Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Why these orders?

     Let's step back and take in the big picture for a moment.
    On Friday, Donald Trump signed his nonsensical Muslim ban, barring all refugees from Syrian and travelers from seven Muslim nations, none of which was involved in the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing or, indeed, any terror attack on American soil. 
    On Tuesday he'll name a Supreme Court nominee whose central purpose is to overturn Roe v. Wade. And very soon, maybe also Tuesday, he will sign an executive order permitting bigots to point to their supposed religious values when shunning and abusing gay people, plus permitting adopting agencies to deny gay couples the chance to have a family based on their own baseless prejudices, cloaked in a fig leaf of supposed faith.
    Why these three groups, these three issues? Because empty security theater, abortions, and being forced to bake wedding cakes for gay people are the three most pressing problems facing our nation?
    There is a commonality to all three. Trump is doing these because he can. If he, oh, allowed Jews to be banned from hotels, as was the practice in the 1950s, or blacks from public swimming pools, as was done in the 1960s, the outrage would even be greater than we're already seeing displayed by decent, patriotic Americans over the Muslim ban, Trump's disregard for women and—projecting into the future—his anti-gay orders.
     And in a sense, he has to. He ran on a platform appealing to the fears and bigotries of his base, and now he has to deliver the goods. They expect it.
     Keep this in mind. Haters are cowards, and rarely say--anymore--"I don't want to see brown-skinned people." "I despise Jews" or "Black people frighten me." So they offer up reasons: safety. Religious freedom. The rights of the unborn imagined into "babies."
    And it works. We buy it. We fall to arguing their reasons, as if we didn't realize that these are just smokescreens. Security doesn't matter. Trump's anti-Muslim ban makes us less secure, not more. Babies don't matter -- they sure don't care about refugee babies. And religion doesn't matter. Christian faith could just as easily be cited as a reason to celebrate gay marriage as to ban it. They point to faith because we're accustomed to giving people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to faith. And we shouldn't, not when it's being used as a pretext to claim damage that is not in fact there.
     So don't get sucked in. Trump was swept to power by haters who do not make distinctions. What they do is attack who they can, when they can, how they can. Now it is Muslims, women and gays, because they are vulnerable. Next it could be you.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Where's the Queen of the Night when we need her?

Photo by Andrew Cioffi. 
     The arts are always there, waiting to shelter us. When the news from Washington gets too grim, too relentless, too crazy, there is comfort and sanity, order, beauty and justice in a book, in a play, in music.
     Not forever. You don't want to shut off reality completely. By keeping track we know when it's time to rush downtown and howl down our captors.
     But nobody can be aghast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That'll kill you as sure as jack-booted thugs will.
     So it was with gratitude that last Wednesday morning I popped into the Civic Opera House to peek at the Lyric Opera of Chicago's rehearsals of "Carmen"—I'm taking 100 readers to that classic Bizet opera next month, and will have a column about the opera, the rehearsal and the contest ... as soon as the marketing department gives me the green light. But just hearing the music, seeing the dancers, even in a rough rehearsal space. Suddenly a certain demagogue was Jupiter: a giant gasbag rendered into a dull spot lost amidst the much brighter stars. 

Photo by Todd Rosenberg
     And they pay me for this....
     That afternoon, I blew off all responsibilities and caught the last matinee of "The Magic Flute." A new production, transferring Mozart's 1791 tale of love, bird-catching, and Masonic hoo-hah to the post-war suburbs—it's basically become an entertainment staged on the patio of a revolving suburban Cape Cod home. The three Genii, usually falsetto boys in white wigs on a magic ship, now have cowboy hats and sheriff badges.
     I don't always like the staging decisions at the Lyric, but this one, for me, worked, the Levitown aspect underscoring the inherent weirdness of the opera. Or maybe I just really, really needed it to work. No need to bother with the plot—I'm not sure why anyone ever mention the plots of operas. They're all the same: the couple meets, falls immediately in love, gets separated, reunites, to live happily ("Magic Flute" et al) or die protractedly ("Aida," "Tristan und Isolde").
     Though the news has a way of intruding. "Flute" begins with our hero, Tamino, being chased by a dragon (a rather Chinese-New-Yearish dragon, this being an entertainment at a suburban home). The dragon is slain by an arrow shot by the Queen of the Night's three Ladies, though the heroic deed is claimed by their feckless bird catcher, Papageno.
     For this, the Ladies clap a padlock on his lips (causing him, delightfully, to have to hum one of Mozart's songs). But you can't go through a whole opera like that, and the Queen shows pity, removing the lock so he can chatter, though not before the Ladies extract a vow.
     "So you will never tell a lie, or brag about a deed done by another?" they sing. Papageno agrees, and they all rejoice.

If only every liar had
a lock like this upon his mouth
then would hate, calumny and rancor
be replaced by love and brotherhood!
      Sing it, sisters! 
      No need to point it out, right? I didn't think so. We're all there. The three Ladies in the "Magic Flute" picked up on a Papageno's single lie right away, and he was punished for it.
     Shame that doesn't happen enough in real life—that's why we need fiction. In real life, if you get away with it, maybe because you're really rich and surrounded by fawning sycophants, then lying becomes a pattern, and you lie more and more, and can't acknowledge it and can't stop. That's what makes it pathological.
     The only question I have is this: if you are a liar lying about everything in order to prop your ego up and pretend like your disasters are successes, can the people who have thrown in their lot with you really not notice? The cowardice of Papageno is funny because,well, it's an opera. In real life it's shameful.
     I don't want you to think that I spent the three hour opera brooding on politics. And lying is not really intrinsic to Mozart's comic opera. Though it sure is to ours, at the moment, though whether this tale ends up a comedy or a tragedy, well, we're still working that out.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fear and loathing in the cat food aisle

Photo by Sebastian Farmborough

    The haters won. In the recent presidential election at least. Our country was invaded from within and now we have to watch, powerless, as they give their fears and biases the strength of law in our once-great nation.
    The only defense — at the moment — is to object, to loudly state the truth, declare the wrongness of this, and reaffirm our abused American values. President Donald Trump signed a brazenly-bigoted executive order Friday barring all refugees from the United States for four months, barring Syrian refugees indefinitely, and barring immigrants from seven Muslim countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia.

    Chaos ensued worldwide. And while, yes, protesters gathered spontaneously at airports and pushed back and a federal judge stayed the order, whether over the long term the courts will be respected any more than the media or any other pillar of American democracy that Trump is kicking at is doubtful.
    The pretext was to avoid terror. But this comes from the dynamic of welding terrorist acts committed by Muslims to their faith, while writing off non-Islamic acts of terror as being due to something else. This bias was shown when Trump said he would encourage the entry of Christians, who are also persecuted abroad, though nowhere near the numbers or severity of people in countries like Syria.
     This shameful prejudice will cost the lives of people who could have become upstanding American citizens, draw justifiable scorn upon our country, and make the United States less, not  more, secure. The only comfort—cold comfort—is the knowledge we are not alone in this prejudice, nor is it anything new, as this column from 2009 reminds us. I think this explains why Donald Trump was elected as much as anything can. It was written back when the column contained subheadings, and I've left those in.


     Two weeks ago, the people of Switzerland voted to ban new construction of minarets, the towers associated with mosques.
     Which raises the obvious question: How many minarets are already in Switzerland? There must be a whole lot, to provoke this extraordinary ban.
     How many? Guess. Ten? Fifty? A hundred?
     Four. There are exactly four minarets in Switzerland. And now that's all there will ever be.
     Italy is considering a similar ban — odd, since, traditionally, Germany usually took the lead in this sort of thing. You'd think, in Europe, they'd be a little reluctant to go down the step-on-the-scary-minority route. They've been there before.

Don't block the coconut shrimp!

     The Swiss ban is based on fear, which, sadly, the Swiss do not have a monopoly on, as this e-mail illustrates:

    I was in Costco in Niles yesterday around 5 p.m. The store was packed. I was going in to buy cat food. The pet food section is on the far wall, at the corner. As I approached the cat food, I saw three women in full on burkas. Completely cloaked except for their eyes.
     They were kneeling and praying to Mecca. In a COSTCO. In the USA. I gotta tell you, I was totally freaked out and totally enraged. At that moment I wanted to attack them, physically. Really. I couldn't believe it, and I thought it was totally wrong. If you have to pray to Mecca, don't go to Costco. I got my cat food, and walked past them and I just said, loudly, "This is the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA."
     What could I have done? I wanted to complain to the management, but by the time I got through the line to pay I just wanted to get the hell out of the store. That experience totally made me sympathize with the woman who pulled the headscarf off the Muslim woman on the South Side. I am not a religious person at all, but I was enraged. What is going on? What do you think about that? . . . I had a cell phone with a camera, and I wanted to film them but I couldn't do it.
     Here she gives her full name and place of employment -- which I, a kind soul, will withhold.
     I wrote her back:

     While I appreciate your candor, you should realize that this is one of those times when a complaint says a lot more about the complainer than it does the thing being complained about. A few questions—What is it about a Costco that makes it less appropriate a location than anyplace else for those women to pray? Had they been a trio of elderly women doing the rosary at the coffee shop in a Borders bookstore, would you also have been "enraged"? If the answer is no, then it isn't an issue of people praying in commercial public spaces, but how they pray and what kind of space they pray in. Is Costco somehow especially sacred to you? I mean, I know they hand out that coconut shrimp, but still . . .
     And what does "This is the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" mean to you? I thought it meant that this is exactly the sort of place where a woman, however she dresses, could feel safe from being attacked by strangers enraged by her attire, as opposed to, say, Saudi Arabia, where she might be attacked for wearing a short dress. Is the Saudi way actually the American way?
     Frankly, if you're sending this to me, then you haven't quite grasped what I've been writing, lo these many years. As the saying goes: Hating other people is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. Had you viewed this calmly, an argument could be made that if we allow religions to start using our discount stores as places of worship, then the aisles will be clogged and we won't be able to get to our cat food.
     That is reasonable, and I would agree. But it is also a long way from rage. Would you feel the same if a group of Christmas carolers were blocking your way to the cat food? If Islam is so offensive, then why were you the one who was "enraged" in Niles, while the Muslim women were the ones praying to God?
     My older son's junior high school math teacher wears a full burka with a face veil, something I was surprised to discover at parent-teacher conferences. When I later asked my son why he hadn't mentioned that before—it seemed interesting, the sort of thing one might toss out in casual conversation—he said, and I quote: "You know, Dad, you taught us that kind of thing doesn't matter." I'm proud of that. Turns out she's a good, enthusiastic math teacher, a fact that would have been lost to me had I worked myself into a knot over her outfit. As it was, it took me maybe 30 seconds to get used to talking with a woman wearing a veil, a path I heartily recommend.
     It's still a person under there.
     Thanks for writing. I don't usually argue with readers, one-on-one, at least not at such length. But yours is, alas, a common attitude that most people don't have the lack of inhibition to actually come out and say, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try to set you straight.

Neil Steinberg
                             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 13, 2009

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Birds of a feather

Photo by Karen Garrett, Forest Preserves of Cook County.

     "Chop skin hock," my neighbor called to me, from the rolled down window of her SUV, stopping on Cedar Lane.
     I paused, walking the dog Tuesday, and gazed at her with bovine incomprehension. Day by day, the world becomes more of a puzzle...
     "Chop...skin...hock," she said, articulating each word. Then drove off.
     We live in a friendly neighborhood, with everyone greeting and chatting with everyone else. Or maybe it's just me. Making my thrice-daily rounds with the dog, I love waving to Janet, the crossing guard, as she rolls past, on her way to her morning post in her heavy-duty Tundra pickup and anyone else I know, or don't know. There are maybe five core neighbors on my block, friends who have been over our house and had us over their house, and we almost always exchange a few words, if not talk for 20 minutes, people I've loaned power tools to, or borrowed them from. Anyone who makes eye contact gets a smile and a nod. I'm well-acquainted with the dozen or so dogs on the surrounding three blocks who are friendly, and the half dozen or so who are not (though sometimes I suspect it is the owner, and not the dog, who is actually unfriendly, and am not beyond mournfully informing Kitty as we walk away, "That's not a friendly dog," in a voice just loud enough to be heard).
     I wasn't particularly thrown by my neighbor's enigmatic message.  Still, I reported the remark to my wife.
    "She said, 'Shoppinghon,'" I said. My wife thought a moment. "Washington," she explained. "That's probably it." Nothing more needed to be discussed.
    I didn't like the mystery, but wasn't about to knock on her door and ask. "Hey, what was it you called to me in the street the other day?"
     It might be better not to know.  "Washington" made sense. These are strange times, and the bitter politics have filtered down to my Richard Scarry storybook street. Maybe somehow related to the women's march, a subject we'd studiously avoided the day before, being on opposite sides of the political spectrum as we are. But we can't allow that to poison our interactions too. Our dogs, oblivious to the changes in government, nosed each other and we talked about ... what? The large hawk that had settled into the tree across the street, in front of my house—our block has hawks, owls, birds of all kind. It's a wonderful thing. I was speculating on how nice it would be to have a camera with a long lens, for just such a moment. We had been idling, waiting for the hawk to take to wing so we could better see it, speculating on its identity.
    "Cooper's hawk," I said, with false confidence. A guess, more or less. She seemed skeptical, pointing out a bold white line on its tail.
    Now it was Wednesday morning and, as fate would have it, I was trucking home down Center Avenue just as my neighbor was pulling her SUV out of her driveway to take her daughter to school. I knew if I put on a burst of speed I could arrive at the spot where her car paused while she put it into forward. Her window was already open.
     "Did you figure it out?" she said. My blank look must have registered. "No," I smiled.
     "Sharp...Shinned...Hawk," she said. "You can tell by the white line on the tail."
Cooper's Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
     Ah. The Sharp-Shinned Hawk. Very similar to the Cooper's Hawk and no shame in the error (if it was an error. The bird has flown, and I yield nothing, though I like to give people the benefit of the doubt). Cornell has an excellent guide to the differences between the two birds, on the scant chance than anyone beside myself cares).
     And the point is? When the youngest boy left for college, I announced we could now happily move to the city. My wife parried that we lived in such a nice block, and that we'd be fools to flee that. I couldn't argue. I'm sure it must be an illusion, but I swear I can feel the little blurp of happy dopamine squirt in my brain after pausing to chat with someone. We are social animals. At least I am. And if the subject is birds, all the better. At least the disagreements are subject to the underlying belief that we live in a concrete world of established facts and categories. A hawk is not a handsaw. Not yet anyway.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Manning our stations until relieved

    Twenty-one years ago today my first regular column ran in the Chicago Sun-Times. Which means I'm finally legal. I thought I would celebrate the anniversary by digging back into the archive for something relevant, and stumbled over this, written in 2012 for the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic. (I don't have a column in today's paper because I took a few days off to finish my next Mosaic project).
     Why is this story of the Titanic's radio operators relevant? Yes, for the image of the great unsinkable vessel striking an iceberg through carelessness and going down. But more for its tone. With Donald Trump and his henchmen attacking on the mainstream media, they forget that, for many of us, this is not a job, this is a calling. If we wanted money, we'd have become rapacious businessmen like the plutocrats Trump surrounds himself with. But we aren't amoral charlatans like Trump et al, doing anything, screwing anybody for a buck, even ripping off struggling students trying to get an education at his ersatz college. We're trying to comprehend the world and present what's happening as best we understand it.  If Trump can't stand a single fact that doesn't shimmer with his supposed glory, the media is the opposite, following facts where they go, even if they make us look bad. There's a nobility in that.
Steve Bannon
     Trump chief advisor Steve Bannon's comment this week, that the press should "just keep its mouth shut" and yield the microphone to him and his bundish buddies, because THEY represent real America, shows just how out-of-it all these goosesteppers truly are. That's never happening, and the fact that Bannon would beg for relief shows it's getting under his paper-thin skin, already, one week into their attempt to ruin this great country. Sorry Charlie. The media isn't going anywhere but up his ass like a swarm of hornets. We're at our stations, tapping out our distress signal as the cold water laps around our ankles. If they think it's bad now, just wait.

                                        Oh, they built the ship Titanic
                                          to sail the ocean blue
                                         And they thought they built a ship
                                         that the water couldn't go through.
                                         But the good Lord raised his hand,
                                         said the ship would never land.
                                         It was sad when the great ship went down.

     Or so the version went that we sang at Camp Wise, in Chardon, Ohio, in the 1970s, a song that had been sung at summer camps for the previous 50 years, is sung still, and might very well be sung forever.
     Exactly 100 years this Sunday, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking the lives of 1,500 passengers. With a weekend sure to be dedicated to its memory, the question is: why?

      Why this shipwreck? What about it so resonates in the public's mind? The Lusitania, torpedoed in 1915, took 1,198 lives and is a trivia question. Nobody sings about it.
     The obvious answer is that the Titanic story has something for everybody. There is luxury and poverty, heroism and cowardice, its midnight iceberg rendezvous a payback for the boast of being "unsinkable." Movies and books keep the memory alive, as does its presence in the language—almost everybody knows what rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic means.
     As the son of a radio operator, who grew up listening to the urgent chirpings of Morse code coming out of the Hammarlund Super Pro radio receiver displayed in his den, the part of the Titanic story that always gets to me is the heroic tale of the Marconi operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride.
     As the junior radioman—he was just 22—Bride had the night shift. It was just after midnight, April 15, 1912, and he was telling Phillips to go to bed, when the captain stuck his head into the wireless room.
     "We've struck an iceberg," Captain Edward Smith said. "You better get ready to send out a call for assistance."
     Ten minutes later Smith was back, telling them to start calling for help.
     Phillips began tapping out "CQD" —"CQ" meant "calling all stations" and "D" meant "distress" — as well as the ship's location and call letters, "MGY."
     "He flashed away at it and we joked while he did so," Bride recalled. "All of us made light of the disaster."
     Bride told Phillips that here was his opportunity to send an "SOS."
     "It's the new call and it may be your last chance to send it," Bride said. "We picked up first the steamship Frankfurt. We gave her our position and said we had struck an iceberg and needed assistance."
     Phillips reached the Cunard liner Carpathia. "Come at once!" he signaled. The liner replied it was 58 miles away and "coming hard." Phillips told Bride to tell the captain. "I went through an awful mass of people to his cabin," he later said. "The decks were full of scrambling men and women."
     Over the next two hours, as the ship slowly sank, Phillips kept sending out distress signals, hoping to find a closer ship ­— there was one, but its radio operator had gone to sleep. Bride kept tabs on what was going on outside.
     "I went out on deck and looked around. The water was pretty close up to the boat deck. There was a great scramble aft, and how poor Phillips worked through it, I don't know," Bride later recalled.
     Phillips suggested "with a sort of a laugh" that Bride look out and see if all the people were off in the boats, or if any boats were left. Bride found one collapsible boat left, only because the men were having an "awful time" trying to get it free. Captain Smith returned to the radio shack one last time.
     "Men," the captain said. "You have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it's every man for himself."
     "I looked out," Bride said. "The boat deck was awash. Phillips clung on sending and sending. He clung on for about 10 minutes, or maybe 15 minutes after the captain had released him. The water was then coming into our cabin. He was a brave man. I learned to love him that night and I suddenly felt for him a great reverence to see him standing there sticking to his work while everybody else was raging about."
     Bride returned to the collapsible boat, and was holding onto it when a wave crested over the deck and washed it away. He turned for one last look at the ship, "smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel." Bride lost hold on that boat and had to swim through the icy water to the other boats, as the band played "Autumn" on deck. Hands pulled him into another lifeboat. Phillips perished.
     For me, the Titanic radio operator story is a metaphor for life. It signals to us something about duty and perseverance in the face of difficulty. You're not the captain. You didn't design the ship. You don't own it. But you stay at your station, no matter what, tapping out your messages with all the skill you have, as long as you can, until relieved.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 13, 2012

     Postscript: I like to act on a good idea when I see it. In the comments below, Bob Miller had a good suggestion. I jumped on Twitter and put it out there, for all the good that might do, and I'll try to tuck it in the column as well. Language is everything, as Newt Gingrich showed us, to a great nation's misfortune. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Think before you send

    At times the email seems like those hordes in the "Resident Evil" movies, just an endless sea of snarling malice racing up at you.
     I used to answer it, or try to. But lately I've been dumping emails as soon as I read the first sneering word. No use letting that stuff behind the wall, into your brain. Block the writer and fling the odiferous thing, like a used diaper, into the trash.    
    Not all email of course. Response to the past few columns have been tightly grouped, like filings curling off the poles of a bar magnet. On one end are people aghast at Donald Trump actually doing what Donald Trump promised to do—lashing out at immigrants, minorities, the sick, science, the environment. They are polite, grateful to see reality as they understand it reflected in the newspaper. I thank them profusely.
    And then there are the "You lost, deal with it," crowd. For a while I'd reply, "You won, deal with it," and try to explain that, given the past eight years of bitter partisan blockade of literally everything Barack Obama tried to do, they don't have a leg to stand on. But the word "hypocrite" started waving its hand, and I started to picture myself in the publisher's office, explaining why I'm sending nasty notes to readers.
    Nobody wants that.
    Just before I stopped replying altogether, I found myself firing off a reply, pausing, deleting that—archiving it, as if it mattered—then writing a briefer, more temperate reply. That took even more time, and I quickly abandoned the practice. But I did save a pair, which give you a sense of the process.

The email:


I am very upset over your column today in paragraph 4 you reference the Trump victory with the help of "neo-Nazis". I voted for Trump as did millions of other American citizens. I am far from being a "neo-Nazi. I think you owe an apology to millions of prople.

Jim K.
Orland Park IL

The first response I wrote:


The fact that Trump was supported by neo-Nazis, and he welcomed that support, does not make everyone who voted for him a neo-Nazi. That said, you did vote for the guy who welcomed neo-Nazi support. I can't blame you for being very upset. You should also be ashamed. I would be. If it's an apology you're looking for, I'm very sorry that you and people like you voted for Donald Trump. I imagine soon you'll be sorry you voted that way too. Thanks for writing.


The response I actually sent:


I'm sorry to hear you're very upset. But I am not responsible for what upsets people. It's an upsetting world. Thanks for writing.


The email:

Happy New Year.
Although most times I find your articles tough to read.  I don't know you personally, but they take on a condescending tone usually.  I read you anyway to get an alternative angle.
I took particular interest on 12.30.16. I rather enjoyed it, thoroughly in fact.! It was true and actually funny. 
"Drunk people are the best ambassadors for sobriety imaginable." That was my favorite. I intend on "borrowing" parts for one liners in the future. Especially the ending, hilarious.! 
Thank you.

The first response I wrote:

Hmmm. You don't like the stuff generally, because you find reading it difficult and feel condescended to. But now you've struck on something that, for some reason, you like, and you're squeezing out a half-ass compliment before seizing one line as your own so you can pretend to be wittier than you are. 

Is that the situation? Have I summarized your note accurately?

Let's see, rejecting the criticism as something that says a lot more about you than it does me, someone who doesn't take pointers from people who don't like me anyway, I unfortunately can't accept the praise either. The phrase, of course, is yours to grab. Thanks for reading.


The response I actually sent: 

The line is all yours. Thanks for writing.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

"Pray for the grace of accuracy"

     "All's misalliance," writes poet Robert Lowell, "Yet why not say what happened?"
     Why not indeed? I can answer that. Because whatever hole in your soul is so large, nothing can fill it. So you have to keep shoveling stuff in. A certain kind of guy has to be, not just rich, but the richest. Not just high, but the top. Who has to shine at absolutely everything, outshine everyone, and when he doesn't —because nobody shines all the time—he has to frantically pancake a thick crust of fake sparkle over himself and hope nobody notices.
     The American public—the part that still cares about such things— noticed, and will long remember the first three days of the Trump administration. His sour inaugural address on Friday, Day One, which George W. Will, not exactly a liberal firebrand, dubbed "the most dreadful inaugural address in history." Saturday, Day Two, when press secretary Sean Spicer clung to ludicrous claims that the crowd on Inauguration Day was the biggest ever. Then Sunday, Day Three, Kellyanne Conway on "Meet the Press," coining an instant classic in the long history of mendacity: "Alternative Facts."   
     Let's be clear. It doesn't matter how many people attended Trump's inauguration. The true figure could be half what it actually was, or triple. The issue is that the real number was not enough for Trump, because Obama's drew more. So Trump had to claim the most ever. Because everything about Trump must be the biggest, greatest, most expensive, and if it isn't, well, he'll lie and shout down and bully whoever is rude enough to mention it.
   It can't rain on Trump's parade. He had to claim the rain "never came." When you could see the raindrops spotting his suit.
     A small matter. And pointing out the truth feels small. But necessary. Trump's paid hirelings claim the media "hates" Trump. That isn't so, at least not with me. What I hate...

     To continue reading, click here...


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"See Sean lie. Lie Sean, lie."

    My wife made a lovely egg, mozzarella and veggie frittata Sunday morning, with fresh blueberries on the side. And as much as I wanted to dig in, I just had to read the opening sentence on the front page of the New York Times.
     "President Trump used his first full day in office on Saturday to unleash a remarkably bitter attack on the news media," I read, "falsely accusing journalists of both inventing a rift between him and intelligence agencies and deliberating understating the size of his inaugural crowd..."
     "Day One," I smiled. It really is incredible. As the principal at Greenbriar Elementary used to say, "Is this really the hill to die on?" It almost made me happy -- could somebody that ham-handed destroy our freedoms? 
    I wonder how long "FALSEHOODS" will be the word of choice for the Gray Lady, particularly in those narrow single column headlines? When "LIES" takes up so much less real estate. 
     Didn't have to wait long—by Sunday night the Times posted this headline:  
   Patience. Sunday joy returned, after taking a 48 hour vacation after Trump's angry, tone-deaf inaugural address, one that George Will, no liberal firebrand, called the worst ever. 
    The jokes almost write themselves. "It's not the size of the crowd, Donald, but what you do with it," I thought to myself. And this was before Trump press secretary Sean Spicer held Fibstock in the White House briefing room, testily insisting on the trivial-and-demonstrably-false, chiding the media for whatever stray inaccurate tweets he could find. Surely true evil would be better at it than this.
    I didn't watch that. Nor Kellyanne Conway's now legendary appearance on Sunday morning's "Meet the Press." Though of course I saw "alternative facts" echo and reverberate across social media. It was so jarringly awful it almost demanded instant mockery. Wisenheimers grabbed their wit like so many Minutemen lunging for the flintlock above the mantle. I flopped my fingers on the keyboard and tapped out the first Tweet I could think of:  "As winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, I see nothing wrong with Trump making up his own set of facts."
     Satisfied I had flown the flag, I browsed around Twitter, and the puniness of my effort (see Donald, there is strength in recognizing your own weakness) became manifest. A burp, compared to the genius that Brooklyn illustrator Tim O'Brien crafted at the same time:
By Tim O'Brien -- posted with permission

      Children's books don't to lie to you—oh, they can conjure magic and monsters. But they don't call a hawk a handsaw, or try to puff a void into a record-breaking crowd, the way the presidential press spokesman did Saturday, blowing smoke until he was red in the face and the howls grew.
     We all remember Golden Books. I still have mine. An innocence, a joy. O'Brien's repurposing has a gorgeous, cheery wrongness that indicts the Trumpian delusion better than a dozen pious editorials. Calling a chair a "Table," an egg "Soup" and, the masterstroke in the center, the little boy and girl "Pancakes." I'm not sure why that's the masterstroke -- pancakes are so friendly, I suppose. Who doesn't love pancakes?
     I immediately did my journalist thing, contacted O'Brien, established that it is his work, and prodded him for information.
     "I am an illustrator and this piece was the kind of post I do when procrastinating," he replied. "Often something occurs to me after hearing a contradiction, a lie or some other glaring thing done by politicians and their spokespeople. We all have common understandings about things and good ideas come from tweaking those common understandings. What is generally the most basic idea of what things are or reality is? A kids book about things and what they are. Change a few words and it’s hilarious."
      Indeed it is. I posted the graphic on Facebook and 1700 people shared it. A picture is worth 1,0
00 words, and were I Donald Trump I would fume and glare and insist that, being a writer, no, a word must be worth 1,000 pictures. No need for that.  

     "The Trump Administration is going to provide a ton of material for the next 1-4 years," O'Brien wrote.     
      The '1" in "next 1-4 years" might be overly optimistic. I'm still at the "4 or 8 years, or longer, if our democracy is overturned" phase. But seeing O'Brien's book cover replaced the sour pessimism in my heart with determination and joy. One stupid man leading the country doesn't make us all stupid. Not yet anyway. 
     I agreed with O'Brien that much humor will come from this, and humor is an important survival mechanism.  I couldn't help adding that we shouldn't laugh too much without recognizing the cloud—many, many people will be hurt by the time Donald Trump and his brothers-in-delusion and their hired goons are done dragging our country through the basement hall-of-mirrors of his brutal, brittle psyche. A great country humiliated and harmed. The joke is funny until it's not.
     "You're right, Neil," O'Brien replied. "I'd rather be painting earnest portraits of inspirational people leading our country rather than our current predicament."
    Wouldn't we all? Jeb Bush might have been a dullard, but I'd rather spend four years watching him scratch his head, trying to figure out what the heck he should do next, than see Trump foam and flail and fib. 
    Tim O'Brien does gorgeous work, by the way, beyond this bit of brilliance, spot-on illustrations of political and historic figures that have graced the covers of Time, Harper's and other publications. You can find his web site here. 



Monday, January 23, 2017

Lucas Museum: "Los Angeles lost by winning"

     I'm a museum geek. I'm not ashamed to say it. Maybe a little ashamed. We live in a society where you can, oh, make it your life's mission to see a game in every ballpark in America and nobody raises an eyebrow. Nobody mocks. Nobody points out that those ballgames, they're pretty much all the same, aren't they? That would be rude.
     But find meaning in museums and the public has the tendency to reach for its pistol.
     No matter. I'm a member of the Art Institute of Chicago and visit whenever I can. I go to the Field and the Museum of Science and Industry and the Museum of Contemporary Art, and as many of the lesser lights as I can. It's fun.
     And when I hit a different city, I make a beeline to the museums the way others check out restaurants. Yes, sometimes they're quite modest. I was in Hiroshima last March, on business, and visited its art museum. Not that I was impressed, mind you. Add a few brooms and a bucket and it could have been a forgotten closet at the Art Institute. But as I say about opera, not liking museums is part of liking them.
     In that light, we turn to the nascent Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Hooted from Chicago by the Friends of the Parks, a David vs. Goliath triumph more improbable than a bunch of teddy bears defeating the evil Empire, the showcase for the Star Wars creator's attic was briefly tussled over by San Francisco, which already rejected it once, and Los Angeles. Then, earlier this month, the museum landed with a thud in the City of Angels.

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

The puppet festival is in town

Kick the Klown Presents a Konkatention of Kafka

     What happened Friday? Well, I watched Donald Trump's inaugural address. Sixteen minutes of empty boasts and impossible promises, marinated in a soup of noxious bile, staining this country as a hellhole that only one man, he, The Donald, our savior, can deliver us from.
     I think that about sums it up. 
     That evening my wife and I, hoping for relief, went to Lincoln Avenue, for the opening of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. 
     We got there early, planning a quick snack. We hadn't wandered Lincoln Avenue for many years, and what we found  surprised us. Many empty storefronts, a sparsely populated street on a Friday evening. "The happening crowd must have moved to Wicker Park," I observed, grimly. We were happy to see Irish Eyes is still there. "Whitey O'Day," I said, remember a large singer who would belt out Irish ballads while I belted back shots of John Power and black and tans.
     We had our first real date on Lincoln Avenue, at the Jury Room—long gone, closed in 1994. I couldn't even find the old address in the sweep of the Internet, kept bumping into its later incarnation a mile up Lincoln. Though we saw an elaborate wooden storefront that made me think this had been it. We went inside and sat at the bar.  It was a place called de Quay, and just asking about the Jury Room — nobody had any idea, nobody even had been born when we went there — put a certain pall on the visit. The staff were attentive and courteous, but I still felt like we were suddenly an elderly couple who had wandered in to get out of the cold. We sat at the bar, ate a very good cheese fondue appetizer, and went to the puppet show. 
    Opening night was packed. The first performance was "Cendres," by Plexus Polaire, a French troupe. A sophisticated, atmospheric piece about a Norwegian arsonist, it was more tonality and beauty than plot or dialogue. The puppetwork was very good, the puppets eerie and human. The music was also brooding and powerful. The puppets were often life size, and three puppeteers managed to fill the stage — at one point I counted eight puppets at work.  There was some deft stagecraft involving downing beer after beer, and the part I liked best, because it was strange and unexplained, a full-sized puppet being extracted from an elk carcass, Edie disliked that moment—she singled it out—for the same reasons I liked it. I wouldn't urge you to run to see the performance, but didn't mind that we had.
     There was a reception—well-supplied by Wishbone—then we trooped upstairs to see Michael Montenegro perform his "Kick the Klown presents a Konkatention of Kafka." I'd seen his work before, in "The Puppetmaster of Lodz" at Writers Theater, years ago. Excellent. So my hopes were high.
     Alas — and here I have to tread gently because, really, what's the point of panning a performance in a bi-annual puppet festival — it was shambolic hour of dullness, loud and artless, a man in a putty nose shrieking "Kafka!" and shredding pages from his diaries. The puppets were ordinary. The highlight, conceptually, was a machine that delivered a kick to his backside, which should give you a sense of the thing. It reminded me of the sort of experimental theater that I've spent a lifetime vigorously avoiding because it's amateur and unpleasant. Given how experienced Montenegro is, and that his work was chosen to open the festival, I have to consider the possibility that it is supposed to be ad hoc and obscure and shallow, and I just missed the overarching poetry of the thing.  The audience seemed happy, so perhaps the appeal was entirely beyond me. But as someone who can pretty much enjoy anything from The Ring Cycle to a flea circus, I can't imagine what that appeal might be. 
    Anyway, there are 90 productions being performed all over Chicago during the festival, and I hope my experience doesn't keep you from investigating them. Many of them must be far better than what we saw because they could hardly ... well, don't make me say it.  In fact, the Tribune went to the pre-opening show Thursday at the Museum of Contemporary Art—lucky Tribune—and found it "a deeply moving experience."  "Klown" is being performed Sunday night, and I would encourage you to go and explain to me what I'm missing. You can find the rest of the performance schedule here.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Protest postcards

    Friends and readers are participating in protests across the country. I invited them to send updates, which I've been posting here. 

My co-author, Sara Bader, went to the Washington protest, and photographed some of the girls she saw there talking back to our Bully-in-Chief.


Photo by Tanya Kesmodel


Photo by Barbara Leopold

Washington, D.C.

Photo by Tanya Kesmodel


Photo by Edie Steinberg

    This photo captures a bit of the happy confusion of the protest in Chicago today. At the center, in the pink hat, is our friend Shelly Frame, and to her left is our neighbor Carla Slawsen.

Photo by Carla Slawsen

Edie's back with the neighbors, all excited from their protest downtown. That grin on her face is because some guy in the march wasn't using his megaphone to good effect, so Edie liberated it from him and was making her opinion known. The march was supposedly canceled because the crowds were too dense but, as Edie said, how many speakers can you listen to? So a spontaneous march took place anyway.
  Some press love from the Traverse City, Michigan march. By the time Donald Trump is done beating up on the media, we're going to be somewhere between firefighters and astronauts in the public's affection. Among regular folks, that is. His supporters, well, it seems they'll believe anything. 

Edie's view from the Chicago protest

   While the major cities had protests, so did smaller communities, such as Traverse City, Michigan. R.A. Goodstein sent this photo, and estimated there were 1,500 people participating:

  My good friend Kelly O'Brien, the executive director of the Kennedy Forum in Illinois, not only went to Washington, but penned this essay, explaining to her nieces and nephews why.

Why I will march on Washington.

    Today am flying from Chicago to Washington DC to participate in the Women’s March on Washington. Why? Why does it matter that a bunch of people march together outside? What does it really change? One of my friends asked me this question recently, and it got me thinking that it was important that I answer this, not just for her, but for my nieces and my nephews. This letter is for them.

Dear Stephan, Howard, Gavin, Lily and Riley,

I have to go. I feel like this is one of those moments where history is being made, and what I do or do not do will determine the kind of world you will grow up in. One day in history class you and your children will read about this week. There are at least two ways this story could go:

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    Edie reports 150,000 people downtown. Tanya got to the Mall in time to hear Michael Moore speak ("Is he making sense?" I asked). 

      Greta Kesmodel—second from left—and her mom Tanya, back row right, found themselves in a line of 3,000 people waiting to get on the Washington D.C. Metro. So, using characteristic adaptability, they phoned an Uber to continue their trek to the big march on the Mall. 

Bus driver Stacey wearing a "pussy hat," driving into Washington. 
     "...at last Plaza stop 50-60 buses of women from all over this country. women of all ages, couples gay and straight, families, younger teens. It reminded me of that opening sequence in the movie "Patton", where George C. Scott says, "I will be glad to lead you sons of bitches , anywhere, anytime. " I would be proud to follow these women, anywhere, anytime. they are the best this country has to offer."
                                                                 —Robert Beardsley