Monday, April 30, 2018

Ford to stop making cars, mostly, though you’ll still call your SUV a ‘car’

Design for "Car a Deux Roues" 1870 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

     Chicago does not think of itself as a city that makes cars. That would be Detroit. Or Belvidere.
     But it is. Chicago has been turning out automobiles for almost a century, at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant on Torrence Avenue.
     The plant began putting together Model Ts in 1924 and has been producing automobiles ever since, lately employing 5,000 workers in three shifts, running seven days a week, completing a shiny new vehicle about every minute.
     We were so pelted with news last week, between the Korean War abruptly ending and the various thrashings of the president, it was easy to overlook an event that would have been considered dramatic if the world weren’t churning so vigorously around it:
     Ford is going to stop making cars.
     For the most part.
     The company’s first quarter report, issued last Wednesday, contains a variety of news: revenue up 7 percent, the investor meeting will be Sept. 26.
     Then toward the bottom of the first page, Ford drops the bomb:
     “By 2020, almost 90 percent of the Ford portfolio in North America will be trucks, utilities and commercial vehicles. Given declining consumer demand and product profitability, the company will not invest in next generations of traditional Ford sedans for North America. Over the next few years, the Ford car portfolio on North America will transition to two vehicles — the best-selling Mustang and the all-new Focus Active crossover coming out next year.”

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Theory of Relativity

Shopper in Tokyo's Harajuku district, 2016

     Sometimes a story is incredible because it didn't actually happen. 
     The New Yorker has been famous for nearly a century for its high journalistic standards, particularly for its vaunted fact-checking department. But it dropped the ball with the story I share amazement over below, which turned out to be incredible because it was largely untrue.  You can read a 2021 Washington Post article about the fiasco here
     How did it happen? Maybe the oddness of Japan to Western eyes: the rent-a-family just seemed to fit in, and didn't require extraordinary diligence. Maybe journalism isn't designed to handle straight-out-deceit by numerous people. Maybe the New Yorker should have dug more. At least it doesn't seem an intentional deception on the part of the author or magazine, which is a comfort. 
     Anyway, I'm leaving this up as my own cautionary tale. I believed it occurred because the New Yorker said it was true. But they were wrong so I was wrong too. I regret the error.                                                                                                 1/22/2021

     As a writer, my task is to find interesting stuff and write about it, in the newspaper and here. It is not my job, generally, to bird dog the good writing of others and point you toward that instead. For two reasons.
     First, because I assume you can find enough to read on your own, without my direction. And second, that would make me kind of a eunuch at the orgy: standing idly by while others act, denied the pleasure of doing it myself.
     Who wants that?
      And yet. Sometimes a story is so extraordinary that ignoring it in order to present whatever little finger puppet display I've got going here feels wrong. That's like showing you a cat's cradle while a comet streaks overhead. Sometimes, you have to drop the string and point at the comet. 
     The opportunity doesn't arise too often, unfortunately. It's been well over three years since I played carnival barker to Patricia Marx's delicious send-up of comfort animals. So I don't think it's a bad thing for me to say today, in essence, stop reading here and instead rush to Elif Batuman's jaw-dropping Letter from Tokyo, A Theory of Relativity: Japan's rent-a-family industry, which would be incredible were it merely reporting what it is about: that in Japan you can hire people to pretend to be your mom or dad, sister or brother, son or daughter. This proves useful in all sorts of settings: a groom whose parents have died will hire an older couple to fool people at his wedding. A widower hires a woman to come to his house and make pancakes, and a surrogate daughter to laugh at his jokes and poke him in the ribs.
     It would be incredible enough just discovering the practice—I've visited Japan, twice, and my sister-in-law is Japanese and somehow I never heard of this.  My hunch is that most people are similarly unaware.
    But Batuman, a Turkish novelist, does something more difficult: she puts the practice into cultural context, and wonders why we find it ordinary to, oh, hire somebody to clean your house or give you a massage, but find the idea of hiring someone to pretend to be your mom almost repellent. 
      You might react differently, but by the time I finished the article, I found myself shifting from shock and near-revulsion to almost envying the practice, wishing I could hire myself a temporary father ("Neil, I know when you started your career as a writer, I shrugged it off as non-scientific failure, but now I'm proud of you, and what you've done...") or a couple of surrogate sons, ("Hey dad! Wanna play catch? Oh, and by the way, thanks for putting me through four years of college. That was nice of you.")
     It's a deeply strange, human and heartbreaking world, and the privilege of the writer to find it and present it on a platter. Enough throat-clearing from me for today. Go read Elif Batuman's piece in the New Yorker. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

What's in a name? Sometimes not much

     The only plane I ever missed in my life was missed because of an Italian grocery store.
     Not just any Italian grocery store. Balducci's was a New York landmark for nearly 60 years, on 6th Avenue for the last 40 of those years. During those 6th Avenue years, when I visited the city, which I did a lot back then, to huddle with my agent and publisher and enjoy the sweet delusion that I had a career in books, I would traditionally end my visit by stocking up on rolls of cheese and pastry and pancetta, with elaborate tarts and thick, slightly sweet biscuits. Bottles of vodka infused with raspberries, and loaves of pate, crusty breads and other treats.
     I would bring a couple green, filled shopping bags home to Edie, and we would enjoy a taste of the Manhattan life.
     The time I missed the plane, it was around Christmas, the grocery was packed, and by the time I had taken a number and waited at the deli counter, and taken a number and waited at the bakery, and fought my way here, and decided whether to buy this or that, I had about 45 minutes to get to Newark for my flight and missed it.
     Leading to one of those stories I've repeated dozens of times, to illustrate the value of being nice.
     The woman in front of me had missed the same flight I had missed. She ranted and raged, threatened and demanded.
     "I'm sorry," the employee of the airline—"People Express Airline," a short-lived discount carrier, so this had to be in the early 1980s— behind the counter kept repeating. "I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do. I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." 
      The woman finally stormed off. 
      Now it was my turn.
      "I'm in exactly the same situation as that woman was in," I said, meekly, "only I realize it was entirely my fault and I appreciate anything you can do for me."
      "No problem," the clerk said briskly, "I can book you onto the next flight. It leaves in 60 minutes."
      True story.
      Despite this brush with inconvenience, I kept going to Balducci's, until it shut down in 2003 after 57 years in business. I tried not to think about it much. Nothing good lasts.
     Balducci's lingered in other spots in New York until 2009, but I never went to those outlets. For me, it was Sixth Avenue or nowhere.
     Then last month, I was in Philadelphia, during research at the Children's Hospital for my next Mosaic piece, to be published in early June. The storm socking the East Coast caused American Airlines to cancel the 11 a.m. to Chicago, compelling them, for reasons mysterious, to stick me on a flight to Cincinnati, which was immediately cancelled, moving me to a flight to Louisville, which was also cancelled, then brought back to life, and I was so happy to not be spending the night in the Philly airport that, frankly, the American Airlines clerk, who was not that helpful despite my being really, really polite, could have reached across the counter and slapped me full in the face and I would have thanked him if it meant I was getting on that plane. It was like the ending of "The Year of Living Dangerously."
     Things were far less nuts in Louisville, the sleepy airport so welcome I thought perhaps I should immediately relocate to some sylvan community and be done with people and news and business and crowded airports facing storms. I was exploring, looking to have lunch at a restaurant with a whiff of Kentucky—they had one, but it was a Chili's—and I came upon a store boldly labelled "Balducci's."
     My heart leapt. I walked into the store as if in a trance, expecting cases of cheeses and little twisted Italian cookies and intriguing loafs and enticing breads.
    Nope. A single Balducci's labelled product: cans of chocolate covered peanuts, which I didn't even remember from back in the day. And the cans were not the distinctive Balducci's green and white. Otherwise, the same sandwiches and chips and bags of M&Ms you'd find in any airport anywhere. They must have bought the name forgetting all the quality and wonder that went with the name. There's a lot of that going around.
     A bit of digging found this line from a New York Times story in 2009:
     "Some regulars said Balducci’s lost its soul after Sutton Place Gourmet bought the store for $26.5 million in 1999. The company closed the flagship location four years later, and then opened and rebranded other shops under the Balducci name."
     Ah, they thought they were buying something special. Turns out it wasn't the name that was special, but the spirit of quality behind it. Without that spirit, it's just another word. You'd think business folk would know that.

Friday, April 27, 2018

WXRT's Terri Hemmert at 70: 'There's a pay-off, a balance, if you do it right'

Terri Hemmert (photo by Mary Lafferty) 
    A city like Chicago is always changing. Out with the old: goodbye Marshall Field's, Sear's Tower and a competitive Bulls team. In with the new: hello Macy's, Willis Tower and Fred Hoiberg.
     A few good things don't change, however. Terri Hemmert, the friendly midday voice on WXRT 93.1 FM, both DJ and station bedrock in a shifting city. Hemmert is heard daily from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., as well as her "Breakfast with the Beatles" Sunday mornings. She has been spinning records—then CDs, then Wave files, which don't actually spin—since I was in the 7th grade.
     Hemmert turns 70 Saturday. I caught up with her a few hours before she flew to New Orleans for, she estimates, the 30th time, to revel in this weekend's Jazz and Heritage Festival.
     "I've been way too busy, overwhelmingly busy. I'm worn out," she said, not sounding worn out at all. "Everybody keeps saying: you can relax when you get to New Orleans. And I tell them: 'you've never been there, have you?'"
As a child in Piqua, Ohio, practicing her future career. 
     Here Hemmert laughed, something she does often and well.
     Did she mind my spotlighting her turning 70?
     "Oh no, that's okay," she said. "People know, if they do the math. I'm coming up on my 45th anniversary. It beats being dead. As [fellow 'XRT dj] Lin Brehmer says, 'It's great to be alive.' I was so unhealthy as a child; I had rheumatic fever. They didn't think I would make it to my 40s."
     Ever think about retiring?
     "Why walk away as long as they want me here?" she asked. "I'm happy here. I have a million things to do that are still compelling to me, still fun. I still get to do something for someone, and if you're not doing something for other people, you're not living right. This gives me a lot of opportunities to do that. Teaching."
     She has taught college for more than 30 years....

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Abandoned Babies Week, #2: 'Please take good care of him'

Baby Monsarrat, by Clarence H. White (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     April is Safe Haven Month in Illinois, and before the month is out I wanted to reprint a few columns I've written over the years on the subject. This was originally headlined "Abandoning our kids, then and now." It could not be written today because reporters no longer have access to the Sun-Times clip file, which is stored in Addison, supposedly.

     They put the babies in shopping bags. In laundry baskets. In pasteboard boxes.
     They carried them to tavern restrooms. To ash cans. To park benches. To shrubbery. Then they left them.
     The past is a foreign country, the saying goes; they do things differently there. And as universal as the act of abandoning a child may seem, they did it differently in the 1940s, as I learned after finding an envelope of old newspaper clippings marked "CHILDREN -- ABANDONED: 1950 AND PRIOR" and entering a world both very strange and sadly familiar.
     The heart-wrenching notes struck me first. The mothers wanted to explain:
     "I'd give my soul to keep her myself but what sort of life would she have being born out of wedlock? This is the best way I know," wrote the woman who left her baby in the Milner Hotel in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1946, phoning the clerk afterward and asking him to "take care of the valuables left in Room 138."
     That was typical. They wanted the babies found.
     The mother of a 2-week-old boy left in the shrubs across from 2440 Lakeview in July, 1945, phoned police and told them where to look. The same night, a 6-week-old girl was found in the hallway at 4840 S. Paulina. The mother had awakened residents, then fled.
     The notes tout bloodlines and tweak finders toward pity.
     "Please take good care of him—I can't keep him—Haven't the money—But I love him—Born June 29, 1941," read a note on the baby found in a pew at St. Mary's Catholic Church.
     Mothers left poignantly precise instructions: "He gets baby cereal three times daily and orange juice once and cod liver oil," read a note pinned to the blue sweater of the 5-month-old baby boy left in the foyer of 1726 Augusta, in 1949. "He has a light cold and I fear for his health. He takes eight ounces six times daily. I left my home and I do not know what to do.
     "Maybe somebody can do better than I can."
     They were abandoning their children, but with an eye toward their welfare. The woman who asked a stranger to watch her 6-week-old boy at the La Salle Street train station "for a few minutes" never returned. But she left behind a little suitcase of baby clothes.
     "Please take care of my baby," read a note on a stroller containing a chubby toddler left in the foyer of a home at 4011 N. Lowell. "I can't afford to take care of him any longer. Please don't turn him out."
     Sometimes they didn't.
     Switchman Jack Bowen, who had four boys, found a newborn girl in a pasteboard box under a railroad viaduct near 45th Street in 1944, and said he'd like to adopt her. Mrs. Francis Weprin already had a newborn in 1942, but when she discovered a 10-day-old in a white bonnet in her building's foyer, she offered to keep him anyway.
     I do not want to suggest that women did not leave their babies to die in freezing alleys in the 1940s. They did. They murdered their babies and mailed the bodies to the post office.
     But such callousness was the exception; lately it seems the rule. Mothers of today do not leave notes, according to Chicago police. "They don't want to get caught," a spokeswoman said.
     The problem was seen as a crisis then.
     "Unwanted, neglected and abandoned children are becoming Chicago's biggest headache," columnist Sydney J. Harris wrote in 1944. "Social workers admit they are almost licked. Police can do little. The courts fume, but are impotent to halt the wave of derelict mothers who leave their children."
     The crisis isn't so keenly felt today. Which is odd, because in 1946, there were 4,200 children in Cook County being cared for by the state.
     Last year, that number was 35,559.

                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 8, 1998

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

'The world wouldn't be a world without the newspaper.'

Labor, by Will Barnet (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 
     You know what's hard work? Deboning whitefish. A machine can't do it. So a guy stands in a chilled room—has to be chilled so the fish won't spoil. He runs his bare—has to be bare, so he can feel the pin bones—left hand over the whitefish, while the right one pulls out the nearly-invisible bones with a needle-nosed pliers.
     I know this because I once watched it done. And what did the whitefish deboner talk about? How fortunate he was to have his job. How happy it made him.
     That stuck with me, and explains why I winced, a little, at the Sun-Times' new slogan: "The hardest-working newspaper in America."
     My first thought was: "How do we know? Did we study all the other newspapers? Because otherwise we've installed a lie atop the front page."
     Loyal employee that I am, or try to be, I groped for a bright spin: "mere puffery," as my lawyer friends would say. Like "World's Best Coffee." Why not? The Tribune called itself "The World's Greatest Newspaper," for half a century (a boast fossilized in the call letters "WGN") and that wasn't true either.
     So I understand why “hard-working” now appears on every page of our print editions. What is the task of this newspaper? Only absorbing everything happening now in the entire world with an emphasis on Chicago and Illinois. Filter out the superfluous and present the essential events in a completely accurate and public form within a few minutes of their occurring. Do so, lately, in an environment where bald lies are boldly uttered at the highest levels while preserving a reputation for accuracy so great that our mistakes are remembered forever. “IT’S REAGAN AND FORD” a Sun-Times front page headline trumpeted about the 1980 presidential ticket. It wasn’t.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Abandoned Babies Week, #1: "You never forget seeing a dead baby"


Daguerreotype of a dead baby, 1840s (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     April is Safe Haven month, a reminder that, for the first 30 days after giving birth, new mothers who cannot care for their infants can leave them, no questions asked, at fire houses, police stations and hospitals. Since the law was passed in 2001, at least 126 babies in Illinois have been sent on their way toward loving homes in this fashion, and saved the risk of dying after being abandoned, as often happens to newborns who are not delivered to a secure location. 
    I've written about the law over the years, and this week will be posting a couple of those columns here. This one was originally headlined "Show your concern over real babies."

     You never forget seeing a dead baby. This one was maybe a month old, perfect features, mouth slightly open, bluish skin, swaddled in a blanket, waiting its turn on a stainless steel table at the Cook County Medical Examiner's office on Harrison Street.
     Nearly 20 years later, I can see the baby as if it were in front of me now. My buddy, the photographer Robert A. Davis, and I were doing a profile of the first Cook County medical examiner, Dr. Robert Stein. We had been watching Dr. Stein work since 5 a.m., and we hadn't flinched at the man who had laid on the floor of a transient hotel for two weeks in the August heat (well, OK, a little flinching when the sheet was first drawn back), or the young guy shot through a lung, or any of the other unfortunates who had been rolled in and cut up.
     But the baby seemed a different matter entirely. Neither Bob nor I had kids yet, but we both must have known they were coming, because something told us that, story or no story, this wasn't a deposit we wanted to make in the old memory banks.
     "C'mon," I said, nodding toward the door. "Union-mandated coffee break." We left the baby to Dr. Stein.
     I mention this, because when young women abandon their babies, it often means not only a slow, painful death for the baby -- which would be bad enough -- but also a grisly discovery for whatever poor person stumbles upon the baby too late. A dead baby is hard enough to see in the morgue, where you expect it. I can't imagine what it does to a person who opens a trash can and finds one.
     Tuesday is National Safe Haven Day, which Gov. Quinn has declared is Save Abandoned Babies Day in the state.
      Illinois passed a temporary Safe Haven law in 2001, designating hospitals and fire stations as places where new mothers could abandon their unharmed newborns without fear of legal repercussion.
     Originally the babies had to be 3 days old or younger, but after the law was made permanent in 2005, it was expanded to cover infants up to 30 days old, and police stations were included.
     The Save Abandoned Babies Foundation estimates that 55 Illinois infants have been turned over to state care because of the law, including Lilli, whose mother left her at Engine 98's firehouse in 2008.
     "We are so grateful that our daughter's birth mom knew about the law and was brave enough to follow through on that plan," said Lilli's adoptive mom, Carrie, a northwest suburban woman who didn't want her last name used out of privacy concerns.
     "In her case she didn't know she was pregnant, she had delivered the baby at home, and knew enough about the law [that] she knew she would be able to bring her to the fire station."
     Lilli is now 2, and likes baby dolls and books.
     "Lilli has helped make our family complete," said her mother. "She's so, so cute. We couldn't imagine our lives without her."


     The clattering sound you hear is dozens of anti-abortion activists pounding away at their keyboards. "Dear Stinkberg," they write, "how can you even pretend to care about babies when you approve of women murdering their children in the uterus?? Please see the attached 12 color photographs of aforementioned diced children . . . ."
     And the answer — not that they are interested in an answer, but let's pretend — is that I, like most Americans, differentiate between actual, born-and-alive-in-the-real-world-now babies and the fertilized egg the size of the period at the end of this sentence that typically gets aborted.
     This of course flies by the anti-choice crowd, who have deemed these "babies" with such forceful finality that I'm sure the idea that they're simply locked into a convenient fantasy will shock, amuse and offend them. They've found their label, their metaphor, their easy code word, and they're sticking with it, just the way that the hate-immigration crowd has seized on the word "illegal," and though try as you may, nothing will make them perceive the falsity of their stratagem. ("Really? Concerned about illegal immigration only because it's illegal? What other 'illegal' things are you really worked up about? Just illegal immigration, huh? Nothing else? Thought so. Hmmmm. . . maybe it's the immigration part and not the 'illegal' part then, cause there's a lot more illegal stuff that you're ignoring. . . .")
     Caring for actual babies is hard, and the state struggles to find enough foster homes to park them in. That's another reason why people gin up this outsized concern for other people's non-babies: It's easy. You can stand in the street holding a 5-foot photo of a tiny bloody foot, call it a day, tell yourself you've saved a lot of babies, when in reality you haven't changed one diaper. Merely professed your undying concern for proto babies, which hardly exist, and ignored a bunch of baby babies, who most certainly do exist and could use your help. And you felt morally superior to boot. Congrats.
     Just wanted to put in my two cents, because these people act as if nobody else thinks about these things except them. Most people give this matter careful consideration, even those who are dismissed as hell-bound whores murdering their infants.
     Respect for life means respecting those who are actually alive, even if they make decisions that go contrary to your personal religious scruples. It's a tough-to-grasp concept, I know, particularly if you don't even try to understand.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 12, 2010

Monday, April 23, 2018

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition to Beto O'Rourke


     "We have to hope and pray that things turn around in November," a friend said over dinner on Friday.
     I felt a muscle in my jaw tense.
     "If only Ted Cruz could be defeated in the Senate," a Facebook friend mused. "But I'm not holding my breath. Texas is a red state ... So I wouldn't bet on Cruz losing this year. But I can dream, can't I?"
     Hope. Pray. Dream. A certain peasant fatalism has crept into Democratic thinking.
     Not without reason. Our nightmare president builds his cult of personality every day while the party supporting him sheds its values and beliefs, rolling at his feet like puppies.
     Yet surrender is premature. Our nation was not forged and preserved by a bunch of quitters.
     So while I try to religiously avoid all Facebook debates as pointless time sinks, I couldn't resist commenting after his "dream" remark: "Well, that and send Beto O'Rourke money. I am."
     Everyone knows who Ted Cruz is. The most hated man in the Senate. "Lucifer in the flesh," in John Boehner's memorable description. But who is Beto O'Rourke? He is the Democrat running against Cruz this November and doing surprisingly well. Last week, a new poll showed a close race, Cruz leading 47 to 44 percent. O'Rourke has raised more money than Cruz, thanks to small donors such as myself.
     No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas in 24 years, so it's a long shot. But Satan's senator is obviously scared.
     Even before O'Rourke's victory in the March 6 primary was confirmed, his campaign aired a radio commercial mocking O'Rourke's first name, accusing him of changing it to appeal to voters. In response, O'Rourke released a photo of himself as a toddler, wearing a sweater with "Beto" — his nickname since birth — stitched across the front.
     Cruz's actual first name is "Rafael," a reminder that Trump does not hold monopoly on either deceit or hypocrisy.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cookie dough wins

     "Pick up some romaine lettuce," my wife said on Monday. 
      I was going to the supermarket and asked what we needed.
     "Okay honey," I said. Romaine hearts were on sale, two packages for $4. Seemed like a deal, because usually they cost three or four bucks apiece. Though we already had a package at home, I eat a salad almost every day. No harm in stocking up. The stuff lasts a while.
     "Throw away the romaine lettuce," my wife said on Wednesday, pointing to a Centers for Disease Control directive that romaine might be tainted with deadly E-coli.
     "Okay honey," I said, thinking, guess that's why it was on sale. 
     I'll be honest. Left to my devices, I would take my chances and just eat the stuff, washing it first, as I always do—a vigorous dousing in the salad spinner—Get behind me, Satan! All you germs, down the drain!
     It's not that I'm against caution. I wear my seatbelt and my bicycle helmet, usually. I look both ways crossing the street and own a variety of insurance.
     But certain kinds of caution are a bridge too far. The worry about salmonella from cookie dough, for instance. I once crunched the numbers for getting salmonella from raw eggs, and they're infinitesimal. Which means, in a country of ... check ... 325 million people (crikey, I thought it was 310 million; they'r reproducing like rabbits!) that somebody is going to get salmonella from raw eggs. But it probably won't be you. So grab a spoon and scrape away, clutching the big stainless steel mixing bowl to your chest, going after that delicious dough, beaming like a child, as primal a joy as there can be (well, ahem, ignoring a primal joy or two).
    Why pitch the lettuce but eat the cookie dough? A good question, and one that deserves a logical answer.
     We can eliminate the listen-to-your-wife factor, because she certainly shook her finger in my face vigorously about the cookie dough, to which I responded with a shrug and a lick of the wooden spoon.
     If that isn't it, then what?
     In the case of the lettuce, the tiny risk of sickness is weighed against the loss of a $4 investment in produce (it's not worth four bucks to spend 45 minutes returning it to Jewel, assuming they would take it back, which they might not). It's not worth $4 to risk getting sick. Caution wins. 
     In the case of the cookie dough, the tiny risk of sickness is balanced against a lifetime of eating raw cookie dough when the opportunity arises. As barren a prospect that can be imagined, especially in a life where a few pleasures have already been pitched over the side in the name of survival. So in the tug-of-war between tiny risk of sickness and decades worth of cookie dough, cookie dough wins.
     Make sense?

Flashback 2011: "Got $5 million? Give it to the Goodman now!"


    Be careful what you wish for.
     Because my fervent mumblings, asking God why, WHY won't somebody significant run against Rahm Emanuel were answered by a flash mob of potential opponents, led by former police superintendent Garry McCarthy, crawling out of the tar pit where he and the other Ditka-grade knuckle-draggers reside and tossing his tiger skin in the ring.
    Now I've been forced to re-evaluate my visceral loathing and years-long write-off of Rahm. Yes, he's a jerk. Yes, he mishandled the Laquan McDonald shooting—to be kind, either mishandled or is complicit in covering up a murder.
    But Garry McCarthy ... sweet Jesus no.
    The Sun-Times ran a story Saturday that after businessman Willie Wilson, one of the vanity candidates challenging Rahm, helped him out by blowing off the contribution cap. Rahm promptly raised $1.6 million by snapping his fingers. Which made me think of this column, from the early days of the Emanuel administration,  back when I still manfully struggled to like the man. 
    I don't know if I ever could again. But I suppose I might have to try. Despite his flaws, Rahm Emanuel does ... ah ... does have ... bi-lateral symmetry. That isn't saying he's human. But it's a step in that direction.

     Before he was mayor of the city of Chicago, before he was congressman from the 5th District, before he was an adviser to two presidents, Rahm Emanuel was a fund-raiser, and while I knew, in a dry intellectual fashion, that he was a good one, I really didn't realize just what that meant, on a gut emotional level, until I slid by the Goodman Theatre Thursday morning for breakfast.
     It was the sort of look-to-the-future event I normally wouldn't be caught dead at, but a variety of small nudges put me there: a) they asked (you'd be amazed at how many organizations screw up that part); b) there was food; c) the mayor would be there—that usually means something is worth glancing at.
     Coffee was being zupped, scones nibbled. I ran into my pal, the director Robert Falls, and teased him about his play "Red," starting Saturday. ("Gee Bob," I said, or words to that effect, in my best faux naive wide-eyed fashion. "That play was such a big hit on Broadway - whatever made you bold enough to decide to put on your own production here?")
      Then we moved to the auditorium, to listen to the five, count 'em, five speakers who went before Emanuel: Roche Schulfer, the Goodman executive director; Falls, its artistic director; Patricia Cox, chairman; Joan Clifford, the Women's Board President, and Shawn Donnelley, the immediate past chair.
      "This is a milestone in the long history of the Goodman Theatre," Schulfer began, with the rest of the remarks—plus a short film—recounting how the Goodman is an important institution, one that is culturally diverse, one which moved from its original home at the Art Institute 10 years ago, an edifice that helped revitalize the theater district, and now is well on its way to assembling a $15 million endowment to guarantee its continuance, having already snagged $10 million in pledges.
     As thrilling as all that is, I didn't see how it belonged in a newspaper column. I clicked my pen shut and tucked my notebook away.
     Then it was the mayor's turn to speak.
     "This is a no-brainer," he said. "You're here. You know what it's about. It's the last $5 million ... Here's the deal, folks: 10 years ago this was a dead zone. You've anchored something. People from around the world come here because of this theater. Finish it."
      The contrast between Emanuel and the sincere yet sedate directors and chairs who went before him was enormous. If the general emotional tone behind their remarks was this-is-an-important-cultural-institution-worthy-of-support then Emanuel's was the-house-is-on-fire-get-the-baby-out, where giving $5 million to the Goodman right now is the baby.
     As Emanuel continued, it turned out this isn't just about the Goodman. It was bigger; the fate of Chicago itself hangs in the balance.
     "When you think of downtown today, you think of the theater district," he said, jabbing a finger in the air. "You raised $10 million already. Finish it! You are not just a cultural institution, you are an economic engine. You know why you're here. Let's finish the job."
     But driving the economy of Chicago turned out not to be the full extent of it either; the future of creativity itself is at stake. No other city in the world allows artists their freedom.
     "In Chicago, you can create," he said. "You can't do that in New York, you fail [there], you might as well get a passport out of town because you're never going to succeed again. In Chicago . . . you can do something, maybe not make it, improve it, come back and do something. That's in the visual arts, architecture, theater, music, dance, in every other space. No other city has what we have."
     Bits of this I had heard before, but never had I experienced the full rendition, and it struck me, hearing him, that fund-raising is also a performance, when done well. Emanuel was doing the hard job of taking material people already knew and selling it to an audience.
     It worked; the donations are expected.
     "I would be surprised if we didn't get some today, he was so persuasive," Cox said after.
     Ever since the days of Daley I, the media saying anything positive about a mayor automatically is seen as an act of toadyism. Believe me, I'm loathe to do it; I have my own audience to think about. I'm eager to sink my pointy teeth into his leg as soon as possible.
     But Thursday wasn't the day to do it.
     It gets bad press, but fund-raising is an art, like acting on stage in a tragedy or playing the blues in a club or running the football at Soldier Field, and to the pantheon of uniquely Chicago peak artistic experiences—Brian Dennehy performing Eugene O'Neill at the Goodman, Muddy Waters perched on a stool, bending a note, or Walter Payton breaking a tackle on a Sunday afternoon—you have to include Rahm Emanuel shaking a cup for a good cause. It's a bravura performance.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 16, 2011

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Cool tools #3: Wilton Tradesman Bench Vise.

     The vise is the heart of any workshop. A vise holds what's being cut, steady and unwavering. You'll notice I've added an extra layer of support before bolting the Wilton—which has four bolts instead of the standard three—to my work table, to encourage it not to pull through the particleboard.
     The really extraordinary thing about this Wilton Tradesman Bench Vise is not that it weighs 70 pounds or its sleek green finish or that it rotates 360 degrees: it's where the glorious object is made: not China, not Mexico, but Carpentersville, Illinois. The company began in Chicago in 1941 by Czech immigrant Hugh W. Vogl, and while some production has moved down to the union-unfriendly state of Tennessee, these "bullet vises"—so-called because the screw is encased by a rounded casing that keeps out grit—are still made locally.

     Don't overlook the little square anvil area. Very useful.
   The obvious question is what connection does "vise," the badass tool, have with "vice," the bad personal habit? The romantic in me would conjure up a t00-easy answer: some medieval moralist opining how we are squeezed by the shame of our moral failings.
     The actual, the world-sucks-but-we-have-to-live-in-it answer is "there's no connection." In fact, "vice" is used for both the tool and the sin in most of the English speaking world, the depravity-related meaning being older, and tracing to the Latin "vitium," meaning, simply enough, "fault, or defect." The thing with jaws pressing together is from "vitis," or vine, which grow in corkscrews ("Vite" is screw in Italian). Without the casing that Wilton so handily features, the large screw mechanism was most distinctive. 
     In his great 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson defines vice as "1. The course of action opposite to virtue; depravity of manners, inordinate life" then "2. A fault; an offence." The third definition is, obscurely, "The fool, or punchinello of old shows," citing Shakespeare, and only in his fourth definition gets to "A kind of small iron press with screws, used by workmen" citing a Dutch word, "vijs," which must, like all of Johnson's etymologies, be taken with a big blue Morton canister of salt. 
     Only in the United States is the "vise" spelling generally used, trying to get a little distance I suppose between our tools and the urgings of Satan.
     It was this column, almost a decade ago, that first put the Wilton company on my radar. And in my basement.

     "This isn't Chinese. I can tell from the box, they're American," says Gordon Stade, holding a microphone and sitting high in a booth mounted on the back of a red Ford F-250 pickup truck parked in the middle of the Northbrook Garage. "What are they, Jerry? They're tire wrenches, boys."
     The "boys" are 50 or 60 men, substantial, hardworking men, many in baseball caps, some in bib overalls or leather jackets atop plaid shirts atop hooded sweat shirts. Others wear sleeveless T-shirts, one showing off a red-white-and-blue Chevy logo tattoo. They crowd in a circle around the truck, fully bearded or scraggly faced, pony-tailed or balding, rail thin or hauling around cantilevered beer keg guts. They are truckers and towers and garage mechanics, the kind of guys who would show up early Saturday morning to bid on one and a half centuries of clutter from what, until last weekend, was one of the oldest businesses in the United States, the Lorenz auto garage on Shermer Road, which began as a horse carriage repair shop in the 1840s.
     Think of how cluttered your garage is—now imagine that on an immense scale after five generations. Hydraulic jacks and chain hoists, tow cables and breaker bars and tires stacked chest-high. Huge hooks attached to pulleys the size of dinner plates. Shocks and wrenches and little boxes of little bulbs.
     And air hoses—red air hoses.
     "I'm going to sell 'em to you, you can send air all over the farm," says Stade, a livestock auctioneer, himself in business 55 years out of Huntley. "Fifty? Who'll give me 10? Now 20. Now 30."
     Not being in the market for a 25-ton press or an acetylene outfit or the hood from a Firebird, I didn't plan on attending the auction. But the warm weather drew me outside, and I wandered over—the brick garage, built in the early 1920s, looks like something out of a train diorama and is only two blocks from my house.
     I take my place among the men gathered around Stade's pickup truck, which moves along the center of the garage, selling first one pile of stuff, then another. A pair of axes goes cheap —I could use a good axe—so I think to register at the trailer in the back, resolving not to buy anything I don't actually need.
     So no 5-Speed Heavy Duty Drill Press produced by Central Machinery of Hollywood, Calif. No hubcaps from a Nash Rambler. No "Your LaSalle—An Owner's Manual" from 1938.
     "We're selling the trailer, boys," says Stade, who wears a cowboy hat and speaks in an easy, burbling patter. If the family farm has to go, this is the guy you want selling it.
     "He's really good at what he does; he'll get more per item than anybody," observes a big bearded man standing next to me, Chris Horcher of Horcher's Towing of Wheeling. Horcher is here for trucks and chains—"I would have bought more, but he was getting more than the chains cost new."
     I don't want to fall into that trap. But when the longest industrial extension cord I have even seen in my life is held up for sale, I remember scrambling to piece together every cord I own. One hundred feet of heavy-duty orange extension cord goes to bidder No. 106—me—for $6, and lugging the coil makes me feel like less of a well-scrubbed scribbling toff amongst men who actually work for a living.
     I pause to admire a vise—two feet long, made by the Wilton Tool Corp. of Schiller Park. Dappled with 50 years of hammer blows and saw nicks, worn, with a dust brown patina, it looks more like a natural formation, something carved by the wind perhaps, than an object manufactured by human hands.
     "You need a vise?" asks a guy, who sees me examining it. "These are not made in China, you know."
     "Every man needs a vice," I answer. "And frankly, I've been lacking in the vice department lately."
     But this is not the crowd for wordplay. I hang around for more than an hour, hoping to snag the vise, or at least one of the tire irons—those big metal X's, not the little jack sticks that comes with cars nowadays. Lunchtime approaches, however, and I decide to leave the tools to those who really need them. I am also afraid that I'll shrug and make the easy observation: that, as if our big car companies failing were not bad enough, now even the corner car repair shop is going down, breaking apart and spilling its contents to the winds.
     Despite the fever dreams of the village fathers, I can't imagine a hip restaurant opening in this yawning cavern. I can't see the high-ceiling space, with its skylights and metal struts, becoming a mall—a candle shop and an olive oil boutique and a stand selling artisanal cheeses—not one that ever progresses beyond an artist's drawing published in the Northbrook Star. My bet: It'll sit empty for the next five years.
      That goes without saying. More worthwhile noting is that my wistfulness for the Wilton vise was misplaced—Wilton, now of Elgin, made its first vise in 1941 and is still going strong. The Wilton Web site touts 132 vises—though whether they are made in China or here, I could not immediately determine. Either way, I might have to pick one up because sometimes a man needs a vise.
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 9, 2009


Friday, April 20, 2018

And then there's all that trouble ordering the cake...

     Adolf Hitler's birthday is Friday, and here I am without a present.
     Or a person to give it to—well, there's Arthur J. Jones, the sorta-Nazi running for Congress on the Republican ticket. We'll get to him later.
     April 20. Hope it passes peacefully. Ever since April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School, kicking off the current era of mass school shootings, there's been a certain clenched expectation to the date, even though the pair actually planned their attack for the 19th, but delayed a day to collect more ammunition.
     The media unhelpfully increases the dread by lumping in April 19—it's so close!—with Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. But McVeigh was thinking, not of a pre-birthday blow-out for Hitler, but to avenge the deathes of 80 Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993.
     Which is why it's good to pay attention to anniversaries. Terrorists sure do.
     The bright spin: at least they're remembering history. A poll released last week shows that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of Millennials, can't identify what Auschwitz was (oh, sorry kids: concentration camp—1.3 million people killed there. Notorious in its day. Now, obviously, not so much).

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Cool Tools #2: Eggbeater hand crank drill

     And sometimes all a tool has to do is hang there, looking beautiful. 
      Like this eggbeater drill.
      I wish I could tell you more about it. It looks very much like a Miller Falls hand drill, of the sort manufactured by the well-known Massachusetts company during the first few decades of the 20th century. 
      But I spent more time than I should have Wednesday looking through on-line sources about hand drills—I am not alone in my appreciation—and going over this drill with a magnifying glass. 
     Drills from Miller Falls and other noteworthy manufacturers all seem to have identifying hallmarks on them. This piece has nothing, which makes me think it is a lesser knock-off. 
     Though a well-made knock-off. Turn the crank and it purrs with a light zipping sound, the well-tools gears meshing perfectly after what has to be the better part of a century's use.
    Not so much use in recent decades, I imagine, as cordless electric drills have mooted this kind of thing, though I still use it occasionally for delicate tasks—countersinking a screw, for instance, where you want to make the smallest indentation and no more. Guides I've consulted recommend the drills for teaching young children carpentry, as they require two hands to operate, and a reckless child would really have to show determination to contrive to injury himself with it.
     Whatever the provenance, the drill  looks very much like the drawing that Herbert D. Lanfair submitted with his patent application On Aug. 13, 1895 he was granted Patent No. 544,411. This was an improvement over the C-shaped crank brace drill, that had been patented 40 years earlier.     If you notice in the first drawing, bits are held in the handle, and until I began my research, I didn't realize that the handle of my drill was hollow. Unscrewing it, I found eight blue steel bits, not spirally, like drill bits today, but simply cutting tips, like the ones shown here. 
     A reminder of how ancient drilling is, back some 10,000 years, when prehistoric man drilled holes by rubbing a stick with an obsidian point between his palms. 
       The bow drill was an improvement on that—the same dowel, with an iron bit instead of stone, twirled by a stringed bow, with the string looped around the stick so that it turned when the bow was drawn back and forth. 
       A variant of this was to wrap leather straps around the drill bit, which one man would hold upright in place, while another man pulled the thong, a process that I just read described in Emily Wilson's fine translation of "The Odyssey," where a sharpened, red hot olive spear is rammed into the eye of the sleeping Cyclops:
                                       ...I leaned on top
and twisted it, as when a man drills wood
for shipbuilding. Below, the workers spin
the drill with straps, stretched out from either end.
So round and round it goes, and whirled
the fire-sharp weapon in his eye.
     At which point we've probably said enough. Old tools are beautiful, not just for their aesthetic form—this this case the red wheel with its gently arching spokes—but because they remind us we are the latest stage of a very old tradition, that use of tools is truly what sets humanity apart from the animal kingdom.
     Yes, a few animals use rudimentary tools—digging for ants with sticks and such. But they do not recraft their world, for good and ill, the way we do. We've earned our nickname homo faber, "man the (tool) maker," 
    The phrase was first used by Roman politican Appius Claudius Caecus. He gave his name to a road, the Appian Way, and wrote in his book of proverbs, Homo faber suae quisque fortunae—"Every man is the maker of his own destiny." Which is largely true, again for good and ill. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How popular is 'The Big Bang Theory'? Even I watch it.

     Shame is funny.
     "Funny" as in odd.
     I have no trouble writing about personal stuff. My kids, my life. I once wrote a column about getting naked for a dominatrix. I've written about being an agnostic, about going to rehab, all the time my large head— which I've also written about — held high.
     But a certain subject has been straining forward in its seat, going "oh oh, pick me!" For months and, coward that I am, I've been ignoring it.
     Because ... I'm ... well ... embarrassed.
     Okay, here goes.
     The Big Bang Theory.
     When I say to my wife after dinner, "Let's watch TV," what I mean is, "Let's watch 'The Big Bang Theory.'" The only show on television, now in its 11th season Thursday nights on CBS. Plus shown continually in syndication. Some nights TBS runs it seven times in a row, from 6 p.m. to 9:30. Reading the newspaper listings is like giving a hammer to a toddler: "BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG." 

    And there, on the couch, night after night, is Mister I-Don't-Watch-TV, aka me.
     At least I'm not alone. "The Big Bang Theory" is the top rated show on television. The most popular show in syndication for the past ... 338 consecutive weeks.
So what is the allure? 
     The premise — for the handful not familiar — would not seem something guaranteed to captivate a nation where half the citizens cower in self-constructed hallucinatory states. Viewers are invited into the lives of a pair of Caltech physicists, Dr. Sheldon Cooper and Dr. Leonard Hofstadter. We meet their colleagues: engineer Howard Wolowitz and astrophysicst Rajesh Koothrappali. Plus their loves —" Big Bang Theory" is probably the most risqué double-entendre title of a hit TV show) — Amy, Penny, Bernadette, and whomever Rajesh is seeing at the moment.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Cool tools #1: DeWalt Log-Splitting Axe

     Spring just won't arrive. Oh, it's here, technically, according to the calendar, though that usually trustworthy grid has taken on a slightly disreputable air, more akin to a mimeographed sheet of lucky policy wheel numbers than a reliable guide to what part of the year we find ourselves in.
     Though the weather did cooperate enough last week for me to try out my latest tool, and since we need something positive to remind us that the season of building and repairing and doing outside is nearly upon us, I thought, until the temperatures get back into the 60s, I would inaugurate a new occasional series I am dubbing "Cool Tools."      

      For a half dozen years now, I've had the good fortune to spend a weekend every autumn in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, at my buddy Rick's sprawling compound—a big main house, barn, sauna, and cabins—seven hours due north in Ontonagon.
     The place is on the sandy shore of Lake Superior, but woodsy in the extreme. Once I've gotten settled in my cabin—"Squirrel,” meticulously crafted by the inimitable Moonshine Mike Guzek—and admired the views, and chatted with the other guys, I'll slip on a pair of J. Edwards elk skin linesman's gloves and go split wood.
It doesn't split itself
     Why? Why go to the effort? Why not just sit on the porch and admire the thin blue of the lake and wait for dinner?
     That's complicated. A variety of reasons, I suppose. It's good exercise, yes, and Rick has a lot of logs that need splitting—split wood dries better and burns better, for you city folk. 
      But that isn't quite why I do it. It isn't as if Rick is expecting me to put in sweat equity, though I like doing that. 
    There is something manly and Reaganesque about splitting wood, and immensely satisfying. You take a section of log, about two foot long, set it on a solid base—a tree stump is perfect. Then line up your axe, holding it with both hands, draw it way back behind you, then bring it down fast and hard, as hard as you can, on the circular top of the log. If all goes well, the log explodes into two halves. If it doesn't, the axe impacts into the wood and you need to lift the entire heavy conjoined thing, the log with the axe embedded, and bring it down until it splits. Graceless.
     Split a dozen logs with an axe and you feel like you've accomplished something.
     "Axe" isn't exactly the proper term. I'd never use my Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe for splitting wood—too light and delicate; that would be like using a surgeon's scalpel to cut a hole in a galvanized steel tub. Rather I use one of Rick's mauls—he has a few. 
    If you don't have an mental image of what a "maul" is, don't feel bad.  Most people are familiar with "maul" as a verb, as what bears and pit bulls do to you, if you're not lucky, or what various sports teams do to each other, metaphorically. 
     But the verb "maul" is several hundred years newer than the noun, which were used to describe various big hammers, and now are used primarily for a tool that is like the love child of an axe and a sledgehammer—the blade to split the wood, and the heft to push it apart.
     I'd always had what I thought of as "maul envy." But I couldn't bring myself to go out and buy one. Yes, I chop trees on my property, but logs will burn with the bark on them, particularly if you use enough gasoline, and I try not to get more tools than what I absolutely need. The time never came when I headed to Home Depot thinking, "Better pick up that maul."
     Then the good people at DeWalt sent an email. If I read every bit of corporate puffery to land in my in box that's all I'd ever do. But I have Big Love for DeWalt, as the proud owner of one of their compound mitre saws, though I think of it, incorrectly, as a "chop saw," perhaps the most useful power tool I own other than a cordless drill. I used it to build a cedar play fort for the boys, and a magnificent piece of equipment it is, having stood up to 15 years of hard use.
     So my interest was perked when the DeWalt people sent an email, almost like a birth announcement, ballyhooing the arrival of a new addition to the family:
     DEWALT® ExoCore™ Axes are available in 20 oz. with a 12” handle and 3.5 single bit and 4.5-pound log splitter with a 32” handle. All DEWALT® ExoCore™ Axes feature a scalloped cutting edge, which ensure a deep cut and improved release from material, and carbon fiber composite handles for overstrike protection. The durable rubber over-mold on the grip provides comfort.
     Available now where DEWALT products are sold, the ExoCore™ Sledge Hammers and Axes will come with a limited lifetime warranty for $29.99-$54.97 MSRP.
    I don't think they actually expect journalists to reply to these emails—they're probably designed for jaded professionals in the hardware industry media, God help them. But I was overcome with enthusiasm, and wrote back the following slightly-embarrassing reply:
 Ooo, I might have to pick up your log splitter. I already have the best light axe made. But I use a maul a lot when I'm up at Lake Superior, and have been in the market for a really good one. 
     That was not disingenuous. I was not trying to lure the DeWalt people into sending me their new log-splitting axe. But send it they did—respect for the media has not died entirely, I'm happy to report. 
     It took a week, maybe 10 days, to arrive. Long enough that I had just about given up hope. Companies say things all the time and never follow through. I've talked to the Pendleton people twice since November, when I foolheartedly ordered a wool blanket and thought that simply because I had selected it and paid for it that meant I could, in reasonable span of months, expect a Pendleton wool blanket to arrive at my home.
     No such luck. I phoned Pendleton in January—it was supposed to be my wife's Hanukkah gift for me—and again in early April. To be honest, I was just curious, as to what the hold-up was. Factory burn down? An invasion of moths? Sudden global run on green heather Yakima camp throws? Just tell me. I spoke to a variety of people there, some charged exclusively with talking to the media, and ended up with nothing but a bad taste in my mouth. They would neither explain what the problem is or acknowledge that they were not explaining it. Maddening. I came close to cancelling the order, but it really was my wife's order, her gift to me, and I didn't want to make her feel bad—the Kindle I bought her is one of her favorite toys—just because the Pendleton Woolen Mills of Portland, Oregon doesn't know how to handle would-be customers whose only crime is trying to purchase one of their products.
   The DeWalt folks are much more on the ball. A big cardboard box arrived. Perhaps I overreacted, but I ripped the box open on the spot, took the axe onto the couch and watched television with the tool, its 4.5 pound head—with, I will point out, a rubber guard protecting its razor-like edge—cradled lovingly against my chest. 
     My wife, who is used to this kind of thing, and in fact finds it an appealing boyish enthusiasm, or so she claims and I choose to believe, suppressed concern. "The Shining" sort of ruined the idea of a husband with an axe.
     On that one single, precious day last week when suddenly the weather became nice, and it seemed like spring was finally here, I ran outside with my new DeWalt to put it through its paces.
     Well, first I put on my pair of Red Wing steel-toed boots—a certain amount of force, quickness and aim is required when splitting wood, and the chance of the maul skittering off the target and ending up planted in your foot needs to be kept in mind at all times.
     The DeWalt log-splitting axe was all it was advertised. Solid hardwood logs fell apart at a stroke. Easy to grip, light to swing yet the 4.5 pound head delivering the force where it's needed. I feel a little sorry they don't call it a "maul"—trying not to confuse the tool-buying public, I suppose. But it's mine now, and I plan to call it a maul, and don't expect anyone to contradict me on the matter.