Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Is Anthony Weiner an addict or just a jerk?

     “Addiction,” Philip Seymour Hoffman once said, “is when you do the thing you really, really most don’t want to be doing.”
     For Hoffman, the thing he really, really most didn’t want to be doing was take heroin. He had gotten clean, become one of the most respected actors in America. Then Hoffman decided it would be a good idea to go back to using heroin. The decision cost him his life.
     Or was it a decision? Addiction is a complicated issue, where brain chemistry and free will collide. A lot of people think addiction is just a scam — the Get Out of Jail Free Card that jerks desperately wave after being caught, trying to be excused their misdeeds. Hoffman had been clean for more than 20 years. He was free. Or was he? Did he decide? Or did the addiction slumber within him, like a cancer, biding its time?
      I can’t answer that one. If it was a bad choice, it was a bad choice that many make. Fifty percent more Americans died of drug overdoses in 2014 than died in car crashes: 47,000 people, a staggering toll. That in the face of such stats anyone would pick up a drug speaks to the human genius for both feeling special — bad things happen to other people — and for seeking that elusive zing across the frontal lobes that gives life savor.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Cookie the Cockatoo, Brookfield Zoo's oldest resident, dead at 83

     I was going to simply post my visit to Brookfield Zoo's elderly bird from three years ago and be done with it. But I kinda liked the idea of jumping in for a rare Tuesday column on a big breaking story like the passing of Cookie the cockatoo. 

     He was crusty, a curmudgeon, as only the elderly can be. Sometimes he would shriek. While he did tolerate certain people, others he just wanted to bite.
     "If he didn't like you, he let you know it," said Tim Snyder, a business associate. "He was like a cranky old geezer."
      Then again, he had reason. He had his infirmities — osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, cataracts. And perhaps the lingering effects of a broken heart.
     "Back in the 1950s, we tried to introduce him to a female," said Snyder. "She was not nice to him. He didn't want anything to do with her."
     But Cookie the cockatoo, 83, who died Saturday, was seldom alone. He was the coddled patriarch of the Brookfield Zoo. His years of putting on shows, and being on TV and on public display, were behind him, and he was cared for, outside of the public gaze, in an office at the Reptiles and Birds House. Cookie was the oldest Major Mitchell's cockatoo known, a fact recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. He was one of the zoo's "biggest stars," and the last of 270 animals present at what was then called the Chicago Zoological Park when it opened June 30, 1934, in Brookfield, on land donated by Edith Rockefeller McCormick. He had come from the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia and was estimated to be a year old.

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Cookie the Cockatoo remembered

Cookie in 2013
     Sad news from the Brookfield Zoo that Cookie the Cockatoo passed away Saturday at the ripe old age of 83. I had the privilege of spending time with Cookie in 2013 and wrote this report, which I share now in honor of the famed bird.

     He was a star.
     One of Brookfield Zoo's "biggest stars," in fact, though a critic 25 years ago dismissed him as "a bit of a ham" after seeing a performance, suggesting that he talks too much.
     Yes, like other stars, he liked to say his trademark lines: "Peek-a-boo," "Quit your screaming," and "Hi, Cookie."
     That is his name, Cookie the Cockatoo — a Major Mitchell's cockatoo, to be precise — and while his onetime co-stars such as Mora the Capuchin monkey and Maya the Yucatan miniature pig are long gone, Cookie endures.
     He no longer performs in the Animals-in-Action show at the Children's Zoo, or appears on television, as he once did. In fact, Cookie is no longer seen in public at all, but enjoys his retirement in seclusion, ruminatively gnawing on a piece of wood in his cage in the office of the Reptiles and Birds House.
     His feathers, only a little threadbare, retain their brilliant pink hue, shifting to salmon toward the head. His crest ruffles majestically when angry - and this bird is definitely a curmudgeon.
     "He really wants to bite someone," said Kathryn Pingry, lead keeper in the Bird Department.
     Occasionally a zoo visitor will knock on the office door to ask about the 80-year-old bird, the oldest of his breed on record, older than the zoo itself.
     The Chicago Zoological Park opened on June 30, 1934, on land that Edith Rockefeller McCormick donated for that purpose. She thought it should be like the modern zoos she had seen in Europe. Thus it was built as the first "barless" zoo in the United States.
     On opening day, the zoo had 270 animals including Cookie, who came from the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, and was estimated to be a year old. His hatching birthday was set as June 30, same as the zoo's.
     Over the years, other famed bird stars have come and gone. A quintet of penguins Admiral Richard E. Byrd's second expedition brought back from Antarctica in 1935. Or Sally, another cockatoo, whose deft use of a pie plate reminded keepers of stripper Sally Rand and her bubble, then seen at the Century of Progress fair.
     Cookie was most recently on display in a round window of his own at the Perching Bird House. But five years ago keepers noticed his mood had begun to sour. In the winter, when there aren't many visitors, Cookie would get lonely.
     "He would just sit in his window and had nothing to do," said Pingry. "We noticed he just didn't want to go out there anymore, wanted to stay in his office, where there is always a keeper nearby."
     In 2009 he was permanently taken off display.
     "He was just so much more engaged, and happy to have company," she said.
     Well, certain company. Like other old folk, Cookie prefers the familiar.
     Approach his cage and you might be greeted by an earsplitting shriek.
     "The patience wanes," explained veterinarian Jennifer Langan. "He's not quite as tolerant."
     But if Cookie can be hostile toward humans, they nevertheless still love him.
     "We get calls," said Pingry. "He also gets cards, especially around his birthday."
      So how is Cookie doing? Well, to be honest, he's old. Birds, like humans, suffer from a variety of indignities as they age. Osteoporosis. Cataracts. His left eye is cloudy, his left claw mangled from a long-ago bite. Cookie has to take daily anti-inflammatories, for his joints, plus a "parrot pellet" containing vitamins. He uses a rope perch instead of wood: easier on the feet. He takes frequent naps, and keepers opening his cage to say hello worry about him pitching forward beak-first onto the floor.
     Like many an old bird, there is no more soaring: He doesn't fly anymore, and hasn't for a long time.
     "I worked with him the past 16 years, and he hasn't really flown," said Pingry. "He used to flap a lot in his picture window, but he never actually took off flying."
     Cookie doesn't speak his trademark lines, either, though he'll make "cute happy noises" and the occasional wolf whistle. He can see well enough to have favorites - he likes people in glasses - and dismiss those he has taken a dislike to, people he greets with a sort of annoyed scream of disapproval, characteristic of his breed.
     Up to now, Cookie would be briefly taken out on his birthday, to be greeted by well-wishers. But this year, that's canceled.
     "I think Cookie would like his birthday, but it could be a little too much for him," said Sondra Katzen,Brookfield's media relations manager. "Our top priority is his well-being, and we know he's most comfortable off exhibit."
     So don't worry about Cookie - you may not see him, but he's there. Nor is he without his pleasures. His cage is filled with toys and distractions. He's fed chopped-up apples, oranges, carrots, sweet potatoes and - the day's highlight - two peanuts, unsalted, in the shell, a forbidden treat, like a coveted daily 5 p.m. martini.
     "He really likes that peanut, twice a day," said Pingry.

                                               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 26, 2013

The South Side is the best, doughnut-wise

     “We’re taking a detour,” I said, turning south onto Cicero Avenue from 55th Street. “Five minutes.”
     7 a.m. Sunday. We had just dropped off our oldest at Midway for the flight back to college. A half-hour beyond O’Hare, as I pointed out hurtling past its runways on the Tri-State Tollway. “If your flight were from O’Hare, we’d be there.”
     But he pays for his own tickets now, and the $50 saved is worth it, to him and, I suppose, me. Fifty dollars for driving an hour on a Sunday morning seems smart. Besides, I had a plan to offset the melancholy of his departure.
     My wife came along to say good-bye at the airport. It wasn’t exactly the same teary farewell had he been, say 3, with his name on a big tag pinned to his coat. But close.
     She had no idea where we were going, but she’s sharp and solved the mystery before 67th Street.
     “Doughnuts!” she cried....

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

If you can sing to strangers you can do anything

    I was walking the dog Friday and something happened that has not happened in a decade. 
     "Are you associated with CleanSlate?" a passing neighbor, walking with her young son, asked.
     CleanSlate is an organization that connects reformed drug addicts with janitorial work.  I was wearing a CleanSlate baseball cap, acquired when I wrote the story below. I like it because it's comfortable, it looks cool, and has a kind of anti-status: I assume no one knows what "CleanSlate" means.
     We talked for a while — she has just moved to my neighborhood from the city. I started to tell her the story, but it was too involved for conversation. Later, I looked it up, and thought it merits a second visit. Written back in the day when my column filled a full page and had several parts, I'm leaving in the "Opening Shot," a brief observation, as a reminder that sometimes I'm in the right. More than two years before the FBI handcuffed Rod Blagojevich on his condo floor, he might not have seen it coming, but others sure did.

     So when do we start viewing the gubernatorial race as being not so much between Judy Baar Topinka and Gov. Blagojevich as between Topinka and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who would take over the job should his boss find it necessary to, ah, spend time elsewhere?
     Quinn strikes me as an affable goof, a view formed during his grass-roots consumer and environmental activist days. The sort of do-gooder who usually never gets within spitting distance of public office. He might surprise us. I have a good feeling about Quinn. Wouldn't it be ironic if both Judy and Rod end up in history's Dumpster, digging for chicken bones with meat still on them, while Quinn is putting his feet up in the governor's mansion? Stranger things have happened.


     Every morning at exactly 8:30, several dozen people gather in a square room in a nondescript brick building at the corner of Desplaines and Monroe.
     The men are dressed in suit coats and ties, the women in skirts and jackets or turtleneck sweaters and slacks. They sit in a circle. One man stands in the center.
     "Good morning!" he enthuses. "My name's Duane!"
     "Hey Duane!" the people shout, so loud that for a moment I think they're miked, "mo-ti-vate me, he's my friiiiiieeeeeend!" and at "friend," they do a sort of slow lariat twirl with one hand.
     "You know what brings me great joy?" he begins. "Cara brings me great joy. . . ."
     The Cara Program is an innovative center designed to jump-start lives that have fallen apart. The people in the suits and dresses have slid into that bog of unemployment, addiction and personal collapse lumped together under the unfortunate heading of "the homeless."
     Agencies handling such people tend to be grim places. Not Cara. The morning program is half gospel revival, half Mary Kay Cosmetics convention. The idea is to pump participants — who must be referred to get a spot inCara — to hurl their energies into the hard business of rebuilding their broken lives.
     ''You give me strength to do the things I couldn't do before," one lady tells the group. "I am recovered. I am healed. You have given me the keys to the kingdom."
     Those keys include access to a room filled with 35 new Dell computers upstairs. Plus rack after rack of donated clothes.
     "Before you can get a job, you need to look like you can work a job, and more important, feel in your heart you can do it," said Cara CEO Eric Weinheimer.
     Later in the day comes job training and job interviews and help setting up bank accounts. Cara has its own company — CleanSlate — and works with banks and insurance companies to place Cara graduates, who do better than employees hired over the transom.
     After saying what brings them great joy, the participants must sing a song — the idea is, if you can sing in front of several dozen strangers, you can do just about anything.
     Visitors, too, are pressed into the center of the circle. The chief of staff of the Illinois Medical District won't sing — too inhibited. Cara members jump up to help him out.
     Inhibition is not a problem with me. I stand in the center and tell them I take great joy from my family, from my work, and from being a recovering alcoholic — not something I toss out at every speaking opportunity, but I figure it might help these people.
     "I only know one song," I say. "I started singing it as a good-night song when my oldest son was born. If I knew I was going to sing it every night for the next 10 years, I might have picked something more, um, Jewish. But I'm stuck with it now, and it goes like this."
     I begin:
     "Ahhhha-mayyyyy-ziiing grace, how sweeeeet the soooooound. . . ."
     The rest join in -- real loud. Turns out they know it, too.

              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 15, 2006

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     The problem with paintings in public spaces is they tend to be garish modern works of the lowest quality, bought no doubt by the square meter from art farms in China. Or generic seascapes in doctors' office, of similarly bland, lifeless, unaesthetic works, a vast assemblage of the unskilled and the unmemorable.
    Then there is this, spied in a public building in one of the suburbs ringing Chicago. It caught my eye for the almost Seurat-like pointillist style, the nice use of complimentary colors, green and orange, and the lovely young lady in the center who is, upon second glance, doing something quite out-of-the-ordinary.
    Yes, there is a certain amateurism about it—that's a hint—if you look to the left to the rude rides of grassland abruptly yielding to brown, like a stripe in a flag, the way the water seems to pull up a foot from it, or how the young lady seems to be more hovering above the water than sitting on the grass.
     So where is this? I'll give you another hint: it's not in a museum, obviously, though I suppose it could get away with being folk art. A difficult challenge requires a better-than-usual prize, so no poster. The winner gets a copy of my new book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," written with Sara Bader, and published a week from Monday by the University of Chicago Press. Place your answers below, and good luck.

    An alert reader, Tate, points out that this painting is an homage to Pissarro's "Woman Bathing Her Feet in a Brook" in the Art Institute. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Criticize me and you criticize everyone like me

     Being black and being stupid are two entirely separate, independent conditions. Blackness does not make you stupid any more than stupidity makes you black. If it did, a lot of Donald Trump supporters would wake up aghast to find themselves suddenly African-American (though not as horrified as African-Americans would be to suddenly have all these Trump supporters in their midst).
     The two conditions can, of course, reside in the same individual, such as former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun who was both black and dumber than a rock. She manifested this in a variety of alarming ways, including, as I pointed out during her quixotic bid for mayor in 2011, by ballyhooing a deeply flawed poll that suggested she would defeat Rahm Emanuel which, let the record show, she did not.
     When I wrote a column elaborating upon that theme, Moseley-Braun howled that I was a racist — you can go on YouTube and see videos of her minions picketing the paper, demanding I be fired — arguing that to criticize her was to criticize all African-Americans.
     This came to mind when the senator currently holding her seat, Mark Kirk, said Barack Obama was “acting like a drug dealer in chief” and Kirk’s opponent, Tammy Duckworth, called the remark “unhinged,” which Kirk denounced as an attack on all stroke survivors everywhere.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

A brief visit to Seattle

     Eric Zorn asked if I've ever told this story on the blog, and I said no, I don't think I have. While it is probably much improved by being told in person, with me goggling my eyes and wildly gesticulating to emphasize the quivering horror of the thing, I will do my best to convey it here with all the brio at my disposal.
    The subject is book signings, an odd ritual of authorhood occasionally remarked upon, usually to underscore the humiliation of sitting at a table in the back of a bookstore, puffing out your cheeks, watching strangers cast you indifferent glances as they hurry past to the cookbook section. Every writer goes through one of those. 
     I try not to worry about book signing disasters, since I've already had the worst signing humanly imaginable, at the old Barnes & Noble on Diversey. They put me in the coffee shop at the section of the store. My wife and a pair of our oldest friends had tagged along; the idea was to share in my glory, but they turned out to be unfortunate witnesses. Some harried clerk introduced me at a podium. The dozen or so folks sitting at tables, drinking coffees, busily cribbing from Foder's guidebooks they were too cheap to buy, swiveled their heads up in unison. I began to read. Their heads swiveled back down, again in unison. I soldiered gamely on, my voice both amplified and muted at the same time. Chairs scraped. People came and went. Old friends greeted each other, loudly. Sweat cascaded down my face. It was so awful I really don't have much of a memory beyond that. If my wife told me she sponged me up with a mop, a puddle of shame, and carried me home in a bucket, I couldn't contradict her with confidence. 
      That wasn't the incident Eric had in mind. Too bleak to make a good story. 
      I should point out, that I have had my share of successful signings. I don't want to paint myself as a sad sack. I once spoke at the Arizona Kidney Foundation's literary luncheon and, afterward, 247 people stood in line and bought a book. I remember the number distinctly and, if I ever get a tattoo, I think it would be "247." 
    But signings are a random thing, and success one day doesn't guarantee success the next. The Arizona triumph was for my "Failure" book, which was published by Doubleday, a big publishing house that, in the pre-Internet mid-1990s, would send authors around promoting their work. They arranged to send me to Seattle in October, 1995.
     I wasn't sure if I should go at all. My wife was more than eight months pregnant. What if she had the baby early? We decided I was really only a few hours away—I would phone from the airport in Salt Lake City, where there was a layover, and if labor had started, I would turn around and immediately fly home.
    As the event approached, another reality began to dawn on me. The signing was on Oct. 17, at an hour which also happened to be the middle of the sixth game of the American League Championship series at the Kingdome between the Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians. Nobody but nobody was going to skip the ballgame and go to my signing. I was tempted to duck out myself, and go see my beloved Indians play. I grew up, remember, in Cleveland.
    "You have to cancel this!" I begged the publicist.
    That was impossible, she informed me, I was doing television—some forgettable midday news show on KOMO. I was doing radio. We had to fulfill our obligations. No canceling. 
     I flew out like a man condemned. Met at the airport by Chic, my handler, a man in his 50s. That is an actual job: squiring authors to publicity events, or was, I imagine it has melted away along with so much involving words. But at the time the publishing house not only sent you to cities to drum up publicity, but when you arrived there was a perky local fellow or gal to take you where you needed to go, chatting all the way about actual authors, authors other than yourself, that he has been privileged  to meet. A sort of primitive Uber.
      He took me to the Hotel Alexis, a small boutique hotel downtown. I repaired to the bar for a few quick Jack Daniels. The wonder isn't that some authors drink, but that they all don't. Then we were off to my signing.
      I can still see the Borders in Tacoma, Washington as we approached, lit up like a cruise ship on a flat sea, the parking lot. A couple cars—staffers—and nothing. Lines on asphalt. We were met by a bookstore clerk who, at least in my green-tinged memory, was wringing his hands in embarrassment. He conveyed us to a back section of the store, where there were 30 chairs set up and a lectern and a metal pitcher of water.
     I can see the chairs, empty but for the clerk, gamely holding down the first row. I can see the pitcher, the beads of condensation on it. The empty glass.
    So what do you do in a situation like this? What is the graceful, charming way to redeem the situation? Pour a slug of water, crack open my book, glance around at the empty chairs and, with a brisk, welcoming nod, begin to read.
      Eventually, a couple drifted by. In my memory they are a "hippie couple," a pair of moldy 1960s sorts with stringy hair, the sort of people who would be at Borders in the middle of the Mariners/Indians playoff game at the Kingdome. They perched tentatively on their chairs. So now I had an audience. I began to read with extra gusto. But something about their body language said they were poised to flee. Very quickly I stopped reading, closed the book, and addressed them directly. 
    "You're not going to buy this book, are you?" I said, breaking the fourth wall. Perhaps the lingering effects of those bourbons.
     They looked at me, befuddled.
     I reached into my jacket pocket, withdrew my wallet and removed a business card.
    "Tell you what," I said, leaning over the podium, waving the business card in the air. "Take my card. Buy the book. If you don't like it, send the book back to me and I'll refund your money."
    Still silence. They sat there, looking at me, perhaps wondering if they could make a break for the door with me in howling pursuit. 
     We looked at one another.
     "Okay," I said, improvising. "How about this. Take my card. I'll go to the register with you and buy you the book, for you. Read it, and if you like it, send me a check."
     That worked, not in that they let me buy them the book, but that it shamed them into buying it themselves. I observed from a respectable distance as they performed the transaction. They never asked for a refund.
      Later that night, in the hotel bar, I discovered the Indians had won the pennant for the first time since 1954. I flew home the next day. Exactly one week later, my son was born.
     The moral? As I tell young authors, if you don't care about your writing, then nobody will. Sometimes you fly to Seattle to sell one book. I've actually performed greater feats of desperate salesmanship than pressing a book on that couple. Once, in Washington, D.C., at another solitary signing, I convinced a bookstore clerk to buy the book. The idea of these trips is to move copies. They're hard enough when a publishing company underwrites your trip, but an even more queasy odyssey when you pay for them yourself—which is what I'm doing when I go to Cleveland, which sparked this whole book signing conversation in the first place.
     What's another couple hundred bucks after nearly five years of work? People make the mistake of valuing their money but not their time, when it should be the other way around. The ash heap of those five years sits cooling behind me, the only tangible product, this new book in my hands. The trip, striking another match that might or—much more likely—might not set anything ablaze. Maybe there's some guy who's going to be browsing in that Barnes & Noble, someone who'll hear my voice, wander over, and his life will be changed. Could happen. But you never know, and if you don't try, well, you know how that works out. You know the butterfly effect: who knows what ripples of success will echo forth from that 1 p.m. signing at the Barnes & Noble in Crocker Park on Sept. 17? "It is," as I tell my boys, "called 'trying.'" Or put a better way.
    "I will be conquered," Samuel Johnson once said. "I will not capitulate." 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Cell by any other name will smell as sour

    Whenever the corporate naming of ballparks comes up, I try to remind people that "Wrigley Field" is also product placement, named for a brand of chewing gum. It doesn't seem that way because we've had it for so long Wrigley feels like it was named by Abner Doubleday, and many no doubt suspect the gum took its name from the field. It didn't. 
     So I am not broken up by the change, announced Wednesday, of U.S. Cellular field to "Guaranteed Rate Field." Yes, such names evoke David Foster Wallace's classic "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment." Yes, I imagine "Guaranteed Rate" is a new, utterly meaningless company to most people—that might be why they're putting money into naming baseball fields. (Founded in 2000, it is a mortgage company, at least based in Chicago, so there's comfort there). 
     But the honest truth is I don't have a dog in this race. As a North Sider, I've always said that I'd rather pay to go to Wrigley Field than go to U.S. Cellular for free, and that holds true whatever they call it. The Cell is an ugly, unpleasant place to see a ballgame, and changing the name won't change that. South Siders will disagree, but then, they always do. 

A lavish lifestyle and business success are not the same thing

Alberto Giacometti, "The Nose," Hirshhorn Gallery, Washington, D.C.

     I’ve been on Fox News more than I’ve watched it.
     That might be a slight exaggeration. They did go on about a column of mine earlier in the summer. And I was a local Fox pundit for about a year, adding my little segments to the end of the 9 p.m. broadcasts. I said anything on my mind — once I compared opera and hockey (better music at operas, better looking fans at hockey games). The checks cleared, and I’d be doing it still but a new regime took the program in a different direction. Or not — as I said, I never watched the show, I was just on it.
     I did tune in for Fox’s GOP debate, the one where Megyn Kelly so upset Donald Trump by asking him pointed questions as if he were running for president. I was impressed with the journalistic job Fox did.
     That rigor seems to have been an exception based on the latest tempest swirling around another Fox host, Sean Hannity, who is rolling at Trump’s feet like a puppy. Having never watched Hannity, I’ll have to trust the judgment of others.
     “Fox News host Sean Hannity isn’t just shilling for Donald Trump,” Erik Wemple wrote in the Washington Post. “He’s not just orchestrating applause for the candidate’s most abhorrent policy positions. He’s not just facilitating and reciting every Trump talking point in marathon interviews. . . . He’s also advising the candidate.”

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fortune (sometimes) favors the bold

     The biggest catastrophe's are covered by the sands of time. If that isn't clear, tomorrow is Aug. 24, and if Aug. 24 does not resonate—and I imagine it doesn't—just remember that Sept. 11 will also be just another day in a string of same, if we wait long enough. 
     Aug. 24, 79 A.D. was the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, burying the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Not the sort of anniversary the media typically notices, and to be honest, I might have overlooked it, had not we visited the H & M downtown last week. 
     Notice the shirt above, as I did, waiting for the boys to pick out their purchases. The "good" is some fashion designer's notion; it's implied in the general saying, common for nearly 2,000 years, that "Fortune favors the brave."
     Unless it isn't implied. Because while the line did become an aphorism, it originated, or at least be most famously used, in Virgil's reworking of Homer, "The Aeneid." There, in book X, the Latin is "audaces fortuna iuvat"—"fortune speeds the bold" — uttered by Turnus, rallying his men to fight anew on the beach. 
     Though there might be some irony at work here. "Speeds" is not the same as "favors." Your bravery could be hurrying you toward doom, which is kinda what happens to Turnus. Yes, he wins  his duel, planting a spear into Pallas' chest. But this enrages Aeneis, and the gods, who basically boot Turnus away from the field of battle.  He does not end well.
    Seeing the shirt did not make me think of Virgil, however, that would be pretentious. The truth is worse. It made me think of Pliny the Younger, who was 17 years old when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Twenty-five years later, he wrote a letter to the historian Tacitus describing the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who commanded the fleet.  
    "On 24 August in the early afternoon, my mother pointed out to him the appearance of a cloud of unusual size and form," Pliny the Younger writes.
     In his account, Pliny the Elder orders a fast ship, and invites his nephew to come with him. "I replied that I should prefer to continue with my studies," another example of the under-appreciated life-saving qualities of studiousness.
     So Pliny the Elder sets out to save a relative who was close to the eruption: "He hurried to the place others were fleeing from, setting his course straight for the dangerous area."
     Ash rains down on the ship, then pumice and burnt stones. "My uncle hesitated a bit, wondering whether to turn back, but then said to the helmsman who warned him to do just that, 'fortune favors the brave.'"
     Not in this case. Though Pliny the Elder boldly made landfall unscathed, he decided to push his luck and linger there. The gases and fumes overcame him and he died. So yes, sometimes fortune favors the bold, and others boldness speeds you to destruction. Worth bearing in mind. Fortune may — or may not — favor the bold, but safety hangs around the meek. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Donald Trump and the Bottomless Pit

     If you plug "bottomless pit" into Google, as I just have, the results are surprisingly slim. There are many references to a musical album of that name, and some Bible citations—a bottomless pit is opened in the Book of Revelations. 
    But no comprehensive cultural examination. So I'm going to have to wing it. There is something juvenile about bottomless pits—they seem, along with hot lava, to be the type of perils conjured up by  very young boys on playgrounds.  Guessing they might also show up in dusty adventure stories, in 1001 Tales of Arabian Nights and such, I began looking in the Tarzan books, which had a single reference.  When I shifted to the downscale Roy Rockwood boys adventure novels, there was the 1930 Bomba the Jungle Boy on the Underground River, or, The Cave of Bottomless Pits. 
     Not much.
     I was thinking about bottomless pits because, while there were developments in the Donald Trump campaign—old campaign team out, new one in, again, gross sweeping insult to African-Americans Friday, cloying 180-degree pivot pandering to Hispanics Saturday—the whole thing seemed exhausting, ungraspable, bottomless. Not that it couldn't be understood, but that doing so was complicated and not worth the effort in the end of August because the thing you're trying to capture keeps plunging out of reach, twirling as it goes, spouting new, apparently relevant details as it goes.
    Then I thought of a Joe Martin cartoon—Martin, as local cartoon fans know, is a brilliant cartoonist who at one point had three funny strips in the Chicago papers: Mr. Boffo, Willy & Ethel and Porterfield. 
    The strip I was thinking of stars Mr. Boffo—a shape-shifting character, like Trump, also balding but with a bulbous nose, who like Trump is usually found in a variety of surreal tableaus, though for Boffo they are classic cartoon settings: in hell, heaven, on a desert island, chained to a dungeon wall. 
    In this particular cartoon—I couldn't find the strip, so am working from memory here—the first panel shows three men plunging into an abyss, their faces masks of terror, arms and legs flailing. The caption is "Three men falling into a bottomless pit."
    The second panel shows the men, still plunging, but expressions of boredom on their faces, heads propped on palms. The caption is, "The same three men, six months later." 
    Or some such thing. 
    And you realize—and Martin was a genius in making this kind of connection—that without a bottom to eventually crash against, the bottomless pit isn't so much a doom as a consignment to eternal tedium. 
     That's where I am regarding Trump. Bottomless boredom. It isn't as if we're not plunging toward disaster. Truly, we are. It's just that you can't sound the alarm every day. Forty percent of Americans, knowing what they must already know by now, somehow still support the man. So what's the point of drawing a red circle around the latest jaw dropping development? If you haven't figured it out by now you never will. 
    And the rest of us, we get it, big time. We get to star in our own real-life nightmare where we run up to oblivious bystanders at some unfolding disaster and grab at their shirtfronts and scream in their faces—"The place is on fire you have to get out!!!"—and they just shrug grin idiotically and stand there. 
    Of course, the pit only feels bottomless. We arrive at the ground with a crash Nov. 8. Then either Trump wins—and after the Brexit vote, no amount of confident polls can give anyone complete assurance. Trump wins and then the graves open and Biblical doom is upon us. Or Trump loses and this all seems a hideous dream, and the zombies he conjured up hiss and thrash and maybe Texas withdraws from the Union.  That's coming. But right now, we've been falling in this pit for so long, it's hard to even imagine that the bottom is there at all, somewhere, rushing up at us.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review #3

    This is the first newspaper review of "Out of the Wreck I Rise," written by Jim Coyle for the Toronto Star's online Star Touch tablet app. I'll admit being a little surprised at his take, seeing the book as a "sampler of thoughts" about alcohol, and missing, entirely, the idea that the book is supposed to help those in recovery. "This book's title alone will please imbibers of a literary bent" made me wince, as did calling the book a "pub crawl." Perhaps I'm being overly-sensitive, but pleasing imbibers is not what we were going for. But I don't want to be unappreciative—it is certainly positive, in its own way, and looks great on their mobile app, and at least presents the book as noteworthy. It'll be interesting to see if future reviews, should there be any, follow in this vein.  God I hope not.

     The celebrated American writer John Cheever, who knew a thing or six about the topic, described a moment when he discovered alcohol’s merciful capacity for curing the many torments that plagued him.
     Preparing for an intimidating social gathering, “I bought a bottle of gin and drank four fingers neat,” he wrote. “The company was brilliant, chatty and urbane and so was I.”
     Words. Stories. Wit. Repartee. Le mot juste. All to the clinking of cocktail glasses. Who wouldn’t say, “Why, yes, barkeep, I think I will have another!”
     Cheever was neither the first nor last to draw a link between drink and yarn-spinning. Nor was he breaking new ground in the monumental self-delusion that chronic intoxication can produce.
     No matter. His words accurately capture a sensation the habitually besotted will recognize. The idea persists that charm and creativity are the salubrious byproducts of alcoholic intake....

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It will find you

     Both boys are home, briefly, in the interim between the end of their summer internships and the beginning of classes. Which explains what I was doing on the 2nd floor of Nordstrom's downtown Thursday—shopping—though, in our defense, we did all our buying at the far more reasonable H & M and Macy's.
     We blundered in, I suppose under the theory that it is somehow connected to Nordstrom's Rack, looked at the prices, then ran out shrieking as if the place were on fire, the boys in the lead. My wife and I felt we had raised them well.
     There just long enough for me to notice this big ass bar set up in the middle of Nordstrom's men's department. That's something of a trend—every supermarket worth the name has a wine bar, if not a full bar, and guys can be seen pushing their carts with one hand and drawing off their sloshing cup of brew in the other. It makes sense. The stores are desperate to make shopping in bricks-and-mortar retailers more of a destination experience, and what sweetens any destination like alcohol? Let's see Amazon do that.
     This would have been ideal for me, back in the day, and now just leaves me I suppose slightly amused, my reaction to those cruise ship ads that show the boat plying a giant martini, as if you can't drink at home but need to go to Norway to do it properly. Bars cropping up in unexpected places does echo, in my mind, back to those people I see on Twitter urging that liquor advertising be banned from the airwaves, under the See-No-Evil/Do-No-Evil rule. 
     I find that naive. When I gave up drinking, a decade ago, I immediately understood that you can't base your sobriety on not knowing where the booze is or how to find it. It's everywhere, and having a mini-Bennigan's pop up in the middle of the shirt department is a perfect example.  Even if you don't set out to find it, it will find you, so you had better be ready, particularly in this era when so many people can't sip a cocktail without first delightedly sharing a photo of it on Facebook. You can't wallpaper the world; you have to armor yourself. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Now this is an odd structure. I had never seen it before, but stumbled upon it during my wanderings around Chicago this week.  I'm hoping it puzzles you for a few minutes; I had a tough time figuring out what it was when I was standing before it, but eventually I saw a plaque that gave away the game.
    What is this beige-pinkish thing and where might we find it? The winner gets ... oh hell ... one of my endless supply of 2015 blog posters, complete in its own Chicago Mailing Tube cardboard tube, along with my best wishes.
     Remember to place your guesses below. Good luck. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Mayor Daley's book

      My colleague Mike Sneed reports that former Mayor Richard M. Daley is interested in writing a book about "running an American city." 
      My immediate thought was, "didn't he leave off the 'into the ground' part?" Running an American city into the ground?
      The next thought was identical to the one I had five years ago when Daley previously mentioned writing a book: the man lacks the necessary candor, the self-criticism gear essential to writing a book. 
      A good book, I mean.
      Oh sure, he could no doubt, with help of the ghostwriter he's supposedly fishing around for, manage a clip job recapitulation of his 22 years at the helm of Chicago, something along the lines of First Son, by Keith Koeneman.  At the risk of being unkind to a fellow University of Chicago Press author, let's just say that those of us who soldiered through the 2013 biography were left with the conviction that Robert Caro's trilogy on Lyndon Johnson was not in risk of being nudged off the summit of the biographer's art. 
     The fault is not the author's. Daley is so oblique—trying to understand him, one Chicago wag once quipped, is like trying to peel a ball bearing with your thumbnail—that there is the whisper of a chance he could surprise us. That the book will be titled, How I Ruined Chicago and detail, with charts, how the scion of America's biggest boss swept into office in a blaze of tradition and self-regard and created a financial time bomb, by lack of planning and greasing his army of allies, that is now hollowing out the city so it becomes a fragile pension program that also fights fires.
    That is possible.
    But I severely doubt it. More likely is the outcome of the vast majority of people who intend to write books: nothing. Because writing books is hard. Besides, as my agent would say, "And who is going to buy this book?" Tap any of Daley's former cringing underlings on the shoulder, after they've toweled his spittle off their faces, and ask them: "Do you really want to know what's going inside that man?" I'm not sure they do, or I do, or anybody does. Not that Daley could disgorge it, even the help of a ghostwriter, a team of amanuenses and Sigmund Freud.
    Jane Byrne wrote a surprisingly good book, My Chicago, about growing up in the city and the rise to the only elective office she ever held. But Byrne was a voluble party gal who couldn't shut up, who would phone newspapers randomly, in the bag, late at night just to talk more. She was candid, to the degree of admitting she was often out-to-sea once she got her hands on the levers of power.
    Daley is a stone who admits nothing, who had a hard enough time squeaking out three sentences that made sense at a press conference, with a bank of microphones in front of him.  The idea of a book is tempting, as a way to airily suggest you have something important to say, that you aren't merely gadding around the shoebox's worth of Chicago where you feel comfortable, hoping you don't get indicted. But the reality of a book is hard—take it from a guy who's written eight. That's why most people who would like to write one never do. And a good thing too. 


Chicago Shapes #4: The triangle

    Since last October, when I examined the parabola, the circle and the square through the lens of Chicago, readers have been besieging me with requests to continue the series, the obvious next candidate being the triangle. So I....
     Oh, that's a lie. Nobody cared whether the series continued or not. Now you can see how very disappointing life can be, at times, for a guy who could even imagine they might. Zeroing in on shapes is the kind of esoteric investigation that I seem to do for my own amusement, at best tolerated by you, my very indulgent readers. I've been meaning to push forward for months and now, theoretically on vacation, seemed the perfect moment to pull my triangle notes together. Though I hit a hitch right out the gate, as you will see if you make it to the end of this.

     Let's start with the Triangle Package Machinery Company.
    —"Why a Triangle?"
     "You'd have to talk to our marketing department. Kim Magon. But she's not in today, so you'll have to call back on Monday."
      —"Can I have her telephone number?"
     "I can't give that out. Call the main number."

    So let's not start with the Triangle Package Machinery Company. Though we'll get back to them. Let's start with something else.    

     Let's start with Chicago architect Harry Weese.
    "Harry Weese seems to have been obsessed with triangles," Jay Pridmore notes in "A View from the River." Indeed, there are two buildings in downtown Chicago with pure triangular bases—the Metropolitan Correctional Center, at 71 W. Van Buren, and the Swissotel, 323 East Wacker Drive—and Weese designed both. 
    The MCC's floor plan is an isosceles right triangle, meaning it has two equal sides, one 90 degree angle and two 45 degree angles.
(Triangles, for those slow on the uptake, have three sides and three angles, from whence they get their name: "tri-angle," a word some 600 years old).
      Such a triangle is seen in the floor plan for the MCC at right, which is a cross section of the building above.  A quick glance will remind you of the drawbacks of triangular buildings: instead of big square corner suites you get these narrow points. The ratio of linear wall to floor square footage of such a building is .... nnggg, doing the math .... 34/50. On a square building it is 20/50. So you need 70 percent more wall to enclose the same about of floor. Quite extravagant, really.
   The Swissotel is an equilateral triangle, meaning it has three sides equal length and three angles of 60 degrees.  A cross section of its floor space looks like this. 
     At first I thought Weese was being pigeonholed based on two buildings out of the hundreds his firm designed. But when you look at what they are, Pridmore's use of the word "obsession" seems apt. 
      Take a gander inside Weese's First Baptist Church of Columbus, Indiana. Notice anything? He also designed the distinctive, if not in my mind pretty, Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist, on Wacker Drive, which is not triangular, but very round, though even that has a hidden irony: it sits on an unwieldy, triangular site which Weese masks with its circular auditorium. 
First Baptist Church, Columbus, Indiana
   His 200 S. Wacker Drive is a conventional square building, but Weese made it two conjoined triangular buildings, one seven stories taller than the other.
    And then there are his River Cottages which you may have seen and wondered about, just north of Wolf Point on the River. Ugly buildings, without question, that look both dated and out-of-place: I'd expect to find this kind of thing on the Sava River in Zagreb. 
    Why a triangle? Some see them as pushing back against the grid brutalism of the modernists.
     "If the Weese vs. Mies opposition is to be believed, this would seem Weese’s clearest rebuttal: triangular instead of square," Ian Baldwin wrote in "Places" journal   
     Not to suggest that Harry Weese is the only thing triangular about Chicago.  There is the "Viagra Triangle," referring to the bars on Chicago Avenue and State Street, with Rush serving as the hypotenuse.  The "Polonia Triangle" formed by Ashland and Division, with Milwaukee Avenue as the hypotenuse. This is the Triangle that shows up in Nelson Algren stories, such as this, from Never Come Morning:
    Udo had been restrained and credit restored, subtly, to the poolrooms and taverns of the Triangle.
    Chicago proved unable to rename a street for Algren (those honorary brown signs don't really count) because residents complained they would need new stationery. So the Triangle seemed an apt spot for a fountain honoring Chicago's bard of the night court. When it was unveiled in 1998, some wondered how the famously-bitter Algren would react. Though if representatives of the Polish Roman Catholic Union could declare no hard feelings and show up (when Algren's books were first published, some in the Polish leadership felt his books painted a dim picture of their community and tried to ban them) I assume Algren would have found it in his aggrieved heart to show up as well, particularly if there were hors d'oeuvres and cocktails after. 
     There's more: the Old Town Triangle,  bounded by North Avenue, Clark Street, and what is charmingly referred to as "the Ghost of Ogden Avenue." There is the "Triangle Offense," used with great effect by head coach Phil Jackson during the Bulls championship runs in the 1990s (the triangle is created by the center, who stands at the low post, the forward at the wing, and the guard at the corner, and if you know what that means, you're a better man than I).
Won't return phone calls.
     We haven't even touched on the symbolic aspects of triangles, when it comes to trinities and love triangles, plus their sturdiness when it comes to supporting loads, as seen in the cross-bracing on buildings like the very non-Weese John Hancock.  I wish there were some folklore aspect triangles suggesting bad faith or laziness, so I could circle back to the beginning, but I can't find any, so we'll have to just grab the lever and pull hard.
    Returning, reluctantly, to Triangle Package Machinery. I must have called them six times over a span of days. Maybe more. Kim Magon-Haller, their supposed marketing representative, never picked up the phone. Never called back, or returned emails. I tried a David Mustiel and he never answered either. Even left a message for the Triangle president, Bryan Muskat—the Full Boy Scout Try, I call it. I just wanted to know, though at some point I suppose it became a quest, a point of honor. No reporter wants to be thwarted by the Triangle Package Machinery Co. Eventually, I thought, "The hell with them" Though they're a fairly large company. I shudder to think what their dissatisfied customers go through. And based on my experience, my guess is that there must be a bunch of dissatisfied customers.   

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Reader flashback: Snappled

     One more visit to the trove of spiked pieces that ended up in the Reader in the late 1990s. This was an assignment from Esquire, which asked me to look at how Quaker Oats killed Snapple. In between the time they asked me to write it, and when I turned it in, most of the magazine staff was canned. When I showed up with the article, they just sort of looked at me strangely. But the kill fee was considerable, so I wasn't too broken up, and the Reader was happy to step in and print it. The story won the Peter Lisagor award for business writing. It originally ran May 29, 1997.

     In the basement of Quaker Tower, a mundane office building on Clark Street at the Chicago River, sits a kettle of hot oatmeal. The other Quaker items in the employee cafeteria--the Gatorade and the granola bars and, until recently, the Snapple—cost the employees money.
     But the oatmeal is free. Just grab a ladle and load up as much as you can. Oatmeal is one of the cheapest foodstuffs around. Remember the slogan "Just pennies a serving"? It's even cheaper to make, and a huge profit maker to sell. Hot oatmeal built the company into what it is today.
     Selling it to the employees, well, just somehow wouldn't seem right.
     If the free oatmeal is a nod to the company's distant past, it is just that—a nod. Oatmeal is kind of boring, and not the sort of product that fires up the blood in corporate veins nowadays. Quaker is not about oatmeal anymore. Like most companies today, it is not even about profits, in and of themselves. It's about growth, and stock, and stock prices, and keeping shareholders happy.
     A common enough philosophy lately, but one that led Quaker Oats into one of the great business disasters of the 20th century: the purchase of the Snapple Beverage Company for $1.7 billion in November 1994. When Quaker finally dumped the company this past March, for $300 million, it lost a cool $1.4 billion on the transaction, not to mention the hundreds of millions frittered away on ill-conceived advertising, distribution restructuring, and fat severance contracts gagging executives who know the embarrassing details of the fiasco.
     The mind gropes in vain for a similar calamity in Chicago corporate history. The collapse of Continental Bank, maybe, but that didn't sink with the banners flying and the orchestra at full crescendo, the way Snapple did.
     It's over now. The dust from the explosion is still hanging in the air, and as it settles a question takes shape:

     What happened?

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Puffing words like soap bubbles

     On Monday mornings, along with the traffic and weather, the AM radio news station presents the butcher’s bill from the preceding weekend of violence: 40 shot, nine killed, most recently.
     An average summer weekend in Chicago.
     And those listening, getting dressed, process that information or, most likely, don’t. Which is why the reporters at the station pull a few individuals out of those stats — a 6-year-old girl, shot exiting a car. The 19-year-old son of a police officer, home from college, killed on his front step — in an attempt to raise a tingle in the audience’s anthracite hearts.
     Because I have my own 19-year-old, also home from college, sleeping upstairs, I thought about that particular victim more than the rest. We all draw the circle of concern, with ourselves at the center. We encompass our family. Our neighborhood. Then the circle closes. Who includes the whole city? Chicago is a big place.
     It’s such a fraught subject I can see why most shun it. I usually do, first, because who wants to make a point, even a valid point, using the death of someone’s child? I wouldn’t even try, except for the certainty that, in the wake of such heartbreak, the parents couldn’t care what some fool says or doesn’t say in the newspaper.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Reader flashback: Swiss Gold

     On Sunday I posted a column from the late 1990s that had been spiked by the Sun-Times and rescued by the Reader, which happened on several occasions back then. Another was this one — newspaper journalism has a certain Kabuki quality, and I think the following was just too personal, too forceful for the Sun-Times' audience, but fit right into the Reader's looser vibe.  It originally ran Dec. 25, 1997. 

     The tomato soup was delightful. The quail, neither greasy nor dry. Though I preferred the white wine served with the appetizer to the following red--which seemed a bit casky--I wasn't about to mention this to my host, the ambassador.
     If this sounds like something out of a Henry James novel, well, it felt pretty weird to me too. I was squirming in my elegant chair in a private dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel this past September, snared in a roundup of Jewish journalists and delivered before Alfred Defago, the Swiss ambassador to the United States, so he could tell us how sorry his government is for having played banker to the Nazis during World War II. How much it regrets that for half a century afterward Swiss banks kept the money from thousands of accounts belonging to Holocaust victims, their heirs turned away empty-handed with bureaucratic dodges: I'm sorry, but you'll need to get an official death certificate from the Nazis confirming that they shot your parents in the head and dumped their bodies in a slit trench in some forest in Poland....
     Not that Defago used these words. Everything the ambassador said was correctness itself. Polished. Poised. His words would look good engraved on a coin. And his timing was perfect--a little late in the grand scheme of things, but right in keeping with 1997. This was the year for making nice with history. The Brits apologized for the Irish potato famine. The squeaky-clean Norwegians apologized to the Laplanders for past indiscretions. Even the French, who never apologize for anything, were lining up to say how sorry they were about their various lapses, misdeeds, and crimes during World War II.
     Jews were the favorite object of public contrition but not the only one. President Clinton gathered the few surviving victims of the infamous Tuskegee experiment and invited them over to the White House so he could look them in the eye and repent from the bottom of his heart. Clinton's good at that--from the sincere look of dolor slapped all over his mug, you'd think he was there at the clinic, pretending to treat syphilis and lying to patients. He even trembled on the brink of issuing a mea culpa for slavery but then pulled back, perhaps because there are no ex-slaves still around to summon for a photo op....

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