Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"Voting for empathy ... The future. We can do better than than this."


Government Bureau, by George Tooker (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Either you sympathize with other people.
     Or you don't.
     That's it.
     That's our entire political moment right now.
     The rest, as Hillel said, is commentary.
     So here's mine.
     The key word in the first sentence is "other." Other people, different from yourself. Because empathizing with yourself and those exactly like you is easy.
     And ineffective.
     Tribalism was fine when humans lived in tribes. Building the modern world required putting aside prejudices and working together. Those who found it within themselves to say, "You know. . . this guy might be black ... but he could actually be a soldier, a professor, a quarterback. Let's give him a try" did better. Societies that made the leap did better.
     Lose sympathy and you suffer. Britain fled the European Union because enough Brits were convinced that membership meant a Turk might move in next door and, oh I don't know, do Turkish things. Smoke a hookah. So they blew up their own economy.
     We're next. The Republicans are at war with The Other: immigrants, Muslims, gays, Jews, blacks. Anybody who doesn't meet their hidebound notion of what an American should look like.
     The truth isn't on their side, so they lie, rationalize and blame-shift, while drumming up bogeymen to distract voters. It's happening in every race. Pick one one:
     The 6th District, Republican Rep. Peter Roskam against Democratic newcomer Sean Casten. Once, Roskam would be merely a bland GOP non-entity, endorsed by the NRA, calling climate change "junk science." The usual.
     Now the stakes are higher... 

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Outside the box: A visit to Chicago Mailing Tube Co.

     I had to call Chicago Mailing Tube Monday, related to a project I'm writing for the paper. To my amazement, I realized that I never posted the column I wrote about my visit there, 11 year ago. That seems a tremendous oversight, considering how much affection I have for their product—sturdy, sharply-made cardboard mailing tubes.
     Perhaps the visit is a worthwhile distraction, too. I don't know about you, but there is only so much time I can fret about our country declining into a feral state, and there is a comfort in the poetry of tangible objects. Back then the column covered a full page, and ended with a joke, so I've left it in, though I seem to think my audience consisted for politically-savvy 6-year-olds.
     Ken Barmore, by the way, passed away early in 2015, just shy of his 98th birthday.

     If you glance north out of the window of a commuter train shortly after it leaves Union Station, you might notice a sign with sleek stainless steel letters spelling out "CHICAGO MAILING TUBE CO."
     And if you are of a certain frame of mind, after seeing that sign for a sufficient number of years, you might begin to idly wonder about the cardboard tube industry, in general, and about this low brick factory in particular.  

     After a few years of speculation, you might find yourself climbing the stairs to the spartan second-floor offices of Chicago Mailing Tube, where you will meet Ken Barmore, 90, who bought the company in 1949.
     "There wasn't much to buy," he recalls, "one machine and six or seven people—nobody knew anything about the company."
     Chicago Mailing Tube was founded by three partners in 1902. Back then it sold a lot of snuff boxes—squat cylindrical containers similar to what holds chewing tobacco today. The containers were delivered by horse and wagon, and the company still proudly holds several city licenses for delivery horses.
     No horses anymore, but it does have 40 or so human employees, and a number of spectacularly complex machines, producing cardboard tubes in near-Dr. Seussian splendor: ribbons of paper flying off enormous spinning spools, puffs of steam, rivers of glue pumped from 3,000-gallon vats, pneumatic hisses and roaring spindles.
     The process is called "spiral winding"—3-inch strips of brown paper are coated with glue and then wrapped tightly around a metal core, or "mandrel," then squeezed by thick rubber belts.
     "The pressure is terrific," says Barmore, pointing to belts compressing the tubes. "You get a finger under there, it's going to be flat."
     Cutting tubes precisely is one challenge of their manufacture—lengths sometimes need to be within a tiny fraction of an inch if they are to be used in manufacturing, say to hold industrial wire.
     "This is a competitor's tube," Barmore says, standing among a forest of tubes in the "sample room," appraising a cylinder as tall as himself. He eyes the end carefully. "It's got a bad cut on it. It isn't square. A lot of companies, they couldn't use that."
     We think of tubes holding paper towels and toilet tissue, but they also hide in plain sight -- as Parmesan cheese containers, charity cans, crescent dough packages and masking tape roll cores. Tiny tubes hold bundles of wires in cars, and huge tubes form concrete pillars in construction.  

     "We used to make cores for machine-gun bullets for the Joliet arsenal," Barmore said.
     The brown paper in the tubes is 100 percent recycled and always has been -- Chicago Mailing Tube was green before green was cool.
     "We've always used recycled paper," Barmore says. "Fifty-seven years. It's a lot cheaper." How much cheaper? Between half and a quarter the cost of new paper.
     All the rejects, the poorly cut tubes, pieces of scrap, are fed up a conveyer into a grinder— it sounds like frozen turkeys raining down on a tin roof—then baled into enormous six-foot cubes to be returned to the mill to be pulped.
     How does a man get into the cardboard tube trade?
     "I wanted to get into the farm machinery business, but I couldn't make any kind of a deal," Barmore remembers. "I'm a farm boy, from Monroe, Wis. A dairy farm. I know cows."
     Why not stay down on the farm?
     "I hated it," he says. "I hated milking cows."
     This was during the Great Depression—Barmore is Monroe High School Class of '34—when collapsing milk prices had farmers dumping milk at the side of the road because it wasn't worth selling.
     "Things were very bad," he says. "Believe me, it was hell."
     He got a job candling eggs for $12 a week, repaired farm machinery, drove a bus in Rockford, found himself in charge of ordering coal for Central Illinois Electric and Gas.
     "How many pounds of coal to make a pound of steam, how many pounds of steam to make a kilowatt," he says. "I was figuring that out." Too many other jobs to list.
     Businesses are handed down, but his son, Tom, didn't want to make cardboard tubes.
     "He's a CPA—he didn't want to go into it," Barmore says. "He was not interested in tubes."
     Did that bother him?
     "I didn't want to be a farmer, so I figured, if he didn't want to make tubes, that's his business."
     But he has a grandson, Keith Shimon, who runs the business now.
   "I thought it would be fun, and it has been fun," says Shimon, 33. "It's been a lot of work, but it's been fun."
     Cardboard tubes are a $2 billion to $3 billion industry, according to Kris Garland of the Composite Can and Tube Institute based in Alexandria, Va.
     Competition from Asia is slight because of high shipping costs. A cardboard tube is expensive to ship.
     "It's kind of like we're shipping air, and the 10-inch tubes really fill up a truck," Shimon says.
     Thus, factories tend to be regional suppliers, much in the same way that local potato chip companies have stayed in business because nobody wants to ship potato chips very far.
     Technological progress has helped—better machines—and hurt the industry. Architects who once sent their plans in sturdy tubes now hit the send button instead. The American textile trade moving to China also hurt, because there is no need to make centers for bolts of cloth.
     Chicago Mailing Tube tries to stay ahead of a changing world by being nimble.
     "We pride ourselves in how fast we can react," Shimon says.
     "Customers call up today and the trailers go out tomorrow," Barmore says.
     Really? I ask.
     "Really," he says.

     I confess, I cooked this one up myself, in tribute to today's special topic. Apologies in advance:
     Q. What do you call toothpaste that is dozing at a briefing by former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card?
     A. A Card-bored tube.
                      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 18, 2007

Monday, October 29, 2018

Jews may not like life more than you do, but they talk about it more

Babylonian lion (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     You know what's a primary Jewish value?
     Being alive.
     I hope I'm not spilling the beans here. Revealing some deep rabbinic secret. 
     But it's true.
     We like being alive. It's important to us. I can't say whether Jews like living more than gentiles, since I'm not gentile. I would assume everybody likes life equally. So maybe it's just that Jews make a bigger deal of it—"To life! To life! L'Chaim!" We talk about it more, perhaps because there's always somebody trying to kill us.
     Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon. Razed Jerusalem and took the Jews into captivity, more than 2,500 years ago. Various caesars. About 1500 years worth of Christian leaders. Assorted Russian czars. Don't forget Hitler, and his pal Stalin. After the formation of Israel, the Arab states. When they failed, the PLO and periodic freelance Muslim terrorists, cheered on by half the sophomores around the world.
     Let's not forget home-grown American haters, like the guy who murdered 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday.
     That didn't happen in a vacuum, but two years into the administration of Donald Trump, our own miniature Mussolini who uses prejudice of all kinds to stir up and distract his base.
     "I am a nationalist," Trump said. Actually, what he said was "I am a white nationalist" but the "white" is unvoiced, like the "p" in "psalm." And if you didn't hear it, his far right supporters certainly did.
     Still. Mass shootings happen so frequently in the United States now—at churches, schools, music concerts, workplaces—that I don't feel inclined to join the chorus connecting this one to the anti-Semitism that Trump winks at. (Jews are the "globalists" that Trump refers to. Hitler called them "internationalists." And people claim there is no progress)

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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

     I wrote this in mid-September, when I heard that Elton John would be playing the United Center at the end of October. I intended to put it in the paper Friday—heck, he might even see it. But October sped by, and I forgot. Maybe just as well...

     When I find myself in front of a piano keyboard—something that seems to happen less and less as time goes by—I will sometimes, if the mood strikes me, lay my hands on the keys, standing there, or maybe even pull the bench out and sit down, then begin to play the opening chords of "Your Song," by Elton John. Surprising—I imagine, if they noticed or cared, which of course they don't—anyone who happens to be around, because I do not know how to play the piano.
     But I can play "Your Song," or now, after the corroding years, the first few seconds, because when I was 17 I laboriously taught myself to play it, note by note, chord by chord, first the right hand, then the left, then together, as a present for my girlfriend on her 16th birthday.
     She loved Elton John. Loved him, with that singular intensity and passion that teenage girls direct toward certain singers, certain fashions and certain boys. I can't say that her attraction to Elton John and to me were unrelated: we both were guys in glasses, prone to heaviness, adept with words, though of course Elton got his, famously, from lyricist, Bernie Taupin, while I was on my own.
     At 17, I was more into Bob Dylan—"Blood on the Tracks"—had just come out, and viewed her extraordinary fondness for Elton with amusement, at first. But then, in the gravity that our loves hold for us, was pulled in too, and her interest became mine.
     What Elton John is now—big glam stadium rocker, dressed as Donald Duck, churning out the hits—wasn't how he was then. He had done a pensive, Western-themed album, "Tumbleweed Connection." (ahead of its time; issued three years before the Eagles decided to be desperados). Quiet, trickling love songs, that I didn't realize it, would come in handy when our romance fizzled out, five years later. "Lately, I've been thinking, how much I miss my lady..."
     Elton John was performing in Chicago this weekend. I was tempted to go, even though the last concert I attended was years and years ago: Tom Waits at the Chicago Theater, really, because I couldn't not go.
     But Elton John, bidding goodbye to his performing career? That's tempting.
     "I thought maybe we should go to the United Center and see Elton John," I said to the wife, in mid-September.
     "Have you seen him before?" she asked.
     "Yes," I replied. "1979. At the Auditorium Theater."
     "That would be the time to have seen him, then," she replied, with finality.
     Yes, yes it was.
     I was in college then, beginning of sophomore year. You had to enter a lottery and the lucky few would have the privilege of coming downtown to buy tickets. I won, and remember the trip to the box office for the newness of going downtown, as well because Steve McQueen was jumping a car off the parking garage at Marina Towers for his movie "The Hunter," and I joined the throng cordoned across Wacker Drive, waiting for the great moment.
     But watching a movie being made is like watching paint dry. I had tickets waiting at the Auditorium box office, and eventually gave up waiting and moved on. I can still see the pair of tickets—good seats—in their little envelope. I photocopied them and sent them to her, without any explanation, a tacit invite. The letter, I'm sure, is in the big bag, tied with thick blue piece of yarn, sitting in the basement, the letters she handed back to me when she dumped me in 1982. I could dig into the bag and find it, but I'm not touching the thing. I opened the bag exactly once, read a sentence or two, then closed it and never opened it again. It is not a place I want to go.
     The ploy worked. She came to Chicago, my college roommates were banished, and we camped out in the back bedroom of Northwestern Apartments 210, except the night of the concert, a Chicago nightlife whirlwind. Dinner at Jimmy Wong's—the exotic pu-pu-for-two platter, and a big fishbowl of a drink that had, in my memory, a little flame in the center of the glass. Or was that was the night before. Because the night of the concert, staying at what was then the Pick-Congress Hotel, a dark, sub-par refuge, then and now, we ordered a room service cheeseburger and a Heineken. I can still see the tray in the dark room....
     The show was Elton solo—that was a big deal, I recall—though, halfway through, a giant clamshell opened behind him, and there was Ray Cooper, his drummer, looking maniacal, hunched over his kit, playing timpani. It was a dramatic effect.
     The part of the show I remember was during "Rocket Man," Elton John improvised, "I'm burned out, I'm faded away, I'm a fucking Rocket Man," he sang, and we all cried "No! No!"
     He was 32 years old then, though I suppose a decade on the road made him feel that way. I can't imagine how he feels now, after nearly a half century of mega-stardom and enormous fame and wealth. My guess is it can all seem pointless—the drawback of doing what you love every day, day after day, month after month, year after year.
     So I thought I would remind him, that beyond the sea of people, there must be an army of duffers, of lower grade Rocket Men, slightly singed, smelling of cordite, looking wearily at the nearly-drawn parabola of our lives, "that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return," as Thomas Pynchon put it.
     Countless people, like me, like maybe her—I couldn't say and wouldn't dream of trying to find out—who didn't go to the show. Who asked themselves what they were trying to find that was worth $500 for a pair of tickets, and decided, no matter how good the performance, what we were looking for wouldn't be there. But who still carry all that music around, and know all the words to "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." For all his glitter, nobody celebrated the ordinary like Elton John, "just someone his mother might know." It is probably meaningless to a star like him but, for what it's worth, the ordinary salute him, and say, "Thanks." It meant something.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #12

     When a photograph is being taken, the person in the picture usually poses, smiling.
     Not in this case.
     Last week I was visiting Plochman's Mustard factory in Manteno, for a future story, when the tour came to the assembly line. This worker checking newly capped mustard bottles and plucking off the jars whose caps were skewed seemed to be a process worth photographing. I took out my phone and snapped ... this.
     The moment I took it, I felt bad for her. Normally, I'd ask permission, but with a worker in a factory, permission is assumed. I already had permission, from her bosses. 
   Bad, but not too bad. I also knew this was an arresting shot, far more than had she just acquiesced to the photo. That blue glove, like an exclamation point. The photo seemed to speak to the intrusiveness of modern life. All these cameras, the immediate worldwide attention found 24 hours a day online. Who among us doesn't shrink from that? 
    Is that why she's hiding her face? I didn't ask—my interest was in the production line, not her, specifically. I shouldn't speculate as to her motives, but it reminded me of about 15 years ago when I visited Lithuania. There used to be, oh, 50 synagogues in Vilnius, before World War II, but now there is just one left. The moment I arrived, with a photographer, and walked into the sanctuary, there was  a single Jew there. We went to take his picture, the last Jew in the last synagogue, against the large Hebrew prayer boards they have, or had, in Eastern Europe.
    "No," the man said, twisting away from the camera and shielding his face. "I don't like myself."
    There seemed a bitter irony in that. We absorb the poison around us.
    As I said, I don't know what her motive was and shouldn't guess: hiding from the law, not wanting a malicious ex-boyfriend to see her, concern an image would steal her soul, a variety of possible explanations. Who knows? But I have to lean toward the one offered by that lone Lithuanian Jew as explaining the motive of most people in these situations: they don't like themselves, don't like how they look, don't want pictures taken of this unattractive person who they happen to be. 
    She seemed to relent, after this first protest, and in other pictures of the line, her face does appear. But I didn't use those, didn't pass them along to the newspaper—trying to respect her obvious wish not to be seen. But I decided it was okay to post this one, in the smaller sphere of my blog, since you can't recognize her. I see it as a dramatic statement from those who feel this way. 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Got 40 seconds? Good, then do I have part of a column for you!


     Forty seconds.
     Not a lot of time. I'll have to work fast. Stick with me.
     Standing in the newsroom Wednesday I did something I don't often do: study one of the big monitors hanging from the ceiling, showing how our stories are doing.  Checking on my Mega Millions column. Top 10; good, good—people love the lottery. Nodding in contentment, I let my eye wander rightward to "engagement time," how long the average reader spends absorbing this finely wrought argument.
     Forty seconds.
     Ouch. You can't read a column a 40 seconds. Most people must bail out. Looking at the other stories, I saw 40 seconds is actually a long time. One had a time of seven seconds.
     You see why. People are on their phones, flicking here and there. They're like my dog, three steps forward—SQUIRREL!—another three steps—SMELLY SPOT ON THE GROUND!
     It can take her a while to get anywhere.

     The above can be read in 40 seconds—I just did, auctioneer-style, with a stopwatch. So you distracted folks, you've put in your time. I unclip your leash. For the rest, let's continue. Ripping through the above made me think of a Woody Allen joke: "I took a speed-reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia."
     Doesn't everything nowadays?
     And no, I don't take the 40 second average as an indictment of this little 719-word parcel left on your doorstep three times a week. Don't bother writing to sneeringly claim that if only I'd respect our president more, well then, readers would just sprawl before the column, sipping sweet tea, lingering indolently over what I have to say as shadows lengthen on the veranda.
     Thank you for your valuable input.
     Not that I am decrying the speed of modern life, something every writer since Seneca has done. What's the point? Technology wins. Always. It proceeds forward at its own imperative, and we lope after, changing as we go. We are not the same people who flustered in indignation at installing a telephone in our homes where complete strangers might interrupt us during the dinner hour. Those people were not smarter or kinder or better than we are—certainly not when you consider the hideous wrongs they accepted.
     The past is a terrible place. All its jaw-dropping folly was committed at a snail's past, relative to ours. Blundered into after years of careful debate. After endless speeches written in longhand, our country broke in half and started killing each other in the Civil War. Maybe it's better to be distracted: heck, half the people are reading on their phones, and if they don't look up regularly they'll blunder in front of a bus. Distraction is protective.
     I certainly distract myself. Walking somewhere without listening to an audio book seems so 20th century. Also on Wednesday I finished "Oliver Twist" on Audible—17 hours, 12 minutes. Time well spent? I'd say yes. Not because of the story. Oliver is perhaps the most inert hero in literature, buffeted through the tale like a cork in a stream, falling into the clutches of Fagin the Jew here, being rescued by good Christian folk there. He barely acts or speaks, beyond his famous request for "More."
     But Dickens' depiction of grinding London poverty is moving, a reminder that before Western society had minorities to hate, it scorned their own kind, based on wealth and social position.
     One scene resonates. Teen heroine Rose Maylie is visiting Oliver's benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, and his pal Mr. Grimwig. Learning Oliver is downstairs, Brownlow races from the room:
When the room-door closed behind him, Mr. Grimwig ... rose and limped as fast as he could up and down the room at least a dozen times, and then stopping suddenly before Rose, kissed her without the slightest preface.
     "Hush!" he said, as the young lady rose in some alarm at this unusual proceeding. "Don't be afraid. I'm old enough to be your grandfather. You're a sweet girl. I like you. Here they are!"
     That moment is never referred to again, nor does it affect Mr. Grimwig's status as a colorful crank. It was written by Dickens in the late 1830s and could have just as easily been written in the 1930s. But in 2018 it jars. That's progress.
     Thank you for your time and attention. You may go now.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Or if you have to play the lottery, don't play Mega Millions

The Lottery, Sèvres Manufactory, circ. 1757 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

      When I finished yesterday's column on the Mega Millions lottery, it was 1408 words—twice as long as could fit into the newspaper. A few things I thought worth saying ended up on the cutting room floor (and a good thing too; I'd hate to think it was all superfluous tap-dancing and thumb-twidding).
     The part I want to take an extra day to pass along regards the Mega Millions game, and its 302-million-to-one chance of success. There are other lotteries, lots of them, most with far, far, far better odds. If you really just have to throw your money away so you can hope for things, and the idea is you want to win, you should throw your money away on those. You still won't win, but at least you'll have a better chance.
     Since mere argument is ineffective, I tried backing it up with this:
     Think of it this way: If I offered you one of two games, a chance to pick a number between 1 and 1000 with a prize of $1,000, or to roll a die and win $10 if a six comes up, it would be foolish to pick the former game, based on the bigger prize you won't be getting, and not the latter, with its far, far better 1 in 6 odds. You're still probably going to lose either game, so go for the one you have the best chance of winning.
     But people don't think that way, in part because the media doesn't challenge them to. We ignore that not only does the vast, vast, vast vast vast majority lose, but that winning is also overrated. We see the lucky souls clutching the giant check, and then they disappear into the blasted lives.
     Lots of conversation about this—people love the lottery, and I don't want them to think I'm some anti-lottery fanatic. I just think the lottery is stupid and, though as a rule I don't like to meddle in another person's fantasy, with the vast engine of the media banging garbage cans over its head and huzzahing for the lottery, I feel morally obligated to cough the truth into my fist a few times, just for appearance's sake.
     A common argument is that the lottery offers hope that money worries would be at an end. That's a particularly pernicious fantasy, and I replied to a person on Facebook with this metaphor: it's as if you have one cow, and are insisting that if only you had another thousand cows, well then your concerns over cattle would be at an end. Just the opposite. They would only be beginning.
     To this line of thinking, I was accused of being an elitist. Blessed with a good job (though not a particularly secure one) I can't relate to those who struggle to pay rent and buy food. Though those are the very people least in a position to spend money on the lottery. If your plans for dinner involves hitting the Mega Millions on your way to the supermarket well, buddy, plan on being hungry.
     The truth of the matter, I think, the the final word, was offered up by this reader, who observed the following, which I will leave with you. Thanks to everybody for the interesting conversations:
     Neil, you are not a gambler are you? Any degenerate gambler will tell you that the end game is not the win or loss, it’s the action and anticipation. The most exciting moment to any gambler is the moment before the card turns over, the dice stop, the ball falls on a number or the wheels stop spinning. That is the thrill and the reason people keep coming back and the reason some get addicted. Same with the lottery, that $2 or $20 is not about actually winning, but the action of the winning numbers coming up and the fantasy about what you could do if by some miracle you did win. It’s a much needed distraction from every day life and is harmless as long as you don’t start betting the rent or grocery money.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Be happy you didn't win the Mega Millions lottery

"The Lottery," by William Hogarth (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Friday, 4:30 p.m., stand up, coat on, hat too, quick glance at the desk before I flick off the lights and head for the train.
     There, something I hadn't noticed: a folded piece of paper: "I (HEART) MY AWESOME COLLEAGUES," A red heart. My own heart sank, I open the paper. A note of thanks from a coworker. And a lottery ticket to the Mega Millions $1 billion drawing that night.
     My first instinct was to give it back. The lottery is stupid.
     But I hesitated. What if the ticket I handed back won? Just my luck. Besides, what would I say to her: "Don't drag me down into your fantasy world?"
     What if I won? The first of an army of concerns waved its hand: my responsibility toward this co-worker. Well, I'd of course do the decent thing. I'll give her, umm, a million dollars.   
     That seems fair.
     No, actually, it's not fair. Not if you do the math. A million dollars is 1/10 of 1 percent of $1 billion. Giving her $1 million in gratitude for my $1 billion windfall would be the same as rewarding somebody who returns a dropped $20 bill with a tip of two pennies. The ratio is the same.
     See, you enter the lottery world and, "I'll give my coworker a million dollars" becomes ill-considered cheapness.
     I tried not to think about it. That night, at dinner, recounting the day, I mentioned the burden of this lottery ticket dropping into my lap.
     "Oh good!" my wife bubbled. "I meant to buy a ticket!"
     My mouth opened closed a few times, goldfish-like.
     Ah heck, why not? We fell to fantasizing about the money, or trying to.  The boys would be ruined, I observed. Why study hard, forge a career, with hundreds of millions of dollars waiting? If we gave them a share, they'd squander it. But if we held it back, they'd hate us.      My colleague would hate me if I didn't give her enough, and my relatives would hate me if I did.
     See? You're supposedly paying for the chance to dream, but it's more like paying for new worries.
     Coverage of the lottery is the media at its worst. I didn't win Friday's drawing. Nobody did, though good luck finding stories that pause from panting "Rollover!" to note that it means had you bought every single ticket sold you'd have still lost. We ignore that not only does the vast majority lose, but that winning is vastly also overrated.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Give me a lever and a place to stand

Bronze steelyard, Roman (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    "Give me a lever," Archimedes said, "and a place to stand, and I will move the world."
     Only he didn't say that. That is the final version, the gradual improvement, cleaned-up over the centuries, as everyone from Lord Byron to Thomas Jefferson to John F. Kennedy grabbed the thought and started polishing.
      So I don't feel bad, faced with one of those lingering household tasks, left undone due to its difficulty, I thought of Archimedes' supposed line (compounding the error by ascribing it to Aristotle—they both begin with A!—until I drew upon my journalistic training, and checked).
     So what did Archimedes say? Nothing. His writings are lost. The sentiment comes to us from Plutarch, in his Life of Marcellus (14:7):
    And yet even Archimedes, who was a kinsman and friend of King Hiero, wrote to him that with any given force it was possible to move any given weight; and emboldened, as we are told, by the strength of his demonstration, he declared that, if there were another world, and he could go to it, he could move this. Hiero was astonished, and begged him to put his proposition into execution, and show him some great weight moved by a slight force
    Which he proceeded to do, Plutarch says, by moving a ship with little effort, using a system of pulleys. 
Cigarette card, 1888 (Met)
      I myself resorted to a species of lever, a hand truck—a vastly useful tool to have around the house.  And it worked.
     Maybe I should outline the situation:
     My younger son wanted to be a writer. I, in that automatic error that parents make, used my life as the lens through which to see his, and though this ambition meant he needed a roll top desk to write upon. Because that's what writers have, roll top desks. I still have the one I bought with my paper route money in the early 1970s, for all the good it did.
     Thanks to the wonder of Craigslist, a sufficiently massive oaken roll top desk was stuck into his room, where it sat neglected for five or 10 years, until he made it known we could get rid of that thing at any time.
     Oh that it were that easy.
     My wife automatically assumed that her husband, with his balky back and bad hip, could never move the thing. Perhaps neighbor boys could. Perhaps a lawn care crew could be waylaid at their work and lured inside our home. She spoke, several times, made several calls. But burly men or boys were not available. I pondered what to do, even phoned 1-800-GOT-JUNK. No wonder they're so cheery on those radio ads; they're expensive.
    "Give me a lever," I thought, "and a place to stand, and I will move the world."
     Monday after my writing was done, I dragged the hand truck upstairs and tipped the desk onto it. Then bumped the chunk of oak slowly but controlled down the stairs, out the front door, and into the van. I was afraid they wouldn't take it, but the folks at Goodwill were happy to have it. "We have a lot of people who want these things," the guy at Goodwill said.
     "I hope it finds a good home," I said, driving off with relief. And people think the classics are without practical use.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Tab addiction grips nation

     Tab, the diet soft drink made by Coca Cola, is having a cultural moment. Another cultural moment, rising like a carbonated bubble to the foaming surface of American life. According to the New York Times, its die-hard fans are in a "panic" over the prospect of shortages, whether real or imagined. I was alerted to this crisis thanks to that carnival of the trivial, Facebook, by an NU classmate who sent me a link to the story, and reminded me of a parody ad I had wrote for our college humor magazine, "Rubber Teeth."
     It's flattering to have something you did remembered after ... gee ... 38 years, and I promised I would dig it up. Though now, I can't imagine what prompted me to write it; living in a co-ed dorm, the Northwestern Apartments on Orrington Avenue, I suppose. The beautiful, good-humored model, Laurel Campbell, was my next door neighbor on the second floor, and I vaguely recall posing her in some remote dorm basement. I remember being inordinately proud that we found a machine whose little light is on for the Tab button, showing they are out. I also seem to remember concerns being raised by my colleagues at the magazine—Rubber Teeth, for "biting satire that doesn't hurt," the brainchild of my pal, Robert Leighton—about lawsuits from an offended Coca Cola, the kind of grandiosity that launches magazines in the first place. "Let 'em sue us," I said, reflecting complete ignorance both of the agonies of litigation and the protection offered by parody.
     The ad's rudimentary production values I'll generously hope can be ascribed to trying to imitate those grim fear-inducing Ad Council warnings about drunk driving and child abuse and such, popular at the time. Though they more likely were mere amateurism. I was 20, which I hope excuses me from any stench of sexism that lingers around the copy. The year was 1980.
    None of which would be worth sharing, if reading the Times piece didn't raise a question that it didn't bother to answer: Tab and Diet Coke: what's the difference, if any? "The Straight Dope" addressed the question in 1983, concluding that "For practical purposes the difference between Tab and Diet Coke is that they come in different-colored cans." The Tab can being pink, speaking of sexism, the idea being, I guess, to make the product a siren call to dieting girls, who love pink. Even more noteworthy, the Coca Cola company seems to think that it should be spelled "TaB," as evidenced by this bit of corporate puffery celebrating the beverage's 50th anniversary in 2013. Not happening.


Sunday, October 21, 2018


     Halloween used to be a kid thing. Children wore costumes, ran around the neighborhood, collected candy. Their parents didn't even hover in the distance, monitoring, the way they do now. Unless their kids were toddlers. At least mine didn't. They assumed their youngsters could navigate their own neighborhoods and find their way home, sometimes lending them flashlights for that purpose.
    By the time you were a teen, the party was over. You were too old for Halloween, though you tried to get one last candy sweep of the neighborhood in before exiled to the responsibilities of semi-adulthood.
    Now that's changed. Halloween has also become a grown-up thing, spurred by big beer companies. The adults don't go door-to-door demanding candy. Not yet anyway. But otherwise, it's official party time, like New Year's Eve or the Super Bowl or the Fourth of July.
    Pets are included in on the fun too, as we celebrate ... what is it exactly? Our temporary reprieve from the universality of death, I suppose. The flavor "Pumpkin spice." Something like that.
    I'm game for a little Halloween fun. On Saturday, I went to help judge the Spooky Pooch contest at the Chicago Botanic Garden, as I did last year. There were three other judges, and each of us got a different category: one judged dogs who looked like their owners, another judged puppies. My area was "Botanical Bowsers" — dog costumes on themes related to gardens.
     Not a popular category. Most dogs were dressed up as sharks or spiders, pirates or, as in above, a UPS driver. Of the 325 or so entries, 11 entered the aspect I was judging. Not many. The space in front of me where eager contestants were supposed to be was usually empty, while the lines grew in front of the other judges. I felt shunned by fate and costumed dogs.
     "Avoid altruism," I muttered to myself, slumping on my folding chair, looking around, feeling mooted, ignored. What our weatherman MC kept calling a "wintry mix" started pelting down, the grey skies raced by, wet, cold, windy and foreboding. That didn't help. The guy from WBEZ next to me smiled widely at his crowd of contestants, busily judging entry after entry. In front of me, nothing, nobody. Typical.
    Okay Neil, I told myself, suck it up. Can the self-pity. So you get to spend a couple hours at the Botanic Garden, looking at excited people — families often—and their cute pets wearing creative costumes. Two dogs came before me dressed as autumn leaves: not quite the theme, but pretty enough. A French bulldog named Uncle Bill was dressed as a bird of paradise, which is definitely botanical. He could have won. But for the trio of very enthusiastic folks, their costumed called "In a garden." Two were dressed as gardeners, one as a bee and their two dogs were dressed as a flower and a bee — essential for pollination. I have a lot of sympathy for bees; they're embattled. "Life brings our misfortunes to the bees," as Virgil wrote. And these people were really, really excited just to be there. Of course I picked them — as opposed to, say, the contestant who confessed she decided to enter into the garden category because she figured few would and thus had the best chance at winning.
     Picking worthy winners helped. They seemed surprised, overjoyed. So not such a bad idea to do this after all. Certainly meant something to them. And maybe to me too.  Being a writer often is incredibly humbling, and while it can sting while fate is administering her lashes, the lesson is a valuable one, and keeps hubris tamped down.  If you're self-important, you shouldn't be — the significance is passing at best — and if you forget that, reminders will be administered.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #11

Khermariah McClinton, at Atlas Stationers, 227 W. Lake.

     It was raining, lightly, on Friday afternoon when I finished lunch. Leaving Petterino's, I meant to head south, to grab the Madison Street bus back to the newspaper. But I was slightly awhirl from my conversation, to be honest, and found myself quite turned around, walking west down Lake Street when I finally got my bearings.
     I decided to keep going. Atlas Stationers was only a few blocks away, and I braved the sprinkles to pick up my new 2019 Brownline datebook before they ran out, as they sometimes do if I wait until too close to New Year's. I could have easily bought it online, of course. But I hadn't been to Atlas in months, and stopping by was like visiting old friends, literally, from walking past the timeworn iron columns, to catching owner Terese Schmidt between deliveries, and being introduced to her younger son, fresh from college and now working at the store.
     She expressed relief that I had come for my Brownline—they had worried—and proudly showed off Atlas' new pen section, explaining how young professional types are hot for fancy pens, for Waterman fountain pens and high tech Lamy pens from Germany, displayed in a case that the company custom made for the store. I observed that with the Gilbertson pen store finally closing on Chicago Avenue must have left those desirous of high end pens underserved, and she was wise to stop into the void. She said that guidebooks are now lauding Atlas for its pen selection, and that the splendid office supply shop had now become a "destination" sought out by pen-savvy tourists.
     Owners of fancy pens, Terese explained,  like to use colorful inks, not just in the traditional blue or black or red, but an entire rainbow of possibilities with names like Rose Tendresse and Violet Pensie. As it happened, an Atlas employee, Khermariah McClinton, was penning a colorful card, to let customers know their ink options. When I asked her to write her name in my Moleskine notebook, she did so in a bright Hunter Green hue.
     I explained, rather sheepishly, that I write too much to be able to indulge a fancy pen, certainly not a fountain pen, and that I was sure to lose any pricy pen I was so bold as to buy, and keeping track of the treasure until that inevitability would be a continual burden and source of strain, its certain disappearance a source of grief. I thought of suggesting a compromise—a trainer fancy pen, once only mildly pricey whose disappearance would be a manageable woe. Instead I showed off the cheap yellow Sun-Times promotional give-away pen I glommed from the newspaper, as proof that what I said was true. Still, that attitude, once articulated, seemed a species of cowardice, and I promised that I would keep track of the pen trend, and perhaps reconsider my refusal to acquire a fancy pen of my own at some point in the indeterminate future.

Friday, October 19, 2018

New York Stories #5: Miznon

New York City
    So how does the Miznon in New York City measure up to the one in Paris? Not quite as well, I'm afraid to report.  At least not cauliflower-wise.
    Last year, visiting our older son at the Sorbonne, we ended up in La Marais, "The Swamp," the old Jewish quarter, (birds of a feather...) where we jammed ourselves into Israeli chef Eyal Shani's outpost of "Mediterranean street food." (The original, not the second one opened earlier this year).  It was wall-to-wall—commotion and aroma and a mild roar of French and Hebrew. But we claimed a spot at the bar, and ordered the speciality of the house, despite its unpromising premise: roasted cauliflower.
Miznon, Paris
     You wouldn't order it, would you? I sure wouldn't. But it was, I was firmly told, what people order. You have to. It's obligatory. Always surprising what you'll do when told you're supposed to. "Get the bucket of raw cow brains—Buzzfeed said it was exquisite..."
    Maybe that's because people know. The wisdom of crowds. The roasted cauliflower was an epiphany.  If you can't imagine eating and entire cauliflower with a knife and a fork, well, trust me, it's that good. The broccoli I had insisted on also ordering—I like broccoli—was an anti-climax, superfluous and sad. My wife viewed the vegetable as if it were a personal flaw of mine, after that superlative cauliflower, which we not only ate, in transport, but then cherished the memory of eating, and tried reproducing the wonder ourselves at home but couldn't come close. We suspect it's somehow treated—steamed, soaked, something—beforehand.
     When I saw that a Miznon opened earlier this year in Chelsea Market, not far from my older son's law school ("It's following him!" I said) giving it a try was my primary mission during our trip to New York.  See the boy, then get that cauliflower and, oh I suppose, go to a museum or a play or something. I couldn't tell if I wanted the jet-setting joy of going to both locations (there's also an outpost in Tel Aviv) or just wanted the pleasure of tasting that roasted miracle. 
New York
   You can't go home again. Maybe the surprise of that first perfectly prepared cauliflower can never be recaptured. Maybe the vegetable itself wasn't as good (although it should have been; cauliflower are in peak season in the fall). My wife pointed out that this didn't have the delectably-charred leaves. We still gobbled up the thing (well, I did, as she pointed out, without a smile, later). We also ordered the "bag of beets"—roasted beets, which weren't that bad. Or at least I wasn't blamed for them.
    The restaurant was very loud—some kind of DJ blaring some kind of sounds, music apparently—and we quickly moved on try out a nearby taco place that had received high marks. Having been to Tel Aviv once, that's plenty for a lifetime, and I have never been tempted to go back for any reason. Not until I realized that if I go, I could complete the hat trick, Miznon-wise. Suddenly, the Promised Land beckons. I can be strange that way.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

New York Stories #4: Washington Square Park

     Every university has a quad, an open green space for students to relax in. New York University's just happens to be Washington Square Park. A public space for more than two centuries, originally as a cemetery—some 20,000 bodies are thought to rest somewhere beneath its hexagonal stones.
     Famed New York developer Robert Moses wanted to extend 5th Avenue right through the park—the sort of monstrous deference to the automobile that so hobbled cities in the middle of the last century. He failed, but even then cars could drive under the arch until 1971.
     Speaking of the 1970s, I have grim associations with the park—I remember pausing to watch someone shoot up in a car right outside it, the waxy white arm gleaming in the dim light from the street. It still has its expected cast of addicts and lunatics—one went berserk while we were walking past and ended up lying in West 4th Street, shirtless, screaming at the traffic, while we averted our eyes and hurried on.
     But generally Washington Square Park has a more sedate vibe, helped during our final stroll before heading to the airport by this gentleman and his piano. I never got a look at his face, so can't confirm my suspicion that this was Colin Huggins, "The Crazy Piano Guy" who sometimes shows up in the park with an 800-pound baby grand. It could be him. Or not. When I asked him if it was difficult to drag the piano around, he replied, "What's difficult is the years it took me to learn to play so I could do this," a very New York answer.
    Though honestly, as singular as Huggins is, I like the notion of there being multiple Washington Park piano players, all vying for the same real estate. That's New York for you.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

New York Stories #3: Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge

     Two very different songs came to me in Brooklyn.
     The first was perhaps inevitably, given my generation, when I realized we were not only in Brooklyn, but Brooklyn Heights.
     "But Patty's only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights...." 
     The "Patty Duke Show" theme song. My wife was amazed I remembered it. But I have a mind for that kind of thing.
     The other came as we shopped around for bagels. That was the idea—take the subway to Brooklyn, sample bagel places, return walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Edie had Googled "best bagels in Brooklyn" and had a list, and I was following along. As good a way as any to pass a Saturday morning, though we decided that none of the actual New York bagels were as good as the ones at New York Bagels on Dempster Street.  Too big and airy, not dense and chewy enough. 
     We ended up walking down Montague Street. I noticed a plaque—here was where Arthur Miller wrote his first Broadway play. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with the information, but it did drive home what street I was on, and evoked a line from Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue."
     "I lived with them on Montague Street, the basement down the stairs, there was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air."
     Must have been nice. But don't look for a plaque—while Dylan lived in Greenwich Village (on 4th Street, hence "Positively 4th Street") I couldn't find any evidence he lived with anybody on Montague Street, which dead-ends into the riverside promenade. It was just a story he made up.
    My wife and I took a right, then found our way to the Brooklyn Bridge and walked across.
    For some reason we were surprised to find it crowded, though of course it would be. How many sights in New York are famous, historic and, oh yes, free?
     Jammed, the pedestrian half anyway, with enough bikes blowing at top speed along the bike lane to keep walkers packed onto their side.  Someone is going to get killed there, one of these days, if they haven't already.
     We bought a bag of cucumbers and a bag of mangoes to munch. 
     Halfway across the bridge I noticed something truly extraordinary: a plaque to Emily Warren Roebling, who completed construction of the bridge after her husband, chief engineer Washington Roebling, became ill, a victim of the bends, it is believed, having taken over from his father, John Roebling, the bridge's designer, who died, of tetanus. after his foot was crushed while surveying the site, one of dozens of men who perished during its construction.
     The New York Times, in their series of belated obituaries celebrating overlooked women, included Emily Roebling, even though she was not overlooked, in her time. “How the Wife of the Brooklyn Bridge Engineer Has Assisted Her Husband,” read the headline of one article after the bridge opened—she was the first person to walk across the completed bridge, carrying a rooster—it is said—for good luck.
     I pointed out the plaque to my wife, worried she would take the epigram, “Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman," in the wrong light. But she seemed unperturbed by it.



Tuesday, October 16, 2018

New York Stories #2: The Accessibility Project

    You can't go to New York and not see a sign that, well, just encapsulates its attitudinal, 24-hours-a-day, go-go-go sensibility.
    For years, there was that wonderful, "Don't even THINK of parking here."
   Or this update on the familiar handicapped access sign. I never considered just how static the neutral human figure in that chair really was until I saw this. Just as Chicago can seem like a hopping place until you hit New York.
     As with all good graphics, the second you see it, you know what it is intended to convey: that disability and dynamic action are not incompatible.
     Of course there is a story behind this symbol. It isn't exactly new.  Newish.
Showing its age
     The original "International Symbol of Access" was created in the 1968 by Danish design student Susan Koefoed.  Around 2010, the Accessible Icon Project began collecting more dynamic symbols, such as those at the MOMA and Marshalls, of all places, which showed a speeding wheelchair with little motion bars.
     Since then, they've been promoting the updated logo as a kind of guerrilla art project, slapping new versions over existing signs.
     Progress is slow. The status quo has its own weight and momentum. Despite eight years of promotion, the old symbol still predominates—I'd never seen the new one until I came to New York—New York state officially adopted the more active logo for its public buildings in 2014.
     Still, this seems like the future. Something you can't embrace if you don't know about.

Monday, October 15, 2018

New York Stories #1: Caffe Reggio

     I'm working on a project for the paper this week so, in lieu of the column, I'm presenting some observations from my recent visit to New York City.

     Once I visited an old Italian barber in Sandburg Village.  This was years ago. He surprised me by serving an espresso and a biscotti while I had my hair cut. It seemed very civilized, the tiny cup and saucer, the hot liquid, the sweet biscuit, the snip of the scissors.
     I didn't think of the nexus between barbering and espresso again until last week, in New York City.
     The cab from LaGuardia dropped off us at West Third and MacDougal, in front of the law school. We had time to kill—the boy was at class. 
     "Let's wait there," I said, pointing to a bright green storefront across MacDougal, "Caffe Reggio." My wife and I rolled our suitcases in that direction.
      Inside was a small, dark, space. Metal ice cream parlor chairs, white marble tables, black marble floors. Dark oil paintings. Busts. Pleasant classical music playing. My wife ordered a latte. I ordered a double espresso and a pair of the small round cookies I had noticed in the case. They serve a glass of water with your coffee—civilized. The orange-rimmed china cups and sugar bowls are emblazoned with the name of the cafe—also civilized.
     And so it began. Five, count 'em, five mornings in a row, begun at the Caffe Reggio, founded in 1927 by Domenico Parisi, the man—it is said—who introduced cappuccino into the United States.  Originally he ran a barber shop in the space, selling espresso to customers as they waited for their haircuts. Balancing the 20 minutes of work required to give a haircut, and the one minute to prepare an espresso, both costing 10 cents, Parisi prudently let the barber shop go by the wayside. The space was elegant yet casual, compact yet spacious. It felt like we had stepped out of the stream of time, into another dimension.
     "It's worth coming to New York just to sit here," I said, on the first day.
     A small door to the left of the counter, with a hand-painted plaque above it. The profile of a man—Dante, clearly. I went over to read the words printed there: "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate..."
     I don't speak Italian, but I recognized the phrase, and the Canto number above confirmed my suspicions. Among the most famous lines in literature: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." The inscription above the gates of Hell. A bathroom joke.
    Our son arrived, all smiles—he had never been here before, why would he?—and we departed for his quickstep tour the campus.
     But the next day we were back. My wife had a plan—walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, sample Brooklyn bagels—but we needed caffeine to send us on our way. I opted for coffee, and it came in a huge cup. Biscotti this time. Branching out.
     "Do many customers notice the Dante joke?" I asked the waitress.
     "Every second person," she said, flatly. Ouch. Pedantry is punished.
    The third morning we had breakfast: sharing a "Crepe Reggio," filled with fluffy ricotta cheese. Delicious. The fourth day we met a friend there for breakfast and sat talking and catching up for almost two hours. Nobody rushed us. An omelet this time.
     Back in Chicago, I delved into its history. Bob Dylan was a patron.  So was Jack Kerouac. The room had cameos in movies such as "Godfather II," "Serpico" and "Shaft"—Isaac Hayes' famous soundtrack includes a song, "Cafe Regio," a reminder that musicians are not known for their proofreading skills. The place figures into Andre Aciman's "False Papers." The Egyptian author would return, sometimes several times a day, trying to master the ache caused by a girl he courted at Caffe Reggio, "Seeking to recover something I felt I lost there."
    To me, it was the opposite. I felt I found something there, a certain calm, a place of temporary belonging. Edie immediately understood. "Every day we have coffee there is a happy day," she said, on the last day, when we made a point of heading there before meeting our son for lunch and then to the airport and home.
    Four out of five days I sat in the same chair, facing the open green door. There was always a customer tucked next to the door, and I took to slyly snapping a photo of the patron. Chicago has much to recommend it, but there is no place like this, where time has stopped or, rather, is measured out in coffee spoons. Nothing remotely like it.