Sunday, December 31, 2017

Flashback 2010: Carol, I miss you already

    On Saturday, reader Judy Liston Gross posted this on my Facebook page:
 Hi Neil. Could you please repost the column on Carol Moseley Braun? I can't find it in my "saves." It was a great column!
     I wouldn't call it "great," but it was fun, and caused Braun to go on television and denounce me as a wife-beater and a drunk, then send minions over to picket the paper demanding I be fired as a racist, hitting the trifecta of slander if ever there were. 
     The column was entirely true, borne out by subsequent events, and the only regret I have is that every single column I write isn't this sharp. I've referred to the column several times over the years, but never printed it in full, and of course the Sun-Times archive isn't available online, for reasons mysterious. 
     So here it is, a souvenir of a rough-and-tumble era in Chicago politics—is there any other kind?—and some light reading for a cold, cold Sunday morning, and as good a way as any to usher out the old year. The past is gone, but there's a value in returning our gaze to it, now and then, if only for a chuckle.

     No, even better: "quite surprised."
     See, that's why I revere Carol Moseley Braun, in an ironic but very real sense, and will miss her when she returns to the deep obscurity she popped out of to stage her quixotic quest for mayor. Because she can say things like "I was quite surprised" after state Sen. James Meeks dropped out of the mayoral race last week.
     Moseley Braun, the former senator, former ambassador, and current would-be mayor, was caught off guard when the pastor of the Salem Baptist Church took his ball and went home, while even third-rate pundits who live in the suburbs saw this coming a mile away.
     From this column exactly 11, count 'em, 11 weeks ago:
     "This is Meeks' way of dropping out of the race," I wrote, on Oct. 11, after Meeks, in the first of a series of jaw-dropping gaffes, vowed that he would keep his day job running a mega-church after he was elected mayor—a premise that might have pleased the flock "but, to non-parishioners, it seems a preacher-slick way of saying, 'I quit.'"
     Such obviousness whizzed past the brand of savvy that Moseley Braun brings to the table, and is why part of me wishes she had a snowball's chance in hell of becoming Chicago's next mayor. Never underestimate a politician's entertainment value.
     What will we get under a Rahm Emanuel administration? Ruthless efficiency punctuated by the occasional burst of colorful ire. How about Gery Chico? Complex policy initiatives seasoned with accusations of back scratching.
     It'll be a tough task, just keeping up with all that.    
     Contrast those with a hypothetical Carol Moseley Braun administration. My job would be a breeze. Imagine the lush displays of ridicule that would blossom in the loamy soil of her rule. I'm half tempted to go into denial, after Emanuel is elected, and write columns tracking, not his advent, but the lurches and stumbles of an imaginary Mayor Moseley Braun.
     I initially considered writing this column as a mock endorsement of Moseley Braun, but held back out of sincere concern that her campaign would miss the joke and issue a press release ballyhooing the fact, the way it did last month after a black weekly published a poll that had her nudging ahead of Rahm.
     "CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN BEATS ALL MAYORAL CANDIDATES IN LATEST N'DIGO POLL" her campaign trumpeted, which sounded good until you read the fine print.
     "Moseley Braun received 27.4 of the vote, Rahm Emanuel had 22.7 percent," which wouldn't be bad if the opinions being gathered were collected from a representative slice of the city of Chicago. But they weren't. The sample being polled, N'Digo cheerfully explained, was overwhelmingly African-American women, most of them friends of the publisher. In other words, Moseley Braun issued a press release bragging that she bested Rahm Emanuel, barely, among politically-active black ladies, nearly a quarter of whom were voting for Emanuel.
     See why I'll miss her? That's like me bragging that I beat Rahm Emanuel 3-2 in a poll of those sitting around my dining room table, if you take the joyous yip of the puppy as a vote for me. Would you view that as a mark of certain Steinberg victory, or a sign that two members of my own family wouldn't even vote for me?
     Alas, after February we won't have Carol Moseley Braun to kick around anymore, and I for one will feel the loss. She represents the egomaniacal muddle that Chicago black leadership has slid into, where calls for imaginary and self-destructive racial solidarity trump minor concerns like reason or history.
     Which is why Meeks, in the comment that sealed his fate, could dismiss women and Hispanics as not being worthy of the title "minority." Politics is the art of drawing people in, not shutting them out, and candidates such as Meeks fail because they don't grasp that what drives them to their feet, applauding in the pews on Sunday, lands with a thud when delivered to the city in general.
     I hope some ambitious University of Chicago sociology graduate student does her masters thesis on the search for a so-called "consensus" candidate among the marginalized black power structure in Chicago; it would make for a fascinating study in magical thinking.
     "It is long past time that we build on the tremendous successes of the great Harold Washington," Meeks said, trying to bow out with a little style and instead reflecting his lack of a grasp on historical fact. Washington was a dynamic guy, lovable and funny, but "tremendous successes"? Point to one. Point to one mild success of the Harold Washington administration, beyond making part of the population feel better about themselves. Other than that, Washington was pretty much stymied by the rebellious City Council — he could barely seat his appointees — for his entire first term, and while that wasn't his fault, it's nothing to engrave on a coin either.
     The campaign for the February nonpartisan election is like the Warner Brothers cartoon before the main feature. We get Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner flinging anvils at each other, and it's all good fun. Then, after Feb. 22, they vanish and we move on to the real show.
                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 27, 2010

Saturday, December 30, 2017

She had no idea why the crowd was cheering — State of the Blog, IV

Revolutionary Calendar, by Louis Philibert Debucourt (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     You know what's great? That in 2017, despite the president of the United States being a malicious idiot, emptying gas cans of hatred in every direction, then flicking lit matches at combustible poison, we haven't seen any big conflagration. 
     Yes, hate crimes are up—against Muslims, against Jews, against Hispanics—and I don't want to minimize them. But they're still hate crimes, not patriotic duties. No gangs of Red Hats swagger around the streets, pulling off hijabs, brazenly breaking Jewish shop windows, terrorizing Hispanic passersby, which at the beginning of the year I half expected we'd see by now.
     So be thankful for small favors. The nation, as bad as it is, is not as bad as it could be.  And might yet become.  
     A reminder of the benefit of low expectations. As pervasive the damage caused by the corrosive mendacity of the Trump administration—to the tax code, to the environment, to the judiciary, to the press, to the Republican party itself—it's still better than I expected.
     Which is almost comforting, in a weird way.
     I know what you're thinking: but Neil, how about your blog? How is that doing? 
     Glad you asked.
     I ended last year's summary of the every goddamn day's modest but steady increase in readership since it first began on July 1, 2013, with somewhere between a modest prediction and a fond hope: 
     At the end of 2013, after six months of existence, the daily average readership was 918. By Dec. 30, 2014 it was 1200. The end of 2015 was 1539, and now it's 1730, nearly double what it was three years ago. And the numbers are trending upward: January, 2015 was the first month to break 50,000 readers—this year, every month since May has done so, with two breaking 60,000, including a record November at 65,166. My gut says in 2017 we'll reach 80,000.
      Turns out that was doable. EGD hit 89,085 readers a month in October, and at the end of November the blog was averaging 2177 readers a day for the year, a healthy 25 percent increase over 2016. In 2014, no month posted above 50,000 readers, and in 2017 not a month posted below. For the first 11 months, the blog averaged 66,115 readers a month—meaning that 2017's monthly average was higher than 2016's peak month, which is progress.
    And then came December.
    I'm keeping December out of the yearly readership calculation because it was something of a black swan event. My Dec. 2 trifle comparing videos by Pink and Amanda Palmer went viral, or my version of viral, cracking 50,000 hits. It was being retweeted in Tasmania. Thus December's readership topped 120,000 for the month, making about 850,000 total for the year.  I think a million hits in 2018 is possible.
     Okay, enough numbers. So where are we?
     With four calendar years under my belt, and not a day missed, the blog has long become an ordinary part of the day, like brushing my teeth. Sometimes I create something intricate, three days out of seven I use my newspaper column, now and then I dig something relevant out of the archive and print that. The photographs are almost always mine, though I have begun turning to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which in February made 375,000 images from its collection "available for free and unrestricted use," searchable and convenient, a kind of artistic image public utility.  It has made pairing illustration with my theme far easier, and while readers haven't remarked on it, I like it.
      I'm painfully aware of what small ball the blog is, on the scale of kid toy testers raking in millions on YouTube. I must admit, when I see Sheldon Cooper taping his poignant "Fun with Flags" on "The Big Bang Theory" I squirm a bit in recognition. Counter-intuitively, the big numbers generated by the Amanda Palmer post were more disconcerting than encouraging, because they reminded me what the blog isn't: a significant cultural force. It's a whisper in a hurricane of screams.
     Then again, my vegetable garden is not Con-Agra either, yet I still plant tomatoes every spring. Small is fine if it makes you happy, and in general, EGD does.
     My job at the Sun-Times allows me to range across the field of my interests and write things I care about and am proud of. The blog is an outgrowth of that—if I had to put in long days pulling the oars at some generic corporation I couldn't do this. The inky mothership changed owners over the summer, and the good news is the new guys seem to appreciate what this blog represents. For the first time they've actually spoken about somehow incorporating it into the paper's framework. I want to make sure that in doing so I don't lose control, and can maintain the spirit of the thing. It would suck if I could no longer swear. The conversation is glacial and I'm not expecting anything to actually occur anytime soon. I'll keep you posted.
     Not to overlook my perennial holiday sponsor, Eli's Cheesecake. Thanks to Marc Schulman for his tireless support, and if you read this every day, and still somehow haven't ordered a cheesecake, for yourself or a loved one, then go do it right away. It's both good karma and delicious. When my boys pull open the freezer, there is always cheesecake there.
     What about the writing? I've had a few highlights. On January 21, when my wife went downtown for the Women's March. I kept the home fires burning, posting photos and reports from friends at the marches in Chicago, Washington and Michigan.  In February, pieces like "The Dark Before the Darkness" tried to process the shock of a Trump presidency, and offer some welcome mockery of initial Republican fumblings, like "Meep Meep," a view of their efforts to scuttle Obamacare through the lens of Wile E. Coyote. 
     April 1 I teamed with New York graphic designer Tim O'Brien for a satisfying prank postage stamp—my fourth most popular post of all time—and ended the month bringing readers along on my trip to Italy and Paris. Speaking of the world's garden spots, in August I went down to Carbondale for the eclipse.
    I won't recapitulate them all—you can browse. I've taken to re-posting items from one, two, three and four years ago. First, some then get a surprisingly large secondary readership—hundreds of clicks. Second, it allows me to fix typos and formatting snafus and, honestly, enjoy a piece I've often completely forgotten about and third, it subtly encourages the notion this stuff has an afterlife and merits reading, not just today, but into the future. Someday I won't be here, but it will, and if one person on earth reads one column every day, I'd feel I had done something were I, you know, able to feel anything at that point.
     So not bad. The blog could always be better, and I'm working on that. Thank you all for reading what I have to say, and for writing in, and keeping a lively, and generally polite conversation going in the comments section. I'd feel really stupid if nobody read the thing.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Children of a cold sun

Cold City, by Paul Klee (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

     If you think you have it bad, consider the arctic wooly bear caterpillar, who spends the bulk of his life frozen solid.
     Ground squirrels hardly fare better: hibernating up to eight months a year, though every two weeks they tremble back to semi-warmth, then return to their winter coma.
     Consider today’s column to be a written version of the squirrelly shiver, a healthy shake to wake ourselves up, get our blood going after too long a period at low temperature.
     The coldest Chicago Christmas in a decade, with the promise of single digits until after New Year’s. Days and days that can seem forever.
     “There’s no end in sight” began the official National Weather Service report Thursday, indicating that Friday will rise to a balmy 18 degree high, only to slam back down to 2 below by nightfall; down to – 25 with the wind chill.
     So let’s talk about cold.

     If you could go back in time a thousand years, stride into a snow-covered winter encampment of Saxon marauders, boldly tap a fierce thane on his bearskin shoulder and ask how he is—”Hū eart þū?”—he might tersely reply, “Cald.”
The blunt word, aptly frozen, comes down to us practically unchanged. The original language of the 1390s Canterbury Tales is almost incomprehensible today. But “cold” stands out. Consider a line from The Miller’s Tale:
     “And caughte the kultour by the colde stele.”
     Or in modern English:
     “He grabbed the poker by its cold end.”
     No other word really can replace it. “Frigid” and “freezing” and “arctic” and “icy” and all the other synonyms are fine, in their place. But none fit real life. Nobody stamps into the house, stamping, and exclaims, “It’s Siberian outside!”
     Sometimes, tiring of constant repetition of the c-word, I’ll try, “It’s like being in outer space,” thinking of that scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where David Bowman blasts unhelmeted into the air lock of the Discovery. (It’s not. Outer space is minus-450 degrees).
     Writers struggle to do better.
     “Children of the cold sun,” begins the David Wolff poem that Nelson Algren uses as an epigraph to “The Neon Wilderness.” Algren clutches at the most basic metaphors.
     “You was stopped so cold like a popsicle,” he writes in “Never Come Morning.” “As cold as the edge of a spring-blade knife.”
     Warming to my theme, I headed over to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications noon press conference, and was reminded of the relative quality of cold: 16 degrees was practically balmy compared to the minus-5 of earlier in the week: so cold I had put on shop goggles to walk the dog.
     “We recommend avoiding any unnecessary trips outside,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, chief medical officer at the Chicago Department of Health.
     Now she tells us, I thought. She did recommend high energy foods, which made me feel a little better about the leftover Christmas cookies I had inhaled that morning. Not pigging out, but powering up!
     The rest of the press conference was the usual stuff — call 311 if you have trouble with heat or need transport to a shelter. Though there is a 50 percent chance of snow Friday, and acting Streets and Sanitation commissioner John Tully used a term I sincerely admired: “we have a team of 211 pieces of snow-fighting equipment out there.” “Snowfighting equipment” — don’t you love how that adds an element of the heroic to what might otherwise be considered the mundane act of plowing and salting? I do.
     Heading out of the house Thursday, I had noticed small birds, none weighing more than an ounce or two, picking at the feeder. We complain about the cold, while birds stoically cope with it.
     “It’s truly amazing,” said John Bates, associate curator of birds at the Field Museum. “Some species have managed quite well.” They fluff their feathers, eat a lot, have special capillary webs warming their feet.
     Birds employ one strategy people should emulate.
     “They don’t have a lot of exposed skin,” said Bates, noting that snowy owls not only have feathered legs but feathered toes.
     Those arctic caterpillars, by the way, eventually unfreeze and live their lives as fully as they can in the brief period of warmth allotted them. As must we all.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Conversation with a crook

The Fortune-Teller by Georges de La Tour (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Anyone who asks you how you are on Facebook is a crook trying to perpetrate a scam.
   Or such is my experience. 
   Occasionally I will accept somebody's offer of friendship only to have them immediately ask me how I am. 
     Real people don't do that.
     I sometimes reply, "How is life in the Philippines?" which usually shocks them into silence—I've noticed that a lot of these come-ons seem to originate from the Philippines.
    Why bother? Some innate hunger to reach out, to communicate. A desire to let it be known that I'm not being fooled.
    Lately, since they never reply, I just ignore them, and block the person I just friended. 
     Although on rare occasions, sometimes I play along and see what happens
     Like this message. It began benignly enough.

     But soon it took a curious turn.
      I suppose I was interested in whether this might possibly be a sincere person themselves taken in by a fairly notorious scam—the famous rich person giving away money ploy—or, far more likely, some kind of fraud who'd capitalize on my greed to try to extract "earnest money" from me. The type of swindle that was old at the time of "Paper Moon."
    Mention of Zuckerberg sent me immediately to a post on Snopes, the useful debunking site, where they categorized it as a "something-for-nothing" hoax in a post from the end of 2015.
      An appealing, easy-to-believe idea, that a man as rich as the founder of Facebook might give money to random strangers.

         Online scams extract an estimated $13 billion a year from the credulous. I used to marvel at the obvious falsity of those "Dear Beloved, I am a Nigerian prince..." emails, until I read that they are intentionally crude, to cull out the savvy. Makes sense. Why should a busy swindler waste his time leading somebody along, only to have them grow suspicious halfway through the scam? Better to show your hand early and cull those who notice: although I believe the "50,000.00 USD" from James Bradshaw, rather than being an intentional lapse, was just someone who lacked the command of English idiom.
     For some reason, maybe it being late, I felt a puckish whimsy, and decided to lead the conversation into an unexpected direction.
     He plodded forward, oblivious to the meat of my reply. 
     Under most circumstances I would have a difficult time lying to somebody, even a faceless scammer. But this time I got in the spirit of the thing.
     We think of the Internet as such a wonder, and it is. But I can't help but thinking, between the Russians stealing the 2016 presidential election, and uncounted people, many elderly or simple, separated from uncounted billions of dollars by this kind of fraud, whether we will not someday decide that the Internet was a steep price to pay for quick delivery of gym shoes and books. On some days Facebook seems, not a social medium at all, but just another way to be lonely.
     We mustn't blame the Internet of course. It's just a tool. And fraud is nothing new. If you haven't looked closely at the painting above, "The Fortune-Teller" by Georges de la Tour, do so. Notice the young woman at left, picking the dandy's pocket, and the one at right cutting his religious medal. A common theme in art when this was made, around 1630. Unless it wasn't—some believe the painting, which came to light in 1960, was a forgery from the 1920s which, given the theme, is just too delightful.

    Nothing changes. "People are the worst" my older son says, a truism for the ages. They will line up to rob you, or worse. One of the memes that made most impact on me in the past few months was that the United States is learning now what Germany learned in the 1930s—that one third of the country would kill the other third while the final third watches. I'd like to insist that isn't true, but it is, here, there and everywhere people live.
     A few turns of fate and your or I might be robbing the credulous via the Internet too; I'm sure there are more than a few GOPs in my spam filter who believe I already am, peddling liberal lies for those too ... well, whatever we're supposed to be ... too something to embrace the glorious truth that is Donald Trump. 

      About this point I gave up, blocked James Bradshaw or, rather, whoever was masquerading as James Bradshaw, and went to bed. I'm sure whoever was on the other end never gave it a second though, merely shrugged, baited his hook and moved on to the next of Facebook's 2 billion users. There's always another sucker around the corner, eager to believe, just waiting to be fleeced.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

'Truth crushed to the earth will rise again'

Time Carrying Truth, by Laurent Cars (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Christmas 2017 is in the can, another heirloom ornament to be carefully boxed up and exiled into the attic for another 50 weeks.
     Did you have a good one? We did the traditional Jew 2-Step: Chinese food and a movie—"Call Me By Your Name," not my pick; imagine a gay Woody Allen movie without the witty dialogue. My younger son summed up the problem most succinctly: "They weren't people." My assessment comes in second: "It made 'Toy Story' seem like a documentary.'"
     Over now. On to the obligatory Year in Review. Though I always chafe at that, because it implies our years are memorable, and they're not. Before parading by the lowlights of 2017, let's put it aside and consider, oh, 2007.
     Just 10 years ago. George W. Bush was president. Can you remember a single event from that year? Not in your own life, not little Aiden being born, but something from the larger world? Let's see ... White Sox won the World Series in 2005 ... that's close. Obama was elected in 2008, closer still... Hmm, in 2007 ... ahhh, nope, can't do it.
     Can you?
     Cheating, through the wonder of the Internet, I plug in "noteworthy News Events of 2007" and get Time's Top 10 stories, starting unpromising with 1. "Transition in Pakistan."
     I'm sure a big deal in Pakistan; here, not so much.
     Of the 10, only two seem at all significant today: the debut of the iPhone, and the Virginia Tech shooting. The rest? Recall of Chinese Toys? Protests in Burma?
      See that's the problem. You need perspective to know what developments will actually resonate over the years. Of course 2017 will be remembered as Donald Trump's first year in office, as well as, maybe, for the carnival of revelations of heretofore hidden instances of sexual harassment. I'm not convinced that the second isn't a mania, a fad like goldfish swallowing, instead of an actual shift in society's frequently-dismissive treatment of women. Being a sexual predator sure doesn't seem a bar to the Oval Office.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

"Though the frost is cruel" certainly rings true

The Stoning of Saint Stephen by Domenico del Barbiere (Met)

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay 'round about

Deep and crisp and even

     Kinda late for Christmas carols, ain't it Neil?
     Not really.
     For as many times as you've heard the bouncy opening lines of "Good King Wenceslas," have you ever wondered exactly what "The Feast of Stephen" might be?
     Of course not. That's my job.
     The Feast of Saint Stephen is today, Dec. 26, also known as "Boxing Day." A holiday in Britain and Canada.
     While the Feast of Stephen honors the first Christian martyr of the same name, Boxing Day has nothing to do with pugilism. 
     Rather, it was a day when Christmas boxes were delivered to the poor and to tradesmen—an early form of re-gifting, I assume. You took the fruit cake you didn't want, re-wrapped it and delivered it to the butcher.
    As if that weren't enough, today is also the first day of Kwanzaa, the holiday created in 1966 for black people who wanted a Christmas unsullied by white folks—and given the way white people leave claw marks on Christmas, the stink that Fox News sorts makes over questions like what color Santa Claus should be, who can blame them?
    That's too glib—Kwanzaa is really a celebration of African cultural heritage, and whatever its roots, Kwanzaa is now more of an auxiliary celebration than a replacement. It's there if you want it. Maybe I've been cocooning extra hard, but Kwanzaa seems muted this year—perhaps the trickle-down effect of Trump's general racial contempt. Perhaps people keeping their heads low. Perhaps I am mistaken. 
    With Christmas, 2017 in the books, it's time to begin performing the rites on the year. Typically, in the media, that consists of re-burying celebrities who died over the past 51 weeks, of highlighting the various horrors that occurred, and surveying where one could go to party on Dec. 31.
     I'm not sure I have the stomach for any of that. 
Saint Stephen
     Last year's dirge for 2016 still seems sadly apt.  We already had a sense that Donald Trump wasn't going to rise to the occasion of the presidency, but rather would pull the office down to his level of pettiness, narcissism and deceit. Though it was shocking just how readily an army of GOP quislings lined up to flatter and applaud, that wasn't entirely unexpected either.  Enough; it was bad enough living through 2017, forgive me if I pass on the opportunity to reprise it. 
      Not that we want to forget history. Every time someone speculates whether evangelicals will survive supporting Roy Moore, or Trump, or whatever jaw-dropping moral wrong they're endorsing at the moment, I feel compelled to observe that Christianity endorsed both slavery and Jim Crow for several centuries and came out just fine. It'll survive this too. As St. Stephen reminds us, mythologizing wrongs committed against your own faith while shrugging off crimes your faith commits against others is what religion does, has done, and always will do. Don't hate me for pointing it out.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Aire Ancient Baths brings Roman luxury to River West


     When I wrote about "111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss"—the column where I go to Englewood to get a cup of coffee—I spoke with its author, Amy Bizzarri. We talked a bit about Red Square Spa, and she mentioned this new Greco-Roman bath that had just opened, too new to be included in her book. I asked her if she planned to write about it, and she said no, so I snapped it up. That's TWO columns I've gotten from her. Thanks Amy.

     What do Chicagoans have in common with ancient Romans?
     Beside living in a crumbling empire ruled by an unstable tyrant, that is.
     Well, we've got our own Roman bath now.
     Aire Ancient Baths Chicago, 800 W. Superior, opened late last month.
     Doing my due diligence, I noticed something surprising: The Tribune, Crain's, Chicago Magazine, TV stations, all noted that a Spanish company was opening a 20,000-square-foot bath complex in the basement of a rehabbed 1902 paint factory in River West. Then all overlooked one vital step in the journalistic process: The actually going there part.
     As a former card-carrying member of the Division Street Russian Baths, I sensed an opportunity, and visited Aire last week.
     But not before getting in the spirit by reading Seneca's Epistle 86, where he discusses Roman baths. Seneca habitually praises the simple life, as only a fabulously wealthy man can, and so lauds the rustic baths of yore, with their chinks admitting light, so superior to the marble splendor of the baths of imperial Rome, with their big mirrors and fancy windows.
     Seneca's scolding, combined with Aire offering a $450 bath in Spanish wine, inclined me to expect over-opulence. A place for Trump-era plutocrats to percolate away their excess cash.
      So I was pleasantly surprised, walking in, to discover Aire has found the sweet spot between spartan and excessive. The tone is not gilt but exposed brick and rough-hewn beams. You are assigned a white glass locker, change into a bathing suit — it's co-ed — and little black water shoes, then plunge into the bath complex.

To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A visit to the old Division Street Russian Baths.

The Men's Bath, by Albrecht Dürer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Not everybody understands the importance of sometimes stopping what you're doing and just relaxing. Water helps. Tomorrow I'm reporting on Chicago's newest public bath, which I visited last week because I am a fan of its oldest, the Division Street Russian Baths, opened in 1906 and surviving to this day under the unfortunate name of the Red Square Spa. 

    To get us in the proper aquatic mood, today I'm re-visiting the old Russian baths toward the end of their existence, in the late 1990s. 

     Monday, 8 a.m. Just one customer at the Division Street Russian Baths: me. "No people because it's Monday morning?" I ask, hopefully, of one of the masseurs.
     "No people every day," he says.
     I undress, wrap myself in a sheet, and head downstairs, pondering this mystery. "No people every day." I haven't been here in a year. I used to go all the time. My brother and I were members; we'd try to slide by once a week to take the heat and get a massage before breakfast. It was great.
     But life got busy. He's busy. I'm busy. Everybody's busy. I've been meaning to get here for a long time, but was galvanized into action by something a computer consultant was quoted as saying in this newspaper: "My time is super-valuable."
     That sentiment clung to me for days, like grime, and I felt the need to steam it away.
     I greet Jimmy, who—after not seeing me for at least a year—asks about my brother. "He's real busy," I say. Jimmy steers me over to say hello to his dad, Joe.
     Joe Colucci, the owner of the baths, is 92 years old. He's a former Kaiser-Frazer dealer. That was a kind of car. Before selling cars, he was a bigshot with the Herald-American. That was a newspaper.
     We talk. I tell Joe he's looking good. "I'm a cripple," he says, pointing to an aluminum walker that he didn't have last time I saw him.
     The baths are one of what I call "second-tier Chicago treasures." The first tier are places like the Water Tower or the Art Institute. They're institutions that are not going anywhere. You don't pass the Water Tower and worry: "Boy, I hope nobody decides to pull that down." You don't pay your entrance fee at the Art Institute and think: "There! That'll keep them in business for another day."
     But the second tier—they are also institutions, they also make Chicago what it is. But their futures are less certain. When I drove over to the baths, for a frightening moment, I thought they were gone. I would have been shocked but not surprised. Who can spare a few hours to sit and take the heat? We're all busy. Our time is super-valuable.
     Some institutions shift: Wrigley Field used to be second tier; now it seems safely first tier. The Music Box Theater on Southport is second tier, bucking the huge social shift caused by videotape. You buy a ticket, you not only see a classic movie, but also perform an important civic duty.
     The baths are swimming against a social current even stronger than videotape—indoor plumbing. When they were built, in 1906, few working-class people had their own bathrooms. You shared. They were crowded and foul. Going to a public bath was a luxury. The Park District ran dozens of them. There were dozens more private bathhouses. Only Division Street is left—a Roman senator could walk in, take one look at the hot and cold pools, the masseurs, the birch branches, and know exactly what was going on.
     Downstairs is eerie with no one in it. The big empty shower room, the fixtures high up on the wall, cascades of water pouring from them. None of those modern austerity fixtures, hurling a trickle against your chest.
     The empty steam room. I take the worn piece of wood—it might have once been a 2 x 4, and lift the handle on the metal oven door. It clangs open, and I stoke a half dozen scoops of water from a large bucket onto the glowing red stones—you have to do it just right or you'll scald yourself. The steam rolls out of the oven, and I can feel the heat rising as I take my seat on the dark wooden benches.
     After about 45 minutes, I go upstairs to the sleeping room, to get a massage. The sleeping room is a large, dimly lit chamber, with six metal single cots and two massage tables. I don't think there's another room like it in the city. You lie on your back, on a single metal bed fitted with clean sheets, and look at that pressed tin ceiling, painted white, with flickering shadows from the spinning fans. It's an image out of Ellis Island, out of Nelson Algren.
     A brief rest, then back downstairs, for more heat, a scrubbing with a rough sponge, a dip in the cold pool, more heat. A handful of customers—no more than six—arrive by noon. I had planned on spending two hours, but accidentally spent four. Difficult to pull yourself away from the steam room—so hot, it makes all the so-called saunas in health clubs seem like tepid, moist places. Will it be here next time I come back?
     Where else can you sit, parboiling in the heat, waiting for the moment when you seize one of the black rubber buckets filling under the taps and dump a blast of revivifying cold water over your head? That sounds harsh, but feels great. It wakes you up. It makes you feel super-valuable.

              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 28, 1998

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Good soup

     Business took me to Superior and Halsted Thursday afternoon—more about that on Monday. When I was done, I realized that, rather than head downtown to Union Station to catch a train home, I could just proceed straight west.   
     It was a two-mile walk, but I had Jonathan Eig's excellent Ali: A Life to listen to on my phone, and was in no particular rush. I'd have plenty of time to intercept the 3:55 at the Western Avenue Metra station.
     Condos gave way to industrial buildings. Some big Museum of Contemporary Art warehouse. A lot of construction—men tearing down buildings, putting up additions. 
    I slid over to Grand Avenue and realized I was hungry. My business at River West required me to percolate myself in hot and cold pools, and the turkey sandwich I had at 11:30 ran out an hour ago.
     A Starbucks loomed into view and I briefly considered sliding in for a mid-afternoon cup of coffee and some kind of baked good. But the food at Starbucks ... ewww, right? It's what you eat when you don't have the option of eating anything else. I decided I'd rather be hungry. 
     And who knows? Some local establishment might present itself.
     As if to reward me for that line of thinking, a few minutes later a pleasant little place, Tempesta Market, materialized on Grand. I went in.
     My attention concentrated, naturally enough, on the gelato. I don't think I've had any gelato since we were in Rome last April. A friendly young woman named Danielle asked if I'd like a taste. Sure, the pistachio please. It wasn't bad. Your basic pistachio gelato send up from central casting.  Not quite worth the calories to eat.
     I explored the rest of the store. Their first sandwich was called "The Dante"—hot soppressata, mortadella, finnochioa, six meats in all. Danielle told me that the name was picked by Tempesta's general manager to honor the sandwich's spiciness, which instantly won my loyalty. Samples of ham and cheese were set out. I tried those, plus toast smeared from a large chunk of deep red substance—nduja—that tasted like a kind of dry chorizo, perfected by owner Tony Fiasche, from a family recipe dating back five generations. Interesting and complex. But not what I was hankering for.
     And then I noticed a chalkboard describing soup: "Kuri-Kuri. Red Kuri Squash Soup. Creme Fraiche. Curried Pistachio and Toast."
    "Is it good?" I asked.
    "It's good," said Danielle. 
    "Give me the soup," I said.
     Hail chef Mike Rivera (How many storefront markets even have a chef?) The soup wasn't too heavy or too sweet, not too hot or too anything. Just perfect. And it looked beautiful. Look at that soup. A mid afternoon joy, beautifully presented, for five bucks. The buttery toast was tasty too.
    Don't overlook the thick cloth napkin under the bowl. I also had one on my lap. A really beautiful napkin, its green line echoing china coffee cups in old diners. Soft. Thick. The kind of touch that communicates to a patron that the restaurant cares, and is paying attention. Somebody has to wash that napkin, and dry it  and fold it. A lot of work. But excellence and a lot of work tend to go hand-in-hand.
    I returned my empty bowl and went on my way buoyed. Yes, the day got complicated after that. Turns out the 3:55 is one of the few trains on the Milwaukee District North Line that doesn't stop at Western. I watched it thunder by and thought. "At least I have my phone." Which went from 50 percent power to flatline dead in my hands, perhaps due to the cold. 
     Which is funny, because last week I switched from paper train tickets to e-tickets thinking No worries, the good old Apple never ever dies. 
      But I had a solid base from the soup and toast, had the presence of mind to go into the station—a truly empty, creepy room from the 1930s that looks like a black and white crime scene photo after the bodies were removed—and let the phone warm up. 
     Sure enough, it had just enough life to flash the conductor on the 4:15 my ticket, and the day recovered its sense of order and rightness. Next time I'm going for the Dante sandwich because, really, how often do you get the chance?


Friday, December 22, 2017

Henry Ford, America's hateful square dance instructor

     Social media is awash in conspiracy theories — another word for confused persons trying to window-dress reality into something they can understand and accept. The dust hadn't settled after Amtrak's Washington State crash before right wingers were blaming it on their bogeyman of the moment, the anti-fascist movement Antifa.
     Then an actual real-life conspiracy gets unearthed and people just shrug on hurry on. If it doesn't buff their biases, they don't care.
     I was flitting around Twitter this week when I happened upon an article by Chicago freelancer Robyn Pennacchia on Quartz, a web site run by The Atlantic Magazine.
     I don't like to echo the work of others. But OMG.
     The headline says it all — "America’s wholesome square dancing tradition is a tool of white supremacy" — and explains the reason countless kids in countless gym classes have been swinging their partners round-and-round for the past 90 years. It is not — as I supposed — some vestige frontier tradition that lodged in public school physical education and somehow survived the lash of time, but a direct result of ... well, better let Pennacchia explain it:

     To understand how square dancing became a state-mandated means of celebrating Americana, it’s necessary to go back to Henry Ford... Ford hated jazz; he hated the Charleston. He also really hated Jewish people, and believed that Jewish people invented jazz as part of a nefarious plot to corrupt the masses and take over the world—a theory that might come as a surprise to the black people who actually did invent it.
     I knew that the inventor of the Model T was a poisonous anti-Semite, an inspiration to Adolf Hitler and the only American mentioned by name in Mein Kampf. But the jazz stuff is new. Pennacchia quotes volume three of Ford's The International Jew, written in 1921:

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Never think about hot-from-the-oven bagels

     Certain food is so good that you cannot seek it out on your own volition. You must not even allow yourself to think about it, but wait to be prompted by others.
     Lou Malnati’s pizza comes to mind. I live a three-minute walk from the Northbrook branch. But for 17 years I have never, ever, said, "Let's get a Lou Malnati’s pizza." Because if I let myself to say that, even once, I would say it every day, and then where would I be?
     As it is, I order it plenty, usually because my older son is home, and requires being greeted with Lou Malnati’s on his first day back. It's tradition. 
     However. He was just here in November, to celebrate Thanksgiving and attend "”Walkure,” though not in that order of significance. So when he came home for Christmas break, rather than order Lou Mitchell's, we decided to shake it up, and go to Pequod's, whose nearly-burnt deep dish is almost as good as the etherial Burt's Pizza.
     As it happens, Pequod's screwed up our order—they gave our pizza to another table, who discovered it wasn't theirs by beginning to eat it. After half an hour we were informed. That wouldn't have bothered us—things happen, particularly in restaurants. We were talking, catching up, having fun—but what annoyed us is that the waitress never came over to either bring the bad news or apologize. She sent the manager to do it for her, and never returned to our table for the next hour. I considered that bad form, and Pequod's dropped out of my heart—I decided to satisfy my desire for caramelized deep dish at Burt's and, should I ever feel tempted to go for a change of pace, to resist that temptation and still go to Burt's.
     But that isn't what this about. What this is about is what happened afterward. We had to go to Northwestern to pick up some paperwork for my younger son. On the way, it was suggested that we stop by New York Bagel & Bialy, 4714 Touhy in Lincolnwood, to pick up bagels for breakfast the next morning. 
     We did, ordering a variety. When I received the bag, I felt that some were still warm. Very warm. Fresh from the oven. Hot. 
     Of course they were. New York Bagel & Bialy is open 24 hours a day. The bagel place that never sleeps. There's always something fresh from the oven. We immediately divvied up an everything bagel. We didn't eat much—we had just had pizza and salad and fried mushrooms remember. 
    So we each had a quarter bagel. Just a couple bites. But that was enough. Hot. Fresh. Fantastic. The best damn thing I'd eaten in a long time.
     "Why don't we come here more often for fresh-from-the-oven bagels?" one of the boys asked. 
     A reasonable question. I had the answer.
    "If we allowed ourselves to do that," I said. "It would be all we'd ever do."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Republicans and the death of truth

     Donald Trump is not the only politician who can let his mouth fall open and utter a lie so bald it takes your breath away. 
     There is also Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 
     Did you hear his remark at the late-night press conference celebrating Congress closing in on birthing the GOP's horrendous and obscene tax reform bill? This giveaway to the wealthy, the pillage of middle and lower income America that it's been preparing in secret and ramming through the House and Senate?
    McConnell said:
     "After eight straight years of slow growth and under-performance, America is ready to take off."  

     Words fail me. Which doesn't happen much as a writer. Sincerely, they do. So instead I am going to share a graphic. This is the stock market under Barack Obama's administration, with Trump's tacked on the end:

    Am I the only person who remembers the economy Obama inherited in January, 2009? The banks and financial service companies imploding? The car industry about to collapse? I understand partisanship, and it is nothing new. But this is the death of truth. This is disease. This is mendacity so extreme it is alien to both our country's past and its future. Yet people believe it. Lying Republicans have joined hands with a shameless right wing media to create a sector of the electorate that will believe anything, accept any premise, that lives on fantasies and delusions and conspiracy theories. That runs on malice. The kind of partisan blindness we are used to reading about in dystopian fiction. Black is white. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. This is our future unless patriotic Americans who value the freedom of truth find a way to stop it.

As Roy Moore rides off into the sunset, a reminder: no costumes

Sir John Floyd on Horseback, by Richard Westall (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     Roy Moore lost Alabama's special senate race a little over a week ago, but he already seems like ancient history, a sepia figure out of a tin-type: the cowboy-hat-wearing, hang-the-1o-Commandments-high judge, praised by a supporter introducing him at a campaign rally for refusing to have sex with child prostitutes in a Vietnam brothel.
     Because that's the gold standard now.
     Before we let Moore ride off in to the sunset ... where do these guys go? I picture some Failed Republican Candidate Saloon, with Alan Keyes playing honky tonk piano and Al Salvi behind the bar.
     As Moore goes wherever he's bound—back to the 19th century from whence he came, perhaps—I'd like to make an observation that might have flown past people in the general hoopla that met his defeat.
     You might have missed the gales of ridicule Moore faced for riding his horse Sassy to the polls. (Is Alabama the frontier? I don't think of the state as being built on horsemanship. I guess Moore couldn't go to the polls riding piggyback on the shoulders of a slave. Maybe an aid talked him out of it.)
     He held the reins wrong—in both hands. The horse looked like it hated him. His legs stuck out awkwardly. The Internet and late-night television echoed with ridicule.
     "Can we vote for the horse?" Jimmy Fallon asked.
     There is a lesson here. Not for Moore—he'll never run again, please God. But Illinois is a stateful of politicians, and there is a clear, unabiguous message here:
     No costumes.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Avert your eyes, idiot

Diana and Actaeon—Diana Surprised at her Bath, by Camile Corot (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    "It is no crime," Ovid writes. "To lose your way in a dark wood." 
    Gosh that's familiar. No wonder Dante places Ovid among the quartet of classical poets he encounters soon after getting lost in his own dark wood and blundering into Hell. Homer, Horace and Lucan are the other three. A little nod for just how much he, ah, borrows from Metamorphoses.
     Not to minimize that moment—I feel it's where modern literature begins. The poets welcome Dante—"Hey look, it's Dante!"—and they chat, though Dante turns to the reader and says, in essence, "I'm not going to bore you with what we talked about: poetic stuff."
     I had pulled down "Tales from Ovid"—translated by Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath's husband—because I read, on my friend Didier Thys's Facebook page, that the city council in Rome last Thursday revoked Ovid's exile, in honor of the 2,000th anniversary of his death. 
     Here I thought the Chicago City Council had a monopoly on empty symbolic legislation. The temptation is to conjure up some Italian Ed Burke—Edwardo Burkioni—suitcoat over his shoulders, one hand wrapped around an elbow, the other gesturing with a twist of the wrist as he rises in the assembly to correct the wrong committed against Ovid, punishment for what the Roman poet enigmatically referred to as "a poem and a mistake."
    A little late.
    Still, nobody should complain about anything that nudges us back to the ancients. The "lose your way in dark wood" line was in the opening of Actaeon—I had marked it with a Post-It note during a previous read, for reasons mysterious, probably the Dante echo.
    As so often happens in classical literature, the tale was particularly apt for our moment. Actaeon is a hunter. The day's hunt over, he heads towards his palace, becomes lost, and stumbles into a grove sacred to Diana, goddess of the hunt, who—whoops!—at that very moment is being bathed by her nymphs after her own long day of supervising all hunts everywhere.
    "Steered by pitiless fate" Actaeon comes upon the clearing, the pool, the bathing goddess, and is set upon by her attendants.
Screaming at him in a commotion of water.
And as his eyes adjusted, he saw they were naked,
Beating their breasts they screamed at him.
And he saw they were crowding together
To hide something from him. He stared harder.
Those nymphs could not conceal Diana's whiteness 
The tallest barely reached her navel. Actaeon
Stared at the goddess, who stared at him...
    Let's just say ... spoiler alert! ... that Diana does not take this intrusion well. Her weapons not at hand, the goddess turns Actaeon into a stag. He leaps away, straight into the slavering jaws of his well-trained hunting hounds. 
His own hounds. He tried to cry out:
"I am Actaeon—remember your master,"
But his tongue lolled wordless, while the air
Belabored his ears with hounds' voices... 
        Ironic, huh? Kinda like assorted movie and media moguls being torn apart by the very  24-hour-a-day publicity machine they helped create. Not that their crimes are as innocent as Actaeon's. But then there's a lot of random punishment tossed out in ancient times. Think of Noah's son, Ham, whose progeny gets cursed forever because he happened to notice his father reeling around drunk and naked in his tent.  At least the modern men who get lost in a dark wood and end up getting it in the neck have earned their punishment, to a greater or lesser degree. Progress!
    And the moral of the story is: if you blunder into the wrong glade, avert your eyes, idiot. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Donald Trump doesn't like to be investigated; neither did Al Capone


     "What the hell is going on in Chicago?" Donald Trump asked a group of law enforcement officers at the FBI Academy on Friday. "What the hell's happening there?"
     Glad you asked, Mr. President.
     What's happening here is that murders skyrocketed in big cities in the United States in 2016 and Chicago is a big city in the United States.
     A 59 percent jump over the year before. Quite a lot, though other cities were worse—San Antonio jumped 61 percent.
     Which means what? You can't judge anything with a statistic as narrow as one year's increase over another. On that scale, Orlando would be the Murder Capital of America, with 169 percent increase in 2016 over 2015, because of the Pulse nightclub massacre. Crime in Chicago is generally down.
     If you look at a more significant statistic, the murder rate—the number of people killed per 100,000 residents—Chicago is behind St. Louis and Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans, Cleveland and Newark and Memphis.
     Not that it matters to the president. Trump doesn't keep bringing up Chicago to illustrate the knotty problem of urban crime, but to kick something at the headquarters of the FBI, an organization he had been kicking hard earlier that morning.

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