Thursday, March 31, 2016

Donald Trump does backflips on abortion

     So Donald Trump, the, ah, front-running Republican presidential candidate, er, now, in the year 2016, said Wednesday ... that would be March 30, again of 2016, that ... ah ... women, who have abortions, after he is elected president of course, illegal abortions, since he, Donald Trump, once elected president, will make abortions illegal through some alchemy that somehow eluded the lesser talents of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford,  Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. 
     That those women, who still have an abortion, despite their no longer being legal, under the presidency of Donald Trump, will certainly be punished, in some way, for having that illegal procedure, though whether that punishment is through a fine, or prison or, heck, this is Donald Trump we're talking about here, whether by stripping the woman naked and drawing and quartering her in DuPont Circle, well, he didn't quite say. 
     "There has to be some form of punishment," Trump told Chris Matthews on MSNBC. 
     Moot now anyway. It took him only hours to backpedal away from his call for punishment — being Donald Trump means that nothing that comes out of your mouth carries such weight that it can't be retracted, contradicted or amended as need be. No, it is the doctors who should be punished. The women, being women, are not responsible for their actions, are the victims of abortion, along with their murdered babies....
    Don't trust me on this. His campaign statement said:
     "The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb."
     A reminder of two key points. First, that pro-lifers, or anti-abortionists, or whatever they call themselves, are really about controlling women. They say abortion is "murder"—that's the the word they use over and over and over—but hesitate at the well-then-put-the-murderer-in-jail-then part of their argument, because they really don't mean it. It's just words they say trying to get you to bend to their religion.
     And two, Donald Trump is so never going to be president. Not in a world where people are paying attention. At least I hope not. You do have to wonder, with states from Indiana to Texas hacking away big chunks of reproductive rights, whether women actually are paying attention. They should be, because they sure as hell have been warned. We all have been.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

IMAN Green ReEntry rebuilds homes, lives

Rashid Grant, 38, who spent 20 years in prison for murder, rehabbing a home in Chicago Lawn as part of Green ReEntry, a program of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.

   Last September, Jack Appleton, 62, was living in a shelter, looking for work. The search wasn’t going well, thanks to one aspect of his career that sticks out on a resume: 13 years in prison for bank robbery.
     “Most people don’t even want to talk to you,” Appleton said. “I just was looking for a chance.”
     Jack Appleton’s chance finally came.
     “I had just got out of Pekin, and was looking for a job and a place to stay,” he continued, pausing Monday morning from work rehabbing a brick bungalow on Fairfield just off West 63rd Street in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. “I heard from word of mouth about IMAN.”
     IMAN is the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a nonprofit organization designed to strengthen bonds between black and Muslim Chicagoans. IMAN’s programs include a medical clinic, outreach to store owners, and Green ReEntry, which helps the recently incarcerated get work experience and housing. We expect felons who have served their time not to return to jail, yet few employers are willing to risk hiring them. Green ReEntry not only helps them, but their community too.

To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

This is why the Republicans lose

     This is why the Republicans lose. Because you cannot stop time. It moves, forward, relentlessly, whether you like it or not.
     Oh, you can try. You can block nomination of a new Supreme Court justice to replace the deceased Antonin Scalia, out of the patently-offensive notion that Barack Obama no longer represents the will of the people in the last year of his term. You can announce that the court will just have to wait for that 9th justice. You can do that.
     But the Supreme Court still hears cases. And the 4-4 deadlock announced Tuesday means that the lower appeals court ruling in Friedrichs v. the California Teachers Association stands, denying the lawsuit by a group of California teachers who argued that forcing them to pay union dues was a violation of their 1st Amendment rights.
     The irony is, had Congress done its duty and approved Obama's choice, Merrick Garland, he very well might have sided with the conservatives. We'll never know, will we?
    Thanks Mitch McConnell. You can't hold back time. It squeezes around you and moves forward with or without your approval. 

At least he didn't say 'Work will make you free."

     "My policy is America first," Donald Trump told Fox News Monday, "and will always be, America first."
     "America first."
     Though anyone in the least bit historically-minded is already cowering in a paroxysm of disbelief, watching this presidential campaign in open-mouthed, Edvard Munch-strength horror, Trump's words have to send a new shiver across our blown-out sensibilities. 
    The America First Committee, the bund of isolationists and Hitler boot lickers that thrived for a year before Pearl Harbor, funded by xenophobes like Robert McCormick, starring sieg-heiling erstwhile hero Charles Lindbergh. It fought to make sure America was as unprepared for war as it could be, under the charmed notion that Herr Hitler and his allies would leave us alone as long as we didn't antagonize them.  Trumpeting safety, it endangered the country, leaving us vulnerable.  
     FDR, whom they loathed, warned them.
     "Let no one imagine that America will escape," he told Chicagoans during a visit in 1937, "that American may expect mercy, that this Western hemisphere won't be attacked."
      This is exactly what Trump et al believe. If we bar immigrants and refugees, we can somehow keep terrorists at bay. It is a theory that imagines all bad things hovering outside our borders. All we have to do is not let them in. When the truth is far more complicated. 
     I can't even insinuate that Trump intended the reference as a dog whistle to his terrified rabble of followers. Even if he weren't ignorant of the past, his supporters certainly are—a chunk of America doesn't even know there was a World War II, never mind sweating the home-front details—and only resent when the obvious parallels between Trump and Hitler are pointed out: the stoking of support based on demonizing already-scorned minorities, the barely suppressed—so far—calls to violence.  
     You really should watch the Fox News clip where Trump says it. They play a snippet of Barack Obama suggesting we should let more refugees in. Then they cut to Trump, who reflexively wildly-exaggerates what Obama has said into talk about "open borders" as if Obama had invited the world in. As if they really don't know that America's current refugee policy is a profile in cowardice. Our country has let a couple thousand Syrian refugees in the past year, while Europe has welcomed millions.  Even if terrorists were among them, pointing to terrorist acts as an argument against immigration is like pointing toward a car wreck as an argument for a 10 mph speed limit.
      Haters see risk in the things they already hate. They can't grasp the risk of America turning its back on its values, on the thing that made us a great nation to begin with, not to mention providing the grease our economy needs to work. They don't see the harm of being a ghetto of white ignorance that feeds the phenomenon in the first place. 
    Perhaps the most galling thing about Trump is that he is not alone. His success is due to his shouting things the GOP has been whispering for years. While Trump is acting as the Harold Hill of haters, high-stepping toward the White House with trombones at full blare, the House of Representatives passed HR 4731 out of committee Monday. The "Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act,"  would reduce and cap our already minuscule refugee admissions, allowing timid state and local governments to opt out of letting any refugees in at all. 
      This isn't "America First." This is "Fear First."

Monday, March 28, 2016

Playboy: not many sexy pictures, but lots of Don Cheadle

     When I heard that Playboy is for sale — its supposed worth, about $500 million — my first, unvarnished thought was: "Who's going to buy the magazine? I wouldn't buy a copy of the magazine."
     Last fall, when Playboy announced that they would no longer publish nudity, I wasn't even curious. Who cares? The world has hurtled past them.
     Now I realized that journalistic rigor demands I get my hands on an issue. Look at the thing. They used to send them free to the newspaper, where the fat brown envelopes, with discreet "PEI" — Playboy Enterprises Inc. — return addresses, would stack up, unopened. Life is just too short to browse $10,000 stereos and endless variations on the same pneumatic airbrushed babe.
     No more. I felt a trickle of dread at the thought of buying Playboy. There's still a whiff of shame associated with buying pornography.

     Tried the 7-Eleven at Franklin and Lake. The magazine rack had Maxim—the bawdy lad mag that kneecapped Playboy. The store also had the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, eating Playboy's lunch.
     No Playboy. Hidden behind the counter? No.
     Ditto for the CVS on Madison. Scientific American but no Playboy.
     The newsstand at Union Station carries it. At the register, I babbled to the clerk that this copy is for research.
     "There are many varieties online," she replied, enigmatically. "Do you want a bag?"
     "God yes," I exclaimed.
     Safely at home, I looked at it.
     Lo, how the mighty have fallen.
     The cover is matte, not glossy. A model wearing a pale blue bra, her hands braced behind her hips, pelvis thrust forward, hair in her face, a flash photograph that has the feel of a snapshot of your older sister taken at Wisconsin Dells in 1974.
     One hundred and six pages, total. Five pages of Playboy product ads—bunny logo baseball caps, Playboy cologne. Marketing is what keeps Playboy afloat, supposedly.
     Two photo spreads. The first, shot by Molly Steele "celebrated for her serene images of nature." Half a dozen of perhaps the most un-erotic photos ever to appear in a magazine not dedicated to dentistry. The third particularly sticks out: a woman in a lake, her head resting on her hand as if supremely bored, her face blocked by a brown clump of weeds. In the last, she clutches a sheet, tongue lolling out, no doubt intending to invoke Miley Cyrus, but more an expression of nausea. I can't imagine a horny 15-year-old boy would find interest in any of them.
     The second set, of Miss April, Camille Row, are a little better. Playboy centerfolds used to be shot in swank Victorian mansions; now, framed against beige shag carpets and goldenrod curtains, which I'm sure struck the Playboy editors as raw and real, but just looked tired. I showed the centerfold to my wife and she said, "That's not a flattering picture."
     There are articles—an interview with actor Don Cheadle, a short story, candidly titled "Insipidities," I soldiered through the tale, and could criticize it, but am too grateful to see fiction in a magazine in 2016. It brought to mind Samuel Johnson's quip, "the remarkable thing is not that it's done well, but that it's done at all."
     Which might be an epithet for Playboy. Nobody who works for a publication can take pleasure at its decline—we're all cooking in the same pot—and Playboy is as Chicago as the stockyards. Hugh Hefner, a proud graduate of Steinmetz High School, created it right here.
     But the first obligation of anyone intruding upon the public's attention is to be interesting, and, while acknowledging that I am not the target audience, I just couldn't see anything in the April Playboy—not one thing—that justifies tracking it down and paying $8. Maybe if you are really, really interested in Don Cheadle. But even then. Plug "Interview with Don Cheadle" into Google and nearly half a million hits come up.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter!

     A number of readers wrote to wish me Happy Easter, which is nice of them. I appreciate the sentiment even though, truth be told, I'm Jewish, and don't celebrate the holiday in any fashion. Not even with the consumption of a single jelly bean — not on principle, mind you. I'd eat the jelly bean if one were to come my way. 
     But none did.
     Indeed, I didn't realize today was Easter until a few days ago. It sort of snuck up. I hope that isn't insulting — some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that other people believe other things. It seemed like a callous neglect.
     It might be hard to believe, but growing up, I had no idea what the Easter story was until I saw the movie "Jesus Christ Superstar." Why would I? The subject never arose. It's a moving  story, and I can see why people recount it year after year.
     One reader, knowing my inclinations, wished me Happy Passover instead. But Passover doesn't come for nearly another month, at the end of April. The two might be twinned in the public mind, like Christmas and Hanukkah, but their occupying the same section of the calendar, roughly, is purely coincidental. I accepted his wishes in the spirit intended.
     I wouldn't have marked the holiday, but my pal, Michael Cooke, formerly of the Sun-Times, now editor of the Toronto Star, read my piece today on cemeteries, and sent some lovely photographs I wanted to share. They are of the burial ground and environs outside of St. Mary's Church, in the town of Kirby Lonsdale in Northern England, where he attended services last week.     
    The church is near the town where he grew up—he has relatives buried here—and parts of it date back to Norman times, making them nearly a thousand years old. 
     A reminder that this religion stuff has been with us a very long time, and if we approach it with a spirit of respect and appreciation for our fellows, there's plenty of good in every faith. Religion is a tool, one that can be used to ennoble or to tear down—you can use your faith to love others, or blow them up. The Christian faith inspired Easter, and its promise of rebirth, built and tended this gorgeous Anglican church for a millennia. Yet it is the same faith that inspired numerous  readers to write in this past week, and not pleasantly, explaining why their religion demands that they care about the birth gender of people using public restrooms, which is just daft. 
     But let's save that for another day. Happy Easter. I hope it was restful, fulfilling and happy for you. My wife and I spent an hour walking through the Chicago Botanic Garden, and while our lilies and crocuses are not quite as far as they obviously are in Cumbria, we enjoyed observing the Easter finery of the men and women, boys and girls who had come to stroll after church. 

Pause at cemeteries

     I pause at cemeteries, then go in. 
     Don't you? It seems the thing to do.
     Though I'm not sure why. It feels like dull curiosity, at the moment, a mild historic interest. Almost something embarrassment, prying in the affairs of others, treading on theri graves.
    But it's something of an obligation too. These people lived, they loved, they died, as shall we all, and left these traces, claimed their little space, a private country, eighteen square feet of territory made sovereign by their headstone forever.
    The least we can do is glance at them as we pass by, at this little garden of eternity.  
    Well, maybe not eternity. Not, in fact, forever. Nature is forever. Humanity is the frost on a pumpkin, the charge on a battery. Headstones melt in the rain it turns out, at least marble and limestone do. Granite lasts a bit longer, but those will crack or be carted off in their turn. It's only the illusion of permanence, to comfort the bereaved among us.
     Me, I find comfort in their ephemerality. Because it reminds us that for all the effort we put into our works, our careers and houses and such, great or small, it adds up to nothing, long term. A bigger monument, a plinth, a pylon, a crypt, which only makes the passerby shake their head at the irony, the futility. "Benjamin F. Barge" and his cap and gown and steepled glory is just as dead as the guy under an unreadable mound of softening stone. Reputation helps him no more than anonymity hurts the other. 
    How many people waste how many years piling up those stones? Stones that most people, truth be told, never contemplate at all.
    Though there is good in doing so. I hiked up a steep hill in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania last October to look over the cemetery. I did it the morning I left, as if it were some duty that had to be performed before I was free to leave the town. Because it was there.
    I pause at cemeteries, then go in, Because, coming out, I'm gladder to be alive. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Roll on, Big O....

     The mind's a funny thing.
     When I was in Japan, I saw Lawson stores everywhere; they're the second most popular convenience store in Japan, after 7-Eleven, with some 11,000 outlets all over the country.
     And I immediately knew I was familiar with them.  That before 7-Eleven, before White Hen, there had been Lawson's in Ohio, where I grew up.
     Lawson's began as a dairy in Akron, Ohio, in 1938. As the stores spread, they threatened the milk man monopoly -- you didn't buy milk in stores, y0u had it delivered. Lawson's began the practice of selling milk in gallon jugs, and battled milk inspection laws as they spread their stores —as many as 700 in Ohio and three neighboring states, 200 in the Cleveland area alone.  They also fought the Ohio blue laws that kept stores closed on Sunday.
     But I really didn't think about their sudden appearance all around me. I hadn't seen one in decades. Lawson's sold out to Dairy Mart in 1985 and the stores were renamed. I hadn't seen the familiar, comforting, familiar, fat white milk bottle on the blue shield in 30 years. But I instantly accepted its presence, a survivor in the Far East.
     All I thought was "What a great logo."
     It wasn't until I got back home that the full memory returned. We were having breakfast Sunday morning. Edie had set out some orange juice, a new brand, and I was reading the ballyhoo on the label. "Squeezed daily" it said.
     Rollllllll on, Big-O,....
     Suddenly, I was hearing music in my head.
     Get that juice up to Lawson's in 40 hours. 
     A TV commercial, making heroic "The Big-O Orange Run," rushing fresh orange juice up to vitamin C deprived Ohioans.
     Now one man sleeps while the other man drives, on the non-stop Lawson run.
      Of course the commercial is on-line.
      And the cold, cold juice in the tank car caboose, stays as fresh as the Florida sun.
     Now we're used to living in a small world. If our roses come from South America, our bricks from China, well, that's how it works. But once upon a time racing that OJ up from Florida was a big deal. It was something to sing about.

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Let's make the bastard deny it"

     If Ted Cruz weren't such a loathsome piece of venality, I might have sympathy toward him for having his private life — his alleged private life — splashed all over the National Enquirer

    It has to be a nauseous feeling for a monster of personal ambition such as Cruz to spend years struggling with salmon-to-spawn intensity toward a cherished goal of personal aggrandizement, and have it, if not within his grasp, please God no, then at least within the realm of possibility, Donald Trump notwithstanding.
     Then to see it hit this road bump. More like a tree: the National Enquirer, which has bird-dogged some of the biggest scandals of recent years, has implied that five, count 'em, five women have had affairs with Cruz. The mind reels...

    Excuse me a moment....
    Ewww, yuck!!!! Ptooey!
    I'm sorry, where were we? Ah yes, Cruz, who spent Friday busily denying the story.  Blaming Donald Trump "and his henchmen." I haven't heard the word "henchmen" used seriously outside of North Korean propaganda and Lemony Snickett novels.
    Cruz went on, at great length, denying these allegation. Stepping into the trap set for him. News outlets had ignored these whispers for months, and might have ignored the "thinly-sourced" Enquirer piece, had not Cruz so ham-handedly drawn lingering attention to them, violating the first edict of Crisis PR: Don't Spread the Negative Press Yourself.
     Which reminds me of the famous story about Lyndon Johnson. Usually the story hinges around the phrase "pig fucking," but the late, lamented Hunter S. Thompson, of all people, tells a fairly clean version:

     Back in 1948, during his first race for the U.S. Senate, Lyndon Johnson was running about 10 points behind, with only nine days to go. He was sunk in despair. He was desperate. And it was just before noon on a Monday, they say, when he called his equally depressed campaign manager and instructed him to call a press conference for just before lunch on a slow news day and accuse his high-riding opponent, a pig farmer, of having routine carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows, despite the pleas of his wife and children.
     His campaign manager was shocked. 'We can't say that, Lyndon,' he supposedly said. 'You know it's not true.'
     "'Of course it's not true!' Johnson barked at him. 'But let's make the bastard deny it!' "
     To be honest, I have a hard time believing the National Enquirer allegations—that would imply that somebody, man or woman, found Cruz attractive, and that is unimaginable to me. Not that he's so bad-looking, really, so much as he's living proof that a person's personality colors their features. Satan is handsome, too, until you get to know him. 

On lemons and ladies in the men's bathroom

     Hiroshima is known for its lemons.
     Well, not known here. In the United States we know exactly one thing about the city: atomic bomb dropped there at the end of World War II.
That's it. And I'd wager cash money that a good many Americans, say 20 percent, don't even know that. 
     Heck, I'm being generous. Twenty percent of Americans probably don't know there was a World War II.  (I can't find stats to back that up, but a telephone poll of 1,200 high school students in 2008 found 20 percent could not name a country the United States fought in World War II, which is close enough).
     But once actually in Hiroshima, as I was earlier this month, wandering among its pleasant outdoor shopping arcades, you see they have a big lemon thing going on—Hiroshima is to lemons as Florida is to grapefruit. Enough that I bought a handsome jar of Hiroshima lemon curd at the train station before heading West, where I eventually packed up to leave Japan....

     To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

29 years a staffer

      Twenty-nine years ago Wednesday, March 23, 1987, was my first day on the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times. I read every plaque between the 'L' stop at Clark and Lake, trying not to be too early, got to the office just before 9, and was assigned a story about a dog.
     I thought, to mark the occasion, I'd pull something I'm proud of out of the archive, and thought of this, for a variety of reasons. I wrote it on deadline. It's a news story, but I cast it in an unusual structure, one that I think echoed what I was writing about. You'll notice a familiar name in the first sentence—before she was a disappointing state's attorney, she was a promising assistant state's attorney. As you probably know, she was defeated by Kim Foxx earlier in the month. Girl X, whose name is 
Shatoya Currie, is 28 and lives in an assisted living facility. In 2012 she made news when the singer Jennifer Hudson sought her ought and brought her to a show.  Patrick Sykes was sentenced to 120 years in prison, where he remains. 

A. . . B . . . C . . .

     Letter by agonizing letter, assistant state's attorney Anita Alvarez slowly read off the alphabet Friday afternoon while a nearly blind, partially paralyzed, mute 13-year-old known to the world only as Girl X struggled to nod "yes" or shake "no."

D . . . E . . . F . . .

     Judge Joseph Urso's fourth-floor courtroom was filled to capacity—people waited in the hall for a seat to be vacated—yet was utterly silent during her testimony. From the back of the large marble courtroom you could hear the gentle clack of the clear plastic beads in Girl X's neatly braided hair as she moved her head in response to Alvarez's line of questioning.     
     Letter by letter, her account unspooled of her brutal sexual assault and beating four years ago in a Cabrini-Green apartment. Patrick Sykes has pleaded not guilty. He sat at the defense table, toying with a pen, occasionally gazing hard at Girl X.

G . . . H . . . I . . .

     Again and again, Alvarez recited the alphabet, her voice flat. First she would ask if the letter was in the beginning of the alphabet. If the answer was yes, she started with "A, B, C . . ." 
     If Girl X shook her head no, Alvarez asked if it was in the middle. If yes, she began with "I, J, K . . ." If no, she began with "R." When Girl X nodded, she went on to the next letter in her testimony.
     She walked Girl X through the night before the attack. A routine day in the life of a 9-year-old girl. A sleepover at a friend's house.
     Some were simple yes or no questions. "Did you see T.T. after school?" "Did you play with T.T.?" "Do you remember where you played with T.T.?"
     The testimony created the rare sight of the judge not sitting on the bench but standing, next to the court reporter, so he could see Girl X's responses. Urso often leaned forward, his hands on the table, watching closely, jumping in to explain an answer—"I believe it was a `No,' " he said. He seemed concerned about Girl X, asking several times if she was OK, or for her therapist, Barbara Robinson, who sat next to her clarifying her sometimes slight shakes of the head into "yes" or "no," to adjust her wheelchair headrest so she would be comfortable.

J . . . K . . . L . . .

     While testifying about a sexual assault is considered harrowing even for adults, Girl X not only kept her composure, but managed to laugh at one point. She began coughing, clearing her throat, and for a moment Alvarez seemed confused whether she was responding.
     "The witness is coughing," Urso said, and Girl X smiled and let out a laugh, as if she was thinking, as any teenager would, "No kidding, judge."
     She wore a Nordic sweater and gray pants, rolled up in wide cuffs. Her hands were tightly curled, drawn up against her chest: hands that hadn't played in four years and probably never would again.

M . . . N . . . O . . . P . . .

     Habit is hard to break, and Alvarez kept messing up, not asking a yes or no question, but asking questions like "Was it a man or a woman?" while not giving Girl X a chance to spell her answer. Finally Urso had to caution her, "Please ask a question that can be answered."
     "I'm sorry," she said.

Q . . . R . . . S . . .

     As a 13-year-old whose schooling has been interrupted by years of therapy, Girl X's spelling was at times shaky. Spelling what her attacker pulled out, she stopped after "K-N-I." She hesitated. "You're not sure how to spell it?" asked the state's attorney. "Did he pull a knife?"

T . . . U . . . V . . .

     The details of the alleged attack were spelled out in crude, necessarily short descriptive terms that can't be printed in a newspaper. The two word, eight-letter act she said her attacker ordered her to perform took nearly a minute to spell. She then testified that he urinated in her mouth—she spelled it "pe"—and that he fondled her, though she could not begin to spell the common word for her private parts.
     When the attack was over, she testified, she asked him a question.
     "Did you say anything?" Alvarez asked. Girl X nodded.
     "Can you spell it for us? Is it in the beginning?" Girl X nodded yes. "Is it A . . . ?" She nodded yes again.
     Gradually, Alvarez drew the following sentence from Girl X: "Ask can I scool?"
     His reply, Girl X spelled out, was "o . . . bitch." Then she said he began to smother her with a blanket.

W . . . X . . . Y . . . Z

     "Do you remember ever coming out of that bedroom?" A shake no. "Do you remember ever coming out of that apartment?" Again no.
     Defense attorney Robert Byman asked a few polite questions—about her favorite TV show, about whether she had one or two grandmothers, but Girl X did not respond to most of them.
     As she was wheeled from the courtroom, Girl X let out a sound, a loud, quavering wail that started out like a laugh and ended like a sob.
                                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 25, 2001

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Donald Trump, terrorist tool

     Donald Trump has been called a lot of things: real estate developer, short-fingered vulgarian, bigot, demagogue.
     All deserved.
     To that list, I'd like to add one more well-earned moniker: terrorist tool.
      Because really, after the Brussels bombing, short of wrapping himself in explosives and setting himself off in some crowded public place, nobody could do the terrorist's bidding with such alacrity as Donald Trump, running from station to station to spread the ISIS gospel.
     “Frankly, we’re having problems with the Muslims,” he told Fox News. “These attacks are not done by Swedish people. That I can tell you. We have to be smart. We have to look at the mosques and study what’s going on. There is a sick problem going on.”
     In other words, “Muslim = Terrorist.”
     Which is exactly the reaction terrorists are looking for when they commit these atrocities. Like Donald Trump, they are uncomfortable with the idea of a tolerant Western society that welcomes all faiths. Like Donald Trump, they don’t think it’s wise for the West to include Muslims either. Like Donald Trump, they’d prefer the cultures remain separate and apart.

     To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

RIP, Dr. Quentin Young

     Dr. Quentin Young, age 92, died March 7 in California. He was an energetic advocate for public health, and a man deeply involved with his time, whose patients ranged from Martin Luther King to the Beatles. You can read Maureen O'Donnell's fine obituary here. I tapped his deep institutional memory in 2001 regarding a problem that has only gotten worse since then.  

Dr. Quentin Young
     More than half a century has passed. But Dr. Quentin Young still remembers the grim details of his 20 days on the septic obstetrics ward at Cook County Hospital in 1948.
     "I was fresh out of medical school," says Young, 77, a well-respected Chicago physician. "I was a resident, an intern. I had OB service for 60 days at Cook County. At the time, there were three services. You had 20 days on each: Normal OB, for most women. Pathological OB, for the numerous women with heart and lung problems and TB. And then there was the third service: the so-called septic OB, a euphemism for women who had been damaged in self-induced or criminal abortions. Of course, all abortions were criminal then."
     And may someday again be. I called Young because one of George W. Bush's first acts as president was to cut federal funding to overseas family planning organizations that mention abortion to their clients -- a small step in itself, but the opening salvo in the coming battle to roll back abortion rights.
     Perhaps all the way back to 1948.
     A year most people do not remember. But Young does. It was not the happy time that lives in our nostalgia. He was seeing dozens of women a day who were so desperate to have an abortion they tried to do it themselves, using whatever was at hand.
     They douched with bleach or peroxide. They used paintbrushes and cocktail stirrers and pencils and knitting needles. And yes, they did use wire coat hangers.
     "Of course they did," says Young. "They hurt themselves, perforated their uteruses, they came in bleeding, with difficult-to-treat infections."
     The ones who were in comas, who had raging fevers, would be treated by the more senior doctors. Intern Young would finish up the more straightforwardly botched jobs begun by back-alley butchers, or themselves.
     "As a young intern, I was responsible for completing the septic abortions that the women had begun, to save them from ill health or death," he says. "The volume was so large. I would do 20 D&Cs a day."
     Damage was often severe.
     "Many became infertile," he says. "Many had abscesses. Many had to have hysterectomies. Some perished."
     The women were only lightly anesthetized, and Young would speak with them as he worked.
     "I was struck with how readily the women would talk about what they did," he says. "For my part, I was appalled they took that risk, and they would try to explain it to me, why it had to be, how their personal circumstance could not bear the having of an illegitimate child or, if they were married, how they had many children. There was a good deal of guilt about it.
     "If they had paid for the abortion, they would go to hotels and people of unknown credentials would put them on table, do the procedure and leave them there. It had all the grim vulnerability and fear we associate with criminal abortion."
     Young's score of days on the septic ward changed him.
     "I was fresh out of medical school," he says. "I had not formed views on abortion, other than that it was illegal and undesirable," he says.
     But his experience led to a fresh realization.
     "Abortion is not a modern development," he says. "Every civilization had it. The fact is, it will take place. The question went from should it take place to how to make it safest for women. I've never seen a happy abortion. It's always a source of great concern, thought and contradiction. For many the alternate is a ruined life, so they do it. I'm not an enthusiast for abortion. I've simply come to understand it should be medically safe."
     And it is medically safe, and legal. For the time being.

                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 25, 2001

Monday, March 21, 2016

Enough with the kid, already

     At one level, the Adam LaRoche's Kid Saga is one of those insane situations that only crop up in baseball. At another, it echoes with a common workplace dilemma.  

    It's spring break. My younger son is somewhere in Georgia — I'm fuzzy as to where — rowing with his NU crew team. My older son is busy with friends before he wings back to California on Tuesday.
     Neither is sprawled on my office floor.
     But not so long ago, they'd both be spending a lot of their spring break under the chairs in my office, vigorously manipulating their men — a ragtag squad of knights, soldiers, monsters, superheroes and the occasional farm animal.
     They loved coming to work with Dad. Loved it. Because they so adored their father, their hero ...
     Kidding. I'm savvy enough to know that I was the smallest part of that equation, which in their mind involved, in order of importance: 1) six hours of Nickelodeon 2) sugary drinks 3) breakfast at Harry's Hotdogs at Randolph and Franklin 4) lunch in a fancy restaurant and 5) me.

     Then I mentioned in a column that my older son had spent three days straight at work.
     The city editor promptly popped his head into my office to tell me exactly what designated hitter Adam LaRoche, whose 14-year-old son, Drake, had a locker in the team’s clubhouse, was told recently by White Sox management: Enough with the kid, already.
     Unlike LaRoche, I did not promptly quit. I’m mystified by the whole quitting thing. These baseball jobs, they’re hard to get, yes? Harder, even, than newspaper jobs?

To continue reading, click here. 

Update: In 2019, pulling this column up after three years, I checked up on Adam LaRoche to see how he was faring after quitting the White Sox over the incident with his son. I assumed I'd find him ensconced at another team. I didn't. He walked away from a $13 million contract with the Sox, the apparent end of his professional baseball career. Wow.     

Updated update: In 2021, I checked back on LaRoche, now a cattle rancher in Kansas, selling black angus beef nationwide. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Take Your Son to Work Or Else Day

Kid, what kid?

     The saga of Adam LaRoche, who quit the White Sox this week after they told him he was bringing his teenage son Drake to the locker room too much, prompted me to write a column for tomorrow about the jaw-dropping kerfuffle. In researching it, I pulled up this column from a decade back, about taking my own kid to the paper.

     Thursday was Take Our Daughters and Sons and Transgendered Offspring To Work Day, or whatever they call it, and when my oldest boy begged to go, at first I flatly refused.
     "I'm not having you miss a day of school so you can sit in the newsroom and watch Nickelodeon for six hours," I said.
     If that sounds harsh, and not the warm, Iliad-reading daddy image I cultivate, the explanation is that he was just at the office three weeks ago, during spring break. Both boys were. This "holiday," to use his word, seemed artificial to me, something contrived, cooked up to spur the negligent, like Sweetest Day. I saw no reason to conform.
     But youth is about conformity. My boy whined and wheedled. He insisted that kids were supposed to miss school. Nobody would be there, just him, all alone in an empty classroom, the orphan boy.
     I held my ground — I can do that sometimes. Until the unexpected — he burst out weeping, and wailed how he didn't go last year because I was in Israel and didn't the year before because I was in Taiwan and now he'd never go. Confronted with his steel trap memory, I wilted, The Bad Dad.
     "OK, OK," I said. "Fine, go." I know you're not supposed to give in, and know that by admitting it I will hear from every reader whose parents weren't wavering milquetoasts like me, about how parental firmness gave them spine and ginger and allowed them to live through the Great Depression on grit alone. Good for you. I couldn't stand seeing him cry and yielded, figuring: How long is he going to want to be with me?
     I don't know what he's getting out of it — he's in the newsroom right now, watching Tom & Jerry. The Sun-Times isn't like TribCo, which is probably entertaining staffers' kids with jugglers and ponies and actors dressed up as Col. McCormick giving workshops about how to paint enemies red. Here, they don't even put out a salt lick.
     But I'm getting something out of it. Your children are a mirror of yourself. Going out the door in the morning, my wife suggested my son write something for the column, something about his school.
     "But what if I write something bad?" he said.
     "Write good things about school," my wife instructed.
     My 9-year-old replied: "I want to write about its faults."
     My wife looked at me and we both burst out laughing. "It must be in the genes," she gasped.
                        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 29, 2005

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Technology nostalgia

The Lights of Other Days, by John F. Peto

     Glance at this painting at the Art Institute.  
     Not a famous work. Not "American Gothic" or "Nighthawks." Hung on a panel in a display of 19th century American design, perpendicular to the gallery, so I had to lean in to try to take a proper photo of it. 
     "The Lights of Other Days" by John F. Peto, a minor tromp l'oeil artist. 
     Still, the century-old work gave me pause, because he's doing something we like to do, and imagine is a modern emotion—rhapsodizing past technologies. In this case, the lightbulb, which had replaced the candles used for centuries, was about 25 years old and spreading rapidly. Peto gathered the dusty, tossed out candle holders and lanterns for one last group shot the way, for a decade or two, authors used to laud their typewriters, the whap-whap-whap of the keys, the thunk of the carriage return.
     Until they said, "Aw, the hell with it," and got a computer.
     You could see the nostalgia for a flame lit world. The soft glow. The romance.     
     But not so much that we still do it. We could. Candles are still around. You could light your house with them. But you don't, because it's bothersome and expensive and you'd end up burning the place down. That happened back then. 
     A reminder that nostalgia is a filter, a screen, that only lets the good part through. We remember the glow and not the burned down houses. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

You've been warned, honey

     Hey ladies!
     Put aside your mixing bowl of cookie batter, or lapful of tatting, or supermarket tabloid, or whatever inconsequential thing is occupying your tiny little attention span at the moment. Gather around. Old Uncle Neil has something important to discuss exclusively with my female readership.
     And no, this isn't another liberal cri de coeur — whoops, sorry gals, "cry from the heart" — over Donald Trump's raging sexism, his continual put-downs of women and descent into vulgarity. Yes, that kind of thing is infectious. No doubt part of the pathology explaining Trump is the unspoken male desire among his reality TV fans to get back to living in a man's world. Less worrying about bruising the delicate sensitivities of feminists. More seeing who can pee the farthest.
     To be honest, a Trump nomination, while steadily moving from impossible farce to inevitable tragedy, is in my mind still among the realm of Things too Awful to Imagine. And perhaps with good reason. The GOP establishment isn't frantic because of Trump's policy stands — they agree with him; they want a wall. No, they're frantic because in any half-sane world, Trump loses to Hillary Clinton.

To continue reading, click here.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Killing kitties is hard

     City Council is considering an ordinance that forbids animal shelters, including Chicago animal care and control, from killing unadopted pets. The bill pushed by Ald. Ed Burke, the father of ill-considered ordinances, which makes me wonder whether all aspects of it have been thought through. Will it, like the plastic bag ordinance, make the situation WORSE, by jamming shelters with animals they can't get rid of?  What will become of the tens of thousands of animals that come into custody of Chicago and are not adopted? It reminded me of the time I slid by the city animal control center to watch them euthanize animals.

     Too bad you didn't stop by the Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control and adopt that gray-and-white kitty I saw there the other day, because now Jennifer Harnisch has to kill it.
     And killing kitties is hard. They can't simply be put inside the big rolling blue metal cages along with the older animals and wheeled into the gas chambers. Kittens are too young; they have too much hemoglobin in their blood. Harnisch has to grab each kitty, individually, and inject it with an overdose of sodium pentobarbital.
     That isn't the tough part, however. Picking up kittens and injecting them is easy, physically—at that age they are so trusting, so affectionate. The tough part is thinking about it. Although, like anything repeated over and over again, it becomes routine.
     "You get used to it," said Harnisch, 26, who said she is "bothered but not haunted" by her job at the Southwest Side center. "It's still very hard. I try to zone it out and not think of the actual act I'm doing. I don't think I could bring myself to do it if I knew."
     That thought came back to me a lot. I don't think people know. Know, for instance, that the puppies they drop off, rather than being extra-adoptable (people love puppies) are usually killed the next day. They can't be adopted until they're fixed, they can't be fixed until they're 2 months old, and young ones can't be kept that long.
     Even in the new facility, built in the mid-1980s, with cheery red-enameled brick and clean interiors, there is room for only 600 animals.
     That sounds like a lot. But last year 28,314 dogs and cats, with a good number of rabbits, guinea pigs and the occasional strange beast (such as a Sonoran Sidewinder) were brought to Animal Control. Only 1,677 left through the front door -- adopted into homes. Another 1,318 were recovered by their anxious owners.
     And the rest? Do the math. The majority -- 25,319 -- left through the back door, dead, in big fiberglass tubs filled with thick plastic liners. Pull back the plastic and take a look. They appear to be sleeping.
     Putting them to death is relatively painless, supposedly, but still not pretty. The animals, in groups, are placed in one of three gas chambers -- stainless-steel cubes about 4-feet-square, with a sliding door of scratched and smudged glass.
     A worker stands in the next room and pushes a button, watching through two chunky glass blocks built into the wall. The process takes 25 minutes. Carbon monoxide, pumped from tanks, fills the cubes.
     The dogs yowl and scratch. They move even after they are dead. Eventually the chambers grow quiet, and the gas is evacuated. Then the bodies get dumped. The Department of Streets and Sanitation sends trucks to take them to the incinerator on Goose Island: 369,274 pounds of pets last year.
     Last week, the city announced an increase in Animal Control staffing and adoption advertising so that fewer dogs and cats are destroyed. Actually eliminating the practice seems impossible right now.
     To stroll through Animal Control is to pass from sweetness to horror and back. You have to steel your heart.
     There, in the break room, is Popeye, an adorable Boston terrier that is one of three pet mascots at Animal Control. He's missing an eye -- he was hit by a car and his previous owners, confronting the prospect of medical expense, abandoned him.
     There, in the room with the buttons that start the gas, is a guillotine with sheet-metal sides and a long, rusty-yet-sharp-looking blade that is driven down pneumatically. Not that they use it to put animals to death—it's only used in rabies cases, when state laws mandate that the brains be examined. The heads are sent to the Health Department.
     This all makes grim reading, but the executive director of Animal Control, Gene Mueller, didn't try to hang a lot of fancy tinsel on the operation.
     When I asked him how he rationalized his job, he said this:
     "I'm a veterinarian. I'm involved with animals because I love animals. I have the terrible duty for society of disposing of their mistakes. We try to provide a humane method of euthanasia for these unfortunate animals.To end up here is far better than being run over by a car or tortured or some other horrible fate."
     Hard to argue that. Hard to see what happens at Animal Control and then ignore it. Ignoring it is part of the problem. People have these romantic notions about animals. They don't want their pets neutered—oooh, too unnatural. They don't want them to be kept indoors. Oooh, too much like jail. They want them to experience motherhood.
     "What everyone thinks is, 'I can find homes for these six puppies,' " Mueller said. "What they fail to understand are the implications. First, they've taken six homes from shelter animals, animals that already exist and will be destroyed because they don't have homes to go into. Second, you have no control over what is done with those puppies. You give them away, each could have six puppies. The problem increases geometrically."
              —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 11, 1998

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Our M & M race for Senate

     Illinois became a state in 1818, and its first two senators were elected to staggered terms: Jesse B. Thomas, for six years, and Ninian Edwards for two, before running for, and winning, his second, six-year term.
     This kept the senate elections staggered, generally, and formed two tracks, like M & Ms racing at a Bulls game, and it's easy to view them as in competition.
     Spoiler alert: Track No.1 is winning.
     Track 1's Thomas proposed the Missouri Compromise that limited slavery, and Track 1, as we shall call it, has seen a pantheon of greatness—Stephen Douglas. Paul Douglas—and skill, such as Charles H. Percy, Paul Simon and his protege, Dick Durbin who, since 1997, carved out a niche for himself as, if not a name that will echo through history, then a no-drama workhorse twirling a dozen policy plates at once, bringing home the bacon to Illinois, year-in, year-out.
     But on Track 2....

     It's first occupant, Edwards, who as governor sent the Illinois militia to ambush Indian tribes, was forced to resign midway into his second term, after being exposed penning anonymous, unfounded attacks on a political rival.     

To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Escape from O'Hare, OR, the Farmers' Revenge

     It's a 12 hour flight from Tokyo to Chicago. Which sounds unendurable. But with in-flight movies, it's really not that bad, particularly for a guy who doesn't see many movies. I never thought about movies, ahead of time. I brought books. But instead I binge-viewed; I saw more on this trip to Japan—six total—than I have in the theater during the previous year ("The Big Short," "The Martian," "Bridges of Spies," "Boyhood," "Spotlight" and an HBO documentary on Banksy's month-long art project in New York City. 
     So the flight over and back, not a problem.
     The hour after we arrived in Chicago, however....a little harder to accept. 
     There's just something almost cruel about stumbling off the plane, breathing the air of freedom, thinking, "Ah, I'm home!" then turning the corner to see this mass of humanity shuffling through our Sham Security Theater. 
     I've gone abroad many times, but never remember it being this bad.
     There were three lines, one after the other.
     The first was the longest, but that at least kept moving. This line was the line shunting citizens to the banks of machines where you scan your passport, declare that you're not bringing in drugs and sides of beef and such,, get your photo taken in the worst, low rez, exhausted picture of your lives.
    Say, 20 minutes.  At least you don't have to hunch over a form with a pencil anymore, which is more than Japan can say. 

    Once that line is surmounted, slip in hand, you are  then are shunted into the second line. Where you wait to hand the slip with the low rez photo to a customs agent, who eyeballs you, perhaps sniffs for the scent of decaying beef, then waves you on, where you get your luggage.   
     We were worried ours wouldn't arrive: they had paged us at the ticket counter at Narita just to make sure we really were owners of the luggage connecting from Kumamoto, which seemed an Ominous Sign. 
     But there it was, not in Malaysia at all, as we expected, but right there on the carousel, by the time we got to it. I grabbed my bag and was ready for the bolt to freedom, like a diver breaking the surface for the first gulp of sweet air, when we realized the only way out was to join yet another line, snaking around the baggage carousels, to get past the agriculture department, still looking for that beef. I watched a cute, twitchy  little beagle being led around the luggage, adding an absurd element. You want your police state to have German shepherds, not pugs. It was if there was a calliope wheezing in the corner.
      This cruelest line had no ropes to guide it, with people grabbing their bags from the carousel cutting in, as opposed to going to the back, the way suckers like me did. My brother started chatting with a Japanese businessman who was going to miss his connecting flight, and gallantly tried to intercede on his behalf.
    "What if you need to get to a connecting flight?" he asked a uniformed—I almost wrote "costumed"—employee.
     "It's a universal exit," he replied. "They couldn't care less."
      The people who heard that last sentence laughed, despite ourselves.
      "God bless America," I said. At least we're free to be honest about what a hash we make of things and how indifferent we are to the people we supposedly serve. We finally shoehorned by the agriculture guy, who took our low rez photo slips and waved us through.
      At that point, I phoned American Taxi, as I always do, and maybe five minutes later Cab No. 12 was waiting outside gate 5E to whisk me home, just like they said it would.
     I suppose that's the power of commerce as opposed to government. The feds already have my money, so any service they provide is nearly charity. American Taxi, however, wants my $30, now and in the future, and so have worked out a system where they  get what I need ASAP. 
    Not to slam the government, per se. We have Republicans to do that, and they've undermined the government, as if to prove their point. starving it of resources, so it is stretched and repurposed and multi-tasked, well, I suppose it could be worse and probably will be. And not to take anything away from the various Customs and Immigration and Homeland Security agents, who were doing their best, individually. Still, it's a sad commentary on our inability to get things right—I don't think we were ever required to pause more than 30 seconds at Narita when leaving Tokyo. 
     My brother summed it up best.
     "Thank God Chicago didn't get the Olympics," he said.  We could barely handle the regular arrivals on a normal Monday afternoon.


Monday, March 14, 2016

Flying home

     Well, the trip's over, and I'm flying home. I feel like I've been gone forever. My mind's too fuzzy to even try to write anything cogent.  But luckily I tucked away a little something, just in case.  Back to more substantial fare tomorrow.      

     So I took my 100 readers to "Romeo and Juliet" a couple weeks back. Everyone seemed to have a good time. One thing I noticed is the audience, which at the Lyric can skew toward the antediluvian, seemed considerably younger: college students. High school students, even. I assumed they were drawn by love of the romance of the familiar Shakespeare tale of romance.
    Or maybe not-so-familiar. 
    As we were leaving the lovely Civic Opera House, I overheard heard a young woman exclaim to another:
     "You didn't know they died?"

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Japan Diary #6—Defending the castle

      KUMAMOTO—  Who doesn't love a castle? They look cool, first. They have this wonderful aura of protection. We all want to be safe within castle walls, secure against the danger and the enemies we know, or sometimes just imagine, are outside, trying to get at us.
     Arriving at this scenic place in southwestern Japan, a six-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo—I expected a rural nowhere—I was pleasantly surprised to find a vibrant city of 700,000, with a university and lots of bookstores, albeit selling books I can't read, and this edifice looming over the town.
    It's natural to head for the castle, to take a look around. 
    They give you a lot of history at these places. The 13 generations of Hosokawa clan shogun who held power here from when the castle was first built in 1607. Not that the building before us is that old — and I always sniff around for this detail when I visit these kind of places. Some sites hide it, but here they are fairly upfront. Burned in the Satsume Rebellion of 1877; the castle was reconstructed in 1960, which means we're the same age. 
      I'd say the castle is holding up better.
      That would be enough to chew on, just seeing a historic castle that is really a facsimile of a castle that what was once there. A sort of ghost castle. I suppose you could say it is the same castle, the same entity, in the way I'm the same person I was 30 years ago, except that my cells have more or less all been replaced with new ones.
     As I read my way up to the tower and down, pausing for that moment of frisson by the open air windows atop the thing, looking at that drop, imagining. Then I came to how the castle was burned down. Not by any enemy, though the enemy was both real and nearby. It was the defenders of the castle, putting some structures below to the torch, to deny their opponents access or a place they could set up artillery. Sparks from the flames they set were carried by the wind, sw
irling behind them and up the hill, and burned down the castle they were trying to protect. The castle defended them, but they couldn't defend it.
     Typical.  Whatever you fear, whatever you worry about, seldom can hurt you with the devastating efficiency you use to hurt yourself. The bogeymen the Republicans dread, from immigrants to Muslims to gays, are really only helping the country; the damage comes from the fires the GOP has been setting for 25 years, trying to stop their progress.
At first, the official story was that the rebel army burned the
castle down. The problem was, they hadn't arrived yet. 
     But let's not be political. You don't have to be an imploding political party to burn your castle. How many gun owners turn their guns upon themselves? Far more than ever thwart a criminal. How many good people break down fearing something they suspect is out there? The stress gets us far more than the things we're stressed about do. We're in a good position, safe, secure, behind the walls, but we don't accept it, and, trying for even more protection, burn the damn thing down ourselves, preparing for an enemy that might never come.