Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Godzilla never seems to mind that he's crushing Tokyo


     Seven hundred days? Where has the time gone?
     That's easy. Washed over the waterfall of wasted opportunity. With the entire state of Illinois soon to follow, battered on rocks, then breaking apart as it plunges into the frothing financial abyss.
     Unless . . . .
     Well, unless nothing. This isn't going to be fixed. Not now. Not next month. Maybe not next year. Maybe not ever. We're at the light incense and pray for Superman stage of the problem.
     It is disingenuous for the Sun-Times, my beloved mother ship, to post a daily front page count of how long it has been since Illinois has had a budget. The idea is that doing so will somehow shame our leaders into coming to an agreement and getting on with the business of trying to right the capsized and foundering vessel that is Illinois.
     But really, if embarrassment were a possibility with the speaker of the house and the governor, this would have resolved itself long ago. I've met crackheads living in a nest of blankets on Lower Wacker Drive who had a more highly developed sense of shame than these two jokers.
     I do not want to fall into the easy "a plague on both their houses" trap. Yes, they are equally unpleasant men.

     Bruce Rauner is a callous, sneering billionaire who comes across in person like the human model of C. Montgomery Burns on "The Simpsons." Rauner expressed no interest whatsoever in public life beyond enriching himself until, perhaps bored, he took some of his bottomless lake of money and began fire hosing it at Illinois—a kind of political waterboarding. Eventually the state, sputtering and gasping, cried uncle, and elected him governor over Pat Quinn. Good old Pat, standing at the mound in his zigzag T-shirt, lowered his head as if weighed down by the brim of his enormous baseball cap, uttered a sigh and padded home.
     And Mike Madigan is a grim slip of a man: think of a last year's jack-o'-lantern mounted on a broomstick, the whole thing marinated in vinegar then hung out to dry.
     Rauner is definitely in the wrong. He's kneecapped the budget, tying it to a variety of side issues—castrating the unions, demanding term limits so that no future Madigans can spawn. With typical my-way-or-the-highway Republican scorn, he demands capitulation then denounces his opponents for holding as fast to their convictions as he does to his own. Even as unions founder, corporate profits soar, and non-CEO salaries—surprise, surprise—stagnate, Rauner insists that the union bogeyman must be defeated before someone tosses a life ring to Illinois.
     If rich old white men like Madigan and Rauner were being hurt by this impasse, it would have been resolved yesterday. But it damages the poor, the struggling young—who rely on public universities and colleges that are dropping staff, injecting furlough days into their academic calendars, and, in general, suffering on starvation rations. Plus those with disabilities, victims of crime, and all the unfortunates who must fall back onto a safety net that both men are pawning to the rope merchant.
     Am I near the end? Good. Because this is pointless. Rauner doesn't need to compromise—his kids are fine. And Madigan can't without prying the fingers of what remains of the Illinois middle class off the bottom rung of the ladder. So as the days and years dribble away, our two leaders, like Godzilla and Rodan, grapple and roar and roll around, smashing the model Tokyo to flinders.
     Godzilla never seems to mind the buildings being crushed beneath him, does he? Mothra doesn't flinch before pulling down the sparking power lines. You never see the guys in the rubber suits pause, thinking, "Gosh, I hope those people on that bus are OK. . . ." They're monsters. They don't care. That's he definition of being a monster. Not caring.
     If either Madigan or Rauner care about the state being ground to kindling under them, there is scant evidence. The people of Illinois, we care big time. We can't afford not to. But nobody hears our voices over the din; they must be muffled by those thick rubber suits.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Impeach Trump?

     Impeach Trump? You're kidding, right? Impeach him for what? Pervasive toxic jerkishness is not, alas, a high crime and misdemeanor, the standard set out in the Constitution. 
    Or do you think he can be impeached because his campaign colluded with the Russia during the election? Is that even a crime?  
    If it is, don't you imagine that there are a plenty of cringing underlings for Trump to casually kick into the ditch? While the Donald smirks his personal responsibility away and fires off a few dead-of-night tweets glorying in it all? Nothing has stuck to him yet. Why would this?    
     Besides, who would do the impeaching?  Congress, right? The Republican Congress. The same trembling cowards who can't even utter a word criticizing the most unfit leader our nation has ever seen are somehow going to magically pivot and great rid of him? After they shelved all their supposed beliefs and principles to meekly shuffle wherever he decided to lurch today. It's like expecting a spinning weather vane to hop off the old barn and point your way through a forest.
    Won't happen. It surprises me to hear people speculating it could happen. Magical thinking, on par with believe-in-fairies-or-Tinkerbell-will-die. And it's such a pathetically easy solution. Deus ex machina; let's just wish this away. A denial of hard realities not dissimilar from the kind of head-in-the-sand outlook that got Trump elected in the first place.
     And like many fantasies, destructive in that it distracts us with daydreams from the hard work at hand. You don't need to harvest the crop if you are convinced gnomes will do it. And there is hard, right-now work beyond breathlessly awaiting what the Washington Post will dig up next.
     Whenever the subject comes up, I shock the people taking a big lungful of the pipe dream by saying, "Impeach him? It's far more likely we'll re-elect him." They stand there, exhaling, the blissed out grin dying on their faces.
    We should be talking about his reelection, not his impeachment. I can see reelection happening. Easily.  It's the far more likely outcome — if somebody wants to put down his money on impeachment, and I can put and equal sum down on re-election, winner-take-all, I'll grab at that bet.  But you'll lose.
     His base is standing with him, more or less. The Democrats have nobody. And it's happened before. The pattern is already there. History is not a schematic for the future, but there are hints and lessons there. Since those spinning impeachment dreams drum up Richard Nixon, who resigned after the gears of impeachment began to grind him. So let's go with Nixon. 
    In 1968, he defeated Hubert Humphrey, an unloved political hack not unlike Hillary Clinton.  While Nixon drifted to the center -- he created the EPA, went to China -- the Democrats tacked left, nominating George McGovern, who was so progressive he lost 49 states. 
     So sure, the impeachment process swung into action against Nixon. But he was also re-elected, after Watergate began to grab headlines. 
     The Bernie Sanders sideshow could convince the Democrats that a similarly radical candidate—though not Sanders himself, thank you God, for one because he'll be 79 in 2020—can have a chance in hell, which Sanders wouldn't have had once America took a good hard look at what was behind his slogans, which wasn't much. We're not a radical left nation. We can't even find our way to national health care, like every other nation on earth with indoor plumbing. 
    Don't get me wrong. Given the daily shocks that the Trump administration serve up when he isn't abroad, deeply humiliating the country, giving NATO a kick (I wish I could believe Putin pays him directly for this kind of thing; my gut tells me they just both think alike) and re-assuring the Europeans that their traditional tacit contempt for America is finally justified, no one can say when whatever smoking gun, tawdry tape, or grotesque cruelty or stupidity will finally pry his supporters' fingers off the door jamb. It's possible.
    But don't hold your breath. There's no reason to consider it now. We just elected the guy last November. And in once sense, we got exactly what we paid for. Nobody can say they were deceived by Trump—sure, he made all these mendacious promises that he didn't even pretend to try to keep. But it was clear he'd do that, particularly since half of what he promised was patently impossible. If voters could screw their eyes tight and vote for him in November, what makes you think they won't stay that way for the next eight years? Opening your eyes to Trump now would be like opening your eyes under the ocean. It burns. 
     The only focus should be: elect Democratic Congressmen in 2018. Then we can talk impeachment, provided we're still allowed to talk at all. Until then, find a decent presidential candidate for 2020 who won't be so flawed she lets a notorious liar, bully and fraud get his tiny hands on the levers of power.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Candid biography of cartoonist Mauldin shines light on worst of war


        No fallen soldier actually benefits from the empty platitudes that rise from a million Facebook pages on Memorial Day. The fulsome and generic praise that passes for "honor"—and I've been guilty of it myself in the past and no doubt will again in the future—seems more designed to make the speaker feel a warm bubble of self-satisfied civilian complacency than to reflect the actual miseries and horror of service; "sacrifice" is too glittery and false a word. 
      This column was actually a book review, but I think it touches upon the reality we are whitewashing today with our lip-service. It ran when the column took up a full page, and I've left in the sub-headlines and the joke at the end.


     The youngest soldiers who served in the Second World War are in their late 70s now, and an estimated thousand American World War II vets die every day. They are sent off in a blast of "Greatest Generation" tribute, patriotism and nostalgia, which is only fitting, on a personal level, though it does get a bit cloying and of course is a gross simplification of what actually happened.
     Thus it is a refreshing tonic to read Todd DePastino's new biography, Bill MauldinA Life Up Front, which, like its subject, picks candor over mythologizing.    
     Mauldin was a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, famous for creating the Willie and Joe characters in World War II -- unshaven, exhausted foot soldiers yearning, not for glory, but for dry socks and a hot shower. Mauldin was on the staff of this paper for 30 years, and died five years ago this month.
     While he is best-known for his World War II work -- and the grieving Lincoln statue he drew the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated -- Mauldin continued, for decades after V-J Day, to provide a refreshing counterpoint to the tendency of people -- particularly military men -- to rhapsodize their past heroics. During the Vietnam era, DePastino notes, Mauldin "reminded those who complained about draft evaders that during World War II, 'the draft board had to drag most of us, whimpering, out of the bushes.' "
     Some 400,000 American soldiers died in World War II, so of course their sacrifices -- and the sacrifices of those who survived -- should receive commemoration. So long as we also remember that the heroic tales we tell ourselves -- as usual -- are only the shiny surface of the story. There is more.



     During the last nine months of World War II, Todd DePastino tells us, more American soldiers fighting in Europe died of alcohol poisoning than of communicable disease. In Italy, 20,000 U.S. troops deserted their units -- one reason the military brass tolerated Bill Mauldin's syndicated blasphemy was because the truth was far worse, and they hoped that collapsing morale might be bolstered if the men could see a faint reflection of reality and laugh at it.
     Meanwhile, on the home front, a sizable chunk of the American public was eager to make peace with the Nazis and declare the whole thing a draw. Which is why the Allies had a ban on depicting dead soldiers, for the same reason George W. Bush tried to keep Americans from seeing flag-draped coffins, as an attempt to undercut demands for peace.
     "Such candor might increase sentiment for a negotiated peace with Germany, a position shared by nearly a third of Americans in mid-1942," DePastino writes.
     Since Mauldin specialized in presenting soldiers, not as the spit-and-polish warriors of home-front propaganda, but as mud-caked mopes seeing how flat they can press themselves to the ground, it's fitting that DePastino renders World War II, not as the heroic moment of moral clarity we prefer to remember, but as a terrifying ordeal where the good and bad guys could be hard to sort out. In this book, American soldiers rape and kill, driving around Morocco shooting Arabs for fun.
    "Some shot them for sport," DePastino writes, " 'like rabbits in the States during hunting season,' as one American explained in a letter home."
     Then there was Naples. DePastino calls the city under American military control "the largest black market in history" with stolen Allied supplies accounting for 65 percent of the city's per capita income.
     "Cargo pilferage in Naples attained levels unprecedented in the history of warfare," he writes. "Food, clothing, fuel, medicine, blankets, cigarettes, and vehicles disappeared in such large quantities that by December 1943, Allied infantry were receiving only two-thirds of the supplies earmarked for them."
     This was not brazenly done under American noses; rather, it was brazenly done with enthusiastic American help.
     Not to give the impression that the underside of the war is all that DePastino shows us. There are truly moving moments, such as Gen. Lucian Truscott's Memorial Day speech.
     "Before a crowd of Army luminaries and VIPs from the States, including several U.S. senators, General Truscott climbed onto the speaker's platform and turned his back on the audience; his address, he informed the crowd, was for those lying beneath the endless rows of graves in the sandy soil of the Anzio beachhead."
     And what did Truscott say?
     "He apologized to the men arrayed before him for sending them to their deaths. It was his fault, he said, and the fault of all those commanders who order men into battle. He had made mistakes, the general admitted, and those errors had cost lives."
     Truscott "promised that in the future if he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought that was the least he could do."


     A Life Up Front is the first biography of Mauldin. It won't be in stores for a few weeks. Sorry for jumping the gun, but it's such a wonderful book, and I can only begin to describe how it captures Mauldin's complex, tragic, funny, fascinating personality. Some events almost defy belief, except that you can't make such things up. Mauldin, on his own from an early age, returns home at 17 to show off his new ROTC uniform to his alcoholic father. "He arrived at the old homestead to find Pop drunk and naked, wallowing in a bathtub filled with homemade beer," DePastino writes. " 'There he was,' Bill recalled with laughter decades later, 'pissing in the beer and then scooping some out for a drink.' "


     Bill Mauldin could make the most mundane matter into a joke. On the physical exam that admitted his scrawny, 110-pound self into the Arizona National Guard five days before it was federalized into the U.S. Army, Mauldin said:
     "They didn't really test our eyes, they sort of counted them."
                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 2, 2008

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ramadan (whenever it began) is more than just fasting

     Crossing Devon Avenue, walking up to the Muslim Women Resource Center, my first thought was that the organization had somehow convinced the Grocery & Meat Market to let them camp out in a corner of their store, as the two entities share the same green sign.
     The truth is even more surprising.

        "The store is our social enterprise," said Sima Quraishi, executive director of the MWRC. "We've been running Muslim Women Resource Center for the past 15 years. Two years ago, when the governor cut down the budget, we decided that we should do something to make some money so we don't have to lose our staff. This is what we came up with. Giving back to the community. Our main goal is to sell to the community and also hire community members."  
       The market looks like your standard, small, ethnic city grocery. A haphazard assemblage of items from floppy bags of fresh naan to bottles of frozen camel's milk. A variety of chutney and some enigmatic items, such as bags labeled "Broken Sugar."
     I was visiting because Ramadan — the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and a time of spiritual renewal — was beginning sometime this weekend. (Don't ask exactly when because it's complicated "We don't know," said a staffer at the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, suggesting I survey a few mosques and gather their opinions.)

     To continue reading, click here.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The humdrum life is thrilling enough

     This past week was a particularly lethal one on Mount Everest: four climbers killed. Which made me think of this column, written—ack!—over 20 years ago. It has the shades of immaturity upon it. I don't think I would quite so casually mock a father-to-be who had just died in a mountaineering accident. Though I am proud of making the connection between mountain climbing and drug use. And remember, at the time I wrote this, I had been on paternity leave, helping tend a newborn for seven months. So I had something of the mania of a glittering fanatic myself, deep in his own struggle up the mountainside. 

     The weather was calm, the air, still. It was just after lunch when I set up my base camp, on the southern ridge of the green sofa. The view, of the rocking chair and the expanse of the dining room beyond, was fabulous.
     If conditions held, my goal was in sight. I was almost there, drifting off to a pleasant slumber, when my wife clattered into the room, performing some sort of chore. My eyes snapped open. The elusive quarry would have to wait for another day.
     Napping doesn't enjoy the good publicity that mountaineering does. I have no idea why. Naps are far more pleasant and attainable. Plus the odds of perishing in a freak storm, the way eight climbers on Mount Everest did recently, are almost nil.
     Perhaps if naps had better hype—a few hyperkinetic TV commercials showing paunchy guys wearing their Snooze Nikes as they sprawl on comfortable couches, a few blowzy memoirs with titles like My Naps on Seven Continents—then some of those climbers would have stayed home, and been alive today.
    As reluctant as I am to detract from the grand, operatic techno-tragedy of dying climbers cell-phoning in their last words to their soon-to-be widowed spouses and half-orphaned children, somebody should point out, if only in a hushed whisper, that these people are idiots, throwing their lives away in pursuit of a transcendent thrill.
     That sounds harsh. Outdoorsy types—clerks at mountaineering shops, board of trade members who've taken a few adventure vacations—will disagree, of course. They'll evoke all sorts of piffle about sportsmanship and Just-Do-It-itivity, and facing the ultimate challenge. The same fairy tale we've been telling ourselves for a century.
     In the beginning, there was the excuse of exploration and science. Now the climb is just a meaningless, cargo-cult imitation of those early expeditions, done for self-glorification. People climb Everest to prove something to themselves, as a personal accomplishment, as an adventure.
     Fine, so far. But isn't that little selfish? What about their families? What about their kids? That view from the top of Everest must be really something, to be willing to risk it being the last thing you ever see. That climber with the wife who is seven months pregnant—if he wanted a thrill, he could have gotten one by just hanging around the house for another two months. Perhaps even a bigger thrill than climbing Everest—he'll never know now, will he? The tragedy isn't that he was killed; that was just bad luck. The tragedy is that he went.
     Seeking thrills, in general, is overemphasized. Perhaps I'm just a cautious type, but I find life plenty thrilling, right here at home. Sometimes just merging onto Lake Shore Drive at Fullerton is enough wild adventure to last me a week.
     If there was a difference between the climbers who died from bad weather on Everest and the junkies who died that week from bad heroin in Baltimore, I would suggest it is a minor one, a fine shade of athletics and legality that has little bearing on the end result. Both groups were paying money to enjoy a dangerous sensation. Both found the routine of life too burdensome to be endured.
     Given our public distaste for chemical adventures, the wholesale endorsement of physical thrills—from bungee jumping to hang-gliding—is something of a mystery. Isn't the danger of heroin the basis for making it illegal? Why are adventurers seen as heroic and addicts as pathetic? Just custom? Or maybe the thrill of physical adventure is "earned" through sweat equity, and drugs are seen as lazy and therefore repugnant.
     The immensity of any potential thrill must be balanced against the smaller, daily thrills endangered by grasping at it. I remember, back in college, a friend of mine once extended a handful of LSD tablets. "Here, take one," he said. "They're great."
    I was sure they were great. But I was also worried about chromosome damage—a false concern, perhaps. "I'm sorry," I told him. "I just can't see my wife someday giving birth to a calf's head, and her looking at me for explanation, and me shrugging and saying, 'Sorry hon, but I just wanted to get high.' "
     Perhaps that is timidity. And, to be honest, I have at times regretted not taking the acid. People speak highly of the experience. That was my chance and I blew it.
     On the other hand, I'm here. Maybe I would have taken the acid and promptly jumped out a window. People do that. And, in balance, measuring the potential fun of a 24-hour LSD trip versus the 17 good years I've had since then, I think I made the right decision. Normalcy isn't that bad. It can even be thrilling at times—provided that your wife doesn't go around making a ruckus.

                                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 19, 1996

Friday, May 26, 2017

Trumpet the good news, mutter the bad

     Listen to Pat Gengler, spokesman for the Kane County Sheriff's Office, telling CNN on May 13 how a SWAT team took down Tywon Salters after he grabbed a correctional officer's gun and took a pair of nurses hostage at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, and you'd think the operation was a textbook example of police efficiency.
     "The officer was able to get away," Gengler said of what happened after Salters took a 9 mm handgun away from Officer Shawn Loomis. "The SWAT team made a decision to make entry into the room. One of the SWAT team operators did discharge his firearm, striking the inmate and killing him."
     Nothing about Loomis possibly hiding in a hospital room after losing his weapon.
     Nothing about Loomis perhaps failing to alert anybody that there was an armed felon on the loose.
     And absolutely nothing about a nurse hostage being shot by the SWAT team — or possibly being raped during the three hours law enforcement was trying to figure out what to do.
     To learn that, you have to read a lawsuit filed against the Kane County Sheriff's Office, Loomis, in particular, and Apex3 Security, the company that's supposed to provide security in the hospital.
     That lawsuit, filed Thursday, makes alarming reading.

     To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Del Close: In the midst of tragedy, the possibility of laughter

"Slaughter of the Innocents," The Vatican Museum

     Last week I went to the opening of the American Writers Museum, which I appreciated more than expected. They have a Hall of Fame, of sorts, of Chicago writers, cleverly presented on moveable banners so they can add and subtract as circumstances dictate. I noticed—with a mix of satisfaction and unease—that I had met a full half dozen of the iconic writers showcased: Mike Royko, Ann Landers, Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, Roger Ebert and Del Close. Quite a lot really. I hadn't thought of Close in a while—I spoke with him at the wake Bill Murray threw at his hospital the night before Close killed himself, and saw him on the stage as Polonius in Robert Falls' "Hamlet." I glanced at the obituary I wrote for Close in 1999, and thought it might be suitable for this grim, terror-tainted week. We should not of course laugh at the individual victims of specific tragedies. But certainly must laugh at the general tragedy of the human condition, one where insane religious fanatics commit atrocities against children, trying to lure good people into accepting the hatreds which so define and limit their lives. We are supposed to be terrified—I would say being bitterly amused at the ultimate futility of their efforts might be a far more valid reaction.
Del Close

     In the famous Second City comedy sketch taking place at the funeral of a man who died by jamming his head into a gallon can of baked beans, that detail—to make the cause of death a big can of Van Camp's pork and beans—was provided by Del Close, whose morbid, risky brand of dark comedy formed generations of American comedians.
     Mr. Close—teacher, actor, director, pagan, junkie, occasional lunatic and fierce iconoclastic spirit behind Chicago's beloved comedy troupe, as well as friend and mentor to its biggest stars—died of complications from emphysema Thursday at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He was 64.
     "There is something irresistibly funny about a funeral," he once said. "More basically, I think the point is that beyond the deepest tragedy, there is laughter. Even in the midst of tragedy, there is always the possibility for it."
     Mr. Close acted not only in troupe comedy but in serious dramas. He was acclaimed as Polonius in the Robert Falls' landmark "Hamlet" at Wisdom Bridge and appeared in several motion pictures, including "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
     His death came the day after about 50 of his friends feted Mr. Close as he sat in a wheelchair in a basement room of the hospital.
     He was "an amazingly intricate human being," said Second City producer Kelly Leonard. "Notoriously prickly, tremendously warm and very funny," he specialized in humor that's "dark and subversive," Leonard said.
     Mr. Close grew up in Manhattan, Kan. He was a second cousin of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ike once showed up at a Close family Thanksgiving in the years before he became president. Mr. Close ran away from home as a teenager, getting his first taste of show business as an assistant in a cheesy bit of vaudeville called Dr. Dracula's Tomb of Terror.
     He attended Kansas State College on a bass drum scholarship and was a classmate of James Dean's. He auditioned in 1957 for the St. Louis branch of the Compass Players, the precursor of Second City.
     Mr. Close was part of the original St. Louis cast, performing in the Crystal Palace. The cast moved to Chicago to become Second City, but Mr. Close went to New York, becoming a stand-up comic in the company of people such as Lenny Bruce. After taking in a Bruce show with Second City founding director Paul Sills, Sills reportedly said to Mr. Close, "If you can ever find out what Lenny is taking, by all means do it."
     What Bruce was taking was heroin, and Mr. Close followed Sills' advice to a fault. He not only became a heroin addict; he was proud of it.
     "He relished his narcotic past," Bob Woodward wrote of Mr. Close. "He wore his track marks from the needles like a badge of honor."
     Mr. Close appeared off-Broadway in a musical, "The Nervous Set," in 1959. But an arrest for marijuana possession cost Mr. Close his cabaret card, and, unable to perform in New York nightclubs, he returned to Chicago, where he joined Second City, sharing directing duties with Bernie Sahlins.
     Mr. Close began performing in the cast of Second City in 1962. It was not a placid relationship, and Mr. Close was plagued by his drinking, drug addiction and emotional problems, which sometimes required institutionalization.
     "Sheldon Patinkin, who wasn't yet the Second City director, used to pick me up at the loony bin and drive me to the theater, where I'd do my thing. Then he'd drive me back to the loony bin where I'd spend another day," he said in 1972. Sahlins said that he, too, used to pick Mr. Close up at a mental hospital so he could perform.
     Mr. Close was fired in 1965. "I deserved it," he later said. "I was always getting loaded, quite frankly."
     He moved to San Francisco, where he took small acting roles. He appeared in "Beware the Blob," being eaten along with Burgess Meredith, and in episodes of "Get Smart" and "My Mother the Car."
     Mr. Close hung out with the Grateful Dead. He ran the light shows at 1967 concerts as the group's "optical percussionist."
     He returned to Chicago in 1972 and directed Second City reviews consistently for the next decade, becoming close with stars such as John Belushi, whose talent he nurtured and formed.
     "He was particularly good with the new generation of Vietnam rebels—John Belushi, Harold Ramis, those people," Sahlins said. "He was a rebel, definitely a product of what we used to call the hippie generation. . . . He had an unusual capacity for leading young people, not always down the straight path. He was an inspiring director and teacher, even if sometimes the content was not acceptable."
     Belushi was particularly affected by Mr. Close, both professionally and personally.
     "I like the man's style," Belushi said of his mentor in 1978. "He can create with you, unlike so many other directors. He can motivate people. He's been my biggest influence in comedy."
     Mr. Close's first-floor Wells Street apartment, across from Second City, was also a convenient spot for Belushi, himself an addict, to shoot up. It was only after Belushi's death by drug overdose in 1982 that Mr. Close was able to shake his drug habit.
     He was let go, again, from Second City in 1983, and took his comedy workshops to CrossCurrents, then to the fledging ImprovOlympic, where he helped develop its signature piece, "The Harold," a framework combining audience suggestions into skits that end up working together.
     Mr. Close returned to Second City in 1988 to direct "The Gods Must Be Lazy," bringing in his ImprovOlympic standouts Chris Farley, Tim Meadows and Joel Murray. Critics credit Second City's current renaissance to the mid-'90s import of Mr. Close's acolytes from ImprovOlympic.
     He won three Jeff awards, a Chalmers award for directing Toronto's Second City, and a Charlie award for lifetime achievement from the American Association of Comedy Artists.
     "It's a grim business, this being funny," he said in 1975. "Every time you come up with a strong satiric idea, the world tops it. None of our reactionary military characters in the past decade could top the real-life line that came out of Vietnam: 'We had to destroy the village in order to save it.' "

                         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 5, 1999

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Barrel of Monkeys makes writing more fun

     Children want to talk. The third-graders in Mrs. Javor’s class at the Chalmers School of Excellence strain their twig arms toward the sky, fingers fluttering, desperate for permission to say what’s on their minds.
     They have the desire but, at 8 years old, can lack the communication skill to make themselves heard. When called upon, some speak in tiny voices, inaudible a yard away, their disjointed whispers trailing off.
     Enter a Barrel of Monkeys.
     “My friends, hello!” booms Mary Tilden, striding into Room 202 with four confederates: Alejandra Zavala, Marianna Green, Jo Jo Figarella and Barry Irving. “I’m so excited to see you.”
     The next 90 minutes are a whir of free-form storytelling boot camp, where students are led through fast-paced exercises that are part kiddie Stanislavski Method actor training, part junior Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The circus has left town

     Readers wondered why I had two columns in Monday's paper. One about federal judges helping ex-cons, which I posted yesterday. And this, about the final performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus performing for the final time Sunday night.
     The answer is simple enough. I wrote the federal judges column Friday (and a bit on Saturday, and again Sunday morning). Then Sunday night an editor asked if I might wax rhapsodic about the passing of the Greatest Show on Earth. Sure, why not?

     The elephants were important after all.
     A year after Feld Entertainment, owners of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, bowed to pressure from animal rights activists and retired their 40 performing pachyderms, a “dramatic” slump in ticket sales prompted the 146-year-old “Greatest Show on Earth” to announce in January that it was going out of business.
     Which it did Sunday night, after one final show at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York.
     The wonder is it lasted this long.
     The death of the circus — the biggest, most famous American circus anyway — couldn’t have been just the elephants. High operating costs also did in the last circus to travel by train as smaller, nimbler, more innovative shows, such as Cirque du Soleil, gobbled up audience dollars without having to worry about feeding lions, tigers and bears.
     And an audience that could fight alien monsters or dogfight in spaceships or have almost any adventure imaginable while sitting on their living room sofa and jiggling a joystick didn’t need to go to the circus. The circus came to them.

     When the boys were small, we'd go to the Ringling Brothers circus. It seemed almost child abuse not to. The circus was America, a vision of America. The ringmaster in his tall hat, the lion tamer and his cracking whip, the swaying elephants with their feathered and sequined headpieces, ridden by showgirls. It was somehow both wonderful and deeply familiar, a cliche come to life. And those who didn't appreciate the classic acts could be entertained by the new twists - those motorcycles racing around their spherical cage of death. That was something to see.
     When I asked my older boy, 21, if he'd miss the circus, if he was sorry to see it go, he said, "No. Not really. It was before my time."
     It was before all of our times. Before the internet, before television or movies or radio, the circus was the flashiest entertainment you could find, traveling from town to town, delighting audiences with clowns and acrobats, prancing ponies and death-defying feats.
     You could spin this milestone a number of ways. As a triumph of the culture of victimhood—we sympathize too much with animals now to put them through the ordeal needed to perform. It was hard to shepherd the kiddies past protesters denouncing its cruelty, and the suspicion that they had a point lingered in the back of the mind, sapping what was supposed to be an innocent joy.
     You could blame the economy. The circus was expensive. Tickets to the final show ranged from $29 to $90 and no, the final performance was not sold out, but nearly.
     You could blame a dwindling of childhood—toy stores shuttered too—and the age when a kid might be agog at a seal balancing a ball on its nose probably ends in the upper single digits.
     Maybe we aren't so innocent anymore. WrestleMania seems to have no trouble packing them in for their flash-bang bouts of sweaty pseudo violence. Pay-per-view boxing thrives. Maybe watching a lot of clowns get into a tiny car just can't compete. It became boring.
     I wondered if it became routine for the performers too, and once asked a Ringling Brothers human cannonball, who had been shot out of a cannon 5,000 times, if doing his act ever became dull.
     "It's never the same," Jon Weiss, the "Human Clown 'n Ball" told me in 2000. "I try not to make it dull. You always try to improve what you're doing, trying to fly further or straighter or land different."
     Maybe that's what Ringling's problem was. They didn't adapt, didn't make it different enough. They tried. They had pared down, Circque du Soleil-type shows, with more of an arthouse vibe. But that didn't work either.
     There were circuses before Ringling Brothers—itinerant entertainers going back through the Middle Ages, to Roman times, traveling troupes. And circuses yet survive—Circus 1903 uses elephant-sized puppets and is performing for the next 17 nights in Dallas.
     But Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey was the biggest, its three rings alive with action, an overwhelming spectacle. If you went to the circus and saw it, then you know what I mean. And if you never went, well, now you're never going to.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Federal judges lend helping hand to ex-cons

Federal Judge Sara L. Ellis, from left, Judge Susan E. Cox and Jennifer Colanese, a U.S. probation officer, review cases at a meeting of the intensive supervised re-entry program run by the U.S. District Court in Chicago. The program is designed to help ex-cons stay out of prison. 

     “How do you deal with life when it’s going well?” asked Judge Sara L. Ellis, airing the dilemma of one ex-con adapting to life on the outside. “There was a reduction in the chaos of his life that made him very uncomfortable.”
     She was addressing three fellow federal judges — Susan E. Cox, Sidney Schenkier and Chief Judge Ruben Castillo — plus three probation officers, two assistant U.S. attorneys, two federal defenders, and one drug treatment specialist.
     It was 9 a.m. Thursday. The group sat around a long table in Castillo’s spacious chambers on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building. The beginning of an extraordinary morning where, every two weeks, the vast, overcrowded, harried, understaffed, often-indifferent, reflexively punitive American legal system pauses for a few hours to turn careful attention to, on this day, 11 long-incarcerated ex-cons — armed robbers, drug dealers — who put their post-prison lives under the supervision of four federal judges.
     The group trades mundane minutia of fractured lives coming together.
     “But he has been writing his poetry . . . .”
     “Have him attend 30 meetings in 30 days . . . .”
     “He did attend counseling this month, group and individual . . . .”
     “He was supposed to meet with me, but didn’t show . . . .”

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Clothes make the man"

     As I mentioned a few years back, I spent a summer learning Latin with my older boy. One of the phrases ground into my mind, vestis virum reddit, was memorable because it was particularly difficult -- you trill "R"s Latin, as in Russian, and I've always struggled to get my mouth around that. 
     It was also a useful phrase, meaning, "clothes make the man." Though it seems no longer true nowadays, as workers troop downtown in flip flops and cargo shorts and the president wears the same tie, held in place with Scotch tape. Maybe it should be pecunia virum reddit, or "money makes the man." 
     But then there is no need to create a new aphorism, as there is already a very suitable line in Petronius' Satyricon, "sola pecunia regnat"—"money alone rules." That's all too true today.
     Getting back to clothes. vestis virum reddit — the "v" is pronounced like a "w," by the way: "westus wirum" — is s a medieval proverb. Erasamus put into Quintilian's mouth,* and many sources cite him. Even though what Quintilian actually writes, "To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority" referring, scholars believe, to a vague line in the Odyssey that doesn't mention clothes at all.
     A reminder that history tends to improve upon aphorisms. Leo Durocher didn't say, "Nice guys finish last." He ranted about nice guys ending up in seventh place and helpful sports writers did the rest.  
     I recount this because the New York Times website on Saturday offered content "Paid for and Posted by" Will, a new TNT series, or rather whatever PR sorts TNT hired to cobble together "Turns of Phrase," a colorful, flashy, but flawed collection of seven "phrases that first appeared in Shakespeare's works and continue to resonate in modern times." 
     The third phrase is "Clothes make the man," which is odd, because the phrase neither appears in Shakespeare nor resonates in modern times. The line the PR puffery cites is "the apparel oft proclaims the man," in Hamlet, noting it was considered ironic even then.  
     An advertisement, I know. No point in complaining to the Times, which didn't write it, and TNT obviously doesn't care—their point is to publicize their TV show, which they've done, and in that sense, since their error sparked that, all's the better. Even wrong, it's high-intellect for a TV show ad.
     So why think about it at all? The piece is ultimately inoffensive, I suppose, and credit should be given for the various barbs it takes at a certain president. But that president is known for his casual relationship with truth. And there is something unsettling about sniping at a man while committing the very sin he so manifests. Untruths must be pointed out, or else truth suffers — I just wrote that, but would never claim that it isn't also tucked into some Loeb Classic somewhere without looking good and hard for it. I just figure someone who cares for facts should note the Grey Lady taking money and promoting poor scholarship. The media isn't valuable because it is never wrong; the media is valuable because it acknowledges when it is wrong, and if the Times won't, I will do it for them. 

* According to the very useful "The Adages of Erasmus" edited by William Barker (University of Toronto Press: 2001)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     At first I thought this might be unfair. An older man against a dark background. How could anyone figure out a location from that? Even King Dale. 
    But someone might be familiar. He isn't a famous man, but he has been in the press. And it's more of a thinking puzzle. In order to get the gears turning, though, I need to give a clue. Here it is: the man isn't real. 
    Well, he is real somewhere. But he wasn't really in front of me when I took his picture. Does that help? No? Good.
    Let the fun begin. You don't have to name the guy, just where I saw him, or an image of him. The winner gets one of my way-cool "Don't Give Up the Ship" flags, expressing a sentiment more necessary than ever as Donald Trump's America unfolds in day after I-can't-fucking-believe-this-is-happening day. Place your guesses below. Good luck.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Insisting you are the best is part of being the worst

"Reception du Grand Conde par Louis XIV" by Jean-Louis Gerome (1674)

     Buckle up. You’re about to read the best column ever written, penned by the greatest columnist Chicago has ever known.
     Kidding. Let’s talk about grandiosity.
     Even if I thought the opening sentence were true — which, for the record, I most profoundly do not — I’d have enough self-awareness not to say it. Everyone hates a braggart and wants to bring him down, even when he is correct.
     Especially when he’s correct.
     When he isn’t, when his claims are just oblivious flummery, it just seems sad and deranged. Think of the stereotypical insane asylum. Who does the cliched inmate believe himself to be? Napoleon, right? Delusions of grandeur.
     I do not want to join the platoon of armchair psychiatrists speculating about the mental health of the president of the United States. I am not qualified to diagnose what may be wrong with him. And I recognize that a significant, if dwindling, chunk of the country thinks that the only thing wrong with the president is the vast deep state conspiracy allied against him. A mindset we can examine another day.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Expensive ink

    You can spend $30 on a printer. You can spend $300. You can spend $3,000.
    Hard to figure out what to do. When my home printer died a few months ago, I knew I didn't want the very lowest end. I knew I couldn't afford the highest end. So I split the difference. A Canon MB2320 was an impressive looking cube. Consumer Reports rated it well. Only $100 at Best Buy. It has two paper feeds, a flatbed scanner. It seemed like it would Do The Job.
    And it does, more or less. Flash forward to a few weeks back. The black ink supply ran out. I thought: need new ink. I phoned Atlas Stationers--my office supplier of choice--and ordered the full set. Figured, might as well, have the cyan, the magenta, the yellow, when they went out too.
     I didn't ask what they cost.
     Atlas phoned. My ink was in. I stopped by the quaint little store on Lake Street. A thick plastic bag with my order was produced. The price was rung up: $103.
    "That's more than the printer itself," I gasped.
    "Yeah," said the clerk. "Sometime, when I run out of ink, I just buy a new printer. It's cheaper."
    That made sense. But there was also something senseless, something terribly wrong about that. I hate to think I've become one of those "This is the problem with society..." writers whenever I come upon something I don't like. But the ink supply shouldn't cost as much as the printer and the ink supply.
     Yes, the drug dealer/Barbie doll paradigm. The first hit is free. Sell the dolls for cheap and make money on the clothes and accessories. Hook your customer first.
     But there is a flaw. Because each new printer comes with ink — it's as if there was a new Barbie included in each stewardess outfit, which you could buy at the same price as the stewardess outfit without Barbie. The Canon is not the best printer. It's slow to actually start printing. Real slow. And the software is balky. As it is, I can print documents on my iMac through the printer, but I can't scan anything onto the iMac. I have to physically insert a thumb drive, copy the image onto that, then stick the thumb drive into the back of the iMac and access the image. It's a pain in the ass.
     And it occurred to me. When the ink runs out, rather than spend $103 on another quartet of Canon printer inks*, I could just take that C-note and buy a different printer made by a different company complete with new ink. That's a plan.
    I did notice one positive thing about really expensive ink. I tend to print less. In the past, I'd go for the printed ticket, somehow worried my phone wouldn't be up to the task, say, displaying a boarding pass. At a hundred bucks for a palmful of ink, I'll take my chances electronically.

      * And yes, I noticed the inks are cheaper online. About $90 on Amazon as little as $23.95 at dubious web sites that may or may not send what was ordered or anything at all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

First draft of American Writers Museum is highly promising

Canadian architect Dennis Rovere and his daughter Adrienne, 19, came from Calgary to visit the American Writers Museum.

     No man was ever as ready to dislike a place as I was primed to loathe the new American Writers Museum. As I strolled toward Michigan Avenue Tuesday morning for the museum’s grand opening, I was practically stropping the blade of scorn, eager to put it to use.
     I had studiously avoided all previous AWM publicity, my opinion of such places set years ago after visiting Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a mausoleum that reduces the vibrant disruptive force of my generation into dead glass cases of fringed jackets and sequined shoes. Just last month I had plunked down four euros to enter Casa di Dante in Florence, the slapped together tourist trap the city established to prove Florentines are the same frauds that Dante sunk into Hell 700 years ago.
     How could so vast a subject as American writing be condensed into an 11,000 foot space? It would be reductive, like the Illinois Holocaust Museum, turning the greatest atrocity of the 20th century into a school lesson about bullying.
     I was the third person in line, behind a father and daughter from Calgary who came here, specifically, they said, to see the only historical artifact on display: the 120-foot-long scroll of taped-together typewriter paper upon which Jack Kerouac batted out “On the Road.” (“They’re not writers,” Truman Capote quipped of Kerouac and the Beats. “They’re typists.”)

     That relic aside, the museum is all displays of the curator's art—timelines and interactive video screens, games and quizzes. I decided the standard for the AWM had to be the standard for any writing anywhere—is it interesting?—and I'm compelled to relate, it is interesting. The big guns were all there, of course, but also writers I had never heard of, such as Abraham Cahan, founder of the Jewish Daily Forward, a paper that, we are told, "mixed shund (sensationalism) and literatur (seriousness)." Some things never change.
     On video, scholars discoursed on subjects like "Promise" and "Edge" and "Identity." I chose Edge, and NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan nudged me toward something that I've never considered doing—reading Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locust," which she painted as a relevant look at what watching screens does to culture. She mentioned how 300 readers of the New Yorker canceled their subscriptions after Shirley Jackson published "The Lottery," a fact I might find useful when the readers are in full cry.
     Physical spaces are good, even important in our increasingly online world. So I'm glad the American Writers Museum is here, though it would benefit from more real objects. "On the Road" will be swapped out in October for something as yet undermined. But consider the room on Children's Literature. Big graphics, interesting displays on "Charlotte's Web" and "Little Women" and "Where the Wild Things Are." The room really cried out for a framed Dr. Seuss sketch, or some such thing, and I'd point out that bringing a child younger than 10 could be considered abuse.
     A few other flaws: the touch screens did not always leap to work. Some text, printed on glass, is rendered nearly illegible by shadow. And all of the authors featured in permanent displays are dead. I asked an administrator about this and he said contemporary writers will be represented in their programming and special exhibits, which is fine, though good writing is disruptive and by drawing the veil—one timeline stops in 1970—dynamism is lost.
     Though the museum is flexible enough that it can get it back. The central area is a changing exhibit space, now devoted to W.S. Merwin, who is alive. Though it focuses on Merwin's palm tree plantation in Hawaii. Visitors are invited to write thoughts on paper, which will be used to mulch the trees—itself a mystic, creepy, almost wrong misreading of the use of words.
     One hall focuses on the mechanics of good writing in an engaging and useful fashion. And since editors are taught to stress the positive with beginners, I would scrawl "highly promising" across this first draft of the American Writers Museum.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On the block


     Hmmm...this is a toughie.
    The prudent thing would be to stay silent. Say nothing about tronc, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, et al., entering into a deal to buy the Chicago Sun-Times, which was made public Monday afternoon.

    Best be mum. Safer. Hard to get in trouble that way. 
    Because saying anything is a lose-lose proposition.  And I have a cute little piece about the high cost of printer ink all ready to go...
    Nah, that stinks of cowardice.
    Lose-lose. No question about it. And I have no secret insider information. I'm a bystander too. 
     Being positive looks like sucking up to the new boss. Even when the new boss is really my old boss, Michael Ferro, who shed the Sun-Times—giving it away to a charity—so he could buy the Trib, seeing value in it that others missed, apparently. Remember how Gannett kept offering him more money, crying about his irresponsible stewardship all the while, even as they upped their offers, bidding against themselves while he waved them away?
    Kinda cool really. Maybe he'll buy Gannett next.
    But being negative also has risks. It's almost impossible to mention "tronc" and not observe it sounds like the name of a robot Muppet in a 1970s Sesame Street episode. I'm not sure that matters much in the upper echelons of finance. Most Sun-Times employees can spool out a variety of gripes about Ferro, though that does not make him unique in the pantheon of owners.  
     Not much of a risk to candor though. I can't honestly imagine he'd care. You need a pretty thick skin to own a newspaper. If the sale goes through—if the Justice Department allows it, and they blocked a past Trib deal— those cobbling together the transaction won't add a line to the complex contract purchasing, "All dunnage, office equipment, warrants and deeds belong to the Sun-Times ... except for Neil Steinberg. He gets the boot because he smirked at the corporate name on his hobby blog." 
     These big money guys, they're not china dolls.
     So fuck prudence, as I can say here, but not in the newspaper. Not yet anyway. I sometimes politely suggest we break that barrier because, well, it's coming, and we might as well be the first through the door. Imagine the attention. I've already crafted the lede to the column introducing obscenity. "Fuck this." Maybe I'll mention that to Michael next time I see him, assuming I ever do. 

    Would I prefer the paper not be bought? Sure. Change frightens me. Because I know how good I have it, how blessed I am. It's easy for me to me smug, now, because I'm not paddling around the frozen slurry with all the other folk—good, bad or indifferent—who got pitched over the side. I know it can make you bitter, like those former newsmen who gather every day at the end of Rob Feder's column, sticking up their thoughts about journalism, like dried boogers over a men's room urinal. One of my primary ambitions is to never be one of those guys.
     But change comes whether we want it or not. It's like Hemingway's line about how bankruptcy happens: "Two ways: Gradually and then suddenly."
    The Trib buying the Sun-Times is gradual and sudden. So. Enough throat clearing. To the heart of the matter. The Tribune and the Sun-Times joining together, the lion and the lamb, the suburban burgermeister and the scrappy city kid getting hitched.
    It isn't as if they're going to mash them both together and sell the thing as the Tribune-Sun-Times.  The two papers appeal to different demographics, and I imagine they'll be maintained as separate entities for the same reason Nabisco sells both Oreos and Fig Newtons. A blend would be gross. Killing one paper doesn't drive its readers to the other. There's no point in buying the thing if it won't remain a separate title. As it is, the Tribune already prints and delivers the Sun-Times. It won't rock your world if the Sun-Times marketing department cooks up Tribune promotions.
    That said, there will certainly be individual peril. Less job security, which is really sayin' something, and then there's the question of the union, on life support since 2009 but still there. Journalism has been on a race to the bottom, trying to find something hard to bounce up from in an attempt to regain the surface. The Tribune and the Sun-Times wrap their arms around each other, figuring they'll both float better that way.
    I'm ... what? Guardedly optimistic, a reaction that has to be a little colored by how I perceived the news. When I saw the publisher's email Monday I was momentarily confused. It began:
I wanted to update everyone on some developments in regard to the Sun-Times and other assets owned by Wrapports, LLC. We just issued a press release (attached) announcing that in tomorrow’s edition of the Sun-Times the newspaper will run an ad (also attached) that it is seeking a buyer that will continue to publish the newspaper.   
     I stopped there, confused. An ad seeking a buyer? That had a whiff of doomed desperation, like old Aunt Sadie putting her profile on That'll never work. And the "that will continue to publish the newspaper" seemed to suggest there are buyers who won't. Why buy the thing if not to run it? It isn't as if we own land anymore.
     But I kept reading—always smart when you're in the understanding-stuff business.  It turns out there was more. The ad is just a bit of pro-forma legalistic throat clearing so tronc—which also sounds like the place in his little automobile where Inspector Clouseau stashes his luggage—can buy the Sun-Times. We are told there are no other suitors.
     So a specific purchaser, even the Tribune, came as a relief, compared to just angling around for anybody flipping through the paper to buy the place. There are worse people than the Tribune to buy you. Last I checked, Rupert Murdoch still owned newspapers. WGN was just purchased by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a low rent right wing broadcast group, kind of Hunts ketchup to Fox's Heinz. There are hells below this one. 
     Those still using old dance cards will decry the sale. What of the storied Trib v. Sun-Times rivalry? The Front Page. Rival reporters racing to be the first to a pay phone? They were like Field's and Carsons.
     Field's is gone, I should point out. I hate to be the one to tell you. The Daily News is gone. City News too. And Napoleon escaped from Elba.
     Nostalgia only gets you so far. The first obligation of a newspaper, the trick question in J-school went, is to stay in business. The past decade of newspapering have been a struggle to do that, a constant game of staffer musical chairs. The music stops and they yank a chair away. Fewer folks putting out a leaner product. Am I happy about it? No. I'd prefer we hire the photo staff back ... and a jazz critic and a medical reporter and a few kids to run get coffee. And Italian cookies. I love those. 
     I do not dread going back to work for Ferro. That will seem like toadyism, but screw it. He was always fair to me, and I can't resist the impulse to try to be fair to him in return. He seems to have a plan. Ferro obviously has something going on. In 2015 IBM paid a billion dollars for Merge Healthcare, that he rescued in 2008, netting him a cool $200 million. I can't even tell you what Merge Healthcare is—something about merging health and care. He seems to have mastered the hoover-up-money part of the online world, and never pushed me to write anything I found odious. If he wants to spend more of those millions being fire hosed at him on the Sun-Times, well, that's just fine. Somebody should. 
    The great Irish playwright Brendan Behan once said, "A change is as good as a rest." There really is no rest in daily journalism. But there certainly is change, whether we like it or not. What will it be like? We don't have to guess. All we have to do is wait and find out.


Monday, May 15, 2017

How can Americans support Trump? How can they smoke?

Femme a l'orchidee, by Edgard Maxence
     Smoking is wonderful. That’s why people do it. It’s one of life’s joys. You pause from grinding routine, slip away to some quiet spot, tuck your favorite brand between your lips, spark fire, and inhale a big soothing lungful of your friend, nicotine. Ahhhh. Relaxation. The tightened bolt in your head loosens, anxiety ratchets down, and your brain squeezes out a single drop of pleasure.
     Smoking is vile. An addiction that will kill you. Cancer, emphysema, heart disease. Awful deaths. Half a million Americans a year die from smoking. Smoking is expensive. It makes you stink.
     Smokers, it is safe to say, endorse the first paragraph; non-smokers, the second.
     A phenomenon I call “framing” — you portion off the reality you prefer, the one that resonates with your life, and gaze fixedly at that.

     I mention framing a lot to my aghast friends, who can’t understand how anyone can support Donald Trump. They considered him a liar, bully and charlatan the day he was elected, and it’s only gotten worse. Trump fired FBI director James Comey last week, at first claiming it was because he bungled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails then admitting he didn’t like Comey investigating how the Russians influenced the campaign.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother's Day

     Whistler's mother was aware of her son's love of art. But she still wanted the young man to go to military school, so as to have a career, and not shame the family name. 
    He forgave her, as sons invariably do.
    James McNeill Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray & Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother)" is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago for another month—the 1871 painting goes back to the Musee d'Orsay on June 11.
"Napoleon's Mother" by Antonio Canova
      Anna McNeill Whistler had moved to London in 1863, joining her son's household and forcing his mistress to find new lodging. He did not hold that against her either, however, painting this portrait: at first she was to be depicted standing, according to the placard. But the old woman grew tired and was allowed to sit and Whistler, sensing an opportunity, and influenced by Antonio Cadova's sculpture "Napoleon's Mother," went with it.
      Having just written about why the Mona Lisa is famous, it would be worthwhile to consider why Whistler's Mother, as it is commonly called, is also iconic.  It was immediately popular, which helps: Swinburne praised it. Thomas Carlyle commissioned Whistler to paint his own portrait after seeing it. 
Always a francophile, Whistler quipped, after the nation bought painting in 1891, that now he truly was a son of France now that the nation "owned his mother."
     In popular culture, she became motherhood personified. Or perhaps, rather, idealized. Maybe because the woman seems so placid, so pleasant, calm, silent, in repose, not glaring angrily at the viewer, but looking placidly away. Who we would all like our mothers to be, at least at times. The artist, who considered this one of his best paintings, agreed that his mother looks swell here. "Yes," he once said. "One does like to make one's mummy just as nice as possible."