Tuesday, December 31, 2019

This shock reduced Nancy Pelosi to quivering jelly: State of the Blog, Year Seven

Boat; Castro, Chile.

     Ooof. 2019. In the books. Almost.
     Here at everygoddamnday.com, we ... well, stumbled forward, along with everyone else.
     Last year's Facebook fall-off documented in State of the Blog, Year Six continued, reaching a nadir—I hope—of 49,645 hits in March, the first month below 50,000 since 2016. 
     With the autumn, however, some new dynamic kicked in. Now the numbers are rising again: December broke 72,000 hits. It can't be a surge in readership; more likely Web crawlers from China, bots from Russia, some other technological explanation. My estimate is that 25 percent of my traffic are machines of one sort or another; then again, that is probably also true for everyone else. Robots talking to robots. 
     The surge brought this year's monthly average to about 55,000 hits a month; last year's was 65,000. 
     So no cultural force, this. Yet still a creative endeavor—I almost said "literary endeavor" but that would be putting on airs. And it is a commercial proposition, thank you very much Marc Schulman, as Eli's Cheesecake returned to run holiday ads for the seventh consecutive year, and I put up covering editorial fire that actually seems to have resulted in orders.
    I'm not the person to judge; I hope the blog did not too much mimic the general deterioration of our country and world under the nihilistic right wing nationalist madness which I'm not pollyanna enough to believe is going away in 2020. I'd put my chips on settling in and beginning to get serious about squelching dissent. Maybe that's the dim view. But all the optimists in my family are back in Poland in a pit, and I consider pessimism a survival strategy. 
     That said, we had our fun.   
     In January, we used the freer standards of the online world to parse "motherfucker" after an exuberant congresswoman used it to refer to our illegitimate president.  In February, EGD listened to Trump's State of the Union address and saw the clear outline of his 2020 victory which 10 months has only made seem more prescient.
     "Trump is going to win in 2020," I wrote. "He is going to roll the disorganized, bickering Democrats ... the whole anthill going in a hundred directions, unifying only to utter a quavering Charlie Brown shriek of 'How can we lose when we're so sincere?' after it's all over." 
    Still sounds about right; though of course I'll be grateful to be mistaken. 
    In March, my visit to Bob and Peg Ringham resulted in an in-depth piece on a common yet unfamiliar ailment, Lewy Body Dementia. 
     April might be the cruelest month, as T.S Eliot claims, but it found me in South America, and I ran 14 diary entries, my favorite being this, on experiencing tango in Buenos Aires. In May we had lunch with Goodman artistic director Robert Falls and got pulled onstage at The Second City.  June reminded us that, loath our current administration as much as you like, it is more par for the course than freakish departure from American history, and sadly, "we are not better than this." 
    In July I kept the blog going despite being in Northwestern Memorial Hospital for four days, having my spine cracked open, an experience I began documenting toward month's end. In August I broke my rule against modest proposals and advocated landmarking the sign at Trump Tower, which, like all such efforts, went nowhere. In September, we went to see rugby played in Lawndale. In October we chatted with the editor of The Economist.  November I managed to piss off the administrators at the elementary school at the end of my block by writing a whimsical piece about all the kickballs floating in their drainage marsh. 
     Which leads us to December. I wrote 6,000 words on sleep apnea, a tome which must have broken Mosaic Science, since Wellcome Trust shut down the web site after my article's publication. A coincidence, surely. I went back under the knife at Northwestern Monday morning, and have a few days of old surgical columns lined up. After that, I promise nothing. 
    Looking back over the year, like so much of American current events, I think we can say we survived, and are doing the best we can, and there are moments to be proud of, scattered amidst the gathering dread. History books will either note that patriotic Americans resisted our nation's slide toward despotism, or we'll all be tarred as the running dog effete liberal cowards who gnashed our teeth in frustration at the glorious rise of The Donald. Assuming that his successor, President Donald Trump Jr., allows history books. The battle to determine which it ends up being is still in full cry. 

Monday, December 30, 2019

It was a very Trump year

     Another year done, almost. Whew. And what a busy year it has been, packed with newsworthy stuff, So without further ado, the top 100 news stories of 2019:
     1. Donald Trump impeached in the House for withholding military aide to Ukraine in an attempt to pressure its president to gin up dirt on a political rival.
     2. Donald Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania: “Our country is full. We don’t want people coming up here.”
     3. Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense resigned.
     4. Donald Trump abruptly left a NATO meeting after other world leaders laughed at him.
     5. Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Navy was fired over his objections to the president undercutting military discipline.
     6-99. More lies, resignations, slurs, boasts, all involving Donald Trump.
     Sure, other stuff happened. But even mentioning it seems beside the point.
     Do you get tired? Tired of the tramp tramp tramp of Trump Trump Trump? I know I do. His fans seem to love him. They are indignant that anyone could continually pay critical attention to the president of the United States.
     So the country is cleft in two: half entranced, half disgusted, both sides belligerent and baffled at each other. Can you imagine a simpler recipe for disaster? Sure, the economy is bright, now, but that’s like marveling at the pretty red glow when your house is burning down.
     Speaking of which, No. 100 ...
     But first, with the year ending, apologies and thanks. Apologies for so much focus on Washington — it seemed necessary — and thanks for bearing with me.
     For those who love Trump, yet still read this, when you gripe—“Why are you so hard on our beloved president? I hate you” — remember that your loving him is what lawyers call “inculpatory” — it incriminates you, round these parts.

To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The ’10s? The Teens? Decade defies labels

   My rule of thumb at the paper, when asked to do something, is to always say Yes, unless I can't do it. Then I decline. Because I like to be useful, and have learned that the topics I'm drawn into are typically subjects I might not otherwise tackle. So periodically I've been working on our new, very successful special magazines and wrappers, happily writing about subjects from driving exotic cars to Illinois manufacturing.
    In Sunday's section wrapping the front page, I was asked to parse the decade that has just gone by, with emphasis on the Obama/Trump dichotomy. That I did, more in sorrow than in anger. 

     It says something about both the dominance of social media and the fading iconography of eras that I didn’t realize a new decade is upon us until I saw a meme on Facebook at Halloween.
     “Just a friendly reminder,” it announced, above four slim women in flapper dresses, “The ’20s start in 60 days.”
     Right. They do, don’t they? Those 60 days have dwindled to a handful. Then it’ll be the ’20s, again. Will they roar? The last ’20s sure did, a growl of prosperity and sexual liberation and music so loud that we still remember it all a century later. Followed by the grim ’30s. The wartime ’40s ...
     In the 21st century, that pattern broke. What do we even call the decade years that just expired? “The Teens?” I never did, and I lived through every minute, so far. MSNBC is going with “Decade of Disruption,” which might be true — Amazon and China both muscling aside old powerhouses, America and Britain stumbling badly — but that won’t be flying off anybody’s lips.
     And the 10 years before that? “The Aughts?” Even worse. And what was the flavor of the ’00s? The Post-9/11 Decade? Maybe. But even then, nowhere near the instant emotional impact of “The ’50s” or, the ultimate, “The ’60s.”
     Then again, the period between 2010 and 2019 was particularly schizophrenic, given that about halfway through it Barack Obama, a most careful, reserved and thoughtful president, did his mic drop and ambled out of public life, exiting stage left. Immediately replaced by Donald Trump and his parade of clown cars, tripping over themselves and into power from stage right, calliope at full wheeze, ushering in what can only be described as perpetual pandemonium.
     What will history call that decade? “The Troublesome Teens?” America is sorta old for a stormy adolescence at this point. “The Trump Triumph?” Could be. “The Pre-War Years?” Let’s hope not.

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Saturday, December 28, 2019

Marlene Gelfond, 81, assistant to Roger Ebert.

     I don't write many deadline obits anymore. A shame, because it's always worthwhile to delve into somebody's life and try to form their story into a beautiful keepsake, faithful to the truth yet cognizant of the irreversible moment it is commemorating. Typically, I focus on prominent individuals with Chicago connections, people whom we don't want to be caught napping when they pass, forced to piece together something that will do in a few hours. Far better to spend years digging into their lives and sculpting them into a story.
     But my former colleague Marlene Gelfond passed away two weeks ago, and the paper, on holiday skeleton staff, had no one to give her the attention she deserved. I did not know Marlene well, but I remembered her, and wanted to make sure it was taken care of properly. Plus I had time on my hands, being on vacation. Like the Marine Corps—in this if in no other regard—newspapers take care of our own, or try to. This ran Christmas Day. 
     When Marlene Gelfond was dying at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, with her family all around her, a woman rabbi came to visit. She said a few prayers, then urged the 81-year-old to make her peace with the world and seek forgiveness from anyone she might have wronged.
     Her family burst out laughing.
     “There would be no one” to apologize to, her sister Maxine Levenbrook said.
     “She was the nicest, sweetest person,” added son Dan Gelfond. “Not a mean bone in her body. She literally never harmed a human being in her life. The most moral person in the world.”
     Despite being a good and moral person, Gelfond who died of cancer Dec. 14, worked at a newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, much of the time as an editorial assistant to famed film critic Roger Ebert.
     “Marlene Gelfond was a culture maven who appreciated many aspects of the arts, and as such was happy to work with Roger on assignments ranging from movies to the theater and appearances to promote his books and speaking engagements,” said Chaz Ebert, the film critic’s widow.
     “She genuinely cared about people,” said former arts editor Laura Emerick. “She was the sweetest person in the world, full of love.”
     She was born Marlene Schultz and grew up on Chicago’s West Side. Her father was a clothing salesman; her mother, a homemaker. She loved walking to the Legler Library and grew into a fan of music, ballet and the arts.

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Friday, December 27, 2019

In the lamp trade? Oak Lawn man has a design for you

William Lange and his lamps.

    Mr. William Lange has a business proposition for you: manufacture and market his cheery globe lamp design, and enjoy a share of the profits.
     He dangled that opportunity before me, several times, during the year I balked at writing about this. Each time I patiently explained that’s not how journalism works, and if I wrote about his lamps, he first must understand we did not have, nor could ever have, a business relationship.
     Then there was the issue of what his lamps look like.
     “I don’t want nobody to see them, copy them,” he told me, at first. But during our negotiations I explained he would have to take the risk; I can’t write about lamps that I can’t show readers.
     Mr. Lange is a persistent man, and that caveat did not deter him. So shortly before Christmas I found myself on the Metra heading to Oak Lawn to inspect the goods.
     Lange picked me up at the station in his tan Buick and drove me to his neat home where he has lived for 65 years.
     “Behind me was a farm,” he said. “It’s sure built up around here, I will tell you that.”
     Born in Danville, Lange turns 92 on Friday, Dec. 27. We share an interest in concrete: he spent nearly 50 years driving a cement truck for Material Services.
     “I got in at the start. I was the No. 1 driver,” he said. “All those high rises in the Loop? I bet I poured 50 percent of them. All the expressways — the Congress, that was done twice. The Stevenson.”

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

"Every male among you shall be circumcised."

     The old folks usher the young folks in.
     That's how it is, how it should be. 
     The parents do the heavy lifting: the nine-month gestation. The financial planning and free-floating worry. Decorate the nursery. Buy the special furniture. Gather the tiny clothes. Trade off the midnight feedings. 
      But for ceremonial welcome-to-the-world duties, we gray beards take the stage. The grandmas and the great aunts fuss in the kitchen.
      To pass the chalice from our big veiny hands to their chubby little ones.
      I went to a bris last Friday. The first ceremonial circumcision I had been to since my younger son's, 22 years ago.
      We Jews don't follow many commandments anymore, at least not my variety. But we do follow this one, scrupulously. Any why not? God is quite clear about it, in Genesis 17:10: "This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised."
      He says exactly when it should be done: eight days after the birth.
      My wife's sister's daughter's son. Making me ... what? The great uncle. Some say "grand uncle" but that sounds weird. And he's my ... second cousin? Grand nephew? I think I'l stick with plain old nephew. Sounds better.
      My role was limited to bringing the deli tray, a task my wife and I leapt to do, the cost happily shared, I should point out, by my brother-in-law Alan, above, and his wife Cookie. The tray courtesy of Kaufman's, of course, on Dempster Road in Skokie. Such whitefish. To. Die. For.
      The ceremony spoke of tradition, of thousands of years, going back to Abraham. An unbroken chain to ancient times, something the world would view with awe if it weren't, you know, Jews doing it.
      I asked if the mohel—a retired pediatric surgeon—if she minded if I use her name. She didn't. Though we discussed the intrusion of the online insane, the anti-circumcision crowd. Those who view the practice as an enormous wrong, in their lives if not the entire world. Or, as Thoreau put it, who “mistake their private ail for an infected atmosphere.” I told her I used to receive No-Circ News, a horror sheet of circumcision disasters (There's an echo of it online). For years. With that in mind, I made an editorial decision, and drew the veil around all concerned. The mohel knows who she is. The parents know who they are. The baby will know who he is. And I know who I am. We're Jews. We do Jewish stuff, more or less, to a greater or lesser degree, as suits our inclination. 
     Ancestors came to mind. My Grandpa Irwin. Almost 40 years dead. I only remember one thing, a single coherent thought, he ever said to me, but it is germane to the topic at hand:  
      "Who gets paid more," Grandpa Irv once asked, "a rabbi or a mohel?"
     "Gosh grandpa," I said, smiling in anticipation "I don't know. Who gets paid more: the rabbi or the mohel?"
     "The rabbi gets a better salary," he deadpanned, in his slight Polish accent. "But the mohel gets all the tips."
      Not bad wordplay for whom English was a second language.
     I also thought of Uncle Phil. My wife's father's uncle. He lived in CHA senior housing on Diversey—so much for rich Jews running the world—and it was our job to bring him to family holidays. Five foot tall, maybe. Sweater vests, well filled out. Thick, smudged glasses. A serious underbite. Ran a marginal lamp business for years. We visited it once, to pick out a lamp as a wedding present. A basement maze on a sketchy section of Lake Street. The setting for a Stephen King story. Piles of lamp parts, brass rods wrapped in 30-year-old newspapers. Dark and wet with square holes that seemed to plunge into subterranean pools. And a gaunt cat somehow down there. I thought of rescuing it on the spot, then decided to leave well enough alone. 
     His wife, Mary, a lovely school teacher, had passed away; his daughter and grandkids lived in other cities. So every Rosh Hashana, every Thanksgiving, every Hanukkah, every Passover, Uncle Phil was there, often because we would pick him up. Although I preferred he wait for us downstairs—once I went up to his apartment. A nest on par with the factory. The thought of ending up in a place like that ... 
     We'd drive Uncle Phil to Skokie. Once he got settled in the car, he'd begin the same speech. "Are you still writing for the Sun-Times?" he'd ask. "That miserable rag...!"
    And off he'd go, the same tirade. I wish I remembered the rest, but I don't. Related to the paper's politics. Uncle Phil was something of a communist. I'm not sure he grasped that I worked there.
    "One of these days," I'd tell my wife, afterward. "I'm going to pull over to the side of the highway, reach over, open his door, and push him out."
     But I never did. And I don't want to sell him short. I'm sure, in his day, he was a sport, in a double-breasted suit, making a killing in the lamp trade. But I did not know him in his day. Which brings us to how Uncle Phil fit into the bris of this young man, now in his second week of life.
      It was this thought:
      I'm going to be his Uncle Phil.
      Meaning, I'm going to be the old guy at the end of the table, tolerated but ignored, when possible, vigorously chewing my food, mouth open, delivering too loud opinions too often, shouting my unwelcome, self-referential observations through a spray of spittle, not perceiving the eye rolls. A supernumerary in the corner, filling out the family scene. Uncle Phil never gave up on that lamp factory, was ready to draw anybody into the lamp making business. I'll probably have my own version of that going on someday. "That will be a fine vignette for the book I'm working on!" Yes yes Uncle Neil, I'm sure it will...
     The first three or four times that thought—"I'm Uncle Phil"—came to me, I batted it away with a cold shiver of dread. But now I've begun to accept it. Even embrace it. What choice is there? 


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Joy on this most Jewish of holidays, Christmas

     Merry Christmas!
     Am I handing Donald Trump a victory by saying that? He seems to think so.
     “They didn’t want to let you say “Merry Christmas,’” he told students in Florida last Saturday.
     Trump doesn’t say who “they” are — liberals, Democrats, maybe Jews — but the villains were defeated, thanks to Trump, who crowed: “They’re all saying Merry Christmas again.”
     I sure am. Then again, I never stopped. Exactly 15 years ago I also began a column “Merry Christmas,” reacting to the Republican victory dance celebrating reelection of George W. Bush. The logic seemed to be, with power secure, it was time to dial back all this diversity nonsense.
     The genesis of the issue bears repeating. In the late 20th century, certain public institutions — schools and stores, mostly — realized at Christmas that a significant percentage of their students or customers were Jews or Muslims or other non-Christmasy sorts. Rather than hold a Christmas Concert that ignores their existence, they expanded it into a big-tent Holiday Concert.
     This is perceived as an insult by certain Christians who feel they must manifest their dominance in all things at all times. Clutching at themselves, falling to he ground, writhing and weeping and emitting defiant bleats of “Merry Christmas” has became a December tradition. Nobody cries like a bully.
     This proved a dilemma to people such as myself, who not only don’t mind saying “Merry Christmas” but kinda like it, as a Dickens-ish bit of winter cheer.
   I could add “and Happy Hanukkah” — the fourth night is Wednesday — but Jews don’t really expect to be included. Or maybe that’s just me. I always cringed at the token Hanukkah song jammed at the end of the Holiday Concert. “I Have a Little Dreidl.” Bleh. Not exactly “Silent Night,” is it?
     For the past few years, I worried “Merry Christmas” would be irredeemably ruined by Trump, weaponized from a jolly holiday greeting into a belligerent blast of political toxicity, half “Sieg Heil,” half “fuck you.” But that hasn’t happened. Yet.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Flashback 2004: Merry ... well, you KNOW

Christmas Card by Carl Krenek (Met)
     Donald Trump again this week resurrected the whole "Merry Christmas" canard—the daft notion that political correctness has somehow stopped Christians from uttering the words. Of course taking personal credit for freeing the faithful from their chains. Not only is it utter BS but, in keeping with all things Trump, it isn't even original utter BS. I addressed this non-issue ... let's see, 15 years ago. But the holidays are nothing if not a time of tradition, so let's revisit that column, from 2004, back when the bloody shirt was being waved by triumphant Bushies tired of spoiling their festivities by having to nod at the lesser creeds. If you notice, I seem fairly sympathetic with the Merry Christmas crowd: it just shows how 15 years of belligerent Fox News hectoring can wear a man down. This ran back when the column filled an entire page. I've left in the original subheads. I also left in the last two items, poignant as they are, since they refer to two aspects now almost unimaginable: first, a bookstore in the Loop and second to a group of colleagues I know well enough to josh with.

Opening shot
     Merry Christmas!
     I can say that, right? I mean, with Christmas Eve tonight, it seems apt. I don't think it's a negation of all my readers who are Muslim cab drivers (or college professors), or fierce atheists or, like me, Jewish.
     I suppose there might be some mild insult, the oblivious low-level sting of a co-worker trying to feign interest in your life by tossing off a breezy "How are the wife and kids doing?" when you in fact aren't married and don't have any children.
     But really, I think most non-Christians can take "Merry Christmas" in the spirit it is tendered, as a generalized expression of goodwill and not a demand that we start going to midnight mass or drinking wassail or whatever the faithful are required to do. I've said "Have a great weekend" to people I know are miserable, and I don't expect them to hate me for it. Maybe they do.
     I prefer "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays," which is too generic, too much akin to "Have a nice day."
     A public sphere crowded with religious practice is probably better than one scrubbed clean. In the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, we had a creche and a menorah at the intersection of Shermer and Walters and the heavens did not crack. If, in a few years, they are joined by a star and crescent, a seated Buddha, and a black pentagram, it might be a bit crowded, but life will muddle on.
     Frankly, I'm glad a bit of the Christmas is flowing back into the generic holiday festivals. When I grew up, we sang Christmas carols in school, and I satisfied myself with humming the parts that violated my creed. "Mmm-mmm the sav-ior is born. . . ."
     That's too passive for some people nowadays, who need to exercise every iota of their rights. First, by scouring the trappings of Christianity out of the public domain and now, in the wake of Bush's victory, with triumphant Christians trying to put it all back.
     The pendulum swings, and I'm not too worried about it because we are a blended culture and becoming more so every day. As smug as people might feel getting the living Nativity scene back into the Holiday Pageant, they are setting the stage to be less pleased next Ramadan when a bunch of students want to present their ProphetFest.
     It all works out in the wash. Sniping over these differences is what Americans do instead of killing each other. So far, at least.

Do-it-yourself pundit

     Some stories are too ripe for plucking, and rather than demean myself by hitting such a slow pitch, I thought I would walk you through the pundit process so you can see how it works.
     1) Take a fact: A Texas lady spent $50,000 to clone her cat.
     2) Conjure the standard reactions:
           a — crazed rich pet owners have no sense of balance;
           b — $50,000 is a lot of money and could be used for good causes;
           c — all cats are more or less the same.
      3) Dismiss those initial reactions as ordinary stuff and come up with three new reactions based on inverting the initial reactions:
            a — rich people indulge themselves in all sorts of stupid ways, so why is a cloned cat any worse than, say, a $50,000 lithograph?
            b — the choice never is between dumb indulgences and worthy causes; nobody, rich or poor, wonders whether to take a Caribbean vacation or help the needy.
            c — enough people cherish cats and view each as a distinct personality, superior to humans, that they will make life an e-mail hell for a week, and it's better to let the entire matter drop.
     See? It's tougher than it looks.

Bookseller becomes H'wood hunk

     I'm always prepping people for disasters that don't happen. When Josh Brent, the son of famed Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent, announced he was quitting the book business — he helped his brother Adam run the last independent bookstore in the Loop, Brent Books on Washington  and taking his good looks to Los Angeles to become a movie star, I felt obligated to recount my own Los Angeles experience, three of the most unhappy months in my entire life.
     Don't be afraid to give up and come back home, I told him. If you end up living in your car, as I did, remember that Chicago is always ready to take you back.
     Wasted breath, as it turns out. Brent begins filming soon on Sam Mendes' movie of Anthony Swofford's Marine memoir, "Jarhead." A bit of type casting, because Brent was in the Israeli Army and is one of those buff guys who looks as if he could punch you in such a way that you'd be dead before you hit the floor. You read it here first.

Don't be deceived by mild manner

     Does the above count as Hollywood gossip? I worried it would, and that Bill Zwecker would rush storming into my office, waving a crumpled newspaper.
     "Who the hell do you think you are!?!" he'd rage. "I'll carve your heart out and serve it to the dog."
     Not that the real Bill, my good friend and the most amicable of men, would ever say or even think such a thing.
     But I have a tendency to entertain myself by imagining my colleagues in uncharacteristic situations. I couldn't write the opening item about Christmas, for instance, without conjuring up religion columnist Cathleen Falsani, eyes aflame, grabbing me by the collar and hoisting me off the floor. "Leave Jesus alone," she hisses. "He's mine, do you hear me, you God-denying sack of perfidy? Mine!!!"
     Of course, the most fun of all is calm, quiet, dignified, self-contained and highly respected radio critic Rob Feder. You can't imagine the hours I've spent entertaining myself by placing him into the foulest debauches I can conceive. Just this morning, I was walking along, cackling aloud, for some reason picturing Rob in a loosely tied yellow silk robe, slumped in one of the smokey wooden bins at his corner opium den, touching the end of a glowing stick to the tarry chunk of pen-yan in the bowl of his long pipe.
     I don't know if you find that funny. But I'm laughing even as I write this. That's probably a bad sign but heck, it's Christmas, and diversions beckon. I'm off all next week, but will catch you again in the new year. Drive safely.

    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 24, 2004

Monday, December 23, 2019

Trump backers don’t see what they can’t see

Evanston mural, by Shawn Bullen

     Bees can see ultraviolet light. Betcha didn’t know that. Their eyes—and bees have five of them—process wavelengths humans can’t, meaning bees can literally see colors that people can’t imagine, detecting patterns on flowers beyond human perception.
     If we were to consider the entire spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, with big loping radio waves at one end, and frantic tiny gamma waves at the other, the range that people can see—visible light—is a small section. We exist in a sea of information we don’t know is there.
     No shame in that. Everybody doesn’t see something. Most things. And when I step back from the American political scene— like the restful, stay-at-home vacation last week—it’s a blessed relief to focus on other concerns. I tracked the impeachment of Donald Trump out of the corner of one eye, and didn’t watch a second of the proceedings.
     So much buzzing. So much noise and frantic activity. Very hive like, although that’s an insult to bees, famous for their industry and courage: stout-hearted warriors “in their waxen kingdoms,” as Virgil calls them in “Georgics.”
     I didn’t watch the impeachment because I already saw, in stark relief, what House Democrats were laboriously trying to establish: Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine trying to blackmail its president into announcing a sham investigation into Joe Biden and his son. That isn’t a murky mystery. The facts are right there. Trump himself admitted it.
     Yet none of this is perceived by Trump supporters. Point directly at the treachery and they stare blankly, as if gazing into empty space. Or they see a mirage: Bill Clinton spinning his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, as if that’s somehow relevant. They look at Donald Trump and see a Christ-like figure. “The Chosen One” in former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s term

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Sunday, December 22, 2019

Things That Christianity Was Okay With

The Orator, by Magnus Zeller (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

     Like you, I am shocked, shocked at Evangelical Christianity's continued support of Donald Trump, in apparent contravention of almost every bedrock belief they otherwise claim to hold dear and demand other, non-Trump individuals rigorously adhere to. A puzzling departure from their supposed values, which the sharply-worded condemnation of Trump by Christianity Today last week is more the exception that proves the rule. A yelp of dissent interrupts the steady ululating of praise for the beloved leader, himself Christlike in their eyes. "The chosen one," as Rick Perry called Trump, half Peter, half Obi-Wan Kenobi.
     Although. I can't help but wonder: how much of a surprise should this really be? Is Christian support of our craven, cruel corrupt, criminal—and those are just the Cs—president really such a departure? Not when we think of American history, which does serve as a reality check to those who pause to consult it. Look at history, and suddenly this becomes, not an exception, but par for the course.
     The liar, bully, fraud and newly-impeached traitor who leads our country is not the first shameful enormity that official Christendom has given its enthusiastic approval. 
     A partial, utterly deniable list of Things that Christianity Was Okay With, culled from American history:

      The slaughter of Native-Americans.
      The enslavement of black people. 
      The subjugation of women.
      Irrational hatred toward immigrants.
      Anti-Semitism in all forms.
      Colonialist conquest of weaker nations.
      Indifference in the face of suffering of non-white groups.
      Denial of science.
      Ridicule of religions other than Christianity. 
      Censorship of literature.
      Suppression of the arts.
      Sexual ignorance.
      Thwarting efforts of black people to achieve civil rights.
      Fighting their attempts to live in white communities.
      Denying them the chance to work at good jobs.
      Squelching of advances in medicine.
      Control of women's reproductive rights.
      A grim, joyless view of sex, often for themselves but especially for others. 
      Aversion to dancing, and many kinds of music.
      Hostility toward gays.
      And toward lesbians, transgender folks, and anyone straying from rigid gender norms.
      Hostility toward any non-Christian religion, particularly Islam.
      Rejection of anything that smacks of magic, spiritualism, or any myth other than Christian myth. 
       America as an inclusive society. 

     I'm sure I've left a few out. Since I can hear the howl before it goes up, I should point out that a) there always was, like Christianity Today, a small element of dissent, like the abolitionist movement, that shouldn't be forgotten, and b) my own team, Judaism, certainly has its share of stunning moral lapses, lack of sympathy toward the plight of the Palestinians leaping to mind. 
     Neither of which, however, alters my main point one iota, so don't pretend they do. 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Flashback 2000: A tough thing not to watch.

Doing radio with Bob Sirott and Marianne Murcianoo in 2014.
     There was good news and bad news on the Chicago radio front this week. The bad news was that veteran news reporter Mary Dixon was out after nearly 30 years at WXRT, a station that has so far largely avoided the glozing hand of corporate nincompoops, but now risks being homogenized into the same generic, placeless pap that takes up so much of the dial.
    The good news is that Bob Sirott is back on the air, according to my pal Robert Feder, mornings on WGN—AM720. That has to be welcome by anybody who likes knowledgeable Chicago broadcasting by somebody who has been around. It made me think of this column, from 2000, when I first began to get to know Bob, as far as he can be known, at the party for another Chicago icon. Then, he had just been pushed out by Fox—there are many ups and downs in broadcasting—and I'm glad to see Bob ascendant again. 

     I don't watch much television. This earns me endless grief from my colleagues, who live for TV, and often on TV, too.
     The popularity of television baffles me. More people read an issue of the Sun-Times than watch any given local newscast. Yet a television reporter walks in the room, and people just swoon. They climb over themselves to say hello.
     Maybe I'm jealous. Me, I walk in a room and people, well, they continue to do whatever it is they're doing.
     That's why I don't go to parties much. I don't know anybody and nobody knows me, and there's nothing like a party to highlight that. For instance, about six weeks ago, I found myself at Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz's 95th birthday party. The judge is a Chicago icon, whose career stretches from the Roaring '20s to the present day, a close friend of the Daley family. Somebody whose parties you attend whether you like parties or not, just to touch the hem of Chicago history and Chicago greatness.
     After exchanging greetings with the Birthday Boy, I had to find a way to politely pass the time before the festivities began—the mayor was on his way to make an impromptu speech, and one mustn't miss the chance to witness one of those.
     I tried hanging with Sen. Paul Simon. He's a colleague now, with his own column, so I figured we could, like all journalists, hole up in a corner and gripe about how underappreciated we are. But Simon skillfully ditched me. I wandered, scanning faces, trying to build up courage and momentum to break into the phalanx of admirers around Christie Hefner. But my will failed me.
     Finally, Bob Sirott waltzed in with a camera crew. Now, I'm not friends with Sirott, but I did recognize him from TV—even I know who he is—so I introduced myself and inquired about his new baby. I also asked him why he was there. There was no warehouse fire or crying mom, none of the things that normally attract TV interest.
     Sirott said something I thought of this week, when Fox 32 gave him the heave-ho in favor of some guy from New York. He said, and I won't quote him directly since I didn't write it down, but something along the lines that Judge Marovitz is a civic treasure and he wanted to be sure to tape something at his party.
     As I said, I'm not a big television watcher, so I might be going out on a limb here. But I bet you that the average TV personality has no idea who Judge Marovitz is and wouldn't go to his birthday party if they did. Sure, there are a few Chicago stalwarts—Carol Marin and Mike Flannery over at Channel 2, for instance—who know of the judge, just as they know it is Soldier Field.
     But the rest blow into town from Phoenix, take an apartment at Presidential Towers, and churn out stories about O'Hare delays and cosmetic surgery until their time here is up and they move on to Portland.
     Help me here. Does it make sense, when the ratings slide, to toss out the Chicago institution, the guy who knows the place, who has lived here all his life and been on the air since I was in grade school? And in his chair place some newly birthed nobody, wet from the womb, in the charmed notion that he will somehow suck in the viewers?
     I'm not buddies with Sirott; I'm not going to bat for a pal. But I felt saddened to see him tossed over the rail, and I don't even watch TV. How must the viewers feel?
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 3, 2000

Friday, December 20, 2019

You can't draw Republicans out of a fantasy with facts

    The first question at Thursday night's debate of Democratic presidential candidates was a good one. A lot of Americans, PBS's Judy Woodruff asked at the start of the sixth and final debate, do not perceive the need to impeach and remove President Trump: what are they going to do to convince those Americans otherwise? It cut to the heart of the problem—a lot of Americans like this guy, despite everything he does and says, so even if—please God—Trump is voted out of office in 2020, then the Republicans will just revert to the fanatical opposition they were during the Obama years, dragging their feet at every improvement, pining for power to be returned so they can get back to dragging this country back to the Mayberry 1958 box diorama going on in their heads. 
     Six of the seven Democratic candidates punted, regurgitating their various talking points. Only Andrew Yang even tried to answer, but his response—we're going to address policies that matter to them and eventually the scales will fall from their eyes, and damn the media for focusing on this impeachment nonsense—was infused with the wishfulness that trips up Democrats so much. 
     “What we have to do is we have to stop being obsessed over impeachment, which unfortunately strikes many Americans like a ballgame where you know what the score is going to be and start actually digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place," he said. "The more we act like Donald Trump is the cause of all our problems, the more Americans lose trust that we can actually see what's going on in our communities and solve those problems.”   
     Which could work, were Trump backed with fanatical frenzy because he was solving the problems of white America, other than the problem of living in a fearful fantasy world and being desperate for a strongman messiah to tell them everything's okay. No clever twist on clean energy is going to sway those people. What Democrats need is a counter image of their own for everyone to gather behind. I don't think promising policies will do the trick. Obamacare was an important, necessary change in America's policy toward health insurance, and it was still maniacally opposed by the people it would help most, the way areas of Britain that most benefited from the European Union were also the places most dead set against it. The sad truth is that much of America lives in a Fox-fueled alternative reality where no exciting new policy is going to reach them. 
     That's the bad news. The good news is the Democrats don't need to reach them all, only to peel off a few percent and lure them away from the newly-impeached liar, bully and traitor leading our country to ruin. It's possible. But pretending the deep schism in America doesn't exist, or that the fact-averse can be lured across the divide if only you bait your hook with the right big wriggling juicy fact, strikes me as unhelpful, at best, and at worst the kind of losing strategy that, well, keeps Democrats losing. The key to overcoming nearly half of America lost in a dreamworld is not to enter a dreamworld of our own. 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Festive trappings.

     One of Chicago's best-kept secrets is that you can park at O'Hare International Airport for $2—for one hour, which is plenty of time to wander in, collect your loved one, and wander out. Given that, why anyone drives to the gate, fighting through masses of cars, half trying to merge into the rightmost lane and get in, half trying to merge into the leftmost lane and get out, through an obstacle course of traffic cops, bags, cabs and assorted distractions, is a mystery. I figure nobody knows they have the option.
     The downside of parking to collect or drop off your charge is that one does spend time standing in the airport. Airports are, as a rule, unlovely places, particularly the baggage claim area. And in that light, I suppose any attempt at decoration should be welcome.
    But really. Look at these three rectangles of cloth. One blue. One red. One green.  At first I wondered about the color significance. Red and green for Christmas, obviously. And the blue ... for Hanukkah? A sop to the Jews? I floated this theory by my wife, and she suggested that the blue was for United: we were in Terminal 1, United's terminal. Their airline color is blue. 
    For some reason, I considered the three flags separately from the three stars, which had a charming, childlike, misshapen quality to them, and the two balls. It's a very big terminal, and the decoration such a feeble, inadequate, puzzling half-flourish.  I mean, United is still solvent, correct? You'd think they'd put on a better show than this parody of minimalism.
     Then again, I should not complain. At least Terminal 1, which I visited before Thanksgiving, has chairs. Not many, but an intrepid couple in their late 50s could snag a pair, given enough patience.
    The same can not be said for Terminal 2, where I spent time Saturday. No chairs, no decoration to mock. (Well, no decoration that I noticed). Not that I'm nocking it. I'm not. What would be the point of that? I'm questioning it. I thought of contacting United, finding the person responsible, but they'd probably never do it, and if they did, what would that person say? Whoever did this, I'm sure, was operating under a variety of constraints. Or at least I hope they were. You hate to think United told them to go crazy, deck the halls, expense be damned, and this is what they came up with.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The letter

The Artist's Letter Rack, by William Harnett (Met)
     So I sat down Tuesday evening, just before dinner, to prepare Wednesday's blog post—something whimsical about the dubious holiday decorations at O'Hare airport—and it occurred to me that this is one of those moments where prudence requires one to set aside trifles and focus on the ongoing horror show that is Donald J. Trump. I tried reading the six-page letter he sent to Nancy Pelosi, but it's so long and corrosive I physically could not do it. My eyes went out of focus and trailed off the page. Maybe you'll have better luck; you'll find the full letter here.
     Instead, I'd like to do something that regular readers know I seldom do: defer to another writer, in this case, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, who must be made of stronger stuff, and whose column, It is hard to capture how bizarre and frightening Trump’s letter to Pelosi is, does about the best job that a person can to dissect what she calls his "rambling, unhinged and lie-filled letter," I don't see a need for me to try to do a better job than she does. I tip my hat and yield the field. 
     Besides, I'm on vacation this week, theoretically, from the paper at least—habit and momentum had me writing full posts Monday and Tuesday. I should at least try to dial it back a bit here, and this seems a perfect occasion. The important thing is the bad news, not the paperboy who delivers it.  See you tomorrow. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

My near-brush with Harvey Weinstein

By Damien Hirst

     Probably nothing that Harvey Weinstein could possibly say would alter his image as a predatory swine who, along with Bill Cosby, finally shattered the Hollywood code of silence. Eighty women, including some of the most beloved stars of cinema, lined up to accuse him of a raft of nauseating crimes—he goes on trial for rape next month. No slick spin or millions in hush money will wash that away.
     Weinstein's self-pitying interview this week with the New York Post only made his reputation worse, if such a thing is possible, and instantly entered legend in the annals of self-immolation. The second paragraph begins: "The alleged serial sex predator and disgraced Hollywood producer whined to The Post in an exclusive interview that he should be remembered for doing more professionally for women than anyone in history — rather than the slew of sickening accusations against him."
    I have to admit, I read that with a tinge of envy mingled with regret—that might have been me feeding rope to Weinstein as he hung himself. The Sun-Times could have gotten all those clicks and I, in my naivete, blew it.  An apology to my bosses is in order. I'm sorry; I dropped the ball.
     Might as well just tell the story.
     Last February, I wrote a column about Jussie Smollett that put me on the Weinstein team radar, though I didn't realize it right away.  Among the load of  email was this:
      I think your piece is very important and pivotal for our times. I am working with a lawyer on behalf of his client on something similar, where the subject of this story lied about everything, and had media help her con several businesses and government agencies. I also work with another client who is having some bigger issues, but some fall into this category too.
     If you are interested in hearing more and possibly looking at an issue more critically, please let me know. Thank you and congratulations on your bold piece.
   The name of the writer—Juda S. Engelmayer—meant nothing to me. I responded as I would respond to any reader:
     Thank you for your kind observation. I would never go so far as to describe anything I write as "important," never mind pivotal, but I'm glad you found value in it. As to your client, you do get that I'm in the business of putting stuff in the newspaper, right? Because your vagueness makes me wonder. If you want to know if I'm interested, tell me what you're talking about—name, specifics, etc. Otherwise, I'm not interested in the Dance of a Thousand Veils.
     His reply caught my attention:
                I work with Harvey Weinstein.  

     I immediately did a little digging and found that Engelmayer is indeed one of Weinstein's spokesmen. My reply telegraphed surprise:
     Ah. If you're asking me whether I'll talk with Harvey Weinstein, the answer is, "In a heartbeat."
     Had I shut up there, I might have been the one fanning the flames after Weinstein doused himself with gasoline and struck a match. But that's exactly what I wanted to avoid and I did not shut up, alas, but blathered on, as is my habit:
     I would be worried about being played by Harvey Weinstein. I'm just a small potato slowly decomposing in a neglected Midwestern field. I tend to avoid stars and Hollywood, if I can. Too much stress. But I don't want to be a coward here. The only stipulation I'd have is that, after we speak, I might not use it. I'm not TMZ, I'm not interested in gossip, in dirt.
     I must have been nervous, because I nattered on a lot. I'm doing both you and myself a kindness leaving out most of it: not only explaining my reluctance, but also sort of pitching my open-mindedness by musing whether Woody Allen got a raw deal.  But the bottom line was I didn't want to give a platform for the kind of lame self-justification that the Post cannily whittled into a splintery stick and shoved up Weinstein's ass. Not that I'm incapable of that, but I couldn't smile benevolently and welcome him into my lair. Engelmayer took my cue and spun off his own involved tale of various situations with various Hollywood actors and assorted circumstances and justifications, all of which the media were cruelly ignoring. His argument struck me as off point. I was worried that I would end up with this detailed defense from Harvey Weinstein that had nothing to do with the central question readers wanted to know about him. I doubted he'd say anything to me of interest to anybody outside the helping professions. Hoping to test the waters, I wrote back:
     I can't vouch for the entire media, only my little corner of it.  If I just jumped in and started addressing the various specifics you allude to—Vigo Mortensen—my readers would think I had lost my mind....Why don't we do this: I talk to your guy, completely off the record. If he says he killed Elvis, I'm not going to use it. Maybe we get along, maybe we don't. If we don't, fine, we gave it a try. If we do get along, then we have a second call which introduces the idea that I'm now in communication with Harvey Weinstein. He says something about what it is to be him, now. My guess would be, a certain bitterness, a feeling that the wheel of fate, so good to him, had now turned. But I don't write fiction and I don't want to guess. He can say whatever he likes and I'll put it in the paper, as said by him. But if he isn't persuasive, in the last three paragraphs, well, he might not like them. I want to be clear about that. If he is persuasive, we might continue to another day, and get to Vigo Mortensen, eventually.... The question I have for you is: What does Harvey Weinstein want to say to people in Chicago? If he's a victim, he needs to say that. I can't; I'm not God, I have no idea of the truth of these situations and don't want to judge or guess. The bottom line is, I have to face my wife at dinner every night, and I so I have to approach this opportunity like a man smoking a cigarette, walking up to a pool of gasoline.
     That sufficiently scared off the Weinstein team, because they fell silent. When I realized what I had done, yes, I kicked myself—I should have just grinned and bobbed my head and got my tape recorder ready. "Shutting up is an art form," as I say at the end of the Smollett column. 
     In my defense, the opportunity was so out of my realm of experience—it was like getting a collect call from Bill Cosby in prison—that I can't beat myself up too much: my instincts were good; I didn't want to deceive anyone, even Harvey Weinstein. I didn't want this guy to think he was getting a sympathetic audience when he wasn't.  A person, even a journalist, especially a journalist, has to be honest and conduct himself in a direct manner, even when his immediate interests might dictate otherwise. It's a shame that Harvey Weinstein still hasn't figured that one out because, you know, he's had plenty of hints.  

Monday, December 16, 2019

Don't despair

     Now I'm as proud a liberal Democrat as they come. "The king of left-wing lunacy in the Windy City" Breitbart News called me waaaaay back in 2010, to my button-popping pride.
     But we do have a defeatist streak, no doubt developed after, you know, losing so much. Every victory from the Civil War to Civil Rights carries with it its own jaw-dropping backwash, a Thermidor where advances are undone, achievements are blunted, and if things don't quite entirely go back to where they were before our supposed triumph, they get damn close. Barack Obama being the latest example, the avatar of cool American intellectualism and weep-with-you compassion, the living embodiment of our national triumph over our grim racist past, ends up the midwife delivering the viscous monstrosity of the Trump era, squalling and puckering, flapping and flailing, half human, half your worst nightmare made flesh. Thanks Obama!
     So perhaps it is natural, particularly after Trump's English doppelganger, Boris Johnson, crushed his opponent last week, that a certain By The Waters of Babylon We Sat Down And Wept quality has entered into Democratic discourse, the crux being that we're staring four more years of Trump in the face as the Democratic field of contenders try to decide if they're imitating a Three Stooges short or the final scene of a Keystone Kops two-reeler.
    If he wins again, the logic goes, the American Dream is Over. The fabric of civil society, permanently torn asunder.
    "When I contemplate the sort of illiberal oligarchy that would await my children should Donald Trump win another term," Michelle Goldberg writes in the Times. "the scale of the loss feels so vast that I can barely process it."
     Really? Because last time I looked six of Trump's closest allies are either in prison or on their way. I'm not saying that the election of Donald J. Trump, by 3 million fewer votes than were cast for Hillary Clinton let it never be forgotten, was not a terrible thing for this country, or that all sorts of terrible repercussions are not taking place. What I'm saying is, this isn't our first brush with trouble. We've endured shit before.  
    Like what? Take your pick. Attacked by an axis of Japan, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. That looked bad, in 1942. A grim McCarthyite witch hunt 10 years later. A bloody war in Southeast Asia 10 years after that, in which—in case you forgot—57,000 young Americans died. That's a lot of Americans, and as visceral a shame as Donald Trump represents, and as much as I hope that every supporter lives to kneel weeping and clawing his face on the rail of regret for so mindlessly backing a mendacious moron, it ain't as bad as those young lives snuffed out. Ten years after Vietnam began ramping up, Watergate, and a president we thought was the nadir of loathsomeness at the time, the respect for government that hadn't been killed by Vietnam snuffed out, ushering the mushy moralizing of Jimmy Carter.
    What I'm saying is, the United States has been through a lot, and might have a bit more resilience than we are giving her credit for. And we still have a lot on our side. The free press is still free. All the "fake news" horseshit that runs out of Trump's mouth in a diarrheal stream hasn't changed that, yet. We've still got laws. The rest of the world sees our shame very clearly—even his buddy Johnson kept Trump at an arm's distance, worried about his fatal embrace. Let's not throw in the towel quite yet.
    I haven't given up on 2020. I'm hoping that the Dems offer up a candidate able to withstand the blast of the worst Donald Trump and his Droid Army of Treasonous Twits can throw at him, or her. But if America loses again in 2020 and an all Republican Congress changes the Constitution so that Trump can serve a third term in 2025 and his disembodied head preserved in a jar of nutrients can serve after that, then America will somehow right itself and recover. Germany got over 12 years of Hitler. We'll get over four or eight or however many years Trump will continue to hold 42 percent of the country in a mesmeric trance. 
     What's the alternative? And besides, if a few Twitter bites from a human flea like Trump can infect the entire American system, then we weren't that hardy to begin with. I don't believe it.  Being liberal, I believe in truth, honesty, courage, democracy, government, patriotism, diversity, compassion, and I believe in the essential bedrock durability of the American dream. They are hardy and will survive. We will hock out this mouthful of poison, one way or another.  Be patient, work hard and don't give up.