Friday, April 30, 2021

‘Worst attack on democracy’ continues still

    President Joe Biden spoke for over an hour Wednesday in his first address to a joint session of Congress, raising urgent issues from the need to get Americans vaccinated to the jobs that will be created fighting climate change to the key role immigration has always played in the American story.
     But 10 words the president said early in his speech were particularly accurate and alarming, when he referred to the Jan. 6 insurrection as ”the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
     It had to be said plainly because the bulk of the Republican Party, deformed and unrecognizable after five years of rolling like puppies at the feet of Donald Trump, still does not accept reality. Polls show 70% of Republicans believe the Big Lie that the election was stolen, despite a complete lack of evidence. Half believe the Jan. 6 insurrection against our democracy was committed not by Trump supporters whipped into a frenzy, but by Democrats — Black Lives Matter activists in whiteface, perhaps — ”trying to make Trump look bad.” As if he needs help.
     ”The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” It must be repeated because of the shocking resilience of right-wing extremism. Indeed, Trump apologists zeroed in on these specific words for their typical hoots of incomprehension and ridicule. Yet it is literally a matter of life or death, our nation’s and theirs. Trump’s toxic distortion of masculinity that allowed him to grope women and pretend he is always right and always wins also made him reject wearing masks and vaccines — he got his in secret. Millions of Americans listened to him, causing hundreds of thousands to die. Millions still listen, meaning hundreds of thousands more will die. Following him into their graves, literally.
     No one can be glad of that. It’s tragic and horrible. But I’m not writing to try and jar them from their error. That’s futile. Those who do not form their positions through reason cannot be argued out of them by reason.

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Thursday, April 29, 2021

Joe Biden calls sedition by its name.

     "The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War." 
     President Joe Biden said many important, noteworthy and inspirational things Wednesday night in his first State of the Union message before a pared down, socially-distant joint session of Congress.  He called for "hope over fear, truth over lies" and laid out a range of vital, blue collar, bread-and-butter initiatives, noting "doing nothing is not an option." He said that the "sacred right to vote" is under attack and called for its defense.
     An impressive, powerful, pitch perfect speech, realistic in addressing our problems, concrete in solutions offered, optimistic in tone.
     But this sentence, one of the very first things he said, echoed throughout the speech, for being simply true. With all the spin, the equivocation, fabrication and outright delusion that has been going on in our country since Jan. 6 and before, those 10 words, "The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War," have the undeniable judgment of history upon them that no amount of sneering and whataboutism and denial will efface. Donald Trump was a traitor who colluded with our enemies and goaded the mob to try to overthrow our democracy to keep himself in power, aided by a ragtag band of power-hungry henchmen and underlings, and cheered on by an army of dupes and seditionists. That was obvious Jan. 6, it is widely-known now and will be the simple summation of history onward into the future forever. Whether you agree or not does not affect the truth of the matter. A sad and solemn assessment, yet it was still good to hear President Biden say it aloud, on the very spot where the clown insurrection took place, where the deluded had their awful carnival and shat upon everything that our country represents while calling themselves patriots. The truth will out.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

An unexpected bonus for the shorter man

     Over the past year, I’ve worn a coat and tie exactly once. The incoming director general of the Taiwanese economic and cultural office in Chicago wanted to get acquainted over a Zoom call. I knew he’d be wearing a coat and tie, and didn’t want to be disrespectful: they’ve got enough of that coming from communist China already.
     It was, as they say in diplomatic circles, a frank and productive exchange of ideas.
     A few minutes before we spoke, I stood before the mirror in the bedroom, fingers fluttering at the necktie — blue, not red, for obvious reasons. I wondered if I’d remember how to tie it. But I’ve been tying neckties since 1974, when I played the Mr. Darling/Captain Hook role in “Peter Pan” at Camp Wise and had to tie a tie onstage while delivering lines. You don’t forget.
     The COVID-19 era was pants optional, business conducted from your living room. Now, with the non-wackadoodle segment of the country getting vaccinated, and beginning to emerge from our long hibernation, the question is: Are we going to start dressing up? Or go to work in sweats? Or even buy new clothes? Those with a dog in the race are optimistic.
     “The courts aren’t open, there’s no theater, no trade shows, the financial institutions are all still closed,” said Scott Shapiro, owner of Syd Jerome, the high-end Loop men’s clothing store, which has had plywood over its windows since August.
     “There’s no reason to put displays in the windows because nobody is walking by,” said Shapiro.
     Even without mannequins displaying cashmere sweaters and Italian belts, “our customers are slowly coming back.” A certain Chicago milieu is always going to look sharp.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Enigmatic bean bag


     Last Friday I go downtown. My wife wants to stop by her office and pick up a few things, so I figured, go with her, keep her company, and stop by mine. What in spring 2020 was an obligation has become, by spring 2021, an outing.
      So I drop her off at the Thompson Center, park on Madison, enter the building for the first time in months, say hello to the guard, chat with the two colleagues who are also there—Jeff from IT, and John on the copy desk. Go into my office and start in on my pile of mail, begin listening to my 100 or so voicemails, 90 or so from the same guy. Give up that quickly.
     Before I leave, I made a pit stop, and there I see it. How long has it been there? Not last Christmas, certainly. Maybe the Christmas before, we had a Christmas party. There was good food from local restaurants, fancy drinks and games, such as cornhole. I assume everyone is familiar with cornhole, a sort of shuffleboard where you toss beanbags onto an inclined board. You get a point for landing a beanbag on the board and three points if it goes into the hole. Fun for picnics and parties. I played a few rounds—how could you not?
    I'd have never thought of it again. But afterward, whenever I walked down that hall, I noticed this one blue bean bag that must have been left behind. It was a pleasant reminder of the party—some years we didn't have parties—and I always sort of smiled at it. There's something friendly about a bean bag. Now that I think of it, maybe it wasn't from 2019. Maybe it was from 2018. Or even before. Time all blends together at this point.
     This isn't a criticism of the sanitation of the place. It's always clean. But somehow, in its cleaning, the bean bag remains. I assume that has to be intentional, and therein lies the mystery. An in-joke of some sort? A statement? Some ghost-in-the-machine cleaning in the wee hours, deftly detouring around it, a slight jog of the broom, an act of mercy, the way you'll pity a missing sock?
     I'm not sure I want to know. There must be some prosaic reason nowhere near the limits of imagination (the bean bag....thrown away of course ... stirs, and begins its arduous nightly climb out of the trash, ruffling through the papers, reaching the lip of the can and toppling out with a beany plop, slowly, determinedly crawling, expanding and contracting like a caterpillar, back toward its Beloved Spot...)
     One of those Office Mysteries that make going into work in a place appealing. Back when we, you know, all went someplace to work.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Both facts and fact-checking a threat to GOP


      Republican junk jams my spam email file, scores of panting messages every day. A quick sample: “Biden Threatens War With Russia” and “Exposed: Biden’s Plot To Crush Gun Owners” and “FIRE Fauci.”
     Almost every communication ends with a plea for cash, all hyperventilating with the frantic, the-house-on-fire-save-the-baby! hysteria that is the official GOP tone: cry doom and rattle the cup. To be fair, Democrats do it, too, though I don’t get nearly as many. I’m not sure why.
     Maybe the same trolls who sign me up for fringe gun nut groups under the mistaken notion it bothers me also donate in my name to Republican candidates. Maybe the emails are sent to every known address including mine. Who can say?
     I usually never click on them or even read the subject line. There are too many. But I do sometimes open the spam file to take a peek before deleting everything, like someone glancing into the toilet bowl before flushing.
     Occasionally, something catches my attention, such the subject line, “My family’s story is being fact-checked?!” from U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), who will give the GOP response to President Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress April 28.
     Fact-checking is a good thing in the world of the mainstream media. But then again, so are facts. The idea that fact-checking would be used as a cry of grievance is like someone shouting out a window, “Help me, my kitchen is being cleaned!” It certainly is intriguing.
     The email from Scott, the only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate, begins:
     “The mainstream media has decided to fact-check my family’s story of ‘cotton to Congress in one lifetime.’ That’s right, The Washington Post has been investigating my family’s history in the South and downplaying the struggles and racism they faced. It’s shameful. Plain and simple.”

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Bat out of hell

    Jim Steinman died in Connecticut Monday, and that evening I held my own little tribute, and didn't even know it.
     I walk the dog three times a day. In the morning, I often listen to a podcast, something like Molly Jong-Fast's "The New Abnormal." In the afternoon, usually Audible, this week George Saunders' "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." 
     But by evening a little music is often called for. For some reason, Monday, I felt nostalgic, so listened to a few cuts from Elton John's "Blue Moves." 
    "On a bench, on a beach, just before the sun had gone, I tried to reach you...
Bernie Taupin could pen a lyric.
     Then I listened to "Bat out of Hell," all 10 minutes of it. I remember when the album came out in 1977, in the fall of my senior year of high school. The title song was written for 17-year-olds, and it summed up my entire worldview at that point. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, but I sure as hell wasn't going to do it in Berea, Ohio.
     The album had memorable cover art—a pumped-up romance novel cover hero bursting out of a graveyard on an apocalyptic motorcycle. It was produced by Todd Rundgren, who thought the whole thing a hilarious parody of Bruce Springsteen. It kinda was, and a few members of the E Street Band, Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, actually play on the album.    
     Around that time, Meat Loaf appeared on Saturday Night Life, looking like the the bloated corpse of Elvis, stringy wet hair in his face, drown in sweat, holding a scarf, eyes crazy. I can't say I was a fan, as such. He was weird.
     And no, the New York Times never referred to him as "Mr. Loaf" on second reference. That's a myth. I checked.
     Steinman played piano on the song, and wrote a number of other standards that are big and dramatic and hold up—Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," sort of the distaff version of "Bat Out of Hell," fate conquered, not through escape, but by powering past confusion into love. "I don't know what to do, I'm always in the dark, living in a powder keg and giving off sparks..."
     "Bat Out of Hell" came to its götterdämmerung conclusion just as Kitty and I padded down the darkened Center Avenue toward our big old house, lit up like a cruise ship. I idly mused that there would be no "bat out of hell" escape for me now. I don't want it, and couldn't figure out how to achieve one even if I did. There's no need; I fled home once, and found this, everything I was ever looking for, and more. With the help of that song. So thanks Jim. Rest in peace.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Texas notes: Salut

     Friday morning I had to head downtown, so I thought to save time by having a Soylent for breakfast. Soylent is basically Ensure for young people. Then I read this report from Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey, which resonated even more personally than most.

     Ambience is everything. An ex once told me “your life can be a French movie if you want it to be.” That was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. I like to stage my home with Amelie’s eye (— vases full of unwieldy, bright wildflowers, Debussy, Peter Sarstedt ( or Vocalo Radio playing softly in the background, lamps that cast tawny shadows on wooden walls. Carefully chosen art that brings you straight into other dimensions— some have symbols of ancient archetypal knowing, another is bright and energizing and will sweep you away to a Chinese sunset if you let it. There are various flutes resting on shelves and a music stand with swirling and sophisticated bass and treble clefs boldly stamped upon sheet music.
     Art, music, certain aromas and other forms of beauty open our minds, soothe our souls, and bring us into moments of sublime peace. Good art should not be relegated to museums. There’s no reason for bad art to be out there at all. Why are we forced to gaze upon flat and boring prints from generic mega-stores when we sit in a waiting room? Why do we have so many unattractive places all around us? Je ne sais pas.
     Why do hospitals, for example, have garish fluorescent lights that make even a healthy person look gray and sickly? As if the cold concrete structures weren’t bad enough, they have to torture us further. I’m convinced that there is a special breed of designer with a knack for choosing furniture and paint colors that won “World’s Worst” somewhere along the way.
     The food is usually pretty disgusting too, and does not scream nourishment. Who ever decided that Ensure was a good idea? Ah yes. The same marketers that pepper our environment with horrid signage outside of strips of malls.  Better yet? Just go inside and find some cheap plastic garbage that we buy for $1 and eventually toss into landfills.
     After decades of working in hospitals I still cringe at the sight of a can of Ensure. It doesn’t take an Ivy League educated person to tell you there have to be better options. I turned to my trusty pal Google: “Supplemental nutrition shakes contain more than just healthy ingredients. ‘You may be getting more sugar than any of the other ingredients,’ says Stacey Nelson, a dietitian from Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.”
     This is America. ( We do so many things that seem obviously wrong, yet the powers that be are 100% committed to maintaining the status quo, no matter how broken it is.
     We are stuck in ruts around how to take care of our most vulnerable members. Many school systems are broken beyond repair, yet we keep chugging along, printing outdated textbooks. We squeeze the creativity out of our brightest and best young minds with time-outs rather than the time-ins they are craving. We are obsessed with medicating kids rather than finding creative ways to engage them and help them succeed. If they are living in households where their parents are vegging out to bad TV and no one is helping them cultivate their own inner beauty, how are they expected to show up at school with the grace, curiosity and self discipline teachers desire? Are the teachers numb too? Sometimes.
     We also do the opposite of what should be happening with those slipping into dementia. This article reminds me of the fact that we can do things better. “We have shown that it is a useful tool for arguing that segregation, in the form of care homes, of people living with dementia is a human rights violation. This article provides a basis on which to engage policymakers and dementia care stakeholders in reconsidering ‘self-evident’ and taken-for-granted structural conditions of aged care systems and material aspects of the residential aged care facility built environment that shape the lives of people with dementia.” (
     Once again, with a move coming up in 7 days and a lot on my mind, I have gone on about something I didn’t intend to write about. My original topic was going to be the Salons of better days gone by. Poetry readings under a spotlight in the desert. Talented musicians bringing their gifts to us. Playing, dancing, singing. I will share those stories another time.
     Here is some unsolicited advice I do my best to take for myself. Remember to place objects of beauty all around you. They don’t have to be expensive. An oil painting from Goodwill will suffice. Diffuse tangerine and lavender into your space, or spray lavender mist around the room and on your pillows. Fill your place with plants. Talk to them. They will thrive and you will too. Notice the sounds around you. Notice how what you are listening to and watching makes you feel. Infuse each day with silence. As I write this I hear the ticking of my analog clock and slow raindrops beating on the roof. Savor moments more often. Chew and taste your food. Walk more slowly, talk more slowly. Be mindful, and little by little, as you hone yourself you’ll see that this world is actually pretty wonderful. And there’s always hope that certain things will get better.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Pausing to savor Ald. Burke’s anti-Semitism

Metropolitan Museum of Art
     “You know as well as I do, Jews are Jews,” Ald. Ed Burke (14th) said into a federal wiretap, “and they’ll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else, unless ... unless there’s a reason for them to use a Christian.”
     My immediate response — I kid you not, I did this, first thing — was to consult “The Canterbury Tales.” Because there is something positively medieval to Burke’s remarks. Clannishness is such an old accusation to fling at Jews and illustrates the circular logic of bigotry: You exclude a people from society, wall them up in a ghetto, then denounce them for sticking together.
     One trick of racism — and this doesn’t get mentioned enough — is to attack specific groups for doing what all people do. When somebody accuses Jews of being fond of money, I retort, “As opposed to ... what? All those people who aren’t?” Every single ethnic, religious and social group will at times interact among themselves and exclude outsiders.
     Jews stick together, just like Presbyterians, Lithuanians and Rotarians do. Yiddish was once a unifying tongue, now simply being Jewish is a language that Jews speak.
     When I first had coffee with Rahm Emanuel, he started talking about Hanukkah, which was approaching. It confused me for a moment, because I didn’t know why the mayor would bring it up.
     Then it dawned on me, with some horror, “Ohhh, it’s because we’re both Jews. He wants me to bond with him as a fellow Jew.” I couldn’t have been more aghast had he put his hand on my knee.
     Accusations of prejudice fall into two broad categories. Complaints about actual harm that is suffered because of intolerance: hurtful remarks hurled, housing denied, police blithely killing people like yourself. Those are real evils that are legitimately decried.

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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Flashback 2011: 'Never' could be now in city mayoral race

     Time really shoots by. When I saw Ald. Ed Burke in the news Wednesday, talking trash about Jews into a federal wiretap, I first looked on the blog for this column, figuring I wrote it during the last seven years. Nope, 2011, setting the stage for Rahm Emanuel's first run as mayor.
    I remember feeling a little guilty at the time, disinterring this 35-year-old quote and waving it under the nose of my old pal Ed. So it's a little bit of a relief to find his feelings toward my people continue unchanged. For those who missed Burke's recent remark, courtesy of the Justice Department:
     "You know as well as I do, Jews are Jews and they'll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else, unless ... unless there's a reason for them to use a Christian."
     I think I'll give it the full analysis in my column Friday. Until then, we chatted about his assessment of Jews and politics in 2011:

"Who is to blame for the war!"
     "A Jew will never be elected mayor of Chicago," Ed Burke said. "There is a latent anti-Semitism in Chicago and a large population that will never vote for a Jew. They would vote for anybody before a Jew."
     Granted, Burke said that a long time ago—in 1976, three days before Richard J. Daley died. Then Burke was a 32-year-old "young Turk" on the City Council. Now he is its elder lion, king of the Finance Committee and, with Rahm Emanuel in a position to possibly be elected Chicago's first Jewish mayor Tuesday, and his faith in the headlines—I didn't want to be the guy to broach the subject—I wondered whether Burke, who is backing Gery Chico, cared to revisit his remarks.
     "Times have changed a lot," Burke said Friday. "I was talking about politics in general. I was not advocating that position, I was making an observation."
     Burke pointed out that, in the same interview (with Milton Rakove—you can read the whole thing in his excellent oral history We Don't Want Nobody Nobody Sent), he also talked about bias in the electorate against Catholics.
     "There was only one Catholic elected governor of Illinois," he said to me. "In 1911."
     There is no question voters don't take the same chauvinistic view of candidates as they once did; John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was a huge issue in 1960, by 2004, few people even knew that John Kerry had studied to be a priest. Emanuel's faith was hardly mentioned until a union leader called him a "Judas" and Mayor Daley condemned it as an anti-Semitic slur. What caused times to change?
     "I think people are more educated," said Burke. "You'll find that, as children get educated, they help break down stereotypes that parents carried with them. A lot of people grew up in the Depression, and people who held those stereotypes are no longer alive."
     Not to say that prejudice has been banished—not judging by my e-mail. There will always be bigots, but a) they become more circumspect, using whatever codes can still be trotted out in public (hence Emanuel is an "outsider" and Barack Obama "born in Kenya"); b) there are fewer of them, relatively.
     Just as knee-jerk, ethnic-based rejection has ebbed, so has its flip side, automatic support. Though not everybody has gotten the memo. The effort to find a "consensus candidate" in the black community, for instance, was based on a false assumption—that African Americans would line up behind whichever African American they picked, even Carol Moseley Braun. Unless something very unexpected happens Tuesday, Braun will be remembered for trying to take a streetcar to City Hall long after streetcars vanished and the tracks were torn up.
     Past ethnic dynamics can also linger in ways that aren't quite bigotry. Just as there are bigots opposed to anyone Jewish (or black, or Catholic) I'm sure many Jews feel a frisson of ethnic pride at just the thought of a fellow Jew being mayor of Chicago. 
"The scourge of humanity."
     To me, that's OK if you're 5 years old and Sandy Koufax is pitching for the Dodgers. Among adults, you hope that such considerations take a distant second place to—oh, for instance—who'll make the best mayor.
     I've said it before, but I still think that either Emanuel or Chico, both being savvy, smart rich guys who gigged the system for their own pecuniary behalf, would have no trouble running the city, and each would offer personal advantages. Emanuel has that rock-star-driven ferret of ambition thing going; that would be fun to watch—from a distance, as the moment the mayor's office door clicks behind him he'll run a ship sealed so tight that it'll make the closed granite fortress of the Daley administration seem like one of those loosey-goosy communes twirling around a VW bus at a Grateful Dead concert.
     As for Chico —well, no need for me to cite his benefits when I have Ed Burke on the line. I asked him why he is supporting Chico.
     "It's pretty hard for me to turn my back on somebody who has been with me for 35 years," Burke said. "He worked for me while going to law school. I recommended him for his first job as a lawyer. I've known his whole family going back to his parents, his uncles, all Back-of-the-Yards people. They were supporters of my father."
     I complimented Burke on his over-the-decades loyalty to Chico, particularly given the fact that Emanuel is so strongly favored to win—and has said Burke may lose his police detail and chairmanship of the City Council Finance Committee.
     Was it smart politics, I asked the alderman, to ignore this hard reality for what is basically a sentimental consideration?
     "We'll talk again, Neil," he said, hanging up.
                            —Originally published Feb. 21, 2011

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Police parade goes on and on while we watch

     The earliest movies were glimpses of real life. Workers leaving a factory, a train arriving, a blacksmith hammering. Shot in 1895, these first short films — each less than a minute — were called actualités by their creators, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Nobody thought to make up a story on film until “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. Just seeing pictures move was thrill enough.
     The next year, Lumière cameraman Alexandre Promio came to Chicago and, of all the scenes that could have represented the city, the stockyards or riverfront or the Ferris wheel left over from the World’s Columbian Exposition, Promio chose police officers solemnly marching down Michigan Avenue, four abreast, in their Keystone cop helmets, nightsticks at the ready. “Chicago Police Parade,” filmed in September 1896, is considered the first moving image shot in Chicago. You can watch it on YouTube.
     Was that reality? The parade was staged for the filmmaker, the police showing off their order and discipline. Not exactly in step with their reputation. “Weak discipline was probably most evident in the inability of police administration to control excessive violence,” the Encyclopedia of Chicago notes of police at that time. The more things change...
     Film technology evolved, Chicago police violence worsened, and eventually the two collided, further back in history than you might imagine. In 1937, striking workers marched on the Republic Steel plant at 117th and Burley, intending to set up a picket line. They found 200 policemen waiting. Ten marchers were killed. Police claimed they were attacked by an armed mob, whipped up by outside communist agitators, and the press believed them. “RIOT BLAMED ON RED CHIEFS” blared the Tribune headline.
     But Paramount had set up a newsreel camera at the Republic plant gates. It shows the strikers carrying flags and signs. You see the waiting police, tapping their batons. The cops attack, the strikers flee. Police shoot 40, most in the back. The city responded by banning the newsreel. That became Chicago’s go-to move for documentary evidence of police brutality. If you don’t see it, it’s not there.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Green frog


     Regular reader Tony Galati shared this photo, taken in the eerie half light of the 2017 eclipse.
     "I think the frog was confused into sleep-mode by the dusky sky. It let me put my phone right in its face," he said, inviting me to use the picture on the blog.
     I think I will, thank you Tony, simply because it is a lovely green frog—if I'm not mistaken, that's not only its description, but also the creature's proper name, "green frog," or Lithobates clamitans. The large round circle just behind its eye is its timpanum, and while some sources equate that with "ear," it's really more an ear cover—a membrane keeping water out of its actual ear, located securely beneath it. 
     A frog's lungs are connected to its ears, by the way—betcha didn't know that—which make sense if you consider how tremendously loud frogs can be. Loud to humans, far away. Imagine how much louder their croaking would be to the frog's themselves. To keep those bellowing blasts from hurting their own ears, the lungs equalize the pressure on either side of their eardrums—a kind of amphibian noise cancelling headphone.
     I probably should end this here: enough fascination for one day. But I couldn't pass up an excuse to pull down the Oxford English Dictionary, guessing as I did so that "frog" is probably a thousand years old and Teutonic. Check and check. "Frogga," with all sorts of various subforms and complications, cropping up around 1000 A.D. Though hardly changed in the next half millennium, when Shakespeare penned his famous "eye of newt and toe of frogge" in "Macbeth."
      Then there are the various formations of "frog" such as 
"froghood" and "frogland" and one that will come to mind when I finally lose my place of employment, "frog march," which I somehow associate with a prisoner being forced forward in a kind of rolling squat, though the OED says is also the state of being held by his arms and legs by four men.
    Not to forget "frog-eater," defined as "a term contemptuously applied to Frenchmen" due to their supposed love dining upon of the amphibians. 
     Speaking of which; a story comes to mind. When my older boy was about 12, he went through a phase of wanting to eat exotic foodstuffs. Brain tacos and caviar and oysters and such.  He probably felt that doing so elevated him among the fancy set. He would put in his request during his frequent trips to my office to spend the day. One day he asked for frog's legs. The only place I could think might have them was Hugo's Frog Bar, naturally enough. But that was closed for lunch. I knew it shared a kitchen with Gibson's, and fortune favors the bold. So I called the owner, Hugo Ralli. "Could you do me a favor?" I said. "I have a little boy whose heart is set on frog's legs." He told us to come on by.
     So now we're sitting in the dining room at Gibson's. My son, with flowing blond hair, is enjoying his lunch. A woman at the next table glances at his plate. "Frog's legs!" she exclaims, indignantly. "I didn't see frog's legs on the menu!" 
     "They're not," says my son, eyes on his plate, face set in concentration, working at the dainty morsels with his knife and fork. "It's something the owner arranged specially for me."
     It probably reveals something bad about me—a small, embarrassing hunger for status—to admit that I cherish that memory. But I do nonetheless.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Cop ‘didn’t see the value, the humanity’

     “I grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood. I don’t know a Latino who didn’t,” said Luis Gutierrez, the former congressman and long-ago alderman. “We all grew up together. It wasn’t like ‘West Side Story.’ We didn’t dance around each other.
     “I remember the manipulation, the cruelty, the exploitive nature of gang members. People like to think of them as the protectors of the neighborhood. I get that. I was the alderman of the 26th Ward. It’s no different than Little Village. None.”
     We were talking over the weekend about what everybody in Chicago has been talking about since Thursday, when the bodycam video of Little Village 13-year-old Adam Toledo being shot by a police officer was released.
     The footage makes for sickening viewing: the jumpy chase through an alley; the barked, ignored commands; the boy’s hands going up followed instantly by the gunshot. The red blood. Watching it once, I can’t imagine ever watching it again. Once is too much.
     I had just read the upbeat update about Gutierrez that Mark Brown wrote last week; Gutierrez has returned to Chicago to welcome his second grandchild — his daughter Jessica’s baby shower was Saturday — and to promote Puerto Rican causes.
     So I almost shook off Gutierrez’s suggestion that we speak about the shooting. My job isn’t to echo Mark. Yet why not see what Gutierrez has to say? My first question was whether he truly wants to plunge into this emotional maelstrom. Or as I put it: “Do you really want to jam your hand into this spinning fan?”
     “I understand that,” he said. “But at some point you have to stop and say something. I feel that what is happening to Adam is a second demonization process.”
     Some Latino politicians are dismissing Toledo as just another gang-banger who got what gang-bangers get.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Flashback 2000: "Front and centerfold"

Jeff Cohen, 2000 (Photo by Rich Chapman, used with permission)

     My friend and former Sun-Times colleague, photographer Rich Chapman, sent me a photo the other day. Did I remember this? I sure did. My wife later said she had never seen a wider, happier, more genuine smile on my face than when Playboy photographer Jeff Cohen posed us with the models we were covering the day we hung around the studio.    
Photo by Jeff Cohen
     If you had told me then that I'd outlast Playboy magazine, I would not have believed you. But I'm still going, while Playboy stopped publishing a print edition ... exactly one year ago. Yeah, I didn't notice at the time either. A lot was going on in the world. 
     I've never reprinted this story before because it never got into the online archive, I think because it wasn't for the newspaper itself, but for "NEXT," a short-lived insert. But I had a hard copy in my files—score one for old technology—and it was short work to type it in. After more than 20 years, I was interested to read it again, though a little dubious, given the subject matter, how it would bear up in the MeToo era. Surprisingly well, if I'm any judge. I'm glad that. I spoke at length to Cohen's wife, Gayle, and treated the material in a direct, non-leering fashion. 
     Rich Chapman has long had his own studio, Rich Chapman Photographers. As does Jeff Cohen, who retired from Playboy in 2011, and runs Jeff Cohen Photography in a storefront in the Ravinia district of Highland Park. "I’m busy and happy and challenged creatively each day as I have been for the past eight years photographing the most charming families, impressive corporate execs and wide eyed children," Cohen reports on his web page.

     Voluptuous Vixens. Playmates in Bed. Girls of Russia. Girls of Japan. Girls of the Adriatic. Farmers' Daughters. Sexy Girls in Sports.

     Give Jeff Cohen credit. He has never gotten bored with locating the most beautiful women in the world and photographing them with their clothes off for Playboy.
     He is a trim man with a neatly cropped beard and half-glasses that give him a professorial air. he is a perfectionist—"obsessed" is a word used by someone who knows him well. He is 55, weighs 150 pounds and has for the past 25 years. He golfs twice a week, rain or shine, despite troublesome arthritis.
     His office at Playboy is small and practical, maybe 12 feet square, decorated with photos of Cohen hanging around with Cindy Crawford and Michael Jordan as well as a couch hewn from the trunk of a 1957 Chevy, which Cohen takes pride in. An assistant—he has seven assistants, all women—walks in with big strips of jumbo 120mm film.
     "I just want you to know we have film," she says. Cohen, who has been taking photos and supervising the taking of photos at Playboy for 30 years, focuses his attention on the image of a pretty young woman who will appear on a calendar—one of the myriad ways Playboy photographs are repackaged to squeeze out every last drop of revenue.

     Posed on a couch. Straddling a chair. A wall. A fence. Lounging on a bed. under a table. On the floor. Wrapped in silk. Lace. Gauze.

     Upstairs, half a dozen women in black lingerie and high heels are posing for the cover of the January lingerie special issue. They've been there all day. Cohen ambles upstairs to supervise the action.
     The photo shoot has been going on since 7 in the morning. The winner of a contest, Mark O'Neill, of Austin, Texas, is there, but his face reflects the hard truth known by everyone who has spent time around a photo shoot or movie set: The magic is in the result, not in the doing.
     "I'm getting bored," says O'Neill, glumly, rushing up to visitors on the set, desperate for distraction. "It's kind of boring."
     Cohen extracts himself from the lucky winner and goes to stand directly behind photographer George Georgiou, peering over his shoulder, murmuring suggestion.
      "He has definite ideas of what he wants to see," says Georgiou, a 10-year veteran of Playboy. "He's an easy guy to work with. We communicate really well together."
      The studio where the six women are being photographed is enormous, white, cluttered with lighting equipment and makeup tables and little bottles of spring water. Three stylists rush in to primp and preen the model's while film is being changed.
     The six models — Laurie Wallace, Sung Hi Lee, Joy Behrman, Katalina Verdin, Alley Baggett and Sydney Moon — are all Playboy veterans, and have worked with Cohen before.
     "He's always a cool guy to be around. he always makes me feel equal," says Verdin, 25. "He's a businessman. he's really, really, really professional."
     The women, despite their perfect skin and black lingerie, floating in all that white, are also all business. Standing, kneeling, flashing a pout of darting a tongue, on command.
     "Very nice ladies, very sexy. Good eyes," Cohen says. He praises the women, generally aware of the competitiveness between them. "You have to be careful what you say," he says. "If I compliment one, I have to compliment them all."
     Cohen needn't worry. if he has one quality colleagues comment upon, it is a way of handling women, of setting them at ease."
     "He is masterful," says Joanie Bayhack, a vice president at WTTW who worked as a publicist for Playboy out of college in the early 1980s. "His sense. of humor and sincerity — a wonderful, amused look in his eyes. He doesn't take this all that seriously. And his creativity never ends. He's always looking for a pictorial idea."  
      Women of Mensa. Woman of the Ivy League. Women in the Military. Women of Wall Street. Women of the Top 10 Party Schools. Girls of the PAC-10 Conference. Women of Women's Colleges.

     It was Cohen who, when Playboy's availability in 7-11 became a hot political issue, thought up: "The Women of 7-11." he also turned the tables on Playboy's female staff with "Women of Playboy." The staff needed the same special handling that any first-time model requires.
     "Ninety-nine percent of the women we photograph have never been shot nude before," Cohen says. "They're nervous. Insecure. They have to be told what to do with their hands. What to do with their body. They have all the anxieties you can imagine. There are calls from boyfriends. Calls from parents."
     Given the difficulties then, why do the women do it?
     "So many of them are getting back at somebody—a jilted boyfriend maybe," he says. "The attitude is: I can hardly wait until he sees it.' Being in Playboy is a stamp of approval."
     In fact, one of the hardest parts of Cohen's job is breaking the news to women whose photos aren't running in Playboy.
     "Being in Playboy is such a badge, such a sense of recognition," he says. "Playboy defines them. That to not run the pictures... that is tough. I hate to do it."
      It was exactly that badge, the pride of being in the flagship Playboy magazine that gave Cohen pause before he took his latest assignment. Six years ago, he was offered the position as executive editor and publisher of Playboy's special editions—those themed issues put out in addition to the magazine. At the time, they published one a month. There are no news-making interviews, no literary fiction, very little text at all. Just as the burlesque marquees used to shout, Girls Girls Girls.
     "It is what it is," Cohen says. "Each edition is 96 pages of pretty pictures of pretty women. It cuts to the chase; no bones, no apology. If you are looking for articles, for tips, buy the magazine. If you're looking for pretty women, come to us."
     For Cohen, who had traveled the world shooting spreads for Playboy—the girls of Russia, the girls of Cuba—taking the new job required soul-searching.
     "I really wrestled with it," he says. "I talked to my wife."
      Yes, he has a wife. And three kids—daughter Phoebe, 16, and sons Axel, 13, and Stephen, 18. They live in Highland Park. Gayle Cohen, manager of the Materials Possessions boutiques in Winnetka, is constantly asked the same question, delivered in many sly ways, but always boiling down to: "But Gayle. All those beautiful women. your husband, traveling, alone, without you, to all these exotic countries, meeting beautiful women in luxurious settings. Evening eventually arrives. The photo shoots must end. Don't you, ah, worry?"
This originally appeared in "NEXT," a
short-lived weekly publication.
     "I get asked that question at least once a month," she says. "How can you stand it? You must be the most secure woman on the face of the earth. The fact is, I'm not. I just know we have a really good marriage. We have a wonderful family. If he met somebody there who would make him want to reconsider what he had, and to ruin that, then he's not the person I fell in love with, then he's somebody different. It's really very simple. I trust him absolutely, completely. It never, never even crosses my mind. It did when we were first together, when I was a lot more insecure. Now I just know that what we have is really solid, the best marriage I know of."
     Gayle Cohen's impression is confirmed by the modes who know him.
     "He talks about his family. He's a very, very family person," says Verdin. "He mentions it to everybody."
     Under his guidance, special editions went to two a month, or 24 a year. Put another way, Cohen is responsible for some 2,300 pages of erotic photographs a year.
     "The challenge is finding new and creative ways of marketing the same product months after month," says Cohen, who grew up in Wilmette, graduated from New Trier, then went to Syracuse University, where he majored in economics and journalism.
     He graduated in 1967, at the beginning of the Summer of Love, and almost disappeared into a life in the advertising business.
     "I graduated on a Saturday and was set to start work on a Monday," he remembers. "Then I said, 'What? I've been going to school all my life and I get one day off?"
     Instead he hopped into a buddy's 1967 Camaro and they headed — where else? — to San Francisco. When he got back, the copywriting job was gone. Instead, he heard Playboy was hiring people, and he ended up a photographer's assistant, loading cameras for $25 a day.
     "That summer I fell in love with photography," he says. "I completely forgot about economics, thank you very much."
     Asked to describe the trademarks of a Jeff Cohen photograph, Cohen instead praises the work of other photographers, and it was that kind of self-effacing quality that nudged him toward supervision.
     "They liked my ideas more than my photos," says Cohen. "they made me a photo editor."
     Over the years he has filled many roles—for a while he was editor of Oui, Playboy's short-lived entry into more risque fare. He has seen the proliferation of silicon implants as well as tattoos, which hardly ever look good in a photo spread and, besides, can give you away if you flip the negative for layout effect and are not careful.

     Women underwater: in bathtubs, swimming pools, showers, waterfalls, ponds, oceans, rivers. Women in red: red cars, red underwear, red lipstick, red shoes.

     The six women in the photo shoot are not blushing amateurs, but seasoned Playboy models. They are a far cry from your farm girl with a dream. Alley Baggett has her own comic book and action figure. Sung Hi Lee just starred in "Nurse Betty."
     The women pose fetchingly, but not obscenely. Given the heat Playboy has received, it is actually one of the tamer men's magazines, if not the tamest. You will rarely, for instance, see a man in a Playboy photograph. "A male in the picture intrudes into the fantasy for our readers," says Cohen. "They say 'Wait a minute. I want to fantasize about her and think maybe she's fantasizing about me. If there's a guy in the picture, he's clouding it. Very rarely do we put a guy, or even a guy's hand or the semblance of a guy. All the other men's sophisticate magazines, far too many to mention, that's the new thing: couples, twosomes, threesomes, all the various machinations. Our readers are very clear about the sexual temperature we like — we like it right where it is. We're not embarrassed when we buy it. It's Playboy: good, healthy sex. We can leave it out on the coffee table."
      Except of course at his house, where Gayle Cohen tries to keep her husband's work back in his office, at least when her kids' friends are around.
     "Frankly, I don't like them laying out on the coffee table," says Cohen's wife of 22 years. "We do live in the suburbs, and I do have kids. [I tell their friends] 'I don't want to get in trouble with any of your parents.' If they call me and say it's OK to look at Playboy magazine, then all right."
     And has any parent ever called and given permission?
     "No," she says.
     That said, Gayle Cohen who met her husband while she was working at the magazine, fiercely defends both the women's right to pose naked, and her husband's right to market the result.
     "I thought being a feminist was allowing a woman to choose to do whatever she wants to do," she says. "having worked there for 10 years helps. I met these girls, lived with them, traveled with them. They're just like anybody else. They come from small towns, want to get out, don't know what their future holds. But they have a beautiful face and a wonderful body and have youth, and somebody makes them an offer they can't refuse. They are treated like queens for however long their ride is, are paid a lot of money, and for the most part they really do enjoy the experience and walk away with something."
     Jeff Cohen is no stranger to the controversy around Playboy. He has taken flack — public flack, on TV, on the old "Phil Donahue Show."
     "I was duped," he says. "I went on, and they had this feminist who had gotten her Ph.D. on Playboy. She accused me of every wrong since Eve. I dragged myself off the stage, called the PR department, and said, 'Don't ever do that to me again.' It was brutal."

     Overbite beauties. Women of Walmart. Women with Phony Smiles.—No, those aren't real pictorials, but from a Mad Magazine parody—"Playboy Newsstand Specialties"—proudly framed on the wall of Cohen's office. You know you've made a mark in the culture when Mad Magazine takes a poke at you.
      But it does reflect the central professional challenge of Cohen's life. Thinking up new layout ideas, which even the most seasoned Playboy veterans are in awe of.
     "I'm one of the biggest admirers of Jeff Cohen," says Pompeo Posar, the legendary 40-year veteran of Playboy, for whom a young Jeff Cohen first worked. "I respect how he does everything. He's incredible. He knows what he wants, always comes up with this new magazine, two a month. It's not easy, to have a new idea, something new to do. It's incredible."
     Cohen has no particular explanation for his stamina.
     "One year ago I started to get burned out," Cohen says. "But that was about the time I started to get involved with the Internet."
     Now he makes sure that those who log onto have something to look at. And something to buy.
     "This is our first foray into the calendar business," he says, showing off "College Girls 2001." "Sales are unbelievable."
     Into his fourth decade at working for Playboy, Cohen is still in top form.
     "He is the happiest man I know," says Gayle Cohen. "I once had somebody who was very impressed with Jeff say to me, 'It'
s really such a shame because he could have done so much more with his life.' I said, 'Excuse me, what more could you ask for out of life?' He gets out of bed, every morning, and has a family that he loves, smiling wonderful children, all happy and healthy and well-adjusted. He makes them breakfast, then goes happily to work every day, and never complains about it."
     Maybe the secret is that Cohen never takes himself too seriously.
     "It's fun, exciting, but my buddies get a bigger kick out of it than I do," Jeff Cohen says. "We're not working on the cure for cancer here. We're taking pretty pictures of pretty women."
                               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 17, 2000.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Texas notes: Flowing locks

     One of Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey's last dispatches from the Lone Star State before she returns to the welcoming embrace of the Midwest.

     How many things in your life have you fervently wanted? How many of them did you get? What drives you? Is it desire? Is it purpose? Is it control? Do you even know? Or maybe are you like me—sometimes you know very clearly, and you can see the path forward. Other times you find yourself looking through a fogged up window on a chilly damp day. Glimpses of clarity emerge as you wipe the shammy across the windshield. Ahhh. I can see again. What a relief. But just as soon as you exhale there’s that darned condensation again. You wonder: If I turn the air on will it clear? Should I really be driving right now? Do I need to pull over? Is there anywhere to even pull over? Maybe I’ll just keep on driving, do my best, and I will probably be just fine. Praying is not an option for me in those moments.
     I was raised Catholic and never believed in god. I loved the pomp (“ostentations boastfulness or vanity”, says Google) of church. From my tiny school girl stature I stared up at porcelain sculptures of Mary and exquisite stained glass. The glass told intricate stories of sad looking women and men with downcast eyes, looking like they were in big trouble. Some were gazing upwards praying to a God I could not see or feel. I’d go through all the motions—genuflect, kneel, stand up, sit down, (fight fight fight) and make the sign of the cross on my body murmuring “the father, the son, and the holy spirit.” To this day I am not sure who all of these guys are.
     Earlier this week a quote by Dr. Jane Nelsen, proponent of Positive Discipline, floated around on the internet. “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?” What did those stained glass disciples feel? Why did porcelain Mary have to stand alone in the corner looking so miserable?
     There was also the priest who had me in his car that one time I can remember—wait, why was I in his car? Did my parents know? I felt uncomfortable and didn’t like the way he was overly familiar. The memory is vague but it’s real. That’s not why I am not religious. I just honestly never felt that there was a being out there, or a creator. To me science is real.
     I often meditate, clear my head, practice humility, and grow the love in my heart for others and myself. I have found over the years that I can pray (“ask earnestly” says Google) to Good. Good, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. I even like the Lord’s Prayer. When we say “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done,” I think “may Good’s will be done."  May this world be a kinder, gentler place. May I heal as I grow and become the best version of myself, which will help me be a good cog in the wheel of life.
     When I started this piece I thought it was going to be about something else, a man I met who is a part of The Fervent Church here in Austin. Today I got lunch at a cafe (to go) and found myself telling the cashier “let me get his meal too,” gesturing to the man in scrubs who clearly worked at the hospital next door. We chatted a bit. Turns out he moved here from Tucson recently with his wife and a few other couples, and their children, to start a church. It was their “calling.” Well, good for them. Nice young man.
     Living in the South for seven years has taught me to be much more tolerant of those who are super religious. Otherwise I’d have shut myself off to many lovely friendships and acquaintances. I finally put down any need to talk anyone into or out of anything, really. The only time I’ll step into other’s lives these days (unless I’ve slipped up and started giving unsolicited advice, or if they directly ask for advice) is if they are harming another living being—l
ike that one time the guy at the DMV kicked the little pooch he had in a bag under his chair. The dog whined from time to time, which elicited a kick, a louder whine, and then a sickening silence. Everyone but me acted like nothing was happening, or maybe they had their heads buried in their all important phones, oblivious to the outside world. When I got up and reported it, a muscly guard told me to stop causing trouble. “I handle what happens here,” he bellowed down at me as I stared at his barrel chest.
     It’s clearly time in our country for us to try to have civilized discourse. A friend told me about a course that teaches how to do this: I plan to enroll. If Jesus Christ was allowed to have flowing locks even though dirty hippies were brutalized by Southern gentlemen just because their hair was long. We must continue addressing the hypocrisy head-on. It’s time for us to wake each other up to the fact that we are all just human, and each of us as equal as the next.

     “If I can’t dance it’s not my revolution.” Emma Goldman

Friday, April 16, 2021

Silently facing ‘an ungodly, unmanly thing’

     “It’s been like living like a monster in a cage, a caged animal, for the past 50 years of my life,” said Bill. “It’s affected every aspect of my life, from childhood to adulthood.”
     “It was making me miserable,” said Richard. “I can’t enjoy the things I want to.”
     “It destroyed the relationship I had with my father; it destroyed the relationship I had with friends,” said Russell. “It destroyed my ability to go out and participate in athletics.”
     The unnamed “it” is paruresis, and in an era when it seems every possible human condition is regularly discussed in public, most readers are no doubt unfamiliar with the term. Also known as “bladder shyness,” paruresis is the inability to urinate in public bathrooms, or even in a private bathroom while others may be somewhere nearby.
     “Hardly anybody who doesn’t have it knows about it,” said David Carbonell, a clinical psychologist in Chicago specializing in anxiety disorders. “This is one of those conditions people have an inordinate amount of shame about.”
     The subject is so sensitive, all patients I spoke with asked for anonymity, so I use a pseudonym for anyone I identify solely by a first name.
     This shame causes sufferers to lose relationships and jobs because they refuse to go into situations — dates, business trips — where they aren’t certain of having access to an utterly private bathroom.
     Paruresis is obsessive, vastly magnifying the significance of the bathroom process. You might think that an airplane toilet is private, for instance. But a person with paruresis fixates on the walk down the airplane aisle to the bathroom, passing other passengers who might judge them.

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Flashback 2004: 'For us, it's saddest day of the year'

Wednesday was Memorial Day in Israel, and I thought I'd share this piece about it, from when I visited in 2004.
Soldiers at the Western Wall, 2004

     JERUSALEM— It isn't like in America. There are no picnics, no softball games, no big sales. In fact, most stores are closed, along with most restaurants and movie theaters. The nation literally comes to a halt, twice, once on Sunday night, when a siren sounds nationwide at 8 p.m. announcing the beginning of Yom Ha'Zikaron, or Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel, and again at 11 a.m. Monday. Israelis take the sirens seriously. They pull their cars over to the side of the road, even on the highways. They step out and stand, heads bowed. Lines of cars sit motionless at green traffic lights, their doors flung open, their drivers placing their hands over their hearts. A far cry from Memorial Day in the United States.
     "On Memorial Day, you guys have sales and go out barbecuing," said Zvi Harpaz, a tour guide. "For us, it's the saddest day of the year. Because every Israeli growing up knows he will have to serve in the military and risk his life and every Israeli has a friend who has made that sacrifice."
     More than 21,000 Israeli soldiers died in the five official wars fought against its hostile Arab neighbors, plus the pair of bloody intifadas conducted by Palestinians trying to create a nation of their own out of the territories seized by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967.
     Israel has paid a high price for the almost constant state of war it has faced. In the War of Independence in 1948, 6,000 Jews died out of a total of 600,000 in the fighting that followed the Arab rejection of the partition of British Palestine. That's 1 percent—the equivalent of three million Americans dying in a war today.
     Memorial Day is marked across the country, in cities, towns and schools. In Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv, some 500 people sat on white plastic chairs in Gan Haboneem, the "Garden of the Sons,'' a downtown park where palm trees stand beside stark square black granite pillars, broken off at the top to symbolize lives cut short and etched with the names of the fallen.
While heavy security ringed the park, holding machine guns and eyeing the traffic, a group of teenage Israeli Scouts sang a number of Israeli pop songs that combine sentiments of loss with generic Euro-beats.
     "Somebody up there is worried about me," sang the teenagers, in their khaki uniforms and orange and turquoise ties. "We go along different roads … and will meet again after many nights and many days."
     In addition to the scouts, the audience contained a group of elderly "Volunteers"—Jews from around the world who rushed here in 1948 to help create the new Jewish state. Maurice Fajerman, a 76-year-old Frenchman, wore a gray ponytail and his decoration from the Israeli government. He lost his brother, Baruch, in the fighting, he said, but still views the night he slipped by British patrols and waded ashore into what would become Israel as "the most important moment in my life."
     Elsewhere, TV stations broadcast solemn services, apartment buildings were decorated with long blue and white streamers, and flags were placed along desolate desert highways from the Golan Heights in the north to Eliat in the south.
     Famously casual Israelis donned dark suits and somber ties. Candles burned in hotel lobbies and people gathered in public squares to sing mournful songs, a kind of national catharsis in anticipation of the joyful celebration of Independence Day.
     While the state was actually created on May 14, 1948, the anniversary falls on Tuesday this year, as the Jewish calendar, based on the phases of the moon, doesn't usually coincide with the calendar used in most of the Western world.
     Ask any Israeli why Memorial Day is such a wrenching moment of real collective grief, and expect an answer like this:
     "Because everybody in the country knows someone buried in the military cemetery -- I have more friends in military cemeteries than I have walking the streets," said Eli Peled, 68, a deeply tanned veteran wounded four times in four of Israel's five wars. "I don't know anybody who doesn't. It's as simple as that."
      —Originally published in. the Sun-Times, April 26, 2004

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Piece by piece, puzzling over a nation in crisis


   A strange time to be an explainer, someone in the put-the-pieces-together-to-see-the-big-picture business.
     These days the pieces just won’t go together. It’s as if someone dumped the 500-piece Dogs Playing Poker puzzle and the 1,000-piece Yosemite at Dusk puzzle and the 2,000-piece Grandma’s China Cabinet puzzle, mixed them all together in the center of the table and said, “Here, figure out THIS!”
     Are we the nation where cities like Chicago park salt trucks strategically, preparing to block off streets during the next, almost inevitable, chaotic social disorder? Or a nation about to fly a helicopter on Mars? We seem to be both, but those two pieces sure don’t mesh easily.
     Are we a nation of honed sensitivities, where people are free to manifest themselves and announce on their emails which personal pronouns they prefer?
     Or where popular TV pundits vomit up patently bigoted “replacement theory” poison in prime time, calmly explaining that every immigrant who becomes a citizen erodes his rights? Because those two pieces — one jumbo Elmo’s eye, one tiny white squiggle — aren’t even from the same puzzle box.
     Less than four years ago, we watched torch-bearing white supremacists march in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” (“Yeah right,” Jews muttered back, “like we want to go live in your mother’s basement and tack a Nazi flag over her washing machine.”)
     That was chilling enough. Now the same sentiment is being blasted through the megaphone of Fox News.
     Are we that country? The Torch Parade puzzle? Or are we Masters of Medicine, the folks who excel at delivering COVID vaccination? As of this week, 36% of Americans have had at least one dose of COVID vaccine. Meanwhile, in Europe, the figure is only 21%. How can we be beating the land of socialized medicine, a utopia that includes both Sweden and Norway? Make sense of that.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Read the label.

     My wife has a cutting board she's fond of. Belonged to her parents, probably 50 years old.
     Now a cutting board gets pretty beat up and sad looking after half a century—a cross-hatching of deep gouges, some kind of black rot settling in one corner.
     Nothing I couldn't clean up with 20 minutes of vigorous sanding with my gorgeous DeWalt orbital sander.
     Which left the challenge of finishing the newly-naked cutting board. You can't use regular stain—it'll get in your food and poison you. But food-grade mineral oil, or block oil, does the trick.
     I presented myself at the local Ace Hardware.
     "Do you have food-grade mineral oil or block oil?" I asked, cutting straight to the point.   
     "Halfway down Aisle 18," he said.
     More like most of the way down Aisle 18, but I found it, eventually, with help. 
     They had both, a large bottle—16 ounces—of Swan Mineral Oil. And a small bottle—8 ounces—of Bayes Wood & Bamboo Conditioner/Protectant. The first cost $6.99. And the second, $7.99. To be honest, I wasn't sure just what "block oil" is, so I read the label, which often cues a potential customer into the contents of a product. Here it explained that the block oil consisted of "100 percent food grade mineral oil."
     Hmm, which to buy, which to buy ... I did the math, and saw that buying the mineral oil gives you twice as much of the same exact same stuff for a dollar less.
     It would seem, in a world where consumers weigh their choices, read labels and think about stuff, that no one would ever buy the block oil. Obviously, we do not live in that world.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The past we exalt reflects who we are now

Umberto Nobile, center, with Mussolini, left in a dark suit.

     Major General Umberto Nobile is not a historical personage whose fame resonates down the ages. Though he did a cool thing — designed the dirigible Norge and piloted it over the North Pole with explorer Roald Admundsen in 1926, making them the first people to reach that distant axis.
     Richard E. Byrd claimed to have beaten them by a few days, flying over the pole in an airplane. But that was later disputed. History has a way of changing its mind like that. Byrd was a hero, then; now he’s a fraud, maybe. Times change.
     The story of Nobile’s arrival ran in the Chicago Daily News next to an article on Zenith testing short wave radio — that’s where I bumped into him. Much new technology debuted in Chicago: VHS tape was first demonstrated here, cell phones, too. On July 8, 1926, while Nobile was arriving at LaSalle Street station, Zenith engineers in a freight yard in Englewood were showing off a new marvel, short wave radio, to communicate between the engine and the caboose of a New York Central freight train a mile long.
     I was rooting around in the past because the University of Chicago Press asked me to write a book offering 366 historical vignettes, one for each day of the year. But only one. Which demands choices, often hard choices. Reading the Nobile story, I thought maybe I should drop the radio breakthrough and go with the dashing aviator instead. He certainly was a big deal at the time. Hundreds of Chicagoans cheered as he stepped down from the Golden State Limited.
     “Mussolini himself could hardly have received a more noisy ... welcome,” noted the Daily News, name checking the Italian dictator who had remade Italy into a totalitarian state and cult of personality.
     “Black-shirted fascisti rushed up to him and extended their arms in the fascist salute,” the newspaper noted. “They shouted the fascist cry of Italian loyalty.”
     A band played and songs were sung, then Nobile had some remarks.
     “All of us are fascists,” he said. “It is a new Italy.”

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Sunday, April 11, 2021


     Friday evening, just before dinnertime, Kitty and I reach the apex of our walk and begin the turn back home. To our right, as we approach a particular house, there on the second story roof, standing tentatively, as one does on roofs, a family—a mom, dad and teenage daughter. They have obviously climbed out a back window and are now, cameras and binoculars in hand, looking at ... well, something. I turn and look too, and see a ... large pine tree. They're gazing intently at a tree, taking photos. Turning back to the family, I wait until one looks down at me.
     "Dare I ask?" I say, in what I hope is a tone of levity.
     "Owls," the dad replies. I look harder, and see the unmistakable silhouette of a great horned owl, peeking out of its nest toward the top of the tree. Someone from the family above says there are baby owls, too. But I can only see the parent, since its head pivots—owl eyes are shaped like tubes, not spheres, to concentrate more light, and so can barely move in their sockets. To see to the right or left, and owl has to turn its head to the right or left, and it can turn its head 180 degrees in either direction, so can look directly behind.
     "Cool!" I said, or some such exclamation, and stand there watching as well. I know my iPhone won't take much of a picture, but give it the old school try, and get, well, at least some documentary evidence. Twenty years tramping around the old leafy suburban paradise, and this is my second owl—now that I think of it, the first one, more than 15 years ago, was also at the prompting of a sharper-eyed neighbor, who came up behind me, grabbed me by my shoulders, and gave me a 15 degree turn, hissing softly, "An owl!" That may have been how we met.
     Not counting the elf owl I saw at the Northbrook bird sanctuary. That seems like cheating.
     The nest, by the way, almost certainly wasn't built by the owl itself, but a crow or hawk whose nest that the owl had taken over. Owls populate an area based, not on prey available, but housing, since gathering twigs and such is beneath them.
     That there is something dramatic about owls. The word in English is a very old onomatopoeia, from the Old English "ule," or ulula in Latin, intended to echo their cry. ("Ululate," comes from the same base, and "howl" is related).  
     Before that, of course, owls were celebrated in the ancient world. The owl represented Pallas Athena, and were considered wise for their solitude, for those large, all-seeing eyes.  Glaux is "owl" in Greek, and Homer calls Athena glaukopis, or owl-eyed, which is usually translated as "gray-eyed."
     Athens took the owl as its symbol You can see owls on some beautiful Athenian coins, such as the decadrachm, where the owl spreads her wings, as if protecting her nest, her home city by looking bigger, as owls do in nature.
 The tetradrachm is one of the most recognized ancient coins, minted in huge quantities, so much so that Athens ran out of silver and began minting them with copper, drawing hoots of ridicule from Aristophanes in his play, "Frogs."

Our silver coins, all of purest Athenian make,
All of perfect die and metal, all the fairest of the fair,
All of the unequaled workmanship, proved and valued everywhere
Both among our own Greeks and distant barbarians—
These we do not use. but the recent worthless base coins
Of vile character and basest metal, now we always use instead.

     So I guess we can take comfort that we are not the first nation to face decay, and a decline in our vaunted standards ... Okay, sorry, we've gone far afield from my intent, which was to say, "I saw an owl, owls are cool."