Sunday, January 31, 2021

Welcome to my office, belatedly

     If I had to summarize the lessons of the Trump era in one sentence, I would say, "The Trump years were a painful lesson in the toxic danger of self-absorption, though many people were too fixated on themselves to notice."
     I'm as guilty as anybody—okay, not as guilty as those willing to scrap our democratic traditions, their own physical well-being and truth itself in service of a monster who whispers sweet nothings in their ears. But still pretty damn self-centered.
     Though I'm aware of it, and try to fight it, and occasionally succeed. I like to think that counts for something.
     For instance, in October, James Finn Garner, leading "Inside for Indies," a laudable effort to drive folks to independent bookstores for the holidays, asked me to give a tour of my home office. He didn't have to ask twice (well, okay, he did, but that was more from disorganization and delay than reluctance. I was glad to do it, eventually). There is something enticing about showing off your space. I definitely remember being in 7th grade, navigating the difficulties of Roehm Junior High School, and there being a hip young teacher, Miss Jones, a big 1973 afro, and I remember thinking, "If only Miss Jones could see my bedroom, she'd understand."
     Anyway, I showed off my office, in a video I shot myself, and the result was suitably low production value that I didn't see need to share it beyond the leaf-in-the-wind of Twitter and the raise-a-finger-and-clear-your-throat-in-a-riot of Facebook. Leading, after only 10 weeks, to a grand total of 177 views on Facebook, which give you an idea of the kind of small ball I'm playing here. Frankly, I was glad not too many people saw it, between my skipping the punchline in the 55-word story I read (the title is "Published") to my godawful attempt to read a Louise Glück poem.
     But a regular reader objected. A while back, and again this past week, Jakash writes:
     I asked about this once and you replied that you were considering it. I'll ask one more time and then never mention it again.
     Half of the commenters to your EGD post yesterday remarked about the photos of your old S-T office which accompanied it. (I was one of them, but still...)
     I think they, and certainly some other folks, would be interested to see that video of your home (and months-long primary) office that you filmed for that independent-bookstore supporting online series a while back. Maybe you don't agree, or maybe you have another reason for not wanting to post it. Which is fine, needless to say.

     Aw heck, if it's important to you, sure. So, with apologies in advance, you want me nattering on about books and writing in my home office for a dozen minutes, you can find it here.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Texas notes: I Don’t Believe in Ghosts

"Unhappy Ghosts Crossing the Styx" by John Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Rationalists are challenged by accounts of the irrational, like today's post by Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey. I think I'll shut up—an underutilized skill set of mine—and let her tell her story. Life is a mirrored disco ball, and not every facet has to reflect you, or me.
    BMX biker boys wowed us with their tricks at Fountain Square in downtown Evanston during endless summer days. We’d bike the few miles from our north Chicago neighborhood to the charming suburban town square to watch them pop wheelies and do loop de loops in the air. It seemed they were able to fly. We were smitten. Sometimes they’d flirt and we’d swoon. We’d finally tear ourselves away and race down Asbury trying to get home by curfew, and pedaled extra fast when passing the haunted house.
     It was a sleek white modern structure with no windows that we could see, and an abstract twisted humanlike sculpture on the front porch that scared us with its strangeness. The building that just didn’t look like a house seemed to have been dropped from Miami or somewhere else far away, cold and unfeeling. It did not fit in amongst the old rambling wood framed homes with wraparound porches set back on huge yards peppered with stately ancient oak trees. We decided ghosts lived there.
     One day, many years later, a friend of a friend asked me to dog sit for her Labrador Retrievers on that same block. The dogs and I ran around loving each other like Kermie and Miss Piggy. We ran through fields and took day trips to Lake Michigan. We’d wear ourselves out and then fall into heavy sleeps that prepared us to do it all again the next day.
     One night I left the pups and went to a meditation event at the local yoga studio. My friend offered me a ride home on his bicycle, and I hopped on. When we got back to the house we lay in the grass, stargazed and told each other stories until we got sleepy. He biked off and I went inside.
     After walking the dogs I wanted to spend extra time with the puppy Ella, a golden beauty. She would soon be locked into her own room to sleep, as she was prone to eating sideboards and whatever else struck her fancy when no one was looking. The old guy, Beau— a big chocolate lab— would get to come upstairs and sleep on the floor of the bedroom with me.
     We were in the TV room at the front of the house, and I was petting the dogs and half watching a show. Suddenly, Ella ran out of the room into the living room and started barking furiously up into the chimney of the fireplace. I figured it was a bird or squirrel and coaxed her back in with Beau and me.
     Just then I heard footsteps upstairs. Not “are those footsteps?” but clear, loud steps that sounded like they came from leather shoes worn by a man. I looked out the window to see if maybe I was hearing something from the neighbor’s place; after all, these old wooden houses were sure to carry sound. But no, that was not it. The house next door was hundreds of feet across a lawn and there was no way I could hear steps from that house.
     The footsteps stopped, then started up again. Ella barked. Beau’s ears perked up. I froze. I called a friend and told him what was happening. He was concerned and offered to come over, but he lived all the way in Hyde Park. Besides, the footsteps had stopped and of course they were just my imagination (I told myself).
     I was tired. I put Ella into her room and Beau and I went upstairs to sleep. I’d almost forgotten about the footsteps by then.
     In the middle of the night I woke up. For some reason I was sitting straight up in bed, and Beau was standing on the bed— very odd since he never got up on the bed at all. He was staring at me, and it seemed he was trying to tell me something.
     I looked over to my left. There they were. A translucent, man and woman in old fashioned ecru and sepia tinged sleeping gowns. They were petite in stature and their faces were serious, stoic. They just looked at me calmly, and I looked at them, paralyzed. After a few moments they turned and left the room. The walked out of the door and down the hall. Somehow I knew they’d be heading up to the attic, with an entrance tucked up into the hallway ceiling.
     I went back to sleep. The next morning I stripped the bed and brought the sheets down to the basement along with the towels I’d used during my stay. The owners of the house were coming home so it was time to clean up and clear out. Ella came into the basement with me and barked into every corner. I felt unnerved but went through the motions. I noticed what looked like a tree trunk in the center of the old damp concrete basement. I realized that a main support beam was, in fact, a tree trunk that had not been sanded down. It was beautiful and also added to the feeling of rawness of the innards of this ancient house.
     I decided I’d go to a Tai Chi class that day, taught at a local church by a man from China. He was renowned in the are for his masterful skills, and a sought out teacher. When I got there he welcomed me, as he does all new students, and I started my practice. When we finished he told me that the class meets for two hours more, in the library of the church, to study Taoist philosophy and the roots of Tai Chi. I joined them.
     I felt like I was in the twilight zone when I realized the topic of the day. Ghosts. They talked of ghosts like they were real and shared teachings of why ghosts exist and how to help them if they appear to you. Apparently they are there because they are not resting, and you can welcome them and perhaps they will feel free to leave this realm once they feel appeased.
     I’m not saying I believe any of this; that was just what was being taught that day, and the synchronicity was incredible.
     A few months later my friend— the one who'd introduced me to Beau and Ella’s humans— told me that her 8 year old son had informed her “I will never sleep at ‘Johnny’s’ house again. This boy was friends with the kid who lived in my ghost house. He told his mom “I hear a woman and man talking all night up in the crawl space and they keep me up.”
     Years later I saw the couple who live in that house. I said to her “there’s something I want to tell you but I have been afraid to since I thought you'd think I was crazy.” “Oh,” she said. “You saw the ghosts. I’ve never seen them but they show themselves to visitors.”

Friday, January 29, 2021

Sea birds, QAnon and the quicksand of conspiracy

Stormy Sea, by Eduard Hildebrandt (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     The common murre is a big seabird, a type of auk found, among other places, on an island in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Sweden. The New York Times science section ran an article about those murres on Tuesday and I read it, even though I have no particular interest in seabirds, the Baltic Sea, or Sweden. It was lunchtime and the Science Times was right there.
     I’m glad I did. The article explains how biologists are eagerly exploiting the pandemic shutdown of global travel to see what effect the departure of humans has on ecosystems such as the murre colony at the Stora Karlsö nature preserve. The general perception when it comes to the natural world is humans = bad. But here “the sudden absence of tourists at Stora Karlsö during the pandemic set off a surprising chain reaction that wreaked havoc on the island’s colony of common murres, diminishing its population of newborn birds.”
     Oh no! What happened?

     The murres aren’t the only birds in the area. There are also white-tailed eagles. Researchers discovered that the eagles don’t like people — and who can blame them?— so they stay away when tourists tramp about. But with people gone, the eagles are emboldened, and their presence, swooping around, throws the ungainly seabirds off their egg rearing.
     I love that. Because it supports my belief that the world is complicated, interconnected and counterintuitive. Though if scientists found the opposite — with people gone, the murres are having a jubilee — I’d accept that, too. Because I’m an adjust-my-outlook-to-the-facts kind of guy.
     The world doesn’t always tickle your biases. That seems, to me, a given. Not everyone got the memo, though. Many swap this enormous, beautiful clockwork of endless complexity for a little ball and cup contrivance of their own dry imagining. Because its plop-plop makes them feel better about themselves.
     On Wednesday, a video surfaced of U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-QAnon) harassing Parkland massacre survivor David Hogg.
     “Why do you use kids?” she yells. “Why kids?”

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Flashback 1996: It's Pointless to Shift Gears on State Street

401 N. Wabash, 2004
     As a rule, I look back with satisfaction on past columns. That might be a bad thing. But this one is an exception that makes me wince, a little. Not just that it was wrong. Or terribly bad. But clunky. Definitely a little clunky. 
     Then again, it was my very first regular column, published 25 years ago today, and I thought I would celebrate by putting my feet up  and posting it without allowing myself too much embarrassment. I got better, over time.
     I probably should try to say something about 25 years of  writing a news column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Hmmm... God it was fun. Yes, I think that about covers it.

     Nothing is sadder than a business that time has passed by. The typewriter repair shop, clinging to life. The 1950s era Chinese restaurant, with one customer at noon. The faded tea room in the basement of a once grand hotel, boldly announcing that ladies will no longer be required to wear gloves at the second seating.
     And State Street. The ailing address, turned into an odd hybrid pedestrian mall 17 years ago in a desperate bid to boost business, is now being changed back into a normal street.
     Not that it matters. Those with a financial or political stake will argue the problem with State Street can be fixed with narrower sidewalks and thornless honey locust trees. But who else thinks so? Who thinks that once traffic is allowed back, all those shoppers with money jammed in every pocket will suddenly skip Old Orchard and Woodfield and Oakbrook to make the journey to State Street, to shop at Wanda's Wig World or Cut-Rate Electronics? Who believes that?
     Mayor Daley, for one, apparently. He was at State Street Tuesday, speaking the right words —"dynamic," "rebirth," "boost," "economy" and "tourism"—and his pronunciation was beyond reproach.
     That's his job. Maybe he got back to City Hall and laughed his peculiar Poppin' Fresh tee-hee-hee giggle and said: "Well . . . it's neva gonna work . . . nope nope nope. Neva neva neva."
    Probably not. This is the same guy who is constantly dreaming up giant construction projects —casino mini-cities and transportation hubs and celebratory gateways—vast edifices that would make Ramses II blush.
     State Street is small potatoes, on the pharaonic scale. Perhaps that is why it is actually coming to fruition. There is nothing grand to what is being called the "de-malling" of State Street. Nor original. Nearly a decade has passed since Oak Park and many other communities across the country got rid of their pedestrian malls, attempting to cure the selfsame economic slumps that inspired construction of the malls in the first place.
     These things run in cycles. We can fully expect the city to take an even more frayed State Street, albeit one with Kentucky coffee trees, and re-mall the remaining wreckage, perhaps by order of Mayor Pippen, sometime around the year 2015.
     Don't get me wrong. I'm not mourning the loss of the State Street mall. It was nowhere near as historic as that Mies van der Rohe staircase in the Arts Club and twice as ugly. OK, three times.
     Unlike the Lake Street mall in Oak Park, which was beautiful, with oaks and fountains and benches. Merchants complained that residents were enjoying the parklike setting instead of going into their stores. So the street was put back in. Sixty percent of Oak Park residents opposed the change, but the merchants were delighted.
     "Tremendous," says Bob Proce, owner of the Razzle Dazzle costume shop on Lake Street. "Fabulous. It worked really well. Access is easy. If a guy wants to park his car, he can."
     This would seem to bode well for State Street. But, in a perverse twist, cars will not be allowed to park there.
   "No parking on the street, no standing—that same red city sign," said Sonya Griffin of the city Transportation Department. "That will be enforced."
     Lack of on-street parking may not be so bad, in itself. There's no parking on Michigan Avenue, either, and it still works, except for Stuart Brent. But Michigan Avenue has glamor— Tiffany's and Neiman Marcus and all that. Even if the various North Loop theater renovations actually succeed, how will that help stores during the day? How much glamor will 1920s streetlights create if they are in front of the same two-suits-for-$99 discount outlets lining the street today, with their flashing strobe lights and blaring loudspeakers? That'll pull 'em in from Wheaton.
     The mayor should know this. But Daley has usually been off base when pushing to build his pyramids. He fought for casino gambling even as evidence mounted in New Orleans and Atlantic City that casinos are a civic disaster. Daley similarly got whupped on the Third Airport by a bunch of Southeast Siders who outmaneuvered him, inspired only by the prospect of their homes being turned into Runway Seven.
     Perhaps the problem is genetic. Early last week PBS aired its two-hour special on Daley's father, Richard J., who was very good at commanding underlings but not so good at reacting to social change. He not only constructed the high-rise hells that plague the city to this day, but pushed through the expressways that encouraged downtown workers to flee to suburbia in the first place.
     Daley, the younger, claimed he didn't watch the program, an astounding act of resistance on his part. Were PBS dissecting my dad in prime time, I'd probably find a moment to tune in.
     Maybe he didn't want to see all those clips of his father in a hard hat looking over the construction of famous skyscrapers. Maybe that explains State Street. Daley is just so sick of being thwarted in his grandiose projects that he wants to build something, even if it is just a bunch of planters and subway kiosks. Not quite the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center. But then we live in less heroic times, and a mayor has to grab for glory where he can.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 28, 1996

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Dilemma at heart of sex abuse claims


“No one ever had a bad word to say about him.”

In late May, 2015, it was revealed that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert had sexually molested boys he coached in high school wrestling. The media descended on his hometown of Yorkville, Illinois. Those who knew him were shocked and supportive.

“He was a fantastic mentor.”

Hastert was charged, not with the abuse itself, but for structuring payments to silence the abused. Which isn’t quite a signed confession. But close.

“I would have known for sure. Something like that we would have jumped on right away.”

Only the good people of Yorkville didn’t know. Or knew and didn’t jump on it right away. Hastert admitted to molesting children and went to prison for 13 months.

“I hope it’s not true.”

Which sums up the view of those who know and respect Father Michael Pfleger, including myself, as the longtime firebrand priest of St. Sabina’s faces a pair of brothers who accuse him of abuse 45 years ago. 

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

A short history of occasional poetry

     My treatise Sunday on another columnist got out of hand—every time I read it, the thing got even longer—and this is perhaps worse. I grow prolix in confinement. Today's effort started as a few sentences trimmed out of my column on the inauguration and the Star Spangled Banner. The problem, I think, is a stab at thoroughness. I tried to include ALL the inaugural poets. And more. Plus the subject. If you are arguing something is mundane, you need illustration, but then you end up with a catalogue of mundanity. 
     So apologies in advance for beating you into submission with this. And if you want to skip it, I not only understand, but approve and encourage.
      Though maybe you are housebound and need to kill some time. Or maybe this isn't as bad as I think it is. Anyway, too late now. Grabbing a machete and cutting it back would take a stamina that I just don't have at the moment. Running on fumes. Or maybe Inauguration Day was six days ago and the hard, cold slog ahead is starting to sink in.

     The composition of a poem to mark a great occasion is an ancient tradition, probably what got poetry going in the first place. Stretching back to pre-literate times when verse really was the only way to carry on the particulars of an event into the future. "The Iliad" could be considered such a poem, assuming the Trojan War actually occurred, which it may have.
     The genre slides quickly downhill from there. In later centuries, what has been known as "occasional poetry" tends to be a fairly dubious catalogue, reeking of the overwrought, like Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," published six weeks after the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
      The most jarring example of a poet knocked off the rails while trying to capture history is "O Captain, My Captain," which intellectually I know was written by Walt Whitman, but really feels like Longfellow. Inspired by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman was proud to nod at as they rode past each other in wartime Washington, D.C., the rebel is kneecapped by emotion, at his overwrought Victorian worst:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
     It would take 50 years for  decent war poetry to appear, such as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." 
     Even more fraught is when a poem is not just inspired by a contemporary event, but paid for, as a commission, to mark an occasion, giving the fatal stamp of official approval to what is supposed to be a spontaneous and heartfelt expression of honest emotion, nudging it toward work-for-hire PR. 
     The first poet to read at a presidential inauguration was Robert Frost, a fact often mentioned by journalists last week, every last one oblivious to the fact that the poem he composed for Kennedy was singsong shit. It clatters like a tray of dropped stainless steel flatware, and the first three lines will serve:
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something for us all to celebrate
     Read it out loud for the full effect.
     In his defense, Frost was 86, and thankfully God Almighty Himself interceded at that point, blinding Frost with sunlight so he couldn't read his freshly-minted opus, and after an agonizing muttering eternity when the whole thing teetered on disaster, Frost recovered by switching to "The Gift Outright," a far better poem he knew by heart.
     Not that occasional poems can't rise to the occasion, occasionally. Gwendolyn Brooks' poem written for the dedication of Chicago's Picasso sculpture in 1968 stands up well, particularly considering she thought the statue looked stupid.
    It begins:
Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms. 
Art hurts. Art urges voyages-- 
and it is easier to stay at home, 
the nice beer ready. 
In commonrooms 
we belch, or sniff, or scratch. 
Are raw.
     "Art hurts." That should be a book title. One has to wonder what Mayor Richard J. Daley, on the dais, made of that. There are also more than a few treatises to be written on the tendency over the past half century for Black female poets—never male—to be called upon to solemnize a public occasion by white politicians who wouldn't dream of inviting them to dinner. Maybe some deeper, unrecognized yearning toward truth sparks the assignment, but the truth can only be considered when rendered into poetry and delivered by a woman. We'll know our country has made actual progress when somebody like Terrence Hayes delivers the inaugural poem. I hope observing this isn't interpreted as diminishing female poets—careers have been scuttled for less. I'm not. I'm just pointing out a tendency. 
     The near fiasco of Frost's reading might have been why nobody tried it again for 32 years, until Bill Clinton tapped Maya Angelou, whose "On the Pulse of the Morning" is more honored than recalled. To listen to it today, with its talking rock, tree, river, and long lists of ethnicities is catch a glimpse of where liberalism goes astray. Maybe the stanzas where all those types come together as one mighty nation got cut, for brevity, and its wisdom is of the shallowed sort:
     History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived
     but if faced with courage need not be lived again.
    I'd say it isn't lived again however it's faced, but that's just me. Then again, the poem was acclaimed at the time, so maybe the message here is the short shelf life of such works. Composed to mark the moment, they lose their footing when the moment passes, as all moments must.
    But Maya Angelou, grim, regal, rebuking, is Grace Jones snarling in a cage at Studio 54 compared to Miller Williams—you ever hear of him? Me neither—the poet whose reading at Clinton's second inauguration was so inconsequential it simply evaporates from history, the words deracinated and drained.
   We mean to be the people
   We meant to be 
   To keep on going 
   Where we meant to go
   But how do we fashion the future?
   Who can say how?    

     Do this for six minutes and you have an inaugural poem.
     Barack Obama's first inaugural in 2009 featured "Praise Song for the Day," written and read by Elizabeth Alexander. It is, in essence, a paean to the normal, and all the possibilities contained within. The poem has its moments.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp
    Not a bad poem. 
But it ends up manifesting rather than celebrating ordinariness, further undercut by her halting, choppy delivery. No matter the poem, you gotta sell it. Alexander's ... one ... word ... after ... another delivery is a reminder why many people don't like poetry. Watch her reading, and Amanda Gorman's accomplishment last Wednesday will be driven home.    
    Richard Blanco was even more somnambulant reading "One Today" in 2013, if such a thing were possible. He was identified as the first gay poet to read at an inauguration, and the son of Cuban immigrants. Those groups no doubt cherish their participation trophy. His poem wouldn't seem extraordinary read by any high school senior at any talent show anywhere.
   "Thank the work of our hands ... weaving steel into bridges ... finishing one more report for the boss."
     Donald Trump, needless to say, did not have a poet read at his inauguration. He may never have heard a poem in his life that didn't begin, "There was a young woman from Sussex..." Still, the Scotsman published a poem written in honor of his inauguration by Joseph Charles McEnzie:
He welcomes the worthy, but guards our frontier,
Lest a murderous horde, for whom hell is the norm,
Should threaten our lives and our nation deform.
     That hasn't aged well, has it?
     Blanco was the youngest, at 44, which makes Gorman, exactly half his age. I probably shouldn't say anything about her; the nation has already rocked with praise for her delivery of "The Hill We Climb" for days. She began:
     When day comes 
     We ask ourselves
     Where can we find light in this everlasting shade?
     In you, young lady, for starters. Gorman soon slips into the lightest rap cadence, "The dawn was ours before we knew it, somehow we do it" with more memorable, powerful phrases in her six minutes than in all the previous inaugural poems put together. "A nation that isn't broken, simply unfinished," and "To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man" sailing boldly over the gender shoals that wreck so many. "Victorious, not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division" (okay, the truth is, we'll never stop sowing. But as another poet, Robert Browning, noted, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?")
     The heart:

The hill we climb if only we dare it
Being American is more than a pride we inherit
It's the past we step into
and how we repair it
We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it
would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
     I don't want to quote the whole poem. Maybe it feels right because it was written three weeks ago. Or maybe it'll last the test of time.
     My wife said two things afterward, the first undeniable.
     "She's beautiful," she said, and I gratefully nodded. I hadn't wanted to say. It's creepy when the guy says it.
      "Maybe she'll do for poetry what 'The Queen's Gambit' did for chess."
      That's an intriguing thought, though poetry is already a big deal, if you ask me, especially in cities. Gorman is the America's Young Poet Laureate, and I'd say she has a future as bright as her canary yellow Prada jacket, although it'll be hard to top the international flash of last week. Then again T.S. Eliot, another Harvard poet, was 27 when "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" appeared in Poetry Magazine, and he still had "The Waste Land" and "Four Quartets" ahead of him. Life is very long, as Eliot said, if you do it right.


Monday, January 25, 2021

Season’s skate through youth hockey hell

Micah Cohen

     I know how valuable youth hockey can be because I went to Andy Stein’s funeral. The Steins live across the street from us. Andy coached hockey.
     He died in 2016 of brain cancer, and there were hundreds of mourners at his funeral. The Glenbrook North hockey team came in uniform. I listened to his twin sons, Ben and Jared, eulogize him and thought, grimly, “I’ve wasted my entire life by not coaching hockey ...”
     So thank you Rich Cohen, whose new book “Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent” body checks that sort of thinking, hard. It’s a Dantean journey through all nine rings of frozen youth hockey hell.
     If it seems an odd choice of reading material for me, remember Cohen is author of a string of captivating books from “Tough Jews” to “The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse.” I’ve read nine and read this book because reading Rich Cohen’s books is what a person who likes reading books does, whatever the subject. It’s almost a duty.
     Spoiler alert: Nobody comes out well. Coaches, parents, kids with the signal exception of his own son, Micah, and his teammates. But most of all, himself.
     Cohen, who played hockey during his golden North Shore youth, is every angry, stymied hockey parent who ever pounded the glass, albeit with a self-analytic gear most lack. An adult who cares far, far, far more about any given hockey situation than his kid, who just shrugs and plays, as kids tend to do.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

In defense of John Kass

     Back in my Medill days, professors would sometimes pose a trick question: What is the main purpose of a newspaper?
     Apple polishers and future do-gooders would wave their arms, eager to rhapsodize about reporting the news and speaking truth to power, penning the first draft of history, blah blah blah. We worldlier sorts would let them embarrass themselves for a while, then float our hands up.
    "To make money and stay in business," one of us would drawl, with a half smirk, knowing even before we were told that this is the only correct answer. Because a paper that has gone out of business can't do anything good, bad or indifferent. The Chicago Daily News was a fantastic newspaper, the best in the city, right up until March 4, 1978. Then it was nothing but a painful memory.
     One way newspapers try to avoid this fate is by casting a very wide net. A newspaper is a universe, or should be. Like Walt Whitman, they contain multitudes. There isn't a section titled, "Airy nonsense for dupes"—we call it the horoscope, and the Sun-Times ran two last time I checked because apparently one just isn't enough. We run three pages of mostly undistinguished comics. Why? When I once asked why we didn't dial the comics back to make room for actual journalism, the features editor shot me a withering look that said, "Because readers would show up here carrying gas cans and solemnly set themselves on fire in front of the paper, that's why." Half of the people who tell me they read the Sun-Times only for my column then add, "...and Sudoku." Which is fine. You can read the Sun-Times for me and the tide tables. Or just for the legal notices. All good, so long as you read.
     That is why John Greenfield's Jan. 11 piece in the Chicago Reader, "John Kass washing his hands of responsibility for last week's riot was a bridge too far" demanding that the Tribune columnist be fired for his supposed role fomenting the Jan. 6 Capitol attacks evoked an unfamiliar emotion, one that I have never felt nor could have imagined it possible to feel: a need to defend John Kass.
    Not the material, God knows. I concede that Kass's writing is that of a monotonic right-wing troll, with all the hysterical self-pitying whine that has pervaded our nation like stink in a bus station bathroom for the past four years. At least to my recollection. It's been a while since I've actually read him. So maybe he got better. I try to extend the benefit of the doubt, even to those of whom I disapprove, which is one of the many differences between us. (For instance, I've had colleagues tell me that he is a nice guy, in person, and I have no reason to doubt them. Though, if true, that only deepens the mystery of how avuncular right wingers can smile and nod at passersby while neck deep in a sewer of hateful ideology). But when I did read him, or try to, he was reliably repetitive, dull, tone deaf, mean-spirited and shrill. And that most fatal flaw, incurious. Remember that John Kass column where he eagerly explores some unusual topic just because it is fascinating? Yeah, me neither. For a while, I would test myself by reading the first three paragraphs of his column and then stopping, just to see if I had any problem bailing out at that point. I never did. Then I gave up doing even that. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there was no there there.
     Which is okay, because he isn't for me. Part of the trick of not being John Kass or writers like him is to realize that not everything is supposed to be for you. There are other people in the world who believe other things. They have a right to exist and passionately believe all sorts of ludicrous nonsense. They get to read stuff they like too.  
     From time to time readers would challenge me, since I had written "BobWatch" in the Reader for two years in the mid-1990s, to reprise the column with Kass as my material. I'd patiently explain that doing so would be physically impossible. Bob Greene was deeply weird in a captivating way—you almost had to read his column, excuse me, skein of related columns, celebrating scab baseball players or mourning the passing of soda fountains or keening over Baby Richard, whatever fragile hobbyhorse he had firmly mounted between his monstrous thighs and was now riding into splinters. Bob Greene was like a patient in an Oliver Sacks book, damaged in a creepy, fascinating way. Sure, you might read through latticed fingers, pausing to choke back a half ounce of hot vomit, or turn to an imaginary audience to say "can you believe this shit?" which is actually how BobWatch started.
     But Kass? I'd have great difficulty reading an entire column. Not if you paid me $1 a word. Not if you put a gun to my head and cocked the hammer back and told me I had to get to the end and summarize it or you'd pull the trigger and splatter my brains against a white wall. I mean, I would try, particularly for that buck a word. And maybe, probably, I could do it, but it would take intense concentration, fingers raking my cheeks, eyes whirling to track the pale little moths of thought as they slide off the page and flap silently away, casting strange shadows, circling around me like butterflies around Alice's head. 
     Like Greene, Kass could write at one point. To read his sharp 1996 profile of Richard Daley, with its priceless opening vignette of Daley running home to his mommy with a fever, is to mourn the ruin that can come bundled with a column. I distinctly remember his first one, a riveting. two-parter about a Chicago public school teacher being beaten with a metal bar. Then, as often happens, success and ego and laziness got to him, and soon he was doing a bad parody of Mike Royko, haunting the Billy Goat, sharing recipes for beer can chicken, coining fake insidery lingo and adopting a bully's swagger he passes off as a style. A colleague summed him up far more succinctly than I'm doing here with: "He sees people who aren't there," adding a few lines about how Kass can drive down an empty block and see wise guys in loud plaid jackets picking their teeth under street lamps while grannies in babushkas kneel in front of their bungalows, scrubbing the front stoops with Comet.
     I suppose that's imagination of a sort.
     But after enough years of that passed Kass, like Greene, became a mere parody of himself, as the sentient wandered off, fanning the air. By now he has to be the least consequential columnist on the Tribune's roster, in all of Chicago, if not the world, if not in the history of the world. Nobody I know has ever said, "Did you read John Kass today?" Though, again to be fair, this must be due to my being in a self-selective group. I don't hang out with people who read John Kass. They certainly exist. I'm sure when his column is published on, er, whenever it runs, a cheer goes up in Mount Greenwood. 
     Here's where John Greenfield goes astray. I don't know Greenfield, but I imagine he's not down at Dugans holding up the bar with the guys from Second City Cop, shaking his head about how fuckin' Obama was given every break in the world by the pansy liberal press while poor old Donald Trump never was given a chance. Hated because he was so good and decent and American. Those who see the world as a vast conspiracy of the semitic and the pigmented arrayed against them, and Kass as a brave cry in the wilderness giving voice to their deep existential pain at hearing Spanish spoken by a kid running the fryer at McDonald's.
     In our world, Kass, like Louis Farrakhan, never comes on the radar unless there are hoots of outrage over his occasional lurches into anti-Semitism. But that doesn't make him responsible, just one tiny piping voice in the great Right Wing chorus harmonizing fear of globalism and religions not their own. He's in the back, warbling, he isn't conducting the choir. It's not his fault. Heck, I wouldn't blame Kass for a fist-fight between neighbors over chairs set out in dibs in Gage Park, never mind large-scale mob action in Washington. There isn't a justification for Greenfield's claim that "it's time for Tribune leadership to get rid of Kass's column for good." 
     First, the request is naive. I don't have many rules for myself as a columnist, but one is: never advocate the impossible. One thing Bob Greene taught us is the Tribune never gets rid of anybody over issues of quality. Once in the club, always in the club, no matter how stunted or sporadic their work has become. I can't tell you how many Tribune writers I've met over the years where I had to swallow the reply, "Good to see you; I thought you were dead." Bruce Dold wasn't in the business of cashiering mediocrities; he would have had to start with himself. Granted, that will change under Alden Capital, and this whole conversation might be like debating whether a man who is condemned to hang next week should be shot today instead. I used to feel competitive with the Tribune. Now I just feel sorry for them. They used to have office aeries with semi-circular windows looking out of the Gothic horror show of Tribune Tower at Michigan Avenue, far below. Now they're going to be tucked behind the presses at the giant windowless bulk of Freedom Center. I assume they got rid of the chap in livery handing out warm towels in the executive washroom long ago.
     Second, until Alden pulls the plug and runs the whole place off an algorithm and four workers in Kashmir, Kass will have a valid function. To be the blithering nincompoop that Greenfield decries. That's his job. Half of the Tribune readership laps up that kind of garbage. Why not keep them happy? The Sun-Times used to run Dennis Byrne, who though not quite as sphincterific as Kass, still wrote a column that was similarly a head-shaking mystery to those of us not locked in the grip of right-wing batshittery, I never thought the man should be drummed out because of it. Just the opposite. I was glad he was there. He gave me cover. Whenever someone would accuse the paper of being merely a liberal rag, I could murmur, "But we run Dennis Byrne. Read him instead of me."
     Remember, nobody forces you to read any particular columnist. That's what the photos are for. As a subtle hint of what you'll be getting below. Which, to be honest, still flies past many readers, who will write in to inform me, "A-HA, I'm onto you, Steinberg. You are in the LIBERAL camp!!!" Figured that out, huh? All by yourself! Thank you for writing.
     So maybe that's just me, with the superpower to nimbly jeté over the John Kasses of the world, and hoo-boy, there are a lot of them. I have never watched a moment of Sean Hannity. Why would I do that? You have to keep the poison out, and if I seem irked, it's because the Reader made me think more about John Kass over the past hour than I have in the previous decade. I hope none of this is seen as an indictment of John Greenfield, who has been around the block himself, often on a bicycle, and is editor of Streetsblog. He seems a solid guy, this an understandable lapse and I am not criticizing him for it, personally. Think of it more brotherly advice. I'm only telling him what I would tell a friend who left the dead mouse of a John Kass column on my pillow, as sometimes happens: don't be a vector, don't be the dim cat sharing your limp prize. If you didn't bring Kass up, I'd never think of him at all, and isn't that a happy place to be? Even as a Tribune subscriber. I can look at a page he is on and his column doesn't even register. My eyes dance over him without perceiving one word, the way you step over a turd on the sidewalk without needing to study its topography. I don't even realize he's there. Originally, I grabbed his headshot to illustrate this page, but I had to remove it, because otherwise my eyes couldn't focus on the words underneath. 
      Yes, it galls that the Tribune would keep Kass while showing the gate to such luminaries as architecture critic Blair Kamin, arts maven Howard Reich, and restaurant reviewer Phil Vettel. It is what I used to call, in the years that David Radler ran the Sun-Times, the Bean Soup Theory of Journalism, where occasionally you look into the bowls of soup you're selling and think, "You know ... I could pluck out a few beans, and it would still be bean soup." Until you find yourself with a bowl of broth and three beans.
     I'm glad that the Sun-Times seems on the way to becoming the preeminent newspaper in Chicago, but sad it had to happen this way. This is like winning a 100-yard dash then, as you cross the finish line, turning to see your opponent 30 yards back, writhing in the cinders, clutching his calf. It's good to win. But not like that.
     So if keeping Kass means that Eric Zorn will have a job a little longer, I am all for that. Remember, Fox News didn't turn rural America into gobsmacked haters who will buy any lie provided it's idiotic enough. Rather, Fox found them that way, and printed money by parroting their stunted biases back at them. The right wing media is like those vibrating mattresses once found at seedy motels. The Magic Fingers don't give you a bad back, and they don't make it better. They just provide the illusion of soothing your damage while charging you a quarter a minute. John Kass didn't lead that mob, he followed it. They're all followers, sheep beseechingly bleating for a shepherd, cattle in a chute. That's the problem.    
      Okay, you get the point. No mas. I do prattle on, and I apologize for that. One of the central if unspoken tenets in journalism is, "You have to put the slop where the pigs can get at it." You have to empty the bucket within reach of the readers.  So if the swine snuffling around the Trib are hungering for a big trough full of John Kass's musings then, soo-EEE, come and get it. If Fox News can keep Sean Hannity on the payroll, a truly evil man, a traitor and genuine abetter of terrorists who should probably be on trial in the Hague, then the Tribune should have no worry about its moaning Hannity homunculus, its wan Tucker Carlson wannabe, who does no harm to anybody but himself, and probably fattens the Tribune's thinning bottom line while he's at it.
     So I throw my full and enthusiastic support behind John Kass, for all it's worth. Besides, when I have doubts about myself as a columnist, as often happens, all I need do is think of Kass, his brow uncreased by doubt of any kind, and suddenly I find serenity and pride, confidence and satisfaction. I might not be much, but I sure ain't that. So for selfish reasons alone, I hope that the Tribune ignores calls for his firing, and keeps the man for as long as Chicago can stomach him.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Texas notes: Good cog


     Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey puts up some covering fire for her homophone namesakes. 

     Karen Karen Karen! Who is this not-so-mysterious creature? Neil’s recent piece had me thinking about her again. Karen was the third most popular girls name in 1965 (says Wiki). In the 70s she was a Carpenter with a voice few ears were able to refuse. In the 80s and 90s she did not get much attention. Today she is a household name—this incarnation of Karen finally bearing the attention she has so sorely craved.
     There are multiple ideas about where the meme originated— a Dane Cook comedy routine, Black Twitter, Reddit, and “an evolution of an AAVE [African American Vernacular English] linguistic term referring to ‘unreasonable white women.’” (Wiki again).
     They are known to call the police on people of color, such as the Central Park Karen who tried to have an innocent black man arrested in Central Park by falsely accusing him of attempting to assault her in May of 2020. The next month, a San Francisco Karen called the police on James Juanillo as he stenciled Black Lives Matter in chalk on a concrete wall on his own property.
     The most horrifying part of this is that the Central Park Karen, and many others, may have gotten away with having an innocent black man sent to jail on false charges of attempted assault. It is well documented that innocent black men sit in jail for crimes they did not commit. Many have been murdered for glancing at a white woman. A culture of extreme fear of black men permeates our society and sickens it.
     This part of the meme’s meaning is the most important. Yes, it’s unfortunate that a woman’s name is being used to make a point. Women suffer enough hatred and subjugation as it is. I’d love to launch a successful campaign to rename Karen. How about Jerk? Or Donald? (Sorry Donalds, I trust this will not stick).
     What’s more important than the name is the meaning behind it and it’s good we are naming this behavior. When we try to live happily in a world with people whose emotional intelligence, ability to practice self-control, and perhaps something more nefarious is fueling them, we are all in trouble.
     These days it seems a lot of people espouse the right things. They pepper their yards with BLM signs, loudly vote against an oppressive system, and fancy themselves good-enough. My next door neighbors sometimes play music, and the bass comes right into my tiny house with a thump thump thump. I went over there around the 1st of the year with a bottle of Prosecco and wished the man who answered a happy new year. I was scared to do this, but I took a deep breath and let him know that sometimes I can hear their bass, and it was so loud at times that I was unable to have the peace needed to watch a movie in my little tiny quarantine space. I told him “I’m sure you don’t realize it, so I just wanted you to know.” I offered some acoustical solutions (which are quite simple), and offered to help pay for any supplies needed.
     He glanced in at his wife who must have been gesturing to him, and handed me back the Prosecco. He said “you’ll just have to call the police.” I said, “I’m not going to call the police. Thanks so much for being such good neighbors at the time of a global pandemic,” and I left.             Was I being a Karen? I don’t think so, since I was calm and friendly; well, maybe a bit with the snarky pandemic line.
     My neighbors are Austin originals with an upgraded Airstream trailer parked in their back yard. They always have fun giveaways placed out on the curb. Up until I asked them to be mindful about noise they were friendly. 
What we are missing in this world is humility, and a lack of regard for how others feel. You and I might see that we have been guilty of this. We feel an urgent need to get there first in traffic, and rather than yield to the person trying to merge we “stand our ground.” We want the person in front of us at the store to hurry up, not giving them time to put their credit card away. We say we care about front line workers but treat them like hired help, even as they put their lives in jeopardy to keep the wheels turning day by day. We park in parking spots not designated for 
    We are easily annoyed, especially under stress, and we are all under stress.
     When I heard the thump of music the other day I practiced what I preach. I told myself, “it’s not that bad.” “Nowhere is perfect, there will always be some outside noise.” It worked. I have been practicing kind thoughts towards them. When I walk by their house I think to myself “may they be well, happy and peaceful.”
     If we can walk this earth together, hand in hand, it will be better for all of us. We will be happier if we learn not to succumb to our anger, rage, depression, anxiety, impatience and sense of entitlement. If we see others doing so, we can give them the benefit of the doubt. If we slip up, we can apologize, forgive ourselves, and try to focus on doing the next important thing.       A yoga teacher once reminded me to “always try to be a good cog in the wheel.” I have failed many times, and yet with ardent inner work and help from mentors, family, and friends I feel more well-oiled than every before. Self-care is essential. If we are not rested and well-nourished by food and support it’s hard for us to be the best versions of ourselves. Let’s minimize the Donald in us and remember that we are each others’ keepers.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Star-spangled banner still waves over us

     “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a strange song for a national anthem. Not just for its notoriously hard-to-sing melody that lurches over an octave and a half, straining toward that high F, “o’er the land of the freeeeeee.” Nor that fact the tune is an old English drinking song, repurposed.
     I mean, what the song is about. It isn’t a celebration, like Australia’s. “We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil.” It isn’t a call to arms, like “La Marseillaise.”
     No, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is about surveying the wreckage. It’s a morning-after song, about waiting for the sun to come up to see if the British Navy, which has been shellacking Fort McHenry all night during the War of 1812, has prevailed.
     “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming?”
     Is our flag still there?
     Those “broad stripes and bright stars” were indeed still there. The British guns were ineffectual at the range they were being used, and the ships didn’t dare come in closer, within range of the fort’s battery.
     And though I’ve been singing it all my life, with more gusto than tune, the song’s meaning never really sunk in. It never seemed a perfect fit for the moment, until Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday. When Lady Gaga came out in that enormous poof of red dress and sang, our nation emerged blinking from the four-year assault it has been enduring.
     Into the very bright light of Wednesday morning, squinting into the swirling smoke, asking: “Are we still here? Are we still a nation?”
     Yes. Yes we are.

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Flashback 1998: Secrets of the lost-and-found

Untitled, by Jannis Kounellis (Hirshhorn Museum) 

     I was looking for clips related to the Museum of Science & Industry, and I found this. It's the kind of column that I really like, in that it's filled with things, yet imbued with an overarching sense of humanity and all its inscrutability. 

     Caitlin's "Petite Miss" diary is there, as is Alicia A. Wilkey's purse. There is a pair of skis, plus many pillows, blankets, suitcases, eyeglasses, wallets, sets of keys, cameras and cell phones. At least a dozen Bibles. Four coolers. Mike Hoffman's wallet is waiting, the cash still inside, as is Ivory Thomas' LaSalle Bank savings account bankbook.
     All are inventoried and stacked in the tidy little lost-and-found room in the basement of Union Station, a treasure trove of mystery presided over by Amtrak agent Steve Napoli.
     "What I can't understand is the wheelchairs," he said. "I've had three wheelchairs. How do you forget a wheelchair?"
     Almost every large public place in Chicago has its own lost-and-found—museums and shopping centers, concert halls and office buildings. Sad collections of ownerless ephemera, keys that will never find their locks, photograph albums that will never draw a spark of recognition.
      While lost-and-founds have certain things in common—wherever people go, they tend to lose the same things—each has its own particular brand of mystery and drama.
     "We typically have things like wallets, keys, lots of sunglasses and favorite dolls or stuffed animals," said Kate Desulis, membership and visitor services coordinator at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, who also manages the lost-and-found. "A couple of times we've had shoes, usually one. I often wonder how people manage to hike back from the trail with only one shoe."
     Desulis said it is particularly satisfying to be able to reunite a doll with its owner.
     "We often get frantic calls from the mothers who want to know if little Betty is found," she said. "They're very excited when we can tell them, `Yes, we have your doll.' "
     Carlton Bolden, special-projects coordinator for visitors services at the Museum of Science and Industry, says the most common items are sweaters, though he has noticed the shoe mystery, too.
     "The only thing I can assume is either somebody changed shoes or, who knows, maybe they bought new ones and thought this would be a good dumping ground for the old ones," he said.
     One rather personal and expensive lost item sticks in Bolden's mind.
     "At one point we had a retainer turned in," he said, noting it was never claimed. "I would think you would miss it, you would look for it. Those things aren't cheap."
     He also recalls the time a child lost her Giga Pet.
     "We kept getting calls for it," he said. "It was just like a lost baby."
     Most lost-and-founds will take steps to reunite items to their owners, though not all. If you lose your wallet at Northwestern University's Norris Center student union, you're out of luck. "We have a few wallets with IDs," said Stephanie Carr, class of '98, who works at the front desk. "For some reason we don't really call people."
     Mike Sawyer, the house manager at Orchestra Hall, says they do just the opposite there, going to great effort to reunite patrons with their belongings. He once drove to the home of a disoriented elderly patron who donned two coats belonging to his box mates, leaving his own behind.
      "We traced him through the ticketing department," Sawyer said. "That was very unusual."
     Sawyer said that the contents of the lost-and-found box varies with the seasons. "We're mostly lost gloves in the winter," he said. "Spring and fall, an awful lot of umbrellas turn up."
     One thing they don't hold past the end of a performance is food.
     "We hold them until the end of the concert and then down the tube they go," he said.
     Amtrak's Napoli said they also get lots of food. "We'll open up a bag and find a hot dog in its bun," he said.
     But they also get far more valuable items.
     "I had a bag of rubies, diamonds, emeralds," he said. "There was also a set of cruise tickets. I found (the owners) through the cruise tickets, in Florida."
     The most surprising thing about the jewelry incident, Napoli said, was the couple wasn't as frantic as you'd expect people losing a bag of jewels would be.
     "When I called, they were so matter-of-fact," he said. "They were like: `Oh, you found them. Thanks.' "
                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 19, 1998

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Happy people who treat everyone nicely

A Rotary International luncheon in Fairfield, Illinois in January, 2017.

     Not much changes in Fairfield, Illinois.
     “Honestly? No. It really hasn’t changed much,” said L. Bryan Williams, who owns an insurance company there.
     The seat of Wayne County is right where we left it four years ago, 275 miles due south of Chicago, when I visited just before the inauguration of Donald Trump.
     Why go then? Well, if you line up Illinois’ 102 counties by how they voted in the 2016 election, Cook County was at one end, with 74.4% voting for Hillary Clinton. And Wayne County was at the other end, with 84.3% voting for Trump.
     Why return now? As we enter the Joe Biden administration at noon Wednesday, it seems worthwhile to circle back to Fairfield, and see how they’re doing and what they think about the four years past, where we are now, and where we’re going. Perhaps it’ll give a glimpse of what’s ahead.
     There is one change here: even fewer jobs. When I visited in 2017, the big employer in town, Airtex, an automobile fuel pump manufacturer, had just shut down, sending nearly 1,000 jobs to Mexico and China. But the lights were still on and several dozen people were still here, administering. Now the lights are off. Even the skeleton crew is gone.
     ”The community has adapted to not having Airtex here,” said Williams. “It’s become a little bit more of a bedroom community. But you wouldn’t see anything startling.”
     That depends on what startles a person.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Did the military save the country and forget to tell us?

    Are we out of the woods?
     Or will the crazy desperate thing come today?
    Not that 1/6, the rally/clown coup wasn't both crazy and desperate. But you hate to dust your hands and declare Donald Trump finished. Because there always seems to be another handful of crazy dust left in his bag of tricks. 
     But maybe .. just maybe ... the worst thing that'll happen Tuesday is he'll pardon 100 of the lowest of the low, including himself and his family. Olly, olly, oxen free. 
     Then we'll have gotten off light.
     Of course, if Trump's four years of standard shredding marks the low point of our nation's flirtation with despotism, we'll have gotten off light. There are hells below this one, traitors like Ted Cruz in a runner's crouch, waiting to lead us there, and millions upon millions of Americans obviously eager to race right behind.
     Maybe that's why I can't write any grand "What it all meant" column. Because I can't believe it's over. Maybe that's some dilute form of PTSD. The prisoner, freed, crossing his hands behind his back still, as if bound. Because trauma has a momentum. It endures.
     Were the Trump years traumatic? Not in any way like it was for the kids in those cages. Wonder when the full truth of that comes out? Not that we don't know the horrid outlines. But the details, the particulars. That'll start coming out; I'm surprised it hasn't already. Or maybe it has and our blown out senses don't register, don't let us be shocked. Not the way we should be. Or maybe it's just me. I can't tell anymore.
      Okay, let's wrap this up and get back to writing Wednesday's column. Before I go, I will say one thing, and this strays into the predictive, almost always a mistake. But why not? Everybody is saying everything all the time anyway. 
      We should be grateful for the military. As a child of the '60s, I was raised to look askance at the armed forces. The whole Vietnam War, it soured us civilians. 
     And the military hadn't been called upon to really, truly save democracy since they kicked the Nazis out of France. 
      But my hunch is, they did it again—saved democracy, that is—and people don't even know it, yet. I would bet money that once the Trump enormity is sent back to the gold-plated hell from whence it came, and the facts start dribbling out, it will be revealed that he tried to sound out the top brass to attempt a real overthrow of the government, rather than firing up his sedition rabble for their freeform storming of the Capitol. Do you have any doubt Trump did? You can't say it isn't the sort of thing he would do. It's exactly the sort of thing he would do. The sort of thing he has already done.
      I'm not certain. How could I be? Not 100 percent. Maybe whatever aide was in the room wrestled the red phone out of his hand. But call it a hunch. I would bet there is some ugly story of Trump browbeating a general or two, demanding they hand the country over to his tender mercies, and that general just shook his head and said, "Sir, that just isn't going to happen." What's Churchill's line after the Battle of Britain? Never was so much owed by so many to so few.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Online magic scratches live theater itch

Scott Silven

     After I turned this in I learned that the Sun-Times reviewed "The Journey" last Wednesday. I asked my boss if we should just scrap the column and I'd whip together something else. But he felt the two pieces are different enough to slip this through. So after you read my take, if you want a detailed, spot on review of the performance by freelancer Catey Sullivan, you can find it here.

     The initials in the title “R.U.R” — a science fiction play by Czech writer Karel Čapek — stand for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” which introduced the word “robot” into the English language. The production I saw at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival ended with the robot lovers, Primus and Helena, freezing on stage as the lights came up, a neat bit of stage business. I kept turning as I filed out with the rest of the audience, to see if they were still standing there, motionless, holding hands. They were. 
     That was also 50 years ago, a reminder of the power of theater to move us, shape us, take a moment, or an image, and make it part of our consciousness, forever.
     Something we’ve been missing sorely for the past 11 months — those who go to shows, anyway — and it might give a sense of how small a crew that is if you consider the verbiage spent mourning the inability to eat in restaurants versus the scant attention given the near complete loss of Chicago’s vibrant live theater. Not to forget the hole kicked in the livelihoods of thousands of actors, stagehands, wardrobe chiefs, lighting technicians and ticket salespeople.
     On-screen live performance just isn’t the same. Since the pandemic struck, I’ve seen three theatrical productions online. 
     There was a TV version of Jane Austen my wife was watching that seemed tinny and abrasive. I bailed out after 10 minutes. And I tried to introduce “Hamilton” to the boys, but we weren’t in a theater, hadn’t paid $180 a ticket, and the show never grabbed them. After a polite half hour they begged off.
     And “The Journey” Thursday night, a one-man show by Scottish illusionist Scott Silven, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which cracked the secret of getting me to try live online performance. They asked. It’s a magic act, not a play, but I don’t mind magic. The last show I saw in Chicago before the world shut down was Penn & Teller at the Chicago Theater in November 2019. A century ago. They were good.
     “The Journey” takes place in a single room, and close-in magic works well on a small screen. The audience, limited to 30, is at times projected in the room, and the basic conjurer’s routine of asking questions of volunteers draws viewers in, underscoring the live quality. We’d been asked to bring an object of personal significance, and I brought a fossil trilobite, which meshed nicely — or should that be inexplicably? — with Silven’s theme of home and time and stones, small cairns which were part of the act.

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

"Whose Karen Is It?"


     National Public Radio is proud of its engaging stories, dubbed "Driveway Moments," those compelling programs whose blend of narrative, humor, pathos and suspense keeps a driver glued to the car radio, even when the destination is reached and he would snap off less captivating fare, but is forced to sit in the car in the driveway, listening.
     But after this morning, I'm wondering if lingering in the driveway is any measure of highbrow creative merit.
     The boys were home, and the car radio had, perhaps through their handiwork, shifted from the usual WXRT 93.1 FM to the unfamiliar 101.1 FM WKQX. Saturday morning, returning from dropping our dog off at the groomer, I found myself listening for the first time to the Brian, Ali and Justin show, one of their "Whose Karen Is It?" segments, where the hosts try to match a "Karen"—an unhinged, complaining woman—to her home neighborhood in Chicago.
     Before we launch into the topic, I couldn't spotlight the imaginative, thoughtful, and not-at-all entitled or in any way testy musings of Caren Jeskey without pointing out that the whole "Karen" trope is mean, unfair, sexist and past its pull date, not to forget being the slasher-movie morality of identifying someone as vile so you can unleash all the cruelty upon them that supposedly so bothered you in the first place. 
     But that realization only came later, with a bit of guidance from my wife, as illumination all too often does. Complaining men don't get the same treatment. Nor do we know whose bad moment is being captured. Maybe they're having an awful day. Maybe they're mentally ill. Maybe they're right.
     The host read a note found taped to the windshield of a car, basically extending dibs, presumptive enough after a snowfall, to a general claim on a parking space, 365 days a year.
     "I am so pissed off that these fucking transplants don't know the rules around here," it begins. "I've been calling dibs on 2 parking spots in front of my house for 5 years now without any issues. Everyone on the block knows these our [sic] my parking spots..."
     The game is to guess where in the city this woman lives. It has its own page on the WKQX web site and you can see the full social media post there. 
     The first caller  guessed that the author of the note is from Bridgeport—he himself is from Bridgeport—while allowing that the note being typed and not scrawled in a nearly illegible hand did, indicated it might be from somewhere more advanced than the neighborhood that spawned the Daleys. 
Wrong! Complete with canned sound effect and host hilarity.
     What kept my interest was how the game was that it served as a quick survey of how residents of various parts of the city are viewed by others. Callers guessed Lincoln Park, Edison Park, Marionette Park. There seemed to be a lot of callers, impressive for a Saturday, and they greeted the hosts with "ahoy!" which had a certain Jimmy Buffett appeal.
     It went on and, eventually, I went inside and, in checking the station's web site to see who I was listening to, I realized I was able to keep listening. They must have dragged the bit out over a half hour.
     While listening, I did my due diligence. It turns out that this very segment caused controversy last fall when someone guessed Skokie. Robert Feder of course had the full story:
"It might be time for Brian Haddad to consider dropping “Whose Karen Is It?” from his morning show on Cumulus Media alternative rock WKQX 101.1-FM. Wednesday’s installment of the weekly bit (purportedly based on a woman charging her friends and family $80 per person for Thanksgiving dinner) took a bizarre turn when a caller unleashed some unmistakably anti-Semitic tropes about 'those people' in Skokie. "
     Obviously the station isn't taking Robert's wise counsel, always a mistake. Though Haddad did immediately apologize. That's good enough for me. As I've said before, if I refused to partake in the creative efforts of anti-Semites, I'd be sitting alone in a bare white-walled room listening to klezmer music while tossing cards into a hat.
      I was still listening when the mystery was solved.
     "Mark, ahoy, whose Karen is it?" said one host.
     "Everyone who lives in Bucktown only shops in Bucktown, they never leave Bucktown, I gotta think it's Bucktown, I know them," the caller said.
    "You got it, Mark, it's Bucktown!" More sound effects, etc.
     The most noteworthy thing is the callers seem to think "dibs" is a gentrified phenomenon, while I think of it as an entrenched, I've-lived-in-Mayfair-30-years kind of thing. Maybe it's both. 
     They call Saturday's show a "Throwback"—meaning, I assume, that it was a re-broadcast of a show earlier in the week.
     I kept listening, and they played "Do I Wanna Know?" by the Arctic Monkeys, which seems less crappy than I would expect on contemporary glad talk music fare.
     The topic shifted to pedicures and cutting your toenails and I was able to easily bail out.
     I don't want to overstate the case. But in my business, no wonder should go unremarked upon. Maybe I'm biased, and assume such shows are more brain dead than they actually are. I still set the station back to WXRT—you gotta dance with who brung ya—but I was encouraged by the episode. Maybe I'm looking for encouragement lately. Maybe we all are.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Texas notes: Snow

     Now when I need to describe Caren Jeskey briefly, I'll be able to say, "She is a woman who..." Well, I shouldn't give it away. Her Saturday report:

     It snowed in Texas. At first I thought it would be nothing but a sad smattering. Yet as the day wore on it started sticking. Yes, a respectable snowfall after all. Part of me wanted to hunker down in bed for the day. After all, it was a Sunday and I finally had an excuse to stay in. Nearly every day in Austin, year round, is too nice to justify staying inside; but today I was allowed to eat some raw cookie dough, maybe bake a few cookies, drink coffee and stay under blankets in bed.
     But wait; this just can’t be. I am a Chicagoan. 30s and snowy means heading out for the day, not succumbing to wimp-dom.
    To get motivated, I got onto Facebook and posted on Buy Nothing, a local gift exchange group. “Who would like me to walk a package of Trader Joe’s cookie dough over to your porch?” Within moments a mother of a young child commented “we’d love it!” I bundled up, grateful for the snow boots I’d worn only once before in the past seven years of living in Austin. I set out with the cookie dough and also an unopened jar of Nutella. My neighbor saved me from lying around eating hazelnut chocolate spread out of the jar all day while listening to children frolic in the white powder in the park just behind my house.
     I set out the mile or so to my neighbor’s place, and dropped the goodies off on her stoop.
     I’d forgotten the magic of being outdoors on a snowy day. The white stuff nestled in cactus limbs and confused the fronds of palm trees. The juxtaposition of cacti and snow was stark and somehow cleansing to the soul.  
     I spent the rest of the day wandering around and marveling at the joy this day was bringing to me and everyone else smart enough to immerse ourselves into nature’s gift. Countless snow creatures sprung up all around, peppering a big field and perching on fenceposts and car hoods. Some were muddy and covered with leaves. Still, they all became my friends for the day. Each snow person had a personality of its own. I rested my head on one of their shoulders and felt like a content child.
     Back home in Rogers Park, Chicago, five inches or more of white, fluffy snow invited us out to romp and play on many winter days. Heck, sometimes on Fall or Spring days too. We’d toss snowballs around, and then we’d make snow friends with coal eyes, carrot noses, top hats, and scarves, until our fingers were numb. When our clothes got wet and our sweat started to freeze, we’d spill into the foyer of our house, shed soggy boots and frozen gloves, and gather around the kitchen table for hot cocoa with marshmallows floating on top.         
     Snow play was exhausting. We’d make our way to couches in the sunken den, cover up with blankets, and mom and dad would turn the TV to Frosty The Snowman or The Sound of Music. Dad would pop popcorn and drench it with butter and we’d half watch, half doze to the sounds of the television.
     Eventually we’d groggily watch the closing credits and slowly make our way up to our bedrooms, or maybe Dad would carry us, one at a time— or sometimes two!
     The next morning the ground would be a smooth glistening blanket, and everything was quiet. Red cardinals and black ravens perched on branches. We’d put our almost-dry boots and mittens back on, and venture out for another day of fun. What a wonderful thing, snow.
           Dust of Snow
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
            —Robert Frost