Thursday, April 30, 2020

Sorry Elon, the rich-guy-blathering-idiocy-on-Twitter role is already filled

    It didn't start with Donald Trump you know.
    American history is rife with rich nutters leaping onto the political stage with a cry of "Death to tyrants." 
    While Trump has without question been most successful in injecting his execrable self into the news of the day, others certainly jammed their hands into the gears of history, where they could.
     The one that immediately springs to mind is Henry Ford. Before he got into the business of fomenting anti-Semitism and promoting square dancing as a way to preserve American values, not to forget being a real and direct personal inspiration to Hitler, Ford decided he was going to end World War I, commissioning a "Peace Ship" and accomplishing pretty much nothing except draw derision on himself.
      More recently, Texas oddball H. Ross Perot ran for president in 1992, briefly, before running away from it, vigorously, crying all the while, if I recall, that shady forces were spying on his daughter's wedding.
     Twitter makes it easier than ever for wealthy with more opinions than sense to make themselves known. Elon Musk, who really should be digging that rich folks underground railroad he promised Chicago almost two years ago, instead on Wednesday was tweeting his heart out for, the virus be damned, Americans to get back to work, one assumes in his factories.
    "FREE AMERICA NOW" he tweeted. "Give people their freedom back."
    Nor was his rejection of the idea of civil society acting to save lives limited to the free-fire zone of Twitter. On a Tesla earnings call he referred to stay-at-home orders as "fascist," akin to "forcibly imprisoning people in their homes."
     It's almost like he's auditioning for the Donald Trump role in American politics. Alas, that is already taken. We've got one too many as it is.
     I suppose this is an improvement over his tweets in March, such as The coronavirus panic is dumb.”
      The moral of the story being: there are a lot of energetically idiotic people in the world.  And being very, very good at one thing — making cars, stirring the pot on third rate reality TV shows — doesn't mean you have a facility for accomplishing anything in another realm of life. Which leads to a not-very-cheery thought for this rainy Thursday in our Plague Year of 2020. But one whatever decent Americans remain ought to bear in mind. Getting rid of Trump will definitely be a start, but certainly will not end our problems. There's always another puffed up potentate, weaned on cash and yes men, clamoring for attention. 


Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Clip and save! Your COVID-19 crisis glossary

     Every prolonged crisis creates its own vocabulary. A special set of new words that linger. World War II (which lasted five years longer than the current crisis, so quit yer griping) is 75 years in the past. But many can reel off the terms it gave us: atom bomb, bazooka, commando, D-Day. And that’s just A-B-C-D.
     So what are the words our grandchildren will use regarding the current calamity? No doubt it will be covered in their “C29: Early 21st Century America, Decline and Disaster” class. A primer:

Coronavirus (kə-ˈrō-nə-ˌvī-rəs) n. Single-strand RNA virus studded with knobby projections (corona is Latin for crown). There are many coronaviruses — MERS, SARS, etc. — so the one causing trouble now was at first called the “new” or “novel” coronavirus, prefixes now typically dropped as superfluous. Usage: “More than a month since he declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, President Donald Trump has repeatedly lied about this once-in-a-generation crisis.” — The Atlantic
COVID-19 (koh-vid naine-TEEN) n. Abbr. of “Coronavirus disease 2019,” the illness caused by a strain of coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Some news outlets, such as the New York Times, use lowercase (“Covid-19”), but that looks like the name of a South Korean boy band. Usage: “Rupert Murdoch, Fox News’ Covid-19 misinformation is a danger to public health.” — The Guardian
Covidiot (koh-vid-ee-et) n. The Urban Dictionary defines this as “someone who ignores the warnings regarding public health or safety.” Also used to describe someone hoarding goods, selfishly denying them to others. Usage: “Q: What do you call an armed member of a radical group of lockdown protestors? A: A Branch Covidiot.” — George Takei

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Time to count the pollen

In the Laboratory, by Henry Alexander (Met)
     "Allergies are bad this year," said a friend who stopped by Sunday for a social distance walk, trying to set us at ease at his sneeze, so we wouldn't worry that microscopic death was vigorously swimming in our direction through the six feet of air between us.
    The next day, Facebook reminded me that, nine years earlier, my status was "Neil Steinberg is showered, dressed and brewing the coffee at 3:45 a.m., heading over to watch them take the midwest pollen readings. The things that excite me..."
     There are several directions I could go with this. It reminds us of the head work and devotion to science that is so casually slurred by lazy idiots when the results go contrary to their stream of inner psychobabble. It also hints at the countless fascinating stories ignored in the general disaster of the pandemic. We could note that Gottlieb Hospital was funded by nickels and dimes scraped together by David Gottlieb, who began his famous pinball machine design and manufacturing company in Chicago in 1927. Or that Dr. Leija is still going strong at 90, though I am told he retired last year.

     It's 5:25 a.m., time for Dr. Joseph G. Leija to count the pollen and mold that Chicago has been breathing for the last 24 hours.
     He takes a white plastic-foam container holding glass microscope slides, selects one etched with tomorrow's date and greased to make it sticky. The allergist tucks the slide in a small plastic case and stands up.
     "I have to phone the guard," says Dr. Leija, who left his home in Oak Brook about 4:40 a.m. He calls security at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital and says the door to the roof will be opening—nothing to worry about, it's just him, as it has been every weekday morning for the last 20 years, in his capacity as head of the National Allergy Bureau's Melrose Park station, the only location monitoring airborne allergens in the state of Illinois, the only one between St. Louis and Madison.
     It's a little ironic that Dr. Leija ended up an allergist. Originally, he was a general practitioner who suspected that allergies were "psychosomatic," he says, twisting a finger at his temple. No more.
     Now, at 81, he still sees patients, but is not paid for his daily rooftop visit.
     "I'm doing this for fun," he says, his light accent hinting at Mexico. "My wife thinks I'm stupid. But people really need this."
     He walks through the empty hospital corridors, takes the elevator to the sixth floor, unlocks a security door, climbs stairs and steps out onto the hospital roof. Looking toward the city, the pre-dawn sky is brownish pink. The air is cool and pleasant. In the fall, when it's dark, he wears a miner's head lamp.
     On the southeast corner of the roof is a $5,000 device called a Burkard Volumetric Spore Trap, developed during World War II by the British, worried about biological attacks and seeking a way to detect any toxins that might puff across the English Channel.
     In the base of the trap is a fan, drawing air at 10 liters a minute—the rate a person breathes—and a mechanism that slowly moves the slide past an intake, plus a vane-like tail to make sure it faces into the wind so gusts don't rip the device off the roof.
     Dr. Leija opens the trap, removes yesterday's slide, tucks it in the little case and puts the fresh slide in its place. Then he takes a key and winds the mechanism that slowly moves a section of the slide past the intake.
     "We wind the clock," he says.
     He crunches across the rooftop stones, to the door and goes downstairs to his office.
     Why do this so early? Perhaps to minimize soot from daytime traffic emissions? No.
     "Because of the television cameras," he says. "They want it early in the morning, by 7 o'clock. Advertising the hospital."
     "They" refers to Tracy Butler, a meteorologist at Channel 7, who gives the pollen count twice a morning, at 7:30 and after 11.
     "It's so nice to have somebody like Dr. Leija, who cares so much about the accuracy of this count," Butler said later. "The man is on the roof no matter the weather, getting this data for our viewers, and he does it voluntarily. It says a lot about his mission."
     Going on the roof isn't the half of it. Back in his office, Dr. Leija stains the slide with red glycerin, then puts it under a microscope. First the pollen, at 400x magnification. Pollen is— to be blunt—a male plant's sperm. He doesn't just count the spores.
     "You have to identify them," he says. Some pollen are round, or blunted triangles, some have "Mickey Mouse ears." Acer, betulace, fraxinus, populus—sugar maple, birch, ash, cottonwood—for a count of 134.
     "I'm surprised there's so much pollen, with the rain," he says. "Cottonwood is flowering right now. A few weeks back it was elm." When the wind blows from the south, Dr. Leija finds juniper pollen from Texas.
     "For me, it's fascinating," he says.
     Then to 1,000x magnification, for the molds. Ascospores, cladosporium, rusts, smuts, chaetomium. They look like coffee beans under the microscope.
     "There are so many molds," he says.
     The counting takes nearly an hour. "You can get lost in the microscope," says Karen Cantalupo, a nurse who helps Dr. Leija with the count. "Either you like it or you don't."
     The stats are entered online; not the actual numbers, to prevent drug companies from swiping the data, but vague terms. Today's pollen and mold levels are "high." Cantalupo calls Channel 7 and Gottlieb PR, which also disseminates the information. "Marketing, marketing, marketing," says Dr. Leija.
     With allergies, both airborne and food, skyrocketing, and in an era of big medicine and big money, the pollen count is still monitored by a nationwide chain of volunteers.
     "Allergists are doing this count for nothing," says Dr. Estelle Levetin, a professor of biology at the University of Tulsa and chair of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology's Aerobiology Committee, which oversees the network. "But it's also giving them information that's going to help them with their patients. I think they all should be doing this."
          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 4, 2011 Wednesday

Monday, April 27, 2020

"So these two viruses walk into a store..."

"The Laughing Audience" by William Hogarth (Met)
     As a rule, I don't criticize other parts of the paper. But it wasn't my colleagues writing the jokes featured Sunday. And besides, my job, as I see it, sometimes involves pointing out an awkward truth. 

    The hard part about 9/11 for me — and I have to emphasize the for me part, because for other people the hard part was burning to death in a pool of jet fuel — was that nothing was funny anymore.
     There was no ironic distance. No sense of relief, no minor mastery over circumstances that comes with finding humor in a situation.
     It was all sincerity — George W. Bush-level sincerity, the really strong stuff, 151 proof sincerity. We were defenseless, carried along by the torrent of history without the stout paddle that a solid sense of humor gives a person.
     For about a week.
     And then, I was watching TV news — that great font of unintentional comedy — which introduced a segment with a logo. You know: flickering candle, weepy soundtrack. I looked at the screen and thought, “I’m sorry all those people are dead ... but if I have to hear ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ one more time, I’m going to puke.”
     And with that, normality — my normality anyway — whirred to life, like a computer rebooting. Blank screen then, zing, back in business again.
     So it was with admiration and interest that I approached our Sunday front-page feature, “WE COULD ALL USE A GOOD LAUGH ABOUT NOW.” The Sun-Times dragooned 10 Chicago-area comics to share their COVID-19 jokes with our readers.

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Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Pampered Idiot

"Mars—His Idiot" by Kerr Eby (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     "Like a thousand other strong men who have come into the world here in America in these later times, Jesse was but half strong," Sherwood Anderson writes of one character in Winesburg, Ohio. "He could master others, but he couldn't master himself."
     That sentence begs to be picked apart. "In these later times" might sneak past, at first, but it is a reminder that the times always feel late; the present, the crust of history yet forming, only now begun to cool. We've always missed the gold age. The time feels late, at least to those no longer young. 
"The Pampered Idiot" by Leonardo Alenza Nieto (Met)
      The "thousand other strong men"—don't they immediately spring to mind? Can't you just see them, in a group? Tough guys, a dime a dozen. Pumped to hide the hollowness within. Makes you think about all those guys parading around state capitals, holding signs, their protests demanding that they be asked to make no sacrifice, no matter how small, toward the country they profess to love. "I need a haircut!" Has any more pathetic plaint been made in the history of this country? No disruption of routine, no gesture made toward civic responsibility, not when they can display the firearms that are a far greater threat to their own lives, to the health and safety of themselves and their families than to any bad guys skulking around their nightmares. Strong on the surface, but oh so weak underneath. Not even "half strong." 
     The president certainly is at full half strength, and nearly named by that "couldn't master himself." As identifying as a thumbprint. As a mug shot. Not that he seems to try, self-mastery being an alien concept to him, to all of them.  Why even try try to control yourself when you can enjoy the fun of pretending you have control over others?
     You hear the term "babbling idiot" from time to time. But how often do you actually see one? Actually see an idiot, babbling? There's almost a rare kind of pleasure to it, the cliche in real life. Like being in a crowded Grand Central Station. "What is this?" you pause to say, smiling, "Grand Central Station?"
      Or there would be, if it weren't so serious. If the serious result weren't seen all around us all the time. Well, seen by some of us anyway. The others, not so much.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Texas notes: Keep your distance

"Night in Bologne," by Pat Cadmus (Smithsonian)

     This is the third installment of a series of weekly reports that reader Caren Jeskey has been sending from Austin, Texas. You can find last week's installment here and the first post here. Her title is "Keep your distance," and I stuck "Texas Notes" before it because I thought, by always including "Texas" in the title, it'll signal the change in voice to readers. And besides, when she wants to gather them together, say after some big New York publisher wants to publish them in a book, having "Texas" in all the headlines will make that easier.

     On a sunny seventy degree day in early Spring of 2002 my coworker Kim and I decided to take a walk along the lakefront during our lunch break from our South Loop office building. 

     As we approached a grassy knoll we noticed a circle of bike cops surrounding two young men on the sidewalk nearby. Two sturdy bicycles were propped up on their kickstands in the grass, bags and boxes strewn around, and cops were apparently searching the contents. 
      One of the cops surrounding the men on the sidewalk was a red faced stocky woman with ruddy cheeks that were bright crimson and sweaty, reflecting the intensity of the moment. The first words that popped into my head were racial profiling. People had been suspicious of each other since the 9/11 attacks and it was clear that we were watching a reaction to that suspicion as it was unfolding. 
      My next thought was that the men looked like spiritual pilgrims. One was tall with dark black hair that hadn’t had a cut in ages, and a bushy unkempt beard. He was wearing loose fitting cotton Dickies style pants rolled up mid-calf, a wrinkled white button up shirt and simple gym shoes. He face was drawn and he looked tired and resigned. The other pilgrim was fair skinned with a touch of sunburn, long unkempt ginger colored hair and a full unruly beard. He also had long sideburns framing his worried, flushed, pinched face.
     As we passed I wanted to stop to see what was happening and my impulse was to try to help if I could. Kim sharply said “keep walking. Let’s go.” This snapped me out of my samaritan spirit and back into the reality that these were very tense and potentially dangerous times. A circle of angry faced bike cops searching two hapless young men was a scene best avoided. We kept walking, and processed our sadness about the state of the world as well as our helplessness to prevent harassment of innocent people.
     We walked up the paved sloping path towards the Shedd Aquarium and circled it, peering into the huge blue green windows of the Oceanarium filled with dolphins and whales. We looped our way back to the sidewalk moving north along the lakefront. As we made our way back towards the knoll the cops were gone. The ginger cyclist was sitting on the concrete curb, chin resting heavily in his hands, face heavy and sad. The dark haired young man was calmly placing his bags and boxes back onto the racks of his bicycle that was still propped up in the grass. I said to Ginger “are you ok?” He looked at me blankly for a moment, and then snapped “what?” in a loud and defensive tone. I said “I just wanted to know if you are ok. We saw the cops searching you.” He seemed to snap back to reality and said “oh, wow. Thanks. Yeah, that was really scary but we are ok.” I said “good,” and Kim and I continued our walk back towards the office.
     We were several hundred yards away when Ginger biked up to us calling “hey!” 
      I felt a little worried since we had to get back to work and I didn’t want to get overly involved with this disheveled young man and what looked like a complicated situation. Kim and I stopped and he quickly pressed out the words “I just wanted to say thank you so much for asking me how I was doing. We haven’t done anything wrong and got stopped and searched for no reason. It was really scary.” 
      I said “I am so glad we stopped and that you are ok. We have to get back to work now.” Kim was already walking away and I turned to join her. 
      “Wait!” he said. “Caren, I know you.” 
      This got our attention and Kim and I both turned back to him. My heart started racing, it felt so uncanny. “It’s me, Tim, from Second Street!” This was one of those moments of synchronicity that Carl Jung describes as “an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.” This was Tim, the best friend of the bartender at the bar I worked at in Santa Monica about six years earlier. Back then I felt that I was much older than Tim and the bartender Anthony—after all I was 25 and they were only 21 or so. When Tim would invite me to join them on their camping trips to the desert or the ocean I’d laugh and say “thank you,” but never did take him up on these invitations. I always thought Tim was super sweet but way too young for me to consider hanging out with. In retrospect he would have been a lot more fun to hang out with than the bar’s karaoke-night MC I fell for, not knowing he was married and cheating on his wife with me.
     Tim, Anthony and their friends were fun and full of life. They were adventurous and warm. This adventurous spirit had led Tim to the Chicago lakefront on this day. He explained that he and his friend had biked to Chicago from California and were making their way to the Atlantic Ocean, a coast to coast bike trip. This trip had brought him to the lakefront spot at the same time Kim and I passed the same spot, and something inside prompted me to reach out to what seemed like a distressed person in need of solace and that person just happened to be Tim, several years and thousands of miles later. It made me feel a deep connection to life itself. We chatted a little bit more and said goodbye. The moment was rich enough itself that we did not feel the need to turn it into something else.
     In this coronavirus social distancing Spring of 2020 we once again feel a fear of the people around us. This time the danger seems even more imminent and real. Back in 2002, I had the distinct sense that I did not have to fear every dark haired stranger, and I did not have to fear men with beards even though many of my fellow Americans did. I knew that the bad guys were few and far between and did not think to avoid or run from people I passed on the street. Today is different. When the man biked past me sneezing and coughing tonight as I took an evening walk I wanted to run to the sidewalk and away from the potentially virus-ridden droplets heading in my direction. When a neighbor and I took a safely distanced walk I felt that there was an invisible 6’ yard stick between us and we negotiated this necessary distance as though we were magnets bouncing off of each other, as if we’d been doing this dance forever. When a man jogged right past me and nearly brushed my shoulder with his on the sidewalk the other day I ran into the front lawn of a house, and the man turned around and yelled “oh my God!” as though I had done something wrong by creating responsible space between us.
     I’d be mad at him if I didn’t also feel that this whole thing is incredibly sad, difficult and confusing at times. Even sadder is the knowledge that we have no idea how much longer we will have to beeline away from each other with this very real and not imagined threat to ourselves and those we love as this virus runs its course. It’s not beards and fezes, hijabs and such that we fear anymore, it’s everyone. In 1955 Carl Jung wrote this: I am no preacher of “splendid isolation” and have the greatest difficulty in shielding myself from the crushing demands of people and human relationships. This time in history calls for us to keep up with the demands of human relationships in the truest and deepest way possible, in fact to save each others’ lives.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Day 19,432 of the lockdown: Kidding, it only feels that way

Boulder, Colorado

     My mother and I talk on the phone every day. It seems the least I can do. Boulder, Colorado, which offered so much when my parents retired there, geez, more than 30 years ago, isn’t quite the jubilee it once was. Now in their mid-80s, they aren’t charging up the trail to Wonderland Lake anymore.
     It can be a frustrating conversation. Particularly when my mother is planning to go to the store. “Ma!” I’ll say. “Don’t risk your life for coconut shrimp!” Or, when that doesn’t work, “Ma! You’re going to die alone, surrounded by strangers in masks.”
     My father is sometimes watching television when I phone — CNN, thank God, not Fox — and my mother will mention something on the screen, the latest aftershock from our president’s daily twirl in the limelight, like some demented ballerina on the music box in an insecure girl’s nightmare.
     “Don’t watch TV news, Mom,” I’ll say. “I never do.”
     That’s true. Primarily because I read four newspapers and follow events online, so anything on TV is repetitive. Even big breaking stories — the last time I fled to TV news was when Notre Dame burned. After 10 minutes of time-filling and tap-dancing, watching the same static shot, I bailed. What’s the point? As for the president’s daily 5 p.m. nervous breakdown, “Fortunate the person,” Soren Kierkegaard writes in his journal, “who did not need to travel to hell in order to see what the devil looks like.”
     People who do make that journey, the daily descent, feel obligated to react. This has gone on years, and I’m sorry, but by now those doing so seem merely slow on the uptake. “What? You’re saying that the president is lying?!? Oh, my gosh, that’s awful! When did he start doing that?
     And yet. Sometimes, you must join in. State the obvious. For The Record. Yes, there is something OCD about keeping track of the president’s lies. Maybe it’s like baseball; to ignore even one wild pitch is to lose the fabric of the game. To abandon history. I understand that. Was that a strike or a ball? Hard to determine the next day. You have to pay attention now. Though I bet journalists wish they had decided to keep track of his true statements — a much shorter list.
     To the matter at hand.
     On Monday, he — no need to speak the name, we all know who I'm talking about — tweeted this:
     “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens. I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”

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Thursday, April 23, 2020

What happens in Vegas: little good;

Excalibur, Las Vegas

     Carolyn Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, in a display of imbecility staggering even by that city's minimal standards of intelligence, announced on TV that she is prepared to open her city up as a test case in a kind of experiment to see how many people die if social distancing measures are ignored under crowded conditions. "I offered to be a control group," she told CNN's Anderson Cooper. Then again, I am biased against Las Vegas, as my most recent visit there, 11 years ago, is a reminder. 

     LAS VEGAS — When Dante passes through the grim portal advising all who enter to abandon hope, and descends into the upper suburbs of Hell, he is immediately surprised at the sheer number of damned souls he finds.
     "I would not have thought that death had undone so many," he observes, a line that came to mind when we arrived here from Los Angeles.
     You can't enter this most improbable of cities without being awed, first by the enormous fantasy casino buildings —15 of the 20 largest hotels in the world are in Las Vegas — and then by the mass of humanity crawling through them.
     We were bound for the Excalibur. I would have preferred something fancier — the Bellagio  — but in consideration of the boys, we settled on this 4,000-room mega-hotel with a medieval theme. The valet drop-off is as wide as a six-lane highway, but can barely handle the army of ever-arriving gamblers. Some 37.5 million people visited Las Vegas last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
     Having been here once before, a brief visit 15 years ago, I of course planned to skip Vegas entirely on this trip — once is plenty. We would return home through Arizona. But my older son wanted to see Hoover Dam, in nearby Boulder City. Hence Vegas.
     We had no sooner given our car to the valet and stumbled into the Excalibur lobby, on our way to the 16, count 'em, 16 check-in stations, when we were greeted warmly by a man in a suit and steered to a kiosk offering show tickets. Another man shook my hand. This unexpected personal touch confused me.
     "Las Vegas must really be on hard times, if they're glad-handing everyone who walks into the Excalibur," I thought. The second guy launched into a spiel about bargain tickets. We were interested in taking the boys to the hotel's swordplay extravaganza, so listened politely about how a dinner package would normally cost $300, but he could let us in for $50 —"that's $12.50 a person," he added, doing the math for us, perhaps under the fair assumption that anybody who could do simple arithmetic wouldn't go to Vegas.
     That seemed awfully low for a dinner show, but there is a recession on — tourism in Vegas was down 4.4 percent last year — so who knows? We were about to sign up when he explained that, of course, at such a low price we'd need to first learn about the joys of time-share condo ownership, a two-hour orientation which . . .
     We bolted like rabbits.
     I'll admit, I was irked and offended, and got more irked and offended every time I walked into the lobby and had to dodge the time-share shills, avert my eyes and run away.
     As minimal as the standards of taste and hospitality are in Vegas, subjecting your guests to real estate hustles every time they walk through your Brobdingnagian lobby seems beyond the pale. But then I suppose the time-share condo scam pales compared with the thinly veiled robbery of gambling itself, one of the rare vices that merely puzzles rather than entices me. 
Hoover Dam
  "How does Richard do it?" I wondered aloud, of a friend who spends time in such places.
     Then again, nothing is more inexplicable than another man's pleasures — a fact I was reminded of after my last column, about California pot prescriptions, drew emails from fervent potheads, complaining that I was denigrating their source of innocent relaxation.
     There is something to that. It is too easy to scoff at, oh, the guy who spends 10 years of his spare time constructing a matchstick model of the Eiffel Tower in his basement. You need to force yourself to remember, "Well, it must have been worthwhile to HIM — he did it, voluntarily."
     Obviously, this gambling stuff must have allures. These people come here of their own volition to pour their money down this rat hole. And indeed, I felt obligated to go to a blackjack table and lose the small parcel of cash I had allotted for that purpose. A task, which, at $10 a chip, took all of five minutes.
     Hoover Dam, by the way, was thrilling. If walking through the low ceilinged, stale-cigarette-reeking casino floor made me doubt the value of humanity — "If a meteor were going to destroy earth, I'd hurry here, so the loss wouldn't seem so bad," I told my wife — Hoover Dam, this massive yet elegant curve of concrete offered a certain redemption. We made this. There was the added bonus of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, a delicate span being constructed across the Colorado River nearby.
     We all agreed that Vegas has been the low point of the trip. We even preferred Reno, which we hit driving west to the coast. Yes, Reno was small, and forlorn, but the buffet at our hotel — the Eldorado — was much better than that at the Excalibur, the staff was far friendlier, with no insulting timeshare pitches, and you could play blackjack for $5 a hand, which doubled my playing time.
     We checked out of the Excalibur and drove to a lodge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It hardly seems possible that both places 
— Vegas and the Grand Canyon — could coexist simultaneously on the same planet, never mind bookend a single day. But they do and they did.
      —Published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 3, 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Muslims prepare for a Ramadan like no other

     The holiest month of the Islamic calendar begins with the sighting of the new moon — probably this Friday. And just as earlier this month, when Jews faced the challenge of the Zoom Seder and Christians coped with Easter Mass celebrated in empty cathedrals, now Muslims prepare to enter a new world of social-distance Ramadan. 
     “It’s going to be very interesting,” said Nabeela Rasheed, a lawyer. 
     “Muslims around the world are bracing for a Ramadan of the likes they’ve never seen or imagined before,” said Salman Azam, a board member at the Downtown Islamic Center. “We watched our interfaith partners having Seders and Easter dinners virtually and it helped us get ideas for the breaking of the fast.”
     The Ramadan dawn-to-darkness fast from eating and drinking is one of the five essential “pillars of Islam,” along with prayer, charity, pilgrimage, and declaration of faith. The fast is usually broken with a nighttime meal, called an “iftar,” a much-anticipated home-cooked feast eaten with friends and relations.
     “Ramadan is a time when communities and families gather in large numbers,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “That obviously is not going to happen this Ramadan.”
     So what is going to happen? The Downtown Islamic Center is trying to shift Ramadan festivities online.
     “This year at DIC, we are emphasizing that social distancing is not social isolation,” said Azam. For congregants breaking the fast alone, “we have set up a virtual room where we will be offering online recipes of popular fast-breaking food items and allow them to showcase their skills and exchange daily reflections, goals and lessons as they break their fast together.”

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Look at me, it'll make you feel better...

    Ironic that social media, which relies on people talking to everyone all the time about everything, should over time provide a running lesson on the value of silence.
     But it does.
     The meme not responded to. The twitter troll blocked. The invitation to list your 10 favorite albums ignored. These little acts of resistance build up, become precious. Lately on the rare times I react to some piece of stupidity someone has posted, I immediately circle back and delete it. Because really, why ride that rocking horse? Especially when there are so many others doing it. The horizon thick with them, the Hobby Horse Cavalry of the Damned.
     Even my commenting here about it—well, it reminds me about what I used to write to readers who asked why I wasn't reacting to the the latest stupidity from Fox News: "If I start responding idiotic things someone says on Fox News, it would be all I'd ever do."
     However. One practice did sweep Facebook in the past few weeks that deserves noting, simply because it speaks to a large deficiency of us older people—who are, remember, the backbone of Facebook, our little meringue of significance we whip up to spoon feed ourselves and each other. With spring settling in, and high schools worldwide adjourned for the season, the senescent on Facebook began posting their own high school pictures, from deep into the 20th century, in "support" of all these unfortunate actual high school students whose proms and bonfires and conga lines and whatever are never to be, thanks to COVID-19. To somehow comfort them. Out of the goodness of our hearts.
     Forgetting that no high school student worth his salt or her pepper gets within a mile of Facebook. Forgetting that, if they did, the process whereby they are buoyed up by seeing some awkward Kodachrome photo of their parents or grandparents is entirely notional. An act of faith in the curative power of our own precious selves. A trust drop into our own image, oblivious that, if anything, the supposed beneficiaries of this charity would be further mocked, had they seen it, which they won't.
    Up to this point, I think I could still let the matter pass as insignificant. I have my pride, God knows, it just has a self-awareness feedback loop. But if you pull this situation apart, it touches upon something I try to remind myself, suddenly living with two men in their early 20s as I do now. Musing on what was happening with these posted class photos—old people indulging their own vanity under the pretense of helping young people—it struck me that this happens a lot, outside of Facebook.
     There is the matter of advice—useless entreaties the ancient offer that reflect their own anxieties and failures, or act as a kind of lame hand-washing insurance from the potential for ill results—
"Drive carefully!"—far more than any chance that this is useful information, that it might impart any kind of practical information to anyone. I try hard, and often fail, but I do try, to neither offer unsolicited advice, nor glibly explain how to solve problems that people find themselves in. Neither are effective, or welcome.
     I thought that was worth mentioning.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Ship in distress

     The Fireman Joe column posted here Friday did not run in the paper Friday, which ran my column on Brian Dennehy instead (I assumed they were running both, which sometimes happens). It's running in print Monday. So rather than leave you high and dry, I thought I would share this tale, which I've been meaning to tell. 

      For the past few weeks, I've been highlighting posts from my visit to South America a year ago. They seem particularly timely, given how housebound we all are—I was supposed to be crawling around volcanoes in Taiwan in a couple weeks. But of course, now that isn't happening. Nothing much is happening, but a global disaster that is, in a strange sense, everywhere and nowhere.
    Not that I'm complaining, given the general suffering. The lucky should keep quiet.
     Yet, as I shared these stories—of Buenos Aires, the tango, birds, glaciers—a little voice was whispering, "But what about the encounter with the Venezuelan navy? The shots fired? The sinking ship? The vessel seized in port? When do you tell about that?"
     To be clear, I wasn't aboard the RMS Resolute when these things happened. But a person does form a bond with a ship—I do, anyway. I crossed the Atlantic more than 20 years ago on the New York Maritime College's Empire State, and still feel a kinship with her. For years, I kept a plastic card the captain gave me, with the ship's specs, its displacement and such, in my wallet, as a token. I might be the most mundane of desk bound keyboard jockeys, now. But I did once go to sea....
     So it was with more than causal interest that I read of the events of March 30.
     First, a bit of background. I sailed aboard the Resolute for a two-week cruise from Ushuaia, on the Southernmost tip of Argentina, up the Patagonian coast of Chile, to Santiago, asked aboard by my friend and former boss, Michael Cooke, who among his numerous accomplishments and distinctions is also a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. The RCGS lent their luster to a tour company called One Ocean Expeditions, an environmentally woke cruise line that ran voyages to Antarctica, to the Northwest Passage. They invited him and he invited me.
     Everything was smooth and professional. Mostly. There was a bit of foreshadowing. Before the trip, One Ocean Expeditions were slow to cough up our airplane tickets, and I remember a few terse "So where are they?" conversations as the departure date neared. But the tickets arrived, we were whisked down to South America, the trip proceeded as planned.
     The boat was well-provisioned and properly staffed with chatty naturalists, eager program directors, acerbic bird experts. There were two photographers, a resident artist. Nobody grumbled about not being paid. But they weren't.
      "OOE basically led us along for months and months, always claiming that payment was just another week or three away and thanks for our patience, we can trust that we WILL get paid," one wrote to me, asking not to be identified. "So none of us took any action..."
      Some people took action. Stiffed contractors put a maritime lien on the ship in Halifax—the Guardian lays out the saga here, if you want details.  A trip to Antartica had to turn back because they couldn't pay to fuel the ship. Sobbing passengers who paid $20,000 for the trip of a lifetime were put ashore, out of luck.    
     Then last month, it got truly weird. Another lien held the ship in Buenos Aires. Those creditors were paid off, then the ship headed north, only to be accosted in international waters by a Venezuelan cruiser, the ANBV Naiguatá. It hailed the Resolute, and ordered her to heave to and be boarded. But the ship kept going, even when the Naiguatá put a few warning shots across her bow. Given the troubles facing that star-crossed country, I can't say I blame those sailing the Resolute.
     The Venezuelan craft rammed the Resolute, unwisely, not realizing she has a steel reinforced hull designed to ply polar waters. Funny, right? The Naiguatá was stove in and subsequently sank. What happened next is also under dispute. The Venezuelans says the Resolute steamed off, leaving the sailors in the water, in contravention of every tradition of the sea and naval warfare. The Resolute people say they lingered, to see the crew would be rescued by another Venezuelan vessel. You can find the entire controversy laid out here. There's also a jumpy, blurry video of the shots and the collision, released by the Venezuelan navy.
     And the moral of the story is? I'm tempted to say that Canadians with money can be no less vile than anybody else with money. But I knew that already, learned years ago from observing David Radler and Lord Conrad Black in action. 
     Maybe the lesson is, as I've said before, that it's better to be lucky than good. Michael and I sort of blinked at each other, via email, marveling at the thing. I can't speak for him, but the cautious suburbanite within me was glad we got our odyssey in before the hammer came down; glad we weren't left on the dock in Ushuaia having to make the long journey home with nary a glacier ogled. Though whatever shred of Jack London adventurer is hidden in my marrow felt a pang that we missed the action with the Venezuelan navy, which no doubt would have been quite the story to tell. 
     But only a passing pang. The reason we tell the stories of hardships is trying to redeem them somehow. It's still better not to experience them at all, if you can help it. Or if you are lucky. Anyway, for what it's worth, should any of this find its way to the crew we met on the ship: I'm sorry for your difficulties. You deserved better. 



Sunday, April 19, 2020

Brian Dennehy on Eugene O'Neill


     I only spoke with Brian Dennehy once—if you don't count my drunkenly accosting him while he was trying to eat at Petterino's to tell him how great he was. The other time was this interview that ran eight years ago, under the headline, "O'Neill's 'Palace of Pipe Dreams;' Brian Dennehy helps Chicago brace for Goodman's 'The Iceman Cometh.'" I remember being inordinately proud of my script format. I always thought there was an element of penance to his O'Neill work at the Goodman, paying for all those Hollywood potboilers with five hours of "The Iceman Cometh," which I saw both times Dennehy did it here, in 1990 and 2012.  He no doubt lured many Chicago theatergoers to O'Neill though, for me, it was the opposite: O'Neill drew me to him.


SCENEA columnist, fifty-one, the stamp of his profession unmistakably on him. Day, near Chicago, a room with doors.

ME—(too vehemently) Jees! The Goodman Theatre is doing "The Iceman Cometh." Again! More than four hours of bleak Eugene O'Neill misery and hopelessness....

SHADOW ME—(a trifle acidly) Of course you'll go. You always go. You have to. Because you're a sap, a sucker for O'Neill.

ME—(bleakly) Tickets go on sale Friday. The show opens in March.

SHADOW ME—Why bother? Just skip it.

ME—I can't. I'm compelled to go. I'm not even sure why. A bum fixation. What is it about Eugene O'Neill? (Dialing telephone).

I'm going to ask Brian Dennehy, the actor who's been starring at the Goodman in O'Neill plays for years. I saw his "Iceman" 20 years ago. Why should anyone see it again?

DENNEHY—(gruff, gravely-voiced) Chicago is probably the premier theater town in America. People have a real appetite for one of the great plays ever done. With Nathan Lane, the curiosity factor will help.

ME—(bitingly) Right. Nathan Lane, beloved Broadway comic actor, in the lead. But won't that fool people into seeing "Iceman"? That's like seeing "Schindler's List" because you loved Liam Neeson in "Star Wars."

DENNEHY—(patiently) Look, we live in a world where "Jersey Shore" triumphs. I wouldn't worry about that. There is a larger question: What is the future, what is the prognosis for serious classical theater, period? Shakespeare or O'Neill or Miller.

ME—Why not cut? Shakespeare gets cut.

DENNEHY—(mollifyingly) Yeah, sure you can. O'Neill is trimmed a great deal. There's so much repetition. He never came up with an idea he didn't want to repeat five times. But you have to be careful, because some phrases are historically powerful ... It still runs four and half hours. If done right, it only seems four hours and fifteen minutes.

ME—(with puzzled desolation) What's the appeal of O'Neill? Why do people love him?

DENNEHY—What's great about Chicago, about the Goodman and [director] Bob Falls: We always tried to do things that are hard to do. Hard to do, hard to watch. The audience has to bring its "A" game of serious theater-going. You don't just sit there and observe. You become part of the production . . . this is a tragedy in the deepest sense of the word. In fact, O'Neill jokes with the seriousness of it, the determination to be self-destructive, the self-importance that a self-destructive person creates around himself; "The universe is paying attention because I'm fucking myself up and what an incredible tragedy it is."

ME—( comprehension dawning) Yes! Tragedies are far better than "The Lion King" because you can fool yourself that you're doing something significant when of course—as O'Neill teaches us—all is bleakness and misery and failure. Is there no hope?

DENNEHY—The pipe dream is critical in his plays. Nobody gets through life without creating a bullshit world around them. What they do is they re-create themselves into some kind of person they have been or will be, and that's the way they live. The reality of life is too harsh. If you need booze, or if you need other people to believe that you are something you are not, all these things are drugs that allow a person to live essentially a fraudulent life. The only life any person lives with any happiness is a fraudulent life—the worst thing you can do to a human being is insist he gets rid of the fraud, accept your responsibilities and be the person you are."

ME—Thank you Brian. Goodbye. (Hangs up phone—to self). But why? Where did my O'Neill passion come from? (Dials telephone).

BIG SISTER—I remember the parents were going out. They said, "We'll see you." I told Mom I was going to watch the "Carol Burnett Show." And she said, 'You should really watch "Long Day's Journey into Night." ' Seeing Laurence Olivier—my life has never been the same. It was because of Mom.

ME—(hangs up, stung, blinking with surprise) I should have known. (Dials phone).

ME—Mom, hey hi, I was just wondering, why did you start liking Eugene O'Neill?

MOM—(with determined affection) The whole family was dysfunctional.

ME—(controlling a wild impulse to laugh) Oh! It always comes back to that, doesn't it?


                           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 30, 2012

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Texas Recollection

     "A change is as good as a rest," Irish playwright Brendan Behan once said, and I can vouch for its factuality. I'm also glad that EGD readers enjoyed Caren Jeskey's debut effort here last week, "Texas Walkabout."  The usual next step would be for her to vanish. But Caren must not have gotten the memo, because she sent in a second essay, which I've dubbed "Texas Recollection." I am pleased to post it today, despite knowing my readers well enough to suspect that a second essay might provoke alarm in ways that a single essay would not (as reflecting another favorite line, "Einmal ist keinmal und zweimal ist immer," or "Once is never and twice is always.") Remain calm. Writing continually for the public is difficult, trust me on that, and few are up to it. Either she will continue or she won't. As I like to say when people begin debating events in the future: "We don't have to argue about it—we can just wait and find out."

     For eight years I rented a huge apartment in Chicago on Washtenaw where I lived above my landlords, Angelo and
Eleftheria. Angelo is now in hospice care due to COVID-19. He cannot see his family. He is lucid and the nurses are kind enough to arrange FaceTime visits, but it is beyond me to comprehend the sadness he and his wife must feel to be apart in what may prove to be his final days. 
      When I lived there the greatest pleasure was the garden of edible plants and flowers they cultivated in the front and back yards, and all along the walkway between. Grape vines yielded juicy bunches and fruits and vegetables seemed to spill out into the lawn and fill buckets. 
     As devout Greek Orthodox practitioners there was no dearth of the sounds of prayers and the aroma of Frankincense filling my apartment year round. Sometimes I would lay on the floor of my kitchen with my ear pressed to the hardwood just to hear Angelo sing. They made sure to bring me spanakopita, tiropita, baklava and other delicacies regularly, taking care of their single tenant who was often alone. Angelo once asked me if I lived on my back porch because every single time he passed me on the way to his grand babies upstairs he'd see me reclining in my chair, enjoying the strong fragrance of jasmine from their trees and watching the sun set in the West. They included me in Greek Easter and the little granddaughters marveled at my nose piercing and offered me eggs to crack against theirs as a part of the tradition. I felt safe and loved knowing this couple was below me for all of those years.
     Our neighborhood had many hidden gems such as HarvesTime Foods on Lawrence where you could find a variety of Greek and Bulgarian feta cheeses, an olive bar, Krinos brand taramosalata also known as Greek caviar, freshly baked bread, local coffee beans, a burgeoning produce department and long handled Turkish style coffee pots along with the finely ground Bosnian or Greek style coffees these pots are designed for. I learned from my good friend Snezana how to properly boil these coffees three times for a perfect cup. Snezana and other friends like Lyndee and Elle would come over to my huge flat and we’d cook up tunes on guitars and percussive instruments and sing our stories to each other.
     My landlords had allowed me to pick out the paint color for the kitchen and I chose a vibrant lime green. A good friend Chef Courtney Contos whose father was the founder and proprietor of the famous Chez Paul—the restaurant where Ferris Bueller was given a proper suit coat on his day off—gave me a wooden potato and onion box that rested in the corner, and she also helped me outfit my kitchen with gourds of sea salt with little wooden spoons, Le Creuset and other posh supplies that I still use to this day, nearly 15 years later. I had countless happy moments in that kitchen with friends gathered around the table while I served charcuterie and we drank sparkling water, coffee and wine with the back door wide open to the porch and the sunset and the garden on endless summer days.
     I only got in trouble with Angelo and 
Eleftheria one time, when a flippant friend spun a wooden top on the dining room floor well past eleven pm one Saturday night. I was horrified and told him to stop, but the irreverent soul that he was spun the top at least two more times, wood spinning furiously on wood. I heard about it from the landlords the very next day and apologized profusely, which they accepted. I wonder why they did not hear or maybe they just didn’t comment on the times I came home later and once even fell into the tub drunk after a long night at a neighbor’s house or perhaps DANK Haus or somewhere farther away like Cafe Mestizo in Pilsen where I’d bike to and from to play music with Snezana in our duo, The Adaptations.
     The Washtenaw apartment represented many things to me. It was safe, warm in the winter and breezy with a roomful of windows open in the front and the back door open all night in the summer. It was a place where I knew that despite difficult neighbors like the 6’7” bouncer from The Green Mill clomping in at three in the morning more often than not, who looked at me like I was an alien when I asked if he’d try to be quieter, I was safe and sound in this household. There was a grace about the landlords downstairs that kept me there all those years.
     As this virus ravages so many people in our world right now I wish I could rewind to 2014 and still be living in that place. I’d have more dinner parties and isolate less. I’d play more music with Snezana and other friends and now we’d have a solid band. Our first album would be called Greek Easter. I’d be closer with my landlords and spend more time sitting in the yard with them. I’d stop playing the Peter Pan story and running around so much, and I’d settle down with a nice man
. Eleftheria would finally be able to give me the potted jasmine tree she’d be saving for years that was to be a gift at my wedding. Angelo would be all scrubbed up in a fine suit and have a dance with me, and we’d know that all is well.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Hand the baby to Fireman Joe

     You wake to the scream of a smoke alarm in a bedroom filled with dense black smoke. Gasping, you roll onto the floor and belly-crawl to the baby’s room. There, you reach up, eyes stinging, and pluck the howling tot from her crib. Trying to leave, you are driven back by flames sprouting in the hallway you had just left. At that moment an axe crashes through the window, a burst of broken glass, noise, light and air. Through the shattered window frame steps a firefighter in full mask, helmet, and bunker gear. He reaches out his gloved hands. You:
     A) Crawl as fast as you can toward the flames.
     B) Ask him how he scored on his physical.
     C) Hand him the baby.
     If you answered “A” you are a Trump Republican, yearning for four more years of institution- and morality-scorching conflagration that, in some fashion I’ve stopped trying to comprehend, makes you feel good about yourself and your country. You like the flames of American freedoms and traditions burning to ash — they’re pretty — and you don’t perceive any harm because, when you’re not oohing at the fire, you’re gawping at Fox News, lost in the pyrotechnic fantasy display they’re putting on.
     If you picked ”B,” quiz the fireman, you are like many automatic pilot Democrats right now who, slow to accept the obvious situation (house burning down) cling to past rituals of long-vanished normality. (Exactly who is this fellow I’m handing my baby to?) They’re busy kicking the tires of the fire truck, musing: “Fireman Joe ... he’s not exactly young, is he? How is he on ladders? Let’s pick apart that assault accusation from 1993 ...” Parsing the details so closely they never bother to look up at the guy he’s running against, someone accused of worse by dozens of women. Ignoring the flames licking the doorframe, they focus on the carpet. It could use a vacuuming!

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Eugene O'Neill, not Hollywood, made Brian Dennehy a Chicago star

Brian Dennehy with Pamela Payton-Wright
 in Goodman Theatre's 2002 
"Long Day's Journey Into Night."
     Brian Dennehy would have laughed.
     “He would have found  'Tommy Boy actor dead at 81’ fucking hilarious,” said Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, of the headline that raced around social media Thursday. “I find it pathetic. The guy lived such a rich and full life, in the grandest sense.”
     The Tony Award-winning actor died Wednesday.
     While the world might have known Dennehy as a movie star, from Chris Farley’s popular, cringeworthy comedy or from “First Blood” — he was the sheriff giving Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo a hard time — or other Hollywood tripe, Chicagoans knew better.
     “This was one of the great actors of our generation,” said Falls, who directed Dennehy in nine productions, including such classics as Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Arthur Miller’s timeless tragedy “Death of a Salesman,” which Dennehy starred in at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1998, then took to Broadway and performed 450 times, winning a Tony.
     The two met in the mid-1980s when the old 121-seat Wisdom Bridge Theater on Howard Street presented Ron Hutchinson’s drama “Rat in the Skull.” 

     “Brian wanted to play this Northern Irish cop,” said Falls. “He just wanted to do this play. He was thrilled to come to Chicago. It was love at first sight.”James Lancaster (left) and Brian Dennehy in a scene from the Wisdom Bridge Theatre production of Ron Hutchinson’s “Rat in the Skull” in 1985.
     The two men became friends and frequent collaborators.
     “We bonded over Irish Catholicism, alcoholism running through our family, and a love of Eugene O’Neill,” said Falls. “From the beginning, and I know this sounds crazy, but Brian said: ‘We’re going to do a lot of plays together. We’re going to do the big ones, the really difficult ones.’ I said ‘OK.’ ”
     Falls kicked off his artistic directorship with Dennehy in Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo.”

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Attorney Ed Genson, friend of the guilty

Ed Genson at home, 2019

     Left to my own devices, I probably would n0t have written Ed Genson's obituary. First, because there is a comprehensive Chicago magazine profile of Genson, written by Steve Rhodes, and I hate to follow in anybody's wake and try to reinvent the wheel. Second, just last year I wrote a column where Genson said his client R. Kelly was "guilty as hell," and perhaps there is something sketchy in having the guy who recently caused the deceased distress then turn around and summarize his life. And finally, I have scant interest in the organized crime world where he dwelled. But this task fell to me, so—helped greatly by Maureen O'Donnell and Jon Seidel—so I tried my best to execute it. 

     Where do you begin with Ed Genson? With the notorious defense attorney’s long list of famous clients? From singer R. Kelly to movie star Shia LaBeouf, from newspaper mogul Conrad Black to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich?
     Do you start there?
     Or with the Mafia hit men — alleged Mafia hit men, since many walked free, with Mr. Genson’s help — and mobbed up politicians? If Mr. Genson was famous for one thing, it was as the wily and effective attorney of the damned: “Devil’s advocate” is the headline Chicago magazine put on his profile in 2005.
     “I have no aversion to organized crime,” Mr. Genson said in 2003.
     Certainly his involvement with the infamous Chicago corruption probes — Greylord, Gambat, Silver Shovel, Operation Haunted Hall — should be prominently featured. Mr. Genson defended the accused in all of them.
     At what point do you mention that death finally came for him, filing one motion he could not quash? Mr. Genson died Tuesday at age 78. He had been fighting cancer in recent years, and long suffered from a neuromuscular disorder called dystonia that sometimes makes muscles contract involuntarily. He walked with a cane or used a scooter but even that, he used to his legal advantage.
     “When he was trying to do something in front of the jury, of course his limp got markedly worse,” said World Business Chicago CEO Andrea Zopp, a former federal prosecutor and first assistant Cook County state’s attorney. “I saw that happen more times than one.”
     But he did a lot more than limp.
     “Eddy was very, very prepared,” said Zopp.
     For nearly half a century, no criminal attorney in Chicago was better known or held in the same mix of grudging affection and open-mouthed amazement.
     ”He was half-Columbo, half-Perry Mason,” said former federal prosecutor Patrick M. Collins. “When Eddy was on a case, you knew you were going to go to trial (rather than a plea). He really liked a good fight. Eddy shot you in the chest. He didn’t shoot you in the back. . . .You had to bring your ‘A’ game as a prosecutor.” 

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Plague catches up with artist in Chicago

El Greco painted tucked four of his heroes — Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio and Raphael — in the lower right corner of “Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.”

     Doménikos Theotokópoulos was lucky when it came to plague.
     The painter passed through Venice in 1575, the year the Black Death killed a third of the residents of that crowded maritime port. He was on his way from Rome, where he had studied under the great painter Titian — who himself would soon after die of plague — to Spain, where he would establish his own enduring fame as El Greco, “The Greek.”
     But his luck with plagues ran out recently, as a major show of his work, “El Greco: Ambition and Defiance,” opened at The Art Institute of Chicago March 7, only to go dark six days later when the museum closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
     I was fortunate to see the show during the brief span it was open, admiring how it re-united scattered works that had not been in the same room for centuries.
     I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the show’s curators, and wonder: what is it like to dedicate years of your life to such a project only to have it displayed to empty galleries?
     “I worked on it a long time,” said Rebecca Long, who curated the show for The Art Institute. “There were a lot of negotiations. Some paintings we weren’t able to get. All in all, solidly worked for four years. ”

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It beats the hell out of "squat"

Sigma Chi brothers at the University of Alabama "hunkering" in 1959

     For weeks, people have been saying it.
     "How's it going at your place?" I'll call to a neighbor, doing my best impression of bluff cheerfulness, as we warily approach each other on opposite sidewalks, the street safely between.
     "We're all hunkering down," he'll inevitably say.
    One state over, the Mississippi of the North is urging its besieged citizens to "Hunker Down Hoosiers." 

    And it pops up in headline after headline, of course.
     "Hunkered Down, and Suddenly Irritatingly Together" the New York Times wrote last week, as if some copy editor lost a bar bet and had to see how bad a headline they could get into the Grey Lady. (We can write one that means about the same but is shorter and better by the time you count to 10. Ready? One...two... "Safe from the virus but not from each other.")
     Far better is the pun atop Gene Collier's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column, "The Hunker Games" though he then inexplicably lashes out at the word.
     "A stupid, inelegant, vapid word of dubious origin," Collier writes, before going on to nevertheless use it 19 times in a single column, a figure which, just to show off, is eight times more than we will require here.
     He is right about the uncertain provenance. I first started musing on the word a couple weeks ago and played my game of guessing the derivation. Its sound and meaning—retire to some safe defensive position—seems vaguely military. Maybe a derivation of "bunker." I vague recall "hunk" being early 20th century slang for Hungarian. Could that be it? Nah....
     Off to the Oxford, which, as Collier suggests, throws up its hands, "Origin obscure" before picking over various Dutch-sounding roots. The definition, "To squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet" is unfamiliar: it's one of those words whose figurative sense outshines the literal. 
     This isn't its first burst of popularity. In 1959, it was briefly "America's most boring fad," at college campuses. On advocate called it "a respite from a world of turmoil. The main purpose of hunkerin' is to get down and hunker together. It's a friendship thing: get your friends to hunker with you. The man you don't know is the man you haven't hunkered with."
     Speaking of which. By his picture, Collier seems about my age, so it's odd he didn't point out an even better known pre-COVID-19 frame of reference of the word that wouldn't show up in the Oxford: it's one of Hunter S. Thompson's favorite buzzwords, showsing up eight times in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" alone, most memorably here:
     “Every now and then you run up on one of those days when everything’s in vain … a stone bummer from start to finish; and if you know what’s good for you, on days like these you sort of hunker down in a safe corner and watch.”
     Excellent advice form Dr. Gonzo, from beyond the grave. Now if only we can take it.