" he later said. Kennedy took the subway to work, where on his first day he had to run a gantlet of 40 reporters, photographers and TV crew members.
     To keep his job, Kennedy needed to pass his New York state bar exam. He failed on his first two attempts, to cruel hoots of media ridicule ("THE HUNK FLUNKS . . . AGAIN" screamed the front page headline on the New York Daily News). But Kennedy was nonplussed.
     "I am clearly not a legal genius," he said after the second failure.
     He passed on his third try, in 1990.    

     Kennedy made his political debut introducing his Uncle Ted at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. That was the year People magazine named him "Sexiest Man Alive." His public appearances often had a tinge of rock-concert hysteria to them, as women shrilly shouted their approval.
     Kennedy did not speak publicly about his father until 1992, when he appeared on ABC's "Prime Time Live" with his sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. He doubted that "given the tenor of the times" his father, if still alive, would have gone into politics at all. He said that while he wasn't going to see Oliver Stone's movie "JFK," then just being released, that the assassination and the theories surrounding it were not particularly important to him.
     "That act, that day does not have much to do with my life," he said. "My father's life has to do with my life."
He said he did not waste time wondering about the event itself.
     "There are people, historians, filmmakers, etc., who are going to take time and money studying (the assassination). Whatever they decide is not going to change the one fundamental fact in my life, which is that it won't bring him back," he said.
     In 1995, he launched a magazine devoted to politics and celebrity. Kennedy named it George, after the first U.S. president, despite the advice of consultants who called the name bland. He worked vigorously promoting it—even appearing on the "Murphy Brown" sitcom delivering an issue. Circulation swelled to an impressive 800,000 issues, though it fell once the novelty wore off, and its future was viewed as uncertain in recent months.
     The public scrutiny continued. In February 1996, Kennedy and his girlfriend, Carolyn Bessette, were videotaped quarreling in a New York park, with talking, fighting, pouting and crying before they made up. The 20-minute spat showed up on television—and caused controversy in Chicago, where WBBM-TV Channel 2 used it to lead the news, distressing viewers who felt that it was inappropriate and intrusive.
     Kennedy's love life, like the rest of his life, received extensive public scrutiny, and he was tied romantically to several women, from Sharon Stone to Daryl Hannah, whom he dated for years and nearly married, to Madonna (who described her tryst with Kennedy as being "like going to bed with an innocent").
     In September 1996 he married Bessette, a former Calvin Klein publicist, in a private ceremony on Cumberland Island, along the Georgia coast. The couple had lived together for about a year.
     He was given kudos for pulling off the wedding in secret, without the frenzy of media hype and helicopters that usually would attend such an event.
     Kennedy provided the most glittering party of the year in Chicago in 1996 when he feted his magazine at a summer gala at the Art Institute. Celebrities from Norman Mailer to Kevin Costner to Aretha Franklin attended.
     Kennedy avoided the sort of deeply embarrassing public scandal that afflicted his cousins and his Uncle Ted. In 1997, he felt comfortable enough to chastise a pair of errant relatives, calling his cousins Michael Kennedy — accused of having sex with his family's teenage baby-sitter — and Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, who was contemplating a run for the Massachusetts governor, the "poster boys for bad behavior." Joseph Kennedy, embarrassed by his ex-wife's book revealing his efforts to force her to agree to an annulment, abandoned his bid for the governor's post, though he was thought to have been a shoo-in.
     Kennedy said he had few memories of his father, but that his being the only son of the president was something he enjoyed, not regretted.
     Asked a few years ago by CNN interviewer Larry King if it's "good to be the son of a legend," Kennedy replied: "It's complicated, (but) it makes for a rich life. Great opportunities and some challenges. But all in all, I feel very fortunate."