Friday, November 30, 2018

You’re safe from falling trees, probably; from opioids, not so much


     People exaggerate their proximity to death. "But I was just in Pittsburgh last spring!" I'm not sure why. To scrape up a frisson of excitement, I suppose. Or to feel significant, and turn attention back to themselves. Those sound right.
     So I want to be careful when describing what happened Monday. There had been a big storm the night before, as you remember, heavy snow, high winds, flights cancelled, power lines snapping.
     Monday morning, 6 a.m., my thoughts focused on firing up my mighty Ariens snow thrower, the pride of Wisconsin, a crouching orange beast with a light and its own little shovel, that had waited all spring, summer and fall under a tarp in my garage.
     But my wife counseled that 6:30 a.m. is too early. People are sleeping. Why not walk the dog first? This seemed a shirking of my snowblowing responsibilities—I could have our block clear in a jiffy!—but I yielded to her good sense, and leashed our dog, Kitty.
     Outside the front door, I thought I would address our front steps—easy to shovel before you trample down the snow—and Kitty went bolting off to a corner of our yard after a squirrel, which scampered up a walnut tree. That usually keeps the dog—whose brain is about the size of a walnut—occupied, standing on her hind legs, and looking up the trunk, waiting for the squirrel to come back down and be friendly.
     I finished the front steps, scrapping away the dense, wet snow. I might have had less than a minute to live, depending on what I did next. I headed toward Kitty, but rather than wait for me, she bolted off toward the street. My neighbor, Bill, was walking toward us, heading for the train. He snagged her leash.
     Normally I wouldn't engage in conversation—Bill has those trains timed to the second. But as I took the leash, he said something about the snowblower, or maybe I said something. I explained my wife had held me back, and asked if he wanted me to clear his walk. He said no, his high schooler was asleep, and he'd do it. I was standing at the foot of my driveway, just beyond a line of six 70-year-old, 50-foot-tall evergreen trees. Bill and I were maybe 15 feet apart, me on the sidewalk, he in the street.
     There was a noise, a kind of piny rending. I looked to the left, and the trunk of the tree was moving.
     "Step back! Step back!" I yelled, looking around for Kitty, who was leading the charge away.
     When I turned back, the tree was across the street, spanning it like a bridge, blocking my view of Bill.
     "Are you OK?" I said.
     He was OK. Not a scratch. The tree fell between us.
     Causes of death are in the news; the American life span is shrinking for the first time in nearly a century, thanks to suicide and the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of death for those under 55.
     Where does being killed by a tree fit in?
     I searched for stats and couldn't find any, but did find Prof. Thomas W. Schmidlin of Kent State University, who spent his career analyzing windstorms and their fatalities, and studied trees as a cause of death.
     "That's why we did the research, 10 years ago," he said. "I was curious and couldn't find it."
     They crunched data from 1995 to 2007 and came up with 407 fatalities over 13 years from "wind-related tree failure."
     "It's not a big number, compared to all other risks we face in our daily lives," he said. "But it is important."
     I sure think so, now. Though my brush with the Pale Rider was due to ice, not wind.
     "We did look at that, yes," said Schmidlin. "We found 14 people - one a year - killed by a tree branch or whole tree overburdened by snow or ice."
     Very rare, but it does happen. Schmidlin mentioned Molly Glynn, the actress killed in Winnetka in 2014 when a tree limb blew down and struck her while she was bicycling.
     "The map of where these deaths occur from fallen trees are the intersection of where people and trees are," he said. "You don't see many deaths in the Great Plains, or the Rocky Mountains. All the fatalities are from Chicago and Houston eastward and in the Pacific Northwest. A lot of people and a lot of trees."
     Here's the odd thing. My heart never raced. I was never scared. In the days since, a certain happy-not-to-be-dead sense has lingered. I can't help but think of all the places where I've been worried about my safety, from the waterfront of Naples to the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince. The times I screwed up my courage to head into a CHA housing project or joined a sandbag line trying to hold back the rising Mississippi. Every time I thought, "Oh, this is dangerous." And the closest I come to buying the ranch in my life is on an ordinary Monday morning, walking the dog in front of my house on a quiet street in a quiet suburb.
     Well, that's life for you. Avoid those opioids. Trees, you're safe from. Unless you're that one person a year whose number comes up. Then you're not.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

SpongeBob: More than "nautical nonsense."

     Sad to hear that SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg died this week, at age 57.
     We boys loved SpongeBob. Loved him. His buddy Patrick, the goofy starfish who was even dimmer than SpongeBob, if such a thing were possible. The power-mad Plankton, desperate to steal the secret recipe for Crabby Patties and spirit it back to his Chum Bucket. The whining Squidward with his jazz passion—there was a jazz critic at the paper who reminded me of Squidward so much, from the nasal whine to the bald dome, that I almost pointed out the similarity to him.
    My boys and I would sing along with the rollicking theme song. "If nautical nonsense be something you wish—SpongeBob SquarePants!—Then drop on the deck and flop like a fish!" We went to the full-length movie. 
     There was inanity for the kiddies. And a grown-up wink often tucked behind all the innocent silliness. I was even able to use a SpongeBob moment to try to make a point about charges of racism, which I think are thrown around much too casually. This column is 16 years old, and might grate a bit with our current pieties: the president wasn't blowing kisses at Nazis back then, so perhaps we enjoyed the luxury of being able to make fine distinctions. 

     In a rare moment of perfect timing, I wandered downstairs this morning, searching for my shoes, just as the TV was showing the deepest, most profound scene in the entire oeuvre of "SpongeBob SquarePants."
     SpongeBob and his friend Patrick Starfish are in the midst of a heated argument that deteriorates into a rapid-fire exchange of insults.
     "You paint your fingernails!" accuses Patrick.
     "You don't even have fingers!" retorts SpongeBob.
     Patrick, clutches his head: "I can't believe I'm hearing this!"
     "How can you hear?" says SpongeBob. "You don't have ears!"
     "Holes!" the starfish yells, pointing at the sponge.
     "Conehead!" he answers.
     Now Patrick, who is indeed pink, screaming "Yellow" at SpongeBob, who is in fact yellow, strikes me as the perfect embodiment of what many people choose to interpret as racism or ethnic hate, when it is actually just the expression of a convenient slur.
     It was odd, almost uncanny, to see the episode again this morning, because just the other day I was describing it to a colleague, who had challenged me over my plans to return to a local legend's radio show.
     "How," he said, amazed and indignant. "HOW can you go on Steve Dahl's show after what he said about you?"
     What Dahl said is that I'm a Jew. The week before, I had spent a few hours on Dahl's show plugging my new book. We ended up having a good time, dancing on the corpse of Bob Greene, with such joy and gusto that Dahl asked if I'd come back and do it again next week. I said sure, but then surprised him by adding that I'd return if he paid me something. Fun is a job if you have to do it regularly, or as the great James Thurber once wrote: "Even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations--that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA Building--would pall a little as the days wore on."
     Dahl seemed to understand. "No problem," he said. "We'll take care of you."
     The next week, when I didn't hear from him, I shrugged and figured he let it drop. People typically let things drop. No biggie.
     The next Monday, a friend took me aside. Did I hear what Dahl said about you? He asked, with all intent and seriousness, as if someone had died. A caller wondered why you didn't come back, as you promised, and Dahl ripped you for wanting money and called you a Jew.
     Steve Dahl beating up on somebody who isn't there is typical—of him, me and everybody I've ever met in my entire life. What is rarer is my colleague, and I'm not naming him because he is actually a shy guy, despite his profession, and possessed of the quaint notion that his work should be filled up with other people actually making news. He confronted me, honestly shocked, sincerely curious. This was the oldest, vilest slur against Jews: money-grubbing. How could I associate with anyone who expressed it?
     The worrisome thing, for me, is that it had bothered me not at all. I assume people are anti-Semites. Frankly, I gave Steve credit for expressing his slur on the air, rather than whispering it to his buddies.
     Doesn't this condone it, my colleague demanded, not buying my argument? Doesn't this make the slander more acceptable?
     I told him the SpongeBob story. People get mad, they reach for whatever they think will hurt somebody else. If they're yellow, they call them yellow. If they're pink, they call them pink. There's an editor at the paper whom I've looked at over the years, narrowed my eyes, and thought, unkindly: "You big, Semitic, flame-haired S.O.B." That isn't being bigoted. I'm big, I'm Semitic, I'm—OK, not flame-haired, though I wish I were—but certainly an S.O.B. What it is, and what Steve's crack, and most such cracks are, is collecting every quality you can think of relating to the person you're mad at and spewing them back in a bad light. If I were angry at Reese Witherspoon, I might blurt out, "You button-nosed saccharine little megabucks movie fodder!" That doesn't make these bad qualities.
     Frankly, and this might be a false distinction, I differentiate between the Dahls of the world, airing the biases we all share and suppress, trying to be funny, and, say, the Pat Buchanans, who are pretending they're rational when, in fact, they're hatemongers.
     A lot of entertainment involves insulting someone; you need villains to hijack the planes, dupes to slip on the banana peels. We've purged culture of the traditional butts of villainy and humor, and so are stuck with those unidentifiable Eurotrash terrorists in black sweat shirts and clowns culled from the traditional power elite (Austin Powers is British; imagine if he were Jewish, or black).
     There is so much actual hate in the world (the Palestinian, send-junior-to-the-mall-to-blow-himself-and-a-few-Jews-up hate), I just can't see getting worked up over someone cracking a joke, or trying to. I find the insults flying between SpongeBob and Patrick hysterical. Then again, I am not a sponge or a starfish. We have come to that.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 24, 2002

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

‘Inquiring Nuns’ holds a mirror to 1967 Chicago, and to ourselves today

Sister Marie Arné, left, and Sister Mary Campion

     Are you happy?
     This simple question underlies "Inquiring Nuns," a charming time capsule returning to the public eye this week, a 66-minute black-and-white documentary of two young nuns going around Chicago in 1967, asking about happiness.
     The film is from Kartemquin Films, a "collaborative community" that has produced 65 movies since it began in 1966, including 1994 "Hoop Dreams."
     The film stars are a pair of Adrian Dominican nuns, Sister Mary Campion and Sister Marie Arné, who are given a microphone and thrown into filmmaking.
     "I'm not exactly sure what we're going to do today," 
Arné says, in the opening scene. "What do you think works best?"
     For me, the film works on three levels. There is the universal question and its variants: What makes you happy? What makes you unhappy?
     There are the unnamed Chicagoans of half a century ago: how they dress, how they speak ("You mean Fadder Buckley?" asks a man from Berwyn). The streets behind them. The Art Institute, a supermarket, the crowd letting out after church at St. Columbanus Church on East 71st Street.
     And third, the movie's stars, the nuns.
     Our cliched notions of the '60s are almost entirely absent: hair is merely longish, no beads or hippie garb. Though the first person approached, a round young woman greets the question with, "Groovy. Yeah, I'm happy. I really am." Most of the men wear coats, ties and fedoras, while many of the women view happiness through a very conventional lens.
     "My husband and his success..." replies one. "That's what makes me happy."

     I admired the brio of a woman in sunglasses who looks at the nuns and replies:
     "There are three big things that make a person happy," ticking them off on her fingers. "Sex, social life and ... what's the other? ... your work."
     Some replies are joyfully incongruous.
     "We like raspberries," says a man with his wife in a supermarket. "We pick raspberries, wild."
     The most common topic—at least six people mention it—is what one calls "the present conflict we are having right now, the Vietnam situation."
     For a modest documentary, "Inquiring Nuns" has surprising star-power. First there is the score, composed by minimalist icon Philip Glass (who had met one of the filmmakers at the University of Chicago).
     And second, the nuns talk to Lincoln Perry, who used the stage name, Stepin Fetchit, a vaudevillian who became the first black movie star to get a screen credit. Perry reaches into his pocket and pulls out a thick stack of photographs, which he starts handing to the nuns, one by one.
     "There's me and Shirley Temple," he says. "There's me and Will Rogers."
     Both nuns soon left the order and started families. Kathleen Reinmuth—the former Sister Marie Arné—now lives in New Buffalo, Michigan. Cathy Rock lives in Florida. When I caught up with Reinmuth, she looked back on the film with mixed feelings.
     "This is the movie that will never go away," she said. "I was 23. When I look back, personally, I often get embarrassed. I look so young and naive about things. But when I watch it with other people ... I can step out of myself."
     How did the pair of nuns wind up in the movie?
     "I was involved with a film group through the parish of St. Denis," Reinmuth said. "We were already showing movies like 'Night and Fog.' The archdiocese decided to do an adult education program using film, and hired Gordon Quinn and Gerry Temaner to do three films. I think they came up with the idea of doing one on happiness, using nuns."
     While it is natural to focus on the people talking, Reinmuth said it is also important not to miss the nuns listening.
     "Listening is such a gift to people," she said. "To ask a question, then really listen and let them talk. I kept thinking, 'Wow, they really wanted to talk.'"

"Inquiring Nuns" will be screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Friday Nov. 30 through Thursday, Dec. 6. Filmmaker Gordon Quinn will attend three showings for an audience discussion. For details, see the Siskel Film Center web site. (Editor's note: This was in 2018, so don't go now. It's not there).

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Chicago 21

     That doesn't sit quite right on the page right. Just a number. Imagine it said with a pinched kind of vague Eastern European accent.
     Twantee wahn...
     Twenty-one candidates running for Chicago mayor.
     Treated with respect by my colleague Fran Spielman at the Sun-Times.
     I marvel how she can do that. Me, a story about 21 mayoral candidates could be titled "Invitation to Wack-a-mole." It really makes you want to roll out the old rhetorical chain gun and start blasting away.

     I mean, there were only seven dwarfs in "Snow White," and even that was way too much. Twenty-one is way too many for a field of candidates. Add one more and they can divide up and play a game of regulation football.
     It's better to view them as a mass, The Chicago 21. Start to view them as individuals and, well, it's endless.
     Besides, they'll cancel each other out, eventually, and we'll be left with Toni Preckwinkle and Garry McCarthy. We don't have to criticize, we don't even have to learn their names. All we have to do is wait.
     Which is not to dismiss the rest. Amara Enyia, an intriguing candidate, her second bite at the mayoral apple given a boost by Chance the Rapper. Hope that election cash can come from more people than Ken Griffin and J.D. Pritzker. 

    Or Gery Chico, an actual adult who doesn't spend the years in between mayoral runs in deep freeze storage.
     But Paul Vallas? He's hardly worth the breath to ridicule. Really, do you need me to explain why Bob Fioretti is a joke? Because I'm reluctant, in part because the last time I did, it upset one of his unbalanced supporters so much he writes to me continually. It all goes to spam, but still, every so often, when I gaze into the spam filter the way a man will open a handkerchief after a healthy blow to examine the result, I'll spy this guy, and it's like one of those science fiction movies, where the monster is contained in some kind of special pressure device, all steel and bolts and thick shatterproof glass. And you can see the thing, pressing against the little window and the containment vessel vibrates a little, and you can hear it shrieking through the seals. It's unsettling.
     So let's leave Bob alone. If I thought there was a chance he could become mayor I would go down to City Hall, dressed in a white jerkin, dowse myself in gasoline and set myself on fire. Metaphorically, that is.
     I'd rather focus on the attention on Bill Daley. Last I looked, he was going to go on a listening tour, visiting senior centers and stuff, trying to find some ideas because he hadn't any. How's that working, Bill? Get some good ones? Well, let us know....
     Dorothy Brown. Let's end with her, because this isn't a proper column, just some monstrosity I'm disgorging to keep you occupied on a Tuesday. I would be loath to describe Brown in a dry, journalistic way, because, times being what they are, I'd be accused of treating her unkindly because she's black, or a woman, ignoring the fact that Toni Preckwinkle is both and I think she's swell. The Republican Party might be laid low by a plague of irrationality, but the bug can be found elsewhere.
     And to be honest, I don't have to castigate Brown, all I have to do is check my files. Pointing out Dorothy Brown's flaws is practically a full-time job. We should have a Dorothy Brown Flaw Reporter. I'll limit myself to two:
     From March 10, 2004:
     What would be coming out of the clerk's office if Dorothy Brown hadn't ordered her employees to keep their mouths shut? As it is, they're dishing dirt like frenzied ditch diggers. Two great accusations came zipping my way: a) that Brown has her security detail empty out elevators before she uses them, and b) that this same security detail also pulls her boots on for her. Devoted to the requirements of the form, I ran this by Brown, who responded a) no, she uses the judges' elevators and b) no, they don't.
     At this point I thought the fair thing to do would be not to print these baseless charges. I checked with two editors here, who said:
     a) "Why start being fair now?" and b) "It's election season."
     See, it isn't just me.
     From Sept. 3, 2006:
     God bless Dorothy Brown. She's the perkiest person I have ever met in politics, bar none. The Cook County Circuit Court clerk has more spunk than an Olympic gymnast. She makes Katie Couric seem like Eeyore.
     Have you met the woman? Imbued with energy, excruciatingly well-mannered and the grace of God flowing from her like glow off a light-bulb. Her cringing subordinates might paint a different picture, but that's how she comes across during her visits to the newspaper.
     Of course, she can't run her own department, never mind run the city, not that she'll get the chance: Mayor Daley will crush her like an egg.
     Still, while she lasts, she should provide an interesting contrast to the morose Saul sulking on the fifth floor of City Hall: Daley, the sourest, most visibly unhappy man to hold elective office in America since Calvin Coolidge retired to Vermont, vs. Dorothy Brown, who seems about to bust out into song at any given moment. I'd like to pretend she'll give the mayor a run for his money and he'll only get 70 percent of the vote this time. But I doubt it.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Storm flashback, 1999: "A heart finds warmth in a frigid city"

     Admit it. You anticipated the arrival of the blizzard on Sunday with a certain thrill. Setting in supplies, making preparations, half anxious, half eager. I took in the flag and the umbrella, covered the grill and gassed up the snow blower, while Edie went to Sunset for milk and bread and grapefruit. I kept track of the weather situation as if I were in charge of it.
     Both boys' flights back East were cancelled, and while a trip to O'Hare is in the cards for Monday afternoon, that'll be it. I don't have a column in the paper today—since I was technically off for the Thanksgiving holiday Thursday, yet still wrote a column for Friday's paper, my boss told me not to write one for today. A break I gratefully accepted, though not without being a little nostalgic for the days when duty would send me downtown in such a storm, exploring the city, such as this column, from 1999, relates:

     Of all the memories I'll carry away from this week's storm—struggling across IBM Plaza in Saturday's arctic gale, one hand trying to pull my parka hood down over my face, the other clinging to one of those ropes, or walking in the middle of a deserted downtown street late that night, not a car around, just hunched figures loping off in the distance—the one I'll cherish most is an unexpected greeting from a guy shoveling on Oakdale Avenue.
     It was a struggle just to get there, to get home after work Monday. No cabs on Wabash. Nothing on Michigan. I reluctantly joined the throng at the bus stop across from the Wrigley Building, only to have three jam-packed buses blow by. I then wandered north on Michigan, looking for cabs, contemplating trekking over to the L station, several painful blocks west.
     Then the cavalry arrived. A bunch of empty CTA buses roared down the street, lumbering to the rescue. I joined the two dozen people shivering at the bus stop and struggled aboard.
     The bus illustrated how people shed their reserve in a crisis (well, semi-crisis). The windows were completely frosted over—you couldn't see. The driver wouldn't call out the stops, so nobody knew where we were. An enterprising young woman in almond-sized eyeglasses tapped the lady in front of her and told her to pass up the request to the driver that he announce the stops. I was positioned so I could watch the message move several people up the aisle, then stall out at a Julia Roberts-like lady who obviously couldn't bring herself to tap the hulking bald man in front of her and speak to him.
     A well-dressed executive-type next to me, sitting by the window, instituted Plan B, the careful creation, with his gloved thumb, of a small porthole in the frost to peer through, trying to determine where the bus might be. He called out the stops, when he could.
     The trip only took twice as long as usual, and was marked by bonhomie unusual for public transportation. People looked at each other, smiled, spoke. A woman in a full-length fur coat and matching headband remarked to me that this was turning into quite an adventure, and I responded that my wife had a coat exactly like hers, and thus can't understand what all this "cold" talk is about. (Maybe it's nerves, but I've noticed that if a strange woman speaks to me, on whatever subject, my answer invariably includes a reference to my wife. Some sort of self-preservation instinct, the way a possum will play dead if threatened).
     I left the bus, crossed Sheridan Road, and passed a guy digging his car out from the 3-foot-tall berm of snow kicked up by the city plow. He surprised me by greeting me. I stopped, squinting through my scarves, to see if I knew him. I didn't. I said hello and waited. Maybe he wanted me to help him shovel. 
     "Do you think you'll get your car out?" I said, as a prompt. He said he did. There was a pause. "Well, make sure you mark the place with a chair," I said. "People seem to be doing that. Maybe the space will be there when you get back." He went back to digging. I quickstepped up the street toward home, marveling at this bit of small-town small chat.
     What is it about extreme weather that brings out friendliness in people? You'd think it would be the other way around. That beautiful summer days, with soft zephyr winds puffing off the lake, would inspire people to suddenly start talking on the bus and greeting strangers.
     But they don't. Warm weather is when tempers flare and fistfights break out at the beach. And when the city is blanketed with record amounts of snow, suddenly we're leaping to join others pushing at the back of cars as their wheels spin.
     It's as if there is some human need for warmth, and if the weather doesn't provide it, we have to provide it ourselves. At least it's pretty to think so.

               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 7, 1999

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The holiday season is upon us


     Christmas is a month from today.
     The holiday season.
     Or, if you prefer,
     The Christmas season.
     A month of .... what?
     Stringing lights.
     Against the gathering winter darkness.
     Expressing goodwill toward men.
     And women.
     And, lately, those in between.
     Among some of us, at least.
     Among others, not so much.
     Expressing hostility toward our fellow men.
     And women.
     And those in between.
     And not even knowing it.
     A friend posted one of those memes on Facebook:
     Not just a Facebook friend.
     But a friend friend.
     Someone I know in the living world.
     Or thought I knew anyway
     A good guy, big, effusive
     Someone who, the last time I saw him.
     Expressed sincere gratitude for something I'd written.
     With tears in his eyes.
     What to do?
     Usually I'd just ignore it.
     Life is too short for Facebook spats.
     But someone I knew.
     Or thought I knew.
     So I spoke my mind:
     "C'mon George," I wrote. "Eyes on the big picture."
     "How about, 'It's whatever the fuck you feel like saying'?
     "Isn't that the American way?"
     "I'm surprised at you, dictating to folks what they can say to each other to express their holiday ... whoops, excuse me, CHRISTMAS cheer."
      And moved on.
      Maybe that seems harsh.
      That f-bomb.
      But I think of it as loving.
      As expressing an indomitable hope
      In the perfectibility of my fellow man.
      And woman
      And those in between. 
      Because if these past two years have taught us anything.
      It is not about the jaw-dropping constellation of flaws
      Concentrated in one particular human
      But in how those flaws vibrate sympathetically
      In so many other people.
      How easily they are lead astray from sense.
      From decency
      And our supposed American values
      And the supposed warmth of the holiday...
      Excuse me, Christmas season.
      So that even hello can be 
      Crafted into a weapon.
      The good-hearted holiday greeting
      Recognizing our frequent differences.
      Can be sharpened into a pointed stick
      To shove up somebody's ass.
      Just for the joy of doing so.
      For that little false high of self-superiority
      That all this is about.
      The dominance 
      That some of us need to feel.
      All the year round. 
      Even during the holiday ... .
      Whoops Christmas season
      And all that BS about goodwill
     But so as not to end on that note I will point out
     That though people can be led astray
     They also can be coaxed to return
     To the fold of humanity
     That we all belong to.
     In theory.
     That is what the holiday season is supposedly about.
     Or the Christmas season.
     If you prefer.
     One month out of 12. 
     I don't know about you.
     But I could use one of genuine warmth
     And real fellowship.
     And so speaking solely for myself.
     I prefer to err on the side of 
    And charity.
    And lots of hope
    Hope for the redemption of my fellow men.
    And women.
    And those in between. 


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Saturday Snapshot #16

     The Merchandise Mart is an enormous building: four million square feet. When it opened in 1930, it was the largest office building in the world. And while more massive buildings have opened since, it still holds its own as a vast space.
      As such, there is no shortage of nooks and corners to hunker down, check your email, read a book, do whatever you need, in relative privacy.
      Which made me puzzle over this pair of Jabbrrbox units spied in the second floor corridor last week. They're new, private rental spaces to do business: make a phone call, check your email. They provide power, WiFi. It's as if someone re-invented the phone booth, then tried to charge $30 an hour for the privilege of using it. Eight of them were installed in LaGuardia airport earlier this year. They are soundproof, with a video screen, a camera for conference calls, variable lighting, and a few other features.
     Didn't phone booths die out when they were free? To be honest, I can't imagine using a Jabbrrbox, particularly not at the Mart, an environment rich with remote vistas where a person or a platoon could set up camp and work uninterrupted. A 30 second stroll away from the Jabbrrboxes is this utterly abandoned area where you could convene a Security Council meeting in utter privacy. I sat there for 15 minutes reading a newspaper and never saw another person, with all the room I needed to spread out and be comfortable. And it was free.
    The Jabbrrboxes, on the other hand, are quite cramped. Did I call them phone booths? Or coffins; I can't tell, I wasn't going to pop the money to try one. I suppose there are situations where they might come in handy: in noisy airports, if you are on an expense account and need to shut out the world so you can make that life-or-death conference call. But even then, you could go to a restaurant, order a nice dinner for the price of an hour in the Jabbrrbox, and both eat and have a workspace to yourself.
     Perhaps I am too far removed from the corporate mindset to accurately made a judgment call on this one. But I would call it a solution in search of a problem.


Friday, November 23, 2018

It's Black Friday, so what else is there to do? Let's go shopping.


     Elyse Koren-Camarra walked into My Sister’s Circus, a women’s clothing shop on the fourth floor of 900 N. Michigan. She was looking for …. something.
     “I’m not sure,” she said. “Whatever jumps out at me.”
     In this case, a vest by Alembika.
     “A snuggle kind of vest,” she said. “It’s warm, lined with that little fur stuff.”
     Victoria Fuchs, the store manager, walked over.
     “I’ve been waiting on her for 25 years,” she said. “I was born the year the store opened.”
     That would be 1968; Dec. 1, 1968, to be exact, when Sue Gantz and her older sister Janis Siegel opened a boutique within a larger store on Walton.
     My sister and I had been on vacation and we saw these bikinis at a store,” Gantz explained.
     Not just bikinis — but ensembles, with matching hats, shoes, purses and cover-ups.
     “A very unusual thing at the time,” said Siegel, who now lives in Florida. “They were darling, really, really cute.”
     “We came home, borrowed some money from a friend, went to Hialeah, Florida where the company was,” recalled Gantz. “We filled a suitcase with stuff and came home. Made a deal with our friend who owned The Wig Warehouse on Walton.” He gave them a counter in the corner and “said you can do what you want as long as you also sell wigs.”

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

An adult reaches for protection


      So how do you do your holidays? Bareback, or with protection? The guy is supposed to be partial to the former, but, ever the considerate gentleman, I left the decision to my wife, who preferred the route of caution.
     "Let's put out the table pads," she said, raising the specter of sizzling hot platters of turkey.
     "Actually, the turkey's fairly cooled by the time it reaches the table," I said, by way of argument—I love the natural wood—then sighing and going upstairs to get the pads.
     As we put them in place, my wife reminded me of something.
     "Remember how adult we felt, ordering these pads?"
     Yes I do honey. Very grown up. In fact, I wrote a column about it, which seems apt for Thanksgiving Day, and if it isn't, well, it will have to suffice. We have guests to feed.

     When do you become an adult? The traditional coming-of-age ceremonies, like bar mitzvahs and quinceaneras, are pegged too early to mark true adulthood, but are remnants of cultures where you had to become an adult quickly because you'd be dead by the time you were 40.
     Voting and drinking, at 18 and 21, are popular candidates, but there's more to being grown up than quaffing a beer or casting a ballot, and the truth is, despite what those in their mid-20s might think, the full weight of adulthood usually hasn't yet settled upon their shoulders.
     Some say that you aren't really, truly an adult until both your parents die, but with people such as John McCain, 72, enjoying a living parent, that seems late in the game.
     Myself, I pinpoint the onset of true adulthood to a specific consequence of our honeymoon—table pads.
     My wife and I honeymooned in New England, and were drawn into a lovely woodworking shop on a winding road in Maine. We ordered a magnificent spoon-leg dining room table out of honey-stained bird's eye maple—5 feet across, nearly 10 feet long with the leaves in.
     A table like that costs a fortune, and needs protection. It needs, I realized, despite my relative youth, table pads, to guard it from the spills and scuffs of years to come.
     So I phoned Superior Table Pads, and they sent out a salesman. I still can see him with his sample case, carefully explaining the various qualities of pad, from the top of the line, which would protect the table from a hot rivet—more pad than I needed, he confided—to the cheapie pad, which of course I didn't want.
     Like any good salesman, he made the transaction effortless. I ordered the middle range pad, feeling both extravagant and frugal, not to mention an adult, finally, the kind of responsible person who would purchase something so practical.
     The Superior Table Pad Co. is located in a modest brick factory in the middle of the 3000 block of North Oakley. It was founded in 1937 by Joe Antler and his wife, Molly. He died in 1989, but she still works in the dark-paneled office at the age of 91.
     Her son Steve runs the company and is also a professor of economics at Roosevelt University. Like many children of businessmen, he had no intention of entering his father's business—initially. He studied economics and became a professor in St. Johns, Newfoundland.
     "I taught for 20 years in Canada's largest and least prestigious state universities," says Antler, 63.
     The prospect of helping his father make table pads was, Antler says, "a nightmare."
     "I was very conflicted about it," he adds. "My dad talked me into coming back to Chicago, and here I am."
     Superior is one of perhaps five table pad companies in the country.
     "Let me show you the business," says Antler, ushering me into a large, airy, clean workroom, filled with cutting tables and rolls of vinyl. The production crew—numbering three persons—is just returning from break, and we watch Booker Banks assemble a table pad, basically a sandwich with heat-proof felt in the middle, velvet on one side and woodgrain vinyl on the other.
     "A machine can't do that," says Antler, as Banks manipulates a three-fold pad.
     I observe that the factory floor is not precisely a hive of activity, and Antler explains they are just entering into their busy period.
     "The business is very seasonal," he says. Orders are concentrated between Labor Day and Easter, when people realize they have guests coming over for big dinners and unprotected wood tables.
     Superior sells four levels of pads—the Athena, the Elite, the Select and the Budget—which differ based on how many layers of heat-insulating felt are in them and the quality of the fabric underneath. They range in price, for an average table, from $90 to $250.
     Measurement is key to the table pad business. The company sells table pads nationwide, and most customers reach them online, taking their table dimensions themselves using brown paper and a crayon from the kit Superior mails out.
     However—and this struck me as the most novel aspect of the business—if you don't live too far away, Superior will send one of their staffers, meaning Antler, his wife, Sally, or his nephew Geoff, to your home to measure your table for no additional charge. Home visits are the best part of the job.
     "I feel like I have a wonderful job because I get to see these beautiful, beautiful tables," says Sally Antler. "I love it."
     "It's what we've been doing for years," says her husband. "I visit people's houses and sometimes see a table pad that's stitched in a certain way and know my grandmother worked on it."
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 7, 2008

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Nothing to give thanks for this Thanksgiving? A cynic’s guide to gratitude

     Thursday is Thanksgiving, the gateway holiday. A big happy — well, not always so happy — family meal that lures us toward the thornier challenges of Christmas (all those gifts) and New Year’s (all those resolutions).
     It’s called “Thanksgiving” because you’re supposed to give thanks, it’s right there in the name: Thanksgiving. We should be giving thanks and – bulletin! — while we certainly live in a challenging time, with imbeciles running the country and heavily-armed lunatics seeming to lurk around every corner, there is still much to be grateful for. Just in case specifics don’t leap to mind, I’ll help with a short and by no means comprehensive list:
     1. You’re alive. Most people are dead — more than 100 billion, according to demographers. Compared to 7.5 billion who are enjoying this brief flash between two very long, very cold eternities. Be grateful to be here; not everyone is, and you won’t always be either.   
     2. You’re in the United States. Sure, we’re in the grip of a would-be tyrant, the most flawed, toxic buffoon to ever occupy the Oval Office, which is really sayin' somethin'. But our institutions are still strong. The voters gave a vigorous thumbs-down a few weeks ago. We ate a bad clam, politically. It feels horrible, but our system is purging the poison

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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Don't blame the customers you couldn't keep

     On Friday, my wife and I celebrated the end of the week by walking over to Kamehachi and enjoying a sushi dinner. We could have gone to BluFish on Willow, also very good, or Fuji Yama over on Dundee, truly excellent. But those require getting in the car, and we like to support restaurants in our immediate neighborhood.
    Good fish. Good prices. Good service. As always.
    On Sunday morning, we did make the drive to Prairie Grass for breakfast: Sarah Stegner's lemon ricotta pancakes. To. Die. For. We had thought about Georgie V's—also very good, and within walking distance. But those pancakes...
    "And besides," I said, sealing the deal, "maybe we'll run into Bill Kurtis." Sometimes we run into Bill Kurtis. We've gone there 50 times. At least. We chatted with the owners, Sarah and her husband Rohit Nambiar. We praised their pumpkin pie: really, the most delicate pie. Not too heavily spiced... 
     What I'm trying to say is we're restaurant sorts. We eat at restaurants, think about restaurants, enjoy restaurants. Especially restaurants in downtown Northbrook. We are rooting for them, patronizing them, hoping they can solve the puzzle and find success. Nobody wants to see a business fail. To see someone's dream wither.
    So of course we noticed, and were saddened, when two, count 'em, two restaurants within a few blocks of our house both closed at almost the same time. Lucky Fish abruptly covered its windows with brown paper a couple weeks ago. Then Jar Bar, directly across the street, announced it will go out of business at the end of the month.
    In a story on the closings in the Northbrook Patch, both restauranteurs threw their customers under the bus.
     "The support wasn't there," said Lucky Fish's Steve Geffen, washing his hands of doing anything wrong.
     "Small business can only thrive on continued daily support from its community," wrote Jar Bar owners Karen and Adam Firsel.
     And why wasn't the support there?
     They didn't say. So let me designate myself as a spokesman for the community and suggest a few possible reasons.
     The support wasn't there because both restaurants fell down on the job.
     Lucky Fish is something of a puzzle. An extension of the popular Lucky Fish in Highwood, it always seemed crowded. I ate there a dozen times. It was expensive, but the food was good. Except when it wasn't. The quality was erratic. My wife would find a meal she liked, then return and order it again and it would be completely different. That bothered her. What bothered me was that the service was fumbling. At those prices, they should have had the bring-your-meal-to-you drill down. They didn't. Instead it was Amateur Hour. It was as if they yanked passersby off the street and put them to work rushing meals from the kitchen. The space also had an unfinished quality; it was like you were eating in somebody's garage.
     And the Jar Bar. I was really excited about the Jar Bar. Good advance press. They spent a lot of money getting the place ready. It had this way cool blue sign.
     A day or two after it opened, I went in for breakfast, hoping for the start of a beautiful relationship.
     "Would you like to try our buttered coffee?" a woman behind the counter asked.
     How nice. "Sure!" I said, expecting, from her phrasing, that she was about to give me a sample. I had never tasted buttered coffee. 

     Instead she handed me a cup of coffee and charged six dollars.
     I've never spent six dollars on a cup of coffee in my life, at least not one that didn't have a slug of Jameson in it.
     On top of that, the oatmeal was the sort of gelid glop you make yourself out of a pack of instant. Half filling a little paper cup. Like the old Catskills joke: lousy and in such small portions.
     So let's reprise: wildly-expensive buttered coffee that I didn't know I was ordering, coffee that tasted, well, like coffee, plus a dollop of the kind of oatmeal you made for yourself in a cup in college. Total price, $11 plus tax.
     Would you go back? Despite feeling robbed, kind soul that I am, I did return, figuring they wouldn't rob me twice. I got a cup of non-buttered coffee, drank it and left and that was it. Why? I can make coffee and instant oatmeal at home. Plus, the place was packed with the owners' friends; sitting there, I felt like I had crashed a party where I hadn't been invited. The sense of having been robbed lingered. They had other meals, but they didn't appeal: poke, bleah. Plus the fare didn't sit well together on the plate of the mind: the only thing worse than poke is poke and oatmeal. The room itself was uninviting. I walked by Jar Bar dozens of times—my dry cleaner is around the corner—and never once saw anything that moved me to step inside. Not an appealing sign, no special offer, no "Try our fresh-baked whatever." They did have a chalkboard on the sidewalk, and would write witticisms, and I give them credit for trying. Still, I live two blocks from the restaurant, and never got a flier, a coupon, nothing. Were it my restaurant dying on Shermer, I'd be buttonholing customers in the street.
     I was tempted to write this while they had a chance to fix themselves, but didn't want to draw attention to their shortcomings, to step on the fingers of a new business trying to climb up the slippy pole of success and, frankly, my experience of human nature is such that I know it wouldn't have mattered. Very few people can take responsibility for their own failings. They'd just resent it. Reading how the culinary masterminds behind Lucky Fish and the Jar Bar both blamed the communities where they set up shop for their own mistakes, it tells me I was right.
     People can eat at home. If you want them to patronize your place instead, you had better give them an offer they can't refuse. And if they do refuse it, don't lash out. It's a bad look. I want people to read my column, but I'd never dream of damning those who don't. It's unprofessional. Read what you like.
     The two restaurants mentioned in the beginning of today's post  aren't the only ones we've gone to this week. After another great meal at Kamehachi, we were walking home, and decided to stop in at Graeter's and pick up desert to take home. Graeter's is always crowded, even selling ice cream in the dead of winter, because it's really good ice cream, sold with enthusiasm in a fun setting. What's not to love?
     Before we could walk across the store to the freezer case we had been intercepted by Daniel, a clerk, who stepped from behind the counter. Could he help us? A pint of ice cream? Why here they are. Have we tried this flavor? Or that flavor? Please, taste some samples. He handed us little spoons piled with ice cream, apologizing that they were uneven.
    Read that sentence again: he apologized that the free samples he was handing us were uneven. Compare that with Jar Bar tricking me into buying six buck coffee.
     Daniel kept up a banter so enthusiastic, so friendly, that I not only paid $6 for a pint of ice cream, but tipped him a buck AND signed up for their special Graeter's fan club. And I never sign up for those clubs.
     That's how a food establishment stays in business. It isn't rocket science. Sell something good. Do so from a pleasant setting. Nicely. Treat your customer like you value their patronage. Form a relationship: I knew the name of the clerk at Graeter's because he was so personable I asked him. My wife and I walked away, happy, talking about that bright young man's shining future. 
     If you can't do that, at least have the good graces not to blame everybody else for your own shortcomings. A lesson for whatever establishment moves into the Jar Bar and Lucky Fish spaces. The restaurant game is difficult. But it can be won if you play it right. And if you screw up, don't try to ladle out your bitterness to the public. That, you should eat in private.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Flash: ace kid reporter rips lid off the game game

Ava Gray, left, interviews Ellie Skalla, of Oak Park, about the game she created.

     The 2018 Chicago Toy & Game Fair was a noisy, crowded, sprawling affair filling Festival Hall at Navy Pier over the weekend. There was no obvious focal point, but a blur of activity: wandering Star Wars characters and Boy Scouts, virtual reality, stuffed animals, board games, more than 100 young inventors hyping handmade games at science fairish booths.
     Ava Gray, 12, received her press credentials, plunged in and started asking questions.
     "What's your name?"
     "How do you spell that?"
     "How old are you?"

     One of 25 young reporters nationwide who won a spot on the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps, the South Side 7th grader had, like any good journalist, formed a strategy for the event.
     "I want to investigate the ping pong tournament and the yo-yo challenge," she said beforehand.
     Before she had stepped through the entrance, however, she was snagged by a fair flack, Emily Blosser, from Brilliant PR & Marketing, who guided her toward the Young Inventor Challenge.
     "They're coming up on a break," said Blosser as they walked. "The perfect time to interview. So we'll walk back there. All right?"
     Gray was delivered to a pair of sisters, Emma and Kyra Bichler, 10 and 7, who talked about their game, Breakaway.
     "I like code," said the older girl.
     Gray never stayed in one spot long, but moved from one inventor to another, peppering questions.
     "Can you tell me more about this game?"
     "Did you invent this?"

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Bias makes you stupid

Bayeux Tapestry (detail, the Death of Harold)

     The Chicago Sun-Times has the largest circulation of any newspaper in America.
     Bigger than the New York Times. Or the Washington Post.
     In fact, bigger than those two put together.
     Do you believe that?
     Because it isn't true.
     I wrote the first line as an example of bias. Were I to sincerely insist the above were true, you would rightly assume that I was doing so because I work there, and was waving the flag for the home team, regardless of the facts, under the mistaken notion that such exaggeration made me look better.
     It doesn't. Yet people still do this. A lot. Why? Wounded ego. Fear. Cravenness. They feel small—Flash! We're all small—and want to puff themselves up bigger than they actually are.
     We see this continually in our president, spouting self-adoring nonsense because he wants to appear bigger than he is (a reminder that self-esteem has nothing to do with externals. He's rich and famous and the president of the United States. You'd think that would be enough. It obviously is not).
     Look at the gruesome torture/murder early last month of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It was clear from the get-go that the killing was approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was assassinated at the Saudi Embassy in Turkey by thugs imported ahead of time for that task.
    The idea that it was some rogue operation, as Donald Trump first suggested, was ludicrous. But suggest this patent bullshit he did, the beginning of one of the more appalling threads of our president's Bayeux Tapestry of lies and evasions.
    Why?  Donald Trump despises the media, because the free press takes his various lies and missteps and hangs them out in public, like a housewife stringing laundry along a clothesline, for all to see, faded and repulsive in the light of truth.
     And Trump loves despots like the crown prince.
     Plus the Saudis buy lots of expensive suites in Trump hotels. And arms too.
     So even after his own CIA—oh, Trump also hates American intelligence agencies because, like the press, they keep track of his missteps—points out the obvious: of course the prince ordered the killing, Trump clings to his fictions, the way he babbles about forest floor maintenance so as not to point out the obvious, that the California fires have a connection to global warming.
     Bias makes you stupid, or seem stupid. In trying to look better than you deserve you look worse, as bad as you actually are. Admitting your flaws mitigates them.
     This is why responsible people—journalists, leaders, anybody—recognize that the world as it is and the world as they would wish it to be are two very separate things, and embrace reality because it's what we're stuck with.
     The Chicago Sun-Times, by the way, is in fact the 35rd biggest newspaper in the country, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. In my view that's plenty.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Saturday Snapshot #15

     "Everybody's Asian," I thought, shopping last week at Costco.
     The notion came out of nowhere, and I looked at it, as if somebody had lain an unfamiliar coin in my open palm.
     What to make of it?
     There is a certain inherent racism in such a thought: we aren't supposed to notice such differences.
     Though we all do. We've trained ourselves not to remark upon such thoughts; it's safer that way. Nobody can complain about something you didn't say.
     But I feel comfortable ... well, maybe not comfortable ... I believe that sharing the thought is not blatant folly because it wasn't followed by any kind of negative imperative. It wasn't "Everybody's Asian, so I 'm not coming back here," or "Everybody's Asian, and they're eating up all the coconut shrimp like Asian people do."
      I don't harbor negative stereotypes, that I know of; I have Asian friends, relatives. They have the same good qualities and flaws that everyone else has.
      Still, there the thought was: "Everybody's Asian." 
      Instead of pushing the thought away, I tried to pick it apart, understand what it meant.
      Maybe because the status of Asian-Americans is in the news due to the Harvard lawsuit—Asian students alleged that they were the victims of quotas,  that standards are lowered for non-Asians so that the university wouldn't have a percentage of Asian students high enough to spark discomfort. The sort of systemic bias that Jews faced in the 1920s and 1930s.
      Maybe Harvard looked around and had the same thought I did at Costco. That's reassuring. At least it isn't just me.
     Noticing the presence of others who are different than oneself is a sign of mild discomfort. I might expect my suburb to be a certain mix, and if that mixes shifts—the Asian population of the Northwest suburbs is growing faster than other ethnic groups—you notice.
     Discomfort being how dominant races feel when they find themselves in the minority.
     Not that I felt discomfort. It felt like a neutral observation, maybe salted with muted surprise. In certain settings it wouldn't be remarkable. If I were, oh, at the Super H, an Asian market in Niles, I wouldn't think, "A lot of Asians here." It would be expected. As it would be in Japan, or China, or Taiwan, or the other Asian countries I've visited. So perhaps because I was in the Costco in Northbrook. No different than finding regular-sized packages for sale.
     Nor that I consider myself the member of a dominant race. As a Jew, we're by definition in an extreme, despised minority, though our minority card seems to be revoked. We're the minority that other minorities feel  free to hate, or lump together with white Christians, as circumstances dictate. The worst of both worlds; all the drawbacks of being a minority but none of the benefits.
     That isn't true either. Benefits aplenty. See, this is why people don't write about these issues. So easy to slide into the ditch.
     At checkout, I looked around, tried to put a number on that thought. Was "everybody" really Asian? No, not even a quarter. Enough that it would register on my radar. So the thought was something bogus, unvalid. A glitch in the system.
      Which is what makes this exercise worthwhile. We can't recognize our errors if we never examine them. The whole subject is generally avoided. We yield the issue to the people most concerned, supposedly. But that too is a kind of racism. It is of concern to us all. Silence is too easy.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Want this cute robot dog? Tough — Illinois law keeps Sony from selling it here

     My brother was in Tokyo a few weeks ago, looked at this robot dog, and noticed the line about it not being sold in Illinois. He mentioned it to me, and I started to probe into why, and stumbled upon next week's Supreme Court case. As I often say in this job, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. 

     Meet Aibo, Sony’s new robotic dog, introduced in the United States in September.
     Cute, right? Sits on command. Plays with his cute little pink ball — Aibo loves pink. Scratch his cute round head and he dips it and wags his cute tail, adorably. He has a camera in his nose.
    Would you like to own Aibo, maybe to liven up your Gold Coast apartment without the bother of taking an actual living dog on unpleasant, windswept walks in the wintertime?    

     Too bad. You can’t have him. And not just because of the price — about $3,000, a night on the town for Chicago’s nouveau rich.
     No, you can’t have Aibo because nobody in the state can buy him. Sony won’t sell him in Illinois. It says so on Sony’s Aibo website if you try to order the little pup:
     “This product is not for sale or use in the State of Illinois, and may not be shipped to purchasers in Illinois.”
     Aw, gee. We know Illinois has problems. But are we so screwed up that multinational corporations won’t sell us a dog? Illinois is the only state in the country where Aibo is not sold.
     What makes us so special?
     Meet the 2008 Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. Without going too far into the legal weeds...

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

What would you grab in a fire?

    The California wildfires causing such devastation have drawn attention, concern and sympathy across the country—well, except for Donald Trump, who saw them as a chance to lash out at the state for ... well, forest conservation, insanely enough. It was almost funny to see him suddenly start heaping praise on first responders, trying to cover for his initial mean-spirited slam.
     Our Fearful Leader notwithstanding, it's impossible to avoid being caught up in the drama of the raging fires in the Golden State, the courageous efforts to battle the blazes, and the sight of ordinary people forced to flee their homes, sometimes at a moment's notice.
     Which raises the question, if only in the back of the mind: what would you take? Confronted with the same situation—the fire approaching, you have to run for your life, what would you grab going out the door?
     Having pets, that's easy. I would grab the dog, try to corral the cats, get them in the van and get out. Nothing else in the house is worth the time it would take to pick up.
     That's something of a fudge, I suppose. Given a couple minutes, I could come up with something. An armful of old journals—they're irreplaceable, and useful in reconstructing the past, which I sometimes do. I might grab our wedding album. But really, with Facebook, so many photographs are safe online (not to mention about 40,000 I have tucked safely in iCloud) that fire doesn't pose the threat to memory it once did.
     At least I assume they're safe. It's always remotely possible some computer worm or sun storm could wipe out the Internet. But I doubt it....
     That said, I didn't want to take chances. I do have 10 years worth of jottings on the boys, when they were small, that I did worry might go up in smoke if the house burned down. I didn't see the need to worry, in this day and age, so spent the hour it took to photograph each page, then transfer the pictures onto a thumb drive and toss it in the bank vault (this was before the iCloud). It seemed prudent.
     Part of me worries this is a sign of shrugging age. Isn't anything precious? But to be honest, I believe it reflects proper values and priorities. Once you've cleaned out the home of a departed relative, as I have, the grip of things loosens. It's just stuff.  Like money, it's just not that important.
     The realization is something of a comfort really. Dozens of people have died in the California fire, a few no doubt because they were lingering to load up their cars with crap. Maybe the fires just moved so fast, maybe they didn't realize it, and I don't want to criticize the dead. But I like to think that before the fires were 10 miles away I would be camping out at a Motel 6 somewhere if I humanly could. That might not be possible for everybody. But if it is, that seems the path of prudence. You can always buy new stuff. You've got the one life, and it's foolish to risk the latter for the former. Grab the wife, grab the pets and get out. That sounds like a plan.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In November, the leaves fall and the president violates cherished traditions

     The trees are bare. Dry leaves blow around the yards, the gutters. Leaves of all sorts. Maple leaves. Oak leaves. Big catalpa leaves and tiny linden leaves. Yellow ginkgo leaves. Serrated elm leaves. Oval ash leaves. Buckeye and hickory and persimmon. Beech and redbud and poplar. Many, many leaves.
     Of course there are, you might be grumbling. It’s November. Get to the point.
     The point being that belaboring what everyone already knows gets dull. Which is why I haven’t been commenting on Donald Trump lately. Once we’ve established — and boy have we ever — that the man is a liar, bully and fraud busily trampling cherished American institutions, each new instance of deceit, intimidation, chicanery and blasphemy, well, at this point it’s just another leaf in a huuuuge pile.
     Over the weekend, however, Trump violated a norm so long established that, speaking personally, I felt a kind of awe. It was impressive. While the world leaders went to the American cemetery in France to mark the centennial since the end of World War I and honor Americans killed, Trump stayed in his room. The White House explained that it was raining: “logistical difficulties caused by the weather.”
     The Internet erupted with photographs of Barack Obama in a downpour, drenched to the skin, doing what leaders do. No need to stop there. Begin at the beginning: George Washington, riding to his inauguration in … c’mon, anybody? … New York City. In Philadelphia it began to rain, and his entourage urged him to get into a carriage. The Father o
f Our Country waved that off. He would remain on horseback, like his escort.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A whole new meaning to "Watch on the Rhine"

Cody McCullough
     All things considered, the Internet is the best way to publish the written word. You have all the space you need. The work goes everywhere instantly. You can fix mistakes immediately. 
     There are of course drawbacks. Speed can be the enemy of accuracy. And all that room is an invitation to verbosity. Space is unlimited, but attention spans are not. Being forced to keep it short by the limits of physical space is a blessing. At least for now. I am always cutting my column to make it fit, and that is typically an improvement.
    Although you do lose things. I had to cut back on Sister Zanin's personal history in my column on Mother Cabrini yesterday, for instance, losing the four languages she speaks, the hostility she had to overcome in this country and the scars it left.
    Or in my column on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice (which ran on Saturday so I could get an extra 300 words) I limited my remarks about the war's effect on fashion to what I thought was most surprising: the trench coat, named for the trenches that officers wearing such coats spent time in.
    I considered mentioning wristwatches as well. But no space. Which is the glory of this blog: there is always another day.
    So let's have at it. 
   Prior to World War I, men generally carried pocket watches, strapless timepieces attached to a chain, typically tucked into their vest pockets.
     Precise timing became of crucial military importance in World War I: the assault had to begin at a certain moment, over a front miles long. But it is difficult to fumble around in your vest pocket while holding a rifle. Or while sprawled on the ground. Increasingly soldiers took to wearing their watches on their wrists. 
     Not that wristwatches began with World War I; it was a practice noted during the Second Boer War, 1899 to 1901. Wristwatches had a distinct military flair—a 1902 Omega ad called them "an indispensable item of military equipment.” This became widespread during the First World War, particularly as soldiers began taking their fashion cues from flying aces. Pilots could not carry pocket watches, their vests were buried under thick leather and lambskin jackets. Though the most famed watch of World War I owed its inspiration to a different new development in military technology—the famed Cartier "Tank" watch, created in 1917 and based on the overhead view of a Renault tank.
    Having written none of this, I stopped by American Legion Post 791 in Northbrook Sunday afternoon, to view their display of WWI memorabilia. There I ran into Cody McCullough, a World War One re-enactor from Manteno.  We got to talking, and I mentioned the wristwatch/World War I connection, which prompted a legionnaire overhearing our conversation to scoop a small, dried-out leather item from a table top and bring it over for our inspection. 
     Of course. A watch was expensive, and infantry soldiers could not be expected to equip themselves with the latest fashion just because they went to war. Thus this band designed to hold your pocket watch.  Such "wristlets" had been worn by British soldiers for 40 years. The sort of transitional stopgap than any student of shifting technology has to savor, like those little wheeled stands that people used to tuck under galvanized metal garbage cans before they realized they could construct them with attached wheels.
     Pocket watches linger on as affectations and items of nostalgia. The U.S. Army did not stop including a watch pocket in its uniform trousers until 1961, a fact that I should not know off the top of my head. But I do.