Monday, July 31, 2017

How will Trump top last week? Just wait.

     Monday morning. Yawns all around, coffee for most, and a general blinking at the week ahead.
     Before we plunge in, let's quickly review last week, shall we?
     On Monday, President Donald Trump met with "victims of Obamacare." That evening he delivered a rambling, vindictive speech at the Boy Scout National Jamboree so politically aggrieved that the Scouts were later forced to apologize.
     Tuesday, Trump lashed out at Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Wednesday, Trump attempted to abruptly expel thousands of transgendered service members from the military.
     Which brought us, gasping, to midweek. On Thursday, the New Yorker shared the obscenity-laced tirade of his new communications director, slurring Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, who was then fired, replaced by a retired general on Friday, the same day the president urged police to brutalize suspects they are arresting.
     Miss anything? Oh yeah, the seven-year effort of Republicans to repeal Obamacare cratered. Again.
     Miss anything else? Investigation into what degree Trump is in thrall to Russia — whether through collusion, corruption, or just because Putin knows how ruinous a Trump presidency will be — made its clockwork progress forward.
     Miss anything else? No doubt, but we must move on. Which is the whole trouble....

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

The obscene present participle

     It's the rarity, I suppose, that gives swearing its power. If every other word is "fuck"—as is the case with our new White House director communications director, Anthony Scaramucci—the words lose their sting, at least somewhat.
     Or so we can hope. Scaramucci, for those reading this in 2027, burst into public awareness late last week with an obscenity-laced tirade to New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza.
     It was shocking, considering he was the man newly hired to put a happy public face on the ongoing train wreck disaster that is the Donald Trump administration. 

     Lizza's Thursday post pinballed across Facebook—that's where I read it. Though that still didn't prepare me for Friday's New York Times where, on page A20, Scaramucci's words were printed without the squeamish dashes that other newspapers quaintly employed.
    (The Sun-Times, I'm sorry to say, couldn't even bring itself to use squeamish dashes; merely mentioning the Mooch spoke "in language more suitable to a mobster movie than a seat of presidential stability" without even hinting what those "graphic terms" might be). 
     Does it matter? I suppose not in the long term, our-country-sliding-into-the-shitter big picture. Did many people sincerely tremble to read the obscene present participle itself (sigh, a present participle is a verb ending in "ing" used as an adjective, such as "Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic" though I suppose, since Scaramucci is not literally commenting on Preibus' sexual activities, it probably should be considered an intensifier rather than a present participle).
      I would argue that Scaramucci's exact expressions are important as reminders—as if any are necessary, and they are—of just who we elected. A crude liar, cruel bully and perpetual fraud. Though in terms of last week's explosions—the Senate effort to scuttle health care for 30 million Americans going down in ignominious defeat, the president tweeting away the right of transgendered persons to serve in the military—the director of communication's potty mouth is a distant third. And we haven't even begun to consider that the new chief of staff is a retired general.
     My moment with the Times reminded me of when—some 20 years ago—it fell to me to edit Kenneth Starr's transcript regarding the Monica Lewinsky testimony, and, sprout that I was, I kept trotting back to the managing editor's office to explain that I was leaving in this word or that sexual act because it seemed significant and I wanted him to understand that it would be in the transcript which the paper would print and people would then read.
     The world endured. It tends to plow forward on its own momentum. The media keeps pointing out that Trump had promised to support GLBQT rights during the campaign, as if he hadn't already voided the whole idea of a "promise." Why are we acting as if something significant hasn't changed? We need to get with the program and understand the total disconnect between words the president says today and words he says tomorrow, between what he commits to doing and what he actually does. 
    An obscene word is jarring, and seeing them in print bothers some people. But comparing a few curse words to the grotesque obscenity unfolding daily in Washington, D.C., it's a trivial matter. It's like seeing your house on fire and worrying that you left the lights on. There is no question that four years of Donald Trump will leave us a lesser nation, our political discourse debased, our judgment skewed, our institutions crumbling. Though let's not blame Trump; we had to deteriorate a long time to get to such a reduced state that the man could have been elected in the first place. I can't say it too many times: he is a symptom and not a cause. We're the cause.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

No photos

     Once I was walking past the elevators at the newspaper and one elevator was being repaired. The door was propped open, and two workmen were standing on top of the car, working on the cable. The only light was from a single bulb worklight. 
     It was a very 1930s tableau: the greasy cables, deep shadows, the two workmen, straining at a bolt or something. I had my phone halfway out. But they were four feet away. They'd see me taking a picture. It would have a certain zoo cage quality, the white collar guy snapping pix of the blue collar guys. I couldn't explain that I had a blog and wanted them to, oh, illustrate the eerie beauty of physical labor, the odd lighting and mechanics of the elevator shaft.
     So I kept going. Or I asked them and they said "no," I honestly can't remember which.
     There is responsibility toward a potential subject, and even though I am not a professional photographer—maybe especially because I am not a professional photographer—I try to be conscious of it.
     Particularly when the parameters are set up ahead of time. When I visited the Vent Haven Museum in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, the curator said I could take photos, provided that I promised to get her permission before posting any specific shot. There are not only copyright considerations—some dummies are trademarked—but a few of their figurines are extreme racial caricatures: coal black dummies with huge red lips and white, popping eyes. She didn't want those images representing the museum.
      Is that prudence? Cowardice? Would you respect that stipulation? I did.
     Though I took pictures of the racist dolls. But never posted them. Why? Maybe because they were so alarming. Maybe because I thought someday the museum might close, circumstances might change, freeing me of my obligation. 
    They are a temptation though. I worry, when the subject of racism comes up, these dolls might be a perfect illustration. And as the years go by, the sense of obligation around the taking of the pictures slackens, while the photographs remain. How long do I keep my promise? Forever?
    This sort of issue comes up more frequently than you would imagine. There is a bookstore on Milwaukee Avenue called Myopic books, and in the basement is a sign saying "No photographs." Near the sign, a wonderfully warped shelf, bowing under the weight of books. It would make a great photo. But I respected the sign and, besides, figured I could get the owner's permission.
    I couldn't. She had this complicated story involving moviemakers who wanted to use her shop. I asked every time I went in, three or four times in several ways and the answer was no. She didn't want the free publicity.  Eventually I stopped.
     Why not just take the photo? Why give a sign authority over you? A sign isn't the law. It's just a request, a presumptuous demand. If the sign said, "Jump off cliff" would you do it? Why respect a sign at all?
      A person is different. If a person is aware of me, I ask permission to take a picture. Usually they say yes. If they are not aware—say a man sleeping on a train—I might take it without seeking permission, though I'm not sure how the subject being unaware changes anything. I guess because I'm worried more about the social act of taking someone's photo without consulting them, as if they were an inanimate object, than about the result of publishing a photo that they might not have wanted taken in the first place. The expectation of privacy of a person out in public is very slim, or should be.
     It's an interesting dilemma, and judgment is called for. For instance, the sign above is in the Dermestid Beetle Colony room at the Field Museum. ("Dermestid Beetle" is redundant, isn't it? Dermestids are beetles, of a particular flesh-eating variety. You expect more from a museum, though maybe that usage is an intensifier, a nod to the general public who wouldn't scan "dermestid" as meaning beetles or anything else). 
     I don't feel I'm violating the hospitality of the Field by posting the sign, because I'm not showing what they don't want seen—the bloody springbok skulls and desiccated bird bodies, being picked clean by the beetles. That's what the beetles are there for, to skeletonize animal specimens for later display. I feel it's squeamish of the Field to want to keep the process secret, but it's their party, and no doubt don't want the general public to worry there are danse macabre horrors awaiting behind every door. 
     I wonder if our being photographed all the time by anonymous security cameras will make us less reluctant about being photographed. Maybe it'll make us more reluctant, trying to push back in the few areas we can. It's an intriguing subject, and something about a "No photographs" sign raises suspicion—what are you afraid of? There is a pastry shop on Devon Avenue, Tahoora Sweets, that also displays a "No photographs" sign. I want to take the owner aside and say, "The food doesn't really look that good." Though I'm sure he has his reasons. My guess is he's trying to keep competitors from stealing his store design. The competitive world of East Indian bakeries on Devon Avenue—that seems like the subject for a novel. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

As if growing older weren't bad enough, there's also sleep apnea

Sculpture by Damien Hirst

     Maybe you’ve noticed them too. The telltale elastic marks, red lines on the faces of portly gentlemen. I was puzzled the first few times I saw them, in the morning, at the train station, on the street. Then it hit me:
     Mask strap marks. From CPAP machines.
     “CPAP” stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” It is the primary — though not only — treatment for sleep apnea, a condition where a sleeper’s throat closes and he — sufferers are overwhelmingly men — stops breathing, for up to two minutes.
     It’s bad to stop breathing. Sleep apnea leads to fatigue, of course, but also ailments from depression to heart disease.
     The problem is growing. The Centers for Disease Control conducted a 10-year study; in 2005, they found 3.7 percent of men had sleep apnea. Ten years later, 8.1 percent had it, though the researchers couldn’t tell if more people are developing the condition, or just more are aware they have it.
     When I learned I have sleep apnea in 2009, it was initially a relief, because I thought I was dying. Exhausted all the time; some days my knees would buckle. I figured it had to be my heart. But the heart folks found nothing wrong. OK, cancer then. I went in for a colonoscopy. The doctor who administered it said I didn’t have colon cancer, but pointed out that I stopped breathing during the procedure and might want to get tested for sleep apnea.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Blogs are dying but I feel fine

     On Monday, the Wall Street Journal shut down eight blogs, on a range of subjects: legal and breaking news, the arts, the Chinese economy. I found out, of course, not by looking at the WSJ, which has a paywall and I never consult, directly, but on Twitter, noticing a story from the Nieman Lab blog, which I never look at either.
     It turns out blogs have been old hat for a number of years.
     "It’s truly the post-blog era," Wendell Jamieson, the New York Times metro editor was quoted as saying in 2015, "and I barely had time to get into the blog era.”
    Testify, brother. If you are curious—as I was—what is replacing blogs, the Nieman post cites a WSJ spokesman explaining, "other storytelling formats and our digital platforms,” meaning, I suppose, social media and other apps, like podcasts.
     There are several ways to view this. When I began, I chose that yellow legal pad background motif because it had, in my eyes, a certain charming retro office supply quality, an aspect that will only be enhanced as blogs die off one by one, joining semaphore flags and telegrams in the realm of the tragically defunct.
     It can be hard to keep track. My first thought was that blogs must be giving way to entities like Twitter, but we have Reuters sharing the news that Twitter is doing better, since six months ago it "was knocking on death's door and going the way of Myspace and AOL." Why am I always the last to know these things? (To illustrate how quickly this changes, the rosy Twitter outlook was Wednesday. On Thursday, Twitter stock plunged 13 percent on reports of disappointing user figures).
     I certainly used Twitter less, as it became clotted with ads, fewer nuggets of interest showing up in pan after pan of useless gravel. And Facebook seems dominated by ads touting shoes I bought on Zappos last week, as if they're expecting me to break down and buy a few more pairs.
     Looking at my own regular media diet, there are actual subscriptions, received at home, of the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times. A digital subscription to the Washington Post. Copies of the New Yorker and the Economist arriving weekly, Consumer Reports monthly. That keeps you pretty busy. On Facebook I keep continually updated on the ever-on-point Eric Zorn without the bother of consulting the entire Tribune.
     I've even subscribed to a podcast: "50 Things that Made the Modern Economy," with Tim Harford, a BBC analysis of diesel engines and barbed wire, air conditioning and shipping containers, exactly the sort of see-the-universe-in-a-teacup kind of exploration I relish.
      Each new format takes advantage of a certain consumer need, or vulnerability — the podcasts are an outgrowth of listening to audio books. Something to listen to while walking to and fro, because we can't be on the phone all the time. A little lesson in the intricacies of baby formula or the dynamo makes the walk from the paper to the train a lot quicker.  
     Though to be honest, if the BBC issued the series on cassette tapes, I'd buckle down and buy an old Walkman on ebay for a dollar. (I'm being fanciful. Doing that checking thing that journalists still do, I see you'd be hard-pressed to find a knock-off for under $20, and vintage actual Walkmen, in box, go for $500. The mind reels).
     I'm of the quaint notion that it's the words, and concepts, that matter, and whether you are reading this on the phone, or etched into a wax tablet, is secondary. But that might be an antique and increasingly irrelevant opinion. Anyway, I don't mind blogs vanishing as fast as they possibly can. Maybe when mine is the only one left people will start to notice. More likely not, but a guy can still dream, one communication medium that never goes out of style. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Tiny scientists mobilized to study eclipse

     I didn't want to get political on this post, but as I was watching this one fledging, ad hoc science program at one pre-school in Chicago, I couldn't help but think of millions of children in tens of thousands of pre-schools across the country being indoctrinated in the sort of magical thinking and mendacious myth that gets a Donald Trump elected president. 

     Jason Henning is a post-doctorate fellow at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. He's been to the South Pole three times, working on the university's 10-meter telescope there.
     On Tuesday morning, he found himself advancing science in a place it doesn't frequently go: sitting on a too small chair in a basement classroom with the lights dimmed.
     "Who's ready for an eclipse?" he asked a group of 4- and 5-year-olds sitting around a table at Bright Horizons at Lakeview, a preschool.          

     The youngsters didn't exactly squeal "Yes!" in unison, but they at least cast their attention in his general direction. Henning proceeded, using a small model Earth, moon and, as a light source, a lamp with a dinosaur base.
     "Does anybody know how you make night and day?" asked Henning. "Does anybody remember?"
     "Spin the Earth," squeaked Emily.
      Henning was joined by Joshua Sobrin, a U. of C. physics graduate student, also with Kavli.
     If it seems odd that a pair of such advanced scientific talents would spend time instructing children who might miss the eclipse Aug. 21 because it arrives in the middle of their nap time, well, there's a simple explanation.
     Sobrin's wife, Sweta Sobrin, is a teacher at Bright Horizons.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Picketing a building over something important but we won't tell you what

     I don't understand people. 
     Or maybe I do; they're slow. And timid. 
     Maybe I better just tell the story.
     So Thursday, I'm meeting a friend for coffee on Wells Street, in Old Town. Quick two stop trip up the Brown Line. Easy stroll a few blocks east along North Avenue. 
     On the way back, I notice this gentleman, Bob Sheahan, picketing a building all alone. We stop and chat pleasantly. "Any relation to Mike Sheahan?" I ask. The former Cook County sheriff. No, lots of Sheahans. 
     Why did I stop? I'm in a union too, and I like to show solidarity with picketers, because nothing is worse than picketing. It's lonely. It's dull. It's often pointless. I hate it, and feel pity for anyone forced to do it.
     The building behind him, Sheahan said, was built by union steelworkers. But the framing out is being done by non-union (and, therefore, the implication is, inferior) labor.  
     Hence the picketing. They'd been picketing for six months. 
     Six months.
     He was eager for me to know about the situation, and I would take no issue with him. But I asked one of those probing questions journalists ask.
    "What's this cross street here?" I said, glancing around for a sign. For some reason that prompted Sheahan to usher me over to someone in higher authority, a guy in a car parked down the street whose name I didn't catch. The guy in a car was on the phone—maybe strategizing how to get more media attention—and didn't want to get out of the car or talk to me. He suggested I talk to someone at the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters.
    "Gary Perinar," he said. "And the phone number?"  He gave me a number. When I got back to the office, I phoned and left a message: saw the picket, interested in the issue. Please call me.  
     Nothing on Friday. Nothing on Monday, so I called again. Nothing. Silence. picket a building for six months, why? You want the word out, right? You want people to know, to be aware that this particularly building is not being built in a desirable fashion. And all that time, these poor union carpenter foot soldiers, holding their signs—not the most efficient use of communications technology—to an audience of cars whizzing along North Avenue. The heart breaks. Support your guys.
     Yet should the distracted beast of the media pause and pay attention, they all scatter. Maybe it's the same publicity phobia you find in cops and fire fighters. Fear of the Man. They don't want to stick their neck out. Maybe they're like corporations. The gears turn slowly. I'll hear from them in a week.
     Whatever the situation, indifferent or a defensive crouch, silence doesn't  work in this information age. One reason it's so easy for unions to become punching bags is they don't speak up for themselves, not even when you give them an engraved invitation to do so. The paper is owned by unions now, though honestly, I'm not worried about them telling us what to do. Just the opposite; with unions, as with any organization, it can be a challenge just to get them to pry open their yaps and let words out. And the sad thing is, now they'll call. To complain.  

Monday, July 24, 2017

Russian artist fighting to make America her home

Yulia Kuznetsova
    Fiona McEntee is an immigration attorney. Born in Dublin, she has practiced law in Chicago for the past 10 years. Hundreds of would-be clients have found their way to her office, seeking her help in maintaining their tenuous finger hold on the American Dream.
    Only one, Yulia Kuznetsova, made her weep.
    "I actually cried, and I never cried in a consultation before in my life," said McEntee. "This is a really emotional situation. I felt the weight she has on her shoulders. She is just so talented."
     Kuznetsova is an artist, a painter from Russia. Twenty-four years old, she was 19 when she was accepted to the School of the Art Institute. Her parents sold their apartment in Moscow to pay her tuition.
    There's a lot of that going around. Some 900,000 foreign students come to this country, where American colleges accept them—and their rupees, pounds, euros and rubles—with open arms. Then the students graduate, and the United States tries to boot them out, just when they're ready to be productive. A cruel trick, really.
   As I dug into Kuznetsova's life, now-you-cry part eluded me. There seemed to be a dark buried something that I couldn't put my finger on.
     I spoke with one of her teachers at the School of the Art Institute.
    "She's very agile with paint," said MaryLou Zelazny, a professor of painting and drawing. "She's masterful, and has got a tremendous facility. She comes up with images that are very heartfelt and personal."
    Can't a person paint in Russia?
    "No," replied Zelazny. "Not with the censorship they have now."

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Asombro en el agua

Photo by Matt Beard

      I didn't think they could do it. Not again.
      My strongest memory of the first time I saw Cirque du Soleil,  some 30 years ago, was walking out of a tent by Navy Pier with open-mouthed wonder. I had never seen anything like it; they had taken the circus, trimmed away all the problematic animals, and created a show out of pure whimsy and athleticism, twirling acrobats gibbering in an invented language, wicked clowns snatching eyeglasses from audience members and depositing them on faces far away. I felt like a child staring at the stars.
     Since then I'd seen the show a few times, in various incarnations, the most recently a decade back, with the family in Disney World. It was still very good, but that sense of miracle had faded into something expected: 80-pound Chinese acrobats forming a pyramid.
     But they invited me to the Friday opening of "Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico," playing until Sept. 3 in a big top in the parking lot of United Center, and my wife and I went, hoping for a diverting evening, nothing more. What we got was amazement. "Wow!" my wife kept saying. "Wow!"
     Any one stunt—aerialists leaping from swinging platforms, tumblers dressed as birds diving through hoops, a lady performing in a rolling ring, strong men bracing against high poles—might have been merely well-done, a perfectly executed trick seen before. But taken together, the music, the costumes, the sets, colorful and redolent of Day of the Dead iconography, worked together to nudge it toward magic, not a word I use lightly. Lucha libre wrestlers, bird people, musicians, a Mexican carnival come to life.
Photo by Matt Beard
    The show opens on a treadmill--a butterfly dancer running before a giant horse, one of several enormous puppet creatures Cirque employs to good effect. The seamless integration of the contraption amped up the wonder, the first of several mechanisms well integrated into the show. Particularly the "rain curtain," which added comedy—a lanky clown trying to fill a canteen—difficulty, for artists doing once familiar stunts, now in a downpour, and visual interest, as the water was manipulated into marvelous shapes, fishes and birds and flowers.
    It's a difficult performance to convey in words, or even in pictures. Looking at the press photos, I kept thinking, "No, that it isn't it at all." They were fine photographs, not a question of their quality. But separated from their context, from the trilling enthusiasm and happiness of the performance and they were beetles tacked to a board, beautiful, but lacking the life that was pulsing through them.  Like stills from a gorgeous movie.
     If I said there was a juggler you might shrug—we've seen jugglers— but this juggler, blazing, intent, energetic to the highest pitch, doing the fastest juggling I've ever seen, six sparkling pins in the air, was breathtaking. If I said a man and a woman came out and free-styled with a pair of soccer balls, you might reply "So what?" But to see them do it, the balls one moment spinning on their heads, the next deftly held in the arch of their foot, moved around their bodies as if on a track, was a wonder to behold. And the contortionist—at one point I had to shield my eyes. Creepy and incredible.
    Earlier in the day, at the paper, I told a colleague that I was going to "Cirque" and he looked at me strangely. "That doesn't seem your type of thing," he said, or words to that effect. And yes, while I'm more given to "Medea" or "Valkyrie"—which starts tech rehearsals soon at the Lyric—I really think you'd have to be dead not to be thrilled at "Luzia." My wife already wants to go back. And at the risk of politicizing a circus in our very political times, to present such a joyous and amazing romp through the lens of the rich culture of Mexico, a country constantly scorned and mocked by our toxic shame of a president, well, that's icing on the cake. 
      There's so much going on in "Luzia." Aerialists, acrobats, clowns. At one point, three cast members came onstage dressed as cacti, a bit of comic relief. "Look at the cactus in the middle" I said to my wife, and she laughed—a strategically-placed stem jutted suggestively from his mid-section. We both did, smiling at the bobbing cactus part; it was funny, both understated and in plain view, at least in profile. You had to admire the directness of it, of the whole thing, the entire enterprise, from high to low, soaring aerialists and flights of comedy, taking the familiar, cherished Cirque du Soleil formula and somehow making it fresh and fantastic once again.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     As with last week, I was going about my business, not thinking of the blog at all—it does happen—when I noticed a tableau that fairly shouted: "Saturday fun activity!"
     On the plus side. Very few people could have been in the room with this avian menagerie. It isn't some public spot that readers are constantly traipsing past. So that ramps up the difficulty factor.
     On the negative, someone knowledgable about the circles I travel in might hazard a guess.
     Which makes it doable and, who am I fooling, if history is any judge, it'll be cracked at 7:03 a.m., as always.
     Still, a guy can dream. Right? Right?! I mean Trump hasn't banned it yet, has he?
     So where is this flock of birds? The winner gets my already-five-years-old-Christ-I-can't-believe-it book about the city, "You Were Never in Chicago." Place you guesses below. Good luck. 

What are you doing up?

     It's Saturday, and once again I've blundered onto grist for the Saturday fun activity. Which posts at 7 a.m. G'night. 

     Oh, and it's not the place above. I just picked that photo. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Two women share their thoughts on the Holocaust, abortion

Paris Pantheon

     The names Simone Veil and Brittany Carl probably shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence. It's an insult to one; I'll let you figure out which.
     Veil was an icon of French politics, its most significant stateswoman in the past half century, twice the nation's minister of health, the first woman president of the European Union. She died June 30 and was interred in the Paris Pantheon, a rare woman honored among French heroes such as Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.
Simone Veil, left, and Brittany Carl
     Carl is the communications specialist just hired by Gov. Bruce Rauner, part of a group of hard right ideologues our billionaire governor brought in after sacking much of his loyal staff. The new crew proved instantly embarrassing — or would have, if Rauner could be embarrassed, an open question — because of their various racist, sexist and homophobic baggage. Rauner's valet, or "bodyman" as they're called, was fired Monday, the day he started work.
     Carl's lapse is no less odious but probably survivable, in that it doesn't directly attack a particular group but merely perverts history. Besides, it's so well-worn. In April, Carl wrote a piece for the Huffington Post airing the standard anti-abortion trope comparing a medical procedure voluntarily practiced every day by women around the world to the Holocaust of the Jews during World War II.
     A subject Veil knew something about, having been sent to Auschwitz when she was 16.

     To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Smell the roses

     "This is not life!" I said, with all the severity I could muster.
    An odd remark, given the setting. Our bright kitchen on a lovely summer Sunday morning. My wife at the stove, preparing an iron skillet filled with salami, onions, eggs, red and green peppers. Me helping out, slicing Italian bread for toast, setting out plates and silverware, brewing coffee.
     She had just said, "Could you put those cherries in a bowl? They're already washed,' and I leapt to do so, going to the buffet in the living room, selecting a whimsical handmade bowl from the Boulder Artists' Cooperative, pouring the bag of cherries in, and setting them on the kitchen table with my bold declaration.
     "This is not life!"
     Maybe it was too obvious. But she reacted not at all, not even a flutter of perplexity, which is sort of my goal. The remark, she knew instantly, even if the reader does not, was playing off the bowl of cherries. This bowl of cherries is not life, or, more commonly, "Life is not a bowl of cherries." She got it immediately, which I noted with silent satisfaction. 
     Another woman would have murdered her husband long ago and no one would blame her. But bless her, she tolerates it. Writers and their idiosyncrasies. In my case, I have a certain affinity for cliches in real life. You don't often get the chance, and opportunities must be seized. It's a kind of duty. I once cut across Grand Central Station in New York City, just so I could pause, look around, raise my hands and declare, "What is this, Grand Central Station?"
     No it's not funny. But somehow, immensely satisfying. At least to me, and I'm the guy I have to hang out with all the time. 
     Over time—and my wife and I have been keeping company for ... 34 years now—some lines become, well, if not enshrined, then at least expected.
     We were at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This was years ago. And my wife said, "Do you want to walk through the rose garden?"
     I replied, "Well, I never made any kind of formal commitment that I would."
     A curious remark.
     "Excuse me?" she said.
     "I mean, I made no kind of vow, or oath regarding the rose garden..."
     A kind of a hint.
     She chewed on that for a while as we walked among the beautiful roses, then realization dawned.
    "I never promised you a rose garden," she said, and I smiled inwardly, pleased she had unraveled the little puzzle. 
     Now, whenever we walk into the rose garden, if I don't say it, she seems almost disappointed. Almost. 
    Then Sunday, it finally happened. She paused before a huge pink bloom, and gave it a deep sniff."
     "It's important..." she began. "That we, you know, stop, and..."

     Mere coincidence? Or is this proof ancient astronauts once walked the Earth, thousands of years ago? Exactly two years ago, I posted something also about punning marital wordplay, using entirely different examples. 

Roses, Chicago Botanic Garden

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Trump is doing exactly what supporters want him to do. Over and over.

     Ah. Now I see. Finally, finally I get Donald Trump. It all makes sense to me now.
     Took long enough.
     He has been president for nearly six months — the grim half-year anniversary is Thursday — all the while I, along with the rest of the mainstream media, have been baffled, thickly pointing our trembling index fingers at all the promises he repeatedly made and then glibly broke. There would be no border wall, never mind one paid for by Mexico. No overturning Obamacare. No infrastructure renewal. Coal's still dead, manufacturing still sputtering.
     But when we document this to his supporters, they don't care. They just shake their head and smile, or rather, sneer, pityingly at us, the lamestream media. "Sad!" they mocked, echoing their hero. They still love him.
     How can this be? It's easy to dismiss them as dupes, as ripped off, gulled, credulous marks who, pockets turned inside out, would rather hold tight to a fantasy than confront a difficult truth. And I did that for a while. But as the months clock on, castigation seems too simple. Too easy. Dismissing the other guys as mere idiots is what Republicans do. It makes a person feel good, perhaps, but leads nowhere. An empty high.
So I looked again. And realized that in one realm, Trump constantly and consistently delivers: invective, a steady stream of insult, against the media, against politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, against elites and whatever unlucky individual falls under his basilisk gaze. Machine-gun chatter of "Disaster!" Funny nicknames and repeated fabrications. This isn't the sideshow. It's the main act. Not a flaw but a feature.
     That's why he was elected. Donald the Destroyer, the scourge of liberals. And that dynamic makes perfect sense. The game was up, the world trotting toward its future. Part of the liberal miracle over the past 60 years is to take marginalized people—minorities, gays, women—and invite them into the tent. Good for them, bad for people who used to own the tent and now feel threatened by these interlopers. What about their hopes and dreams, of a white America that manufactures stuff out of iron? They were not going to be ignored.
     So they elected Trump, to flay the infidels. They'll hate me for saying it, but there's a clear parallel between right-wing America and radical Islam. Both see themselves mooted by a world they can only lash out at as it flies by. Both spend their lives bitterly resenting who they aren't rather than joyously being who they are. If you think America should be frozen in 1953, with Hispanic serfs hidden back in the kitchen, what do you do? The same as if you think any woman who isn't veiled is a whore: extract vengeance.
     Trump never has to create a job or lay a brick. All he has to do is say he will, any moment now, and keep a constant bead on those already long demonized by Fox and Friends. The soil was prepared for him, turned and broken and fertilized. Ready for Trump to bloom.
     The media has been slow to catch on. We are used to it playing news certain way—we keep reporting each new development in the Russian scandal, not realizing that Trump's shape-shifting supporters simply morph. Big thumbs up to Putin and the Russian Federation, our new best friend in the world.
     Then again, the media always tends to lag; newspapers still create a product out of mashed wood pulp that is thrown at customers' houses every morning. We still print comic strips. If a giant meteor were discovered that would end the world tomorrow afternoon, we'd report it on the front page but the baseball schedule for the rest of the week would still be in the sports pages. Slow on the uptake.
     And what would that headline be? "Earth to end today." Too weak. "Rock shock!" Better, but a bit New York Post-y. "WE'RE DOOMED!" feels about right, though we might want to save that one for Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Drying out

     Last week's heavy rainfall caused flooding across the Northwest suburbs. The Chicago Botanic Garden was closed for a while—the entire place is one vast, flower-strewn retention pond. We stopped by Sunday afternoon and found it mostly dry and in fairly good shape—some limp and muddy hostas, a few trails and bridges closed off due to lingering floodwaters. It could have been much worse, such as at Highland Park Ford Lincoln, where more than 100 new and used cars, worth $5 million, were destroyed. Which called to mind this story, visiting ruined businesses downstate after the Great Mississippi Flood, nearly a quarter century ago. 

     ALTON, IL—Moving slowly, like astronauts in outer space, executives from the Bearing Headquarters Co. wade cautiously into knee-deep, yellow-green water and approach the front door of their office and warehouse.
     Gingerly, the door is pulled open and a wave of rancid humidity rolls out. John Decker, the branch manager, surveys the surreal, dimly lit scene Thursday of rows of shelving. The upper portions are stacked with piles of damp catalogs, soggy brochures and ruined records. Paper work floats in the water like seaweed.
     "Man, what a mess," he whispers.
     All over the Midwest as the floodwaters recede, people are beginning to tally the enormous cost of this unsurpassed natural disaster. Estimates are being offered, but the reality is that it will be months, if not years, before any reliable figure is attained. And the cost is rising - as floodwaters recede in some areas, they inundate others. The disaster is not over.
     Despite dramatic pictures of homes being crushed by the water, most damage is not caused by the water's impact, but by its ability to corrode and spoil.
     A pair of contractors accompany the Bearing Headquarters executives, to assess what it will take to undo the damage.
     "The office is a total loss; there is nothing there that can be saved, as far as I'm concerned," says Larry Colvin, an electrical contractor. He points his flashlight beam toward the ceiling of the 13,000-square-foot warehouse. "The moisture content in these fixtures - they're going to corrode. Look on the beams. It's rusting already."
     A general contractor pulls away a part of wall, showing how the insulation is soaked. It, too, must be replaced, as well as the floors, the shelving and many other parts of the building.
     Alton, a town of 33,000 north of St. Louis, is one of dozens of towns where the floodwaters caused serious infrastructure damage. Here, the tremendous pressure of the Mississippi River formed sinkholes and fissures in streets. Sewer lines burst and parking lots buckled. The levee did not break, as the people in Alton note with pride, but the river pushed its way in underground, sending geysers shooting out of Main Street.
     The mayor of Alton, Robert Towse, estimates that infrastructure damage to his town alone will be $ 5 million, and he calls the government's initial grant of $ 4.7 billion in Midwestern flood relief "a tenth" of what will eventually be needed.
     Water treatment facilities, electric plants, bridges and highways in several states were damaged by the flooding. Edwin Harper, president of the Association of American Railroads, estimates that it will take $ 250 million just to replace or repair submerged train tracks, but he admits that it is just a guess.
      Then there is lost business. Next door and up the hill from Bearing Headquarters is Tri-City Nissan Mazda. The bearing company, which moved its costly bearings out before it was deluged last week, is operating from scattered temporary locations, but Tri-City will not be back in business for weeks.
     Conn-Agra, the big silage concern, juts out of flooded downtown Alton like a mountainous island. Its 200 employees are lucky, however: Their salaries are being paid, and they are being sent out to help in the cleanup effort around the city.
     The six employees of Hudson's Jewelry Store have not been paid since July 13, when the store was last open. But clerk Matt Contarino shows up as a volunteer to oversee pumps in the basement.
     Tourist spots have been hit hard. While traffic to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is so heavy the Park Service had to bring in extra rangers to help, communities such as St. Genevieve, Mo., a historic town about 50 miles downriver from St. Louis that was founded by the French in 1735, have no tourists during prime season.
      In Illinois, officials monitoring the state's $ 15 billion a year tourist industry estimate it is down at least 70 percent in the western portion of the state.
     Thousands of private homes were also destroyed or seriously damaged. In Grafton, 15 miles upriver from Alton, 900 of the 1,000 residents have been displaced from their homes - some of which were totally submerged.
     Tooling through downtown Grafton in a boat used to ferry residents, observing the city's houses submerged to the roofline, resident Vern Rominski ponders the question of how much it will cost to clean up the city, and how long it will take. He squints into the rain which is still somehow, incredibly, coming down hard.
     "I don't think they'll know until the waters go down, son," he says.

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 9, 1993

Chicago Botanic Garden, July 16, 2017

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bacon is hot: Meet the guys who helped save bacon's bacon

     Sometimes pulling the thread on a single question can lead to an unexpected story. Here, I was trying to find out when precooked bacon came into being, and happened upon its largely unknown genesis. If after reading this, you just have to visit a pig slaughterhouse, one of Chicago's last, you can do so here.

     My mother never cooked a pork chop. Never once did a holiday ham grace the table of our modest suburban home. For a simple reason: we're Jewish, and such things are forbidden.
     But bacon was another matter. We had bacon all the time. With eggs of course, but also piled high on BLTs, the wheat toast smeared with mayonnaise. She served hot dogs wrapped in bacon.
     Faith is fine, but bacon is "the most beautiful thing on earth," as comedian Jim Gaffigan put it during a routine on the beloved cured meat. "Bacon's the best!"
     Isn't it though? The public agrees. Bacon sales have surged over the past decade. Bacon prices are up 20 percent this year, with supplies at their lowest in 60 years, stripped by voracious consumer demand for everything from bacon donuts to bacon-infused vodka.
     Amazingly, not long ago bacon was in decline. I was examining historical data and found myself reading the bacon entry in The Encyclopedia of Meat Sciences. It noted that in the late 1970s bacon was wilting; a study found that female heads of households were consuming far less bacon, due to cost, the bother of preparation and the trend toward quick, simple breakfasts.
     "As late as 1989," the encyclopedia noted, it was believed "bacon consumption is evidently in a long-term eroding trend."
     What happened? One problem with bacon was that you had to cook it, a messy process. It spattered and popped in the pan. You had to scrub your stovetop or microwave every time you cooked bacon.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Chicago might not be hog butcher to the world, but it still butchers hogs

Market in Florence, Italy
     Over the weekend I was researching bacon, writing for Monday. Which made me remember my visit 10 years ago to Park Packing, still in business today, one of three remaining slaughterhouses in Chicago. The article came about because I used to print a joke at the end of every column, and the USDA inspector at Park sent one in. I thought I should link to the story in my bacon piece tomorrow. Only I never posted it here. Now I have. A warning: not for the squeamish. And as a reward, tomorrow we'll have bacon. 

     Nine pigs are driven into a small pen. The metal door clangs shut and a man in green rubber boots and a yellow smock goes to work.
     First he takes a hose and washes the pigs down. They seem to like that. Then he reaches for the instrument of death. It is an appropriately crude device: a short metal T-shaped pole, wrapped in electrical tape, with a cable running out one end and two round electrodes protruding from the other.
     The worker —named Daniel—presses the electrodes to the back of a pig's neck and down it goes, kicking and convulsing.
     Pigs are smart animals, and the others instantly realize something bad is happening, and begin scrambling over each other, squealing and shrieking, eyes wide, trying to get away, back through the metal door.
     But there is no escape.
     When two pigs are down, Daniel binds their twitching hind legs together with a chain, and hoists the pigs into the air with a winch. He moves them over a square metal trough. With a deft thrust, he jams a thin knife into the throat of each pig, and berry-red blood gushes out into the trough. Though the pigs are stunned, it is important they still be alive. Otherwise, the blood won't drain properly.
     "Once they've been stunned, they're brain dead," says Ray Ramsey, the Illinois Department of Agriculture inspector monitoring the process at Park Packing, 4107 S. Ashland. "It supposedly makes them insensible to pain. But they never come back to tell me whether it's true or not."
     I met Ramsey after he sent me a pig joke and mentioned where he works. My reaction, like that of everybody else I've told about the plant, was amazement that pigs are still slaughtered within the city limits. The greatness of Chicago was built on the processing of animals—"Hog Butcher for the World" as Carl Sandburg famously wrote.
     But the stockyards closed in 1970, and finding live Iowa pigs trucked daily into Chicago to begin their conversion into sausage is like discovering Al Capone still getting a hot lather shave every morning at the Lexington Hotel.
     "There's not too many left," admits Tom Bairaktaris, owner of Park Packing, which caters mostly to smaller mom and pop stores.
     Park Packing employs 40 people and, today, will butcher 182 pigs, two by two. After their lifeblood drains away, the pigs are lowered into scalding water.
     "I have to spot check everywhere," says Ramsey. "They can't go into the water while still alive."


      From the water, the pigs are shunted to a large device, made of curved ribs of metal. The device tumbles the pigs to remove their hair. Each pig weighs 185 pounds, about the size of a human, and is a pinkish hue very similar to Caucasian flesh. Pigs can sunburn. The sight of a pair of large, wet, freshly killed pigs loudly tumbling around and around is not pleasant.
     After, their hooves are removed and the back legs are attached to a gambrel—a metal armature—and the pigs are hoisted up. They are conveyed from station to station along an overhead track, an invention that revolutionized meatpacking a century ago.
     The remaining hair is burned off with a torch, the pig is shaved, and the process of cutting apart the pig begins. The rectum is removed—they call it "dropping the bung"—and the pig is split to the chin.
     Ramsey draws a knife, reaches into a hog carcass, and begins slicing up a large, bean-shaped bulb of flesh—the mandibular lymph node.
     "We're supposed to cut them as many times as we can," he says, making thin slices. "I'm looking for inflammation, hemorrhaging."
     The innards are taken out, a wet, sloppy sack, liquid still sloshing around within the translucent yellow intestines. They're dumped on a metal table. Ramsey palpates the purplish brown liver with his fingers.
     "Sometimes you find worms," he says.
     One or two in 100 pigs are rejected as too ill to eat; most have ailments that don't affect their edibility.
     "About 80 percent of the pigs have bronchitis or pneumonia," he said. "That doesn't mean the meat is unusable."
     Loud Spanish music plays—except for Ramsey, the workers are Hispanic, many related, most from the same city, Guanajuato.


     A living pig's temperature is slightly higher than a human's—about 102. It takes six hours for the pigs to cool to 37 degrees. That's when Ramsey stamps them with an Illinois-shaped stamp; the purple ink is really blueberry juice.
     Then the pigs are cut apart—heads off, torsos divided into loins, shoulders, ribs and hams —by workers using band saws, cutting so quickly it makes your fingers tingle just to watch.
     The pigs go out like that
customers divide the large sections into individual chops and ribs. The plant also has a small retail store, stocked with every pig part imaginable, and if you are in the market for pigskin, perhaps to make your own football, it's 49 cents a pound. Pig blood is $45 for a 5-gallon bucket, enough for your backyard production of "Carrie."
      Ramsey's job can be seen as a balancing act. He is charged with enforcing a stack of regulations a foot thick, rules that would give him justification to shut the plant down at any given moment, were that his goal.
     "Our overall mission is to make sure the meat from here is safe," he says. "You have to make a judgment. You have to pick your battles."
     He ends up giving the plant four or five citations a month, demanding that a restroom be cleaned, or that carcasses not be removed until they are sufficiently cooled.
     "You become the bad guy," he says. "But by lunchtime, you're friends again."
     Ramsey is 32, married for the second time, and has found his life's work.
     "I'll probably do it as long as I can," he says.
     It's lunchtime when I finish my tour, so I step across the street to a Mexican diner and order a pork chop sandwich. It seems the thing to do.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 10, 2007

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     The moment I stepped into this distinctive lobby I smiled and thought, "Ooo, Saturday fun activity time!" It's spare, but telling, and while I imagine it is solvable—they always are—it might take some careful cogitation.
     Where is this rather ship-like tableau? What vastly-interesting place is it the portal for? I was there Friday, preparing a story for the paper. I can't imagine many readers find their way there.
     A suitable prize is in order—since this spartan assemblage is located in Chicago, a signed copy of my memoir, "You Were Never in Chicago." And just in case people are stumped until this afternoon—my fervent hope—then I will post a photograph of what was on the coffee table in this particular room, as a hint, so you might want to return then. 
    Good luck. Please place your guesses below. 

Shhh, go to bed. Nothing to see here.

     It's midnight, I know. But tomorrow I'm posting a surprise, one-time return of the Saturday fun activity, which as you might recall traditionally posts at 7 a.m., in order that non-night owls might get a chance to solve one.
      So go to bed. Nothing to see here for seven hours. And if you simply must think about something, look at the above picture, and wonder why I posted that image and not another. It's fairly plain. G'night. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Trump isn't the problem; it's that people support him

     So I go to the corner to buy a racing form. On my way home, a neighbor runs up, shouting: "Your house is on fire!" I smile and tell him that no, it can't be on fire. He is just trying to alarm me, reflecting his lingering malice because my tea roses placed higher than his in the All-Cook County Tea Rose Competition last summer.
     "No!" he cries. "Look at the smoke!" And sure enough, big billows of black smoke are rising from the direction of my house, a couple blocks away.
     "That's not smoke," I chuckle. "That's just dark clouds. Or if it's smoke, how do I know it's not the house behind mine that's burning? Eh? Besides, what's so bad about a little fire? Happens all the time."
     Welcome to America, 2017. As satire does not always scan in a daily newspaper, I hasten to observe that I do not buy the daily racing form, nor cultivate tea roses, and my house did not burn.
     It's our nation that is burning. Try to find an area that isn't on fire. Congress pours gasoline on health care for millions of the neediest Americans and keeps striking matches, hoping for a bonfire that'll warm rich people. Our recent presidential election was manipulated by our staunchest enemy. Our nation is grilled by global ridicule, our institutions smeared with soot. The president set in power by that corrupted electoral process is a liar, bully and fraud — and since readers sometimes object at that trio of terms, let me point out that they are not insults, nor even disrespect for the office of president, but dry journalistic description, supported by facts. By "liar," I mean a man who continually tells untruths. By "bully," I mean someone who continually abuses those too weak to defend themselves. And by "fraud," someone who represents himself, again and again, now and in the past, as something he is not, profiting from the gullible, selling empty promises that he cannot fulfill.
     If you don't like that description, well, I'm sorry. I don't like it either. But what I like, and what is actually going on in life are two very different things, and it is possible to perceive situations at odds with what you wish were true.
     For instance: I wish I could get excited about the revelations regarding Russian conspiracy. The media, which can be fairly thick, has been intent on the drip-drip-drip of new developments, of Trump’s son Donald meeting with Russian officials promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
     That is what we do — dig up pertinent facts and confront those involved. But as reporters go through the elaborate kabuki ritual of uncovering scandal, I can’t help but suspect it is a colorful pageant put on for an audience so sharply divided they aren’t seeing the same show. Those who are stunned by the news were stunned already; those who have torched their morality and conscience and patriotism enough to support Donald Trump in the first place aren’t going to renew it now in order to feel outrage.
     “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters, ” Trump said on Jan. 23, 2016.
     It was true then,, even truer now. Give the man credit — he is as he has always been. Trump is a problem, but he’s not the problem. He is a symptom. The problem is that 53 million Americans voted for him, and support him still, no matter what. They have created a closed system where contrary information can be shrugged off as “fake news.” Science is a lie. Courts are dubious if they rule against you.
     Getting rid of Trump will solve a problem, but not the problem. The problem is people support him and will continue to do so, no matter the cost.
     We began with a metaphor, let’s end with one.
     Your doctor says, “I have bad news. Look at this X-ray. This blotch is a cancerous tumor on your lung.”
     You jerk the x-ray away, crumple it into a ball and drop it in the trash.
     “Problem solved,” you say. “The tumor’s gone.”

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Radio Flyer turns 100

    Once I pulled a little red wagon down the center of Sheridan Road.
    OK, there was more to it than that. It was the WOOGMS Parade, an eccentric East Lakeview neighborhood event marking Memorial Day and the beginning of summer. Sheridan Road was closed; my boys were perched within the wagon. I'm sure I have an unwatched video of it, somewhere.
    The wagon was a Radio Flyer, a gift, mirabile dictu, of the newspaper, which once upon a time distributed catalogues to employees so they could select presents to mark their various work anniversaries. On my fifth I chose the proverbial set of steak knives. For my 10th, the wagon. For the past decade or so, your gift is you keep your job.
    The wagon proved very useful in carting boys. Not the metal wagon of my youth, but the less aesthetic plastic. Still, it had a certain fat, pleasing roundness, and a compartment inside for storing things. I did not mind it. 
    Radio Flyer is marking its centennial this year. The venerable Chicago company doesn't construct its little red wagons here anymore—production moved to China in 2004— but at least it still makes them, which is cause for celebration. If you are reading this Thursday, July 13, you can join the fun from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Pioneer Court, the plaza just south of Tribune Tower. Radio Flyer will have their World's Largest Wagon, somehow fitting outside what once imagined itself the World's Greatest Newspaper. 
      Strolling out to the garage to snap the above, I reflected how sentimental it is to keep the wagon. The boys certainly aren't going to ride in it again, and by the time grandchildren arrive, if they ever do, they'll have wagons that hover, and no doubt the tykes will demand them, as tykes do.
    This is probably enough for one day but, in case you are interested in the history of Radio Flyer -- such as why a wagon company has a form of communication in its name — I explain that in this late 1990s Christmas story on toys that originated in Chicago. I've left the other toys in, though the entirety, like old toys themselves, tends toward woodenness. 

      Furby may be hot now, but just wait. Odds are he won't stand the test of time. Someday, the babbling little furball may be as desirable a Christmas present as a Hula Hoop; or a Pet Rock is today.
     But certain toys keep their appeal. While they may never have created the intense -- and passing -- mania that the Tickle Me Elmos of the world once inspired, they've done something that is perhaps more incredible: They've survived (though some just barely) and become classics, delighting generation after generation of children who found them under their Christmas trees.
    Here is a roundup of some cherished toys which originated in the Chicago area.

     The Radio Flyer: The definitive "little red wagon" is manufactured on the West Side of Chicago, and has been for more than 80 years.
     In 1917, an Italian immigrant cabinet maker named Antonio Pasin founded The Liberty Coaster Wagon Co., named for the Statue of Liberty. Originally the wagons were wood, but when metal stamping became popular for cars in the 1920s, he borrowed the technology for wagons, rolling the edges so they wouldn't cut little fingers.
     In the 1920s, the company took to naming its wagons after popular figures and phenomena. There was the Lindy Flyer, in honor of Charles Lindbergh, and the Radio Flyer, named for the hot new communications medium. That wagon was particularly popular, and in 1930 the company renamed itself the Radio Steel & Manufacturing Co. (It officially adopted the name "Radio Flyer" in 1987).
     The wagons are still made in Chicago, of wood, steel and plastic, and the company is still owned and operated by the Pasin family. And they still name their products after the latest wave of pop culture: Recent wagons have mimicked burly all-terrain vehicles and been given brawny, sports-utility-vehicle-like names such as "Voyager" and "Navigator."
     Lionel trains: For decades, no Christmas tree was complete without a Lionel train circling the base. The trains were the brainchild of Joshua Lionel Cowen, who, in one of those amazing quirks of history, also invented the flashlight.
     He put a small electric motor in a model train, and began selling them by catalog in 1903. The company had some close calls over the years. It nearly went bankrupt during the Great Depression, then came up with an offering that hit the public fancy: a handcar pumped by a Mickey Mouse character. The handcar was the top toy in the nation in 1934, and it saved the company. Today a large part of Lionel's business is the adult hobby market -- a basic set runs a hefty $ 150 or so -- but nostalgic adults still buy their kids Lionel trains at Christmas, whether the children want them or not.
     Raggedy Ann: Like the first teddy bear, the first Raggedy Ann doll was promoting something else. Johnny Gruelle, a political cartoonist in Downstate Arcola, had created the Raggedy Ann character (named for James Whitcomb Riley's poems "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphan Annie") to amuse his daughter, Marcella.
     But he also had the foresight to patent the Raggedy Ann image in 1915. His book on the red-yarn-haired beauty, Raggedy Ann Stories, was published in 1918.
     Marshall Field's created the first Raggedy Ann doll to place in its window to promote the book, but customers wanted both the book and the doll. Raggedy Andy showed up two years later, when a friend of Gruelle's mother handmade a brother.
     Ironically, after 80 years, Field's once again isn't selling Raggedy Ann. It has stopped carrying the dolls.
     Tinkertoys; : An Evanston stonecutter named Charles Pajeau was disillusioned with the gravestone trade. Fishing around for a new line of work, he noticed how children played, for hours, with pencils and wooden spools from thread. A classic toy was born.
     He formed the Toy Tinkers Co. in Evanston and introduced the product at the New York Toy Fair in 1913 (the same year another classic, now faded, was introduced: A.C. Gilbert's Erector Set). Tinkertoys were an instant hit -- selling nearly a million sets in 1915, the first year it went national.
     Tinkertoys sold millions of sets, with almost no advertising. And not only kids played with them. Illinois Bell used Tinkertoys to test skills of job candidates; Harvard University bought the sets, in bulk, to study executive decision-making.
     Tinkertoy has been buffeted, in recent years, by construction sets with more flash and sizzle. But it still carries on, its wooden dowels and hubs replaced with plastic, manufactured by Hasbro.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 24, 1998