Wednesday, March 31, 2021

I didn’t expect ‘doom’ to be so exhausting

     “Impending doom.”
     I read the words aloud to my wife.
     “Now there’s a phrase that you just don’t see very much,” I continued. “I wonder if other things ‘impend.’ Or is it just doom?”
     She started to read something on her phone. The winds buffeted the old house, which groaned like a clipper ship rounding the Horn Monday night, as we fished the internet for news which, despite an upswing in positive developments — vaccines rolling out more and more, weather improving, that ship stuck in the Suez Canal finally freed — suddenly seems grim.
     “The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of ‘impending doom’ from a potential fourth surge of the pandemic,” I read. “CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, appeared to fight back tears as she pleaded with Americans to ‘hold on a little while longer’ and continue following public health advice, like wearing masks and social distancing, to curb the virus’s spread.”
     When government officials start to cry, that’s usually bad, right? Despite everything that’s gone on for the past ... ah ... year plus, the people in charge do not generally weep.
     Wasn’t it only last week we had turned the corner and were ready to skip into springtime? Robins twittering, tank cars of vaccines rumbling across the country, the buds on the saucer magnolia just beginning to emerge fat and pink? That is not necessarily good either — the weather is supposed to drop into the mid-20s Wednesday and Thursday. If the blooms come out too early, and the temperature plummets, those blossoms can get burned, and the blossoms are not luxurious and pink, adding a week of festivity to springtime, but brown, like burnt marshmallows stuck on the ends of twigs, an omen, a foretaste of autumn and death when spring has barely begun.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Trumpspeak, translated


     One of the joys of the Joe Biden era—besides seeing our national problems addressed honestly and vigorously, which is happiness aplenty, or should be—is we aren't pinned to the wall by a firehose of lies and self-puffery geysering hourly out of the mouth of Donald Trump and his supporters.
     Oh sure, Trump's still off somewhere, haranguing wedding parties at Mar-a-Lago. But the condemnation of history is hardening around him already, and maybe the law too, and the latest Republican go-to move of restricting voting so the people disgusted with them have a harder time booting them out of office, well, that isn't really a tactic of the strong and confident, is it? 
     That doesn't mean the battle is over, however. Those who haven't figured Trump out by now never will, and they are on the move. Though the putsch of Jan. 6 was thwarted, and it was a come-to-Jesus moment for a few, the reset continue on as before. The trouble is, once you commit yourself fully to ignoring reality and crafting your own alternative world, then it doesn't matter the enormity of the particular reality you are ignoring. You can always slap a few rolls of pure fabrication over the rot, stand back, and admire the shimmering effect. 
      The forces of authoritarianism, denied the executive office, have gone local. It isn't just in southern statehouses. Here in my quaint little village of Northbrook, there is an election of town officials next week, and one faction is vigorously winking and gesturing at the MAGA crowd, in code of course. Let me draw your attention to the sign above, several of which are jammed into the ground along with the various candidate signs in front of our red brick village hall.
     Let's unpack the code in this sign—it bears no attribution, of course; nobody becomes a fear-peddling bigot out of surfeit of courage—shall we?
     "INSIST ON HONEST ELECTIONS" means undercutting the election process that you are losing. Which Trump was already doing back in 2016, assuming his own defeat, which through some malign fate did not happen. A strategy he returned to in full-throated fury in 2020, stirring up that rebellion against our government Jan. 6, and pushing the lie onward, as Republican legislatures try to restrict and limit the casting of ballots, to improve their sweaty grasp on power.
 Remember, the 2020 election was thoroughly vetted, in court, triple-counted, and found to be impeccable, for those of us in the reality-based world. Honest elections were already insisted upon; that's why he lost. But "CORRUPT THE VOTE" makes for an uncomfortable banner, even for them, so they are mobilizing around the concept of "honest elections" in the service of dishonest elections.
     "FREE SPEECH" means shrugging off consequences of their own speech Once you've established yourself as a racist, for instance, speaking exclusively to your similarly-bigoted friends, it can be uncomfortable when your frame of reference shifts and you must attempt to justify yourself to those not crouched in the same cramped corner of the mental spectrum you occupy. So in an attempt to distract attention from the fact that you are doing and saying racist things, you focus on the criticism that you honestly receive and pretend you are being repressed, and pretend that your right to spout idiocy is being somehow squelched. Go on Fox News and complain that your voice is being silenced, the way a person who has said something stupid and been called out on it in those terms will point in indignation at the insult of being labeled "stupid" while completely overlooking the stupidity that prompted it. I suppose they consider that clever. It certainly fools themselves, if no one else.
    And finally, "UNBIASED MEDIA" is, in classic Orwellian "WAR IS PEACE" form, a hurrah for biased media, the type that curled purring at Trump's feet, uncritically passes along and amplifies his lies, and demands that everyone else does the same. News outlets that reflect the drumbeat of craven cowardice and demi-treason emitting from the Republican Party must be themselves skewed, because the only other explanation is the reality they are reflecting, and that was abandoned long ago.
     Not to forget the final decorative dollop of the American flag, brandished by those betraying literally everything it represents. 
     I went to vote Monday, and chatted with one of the Democratic candidates for trustee in front of the village hall—no Republican candidates in sight, I guess they're satisfied letting their anonymous signs do the talking. She said the Trumpite faction is ominously strong in Northbrook, and I do see their MAGA red everywhere. Before the election, there were those big rallies at Shermer and Walters, young people insulting the passing traffic, venting the free-floating grievance that passes for political philosophy. As I've said for a long time, Trump wasn't a cause, but a symptom, and the fear and perpetual indignation that spawned him has not gone away, just trickled down below the foundations of our homes, to emerge below our feet with the crocuses, an ominous bloom. 
These red signs have to be worrisome to those of us working to ensure that the Trump offense is confined to our shameful past, and not merely a preview of worse to come. Make sure you get out and vote, while you still can. Because what happened in Georgia can happen here, too.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Office sings its siren song as vaccine spreads


     On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, workers pouring out of the Sears Tower looked up as they cleared the building. The World Trade Center had come down about an hour before, and nobody knew what might happen next. Hurrying away, carrying laptops, they scanned the skies.
     I know that because I saw it. As employees streamed out of their offices, I was heading toward mine, the Sun-Times newsroom at 401 N. Wabash. I was going into work because that’s what people did in the morning. You went to work.
     Not for the past year, of course. COVID-19, a far more deadly disaster — in the United States, closing in on 200 times the toll of 9/11 — creating a chasm between those who could work at home and those who had to risk their lives to draw a paycheck.
     I’ve gone into the office three times over the past year, always because I was downtown anyway, going to the library or conducting an interview. Each time, the newsroom was silent and empty. It was grim, unnatural.
     When will that change? With millions of doses of vaccine being pumped into millions of arms every day, society is pondering a return to work.
     On March 29, Microsoft and Uber are welcoming employees back into their West Coast headquarters.
     Not everyone will be going back. A big British paper, the Daily Mirror, is closing its London office. Reporters can work out of their cars or homes.
     I can provide some insight of what that’s like. For most of my career, going in to the office was a choice. As a columnist I could work at home and usually did. But I routinely prodded myself to go in, for a variety of reasons. Usually because something specific was happening downtown, an event, interview, meeting, lunch, opera rehearsal. I was hoofing into the paper in 2001 because I joined the editorial board, a five-year detour into being a serious person.

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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Flashback 2003: Go straight to the top to fulfill an elevator dream

     On Wednesday, I began a column on workplace fatalities by talking about four men burned to death installing the elevators at the Sears Tower in 1973—a story that appears in the new book that I'm turning in next week.
     I heard from a lot of grateful workers, including someone from IUEC Local 2, speaking for the 1300 of his "brothers and sisters who build, repair and maintain this equipment."
     Which reminded me that, intrigued by the certificates that used to be framed in elevators, I had spent a day with an elevator inspector from Local 2.
     There is a coda to this story: after it appears, someone asked me why I didn't include anything about the man I wrote about being nearly crushed by a malfunctioning elevator? Because when he said, "People get hurt" I didn't have the presence of mind to ask "Did YOU ever get hurt?" And he didn't volunteer the information, which is understandable. 

     If you've never seen an elevator silently whoosh down 28 floors and stop a few inches above your nose, it's quite a sight. Actually, most everything in the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building at 300 E. Randolph is quite a sight. Only five years old, cool gray, with an immense, open lobby dominated by a hovering circle of stainless steel, and glass elevators that rise like bubbles heavenward, it reminded me of those international corporate headquarters Bruce Willis is always stumbling into shortly before a squad of heavily armed Euro-terrorists seal the doors.
     I was there to fulfill a long-held dream. You see, some functions of the city are obvious. I can't walk a block without noticing a city worker milking parking meters — you know, the guy who rolls around a little, wheeled safe and marries it to the meters in a kind of machine mating, then funnels the quarters out? They're everywhere.
     Other functions are mysterious. What do bridge tenders do in the winter? Why do you never see people out on their condo balconies?
     And, most tantalizing of all, to me: elevator inspectors. I had never seen an elevator inspector, for all my years of riding elevators. Never. But they must exist. Their handiwork is right there, often at nose level, in a little frame. "This Certifies That," it begins, in the Gothic lettering we still associate with officialdom, "I HAVE THIS DAY" — and here it gives the date —INSPECTED" — and here it lists the address and particular elevator — "AND FIND THIS ELEVATOR AND MACHINERY IN SAFE OPERATING CONDITION."
     Inspected how? I have never seen an elevator inspector, but I've imagined every detail. A small man, 5' foot 6, in a derby hat and bow tie. A small, waxed mustache. Neat herringbone suit and vest — green — and thick, owlish glasses. He would carry a complex wooden case that opened like a Chinese box to all sorts of drawers and compartments, filled with an array of tools — brass calipers and dentist's mirrors on thin, extending wands. He would remove his green suit jacket, place it on a hook that folded out of a secret place in every elevator in the city, roll back his sleeves, sand his fingertips, then begin.
     Curiosity for the truth overwhelmed me. So I called the Buildings Department, and they hooked me up with Mike Lundin, elevator inspector and proud member of the International Union of Elevator Constructors, Local 2. The only thing Lundin had in common with the inspector of my imagination was a mustache, and, even then, it wasn't waxed, but a regular, Chicago-guy mustache. No bow tie, no suit. He wore black jeans and a golf shirt, his primary tool a flashlight.
     "This morning, I had a dumbwaiter," he said, explaining that Chicago's 13 full-time elevator inspectors are responsible not only for certifying the city's thousands of elevators, but also escalators, dumbwaiters, moving sidewalks, platform lifts and carnival rides.
     Our task for the moment was elevator No. 16 — an elegant, glassed-in job. We were met by the building's full-time elevator technician, Joe Goodwin, wearing a blue jumpsuit emblazoned with "Mitsubishi." The automaker's electrical division made the building's elevators.
     "First, we ride the car," said Lundin, a graduate of Gordon Tech, who has been on the job for nearly five years.
     We went up to the 28th floor, then up a flight of stairs to a room filled with gray electrical lockers and big motors driving wheels that spun quietly as the elevators zipped up and down. Each motor is paired with a generator — a "regenerative system" so that the extra oomph the motor expends running the elevator can be caught by the generator and turned into electricity, the power fed back into the building's system.
     "We'll look at the hoist cables," said Lundin. "We look for different telltale signs of wear."
     Each elevator is held by five 5/8-inch steel cables, any one of which could hold the elevator by itself. The cables are made of steel strands wound around, oddly enough, a rope. There is hemp at the center of all that steel because it is soaked in lubricant that oozes out as the cables run back and forth, helping to reduce friction that leads to wear.
     Lundin took out a round brass gauge to see how thick the cables were. "It's shut down right now, Joe?" he asked a little hesitantly before sticking his hands close to the cables.
     "Elevators are extremely dangerous," he said, checking to make sure the cables had not stretched out too far, a sign of wear. "There are a lot of moving parts. People get hurt. Our union preaches safety."
     He checked the brake system, the doors on each floor, the area on top of the car, the safety switches, the 15,000 pounds of counterweight.
     A few myths to dispel: You can't escape through the hatch in the elevator car roof, like in the movies. Most are locked and can only be opened from the outside. Pushing the call button again after it's already lit doesn't bring the elevator faster, nor does pushing the "Close door" button close the doors more quickly.
     After about 45 minutes, Lundin was done. The only thing left was the paperwork, the filling out of a new, enigmatic little inspection certificate to frame inside elevator No. 16. And, yes, he does point out the elevators he has inspected to his three children, Rachel, Sean and Annie.
     "See, I'm famous," he told his oldest, Rachel who, being 14, answered with the inevitable: "Dad, will you stop it?"
     —Originally appeared in the Sun-Times, February 7, 2003

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Texas notes: Cockerel

     Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey has previously written on the theme, "Hail chickens." Today's could be considered a variation, "Chickens, hail."

     It’s been an odd week. That’s saying a lot considering the past few months, nearly all of 2020, and every single day after the horrible night of November 9, 2016.
     This is the most stressful time many of us have ever known. We’ve all been brought to our knees, vulnerable and faced with the fragility of life. Aware of the fact that we might lose everything at the drop of a hat— our businesses, our homes, the neighborhood stalwarts we’ve relied on, even our loved ones. We suffered through and pretty much survived our first oligarch. It’s been a bizarre ride, hasn’t it? 
    At least there are certain things we can still count on, if we are lucky. A hot cup of coffee in the morning. Snow storms in the north. The sounds of crickets lulling us to sleep in early spring in the south. The PBS News Hour, and Teri Gross on NPR. The Sun Times. SNL. The Austin Music scene coming back to life.
    Each morning I sit in front of my laptop with a cuppa joe near a floor to ceiling open window. I enjoy the sounds of the wind, blue jays and doves, the crunch of feet on the gravel path a few yards behind my tiny house, and children playing in the park. The chickens bellow out an insistent opera back and forth to each other as they vie for scraps and seeds. The little ones cower and skulk, and sneak bites when they can.
     Earlier this week I started noticing a rooster crowing nearby. Cock a doodle doooo! I figured a neighbor down the street must have acquired one of these dapper fellows. I heard the gent on and off for a few days and didn’t think much of it except “oh, Austin. You’re pretty cool.” Today he was a little louder, and much to my surprise I realized the calls were coming from our coop. How could that be? We don’t have roosters, only hens. A rooster would mess up the delicate balance of the egg laying ladies.
     It hit me like a ton of bricks. Blanche. Lately I’d found myself marveling at her dinosaur talons and noticing how quickly she was growing. She was gigantic, towering over the others. She was twice as large as her sidekick Thelma, yet they had come to us as a pair of teeny chicks.
     Blanche was no hen. She was a young rooster, a cockerel.
     I texted Wilson, my landlord, and filled him in. He responded “yes, I realized it too. We’ll have to get rid of her soon.” We are still calling her “her.” I decided to hang out with her a bit today, to get used to the fact that she is, in fact, a he. I could tell right away that she was different. Thelma seemed scared of her. When Blanche tried to straddle her, she shape-shifted before my eyes from the cute little hen I’d watched grow up into a domineering cock. When I let Wilson know what I’d seen he said “oh, no. We’ll have to get rid of her sooner than I’d thought.” Poor Blanche. This gang is all she’s ever known.
   A few nights ago I was awoken by a storm. Heavy wind, lightening, and a furious rain pounding against the roof and making percussive sounds on the air conditioner perched outside the window. All of a sudden huge balls of ice started falling from the sky. It sounded like the house was being pelted with little missiles. I was unnerved, thought about my car, and wondered if the chunks might fly through a window. I worried about chickens and even more so about the thousands of unhoused Austinites. Would everyone be ok?
     The hail lasted several minutes and I told myself “this will pass. Everything is OK.” When it was over I stepped outside to a lawn peppered with little white balls. I collected a few, the largest were green-grape sized, and popped them into the freezer. I’m not sure why, but it seemed fun, and the right thing to do. Something my Dad would have done when we were kids.
     It’s been hard for me to sleep this week after I had the unfortunate side effect of “COVID Arm” after my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. 11 days after the shot I developed huge red welts that look like burns and itch like the dickens, first around the vaccine site and then in random spots all over my upper body. Today is day 19 after the dose, and I noticed some new welts pop up. I saw the doctor, and as I expected, they are a known reaction and will go away. (Or so they say). The angry welts kept me up for days, and now the hail prevented yet another good night’s sleep. As I drifted back to sleep with the help of Benadryl, the chickens and I stayed safe. At about that same moment, straight line winds knocked down brick buildings in Bertram Texas, less than 50 miles north of here.
   And how was your week?
Oh I am a chicken who lives in an egg,
But I will not hatch, I will not hatch.
The hens they all cackle, the roosters all beg,
But I will not hatch, I will not hatch.
For I hear all the talk of pollution and war
As the people all shout and the airplanes roar,
So I’m staying in here where it’s safe and it’s warm,
                         —Shel Silverstein

Friday, March 26, 2021

Moral failure the go-to move for Chicago City Council

Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: Council of Trent (Metropolitan Museum)

     I try not to contradict colleagues in print. However, something stuck out of Rummana Hussain’s otherwise flawless column about her experience with anti-Muslim bigotry in India, and I must speak.
     She expresses disappointment at the Chicago City Council for gutting its non-binding resolution decrying Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi fanning the flames of Islamophobia and scapegoating minorities to distract the country from its actual problems.
     No argument there. But one sentence caught my eye like a fishhook:
     “The City Council is expected next week to vote on the dramatically watered-down resolution, which will represent a failure of character.”
     A failure of character for her, or me, or your average person with a functioning moral sense. But for the Chicago City Council, it isn’t a failure of their character, but an expression of it. That’s who they are.
     Craven collapse when the moment calls for courage is a council specialty, their go-to move. They’ll take the teeth out of an ethics ordinance, if it applies to themselves, faster than a Skid Row dentist.
     There are so many examples, space is limited and I hope you’ll forgive me for quickstepping through a few.
     This is the same body that in 1971 refused to support a resolution against firebombing homes. A Black family had been burned out of its house on the Southwest Side, and Ald. William Cousins introduced a resolution disapproving of the practice. It lost, 34-13. The outcry was so great, Mayor Richard J. Daley later said, in a stage whisper, “You ARE against firebombing,” and the same resolution they had just reject passed unanimously.
     This is the body that couldn’t denounce police beating people in the street, where the Rules Committee buried a resolution condemning “brutal repression” of protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Heck, in the 1930s, the council couldn’t condemn Nazi Germany, while the city banned films drawing attention to the suffering of Jews there as anti-German propaganda.

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Thursday, March 25, 2021

At least it wasn't S-M-U-K.

     You expect to see weird fashion in the New York Times Style section. Laughably odd, futuristic haloes and shiny rubber pants that blob out at the cuff instead of tapering in, the fertile, the uninhibited imaginings of an army of ambitious young designers intended only to catch attention, shock, perhaps hint at the future, certainly never be worn by a human being in the living world. Hardly worth the puff of a sigh, since they'll vanish in a moment anyway and be replaced by something even stranger.
    Other places you expect nothing but staid tradition, your L.L. Bean, your Eddie Bauer, perhaps offering up a new kind of plaid in this year's crop of flannel shirts. A duck boot that isn't green, maybe.
    So it was with surprise that I flipped open my Lands' End Men catalogue this week and saw, well, just look at it. The grey sweat pants/aqua poplin diver-and- beach-umbrella motif Hawaiian shirt over a white striped blue tee would be terrible on any normal human being, and looks pretty bad on their model. 
     But turns out that was only prelude. 
     Before we get to the matter-at-hand, I suppose I should admit that I do wear one of those black Lands' End puffy jackets simply because my wife bought it for me, it's warm, and everybody else has one. 
    Otherwise, the company already pretty much lost me. First, because I discovered the far better made, far more stylish and classic L.L. Bean. There's just no comparison.
    Second, Lands' End divided their t-shirts into regular t-shirts and "Super Ts," the former being of such poor quality I'm not sure what they're for. Straight to rags, perhaps, just cut up directly out of the package and start dusting.
     Anyway, I'm thumbing through the catalogue, basically just trying to shake off the shock of the guy at the right, and they do manage a spread of seersuckers—I've got a few, very comfortable on hot days—and linen and madras shirts.    
    Then this: "We spell comfort S-L-U-B." Again, you really have to see it, as disbelief is a definite risk, and documentary evidence important. Here you go.
     Slub? Really? A misspelling of Yiddish schlub perhaps, which I think of as an inept, pitiful, weak, put-upon man. ("A person regarded as clumsy, stupid, or unattractive" is how the Free Dictionary defines it). Is that really their target market?
    How can this happen? I mean, I know Lands' End is going for the WASPy, Connecticut boathouse ethos, but it's still clothing, still the rag trade. I have to imagine there are Jews somewhere, working, perched on stools, needle and threads in hand, mouthful of pins, somewhere in the background. They could have consulted them.
    "Slub?" They present it as a kind of concrete poem acronym for    

     It looks like an Onion parody, doesn't it? I knew almost half the country was cracked when Donald Trump nearly was re-elected after four years of stomach-churning failure and shameful idiocy. But somehow I never expected the nation's bottomless dimness to bleed into clothing catalogues. Companies lately have been bastions against the most extreme government missteps, drawing away from the staggeringly wrong, at least a little.
     I've given this too much thought already, and ought to wrap this up with a conclusion. I blame ... COVID. Think about it. Their catalogue staff, scattered at a dozen separate apartments and laundry rooms, trying to put together something based on the CEO's cracked notion, "let's get comfy," lowercase, natch. They actually copyrighted the phrase, "let's get comfy," which sounds to me like something a hardened heiress would purr trying to seduce Sam Spade as he looks for clues on the San Fransisco wharf front in a Dashiell Hammett novel. 
     Expanding on comfiness, someone floats the shlub idea. In person, the I-just-ate-a-bad-clam expressions of their colleagues would have killed that in the cradle. But you can't make out expressions on Zoom so well, and once it survives birth the Shlub Idea, now official, takes on a weight and momentum of its own, until I'm holding the catalogue in my hand, shaking my head and filing away the story so I can repeat it by way of explanation when Lands' End goes out of business in a couple years.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

What is the state’s most dangerous job?

     Larry Lucas, Robert Wiggins, Leonard Olson and William Walsh.
     Those names probably mean nothing to you, and why should they? It was almost 48 years ago — April 11, 1973 — that the four employees of Westinghouse’s elevator division were putting finishing touches on an elevator shaft at the nearly-topped-out Sears Tower, using turpentine to scrub away oil the foundry put on the steel rails to keep them from rusting.
     They were on a platform on the 42nd floor, in a “blind shaft” — two entrances, one 20 feet above their heads and another 100 feet below — when a spark ignited the turpentine. Other workers heard their screams and tried to break into the shaft to get to them, hammering at the concrete walls. But of course it was too late.
     We seldom consider workers who lose their lives. They don’t even get the little gratuitous nod we give first responders, though it might be argued that they do one better than saving the city: They built it in the first place, and keep it running.
     I thought of these four lost workers Monday morning because of an email with the enigmatic subject line: “BLS Midwest News Update: March 22-26, 2021.” You’d never open that, right? I did. The “BLS” is Bureau of Labor Statistics — part of the same federal government that took the lead in developing vaccines; I sure hope their medical judgment is better than their ability to craft catchy subject lines, or we’re all in trouble.
     The email inside is clear, and the message isn’t good: 5,333 fatal work injuries in the United States in 2019, up 2% from the year before and the highest toll in a dozen years. Of those deaths, 158 were in Illinois.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Thirty-four years a staffer.

     "Twenty years ago I was a nobody," comic Joe E. Lewis once quipped, "but today I am a non-entity."
     I never saw him deliver that line, alas, but read it in his autobiography, "The Joker is Wild." I like to think Lewis ended the sentence by drawing himself up to his full 5'7 height, pressing his hand to his heart, and fluttering his eyes in dignity, with a tone of hauteur. "Today I am a NON-ENTITY!"
     That came to mind because today is my 34th anniversary on the staff of the Sun-Times, and between the general howl of the online world, the degraded status of newspapers in general and newspaper columnists in particular, I feel like some exotic animal—a cross between an Irish elk and a platypus—the last of its species, living alone on an island rock, where every day the sea level rises another six inches. The island isn't submerged, yet. But it's coming.     
     Until then, to mark the anniversary, as I have in the past, I thought I'd cast a line into my bottomless backlist, and randomly hooked this, from 2010, to share with you today. It is, alas, astoundingly current, as writing about prejudice invariably is. The original title was "So many of us are blind to anti-Muslim bigotry." You can see the effect my arguing for tolerance has had on the nation. But honestly, despite having had no impact whatsoever and transiting across my career without touching anyone or achieving anything, I am still glad that I made the effort.

Tile panel (Metropolitan Museum)

     Last spring, I spoke at the Dante luncheon of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans.
     It was fun, to talk about the Divine Comedy. I concluded by pointing out how Dante, describing his elaborate paradise, pauses to mention that half of heaven is occupied by Jews.
     "Not only that," I said. "But it's the better half."
     I explained that, being Jewish myself and having soldiered through thousands of lines of Dante's often-abstruse terza rima verse, I felt rewarded by this gesture, an extraordinarily generous act for an Italian poet in 1300—an unexpected nod to a widely despised minority—and how today it represents a challenge to us all.
     "There is a lesson there," I said, explaining that it is easy to deal sympathetically with your own kind, to demand others treat you with the respect and humanity that you deserve.
     The hard part is to do this with other people, to treat them the way you yourself expect to be treated.
     This isn't profound. It's just a wordier version of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Everyone endorses it in theory. But try to apply it to a specific case, and it just vanishes, crumbling to nothing at a touch, like ash, as if it weren't a timeless moral code at all, but mere words, empty of meaning


     "I don't understand!" said the caller, a reader from Morton Grove, summarizing a column I wrote earlier this month about the Islamic community center planned for two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.
     I let him talk—fielding complaints is like fishing. Never try to reel them in too soon; play out some line and first let them tire themselves, flapping around.
     Three thousand dead! 9/11! The feelings of the families trampled by inconsiderate Muslims!
     "Couldn't they just put it a few blocks away!?!" he said, genuinely baffled.
     "No," I said, "and here's why . . ." 
     But he was off again. He was a lawyer, he said, and himself Jewish.
     I waited, with a fisherman's patience, and tried again.
     "Do you own a house?" I asked. At first the question didn't register.
     "What?" he said.
     "Do you own a house?"
     "Yes . . ." he said, reluctantly; lawyers tend to be circumspect.
     "What color is it?" I asked.
     "Blue . . ." he said, puzzled.
     "OK," I continued. "Let's say you want to paint it white. You file whatever notice you need with Morton Grove that you're painting your house white. But your neighbors complain—they don't want you to paint it white. White's the color of purity, and you're a Jew, and Jews killed Christ. So no white for you. It offends them. How much weight do you put on their feelings?"
     He didn't see the connection at all. This was not a matter of rights. It was simple. Build the mosque elsewhere.
     Yes, and if only that were the end of it. But it isn't—it's just the beginning of what is going to be a painful process in this country, particularly between now and November, as Republicans gleefully fall upon another tiny minority they can demonize to whip up their eager base.
     Seven out of 10 Americans agree with my Morton Grove reader, which means that 7 out of 10 Americans believe that all Muslims shoulder collective blame for 9/11—because that's the only thing opposing the mosque can possibly mean.
   I've had this same conversation half a dozen times this past week—on the train, with co-workers, with my own mother. It's maddening.
     For some reason, they do not see this as the classic textbook example of bigotry that it so obviously is. I try to find metaphors to cut through their fearful certainty.
     Make the Islamic community center into a Catholic seminary—parents oppose it, arguing that their children will be at risk, since everyone knows that priests are pedophiles.
     Do we respect the concerns of the parents? I'd say no.
     Why not? Some priests are pedophiles. Would not considering all as suspect be a reasonable precaution for a responsible parent?
     No, because all groups have criminal members. There are lots of white Protestant pedophiles, for instance, but nobody protests the construction of a golf course because it might draw the WASP element.
     This guilt by association is a sham smoke screen employed to indict people who are already feared because they are different.
     The sad fact is, people are fighting the construction of mosques, not just in Manhattan, but all across the country, and for the same reason: they  are afraid of them. In that sense, it is inevitable, maybe even good, that this is happening now, so we can examine and treat this festering wound in the American spirit.
     It is too easy to lazily suspect mosques as nests of nascent terror, and too hard to understand that not only is barring them un-American and morally wrong, but dangerous too, in that it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy—if you tell people long enough that they are potential terrorists who don't belong here, some fraction might eventually believe you.
     It's always too easy to brush away someone else's rights as trivial and intrusive. Why do they have to sit at the lunch counter? Why does she have to go to the prom? Why build it there? Imagine the question were posed to you, based solely on who you are: Why are you here, when we're so afraid of you? Why don't you go somewhere else?
     If it were being done to you, you'd understand in a heartbeat.
         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 15, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2021

Silence can be more than just complicity

Tomb figure, Han dynasty (Field Museum)

     "Silence is complicity," the president said Friday, in the aftermath of eight people, six of them Asian American women, being murdered in Atlanta.
     Well, I thought, guess I know what I’m going to write about for Monday. Don’t want to be complicit in any murders.
     Although I don’t agree with Joe Biden.
     Silence can be many other things. For instance, I jammed something about the murders into Friday’s column about getting vaccinated because I didn’t want to be accused of ignoring them. But the reference clashed with the jokey tone of the column, and my editor didn’t like it. So I took it out. In that case, silence was tact.
     One murder is terrible. Eight murders are extra terrible. Eight murders stemming from racial animus or dehumanizing sexism or religious repression or heck, all three—journalists are not supposed to announce the culprit of a crime, never mind decide upon his motive—with a few psychoses and way-too-lax gun laws tossed in, are super extra terrible. Do you really need me to tell you that? I hope not; I try not to traffic in the obvious. When Kamala Harris said Friday, “Racism is real,” who is her audience? Because those listening to her tend to already be all-too aware of the pervasive reality of racism. And those who need to hear it sure aren’t taking their cues from the vice president.
     The most important voices over the past few days have been Asian Americans, themselves, talking about the hostility they’ve coped with. That has to be news to a lot of white Americans. But those sharing their stories don’t need me standing over their shoulder, nodding. “What she said!” Silence can be deference.
     I’ve been writing about mass shootings since 1988, when Laurie Dann shot up a classroom at Hubbard Woods Elementary in Winnetka, and I’ve always hated, hated, hated doing so. Such stories can be exploitive, particularly in the mad rush to grill survivors and declare motives. Puff away the pieties and vows for change, and you’ve often got morbid fascination putting on airs. Plus an opportunistic dipping of your fingers into real people’s blood to finger draw your favorite conclusions. If I were going to use Atlanta as an occasion for self-expression, I’d do a mural about mind-stunting, body-shaming fundamentalist misogyny and repression. Where’s the rally denouncing that? But then, that’s me. So silence can be humility.
     Statistics show Donald Trump’s cruel slurs and his irresponsibly blaming COVID-19 on China increased hate crimes against Asian Americans. That was true last week and last month and last year, even if the Atlanta shooter — I’m not using his name — is so crazy he didn’t even notice his victims were Asian. An example isn’t proof, even of something you know to be true.
     People are trained to hate, and it’s a diminishment of the Asian American journey in this country to even mention Donald Trump, which is basically the past five minutes of a gantlet of abuse we can trace back to the United States sending Admiral Perry prying open Japan at gunpoint, the West’s century-long subjugation of China, the Opium War, building the railroads, the first don’t-think-about-setting-foot-here racial laws, World War II internment camps, World War II propaganda, Korean War propaganda, Vietnam War propaganda, not to mention blasting our geopolitical paranoia for about a dozen years over that devastated small country. There’s more, but that’s a start. Silence can be a recognition of the complexity of an issue.
     The truth is, we all suffer from bias, both as perpetrators and victims, in various times and various places. I tend to keep quiet at these moments, because what I have to say — bigotry isn’t going away because you have a rally, no matter how good you feel afterward — well, I read the room, and can tell it won’t be appreciated. Silence can be self-protective.
     The trouble with demanding that people weigh in on a matter is that it runs into the tendency to condemn anybody who phrases something in a slightly different way, or betrays a sentiment that isn't as highly polished as theirs, or is a little behind the times, or departs from the most simplistic slogan. I'm all behind #StopAsianHate; I just don't feel inclined to chant it, and don't see the utility of flooding Twitter with it. If you do, well, that's great. But I'm not saying your failure to do so makes you an accomplice in any crime.
       It comes down to this: Are we working to be a better society by learning and growing together? Or by brutalizing those who fail to bark the right virtue-signaling slogan on cue along with everybody else? If the president is going to demand that we all speak out about racism, it raises the question of who will be speaking, what will be said, and whether anybody is listening.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

"It don't do a bit of good."

New Salem, Illinois, 2015 (Photo by Tony Galati)

     "It don't do a child a bit of good," a neighbor unconvinced of the worth of vaccination told Abraham Lincoln. "I had a child vaccinated once, and in three days it fell out of a window and broke its neck."
     A reminder that the same ignorance that is a pervasive national problem today was also a problem more than 150 years ago. People never change.
     Speaking of which, the story is untrue. During Lincoln's time, any half humorous remark was given a bit of extra oomph by attaching it to the famously jocular president. Joseph Howard of the Brooklyn Eagle admitted to making up the story, according to Paul M. Zall, in his enjoyable, "Abe Lincoln's Legacy of Laughter."   
     At least Howard admitted the lie. There's hope then.

Photo by Tony Galati


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Texas notes: Olive and Carl

     The image of a tiny green olive with a bright red pimento on the inside of my right wrist has been popping into my mind’s eye. I’ve been seeing it there for months, along with a vine of bright purple morning glory flowers on my left shoulder and upper arm. These may be my first tattoos (if I find myself brave enough), and they came to me from who knows where. I don’t believe in god, and I am not even spiritual as many folks think I am. Still, I’ve been imagining— no doubt it’s wishful thinking— that my Grandma Olive and my Grandpa Carl are somehow still with me, even though they are both “resting” at Rosehill Cemetery.
     Olive and I used to wedge plump salty black olives firmly onto each of our ten fingers at the Thanksgiving table, and waggle them around at everyone. After the show that was brilliantly entertaining in our minds only, we’d suck the fleshy fruits into our mouths, one by one. I thought she was the absolute coolest.
     She had a permanent smile on her face. Revlon Orange Flip lipstick was the 
choix du jour, each day, for Olive. She wore the most colorful dresses imaginable and proudly adorned them with giant battery operated, blinking Cubs buttons, or the similarly gigantic Kiss Me I’m Irish one. She laughed as much as she smiled. Her ample chest would bounce up and down with each hearty guffaw. It’s as though she hadn’t a care in the world.
     She was addicted to the Cubs, or perhaps it was Harry Caray. She didn’t miss one single game the whole time I knew her, as a kid until I was in my 20s. I’m not sure how many games she actually got to see, but her trusty little black transistor radio with the long antenna was always on the ready. She’d pull it out of her big black purse and plunk in the middle of the table, wherever she was, when it was game time.
     She lived on Pine Grove and Diversey above Granny’s Waffle and Pancake House. One summer I was the cashier at Granny’s. For a while I lived with Olive and she’d wake me up before 6 a.m. to let me know it was time to get to work. She’d come down with me, sit at a big round table near the window (she was a fixture there), eat breakfast, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. I think they were Virginia Slims.
     At noon or so I’d kiss her on the cheek and head off to my second job at Marshall Field’s in Water Tower Place. I’d walk all the way there, along the lakefront. Life was perfect back then. At least it felt like it sometimes.
     I’d walk past Oak Street Beach where Olive had met the man who’d become her husband, Carl, many moons before. Someone in my family has a photo of her as a teenager in an old-time bathing costume standing on a post at that very beach. What a cutie she was.

  Olive was born in Wilmington, Delaware—wink, nod, hello Joe!—where her parents owned a butcher shop. Tragically she lost them both when she was a baby, and was brought up by an aunt. Eventually, as many Irish girls did at that time, she got on a bus and moved to Chicago as a teen, on her own. She lived with other Irish girls and embarked on a career in the restaurant business.
     Carl died when I was in pre-school, but I remember him clearly. The snappiest dresser you could find, replete with fedoras and wool felted hats topping his head each day, as much a 
pièce de résistance as Olive’s Orange Flip. He was an avid gardener and grew much of his own food over the years. His living room looked like a botanic garden. My favorite thing was a birdcage full of vines. He lived near Senn High School (by then Olive and Carl had split) where the huge fence along Ridge always bursted with morning glories. As a child, when we were lucky enough to pass them opening up to the sun, my mother would remind us that those were Carl’s favorite flowers.
     As I prepare to place my feet back onto Chicago soil and sidewalks, it seems Olive and Carl are alive in me more than ever. I am deeply grateful to have inherited their joie de vivre, green thumb, high intelligence, cleverness, classiness, and the fact that I knew Harry Caray style glasses were in fashion long before hipsters arrived on the scene.
     Can’t wait to visit you, Grandma and Grandpa. Thank you for loving me unconditionally.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Yup, got myself vaccinated, but won’t say how

      Yes, I got my first COVID vaccination on Monday. And no, I’m not going to tell you how it happened. In a manner embarrassing enough that I decided to never share the specifics. I didn’t lie. I didn’t body-check anybody out of line. Let’s leave it at that.
     The moment I made this uncharacteristic decision — discreet silence not being my forte — my immediate qualm was, “So what do I say if people ask?”
     And the fully-formed thought instantly flashing into mind was:
     “I’ll just say I got vaccinated at the synagogue with everybody else, in late 2019, just before the virus was released.”
     That’s a joke. I make jokes. It’s a twitch, a reflex, to cover unease at getting the life-saving shot that 88% of Illinoisans haven’t gotten yet. Is a good joke? Well, it plays on the psycho conspiracy theories that millions of Americans lap up like kittens around a dish of cream. Certainly not as wild as Secret Jewish Space Lasers.
     Is it a bad joke? Hateful? Anti-Semitic? Something that will lodge in the head of a nut? My gut says the Jews-to-the-front-of-the-line joke is not one whose unacceptability will only become clear to me after I’m flayed alive on social media. Yes, claiming that prejudice is mere humor is the traditional way haters dive for cover when called out on their bigotry. But jokes also have value, as a way for the targets of prejudice to process the contempt directed at them, making bigotry easier to live with, since it’s obviously never going away. Someone designed a “Secret Jewish Space Laser Corps” pin, and I thought of buying one, then decided people might think it was real, and that could be awkward.
     OK, OK. The vaccine. I have to tell you. So I volunteered to chauffeur a couple to Springfield to get their shots, because the woman can’t drive and the man shouldn’t, and I’m the nicest person ever. To Springfield, because many folks down there are numbed to the COVID peril by the barge of BS delivered nightly on Fox News, and so are uninterested in getting vaccinated. “It’s a gubment plot!”

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Thursday, March 18, 2021

Deely Bobbers

John Belushi as a "Killer Bee" on Saturday Night Live.

     My column in the Sun-Times is limited to 719 words, unless I get special dispensation for something longer, and often tangents must be stripped away to get the column down to the proper length, like a wrestler wrapping himself in a mat to make weight before a bout.
     For instance. Wednesday's bit of fun about St. Patrick's Day originally contained a deep dive into the history and etymology of "deely bobbers," which I first remembered as "deely boppers," those plastic headbands topped with a pair of springs holding a variety of festive trappings: stars, balls, or, in my mind most definitively, shamrocks. They seem a necessary part of the clueless mis-celebration of Irish culture: the pints of green Miller beer, the grass green "Kiss Me I'm Irish" t-shirts, the painted faces, the deely bobbers.
     Fashion often disappears into the mist. But deely bobbers are quite specific, at least according to Wikipedia:
Stephen Askin invented the original deely bobber in 1981, inspired by the "Killer Bees" costumes on Saturday Night Live....Askin made prototype Deely Bobbers in his kitchen and test-marketed them at the Los Angeles Street Fair of summer 1981, selling 800 at $5 each. He sold the invention to the Ace Novelty Co. of Bellevue, Washington, which launched it in January 1982 at the California Gift Fair. The name "Deely Bobber" was suggested by the wife of John Minkove, an Ace marketer; it had been her schoolfriend's placeholder name for "thingamajig". It was previously a brand of toy block sold 1969–1973.
    I remember the "Killer Bees" as being a recurrent theme on Saturday Night Live. There was something inherently funny about seeing John Belushi in this ridiculous bee costume, and he would show up from time to time, almost randomly, dressed as a bee, and the sproingy deely bobbers bouncing around his head were part of the overall effect. 
     In looking at the clips for deely bobbers, I noticed an early New York Times story of June 7, 1982, "A New Fad Invades: Martian Antennae" which is distinctive in that it completely misses both the origin of the novelty, a TV show of some note broadcast not terribly far from the Times newsroom, as well as the headdress's actual name.  Yes, it's easier now with the Internet. But still. It couldn't have taken that much effort to figure out where they came from.
      And here I thought the general cluelessness of the Times cultural coverage is a recent deterioration. I have to remember that Spy magazine had no trouble in the 1980s running a densely-packed monthly column cataloguing the Times' flaws and follies. 


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

There’s still Irish soda bread and Eugene O’Neill

     Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
     No parades, alas, or packed pubs. Not so many knots of young folk in black plastic bowlers and shamrock-tipped deely-bobbers doing their day-drinking forced marches from one River North bar to another.
     The city did dye the river green, in a surprise bit of late coronavirus festivity — all together now, class: “THANK YOU MAYOR LIGHTFOOT! THANK YOU, PLUMBERS UNION!” — which worked, if only as a reminder that we don’t have to actually see stuff in person anymore as long as it flashes beautifully across Instagram.
     And continuing our festive, look-on-the-bright-side mood, there is still Irish soda bread. Not quite as valuable as Yeats; not far behind, either.  
Eugene O'Neill
     That’s the trick nowadays. Turn losses into positives. For instance, yes, no big downtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade, no smaller-but-more-fun South Side Irish Parade.
     You know what else there isn’t? I haven’t heard a single aggrieved Irish-American complain bitterly that canceling the parades is a genocide against themselves and their culture, how their dead Irish ancestors who made the journey to Chicago will rise up from their uneasy graves to demand that those parades be held, COVID-19 be damned.
     I’m sure both Irish-Chicagoans and Plain-Old-Chicagoans in general aren’t happy about no parades. But even the more lackadaisical, mask-around-your-chin, pack-the-bar-tent-and-pretend-you’re-outside would-be revelers won’t stare grimly into the camera and claim this is being done to spite them. It’s encouraging to conjure sentiments so stupid that people aren’t expressing them. That gets harder and harder to do.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

An assist for the husband.


     A good marriage involves teamwork, and a bit of coordination. One spouse leaps in the air and floats toward the rim, the other fires the basketball at the perfect moment.
     It was my wife's soaring impulse to greet the return of our oldest, who likes to bake, with a stationary mixer. I passed her at the computer in the living room, online, looking at the Cuisinart Precision 5.5 Quart Red Stand Mixer. Good looking, sleek, and it would do the job for $200. I paused, looking over her shoulder.   
     Not quite.
     "I like your thinking," I said. "But get the KitchenAid."  
     She said thought of that, she said. But the KitchenAid is a lot more. Almost twice as much. This is a better value. It mixes.
     "Ninety-nine percent of the time we're just going to be looking at it," I said. "The KitchenAid is a classic. If I'm going to look at at mixer sitting on the counter for the next 20 years, I want it to be the good one."
     No, she said, that wasn't happening. Okay, I shrugged. No biggie. It was her project. She could get what she liked. It would still beat eggs.
     A while later—a half hour, a half day, three days, so hard to tell during the plague's second year, which looks like it'll be foreshortened, but ain't over yet. I saw her purchasing the KitchenAid in what I call "Tiffany blue." Well look at that. I smiled. I can't tell which made me happier: getting the cooler, better albeit more expensive, machine. Or the fact that I actually had had some input into the running of the household. An idea of mine was good enough to put into action in the living world.
     I was even happier when it arrived—heavy—and we opened the box and put it on the counter.
    "Our grandchildren are going to be using that," I said, looking at it closely. It gleamed like a gem.
    "You never even have to use it," I continued. "In fact, I prefer you don't. I won't get dirty that way."
     Here my wife, wisely, chose not to listen to me, and did use it, almost immediately. To bake pinwheels. It isn't like you can buy them anymore. The results speak for themselves.

Monday, March 15, 2021

‘The theater is a place for healing’

     For a solid year, the ghost light on the stage of the Goodman Theatre has shone in lonely silence on a classroom at the Aburi Girls’ Secondary School, the set for Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” nipped in the bud last spring.
     “Just a wonderful play,” said Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman. “We were in previews, and the audience was loving it. We were three days from opening.”
     I called Falls because I was wondering, with vaccine being pumped into arms and hope of a returned world flickering, how the Chicago theater community might incorporate the past year. He’s the guy who put on Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” right after Donald Trump’s election, so if anyone would be folding the COVID nightmare into his theatrical batter, it would be Bob Falls. But how?
     “A lot of theaters our size, they’re in a complete tizzy about how to open their seasons from scratch, having to choose a play,” he said. At the Goodman, they’ll dust off the set, get the actors back and pick up where they left off ... We can have this production up by summer.”
     That’s one approach.
     “You’ve got theaters across the country in mid-production, theaters that literally have a ghost light sitting on the stage,” said Michael Weber, at Porchlight Music Theatre. “They’re going to start up right where they were. Others, like us, have decided to shelve the season that we planned, and we’re rethinking an entirely new season, assuming we can get back. We’re hoping for the fall.”
     A “ghost light,” by the way, is the single bulb kept burning on a stage in a darkened theater, to keep people from blundering into the orchestra pit. In plague-darkened 2020, it’s become somewhat symbolic, the spark of life in the heart of a comatose patient.

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Sunday, March 14, 2021

A crater in the heart of the neighborhood


     It was a long walk through Chinatown. Our little umbrellas barely holding off the cheerless drizzle. But that's where our oldest said to meet him, between taking one class and teaching another, so that's where we've went. One of the benefits of having children get past the look-up-to-you phase is the birddog-great-restaurants phase.
     Besides, we told each other. We're working up an appetite. And we're in New York City. Just walking down the street is fun.
     We weren't particularly surprised to find the place almost completely empty. A few diners scattered in the vastness, who promptly fled when we arrived, leaving the place to ourselves. It was, after all 3 p.m. Neither late lunch nor early dinner, and who goes to a Chinese restaurant for a snack? Still, there was an eerie, after-hours, depopulated quality. We couldn't help wonder if this was due to tourists avoiding Chinatown because of that new virus from China. As if residents here would have that virus, because of their ethnicity. People are the worst.
     He arrived.  
We scanned the menu, ordered plate after plate—who doesn't love dim sum? 
     We didn't rush to leave. Actually, we slipped into a mode I think of as "setting up base camp," consulting our phones, sipping our tea, plotting our next step—tickets to the Tenement Museum.  Not too far. One tour available. I always wanted to go to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. My father's mother lived in a tenement and made paper flowers as a young woman. Then reservations for late dinner. We hit the street. A light rain. My son was off to teach his class, and my wife and I headed to the museum, and life rolled on.  
     I didn't think about Jing Fong again until this week, when the largest restaurant in New York's Chinatown closed forever last Sunday. There was a big tribute in the Times, "Closing of Beloved Dim Sum Hall Leaves a ‘Crater’ in Reeling Chinatown:
      It's the second restaurant we went to that weekend to go belly up due to COVID. The splendid one Michelin star Thai place, Uncle Boon's, was the first.
     Honestly? With 527,000 Americans dead, at first it seems squishy to mourn a restaurant, like raising a monument to the pets lost in World War II. Though it too is a loss, and no need to weigh each against the other. It's certainly a calamity for restaurant workers and owners, and to the community who celebrated their birthdays and wedding there, not to forget the precious fabric of ordinary daily life. As the Times put it, "The loss of Jing Fong hurts." Having only gone once, I couldn't develop too much of an attachment, and am more grateful I got there than sad it's gone, which is probably the best way to approach all loss.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Texas notes: Still here

William Schadow (Met)
     Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey had the good sense to use the Plague Year to get outside more.

     This time last year the rug was pulled out from under us. As we heard about a deadly virus already in our midst, our President told us that COVID was nothing to worry about. He’d close the borders to certain people and the “China Flu” would stay away. He swaggered and droned on (and on and on and, well, this is the most apropos use of ad nauseam I can think of). His swaggering, pompous tone spat out the farthest thing from reassuring that a sane and helpful leader might be counted on to provide.
     We quickly tuned him out and increased the volume of a the much more useful voice of Dr. Fauci. Just saying his name seems to activate my vagus nerve, which is often referred to as the wandering nerve. This little powerhouse releases “‘inhibitory neurotransmitters’ such as gamma-aminobutyric acid, norepinephrine, and serotonin” ( 
     I am a big fan of serotonin, our natural mood regulator. If one’s vagus nerve is under- stimulated there are ways to get it going, and I suggest giving it a Google. Exercise can help.
     My COVID walkabouts commenced— upwards of 10, 12, 15 miles or more per day— always distanced and masked. I became immersed in the minutia of the world around me. I have always found solace in nature, and now it was amplified. I started living outside almost all day, every day. Each step brought me closer to a sense of feeling grounded and well. I could tune out the world and just be. I was not in denial of the situation; I was simply in training. It was time to get my body and mind strong and focused as I planned my entry back into the workforce after abruptly losing most of my employment due to virus restrictions.
     Over the past year I’ve come to feel closer to other women of the road. Mildred Norman finished the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail in one season. It is said that for the next 28 years she wore the same clothes every day and carried only a few possessions in her pockets as she traversed the United States. She was also know as the Peace Pilgrim (
     “Grandma Gatewood” also hiked the Appalachian Trail alone in one season. This was back in 1955 and she was 67. I recall reading a quote of hers once, something to the effect “hey y’all, just do it. Grab some Keds and plastic bags to use as tarps and get out there.” She did not have expensive gear, she just set out and walked. I learned recently that her only training was walking 10 miles a day to build up her leg muscles ( Perhaps I am on my way?
     Then there’s Sarah Marquis who walked from the American-Canadian border all the way south to Mexico, over 2500 miles. Several years later she trekked across the Andes mountains from Chile to Peru.
     There are too many of these women to name. I get it. Once my shoes hit the pavement and I decide to go left or right from my front door, the rest is a mystery and a journey ensues. I’ll look around sometimes and choose the path that seems the brightest and most inviting. This is how I happened upon the Elisabet Ney museum last year, and learning about Ms. Ney has made me feel stronger as a woman. In 1892 she build a castle-like home in Austin with money she earned creating sculptures. I am not sure how much time she had for walking, but I have a feeling Grandma Gatewood, the Peace Pilgrim, Sarah and I would have quite enough to talk about, or would enjoy silent company together for thousand mile treks, if such a thing were possible.
     Keeping active and finding beauty every day has taken the place of endless social interactions, movies, theatre, live music, coffee shops and near-constant stimulation. I don't think I’ll ever go back to that lifestyle of going going going, at least I hope not. Life seems shorter than ever and I feel that the past year has been a much needed reset. The tragedy of so many lives lost makes it feel like a battle unfairly won, though. It will be years before we truly grasp and start to recover from this tragic time, and I am well aware we are not out of the woods yet.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Even medical staff worry about taking vaccine

    Ashley Thornton can get the COVID vaccine any time she wants it. But she doesn’t want it, at least not yet.
     “I’m apprehensive to get the vaccine,” she said. Why? Bad experience with vaccines, for starters.
     “Out of everyone, I’m the person who gets the flu from the flu shot,” said Thornton, staffing coordinator for the emergency department at Roseland Community Hospital, where more than half of the staff — 57% — have declined the vaccine that many nationwide are clamoring for.
     This is not uncommon, but repeated at hospitals and medical facilities; only 56% of staff at Mount Sinai have gotten a vaccine shot. A Centers for Disease Control study found 77.8% of residents in nursing homes took the vaccine, while the proportion of vaccinated staff is less than half that — 37.5%.
     Thornton is troubled by how quickly the vaccines were developed.
     “I just think it hasn’t been out long enough for the proper tests and protocols to be done before I inject that into my body,” she said.
     And there is another reason.
     “Honestly, people of color are more apprehensive because of the Tuskegee experiment,” she said.

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Thursday, March 11, 2021

The only Roger Mudd story I've got.

     "Roger Mudd died," my wife said, looking at her phone. "He was 93."
     "I met him!" I said, stupidly, then instantly regretted it. The distortion field of self, making everything about me. A tick I've come to notice and despise, more and more, in myself, even as I notice and despise it more in others. 
     Is that fair? We construct mental universes with ourselves at the center, as George Saunders says in his excellent book on Russian short stories and writing, "A Swim in a Pond in the Rain." In our minds, existence is a story starring us. Why should the death of Roger Mudd be any different?
     I figured I had already told the tale, slight though it is. In this job you end up telling just about everything, sooner or later. Yup, 24 years ago. The original title was: "Celebs in Our Midst: Try to Relax, Folks." The only salient detail I left off was the press bus was in the short-lived presidential campaign of Al Haig, which meant it happened some time in 1988.

     When I was in college, a young lady of my acquaintance asked me to stop by her apartment so she could show me her etchings. I didn't go, not for many months. But she persisted, and eventually I paid her a visit. Late that evening, she asked me why I had waited so long. I propped myself up on one elbow and said, "I thought you etched."
     What I'm trying to say is that I can be thick about certain aspects of life. What is plain to everybody else is often a mystery to me.
     Celebrity news, for instance. This week, a rental car with two strange men was parked in front of my building for three days. I noticed the car, and the men, but didn't think anything of it. Realtors, perhaps, waiting to show a house.
     Then I bumped into my neighbor, one of those keen-eyed moms who is up on everything. "Did you notice the car?" she said. "Paparazzi. They were camped out waiting for Smith. I had the police chase them away."
     Smith? The name didn't ring a bell. Then I realized she meant William Kennedy Smith, the member of the Kennedy clan who got in trouble a few years back and is now practicing medicine in Chicago. He lives across the street.
     Now, I have no desire to intrude on Mr. Smith's privacy and hope he doesn't mind me bringing him up. Frankly, I'm astounded that anybody would care what he does, never mind camp out in front of his house for three days to get a picture of him doing it.
     Yes, he is related to the Kennedy clan. And yes, he was involved in a trial some years ago. But he was exonerated, was he not? And he dutifully proceeded with his medical training, and seems to keep his nose clean. Why annoy him?
     The answer, of course, is our current fixation on celebrities, any celebrity, based on anything. There are so many Hard Copy-esque shows that Madonna and Michael Jordan aren't enough anymore. This week "American Journal" ran a segment on Sherman Helmsley's bankruptcy that I swear could not have been more lengthy or involved had he bounced back from "The Jeffersons" to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.
     Don't get me wrong. I'm as interested as the next guy should Princess Di be found selling heroin or Clint Eastwood start wearing a dress. But that type of really meaty news is rare. Most of it is on the "Bill Cosby ate a hot dog at Gold Coast" level and is sort of boring. Isn't it?
     I mean, say those two guys snapped a picture of Smith, walking his dog. (He has a dog—now I'm dishing the dirt!) No offense to Smith—he's a nice-looking man, blue eyes, dimple in his chin. But is there anything interesting in such a picture?
     I admit, I am curious about the dog. Everybody in my neighborhood has a dog, and they're always walking them, and I've started playing a game where I guess the breed, then ask and see whether I'm right. I have no problem asking most anybody, and they seem to enjoy telling me.
     But I have too much pride to ask Smith. Because I know he'll assume that I don't really care about the dog, but only want to have some sort of personal exchange with him, so I can tell my grandchildren about it, or something.
     I think the dog is a black lab. (More dirt! Exclusively here!)
     The highest compliment you can pay a prominent person, after all, is leaving them alone. Which is why the press of celebrity journalism is such a paradox to me: If you like Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, then you don't want to see them plagued by prying photographers. And if you don't like them, then who cares what their new baby looks like?
     Ignoring celebrities should, if nothing else, be a point of civic pride. Aren't New Yorkers always bragging how big stars can wander unaccosted (with the exception of John Lennon) through their streets? Why should Chicago be any different?
     Think—you never see Michael Jordan on the street, because if he showed his face on Michigan Avenue, he'd be torn apart. But if only people were cool, and respectful, then we'd have all sorts of stars wandering around. Oprah Winfrey could be spied smelling the flowers in front of the Wrigley Building. Cindy Crawford could sun herself on Daley Plaza. It would be great. But no.
     I can't think of a famous person I've spoken to in public and didn't immediately regret it. I once passed Studs Terkel, striding through the Illinois Center, and said hello, only because I was once a guest on his radio show and figured that made us pals. Wrong. He gave me that "hello young fan" wave and never broke stride. Ouch.
     I blew it even worse with Roger Mudd, the former CBS newsman. Not a big star, true, but big enough. We were on the press bus, I was sitting next to him. Time passed, and eventually a comment came to me that seemed worth expressing. "My mother thinks you're great!" I said. He took my attempted compliment with great style, however. Later, while the press corps was waiting in a bar for the bus, Mudd went up to collect a round of drinks for the table. I tried to give him money, but he refused. "Tell your mother," he said, "that Roger Mudd bought you a drink."
     Only much later did I realize I had insulted him, implying he was old. As I said, I can be thick that way.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 24, 1996