Saturday, February 28, 2015
Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?
Not my idea of quality art, but there it was, this rather unusual tableau. A distinctive kind of engraving, tied to the history of Chicago. It seemed worth photographing.
And while you're guessing where in Chicago this is can be found—it's quite large, several feet across—ponder this question, posed sincerely: has the "Where IS This?" puzzle run its course? It's been featured for over a year and, for some reason, this week I thought, "Perhaps it's time to cook up a different sort of challenge."
Nobody has complained. But I like to be ahead of the curve. What are your thoughts? Maybe a Chicago-themed trivia question instead. I don't want to slip into tired routines.
In the meantime, the winner receives one of my super artistic, limited edition posters, depicted below. Place your guesses—and your opinions on the Saturday quiz—below. Good luck.
Friday, February 27, 2015
Elections and torture go together
Unless it’s the April mayoral election AND the secret Chicago Police black site at Homan Square
Did I leave out “supposedly”? Good for you for noticing. “Supposedly at Homan Square.” Because I don’t quite buy it.
(“Of course you don’t,” some of you say, “because you’re The Man.”)
The Man would get paid better. I’m just skeptical. The Homan Square allegations, as outlined in the original article that started the fuss in The Guardian, is pretty little spread pretty thin. One of the NATO 3 protesters told the British newspaper he was handcuffed there for a half a day. One suspect died there. And the mother of a teenager said she had trouble tracking down her son.
Taken together, these three episodes, even if true, don’t exactly add up to Guantanamo Bay. Reading the article, I kept asking myself, “If this is common, where are the victims?” And then my answer came, not from The Guardian, but on The Atlantic’s website: We jackals in the media, filled with hate and solidarity for the cops, ignore the victims, stopping our ears to the cries of the disappeared and the tortured, muffled by the thick walls of the secret prison that the cops — half Gestapo, half SAVAK — are running on the former Sears warehouse.
“Why wasn’t the press covering it?” The Atlantic asked Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project.
“I think that many crime reporters in Chicago have political views that are right in line with the police,” he replied. “They tend to agree about the tactics needed by the police. They tend to have by one extent or the other the same racist views of the police — a lot of urban police (not all of them by any stretch, but a lot of them) embody racism.”
Really? Of course he thinks that, and probably considers himself generous for allowing that there might be a few cops who don’t itch to clamp a typewriter cover over every black face they see.
It’s the standard lazy, wear-a-Guy-Fawkes-mask-and-go-larking view: There are no decent individuals involved in government, business or the media, no honest professionals making independent decisions, trying to do what they consider right, only a vast nest of co-conspirators, receiving their marching orders paper-clipped to a check.
I could say it’s nonsense, but then I’m one of them, aren’t I? Though the truth — for those who care — is that my boss would be deliriously happy were I to dig up any halfway convincing piece of evidence of police torture, as opposed to exercising my usual off-point interests. Though I doubt that, on my most daring, gotta-find-something day, I could with clear conscience take this lattice of supposition and find the significance that The Guardian does, or tries to.
But enough of that. If it’s true, let the victims speak. If not, well, that won’t stop those inclined to believe; nothing does.
Back to the election.
Rahm Emanuel, in his post-humiliation speech, said something surprising. “For those who voted for someone else, I hope to earn your confidence and your support in the weeks to come.” And I hoped for a pony for the children, but it never happened. Were I him, I would spend less time worrying about the 10 percent of voters who thought Willie Wilson should run the city and concentrate his attention on the 66.3 percent of Chicago’s registered voters who didn’t bother to vote for anybody.
This is the key question: Did they not vote because they figured Rahm would win anyway, and were reluctant to waste their time joining the throng of peasants waving their caps as he paraded past to another inevitable triumph?
Or did they not vote because they figured Rahm would win anyway, and why bother adding their puff of support to the sails of one of the barks of his future trivia question opponents?
I can’t answer that. Politics makes absolutely no sense at all to me. Here the state of Illinois just elected a multimillionaire governor whose arrogance and elitism make Emanuel seem like Woody Guthrie. And then the Chicago mayor is being pilloried because he acts like the city is teetering on a financial cliff, and does things like closing 50 half-empty, underperforming schools without spending a lot of time holding the hands of the parents, staring dolefully into their eyes and telling them that he feels their pain.
Let’s set aside politics, for a second, because it clouds people’s minds. Let’s say you went to a doctor, and he said, “Look, you’re 100 pounds overweight. Your blood pressure is 220/120. You’re going to die. I’m putting you on this diet right now.” Would you say, “Oh sure, Doctor Rahm, easy for you to say. You went to New Trier. I’m shifting over to Dr. Garcia, who promises me I can eat all I want 24 hours a day and I’ll get thin through magic crystals.”
I suppose some would do that. Whether 50.1 percent of Chicago voters would do that, well, we’ll find out April 7, won’t we?
Thursday, February 26, 2015
"Heavenish" is the awkward word that came to mind as I was strolling around the sun-kissed campus of Pomona College during Parents Weekend earlier this month.
And it took me a bit of trial and error to even get to that.
"Heavenly" seemed wrong—an adjective better suited to cake. "Paradisaical" is not in the vernacular. I rolled "Edenlike" around in mind, but that implied a certain innocence belied by so many skateboards and smart phones at the California college, an hour east of Los Angles.
Perfect weather. Temperatures in the 70s, but dry. It took me days to find a cloud. A botanist's dream of palms and plants and unusual trees—at least unusual by my admittedly narrow Midwestern standards.
My kid wore shorts, oxford shirts and flip flops and padded here and there, never in a particular hurry. He seemed to have one class a day, James Joyce and French and economics and ... I kid you not ... bowling. A different parent might have blanched a bit at the thought of going to college to learn to bowl, but they make students take phys-ed at Pomona —mens sana in corpore sano*—and I can't say I disagree. You've got your body for your entire life; might as well learn to take care of it.
None of it seemed particularly difficult, but then my kid tells me that, after the gladiatorial blood academic sport that was high school, college is a breeze, so far. Not exactly preparing him for the tooth and claw of the business world, perhaps, but as he points out, there's law school for that, and law school is plenty hard, and no reason why he shouldn't ramp up slowly.
Life serves up plenty of bad stuff; if it starts offering ambrosia, well, grab a spoon and enjoy.
After all, he is going to school, and if my pondering over which shade of the empyrean to cast Pomona is worth considering (and I'm not sure it is, but it's too late now. Every ... goddamn ... day) then it's worth pausing over the word "school."
From the Greek, 'skholḗ," which means "leisure." And if you're wondering how a word that meant, in essence, "spare time," came to mean the place where exactly the opposite is true, for most, therein lies the tale. Because in ancient Greece, a child was either a slave or working a shop or picking the fields or, if you were very, very fortunate, and and if your pateras was rich, and you had a lot of skholḗ on your hands, you were expected to edify your mind, with lectures and readings and such (and your body, with running and wrestling and such, but no bowling). Eventually the place where those lectures absorbing the spare time of well-to-do kids took place became known as "schools" and you can figure out the rest from there.
|View out my kid's dorm window|
Meanwhile, the etymology of "school" is a reminder that leisure is for learning, in my view, and that a life well spent is a life of constant education. In the perpetual mourning over the decline of journalism, which spiked again this week with a dozen newspaper colleagues taking the buy-out and leaving, I have to remind myself, through gritted teeth, that it was still a good choice to go into a profession where, basically, you go to school full time, wandering about, poking your nose into unusual places, reading engaging stuff, and regularly exploring what you're interested in, and then trying to tell people about it. Or at least I do; I understand that I'm lucky too, in that regard, and some journalists are laying out the agate high school sports scores or working in the back of take-out restaurants. It took a lot of work to get here, and I'm inclined to stay until they pry my fingers off the doorjamb, which should be any minute now. Until then, this job is a good thing, and suited to my personality. Now if only the setting were warmer. And the business model a little more sure. And colleagues not departing at such a clip.
* "a sound mind in a sound body"
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Happy 30th birthday, Joakim Noah
Four years ago I was hurrying through the lobby of the Sun-Times building when I ran into Susanna Negovan, then the editor of Michigan Avenue magazine. As freelancers will, I wondered why she wasn't pushing work my way, and she countered by asking if I wanted to write a profile of Joakim Noah.
"Sure!" I replied, mustering enough professionalism not to add, "Who's Joakim Noah?"
Turns out the Bulls center lived in Deerfield, not far from my house. We sat in his kitchen and talked, and I learned a vital lesson. Doing my advance research, I had watched videos of him being drafted onto the Bulls, which made him seem like something of a goof in a white tuxedo. The man I met was anything but: thoughtful, composed, much more grounded than most 20 somethings would be if you started firehosing millions of dollars at them.
Wednesday is his 30th birthday, and in honor of that, I figured I would repost my profile of him. Notice how little of it is actually about sports. I told Susanna I wasn't going to get into that, I was much more interested in him as a person, not a player. And to her credit, she agreed.
At 6-foot-11, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah is four inches taller than the average NBA player. A new $60 million, five-year deal means he’s paid more than twice what most of them get.
While it’s typical for those who make it to the NBA to brag about their gritty roots—the tough playground courts of Newark or the South Side where they honed their moves—Noah, the son of French tennis star Yannick Noah and a former Miss Sweden, Cecilia Rodhe, has a unique background that spans the globe.
“Everybody looks at me like, ‘Who is he?’” says Noah, relaxing after practice at the kitchen table in his home in Deerfield. “I’m from a lot of different environments. You can’t put me in a box. I come from different cultures, I have different beliefs, I talk like I’m from New York, I speak fluent French, I’m African, I’m Swedish. So I come from all these different places, and I understand all these cultures pretty well. They make me who I am, but at the same time, I’m not one thing; I’m all these things.”
One thing Noah isn’t is ostentatious—he’s not inclined to show off the fancy features of his crib, nor does he drip with bling. “You won’t see me wearing diamonds. I would never come home with a big diamond watch,” he says. (“We would throw you out of the house,” adds his mother, sitting next to him.) He’s more likely to be found in his favorite African beaded necklaces. “I don’t wear Gucci,” he says. “I’ve had my same car since my rookie year.”
To continue reading, click here.
What's it like to be blind?
|Leon Taylor, building a clock|
What’s it like to be blind?
“It’s awful, but yet it’s a challenge” said Dale Bettenhausen, 59, of Villa Park, who drove semi-trailer trucks before a genetic disorder began restricting his field of vision 20 years ago. “I have 4 percent in one eye and 3 in another. I’ve got no depth perception.”
For nearly eight years he has worked at the 20,000 square foot clock factory at the headquarters of Chicago Lighthouse on Roosevelt Road. He operates a die press, cutting faces for electric clocks ranging in sizes from six to 24 inches.
The newly cut clock faces go to the assemblers.
What’s it like to be blind?
“It’s been hard,” Leon Taylor said, pausing from putting clocks together. Totally blind, he uses a metal form with posts that help guide his hands as he assembles the parts: first a square electrical motor, then a round black plastic face, a royal blue sticker to identify him as the assembler, the round paper face, a brass washer and nut, then the clock hands, bowed out, so he can feel which side is the front. “The things you want to do, you can’t do. You have to learn how to make it easy on yourself. You have to accept what you can do.”
When Taylor, and other workers — the factory has 17 full-time employees, and sells $3 million worth of clocks every year — finish the clocks, a conveyer belt brings them to Byoung Choi, 62, who has worked at the factory for 25 years. He stands, feeling the clocks, takes each over to a pegboard and hooks them it to power. They are run, for 90 minutes, to ensure they work properly.
What’s it like to be blind?
"It's all voice, or hearing," said Choi, also almost completely blind. "I pay attention. I don't need vision to work. I'm used to being around here."
What's it like to be blind?
"In my case, being genetic, so you can't say," said Milan Jerkan, plant manager. "But obviously it must be something, since you can see something from 200 feet that I have to be 20 feet away in order to see. It's definitely a limiting thing. Good lighting helps."
Many people assume that "blind" means coping with a world of utter darkness, when in truth only 15 percent of blind people cannot perceive light. Trying to broaden awareness, the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, founded in 1906, changed its name in 1999 to "Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired," though it usually just goes by "Chicago Lighthouse."
The ability of the blind to see can be confusing.
"There's all kinds of blindness," Bettenhausen said. "So many different varieties. When I leave my house, I always have my stick, and yet I have my glasses. I can see close fine. When they see the glasses, they figure I can see, and ask, 'What the hell's the stick for?'"
Debbie Rodriguez, assembling clocks, has a similar problem. Living with her daughter and seven grandchildren, she has to remind them that, contrary to impressions, she can't see.
"I tell my grandchildren; leave the stuff where I put it so I know where it's at," she said. "Mainly my coffee cup, and the salt. Don't touch it. Leave it where it's at. Because I do all the cooking."
What's it like to go blind?
"For me, it wasn't that bad," said Nick Siavelis, 37, who began losing his sight at 10, due to a brain tumor that damaged his optic nerve. "I still get around. It can be pretty blurry, but it doesn't bother me."
"Get around" is an understatement. Siavelis commutes four hours a day: two hours on Metra and a bus from his home in Elgin, two hours back.
What's it like to be blind?
"I do all the work on my own house," said Mike Wallace, 64, a supervisor who has worked at the Lighthouse since he was 19, completely blind in one eye, with a cataract in the other. "Electrical, plumbing, you name it. I've learned to adapt."
Bettenhausen regards his blindness with a measure of gratitude.
"I consider myself lucky," he said. "For what I have done. I encounter people on a daily basis who didn't have the experience of seeing a sunrise, or a nice steak. They haven't got a clue. You come here, see people who have a lot less vision than I do, or no vision. They come to work every day. If they can do it, why can't I?"
What is it like to be blind?
"People have doubts of what you're capable of," said Jerkan. "Given the right tools, you can function and do things at the same level as people without disabilities."
He noted that fewer than 1/2 of 1 percent of the Chicago Lighthouse clocks come back as defective, lower than clock industry standards. "Even in the production of these clocks, I always feel, even though 90 percent of our employees are legally blind, I like our customers not to know that, because they might have some misconceptions: will it come out right? We do not just meet [standards]. We exceed."
For a brief video of Leon Taylor building a clock, click here.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Rahm in Walmart
Odd that Richard M. Daley, who ruined the city, financially, and ruled with an autocratic disdain that makes Rahm look like Pat the Bunny, never had even half-serious competition after he won office, and was respected if not exactly liked, either, while Rahm, who has a more open, accessible style, is lathered with contempt. People keep pointing to Rahm's style, particularly the manner in which he closed those 50 schools, as if having more hearings, and inviting more protest, and holding parents' hands and gazing dolorously into their eyes, would changed the outcome. No parent was going to urge their nearby school to close, no matter how empty or poorly run it was. Rahm got the job done. Chicago used to value that.
Anyway, when Esquire asked me to profile the mayor last year, I began the article this way, following the mayor through a Walmart on 47th Street. The magazine didn't like the opening and hacked it apart. But I thought it showed something of the man, for good and ill, and thought I'd mark —heck, celebrate—his reelection by posting it here.
“Hey it’s the mayor!”
A disembodied voice off to the right, just as the pair of big black Chevy Tahoes lurch to a stop in front of the Walmart on 47th Street and Rahm Emanuel, his bodyguards and support staff—photographer, press secretary, scheduler—start climbing out. A quick glance in that direction.
“Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor!” the voice continues, “Can I take your picture?” The last two syllables, tinged with barrio mockery. Not the tone of someone who wants a picture or even necessarily owns a cell phone to take one. Rahm seems to instantly sense this and, staring straight ahead, a little rigidly glides quickly into the store, where all is brightness and security. A welcoming committee—an assistant manager — shakes his hand.
Immediately, Rahm is on the prowl.
The scattering of Saturday afternoon shoppers neither flock to him nor shy away, but passively accept that the mayor of Chicago is walking through the brightly-lit, mid-sized Walmart Neighborhood Market. A few drift in his direction, some timidly, some boldly.
“Come back here, I need your picture,” calls an elderly woman in an electric scooter, emboldened by age and disability, a clear plastic oxygen line under her nose, waving a phone. Rahm does, posing in a slight crouch to get himself into the frame. Nearby, a shopping cart half filled with bags of Jet-Puffed Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows, a buck a bag, holdovers from Halloween.
But nothing approaching a crowd. Mostly the shoppers go about their business while Rahm goes about his, hitting every aisle, as methodically as if he were sweeping the floor.
Every aisle with someone in it, that is. He leaves greeting cards, enters dog food, finds it empty, reverses like a robot vacuum cleaner hitting a chair leg, and heads in the other direction.
“Hey, how are you?” he calls to a clerk.
“I met you the last time,” she reminds him.
“I remember it,” the mayor says, recovering. The store has only been open less than a year, but he has already been here before. He’s comfortable here.
This is 47th Street, Back of the Yards, a poor neighborhood for the past 150 years, since it was the home to the cow-splitters who worked the Union Stockyards supplying meat to federal troops during the Civil War. The shoppers now are black and Hispanic — Rahm shifts seamlessly into guidebook Spanish. “Coma esta?” he asks a young lady. “Bien” she replies, shyly.
“That’s a lot of beer,” he tells a man in a sheepskin-lined jacket, toting an 18-pack of Modelo. “You need some food.”
A standard line of Rahm’s—calling him “Emanuel” sounds wrong, like calling Elvis “Presley” and nobody in Chicago does it. He is “Rahm” or “The Mayor” or “Mr. Mayor.” A fitness fanatic who exercises seven days a week, whose weight fluctuates between 149 and 150 pounds, who as a child put pinholes in his mother’s cigarettes to protest her smoking, Rahm mildly rebukes shoppers picking up alcohol and little else. “A lot of liquids,” he observes to a woman pushing a cart with three big bottles of margaritas.
Or maybe this banter isn’t about health so much as the venting of some primal Rahmian need to bust chops. Even though he is in full greet-the-public mode, the boozehounds give him a chance to subtly chide somebody.
“Don’t drink it alone,” he tells another.
So ribbing more than scolding. Rahm is what they call in Yiddish a kibitzer: he needles, he prods. He takes you down a notch because he can, for fun and out of habit.
Otherwise, Rahm, dressed in his Saturday casual uniform of jeans and a black sweater, is a machine of pleasant fleeting interaction. He sizes up the person in front of him, instantly processing age, race, gender, clothing. A Vietnam vet logo on a baseball cap worn by a tall older black gentleman with grizzled hair sparks “Thank you for your service.”
It takes Rahm a full 10 minutes to work his way to the back of the store, his security detail—a beefy cop with a Grabowski mustache—trailing silently behind, a discreet 20 feet away at all times, glancing around. Rahm ducks into the restroom for another bathroom break, the second in an hour. The mayor drinks a lot of water. Gotta stay hydrated.
His smile has been described as a “tight smirk” but no matter the flutter of posing and the usual trouble with the phone’s camera app, no matter how many shots are requested, or how many others come up and want their pictures taken, too, his notorious impatience is never seen. There is no trace of the exasperation that a normal person, someone who is not a politician, might betray. His smile is warm or an amazing facsimile of warmth. He waits, impassive, the endless moment until the picture is snapped. The taking of the celebrity photograph is a cherished American ritual that must be observed.
Two days later, on the other side of town, cutting a ribbon on the rebuilt Loyola L stop entrance, posing for pictures with Dunkin’ Donuts employees, a young female clerk standing next to Rahm will let her hand stray from his waist to grab an unambiguous handful of well-toned mayoral ass. Rahm won’t move, his face won’t flinch, until the photos are taken and she lets go.
Part of the job.
Rahm is best with children—his father was a pediatrician.
“You wanna go in here?” he coos to a crying 3-year-old standing next to a shopping cart, checking first with mom—or perhaps grandma, it can be hard to tell— “Can he go in here?” Lifting him into the seat, calling for a pack of tissues from press secretary Tarrah Cooper to address the boy’s runny nose, gazing at him intently. “You okay now? Better?” Then the lesson. “What do you say to Tarrah?” he asks the boy, who is silent. “Thank you?” prompts the mayor, himself a father of three, two girls and a boy. He is also like that with adults — the mayor likes to instruct, to teach, to deliver the truth.
Working his way to the front of the store, Rahm slides over to his security man and quietly says “I’m ready.” But nearly to the doorway, where a lady at a table hands out samples of a fried pork rind snack food, he stops, goes back and spends a few more minutes greeting voters before finally returning to Chevy SUVs idling at the curb. An old Bill Clinton trick—“I learned from a master,” he says, repeatedly, whenever asked about his interactions with the public. Lingering an extra moment conveys, “I just can’t tear myself away from you good people.” It can’t be that he really doesn’t want to leave the Walmart.
Someone witnessing the past 27 minutes in the life of Rahm Emanuel might conclude it is election time and he is campaigning. Only there is no campaign. The next Chicago mayoral election is well over a year away. He could stay hidden in City Hall, making phone calls, working the levers of power. Rahm could let his money—he’s already raised more than $5 million for the next election—do his runny nose wiping.
But he doesn’t.
“I love meeting people,” Rahm explains.
Monday, February 23, 2015
The view is only blocked if you wanna watch the game...
Illusions are crucial in baseball.
We pretend that players are devoted to their teams and their cities. When, in reality, the average player has the same deep loyalty to his team that your average hooker has to whoever is buying her drinks at the moment.
We pretend that the games matter and that each game is a test of skill, when top players turn out to be as juiced as racehorses and the only crime is being found out.
And generally I don’t like to mess with another’s delusions. Life is a long time, and it helps to believe in something.
But this kerfuffle between the Chicago Cubs’ current ownership and the operators of the neighboring rooftop party playpens are based on two huge fictions that just cry to be pointed out by somebody.
I guess that somebody has to be me.
Fiction one: The rooftop owners, the Lakeview Baseball Club and Skybox, who sued to stop the team from erecting advertising and giant video screens that they claim would block their views and thus hurt business.
What views? You mean the tiny ants at home plate? And what makes them think that the businessmen gathering to drink beer and gobble hot dogs and duck their responsibilities for an afternoon care about watching the game directly? The people packing the bars around Wrigley don’t have any views; they’re all watching the game on the nearest flat screen.
Heck, half the fans inside the ballpark don't watch the game — not that there's ever much of a game to watch. At any given time half the fans are lining up to get beer or dispose of it, wandering the concourses or checking out their phones, and half miss the 30 seconds of actual action that occur in any given three-hour baseball game.
I'm not sure this is what U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall had in mind when she said the rooftop owners haven't shown any evidence their business might be harmed.
The mistake the rooftop owners made was in drawing attention to the possibly obscured views. Who cares? Sure, some patrons might complain they can't actually see the plate. Buy 'em a free beer and tell them that's how it goes and they'll shrug and be happy. You're paying for ambiance, or what ambiance will be left after the Ricketts are done wrecking Wrigley and vicinity. It's as if, unable to relocate to Addison (the town, not the street), the family has decided to bring Addison to Wrigleyville, transforming an urban gem into Disney's Baseball Experience.
Which leads us to the second illusion: the charmed notion that the money from the additional advertising will go toward getting better players who will propel the Cubs to a World Series. Pretty to think so. But from the ham-handed, arrogant, kill-the-golden-goose managerial style of the Ricketts clan, I can't imagine that happening, nor imagine a providence so perverse that it would allow Tom Ricketts to smile his smug, frozen, lipless smile in triumph over a pennant win. Fate is cruel, but I don't see it as being that cruel.
All this might be moot anyway — another game where the Cubs have victory in their grasp in the 8th inning and then lose in the 9th. All the federal judge said is she wasn't going to stop the team from installing their obstructions now because the rooftop owners haven't shown the harm it would do to business. They could still lay out evidence that their customers are flocking to Hooters instead, and the judge could yet order the Cubs to take their signs down, and wouldn't that be a season highlight dwarfing anything conceivably occurring on the field?
My guess is their business will be fine. The Law of Ironic Bad Publicity states that controversies over potential flaws draw far more people to a product than are repelled by the flaw. If I sold a soft drink, "Neil's Special Elixir" and authorities were concerned it contained some herb that might cause cardiac arrest, the number of people who would learn about my product's existence from the bad publicity and flock to buy it before it was pulled from the shelves would dwarf the few timorous souls worried about their hearts.
So I expect rooftop owners to get more business from this, not less, as new customers line up to enjoy the rooftops before they're driven out of business, since laying eyes on the game is so far down the hierarchy of beer, buddyhood, bratwursts and blowing off an afternoon. I'm not the average fan; to me, a sporting event is watching the superstar Bulls play, not watching whatever nonet of nobodies the Cubs are fielding this year. Still, I'd rather sit on a rooftop chair and stare at the back of the Wrigley Field Jumbotron than sit behind home plate at U.S. Cellular Field and watch the game. Because say what you will about the Cubs — and if it's negative, it's probably true — they'll always have this going for them: At least they're not the Sox.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Black History Month: A black child under Hitler
History should never be boring: if it is, you're doing it wrong. Whenever Black History Month rolls around, it always seems that the history being presented—Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman—is intended for people who don't know history at all. Maybe that benefits some people—"Tell me more about this Martin Luther King fellow!"—but I imagine a lot of people tune it out, because they already know. Which is too bad, because there is fascination aplenty when you wander off the well-worn paths of the overly familiar. This is one of my favorite columns that centers on black history, about a Chicagoan I imagine will be unknown to most.
Perhaps the best way to introduce Hans J. Massaquoi is to mention two huge crowds he finds himself part of at different times in his life:
The first is an ecstatic throng lining the Alsterkrugchaussee in Hamburg, Germany, in 1934, cheering and shouting sieg-heil as Adolf Hitler rides by in an open car.
The second is the immense audience gathered before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963 to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
That Massaquoi, 73, a former editor at Ebony magazine, was an enthusiastic participant in both events, and has fond memories of both King and Hitler, is a dramatic tribute to the mutability of human beings.
Massaquoi's story — of growing up black in Nazi Germany—is an incredible tale. Told in his new book, Destined to Witness (Morrow, $25), it would be ridiculous and improbable in fiction. But it is not fiction.
Just how Massaquoi ends up being born in Hamburg is itself fascinating. His grandfather, Momolu Massaquoi, is a tribal king in Liberia who loses his crown in a power struggle and is dispatched to Germany as Liberia's consul general.
Momolu's eldest son meets and romances a 16-year-old Hamburg girl, Bertha Baetz. They bring Hans-Jurgen Massaquoi into the world, without benefit of wedlock, on Jan. 19, 1926.
The waning days of the Weimar Republic are not typically painted in the rosy hues of Eden. But when you're a young boy, anywhere they feed and love you is idyllic, and young Hans is cooed over and adored as much as any tot can be.
Then the political wheels in Liberia turn, his father and his extended family scatter to various safe havens, leaving Bertha and her dark-skinned son to fend for themselves in Hamburg at the exact moment that the most monstrous racist regime in history is coming to power.
Perhaps the biggest shock of the book is: Life for Hans is not all that bad. Sure, urchins trail after him, chanting "Neger, neger, schornsteinfeger," ("Negro, Negro, chimney sweep"—the title of the book when it was published in Germany, where it was a best-seller). But he has lots of friends, and the Nazi machine, busy eliminating much more locally populous elements, never gets around to him.
Like his schoolmates, little Hans adores Hitler, and doesn't associate his occasional personal difficulties with his beloved Fuhrer. When his Tante Fatima —the only member of his father's family who is sometimes on the scene — asks him what he wants one Christmas, he requests a Hitler; Goering; Goebbels figurine set. And she buys it, despite the taunts of the toy store owner. (Fatima herself is a marvelous personage—a brilliant African woman who speaks six languages, she bops through Nazi Germany in a big afro and a leopard coat, an amazing anachronism, like watching a newsreel of the Nuremberg rallies and spotting Brandi on the platform).
As the 1930s progress, it dawns on Hans that he isn't quite accepted as a 100 percent German boy. The Kafkaesque horror common to such narratives creeps in. Jewish teachers at his school disappear. Hans isn't allowed to use the playground anymore. His mother loses her job.
The ironies and twists are too numerous to recount. Hans has a hard time shifting his loyalties from Max Schmeling to Joe Louis. He manages to survive the Allied bombing, which pounds much of Hamburg to smoldering rubble, then nearly is lynched by a mob mistaking him for an American flier.
The road from ruined Hamburg to his aunt's tarpaper shack in Barrington to Lake Point Tower is long, the story too incredible even to summarize. It left me wanting to know how Massaquoi, who two years ago retired to New Orleans, after nearly 40 years at Ebony, resolves all the conflicting sights and feelings and memories in his own mind. Do they reside easily or do they conflict: the proud Hamburger and the proud Chicagoan, the boy who begged unsuccessfully to be let into the Hitler Youth and the proud paratrooper with the U.S. Army.
"My life is so intertwined, so mixed up, I don't know if I've ever really unraveled it," he told me. "I sometimes wonder when I look back on my life how I can comfortably embrace the whole situation, all the experiences I had. But I feel quite comfortable with it. When I go to Hamburg, I feel like a local Hamburger. When I'm walking around Chicago, I definitely feel at home in Chicago."
Most accounts of World War II are horror stories, and rightly so. Which makes Massaquoi's exceptional tale all the more precious. Horror eventually numbs you, and it is reviving, and heartening, to learn of this intrepid black child and young man who, through a combination of guts, smarts, luck and a really good mother, manages to waltz through the darkest abyss of the 20th century and come out whistling.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 5, 1999
Postscript: Hans Massaquoi died in January, 2013, at the age of 87. His book was made into a movie in Germany.
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?
Okay train fans—and you know who you are—if you're so good, then where exactly is this curved stretch of track located? Typically that would strike me as unfair—you've seen one set of tracks, you've seen 'em all. But actually all the clues are there for you to pinpoint it precisely and, if not, well then I win, finally.
The winner will receive one of my limited edition, signed and numbered blog posters, certain to become a collector's item someday.
Okay, not certain. Nothing is certain. But I sure hope they might possible become a collector's item, and stranger things have happened. And if not, well, maybe you'll appreciate yours, a $21 value, should you place the scene above and win it. Remember to register your guesses below. Good luck. All aboard!
Friday, February 20, 2015
"The most difficult cuts I've ever seen"
Illinois was 50th out of 50 before.
Dead last, of the 50 states, behind Mississippi, behind Alabama, behind Texas, for services to help people with disabilities live independently.
That was five years ago.
Now dig a hole, because Illinois is going lower, as Gov. Bruce Rauner's new budget, unveiled Wednesday, chokes off help to Illinoisans struggling to get by.
"It's going to be huge," said Gary Arnold, spokesman for Access Living, which supports independent living for those with disabilities. "Tens of thousands of people are in these programs."
Sister Rosemary Connelly, the 83-year-old nun who founded and directs Misericordia, the North Side residence for people with cognitive challenges, did not mince words.
|Sister Rosemary Connelly, and Terry Morrissey|
In addition to community support, care for the emotionally disturbed, as always, gets hacked.
"Mental health always seems to get cut first," said Tiffany Taft, a licensed clinical psychologist in Oak Park. "Because of the stigma associated with it. It's easier to sweep under the rug."
Taft pointed out that, in Rauner's defense, this kind of budget is nothing new.
"It's been ongoing; Quinn did it too," she said. "I think it's horrendous."
Taft can't take Medicaid patients, so spends hours on the phone trying to find public clinics whose waiting lists aren't three months long.
"They cut options to people in crisis," she said, "and then they wonder why people go on shooting rampages."
Like many private charities, Misericordia, uses public funding, and when that falls short, must make it up the difference with private donations. Last year that meant finding $15 million in donations. With the new budget, that jumps to $21 million.
"I don't know if I have that capacity," said Connelly. "We're worried about the future."
And they're in a better position than most.
"So many people scared silly by this budget," said Connelly. "Looking beyond Misericordia, looking at Catholic Charities."
"It's hard to tell right now," said Monsignor Mike Boland, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. "It'll affect a lot of our programs if fully implemented the way it is, it will greatly affect the most frail people in the state, especially frail seniors...The budget is balanced on the backs of every poor people. It'll affect all our early childhood centers. This has a negative impact, a very negative effect, upon all the populations we serve."
Director of Catholic Charities for 15 years, Boland has seen austerity budgets. But never one like this.
"This is probably the most difficult cuts I've ever seen," said Boland. "I never seen these kind of profound cuts proposed. It's just so incredibly challenging to all of us trying to care for people who oftentimes don't have anyone to speak on their behalf."
For those long in the business of extracting funds from the government to help people, a common refrain is that the announced budget, dire though it is, isn't the end, but the beginning of the true battle.
"We have a new administration; they've got a lot to learn," said Tony Paulauski, executive director of The Arc, the largest disability advocacy organization in Illinois. "We would like the opportunity to sit down with them and educate them of the importance of community living. This is the first step in a budget process that's going to go on four or five months."
Access Living's Gary Arnold pointed out that one of the cruel ironies of the cuts is that since they dismantle programs that allow people to live on their own, they'll end up back in institutions.
"You lose your independence and it costs more," he said."If the goal is saving money, we're going about it the wrong way. The right way is good strong programs that support people with disabilities in integrated communities and their own homes."
Yes, Illinois is in a terrible financial hole. Cuts have to be made. But picking over the stories about Rauner's 2016 budget, all you see are programs for the poor, for children, for the homeless, for the mentally ill and physically challenge.d If there is a cut that's going to hit businesses, that's going to affect rich people like Bruce Rauner, maybe encourage them to own five mansions instead of nine, I missed it. The pain is going to be felt by the sort of people who never show up at Rauner's cocktail parties.
Sister Rosemary said she has to wonder what motivates the governor.
"I think it's a real indictment of a philosophy of resentment [that] there are people who need more help and have to depend on the goodness of others," said Connelly. "What we're doing is important. I wish the governor would come and take a tour."
Paulauski did mention a bit of good news: Illinois is no long the last state; it has climbed to 49th when it comes to providing community services to people with disabilities.
"We're ahead of Mississippi," he said. "I remain optimistic."
Thursday, February 19, 2015
Caution: Stupid Signs
As if winter in Chicago weren't bad enough. Hard the heels of the bitter cold, the pelting snow, come these stupid signs set out everywhere.
"Caution: Falling Ice."
Caution? What does that mean? How is our caution supposed to manifest itself? What are pedestrians supposed to do? Look up, and get it in the face? As if looking up would give you enough time for anything more than "Oh shi...!" Turn around? As if you could navigate a route that doesn't include the signs, which are everywhere, so common that we barely notice them anymore. Cover your head? Veer off the sidewalk into the street, where the danger of falling ice is replaced by the greater danger of skidding traffic?
Then again, the signs are not for pedestrians. They are attempts by building management to off-load responsibility for getting clobbered by an icicle from themselves to those walking by their buildings. And the signs seem to have some legal weight: building owners have an obligation to clear ice and warn pedestrians of hazards, and putting the signs out grimly informing you of falling ice are similar to the signs ordering you not to slip on freshly mopped floors. Though why those signs don't serve, not as fair warning, but as proof the building owners knew of a potential hazard and did nothing, is a mystery to me, and I've quizzed legal sorts about it. I addressed the subject last year, in a blog post about a man who was killed by a 100-pound block of ice walking into the Neiman Marcus department store on Michigan Avenue.
This year seems to be the year that Chicagoans finally realized the idiocy of these signs, and started making fun of them. Over at the Wit hotel, the yellow and black falling ice signs contain a quip from Stephen Wright: "Every so often, I like to go to the window, look up, and smile for a satellite photo." I'm not sure how that applies to falling ice, but give them credit for trying.
A cleverer sign is at the School of the Art Institute, as seen in this photo sent in by regular reader Tom Brashler. It injects a bit of whimsy into the otherwise obnoxious blend of threats of physical peril mixed with pallid cover-your-ass legalism.
I contacted the school to find out the back story behind the sign.
"The signs were created by SAIC's Instructional Resources and Facilities Management team," said Bree Witt, a spokesperson for the SAIC. "We wanted to address the caution in a clever and playful manner, and also honor the fact that someone will inevitably deface the signage to form other words from "ice" as has happened in the past. And, let's be honest, in a city like Chicago, ice, mice, rice or dice very well could falling off the roofs of the buildings, so pedestrians should be aware of the possibilities. The signs have been well-received and it's great to see people taking photos and laughing as they walk down the street."That must have been earlier in the week, when it was 25 degrees warmer. Right now I could have Jim Gaffigan walking on one side of me and Louis C.K. walking on the other, both telling jokes and tickling me as I rush through this frozen hellscape, and I wouldn't be laughing. But when the weather warms up and breaks, oh, 20 degrees, I'm sure I'll find my good humor again.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
It probably says something bad about Los Angeles, or me, or both, that when my wife asked if there were anything in particular I wanted to do in LA during our few days in the city, after visiting our son at college, the only thing I could think of was: "See the big rock at the Los Angeles art museum."
Officially titled "Levitated Mass" —though I hope that Los Angelenos have the gumption to call it the "Big Rock," the way Chicagoans refer to our massive public sculpture, "Cloud Gate" as "The Bean." It's our God-given right to defy artistic pretense.
I had seen a video of the 340-ton granite boulder's slow, well-planned 100-mile journey to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a rare unifying civic event in Los Angeles that doesn't involve earthquakes or riots, and something about the boulder's careful procession, greeted with exultation, tears and indifference, made me want to see the thing for myself.
The mammoth stone is located above a concrete ditch and you walk under it, and my first thought was, "It's not so big." Perhaps the best way to encounter the work is unexpectedly, to see it on the horizon and wonder if your eyes are playing tricks on you. Which is hard to do when you go expecting it to be there.
The Big Rock certainly isn't the communal experience that The Bean is; in Chicago, people crowd around, touching it, viewing their own reflection. This being LA, visitors approach at regular intervals, in small groups, encounter the thing, and leave. If somebody is having their picture taken by it, others hang back, at a polite distance, so as not to ruin their shot.
Still, I was glad I went, glad that visitors are afforded the chance to pat Michael Heizer's $10 million sculpture (the rock itself was sold to the museum for $70,000, the rest was the cost of constructing a football field-sized transport rig, plus gas—15 gallons to the mile to run the carrier— plus the cost of crews snagging power lines, moving street lights, and generally clearing the way for the two-story tall, three-lane wide chunk of stone when it arrived in 2012. Something makes you want to touch it, to register its solidity. (A shame the installation doesn't include a guard to shoo you away when you do touch it; that would be the perfect punchline. With art, grandiosity feasts while humor goes hungry). And of course I had my picture taken next to it. You sort of have to.
My wife, as always, not only read my thoughts but put them into comprehensible, concise form:
"It's no Bean," she said. "I imagine the act of getting it here is better than the act of it being here."
Exactly. Or, put another way: the journey is the art. Without a story, it's just a big rock in an odd place.
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
"A sea of misery"
|In front of the Los Angeles Athletic Club|
All things being equal, I would have preferred to stay by the ocean.
But while planning the trip, my wife observed that we had stayed at Venice Beach a scant five years ago, plus a few days at Virginia Beach last summer, so we were practically soggy with ocean spray. I almost pointed out that half a decade is actually a longish time, and Virginia Beach was a different ocean -- facing right, at the Atlantic, instead of left, at the Pacific. But blue is blue, the salt water taffy's the same, I get that, and as she rightly points out, we are not beach people, though we are not step over the bodies on the way to the swish restaurant people either, which might make us oddities.
The beach has its homeless people too. But not like this, to my memory.
We put in a lot of miles up and down Broadway—lots of Hispanic bridal and quinceanera stores, shop keepers who naturally hailed passersby in Spanish, stores buying gold to make into horrendous gold jewelry, apparently, a thriving business in phone cards and Disney towels and odd brand boom boxes.
The place struck me as New York City in the 1970s, before gentrification took over. That's not praise, but a criticism. There were more homeless people per square foot than I've ever seen in New York, and we didn't even approach Skid Row-- I was all for marching over to personally inspect the armies of the homeless camped there, but my brother-in-law, who lives in the historic Eastern Columbia Building, assured me that was a Bad Idea. I only took one photo—the one above, as we were parking to check into the Athletic Club—but I could have taken 50 of the men scattered about, like corpses in a Matthew Brady photo of a Civil War battlefield, sprawled where they fell, eyes half crescents of white. But taking photos of them unconscious, in such a state of humiliatingly public abject ruin, seemed wrong, a final insult, and I felt so conflicted doing it once that I never could take another.
About 10 percent of all the homeless in the nation live in Los Angeles County--more than 50,000 people, though the count is disputed. That contrasts to about 7,000 people homeless on a cold night in Chicago. The Los Angeles Times carried a story about advocates trying to change the laws so the homeless can more comfortably go about their business in public; my sympathies tend to be with the public, who deserve to have parks and benches for their use, too.
The received wisdom about the homeless is that they are you or I without a paycheck or two, but the truth, with the Los Angeles homeless, is more they are you or I after being deprived of the anti-psychotic medicines we need for the next 10 years while being marinated in multiple addictions and some organic mental disorders tossed in for good measure. Seriously crazy people, too far gone to even beg effectively, snarling and staggering and sprawling everywhere. The narrowing of the middle class is much remarked on, but another result of the Republican War on Government is the hollowing out of social services, the results of which are only too clear here in Los Angeles. A humane society would treat its mentally ill; not being that society, we step around them while averting our eyes instead
Monday, February 16, 2015
Any time is Candy Crush Saga time!
Most parents of seniors don't even attend mid-winter parents night at Glenbrook North High School.
The halls, thronged with middle-aged couples in the fall, are noticeably depopulated. Several teachers greeted us with a quasi-sincere, quasi- joking, "What are you doing here?!"
Good question. And we have a good answer. We saw the first one off at a parents' night at Greenbrier Elementary, 14 years and change ago, and we might as well see the younger one through to the bitter end. We were glad we went, particularly when our boy's Chinese teacher started class with a video of him holding our heroic dog, giving a tour of our home in Chinese. The two other couples, both native Chinese, chuckled appreciatively, though I couldn't get out of them whether they were laughing at what he said or at the way he said it.
The teachers, as always, were excellent—our older boy found college a breeze after Glenbrook North. I did notice this parent playing Candy Crush Saga on his cell phone. At least I think it was; I'm not an expert at hand-held games. Never played one. All these games look like little arrays of colorful dots to me. It could have been Fruit Smash, or Cupcake Chaos, or something.
The important thing was dad was ignoring the teacher, passing the time in his kid's chemistry class by playing on his phone. To me, that's bad form, though I suppose the kids have to get it from somewhere. Still, we were only in each class about a dozen minutes.
Not a big deal. Standards are so old-fashioned. I don't know which is worse form—him playing or me noticing. Our evolving etiquette seems to be that we ignore each other's phone habits. I can't hold him up to too much censure. At least he was there. Most parents didn't bother. They were happily playing Candy Crush Saga at home. So kudos for making the effort. I believe that a large part of success in parenting, like any other endeavor, is showing up. Though how you behave once you do show up does matter, a little, I like to think.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
Why care about El Salvador when we have problems at home?
|Debra Gittler, in El Salvador|
Hola from El Salvador!
My name is Debra Gittler. I’m the Founder and Executive Director of ConTextos, a literacy organization established in El Salvador, where I’m writing this letter, and also in Chicago, where I’m from and where I still call home.
I’m often asked, “Why should Chicagoans care about kids in Central America when we have the South and West sides to worry about?”
Ironically, my two homes—ConTextos’ two homes—Chicago and El Salvador have a lot in common. Both are plagued by gang violence. El Salvador is now one of the most violent countries in the world with rampant gang violence that plagues kids in school and out. Experts say that if you were to superimpose El Salvador’s homicide rate upon New York City, it would be like 6,000 homicides per year.
So why would I choose to live in such a terrible place?
This is a land of contradictions. The gentle tropical breeze mixes with the third-world roar of broken mufflers. The air is vibrant with the scent of bright flowers and unregulated car exhaust. Massive digital screens advertising high-end goods loom over squatter communities that cook over firewood and have no access to water. You can get four homemade pupusas and a cup of coffee for a dollar at a local spot, or a $4 coffee at Starbucks.
El Salvador is also a stunningly beautiful country. My home in the city is only 30 minutes from the beach and an hour from the mountains. My patio looks over a volcano—one of 19 in the country—and yes, I leave my doors open to the outside all day and night, every day and night. The temperature never strays far from 85 degrees.
Right now is sugar cane harvest, and part of the process is burning the cane fields. At night, you can see the mountainside on fire. Ash floats on the air and settles everywhere. I like to pretend the ash is from the volcanoes…
Last week, Central America popped up in the international news when Vice President Joe Biden announced: A Plan for Central America: "As we were reminded last summer when thousands of unaccompanied children showed up on our southwestern border, the security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own."
How so? I first moved to Central America eight years ago. After three years as a teacher in the South Bronx, I came here to work in education reform. You’d think that “first-world” and “third world” poverty would be so different. But in fact, I could see the connections that Biden refers to—the kids in my classroom in the States were the same that I served in Central America, the educational culture that I fought was the same in both places. I also noticed that traditional bi-lateral efforts for development just weren’t enough to make sustainable change. So I founded ConTextos to fill an obvious gap: provide books and training to schools.
Here in Central America many adults never had the opportunity to read. In schools today, kids lack access to books and learn via rote memorization, copy and dictation. ConTextos changes this paradigm. We establish school libraries and train teachers so that kids develop authentic literacy skills such as deep-thinking, analysis, interpretation and creativity. These are the skills not just to be a better reader, they’re the skills necessary to be a more active member of an effective society.
Whatever happens in US immigration reform, part of the solution must involve investing in education and the social sector in the countries of origin. That’s why ConTextos’ is seeking support to expand into Guatemala and Honduras. This region, now the most violent in the region, needs help. And ConTextos is helping.
While there are hundreds of people with profiles like mine working in Chicago and throughout the States to improve education, Central America has a terrible dearth of educational NGOs. And the best part: our work is incredibly affordable to donors and foundations. It costs just $5,000/year per school for us to create a school library and provide a year’s worth of training.
Neil, I hope you’ll reach out to your readers to help us raise awareness (and money) in Chicago. Investing in education as a tool to combat violence and create opportunity isn’t a question of either the West side or international; it means investing in both. And what better way than through a Chicago-based organization.
You can learn more about ConTextos at contextos.org and vimeo.com/contextos. ConTextos is a Chicago business making huge strides in one of the most fragile, volatile regions of the world. I hope you’ll let your readers know about us!
Saturday, February 14, 2015
Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?
I'm not sure what drew me to this chief.
The fine detailing on the feathers of his war bonnet, surely.
Maybe the almost-semitic arch to his nose.
Something of a sneer, facing into the cutting Chicago wind.
Or maybe I just thought, "This'll stump 'em."
Which of course it won't.
But a guy can try.
So puzzle over this one.
I'm in California, bopping around the Parents Weekend events at Pomona College.
So I won't be able to render the verdict until late in the day.
Unless you get this very quickly.
As you tend to do.
The winner receives a bag of fine Bridgeport coffee.
Which I never get tired of drinking.
So place your guesses below, and good luck.
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