Thursday, May 31, 2018

'He really has a deft way with him'—Tony Fitzpatrick on Rick Telander

     I'd hate to have to decide who is cooler, Rick Telander or Tony Fitzpatrick. 
     Rick is a revered sports columnist who became a star at Sports Illustrated before jumping to the Sun-Times. Tony is a respected artist who performs one-man shows at Steppenwolf and whose visual creations are collected in museums around the world. 
      Rick was the kid for 15 years in "The Sportswriters" on TV. Tony plays mysterious security guard Jack Birdbath in the "Patriot" TV series on Amazon Video.
      Rick played one-on-one with Michael Jordan. Tony hosted the Uptown Poetry Slam when it first began at the Green Mill. 
     See? It's impossible.
     And though I know both men and flatter myself that I am friends with both, I had no idea they knew each other—Rick met Tony 30 years, writing about the Slam. Nor that Rick is an artist. Nor, until a few weeks ago, that he was having a show at Tony's gallery. 
       My first thought was that I should write something, about the wonder, this sports-writer-turned-artist. Then I dithered: maybe I shouldn't—bias, both are pals—then that I should. I ran it past my editor, and he said fine, 
    Then Robert Chiarito beat me to the punch with this sprightly interview with Rick for Chicago magazine.
      Which left me ready to drop the idea. But I had already talked to Tony about the show, and figured his remarks would make for something of a bookend to Rick's observations. Anyway, the show opens Friday, June 1, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Adventureland, 1513 N. Western Avenue. Rick will be there. Tony will be there. There will be beer and wine. And, for what it's worth, I will be there too.

     "He's actually been making this stuff since he was a kid, he just doesn't talk about it. About six years ago, he started coming around, showing me his work, the stuff he made as a result of his trips to the UP. He's kind of a nature kid, and he liked what I did."
     Were you an inspiration? Because I see a connection.
     "He maybe looked at some of the things in my studio. It opened a couple doors to him. But he's got his own thing. He responds to nature in a way that touches me. He really has a deft way with him, making figures and making images. He's obviously a guy who has thought a lot about it. At the age of 69, this man has a second act. That's not the usual way it goes in America. I've encouraged it over the last half a dozen years. Watched him evolve and have something to write about besides the vanities of athletes, the constant push me and pull you between the millionaires and the billionaires. 
     "I think this is in large part his respite from that. It was always there."
     You guys have known each other a long time.
     We first met 35 years ago. He wrote the first press about me I ever had. He said, 'I've been making drawings since I was a kid, I don't really show them to anybody.' Back then, 28 years old, I said 'Why wouldn't you?' I think he came from the culture of being a former jock, went to Northwestern on a  football scholarship, wrote for Sports Illustrated all those years. Perhaps maybe one part of his psyche was he really didn't feel like sharing this with anybody.
     "I didn't really show anybody my art until my junior or senior in high school. I wanted to have ownership in my own life. I suspect, in a very different way, that might resonate for Rick. Don't ask about the mechanics of how thinks. He makes art in part about storytelling. He's always saying, 'It has to be beautiful.' I'm like, 'No Rick it doesn't.' Beauty is sometimes a side product.
    "One thing I really liked is  his fearlessness with art-making. He's not afraid to get in there with watercolors and pens and ink and collage elements. He draws very well, it's been kind of a remarkable symbiosis. I learn a lot from him.
     "Last year, my son brought a few of Rick's pieces in here and said, 'Let's do a show. He's not getting any younger.'  At first I thought I would have to talk him into it, but he's all in. He's ready to show people, ready for people to meet Rick Telander, the other guy. We think we know people from their bylines and what they observe. Part of the thing about making visual art, much say you look outward have to look deeply inward, Rick maybe surprised himself. And me; I'm thrilled we are able to do this." 

"I think the story is more important than the truth"

"The Nose" by Alberto Giacometti 

     Lies have a long afterlife for a reason. They scratch an itch, tell a satisfying story. Donald Trump's constant untruths boost his fragile ego, his false claims about the press are a cynical attempt to blunt valid criticism now and undercut damaging revelations certain to come in the future.
    Besides, accepting something at face value as true, because somebody says it's true, or there are news clippings assuming it's true, is easy. Much harder to ask, "Did this really happen?" and start to dig. That takes time, and energy.
    Which can be in short supply with a breaking news story. But are in abundance when writing an advance obituary. So I was disappointed to see a New York Times obituary of Dick Tuck by Robert D. McFadden repeat tales I knew to be untrue, stories that Tuck had admitted were untrue.
    Yes, it was a long time ago, while researching my first book, "If At All Possible Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks." But the book was published by St. Martin's Press, featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and on Good Morning America. It wasn't a best-seller, but it wasn't a secret either. McFadden, a Pulitzer Prize winner, couldn't have wondered whether these marvelous events in fact occurred. It isn't as if the University of California at Santa Barbara isn't still there. 
    Maybe it's best just to reprint the Tuck section from my book:

     Of all the pranksters in this book, perhaps the most vexing case is Dick Tuck. Famous for his determined hounding of Richard Nixon, Tuck has attached his name to some delightful pranks—the time he arranged for an old lady to embrace Nixon the day after his 1960 TV-debate drubbing and say, "Kennedy got the best of it last night, but don't worry dear, you'll do better next time." The time he signaled for Nixon's campaign train to pull out of the station while the candidate was delivering a speech from a platform at the back. The time he tricked Nixon, during a visit to San Francisco's Chinatown, to have his picture taken under a huge sign which said, in Chinese WHAT ABOUT THE HUGHES LOAN? alluding to a scandal dogging Nixon at the time.
    So well-known was Tuck for his deeds that when the Watergate scandal first broke, Nixon's henchmen initially blustered that it was merely a Tuckish prank.
     It would be wonderful to say that Tuck is an exception to the Hugh Troy Syndrome—legendary pranksters whose feats melt away when examined closely. Sadly, that is not the case.
     The reason Dick Tuck falls within the book's scope of interest at all is that he traces his Nixon-baiting career to Nixon's run for California's Senate seat in 1950, when the Trickster waged a brutal campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas.
     A junior at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Tuck was a campaign worker for Douglas. He was also in the history class of professor Harry Girvetz, who was contacted by Nixon's campaign headquarters—Tuck says—looking for an advance man to coordinate a campus appearance by Nixon.
     Girvetz, Tuck says, asked him if he would take the responsibility. Tuck accepted.
     "I picked the largest auditorium I could find," Tuck told a newspaper in 1973. "There was nobody on campus at the time and this place must have seated 2,700."
     Tuck also chose a time of 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. Since most classes were held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the campus was largely deserted. "We went to the beach Tuesdays and Thursdays," said Tuck.
     "Of course, only about forty people showed up. Then I held it up so latecomers could arrive. Well, Nixon and everybody there began getting impatient."
     While waiting for the latecomers to arrive, approximately half the people who had shown up left. Nixon impatiently insisted that they get going.
     "Finally, the meeting started and I got up to introduce him. During the introduction I proposed one hundred and three questions for Nixon to answer during his talk."
     "And then I turned to him with a flourish and said: 'And now here's Richard Nixon, who will speak to us on the World Monetary Fund."
    The appearance was a humiliating failure, and as Nixon was leaving, he called Tuck over and asked him his name. Tuck told him.
     "Well, Dick Tuck," Nixon said, "you've just made your last advance."
     A nice tag line to a great prank. The problem is, the entire thing is a lie; worse, one that Tuck has been repeating as true for the past 40 years.
     After examining 30 years of credulous newspaper articles, happily detailing Tuck's various exploits, I tracked down Tuck in New York, and he repeated his stories for me.
     They sounded true enough—filled with detail and largely consistent. Then there were all those clippings. And I certainly wanted to believe him.
     But the rally story started to unravel owing to Tuck's use of Professor Girvetz. No doubt mentioning a professor by name struck Tuck as the sort of small detail that adds veracity to a tale.
     But he overlooked the fact that Girvetz was famous as a liberal Democrat—a building at U of C-Santa Barbara is named after him. The notion of Nixon's campaign staff, no matter how harried, contacting a famous Democrat to set up a campaign visit struck me as highly odd. The archivist at U of C was interested in my quest, and combed the student newspaper for news of the rally. Nothing.
     I called Tuck back to see if he could provide me with more information—perhaps the date of the rally, or the name of a friend who attended. Suddenly, he was no longer the ebullient man I had spoken with before.
     "Your desire for truth troubles me a little bit," he said. "I think the story is more important than the truth."
     To give Tuck credit, under pressure, he finally admitted that not only was the disastrous University of California rally a fiction of his, but so was the train story and other pranks he is credited with.
     In his defense, Tuck claimed that the truthfulness of a story is secondary to its effect—look at Santa Claus, he said.
     But what he fails to see is that the lack of truth completely undermines the value of anything presented as fact. It taints the moral of the story. The reason people embrace Tuck's pranks is not because they are wonderful, timeless tales. People love the punch line—tricky old anal-retentive Nixon, the wily puppet-master, reduced to a laughingstock, red-faced in the empty hall, failing to finish his speech as the train pulls away.
     Tuck's pranks appeared to play upon Nixon's defensiveness, egotism, and lack of humor. To see the importance of it being Nixon, imagine playing a prank on Jimmy Carter, somewhere in Africa, pressing a rag soaked in sugar water against the lips of a starving infant. Not quite the same image. 
     Remember, what brought Nixon down was not the Watergate break-in, per se. Rather, it was his lying to cover it up, shameless and on television, gazing into the camera and distorting the truth for his own benefit.
    Kinda like Dick Tuck.

     I contacted both the New York Times and McFadden and informed them of the problematic sections of the obituary. Neither responded. Which is also disappointing. I'm open to the idea that, as people tend to do when they possess a bit of personal knowledge on a subject, I'm exaggerating the significance of this lapse. But it seemed at least worth mentioning. Truth is either important, or it's not.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Local kid steals spotlight in boffo Beckett ‘Boy’ star turn

Zachary Fewkes (center) with Aaron Monaghan (Estragon, left)
and Rory Nolan (Pozzo)  Photo by J Lauryn Photography.
     Zachary Scott Fewkes is only 12. But he has been skipping school in Lake Zurich recently to hang out on the Chicago waterfront with a pair of Irish bums.
     And his parents approve.
     Then again, these are no ordinary Hibernian hobos, but two of the most famous homeless men in literature: Vladimir and Estragon, the talkative tramps in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” currently on stage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
     As frustrating as their task is — miserably killing time on a barren heath, with its one bare tree, waiting for someone who never arrives — the roles, played by Marty Rea (Vladimir) and Aaron Monaghan (Estragon) are diva turns compared to Fewkes’ character, “Boy,” who shows up at the end of the first act to deliver a message: “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.”
     An easy role to overlook. The reviews in the Sun-Times and Trib name four of the five actors — Chris Jones refers to “a quartet of masterful performances,” cutting Fewkes out of the ensemble entirely, even though his character has not only an under-appreciated importance in the meaning of the play, but a unique acting challenge.
     The four adults are seasoned actors from Galway’s renowned Druid Theatre, with a long list of roles and awards between them.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

'People gather to forget about life's realities'

      I actually didn't need to write a column for Monday. A vacation day, in theory. But my column on the Ivan Albright show came together quickly and I realized I could write another and say something about the flag and the protest without cutting into my holiday weekend.
    I'm glad I did. Lots of reaction to my Memorial Day column, from people who loved it, to those who cancelled their subscription.  So much reaction that I began to categorize it. Three types: praise, insult and argument. Of the three, the argument is the smallest group—takes effort—and the most interesting, because a few readers people made various points I hadn't thought of or had under-appreciated. The email I found most persuasive are those who said, in essence: We watch sports to relax. We don't want our societal problems shoved under our noses. We want a beer instead.
     That was summed up best by this, from a Chicago firefighter. I've added paragraph breaks for readability. 

     I enjoyed your article.  This entire situation is controversial and divisive.  One thing I’ve asked and never gotten a satisfactory answer on is regarding the timing of the protests.  I’m a firefighter in Englewood so I’ve seen my share of society’s problems and injustices up close.   

     What if, while in uniform, I decided that instead of doing what my job required I would take a knee in protest.  What would happen?  Would I be considered a person exercising their 1st amendment rights or a person not adhering to requirements of my employment?  
     I don’t have to be a firefighter.  If I don’t like the rules the fire department imposes while I’m in uniform, or out of uniform for that matter, I can resign and pursue a different employment.  
     As for my question above, my opinion is that while I’m in uniform, being paid for my performance in that uniform I am required to adhere to the rules and regulations set forth by the fire department.  If I want to advance any agenda or set of beliefs on my days off, or my own time I am afforded that opportunity and it should not be infringed on.  I believe the same is true in the NFL.  I applaud the players wanting to use there social status as a means to improve society as a whole.  Just do it on their own time.  Not when 55,000 people paid to see them perform in that uniform.  
     It’s no different to me than a music artist preaching during their performance.  I don’t want to hear it, I paid to hear you sing, dance, act.   People go to sporting events, concerts, etc. to escape life’s difficulties if just for a few hours not to be reminded of how bad things really are!  If I wanted that, I’d watch the news.  So I ask again, does the timing of these protests really help social injustice or is it just self centered performers with a look at me complex?  I don’t think we’ll ever truly know.  I do know one thing however.  If I went through with my scenario above about not doing my job and protesting instead I would be disciplined.  Severely.  And rightly so.  When you put on a uniform to go to work whether you’re a UPS driver, police officer, flight attendant, or even a football player you are agreeing to act in a manner that is decided upon by your employer.  Perhaps the most important uniform is that of Military members.  
     On this Memorial Day, as we honor those that gave their life for our freedoms, people who wore that uniform until the end, maybe we should re-examine whether one day a year is enough for their sacrifice.   Maybe, we as a society need to reminded before sporting events and other venues where people gather to forget about life’s realities for a while about the sacrifices that were made to allow us to live as we do.  Maybe standing in a respectful manner for a two minute patriotic song is exactly what this country needs.  Being told to rise, kindly remove all caps, and pay attention as we honor America with the singing of our National Anthem is not forced patriotism, it’s respect that has been bought and paid for by every single person who has worked to make this country the place it is today.   The fact that so many don’t see that is the real problem.  

     I could poke a few holes in this—sports events are to have fun and forget life's harsh realities, when it comes to protest, but also a time to honor the courageous fallen. Which is it? My understanding is that these patriotic displays originated during wartime, as an attempt by professional franchises to deflect the question, "Why aren't these strapping young men fighting?" Seems the public bought the hype all too well, as it often does.

    But I don't want to re-argue the point. I suppose I would add that going to a knee during the national anthem is a very quiet and under-stated kind of protest, and it seems the protesters are being blamed for the over-reaction of the people doing the blaming, for the way their protest was seized and twisted and made into a political football by the president and his ilk. But we can have this discussion another day, and no doubt will. Thanks everybody for writing in. Well, almost everybody...

Monday, May 28, 2018

Do we salute a flag that represents forced displays of what you don't believe?

     I love the flag.
     Mine is frayed and faded from use. I'll put it out on Memorial Day, to honor the fallen, place my flat palm over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
     Nobody forces me.
     Like all loves, there was the initial infatuation period. Making construction paper pilgrims in elementary school, becoming fascinated with American history. Reading Samuel Eliot Morison's epic "The Oxford History of the American People" at summer camp in my mid-teens.
     We were the good guys. The Americans kicked Hitler out of Europe. The Rangers up the ropes and into the teeth of the German machine guns at Pointe du Hoc and the raid on the ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. When my boys were old enough, I gave them a copy of "Air War Against Hitler's Germany" thinking they'd love it like I did.
     They didn't. Times change. The parts of history that were hardly a distant murmur when I was growing up took their places in the narrative, like silent witnesses slipping into the back of a courtroom. One by one, called to the stand to testify.
     The more you learn about our country, the more conflicted the story becomes. I like to think it's still a basically good story about good people, with continuous lapses. But I understand those who think otherwise. The only actual U.S. Army Ranger I know went into the service a gung-ho patriot and came out a radical anti-imperialist, someone for whom the American tale is one long atrocity, sodden with horror.
     Am I supposed to contradict him? I think he's right, factually. But I'm a basically cheery fellow, and want to believe I live in a good place, with exceptions.
     This mutual respect, despite disagreement — I think he respects me, we drive up together to the same pal's place on Lake Superior every summer — is what makes America a great nation, and not one of those fractured nest of warring wasps that ruins so many others. America: I love it, you condemn it. I think you're wrong, you think I'm wrong, and we have a conversation, driving to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

'Every military casualty of every war has contributed to our freedom'


    Patriotic Americans honor the sacrifice of our nation's military without glorifying war. Not always as easy or as clear a distinction to make as it sounds. It can be a short leap from commemorating soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to valorizing every conflict. And not one we should automatically make, because it softens us up for the next war. Which is always waiting around the corner, and easier to start if we feel it's necessary, by definition, because they're always necessary, even laudable. 


     We arrived early at the parade this year, setting up our blue canvas folding chairs along Cherry Street, staking out a good spot.
     We needn't have bothered -- when the parade began, a half-hour later, there was still plenty of open curb space. The neighborhood certainly wasn't jamming the route.
     We're a nation at war, I thought, as the well-scrubbed fire trucks strobed by. Yet we don't act that way.
     Maybe that's a function of living in a leafy suburban paradise like Northbrook. Not exactly a military town. We enjoy the benefits, but the price is being paid by someone else.
     After the fire trucks, the vets, carrying the banner of the George W. Benjamin American Legion Post 791. As they approached, those lining both sides of the street stood up and applauded.
     Two marching bands — from the junior high school and the high school — a troop of Boy Scouts and of Brownies and then it was over. Eight minutes, start to finish.
     Afterward, my wife and I went to the park at the center of town, to hear the speeches and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
     As the speakers spoke of honor and sacrifice, I held my notebook. But I only jotted down one sentence.
     "Every military casualty of every war has contributed to our freedom," said Maj. Gen. Clifton Capp (Retired).
     I rolled that sentence over in my mind all the lovely Monday afternoon, sitting on my front porch, watching the flag undulate in the spring sunshine, trying to pick apart what it means.
     It's the safe view, of course. Every soldier a hero, every skirmish important, every war unavoidable.
     And as long as it is relegated to the past, you can't argue it — nobody wants to question the value of sacrifice.
     But buried in there is a troubling implication — the suggestion that every time the military is sent somewhere to fight, our freedom is on the line. That's certainly what supporters of the war in Iraq seem to believe. But is it true, or is it circular logic? Are we fighting in Iraq because our freedom is on the line? Or do we feel our freedom is on the line in Iraq because we're fighting there?

              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 28, 2008

Saturday, May 26, 2018

How to talk to old people

Astronomicum Caesareum (Metropolitan Museum)
     Like comets, the kids return this time of year. On schedule, their wide elliptical orbits in time and space, through semesters and colleges and foreign countries, loop back, one more time, home to familiar ground. 
    My oldest has impacted back into the house, his room turned from pristine shrine to a crater, strewn with ejecta, rubble, books and clothes and cables and backpacks. 
     A meteor shower of friends zip past the house, kids I've known since grade school, now lean, clean, tall, well-scrubbed proto-adults. Aborning stars all.
    I go out to walk the dog. Some late model SUV in the driveway. At the wheel, a young man curled over his phone. No need to actually walk up to the house and ring the doorbell. That's as old-fashioned as churning butter. A simple text: "In the driveway."
     I step around the front of the car, dip my head, angle into his view. He looks up and is out of the car. These kids move fast.  
     Beaming mightily, as if viewing something highly amusing. 
     Hey, I say, good to see you. What are your plans after school? The Wharton School of Business slingshotting him into the world.
     "Infometrics at Facebook," he says, adding "Silicon Valley," helpfully, just in case "Facebook" draws a blank the way  "infometrics" does—something about numbers, I imagine. Too much pride to ask. Instead I say something positive about Facebook: "Very useful service." 
     "And how about you?" he says. Being polite. We're peers now. Just two employed persons trading data. "Still at the paper?" He doesn't know himself whether the paper exists or went out of business five years ago—how could he? It's something a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
     "Still the same," I say. "Every day somebody employed at a newspaper still has a job is a good day." 
      He smiles, indulgently, benevolently, eyes twinkling.
     "Well, it's good that you're keeping busy," he concludes, as if trying to put the bright spin on something that might otherwise seem impossibly trivial. I make some additional small talk — how are his parents? What movie are the boys seeing? They had hoped for "RBG"—a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But it wasn't playing. So "Deadpool 2."  
     My son comes out, and, taking my cue as if dismissed, I wish them a good time, turn and hurry  down the street.
     "Good that you're keeping busy." Good that you're keeping busy!? Ouch. As if my job, my career, my life, were some quaint, marginal activity, a time-killing hobby: making corn husk brooms, spray-painting pine cones and attaching googly eyes so they resemble owls and trying to sell them at craft fairs.  Tossing cards into a hat. A kind of recreational therapy.
    Keeping busy.
    Well, that's how it must seem, I suppose. That's how they talk to old people. No use my complaining about it. That's what old people do. Complain. About the world not paying attention to them enough. Not making a bigger deal out of their pebble of a life. This is how it should be, right? Try to think back to when you were that age. Old folks were a puzzlement, an enigma. Their lives were obviously over—old, failed, neutered, decrepit. And yet they were still here, unwanted, unneeded, shuffling around. These odd alien life forms with their weird post-mortem existence. Nobody has the heart to tell them they've died, not yet, and so, in temporary ignorance, they propel forward a few steps, like decapitated chickens, on muscle memory and habit, leading their sedentary, dwindling, declining existences.
    And it could be worse. When I pause to recount the above exchange to a woman down the street, she says—as soon as she finishes laughing, recovers her breath, eyes watering, gasping, which takes some time—that her daughter, about the same age, will cut her off in the midst of delivering some bit of maternal wisdom with: "Why do you talk?" 
     Double ouch. Girls are harder, all parents I know say that. My boys might think—certainly think, "Why do you talk? Why are your lips moving? Why are you speaking to me, as if I could possible listen, care or benefit?" 
     But they don't actually say those words, out of pity perhaps, or utter indifference. Or maybe politeness. That's it! Politeness. They know how to talk to old people. So take comfort in that. At least they're polite. To our faces. We did that much right.
      This is all as it should be. My wife keeps saying that. This is why we raised them. So many parents have kids sputtering on the launch pad. "3...2...1..." and instead of the big roar and the fiery ascent, a fizzle and puzzled looks all around mission control and an immediate inquiry into What Went Wrong. It would be an insult to those parents for us to regret, too loudly, too much, the perfect blast-off. Of course the youngsters have to scorch the earth, the launchpad, to push against us, in order to overcome the earth's gravity, to defeat the force holding them back, and power upward into the heavens. Of course the ground doesn't like it. You don't have to like it. You just have to accept it, and you don't even have to do that, because what you like or don't like, accept or don't accept, matters a whole lot less now. Comfort yourself with the thought that, maybe, they'll toss a glance back at the blue dot dwindling behind them, maybe a single nod in approval—a good place to come from, the home planet. They'll at least keep track of it for a brief while yet, if only for navigation purposes. A fixed point for them, a reassuring thought for us, to try to believe, while enduring the roar of liftoff and waiting for the ringing in our ears to subside. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Exhibit holds magnifying mirror to our wrinkled, decaying 'Flesh'

Ivan Albright. Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, 1929–30.
Gift of Ivan Albright. © The Art Institute of Chicago.

     Can you be the fan of an artist because of the title he gave to one of his paintings?
     Ivan Albright is Chicago's most famous painter. Born in North Harvey, he studied at the School of the Art Institute. The Art Institute of Chicago holds more of his paintings than any other museum, though typically just three canvases are on display at any time.
     One, his portrait of an aging woman sorrowfully contemplating her ravaged face in a mirror, "Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida." Furrows of cellulite under harsh white light, the polar opposite of every romantic portrait ever painted. Albright is staking out his turf: decay and age, not in soft Rembrandt glow, but as nightmare, a realm that 70 years ago he had to himself*—predicting all the graphic shock art that came later.
     He is certainly contemporary in how he leapt to other media. The second painting often on display is his most famous, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," a life-sized portrait of Oscar Wilde's debauchee, commissioned by MGM and featured in lurid Technicolor in the otherwise black-and-white 1945 film. 

     And third, the painting that makes Albright special in my eyes. An enormous still-life of door, weathered and warped into its frame, a painting he titled, "That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do. (The Door.)" Why? Maybe the sentence echoes in my regret-based interior ecology; it sent me by the Art Institute to see the new Albright show, which opened earlier this month: "Flesh: Ivan Albright at the Art Institute of Chicago."
     The door isn't actually in the exhibit—it's a few galleries over. Maybe it doesn't fit into the "Flesh" theme.  
Ivan Albright. Head of My Father, 1935/36.
 Mary and Earle Ludgin Collection.
© The Art Institute of Chicago.
     It's a modest show, one room, but well-worth a visit. I knew a bit about Albright—that he's the father-in-law of former secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for instance. But I did not realize that his father Adam Albright was a painter of sugary, idealized children. His son's entire career, all the burst veins and dead fish flesh, could be considered an elaborate revenge upon the old man.

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* Originally I prefaced this with the observation that I am not an art historian, but that got cut whittling this to size. What I should have done is gone with that flash of self-awareness and not ventured about Albright being in the forefront in this regard, because he wasn't, according to reader Tom Hohman, who writes:
     Albright certainly did not have this " himself". See Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and Weimar artists banned by Hitler. They were on the vanguard of the German New Objectivity Movement. Dix particularly explored the same subject as Albright but decades earlier.
     I regret the error, and leave this in, as opposed to just removing it, as a cautionary tale about letting your idle conjecture stray beyond the borders of your actual knowledge. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The NFL cracks the whip

Sgt. Alex Rogers with Battle Flag, 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

  I'm torn. 
     On one hand, the National Football League is a business, like any other. Olive Garden would not let your server plug syndicalist revolution along with the surf and turf. Ford wouldn't let a designer push though the Agrarian Reform F-150 Pick-Up.
    So why should the NFL allow its highly paid employees to use the global stage it has put them on to register a private protest, even one concerning as important an issue as police brutality? The NFL is in a business relationship with the Department of Defense. It gets money for those patriotic displays, soldier re-unions and such, or at least did. Why bite mindless patriotism, the hand that feeds it? 
    Pro football isn't the government. Free speech ends at the stadium gate.
    That wasn't my immediate thought on hearing Wednesday's news, however.
    My immediate thought was "Fuck the NFL." Forcing players to stand for the national anthem. That or cower in the locker room. Or pay a hefty fine. After two seasons of certain players taking a knee to draw attention to police brutality, which was re-purposed by the Right, in their favorite Pretend My Foe Believes Something Stupid Gambit, into a protest against the flag. 
     Which we are all for. Or at least better be, now, or else.
    Some kind of fine, to be determined, for those who go to one knee.
    That's their solution. Stand or else.
    Don't they realize? Coerced respect means nothing. Every tinpot dictatorship forces its enslaved populations to stand rigid during whatever wheezing ditty passes as their national anthem. Doesn't make them a great country.
     The United States, which actually is a great country, or was, before it was delivered into the hands of treasonous morons by some near-majority of voters either terrified of the future or fixated on some point in the past, or both, does not need to force tribute. 
     Now I'm not so sure. I still stand for the pledge. But if someone else wants to respond by raising a middle finger of one hand and grabbing their crotch with the other, well, I know where you're coming from, brother. Those thundering loudest for respect are always the ones who least deserve it. 
     No 2nd grader is forced to say the pledge of allegiance, because school administrators know that students are a diverse group. Some students are Jehovah’s Witnesses and don't believe in saluting anyone but God. Some students are familiar enough with the checkered history of this country to not feel obligated. 
    But schools are part of government, a key distinction. It's a free country, or was. And to honor that freedom, the National Football League—some private, cash-stuffed business—is not compelling its employees to earn their pay, in part, by expressing a respect that maybe they feel, maybe they don't.
    How to tell? 
     The expressions on their faces might be a give away. Their postures. There are ways to register dissent short of falling to a knee. Will those be fined next? A sneer? A shake of the head? How much for a bored expression?
     This policy, like most misguided censures, will only highlight what it means to efface. 
     I'm not going to join those predicting doom for pro-football. I don't watch the games, I'm not their target audience. But between the concussion scandal, the Right pushed away by the protest, and the Left pushed away by this snap of the overseer's whip on the backs of protesting players, you wonder.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Summa - - - laude: Fill in the blank, which is more than a cake computer can do

Photo courtesy of Cara Koscinski

     Now cum is an interesting word. Latin, of course, a preposition meaning "with." It begins the aphorism cum grano salis—"with a grain of salt"—a note of skepticism going back to ancient Rome, when soldiers' pay was connected to the common mineral ("salary" derives from the Latin salarium, the money soldiers were paid to buy salt).
     We see it particularly this time of year, on diplomas flashed at graduations. There is cum laude, "with praise," magna cum laude, "with great praise" and the utmost, summa cum laude, or "with greatest praise."
     You and I know this because we're human beings in a literate society. We pick things up.
     But the cake-decoration system at the Publix supermarket in Charleston, South Carolina is not human, and does not know this. It's a computer, programmed to weed out surprisingly frequent attempts to render profanity into icing. (Sigh. There is a non-Latin, sexual meaning to the Latin term which, if you don't know, I'm not going to explain. Ask around).
     Charleston mom Cara Koscinski ordered a cake from her local Publix supermarket to honor her son Jacob, graduating from a Christian home schooling program.
     Ordering online, she designated it was a graduation cake, which automatically conjured up mortarboard and scroll ornaments. Then she plugged in "Congrats Jacob! Summa Cum Laude Class of 2018."
     Up popped a red warning: "Profane/special characters not allowed."
     As is common with automatic systems, there was an out, a place for "Special Instructions," where Koscinski explained that, as opposed to its center syllable standing alone, "summa cum laude" is not in fact profane.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Career clarity, thanks to Laurie Dann

Shield with the Face of Medusa, by Arnold Bocklin

    I'm usually pretty good about anniversaries. The Loop Flood. The Picasso sculpture. I've got them down cold. 
    And I did know that the 30th anniversary of the Laurie Dann rampage was coming up this past Sunday, May 20. I was reminded 10 days ago, when Eric Zorn wrote a compelling column about one of the students who survived.
    That took the wind out of my sails. It had been done, the subject tackled. Point to Zorn. I forgot about it, until I looked down at my Sun-Times folded on the sidewalk and saw Dann's set, schizophrenic face gazing up at me.
    I should have written something. I should have tried. I was there.
    Well, not there meaning inside Hubbard Woods School. Zorn had that. And a guest column in our paper Sunday by Phil Andrew, shot by Dann in his home that day. Another reason for me to keep my lip zipped. Their voices have been heard.
     What would I add? The lessons I learned that day have little to do with Dann in particular or shootings in general, and more to do with me. I try not to make everything about myself.
    But you know, every goddamn day, and it's Monday night and, well, why not? If you're Laurie-Danned out, and I wouldn't blame you, please stop by tomorrow. I'll have ... something.
    That day in memory was significant. Not for any horror. The overall tone was running around, chasing the story as it unfolded. It was important, because it taught me I didn't want to be a reporter. Not in the chasing-after-hard-news sense.
    Four moments stand out.
    The first, the afternoon of the shooting. Dann not only shot up a second grade classroom, killing 8-year-old Nicholas Corwin, but had left poisoned treats for a frat at Northwestern. I arrived, to some kind of barbecue. One beefy frat guy, tending a grill, had eaten some of the poisoned Rice Krispies treats, but wasn't bothering going to the hospital. At least that's what he told me. Five years out of Northwestern myself, there was something unsettling and awful in sidling up to this joker with a can of beer in his fist, har-harring the whole thing away while he turned the grilling brats.
     Second, late. The evening of the shooting. Dark out. Finding the teacher, Amy Moses, who saved the kids, by refusing to herd them together. Everybody wanted to find her. I did, not through any big sleuthing skills, I imagine. Someone at the desk probably gave me her address. So I'm at her apartment building, and I ring the buzzer with her name on it, and she answers,  and I explain what I was there for. She says, "You know, I had a really bad day," or words to that effect. She didn't want to talk to me. Oh right, I thought, and said something along the lines of, "Yeah, I can't blame you there" and went away.
     Not exactly Jimmy Olsen. But I wasn't going to badger this poor woman. My job was to find her, not wring some words out of her.
     And third, the next day. Every journalist in the world was at the school—some kind of meeting with the parents. French television was there. One TV reporter stuck a microphone in the face of an 8-year-old, bending over, the child looking up. She asked something like, "And how do you feel when your classmate is killed like that?"
    It was revolting. I fled, striding away, to the back of the school, where no one was, and saw bikes on a bike rack—all unlocked. And I thought, "That's why we're here, because this is a place where kids don't lock their bikes." A moment that impressed upon me the value of sometimes walking away from where things are supposedly "happening."
     The final moment in the Laurie Dann quartet of memories came a year or two later. Winnetka was debating whether to name a park "Nicholas Corwin Park" after the boy who had been killed. The meeting was a stomach-turning essay in the pettiness of people. One woman actually said something like, "My kid died of cancer, where's his park." Several said that naming the park after the boy would mean they'd be constantly reminded of the tragedy.
    That got me up to the podium. Reporters are really not supposed to speak at meetings they're covering. It's not done, but I did it. I walked up to the podium and said, in essence, "I'm a member of the media. And let me tell you, you are going to be reminded of this whether you like it or not. On the first anniversary and the fifth and the 10th and any time something similar happens somewhere else. You might as well name the park after the kid and take some control over the being reminded process." 
Despite the objections of some,
Winnetka named the park for the murdered boy
    Then I sat back down, immediately worrying about my job. Because all I had to do was have my little rant end up on the evening news and I'd be out of a job. I hope that now, after 30 years, the statute of limitations has run out on that kind of thing. We'll find out.
    So that's what I have. Realizing that I didn't want to chase the news, I wanted to comment on it. I'll hurry past the other, obvious stuff, which everybody has been saying aplenty. That now, 30 years later, school shootings are routine. That the toll--an 8-year-old boy killed and six wounded—would hardly mention a notice nowadays. A shooting where only one child dies is practically a good thing, because we've had so many worse. In 2012, 20 small children were slaughtered in Newtown, Connecticut. We were shocked, but not so shocked as to actually do anything about the problem. Now we're beginning to feel silly saying we're shocked. We've come to expect it.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Illinois condemns motorcyclists to death by leaving helmets off safety tip sheet

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
     What is it with rich guys and motorcycles? Sam Zell was always blasting around Majorca, Spain, on his Ducati. Maybe he liked it. Maybe it made him feel alive. Maybe he imaged the romance of the bike made him seem less vile.
     Bruce Rauner is the same — his motorcycle, like that Carhartt jacket, no doubt intended to foster the impression that he's a rough-and-tumble man of the people, and not a flint-hearted, out-of-touch millionaire with nine homes who spent the past three years trying to grease the seized-up gears of the state with the fat squeezed from the lives of the poor and the disabled.
     While my general attitude toward Rauner is to ignore him and patiently await the hook that will yank him offstage and into history, my attention was caught by a photo Rauner tweeted Thursday, showing himself with one crisp-jeaned leg draped over a Harley, and a little public service announcement:
     "Did you know that May is Motorcycle Awareness Month? As an avid rider, Gov. Rauner wants to make sure all Illinoisans are staying safe on the road. Click here for more info and safety tips:"
     I assume that was written by an underling and doesn't mean Rauner is now referring to himself in the third person — entering his royal phase, perhaps.
     Intrigued, I clicked the link and was brought to the Illinois Department of Transportation's "safety tips for motorcyclists" page.
     What are those tips? Just four: Be Visible ("Wear high-vis clothing to make yourself obvious!"); Intersections (not a tip, per se, but a place to be cautious. "Make sure you are free from other car's blind spots.") Passing ("Do not change lanes quickly...") and Following Distance ("All motorists should allow a minimum 3 second 'space cushion').
     Sensible enough. But anything missing? Besides an editor, I mean. An important aspect of safety is glaringly left out:

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Wrestling with identity politics

I'm in the middle, second row, dark shirt; Harry Cuthrell is behind me to the left, Bernard Neally two guys to the left of him; Bill Grayson is the third wrestler right of me, his head slightly tilted.

     My column on graduation weekend at Pomona got a lot of feedback last week, particularly after 
a colleague wrote a response: "White privilege is getting to write a column about the time you felt left out."
     The assumption behind that phrase—"the time you felt left out," as if there were only the one—stuck in my craw, but I didn't want to argue. I'd had my say, now she gets hers. That's how it works, and in the range of unfairness, this was something I could accept with grace. So I retweeted it, mentioning my experience of not lettering in 9th grade wrestling, a sly wink to telegraph, "We all have our woes." 
     My former editor, Andrew Herrmann, said he'd like to hear more about my season as a wrestler.
     Hmm... I don't usually take requests—I'm not a short order cook. But it seemed a story worth telling on a Sunday, perhaps one that can move the discussion along, about exclusion, and effort, and "white privilege." I don't want to re-open the debate. But it isn't as if the issue is going away either. 

     I grew to hate being a fat kid. You're no good at sports. People make jokes. It's unattractive. Uncomfortable. My right upper arm had stretch marks. I had to buy my clothes in the Husky Department. 
     So I tried to do something about it, starting at age 15.
     I joined the junior high school wrestling team.
     The idea was to force myself to exercise.
     And forced to exercise I was. We all were; we had to run "wind sprints." Run a certain distance—to the center of the gym, back, then to the far end, touch the wall, and run back. If everybody didn't do it in a certain amount of time, then we all had to do it over again. And again.
     Wind sprints were awful. You haven't suffered until you've made the entire squad do extra wind sprints because you're so out-of-shape you can't do one in the allotted time. Winded—I guess that's where they got their name—sucking air, humiliated and receiving the angry glares of your teammates.
     Still, I endured. I had made a commitment. I wanted to stick it out. Besides: I liked being on the team. I belonged. We had uniforms, these black spandex body suits. We had headgear. We wore special shoes. We struggled. Guys wrapped themselves in the mats, sweating, trying to make weight. It was dramatic: I remember Wayne Carroll slamming his locker, crying, after losing a match. This was important.
     One practice, drilling a maneuver designed to roll your opponent over, using your head as a lever, I was trying it out on Mr. Reese, the assistant coach, a mountain of a man, and something snapped in his back. He had to be taken away in an ambulance. I felt sorry for hurting him, sure, but there was also an unspoken coolness involved. I might be a fish, but I had sent Mr. Reese to the hospital. He was a huge guy. 
     What I hadn't thought of was that I'd have to wrestle in meets. Against other schools. But that was the general point.
     At 191 pounds, I was a heavyweight. There were three other heavyweights. Bernard Neally and Harry Cuthrell, football linemen keeping in shape in the off-season. And Bill Grayson, who, I seem to recall, lived in the youth home.
     We wrestled each other, every week, to see who got to go to represent the school that weekend. Each opponent was a unique experience. Bernard would stand there, hands on his hips, and order me to shoot in—"shooting in" was the term we used for the lunging motion to go at someone's leg. Rather than trying to evade me, Bernard would just stand there, tensing his tree trunk of a leg. I would wrap myself around it and try to lift. It was like trying to lift a fire hydrant. He would stand there, tell jokes and laugh while I squirmed and struggled to budge his leg. Then he would pin me.
    Harry Curthrell was even stronger. I remember shooting in, and he did something with his hands, a quick motion, and suddenly the blue mat was where the ceiling had been, and visa versa. Then gravity did its thing. In a comic the sound would be written as: "WHUMPF!!!"
     And Bill Grayson, the worst of all. You get points in wrestling, for reverses, for getting on somebody's back, for holding on—"ride time"—they called it. You can never pin the other guy and still win on points. Bill would hardly do anything, and let me rack up the points, do everything but pin him—I'd be winning, I don't recall the score, say 20 to 0. Then they would mark the last 10 seconds of the match—I remember them tossing a rolled up towel, to signal the approaching end. At that point he would come to life and pin me. He knew that I knew that if I could hold on for those last 10 seconds I would win. Finally win. But I never held on. I couldn't do it.
    It seemed cruel.
    So I never got through wrestle-offs. Never competed against another school in a match. But I lasted out the year. Went to every practice, every match. At the end of the year, at our banquet, every guy on the team got a white sweater with a big blue "R"—for Roehm Junior High School—trimmed in gold. Except me, since I had never actually wrestled against another school. Thus I didn't earn a letter, alone among the 57 kids on the team in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades. I remember wondering why they couldn't cut me a break—I was on the team, right? I had done my best all year. I had stuck it out. That sweater would have meant a lot to me. But I understood, rules are rules. 
     It's sort of a woebegone story, which is why I haven't told it before. I don't like painting myself as a victim. And it's a minor exclusion, compared to the larger injustices and tragedies of life. Compared to actual sorrows, it's nothing.
     But like all people, I don't compare my personal sadnesses against the weight of all human sadness, don't measure my life against the full spectrum of all lives. It was significant to me.
    Nor was it the only time I felt cut out. I hate to list them all. But since the subject was raised, and not by me, maybe it's overdue, in a society where slights and sufferings have become a strange sort of currency, chits we flash to show how ... well, disadvantaged we are. Because that makes us somehow worthy, somehow better, almost morally pure, in our own eyes at least. 
     Not that all of them add up to being disadvantaged. But they do show that my colleague's imagination—he's a white guy, he's sitting pretty in the white guy club—is out of kilter with reality, with my reality as I experienced it. Everyone is privileged, compared to someone else, and maybe one reason why the speakers at Pomona College were so insistent about trotting out their bona fides of disadvantage was to obscure, to themselves if no one else, that they might have had humble beginnings, but they're making up for it now, and have ascended into the elite. Most Americans still don't go to college at all. Most people in the world live in poverty, or nearly. Their parents might have struggled, but they went to school in the heaven-like town of Claremont, California. They're now the advantaged, holders of privilege, whether they like it or not, and no amount of blowing kisses at the kitchen staff will change that. Slagging others based on your own assumed superiority is sort of what the privileged do, and if that assault is based on your ancestors coming over on the Mayflower or on their wading the Rio Grande is only a matter of personal style.
      We all have our privileges, and our exclusions, and they seem very tangible to ourselves. I was not only fat, but the sole Jew in my elementary school—being Jewish isn't considered a minority anymore, I suppose because many Jews do well. Like Asians, we've succeeded so much we've voided our minority status card. Maybe so. But that doesn't mean being Jewish doesn't put you on the outside of Christian society, squirming while the rest of the class sings their carols and goes to their church camps. People still fucking hate us, and part of that hate is pretending all Jews are bankers and movie makers and George Soros, basking in privilege. All the obstacles of being a minority and none of the contact cool. Or so it can seem.  One reason my upbringing was so solitary is because half of my extended family was back in Poland, buried in a pit. If that isn't a disadvantage, what is?
    I don't see the utility into making your struggles into a kind of reality show competition. Maybe it's just the human joy of running down the lives of others, sight unseen, in using your story, whatever it is, to bludgeon those you resent for the easy path you assume they enjoyed. I'm not looking for sympathy. Instead, I'm asking: why does your struggle need to trump mine? What is the point of you finding your voice if the first thing you say is that others are somehow no good because they didn't climb the mountain you climbed? How do you know your path is steeper than mine? Why do we have to be in competition at all? That's the part I don't understand. So you can come out ahead? Okay, I tap out and yield; you come out ahead. You win, pinning me in the suffering competition. Now what?
    Once we're done comparing hardships, we need to seek commonalities. We must tire of bickering and find ways we are similar, rather than highlighting differences. That's what bugged me about the Pomona graduation. I did not, as some leaped to assume, resent the hoopla over these various ethnicities and groups. Good for them. I applauded. But what bothered me was the consistent shattering of the student body into its component pieces in order to show off each sparkly shard, without ever making the slightest effort to gather the fragments back up and show how they  might fit together into a cohesive whole, into something that everyone can be a part of. Because I believe they all fit together, somehow. They have to. 


Saturday, May 19, 2018

And how's that working?

"The Death of the First Born" by Erastus Salisbury Field (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     If on Friday morning you tapped Texas dad Antonios Pagourtzis on the shoulder and asked him why he owned the guns that his 17-year-old son Dimitrios would soon take to Santa Fe High School and use to kill 10 people, he would have no doubt replied, "To protect my family."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Skip the wedding, reflect on how Chicago once hated British royalty

     Are you kidding? Get up at 6 a.m. Saturday to watch a royal wedding?
     Another royal wedding? Didn't we just have one of these, what, just seven years ago? How many more do we need?
     And no, I'm not drawn in by the bride's Northwestern connection — hail to purple, hail to white and best of luck to all fellow alumni. But it's important, with all the crazily-obsessive media attention building for months, to give permission to ignore the festivities, even sneer at them. To remind ourselves that not only do Americans reject the notion of royalty — it's kinda how our nation came to be — but Chicago has a particular history of despising British aristocracy.
     The oft-cited quote is Mayor William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson's threat against King George V: "If George comes to Chicago, I'll crack him in the snoot." The common assumption is that this was a tossed-off remark, perhaps to appeal to Irish voters.

      It was not. Rooting out the British menace was the linchpin of Thompson's 1927 mayoral bid, what one historian called "one of the most absurd campaigns ever waged in an American municipal election."I will not rest until I have purged this entire city of the poison that's being injected into the heart of American youth," Thompson said appointing a gambling buddy as special commissioner to weed British influence from Chicago's libraries and schools.
     Needless to say, Thompson won. A reminder that Donald Trump didn't invent getting elected by damning foreigners, he merely refined it.
     Ridiculing the English is uniquely satisfying and consequence-free; I'm surprised people don't do it far more often. While most nationalities have weaponized their cultural pride, the English can be mocked openly, boldly denounced as swine, provided of course you reach for the proper literary fig leaf, such as D.H. Lawrence's deathless rant: "Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates ... the sniveling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulseless lot that make up England today."

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The photographs are "Distortographs" of William Hale Thompson by British photographer Herbert George Ponting, mostly known for his Arctic photographs of the Scott Expedition. In 1927, he patented a lens attachment he called  the “variable controllable distortograph ... a revolutionary optical system for photographing in caricature or distortion,” submitting these photos of Thompson along with his application. While I have found no evidence connecting Thompson's anti-English campaign to these creations, due to the timing, a link seems likely.  (Photos used with permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)