Sunday, November 30, 2014

"You are going to hell!" (We are already there)

        Downtown on Friday, not to shop—we never set foot in a store—but to take a family visit to the David Bowie exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Quite enjoyable, and I marveled how Bowie, always a master at manipulating his image, managed to celebrate every aspect of his life, raise public awareness of his music, promote his new album, and no doubt pocket considerable cash in the bargain, all by cleaning out his closets. 
        The new album promotion aspect did give me pause. One display said it "provoked a phenomenal response"—I suppose you could argue general indifference and light snickering represented a new phenomenon in Bowie's long career, but it seemed more press agentry and less museum curation. That said, we all liked the show well enough.
        Afterward, we crossed Michigan Avenue to go to lunch. RL was full to the rafters, so we called an audible and headed to Flaco Taco across the street. 
        On the way back, we encountered this knot of religious fanatics.
       "You are a sinner!" one shouted at us as I hotfooted by.
       "Every chance I get," I muttered under my breath, as we crossed Michigan. 
       It says something—something good, I hope, though I'm not sure—about our tolerance, as a society, that zealots can drag their medieval belief systems out into public, use them to berate random passerby, inflict annoyance, or at least inconvenience, and then go home feeling smug, certain they've done the Lord's work.
      Though it hardly seems fair. It isn't as if the secular society shows up in their backyards, condemning their children, urging them to abandon their beliefs, to drink and fornicate and commit any of the wide range of activities that they consider sin, which is basically anything beyond praying and working and mowing the lawn, and not even that on Sundays.
       Then I realized—and I hate to bat for their team, but it's true—that that is exactly what happens. Free-to-be-you-and-me liberal consumer capitalism certainly radiates its values across the landscape, through a spectrum of finely crafted, technologically advanced forms of communications: movies, TV, video games, songs, and on and on. You can't avoid it.  
     In that light, can you really begrudge the losing side, the remnant who haven't yet been crushed under the steamroller of progress, to show up on a street corner with their low tech signs and megaphones, to hector pedestrians? Have the sympathy for them that they would never extend toward us. Sure they're impassioned and angry. Because it hurts to be wrong, and to believe something idiotic: I'm convinced that, somewhere, in their hearts, they must know this, which is what makes them so generally unpleasant, shrill and insistent. If they were actually nestled under God's wing, they'd be more content. Which is why they need to create converts, as a away to reassure themselves, to shore up their shaky position. They can't calm down, can't pause to think, because doing so, they'd realize how crazed it all is, their imaginary, vengeful God peeking down your pants to see if you make the cut into eternal bliss, sending you to hell for dancing. They've wasted their lives peering through their keyhole of a worldview and their only redemption now is to browbeat a few credulous stragglers into following them over the cliff and wasting their lives too. Blessed are we who realize it, and enjoy the divine gift of being able to hotfoot past. Bad enough to pass them in the street; imagine being them, and have pity, and forgive. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

While you're trying to figure out where that bronze abomination is located...

     I thought I would dig out the column item that caused Frank Kruesi to send me his tie. (If you don't remember Kruesi, he was head of the Chicago Transit Authority for nearly a decade, and is perhaps best known, not for his neckwear, but for goading Richard Daley into digging up Meigs Field in the dead of night. Or so people said).
     This column gives background on the special prize for today's Saturday Fun Activity, posted below. It also, if I recall, inspired a men's store to send Kruesi some decent ties that a man would not be embarrassed to wear. A good government sort, when he wasn't egging unbalanced mayors to midnight illegality, he sent me $100 to cover their expense. Only the men's store refused to take the money, which put me in a delicate situation which, if memory serves, I managed to resolve to everyone's satisfaction.

     The Chicago Transit Authority crisis builds to a crescendo, with millions to be slashed out of the budget, service to be strangled, routes to be canceled, riders and politicians up in arms.
    And what am I thinking about? Frank Kruesi's necktie. Kruesi is the president of the CTA, and every time I see him he's wearing the exact same tie, one showing a CTA route map, the same kind of thin, jokey tie that sometimes have fish or whatever on them.
    I hate those ties. Weisenheimers wear them because they make the wearer seem like a goof. Which I suppose is the point, to say hey, aren't I wild and crazy and unconventional? But what they really say is that you are a goof in a bad, why-do-we-have-to-deal-with-this-goof-send-in-the-adults kind of way.
     Which isn't so bad if the buses run. If you're stopping by for a routine checkup, you might not mind if the doctor has on a tie with Marilyn Monroe's face silkscreened on it. Funny tie, Dr. Katz.
     But when he's delivering the bad news -- they'll have to operate and soon -- suddenly the tie isn't so funny. Suddenly you don't want to glance at his chest and worry your life is in the hands of Chuckles the Clown.
     Maybe if Kruesi wasn't wearing that tie, the Legislature in Springfield would take the problem seriously and give the CTA the money it needs. Or when Kruesi goes before the cameras to announce that the system is bankrupt and buses are being replaced by ox carts, at least he should wear a serious necktie. Something in a somber black.

                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 15, 2005

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

    Okay, you guys. You think you're so good, just because you've cracked every "Where IS this?" I've thrown at you so far, even that chunk of stone that turned out to be tucked in a corner of the Baha'i Temple.
    Well, I think I was being kind. Letting you off easy. Lobbing you softballs. Which I wasn't even aware of, not until I saw this whatsit sitting right out in this ... very public place. 
   I have no idea what it is. Something allegorical. The  scupture evokes a certain 1940s painting, Peter Blume's "The Rock," in the Art Institute. Not that it's there, though it is ... within 10 blocks. 
     Have you seen this bronze thingy? You needn't know what it is, but you need to answer: Where is it? The correct guess will win something very special—this CTA sent to me, years ago, by Frank Kruesi, when he was the head of the CTA, after I wrote a column mocking his choice of neckwear (I basically said he shouldn't be announcing major cutbacks and CTA snafus in a joke necktie).
     The tie is silk, and has a lovely (okay, not so lovely) CTA map of downtown Chicago on it. (hideous, really). It's never been worn, obviously, but it's a true piece of Chicagoana that has hung in my office for years, certain to spice up your holiday parties and gatherings. The winner snags it. Good luck. Post your guesses below. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

The last time I saw "The Seventh Seal"


     "Let's watch a movie!" my older son, fresh from college, said brightly, as soon as we had polished off our Welcome Home pizza. If life were a TV sitcom we'd all groan and exchange glances.  But really it was more of a collective flinch. Ross has many wonderful qualities, but his effect upon the family movie-watching dynamic is not one of them. He wants films that are challenging, disturbing, edgy. It's always, "Let's watch 'Lost in Translation' for the fifth time," or some art film with Bjork. In the three months he was away at school, the Steinbergs happily reverted to watching old films we like, or seeing new movies that seem entertaining. Now, for the duration of winter break, that is over, and we are back to obscure Italian comedies. I believe the boy takes as much pleasure in our squirming as he does in whatever movie he supposedly wants to see.
     We ended up not watching a movie of any kind (we did, just as in the column below, play chess, only it was Blitz, with me getting six minutes on my clock and him getting two. He beat me every time). I was reminded that, with my older boy, it is now as it twas always, as this column from a dozen years ago is evidence.

    There are 8 billion people on Earth, so I hesitate to call any human scenario unique. But as I stood in my 7-year-old's bedroom one morning this week, reading to him from the Book of Revelation, it occurred to me that he is probably the only Jewish first-grader to be absorbing Christian end-of-the-world theology before his Rice Krispies.
     Furthermore, the terrifying thought struck me, standing there, open Bible in hand, reading about the Beast and the Lamb and the wasps with human faces, that this is how people lose their kids to the Department of Children and Family Services. One wrong comment in school—"Can I have a red crayon for my sea of blood?"—and there's a white van in the driveway and our boys are being hustled into foster care.
     All my fault. I admit it. I'm a bad dad. One morning, two weeks ago, I was playing chess with the 7-year-old. He was taking a long time to move. I am also a blowsy kind of guy who feels compelled to fill silences. So, vis-a-vis nothing, I raised my hand, waggled my fingers, and said, "This is my hand, I can move it, feel the blood running through it. The sun is high in the sky, and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with death."
     Which is more or less what Max von Sydow, the knight, says in "The Seventh Seal."
     You'd think this isn't the sort of thing that would catch a first-grader's attention. But that's the crafty thing about kids—you never know what is going to click. My son snapped out of his what-move-next? reverie and asked about what I had said. I told him about the movie.
     Everything else faded away. He whined, morning, noon and night, to see "The Seventh Seal." I, of course, resisted. "It's not for little boys," I said. "It's about death, plague." His eyes glittered, hungrily. "Besides," I said, groping. "It's in Swedish. I'd have to read you the subtitles."
     This went on for days. To my credit, I held my ground. Until last Saturday morning. We're in the Northbrook Public Library, getting movies to watch over the weekend. I tell the boys to pick one movie each. They run off. My 5-year-old returns with some cutesy cartoon thing. And my older boy—you see this coming, don't you? I didn't—returns with "The Seventh Seal."
      There was a slogan during World War II: "Is this trip necessary?" used to encourage people to avoid needless travel. I have adopted it as a maxim of parenthood, and I trot it out when I find myself going over the same ground again and again. With all the exploding heads and fountains of blood that pass for entertainment, is 90 minutes of dark Ingmar Bergman imagery really going to damage my boys? I hadn't seen the movie in years, but remembered pretty well the scenes that might disturb him. The corpse of the plague victim. Grim allegories of cruelty and suffering.
     And, of course, old Mr. Death. I was about to put the movie back, when I saw that it was dubbed into English. I weakened. At least I wouldn't have to read the subtitles. I rented it. He was happier than when I took him to the circus.
     We all gathered on the couch the next night, with our snacks and our blankies, and followed Antonius Block and his more-or-less faithful squire on his journey home from the Crusades, through his famous chess match with the stern master, Death.
     I tried not to look at my wife, particularly when the penitents—dragging huge crosses, beating themselves, wailing—came onscreen. But when Block said he'd keep asking questions, even if he didn't get answers, we did exchange a look. Our oldest asks lots of questions.
     After, I asked each what they thought of the movie. "Good," said the 5-year-old. "Good," said the 7-year-old. "Very good," said my wife.
     I was pleased. I thought I had gotten off scot-free, but the oldest wanted to know where the seven seals were in the movie. He thought there'd be actual seals, the kind with flippers. I explained about how in olden times important letters were sealed by wax, and about how in the Christian Bible there is a story about the end of the world.
     The next morning, he ran into my office, hugged me, as always, but instead of asking for our chess game, he asked for "the story of the movie." I wasn't quite sure what he meant — at first I thought he wanted me to read from Roger Ebert's The Great Movies, since my wife and I had read the entry on "The Seventh Seal," afterward, as commentary. But no, he wanted the Book of Revelation.
     Tell me, what would you do? Say no? Make it a Big Deal? A Mystery? So I sighed and grabbed my New Testament — kept for reference not reverence — and started to read.
     Eventually, my wife came in and sat down on the bed. I was reading, "When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake, the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars fell to earth ... " Finally, I worked up the courage to look at her, and was greeted with that just-what-kind-of-idiot-are-you? look. Eventually, skipping ahead, I got the seals opened, and managed to close the book. Then the questions came. Did this friend believe it? And did that friend? And what did we believe? ("We believe," I said, making it up as I went along, "that the world will just go on and on.")
     A few days have passed. DCFS hasn't shown up, yet. I'm hoping the danger has passed. Next time we're playing chess and I feel like opening my big yap, I'm going to quote from "Scooby-Doo: The Movie."

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Was that today?"

     For all the talking, talking, talking we do—in person, over the phone, or through conversation written out in emails, tweets and texts—very rarely does someone say something witty.  We can gossip and pontificate and bore. But it's rare, nearly a miracle to deliver the exact right word at the exact right moment, a quick, short, sharp—and it must be all three—rejoinder. Just a word or two, a phrase, that shuts down any further conversation. The French call it a "bon mot"—literally "good word"—or a "mot juste," the "right word."  
     The instance I always think of as the perfect example of this is a comic strip, of all things, a 1960 "Peanuts" Sunday cartoon where Linus is teaching Charlie Brown's little sister to clutch a blanket and Charlie -- well, it's easier if you read the strip.

    "Like her brother?" That's perfect, plucking a string that everybody is familiar with, the universally understood slough of unhappiness that is Charlie Brown's life. A great riposte does that, ringing down the curtain of truth on a conversation. For all my struggles to say something concise and cutting in print, I can't recall ever doing that myself; I need to edit, to fiddle with the phrasing first.
Kate Moss
     My wife, however, is a master. She coined one just as good as Linus' if not better. I think I told this story in a column, years ago, but it bears repeating. We were driving downtown—pre-children, back when we lived in the city, we would commute together in the car to work, she going to Jenner & Block in the IBM Building, me to the Sun-Times across the street. A CTA bus pulled up with a Calvin Klein poster on it featuring Kate Moss, the gaunt and boyish British model. There was some debate about whether she was indeed attractive, and I mused, idly, something along the lines of, "Well, I don't care what people say, I'd have an affair with her." 
     At which my wife shot me a glance and I realized to whom I was talking, and quickly added, "But I'd always come running home..."
     "To what?" Edie interjected crisply.
     I loved that. I'm as proud of that as if she had climbed a mountain. 
     This skill is passed down in the generations, apparently. On Wednesday morning, looking forward to my older son flying home from California, where he has been at college for the past three months, I sent him a text wishing him safe travels, reminding him that I would be at the airport waiting at the foot of the escalators leading into baggage claim, and asking that he let me know if the plane he is taking is delayed.
     Now there is an infinity of ways a teenager can reply to that. I suppose if I had to imagine one, I would come up with, "Sure pop, can't wait to see you." Or some such banal thing.
    Not my boy, not his mother's son.
    He replied, "Was that today?"
    Which caught me off guard. First: Could he really...? Then: No, of course not... Then: Or could he? Perfect, because for a moment I thought he was serious, or at least had to figure out that he wasn't, falling into the trap and thrashing around for a few seconds. Then trying to climb out by formulating my own smart reply, failing, coming up only with "In theory, yes," which was lame, and I didn't even send, deciding that was being too gullible. Instead surrendering and mutely waving the white flag of an emoticon: ; )
    I wanted to communicate: I get it. 
    To which he didn't reply at all. Silence is sometime even more eloquent. 
    Anyway, enough of this. Happy Thanksgiving to all. Hope you conversation around the turkey is sharp, well-informed and tempered with love and kindness. Just because you think of a really witty retort doesn't mean it has to be said.  Shutting up, as I like to say, is an under-appreciated art form. 
     The boy, by the way, got home fine. Wearing shorts and a t-shirt. No coat. No shoes, only flip flops. He didn't even pack shoes. A true Californian already. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The opera is over if the fat ladies sing

 The good news is: advertising works. Ever since the newspaper started running an ad (Page 27 today) promoting our Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric contest, people who never brought up the subject before are asking me about opera.
     “How do I get those tickets?” asked the Thomas-the-Tank-Engine Metra conductor.
     “You’ve got to enter the contest!” I breezily replied to him and to the security guard who asked the same question, and to the other random folk who brought it up.
     Another surprisingly common reader reaction is succinctly stated by Bill Anders:
     “I think it is wrong not to give some attribution in the ad to the lovely woman you stand next to. She is not identified.”
     “I’m sure it’s unintentional,” adds Sharon McGowan, “but it feels disrespectful to me.”
     Can’t have that. The purpose of journalism is to clarify mysteries, not create them.
     The woman to my left in the orange dress is Adina Aaron, American soprano, singing Bess at the Lyric’s production of “Porgy and Bess.” I sat down with her last week for a surprisingly candid conversation about the future of opera — so candid that I almost blurted out, “You know this is going into the newspaper, right?” But, I figured, opera has no purpose if not to excite the passions.
     I began by asking Aaron, who grew up in Florida and has starred internationally from Finland to Tel
Aviv, how people react when they find out she’s an opera singer.

     "They're a bit in awe because they don't know much about it," she said. "I know, the first thing is, they don't expect an opera singer to look the way I look, of course."
     "You mean," I said, groping for the proper word, " tall?"
     "Just not obese," replied Aaron. "Unfortunately, you see commercials with the big horns and Wagnerian look. They still have that perception. So they look at me like, 'Really?' "
     Aaron was always athletic and had no interest in opera growing up. Instead she played piano, and was "heavy into sports: basketball, tennis, karate, you name it."
     She got a basketball scholarship to one college and a music scholarship at another.
     "I had to sit down and decide," she said. "I loved both, but at that time there was no future in basketball. No WNBA. You had to go to Europe. I said, 'You know, I don't really want to go to Europe.' " Which is ironic.
     Only in college did she discover opera.
     "A teacher said 'go to the library, go look at these opera videos,' " she said. "I saw 'Traviata' by Verdi. That was the beginning."
     But she keeps an athlete's discipline - she rode her bike to our interview.
     "It's so important to stay healthy," she said. "To me, health and singing are one and the same. I never imagine giving up one for another. I don't know how singers do it who don't exercise, if you gain too much weight and you're too out of shape."
     Modern productions require agile singers.
     "In Europe, all of the productions are updated," she said. "You never get a traditional production; it's a miracle if you get a traditional production. You always know you'll be asked to do something physical."
    Yet the public thinks of opera as a 300-pound Brunhilda standing in one spot, holding a spear and warbling — what Aaron dismissively calls "park and bark."
     "Opera has to get away from that," she said. "I don't see opera surviving if we don't get away from that: stand and sing, the cliche. You know, it's taught. You still have teachers who tell you, 'This is the hard part, just tell the director you can't move.' That, to me, is the death of opera."
     As an opera goer, while I certainly appreciate a well-formed star and so understand Aaron's point, my focus is on the music and the staging. I don't consider the cast's bulk when deciding what operas to attend.
     "I'm not saying you have to be skinny," she said. "But you have to be fit enough and comfortable enough to move. And if you're too overweight, you're putting a lot of pressure on your body. You're going to huff and puff. Look at Pavarotti. By the midpoint of his career he couldn't even walk because he let himself get so out of shape. It's insane to think that's a good way to make a living. Opera has to adjust. We can't compete with all the different art forms if we do that."
     Which brings us back to "Porgy and Bess." You can win tickets until Sunday; the performance we're seeing is Dec. 8. Aaron said it's a truly wonderful opera, especially for newcomers.
     "I steer them in the direction of the most accessible: 'Boheme,' 'Butterfly,' 'Aida,' '' she said. "This is obviously a great one. You can't get anything better. It's genius."

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Trying to survive the holiday horror


    Well, it's the holidays, again, almost. Lots of preparation, lots of expectation. A time of joy, in theory, that nevertheless manages to be quite joy-free for many. I wrote this Thanksgiving column in 2008, after receiving a phone call from a reader who said he was going to kill himself. I don't know what happened to that reader; I never heard back from the guy. But I tried to reach out to him, and to anyone struggling through the holiday season. Have fun, if you can, and if you can't, well, try to find a way to get through it, somehow. Soldier through, endure, and all this forced jollity will be over in ... five weeks. Courage.   

    "You know, winter will soon be here," sings Michelle Shocked. "And except for the holidays, except for the holidays, it's a fine time of year."
     Isn't that the truth? An under-recognized truth. Because while society plunges into this big, annual five-week-long festival del grubbo that begins tomorrow and doesn't really let up until Jan. 2, my guess is that for every person champing at the bit to embrace this holiday wonderland of family and parties and dinners and gifts — children, mostly, and grandmothers — there are three others grimly twitching their jaws and thinking, "Geez, not again. Not already. Didn't we just do this?"
     I wish all those store soundtracks and 24-hour Christmas carol radio stations would take a break, just now and then, and play something like Shocked's lovely dirge, "Cold Comfort," or Loudon Wainright III's ode to family dysfunction, "Thanksgiving." ("Look around and recognize/A sister and a brother/ We rarely see our parents now/We hardly see each other...")
     But they don't, and all the painted smiles and chirpy music can start to get to a person, particularly against a backdrop of pending economic collapse.
     Unhappiness is always bad, but the holidays make it worse, with all the expectations of instant closeness, of warmth on demand, the notion that somewhere else people are whooping it up at Fezziwig's Ball while you're microwaving a Swanson turkey dinner alone.
     My only insight is, as Shocked sings, you need to hold on, pass the time, and life will improve "in a year or 10."
     "It is a fact of life," she sings, "that we learn to live again."
     Sometimes all you can do is hold on, hope and wait for spring.

     People just don't telephone the newspaper like they used to — they e-mail instead. Tuesday morning, I received a grand total of one phone call, but it was a doozy.
     The phone rings, I pick it up, say my name, as is my habit.
     "In about half an hour, I'm simply putting an end to this," a man says in a flat tone, by way of introduction, and my first thought is, Geez, can't anybody just cancel their damn subscription? Must it be such a production?
     He's going to be locked out of where he lives, he says, agencies won't help, and it dawns on me that he's talking about ending something more significant than home delivery.
     "I simply do not want to face freezing to death in my car," he says.
     Who does? I don't say that, but try to get his name from him — that seems the thing to do. He doesn't want to tell me his name or where he lives.
     "Why not?" I ask. "If you're going to kill yourself in half an hour, why be shy now?"
     He doesn't fall for that, but gives a litany of his woes. No job. No medical attention for his diabetes. No relatives or friends in this area anymore.
     The "in this area" seems odd, and I wonder if he's for real, or somebody pulling a stunt. Frankly, he doesn't sound like one of my readers.
     "No one is writing the truth anymore," he says. "Everyone seems to think it's the person's fault, and that's not true."
     I point out that, if he reads the papers, he'll notice that the economic collapse is being pretty well blamed on large corporations.
     "I don't think anyone's saying it's your fault," I say.
     He goes on a bit, until I ask him what he wants me to do. He says I should be helpful to people in his situation, and I tell him that I'm perfectly happy to help him right now. What does he need?
     "I write for a newspaper — what is it you want to happen?" I say. "We'll put it in the paper tomorrow and see if it catches anybody's interest. You can't expect anyone to care about what happens to you if you don't care yourself. Nobody is going to care about you unless you do."
     I have a sense that I'm saying the wrong thing, but am making this up as I go along.
     "I don't have any recourse," he says, and then hangs up. The whole conversation is over in a minute or two.
     I wasn't as rattled as I should have been. On one hand, there's a lot of trouble in the world, and I don't become responsible for everyone who manages to dial my number.  I'm not a social service. On the other, it strikes me that a person should know what to do, since the economy cratering must make this situation increasingly common.
     "Yes, definitely," said Stephanie Weber, executive director of Suicide Prevention Services in Batavia. "We have seen an upswing in our calls and our walk-ins."
     I ran our conversation by her, and while I didn't do quite the botch job that I feared — I did listen, which is important — my biggest mistake was in not quickly referring him to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800-273- 8255), where trained professionals help people understand the importance of sticking with life, even as difficulties mount, and know where to steer callers to various practical services that can help with woes that seem insurmountable but really aren't. You might want to jot that number down in your wallet, because you never know when you're going to need it.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 26, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2014

Do Republicans have grandparents too?

     This is my grandfather, Irwin Bramson. I don’t believe his picture has ever appeared in a newspaper before. He would be delighted to see it here.
     My grandfather was not famous, or successful, beyond supporting his family, working in a factory in Cleveland that made machine parts. He eventually owned his own house, on Rossmoor Road in Cleveland Heights. He was very proud of that.
    My grandfather was born on a farm in Bialystock Poland, in 1907 and was sent to this country because things were very bad there and he had a relative, a distant cousin in Cleveland who owned an automobile parts factory and would employ him. He left at 16 and never saw any of his family again; they were all murdered, man, woman and child by the Nazis and their henchmen.
     When he got here, he no doubt faced the scorn of those who felt that America was being corrupted by racially inferior immigrants such as himself that all manner of subhumans and Jews, were poisoning American blood, that they were constitutionally different and would never fit in.
    But he did fit in. He never went to college, but he met my grandmother, got married—they went to the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago on their honeymoon in 1934. They had three daughters, my mother being the eldest. Had they been born in Poland, they all would have been murdered too. 
     All of my memories of him involve him sitting in a green Barcalounger, watching “The Price Is Right.” He smoked cigarettes and drank bourbon. He sucked Luden’s Cherry Cough drops for his throat—he would die of emphysema in 1981.
     He taught me chess. He would give me a dollar if I won and a dollar if I lost. He took me to my first baseball game. There was nothing mean or difficult about him. He did not complain. He asked nothing of anybody. In fact, he rarely spoke. He was a simple man, and I loved him.
     Everyone in the United States, unless they are a Native-American, has a person like my grandfather in their past, someone who came over here to escape hardship or horror and make a life. Whether it was 5 or 50 or 500 years ago, the story is the same. They came over and the country let them in.
     My grandfather became a citizen, not because he was a genius, not because he was harder working or smarter or better than any Mexican fording the Rio Grande. But because he could back then. There was an Ellis Island and a system that worked. Today Ellis Island is a shrine to ideals that half the country doesn’t believe anymore, who adopt the cruel role of the Americans who harassed their own forebears.
     I thought of my grandfather, after I watched Barack Obama’s brief speech Thursday night—lucky I have cable because none of the networks, the supposed mainstream media supposedly in his thrall, bothered to show it. He announced his changes to immigration policy, to allow undocumented immigrants who have been here longer than five years to “get right with the law,” register and not fear deportation. 
     Before Obama even spoke, the Republicans, who oppose everything the president has done, is doing, or will do, made a show of opposing this too, a rare trifecta blending economic myopia, longterm political suicide, and lack of basic human decency. Only time will tell if they respond by trying to impeach him, shut down the government or some new strategem. The only thing that they are certain not to do is pass the comprehensive immigration reform which, announcing his stopgap, Obama called for.
    That this is the right thing, that it is long overdue, that it will help the United States economy, that to do otherwise is cold hypocrisy and a denial of their own family, an insult the memory of my grandfather and theirs and the millions like him, never wrinkles their brow.
     My wife and I watched the speech.
     “He looks tired, frustrated,” my wife said.
     “He’s trying to talk sense to idiots,” I said.
     I’m glad I saw the speech, because I was starting to think very little of Obama, just by osmosis, just by living in a country where he is so despised. I wish he had done this three months, six months, a year ago. Not doing so was the kind of small, mean political calculation that has hobbled his presidency. The Democrats got drubbed anyway.
     But now I realize, the bottom line with Obama is: he did what he could do. He didn’t waste effort trying the impossible. Even his narrowed options were tough to manage.
     The good news is, he’s already won.
     As with gay marriage, the notion of no longer keeping millions who came to this country illegally in rightless limbo forever will seem an impossibility until suddenly it doesn’t and everybody wonders what took us so long to do the moral thing. Then the people who are castigating the president now will be hard to find. Cornered, they will shrug off their fanatical opposition to people just like their own grandparents with some easy rationalization. What really struck me about the president’s speech is he could speak the words at all, that he somehow found the stamina to present a cogent argument to rabid enemies who stopped listening long ago. There is a nobility to that.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Don't bike drunk

     A video made the rounds last year showing a woman riding a Divvy bike on Lake Shore Drive. 
     We stood around the newsroom and shook our heads—how stupid, exactly, can a person be? Taking a bike on the busy highway? Having ridden Divvy bikes all over downtown, from Roosevelt Road to Logan Square, I tried to answer that: 
      I can see how something like that happens, I said. You go off course. Once I was heading to the Aqua Tower, which I'd normally cab or walk but, since I was on a bike, I pedaled east on Kinzie, which made sense, then took a right at Michigan, which made sense, but ended up on Lower Michigan, waiting in the intersection to take a left onto Lower Wacker Drive, which suddenly didn't make sense at all: a busy, dark, dangerous intersection where nobody expects to see a bike.
     This is a bad idea, I thought, riding like mad to get out of there.
     A similar thought might have snapped through the booze-soaked brain of the 24-year-old mope who took a Divvy on Lake Shore Drive about 2:45 a.m. Saturday, weaving across lanes, eventually getting involved in a serious crash that severed his foot and left him in "very critical" condition.
    According to news reports, the cyclist was riding at 3100 N. Lake Shore Drive, when he swerved into a 2008 Mitsubishi, being driven by an Uber cab driver, and got clipped by the side mirror. He fell. When that car stopped to help him, another car hit them.       
     There's nothing really to be said that isn't obvious: don't bike drunk. While not quite as dangerous as driving drunk, at least to other people, your reflexes and judgment are still impaired and you risk doing something stupid, such as biking Lake Shore Drive at night—extra stupid because there's a bike path right there, nearby, along the lakeshore. 
     No one has gotten seriously injured on a Divvy bike before, and as someone who enjoys riding them, it's a shame to see that unblemished record broken in such a tragic way by a reckless individual. I'd like to say this doesn't count. But I suppose it does. I don't see how you can blame Divvy, though he'll probably end up suing the bike share service, if he lives, for allowing him access to a bike when he was impaired. You wish a person who does that would be able to say, "This was my fault" but that takes rare honesty. As it is, he'll probably be missing a foot, as a reminder of his folly. 
     And this tragedy should remind those who drink, particularly with the holiday season upon us, to plan ahead of how they're getting home, so they don't go home in an ambulance. And a reminder to those of us who don't drink that, though we might miss out on a bit of the fun, there's a whole boatload of misery that we also avoid, and that's a pretty good deal. As Upton Sinclair wrote: "Not drinking is no easy passport to happiness, no automatic assurance of a good and happy and creative life. What it does do is to increase the odds enormously."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Paperback books were vaguely disreputable when they came out, 100 years ago. Cheap editions for the underclasses, almost an insult to the concept of books.
     But that bias was short-lived, and while some people do enjoy the tactile pleasure and sturdiness of a hardback book over its more flimsy covered cousin, the differences are not given much thought, and rightly so. 
     Thus while reading electronically is seen as somehow suspect, a diminishment of the heft and permanence of a book, I think it is a passing qualm, and whether you read Moby-Dick online or in a physical book will not be particularly important, except the former experience will save you considerable arm strain. 
      I noticed this young man, consulting his laptop, surrounded by books. In a library, yes, but which library? I will give you a hint: it is not a public library. 
      The winner will receive a bag of marvelous Bridgeport coffee, which I have been drinking by the steaming cupful and enjoying greatly. Make sure to post your guesses below. Good luck.

Today is Nov. 22. If you missed last year's 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination story, about how Chicago helped break the shocking news to the world, you can read it by clicking here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bank phone poll spills the beans on tellers' doom


     With the election over, thank merciful God, I thought pesky telephone polls would subside. But if anything, they’ve increased. Not the “Who has your vote?” polls, or what I call “Slur Polls” — questions designed not to collect answers but to deliver attacks; polls that start out normally and then slide into insinuation: “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being most disgusted, and 1 being not as disgusted as you ought to be, how revolted were you to learn of the secret slush fund of Rep. Peckinsniff ...”)
     I try not to give much time to phone solicitors. I’ve learned to quickly set the receiver back down if the person on the other end doesn’t immediately reply to my tentative “Hello?” because that means it’s some automatic demon dialer in Mumbai that calls 10 numbers at a time and then connects with the first to answer. That takes 1.5 seconds, and by then I’ve hung up.

      But with phone surveys, I play along in a kind of information judo, using callers’ momentum against them. While they try to pry information out of me, I learn from them.
      For instance. Bank of America called this week. I am a preferred customer, which means I leave too much money sitting in accounts, drawing 0.03 percent interest, money that Bank of America then loans out at 3 percent. (That’s not “3 percent interest” they give , by the by. That’s three-hundredths of a percent. You wonder why anyone bothers at that point; the interest they pay hardly seems worth the paperwork to tally it).
     So, the Bank of America phone pollster wants to know: Have I used their Northbrook branch bank in the past 30 days? Why yes, I have! Just the other day. Working at home, at lunchtime, I took a break to do "errands"— my excuse to stand up and step outside. I stroll to the library and the post office, the hardware store, the grocery store and the bank. While most suburbanites don't visit their neighbors without getting in a car, I like that we live cheek-by-jowl to downtown, or to what passes for a downtown in Northbrook, and can walk everywhere. Doing so makes me feel like a character in a Richard Scarry story, if you remember those brightly colored children's books where friendly animal characters are always going about quotidian tasks, bakers baking and police officers directing traffic and such. My self-image during these strolls is not precisely a bear in a fedora waving his paw at a pig in a white apron. But very close. (I won't speculate on how I'm actually perceived, the likelihood of Northbrook mothers cautioning their naughty children with, "Now you behave, or I'll turn you over to the Scary Wandering Man and he'll put you in a pie and eat you for his dinner.")
     The greeter at the bank, the phone poll asked. Did I find her helpful? Uh-oh, I thought, somebody's job is in the crosshairs.
     I went to bat for the bank greeter. Yes indeed, I said, I find them enormously helpful. Which is true; it's helpful, after a morning staring at a computer screen by yourself, to actually have a human being smile and say hello and point you toward the tellers.
     And then an even more ominous question: Was I willing to wait "any amount of time" to use the services of my bank?
     "Any amount of time?" I replied, in a small voice. As in hours? No, I suppose not ...
     The next morning, in one of those coincidences that makes you wonder if the whole world is not one vast clockwork conspiracy, the Wall Street Journal published a story about the endangered bank teller. That banks, in their constant drive to hoover up more of your money while providing less in return, are using fewer tellers and paying them less. ATMs are vastly more economical than employees who, though they can greet customers, also draw salaries and take sick days and have babies. They want what employees they do have to be busy issuing second mortgages to people who need money because they haven't had a raise in nine years, and not indulging eccentric coots who just want to keep their blood circulating.
     Cash is going away someday, just as department stores, mail carriers and, yes, newspaper columnists and bank tellers, eventually. There's no point keening over it. Society does fine without gas station attendants or telegraph operators.
     But what about the people who are the cashiers and baggers and bank tellers? Where will their equivalent be in the new economy? Baristas and warehouse workers, I suppose. You know, Bank of America used to be LaSalle Bank, and LaSalle Bank had a full-time staff curator to keep track of its photo collection. In the end, when they sold it off, they made a fortune on the rare prints. There are many ways to make money, and firing people isn't the only path to success.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Replogle sold the globe to the world


     Memory fades. It's ironic that such a grim truth should be revealed, not just in one but in two ways, in Monday's frothy post about the carnival surrounding Kim Kardashian's Brobdingnagian butt. 
     But I suppose it's also apt. New wonders push into the space where old stuff used to be. 
     First, I used the word "steatopygic," (and I'm going to dial back on the big words. Enough already, with the big words, as my mother would say*) and cited Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" for teaching it to me. Though the word isn't there. An alert reader cited a passage containing "callpygian" which means about the same thing (actually "well-shaped" as opposed to "fat"). Several readers mentioned "callipygian," which is a little scary. That must have been the source of my error, though how one morphed into the other I cannot imagine. I would have sworn...
     The second reminder of the corrosive effect of time on memory was my use of "Replogle desk globe." I was not trying to be obscure (I'm never trying to be obscure; it just happens).  To me, it was a just a bit of local color, like saying "Radio Flyer sled" or "Jays potato chips." But several readers wrote in to say, "huh?"
    Replogle was a Chicago institution for 80 years, from 1930, when its factory opened in Broadview, to when the company laid off 84 workers at the end of 2010 and sold the brand name to an Indianapolis maker of school globes. Though the world's largest globe maker in a town once known for maps—Rand-McNally (a map publisher, I don't want to mystify people again) got its start here in 1856—somehow, Replogle never quite entered Chicago's consciousness.   
     Though not for lack of me trying to put it there. I've had an old Replogle globe on my desk for more than 30 years, and was keen to see where those lion's paws feet were carved. Here's my visit to their factory, ulp, almost 17 years ago.

     Take the geopolitical complexity of maps. Add woodworking. Season with metalcraft. Blend in the little-called-upon art of making spheres from flat surfaces, and you have a recipe for the odd mix of skills used making globes.
     In the case of Replogle Globes, a million globes a year, from 4.7 inch desktop models to the office-eating 32-inch diameter Diplomat globes, cradled in their hand-rubbed mahogany frames.
     Few nations on Earth are without a Replogle globe -- they sit in schoolrooms from Chile to China (the place names in Spanish in the former, of course, and Chinese in the latter -- the company also makes globes in French and German). There has been a Replogle globe in the Oval Office of the White House ever since Hoover. Replogle make globes not only of the Earth, but of Mars, Venus and the moon -- a big seller in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not so popular now.     
     The company was started in 1930 by Luther Replogle (pronounced Rep-logel), a Chicago school supplies salesmen who began making globes in his basement.
     The latest incarnation of that operation occupies 250,000 square feet on 25th Avenue in Broadview. Perhaps the best way to envision the factory is to think of it as three factories: globe production, metalworking and a woodshop.
     The smaller globes are stamped from cardboard. Sheets of cardboard are cut into a 12-pedaled daisy shape, as are the paper maps that go over them.
     The two flat pieces are molded together on enormous industrial flywheel presses, turning them into hemispheres. The eight-foot-tall presses with their tons of force seems enormous for the little 9-inch half spheres produced.
     Globes that light up are made from plastic -- vacuformed in molds. The larger light-up globes are pasted over hollow polypropylene spheres.
    For the largest globe, orange-peel-shaped map segments -- called "gores" -- are laid by hand on the spheres, carefully smoothed and stretched into place using special paste so there are no flaws or gaps. Customers paying up to $6,500 — the cost of the top model — can't be expected to put up with a lot of bubbles.
     Laying the map over the large globe can take eight hours; and if the last gore somehow doesn't line up -- "I sit down and cry then pull them all up and start over," an employee says.
     The hemispheres are trimmed, one at a time, and then "polar washers" are inserted — metal rings intended to let the globes spin for years without their cardboard giving away. Then a cardboard ring is glued into one hemisphere around the equator and the other hemisphere tamped onto it with a machine that gives the upper half a firm tap.
      Finally, a tape is applied to mark the equator and — conveniently — hide the seam dividing the halves. The globes are sprayed with a UV protectant, so they don't fade.
     Tumbling the globes on a conveyer belt would damage them, so they move around the plant suspended from hooks on an overhead chain system. At times the factory seems like a giant clockwork cosmos, with worlds of green and blue and black and sepia all moving at various speeds and directions and levels.
     In the metalworking area, coils of steel are turned into circular bases, stamped, then decorated. The rings some globes sit in are "butt welded," the ends of the loop welded together then buffed so there is no seam.
     Finally there's the woodshop, a large room filled with lathes and saws and stacks of lumber, waiting to be turned into legs and wood bases.    
     Despite the care put into buffing metal and finishing wood, the trickiest part of any globe is definitely the map. Replogle is one of the few companies around whose products can be made obsolete by events thousands of miles away.
     The world is always changing. Arctic regions shift. Islands are cut in half by storms. Then there are the political upheavals, which have been kicked into overdrive this past decade.
     Keeping track of the shift and flux of world borders is the job of LeRoy Tolman, chief cartographer, in his office one flight above the factory floor.
     Sometimes he hits changes on the nose. The day West and East Germany re-united, a globe showing the unified German state was rolling off the lines.
     Replogle sells 40 different types of globes; the largest, the Diplomat, has over 20,000 names on it. Updating takes time.
     "We were kept busy for a year after the Soviet Union broke up," Tolman says.
     Part of Tolman's job is determining the accepted outline of a nation. He spreads a big map of Egypt out over his desk, responding to an irate Egyptian government complaint that its southern boundary with Sudan is shown as it actually is, and not how it exists in the fervent hopes of the Egyptians.
     Not much of a market in Egypt, so Tolman, after checking with the U.S. State Department, keeps the border where it is in actuality. That isn't always the outcome. The company wants to sell globes and doesn't flinch at following a customer's interpretation of what the world looks like.
     Globes going to Arab countries retained "Palestine" years after Israel was founded. Japanese globes show the country as still possessing the Kirin Islands, which the Soviets stripped away in 1945.
     So if Saddam Hussein placed a big enough order, he could get globes showing the United States as a possession of Iraq?
     "All but Illinois," said Tolman. "Economics is the prime factor."
          —originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 2, 1998

* Did you notice the irony of my swearing off big words almost immediately after deploying the Swiftian term, "Brobdingnagian"? I didn't, not until the third time I read this. Brobdingnag was, you might recall, the land of the giants in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," and "Brobdingnagian" is a fancy term for "very big." I left it in because, well, perhaps you're as amused by my inconsistencies and oversights as I have learned to be. God knows I can't correct them at this point.