Friday, June 30, 2017

News flash! Clinton Street wasn't named for Hillary Clinton

      July 1 is an important date in American history.
     And no, not because, barring a miracle, that date will mark the beginning of the third year Illinois has gone without a budget.
     As if that grim anniversary were not bad enough, this July 1 history taps us on the shoulder and reminds us who we used to be.
     Two hundred years ago Saturday, DeWitt Clinton was inaugurated as governor of New York.
     Who was DeWitt Clinton?  He was a politician who wanted to dig a canal across New York State. That way, Atlantic Ocean commerce could pass through the port of New York, move 150 miles down the Hudson River, meet the proposed canal at Albany, float west 350 miles, then enter Lake Erie at Buffalo.
     A project of this magnitude seemed to demand national effort. Clinton first tried to get the budding federal government to foot the bill. Thomas Jefferson dismissed the canal as  "little short of madness."
     But just as states now are picking up balls dropped by our paralyzed federal government, so Clinton brought the battle home. He ran for governor vowing to build the canal if elected.
     Clinton won, and was inaugurated July 1, 1817. Construction of the canal began ... wait for it ... three days later, on July 4, just outside Rome, New York. The heart breaks.
     The canal — 40 feet wide, four feet deep and 363 miles long — was dug by hand, with shovels and picks, with the occasional black powder explosion. It required 83 locks to surmount 675 feet of elevation. and aqueducts to cross streams. Before the canal, it cost $100 to move a ton of freight from New York City to Buffalo. After the canal opened in 1825, the same shipment cost $10 and got there in a third of the time. Tolls repaid the cost to dig the canal within a decade.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Cotton Candy Grapes

     Occasionally, I will write about some less-than-urgent subject — walking the dog, a pair of gloves I like, an obscure book that caught my interest — and someone will shout that the state is in financial crisis, or Trump is president, or some other dire situation unfolding at the moment. The implication, or direct assertation, being: "How can you write about this trivial crap while ignoring important matters of extreme urgency?"
     And usually I don't reply, because the person asking has long established themselves as hating what I do anyway; they are just seizing on what they consider an example of my inadequacy to make their opinion known, again. As to why they hang around the blog of someone they hate and find inadequate, well, I can't answer that for them. Chronically unhappy people, I suppose, keeping their furnaces of displeasure well stoked, mistaking the compulsion to abuse others for rational conversation.
     Were I to bother answering, I would point out that I reject the notion that the world benefits by cathectic focus on our woes to the exclusion of everything else. That only by continual ventilating of our myriad of troubles can we ever hope to resolve them. That's zealotry, and mistaken. 
     I am not the only medium for expression, God knows. If a subject is deftly handled a dozen other places, I don't feel the need to pile on with something identical or even similar. If readers come here not knowing if they'll find some oblique approach to a familiar issue, or something about Cotton Candy Grapes, that is my intention.
    They're relatively new.  Created in 1992 by horitculturist David Cain of International Fruit Genetic in Bakersfield, California, not through gene modification, but by breeding together two strains of grapes, making the Cotton Candy Hybrid. They've also created strawberry, mango and pineapple flavors, and are hoping to train consumers to expect grapes in a range of tastes and textures.
     "When you go to the supermarket, there's like 15 kinds of apples — Fuji, Pink Lady, Gala, Braeburn. The list goes on," Cain told The Salt website. "We want to give consumers the same array of flavors for grapes."
    My wife noticed them at Sunset Foods as we were shopping together one evening. As much as I'm against nibbling on food you haven't paid for, she—in good Eve fashion—prevailed on me to sample a grape. It tasted exactly like cotton candy. So we plunked down $3.99 for a one-pound bag. 
    And here's the strange part. When we got them home, most didn't taste like cotton candy. Maybe chilling them was the problem. Or some dynamic of the store. I'd eat 10, and only one would have a vague cotton candy-like taste. Maybe the effect is psychological, or I got a bad batch. I can't explain it, and the online literature seems to be full of praise, so I'm sure it's me. Though when I tried one in the store, it was like eating cotton candy at the circus. At home, not so much. I can't explain it.
     Not the weightiest question to raise, but you can't walk into a bakery expecting to buy oil for your car. Every establishment is entitled to stock his shelves as he pleases, and I don't see why I should be castigated for not being what I've never  been, wanted to be, or had any intention of becoming. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ignoring one baby is immoral, ignoring millions is policy

Sculpture by Damien Hirst

     Let's talk about morality.
     No, not other people's morality; your morality. Parsing the morality of others is too easy. It comes to some as naturally as breathing and almost as often.
     Examining what you think is right for you? A little harder.
     Here's the scenario.
     It's morning. You stroll to the sidewalk to collect your Sun-Times — you subscribe, thank you very much, a good sign, though not the ethics test I have in mind.
     You bend to pick up the plastic-clad cylinder and hear a cry. You stand up. There, on the tree lawn, is a baby. About 6 months old. Chubby arms and legs waving. Gurgling baby noises.
     What do you do?
     Well, first you look around. Hoping to see a parent quick-stepping over to claim their darling. That's natural. Someone take this cup from me.
     There is nobody on the street. You blink a few times. You look down at the baby.
     Still there.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Going to law against birds and their enablers

     For a number of years I wrote a column in the Reader called True Books. It was the continuation of something I wrote in the True Facts section of the old National Lampoon. What True Books did was present actual books in a deadpan way. Just the title, a dry synopsis, a "Representative Quote" and a then the final "Noteworthy Flaw" acting as a kind of punchline.
    The books were all unexpected, off-kilter, odd. The one lodged is memory is a book of nutritional hoo-ha titled "Sharks Don't Get Cancer," where the noteworthy flaw was, "Sharks do get cancer."
    The premise for the ongoing joke was that creating a book is a considerable effort, involving not only a writer but an editor and a publisher, maybe an agent, printers, proofreaders, a publicist, various friends, and thus the bar for a book being mere idiocy or folly was a little higher. There were certain expectations.
    The same is true for lawsuits. Because you need not only a litigant, but a lawyer to draft and file the suit and a judge to accept it. Oh, individuals can file pro se lawsuits, without an attorney, but those are immediately viewed as suspect. Otherwise, a lawsuit carries a certain gravitas, and are viewed, particularly by the media, as Significant Acts.
    Though they really shouldn't be. Anyone can file a lawsuit about anything. If there is a body of lawsuits so trivial and baseless that attorneys cannot be paid to submit them to a court, I've never heard of them. 
    So news last week of Judy Graves suing Elmhurst Hospital was treated as significant. Two years ago Graves, a woman in her 60s, was menaced by a red-winged blackbird, a particularly aggressive and territorial bird, and fell, injuring herself, according to the lawsuit. 
    She sued — when I first heard the report, on the radio, before they revealed who, and for one delicious moment I wondered if she might not be suing the birds. No, she is suing the hospital, for harboring them. She seeks $50,000 plus legal costs.
    While "bird law" was a running joke in "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," there is a long tradition of going to law to seek redress against animals. To refresh my recollection I turned to one of my favorite books, E.P. Evans essential "The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals," 1906 summation of centuries worth of trials, the majority involving livestock—pigs, mostly, since they were in closest contact with humans.
    Just the summary lines in the Contents are enough to send you leaping for the book. "Animals regarded by the law as lay persons" and "Criminal prosecution of rats" and "Bull sent to the gallows for killing a lad."
    There was, as I remembered (I wrote about it in the "Noise" chapter of "The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances") a parson in Dresden placing a ban upon sparrows "on account of their unceasing and extremely vexatious chatterings and unchastity during the sermon, to the hinderance of God's word and Christian devotion" and the Bishop of Trier anathematizing swallows because they "disturbed the devotions of the faithful by their chirping and chattering, and sacrilegiously defiled his head and vestments with their droppings, when he was officiating at the altar."
    Evans points out, rather reasonably that the Saxon parson "did not expect that his ban would cause the offending birds to avoid the church or to fall dead on entering it." Rather, "by his proscription he puts the culprits out of the pale of public sympathy and protection."
     Which is sort of where the plaintiff puts herself in filing her suit. While the lure of a make-her-go-away settlement is always there, one can't help but imagine that the public—those that think of it at all beyond a smile and a shake of the head—hold little sympathy for someone lashing out at birds and the hospital that harbors them.  (Graves' argument, to the degree she has one, is in that landscaping in an attractive manner Elmhurst Hospital "encouraged nesting and other habitation by wildlife, specifically including birds," which would be sufficient to indict just about any building anywhere beyond a warehouse in an asphalt lot. The lawsuit seems to suggest a certain peevishness.
     But as the person in question is obviously litigious, I should rush to point out that I have no idea about her actual level of peevishness. She could be sweetness incarnate, sadly injured by her fall, caused entirely by flocks of red-winged blackbirds cruelly and deliberately encouraged by the heedless ornithophiles at Elmhurst Hospital. Perhaps a jury will rush to deliver to her the compensation she deserves. 
     These things happen, though rarely. One assumes the lawsuit will be thrown out on a variety of grounds — say, Elmhurst Hospital not being responsible for the criminal acts of third parties who trespass on its grounds, and as the blackbirds were not employees (another possibility marvelous to contemplate) they can no more be held liable than Henkels could be held liable if someone robs you with a kitchen knife. Land owners are not typically held liable to damage caused by wild animals.
    Before we let "The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals" go, we need to mention one more tidbit, not related to birds, but too delightful to keep to myself. That is:
 "a faded and somewhat droll survival of ecclesiastical excommunication and exorcism is the custom, still prevailing in European countries and some portions of the United States, of serving a writ of ejectment on rats or simply sending them a friendly letter of advice in order to induce them to quit any house, in which their presence is deemed undesirable. Lest the rats should overlook and thus fail to read the epistle, it is rubbed with grease, so as to attract their attention, rolled up and thrust into their holes. Mr. William Wells Newell, in a paper on 'Conjuring Rats,' printed in The Journal of American Folk-Lore (Jan-March, 1892), gives a specimen of such a letter, dated, 'Maine, Oct. 31, 1888,' and addressed in business style to 'Messrs. Rats and Co.' The writer begins by expressing his deep interest in the welfare of said rats as well as his fears lest they should find their winter quarters in No. 1, Seaview Street, uncomfortable and poorly supplied with suitable food, since it is only a summer residence and is also about to undergo repairs. He then suggests that they migrate to No. 6, Incubator Street, where they 'can live snug and happy' in a splendid cellar well stored with vegetables of all kinds and can pass easily through a shed leading to a barn containing much grain. He concludes by stating that he will do them no harm if they heed his advice, otherwise he shall be forced to use, "Rough on Rats." 
     Whether or not the occupants of No. 6 Incubator Street responded by lawyering up against the rats is not mentioned. 


Monday, June 26, 2017

Gagged by caution, Obama choked when the moment called for action

     Donald Trump is right.
     Or at least he raised the right question Friday when he tweeted: "Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?"
     He was referring to the newly published Washington Post expose, "Obama's secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin election assault."
     Underline the word "secret." Because last August, when a CIA courier delivered an "eyes only" envelope to the Oval Office, detailing how Vladimir Putin personally ordered Russian intelligence to "disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential election race" in order to "defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump" Obama sprang into inaction, riding out of office on the same skittish horse of deliberation and restraint he had ridden in on.
     Or, as one administration official put it: "We sort of choked."
     Big time.
     Even the goal — punish Russia for cyber meddling in the election — ignored the fact that it was still going on, a concerted campaign of disinformation and targeted leaks. It was a like a fire department pulling up in front of a burning building and busying itself investigating the cause of the fire and trying to punish the arsonist without bothering to first put out the flames raging in front of them.
     There was a reason for this.... 

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Goobye Jimmy Butler

     The idea of being intentionally bad is anathema to sport. 
     Or so I thought. 
     Isn't putting together a crummy team almost like throwing a game? Worse, like throwing many games? Entire seasons of games.
     Apparently not.
     When I offered condolences to my 20-year-old son over the Bulls trading away his longtime hero, Jimmy Butler, he coolly replied, "They had to."
     "They had to?!" I replied, amazed.
     "To build a new team," he elaborated.
     "Why couldn't they build it around Jimmy?" I asked. True, Jimmy's excellence appeared in flashes. He's be a superstar for a game or two, then back to being a regular, very good player for the next stretch.
     But I am old-school, having grown up in the day when players stayed with a franchise and were identified with it. Jimmy certainly thought he was the face of the Bulls, as he told my colleague Joe Cowley, in Joe's exclusive interview after tracking Butler down in France. 
     "I guess being called the face of the organization isn't as good as I thought," Butler said, from Paris, where he was vacationing.
      My son explained that it is all about draft picks. That a team in the middle sinks itself to the bottom by trading away its stars, getting both top draft picks and—he didn't say this, but I surmise it—saving money needed to assemble a winning team down the road. You go up, eventually, by going down now.
     Hard medicine, a kind of pro sports chemotherapy for an ailing team. 
     Necessary or not, I'll still miss Jimmy. He was good with promise of even better to come, a class act and part of a certain period in my life.
     The first time I ever heard Jimmy Butler's name was uttered from the sofa where my 14-year-old son sprawled watching the Bulls games.
     "Put Jimmy in!" he'd cry at the television.
     At first I thought it was some kind of joke, the way Cavs fans in the 1970s would chant the name of Luke Witte, the team's token white player, as a kind of half affectionate razzing. The name meant nothing to me.
      But each year Butler got better. We became acquainted with his inspiring back story—a hardscrabble upbringing from a broken home in Texas. He went to Marquette, and we visited the school, not so much because my boy was considering it, but as an homage to Jimmy.
      I suggested to the folks at Splash, then the celebrity magazine for the Sun-Times, that if they needed someone to profile the Bulls' shooting guard, I was their man. I had already written a cover story on Joakim Noah for Michigan Avenue magazine, so had a track record as a sports writer.
      My real goal was to introduce my kid to him.
      Why? Because I could. Because I figured the lad would like it. And I might, for a moment, sparkle a little, as a connected dad who not only kept track of his kid's likes and dislikes but did what he could to embellish his world.
      It turned out that somebody else was awarded the plum. But I would be allowed to tuck myself and my boy in a corner of presidential suite at the Hilton when Jimmy was posing for the various fashion shots that would accompany the article. 
      We headed downtown gravely, pilgrims to the shrine, stopping at a sports store to pick up a Bulls baseball cap for him to sign.
      We waited a long time, sipping little bottles of mineral water. Finally Butler arrived with his entourage, tall, soigne. He was taken to a bathroom to get his make-up for the photos, and we were summoned.  My boy was mute, so I explained that this kid was vastly familiar with him when I didn't know who he was. 
    "You didn't know who I was?" Butler teased, eyes sparkling. 
     In the years that followed, my boy and I didn't speak of the encounter much, though I took the trouble and expense of framing the jersey that Butler kindly signed for him. Now what do we do with that? The thing seems almost a reproach, a cumbersome token of the guy who will be tearing up the court for the Timberwolves, under the sage guidance of Tom Thibideau, the true coach of the Bulls.
    Why couldn't we build the team by firing Fred Hoiburg? 
    It feels alien to care about these things, but the Bulls are my team. Or were. I guess we'll have to wait until the fall and see just how awful they are. The fact that they are supposed to be awful, well, that's cold comfort. What are fans supposed to do—root for the team to lose so they have a better season in 2020? Root for the Timberwolves? That's tempting...
     As for Jimmy Butler, I'm convinced his best days are ahead of him, which is good, though not in Chicago, which is bad. Except I suppose for those days when Minnesota is here, kicking our ass at the United Center. 
    "Whose team is it?" Butler asked Cowley. "All that means nothing." 
    Tell me about it.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"This is becoming really insignificant"

    I pulled down "Waiting for Godot" on Friday and re-read it once again. What a piece of work. "Death of a Salesman" might be the better play, with its seamless mix of past and present, jumbled around in the crumbling psyche of Willy Loman, leading in lockstep to the heartbreaking conclusion. And "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is probably my favorite play, just for the nostalgia factor. But "Godot" somehow surpasses them both: spare and honest and perfect, not to mention deeply funny.
     "You should have been a poet," Vladimir, the more sensible of the tramps says.
     "I was," replies Estragon, gesturing toward his rags, "Isn't that obvious?"
     When you look at Samuel Beckett's other works, the miraculousness of "Godot" becomes clear. Because while they have a surreal, nightmarish quality—particularly "Endgame"—Beckett would be shrouded in obscurity without it. With "Waiting for Godot," he won the Nobel Prize in literature, and who would dare say it wasn't deserved? The play hides depths under its simple surface, its two main characters contain multitudes.
    For those unfamiliar, the play is mostly interplay between Vladimir and Estragon, bowler-hatted hoboes killing time on a blasted landscape enhanced by a single bare tree. They are waiting with a kind of hopeless hopefulness for Mr. Godot, but what he is or why they should wait for him, like the product Willy Loman is selling, is never made clear. Nor is what happened to the world they inhabit. Some lop off the last two letters of "Godot" to understand what this is about, though to me it's fairly plain that Godot is death, and the vaudeville capers the pair plays out, the business with their boots and hats, their philosophizing and self-pity, echo of the way we pass our brief spans between the womb and the grave, the light gleaming "for an instant, then it's dark once more."
    A traveller arrives, Pozzo, leading a slave on a rope, a quite Trumpian figure, lost in self-regard. "I am Pozzo! Pozzo! Does that name mean nothing to you!" 
    The tramps seem constitutionally unable to understand. "Is it Pozzo or Bozzo?" wonders Vladimir.
    There's no point in describing the plot too much. Brooks Atkinson, reviewing the Broadway debut of "Waiting for Godot" for the New York Times in 1956, called it "a mystery wrapped in an enigma." And so it is. 
     Beckett—who was James Joyce's secretary—wrote the play in French, then translated it into English, and he was clearly unsettled by the "disaster" of its growing fame. He exerted methodical control over productions with the frantic unease of a man whose creation had escaped him and was being mauled by others, batting away those who would tinker with the carefully-scripted confusion depicted on stage, trying to add meanings of their own, a practice his estate continued.
Samuel Beckett
      This led to quite a history of controversy over the play. In 1998, for instance, the Studio theater in Washington, D.C. did an all-black version where characters ad-libbed lines such as, "What's wrong with white people?" Beckett's publisher, the Borchardt Literary Agency, sent a cease-and-desist letter. 
     There were points to be made on both sides. The publishers insisted that Studio had signed a contract stating there would be no changes in the text or stage directions.    
    Director Joy Zinoman countered that stage directions include instructions such as "Vladimir and Estragon protest violently" or "general outcry" which seem to require ad-libbing.
    "It's in the text," she told the Washington Post
    Negotiations were attempted but, as one actor put it, "racism got in the way."
    Did it? Who was right? Did Beckett's estate suddenly get upset over ad-libs because they had a hip-hop flavor? Or did the production company toss an all-t00-easy charge at an artist -- or his estate anyway -- known for his meticulous attention to detail? Is improvised outcry fine so long as it isn't black slang? Is artistic control laudable except when exerted over a black cast, when it become racism? 
    Or is the entire matter the kind of empty peering into hats and the trying on of too tight boots that our pair of heroes perform to while away their two-act "tragicomedy"?    
    Beckett himself, a fearless member of the French resistance during World War II, was whatever the opposite of a racist is.   "I know that very, very specifically" said South African playwright Athol Fugard, who approached Beckett personally in the 1970s to do an all-black production . "He had no hesitation." 
    Obviously I'm not reading Beckett in a vacuum, but in the after-echoes of the Chicago theater community kerfuffle that's been raging for weeks regarding Steppenwolf's production of "Pass Over" by Antoinette Nwandu, a reworking of "Waiting for Godot." The Sun-Times Hedy Weiss found fault with the production, and was promptly labelled a racist and, in a highly-unusual move, formally denounced by Steppenwolf. 
    I would regurgitate the entire matter—you can read more about it here—as several theater companies piled on Weiss, waving past criticisms they consider unfair. The Tribune sprang to her defense with the Sun-Times following suit
    But frankly, I haven't the stomach for it, except to say I smiled with recognition when, in the play, after going on about turnips and radishes, Vladimir observes, "This is becoming really insignificant."
    Not of course to the outraged members of the theatrical community, who have identified a villain, to their apparent satisfaction, and are going after her with great—for want of a better word—drama. The temptation to settle old scores is very hard to resist. Weiss, meanwhile, showed admirable restraint, even sangfroid, and did not rise to the bait trolled all around her. 
    Then again, dumping on critics is a time-honored theater ritual and anyone sticking their hand into that cage needs armor-plated skin. Toward the end of "Godot," the two hoboes trade slurs, starting with "Ceremonious ape!"and "Punctilious pig" and working through "Moron! Vermin! Abortion! Morpion!"—a crab louse—then "Sewer Rat! Curate! Cretin!" and ending with Estragon trilling out the ultimate insult, the stage direction notes, "with finality" since beyond it there is no worse imaginable put-down and reply would be meaningless:

Friday, June 23, 2017

Peanut Butter, a perk that sticks and just might spread

David Aronson, founder of Peanut Butter (Photo by 1871/Gregory Rothstein)

     Rise Interactive, a Chicago-based digital marketing firm, was quizzing its employees two years ago, making sure they were happy with their perks.
      "We were doing our end-of-year employment engagement survey — what's working, what's not," said chief operating officer Scott Conine.
      The cafe stocked with snacks? Very popular. Ditto for the four-month paid parental leave. The gold-plated healthcare plan? Much appreciated.
     But there was a a glitch.
     "We were getting all sorts of commentary in the survey about how our retirement plan was ineffective," said Conine, who sought out employees to talk about their concerns.
     "They said, 'We actually love the retirement plan; we just can't use it,'" Conine recalled. "I said, ' What do you mean, you can't use it?'"
     "They basically said, 'We're still encumbered with student debt; we have to get out from under the mountain of that before we can even think about saving for the future.'"

     To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Life is like olive loaf

      It was a freakish thought, an idea that I've never had in my entire life.
      To make matters stranger, my wife had the same thought at exactly the same moment.
      Tuesday night. The weather, perfect. We had walked a few blocks to the Village Green in our leafy suburban paradise, sat on the park bench listening to a jazzy combo play music on the gazebo. They did a medley of 1920s songs, including "Bye Bye Blackbird."
     "That was one of James Thurber's favorite songs," I said, pointlessly. "He quotes it at the end of ''One is a Wanderer.'" 
      We wandered ourselves over to Sunset Foods, to pick up a few things, and while my wife was getting cold cuts, some turkey, some roast beef, my eyes locked on the olive loaf. I don't like olives. I'm no fan of loaf. But it was ... pretty, and pretty is halfway to appealing. The specks of green olive and red pimento. Festive.
    "Someday I'd like to try olive loaf," I said, in the tone that people say, "Someday I'd like to go to Tahiti."
    "I was thinking exactly the same thing!" my wife exuded. Soul mates.
    Olive loaf always struck me like head cheese, one of those inexplicable foodstuffs that somebody must eat—they sell it— but I can't imagine who or why or how.
     We briefly discussed whether we should indeed plunge into the void and buy some now. I had second thoughts; maybe it should be a Bucket List kind of thing. It was still unappealing. But before we die, certainly.
     "Build up to it," I said. "Give ourselves something to look forward to."
     Immediately the idea of a Low Rent Bucket List came to mind. I have written here about the insulting presumption of bucket lists—clueless would-be social arbitrators announcing what other people must do before they die. I concluded that except for getting a dog, such lists are fatuous.
      But there are experiences that are both part of being alive and more accessible than snorkeling in Bora Bora. You should, before you die, go birdwatching. Or wear a fez. Or learn to ballroom dance (I intentionally picked things I've never done, as too many of these lists are individuals foisting their life experiences onto others).
     Or eat a slice of olive loaf.
     My wife, always the bold one, ordered a quarter pound of the stuff. 
     The next day, at dinner, we each had a slice.
     "Like bologna," my wife said, "only saltier."
    That sounds about right. It wasn't horrible. It wasn't particularly good either. At least now I know. Life on the edge.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A visit with Janis Joplin in the foreign country of the past

     Janis Joplin sang at Ravinia. That seems so strange to me, to imagine the pride of Port Arthur, Texas, wailing "Ball and Chain" at the venue now given over to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, interspersed mostly with various low-key jazz groups and nostalgia acts such as Boz Scaggs and The Moody Blues.
     I don't know which feels odder, that Joplin performed there or that Republican Sen. Charles Percy was in the audience for the show in August 1970.
     Then again, the past is a foreign country, to quote a novelist nobody remembers. They do things differently there. I was transported to the alien land of late 1960s, early 1970s Chicago over the weekend by pulling down a book that had sat neglected on my shelf, "All Together Now," by former Sun-Times columnist Tom Fitzpatrick.
     Parts amazed. Did the paper really send him to Pennsylvania for three weeks — three weeks — to cover the rescue of a pair of coal miners? Did he really sit unnoticed in the back of James Rochford's car as the deputy police super-intendent discussed disarming a deranged Marine who had killed two Chicago Police officers? A sad reminder how little access reporters get to the police or fire departments anymore, and how much heroism is hidden because of it. Fitzpatrick is right there for six hours as firefighters soothingly cut a pair of teenage girls out of the wreckage after an Illinois Central train slammed into a local commuter train, killing 44 people in 1972.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

First day of summer

   The first day of summer. 
   That didn't sound very convincing, did it?
   I wish I could whole-heartedly laud Beach Boys songs, ballgames, picnics, something warm and fun and scented with woodsmoke.
   But I don't have the stomach for it. One season melting into the next.
   Maybe it's Trump; he is becoming normalized, isn't he? I never thought so many people would debase themselves so much for so little. I'll grant Trump this: I knew he was a fraud. But man, he's a good fraud. Effective. He lays out the trap and people jostle like piglets at a sow to be the next to fall in.
    Maybe it's something else. Maybe  I'm just distracted by the uncertain future of the Sun-Times, rattling like dice in a cup. First it seemed we would be snatched up by Tronc, the corporate entity that owns the Tribune and a bunch of other newspapers. I was resigned to that — at least it would be something different; worst come to worst, we'd have to go work in the big box of Freedom Center. 
    Then Monday Edwin Eisendrath, the former alderman—to general astonishment—put in a realistic bid of $15 million, fronted by a bunch of unions. Not bad on its face -- I've been in a union for most of my 30 years at the newspaper. Unions have their flaws, but sure beat the hell out of no unions.
    This development got me wondering if I had ever written about Eisendrath — I am not always kind, and people bear grudges. 
    Luckily, just this once, when he was running for governor against Rod Blagojevich. A good sign right there. I seem to have gummed him but inflicted no lasting wound. I hope. 
     I also read in Robert Feder's column that, if the sale goes through, we'll all be working at 20 N. Racine (assuming I'm not fired, that is). I called up Google Map—about a mile from Union Station, only a couple blocks more than the current building. So that's something to feel good about. 
    I included the second item, as a stroll down coping-with-Islamic-terror lane.  And yes, I considered that now, on my hobby blog, I had my chance to do what I criticized the paper for not doing, to manfully publish the offending cartoon and let the chips fall where they may. And no, I'm not doing it. I have enough to worry about. Unlike the president, I can cop to it when I'm being hypocritical. It's a kind of freedom.


     Democratic gubernatorial challenger Edwin Eisendrath has failed so far to entice Gov. Blagojevich to debate him on the issues—the governor no doubt figuring, "Heck, I've got $15 million in the kitty, why bother with 10th-grade civics class formalities?"
    Still, Eisendrath is not without options. I heard that he is being urged to stage a mock debate, perhaps against an Elvis impersonator, as the governor is a notorious Elvis fan.
     A funny idea. But could it possibly take place in the realm of dull reality? I placed a call to Eisendrath, who admitted that the concept is being pressed upon him.
     "I have two things to say about this," he said. "[Blagojevich] ain't nothing but a hound dog, and he's turning our state into Heartbreak Hotel."
     I wanted to leave it at that, but Eisendrath, who is not exactly Mr. Jolly (in a debate, I'd worry about Elvis winning), had to set the record straight.
     "I won't debate an Elvis impersonator—I might debate an empty chair piled with cash," he said. "This stuff is so serious—the state's broke—I don't want to make too much light of it."
     Why not? Crying won't fix anything.


     "But I've never even seen the drawing!" my wife said, standing in the kitchen, reading about the latest paroxysm of Islamic rage over some cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad.
     Don't hold your breath, Honey. With the notable exception of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the American media has gone and hid in the basement when it comes to the biggest story to roil international waters this year. A Danish cartoon has set off the Muslim world, embassies are being burned, people being killed. But we can't show you the image. Out of respect. For the rioters . . . er, for their faith.
     That's a bunch of bull. This isn't about respect—the media thumbs its nose at religion all the time. This is about fear. We're afraid, afraid to print the cartoons. We don't want our houses burned down.
     Since when did "deeply held" religious beliefs dictate what goes in the paper? Any daily newspaper is a stick in the eye of one or more of the world's religions, from the astrology pages to the bra ads. The very existence of a Sunday paper is an affront to the idea of the Christian Sabbath as a day of rest.
     Consider this: Jewish tradition also bans depicting images of God—you don't see human forms in most synagogues—but that doesn't keep every paper in the country from printing cartoons showing a big, bearded God, because Jews aren't going to start turning over automobiles in front of your newspaper office.
     It's easy to claim respect. No newspaper editorial says, "We don't want the threat and the hassle." I thought the New York Times' explanation in an editorial Tuesday morning was particularly disingenuous and prim. They rationalized not printing the cartoon this way:
     "That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words."
     What image isn't? "A woman kneeling, arms spread, over a student shot at Kent State." "A pile of bodies, including children, in a ditch at My Lai." Spike those photos!
     And "gratuitous," in my dictionary, is defined as "uncalled for, lacking good reason." I understand that the initial printing of the cartoons might have been exactly that.
     But what about now? Half the world's irate about a drawing. I'd say that's reason aplenty. But no, we can't show it to you, because then they'd be upset at us, too.
     Guess what? They already are. And were, last week and last year and 10 years ago. So now the Islamic street—to a small but very real degree—is editing your daily newspapers and censoring your TV (CNN blurred the images, as if they were child porn).
     Believe me—no one will be placated by our restraint, no hearts won by our timidity. Surrender today begets more surrender tomorrow. This cartoon is a lost battle—instead of them becoming more like us, we are becoming more like them. The fear that rules their lives is beginning to rule ours.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 8, 2006

Monday, June 19, 2017

Can't we wait to pontificate until the blood is squeegeed away?

    Wouldn't it be nice if we could all agree that...
     No, scratch that, since we can't all agree on anything. And "nice" is pretty much off the table when it comes to discussing matters of national import. "Vile" is much more apt, and I can't see how the free-fire zone of contempt can be called a "discussion."
     So I'll just toss this concept out there, a single idea hocked from the frontal lobes and spat into the enormous bruise green whirling cyclone that is Media 2017.
     Wouldn't it be, ah, useful, if we could all at least consider that the period — say the first three days — immediately after the mass shootings which increasing mar and define our country is not the ideal time to chew on matters of public policy?
     Because really, what good does it do?
     The drawback of that is once such shootings happen every day — we're almost there now — then it'll never be appropriate to debate each other rationally about our political problems. Which is sort of where we are now anyway, though in the immediate after-echo of a bloodletting we are even less capable of civil discourse than we usually are, which is really saying something. 
     The news hits.  
     There is a moment of stupid shock, gazing dumbly at whatever carnage has just occurred. And then the howl is raised again. Everybody talking, nobody listening.
     Extremists who live to hate a particular group feel extra vindicated that their mean little biases have just been proved once again. On the opposite end of the spectrum, dewy dreamers who hope for impossible standards of warm political brotherhood announce that now is the moment when Americans who...

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

A crumpled photo, and a daughter's search for the father she never met

     This is an odd, out-of-left-field story, my second big Sunday feature in two weeks. It happened this way—in March, Monica Scanlon called me. She had read "Drunkard" and for some reason thought I could help her find her father. Without the photograph above I don't think I would have written anything. But the fading Kodochrome was just the tantalizing detail that caught my interest. I spoke to her, spoke to her adoptive parents and her birth mother, at length, and something unexpected came into play. They were all so candid, unusually candid, that I felt I had a story, not so much because what they had to say was extraordinary, but the opposite.  It was ordinary, human, the sort of thing you don't see in the paper much. I set it aside for almost two months, went to Europe, finished the long falling piece that ran last week, and then luckily took it up again. I half expected the paper to shrug it off, but thankfully Paul Saltzman, our Sunday editor, liked it. 

     Monica Scanlon has never seen her father's face. Not in person. Not yet.
     All she has seen is one crumpled color photograph, nearly half a century old.
     The Greenville, South Carolina, woman, who’s the controller for a big construction company, was born in Memphis at a home for unwed mothers. Her mom was a Tennessee teenager who got in trouble with a boy from Chicago.
     It was 1970. Being pregnant without benefit of marriage back then, especially if you were Catholic, was shameful, something to be hidden. Her brother and sister wouldn't even learn about the baby until years later.
     The teenager named her newborn "Joan" — the baby's grandmother's name — in hopes her mother would soften and let her keep the girl. She didn't. Signing away her rights, weeping, she left her dark-haired daughter at an orphanage, saying goodbye to her forever, she thought.
     Five weeks later, on Oct. 12, 1970, the phone rang at the Nashville home of Dave and Pat Spilker. After several miscarriages over their five-year marriage, the couple had registered with Catholic Social Services. The caller said a baby was available. Pat Spilker, surprised, said the first thing that came to mind: They were supposed to go on vacation to Florida the next day.
     "Do you want this baby, or do you want to go on vacation?" the lady on the phone asked.
     They wanted a baby. They had only a few hours to prepare for the transition from childlessness to parenthood. Florida would wait.
     "I called my friend Carol and told her, 'We have to pick up our baby tomorrow I don't have one thing,' " Pat Spilker says. "She gave me some shirts and this box to bring the baby home in — a white, rectangular-shaped box with a little soft pad in it. Babies born in Madison, Tennessee, at that time came home in these boxes."

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Ice Cream Truck Reflex

    Hapax legomenon is Greek -- well, the Latinized form of Greek, ἅπαξ λεγόμενον, meaning "thing once said."
    It's an obscure literary term referring to words that appear once in the whole swoop of literature, or once within an author's oeuvre. I learned it while reading Dante commentary -- scholars sometimes refer to words that appear just once in the 14,233 lines of The Divine Comedy as being "hapax."
    For example. In Robert and Jean Hollander's fine translation of Paradiso, the 97th line of the 32nd canto, Rispuose a la divina cantilena -- "From every side the blessed court all sang" — is explained by a lengthy note beginning, "The word cantilena, a hapax, would seem to refer specifically to Gabriel's song..." and going on to observe that Dante seems to have coined the word.
     I began writing yesterday's column about solar eclipse being a big deal in Carbondale—a city named for the coal found therein—with a digression explaining hapax, as a prelude to explaining a phenomenon I call the "Ice Cream Truck Reflex."
    The Ice Cream Truck Reflex is when you hear the distant tinkling of an ice cream truck, the grating melody of "Turkey in the Straw" or "Pop Goes the Weasel" or whatever, and feel an overwhelming impulse to grab change -- or I guess now, a few bills -- and run buy ice cream novelties. 
    The phenomenon has an especially powerful hold over children, transforming them from summer calm immediately into frantic, pleading panic by the approach of the truck. The moment to act is now! But even an adult who might draw back in horror at the prospect of paying $9 for a a half dozen Fudgicles at Sunset Foods, pulling their hand away as if the box were on fire, will eagerly shell out $1.50 for the same pop in front of a big white boxy truck. Better that than to lose your one chance.
     It is a term that I think of when people are driven to extremes by ephemeral situations -- those paying $500 a night to go to Carbondale, for instance, to see a solar eclipse. (Which I am a little reluctant to pooh-pooh, solar eclipses supposedly a superlative natural wonder. I'll know more in August).
    A better example was the Millennium, when people felt obligated to hie themselves to the Pyramids, or shell out some fortune to usher in the 21st century (setting aside the tiresome argument of when that actually began) because it only comes around once in life.
   Something fleeting, something happening once, or rarely. It mesmerizes us. Not realizing that every moment happens once, and many things occur rarely.
   Before using the term, I was curious as to where "Ice Cream Truck Reflex" came from, and plugged the term into Google. Up popped one hit, a kind of Google hapax. When does that happen? 
    Turns out I mentioned the Ice Cream Truck Reflex, in a column in 2010. The paper doesn't keep its columns up that long, but some news aggregator caught it. One reference. And that's it. 
    I decided that my comment on hapax legomenon and the Ice Cream Truck Reflex, though far shorter than this, was too much for a column of 669 words purportedly about solar eclipse opportunism in Carbondale.
    And besides, maybe it'll upset that annoying reader who keeps harping about the state budget.
    It's neat to coin a term as useful as the Ice Cream Truck Reflex, and odd to think that on Friday there was one result. I wonder how quickly it'll spread, or if it will spread. Anyway, a useful concept to keep in your intellectual tool box. When presented with a fleeting opportunity, you can ask: is this something I want, or something I feel compelled to do because the chance is here in front of me now? A lot of people don't ask that question, to their eventual misfortune. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

The twirling solar system pauses to focus on ... Carbondale

     The Train Inn has four rooms and two cabins. All of them are available for the highly coveted days around Aug. 21, when the twirling clockwork of the universe, no less, has placed humble Carbondale smack dab in the center of an event of cosmic magnificence: the total eclipse of the sun.
     No one has booked a room, though not for want of trying.
     "I've had 4,000 plus calls," said Paul Lewers, owner of the train-themed bed and breakfast. "I started getting requests five years ago: the first was an astronomy professor from Sweden."
     And why hasn't he booked any?
     "I'm not coming up with a price," he explained. "I didn't want to have them re-sold."
     Usually, rooms there start at $125, swelling to $245 for prime Southern Illinois University events. But the eclipse, reaching totality longer in Carbondale than any other place in the country, ah, eclipses any football game or graduation. Carbondale businesses are hoping to squeeze every dime out of pilgrim sky gazers. The Holiday Inn is asking $499 a night, paid in advance. SIU is renting out four-person dorm suites: $800 for three nights ("That's only $66 per person per night" an SIU representative helpfully pointed out).
     The university has an eclipse website with an end-of-the-world countdown clock. It's teaming with NASA, the Adler Planetarium and the Louisiana Space Consortium for a two-day celebration that is part tail-gate blowout, part science fair. Aug. 21 was also to be the first day of SIU classes, but those were canceled so as not to distract from the business at hand.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Heaven, charred

     I can't remember a trip that settled as gently into memory as our April trek through Italy and France. The cities—Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris. The museums. The streets.
     And of course the food. While we ate at some fancy places—particular Astrance in Paris, one of the 50 best restaurants in the world, and enjoyed all sorts of exotic dishes, such as truffles, caviar, crepes, one surprising dish lingers as our hands-down favorite: a head of cauliflower.
    And the amazing thing is, I don't even like cauliflower.
    But we certainly liked this, served up the leaves charred on the outside, hot and moist and salty on the inside, fresh off the grill at Miznon, a packed restaurant in the Jewish quarter of Paris.
    That was our lunch. Cauliflower, artichokes and ... big eyes on my part ... broccoli.
    I'm writing this not in the hope that I can convey the savory joy of that vegetable. Nor because I really expect you to rush there and order it. But because we're tried to replicate it on our backyard grill and can't come close.  We assume you have to gently boil the cauliflower first. But we haven't achieved the tasty tenderness of Miznon. We should have quizzed them, but they were so busy, plus the language barrier.
     So ... readers ... any tips for grilling entire heads of cauliflower? We know it can be done to perfection. But how?