Friday, July 31, 2020

Toilet troubles worsened by COVID crisis

     Tim Pyle, executive director of the American Restroom Association, recently got an urgent email from Wichita alerting him that the bathroom at the bus station downtown was closed to the public; could the ARA help?
     While the Baltimore-based group is not intended to address individual shuttered toilets across this great land, Pyle responded sympathetically.
     “Municipalities and governments have dropped the ball in the past 20 years, and have abdicated their responsibilities to store owners, gas stations, and eateries,” he wrote. “Now that COVID has hit, it is more important than ever for ‘public’ facilities to do their part and keep them open.”
     Which is separate from the issue of whether people should even go into public restrooms that are open. Public bathrooms are perfect virus spreaders. Strangers gather in the smallest space possible. They perform functions that are then rendered into whirling vortexes of airborne contamination, thanks to flushing toilets, and blasted through the room by hand dyers.
     Two related problems then: keeping bathrooms open, and improving their safety.
     “When you think about delivery drivers, folks on the road, if there aren’t bathrooms available because everything is closed, where are they supposed to go?” Pyle said. “What COVID has done is highlighted weaknesses in the restroom infrastructure.”
     Well, that, along with highlighting the fault lines spider-webbing through every aspect of American society: health care, government, the economy, as well as the cracks latticing the heads of many of our fellow citizens, who can’t seem to grasp the whole wash-your-hands-and-wear-a-mask thing until they themselves are, you know, dying. The psychology of bathrooms adds another layer of difficulty.

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Bebb Oak

     Business required me to observe a variety of outdoor tasks Wednesday morning: water being pumped, asphalt poured, sewers sluiced, leaks detected, drain pipe laid. Which probably doesn't sound fun to you, but which was very fun for me, both because of the unexpected and thus interesting details of the processes, and the friendly, open nature of all the workers I spoke with. I'd share some of those details, but I don't want to deflate the story I have coming later. You'll just have to trust me.
     Though I can share this, since it isn't part of my story. Just to show that these few hours of fun could be topped, my host was kind enough to swing me by something I had heard about but never seen—the oldest tree in Northbrook, a Bebb Oak on Sunset that is easily as old as our country and probably older—perhaps as much as 400 years old.
    It was a magnificent tree, filling the sky and I struggled to find a vantage to see the thing in anything near its entirety. The Bebb Oak is the official Village Tree of Northbrook, a hybrid between a burr oak (quercus macrocarpa) and a white oak (quercus alba), and I spent a long time contemplating it from various angles.
    I should just leave it there, but there is one hanging obvious question—it is an obvious question, is it not? C'mon, work with me here. Well hanging for me, and I had to check it out, and might as well tell you. Apologies in advance.
    "Bebb." What kind of word is that? The Oxford gave me nothing, so I poked online, which is cheating, yes, but works.
    One hint is the Bebb oak's scientific name, quercus×bebbiana. Quercus is Latin for "oak," obviously but bebbiana is pseudo-Latin for the name Bebb—Michael Shuck Bebb to be exact, a 19th century systemic botanist. 
     Turns out he was a hometown lad, blown here from Ohio, tramping around Chicago in the 1840s and various locales around the state. Most of the biographical information on him was about his work with willows, salix bebbiana, but I pressed on, being rather systematic myself, and soon stumbled upon a letter of Bebb's to George Clinton—the botanist, not the singer from Parliament-Funkadelic—dated Sept. 23, 1873:      
     I have just found two or three splendid hybrid Oaks between Quercus alba & macrocarpa and I am not altogether sure that I have hit upon the explanation of the “miniature fruit” of olivaeformis Michx.
     How I wish I lived within reach of a large library and a large Herbarium.
      Well, there you have it. Not the most urgent issue—that required phone interviews all afternoon, for Friday's column, so you'll have to wait on that too. Which leaves us after dinner—falafel, fries and spiced carrots from Misrahi Grill enjoyed al fresco at the Botanic Garden, so it really was a full day—with nothing more profound than one glorious tree. Which should be profundity aplenty, but in case it falls short, as I suspect it might, I would direct your attention to the last line of my excerpt of Bebb's letter, where he is in the field, pining for books and a collection of dried plants to check his samples against. Since all of us have within reach the largest library and an endless herbarium at our fingertips 24 hours a day, we should pause, shake off the long familiarity that has dulled us to its wonder, and be amazed and grateful anew. 


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

If we’re in hell, we might as well read Dante

Dante in the Piazza Santa Croce, Florence.
     John Took’s new book “Dante” is very heavy lifting. From the first sentence — “Exemplary in respect of just about everything coming next on the banks of the Arno over the next few decades was the case of Buondelmonte de’Buondelmonti on the threshold of the thirteenth century.” — it is a waist-deep slog through the muddiest of academic creeks.
     Pressing forward, I grew to hate him. Just for taking something so valuable and rendering it into turgid academic blather. Grew to hate Princeton University Press for foisting this upon a trusting public. Hate the scholars who blurbed it. “A beautiful book that reflects decades of thinking and teaching,” begins literary critic Piero Boitani.
     Maybe he meant the cover. It is indeed a beautiful cover.
     And I grew to hate myself for buying the book, impulsively, because, heck, it has such a nice cover and it is about Dante. For insisting on grimly, joylessly grinding through it, page after page, trying to glean some shred of knowledge from this field of chaff. I blame my own cheapness. I bought the thing, paid, geez, $35 for it. I have to read it. It grew to feel like penance, a hair shirt. Enduring a homebound summer in a brainless era during the reign of an imbecile? Here’s some grist for the mill, perfesser. Chew on this!
     Then on page 333 (ironically, since three is very big in Dante’s Commedia), he makes it all worthwhile. A redemptive Hail Mary pass, fittingly. He’s categorizing the ways the human vessel is deformed in “Inferno”: stuffed into fissures in rocks, soothsayers’ heads twisted backward “in a grim parody of their profession,” barrators sunk in molten pitch, “the most atrocious kind of metamorphosis.”
     Then Took reaches back and unleashes this perfect spiral:

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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Murderers' Row

     It is good to have many news sources, and many voices commenting within those sources. Because while news is infinite, the attention span of readers is not. Someone needs to frame the most relevant parts of everything that's going on, trimming the fat and serving the meat. Deciding what to keep in, what to leave out.
     For instance. On Monday my esteemed former colleague and current friend Robert Feder wrote one of his typically thoughtful and comprehensive items about the Tribune cashiering a columnist in the wake of his latest aping of Fox News fever fantasy. He'll now be kept isolated, for his own good and ours, in some sort of opinion pen that the Tribune is erecting for its columnists at the back of the paper.
     Feder quotes Tribune editor-in-chief Colin McMahon, saying, in essence, that Trib readers are too dim-witted to differentiate between news and opinion.
     “The Tribune, like a lot of news media, doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the difference between news coverage and opinion writing" he told Feder. "That is something we’ve been working to address."
     I bet they have. But I don't know how opinion could be any more clearly marked. You'd think the mug shots would be a giveaway. Yes, certain readers can't wrap their heads around the difference between stories, columns and editorials, just as some readers can't differentiate between real life and what they were told last night by Sean Hannity. But gearing your publication for America's Confused Third is a race to the bottom that Fox has already won. They've cornered that market. For a newspaper, that's like deciding to aim your news at readers who can't read, using a felt board and brightly-colored circles, squares and triangles representing the news of the day. Open can, heat soup.
     Feder's emphasis on the supposed big dog having his face held in his mess starts with the headline: "Tribune moving John Kass column ‘to maintain credibility of news coverage’ 

    But in doing so, Feder downplays the really important part. As a Tribune subscriber, the fate of this particular columnist means nothing to me. Years go by without my ever feeling a tickle of an inclination to read a Kass column. I hurry on, grateful for that run-the-guy's-photo warning system whose significance apparently eludes many.
     Though not always. Over the weekend, hearing the cry of agony reverberating from Twitter, I approached the controversial column, haltingly, the way you would reach into a dark space to see if there were snakes. It was ... I can't say for certain; I was squinting and skimming toward the end, as one does with him. He seems to be agitated by the supposed connection of Jewish financier George Soros with Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, as best I could tell before my eyes completely glazed over.
     It was almost peaceful. A kind of drown reflex.  I wasn't distressed. Just the opposite; I admired his restraint. He managed to leave out the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—that couldn't have been easy for him—and there was no caricature of a fanged, hook-nosed Jew sprouting octopus tentacles straddling globe that usually goes along with this kind of stuff. Maybe the Tribune graphics desk spiked that. It is a team effort.
     I don't see what the fuss is about. This is what these revanchist loons do, make these crazy juxtapositions. When Rush Limbaugh went after me for suggesting assault rifles are dangerous, I recall that Kim Kardashian was somehow involved in his analysis. That's why this stuff is ultimately so ignorable. It isn't shocking. It can't be, because it's all the same. It's so dumb it's dull.
    No, the part in Feder's report that stood out to me as most significant, though lost in all the hoo-haw over the Trib's waxwork Royko 
manqué melting down, is that the Trib's puppeteer, Alden Capital, is pushing all columnists back in the paper, into some kind of columnist's pasture. It isn't that John Kass was bad now the whole class has to stay after school. This was, as Feder does mention, in the works for months. John Kass channeling Der Stürmer is merely the pretext to set the plan in motion. 
    That's very dire, this separation of columnists, maybe because it resonates with their past efforts at other papers. The Alden thinking goes: why are we paying six figures for these employees to dole out scoops from their wordhoard, when the communication directors of the National Federation  of Community Councils Institute will write weekly columns for free? Are those not also agglutinations of verbiage we can present to the mindless eyeballs we consider our audience? If they're too dumb to distinguish a column from a news story, it won't matter if we give them work of a columnist, or thinly-disguised, self-serving PR pap from some paid-by-somebody-else mouthpiece? To me, the forced removal of opinion writers from their homes throughout the paper, and trucking them to a walled-off neighborhood is the first step toward their elimination. 
     That's a shame, because the only reason to read the Tribune is for their non-Kass columnists: Eric Zorn, easily the best news columnist in Chicago; his Pulitzer-Prize winning musical pal, Mary Schmich; the venerable, all-seeing-eye of Rick Kogan; the sharp and funny Rex Huppke; incisive Steve Chapman; knowledgable and passionate Blair Kamin—I could go on, but I wouldn't want any Alden beancounters to see this, clack their long fingernails together and think, "That's sooooo many mouths to feed!" Alden adheres to what I call the Bean Soup Theory of Journalism. You're handing over the bowls with one hand, collecting the cash with the other, and you look down into a bowl and muse, "My, that's a lot of beans. I could pluck a few out and it would still be bean soup." Eventually, you get down to three beans and nobody wants to pay money for it anymore. Because readers want a hearty soup. They deserve it.
     We had that sort of boss at the Sun-Times a couple decades ago. And now that I think of it, the columnists were all herded toward the back of the bus then too, for a while. But that changed. One of the glories of working at a newspaper and not being A Big Deal is you get to stick around, head down, under the radar, unnoticed in the shadows, and outlive all the folly playing out at the top. Pod systems are rolled out, complex flow charts, trendy fashions indulged, spanking new ideas bruited by gleaming new editors during their brief transits across the sky. Their big plans crash soundlessly somewhere distant, a puff on the horizon, the new programs are forgotten, and we plebes race back to the joyful grind of putting out a newspaper for another day.
     Okay, I've nattered on enough. Time to wind this up. I've delivered my criticism, I should mention, there was a very true note worth highlighting in what Feder wrote:
     "Besides, as insiders pointed out, the days of the 'lead columnist' ended at most major newspapers years ago. Now it’s about a range of voices."
      I could quibble with the "now" in that last sentence. Ever since I joined the paper, 33 years ago, the Sun-Times has always been a range of voices. The lead columnist is whoever is worth the front page, or page two, that day. Sometimes it's me, usually it's not, and that's the way I like it. There's a strain in being up front, and given the kind of look-a-squirrel triviality I revel in—"Where's my Fresca?"—I'm grateful there are usually half a dozen folks coping with the significant stuff. 
    I always view the columnists at the Sun-Times—and God, this is a little embarrassing to admit, but heck, that never stopped me before—as being like the Murderers' Row lineup of the 1927 Yankees, like those old baseball cards with a group of one team's sluggers sighting down their bats, showing off their power. Maybe because writing a column is in fact such a solitary job—your thoughts, your words, your face, your responsibility—I fancy myself as part of a line-up. One person can't win a game or put out a newspaper. You need batter after batter to come up and swing. Everyone on the team has to play their best, because the stars sometimes strike out. And the bench warmer sometimes gets a clutch hit. 
    You have no idea. To be kneeling on deck, and look back at the dugout and see Mark Brown and Mary Mitchell, Rick Telander and Richard Roeper, Lee Bey, Maureen O'Donnell, Rick Morrisey, Dave Roeder, Maudlyne Ihejerika, Stefano Esposito, Laura Washington, Marlen Garcia, Phil Kadner and S.E. Cupp—there's more but you get the idea—to see them laughing and spitting and chugging Gatorade, waiting their turn at the plate. To be on that team in Chicago, that's a wonderful feeling, one that will never show up in Alden Capital's ledger books.  

Monday, July 27, 2020

Let Chicago teach you to ride a bicycle

   Karlla Guirola grew up in El Salvador during the war. Alex Raynor was raised in Houston. Bryce Polk is 6 years old.
     Widely diverse upbringings that nevertheless brought the three together in two important ways.
     First, it put them in an elite group: the 6% of Americans who cannot ride a bike. OK, when Raynor was growing up in Texas, she could ride, she says, but couldn’t turn or brake, two skills that complicate bike riding in their absence.
     And second, the three comprised the entire class of attendees who showed up at 6 p.m. a few Thursdays back for a Chicago Department of Transportation “Learn to Ride” free bicycling class for adults. (Bryce, being 6, would seem to be too young to qualify; but in that marvelously adaptive quality that city programs sometimes display, nobody seemed to notice or care, and I certainly wasn’t about to point it out.)
     I can ride a bike, but I was there because, with all the city of Chicago has to do — combat crime, filter water, wrangle statues and more — that it also teaches residents to ride bikes, for free, well, that seemed charming in a 1930s, WPA, summer camp kind of way.
     “Biking is good for our bodies and a cheap, fast way to get around,” said Emme Williams, one of five instructors at the class, known as SAFE (Streets Are For Everyone) ambassadors.
     A short section of West Fedinand Street in East Garfield Park was closed off with orange cones, and the pedals removed from three bikes so the beginners could practice scooting forward.

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Statue of limitations

     A reader wrote in Friday complaining that my column had offended him. Specifically, The Economist's Adam Roberts comparing segregation in Chicago to apartheid in South Africa had offended him. Apparently, it trivialized the latter.
     This is the classic passive-aggressive tango. By saying something or doing something, you somehow step on a toe of mine, and ouch, it hurts. It can be done with literally anything. Watering your flowers is a slap in the face of drought-stricken subsaharan Africa. Kissing your child in public is a mockery of parents whose children have died...
     Ignoring that the supposedly harmed party is actually slipping his toe under the descending foot.  Someone is shot somewhere and they clutch at their chest and fall down. 
     The thing to do would have been to shrug, thank him for writing, and move on. But I must have been feeling feisty, on a Friday afternoon, so I wrote back with my standard line when people are offended over something I've written—I tell them, it is you, not me, who are responsible for deciding to be offended about something. There's really not much I can do about it. And in this guy's case, I added words to the effect of, "Besides, Adam Roberts, the author of the piece, spent four and a half years in South Africa; how long were you there?"
      "Two weeks," he replied. There was more, and he might still be replying yet—I don't know, I dumped him behind the filter and moved on, my superpower, reminding myself: Never respond to people. Never never never. There's no upside. I have to remember that.
       People who are offended are like young children trying to buy a sports car with Monopoly money. They don't realize just how undervalued is the thing they're trying to spend.  I read a few of the cris du coeur—I guess that should be grida di cuore—from Italian American friends on Facebook and in the official correspondence of old line Italian American anti-defamation organizations about how Lori Lightfoot taking down two statues of Christopher Columbus is an icepick at their heart.
     There there. Change is hard. I would feel bad if Northbrook took down the water tower by my house—it's an original Horton Waterspheroid from 1955!—and my forebears were not gathering around it in 1924, garlanding it with flowers, and whatever.  And Southerners feel bad about Robert E. Lee going to the scrapyard.  We all feel bad, we're all complaining, in chorus, 24 hours a day on Twitter. 
    Not so bad that I would try to stop the water tower from coming down, mind you. It's their tower. A nuance lost on the statue complainers: the statues belong to the city. They can decide what stays, what goes. Not getting more cops hurt, letting overheated passions cool, both seem excellent reasons for tucking away a pair of bothersome edifices. 
    That flies by people who are hot to feel hurt. The taking down of Columbus statues is about a lot of things, but Italian Americans are not one of them. Hence the offense, slipping into a birthday party you weren't invited to and sticking your fingers in the cake. Me me me. Using their bodies as a shield, writing injured letters about "The Godfather" movies. You can do it. It's your right. But it is worse than a losing battle. It's fighting a battle you've already won. To put it in my own wheelhouse, it's like Jews who complained that the Penguin character in one of the Batman remakes is some deeply-veiled anti-Semitic trope. Really? That's what you've got? What, no picket line outside Marshall Field's State Street store this week, demanding the name be changed back from Macy's? I don't dictate what bothers people, but really, how can they not see that some gripes indict the complainer worse than the thing being griped about. The most embarrassing stereotype of an Italian-American I've ever seen heads up the FOP.
      Three thoughts...
Massacre Monument
      1) Do you realize how many statues in Chicago get moved, removed, relocated, put in storage? They dissolve in the harsh Chicago weather, or are stolen, or just plain lost?  Carl Rohl-Smith's "Massacre Monument" terrified generations of Chicago school children, first at Prairie and 18th, then at the Chicago Historical Society, then back on Prairie, and now is in some warehouse somewhere, assuming that isn't a euphemism for being melted down for scrap.  I can't pretend the city is the poorer.  All the weeping over the Columbus statues being removed from Grant and Arrigo parks, the mustachioed ancestored venerated, tend to overlook that the latter was moved there in 1966, its third location, at least. 
      2) Statues are not signs of social acceptance, or general reverence or really an indication of anything other than the ability of a certain group at a certain time to scrape together the money to put a statue up. I mean God bless Irv Kupcinet, I knew the man, respected and admired him. And at one point he certainly was the greased axle upon which Chicago span. But it's been a while, and I can't imagine his statue sends many visitors running to Amazon to order "Kup: A man. An era. A city." 
     Which is too bad; I've read it. A rollicking memoir. On page two, he is showing Veronica Lake and Gary Cooper around on a war bond drive in 1943 and the platinum blonde bombshell turns to Coop, looks him straight in the eye and says, "Do you want to fuck me?"
     On page two. If I had to pick one tribute to represent Kup through the ages, I'd choose that passage, hands down, over the statue. And I actually really like the statue that his friends and descendants commissioned, as a rendition of the human form: it has a comforting smoothness, as did Kup, at least until the last few years. 
     But does anybody think it needs to stay across the river from Trump Tower until the end of time? (Besides Jerry* and David Kupcinet and a few others I no doubt will hear from, though I'm hoping that, by putting this on my blog and not in the paper, I can avoid that). 
     If a mob decided to hurl the Jack Brickhouse statue into the river, as some kind of daft protest against how Cubs games were broadcast back in the day, I can't say I'd weep too much for the loss to the city's patrimony, and I had lunch with the man. (And I'm sorry Jerry, sorry Pat. I factored in the hurt I thought you were our pal emails. But Kup wouldn't care at all and Jack would just laugh. You know that. Besides, the Brickhouse statue is almost pharaonic in its wordiness, approaching Roland Burris tombstone level verbiage. I knew Jack, and like to think he'd be embarrassed at that).
     3) Immigrant groups of every stripe remember the wrongs done to them, and lovingly sort and categorize every hurt against them, every button of suffering, kept in a little box, without the thought ever crossing their minds that they are now in a better position on the slippery pole of society, and might, instead of fighting to the death every outmoded bit of sculpture, instead use their status to alleviate the very same suffering their grandfathers felt, now being inflicted upon new categories of people. 
     So they wave the bloody shirt of self-assigned wrongs, oblivious, claiming a hurt that most people just don't feel, completely ignorant that the fuss they're making about themselves engenders more ill-will than the supposed slight they're complaining about. It's the curse of expending all your emotional energy on your own precious self. History is supposed to enlarge you, not make you tinier. Yet too many from groups who have suffered, probably because they themselves are doing so well, turn around, sharpen that history into a pointed stick, and use it to become some of the most energetic, oblivious bigots I've ever encountered. This is true for every nationality, race and religion. It can't be said enough. Sympathizing with yourself is no accomplishment. It is common as dirt and means almost nothing. The Columbus struggle is lost, done, finito. He was the life ring that Italians, drowning in a toxic sea of nativist hate, grabbed at in the 1890s to float themselves toward respectability. It worked. But 130 years have passed—sorry to be the one to tell you. The Great Navigator turned into a stone now dragging them down. Those statues won't get put back because the social milieu that saw them put up is completely changed. I'd think that would be a good thing, but I guess it's not.

* Turns out that Jerry Kupcinet passed away last year. Condolences. And apparently David Kupcinet DOES read the blog, or did. His Facebook response deserves posting here: 

     I should point out that I've never met David Kupcinet, so my being an asshole to him is no doubt a creation of his mind, the lunge toward victimhood that so drives public conversation. Honestly, I'm in his debt. David Kupcinet unwittingly illustrates my point better than I do. Look at what I actually say in the post above that so sets him off: I like and respect Kup. I cite his book, which I've read. I like the statue. But point out that doesn't mean it has to be in that spot forever. And boom! David lets loose his bladder into this incontinent puddle of anger, spraying me with all he's got, never pausing for a second to imagine that just maybe the statue being OF HIS OWN GRANDFATHER might affect his judgment, or lack of which. He's the poster boy for all this statue idiocy we see. I should send him a cheesecake.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Texas Notes: Shadow of death

     If you think this crisis is hard to endure, consider this: you could be in Texas, like our Austin Bureau Chief, Caren Jeskey. Her report:

     A lot has changed since Wednesday March 11. On that day we heard whispers about a strange and deadly virus that was rapidly spreading. I immediately canceled a bulk of my contract work that would have put others and myself at risk. My therapy clients at that time were all over 65 and/or medically fragile. I had been teaching classes at a destination spa. I became close to unemployed that week (save a few clients who were up for telehealth).
     Today Texas is positively rampant with COVID-19. This week we learned that 85 babies in Nueces County have tested positive since March— 60 of them in the month of July. Over 4,000 Texans have died.
     The first phase of virus life for me was to shelter in place, other than shopping for essentials and exercising outdoors. The streets and sidewalks were all but deserted. I forgot about the world and got lost in hours-long, rambling walkabouts. I automatically beelined away from the small number of folks who passed me by, unless they yielded first. It was easy. Then businesses started opening again, first to 25% capacity and then increasing to 50% or even more, which gave people a false sense of security. Restless, bored Texans decided they were done with the rules and started living as though the virus was over. Once calming and peaceful walks in the early virus ghost town days turned into minefields where it was impossible to get away from obstinate people who have vetoed the idea of playing it safe. 

     While I was on a walk earlier this week most neighbors in my eclectic, trendy, middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhood were not masked or making any effort to distance. Within five minutes of leaving my house these pod people had descended into my safety zone. I peered at them from the top of my masked face and their bald faces stared back. I threw my arms in the air and called out to a neighbor I know “no one is distancing!” and then I heard myself growl. A young woman ran by, and I felt her breeze as she passed within a foot or two of me. I called out “can you please distance or at least wear a mask?” She flipped me the bird and yelled back “you were in my way.” We were on a pedestrian/bike path. My blood boiled and I also felt sad. I could feel tears well up as I processed this assault.
     I realized I had to get away and turned off the path onto a side street towards a sleepier neighborhood with huge houses and wide roads where I knew I’d be safer. On my way there an unmasked man rode up to me on his bicycle, sneezed in my face, and cackled. I held my phone up, pretending to film him (I was too shocked to think clearly enough to hit record) and he biked away, still laughing.
     On July 4th a group of people gathered at the State Capitol for what they christened a “Shed the Mask, Don the Flag” rally. Since all of this can wear a sane person down, I have officially decided to stop fighting and instead I will yield.     

     Along with the increasing challenges and frustrations of life with COVID, many things have changed for the better. I was allowed to spend time as the solo guest in the Elisabet Ney museum, which I discovered on an early walkabout and wrote about in an EGD post Badass Women. I shared the blog post with the docent there and as a result was invited in. Up until that day I’d only been able to see the faces of a striking stone woman (Lady MacBeth) and the chiseled profile of a bearded man (Prometheus) through a window. Once inside I silently walked up the narrow wooden staircase Elisabet had once walked. I felt her power. I visited with her immense stone and marble creations and basked in the presence of a woman who created magic during her life.
     I’ve worn holes into the soles of my Birkenstocks. The pounds are slipping away according to the scale I am no longer afraid to stand on each morning.
     As I write this I feel grateful. Even as the shadow of death is all around us, thus far I am safe. I am not a front line worker. I do not have to take buses to and from work. I do not have to stand at a counter and serve customers who refuse to wear masks. The fact that all of this might change in a blink of an eye, or in the spray of a sneeze is not lost on me. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

All not lost: Midwest still has punch

The Economist’s special report on the Midwest reveals that agricultural machinery from our state is prized by dealers in second-hand equipment because Illinois farmers are known for taking good care of their tractors.

     Chicago is distinguished by the critics who’ve taken a swing at her. From 19th century Brit wits like Oscar Wilde (who famously dismissed the Water Tower as “a castellated monstrosity”) to mid-20th century slams like A.J. Liebling’s 1952 vivisection, to our current president regularly slurring Chicago as a violent hellhole, the city has absorbed more than its share of body blows.
     So when The Economist, the top news magazine in Britain if not the world, let fly on Thursday with an 11-page report on the Midwest, ominously titled “An outsized punch,” I tucked into a defensive crouch and began reading.
     Whew. A rare bit of good news. Instead of being delivered to our midsection, the aforementioned “punch” refers to the region’s international clout.
     Chicago may not be the global city of our dreams. But we’re part of a dozen-state cluster that can go toe-to-toe with any region in the world.
     The 12 Midwestern states (and a chunk of Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh and a scoop around Louisville, Kentucky) would, were it a nation, be the world’s fourth-largest economy, with a gross product of $4 trillion, tying Germany. Its population of 68 million is equal to Britain’s.
     We’re a powerhouse in American politics. True, we used that power in 2016 to deliver the nation to Trump — nothing to be proud of. But we can also decide whether that historic disaster will be corrected or compounded this November.
     We are “Midwestern nice,” apparently, with “warmth, hospitality, work ethic and fondness for the outdoors.”

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

The invasion of Chicago

     Donald Trump has already shown he'll do anything to create footage for a campaign commercial. He'll call West Point graduates back from all over the country to hear him mouth empty platitudes lauding the country he betrays. He'll pack his fans into an auditorium in Tulsa at the height of an infectious pandemic—or try to, thwarted only because even his rabid supporters balked at risking their lives to give him his boisterous backdrop.
    Now he's risking lives again, sending officers—from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an agency he routinely ridicules, plus the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Marshals Service, and the Department of Homeland Security, to Chicago, 200 of them, in order to ... well, fight crime in some undefined way.
    "Frankly, we have no choice but to get involved," Trump said Wednesday, calling his effort a "surge."
    In his view, no, he has no choice. He can't choose to cope with the COVID pandemic. A little late for that. He has no choice but try to distract the public from the worsening  epidemic he bungled from Day One. To try to create a bleak aura of menace to infuse the commercials he needs to give his fear junkie Republicans their next fix and get them to turn out and vote for him, again, despite his clear record of incompetence and failure.  
     He has no choice. He can't—or won't—protect the lives of United States soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, not when his Russian masters are putting a price on their heads. Not a peep about that. But when it gives him a chance to lash out at Democratic cities, he has no choice.  His is compelled by whatever pathology has ruined him as a human being and threatens to ruin us as a country too. 
     Give George H. W. Bush credit. Willie Horton's crimes were in the past when Bush served him up as the poster boy for white fear. He didn't go out and recruit Horton, nor cause new crimes to occur so he could point hysterically at them. 
     Donald Trump can't say that. Strike that. Donald Trump can say anything, and does. 
     "Politicians running many of our cities have put interests of criminals above law abiding citizens," Trump lied, mouthing the words Stephen Miller wrote for him. “These same politicians have now embraced the far left movement to break up our police departments causing violent crime in their cities to spiral–and I mean spiral seriously—out of control.” 
     Says the man who can't control his own mouth, not for a minute. Yet he would control us.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Illinois needs to pick a poet, but which one?

     The great Midwestern poet is, without question, Tom Eliot of St. Louis.
     What, never heard of Tom? Maybe you’ve been led astray by his phony British hauteur and borrowed high church Anglicanism. But T.S. Eliot, as he styled himself, is as Missouri born and bred as Buster Brown Shoes. Chicago’s Carl Sandburg just can’t compare.
     We could argue this. That’s one joy of loving poetry. You’re free to love what you love, though sometimes choices must be made. Such as when selecting a new Illinois poet laureate — submissions are being accepted until Aug. 15. I limned the parameters of the job in my column Monday. Now I’m wondering who’s in the running.
     I discussed this with Mark Eleveld, a member of the search committee.
     “To me, it’s a no-brainer: Marc Smith,” said Eleveld. “He’s such an outsider. Marc provoked and stoked the fires.”
     Smith is not only a prolific poet, but in the mid-1980s he created the Uptown Poetry Slam. The Slam pried the fingers of Received Pronunciation toffs like Eliot from poetry’s throat and let it sing, returning it to its dramatic roots, sensual and gritty.
     Eleveld is biased — he’s Smith’s friend. I’m biased too. Smith has invited me to be featured speaker at the Slam, twice. So I thought I’d better check with a neutral party: Tony Fitzpatrick, poet, artist and notorious truth-teller.
     It should be Smith, right?

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Pica poll

     Pica is an interesting ailment. Technically a mental disorder, it is the compulsive consumption of non-food materials: dirt, for instance, or old paint, chalk, or hair.* While some studies suggest that mineral imbalances might be a factor, and certain groups, such as pregnant women suffer from it more frequently, the causes are mostly psychological rather than physical: stress, psychosis.
     Since I know some of my fellow aging journalists read this effort, I should acknowledge a second meaning of the word "pica"—a typographic unit of measurement. I have an old pica pole right here from the pre-computer days.
      Both meanings are nearly half a millennia old, and both are from the same root. Pica is Latin for magpie. The first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary has to do with rules regarding religious offices—not sure how the bird figures in there—and the type size somehow comes from that. The Oxford doesn't speculate, but maybe the typography term evolved from the printing of these rules. Or the black-and-white bird. The printing sense goes back to 1588, but the disease—and this is surprising, since we think of medicine as modern—is even older, 1563. "The magpie," the OED notes, "being a miscellaneous feeder"
      I've never met anyone afflicted with pica, to my knowledge. But if I came upon such a person, a box of plaster of Paris in one hand, while the other shoves big fistfuls of white powder into their chewing mouth, I would not take in the scene then begin to laud the merits of filet mignon. I would not argue. I would not discuss. I would gaze, startled, then back away. Excuse me, not my table. What other reaction could there be? One does not casually lead another away from deep disturbance. That is a job for professionals.
      This sums up my current political position regarding supporters of the president. It isn't politics, it's pathology, so I never argue with them. Never. I hardly even bother keeping track of their current set of rationales, lies, delusions, malice, misunderstanding, folly, fear, and whatever else leads them to support, still, despite everything, an obvious liar, bully, fraud and traitor—obvious to people other than themselves, of course. If they haven't snapped to the situation long ago, what am I going to tell them? 
      I don't want to diminish the significance of those people. They bode worse for this country than anything their hero could say or do. The current president will fade, please God, someday. But his supporters will remain, and anybody who thinks they will be marinating in shame, or regret, or even reconsideration, just isn't paying attention. Just as they spent eight years under Barack Obama howling and clutching at themselves and batting away health care, so they will return to being the permanent opposition. I'm looking forward to that because, really, who could reasonably expect anything else?
      It's liberating, in a way. Less stress. Fuck 'em, fuck the horse they rode in on. You can't fix them and shouldn't try. Fans of the president—the name sticks in my craw at this point—do still write me. Incredible as it is, they are either are just now detecting a certain anti-Trump bias in my writing, or pretending to, pretending that the scales have just fallen from their eyes. I usually wordlessly block them, knowing that anything I say will only antagonize them further. Sometimes, I admit, if somebody says that my carefully reasoned column is just ker-ray-zeeeeee, I might indulge my own little private obsession, and reply by quoting one of my favorite lines from Samuel Johnson: "I have given you an argument, sir. I am not also obligated to give you an understanding."
    Doing that enlightens them not at all—I can only suppose—since they go in the filter. For all I know they write back heartfelt replies, explaining how my wise response has made them see the error of their ways. I never check.
     Where am I going with this? Heck if I know. Well, maybe I do. It's Tuesday, and I have to write something. Grabbing old stuff and putting it up was beginning to seem unambitious. The usually mid-July lethargy is mixing with the four-month pandemic slough—I'm finding it hard to get motivated knowing that whatever I do today I will be back here doing it again tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow into infinity, or close to it.
      Although: I ordered some of those green tea mints from Sencha. They have a pleasing tea flavor, zero calories and are fun to ruminatively pop while reading or writing. So that's something new.

* On Facebook, my friend Joseph Schlesinger made this fascinating contribution:
Is it possible to be a pica elitist? The following is from Stephen Birmingham's "Our Crowd," describing the eccentricities of financier James Seligman's family:
James's son Washington had curious dietary theories, and lived on charcoal and cracked ice and almost no food. His teeth were black from chewing charcoal, and the ice he sucked between the bites of charcoal made him a somewhat noisy dinner companion. Whiskey was also a part of his diet, and he always had a glassful before breakfast. He had his suits constructed with a special zinc-lined pocket to hold his ice cubes, and once, when his tailor mistook Washington's instructions, Washington cried out, "No! No! The right pocket is to hold the ice! the left pocket is for the charcoal!"--to the bewilderment of other customers in the shop.

Pica pole.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Complete this phrase: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue...’

Portrait of Dr. Felix J. Weil, by George Grosz (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

     Attention poets!
     Are you looking for meaningful employment during these difficult economic times? Would you like a job that uses your poetical skills and involves both travel and reading your work in public?
     Good news: The State of Illinois is seeking to fill the prestigious position of poet laureate. Qualified candidates must have lived in the state for 10 years and seen their work published by a non-vanity press. Awards are helpful. A letter of nomination is required.
     But you must act fast. The deadline to apply is Aug. 15.
     “This role is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to and shape the cultural history of our great state of Illinois,” said first lady M.K. Pritzker, who will select the new laureate from a list of nominees.
     So why are you hearing about this only now? The idea was to make a splash in early spring. Certain cataclysmic events intervened.
     “Maybe April, maybe tie it into Poetry Month,” said Mark Eleveld, a book publisher on the search committee. “It kept getting pushed back.”
     The post has been empty since 2014 — the administration of flint-hearted Bruce Rauner certainly wasn’t going to do anything poetic — when the last poet laureate, Kevin Stein, stepped down.

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Sunday, July 19, 2020

Corneisha Fowler builds reputation for excellence

     As a rule, it is smart not to remark upon the personal attributes of one's professional colleagues. We all have our burdens. Let he who is without sin, etc.
     And yet. Mark Brown ... and I hope I'm not talking out of school here. I think it's commonly known. Maybe not. But either way, Mark ... well ... he's a nice guy. Which can make life complicated, particularly in this business. Myself, for instance, I'm more conventionally configured: a jerk, a schmuck, insert your own derogatory term here, something of a bastard—I get that one a lot—any kindness a mere veneer, a cheap tin-plating concealing the rot within. I'll be honest. I prefer it that way. It's liberating. Be who you are.
    But Mark, alas, the poor fellow. Under that surface niceness, more niceness, all the way down to whatever core of genuine kindness beats within. The man struggles with it. Readers saw this quality on display Sunday, when his column focused on a 23-year-old Corneisha Fowler. Two years ago, Brown wrote a column helping out SisterHouse, a WestSide recovery home for women—see what I mean? Nice. He focused on Fowler, who candidly told her story about recovery from addiction.
     The problem is, as he explained it, is prospective employers are not as kind as Mark—few people are—and they kept seeing Brown's story, first thing. Which I am not linking to for reasons obvious. So he wrote an update Sunday about how Fowler has been clean for two years and is a valued employee at Rush University Medical Center.  It was so positive that, four graphs into it, I looked up, thinking, "What is this? Why am I reading this positive stuff?" When he deftly revealed his purpose, to put something on that all-important Google search page above the grim story, for future employers and such to see first. The story itself was interesting—I got to the end, which I always do with Mark's columns but seldom with other columnists who, in deference to his spirit of comity, I shall not name, even though it goes against my inclination to hurt in a gratuitous fashion whenever given the opportunity.
     Of course one story is only a start, and it puts the story from two years ago one position down. What she really needs is for other stories, such as this, to appear, and for people to link to Brown's story, to make sure it maintains the search engine oomph it needs to stay above Mark's original story, which has had a two year head start, clickwise.
     Anyway, as somebody who knows something about having a single vastly negative story welded to one's name, however fairly, I thought it might encourage the illusion of niceness among those unfamiliar with my life and work were I to put something up as well, and encourage people to read Mark's story and post it on their Facebook pages, or tweet it, or whatever. I'm sorry that, in doing it, I had to spill the beans about Mark's inherent kindness and decency—really very Zornian, now that I think of it. But as I said, I'm a genuine asshole, and don't care who I hurt in this job, one of the many differences between us, as Mark would tell you himself were he not, you know, such a good guy.

Flashback 2012: UL fights fires with science

Ready to burn: a bedroom at UL in a house about to be torched.

     A reader who works at UL, the former Underwriters Laboratories, commented on a column, and I thought I would share the visit I made to UL; a habit of mine, probably a bad one, of pushing my stuff on strangers. But as I tell young writers, if you don't care about your work, then nobody does. It didn't matter; I found I hadn't posted it. Let's correct that. Not many reporters get into UL; I lucked out. A neighbor who worked there was telling me that UL would be burning down a few houses the following week, and I asked, "Can that process be observed?"  She managed to get me in, but it was a near thing, and I could tell UL is one of those organizations that shrinks from the public gaze. I'm not sure why. Maybe they're just terrible at publicity, a common ailment.

     The fire in the house at 333 Pfingsten Rd. in Northbrook started on a sofa in the living room. In minutes, the room was engulfed in flames, the smoke detectors bleating out their alarm, unheeded.
     No one called the fire department—indeed, firefighters were already there, nearly a dozen, from departments across the country, watching the progress of the blaze on television monitors in a nearby room.
     The world headquarters campus of UL—formerly Underwriters Laboratories—is at 333 Pfingsten, the house on fire is one of two homes built side-by-side within UL's Building 11, an enormous hangar, 120 feet square.
     The false ceiling is the largest land-based elevator in the world, raised and lowered by four enormous hydraulic cylinders, one at each corner, to test the ideal height of sprinkler systems and see if they can put out burning roomfuls of car dashboards or barrels of whiskey (or, memorably, rolls of toilet paper, the charred, soggy remains of which took two days to clean up using front-end loaders). The ventilation system is so powerful it can capture the black smoke pouring out of a house aflame and scrub it clean by actually reburning the smoke. Fresh air is pumped back in to keep house fires from sucking out all the oxygen in the room.
     UL runs more than 100,000 tests a year on 19,000 products from toasters to X-ray machines at 68 facilities around the world. Founded in 1894, with 1,700 employees in Northbrook, UL nevertheless is one of the lower profile Chicago-based businesses.
     "Most of my neighbors have no idea we're out here," said John Drengenberg, Consumer Safety Director at UL.
     In this test, UL has been investigating firefighting procedures, funded by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.
     "What we're researching is the best way to ventilate the fire," Drengenberg said. "This is focused not on consumers, but on firefighters. How can they best do their job, how can they best keep their men safe?"
     Residential fires have declined but firefighter injuries have not, and the theory is outdated techniques might be to blame. Under scrutiny in today's test is the practice of chopping holes in the roof to let out heat.
     "That was the best way at one time—it may not be the best way today, and the reason is that so many materials in your home are synthetic," Drengenberg said. "The backing on your carpet is reconstituted soda bottles. You've got synthetics on your drapes, your furniture. They're infinitely more flammable than cotton, silk or leather, because they're oil-based."
     In decades past, homeowners were told they had 17 minutes to get out after a fire started. Now they have three, four minutes.
     Gathered in an observation room are firefighters from Chicago, the suburbs, New York and Cleveland, plus representatives from federal agencies and colleges.
     "The fuel has changed, construction has changed, our mindset has not," said Frank Rodgers, district chief of the Morton Grove Fire Department.
     Eight minutes after the fire is set, the house's front door is opened, as if firefighters were entering. Black smoke pulses from under the lintel. Two firefighters—UL has its own full-time fire department —advance with a hose. Meanwhile, on the roof, a 4-by-4 hatch is opened—as if a hole were being chopped—and water is shot through. Sensors measure temperature, smoke density.
     The fire is put out quickly—it will be a longer process to repair the damage so the house is in condition to be burned again. Tests run through the end of February.
     While some firefighters present are eager to take the results back to their departments, UL will carefully study the results before issuing an official report.
     "We still have to analyze the data," Drengenberg said.
     "Since everything in the fire service has been largely based on tradition, now it's more science-based, but before they accept any new options, they want to see the data," said Daniel Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "The thinking is, 'This isn't how we've always done it, so why should we change?' And that's really the importance of all these tests."

       —Originally published in the Sun-Times Jan. 25, 2012

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Texas Notes: Virtue Signaling

     Our regular Saturday report from EGD Austin Bureau Chief, Caren Jeskey.

 “We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.”                               ― Immanuel Kant

     I once spent time on a tobacco farm in a small town in Kentucky. The land owners, rich and humble, were still overseers. The migrant workers lived in a large dorm-like building with beds, a kitchen and bathrooms. The beds were spaced apart for privacy, but there were no room dividers. It was very clean, temperate and well appointed yet it was still just a giant room where grown men had to live together for meager wages. Couldn’t the landowners have truly shared their wealth with the men who did dangerous and back-breaking work every day? What if they'd each had a small home where brothers or friends could be roommates, and spouses and children could come and join them and wages to support a family? Wouldn't this be more humane?
     The land owner told me a story. One of the workers came from Guanajuato Mexico to work on the farm and quickly found his new job to be untenable. I was young and very fit back then and helped plant one day, it was brutal. This young man was so distraught that he packed his bags and left after just a few days. He was walking down the road trying to get back home to Mexico when the landowners and his brother, also a worker on the farm, drove down and found him. The owners escorted him back home via airplane and spent some time with his family. This surely created a tighter bond and more trust between the owners and this family of workers. The land owners did their best to be good people; however, they were in an industry that included marginal employment of a corral of men hired on as workhorses, and it just didn’t sit quite right.
     Yes, we can have industry and hire workers. No, we cannot sit in ivory towers like Jeff Bezos (worth an estimated $178.4 billion) is doing today while his Whole Food workers are expected to have face time with hundreds of potentially COVID ridden members of the public each day. One person should not possess such wealth and if they do, they should not be allowed to exploit others to keep their deep pockets from tearing.  

      My Busia (great grandma) used to tell me to “be kind to everyone.” Her daughter, my Grandma Marie, also showed kindness to strangers around every corner. My Grandma Olive always had a smile and a joke, and I don’t think I ever heard her say an unkind word about another human being. My parents taught me about the value of justice since I was a young child, and tried to give me diversity of experience. They chose socially redeeming work when they could, and showed me the value of integrity and honesty in less-redeeming work. I believe that these messages have molded me into a person who cares about others. I have not always been a good person to those I love (including myself) and I have had relationship challenges like everyone else. I knew, though, that I (must always strive to be more balanced in order to be a better member of society. I now seek to have harmony across all boards and minimize conflict when I can. I admit when I am wrong to the best of my ego’s ability, and say I am sorry when I need to. I will continue to use my voice and take actions to contribute to social justice. 
Our Present Image (detail) by David Alfaro Siqueiros (MoMA)
  In my estimation virtue signaling, if honest, is a proper use of one’s voice. Had I not heard stories of the importance of practicing ethical humanism as a child, had I not witnessed my family doing so, who would I be today? Living in the South has provided me with a brand new challenge to test my mettle. For the first time in my life I find that I have right-leaning, Trump supporting, all lives matter believing (of course they do, but that misses the point of striving for justice for all), non mask-wearing, anti-vaxxers— some with ingrained white supremacist beliefs— in my life. Shouting and screaming at them won’t get us anywhere, from what I have seen, but patient discourse and modeling just might. Let’s keep holding out for hope.

     “Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will, and must be defeated.”                                                                            ― Kofi Annan


Friday, July 17, 2020

Douglas statue flap: ‘A lot of catching up to do’

Sherry Williams

     Unlike you, I’ve actually been to the Stephen Douglas Tomb at 35th and Cottage Grove. Three years ago, at the invitation of Sherry Williams, president and founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society. The BHS had stashed its collection in the tombkeeper’s house and was being kicked out — by the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency, ironically enough.
     I mean, I assume you haven’t been there. Maybe you have, on a school field trip or something. So I apologize. It’s bad practice to make broad statements about groups of people you don’t know. A kind of prejudice, really, no matter who does it.
     Where was I? The Douglas Tomb. Not a must-see spot. Not exactly the Bean. As a fan of historic preservation, I was sorry to see the society’s collection, meager though it is, without a home.
     Which tips my hand regarding the statue. There’s no question Douglas was a bad guy — Williams called him “despicable.” He not only owned slaves but treated them so badly that other slaveholders complained, which is really saying a lot. Douglas was something worse than a sincere advocate of slavery — he did so cynically, politically, to hoover up votes from displaced Southerners downstate.
     So ditch the statue? Honestly, it’s not my call. Whose call is it? J.B. Pritzker’s? Three state reps wrote the governor Tuesday asking that the 9-foot-tall statue be removed from its 96-foot granite pedestal and the site no longer promoted to tourists.
     If you’re asking me — OK, you’re not, but let’s pretend — I view the site as a complete historical artifact. The tomb of Douglas. After he died, the neighborhood became a brutal prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate soldiers, plus a few stray traitors like former Chicago Mayor Buckner Morris, held for nine months for conspiring with the Confederacy to free prisoners. (Is his portrait up with the rest of Chicago’s mayors outside Lori Lightfoot’s office? Still waiting to hear. Another problem with purging history of the unworthy: it’s an endless task).

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