Sunday, June 30, 2019

Here, eat your cheese: The State of the Blog, Year Six

     Last July, the newspaper sent me down to Granite City, to see Donald Trump give a speech at the U.S. Steel plant there. On the way home, I stopped for lunch in Dwight, a small town about 100 miles south of Chicago that turned out to have both an unexpected visitor's center housed in a refurbished vintage gas station, and a stunning bank designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1906 and still in use.
     I wrote a blog post about it, part of the carnival of quotidian essaying that is this blog, shifting from the important to the trivial, the current to the recycled.
    Neither news nor entertainment, fish nor foul, EGD wasn't a commercial endeavor, mostly, though it does have aspirations. And of course holiday advertising support from Eli's Cheesecake and its owner Marc Schulman, a tireless supporter of the blog since Day One. Thanks to him, and to all of you who ordered cheesecake. 
    For five years, the blog marched steadily upward. Readership grew. I imagined it become a Blog of Significance.
      Then this year Mark Zuckerberg turned a dial at Facebook, and readership fell 33 percent between August of 2018 and February 2019. Either that, or the public suddenly became indifferent, which is possible too. Though I do believe it is the former I like to think the quality, such as it is, hasn't suffered, but I'm not really the person to judge. And besides: the whole idea that good work is embraced while bad work is ignored is as baseless a fantasy as belief in faeries. 
     Besides Twitter has also closed down. Last year, I could get 100, 120 new followers a month. Lately I get none. My theory: people see the tweets either pushed by advertising dollars or sent by people with a million followers, neither of which describes me.
     I almost didn't count the numbers this year, but figured that would be worse. What's the point of being honest if you fall silent at bad news? 
    Bad news such as: in July, 2018, EGD had 75,928 readers.  That progressed steadily downward, lower and lower, month by month, until now, when June 2019 clocked in at almost exactly 50,000. with average of about 60,000 hits a month, putting us back to where we were in 2017. And a near-guarantee that next year will be worse.
    This, I believe, is where determination becomes a factor. Never never never and all that Churchillian folderol. 
    When we shift away from statistics, the picture improves. 
    In August, I started The Saturday Snapshot, using reader's photos to soften the weekend, both for the writers and, I hope, readers. Thanks to Tony, Tom, Nikki and all the regular contributors. We also marked Kitty's anniversary
    The blog carried all my columns in the paper, sometimes with sharper elements that the paper balked at, such as the Spanish headline on Friday's column. I won't run through all my favorites, though I have to mention the one in September where I featured women who donated their breast-milk to soften their grief after the death of their babies. In October, we hung out in Greenwich Village, at Caffe Reggio
     In April, I wrote a dozen pieces of a South American diary, including ones I was proud of on the tango as a guide to life, and a charming cheese shop. 
     Through it all, a steady fire directed at our president and the quislings and lackeys who support him, such as November's "Bias makes you stupid." For that reason alone, I think the blog is worth doing. Not for its limited and dwindling scope now, so much as to tell people in the future that we pushed back. In case they care.
    Which they might not.
    This is the place in the first draft of this report where I pressed the back of my wrist to my forehead and complained of being tired. But luckily I looked at past year-end summations, and noticed I was doing that during the blog's go-go sophomore year, when the numbers were zig-zagging skyward. So dispense with that.  Nobody likes a complainer—well, except for Republicans, who seem to love their whiner-in-chief, for reasons I can hardly fathom.
     I think that sums it up.  Wherever the beating heart of the internet may be, this ain't it. 
     But we are not without pride, and like to run a tidy shop ourselves. The cheese store in Necron, Chile wasn't Kraft Foods, either, but its proprietor still served up a delicious slab of fresh cheese for my two dollars. I try to do the same. Thank you for finding your nourishment here, and I'll hope to see you often in Year Seven. 



Saturday, June 29, 2019

Time's up, Joe.

    Two nights. Two debates. Twenty candidates.
    How many are left now?
    That question is beyond my skill set.
     Four years ago I remember handicapping the 16 Republican contenders.
     Because it's easier to pan than praise. And I've already taken Beto O'Rourke to the woodshed for showing off his high school Spanish.
     Yeah, New Age guru Marianne Williamson was loopy. But you don't really need me to tell you that, do you?
     I will say the first night left me unmoved—so much so that I fell asleep halfway through. I get up early. My wife, who stayed awake, was very enthusiastic about Julian Castro. But I will have to take that on faith.
     Thursday night was very different. Kamala Harris was the breakout candidate, speaking with confidence, power, emotion and none of the wooden punching-above-my-weight quality that candidates like John Hickenlooper exhibited.
     Right up there with her was Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend mayor. So that's what the fuss is about. A man who is clear and direct and fearless and takes responsibility. "I didn't get it done," he said, asked why the South Bend police force was still 6 percent black in a city where the general population is a quarter African-American. No equivocation, no tap-dancing. It was almost shocking.
     Joe Biden wasn't bad, but he wasn't good either. He seemed to be taking a state's rights approach to civil rights, which is nearly a code for supporting racism. If he doesn't know that, he should. One problem with these longtime hacks is they think they can sugar-coat a turd and feed it to the public, because we're stupid, when we're really not, Donald Trump supporters notwithstanding. When California Rep. Eric Swalwell quoted Biden saying, 32 years ago, that it was time to pass the torch to a new generation, Biden replied, "I'm not letting go of that torch." It was a frank admission of the egoism and selfishness of his campaign. He won't let go, so somebody has to take it from him.
     The most inadvertently candid thing Biden said was when stopping himself from speaking. Most candidates barreled on as moderators tried to shut them up. Biden pulled himself short and said, "My time's up."
     Is it ever. 

     Maybe that's good manners. Or maybe it's the timidity that crumples before Donald Trump. The 2020 race won't be played by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
     We have a long road ahead of us. Things change. But right now, I'd like to see Harris and Buttigieg together on a ticket. They seem in good position to pry the torch from Biden's claw. Then to be the splintery stick to shove up the ass of Donald Trump. If he beats them, well, then we deserve four more years of his clown show misrule.

Friday, June 28, 2019

¿Es este titular mejor en español?

Restaurant sign, Santiago
     An appeal to unity followed by a bald pitch to the nation’s Spanish speakers—the headline translates as "Is this headline better in Spanish?"—is a delicious irony, and exactly what is going to re-elect Trump.

     Beto O’Rourke was asked a question early at the first Democratic Presidential Debate Wednesday, about whether he supports a 70% tax on those earning more than $10 million a year.
     He replied that “it’s going to take all of us coming together,” then started speaking in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish. So while he talked, I idly mused whether I could get the $50 back that I gave him when he was running for Senate against Ted Cruz in Texas.
     Because while I have no trouble at all with Spanish being spoken under almost any circumstance, and fully support immigration reform, creating a path to citizenship for our nation’s 11 million undocumented residents now living in limbo, and an end to the various indignities committed against Hispanic American citizens and immigrants, what I do not support is four more years of Donald Trump.
     O’Rourke’s unprovoked, out-of-the-blocks flaunting of his language skills is the most wincing bit of Democratic tone deafness since John Kerry snapped a salute at the 2004 Democrat National Convention and said, “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”
     An appeal to unity immediately followed by a bald pitch to the nation’s 30 million Spanish speakers is not only a delicious if easy-to-miss irony, but also exactly what is going to re-elect Trump.
     The Republicans won in 2016 by building a coalition. They locked down their largest group of supporters, Whites Who Didn’t Go to College (and so missed classes like “Why Treason is Bad A01,” and “How to Grasp When You’re Being Lied To”). Then the GOP added Evangelicals Who Don’t Follow Their Faith, Jews Who Care More About Israel Than Judaism, and Various Minorities Trying to Pass By Ignoring their Own Interests — some 29% of Hispanics voted for Trump, despite his platform of open hostility toward them.

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Thursday, June 27, 2019

All those books with F*ck in the title are going to look timid someday

Eric Brunetti

      Before I had a blog, I had a name for a blog: It wasn't exactly an edgy name, but it wasn't bland either. Some people were offended by it, and at the start I felt obligated to explain the name, and that it was not only as a statement of purpose—there would be something new here every day, a lure in a time when web sites sat for long stretches, untended by their hosts—but a kind of filter. Not everything is for everyone, as Robert Crumb said, and if you don't like the name of the blog, that's a subtle hint that you won't like the writing either, and maybe you should take your business elsewhere and, please, don't let the door hit in you in the ass on your way out.
     It isn't so much that I'm a fan of obscenity, per se, so much as I like to have as many arrows in my writer's quiver as possible. I also like to explore the full range of topics. The post exploring Amy Winehouse's use of the word "Fuckery" in "Me & Mr. Jones" is one of my more popular among readers.
     So I have to note with pleasure that the United States Supreme Court on Monday took the government out of the trademark vetting business, striking down a federal law forbidding the registration of "scandalous" or "immoral" trademarks.
    Just the words "scandalous" and "immoral" have a fusty, 19th century butter churn and coal scuttle bonnet feel to them in this era where the president of the United States is a vile rapist and Russian catspaw married to an East European stripper, a leader who describes our impoverished neighbors as "shitholes." . Compared to that, how can a clothing line called "FUCT"—which prompted the case—be considered anything but trite?
     I distinctly recall walking through the first floor of Macy's and seeing "FUCT" on lucite panels six feet high. (Though in my memory, it stood for "French Union Clothing Trade" or some such thing, and not "Friends U Can't Trust," which was the trademark Los Angeles artist Erik Brunetti tried and failed to trademark in 2011, setting the case in motion.
      I remember thinking that we'd come a long way from ladies in white gloves serving tea in the Walnut Room, but also that there was something twee and disingenuous about the fake explanation of the acronym. It seemed vaguely insulting.
     So now we see what the market will bear. Will Whole Foods start selling tubes of Cunt Salve? I somehow doubt it, as we need to keep certain words in reserve to express our more extreme moments.  If we have a six-pack of Fuck Cola in the fridge, what will we say when we hit our thumbs with a hammer?
      The unspoken irony in all this is that, in our age of internet behemoths, it's going to matter less-and-less what the government permits or forbids, and more-and-more what the online corporate overlords allow. The government letting you to sell Cocksucker Lollipops won't matter much if Facebook won't post your ad and Amazon won't sell them.
     Though, if there's money to be made, not much risk of that.
     Whatever happens, we'll get used to it. My old friend, the New Yorker cartoonist Robert Leighton, once wrote a whimsical piece for the National Lampoon—not available online, alas—about how the word "fuck" will become a daily part of ordinary commercial communication, starting, if I recall, with a newspaper mistakenly publishing a play reviewer's enthusiastic immediate response, "fucking fantastic" or some such thing, and ending with cheese-flavored Pepperidge Farm Fuck-a-Ducks. I'd buy those, for the name alone, and that probably means we'll see that kind of thing on store shelves sooner than later.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Don’t be silly: We are NOT better than this

Workers in a cotton mill, Newberry, South Carolina, 1908.

     “We are better than this”?
     I’ve heard a lot of wistful liberal catch phrases in my day. From “The whole world is watching” (the whole world is living under a tarp hoping there’s dinner and couldn’t care less if the police bust your head) to “Not in my name” (funny, because your name was on the tax bill paying for it) and I have to say, the current indignation over immigrants, particularly children, being kept on the border in hellish conditions, is, well, cute.
     “We are better than this.”
     Since when? Leave it to Americans to turn our intentional abuse of refugees into an occasion for pride. Our government greets those turning to us for asylum by dividing their families and torturing their children, while our citizens start preening about how our supposed values are being violated by this freakish aberration.
     Pretty to think so, as Jake Barnes said.
     This isn’t the exception. It’s the rule. We are NOT better than this. We have NEVER been better than this. We are exactly this, and always have been.
     Cherokees had children too, you know.
     ”The bugle sounded and the wagon started rolling,” wrote John G. Burnett, a Tennessee soldier who saw Native Americans “loaded like cattle” as they set out on the “Trail of Tears” in 1838.
     ”Many of the children rose to their feet and waved their little hands goodbye to their mountain home, knowing they were leaving them forever,” Burnett wrote. “Many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefooted. ... The sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail was a trail of death.”

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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Flashback 2003: Some of life's treasures uncovered amid a blizzard

The boys, 6 and 8, work on a clue. Saturday, Dec. 6, 2003
      I heard from a reader on Sunday with an unusual request.
    "I hope I'm not bugging you," she wrote. "My 86 year old Dad passed away this week and I'm writing his eulogy. Years ago, you wrote a column about walking home and the warm glow coming from the windows of home. Maybe you talked about your childhood home. My Dad read your column regularly and he was telling me about your column that day and as he spoke of it, he choked up. He never cried, and your column meant a lot to him. I was hoping to reference it in the eulogy, but, I cannot find it. I have no idea when you wrote it. It could be 10 years ago, could be 5. Do you have any recollection? I like to think that what you wrote in your column was his conception of an afterlife, if there is one. Any help you can provide, I am most grateful."
     I vaguely remembered that it involved a cancelled flight, and that was enough to let me, eventually, dig up the following. The neat thing about this column is that I have a family photo that illustrates it. I could never photograph the boys playing the Clue Game, because I was always gone when they played it. But I wasn't gone this one time, due to the cancelled flight, so could get a single shot of them working on the opening clue.

     My mother calls. This is last Friday, a week ago today. There's going to be five feet of snow in Boston, she says. Mmm, I say, mildly concerned, even though I am set to fly to Boston on Saturday to spend a few days at the John F. Kennedy Library and then on to New York.
     Hanging up, I apply the formula designed to transfer my mother's concerns into quotidian reality. Now my mom is great (Hi, Mom! Don't be mad; it's just humor) but sometimes, when a lone sentry of fact enters her centrifuge of love and anxiety, it emerges as a battalion.
    I log onto the National Weather Service Web site, expecting to find, perhaps, light flurries. To my vast surprise, a major storm is coming to Boston. Not five feet, but two, which is close enough. Score one for mom.
     Still, I go home and pack and try to gather the research materials that an organized person would have been assembling for weeks. On top of it, I have the Clue Game to concoct. I have never written about the Clue Game, because it goes against the image I cultivate as a bitter and cynical man living on bile and bourbon. But whenever I go out of town, I leave behind a scavenger hunt of envelopes containing clues and prizes to occupy my boys until I return. They love it, and I'd explain how it works in detail—each clue is a puzzle or riddle leading to the location of the next—except I'm certain nobody else in the world would bother doing it. Even I forgot, until Friday morning, when my wife mentioned the youngest had asked about the Clue Game, and I leapt into action.
     So I'm packing, I'm writing rebuses and coded messages in purple ink and hiding envelopes underneath carpets. Meanwhile, the weather in Boston—monitored through the miracle of the Web—gets worse and worse. I go to bed anxious, hopeful and resigned.
     Now it's Saturday, 4:30 a.m. With the distant storm in full cry, I'm just steeling myself to a day at the airport, slouched uncomfortably in a plastic chair, when I make an uncharacteristically bold decision. Don't wait for them to cancel the flight. Don't go. Don't try. Call now before everybody else wakes up and shuts down the system. So I phone American—the automatic voice tells me I have to wait four minutes—and shift the flight to Sunday afternoon.

Happy to have Dad underfoot

     And here's the surprising part, the reason I'm boring you with all these travel arrangements. The rest of the day goes wonderfully. The boys, who have their bored-with-dad moments, are delighted that I am so unexpectedly home. They insist on hugs and Monopoly. The wife—and how shall I say this?—who is, like me, like anyone in the third decade of a close relationship, sometimes not exactly aglow with the wonder of being in proximity to another person, seems truly happy to have me clumping around the house.
     Or maybe they are the same and it's me who is different. I still want to go to Boston, with New York to follow. I want to paw through the stacks of the Kennedy Library and marvel at the soaring reading room in the New York Public Library. But I am so happy to be home. It's as if I've never been there before, as if I'm one of those dead people in the movies who comes back to wander among the living. The boys insist on starting the Clue Game, though I haven't left, and when I point out the envelope resting on the sideboard, marked "Begin," the youngest one seems about to vibrate himself apart with excitement. I've been making those damn games for four years, and this is the first time I ever got to see the boys do one—I'm usually gone—and it makes every minute spent composing riddles and burying pirate chests worth it.
     Sunday is a repeat. We finish Monopoly, make french toast. It's still snowing in Boston. American kindly cancels my flight before I even consider going to the airport. I phone—now the wait is 23 minutes—and reschedule.
     About dusk Sunday I walk over to the Northbrook Public Library, in my back yard, to return a book that's a few weeks overdue. Coming home—and I wish I were a good enough writer to convey this properly—walking back through the chill evening. Carrying the stack of books I of course had to check out while I was there. Softly singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to myself. Catching sight of the lighted windows of the house through the fir trees. It's one of those inexplicably joyful moments that live in memory. I stop, marveling, and remember what Ruth Elias once said in a speech. Elias wrote an excruciating book about surviving Auschwitz. I heard her five years ago, so can't quote her, directly, but she ended her speech by saying something like this:

     I have this dream. I dream I am walking up to my family's home in Czechoslovakia. The windows are all lit up, and I know that everybody is well, and there, home, waiting for me. And then I awaken, and it's so sweet, because they were all there, clearly, and so sad, because it was only a dream. And that is what I'd like to tell you today—if you are lucky enough to be going home later, and the lights of your house are bright, and your family is all there, waiting, you should stop and savor it as the precious gift it is, because someday it too will be just a dream.
     It was sort of like that.
                            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 12, 2003

Monday, June 24, 2019

Two little birds are causing a big controversy

Piping plover on Montrose beach. (Photo by Fran Morel) 

     Even birds get tired.
     After a long dark flight over Lake Michigan — most songbirds migrate at night — they’re ready to flop down on the first solid ground they see.
     “The sun comes up, and they will immediately look for the closest place to land where they can find shelter, and in the Chicago area that place is Montrose,” said Greg Neise of the American Birding Association.
     Montrose juts out, a half-mile long welcome mat offering a smorgasbord of habitats for 300 types of birds: trees for warblers and thrushes, grassland for bobolink and meadowlarks, and of course beach, where endangered piping plovers scoop out tiny nests in the sand and lay their brown-speckled eggs.
     I admit, when the piping plover saga erupted, I did not rush to the ramparts. For those late to the party, JAM is moving its “Mamby on the Beach” music festival to Montrose, raising concerns about trampled plover nests.
     I like birds, but I’m not fanatical about it. There are a number of plovers, and if the piping plover goes down, well, the Wilson’s plover will do.
     This callousness vaporized after my friend Tony Fitzpatrick got me on the phone. You know Tony — artist, actor, writer, general Chicago renaissance man.

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

It all adds up to something

     What to do? How to react?     
     The most frustrating thing about the constant random, cruel initiatives from Washington—after the continual shock that this is happening to our country— is knowing what to highlight, what to dig in against. There is so much that is wrong, and you can't push in all directions at once.. 
     Children held in inhuman conditions on the border? The no-brainer of all time. Of course anyone with a shred of decency is outraged—that's a given. But how can that be stopped? Getting into a pointless debate over the use of the phrase "concentration camp" certainly isn't going to do it. The Holocaust dead sure don't care one way or another. The Holocaust is an apt point of reference, not because the situation today is equal to it, but because it's going down the path, in the direction. The lesson of the Holocaust is that it unfolded while a pliant population approved or did nothing. It starts with one child. Then more.
      What can be done that is not symbolic, but real, effective? 
     The Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids were supposed to start today nationwide, in 10 cities, including Chicago.
     Punishment for their "sanctuary city" openness. From San Francisco to Miami.
     Why? What crisis is being addressed? That would be Donald Trump's crisis in popularity. With the election nearing, and even his base growing restive over their leader's imbecilic antics, the president seeks to stir up his supporters with the only thing that raises a tingle in their blown-out senses—by playing upon their hatred for others, in this case, the immigrant, the foreigner, the person of color.
     Never mind that they have lived here for years, and are our neighbors, employees, and friends. Never mind they have worked here for decades, often at the hardest, most grueling, lowest paid, jobs our society offers. In fields and kitchens, tending children and mowing lawns. Not to devolve to stereotypes: they are also students, entrepreneurs, senior citizens, veterans, scholars, poets, the same mix of humanity as anyone else.
     A decent country would welcome such people. Who found their way here, leaving everything they knew -- their homes and families, nation and language. Who often fled terrible conditions with nothing but their clothes and their loved ones. We would embrace them and help them, knowing that not too long ago, almost every American was in their shoes, strangers in a strange land.
     But we are not that decent country. Not officially. Not anymore, but a land of lies ruled by a cruel and capricious despot.  At least we have a free press, so far. We can point in horror and say, "This isn't right." Trump has spat in his hands and tried to figure out how to pull that down. It hasn't happened yet, but if it does, we will be truly lost.
     A grim moment in this grim time, and if the decent citizens of this country cannot stand by while these were occurring. This past week cities mobilized. Officials denounced the raids, offered assistance to threatened immigrants, and ordered police forces to not cooperate with federal authorities. Lori Lightfoot was front and center in this, taking decisive steps and speaking out against this "hateful" action, going personally through immigrant communities, handing out cards detailing their rights. 
      And it worked, for the moment. Trump, who is making a habit of caving in, caved in, lashing out at Chicago as he did.
     ”Some cities are going to fight it,” Trump said, as he backpedaled. “If you notice, they are generally high-crime cities. If you look at Chicago, they are fighting it and if you look at the other cities that are fighting it, many of those cities are high-crime cities and they are sanctuary cities.”
      Another lie. The presence of immigrants has nothing to do with the crime in a city, except to lower it. Study after study shows this, and it makes sense. If you can be deported for a traffic ticket, you tend to drive carefully. Trump associates the two because besides being a bigot he is a coward, and cannot even own up to the hatred that so obviously motivates him, or at least which he plays upon to appeal to his base. He might not really even care, which is in a sense worse: a cynical ploy to appeal to haters.
    There's a lesson there. Do something, anything, everything. All we can do is all we can do. Every pushback, every voice raised, every vote cast, every dollar spent. Each individual act might seem small, but it all adds up to something. It has to.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

The younger generation reveals its genius

     Those of the younger generation—"Generation Z," we oldsters call them—get a bad rap: entitled, lazy, inconsiderate. 
      I disagree.  While I haven't surveyed the entirety of the early 20ish cohort, mind you, I have had a chance to observe certain members up close, and let me tell you what I call them: bold, creative, boundary-defying.  
     What's the old, ordinary, dull, established way to, oh, interact with a pot of mac and cheese you've been eating with a spoon? Take it to the kitchen? Put it in the sink, maybe even rinse it out so the contents don't set up like concrete?
     Certainly what I'd do, with my laughable late 50ish antique ways.
     How much more daring to just balance the thing on the arm of the couch. It's almost art, a piece of performance art. Pot on the Sofa. One in a series, including Mug on the Bed and, my favorite, Bowl in a Drawer. Edgy, Dadaesque. Convention-shattering. Playing with middle-class expectations in a way that Marcel Duchamp would nod at with understanding and approval.
     We guardians of the established order could rail at these new ways. No doubt most do. Or we could welcome them as the marks of genius that they are. I feel privileged to be present at the creation of a new modern age. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Stones: Important men making unimportant music

Rolling Stones
     The Rolling Stones are in town — Hi, Mick! Hi, Keith! — for two shows at Soldier Field, Friday and Tuesday, kicking off their North American tour.
     I’m going to the second show. Yes, I know, you’re thinking, “That’s out-of-character for you, Neil. Aren’t you more of an opera guy?”
Jimmy Johnson
   Yes, yes I am. But there is an explanation: My wife really likes the Stones. I’ve forced her to sit through many hours of Wagner. Turnabout is fair play.
     The tour almost got scuttled after Mick Jagger had a health scare. But a new heart valve got tucked in and he seems good to go.
     The man is 75, but that’s nothing for a bluesman. Jimmy Johnson performed a strong set at Blues Fest a few weeks ago and he’s 90. Bobby Rush is 86, and shimmied for an hour with two enormous, scantily-clad dancers.
Venus of Willendorf
    (Am I the first guy to see Rush’s dancers and think, “Venus of Willendorf”? Maybe. They were very large. That is not a criticism. My attitude was: ‘Good for them, I bet employment opportunities are limited for 250-pound dancers.’ My wife was uneasy with Rush’s sexism, and it did cross my mind that the city of Chicago was sponsoring a bawdy show. But the dynamics of race, music and offense are complicated, and I can’t imagine any complaint getting traction.)
     See why I’m not the ideal rock audience? I’m not good at unreflective enthusiasm, at forming my fingers into horns and waving them above my head, screaming “Woooo!!!”
     Here, I’ll try it.
     Pathetic, like a koala moaning in its sleep.

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Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Era of Contempt V

Five Butterflies, by Wenceslaus Hollar (1646) Metropolitan Museum of Art 
     A lepidopterist is, as any Nabokov fan knows, a butterfly collector. It is fitting that the colorful stationery bearing Alan P. Leonard's latest missive to this column has butterflies on it. Because I always think of myself as a lepidopterist when it comes to processing hateful mail. I try to bring a connoisseur's discernment to their ravings, a protective measure to keep the poison within from raising a welt on my delicate mental skin. I net the odious thing, put it carefully in the killing bottle, using tongs, then pin the little corpse to a board and admire its patterns, its grotesque variegation. 
      We met Mr. Leonard last year, with three emails I dubbed "The Era of Contempt."  As with the one below, they were informed by fear of those whose sexuality is at variance with his. 
     You may find them herehere and here, if you are so inclined. 
     They proved decidedly popular, as freak shows often do.
     Then two months ago, he was back, with a racist screed decrying the looks of Michelle Obama (an revulsive scrap of classic 1859 bigotry that one just doesn't expect to see expressed publicly by someone proudly signing his name. A shocking anachronism, like finding a child with rickets).
      This one, as he makes clear, is in reaction to my June 10 column about Boston's idiotic "Straight Pride" parade. The twist is that he doesn't sign his name, perhaps forgetting that he has written four times before, with the same stationery and his distinctive block printing. 
      As before, I paused, wondering if it were somehow cruel to share Mr. Leonard's thoughts, to stretch the term. The man is afraid, as haters are at core. A shameful fear he has to share, trying to alleviate it. The usual terror of his correspondence ratcheted up a notch as, for the first time, he signs his letter with a nom de guerre, "A normal person." As if it were normal to write anonymous notes to newspaper columnists, venting your bile and your sexual insecurity.
     Which it sorta is, sadly. But still. I don't have to take the bait. Isn't posting the letter itself a minor cruelty? "When battling monsters," as Nietzsche reminds us, "make sure not to become a monster."
     Perhaps. But if so, it is cruelty with a higher purpose. It is not monstrous to print a letter sent to a newspaper, nor to note that hatred is an acid that, increasingly, eats up the possessor more than the object. I believe airing it is therapeutic, if not for him, obviously, at least for us. Don't be like this.
    And lest we feel too superior, lest we chuckle too much, remember this: these are the people running our country now. These are the people we let take charge.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Trump calls the tune, and his fans dance

      You gotta dance with them what brung ya.
     I’m not given to rustic turns of phrase, especially those including colloquialisms like “gotta,” “brung” or “ya.”
     Yet there is truth here.
     After — golly — four years of continually condemning Donald Trump as a liar, bully and fraud, I believe now, with his circus-like announcement Tuesday in Florida of his quest for a second term, is a good time to pause and give credit where due:
     Donald Trump is a master.
     A master what? Well, liar, bully and fraud, for starters. Those who don’t see that by now never will. But that is a huge, unwavering group of Americans — tens of millions. Time to tip the hat and acknowledge something I have not previously recognized: what a good liar, bully and fraud Donald Trump really is.
     A master of his craft, really. A genius. Begin with his skill as a liar. Democrats tote up his lies like some disturbed individual counting the passing cars, oblivious to the fact that the total doesn’t matter. Nearly half the country doesn’t care. Trump has rendered the truth un-important for his followers, and that is a feat I did not previously think possible. But obviously, tragically, it is.
     How does he do it?
     By force of personality. He can say one thing today, another in an hour, then contradict both the next day. Anyone rude enough to draw attention to this is attacked by himself and his crew of lackeys and bootlickers, who have sold their souls for access to his presence, not to forget our version of State TV, Fox News. The mushroom cloud of controversy forms with a “whump,” rises into the air, floats away and is forgotten. The past is a vapor, reality a dreamworld inhabited by losers. You can choose truth or you can choose Trump.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Two tickets to Chicago

    Ritual is protective. Doing the same thing, the same way, all the time, might be timid. And it might be dull. But you cut a groove of experience, the walls of which prop you up as you hurtle forward. 
     Depart from that groove, well, you're free to roam, sure. But also free to careen into trouble.   
    When riding the Metra, the conductor appears at the front of the car and cries, "Tickets please!" 
     I pull out my iPhone, assuming it isn't already in my hand, tap on the Ventra app, summon a new ticket up, and wait.
     And wait.
     Not long. A minute or so, as the conductor works his way toward me, my eyes upon him 
     That's how I do it. But it's also time wasted. Why not, I thought pop into another app, and fidget with that while waiting? I had something I wanted to explore, the app associated with my new Bose headphones—birthday gift from the wife. Then I would return to the ticket at the proper moment.
    I considered pulling out a paper ticket—kept in the wallet in case of phone freeze and other related emergencies. But no need. I've got this.
    The conductor approached. The Bose app had shunted me to iTunes which would not let me go. I mashed at the phone, impotently, and by the time I got to the ticket the conductor was looming above me. I mashed another button, showed him the ticket. 
    As he left, I realized I had somehow, in my panic, purchased two tickets.
    $6.40 down the drain.
     There is an inverse between the minuteness of a woe and its reverberation. The county might be run by a crook, but that is not my doing. This was. I explained what happened to my wife, who was nonplussed.
    "Forget it," she said. "Price of a cup of coffee."
    Not any coffee that I'd buy.
    My next thought was to appeal to the conductor. Show him my error and ask for a physical ticket I could use on the train coming home this afternoon. But the aisles and entryway were filled with commuters—the trains have been shorter lately. I'd have to push past them. The conductor would be busy.
    To my credit, I forgot all about it the moment I left the train station. I had planned to phone Metra—I can't be the first goofus to waste an electronic ticket. What is the procedure, the protocol? But I didn't call Metra. There was a column to write, a friend to meet for lunch. We sat at a table by the river on a perfect June day.
     Then to Union Station where, slipping onto the train, it came back to me. My Gaffe. I took a seat at the very back of the car, by where the conductor usually set up shop. He was a man perhaps 20 years my junior, all business, like most Metra conductors. I explained The Situation to him.
    "No worries, happy to help out," he said, explaining that he would waive the need for a ticket on the way home. "We always try to do what we can."
     A few minutes later he came through the car, collecting tickets. And though we had an agreement, and I had used my two tickets that day, as he came toward me, it felt odd, almost illicit. I didn't like not handing over a ticket to be punched. It felt wrong; I had to remind myself not to summon a ticket up again, the third for the day. I remembered traveling in with the engineer once, in the cab, for a column. The conductor came up to the engine to collect not only my ticket, but the Metra PR guy. Even conductors have to show tickets.
     But I endured. Later, talking about it with another conductor, he pointed out that conductors tend to know the people who ride their trains. Even if not by name, they know who is there habitually and who is not. You show your ticket dutifully for almost 20 years, taking pains to make sure you are ready at the proper time so as not to inconvenience or delay the conductor, well, it buys you goodwill on the day you screw up.


Monday, June 17, 2019

On traffic lights, beehive and vaccinations


     Think about traffic lights.
     They hang at intersections in every city and town, endlessly cycling through green to yellow to red, then back to green again, telling drivers when to stop and go.
     Silent sentinels, automatically observed and unquestioningly obeyed. Like idols really.
     Like gods.
     Let’s say this situation genuinely offends my understanding of my faith, which commands “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” and warns against the worship of false idols. Let’s further say that I take to setting up a ladder at stoplights in the middle of the night and painting the lenses black.
     God, in His infinite wisdom, will direct traffic safely through the intersections.
     How will society react to this sincere expression of my religious faith? Will it respect me? Or will it throw me in jail?
     Jail, and rightly so. Because my ability to practice a particular personal belief stops when it harms other people and tears down social order.
     The above, metaphorically, is the exact situation regarding vaccines — well, maybe not the painting-over part. So let’s say I drive heedlessly through red lights, aghast at the imposition society would inflict upon my personal freedom. 

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Put the moss in context: A visit to Clever Rabbit

     My younger son turns 22 today. So Friday night we took him out for a birthday dinner. His girlfriend is a vegan so he selected a restaurant with a deep vegetable menu, Clever Rabbit on Division Street in Wicker Park.
     Not purely vegetarian, but "veggie-focused," which should have been a tip-off. I always say that vegetarian restaurants must be excellent, that mediocrity is a luxury they can't afford, because otherwise nobody would go there. With meat on the menu, indifference has a foot in the door. 
     But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The place has a pleasant, severe aesthetic, and I admired a wall of moss by the host's station.
     "Is it alive?" I asked our waitress.
     "It's still alive, but not living," she replied. 
      That isn't a contradiction to someone who just turned 59.
     "I know the feeling," I said. 
      After we ordered, I excused myself and went over to take a photo, first asking permission of the host, a young man in his mid-20s.
      "May I take a photo of the moss?" I said.
      "Everybody does," he sighed. 
       Oh. There is a certain small shame in doing what everybody does, but I took the picture anyway, already feeling conspicuous. Then I compounded the error.  I liked the close-up detail, but felt the moss should really be placed in context.
     "Do you mind if I include you in the photo?" I said. He said he didn't, but something about his manner, which I took as an embarrassment, a frost, made me feel he really did mind, but was indulging a crank.
     I had made another mistake.  
      I retreated to the table, but the encounter percolated, slightly. I decided to lay out the situation for family feedback.
      "It was if he felt I were some creepy old guy taking his picture for some strange purpose," I said. "I'm tempted to go back and try to explain that I'm not. I just wanted to put the moss into context for my blog. But my sense is, that would only make matters worse."
      Everyone heartily agreed that yes, it would make matters worse, and I should let it go. Which I did.  We enjoyed a festive meal, with much laughter and conversation.
      Dinner consisted of a variety of plates—carrot dumplings and wings, for appetizers, then a rhubarb tart, asparagus and burrata, a cheese plate, a burger that we cut in quarters and shared, except of course with our new vegan addition, who had plenty to eat, she claimed. I tried both of the two non-alcoholic cocktails on the menu, and they were fine. Service was desultory, and while we had a good time, that was more our doing, without much assistance from the Clever Rabbit.  The place opened two years ago, and while it is a pleasant space to sit, it wasn't one of those restaurants you love at first nibble and are keen to go back to.  Maybe that explains the unenthusiastic service. It's almost as if they know.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

"Gootchie-gootchie goo."

Madam Roulin and her Baby, by Vincent Van Gogh
Metropolitan Museum of Art
     There are more ways to screw up a newspaper story than you can shake a stick at.
     Checking one thing, you overlook something else.  Confident in one scrap of information, you don't check it, but it's nevertheless wrong, your certainty be damned. Stick your finger in one leak and water pours out another. Tread softly where you ought to stamp hard, push hard against something you ought merely caress. Use a word that means one thing, to you and readers seize on a different meaning and, waving it over their heads, assign you a string of imagined malign motives to go with it. You mean to check a fact, but forget to do so, or do check and still somehow manage to get it wrong. 
     I would never be so bold, for instance, to put communications expert Abdon Pallasch's name in the paper without checking the spelling, even though I've known him for 20 years. since he was a colleague at the paper.
      So last week, using his name, I checked it, again, noted how it was spelled, again, and promptly dropped the "c."
      He was very civil about it. I leapt to correct the misspelling, reader sneers about "Medill Fs" fluttering in the back of my mind like luna moths around a porch light, brushing them away by taking comfort in the fact that I didn't neglect to check it. I just failed to stick the landing.
      I checked it again, just now, to be sure. It's right. Abdon M. Pallasch.
      I hope.
      The same week, I wrote something about encountering a pregnant friend, whom I described as "big as a house," which, in my male eyes, was a synonymous for "very pregnant," which she was, given that she gave birth three days later.
     Turns out "big is a house" is, if not quite an insult or the language of hate, is some species of body shaming. Readers complained, and sprang to her defense on Facebook.
     Ouch. I was trying to be nice. If I thought it wasn't nice, I wouldn't have said it. I apologized to her.  She was very civil about it.
Alexys Fleming
     Then there was something that never got in the paper that was almost scary, like a speeding CTA bus brushing past my cheek. 
     In the same column describing the birth, I mentioned the most influential online presence in Chicago, a 26-year-old make-up artist named Alexys Fleming. I described her as "an almond-eyed beauty" because, well, look at her.
      It seemed a dry, neutral, journalistic description of reality as set before me. It seems "almond-eyed," I was told by a concerned editor, is a slur against Asians, Which I didn't think was relevant here, since she isn't, or doesn't seem to be, Asian. But such niceties are meaningless in the free-fire zone of social media. Unfamiliarity with the catalogue of offense and purity of heart are no defense, I thanked the editor and took the offending words out, along with "beauty" while I was at it, since, upon reflection, males commenting upon the attractiveness of females, particularly those half their age, is no doubt an invitation to objection as well. Why hand somebody a mallet and lower my head unnecessarily?
    Then in Friday's column, I quoted myself saying "Gootchie-gootchie goo" while poking a silicon fetus doll. It was an accurate transliteration of what I uttered. Transliteration can't really be wrong. "Hanukkah," "Hanukah," "Chanukah," and the dozen other variants are all stabs at חנוכה.
     But was what I said proper? It never occurred to me to ask. But it occurred to others.
     Reader Jim Lanham writes, in a form almost amounting to a poem:
Isnt it coochie coochie coo? Never (unless im crazy)heard it as gootchie? Source? This could be an interesting story in itself
     Sighing, I contemplated my reference library. There was a Betty Boop, 1920s, makin' whoopee tone to "coochie coo," so I started with my Oxford 20th Century Words. 
    Bingo, first try:
     cooch n (1910) a type of erotic dance. US slang. A shortening of hootchy-kootchy (1898) in the same sense, who origins are obscure. Also used as a verb.
      Which would endorse "coochie coo." Looking for anything close to "gootchie," I found "goo-goo eyes," defined as "amorous glances," which makes matters even worse. And people think of etymology as a victimless crime. Trying to find the derivation of the baby babble uttered spontaneously brought a creepy vibe to innocent teasing of ersatz babies. 
     The "t" seems idiosyncratic to me, a rare variant: online, it's usually "goochie-goo" though there is a flyspeck town of Gootchie in Australia, or was. I couldn't find any current references to such a place.
     It gets worse.  As I thought about "gootchie goo," I began to suspect it might have a shade of mock Indian — whoops, Native-American — speech, along the lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's once-famous  poem "Hiawatha": "On the shores of Gitche Gumee/Of the shining Big-Sea-Water..."
    So shades of inappropriate eroticism AND bigotry. Just lovely. I'm lucky to have survived last week with my job intact. It's amazing one is able to write at all, and while my career doesn't seem to be blowing up over "gootchie goo," it's only a matter of time. Ignorance of the law is no defense.

Friday, June 14, 2019

This cute baby wants me to run your life

      A reader sent a pair of babies to me at the newspaper this week. One white, one brown, delivered in a padded envelope.
     What should I do with these babies? Enroll them in pre-school, I suppose. Never too early.
     Though pre-school is expensive. Maybe we should bond first. I pick one up — the white one, judge me harshly if you must — and wiggle an index finger against its tummy.
     ”Gootchie-gootchie-goo!” I say.
     The tummy feels rubbery. That can’t be good. Maybe I should consult a pediatrician. Though any doctor would probably icily observe that my babies seem to be made of silicon. Those darn vaccines ...
    Does that mean they are not real babies? I don’t know. They look like babies, and by the standard of religious fanatics opposing abortion, something that LOOKS like a baby IS a baby.
     Even if it’s not.
     The babies came with an explanatory letter, from Anthony L. — I’ll shield his full name, since I don’t exhaust my entire store of kindness on the fetuses of women I’ve never met. He claims my column on May 20 about the deceptive practices of those fighting to curtail women’s reproductive rights “is FALSE NEWS and you should correct it.”
     False? My goodness. In what way?
     ”In this article you state that a first trimester fetus (Latin for baby) is the size of a watermelon seed. Since you do not normally fact check your articles, I thought I would make it easy for you to see. I sent you a white and brown baby. The model is 10 to 12 weeks in size.”

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Flashback: 2009: Woodstock ruined my life

     Those hoping to throw a 50th anniversary Woodstock concert hit another snag this week, losing their upstate New York venue. Added to their loss of financial backing and of their production company, you'd almost think fate was trying to give them a hint: move on.
     No such luck. The Baby Boom has been clinging to and venerating their great moments of youth for decades and are carrying that practice into their senescence, a habit I decried at the concert's 40th anniversary. 

     Screw Woodstock
     Really, I mean it. If you're my age—I was 9 when the three-day concert took place—you noted the 40th anniversary of the key event of our culture's endless 1960s nostalgia by thinking, "Gee, have I really been listening to these goofs celebrate themselves for only 40 years? Because it feels like 400."
     Doesn't the self-regard and self-significance make you want to vomit? OK, 400,000 people gathered for a rock concert and didn't kill each other—big flippin' deal. Ten years later, in 1979, 1.2 million people showed up in Grant Park for a mass with Pope John Paul II, and you never hear them claiming it was a rend in the time-space continuum. Even more people are flocking to the lakefront for the Air & Water Show this weekend, and we don't act like it's some giant epochal moment—just another summer weekend in Chicago.
     Woodstock ruined my life, sort of. Imagine growing up, an impressionable child, watching all those supposedly pivotal 1960s event—Woodstock, the riots at the Democratic National Convention, the moon landing—on your parents' black-and-white Zenith TV in the living room of your suburban tract house in Berea, Ohio.
     It quickly gave the impression that we lived in Noplace, that life, the important stuff in life, was always going on Somewhere Else. That, by 1974, every significant thing that might conceivably happen had already occurred. I had missed the feast but was free to pick over the scraps, had missed the party and arrived for the cleanup, the dismal denouement of the 1970s, a miserable void of disco and leisure suits and meaninglessness, at least by the judgment of the people who had so much freaky fun at Woodstock while we were busy learning cursive.
     Doesn't it ever go away? How long must we gaze raptly at the enormous waddling rump of the Early Baby Boom? Forever? Not that we want our turn, no way—hard experience has made us better than that. Should anyone announce that, for instance, the 1977 World Series of Rock at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was an earth-shattering moment of bottomless significance, at least I'd have the honesty to say, "Hey, buddy, I was THERE, and it was just 90,000 teens guzzling wine out of botas and listening to Peter Frampton."
     How come nobody who was at Woodstock has the guts to say that? Nobody says, "You know, standing in a downpour, cold and hungry and listening to Alvin Lee wasn't really all that magnificent an experience. In fact, it was miserable, and it didn't mean a damn thing."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 16, 2009