Thursday, August 31, 2017

World hounds queen like Diana was hunted

Shrine to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, Harrod's, 2009
     When the subject turns to the death of Princess Diana, 20 years ago today, Aug. 31, 1997, two memories stand out.
     The first is the manner I learned of the accident: from the Sunday New York Times, which was delivered in our breezeway on Pine Grove Avenue. Old school, even back then. We had a newborn, two months old, our younger son, and didn't watch TV or listen to the radio that evening. We weren't as plugged in, could go hours if not days without dipping a toe in the sloshing oceans of news. 
     Nowadays, you can't have a moment downtime, waiting for the elevator doors to open, without whipping out your phone and dipping into the constantly running river of information.
     Back then, I clomped out the back door, scooped up the fat paper log of a newspaper, stripped off the plastic, and saw a short, early bulletin, squeezed into a column on the front page, that told only of the auto accident in Paris. I  went inside, clicked on the TV; the grim music and somber tones immediately told me she was dead, even before I heard words confirming it.
    The second was a few weeks later, during the paroxysm of scorn for the media that follows. A photographer pal of mine, Bob Davis, and I were returning from a story when we happened upon a bad car accident in the Loop, on Wabash Avenue. A woman pulling out of a parking lot had run down a group of pedestrians. As Bob raised his camera to record the carnage, one of the on-lookers, rubbernecking for a view, some businessman, held up his yellow legal pad, blocking the lens, snarling something critical of the jackal pack media. 
    The irony of that moment stung and lingered. Here was a guy trying to do what? See what had happened. And while in the very act of trying to do that, he instinctively lunged to stop everyone else from seeing what happened. 
     Donald Trump might skate along on hypocrisy but he sure didn't invent it. 
    My column was still weekly, so naturally, writing a week after the event, I sidestepped the death itself and focused on what was most recent, the queen's speech. I was genuinely revolted by the public reaction to Diana's death: the  wallowing in sentiment, the hyperventilating exaggeration, the overwhelming bathos, the bottomless hunger to pry into the inner lives of those we feel we own.

     With all the sympathy and tears—much of it, no doubt, genuine—expended over the tragic death of Princess Diana, I hope you'll forgive me if I whisper a kind word about the villains du jour, Prince Charles and his mother.
     Perhaps I am stone-hearted. But I was far more interested in what Queen Elizabeth, pushed by public pressure in front of the TV cameras months before her usual day, had to say Friday than I was in witnessing Diana's funeral, the four-hankie culmination of this week's extraordinary worldwide keening.
     Would the queen, bending to the public craving for self-exposure, stoked to a white hot flame by the cheerleading British media ("SHOW US YOU CARE!" a headline demanded) drop 50 years of carefully manicured public decorum and break down, cry, give us a show, sing the old Bill Clinton standard, "I-feel-your-pain; you-feel-my-pain; we-all-feel-each-other's pain"?
     That was what the mob seemed to be howling for.
     Or would she—as I so fervently prayed—be true to herself, maintain the reserve that was once the very definition of royalty, perhaps slipping in a bit of pique? Stare boldly into the camera and say, in a properly icy tone: "How can you bloody pack of bloody jackals condemn the paparazzi out of one corner of your mouths while yapping for my son to go on the BBC and read a love poem to his dead ex-wife out of the other? How dare you?"
     Well, one could hope.
     Or would she, unaccustomed except at Christmastide to talking to an audience larger than a brace of corgi dogs, sleepwalk through a pained yet Buckingham-Palace-polished chin-up attempt at damage control ("I believe there are lessons to be drawn . . ." she said), lobbing a few shovelfuls of beach against the rising tide of ever-cheapened sentiment?
      That was easy. Door No. 3. And of course CNN immediately cut to the throng outside the palace, to pull a few average citizens aside to give the thumbs down on the performance.
     "Not enough," one said.
     "Not enough?" Isn't Rule No. 1 of etiquette that the parties most affected get to act however they like? That it's cruel to judge Mr. Widower for not crying at his wife's funeral and rude to express that judgment?
     And the really galling thing is that we're using the same cudgel that killed Diana to pummel her survivors. The public has no more right to know how Queen Elizabeth felt about the death of her former daughter-in-law than it did to see how Diana looked working out in her leotards. Those two interests spring from the same desire. The same demand that public figures—movie stars, political leaders, royalty—not only perform their jobs, but act as a sort of surrogate pal and fetish object to the body politic.
     Why should Charles—a reticent, solemn man who can't state an opinion without being mocked as a twit— suddenly be expected to spout his deepest pains on command, like a trained seal? Why should the queen suddenly be requested to emote like a diva? It's bad enough that people started lining up along the funeral route three days early, as if they were camping out in front of Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before the Academy Awards.
     "Not enough"? It's already too much. Diana, in declining to act royal, in refusing to adopt the remoteness that the queen and Charles are unable to shed, might have built up a cult for herself, but she succeeded in pulling the royalty down to a state of low regard unequaled since the Roundheads were chasing the first Charles across the countryside.
     Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe royalty is bad, and the sooner it is retired, the sooner we can march off to whatever brave new world awaits us.
     We lie to ourselves that we loved Diana because she was so good, for her causes. But people didn't love Diana for her causes—we ignore causes. We scorn charity. Bor-ing. Except in the case of people like her, when causes are an excuse. How else to have parties? Unless it benefits AIDS or cancer or something, a masked ball is just decadence.
     People follow royalty for the same reason they play the lottery: wish fulfillment. Aren't we so interested in the royals for the very reason that the closest most of us will ever come to wearing a $ 200,000 ring or having tea and crumpets with the queen is to read about it, or to gape at it on TV?
     To suggest that people follow royalty for the good works they do is like saying that people play the lottery, not to spin dreams of wealth, but as a convenient way to contribute to the state's educational fund on an anonymous, weekly basis.
     So pity poor Charles and pity the queen. The reserve and decorum that seemed merely stiff before Diana will now appear inhuman.
     The only thing worse than remaining how they've always been would be to change—for Charles to start hanging out in nightclubs, joining conga lines with supermodels. For the queen to be photographed painting her toenails. Maybe that's next. God save the queen; God save us all.

                        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 7, 1997


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Can't we pretend Hurricane Harvey didn't happen?

    What storm? You mean Hurricane Harvey? Or rather, so-called Hurricane Harvey?
     Never happened. An obvious fraud cooked up by Democrats trying to push their “climate change” agenda. The images on TV of waterlogged Houston residents being led to safety through flooded streets? Actors on Hollywood sound stages. More fake news by CNN trying to goose ratings with inspiring tales of rescue and . . ..
     Nah, it’s no good. Can’t do it. See, that’s why we liberals are at such a disadvantage. We have one hand tied behind our backs in the street brawl for America’s soul, denied the full range of fabrication easily employed by the Right, from simple bald lies (Ted Cruz first claiming he supported relief for Hurricane Sandy, then, fibbing again, insisting the bill was laden with pork. Which it wasn’t.) to the most elaborate fantasies (Alex Jones suggesting that Nazi protesters at Charlottesville were Jewish actors).
     Meanwhile, we’re mired in the troublesome realm of the real. Democrats just can’t contort our minds the way they can. We’re like rheumatic middle-aged men trying to compete on the pommel horse against Olympic gymnasts.
     I can’t even in good conscience hold up Hurricane Harvey — the worst rainstorm in United States history — as an example of climate change. While it is certainly the sort of meteorological disaster we are going to see more and more of as the Earth heats up, you can’t point to any one particular storm and lay it at the feet of our warming world. That’s why even though the evidence of climate change is as clear and undeniable as evidence that something wet and windy hit Houston this past week, that doesn’t stop Republicans from denying the former as they shed crocodile tears over the latter.
     Honestly, I’m not even comfortable using Hurricane Harvey as column fodder, because there are people involved. People suffering. Their homes destroyed, their lives upended. You don’t turn that into a joke.
    Either you sympathize with people or you do not. That is the essential gulf we see in America today.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Fight night

     How big was the Mayweather-McGregor fight Saturday night?
     Even I watched it, and I had never seen a professional boxing match before in my entire life. The closest I came previously was a smoker at the Union League Club, and then we didn't pay as much attention to whatever was going on in the ring as much as we did our scotches and cigars.
     It was an accident of course. Friday was, well, one of those days, and when I saw my younger kid in his work-out gear heading for the Y, I said, "Wait five minutes and I'll go with you," and he graciously paused while I got dressed, grabbed a bottle of water and we went to work out.
    Exercise helps.
    While I was in the weight room, doing sit-ups, I heard an insistent, leathery, flapping noise, and realized it was the boy hitting the speed bag. I drifted over to watch, a blur of hands, the bag snapping back and forth faster than I thought possible. He invited me to try, and I did, getting up what I thought was a respectable rhythm.
    "You're doing it wrong," he said, and showed me his technique: hit with the knuckles of the fist then the heel of the hand, a double-tap with each hand that worked the bag much faster, so that even I could manage halfway respectable results.
    "How did you learn that?" I asked.
    "YouTube," he replied.
    Of course.
    I thanked him and, as we departed, we talked about how much fun the speed bag was—I usually end my work-outs with it, as a kind of reward. I mentioned the fight the next day, perhaps we could head somewhere and see it. He'd said he'd like that. A bit of online sleuthing told us: go to Buffalo Wild Wings.
    But they wanted $20 a head cover charge. And my other son wanted to join in. And my wife, who wouldn't actually watch a fight, but would go along with her men. Suddenly we were looking at $80 just to get in the door, never mind what we'd spend on wings, wild or otherwise. A hundred bucks to stream the thing at home suddenly seemed a bargain.
     It seemed a wasted opportunity, almost selfish, to just watch it by ourselves. Texts were sent, doors down the street knocked on, pizza ordered, and a party sprang up around the slugfest.
     The event started at 6 p.m. Having never watched a fight before, I ignorantly assumed that meant there would be an hour or two or preliminaries, then the Main Event. I stupidly began watching at 6 p.m., what turned out to be an hour lionizing the UFC fighter Conor McGregor, an Irish martial arts expert who despairing of worlds to conquer, like Alexander the Great, had challenged undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather to come out of retirement to face him. Then we got an hour of hosannas to Mayweather, including visits to his boxing center and strip club.
     Two hours of proof that, black or white, American or Irish, flaunted wealth ends up ridiculous and puerile.
     It wasn't boring exactly, with plenty of shots of exotic cars and a kind of pumped up self-assigned significance—not only would boxing be changed forever, but all sport, if not the universe nudged off its axis by this match. I smiling, remembering that a few days earlier I had never heard of either man. Their general tone of unashamed, counter-factual exaggeration made me think, more than once, of the current occupant of the Oval Office. The fact that he too isn't trailed by goons holding enormous championship belts above their heads seems almost a kind of restraint. Maybe that's coming.
     The truly boring part happened in the three undercards, as non-entity boxers poked at each other. The sport is condemned as violent, but these matches weren't violent. The contestants poked at each other in near-stupor. I knew I was in trouble about 8 p.m. when the talking heads introducing the matches did so from a largely empty arena in Las Vegas. The crowd wasn't even there yet.
     Fortunately I had the good sense to light the Tiki torches—will we ever look at them and not think of Nazis?—and build a fire out back in the fire pit, so we could repair there and take a break from the action, or lack of which.
     The main event began at about 11 p.m. Common wisdom was that McGregor, who had never fought a professional boxing match before, would have to overcome Mayweather, 49 and 0, early on in order to win. Mayweather, for his part, was content to keep his hands in front of his face, elbows close together and ward off blows for about the first eight rounds. As fit as McGregor is, he couldn't do that forever, and when he tired, in round 9, Mayweather began to pummel him and by the 10th round he was hitting him at will and the referee stopped the right to keep McGregor from being maimed.
    It was more complicated than that, but that was the essence.
    We all agreed that McGregor had not embarrassed himself, marveled at the sums taken in by the fighters—Mayweather earned a reported $300 million, McGregor a third or so—and declared the whole thing a success.
     Final thoughts? McGregor was undone by his personality, not his skill—as the bold newcomer, he couldn't have adopted the conservative strategy that won for Mayweather, even though that would have been his only hope, though not that doing so would have worked; then they'd both be hanging back, neither would win, and the audience would feel robbed. So everyone was forced to behave the way he did; McGregor's loss was almost foreordained by Fate. Hubris.
    What else? I was surprised at how poorly produced the opening segments were.  At one point they spent several minutes showing a poster of the fight, certainly a lost opportunity, considering that millions were watching. They were advising something we had all already bought.
    Given that the evening was bringing in the take of a Hollywood blockbuster, and that many people new to the sport were viewing, I would have imagined they'd have explained the terrain a bit more than reprise a few of McGregor's fights and show Mayweather getting on and off jets and talking about how much money he makes in a tone that, again, struck me as sadly presidential.
     On Facebook, friends wrung their hands over the violence of boxing. They should save it for the victims of actual violence. These guys are laughing all the way to the bank, and while I'm sorry it had to be done on this pretext, the fight led to a house full of my kids, their pals and our friends, so I can't complain either.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Wall of Respect less remembered but more significant

Photo courtesy of Northwestern University Press

     Gwendolyn Brooks read a poem at two dedications of public Chicago artworks in August of 1967.
     The first everyone knows about. Big, front page news, then and now: the unveiling of the Picasso sculpture at Daley Plaza—you couldn't miss its anniversary earlier this month.
     That dedication 50 years ago was attended by Mayor Richard J. Daley and tens of thousands of onlookers. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed.
     The poem Brooks read at the dedication radiated unease.
     "Man visits art, but squirms," she read.
     The second dedication, Aug. 27, 1967, is far less known, then and now. Daley stayed home, and its anniversary passed without hoopla Sunday. 
     That dedication was of a mural known as the "Wall of Respect," while less famous, has more to say to our present political moment, with Confederate monuments to white supremacy being debated and a president mouthing racist codes.
     The Wall was a series of portraits of black heroes, painted on an abandoned building at 43rd and Langley.
     Brooks was more comfortable at that dedication. She knew exactly where she was.
     "South of success and east of gloss and glass," she read.
     The wall depicted Muhammed Ali, arms raised in triumph, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Bill Russell, Billie Holiday, and others—though not, significantly, Martin Luther King, who had been deftly played by Daley earlier that summer when he tried to bring his open occupancy movement to Chicago.

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Photo courtesy of Northwestern University Press

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Seen on the boulevard

     Not everything is for everybody. I know that. 
     So when confronted with something new and, to my perspective, horrific, I try to pause and wonder if the new thing being considered is indeed unacceptable, or merely new. Maybe it is just ridiculous to me, but others think it is swell. 
     Particularly with fashion. The way fashion works is that designers toss all manner of novel weirdness out at the public, and sees what sticks. It is a mistake to take something seriously that isn't intended to be taken seriously at all.
     So it might have been a lapse in me, a man in his later 50s, an old standard that stopped me dead in my tracks, gaping in horror at this ensemble of men's clothing spied in the window of the Paul Stuart shop on LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago recent. 
    It looked ... so ... clownish. I thought immediately of Ed Wynn, a largely forgotten comic, half a century dead.  The high narrow waist, the thick blue fabric, the red pants, the big white buttons, whatever is going on with the collar and perhaps a tie, I can't quite tell.
    Would someone see that, think, "Cool!" and run in and buy it? Someone must. They sell the thing. Paul Stuart is, I believe, a mainstream clothier, not some hip trendy place catering to the fringes.
Ed Wynn
      Still. Even the idea of suits, regular boxy suits, with two or three buttons, feels almost arcane. Suits themselves have slid from favor. I used to wear them almost daily to the paper, so as to be ready for any occasion. But such occasions became increasingly rare, and lately I've been eyeing the row of jackets in my closet, wondering whether I should bag them up and relocate them to the guest room closet. I think I've worn one jacket, once, since Memorial Day—meeting Chris Kennedy for breakfast a few weeks back for breakfast at Chicago Cut, a high end, see-and-be-seen kind of place. But then it was the standard blue blazer. 
    I used to loan my neckties grudgingly to my boys, for interviews and such, with stern admonitions. "This is my favorite tie; try to bring it back." Now I don't bother: they can take what they want, return it, not return it. It isn't as if I'm wearing neckties anymore.
    So given that suits themselves are becoming an oddity, who would wear this particularly odd rig? A young man, I imagine, with more money than taste, to pass judgment, someone hoping to look ... not clownish, certainly, but well-tailored. I was hurrying to a train, or I would have stopped in and seen what the outfit cost. A grand, I imagine, or more. High fashion is not only quixotic but pricy. That's the point. To tell people you laid out for this look.
     Perhaps it is something that a young man in his 20s might pull off, at the opera or among circles I just don't travel in. And if you have it hanging in your closet, forgive me, the fault is mine, no doubt. And in truth I don't feel burdened and out-of-sorts so much as liberated. I would hate to be burdened with a perspective that would put me in such a get-up. Or am I missing something? Maybe someone can explain it to me. I just don't understand. I once went to work in a kilt and jacket, so am not completely averse to standing out. But this? To me, I would die a thousand deaths if I had to wear it to the most formal occasion. But others must feel differently. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Are you cute or severe?

     "Batman" with Adam West debuted on television in 1965. I was in kindergarten and just learning to read. In the show, his youthful ward Dick Grayson, in the role of sidekick, Robin, would frequently utter some kind of faux oath beginning with "Holy..." Someone online has of course tallied them all, counting 367.
    Sometimes the sanctified nouns were common words, "Holy Fog!" But often obscure, "Holy Tintinnabulation!" What I remember is trotting off to the dictionary to look up these words, a practice I've done all my life ("Tintinnabulation" = ringing in your ears, and no, I didn't have to look it up).
      I can't tell you whether other people do the same. My hunch is they shrug the recondite words off and live with the mystery or, more precisely, forget all about it.
Chex box
Microsoft logo
    Not me. When my cousin Harry, a tech guy in Boston, remarked upon my post on the new Chex box, he pointed out its similarity to the Microsoft logo, adding, "I'm overall not a fan of overly-flat design—skeuomorphism is charming in moderation." 
    Before I even responded, I was on Wikipedia, learning about skeumorphism. New to me.
    The term refers to when physical objects mirror design characteristics of the originals they are based on. A rubber baseball that retains stitching sprang immediately to my mind. The stitches serve no function beyond enhancing the baseball effect (sticklers will argue they facilitate grip, and they do, but toymakers could add plain lines for that. These look like lacing). 
     We see this in computer interface design.  The email button on your cell phone looks like an envelope, even though not requiring an envelope is one of the numerous advantages of email. The stopwatch function has a little watch, complete with push buttons upon it. The pictures are tip-offs to what the buttons do.
     Harry contrasted this with "flat design." Digging into that, I find that the icons I consider skeuomorphs—the little phone on my iPhone—are actually considered instances of flat design, because they are so simplified, though there is some overlap. The blue oblong with an "f" on it that calls up Facebook is flat design.
     I'd say its the difference between cute and severe: a little camera with a flash cube is cute, and thus skeumorphic; a more stylized camera is severe, thus flat design.
     Why so many symbols on computers? The big advantage of symbols is obvious if you consider the issue of restrooms. Once upon a time they were labeled "Men" and "Women" which only helps if you speak English. In the 1960s, we started to get those generic "Man" and "Woman" stick figurines, a descendent of the Isotypes first created in Vienna in the 1920s (a selection of Isotypes is pictured atop the blog). 
    I am just old enough to think of these generic figures as being vaguely futuristic.
    I suppose context is important. The flat design man is what we are used to; it would be off-putting to have an actual person represented in faux three-dimensions on restroom doors. I was in a restaurant recently where the restrooms were identified by photographs—James Dean for "Men," Marilyn Monroe for "Women." It was not clever, not a visually pleasing look, but had an improvised, ad hoc quality to it. It looked cheap.
     Where am I going with this? Hell if I know. I just thought it was interesting, at least did when I started out. But now I feel like someone who balled up paper under a camp fire, then watched the paper blaze away and then die down to a smoldering ruin and the fire never caught. Ah well, better than nothing, which might make for a good slogan for the blog. "EGD: Better than Nothing." I don't have a slogan, or didn't up to now. The next step is a logo or symbol for everygoddamnday—something I've never considered before. What might that look like?


Friday, August 25, 2017

Driverless cars are coming while Balbo Drive is going

     “It’s like shooting a duck in a bucket,” I told my wife, making a pistol with my thumb and forefinger and taking bead on the imaginary fowl placidly paddling at my feet, looking up at me with anatine puzzlement.
     I was referring to commenting on the stupidities of the Chicago City Council. Their various edicts and pronouncements hardly matter. Besides, I have my professional pride to think about. We do not traffic in the obvious.
    No need to highlight the City Council’s follies for readers. They know.
     But there is futurity to think about. And someday, maybe even someday soon, when the bean-shaped, electric, self-driving cars that we summon with our iPhones, if not simply by tugging an earlobe and wishing it, are gliding silently to our doors, some grinning wit will disinter thecomments made this week by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke(14th):

“Let’s say a child is playing soccer or basketball in a park and then loses control of the ball and it rolls out into the street,” Burke fretted. “Would the [driverless] vehicle recognize the presence of the ball or toy and promptly brake?”
     No Ed, the car would just run over the ball and the child chasing it; that’s what makes this new technology so exciting.

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

No poem as lovely as...

     Had I been thinking, I'd have grabbed a leaf from this tree so I could later figure out what sort of tree it is. 
    Not that it matters. Besides, I already know what sort of tree it is. It's a beautiful tree, or at least it seemed beautiful to me as I was hurrying with my family out of Schneider Tower Sunday into Carbondale to grab breakfast. I paused, my family disappearing into the distance, and snapped this shot, and the one that tops the blog today.
     What about the tree stuck me? The shape, I suppose, oddly dense, and then the color, that dark green, set against the blue sky, highlighted by wisps of white clouds. Maybe the composition, standing by itself, in splendor, while the knot of lesser, anonymous trees clustered in the distance, whispering amongst themselves, jealous.
     Maybe it was the early morning light. In that light, a rusty dumpster might look beautiful.
     Maybe it was the good mood caused by leaving my routine and traveling 350 miles south to witness an astronomical event. I noticed that someone tabulated the hundreds of millions of dollars in productivity that was supposedly being lost by Americans stepping away from work and ogling the eclipse, though I was not among them, because I was working.
    It was a futile calculation, the meanest sort of concept of productivity, because looking at a marvelous natural phenomenon is about the most productive thing you can do. Even more than work productivity, because it goes directly to your bottom line, not your boss's. It swells your heart, and puts the rest of life into some kind of perspective. Think of the desperate flailing quality of ... certain public figures, whose name I don't want to sully the post with today, and compare it with the serenity of this tree. And how good it is, to be distracted, even for a minute, from the grim if necessary task of explaining Exactly What is Wrong. To pause and say, "Wow, look at that tree." And not much more. How could it ever be a waste? Just the opposite; it is a necessity. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

You CAN go home again, and there's fried chicken

Giant City State Park Lodge

     CARBONDALE — Stouffer’s is a line of frozen foods, now. But when I was a little boy it was a fancy restaurant — actually several fancy restaurants — in Cleveland, where my mother would take me in the regal years before my little brother was born. It was where I ate my first Parker House roll, a dense, yeasty cube with a sweet glazed brown dome top. I never forgot it nor the wicker basket with a red napkin in which it arrived. My mother, for her part, still tells the story of the time at Stouffer’s when her little boy announced she should change her hairstyle, one of those moments when a mom first realizes that she has her hands full.

   Hearing that story, I would not imagine any reader would muse, “Maybe I’ll stop by Stouffer’s next time I’m in Cleveland and try one of those rolls.” Even successful restaurants are short-lived: 70 percent that make it through the perilous first year are out of business by year five. Stouffer’s began freezing popular meals for customers in the 1940s and its frozen meals went to the moon with the Apollo 11 astronauts. As the business took off, Vernon Stouffer — who owned the Cleveland Indians in the 1960s — gave up on running restaurants.
     Which came to mind when my wife, realizing we would be in Carbondale for the eclipse, announced that we should swing by the Giant City State Park Lodge restaurant. She had gone as a very young girl, visiting her downstate cousins. They had eaten family style, big plates of fried chicken. She never forgot that chicken.
     Odd. She never mentioned it before. And after the both of us talking nonstop to each other for — jiminy — 35 years, I thought I had heard everything.
     My heart broke a little. I wanted to say, “Oh honey, that restaurant won’t be there anymore. It’s been half a century. And if it is, they won’t serve fried chicken family style.” She jumped on the internet. It was still there, and we hurried over our first night.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Clouds intrude but Carbondale eclipse still thrills

Ed Hill, an engineer from Barrington, with his girlfriend June Mannion, a pediatrician, viewing the eclipse. “It’s bucket list,” said Hill

     CARBONDALE — As if a total eclipse of the sun weren't dramatic enough.
     Or, maybe, as if a meteorological phenomenon as common as a solitary cloud could be jealous of all the attention being lavished on a rare astronomical wonder, and might try to crash the party and spoil the fun.
     Or, maybe, because a struggling small town just can't catch a break in this sagging economy, and fate just couldn't wait for the eclipse to even be over before it started dampening Carbondale's sincere hopes that all this national exposure will spark lingering interest in their beautiful community, with its surrounding forests and trails.
     But as the point of totality approached Tuesday, clouds gathered in to what had been sunny skies for days and threatened to wreck the Great American Eclipse, here in an area that was so proud of the length of "totality"—the time the moon would completely cover the sun so it could be looked at safely without special glasses—that it was ballyhooed on the eclipse-viewing glasses being handed out by Southern Illinois University: "2 minutes 38 seconds of darkness."

     Talk about hubris. People came here and not other places in the country so they could view totality a few seconds longer. And now it looked like they wouldn't be able to see it at all.
     At about 12:30 the waning sun, an ever-larger bite being taken out of its right side, was obscured by a rogue cloud, with an even bigger gray barge of a cumulus-nimbus waiting in the wings. There wasn't wind enough to hope.
     Across town, a little after 1 p.m., Curtis Conley, the manager of PK's, a bar on Illinois Avenue, closed up, and sent everybody into the street, more as a favor to his employees than to his customers.
     "Everybody wants to see it," said Conley. "I don't want to make 'em stay inside."
     Conley reported "a record week," but other area businesses were less enthusiastic. "You want to take home a case of chicken?" said the manager at the Giant City State Park Lodge restaurant, in nearby Makanda, Sunday night, saying they had 1,400 guests but had expected a thousand more, which would have put them on par with Mother's Day, their busiest day of the year.
     At Saluki Stadium, along with 14,000 others who paid $25 to hear the SIU band play "Thriller" and see three weather balloons sent up with scientific equipment and listen to cable TV hosts fill time, Ed Hill and his girlfriend June Mannion explained why they came down from Barrington.
     "It's bucket list," said Hill, 69.
     All seemed fated to end in disappointment. Poor Carbondale. They plan for years, spruce up, beautify their downtown, install new cell towers so everyone can Snapchat the astronomical wonder, and the guest of honor hides in a closet of clouds. It would be funny if it weren't so sad. I felt disappointed, sorry to miss the spectacle, almost personally responsible, wondering if I had dragged a few dark clouds of bad luck along with me. As if the botched eclipse were somehow a cosmic referendum that I had just been measured by and found wanting.
     Then, amazingly—miraculously, if you prefer, for those uncomfortable with all this emphasis on science and its clockwork predictability—at 1:15 p.m. the sun peeked into view through a hole in the otherwise thick cloud, an extreme crescent. Hope dawned. A cheer went up.
     "The sun!" people at Saluki Stadium cried. "The sun!" Fingers pointed heavenward.
     Then murk again, and the appointed moment arrived—1:21 p.m. Seconds ticked past. There were no confused birds that I noticed, no insects calling, but an unnatural gloom fell over the stadium, yellowish at the horizon. It was very quiet.
     "Oh no, it's not going to happen," thought Tyler Hong, 18, who had driven here with his friend Jason Leung, also 18, from San Mateo, California.
     Then it did happen. The long-anticipated total solar eclipse, a deep blue disk of the moon with the whitish ring of the corona around it, appeared briefly through the clouds. Loud cheers erupted. "Look! Look! Look!" people cried.
     "We got five seconds of totality," said Hill, afterward. "I wanted more, but it was definitely worth coming." At other locations around campus viewers reported 10 or 20 seconds.
     Not much. But enough.
     "Awesome, amazing," said Dan Ruffo, who came from Rochester, New York. His wife Martha, though aware of the scientific nature of the struggle between astronomical and atmospheric titans transpiring above her, had found herself indulging in some magical thinking.
     "We came all this way ... it can't be covered by clouds," she recalled thinking. "It can't be covered up."
     And was the flash she saw enough to make the journey worthwhile?
     "You'd have to be dead not to think it's pretty cool," she said.
     "We got lucky," said Jason Leung, one of the teens who drove in from California.
     "It was definitely worth it," said his friend, Tyler Hong.

An eerie darkness fell during totality.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Carbondale celebrates eclipse, if clouds don't spoil the party

Overcast skies above Carbondale Sunday
    CARBONDALE — “Happy eclipse, guys!” a young woman on a bicycle called out to complete strangers on a busy Saturday night in the heart of this bustling downstate college town. Happiness seemed a central theme — alongside science, commerce and partying — as tens of thousands of visitors converged for what has been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, the intercession of the clockwork cosmos into our disordered daily doings.
     Happy, that is, if the weather holds, an increasingly dicey proposition as clouds moved in Sunday afternoon.
     “There are more ways we can get clouds here than not,” said Jim Cantore, a meteorologist and host for The Weather Channel, arriving on the Southern Illinois University campus to do a broadcast, fretting about nearby storm systems. “I’m worried about a few clouds. That would be a disaster.”

   Rain or shine, clear or cloudy, on Monday the moon will move between the earth and the sun. The 70-mile-wide shadow the moon casts will sweep across the length of the continental United States, starting at Salem, Oregon, at 9:06 a.m., Pacific time, moving southeastward at about 1,500 miles an hour, passing directly over Caspar, Wyoming, where amateur astronomers are having their annual meeting, brushing Kansas City and St. Louis, then reaching Carbondale at 1:21 p.m., plunging the area into darkness for 2 minutes and 39 seconds — 2 seconds shy of the longest period of “totality” in the country, before hurrying onward, reaching Charleston, South Carolina an hour later and passing on to the Atlantic ocean.
     Being in the path of “totality,” the moon will completely cover the sun — the two discs are approximately the same size, by a fluke of nature; the sun is 400 times larger than the moon,
but also 400 times farther away. With the sun's blinding photosphere obscured, the sky will turn dark, the stars will come out, insects will grow quiet, and the 60,000 or so who have gathered in Carbondale will see a black disc where the sun should be.
     Unless it's cloudy.
     Because Chicago—where forecasters also predict clouds at eclipse time—is 350 miles north, the moon will only cover 87 percent of the sun, a lot, but not enough to make it safe to look at without proper eyewear. Residents cannot look at the partially eclipsed sun without wearing special eclipse glasses. Otherwise, they risk burning their retinas and causing permanent damage that might take weeks or months to appear.
     SIU started thinking about this eclipse three years ago, when it received an email from an eclipse watcher in England wondering about their plans, of which there were none. They got busy, along with the town of Carbondale, which was flying a special yellow eclipse flag beside Old Glory. The city of 26,000 has gone through difficult economic times, and, expecting 50,000 free-spending visitors, suspended its open container laws in the downtown district, temporarily, to encourage a carnival mood.
     The school realized that its first day of classes this year was to have taken place on the same day as the first total eclipse above Illinois since the Grant administration. So classes got bumped to Tuesday, though the school cannily had its 15,000 students move in last week, so hundreds were available to work everywhere as yellow-shirted volunteers, manning booths and giving directions
      "I just think the eclipse is a great event, bringing lots of people to campus and showing them that SIU is a great place to be," said Bridget Moroney, 19, a sophomore from Downers Grove studying communications.
     Eclipses were among the first natural phenomena that humanity began to understand. The Babylonians could predict eclipses, which appear in the Bible and are helpful to archeologists in dating ancient texts that refer to them.
     Eclipses have also proven valuable tools for advancing scientific knowledge.
     On Aug. 18, 1868, French astronomer Pierre J.C. Janssen, who traveled to India to study the total eclipse, saw an unexpected band of color in a spectroscopic analysis of the sun's corona and realized he had discovered a heretofore unknown element. A few months later, British astronomer Norman Lockyer confirmed the discovery and, assuming it had to be a metal, named the new element "helium," from the Greek helios, for sun. It would be 13 years before the element was detected on Earth.
     In 1919, an element of Albert Einstein's new theory of general relativity was proven when scientists used an eclipse to show that the immense gravity of the sun bends light from stars behind it.
     Using the eclipse to improve our understanding of the cosmos is to continue, weather permitting, with Monday's eclipse, which will be tracked across the country by volunteers participating in CATE—or the Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse Experiment.
     Sixty-eight teams will use identical 80 mm refractory telescopes to take high definition images of the total eclipse, which will be gathered by NASA into a 90 minute video of the sun's corona, the analysis of which is hoped will be helpful in understanding the sun's temperature fluctuations and magnetic qualities. Group 41 of the CATE Experiment is manned by SIU students at a special "dark site" on SIU's University Farms, one of four CATE locations in Illinois.
     "There's this gap in our knowledge," Christopher Mandrell, a graduate student involved in the project told the Daily Egyptian. "We'll see what it looks like in the outer corona. We don't know what happens in this zone when we can't look at it."
     How much science will get done if it's cloudy?
     "Not much," said Mike Kentrianakis, who has viewed 20 eclipses, in Carbondale representing the American Astronomical Society.
     Clouds or no, there is still money to be made. SIU charged $25 a ticket to fill Saluki Stadium with 14,000 people for the eclipse, and $848 for three nights in a spartan dorm suite with four beds in Schneider Hall - available because the student population is 40 percent lower than it was in the 1980s, when the university had a national reputation as a party school. The Carbondale Holiday Inn was asking $550 a night.
     Local artists created eclipse T-shirts, jewelry, posters and paintings, bakeries made eclipse cookie, and bars offered eclipse drinks. Denny's dubbed its pancakes "Mooncakes" and offered all you can eat for $4 with a free pair of eclipse glasses thrown in.
     There was an art fair, and "Eclipse Comic Con," which drew participants dressed as comic characters to campus. Blending right in were about 80 members of the media, including the BBC, Swedish television and the Old Farmer's Almanac. Visitors came from 40 different states.
     John Mannion flew in from New York with his wife, Janice Wiesman.
     "This is my third try," said Mannion, who traveled with his family as a youth to see eclipses in Nova Scotia and Georgia, only to be disappointed by the weather. "Now I'm trying again."
     A "computer guy" with the Bank of New York, he studied weather patterns and came to Carbondale because of "good odds for a sunny day."
     His wife added that "given what happened in Charlottesville" and all the unrest in the country, she hopes the eclipse is visible, because we could benefit from an experience often described as an awesome, spiritual, life-changing, something to remind squabbling Americans that we are only part of an enormous natural system.
     "It's really just physics; it's astronomy," she said. "It would be nice if people could get together for something meaningful, if this is a turning point, reminding everybody we are just a tiny little planet in a tiny little galaxy.
     Unless of course it rains. If that happens, the Carbondale area can take comfort in the fact that, through another fluke in the cosmos, the next total eclipse here will occur seven years from now, in 2024.
     "This is just a dry run," said Lou Mayo, an astronomer with NASA's Goddard Space Center.

Astronomy buffs attended lectures before the eclipse. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

That pesticide must be stronger than they thought

     Look at this sign, spied last week along Chicago Avenue, just east of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Take your time. Study the photo. See if you notice what I noticed immediately, stopping in my tracks and snapping this photo.
     No? It was a bit of a misleading request. Notice, not the sign, but the ground.  Anything missing? How about grass? These large, stark, yellow and black signs are warning about pesticide that isn't applied to a lawn that isn't there. Almost a koan.
    I can only imagine that there was once grass, and the sign either warned of regular though ultimately ineffectual pesticide treatment or—my guess—they were just put there cynically, to keep pets from being allowed to relieve themselves on the grass. That's a theory of mine. I always pull my dog off lawns—when there are actual lawns— marked with these sort of signs.
     I can't be sure they're sincere—some part of me says that there is no danger. I even have doubts such pesticides are used in residential areas. I mean, have you ever heard of a dog being sickened by pesticide that was put on a lawn? 
     Me neither. Heck, I don't even hear the word "pesticide" anymore. I don't know what they call it nowadays. Organic-Earth Insect Discourager. Or some such thing. "Pest" is like "problem," one of those words that got banished when we decided to use euphemisms for everything.  Now it's "otherwise-valued creature" and, of course, "issue."
    Not the biggest observation. But the sun is supposed to go out tomorrow. And while we're fairly confident it'll click back on, well, you never know, and I'd hate to spend my last hours beavering away here.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Why should we sit at home?

      It's an attractive fantasy.
      I've heard it time and time again from readers.
      Why not, they write, stay home when the Nazis protest? Wouldn't that be something. Let them stand around with their homemade swastika shields and their slack whitebread faces, sieg-heiling each other while the country coughs into its fist and looks away, ashamed. Nobody would be there to see them, hear them. Crickets and litter blowing through the empty streets.
      Even Tina Fey suggested it, jokingly. Stay home and eat sheet cake. It was funny, sort of.
      There was a logic. Deny them the attention they seek. Register your scorn by shunning them. Why not try that?
      But the answer is both simple and complicated. 
      First, it's human nature to want to witness a wonder yourself. To slip under the tent flap and go see the human oddity. To clap eyes on someone so out-of-fucking-touch with reality that they'd say to themselves, "Yeah, the Nazis! That's an ideology I want to embrace. Because it worked so well for the Germans. I'm sure it would be great in a nation as varied and diverse as the United States. That's a good idea!"
    It's hard to believe such people exist until you see them with your own eyes.
      Second, why should such marvels march unopposed? They feel comfortable showing up in public, airing their psycho-fucking bullshit worldview, of violence against people whose skin they don't like, whose hair scares them. They feel entitled to work themselves up into a knot over the shape of people's noses. Because they think it matters. 
      Why shouldn't the non-crazy, those free of hatred, of self-assigned and wrong-as-can-be superiority, not show up? To register their belief in our country, its freedoms, not just freedom of speech, or to—apparently—tote the guns you need to feel less terrified around in public. But the freedom to lives our lives unmolested by shitheads like these guys. To not sign on to the same old tired racist garbage that we spent centuries trying to pry off ourselves. The dead hand of hatred.
    Why shouldn't we shout that from the square? We who, unlike them, have nothing to be ashamed of.
      We who, unlike them, understand consequences. We who can also plan ahead, long term. Haters stress their freedom to speak their minds, to stretch the term, and they do have that. 
      But they are not free from consequences. That's why they strut around talking violence, then weep for their public shame the next day when the people back home realize its Dwayne, good old Dwayne from the Dairy Queen, wearing a brownshirt and talking about the need to push Jews into ovens. 
     What a surprise it is, for them. From being fired from the hot dog stands where they work because their bosses just don't want to be stained by association. From having their neighbors shun and condemn them. The First Amendment says government won't bar you from expressing the poisoned little sphincter in the middle of your chest where your heart should be. It doesn't guarantee your neighbors won't turn and spit in the street as you pass.
     As I write this, the forces are assembling in Boston. The tiny poisoned fragment that wants to goose-step in public, that thinks they're worth something if they can only pretend that others are less than them.
     And everybody else, patriotic Americans, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, who don't want to see the American flag shat on without raising their voices in righteous indignation.
     It's a beautiful thing. 

The dead are never gone on Facebook

    I would never have thought of J. David Moeller again. He was not my friend. I had never met him.
     He was, however, a Facebook friend, who commented on my column, sent in the jokes that used to end my column, right up until he killed himself in 2010.
     His birthday was Aug. 9, and Facebook—like a dim-witted cat dragging something unwelcome into the house—invited me to wish him happy birthday.
     Considering it, I visited his page, saw his actual friends leaving messages of missing and heartbreak. I said nothing, but thought of this column, from seven years ago, that addresses this online world, which was new then, and now is just how things are, for good and ill.

     A Facebook friend killed himself Friday. News came the way news does on Facebook, via a wall post.
     "We lost a mutual friend, Neil," Leigh Stone Eckroth wrote. "Actor, writer J. David Moeller took his own life on February 19, he left parting words on his profile, under the photo section . . . Very sad : ( "    
     I knew Moeller from his frequent postings of wry observations and as a contributor of jokes to this column. We never actually met.
     Those who knew him better bid farewell on his Facebook page:
     "David, you were such an amazing and sweet man," wrote one. "Your wit and humor and your intelligence . . . you have left a huge hole in our hearts."
     The sentiments seemed both private and public, a jarring juxtaposition. Once newspapers avoided mentioning the fact that someone committed suicide -- it was seen as intrusive. But that ship seems to have sailed.
     Amongst Moeller's 320 wall photos and 156 profile pictures is the image of a sheet of yellow legal paper. "My Dear Friends," it begins, in neat blue handwriting. "I'm sorry. I cannot go on . . ."
     Moeller was 64. He was a character actor with a half century of bit parts in movies, TV and on stage, doggedly pursuing a career that did not lavish him with rewards.
     "Moeller, who speaks with a faded Texas drawl, grew up in the Lone Star state and knew from the age of 3 he wanted to be an entertainer," wrote Stefano Esposito, in a Sun-Times profile published last year. "He has acted in Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Geneva, Switzerland -- among other places -- and now Chicago. To make ends meet, he has also driven cabs, done stand-up comedy at a strip club and worked as a telemarketer selling bulk trash bags."
     He could act. Hedy Weiss ended her 2008 review of Irish playwright Owen McCafferty's "Scenes from the Big Picture" with:
     "But it is J. David Moeller, a 'listener' most the time, who brings it all to a gorgeous Beckettian conclusion."
     Suicide is a mystery, and I won't pretend to offer insights here, except to observe that it seems to claim the witty, the kind and the unusual far more than it does the dull, the mean and the ordinary.
     The Facebook aspect makes it all the more unsettling. I know that suicide notes have posted on Facebook before, though there is still a disconnect, at least for me. The venue seems inappropriate. I don't want my children tweeting from my deathbed, and when I die, I don't want anybody posting frowny faces.
     At first, I wasn't even sure Moeller was really dead -- I'm of an era when seeing something on a Web page is only an indication that it might be true. Moeller was certainly waggish enough for us to hope this could be a stunt ("I thought, 'Oh, it was a prank -- he's fine and I took the bait,' " wrote a friend).
     Alas, the Cook County medical examiner's office, a very real institution on Harrison Street, confirms that it received his body. The cause of death is being withheld, pending toxicology reports.
     I joined Facebook because the paper told us to, and have found it a mixed blessing. It does have a practical purpose, providing a sort of hive intelligence to tap into. I remember rolling into Salt Lake City last summer and feeling unmoored -- what was I doing with my boys in Utah? I posted words to that effect on Facebook, and somebody immediately pointed me toward Ruth's Diner. Next thing we knew, we were eating red trout and eggs and chocolate malt pudding and all was right in the world once more.
     Facebook expands your circle. It takes your actual friends—who ironically are less significant on Facebook since you see them in the flesh world—and adds this strange online penumbra of quasi-friends you sorta know.
     Every once in a while one of them pops up in the actual world—remember when that Norwegian lady blew into town last year and married a guy she met on my Facebook page in a ceremony atop the Willis Tower?
     Of course, it was much stranger and more complicated than that. The guy apparently forgot to tell his former wife and children that he was getting remarried, a situation I discovered when his 11-year-son phoned to ask: Who was this lady marrying his father? A very real, deeply awful moment.
     Sometimes I wonder if the drawbacks to Facebook, as both a time sinkhole and an emotional minefield, outweigh the benefits. But I also know the technology genie never goes back in the bottle.
     Posting your suicide note on Facebook feels extra wrong, but then new technology always seems undignified. The teams sent out by the military to notify families of the death of servicemen harken back to the day when it was considered rude to give bad news over the telephone.
     The night before he died, Moeller posted two thoughts.
     The first was completely prosaic, about the Olympics" "Local boy goes good . . . Evan Lysacek wins the Gold!"
     And then, a minute later: "None but we know the rooms we roam, the beds we lie in, the houses of our mind."


From J. David Moeller:

     Those baby-changing stations don't work. I put my baby in one, closed it up and when I opened it again . . . it was still a baby. I was hoping for a new laptop.

          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 24, 2010

Friday, August 18, 2017

Traitors to our country should never have been honored in the first place

Stonewall Jackson, Virginia Military Institute

     Say I take up a hobby: drowning puppies in a bucket, then using a tennis racquet to serve their limp, dripping carcasses at neighborhood children who flee, shrieking, while I laugh and laugh.
     You object to this practice, citing cruelty to animals, to children.
     I reply, "What? You don't realize what a huge problem over-population is among pets? You don't care about animals? And obesity is a major problem among the young. How can you oppose exercise?"
     Welcome to what passes for discourse in America, 2017, where no moral lapse is so extreme that it can't be reframed and explained away.
     A mob of Nazis march, on the pretext of defending Civil War monuments. The marchers clash with counter-protesters, then return to the holes they came from. Decent Americans exhibit their displeasure by pulling down the same monuments the Nazis used as pretext, those honoring traitorous Civil War leaders who took up arm against their own country — our country — in open rebellion trying to preserve the grotesque institution of slavery, monuments often set up in the 20th century as a middle finger to Civil Rights protests.
     Our current leader, Donald Trump, can't bring himself to sincerely denounce racism, so instead expounds on the Nazis' excellence, so much that corporate CEOs, not a group famous for morality, draw away in visceral horror.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg

    You open the world to your children and then, if you are lucky, they open their world to you.
    I was not particularly fond of contemporary art—I'm more of a French Impressionism fan—but then again, I didn't know much about it either, and ignorance and dislike are brothers. 
     I've grown to appreciate it more over the past couple years, and only now, having spent a few hours at the impressive Takashi Murakami show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, did I realize why: my older boy.
     It was he who prompted us to go to The Broad, the new privately-financed Los Angeles mecca of recent art. It was he who, in April, dragged us to the Palazzo Grassi in Venice to see Damien Hirst's massive "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable."
    And while it wasn't he who took me to the MCA Tuesday to see a retrospective of Japan's top contemporary artist, the show opened in June, I wasn't racing there either, not until my kid came home Saturday from his internship in LA for a couple weeks. Then my first thought was, "Hey, there's a Murakami show at the MCA—wanna go?"
     He did.  
     Rooms filled with enormous canvases that somehow manage to be both freeform and precise, explosions of color and tracts of black and white. Murakami struck me as the apotheosis of high school artists, his blizzard of arhats, stylized Buddhists recalled faces scrawled on the notebooks of artsy fellow students at Berea High School in the late 1970s, dreamy-eyed girls with names like Ariel and Autumn.
     I particularly liked his Yves Klein tribute flower wallpaper—as I thought of it. Something daft and commercial. 
     If you go, make sure you see the films of Murakami overseeing squads of employees—he has some 250 at five studios around the world— slim youths in colorful jumpsuits and paper masks slathering paint over large wood-framed stencils he computer cuts to make his enormous images. And in the middle, pot-bellied, with a scraggly beard, round glasses and earbuds screwed in his ears, the Artist, transferring his images onto paintings that cover museum walls and sell for millions.
     In one room, with huge resin and steel guardian figures on each end, were a pair of paintings that carried the name of the show—The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, his comment on the resilience of survival. A Japanese saying about regeneration, the extreme step taken to survive, the moral of the story being the octopus grows a new leg to replace what was lost. 
    In tiny letters on these paintings Murakami had a surprisingly anxious, aggrieved personal statement, about the young artists he tried to help and who "betrayed" him and how generally troublesome his life was. 
     I suppose he could be looked down on for that, but as Walt Whitman said, "How beautiful is candor;" somehow that spirit, the self-exposure, endeared Murakami to me—of course it would, since I too am in the self-revelatory line, though with far less remunerative results.
     Still, it's good to know that someone is making a smash success of whimsical self-pity, and curator Michael Darlings cannily convinced Murakami to present his not-all-that-hot early works in the first room of the show, jammed with young people, to whom this should be an inspiration, because he does not come off as a genius, just someone who combined work and luck and a vision and made it. 
     Murakami thinks of his production process as similar to making a movie—"Star Wars" was an inspiration—and coming out of the show indeed had that return-to-reality sense you have after seeing a good movie.
     The show runs until Sept. 24, but go sooner than later, as the MCA might have to go to timed tickets, just to handle the crowds.