Saturday, September 30, 2017

An agnostic goes to synagogue

Leonardo DaVinci, "St. John the Baptist"

     Yom Kippur is today. 

     This ran five years ago—five years ago today, in fact—in the Sun-Times. It is particularly relevant, alas, now that Alabama Republicans have chosen Judge Roy Moore to be their senatorial candidate, a religious fanatic who thinks his idea of God should trump our nation's law. It also mentions Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz who, double alas, passed away in 2014.

     Every columnist has a few hobbyhorse causes he likes to ride. One favorite of mine is the idea that government shouldn't promote any particular religion. I like it because, despite being so obvious—a diverse nation of many faiths, we can't exist in harmony if the law backs just one—many folks still can't seem to wrap their heads around it.
     Raised in their own insular worlds, they lurch upon the national stage with their great idea—prayer into public schools!—never pausing to consider whose prayer will be put in school (theirs, naturally; is there any other kind?) It is satisfying to inform them that, yes, there are other people who believe other things, a half dozen faiths per classroom, and adding prayer to schools would make them more chaotic than they are now.
     Such reasoning can't be merely accepted—that would involve changing their minds, and most are hardwired to prevent that—so instead they accuse me of hating religion. People to whom fairness is unfamiliar still perceive, in a foggy general way, that fairness-based arguments can work, so they want to grab at that advantage themselves. They say: You're disagreeing with me! You must hate me in a fashion similar to how I hate you! What about tolerance of my bigotries?
     For the record: I think religion is swell. Life is a long time, you need help to get by, and faith is perfect for that. Religions tend to be old and are embraced by many, so there's tradition and company, plus food and music.
     OK, not always food. Yom Kippur was earlier this week—the holiest day of the Jewish year, a fast day. Not that I'm the sort who believes that God Almighty is peering down from heaven, quill pen poised over the Book of Life, waiting to see whether Neil Steinberg toddles off to synagogue or not. But my wife announced she was going to services at the Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook. That was different. The Lubavitch are a highly observant branch of Judaism—think beards, black hats, fringed garments. Typically not the corner of our faith that my wife and I would snuggle in. But unlike most synagogues, they don't charge a fee to worship on the high holidays—typically most synagogues see it as a chance to make hay.
     Our previous temple membership fell victim to the recession. So free helped. Though in my secret heart, I felt distant from the process, brooding as I put on my suit: Every year this stuff seems more ridiculous. I could be attending an animistic goat ritual performed by Ghanaians and couldn't feel less affected.
     I didn't say that aloud. I'm trying not to complain so much, and when I had shared similar thoughts in previous years, my wife just smiled and replied, "You always say that, but you end up getting something out of it."
     I had never been to a Lubavitch Yom Kippur service; I expected it to be all in Hebrew, expected a scene from Vilnius in 1754, the low drone of ancient syllables uttered by men in prayer shawls. I would slink in, as out-of-place as a peacock among penguins, perch awkwardly in a corner for a few hours, and then flee unchanged, grateful to be gone.
     That's not what happened. A surprising amount was in English. They not only weren't hostile but warmly welcomed us freeloaders. Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, director of Lubavitch Chabad in Illinois, gave a sermon that I didn't transcribe, but can be summarized thus: We're glad you're here. Because Orthodox or Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, whatever, we're all Jews. We should be Jews together and do Jewish stuff. We should be good to people, give them m'vater - space, respect.
     "We're not judgmental," Moscowitz said, a concept that many faiths, still hoping to convert the entire world, by persuasion if possible, by law if not, might want to contemplate. Religion should be voluntary. Moscowitz said the Lubavitch are here, doing the things they believe in, and hope other Jews will come and join them and see that they're good. (And maybe kick in a little something. He did allude to having electric bills to pay, a soft-sell invite to those present to help, which of course we will; we're not utter schnorrers, as they say in Yiddish, not mooches).
     But that isn't why I'm writing this; that wasn't the surprising part. The surprising part was, when I was done, after ... geez ... five hours over Tuesday and Wednesday, I felt better. Not that I felt so bad going in, but I felt better. Life seemed more palatable. I will forever deny that grace or God or anything like that had any part. It was just nice to sit in a room among other people and hear familiar prayers and think about being a better man for a few hours, with no email or Facebook. I came out renewed, though not—and this is important— also feeling the laws of the United States should be changed to funnel people into Lubavitch services. In all candor, the place was packed, and if none of you ever go, that's fine with me.
     My wife merely smiled at my glowing report. "You say that every year," she replied.

               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 28, 2012

Friday, September 29, 2017

Hefner idealized women; women didn't reciprocate

    The naked women were supposed to be temporary.
     Just until Hugh Hefner's new magazine got off the ground and could afford to hire top writers.
     "Later, with some money in the bank, we'd begin increasing the quality and reducing the girlie features," remembered Hefner.
     That never happened. Instead Hefner, 91, who died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, kept the erotic photos and the literary quality. In the process he became an important figure in 20th century America—a cultural icon, a successful businessman whose business just happened to be built around pornography. A vigorous advocate for 1st Amendment, civil and gay rights who yet had difficulty including real women in his vision of dynamic equality, a champion celebrating unembarrassed consumerism and the female form, albeit idealized, airbrushed and safely naked or nearly.
     As Hefner once described it: "pretty girls, night life, food and drink, sports cars, travel, Hi-Fi music with emphasis on jazz."
     Like a boys' secret clubhouse, girls were not welcome, something Hefner was upfront about in the magazine's first issue.
     "If you're a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you," Hefner wrote in the undated November, 1953 issue, assembled in his South Side kitchen. "If you're somebody's sister, wife or mother-in-law, and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion." 
     Such pats on the head did not go down well with increasingly-outspoken women.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Then I realized it was true"—Lillian Ross and Jake LaMotta

     There's so much to read in a newspaper, and our attention span is so diffused nowadays, by tweets and posts and the constant pressure of where we might be other than here and what we might be reading other than this, that I sometimes flip through the paper hurriedly, first noting what's there, before I set down to read this or that article that catches my attention.
Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Ross
   So it probably says something about me that I initially skipped over the obituary of Jake LaMotta, the Raging Bull of boxing fame, in last Thursday's New York Times, but settled in on the 2/3 page headlined, "Lillian Ross Dies at 99; A New Yorker Reporter Whose Memoir Rankled."
     The memoir, Here But Not Here: A Love Story was about her half-century-long affair with William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, and though it was published after his death, Ross's book drew "furious" response. Charles McGrath, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called it a "cruel betrayal" since Shawn's widow was still alive. "a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions."
     A similar chorus of outrage had met her most famous work, a profile of Ernest Hemingway, "How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?" which chronicled the author's stopover in New York in 1950, capturing his staccato pidgin speech ("He read book all way up on plane," Hemingway said, of a fellow passenger. "He like book.") and near constant inebriation.
     "Nothing more cruel has happened to an American writer," Irving Howe wrote in the New Republic, ignoring the fact that Hemingway both approved the piece before publication and afterward praised it, as well as Lillian Ross.
     Then again, I find the greatest indignation is not from people directly affected by a piece of writing, but from third parties, aghast by proxy, on the behalf of people they assume must be done wrong by the way they were handled in a story. The Ross obituary does not mention, and history may not record, what Cecille Shawn felt about Ross's relationship with her husband—which, after 50 years, you imagine she knew about—or the book.
     It's almost as if many people—but not all—have an allergy to candor, so much that they have to express it when given the opportunity.
Jake LaMotta
     Even though that impulse—to condemn unpleasant truths, to endorse heavily-shellacked versions of reality—is antithetical to good writing, and part of the leap a writer makes is deciding, if not to suspend care about what subjects think about a particular work or passage, to push that priority far down the list.
     As I always say, the reason most people can't write is not because they can't string words together, though that's a factor, but because they draw away from expressing the frank truths that make for good writing. They are more worried about some acquaintance than about the most important person, the reader.
     Though not everyone shies away hard realities.
     When I finished Ross's obituary, I turned to LaMotta's, and in it, he summarized perfectly what I had been thinking reading the strong, in my view unfair, reactions to Lillian Ross. The Martin Scorcesse movie that made LaMotta famous to a new generation, "Raging Bull," was a masterpiece, but certainly did not paint the violent, abusive fighter in a positive light. Nor did LaMotta expect it to.
     "I kind of look bad in it," LaMotta told the New York Times. "Then I realized it was true. That's the way it was. I was a no-good bastard. It's not the way I am now, but the way I was then."
     LaMotta was not a writer nor sophisticated thinker like Charles McGrath or Irving Howe. But he had a realization that escaped both of them: that truth is itself a kindness, more flattering than a bucket of honeyed lies. A fiction writer crafts how things could have been, maybe how they should be, creating characters who seem real, and has a free hand because there are no people to be flattered or insulted.
     A non-fiction writer has only reality, and the degree that writer is faithful to reality, and not what the subject might like, or the publication might prefer, determines whether, like Lillian Ross, a particular writer is remembered and cherished or, like the dozen of other profile writers who no doubt tackled Hemingway in 1950, instead are justly forgotten. What her contemporaries condemned her for then was the very thing most valuable about her now.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Trying to see the future through clouds of drones

     The clouds in the east were pink early Tuesday, painted by the rising sun.
     It was about 6:30 a.m. I was taking our dog Kitty on her morning stroll and did what people nowadays do upon seeing anything unusual: whipped out my iPhone and took a picture.
     Why? Who knows? Possible Facebook cover shot. Potential blog illustration. The truth is, it's a habit. Almost a reflex. I worry I'll step in front of a truck someday and lunge to snap its picture as it bears down on me when what I really should be doing is leaping out of the way.
     Clouds documented, I continued on. A buzzing sound. I looked up: high in the sky, a drone, lights winking. I looked down: standing directly in the center of the intersection, a young man bent intently over a control box.
     The young man never looked up as Kitty and I approached. I stopped and — what else? — took a picture of him. Intrusive? One's expectation of privacy standing in the middle of an intersection is quite small or should be. We rounded the corner of Briarwood and headed down Center Avenue.
     Are the skies soon going to be thick with these things? Delivering books for Amazon, sushi for GrubHub. Each house with its droneport, a 4-by-4-foot platform, raised off the ground so the squirrels don't get at the fruitcake your Aunt Agatha sends.
     The future is hard to perceive. Maybe impossible. So many ways to misread what's coming. There is what I call the Arthur C. Clarke Syndrome. Clarke, the author of "2001: A Space Odyssey," extrapolated a few moon landings to expect colonies on Mars. Are drones this year's Space Food Sticks? Or the Model T in 1910?

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Every baby is allowed to carry a whip

      My older son published an article last week about a secret website where hundreds of his Pomona College classmates  gather to trade hateful memes they consider funny. The provocative piece set several balls rolling. Far right freakshow Milo Yiannopoulus sic'ed the Internet on him. The school opened an administrative investigation into the web site. The publication, the Claremont Independent, where my son had been managing editor, fired him for writing the article they had just posted. Craven though that was, to their credit, the Independent kept up the article that had irked them. While reading the comments section, the repetitive, dull and counterproductive—these are exactly the people you WANT to dislike you—expressions of malice from Milo's minions reminded me of this column from five years ago. 
Samuel Johnson

     There is nothing new under the sun.
     Life today, as always, is filled with odd juxtapositions and taunting ironies generated by the eternal vanity and reflexive meanness of human beings.
      Yet for some reason—perhaps to flatter ourselves that the hardships we face are even harder by pretending they are novel—we like to think our challenges are something new, unique in the history of the world, when they're really the same old hardships in new wrappings. A few details are different, but whether you are being attacked with a sword or a bullet, or your character maligned on parchment or an iPad, the result is the same.
     A few weeks back, I discussed abortion in my column, and whenever I do, it brings out a certain class of people who apparently deplete the entirety of whatever small store of human sympathy they may possess by fretting about the fetuses of women they will never meet, because they're sure not very nice people when it comes to writing to newspaper columnists.
     And as much as I should be used to this, being the dewy-eyed, aw-gee kind of guy I actually am, at moments, certain acid attacks can seep under the armor and linger.
     I was standing at the old Daily News Plaza at the end of a long day, finishing a cigar, brooding over this, using my new phone to delete unread emails from known nutbags—a difficult thing to do, because curiosity gets the better of me, and it seems uncivil, even when I know what's going to be in the email because it's all that person ever says.
     So I was standing, deleting, puffing, thinking of how unusual a world we dwell in, with all this anonymous electronic venom to be washed away everywhere you go, and how previous generations, bathed in civility and manners and string quartets didn't have to worry about this sort of thing.
     As it happens, I was reading Hester Lynch Piozzi's Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson. Johnson is the great man of Georgian era British letters, famous for his colossal dictionary. Piozzi was his ... well, it's complicated. The wife of his friend, brewer Henry Thrale. Later his hostess, confessor, tea pourer, rumored dominatrix.
     Whatever she was, she wrote a highly enjoyable book about him, and no sooner did I grimly reflect on the storm of electronic malice that any writer who says anything has to endure nowadays, than minutes later, on the train, I happened upon this passage regarding "slight insults from newspaper abuse."
     "They sting one," Johnson says. "But as a fly stings a horse." The horse may twitch, but it never goes after the source of its affliction. "The eagle will not catch flies," Johnson concludes, mixing metaphors and species. (Here I thought it was Mike Royko who first said that).
     But not everyone could be so detached. Piozzi mourns several friends of Johnson's, one who "fell a sacrifice to their insults, having declared on his death-bed to Dr. Johnson, that the pain of an anonymous letter, written in some of the common prints of the day, fastened on his heart, and threw him into the slow fever of which he died."
     That still happens. Not to hardened columnists, of course. But how often do we see poor young people kill themselves over some anonymous electronic abuse? And while we adults are made of stronger stuff, in theory, we do have to teach our children and remind ourselves to not let such nastiness fasten on our hearts, nor to indulge in pointless counterpunching.
     Another Johnson friend, Piozzi writes, was Hawkesworth, "the pious, the virtuous, and the wise," who "for want of that fortitude which casts a shield" against attack "fell a lamented sacrifice to wanton malice and cruelty."
     That isn't why I write this. It's the next line that I just have to share:
     "All in turn feel the lash of censure, in a country where, as every baby is allowed to carry a whip, no person can escape."
     Every Baby is Allowed to Carry a Whip. Now that's a new sentiment. I'd like a T-shirt with that line on it.        
A t-shirt company actually made me a shirt, which is cool.

     Amazingly, she concludes—as we all must—that such anonymous verbal cruelty serves a purpose and should be tolerated:
     "The undistinguishing severity of newspaper abuse may in some measure diminish the diffusion of vice and folly in Great Britain. And though sensibility often sinks under the roughness of their prescription, it would be no good policy to take away their license."
     So wrote Hester Lynch Piozzi in 1784. As true today as it was then. Or, to flip open our Bibles and quote Ecclesiastes.
     "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
     To put that thought another way—the phone may be new, and the phone may be smart, but we who use the phone, alas, are all too often neither new nor smart, and we rarely have thoughts anywhere near as advanced or marvelous as the technology that conveys them.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 9, 2012

Monday, September 25, 2017

If you're free to stand, you're also free to kneel

     The flag in front of my house was tangled Sunday morning, wrapped around the pole.  I hate when that happens, so paused to set it right.
     After doing so, I said the Pledge of Allegiance. It's a powerful little ditty, both nostalgic and prescriptive, something we recited in grade school, but also something outlining the nation as it should be. I'm sure you know it:
     I pledge allegiance
     To the flag
     Of the United States of America
     And to the republic
     For which it stands.
     One nation.
     That last part is supposed to be "Under God." But "Under God" was inserted by Congress in 1954, trying to show that the Soviet Union isn't the only government that can interfere with its citizens' sense of the divine. Sometimes, feeling charitable, I'll say "Under God." Other times, feeling feisty, I won't. Hey, it's a free country, or used to be.
     I also registered a second protest. Instead of putting my right palm over my patriotic heart, I kept it balled in a fist in my pocket, to show my personal objection to the doofus my beloved country elected president.
     The guy who Friday tried to whip up his aggrieved white guy base by calling on football teams to fire players who register quiet protests similar to the one described above.
     "Wouldn't you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired! He's fired!'" Trump said.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

RIP, Frank Sugano

     The word Maureen O'Donnell used to describe Frank Sugano, in Sunday's typically spot-on obituary of the Sun-Times copy editor, who died last month, is "meticulous," and I have a story that illustrates why she used that word.
     When I was hired by the Sun-Times—along with Patricia Smith, the renown poet—our job was to be the staff of The Adviser, a midweek publication intended to give practical household tips to readers: how to clean your garage, how to grow a better lawn, stuff like that.
     I wrote a story, I'd say in late 1987. about what to do if you get a speeding ticket. It began something like this:
     Everyone has had the experience. You're driving along, not a care in the world, then glance in the rearview mirror, notice the flashing red and blue Mars lights, feel that sinking in your gut while your mind grapples with one thought:    Busted.

     Frank Sugano called me over—this was before email remember. He was concerned, he said, about a word usage.
     Which word? I asked.
    "Busted," he said. Isn't that drug terminology?
    I gazed steadily at him. I was 26 remember.
     "What word would you suggest instead?" I asked. 
    Frank thought a moment. 
    "Caught," Sugano said. 
     "Caught," I repeated, without emotion. I gazed at him some more, assessing my options. I didn't realize it, but he was just a few years senior to myself, having left the Tokyo branch of Stars and Stripes two years earlier. Erring on the side of prudence, I told him, slowly and measuredly, that I thought "busted" works fine in this context. But he was the copy editor, and of course he should do whatever he thinks right.
      When the next Adviser came out, my story was on the front page with a headline, in big letters: "BUSTED!" I'll have to dig in the basement and see if I can find it. But I still remember, 30 years later, how, with palpating heart, I had flipped to the story itself, to see if the second paragraph had been changed to "Caught."
     It hadn't. "Busted" remained, despite Frank Sugano's concerns. A good copy editor knows when to raise a question, and knows when to yield the field, and Frank Sugano was a good copy editor.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

'Babywearing' fuzzy fun until tot gets hurt


     Fast-dwindling September is, among other things, Baby Safety Month, as the makers of eClip reminded me Friday. eClip, besides looking odd at the start of a sentence is, in their words, "an innovative first-of-its-kind device that attaches inside the car and alerts parents via Smartphone app if they accidentally walk away from their car without their baby."
     This is in reaction to babies being left accidentally—and in at least one case, not accidentally—to die in hot cars, a horror documented by my pal Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post and addressed here.
     Safety requires constant vigilance, to quote Mad-Eye Moody, and you can't guard against perils you aren't familiar with. So as a service to those readers still lugging around their children, as opposed to desperately wishing to hear from them, I'm reprinting a column from four years ago about the very real risk of baby carriers.

    A newspaper is a dialogue, a chorus of voices conveying and commenting upon the news of the day.
     So I am not correcting a Thursday story in the Splash pages - "That's a wrap" about "wearable baby carriers" - as much as elaborating on some caveats that were online but, alas, not in print, and adding a dimension to the piece that did not, for instance, contain the phrase "baby airbag," which my wife uses to refer to carriers.
     This is based on hard experience, one January day nearly 18 years ago, when she left our apartment on Pine Grove with 3-month-old Ross in one of those soft, front-facing carriers - a backpack you wear on your chest that you slide your baby into.
     She was only walking a block, to visit a friend. But it was a block of Chicago city sidewalk, with plenty of cracks and crevices, and she caught her toe on one and pitched forward, breaking her fall with her knee, an outstretched palm and our baby's head.
     I was at home, having taken time off work to do my share of diaper changing. I don't remember the phone call - I can't say with any certainty whether she was composed or hysterical, though I would put my chips down on the latter.
     What I remember clearly, vividly, as if it were a scene in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman movie, was grabbing the empty blue stroller - she must have told me to bring it - and running full bore the several blocks to St. Joseph Hospital, pushing the empty baby carriage, with no idea whether our happy little urban homestead was about to be plunged into some medical nightmare of irreparable cranial damage.
     A slight skull fracture, which took sitting for six hours in windowless rooms for the hospital to ascertain, via X-ray and CAT scans. My wife's main memory is of the CAT scan operator asking, "Can't you make him hold still?" and her answering, "He's a baby."
     The other moment I can recall from that day is, toward the end of our Big Hospital Day, when one of the endless series of doctors who kept hurrying into the room, burst in with a blustery, "So how's our little patient?" to which I replied, with all the gravitas I could manage, "Doctor, he's incontinent and babbling!" which caused a flash of concern over the physician's face until he remembered that all 3-month-old babies are incontinent and babbling.
     Ross was fine, the shadow of fate that passed over us kept moving and darkened some other poor soul's home.
    My wife threw the baby carrier away and became a one-woman truth squad against them. Still, because people are biased by their own experiences, I didn't want to unfairly question baby carriers' utility. There are risks associated with strollers, too. At crossings, there is a tendency to nudge them into the street—"testing the waters," I call it—despite passing traffic, and I know that babies have been grievously injured that way.
     But a little checking shows the risks of baby carriers is not limited to my family. In 2010, the Consumer Product Safety Commission warned of the risk of suffocation to young infants in baby slings—14 deaths in a 20-year period, with three dying in 2009. Most were under 4 months old.
     Consumer Reports found three dozen serious injuries to babies in slings, and urged parents "Don't use slings at all."
     Even the most cuddly, fuzzy mommy website about baby carriers has a list of warnings. TBW, "The" warns of babies falling out of carriers and urges practice with a doll.
     "Most of the reported accidents involving babywearing are due to the wearer tripping and falling," it cautions.
     Among its suggestions:
     Careful going through doorways.
     Don't cook or handle hot liquids, for obvious reasons. Mind that the tail of your baby sling doesn't trail into flames or get stuck in closing doors.
     Don't wear a baby carrier in moving cars; it's no substitute for a baby seat. "For playing sports or cycling, use your discretion: What would happen to your baby if you were knocked over?" it asks. "How much is your baby being bounced or shaken?"
     I would say "use your discretion" is a naive underestimation of just how god-awful stupid people can be, and substitute, "Never bicycle with your baby in a front carrier."
     I hadn't planned on writing about baby carriers. But I felt morally obligated to inject a note of warning. Babies are resilient; they aren't as fragile as new parents fear. But caution is still a good idea, and you can't avoid perils you don't know about.

               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 15, 2013

Friday, September 22, 2017

Brains vs. Brawn: 90 years ago Tunney v, Dempsey shocked Soldier Field


     Nobody could hear.
     The roar of 100,000—or 120,000, or even 140,000, depending on what figure you believe—people was so loud that all that could be heard on the radio was a continuous howl.
     Few could see. A $5 ticket bought a seat on a bench up to 200 yards away. Those in ringside seats—which cost $40 and extended 100 rows back, stretching the concept of "ringside"—jockeyed to see Jack Dempsey, with a right hook followed by a flurry of six punches, send Gene Tunney sprawling in the seventh round of the heavyweight championship of the world of boxing, a sport which had become legal in Illinois only the year before, about the same time construction was completed at the venue, Soldier Field.
     It was Sept. 22, 1927.
     Tunney's back hit the canvas. Dempsey hovered nearby, right arm cocked.
     The "Long Count" as it became known is perhaps the most famous 14 seconds in boxing, if not all professional sport. But why it mattered, why those people were screaming so furiously, deserves remembering too.
     Dempsey was considered a brute, a caveman, "The Manassa Mauler" who boxed with a three-day growth of beard to enhance the effect. He won the heavyweight champion in 1919 from Jess Willard, breaking his cheekbones, and became part of 1920s celebrity culture, alongside Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Bobby Jones. His fights were legend: Dempsey, knocked out of the ring by Luis Firpo in 1923—a moment captured in oils by George Bellows—pushed back by newsmen and going on to win the fight.
     But Dempsey was also reviled as a "slacker"—he had avoided military service in World War I—until he first met Gene Tunney in Philadelphia in 1926. Tunney battered him, and won the fight on a decision, taking all 10 rounds. But Dempsey won the hearts of sports fans with a single quip.
     "What happened?" wailed Dempsey's wife, the actress Estelle Taylor, rushing to him afterward.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Don't kill yourself before hitting the Ritz

     Two people killed themselves on the Metra Milwaukee North Line this week. At least two people; two that I know of. A 53-year-old man stepped off the platform Sunday into the path of an Amtrak express at Northbrook station, a block from my house. And someone Tuesday at Western. Two so far this week. It's only Thursday.
      The suicides prompted me re-visit one of my more controversial columns, this irreverent gripe about people leaping in front of the train, written just before 9/11 gave us a far greater horror to contemplate.
      If you are the grief-stricken relative of a family member who committed suicide, let me warn you up front: skip this column. It is not sympathetic. Or, rather, it is not sympathetic to you, but rather to the other people unwillingly drawn into your tragedy, albeit temporarily. 
    If you insist on continuing on, remember: I'm sorry for your loss. Truly. And I know the little tableau of imagined ritzy suicide at the end shrugs off the agony, desperation and mental illness that drives a person to take his own life. I've written about train suicides with more compassion in the past, trying to encourage Metra to do a better job helping suicidal commuters. 
    But not everything is for everybody. And being hurt doesn't make you right. This is for those who sit on the  train and wait, or who are compelled to clean up the mess afterwards, and for the mothers with their kids out walking Sunday who had to confront this jarring horror. They deserve sympathy too.    
     Speaking of which, if you notice that the talk of martinis at the end reminds you that I am a different person than I was 16 years ago, that is true. But I certainly can still relate to what this guy was trying to say. If I didn't, I wouldn't repost it.

     Why can't people kill themselves at home? That's only polite. Why all this leaping in front of commuter trains, during the morning rush hour no less. At least wait until lunch; what's the big hurry?
     I suppose this sounds callous to you. Well, you were not cooling your heels with me for an hour Thursday morning on the Milwaukee North Line while the earthly remains of some troubled soul were hosed off the track at Forest Glen. I'm sorry, but it doesn't strike me as an occasion for violins and mawkish sentiment. Suicide is cowardly and inconsiderate enough in the standard, Roman, warm-bath-and-a-straight-razor fashion. Add to it the public inconvenience of thousands of people who are in no way responsible for your disappointments in life, and it is not an act deserving of sympathy.
     At least I assume it was suicide, to give the benefit of the doubt. I suppose it could have been one of those people who blunder blithely in front of an express. Though which is worse? To toss your life away willfully, in despair? Or to lose it through stupidity? Frankly, I'd take despair. It sounds better. Ten years from now, my boys would rather say, while pretending to be dark, troubled teens in order to pick up girls, "My dad leapt in front of a train when I was 5," as opposed to, "My dad leaned down to tie his shoe and his head was an inch over the train tracks." Not a James Deanish way to go.
     Perhaps this is a failure of empathy on my part. I just can't imagine, even were I the most wretched, loathed, miserable person—Mike McCaskey, say—wanting to do myself in.
     Suicide is so illogical. It flies in the face of the only undisputed fact we have about life: It's short, relatively. The universe was born, chugged on for billions upon billions of years then, pop, you show up for, what, 100 years, max, if you take care of yourself. Then you're gone, perhaps in front of a rush-hour train, and the universe shrugs and skips merrily along for billions of years more without you.
     This would seem an argument for staying alive. No matter how painful, difficult, unpleasant, woesome your existence, it's just a tiny flash, and then you'll be back to the comforting void from whence you came. Patience. "We give birth astride a grave," as Beckett says.
     But even if you're going to do it—I mean, come on. The train? Granted, it's over quick. Over for you. But think about everyone else. First, you get sprayed over 100 feet of track, and some poor person has to go about collecting you from between the ties. Trust me, it isn't pretty. I glanced up at the wrong moment, as the train slowly rolled through Forest Glen, and saw about 25 train officials and city workers standing around, plus four uncomfortable looking firemen straining to lug a black plastic body bag past about a dozen small squares of white sheet covering the various lumps of offal strewn among the weeds.
     We shudder at the thought of state-sponsored suicide. It seems very Dutch, very contrary to the sanctity of life. But the way people are leaping in front of commuter trains, Metra is fast becoming a sort of de facto government vehicle of death--and being governmental, it doesn't work all that well. The Grim Reaper Postal Service. Would it really be that bad to, say, set up a pile driver behind the medical examiner's office on Harrison Street? The lovelorn and the depressed could show up, pay the $40 fee, climb into a fresh body bag, and two burly aides would toss the bag under the pile driver for the quick clomp. No fuss. No mess. No choice between little Billy making the grisly discovery in the basement, leading to years of psychotherapy and a lot of bad literature, or disrupting the sacred routines of thousands of innocent working mopes like myself.
     Getting through the day is tough enough without witnessing the mortal remains of somebody who wasn't up to the task being tweezered away. It undermines, if slightly, the grip that we keep on life. Who hasn't thought about suicide? God knows I have. I've even plotted out the best way to do it. You check into the Ritz Carlton Hotel—a suite, of course. It isn't as if you have to worry about the bill. You get yourself comfortable, admire the view, then pop downstairs to the Atrium Bar and have Michael whip up one of his martinis (Bombay Sapphire, straight up, with a twist is my choice, but feel free to bow to your own tastes; it's your funeral). Then head to the dining room and begin with the cheese course—I know it's supposed to be dessert, but you're always so full after the meal, and the cheeses are so great there: fresh, fanciful, displayed with little cards holding their names, serene as a Joseph Cornell box. Better to have at it with hunger unabated.
     And that's about as far along as I've planned my suicide. I figure, when dinner's over, you stagger up to your room and—heck, it's a waste not to use it. Those big white pillows at the Ritz—so comfortable. So you go to sleep and the morning comes and everything looks better in the morning. Room service sends up fresh coffee and a $15 omelet—the wince at the cost, a sign of life returning—and soon you'll run back home to cook up a story the wife might believe. She'll find out—wives always find out—and be mad at wasting the money, but you have a handy rejoinder: "Would you rather I were dead?"
     Thus gluttony saves another man's life, and I would recommend it to anybody contemplating the abyss. It may be a bad thing to be living for your next meal, but at least you're living for something.

                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times Aug. 26, 2001

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Stephen Douglas "despicable" but statue should remain

Sherry Williams at the Stephen Douglas Memorial site.
Stephen Douglas Memorial in Bronzeville.
     "I have not a good thing to say about Stephen Douglas," said Sherry Williams, sitting a few steps from his tomb in Bronzeville.
     I've come to this memorial to the Illinois senator who ran for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, at the invitation of Williams, founder and president of the Bronzeville Historical Society. For the past four years the society has occupied the former keeper's cottage at the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Memorial, just east of 35th and Cottage Grove. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency tripled their rent, so the group is forced to move their offices, and their collection of rolling pins and quilts, books and photographs and ledgers from defunct African American funeral homes.
       Though with statues of Robert E. Lee being pulled down, our conversation first turned to Douglas, a slave holder, rendered larger than life — a 10-foot statue elevated on a 46-foot column. She is no fan.
     "It's hard to put Stephen A . Douglas on one peg," she said. "But if I had to choose, I would say he was despicable. He did not take very good care of his plantation. Many of his slaves were ill-fed and died by conditions that could have been remedied."
     Could this edifice be swept away in the passions of the moment?
     "It was a real concern," she said. "I had spoken to several community members who thought, what a great opportunity to have an open conversation about just what that means, about Stephen Douglas being a slave owner. A conversation that's been held here the entire time I've been here. Hence, I'm wearing an 1860s dress."
     A relief to hear that; I had noticed her outfit, her headscarf and calico dress. But "are you wearing a costume?"

     To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

But it's so big!

     It took about eight hours to drive down from Ontonagon, Michigan, what with the stop at Held's, in Slinger, Wisconsin, to stock up on beef jerky, string cheese and bourbon brats. Four days gone, just enough to give home a sense of unfamiliarity. "Hey, I live here? Niiiiiice...."
     Back in the office at last, I fired up the iMac and checked in on what was happening. Eric Zorn, on his Facebook page, noted the removal of one of those art installations that sometimes appear in Pioneer Court, the open space just south of Tribune Tower. Eric posted a photo of a crane removing this massive tableau, writing:

     Good riddance, "Return Visit" -- the view from our conference room as this enormous piece of kitsch comes down for its trip to Peoria. 
    No argument here. I was not a fan of "Return Visit," though I did rather like Johnson's "Forever Marilyn," a Brobdingnagian Marilyn Monroe in her famous "Seven Year Itch" pose that had been there in 2008. Somehow the film icon gave herself over to rough caricature more readily than does the 16th president. 
    Though I suppose artistic intent must factor in somehow. What if this piece, or the humongous fawn that popped up over the summer on the banks of the Chicago River, just across from the Sun-Times, are supposed to be these godawful giant refugees from a thrift store bin? A small touch—Lincoln's unseen right hand snaking into the back pocket of the distracted tourist and removing his wallet, a microwave oven-sized pile of poop behind the fawn–might have utterly redeemed them.  
      I will admit I dislike the fawn less than I disliked the "Return Visit," perhaps because it seemed a more truthful rendition, while Honest Abe and his sweater-wearing interlocutor have the just-off air of humans made from butter at the State Fair. The fawn, appearing suddenly and without fanfare, induced a sense of wonder and affection. I'm glad it's there. And I've seen worse—far, far worse, such as the bronze children, their features too small for their heads, which in turn are too small for their bodies, scattered around the park in downtown Northbrook, like some kind of evil spirits lurking by the shrubs.
    Though "dislike" might be too strong a word. I snapped some pictures, but never would have thought of "Return Visit" again, nor probably noticed that it had disappeared if I passed next week.  Art touches you, leave an impression, and non-art, well, it's just there.
     Eric's use of "kitsch" to describe the thing intrigued me. Kitsch is one of those realms, like pornography, that we know something belongs to when we see it, yet is hard to define in general. My full Oxford English Dictionary, circa 1978, doesn't even try, going from "Kitling" (a small cat, a word worthy of reviving) to "Kitten." But I suspected it might have snuck into the Supplement, and there it was: "Art or objets d'art characterized by worthless pretentiousness." 
     Hmmm. "Worthless pretentiousness." That doesn't sound right. If I had to start naming kitsch objects, I would suggest kewpie dolls, ceramic cat figurines, black velvet paintings of Indian chiefs shedding a tear, shot glasses in the shape of barrels with the names of states, sold at gas stations. "Pretentiousness" doesn't seem right. "Lack of ambition" would be better. Maybe I can find a better definition.
     The online Merrian-Webster seems to hit closer to the mark than the Oxford: "something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality." Under that definition, "Return Visit" is kitsch, first in concept—a 25-foot-tall painted bronze Abe Lincoln giving directions to a tourist—an idea simple to the point of idiocy, without a redeeming sly wink, or subtle subversion. Lincoln looks like a make-up screen test for a character in "Planet of the Apes" and the tourist is the most anodyne white individual imaginable. 
     How could this piece have been salvaged? A clever title would have helped considerably—"Now the Dubuffet isn't the most Godawful Public Art in Chicago" leaps to mind.  "The Wrigley Building is Right in Front of You, Asshole" is even better.
     I think I know what's going on here. Anticipating a potential need to know what this thing is called, I snapped a picture of the plaque. See if you can spot the problem:

    It's "atelier," right? The Seward Johnson Atelier. Which Webster's defines, rather thickly, as "an artist's or designer's studio or workroom," missing the sense of grandiosity to the term. It's as if I referred to my books and columns as an "oeuvre," which I would never do, because, while largely correct ("a substantial body of work constituting the lifework of a writer") it carries the stench of the self-importance and academia.
     Looking at Johnson's Wikipedia page, I learned a few germane facts: first, that the artist is 87 years old. Second, that he is the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, the founder of Johnson & Johnson. Third, that his work has been labeled "kitsch" by critics for at least 30 years.
     Which, taken together, must stay the lash of criticism, at least as wielded by me. Heirs of vast fortunes are not famous for their depth, their artistic heft, and Johnson's biography hints at a life of earnest amateurism. Harsh, perhaps, but I doubt many 87-year-olds are navigating the deepest recesses of the Internet, which my blog must qualify as a denizen of the lower realms. I hope that isn't condescending or ageism — the truth is, you create a public display, even if you are a kindergartener, you invite critique. But it might get back to him, and, kind soul that I am, I wince at the thought of him being hooted out the door.  There's no reason, the point being made to my regular readers, we can't end on a positive note, for the benefit of the artist. Something like:
     Chicago will be a less artistic place this week than it has been since Nov. 1, 2016, when Seward Johnson's spectacularly wonderful "Return Visit," was installed on the Tribune Tower's Pioneer Court. The massive bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and a regular salt-of-the-earth citizen of the Prairie State, which must rank alongside the Art Institute lions,"Cloud Gate," and the Picasso as gems of the city, will be sorely missed, and we can only pray that Rahm Emanuel finds the $100 million the statue is surely worth, to purchase Johnson's masterpiece and return it to its rightful home.
      There, if you must afflict the old gent with a portion of this column, share that with him. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Living and not living

    The forest teems with life, but also with death, side by side, the rotting mossy stump right next to the fresh sapling, last season's falling leaves and needles providing mulch for this year's new growth. Wandering the woods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on the shores of Lake Superior Sunday, you can't help but marvel at the great wheel, life and death, each feeding into the other, and to feel grateful to be part of it yet, for the moment, still alive, along with the green trees and singing birds and blooming flowers, privileged to observe the decay we will all be a part of, eventually.
     I was pleased to notice fellow animals also very much alive, such as a noisy blue jay and this yellow-striped garter snake, who slithered by, then paused, motionless, as if posing for me. I placed the end of my stick three inches from his head. He didn't flinch.
      Though I also came upon animals who have let go their grip on this sweet life, such as the skeletons below, which I'm guessing are fawns who never made it to adulthood. I felt solemn in their presence, actually removed my hat and covered my heart. Hokey, but there you have it.
     And down the scale, I contributed to the life-into-death process, repeatedly, as the touch of a mosquito—frequent this time of year—immediately led to its miracle of aviation being rendered crumpled and bloodied and flicked away. Sorry pal, you picked the wrong spot for lunch. Wonder only goes so far.
     Of course everything that wasn't alive hadn't necessarily died, such as the artificial flowers above which, years ago, some property owner placed at the entrance to his lake house to give the spot a flourish that he obviously wasn't finding in sufficient abundance in the nature he was supposedly escaping to enjoy. There were a lot of them, and a plastic flowering tree in a wicker pot. The mind reels.
     A reminder of what we think of as aesthetic involves more than just what we see. There is a component of cognition, of understanding. It isn't that the flowers weren't colorful, and some might find them pretty. Until you thought about plastic flowers in the depth of a vibrant green wood. Why anyone would want to mar the living forest with this plastic display of fading unlife was a complete mystery to me, and I considered walking up the road to inquire. But nobody would probably be home and, even if they were, I probably wouldn't like the answer.  I snuffed the little spark of unkind judgment that had flickered within and continued on my way.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Annals of the physical world

     As a connoisseur of ballyhoo, I had to admire this advertising display atop an "L" station entrance on Chicago Avenue. As if it weren't huge and garish enough, the pieces of maki gently spin. 
     And I don't mean "garish" in a bad way. You have to be impressed by the size of the thing, its colorful confidence. Especially,, in our computer age, that it is so very real, so completely non-virtual, and a sign that the tangible world has not yet given up its place. It's almost a nod to history, to all those enormous Times Square billboards puffing smoke and presenting gigantic Coke bottles and such. This massive maki must have cost a fortune. But then again, Grubhub has got the dough. Founded in 2004 in Chicago, the business, which allows customers to order food at home from restaurants, even those that don't deliver, is worth over a billion dollars.
    I think I like the concept as much as the execution. The idea that someone, at some meeting, probably in Chicago, leaned forward and said, "We're going to put an enormous quintet of sushi roll pieces and a pair of vast chopsticks atop a subway station entrance. People will really sit up and notice that!" And everyone in the room murmured assent. "Yes! Yes! That's it! Let's do it!" And they did, create the thing, and people did notice it, or at least I noticed. Good work. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Birch walking stick

     It's hard to take a photograph of a walking stick. They're long and thin, so if you pull in close to show the detail, the top gnawed by a beaver, the smooth, sun-bleached texture of the wood, you miss the tapering length. Pull back to show the length, however, such as my stick nestling where it usually lives, tucked against a bookcase in my office, and you miss the cracks and knots and wormholes.
     The stick isn't in the corner of my office today. It's where I found it, in 2011, along the shores of Lake Superior in Ontonagon, Michigan, tapping into the sand as I wander the shore, or scraping against a gravel road, or probing the forest floor.
     The thing is a joy to carry. It is very light. Birch, I believe, bleached light gray by the sun and buffeted by the waves, though I took my Gerber knife and shaved off a few stumps of long-ago branches. 
     A stick is helpful for hiking, not so much for support—the stick might snap if I really leaned on it—but for balance. It provides a sense of where the ground is, as odd as that sounds. It's more like a metronome, counting out the beat, like a conductor's baton, guiding the symphony of a good hike. Thus lightness is important because otherwise its something you have to haul. 
    And I suppose, like a scepter, a hiking stick adds a bit of ceremony to what otherwise might be a simple walk. You take the stick, you're planning on putting in some serious mileage, in your own mind if not in verifiable reality.  
     I've thought about drilling a hole in the fat end and adding a leather cord, a loop that could go around my wrist. I've thought about burning a mark for each year I've come here to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—five this year. But that would take away from the pristine nature of the stick. The tip is split, and I worry about it splitting more, and have thought about taping it, or using something decorative—winding copper wire maybe. But in the end I leave it. If it's going to split it's going to split. There are other sticks, though I've never seen one as perfectly suited to its purpose as this one. It just feels good in your hand.
    In the mornings, I wake up far earlier than the friends who gather there—my not drinking might be a factor here—and so pull on some rag wool hiking socks and my Keen boots, grab the stick and head out of the door of the little cabin—"Squirrel"—that tradition puts me in. Two routes. Either along the lake or down the drive, to the main road, through the trees and then veering into the woods themselves. The shore is sandier, so the footing is less sure, but has the advantage that it is impossible to get lost. Not so the woods. It's odd to be in actual woods, as opposed to the trails I'm used to in parks. Here you can indeed get lost, and I have. The phone is a blank blue grid, the road, a memory, somewhere over there. Or was it over there?
     Just lost enough to focus my attention, orienting myself where the hell I am, and wondering if I'll end up blundering into the depth of the UP and God-forbid miss breakfast. But I always find the road again. 
     Anyway, if Trump did some godawful thing Friday afternoon, and you're wondering why you aren't reading about it here, it's because I spent seven hours driving up here with my friend Rory Fanning, a former Army Ranger turned anti-imperialist, who wrote a good book about walking across America to benefit the foundation of his unit mate, Pat Tillman. I'd tell you the incredible thing he does at the end of the journey, but that would spoil the surprise ending. Buy the book.
    I've written about coming here, now and then, so won't belabor the point. It's good to love your routine, your work, your family and your regular life. And it's good to drop everything and get away, even for a few days, to a good place, with good friends, taking with you a good stick, if you have one. 


Friday, September 15, 2017

Dan Biss: "This is the moment to do it."

     Choosing the Republican belief that has most damaged our country would be a challenge, like picking just one chocolate from a newly opened box of Fannie May, though without the pleasure.
     Would it be the lie that immigrants are bad for the country? The denial of any science that conflicts with corporate interests? Or maybe the notion that law should enforce Christian orthodoxy?
     How to choose? There are so many!
     Myself, I would go for the insistence that government is bad and politicians are bad. The mendacious mantra that gets amateurs like Donald Trump elected: Look, our man is untainted by experience.
     Anti-government cynicism is contagious. After Illinois elected sour multi-millionaire Bruce Rauner as governor, Democrats looked at his dismal record of failure then served up its own pair of I’ve-never-done-this-but-I’d-like-to-try candidates, J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy.
     It’s easy to overlook a candidate hurrying after them, boosted by government experience but handicapped by his lack of a personal fortune: state Sen. Dan Biss. I mentioned him in a column and he phoned.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Flash: column has impact

     I like to say that my writing never changes anything. First because it's true, not just for me, but generally. The entire liberal media speaking in a strong, clarion voice couldn't stop Donald Trump from being elected. One voice is just a twig snapping in a bonfire the size of a barn. Besides, there are enough self-important blowhards in this business; recognizing the lack of impact—the chorus of crickets as I think of it—is a bolster against ego. 
      I'm okay with that. I'm not trying to topple administrations or drag hidden wrongdoing into the light. Other folks are busy doing that. And I'm not inclined to try. What I'm trying to do is write something interesting, to tell you something you don't already know. Corruption has a sameness to it that, frankly, bores me.
    This story started 31 years ago, before I was on the staff of the paper. I wrote freelance for the school guide, the five-times-a-year insert in the paper, and wrote a story about the Chicago public high school in the basement of the Cook County Jail. I don't know where the idea came from; someone probably suggested it. The story became one of my favorites, for the unexpectedness of a high school in Cook County Jail, and for what the teachers had to say, and what the students were being taught. The story stayed with me, lingered, and when I realized that 30 years had almost gone by, I wanted to go back.
    Only I couldn't get permission. Tom Dart was mad at me for a quip I made about his mayoral run—or so I thought—and refused permission. But I eventually broke him down—I am nothing if not dogged—and then went to work on the CPS bureaucracy, which was even more determined to thwart me. I went to an editorial board meeting to corner CPS head Forrest Claypool, and wrote a blog post denouncing his underling for ducking my calls.
    It worked, eventually, and I got into the jail. I had sworn that my visit would be benign--I wanted to write about the school, the teachers and the students, period. "This isn't 60 Minutes," I told them.
    So I almost felt bad when disgruntled teachers began calling me, in the wake of my visit, complaining of poor management, of students being given credit for classes they never attended. I included their accusations in my story—I felt I had to—but also felt like I had deceived the CPS administrators: here I had promised this light, off-beat story, and suddenly charges are being leveled.
    Dumb of me, I know. But there you go.
    Anyway, the accusations made by those brave teachers started the gears turning for an Inspector General investigation, the results of which my colleague Lauren FitzPatrick revealed in the paper Wednesday, detailing hundreds of students being given credit for classes they never took including, most startlingly, one student who was listed as attending classes after he had been killed. 
     I'll be honest—as much as I believe nothing happens due to the stuff I write, I still felt proud to have gotten the ball rolling. I always say, you pull at the smallest, the most obscure and remote thread, and it can take you interesting places.