Saturday, December 31, 2016

You have permission not to drink this New Year's Eve

     "Red or white?" is the traditional question. When your answer is "neither," it can throw a wrench in the gears of festivity.
     I remember standing in the fancy kitchen of a fancy home before a fancy dinner party. Our hostess, bottle in each hand, realized that she had a guest who, astonishingly, did not drink. She looked desperately around, then ended up sloshing tap water into a cut crystal glass and thrusting it into my hand.
     That worked.
     The holidays are upon us. With the biggest drinking holiday of the year lining up with Saturday night, some people are trying to navigate the arrival of New Year's without ending the weekend in the hospital.
     Doing publicity for my new book on recovery, I've had a number of hosts — TV, radio, podcasts — ask, "How do you cope with the holidays?" I offer some glib reply, but what I really want to say is, "You know Scott, the very same not-drinking-today strategy I use on March 2 and Sept. 3 also works amazingly well on Christmas and Dec. 31."
     But that's condescending. And simplistic. I understand it's hard for many people to get their heads around going to a holiday party and not drinking. It's like going to the movies and hanging out in the lobby. What's the point?
     A few tips.
     First, recognize it is possible. People do it....

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Friday, December 30, 2016

You won't BELIEVE what these famous actresses look like NOW!

     A quarter century ago, Queen Elizabeth II gave a speech where she famously referred to 1992 as an "annus horribilis" — Latin for "horrible year" — for its variety of scandals and setbacks, including a major fire at Windsor Castle.
     The temptation is to dub 2016 the same, for the rise of reaction and xenophobia, and nations lining up to swan dive into folly. Britain's Brexit, the Philippines' elevation of a murderous madman, and of course our own election of an unfit, erratic fraud to lead our country to ... well, we have no clue, do we? Either where he promised, or its opposite, or somewhere in between.
     I will resist that temptation to describe 2016 as an annus horribilis for the simple reason that we need to reserve the phrase for later use. Before I checked, I assumed the Queen had unleashed annus horribilis for the year Diana died, but no, that didn't happen until 1997. You don't want to pull the cord on "horrible" too soon because what happens when things really get bad? "Double horrible" just doesn't pack a punch. 
     And, ever the optimist, I am fully open and receptive to the idea that Trump, through his ham-handedness, ignorance and bullying will not be as effective a tyrant as feared. I'm not hoping he'll ruin the country. Chaos and stasis will never be so welcome. Maybe he'll blunder into solving the immigrant crisis and sealing an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Nixon, remember, went to China.
    Also – and this is important – a strong argument can be made that Trump is merely shining the harsh sodium vapor lamp of his  train wreck ego and self-puffing mania on flaws that were already manifest in the American system. What was shrugged off and clucked at under Barack Obama suddenly seems more more malign – and properly so – under the prospect of a Trump regime. He might have unleashed the haters, but they were already here, in the blocks, set in their runners' crouch, waiting for the gun. 
     OK. So now we've squinted at the big picture, on to the little: 2016 was the third calendar year of this blog, begun on July 1, 2013. I'm happy to report that it has become a quotidian part of life – my life anyway, and maybe yours.  I've never come close to missing a post—though I reserve the right, for being hit by a bus, etc. I did go to Japan with nothing in the can, but it turns out that their country is wired, too, and filing something wasn't a challenge or a chore. 
     None of this is. 
     Looking at the stats, I'm happy with the blog's progress.
    At the end of 2013, after six months of existence, the daily average readership was 918. By Dec. 30, 2014 it was 1200. The end of 2015 was 1539, and now its 1730, nearly double what it was three years ago. And the numbers are trending upward: January, 2015 was the first month to break 50,000 readers—this year, every month since May has done so, with two breaking 60,000, including a record November at 65,166. My gut says in 2017 we'll reach 80,000.
    But those are just numbers, and nothing to brag about on real web success terms. What about quality? I spent the entire year shrieking in alarm over Donald Trump, going back to posts like Jan. 27 "Preparing for President Trump" and Feb. 25  "Silvio Trump." To observe that it didn't help would be obvious—no columnist did, or could. I tried, and that's what is important, and no doubt will be a source of comfort as our nation twists and distorts like a candy wrapper in a campfire. 
    There are some pieces I'm quite proud of – or the cuteness article I researched in Japan, "The Saving Grace of Kumamon," I was able to use the photos on the blog that Mosaic didn't want, and in general I've been glad to have to present versions of stories that I prefer, plus essays that aren't available online. 
    As far as pieces written exclusively for the blog, I didn't notice any original pieces that approached the quality of, say, "Welcome to the Steinberg Bakery" or "Abe Lincoln would not have done it." That is worrisome. Then again, I finished a book and had it published, so maybe my focus was there. And there were a few original highlights: my April 1 post, "The End," managed to fool a lot of readers, despite being inaccurate in every aspect—foreshadowing of Trump's triumph, perhaps. After the paper sent me to buy an assault rifle, leading to June 17 "That old Second Amendment only goes so far," having this blog, a venue where I could set the record straight, to my satisfaction at least, in June 23's "Dunk Tank." That was very important to me when I was getting abuse from all sides, from Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and every yahoo with a Twitter account.
    Enough. My wife thinks I shouldn't post the numbers, but my blog, my rules. It was worth doing,, and continuing to do, only because you continue to follow along, and I appreciate it, and thank you. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Curdled sky


     Every morning I walk the dog. Were walking the dog a chore, I would dragoon my wife to help. But I am habitually awake far earlier than she, and enjoy walking the dog, as it involves two of my favorite pastimes: walking and the dog. 
     So I do it. Heading down the front walk, sometimes the dog will tack left, curling around the house north toward the library, a route I don't mind because I get to pass my Lake Superior hemlock tree, and note with approval its steady progress skyward. But we typically go right, a standard route -- three blocks down, a block over, and three blocks back. 
    Dogs like routine. As do humans. I make a point to always grab a few old blue newspaper bags before we go, to clean up after the dog—let the Internet try expropriating that important journalistic function. Some dog walkers are careless in this, but I am not. Once, forgetting bags, I used my handkerchief, throwing it away afterward. 
    I seldom forgot a bag after that. What I don't always remember is my phone, a lapse I only think of when confronted with something I'd like to take a photo of, like the banded sky above. I couldn't recall seeing clouds so evenly striped in straight lines like that, and wanted to record it. Clouds don't stick around, typically, waiting to be documented. But when I returned home, I puzzled the dog by leaving her in the foyer, bolting upstairs, grabbing my phone in my office, and heading back outside. Finding the best spot for observing an unbroken expanse of sky, I stood next to a neighbor's house, snapping happily away, until I paused, realizing that I was standing five feet from a brightly-lit window, worried my interest in clouds might be misconstrued, and retreated home.  ("Truly officer, it was an intriguing banded effect....") 
    I plugged "striped clouds" and "banded clouds" into Google and didn't find much. A bunch of chitchat, none of it definitive. But my copy of Fogs and Clouds came through almost immediately. Published in 1926, written by W. J. Humphreys, identified on the title page as the Meteorological Physicist of the United States Weather Bureau, author of Physics of the Air; Weather Proverbs and Paradoxes, Rainmaking and Other Weather Vagaries—who among us wouldn't snap that up in an instant?—among other works.
      The book contains 93 photographs, in stunning black and white, "Radiation fog" and "Billow cloud" and "Cumulus boa," and flipping through them I came to No. 27, a "Cirro-culmulus" that has the same striations as my cloud. 
    Okay, it might not be exactly the same -- Humphreys' looks whispier, and mine seems denser, and more wintry. But it seems very close.
    Cirro-cumulus, Humphreys relates, are "arranged in groups and often in lines," and often referred to, at least in the world Humphreys traveled, as a "mackerel sky," because:
    The term "mackerel sky" is an abbreviation of "mackerel-back sky," so named because of the frequent resemblance of rows of cirro-cumuli to the patterns (not the scales) on the backs of one or more species of mackerel. When the cirro-cumuli are small, numerous, and without order or pattern, they often are called "curdled sky."    
     Which would have the average Chicagoan trying to picture a mackerel. Don't feel bad; I couldn't conjure one up either. Here you go. 
     Interesting word, "mackerel." Disappears into antiquity, at least 700 years old, with the Oxford Dictionary not even hazarding a guess where it might be from, noting that "mackerel sky" is at least 300 years old. ("Mackerel" has also been a synonym for "pimp" for at least 500 years, again for reasons mysterious). 
     A common enough word to inspire a host of sayings—of course you know "Holy Mackerel," a softening of "Holy Mary" with a nod to the Catholic preference for fish on Friday's thrown in (One obscure slang for Catholics was "mackerel-snappers.")  An article in the London Sunday Dispatch from 1936, cited in Supplement One of H.L. Mencken's The American Language claims that London swells had stopped using profanity, and instead were inserting names of flowers and animals, preserving this supposed snippet of their cleaned-up conversation: "Hullo, you old baked walnut. How goes the mackerel-footed flea?"
     Dryden refers to a "mackerel-gale" which Samuel Johnson, in his great 1755 dictionary, guesses means "a strong breeze, such, I suppose, as is desired to bring mackerel fresh to market." 
     Which had to be done quickly, because mackerel were famous for spoiling fast. In his definition of the word, Johnson quotes this bit of verse, from William King's 1709 Art of Cookery: "Law ordered that the Sunday should have rest; And that no nymph her noisy food should sell, Except it were new milk or mackerel." What good is observing the Lord's Day if it results in bad fish?
     Plus there are a variety of similes, "silent as a mackerel," which needs no explanation. 
     You see why the fish is used to describe the clouds. But how do the clouds get those mackerelish rows? That's the aspect that really caught my attention, these broad lines conveyed across the heaven in such regularity. What's the mechanism for that? What holds them together? Humphreys, as if reading our minds, is right there with an answer:
     Those occurring in rows presumably are on the crests of air waves or billows at the interface between wind layers of unequal speeds or different directions, or both, and commonly unequal in temperature and humidity.
     Does that make sense to you? Me neither. But then again, I have a bad cold—been battling it for days; I figure, I picked it up on Lower Wacker Drive last Thursday, visiting the homeless.
     Or maybe I'm just blaming them, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Maybe I caught it from a rich swell at a fancy restaurant. Either way, the last thing Humphreys says about cirro-cumuli (yeah, I dig using the plural) is "they are quite thin and contain but little cloud material."
     Which is about how I'm feeling. So my last question is this: did I truly never see such banded clouds before? Or did I see them but didn't notice? My guess is the former, since seeing them this week drew such immediate interest. But you never know. Have you ever seen any? Perhaps they were there, but I was not in the proper spirit to receive their presence. People often confuse what's going on inside with what's going on outside, such as all those Democrats convinced that our nation went through some kind of epic change over the past two months, when what actually happened was we all suddenly looked up and really noticed how curdled the sky had become.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Lies are not only damaging, they're contagious


     Et tu, Barack?
     I was biting my lip, trying not to criticize the president in his final weeks. What would be the point? He's history, toast, riding off into the sunset for his date with a postage stamp. Yes, after the 2016 election he reverted to the same Spock-like, over-intellectual passivity he glided in on, nodding pleasantly the way people do in nightmares in the face of imminent danger, as his successor rears out of the swamp of American psychosis and names his misfit Cabinet.
     But Obama must know what he's doing, right? A wily politician to the end. Just as during the 2008 election he knew that one flash of temper would paint him as an Angry Black Man, he sought to maintain whatever slight influence he might have on the Trumpian entity by welcoming it into the White House with grace. At least then Donald Trump might see what grace looks like. Hoping to mitigate the disaster, Obama kept his lip zipped while the scaffolding of our national humiliation is erected.
     Then, talking to David Axelrod for his podcast, Obama blurted out that he would have beat Trump: "I'm confident that if I, if I had run again and articulated it, I think I could've mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it."
     Obama's boast is meaningless on several levels. In no particular order: a) he couldn't run again; b) a majority of the American people don't vote at all; c) Hillary Clinton did win most of the votes the American people cast among the candidates and she still lost; and d) Trump has already cornered the market on preening, unwarranted confidence in one's own ability.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Street medicine brings health care to the homeless

Night Ministry medical case manager Tiffany Green talks to a homeless man on Lower Wacker Drive.

     You can't always tell if it is a person in there, or if that person is alive or dead.
     "Night Ministry!" Jeff Ayoub calls out, approaching a human-shaped pile of blankets on Lower Wacker Drive. "Night Ministry!"
     The Night Ministry is the last strand of our fraying safety net. Despite "ministry" in its name, it is not a religious group, except in the sense that all religions have scripture about helping the downtrodden, edicts generally ignored by the faithful but the linchpin of this 40-year-old Chicago organization, which runs a shelter and a medical clinic on a bus that offers health care, counseling and life necessities to Chicago's homeless.
     I tagged along Thursday because, one year ago, the Night Ministry began a program, where nurses carry backpacks filled with medical gear seek out the homeless under viaducts, in fields, and other odd places where they hide.
     "We were restricted with what we could do with the bus," said David Wywialowski, director health outreach.    

Smoking crack cocaine. 
     The Night Ministry was inspired by Dr. Jim Withers and his Street Medicine Institute in Pittsburgh. So last year they visited him, observed his operation, and brought it here.
     Homeless people are prone to asthma — one complained of the dust raised by cars blasting by. They have allergies from the rat feces scattered inches from their heads, difficulty filling prescriptions, early onset arthritis and undiagnosed diabetes. Not to mention the woes of addiction that cause many to fall off the grid in the first place.

     As we moved from one encampment to another, handing out bottles of water, food, Christmas gift bags of toiletries and sweets, it struck me that homeless people do not gather randomly. They might live on the street, but they separate out into communities that reflect society. Thus you have African Americans along one stretch of Lower Wacker Drive, while around the corner is a neighborhood of young white IV drug users.
     Guatemalans live under an overpass near Chinatown, where some have jobs in nearby restaurants. And the neatly tented people living under Lake Shore Drive at Wilson and Lawrence tend to be the de-institutionalized mentally ill.
     Just as in the society they've tumbled from, different groups scorn one another.
     "They really do," said Matthew Sorenson, 54, a nurse practitioner at the Night Ministry. "There's definitely an elitism among substance abusers. They separate themselves from other groups, have their own identities. The alcoholics will speak badly of the heroin users; the heroin users hate the meth addicts — everyone hates the meth addicts."
     Though they had invited me to see the medical program in action, on Thursday there wasn't a nurse with us — I interviewed Sorenson later, by phone. Requests for inhalers and other treatment requests by the dozens of homeless people we met had to be deferred.
     The big difference between what the Night Ministry is doing in Chicago and Pittsburgh's program is the lack of a Dr. Jim Withers. Their street medicine team started going out only one day a week, saw the enormous need, and now goes out five, but staffing and funding is still an issue.
     They are hoping to hire a part-time nurse, What they could really use are a bunch of medical volunteers — nurse practitioners who want to give back to the city, and maybe get some experience treating trench foot and scabies that they might never get at some shiny suburban hospital. Christmas is over, but the need remains, and one truth of helping such people is that the person you end up helping is yourself.

Monday, December 26, 2016

From the Economist: "A curfew tolls..."

    Yesterday's blog post was pretty dark for Christmas. Apologies. To be honest, I had something lighter and more fun in mind, the post below. But when it came time to actually set it down, I forgot, and so instead unloaded my random, almost unfiltered thoughts on the closing out of 2016. Yes, I realized it wasn't Christmasy, but I had just done that with "Mr. Tanner" the day before and, besides, it's really not my holiday. 
    But we're still in the post-Christmas lull; a day off for most people. Actually, now that I think of it, Dec. 26 is an even more apt—it's better to be lucky than good—since it's Boxing Day in Britain, the post-Christmas bank holiday. The perfect day for me to make up for my Debbie Downer Day yesterday, which people did complain about, with the belated delivery of the present of Christmas whimsy I meant to share yesterday.

     The Economist is one of those rare endeavors that is so well done, it makes you proud to be a human being. Reading it regularly is like having an extra brain. The magazine's key leap of faith is to assume its readers are as smart as the publication. Thus it doesn't pander, doesn't talk down, doesn't trivialize. Its "Holiday Double Issue" steps back from the clatter of news affairs and offers a smorgasbord of intelligence—an essay on the economic ramifications of the Norman conquest of 1066, something on silence, on clothespins. 
    And the obituary. The back page obituaries in the Economist are so consistently excellent that often I start reading the issue from the back, and I'm sure I'm not alone there. The new issue obituary is a rarity, in that it is not about a person, but a business—the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing firm in Britain, an institution stretching back some 500 years—no one is sure when it began, but it forged both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell (insisting that the famous crack was caused by rough handling by the rebels, not due to any flaw in manufacture). Whitechapel announced Dec. 2 that it would be closing, and the Economist's page about it chimes in celebration of its existence while tolling its passing. I had never heard of it, and assume most readers hadn't. Reading of its demise reminded me of G.K. Chesterton's famed summation that "Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive." That always sounded negative, a slur on both the trade and its readers in a single stroke. But learning of Whitechapel's existence and demise in the same breath felt like an enormous benefit, and I wanted to share it with you here, as a kind of belated Christmas gift.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016 was a good year, in that we were alive. Otherwise....

     The year is winding down, and I noticed people online making a point of listing some of the good things that happened this past year, lest 2016 be remembered solely as the year that a brittle, angry, unfit fraud told America he would make their dreams come true, and 60 million people fell for it. 
      To be honest, I was tempted to join in. And it was a good year for me—the new book did well, I traveled, from Joshua Tree National Park to Washington, D.C. to rural Japan. The boys kept hitting it out of the park, rounding the bases of college with an easy, casual grace.
     And really, considering the 14 billion years of void that come before we wink into consciousness, and the untold billions more of darkness and oblivion to come, any year on the sunny side of the grass is a good year.  It beats the alternative.
     But it feels wrong to pin a few lacy highlights on 2016, hoping they'll obscure the gathering disaster. It isn't just Trump's election, but a worldwide retreat from the modern, interconnected, tolerant, intelligent, caring, scientific approach that got us to this world of smart phones and flatscreen TVs and CT scans. We've gone off the rails, from Britain and Brexit to the Philippines and Dutarte, with God knows what's to come. The dice are tumbling, the world is tumbling, bobbing along in the rushing sewer of events that flows through the ditch we've fallen into. If we're going to be at war with China in a year, or watching boxcars of Mexicans rumble south, I don't want to have history catch me showing slides of my as-yet-unruined life up until the moment the whole thing goes to hell. 
    One of the many reasons 2016 was a good year is because 2017 is going to be worse. I'm fairly certain of that. Oh sure, Trump is erratic, and can renege on an insane promise as easily as he can make one. But again, there is a global context here. It isn't just us. And if it were, the prelude is so ghastly and horrifying we already have begun to re-jigger down our standards of exactly what ghastly and horrifying means. Donald Trump sent out one tweet recently that, while no worse than dozens if not hundreds of others, seems to me to show just what a pickle this country has put itself in. 
     As you probably know, the inauguration looms, and the usual A list of stars is balking at the idea of performing for this awful man. So far he has a few corporate entertainers -- the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Rockettes, though not without individual dancers raising a howl of protest. Some child, 16, who obviously doesn't know better, will sing the National Anthem. 
     If you or I were in Trump's situation, we'd nod, and wonder if perhaps we weren't conducting ourselves in an ideal manner, given that all professional entertainment was shunning us. Or we'd lose ourselves in the million important details of putting together an administration.
    Not Donald Trump. Not pettiness incarnate. Here's the tweet:

      The first sentence is an obvious lie. Donald Trump's entire life has been one long genuflection at the gilded void of celebrity, in himself and others. The idea that he would reject any mildly famous person is laughable. Then he somehow twists that into a barb at Hillary Clinton -- these celebrities failed to elect her, so he doesn't want them. He wants "the PEOPLE!" The vox populi who elected him. The lumpen proletariat -- and I sincerely feel for them. It blows not to have a job, an industry, to be so hateful that you look at our departing First Family and see only apes, their elegance and intelligence and dignity for eight years unperceived, meaning nothing to you. That's a level of narrowness and crazy I can only squint my eyes and imagine.
    And it blows to be in that precarious position and be duped, to place your trust in a con-man, and only realize after the bank account is drained that the Nigerian Prince who promised to share his fortune with you, provided you put up some earnest money, was not real after all. Not that I expect them to grasp that, soon or ever. You become invested in the deceit you fall for. Better to be cheated than a fool. 
    We've turned our country over to this man and these people. That's an enormous pile of shit that will counterbalance all the individual personal good we could possibly heap on the other tray of the 2016 scale. 
    Not that I am despairing, I'm not. Life has become more complicated and difficult and awful for millions of Americans than it would have been had Hillary Clinton won, while millions of others are ululating over good that will never come their way, except through shared delusion. I am confident good will come from this — after years of suffering, certainly. But it will come. It's coming now. Each ghastly day of jaw-dropping revelation will be one day, one step toward reaching -- and we assume eventually passing through and then, please God, putting behind us -- whatever cataclysm the world is heading toward. 
     It would not help anybody to  suggest that my buying a snowblower somehow slightly mitigates the year America was brought low, garlanded with shame, and drop-kicked into a nightmarish hall of mirrors hell the dimensions of which we can only guess at for now. I won't do it.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Music was his life, it was not his livelihood."

      While I don't want to become one of those guys who can't stop working, one challenge I have is the intersection between what I find fun and interesting and what I consider work. Wondering about "O Holy Night" on Wednesday got me thinking it might be a good Christmas Eve post, if only to share that Jennifer Nettles video, which everyone should listen to. But digging into why I like the song brought me to Harry Chapin and Martin Tubridy, the discovery of whom prompted me to polish up this blog post and offer it to the newspaper, where it's running as a front page column Saturday. I'm posting it here in longer version—I have to tuck in under 700 words at the paper—because I wrote it on my day off. While Tubridy was identified on a Harry Chapin fan site in 2004, and in Wikipedia, it hasn't, to my knowledge, been in any newspaper outside of Weston, Connecticut. Making it news, of a sort, in my eyes. Anyway, It seemed worth pulling together in time for Christmas.

     Saturday night is Christmas Eve, and while I don't usually write a column for Saturdays, this fell in my lap late in the week. It isn't quite a Christmas miracle, more of a Christmas wonder, as you'll see if you can bear with me to the end.
     On Wednesday, an acquaintance asked if I were doing anything for Christmas. Yes, I replied, as always, on Christmas Eve, I'll play R&B singer Tevin Campbell's version of "O Holy Night."
     "It isn't celebrating Christmas, like having a tree," I explained. "It's just a pretty song."
     If you like that, my acquaintance said, you should hear Jennifer Nettles sing it. He sent me a link.
     Wow. Tevin Campbell has been topped.
     As I listened, I wondered: there are lots of carols, many quite beautiful. Why "O Holy Night"? Kinda religious for me, with all that falling on one's knees and nights divine. A French carol, incidentally, composed in 1847, the familiar English lyrics written in 1855 by a Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight.
    I pulled at the thread, and immediately realized: Harry Chapin.
Harry Chapin
     When I was a teenager, I was a big fan of his songs about sad, thwarted people. Many dismissed them as sentimental, but to me they were moving. He had a couple hits—"Cats in the Cradle," "Taxi." I liked him enough to go see him twice in 1978, at Blossom Music Center outside Cleveland, and at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston. At both concerts he did something I had never seen a performer do, before or since. After the Blossom show, he stood amongst the fans, signing his "Every Year is World Hunger Year" t-shirt. I bought one and he signed it. 
     And at the Evanston show, he was running late coming straight from the airport. A student with a guitar was pressed into service, as an impromptu warm-up to distract the crowd until he arrived, and after he did, he not only thanked the kid, but had him sing a little with him. Later in the show, Chapin stepped around the microphone and sang, acappello and unamplified. He had a powerful voice.
    Of all his catalogue of songs, about small people and their frustrated dreams, the one that really got to me was "Mr. Tanner," the story of a mediocre talent from Ohio that begins:
Mister Tanner was a cleaner from a town in the Midwest.
And of all the cleaning shops around he'd made his the best.
But he also was a baritone who sang while hanging clothes.
He practiced scales while pressing tails and sang at local shows.
    But the joy music brought to him wasn't enough—fame beckoned.  His friends urge him to do something with his talent. Mr. Tanner gives in, goes to New York to try to grab the brass ring. He holds a recital.  In the song, Chapin recites the scathing review: 
     Mr. Martin Tanner, baritone, of Dayton Ohio, made his town hall debut last night. He came well prepared, but unfortunately his presentation was not up to contemporary professional standards. His voice lacks the range of tonal color necessary for it to be consistently interesting....
     Tanner returns to Dayton and never sings again, except late at night, softly to himself, sorting through the clothes.
      At several points in the song, Chapin bassist Big John Wallace sings the refrain of "O Holy Night," a soaring counter-melody.
    "Fallllll on your knees, hearrrrr the angels' voices..."
     So that's where "O Holy Night" came from, pressed into my mind by Mr. Tanner.
     But why is "O Holy Night" in the middle of a pop song about a cleaner from Dayton? That was trickier. Harry Chapin died in a fiery car accident in 1981—in a VW Golf, if I remember correctly, something that kept me from ever wanting to drive in small cars.
      I tried his surviving brother Tom, put in a call to the Harry Chapin Foundation, which carried on his work to fight world hunger. 
     The answer was waiting in an obscure interview in a Chapin fan publication from 2004, where Wallace is asked that exact question. He replied: "It was spliced together because it was operatic, and Harry knew it from Grace Church. It came from a review he read about Martin Tubridy and is the actual review."
     Tubridy was an ad man, not a cleaner. He was from Astoria, Queens, not Dayton, Ohio. But he really was a baritone who sang at local shows, good enough, at least in his own mind, that he rented Carnegie Hall and put on a performance. The New York Times sent a music critic. Its single paragraph backhand March 28, 1971 on page 63:
     "Martin Tubridy, a New York bass‐baritone, made his local debut in Carnegie Recital Hall on Friday night with Mitchell Andrews at the piano. His performance of two Purcell songs and Schumann's 'Liederkreis' cycle was not up to professional standards, lacking tonal steadiness and adequate phrasing...."
     That's what inspired Chapin to write the song, which appears on his 1974 album, "Short Stories." After Wallace outed him, people began calling Tubridy, asking: was he Mr. Tanner? Was he from Dayton? 
     So Tubridy was a little frosty when I phoned. But once he realized I wasn't one of those people, he warmed.
     No, he hadn't been a Chapin fan, he said, or had any idea he was the inspiration of the song until a decade ago. 
     "I fell in love with his music once I found out about him," he said.
     Unlike Mr. Tanner, Tubridy did not quit. He kept singing, despite the negative reviews—there were more to come—and a good thing, too. He met his wife, Marlane, while both were performing in an off-Broadway production of Guys & Dolls. For a long time, he didn't want to be associated with Mr. Tanner.
     "I knew about this, but just wanted to push it out of the back of my life," Tubridy said. "Only when Howie Fields called did I realize what it means to people."
     Fields is the drummer of the Chapin family band, which kept performing after Harry Chapin's death, headed by brothers Tom and Steve. Fields called over the summer, wanting to know if Tubridy, now in his 70s, would perform the 'O Holy Night' part in "Mr. Tanner" at a concert last month raising money for the Harry Chapin Foundation.
     "The man just gave and gave and gave," said Tubridy. "I decided to do the performance with the band."
Martin Tubridy (left) and Howie Fields before the Nov. 12 concert
 (Photograph by Peter A. Blacksberg © 2016)
     You can see the Nov. 12 performance on YouTube.
     "It was surreal," Tubridy said. "It doesn't seem like this could actually happen. A standing ovation. Incredible, really."
     There really is only one thing left to say:
      Mr. Martin Tubridy, baritone, of Weston, Connecticut, sang the 'O Holy Night' counter melody in 'Mr. Tanner' with a fullness, strength and conviction which, while at one point hard to hear over the audience cheering, was consistently interesting.
     Particularly, at the very end, when the lyrics are, "He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole," but you hear Tubridy shift to, "it just made me whole."
     Music will do that. Critics pan and the years pass. But if you stick with your dreams long enough, keep singing, and are very lucky, maybe, just maybe, you'll get to do your stuff for people who cheer and critics who rave. Or even if you never do—the usual result—just the trying will make you whole. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 23, 2016

A taste of heaven

     I visited a slice of heaven and a glimpse into hell Thursday, all within the span of a couple hours.
     Heaven might be overstating the case. But it was very white, and lovely. Which came as I surprise, because I was driving east along Lawrence Avenue, one of the more unlovely streets in Chicago. It was getting on 9 a.m., I had not had my coffee, and I was looking for a place, anyplace, to get a cup before I arrived at my destination. I pulled over at a Greek bakery, Hella's Pastry Shop, 2627 W. Lawrence -- only now, as I type it, does the name seem ironic.
    "Do you have coffee?" I asked, and as Gus, who has worked there 30 years, poured it, I looked around. Usually a bakery has a wide variety of offerings, but this place had one, predominantly. Tray after tray of kourabies—to use the bakery's spelling—a Greek Christmas cookie, filling the glass case, and the wall behind the counter. The effect was surreal, cinematic, charming. 
    I asked about the cookies, of course, and Gus suggested a dozen at $9.50. I already had breakfast, so compromised with a half dozen.  Gus gave me a complimentary honey cookie, wrapped in a napkin, and I ate that on the spot. It was very good, and I mentioned another Greek restaurateur of my acquaintance. His honey cookies ... Gus knew him, and he and I exchanged a knowing, sorrowful glance. Yes, well, baking is an art, is it not? And art, by definition, is not open to all, despite effort and intention.
      The bakery, he said, has been there for 50 years. These things take time to perfect. There was a sign in the window I admired on my way out. "All nicely wrapped." That was very sweet, in a way as sweet as the cookies. 
     The kourabies were very powdery -- not the best cookie to eat sitting in your car, but I managed. They were worth the care needed to eat them and the clean-up required, some diligent brushing and flicking. These crescents can be made with almond, or walnut, but these seemed a straight shortbread. I limited myself to two, saving the rest for the family, though that took an application of will as the day progressed. 
    Leading us to hell. As for hell, well, that's more complicated, as hell tends to be. You'll have to read my column on Monday. There too, I might be overstating the case, but again, only slightly.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

You can lead a girl to slaw, but you can't make her eat

     In an ideal world, the Sun-Times archive would be online, where you — or I — could access it. But it's not. In that same ideal world, I would at least be able to explain why it isn't online, or when it might be. We don't live in that world either. 
      Though I can post favorite columns here, where people can find them, one of the many benefits of running a blog. I even have permission to do so, until that happy day when the archive is online.
     This is one of my favorite columns; I'm posting it so I can show it to people. It has an interesting back story. A chef I admire, Sarah Stegner, was coming to my kid's junior high school to make cole slaw. What I thought would be the story — the award-winning chef interacting with the school lunch ladies — did not turn out to be the interesting part. 
     What turned out to be the interesting part was the reaction of a group of 12-year-old girls I stumbled upon in the lunchroom. I was a little skittish about using them -- people are sensitive about being in the newspaper, and no parents had been consulted, no approval sought. None was needed, of course. A free press may go about in public. But I didn't want the story spoiled by aggrieved parents. So after I reported this but before it ran, I did something I had never done before, or since. I phoned the mother of the Queen Bee student I focus on, to tell her the column was coming, and seek her permission to use her daughter's name. To my relief, she didn't mind.  

     Lily Jaeger, 12, a willowy wisp of a girl, is sitting in the cafeteria at Northbrook Junior High School, picking at her lunch: a bag of salt & vinegar potato chips.
     That isn't all she brought to eat of course -- she also has two sandwich cookies and some gummy bears in a brown bag.
     "I originally had applesauce in there but I took it out," she explains.
     Neither Jaeger, nor her seven friends crowding cozily together at a table, have touched the free cole slaw set out for them.
     "Too healthy," explains Kayla Fox.
     "We like junk," laughs Maddie Caplis.
     "It's yellow . . ." says Shayna Lutz.
     "If it were blue . . ." speculates Jaeger, in a dreamy tone suggesting that, well, then it might be an entirely different story.
     The slaw is indeed yellow -- a rich orange yellow that suggests fresh peaches, which comes from the organic golden beets and roasted organic squash used to make it, along with ripe pears, apples, cabbage, honey and a sprinkling of roasted pumpkin seeds.
     The slaw has just been prepared in the school's kitchen by Chef Sarah Stegner, who spent years running the dining room at the Ritz-Carlton, and Chef George Bumbaris, her partner now in the Prairie Grass Cafe and Prairie Fire shrines to carefully-crafted seasonal comfort foods. This is "Slaw Month" at the junior high school, which has Stegner and Bumbaris coming in each week to disguise good-for-you organic vegetables and fruits as cole slaw. "Hell's Kitchen" this ain't.
     "As a chef, you are a leader in the food community whether you are conscious of it or not," says Stegner, explaining why she is here. "You set the pace for what's out there. If you can give a little bit of direction and guidance and help, you should do that."
     Receiving direction are Donna Eckles, the food service manager at the school, and her staff of three: Linda, Joyce and Petra.
     Cafeteria ladies do not have a good reputation -- popular culture tars them as mean and their food as glop delivered with the ring of a big stainless steel spoon against a metal tray. But Eckles, in her blue smock with snaps and her name on a metal tag, who received her culinary training on the job at Libertyville High School, works smoothly alongside Stegner, in her crisp white chef's tunic with cloth buttons and her name embroidered on it, who studied at the Dumas Pere Cooking School and received the James Beard Award, twice.
     "Part of this is trying to get the staff here to do the setup, to work with them," says Stegner, who found Eckles receptive to ordering and preparing the organic produce.
     "She did this, and I'm sure it was not easy for her. She peeled butternut squash and diced it up. She had to call the farmers and tell them where to deliver."
     The school scrapped its fryer years ago -- fries are now baked -- and welcomed Stegner.
     "She's really nice," said Eckles, who has cooked with Stegner before. "Sarah has come and done a chicken dinner with the whole works, broccoli slaw. We do Tallgrass burgers, and they did guacamole sauce."
     That would be 100-percent grass-fed beef burgers from Bill Kurtis' Tallgrass ranch, the only beef served at Northbrook Junior High, a choice the school explains is healthier and not too expensive, when you factor in money saved by using organic-fed chicken. Lunches here cost $3, just 50 cents more than at the Chicago Public Schools, which has its own healthy initiatives starting this year. ("We have salad bars in Englewood," says CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond.)
     Getting kids to eat slaw is another matter
     Erik Dieschbourg, 11, is first to take a sample of the cole slaw, adding it to the pizza and chocolate ice cream cup on his tray.
     "Is it good?" asks Reid McCafferty.
     Dieschbourg tries a nibble.
     "Yeah," he says, without enthusiasm.
     The consensus is that the yellow slaw looks "gross" but those who try some like it.
     Madelyn Rowan, whose hand is covered with scrawled notes, dissolves into giggles before hazarding a morsel. "It's really good," she says, to her unconvinced friends.
     "Wash it down with this," says Maddie Tatham, 11, extending a Chewable Lemonhead in her direction.
     Lily Jaeger reconsiders rejecting slaw.
     "Is it free?" she asks, hopping up.
     "She's not going to eat it," confides Shayna Lutz. "She's going to pick at it, say 'Eww' and start crying."
     Not quite. Lily returns with a cup of slaw. She holds it dramatically at eye level, examining it closely, her features a symphony of disgust. She holds it to her nose and sniffs.
     "I smelled it," she announces to her seven friends, hoping that will placate them. It does not. Goaded, she gives a shrug, then plucks up a shred of slaw between pink polished nails and raises it to her mouth, gagging as Shayna instantly brings a napkin to Lily's lips -- the way a mother would do with a child -- so her friend can spit the shred out.
     Lily trots off to the water fountain, then returns, nibbles delicately upon a salt & vinegar chip, as if to settle herself, then decrees:
      "It's actually not that bad."

                            –Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 15, 2010

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Repeating "We are SO screwed..." over and over is not a success strategy

“Now we’re feeling what not having hope feels like."                                                                                                     — Michelle Obama

     Oh, I don't know about that.
     Yes, the brittle fraud we elected president has been scraping together a rogue's gallery of right-wing goofs and fringe mediocrities as his Cabinet.
     Yes, he has been as manic on Twitter as ever, firing off poorly spelled salvos at all who dare question him. Yes, he has been willfully blind to Russian meddling in the U.S. election, leaping to slam our intelligence agencies while making goo-goo eyes at Vladimir Putin.
     Pretty grim. With the promise of more grimness to come, as every closet bigot, neighborhood bully and tin-hat lunatic feels emboldened to strut his stuff in public, praising Trump all the while.
     But how does recognizing this translate into lack of hope? Just the opposite. Hope is required now. The first lady gets that. "Hope is necessary," she continued, pouring out her heart to Oprah.
     It sure is. Merely repeating "We're screwed" over and over is not a success strategy.

     Four reasons for hope:
     1. The Curse of the Outsider. President of the United States is the first elective office will Donald Trump hold. You know who that evokes? Jane Byrne, whose only elective office was one term as mayor of Chicago. Remember Jane? She won by opposing insiders like Ed Vrdolyak and Charles Swibel then, once in power, panicked and ran into their arms. We're seeing that already with Trump. Just because he thinks governing is easy won't make it easy...

To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A kaleidoscope of crazy

     There's a lot of crazy in the world. I know that — heck, I coined the phrase. And I believe it. But you can believe something to be true, sincerely, in your heart, and still marvel at specific examples. 
     For instance....
      Take yesterday's column, about Chicago police recruits taking ethics training at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. It was a long, seven hour day, spent at the Holocaust museum, 9 a.m to 4 p.m., with 113 would-be cops.  Too long to be at the Holocaust Museum. I do not recommend it. Not to take anything way from the institution. It tends to bring a person down. 
      Still, it was worth it, because it led to an interesting story, I felt, delivered fairly directly. No need for me to get on a soapbox. Just present the interesting thing going on. It raises enough important questions on its own.  
       If you haven't read the column, read it here.
       Done? Feel like you've understood it? Good. Now we'll have the police reaction. Pause, to imagine what that reaction might be. What do you think a veteran police officer would say? Got your idea? Good. 
    Here's the reality. We'll just use one, but he expresses a common reaction. The most common reaction:
I am a highly decorated, retired Chicago Cop (31yrs.)with several thousand( you read that correctly- several thousand) arrests under my belt. Comparing The CPD to the Nazi Third Reich is so insulting & idiotic, that I really don't know how to respond. I would also imagine that comparing innocent Holocaust victims to "Inner City Thug Casualties" is just as insulting to the Jewish People. I don't think any Holocaust Victims were robbing,shooting,wielding weapons, car-jacking or threatening anyone, when they were you?You owe Cops an apology.
     What do you say to that? It's just so sad. It made me sad to read, to think about, not because it was a unique reaction, but because it is the common condition nowadays, not just with cops and this story, but with so many people. Our vision has become kaleidoscopic. We can look at the most mundane thing and see a shattered, swirling mosaic of crazy. What can you do in the face of that? Nothing.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Horrors of the Holocaust help teach ethics to Chicago police recruits

     The morning began with bagels, coffee and activities — stand up if you've volunteered, that sort of thing. Then speaker Kelley Szany, director of education at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, drew the attention of 113 Chicago Police Department recruits to a large pad of paper at each table and asked them to draw a line down the middle and make a chart.
     "Left side, how you see yourselves as officers," she said. "Right side, how you think others see you."
     That took five minutes. Then she went around the room, asking one recruit from each table to stand and read what they had written.
     Cops see themselves as professional, fair, heroes, leaders, brave, respectful, loyal, sharp-looking, dedicated, motivated, honorable, helpful, caring, comical, authoritative, among other qualities.
     The public, however, sees them as aggressive, unfair, rude, selfish, power-hungry, robotic, corrupt, biased, lazy, bullies, violent, drunks, racist, killers, overweight . . . plus a few positive qualities, like courageous and trustworthy.
     It seemed an odd exercise, here at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, a summer camp icebreaker, particularly when they were urged to "please use your police voices." Something soon forgotten in the grim journey the officers-to-be, all in their 20s and 30s, were about to take.

     But we would circle back to it during the "Law Enforcement & Democracy Initiative," a unique day of ethics training given to CPD recruits.
     Szany walked them through the role the police played in the German Republic becoming the Nazi Third Reich. She passed around photos of street scenes, of officers with dogs, of police publicly humiliating mixed-religion couples.
     "What sort of police functions do you see happening in these photographs?" she asked, explaining the process of eroding civil rights.
     "When we look at the Holocaust, when we look at genocide as a whole. . . . What we know is that genocide does not happen in a vacuum," Szany said. "Genocide always unfolds in almost an evolution, and in stages, and at every point in these stages . . . we as citizens can choose how we are going to respond. Individuals, organizations and governments can choose how they want to respond. . . . We are going to learn, even if you do not think it is possible to say 'No, I will not participate' it is possible."
     They toured the museum, opened in 2009, following a path that moved Europe's Jews from warm scenes of family life to being an ostracized, ghettoized, terrorized, then murdered minority.
     The recruits listened carefully and were obviously affected. At least one couldn't eat her box lunch.
     "They get why they're here," said a 28-year-old recruit. "The parallels are frightening."
     She was one of several Polish immigrant recruits. (The police department asked me not to use their names because they haven't been vetted as department spokespeople.)
     "I'm from Lublin," she said. "I would pass the Majdanek concentration camp every day on my way to school. [When the program began] I was thinking, 'What does this have to do with my police work?'"
     Then she made the connection.
     "It might happen, even here."
     In the afternoon, they heard a terrifying account from a Polish survivor, Aaron Elster, who lived for two years, hidden in a windowless tin attic. Perhaps the most unsettling moment was a 2009 "60 Minutes" report, "The Bad Samaritan," about David Cash, a college student who looked the other way while his best friend raped and murdered a 7-year-old in the restroom of a Las Vegas casino.
     Retired police Sgt. Diane Shaw connected the dots: the way the German police went along with inflicting horror and how police today go along with wrongs around them, making Chicago what one expert called "the capital of the Code of Silence."
     "How willing are we to lie for somebody, to protect them?" Shaw asked. "Or rationalize things to ourselves. [David Cash] had a code of silence. Do you think there were people who remained silent during the Holocaust? They didn't speak out, for any reason."
     "That was a huge surprise," said one recruit, a 38-year-old former bricklayer. "Now I see how they are tying it all in. It fits like a glove."
     To watch the 113 recruits—military disciplined, polite, attentive, smart, sincere, well-intentioned—inspires some hope for the future of our troubled department. But only some. They have another training ahead of them, the training of the street, even longer, more intensive, and you have to wonder if their day in Skokie will stay with them. The organizers pressed the cadets to retain that positive self-image, to always be the officer they saw when they looked at themselves that morning.
     "How you see yourselves, you were right on target," said Shaw, displaying a few charts. "You are proud. You should be. Honest and courageous. These are things you should continue to strive to be. Sometimes this gets tough. . . . You are the authority figure. [Hitler] used the uniform for the worst possible way. If he can use the uniform to the worst, how can you use your uniform for the best? The challenge is, what can you do to change your world? You're going to go to a district, to a watch, to a beat. When you get to those places, how are you going to change that part of the world for the better? How are you going to use your police uniform and your police powers for the better?"
Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster shares his experience with Chicago Police recruits.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Next they'll leave you a mop and a bucket

     We're used to clicking on buttons online. Sending emails, ordering products, answering questions. 
      And we're used to the on-line world intruding upon what is still thought of as Real Life—we all carry a smart phone and pull it out at idle moments and gape at it, as if we're expecting to find the answer to our unease there.
     But suddenly finding the on-line world's feedback buttons in tangible reality; this seemed something new. In a men's room in Navy Pier. The choices, in case you can't read the photo, are, if "The restroom is clean and properly supplied," press the green button. If "The restroom needs supplies," press the yellow button and, should "The restroom needs cleaning," press red.
     Initially charmed by novelty and the let's-pitch-in-and-put-on-a-show quality of the thing, and by the fact the new bathroom, with its cool grey tiles, was indeed clean and supplied, I pressed the green button. 
     Not realizing, first, that I was undoing the whole washing-hands thing by touching the green button. And second that I was also being dragooned into unpaid janitorial service. 
     Right now, the economic model is that an employee is hired to clean the restrooms, and part of that job is determining when the rest rooms need to be cleaned and re-stocked. This button system, cute though it may be, is like scanning your purchases at CVS or the Huffington Post gulling its readers to write the posts they then read. The first step into a new way where mops and buckets and rags and cleaner are stacked in the corner and if customers want a clean john at Navy Pier, they clean it themselves.
    The devices, by the way, are called "Smiley Boxes," are powered by batteries, and use low power radio waves to communicate with a central location. They're the creation of a Swiss firm called FeedbackNow, 16 years old with hundreds of customers. They're part of "The Internet of Things," keys that tell you where they are, refrigerators that order milk when it runs low, that sort of thing.
    There is something charming to that notion as well, a reminder that we are not atomized individuals, but part of a greater system and we can help out. If I had to summarize the cause of Donald Trump's advent in one sentence, I'd say, "Americans forgot they're all part of the same society." Thus they look to their own narrow interests, frame every problem as a matter of maximizing their own convenience and the rest can go hang. 
    But who are we helping by providing feedback to keep the bathrooms clean? Not the dwindling number of janitors. These buttons frame the bathroom problem this way: how can we know when the toilet paper is out without having an actual employee check? 
     The problem could be framed a different way. For instance: how can bathrooms be kept clean while employing the maximum number of people? Stated that way, we could look to how they do it in certain European countries, where you'd expect some elderly pensioner to be sitting stoically on a chair in the corner of the bathroom, keeping an eye on things, collecting centimes on a plate. Not the glamorous retired life we see in financial planning commercials, but it would solve a lot of problems for the idle, lonely elderly while raising the general condition of bathrooms. We could have clean bathrooms because every hour somebody on salary with health insurance and a pension comes by and cleans it. 
     Sadly, we don't seem to frame our problems in how to create the best advantage for the greatest number, but how to do what is necessary as cheaply as possible to that even more money can flow to fewer and fewer lucky individuals. And we see how well that is working.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Go see Frank Babbitt perform "A Christmas Carol" at 2 p.m.


     We met four friends Friday night at the Winnetka Community House to see Frank Babbitt perform a dramatic reading of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." It was a lovely evening, just like before — Edie and I saw him do it a couple years ago, and were keen to go back, and felt obligated to press others to go with us. 
     It's a natural reaction. After we heard Frank's powerful, thrilling performance, falling easily into the voices of Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Marley's ghost, Tiny Tim, and all the other marvelous characters in the tale, punctuated by passages of carols and dances and tunes played on the viola—Frank is a violist at the Lyric Opera—Edie said exactly what she said last time, "He needs better publicity."
    It's not that the performance wasn't well-attended. It was. Thirty people or so, filling out the small, intimate space, more or less. But they could have had a few dozen more.  There should have been.
    Consider this. Tickets are $10. You don't have to haul downtown. You don't have to pay to park. You can buy tickets at the door. Ten bucks. They give you coffee and sweets. You hear a deathless classic tale—based on the 1868 reading copy written by Dickens himself— read by a masterful actor who is also a world class musician. You get to laugh—Dickens is very funny. And cry, over poor Tiny Tim. Oh, and it'll get you in the proper Christmas spirit and remind you that, even if you are not a Scrooge-caliber jerk, there is always time to be a better person. 
     Quite a lot, really. There really should be people hanging from the rafters when he does this—and Saturday afternoon, Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. is the last time he's doing it this year. I'm tempted to go and I saw it last night. 
     Anyway, whatever you're planning to do this afternoon, if you're within 25 miles of Winnetka, you won't have nearly as much memorable fun as if you decide, aw what the heck, you'll go hear Frank deliver "A Christmas Carol." You can't say you weren't told. You can find details about Saturday's performance at 2 p.m. by clicking here. Afterward, you can write to me about how much you loved it.