Saturday, June 30, 2018

State of the Blog, Year Five

American Helmet No. 5 (Metropolitan Museum)
     Five years? That's a David Bowie song, opening his "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" album:

   Five years, what a surprise
   Five years, stuck on my eyes
   Five years, my brain hurts a lot
   Five years, that's all we've got

     Fairly apt, or could be, if I quit right now, impulsively—today marks the end of the fifth year of the blog—just to give that last line a little extra relevance and zing.
     But my brain doesn't hurt a lot. It doesn't hurt at all. If anything, it perhaps feels a little lighter, a little less ... intricate the past year. Not that the old gourd is exactly drying out. But maybe a twist of the knob less crackle and pop. Not necessarily a bad thing either. It can give the routine a kind of spareness, an austerity. The extraneous crap falls away and life is reduced to essentials. Which is good. Not that the blog is essential. I do like it. I think of it as one piece, my writing and life, this hillock built a handful at a time in cyberspace. People read it. The numbers are up. I shouldn't lay them out—my wife insists nobody cares about the numbers, and she's right. But I care. It seems a kind of significance. And I'm the boss here, if nowhere else.
No. 5 of Collars (Metropolitan Museum)
      In fact, caring is the central guiding principle of the blog. Caring about this or that wisp of triviality that catches my eye any given day—why maraschino cherries are placed in the center of grapefruits?—to the deepest problems facing our country and world, the hourly assault against the United States of America by its president and his quislings. Monitoring the continual drip drip drip erosion of everything good and decent about our country. Then—squirrel!—veering away to tiny distractions, letting everybody enjoy the flea circus, catch our breath before rejoining the battle, hopefully refreshed. 
     So, five years, caring about the various columns, posts and essays. I write the stuff and correct the typos, even years in the past. I always tell young writers, if you don't care about your work, then nobody cares.
     Not every writer cares. Once, when Nigel Wade was editor of the Sun-Times, he became concerned that the obituary of a certain fiery local religious leader had been written by a Jewish person, aka me. "No problem" that Jewish person said, in a rare moment of self-effacement, asking a colleague, the actual religion reporter, if he wouldn't mind putting his name on the obituary. He didn't care. So  I put his byline on, in amazement. I didn't care that I would take my name off something—what's one less byline, even 20 years ago? The important part, the writing, is the same. And I liked the unusual show of ego negation. Though I was agog that this guy would put his name on a story that he had, first, not written, but also never even read, that he would allow it to be done. I didn't feel contempt, but a species of wonder, as if I had walked in the office and found him licking the floor clean.
     His name stayed on the obit for ... a while ... then Nigel left, and the reporter went off to Colorado, and I slipped my name back on, where it remains, waiting.
   But I digress into old tales, a tendency of aging journalists to be guarded against. On to the numbers:  

             Year One: 385,679 hits.

             Year Two: 499,423.
             Year Three: 577,617.
             Year Four: 730,955.

             Drumroll please ...

             Year five: 886,385
Colt Percussion Revolver No. 5 (Metropolitan Museum)
     Hey! Not bad. A 21 percent jump from the year before. A drop of drool off Milo Yiannopoulos' slavering lips, no doubt. But then we are playing different games. You can draw a crowd pouring gasoline over your head and then setting yourself on fire, too, but what do you do for an encore? I think of this as both small ball and long game. The first, summed up in a sentence I like from last year: "My vegetable garden is not Con-Agra either, and I still plant it every spring." And the second, well, maybe five years from now I'll feel compelled to add a footnote, explaining who Milo Yiannopoulos is (I should probably do that now: some kind of flaming rhetorical freak show, saying vastly heartless and stupid things which people nevertheless feel compelled to pay attention to, right now).
     What I'm trying to say is, I'm not doing this for the notoriety, obviously.
     Now, were I looking for negatives, I could note that the growth rate has slipped from the year before, when it was 26 percent. But I think that's taking the jacket of good news and checking the pockets for bad news. (I suppose I could also observe that I don't know how many hits are actual people, as opposed to spiders from China, or Mars, speaking of Ziggy Stardust, And the numbers were goosed in December by a post that got 50,000 hits thanks to a retweet by Neil Gaiman).
Fish Series No. 5 by Charles Demuth (Metropolitan)
    Although being retweeted by Neil Gaiman is a good thing, right? So I should just accept it as more good news and move on.
    The average works out to 75,147 readers a month, compared to 60,812 a month last year. Which also feels like robust growth.
    This past year was marked by several notables—my first six-digit month, December, at 124,061 hits. My first significant press attention, "Neil Steinberg never falls short on his daily blog," written by the dean of Chicago media journalism Robert Feder. I should probably just refer you to his column rather than nattering on here myself. 
     The point of it all, if you read the very first post, five years ago tomorrow (and if you haven't, you should) is to mine hidden wonder, and I think we've continued doing that this year. We savored a chunk of Chicago artwork copied by the Louvre last July and went up Mayan ruins in Belize in March. We learned about skeumorphism, the Dempsey-Tunney fight and Martin Luther's Reformation. We baked English muffins, buried Hugh Hefner and read "Don Quixote," wherein Cervantes writes "self-praise is self-debasement."
    Ouch. True enough. Better wrap this up. 
    Thanks are in order. 
Five gold earrings (Metropolitan Museum)
      First, to my advertiser, Marc Schulman of Eli's Cheesecake. He has supported this blog from the start, and his holiday ads give a festive air to this effort, plus add sweetness the year around. I always have a cheesecake in the freezer, and encourage you to do the same. It's like having a fire extinguisher--you never know when you're going to need it.
    Thanks to the Chicago Sun-Times, for giving me a home for the past 31 years, and for tolerating the blog with a splendid leonine indifference, the old king gazing across the savannah while the cub scampers and rolls and gums his tail.
    Thanks to all my colleagues, at the paper and across the city, country and world, who have read this, enjoyed it, remarked upon it, retweeted it, criticized it, pointed out typos, and in general treated the blog as a legitimate center of interest and not, as the buzzing cloud of obsessives that gather around any journalistic endeavor insist, on a daily basis, the vacuous yet somehow still noxious effluvia of an imbecile.
    Thanks to my loyal readers, Coey and Nikki and Tony and Thomas and Jakash (and here I better cut off, before I start feeling like Miss Barbara looking through her magic mirror in"Romper Room.") Though not without a shout-out to John O'Rourke, who gives a careful read to the thing every morning and invariably offers up a typo or two. Thanks to my biggest fan, my mother, reading every day in Boulder, Colorado. 
   And of course to my wife, who musters a convincing show of enthusiasm for this, and has stopped suggesting I miss a day out of general principles. You're right of course. Maybe after a decade....

Friday, June 29, 2018

Wanted: US border patrol agents, all ‘creeds, religions, ethnicities’

     The news might crackle with emotion, the cries both of detained children and partisan outrage. But the machinery of the federal bureaucracy whirs steadily onward, undeterred.
     The Choice Chicago Career Fair held on the second floor of the Holiday Inn Express on Dundee Road in Palatine Thursday had tables handing out flying discs and water bottles, ballpoint pens and magnets. It included recruiters from Aflac and Grainger, the Nosh Group and Pet Health and, tucked between the First Student bus company and Just Energy, was United States Customs and Border Protection, handing out lanyards and Post-It notepads and looking for personnel to deploy to our nation's southern border.
     "On the whole southern border," said Orlando Ruiz, an 8-year veteran, who is finding keen interest in CBP jobs. "Everyplace we go, we always do."
     Any why not? The thick glossy brochure titled "WE ARE AMERICA'S FRONTLINE" lists benefits from "10 paid holidays per year" to the federal retirement plan, not to mention "a priority mission of keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the United States."
     Starting pay can be as high as $50,000.
     "As soon as you get out of the academy, you start making overtime," said Ruiz. "Border Patrol makes 25 percent overtime per year."
     Border Patrol agents undergo 120 days of training.
     "Because we are in the southern border, desert. It's tougher terrain," said Ruiz. "We need more training because we work outdoors. Sometimes when you're down there you're by yourself, covering five miles. It is difficult."
     The images of children being torn from their parents has not reduced interest in working for CBP.
     "No, not at all," said Ruiz. "This is a great career. Job security is hard to find."
To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

This is nothing new...

Pinkertons escort strike-breakers in Ohio
     For nearly the entire first century of the American labor movement, workers organizing to improve their lives have been met with clubs and guns, wielded by compliant police forces and hired Pinkerton guards. Later, attempts to unionize lead to lock-outs and mass firings. Union ranks were peppered with spies, informants and saboteurs. Picket lines were ignored or set upon. It has never been easy.
     To this long history of repression add the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Wednesday in Janus v. AFSCME, ruling that nonunion workers can't be required to pay fees to public sector unions. The case stems from Mark Janus, an employee at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, suing because he felt that his $45 a month union dues violated his right to free speech.  One would think that a case worker would have more pressing things to worry about, but there you are.
    This ruling, allowing free riders to enjoy the concessions won from management but not contribute to the organization that wins them, is considered a devastating blow to the labor movement.
    But unions have suffered devastating blows before.
    The Knights of Labor had grown to 40,000 members when it struck for an eight hour day in May, 1886, then lost 75 percent of its membership in the next year, as business owners retaliated and clamped down. 
    Unions still went on to win that eight hour day, the five day week. Sick pay. Child labor ended. Safety regulations put in place, business owners complaining all the while that permitting workers to enjoy healthful lives and decent salaries would be the ruin of them. Donald Trump didn't invent lying.
    No union success was ever achieved without suffering a setback, a counterstroke, retribution and intrigue and betrayal. Every step forward met with a push back.
    Not every setback was from the outside, either. Unions, like all organizations involving fallible humans beings, were hobbled by internal division, corruption, extremism and racism. No account of the obstacles they face would be complete without mentioning them. Sometimes unions played in the hands of their enemies, making it easier for them. Nor have these problems gone away.
    Chicago had a key role both in the origins of labor and in its suppression. Fort Sheridan, remember, was purchased by the Commercial Club in 1887 and donated to the Federal government for the specific purpose of putting a U.S. Army garrison there, to be available to squash union activity in the city. 
    And indeed the troops were put in place and used, once, to suppress the Pullman Strike of 1894. Soldiers got the trains running again.
    This court ruling, coupled with the shameful endorsement of Trump's Muslim ban the day before, is a vindication of the hardball tactics that denied Barack Obama the chance to name Merrick Garland, and instead allowed Donald Trump to install Neil Gorsuch. That, combined with the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote, who contributed to past erosions of American liberty, make for a black week, when the true enormity of the Trump disaster began to manifest itself. A man of bottomless pettiness, who hours earlier was attacking a talk show host and a Virginia restaurant, could be the most significant president in 75 years.
    Before Trump could almost be funny, with his wild insults and accusations.
    Now, not so funny anymore. 
   Before, at times it felt like they were winning.
   Now, it feels a little like they've won. 
   Let that feeling settle, for a moment. Let it register. Then shake it off.
   Because these setbacks are also a fire bell in the night to those Democrats still fretting over public comity and how nice they should be. Whether they can attempt the tactics that have worked so well for so long for Republicans. This is smoke in the air. There is no room for indecision anymore. This is disaster that must be battled. The Right is coming to burn up your freedom your livelihood, everything. No one can pretend to be confused or uncertain any more.
    That is the bad news. The good news is the union faithful, the American patriots, have suffered worse defeats. Bruised, battered, humiliated, they never gave up. Neither can we. The battle isn't over. It has just begun in earnest.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Bookstores come and go but books go on and on

     It would seem the perfect business model.
     Your suppliers bring inventory directly to your store, unbidden. It arrives continuously in shopping bags and cardboard boxes. Most sellers don't set prices, but generally accept whatever you decide to pay them. Then you mark up the goods to what you feel the market will bear and sell them.
     Half the time your suppliers hang around while you decide what pittance to offer, then spend the money you just gave them on the marked-up goods that others have previously sold you.
     When I first walked into Half Price Books, I felt a sort of vertigo. The books ... they were so cheap. So very inexpensive. Brand new books, for half of what they cost at regular bookstores, plus shelves and shelves of used books, not at jacked-up antiquarian bookshop prices, but for a few bucks. Sometimes a dollar.
     Now the store in Highland Park is going out of business. A letter posted on the door offers the bright spin:
"The independent bookstore industry has been lucky to see positive growth during the past few years. In fact, Half Price Books has opened two stores in 2018 including our new store in Vernon Hills. However, while things are improving in the book industry world, we as booksellers need to be smart about the business decisions we made."
     That's true. According to the American Booksellers Association, sales at U.S. bookstores are up 5 percent this year. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of independent book outlets rose 35 percent.
     But a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some vessels swamp and sink. The Highland Park Half Price Books closes Sunday, July 8.

To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Little Free Library

     Wow, talk about a firehose of reader email. My column yesterday, a plain-spoken reaction to the poisonous eruption of textbook racism vomiting forth from the White House over the weekend, just pinned the needle. I spent a few hours trying to answer, then gave up and began ignoring it—letting a few dozen responses gather in my Spam and Trash folders, giving a quick once over through squinted eyes, then deleting.
      Not that it was all bad—I know I sometimes give that impression. Actually, a large number of people grateful to see reason reflected in the newspaper, easily as much as those outraged to see their support of a flat-out bigot clearly described. The response was a kind of inverse Bell curve—very little in the middle, with steep slopes on either side. 
     For today, I pulled on hip boots, grabbed a squeegee, metaphorically, and went to work trying to arrange the muck into a kind of tableau that could be shared and understood. What supporters of Trump do to rationalize their perfidy is sorta interesting. They focus on the insult of calling them what they are—"You're saying I'm a bigot! I'm offended!"—instead of considering that they're being called this because they carry water for a manifest racist. Or they recast the matter—"This is what liberals do when someone disagrees!"—as if it was a potato-potahto matter of equal significance. "You envision an America where all races are treated as equal citizens, I see a Christian white supremacist state where freedoms are ignored to maintain minority right wing power; can't we just agree to disagree?"
     But a weariness quickly set in. What's the point? To whose benefit? Certainly not mine. Why think on it? I've already done that too much—particularly when you can consider this colorful "Little Free Library" that went up recently in my leafy suburban paradise, in front of Greenbriar Elementary School, where my boys learned their letters, a serene brick structure a block west of our house. 
    Very soon after this charming  purple, orange and green cabinet caught my eye, The Northbrook Tower, a sprightly and readable free weekly, ran an article telling all about the box, crediting Greenbriar librarian Collen Sanchez for the idea. According to the article—by Grady Bruch, editorial intern, credit where due—the concept began in Wisconsin in 2009, and from there spread. Now more than 4,000 Little Free Libraries grace a nation in dire need of grace. I was impressed that this attractive and professional work of folk art was created by Greenbriar students, themselves, not some professional artist elsewhere. Good job kids! Well done. Three elementary schools—Greenbriar, Meadowbrook and Westmoor each have one. 
   Inside is stocked with children's books, free for the taking, though I won't be partaking soon. My house already has too many and I have no one to read them to. Which gives me an idea. The boys of course will want to pluck treasures to delight their own progeny, who'll arrive one of these days, sooner than expected, given how the years have been snapping by. That leaves us with plenty. I think I'll make a habit of, on my walks with Kitty, of taking one from our house and donating it to the Free Little Library, now and then, where it can be savored once again, as books should be. There is joy to life—it isn't all Donald Trump and and self-blinded fans driving a great nation to its knees in shame. There is color and hope and generosity and children's books tucked behind glass doors in Little Free Library boxes. 


Monday, June 25, 2018

Donald Trump is a racist leading our country toward disaster

"The Collector" by Damien Hirst
     Let’s consider the lives of a few average Chicagoans, chosen at random.
     There’s … John Wayne Gacy. He was … let’s see … a pedophile who murdered 33 boys and buried them in his crawl space. There’s …Richard Speck, who raped and killed eight student nurses in a single night of terror. A third? Umm, Jeffrey Dahmer was a Chicagoan — well, he actually lived in Milwaukee but once cruised down to Chicago to find a victim, which qualifies him. Not to forget typical Chicagoan H.H. Holmes, whose grisly killings during the World’s Columbian Exposition are chronicled in “The Devil in the White City.”
     Gosh, those typical Chicagoans are all mass murderers, aren’t they? Makes an impartial observer coolly assessing the facts suspect that Chicagoans are a pretty dangerous lot. I’m surprised anybody dares step foot in the city, packed as it is with brutal psychopaths and twisted killers.
     What’s that you say? This is not a random selection of Chicagoans? Rather, I’ve obviously cherry-picked these individuals specifically because of their depraved actions. That rather than representing the city as a whole, they are extreme exceptions. The vast majority of Chicagoans don’t kill anybody, ever, but are decent human beings just trying to live their lives as best they can.
    I was being deceptive, wasn’t I? And why would I do that?
     Maybe because we just witnessed an identical show of deception on the part of the President of the United States. Over the weekend, Donald Trump replied the national outcry at tearing immigrant children from their families with a loathsome display of deception, exactly along the lines demonstrated above. The president and the White House both firing off tweets of shocking crudity. Here’s one:
     “Laura Wilkerson lost her son Josh in 2010. He was tortured and beaten to death by an illegal alien.”
     And another:
     “We are gathered today to hear directly from the AMERICAN VICTIMS of ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION.”

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Cherry on top

     Back in the day, maraschino cherries went in Manhattans. They were useful little items, because when the drink was drained, I could fill that awkward minute before the arrival of the next by digging out the ragged bright little red wreckage and popping them—I preferred two; more festive that way—into my mouth. Ah, life is sweet!
     A small jar of the vivacious little fellows showed up in our fridge—my wife was making sundaes for her book club, one of four uses of maraschino cherries that spring to mind: cocktails, sundaes, fruit cocktails and in the center of grapefruits.
    No Manhattans, sundaes or fruit cocktail lately—we stopped buying fruit cocktail when the kids hit junior high. And grapefruit is out because I habitually eat mine whole for breakfast, peeling them like an orange and eating the entire segments. No slicing in half, ergo no center to place a cherry. And no cherries, usually.
    But the big yellow fruits have been so sweet lately, big-hearted soul that I am, I urge my wife to join me in partaking. She likes her grapefruits halved and segmented. A doting husband, I abandon my preference and prepare them the way she likes them, fussing over the bisected citrus with a little curving serrated knife. Though recently, looking at my half, something seemed missing, and I remembered the jar of cherries, forlorn in the fridge, abandoned since the book club, without Manhattans or sundaes to stir interest (fruit cocktail we bought, ready made, from Del Monte. Nobody composes the stuff themselves out of cans of mushy pears and smooshy bits of apricots—that's how fruit cocktail started, in the 1930s, as the leavings from canning fruit). 
    Voila. The result looked so perfect, I had to snap a picture, and, having the photo, now must write something to occupy you on a Sunday, a perfect day for perfect grapefruit presented perfectly with pizzazz.
    The obvious question: where did this odd pairing come from? The healthy, natural sour yellow grapefruit and this miniature red orb of sweet toxic shame. I remember the practice from the 1960s, which means it had to be a hold-over from the 1950s, when wives made fancy breakfasts for their husbands as part of their general program of keeping a happy home. Maraschino cherries were part of the whole Jello mold, Baked Alaska, parfait world of what passed for deluxe fine dining. Grapefruits were the stuff of resorts—you really had to go to Florida to get proper grapefruits, or have them ship up North in heavy cardboard crates, as my grandmother in Miami did.
    When did maraschino cherries begin being centered on grapefruits?
     First you need the cherries. I guessed "maraschino" had to be Italian, like "mascarpone." Bingo. Marasca refers to a "small, black cherry" grown around Zara, once Italy, now in Croatia, according to the OED, and "maraschino" is a liqueur distilled from the marasca cherry.
    The word is a little over 200 years old; Percy Bysshe Shelley puts it in the mouth of one of his characters in "Oedipus Tyrannus": "Give me a glass of Maraschino punch." The association between cherries and drinking was such that in a long list of words meaning "stewed," H.L. Mencken includes the evocative "cherry-merry" in his The American Language: Supplement One. 
    Neither natural cherries or cherry liquor are the bright red cherries in sugar we think of today. Those arrived on our shores about 1900—cherries in alcohol to preserve their journey from Europe, and show up in headlines concerned with their healthfulness such as this, from 1907: “Maraschino Cherries Violate Pure Food Law.” 
    So that takes care of the cherries. I actually wrote an exegesis on grapefruits, which migrated from the Caribbean to Florida about 1830, and boomed along with the intercontinental express and Florida real estate in the early decades of the 20th century.
    "The grapefruit to-day the aristocrat of the breakfast table and one of Florida's most valuable products was once not so long ago was believed to be worthless except as medicine," Ida Donnelly Peters wrote in "Grapefruit at other meals" in the February 1914 Delineator, "and was allowed to become overripe on the trees,  fall to the ground and there blacken undisturbed," 
     She suggests serving grapefruit with oysters, or as part of puddings and gelatins. Maraschino cherries are there too, but merely included among the general fruit salads of nuts and other delicacies designed to go into grapefruit shells. Just eating the grapefruit, unaltered, does not seem to have been an option. 
     Maraschinos have a typical cameo in Janet M. Hill's article "Seasonable and Tested Recipes" from the July, 1915 issue of American Cookery. Her description of "Half Grapefruit for Luncheon or Dinner" starts out promisingly enough—"Cut grapefruit in halves, crosswise, to make two portions from one fruit"—but then, as far as I can tell, the chef removes the hemisphere of grapefruit pulp and, apparently discards it, filling the skin cup with "half-sections of orange or preserved peaches, plums, pears, cherries, or pineapple; or fill the space with grape juice, confectioner's sugar, bar-le-duc currants or a maraschino cherry." She doesn't explicitly instruct you to discard the grapefruit pulp itself, but it never goes back in the skin either.
     So we have maraschino cherries being mixed into grapefruit recipes—there was a lot of broiling of grapefruits going on. How did cherries get placed in the center of grapefruits? I couldn't find textual proof of the practice's origin, so I will have to stray into conjecture: they look good there, a cherry or something: some place halved strawberries in the center of the grapefruit, and those work as well. 
    I always thought of the cherries as a festive touch, and was pleased to see that attitude supported in a 1937 publication—the oldest reference to the practice I could find after minutes of research—called "Gleanings in Bee Culture" that first drizzles the cut grapefruit with honey, naturally, and the cherry added should the situation call for it.
    "If there are to be guests, or the meal is to be a particularly festive occasion, place a well-drained maraschino cherry in the center of each half grapefruit."
     Notice that "well-drained." Otherwise, the cherry would leave a mark when removed. That could cause problems. In their reflections on living in New York's famed Carlyle Hotel as girls in the 1950s, daughters of the manager, the real-life models for Kay Thompson's "Eloise," had strong memories of those maraschino cherries delivered by room service to guests, because they would steal them off trays in the hallways.
    "We got in so much trouble for that," Marilise Flusser told the New York Post. "[The staff] would say, 'Girls! That means the bellboy has to go all the way downstairs to replace the cherries because now there's a red stain [where the cherry should be] and we can't give that to the clients!'"
     Thus the decadence of serving yourself a maraschino cherry on your grapefruit when it is not a festive occasion or you are not a guest in a fancy hotel. My wife never joins me in my maraschino cherry orgy—she's sweet enough without it. But what is life if you can't indulge in a solitary spree? Besides, if I didn't use them to decorate my grapefruit halves, the cherries would be there forever. So I don't feel bad grabbing one to turn a half grapefruit into a 1950s extravaganza of elegance. At only 8 calories, it is luxury I can afford.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Yield not to Evil.

    Friday was a busy day. It dawned rainy, which for a moment I hoped would free me from the obligation of attending Northwestern University's 160th commencement—a relief, since commencements are long and windy enough as it is, without adding actual wind, and rain, and cold.
   But no sooner had that emotion registered than I realized, to my surprise, that I didn't want commencement to be washed out. This was a celebration for thousands of people, including myself, my wife and son, and they we had all earned this ceremony. I wanted to go and, the deciding factor, my kid wanted to go. So we dressed in layers, brought garbage bags to sit on, and headed to Ryan Field.
     It was not that bad—not too cold, with a flannel shirt and a fleece and a rain jacket. And not too wet, tucked high under the lip of the stadium. NU president Mort Schapiro was funny as ever, and kept the thing moving, shortening where he could. The music stirred. Opera star Renee Fleming delivered a light, funny, truly inspirational address, urging students to "Find Your Voice," a talk that I thought of summarizing, but instead decided to just encourage you to watch here. 
    After the degrees were conferred and "Alma Mater" sung, lines of graduates tossing their arms around each other and swaying, touchingly, we headed outside of Ryan Field, found our very wet, cold and happy boy, hurried to his apartment for dry clothes, then off to his favorite place to eat—Todoroki on Davis. We lingered and laughed and sushi-loaded, then he peeled off to watch the World Cup, we went home to nap.
    Waking up, I took the dog on her late afternoon stroll, I thought about this post. I could write about a commencement speech, a subject I already touched upon Thursday ... or ... it is end of June; June 22, to be exact. As it happens, the paperback publication date of "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," by Sara Bader and me, the book that the University of Chicago Press published in hardback in September, 2016.
    That was a big deal, with a launch party at the Poetry Foundation and notice in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and lots of publicity. The book ripped through six printings and rose to No. 36 on the Amazon national bestseller list.
The new paperback edition was published Friday.
    A paperback publication ... well, not so big. In fact, it only manifested itself with an oblong cardboard box the U of C Press sent me a month or two ago containing a huge stack of business cards, carrying part of one quote from the book, "YIELD NOT TO EVIL" — Virgil, from "The Aeneid" — on one side, against a pleasing sky blue background. On the other side, the cover of the book—which, if you are unfamiliar, walks readers through recovery from alcoholism or addiction, using literary quotes. The cover is quite tiny, almost illegible. There is a blurb from the New York Journal of Books, "A vivid and accessible panoply of literary and philosophical wisdom" and a promo code to get 20 percent off the paperback.
     Not exactly a full-page ad in the Times. I've wondered whether a passerby, finding this card, would have an idea what it is hawking, particularly without resorting to a magnifying glass. 
    But something. A charmingly low tech bit of ballyhoo. They didn't tell me what to do with the cards. I've been leaving them in public spaces, at airports, in doctor's offices, on the seat of buses and above, at a bus stop on Madison Street, just west of Racine, where it has sat for weeks, waiting for somebody to notice.
    I know the feeling.
    I'm not sure if that's good (it's still there, available to be found) or bad (nobody has yet taken it).  But that kind of ambivalence comes with the bush leagues of publishing. I'd never say I'm glad to be obscure—that would be a lie. But I can say obscurity has a value. I have a number of friends who have had huge, best-selling books. And it distorts them, and forevermore they want huge, best-selling books ,and just regular selling books are a disappointment. Fame is an addiction like any other. You taste it, you crave more.
    Not me. I'm well along the process of getting a deal for my ninth book, another small affair at a small publisher that will cast out a ripple and no more. I'd be an idiot to expect anything beyond that at this point. Yet lack of expectation has not rendered me hopeless. Just the opposite. The mid-list melancholy has fallen away, replaced with a sort of gritty determination, almost a zeal. I'm writing the book because I like the topic. It's interesting and I enjoy doing it, just as I like setting these little cards carefully in public places, my little protest against the cosmos, my tiny manifestation of self. I don't have to worry about being brought down to size; I already am down to size. This is the place where I live, writing my odd little books, giving away essays every goddamn day here, carefully setting these little cards, and I do with almost a cleric's devotion, lighting the candle, saying the prayer. Maybe God hears. Maybe He doesn't. No matter, the prayer get said anyway.
    Work can be like a prayer, if you love it. The doing of it, your success. All the success I'm going to get, anyway. And if a little money comes, that's a small bonus, a consolation prize for participating. Hardly relevant, as the satisfaction wasn't because of a line of zeroes. I loved writing that book. Now out in paperback. I had to plug it here, well, because, as I tell young writers, if you don't care about your work, then nobody will. Which sounds grim, and sometimes is. But sometimes if you care, that's enough.

Friday, June 22, 2018

No media sideshow is complete until Ann Coulter bites the head off a chicken

Shield with Head of Medusa (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)
     The word "Geek" has developed cachet. It's practically a compliment. No longer paired with "computer"—the tech aspect is assumed—it refers to someone proficient in all things digital. Fashion-challenged and socially awkward, yes, but that'll change once the stock options get cashed. Geek is good. There's a Canadian web design company called "Geek Power"
     Yet "geek" originally had a very different meaning. My trusty Dictionary of American Slang explains:
geek n. 1 . A carnival or circus performer, considered a freak, who performs sensationally disgusting acts that a normal person would not, e.g., eating or swallowing live animals ... A 'half man, half animal' sideshow performer of gory, cannibalistic feats such as eating live snakes, biting off the heads of chickens...
     Sideshows are gone. Or rather, they've gone electronic. As the nation recoiled in revulsion this week at children of refugees being torn from their parents, up popped Ann Coutler to the distressing images into context. She told Fox News:
These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks, 24/7, right now...These kids are being coached, they're given scripts to read by liberals.
     Sensationally disgusting indeed. You see why I immediately thought of bored townsfolk lining up outside a greasy, tattered tent, the barker funneling them in as they hand over their nickels. The stooped geek shuffles onto a tiny stage, clutching a struggling bird tightly by the neck. Some kind of introduction, to build suspense. Then the fowl's head goes into the snaggle-toothed mouth. The jaws come down. The crowd gasps and recoils.
     At least in a circus, you know it's an act. I wish I could say the same regarding Coulter.. When challenged, she insists she believes what she says, no matter how patently false. Maybe she likes to stay in character. Maybe she's that far gone. If so, she has good company. Malicious hallucination is so popular nowadays, I'm expecting to see it on postage stamps, the "American Conspiracy Theory" series.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Live life whole-assedly

      A very wet Thursday afternoon, which makes us about halfway through Northwestern University's four-day graduation  weekend. That is, assuming a downpour Friday doesn't cancel commencement—that's the school's back-up plan: in case of "severe weather," whatever that may be, scrap the event. The kind of consideration I've come to expect from my alma mater.
     At least we aren't flying in from out-of-town. And I've been to an NU commencement before, 36 years ago, though I kinda would like to get in another, if the monsoons cooperate.
     So how's it going? That is, beyond the nagging suspicion that, with their money, they ought to have rented the Allstate Arena as a backup.
     Wednesday was my younger son's induction into Phi Beta Kappa, the honor society founded in 1776. The ceremony was small, in Harris Hall, where I was happy to see a portrait of Richard W. Leopold, my old history of American foreign policy professor, still gracing what they now call Harris 108, though back in the day it was Harris 107, as if that matters to anybody other than a nostalgic alumni. It does to me only because it's the only room number I remember, since nothing will imprint the room number of a class into your mind like a tough 8 a.m. class held in the Socratic method by a no-BS teacher who wrote the textbook. Unless I'm wrong. Prof. Leopold made sure we were always open to that eventuality.

     Perhaps memories of Leopold's incisive mind set me up for disappointment. The ceremonial remarks were by a well-credentialed teacher known for her excellence in situations other than this one. She need not be named—see, I can be kind—and her talk could be summarized thus: Stateville Prison is a scary place where I nevertheless taught Shakespeare to actual prisoners and here's a story about a prisoner learning Shakespeare and here's another story about a prisoner learning Shakespeare and here's another that occurred after I myself walked sweatingly into Stateville to meet this prisoner learning Shakespeare under my tutelage and here's something piquant a prisoner learning Shakespeare from me wrote on a paper that I read. 
     None of it had anything to do with the newly-minted Phi Beta Kappas in the hall, who listened with admirable patience. Nor did she ever get around to pointing out that Stateville is a really bad place filled with really bad people who, to a man, have all done really bad things. She kinda glorified them, to be honest, as well as the prison, which made my wife, an officer of the court, charmingly indignant. I might have given this feedback to the teacher, but she bolted from the room as soon as she finished speaking, no doubt leaving a number of those remaining wishing she had contrived to flee about 15 minutes earlier.
     Happily, the professionals took over Thursday. The Honors Ceremony, celebrating utterly fantastic students such as my son, was MC'ed by the President of Northwestern himself, the effervescent Mort Schapiro. It would be unfair to compare him to the president of Pomona College, whom I reported on last month, since it was her first year in office and she was practically hyperventilating with stress. 
      Schapiro, who has been president of NU since 2009 and at Williams for a decade before that, was smooth without being crass, humorous but not silly, riffing on the experience the students entrusted to NU's care.
     "I hope we didn’t mess ‘em up," he said. "I hope we made them even better.” 
Abigail Kutlas
     Speaking for myself, yes, Mr. President, you did. Better, smarter, deeper. Sharpened and honed and stropped to a razor-fine edge.
     Schapiro's other outstanding moment was when one of the student hosts flubbed the pronunciation of "Alma Mater" —pronouncing the latter word "May-ter" instead of "Mah-ter" not once, but several times, until people in the audience were calling out the correct pronunciation.
     "May-ter, Mah-ter, To-may-to, to-mah-to," Schapiro quipped, to relieved laughter.
     I'd have left the Phi Beta Kappa speaker's botch job unremarked upon, were she not put to shame so utterly by a student, the Honors Ceremony speaker, Abigail Kutlas, a learning sciences major, who stuck her landing in a brief yet thoughtful speech on the importance of not over-scheduling, a topic she made relevant to every single person in the hall, students and parents alike.
     "One of the hardest lessons we learn is when to say 'No' to something we love," she said, a line which would have been whipped into my literary recovery book in a heartbeat, had I heard it a few years ago. She talked about the danger of taking on so many challenges that you don't do any of them well.
     "Remember not to half-ass two things when you can whole-ass one of them,"* she quoted a mentor as saying, words that should be inscribed on plaques and handed out freshman year, and really the line that prompted to me write this entire post, to lead up to it.
     We headed outside. The reception was in a tent east of Norris Center, but I had to collect the car, due to an expiring meter, and would meet my son and wife there.
     "You know the way to Norris Center?" my son asked, with a twinkle. "Was it here when you went to school in, what, the 1930s?"

     I let him have his fun. If he isn't feeling on the top of the world this week, he never will. Eye contact, a firm handshake and "thanks dad" only happens in the movies, and I interpret him busting my chops as about as close to thanks as he can get, at the moment. And if he never does, well, any parent who is in it for the thanks is both an idiot and disappointed. 
     To be honest, I'm feeling pretty good myself, too good to be irked over trifles. I ran into Mort Schapiro at the president's luncheon afterward—quite the spread, by the way, well done, Northwestern Dining—shook his hand, praised the excellence of a certain literature professor whose work we both admire, and remarked upon the vast improvement of the college over the past 40 years.
     "I liked the place better seen through his eyes than I did through my own," I told him. "You've done great things to the place." Which is very true, a most welcome redemption. Or as the song goes: "Hail to Purple! Hail to White! Hail to thee, Northwestern!"

* A Facebook reader points out that this line is lifted from the "Parks and Recreation" TV show. In Kutlas's defense, the quip could have been expropriated by her mentor. She seems too busy to watch much TV. 

Flashback 1998: "Preschool: life or debt issue"

The Children of Nathan Star, by Ambrose Andrews (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    Twenty years. Twenty years of wrangling public education for our boys. Which might sound like an exaggeration, since the oldest boy is still only 22. 
    "What," you might forgiven for scoffing, "were you picking schools for him when he was 2?" 
   Yes, yes we were. And I offer up the following column, from 1998, as documentary proof.
    Twenty years. Quite a lot, really. I am not complaining. I am not am not am not. There are many parents to whom sending their kids to school would be an unattainable dream. And I'm not quite bragging either.
      So what is it then? Marking the occasion. Just saying that staggering across the finish line Friday, when the youngest graduates Northwestern, I am relieved. We are relieved. It is time. Yes, they both are going to law school, so another three years ahead of them. And to a degree us. But not the same degree. Now it's their turn. Twenty years is enough. 

     There was an article in Harper's awhile back by a man who had driven his family deep into debt. Despite an income, with his wife, of $ 100,000, they had been plunged into bankruptcy and ruin. Their home was beset by bill collectors and credit card companies, all demanding, in shrill and rising tones, the tens of thousands of dollars the family owed.
     What had brought them to such ruin? Gambling? Drugs? Psychic hotline addiction?
     No; private schools.
     The family has three children and, unwilling to subject them to public schools, wrecked themselves trying to pay for private education.
     I have been thinking about that family all week, brooding, like Saul in his tent, over their fate, the first whiff of which, I believe, I have just deeply inhaled. Wearing roller skates and poised at the top of that short slope to utter financial disaster, I felt the first sharp poke in my back.
     Our 2 1/2-year-old was accepted into a pre-nursery school for the fall.
     People who are reading this on farms, with the wind rustling the willows and their children playing out back with Spot the dog and Fluffy the cat, might not quite understand the concept of a pre-nursery school. "What kind of people would send their li'l ones away so young?" says grandma, coming through the screen door with a freshly baked huckleberry pie.
     "I don't know, Nana," says Bea, drying the dishes with a patch of homespun and gazing at her children, running through the rye. "It must be a city thing."
     You're right, Bea, it is a city thing. Though for the life of me, I can't understand it either. My mother didn't pack me off to preschool until I was 4, and then I made her pull me out because there were other children there and, frankly, I didn't like them.
     Two-and-a-half hours a day, three days a week. It isn't as if we're sending him away to a boarding school in Switzerland. (Hmmm . . .) Just enough to get him to learn to share his toys and finger paint and socialize with others and be spared the life of maladjusted elitism that, well, afflicts so many people nowadays.
     Then there is the break it provides his mother. A few gasps of air; the difference between swimming and drowning.
     My wife searched for a preschool with the tenacity of a young actress trying to land her first role, and with about the same initial success. The prestigious day care a block from our house (it's in a brownstone, like an embassy) rejected us with a form letter (a form letter addressed to a different child but sent to our home, to add insult to injury). Other places turned up their noses as well.
     Finally, the call came, just when she had given up hope. I was there when my wife took the call. It was like one of those Publishers Clearinghouse commercials.
     "It's pretty expensive," she said, a little later, after composing herself. "What do you think?"
     "Well," I said, "given the fact that you wept like a baby for joy when they called, I guess we sort of have to."
     Now, with so many columnists making up things nowadays, I want to point out that the above conversation really, truly happened. We also discussed whether we should pay for the school by not paying our real estate taxes. I called out after her, as she hurried to the school to give them our check, "Honey, remember to rob a liquor store on your way home."
     The preschool tuition, I noted with horror, was as much as the tuition I paid Northwestern University the fall semester of my freshman year.
      I'm certainly not looking for pity. I just want readers to understand that, when I start writing column after column about our cute little farm 50 miles away in Harvard, Ill., I didn't move out of the city on a lark.
                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 25, 1998

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Space Force to the rescue!

     We live in the Golden Age of Irony.
     Either that, or irony is dead.
     I'm not sure which.
     Unless irony is both alive and dead,.
     Which wouldn't make sense. Then again, there's a lot of not-making-sense going around lately.
     We've almost gotten used to it.
     Time was, the president of the United States said some blatant, self-serving lie, it was a big deal. Now the media just sighs and shuffles over to an enormous slate wall covered floor-to-ceiling with hash marks, picks up a stub of chalk, climbs a ladder and draws another vertical line. Scrrreeee.
     At least we're keeping track. Maybe that's how we'll think of this historical era, someday, if we can bear to think of it at all. "Back when we kept track...."
      The Era of Keeping Track, reality on this side, the near-hallucinogenic state of Donald Trump's inflamed ego on the other. The verifiable, fact-based world, to the left, and to the right, a steamy chaotic whirlwind chaos of fabrication and paranoia, starting with the president and funneling into his entire support infrastructure of sycophants and enablers and apologists and quislings.
     And voters. Yeah, you. Have you picked up on the fact that I'm criticizing the president? Just now? Really? About time. Where have you been? No, don't answer that. Don't answer at all. Because a) yes, I'm paid to write this b) yes, I really believe it; c) no, I don't consider either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to be the true cause of our nation's woes; d)...
     Where was I?
     Irony, both alive and dead.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The joy of being wrong

       Do you ever wonder why uninformed people cling to ignorance?
       You can be holding proof that they're wrong under their nose, neatly laid out in charts and graphs and documentary photographs, and they wave it off. They don't want to know. They don't want to be educated. They don't care they're wrong. They're fine as they are.
       The relevant phrase is "cognitive dissonance," and the quick definition is, when you align your personality, your essence, your being, with a certain worldview, then you need to maintain that worldview. So you accept the facts that endorse it. And reject those that don't.  The fact that you're "wrong," in some specific or cosmic sense, does not matter.
      A lot of people are like that, but it isn't the only approach to life. When you don't define your personality by a particular belief, you are free to revise your outlook as facts warrant, and I had a dramatic example of that last month. 
    Governor Bruce Rauner celebrated Motorcycle Awareness Month by tweeting a photograph of himself astride one of his bikes, along with a link to the Illinois Department of Transportation's safety tips for motorcyclists page which, cravenly, did not whisper the suggestion that riders wear a helmet. I couldn't resist the chance to blow a few well-earned raspberries in the direction of Gov. Moribund, and did so
    But a number of readers wrote in with this observation: You've never even ridden a motorcycle, so shut up.
    At one level, that is an easy criticism to dismiss. It's the same logic used to silence critics of Chicago who do not themselves live in the boundaries of the city, and I was able to ignore that long enough to write a book about the place, albeit one focusing on outsiders such as myself. 
    Demanding that only members of a certain group are allowed to critique it is easily refuted: if that were the case, only fish could write about marine biology.
     However. At another level, they did have a point. I haven't ridden on a motorcycle, and it isn't as if they're unaccessible, or if riding one is on the same level of complexity as moving to Chicago.  I could learn;  the enormous Chicago Harley Davidson is 10 minutes down the street from where I live. 
    So I went there, to see about classes, and was given a tour by a very proud general manager, Steve Trujillo, who stressed that if you think of bikers like the guys in "The Wild Ones," as bearded and heavily tattooed outlaws, well, that isn't everybody. They also have doughy middle aged guys like me. 
    The place is very clean. With lots of beautiful motorcycles dripping in chrome. I didn't sign up, yet. Let's get these boys rested and out into the world again. And to be honest, 20 hours of motorcycle instruction over four days—well, that is a lot. 
     Still, while I was there, I couldn't help confront this wall of helmets and grab an extra-large and try it on. Just to see if it fit my big head.
     And here I laughed, out loud. OOO, this is uncomfortable, thought I. Get this thing off me.
    The cold drop of ignorance hitting the hot pan of experience. 
     Yes, it was a full-face helmet—which you need if you don't want your chin to be scraped off on a stretch of asphalt somewhere. I imagine I'd go for a less-enclosing model and hope for the best.
     I couldn't have yanked that thing off quicker had it been on fire. Laughing all the while, deep and  long and sincere. See, this is what all those people too afraid of challenging their beliefs to take in new information miss: the joy of saying, "Hey, I was wrong! I didn't know what I was talking about." That doesn't diminish you. It expands you. Being wrong, when warranted, takes confidence. Takes the knowledge that shifting an opinion doesn't undercut your personality; it enhances it.
    Of course any one input is not the final word. If I go ass-over-tea kettle someday I might come to appreciate the more complete protection of a full-face helmet. But for the moment, standing in front of those helmets at Chicago Harley-Davidson, I laughed and laughed, and had to share it with you. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Run Stormy run! A porn star for president? Why not? We've had worse.

"The Scream" (detail) by Edvard Munch (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     "Should I run for president?" Stormy Daniels asked the Tribune over the weekend, during her sweep into Chicago to perform at the Admiral Theatre strip club.
     Daniels, in case you are fortunate enough not to already be vastly familiar with every detail of her lubricious life, is the adult film star who ... "had an affair" is the euphemism du jour, but that overstates the case. This isn't exactly "Anna Karenina" we're talking about, is it? The pneumatic porn princess who scre... whoops, family newspaper ... who had sex a dozen years ago with Donald Trump.
     "God no!" was my immediate reaction—something of a mantra at this point. Nearly 18 months into the Trump presidency, Democrats have descended into the curl-up-in-a-fetal-position-and-screech-"No!" phase of our torment under the daily, if not hourly lash of lies, accusations and lurching departures from tradition and humanity, all in a monsoon downpour of Republican malice.
     Last week's summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un seems a hundred years ago, as outcry builds against the children of asylum seekers—and this is a country built, remember, by asylum seekers—being stripped from their parents and herded into makeshift detention camps, part of a policy of cruelty designed to keep refugees from seeking shelter at our borders. The horror and shame of this situation is ...
     Maybe I'm being hasty, dismissing the prospect of a Stormy Daniels presidency. It could happen. She is a Republican. And if nothing else, Republicans have established that they will not only tolerate, but celebrate, well, just about anything, provided it is done by a fellow Republican, particularly one named Trump. Explode the national debt? Check. Scuttle health care? Double check. Embrace a shunned global pariah and declare his vague general assurances as hard-won, binding commitments? Please sir may I have another! The aforementioned human rights atrocity at the border? Well, if it discourages immigration.... (So would burning the children alive in front of their parents. Maybe that's coming. And if you huffily insist that's impossible, remember "impossible" now happens daily at 4 o'clock. So you'd better come up with a better retort.)

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