Saturday, August 31, 2019

Flashback 2011: Giving stranger a kidney; 'I'm really looking forward to it'

Detail from "Still," by Damien Hirst, at the Art Institute of Chicago

    Last week, I wrote about a woman who donated a kidney to a stranger. Which reminded me: I had been here before, not only focusing on a young lady making an "altruistic" donation, but observing the surgery at University of Chicago Hospitals. I enjoyed revisiting the pair of columns, and thought you might too. Today we meet the donor, tomorrow we watch the surgery. 

     Before the sun comes up Tuesday, Rachel Garneau's boyfriend will drive her from her home in Elmhurst to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where a surgeon will operate on this perfectly healthy 20-year old college junior and remove her left kidney.
     Typically, this kind of donation is made to save the life of a loved one—you give your kidney to a brother or sister, for instance, suffering from kidney failure. Or, if you are not a suitable donor for your relative, you give a kidney into the national donation system, and somebody angling for a kidney for their loved one gives one to yours, forming a "cluster" of donation that can involve half a dozen people.
     But Garneau's four siblings are fine. She doesn't know anyone who needs a kidney. She just wants to donate hers.
     "We have a young lady, an incredibly generous person who said, 'I want to give up my kidney to just anybody,'" said Dr. Yolanda T. Becker, the transplant surgeon who will perform the operation and director of the hospital's kidney program.
     "I'm excited," said Garneau, a few days before the surgery. "I'm really looking forward to it."
      Altruistic donation of a kidney is not as rare as one might imagine. Nearly 1,000 people have done it nationwide. There is a website,, that says it facilitated 100 organ donations and has 2,000 people signed up hoping to donate.
     Still, the number of people willing to give kidneys is nowhere near the need. The waiting list for kidneys nationwide has 82,000 names on it, and with dialysis such a taxing procedure, 12 people a day die in the U.S. waiting for a kidney to become available.
     Garneau is majoring in anthropology at Notre Dame, and is planning to study in Rome in the fall. She plays intramural volleyball. Eventually, she'd like to spend a few years in the Peace Corps, then start a family.
     What inspired her to consider this now?
     "I honestly don't remember what got me into this at all," she said. "I first started thinking about this three years ago, when I was 17. I've never known anybody who had kidney problems, I never knew anybody who had serious medical issues. One day, I started thinking about it, doing the research ... a few hours later, I went downstairs I told my parents I wanted to donate my kidney."
     Her mother and father reacted the way most parents would.
     "They sort of ignored me at first because they thought I was joking," she said. "When they realized I was considering it, they said, 'No. End of discussion.' They said the surgery is risky, what if you get hurt? What if you die? It seemed one of those things you say on a whim."
     But she persisted. Why?
     "Honestly, I don't know," she said. "I don't think it's a religious thing. I was raised Catholic. I never really felt like God was a part of this, necessarily. I guess it could be, but I never really felt that way. I decided to do it. I got this idea in my head and it won't go away. I can't not try to do something. My family has always been very giving, very charitable toward others. That could be a part of it."
     This kind of altruism is certainly nothing new for Garneau. When she was 15 she told her parents she wanted to help people overseas.
     "I decided I wanted to volunteer in Africa," she said. "They let me go with a friend for a month when I was 16. I went to Ghana to work in an orphanage."
     Her father, who works as a meat cutter, declined to be interviewed; her mother, a special education teacher, died suddenly in 2008 from an infection picked up in a hospital a month after she was diagnosed with leukemia—though Garneau points out that she decided to donate her kidney before she knew her mother was sick.
     Garneau approached the hospital last fall and assumed she'd donate her kidney by Christmas.
     Instead, she had half a year of interviews and medical tests.
     "We really put her through the wringer to make sure it was something she really, really wanted to do," said Dr. Becker. "The potential donor is seen by a social worker, a psychologist, a living donor advocate, to make sure we are not doing anything bad."
     The hospital held an ethics conference with two dozen doctors, nurses, social workers and psychologists to discuss the case.
     "Some were arguing very vehemently that there is no medical benefit to her," said Dr. Becker. "Some people felt she was very young."
     Many would-be donors are sent away.
     "About 30 or 40 percent we reject, for all kinds of reasons," said Dr. Becker. "They don't realize just what they're up against. We want to give them multiple opportunities to ask questions or back out. We made her come back almost half a dozen times. She's so unusual, so young. We want to make sure we're protecting our donors. I'm not going to whack somebody over the head and take their kidney out."
     What about the Hippocratic Oath, what about "first do no harm"?
     "She's an adult," said Dr. Becker. "She gave me permission. I did speak with her father, just to give him the facts. The operation is risky—any time you operate, there is a minute but very real chance of death. Still, I feel very comfortable that this young lady has given informed consent. She knows what she's getting into. If I didn't feel comfortable, I wouldn't proceed."
     Dr. Becker has done this before. I wondered how she felt, taking a kidney from a perfectly healthy young woman.
     "To be honest, in some ways it's more stressful to take one out of healthy person than to put one into a sick person, because you are taking something away from that healthy person," she said. "It's not an operation they need to have done. They're not sick. There is a slightly added level of stress."
     I mentioned to Dr. Becker that, in my view, if Garneau were signing up for the Marines we wouldn't think twice of applauding her selflessness, even if she were going to fight in Afghanistan, where she could possibly be injured in a far more grievous way than losing a kidney (your remaining kidney enlarges to pick up the slack, and since kidney disease typically strikes both kidneys, having an extra is only useful in the case of physical trauma, like a car accident).
     "That was the argument brought up at the ethics conference," she said. "It's less dangerous than going to Iraq and getting shot."
      Garneau couldn't quite put her finger on her exact motive. What does Dr. Becker think of what Garneau is doing?
     "I just think she's on a higher moral plane," she said. "She's great. She's awesome. She is just an incredibly generous person who saw this is the right thing to do."

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times May 30, 2011

Friday, August 30, 2019

Latest Trump move on border wall is straight out of Hell

Dante in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence
     Almost any reaction to the daily doings of the unhinged, untruthful, craven, cruel, possibly insane, probably criminal, confirmed fraud we call our president can be justified at this point, from simmering outrage to protective indifference.
     And heck, I should add that unyielding enthusiasm is a common reaction that can also be justified — because you can rationalize anything. I hear every day from readers who believe passionately that Donald J. Trump is the best president the United States has ever had or could ever have, particularly when compared to the infamous criminal regime of Osama bin Obama.
     You think I’m joking? Let’s reach down and hook an email wriggling in today’s Spam filter.
     “It seems that people with morals are the underdogs these days,” Vicki Falsey writes to me and half the Sun-Times masthead. “So all the people that voted for Trump and love him don’t have a voice. Since Trump has gotten in office, your paper has been writing these disrespectful articles about the president. I cannot imagine anyone ever writing anything this ignorant about the worst president to ever be in office, Obama. Just so you know, Obama was the worst thing to happen to our country. He brought it down. Insurance will never be affordable again for the working class people. But, no one and I mean no one disrespected him. You would have lost your jobs if you said anything negative against Obama and his wife. Yet everyday, you mock and insult the president. You should be fired.”
     There’s more, but you get the point. And no, I didn’t argue with her. To what purpose?
     So to recap: many reactions to our leader, across a broad spectrum. That said, I believe my personal reaction to Wednesday’s jaw-dropper must be unique.
     The news: that Trump is so desperate to have a few miles of new border wall by election time, as a sop to his xenophobic base, he ordered aides to seize private property (“Take the land,” he said), skirt environmental concerns, and not to fret about any crimes they might commit (“Don’t worry, I’ll pardon you,” he told them).

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

You don't seem to have a face

      All this social media stuff. What a waste. Arguing with strangers. Talking to ourselves, talking to computers, listening to computers, gazing at analytics that don't mean anything.
      I was postponing doing meaningful work Wednesday morning, and glanced at the portrait associated with my gmail account at the newspaper. My column bug from, gee, maybe 10 years ago. Maybe more. Out-of-date. The paper had a photographer shoot a new one earlier this year. They don't always use it, but it can take a long time for old stuff to work its way out of the system, and I'm not one to complain.
     This, I could change myself.
     So I clicked on the portrait, and the system easily pointed me toward inserting a new photo. I dragged in the new shot, jiggled with its positioning, clicked "Set as profile photo." Nothing. I tried a second time. That's when I noticed gmail's explanation of the problem.

    "Are you sure people will recognize you in this photo? It doesn't seem to have a face in it."
    Well, lah-de-fuckin'-dah. It sure seems like a face to me. But then, I'm biased. Older, sure, grey in the beard. But my face, and I'm sticking with it.
     Will people recognize it? Heck, some days I hardly recognize. I can't speak for all "people"—there's too much of that going around as it is.
     Annoying? Sure. But, honestly, I'm glad the system is so inadequate. I'm sure someday people will go to prison on this kind of error, but right now there are still a few bugs in the system, and that day isn't quite here yet, though the Chinese are rushing us toward it. Nor are they alone. This week it was learned that Amazon's Ring security system is partnering with 400 police departments, handing over images snatched from your doorbell camera for the "new neighborhood watch." An Orwellian phrase if ever there were, because that used to mean you watching the neighbors, and now it means strangers watching us all.
    Another reason not to have a doorbell camera.
    The third time, I got the photo to be accepted, using a very human strategy: I tried again, altering nothing from the first two attempts. Only this time it worked. Third time's the charm, as we used to say when we, you know, used to say stuff.
     There are still a few bugs in the system, thank God. The day this all works smoothly will be a scary day. Not that we'll notice anything is wrong.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Socialized medicine? We’re already a third of the way there

     Ready for a shock? Because if you aren’t, maybe you should stop reading now ...
     Wait, no, please don’t stop reading. That would defeat my whole purpose .
     Sorry. I’ll begin again.
     Ready for a shock? What percentage of Americans have health insurance? Sixty percent? Seventy? I didn’t have a number in mind before finding the true figure, but probably would have guessed around 80 percent.
     The answer: 91.4 percent of Americans in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Or 294 million. Quite a lot.
     Not perfect. Particularly if you are among the uninsured 8.6 percent. But not as bad as I thought. And most surprising, given all the Republican blathering about “socialized medicine” is those insured break down into two-thirds private and one-third public — Medicaid, Medicare. More than a third of insured Americans — 37.7 percent — are protected by the government. So if you’re wondering how socialized health insurance might work, ask grandma.
      When I had my spine surgery last month, I considered myself lucky — “blessed” was the word that got into print. Blessed that I had good insurance, and wasn’t being bankrupted — I hoped — by a single operation. Medical problems are cited as the cause of two-thirds of the bankruptcies in the United States (although the actual cost for health care is only part of that; inability to work is the other).
     Granted, mine was good insurance, provided by a good workplace. When I checked before the operation to see how many sick days I had accrued, the answer was: “26 weeks.” I used two.
     Where am I going with this? I got a letter from a reader — if a note printed in all caps on a 3-by-5 index card shoved into an envelope can be called a “letter” The punctuation is mine:
     This falls in to the “double-dog dare” school of reader feedback. The question he poses is legitimate, but the taunting tone so schoolyard — what are you, 14? — reflecting a paranoiac misunderstanding of how newspapers work, at least this one.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Whimsical Candy

 Chris Kadow-Dougherty
     Writing every day, with columns in the paper three times a week, I can't afford to go to too many places, report on what's going on, and then fail to find a way to get it online, or into print.
      It happens, though. There was the time I went to Fermilab. They were still trying to discover the Top Higgs Boson and had taken apart the superconducting supercollider to, I don't know, clean it or something. I went, spent the day talking to physicists about the quest. I actually stepped inside the disassembled linear accelerator—how many guys can say that? Leaving, I thought back on my five or six hours there and realized I was just as out to sea about what was going on there as I had been when I walked in.
     I didn't write about it.
     Another time, a few years back, I hung out at Whimsical Candy, with owner Chris Kadow-Dougherty, watching her make candy—anyone can do that, just show up. It's always being made. The kitchen is right there. I can't recall why I never wrote anything. My hunch is, she was soft-spoken, and modest, and didn't fit any of my limited range of pre-conceived narratives. I loved the candy; I liked her. But I failed to convey any of it to you.
     That didn't keep me from going back, from time to time. Like last Thursday. I finished lunch at Gene & Georgetti, and was hobbling toward the Loop, cut down North Franklin on my way to Union Station. Whimsical Candy is right there, at 175 North Franklin. I had five minutes to spare. How could I not? Particularly since my wife had been having a taxing day. I knew Whimsical makes her favorite chocolate bar in the world, the Raspberry Truffle Crisp: a thick rectangle of dark chocolate, raspberry ganache, orange caramel and crispy ... rice, I suppose.
     That would surely perk up her day. I popped down, and was reminded what a pleasant, colorful, fun, enticing, out-of-the-way place it was. I chatted with Chris. She let me sample their newest treat, frozen cocoa. With a dollop of real whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. We talked about Serendipity, a place in Manhattan that also offers frozen cocoa. I made sure to pick up something to tide me over on the train.
    And then I was gone, thinking, "I'm falling down on my basic duty as a journalist—to tell people about places and things they might not know about."
     So there you have it. You owe yourself a visit to Whimsical Candy Kitchen, 175 N. Franklin. Do not be put off by the price—the Raspberry Truffle Bar is five bucks and change. But if you eat it in stages, by cutting yourself a slice, as we do, it'll easily make three or four servings. The thing is fresh and delicious in a way that no candy you've had before is, shockingly so. (My wife, when she first tried the Raspberry Truffle bar, let out a highly uncharacteristic string of obscenities that I will translate out as "Golly! This really is very, very, very good candy." )
     So not the deep dive into Chris' world that I failed to produce, and might very well try again someday, because I hate to give up on such things. But at least public notice. Every corner in the Loop has a Garrett's popcorn nowadays. But if you want to bestow some Super Secret Hidden Chicago on yourself or a loved one, you'll give this place a try.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Stakes are high as city waits for mayor to show her hand

     I’ve been around Chicago: inside the scoreboard at Wrigley Field and through the skybridge between the towers of the Wrigley Building. Up a communications mast atop the Hancock — now dubbed “875 N. Michigan Avenue” — and down into the 39 miles of freight tunnels under the Loop.
     So I believe I know a bit about the city. But I can’t recall a mayor ever giving a speech of any significance, at least not to match the potential impact of Lori Lightfoot’s “State of the City” address set for later this week.
      Oh, Rahm Emanuel once took out his top hat and cane and tried to tap dance around responsibility for covering up the murder of Laquan McDonald. Richard J. Daley gravely intoned his litany of lies during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. And don’t forget Harold Washington’s delighted cry of, “You want Harold? You got him!”
     Memorable? Certainly. But important? In the way that Lightfoot’s speech will reveal her strategy for dragging Chicago out of the deep debt hole her predecessors dug? Never.
     She’s calling her talk the “State of the City,” though I instantly dubbed it her “Sorry Kids, Christmas is Canceled” speech. Because we don’t need a lecture to know the news is bad. You want it plain and simple? OK, close your eyes, take three deep cleansing breaths and brace yourself. Here it comes, the unvarnished truth in seven words:
To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Flashback 2003: Flying aboard Concorde a supersonic dream.

The Concorde
     "Satire doesn't belong in the newspaper," an editor I respect told me, after the following ran in 2003. 
     He's right, in the main. And to be honest, after I wrote this, I vowed never again to lead readers astray, even at the start of a column, because fellow reporters did come up to me the day this ran, expressing amazement that I had been aboard the Concorde. 
     I didn't feel badly that I had fooled them so much as because I had written a column that could be tossed away after a couple paragraphs.
     Unless, now that I think of it, they were merely pulling my leg. That's possible. I hope it's the case. I can be gullible myself that way.
     I should say, now, it was the product of pure envy. The paper sent Mary Mitchell on the last flight of the Concorde, leaving me tapping my chest, my lips opening and closing like a dying goldfish, mouthing, "Me! Me! Me!"
     Friday's visit to Greenland also fooled someone I know and respect, who asked me to send him a postcard from Greenland. Which again made me feel bad, for the above reason. A columnist who writes a column readers can abandon after a few paragraphs has failed. 
     Bottom line: the scrapings of the internet and my arid imagination are nothing compared to what I would certainly have found had the paper actually sent me there—although what is in Greenland is not the point of the news story this week. The point is how completely Donald Trump mangled the entire matter. 
    So a bit of fun, keeping in mind it is always, always, always better to go.
     ABOARD THE CONCORDE: The champagne flutes are plastic—even here, Safety First!— but the bubbly is a fine 1995 Veuve Clicquot, and does much to soothe the solemn sense of finality that accompanies this last flight of the needle-nosed, supersonic jet that once seemed to herald a new era of globe-gobbling speed. There was much noise and hoopla at Heathrow before the flight. But after British Airways officials handed us lucky few passengers our Concorde carry-ons jammed with luxury freebies and we climbed aboard, a certain quiet sadness set in.
     I must admit also feeling a bit nervous as we pulled back from the gate—I kept thinking of the film of that Air France Concorde engulfed in flame—but the steady stream of champagne helped, as did thinking of my deskbound colleagues and competitors back in Chicago, who'd give their eye teeth to have been plucked from . . .

Author bathed in swift luxury

     Sorry. Lies, all lies. But knowing full well the burst of envy that we reporters feel whenever an acquaintance draws a really plum assignment, I couldn't resist giving my circle a little frisson of shock and resentment along with their Friday morning coffee. Of course I wasn't on the last flight of the Concorde, or any of the previous 27 years' worth of flights. I was right here, mired in routine, shuffling aboard boring old Metra with the rest of the haggard, hollow-eyed commuters. But the people who quickly cast aside the paper with a sneer of disgust, thinking, "God I hate that lucky bastard," don't know that, do they?
     I do sincerely feel bad about missing the flights. The Concorde seems to me to be the capstone of all those 1950s Jetson dreams of what our future would be like. We'd all be in Spandex cat suits and weird cobalt sunglasses, drumming our fingernails against the oval supersonic jet windows, gazing at the curve of the Earth and hoping the market didn't change in the five hours it took to get from Chicago to Tokyo.
     So long as the Concorde was flying, I could kid myself that someday I'd be rich or lucky enough to snag a seat. I was just coming to grips with the slap of grim reality when it struck me that I didn't actually need to fly aboard Concorde; I could soften the disappointment of missing the trip by cutting right to the stock boastful rendition of the experience.
     Frankly, I think not going gives a person a clearer perspective. Reporters who actually find themselves aboard the Concorde are lulled by the swankness and excitement, and seem to think that the story is the little bowls of cashews they set out, when of course the important thing to observe is that the Concorde was the Irish Elk of airplanes, the step too far on the evolutionary scale, an enormous white elephant that the United States just barely kept itself from being gulled into. The Europeans tried vigorously for years to get us to shoulder the expense of Concorde with them, under the rubric of the "Super Sonic Transport." Congress argued over it forever, and seeing how routinely suckered they are by sinkholes like missile defense and the B-1 bomber, it's amazing that they actually took a pass, after years of debate (for a while, when dealing with a persistent annoyance, I'd say, "This is harder to kill than the SST," until I realized that nobody knew what I was talking about and I was dating myself).
      But just because a piece of transportation is a rococo relic doesn't mean you can like it. Speaking for myself, I find more ardor for strange technological dead-ends than for the sleek machines that work. My favorite plane is a monstrous flying milk bottle with stub wings called the Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster, an early 1930s racing plane that killed most of its pilots.
     You never know what is going to float somebody's boat, transportation-wise. I'm looking at an improbable book that showed up on my desk a few weeks ago, a beautiful large green volume called A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946 (Volume 1: The Mid-Atlantic States).
     The book is by a former colleague's dad, Richard C. Carpenter, and is exactly what you'd think it is: an elaborate, hand-drawn map of all the various train lines right after World War II.
     What possible use this book could be is a mystery to me. The introduction only gives a hint, offering "hope that, by producing a graphic record of this transportation network, present and future generations may learn valuable lessons from one of the most glorious episodes of our transportation history." I plan to hold onto mine, because it's so pretty, and you just never know.
     Whoops; lots of people jump from the start of a column straight to the end. So we should return to the fiction, just to keep up the ruse.

Flight could have been longer

     "You have lipstick on your cheek," Madonna laughed, dabbing at my face with a hankie she had removed from her decolletage and dipped in champagne.
     I admit that, under the circumstances, speed was a bad thing, and before I knew it the three hours had passed in pleasant conversation, consumption and reverie. We were landing in New York, and I sat back, closed my eyes and smiled, bidding a heartfelt and fond farewell to Concorde.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 24, 2003

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Joe Walsh, popping up on cue to make things worse

He's baaaaaaaaack!
    Thursday was unusual. I gingerly turned in a faux visit to Greenland, warning my editor that it strained against journalistic conventions. At the same time, another editor, who occasionally requests a dashed-off online missile strike, pointed out that the reptilian Joe Walsh is flirting with running for the presidency, and might I not consider sending a Sidewinder in his direction?
    Happily. But what started as a quick hit turned out, when I was done, to be longer than a usual column. So I trimmed it to standard size and said, "If you think Greenland is over the top, you can run Walsh."
     Both columns went online, and I somehow assumed Greenland, the first turned in, would therefore go into the paper first, and posted it here Friday. But I opened my Sun-Times at the kitchen table, there was Joe Walsh. So I figured, I should get him here as well. 

     A madman, raging in the town square, is finally subdued and carted off to an asylum. While he is locked away, the world itself goes mad. Breaking out, he finds himself, though unchanged, suddenly sane again.
     Could this be the Joe Walsh story? The one-term congressman, swept into office by Illinois’ 8th Congressional District on the Tea Party tide in 2010. Sucked back out into civilian life in 2012, though in that short time distinguishing himself as the kind of fact-free hater that would later do so well on a national scale.
     My colleague Lynn Sweet has reported that Walsh “is weighing” a challenge against President Trump.
     “Won’t rule it out,” Walsh told Lynn.
     Of course not. The Walsh I know wouldn’t rule out cutting off his pinkie and nailing it over his front door, if that would attract attention.
     In case you’ve forgotten Joe Walsh — and oh, how I envy you — a quick reminder. He’s a guy who never let a fact get in the way of a well-polling opinion.
     Gay marriage? That can’t be allowed because gays make worse partners and parents than straight people.
     “A man and woman!” he told me, in 2012, when I tried to give him a fair shake, hear what he had to say. “There are studies that show, when it comes to crime, education, drug use ...”
     He promised to share those studies with me. It’s been seven years, so I’m not holding my breath.

To continue reading, click here.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Has Trump looked closely at what he’s trying to buy?

Narsarsuaq is a rare place in Greenland with farms.
     NARSARSUAQ, GREENLAND: It is an eight hour flight from Chicago to the southern tip of Greenland, not counting the hour drive from Keflavik International Airport to smaller Reykjavik Airport for the hop from Iceland, across the Denmark Strait, to the southernmost town of this very northern island, 2/3 of which is located above the Arctic Circle.
     Actually, “town” is an exaggeration. Narsarsuaq has only about 150 residents, making it more of a settlement. Which might come as a surprise to, let’s say for example, a newspaper reporter rushed here by editors frantic to get boots on the ground at the scene of the latest international crisis.
     If you assume that there being flights here—$1,800 on Icelandic Air—by necessity means there is also be a significant community waiting, well, let me set you straight. It’s austere.
     Eight hours is plenty of time to brood on Donald Trump’s gambit to buy Greenland, which at first, I assumed had to be a joke (the poor Onion, how do they cope?)
     The truth came as a surprise. No, “surprise” is too weak a word. When I read he cancelled an actual state visit to Denmark over its refusal to sell Greenland, I was dumbfounded.
     Okay, not “dumbfounded.” That’s an average day.
     ”Superextradumbfounded” perhaps—a very Greenlandic way to express something. The common language here is Danish, with many speaking English. School children are also taught West Greenlandic, an Inuit language where computer, ‘qarasaasiaq’ translates, poetically, as “artificial brain.”
     Trump said the purchase would be a strategic move, which really doesn’t explain why he wants Greenland. Maybe he feels an intellectual kinship. One visitor described Greenland as “spectacularly barren,” which also describes the interior landscape of our president.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

"La Commedia è finita!" or, A Tale of Two Bobs

     You can see something every day, for years, but never really look at it. 
     Such as? This poster, which I created for The Reader when Bob Greene's career blew up in 2002 (if this is unfamiliar to you, I lay out the whole sordid tale for Salon here). I didn't draw it, but conceived it, and grabbed an Italian dictionary to make sure that the words  used were correct.  Then I worked with the talented Mike Werner, who did all the art for BobWatch. 
     Bob is seen as Pagliacci, murderous clown in the Ruggero Leoncavallo opera of the same name. "La Commedia è finita!" " is the final line: "The comedy is finished." That seemed apt. The weeping girl is of course the ruined Mother McAuley student who led to Bob's downfall. 
     I liked the end result so much I bought the original from Werner. 
     It's been hanging on my office wall for a decade and a half. I've thought about tucking it away. The past, be done with it and move on—is that not the moral of the Bob Greene Saga? But I liked the image, and displaying it, framed, was akin to a pelt on my wall, a trophy head. Bob in a case, gathering dust, while I remain among the land of the living and working.
     That said, I'd never have posted it here. While I'm proud BobWatch is remembered after more than 20 years, Bob did have friends, and when I run into an old crocodile who really, really hates my guts, who really get his back into expressing it — think of the trolls living under Robert Feder's bridge — I somehow naturally assume they're Bob fans yearning toward their lost idyll and seeking vengeance for the cashiering of their old friend. Which I did not cause, but certainly celebrated. 
    Maybe I'm giving myself too much credit; maybe they hate me on my own merits, no Bob necessary.
    Either way, my colleague Eric Zorn must have the original page torn from The Reader taped up somewhere because, passing it recently, he noticed the second name on the playbill. The first is Ann Marie Lipinski, the Tribune muckety-muck who tolerated Bob until she decided to have a sub-career glorying in his finally being fired after years of ignoring his excesses. 
    And that second name. Robert S. Mueller III. Yes, that Bob Mueller, the same Bob Mueller who just returned to the shadows after ineffectually gumming Donald Trump for several years. I completely forgot he was there, and never noticed it after Mueller exploded into the headlines. So, good for Eric and his sharp eye.
     Why is Mueller there? Because what people didn't realize, then and now, is that Greene wasn't shown the gate because he seduced a high school student. The Trib could shrug that off, and did. What got him into trouble was when, years later, as part of whatever intensive therapy a person requires to have any hope of recovery after the obvious trauma of having relations with Bob Greene, the former student, now grown to damaged adulthood, contacted him, as part of that therapy. To confront him, I suppose, hoping that might provide closure. He immediately turned her over, as a threat, to the FBI, the kind of cowardly, craven Bob move you would expect. The FBI was at that time headed by Mueller.
     Heck, I wasn't on the phone call. Maybe she was a threat. I can't judge. But my gut tells me Bob panicked and called some agent pal who was a fan of his high-quality brand of nostalgia/journalism.
     A bit of trivia, perhaps. But it is a swell poster, in my biased opinion, a token of the days when the Reader had some swagger and wit. And it will serve until tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Would you give a kidney to a stranger?

Barb Neff (right) with her sister Carolyn Ritten. Though neither feels Neff is a “selfless person,” she still gave one of her kidneys to a stranger.

     Barb Neff thought about doing it for two decades.
     Which is a pair of decades longer than most people would consider following her example.
     Most wouldn’t consider it for two seconds.
     But in mid-July, Neff, 52, who grew up in Elmhurst, donated her left kidney to a stranger.
     “I’d been thinking about it, on and off, for 20 years,” she said.
     But why? It’s tough enough to spur families to donate the organs of loved ones after they’ve died. So-called “altruistic donation” — giving an organ to a stranger while you are alive — is so rare, and such a quantum leap in human generosity, that some health experts agonize whether it is actually selflessness or closer to emotional imbalance.
     When Neff was 30, one of her closest friends lost a kidney.
     “Liposarcoma, or fatty cancer,” said Neff. “They ended up taking out a 20-pound tumor, a kidney, her spleen, some colon.”
     Neff was ready to give her friend a kidney.
     “It was a no-brainer,” she said. “But that never transpired. About 10 years later, I heard a podcast about it. It hadn’t even occurred to me that you could give a stranger your kidney. I thought that was something I should look into.”
     Again, why?
     “Because it just seemed ... more of a ‘Why not?’ than a ‘Why?’” she said. “I think I’m a little more nonchalant about surgery than most people are. It didn’t strike me as that big of a deal.”
     And for her, it wasn’t.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Downy Woodpecker

     An iPhone 8 suits all my photographic needs. 
     Except one.
     It's lousy for photographing birds.
     Birds are too small, too far away and move too fast. 
     Birds do not pose, never mind in silhouette. 
     Which is why I almost gasped, looking up to see this woodpecker, not five feet away, going at a crabapple tree on First Street. 
      I dropped Kitty's leash and stepped on it to keep her from bolting after any passing squirrel, whipped out my cellphone and fired off a few photos.
      Not good photos. I understand that. But good enough that I could at least ID the bird with a degree of certainty—I believe it is a female Downy Woodpecker, female because it has no red on its head. Though it could be a Hairy Woodpecker; the two are very close. But this seems a little smaller, its beak a little shorter.
      The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of North America's 25 species of woodpeckers. Its Latin name, picoides pubescent, is slightly risqué, because Carl Linnaeus thought the downy plumage resembled that of a human in early puberty.  Hmmm...not a crisp enough photo to make any kind of judgment there. 
    Though if the bird seems a little, well, smudged it might not all be the photo's fault: Downy Woodpeckers molt in late August and early September, and that process might be underway.
     Notice how this woodpecker's tail is braced against the tree bark—a characteristic behavior, to take the strain off their legs as they peck. They also have very little cerebral fluid in their skulls, so their brains don't slosh back and forth as they peck, sometimes up to 20 times a second.
      One drawback of all that pecking is it makes it hard for the woodpecker to watch out for predators—so these woodpeckers tend to hang out among other birds, relying on their warning calls to tip them off to danger. This particular woodpecker, I noticed, was tucked under the canopy of the tree, shielding it from any passing Cooper's Hawk, which our neighborhood has in abundance. 
      I've always had a particular fondness for woodpeckers. Maybe because they tend to be solitary birds. They also are sedentary: they don't migrate, typically, but stick around their home range. They also have a certain dignity that others have remarked upon.
     "With their often black-and-white plumage and stiff, jerky movements, woodpeckers have a formal persona many find appealing," wrote Henry T. Armistead, a Philadelphia librarian and "birder extraordinaire."
     I am not an extraordinary birder, and can't flatter myself that any special quality of stealth allowed me to get close to this woodpecker. That's just how Downy Woodpecker's fly, a quality noted nearly two centuries before I and my iPhone happened along.
     "The bird is by no means shy or suspicious, and scarcely pays any attention to man, even when standing close to the tree on which it is at work," John James Audubon notes in his 1831 "The Birds of America." Which, now that I think of it, brings our essay to a full circle. Technology is a marvelous thing, but compare the effort above to what a man with a sable-hair paintbrush and a box of watercolors could do:


Monday, August 19, 2019

Chicago should landmark sign at Trump Tower

Trump Tower, June 2014
     As a rule, I try not to have rules. That’s what makes this column such a draught of delight.
     The closest I come to having a rule is this: Never advocate the impossible.
     Because the impossible doesn’t happen. Then you look like a fool.
     So when impossible ideas strike, I’m smart enough to bat them away.
     Usually. But not always.
     Like so many, I’ve been chafing under the despicable madness that is the administration of Donald Trump. Brooding over the enormous Trump sign that mars an otherwise beautiful building in the heart of the city, it struck me: We should take that thing down. Now.
     Why not? We are a city filled with lawyers and officials. Sure, attempts have been made. Keep trying. I called the mayor’s office and the zoning department, the corporation counsel and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who introduced the bill allowing the sign. I was particularly eager to hear from Reilly — is this not his shot at redemption? Imagine what a great day in Chicago that would be. A genuine riverside celebration, unlike former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Fire Festival squib and failure. Picture the citizens gathered, cheering as one by one the letters fall.
     Might the argument not be made that “TRUMP” does not mean in 2019 what it meant when the monstrosity went up in 2014? That it is now the language of hate, chanted by bigots as they attack their cringing victims, a balm to racists worldwide.
     Reilly remained mum. But the law department not only got back to me, but with an unexpected ray of hope.
     “The City of Chicago evaluated its legal options after this sign was erected in 2014 and determined that steps could be taken in an attempt to force the sign to be removed,” spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement. “Forcing removal of the sign now would likely result only in its replacement with a slightly smaller version as well as litigation that would cost the City in time and resources that are disproportionate to any incremental benefit of a smaller sign.”

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Sunday, August 18, 2019


      Saturday afternoon was rainy, but showers were supposed to hold off for a few hours in mid-afternoon, so my wife and I decided to head over to the Glenwood Avenue Art Fest in Rogers Park because, well, we always go.
      Why? Well, there's food and music and young couples with kids in strollers and kids with their faces painted like cats, plus hipsters leading real dogs, and unfortunate tattoos and green hair. Lots of booths selling local craft beer, and booths selling food, and crafts that range from the well-wrought and desirable to the artless and pitiable. The crowd is old and young, thin and fat, black and white, male and female and the entire spectrum in between.
      Besides, my brother-in-law, Alan Goldberg, a longtime community fixture, cooked up the thing, 18 years ago, and if you can't support your family by attending a summer fair once a year, well then, you've got problems, buddy.
      There are also booths for community groups and politicians, and those can be interesting and even lead to stories. 
      "Maybe we'll bump into Kelly Cassidy," I said as we approached, to my wife, of the state representative from the district, who has a notable cameo in my Chicago book and is in the headlines for her good works in Springfield.
     First we met the new alderwoman for the 49th ward, Maria Hadden, who body-checked Joe Moore out of office after 28 years. A staffer pointed her out, and I introduced myself. She turned and fled like I was radioactive. 
     Then as I predicted, we saw Kelly, outside her booth.
      "Have you met my wife?" she asked.
      "The other Kelly?" I seemed to recall a spouse also named Kelly, but I was behind the times. 
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, left,
with her wife Candace Gingrich
      Two years and three days ago, she married Candace Gingrich.
      "Her brother is Newt Gingrich," Cassidy explained, as we shook hands.
      "The man who ruined the United States," I said, as if stating a simple fact. Which I was. It was Gingrich, Speaker of the House during the Clinton years in the late 1990s, who weaponized the Republicans Party, teaching them to marshal the English language against reality—it doesn't matter what truth is as long as you could attach a bad, or good, name to it and repeat that name often enough—and treat their opponents not as the other side of the political spectrum, but as traitors. It would probably have happened anyway, but Gingrich was the Sampson toppling the pillars of our body politic, then, fawning over Trump now in a way that would make Chris Christie blush.
      My wife tactfully wondered about their family reunions.
      "We're not a family that gathers a lot," said Gingrich, whose brother Newt is 23 years older than herself. I allowed that most families run the gamut.
      "I have relatives who are Trump supporters," I said, not adding, "distant relatives whom I haven't spoken to for years and would never want to speak to again." 
      I wondered how the couple met.
      "The story is ridiculous," said Cassidy, who met her future spouse through her past one.  "When Newt became Speaker she said, 'I know his sister...'"
     Cassidy asked her if she would come to Chicago to speak at events.
     "I'd never been to Chicago," began Gingrich, who lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 
     This was in the mid-1990s. 
     "And you were blown away by its incredibleness?" I wondered.
     "What I was blown away by was her," said Gingrich.
     But they were both in relationships, so they remained friends, going to Cubs games. But that changed.
      We didn't talk too long—I knew Kelly was there to meet constituents, not jawbone with me. So Edie and I wandered the fair, saw family, hung out, contemplated ceramics. I had an excellent gyros, she had an excellent chicken and avocado salad arepa. We both shared a cup of complicated cocoa gelato from Black Dog. I worried I hadn't quizzed Gingrich thoroughly—she was really a classic American type: the gay relative of a conservative political asshat. Dick Cheney's daughter, Alan Keyes' daughter, now Gingrich's sister, and I'm sure there are more. I should have pressed her on her notorious brother, who did so much to set the ball of our current political decline rolling briskly downhill.
Bailey, a half-sharpei, half bulldog. 
     I almost turned and immediately headed back. But no. It's one of the last Saturdays in summer. Try not working for a while, Neil. Just wander.
     But on the way out, I noticed the pair, sharing a meal at Kelly's booth, now deserted of staffers. We swung by, and I observed that usually it was the other way around: the politician leaves, the staffers stick around. 
      They laughed. I decided to ask one last question and then let them be. Sentient America is dealing with a daunting problem, I began: how to cope with a frightening, reactionary man who is not going away anytime soon. Having Gingrich as a brother her entire life  required her to cope with a similar burden. Any tips for people trying to get by?
     "Breathe," said Gingrich. "Breathing is always a good thing." 
     She observed that you''ll go crazy if you throw yourself at forces beyond your control, at problems you can't fix, at least can't fix right now.
    "It's the little things we all have control over," Gingrich said.
     It is no coincidence, she observed, that liberals are trying to fight pollution during the environmental regulation-shredding Trump administration by limiting use of plastic drinking straws, a small step in combatting global pollution. Go ahead; there's no shame in that.
     "There is so much more you could be doing, yes," she said. "But you are doing something."
      Quietly file at the bars of our predicament while saving our strength for better days. 
     "You can't control all the bad stuff, but you can control some," she said.
     That makes sense.
     The festival's last day is Sunday, Aug 18 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.  The gyros are expensive—$10—but worth it.


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Flashback 2000: Climbing the status ladder

The Marx Brothers (from left) Chico, Zeppo, Groucho and Harpo

    I stumbled across this column looking for something else, and was surprised both by the facts it contained, and that I wrote it. Yes, 19 years is a long time. But usually, there is some glimmer ... this was all fresh. Plus it was 538 words long, 30 percent shorter than my column now, a reminder that while I rhapsodize the space of the past, that wasn't true when the column ran in the features section. When we had a features section. Anyway, I enjoyed this, and hope you will too.

     The Palmer House is made of sandstone quarried in Berea, Ohio. I know that because I grew up in Berea, the former sandstone capital of the world.
     It is one of the more touching human qualities that, so deep is our desire for status, we try to absorb accomplishment and glamor from the places that we live, or lived.
     In Chicago, there is no need to scrounge for glory. Open the bag and glittering baubles tumble out, from the most famous man in the world (Michael Jordan) to the most beloved doll (Raggedy Ann, who made her debut in the windows of Marshall Field's, stitched together to tout the Johnny Gruel stories).
     Though we do not need new ornaments to hang on Chicago's name, I feel obligated to report what I just learned about the vital role Chicago plays in the recent biography of . . . drumroll please . . . Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers. Who knew?
     After their bid for success in New York went cold, the brothers Marx decided to move, en masse, to Chicago, to test our Midwest waters.
     "It would take a combination of bravado, faith and lunacy to trade New York for Chicago at this time," writes Stefan Kanfer, in his fine book, Groucho (Knopf, $ 30).
     They end up at 4512 W. Grand, and in the years to come, many crucial developments that led to their magnificent success fall into place somewhere around Chicago.
     They get their famous nicknames in Galesburg, during a poker game between shows. An obscure trouper named Art Fisher dubs them Groucho (for his mood), Harpo (for his instrument), Gummo (for his galoshes, or gumshoes) and Chicko, later Chico, for his eye for the ladies.
     Harpo joined the act in Waukegan, in the middle of a show, creeping unannounced into the orchestra.
     Harpo used to talk onstage, until one night when they appeared in Champaign-Urbana. A critic—and this must be the high-water mark for critics actually having an impact on the thing being criticized—noted that Harpo was a skilled pantomimist. "Unfortunately the effect is spoiled when he speaks."
     He never spoke onstage again.
     Groucho had his appendix out at Michael Reese Hospital. He married a Chicago girl, and hung out with Carl Sandburg and Ben Hecht.
     I saved the best for last. With the United States entering World War I, their mother, Minnie, read that anyone involved with farming would be exempt from the draft.
     "That was all Minnie needed to know," Kanfer writes. "She made immediate plans to acquire a farm."
     The Marx brothers moved to a 27-acre farm in La Grange and began raising chickens. It sounds too incredible to be true, but apparently it is. My only regret is that they didn't base a film on their efforts which, inevitably, failed.
     I couldn't help but wonder if the Marx legend lives in La Grange. I called Village Manager Marlies Perthel.
     Anything the town is famous for? "Not really," she said. "The one thing we're known for is we do have a historic district."
     Anybody famous live there?
     Groucho Marx," she said, "many, many years ago."
     That was a relief. At least La Grange-ites know they should hold their heads high. Do they?
     "It's a little humorous," she said. "In staid, conservative La Grange."
     Ah, a little humor. What else can you ask for in life?

                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 30, 2000

Friday, August 16, 2019

Israel rejects a key value of both Jewish and American life

"Freedom of Speech" by Norman Rockwell
     Nothing shows strength like the ability to listen. To not merely tolerate, but consider those who disagree with you. That’s a mark of confidence. 
     To hear contrasting opinions, weigh what merit those arguments might have, and even be open to the possibility that it is you, yourself, who could be wrong.
     Despots never get this. They’re too fraudulent, too terrified of losing their slippery grip on unmerited authority. So of course Donald Trump, that most hollow of puffed-up would-be strongmen, would fail to understand this, completely.
     “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Reps. Omar and Tlaib to visit,” Trump tweeted on Thursday, of the pending visit to Israel of two American members of Congress. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
     Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim women elected to Congress, are not a disgrace. Nor anti-Semitic. They articulate concerns that many — maybe even most — American Jews feel over the path Israel is taking — its growing nationalism, its catering to ultra-Orthodox fanaticism, its general neglect of the fate of four million Palestinians under its semi-control.
     Yes, the two also encourage the BDS movement — the belief that Israeli businesses should be boycotted, investments in Israel should be divested, and sanctions placed until Israel ... well, does whatever it is the Palestinians want it to do: the Jews vanish, march into the Mediterranean Sea and let Palestinians have their country, I suppose.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Success doesn't mean victory

    The column in the newspaper can't be longer than 719 words. There isn't room. I'm not sure if that's the precise limit—my gut tells me I could sneak in 720— but that's the number I don't let myself go beyond to make sure it doesn't run 790 or 800 words, which wouldn't fit on page 2, where I like to see it smiling back at me in the mornings.
     Sometimes I bite the bullet—on Monday, when I was trying to explain the allure of manhole covers, I went 900 words and got the column sunk deeper in the paper.  But on most days, if it runs 720 words, I take one word out. It might say something, and not something good, that I didn't feel the need to request the same for Wednesday's column. It held up Mothers Against Drunk Driving as a reason for hope, if not a roadmap, in the frustrating battle against gun violence. MADD's success, and the nation turning away from smoking, show that change is possible.
      Even starting out with a Sam Kinison bit, I felt I could make my point in my allotted space. But at that length, some nuance is lost. When I sent the column to Mothers Against Drunk Driving—they had provided a high-resolution copy of the photo I wanted to use—their response had a certain tone of ... disappointment.
     "Sadly, while we have come a long way, drunk driving is STILL the No. 1 killer on our roads," wrote Becky Iannotto, MADD's senior manager of communications. "It’s no longer funny and thousands of lives have been saved, but we still lose 10,000 to 11,000 people every year. Still working to change attitudes, support enforcement and strengthen laws until we can really get to zero!"
      I saw what she was saying. Just as as addicts and alcoholics are said to be in recovery, but never "recovered," so MADD has successes without victory. The fight continues: this Saturday is "Saturation Saturday" in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's $13 million "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over Campaign."
      I shouldn't write off overlooking that to tight space. The truth is, I was trying to make a point—MADD has accomplished great things against an entrenched killer, so can opponents of Armed America. To pause, and observe that despite nearly 40 years of gerbil-on-a-wheel effort, it's still an enormous problem, well, that would kind of take the air out of the message I was trying to inflate. 
     I should have mentioned MADD's ongoing fight.
     Nor did I mention Moms Demand Action, a grass roots organization trying to do exactly what I was suggesting: weaponize the pain felt by the survivors of victims of gun violence and use it against the entrenched and lucrative macho gun fantasy that thwarts any kind of commonsense action on the topic. 
       That's the beauty of the blog: it can add an asterisk where need be. Although, that said, the overwhelming reaction of readers was gratitude to read something at all hopeful about our current political state. So to the degree that my omissions might have reinforced the sense—or should that be "illusion"?—of hope, I suppose it was not an entirely bad thing.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Buh-bye to Dorothy Brown

     My sense is that Dorothy Brown figures, if she retires, then she can't be prosecuted, as the charges of corruption that have swirled around her office for years gather to gale force. A version of the ostrich's head-in-the-sand defense: "If I'm not in my office," she no doubt thought, in the kind of flash of genius that marked her nearly two decades as Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Courts, "then the feds will never be able to find me!"
     Fran Spielman spells out the latest news, as always. 
     The phrase Brown used, several times, is that it is time for her to "go to the next level."
     That's one way to put it.
      I was on the Sun-Times editorial board when Brown became county clerk in 2000—that's a scary thought—and remember the unsettling perkiness she exuded, which I came to see as a smokescreen for the ineptitude, arrogance and corruption—proved against her underlings, not against her, not yet—that followed. 
     Her department, who generally despised her, must be dancing in the hallways. I can't say I'll miss her: I've tuned Brown out for years. But I did think this might be a good moment to dig a few Dorothy Brown chestnuts out of the old vault. It's too early to breathe as sigh of relief: she hasn't quite gone away. But at least that happy day is in sight. It will be interesting to see which level she ends up sinking to: maybe she can join Carol Moseley-Braun in pecan farming and tea sales.

      What would be coming out of the clerk's office if Dorothy Brown hadn't ordered her employees to keep their mouths shut? As it is, they're dishing dirt like frenzied ditch diggers. Two great accusations came zipping my way: a) that Brown has her security detail empty out elevators before she uses them, and b) that this same security detail also pulls her boots on for her. Devoted to the requirements of the form, I ran this by Brown, who responded a) no, she uses the judges' elevators and b) no, they don't.
     At this point I thought the fair thing to do would be not to print these baseless charges. I checked with two editors here, who said:
     a) "Why start being fair now?" and b) "It's election season."
     See, it isn't just me.
                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 10, 2004

     God bless Dorothy Brown. She's the perkiest person I have ever met in politics, bar none. The Cook County Circuit Court clerk has more spunk than an Olympic gymnast. She makes Katie Couric seem like Eeyore.
     Have you met the woman? Imbued with energy, excruciatingly well-mannered and the grace of God flowing from her like glow off a light-bulb. Her cringing subordinates might paint a different picture, but that's how she comes across during her visits to the newspaper.
     Of course, she can't run her own department, never mind run the city, not that she'll get the chance: Mayor Daley will crush her like an egg.
     Still, while she lasts, she should provide an interesting contrast to the morose Saul sulking on the fifth floor of City Hall: Daley, the sourest, most visibly unhappy man to hold elective office in America since Calvin Coolidge retired to Vermont, vs. Dorothy Brown, who seems about to bust out into song at any given moment. I'd like to pretend she'll give the mayor a run for his money and he'll only get 70 percent of the vote this time. But I doubt it.

      —originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 3, 2006