Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Easy to laugh at Trump's delusions of heroism; harder to realize we all do it.

Trump's delusions of heroism are shared by many Americans.

     Mockery is easy. And kinda cheap. Well, not all mockery. Mocking government officials for political cowardice, for instance, is both important and not that easy, if done well.
     I mean mockery over petty stuff. Particularly physical traits. Whenever someone goes on about Donald Trump's strange hairdo, or tiny hands, or bulging weight, I wince and think, "Really? The man is a liar and a bully and a fraud, not to mention rolling like a puppy at the feet of the Russians and you're bothered because his necktie is too long?"
     Yes, mockery has a purpose. It comforts. The scary thing isn't so scary. Hitler becomes a little man with a funny mustache.
     Though sometimes mockery causes us to miss the larger point.
     Such as Monday, when the president strutted his own imaginary courage before a group of governors at the White House, sparking a firestorm of ridicule. Twitter erupted like the Hindenburg exploding when Trump said he would have reacted to the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with reflexive bravery.
     "I really believe I'd run in there, even if I didn't have a weapon," the president said.
     I'm sure he does really believe that.
     Trump's five draft deferments, when ducking military service in Vietnam, began pinballing around social media. Nothing more need be said. We are already familiar with his comic braggadocio. Just jump in with the #TrumpCoward hashtag, savoring clips of the Cowardly Lion and Trump cringing away from an American eagle. My favorite: an audio clip of Trump yucking it up with Howard Stern in 2008 about an 80-year-old man who fell off the stage during a ball at Mar-a-Lago.
    "You know what I did? I said 'Oh my God, that's disgusting' and I turned away," Trump laughed. "He was right in front of me. I didn't want to touch him."

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"Read it like you hate me"

Megaphone, Chicago Museum of History

     Maybe I've got this all wrong.
     Here I sometimes feel guilty about posting old columns. Because the world is such a whirling mess, why not grab a fresh horror, dripping, off the hook, and extemporize over THAT? What benefit can rolling some mossy chestnut out of the cool of the cellar offer for anyone beyond myself, what advantage beyond the ease of the proprietor of this fruit stand?
     Then my old friend Charlie Meyerson goes and sends me this:

I cite this great column of yours (with credit to Bey) at least once a week. Why doesn't it live on one of your websites? It should.
     Say no more, Charlie! I can't control what the Sun-Times puts up, God knows. But EGD is my call, so if you want this, you've got it.
Though .... while I have the attention of the huddled hundreds. Yes, it is a general rule that I never plug other blogs you might visit, because I want you all here, all the time, always. But Charlie runs a valuable news aggregator site called Chicago Public Square and is doing something I'm terrible at: monetizing his efforts. 
     And though I'm reluctant to mention it, out of fear that you'll go there and never come back here, I feel obligated to do so. While acknowledging the possibility that his request for this column was just a clever, cynical ploy to gain attention for his own newly-monetized efforts. If so, as clever cynical ploys often do in this not-at-all-clever-but-certainly-cynical era, it worked—I even suggested promoting his site, which shows how thoroughly I was manipulated into displaying a false altruism entirely at contrast with my true character. The original headline was "A stitch in time."

     Most of us speak in cliches.
     "How are you?" 

     "I'm fine, thanks."
      The same tired phrases, over and over again.
     "What's your opinion on this?" 
     "Oh, it's great." 
     Like pebbles, worn smooth, traded back and forth.
     Nothing wrong with that, really. If we forced ourselves to dredge up something original, or even fresh, every time we communicated, the strain would kill us, or we would lapse into unbroken silences.
     E-mail is worse. Mostly machine-generated come-ons or spare telegraphic phrases. The highest compliment—LOL, or laughing out loud—is reserved for something funny. Original is beyond us, generally.
     One exception is Lee Bey, the director of governmental affairs at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the legendary Chicago architecture firm. I'd say we've been friends since Lee was the architecture columnist at the Sun-Times, but I don't want to put on airs, or sully him by association. Let's say we used to sit next to each other, and we've kept in touch since he left.
     Lee has a way with words—that's a cliche, incidentally; I'm sure he would put it better. I can't tell you how many e-mails of his I've gotten where what he had to say just sizzled off the screen. More than once, I've leapt to put them into print—crediting Lee if the sentiment did not detract from his lofty corporate status, otherwise taking his ideas, happily wiping off the fingerprints and filing down the serial number, and presenting them either as the words of an anonymous wag, or as a genius divination of my own.
     Last week, Lee sent me something that really set off the alarms. He is writing his first book— Paper Skyline: The Chicago That Never Was, a look at unbuilt buildings—and he asked me to read the first chapter and give him my honest reaction.
     Only he didn't say that—didn't say "give me your honest reaction," which is what you or I or most people would write. What Lee Bey wrote was: "Read it like you hate me."
     I immediately rushed to Google. "Read it like you hate me" drew a big fat zero hits ("big fat zero," another cliche, drew 54,800). Ditto on the Nexis database of all the newspapers in the country going back 15 years.
     Not only is "Read it like you hate me" original, but it conveys the exact right sentiment for somebody trying to write well. Most writers say they want frank criticism when in fact what they want is praise.
     "Read it like you hate me" machetes through that, grabs you by the collar and says, "I really, really want your true opinion, the criticisms you would lovingly tote up reading the work of somebody you loathed." But in six words.
     People who hate you—trust me on this—parse the smallest errors of grammar. They point out tiny logic flaws. They don't sit back and applaud like seals.
     It's Lee's phrase, but I'm proud to be the person who tosses it into the electronic soup. It's perfect. I don't think the thought can be reduced by another letter, never mind another word. Five hundred years from now, on a domed city on Mars, one engineer will brush his fingertips across the forehead of another, transferring a document by micro-field bubble diffusion osmosis. "My report on valve seal integrity for next week's meeting," he'll say, tentatively. "Read it like you hate me."
                                —Originally published in the Sun-Times Jan. 9, 2006

Monday, February 26, 2018

Too cowardly to express raw hatred for immigrants, foes slur them as criminals

     I hate Mexican immigrants. Whenever I hear someone speaking in Spanish, I want to scream. Bottles of hot sauce set out on restaurant tables annoy me. The mere suggestion that the United States is becoming increasingly Hispanic sickens and offends me.
     None of the above is true.
     At least not true for me. In fact, I feel exactly the opposite of each hateful sentiment expressed in the opening paragraph.
     Then why say it? Because these opinions, though rarely articulated, are held by many Americans. I wrote them out to show that it could be done. Frankly, I wish it were done. Because, being unable to state their true feelings, perhaps out of an appropriate if unrecognized shame, they instead make claims that are far worse.
     Take Jeanne Ives, the Illinois state legislator running against Bruce Rauner in the Republican primary for governor.
      Her campaign has produced a number of TV commercials playing upon the fears of Illinois voters. One particularly offensive piece of propaganda features a man named Brian McCann, who talks about how his brother Dennis was killed by a drunken driver named Saul Chavez. He leaps from the specific to the general.
      "Thousands upon thousand of people have been victims of murders, all manner of felonies, rapes, because of illegal criminals that are in this country and we want them removed," McCann intones gravely.

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Regrets and counter regrets

     Photographs contain a lot of information on them. There's the image, of course. But they are also stamped with the date and time—that's nothing new; I have black and white snapshots from the 1960s that have the month and year in tiny type under the picture. 
       But nowadays they'll even tell you where they were taken—that's how I was able to track down the name and address of the bakery in Florence I wrote about last week.  The photo had a little map tucked inside. Which is kinda incredible. 
     There is, however, a downside to all this data tucked into our photos. We lose a certain protective vagueness.
     I noticed this Bitcoin machine in April, 2015 in the Merchandise Mart. It was a curious piece of equipment, and I snapped a photo and wrote a blog post about this strange new currency. 
      I did not, of course, buy any Bitcoins, though the thought crossed my mind. I might buy one for journalistic purposes. I poked at the machine, and came to this conclusion.
     I explored the glowing orange machine screen, but it seemed to only work if you already had an account, and given that it accepts only $20s and $100s, I didn't quite see the point of pumping big bucks into it just to then try to find a vendor who would take the Bitcoins my money would become. Where's the benefit in that?
     The benefit could easily be seen if you look more closely at the glowing screen. A Bitcoin on that day was worth $261.95 (I went online to figure out what Bitcoins cost that day when, looking harder at the photo, I realized the answer right in front of me. One big drawback of so much data is you miss stuff). So if I had gathered together 14 twenties and taken the plunge I would have today ... $9,685, or twice that had I sold my Bitcoin in December before the bubble popped or the tulips wilted or whatever the proper economic metaphor is.
      Quite a lot really. About 40 times profit on my investment.      
     What of it? Regret is vain. And pointless. And something people do all the time, to torment themselves, and the closer their brush with some theoretical path of action, the more they kick themselves for not taking it.
     I never had that particular regret—dabbling in crypto-currencies is a kid thing— until I realized I had been standing in front of the machine on such-and-such a date, and began to wonder just how much I left on the table. 
     What to do? One way to counter such pointless regrets is with what I'll call counter regrets. It isn't as if the only way the past can be viewed is through the lens of actions you should have done but didn't. There are also the actions you shouldn't have done and didn't.
     In 1999, I went to New York to take the Empire State to Europe with my father for a book I was writing. We were standing on a street corner in Manhattan. The light changed and I started to step forward. He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back just as a bicycle messenger shot past so close I could feel the wind. I'm glad he did that, I could have been clobbered. But I wasn't. Shame I don't have a picture.
     But I do have the lesson. Which is: why feel bad about the good stuff that didn't happen when you can feel good about the bad stuff that also didn't happen? Or try to anyway.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Raggedy Ann and Andy: A critical analysis

     A certain sense of permanence has crept into popular culture. Everything that has ever been still is, all that could be bought is available now. Nothing ever goes away. Prell Shampoo? Bed, Bath & Beyond has got it for $3.49. Record players? Back in vogue.  I counted a dozen different types of butter churns for sale on Amazon.
      Though specifics wax and wane. Raggedy Ann, for instance, and her brother, Raggedy Andy. Very big in the day—I had one, most kids did. It was second only to the Teddy Bear in popularity.
     Now I never see one.
     Okay, not "never." Let's say they've diminished, greatly. Teddy Bears are very much with us. While the Raggedy siblings, well, honestly, their continuing existence would have never crossed my mind if I hadn't come across this pair of Andys—Andi?—at the cute little resale shop that the Northbrook Historical Society runs in its basement. 
     Yes, they're still sold. I immediately found the woebegone creature at right for $14.99 on the Target web site. Just look at him. You'd have to really hate a child to give him that. 
     So what's wrong with Raggedy Andy? Very clownlike, and clowns are out-of-fashion. Who doesn't hate clowns? With the triangular nose adding a jack-o-lantern effect, and while people might be okay with jack-o-lanterns, at Halloween, no child is so frightened as to want to cuddle up with one.
     Plus he seems to be a sailor—he's got a sailor's hat, perched atop his head. It's all very jarring, as was the "I love you" written on a heart on his chest—adults consider it sentimental, but I seem to recall, as a child, viewing it as somehow risque, if not shameful, maybe because the doll had to be naked to see it. It was like a tattoo before tattoos were popular.
     So where did this red, white and blue abomination come from? Raggedy Ann came first—star of a series of books, the outgrowth of an old doll decorated for his daughter by cartoonist Johnny Gruelle, a political cartoonist in downstate Arcola, Illinois. He told his daughter stories about the doll, supposedly, and set them down in a book to honor the girl ... oh, I'm going to hell for this ... to honor Marcella after she died of an infected vaccination at 13. (The anti-vax movement sometimes uses Raggedy Ann as a symbol, another reason not to like the character).
     Gruelle was a James Whitcomb Riley fan—everybody was, at the time—and the concept was something of a mash-up of his poems "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphan Annie."     
     Not the comic strip. That began in 1924, speaking of borrowing. I had an odd, deja vu moment when I re-read "Little Orphan Annie." It begins:

         Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
         An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up,
         an’ brush the crumbs away,
         An’ shoo the chickens off the porch,
         an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
         An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread,
         an’ earn her board-an’-keep;

    It continues in that vein, until:
A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales
‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
    Ef you
    At which point I almost tensed up, because here my mother would tickle us and we would writhe with glee. It's a shocking memory to discover, this James Whitcomb Riley moment in early 1960s suburban Ohio. It's like seeing the sun flash off water and suddenly remembering rafting down the River with Jim 'n Huck. Did I do that?
    Maybe that's my problem with Raggedy Ann and Andy—they have the aura of something borrowed, something artificial. Reading over tales of the Raggedy story origin, I start to suspect whether Gruelle's daughter ever played with the old doll at all, or whether it was all a commercial sham. cooked up by her dad. (Reading the original 1885 poem made me also wonder whether Annie was originally black, which would nudge Raggedy Ann into the realm of cultural expropriation, like Elvis stealing the blues. But no, there was a real model for Annie, Mary Alice "Allie" Smith, an actual white orphan who lived with the Riley's when the poet was growing up. The dialect is 19th century rural Hoosier). 
     Though my suspicions, if not actual enmity, is  also odd, because as a tot I definitely had a small Raggedy Andy, and he was a favorite toy—I remember him threadbare, his face half cuddled away, his cap gone, yarn hair thinning, scalp peeking through in the back. His loss in the mid-1980s—in a bag accidentally thrown away by workmen—was mourned, a moment mentioned in my Failure book. You might say that the dolls are cheap or, to be charitable, you could instead say that they're designed to be worn, broken in, loved. Maybe it's just the new ones that are repulsive. The old, battered dolls have earned forgiveness.
     The stories were sold first. Chicago printer P.F. Volland brought out a book, Raggedy Ann Stories for Christmas, 1918 and some forgotten Marshall Field window dresser slapped together a doll to accompany the book in a window display, as a publishing promotion. But customers wanted the book and the doll, leading to "the oldest continuously licensed character in the toy industry," according to Tim Walsh, who includes her in his epic Timeless Toys.
     Walsh goes to bat for her. "If her story doesn't pull on your heartstrings then you just might need a hug yourself."
    Maybe I do.
    To find out, I thumbed through Raggedy Ann Stories. At first, it makes the modern reader want to leave some flowers on Maurice Sendak's grave, if not disinter Theodore Geisel and kiss him on the lips.
    The kind of wooden, artificial dialogue that Where the Wild Things and Dr. Seuss swept away. 
     A little girl finds a doll in a barrel in the attic and brings her to her grandma, who repairs a missing eye: 
     "Now!" Grandma laughed, "Raggedy Ann, you have two fine shoe-button eyes and with them you can see the changes that have taken place in the world while you have been shut up so long in the attic! For, Raggedy Ann, you have a new playmate and mistress now, and I hope you both will have as much happiness together as you and I used to have!" 
     Reading the book made me never want to use an exclamation mark again. Ever! For the rest of my life!
     Ann has shoe-button eyes—as befit her antique nature—she was 50 years old when the story begins in 1918; shoe buttons, it goes without saying, were used to close shoes, and people had extra around the house, like power adaptor cables now.
     In the story, as soon as the coast is clear, RA and her fellow dollies come to life and go on adventures, gorging themselves in the kitchen until Marcella blunders in.
     "Just as their mistress came in the dolls dropped into whatever positions they happened to be in." 
     Does that remind you of anything? Any popular toy-centric movies? I noticed that too. 
     There are elements banished from popular culture. A black laundress for one, Dinah, who never would make the cut today. She talks in a thick Southern accent.  The washing is done out back, in large open boiler stirred with a broom handle. Ann is going through the wringer, quite literally, when she is rescued.
     "Jess lemme hang Miss Raggedy on de line in de bright sunshine foh haff an hour," Dinah says. 
     Dried off, Raggedy Ann becomes the tail of a kite, searches for a lost dog (named "Fido," and no, this didn't popularize the name. Abraham Lincoln had a dog named "Fido.") She falls in a bucket of paint. She floats down a river, looking very much like Ophelia among the reeds.
     She has to face down a pair of fancy new dolls, Thomas and Annabel, show up and vie for Marcella's affection (really, Raggedy Ann Stories reads in places like a shooting script for "Toy Story." I seem to be the first person to have noticed it). The intruders chat haughtily among themselves:
"Did you ever see such an ungainly creature!" 
"I do believe it has shoe buttons for eyes!"
"And yarn hair!"
     Okay, I admit it. By the time I finished Raggedy Ann Stories I was, if not won over, then quite charmed, convinced that oblivion, if that is indeed their fate, is undeserved. And maybe premature—the centennial of the first book's publication is this Christmas, so maybe the whole thing will take off again. Gruelle's artwork really is quite lovely.   
   Although the ending of the first book—Gruelle would go on to write nearly two dozen more—made me doubt the story of Marshall Field's window: Raggedy Ann is taken away by a friendly stranger, first bouncing Marcella on his knee, a scene sure to make the #MeToo movement cringe. He takes her to a factory and allows her to be copied into "hundreds and hundreds" of sisters who then enter the world (Yet another "Toy Story" touch: the hero confronting being replicated into merchandise). The book ends with:
    "For wherever one of the new Raggedy Ann dolls goes there will go with it the love and happiness that YOU give to others."
     Here I thought this sort of thing started with the Ewoks.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The numbers don't add up when it comes to arming teachers

     You don’t need trouble grasping big numbers to believe in God.
     But it helps.
     Whenever a foe of evolution explains how some natural wonder, the human eye say, is so complex it just had to be created by Divine intelligence, I know we’re dealing with someone who has can’t — or, to be kind, won’t — wrap his head around the concept of millions of years. Who has no patience for the slow evolutionary crawl from single-celled organism to giraffe that science has mapped out in its gradual glory.
     Which is fine, as far as that goes. I begrudge no man his illusions. A pretty story helps us get by.
      It’s only when they insist that their origin fable be taught along with science in public schools, as co-equals, that I raise an objection. Because one is solid fact, and the other a tissue of fantasy, and musty, millennia-old fantasy at that. There is still a difference.
     Not that religion has a monopoly on innumeracy. Gun ownership — while a fun and unobjectionable hobby for most —
has become a redemptive religion for others, for a minority who, alas, drive the conversation about guns in this country. It isn’t about hunting quail or shooting targets or collecting, not anymore.
     It’s about belief. And ignoring big numbers.
     Generally. The National Rifle Association, their papacy, has no trouble grasping big numbers such as millions of dollars, and understanding exactly what those mega-bucks can do when purchasing politicians.
To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

How Billy Graham got me fired

The church at Gloucester by Childe Hassam (Met).
     Rev. Billy Graham died Wednesday, and the Sun-Times posted the obituary I wrote about him. A number of  readers in their comments lashed out at him as an anti-Semite, though I think the truth is more complicated than that. He was a presidential sycophant. Yes, he was caught on tape running down Jews with Nixon. But the reason, in my estimation, is more that Graham agreed with pretty much anything any president had to say, out of habit and self-preservation, rather than any particular hatred of Jews.  If Nixon had carried on about how much he loved Jews, and how great they were for America, Graham would have agreed with that too.
      While being a toady was only one aspect of Graham generally failing to do his moral duty, he had his positive moments too, particularly as he got older. No, he didn't strangle his son Franklin, which would have been a true service to humanity. But he could stand up to wrongs that weren't coming from the Oval Office, such as this episode I recount in a 2000 column.

     I've always liked the Rev. Billy Graham. Even though an offhand comment he once made to me ended up getting me fired.
     But I'll save that tale for the end.
     I like Billy Graham because he speaks and acts as if Jesus Christ really meant all that stuff about love and forgiveness, and wasn't just filling time between miracles.
     Graham passed unscathed through an era when many lesser preachers were ruined by scandal. The Swaggarts and Bakkers who either got too big or too rich or just stopped being ministers and became politicians or entertainers or, to be blunt, clowns.
     I'm not saying that Graham is perfect. He likes the halls of power, a lot, and found it easier to baptize Dwight D. Eisenhower than to add his public support for Civil Rights. He was so busy playing kissy-face with Lyndon Johnson that he never realized that a moral man, a man of God, might find reason to publicly oppose the war in Vietnam.
     But his heart is in the right place, generally. He kept himself apart from the aggressive, one might almost say predatory, brand of evangelical Christianity, as best represented by the Southern Baptist Convention, which roiled the waters of interfaith comity by announcing that they would go to Chicago this summer and save Jews and Muslims and other heathen from the eternal hellfire that awaits us.
     Graham gave the Southern Convention the brush off this week.
     "I normally defend my denomination," he said. "I'm loyal to it. But I have never targeted Muslims. I have never targeted Jews."
     He doesn't say the reason, but it's plain. To do so is offensive. It's one thing to thrum your religion as the bright light and infallible road to happiness. All religions do that.
     It is a very different matter to single out particular creeds as being extra worthy of salvation.
     But I'm running out of space, and I haven't told my story about Graham costing me a job. I was the opinion page editor of the old Wheaton Daily Journal, and it fell to me to interview the great man during one of his forays home to his alma mater, Wheaton College.
     The interview went well; as I said, I like Graham. At the end he stood, offered his hand, and said: "You know, I'm friends with Helen Copley"—the owner of the Copley Newspapers, of which the Journal was the absolute smallest—"I don't get to see her as much as I'd like; next time you see her, say hello for me."
     Well, of course I had never seen Helen Copley. I was never going to see Helen Copley. She was planted out at Copley headquarters in San Diego and was never going to show up at the Daily Journal on Schmale Road. But I was amused by imagining the idea of under what circumstances we might meet, and in my column describing my interview with Graham, I wrote: "Sure—next time I'm over at Bebe Rebozo's house, playing pinocle with Nixon, the Hunt brothers and Col. Ky, I'll give her my regards."
     That was it. Fired, the very next day. I don't know if she ever read the joke. I doubt it. But no matter; the idea was, if she did see it, and phoned in a rage, they would be able to say that I had already been canned.
     No big loss. The sacking sent me flying toward eventual happiness at the Sun-Times. And I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that story over the past 15 years. I always tell it to friends licking their wounds after being fired: Sometimes a boot in the pants can be invigorating.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 4, 2000

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Rev Billy Graham, "America's pastor" had roots in Chicago

     Starting from a tiny basement church in the western suburbs of Chicago, the Rev. Billy Graham created a ministry that spanned the globe.
     The Wheaton College graduate who became the most popular, enduring and influential evangelical leader of the second half of the 20th century died Wednesday at his home in North Carolina, according to spokesman Mark DeMoss. Known as “America’s pastor,” he was the unofficial chaplain to the White House, of particular importance during the Johnson and Nixon years.
     Graham, 99, had long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments.
     In 70 years of spreading the gospel, Graham's message of personal deliverance through Jesus Christ was conveyed by speeches, books, magazines, radio, television and the internet. Through his trademark crusades alone he preached directly to an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries.
     During three weeks in June 1962, for instance, some 800,000 people attended his Chicago Crusade; 116,000 jammed Soldier Field on a single blisteringly hot day to hear Graham speak.
     It was Graham’s influence, however, not on the common believer, but on America’s leaders that most distinguished him from other evangelical figures.
     He personally ministered to every president, Democrat and Republican, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, who was the first sitting president to visit Graham at his home.
     Graham baptized Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom he also urged to run for president while the general was still Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.
     Graham knew Richard Nixon’s mother, Hannah, before he met the future president. They became golfing buddies; Graham spoke at Nixon’s inauguration and at his funeral.
     Nixon credited Graham for his role in convincing him to try running for president a second time in 1968. Graham was also a frequent guest at the Reagan White House.
     Though most closely associated with Republicans, Graham was actually a lifelong registered Democrat, and was intimate with Democratic presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — Graham delivered the invocation at LBJ’s inaugural in 1965.

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Flash! There are poor Jews, and The Ark's dinner-less dinner helps them.

     Chicago has dozens of big fancy hotels. And every big fancy hotel has a big fancy ballroom, if not two or three. Many of those big fancy ballrooms on any given night hold big fancy charity dinners with crowded bars and framed Blackhawk memorabilia and baskets of wine laid out on endless silent auction tables.
     As the good hearted souls attending these dinners shout small talk at each other and angle themselves to strip chunks of prime rib off passing trays and in general passionately wish they were home watching "The Big Bang Theory," a thought forms: "Why don't we just give money to the charity and skip the dinner?"
     Good news: next year is here, and has been for 20 years.
     "It goes back to the 1990s," said Marc J. Swatez, executive director of the The Ark, which holds an annual "dinner-less dinner" to raise money for its programming. "We had a development director who saw an article about a New York charity that did it. In 1998 we did our first dinner-less fundraiser raiser and sent out a package of powdered soup, asking people to enjoy a cup of hot soup in your own home and help us. It was successful."
     This year, they sent a block of chocolate.
     "We've send out soup and tea, cookies and popcorn, luggage tags, keychains," said Swatez. "It gets people's attention. In 2008 we did our first chocolate. It's been very successful."
     Given the economics, it's surprising more charities don't do it, though Swatez noted there is a social, team-building aspect to actual dinners.

     "If you throw a dinner, about half the money you raise goes back into the dinner itself," said Swatez. "The dinner-less dinner costs us about $50,000 to put on and we bring in almost $800,000. Right from beginning, the dinner-less dinner brought at least as much as the dinners, if not more."
     My father-in-law, the late Irv Goldberg, used to volunteer for The Ark, delivering food to shut-ins, some younger than himself, and I assumed The Ark primarily serves the elderly. Not true.
     "There's a huge misunderstanding about what we do," said Swatez. "The Ark is a multi-service social service agency. We serve the Chicago Jewish community in the broadest way. We do case management and clinical work. Give away a lot of money in supplemental assistance. A very significant medical clinic, dental clinic, food pantry, homeless shelter. A huge phychiatric services department. All of our clients are poor."
     Wait a second, I said. There are poor Jews?
     "Half our clients are below 250 percent of the poverty line," he said. "We opened an office in Northbrook. I see 800 clients out of that office."
     We got on the subject about how poverty affects Jews. Could I say, I wondered, that Jewish people are affected equally by poverty as non-Jews?
     "You can say that very safely," he said
     Actually, I can't. Those pesky facts.
     Last year the Pew Research Center, did a study placing Jews at the top of American religions when it comes to household income, with only 16 percent earning below $30,000 a year, less than half the national average of 35 percent. Also, 44 percent of Jewish households earn more then $100,000 a year, compared to a national average of 19 percent.
     This doesn't mean there aren't poor Jews—that struggling 16 percent—but there is a financial upside to having parents noodge their kids about doing their homework.
     Not that education guarantees a person won't someday receive canned food from The Ark.
     "About half our clients have a college degree," said Swatez.
     If your degree served you well enough that you want to give to give back, you can participate in the dinner-less dinnerat I just did; it was easy, fun and I didn't have to dress up, show up at a hotel ballroom and make dinnertime small talk with people I've never met before and will never meet again.
     "Most social service agencies get money from three buckets," said Swatez. "A big chunk from government; second, from fees to clients, and third, fundraising. I take almost no federal money, and everything we do here is 100 percent free of charge. We have to raise everything else, which is why this dinner-less dinner is so important."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Some Italian cookies with those harsh words?

     Having written yesterday on the president's treasonous neglect of our country's defense, the only thing to do today is share the sputtering outrage of his supporters, who of course defend him contrary to all reason. It really defies belief. But don't trust me. Here's one, from Randy Stefani:

Hey Neil. So President Trump is shirking his responsibility because he has not done anything in five or six days since some indictments went out. Two things. First none of those charged are guilty of anything until proved in court. What about President Obama who found out in August of 2016 that the Russians were up to games. During his last five or six months he did NOTHING ABOUT IT!!!!!!!! Not five or six days but FIVE OR SIX MONTHS!!!!!! I saw a one time mention of this in liberal news and most certainly was not pressed on. Where was your article on this calling out PRESIDENT OBAMA? Or the article you wrote denouncing Obama's big two lies to the American people about his health care plan? There is an old saying. Once a liar always a liar. Obama and ALL POL"S AT EVERY LEVEL LIE ALL THE TIME. Can't believe anything any of them have to say for this reason. Their track record for any of them to tell the truth is as poor as can be. I guess Obama did not want to upset his buddy Putin. You know how he told Putin how he can do what he wants after he is elected again. The hot mic that caught him saying that. How Obama laughed at Romney at their debate in 2012 when Romney said Russia was our enemy. I watched Obama laugh out loud and say something about Romney taking us back to the 1980's. All liberals were laughing at Romney for that. Guess he was a whole lot smarter than the liberals and Obama were. BUT BOTTOM LINE. OBAMA KNEW FOR FIVE TO SIX MONTHS ABOUT RUSSIA TRYING TO PLAY GAMES AND DID NOTHING!!!!!!!!!! If President Trump is shirking his duty for not doing anything in five or six days what does that make President Obama? I will be looking for that article coming out soon........
     Can't make that up, can you? To demonstrate he isn't some odd outlier, let's grab another, this one from Steve Pearse:
Are you bipolar or just so liberal that you will write anything to advance their cause ?? Your column on Monday accusing the president of not protecting us against foreign enemies is so ridiculously slanted that it confirms to me that there does exist "fake news".
Trump is trying desperately to protect us from foreign enemies but you liberals challenge his every move in court. You scream at the top of your lungs that there is no threat coming through our borders or from immigration. You advocate open borders and no checks on immigration and subsequently write of treason by Trump when in actuality it should be Obama ( if anyone )who should be tried for treason for not recognizing the Russian threat nor acting on it. You have convinced me that if Hillary had been elected there would be no stories about Russian collusion. You are a propaganda monger who uses SELECTIVE facts while ignoring any facts contrary to your agenda !! It is journalists like you that precipitate the term "fake news". There are two sides to every story - TRY REPORTING BOTH !!!!!
     There, that'll do. I think you get the idea. Multiply those by a few dozen and you'll see why Monday, well, felt quite dreary, despite the warm weather. Sad that Trump exists; sadder still the people who created and maintain him. 
     Still, I don't want to just dump you where I was and leave you there.
     So Italians cookies. From Pasticceria Forno Bruschi Ivana on the Via dell'Ariento in Florence. I don't know if it's the best bakery, but it's the one by the train station where I popped into last April to set in a store of provisions for our rail trip to Venice.
     I would direct your attention to the chocolate swirls. Not too sweet, but freshly baked and firm, a little dry, the perfect thing to go with your take-out coffee.
     A reminder that as bleak as our political landscape is, there is always some good, if only a good thing to eat, somewhere. So don't divide your attention simply between our increasingly-unhinged president, whose tweetstorm over the long weekend was crazed, even by his standards, blaming the Parkland slaughter on the FBI, and his foaming followers, who seem to think that if they sputter and insult enough people will ignore their being a party to treason. As if abuse were persuasion. Remember to get your hands on the best baked goods you can, or at least cling to the memory of them. Nourish yourself, body and soul, to resist the ruin of our country. Better times in the past, better times ahead.

Monday, February 19, 2018

America is under attack—why isn't the president defending us?

Benedict Arnold
     America is not known for traitors.
     There were the Rosenbergs, Julius and Ethel. Put to death in 1953 for slipping nuclear weapon secrets to the Soviets. And Jonathan Pollard, with his long prison stint for a two-bit treachery that was more about aiding Israel than hurting the United States.
     They're historical trivia now. The only really famous betrayer of our country is that original American traitor, Benedict Arnold. Most Americans know the name, though could not, I would bet, offer up much regarding who Arnold was or what he did to earn his deathless disgrace.
     Arnold was a hero in the Continental Army. In May 1775, he led a small party that seized Fort Ticonderoga from the British. He later invaded Canada, leading a march through Maine. The trek was famed for its hardship — his men were reduced to eating dogs and shoe leather. They attacked Quebec on New Year's Eve 1775 but did not succeed.
     A brave general. But by 1779, motivated by petty slights and a need for money, Arnold began communicating with the British. He accepted the command of West Point specifically because there he could "render the most essential service" to our enemy.
     Arnold's treason was twofold. Not only did he convey the design of the fort to the British, but in the summer of 1780, he neglected the defenses of West Point. He did not keep his troops in readiness because he planned to surrender the fort.
     Maybe you see where I'm going with this. That second part of Arnold's treason is relevant today.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

It isn't as if we're ALL for Lipinski

Ichabod Crane
     A few readers expressed shock on my Facebook page that the Sun-Times would endorse Dan Lipinski. While I generally try to stand behind the paper—we're all in the boat together, pulling on the oars—this is a case where I have to set my face into a blank expression and mutter "sorry, not my table," as I hurry past. I'm not on the board. I don't make these decisions.
    But as people were also explaining to me the sketchy circumstances of Lipinski's elevation, I found myself  grumbling, "I know, I KNOW!" and thought I should dig out a few examples of my handling of the man, to illustrate that we might have lapsed on this race, but generally have done our part in the past and might do so again in the future. Even noble Homer dozed.

     Perhaps due to my own manifest bodily deficiencies—eggplant nose on a garbage can head teetering on a Baby Huey physique—I tend to notice personal flaws.
     When the Jedi Council sits around, for instance, trading tales of Sen. Peter Fitzgerald's shortcomings as a politician and legislator, I am apt to chime in, "And he's got that awful facial tic."
     Or when Rep. Rahm Emanuel—whom I admire—first visited, to be quizzed about his views, I had to restrain myself from chirping, "What happened to your finger?"
     Childish, I know. Even more starkly so on Wednesday, when college professor and hereditary Congressman Dan Lipinski stopped by to introduce himself. The mood in the room was somber, as befits a subversion of the democratic process, and as my colleagues established that he was going to stick to the ludicrous tale of how his father, Rep. Bill Lipinski, just happened to decide to retire so his son could miss the primary and run against a sham opponent, I fixated on his looks.
     An unsettling, bird-like quality to the man—rail-thin, glittering, deep-set eyes, a prominent Adam's apple. Like a character from literature, and I struggled to conjure which one. Then it hit me—Ichabod Crane, the guy from the Washington Irving tale, fleeing the Headless Horseman. He had the same timidity, the same lack of ... something.
     He spoke in bromides. "I believe my job is to help my constituents," he said. "My campaign is about what I'm going to do for the people." Golly.
     He said how he will be his own man, then explained his goal of finding a perch on his dad's congressional committee.
     The more I studied this frail, awkward-speaking academic (his poor students; the heart breaks) the more I felt an odd pang of sympathy. Clearly, he wasn't burning up the scholarly world, even down in the backwater of Tennessee. I'm convinced that, rather than run the risk of his son ending up behind the counter at Wendy's, Bill Lipinski decided to plunk him into a comfortable berth. He got his boy a good job, and while the U.S. Congress is supposed to be more than a sinecure for one's relatives, this can't be the first time it has happened. I can't see into the future. Maybe Dan Lipinski will surprise us, and surpass expectations. He certainly will, now that I think of it. He couldn't do worse.

                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 20, 2004


     Six years ago, when Rep. Bill Lipinski bequeathed his seat to his son, the fortunate boy visited the editorial board to try to charm us. I described the meeting this way:
     "College professor and hereditary Congressman Dan Lipinski stopped by to introduce himself. The mood in the room was somber, as befits a subversion of the democratic process, and as my colleagues established that he was going to stick to the ludicrous tale of how his father, Rep. Bill Lipinski, just happened to decide to retire so his son could miss the primary and run against a sham opponent, I fixated on his looks.
     "An unsettling, bird-like quality to the man—rail-thin, glittering, deep-set eyes, a prominent Adam's apple. Like a character from literature, and I struggled to conjure which one. Then it hit me—Ichabod Crane, the guy from the Washington Irving tale, fleeing the Headless Horseman. He had the same timidity, the same lack of . . . something. He spoke in bromides. 'I believe my job is to help my constituents,' he said. 'My campaign is about what I'm going to do for the people.' ''
     It turns out, what he is going to do for the people is make sure that not one federal dollar finds its way to an abortion clinic, even if it meant that the 57,000 voters in his district without health insurance never get any. He was one of the Democrats who said he was voting against health-care reform, out of his concern for life.
     It was surprising to see Lipinski making a stand—sort of like a guy who crashes your party turning around and complaining about the dip.
     Six years ago, I concluded that, considering the low expectations for this Tennessee carpetbagger, "he couldn't do worse."
     I stand corrected. He has done worse. The Sun-Times regrets the error.
                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 22, 2010

"The sense of its necessity"

Four Men Aiming Guns—Cheyenne drawing from the Maffet Ledger, Oklahoma, circa 1880 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    Is it me? The giddy optimist secretly curled up inside and hidden within my perpetually-disappointed, curmudgeonly shell. Or does the agonized cry of helplessness following the massacre of 17 students and teachers Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. feel a little different? A little less helpless?
     It certainly is different, because of the immediate, active role the surviving students took in pushing back against the usual Republican palms-to-the-sky shrug and muddled, vague talk about mental illness and it being continually too soon to talk about anything substantive.  That felt different. Perhaps significant.
     Too soon to tell, of course. And if history is any judge, we cry and fulminate, shake our fists to the sky, ask why God why, then revert to form.
    And yet.
    Maybe the habit of opposing the horrors of the administration of Donald Trump ($30 million from the gun lobby) and the venalities of Marco Rubio ($3.3 million) and Mitch McConnell ($1.25 million) and the rest have made apathy a little less acceptable. 
    Maybe the hollowness of the nothing-we-do-will-be-1oo-percent-effective-so-let's-do-nothing argument rings extra hollow. Maybe people are realizing they don't apply that non-logic to anything else, alas. (No wall across the Southern border will keep out all illegal immigrants so lets not waste money building it). 
    Maybe we've finally realized that unless we mobilize we are never, ever going to stop this. And just as it has happened again and again, it will happen again and again. And again. And again. 
    Maybe we're okay with that. We've vowed change and allowed nothing to happen before. There is always Newtown, and all the rest, mute testimony to our failure and inertia. The Republicans not only do nothing but get re-elected on a clear platform of never doing anything, no matter what. The solution to guns is always more guns, as brilliantly parodied in that Onion piece about gorilla sales skyrocketing after a spate of gorilla attacks.
    The truth is clear. Other countries don't go through this. Just us. Special America. The gun manufacturers have sold this lie, that guns are needed to stave off government overreach and raging criminals, even while the government contracts and crime falls, generally, to historic low levels.
       What was it Lord Byron wrote?   
And the commencement of atonement is
The sense of its necessity. 
     Many Americans know it is necessary. Big time. Most of us do, really. But is that enough? I am not so naive as to think any of this will be easy. But where we stand is all so clear: the Republicans are paid agents of the enormously-profitable gun industry, and they have sold our children's lives, and will continue to do so until somebody stops them. Until America rises up and stops them. Maybe now is the time.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Auto Show Spectacular #4: Motoring to Sycamore in a new Bentley

     The Auto Show is in Chicago, winding up this weekend, and to celebrate I'm running some of my favorite car columns.
     This one is special; it directly resulted in the creation of the blog you're reading. 
     After it was printed, one word stuck in the craw of the publisher at the time: "friend." He came to see me. "Why are you writing columns promoting your friend's business?" he demanded. I explained that George Kiebala was not my actual friend in the traditional sense of the word. I had met him exactly twice, both times so he could hand over a car for journalistic purposes, here and when I wrote a story about driving a Ferrari for Michigan Avenue magazine. "Friend" just seemed an apt term of affection for anybody who would loan me a $185,000 car.
     I might have gotten off the hook had I left it there. But, warming to my topic, I floated a question of my own, something along the lines of, "And how come when you asked me to write about the Tesla S, I didn't respond, 'Oh you mean the Tesla that Michael Ferro owns? The Tesla produced by his pal, Elon Musk? The Telsa that he's an investor in? You want me to write about THAT Tesla?' No, I just wrote the column. Why when it comes from you, it's journalism, but when it comes from me, it's corruption?"
    Boom.  A week's suspension. Which so shocked me. Not so much I told anybody at the paper. I just began doggedly reporting stories. But I also began think that I was going to be pitched into the water soon and had better build a boat. I took a web domain name I had bought, created a blog around it, and two months later debuted. So it all turned out okay in the end. 

     A buddy throws a yearly party, which is good. Parties are good. But the party is in Sycamore, which is bad. A lovely town, Sycamore, but when storytellers of old coined "in a land far, far away," they had Sycamore in mind. OK, it's only 60 miles west of Chicago. Still a haul, especially if you plan on coming back; then it's 120 miles round-trip.
     Usually I solve this dilemma by not going to the party, which works, but is not all that friendly. This year though, well, we went to dinner and had such a fun time, I resolved I would get myself to his party, 120 miles or no.
     My mind—as regular readers know—can work strangely. I automatically strive to embellish life, to add pizzazz. So I thought, "Well, if my wife and I have to drive this 120 miles, then we might as well drive it in style."
     Which is where another friend, George Kiebala, comes in. George owns Curvy Road, an exotic car timeshare company in Palatine. It's like a condo timeshare, only for luxury cars, though you don't actually own part of the car but part of the car's use for a year.
     It works like this: Rich folk who own really expensive cars—Ferraris and Lamborghinis and such— often don't drive them much since they're always working to stay rich. Yet they don't want to sell their babies. So they turn them over to George, and he pairs the cars up with semi-rich folk.
     Four springs ago, I borrowed his Ferrari 355 F1 Spider. It was fun. My boys slightly altered their general opinion of Dad as some stone loser in a dying trade. George told me to come back any time. Every spring since, when the weather warms, I remember his offer but chicken out. Driving a super-fast car that belongs to someone else is a palm-moistening experience, at least for me, whose mind skips nimbly ahead to the bad as well as the good, to imagined encounters with bridge abutments and unhappy police officers and tickets for felony speeding. So I put it off.
     Into that mental mix add Sycamore, and those 120 miles.
     For those who pay, Curvy Road isn't cheap—you pay a $1,250 membership to join for three years, then purchase either a one-tenth share for $12,000 or more, depending on the car, or a one-fifth share for $18,000 or more, based on a 40-week year (leaving a dozen weeks for maintenance, delivery, etc.; the owner gets to use unbooked time). In other words, at least $3,000 a week for four weeks, or $2,250 a week for eight. Still a boatload of money for working folk, but far more affordable than the jaw-dropping sticker price of these cars.
     George tried to interest me in an Audi R8, a mid-engine monster sportscar with a glass hood. He took me out on a test spin. There was lots of laughter—joyful laughter, nervous laughter, oh-my-god-we're-gonna-die laughter. And while I enjoyed the experience, if only for its sheer terror, I preferred the 2013 Bentley Continental Twin Turbo GT V8, a brand new $185,000 coupe that belongs to a surgeon but could be mine, briefly, for driving-to-Sycamore purposes.
     "Bentley has always been the thinking man's Rolls-Royce," said George, with approval, during our test drive. The level of quality is amazing."
     That it is. The interior, flawless brown leather from cows that are not fenced, to avoid hide damage. Eucalyptus wood dashboard. A clock that is basically an $8,000 Breitling watch. Double-paned windows.
     "This is seriously a work of art," said George. "It's like riding around in a museum."
     A museum that leaves other cars at a light like their tires are nailed to the road. Cautious sort that I am, I fretted about insurance. George assured me I was fully covered. Besides, "A car like this, your awareness is heightened by an imaginary bubble around it. In 14 years, I've had virtually zero incidents. It's been unbelievable."
     My awareness certainly was heightened driving away from his Palatine headquarters in my new Bentley. I was keenly aware of how lucky I am, and laughed loud and long at fate that, even for a day, let me behind the wheel of this baby.
     On my block, the neighbors were outside, thank you God. They walked over as in a trance. "Beautiful," one sighed.
     Soon my wife and I were cutting through the cornfields—or whatever fields, I'm not a botanist— heading to the party. And there an interesting thing happened. I parked in the driveway. We mingled and nibbled and sipped and chatted. Conversation went here and there, and I puzzled over how to guide it toward the deluxe ride that had brought us, the better to bathe in its reflected, undeserved glow. But I was so warmed already, it wasn't a priority. I didn't have to brag or tell anybody—I knew. Suddenly it was time to go—a Bulls game to watch with the boys—and as I encouraged my wife toward the door, I found myself holding the elaborate Bentley key fob, not down at my side, but sort of up, before me, almost chest level, in both hands, as if I were fiddling with it, but actually just sort of displaying the winged "B" - that's what these fobs are for, I realized. No one noticed, and I didn't thrust it under anyone's nose, which normally would not be beyond me. But I was so centered, so in the zone, it wasn't necessary, and we drove home in our beautiful car.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 26, 2013 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Party with the devil without selling your soul; win tickets to "Faust"

The Lyric's new Faust uses a dramatic set design by renowned sculptor John Frame (Photo courtesy of Cory Weaver)

     Given our national tendency to embrace the incredible, and entertain the possibility of almost any conceivable scenario, no matter how fantastic, it is perhaps surprising there is not widespread speculation that Donald Trump has sold his soul to the devil. That would solve the mystery of how a third-rate Manhattan con artist, laughingstock and poster boy for glittery 1980s venality could become, in short order, a best-selling author, television star and president of the United States.
     Plus, it would explain his notable lack of a soul.
     Perhaps the entire idea of signing away your immortal spirit to Satan has lost popular culture currency, a regrettable development I am happy to try to correct, in my own modest way, on Tuesday, March 6, by bringing 100 readers to the Civic Opera House see one of my favorite operas, “Faust,” by Charles Gounod, performed by Lyric Opera of Chicago.
     The story, in case you are unfamiliar, is a legendary tale told most famously by Goethe.
     Goethe’s original version begins with shades of Job: Satan makes a bet with God that he can corrupt his favorite human. The curtain goes up on Gonound’s opera with the philosopher in despair. The Devil offers him youth and love and — spoiler alert — Faust signs the bargain.
     The plot, however, the duels and dances, is not the main reason I like “Faust.” Rather it is what is always my first consideration in opera: the music, which in”Faust” whirls in sinister menace and races with hell-bound drive.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

J.B. Pritzker is (not) a racist

     For a number of years I wrote for the Chicago Reader, both the BobWatch and the True Books columns, and occasional columns and features. Then for a number of years I didn't, for the simple reason they weren't interested in my writing for them. Now my old pal, Mark Konkol, is editor. He asked me if I would write on this topic, and I said, "Sure." It's good to be back in the Reader. 

     Do you remember the word Bobby Rush used to describe anyone who might question the selection of toothless political hack Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama's vacant senatorial seat?
     Think back. Almost a decade ago. December 2008.
     Rod Blagojevich was out on parole, having already so badly mangled the deliberation process that he was muscled out of his Ravenswood home in handcuffs by the FBI. Still, he insisted on appointing a senator, as his final obscene gesture to the state he'd betrayed.
     Anyone with an ounce of personal integrity cringed away from the poisoned chalice Blago was proffering with both hands.
     But the septuagenarian Burris, who had space on his pharaonic tomb to list another accomplishment, grabbed it eagerly.
     No? Don't remember? It was a long time ago.
     Rush, after thanking God that a black man had been made senator, urged anyone in the U.S. Senate who might oppose the former attorney general's appointment not to "lynch" the man.
     He went there. Easily. From long practice. Because really, the only reason a person would not want a 71-year-old undistinguished political functionary dropped into a seat in the United States Senate had to be racial hate.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Americans have always agonized over tipping

     Tipping is back in the news. The Sun-Times ran a full page analysis on Monday.
     “Fourteen years ago,” Ohio journalist Connie Schultz began, in a column syndicated across the country, “I wrote a column about a tip jar in Cleveland and how the managers took all the money….”
     She goes on to discuss the Labor Department’s latest efforts to make it easier for tips to flow into the pockets of management and not, necessarily, to the workers for whom they are supposedly intended.
     There’s no reason why our view of the topic should stop in 2004. Tipping has been an issue of heated debate in this country for over a century, with the discovery of who really benefits from tipping being a reliable scandal that, though periodically revealed, somehow never quite sinks into general public
     “The bestower of this always reluctant largess is a notably unsophisticated person if he thinks that it goes to the young man or woman who collects the coin,” the New York Times noted on Aug. 31, 1917. “Neither one or the other receives more
 than a minute weekly salary, paid by the corporation that employs him or her. All the rest, and by far the larger amount … is divided between that corporation and the proprietors of the hotels and restaurants.”

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