Sunday, February 28, 2021

Do it yourself.


     "You're going to have to put it together," my wife said. Which, in married couple code meant, "Can you put it together? Are you capable?" An IKEA console she was considering ordering online.
     Last summer we had hired someone to replace the water damaged drywall in what we still call nostalgically "The Toy Room" even though there are no toys there nor boys to play with them. In the fall, we had a maple wooden floor put down (by Chicago Hardwood Floors; the best) and painted the walls a marvelous blue—first slapping swatches of no fewer than seven sample colors (we had originally thought "Yellow!" and it took us a while to get to ("Not yellow!") I had installed a grand's worth of lovely white baseboard covers to replace the hideous beige rusted metal covers in place since the late 1950s. And after risking our lives in six or 10 furniture stores, bought a pair of leather recliners (Electric, which has a drawback. "They seem like medical devices," I noted). And a concrete-colored sofa. Consoles that you don't put together, but purchase at a real furniture store, cost a thousand bucks, or two. This one, the "Hemnes" from IKEA, costs $229. And looked pretty nice, at least online. Real wood. The web site links you directly to Task Rabbit, the chore site, which informed me that someone would come to a house in our Zip code and put it together for $38. But that would involve letting a person in the house, and be a personal failure of handiness on my part. She didn't say that. She didn't have to. I knew.
     "Sure,"I said. "I can put it together."
     Every bit of cultural static about assembling IKEA products is about how maddeningly complex they are and how confusing the instructions can be. The Internet is alive with web sites like "25 IKEA Assembly Fails" and "Six of the best IKEA furniture assembly fails." That didn't deter me. I figured, by doing it myself, I would be participating in the larger society that I've been cut off from for the past year, not that I ever was much a party of it. Assembling an IKEA console would be time consuming and vexing, but in a culturally-appropriate way, like going to a Bears game. And. wouldn't get cold. Bottom line, I welcomed the distraction.
     "It'll be a break from writing stuff," I said.
     The console arrived Saturday morning in two flat pack boxes. I threw on a mask, went outside and asked the delivery guys to take them around to the back of the house, where the Toy Room is. I figured I'd give each guy $10 if they did, but didn't say that. The driver looked at me as if I had asked him to dance.
     "We're not supposed to take it up the steps," he said, depositing his box at the base of our steps. The second guy put the second box there. They were heavy. With my back in mind, I kinda rolled them up the stairs, using a corner as a fulcrum to pivot each one up. That worked. Inside, I began to tear the boxes apart in our front parlor trying to open them. My wife suggested we keep the boxes intact, the implication being that I'd somehow fail to assemble them and we'd have to return the whole thing in shame. That wasn't happening. I ripped apart the boxes, and my wife and I carried the several dozen oddly shaped wooden pieces down to the Toy Room, plus enough hardware, screws and metal tabs and stuff, to assemble an automobile, in my estimation. In the Toy Room there was a carpet pad waiting for a carpet that was supposed to be delivered yesterday. That made the perfect staging area.

This one, not that one

     It looked like the photo above.
     I poured a cup of Peet's, twisted in my Air Pods, and set to work about 11 a.m.
     First I read the instructions. Well, not read, since there were no words. Looked them over, carefully, studying the pieces, the steps. Which is maturity. In the past, I'd just jump in, then later consult the instructions to see what had gone wrong. Not this time. I could see that they make a point of not only showing the builder what pieces to use, but which similar pieces NOT to use. That's smart. And useful.
     I assembled the drawers, and was thrown for a momentary loop because the bottoms, with their pre-printed lined liners, were only supported by a groove on two sides, front and back. This seemed a design flaw. Shoddy. They'd bow. I quickly realized that the metal pull assemblies also held the other two sides of the bottoms up. Not a flaw, but clever design. If I had to give one piece of assembly advice I learned Saturday morning, it's this: trust IKEA. They've figured this out. If you think they're wrong, they're not. It's just you haven't figured out their logic yet. It's there, waiting.
     I worked steadily away, finished the three drawers. It wasn't unpleasant, but almost athletic, a kind of IKEA yoga, standing over the parts, stretching, reaching, holding, pounding dowels with a rubber mallet, lining parts up. 
     At 12:37 p.m. I broke for lunch, checked the sterile and pointless online work, then returned about 1:20 p.m. I was glad to get back at it. It was like a hobby that requires focus, like building a ship in a bottle. 
     Maybe the chore gods were with me Saturday. Typically, my wife shows up at the precise instant when I've messed something up, as if my brain sends out a silent alarm and she hears it and comes running to witness the disaster aborning. Which usually makes it worse, looking up as the sickening oh-I've-botched-this realization hits to see my wife vectoring into the room smiling brightly with misplaced confidence in me, here to certify my shame. But now the several times she checked in were all at the exact right moment when I could use a second person—the instructions say you need two—to hold something, or consult over a puzzling glyph, or look for my screwdriver, which I had a tendency to put down and lose.
     We can cut to the chase. Just because I found it pleasant to go through the many steps to put together an IKEA console doesn't mean it's something interesting to read about. I lack the skill to do that, or at least the inclination to try. So I get it done, and flip the console over, and the thing looks wonderful. The wood stained, not painted. Real wood, not particleboard. The black knobs are less than ideal, but I only had that thought because my wife, in her due diligence before buying it, saw the hint online to class up the piece by buying higher grade festive porcelain knobs and replacing them. We plan to do that.
     After admiring it for five seconds, I did notice something amiss. The right side was projecting a millimeter or two from under the top, showing the slightest strip of beige unstained wood. I looked at its counterpart on the left side, and saw that it is tucked under the top, as you'd expect. I must not have pushed the right side all the way in during the initial stages of construction,. My wife saw it too.
     "Is that going to bother you?" she said, knowing my OCD way of being tormented by that kind of thing, and anticipating I might immediately tear the thing apart and begin again. Which I did consider. But then I looked at the physiognomy of the piece, which remember I had just constructed, and thus had not only a certain investment in, but knowledge of. Acting intuitively, I took the heel of my right hand, drew it back, and drove it as hard as I could against the part that was jutting out from under the top. It shifted perfectly into place.
     "There," I said.
     We moved it into its position against the wall. When I dragged the boxes to the recycling, I made a point to see where the Hemnes came from. Any guesses? Not the United States—my wife's guess. Not Sweden—where IKEA is based. Not Canada, source of a lot of furniture.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Texas notes: chickens

     Just when you think you've got a sense of Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey, a door opens leading to rooms you hadn't imagined, like today's post.

     When I pay too much attention to Blanche and Thelma they get seem to get excited and poop all over my porch. I tolerate it (and wash it away with boiling water from the kettle) since they are adolescent chickens.
     Being an urban girl from Chicago I never thought I’d live in a tiny house with nine backyard chickens. They are smarter and more social than I’d ever imagined. They all know their names, even if I keep mixing up Flo and Flossie. When you coo to them and tell them how pretty they are, they stare at you from one eye, head cocked, and loudly agree.
Blanche and Thelma are the youngest— they came to us as wee chicks several months back. Somehow buttery colored Blanche has sprouted up and resembles a clumsy Big Bird, tripping
around with bony knees. Thelma is always by her side. They travel as a pair, joined at the wing.
     They discovered my porch as soon as they got old enough to roam free. Each day I’d find them nestled under the passion vine flowers, or pecking away at the silver cover that fits over my bikes. I felt special that they had adopted my house as their favorite spot and it’s nice to have buddies waiting for you each day when you leave the house.        When I first moved in I could not pass the brood by without giving them a treat, which turned out to create little monsters. As soon as I opened my front door they'd come galloping towards me and calling out “Treats please! Now!” I’d alway think “Chicken Run,” and laugh to myself.   The bravest ones stand right in front of the metal cans of seeds 
to prevent me from passing without opening the lid. When I relent, at least one of them promptly flies to the lip of the can and I have to use the lid as a shield to keep her from jumping right in.
      Ruby is the boldest. Her partner Edna, orange and red like Ruby, lurks in the grass nearby while Ruby pecks away at my lower legs. It doesn’t hurt, but it does amuse me.
Flossie, Flo (foreground) and Lily 
   The more established girls are Alice and Lily, who both seem to be pretty independent. I often see light gray Lily calmly doing her own thing, and she’s never rude. She runs over too, but more demurely, and has never pecked or yelled at me. I believe she’s a Lavender Brahma, thus the elegance.
     Alice is the queen of the gang. She’s dark chocolate brown with a bright red beak. Finally, there’s Kouna, whose caramel colored feathers make me want to pet her. Which I don’t. Yes, you “can” pick up a chicken but they really don't seem to like it, from what I can tell.
     I write this
 with sadness, since finding out this week that the tiny home will only be mine until the end of April. It was always a temporary arrangement, yet leaving it is bittersweet. I look forward to new journeys, but will miss almost everything about this stint of living.”
     I will spend this weekend packing and cleaning and planning my next move. I have options in Austin and in Chicago, so time will tell.
     I will make time to sit on my porch and talk to the girls before I go.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Artist’s portraits capture our plague year

Phil Gayter, self-portrait
     The mask.
     We spend so much time complaining about wearing it, we might not have noticed how much the mask has come to define the past year, physically, emotionally and, yes, visually.
     But Phil Gayter, artist and ad man, has noticed, and is painting a series of masked portraits.
     “I decided to do a self-portrait, painting myself with bright yellow gloves and an N95 mask. That was the start,” said Gayter, who lives in Highland Park. “It was going to be a one-off. As the pandemic was setting in, I was spending more and more time at home, I had my daughter over, and I did a portrait of her in a mask.”
     Artists tend to work in themes — blue periods, haystacks series and such. Gayter saw potential in the masked subject.
     “All of a sudden I thought something’s going on here that I really, really like,” he said. “A coming together of myself as an artist and a business thinker, coming up with an idea that holds together. That’s what I do for my clients, create branded messages. The mask proved to be that point of distinction, allowing me to think of a collection of paintings that capture the moment, poignant yet whimsical.”
     Gayter, 63, was born in England.
     ”I went to Manchester Metropolitan School of Art and studied as a fine artist,” he said. “But being a working-class kid, being a painter was not going to make me financially secure, so I moved into advertising.”

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

The third side to the video game coin


     The guilty secret of columnists is we don't really want you to call back. We contact a subject because that is the fair and expected thing to do. But if you don't respond, it gives us the field to express ourselves, unencumbered by disagreement.
     Or maybe that's just me. Maybe other, more responsible writers are eager to get all sides, and water down their strong brew of opinion with a seltzer spritz of balance.
     So when I phoned State Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. to talk to him about his proposing a ban on sales of Grand Theft Auto to children, I expected to include a line that I had reached out to him and hadn't heard back, which itself is indicting.
     But he did call back, and made a strong case. Immediately, I saw the specter of white privilege rising before me. Here I am, snug in Northbrook, the son of a nuclear physicist, talking about science, while Evans is on the South Side, with his mom scared of being carjacked. There was only one thing to do in the column, and that was to present his side, fully and respectfully and hope that I wasn't merely folding.
     Not that the issue can be neatly divided between the two of us. There were other aspects to the question I never considered in my rush to present the issue, and am happy to share a pair of emails offering thoughtful perspectives.
     The first: 

     My name is Austin and I am a professional video game developer. I went into this article expecting some crack-pot nonsense about the game and its effects on society, but the points Marcus Evans Jr. were making sounded completely reasonable. The data show there isn't a correlation, but who knows how movies, games, and music create more of a sense of invincibility and life to emulate.
     (It does remind me of The Program cutting a hazing scene from their film in the early 90s when high schoolers were replicating what they were seeing in the movie. Or a classroom shooting scene cut from The Basketball Diaries.)
     I don't want to take much of your time, but want to call to attention the last statement you made in your article

     I’m a liberal, but not so liberal as to argue that children have a constitutional right to pretend to steal cars and pistol-whip prostitutes.

    The emphasis was added by me, and I am in complete agreement that children do not have a constitutional right to play these games. We are a nation of laws where we prevent children from purchasing pornography, but it seems like no one knows or cares about the ESRB rating system in video games. It has been around a very long time and is an incredibly informative rating system.
     Modern consoles have parental controls built into the systems to prevent children from even being able to load these games. I have three children under the age of 10 and our Playstation 4 is set up in a way that the kids can't see the cover art or name of the game when logging into their own accounts (which is more than I can say for zombie show billboards or commercials.)
     The rating system also has a list of objective criteria with each rating, so parents and guardians can know what content is in the game they are purchasing.
     Past laws always seem to want to ban individual games, or ban sales of M rated games, versus just regulating the sale to minors and allowing adults to still purchase M rated games.  
     I wish more parents and politicians were aware of the tools already at their disposal for keeping this content out of their kids hands. If you happen to cover this topic further I hope the information I have shared can be of use.

     Brian from Crestwood sent this:

     Yesterday morning I read in the Chicago Sun-Times the recent bill that seeks to amend the sale of certain video games filed by IL State Congressman Marcus Evans Jr. I'm a lifelong video game player, including the oft-maligned series of Grand Theft Auto, and immediately wrote both Mr. Evans Jr. and my own state representative, Mr. Justin Slaughter, to express my opposition to this bill. I'm writing to you because of your piece this morning where you express a slight change of mind about the worthiness of pursuing this policy. I've long come to the conclusion that you are a reasonable person and wanted to see if I could possibly change your mind back to where it was the first time. Whether I succeed or not, thank you for your work in general, and the thoughtful way you approach it. Anyway, below is my admittedly non-expert thoughts on the subject:
     1) "Normalization" is the new "Desensitization." Just a little under two decades ago various states all over the country were taking on violent video games (again with Grand Theft Auto as the centerpiece) because some believed it would cause desensitization to violence and therefore increase the likelihood for said players to engage in violence themselves. This was properly debunked thanks to research and general statistics, much in the same way that the current argument about carjacking does now. After having played all of the Grand Theft Auto games, plus taking in other violent media I find myself in 2021 feeling upset still about the violence seen on Jan. 6th and also wondering what time of day I should fill my car up with gas to best avoid being a potential carjack victim. If I'm worried about that while playing the same games as the offenders, doesn't reason tell us that the underlying cause is something else?
     2) Speaking of those battles in the early '00s, it's worth mentioning that the result of the various cases throughout this country were exactly what everyone expected them to be: video games are as protected by the U.S. Constitution's 1st amendment as that of movies, television and music. What I believe often gets forgotten is the cost to taxpayers for fighting a battle that couldn't and shouldn't be won. Illinois hasn't been in the best fiscal position for a long time and we should be careful about said waste, and that was before the upheaval of COVID 19. Where will that money come from, and where could it go. Would you rather we spend it on defending unconstitutional laws, or on health, social, educational, and job programs? I think the latter is more difficult, as you said in this morning's piece, but it still seems like money better spent.
     3) I do take issue with a particular part of the logic in today's piece. It's stated by Congressman Evans that he knows what the data is, but this is a new generation and things could be different. I can understand that as well as understand in general that things can and do change, however we just finally ousted a president in this country who abhorred science in every form and half a million people have died as a result of it. Let's not do the same here. If the congressman believes that something might have changed, then he should be able to lead a movement to do new research on the subject. Instead, he is placing the cart before the horse. I am personally tired of politicians (regardless of party stripe) making decisions that don't use the best available science. Best available science as of 2/24/21 states that this is a worthless effort that will restrict one of the few booming industries we have, undermine the prime amendment in the bill of rights, and not resolve any issue.
     I thank you for reading if you made it this far. Stay well!

     While I agree with both, I still see Evans point. Perhaps a metaphor is in order. Your house is burning down. The fire department is nowhere to be seen. Do you take your garden hose and direct it at the fire? I imagine many people would, even though it does nothing, and coming by to point that out, well, it seems almost cruel. Grand Theft Auto has sold more than a quarter billion copies in the past 20 years. Being restricted to minors in Chicago won't hurt it. And as Evans says, it might help someone. Though as I point out, we've been banning stuff for almost 120 years, and it's gotten us to the tough place we find ourselves in today. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Sometimes you have to try something

     In 1903, the city of Chicago barred nickelodeon operators from showing a pair of popular Western silent movies, “James Boys” and “Night Riders,” under the theory that seeing shoot-outs glorifies crime and warps the minds of youth.
     The nickelodeon owners — Jake Block, Nathan Wolf, J.H. Ferris, and others — sued.
     This kicked off more than 80 years of police censorship of movies in Chicago, either to protect children, or defend the reputation of the city — Paul Muni’s 1932 “Scarface” was banned here because it suggested there was organized crime in Chicago.
     I’ll pause while you chuckle softly and shake your head at that one.
     This went on for decades, and even Richard M. Daley was so agitated by the swears in the script of “Hardball” that he wanted to somehow deny filmmakers the right to use the word “Chicago.”
     I’m going into this background to establish my perspective as I read Zac Clingenpeel’s article in Tuesday’s Sun-Times about state Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. trying to combat carjacking by banning sale of Grand Theft Auto and other violent video games to minors.
     His heart is in the right place, certainly. But too often public officials focus on the “do something” side of the equation and ignore the “combat the problem” part.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Donald Trump's gift of silence


Henry Ford, bronze, by Hans Wollner (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

     Henry Ford had his good qualities: he revolutionized manufacturing. He was a populizer. He didn't invent the assembly line, but took the idea from the overhead trolleys carrying carcasses through the Chicago stockyards and applied it to automobiles. He didn't invent the car, but made it affordable, cutting the cost by 2/3. He paid his workers more—$5 a day, double the going rate, he said so they could afford cars themselves, but also because the assembly line work was seen as so mind-numbingly dull that he had trouble keeping workers. He didn't coin the term "mass production," but put it on the nation's lips after using it as a title for his 1926 Encyclopedia Britannica article.
     Ford tried to end World War I, chartering an ocean liner and sending it to Europe stuffed with peace activists.
     The good parts, of course, must be balanced by the bad. He blamed that war—all wars really—on the Jews. Ford was a foaming anti-Semite, his Dearborn Independent a Jew-hating rag. As bad as it is to admire Hitler, Ford was worse: Hitler admired him, and gives Ford a shout-out in Mein Kampf—the only American mentioned in the book—as the "single great man" in the United States for standing up against "the Jews." Ford also received the German Eagle, the highest Nazi honor for non-Germans, in 1938 and it was displayed for decades at his museum, Greenfield Village. I saw it there.
     Do they balance out, the good and the bad? I don't think so. It only takes a little spit to spoil the soup. Nobody cares if John Wayne Gacy was a good clown.
    However ... this is awkward, and I'm still thinking through it, so let's just explore together.
     I was researching comic strips, preparing my new book, and was looking at strips created in the Chicago area, such as "Little Orphan Annie," dreamed up 100 years ago by Harold Gray, who was living in Lombard and cartooning for the Tribune. And whenever the subject of what a huge success the strip became, it's mentioned how, in one adventure, Annie's dog is lost, causing national consternation, which is always demonstrated by the same story: a telegram from Henry Ford in Detroit pleading, "Please find Sandy for us. We are all concerned."
     Awww, right? A single resonating pluck on a heartstring. Although the "interesting if true" reflex kicks in. That does get told in a lot of legitimate histories, though I never saw a photo of the telegram, which Gray supposedly kept. It does have what I call "the tang of veracity." Anti-Semites like to speak in the third-person plural, as a kind of verbal backup, to make them seem like more of a crowd. I can't tell you how many emails from bigots begin, "We were chuckling over your 'column'..." or words to that effect. Like pufferfish trying to blow themselves up to seem more intimidating. Now that I think of it, Charles Lindbergh titled his autobiography, "We." Lindbergh was talking about himself and his Ryan airplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis." But still...
     So an anti-Semite who likes dogs. Put that in the pot. And then, in another part of the book, I reached out to the archivist at the Ford Motor Company. Companies and organizations are notoriously spotty about their own histories. Some are active and involved and interested. And some just don't care, since it's not the news they're pushing at the moment. I reached out to the National Confectioners Association, founded in Chicago in 1884, and asked about their origins. Their flack said, in essence, nobody here has any idea about the history of the organization we all work for nor are we interested in finding out. Which struck me as just so lame.
     The Ford Motor Company's archivist sent me a color photocopy of the information I was looking for, a hand-written ledger from 1903. Extraordinarily helpful of them. And while that, coupled with the possibly real telegram, doesn't of course wipe away Ford being a foul bigot who did real harm to the world, if only by serving as a beacon to Hitler, I did feel ... well ... less condemnatory about the man.
     Is that bad? Does that matter? Perhaps the key is that Ford is dead and history over and fixed, so a passing smile in his direction neither harms nor helps him. But what about more current situations?
     As the days clicked on, and January melted to February, with Trump barred from Twitter, and not constantly vomiting forth his noxious worldview on Fox News, or Newsmax, or whatever state cable channel is currently in his favor. Well, I felt ... okay, I'll say it ... grateful for his silence. Not that I now like the man, any more than I like Henry Ford. But his odiousness was mitigated, just a little, but the gift of his not spewing his self-pitying seditious BS everywhere. I appreciate it. Yes, he's scheduled to start speaking again, and will no doubt fill every corner of the media universe like a fart in a broom closet. And yes, that gratitude has a note of the pathetic, like an abuse victim happy that the beast is having a good day. But for the moment, sweet relief.
    There, I said it, deliberately on my blog, where only a few thousand people will read it, instead of the wider sweep of the newspaper. And I'm glad, in a way, because I don't want to be a hater. First, because I sincerely believe the line about hating is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. But also because if Trump is in Mar-a-Lago, stalking the halls like Richard III, face screwed up in miserable grievance, soliloquying, spittle flying off his lips, plotting revenge against Republicans who aren't sticking with him as he sails off on future treasons, I like the idea of being the exact opposite, that to decent people he is not only fading, but the stark truth about him becomes suffused with a slight rosy hue.
     Then again, I'm a nice guy—shhhh, it's a secret. I can't rightly say I hate anybody. I'm too sympathetic. I pity Trump, a poor broken kitten, and his ridiculously, eternally-duped followers, standing in the street, advertising their gullibility on banners.
     Anyway, this has gone one too long. No mas. I've got a column to write this morning. Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Mayor needs less hope, more responsibility

Chicago, May 30, 2020 (photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia)

     Reviewing my actions over the weekend of May 29, 2020, the journalistic decisions made and strategic approaches taken to covering the Chicago riots, I have come to the conclusion that I was 1000 percent right in everything I did and would not do anything differently. That said, I’ve learned from the mistakes that weren’t made and won’t let them happen again, not that they ever did.
     That doesn’t quite scan, does it?
     Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s take on the inspector general’s report on the city’s botched handling of the George Floyd riots ... where to begin? Search for the positive, I suppose: We should take comfort the mayor didn’t throw police Supt. David Brown under the bus.
     But then, she couldn’t, could she? The man just took the job April 15, six weeks before the city erupted. Her support comes not so much from her cutting the new guy slack as understanding, if the Chicago Police Department leadership were as inept as the report suggests, it would also reflect badly on Lightfoot, who hired him. The buck stops somewhere else.
     On Friday, Lightfoot said she conferred with her fellow mayors around the country, and they were also caught flatfooted by the unrest.
     “No mayor expected what we all got,” she said, spreading the blame around. I might have to use that spin: Most reporters cowered in their safe suburban homes and didn’t rush downtown. It wasn’t just me.
      The scariest thing Lightfoot said is she hopes the riots are a once-in-a-lifetime event. Wrong! Hope is not a success strategy. Hope caused the problem in the first place. Lightfoot hoped this wasn’t going to happen in her city. The report underlines the kind of magical thinking that worsens disasters like this. Expecting the worst is her job. That’s what the police are for. “Sorry! We were caught off guard by all this crime. We vigorously hoped it wouldn’t occur.”

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Sunday, February 21, 2021

America, united at last!

      Joe Biden has been president for only a month and a day, and already the country has come together, as one, something I would have not thought possible, never mind be accomplished so quickly. Democrat and Republican and Independent, from the far left to the far right, joining in unanimous agreement, a single people, united, at least in one regard:
     Ridiculing Ted Cruz.
     How stupid can a man be? Even a congressman? Even Ted Cruz. His flight southward Wednesday was one of those delicious slow-motion political train wrecks that unfolds like a glorious flower opening: first the glimpses of Cruz on Twitter, in his work-a-daddy gray polo and snazzy Texas mask, rolling his big black bag through the airport. Really? Not somebody who looks like Ted Cruz? Can it be? It is! Senator Ted Cruz, fleeing to
 CancĂșn to loll on a beach while the state of Texas suffers. Sans power. Sans heat. Sans food, water, hope, help. 
     Let them eat carnitas. While Texas plunges into misery, Ted is plunging into the warm surf. His hometown of Houston freezing while the only thing frozen about Cruz is the margarita in his paw. The jokes write themselves.
     It would look improbable in a Christopher Buckley novel. Yet so delicious real, sparkling like waves in the bright sun. And it just kept getting better. Cruz rushes back and ... wait for it! ... blames his daughters—they made him do it. Ted Cruz throws his daughters under the bus. Not his fault; he was just trying to be a good dad (it's a shame we couldn't get his daughters to ask Cruz to stop betraying the country; apparently he has to do whatever they say). Then his wife's giddy let's-get-OUT-of-here! email chain, handed over to the press by her supposed friends. Meee-yow! The marvel of Cruz actually admitting that yeah, maybe, he might have done something unwise. The heavens crack. Unprecedented!
     And then, the cherry on the top: Snowflake, Cruz's little dog. Left behind, alone in the freezing house that was too cold for his family to tolerate. Gazing pathetically out the door, captured by a press photographer. This is why I don't write fiction. What kind of man does that? I wouldn't leave my little dog alone in a warm house.*
     Was there a voice defending Cruz except his own? I didn't hear it. I can't imagine it. No, the entire nation rolling on the ground and kicking its legs in the air, grasping its belly and gasping for breath. If snark and sarcasm and ridicule were kilowatts, the state of Texas would be glowing like a hot coal by now. 
     It was all so much fun that I am reluctant to spoil the fun and point out something serious: the man is a traitor. Not a ha-ha traitor, or a thoughtless coward traitor, or a traitor to good politics and responsible citizenship. No, a betray your country during its moment of peril traitor. Ted Cruz turned his back on America, echoing Trump's vote fraud lies that fired up the Jan. 6 mob, then voting to toss out millions of legitimate votes afterward. Taking a pickaxe to the basis of democracy. Considering that real, deathless, damning, damaging perfidy, his little field trip to Mexico is nada, as they say down there, on the moral lapse scale. 
    But it is a lot of fun. 
    And a hopeful development. Beto O'Rourke almost beat him last time. Everyone hated Ted Cruz before. After four years of Ted Cruz's lips applied lamprey-like to Donald Trump's capacious ass, plus the grotesque spectacle of his powder to the Ritz-Carleton to soak up some rays while Texas shivers, well, maybe Cruz isn't the strategic genius who is going to succeed in bringing autocracy to the United States after Donald Trump finally sinks into his tar pit of bottomless grievance. Maybe he isn't so smart after all, Princeton and Harvard notwithstanding.
    Americans can forgive a traitor, obviously. We have a much harder time forgiving a fool. 

*The news that there was a security guard/dogsitter tending to Snowflake loped along late enough as to not spoil the deliciousness of the pup's arrival into the story, too much.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Texas notes: Austin icehouse

    With all the bad news out of Texas, I almost suggested to Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey that she bring us up to speed on how she's coping with the crisis. But then I said to myself, "She's a pro; she'll know what to do." Which she did.

     You might have heard a thing or two about Texas weather this week. I sit here a bit stunned and shell shocked in the Austin tundra. Yet my only option is to soldier on. The pipes froze and I had to move out of my tiny house for now. I was fortunate to find an Airbnb to escape to for the week. I’ve been told that the pipes in my tiny house rental may burst in the thaw, as has happened to so many others. In response to this, today I ventured out on a 3+ mile walk to the tiny house to place my papers, books (such as Drunkard and Out of the Wreck I Rise), and other valuables into plastic tubs in case the big burst comes to pass.
     I’ve implored my landlord to shut off the water to the house and open the taps— advice I’ve seen on the city of Austin’s website as well as heard from homeowners in the know to stave off possible bursting. His response has been “everything seems fine and we’ll just wait and see.” I am not sure this is the best approach.
     It took two hours today to walk (well, skate) the 3+ miles from the Airbnb to my house for the Great Bin Project of 2021. (I exaggerate—the contents of a 288' house is actually quite modest and the whole project took about an hour). It’s a wonder I did not wipe out on the miles of ice rink I traversed in my Keen boots. Sure wish I’d save those Yaktrax cleats my father gave me back in Chicago. Oh silly me—I thought I was leaving the North for warmer days.
     After the icy trek I arrived at HEB, our local grocer. When I saw the line was a city block long I opted for a smaller local shop across the street—when I arrived there I saw they were closed. I still had 6 blocks or so to walk home and was starting to feel a little sorry for myself. I love walking but I don't love putting myself at risk of a fall, which I felt I was doing. There was one more little store between there and home and as I rounded the corner I saw that the lot was full. Eureka! I went in and got bottled water (a good move, since we now have a boil water order and the taps have very little pressure). I stocked up on KIND bars and watermelon juice, and I broke down and got a Snickers Bar.
     I also broke down and called a friend. I needed help. She agreed to come pick me up at home, once my things were safely stashed in the bins, and drive me back to the Airbnb. What an angel. As she dropped me off she let me know there was a bag in the back seat for me. It had a picture her five year old drew for me: "Ms. Caren and the person who owns her house playing in the snow." Inside the bag I found homemade soup with a baggie of fresh cilantro, oatmeal, dates, cheese and other delights. I do realize I have little to nothing to complain about. 
      Gas stations are closed due to power outages and a dearth of gas. I was lucky to get to one of the last stations still open on Monday, where it took 45 minutes to fill up my little Honda Civic tank. In retrospect it was rude to fill the tank; I did not know the slow rate of gas coming out was due to the fact that the station was running out of the precious stuff.     
      While I pumped, a group of four underdressed kids tried to pull into the gas station in a beaten up silver SUV, the bumper hanging off and doors dented. They ran out of gas as they tried to get up the driveway to the station. I knew what I had to do, and flagged down a shiny black pick-up driven by what looked to be a duck hunter in fatigues and a camo hat, and asked him to help. Chivalry comes in handy sometimes.
     He jumped out and tied cables to the bottom of their car, then pulled them into the gas station spot. An elderly man was in the passenger seat of the truck and I asked “is he your son?” He said “no, my neighbor. He is always like this, doing things for others.” I took a video of the rescue and the kids told me to put in on TikTok (which I do not have). I told the kids “the Duck Hunter saves the day,” and they cracked up.
     Turns out the truck driver is my neighbor, and his name is Nick. He told me where he lives and I plan to get a big basket of thanks to him once we thaw out.
     So how are you this week? If COVID fatigue and a lack of accessible vaccines were not enough, global warming is wreaking some very real havoc.
     An elderly client has been in a warming center since Friday. I called another to check in and they shared they have not had heat in days. They were shivering and I heard it in their voice; a possible sign of hypothermia. All they’d eaten that day was crackers and cookies. I called the local police department and an Officer Zamora came to the rescue. He called them and offered to go over to charge their phones and bring them food. Mission accomplished.
     Yesterday at 11 am I realized “oh no! I am supposed to teach a yoga class this morning!” I’d accidentally left my calendar at home. I had not washed my hair in days and had major hat head. I threw on my giant faux fur hat, and a poncho over my pajamas. They were understanding since they’d heard of the Great Texas Chill, and I taught the class. We all need to relax our standards these days, don’t we?
     The only thing to do is take it one day at a time. Rest, rinse, survive, repeat day by day.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Flashback 1997: Hoover tapes reveal details of gang life

Larry Hoover

     My colleague Mary Mitchell made a bold plea Thursday for gang leader Larry Hoover to be released from prison. Her argument is that police often lie, and Hoover has been in prison for nearly half a century. True enough. She also scoffs at the idea that Hoover could control his gang from prison. My understanding is that this is not outrageous.  I covered Hoover's conspiracy trial here in 1997, and he seemed quite open about it. My central memory of listening to those tapes is looking over at Hoover in court and thinking, "Lex Luthor he is not."

     Beatings with baseball bats and Larry Hoover's envy of fellow gang leader Jeff Fort were part of a glimpse inside the Gangster Disciples' lifestyle Monday in federal court.
     Hoover, who is serving a 150- to 200-year sentence for a 1973 murder, is being tried with six associates on drug conspiracy charges.
     On tapes played in court Monday, Hoover seemed familiar with the minute details of his operation. "Who on 47 (Street) that's working? Is they folks?" Hoover asked, urging that problem members be brought down to see him.
     "You got to bring these chumps in," he said. "Get Pops and get a crew together and ride. You got a problem with me, you see me."
     Elsewhere, Hoover expressed admiration for the Black Panthers, calling it "the most beneficial organization in the 20th century."
     "It's lean; it's strong," he said, leading into a nostalgic reminiscence about his days of freedom.
     "I was king at 19," he said. "Eighteen—at 18, I was king."
     Hoover remembered seeing El Rukn gang leader Jeff Fort at a church meeting in the late 1960s.
     "You could hear a pin drop when he was walking in," said Hoover, recalling their snazzy suede jackets. "I told myself I could have a mob like that . . . I remember it like it was yesterday."
     To record those discussions, investigators put transmitters in the badges of people visiting Hoover. Recordings were made on weekends from Oct. 30, 1993, until the transmitters were found by a visitor on Dec. 19, 1993.
     Convicted felon Thomas London, 29, was one of several witnesses to discuss Gangster Disciples "literature"—the rules they were forced to memorize, such as: "Nothing can hurt a duck but its beak," meaning they shouldn't talk.
     Gang members who broke rules were subject to varying degrees of "violations," from being punched in the chest to being beaten with baseball bats.
     "There was always someone getting violated," said London, who added that the supposed gang truce arranged by the Gangster Disciples was intended to help Hoover personally.
     "They said they wanted peace because the Old Man was trying to get paroled," he said.
                      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 25, 1997

Thursday, February 18, 2021

They do, obviously.


     Now "crap" is an interesting word. Anglo-Saxon, I guessed, upon seeing this carton from Who Gives a Crap brand toilet paper left out for our delayed trash day Wednesday in would-be tony Northbrook.
     I was not particularly surprised to see the moderate oath being introduced by toilet tissue makers. Even mainstream paper mills have gotten bold lately, with their pudgy bears and angel babies growing more, ah, specific. What's the line? "Enjoy the go." In your dreams, Charmin.
     I should say, I'm not offended by the more direct advertising for toilet paper. Like most marketing, it veers from annoying to forgettable. But as someone who has tied his business wagon, so to speak, to a mild oath with, I was interested to see an actual company assume a curse word moniker.
    The company, which we'll call WGAC for brevity, was started by three young men in 2010 who are interested in worldwide sanitation, according to their smart who-we-are video that raised $66,000 on Indiegogo. I always assume that protestations of noble intent and concern for the world at large are mere corporate puffery, a slick patter to distract consumers while snaking a hand into their pockets. But a banner on WGAC's bright, fun web page announces they've just donated $5.8 million Australian (or $4 million American dollars) to WaterAid.
     That's a lot. As is their pledge to donate 50 percent of profits to sanitation and water charity. 
      Add to that a consideration that the giant toilet paper companies just blow completely: attractive packaging. Look at the rolls. They're sort of wild and fun, graphically, are they not? The kind of rolls you'd expect in trendy lofts in in Bucktown or ... maybe ... big old farm houses in Northbrook. The lady down the block obviously took the plunge. Maybe we will too. With that in mind, I checked the price: a buck a roll, or about three times what Charmin costs. Ah. We'll have to think about that...
     Forgive me for being sidetracked. We were supposed to parse the word "crap." Man, was I off-base with my guess that it was some ancient Teutonic word.
     I was worried the Oxford English Dictionary might turn up its nose at "crap" (sorry) the way it hurries past "fuck" without a glance. But it's there, though not at all what I expected.
     The Oxford finds its origins obscure or dialect, and begins by suggesting the word is identical with the earlier Dutch krappe and then fires off, without preface or translation, this 1599 string of Latin, 'carptus, carptura, res decerpta, rustum, decerptum siue abscissum, pars abrasa siue abscissa; pars carnis abscissa; crustum; offella, offula; placenta; pulpamentum." which Mr. Google Translate renders semi-helpfully as: ""Nipped by, GATHERING, a plucked, rust, off or cut off a part of the drying out or removed; a part of the flesh is in the abscissa crusts; offella, a snack; cake; meat."
     Setting the stage, in a garbled fashion, for the first three definitions of "crap," starting with "1. The husk of grain; chaff," and running through plants and weeds and buckwheat, then residue from rendering or boiling, dregs in beer.
     Notice anything missing? Not a word about excrement, beyond it also being something left behind (sorry) which what I thought of as the primary definition of the word. (I don't know why. I'm far more likely to toss away the newspaper with, "I'm so sick of this COVID crap!" than I am to say, "Excuse me Mr. Ambassador, but I've got to step away to take a crap. Continue the discussion without me."
     This tendency is reflected in Wentworth and Flexner's "Dictionary of American Slang," which drives home that, despite pretensions, I don't know my own language. They identify crap as taboo, though its first definition is "Nonsense; cant; lies; exaggeration; insincerity; mendacity' bull," traced to the relative yesterday* of 1939. "Pally, I never heard so much crap in such a short time in my life," from John O'Hara's Pal Joey.
     They derive the word "from the taboo but otherwise standard 'crap'=feces." then get to "2 Anything inferior, cheap, ugly or insulting by its very presence, sp. merchandise that is of inferior material, workmanship, or overall quality; shit."
     Which circles us back to using crap in a product name. Before I checked out Who Gives a Crap's web site, I questioned whether associating any product with the word crap is a wise marketing strategy, even for toilet paper. But that might be my three score years talking. Looking at their presentation, and the actual dollars they've given to world water and sanitation distribution and education, plus the presence of an empty cardboard box on our block as evidence they actually do distribute the stuff, I've decided the name is sharp, effective marketing. Had they called the product, "Hands Around the World Toilet Paper" or some such tripe, my curiosity would never have been piqued. The big Wisconsin mills are so focused on making toilet paper cheap and comfortable, and friendly, they forgot to make it cool. "Who Gives a Crap" does, and while, looking at the name again, we could wonder if there being no question mark at the end is an oversight—Who Gives a Crap?—this has already gone on too long, and we can leave that for my loyal commenters to hash out.

* The dangers of quick-and-easy, on-the-fly etymology. After this was posted, in checking to confirm that the 19th century British toilet maker, Thomas Crapper, has nothing at all to do with the development of the word, I found this, from Hotten’s 1859 "A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words: “CRAP, to ease oneself, to evacuate.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Lori Lightfoot takes a victory lap in the middle of the race.

     As a fan of newspapers, I subscribe to four. Two electronically: the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. And two in print, the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times.
     I could include The Economist. They call themselves a newspaper, putting on airs. But it's a magazine. I could call myself the King of Northbrook. Doesn't make it so.
     I read them in different ways. The Post I almost always read on my iPhone. The Sun-Times is read in the morning at the kitchen table, always before the New York Times, as a matter of principle. The Tribune I check online when I want to read Eric Zorn, Rick Kogan, Steve Johnson, Mary Schmich, or any of its other fine columnists.
     So Monday, I was at lunch when I read Lori Lightfoot's interview with the New York Times. It struck me as odd that she would claim the Chicago Teachers Union has aspirations to be "akin to a political party" and run the city. Where did that come from? I wrote it off as the typical collapse into a heap that control freaks do. You HIT me back! Nobody cries like a bully.
     Then Tuesday, I read Fran Spielman's piece, which viewed the Times interview through the lens of Lightfoot's campaign promise to turn control of the schools back to parents, then dragoons a cast of the knowledgable to gather, like mourner's at a funeral, to gaze down pityingly at Lightfoot's damning self-praise, "We would never have opened without mayoral control."
     Fran quotes CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates that “exalt mayoral control in a post-Trump America is the wrong direction.”
     Yes. Autocracy isn't only bad when Republicans do it at a national level. But even Democrats in cities. What mayor ever fixed the schools alone? Except in their own estimation, that is.
     And yet. Being old enough to cover what in the 1990s were called "Local School Councils" I don't view parental control as a panacea either. If I recall, much effort was put into cashiering principals who were guilty only of being a different race than their students.
     It's more a question of optics. Maybe Lightfoot couldn't resist preening for New Yorkers, in that dismal, though common, Midwestern tendency to want to shine on the coast. That sounds about right. Maybe she doesn't think anyone in Chicago reads the Times—there may be some truth there. As it is, some days the thing is so smug and tone deaf that I'm ready to save the $95 a month it costs to have that blue bag thrown at my house every morning.
     I'm sure Lightfoot never imagined that Fran would take her interview and use it as clay to construct a more damning portrait. Would whittle it to a sharpened point, and then ram it so far up her ass it came out the top of her head—of course in a dignified, understated, professional manner.
     But if you read the two pieces, as I suggest you do if you haven't already, they're a master class in why reporters cover beats. Note the credulous, do-tell-us-madam-mayor tone of Gotham's Gray Lady. Then Fran's burning of mayoral hubris down to the waterline.
     Honestly, after the disappointment of Rahm Emanuel, I'm not quite ready to give up on Lightfoot. She's charmless and grim and self-pitying and holds the media in contempt, but that isn't anything new or different in a mayor. Yes, Lightfoot was dealt a series of civic disasters on a Jobian scale that can make one forget that Chicago was royally screwed before the pandemic/civic unrest/economic sclerosis of 2020. Yes, the Chicago Teachers Union can be maddeningly focused on serving its members instead of pushing whatever initiative the mayor of the moment has in mind. 
    And in Lightfoot's defense, I still cherish her calling that FOP clown a clown into an open mike, and give her credit for the Harold Lloyd act she pulled trying to get people to wear masks.
     But geez, don't spike the ball until you're in the end zone. A little, ah, premature to be taking credit for anything regarding the opening of the schools. Particularly since they were all closed on Tuesday. Mother Nature, yes. But one doesn't want to piss off Mother Nature, does one? Or Fran Spielman, for that matter, a force of nature herself. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Rice pudding completes the meal

     "This rice pudding likes your shirt," I said, with a smile, nodding toward the round take-out container I was holding up for her to see.
     She was puzzled for a second, looked, then smiled. 
     "I get it," she said.
     We had ordered take-out for Valentine's Day, from our favorite Indian place, Tava in Morton Grove—tandori fish, chicken tikka masala, spinach, two types of nan. They had included a free dessert, in honor of the holiday. But my wife had baked a pumpkin pie, so we saved the pudding for Monday's dinner.
     "Of course it's spelled wrong," I said, looking at the handwriting on the cover, where someone had written, "Happy Valentine's Day! Complementary Rice Pudding" and added a heart. English is a difficult language to master, filled with complexities, like words that sound the same but are spelled differently and mean different things.
     As a longtime restaurant goer, that note really impressed me. I've had take-out from Alinea, and nobody wrote anything on the containers, or the bag—someone at Tava had also penned "Happy Valentine's Day," large, on the bag. 
     I understand why most places don't do things like that. The little extra flourish takes time and, beyond that, someone has to think to do it.  Restaurants are busy, frenetic places, and just preparing the food, getting together the orders, checking that everything is included, is challenge aplenty. More than one favorite place, that we ordered take-out from mostly just to be supportive, botched the order, which I have to admit, left us a little less enthusiastic, pawing around for something that wasn't there. You should finish a meal from a place feeling grateful and satisfied, not disappointed and sympathetic.
     "Although," I continued. "Maybe they meant it was supposed to augment the meal. As opposed to being free. That would also work."
     "Complementary" means something that enhances something else. "A thing that completes or brings to perfection" another. Which speaks to its second meaning, the usual number for a group. Four players is one short the usual basketball team complement.
     And "compliment," as you know, is an expression of admiration.
     Which gives us a chance to play my Homophone Smackdown Challenge, and see which usage is older.
     "Complement," the Oxford tells us, is from the Latin, complementum, that which fills up or completes—the source being agreeableness, think, "comply-ment," and traces it to 1419. "Compliment" only goes back to the end of the 17th century, from the identical French word and Italian complimento, an "expression of respect and civility to another by words acts." The Oxford goes on a bit, but one sentiment stands out. "Compliment is thus a doublet of COMPLEMENT. (The form directly from the Latin). The latter was in use in this sense about a century before the introduction of the French word, which slowly took its place between 1665 and 1715."
     Hey, we've all been there. I wasn't familiar with "doublet" beyond being an article of clothing—a man's padded jacket—in Shakespearean times. Linguistically, doublets are twinned words, like compliment and complement, that have the same root, but proceeded through the language through different routes, and so have different spellings and meanings, like "pyre" and "fire" or "frail" and "fragile."
     But language is infinite, while people are not, so time to get on with the day. We've come very far from rice pudding, which was good, particularly with a little cinnamon sprinkled on top—though the pudding was too sweet for my wife's taste, so she set hers aside for me for yet another day. And I have to admit, my pang of disappointment that she didn't like her dessert was immediately replaced by the thought, "More rice pudding for me!" We are all but human, alas.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Shut off.

    "I smell gas," my wife says, coming up from our basement, which is like the setting of a Stephen King novel.
     "I do too, sometimes," I muse, from the sofa. "The house is 115 years old. It must be because of the cold."
    It was 0 degrees this morning. Now it's warmed up to 16.
     "I'm going to call Nicor," she says. It's about 2 p.m.
     I did not leap up, shouting, "The hell you are!" Which, had I known what is coming, I might have done. I would suggest we instead crack a window in the basement and wait for spring.
     But nobody wants to blow up. Houses sometimes do that. Ka-boom. I raise no objection. She calls.
     Meanwhile the dog, which has had tummy troubles, fixes me a meaningful look. We go outside just as the Nicor guy arrives in a white pick-up truck. My wife goes to let him in.
     The dog and I walk. I'll draw the veil. When we return, the Nicor guy is in the basement, waving a wand attached to some device around some rusty pipes by the far wall, by the fuse box. He explains that he's shutting off the gas. Get a plumber, fix the leak.
    "And then you'll come back?" I say, hopefully, trying to get up to speed and process this development.
     "Someone will, yes."
     I did not foresee this development. It seems important to get all the information I can from him while he's here. He shows me where the leak is.
     "Shouldn't you tag it or something?" I say, worried about my ability to point out the proper spot should a plumber actually arrive in the near future. 
     "We only do that for complicated leaks," he says. He shows me the valve he used to shut our boiler off, the boiler that would normally be filling the radiators with hot water, heating our house. But now won't be doing that. Because the gas is off.
     Then he's gone.
     He briefly reappears outside the house, locking the meter no doubt. I suppress an urge to bolt outside, wading up to him in the snow, drop to my knees, hands clasped in front of me. "Please, PLEASE turn our gas back ON!"
     It's about 2:30 p.m. 
     "Panic" is the wrong word. "Focus," is closer. Get a plumber, get him in here, get the pipe fixed, get Nicor back, turn on the gas. I feel magnificently focused.
     My wife steps in. We have a magnet. In the kitchen. With the phone number of Village Plumbing. I call. Explain the situation.
     "I'll call you back," the lady on the other end says.
     While I'm doing this, my wife remembers that we pay $5 a month for Nicor Home Solutions. Which, in theory, is supposed to help with this kind of thing. She phones and gets put on hold. I open the taps to a trickle in all the bathrooms, the kitchen, and the slop sink in the basement. Keep the pipes from freezing. That feels like decisive action.
     I stand in the living room, and can feel the house cool. 
     Twenty minutes pass. I phone the plumber back. "He'll be there within an hour," she says, with a note of exasperation. "I'll call you when he's on the way."
     "Within an hour?" I say, grasping at hope. Yes, within an hour. 
     Nicor Home Solutions finally picks up after a half an hour. They want to know if any of us have COVID. My wife explains we do not. They too have a plumber who would also be here, also within an hour. My wife wonders should she have him come.
     "Yes!" I say, con brio. "Between the two of them, one of them should show," I am normally the most laissez faire, let-things-work-themselves out kind of guy. Let's wait for the free Nicor plumber. We've been paying five bucks a month for, Jesus, probably 20 years. Might as well get a return for our investment.
     But this does not seem one of those coast-along situations. Plus I do not have faith in people. Nicor took half an hour to pick up the phone. It would take them half a week to get here. I have no point of reference here. I don't remember this happening to anybody I know. 
     I leap on Twitter and Facebook to inform the Hive. I could see needing to tap their intelligence. I lay out the story, ending, "The plumber is, in theory, on the way. I'll keep you posted."
     The Village Plumbing plumber arrives, and I somehow resist the impulse to hug him in greeting. Tall, handsome, he has worked on our boiler before. I lead him to the the fitting that the Nicor guy had pointed out. He applies wrenches to it, conducting a monologue on the relative merits of gas company practice now versus in years past that discretion dictates I do not record. He opens the pipe up, observes that it is rather loosely sealed.
     Even as he is doing this, he informs us to call Nicor back up right now and tell them that the problem is fixed and they were to come back now and turn the gas on. Star the process.
     "Do you have any space heaters?" Eric the Plumber asks. 
      "No," I say. "I don't think they would be much help in a place this large."
      "They can do a surprisingly good job." This worries me. I do not want to heat my house with space heaters. I want the heat back on, and just raising the subject seems to imply that is in question. He speculates whether Nicor will pressure test the lines when they return—could cause other leaks. Old house like this, one you jiggle one pipe, others could go.  
     "Yeahhhh..." I imagine the Nicor guy saying, "You're going to need to replace ALL these pipes. And your basement is a foot too shallow. That's not up to code..."     
     I try not to think about it. I do think about all the people everywhere who this happens to who aren't johnny-on-the-spot types. Who don't leap to get that plumber. Or can't find one. Or pay for it. And wonder which is more dangerous: a slow gas leak? Or a house without heat in February when it's 10 degrees outside?
     My wife reaches Nicor, and is told someone will be by before midnight. Eight hours away. I place my fingers on a radiator. Still warm. That's good. Minutes to cut your heat, hours to get it back. That's life as I understand it.
      The plumber sent by Nicor Home Solutions arrives, about 15 minutes after Village Plumbing leaves. He seems very young. We send him away with apologies.
     There seems nothing to do but write a column, which I am doing now. If a meteor were headed toward earth to destroy it, I'd probably do the same. I can decide later whether this is the sort of hale, we're-in-it-together problem that readers can relate to, or a terrified bleat of white privilege by a suburban burgermeister who for a few hours glimpsed the skull of bureaucratic bungling that normally is kept well-fleshed out and smiling for me. (Editor's note: the latter, which is why you're reading it here and not in the newspaper).
      My wife goes in the basement, finds a space heater the size of a large lady's purse that I didn't remember we had, and sets it up near her computer in the living room. I place my hand two inches from its grill.
     "It heats the air for inches," I say. But after a while, it does have some slight effect.
      The snow is falling, in big flakes. Quite pretty, under usual circumstances.
     At 4:30 I say, "Whatever we do for dinner, let's bake something." 
     "Right," my wife replies, "I'll make some corn bread..." She pauses—do you see this coming? I don't—then starts laughing.
     "The gas is off," she says.
      We put on our Land's End fleeces. I slip on a pair of fingerless gloves. It's 60 degrees in the house. At 5:30 we eat an early dinner. Hearty tomato soup with gnocchi. It feels very Eastern European, to be sitting in our kitchen in our coats eating hot soup. Almost an adventure. Like camping in your kitchen.
     Darkness falls. I notice that all the trivial crap that usually dominates my low-level consciousness has fallen away. Getting the heat back on is all that matters.
     At 6:30 p.m. another Nicor guy shows up. Before he even knocks on the door he tramps around to the side of the house and turns the gas on. First thing, he goes into the kitchen to see if the stove lights. Then we tramp into the basement and he lights the pilot light on our boiler and fires it up, then does the same on our hot water heater. He is niceness itself. 
      After he leaves, I first of course inform social media, which shares my relief. Then wonder if we handled it properly. Maybe we should have saved money by not calling Village Plumbing and just waiting for Nicor Home Solutions to send somebody. But I had no reason to assume Nicor would get somebody out, and quick action seemed important. Anyway, done now.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Flashback 2005: How to bluff your way through another Valentine's Day

Veselka, East Village, NYC, Feb.14, 2020

     Exactly one year ago today, my wife and I were having a madcap Manhattan weekend with our two boys, and spent a festive Valentine's Day doing stuff we love all day long... a lingering breakfast at Caffe Reggio in the Village, a long morning stroll through the Whitney Museum, lunch and conversation with an old friend at Miznoun in Chelsea Market, shopping, a mid-afternoon pick-me-up pizza at Lombardi's, shopping in the Strand, and late night chowing down on excellent Eastern European grub at Veselka.   
Breakfast, Feb. 14, 2020
     Skip a year. Now we're in Day 9 of The Liquid Nitrogen Deep Freeze February from Hell, which came hard on the heels of Sedition January, which followed Deceit December, not to forget COVID summer and Civic Unrest Spring. A time when no one goes anywhere or does anything or can imagine going anywhere or doing anything but occasionally checking on the news to confirm that half the country is still crazy, plus occasionally heaving a sigh of gratitude that we're not all dead. Yet.
     Having spent Saturday working on the book, I'd rather put my hand in flame then write something else. Luckily, there is an infinity of old stuff slumbering in the computer, such as this, back when the column filled a page. I kept the old headings. Happy Valentine's Day, if you can swing it, if anything can said to be happy anymore.

Opening shot

     Today is Valentine's Day. If you had forgotten until just now, my sympathies. That forehead-slapping stomach-dip is an awful feeling. I hope at least it's morning, and there is still time to juggle meetings and skip lunch and scramble to find a last-minute token of affection. 
Lunch, Feb. 14, 2020
     If not, if you're on the train heading home, you're a dead man and would do better to face the music than to rush to a White Hen to pick up a limp clump of dyed carnations, the gift that says, "I don't care."
     Instead of that, stick with indifference. Don't grovel and apologize—women hate that. Set your face in a "hard day" look of exhaustion, walk in, sigh, shake your head, and go collapse on the couch. Refuse to talk about it. Accept her gift with a heavy sigh, a weak smile, a crushed "thanks" and toss it wearily away. Maybe she'll buy it. Or, better yet, maybe she'll have forgotten, too.


     The aerial snapped off our car. As a result, the only station we get in is WBBM-AM, whose signal is so strong you almost don't even need a radio to hear it. We usually keep it off, but on the hour I try to shush the incessant prattle of the boys in the back seat, reaching for the knob and announcing importantly, "I want to hear the top of the news"—one of those clenched dad phrases they'll probably be repeating back to each other with guffaws for decades after I'm gone.
     I'm not looking for breaking stories as much as I like to hear the urgent, jittery CBS Radio Network jingle and the newscaster, whose tone is the last gasp of the old-fashioned, hand-to-ear, loosened necktie, teletype clattering in the background gravitas that once defined radio news.
     The top story Saturday night, at 7 p.m., as we drove downtown for dinner—Greek Isles!— was Howard Dean being named chairman of the Democratic National Committee. They played a snippet of the announcement, and then something that shocked me—he famous "Heeeee-yah!" burst of crazed enthusiasm that doomed Dean's faltering primary campaign early last year. The newscaster quickly added that while Dean didn't primal scream again, he instead said this, and then cut to a quote.
     That seemed so unfair. No wonder politicians are such cringing cowards. Howard Dean is no doubt a man of accomplishment; he was governor of Vermont, after all. But he might as well be an escapee from a lunatic asylum who almost seized power before being betrayed by a spectacular public breakdown. He's carrying on, bravely, trying to make a contribution. But what good will it do him? He could escape to the South Seas, like Lord Jim, but strangers will sneak glances over at him as he stands rigidly at the bamboo bar, nursing his dark rum, then grin at one another and whisper, "Heeeee-yah."

Just keep going

     Speaking of things breaking off the car. We had an extraordinary moment last month. The family was in the Camry. As I backed it out, the right side mirror collided abruptly with the frame of the garage door. It shattered with a bang.
     Once, this would have upset me. Once, my wife would have commented upon it. Now, no one said anything. I put the car in park, went around to inspect the broken stump of the mirror. I gathered up the shattered shards of glass and plastic from the garage floor, disposed of them, got back in the car and we drove away without a word. You would think this kind of accident happened every day.
     I wish I could convince myself that is some kind of Zen-like calm. Don't sweat the small stuff. ... But I have the sneaking suspicion it more has to do with being so completely overwhelmed and burnt-out that nothing much upsets you anymore. The drown reflex kicking in, smiling at the rising bubbles as you settle slowly to the soft silt on the bottom. Not an unpleasant sensation, really.

Closing shot

     Getting back to Valentine's Day, the only reason I have exactly what my wife wants, wrapped and waiting for her this morning, is because she told me precisely what to buy, and reminded me until she was certain it had been taken care of.
      That's the beauty of marriage. It's more difficult for new couples. A new girlfriend wants to test her love's devotion. So she doesn't just tell him what she wants for Valentine's Day. That would be too easy. Instead, he's supposed to prove his worth by reading her mind.
     By the time they are engaged, a fiancee might drop hints, bread crumbs the guy is supposed to follow to the right gift.
     A wife doesn't have time for that, nor does she think her husband is smart enough to figure it out himself. At least mine doesn't. So she just tells him what she wants and then, when he gives it to her, feigns surprise and delight.
     That's love.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 14, 2005