Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mueller's Russia probe: the first shoes drop

     History is lived in retrospect, but reality unfolds moment by moment.
     We know that former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort turned himself in to the FBI Monday is the first shoe — two shoes, as he was joined by business associate Rick Gates — to drop in the Robert Mueller III investigation of Russian influence on the 2016 campaign. For those of us who see the Trump administration as a siege of un-American values, it is an encouraging moment of hope after nine months of continual shocks, of jaw-dropping veers away from responsible leadership and good government.
     But we don't know if it's the beginning of the unwinding of the chaotic Trump administration. Or the beginning of further descent into lawlessness as the president pushes back with all his twittery might. He is already condemning the investigation — by a special counsel his own Justice Department appointed — as a "witch hunt," urging, with the "what-about-this?" reflex that passes for rebuttal of late, that Hillary Clinton be investigated instead. He might still simply fire Mueller, despite the Constitutional firestorm that would ignite.
     Charges against the two include conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder millions of dollars and making false statements — charges you can watch already being shrugged off by Republicans who spent years going after will-o'-the-wisps like which email server Clinton used and whether she had broken State Department email guidelines
     This is the first shoe to drop, but there will be others. The way these investigations work is, the authorities begin on the outermost ring of a criminal enterprise and work themselves toward the center. The blind loyalty that Donald Trump demands from all those under him — indeed, from all Americans — is seen differently when viewed in light of a prison sentence. Think of a centipede sitting on the edge of the bed at the end of the day, taking off shoe after shoe, each one bigger than the last, each one falling with a bigger clomp.

To continue reading, click here.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Why all the naked women in art?

What's with all the naked women?
     See, that's why people hate the media. Here Howard Tullman, investor, patron of contemporary art, the dynamo behind the 1871 high-tech incubator at the Merchandise Mart, a force on the Chicago scene, invites me into his home, his sprawling 5,000-square-foot River West residence crammed with hundreds of arresting artworks and what do I notice? The vibrant colors? The large scale? The dramatic chiaroscuro?
     No. I fixate on that most images are buck nekkid women, pouty, chesty, except for the naked girls who aren't. What's the story here, Howard?
     Tullman just laughs.          

     You can see them for yourself, on the Leslie Hindman Auctioneers website, "Property from the Collection of Howard and Judith Tullman." The sale starts at noon Monday.
     I've known Tullman since he ran Tribeca Flashpoint, a digital media arts college. He's a flashy personality himself, who rubs some people the wrong way — heck, sometimes he rubs me the wrong way.
     But we both are able to get past that. Tullman because he likes publicity, and me because I like talking to a guy who regularly lets drop fascinating bits of information, such as when Rahm Emanuel couldn't get back into his home in 2010, he camped out in Tullman's harem.
     "He lived in my home surrounded by a million naked women," Tullman said.

     Tullman is stepping down from 1871 and selling off about an eighth of his collection for a variety of reasons, like raising money for his arts foundation.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Lincoln is coming and boy is he pissed.

     Am I the only one to notice that the right foot of Abraham Lincoln is arched upward? As if he's about to leap out of his throne in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and bind the Union together once again? Even if it means, again, kicking the ass of a group of traitors violating every tenet of this once great and proud nation? 
     He looks as if he's just noticed something he doesn't like, maybe a Russian-canoodling fraud and liar living in his former residence. I don't think there's a patriotic American alive today who hasn't had his faith in this country in the sanity and decency of his fellow Americans deeply shaken this past year. But Lincoln is a reminder that our faith has been shaken before, and we have been divided, and suffered before. Actually far, far worse than this. And as ghastly as the particulars are, we are in many way far better than in the past. There is no slavery. The fields of America are not soaked with American blood. Millions of Americans might have blinded themselves to the truth. But others see it, and speak it clearly. And we still have laws, laws that can be mocked and brushed off only so long. Then they slowly tighten around malefactors and justice, inch by inch, is done.
    Or so we can hope.

Rise of printing sparked Luther's Reformation 500 years ago

     There is no evidence that an Augustine monk named Martin Luther, unhappy with a popular fundraising tool of the Catholic Church, actually nailed his list of complaints — the famous "95 Theses" — to the door of the All Saints' Church at Wittenburg exactly 500 years ago. He never claimed to have done so, and the story wasn't circulated until after his death.
     We do know that he distributed them in a letter dated Oct. 31, 1517, to the archbishop, listing his 95 criticisms about the enthusiasm with which the church was selling indulgences.
     An indulgence was a piece of paper that, for instance, shortened the time that had to be spent in purgatory. The church had been vigorously selling them to raise money to rebuild the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
     This bothered Luther a lot, not because he was so liberal, but because he was so pious. He prayed, he fasted, he flagellated himself. Luther was getting to heaven the hard way, and it galled him that a rich man could just loosen his purse strings, dig out a few coins, and cut in line.
     "The treasures of indulgences are nets that are now used to fish for the wealth of people," reads thesis No. 66.
Indulgence issued by Pope Sixtus IV
      You can see an actual indulgence — from Pope Sixtus IV, raising money for an expedition against the Turks — on display at the Newberry Library in a fascinating exhibit, "Religious Change and Print: 1450-1700," that runs through Dec. 27.
     The show connects the beginning of the Reformation to the rise of printing, beginning with a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. The publication of a Bible using moveable type, we tend to forget, was itself a radical act, moving the Holy Scriptures from hand-copied, vastly expensive work owned by churches, into mass-produced, less-expensive reading material that could eventually find its way into the hands of regular people, who could then fancy themselves free to not only read it, but to analyze and dispute what was within. Soon those people were printing books of their own, plus pamphlets and broadsheets. Printing and heresy went hand-in-hand.
     "They're very closely connected," said David Spadafora, president of the Newberry. "Print right away becomes a very important medium for people like Luther to get their views out to a wider public than could possibly otherwise have received them."

     The Reformation, as Luther's protest became known, was not the first break in the Catholic Church— branches had been sheering off since the 1st century, with the Great Schism of 1054 perhaps even more significant, leading to the East and West divisions.
      But Luther's schism gained momentum quickly with the help of printing and the desire of the faithful to take more control of their spiritual lives. Protestantism became important in the march toward modernity, a journey that saw God move from something defined by priests and manifested through relics and miracles, into something practiced by individuals. God went from living in the church to living in your heart.
     After Luther, "faith could not be coerced, and secular powers could not legislate in the spiritual sphere," writes Euan Cameron, professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
     Though not for lack of trying. The Catholic Church was quick to push back against Luther. Pope Leo excommunicated him in 1520, amid general cranking up of repression, as noted in the Newberry's exhibit, in one of the sharper sentences I've read on a museum wall:
     "No institution better encapsulates the official goals and approaches of the Catholic Church to regulation than the Inquisition."
     Half a millennium ago, remember. They did get better. Because repression only works until it doesn't; then it fuels the fires it's trying to extinguish. "Lutheran" was first used as a slight by Catholic authorities trying to emphasize the human, as opposed to divine, source of these new ideas.
     Luther himself did not want want to name his movement for himself—he wanted his followers to simply call themselves "Christians."
     Martin Luther became famous after his Ninety-Five Theses were made public in 1517, which explains his prominent portrait on the title page of his 1520, "De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae," or "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church." | Courtesy of the Newberry Library
     "After all," he wrote, "the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone."
     Not to give Luther too much credit. Once he started questioning Church authority, Luther was surprised and aghast to find people started questioning him.
     "Definitely," said Spadafora. "That's one of the reasons why on the one hand, Luther really wanted to put Bibles in people's hands, on the other hand, he came to realize they were doing interpretation much more individualistically than even he felt comfortable with." (Nor was Luther, a fervent anti-Semite, comfortable with Jews, but that's a topic for a different day).
     One lesson, in our own time of shifting values and communications upheaval, is the importance of talking to people in the way they want to be spoken to.
     "Luther very cannily begins to use German, begins to use the vernacular and makes sure a lot of his materials are printed in the vernacular," said Spadafora, "vernacular" meaning "common speech."
     "Whereas the Catholic church is relatively slow to respond in the vernacular way. They lose the battle over the argument because they are slower and appealing in Latin to a different audience," Spadafora said. "We see this in social media all the time."
     Today the Catholic Church still dominates Christianity, at least numerically: 1.2 billion Catholics, compared to about 900 million Protestants. Since both groups tend to view Muslim sectarian bloodshed, say between Sunni and Shia, as representing that faith's inherent violence, it might be useful to remind them that modern scholars estimate that 50 million Christians were killed by one another in the centuries of Reformation and Counter-Reformation struggles that followed Luther's brash act.
     That schism has somewhat healed—last year Pope Francis formally apologized for the Catholic side of the slaughter, and the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations have signed agreements within the past decade recognizing the legitimacy of each other's baptisms.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

'A change is as good as a rest'


     Brendan Behan is not among the first tier of Irish writers: no Yeats, no Wilde, no O'Neill. A poet known for plays like "Quare Fellow" and memoirs like "Borstal Boy," his reputation took off a bit in the late '50s and early '60s before his untimely death, hurried by drink, at age 41. 
     So I don't think I'm admitting too much ignorance saying that I had never heard of him when, some time in the 1990s, I picked up "Confessions of an Irish Rebel" from a table in a bookstore and read its opening lines:
       'You're for the Governor in the morning,' said this dreary red-headed little Welsh Methodist bastard of a screw.
     'Thanks for telling me,' said I, in an almost English accent, as sarcastically as I politely could, 'but I'm not for 'im in the morning or any other bloody time, you little Welsh puff.'
Brendan Behan
     If that doesn't send you rushing to the cash register, nothing will.  He was deeply involved in the IRA and not reluctant to let people know.
     I have no idea where I encountered the other line of Behan's that I love. It's from the play, "Richard's Cork Leg," which I certainly never read or saw. However it got into mind, I find myself quoting it again and again to colleagues at the newspaper as conversation shifts, as it inevitably does nowadays, to the Sun-Times moving next month.
    "A change is as good as a rest," I say, crediting Behan.
    What exactly does that mean? Well change is frightening to contemplate. You won't be where you are now doing what you always do, but going somewhere new, doing something different. The armor of routine is stripped off and you must confront life unprotected.  It requires focus, alertness, the sort of qualities that come to you after taking a break, having a rest. It's revivifying, or can be, if you do it right.
    There's something optimistic to the sentiment, and I'm in an optimistic mood lately. 
    I worked at the old, trapezoidal barge of the Sun-Times building at 401 N. Wabash for 17 years, and I was nostalgic for that when we left. I still have a chunk of the granite facade on my desk. I had an office facing the river, with a sweeping panorama. The windows opened. It was nice. The party when we bid it farewell; let's just say, if you've never been to a party where the guests are literally tearing down the walls with hammers, I have.
     But what can't be avoided has to be endured, and in time—the past 13 years—I grew adjusted to the new building, a less distinctive, yet not without merits setting at 350 N. Orleans. It had its advantages. Closer to the train. Right next to the youthful hive of the Merchandise Mart. Convenient to the East Bank Club. Close to Gene & Georgetti.
View from the Sun-Times offices
      The view, I think I'll miss that the most. Across the river, to the cool green convex of 333 W. Wacker. Stunning. 
      But change happens. A skyscraper is going up, directly south, between 350 N. Orleans and the river, which would cut off our view anyway. Just as well we're on the move again, on our way to the West Loop, to North Racine, where we'll share quarters with a video and sound production company. We're all morphing into one cutting edge communications entity—not a "newspaper" anymore, though I'll continue to use the term, the way my grandmother called her refrigerator an "icebox."
    There is that element, that thought I'm sure older couples have when they sell their house, the house where they raised their children, and retrench to a condo: is this where the decline will set in? Am I going there to die?
     Possibly yes. Or possibly no. I view the move with Buddha calm and equanimity, because the important thing, to me, is that we still have a newspaper—whoops, high-tech cutting edge media entity—to move. It's as far from Union Station west as the current paper is east, and while it isn't as convenient to downtown, it isn't as if I'm always racing off to City Hall to go toe-to-toe with Rahm Emanuel.
    Technology whirs forward, time flows onward, and we're lucky to be in the torrent, our heads still bobbing above the water, gasping and thrashing and sputtering, but very much alive. 
    Speaking of the Irish, Behan once said: “They took away our land, our language, and our religion; but they could never harness our tongues.” I believe that will remain true for the Sun-Times. The land under us might change, but our tongues will continue to wag, unharnessed, soon from the West Loop. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Military should protect American from militarism


     The 2018 midterm election is a year away, and fundraising letters pour into my inbox like a firehose blasting into a bucket.
     Most get ignored. A few I glance at, just to register their breathless urgency: THE LIBERALS ARE TRAITORS! GIVE ME MONEY NOWWWW!!!!
     But one plea, from our neighbor to the north, stood out. Let me, without biasing you as to why, present an email received Wednesday from Fmr. Captain Kevin Nicholson, USMC.
     The letterhead reads: "Marine. Outsider. Conservative."
     The email begins:

Neil,     I’m a proud U.S. Marine Corps veteran and a proud conservative from Wisconsin running for the United States Senate to neutralize the threat of Senator Tammy Baldwin’s liberal extremism.     I joined the Marines because I saw a threat to America and wanted to do everything I could to protect the country I love.     I was deployed to the deadliest place in Iraq just weeks after my first son was born. My team worked to combat the growing threat to democracy around the world.
I can't print the entire message. It ends:
     It’s time to Send In The Marine.     Semper Fi,     Kevin Nicholson, Conservative Republican for US Senate     P.S. As a proud U.S. Marine Corps veteran, I answered the call to serve my country when the threat was abroad. I’m now ready to answer the call to protect my country from the threat in our own backyard.
     Anything stand out? Maybe the same thought occurred to you as occurred to me: "This guy's a Marine."

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

'You have to like it better than being loved'

       When talking to young people about writing, I try to get them to think about their audience. To whom is their primary responsibility? To themselves? Their readers? The publication they're writing for? The subjects they're writing about? 
    How do they balance these often competing interests? 
    I maintain that the order is 1) readers; 2) yourself; 3) publication and, 4) subject.  If you put yourself first, riffing on whatever your private fascination happens to be with little regard for its effect on those reading, that's a recipe for boredom. 
    If you put the publication first you're a hack (I believe good writing IS putting your publication first, though your boss might not realize it at the moment). 
    And if you write for your subject, you're a whore, pleasing one person while the rest can go hang.
     Thus you have to expect to take heat from one of the parties lower down the pecking order, particularly subjects, who chronically feel ill-used, no matter how delicately treated. 
     When I wrote a piece about an opera soprano last week, I thought I had hit a sweet spot where all involved would be pleased. I hadn't. The Lyric complained, quite forcefully, and I had to remind them that I didn't write it for them. I am writing for readers who, truth be told, care little for the opera, less for Wagner, and have to be led to the subject via something they do care about, like fitness.  There was no deceit—I explained to the singer exactly what I had in mind. But she obviously didn't quite believe me until she saw it in print, which was a shame. 
     That happens a lot. 
     Regular reader Tom Evans mentioned the column below as an instance where those written about felt ill-used, though he wasn't sure why. I'm reprinting it so you can try to find what the problem is. I have a hunch. This group finds Sherlock Holmes and his world a font of fascination, while my column views them with a certain awe for feeling that way. I didn't share their passion, and that offended them. I didn't do it to slight them, but because a) I'm not a particular Holmes fan and b) I was writing for readers who, mostly, were not in thrall with Arthur Conan Doyle. 
    That's the price you pay for being written about and for writing. As Marge Piercy's great poem about the writing profession, "For the young who want to," ends: "You have to like it better than being loved."

     First, the toasts.
     We all rise, holding our glasses high, and Dr. Franklin Saksena rhymes: 

            She used to sing at La Scala
            And met the king at a gala
            She threatened to send their picture to the king's future wife
            Which was bound to cause a lot of strife
            During the pantomime ball,
            Sherlock Holmes found the pictures in the wall
            But Irene Adler outwitted them all
            What gall.

     He finishes—after a few more stanzas—with "To Irene Adler!"
     At which the dozen men assembled in a pine-paneled party room at Mirabell, a North Side German restaurant, hoist their glasses to the villainess and exclaim "Hear hear!" Then more toasts.
     Welcome to the March meeting of Hugo's Companions, a group devoted to that great detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick, Dr. Watson. There are about 280 such groups nationwide, 25 or so in Illinois. 
      "What we have here is one of the most vibrant Sherlockian communities in the country," said Donald J. Terras, past president of Hugo's. "No other city I know of in the world has as many Sherlockian groups as we do here in Chicago."
     The Sherlockians regard the Canon—their reverent term for the 56 short stories and four novels about Holmes and Watson written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—with deep affection.
     "We're all pretty much enamored with that time period—a simpler, less complicated time," explained Bill Sawisch, current president of Hugo's Companions. "Holmes and Watson represent what was good in the world at the time. 'It is always 1895' is something people say quite a bit in these groups."
     They are called "scion" groups since they descend from the original Sherlockian club, the Baker Street Irregulars, founded in 1934 in New York City by journalist Christopher Morley. The oldest Chicago group, The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic)— the "(sic)" is part of the name—was begun in 1943 by Chicago Tribune book columnist Vincent Starrett. Hugo's Companions formed in 1949. There are more.
     Why so many? Why don't Conan Doyle fans all form together into one society with a band of chapters speckling Chicago?
     "That's a very good question," said Sawisch, who is also president of the STUD Sherlockian Society ("STUD" being short for "A Study in Scarlet") and, rather than answering, launches into a protracted digression, an occupational hazard when talking to Sherlockians: "Everything started with the Hounds, Hugo's being the next group, then the Criterion Bar Association. That group started because of Hugo's Companions, with the wives meeting..."
     The participation of women, while settled in modern society, is still an issue here where, remember, "It is always 1895."
     "In some ways it's still controversial," said Margaret Smedegaard, who along with three other wives of Sherlockians founded the Criterion Bar in 1972. "The Baker Street Irregulars started admitting women about 10 years ago, and that helped. There is a recognition that women are just as capable in the Sherlockian world."
     Just as capable . . . of drinking beer?
     "As intellectual, as knowledgeable," she said. "Many of them have written articles."
     After dinner, announcements and a quiz, during which members show an alarming command of the minutia of the story "The Six Napoleons," Tom Evans rises for the evening's entertainment, a talk on "The Real Dr. Watson."
     "There will be no need to take notes in order to pass the test," jokes Evans, reassuring us he will hand out copies of his speech afterward, which he does.
     "I was going to begin by saying the several influences bearing on preparation of these remarks amounted to a 'synergy of serendipity,' but my Webster's unabridged dictionary tells me that isn't quite right, so I will call it instead a 'confluence of coincidences'..." begins Evans, explaining that his talk came out of a request that he toast "this most familiar inhabitant of our Sherlockian world."
     They do recognize the fictional aspect of the tales, if grudgingly.
     "Whether Inspector John H. Watson M.D. is or is not real can be a matter of conjecture," says Evans, whose talk addresses three questions: "Just who was he, what was he really like and, for those eccentrics among you who might hold to the bizarre notion that both Holmes and Watson were fictional characters, what real person might have inspired his creation."
     Twenty-nine minutes later, his talk concludes.
     Young people, for reasons mysterious, are not racing to join Sherlockian groups, and the membership ages.
     "We've lost a number of great people over the years," says Evans. "I don't know how much of a future any of us have."
     The evenings concludes, as tradition dictates, with a reading of a poem by Vincent Starrett called "221B" the Baker Street address where Holmes and Watson live in the stories and, to some, live to this day:
     "Here dwell together still two men of note/
Who never lived and so can never die," Sawisch begins. "How very near they seem yet how remote/That age before the world went all awry."
     The poem, thick with yellow fog and splashing hansom cabs, concludes:
     "Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
     And it is always 1895."
                      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 20, 2011

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Lee Harvey Oswald wanted butter on the table

     I'm not sure I ever get to the real point in this column, which came to me only today. What I was trying to say is that there is more interesting stuff in the Kennedy assassination story than the standard "Who done it?" question that can never be answered. Stuff that most people don't know and won't learn from this new data dump. That comes across, at best, as a subtext in the column itself, so I thought I should say it directly first thing.

     Many hieroglyphics have never been read. At least not since whatever tomb or ruin where they were discovered was unearthed. The papyrus or pot shard is collected, put into a drawer at an academic institution to await someone to come along and read it. Fifty or 100 years might go by.
     Just as well. When scholarly eyes finally fall upon ancient writings, they find not a beautiful poem or key piece of history but a sales receipt, another inventory of wheat or a recipe for beer. Most of life is ordinary, even under the pharaohs.
     That truth echoes to the current day. Ordinariness abounds though we refuse to accept it.
     The last batch of classified Kennedy assassination material — thousands of pages — is expected to be released Thursday.
     Oh goody, just what we need. More words about the Kennedy assassination. Because there just aren't enough now. We're curious about the new batch even though we have only the vaguest notion of what we already have.
     In one of those coincidences that would look trite in fiction, I can, as I sit here writing, shift my right knee six inches and touch 21 volumes of "HEARINGS BEFORE THE PRESIDENT'S COMMISSION ON THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT KENNEDY." Sturdy blue volumes, each with the Great Seal of the United States on the cover.
     The 2-foot-high stack is under my desk because the Sun-Times is moving its office to the West Loop. Part of the process of squeezing our physical presence to fit a smaller space has been shedding books. The Kennedy report was fished out of a dumpster by a colleague, then abandoned at my office like 21 blue-swaddled babes since I'm the crypt keeper, apparently, for this kind of thing.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Great Moments in Public Relations #1

     Let me say off the bat: I know lots of skilled public relations professionals. Thoughtful, hard-working, competent. My column would be a far less diverse, less interesting place were it not for the continual pitches of people trying to catch the attention of the media and promote worthwhile stories. Happens all the time. 
     But not always. PR can also be jarringly off-putting, particularly considering the goal: to present something in a favorable light. From the robotic, going-down-a-list-and-now-I've-got-to-you phone calls, which never work, to the off-point, don't-you-read-the-column? pitches that I could never write about in a thousand years, to information that is just so trivial, such a stretch, it's hard to imagine that the most charmed hireling could hope for success, not matter how well-paid.
    Then there is mere carelessness. I am certainly susceptible to that. I can misspell a word and often do. So carping about others, who don't have a fabulous hive intelligence like the readers of this blog to set them straight, well, runs the risk of making me something of a hypocrite.
    But heck, there's a lot of that going around lately. And what's more fun than spotlight the deficiency of others? In that light, I'm going to start an occasional feature I've dubbed "Great Moments in Public Relations," where lapses in the publicity craft are held up for inspection, censure and ridicule. I'm not optimist enough to hope that it'll help keep the industry on its toes. But at least we can have fun, and show that some minimal communications standards remain. 
    Sit back, enjoy, and see how many of these gaffes you've encountered. Or committed.

1. Dear Your Name Here.

     We know these aren't really personal notes. But do you have to grind our faces in it? Particularly this one, from a Los Angeles firm, natch. Nothing screams "We're not paying attention" like the sans serif-to-serif shift. I've also gotten Dear ______ emails. Really?

2. Please be our guest ... tomorrow. 

     This Tuesday message is what prompted me to write this today. Happens more often than you would expect, though not always on the Messenger app on Facebook. I did my best to obscure the identity of the writer, since I'm not trying to drive anyone to leap off a bridge, since their intentions were good, I suppose. I replied by saying that I wouldn't go to a dinner honoring myself on a day's notice. Another man would be insulted; I was more amused.

3.  Dear Kneel...

     To be honest, so many people mangle my name—Neal, Niel, Neil Steinburg—that it doesn't even bother me anymore, and it would be petty to let a good idea go by for that reason alone. I actually responded to this email and we discussed the topic. Then I realized I did it last year.

4. Pay particular attention to that first sentence.

     I normally wouldn't even glance at a press release from N'Digo, not after its publisher sold herself to Bruce Rauner (plus, of course, her low attacks on me for suggesting that Carol Moseley-Braun wasn't going to be elected mayor of Chicago). They all go straight to trash, where their publication belongs. But figuring I should round out this list, I thought I'd give it a read and see whatever lapse was waiting. I didn't have to read far....
     So that's the opening salvo. Please feel free to share your own examples, and perhaps we can make this a bi-monthly event, if the interest is there. Or if this exercise is just too mean—I've had that thought too—let me know and this can be the first and last occasion.

Monday, October 23, 2017

But can that virtual finger painting go on the refrigerator?

Brad Newman, left, and Christine Lee prepare food at the Bennett Day School on West Grand Avenue in Chicago. 

     Food is a lesson that lingers.
     I can't recall much about the learning being doled out at Fairwood School in 1966. Something about Henry Hudson, something about pilgrims.
     But lunch is still very clear. I can see those metal pans of boiled hot dogs, the Borden ice cream sandwiches, frozen hard in industrial deep freezers. A dime apiece; a nickel for half a sandwich.
     Lunch is still important, judging from the Bennett Day School, a new private elementary on West Grand Avenue.
     "It's part of a dialogue between the students and teachers," said director of admissions Amanda McQuade, noting teachers eat with their students, teaching them how to converse and conduct themselves. Eating is carefully integrated into the curriculum; for instance, kindergartners eat in their room.
     "At this age, going into the cafeteria was way too over-stimulating for them," said Sara Violante, a senior kindergarten teacher. "We eat five to six kids at a table, one teacher at each table modeling how to interact with each other, engaging in conversations. It's definitely worked very well, especially having three teachers in the classroom."

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

It's a dog's life


      I rarely pre-meditate places before I go—that is, rarely wonder about what they'll be like when I get there. Because what I find is invariably so completely different than what I would have anticipated.
      Take Saturday. The Chicago Botanic Garden had its "Spooky Pooch Parade," a once-a-year chance for canines to be dressed up in their Halloween best and invade the Botanic Garden's otherwise pet-free environs. I'd never gone before, but they asked me to be a judge, and of course I said "Yes." How could you not?  
     If I had to guess, I would have pictured a smattering of costumed dogs. Some owners. Maybe they'd saunter by while the judges scowled and scribbled. Maybe we'd hold up panels with numbers on them. It would be casual, meandering, low key. 
     Instead it was surprisingly busy, frantic. Dogs of all sizes, teacups to cattle, owners from infants to oldsters.  Meanwhile, I was busy, asking questions, trying to be fair en masse and on the fly
     What is fairness? What did being a judge mean? It meant I was given a clipboard and a pen and set before a long line of people and their dogs. Some judges were picking best overall costume, or best puppy, or best senior—owner, I think. My task was to pick the owner who most resembled their pet. "Resemblance" is key, the judges' instructions explained.
I put Kitty in costume but didn't enter her.
     Three hundred dogs entered, meaning there were a least 500 people, if not more. I had to ask each one the name of the dog, its registration number, age, costume. There was a place for my comments and a score. I tried to be light, positive, encouraging, but found myself straining to hear the dogs' names above the din. Rover? No, Grover. 
     Most people do not actually look like their dogs. Nowhere close. Particularly the young people who were competing—I'd say half were children. And the costume ensembles did not really resemble their dogs either. So they'd be Dorothy and Toto—I had several of those—or R2D2 and an Ewok. Nicely matched, but not looking like one another in the slightest, supposedly my most important metric.
     A consideration I instantly considered setting aside. You want to give it to a kid, right? The prize would mean most to someone young. They feel life most keenly, its frequent slights and occasional honors.
     Or would that be bad? Skewing the contest in a way it shouldn't be skewed? There was nothing about the worthiness of the recipient in my instructions. And where does spookiness come in? Should I favor the rare scary costume over the sea of cute?
     My scoring settled into giving 11s and 12s to people who had tried but weren't in the running—slapped together costumes—and 13s and 14s for those worth considering, rigs where dog and owner matched to a laudable degree. 
       My initial favorite was a guy who dressed as peas in a pod and a dog also dressed as peas in a pod. They matched closely. "Did you make that?" I asked, and he said he did, radiating a certain sincerity, almost a sadness, that made me want to choose him.  What kind of guy makes a peapod costume for his dog?
     But really? Give it to the adult man rather than the three girls who dressed as crayons with their dog—albeit in store-bought Crayola t-shirts. Does store-bought disqualify them? Why? I was swayed for a while by two teens who dressed as shark victims—it was a Spooky Pooch parade, and this was one of the few creepy costumes. Plus it was hand-made. So points for concept. But, again, they didn't match their shark-dressed dog at all, which is what I was supposedly judging. 
     We broke for lunch and I shared my dilemma with the other judges. They, in essence, shrugged. Afterward, we assembled on a riser with the people before us. The throng gathered around us, expectant. I scanned around for my peapod guy, but he was nowhere to be seen. Would it be bad to give the prize—a bag filled with $500 worth of dog goodies and coupons—to someone who wasn't there? Nor were the crayon girls nor the shark victims, as far as I could tell. There were a lot of people. I hoped for time to puzzle this through, but the host called on me first, standing on the far left, to deliver my winner. At that moment my gaze fell upon a couple dressed as the Minions, in yellow terry rompers, with their goggled dog also very Minion-like. They certainly resembled one another. I called an audible and gave the prize to them, immediately wondering if I had done so too precipitously. They seemed happy. The adults I mean.
    Judging is hard. What criteria is most important? The guidelines set out by the Botanic Garden? To reward effort—there was nothing in my instructions about favoring something homemade; just the opposite, they pointed out, for my purposes, costumes weren't even necessary. And how about the desire to give the prize, and the measure of happiness that prizes bring, on someone deserving?
     No doubt I was over-thinking this. It was just a dog contest. I came away not so much gladdened for giving the prize to the winners, as sorry that I had to ignore so many losers. Some of us are not cut out to be judges.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Baha'i celebrates a bicentennial: "People can just walk in."


Chicago is a center of so many things—the blues, candy, pinball—it's easy to lose track of some of the quieter examples of this, such as the Baha'i faith, which isn't as fond of violence and repression as most religions are, and so tends to be overlooked, with the exception of its one magnificent local manifestation, the splendid Baha'i Temple in Wilmette.
   Today, Chicago Baha'is are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Mirza Husain-ali Nuri, or Bahá’u’lláh as he came to be known, "Glory of God." in Iran in 1817. He was the messenger of the other totem of Baha'i, the "Bab," whose bicentennial is in 1819.
     If you feel like partying, you can go to the South Shore Cultural Center tonight—here are the details—for the rest, I thought it an apt moment to unearth my look at the Baha'i faith and Temple at the building's centennial five years ago.

     Ask most Chicagoans what they know about the Baha'i faith, and they might mention the House of Worship, a magnificent domed edifice of delicately latticed concrete on the lakefront in Wilmette.
     The temple is hard to miss—at 191 feet high, you could easily tuck the Jefferson Memorial inside.
     "It's on people's radar that this landmark, this unusual building is there," said Glen Fullmer, a spokesman for the faith. "But they're largely unaware of what it stands for or where it came from."
     The Baha'is have just completed a 10-year, $20 million restoration of the building, the oldest and, in their view, holiest of seven Baha'i temples scattered around the globe. The work is completed just in time for a celebration at the end of April to mark the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the building's cornerstone.
     "It does not act as a church with a congregation," said Fullmer. "All the Baha'is don't go there for their weekly worship. That building is considered a continental house of worship, a symbolic building. Most worship is happening in people's homes and little community centers."
     That might come as a surprise. Press Chicagoans for details of Baha'iism, and you'll most likely draw a blank, which is too bad, because in many ways the faith is unique among global religions.
     In a world of controversial priests and fiery imams, there is no Baha'i clergy whatsoever. Anybody can conduct a service. Administration of the religion is handled by elected boards without spiritual authority. They have no rituals. Services tend to be readings from the holy books of other faiths—the Bible, the Torah, the Quran—as well as singing.
     They don't proselytize vigorously—Baha'i missionaries will never come to your house and try to convert you. "It's very much a do-it-yourself religion," said Fullmer.
     Nor will they ask for money—they only accept funds from other Baha'is.
     The religion's central belief is that the earth is one country and humanity its citizens, that all religions reflect the will of a single God and all are equally valid. They stress education, equality and an elimination of prejudice.
     The faith started in Persia—in what is now Iran—in 1844.
     Its central figure was a man named Mirza Husain-ali Nuri, who took the name Baha'u'llah, whose teaching and writings form the foundation of the faith.
     The Baha'i consider him on par with Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Buddha, who all share equal status as divine prophets.
     About 5 million people follow the faith worldwide, with about 170,000 in the United States, with 2,000 of those around Chicago, where in 1894 an insurance salesman named Thornton Chase became the first Westerner to adopt the religion.
     Within five years, there were several hundred Baha'is in and around Chicago. They quickly decided to build a temple to house the growing religion. Representatives from Chicago went to what was then Palestine to meet with Abdu'l-Baha, the son of Baha'u'llah, who had taken over as leader following his father's death in 1892. He encouraged them to build a temple, and the dedication was something of a carrot to get him to come to Chicago, which he did.
      Several years were spent scouting a location. Jackson Park was considered, but Wilmette was settled on for its rural setting and inexpensive lakefront land.
     Despite his presence, the May 1, 1912, dedication was something of a bust, as far as cornerstone ceremonies go. First, the guest of honor was two hours late. Second, the ceremonial trowel would not pierce the thick springtime grass and somebody had to run and borrow a shovel from a nearby road crew.
      And third, there wasn't actually a cornerstone, but only a chunk of limestone scrap that a woman had begged from construction workers and taken to the site on a horse-drawn streetcar.
     Money still had to be raised. Construction did not begin until 1920, and the temple was not completed until 1953.
   Still, the crude cornerstone remains as a symbol of the do-it-yourself quality of the faith, to this day surrounded by a triangle of velvet ropes in the ground floor visitor's center at the temple.
     Above, the temple seats 1,200, and is accessed by nine doors—the number nine is highly significant in Baha'i, representing unity.
     Work on the nine gardens around the temple is just now being completed, the final stage of the rehabilitation project.
     "We repaired the entire temple itself, cleaned it and got it ready for its next 100 years," said Scott Conrad, a California architect who has been project manager on the refurbishing.
     About 25 percent of the surface area of the building was rebuilt, including the steps, which were completely replaced.
     To clean the intricate concrete work, skilled mountaineers were hired from Alaska and Colorado to rappel down the building, cleaning the facade with brushes.
     "It is considered the world's most exquisite concrete building," said Conrad, standing among a mass of purple flowers being planted in advance of the centennial. He said the gardens were never before quite up to what the founder's son had hoped for when the temple was first planned.
     "These gardens are completely new," he said. "In the Baha'i community, the gardens are part of the temple, and these gardens are a fulfillment of Abdu'l-Baha's wish."
     Now, what they would like is for Chicagoans to visit.
     "There is a misconception, 'Oh, this must be secret,' " said Fullmer. "The temple is open every day. People can just walk in, sit and enjoy the spirit and serenity of it, regardless of their faith. It's a sacred place they can go. That's really the hope of the Baha'is, the main purpose of it."
           —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, April 22, 2012

Friday, October 20, 2017

'Don Quixote,' ripped from the headlines

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by Honore Damier

     "Self-praise is self-debasement."
     "Craziness has more companions than wisdom."
     "If a man cannot govern himself how can he govern others?"

     Now seemed a perfect time to flee into "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes, to get lost in the vast 400-year-old Spanish novel of a deranged knight and his trusty mule-borne sidekick, Sancho Panza.
     You can run but, alas, you cannot hide, and a vexing present will sneak up where least expected. I don't want to suggest that "Don Quixote" is suddenly a political novel, ripped from the headlines of 2017.
     Let's just say the tale of a delusional old man who blunders about, claiming to help people while actually attacking innocent passersby and then interpreting the resulting fiascoes as embellishing his legend of unmatched glory, well, there was a certain unexpected relevance.
     Or as the Knight of the Sorrowful Face says: "The woman they call Fortune is fickle, and blind and drunken and doesn't know who she raises up or sets down."
     Tell it, brother.
     I do have to give technology a nod. Our brave new digital world gets a bad rap for mooting books, and rightly so. But the sword cuts both ways, to offer a proverb in the spirit of Sancho Panza, that endless font of aphorisms. Technology can also be literature's friend.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

If I don't see it, it's not there

     I wanted to share this reaction to last week's Mike Ditka column with you. No further comment is necessary. 

Hello Mr. Steinberg

     I disagree with your assessment of so-called racism and this social injustice that the Left/Progressive seemed so fond of throwing around around so much.
     Individuals you mentioned like Mohamed Ali and another one from that time frame did not suffer from Racism or social injustice.They rose to the top of their respective professions and made millions from their efforts. Jesse Owens was a classic figure in his own right and showed what a Black man could do during the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis held power.
     Yes in a small degree racism does exist yet you need to include some from ALL race's not just some Caucasians. This social injustice doe's not exist since people from all race's made millions and are successful in their respective fields and professions.
     There was no need to put down Mr. Ditka of his statement by saying he is not a man for saying what he did. Is not the left for dialog or his it for dialog under their own terms Mr. Steinberg ???
     Mr. Ditka right in his assessment of what was and is happening now and then.
     Hope to read your next article soon.

Respectfully yours

Joe P.*

* He signed his full name, but I'm abbreviating it, as a kindness.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Making English muffins won't add a second to the Trump administration


     Maybe we're doing this whole Trump thing wrong.
     Maybe liberals—horrified, rapt, gazing fixedly at each new jaw-dropper through latticed fingers, only tearing our chalky faces away from the endless slow motion train wreck to grab each other hard by the shoulders and screech, "Can you believe this?"—have fallen into a rut.
     Shock gets old. On Monday Trump lied that Barack Obama never called families of fallen soldiers. On Tuesday, trying to wriggle out of that lie—or sincere delusion, what does it matter?—Trump asked whether Obama called Gen. John Kelly after Kelly's son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, using his chief of staff's personal heartbreak as a tissue to blot the mendacious froth from his own lips. By the time you read this Wednesday, Trump will have sailed off into new territory with some unimaginable false tweet, callous remark or cruel policy.
     Must we flinch at each one?
     Maybe we need to step back, breathe, take a break, consider the big picture. Yes, this is an ordeal. We've also sailed off someplace strange and have to live there for the foreseeable future. Exiles in Crazyland. Everything this president says is still important, but not in the traditional, reflect-reality sense of importance. It's important in the yet-more-evidence-of-unfitness sense. But who really needs more evidence? At this point, either you get it or you don't. I certainly get it, and bet you do too. If you don't, well, instead of writing to me in all caps shouting how much you don't get it, consider this: just because you don't perceive something doesn't mean it's not there. Can you get that?
     For those who grasp what's happening, a ball peen hammer on our skulls, a thought: this nightmare is also an opportunity, a chance to be better people, ourselves.
     What should we do? Nurture your own non-Trump reality. Because otherwise, he can poison your whole life and you go mad, and there's too much of that already.
     Work at making your non-Trump existence richer. I did something recently that I've never done in my entire life and, I would bet, none of you have never done either, or even contemplated doing.
I made English muffins....

To continue reading, click here.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Have a nice day!

     The smiley face, a graphic low-point of the 1970s, if not of all time, has had its iconography thoroughly documented already, by Smithsonian magazine among others. So I won't bother rolling it out here, except to note that for some reason the smiley face is less objectionable when  shrunken to an emoji at the end of a sentence. 

     Why? Perhaps because it is so very small. Or, more likely, because the internet is a cold medium, nuance is often lost, and if there weren't a way to telegraph that we are speaking in jest, well, we would all be forced to slit our wrists in a warm bath. 😊
     Or maybe we just got used to it, our standards of communication worn down like a rock under a waterfall. OMG.
     Then again, "Have a nice day!" the one-size-fits-all blow-off vale we tossed at each other for decades, wasn't exactly the Sermon on the Mount either. Let's not blame technology for reflecting our flaws.
     On Sunday, in Evanston, before we slipped by the offices of Legacy.com for the Society of Professional Obituary Writers breakfast, my wife and I killed time by stopping in that mecca of all things baked, Bennison's, where we picked up a laudable baguette for dinner. I noticed that their creative bakers had augmented smiley faces with, for want of a better word, frowny faces.
     "Which sell better?" I asked the clerk, who indulgently pulled their tray out of a case at my request so I could photograph them properly. She said that the smile faces are more popular—I guess all is not darkness quite yet, or else people are trying to cheer themselves up however they can, allaying this Trumpian gloom with simpering sweets. 

     Although some people, she continued, will specify the frowns. "They'll order four at a time," said the clerk, who reluctantly agreed to be included in the shot, and I didn't want to push my luck by asking her name. You can't be too careful in this world. No wonder we're so glum. I didn't have the presence of mind to buy a cookie, so I can't say whether I went smiley or frowny—the latter, definitely. Besides, they are a better value: you get extra chocolate icing, in the form of of those vexed eyebrows. Next time.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Christine Goerke: "You can't do this if you're not healthy and strong"

Christine Goerke, right, rehearsing with Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid.

     If you are daunted at the prospect of sitting through five hours of Wagner, imagine performing it on stage.
     Picture leaping from rock to rock, dressed in armor, crying "Ho-yo-to-ho," then singing, in German, in tune, and loud enough to be heard over a 93-piece orchestra all the way in the back row of the Civic Opera house 212 feet away.
     Contemplate doing what soprano Christine Goerke does night after night in "Die Walküre," which opens Nov. 1 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
     "It's very much like running a marathon," said Goerke, relaxing after a recent rehearsal for the second part of Richard Wagner's epic "Ring Cycle" that Lyric began last year. "I will be on stage about three hours. It's very physical."
     Described by one top critic as "now arguably the finest Wagnerian soprano in the world," Goerke in person is whatever the opposite of a diva is: warm, easy-going, quick to laugh, a reminder that when she isn't traveling the world singing opera, she is a New Jersey mother of two girls, married to a construction superintendent.
     "They are the love of my life," she said.
     Goerke sings Brünnhilde, the most recognized character in opera. When Bugs Bunny dons a winged helmet with braids, he is parodying Brünnhilde.
     "The huge lady with the braids," as Goerke describes her. "A stereotype we are fighting right and left."
     It's a stereotype that, like Bugs, is 75 years old, harkening back to the "park and bark" days when enormous sopranos stood on one spot and belted out arias. While Wagnerian singers can still be large — Goerke is 6 foot and generously proportioned — they also must be fit. Goerke bristled only once in our conversation, when I suggested that her character evokes the adage, "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings."
     "No. Absolutely not," she said. "I am busting my ass to try to be healthy."

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Encounter with an owl

     If human eyes were as big as owl eyes, relative to our heads, they would be the size of oranges. Then maybe we, too, would be able to swivel our necks 270 degrees, the way owls can—out of necessity, since their eyes are not mobile eyeballs, like ours, but tube-shaped, like a pair of binoculars, ideal for hunting small animals from the air at night. 
     This is an Eastern Screech-Owl—the hyphen looks odd, but if it's good enough for Sibley's, it's good enough for me— encountered Friday on the south bank of the Chicago River, just west of Orleans. 
     I was hurrying to catch the 5:12, noticed a group of city dwellers along the riverbank, fishing—the Friends of the Chicago River, having an event—and then saw this fellow perched on the leather gauntlet of Natalie F., who works for the Brookfield Zoo. I detoured down the stairs to the river bank to take a closer look.
     Eastern Screech-Owls range across the entire United States east of the Rockies. Screech-Owls west of the Rockies are Western Screech-Owls, aptly enough, and almost identical, except they have no red varieties. Their loss, as the red is quite pretty.
      This owl, I was told, is named "Weasley," obviously a nod to the red-haired Weasley clan in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, whose use of owls as messengers has to count as one of the more creative uses of owls in fiction.
     Though not the only one. The best magic-based kids book series before Harry Potter also prominently features owls. In fact, chapter four of C.S. Lewis' "The Silver Chair," the fourth book of his Chronicles of Narnia, is called "A Parliament of Owls," his description of a gathering of owls to discuss their business of the day (and itself a pun on Chaucer's allegorical poem, "The Parliament of Fowls"). The term stuck as a collective noun to denote groupings of the bird.
     When our boys were growing up, my wife and I read them "Owl Babies," an excellent picture book by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson. It has a very simple plot. Three owlet—the term for young owls— siblings, delightfully named Sarah, Percy and Bill, wake to find their mother gone, and the entire plot is their fearful wait for her. (Though I'm not an expert, mom looks like a Spotted Owl to me).
"Malle Babbe" by Frans Hall
     Publisher's Weekly called the book "hauntingly lovely," and years ago, when I went over for tea and chocolate cake at Ann Lander's East Lake Shore Drive condo, I brought her a copy of "Owl Babies" as a present, knowing she collects owl figurines and images. She was pleased with it.
      I'm tempted to sail off into owls in art, where they represent everything from the devil and madness, such as in Frans Hals "Malle Babbe," a 1630s painting of a drunken madwomen, to wisdom and calm. In ancient times Athena, the goddess of wisdom was often depicted with an owl mascot. 
    Well, maybe just a little side trip. The most famous ancient Greek coin, the tretradrachm, featured Athena on one side, and an owl on the other, starting the tradition of putting animals on the backs of coins, and in ancient times the coins were referred to as Owls. 
     Coveting the thing and wondering how available they are, I went on eBay, and was surprised to see specimens of the 2500-year-old silver coin for as little as $400. Then again, the owl tetradrachma is perhaps the most forged coin of all time, so buyer beware.
    I think I'll do without. Besides, there is no need to spend big bucks and reach back into antiquity to find what may or may not be an authentic  Greek owl coin. Greece struck a number of modern versions, including 1 and 2 drachma coins, issued by the military junta in 1973, a nice example of which can be had on eBay for $4.