Thursday, June 30, 2016

State of the Blog: Year Three

    "Sooner or later, it just becomes your life," sings Bruce Springsteen.
    Not to compare this blog to prison, which is what the song "Hard Time" is about.
    Though both do have certain daily routines. Jail has head counts and mealtimes and cell inspections; the blog has click counts and post times and reader comments.
    With the end of the blog's third full year today—1095 consecutive days—it's now a bona fide ingrained daily part of my life, and maybe yours too. But just a part, a small part for you, and a larger-yet-still-not-all-that-big part for me. More of a regular duty, like flossing, only I don't floss with equal diligence.
     Enough throat-clearing. To the all-important stats. Year One brought 385,679 hits. Year Two, 499,423. This year ... drumroll please ... 577,617, as of Wednesday morning, or 48,134 a month, for an increase over the previous year of about 13.5 percent.
    Thirteen point five percent.
    Not the sort of skyrocketing leap the internet is famous for.
    Roughly half the increase of Year Two.
    I'm not going to smear ash on my head and squat at the virtual city gates in mourning over my rate of readership increase slowing. I shouldn't care at all, and I suppose I really don't, not much, since I'm soldiering onward anyway. It gets more readers a month than "Moby-Dick" got in its first 30 years of publication, not to compare the two.
    The news is generally goodish. June, and seven of the past 12 months, scored above 50,000 hits, which I decided is some kind of threshold of significance. Last August topped out at a record, 59,998. Nobody seemed to miss the 2016 poster, so not doing one was a good call. Though I do have an idea for a swell 2017 poster, so I might create one anyway, just for the fun of it. There was a flash of real media recognition: every goddamn day was the only news organization to cover the arrival speech of the Sun-Times new publisher, Bruce Sagan, and Crain's Chicago Business used a photograph of mine, crediting the blog, so that was fun. 
     Still, the value of the blog seems greatest to myself. When I reached into the buzz saw of gun nuttery earlier this month, I could carefully explain what happened right here, without worrying about getting the thing into the newspaper. The process was medicinal, and helped me squeegee the right wing spittle off my body.
     The blog made a little money, thank you Marc Schulman and Eli's Cheesecake, which for the third years ran advertisements at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The ads led to at least one order, I am certain, because I ordered a cheesecake and sent it to Tate—or, more accurately, his kid, at his request—as thanks for his scrupulous volunteer copyediting of the blog. Which reminds me, I should write a post on the idea of Gratitude Sweets...
      Another day. At moments when there is not a lot to say I've been trying not to say a lot. So in closing out Year Three, thank you for reading, and for commenting, and for caring about this almost as much as I do. This blog strikes me as significant, and while that must be an error on my part, driven by the vanity and myopia that inspires so much error, it is my error, and I am sticking with it. Everyone else clings to their folly, why should I be any different?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Constantine, Michigan

    On the road, my wife and I try to avoid fast food restaurants because they serve not just crap, but boring, familiar, unhealthful, unappetizing crap. 
     Which means picnic lunches, if we've prepared them. If not, then venturing away from the tollway, looking for the ever-more-elusive local restaurant. At the back of my mind is "Mom's Diner," with Mom—curly haired, fat cheeks, powerful forearms, rolling out the pie crust, gazing out the window, somehow knowing we're about to arrive. ("Howdy. Take a seat anywhere. Leave room for pie—they should just be cool by the time you're done with supper.") 
    Yes, I know. There is something of the connoisseur's delusion to the idea—Mom's Diner can be lousy too; worse than McDonald's (at least once a trip I point out that local roadside eateries were so famously slow and consistently horrible that nationwide chains were embraced particularly for being quick and clean).
    But part of our vacation fun is searching out a bit of local color, and seeking homemade pie.
    And sometimes learning something. 
    Heading home Tuesday, I pulled off the road at the exit we were passing about 12 noon and we found ourselves in Michigan, heading north on 131. There was a commercial traffic bypass, and a "Historic" downtown local route. We went historic, ending up on Washington Street, the main drag of the village of Constantine, on the St. Joseph River.
    One glimpse of the downtown and the restaurant almost became moot. It was a once prosperous, small red brick storefronts with turrets and trim, now empty and forlorn. A town on hard times, which was mystifying, because there were several enormous agricultural companies—Pioneer Seeds,  Monsanto corn—on the outskirts. Maybe they were completely mechanized, because whatever profits they generate obviously aren't being spent in downtown Constantine. The ice cream parlor had gone out of business. Most of the windows were empty, or covered with plywood painted black. The several amateur efforts at retail, craft stores and such, had died on the vine. 
    To be fair, several buildings had their moldings brightly painted and seemed to have thriving businesses: a cafe, an art galley. But fully 80 percent of the downtown strip was shuttered.
    We ate at the Harvey Restaurant, which the waitress told us had been in business since 1908 (actually, 1903) making it the oldest restaurant I had ever been in that retained not a whiff of whatever charm it might have once possessed over the decades. It was 70 percent empty at lunchtime on Taco Tuesday. A grilled cheese sandwich cost $2.
     After lunch we explored downtown. Maybe I have election on the brain, but I kept thinking this is why people are willing to support Donald Trump, in spite of all reason and the demands of patriotism and humanity. They'll follow anybody who promises to deliver the country from this sort of dismal descent in to ruin. If you saw your town turn into this, it would be heartbreaking. It was sort of heartbreaking when it wasn't your town, just to come upon it for the first time.
     Later, I tried to find out what had happened to Constantine: named for the Roman Emperor, for you fans of irony. The population didn't vanish—the village is as big as it ever was, 2,000 people, the same for the past 25 years. There was a bypass put in three years ago, the idea being get commercial traffic off Washington Street. Maybe it worked too well and siphoned all traffic out of Constantine's downtown. 
      So maybe the injury was self-inflicted. Maybe there's some other factor I haven't considered. A big Walmart in nearby White Pigeon, perhaps, that sucked all the business away. And this isn't to suggest it isn't a nice place to live: we saw children playing on swings, an elderly man on an enormous John Deere mower cutting grass. So no insult intended. I liked the place, tipped well, and was glad to have left money there.
      But the general sinking feeling we felt, walking around, lingered with us. I felt zero big city hauteur. The presidential election has killed that in me, for good I hope. If the populist revolt that gave us Donald Trump's candidacy is indeed thwarted, then Agenda No. 1 needs to be to figure out how to get these buildings in Constantine unboarded and back into business. They had a purpose when they were built. They need a purpose again. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Go to the National Portrait Gallery

Shaker cabinet on display at the National Portrait Gallery

     Heading home, bathed in that end-of-the-vacation relaxed calm, with not a lot to say, except this: Next time you're in Washington, D.C., go the National Portrait Gallery. It's great.
     I'm a creature of habit, and go to the same places: the Museum of American History, the Air & Space Museum, and other places with "Smithsonian" in front of their names. I'd never been to the National Portrait Gallery; I thought it would be some dry collection of presidential portraits, and while those are indeed there, it also offers a thoughtful exploration of the world of human images, with an impressive modern art museum tagged on as well. Luckily, my older son, working here for the summer, took me there, and what a wonderful place it is. That's all I have to offer: next time you get the chance, go. You won't be disappointed. I didn't know what was there, but now I do. And so do you.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The secret shadow government uncovered

    Conspiracy theories are insults to history, a shortcut for credulous people to ape intelligence. I understand that. They allow those unwilling or unable to process how life actually works to try to make sense of a confusing world. They offer tidy explanations to untidy realities, and are almost a kind of faith in God: stuff doesn't just happen, but powerful forces make stuff happen. 
     Usually I am immune to such things, and view them as the sad commentary on the limitations of human intelligence that they are. But I must be susceptible too because, well, maybe I should just tell the story.
     We were walking south on 14th Street in Washington D.C. toward the American National History Museum when I spied this pair of flags. One the American flag, obviously, and the second, well, I didn't know what it was. Three red stars and two red bars. On a flagpole equal in height with the American flag. An attractive and well-designed flag, yet not a flag that was familiar to me — how odd to see an unrecognizable flag. I looked around, to see where I was, and noticed the same flag on a white vehicle parked on the street. On a number of white vehicles actually. 
     What's going on here? My first thought—my very first, immediate thought—was this was obviously the shadow government that nobody knew about, yet had a kind of sovereignty and its own flag (which shows you the idiocy of such theories: like the shadow government that nobody knows about is going to announce itself with a big honking flag).  The United Corporate Overlords of America, maybe.
     No idea where that came from. Too many James Bond movies maybe. I somehow kept my fears of the Big Strange United States Agency That Runs Everything in Secret Yet Has Its Own Flag (these conspiracy theories just naturally get more and more wild) subdued while I toured the Smithsonian, saw the Star Spangled Banner (at least that hadn't been replaced by some strange banner acknowledging our subjugation to the International Monetary Fund). We met my son outside the museum—he couldn't be expected to be anywhere before noon on the weekends. As we walked back north, heading toward sushi burritos for lunch (much better than they sound) we passed the flags again. I pointed the flags out and wondered what they could possibly be. 
    "I don't know," he shrugged. "The Washington D.C. flag, I guess."
     Which of course it is. We were passing the District of Columbia's government building. The flag, I discovered, is based on George Washington's coat of arms, adopted only in 1938. I'm not alone in admiring its sophisticated look: in 2004 it was voted the best designed city flag in the United States. 
     Like somebody turning a reflection on their glasses into an alien mothership, I instinctively thought up a wild, complicated, wrong solution before considering the simple correct one, creating a shadow government in my head before I thought of the unique little district we were traipsing through. The typical crazy fiction rushing in to fill a vacuum of fact. But that's people for you, and I'm people. Let it never be said that, despite aspirations otherwise, I can be as dense as the next guy, if not more so. So a little embarrassing, yes. But not too embarrassing that I can't tell you about it. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The summer before everything changed, maybe

     The presidents were not all men of greatness. The briefest stroll through the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's exhibit on the presidents confirms that. There was dim party tool Warren G. Harding and crony catspaw Ulysses S. Grant. The feckless and imbecilic James Buchanan and the tragically twisted Richard Nixon. 
    You couldn't be blamed for thinking, "Donald Trump will fit right in with these clowns." 
    But I didn't think that. Instead I fought off creeping dread by focusing on the pillars of greatness: George Washington offering his resignation when he could have been king (told that Washington was returning to private life, George III quipped, "If he does that, sir, he will be the greatest man in the world.") Abraham Lincoln holding the nation together with his honesty and his Biblical eloquence. "All men are created equal."
     Britain pulled out of the European Union my first morning here. The news filled with the spectacle of a nation submitting to xenophobia and fear, leaping off a cliff at the behest of mavericks who had no plan other than to trash the system and see what happens next. It's like burning down your home to marvel at the pretty fire.
    And I couldn't help but feel: we're next. It's in the air, madness. Like before a war. "The lights are going out, all over Europe." 
     Usually it's a thrill. This time, it was scary to walk through these wide federal plazas, with their gleaming beige stone buildings. To think, "This is the Department of Commerce that Donald Trump will be responsible for. This is the White House where he will live." 
      With the bad news from Britain, as the country, in an act of collective derangement it instantly regretted, voted to be a smaller, more cut off and less prosperous nation, it was easy to suspect we had now entered a world gone mad, that the populist rage that has for so long simmered under our politics had truly exploded. Angry people don't weigh their best interest. They knock over lamps.
     Brexit is strike two -- strike one was the Philippines electing that murderous madman, Dutarte. Will Trump be strike three? Intelligence is out of favor. Sacrifice is out of favor. Patriotism, the cheap veneer zealots spray paint over their un-American acts. Trump's jaunt to inspect his property, his crowing that the collapse of the pound will help drive tourists to him, would look exaggerated in the Onion. I would have thought that such a performance would send Trump's fans away, shaking their heads. No, they love him even more, for being so self-centered, just like they would love to be, if only they had actual selves of their own to center around.
     That sounds alarmist, maybe even hysterical, and probably is. I hope it is. But the vendors are selling Trump t-shirts on the mall. A Trump sign is on display at the Smithsonian already. Vanguards of his arrival, perhaps, and reminders that he is already here, now, running somewhere. Donald Trump is a fact of history now. Even if he is—please God—defeated, he still ran.  No so deep a shame, really. Nobody walked around mourning that Barry Goldwater ran as the Republican nominee in 1964.
    But it could be worse. Maybe will be worse. Definitely could be. 
    The British leaving the European Union shows that people will act contrary to their self interest if you poke at their fears. The prospect of having some Turks move in down the street was enough to make regions opt out of something that was giving them economic benefit now, and they are only now realizing it, in what has to be the worst hangover ever. 
    The Washington Post ran this tragic paragraph Saturday:

     Polling showed the areas that had the most to lose and the least to gain from the Brexit are precisely those where the referendum saw the most support. In other words, the places — the most export-heavy regions —most hurt by the economic disruptions caused by Brexit could be the places that pushed hardest for it...
     The people who will be hurt most by Donald Trump — the uneducated, the poor — are those who most want him to wave his wizard's wand over their problems and make them go away. Like those who got health insurance through Obamacare and still hate Obama, their passions and fears overwhelming everything else.
     This is probably the last time I'll be in DC before the election. And I don't want to give the impression that I stumbled through the place in an agony of dread over Donald Trump. I had fun, as I always do. But those Trump t-shirts, and the enormous "TRUMP" sign outside the old Post Office, being developed into yet another one of his properties, no doubt using someone else's money. They seemed like warnings. The smart money says he'll give us all a good scare and then go away, leaving 53 percent of us sadder and wiser. But then, the smart money also said that Britain would stay in the European Union.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Regular readers have probably figured out that I'm out-of-town. And while it once would have struck me as unfair to use a photo from outside the Chicago metro area, given the 100 percent success rate of readers solving the Saturday Fun Activity, not matter how opaque the image, nothing strikes me was unfair at this point.
     So where did I spot this young man—Ray Mills, of Washington, D.C.—in such an appropriately Rodin-esque pose? Place your guesses below. The winner receives my not-artistic-itself-but-trying 2015 blog poster. Good luck. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Exit 9

     I could not get a photograph of the highway signs in Indiana. Which is too bad. Because while I can describe them, no words can capture the mournful feeling, almost a shock, of seeing these worn blue signs, half the letters fallen away, saying, you finally figure out, "EXIT 9." 
     I'll try to get pictures on the way back.
     Yes, we've heard the cliche "crumbling infrastructure" for years. Yes, Indiana is a little slice of the Southland right here in the Midwest. Yes, they privatized their tollway in 2006, selling it to a company that promptly went bankrupt. 
    Still, to see the decaying signs. Seeing an illegible highway sign in America—it's unnerving, like passing Elkhart and noticing an exit for Kinshasa. 
    It shouldn't be like this. Not here. The weeds growing taller than the guardrails. The hastily patched roads. The shift to Ohio was dramatic—thank you fracking.
      I think all Americans can agree we want to have good roads. Without them, we can't get around, can't do business, and can't look at ourselves in the mirror. Even Donald Trump spoke of the importance of fixing our roads and bridges Tuesday—though in typical fashion, got the solution wrong, our only hope for improvement, he claimed, being to elect him and "only" him.
    Trump even running is a sign that America has gone into the ditch. That "Exit 9" sign is another. I'll never forget the surprise, the puzzled disappointment. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dunk Tank

     Mark Twain said many clever things. So there is a tendency for the public to assign anything witty and not already identified with another author to Twain. Kurt Vonnegut gets the same treatment.
     With that in mind, I don't know if my former city editor, Don Hayner, actually said everything I credit to him, or just enough that I began connecting sharp lines to him, because I worked for Don longer than any other city editor in my nearly 30 years at the Chicago Sun-Times.
     He certainly gave the always useful advice, "Don't let him live in your head, rent-free," referring to one of my more odious colleagues. It doesn't always drive out whatever jerk is currently squatting in the back of the brain, snarling. But it helps nudge him toward the exit.
    And I'm fairly certain it was Don who explained the notion of the columnist as Dunk Tank Clown. We've all seen Dunk Tank Clowns, at county fairs and church picnics. A bum in crude face paint, sitting on a collapsible bench, usually smoking a cigarette, hectoring the passersby, goading them into investing a dollar or two or five for three bean bags or softballs to hurl toward a ring target—hit the target, the clown goes in the water.
     I admit, I do not often envision myself that way. Reality is a confusing whir and I'm trying to organize it, explain things, and bring readers places they didn't know were there. I try to run a classy shop. 
     But the Dunk Tank Clown aspect of my job is always lurking. You catcall the mob, they gather and put their money down, grumbling. A lanky lad winds up and throw. He misses, usually, you cackle. "Is that the best you can do?"
     Now and then, though, you end up in the tank, dropped into cold water. Such as when Friday's column on trying to buy a semi-automatic rifle ricochetted around the sphere of gun lovers, then echoed off into the reality distortion field of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. 
     Splash! Hundreds of emails and tweets. Maybe thousands, I lost count. All saying the same thing, more or less. I don't know why it was stressful: these people don't know me, don't have the facts. 
    But it was. Every single message reflected the Slasher Movie ethic that grips much of our country—identify a bad guy then go after the fiend with all the savagery you are supposedly condemning him for in the first place. And I understand that my critical view of guns in American removed me from the realm of humanity in their eyes and made me fair game. I brought this on myself, offered myself as someone they could gleefully abuse.  
     I won't quote any of it.  But I will observe that, if one person had a Christian thought that this supposed drunk and wife beater was also a human being who's been through difficulties and worked to redeem himself and thus, despite taking a dim view of high powered weaponry, might be deserving of some small sympathy, I missed it. Not a word. 
    That was not the worst part. As familiar as I am with the bottomless dishonesty of the right wing press, to see it in action was stunning. Rush Limbaugh's report was a babbling conflation of me and—wait for it—Kim Kardashian. He imagined that my boss forced me run the story -- the facts are exactly opposite. My editor suggested that I spike it, to spare myself. Smart guy. I would have listened, if I thought this avalanche would come down on me. But I'm a small potato, in a Midwestern field, with my familiar audience around me. I write for them. It never occurred to me I would be giving comfort and pleasure to the nation's bitter right wing, that I would give them reason to glory in themselves, damn me, and be more secure in their error. I could have crafted my argument better, to use what happened to open the question of who should buy guns. Instead I went for easy pyrotechnics. Maxon's reasons were so grossly unfair, in my view, dredging up this decade-old stuff, I eagerly put my arm into the cage. I never thought Fox Nation would take up the cause with a howl and claw at me.
     Fox molding this into a neat little tale, looking inside my brain and deciding I wanted to show how "easy" it was to buy a gun. Every conservative report echoes that word. Easy. The truth is just the opposite. Since a Philadelphia paper had bought a gun in seven minutes, there was no point in breaking that record. I told my boss we'd see what transpired, and made him promise that, if nothing worthwhile occurred, we'd swallow the money spent and run nothing. But it was indeed interesting. Illinois has a 24-hour waiting period for rifles, 72 for handguns. That seemed responsible. I signed up for a gun instructor. I went to Maxon because I had gone there before, three times, renting guns and shooting. I had written positively about Maxon. My central worry, as mentioned in the story, was that I would end up writing a valentine to guns in the wake of tragedy. I spoke with the clerk for an hour. This was no sting. If I was trying to scam a gun shop, I could have just left when they recognized me as a columnist, gone somewhere else, and bought my gun, as I can do perfectly legally — a fact lost in all this. A gun store can deny you for any reason, so yes, they can deny me for the reasons they stated. But nothing in my record requires I not be sold a gun.  I have a valid Firearm Owner's Identification Card. I have no convictions, no criminal background at all, no arrest record. The slurs the gun shop used were lifted off the Internet, including, in that note of horror that makes the nightmare complete, a quote from Carol Moseley Braun, who called me a drunk and  a wife beater on television in 2011 when I dared suggest in print that she would not defeat Rahm Emanuel.  
     The nuances of the story—a completely honest story that I stand by—were lost. If I could change anything, I would have recast that last graph, written after Maxon told the paper I was a danger to the community, after offering to let me rent the gun and shoot at their range instead of buying it. I shouldn't have snapped at their bait. 
     I'll be honest. As this enters into its ... geez ... ninth day, including researching the piece, it does grind me down. It's dispiriting, debilitating. I can feel it in my jaw, in my sternum. A misery, not about myself, though there is that, but for how my true self is distorted in the funhouse mirror of these hateful people, to see the jeering contempt in their eyes, licking their chops, delighted at their full permission to sink their teeth into this pathetic libtard. Me, apparently. 
    No, not me. That's just the straw man they've cobbled together with trash plucked from Fox News. I've got the real me right here. There's a beauty in knowing who you are. I'm proud of myself; my wife of 25 years is proud of me, every day, my family is proud of me, and actual people in my actual life tolerate me, more or less. I think it's far better to be a recovering alcoholic with an incident of domestic violence in my past than be some troll hanging around the internet, searching for stragglers from the herd. Half the time, when I looked at their IDs to see who was writing this stuff, they were some Aryan Nation sort bemoaning the brown faces they see at Walmart as a White Genocide. Of course they're aquiver to find someone lower than themselves.  
      Enough of this. I'm taking a few days off, not as a result of this tempest, but a trip planned weeks ago. I'll be back early next week. As with everything I write, this was educational. I continue to try to have sympathy, even for the terrible people who wrote to me so unkindly. I'll still shoot guns, now and then, because it's fun, but I will also still promote a more sensible gun policy than the insanity we have now.
     Okay. I'll go back to being as curmudgeonly as I pretend to be. Sometimes the cowboy hits the bullseye and you go into the water tank, and there's nothing to do but climb carefully out, maintaining whatever dripping dignity you can, settle your ass on the bench, find a dry cigarette and start the heckling anew.
     Hey, Reichmarshal! Don't you know when you've got "White Power" on your Twitter ID, it sort of takes the sting out of your comments? Here's an idea: if you actually accomplished something with your life, maybe you could be proud of it, instead of having to be proud of being white. You were BORN white, remember? It's not like you had to work hard to get it....

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Plan the peace before the war

     This week the hollowness of the Donald Trump campaign came into focus. His effort lacks organization, staff and is wildly underfunded — $1.3 million, 1/30th of Hillary Clinton’s war chest — a result of traditional Republican donors shrinking away in revulsion.
     The Cleveland convention remains a looming disaster, an epic train wreck unfolding in slow motion as Republican stalwarts flee for their political lives.
     Trump’s promise to build a wall and make the Mexican government pay rings increasingly hollow. Maybe Trump can get Mexico to fund his campaign instead.
     No glibness. Trump’s dismay is nothing to celebrate.
     First, the prospect of a Trump presidency is so disastrous — think of him as climate change in a toupe — there can be no assumption of victory, no pulling up short of the finish line. The prospect is as serious as death, the death of America that patriots love, the land of freedom for everybody. If you still sigh for Bernie Sanders, get over it, support Hillary Clinton, and you can go back to dreaming of the New Eden come Thanksgiving.

To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

When in doubt, dig out the Whitman

      There's a lot of crazy in the world, and from time to time, the on-line world funnels a few quarts of it in your direction. Imagine every junior high school bully who ever lived, packed into one scrabbling sulfurous snake pit in hell, all snarling with one voice.
      The experience was a little ... dispiriting. That's the word.  Not just to see hundreds of trolls prancing about, waving my old dirty laundry over their heads, convinced their worldview is proven, which would be the outcome no matter what I wrote. 
     But to think about what they represent. Something deeply sad about America, about its current moment of paranoia, fear and self-hatred. Shake it off. We should never be sad about America, what Abraham Lincoln called "the last, best hope of earth." 
     So I turn to the nation's supreme poet, Walt Whitman, as a boost. Uncle Walt never disappoints. I pulled down "Leaves of Grass" and was immediately rewarded: "We are not merely a nation, but a nation of nations." He knew that in 1855. The Republicans still haven't figured that out, to their sorrow. Looking to share something more substantial, I poked around Nexis and found this old column, ironically prompted a decade ago by a different terrorist.  It was from when the column was run as a series of small items. I can't remember who the pal was in the second bit.


     "I want to kill Americans," said Zacarias Moussaoui, "I believe every American wants to kill me."
     "I loaf and invite my soul," wrote Walt Whitman, "I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."
     It would never occur to me to juxtapose the would-be Muslim terrorist and the 19th century American poet, except they share one unexpected common aspect: Moussaoui is identified in press reports as "the 37-year-old al-Qaida conspirator." And Whitman refers to himself, in "Song of Myself," as "thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin/Hoping to cease not til death."
     So two men, both 37, separated by a century and a half of time and an enormity of culture. One an American, drunk on life, wandering the docks and alleys, his heart athrob with goodwill and not a little lust for his fellow man, savoring the sweat of work, the warmth of the sun.
     "Clear and sweet is my soul," he writes. "And clear and sweet is all that is not my soul."
     The other -- and let's all say this together out loud, shall we? -- is a native FRENCHMAN, born in FRANCE, of Moroccan parents. Twisted into a knot of hate, contemptuous of this great nation and its people, facing a quick death strapped to a gurney, or a slow death in a tiny metal room.
     "We want to inflict pain on your country," said Moussaoui.
     I hope you read Moussaoui's comments carefully, as I did. Because to see the lunatic hatred of Moussaoui and to compare it to the expansive humanity of Whitman, the poet of the American soul, is to be reassured.
     Yes, the future is uncertain. There will be dark days -- the armies of Moussaouis still out there will see to that.
     But the spirit of freedom that was rattling around Walt Whitman's head in 1855 has spread across the globe, toppling dictatorships, striking fear in the hearts of repressive parodies of faith.
     We are winning -- in fact, have already won. That's why they hate us so much, though the hate -- as hate inevitably does -- only pulls them down faster.


     Did the word "juxtapose" in the above upset you? Did it cause you to turn the page (it did? But you're still here!) Did you know the meaning? Or take a guess? Did you look it up in a dictionary?
     It's a good word -- it means "to place close together for contrasting effect." I didn't use it to show off, but because it seemed the right word. Nexis says it was used 114 times by U.S. newspapers in the past month. So I'm not alone.
     I say this because you can't imagine the crap I get for using big words ("crap" -- now there's a good short Middle English word for you).
     The common wisdom is that this is a newspaper, where the average reading level is about 12 years old, and thus nothing complex or difficult should be offered. Put the slop where the pigs can get at it.
     I reject that. I think you're smarter than that. I've been fighting this battle for years. I still remember our beloved, regal city editor, Dick Mitchell, rising up from his desk, pointing at me across the newsroom, and shouting, "Polygonic? Polygonic Steinberg!?!" Then a shivering shake of the head and shoulders, as if disgusted to his core. "Nooooooo!"
     Just today, I was walking with an old pal.
     "I've stopped reading your column," he announced.
     "Because you used 'soliloquy' yesterday. Who are you writing for, ancient Greeks?"
     "It was clear in context,'' I stammered, defensively. "Hamlet's soliloquy."
     "Doesn't matter," he said. "Nobody knows what it means."
     "Let's find out," I said, desperate, marching us into a shop and approaching a man in a blue work shirt with his name embroidered over the pocket.
     "Excuse me, we're from the Sun-Times," I said, "and we were wondering, if I referred to 'Hamlet's soliloquy,' would you know what I'm talking about?"
     "Sorry, no" he said, grinning uncomfortably and edging away from me.
     "See?" my pal said. "But is that going to influence you? No way. You're going to cling to your 'soliloquy' " -- you can't imagine the sarcasm and contempt in his voice -- "and your 'ubiquitous' and your 'anachronism' until you don't have any readers left at all!"
     I like to think of myself -- whoops, two syllables, too long -- I like to think of Neil as a guy who can change. So I want to know: is my friend right? Do you find big words bad? Or is the occasional— whoops, four syllables—or is the rare hard word good?
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 16, 2006.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Great Britain exit from European Union could hint at Trump victory

    Americans generally believe in “exceptionalism.” We are not just another country on a planet chocked with other countries. Instead we are the best country, maybe even the only country. A mythical city on a hill. The storms that rock lesser places mean nothing here. That others do things differently and perhaps better doesn’t even merit a shrug.
     That most of the civilized world has national health care or greater restrictions on guns is meaningless. It’s like suggesting that soccer has interest as a professional sport.
     Like much self-flattery, it just isn’t true. We are part of the world, and the same shifts that occur elsewhere are at work here, too, whether we know it or not. I would bet that if I asked Chicagoans what enormous international event happens Thursday, June 23, very few would say, “Duh, Neil. Great Britain votes whether to Brexit, short for ‘British Exit,’ aka, whether to leave the European Union.”
     The European Union began after World War II as an attempt for nations to stop slaughtering each other by binding together, politically and economically, to give Europe some of the advantages we in the United States enjoy. A truck can travel from California to Maine without being stopped at one border crossing or dealing with currency that isn’t dollars. That’s good for business. Meanwhile Europe had francs and marks and kroner, with each country guarding its borders and sovereignty. The idea was....

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Just this once: the case for guns

     One of the grimmest aspects of the Orlando slaughter is that it is just the bloodiest and most recent of many acts of armed terrorism. Those arguing that now is the moment for reform should realize that odds are with the opposite. After past rampages, gun laws were liberalized, not tightened.

     Despite this trend toward profusion, not restriction, gun owners and gun stores like to complain about how the media is set against them. The truth is, it's the facts that are against them, not that many care. Gun supporters barely need try to make their case. This story ran in 2013, during the last spate of public attention over the profusion of guns in this country. I guess it's easier to bitch about being mistreated than to try to defend the undefendable.

     The mainstream media gets blasted for ignoring the truth by those who think they have a monopoly on it. But should the media come knocking to hear their version of that truth, well, that's no good either...
     With guns and ammo flying out of stores, supposedly, sparked by talk of gun control in Washington and Springfield — bound to go nowhere but good for sales nonetheless — I figured that rather than opine more myself, I would talk to those who have something different to say on this topic, maybe something about the vital need to protect our cherished 2nd Amendment rights, even after the unpleasant incident in Newtown. You'd think, with all this negative publicity, gun advocates would be hot to tell their side of the story.
     You'd think wrong.
     "We're not really big on talking to the media," said a guy at Maxon Shooters Supplies in Des Plaines, which I called first because I have been there, twice, firing guns, which you'd think would earn me points, as a regular customer. "Business is brisk," he said, "like everywhere else."
     "No comment ..." said a clerk at Jack's Gun Shop in Riverdale.
     "No, we're not doing any comment at this time," said a lady at Midwest Guns in Lyons.
     I didn't want to let her off that easily.
     "What time will you comment?" I asked.
     "It's our right..." she said, defensively.
     "...not to talk to the media? Of course it is." I cooed. "But why not? Are you ashamed?"
     "Have a good day," she said. Click.
     When all else fails, go for the big dog — GAT Guns Firearms Superstore ("If We Don't Have it, We Can Get It") in East Dundee, 3,000 guns on display in what will, when they're done expanding, be a 30,000-square-foot showroom. They seem to be the eye of the storm. "SOME AR'S" - assault rifles - "ARE OUT OF STOCK" its website warns, offering a ray of hope with a reassuring, "WE ARE TAKING ORDERS." I bet.
     Owner Greg Tropino came on the line.
     Laughter. "Exactly. It is very, very brisk."
     "Is there a specific reason?" I wondered.
     "Are you serious?" he said. "Are you not aware what's going on in Springfield? They're worried people are going to take away..." He was skittish talking to a reporter. "I've been in gun industry since 1968," Tropino continued. "I have been burned by more reporters..." But I worked my charm, and he did not hang up but explained that the problem is not guns, but mental illness.
     "When Quinn took office there were 11 mental institutions — he's closed four," he said. "The key factor in so many of these shootings is mental health." I asked him what one thing he wished people understood about this issue and he mentioned a story in the Sun-Times, where a father burned his children with gasoline. "That's what I wish people understand, if somebody's going to do something bad, they're going to do something bad, if they have to go to the corner store and buy five gallons of gas. There are evil people out there and we have to take care of these people. That's my one thing. My heart aches when I think about those kids getting killed ... but banning something is not going to solve anything. You can't wave a magic wand and it's all better. We've got to do something about mental health."
     In that regard, I agree with him. It would be ironic if mental health services, the first baby to go out the window when times are tight, found an unexpected ally in gun fans. To reward Greg for talking, I'll make the quick, one-paragraph case for guns. Ready?
     Given there are some 270 million guns in the United States — nearly one for every person — if they were the source of extreme peril that gun control types suggest, we'd all be dead. Not only is owning a gun a hobby— hunting, shooting, collecting — but guns give countless Americans a sense of security. Perhaps false but real to them — that they're ready to face whatever zombie apocalypse, social breakdown or bad guy coming through the window that they all dread. Yes, people are killed by guns but most are suicides who, arguably, might find other means. And the number of gun deaths is far below deaths from other tolerated habits, such as cigarettes, which harm far more than guns do. Sure, getting rid of guns would save lives but so would setting the speed limit at 40 mph.
     I don't quite buy that, and here's why: machine guns are illegal. Silencers too. Yet the gun folk still have lots of ordnance to stockpile and adore. As much as they claim it's a slippery slope, and though unrelated events like President Barack Obama's election make them load up more, there's zero chance of true reform. Guns are partly about fearing our government, yet to many they are also a sacred icon of our country, like apple pie, mom and baseball. But like baseball, occasionally the rules can be tweaked and still the game goes on.

                    — Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 6, 2013

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

    It's summer.
    Okay, not officially. 
    Get all technical on me, why don't you.
    But close enough. 
    The weather's certainly fine, which means outdoor dining. 
    This is one of my favorite places to eat under the sky in Chicago, for the food, for its urban industrial vibe. For those party lights and giant hooks.
    And not to forget the food. Oh ... my ... God. 
    I almost didn't use it because I figured someone would ID it immediately.
    But someone will ID it immediately anyway, and I figure using the picture will send a few people there, so my duty to spread the word is fulfilled.
    Where IS this place? 
    The winner will receive one of my completely undesirable 2015 blog posters, assuming they send me their address, which last week's winner didn't, to my disappointment.  

Friday, June 17, 2016

That old Second Amendment only goes so far...

    When the newspaper sent a photographer to take a picture of the Maxon sign, the gun shop called the police. Who came, reminded them that this still is America, despite their best efforts. This was that kind of story.  

    There’s something soothing about buying a gun.
    Driving to Maxon Shooter’s Supplies in Des Plaines Wednesday to purchase my first assault rifle, I admit, I was nervous. I’d never owned a gun before. And with the horror of Sunday’s Orlando massacre still echoing, even the most pleasant summer day—the lush green trees, the fluffy clouds, blue sky–took on a grim aspect, the sweetness of fragile life flashing by as I headed into the Valley of Death.
     Earlier, in my editor’s office, I had ticked off the reasons for me not to buy a gun: this was a journalistic stunt; done repeatedly; supporting an industry I despise. But as I tell people, I just work here, I don’t own the place. And my qualms melted as I dug into the issue. I couldn’t even figure whether bringing an assault rifle into Chicago is legal. The Internet was contradictory. The Chicago corporation consul’s office punted me on to that black hole of silence, Bill McCaffrey. I found that Illinois has a 24-hour waiting period between buying and taking possession of a gun. Unearthing that fact alone made the exercise seem worthwhile. I was learning stuff.
     Reluctance melted when I walked into the large, well-lit store. Maxon’s looked like a meeting of the Mid-50ish Guy Club. A dozen grizzled men in ball caps , milling around. More on the glassed in shooting range. Imagine a steady, muffled pop-pop…pop going on behind the rest of this column.

     I eyed the cases of weapons. Ooo. Big revolvers, matte steel. Despite the run on weaponry that happens after these shootings—Smith & Wesson stock went up 6.9 percent Monday—as gun fans guard against restrictions that never come, there were a few dozen assault rifles (a vague term, yes, I know) including a Sig Sauer like the one used in Orlando.
     "I'm interested in one of the ARs," I said, trying to project an air of manly ease. "What's the difference between the cheap ones and the expensive ones?"
     "Not much," said Rob, a clerk with a winged death's head with a dagger tattooed on his right forearm. "Mostly it's manufacturing tolerances, different sights and stuff."
     He immediately asked for my FOID card—Firearm Owner's Identification Card—no gun purchase without it.
     He showed me a Smith & Wesson M & P 15 Sport II, a lean black weapon, 6.5 pounds.
     We talked barrel profiles.
     "Assault rifle" a misnomer. Despite what another clerk called the "black, evil-looking" appearance of the guns, the only aspect relevant to the national debate is the "standard issue 30-round magazine" which holds a nightclub-clearing 30 bullets. Eight states and the District of Columbia ban selling them. But not, of course, Florida. Or Illinois.
     "I'll take it," I said.

     A few months earlier, a friend's life is dissolving into alcoholism and divorce. I try to just listen—no point putting in my two cents anymore. Bewailing his fate, he mentions that his soon-to-be ex-wife is insisting he hand his guns over to a neighbor for safekeeping.
     "Good," I say, slipping.
     "Fuck you," he replies, with sincerity. I don't know if I say this or just think it: "Your father shot himself. Your grandfather shot himself. Maybe guns are not a good idea in your life right now." Whether I say it or not, we both already knew it's true. But wants the guns anyway. For protection.

      Driving to Maxon's, the whole gun debate clarified in bold relief. There is the danger of the gun. itself. And there is the danger the gun protects you from. Another divide. Which danger you feel is greater decides which side of the divide you live on.
     Being fact-based I know, you buy a gun, the person you are most likely to shoot, statistically, is yourself. And your family. More pre-schoolers are killed by guns than are police officers. Nor do I need the sense of security, false though it may be, that guns bring. I live in Northbrook, where criminal danger is remote. My boys laugh at us for locking the doors. I don't plan on keeping this gun a second longer than I have to for this column.
     Not everyone feels that way. A house on the next block has a high fence and an electric gate across the driveway. The blinds are drawn and in 15 years of walking by, I've never seen a person there. I would guess the owner is afraid. Maybe just shy. But he sees a hazard requiring that fence, gate and security service that I do not. I imagine he owns a gun. Or many guns.
     When it came time to make the purchase, Rob, the clerk with the tattoos, handed me over to Mike, who gave his name shaking my hand, I gave mine. "The writer?" he said. If I wanted to lie as part of my job, I'd have gone into public relations. "Yes," I said, explaining that I plan to buy the gun, shoot at their range, then give it to the police. He suggested I sell it back to them instead and I heartily agreed. Economical. If they would let me photograph myself with it there, the gun need never leave the store. 
     A reporter in Philadelphia bought an assault rifle in seven minutes; 40 percent of gun transactions in the U.S. have no background checks. Here, I had paperwork. A federal form asking, was I an illegal alien? No. Was I a fugitive? Again no? Had I ever been convicted on charges of domestic abuse? No. Handed over my credit card: $842.50. Another $40 for the instructor to acquaint me with the gun the next day.
     Our transaction took nearly an hour because we chatted. Mike used to read newspapers but doesn't anymore because of opinion writers like me. He knew whether it was legal to bring the gun to Chicago—it's not. He was friendly, candid, so I asked difficult questions. Did he ever feel guilty about the people killed by the guns he sells? No, he said, that's like asking a car dealer if he felt guilty if someone gets drunk and kills somebody in a car he sold. It seemed a fair answer. I asked him if I could quote him in the newspaper, and he said no, I couldn't, so I'm not quoting him.
     Back home later Wednesday, a neighbor asks how my day is going. "I just bought an assault rifle," I say. Her eyes widen. She mentions that her brother-in-law owns 100 guns.
     "A hundred guns!" I marvel. "That's a lot. Why does he own 100 guns?"
     "He's afraid," she replies.
     I was looking forward to shooting my new rifle the next day. I've shot guns. It's fun. I was worried though, about having fun with guns in the current environment of outrage and horror. Had I been co-opted by the purchase process? By the friendly staff at Maxon's? Heck, there is a whole world of hobbyists, of hunters, of people who love guns for a variety of reasons that are not crazy. Three hundred million guns in America. If the vast majority weren't handled safely, we'd all be dead. Oh well, I thought, no harm in a gun story reflecting the gun owner's perspective.
     At 5:13 Sarah from Maxon called. They were canceling my sale and refunding my money. No gun for you. I called back. Why? "I don't have to tell you," she said. I knew that, but was curious. I wasn't rejected by the government? No. So what is it? "I'm not at liberty," she said.
     Gun dealers do have the right to refuse sales to anyone, usually exercised for people who seem to be straw purchasers. I told her I assume they wouldn't sell me a gun because I'm a reporter. She denied it. But hating the media is right behind hating the government as a pastime for many gun owners. They damn you for being ignorant then hide when you try to find out.
     A few hours later, Maxon sent the newspaper a lengthy statement, the key part being: "it was uncovered that Mr. Steinberg has an admitted history of alcohol abuse, and a charge for domestic battery involving his wife."
     Well, didn't see that coming. Were that same standard applied to the American public, there would be a whole lot fewer guns sold. Beside, they knew I planned to immediately sell it back to them.
     Okay, Maxon has had its chance to offer their reason.
     Now I'll state what I believe the real reason is: Gun manufacturers and the stores that sell them make their money in the dark. Congress, which has so much trouble passing the most basic gun laws, passed a law making it illegal for the federal government to fund research into gun violence. Except for the week or two after massacres, the public covers its eyes. Would-be terrorists can buy guns. Insane people can buy guns. But reporters ... that's a different story. Gun makers avoid publicity because the truth is this: they sell tools of death to frightened people and make a fortune doing so. They shun attention because they know, if we saw clearly what is happening in our country, we'd demand change.
     "What's your brother in-law afraid of?" I ask my neighbor.
     "Other people with guns," she says.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

And "grating" spelled backwards is "gnitarg."

I was driving back from Des Plaines, having purchased my first assault rifle (more about that in the Sun-Times on Friday) when I heard the general manager of Six Flags Great America talking about their new roller coaster feature: virtual reality goggles on their popular 20-story, 73 mph Raging Bull. In talking about the experience, he used the term "twists and turns." I had to smile. The virtual technology might be new, but that particular word pairing, "twists and turns" is no less than 2500 years old, featured in one of the most famous opening sentences in literature, the first line of The Odyssey, here as translated by Robert Fagles:
    "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns..."
     Homer isn't suggesting that his hero, Odysseus is jarring around curves and dips like someone a roller coaster, though there is plenty of that in the story, particularly in the cave of Polyphemus, the cyclops.
     But rather that Odysseus is clever, complicated, a man of genius and ideas, complexities and stratagems. I was pleased to hear it on the radio, even though I strongly doubt it was a conscious homage. Unintended though it was, it was nice to hear the classical allusion.
     Otherwise, language is often mangled. Look at this line of natural frozen goods, I noticed a few days ago at Marianno's. You might think you're looking at a reversed photo, but the stuff is "elov," the brainchild of a Boulder, Colorado frozen foods company. The word is "love" spelled backward, of course, with all the groaning half-wittery of backwards spelled words, a realm of half-cleverness somewhere below puns and above farting sounds. What's the least clever thing in Harry Potter? "The Mirror of Erised" ("desire" spelled backward!) I tried to think of this kind of backward spelling that wasn't lame and the best I could do is "redrum" in The Shining and even that is a little iffy.
     (A different story are words and sentences that are spelled the same forward and backward, such as found in Carol Weston's recent series of young adult novels. Palindromes can be fun, and, I should point out, include today's date: 6-16-16).
     Back to "Evol," It not only seems a typo of "evolve" but also hints at "evil" which the company cheerfully admits, with all kinds of puns. Its slogan is the nearly Orwellian "Good is evol" and staffers with black t-shirts reading "evol minion."
     Lest we judge the company too harshly, a few cases away was this product, the even-more grating "udi's," also lowercase. It seems e.e. cummings is running marketing in the frozen food industry.
      That screams for explanation. Udi Baron is an Israeli baker who moved to Colorado, started a sandwich cart (two Colorado companies, in a store in Northbrook; for a moment I thought I was transported to King Soopers) got into gluten-free baking, and sold his brand to Boulder Brands for $125 million in 2012. So clearly, I am not the judge of these things.
     That reminds me. When I first heard of the Harry Potter books, I shook my head at the name of the school. "Hogwarts?!? Really?" That'll go over well....
     Turns out, you get used to it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ban assault rifles? Heck, let's legalize grenades instead

     My fear is that a mob of armed evildoers will rush at my home, guns blazing.
     Sure, I could fend them off with the substantial firepower of an assault rifle. But returning fire would expose me to their attack; it would be better, tactically, if I crouch on the second floor and lob grenades out the window instead.
     An M67 fragmentation grenade would do the job nicely—pull the pin, count to two, out the window, hit the deck. Bad guys neutralized.
     There is a problem with this plan. Civilian ownership of grenades is illegal under the National Firearms Act of 1934, which bans "destructive devices"such as grenades.
    Now might be the moment to change that. In the wake of 49 people being murdered at a gay nightclub in Orlando last Sunday, Americans are crying for curtailing availability of so-called assault rifles like the weapon used in the shooting, as the minimum reaction of a once proud nation to these mass killings.
    It'll never happen. If gun violence is an American folk illness—and no other industrial country comes close to our rate of armed carnage—than calls for gun control are the fever that breaks out in the post-massacre stage of the disease.....

     To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"Bear one another's burdens"

     "Confirmation bias" is the inclination we all have toward believing things that mesh with our preconceptions.  I saw a textbook example of that in my reporting Sunday morning, in the wake of the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando a few hours earlier.
     Sifting through the Twitter cross-talk, I noticed some of the outrage directed against Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for tweeting a Biblical verse, Galatians 6:7: "Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows."
    While that seemed a particularly jaw-dropping example of Bible-based inhumanity, to blame the victims for calling their own deaths upon themselves by being gay, it was not out of keeping with my understanding of how religious zealots behave in general. As well as how elected officials behave in Texas in particular, the state that gave the world Ted Cruz.
     Hiding behind the Bible, using it as a ventriloquist's dummy to express their seething hatreds, is sort of what some fundamentalists do. Didn't a Georgia state senator just use Psalms 108 to practically pray for Obama's death, asking that "his days be few," leaving out the part about his children being fatherless? 
     I mentioned the tweet in the draft of my Monday column that I turned into the paper.
    My sharp-eyed editor, Bill Ruminski, however, flagged it, as he couldn't find the tweet. I went online and grabbed a story explaining that Patrick had deleted the tweet. But I noticed, at the bottom, that Patrick claimed the quote was scheduled days in advance and was more a case of what his spokesman called "unfortunate timing" than a joyous slide through the blood of the fallen. 
     That gave me pause. It was a plausible excuse. The power of coincidence is vastly underestimated, and given the unquestionable cruelties that can be laid at the feet of religious extremism, better to give them the benefit of the doubt, and not blame them when they happen to be innocent. The quote wasn't a hastily fired off tweet, but nicely laid out against the azure sky and wheat fields. The thought of Lt. Gov. Patrick getting the grim news, then hurrying to cite chapter and verse, well, it seemed excessive, even for the flinty spite of fundamentalists—Pat Roberston certainly gloried in the murders on the 700 Club, but then he always does that.
    So I removed the quote, instead referring generically to the celebrations among neo-Nazi sorts which I am 100 percent certain were pin-balling around Twitter, if history is any judge. 
     Patrick posted a sincere explanation on his Facebook page, saying the Sunday quotes are set up on Thursdays. He went on at length, explaining that we all are sinners, straight and gay, making him one of the few Republican officials to mention that these victims were, largely, gay Americans, and quoting the entirety of the passage, which includes the phrase, "Bear one another's burdens." 
     See, that the thing about religion. There is good stuff in it, and some people focus on the good stuff, and do good things and that's, well, good. But there's also bad stuff, as Omar Mateen demonstrated in such horrific fashion, and those who embrace the awful, who use faith to try to justify their acts, neither justify those acts nor corrupt the faith, which is such a sprawling mess you can find rationalization for anything. Sure, you can pitch all religion out, and people do. But then they try to justify their misdeeds in other ways—for the good of the state!—and you're denied the poetry and the power that resides in all faiths. 
     Readers lined up to blame Islam and the Koran, for containing the same calls to violence that the Bible is stuffed with, and which Christians acted on with great gusto for a thousand years. But they got with modernism, mostly, Texas notwithstanding, at least the don't-kill-the-non-believers part. Muslims will get with the program too, and largely have. I truly believe that someday, ahead of automobiles or televisions or computers, the prying of religion's fingers off the public throat will be seen as the signal accomplishment of the modern age. But that day tarries, and much blood will be shed by the faithful before then.       

Monday, June 13, 2016

The guilty punish the innocent for the crime of existing

     Soon you'll be able to put a filter on your newsfeed to screen out these mass shootings. Then you won't be forced to feel the queasy chill of reading horrific news — such as 50 partiers slaughtered at a gay nightclub in Florida. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Your attention won't be wrenched away on a beautiful Sunday, the hot weather breaking into a delightful cool. You won't be left tapping your finger on your watch, waiting for officials to figure out exactly what — overwhelming hatred, religious insanity or just regular old psychosis? — motivated someone to throw away 50 innocent lives and his own poisoned existence.
     As if the reason mattered.
     Such a filter would certainly save me the discomfort of having to set aside a promising topic — how Donald Trump's pathological lying and Tourette's syndrome insults are not separate character flaws, as typically presented, but two sides of a coin, the latter an essential raspberry to blow off anyone who dares point out the former. I woke up eager to get at it.
     Not today. Today we stare at the carnage in Orlando.
     Or should I say, we stare at more carnage in Orlando. One day and four miles away from where a mope gunned down 22-year-old "The Voice" singer Christina Grimmie — no official reason for that yet, but I'll put my chips on what Hamlet calls "the pangs of disprized love" — a better-armed shooter walked into Pulse, a "high-energy gay dance club" and shot about 100 people, killing more than 50, as if in rebuke for our focusing on just one death.
     Crying over one young person? Here's 50 more. Cry about that.
     Hmmm, let's see . . . futility of even talking about sane gun control? Done it. Inhumanity of using other people's horrific tragedy for political ends? Been there. The day fast arriving when such atrocities become such a quotidian part of American life that we don't even.... 

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Going there


     History sends out odd ripples. A big wave of long ago will ripple past, unmistakably.
     In the summer of 1966, Martin Luther King brought his open occupancy movement to Chicago. The City Council, in one of its lower moments, passed a resolution telling him to mind his own business: Mayor Daley had claimed progress had been made ending redlining. Was that not enough? "We want to see if they are serious," King replied, as hundreds of black associates went into real estate offices and asked to see home in white neighborhoods.
     It was that August when, marching in Marquette Park, that King was hit in the head with a brick.
     That thrown brick was why I found myself at the Glen-Gery brickworks last Monday. Because doing this story in March on the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, I saw the monument to King they're preparing—out of bricks, aptly—to be unveiled in Marquette Park on the anniversary. I asked the artist where they would find a kiln big enough to fire all those bricks, and he told me about Glen-Gery.
     As if one King-related event weren't enough for a week, on Thursday I spoke with Michel Martin, the NPR host, who'll be in Chicago this Tuesday June 14 holding a special event in her "Going There" series: "The Chicago Freedom Movement, Then and Now.
     The program revolves around King's move into a Chicago slum that summer to draw attention to segregated housing. Martin will be moderating an evening of performance, conversation and music centered around perhaps Chicago's central and most pervasive problems, segregation and housing.
 She has done similar "Going There" events around the country: Fort Collins, Colorado to talk about water; Kansas City, Missouri to talk about food.
     "We have no agenda," she said. "This is not a constitutional convention, not a recital. It is a community conversation, to talk about things people want to talk about. To talk about something of consequence, period."
     All very high-minded, but I felt a sneer rising and I couldn't suppress it. Why? What's the point? Here in Chicago where we're so frozen; we can't even fund the public schools, never mind make them run well. Why talk about problems that Martin Luther King couldn't solve and, half a century on, is by all indications much worse now than it was then?
     "What's the point of talking about it?" I said.

     "I don't know how a person who lives by words can say that," she replied, which was about as sharp a slap in the face as I've received in a long time, because she was right. The downside of dealing with these intractable issues, year in and year out, is that you become cynical and hopeless, and don't even want to think about them, because it's all so frustrating and sad. I had forgotten that we can't ignore our way to a better world. If all we can manage to do right now is talk, is to focus on an issue, then let's talk about it and focus on it. Maybe something useful will come.
     I hoped to go on Tuesday—it's being held at the Athenaeum Theatre on Southport. But I already told the kind people at the Kitchen Community that I would attend their 2nd Annual Learning Garden Leadership Awards dinner, and I don't want to let them down. Besides, "Going There" will be streamed live, and I intend to circle back and watch what transpired. Though it sounds like an something worth attending.
     "My agenda is for people to come away feeling that it was worthwhile evening," said Martin. "That they met someone perhaps they wouldn't have met, were exposed to ideas, learned something important."
     She said each event turns out differently.
     "There's always some kind of cultural element: music, poetry, dance, theater," she said. "These events bring people together. It becomes powerful."
     My chat with Martin was so interesting that I stopped being a reporter and just talked for a while, which was good for me, but bad for you, in that I stopped taking notes and can't convey more than a sense of our exchange. We were discussing a recent program in Pittsburgh, "The Reinvention of the American City."
     "I'll just be honest," she said. "Tears were shed. It was not most comfortable conversation. People who have lived there along time felt this is a rare moment when people are talking with each other rather than at each other."
     It felt that way talking to Martin. It was not the most comfortable conversation, particularly her "I don't know how a person who lives by words can say that." But I liked being challenged, and felt I came away better for it. If you want to experience something similar, you can learn more about the program by clicking here.