Monday, November 30, 2015

Celestial Seasonings evicts Sleepytime bear

     "He's drunk!" my wife exclaimed, as we paused in the grocery's tea aisle to gaze in horror at the damage Celestial Seasonings has done to the packages of its popular herbal teas. "The bear's passed out, slumped against the jar of honey he's been guzzling."
      Brand extension has hit Celestial Seasonings.  The once-gently cluttered, brightly colored boxes are now awash in white space. On the shelf was one last familiar green box of "Sleepytime" tea, which I've been gulping after dinner for decades, and I pulled it over for comparison. There, the bear sat in his green chair, safe indoors, dozing before a crackling fire. A cat dozed too, a curved blue radio played, no doubt soft music.
    All gone. The bear is sleeping outside, a hobo bear.  He has been evicted, kicked out into the street, his chair and table too, set out on the curb, under the moon and stars.
    You can compare for yourself:
     I see why they did it. The new boxes are less cluttered, the word "Sleepytime" and the bear bigger, shorn of extraneous imagery. It is now "Classic Sleepytime" to differentiate from all the other brand extensions,  vanilla (bleh) and peach (double bleh) and honey (for those too busy to dip a spoon in actual honey and put it in the damn tea ourselves). 
    Celestial Seasonings must have known people would be dubious, because  "Fresh New Look" is flagged in red on the upper left of the box to tip you off that you aren't hallucinating, and aren't buying little paper baglets of chemicals, but the same blend of chamomile and spearmint, lemongrass and tilia flowers, blackberry leaves and orange blossoms that made up the herbal tea (but no actual tea, as my family learned when we toured the Celestial Seasonings plant in Boulder, for the simple reason there isn't any tea in it). 
    Except if you buy "Sleepytime Extra," which contains Valerian root, a folk sedative. A glimpse online shows all sorts of even more rococo Sleepytime permutations: Sleepytime Echniacea Complete Care and Sleepytime Decaf Berry Pomegranate and Sleepytime Sinus Soother. I suppose Sleepytime Bourbon is next. That's the idea behind brand extension: try to use a name you love to leverage you into buying something you don't want, plus a ploy to block out more shelf space at supermarkets.
      Sighing, we stocked up on a few of the old boxes. I floated the idea of keeping them, and just refilling from the new, blanker boxes.
     "That seems like work," my wife said, dubiously.
      Or tins, I persisted. I seem to remember Sleepytime tins. I could root around online....
      Or maybe, I realized grimly, it is time to look for a new evening tea.  To be honest, the spell is broken. I buy cans of expensive loose Twinings Earl Grey tea and not some cheaper Earl Grey because I'm confident that the stuff is what I've always been drinking, and if they dubbed it EG Classic and made the box neon blue, to not be confused with EG Proustian Lime and EG Morning Blast or whatever, I would be off put. Tea is a comfort beverage—you don't amp yourself up on tea and then hit the town—and a comfort beverage should be comforting.
     Maybe that's just me. Maybe I'm not a typical consumer. I have a certain loyalty -- Heinz ketchup not Hunts, Ritz crackers, not whatever pale rip-off imitation the store is trying to fob off on you.  It's fine to shake it up, sell Ritz's in odd holiday shapes. As long as the old standby is still readily available.
    Brand extensions must work on others, because companies push them enough. One aisle over from the revolution in tealand, I looked for Wheat Chex. When I was growing up, Chex came in three varieties: Wheat, Corn and Rice, the wheat in smaller boxes, because it is denser, more concentrated than Rice or Corn. But eventually I stopped buying the latter two because they just aren't as good. I almost never eat breakfast cereal: it's really fattening and leaves you hungry. And a generous bowl of Wheat Chex and skim milk tops out at about 500 calories, more than a jumbo donut. But still...sometimes you've just gotta have it.
    As I gazed over the profusion of Chexes (that sounds wrong; "Chex" must be both singular and plural, like "fish") I realized, to my horror, that they had chocolate and vanilla, cinnamon and clusters, even something called "Honey Nut." Everything but Wheat.
     Maybe that's what goes in the empty space on the lower shelf.
      Yes, I realize the carnival of indignity that is aging,  that the world is not skewed in your direction anymore and the stuff you care about is revealed as irrelevant idiocy. To marketers, we 55 and older might as well be dead, except for a nether world of adult undergarments and denture creams and such. Companies have to evolve to stay in business.  Someday there will be Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Pot Brew and 30 other sub-varieties and I'll point out that it used to be just one, plain old Sleepytime tea, to my grandchildren who will shrug. "Whatever gramps," they'll say, not even looking up from their electronic devices, taking all their nutrition in the form of a thick beige liquid sucked from a catheter tube. 
      These changes are a double minor shock: first you feel bad that they happened, then you feel even worse for feeling bad they happened, for being that small and nostalgic a person. And for me, I guess, a triple shock, because I also feel bad that I bothered to tell you about it. To be frank, I'm sorry I brought it up.

     Editor's note: Six months after this post, Celestial Seasonings announced it was returning to the old box. While I would never be so brash as to suggest those two events are somehow connected, cause and effect, I like to think I was part of the chorus of complaint that prompted the company to reverse its folly. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

No classes Monday

     Erring on the side of caution usually has good connotations. 
     Buying some extra insurance.
     Tucking a flashlight in the glove compartment.
     But college campuses, which magnify and concentrate our social flaws, have made caution a sickness, with their trigger alerts and manifestos of victimhood. They seem to think their job is to prepare the real world for students, and not the other way around. 
    So the FBI notices an online threat directed at the University of Chicago, informs the school, and in response the entire place shuts down Monday as a result. Classes canceled, students urged to stay indoors and, oh I don't know, cower. 
     Have we lost our minds? 
     Does the FBI have any idea how easy it is to post those online threats? How closing the school is the kind of wild overreaction that inspires mopes to do this kind of thing in the first place, and responding in such an extreme way only invites more threats?  We don't pay ransoms to terrorists holding American hostages overseas, even at the cost of their lives, because we know that doing so only makes the situation worse. Yet one of the world's great intellectual institutions grinds to a halt tomorrow because somebody typed something mean? 
   Maybe there's more here than meets the eye. Maybe the FBI has some intelligence about a real danger, as opposed to some random threat. If so, they didn't mention that. 
    So much for safe spaces. For a cynical society, we can be shockingly naive.  The New York Times Magazine ran a story Sunday about "swatting," the practice of online pranksters sending SWAT teams crashing in on the unsuspecting. It's jaw-droppingly easy, and an indictment of our reactive, militarized police force that some disturbed teenager in Vancouver could dispatch armies of cops across the country at his whim. It's so easy to do, you can barely blame the juvenile, and law enforcement was slow to respond -- to him, not when sending in the heavy artillery—until he had done it dozens of times. 
     We live in a dangerous time, but then we always have, one way or another. The question always is, what do we do about it? Do we give in to fear? Or do we resist? Do we go about our business despite the risks? The adults need to show more discretion. We need cooler heads that will understand that crouching in fear doesn't solve anything.  If a person actually intended to shoot up the campus Monday, they wouldn't warn the students away. When does that ever happen? Such threats are the empty acts of brainlessness or unbalance. Which also explains the University of Chicago's reaction. 

The goddamn birds singing

     The New York Times served up a front page story Saturday  "Foul-Mouthed And Proud of It On the '16 Trail," about how the herd of Republican presidential candidates are swearing far more than has ever been previously heard in public from those who would occupy the White House.
    The words that shocked us when Nixon muttered them on transcripts of the White House tapes more than 40 years ago are now being blithely tossed out to crowds that cheer instead of gasp.
     Not that the Times said that. Or quoted any of the actual words being used by these candidates. Not directly. Campaigning may have changed, but journalism has not, alas, not enough, and being what is still called "a family newspaper" by the few who refer to newspapers at all, the Times did not reproduce the words and phrases it was writing about, falling back on a variety of stale euphemisms and twee winks. Thus Rand Paul calling any trade-off between liberty and security "bullshit" was rendered strangely as "'bull' before adding a syllable" and Mario Rubio called something "'political B.S. without the abbreviation."   The article vaguely referred to "four-letter words," "dirty words," "provocative remarks" and my favorite, "saltiness." 
     Let me guess. When you read "bullshit" in the paragraph above, your hands did not fly to your cheeks as you uttered a tiny, "Oh my!" People who get worked up over obscenity, I have found, tend to be residents of small towns, blinking at the larger world as if they've never seen it before. A lot of stuff upsets them.
     Odd to cater to isolated small-town naifs as your target audience. Only a few weeks ago, the Times felt justified including a chunky virtual reality viewing device with the Sunday paper. Given that expensive and probably fruitless effort, you'd think that expanding their permitted vocabularies to include a few common words most adults hear and utter every day, in conversation and on-line, would be a no-brainer. 
     But like network television, newspapers linger in the fading past, allowing themselves to be held prisoner by a tiny coterie of complainers.
    The Times speculates as to why so many curse words are being heard. Aping Donald Trump for starters — though no obscene word could touch the obscenity of the thoughts being expressed, which are also parroted widely. Or perhaps "a play for machismo ... a signal of vitality, rawness, a willingness to break through the din."
     I think that last reason was why I named this blog "Every goddamn day" — to stick out from the clutter while expressing a sense of who I am and what it is this thing is supposed to do. 
    When the blog was in its early days I got the occasional complaint. Now the only difficulty is self-generated, in conversation, through an excess of politeness. I sometimes find myself blushing to actually utter it -- I was talking Saturday with a bright young member of a Baptist church, preparing an apartment in West Rogers Park for some Burmese refugees arriving later in the week. We were talking about the national mood regarding refugees, and I suggested she read a certain column I had written on the topic, and since the Sun-Times web site is so, ah, problematic, I said she could look it up on my personal blog, "Every ... er... every gah..." and then gently explained the whole genesis of the name. She smiled and seemed to understand—the young are not as easily rattled as we older folks sometimes suspect.
      To be honest, as much as I value the right to use more risque words, where appropriate, I would feel a bit threatened if they fell into wide use and general acceptability, because that would rob them of their surprise and power. When every candidate for comptroller is promising to wipe away the bullshit, when every toddler is shrieking "fuh you, Billy!" as they wrestle over a sippy cup, then David Mamet plays will lose a little of their oomph, and my darts will be blunted.

      The great William Safire, once the Times' resident wordsmith, now sunk in obscurity, includes an entry on  "God damn" in his 1980 "On Language." After slyly bragging that Frank Sinatra insulted him, quoting the singer telling the UPI, "William Safire is a goddamn liar," Safire mourns the merging of the two words into one and, idiosyncratically, decries the final "n" on "damn," which he'd like to remove for two nonsensical reasons: "it's not pronounced anyway" and because, since nothing is being damned, it's more a "whoop of admiration or exasperation." 
    Yet he titles the entry, "God damn," a head-scratching example of a writer failing to adopt the practice even as he urges it upon others.
     Obviously no one listened to Safire, who was laboring under the illusion that star journalists often succumb to: that they're actually directing the river we're all being carried along in.
    The UPI, Safire mentions, urged "goddamn ... should not be used at all unless there is a compelling reason."
     I consider catching attention, projecting edginess, and shooing away the overly pious, all compelling reasons. I hope the Republican presidential candidates are not signaling a general approval of what the Times would call "potty talk," and that their electoral defeat will reverse the trend they started, assuming they've started a trend, and don't exist in some separate cultural hell reserves for candidates.  The politicians can have "bullshit"—it suits them—but I hope they'll leave "goddamn," with its mix of wonder and grumpiness, to me.
    "Lord, thank you," Thomas Lux once ended a poem, gloriously, "for the goddamn birds singing!" Exactly. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Big moose

     I can't honestly say I miss the Saturday Fun Activity—for any newcomers, a perennial contest where I try to stump readers with a photo of an enigmatic location, inevitably fail and then have to send somebody a prize. But when I saw this enormous painting my first thought was: Wow, that would be a fun Fun Activity.
  Except of course for the Internet, where plugging "Big Chicago moose blowing bubble painting" into Google leads you, immediately, to discover that this is Moose Bubblegum Bubble, a work from the "We Are Animals" series by Chicago photo-illustrator Jacob Watts. The image won an artistic competition last year, and is on display on a wall at Columbia College, 33 E. Congress. 
    At which point I was going to shrug and do something else. But then I realized that the gigantic moose is in itself interesting, if you haven't seen it before, which I hadn't. No contest necessary.  It is an example of the rare piece of public art that I actually like, which sets Jacob Watts apart from such artists as Jean Dubuffet and Alexander Calder. The thing has whimsy, and there just isn't enough whimsy to go around, particularly not of late. Self-importance we've got up the ying-yang, and the aforementioned Dubuffet and Calder have cornered the market on twee lumpish pointlessness. But surprise, charm, and I suppose a certain placidity? That deserves note. The moose is not an especially placid animal compared to, say, a cow. Perhaps that's a result of the big pink bubble. Anyway, if you haven't seen it before, now you have.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

We fail ourselves every day


     The state of Illinois is cracked. Our government is broken and no one can fix it. Our leaders bicker and squabble and waste day after day after day. We can't approve a budget, never mind balance one. The figures are astronomical: Illinois has a public worker pension obligation of $111 billion dollars.
     That's equal to the gross national product of Morocco. 
     The politicians are rigid, unyielding. Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan are twin bookends: grim, rigid, lipless men, holding firm while the state slides further and further to hell. Rahm Emanuel seems increasingly irrelevant, like the form of a man far away in the distance, silhouetted against the horizon. But you can't blame them because they've had so much help, from all the politicians in the past.  They signed a check we couldn't cash, then skedaddled.  And we let them.
      The problem is so complex, so enormous, spanning decades, billions of dollars, thousands of employees. Often the mind just wants to reject it. There's no point in keeping track because nothing happens anyway. It just somehow keeps getting worse and worse. The more they try to fill the hole, the deeper it becomes. It's a puzzle, a conundrum; who can make sense of it?
    And then suddenly the whole problem presents itself in front of you in a clear and unmistakeable fashion.
     I was waiting for my wife to get off work at the Attorney General's office one Friday late last month, standing in front of the Thompson Center, Helmut Jahn's elephantine salmon and baby blue monstrosity, which the state is in the process of selling off because, as I mentioned, we're broke. 
     And as I stood waiting — she takes her work very seriously, and would no sooner leave before 5 p.m. than she would steal reams of copy paper — I glanced down, at the tableau below. The stone slabs in front of the building had cracked, no doubt from shoddy construction and years of neglect, and someone had slapped a strip of silver duct tape over a crack.
     You can see how well that worked.
     I had noticed duct tape used in the building before—in the governor's office, embarrassingly. Visitors to the governor of Illinois find themselves in a waiting room where the threadbare, 40 year old carpet is ripped and patched with duct tape.
     That's bad, but this repair out front on the public sidewalk was worse, because at least the duct tape on the thin carpets worked. Some state employee — or perhaps one of the contract employees we hired to do what we can no longer do — saw the crack and thought, "Better slap some duct tape on that one." A half-assed half measure that didn't half work. An oozing bandage poorly applied over our gaping civic wound.
     Isn't that the story of the state of Illinois? How can we be afraid of terrorists striking us when we so effectively strike at ourselves? Our creaky government entities collapsing around us, our public roads crumbling, our bridges coming down on our heads. Where was the pride of the guy in a blue coveralls kneeling down and yanking off a strip of duct tape, perhaps nipping it with his teeth before he tore off a strip, pressing it down upon the stone? Where is the pride of we who pass it? Illinois is a laughingstock, the sick man of the United States, on the bottom of the pile. How could we allow it? How can we? We plan meticulously to face disasters that may never come, while our own self-created disaster gets worse and worse, swelling before our eyes in broad daylight. We keep not doing what we have to do, fighting over who gets a bigger slice of a pie that's crumbling away into nothing. Our leaders fail us, but then that's apt, because we fail ourselves, eyes wide open, every hour of every day.  

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Give thanks not to be afraid

Photo by Sebastian Farmborough

     Happy Thanksgiving, but since I covered the holiday three different ways last year, I hope you'll forgive me if today we offer different, though still nutritious fare, for those who might have had their fill of turkey, stuffing, and the whole gluttonous carnival. 
     It's probably bush league of me, but I sometimes look to see who is following me on Twitter. Tuesday I noticed the addition of an English photographer, Sebastian Farmborough, and asked him if I could reproduce the above photo here, and he graciously agreed.
    The picture made me think of a column that ran five years ago in the Sun-Times, a reminder that pre-Paris, we were still trying to sort through our conflicted emotions about the emergence of Islam, and the idea of accepting people who look and think differently than ourselves. I believe it's even more relevant now than it was then, unfortunately. 
    And if you just HAVE to read something about Thanksgiving, well, here, and here and here.  Been there, done that.

     Fear is the emotion underlying everything. A primary instinct we share with animals -- I pad outside to retrieve the morning newspapers and catch a bunny unaware. He freezes, tracking me anxiously, then rockets away, his little heart hammering. I pick up the papers, smiling, because of course I mean him no harm. For a bunny, there is no downside to automatically fleeing humans -- much unnecessary leaping, perhaps. It is a survival mechanism, but so is my not being afraid of what doesn't pose a threat, the skill that allowed humans to slowly develop beyond isolated tribes, to work together and build this complex world of wonder we now enjoy. There are no wonders of the rabbit world besides underground burrows. But that's it.

                                                                    - - -

     My wife and I attended the 6th annual fund-raising dinner earlier this month for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group dedicated to thwarting the baseless fear that so rattled my rabbit friend. "I'm going to wear the long dress I wear to Hassidic weddings," my wife said beforehand, without irony. I said that sounded like a good idea.
     Some 1,500 guests attended the CAIR dinner, at the Drury Lane in Oak Brook. An older gentleman named Feteh Riyal -- a muezzin -- gave the call to prayer, eyes closed, hands pressed flat against the sides of his face, emitting long, plaintive tones I had never heard before. They were haunting, beautiful. The keynote speaker was Professor Tariq Ramadan, who had been banned from the United States for six years under George W. Bush's security state.
     I brought along a tape recorder "in case he said anything incendiary." But the speech centered on the moral duties of a Muslim to be an active part of the community and do good works. That didn't seem like news.
     To me, the most noteworthy moment came before the doors were opened. A hundred people were waiting -- men in suits, women in headscarves. Two couples walked up -- college boys in dark suits and their dates, a pair of gals packed into tiny black dresses. The girls looked almost naked among the colorful veils and modest leggings, and seemed to be constantly trying to tug their dresses over themselves.
     "I knew Islam was a big tent," I whispered to my wife. "But I didn't think it was that big a tent."
     Turns out the college couples were in the wrong place, here for a Sigma Chi dance in the ballroom next door. It's funny how the power of a majority works, because the Sigma Chi couples were suddenly the ones out of place, swimming against the cultural mainstream, and for the first time I grasped the perspective of women who dress in the modest Islamic manner and maintain that it is themselves who are the liberated ones.
     But that was subtle and not something I felt obligated to pass along to you. The next day, I began reading my e-mail, as I always do. But now the usual garbage seemed different, worse.

                                                                   - - -

     The e-mail was headed "Muslim Belief" and began, "This is a true story and the author, Rick Mathes, is a well-known leader in prison ministry."
     It describes how Mathes attended a training session at a state prison. A Muslim cleric outlines his beliefs, and Mathes challenges him. Isn't it true that "most Imams and clerics of Islam have declared a Holy war against the infidels of the world"?
     The imam admits it is.
     "Let me make sure I have this straight," Mathes continues. "All followers of Allah have been commanded to kill everyone who is not of your faith so they can have a place in heaven. Is that correct?"
     "He sheepishly replied, 'Yes.' "
     The story stank of fabrication, and a check of the debunking sign shows it's pure falsity -- the only true part is that Mathes wrote it.
     It's a lie. No such exchange took place. Yet the story has been circulating widely on the Internet for seven years.

                                                                - - -

    Tariq Ramadan spoke for 45 minutes and said, basically, that being a good Muslim means living in harmony with your neighbors and in doing good.
     "Spread peace," he said. "You are a people of peace. People of peace are going to face rejection and war, but this is not our objective. Our objective is peace. Any Muslim who tells you that you cannot love your neighbor, you have to say, 'You need to have a better understanding of Islam.' We are people who are spreading around a dignified way of life. . . . You are at home in this country. This is your home. The American people are your people. And anyone in a mosque who speaks of Americans as 'them' and not 'us' is the starting point of a problem."

                                                               - - -

     Why do Westerners succumb to anti-Muslim fear? It's a natural reflex -- certainly what terrorists expect when they claim their acts are in the name of Islam. They want to drive a wedge between the cultures, lest a harmonious blending undercut their extremism and deprive them of the enemy they crave. It's a partnership, the terrorists and the fear-mongers, working in harmony and tacit agreement.
     Actually, fear isn't the underlying instinct. Ignorance is. Fear is often ignorance in action. Rabbits are not smart animals, and so quick reflexes pass for philosophy. We humans are supposed to be brighter than that. I only wish you could have gone to the CAIR dinner with me and seen -- no offense -- the parade of unremarkable American normality that I saw; pleasant, concerned, decent people sharing a meal, albeit with a few more veils and skullcaps than are considered usual here at the moment. It will become much more common, and if that frightens you, you are being startled for no reason.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 19, 2010

    The photo atop the blog, "An Emerging Mystery," was taken by Sebastian Farmborough, an English photographer living in Dubai, who is chronicling the surprise and beauty of the Muslim world. You can learn more about him and his work here. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving incident at Trader Joe's

     My younger son came home from college Tuesday night, so Wednesday morning we go to Trader Joe's, to stock up on all the good stuff he likes, Cookie Butter and almond milk and protein bars  and what have you. As we're leaving, and being rung up by the cashier, the guy asks, "Lots of people for Thanksgiving?" and I say, "No, not really, 16," to which he replies, "Do you want to make it 17?" and looks at me meaningfully, a proposition which throws me, a little, at first, but I recover, and say, "Why, do you want to come?" Fairly naturally, as if I invite the clerk at Trader Joe's to my family holiday events all the time. And he takes a step back, and kind of waves it off, like it's a joke, perhaps saying words to that effect, I can't recall, only it's an odd joke, and I look at him, and he looks at me, neither of us saying anything, then I glance over at the line behind me, which suddenly seems considerable, and shifts, in a way I interpret as impatience.  So I grab my bag of groceries and flee, wishing him a Happy Thanksgiving over my shoulder, but also feeling like I am turning my back on him somehow.  Because how happy could it be if he has nowhere to go?
     In the parking lot I pause, and ask my son if perhaps the clerk really needs a place for Thanksgiving and perhaps we should just go back in and invite him over to our place, formally and sincerely, and which my boy rejects as just weird. "I'm a nice guy," I say, by way of explanation, or perhaps defensively, just to reassure myself, having just snubbed this poor fellow, which is not very nice at all, but even as I say it, I imagine telling my wife, "Hey honey, guess what? The cashier at Trader Joe's will be joining us for Thanksgiving—strange I know, but, hey, it seemed the thing to do and I hope you'll welcome him," and picture the cashier, still in his name tag, mingling with the family, awkwardly explaining himself, all the relatives who are tossing me confused inquiring looks, and that thought prompted me to the car though even as I drive away I am thinking that this is a lapse on my part, that I should have insisted the cashier come over for Thanksgiving, there would be plenty of food and he would be welcome and really isn't that what the holiday's all about?

Let's make the best out of that video!

     Rahm Emanuel began his first inaugural address, that long ago cloudless day in May 2011, by talking about the need to improve the schools, then quickly shifted to the violence plaguing the children attending those schools.
     "We must make our streets safer," he said, citing a grim toll that "shames the living" and "should prod all of us" to find ways to stem the bloodshed. He offered, as hope to the city, his new police superintendent, Garry McCarthy.
     "Our new police chief understands this," Emanuel said. "He is the right man at the right time for the right job."
     Now, four years later, the city is transfixed by the specter of police, who work for that right man at the right time, not as the solution to the slaughter of the city's children but as a cause of it.
     On Tuesday, Jason Van Dyke, 37, became the first police officer in 34 years to be charged with first-degree murder for a killing committed during the execution of his duties. He was charged with firing 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014, an act captured on the dashboard camera, a "graphic...violent...chilling" video, in the words of Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, bringing the charges just before the video is to be released. "This video will tear at the heart of all Chicagoans."
     Emanuel described the video as "hideous" without even seeing it, and tried to turn its release into a carnival of spin, hype and, ludicrously, hope, no doubt under his "let no crisis go wasted" philosophy. I couldn't be the only viewer watching the mayor tap dance Tuesday evening and think: "Just shut up already and release the video." Emanuel was trying to soften the blow, not to us, but to him. This makes him look bad or, rather, worse. Murders were up already — this September had 60 murders, making killings up 21 percent over the year before. Now, with the city reeling in horror, violence in Chicago is becoming the third leg in the tripod of Rahm's failure as a mayor, growing into stark relief in his second and almost certainly final term: inability to solve the pension crisis, the broken and deteriorating schools, and bloodshed that not only shatters families here but stains the city's reputation worldwide.
     Will the video spark riots that further besmirch Rahm's Chicago? Or just be an anti-climax after all that build-up? To say riots are coming could be the racism of low expectations. If African-American sections of Chicago rioted every time a cop did something wrong, it's all they'd ever do. Nobody rioted after a judge waved police officer Dante Servin out of a courtroom last April, explaining that he couldn't be found guilty of reckless conduct in shooting a 22-year-old unarmed woman, Rekia Boyd, in the back of the head, because he shot intentionally into the crowd where she was.
     People tend to do what's expected of them, and expecting unrest can be seen as a kind of permission, a loosening of standards. A number of community leaders sure sounded like they were already apologizing, already permitting. That's the reason sports championships often unleash violent mob behavior. People should be rejoicing, yet some see the victory as a suspension of the usual rules, a chance to act out however they please. It isn't just a poor black thing: after one Bulls championship, I watched a gang of white suburbanites turn over a cab on Rush Street. They did it a) because the cab was there and b) because the cops didn't try to stop them.
     Which brings up another factor possibly encouraging unrest. The charges being brought when they were is extraordinary timing, and it's hard not to view it as Alvarez's ham-handed attempt to quell trouble by throwing a cop under the bus. Though it might just as easily cause further violence. Because cops hate to see one of their brethren punished for anything, and typically respond with a collective sulk, pulling back and refusing to do their jobs out of the notion that nobody has their backs. "If every guy who makes a bad judgment call is charged with murder then why should we stick our necks out?" Small disturbances have a way of turning into big ones and if there is trouble, it won't be surprising if sluggish police activity is also a contributing factor. Afterward, we'll all pretend it was a surprise.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Length does matter

    My sentences can be very long.
    Well, not that one. Or the one after. Or ... oh hell, sometimes I can be cruising along, whipping in clauses and asides like a soda jerk piling hillocks of whipped cream and sprays of chopped nuts on a hot fudge sundae, and before I know it the short, simple sentence I wanted to craft—indeed, tried to craft, and would have crafted, had I been thinking—is lost and I'm snaking my way through some serpentine thought where even I've lost track of what it is I'm saying, or at least trying to say, and I wrote the damn thing, or, worse, am in the process of writing it and somehow can't stop because I'm afraid of placing that period and having to go back and see what I've done and make sense out of it.
     Must be from reading all that Proust as a young man, and Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace. Proust has a 900 word sentence in "Remembrance of Things Past." I'd repeat it here, but you'd never read it—I sure couldn't—so what would be the point? Which is the problem with long sentences. The mind drifts. The meaning is lost. Better. To. Break. Them. Up.

     Here's where a guy needs editor. When my fine editor at the paper, Bill, makes the weary walk to my office, half the time it's to suggest breaking up lengthy sentences into smaller, more digestible parts, and I invariably do. Here on the blog I'm on my own, except of course for readers who gamely point out errors, or what they think are errors, or at least raise the idea of errors without actually saying what they mean, which is maddening. But I try to notice when I'm period deficient, and keep it snappy.
     Even though I am guilty of the practice, frequently, I can still whistle through my teeth in derision seeing someone else do it. No flaws irk as much as flaws you yourself possess. I was reading about an upcoming trade show in Tokyo—don't ask why, I might have to go—and came across this description:

81st Tokyo International Gift Show ThemeTheme: Success Through Globalisation-model Manufacturing
Seriously considering, for the sake of the livelihoods and happiness of the people of our country and friendly overseas nations and territories beyond our borders, what kind of goods and amenities, after all, would be useful to them, and how those goods and amenities can be made desirable, devising in a space of free creative study solutions to problems, rather than being carried away by the quality optimization and safety of cutting-edge new technology.
      Wow, right? You would think any business entity producing some kind of international show and purporting to offer some thought in English would track down a native English speaker to render that into the vernacular. Tokyo must have its share.
     Then again, considering how many native English speakers are guilty of the same thing, I don't suppose we can fault the Japanese too much.
     In closing, knowing a challenge when I see one, I thought I should translate the 81st Tokyo International Gift Show's endless and almost incomprehensible blurb into graspable terms. What they're saying is: We're offering a space where people from Japan and abroad can come together and learn how to better sell stuff.
     I think that about covers it.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Decoding "Radical Islam"

     The danger that black gangs pose in Chicago is sadly familiar, as the murderous violence these black gangs commit shocks the city, but only momentarily, as the deaths caused by black gangs are forgotten and we move on to matters unrelated to black gang violence.
     Anything pop out of the above paragraph? Anything wrong with it? It's entirely true, but something jars, or should: my use of the word "black." The media doesn't describe the gangs on the South and West Sides as "black gangs" even though they certainly are, for a variety of good reasons, but primarily because it's irrelevant. Yes, the violence is an offshoot of African-American urban society, but so is the NBA, and violence is no more intrinsic to blackness than murdering people in Paris is intrinsic to the Germans.
     Did you think I was going to say Muslims? Sure, it's their turn, now, but laying the latest spasm of terror at the feet of Islam is as disingenuous a ploy as laying violence to black people, collectively, or to Germans. It's just a another slur clutched at by haters, with the cowardly escape clause that bigots use to try to shuck responsibility.
     This flies by many Republicans, who draw a line in the sand at Democrats' laudable, almost courageous refusal to indulge in their anti-Islam fear-mongering. Last week the Sun-Times published an op-ed, "Democratic candidates clueless even after carnage in Paris," decrying comments made at the most recent Democratic presidential debate, chiding Hillary Clinton for refusing to bind terror to Islam, as well as Bernie Sanders for steadfastly insisting that climate change is a far more deadly threat, which it is, as the next tsunami to wash away 100,000 people will remind us, and Martin O'Malley insisting that we continue to accept Syrian refugees despite the desires of ISIS.
     "The words spoken at Saturday night's debate will reverberate through the presidential campaign," the op-ed predicted.
     Let's hope so. Because panic ebbs, eventually, while truth abides.
     I began my career in advertising. And I learned that the direct route is not always the best in delivering a message, particularly one of dubious morality.
     Take the alcohol industry's oft-repeated, "Drink Responsibly." That's genius, because they realized that "Drink, damn you!" would draw criticism, So "Responsibly" is tagged on at the end in an attempt to obscure the important part: "Drink."
     With "Radical Islam," the opening word is the smokescreen. "Radical" is wrong, when you think about it. Being "radical" means hectoring your parents about Marx at Thanksgiving. Calling those who storm theaters and murder people "radical" is pallid, like calling those who blow themselves up in coffee shops "militants."
     But like "Responsibly," the word conceals. It's "Islam" that's the true message, the real reason Republicans make such a stink about it. The right side of our political spectrum is devoted to marrying Islam to terror, Which makes them on the same team as ISIS, because that's precisely why they commit these acts. Western culture is a big, warm, inclusive blob that absorbs and alters everything. Joan of Arc rides in, clad in armor, her eyes aglitter with passion for the Lord, and 500 years later, Miley Cyrus swings out, straddling a wrecking ball in her underwear. ISIS wants to separate Islam from the West, so men like them can be in charge forever and women never get to drive or sing. Thus they strike at the West in nihilistic acts of terror, counting on the Bruce Rauners of our nation to leap up and shout, "Golly, do we really want all these Syrians here?"
     Yes, yes we do. Because the way to manufacture patriotic Americans is by letting their grandparents into the country after their homelands go to hell. My grandfather, Irwin Bramson, didn't end up in a trench in Poland because a relative, Ira Saks, plucked him at age 15 out of the jaws of doom. So my mother, June, got to be born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1936, and not in Bialystok, Poland, where she'd end up another 5-year-old butchered by her neighbors.
     So yeah, I love America. Even though last week the House of Representatives passed a bill trying to choke off the trickle of Syrian refugees. I never saw Congress act so fast. What's the Warren Zevon song? "You're a whole different person when you're scared." The United States is a whole different country when it's scared. I barely recognize it, and can't wait until we recover our true selves. Because this isn't us.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Fear is easy; action is difficult

    Man, finding a place for Syrian immigrants to live is hard.
    A lot of readers challenged me last week with versions of Ken Racine's, "Too bad the 'refugees' won't be put in Northbrook," or sneeringly asking how I would feel if they were, to which I replied with some version of,
 "Great, I would feel great, a whole lot better than if I found myself living next to you.
     Looking up from these conversations, I  would gaze through the window of my home office. At the lovely, vaguely Dutch brick house kitty corner across First Street. Which is for rent. 
     Yes, it backs up against the train tracks. And yes, the basement floods with sewage —I've seen various residents drying their belongings. But it's got to be better than a tent city in Croatia. And Gov. Rauner's wishes to the contrary, this is still the United States of America, right? Once somebody gets into the country, they can live wherever they please. 
    Why not, I thought, smiling, invite some refugees to live here?  Why not put them up in the big honking house across the street?
    First I had to get through to the realtor and find out the particulars, the rent and such. The cheery red, white and blue RE/MAX sign had a name and two phone numbers.     
     I phone the top number. "Hold please," says a women. After a few minutes, I figure, "Try the cell.'" That immediately dumps to a message: the mailbox is full. 
    It'll take persistence to solve the refugee crisis. A third call to RE/MAX. "Hold please." A few more minutes. I ask for the realtor on the sign. And get transferred to the cell phone number that isn't taking messages.
   I take a break from phoning and entertain myself by reading more emails.
     "Do you understand how horrific these people are ??" writes Paul Vitaioli , a retired cop, referring, I think, not to real estate professionals, but to refugees. "You feel safe where you live? Do you have a family and young children? Or grandchildren?"
     He guesses my beliefs that America is a bastion of freedom which has always attracted the downtrodden of the world will crumble at a touch, like his.
    "Sit behind your comfortable desk and write about it," he scoffs. "When terror strikes the Midwest, then tell me your thoughts.... "
    "When terror strikes..."? I'd say terror is already here, inspiring a big old American panic. Odd; usually our panics are sexual. At least we're shaking it up, with good old fashioned fear for our safety. I've never heard from so many terrified Americans as I have in the past week. Begging the feds to tap our phones, read our emails, toss any freedom out the window if it dials back their fear.  And for God's sake, close the borders, keep the menace out, at least until some imaginary vetting process where the soul of each would-be immigrant is x-rayed by the FBI and certified 100 percent pure, like beef. A version of the first-we-secure-the-border gambit already so popular when discussing immigration, the Republican half clever strategy of demanding something impossible as a precondition for doing what is absolutely necessary. 
     Okay, enough of that. Back into the fray. Fourth time, I think, is the charm. I phone RE/MAX, don't ask for the realtor, Instead say I'm interested in renting the property on First Street. The whiff of business will snap them to action. I'll mention the Syrian refugees later. She puts me on hold, tries the number, confirms it isn't working.
     "His phone is shut off," she says. "He doesn't have a voice mail."
     And I bet this guy wonders why business is slow.
    Eventually, I convince the receptionist at RE/MAX to take my name and number — she's obviously reluctant, as if she knows nothing will come of it, which, indeed, nothing does. 
     Okay, there are other rental properties in Northbrook. Now what? The next step — probably what I should have started with all along — would be to contact whatever placement agency handles these refugee placements and see what their needs are. I can't be the only person who wants to help desperate refugees instead of throwing stumbling blocks in front of them. Then I'll be closer to finding out whether I was right guessing that any random refugee family would make a better neighbor than someone culled from the terrified herd of false Americans who have been bleating with self-concern all week. 
     I plug "Agency dealing with Syrian refugees Chicago" into Google and up pops something called RefugeeOne. So I phone them. And email. On Thursday. And again on Friday.
     Nothing. Hmmm. They're probably very busy ... ah ... helping people. I'll return to the battle on Monday, and keep you posted as to what, if anything, results. Fear is too easy, and doing anything constructive is hard. Maybe too hard.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

"They are essentially parasites"

     I try to answer readers when they write. First, because it's the polite thing to do. Second, because it draws them into my oeuvre, creates loyalty, and encourages them to keep reading and third, and probably most important, in replying I form thoughts and turns of phrase that prove useful later on.
     I thought Mr. Gray's email, below, received Friday, presented a common enough perception that it is worth sharing. I'm not sure how completely I refuted him -- I know you can find examples I overlooked -- though I was pleased enough with it that I thought I'd repost it here.

Dear Mr. Steinberg:
     It is gratifying to know that we have some citizens, like yourself, who are idealistic, caring, & compassionate even though some of us think those attributes are misguided.
     Please don't equate the Muslims with the Jewish segments of society. Although Jews have endured harsh antisemitism, they continued contributing to society wherever they settled. 

     My uncles, George & Issac Adler, never accepted hand-outs or government largess. They, and their forefathers, were contributors & their values and culture were synonymous with those of society.
     Enlighten me if you will. Can you identify any Muslim contributions to the Arts, Literature, Humanities, or Science. Be they Syrians, Egyptians, Palestinians, etc., in my opinion, they are essentially parasites who would have us living in tents or log cabins and stoning or decapitating violators of the Koran.
    Historically the Muslims have exhibited enmity towards non-Muslims. They slaughtered Essenes at  Hebron (Tarpat) and more recently Coptic Christians. Muhammad himself would declare a truce when losing a battle only to rearm and restart the conflict. Consider that so-called exemplary Muslim, the devious Yasser Arafat who wore his gun to the Nobel ceremony. Their are countless examples of Muslim hypocrisy and heinous behavior but let me end this diatribe by saying, "Just as their is no peace in the Middle East, their will be no peace in America when Muslims become a dominant part of our society."
     Of course, this problem could be resolved if what that pompous and pedantic buffoon, Bernie Sanders predicts: Solving and eliminating global warming will conquer the growth of terrorism.

Sincerely, Eugene D. Gray

And my reply:

Dear Mr. Gray:

     Sure. Enlightenment is my business. Well the Arts are easy enough—all you have to do is step into the Art Institute to see the exquisite calligraphy and illustration the Islamic world has created. Here is a link to the new gallery for Islamic art the museum has opened. 

     Literature, well, where to start? As a Dante fan, I know that Dante based a good part of his Inferno on Islamic eschatology. I assume you dismiss the old-school, 1001 Arabian Nights-type works, but you can't underestimate their influence on Western literature. The contemporary scene of course is rich -- I'm a particular fan of the Egyptian writer Andre Aciman*; I'd recommend his "Out of Egypt" if you are looking for a place to start. 
     I'm not sure what you mean by "Humanities" -- there is the organization CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, which works to combat the kind of ill-informed bigotry reflected in your email. But bigger picture, there is the Judeo-Christian tradition, which came entirely out of the Middle East. Not to forget Islam itself, which has 1.2 billion adherents who use it to live ethical lives and understand their world, the overwhelming majority of whom do not exhibit the kind of behavior you would use to indict them all. As for Science, well, there's algebra, itself an Arabic word, al jabr and other mathematical inventions—not recent, true, but of such supreme importance; they gave us our numerical system itself, remember, "Arabic numbers" —that we can give a pass to their recent retreat from the world's technological stage. Plus music, fashion, and don't forget food. 
     I imagine that none of these facts will change your thinking one iota, since you clearly seem to be a person who is not sifting facts and drawing conclusions, but rather have drawn your conclusions and are cherry-picking facts to back them up. But remember, it isn't because the reality is not out there, but because you refuse to see it, for reasons which I could hazard a guess at, but won't.
     Still, thanks for asking. I certainly benefited from answering your question; whether you will benefit too, well, that's your business.


* I don't know why I didn't think of this writing my reply, but Andre Aciman is Jewish; I knew that, having read the book, but I thought of him as Egyptian, a mistake the Egyptians perhaps would not make. Had I given this more thought, I'd have picked Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian existential novelist who most certainly is Muslim and who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2008, one of those small details that escaped Mr. Gray's attention. And no, Gray did not reply. I find that these people, when confronted, just hurry on, eager to find shiny surfaces that better reflect their fixed ideas.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Plenty of blame to go around

     Outrage is easy.
     You find something outrageous and react to it.
     And the video of Laquan McDonald, 17, being shot 16 times last year by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke is sure to cause outrage, or the city would not have struggled so mightily to keep it under wraps.
     Effort that, like so much the Rahm Emanuel administration has attempted lately, came to naught, when Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ordered Thursday that the video be made public by Nov. 25.
     Just in time for Thanksgiving.
     The shooting of McDonald happened Oct. 20, 2014, when the black teen, walking erratically along Pulaski Road, was confronted by police. They ordered him to stop, followed him briefly and then Van Dyke shot him. Sixteen times.
     Since then, the city has argued every angle: that it would impede the investigation. That the time was not "appropriate," to use Emanuel's weaselly word. That release of the video would endanger the policeman's life.
     Perhaps the few days before the video is released can be put to a good use, to give the public the chance to think a bit about what we're going to see.
     McDonald was not merely strolling along, minding his business. He had PCP in his system, and yes, he was holding a knife — neither capital crimes, last time I checked. He had, supposedly, slashed at a police cruiser's tires. Police said that he "lunged" at him, but it is a certainty, were that actually true, you would have seen the video long ago. Videos that exonerate the police don't impede investigations, apparently.
     Two thoughts, one that will make the video seem even worse, one that might mitigate it, a little.
     First, when you see the video, remember that McDonald is not just one teenager being executed for the crime of being black and failing to snap to police orders, but he represents a long chain of youths slain in similar fashion over the years and decades, Chicagoans whose death images were not taken by dashboard cameras, whose names never appeared in the paper. As bad as it is now, remember, nothing has changed except for cellphone technology being here to capture it. This is what the police do when they know they're being recorded. Imagine what it was like before.
     Second, while the video will no doubt spark outrage at the police, and rightly so, I would point out, quietly, there is blame to go around. Blame to the media, which historically downplayed the value of black lives and, it can be argued, still does, short of occasional bursts of hand wringing. Blame the mayor for trying to cover this up. Blame for Supt. Garry McCarthy for trotting out the same tired statistics, as if that were a defense. Blame for McDonald, a little, for taking the PCP — animal tranquilizer — that caused his erratic behavior that drew the cops and blunted his ability to respond to a situation where his life was at stake. The margin of error is far less for black teens than for teens in, oh, Wilmette, and while that shouldn't be, it nevertheless is, and McDonald, impaired, made it easier for the cop to shoot him. A kid who hadn't taken PCP might have made a different choice at that moment.
     Blame culture that helped put the drug into the 17-year-old's hands, and that reacts energetically to police officers killing young people, a relative rarity, but more mutedly to young people killing each other, a much larger problem, because it is easier to be aggrieved than responsible.
     That might sound harsh. But we have video of Laquan McDonald's shooting because police are required to have dashboard cameras. Nobody took a video of the execution of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee. That would shock, too. And the bulk of young black people shot in Chicago are shot, off camera, by other young black people. No one takes videos of that, but I bet those would be hard to see, too. By focusing outrage on the cops, people reacting to a fluke of technology, channeling outrage that is certainly deserved, somewhat, but also belongs to the entire gang culture and the society of silence and acceptance that surrounds and supports it. There's plenty of blame to go around.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Are Syrian refugees as dangerous as Ben Carson?

    So let's talk about risk.
    Is it a subject we approach cooly, rationally? 
    Or is it prone to fear, distortions, odd excesses and lapses?
    The easiest way to answer that is with this simple sentence:
    People are afraid to fly but not afraid to drive.
    Generally, that is. Fear of flying is common, and fear of driving rare. We sweat before flights and ponder the possibilities of doom. We hop in the car and go, sometimes buckling up, sometimes not.  
     Yet driving is far, far, far more dangerous than flying. The numbers break down differently, whether you use passenger miles or passenger hours. But driving is, roughly, 20 to 200 times more dangerous than flying. Every year 30,000 people die on the roads in the United States. While there are years, sometimes several years in a row, when no one dies at all in airplane accidents. 
     So we fear the safe activity, and don't fear the dangerous one.
    Why is that?
     We trust ourselves and doubt others. We are confident about driving because we are the people doing it, and of course we know what we're doing.
    While these pilots --really, who knows? A shifty lot.
     So here's the question:
     Is this the only place we see this — flying and driving?
     Look at the present moment of refugee hysteria in this country.
     Republican governors, candidates, and rank and file, whose entire worldview is based on fear, say that the risk of terrorists slipping in with immigrants, which might have been the case with one Parisian terrorist, or might not, is so great that the whole endeavor must be stopped.  Rather like a person who won't get on a plane. Because it could, possibly, crash.
    Meanwhile, those same people insist that guns be disseminated everywhere, with the minimum of oversight, regulation, law or even commonsense safety features. 
     Indiana rejects a Syrian family, sight unseen, on general principles. Who knows who they are?
     Meanwhile, the Republican front runner for president is retired surgeon Ben Carson, a man who had never held public office, who has no experience in international relations, who is so clueless he's desperately boning up on world events, even as he campaigns. It isn't his critics who say this; it's his staff, his advisers.  The story was on the front page of the New York Times Wednesday. The man isn't even bright enough to be embarrassed. 
     So really, which is a bigger threat? 
     Sure, a terrorist could slip in with Syrian refugees. Or one could become a terrorist, just as a native born American could become the next Timothy McVeigh. 
     But an inept president can kill far more Americans, and has. How many young soldiers died in George W. Bush's wars? Five thousand? Ten thousand? More? Yet Carson's sleepy murmurings send the GOP over the moon in rapture. While they cringe in fear at a bunch of exhausted moms and traumatized children. 
     It would look laughable, improbably in fiction. But it is not fiction. It is what is happening right now, in our country.  A great nation that prides itself on its clear-eyed view of the world.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Recorder of Deeds

     Chicago was born of deeds. Not deeds of heroism, necessarily, but deeds of land. Envious of the success New York State had with its Erie Canal, the founders of Chicago seized land from the Indians, divided it into plats then sold them off to raise money to dig a canal connecting the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers. Speculators bought the land, hoping to get rich, and did.
Karen Yarbrough, Recorder of Deeds
      Someone had to keep track of all those deeds. Thus the office of recorder of deeds is two years older than Chicago itself, the first taking office in 1831, and the 32nd person (and third woman) to hold that post, Karen Yarbrough, is having a celebration to mark her office's rich history, Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. The public is welcome to attend, as she dedicates a timeline her staff has researched and installed in the lobby, on the ground floor of the County Building, 118 N. Clark St.
     "I'm excited!" enthused Yarbrough, who is nothing if not enthusiastic. "Did I say I was excited? Do I seem excited?"
     Yes and yes.
     Why a timeline?
     "Why not?"she said. "Why not!" 
      The idea was spurred by the photos that the Cook County board has of its past presidents. 
     "When you go upstairs, they have pictures of all the county board presidents," said Yarbrough. "They don't really have anything there but their pictures. Just a bunch of old white men. Nothing wrong with old white men, we got 'em here. But we thought: 'Why don't we do this? I was going to put pictures up."
      The deputy recorder, John Mirkovic, challenged her to do better.
     "He said, 'What about some pictures that are germane to the county?" said Yarbrough. "What about some facts?" 
  So the timeline features famous pieces of property, like Frank Lloyd Wright's home in Oak Park and the Merchandise Mart, plus photos of various recorders such as Salomea Jaronowski, the first female recorder of deeds, appointed to the office in 1928, and Carol Moseley Braun, the future senator, and Sidney "The Fighting Viking" Olsen, who filled the post for nearly a quarter century, from 1960 to 1984. There was also various tidbits about the office, plus historical events such as, I was pleased to note, the merging of the Sun and the Times in 1948.
    The timeline was two years in the making, an attractive blue tableau emblazoned "THE HISTORY OF THE COOK COUNTY RECORDER OF DEEDS."
     Not that it was done purely for the public.
     "And what about the people who work here?" Yarbrough asked, of her 161 employees. "Do they really understand the importance of our office? Do they really understand  that there's a need for a recorder's office? These people all have a part to play here."
Left to right: Minnie Conner,, Marion Powell, Alma Dixon and Dorothy Warren
   As if to illustrate that, Yarbrough hustled off and returned a moment later, shepherding four veteran workers representing, collectively, 153 years of employment at the recorder's office.
   They indeed seemed to understand the importance of the office.  "I love it," said one.
   The history of the recorder's office is naturally too intricate to fully delineate here. The Chicago Fire was a landmark event; despite efforts to save 40 years' worth of deeds -- some where buried on the shore, some loaded onto a barge—records were lost. It seems, in all the confusion, no one could remember where the records were buried.
    "So in 1872, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Burnt Records Act which said that the records that he title companies had were valid," said Brian Cross, in charge of Veteran's Service and Property Fraud, who created the office's warm and welcoming Veteran's reception room, was instrumental in preparing the display.
   At the time, entries were made by hand, in elegant Palmer method cursive. 
   "When you look at this writing, it's just so beautiful," said Yarbrough.
      But technology intruded, and surprisingly early. A newspaper story from 1916 headlined "CAMERA TO OUST GIRLS IN OFFICE OF RECORDER" saying that cameras were being used to photograph deeds and mortgages, gradually replacing the 169 "girls" whose job it was to copy them by hand.
    The other existential crisis, Cross said, was the Great Chicago Flood of 1992.
   "This building has three sub-basements," he said. "We had a team of our employees, basically formed a line, with the help of volunteer firemen, to get all the tract books up to this level."  
   Now everything is digitized.
  "If something happened we'd be up and running wherever," said Cross. 
   "No carbon paper," said Yarbrough, and I said that was a good thing—otherwise she might have Toni Preckwinkle charging in to eliminate it.
     To give you an idea of just how thoroughly the history of office has been plunged, their materials include a citation tracing the idea of deeds back to the Bible. In Jeremiah 32,  verses 14 and 15, God orders the people to keep careful track of their real estate dealings:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.
     And so they have been.

1872 records incorporating a "Chicago Base Ball Association"