Thursday, December 31, 2015

Roll with it we shall

    2015 sort of blew, didn't it? Between Donald Trump and the Syrian refugees, Bruce Rauner shutting down Illinois and Chicago dripping blood. I can't put a good spin on it and wouldn't be so dumb as to try. 
   But it's over now. 
   And at least 2015's suckiness was limited to a city, state and national scale. Close to home, on the micro-local scale, all hums along. The boys thrive in college; work endures, the wife and I enjoy our frequently empty nest. We have much to be grateful for and are, every day.    
     Though it can be hard to be content with our own little garden when the clouds gather and half the country seems to have lost its mind, in harmony with 3/4 of the world.  Not only did 2015 blow, but the prospects for a non-sucky 2016 don't seem so hot either.
    Which leaves us with ... what? Hope, I guess. Hope is the last coin in your pocket when you've spent everything else. Hope is faith when belief has drained away and you figure things have got to get better because the thought of them getting worse is just unimaginable.
     Maybe not. Maybe not so unimaginable. Maybe they will get worse. President-elect Trump, lower lip pouting out like Il Duce, pondering on his throne whether his first act on Jan. 20, 2017 will be to deport all Mexicans or bar all Muslims. 
    Nah, can't happen. Can't can't can't. As Nate Silver said, neither party has nominated a candidate as unfit as Donald Trump in more than a century. They won't start now. 
    And if they do, well, as the poet Thomas Campbell writes, "To bear is to conquer fate."     
     Meaning, whatever life serves isn't so bad if you roll with it. 
     So roll with it we shall. Hope you're rolling now, rocking and rolling, out having fun. We'll be joining you in a bit, going over to friends to have fun, or what fun we can, and that should perk things up. 
     Happy New Year. Let's grab the wheel in 2016 and try to turn this bus into a better direction.  Somebody has to.

Flashback 2003: Happy New Year!

Found the photo after this was posted.
     This New Year's Eve we're lucky enough to have friends who are throwing a party, so we've got good company, good food and a good time only a few blocks away. But for years I puzzled and struggled through New Year's Eve like everybody else, usually writing something for the paper. This column had a marvelous photo of myself, in a suit, looking stern, wearing the small Tiffany party hat that I mention at the end.     
     Which I should have bought, given that it was $225, then, and is selling online for four or five times that. Alas, the photo seems lost in the river of time that we all splash around in, but I think the column still is worth revisiting. Happy New Year to all! Drive safely.  

TEN . . .

     Here we are again. In another noisy, jam-packed restaurant on triple price night, wondering where that waiter could possibly be. Or at the neighbors, making yack, yet again, with the Hendersons, the Pendersons and the Schmendersons. Or sprawled on the sofa before the tube -— and not a wide HDTV tube either — with Ethel. Again. Puzzling where Dick Clark went or — if one is a certain age — where Guy Lombardo went. Weren't they just here? It's both routine and a shock. A regular surprise.

NINE . . .

     New Year's Eve. It gets to be like those old movies where the calendar pages flutter off the wall, like falling autumn leaves. One minute, they're playing David Bowie's "1984" and you're thinking, "Golly, it really is 1984, almost," and the next it's Prince singing "1999" and the next it's, well, whatever clatter they're playing on the radio now, assuming anybody listens to radio anymore.

EIGHT . . .

     Still, we rouse ourselves, as midnight approaches. Stand up. Square the shoulders. Refill the drink. Run our fingers through whatever hair time has left us. Direct our attention to the Big Ball at Times Square. New Year's is all about joining the crowd, getting with the program, digging out the good suit, facing the Hendersons (and Pendersons and Schmendersons). Observing the customs — the champagne, the hot dogs in dough, the tiny party hats.

SEVEN . . .

     It's all a lie, of course, this New Year's business. It's the New Improved Product that really is the same old product, but smaller. Two ounces less at the same price. The Happy New Year is the Rotten Old Year with tinsel draped around it.
     There is no 2004, not in any objective sense. The universe spins its clockwork machinations in the same unimaginably vast, indifferent fashion. We can't grasp it, so we pretend the "3" snaps to "4" at midnight, and frankly even that scrap of symbolism is troubling if you ponder it.

SIX . . .

     New Year's Eve doesn't begin at midnight, it ends. Soon after, the party changes gears and guests get their coats. One other special day of the year has a midnight deadline; yes, April 15. Maybe the IRS needs to wed taxes to champagne — you file, pop the bubbly. They wouldn't even need tax laws then; I mean, do you know anybody who shrugs off New Year's? Hard to imagine. A scientist in his lab, a poet hunched over the page, looks up at the muted roar from distant crowds and thinks, "Oh? What? New Year's? I suppose they do that sort of thing" and then plunging back into work.

FIVE . . .

     Put that way, neglect sounds ideal. Not that I could ever do it. I swallow New Year's. Or did, because of the social barometer factor — where you are on New Year's gauges how well you are doing in life. Thus parties. Fancy restaurants. Hit plays.

FOUR . . .

     The Millennium cured me of that. First, I had to work — the whole newspaper did, ready for the disaster that never came. Work was humbling; I felt like Cinderella missing the ball. Second, the entire Millennium hoopla was so overblown and unseemly. Such a huge honking deal: the 21st century! The worries! The geegaws! (They were supposed to be worth something someday. Check out eBay. I saw a $6.99 stuffed "Y2K Bug" selling for a dollar).

THREE . . .

     Now I do it for the kids. We eat hot dogs wrapped in dough, watch movies, play music, dance around. I like to wear a little party hat. I always have, particularly because most men shun them. Too uptight, even guys who don't mind painting blue C's on their bellies and taking off their shirts on TV at Bears games.

TWO . . .

     Party hats are the one part of New Year's that isn't a lie. They remind us to slip into silliness —to shelve dignity, shelve the weary awareness that is, in the end, as futile as giddy celebration. Ignore the grinding gears of ceaseless time. Grab fun when you can. I was musing how party hats are the last festive item untouched by fashion; always cheap cardboard, stapled together. Thinking how we should each get our own lovely, hand-tooled party hat — a little fireman's hat, enamel over metal, or a miniature top hat — we would wear as children to our cherished kiddie birthdays and then keep, in a little satin box, to bring out on grand occasions as adults in need of youthful uplift.

ONE . . .

     As I was having this thought, as if to remind me of the regular falsity of my opinions, I noticed a Tiffany & Co. ad for their $225 sterling silver party hat. A dear little thing, created for the Millennium along with a horn and a noisemaker. The trio proved so popular Tiffany kept selling them. I'm modeling a loaner hat above, and believe me, if I didn't have two kids, a house and a stay-at-home wife locked lamprey-like on my finances and sucking hungrily away, I'd snap one up. I could sure use it. But I do, so back it goes.

    Tonight is a good time to set aside your grim self, don a party hat and join the chanting crowd. Reality will be here tomorrow, waiting.


                 —Originally published in the Sun-Time, Dec. 31, 2003

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

State of the Blog III

Jim Bachor's mosaic "Thrive," installed at the Thorndale 'L' station in 2014.

    When I mentioned to my wife that I was sorting through the numbers for my third year end State of the Blog report, she replied, quickly and, I thought, rather emphatically, that I shouldn't. That nobody cares about the stats but me, and my doing so is unseemly, a personal flaw, and I should resist the urge. 
     To which my unspoken answer was: Yeah, and a pony for the children.
     Meaning, in some ideal world, it wouldn't matter if a piece of writing influenced one person or a million. Emily Dickinson's poems were just as good, written on sheets of paper and bound with thread into little booklets and jammed into a drawer at her home in Amherst as they'd be splashed across the cover the Ladies Home Journal. 
     But at some point somebody had to read them.
     And in the 24-hour-a-day roar, the howling free-fire zone that the Internet is, numbers seem to count for something. Anyway, the machine keeps track of them, and I do try to pay attention.  On days when I get 2,000 hits, such as today (assuming you're reading this on the day it's posted, Dec. 30, 2015) I feel as if I've accomplished something. If that is sin, then it is my sin, and I own it.
    Onward, as Rick Kogan would say. 
    The news is good, well, goodish. Last year I suggested that 50,000 hits a month would be some kind of success. I hit that mark for January-- 51,780--and surpassed it two more times, topping out at nearly 60,000--59,986--in August, almost 40 percent higher than the 2014 high of 43,000.
     In 2013, the daily average was 918. In 2014 it was 1200. This year it was 1539 a day.
     Not Kim Kardashian's ass breaking the Internet. But steady progress.
     The blog reached a million hits this year, averaging 47,718 hits a month. And while I estimate that 10 percent of those are Spambots, still a milestone of some sort. I held an on-line party the day we passed a million, with music and mingling, and several hundred readers showed up. That was fun. 
     Not the skyrocketing success that some blogs find. But not bad either, I'm told. We're going for the long term here. The blog is part life raft, part archive, part hobby, part unpaid job. 
    I can't pretend that stopping is an option at this point, for a variety of reasons. First, I get more control over the blog. Last May's post on performance artist/singer Amanda Palmer sticks in mind. I thought it an interesting encounter, and had pictures, and asked the paper for a page, which I'd thought I'd get. Then late in the day, pressing news intruded and I had my usual 750 words, and I had to cut the column in half, clumsily, at the last minute. Which would have really irked me, but it remained the same on the blog, and that is what would be available the next day. Palmer's husband, fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, retweeted it to his 2 million followers, meaning it reached far more people through Twitter than through the paper. The print edition is becoming an increasingly mooted, momentary paper interlude, and that trend will only continue.
    Which is the second reason the blog is important. It's about he only way you can find archived columns of mine. The newspaper, for some unfathomable reasons, yanked its archive off line, and you can either pull them out of Nexis, or find them here. Several times I've tried to refer people to columns which, though only a few weeks old, have already vanished. So having them here is important, to the degree that my columns being available is important, and that conversation I will leave to you.
     I'm skipping the poster this year. The 2015 poster sold eight copies, and while I enjoyed making wheat paste and slapping them up in the West Loop, that isn't reason enough to commission a new one. Maybe for the book, which comes out in the fall. I'm also thinking of creating a coffee cup instead for 2016, to give out as prizes.
     What else? Marc Schulman of Eli's Cheesecake returned sponsorship of the blog for the holidays and through January, and I am grateful to him for that, and urge you to show your appreciation as well by sending the gift of cheesecake to yourself or a loved one.
    Finally, as always, thank you for reading this stuff. Without you, I would be talking to myself. 

Accidents will happen

"Untitled," by Robert Gober, Art Institute of Chicago

     How clumsy of me. Almost spilled my coffee.
     Well, accidents happen. We've all dropped cups, tripped on rugs. So when the Chicago Police Department says that Bettie Jones was shot "accidentally" by police last Saturday, what else to do but nod our heads in sympathy for the poor officer, who took out his gun and spilled some bullets on a grandmother as she opened the door to let him in. Could have happened to anybody.
     Of course, accidents must be put in context. If I drop my coffee cup every other day, something might be wrong with me. Maybe a neurological condition. Maybe I should see somebody.
     Something is definitely wrong with the Chicago Police Department, though lest we be accused of picking on long-suffering, abused, misunderstood and bullied CPD, we should leap to point out it seems to be the same thing wrong with lots of city police departments. Being an officer is a dangerous job, one made safer by shooting first and then analyzing the situation later.

     Safer for the police officer, that is. For the teenager stumbling down the middle of the street or the woman opening the door, not so safe.

     To continue reading, click here.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Star Wars effect on Israel


    I will admit it, quietly: I found the reception of the latest installment of Star Wars disturbing.
    Not the film itself. That was the most ordinary Insert-Tab-A-Into-Slot-B example of formulaic filmmaking. I even enjoyed parts: Daisy Ridley's ability to compose her face to reflect what was going on around her, seeing Harrison Ford as Han Solo. A cute spherical robot. 
     Rather, it was the reaction to the film that rattled me. Not that it was popular. Who didn't expect that? That it was lauded. The American Film Institute was declaring it one of the 10 best films of 2015. The New York Times was talking about Oscar buzz for Best Picture. I thought I had lost my mind, in an Emperor's New Clothes sense. It was as if Kim Kardashian had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her ass's contribution to global harmony. 
    Then again, I've never liked Star Wars, particularly. Seen all the movies, many times, of course. As requisite a part of parenthood as changing diapers. Dueled lightsabers with the boys. "Obi Wan never told you what happened to your father...."
    But I didn't love the things.  In all my years at the paper, I've only written one column about Star Wars: eight years ago, for the 30th anniversary of its premiere. And that wasn't so much about the movie, as an admittedly-far-fetched theory as to its impact on our collective national psyche. 

     The first "Star Wars" movie opened 30 years ago this Friday.
     It didn't strike me as much at the time, even as a callow 17-year-old.
     I remember thinking: Geez, here you have a movie where half the action is a running gun battle at close quarters, between this scruffy band of rebels, one of whom is 8 feet tall, and the supposedly fearsome, supposedly skilled storm troopers. Yet the Wookie never so much as gets his ear singed.
     As the years went on, and the movies kept coming, I learned to dislike the series for a variety of other sins -- its feel-instead-of-think anti-intellectualism, its wooden, Perils-of-Pauline acting, its cutesy, lunchbox-ready Ewoks, its crazed army of zealous fans and the blizzard of branded crap they insist on buying, collecting and cherishing.
     No doubt the anniversary will bring a media storm of What-It-Means-To-Us baby boomer thumb-twiddling.
     But I have a theory about "Star Wars" I've been developing, a hunch forming over the years that I'd like to float by you. It's a tad far-fetched, but perhaps worth considering.
     Could the "Star Wars" movies have had some impact on the American view of Israel?
     Bear with me. What was the American view of "a rebellion" before "Star Wars"? Some South American banana-republic revolution where the Castro manque rebel leader was as likely to be worse than the dictator he fought to replace?
     Before "Star Wars," Israel was the feisty underdog, facing a hostile ring of Arab countries whose overwhelming material superiority was checked only by their disunity and blundering.
     Then the movies started coming, and suddenly "rebels" were freedom-loving fighters facing enormous odds against an evil empire, a role that Israel was all too easily pushed into.
     That may explain why so many "Star Wars"-loving American college students chose to embrace the Intifada -- a nihilist blend of suicide and murder that might not normally appeal to the sort of people obsessed with the well-being of harp seals.
     Yet the Intifada, a machine perfectly designed for the weak to lash out at the strong, played to our rebellion fantasies, the Arab nations sponsoring it faded into invisibility, and the state of Israel became an organized, powerful conspiracy of Darth Vaders, practically an empire, at least compared to the struggling Palestinians.
     Perhaps I'm being fanciful -- I'm sure a lot of it can be blamed on good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, which had to be the reason a dozen rigid totalitarian Muslim theocracies can go unchallenged while Israel's being a Jewish state is damned as "apartheid."
     But there needs to be some explanation for the puzzling American indifference -- Hamas lobs hundreds of rockets into Israel, failing to kill civilians by mere chance, and our public lolls in utter indifference. Why? A bit of the blame might go to "Star Wars," for making us forget that one can be a rebel, one can be the underdog, and still be in the wrong.

—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, May 20, 2007

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Moody Bible Institute finds me venomous

    Riddle: If you walk into an ice cream  shop and order a vanilla milkshake,  and I follow you in and order a chocolate cone, how many ice cream shops have we entered? 
    Does it change your answer if I email my order in ahead of time, or if you order in Spanish?
     I would still answer "one," arguing that differing choices in frozen comestibles, ordered in different fashions, does not demand that we be in different shops. 
    But then,  I am not a Christian theologian. 
    I received plenty of emails reacting to my column last Monday on Wheaton College sociology professor Larycia Hawkins being suspended for trying to show support for our beleaguered Muslim-American fellow citizens by wearing a headscarf and quoting the pope claiming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  
    What struck me was the genius the replies showed for vigorously missing the point. 
    Take this typical example, from Chris Northrop:
Wheaton College has sent students and staff all over the world to help people in many ways . Even the Mideast. Maybe you remember these words " let's roll". Deeds speak louder then words at Wheaton College.
     That sort of thing was easy enough to answer. I replied:
You must have read today's column to mean that nobody from Wheaton College ever did anything good, since that seems to be the argument you're making. That wasn't what I was saying at all. My point is that they're failing now, in this case, as they so often have in the past. If you believe that a Wheaton College graduate having done something good at some point in history excuses the college from honoring those who take uncomfortable moral stands in the face of unarguable evil now, well, I would suggest you revisit that opinion. Thanks for writing.
    I'd not bother to post any of it here  — the joy of my job is that I get to move on, a luxury not enjoyed by everybody.  Then the Moody Bible Institute weighed in.  Founded in 1886 by Dwight Lyman Moody, the institute has long inveighed against what it perceives as the evils of secular Chicago, and I was thrilled to be added to a long list that includes dancing, gin,  jazz and desegregation.  I was Exhibit A of an otherwise unnamed crew of critics who "shifted into overdrive" to criticize Wheaton College.
    "The school is being castigated for Islamophobia, hatred, discrimination, and intolerance," wrote Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer, the senior pastor at Moody, in an essay posted on the Moody Church online newsletter on Dec. 22.
     At first I thought he was agreeing with me. Then I realized that this was merely an example of the "venom" that Wheaton College has had to endure from those such as myself who labor under "only a superficial understanding of both Islam and Christianity."

When Hawkins, quoting the pope, says that "Christians and Muslims worship the same God," she appears to have no understanding of the radical difference and contradictions between the two faiths. Christianity affirms the Trinity, a doctrine which lies at the heart of biblical teaching, and the entire concept of redemption. The Christian teaching is that in Christ, God Himself redeemed us; the Son, in agreement with the Father, made atonement for our sins. God Himself supplies the Redeemer we need.    
 In Islam, Allah does not supply a redeemer; humans themselves pay for their own sins by trying to have their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, always unsure of how to keep score. In Islam, God is capricious and does not have fellowship with human beings. No Muslim would ever call God "Father." 
      Notice how deftly Lutzer has moved from what Hawkins, and myself, were saying—both faiths worship the same God—to what he chooses to rebut, the idea that both faiths are the same. His bringing up the "differences and contradictions" in the two faiths is, to return to our ice cream shop analogy, my laboriously explaining the differences between a milkshake and an ice cream cone. "One shop? A milkshake isn't even ice cream at all. It isn't solid! And chocolate is a vastly different flavor than vanilla. We're ordering completely different desserts!"
     Having gone to great lengths to establish that Christianity and Islam are indeed different religions, though no one suggests otherwise, Lutzer then pretends he's proved his point, concluding, tellingly:
...we can befriend Muslims and show them hospitality, respectfully sharing our beliefs and traditions, and learning from one another. Perhaps in God's good timing, we can share with them that while Muhammad claimed to be a prophet, Jesus claims—and had the credentials to prove—that He is actually the Savior of the world, able to take away our sin and bring us all the way to the Heavenly Father.
We can be good and helpful neighbors without sacrificing the very truths that bring sinners into the presence of God. Jesus affirmed, "Love your neighbor," but He did not say that we had to agree with them doctrinally.   
     Let's take a step back and put the situation in plain English:
     The world is filled with religions. Each worship in its own particular way. (See Dr. Lutzer? Not so ignorant after all). For centuries, each thought they would eventually overcome the rest. Now, in modern times, we know that the only hope for peace and survival is to imagine a multi-cultural world where people of varying faiths, races, nationalities and sexual orientations deserve respect and can dwell in harmony.
     Some chose not to believe that. ISIS is one. Wheaton College is another, and if they find the comparison unfair, I would suggest they ponder the company they keep. It's their choice. Nothing in Christian doctrine forbids a woman from wearing a scarf in solidarity with her neighbors. Nothing in Christian doctrine excommunicates you if you suggest Muslims believe in God.  Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church—not an institution known for its nimble shifts in doctrine—somehow managed the task. 

    The sticking point is that Wheaton, and Moody, and Lutzer, don't believe it. They hold out that the sect they were born into is the only true and legitimate mode of existence. Which is their right, let me be quick to point out, before they collapse to the ground, proclaiming themselves the victims here. Their right, until they try to put that attitude into operation in the public sphere, and their tolerance is revealed to be a false face, a mask worn until, as Lutzer slips in, "we can share with them that ... [Jesus] is actually the Savior of the world."
     Jesus ain't the savior of the world. Certainly not the savior of my world and, to drag out an inconvenient fact, not the savior of the vast majority of people in the world. Never was, never will be. Which is why I care about this issue. Muslims are now getting the crap that used to be saved for Jews, and in some quarters (including, alas, many Muslim ones) still is. Muslims are being abused for the same reason anybody gets abused; because the abusers feel the need and think they can get away with it. 

     They're wrong. Jesus is not the savior of most people's worlds. Tolerance is. We must all live together. A Wheaton College professor, under the illusion that she lives in America in 2015, took a mild symbolic stand in favor of tolerance. The small school she works for — or did, before they showed her the gate — chose to view it as a violation of their dogma, and punish her.  And fellow Bible thumpers at Moody chimed in their approval not realizing that the whip being used on Muslims today could be used on them tomorrow. 
      Not just blind, but hypocritical too. They're the first to cry religious tolerance when it's their religion compelling them to do something out of the mainstream, like harass gay people.  Then we all are ordered to cough into our fists and ignore the demands of human decency so they can serve their Lord in the way they've convinced themselves He wants to be served.  Then a religious moral stand is a beautiful thing. Not for Prof. Hawkins though. Because she's suggesting the two faiths share a sense of the divine when, viewed through the keyhole of Christian fundamentalism, only one deserves God's favor.
     The odd thing is, they are in harmony with the my-way-or-the-highway extremism of radical Islam. Not killing people, of course. Not anymore. They stopped that a couple hundred years ago. But the same small, shameful, selfish, hostile, blindered quality that does nobody any good, especially not them. 
     Despite the "differences and contradictions" Lutzer points to, the problem here is that the approach to religion taken by fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam is the same. Just as radical Muslims lash out at differences, tarnishing their faith in the eyes of many, so does Wheaton College and, as they leap to point out, the Moody Bible Institute. They insist that they are at odds with heterogenous modern life and the people in it. Not just science, but the fabric of society itself, which they consider a necessary evil that must be endured until that happy day when they can completely get their way. A reminder that the reason religion is dying out so quickly in this country is not due to venomous secularists like myself, but because the pious stewards trusted with its survival are killing it.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rainy day at the Botanic Garden

     Saturday dawned wet and cold, upper 30s with a drizzly rain.  A perfect day to potter around the office, picking up papers, glancing at them throwing them away, when possible. 
    Yet when my wife suggested we go for a walk in the Chicago Botanic Garden, I jumped at the chance. 
    Which might seem strange. We had just walked there for an hour Friday, in the sun. It was now gray and rainy. And there was that office full of papers to sort. 
    But walking is one of my favorite activities. And the rain gave it an air of novelty. So many people use the weather as an excuse—"We wanted to go but it was raining"—when all that is required are a few adjustments, like umbrellas.  I was pleased she asked and pleased that I agreed, the exchange one of those countless welcome reminders that we'd each married the right person.
    At the Botanic Garden, we wandered here and there, as always, one asking the other, "left or right?" and the other answering, and randomly taking paths and directions we hadn't taken in a while, seeing new things, such as this Weeping Norway Spruce, that Edie was taken with. While the entrance was crowded, with families hurrying toward the Wonderland Express train display, which is indoors, the rest of the grounds were fairly deserted. I suggested we go to the English Walled Garden—that seemed in harmony with the weather—and it was.
     "I like it better in the rain," Edie said, at one point, and I replied, with genuine curiosity, "Why?" While it certainly was different at 38 degrees and a steady rain, I couldn't say that I preferred it to, oh, 68 degrees and sunny.
     "It's the sound," she said, surprising me again. "The sound the rain makes." I would have never focused on that.  Though I had to agree that the rain did make a rather pleasant pattering, soft and subtle, and I was glad she drew my attention to it.  I felt the need to reply in that vein, and told her that, to me, the rain was "atmospheric."  It altered the geometry of the place, almost added another dimension, making you aware not just of the trees and plants and grounds, but the air between them. It also changed perception of the landscape, and turned the bricks and stones into mirrored surfaces. I thought of how movie producers were always watering down streets to give them a dramatic sheen.  It works.
   We did at one point duck into the greenhouses, to gaze at orchids and cacti and rubber plants — the Orchid Show begins in mid-February— and, not incidentally, warm up. In between the greenhouses, there is a display of homemade wreathes in the Regenstein Center, and while I was admiring their construction, of pine cones and fir boughs and seed pods, I had the surprising experience of seeing myself in one of the wreaths. 
    It was this wreath, the creation of Sharon Nejman and Tim Pollak, Botanic Garden employees who had a hand in raising "Titan" and "Alice," the corpse flowers which drew an estimated 100,000 visitors to the garden this summer. My attention was first drawn to the primitive, rather tumescent yellow rendition of the flower at the center, and then started to look at the photos sprayed around it, and quickly recognized a certain guy taking pictures of the flower. Over the summer, I had gone several times to check on Titan's progress, and was there snapping pictures when the giant flower, which failed to spray its ghastly scent, was cut apart by botanists. 
    A slight balm to the old ego. Nobody becomes a writer because they don't enjoy seeing themselves manifested. But also a reminder of one of the many benefits of tromping around a place like the Chicago Botanic Garden on a regular basis. You think you are going to see plants, and by and large you are. But I'd say the conversations I have with Edie are as rewarding as the most gorgeous bloom or aged oak. And every so often, you discover something of yourself in an unexpected place, though usually not in such a literal manner. 


Saturday, December 26, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Betcha forgot about this contest, right?
     I sure did.
     But I had this photo laying around, and felt that Lucy-and-the-football tickle of suspicion. "I wonder..."
     Besides, I promised that I would bring the contest back, now and then. 
     So where is this sedate living room? With 2015 about to run out, I thought I would hold one last contest for the year, dispatch one last poster. No 2016 posters in the works—it was a cool prize, and fun to mix a batch of wheat paste and slap them up around the West Loop. But not staggeringly effective as a marketing tool. I'll have to think of something else.
    So post your guesses below. I imagine this'll get solved at 7:01 a.m. But you never know. There's a first time for everything.  Have fun. Good luck. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

Trouble at Christmas: #4. Street corner preachin'

     Well, it's Christmas Day, finally. Hope you woke up to lots of presents, or your kids did. Or if you don't celebrate, hope you at least wake up to some happy circumstance, such as I did. No tree, no trimmings, but my boys home for the holidays, and my wife off work. Christmas Eve spent pleasantly, with Chinese food, Settlers of Catan, and a movie ("Love Actually") with the prospect of a day of vigorous relaxation ahead of us.  
     Too much fun to spend time cobbling together more prose quilts. So one last Christmas chestnut plucked from the Bottomless Vault of Columns Past. We'll return to something fresh and fantastic tomorrow.
    Well, fresh anyway. 
    Merry Christmas. 

     A busy mid-December State Street. Lots of shoppers. Amateur bands flailing away at their instruments, producing sounds very similar to Christmas carols. And, inevitably, the corner preacher, screaming hoarsely into a microphone, his voice further distorted by the cheap and blown-out speaker, warning the indifferent passerby about the perils of damnation.
     I haven't yet walked up to him, smiling. I haven't yet gently taken the microphone from his hand. He would seem to understand and step aside, demurring.
     "Brothers, sisters," I would shout, eyes wide and glittering, holding high an outstretched hand, fingers spread. "Brothers and sisters! Change your evil ways. Repent, repent!"
     I point toward a middle-aged woman scurrying by. "You, madam! Do you fail to use your turn signal when driving? The lever is right there, an inch below your hand. Use it, madam! Use it, or risk the peril of hell!"
     Then she is gone. I grab a man by the arm, tightly holding his coat as he struggles to pull free.
     "And you, sir, do you drink coffee? Do you work in an office? Do you take the last cup in the office coffeemaker and not make more? Do you leave a teaspoon of coffee in the carafe to smoulder and blacken, forcing somebody like me to scrub it out and make a new pot? Repent! REPENT! Or . . . you . . . will . . . go . . . to HELL!"
     He breaks free and is gone.
     Nobody thanks you for trying to make the world a better place. Nevertheless, the work must be done.
     A comfortable executive type—nice tie, cashmere scarf—happens along. I press the heel of my hand to my forehead, closing my eyes hard.
     "Woe!" I bellow in my lowest tones. "Wooooe, woe to executives who don't take time to be pleasant to their workers. Be nice! Be nice! It doesn't cost anything to be nice. And the alternative is the fiery purgatory of EVERLASTING FLAME!"
     A gigantic, bulky sport/utility vehicle idling at the curb catches my attention. I wheel around, spreading my arms wide, trying to puff myself to Moseslike stature.
     "The slopes of the Pit are slippery! Four-wheel drive will not keep you from sliding down, down, down, down. Do not imagine fog lights will illuminate your path to heaven. Come to a complete stop at stop signs. Watch your speed. Woe to the arrogant. Woe to the Lincoln Navigator owner. Woe to Land Rovers. Ride high now, but remember, you are on a highway straight to HELL!"
     Something feels as if it is snapping in my throat — a vocal cord, maybe. But I keep going. The word must get out.
     "Telemarketing is Satan's work!" I yell. "Devilish tendrils of anonymous greed reaching into our homes, destroying our equanimity of mind, interrupting dinner! Repent! Stop bothering people. Get a real job! Lest you wake up one day and find yourself twirling in HELL!!!"
     I'm reaching a groove. "Look in the mirror! See if the evil mark has been set upon you! Rude clerks? Hell! Reckless cabbies? Hell! Those WTTW people begging for money every time I turn on Channel 11? Hell, Hell, HELL!!!!"
     A small crowd has gathered. I soften my tone, take it down a few notches.
     "People," I implore quietly, looking from face to face. "The hour is late. But there is still time. Renounce your evil ways. Join the family of humanity. Return phone calls. Keep appointments. Tip generously. Do not create a hell on earth for others while reserving a spot in it yourself."
     There is light applause as I hand the microphone back to the minister. The hubub continues. At least I tried.

       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 10, 1998

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Trouble at Christmas—#3: Giving credit

     "Satire doesn't belong in a newspaper," an editor I greatly respect once told me, and this column made me realize that he's right. It was written as a Christmas trifle, a gentle parody of a colleague who at the holidays likes to thank all the little people supporting her fabulous life.  I thought it was dripping with enough obvious untruth to give the joke away almost immediately.
    I was wrong.
    After it ran, I was amazed by the number of readers who sincerely complimented me: how nice it is that I would be so gracious and acknowledge my staff! Even my own mother wondered why she had never spoken to my secretary with the Georgia accent. 
     I was flabbergasted, horrified really, and never did this kind of thing again. But Christmas is upon us, and I think it's safe to trot out, a relic of simpler times. 

    Once a year I ask the reader for a moment of indulgence as I pause from holiday merrymaking to thank all the special people whose hard work and constant attention have made my life a smooth and satisfying glide over well-greased rails.
     First off, of course, no column that breaks as much fresh political news as mine does could function without a legman, and I'm proud to have Jimmy "Flash" Handon, the last reporter hired at City News, digging through court documents and running after coffee.
     If you've ever phoned my office, you've heard the lovely Georgia drawl of Miss Annie Sherman, and it's a pleasure to start every morning with her always cheery "Hiya, chief!" and one of her homemade pralines. Thanks as well to the "mailbag sisters," Mary Beth and Cindy Beth Smartline, who handle the crush of letters.
     If I thanked by name every fact checker, grammarian and research assistant who labors over this column between the rough draft that leaves my typewriter and the polished product you read—well, there wouldn't be space—so let me say a hearty thank you to the whole gang, en masse. Eheu fugaces labuntur anni!* Though I do want to single out our new chief redactor, professor Herman V. Goshlott, who I persuaded to give up the cosseted academic life at Cambridge for the bustle of a daily newsroom copy desk.
     Some may find it obsequious, but I can honestly say that I am not only proud to work for Benjamin Rutledge Finch III, but to be his friend, and will always savor the memories of those long summer afternoons talking shop at his Barrington Hills home, "Pinecliff."
     To him, and to all the Sun-Times employees, all over the world, particularly to the brave souls manning the new Sun-Times Scientific Survey Outpost at Point McMurdo on the Antarctic continent, a hearty "Merry Christmas!"
     Those of you who start each morning with a hot lather shave and a trim know that it really puts a man in a fine frame of mind, so you won't mind if I thank my barber, Antonio Panderski, for making the trek between his shop at the Hartsfield Building to my office, every day, rain or shine. Thanks, Tony! I wouldn't let anyone else in this town hold a straight razor to my throat.
     Not to forget the chefs and maitres d' at Lucre, Cafe D'Argent, Mucho Verdi and all the other fine eateries I have enjoyed over the years. Thanks!
     My dear wife, the dancer Cherry Lee Deelite, is probably wondering when I'll get to family matters. Patience, Cher. Thanks to you, for your love, and for somehow balancing the exciting world of exotic entertainment with running our quiet suburban home and being mother to our dear boys, Neil Jr., Nelson, Lien and Niles and the girls, Nellie and little Vanilla, who we call Nil.
     We could never manage such a brood without our beloved day nanny, Monique D'Anglatere, and our equally beloved night nanny, Felicia Montseuratt. Thanks as well to all the household help, with special kudos to Mr. Dillsworthy, whose wonderful tea roses took a prize at the All Cook County Rose Festival this year.
    Then there is Mrs. Teague at the New Buffalo, Mich., "cottage," who always makes sure the white sheets are off the furniture and a warm apple pie is on the sill when we tumble into town. And so many others: former Gov. Witherspoon; Princess Gloria von Thurns und Taxis; Lt. Col. Oscar "Grit" LaBond; my squash partner, Reed Bodwell; the members of the Downtown Club, the Vest Key Club, the Fame Club, the Scrivener's Society, and the Spoon and Bowl Club, where I like nothing more than to pass the afternoon in a wing chair, reading a novel by my friend Hugh Chuffingham or snoozing by the fire. Then there's Mr. Pringle, the grocer...
     Well, a guy can dream, can't he? Happy holidays

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 21, 2000

* Latin: "Alas, the fleeting years slip by." 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Trouble at Christmas: #2—Grim Jewish ambivalence

     The whole "War Against Christmas" bullshit seemed muted this year; my theory is that we have actual woes to concentrate upon. But to let you know how long the non-issue stretches back, this is 17 years old. Odd that it doesn't mention the version of the carol I'm listening to: it's by Tevin Campbell on the "A Very Special Christmas: 2" CD. If you see Rob Sherman at the end and wonder: is he still around? Yeah, lower profile, running for Congress next year on the Green Party ticket.

     I have a confession to make. Last night, late, when nobody was around, I played a recording of "O Holy Night" from a CD of Christmas carols that I purchased at a store.

     Now, I'm not one of those Jews who has a Christmas tree. That seems wrong to me, like crashing a party you aren't invited to. Or wearing a medal for a battle you didn't fight in. If you don't practice the faith year-round, you shouldn't get to reward yourself with the tree.
     But I happen to really like "O Holy Night." I always have. That soaring "fall on your knees" part. It just gets me every time. So I broke down and bought it and, every December, play it from time to time.
     I mention this, not because I'm particularly proud, but because I think a lot of Jews are conflicted about Christmas, and we struggle through it every year with a sort of grim ambivalence, not certain if we should join the party or stay home. We feel guilty if we enjoy it and left out if we don't.
     From my point of view, the days are too bleak and short in December to avoid Christmas. It helps the month pass by. And, I'll be honest, I like it. Christmas cookies are great. Eggnog with a belt of bourbon in it, also great. The windows at Field's, great. I completely understand why believers get so worked up over the season: Heck, I walk down State Street and feel a lump in my throat even though I never woke up a single morning in my life and scampered down to see what was under the tree.
     I don't see how you can avoid Christmas. Society is soaked with it, from the cheery, non-denominational snowmen to the most baroque Jesus-focused nativity scene. The holiday starts in late November and roars on for a month and grows more omnipresent year by year.
     Many people are unhappy about that. Ironically, fundamentalist Christians and activists of other religions are united in wishing there was less public Christmas hoopla, for exactly opposite reasons.
     For some fundamentalists, most Christmas celebration is a profane and gaudy mockery of the serious underpinnings of faith that the holiday is supposed to mark in the first place.
     For some activists of other religions, Christmas is a public imposition of the dominant religion, Christianity, on those too powerless to prevent it, an insulting assumption that we're all in the same boat, faithwise, when of course we are not and getting less so all the time.
     Maybe the best way to think of it is a struggle for symbols. In New York, the Empire State Building is lit red and green this time of year, just as the John Hancock is here. Except a spunky 9-year-old New York girl mounted a lobbying campaign toward Leona Helmsley, who owns the Empire State Building, so now it will light up blue and white on the first day of Hanukkah, just to make things fair.
     The New York story inspired me put a call in to our own resident symbol struggler, Buffalo Grove's most famous atheist, Rob Sherman, to see what battles he's got percolating this yuletide.
     Sherman, who made a name for himself by getting the cross yanked off the seal of the town of Zion, along with other symbolic battles, now has the Niles city hall in his gunsights.
     "Just last night I got an e-mail about a U.S. Superior Court ruling," he said, outlining a case in Jersey City, N.J., where the city hall tried to camouflage its nativity scene with a menorah and a snowman.
     "That's just what they have in Niles," said Sherman, who framed the issue, in his typically distinctive way, as "Christians trying to cram their beliefs down the throats of those who don't share those beliefs."
     I don't know about that. While I am glad that Rob Sherman is gadflying around the suburbs, shaking people up and challenging their beliefs, I just don't think he has the situation expressed accurately. Nobody puts up a lighted Santa Claus and says, "That'll show those Buddhists down the block." I think people are sincere when it comes to Christmas. It's a big deal to them, and they want to do it up right. They're genuinely shocked to find that not everybody appreciates it.
     Maybe I'm just growing weary of the symbol struggle. I can't imagine a God who cares whether the chocolate you eat is shaped like Santa Claus or a dreidel. It's all just a party, an excuse to cheer up the cold and dark early winter days with lights and fun and festivity, and I say the more we respect and tolerate each other, and the less we get into that My-Menorah-Is-Bigger-Than-Your-Tree bickering, the better off we'll be. Pass the nog.
                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 14, 1997

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Trouble at Christmas: #1: "Wheels of justice turn v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y."

     I'm off work this week, to try to spend some time with the boys, home from college. So I thought for the blog I would dig up a few columns from Christmas past. I noticed they fall into a kind of a theme, which I've dubbed, "Trouble at Christmas."
      This one, from 2000, after a fall season spent in court fending off a street person who had chased me with a knife then sued me. I represented myself in court, for you fans of foreshadowing, and the case resolved itself right before Christmas, the judge dismissing the lawsuit, I noticed a little queasily, "with prejudice."  
     One final point worth mentioning, which somehow didn't make it into the story, is the helpful general advice my wife gave me when appearing before a judge for any reason: "If you have the option of either saying something or not saying something, whenever possible don't say anything." Smart advice, which I used when the guy failed to show up for a court hearing and I was tempted to observe, "I want to point out that he isn't in jail because of me" but wisely didn't. 

     There are 73,728 small squares on the ceiling of Courtroom 1501 in the Daley Center.
     Not that I counted every square, waiting to stand before the bar of justice. I did the math. But I probably could have counted. I had the time.
     I had never been sued before, and found the experience not only hour-devouring and distressing but, in an odd way, uplifting. Looking back over this year of Sturm und Drang (that's German for "moving to the suburbs"), the lawsuit stands out as a lingering piece of unfinished business I should confront before 2000 can be dumped, with a grateful sigh, into the dustbin to make way for a shiny, new 2001.
     Being sued sucks. It is days in a windowless, airless room, somehow both too big and claustrophobic, waiting for your case to be called, staring dully at tiles on the ceiling, hearing the headachy murmur of legalisms just out of earshot, noting the starched exhaustion of lawyers, the unease of regular folk.
     There are motions and counter-motions. Many times I recalled that Hamlet, listing reasons to kill himself in his famous "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy, puts "the law's delay" up high, right after the pangs of despriz'd love.
     Sure, I could have hired a lawyer to handle it all. But first, I'm too cheap. Second, I can't roll over in bed without hitting a lawyer. Third, I wanted to experience the thing, firsthand, to feel its essence. I won't go into the particulars of what sparked the suit. Like most of what winds up in court, it was ridiculous and peevish. Suffice it to say it emerged from what happened between myself and a young man in line at a drugstore. Words were exchanged. The guy pulled a knife and ended up hauled off in handcuffs by the cops.
     As he was taken away, an officer said, "Be sure to show up in court or he'll sue you." But I didn't. He hadn't hurt me. I figured, in the scope of atrocities committed daily in the city, this little incident wasn't worth pursuing. I didn't want to waste my time or add to his woes.
     There is no hell in Judaism, no divine punishment for sins. So I saw being sued as a minor form of punishment—a purgatory—for not listening to the police officer (always, always dear readers, listen to the police officer. They know).
     The process was made almost worth it by the judge (and I'm not polishing apples since the case is—I think—over). The guy suing me didn't have a lawyer either, and didn't seem to grasp the fine points of the legal system, such as the need to show up. Despite my passionate desire to get this over with, I had to admire how the judge—whose eyes conveyed a seen-it-all-twice weariness—tried to cut this guy every break, so that the avenues of justice would not be denied a person just because he happened to be in jail the day his motion was dismissed.
     The lawsuit ground on between August and early December. Quick for law. The odd thing was, as it progressed, I began to like the guy suing me. He had an Energizer Bunny doggedness I appreciated. Despite losing at each step, he pressed on, filing new motions, a Terminator of the Municipal Court.
    After our last—one hopes, in law you never can tell—court appearance, we rode down in the elevator together. "Well," I said. "If I don't see you before Christmas—though if history is any judge, I will—have a merry one." He replied that he reads me in the newspaper.
     I don't want to say that I'll miss court, because I won't. But I will cling to the lessons I've learned: Be unfailingly polite. Listen to the police. And forgive the people you cross swords with. So belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Mr. Guy-Who-Sued-Me. Among my usual lightly held New Year's resolutions is the iron vow to keep myself out of court, if humanly possible. You might consider doing the same.  
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 28, 2000

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Bear one another's burdens"

     In 1897, the city of Nashville built a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, the Greek temple in Athens, as the centerpiece of their Tennessee Centennial Celebration. In 1990, the city added an enormous statue of the Athena, the Greek goddess, within the temple. Nearly 42 feet and covered in eight pounds of gold leaf, Athena is the largest indoor sculpture in the Western hemisphere.
     When I first stepped into the building, I grinned in awe, thinking: "They built an enormous pagan temple . . . including a giant golden pagan god . . . in the heart of the Bible Belt!"
     Up to last week, asked to name the most glaring example of inadvertent Christian celebration of pantheism, I'd have pointed to Nashville.
     But now Wheaton College has seized the laurel, when it suspended political science professor Larycia Hawkins. Not for wearing a hijab headscarf in solidarity with beleaguered Muslim Americans — no, never! Too gross an infringement on personal freedom, even for an administration at a conservative college.
     Rather, they suspended her for this statement, posted on Facebook:
Larycia Hawkins
   "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."
     That is why Hawkins is suspended until summer, because her statement "seemed inconsistent" with Christian values, and "to give more time to explore theological implications of her recent public statements."  
     Does Wheaton College really suspect that Christians and Muslims don't "worship the same God?" That perhaps there are two gods, one for Muslims, one for Christians ? Or more: Jews with their God, Hindus with theirs and so on. An Edith Hamilton pantheon of gods.
     Okay, that isn't what Wheaton College suspects. They're just another inept college administration bungling employee relations in the most public fashion imaginable and trying to blunder its way out. And we thought the University of Illinois had a monopoly on that.
     That second week in December was a frightening time, with Donald Trump urging the United States be sealed off from the contagion of Islam, and the Republican Party rolling like puppies at his feet. It felt like the house was on fire. Hate crimes against Muslims tripled. Hawkins posted her statement on Dec. 10. Two days earlier, I posted the green Muslim star and crescent as my Facebook profile photo, with this explanation: "There comes a time when decent people have to stand up. If Donald Trump is coming for the Muslims, he can sweep me up too."
     I was thinking of King Christian X of Denmark. He never did wear the Star of David that the Nazi occupiers forced upon Jews. Danish Jews were never required to wear the star. He did, however, speak out, and write in his diary:

When you look at the inhumane treatment of Jews, not only in Germany but occupied countries as well, you start worrying that such a demand might also be put on us, but we must clearly refuse such, due to their protection under the Danish constitution. I stated that I could not meet such a demand towards Danish citizens. If such a demand is made, we would best meet it by all wearing the Star of David.
     Wheaton College's actions are the equivalent of some board of rabbis denouncing King Christian X for volunteering to wear the Star of David because, you know, he's not circumcised.
     One more irony. The most famous Wheaton College alumnus is the Rev. Billy Graham. The Billy Graham Center is at the heart of the campus. Within it, the Billy Graham Museum, outlining the life of a preacher who rose to fame counseling presidents and holding enormous prayer rallies, while resolutely sitting out the great moral crises of his day, from civil rights to the Vietnam war to gay rights. Obsessing over fine points while missing the big picture. Ignoring the pressing moral imperative of a situation is pure Billy Graham. It never says this anywhere in the museum, but the great lesson — the great tragedy — of Graham's life is that a person can pay lip service to Jesus while steadfastly refusing to put his teachings into practice in the real world. Larycia Hawkins was punished for being Christian, for acting like a Christian toward our Muslim brothers, to the extent that Christianity teaches to care for the oppressed, which — stop the presses — it clearly does.
     "Bear one another's burdens," instructs Galatians 6:2. "And so fulfill the law of Christ."
     Perhaps while parsing Hawkins' words, Wheaton College can also decide whether the Apostle Paul misspoke.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A visit to good old Aunt "Star Wars"

    I'm a fairly cheap date when it comes to movies. I expect there to be a film of some sort, with a plot and dialogue and actors. It helps if it isn't entirely stupid. I like previews, and popcorn, and the chance to sit in the dark for two hours and watch something and not think about my leaky vessel of a life, riding low in the water but otherwise resolutely plowing the turbulent waves of the world. 
     The family headed over to the Highland Park Renaissance theater Sunday afternoon, to see the latest "Star Wars." The theater was mostly empty for the 1 p.m. show—that was fast, the thing just opened Thursday. I expected a line. I'd have waited a few weeks, but the boys were keen to see it; Kent had already seen it Thursday night, but readily saw it again.  
    "The Times said it's like a pre-fab house," Ross opined as we settled into our seats, and I almost covered my ears: I didn't want the delicious surprises to be given away. Nor did I want my enthusiasm dampened. Rich Roeper gave it four stars. I wanted to love it.
    "How so?" my wife asked. "Because it's exactly what you expect it to be?"
     "It doesn't have whimsy," Ross answered.
    "Maybe we add our own whimsy," my wife said, trying to put a bright spin on things.
    "Of course it has whimsy," I said. "It has that little rolling ball robot in it. That's whimsical."
    "I wonder if it has R2D2," my wife wondered, referring to the rolling garbage can robot of the previous films.
    "I think so," I said. 
    "Only it's 'R2D2 as Powered by Pepsi' in this one," Ross deadpanned. "And Hans Solo Cup."
     I admired "Hans Solo Cup" and wondered if he had just coined it; he claimed he had.  While other branding opportunities were mentioned: "Joy Yee Boba Fet" (Joy Yee is a restaurant in Evanston that sells drinks with boba, a kind of tapioca bead)  and "Sony Luke Skywalkman," they didn't reach the level of "Hans Solo Cup." Clever lad.
    And the movie? Eh. Not as bad as some of the franchise—no Jar Jar Binks, no Anakin Skywalker played by an excruciatingly bad kid actor. In fact, I liked the radiant babe newcomer, Daisy Ridley, as Rey, the female version of Luke Skywalker, the young person from nowhere drawn into the rebellion. The whole thing was wildly derivative, of course, and lacked any creativity regarding new creatures or locals, except the aforementioned rolling sphere and Ms. Ridley.  
    But the time passed, and I never looked at my watch, and it was sentimental to see the old favorites, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, reminding me somehow of Hillary Clinton. Having expected nothing, I was not disappointed, except when the film ended and I realized that was it. Though  I took a sort of perverse comfort in its mediocrity, its lack of originality or spark. With all the billions resting on the franchise, you'd think they'd have come up with something better than this. Another race to destroy the a bigger Death Star. A reminder of just how rare a good story can be. Still, one shouldn't complain. Going to see a new installment of "Star Wars" is like visiting an aged relative. There's no choice, you have to do it, and whether the conversation is interesting or not, whether a good time was had, or not, isn't really the point. It's just nice that the old girl is still around, and you have no choice in the matter but pay homage. It's an obligation.  

Morning after: Democratic edition

     Remember when you were a kid, and you'd get a present you didn't really like—the wrong toy—but you knew you had to accept it with as much grace and gratitude as you could muster? That's Hillary Clinton, for me. I looked at her face Saturday night, before she had spoken a word, on stage in New Hampshire for the third Democratic presidential debate, and sighed. I'm not sure what I wanted, but this wasn't it. 
     I could see why people are excited about Bernie Sanders. He's like the best college professor you ever had, flailing his arms and sputtering about how skewed the whole economic system is. I admired the speed with which he apologized to Clinton for his staffer looking over her campaign's data: a message most politicians, heck, most people, never get. Admit the wrong, move on.
    But after watching the parade of right wing fear mongering on Tuesday, I couldn't get behind Sanders, because he'll lose to whatever nutjob the GOP offers up. The time might be right for a septuagenarian socialist president, in Norway, but not in the United States, where a single shooting can cause a third of the country to want to use the Bill of Rights as kindling for their security bonfires.  Sanders is like a computer salesman going from hut to hut in Borneo. His customers just aren't ready for that. Maybe they never will be.
     And Martin O'Malley. Governor of Maryland.  He would have been my ideal candidate.  He came down hard on anti-Muslim hate, condemning "the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths." When it comes to guns, he said, "What we need is not more polls, but more principles." Leading a conversation on a topic that the Republicans couldn't even touch. A guy born in Chicago murders 14 people, with his wife, in San Bernardino, and their solution is to bar Muslims from the country. As if they murdered them with their bare hands.
     And O'Malley is young and handsome. Never underestimate the importance of optics in politics. Though he got booed when he brought the age of his opponents up. People are petty; I sure am. Every time the camera zoomed in from the back, I thought: Do I have to look at Hillary Clinton's ass for the next four years?
     That said, O'Malley is like a person who steps out of a crowd, grabs your elbow and starts talking to you. Whatever sense he says is lost compared to the reaction of, "Who is this guy. I never saw him before in my life." And I watched earlier debates. It's just that O'Malley ha a way of not sticking in mind. He's the Democratic Lindsay Graham. 
    And Sanders, while right in a general way about the economy being skewed for the 1 percent, offered up a range of pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams, from free college tuition for all (failing to mention, for some reason, the ponies for the children while he was at it) and the wish that Saudi Arabia and Qatar will take over battling ISIS for us.  He was good at framing the problem—"police officers should not be shooting unarmed people"—without saying what to do about it, which is the crux of the matter here.
     Clinton was on the usual eight second delay. When the ABC moderators, who had a tough time keeping the three from talking over each other in a senseless babble, pointed out that Americans are rushing to buy guns to protect themselves from Muslims (not pointing out that the people most endangered when you buy a gun are yourself and your family) and challenged Clinton to react, she at first digressed, and for a moment my stomach sank, and I thought she was going to dodge. "Clinton boots gun control answer," I tweeted. 
    Then she nailed it. 
     "Guns in and of themselves in my opinion will not make Americans safer," she said. "We lose 33,000 people already to gun violence. Arming more people ... is not the appropriate response to terrorism." And I exhaled. 
     She was good at explaining why Republican scapegoating Muslims, at home and abroad, is not only morally wrong, but bad strategy. "We need to work with them, not demonize them," she said, calling Trump "ISIS' best recruiter."
    And of course she ended the debate with, "May the force be with you," which made me smile, and think, "Okay, maybe that line was written by a $20,000 a month consultant. But she still said it." 
    What's that Rolling Stones lyric? "You can't always get what you want," Mick Jagger sang, "but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need." I can't say I'm excited about the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. There is something, if not quite dead, then lifeless in her eyes. She's the Generic Stuffed Bear when I had my heart set on a Winnie-the-Pooh Bear. So Hillary Clinton is not what we want. But she sure is what we have. And she beats the alternatives, big time, which makes her what we need. So she will have to do. 

"I'll take some calico, clove gum and..."

     My first thought, when I went to usher Lillian Vernon into the great beyond yesterday, was that I had written something about her catalogue. But I hadn't. What I had written about was the Vermont Country Store, a similar vendor of bric-a-brac, defunct brands, and, to my vast surprise, a certain type of feminine device one would not expect to find sold along with Stove-top coffee percolators, Ralston and toe covers. This seems perfect for the Sunday before Christmas, and I had to share it.

     This story begins with a hairbrush and ends with a, umm, very different kind of personal care device.
     My wife's hairbrush had seen better days. Years of passing through her curly strawberry blond pre-Raphaelite tresses had worn down its bundles of boar bristles to a nubbin.
     Time to replace it. But alas, she pouted, showing the worn-out brush to me one day, such brushes aren't available anymore.
     Recognizing a challenge when I saw one, I secretly plunged into the Internet and found not just a brush like it, but the exact brush - half-round, boar bristle, from the same Fuller Brush Company.  Sold by the VermontCountry Store.  Swallowing hard at the $40 price tag, I ordered the thing as a gift.
     Only her lack of surprise after I gave it to her made me suspect I had been slyly led.
     Once I ordered something, of course, the Vermont Country Store had me in its sights and the catalogs began coming.
     The first, Spring 2011, sports a painting of the rustic red Vermont store on its cover, complete with rain barrel and American flag. It surprised me to see offered for sale new items that, when I notice older ladies wearing them, I always assumed had been purchased at a Woolworth's in 1965: muumuus (up to size 3X) and caftans, plastic rain bonnets and floral Latex swim caps. It was a revelation.
     And candy—caramel bull's-eyes and Starlight Mints, Herbal Horehound Drops and Black Jack Gum. Plus Whoopie Pies, Bread-in-a-Can, foodstuffs I hadn't thought about in 20 years: Lobster Newburg. Date Nut Bread.
     Maybe it's the cynic in me, but I made a connection between all that comfort food and those 3X muumuus — maybe if women skipped the former, they wouldn't have to buy the latter out of a special catalog.
     The rest of the merchandise was a hodgepodge designed to satisfy the desires of 80-year-olds trying to re-create the past. Like the "Easy-to-Use Cassette Recorder" (only $59.95). Or those aluminum ice cube trays with a handle to crack the ice. A steam iron that "has the familiar weight and heft that's missing from today's lightweight models."
     There were garments the existence of which I had not imagined — "toe covers," which are abbreviated socks designed for open back shoes. Bra extenders, for after you wolf back the canned bacon and Cinnamon Brioche with Praline Sauce and Cream Cheese Icing on page 27 and want to avoid buying new undergarments in a larger size.
    Perfumes like Evening in Paris, Coty, Wind Song. Shampoos like Lemon Up. Alberto VO5 conditioner. I felt like I was looking at my mother's dresser. Many of these companies don't exist anymore - the Vermont Country Store,  amazingly, re-creates the lost products.
     But that isn't why I'm writing this.
      No, the Summer catalog arrived a few days ago, touting new wonders: floral swim caps that were out of fashion in 1975. Stove-top coffee percolators. Ralston. Wooden Q-Tips. Sleeve garters. Buster Brown socks.
     To be honest, I almost missed the Really Amazing Part, right there in the lower corner of page 66: "Intimate Massagers: Quiet, Lightweight, and Discreet." My wife pointed it out.
      The Vermont Country Store sells vibrators and dildos, though never using those words. The catalog offers three models: the Dual Pleasure, the Pinpoint Accuracy and a Dr. Laura Berman signature device — she endorses them, the way Yogi Berra plugged catcher's mitts. Online, there are many more.
     In the catalog, they begin, directly, "Hormonal changes can affect a woman's responsiveness, and many couples find that intimacy benefits from a little help." But online, you can almost feel the awkwardness, as merchants used to hawking licorice whips pause, cringe, then present their new line of sex toys.
     "As we get older, we don't have to become less able," writes Lyman Orton, whose parents, Vrest and Mildred Orton, founded the store in 1946. "Here at Vermont Country Store,  we take a practical, no-nonsense approach to keeping you healthy, physically, emotionally, and . . . well . . . sexually, too!"
     Don't you love that little elliptic blush of modesty? I'm certain it eases the way for grandma to pony up $80 for a Dr. Berman-recommended, rechargeable "Aphrodite."
      I'm definitely not making fun of this — life's a long time, and you do what you have to.
      There's something charming, almost sweet, about a catalog that touts Bonomo Turkish Taffy on the front cover, fade-resistant American flags on the back and has an array of sex toys, including those hawked by the redoubtable Dr. Berman, tucked away inside.
              —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, June 22, 2011