Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

    John McPhee once wrote an article about a geologist who could identify a particular stretch of beach, anywhere in the world, just from a handful of sand.
    And while it might seem unfair for me to expect you to be able to determine exactly where this lovely tropical scene is to be found—what island, or peninsula, or other locale—my faith in you is such that I know you can do it.
     Where is this sun-drenched tableau, which I thought might perk you up on this late January day, with snow on the way? There are lots of clues—the particular style of boat, the distinctive color of the water, the rocky beach, and of course those give-away palm trees in the distance.
      The winner will receive one of my brand-new 2015 posters, suitable for framing, certain, almost, to be a collector's item decades from now, complete with its own custom made container manufactured by Chicago Mailing Tube. Post your guesses below. Good luck. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Poet Donald Hall pens a guide to old age

     Could it be that human beings are supposed to die at 60?
     That all of our supposed medical advances will be seen, someday, as a blind alley, a mistake? That a world where men die of cholera at 45, when women die bearing their ninth baby, will be seen as preferable to the coming gerontocracy of extended decrepitude, of living corpses idling away meaningless years in tiny rooms waiting for their prolonged, tortuous deaths?
     I'm not saying I believe that. Given that half my readers seem to be 80, I'm not suggesting you should all be dead. I'm glad you're here, just as, when I turn 80, I imagine I'll be glad to be here, too.
     At least I hope I will.

     But I have to wonder, especially having just read Donald Hall's new memoir, Essays After Eighty (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $22).
     Though I am the rare person who goes to poetry readings and buys poetry books, I had never heard of Hall, poet laureate of the United States in 2007, until I read a rapturous review in the New York Times, and ran out and bought his book, as a kind of preparation, the way I read Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance on the way to hike in Colorado. I figure, old age is coming, eventually. Might as well know what to expect.
     A futile task, Hall explains, because we arrive at old age and are shocked to find ourselves in "an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae." Pleasant or annoying, the aged "are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial."
     Sounds awful. But if you object to that; blame him, not me. I'm just the reporter.
     The old are ignored, trivialized, condescended to. A guard at the National Gallery of Art explains to Hall that the sculpture he's looking at is by Henry Moore, in singsong, as if to a child, while Hall manfully resists pointing out that he knew Henry Moore, personally, and wrote a book about him.
     The book is at times quite funny. The highlight, for me, is when Hall is awarded the National Medal of Arts. He goes to Washington to receive it from Barack Obama and, well, let him describe it:

     A military man took my arm to help me climb two stairs. . . . I told the president how much I admired him. He hugged my shoulder and bent speaking several sentences into my left ear, which is totally deaf. I heard nothing except my heart's pounding. When my friends watched on the Internet, seeing the president address me, they asked what he had said. I told them that he said either 'Your work is immeasurably great' or 'All your stuff is disgusting crap,' but I couldn't make out which.
Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter
     Humor is the bulwark against dolorous age, though Simon Rich this is not. Much of this brief book, 134 pages, is taken up by Hall's cherished memories — driving from Vienna to Greece with his new wife, Kirby, in 1952. Interesting enough, and punctuated by the occasional bracing flash of self-awareness.
     "One feature of old age is gabbing about almost-forgotten times," he writes, and his almost-forgotten times involve quizzing Dylan Thomas about "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" and meeting Mrs. Fiske Warren and her daughter, whose portrait, "Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter," was painted by John Singer Sargent in 1903.
     While tragedy has certainly visited him: his first wife lost to divorce, his second to leukemia, Hall has it a lot better than most, living on the New Hampshire farm that has been in his family since 1865. His memories include Exeter and Harvard and Oxford. He has a quartet of women seeing to his needs, including lover Linda, and while he relates his good fortune, he doesn't seem to grasp it.
     The awards roll in, and he likes that, after the ritual faux pooh-poohing. A lot of the book is spent receiving honors, which reminded me how the importance of career flares up in old age, the irresistible impulse to valorize your past, to reassure yourself that it all Meant Something. The damning thing for me was the book flap biography, which reads, in its entirety: "Donald Hall, who served as poet laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, awarded by the president. He lives in New Hampshire."
     I know those aren't necessarily written by the author, but were it me, I'd sit at the book warehouse with a scissors, snipping those off the flaps before I let that go out.
     I left the book reminding myself: vanity is a black hole whose gravity grows as you age. If fate sentences you to live, try your hardest to tear your gaze away from the black star of your ego, and think about other people. Hall's children and grandchildren are ghosts in the book. He might have focused a little on them, but the task eluded him. Still, the book's worth a read.
     "There are no happy endings," Hall writes, "if things are happy they have not ended." Indeed.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Union Station: fix the gross part, save the sagging stone steps

     Union Station is a hell hole — loud, crowded, smoky, cold, in winter, airless in summer, dripping cascades of what please God is water all year round. 
      So news that Amtrak finally plans to toss $12 million into fixing has to be welcome, although anybody who has spent anything on home repair has to immediately wonder how far $12 million is going to go. Announcing a $12 million facelift of Union Station is like me saying I'm spending $600 to put in a new bathroom in my home. Given that the "multibillion dollar" master plan to truly update Union Station, can $12 million even give it a good scrubbing (a skepticism reflected in headlines such as Time Out's, "Amtrak Commits $12 million to make Union Station less gross." Less gross. To totally eliminate grossness  would cost $120 million. Easily).  And there is the very real possibility that the years of construction work and inconvenience of the repairs will dwarf whatever improvement they actually achieve. That would surprise no one. 

      Still, to the degree they might enlarge the South Platform, even maybe drill another exit route down there, is to be applauded. It might means travelers won't have to queue in endless, we're-all-gonna-die-down-here-someday lines, waiting forever, our ears next to throbbing locomotives, just to get out of the place. 
     Although. One detail of the plan gave me pause. Not that they're listening to me, or any of the 120,000 commuters forced to descend into Union Station's stygian horrors every day. The geniuses in charge have announced they're going to fix the marble stairs into the Great Hall, steps gently worn over the decades by millions of feet, in Oxford wing tips and sandals and wrapped in rags. Chicago is not an ancient city, and those sagging stone steps are the closest thing we have to an old stairway in Jerusalem or Rome. So while God knows I would never argue with any kind of improvement at Union Station, I would say, fix those marble steps only after you've fixed everything else. Which is a code for "never." 
    That said, they'll probably fix them first. 

A visit from the Dog Police

     "Where's Kitty from?" a dinner guest asked, moments after she walked in the door and, by necessity, met our dog. 
      Silly me. I assumed she meant the name. Where's the name "Kitty" from. 
     "There's actually an interesting story," I began. "'Kitty' is short for 'Katerina.' She's a character in Anna Karenina. See, we had two cats, Anna and Vronsky, and they..."
    "No, no," our guest continued. "The dog. Where did you get the dog from?"
     The great moral question of our day.
     Now that religion is no longer a handy way of quickly establishing your superiority over others, pets have assumed that role. "Where did you get your dog?" isn't an idle question; it's an insinuation, an accusation, fired from the safety of the moral high ground. At the top of the pecking order are PETA zealots, who of course wouldn't have a pet at all -- mere slavery, in their eyes, and demeaning to the animal to suggest that something as foul as a human can exert dominion over it just because the human feeds it and cares for it and provides for all its needs. 
     On the next lower rung are those who, compelled to share their quarters with animals, adopt pets from shelters, with the sense of moral purity tossed in free.  These people seem constantly on the hunt for inferiors to educate. Puppy mills are horrible, yes, but not every breeder is an abusive puppy mill. Nor do other social wrongs get the same treatment. Nobody ever asks, "Where did you get those khakis from? You didn't get them from a sweatshop in China, did you?" 
     I've had the question put to me a dozen times, with a cocked head and an arched eyebrow. They see our cute little dog, obviously not a mutt, and their suspicions, well, they just can't control themselves. Blood in the water. 
     "We rescued her from a breeder," I've taken to answer, hoping to sow confusion.  I haven't yet said, "We got her from None of Your Fucking Business Farm." But that's coming. 
     Anna and Vronsky, I rush to say—maybe it'll cut down the death threats—were adopted from the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society which I referred to them for years after as "The Cruelty Society" for their demeaning, you-aren't-going-to-eat-these-cats-are-you? interview. Cruelty to people is fine. For a moment we were worried they'd decide to put the cats down, just to spare them the indignity of falling under our control. 
     Our dog was found online, by our younger son, adopted as a small puppy, from a woman in Evanston who, well, I'm not exactly sure where she got her puppies from. Maybe she  grew them from seeds. But if the puppy was abused, then all dogs should be so abused, because she's the sweetest, happiest dog I've ever met. We're delighted to have her.
     Back to our pre-dinner conversation, which devolved from there. Let's say my hosting duties trumped my pride, and I did not tell her to take her superior stray-rescuing ass back out the door. But it was touch-and-go for a moment.
   This exchange came to mind this week when the GoDaddy domain name giant pulled "Journey Home," their Super Bowl commercial, after howls of protest because how it depicts puppies. An adorable pup, "Buddy," bounces out of the back of a pickup truck, laboriously finds his way home, crossing railroad tracks and hiding out from a rainstorm under a bridge.
   "Look it's Buddy! I'm so glad you're home," the joyous owner exults, sweeping the pup into her arms. Then her voice drops, menacingly. "Because I just sold you on this web site I built with GoDaddy—ship him out!" 
    Funny, right? The sweet moment punctured.
     Wrong. Not funny. Not funny at all.
     "If you can buy a puppy online and have it shipped to you the next day, it's likely you're supporting inhumane breeding," the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tweeted, apparently having no actual animals to save. Tens of thousands of people, similarly situated, signed online petitions.
      GoDaddy, no doubt happily enjoying this spasm of publicity without actually having to lay out the millions to run the commercial, promptly announced they'd instead run one of their buxom GoDaddy girl commercials, causing all sorts of additional on-line gripping about that—though not so much this time that the commercials won't air. 

     Why is that? Why is mildly alluding to the fact that dogs are bred and sold—they are, and glad we are of it—unacceptable in 2015, but giggling jiggle-jugged spokesmodels are just fine?
     "Why outraged over GoDaddy Puppy and not GoDaddy girls?" one tweet asked.
     I'll take that one.
     Twas always so.
     People have more sympathy for animals than they have for other people. This is nothing to be proud of, and nothing new. New York City passed its first anti-cruelty to animals law in 1867. Seven years later, when religious missionary Etta Wheeler wanted to save a 9-year-old girl, Mary Ellen Wilson, from being beaten and abused, she found there were no laws being violated, and the police shrugged. So she turned to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, arguing that Mary Ellen, as a child, was sort of an honorary animal, almost as good as a horse or a cow or a turtle or any of the creatures who were protected under the law. The SPCA was convinced, and went to bat for little Mary Ellen. 
     Our hearts go out to animals, because they're so cute and because they don't have any of those qualities we so despise in human beings. All the better if we can stand up for the animals we claim to love while simultaneously running down the people we obviously hate.  Nobody is protesting the men slamming each other into ground beef on live TV Sunday. But one Hollywood pup play acts getting sold, and our hearts bleed. It's not about helping animals so much as it's about puffing ourselves up.
     Or to put it another way, nobody ever says, "Hey, lots of kids in orphanages--why didn't you adopt?" But then again, that's people, and they don't count as much. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ernie Banks one of a vanishing breed: us

     Journalism is a kabuki, a ritualized form, polished over the years.
     We have our traditions. Some subjects we avoid. You’ll never see the “Lotto: Sucker’s game or stupid tax?” headline.
     On the other hand, every snowfall is covered like a fresh shock, like an unexpected occurrence. Snow in January in Chicago; who’d have imagined?
     Our rituals are particularly strong when a celebrity passes away. Scribes automatically share a personal vignette, supposedly to offer illumination into the fallen star, but actually thinly disguised braggartry. Yup, knew him, hung with him.
     Though my one encounter with Ernie Banks says nothing about me, other than I can give directions, and a lot about why the city is honoring him today.
     Banks walked up to me, about 15 years ago, because I was the guy at the desk by the door on the fourth floor of the old Sun-Times newsroom. He introduced himself and asked where the picture desk was.
     Not that I believed it was him immediately. Back then, all sorts of people would show up at the paper. Delegates from distant planets. A pair of men in full braided gaucho outfits, brandishing guitars, wearing enormous sombreros. You never knew who you’d bump into. I once turned the corner and almost smacked into Ben & Jerry, the ice cream makers (“Ben!” I cried, almost falling to me knees. “Jerry! I love you guys!”)
Banks, me, Tom McNamee, Don Hayner
   But he looked like Banks. And he had on this expensive-looking leather Cubs jacket. I figured, if he were a street person, he probably wouldn’t have that jacket. So I walked him back to the photography department.
     “Ernie just wandered upstairs,” remembers Rich Cahan, who was a photo editor. “I do recall him saying that he just didn’t remember what it looked like — the game that is. That he remembered the sounds, the cheers, but couldn’t remember what it looked like.”
     The photographers gathered around, started pulling out photo files.
     “Keith Hale, who was working in the lab during those years, offered to make copies of Ernie’s favorite pictures, or all of the pictures,” said Cahan. “Ernie was thrilled, and Keith went right to work as soon as he left. They were ready for Ernie the next day.
     But Banks never came back for his photos, which was also in keeping with him. Childlike innocence and follow-through do not go together — if they did, Banks might have spent his career on the Cleveland Indians or the Chicago White Sox: both teams wrote him letters, while he was in the Army in Germany, inviting him to try out. But in his excitement returning home, he forgot. He rushed back to the Kansas City Monarchs, where the Cubs snapped him up, for a song.
     Which relates to why Banks came by the paper himself. Derek Jeter would send a go-fer. When you have money up the ying-yang, you have go-fers, and you send them.
     Banks did not have money up the ying-yang. When the Cubs signed him in 1953 to play for their Cedar Rapids farm team, he did not dicker. He did not negotiate. He did not use a lawyer or an agent. He had forgotten about the Indians and White Sox.
     “I was so nervous I had to hold my right hand with my left as I scribbled Ernest Banks … on a document that seemed to be a mile long,” Banks wrote in his autobiography, “Mr. Cub.”
     He did not even notice how much he was being paid. Banks found out later, from the Monarchs manager, Buck O’Neill.
     “On the way back to the South Side, Buck kiddingly grabbed hold of my right arm so I wouldn’t jump out of the automobile as he asked, ‘Do you realize that you signed for $800 a month? After your first full year in the majors, I want you to write me with news that your salary has been doubled. It’s all up to you now.”
     Even in 1954, $800 a month wasn’t much for a professional athlete. Banks earned just $6,000 in 1954; an average American salary was $4.500. It’s the equivalent of earning $60,000 a year today.
     It’s easy to rhapsodize the simple past, when you’re not the one who got shafted. “Show me the money” is never going to tug at your heart strings the way, “Let’s play two” does. But someone was making big money from baseball in 1954. It just wasn’t players like Ernie Banks. Our affection is cold comfort, a booby prize. People still love Derek Jeter, despite his millions..
     When Jeter retired from the Yankees last year, Gatorade produced a rhapsodic video where Jeter, the grateful star, instructs his driver to pull over and he walks the last few blocks to Yankee Stadium, a god among mortals, as the camera records the stunned and grateful reaction of the delighted proles and Sinatra sings "My Way."
     Derek Jeter earned $12 million in 2014, about 300 times the median household salary.
     Ernie Banks earned $85,000 in 1971, his last year in baseball, about 10 times the median household salary.
     That’s how America has been going. The top floats away, and the the lower classes scrabble for crumbs. We don’t even get the same quality hero anymore. Ernie Banks was a great guy, but there was something tragic about him, about all those players, because they got screwed. Which is also why we love them so much, because we’re getting screwed too.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The clocks are stupid, not me. Really. They are.

     A smart person can do some pretty stupid things.
     Whether the doing of those stupid things crosses some stupidity threshold and transforms the heretofore smart person into a newly minted stupid person depends on a) the number and magnitude of the stupid thing or things this supposed smart person has done and b) the charitable or non-charitable way in which those stupid things are viewed.
    You'll have to decide...
   Last Wednesday evening, Dan Savage, syndicated sex columnist, author of best-selling memoirs, MTV star, perhaps the most significant journalist in America, asks if I'll be on his top-rated podcast. 
    I reply, "yes." 
Dan Savage
    Actually, I reply, "YES!!!!!" with the enthusiasm of a schoolgirl accepting her first date, because this represents the kind of outside validation which, laboring behind the plow, digging furrow after furrow in the hard earth, I crave.
     He tells me his producer—a producer is a person who handles the fine details such as scheduling, someone I don't have, but could sorely use, as will become evident—will contact me and schedule our chat. Ten minutes later I hear from producer Nancy. 
    "We will call you most likely around 11 Pacific time," she writes.
     Well, even I know the West Coast is two hours behind us, so that's 9 a.m. my time, I think. About the time I arrive at work. But if the train is late, as it sometimes is, I'll be huffing along Wacker Drive at 9 a.m. instead of poised in my chair, calm and composed, nipping at a fresh coffee, ready to wax with the kind of wit and intelligence that will project me into the world of syndicated columns, best-selling books and top podcasts. I decide it would make more sense to stay home to do the podcast. I prepare by listening to Dan's podcast, then get to bed early.
     At 8:45 a.m. Thursday, I set aside my work, pour a hot cup of coffee, and am poised in my chair, calm and composed, nipping at a fresh coffee, ready to wax with kind of wit and intelligence that will project me into the world of syndicated columns, best-selling books and top podcasts 
     9:05 a.m., poised in my chair, calm and composed, nipping at a fresh coffee... aw heck, you get the idea.
       At 9:06, worrying I'm seeming over-eager, I shoot Nancy an email. "Standing by." 
      Hmmm, must be a delay. I picture an electronic control center, crackling with activity. 9:10. 9:15, I use my cell to call my own phone. It rings. That's a good sign.
       At 9:17 I send Dan an email. "Running late?" 9:20 a.m. I think to check the time in Seattle. It's 7:26 a.m. there. Ohhh. Two hours before. I send the producer an apologetic note beginning "Whoops..." and reset my mental clock for 11 a.m. Go back to work or try to. 
     10:50 a.m. I'm ready, hot coffee, turning bon mots over in my head. Are they bon motty enough? 11 a.m. Poised in my chair, calm and composed, nipping at a fresh coffee, etc. etc. Right on the nose, 11 a.m..     
     11:05. 11:10. 11:20, my composure wilting like a ... heck, I should be able to come up with a sexual metaphor, in honor of Dan's line of work ... wilting like a ... ah ... like an, umm, thingie...  umm....that ... how does he write that sex stuff anyway? It's a lot harder than it looks.
    Well, wilting anyway, flagging like an, err... I figure, I'd better call his producer.  I get voicemail. "That was today, right?" A few minutes later I get an email. 
     "We were thinking 11:00 Pacific time. That's 1:00 your time," she says. "Can you still do it?"
      You'll notice the lack of sarcasm in her reply. Professionalism. 
     I look at the original email. 11 PST. 1 p.m. my time. So two mistakes. First, I read that as 9 a.m. Central time instead of 1 p.m. And second, when I realized the difference, I transmuted the original time from 11 to 9 a.m.. Error upon error. This is why I work in a medium where I can go over and over things, to make sure they're not screwed up. I don't function well in real time.
      We finally do the interview, but I must have been so wound up that I muffed it, because Dan—pretending like the mistake was all his, which is true professionalism—asked me to do it over again. Which I did. By the time we were done, it was about 2:30 p.m. The results, well, you can judge for yourself, once the podcast is posted at 5 a.m. Central Standard Time.
    I think. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

No stars in Chicago, and a good thing too

Tatiana Serjan sings "Tosca" (above and atop blog, courtesy Todd Rosenberg)

     "Mirotic is here," my 17-year-old son said, as we settled into our seats at the Civic Opera House Saturday night before the debut of Lyric Opera's production of Puccini's "Tosca."
     I pulled out my iPhone. News!
     "Are you tweeting that?" he said, slightly aghast. "I mean, I think it was Mirotic. It looked like him."
     I adjusted my tweet accordingly—"Bulls power forward Mirotic spied at opening of 'Tosca.' Or tall guy who looked like him"—and showed the phone to my boy. He nodded. I hit "Tweet."
     Famous people are by definition interesting. If Bulls players are now hanging out at the Lyric—Pao Gasol took teammate Nazr Mohammed to "Anna Bolena" last month—I want everyone to know. Maybe my co-workers won't have that look of befuddled pity mixed with fear when the subject comes up.
     Of course fame is relative. Renee Fleming was also there Saturday. The star soprano's acclaim dwarfs Nikola Mirotic's, not only in the opera world but in the world in general. She did sing the National Anthem at last year's Super Bowl.
     She was also harder to spot in the sell-out crowd ("Tosca," by the way, is fantastic. Tatian Serjan. Vissi d'arte. Tears in my eyes—for a full review by the great Wynne Delacoma, a star in her own right, click here). I only heard that Fleming was there (From a very reliable source; otherwise I'd leave the door ajar that it might have just been some lucky woman who merely looks like Renee Fleming). At the first intermission I scanned the crowd, easily found the one guy 6'10 with a full beard. Yup, Mirotic.
     He stood a dozen feet away. "You want to meet him?" I asked my kid. I've used my good offices to introduce him to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and the best player on the team, Jimmy Butler. You meet celebrities, a bit of their fame rubs off on you and you feel better about yourself.
     "He's with his wife," my boy observed. "We should leave him alone." I admired that. The greatest favor you can do celebrities is to not molest them in public. And as we gazed in his direction, the opera patrons indeed seemed to ignore the athlete, though given this crowd, they might have also ignored the full Bulls squad, in uniform, playing a scrimmage.
     Some of our restraint might reflect his position far down the greased pole of fame. Having met Nikola Mirotic will be of limited utility in the years to come, unlike my story about interviewing Michael Jordan in the Bulls locker room and having no idea who he was. I've been telling that over and over, often to the same person, for more than 25 years.
     I haven't yet had someone reply, "Michael who?" But that's coming. Fame is not only relative, it's fleeting. The biggest stars never quite devolve into nobodies, but the circus of public attention does pack up and move on. Madonna once transfixed the world; now glimpses of her flash here and there, though whether that is intentional, a Garbo-like seclusion, or she's got six publicists puffing madly on her flickering flame, well, I can't say I care much, and neither do you.
     My colleague over at the Tribune, Pulitzer-Prize winner Mary Schmich, wrote an interesting column last week pointing out "There are no celebrities in Chicago." Oprah? Gone. Jordan? Gone. "Hugh Hefner?" she writes. "Moved to LA. Barack Obama? Moved to D.C."
     She concludes her column with, I believe, a misstep, suggesting reluctantly that the city's one true celebrity is Rahm Emanuel. It might seem like that, and he does have solid connections in the stratosphere of money and power. But if celebrity means that regular folk care about you, that ain't Rahm. My agent just spent six months trying to sell a book about Rahm, and the publishing world's reaction fell into two camps: a) Nobody cares about Rahm Emanuel, and b) his brother's book sold just 4,000 copies for Random House.
     I'm not criticizing Mary. I just want to draw a different conclusion from her premise, maybe move the ball forward a few yards from where she left it. She is correct, Chicago does not have any real celebrities now. But, as she notes, we did: Oprah and Jordan and Al Capone and such. And will again, as Obama is a reminder. Maybe he'll move back here. If not, someone else will arrive, or arise. Chicago will never have the galaxy of stars found around Los Angeles, because they have the movies. Nor can we match New York's density. But we will have a few. Making us lucky, because seeing them come and go teaches us: fame fleets.
     It fleets for individuals. When I taught journalism at Loyola, I asked the 21 students in my class if the name "Mike Royko" meant anything to them. One hand went up.
     And it fleets for cities. Chicago won't be a lesser place if the Obamas settle in Hawaii. It'll be better. We'll all be spared the stress of bumping into the former president, of having him blow past us in line at Starbucks. The glitter that celebrities bring is more than offset by the hassle of having to put up with them. Lack of celebrities is just another reason Chicago excels as a place to live. Don't tell them.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

And when it gets to earth...


     Much interesting feedback on Friday's UFO column, as you can imagine.
     The UFO enthusiasts seemed abrupt, as if tired of defending themselves. They basically said, "Investigate the topic," as if that will be sufficient to engender belief. None of them addressed my basic question: "Sure, you're seeing strange stuff—but what makes you leap from smudge (or light, or spinning cigar, or whatever) to interplanetary visitors? Why dismiss the dozen more ordinary explanations?"
     Some added plausible explanations of their own:
     "I think the UFO reason is that we are social creatures," writes Mike R. "We don't even like the idea of being alone in the universe! I love the. Moody Blues' 'Eternity Road' song, but it makes me a bit nervous when I hear the lyrics describing the subject being alone, traveling through the cosmos .. and that first Twilight Zone episode, as well..."
     One reader did point out a 20-year-old error on my part. I wrote about the person who set off the modern era mania, private pilot Kenneth Arnold claiming to spot nine mysterious objects in Washington State in June, 1947, and originally said that he had penned an article for FATE the year before. But that impossible, one reader pointed out; FATE didn't debut until the spring of 1948, with Arnold's article in it. 
     I took that from "U is for UFO," my study of the subject that appeared in my 1996 rumination on the irksome The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances.  So either I got the magazine name wrong, or made some other kind error; it's been so long I can't figure out what the trouble was.
     Not that it undercuts my case. If one mistake were enough to indict a point of view, we wouldn't have to tolerate the endless bleat of credulity that reigns supreme on this topic. 
     I'd have let the matter drop, but there was one  email I want to share, almost beautiful in its simplicity, from reader Charles Yates. It struck me because it conveys a thought I've never seen expressed before.
    Here it is, in its entirety: 
I'm very skeptical when I heard about Roswell years ago. This ufo traveled from distant galaxies, and then when it gets to Earth it......crashes??

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Who IS this?

     Not everything becomes a story.
     At least not right away.
     A mutual friend suggested that I should get together with this gentleman.
     So I did.
     And we had a cup of coffee downtown, talked for maybe an hour, a thoroughly interesting conversation, about a variety of topics, from our children, to natural food, to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Then we went our separate ways, though we're hoping to have dinner in February, if our schedules permit.
      His brother is quite famous, though he's becoming well known in his own right. 
      Not the best photo—my apologies, the light was odd, and I only had a moment to snap a picture.
      But it should be good enough to do the job.
      Who is this fellow, and where is he standing?
      The winner will receive a bag of fine Bridgeport coffee, roasted right here on the near Southwest side of Chicago.  
       Please remember to post your guesses below. Good luck. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

UFOs: The evidence is out there

     Do you believe in UFOs?
     That is, do you believe that Unidentified Flying Objects are not the result of mirages, misidentifications and mendacity, but tangible evidence of intelligent life from distant planets traveling huge distances to gaze mutely upon us because, well, we’re so interesting and important?
     You are not alone. Between a third and two-thirds of Americans — numbers vary depending on how the poll is worded — believe reports of UFOs reflect their extraterrestrial origins.
     And now you can plow through those reports yourself, at least 10,000 of them, from 1947 to 1969, gathered by the Air Force in its Project Blue Book, posted online this week by an organization calling itself The Black Vault.
     Rather than even try to read all 129,491 pages, I began looking at reports from Illinois, starting with one filed June 28, 1947 — four days after private pilot Kenneth Arnold started all this by reporting nine strange objects flying “like a saucer skipping over water” near Mount Rainier in Washington State. The Illinois report is less descriptive, consisting of the single sentence: “Only info given was that saucers were seen over Illinois,” on a faint, microfilmed page where some Air Force functionary had concluded, in the all-caps so popular when dealing with this subject: “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR EVALUATION.”
     The cover-up begins!

     To continue reading, click here.    

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Do Jews go to heaven?

     A college friend was getting married, and arguing with his mother who, as mothers will, was trying to micro-manage the event.
    "You're going to serve shrimp cocktails at the reception of course," his mother said. 
    'But neither of us like shrimp cocktails," he replied.
    "You have to serve shrimp cocktails," she reasoned. "It's a Jewish tradition."
    I thought of that exchange—if you missed the humor, shrimp aren't Kosher, thus observant Jews don't eat them—this week, after Monday's column on Pope Francis' remark about how insulting speech should expect a punch. As often happens, the point of the column—why is the pope apologizing for violence?—was ignored by those who preferred to zero in on what they considered a lapse. In looking for an example of how the Catholic Church insults me, I picked the lowest hanging fruit: its belief that Jews go to hell. 
     That drew a fusillade of response.  Based on my replies, you'd think the Roman Catholic Church were some squishy, c'mon-in-everybody faith famed for its acceptance and inclusion, like Unitarianism or Baha'i.
     "Wrong, wrong, wrong!!!" wrote Gloria Callaci. "That's as untrue and inflammatory -- pardon the pun -- as the old claim that Jews like to sacrifice Christian children!" She continues.
     Rather, Jews are considered our elders in the Abrahamic faith which is shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Their holy covenant is considered to be valid by the Catholic Church and to be respected by Christians. After all, Jesus lived and died as a Jew; he was never a Christian, let alone a Catholic! We believe that God wants ALL humans, even atheists, to enjoy eternal life with Him, not just Christians. That's the "official line."
     "The Catholic Church does not really teach that Jews wind up in hell," writes Brother Tom Mahoney, at St. Laurence High School. "I would not continue to belong to a church that did." 
    "A practicing  Catholic, and I don't believe all Jews go to hell or only Catholics get to heaven," writes Harry Gortowski.
     They seemed to be basing this on their own experience. They were Catholics, so they knew.
     Those who offered up evidence ended up aiming slightly down and to the left: demonstrating, not what Catholics believe about heaven and hell, but rather that Catholic officialdom has said nice things about Jews over the years.
     "Your comment was that the Church places all Jews in hell just for being a Jew.... that is false," Robert Carroll wrote. "Benedict XVI wrote his book Jesus of Nazareth in conjunction with Rabbi Neusner and this collaboration was based on sincerity and admiration for each other's understanding — this would not have happened if the Pope was saying doctrinally that all Jews are subject to eternal damnation...
     Some comments were the usual, "Oh-you-hate-us!" swoon. Some demanded an apology. Many were very thoughtful, such as this, from Charles G. Bolser, C.S.V., pastor of St. Viator Parish:
     I just finished reading your recent commentary "Pope stumbles over Hebdo." While I do agree with your premise, I would like to offer one correction - "Where do Jews end up? Hell. Our children? Hell. Damned to eternal torment in a fiery furnace for the unforgivable crime of being ourselves. That isn't a doodle on a magazine, that's the official line, softened with various throat clearings to make it appear less vile, but here nonetheless." I will agree that at one time, that was the official teaching. Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Atheists, etc., etc., were condemned to Hell - for many reasons. However, as most institutions or organizations do over time, they experience new insights and wisdom as they break from the traditions of the past - painfully and slowly, but break nonetheless...  
     My point however, is that the Catholic Church today does not hold, teach, accept or approve of your statement under any circumstance. There are still many "out there" who do, but they are not the church. The Church, as defined once upon a time by a famous Irish writer is "here comes everybody." Like all organizations we live with extremes on both the left and the right with most somewhere in the middle as life continues to evolve and transform the world.     I agree with your comments on tolerance, but would also push it a bit. I would hope that we could all not just accept diversity, but to respect, honor and treasure diversity in all forms. When I look at our universe and our world, in all of its grandeur and beauty, I find that diversity is the key to growth and life, while conformity results in death. This holds true for the physical evolution of life, but also true for the intellectual and spiritual. There is no one religion or belief that says all that can be said as life continues to unfold in mysterious and wonderful ways, but always engaged in a struggle - painful at times, but at other times wonderful to behold in the simple and compassionate works of so many individuals.
        While I could feel the goodwill of writers such as Rev. Bolser, I just didn't buy it. Is he really claiming that, when it comes to getting into heaven—what this is about, remember—the Catholic hierarchy doesn't think that being Catholic is necessary?  Observing the sacraments is not necessary? Just be nice to folk and don't commit crimes and an eternity of sitting cross-legged at the feet of the Jesus you don't believe in awaits you. Is that the official line now?
    And while the honest answer to Rev. Martin Deppe's question—"On what basis can you claim this as the “official line” of any Christian denomination?"—was "intuition," I figured it wouldn't be that hard to find the actual language. 
    And it wasn't.
    As a proud owner of a 17-volume New Catholic Encyclopedia, I'm happy to have any opportunity to use it, and therefore justify the real estate it occupies in my office. The entry on "Heaven (Theology of)" boots Jews out in the opening line: "Heaven is the state of happiness of those who have died in Christ."
     Jews, I shouldn't have to point out, do not believe in Christ (well, not in the divinity of Christ. I believe Jesus existed, and had a lot of interesting things to say, but I can't believe that gets me waved past St. Peter). 
   That is not to say that there are no Catholic teachings that prop the door open for Jews, but those seem to be designed to slip in Moses, Abraham, etc., and if you read them closely the exception is made for those in ancient times who didn't have the opportunity to embrace Jesus Christ, not, as I state in my piece, those like myself and my kids who defiantly remain Jewish despite the chance of salvation dangling before our eyes.
     No being in heaven implies being in hell. Where else is there? I skipped over to "Hell (Theology of)," conveniently in the same volume. It does take a bracingly non-literal view of hell that, I will be honest, was surprising. "Only as a mental abstraction can hell be a thing in itself."
     It too is heavy sledding, but as best I can understand, hell is separation from God, and thus everybody who doesn't believe in Jesus is already in hell. "Hell is not justified in sin alone: behind sin is unbelief...separation from God is the theological idea of hell."
   Of course, it could depend whether they mean separation from Deuteronomy God or Holy Trinity God. In the former, that wouldn't necessarily put Jews in hell, only atheists.
    My Catholic Encyclopedia was published in 1967, and, responsible reporter that I am, I thought to check a more recent text. Maybe gates to heaven were thrown open in more recent years. 
    The Catechism of the Catholic Church: Second Edition, under the Libreria Editrice Vaticana imprint sounds both relatively recent and fairly official, "Revised in accordance with the official Latin text promulgated by Pope John Paul II." 
     What does it have to say? It took a bit of searching; no wonder people prefer to simply imagine to be true whatever most suits their purposes in any given situation. But eventually I found it, line 1034, appropriately enough under "IV. Hell" 
        Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna,” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost.614 Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather... all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,”615 and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”616     1035  The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.”617
      "Refuse to believe and be converted" -- that would be Jews, would it not? 
     Not to belabor the point--though that is a succinct definition of religion if ever I heard one: belaboring the point.
     So I was right. But that is not the end. I learned something from this, beyond validation of my credo that most people who offer corrections are themselves wrong (Several people said, "I was never taught that Jews go to hell." Of course not. They don't have to. It's understood). 

     What I carried away is that the Catholic faithful diverge from the official teaching on a lot more than just contraception. So much so that they don't even know what the official teaching is any more. This is nothing new either. One of the many delights of reading The Divine Comedy to my older son was 31 cantos into the third book, Paradiso, when Dante pauses from staring agog at the glittering roseate heaven, with angels coming and going, like bees, their faces aflame with glory. He points out, almost as an aside, that half of heaven made up of Jews.
    That was the cause of some controversy in the church, and not because Jews were so welcome in heaven. But I loved it, and considered it a reward for sticking through hundreds of pages of recondite Florentine politics and Catholic theology, not to mention all that weeping and fainting and mooning over Beatrice. A tip of the hat from my hero, the way, when I was a boy and my brother and I met pitcher Phil Niekro at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. We were thrilled when, taking the mound for the Braves, he waved to us, sitting in the boxes. Or so we thought, I'd swear on a stack of Bibles that he waved, and wouldn't want to know the dry truth that he of course didn't see us, he couldn't have, and was merely waving to the crowd that we were part of.
     Sometimes you need to believe, and ignore the facts at hand. Religion, like language, is plastic, it changes over time, and drawing attention to a faith's outdated, ignored precepts can be a kind of bigotry, for which I am sorry, though, in my defense, it was inadvertent. As with every religious issue, there is a harsh way to view it and a humane way. I could say, "These Catholics, they don't even know what their own religion teaches." Or I could say—am saying, because I prefer this view—that change is hard, and takes a long time, and often regular people are far ahead, ethically, of the institutions that are supposedly leading them, but instead are being dragged behind by them.  Inclusion is a very modern idea, but not a purely modern idea. Dante obviously practiced it. And most of my readers who complained were complaining because they consider their faith to be a kind, loving, inclusive religion that welcomes all people into their special paradise. Or at least they want to seem that way, which is a start, and actually a very encouraging thing to report, and I am glad to do so.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Americans should pay more taxes

     I don't write about the boys much anymore. But my older boy's visit home from college served as an entryway into talking about a subject sure to be on everyone's lips this week—tax policy—and I figured, "why not?"

    We bundled our 19-year-old to Midway on Sunday for the flight back to California. But if you’re expecting a weepy my-boy-is-gone column, that wasn’t true in August when he first left, and it’s less true now. Sometimes you just have to be grateful and shut up. He was home for a month, during which there was frequent fun and zero crises, which I recognize as the rare good fortune that it is, like winning the lottery. Cash your check and the less said the better.
     No arguments, but we did have some heated discussions. My son seems to believe that the point of conversation is to get under the skin of others, as a kind of sport, and since I know exactly where he gets that trait, I can’t complain too much, though it was vexing at times.
     For instance, we were settling into our seats in the Civic Opera House — we saw both “Porgy & Bess” and “Anna Bolena” — and I looked around, marveling at the theater’s gilded beauty, and said one of the squishy sentimental things I am prone to say at such moments.
     “Maybe 50 years from now you’ll be here with your son.”
     “Or 100 years from now,” he replied.

     A strange statement. I paused, looking for a fingerhold.
     "Well, you'd be 119," I ventured. "You probably won't live to be that old. You probably wouldn't want to live to be that old."
     "By then," he said, "the Singularity will allow our intelligence to be uploaded onto machines."
     The Singularity? Ray Kurzweil's fairy dust about technology reaching some critical mass and humans injecting their intelligence into machines?
     "That's the silliest thing you've ever said," I replied, shocked to hear him endorsing such claptrap. "There's no indication that'll ever be possible. We aren't anywhere near that. It's science-fiction fantasy."
     He defended the notion until I was thoroughly aghast, then sat back, pleased, announcing that no, of course he didn't believe that at all, he was just seeing how agitated I would get arguing against it.
     Did I mention he wants to be a lawyer?
     "You know," I said, annoyed, "I get enough of that from readers without you luring me into pointless debates over something we both agree on." Eventually the opera began.
      The other thing he said that lingered was during a dinnertime political discussion. He said he is in favor of low taxes, which I was about to shrug off as more of the cold-blooded conservatism popular among college kids today. But then he added, "which is why they should be raised."
     That seemed a conundrum. In favor of low taxes so they should be raised? OK, I'll bite.
     "Our taxes are very low," he said, "compared to most other developed countries."
     "So . . . " I said, catching his drift, "if we want taxes that are merely low, we'd have to raise them?"
     That's true, and props to him for knowing it. The anti-tax mantra is so steadily chanted in this country, a lot of people don't realize that if you use the world as a model, we have it good.
     The average American pays about a quarter of income in taxes, which puts us 25th on the list of developed nations. In the European Union, it's about a third. Italy, Greece and Belgium pay over 40 percent of income in tax.
     Taxes are the fissure that forms the central divide in American political life, the chasm between Republicans - who believe in a nation of self-made Robinson Crusoes, where government is the problem and the solution is to starve it of money and watch it die - and Democrats, who believe we are all part of one society that should function by educating children and repairing bridges and caring for the mentally ill, and all that takes money. Tax money.
     Like gun rights, this isn't really open to discussion. It's closer to religion than political belief. We all hold our positions and defend them. The alarming shrinking of the middle class and the burgeoning of wealth among the already wealthy is only a concern to Republicans as rhetoric, since the middle class votes and the GOP wants those votes.
     The Republicans in Congress have already been starving the IRS, since it not only collects taxes but collects taxes on Republican groups, which is an obvious vendetta, even though cutting funding to the IRS results in poorer service to all Americans trying to pay their low taxes.
     Taxes are on everybody's lips since Tuesday night, in his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed some $320 billion in tax increases over 10 years, mostly for the highest-income Americans, who have been enjoying the fruits of the recovery over the past five years, offset by tax breaks to the shrinking middle class. The Republicans are shouting that this is redistribution of wealth, as if that were a bad thing.
     I haven't decided whether my kid's conservatism is another joke - a pose designed to unsettle dad - or just what a white shoe big firm contract attorney looks like when he's 19. But I took the realization that Americans get off easy when it comes to taxes as a hopeful sign that he's living in the fact-based world. Now if I could just get other people to join him.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"These are not dark days"

Photo courtesy of Tasos Katopodis  

     On Oct. 29, 1941, Winston Churchill returned to his alma mater, The Harrow School. To welcome him to their venerable institution, founded in 1572, the boys sang their school song, including an additional verse, written in his honor:

                           Nor less we praise in darker days
                                The leader of our nation,
                           and Churchill's name shall win acclaim 
                                 From each new generation.*

     The prime minister took exception to the phrase "darker days," even though, the past year, Britain had been facing the Nazi onslaught, alone. 
    "These are not dark days, these are great days," Churchill said. 
     I thought of Churchill when I saw this very Churchillian bulldog, Penelope, wh0 belongs to Tasos Katopodis, the fiance of Sun-Times photographer Jessica Koscielniak.  After a reporter, Jordan Owen, wondered why the Today Show has a puppy but the Sun-Times doesn't, Jessica tweeted this photo of Penelope standing guard on some circulation racks in our old 9th floor newsroom.
    I saw her tweet and it got me thinking. 
    That newsroom is gone, the staff squeezed into a smaller space on the 10th floor. Instead of a conference room, the morning news meeting is held in a corner, our staff, like beleaguered rebels plotting resistance in a cave, figuring out the next day's paper standing up, on the fly.
     Not the ideal circumstance.  But then, the ideal circumstance has seldom been an option at the Sun-Times. That would be the Tribune, and we see what they do with their vast resources; sometimes a lot, other times, not so much.
     Must be nice. We, we've always had to fight with one hand tied behind our backs. But fight we do, soldiering on, we making do with less (and less and less). Yet we fill our role, an important role, monitoring what's going on, sharing what we find out with the city, the world. We do our duty, sometimes by excelling, sometimes by merely existing to excel another day. 
    Friday night I was at a show, and caught sight of Hedy Weiss, our drama critic. Thirty years of theatrical experience, out on the town again to critique yet another performance. And Fran Spielman in City Hall. And Natasha Korecki, welcoming Bruce Rauner to Springfield with a Bronx cheer that managed to put both the new governor and his 10th home in their proper places. Tom McNamee, leading our lean, mean editorial board. Tim Novak, Chris Fucso, Dan Mihalopoulos whetting their axes, ready to take the next corrupt fat cat down. Richard Roeper, seizing the mantle of our fallen Roger Ebert — how many people would even dare to try that? Mark Brown, Mary Mitchel, Rick Telander. Carol Marin. Carol's kind of my canary in a coal mine. She's a class act, and excellent at what she does, and at a point where she doesn't need to work anywhere she doesn't feel comfortable. So if she's working here, we must be okay, we must have something going.
     I could go on, but you get the picture. It can be a hard place to work, but as I keep telling myself; we still have a lot. The forces of technological change batter us like wave after wave of German Junkers. The bombs drop, the explosions rock, the smoke clears, and those who are left standing blink at each other in wonder, dust ourselves off, root around in the rubble, and begin placing brick upon broken brick, same as always. 
     Or maybe this is just me, maybe I'm trying to put a bright shiny gloss on a bad situation. How can I not? The Sun-Times is where I live. The one place that, when I was just starting out, lifted a wing, gave a whistle and invited me to nestle in. The vestige of an economic system that once prized the sort of tangential stuff I do. My column doesn't break news. I don't cover sports. It's really half philosophical rumination, half cathexic obsession over the minuscule, half vaudeville.
     Yes, three halves...impossible. Fittingly impossible, since the whole thing's impossible, almost a miracle.  No one would ever create a newspaper today. Web sites come and go, announce their bold intentions, flicker for a year or three, then are gone. We live in a time that is a continual monsoon of words, a surfeit that gets worse and worse. Talk used to be cheap. Now it's free. Free is a hard business model to thrive upon.  We exist in a narrowing band between worth less and worthless.
     So thriving is out, for the moment. But we endure. I'm certain someday it'll all vanish and will then seem as if it had been a dream. But not yet. Not today. The Sun was launched Dec. 4, 1941, to be a liberal, pro-Democrat, pro-Roosevelt counterbalance to Col. McCormick's far right wing, isolationist, practically pro-Fascist Chicago Tribune. Pearl Harbor came three days later. Bad timing from the start, our business model immediately mooted. But we did not give up. 
     Which is what made me think of that Harrow School speech. An incredible bit of oratory. Churchill picking that dire moment to talk about imagination.
     "You cannot tell from appearances how things will go," Churchill began.   
Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are, yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist, certainly many more than will happen, but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. 
      I don't want to be an apologist for the paper; we do not always live up to our own expectations or our readers' expectations. I sure don't. Sometimes I read my own column the next morning and slap my forehead at what I should have said but didn't, or did say but shouldn't have. I am chastened but not devastated because tomorrow is always another day. No time to beat ourselves up because we have another chance to get it right. That's the glory of a newspaper. Always another day, even knowing that nothing lasts forever, no matter how much we might want it to. ("How many summers," the poet Mary Oliver asks, "does a little dog have?")
     The Sun merged with the Times, a feisty photo tabloid, and printed its first edition Feb. 2, 1948. So 67 summers, so far. And I have been there for 27 of them. I like to think it was not time wasted.  Good summers, with another looming over the horizon. I have no idea what this year brings, but I know what I'm trying to bring to it, every single day, the spirit that Churchill evoked to the boys at Harrow:
    This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
    But who is the enemy here? Technology? That can't be. Technology always wins. Technology is our friend. It gave us the printing press, we can't complain now that it is taking it away. The economy? The economy is always right. If people want to play Angry Birds and not read what's happening at City Hall, well, maybe Angry Birds is more important.     
     No. Never. Never never never. That can't be true. I refuse to believe that is true. Which would make, not people, but the indifference that can grip them the enemy. Fitting, because twas always so. Battling indifference is the essence of journalism. To take a subject that readers know nothing about and care even less, whether global warming or corruption or a puppetry festival, and try to get them to know some and care some. To say, "Hey, wait a minute. This is interesting. This is important. Pay attention to this." The new battle is just the old battle returned. I'm proud to be part of an enterprise dedicated to fighting that fight, for as long as it can, come what may. 
    And now we have a dog, our own Sun-Times puppy. A dog always helps.

     * Churchill material is from the excellent, "Never Give In! The Best of Winston Churchill's Speeches," Selected by His Grandson, Winston S. Churchill (Hyperion: 2003)