Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Are you a real person?

     Stephanie Scott is a forensic psychiatrist, football lover, journalist and educator. Elli Mcguirk is also a forensic psychiatrist, as well as a dancer backpack ninja, web talent and "good friend." Raina Tipps is also a backpack ninja.

     Forty-seven people followed me on Twitter Monday. Much more than the usual handful I expect in a day. I couldn't help but look closely at my new flock. Perky young women, mostly, with odd, strangely capitalized names, sharing a suspicious confluence of interests. Romaine Mcpeters, Tanya Preusser and Margot Lopez are each a self-proclaimed "beer drinking coffee junky," as opposed to Marta Sumter and Laura Salzman who are just coffee ninjas, and Melba Mcclary, a mere coffee "enthusiast."
     It dawned on me — quite quickly, considering all the years I thought the Kinks song "Lola" was about a girl — that these were not the Twitter identities of actual people who had fallen under the spell of my high quality journalism, but faux identities generated by computers.
     The idea is, you are followed by a robot, glance and see a pretty face who also likes coffee, and you follow them back, then suddenly are getting their curious blend of non-sequitur factlets—"Apart from the burial of Unas, only the Pyramid of Teti displays the Cannibal Hymn"—intermixed with come-ons for holistic web sites: "5 Natural #Herbs To Detox Damaged Lungs."
     If you are unfamiliar with Twitter—and geez, get with the program, at this point it's like being unfamiliar with shampoo—it's a an online communication network where you blast messages at your band of followers while in turn being blasted by messages of the people you follow. Somehow in all this, communication occurs, or did, before all this random commercial garbage began to gum it up.
      Fake Twitter accounts are not news, except to me. The fake accounts story has been rattling around for a few years. Back in the 2012 election, it was pointed out that a significant percentage of Barack Obama's and Mitt Romney's fan base were fake accounts. The way it works is you go to certain sites where you basically buy followers, for a penny apiece. These drive up your Twitter numbers, and people are more impressed with you.
Julia Khorramchahi,
      I wondered where they got the photos, so plugged a few into Google's image search. Ammie Arthurs, a Halle Berry type, was swiped from "The Hottest Short Hairstyles & Haircuts for 2015."   Elli Mcguirk? The photo was actually Elena Mazur, a communications consultant in Toronto. Maryjo Kratz was Julia Khorramchahi, a "Brazilian/Iranian human being" and "digital marketer" also from Toronto. The "human being" made me suspicious — could these Canadian flaks be using their own photos to generate fake accounts? I sent a few queries and Khorramchahi responded.
      "Defnitely NOT my doing!" she tweeted to me. "Thanks for pointing it out; will report that account right away."
     Okay then. I was left with the moral quandary. A person on twitter is judged, in part, by the size of the following herd.  As it happened, Monday's busload of mannequins pushed me over the 5,000 follower mark, a milestone I had been anticipating for a while, though grimly aware how small beans that is on the online world.
     So some of my followers on Twitter are not a cargo cult of actual living people, scanning the skies for my next essay. Who cares?  We already tolerate people in our lives who really aren't there.  The woman guiding you through giving your information when you call a credit card company is not really talking to you. Miss October, smiling alluringly from her centerfold, is not really here.
     If you believe the view of the future in movies such as "Her" and "Ex Machina," then we will happily have relationships with electronic intelligences and robot inamoratas.
Not a real person either
     Why not? Raggedy Andy was not really my pal, though I thought so at the time. Why not accept company where you find it? Perhaps as people become more robotic and absent, shuffling around, gazing at their phones, the phones will become more human and present. Talk about irony.
     On second thought, no. I decided to purge my robot harem, on general principles. Boosting your numbers with fake followers is like wearing elevator shoes—the solution is worse than the problem.
     So goodbye Frida Byham ("skiing fan"). Goodbye Jessica Phillips ("Total bacon specialist.") Goodbye Noelle Shyes ("Javadicted.")  I have enough fake friends as it is without tolerating more.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Frightened bureaucrats throttle our American freedoms

Bill McCaffrey, chief of CPS communications, in theory.
      Stories fill the paper, discussing certain issues, visiting various places, introducing particular people. Readers read them, never pausing to wonder how those stories got there. 
      Some are pitched by eager publicists, but more often a reporter had to press, make phone calls, send emails, cut through layers of bureaucracy, wheedling quotes and permission from hesitant administrators.
      I'm not complaining, it's part of the job. 
     Sometimes it works, and the story gets in the paper. Sometimes it doesn't. I've been doing this long enough to take disappointment along with success. But this one particular experience, well, let me tell you.     
     Several years ago, I thought about a story I did in 1986 at the Chicago public high school in the basement of the Cook County Jail. It was one of my favorite stories, because of the surprise, not just to find classes being held—teenage prisoners still must go to school—but because the teachers were so positive and enthusiastic, not at all what I expected. 
     Merely reposting the story here seemed lazy. Most of the teachers I quote are probably dead. I wanted to go back, to re-report it, see what had changed in three decades. I started with Tom Dart. He likes to show off the jail, but on his own terms, and the school didn't fit into his PR program. But gentle pressure, and the passage of a couple years, finally won permission.
     There was still a hitch. Though the school is in the jail, it's run by the Chicago Public Schools. You can't just walk in. So I started on the CPS last June, beginning with Judy Pardonnet in their communications office. I figured that gave me plenty of time to get it in the paper when school started.
     We eventually had a pleasant conversation on the phone, around July, and permission seemed forthcoming. Then nothing. She wouldn't return my emails or calls, and I tried for weeks. Finally, irked, I began what I call the "demon dialer" --- call her and call her and call her, every hour sometimes. Eventually she picked up. 
     She was apologetic, and passed the blame up to Bill McCaffrey, the chief of CPS public relations, pictured above. He won't allow it, she said, for reasons mysterious. 
     So I started trying to contact him.  July melted into August which morphed into September. He never responded. He never returned a call or an email. Earlier this month, Forrest Claypool, the head of CPS, came into the newspaper to talk to the editorial board about all the problems in the school system. I sat through 45 minutes of his spin, then approached him as he left and laid out what I wanted to do with the high school in the basement of the Cook County Jail..
      He said sure, talk to Bill McCaffrey. 
      At that point McCaffrey did phone me back, made some positive noises, then promptly disappeared again. I know the schools are in crisis, and there's lots to do. But he didn't have to write the story; all he had to do was give me permission. 
     For some reason I would not give up. I begged Kelley Quinn at the mayor's office to pressure Claypool—he and Rahm are supposed to be great pals, brother control freaks trying to herd the cats of civic government. I asked the publisher to intervene directly, and he did. 
       Nothing. Not even a reply. The CPS reaction to my simple, reasonable request for a mundane feature story is perhaps the most unprofessional performance I've encountered in 30 years of Chicago journalism, They lacked the consideration to even say "No" so I could stop asking. Just silence. Weeks and weeks. The September back-to-school moment has come and gone. 
     I give up, and am posting the story I liked so much from 29 years ago. It was an inoffensive thing, a nod to the hard work that teachers do, day in and day out, in the Cook County Jail. The teachers there now might want to ask their bosses why their efforts could not be showcased in the newspaper.
     I shudder to think why it was possible for a young freelancer to write it in 1986, but that months of steady pressure could not replicate it in 2015. We are a nation with freedom of the press, in theory, but that freedom is curtailed and hobbled by fearful government bureaucrats who lack faith in themselves, in their organizations and in their employees, and so gag them, not realizing that the gag is a worse indictment than anything they might say. Those terrified of bad publicity use that fear to bat away good publicity, then wonder why all the news about them is bad.
     Bottom line: our American freedom erodes, undermined, not by foreign enemies, but by domestic cogs.  
     Enough.  I tried my best. When Forrest Claypool moves on to his next posting, building his resume for his mayoral run in 2018—Rahm's definitely done after this term—I will try again with the next head of CPS. It's was an interesting story, then, and I bet it would be interesting now.
     Until that happy day: This ran in the Sun-Times on August 5, 1986 under the headline, "Headline:Enthusiastic students flock to jail's classrooms behind bars." It's quite long, but that's how we did it once upon a time. 

     At first glance, the rooms could be any classrooms anywhere.
     They have all the right equipment - desks, chalkboards, globes, handmade mobiles and construction paper silhouettes of Lincoln and Washington stapled to bulletin boards. Above the chalkboards are green strips with large alphabets of cursive writing.
     If it weren't for the Sheriff Richard J. Elrod calendars hanging in each room, you might expect a group of laughing fifth-graders to return from recess at any moment.
     When the students do arrive, they are all wearing the lone school color - beige. They wear the same beige T-shirts and beige cotton pants. Stenciled on the back of the shirts and the pants are "D.O.C." - Department of Corrections. This is the basement of the Cook County Jail, where the Board of Education runs a high school 12 months a year.
     The students are between 17 and 20 years old - the youngest group in the jail. They attend classes from four to five hours a day in a broad range of subjects, taught by 50 full-time teachers.
     If the cheery, standard classrooms come as a surprise, the teachers are even more so. Rather than being a burnt-out group of gritty survivors, filled with tales of the frustration of trying to teach hardened street toughs, they are enthusiastic to the point of zeal, and say they prefer teaching in the jail environment to teaching in the regular public school system.
     "My students are the nicest group in the world," said Daniel Fitzgerald, who teaches during the year at the Nettelhorst School and spends his summers teaching at the jail.
     "If I had this kind of demeanor in the school year, my teaching would be a breeze. I've been coming here for the past four summers, and it's a real pleasure. I had a student today thank me about four times for helping him with a new math problem. All the way to the door - thanks again, thanks again, thanks again. I would never get that at my school."
     According to Phillip T. Hardiman, executive director of the jail, teaching positions at the school are in great demand from other teachers in the school district. Many of the teachers in the jail have been there for more than 20 years, and few leave prematurely.
     "In order (for a new teacher) to get into the jail school, one of our teachers has to die or retire," said Hardiman.
     "Most people have a misconception of what it is like in jail - they think of bars, inmates with tin cups," said Robert Glotz, director of security at the jail. "The funny part is (teachers) are far safer here than in a grammar school or high school."
     "We have very, very few discipline problems, if any, here in the jail," said Andrew Miller, who began teaching in the jail in 1956. "As a matter of fact, my role as assistant principal is primarily involved with having each student placed in the appropriate classroom setting. There is very little disciplining needed."
     But because the teachers enjoy what they do does not mean their job is an easy one. The majority of teens who come into the jail are dropouts with emotional and developmental problems and reading levels that average around the fifth grade. They are frequently hostile toward the idea of school and are lacking in self-esteem. On top of everything, there is no way to control how long they will be in the school. Stays in jail range from a few days to two years, with the average stay being around a month, so the teachers face classes that are constantly changing.
     "You have to be a special individual to work in that setting," said John Gibson, who was principal at the school for 5 1/2 years and is now principal at John Marshall High School. "They're working with a clientele that puts great demands on the teachers. A lot is taken out of a person.
     "The high turnover is one of the major problems. You may begin to see attitudinal changes, and then the student is gone. Teachers, like anyone else, like to see results - it's hard to work with a young person for three weeks or three months and suddenly that student is gone. It takes a special kind of person to deal with it."
     Gibson said the teachers in the jail have to be sincere, committed and dynamic because that's the only way to reach the students in jail.
     "Otherwise the students would simply come in and put their heads on the desk and that would be the end of it," he said, adding that the enthusiasm among jail teachers tends to be "contagious," passing from older to younger teachers.
     Despite the disappointments often found in a jail environment, the teachers all have their tales of success, such as the one about the student who earned his high school equivalency degree in the jail and went on to graduate magna cum laude from Northern Illinois University.
     And there's the man who approached Andrew Miller in San Francisco, stuck out his hand, smiled, and said, "You're Mr. Miller. You said something to me in the basement of the Cook County Jail that changed my life. . . ."
     Even if a student is not reached by the teachers at Cook County Jail, they hope that perhaps some good still can result from their efforts.
     "Even if we are unable to have the kind of success we expect with youngsters, we believe that attitudes are being changed about schools," said Gibson. "When they begin to experience success in the classroom, that spills over to younger siblings - or children. Many of them have children of their own. We know some of this is taking place. It pays dividends to larger society for years to come." 

     As far as the classes themselves, they tend to stress practical information and life skills. Thus, the science class will focus on public health or drugs, while in history the class learns about such basic Chicago information as the name of the mayor and the tallest buildings.
     Despite their veneer of street sophistication, the teens in the jail need this rudimentary information.
     "Those great big semi-adults with beards and muscles - they are fathers, they've committed all kinds of crimes and have all kinds of venereal diseases," said Miller. "These great big grown men have not learned the first thing about how to take care of themselves. They can't put a stamp on an envelope - to put a stamp on a letter you have to write letters, and they don't write. So they put the stamp on the wrong corner."
     In a recent class, Anthony Picciola had his students answer a series of multiple choice questions about their feelings - how they react when in a group, when happy, sad, angry. The class had several purposes - to get the students to read aloud, to think about themselves, to learn to discuss their emotions and participate in a group.
     Jesse Lee, the jail social worker, stopped by on his rounds and gave the group a pep talk.
     "You gotta be prepared," he said. "You gotta have a plan."
     He walked over to the desk of a student named Bob - a young man with a thin mustache and tossled hair - and asked him what kind of sports he played. Bob, in jail on charges of residential burglary stemming from his $100-a-day cocaine habit, stared at his desk while he answered - his feet constantly tapping, his fingers drumming on the table.
     He played tight end in football, he said, left field in baseball. Lee, seizing on the sports connection, made an analogy between having a realistic game plan and winning the game, trying to get the students to see the need for foresight and planning in their own lives.
     "I don't think you're gonna get a person in here saying, `We're looking for coke abusers - all the coke abusers line up, we've got jobs for you.' " Lee said.
     "This is what makes the school go, the staff," said Miller. "We have a fantastic staff. Our social worker staff are just crackerjacks. Our staff is especially trained to handle the difficult boy. Most of the youngsters are dropouts who happen to get in trouble with the law. They come here and, maybe for the first time in his life, someone listens. For the first time, he has structure and discipline. This is something he badly needs and, believe it or not, these boys welcome that."

Monday, September 28, 2015

Pope Francis has left the building

     The pope has gone home, flying out of Philadelphia about 7 p.m. Sunday night.
     An apt moment to ask what, if anything, the visit meant, and what its lingering effects might be.
     Pope Francis certainly got a warm reception, adoring crowds, incessant, respectful media, an unprecedented address to a joint session of Congress.
     "There is another temptation which we must especially guard against, the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil," the pope told one of the most bitterly divided legislative bodies in history. "Or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps."
     If life were a movie, then Speaker John Boehner would have leapt up and resigned on the spot, the way that the corrupt senator played by Claude Rains in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" bolted from the Senate chambers, tried to shoot himself, then returned to publicly confess his guilt.
     Life is not a movie, alas, and Boehner waited until the next day, quitting, not so much in opposition to the right wing schismatics who have destroyed his party as in submission to them. While the resulting disarray might temporarily thwart their efforts to bring the United States government to a standstill, the long term is thought to be an even more bitterly divided government, assuming such a thing is possible.
     Our leadership certainly seemed unmoved by the pope's heartfelt appeals, keeping with the central tenet of extremism: you don't change in light of facts or rhetoric, but merely cherry-pick the facts and arguments you believe help your case. For instance, when the pope issued an unequivocal call for an end to capital punishment, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's reply was a masterstroke of convolution.
     “I believe the death penalty is a recognition of the preciousness of human life," he said.
     Pope Francis handed out plenty of manna to feed the entire political spectrum — something for everyone! — and you could argue he is just putting the same old my-way-or-the-highway theology in a shiny new box.
     Was the pope's visit a feel-good waste then? My gut, or at least my hope, tells me it was not. Anyone living in a generation where the civil rights of gay people took such a dramatic turn has to believe in the cumulative effect of time and argument. Change happens the way Mike Campbell went bankrupt in "The Sun Also Rises": "Gradually and then suddenly."
     So those who habitually deny science and boost big business can argue against climate change. But climate change is still real. The evidence of it manifests itself day by day, and having the head of the Catholic Church start focusing on the fate of the planet instead of what goes on in its bedrooms can't be a bad thing. Maybe not this week. But over time. I'm old enough to remember when recycling seemed a concern that granola-gobbling oddballs cared about. Now it's almost kind of a secular religion.
     Of course, I'm only doing what everyone has been doing: spinning the pope my way. Consider this, said by the pope in Philadelphia's Independence Park:
     “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
     The first part seems a big thumbs up to the Kim Davises of the world, who twist being demanded to respect the civil rights of others into an infringement of their own religious liberty. But the second part seems to be telling the Kentucky clerk to issue the marriage licenses.
     As much as religion is used by those trying to argue they have no choice, religion, as Pope Francis reminds us, is a vast treasury where you choose what to emphasize, finding whatever it is you seek. Davis chose to stand in the doorway barring gays, citing Scripture. But she could have just as easily cited her Christian faith as requiring her to sing "Ave Maria" at those gay weddings, despite her personal objections. The choice, as Pope Francis points out, except when he doesn't, is yours.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Wrigley Field isn't ruined

     Entropy demands that systems run down, that clocks stop, empires crumble, and the glittering good generally decays into the shabby bad. It is the columnist's job, frequently, to bemoan this fact, clutching at the ashes of the past and letting out a wail before the rain washes them away and into the sewer.
     So I was interested Friday, when I had the chance to visit Wrigley Field for the first time since the Ricketts clan put in a pair of jumbo TV screen scoreboards, how these perversions of Wrigley's bucolic tradition would go down. Just how horrible would it be? Just how much of a thumb in the eye of all that is holy would it be?
     I found ... to my vast surprise ... they were ... fine. As in okay. Not a problem. Even ... dare I say it... an ...improvement.
     The Toyota plug tucked under the iconic Wrigley sign at the corner of Clark and Addison? Fine. The name "Wrigley Field" is itself a plug — gum, remember? — and to be honest, other names of other sponsors have been tucked there before. The sign itself is unchanged.
Left field scoreboard: not a problem. 
     The big ass TV screen erected in left field? Unoffensive, and I enjoyed the chance to see the plays I'd missed because some idiot was standing up to grab his beers from the beer vendor, or someone was entering or leaving a seat, or the little girl two rows up was raising her glove in such a way that it blocked my view (and no, I wasn't constitutionally able to shout, "Hey tot, put your flippin' glove down!"  I considered it, several times, but decided I didn't want to be that person, and besides, her twig of an arm would have to get  tired, eventually, and it did, about the sixth inning). 
     They also kept the crowd occupied by showing videos of plays more exciting than anything we were seeing on the field, where the Cubs limped along before losing 3-2 to the Pirates, though they made a good show in the 9th inning and stranded the tying run on third. 
    I didn't mind the scoreboard in right field either, admiring the way they used a Wrigley
Right field scoreboard: does not suck.
green, and retro graphics to make the thing seem to fit in. I keep score, and on plays where I wasn't sure if it was a 4-3 or a 6-3 they'd flash the numbers up, so I could look and cheat.

     This isn't a blanket endorsement of the Ricketts, who are still charmless, right wingers who think Scott Walker should be president.  It's hard enough to pay $4.50 for a bag of peanuts without also underwriting the Republican destruction of the American government. The skeleton of whatever godawful hotel they're building just to the north of Wrigley loomed, and we'll have to see how that turns out. But the little ballpark still has its beauty, the concessions still suck—$3.75 for a cup of coffee that might have been hot at one point, but at best held the memory of warmth when handed to me from the concession stand. There is advanced urn technology that will keep coffee hot until the moment it is sold. Maybe that's coming in a future remodeling of the place. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     WBBM has its wonderfully-named "Smart Quiz" in the mornings, asking listeners to answer a trivia question, and when they get it wrong, as they often do, I think, "If they were so smart they'd look the answer up on Google while they were on hold."
     Even my humble Saturday fun activity needs to take that into consideration. I had one photo that was basically a yellow mug in a generic coffee shop, and an enterprising reader -- King Dale, where have you gone? -- ripped through the photos in Yelp reviews of Chicago coffee shops until he spied a matching yellow cup. 
     I suppose I could install rules forbidding readers from consulting Google, but that would display a level of naive trust that I'm just not capable of expressing. Besides, I should be able to find images that defy Google. It's a challenge to me as well as you.
    I thought I had a winner with the above. But had the presence of mind to plug, "Decaying Ram mural Chicago" into Google, and up it popped, 400 N. Peoria, in West Fulton Market. 
    Not much of a puzzle.
    Okay, what about this:

     I thought a had a viable option, since "Running man sculpture Chicago" or "Jogging man sculpture Chicago" did not serve up the answer. That seemed too good to be true and, pressing onward, I plugged "Metal running man sculpture Chicago" and Google served up an article on its installation at O'Hare International Airport. 
     This is going to take a bit more ingenuity. 
     How about this carefully-cropped photo?

     Not readily Googlable. Orange triangle just won't do it. But still solvable, I believe—probably too solvable, to be honest. But I like the trio of triangles, black, red, white (not counting the white space, which could be a fourth). Plus I have a soft heart. Place you guesses below. The correct answer will receive one of my super-collective 2015 official Every goddamn day blog posters, signed and numbered, itself a kind of public art now that I'm wheat pasting them around town. Good luck. Have fun. Enjoy your Saturday. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

"A feast of joy, love, harmony and grace"

Barbara Gaines

     "Ready?" says Barbara Gaines, to the singers, technicians and assistants scattered around the otherwise empty Civic Opera House theater one morning last week. "Let's do it."

     "Here we go," adds stage manager John Coleman. "Act 4. Quiet please."
South African soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi climbs the stairs at stage right, glancing tentatively around at her feet, looking for something, lifting the curtain and peering underneath.
     "L'ho perduta, me meschina!" she sings, in Italian. "I've lost it; unhappy me!"
     A handful of notes of Mozart sung in her strong, achingly clear voice is enough to jolt me out of the up-to-that-moment ordinary day. It's like someone popping open my skull and laying cool wet cloths on my brain. Ahhh.
     But only for a moment.
     "Stop please," says Gaines, leaping up. "Okay, great. We're going to change something."
     It's the third day of stage rehearsals for "The Marriage of Figaro," the first production of the Lyric's 61st season, which opens Saturday night. Gaines, on of Chicago's top directors, who founded Chicago Shakespeare Theater and has directed some 30 plays there, is back at the Lyric, part of a savvy strategy to expand its reach beyond the circle of people who, like myself, just love opera, to lure those who might be drawn in by a star director.
     Gaines' job is to sweat the smallest detail, like when Mkhwanazi's character, Barbarina, lifts the curtain, looking for a lost pin.
     "I realized we revealed the set way too early," said Gaines, explaining why she wants to delay the moment. "It works better with the music."
     Gaines reflexively reassures as she instructs.
     "Barbarina, you were perfect, " she says to Mkhwanazi, who sang a show-stopping "Summertime" in "Porgy and Bess" last year.
     Gaines made her Lyric debut in 2010 with Verdi's far grimmer "Macbeth" and is excited to have been asked to take a crack at something lighter.
     "So much more fun, a lot more laughter," she says, during a break. "The joy of it. It's all about love, and passion. It's all of us, all of our stories. It's not about those dark productions where the count is a miserable bastard. He's a human being with empty spaces in his heart and tries to fill them, like all of us do."
     Gaines promises, if not quite Robert Falls-Grade shock, then plenty of surprises.
     "Some of the things on this stage has never been done before," she says.
     Such as?
     "At the very end of the overture—the best overture ever written," she says. "We have two singers and an actress doing a little improvisation that tells you the entire story. It's great fun.  What it says to the audience at the very beginning: 'You can laugh, you can enjoy yourself, this is going to be fun up to the end,' which is hilarious, but totally a surprise. I don't think it's been done in the history of 'Figaro.'''
     And she wasn't referring to the entire second act being performed in an enormous bed, 25 feet across.
     Directing the cast, Gaines is constantly in motion, watching the action from various perspectives.
     "I'll just stay here," she fibs, tucking herself into a seat for, perhaps five seconds, before she is up again, leaning over the pit, on her toes, then on stage, stopping action again, Daniel Ellis, her assistant director, following her like a pull toy duck.
     "When they do things, it gives you ideas, and you have to institute those ideas before you forget them," she explains.
      Gaines has said you can't hear the 4th act and not feel that you are in heaven, "a feast of joy, love, harmony and grace."
     Readers ask—and complain—more about my occasional opera column than any other topic. Gaines, talking about the differences between theater and opera, nails it so well, we'll give her the final word on the subject.
     "You know what it is?" she says. "I am not a religious person. I don't like people telling me what to do. But when they start singing, when the count asks the countess for pardon—perdono—there's this whole song about forgiving. Please forgive me. I think ... there must be a God, because the music is so beautiful. I think it is some of the most beautiful music that has ever been written, the finale of this opera. It goes from this beautiful moment of grace and forgiveness to let's celebrate, get drunk and have fun and live."

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"You mealymouthed paper mache-headed wussweasel..."

     Once upon a time, columnists would occasionally put their feet up and run a day of reader mail, a chance of them to take a breather and let their audience to gape in wonderment at the carnival of humanity that is out there, lurking in the shadows. 
     That died with the Internet, when space in the paper became too precious to waste, and online comments sections made us all wearily familiar with just how mean and crazy people can be.  You couldn't have a two inch news story about a kid being hit by a bus without a Greek chorus of malice offering a peek under the rock.
      Mere anthropological interest isn't why I present this letter from a reader in Bensenville, written last month but delivered only Tuesday--he seems to have held onto it for a while, adding fresh thoughts as they came to him. 
     Typically I get such letters and read a bit, and toss them out. But this one struck me as having value, in that it answers the vexing question, "Just who in God's name supports Donald Trump?" far more eloquently than I ever could. He printed his name legibly on the envelope, but I'm going to let his scrawled signature protect his identity — no malice here. 
     For those reading on their iPhones, it might be a bit hard to decipher; wait for your coffee break and call it up on the computer at work; it's worth the effort, I think, because you see the sort of reasoning at work. This is why Trump is doing so well. Any further comment from me would be unnecessary. Enjoy or, I suppose, more accurately, despair.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"The moving walkway is now ending; look down."

     The future we were promised never came.
     No jet packs, no spandex jumpsuits, no robot maids—that little round vacuum thing just doesn't count.
     Sure, we got certain whiz-bang devices we didn't expect: the phone/camera/computer in our back pockets. But that wasn't really part of the classic Space Age Dream.
     Moving sidewalks were. Why walk, why go to the bother of using your legs when you could be whisked to your destination through the magic of our friend, technology?
     Now some of those futuristic wonders are going the way of Space Foods sticks, at least at O'Hare International Airpot, where United Airlines announced it is taking out the eight moving walkways in Concourse C.
     "Our observation shows that removing the walkways in Concourse C will enhance the experience for our customers by reducing congestion and improving flow through the concourse," said Luke Punzenberger, a spokesman for United Airlines, based in Chicago.
     They'll also move faster.
      "Moving walkways are the only form of transportation that actually slow people down," said Dr. Seth Young, of Ohio State University, one of several scientists to study the sidewalks and find that they delay pedestrians by obstructing their paths or encouraging them to stand while traveling at a slower pace than they'd walk unaided. The walkways also take up room that could be used to increase airport shopping, a trend of the world we find ourselves in, as opposed to one we once dreamed about.
     For those with a fondness for United trippy 850-foot walkway between Concourses B and C, with undulating glass walls, under what was billed as the longest neon sculpture in the world, worry not: that will remain.
     "We're only looking at Concourse C," said Punzenberger. "There are no plans to remove the connector walkways."
     People who are elderly, or have physical limitations, might be concerned about the removal of the walkways, which do offer a respite from the lengthy slog between Point A to Point B.
     "We recognize that some customers have special needs or concerns when flying, and we will continue to provide transport to customers who may require additional assistance,"  Punzenberger said.
     Like the fascination with trips to the moon, moving sidewalks appeared in Victorian times then took off in earnest the 1950s. The first debuted at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Several other fairs around the world featured them, but it was only in 1954 that they first showed up in as part of urban transportation hubs and, in 1958, jet age airports, when the first was installed at Love Field in Dallas.
     People are always worrying about our machines turning on us, and moving walkways actually did. There was at least one death: On New Year's Day, 1960, a toddler, 2-year-old Tina Marie Brandon, visited Love Field with her family to see relatives depart and was crushed to death when her coat sleeve was caught by the walkway. Before anyone could react, her clothing constricted her so much she suffocated.
     Even when they don't kill you, the walkways in C offered an unwelcome conundrum. What to do? Stride athletically through the non-moving part of the concourse, or meekly hop aboard, knowing you'll have that slightly unsettling "The moving walkway is now ending, please look down" moment when you were projected back into the pedestrian realm of foot travel?
     Better to get rid of them, and not just for the way they can make it harder to get to a particular shop, or the energy consumed, or the expense of maintaining them—or not maintaining them, as the case may be. In 1999, an electrical fire in one of the walkways shut down flights in Terminal One for two hours.
     Four of the eight walkways are being removed now and will be gone by Thanksgiving, when there will be a pause in construction for the holiday traffic nightmare.
     "We expect to complete work by spring," Punzenberger said.
     Good riddance. Moving walkways are like food pills: a better idea than a reality. Cool concepts, perhaps, but turns out people prefer walking and eating. Walking is a joy—okay, in airports, not so much. But it's still good for you, and all things being equal, you should walk more, not less. Ditto for nutrition pills. People didn't really want them; they want artisanal bread and organic apples and lettuce grown in the backyard.
     The future never actually arrives, and considering the strange stuff we fooled ourselves into believing we wanted someday, that's a good thing.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

One less GOP hopeful to laugh at

     The parade of dunces that the Republican Party has been marching through America's living rooms over the summer was just too entertaining to last. Inevitable that the lowest, most rotten fruit would drop away. Last week it was Rick Perry collapsing in a heap, after making a game but failed effort to overcome his humiliating gaffe of 2012, when he demanded the closing of three federal agencies, but just couldn't name that third one, not off the top of his head. The new glasses did not help.
    Monday was Scott Walker's turn to cease—no, no, "suspend," his campaign, a mere pause just in case the nation wants to fall to its knees and beg him to stay in the race. 
    Won't happen. The pride of Wisconsin, who most recently polled at 0.5 percent of the likely Republican voters, declared that other doomed candidates would take his lead and quit too so the party could focus on finding somebody to counter Donald Trump, who's been spanking their bottoms for months now. He seems to be forgetting that his whole problem is none of the voters care what he says or does, so the odds of his erstwhile opponents doing so are pretty slim. 
     Walker made the mistake of believing that dominating Madison made him fit to conquer the world. He actually said that if he could face down 100,000 angry union members, outraged over his keelhauling of government employee rights, he could take on ISIS too. Though my favorite shred of Walker stupidity was when he appeared on Meet the Press, and told Chuck Todd that building a wall along the 4,000 mile border with Canada was a "legitimate" idea to keep out the terrorists who might start pouring over any moment now. (Add his recent invitation to Ben Carson to drop his trousers and reveal his shameful bigotry, and Chuck Todd is becoming the go-to guy for egging on self-immolating Republicans) .
     Walker's downfall seems to be that he was out-crazied by Donald Trump. The charisma-challenged Walker lost the lunatic fringe and thus the footrace to the bottom of the American soul. 
     So a big bye-bye as Walker bites his lip and confronts a future where the harm he can do is limited to Wisconsin. 
     Now the question is: who's next? Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would be a natural, though there is real doubt whether he possesses the self-awareness needed to quit. Lindsey Graham does, at least, have the photo receptors and ganglionic clump that Jindal lacks, which might inspire him to look around, see where he is on the evolutionary scale, and go home. He does have a sense of decency that makes him unelectable as a GOP contender -- he actually chided Carson for his vile bigotry about Muslims, which, in Republican circles, is the equivalent of joining Jane Fonda for an inspection of North Vietnamese gun emplacements. But Graham did moderately well at last week's loser consolation undercard debate, and that probably splashes enough water in the face of his swooning campaign that it can endure a few more turns of the thumbscrews. 
    No, Rick Santorum is the next baby GOP baby bird to be pushed out of the presidential campaign nest. Santorum, whose very name has morphed into a term for a gross sexual byproduct — a usage that is certain to outlive him, the way "bowdlerize" lived on long after Thomas Bowlder — couldn't even distinguish himself in the pageant of midgets, his performance drawing comments like "lackluster" and "weak." Given the blats of ridicule he receives, expect him to slink off with whatever injured dignity he can muster, I'd say by St. Crispin's Day, or Oct. 25. 
      My wife, by the way, using her generally spot-on intuition, announced at supper Monday night that Marco Rubio will get the nomination and win the presidency because he is young, handsome, and seems able to gull GOP diehards into thinking he's crazier than he actually is, then reversing course and tacking toward a generally acceptable flirtation with rationality when the general election rolls around. We could do a lot worse.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Fighting the stigma of mental illness

Patrick Kennedy and Peter O'Brien

     Four hours before Republican presidential candidates faced off for the second GOP debate in California last Wednesday, a Democrat, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, stood before a small gathering at the Chicago Community Trust headquarters and talked about something people don't like to talk about: mental illness.
     He was introduced by Peter O'Brien, owner of O'Brien's Restaurant on Wells, who began by remembering his son, Peter Jr., who struggled for years before dying at age 32.
     "Peter just couldn't accept that he had a mental illness because of the stigma and shame of mental illness," O'Brien said, explaining why he had started Kennedy Forum Illinois, the local branch of Kennedy's national organization that is trying to reduce the disgrace associated with mental illness and addiction.
     "A lot of Americans run away from it because they don't want to deal with the pain," said Kennedy, who has been public about his own battles with bipolar disorder, alcoholism and drug addiction, though brushing aside O'Brien's suggestion he had done so out of courage. "I got in a car accident that put me on the front page of every newspaper in American in 2006, and at that point I had no choice but finally acknowledge that I had a problem."
     Kennedy went from being an addict in denial to becoming the sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which requires insurance companies cover the treatment of mental illnesses to the same degree as physical ones and not impose different, inevitably lesser standards of care. He thought he would be one of hundreds of co-sponsors, but found his colleagues reluctant to attach their names to the law.
     "They worried people would say, 'You're sponsoring this bill,'" Kennedy said, extending an accusing finger, "Do you have a mental illness?"
     Treatment for mental illness or addiction still can be difficult to find or pay for, and most addicts never get help.
     "That's the law of the land but unfortunately no one knows about it, and the insurance industry is counting on you not knowing about it," he said.
     I sure didn't. Though, being a recovering alcoholic myself, I am keenly aware of the stigma, sadly familiar that there is a swath of people convinced that the whole thing is a sham cooked up to cover bad behavior, which I only wish were true. But it isn't. Addiction is a kind of mental illness, an obsessive-compulsive disorder that can be managed but never cured. Treatment can be life-saving.
     Kennedy's talk came back to me later that day, during the third hour of the Republican debate. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, trying to project a tough guy image to counter his Squiggy hairdo, promised that as president he would go charging into Colorado and use federal law to bust the pot industry. Rand Paul, who seems to have embraced rational thought as his latest campaign strategy, pointed out Christie's hypocrisy: the GOP is all for state's rights when it comes to putting dinosaurs alongside humans in Alabama biology textbooks, but when whiffing pot from the Rocky Mountain State, Christie grabs the big stick of federal power.
     At which point former Hewlett-Packard boss Carly Fiorina invoked her experience.
     “My husband, Frank, and I buried a child to drug addiction," she said of her 35-year-old step-daughter who died in 2009. "We must invest more in the treatment of drugs. ... Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people."
     When Patrick Kennedy, the youngest son of Ted Kennedy, and Carly Fiorina start saying the same thing, that's significant. Betty Ford revealing her alcoholism was an earthquake because first ladies didn't suffer from that kind of thing or, at least didn't admit it. That Fiorina's comment was almost lost in the cacophony is progress of a sort. The stigma is lessening.
     Not that it will crumble on its own. Kennedy quoted Frederick Douglass:
     "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
     "We're citizens as well, in a country facing a growing epidemic of addiction," Kennedy said, calling on people to lobby their officials and put pressure on providers, and get involved. Chicago has a Recovery Walk in Garfield Park Sept. 26, and a national The Day the Silence Ends march in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4.
     "We have no political power. Stigma eviscerates our political power," Kennedy said. "Twenty-three million Americans are in long-term recovery, but we're not organized; we're anonymous people, meeting in church basements. This is 2015, and we must talk about the most important issue for public health in our country."

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Ben Carson excuses himself from consideration for the presidency

      Yes, I know we've sailed off the ends of the earth. 
      Yes, we've found ourselves in some political wonderland where the old values not only no longer apply, but are inverted. 
      Yes, Donald Trump's xenophobia, bigotry and idiocy has projected him to the top of the field of Republican boobs vying for the presidency.
       And maybe Ben Carson, jealous of that, thought he'd get in the game. 
       But no matter how low our expectations, no matter how up has become down and black is sold as white, there is some point where the joke is no longer funny, and we have to get serious, and say: Not in my country, asshole.
      That point came Sunday. 
      Carson, leading several polls, was asked by Chuck Todd on NBC's Meet the Press if a president's religion should matter.
     "I guess it depends on what that faith is," Carson replied, without hesitation. "If it's inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. If it fits and is consistent with the Constitution, no problem."
    "So do you believe Islam is consistent with the Constitution?" Todd asked. 
     "No, I do not," said Carson. "I would not advocate that we would put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that. "
     Todd then asked if he would support a Muslim for Congress, and Carson backpedaled a little, allowing that perhaps, if he were a good person despite being a Muslim, that would be okay, apparently too stupid to understand that he had also undercut his initial reaction to the question.
      No matter.
      Any American, particularly any person from a group that has experienced prejudice, any Jew, any black, any woman, has the moral obligation to howl in protest at that. We have become so used to haters, to clowns, that we have been nudged by inches to accept the unacceptable. 
       Yes, Carson is only stating plainly what Trump, with the cowardice of bigots, implies. But it is such a clear, unambiguous statement that it cannot be allowed to stand. Islam is as consistent with democracy as Christianity or Judaism or any other religion, put to all sorts of uses by all sorts of people. To say otherwise is to single Islam out unfairly and hypocritically. It is hatred, pure and simple. For Carson to remain a serious candidate is to pull down the American flag and shit on it.

Remembering Max Beauvoir

Bakery, Haiti, 1987
     Max Beauvoir did something, a small thing perhaps, a gesture, but one that I've never seen a person actually do, before or since.
     But first I should explain how I found myself in his antique and book-lined study, sitting across a desk from the head houngan, or voodou priest, of Haiti, who died last week at age 79.
     My Northwestern roommate, Didier, had taken a job in Haiti with Catholic Relief Services and, hoping to show him some support and, I suppose, have an adventure too, I volunteered to visit for a few weeks. It was 1987, and Baby Doc Duvalier had just fled the country the year before. Democracy was in full swing, supposedly, and it was a rare moment of optimism for that tiny, star-crossed island nation. 
     Unemployed or, if you prefer, a freelancer, I justified making the trip by convincing the Atlantic magazine to consider a story about voodou. Thus I found myself scouring the countryside, looking for the distinctive flags and peristyles indicating that the ancient Africa faith —kind of a funky folk Catholicism -- was practiced there. 
Max Beauvoir

     Of course I had to meet Beauvoir, who was a significant figure in "The Serpent and the Rainbow," Wade Davis' factually-shaky 1985 best-seller on the supposed reality of Haitian zombies. Beauvoir, a chemist trained in New York and Paris who veered into the priesthood in midlife, was portrayed as half shaman, half hustler. 
      That's how he struck me, an oily figure, part menacing, part ridiculous. He subjected me to a tirade, an hour-long rant on the perfidy of the Reagan administration, claiming that the attempt on Reagan's life was his, Max Beauvoir's doing.
     "How did you do that?" I asked.
     "With a red candle," he replied.
      I did manage to score an invitation the next night to the big, showy ceremonies Beauvoir held regularly.
     When it came time for me to leave, he did the thing I hadn't seen before. He held his hands to the side and clapped twice, summoning a servant, a girl of about 12, to take me to the road to catch a tap-tap, the colorful communal taxis that criss-cross Port-au-Prince. On the walk out, I realized I had no small bills, only a $20 in my wallet. A tap-tap back the city cost one gourd, or 20 cents. Figuring I'd have better luck getting change from Beauvoir's servant than from a tap-tap driver, I gave her the $20 and asked her if she could break it. She in turn beckoned over a five-year-old boy, who took the twenty and ran off. I remember standing with her, watching the boy recede, thinking: I am not a savvy traveller.
    To my vast surprise, he returned a few minutes later, with a fistful of gourds, an even 100 of them, well-worn, crumbled brown bills that were soft with use, feeling more like leaves than currency.  I tipped him, and the girl, and climbed aboard a brightly colored taxi.
     The next day's ceremony struck me, at the time, as slightly "spurious"—more tourist show than authentic religious spectacle. But as the drums drove to a frenzied pitch and the mambos wailed, a woman seemed to reach into the fire and fill her mouths with glowing coals, smiling a bright orange crescent in the darkness. I was sure it was a trick, but it was a good trick.  

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Kabuki Trump

     Journalism is a kabuki. 
     I've been saying it for years.
     What does that mean?
     Kabuki is a highly stylized form, a centuries-old type of Japanese theater, with long-established plot lines worn smooth from time, repeated again and again and again, with the same characters going through the same motions.
     Journalism too has its tropes, its cherished plots that withstand the test of time, and are performed over and over again by the same actors. 
     Look at Donald Trump's supposed gaffe in New Hampshire this past week A supporter prefaced his question by saying that Muslims are a problem in this country, and that Barack Obama is neither a Christian nor a citizen.
     "Muslims..." he said, his voice dripping with contempt. "We know our current president is one." 
     Trump did not correct him, and this led the news media to dab on its face paint, don its kimonos, snap open its fans, and begin to go through the motions of the classic tale, The Would-Be Leader Stumbles. Again and again we heard serious reporters ask gravely: Is this the mistake that would finally bring the high flying Trump down to earth? I almost burst out laughing, listening to the NPR panjandrums ponder the possibilities. 
    What planet are these people living on? Association with that kind of hateful rhetoric won't hurt Trump. Exactly the opposite; it's what put Trump where he is. He's been a birther for years. Heck, his acceptance of the supporter's hallucinogenic bigotry will no doubt make him more popular, as exactly the kind of bold truth teller that right wing GOP wackjobs adore. They'll be rolling at his feet like puppies, while Trump juts out his Mussolini lip and preens like Il Duce. 
     The man is a demagogue—he only has one message: embrace him, accept his Cult of Personality and he will save us from everything. I almost said he's dangerous. But thank God only a third of the nation are stone crazy right wing haters, and that will be our salvation. And I'll be honest. Say what you will about Trump, I'd prefer him in the White House, hands down, to Ted Cruz, a frightening nightmare image, not from kabuki, but out of science fiction. Every time he opens his mouth and lets another falsetto squeal of moral indignation out, I see his face 60 feet high, mouth moving grotesquely, uttering mendacious slogans, something out of Orwell, projected against the sides of public buildings. 
    We count on journalism, or what's left of it, to be intelligent. To describe reality, not to try to jam reality into the molds of our expectation so it takes a form we recognize. Trump isn't George W. Bush saying something stupid by mistake, he's Huey Long saying something stupid that he really believes and his followers really believe. Let's focus on that, not a witless rendition of hackneyed story lines that really don't apply to every circumstance. Trump won't be president, not because he'll blurt out something that reveals him as he actually is, but because only 33 percent of the voters in this country passionately lap up the poisoned gruel he's serving. 

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     A good restaurant blends food, atmosphere and service. A great restaurant will combine them in such a way that is uniquely its own, creating a vibe, a personality that no other place don't has. 
      Of all the thousands of eateries in Chicago, the place pictured above has something going on that no other restaurant has. Homey, yes. Good food, yes. And a staff like no other.
     Where is this? And what makes it so unique? 
     The winner will receive one of my dwindling stock of 2015 blog posters, which are going fast now that I've decided to plaster them up on walls, where they belong. A reader tweeted this photograph of a poster in the West Loop after a few weeks exposed to the elements, and it made me very happy. Get one before they're gone.
    Place your guesses below. Good luck. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

A helping hand from the men in black

Archbishop Blase Cupich

     "Masters and wealthy owners," Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical on labor in 1891, "must be mindful of their duty."
     That duty, he wrote in "Rerum Novarum" ("On the Condition of Labor") is not, as the current governor of Illinois seems to believe, to meekly accept whatever crumbs fall from the table of the rich and the powerful, but to form their own organizations to fight for decent wages, reasonable hours, mandated breaks, safety standards and a humane work environment.
     "It is the duty of the state to respect and cherish them, and if need be, to defend them from attack," Pope Leo wrote, during a time of vicious anti-union activities, even more extreme than our own.
     It is heartening to see his approach embraced by Chicago's Archbishop Blase Cupich, who went to bat for Illinois' besieged labor unions this week.
     “History has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished,” Cupich told a gathering at the Chicago Journeyman Plumbers Local 130 on the West Side Thursday. “The church is duty-bound to challenge such efforts, by raising questions based on long-standing principles.”
     Cupich's comments that fit nicely in with the general trend of Catholic clergy embracing the downtrodden, emphasized lately under the inspired leadership of Pope Francis, who arrives for his first visit to the United States this week.
     The question is not, as Gov. Bruce Rauner seems to consider it, whether Illinois would be a more welcoming work environment if laborers were stripped of their rights. It certainly would, just as it's cheaper to manufacture goods using near slaves in China than it is to produce something in Chicago. Nor does supporting unions suggest that they are right in all regards and never have corruption and excesses of their own.
     The question, as Cupich so clearly stated it, is whether it is moral to make people live like that, and whether our government will set itself against the interests of workers as a matter of policy.
     “We have to ask," Cupich said, "do these measures undermine the capacity of unions to organize? Do such laws protect the weak and the vulnerable? Do they promote the dignity of work, the rights of workers? Do they promote a more just society?”
     That is a big "No." Rauner is attempting to hold the budget hostage until he is given the weapons he wants to unleash against unions. I have been in a union for most of my career at the Sun-Times, and have seen first hand how it counterbalances, slightly, the power and control that rests with the owners. Without it, wages drop, security is gone, and workers find themselves at the whim of owners.
     I'm not in the habit of speaking for God, but if the archbishop wants to point out that undermining unions is immoral and contrary to the will of the Divine, a denial of the love that He feels for His creation, I certainly won't contradict him either.
     This is sadly nothing new. Read the following about unions and ask yourself: Blase Cupich in 2015 or Pope Leo in 1891?
     "It is the duty of the state to respect and cherish them, and if need be, to defend them from attack. It is notorious that a very different course has been followed, more especially in our own times. In many places the state authorities have laid violent hands on these communities, and committed manifold injustice against them; it has placed them under control of the civil law, taken away their rights as corporate bodies."
     That would be Pope Leo, 124 years ago. This is an old fight, one that has to be fought anew in every generation, and it's good to see the men in black on the right side once again.