Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"They are the effect and not the cause"

Library exhibit, Vanderbilt University
    The benefit, and drawback, of writing for publication in a newspaper is that you have a finite space. About 800 words, of late. Thats good because it encourages brevity. You make your point in 1000 words, and then cut 20 percent which, when you're done, usually makes the column better, sharper. 
     But it is a detriment as well, in that you can only say so much. For instance, in yesterday's post about Simone de Beauvoir's views on race in the United States, I really could only introduce her, talk about her visit to Harlem which I found so illuminating, then wrap it up. Time to move on. 
    But thankfully, a number of readers stuck their feet in the door before I could close it.  I wanted to stride off to a new topic, but they yanked me back.  Joe Schiele, of Ravenswood, struck the archetypical tone—and truly, each is almost identical ("They don't have to conspire," as Gay Talese once said of the rich, "because they all think alike"): 
Hi Neil,
     Great column today!!! You as a white Jew from Northbrook, and me as a white Roman Catholic from Glenview, how about we take our wive's and children on a nice weekend stroll around 49th and State. I hear it's especially nice around midnight :-)
    Wish Madame Bouvier(sp?) could join us, but since she's long gone and obviously unaware how much Harlem and the AA (generally) demographic has de-volved in our country, I'm not quite sure what the point of your column was.
      I can't leave Mr. Schiele dangling in uncertainty, and Beauvoir addresses this very point, at a length that I could only allude to in the paper.
       But here, online, we can let her build her argument to help illuminate Mr. Schiele. And though it will certainly be lost on him, we can still benefit:
       "The black problem,' Beauvoir writes, "is first of all a white problem. To understand it, you must start there. It was whites who brought black slaves to America (around four hundred thousand of them in 1802, when the slave trade was legal and nearly as many—illegally—between 1808 and 1860). It was whites who fought each other to decide whether to maintain or abolish slavery. Today, there are thirteen million blacks, but they possess only a tiny portion of the country's economic wealth, and they have almost no political influence. It is whites who assign them their place: their way of life is a secondary reaction to the situation created by the white majority." 
     Of course she wrote this in 1947, and things have changed. Now there are 40 million African Americans, and a black president, but otherwise what she said about wealth and political power hold true. There has been a struggle for Civil Rights and things are different. But they are not—as Mr. Schiele's comments reflect—really that different, and in some ways they are worse, as it is easy for people such as my complaining readers to dismiss the current situation of African Americans are entirely their fault. 
      Even though, as Beauvoir continues:
     "No one claims that their conditions or opportunities are equal to those of whites..."
     Inferior schools, lack of capital, lack of access to jobs, uneven law enforcement, judicial system stacked against them, all of these are shrugged off—how else otherwise could we see a return to voting restrictions? Not quite the cynical poll taxes and "grandfather clauses" which Beauvoir details, but close enough. None of this keeps my readers such as Mr. Schiele from mockingly washing their hands. That too is part of a long tradition.
    "But many racists, ignoring the rigors of science, insist on declaring that even if the physiological reasons haven't been established, that fact is that blacks are inferior to whites"—the term Schiele uses is "de-volved"—"You only have to travel through America to be convinced of it. But what does the verb 'to be' mean? Does it define an immutable substance, like oxygen? Or does it describe a moment in a situaton that has evolved, like every human situation? The best answer to this accusation was provided by Jefferson, speaking of white Americans, who had been put down by Old World Europeans for lacking a historical past or any constructive force, for not having produced any outstanding figures in the arts or sciences. "We have not yet had our opportunities," he essentially said. "First let us exist; then we can be asked to prove ourselves."
      That in essence is my view of the situation of blacks today. Not enough time has passed since the enormous wrongs visited upon them. The little change we've managed, at enormous effect, makes us fancy that much has changed, and it hasn't. 
     She goes on, but my newspaper training tells me it is time to draw to a close. You really should read the book. But a final thought, addressing my reader's sneer at crime in black areas—all of which I have spent time in, with no ill effect, doing my job. (And yes, brought my wife and kids, after dark, to no ill effect). 
    "Their crime rate is a little higher than that of whites in part because they are treated with unequal severity, in part because their poverty allows them neither legal nor illegal defense against the arbitrariness of the police, and in part because they almost all have a wretched standard of living and a social status that makes them view the white legal system as merely a detested constraint," Beauvoir writes. "Finally, if in the big cities so many blacks are found in the lower depths of society, it's because there are so few economic outlets open to them that they're forced to live by their wits. The faults and defects attributed to blacks really are created by the terrible handicaps of segregation and discrimination; they are the effect and not the cause of the white attitude toward black people."
     "They are the effect and not the cause of the white attitude toward black people." If that, if the entire final paragraph, is not as true today as it was in 1947 well, then maybe Mr. Schiele or one of his identical soulmates can write a second time and explain to me why it isn't.       
Photo atop blog: Vanderbilt Library, Nashville, Tennessee.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Beauvoir's thoughts on race echo today

Simone de Beauvoir, 1948 (photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)
     Every night I go to bed with a French woman. My wife doesn’t mind, because the French woman is dead.
     So I’m not climbing under the covers with Simone de Beauvoir, herself, alas, but with her book, “America Day by Day,” an account of her visit to the United States for a four-month lecture tour in 1947.
     To be honest, I was only vaguely familiar with Beauvoir: some kind of existentialist, lover of Jean-Paul Sartre, pioneering feminist author of “The Second Sex” — still more than most know (“She’s related to Jackie Kennedy, right?” a friend asked). I can’t put on airs; I hadn’t read a word of hers. But my co-author, Sara Bader, has, and in checking sources for our upcoming book, I called up “America Day by Day” on Google. I started to read around the lines we quote and was hooked. I married a really smart woman, but Beauvoir is a really, really smart woman.
     Off to the library I trotted. And they say you can’t find books serendipitously online.
     At first I thought the book’s charm would be her quirky Gallic views on American life, such as her delight at drinking scotch, which she calls “one of the keys to America,” or her baffled rejection of ear muffs:
     “Men remain bareheaded. But many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sits on their hair like a ribbon ­— it’s hideous.”
     Her timing is excellent. She finds Los Angeles in the grip of the Black Dahlia murders. She can’t turn around without bumping into someone famous, whether touring Madison Street dives with Nelson Algren, who heard her voice on the phone and hung up the first two times Beauvoir called — she had been given his number by a friend. She called back again, and they became lovers.
     But that isn’t why I’m writing about her.
     Barely two weeks in this country and she’s at New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church with her pal, Richard Wright, listening to Adam Clayton Powell preach.
     “I’m struck by the social aspect of his sermon,” she writes. “It seems less like a religious gathering than a political meeting.”
     That’s the first of easily 10 solid pages of observation and comments on race relations in America in 1947, and what really struck me, reading them, was how spot-on they were then and how sadly apt they are today.
     I can’t even summarize all she says, but her solo visit to Harlem must be shared. First she catalogs the various warnings she received: “Never go on foot” and “Avoid all side streets” and promises that whites venturing there risk the next morning being “found in the gutter with their throats cut.”
     Beauvoir walks alone into Harlem, noting “a force pulls me back, a force that emanates from the borders of the black city and drive me back — fear. Not mine but that of others — the fear of all those whites who never take the risk of going to Harlem.”
     Shaking that force off, she sees children playing, adults sitting or strolling. “There is nothing frightening in all this,” she notes. “I even feel a new kind of relaxed gaiety.”
     As far as her being attacked, “No one seems to pay attention to me,” Beauvoir writes. “It’s the same scenery as on the avenues of [downtown] Manhattan.”
     As she walks, she realizes something.
     “There must be some strange orgies going on in the heads of right-thinking people. For me, this broad, peaceful, cheerful boulevard does not encourage my imagination. I glance at the small side streets; just a few children, turning on their roller skates. … They don’t look dangerous.”
     Then it occurs to her what her white New York friends had really been afraid of.
     “The average American, so concerned with being in harmony with the world and himself, knows that beyond these borders he takes on the hated face of the oppressor, the enemy,” Beauvoir writes. “It’s this face that frightens him. He feels hated, he knows he is hateful. This thorn in his conciliatory heart is more intolerable than a specific external danger. …It’s themselves they’re afraid to meet on the street corners. And because I’m white, whatever I think and say and do, this curse weighs on me as well. I dare not smile at the children in the squares; I don’t feel I have the right.”
     Throughout the book she returns to black topics and areas, heartbreakingly in Savannah, where she and a friend do get angry glares and children running ahead of them, shouting, “Enemies! Enemies!”
     I thought, “I’ve got to tuck this away for Black History Month.” But that’s half a year away. Besides, one of the criticisms is that it’s wrong to consign black history to a single month. It should be year-round. Quite true. It can pop up anywhere. Even in late September in a French woman’s memoirs.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hope is the thumb you suck waiting for things get worse

    Sharp-eyed readers noticed (okay, they didn't notice, or at least didn't mention noticing, but a guy can dream, can't he?) that I had two columns in the paper Friday. The first was about Rahm's ill-advised bragging about the busyness of O'Hare—proved all too true that day, when the place was shut down by a lunatic who set fire to the air traffic control center causing thousands of flights to be cancelled. Very busy airport, in a bad way.
     But there was a second column, that I wrote earlier in the morning, on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I thought the airport column would replace it, but both ended up running.
     I didn't want this column to be overlooked, as I think it makes some good points, and am particularly pleased with the hope-is-the-thumb-you-suck line at the end. 

     Happy 5775, for those of you who celebrate Jewish New Year, if “happy” is the proper word to describe this particular, anxious moment in Jewish life.
     (“Really, the Jews are anxious?” quips the potato-nosed wisenheimer in my head. “As opposed to their usual tranquil state?”)
     Shhh, I say. I’m trying to be serious here.
     (“Oh, a Jew is being serious. Now we’ve really sailed off into uncharted waters ...”)
      Ignore him. Anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe. Jewish stores burn, Jews are killed in the street, Jewish centers attacked. Maybe not that much on historical terms, or compared to the massive horrors currently being inflicted in, oh, Syria, or South Sudan.
     But alarm can’t be written off to reflexive catastrophization either; ignoring deteriorating world conditions is not a survival mechanism for the Jewish people. To make sure it wasn’t just me being jumpy, I checked in with Richard Hirschhaut, founding executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
     “This is a moment of deep and lingering anxiety and frustration,” he agreed. “This was an ugly and sad summer. The world has gotten uglier in the past year.”
     Why now? That’s easy, no expert needed. The war in Gaza. Its leaders, the terror group Hamas, fired rockets into Israel, and Israel blasted them back, killing lots of civilians, to the shock of the world, which then let the beast of anti-Semitism off its chain.
     The logic appears to be, well, if Jews are going to attack people in the Middle East, well, we’re going to attack some Jews right here, give ’em a taste of their own medicine. Nuts, but there you go. Remember, to a bigot every member of the hated group is fungible, interchangeable, and if you can’t lash out at the bad Jews in Israel, well, this Jew walking down the street will suffice.
     Israel's actions are no more the cause of anti-Semitism today than a black person failing to doff his hat to a Southerner in 1935 was the cause of his being lynched. It might be the spark that touches off an explosion of hate, but the poisonous gas had to already be there, and for the Jews—spoiler alert—it's always there. A hundred years ago, when there was no Israel and Jews were isolated in villages in Eastern Europe (and, remember, in Palestine) that didn't keep the world from assigning world control to them, and cooking up blood libels and mad plots to rationalize hatred. What makes Gaza bloodshed unique is that it actually happened.
      The Palestinian tragedy isn't a cause of anti-Semitism; it's a result. If Israel's neighbors had not tried to destroy it in 1948, or in 1956, or in 1967, there would be no occupied West Bank and Gaza. Israel's neighbors didn't turn upon it because it was a new nation formed by the withdrawal of British forces (just like Iran, Iraq and Jordan, which somehow seem to be OK). It was because it was a nation of Jews.
     The sad irony of course is that Jews are deeply divided over Israel. No pro-Palestinian rally is complete without a contingent of "Not in My Name" Jewish traitors denouncing Israel for behaving like any country would. ("We're bombing the heck out of Syria right now, going after our enemies," the voice wonders. "Hitting any schools?") They remind me that in the late 1940s some Jews still found a way to stand with Stalin.
     The Palestinian conflict will end when the Palestinians are ready to form a country and live at peace. Don't hold your breath.
     "Hatred is so much easier than reconciliation," Lawrence Wright notes in his new book, "Thirteen Days in September." "No sacrifices or compromises are required."
     Thus the problem will come roaring back, if not in 5775, then 5776 or 5777...
     "Thankfully, this is a period of relative quiet now, but I don't think this is so much a day after as a moment in-between," Hirshhaut said. "The hostilities by all indications may come back, until the stranglehold Hamas has over Gaza is somehow changed. This does not mean there ought not be a cause of hope. There are moderate voices. We need to encourage them to make right choices."
     Sounds like something you'd say to a bunch of kindergartners, right?
     I told Hirshhaut that both ends of the Jewish spectrum—knee-jerk praise for Israel and dismissal of Palestinian suffering on one side, embrace of their cause and nullification of Israel on the other—mystify me.
     "You have to see the humanity," Hirshhaut agreed. "When seeing that humanity in the other takes hold and manifests itself, and begins to have traction in our daily lives, then I think there's hope."
     ("Hope," sneered the little smart-aleck voice, "is the thumb you suck when you realize things are about to get much worse.")

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Saturday Fun Activity: Where IS this?

      As a fan of enigmatic signs, this of course caught my eye. Once I might have thought this was too minimal a hint to make for a fair contest, but after the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder was guessed by its "cash-only" sign, I feel this distinctive treat should get you in the right area.
      Or not. I took the liberty of Googling "Palabok," and, well, that isn't going to lead you straight to the doorstep of this place. Though I found it easily enough. 
      Anyway, enough hints—the hive has never been thwarted, and I assume you won't be thwarted now. Though to be honest, at this point, I can't tell if I'm trying to stump you, or pulling for you to extend your streak. A kind of Stockholm Syndrome.
        I've got a good prize: this attractive Iron Man figurine, which I plucked off the free table, thinking he could guard over my office. He's done a fine job—no security breaches on his watch. But he somehow isn't quite worthy of moving up to the my new office on 10 ... this Wednesday. I'm trying to make something of a fresh start. Well, as fresh as a start as you can while still dragging all 17 volumes of the New Catholic Encyclopedia along with you. 
      Where is this place? Make sure to post your guesses below. 


    Well, since this was cracked so easily — 12:08 a.m. — I might as well put in a plug for (spoiler alert, if you want to try to figure it out, stop reading now, because I'm about to say where it is ... really, I mean it ... okay, you've been warned) ....
      The Village Creamery in Niles. A purveyor of Filipino ice creams in flavors like lychee, avocado, jackfruit and yam, I just can't drive past the place without stopping in and picking up a few pints, most recently some green tea and a flavor called "Halo Halo Fiesta." It's on Waukegan Road, right across the street from the King Spa, the deeply weird Korean recreation that is also worth a few visits.  Try the maize. And the green tea. And the birthday cake flavor. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

O'Hare is the World's Busiest Airport (this week)

Heathrow Airport, London — 2009 
     Willis Tower is the tallest building in North America, still, if you consider its roof as the top and ignore the dubious antenna stuck atop One World Trade Center in New York.
     Not that the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat ruled that way.
     Of course, if you consider the altitude of buildings, then any warehouse in Denver beats our tallest building, since their ground floors start a mile up, and Chicago is a paltry 600 feet or so above sea level.
     Not that people measure buildings that way; it’s a complicated business.
     As is “world’s busiest airport,” a title that our reflexively proud Mayor Rahm Emanuel reclaimed for O’Hare International Airport.
     “Busiest airport in the world,” the mayor said Wednesday. “O’Hare International Airport has regained its status as the world’s busiest airport for flight operations,” the Department of Aviation announced.
     Which is odd, because just last week, CNN reported that Atlanta’s Hartsfield is busiest for the 16th year in a row, with 94.4 million passengers passing through in 2013.
     Sharp-eyed readers will note different measures being used here: The mayor is referring to “flight operations” while CNN is talking about passengers.
     From January to August 2014, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, 580,000 flights took off or landed at O’Hare, nudging us past Atlanta, barely.
     But before we start printing up celebratory T-shirts, maybe we should squint a little harder at those stats.
     First, notice they're only for eight months. Atlanta squeaked by us in 2013, even in flight operations, with 911,000 takeoffs and landings to O'Hare's 883,000. The race isn't over.
     "There's still more year left," noted Tony Molinero, spokesman for the FAA in Chicago. While there's nothing wrong with feeling victorious in first place while the season is still going on - baseball teams like to enter the All-Star break on top - you don't want to chill the champagne either.
     Because that's a game other people can play. Tiny Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wis., also claims to be the world's busiest airport, and they, too, have facts to back them up, since there are 25,000 takeoffs and landings during the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual convention there in July. Slice the time window small enough, and any given airport can, for the moment, be the world'sbusiest.
     So which airport metrics are the best? My gut tells me, when Joe Average Flier is thinking about busy airports, he's not thinking of how many FedEx planes are taking off and landing empty, but how many passengers are thronging the terminals. On that measurement, Chicago is not only currently being creamed by Hartsfield, but we're in sixth place, behind airports in Beijing and Dubai, London's Heathrow, Tokyo's Haneda and - prepare yourself for a shock - Los Angeles International, which snuck ahead of us since last year, serving a million more passengers than O'Hare so far in 2014.
     Not to be Debbie Downer here. O'Hare's nosing past Atlanta, even for a few months, is not insignificant. This is a horse race.
     "For the first four months of the year, Atlanta had more, the next four months of the year it was O'Hare, so it's been fairly close," Molinero said. "It's been many years since O'Hare had more monthly flights than Atlanta."
     He noted that the FAA does not track people.
     "Whether a plane has one person or 100" doesn't matter, he said, for FAA purposes. Putting more planes through the place is a sign of health.    
     "A busy airport is good for the economy," Molinero said, noting that the mayor's boast does represent "good, legitimate, real numbers. There's strong data there, absolutely."
     Maybe that's the problem: Chicago is boasting about passing Atlanta in one of three airport metrics over an eight-month period, as if hurrying to do it before we slip back again. Has it come to that?
     The key is to make sure O'Hare is the best transportation hub it possibly can be, not to make red circles around whatever stats tell ourselves we're No. 1. Believing yourself to be tops is dangerous in business. Galena was once No. 1, considering itself superior to Chicago. It had that all-important lead ore mine and the mighty Mississippi. So when the Illinois Central wanted to go through Galena, the city refused. Chicago, less proud, welcomed the railroad. Good call.
     Telling yourself you're No. 1 might feel good, even on flimsy evidence. But I'd prefer a mayor who says we're not No. 1 and need to fight like hell. That's closer to the truth.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Three, two one —Happy 5775!"

     I suppose there are Jews who automatically know what year it is, Hebraically, all the year round, without checking. 
    But I am not one of those Jews. I'd guess most aren't. The year is one of those things that slips through our fingers. It could be 5345 or 5825 and I wouldn't notice the difference—the "5" sticks in mind: I don't think somebody could get away with "Happy 6934!" I'd sense something out-of-place. 
    Though this time of year, I do know, because I check, so  I don't get it wrong in print:  5775. Cool, it's a palindrome numeral, same forward and backward. That's got to be lucky. Only one in our lifetimes. 
    That's 5,775 years since the creation of the universe, by the way, though again, neither I nor anybody I know actually believes that. We take it with a wink. Shame other faiths couldn't master the "Wear the less factual parts of your faith lightly" skill that Jews often have down pat: they'd save a lot of time wasted trying to dress their long-held myth up as science and hoping people buy it (though give them credit: they succeed, amazingly. If I tried to get the state of Texas to put The Book of Life in their literature textbooks, I'd probably not have half the success that Creationists do). 
      Rosh Hashana is when Jews are inscribed into The Book of Life by God Almighty— nonsense, of course, but I don't want to be a killjoy and draw too much attention to that, beyond pointing out that it's a belief held so casually that it's aired once a year and never referred to again. If a Jewish person gets really sick in July, they don't say, "I know I'm going to be okay —I was inscribed in the Book of Life last September."
      We had a special dinner, with round raisin challah, for a sweet year, lit candles and said prayers. Piffle, of course, but familiar piffle. Nonsense we've been saying forever. No need to harp on that either, no need to upset people. All religions are pails of hooey — the rituals, that is, I'm not suggesting that religions don't do good, in between the fairytales and various tics and rhetorical spasms of symbolism. But for some reason people get insulted if you don't meet their credulous twaddle with at least a polite silence, which is also unfair. I wish upon stars as a matter of habit—I did tonight, after synagogue—but I'm not going to get into an argument with you about it about its efficacy, or feel disrespected, if you don't wish upon stars along with me. 
      We trotted off to synagogue—my wife and I did, anyway. The 17-year-old refused, and I couldn't quite see forcing him: sort of contradicts the whole idea. Compulsory spiritualism though again, much of the world seems keen on that. Teens are supposed to rebel. God designed them that way, and who am I to go against His Mysterious Will?
      We went to Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist synagogue, which we attended for a dozen years before taking a step away, after the boys' bar mitzvahs, in the traditional cigarette break from the faith.  Though now we seem to be tiptoeing back because, really, you have to pass the time somehow. Reconstructionism might be unfamiliar to you. I consider it "Judaism as if you meant it." More singing, more joy, certainly more than the arid fields of Reform Judaism I tilled as a youth, with, which I finally decided is Conservative Judaism stripped down for those who feel compelled to show up somewhere and utter some Hebrew. A sort of Cliff Notes Judaism.
     "We don't see Judaism as a spectator sport," said Fred Andes, a board member at the synagogue, summing up Reconstructionism nicely. If you're going to do it, do it, and do it like you mean it.  
     I went to services to accompany my wife—had she wanted to go bowling, I'd have been good for that, too. But I was sincerely interested in what Shir Hadash's rabbi, Eitan Weiner-Kaplow, would have to say at this delicate moment in Jewish contemporary life. With the war in Gaza still smoldering on the world's consciousness, and anti-Semitism on the rise, while Jews argue heatedly about our stance on Israel, I would not want to be a rabbi sitting in my study, pursing my lips over my keyboard and wondering what to tell the thinning ranks for the faithful. How would he navigate the lion's den?
      Rabbi Eitan spoke of Jews tendency to complain, to "kvetch" and how we actually have little to complain about, and it's better to focus on being happy. "We're supposed to be happy, not kvetching," he said. 
    Can't argue that. Sometimes the best way to address something is to let it be. Plus there was a second sermon, which might sound excessive to those used to dull sermons, but these were interesting; more interesting, to me, than the prayers.
    Fred Andes, in his speech, did gingerly approach world events.
    "I hear from people who are very scared about things in the world," he said. "What can we do about that?"
    He laid out a path sure not to ruffle too many feathers.
    "All we can do is to resolve for each of us to try to make the world better, a little bit," he said. "Think about these issues. That's the essence of the holiday." 
     Maybe I was in the holiday spirit, seeing familiar faces, singing the old songs. But that made sense too; it was refreshing not to have somebody pointedly explain exactly what the problem is and what, in his or her opinion, should be done about it, immediately. We are allowed to reflect, to consider—we might as well; it isn't as if the people causing the problems in the world are eagerly awaiting our instructions before proceeding with their folly. Sometimes we pretend that the more we fight and argue with each other, the quicker our problems will be solved, and it doesn't work like that. Anyway, Happy 5775...at least it'll be an easy one remember. Have a happy one, since none of us will be around in 5885. 


     "Subtle" is not a word I associate much with religious practice. But Shir Hadash did something for their daytime Rosh Hashana service on Thursday that I admired for just that reason. The Torah portion for today is Hagar, Abraham's handmaiden, being send out into the wilderness with their son, Ishmael, to make way for Isaac, who shows up unexpectedly, a child of Sarah's old age. He gets the birthright, they get to go die in the desert. Who said life was fair?
      While Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow was reading and commenting on the portion, a member of the congregation, dressed as Hagar, showed up, and they had an ongoing dialogue.
     She bemoaned being kicked out, through no fault of her own.
     "And now I'm the foreigner, 'Hagar the Egyptian,'" she said, recounting how she had dwelled in Abraham's house for years. It led the rabbi toward discussing how people are considered.
     "People who are called names, or are nameless, are invisible," he said. At one point he asked the congregation for suggestions for Hagar, what she should do now, having been expelled from the land. I almost raised my hand and said, "Build your country with the borders that you've got," but nobody else brought up the subject so roiling the Jewish world, and I didn't want to be the one to do it. 
     With congregations so touchy on the subject of Israel, and Gaza, and the Palestinians, these words were never used. But the message—at least to me—was plain. 
    "They have names, they have lives," Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow said, of unknown people generally. "Think of a group of people being made anonymous in the public eye. Practice the mitzvah of considering bringing them to mind on a daily basis or getting to know them. See each person as created in the image of God, each person with a value and a worth and a story."
     It could easily have been seen as a homily on the need to be friendly to the bank teller, and I'm sure many congregants felt that way. But there was a larger message, at least to me, and I thought it was very cleverly done, timely and important. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hopes, fears lurk within a can of coffee

     The Sun-Times newsroom has packed its bags and moved to the 10th floor of what I still consider the Apparel Center but is actually     now called ... checking ... River North Point.
     Well, mostly they’ve packed up. A handful of us office-dwellers linger on 9, transformed into a depopulated junkscape of massed office chairs, bundled wires, stacked gray dividers and various discarded books, tape dispensers, and, I noticed with keen interest, one unopened can of Stewarts coffee.
     Now Stewarts isn’t the best coffee — a bit pricier than Folgers, back in the day, but not Peet’s, not Green Mountain, nor any of the high-end coffees lined up at Whole Foods. I couldn’t recall ever tasting it. But it’s coffee, and I drink a lot of coffee. And while coffee is free at work, coffee at home costs money. So I figured, how bad could it be? If somebody didn’t want this can of coffee at the office — we get Starbucks on the 10th floor, so why would they? — I could find a use for it.
     I tucked the can of Stewarts into my briefcase and brought it home in triumph.
     “What’s with the coffee?” my 17-year-old said, seeing an alien can on our kitchen counter. I explained how I had found it in the ruins. He did not share my enthusiasm.
     “Couldn’t someone poison it with arsenic and then seal up the can?” he wondered.
     Kids. They have such a bleak view of life. Where is the dewy optimism of youth?
     I told him the odds of that happening are slight — the sad truth is, nobody cares enough about journalists to want to kill them, at least not in this country.
     Though, now that I had brought the can home, I had my own concerns. The orange and green tartan on the metal can, it seemed light, almost faded. But I figured it was the printing process used by Stewarts. The can couldn’t have sat neglected in our office for years, could it? I gazed at the bottom, looking for numbers, a telltale “1983” maybe. Four digits: “2064.” Either a lot number or brand new and good for another 50 years.
     Finishing up the primo costly Cafe Du Monde coffee I typically drink, I grabbed a can opener and twisted my way around the can. Taking the blue, lucky, makes-two-perfect-cups-every-time measuring scoop that I’ve used for years from the old can, I dug into the light brown Stewarts grounds with a satisfying granular “chhhh” sound.
     The spoon hit something. Something hard, buried within the ground coffee.
     My first thought — my very first thought, unfiltered, no pun intended and embarrassing to relate — was: “Treasure!” It had to be a platinum bracelet or a gold ingot or some valuable item illegally shipped into the country, sealed within coffee cans. That sort of thing happens all the time in the movies.
     That hope rose and fell in a one moment.
     My second thought was: ewww-how-old-IS-this? Can coffee grounds congeal?” It obviously wasn’t contraband — silly me — but a clump some hardened mass of petrified coffee, solid due to the extreme age of this can that I, in my bottomless thrift, had taken home from work to kill myself with.
     I dug with the blue scoop and pried to the surface the mysterious hard thing. Not a diamond bracelet, not an ossified clump, but a red plastic spoon. Oh. Stewart’s comes with its own coffee spoon, for customers who are scoopless. Something ordinary.
     Now I want to draw your attention to the thought process at work here, because I don’t think it is unique to me. In fact, it is sadly common. I detect a single fact, one data point — something hard in the coffee. Before exploring further, I entertain possible explanations based on A) my fondest hopes and B) my darkest fears. The wildly inaccurate, insanely overblown possibilities get analyzed first. Only then does actual experience bring up the mundane reality.
     A familiar pattern, huh? We see “A” with those who glimpse a flash in the sky and conclude, “space aliens!” Party politics works that way too. We see a guy on our team, find something we like about him, then run with it. It’s as if I felt the hard thing in the coffee but never brought it to the surface to see what it was. “See this can of Stewarts? It has a broach inside. I felt it …”
     And we see “B” everywhere. Not only do people form conclusions based on a sprinkle of reality blended with their own personal anxieties — ‘‘Barack Obama had to be born in Kenya, since, geez, he’s black, just like people in Kenya are, and he has an African name” — but having done so, they stop investigating, lest they prove themselves wrong. How do we get people to look inside the can?
     The Stewarts, by the way, tasted like hot water with a brown crayon dipped in it. I tucked the can away, for emergencies.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why change yourself when you can demand the world change instead?

Centennial Park, Nashville

    I don't use these posts to air reader's comments, mostly, because there is a space aplenty at the bottom of the blog for that, and any comment on their comment can be rendered there.
    But this email, well, while it touches upon a small matter, there is a universal truth in it, so I am sharing it here.  
    A regular reader, whose name I shall shield, writes:
     A recent column re: riders crossing around the gates, brings to mind another train problem that I have.
     Freight trains taking enormous amounts of time at crossings.
      Aside from just having annoyed motorists ramming the freight cars, would this make for an interesting column?
      You contact the National Transportation Agency, (I assume they oversee the railroads in the country), and suggest that FREIGHT TRAINS RUN ONLY DURING NITETIME HOURS).
      I, for one, would anxiously await their answer.
    "You contact the National Transportation Agency"? What am I, a short-order cook?
    But that wasn't my reply. 
    I read his note on my iPhone, riding the train home Monday night. And it struck me, that not only had he missed the entire point of the crossing column—avoid pointless hurry, be safe, wait—but he was missing it in dramatic fashion. I wrote back:
        Wouldn't it be easier for you try practicing patience, before you set out to recast the rail freight system in the country? Just a thought.
     Not to pick on this guy, who at least is civil. But how often is there a problem where, rather than make a slight change to ourselves, we instead prefer to endeavor to recast the whole world? As if that were easier. This is nothing profound—"Better to light a candle," as the saying goes, "than to curse the darkness." As if it were some physical law: we don't change; somebody else should. We see people doing that all the time. They try to yank books out of libraries—I don't want to see this so nobody should see this. They try to convert the world to their faith, rather than attempt to wrap their heads around the implications of other people believing other things.
     It seems a symptom of always being right, in your own head. Maybe I'm getting zen in my old age. But I've begun to realize that, usually, the solution involves, not an impossible recasting of reality, but a far less difficult (though still sometimes hard) rejiggering of myself. I wasn't even fully aware of the dynamic, which is why I'm sharing the reader's email. Hmm, be more patient as freight trains pass OR endeavor to shift all freight trains to run during the night time, when nobody could possibly be bothered ... hmmm ... I wonder which one I should try?
     Not to end on a negative note, but the reader did not reply. Perhaps investigating ways to shut down the entire email system.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Robert Falls crafts his latest "heartless monster"

     But what I really want to do is watch Bob Falls direct ...  I've been asking for years, at both the Goodman and at the Lyric. For some reason now the clouds parted and I got my chance. I wish this piece could have been longer—he's such an interesting man. But I'm glad I was able to get this in the paper.

    Don Giovanni is not your average hero. Serial seducer, rapist and occasional murderer, he gets by on his good looks, his money and a relentless, serpentine charm. 
     Nor is Robert Falls your average director. Provocateur, trickster, his productions have a sharp contemporary edge and lots of good old-fashioned violence and sex. His “Measure for Measure” last year at the Goodman, set in 1970s “Taxi Driver” New York, left audiences gasping and angry. A critic denounced his 2006 “King Lear” as too grisly. Falls reaches into the body of a work, draws out its essence, twirls its guts on a stick and thrusts it in the audience’s faces. 
     Needless to say, I love it. If I wanted the drip-drip-drip of tedium, I’d stay home. 
    “You were born to direct this,” I whisper to Falls, joining him last week in the Lyric Opera’s second-floor rehearsal space for the first full run-through of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” this season’s first show. 
    “It’s the ‘Measure for Measure’ of operas,” he agrees. “Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It never stops; the perfect opera in many ways. Starts like a bat out of hell, with an attempted rape and a murder. Here’s five sequences of violence and gun play — because it’s set in 1920s Spain. The singers are unbelievable; they’re running, fighting, kicking.”
     Watching Falls in action — if “action” is the right term for a man mostly sitting, grinning, jotting on a pad — you quickly scrap cliched notions about what a dynamic director does. Falls is no tyrant bullying his cast. He listens as much as talks, if not more.
     “It’s a total collaboration,” Falls says.
     Donna Elvira, played with ferocity by Ana Maria Martinez, appears pushing a gleaming vintage motorcycle and side car. 
     Falls wanted her to cut across in front of the motorcycle, but her instinct is not to. She asks Falls if that’s OK.
     “Whatever you want to do,” he replies. 
     But a moment later he is up on his feet, the motorcycle is coming in too much. “It’s too far; it’s never been that far,” he says.
     So a balance. Sometimes his vision, sometimes the performers’. 
     This isn’t the cast’s first rodeo. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has played Don Giovanni in 19, count ’em, 19 previous productions. Yet he’s learning from Falls. 
     “He is from outside the opera world, bringing new fresh ideas,” Kwiecien says during a break.  “Sometimes I wouldn’t even think of this kind of interpretation for that aria. He is pushing us to try, and when we try, we are discovering absolutely new dimensions. He is open to new ideas, and recognizes good and bad ideas. So do we.” 
     When Don Giovanni and ex-lover Donna Elvira spar, Falls beams, looking around as if searching for someone to marvel with at a wonder. “I do like to share it with everybody,” he says. “I love this because they know it so well, yet are still fresh and open.”
     Falls is the longtime artistic director at the Goodman, and if you’re wondering what he’s doing here, thank Lyric general director Anthony Freud, who tapped Falls the moment he joined the Lyric.
     “I knew about him for many years because he’s a major international director,” said Freud, who was in Chicago, interviewing, when he went to see Falls’ 2010 “The Seagull” at the Goodman. “I was incredibly impressed with it. Really extraordinary. I’m someone who believes passionately that the best opera is the fusion of music and theater.”
     The music is ethereal — “supernatural,” my opera dictionary calls it — but Don Giovanni, well, he’s a bad man. I wonder: We’re all so touchy, what if the Lyric’s audience doesn’t like this guy?
     “Do you like Tony Soprano?” Falls asks. “Do you like Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’? Do you like Don Draper? We’re living in such an era of antiheroes, where horrible soulless people carry a television show for years. I don’t really care if you like Don Giovanni. Personally, I think he’s a soulless, heartless, somewhat monster. That’s the point, for me, to kill the romanticism. Trying to balance the comedy and the violence with the seriousness is what makes it exciting.” 
     Well, exciting, except for one brief patch at the end of Act One.
     “In an hour and a half first act, there’s one 60-second dullness,” Falls frets. “Giovanni is trying to get Zerlina to go to the party and Masetto doesn’t want to go. It’s just dull. It just sits there. The first act is constantly in motion, constantly moving — snaps — and we get 60 seconds that stop. Partly because I was trying to do something and the actors thought it was so stupid they said, ‘Eh, I don’t want to do this.’ ”
     Falls wanted them to join hands, nine days ago, but Kwiecien rejected it: “I hate Masetto, why would we join hands?” Falls now huddles with his staff. “I don’t know yet, but my brain trust is working on it,” he says. They have a little time. “Don Giovanni” opens Sept. 27. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cardinal George wasn't loved, but brought a certain grim purpose to his job

      I've written some critical things about Cardinal George, particularly when it came to his cruel, immoral view of gays. But when the paper called last night and asked me to put together something on his 16 year (!) tenure leading Chicago's Catholics, a gentler tone seemed in order. 

    When the Rev. Francis George, archbishop of Portland, Oregon, learned that Pope John Paul II had named him as the successor to Chicago’s much-beloved Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the unassuming priest asked in surprise, “Are you sure the Holy Father has considered all the options?”
     He had.
     The former Northwest Sider became Cardinal Francis George, the city’s sixth cardinal and the first priest born within the Chicago Archdiocese to be called upon to lead it, which he has done with seriousness and a firm hand. On Saturday, Pope Francis named Bishop Blase Cupich, of Spokane, Washington, as George’s successor, according to the Associated Press.
     Considered conservative at the time of his appointment — he was named head of the Chicago Archdiocese in April 1997 and elevated to cardinal in January 1998 — George tried to set an accepting tone for the archdiocese’s 2.3 million Catholics.
      “The bishop is to be the source of unity in any archdiocese,” he said the day he was introduced to the city. “The faith isn’t liberal or conservative.”
George, 77, has been struggling with cancer for the past eight years after being diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer in 2006. It returned for a third time in the spring, and in August he began using experimental treatments to combat the disease.

    To continue reading, click here.

Before rejoicing in a kilt, there's something you should know....

     My only thought on Scottish independence was "Don't do it," but that was wisdom pretty much lifted from reading The Economist, and you didn't need me to for that. But Friday I posted to Facebook a photo of myself wear a kilt, taken four years ago, which was indeed Scottish, and funny—far funnier than I realized when I was wearing it, as the second column in this set from May, 2010 reveals. A reader asked what the story was behind the get-up, and I promised I would pass it along, my way of celebrating the Scots doing the smart thing. 

     The big thing that everybody wants to know about a kilt is: What does a man wear underneath?
     "You're supposed to go commando," my boss said.
     "That's what we all wondered," my mother said, speaking of her girlhood friends in Cleveland.
     "Are you. . . ?" my wife asked.
     I wanted to know, too, since I had to wear a kilt for the first time Thursday. Heading out the door of the kilt shop, my tartan and jacket in a bag over my shoulder, I turned to ask the lady clerk, "What do I wear under it?"
     "Nothing!" she enthused. "Nothing's the tradition!"

     I am not a man given to sporting distinctive ethnic garb.... Not even the minimal headgear of my own clan. The only time I ever wore a yarmulke -- a head-covering the size of a small pancake -- on a public street was while walking in Jerusalem. And even then, I viewed it as a kind of location-induced temporary derangement, the way sedate Lutherans, shocked to find themselves actually in the Holy Land, will sometimes become unhinged, strip off their clothing and declare themselves the Messiah.
     So when an editor stuck her head in my office and suggested that, in advance of this weekend's Celtic Fest at Millennium Park, it might be a worthwhile exercise if I were to wear a kilt downtown, my reaction was not enthusiasm, but a kind of vertigo.
     My mind flashed to 20 years ago. In a fit of sartorial experimentation, I had purchased a bow tie. Knotting my new bow tie, I wandered into the Loop in an agony of self-consciousness. The sidewalk seemed to pitch like a ship in a storm. Every snatch of conversation, every peal of distant laughter, struck me as being about my bow tie. "I could not have felt more uncomfortable," I confessed later, "had I been wearing a cotillion gown."
     But "no" seemed the path of the coward. And I have mellowed in 20 years, and learned an important lesson: People don't care, not really. Don't worry much what they think. Be yourself, hold your head high.
    That said, I did have two concerns. First, I wanted to check that this wouldn't be offensive -- not that I'm against offending, when necessary, but there's no reason to antagonize a group known for its bellicosity on an editor's whim.
      Every Scot I asked thought it a bonnie idea, however, and, indeed, young men of all nationalities wear kilts nowadays without drawing complaints. In my view, Scots display a refreshing lack of aggrievement, despite having been relentlessly taunted for the past 350 years, and by the English no less.
     Even the staid Encyclopaedia Britannica begins its rumination on Scottish civilization this way: "Scotland has retained much of its cultural identity. Superficially, the external perception of this may descend to an image of whiskey-swilling, tartan-clad highlanders in mist-enshrouded castles, looking backward to bloody battles and romantic tales."
     Not quite Groundskeeper Willie, but not a compliment either.
     My other stipulation was: I wanted the full get-up. Not a plaid blanket wrapped around my waist, but the kilt, the sporran -- a furry purse worn in front, since kilts have no pockets -- the special socks.
     This rig was acquired at the Scottish Shop on Archer Avenue in Summit. In the window was a huge sign, "Kilt Rental," which left me wondering why men might rent kilts, though not for long.
     "When's the wedding?" asked the clerk, who decked me out in a Black Watch tartan -- the green matches my eyes -- and a formal jacket.
     Thursday, I began kilt day with oatmeal, an inside joke (the definition of "oats" in Samuel Johnson's great 1755 dictionary is "A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.")
     At the train, people noticed, obviously, but politeness kept them mute. Only one comment, from an acquaintance.
     "I don't have to ask who won the bet," he grinned.
     Striding across the Loop -- from Union Station to the Sun-Times, from the Sun-Times to Petterino's -- it seemed that nobody noticed the kilt at all. Only later, looking at the photos, did I realize that pedestrians were just waiting until I passed to gape.
      Scotland is a small place -- about half the size of Illinois, with about half the population of the Chicago metro area -- yet had a significant role in founding Chicago, in the meat-packing trade, and starting several noted businesses, including Carson Pirie Scott, unsurprisingly.
     The festival sounds fun but, alas, the kilt is due back Saturday morning. As to the central kilt question, well, I think a bit of mystery is appropriate. Though I did worry more about updrafts than is usual.

     TODAY'S CHUCKLE . . .
While there is no shortage of kilt jokes and thrifty Scot jokes, there are too many notorious put-downs not to share a few, as the greats of English literature lined up to condemn Scotland for being a land not unlike their own populated by a people not unlike themselves.
     "A land of meanness, sophistry and mist," wrote Lord Byron. "Each breeze from foggy mount and marshy plain/Dilutes with drivel every drizzly brain."
    "Scotland," Sydney Smith quipped. "That knuckle-end of England, that land of Calvin, oatcakes and sulphur."
    Boswell's Life of Johnson is 1,500 pages of continual Scot-bashing, but I'll try to give Boswell his due on Sunday.
     The sharpest line is John Cleveland's couplet from 1647:
      Had Cain been Scot, God would have changed his doom.
      Not forced him wander, but confined him home.
                                                                    —Originally published May 7, 2010

Oh that it ended there. But that was just the beginning....

     Humiliation is a lapse in perspective. Your focus narrows to the 300 people jeering at you in the theater, your mind is entirely filled by the one gaffe in a two-hour speech.
     It's agony, nausea. You want to die, but you don't die, generally, and then a miracle occurs -- your perspective opens back up again. All it takes is a generous dose of time for life to magically expand. You realize that 99.999 percent of the world doesn't know about you, never mind your errors. Those who do know, who care now, will care less soon and forget about it in time, while your family forgives, as families do. The idea of shame sticking to you -- of Lord Jim wandering the Far East, while the stigma of his cowardice aboard the sinking Patna follows him around like a faithful dog, is the stuff of literature, not life.
     But some never learn that lesson, and then it's too late.

     Saturday morning errands. Coffee, "Rigoletto" and a 40-mile drive down to Summit to return a rented outfit. Park the van on Archer Avenue, swing the red plastic hanger with the rental kilt, jacket and sporran over my shoulder and head into the tiny Scottish Shop, past the rows of hanging tartans and plaid ties.
     "What's the name?" owner Jack Thompson asks.
     "Steinberg," I say.
     "You wanna know something?" he asks.
     "Yes I know," I say.
     "You had the kilt on backwards," he says.
     "Yes I know."
     "The pleats go in back," he says.
     "Yes I know."
     "The plain part, in front," he says.
     I turn to one of the grinning men in the store and ask: "What part of 'Yes I know' do you think isn't getting across?"
     Thompson taps his finger on a page from Friday's Sun-Times -- my column -- torn out, waiting on the counter.
     "We've got the picture," he says. "We're putting it up."
     "Be my guest," I say,
     As an inadvertent expert in shame, let me share a secret with you: It's a process. You have to soldier on, to endure, one day at a time, and if you don't -- forgive my injecting something so serious into a lighthearted column -- you end up stepping in front of a commuter train like Metra executive director Phil Pagano did last week.
     The shock of humiliation grabs you, squeezes, distorts your reason. Perspective gone, you forget the crime of financial impropriety pales compared with the horrendous harm inflicted on your loved ones by killing yourself.
     Nobody wants to lose his job or see his reputation ruined, so rather than experience that, Pagano did something far worse. To avoid . . . what? Sixteen months in jail?
     Compare this tragedy with what Dan Rostenkowski did. The powerful congressman went to prison, head held high, came out, 50 pounds lighter and was warmly welcomed by his friends and family.
     We are taught the only way to avoid embarrassment is by never doing anything wrong.
     That is ideal. But the truth is, your moment can come even if you're both honest and careful. You don't have to be Tiger Woods and invite destruction -- you can be the award recipient who forgets his speech, the Gold Glove winner who drops the ball. You don't have to be John Edwards; think Howard Dean -- one over-exuberant cry and you're a laughingstock.
     Nothing to do but wait and try not to care. That's hard. When the first "hey idiot your kilt is backward" e-mail showed up, 7 a.m. Friday, I tried telling myself it didn't matter. How many people know how to properly wear a kilt anyway?
    Quite a lot, it turns out. Cops especially — they have that bagpipe band, and so are familiar with kilts, and experienced at forcefully pointing out the missteps of others.
     But I knew it would pass. That's a crucial understanding. They should teach embarrassment in school: "Handling Humiliation." Kids could spend an afternoon wearing the special Hat of Shame through the halls, a pointed affair, with bells.
     Because while screwing up is sometimes the result of misdeeds, where punishment is deserved, more frequently it is the result of trying stuff. It was my first time in a kilt, and while I had done my prep work — spoke to various Scots, quizzed the clerk fitting me — there was a lot of information to absorb. How does the sporran go and how do the sock flashes work and how does the kilt wrap and of course the underwear question. The concept of there being a front and a back presented itself when I was putting it on at home. I picked what looked best and guessed wrong.
     "Own the sin," our Colonial forefathers said. Don't cringe from your mistakes, but embrace them. Yeah, embarrassing as heck — but nothing to do about it now, short of going back in time, and the necessary time travel technology just isn't there yet.
     Never commit a crime, certainly. But also, never make a mistake, never do anything that might attract mockery and you run the risk of becoming the kind of overly cautious guy who never dances because he can't stand the idea of looking stupid.
    Everybody looks stupid dancing. Looking stupid now and again builds character, and is a sign that you are still trying. Driving back from the Scottish Shop, mulling over the above, I started laughing, out loud. At least this is a more elevated embarrassment, compared with previous embarrassments, I thought. Progress of a sort.
     Laughter is cleansing, when you're the one laughing.
                                                             —Originally published May 10, 2010

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Saturday Fun Activity: Where IS this?

     Do you have to be a writer to hate books as decoration? Purely decoration, I mean. My house is decorated with books, but actual books I either have read, am reading or will read.
     It's bad enough when real books are trotted out for show, when you go to a department store and start to look at the Readers Digest condensed books and old law texts and such they buy by the pound and scatter on their shelves.  
     Or the homes of rich swells with linear feet of those leather Franklin Mint editions, with the gold stamping and the fat ribbon, that you can tell have never been opened. That's bad, but at least someone had the idea: books look nice. Let's get some books. Even those Restoration Hardware stacks of books, with their covers ripped off, bound in twine, had a certain post-Apocalyptic, at-least-it-was-a-book-once air of authenticity. 
      Look at the above. Faux books. What's with that? As if real books weren't available. Which I suppose at some point in the future they won't be, but this has the air of a premature surrender. This tableau was no doubt supposed to look cool, but I found it chilling.  Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. 
    This is in a public place of accommodation in downtown Chicago—not a store, not a restaurant, but a lobby somewhere. Do you know where? Did you also notice these white sentinels of illiteracy?
       The prize this week is something suitably bookish. When I wrote "Don't Give Up the Ship" in 2002 I took the title from Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry's battle flag, flown durning the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, a banner he took to heart in spirit if not to the word, when he abandoned his disabled flagship, the Lawrence, and rowed over to the Niagara and press the battle afresh, and win. 
      I thought it represented a certain essential spirit of persistence in the face of setback—quite useful in professional journalism— and bought a gross or so of the little flags, with round plastic stands stands, as promotional gifts for the book. They didn't quite work, and I ended up with a lot of them, which are popping up in odd places. It's a bracing message—sort of the American version of the Brit's "Keep Calm and Carry On." If you win—post your guesses below, please—I'll toss in this orange square of the sail material that Cristo used for his Gates installation in New York's Central Park in February 2005—my column was running in the New York Daily News then, and I went to report on the project, and city workers were handing out these little squares, I assume to keep resourceful Manhattanites from going at it with shears. Good luck.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The hidden link between Rail Safety Week, Lord Byron

     Metra tries not to kill its customers.
The actual fine, $250, is half the posted fine. 
     It really does. Say what you will about our commuter rail service: its jaw-dropping top-level mismanagement, creaky equipment and seasonal surprise at finding itself once again in a cold climate. But when it comes to sparing the hectic, harried, charmless lives of the commuters who travel its length, Metra is outstanding.
      If a train is in the station, say going north, and another is going south, the northbound train will linger in the station, deliberately, to the puzzlement of passengers, until the southbound train arrives in the station.
     Why? Because the engineers know, if they were to pull out of the station when another train was about to arrive, passengers who disembarked would surge across the tracks and be killed by the incoming train.
     Considerate of Metra to spare them, I’ve always felt, even though they are not helping me, personally, since I am the one person, alone it seems, among the 150,000 who take Metra every day, who does not wait between the lowered gate and the train, in a runner’s crouch, eyes fixed on the moving rear of the last car, timing my lunge forward so that I am out of the blocks when the train has not quite passed, accelerating as the stainless steel wall clears the space in front of me.
     Usually, invariably they’re fine. There is no incoming train, no Amtrak express thundering by from the other direction. In the 14 years I have been doing this, only a few times do the people surging ahead see another train coming, and half go forward, and half go back, some doing an uncertain little dance on the tracks before choosing.
     Then, this week, something different occurred. The train cleared, commuters surged forward, to confront a lone man on the other side, Northbrook Police Traffic Officer Chris Lacina, in the baseball cap and shades that give suburban officers that coveted SWAT look, his SUV parked nearby.
     Sadly, I couldn't see the expressions of concern on the faces of the herd hurrying away from me. A trio of men froze in front of the gate and conducted a nervous little impromptu conversation. The mass parted around Lacina like a river around a rock, until they realized he was not issuing tickets, just handing out white warning slips. Off the hook, they scurried away.
     This has never happened, in my memory. I sought explanation from Metra. "It's Illinois Rail Safety Week," said Michael Gillis, Metra's spokesman. "Metra is partnering with various suburban police departments for enforcement actions, to encourage safe behaviors around tracks and trains." The special week ends Saturday.
     When the gate lifted and it was safe to cross, I strolled over and asked for a flier. "WARNING: YOUR ACTIONS COULD HAVE JUST COST YOU A FINE OF $250.00 OR EVEN WORSE, YOUR LIFE." Lacina said he gave one ticket, the only one Northbrook issued this week, according to police Chief Chuck Wernick, whom I later asked a question that bothers me. If crossing around lowered gates is dangerous and illegal, yet hundreds do it daily at this spot, why not have officers there regularly?
     "Well," he said with a laugh, "I wish I had 500 policemen too. We don't have the staff to do it. This is a special detail. I only have so many people working, and with all the accidents we deal with, we're stretched thin."
     In other words, it's not really that important. Hmm. Maybe he's right. Maybe it's me. When I moved to Northbrook my boys were 3 and 4. I worried about them living a block from the tracks and vowed they would never see me being unsafe. I've seen parents drag their reluctant toddlers around lowered gates, and it's all I can do not to run after them and hiss, "Are you insane?!" But I don't want to be that guy, and maybe there's a Darwinian, thin-the-herd aspect to it.
     There certainly is a psychological aspect. You can't stand behind a gate for 14 years, watching your neighbors rush away from you across busy rail tracks, despite it being both dangerous and illegal, and not reflect.
     Usually I savor the separation, musing on Lord Byron's "Child Harold's Pilgrimage:"

I have not loved the world, nor the world, me;
I have not flatter'd its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coin'd my cheeks to smiles,
Nor cried aloud/In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them but not of them.    

     But that's pompous, right? Maybe the error isn't theirs. Maybe it's mine, by holding back, being aloof, arrogant, separate. Maybe the thing to do is to blend in, utter a complacent "moo" and surge across the tracks with the mob. And if we all get flattened by a train some day, well, we gotta go eventually.