Friday, May 31, 2019

Musician keeps memory of Tiananmen Square alive

Fengshi Yang conducts the East Meets West Music Arts chamber orchestra in a previous memorial concert. 

     Music is not going to topple the Chinese Communist dictatorship.   
     More and more, it seems nothing will.   
     But music is all that Fengshi Yang has.   
     “China is not getting better,” said the Columbia College music teacher. “It’s getting worse.”
     She feels obligated to do what she can: present another commemorative concert in her hometown of Naperville, performed this Sunday by the East Meets West Music Arts chamber orchestra to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, in which Chinese students demanding democracy were slaughtered by their government.
     China does what it can to suppress the memory of the massacre, using its complete control of the Chinese online media. There, you can get in trouble for even mentioning “June 4” or “6/4.”
     In 2012, when the Shanghai stock market fell 64.89 points at the time of the anniversary, Chinese censors began blocking searches for “index” and “Shanghai stock market.”
     China can’t suppress American free speech, yet, but its chilling influence is felt right here in America’s heartland. It has increasingly tried to impose its uncritical nationalism, casting honest history as mere bigotry. Chinese exchange students sometimes push to import the propaganda they grew up on at home to American campuses. I interviewed a neighbor, born in China, who 30 years ago was a student protesting at Tiananmen Square. An American citizen now, he asked me to not only refrain from using his last name, but also his first.

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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Don't pick the flowers!

     The Chicago Botanic Garden is the biggest bargain in the history of ever. For $99 a year, you can stroll the grounds—rose gardens and walled English gardens, fruit trees and prairie, lakes and waterfalls, a formal Japanese garden and a woodland. Desert hothouses and profusions of tropical orchids. 
     And much more.
     My wife and I go there all the time, as often as we can. Just to stroll, talk, take the place in. We even go in winter, in February. The Botanic Garden is constantly changing. We always have a good time. It's like being in heaven, only you're not dead. 
      True, we do bring the personalities  we labor under when not in the garden. Which is not an issue for my wife, temperate as a spring day. And, honestly, not much of an issue for me, lulled into a calm, reflective, appreciative Chicago Botanic Garden state of mind.
    Usually. There are times when I revert to form, the flowers be damned. Times when, well, to paraphrase Boss Tweed, I see my opportunities and I take 'em.
    Such as this lovely orange flower, which we noticed in the middle of the path. A crowded path, right in front of the entrance. I quickly stooped to pick it up and hand it to my wife. 
     "Here," I said. "It would look good in your hair." 
     "The wind must have blown it down," she said, taking the flower, gazing at it appreciatively. I took a step back.
    "Hey!" I chided, in a loud, bold voice, waving my arms. "You're not supposed to pick the flowers!" 
     I can't honestly say everyone turned to look; I was focused on her. But she certainly squirmed as if they had. Joke accomplished, she tucked the flower behind her ear and we moved toward our car. A fun place, the garden.  

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Buckner’s blame is also our own

     He had more hits — 2,715 — than either Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams.
     But Bill Buckner also blew one important play, and was smart enough to know what that meant.
     “The headline on my obituary will say I missed a ground ball in Game 6,” Buckner once said. “A little note at the end will say, ‘He was a pretty good player.’”
     He got that right, the first part anyway. The obituaries for Buckner, who died on Monday, did try not to let his 22 stand-out seasons be eclipsed by one bobbled ball.
     “A MIXED LEGACY,” read the headline in Tuesday’s Sun-Times. “’80 NL batting champ with Cubs committed big error in ’86 Series.’’
     “2,715 Hits, Eclipsed by One Miss” is how the New York Times put it.
     They tried, but they failed. Because Bill Buckner was a goat, the biggest goat in baseball for the past three decades. If the term doesn’t pluck a heartstring, then you’ve forgotten your “Peanuts.”
     “If I catch it, we’ll win the championship, and I’ll be the hero,” Charlie Brown says to himself, looking up, glove at the ready, as the baseball flies in his direction. “If I miss it, I’ll be the goat!”
     Spoiler alert: Charlie Brown misses it.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

"Some of the last mystery in the world will pass"

    Twenty-five years ago, when I was writing a book on failure, I wanted to focus on an achievement which many people tried to accomplish and failed before it was finally done, and settled on the conquest of Mount Everest. 
     The chapter, called "Were the Mountain Smaller," examined all the expeditions that didn't make it up Mount Everest, named "Chomolungma," by  the locals, before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay managed the feat in 1953 (one analysis of a British failure in the 1930s determined that success would certainly have been theirs "were the mountain smaller.")
     My research gave me a lifelong skepticism, if not contempt, for attempts to scale Everest, an attitude that tends to flare each May, when conditions are right, or as right as they get at least, for summiting. This year's was particularly deadly and ludicrous, which prompted me to re-read the chapter, and remember that while the situation gets worse and worse, none of this is new, alas. The chapter ends this way:

     Some six hundred people have climbed Everest and the number is constantly growing—sixty-one people reached the summit in 1993 alone, forty of them on a single day, May 10 (climbers savoring their moment of personal triumph at the summit, heard shouts from below to hurry up, that others were waiting).
     As many as one hundred people making the attempt have died, thirty-four in the past five years—in falls, from exposure, from hypothermia and, in attempts to duplicate Messner and Habeler's 1978 climb, from causes related to oxygen depletion, such as cerebral edema.
     For a while, mirroring the atomization of society, climbers attempting Everest sought to be an ever more specific first something atop the mountain—first American, first woman, first person over fifty, first American woman over fifty. Attention also shifted to which route was taken up Everest. Hillary and Tenzing, it turns out, not only cheated with oxygen but took the easy way up. So the more difficult routes had to be conquered.
     Stacy Allison, the first American woman up Everest, spent forty-five minutes at the summit photographing herself with the logos of her numerous corporate sponsors. Later, appearing on "The David Letterman Show," she took a stone from her pocket, explaining that it came from the top of Everest, and asked permission to heave it through Dave's famed studio window. "Of course," said Letterman, and she threw the stone, accompanied by the usual breaking-glass sound effect. 
    Today Everest is climbed so frequently that trash is a problem—the Nepalese government has had to require that expeditions carry out all their garbage, lest the slopes become an utter junkyard of discarded oxygen cylinder and mint cake wrappers.
     From a vantage point of forty years, comparing the end result of the dynamic, peakward-yearning philosophy of the British mountaineers to the austere, mountain-fearing mysticism of the Sherpas, one doesn't have to be a devotee of Eastern religion to wonder if perhaps the world might be a more appealing place had Everest been a little higher, the winds a little stronger, the cold more harsh and the highest mountain in the world remained forever beyond the grasp of the humans living below.
     "The mountain appears not to be intended for climbing," noted Mallory in his diary in 1921. He was speaking of the physical challenge, but oddly enough, at least some Western contemporaries also found philosophical obstacles. When the first expedition was being organized, a few London editorialists wondered about the wisdom of making the effort. "Some of the last mystery of the world will pass when the last secret place in it, the naked peak of Everest, shall be trodden by those trespassers," on prescient critic wrote.
     in early June 1953, on their way down the mountain toward fame, the British expedition stopped at the Thyangboche Monastery to pay their respects. John Hurt told the elderly abbot that they had just climbed to the summit of Everest. "He was plainly incredulous and nothing would shake his unbelief," wrote Hunt, oblivious that if you thought God was on top of a mountain, you couldn't every well imagine a bunch of haggard bearded foreigners tramping up to visit Him. "But his natural courtesy forbade him to give expression to this in so many words, and when we left he graciously congratulated us on 'nearly reaching the summit of Chomolungma.'" 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Memorial Day is to remember the fallen

Tom Dier in Vietnam in 1970
     The Jerry Corp Memorial Highway is not long. A section of U.S. Highway 160, it runs two and a half miles through Ozark County, Missouri, 250 miles southwest of St. Louis.
     A green highway sign flashes by, the name registers and some drivers may feel a passing curiosity: does anybody remember Jerry Corp?
     Tom Dier remembers him.
     ”We weren’t really close or anything like that,” said Dier, 70. “He wasn’t in my platoon.”
     A mortar platoon in Company C, First Battalion, 52nd Infantry. Corp was a radioman attached to the command post in Quang Ngai province Vietnam.
     ”We got to know each other that way,” said Dier, who grew up in Northbrook and has returned home to speak at the northwest suburb’s Memorial Day commemoration after the parade Monday. “You didn’t really get close to people too much.”
     In fact, Dier has exactly one memory of Corp, but it’s a good one.
     ”Someone on the perimeter called in for a routine fire mission, asking for illumination,” Dier plans to say in his speech. “I dropped a round down the 81-millimeter mortar tube. The shot went out, and we waited for the familiar pop and the subsequent intense light that the round would provide as it drifted slowly back to the ground for several hundred feet in the air.
     “The descending illumination revealed a nearby hillside covered in jungle. Jerry and I laughed as the flare drifted toward the hillside, watching a multitude of chirping birds who mistook the flare for a sunrise. The noise from the birds stopped suddenly—as if a switch had been flipped—when the flare burned out.”

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Sunday, May 26, 2019

Flashback 1998: Veteran entitled to help, but 'too proud' to see it

     Not every soldier who is lost falls on a distant battlefield. Some come home, alive and seemingly sound, only to later succumb, a casualty to hidden wounds. 
     With Memorial Day tomorrow, I thought of this pair of stories. Though more than 20 years have passed, I still remember clearly the day the first one was printed, because I did something that I'd never done before: I took my telephone, which would not stop ringing, and put it in my desk drawer and closed the drawer. I had already used it, for a difficult conversation with a bereaved mother, and needed to write the second column. 

     Pvt. McLynn Craig made it back from Vietnam, but the Chicago streets did him in. Now his body lies unclaimed, waiting for somebody to help him home to his final rest.
     Craig, 48, a former Marine, was found dead under a stairwell on the West Side in the middle of December. Cause of death: pneumonia.
     Since being recovered, Craig's body has been at the Cook County medical examiner's office.
     "He was very nice, an educated young man," said Reatha M. Holder, a social worker at the Veterans Affairs West Side Medical Center, who tried to encourage Craig to enter programs and get off the street.
     "But he was too proud to seek help," she said. "Others from the lounge tried to get him to seek help from the VA, because he was eligible."
     "The lounge" is Carol's Lounge, a tavern at 3858 W. Madison, where Craig used to work as a handyman.
     "We all knew him, but we didn't know much about him," said Quentin Black, the manager at the bar. "He came from the South—he has ties with people down there. He was in the Marines. He served two tours in Vietnam. He worked maintenance on a flight crew. He was a bright man, kind of worldly for his young life."
     Black said that Craig used to sleep in the bar for a while.
     "But he took to the streets. Everything he owned was on his back," said Black. "He was proud."
     Holder has tried to locate his family. His mother, Lena Mae Craig, is thought to live in Montgomery, Ala. He has children in Chicago—two sons and a daughter, who is blind. But nobody seems to know their names or where to find them.
     The medical examiner's office was going to release Craig's body to be buried in a pauper's grave at the potter's field in Homewood. But Holder intervened, hoping someone would come forward and claim him.
     "He was helpful to everybody," she said. "I just couldn't understand how he could let himself become a homeless veteran."
         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 9, 1998

      As concerned strangers were making plans Friday to bury McLynn Craig—the ex-Marine who became homeless and died huddling under a West Side stairway in December—the sad news was being relayed to his mother in Alabama.
     "They were neighbors of ours here in West Chatham—a fine family, a wonderful young man," said Grethyal Gooch, 63, who read about Craig in Friday's Sun-Times. "I was stunned. I called his mother. She was very distraught. They'd never been able to find him."
     Lena Mae Craig said her son took to the streets for reasons she didn't understand.
     "That was just something he wanted to do," she said from her home in Gadsden, Ala. "He was evidently dealt a bad something. I don't know. He's been like this for three years, sleeping and staying in taverns and doing work for food."
     She said Craig, who was 48 and served two tours in the Marines and then one in the Navy, could have come home anytime to the people who loved him.
     "He has a blind son, 25 years old. I just told him (the news)," Craig said. "He loved his father to death. He has a sweet daughter, in Rock Falls. She's going down to ID his body at the morgue. He has two sweet children that love him and a mother and two sisters and a brother."
     Her only indication of what might have kept her son from seeking help was his bitterness toward the government.
     "He said the government was rotten and he didn't want anything to do with it," Craig said. "He didn't want any help, didn't want to go into the hospital."
     She said her son did not live in the streets because of any mental problems. "He was too smart in the head for that. He was in the Marines," she said. "The Marines are not dumb people."
     Nor do they neglect their own. Throughout the day Friday, Marines -- active, retired and reserve, as individuals and as representatives of groups such as VietNow -- called the newspaper offering burial help.
     But it seems that Craig will be shipped home for burial in Alabama.
     "I want him shipped here," his mother said. "I want him here."

                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 10, 1998

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: "Philosophy will clip an angel's wings"

Photo by Nikki Dobrowolski

     Rainbows always catch our attention. They're rare enough to not bore, but common enough not to frighten. They're color on a grey day—all the colors of the, forgive me, rainbow in fact—after a storm, and have enough cultural baggage to make us feel good, as heralds of happiness, with an echo of tales of leprechauns and their hidden pots of gold.
      All good, but also a shame, because we usually stop there, and seldom reflect, oh, how both Rene Descartes and Isaac Newtown studied rainbows, the former in his 1637 treatise...
     Aw, the hell with it. Let us not pull rainbows down from heaven and pick over them with our microscopes. As much as I'm inclined to do just that, roll out the science, today ... well, not in the mood. Today, let's err on the side of romance. 
    So let's cut across the field, veering from technology to poetry, and take the advice of John Keats, who complains specifically about people who would study rainbows, in his poem "Lamia"—Lamia being a child of Poseidon, a child-devouring sea monster. He uses "philosophy" in its older sense, encompassing science, and "awful" in its meaning, not of a bad thing, but "inspiring awe."

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?        
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,        
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow...

     Thank you regular reader (and photo contributor) Nikki Dobrowolski, for sending the photo, taken in her back yard. That's some backyard.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Trump takes his hands off the wheel


Union Station is falling apart, sometimes on commuters' heads. 

     Infrastructure is not sexy.
     Roads and bridges, railroad tracks and tunnels. Nobody says, “You know what I love about Chicago? The electrical grid; it’s so robust!”
     Though I admit I find infrastructure — well, if not quite a turn-on, than at least interesting. I’ve watched roads built, cement poured, tunnels dug, bridges installed. It’s not boring.
     And it’s important. A nation’s infrastructure is like a body’s veins and arteries, bone and sinew. You might not take pride in your Achilles tendon, but if something goes wrong with it, you try to walk and instead pitch forward on your face.
     You probably noticed infrastructure in the news this week. The president stormed out of a meeting with Democrats Wednesday; they were supposed to talk about long-delayed infrastructure repairs. But Donald Trump vowed not to address this urgent, bipartisan problem while the Democrats are plumbing the depths of his administration’s corruption and criminality.
     On one hand, it is not the biggest setback. Just as the environmental standards being scrapped tend, upon closer examination, to have been implemented by Barack Obama in 2014, so nobody was rushing to fix our national infrastructure before Trump brought his circus to Washington. Obama’s 2009 American Recovery & Reinvestment Act grew construction efforts by only 1 percent in 2009 and 2010. (I like to point out where Obama fell short, just to mess with Republicans’ heads, showing it is possible to view your own side critically. I sincerely believe Republicans don’t know it can be done, beyond occasionally muttering, “I wish he didn’t tweet so much” which is like pointing out Satan has a loose button on his coat).

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

It happens from time to time

Pregnant woman, by Edward Degas
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     I always worry about repeating myself in the column. Probably unnecessarily. Nobody ruffles the paper indignantly and harrumphs, "I READ this same opinion 15 years ago!" But I have my professional pride, too much no doubt, and to me, once you start recycling old ideas, you're halfway to Bob Greene and his 100 columns about Baby Richard.
     So the horror of Marlen Ochoa-Lopez, the pregnant 19-year-old Pilsen woman who was strangled and  her baby cut out of her, evoked, after the normal human shock that such a crime would evoke, a kind of double deja vu. First, the realization that this crime, as staggeringly incomprehensible as it is, has happened before, repeatedly. And second, that I've pointed this out already. Thus I kept quiet.
     For today, I dug up up that column from 15 years ago. It's brief, since the column took a full page and had a variety of parts. under bold faced subheadings. 

    But it does the job.
    On the same day, I ran a vignette about my family life in 2004 that I couldn't drop back down the memory hole without sharing. I'll tag it afterward, as an apology for taking you  to such a grim place. The speaker at the time was 7.

Not the first time

     I shouldn't even bring up the subject of the hideous murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett—the Missouri woman who was strangled and her baby cut from her womb—since there's nothing funny about it.
     But one aspect of the crime should not escape notice. When we first heard of this kind of thing, in the similar 1995 Debra Evans case here in DuPage County, I thought it was so brutal and horrible it had to be a unique occurrence. It seemed a crime of such awfulness it might have happened only once, safely in historic times, the kind of thing that becomes a Greek tragedy, like Medea.
     But these cases are not unique. It's incredible, but true. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens—now in Missouri, in 1995 in DuPage, and also in cases in Ohio, in Alabama, in New Mexico, and probably more that I couldn't find.
     I don't know what conclusion to draw from this, other than as a reminder that there are some hugely disturbed people out there. And while such crimes are still rare, the killing of pregnant women is not—in fact, murder is the leading cause of death among pregnant women and new mothers, eclipsing things such as cancer or delivery complications.
     Researchers are trying to figure out why.

'I'm lying!'

     "Do you really have an earache, or are you faking it?" my wife, trying to shepherd the boys out the door, called after the youngest, who has lately been trying to goldbrick his way out of anything he finds remotely unpleasant.
     I set down the coffee cup, poised to point out the lack of utility of such a question, when his voice, bright with the innocent candor of youth, came chiming in from another section of the house:
     "Faking it!" he announced.
     I didn't know whether to be proud of his honesty or dismayed by his lack of craft.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 20, 2004

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Picking up after your dog is just the start

     Social media gets talked about as if it were one thing. But “media” is plural, and each social medium has different customs and tone.
     Facebook is familial, for instance. You can show unruly guests the gate. On Facebook I mark personal occasions: my wife’s birthday, a son home from school, in a way I never would on Twitter. Twitter is far more public and contentious, a mad free-for-all, like that tomato festival in a small Italian town where everyone is covered in red goo, flinging fruit as fast as they can.
     Then there’s blogging. I maintain a blog whose name, alas, can’t be printed in the paper. Blogging seemed edgy when I began, six years ago, ignoring the unavoidable truth that, if I’m doing something, then it ain’t edgy.
     Now blogging seems a quaint and obscure time-wasting pastime, like embroidery. A place for smaller, more trivial thoughts that have no business gobbling up the scarce real estate of a printed newspaper. Two weeks ago, one blog post began this way:
     “Tuesday is garbage day in the old leafy suburban paradise. Which makes Tuesday a better day to walk the dog, because people roll their big sturdy green garbage cans to the curb, affording me a range of disposal options after Kitty has done her business. No need for carrying the blue New York Times bag with its load of doo, not for long, not on Tuesdays. Detour a few steps over to a can, a tad guiltily, lift the top and flip the bag inside.
     “I don’t know why I feel guilty—it isn’t as if the homeowner will mind, me using their can for such a purpose. Or maybe they would. Of course they would. We can be very jealous of our prerogatives, we suburbanites, and I can imagine some homemaker gazing worriedly out her window. ‘That disheveled man, the one with the limp who is always walking that ratty little dog. He just came by and used our garbage can!’”

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A star is born, or at least detected, maybe, at The Second City.

Kimberly Michelle Vaughn, singing about the Zodiac
     My wife's birthday was Friday, and she requested we go to dinner at Topo Gigio on Wells Street—truly excellent Italian fare—then take in a show at The Second City.  Our younger son, freshly returned in triumph from his first year at law school, joined us.  
     At Piper's Alley, we were seated in the second row, which made me happy before the thing even began—close to the action—and we settled in to watch the venerable Chicago troupe's 107th revue, "Algorithm Nation or the Static Quo."
     It was the sort of boisterous fun you'd expect from Second City: not genius, not dreck, but a series of sketches and songs designed to poke fun at our current cultural moment. Not the easiest thing to do, considering how our national conversation has devolved into continual low farce, no satire necessary. Though given the overarching premise—something about Facebook and its grip on our lives—let's just say I felt that the evening ended with whole wings of possibility left unexplored. Maybe Facebook is already too closely and creepily intertwined into our lives to step back and observe it with the necessary critical distance. I hope not.
      Some sketches ended too soon. I savored the hard gaze that Nate Verrone, as an Uber driver, shot into his rear view mirror as his passenger, a bubbly Emma Pope, prattled on about her birthright tour of Israel. I wanted to get to know that guy better, but the bit ended almost as soon as it began. 
     Some sketches went on too long: Ryan Asher's bawdy female Trump supporter whipping up a crowd for an appearance by His Orange Enormity, all leg kicks and pussy jokes that both went on forever and went nowhere. Donald Trump is gross as he is; he doesn't need to absorb a cheeseburger through his anus. She was much better as a young kid sounding out his mother's boyfriend. Pope and Jeffrey Murdoch also had a sweet moment at an eighth grade dance. 
     One performer stood out—Kimberly Michelle Vaughn. My wife and I afterward agreed that she has the ... I don't what to call it. The sparkle. A certain joyous fierceness, a fire, a look in her eye that just put her on the next level. She was part of an ensemble, singing a loopy song about astrology, yet somehow she just sold it more. I hope her cast mates don't hate me, or her, for saying it.  Maybe they shine more on other nights.  And one hesitates to predict the future, given the crucial role of luck. But now at least I can say I told you so.
    Tyler Davis was also very good—he also has presence—though both he and Vaughn were wasted in a sketch where they endure the clueless goodwill of their new white neighbors. Maybe I didn't like the bit because it skewers the kind of obliviousness of which I myself am guilty. I can't be the judge of that. But it seemed to me a concept done to death decades ago, It was like a cartoon set on a desert island or in a dungeon: it has to be done really well to merit doing at all. 
     Not that an old joke can't be fluffed up and used anew. 
    There was some business at the end of the night when Davis takes an audience member hostage, and fate dictated that the audience member be me. As he quickstepped me out of the theater, he asked me who I had come with, and I pointed to my wife and son. 
     "Which one should live?" he asked, or words to that effect.
      "My wife," I said, immediately. "I have another son."
     That got a big laugh out of the audience. Later, I wondered where the line had come from, and realized, not without a slight shiver of horror, that I was re-casting a trope from Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian.
     In his "Speculations About the Nile," he speaks of what he calls the Land of the Deserters: Egyptian soldiers who revolted from the Egyptians and joined the Ethiopians.  As they fled, their commander tried to stop them. Herodotus writes: 
     Psammetichus heard of it, and pursued them. When he came up with them, he entreated them mightily: he would have them, he said, not desert their household gods and their wives and children. At this, it is said, one of their number showed him his prick and said, "Wherever I have this, I will have wives and children."
    Not quite the same line, but a similar spirit.  The evening reminded me that I should make a point of seeing The Second City more often than I do. Though next time, not on the aisle.

Kimberly Michelle Vaughn

Kimberly Michelle Vaughn


Monday, May 20, 2019

Just smoke and mirrors. No babies. No concern for life. No heartbeats.

The Fall of the Magician (1565) by Pieter van der Heyden (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Magicians creates a world where you can be fooled. The pretty assistant and the flapping doves, the twirled wand and the cloth-covered table — all props to distract your eye from the hidden mirrors, the invisible thread, the palmed playing card.
     That’s why what they do are called “magic tricks.” The audience is tricked. We’re supposed to be: it’s almost bad form to point out the illusion.
     Bad form when contemplating an innocent entertainment such as magic.
     When dealing with a key political issue, however, pointing out the deception is obligatory. The showy distractions need to be understood. Especially with a crucial societal issue such as abortion. For too long we’ve accepted the chimerical world of one side, the long-established artifice of those who would suppress women down for religious reasons.
     You know all the magic props: the wide-eyed Gerber baby. The constantly cooed concern for “life.” And, most recently, “heartbeat” laws.
     In reality, there are no babies: most abortions are done in the first trimester, when a fetus is the size of a watermelon seed. The supposed concern for life is a sham, beginning and ending with fetuses of women they’ll never meet. There’s no sympathy for those actually living.
     And the “heartbeat” laws, such as that passed in Missouri on Friday, the latest in a string of states to ban abortion after about the sixth week of pregnancy, effectively banning it altogether, since most women then are just finding out they’re pregnant. There is no heartbeat: a fetus at that point has not developed a working circulatory system, never mind a heart. Calling whatever rudimentary spasm goes on in a fetus a “heartbeat” is like calling a brick a house.
     Like unskilled magicians bobbling the coin as they pocket it, those opposed to women controlling their own bodies carelessly give away the game. The new Missouri law limits the punishments for abortion to doctors, not the women having the procedure.
     Why? If these fetuses are people, and if destroying them is murder, then why not charge the women, too? In any other murder, they would be equal culprits, given that they conceived, facilitated and paid for the crime.

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Sunday, May 19, 2019

"The dangerous power of women"

     Lucky is the man who finds himself in the vicinity of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street with an hour to kill, say before meeting his younger son for lunch at their favorite dim sum place on East Wacker Drive.
      Can there be anything more indulgent than to wander into this palace of masterpieces, without goal or plan, stumbling from treasure to treasure, waiting for something to catch your eye? Because something always does.
Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
     This time it was this picture of Judith, painted around 1540 by Flemish mannerist Jan Sanders van Hemessen. For those unfamiliar with the biblical tale, Judith has just stolen into the tent of the Assyrian General Holofernes and cut off his head. 
    I knew the story, and, seeing her across the room, practically called out her name—"Judith!"—the way one does when recognizing an old friend, hurrying over to say hello and contemplate the painting afresh. What struck me this time was her expression, the way she looks at her powerful arm, her hand clutching that sword. A kind of numb amazement, as if she can't quite believe what she's just done and is capable of doing again. 
     The heroine was a popular Renaissance subject, the placard tells us: "The dangerous power of women was a recurrent and ironic theme in the art of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance in northern Europe."
     Women's power is no longer seen as dangerous. Just the opposite. It is latent, unseen, ignored, at least in the United States, as men across the country, aided, as always, by female confederates gulled to work against their own best interests, conspire to force all women back to the distaff and the loom by revoking their rights to control their own bodies and reproductive choices. They have gotten as far as they have, I believe, because women generally have been pre-occupied enjoying the fruits of their hard-won freedoms, assumed they are permanent, and are not focused seriously enough on the real possibility that our country will indeed march back into the past, where they bore babies based on the dictates of their menfolk, or the vagaries of fate.
     It won't. Women, like Judith, will find their power, late but in time. It has to happen and when it does, I imagine it will be accompanied by the same kind of wonder, almost awe, at the realization of what they've done, what they now can do. The understanding that they had this power all along, literally in their own hands.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Go see "The Winter's Tale" at the Goodman Theatre

Dan Donohue, right brings Shakespeare's mess of a play, "The Winter's Tale" to life as King Leontes, who has jealousy issues. To left Nathan Hosner, as King Polixenes, and Leonides' queen, Hermione, played by Kate Fry, in the kind of close chat that gets them into trouble.  

     I really ought to apologize to Robert Falls.
     As much as I respect the talent of the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, as much as I've been enjoying the plays that he directs for ... golly ... the past 35 years, I went to see "The Winter's Tale" at the Goodman Theatre Thursday night with, well, not a sense of dread, exactly, but a certain air of resignation.
     A sense of doubt.
     This is not "Hamlet." This is not "Richard III" or "King Lear" or even "Romeo and Juliet." "The Winter's Tale" is some strange, unfamiliar, minor, late Shakespeare mish-mash that I had never seen nor wanted to see. Study proved fruitless. An hour conversation with Falls barely nudged my expectations. Even he wasn't certain what the play is about. 
      "I've been working on it for a year and I barely know what it's about," he said, over lunch at Petterino's.
     And I believed him.
     Adding to my unease was this: "The Winter's Tale" is the play the Sun-Times was taking our contest winners to see. I was responsible. We had a lovely party beforehand in the Goodman's Alice space, and I lingered, nursing my spring water, not quite ready to will myself into the theater to see ... what?
     Something about jealousy. A dramatic hybrid: an act of drama followed by an act of clowning. Some monstrosity, neither fish nor foul.
     Well, I mused, heading toward my seat, expectation mingled with unease, if anyone can pull this off, it's Bob.
    Does he ever.  Turns out that his pretending not to know what the play is about was merely a taste of his trademark trickster smokescreen. He knows exactly what it's about, and brought in just the right help to drive the tale home. 
    What I hadn't anticipated, before the fact, is that no director, no matter how good, puts on a play alone. I had overlooked the key role that great acting plays in rescuing dubious material, in this case, the lunge from doting friend to jealous fiend that King Leonites executes at the start of the play, a shift that seems daft on paper, but natural and terrifying when performed by Dan Donohue, making his Goodman Theatre debut. Veteran of 30 productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he marches Leonites into the realm of great Shakespearean tragic figures, along with Lear and Othello and Richard III.
      Leonides turns on his blameless wife, Hermione, played with perfection by Kate Fry.  Her newborn daughter abandoned to the mercy of crows and vultures, she delivers a riveting speech, explaining how Leonides' threatened punishments for her imaginary crimes are mere nothings. 
     "The bug which you would fright me with, I seek," she says. "To me can life be no commodity ... Tell me what blessings I have here alive, that I should fear to die?"
     Donohue and Fry make the first act work—it's as searing as "Hecuba"— but its highlight is Christiana Clark, as the queen's lady, Paulina. Her angry, courageous keelhauling of Leonides has the audience leaning forward in their seats, hanging on every word.
    "What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?" she spits out, telling him to bring them on. The boatload of contempt she packs into that word, "tyrant" is worth the price of admission.  (Kris Vire calls her performance both "stunning" and "blistering" in his spot-on review in the Sun-Times).
Chloe Baldwin, right, enlivens the second act.
    Then the second act of the play is basically a dance party, a sheep-shearing festival graced by Chloe Baldwin, as the abandoned babe, Perdita, now grown to a sylphic 16. Notice how her youthful naturalness turns formal and rigid when forced to talk to an adult, in this case King Polixenes in disguise.
     I won't argue that "The Winter's Tale" is ripped from the headlines. But, as to be expected with Bob Falls, particularly during our current national torment, all play choices are political. Just as his last play, Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" was a rebuke practically ordered up by our president, so it can't be an accident that he's now offering a play where, one after another, courtiers who are supposed to be subservient instead stand up to a capricious and powerful despot who has lost his reason. Who one after another hold their ground and say, in essence, "Go ahead and kill me. I'm telling you the truth anyway."
      Only in fiction, alas.
      "The Winter's Tale" is Bob Falls at his best, directing a cast of excellent actors who know what they're doing, with a modern set by Walt Spangler that gives its own drama and austerity to the proceedings. It is really a Chicago theatrical moment not to missed—onstage only for a few more weeks, until June 9.  The word my wife used was "excellent"—three times in her immediate summation of the experience. "The Winter's Tale" is truly excellent, as if an unknown Shakespeare masterpiece were discovered and performed for the first time.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Pardon clears Black’s legal woes, but his stain remains

The Infants Christ and St. John the Baptist Embracing (detail)
The Art Institute of Chicago

     I’m writing this column on an Apple iMac. Not the latest model — it’s from 2012. Quite old, actually — but a good size, 21.5 inch screen, and reliable.
     Fifty bucks and it’s yours.
     No? How about $25?
     Kidding. There are two problems with my selling this iMac. First, I need it to write the rest of today’s column. And second, the computer’s not mine: it belongs to the Chicago Sun-Times. So if I did sell it, contrary to the company’s best interests, the money wouldn’t belong to me, but to them.
     That, in a nutshell, if you puff away the bombast and legalese, not to mention the confusing miasma of conviction and acquittal, appeal and reversal, is the essence of the misdeeds of Conrad Black, former master of Hollinger International, a chain of newspapers that included this one. Crimes Lord Black was pardoned of on Wednesday by his friend and fellow fraud, President Donald Trump.
     Black and his underling David Radler sold off pieces of Hollinger as if they and not the stockholders owned the place. They sold publications and skimmed off cash for themselves, arguing this was OK because the embezzlement was cast in the form of “noncompete” clauses, promises not to undercut the business of the new owners.
     To return to our opening scenario, it’s as if I sold you this iMac for $50, passing $25 to the paper and keeping $25 for myself as payment for promising not to hurt your ability to profit from writing stuff on it.
     “We believe the verdict vindicates the serious public interest in making sure that when insiders in a corporation deal with money entrusted to the shareholders, that they’re not engaged in self-dealing,” Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois at the time, said after the convictions.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Wherever Rembrandt went, there he was

     The informational cards in museums—the preferred term is "wall labels"—are one of the few forms of writing even less respected than daily journalism. They are anonymous, typically. There are no awards, that I know of. Nobody collects them, and they have no life beyond the length of the exhibit they are prepared for, unless they linger, obscure and unread, in a book version of the show.
      So I want to pause, and highlight a particularly noteworthy label at the current Rembrandt Portraits show at The Art Institute, running now until June 3. 
      It accompanies a self-portrait of the great Dutch artist, and begins: "Rembrandt was his own favorite model—and he was always conveniently available for study." 
     Ignoring the "and"—superfluous—I want to focus on "conveniently." There is a modest parcel of whimsey packed into that word. A slight joke: He was always around. Wherever Rembrandt went, there he was.
     I thought of plunging into the Art Institute PR department and trying to find the identity of the writer. But Wednesday was such a nice day—I shouldn't have been in the museum at all, but just popped in to wait before lunch, spending only, oh, 45 minutes before exiting into Millennium Park to savor the advent—finally, finally, finally—of decent spring weather.
    The Rembrandt Portraits show, by the way, contributed to the brevity of my visit. It consists of the four portraits shown above, two from The Art Institute's collection, two visiting from California. That's it. I understand cultural institutions must do what they must do to draw in the groundlings. But really, giving this gathering a formal name and presenting itself as a cohesive exhibition, well, it strikes me as a minor species of fraud. Forgivable, perhaps, if it puts eyeballs on art. But something beneath a mighty enterprise such as The Art Institute. Or so is my opinion, but I am open to the possibility that I might be mistaken. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Easterseals is not only still around — it's big, important and based in Chicago

Mikkel Brill, left, goes over a drill with teacher Libby Mengel at the Easterseals Academy. 

     How are a rectangle and a square similar? How are they different? What about a chair and a table? How are they the same? How are they different? What about a truck and a bus? A pencil and a pen? A tomato and an apple?
     Not the easiest questions, particularly if you are 12 years old and have functional difficulties, such as Mikkel Brill, who parsed these distinctions on Monday, leaning forward in concentration, legs churning with effort, guided by teacher Libby Mengel in room 140 of Easterseals Academy, formerly the Easter Seals Therapeutic Day School, on Chicago's Near West Side.
     The windows behind them are high, designed to admit natural light but not offer views that might compete for the attention of easily-distracted students. The $24 million building opened in 2008 and has a number of other special features, such as extra insulation.
     "Kids with autism get easily stimulated by outside sound," said interim principal Kelly Sansone.
     The academy serves 110 students from age 3 to 22 — the day before their 22nd birthday, actually, when public funding cuts out. Students are referred here from public schools; they cannot apply directly.
     "We had an adult program that closed last January, due to the state funding crisis," said Sansone.
     Easterseals is one of those important organizations flying under the radar of the public, though it really shouldn't, particularly in Chicago, because its headquarters is here — on the 14th floor of the Board of Trade Building. Easterseals celebrated its centennial last month and it is huge: 34,000 employees in 5,000 locations worldwide, the largest non-profit health care organization in the United States. It serves 1.5 million people, focusing on veterans and children with cognitive problems, such as autism.
     "We have a lower profile, but it's steady, said Angela F. Williams, an Air Force vet and judge advocate general lawyer who last year became Easterseals' president and CEO. "Easterseals is that hidden diamond, and everybody needs to know who we are and what we're doing. We're the leading service provider for children with autism."

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Chicago Hardy Figs

    I plant tomatoes because I like tomatoes, and what better way to eat tomatoes than fresh off the vine? 
    Not that the past few seasons nature has yielded that many tomatoes, at least not to me. But that's another matter. 
    I've been doing better with lettuce. Butter lettuce. It grows and grows, tastes delicious, and has probably saved me hundreds of dollars eating better, cheaper lettuce than I could buy at a store. 
     But figs? I'll be honest: pure chauvinism. Civic pride. I saw the listing of "Chicago Hardy Fig" in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue and felt obligated to give them a try. Because they're Chicago figs. And they're hardy—I suppose if they were "Chicago Fragile Figs" I would have passed. But "hardy" seems a word designed to both describe and appeal to Chicagoans. A hardy lot, in our own estimation. At least something to strive for.
     Besides. Who doesn't love figs? Particularly we kids raised on the venerable Fig Newton (named for the town in Massachusetts, not the inventor of the calculus). I think of them as part of the triumvirate of classic cookies—the Oreo, the Lorna Donne, the Fig Newton. Not as successful as the Oreo, which is everywhere, with its odd and compelling flavors. Not as obscure as the Lorna Doone, who never amounted to much and now lurks in her attic room. The middle, semi-successful child. 
    This pair of plantings arrived over the weekend in good shape, and took to their new potted homes with none of the fallen leaves the instructions warned might come with the shock of transplant. Hardy indeed. We were also advised to plant them in a location safe from "harsh winter winds"—they're supposed to be good in Chicago, right? Is there anywhere safe? Even the winds of May have been pretty flippin' harsh. You've got to be hardy.


Monday, May 13, 2019

Dear Boeing: Repeat after me: 'It's our fault. We screwed up. We're sorry.'

     It's become a Facebook trope: airplane passengers posting photos of their 737 Max 8 safety cards, snatched from seat-back pockets.
     "This does not bode well," wrote Larry Lubell, a Chicago insurance executive on his way to Austin.
     A bit dramatic, given that 737 Maxes are grounded while Boeing tries to fix the software glitches that sent two of them crashing into the ground, killing 346 passengers and crew.
     But also a reminder that even after the technical challenges are overcome, there will be the public relations stain, one that will take much longer to scrub out.
     "Boeing's Tough Sell: Trust Us" headlined a story in The New York Times last Thursday, a tale that does not portray a company nimbly cleaning up its mess.
     "Boeing is facing credibility problems," the story noted. That happens when you not only screw up, but then compound your error by doing a tap dance around the problem.
     Go to the Boeing website. The second item — already a subtle wink that business goes on — promises "737 MAX UPDATES."
     Click on that. Up comes a video of Dennis Muilenburg, chairman, president and CEO of Boeing, his blue eyes harmonizing nicely with his blue shirt; tieless, to show they are in crisis mode.
     "We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 Max accidents," he begins.
     A start. Then again, I am also sorry about any lives lost. Maybe you are, too. That doesn't mean we caused them.
     "These tragedies continue to weigh heavily on our hearts and minds," Muilenburg continues, "tragedies" slyly implying we're talking about acts of God, instead of corporate corner-cutting, though hazily suggesting Boeing might have a closer association with these crashes than you or I do. "And we extend our sympathies to the loved ones of the passengers and crew onboard Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302."

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mother's Day, 2019

     You don't need to speak Spanish, or know anything at all about the life of Ofelia Barrientos Carcamo. That single word, on the coffee cup to the left, says it all: "Mama." We all know what that means, or should: children you love, who love you in return. A lifetime of joy and sacrifice. An unwillingness to let something so sweet and important go. 
     Which explains the personal items lovingly laid out and preserved, behind glass, at the Municipal Cemetery in Ushaia, Chile, the "End of the World"—that's its nickname—at the southernmost tip of South America. Ordinary things, precious only by association. A pair of spectacles. An oval portrait. 
    The cemetery is generally a ramshackle place, where crosses sag and graves crumble. A reminder that time does its work on the fiercest affections. 
     Many graves are still scrupulously maintained, like little rooms, and you can peek in and see personal effects, the coffins made like beds, with lace covers. As if their occupants are only sleeping, and might wake up, and need their glasses, a tradition that goes back to ancient Egypt, where the dead were buried with their personal effects close at hand, for use in the afterlife.
     Death only has meaning to the living. We love our mothers, not just because they gave us life, but they gave us the meaning that makes life bearable. A meaning that lingers long after they are gone. And long after we are gone, if we do it right, in the children we leave behind. Even at the cemetery, I couldn't help notice, that life continues, always pushing forward, with or without us. It always goes on, pushing out the dead, even as we cling to them.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Sonny and Cher

     I was blathering with a reader about birds when he mentioned something that froze my blood. He referred to a "life list," implying that I had one, since I liked to watch birds. I told him that I certainly do not have a life list and never will. One of the joys of animals in general and birds in particular is that they reflect the natural world, and what is more human than turning the observation of that world into some kind of contest, where you tally the various birds you've seen, keeping score, hoping to best your peers. Pass.
    As thrilling as it can be to spot an unfamiliar species, it also is a strain. You see something unfamiliar at the feeder. The binoculars are grabbed for. Attention is focused. Details are noted to facilitate the process of later trying to identify said bird, all the while under time pressure, because it might flit away at any moment and be gone.
    You know what's a lot less stressful? Ducks. Common as dirt mallard ducks, "the urban duck of the Chicago area" according to my "Birds of Chicago." Of course that is not a distinction particular to Chicago—mallards are among the most widespread birds in the world, and throughout history. I did a deep dive (sorry) into ducks here last spring.
     The boy duck—we've named him Sonny—has the distinctive iridescent green head of the male mallard, called drakes.  The female, whom we naturally dubbed Cher, will not only lay eggs, but later must teach her ducklings to swim: they'll drown otherwise.
    The duo have taken up residence over the past few weeks in our backyard, which floods.
     They're always there. A little shy, they can't manage the dexterity of flying up to my feeder, so they wait patiently below for the seeds that smaller birds jostle out (oh, okay, and for  the big scoopfuls of feed that I toss onto the ground for them, even though this is also a feast for squirrels). Ducks like grain, so much so that they've become agricultural pests. 
     "Mallard"—that's a curious word. The Oxford English Dictionary throws up its hands, a rare show of defeat: "of obscure origin." Though to the OED, that means they trace a first usage only back to 1330, and a paragraph of conjecture contains the priceless sentence, "The bird may under this name have figured as a personage in some lost example of the Germanic 'beast-epic.'" We'll have to save plunging into the beast-epic for another day.
     Cher is more timid—she retreats to the far margin of the yard when I show up. Sonny is almost accustomed to me to me, edging back to the food even before I've finished whatever chore took me to the backyard. There is also a third duck, another male, lurking nearby. We haven't named him yet, but probably should. "Gregg Allman" comes to mind. Too obvious? I suppose. But then, they're ducks. Obvious is kinda what they do.