Sunday, September 30, 2018

Just walk out?



    Every day—make that, every goddamn day—I tell a story, or give my opinion in this space. And you, indulgent friends that you are, read it, which I deeply appreciate.
     Though now I'm looking for your opinion, because I'm confused.

      Last week I just had to visit the new Amazon Go store on South Franklin, part of the $1 trillion sell-everything-to-everybody-all-the-time company's efforts to eliminate all minimum wage jobs from the world by automating a range of jobs from delivery drivers to cashiers. I'm not sure who's going to be able to buy their stuff if nobody is employed, but I guess that's an issue for another day. Though, now that I think of it, judging from the number of employees, in orange fleeces or polos, overseeing the aisles of bottled water and prepackaged sandwiches at Amazon Go, Amazon still has a while to go before it fulfills its corporate dream. 
     Anyway, in the spirit of experiment, I bolted in, grabbed a thin can of iced coffee, and left, the glass gates smoothly sliding apart for me, as $2.49 (plus six cents tax, which seems suspiciously low) was deducted from my credit card account.
     In the two minutes, 13 seconds I was in the store (they time you, like it's a race) I noticed this array of coffee mugs announcing "JUST WALK OUT," the source of my question today:

     "JUST WALK OUT"—is that an appealing slogan? Do you want to own a coffee mug with "JUST WALK OUT" on it? "JUST WALK OUT?" Is that something good? Something to be desired? Aren't the situations where you "just walk out" uniformly bad? Burning buildings. Lousy plays. Crowded restaurant lobbies. 
    It might be nice, I suppose, to grab a few goodies without having to interact with a slack-jawed clerk, whom I end up thanking despite the fact it should really be the other way around. But not so nice that I want to pay $5.99 to celebrate this development on a coffee cup. 
    Or—and here is where you come in—am I missing something? Does "JUST WALK OUT" have some kind of edgy hip appeal which, being old, I am oblivious to? I'm sincerely curious? How did Amazon get to rule the world with such a tin ear? Or is the fault mine?

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #8: The enormous hopscotch

     Thursday was a grim day for our nation. Another grim day. The testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in the morning, composed yet tremulous, laying out her accusations of assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Then, in the afternoon, his angry, self-pitying response. As if the aspirations of women in America were running full bore into the brick wall of entrenched patriarchal power. 
     When the dust cleared, the wall was still there. Not a scratch on it.
      About 5 p.m. I had had enough, and took the dog for a walk, running into a neighbor, walking her dog.  We strolled our neighborhood, exchanging our bewildered assessment of it all. 
      A few blocks away, we passed a pair of girls. Maybe 10. I didn't know them. "Cute dog" one of them said, and I glanced at her—freckles—smiled and thanked her. My neighbor and I stepping smoothly to the grass, so as not to trample on what they were drawing with colored chalk.
      What they had created, I saw the next morning, was an enormous hopscotch. Not the simple 8- or 10-box hopscotches typical of schoolyards, but an epic, 90 square masterpiece that went on forever, angling around the corner, taking up the better part of a block. I approached it from the reverse side, starting at 90, with radiant rays celebrating its completion. Every 10th numbers paused for the same spray of triumph. Around the corner, the creators had left their portraits, a sort of signature to the work. 
     I took the liberty of photographing the hopscotch, concerned about intrusion, but deciding the expectations of privacy on a public sidewalk are not great. Besides, it couldn't really be photographed properly: too big, too expansive for documentation. I walked away, thinking about my younger boy, and his bedroom-filling forts, constructed of yarn and blankets, requiring hours of solitary construction, solemn events of high importance, somehow, achievements that had to be respected. I wondered whether the enormous hopscotch would become a cherished part of their childhood, something the two girls would think of in future years with awe. Remember when we....?
    I didn't think about it again until Friday afternoon, when I went to walk the dog. It was raining, a cold, autumnal rain, and we didn't go as far as the hopscotch, which I imagined was being washed away at that very moment.
      The rain made me glad I had photographed the enormous hopscotch during its brief existence. Less than a day. I don't know why, but the elaborate artwork encouraged me, as a kind of counterpoint to the raw political and emotional ugliness unfolding in Washington. The unpretentious ambition of the thing. The physical challenge—of course the girls must have tried to hop it, tried to make it all the way to the end, 90 squares without a misplaced step, which had to be very difficult. The creativity of its conception, the daring, the brushing aside of accepted boundaries. Imagine what people could accomplish, girls and boys, men and women, if only society didn't constraint them the way it does, crush them down with limits,  pressing with its weight of expectation, tradition, the density of lies, of men imposing their power, their strength, their fragile egos and the untruths needed to prop up those egos, to keep them from sagging under their own enormity. 
     Who knows what the future holds, and how it will look back on our sorry time? There are elderly ladies alive today born when women could not vote. Where will these girls go and how will they remember this era, so troubling to live through? The sexism and repression of this country are not relegated to history. These regressive forces are strong, here and now. We saw the anger in Kavanaugh's aggrieved outpouring. It was not the complaint of an innocent man, but the whine of the entitled, frustrated to see his smooth glide interrupted by people who aren't supposed to matter. The forces that would drive us back today control the government, pushing their program of revanchism, a return to the bad old days. Remember what this is all about: taking away self-determination from women. Finding a man who will help strip women of their rights, help hobble these girls, limit their possibilities, even before they've had a chance to skip off their block and into the wide world.
    The old ways are winning. At the moment. But they have not won. The stakes, maybe not so clear before, are becoming ever clearer. Or should be. Meanwhile, the young are coming up, forming their worlds, thinking for themselves, pushing limits, unbroken. As always, they will see how things are done, will startle at the smallness of our world, its meanness and restriction, and will imagine something larger, will seek to manifest themselves in daring and creative ways. Big, bold, ways. They will demand something different. Something better than what we settle for now. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Toni Preckwinkle was reforming bond court when Willie Wilson was busy in China

Toni Preckwinkle, right, talks with Justice Anne Burke, left and
 Hanke Gratteau, direct of the Sheriff's Justice Institute,
after visiting the new bond court.
     Tuesday’s field trip to bond court was scheduled long ago and, to be honest, I expected Toni Preckwinkle to cancel, assuming that her spare time is now taken up by this bothersome running-for-mayor business.
     I had underestimated her, as many do.
     “Today is all about pre-trial services,” said the Cook County Board president as her Chevy Suburban headed toward 26th and California.
     I put on my pouty reporter face. Nothing about the three-ring circus primary? Aww…
     “I have talking points…” she replied, glancing down at a piece of paper. “In September of 2017, Chief Judge Evans provided a general order to judges in bond court, that the default position should be I-bonds. Two thirds of the people, when we started, got cash bonds and one-third got either electronic monitoring or I-bonds. Now it is the reverse. … But we still have a very good compliance rate; about 89 percent of felony defendants released as of March 31 have appeared for all court dates.”
     Or in English: Last year, most of those arrested had to put up money to get out of jail (a D-bond, for example, requires posting 10 percent of the bail amount). Now most either wear an electronic bracelet, which costs less than half of what being kept in jail does, or are trusted to return (that’s an I-bond) because if they don’t they’ll be in even more trouble.
     Fixing bond court has been a passion of Preckwinkle’s — she took me there in 2011, her first year as president. Prisoners were being held, not due to the severity of their crimes, but the lightness of their pocketbooks.

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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Flashback 2011: Toni Preckwinkle; "Most people in the jail are guilty of being poor."

Toni Preckwinkle at the jail, 2013
     I spent Tuesday afternoon with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle—I'm writing about that in the paper tomorrow. The visit made me remember our first visit to the bond court together in 2011, and I thought I'd dig out this column, even before clown car candidate Willie Wilson held a press conference, also Tuesday, claiming that Preckwinkle is trying to steal credit for reforming the bond court system, credit that he, Willie Wilson, somehow deserves, a notion which is ... searching for a word that isn't actionable libel ... poppycock. 
     The following was published in 2011, a year when Willie Wilson was busy expanding his medical supply company to China.

     It's lunchtime, but Toni Preckwinkle isn't eating lunch. Instead the president of the Cook County Board is in a black Chevy Suburban, heading to the criminal courts at 26th and California to take a field trip.
     The county is spending $109,000 a day on prisoners who can't make a $2,000 bond.
     "If you have a $2,000 bond, you pay your $200 and you're out," she says. "If you have a $2,000 bond and you're impoverished and you don't pay it, are you any more of a risk? No, you just don't have $200. . . . Most of the people in jail are guilty of being poor."
     The solution, she says, is more electronic home monitoring. It costs $143 a day to jail a prisoner but only $65 to monitor somebody.
     "What happens in bond court is our top priority," she says, noting that, when she last visited in June, few she saw got monitoring.
     Saving money is not the only thing on Preckwinkle's mind as we approach court.
     "Eighty-three percent of the people who come in the jail, whether or not there for drug offenses, have illicit drugs in their system," she says. "We are dealing with substantial substance-abuse issues by detaining people in the jail, and we're only detaining of course black and brown people. Basically, you saw a story in your own paper how whites are most likely to use illegal drugs. If you look at bond court you'll never know that. The people there are black and brown. The last time I was there I sat for 45 minutes and I think there was one white person. So the jail is the intersection of poverty and racism. It's pretty stark."
     It sure is. We arrive shortly after noon, and Preckwinkle, about 6 feet tall, strides ahead, leaving her aides scrambling to catch up. She enters Room 100, the Central Bond Court. Associate Judge Donald D. Panarese Jr. is on the bench, hearing the case of Jamal Smith, 29, his hands chained to his waist, wearing the scarlet DOC jumpsuit reserved for notoriously violent prisoners - Smith is accused of attacking a correctional officer.
     It's hard to convey just how fast these cases are handled—from 80 to 100 in a court call lasting a little over an hour. At times it's like listening to auctioneers argue the law - the cases of some defendants are dispatched within less than 15 seconds.
     "What astounds me is how quickly decisions are made to deprive people of their liberty," she says. "It's profoundly disturbing that your liberty is decided in a heartbeat."
     She points at a clerk filling out forms.
     "She's using carbon paper!" Preckwinkle whispers, amazed. In this digital age, carts of files are still wheeled around the court.
     The cases fly by. Aggravated battery. Possession of a controlled substance. Retail theft. Fleeing. Most of the defendants are African Americans, with a few Hispanics and two white women accused of prostitution. Of the scores of defendants we see, exactly one - an Egyptian accused of selling counterfeit goods - has a private attorney.
     Preckwinkle is particularly pained by a pair of 11th-grade boys picked up on a drug charge. "Those kids are going to be in jail because nobody can come up with $200 - and they're 17 years old!" she says.
     She'd like to see pot offenses become tickets, and nonviolent offenders kept from jail.
     Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans says that while he is sympathetic, "obviously, our approach is justice first. The statutory requirements we have to follow do not focus on revenue saving."
     For example, he points out that a third of defendants ordered to receive electronic monitoring never get it, a decision made by the sheriff's office for various reasons. You can't home monitor a man without a home.
     This is my first time talking with Preckwinkle; I find her bluntness refreshing. She describes following Todd Stroger this way:
     "Succeeding somebody who is inept is a mixed blessing. On one hand, the bar is low. And on the other hand, things are a mess."
     Will Toni Preckwinkle be able to clean up an enormous system that was allowed to marinate in waste and corruption for decades, to trim and buff it into streamlined efficiency? Can she take the entrenched human disaster we are left with after centuries of slavery and systemic prejudice and recast it into something more economical and just? That's a tall order for anybody. But it sure is encouraging to see someone sincerely and vigorously try, if only as a change of pace.

                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 11, 2011

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

I want my Maypo; I hope I'm not alone in that.


     Lance Archibald is a 21st century CEO with all the right credentials: Harvard Business School, of course, via BYU, where he played basketball. He worked at Snapfish and Logoworks before joining his current cutting edge transformative technology company, Homestat Farm, turning abandoned urban industrial spaces into hydroponic gardens growing organic, artisanal produce for ...
     Just kidding: Homestat Farms owns Maypo, the 68-year-old hot cereal, which is why I sought him out. I've been shoveling warm, delicious Maypo Instant Maple Oatmeal into my eager maw for over half a century.
     Maypo had disappeared from shelves at my local Sunset Foods. Must be a restocking issue, I told myself. The intense, cult-like popularity of classic, comforting Maypo must make it difficult to keep in stock.
     But time passed, and nourishing, nostalgic Maypo wasn't returning. I did something completely out-of-character: I asked a manager at Sunset to stock the stuff. "If you carry it, I'll buy it," I promised.
     So — mirabile dictu — they did. A dozen boxes appeared on the shelf. I bought one, enjoyed a bowl the way I like it, doctored with wheat germ, bran and a tablespoon of real maple syrup to enhance the maple effect.
     But I can only eat so much. The rest of those boxes just sit there, reprimanding me. I feel responsible for Maypo, though I'm really not. Lance Archibald is. How did he get himself into this predicament?
     "I bought this business about four and a half years ago from a gentleman in his late 60s, looking to retire," Archibald, 44, told me. "When I looked at this business, I saw a category, the hot cereal category, that is growing, due to health trends, as people get away from cold cereal. I saw this brand, these brands — we also own Wheatena and Maltex — that have a really passionate customers base."

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Swiss in Chicago

       People are an enigma. Even those you know well, you don't really know. A public face, a few private facets, but the rest is hidden, mysterious.
     Monday I had to be at Chicago Police Headquarters at 10 a.m. to pick up my press credentials, and later had lunch with a journalist new to the city from overseas. At Harry Caray's, of course, the first restaurant I always take newcomers to, to give them an idea of the richness and heritage of the city. He's going to a football game soon, and I found myself trying to explain the intricacies of American football, all the while having to keep from laughing and saying, "Boy, do you have the wrong guy for this." But I know about the four downs and the the 10 yards to make a first down, and passing and running, and made the best of it. 
    He had no idea about the Water Tower, and that seemed a lacuna that could cause trouble, so I walked him there, so he could clap eyes on the thing, trotting out Oscar Wilde's classic description of the structure as a crenelated fairy castle with pepperboxes stuck all over it.
     On the way back, we ran into these two inexplicable characters posing. I asked if I could take their picture—at first they were in profile, belly to belly and that would have been the better shot. But I wasn't quick enough about whipping out my phone, and they posed, which wasn't as good, and ignored my suggestion that they face each other again.
    Of course I asked them what they were doing, because I had no idea. With the masks, it seemed vaguely sexual, some kind of cosplay fantasy right there on Michigan Avenue. I got the sense they weren't promoting something. This wasn't commercial, it was personal.
     At first no reply. I asked again.
     "We're on holiday," said one, in some kind of accent I couldn't place. Which wasn't an explanation, but was a start.
     "Where from?" I asked.
     "Switzerland," one replied—I couldn't tell who was speaking, green or blue.
    Well, Switzerland. Say no more. I got the sense that I had overstayed my welcome, and moved on.
    Back at home, I started to dig. They are wearing what are called "Chub Suits"—$33 and you can buy your own on Amazon. A small battery-powered fan keeps them inflated.
     Maybe the hive can step in. I should have quizzed them further, but it's a free country, so far, and people should be able to caper about in large inflatable blob outfits without being badgered by the media. On that note, I bet no reader looked at that get-up and thought: we can't see their faces; that should be illegal. 
    Not like it was a face veil or anything. Covering your face for religion is bad. But for some freaky public thrill, well, who would even think to criticize? 

Monday, September 24, 2018

Look, there’s hypocrisy! Right there! And there! And there and there and …

The Hypocrites, by Paul Klee (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     Oh my God!
     Earlier today, an enormous ball of flame crested the horizon in the east, casting heat and shadow as it rose, slowly, blindingly, majestically, marching toward some unimaginable zenith....
     The sun,.. came up ... this morning.
     Somehow, Chicagoans, going about their business managed to ignore this astronomical marvel, displaying itself in full rampant glory right above their heads. A blazing wonder whose tremendous scale can hardly be...
     What? What's that you say? Nothing to get excited about? Happens every day since the dawn of time, without fail, except when it's cloudy, and even then is still happening, only undetected, obscured by these giant masses of water vapor dangling ominously above....
     Sorry, but I was scrolling through Facebook, which I really must stop doing, seeing friends express continual shock and perpetual indignation at the hypocrisy they detect in public life.
     You've read the same memes.
     "Republicans refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland because he was nominated 237 days before the election. Now they're rushing to confirm a nominee 50 days before an election who's accused of sexual assault, lied under oath...."
     "I trust the GOP senators who insisted Al Franken step down will demand the same treatment for Judge Kavanaugh."
     ("You do?" I couldn't restrain myself from remarking. "Kinda naive, ain't it?")
     I could go on, but you get the point (or don't. Not getting the point has become an American folk illness). We react to each specific instance of hypocrisy like a person who has never seen the rising sun, with misplaced awe, as if it were something rare and unusual, when what we are really seeing is an ordinary phenomenon. Hypocrisy isn't an exception, it's the rule, the grease with which the whole political world goes clanking along.
     Almost ... as if ... people are not really assessing the world before them, not really gathering facts and then drawing conclusions, nor measuring situations against their long-held standards and principles, but cherry-picking information that suits their permanent inclinations, adopting and discarding values at will, to shore up their twisted, contradictory and mistaken beliefs.

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Sunday, September 23, 2018


     Riding a Divvy down lake street earlier this summer, I passed the Reliable Plating Corporation, 1538 W. Lake.  
     I paused, straddling the bike, and took this photo. Why? I thought the scene beautiful, the compressed, san-serif letters, the quiet insistence of the word, the interplay of faded red brick and beige concrete, the machine age entryway, with those metal doors and round windows, like a robot's face.
      Then there was the business itself. The metal plating industry just doesn't get into the paper much, so I phoned the company. Maybe I could come visit? Write a little story to go with my portrait of their business face.
     I called a few times. People don't call back anymore.
     Eventually I reached a person in authority. No, sorry. No interest. Couldn't get off the phone quick enough. 
     As the line went dead, I thought of saying: someday, your business will be gone, and you'll be gone, and I'll be gone. Only the story I would have written might remain. Don't you care about that?
     Only that probably wouldn't have helped, and I didn't say it.
     So no story. Only this, the shadow of a story never written.
     And a phantom ache. I suppose it stung, a little, to be scorned by an obscure metal plating company. Like what I'm doing is dirty. I'm sure they had their reasons. All those metal-plating chemicals, where do they go when they're done with them? Down some sewer perhaps? I shouldn't speculate. Sour grapes.
    But I will trot out the photo, and the concept of reliability, on this, the day after the last day of summer. I didn't want to write a post, frankly. But I squeezed one out, a dyspeptic, carping thing that I instantly knew was never going to see the light of day. 
     Being a professional means you know when your stuff isn't up to par. That's not a general indictment. Even noble Homer dozed. Sometimes I write a sentence, a column, and sit back and think: That doesn't work. 
     So we will try again, no inspiration needed — inspiration is for amateurs, I like to say, and though this blog isn't really a commercial affair, it is a commitment I made when I titled it. You expect me to be here, and here I am. Heneni, as Moses says to God. Reliable.
    There, that works. And if it doesn't, it will have to do for today. 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #7

     Today's snapshot comes from Bernard Linzmeier. It is of his mother, the smaller girl on the right, and her sister, three years older, on the left.
    He says the photos was taken in the late 1920s near Homan Avenue, looking west down 16th street. The sign behind them, he says—I can't read it—is for the Kosner Star Sausage Company.
     But none of that is why I decided to post the photo. There is something going on in this picture that was one of the more radical developments in feminism in the 1920s. I wonder if you'll notice it, unprompted.
    All five girls here reflect this change, whereas, a decade earlier, they would not.
    Look closely. Perhaps pause on the lone boy—it looks like he's holding a Brownie camera, which was popular at the time, and would be a sly wink at today's theme. Hard to tell. Could be just a box. Photos can be deceptive, the way if, you look to the far left, there is what, for a moment, struck me as a hand holding a cell phone, as if taking a photo of the girls. It's not, of course, just the deceptiveness of the shape. Funny to consider though.
     It's the hairdos—they all have bobbed hair, which represented rejection of previous norms of femininity. The fashion started around World War I with a few pioneers, French actresses and such, and by the early '20s young American women—"flappers"— were dressing in short skirts, flinging away their corsets, and sheering off their long hair, which had forever been the very definition of femininity. By the time this photo was taken, it had filtered down to the schoolyard, as fashions do.
    Girls had long had short hair before, of course—Pixie cuts, and such. But the frizzed out look was particular to the bob, three of the five girls have it, and if you want to get a grasp of just what a radical act bobbing your hair once was that had in a few years become tame enough for girls to convince their parents to allow, track down F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920 story, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," a "drama of the shifting, semi-cruel world of adolescence." Mean girl Marjorie feels oppressed by having her Wisconsin cousin, Bernice visit her, and, in pretending to befriend her, goads her into bobbing her hair, to the shock of all and, well, better just to read it. You see Fitzgerald delving into his favorite themes of flaming youth and the upper crust, with a surprise ending I wouldn't dream of hinting at. For a 98-year-old story, it holds up well.
     The big deal over how women styled their hair is a reminder that women have always struggled to crawl out of the box that society, aka men, have tried to keep them in. Even in the smallest detail of their lives—how long their hair should be—the choice was not so much their own as imposed upon them. A battle which, as we all know too well, continues today.


Friday, September 21, 2018

Nietzsche teaches: Don’t let Trump’s vileness make us vile too

"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," by Goya (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     “Beyond Good and Evil,” a cornerstone of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, contains one section that is a list of numbered maxims.
     They veer from true to false, profound to ridiculous, current to outdated. No. 144, for instance, begins, “When a woman has scholarly inclinations, there is usually something wrong with her sexuality,” which I guess passed for insight in 1886, when the book was published, but has not aged well, beyond offering a gli
mpse into how certain guys thought then and no doubt still do.
     Others are sharp and useful, such as No. 68, worth bearing in mind as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh does o
r does not remember what he might or might not have done at a party in high school:
     “I did that,” says my memory. “I could not have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually — the memory yields.”
     Does it ever. People whitewash their pasts trying to fit their own pristine estimations of themselves. Which is stupid, given the universality of sin, and the freeing effect of simply admitting the wrongs you’ve done. Honesty can be hard, which is why people lie and distort. But it rewards us in the long run.
     No. 146 is my favorite, useful in all sorts of situations — really, it’s like a cordless electric drill — and came fluttering to mind earlier this week, as Twitter lit up with anatomical details from the new memoir by Stormy Daniels, the porn star who had sex with Donald Trump, who botched the payoff meant to silence her.

      If you've been in a cave and missed it, sorry, I'm not going into detail. Google "Trump" and "mushroom," but not while eating.
      Done? Good. Back to Nietzsche. Since quotes get twisted, let's begin with the original German: "Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird."
      The non-German speaker trying to make sense of that might recognize the word "kämpft"—struggle, or fight—from Hitler's memoir, "Mein Kampf." But the key word is "Ungeheuer,"—pronounced "un-gahoya," with that kind of strangled Teutonic swallow between the N and the G—or "monster."
     Or in English:
     "Anyone who fights with monsters, should be careful that he does not become a monster."
     Amen. At every point in American history, we see this tendency. To fight Hitler, putting his people in concentration camps, we put our own people—of Japanese descent—into concentration camps. We didn't kill them, hearty pat on the back. But we put them there.
     In the early 1950s, when we faced a grim and repressive Soviet Union, we became grim and repressive ourselves, with loyalty oaths and purges.
     Ever since Donald Trump thrust himself into our national political life, there has been a tendency of those opposed to him to nevertheless mimic the man. To distract themselves from his key failings by dabbling in his brand of pettiness, venality and obsession with looks.
    I understand why. You can only focus so long on his contempt for truth, his scorn for minorities, his disrespect for women, his disdain for American traditions, his clonic lying, bullying, love of tyrants—the list goes on, but you get the idea.
     The temptation is to take a breather, to delve into side issues, into lighter, more amusing matters: his horrendous hairdo, orange skin, pear shape, loathsome sons Eric and Donald Jr., robotic wife, lurid affairs.
      The above paragraph notwithstanding, I try to avoid all those off-point critiques of the president. Reading Stormy Daniels microscopic—a tool apparently necessary for the task at hand—assessment of the presidential assets can make you almost feel sorry for the man.
     He might deserve impeachment, but he doesn't deserve that.
     Or maybe he does. After I thought of Nietzsche's wise words, I remembered this bit of advice a sage editor once told me over a few beers: "Be careful where you put it." How much privacy can a man expect from a porn star?
     Still, we need to keep our focus. There are so many important, legitimate reasons to condemn Trump. Why get down into his cesspool and, in splashing him, spatter ourselves in the bargain? It's such a simple task to be a better person than he is — such a low bar, it would be a shame to stumble over it. Just because the man's a pig doesn't mean we should all become pigs while opposing him.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Flashback 2009: Lezza spumoni: Bellwood ice cream legend started in Little Italy

Gelateria, Rome, 2017

   I'm meeting a friend in Elmhurst for lunch on Friday. Mention of this to my wife drew a series of specific instructions: I was to go to Victor Lezza's new retail store. I was to buy cookies—don't skimp on the lemon ricotta—cannoli, the shells separate from the filling, thank you, to preserve crispness. 
    And finally, don't forget the spumoni.  Which made me think of this story. I can't believe I haven't shared it with you up to now. One of my favorite opening ledes.
     I've spoken with Louie Lezza, and at some point—next week, surely, assuming the steady drumbeat of real news takes a rest, and Chief Keefe doesn't throw his hat into the ring for the mayor's race—I'll find a way to offer an update. Spumoni has been sufficiently covered, below. Time to blow the lid off the Italian cookie situation.

     In Italy, they know not of spumoni.
     "Spumoni? What is this? I have never heard of this," says Marianka Campisi, of Bologna, a 25-year-old intern at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago. "I don't think we have this in Italy."
     Rather, the distinctive type of ice cream was invented in America by newly arrived Italian immigrants.
     But we are getting ahead of the story, which begins not long ago in the frozen food aisle at Sunset Foods.
     "I'm getting spumoni," I told my wife, in that way husbands have of automatically narrating their actions, so as not to risk doing anything unapproved.
     I love spumoni and didn't expect resistance. But my wife regarded the container of Edy's spumoni in my hand as if it were a dead kitten.
     "Not that spumoni," she said. "I grew up in Bellwood. If you grew up in Bellwood, there is only Victor Lezza's."
     I returned the Edy's, and reached for a container of Lezza's which, I saw from the label, indeed comes from the west suburb. Which piqued my interest. They're making ice cream in Bellwood?
     Out front, Lezza Spumoni & Desserts looks like any small Italian bakery. A sign offers cakes for weddings and baptisms. Inside, glass cases display distinctive Italian cookies—amaretti, regina, quasimale—in the shapes of leaves, shells, hearts.
     I sit down with Ed Lezza, the third generation Lezza to make spumoni in Chicago. His grandfather, Salvatore Lezza, left his hometown outside Naples and came to the West Side in 1905, where he formed a partnership with the man who created Ferrara Pan candy, to this day a big local candy company, maker of Lemonheads.
     "They were in business, Ferrara and Lezza," says Lezza. "My grandfather was the baker, and Ferrara was the candy maker."
     Soon the partnership extended beyond business.
     "My grandmother's a Ferrara, Lucia Ferrara," he says.
     Despite my wife's belief that the company has been in Bellwood "forever," its first 60 years were in Little Italy. Then Lezza's got in the way of the University of Illinois.
     "We probably still would have been down at Halsted and Taylor streets, but Circle Campus came down there and condemned the property," say Ed Lezza. "We wanted to stay there and we were forced to move."
     Salvatore Lezza passed the company on to his two sons, Jack and Victor—Ed's father.
     "I pulled this out of the safe," says Ed Lezza. "It's something precious to us. I wanted to share it with you."
     Lezza displays a small notebook, filled with scrawled 75-year-old recipes, some jotted on the backs of Banco di Napoli Trust Company Bank deposit slips.
     "We keep exactly as my grandfather had written it," he says. "Everything the same."
     The bakery kitchen is charmingly old school—marble tabletops, a cedar-lined cooler. "You don't see them too much no more," says Louie Lezza, Ed's nephew and a fourth generation Lezza to make spumoni.
     Lezza spumoni is made up of five distinct "components." Four flavors of ice cream— chocolate, strawberry, rum and pistachio—with a whipped cream center studded with candied fruit and wheat germ bits (taking the place of chopped cashews, the rare change in deference to nut allergies)
     The spumoni production area seems impossibly small for a facility meeting the spumoni needs of 700 local restaurants and 24 states.
     "We're pretty close to outgrowing this plant," says Ed Lezza. "It's just a matter of time until we move into a large facility."
     Strawberry and pistachio are being mixed in two huge stainless steel vats. The flavors are complex—the strawberry has pineapple in it, seven different types of chocolate go into their chocolate.
     "We use the European-style blending," says Ed Lezza. "The pistachio isn't just pistachio."
     The completed, complex flavors are chilled to 21 degrees. At that temperature, they flow smoothly into containers, but don't bleed into each other. The flavors don't freeze because of the butterfat.
     "It's like anti-freeze," says Louie Lezza.
     The four ice cream flavors go in first, and then the burst of whipped cream at the center, which demands a special serving style for spumoni.
     "Spumoni must be sliced," says Ed Lezza. "You slice it, you have all five characteristics in every slice."
     Feeding four cups at a time under a filling machine is a bearded worker wearing purple latex gloves. I'm surprised to find he's Ed's son, Ed Lezza Jr., 38.
     I suggest that it's unusual for an owner of a business to work the packing line.
     "It's in my heart," he says. "I want to make sure it's right. It's my baby."
     He is also national sales manager. Customers are sometimes surprised when he delivers shipments of spumoni.
     "We do everything," Ed Lezza Jr. says. "It's a service-oriented business."
     Speaking of service, he is also a Bellwood village trustee. I ask: how's Bellwood doing?
     "We're holding our own," he says. "We're having our own new Metra station coming to Bellwood with 900 parking spots."
     And indeed, the neighborhood around Lezza's, including my wife's old house at Park and Frederick, looks well-tended and inviting. Driving north on Mannheim Road, snaking my hand into the big white cardboard box of Lezza's cookies sitting on the seat next to me, the future brightens. Things change and institutions crumble, so we need to pause, now and then, to appreciate what has not changed, the good things that are still with us.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 7, 2009

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Just exactly what, or make that 'who,' is Bill Daley hoping to make great again?

"Portrait of Two Young Men," by Giovanni Cariani, Louvre Museum, Paris

     When Bill Daley told my colleague Mark Brown, "but to be mayor, that would be the greatest," what exactly did he mean? The greatest for whom?
     For the city of Chicago? Did Daley mean that once he is sworn in as mayor, Chicago will begin enjoying a period of greatness: more jobs, less crime, better race relations?
     Make Chicago Great Again.
     And if he meant that, what is he, Bill Daley, bringing to the table that will usher in this new epoch of greatness?
     "Daley offered no specific solutions to the city's most vexing problems," Brown wrote. "Saying he plans to spend much of his campaign listening to voters for their ideas."
     Ah. I see. Chicagoans are supposed to tell Daley what he should do, how he should solve Chicago's laundry list of city-killing woes. And then, stout-hearted fellow that he is, Bill Daley will do those things, and greatness will ensue.
     Or gee, could it possibly be that when Daley said "to be mayor, that would be the greatest," he meant it would be the greatest for him? That it would great for Bill Daley, and other folks named Daley, to have another Daley in the office that two Daleys have already held for, umm, 43 of the past 63 years?
     Could he really mean that?
     He could.
     The thing is, I like Bill Daley, and I'll tell you why...

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Holy Wah!

Stubb's bartender Jen, center.

     Moonshine Mike wasn't at home—his truck was gone—so we slid by Stubb's, a watering hole on the main drag in Ontonagon, Michigan, to check on his whereabouts.
     "I haven't seen him in two days," said Jen, giving the impression that this was an unusually long stretch for him not to make an appearance at the bar.
     A phone call was placed. Mike was found, notified of our location and interest, and was heading this way.
     In the meantime beers were ordered for my friends, an O'Doul's dusted off for me. Spirits were high—Kentucky was kicking the tar out of its opponent, 33 to 3.
     "Holy wah!" laughed Jen.
     I chewed on that for a while. Curiosity can be unappreciated in a stranger. Better to listen in silence. But the etymologist in me couldn't be restrained.
     "'Holy wah,'" I mused, trying to seem cheery and not intrusive. "That's a new expression for me. What does it mean?"
     "I don't know; it's a yooper thing," she said— "yooper" as in "UPer," meaning Upper Peninsula, the northern segment of Michigan. "I'm from Kentucky."
      The online Urban Dictionary offers a definition:
    A regional phrase known in Northern Michigan, used to express excitement, surprise, awe, and more. Much like the use of "dude", "Holy Wah" can express many different things, depending upon context and tone of voice.
       The derivation of "wah" eludes me—one online source speculates it is a corruption of "wow"—and gets in the way of a more intriguing question: why is there an Upper Peninsula at all? An unusual arrangement, a state in two big chunks, with almost a third of Michigan's territory—29 percent—in the UP, though only 3 percent of its population.
     The answer lies in perhaps the least-enigmatically-titled book of all time, "How the States Got Their Shapes," by Mark Stein. 
      The mitten of Michigan began to take shape with the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War in 1783, Stein explains, cutting a border with Canada through the Great Lakes. Michigan's southern border was set by the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which envisioned a straight line from Lake Michigan's southernmost tip to Lake Erie. 
     When this came to actually doing this, not with a line on a map, but in messy reality, however, the official would have carved the thriving ports of Gary from Indiana and Toledo from Ohio, which objected, strenuously, pressuring Congress to tilt Michigan's southern border slightly northward at its easter edge.
     "Michigan was less than pleased," Stein writes. "But lacking the population that Ohio had, and still needing congressional approval for its own statehood, there wasn't much it could do. Then Indiana got into the act."  
      Indiana was unwilling to give up Gary, and be left with a geometric point of lake access. So it too pressed Congress, which dutifully carved off another slice of Michigan, leaving Michigan with the two-stage, slightly tilted southern border it has today, and an insult more than the the Wolverines could stand. 
    They went to war. 
     The "Toledo War" of 1835 was brief and bloodless, and involved shots being fired into the air and the Michigan territorial militia seizing nine surveyors working for Ohio. The end result was Congress offering Michigan the Upper Peninsula and statehood in return for the "Toledo Strip," a deal Michigan voters at first rejected, then later approved, in essence, because they had to.
    I think that's enough Michigan history for one day. Leaving the bar, we returned to Moonshine's house where, circumstances dictated that I fire a .22 rifle out his garage window and, later, tentatively apply a lumberjack's cant hook to an enormous cedar log, which some friends and I maneuvered quite handily, they providing the brawn, me providing the supervisory skill. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Bereaved mothers find solace, purpose in donating their milk

Kate Weidner, at home in Oak Park, in the rocking chair she bought to nurse Everett.

     Today's column came from asking a basic question. In mid-July, I was researching this column on the United States cravenly coddling formula producers by pulling out of a global accord on the importance of breast-feeding. I was talking to Summer Kelly, the head of the local milk bank, in Elk Grove Village, and asked, "So who donates to your milk bank?" This column is a result of asking that question.

     Not every pregnant woman who gives birth in a hospital comes home with a baby.
     Six out of every 10,000 women deliver a child in the United States only to have their newborn die during childbirth or shortly afterward.
     One of them was Kate Weidner, 35, of Oak Park.
     "My husband works in architecture. We have a 3-year-old son, Gus," said Weidner. "We got pregnant with our second son. He was due in October of 2017. I was diagnosed with a really, really rare condition, vasa praevia. The baby's umbilical cord didn't attach, and some of the veins and arteries are left vulnerable. If I went into labor, he would die instantly."
     The plan was to have a C-section at 34 weeks, to give the baby as much time to develop but still two weeks before labor, with its fatal complications, was to begin.
    That almost worked.
     "At 33 weeks, two days, I started gushing blood—a hemorrhage," Weidner said. "I knew right away what was happening."
     An ambulance rushed Weidner to West Suburban Medical Center. She had a crash C-section, but the baby, whom they named Everett, was in very bad shape.
    "None of his functions were functioning," Weidner said. "His heart wasn't circulating blood."
    Her husband was in California on business, got back to Chicago just in time for them to be together, briefly.
    "We were able to be with him and hold him," she said. "We started the process of being a family. My first son was so easy ... this was the absolutely worst thing that could happen."
    The next day, Everett Weidner died.
    A new mother's body doesn't know her baby is dead. Since the 18th week of pregnancy, her system has been getting ready to feed her new child. After birth, progesterone levels drop triggering the production of milk.
     "I breast-fed my first son and loved the experience," Weidner said. "I had intended to breast-feed my second son..."
    Her milk was here but her baby was not. A counselor at the hospital instructed her in techniques to dry up her milk.
     "It's funny," Weidner said. "No one told me about milk donation. I don't know how I knew about it. I learned when I was planning the C-section, I knew donor milk was an option, but didn't know who donated it, never suspected I would become one who would be a milk donor."
     Some two dozen mother's milk banks are scattered around the country. The majority of milk collected goes to premature infants in hospital intensive care units; most of their donors are women who have expressed more milk than their babies need, though some are in Kate Weidner's situation.
     "Ten percent of our donors are bereavement donors—women who have lost their babies," said Summer Kelly, RN, executive director of the Mothers' Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes. "It really helps with the grieving process."
     Nursing releases Prolactin, a hormone that can lesson symptoms of depression. It also gives grieving mothers something to do.

To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018



        I admit. At no point during the rest of the year do I think, even once, "What I really need right now is some deer jerky."
     Yet driving up to Ontonagon, on the shores of Lake Superior, it feels not only natural, but necessary to stop in Slinger, Wisconsin, at Held's Meats and Cheeses, to pick up a pound or two. 
     Tradition is a stern task master.
     There was a twist this year, as we walked through the door, my buddy whispered to me. 
     "That guy's carrying a gun."
     That he was. A very large man in a yellow shirt. A revolver, by the look of it, shoved in the right pocket of his capacious blue shorts.
     It wasn't a big deal. I joined the queue at the case, considered my cheese options, then ordered what I always do. About a pound of the deer jerky, the regular, not the spicy 
     "The thick part if you can."
     The thick part is softer. Just enough for our weekend at the lake—my wife gave me strict instructions not to bring any home. My older son once said it tastes, "like a burned down house."
     My eyes did glance to the butt of that revolver, and I snapped a photo, to share here.
     I've been coming to Held's for years, unarmed, and never felt imperiled. Obviously this guy feels differently. He has the need to go around packing, not only at Held's but, I imagine, everywhere else he goes.
      So why is he the tough guy, in the eyes of many, the proud American exercising his God-given right to carry a weapon everywhere? While I'm the cringing weenie, taking my chances on the mean streets of Slinger—well, the parking lot of Held's, I can't say I actually set foot on a street in Slinger, assuming such things exist.  
     Which of us has more faith in the nation? In our fellow citizens? In the police? In the rule of law?
     No need to answer. We each have our answers and stick with 'em. 
     Not really my business. This guy is endangering himself more than me or anyone else, and I suppose whatever person who might get shot when he reaches into his pocket for some breath mints and that gun tumbles out.
    It wasn't me, at least, not while I was there, gratefully accepting my white paper wrapped package and hurrying away with perhaps a little extra rapidity. Getting into the car, immediately unwrapping my prize in the car, carving off a generous chaw of jerky with my Gerber LST folding knife. Which shows that I am not against going around armed, provided your weapon has a purpose, such as slicing up jerky. It really is very good jerky, and only $18.95 a pound. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #6

Photo by Nikki Dobrowolski

     Now as a photograph, Nikki Dobrowolski's shot of a beaver dam on Huzzy Lake does not rank up there with Ansel Adams' "Moon and Half Dome." Though it does has a certain solemnity and quiet power.
     Rather it was that it was a dam that caught my attention, first, because you just don't see dams much, Hoover notwithstanding. And second, it was a "dam" as opposed to "damn," which you see, or rather hear, all the time, including every day in the name of this blog.
     Which got me playing one of my favorite games: Which usage is older? Dam, the blockage of a body of water, or damn, with that silent "n" creeping in, the condemnation to hell's flame?
    Turns out to be something of a tie.
    The thing that beavers and functioning American governments make goes back at least 700 years, to Old Norse, dammr.
    And the condemnation goes back ... about 700 years, to the Old French damner, meaning to condemn, convict, blame, injure. The Latin damnare, "to adjudge guilty, to doom to condemn," is of course much older, but then the Norse predecessors of dammr could go back far too. Not a lot of written records to help us here.
    Anyway, speaking of beavers, I'm in the Upper Peninsula, with no idea what, how or if I'm going to be able to post anything tomorrow. We'll just have to see. You should be out enjoying this glorious weekend anyway. I sure am.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Target puts its customers on a pedestal


    My Friday column got bumped to Monday—the combination of an extra-long column and extra-tight space. And since I don't believe in scooping the paper on my blog, I'm running something else here today—this picture of a mannequin at Target.
     You'll notice that I didn't attached an adjective to "mannequin." I suppose "hefty" is safe. Target, the nation's sixth largest retailer, calls them "Plus Sized"—they've been rolling them out over the past few years, reflecting their expanded range of sizes.
      As a middle-aged male pundit, I guess I'm supposed to grab the drapery and howl. I suppose George F. Will will do that, eventually, though I can't imagine the man shopping at Target. Nordstrom's has them too, so maybe he'll notice them there.
     But in truth, I can't say I'm distressed by the mannequins—I mean, I noticed them, and took these pictures. But in a cold, clinical, and-so-the-world-turns fashion. We are an increasingly obese country, and as a person who has battled weight all my life, I know that individuals themselves fluctuate between struggle and surrender. Some days start with a grapefruit and determination, others with a donut and resignation. Why should society be any different? I, myself, err on the side of struggle—being fat sucks. But if you want to dive into morbid obesity with a shrug and smile, by all means, be my guest.
     Besides, mannequins are not the hill to die on. At least these have heads—as a child, I always found those slender, headless mannequins to be extremely creepy. My sister and I shared a complicated fantasy where, if you were trapped in May Co. or Higbee's or Halle's when the store closed, the mannequins came to life and murdered you. I'm surprised nobody has used that as a premise for a horror film, but I am not well-schooled in the horror movie genre, so maybe someone already has.
     I do wonder about the efficacy of these mannequins. The purpose of showing off clothes, whether on a dummy in a store, or on a model in an ad, is to encourage the consumer to put down their cash and buy a particular outfit. I'm not saying using a curvy model, or a size-22 mannequin, won't work as well as the half-starved waifs and gaunt sticks that have been the general habit for the past half century. Heck, maybe reflecting women as they actually are might work better. (For some reason, men have not been granted this relief. I have yet to see thickset guy dummies at Target, nor beefy models on the cover of GQ. Maybe that's coming). 
    I could see them succeeding, catching the attention, and the dollars, of the consumer, relieved to see the full wide reflections of themselves. I also could see these stabs at pandering to the World As It Is failing, by ignoring the aspirational aspect of fashion. Most people are not only heavy, they're plain-looking, but modeling clothes on average looking Joes and Janes, looking schlumpy and down-market—I just can't see that moving the merchandise. 
     To be honest, I've never seen clothing on a mannequin or in an ad, said, "Oh look!" and then bought it. So whoever these are designed to appeal to, fat or thin, it ain't me. The clothes I want are the clothes I've always worn, just newer, and less threadbare. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Flashback 2000: Top-flight bass anglers to hook up in Chicago

Barton Lake, Michigan (photo by Nikki Dobrowolski)

     Readers have been sending in photos for my Saturday Snapshot, which is very gratifying. Nikki Dobrowolski sent in a pair Monday, this lovely swan—taken under duress, as the male swan was making a beeline toward her—and a beaver dam, that I'll use on Saturday.
     She prefaced her description of the pictures with, "I took these photos when my husband and I were out prefishing for bass tournaments."
     I don't like to brag. But I am a man of parts, and couldn't help sharing a personal detail few readers know.
     "These are nice, thanks," I wrote back then, unable to restrain myself, added. "If I told you I won $1,000 in the BASS Masters Classic, would you believe me? It's true."
     She believed me—the power of the media.
     "That sounds like a very interesting blog post," she wrote. "I'd love to read that story and congratulations on your win.

    Consider it done. But first, a bit of background about BASS Masters, a Southern phenomenon that ventured northward, to Chicago, in 2000. Someone with a sense of humor at the City Desk thought it would be a hoot to make me the bass fishing reporter for the week, and I rewarded them with this. On Sunday, I'll share how reporting the below put a grand in my pocket, temporarily.

     Bass can't be everywhere. Which is why bass boats have big 250 horsepower motors.
     They blast across the water at 70 mph, a cheek-flapping wind roaring by and only a placemat's worth of boat bottom actually touching the water's surface. Then they pull up at a carefully scouted sweet spot where suddenly all is quiet, just the buzzing of insects on shore and the gentle zip of the fisherman flicking an expert cast, stalking his prey.
     That's bass fishing: a combination of drag racing and chess.
     Chicago is going to be hearing a lot about bass fishing over the next month as the BASS Masters Classic—the pinnacle of the sport—leaves the South, where it has comfortably played to the choir for 30 years, and dips into Northern waters for the first time.
      Chicago seems receptive, so far.
     "The mayor wants to go out," said Tom Gray, a director in Mayor Daley's office of special events. "We're trying to set it up."
     The classic begins July 17, with 46 of the nation's top anglers trying to hook the fattest local bass, culminating with a "final weigh-in extravaganza" at Soldier Field on July 22.
     "Taking the BASS Masters Classic to Chicago is a bold move that is really going to elevate the sport," said Davy Hite of South Carolina, last year's champ.
     Bass fishermen talk a lot about elevating the sport. Although bass fishing has been moving into the big leagues (two years ago the Angler of the Year first appeared on a Wheaties box, and the Classic carries a $ 100,000 top prize), it isn't there yet.
     "Tournament angling doesn't have the dollars that golf has, but we're right behind," said Chuck Ramke, past-president of the Illinois B.A.S.S. Federation, which has 1,800 members.
     The competitors, in town last week to scout out Lake Michigan, grumbled about slim pickings. But they agreed that it is worth working a little harder if it means introducing bass fishing to an area perhaps unfamiliar with pros such as Gary Klein, with his quiet, intense demeanor.
     "I've never had another occupation," said Klein, 42. "I graduated high school, and instead of going to college I went out on the bass circuit."     
Gary Klein

     Weekend fishermen, who think of fishing as tossing a line in the water and waiting for a fish to bite, have no idea of the expertise that experts such as Klein, who earned $500,000 last year, bring to the sport.
     Klein knows where the fish are. After a week of scouting, including flying over the lake in a rented plane, he roars up to a section of shore just north of Calumet Harbor and searches out a particular rock.
     Standing at the bow of his 21-foot Triton boat, he eyeballs a smallmouth in the clear shallows, flicks his cast, sending a hand-poured tube lure under the fish's nose, practically, and gets a strike on the first try.
     "When I get to the spot the fish likes to favor, I'm on his nose all the time, like a fly, until he gets mad and he bites," Klein said.
     How does he know where the bass will be? Experience, and balancing dozens of factors, such as water and air temperature; wind speed; barometer reading; season, and the contours of the bottom.
     "When we look at a lake, we don't just see water, we see all the subtleties," he said. "We are very fine-tuned when it comes to putting together patterns."
     Though not a particularly physical sport, bass fishing takes a toll. Klein has a nasty scar on his right hand from a prize-winning bass that sank its teeth into him as he lifted it for the cameras.
     "It was a $100,000 fish," said Klein. "I wasn't going to drop it."
                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times June 12, 2000