Sunday, October 31, 2021

Flashback 1997: Reality is scarier than City Hall's decorations

City Hall, 2021

     I was hot-footing across the Loop to meet a pal for lunch Thursday and couldn't resist ducking into City Hall to check out their Halloween decorations. Most prominent was this ofrenda, or Day of the Dead shrine, complete with photographs of fallen Chicagoans and food offerings to their spirits. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I also took note of the City Hall Halloween trappings, producing a snarky, young, rather Rex Huppke-ish column..

     When somebody told me that City Hall is decorated for Halloween, I had to stroll on over and take a look.
     It is a surprising sight, particularly if you enter from the north, through the Randolph Street door. You walk down the corridor to the central lobby and are presented with a choice.
     To the left, the unadorned elevator banks for the County Building. The only decoration: a sign touting Cook County Disability Awareness Month.
     To the right, City Hall and Halloween.
     Not only decorated, but decorated a lot. Pumpkins. Witch flags. They've built an arbor of sorts, with pots of flowers and a tiny field of cornstalks and a big grinning jack-o'-lantern.
     The reason: Mayor Daley is a big fan of Halloween.
     I noted the scarecrows and smiled, telling myself, "Of course, they'd only go so far as Halloween Lite. None of the heavy stuff; no bloody corpses, no terrifying ghouls. Not from the city. They wouldn't want to offend people."
     I was thinking how surprising it is even to see a big cardboard cut-out of Tweety Bird saying, "Twick or Tweet"—hasn't some assistant corporation counsel with a speech impediment complained by now? Then I saw them.
     The skeletons.
     Two big, life-size, scary rubber ones, sprawled on benches.
     I also noticed the ghosts—three little ghosts, with round mouths shrieking "Boo," wearing pointy black witch hats, trailing white sheets in tatters.
     Skeletons and ghosts at City Hall. Either somebody's got a wonderfully wry sense of humor or they're all dumber than even I had imagined.
     The ghosts are what really surprised me, given that ghost payrolling has been honed to an art form right on the premises.
     That federal probe into aldermanic corruption—what did they call it? Oh yes: "Operation Haunted Hall."
     Now that's an idea for next year. Why offer such a generic tribute to Halloween when we could take advantage of our city's rich heritage to put on a far scarier display?
     Next year, City Hall could present a big rubber Fred Busse, the mayor 90 years ago, clutching his famous safe deposit box full of stocks from a company that did business with the city.
     From the ceiling, flying aldermen, pinky rings aflame, fists stuffed with play money.
     And why settle for boring scarecrows when you could have a mechanical Ald. Tom Keane? He was to Richard J. Daley what Patrick Huels is to his son: close political ally and all-round big money boy. A recording could play Keane's crowing "Daley wanted power, and I wanted to make money, and we both succeeded." There's a boast that hasn't lost any currency despite the passage of decades.
     Keane was convicted on 18 counts of federal mail fraud and conspiracy, by the way. After a Sun-Times series exposed it all. Ooh. Eerie how some things never change.
     Come to think of it, why settle for sham rubber figures when we can have the real thing? Why not get Jesse Evans transferred over? Make his cell part of the Halloween display. He can lunge through the bars at passersby, maybe shouting, "Food! Food!" in honor of the ridiculous and shameful hunger strike he held to protest the workings of the criminal justice system. That would scare the kiddies plenty.
     In fact, lots of former aldermen, who are still around, could be hired at a fraction of their former city salaries to impersonate themselves in the City Hall Chamber of Past Ghosts.
     Why not set Louis Farina pacing back and forth in front of the elevator banks, dragging money boxes at the ends of chains wrapped around his body, a la Jacob Marley.
     Or Wallace Davis. The last time I saw him he was working in his catfish restaurant. He could make an appearance as a cautionary tale to all those power brokers in their Brioni suits and Hermes ties. "Be careful," he could say, "or you'll end up wearing polyester and snaps to work."
     Sure, it would shame them a bit, but didn't they shame us? Doesn't our city struggle to present itself to the world as a modern and progressive place, the home of Michael Jordan and Wrigley's Spearmint Gum? How many bad aldermen will it take before peasant children in China greet tourists visiting from Chicago by rubbing their thumb and forefinger together and saying, "Ooo, Che-ca-go! Gimme gimme gimme."
     Halloween is, if nothing else, a flexible holiday that changes to reflect the times. In past years the kids dressed as Power Rangers and ballerinas. This year maybe they'll be paparazzi and Marv Albert. Maybe next year you'll have 8-year-olds in imitation silk suits yelling "Trick or treat!" They'll make cuff links out of stray pairs of dice and put dime store rings on their pinkies.
     Going door-to-door, they'll collect their candy in shoeboxes and brown paper bags. Just like the big boys do.
        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 26, 1997

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Santa Monica Notes: The Little Engine that Couldn’t

     I worked in Los Angeles for three months when I was in my 20s and never even saw a movie star, never mind hung out with one. But then, Caren Jeskey is living a far more interesting life than I am. Her Saturday report:

     Summer 1995. A handsome young man walked into our regular little coffee shop on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. He was overdressed in the rumply elegant way of a rich person wearing fine fibers, juxtaposed by our cut-off jean shorts. My friend and roommate Jayne and I spent hours at that shop. We’d play backgammon addictively, smoke Marlboro lights, and drink coffee for hours on end on our days off. 
     With a warm smile and bright, beaming eyes, the tanned, brown haired stranger asked if he could join us. “Of course,” we said. Why not? The three of us sat around an oval table drinking coffee and tea, and he got a scone. He and Jayne talked The Birthright Israel and Kibbutzim.      
     He leaned back in the sturdy wooden chair a few times, and rested the back of his head on clasped palms in a pleased way. I was not privy to the thoughts in his head, but can imagine them now. “This is nice. They don’t know who I am. I can just be another guy today.” 
     After a while he looked at the time and said “I have to get going. My wife was getting her hair cut next door and she’s probably done by now.” We said our goodbyes. When he left the owner looked at us, laughing. “That was Alec Baldwin.” 
     My first thought was “Kim Basinger is next door.” I just loved it. I’d always rather liked Alec, especially in "Glengarry Glen Ross." During my time in Lalaland I managed to meet Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Sinead O’Connor, and now a Baldwin brother. 
     This must have been shortly before Alec assaulted a photographer a few days after Kim gave birth that October. It was 12 years before he called his 11 year old daughter a “little pig” and threatened to “straighten [her] ass out” with a strangely cool tone. It was 16 years before he was removed from an airplane at LAX when he became belligerent after being told to stop playing Words With Friends on his phone. 
     I had not listened to the aforementioned message, nor did I know much if anything about his list of aggressive outbursts, until this week. Halyna Hutchins’ death hit me really hard, as I am sure it hit a lot of you. I actively followed the story this week, compelled to learn more. I sobbed at the horror of it all. Ms. Hutchins should not be dead. As I learned more about the chaos on the set, it got even sadder. Someone should have pulled the plug before this fatal disaster. 
     In 2008 I read a long profile Why Me? about the now infamous Baldwin in The New Yorker. I remembered thinking, at the time, “this poor guy. What a mess.” My heart went out to him back then. 
     I revisited the piece this week and could not stomach reading much of it this time around. The writer describes Alec as full of regrets and “very conscious of what’s lacking in his life.” It’s revealed that his brother William says, for Alec, “there’s always something to whine about.” 
     In the piece, Alec imagines himself as successful at Leo DiCaprio and declares ““I wish I were a horse—strong, free, my chestnut haunches glistening in the sun.” 
     He also dreams of versions of himself as a restaurant critic, the owner of an inn, and a radio DJ. Anyone but himself. With multiple awards and a great deal of financial and career success, he was still discontent. He pondered what it could be like to live a simple life rather than trying so hard to steer himself to an imagined better place. 
     There are multiple instances of Alec using aggressive language and glorifying violence. When he biked the wrong way down a New York street and got stopped by the police in 2014 he Tweeted “New York City is a mismanaged carnival of stupidity that is desperate for revenue and anxious to criminalize behavior once thought benign.” Um, just don’t bike the wrong way man. 
     He suggested beating the shit out of a drunk driver “for a couple of hours" as a just punishment. He claims that he is “not afraid of anybody. I don’t have a drop of fear in my whole body. Never. Never.” Clearly I’m not buying it. It seems that his whole life is based of a fear of not being seen. How ironic. 
     A chilling Tweet he published in 2017 is circulating on the web: “I wonder how it must feel to wrongfully kill someone.” I just wish Alec had grown up sooner, admitted his part in things that have gone wrong in his life, gotten help to learn to manage his anger, and perhaps gained some humility. If he had stopped chasing his elusive version of fame sooner, the world would be a happier place today.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Art history never seemed so important before

     Some columnists hobbyhorse an issue, hitting it again and again and again. Me, I try to be a one-and-done kind of guy. Why? Because if I bump into Jesus Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount in Grant Park, and decide to stretch that into a two-parter, with a third column for reader reaction, by that last day, I promise, you’ll be thinking, “What, again with Jesus?”
     But the Art Institute firing its white docents en masse deserves a second visit. It both speaks of our uneasy racial moment, and has the makings of being one of those evergreen PR disasters still talked about 25 years later, the way when I pass bottles of Perrier in a supermarket I shiver and think, “benzene.”
     The Perrier benzene contamination was in 1990. Maybe it’s me. But people generally have long memories for anything negative.
     The good news is that disasters do eventually fade. This isn’t the Art Institute’s first public blunder, you know. Who remembers that the museum once carelessly stashed three Cezanne paintings in a janitor supply closet? From where they were stolen, the theft going undetected because Art Institute procedures were so lax. That wasn’t sunk into the distant heroic past. It was 1978.
     And nobody at all remembers that students from the School of the Art Institute once gathered at the museum to hold a mock trial of an artist, whom they condemned for “artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color,” among other crimes. They burned reproductions of his paintings and would have burned the artist too, in effigy, had the police not stepped in.
     The artist was Henri Matisse.
     All right, that was in 1913, and the School of the Art Institute was and is a separate place from the Art Institute. (The school is much older; the museum began as a gallery for student works.) But nuance doesn’t enter into these scandals. I personally think the museum acted in a defendable manner when birthing this fiasco. Every step a rational one, in the desired direction, right off the cliff.

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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Flashback 2008: "Grandiose and Biedermeier and tragically defunct."

      I called my old friends at Atlas Stationers on Lake Street Wednesday to order my 2022 Brownline Daily Planner. Which led me to this, and I thought I'd share it with you. First, for the word jazz over office supplies. And second, well, I gotta say, I'm proud to have once called the National Weather Service to ask if the clouds are lovelier of late. It's from when the column ran nearly a thousand words and filled the page, so some patience might be required. I've left in the original headings.


     JetBlue charging $7 for a pillow and a blanket reminds me of a business tip I've meant to give to struggling upscale restaurants for a while now. Two words:
     The napkin.
     Hear me out. Restaurants already plump their bottom line by gulling diners into splurging on luxury water instead of plain old tap. Like there's a difference. Why then should patrons settle for boring white linen napkins, when they could chose from a "Napkin Menu" offering rough silk, antique lace or fine Egyptian cotton? Think of the publicity value—far outstripping the $100 Kobi beef hamburgers that clever chefs have long used to gain a headline or two. If napkins are too over-the-top, think about the revenue stream possibilities of salt. Why sprinkle your $90 Tempura of Spot Prawn with Braised Kombu with the same sodium chloride the Morton Salt Girl has been flinging around for a century when you could savor imported hand-pestled French sea salt for an extra $9 and get to keep the little crystal shaker as a souvenir? I'm surprised nobody has thought of it before.


     It is a mantra of mine that the world does not change; rather, we change, and then blame the world. Life does not start as an exciting, dynamic, possibility-laden enterprise—coincidentally when we are young —and then suddenly shift, deteriorating into a grim, dull, unappealing, entropic mess about the time we grow old.
     Thus I viewed with suspicion—at first—my growing conviction over the past few months that the clouds are lovelier and more numerous than usual this summer. I dismissed it as a trick of memory, a passion, an amour fou, the symptom of some overwrought emotional state.
Maxfield Parrish clouds
     And yet. Day after day, I'd look up, and stop. Enormous Maxfield Parrish billows piled up in a corner of the sky, churning, lit pink and yellow and gold by the setting sun. Sheets of wispy stratus clouds, whirls, fantastic displays that lacked only cherubs with harps.
     I placed a call. Are the clouds lovelier this year?
    "I noticed that," said Frank Wachowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist who has been closely watching the Chicago weather for the past 62 years -- since he was eight. "In the afternoons, lots of build-ups."
     More than usual?
     "We really don't keep records on clouds," he continued. "But there's been a lot of cumulus clouds, a lot of thunderstorms. Some tops of thunderheads go as high as 70,000 feet. In the last 60 days or so, lots of what we call cabbage-type clouds: cumulus-nimbus, and with the jet stream, lots of cirrus clouds—the middle-type, 12,000 to 15,000 feet. I'd say the last two months have been exceptionally different than most summers."
     Well, that's a relief.


     "I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils," wrote poet Theodore Roethke. "Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight. All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage."
     I don't know about that. Myself, I've known the joy of pencils—tumbling out of the box with a clatter, fresh recruits, interchangeable soldiers in their identical orangish-yellow uniforms, eager to serve.
     But then, I'm a sucker for office supplies. This autumn—as every autumn—I'll feel a pang at not being able to go to Woolworth's to stock up on protractors and rulers, pencils and scissors, tape and ring binders.  
     Pencils have an aesthetic beauty and an technical purity—engineering historian Henry Petroski wrote an intriguing book about their development, The Pencil. There is a reason Claes Oldenburg made paper clips and wheel erasers into giant sculptures—they're pure forms, and beautiful, or else throwbacks to an earlier time. What is more nostalgic than a rubber stamp? Novelist Nicholson Baker referred to the "black, weighted Duesenberg" of an old tape dispenser as "grandiose and Biedermeier and tragically defunct." Mmmm....  
     Perhaps it can't be explained—you either get it or you don't. I'm looking at a round metal can of Premium Best-Test White Rubber Paper Cement. It sits, red and white, on my roll-top desk—too beautiful to hide in a drawer, a delight to unscrew its round metal cap with "BRUSH IN CAN" embossed upon it, to remove the aforementioned black brush, enrobed in a viscous cocoon of milky glue, dripping slowly, languid as honey.
     And while I patronize the Office Depots and OfficeMaxs that crowd the suburban moonscape, there is a special place in my heart for Atlas Stationers, in the Loop, in a small iron-columned storefront right under the L at 227 W. Lake Street. Business sends me there every week or two, to purchase copy paper or grab a bubble envelope ("Cushioned/Self-Sealing" it announces, traits we all can aspire to) or gaze longingly at the green-covered ledger books and blue-lined accounting books and wonder who in God's name still uses them.
     You worry about a place like Atlas Stationers. They've been there since 1939, but how much longer can they survive? How much longer can they peddle Chisel Point Staples and Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, competing against the bargain behemoths? In that struggle, Atlas is holding its 21st annual sidewalk sale today. "Discounts UP to 90%" cries the flier they tucked into the bag with my four Uniball Gel Impact RT pens, two black, two blue. "Bigger and Better Than Ever! Come Often! Selection Changes!"
     That sounds exciting, doesn't it?
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 15, 2008

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Filling the void left by absent fathers

Alberto Garcia (left) helps boys think about what it means to be a man. They were gathered at the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs’ Barreto Club in Humboldt Park. The conversation sometimes involves his numerous tattoos. “I have a lot of friends on my body,” he says.

     “What’s a real man?”
     Alberto Garcia writes that question and two others on a whiteboard in a social room on the second floor of the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs’ Barreto Club in Humboldt Park. Facing him are a dozen boys — eight 8 to 11 years old; the other four are teenage mentors.
     “I want you guys to think really deep,” says Garcia, 27. “Three questions. No. 1, male stereotypes. No. 2 is, ‘What is a real man?’ Then a mural idea. If you had a blank wall, or could put up anything. That breakout session starts now.”
     They divide into two tables to discuss the topic. At one, Shacole, 13, and takes the lead. He quizzes each younger boy in turn.
     “What is your definition of a man?” he asks the kid next to him.
     “Somebody who pays the rent,” answers Malachi, 11. “Who has a good living and a job. Takes care of himself.”
     They bump fists. Shacole turns to the next boy.
     “What is your definition of a man?”
     “Working hard,” says Tawan, 11. “Helping others.”
     “What is your definition of a man, Avian?”
     “Someone who cares, first of all, about yourself,” says the boy, also 11. “Respect everyone. Caring. Not just a man’s job to make all the money.”
     Shacole adds his own perspective.
     “Caring, self-respect,” he says, ticking qualities off on his fingers. “They don’t beat on people. It’s not the man’s job to make ALL the money.”

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Hillary learned to be hit—and hit back—in Park Ridge

By Tony Puryear (National Portrait Gallery)
   Today is Hillary Clinton's 74th birthday, and to celebrate I thought I'd share with you a column that points to the path not taken. This was to have been my column on Nov. 9, 2016. Clinton won the popular vote, but lost in the electoral college, and the nation entered the dark wood that it is still struggling to escape. Some of us, at least, are struggling to escape.

     Hillary Clinton will be the first president of the United States born in Chicago.
     It says something about the conflicted, tentative view that people in her hometown have toward her that this will be news to many. The city has not exactly been welling with pride over the prospect of its daughter ascending to the White House. Maybe the Cubs' march to World Series victory has monopolized our sense of hopeful self-esteem.
      But Hillary Diane Rodham was born Oct. 26, 1947, at Edgewater Hospital, a blond brick building at the corner of Ashland and Hollywood. The building still stands, shuttered since the late 1990s.
     That makes her something of a double rarity: only four previous presidents have been born in hospitals: Jimmy Carter, the first, followed by George W. Bush, her husband Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, who also shares another exclusive club with Clinton — presidents born in cities.
      Through most of American history, our commanders-in-chief tended to come from farms and small towns. Only four hailed from cities: William Howard Taft, born in Cincinnati, Teddy Roosevelt, born in New York, Obama, born in Honolulu — deal with it — and now Clinton.
     Her father Hugh, a crusty-bordering-on-abusive man, manufactured drapes. Her mother Dorothy was the daughter of the broken home of a Chicago firefighter. For the first three years of Hillary's life, the new family — she was their first child — lived at a small apartment building at 5722 N. Winthrop (the building no longer stands). Then her father put down $35,000 in cash for 235 Wisner, a handsome faux Georgian brick home in Park Ridge, the town where she spent her youth until graduating from Maine Township High School South and going off to college at Wellesley.
     It's a quiet neighborhood a few blocks north of Touhy. At midday the streets are deserted, except for a few dog walkers such as Clay Baum, 44, a software account manager, who lives 10 houses north of Clinton's girlhood home. He was walking his poodle, Knight.
     "I support her," he said, a few days before the election. "It's great for the community of course."
     He said he didn't know who lived in the house, and that the rumor around the neighborhood is that no one does. Yet the neatly tended grounds are obviously being cared for by somebody.
There is no plaque, only an honorary street sign on a nearby light pole reading "Rodham Corner," located a hard-to-see 15 feet off the ground, the result of it being frequently stolen by souvenir hunters despite using special vandal-proof fasteners when it was first put up a decade ago.
     Efforts by Park Ridge to honor Clinton have been sidetracked by politics; in 1992, a proposal to hang her portrait at the local library proved so controversial the idea was scuttled.
     It is a coolness sometimes reflected when quizzing the locals about their most famous daughter, a popular media pastime for decades — in 1996, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times collared an area resident, a "patrician-looking woman in her 70s" who wouldn't give her name, but managed to damn Clinton both for keeping her last name and for changing it, in the same breath.
     "When she got married she wouldn't take his name. That was really a bit much for us," she sniffed. "And then, of course, when it came time for an election and her husband needed her to do it, she took his name. It's not something I really approved of."
     Clinton biographies are filled with stories of her toughening her persona in Park Ridge. The loss to the high school football captain when she ran for class president. Her shift away from Goldwater Republicanism.
     But the Park Ridge story that seems most apt to tell about the woman who endured a year of the worst that Donald Trump could dish out, with class and dignity, harkens back to when she was four years old.
     In the frequently told family story, it was in Park Ridge that newly arrived Hillary, 4, was beaten up by the neighborhood bully girl, Suzy. Running home in tears, the future first lady, senator, secretary of state and now president-elect was told by her mother, "There's no room in this house for cowards. You're going to have to stand up to her. The next time she hits you, I want you to hit her back."
     Which is exactly what happened.
     "I can play with the boys now!" Hillary said in triumph.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Will your new kidney come from a pig?


     Kidney from a case of dropsy (Courtesy of St. Bartholomew's Hospital Archives & Museum).

     As someone who recently tried to persuade Massachusetts General Hospital to take one of my kidneys — we’ll get to that — I noted with interest reports last week that a pig kidney has been successfully transplanted into a human.
     The pig-to-human factor isn’t even the most eye-opening aspect of this operation. Since people and pigs were not designed — by nature, by God, your pick — to swap organs, the donor pig was genetically engineered to make its kidney a better fit. The experiment worked. The transplanted kidney functioned for 54 hours.
     And because this cutting-edge procedure couldn’t be tried with one of the 90,000 people currently awaiting a kidney on the transplant list — including my Boston cousin, who was hoping for mine — the kidney was transplanted into a brain-dead patient, which I didn’t even know was a thing.
     The deceased person’s family gave consent, an act of astounding generosity that shouldn’t be overlooked in our what-about-MY-rights? age. Picture it: Your relative dies and is being kept alive on a ventilator.
     A gaggle of scientists rushes over and asks, “Umm, would you mind if we stick a pig kidney into your loved one to see what happens?” And you say “Go ahead.” That family deserves a medal.
     I’m jumping on this story, hoping to get ahead of the chorus of complaint. This medical triumph pokes several hot-buttons for outrage: 1) genetic modification 2) experimentation on animals 3) cross-species medical procedures 4) use of dead people to advance science.
     I’d better leap in with the decent, humane perspective before all the vegans, misanthropes and ministers get into the game.
     While practical application is still long off, this is a marvelous development. There were some 40,000 kidney transplants in the United States last year, but there could have been many more if only more kidneys were available. Half a million Americans, including my cousin, must undergo dialysis to stay alive, a time-consuming, unpleasant procedure. And dangerous: A dozen such patients die every day.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The grasshopper is no burden, yet.


     The summer is over, gone, the cold gathering, settling in. Leaves are already dead, falling, and yet I haven't mentioned one of the most notable events of the whole season, now past. I saw this grasshopper, hidden among the leaves of my Persian Spear. I don't remember ever seeing a grasshopper in years and years. Crickets, yes, cicadas, God knows. But this fellow, straight out of Aesop. I had just enough time to frame a photo and he was gone.
     I believe it is a differential grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) based on the distinctive "inverted chevrons along the hind femur." But there are 11,000 varieties of grasshoppers, at least, so I am open to the idea that I might be mistaken.       
     Had I been thinking quickly, I might have reached out and crushed it. 
 Grasshoppers are notorious pests, going back to the Bible. "The grasshopper shall be a burden." (Not to confuse them with locusts, which are similar, physically, but have even worst culinary habits. Think of locusts as grasshoppers gone bad).
     But no, upon reflection, I probably would not have done that, even had it crossed my mind. Too beautiful. Besides, they gobble ragweed too.
     That quote from the Bible is deceptive, as quoting o
ut of context so often is. That line, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, part of a memorable passage about advancing age. Here is the entire thing, taken from the New King James version, 12:1, with a few, ahem, alterations of my own, done to enhance comprehension 

Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth,
Before the difficult days come,
And the years draw near when you say,
“I have no pleasure in them.”
While the sun and the light,
The moon and the stars,
Are not darkened,
And the clouds do not return after the rain;
In the day when the keepers of the house tremble,
And the strong men bow down;
When the grain grinders cease because they are few,
And those that look through the windows grow dim;
When the doors are shut in the streets,
And the sound of work is low;
When one startles at the cry of a bird,
And all the daughters of music are brought low.
Also they are afraid of heights,
And of terrors in the way;
When the almond tree blossoms,
The grasshopper is a burden,
And desire fails.
For man goes to his eternal home,
And the mourners go about the streets.
     Quite grim, I know, particularly when the faith in God isn't on the table as balm and narcotic. "When the almond tree blossoms" is an allusion to white hair. And the grasshopper reference isn't because of their crop-devouring, or incessant chirping. It's their lightness. Older people are plagued by grasshoppers means eventually even your light burdens are difficult.
      Hmm, how do I pull out of this one? Maybe by quoting scripture of a different sort. When Warren Zevon was dying, he said a variety of very smart things. He talked up poetry, carrying a copy of Rilke's "Duino Elegies" with him. He kept working. "Work is the most effective drug there can possibly be," he said. True dat. And when David Letterman asked him what he had learned from the cancer that would kill him at age 56, he replied, 'How much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich." Do that, or try to.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Senses

   The whole point of these little italic intros is to alert the inattentive reader that they are not reading something by me, but the Saturday report of our esteemed Ravenswood correspondent, Caren Jeskey. Because occasionally readers, particularly new ones, will miss that. However, with today's  post, and its plunge into the world of Jeff Yang and his art, I don't think there's much risk of confusion. I try to get about, but usually end up on the sofa with a book, while Caren, indefatigably buzzes from flower to flower, gathering her sweetness and light. 
   Graffiti artists sprayed paint on large canvases on either side of the stage during a DJ set at the last Sundays on State for the season back in September. I had just marched with Clamor and Lace Noise Brigade playing my flute (well, mostly pretending to play since I could not really see the sheet music affixed to my arm on a bracelet of sorts—my first attempt at a marching band), and dancing along as the crowd lit up. It was so much fun! Shortly thereafter I pulled out of the band since I do not have the time or dedication to give them their due rewards for being so awesome.
     The spray paint art brought me back to the days at The Hot House when it was on South Wabash. An artist would paint while a band played. I’d become transfixed, watching the strokes of paint on canvas in time to the music, or to the rhythm in the artist’s head.
Jeff Yang, in his shop.
     I recently reconnected with an acquaintance from the past. We had brunch at Five and Dime and then I walked with him back to his violin shop in Evanston. Jeff Yang played with Mannheim Steamroller for many years, before leaving that world in 2015 to pursue another path.
     “My ultimate goal is to change the way arts and music are being viewed and consumed right now," said Jeff, who brings all of the senses into his creations. Music, olfactory stimulation, visual stimulation, color, and even gastronomy.
     As Jeff talked about his passion for awakening all of the senses simultaneously, I flashed back to my one and only visit to Alinea. Discreet round speakers were placed in the ceiling above each chair, and sounds played to coincide with the dining experience. For example, when one was eating a crisp caramel glaze, the speaker would emit a tinkling sound as the caramel cracked .
     Jeff is intrigued by the power of sound. He has learned that sound frequencies create varying patterns. “Circles, triangles, snow flakes. There is an order that sound is incorporated into.”
Jeff partnered with a perfume blogger Victoria Frolova, as well as perfumeries in New York and Tokyo, and launched his first event in 2018. A representative of Pod Majersky's group—of Pilsen art district fame—provided ample space on the Halsted art corridor where Jeff showcased his first event, Elements. The focus was on the five elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Metal.
     The exhibits blended food, perfume, music and art including film. He hired a well known chef from Arun’s Thai, and presented Dining in the Dark with various textures to stimulate the taste buds and overall experience. Jeff encourages the chefs and other artists to go with what they feel, and contribute in a way that makes the experience more fluid between various artists and mediums.
     The Violet Hour sponsored Elements as well, and developed the Juliet & Romeo cocktail in homage.
Jeff's next performance, In The Realm Of The Senses, (click here for tickets) is coming up next Friday night, 10/29, in Evanston. It was delayed due to COVID, and will celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday. A string quartet will play Op. 59 No. 2 and Sergio Gomez will create real time art inspired by improvised music. An ornate floral creation by Stacey Bal will drop down and shower beauty on the crowd while aromas will be diffused throughout the air in a subtle yet awakening manner.
     I will be there for an evening of forgetting about everything else.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Too much white in the palette

A guard stretches at the Barbara Kruger show currently on exhibit at the Art Institute. 

     Harvey E. Clark was a CTA bus driver and World War II vet. In July 1951, he moved his family’s belongings into an apartment at 6139 W. 19th Street in Cicero. Before they could reside there, however, his would-be neighbors went berserk, rampaging through the building while the Cicero police stood by, doing nothing. Thousands of rioters smashed windows and dragged the Clarks’ furniture into the street. The governor had to call out the Illinois National Guard.
     Clark was Black. I am white, but nevertheless can still convey the story of how Cicero greeted the family that would have been the suburb’s first Black residents.
     At least I hope so; it’s in my next book. That hope is open to debate, however. In our current fraught racial moment, who is saying something can count as much as what is being said. Maybe more. The Art Institute of Chicago, like many old guard cultural institutions, is trying to be less lily white, and the museum’s eye fell on its staff of volunteer docents, who were fired en masse Sept. 3. Not for what they were telling visitors; but for who was doing the telling.
     “As a civic institution, we acknowledge our responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility to participate,” is how Veronica Stein, the Woman’s Board executive director of Learning and Public Engagement, put it in an email delivering the bad news. “Rather than refresh our current program, systems and processes, we feel that now is the time to rebuild our program from the ground up.”
     Fox News expressed it far more succinctly: “Chicago museum fires all of its mostly White female, financially well-off docents for lack of diversity.”
     I think that’s why I initially ignored the story. Nobody cries like a bully, and while the Red Staters try to blind America to its racist past, labeling honest assessment of history as “critical race theory” and banning it by law, they seek cover by cherry-picking tales of cancel culture overreach, mostly from academia, to pretend that they are victims. Why amplify that?

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

I double-dog dare you to post this!

     Maybe we don't need the law to rein in Facebook. Maybe eventually people will just get bored with it.
     I certainly am.
     Every morning I dump my column, or blog post, in the little "What's on your mind?" oblong, to afflict others with it ... whoops, so eager readers can find it there. For the clicks. And I at least try to look at what Facebook friends are posting, to see what folks are talking about. 
     But it's a fairly empty experience. People I don't know celebrating their anniversaries. Posting motivational poems. Sharing their vacations. Ads for stuff I don't want. And odd, out-of-left-field challenges. Like this:
     "Someone once said, “When you love someone with dementia you lose them more and more everyday. When they are diagnosed, when they go through different stages, when they go into care and when they die. ‘Rapidly shrinking brain’ is how doctors describe it. As the person’s brain slowly dies, they change physically and eventually forget who their loved ones are. They can eventually become bedridden, unable to move and unable to eat or drink.”
     A former college classmate, my age. Not sharing grim news of her own, but a canned chain letter. It ended:
     "There will be people who will scroll by this message because dementia has not touched them. They may not know what it's like to have a loved one who has fought or is fighting a battle against dementia. To raise awareness of this cruel disease, a special thank you to all willing to post to their timeline."
     Or ..... there may be people whose lives have been abso-fucking-lutely touched by dementia, and are all for "sharing awareness," but just aren't into tiny symbolic gestures, those happy pink ribbons that insulting suggest you can beat back bad old Mr. Cancer if only you keep a really positive attitude, and chafe against the I-double-dog-dare-you-to-post-this ethos that so infects Facebook. Like we're all in sixth grade. I thought of commenting. But that sparks all this Punch-and-Judy bickering that ends nowhere, and I just don't have the energy for that. I unfollowed her instead.
     Yes, it's good for people to be aware. And given how many people don't understand medicine, science, vaccines, who can't differentiate between an example and proof (Colin Powell dying of COVID despite being vaccinated is no more an indictment of vaccines than someone dying in a car crash despite wearing a seatbelt undercuts the advisability of seat belts) they need all the awareness they can get.
     But the flip side of awareness is over-stimulation. Everything, from everyone, all the time. The demonstrably untrue assertion that we can combat something just by lavishing our precious attention over it. That's sometimes true. But you can also combat something by focusing less attention on it. The less time on social media, particularly Facebook, the better. You don't need the government to tell you that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Goodbye Chicago, hello Tokyo!

     Being a contrarian, I do not share the general consensus that Lori Lightfoot has accomplished nothing as mayor beyond grimly presiding over one disaster after another. In my view, that just isn’t true. For instance, she managed the neat trick of making Rahm Emanuel look good by comparison.
      Think about it. The Riverwalk was Mayor Rahm’s baby. A glittering new facet to the city. Like Rich Daley with Millennium Park, Rahm reminds us that a single landmark bauble can almost outshine a garish jacket woven of blunders.
     And at least you could talk with the man. Yes, that isn’t a quality that resonates with most Chicagoans. But it meant something to us inky wretches. Rahm was trying to accomplish stuff, and it gave the media a warm glow to be let in on the plan. The reason I can confidently credit Rahm with the Riverwalk is because, when he showed up and I asked him what he wanted to do in office, the first words out of his mouth were about improving the riverfront.
     I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve gone over to Team Rahm. Yes, I am rooting for his nomination as U.S. ambassador to Japan to be advanced Wednesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — and not just because that would plant him about as far from Chicago as he can get without leaving the earth’s magnetic field. A certain generational sympathy is also at work. It’s hard to be a man in your early 60s trying to carve out a new career.
     Or so I imagine; I’ve managed to cling to my own job with singular, barnacle-like tenacity for a third of a century. But I take a morbid interest in noting where those whose fingers are pried from their professional ledges manage to land. Usually, it isn’t pretty. Usually, there’s a splat.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Flashback 2012: 'Prairie Home Companion' on its way

     Garrison Keillor is one of those figures like Al Franken, whose careers sank after running headfirst into the Me Too movement. I'll leave it to others to decide if that was fair, or if they were swept up in a furor, like Antoine Lavoisier, the scientist beheaded in the French Revolution. Once the guillotine is set up, it demands new necks to feed upon.
       I've been thinking about seeking Keillor out, maybe trying to interview him. But Keillor was a tough interview before this trouble happened. He hated the press before, and I doubt being publicly cashiered made him any fonder. I remember, after this conversation, telling someone that talking to him was like trying to interview an oak. 
     He's going to be performing "A Prairie Home Holiday" at the Rialto Square Theatre Dec. 11. I don't think I'll go—I've seen him several times, and it's in Joliet. But if you never have, you might consider it. He's the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain, and he won't be coming around forever.

     Mark Twain made a lot of money. Both from his own best-sellers, like "Huckleberry Finn," and from the work of others - he owned a publishing house - particularly the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.
     But he also lost a lot of money. Trying to repeat the Grant success, Twain published the autobiographies of lesser Civil War generals who, it turned out, the American public no longer cared much about.
     And Twain had a genius for bad investment. He bought many worthless patents. Several times in his life he was forced to hit the road to earn money, particularly after the economic panic of 1893, which left Twain bankrupt at 60, forced to travel the world giving speeches to pay off his creditors.
     I think of Twain pulling into Chicago or Berlin and imagine a local gazing at the paper, musing whether to go see the great man, whenever his lone rival over the past century, Garrison Keillor, comes to town, as he will in a couple weeks, and I have to decide if I should go see him again. Usually I do.
     Not that Keillor is financially ruined, I hasten to add. He tours the country with his radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," because ... well, I had no idea why, so I asked him, before we fell to talking poetry, which you might have read about in my last column. Why not always broadcast from St. Paul?
     "Well, you get to see a better cross-section of people who listen to the show," Keillor said. "That's something a person needs. The longer you're in this business, the more you have to press yourself to get out and be out around people. I like to hang out after the show and talk to people; I want to check out who they are."
     His audiences turn out to be younger than you might expect.
     "A lot of people in their 20s now, and 30s, who more or less were forced against their will to listen as small children - they've made this transition, they come to enjoy something that as young people they thought they loathed," he said. "I'm interested both in the loathing and what they like about it now. So they offer a lot of information, and I want to keep in touch."
     I imagine they like the variety of the show—the songs and humorous sketches, and the highlight, Keillor's snapshot of his fictional hometown, Lake Wobegon, a short story he says is shaped in part by those listening to it.
      "When I sit down to write the show, I'm not writing it for myself. I don't want to," he said. "I'm writing for an audience. It just helps a lot to have some faces in your mind."
     Keillor doesn't read the story, nor does he entirely make it up on the air, but rather a blend, part recalling what he wrote earlier, part extemporizing as he goes along.
     "I'm a writer. The way I think is by putting words down," he said. "I like to have some outline, some story. That's how I do my thinking, looking at a long legal pad, with a pen, making marks. Then I toss it out. Once you write it down, then you don't need it anymore. You extemporize from what you remember of it. You don't make any attempt to memorize. Sometimes you turn it all around in the act of performing."
     What happens then?
     "When you tell a story, the audience will tell you where to go," he said. "They give powerful directions, and that's what you want to rely on. It just looks odd, I think for a man to stand up in front of an audience and read off a script."
     Does he ever forget what comes next? On live radio? What then?
     "It happens often," he said. "And you just have to talk in circles until you find a trail. You're in the woods and sort of crashing around through the underbrush. Eventually you find your way out of it."
     Keillor, 70, has in the past publicly speculated about retiring, but no longer.
     "It's always up in the air," he said. "We have this season pretty much all blocked out," and 2014 "is starting to get sketched in."
     With the election so close, we talked about politics—while the show isn't overtly partisan, it often contains a strong message.
     "I would always rather confuse people than have a label stuck to me," he said. "But I'm an old Minnesota Democrat, no secret about that. I've been involved in Democratic politics up in Minnesota, especially this fall, though my view has broadened with time. The party line doesn't interest me so much as politics is the best way there is to meet people and get to know who they are. Deep down, politics is about civility and about friendship, about the bonds between people. I think that I'm aligned with people who have acquired in their youth a powerful sense of empathy for the outcast, the stranger, the victim, the abused and the unlucky, and so we believe that we allied against the protectors of privilege. To me there's only one side to be on."
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 26, 2012

Monday, October 18, 2021

Why are cops afraid of vaccines?

     Boy, is it beautiful up in Door County. The wife and I had a great time there last week, hiking the parks, going to fish boils. I tried not to think about being right back here Monday morning, poking Chicago’s ball-of-snakes politics with a stick.
     Oh look. The city and the police department are suing each other. That’s normal.
     So let’s talk about the police. Puff aside the fog of BS swirling around them and get down to basics. What is the most important activity performed by the police? The reason for the roll calls and the paperwork. What does everyone, including the police themselves, agree that police are supposed to do?
     Fight crime, right? Any objections? Is the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7 on board with the whole police-are-supposed-to-arrest-criminals idea? Assuming so — a leap of trust nowadays with anything requiring an ounce of sense — let’s continue.
     This crime-fighting business involves danger, does it not? Puts police in perilous situations. Running into a dark alley where there might be a bad guy with a gun. Charging up the dark stairs of a six-flat. Going into the foul, overheated apartment of some crazy person who might come at you with a razor.
     A dangerous job. If I say, “Chicago cops put their lives on the line every day,” I don’t expect John Catanzara to jump onto YouTube to insist, “No we don’t!”
     So what’s with the vaccine hesitancy? You’ll run into a burning building but won’t get the shots that soon every 5-year-old will need in order to go to school? You let the city tell you what kind of hat to wear, but helping fight the plague that has killed 700,000 Americans is a bridge too far. Why?

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Dogs of Wisconsin


     Our dog Kitty travels well, and has ranged across the country from the Rockies to the Atlantic.
     Alas, the one inn we could find in Door County with a vacancy at short notice does not accept dogs. So we had to leave her with neighbors—who are, to Kitty's credit and theirs, somewhere between happy and overjoyed to savor her company for a few days. She really is a most easygoing dog.
     Because of her absence, I was perhaps more attentive to those travelers on our trip who managed to take their dogs with them, particularly this dog, spied on the Eagle Trail at Peninsula State Park. His name is Lazlo, his owner told me, and he is a Puli, or Hungarian sheepdog. At first I thought his long, dreadlock-like coat had to be some kind of singular neglect, but that is how the breed grows it, in these tight coils, which actually take quite a bit of attention to keep clean and in the pristine condition that Lazlo presented.
     I choked back the obvious question, "Can he see?" because there seemed to be a whiff of criticism about it, and there are enough people ignorantly challenging others over baseless concerns for me to add to the scrum. If you Google "How can a Puli see?" you find this question has been well-masticated. The answer is "yes of course," and there is even a supposed "old Hungarian saying," which goes " “The Puli, through his hair, sees better than you.”
     The other dog sat next to me at the Old Post Office fish boil; or, rather his owner did. We struck up a conversation (the owner and I, that is, not the dog). He had recently gotten the dog, named Wilson, a Silver Labrador that he trained for duck and pheasant hunting. I had heard of golden labs and black labs and chocolate labs, but a silver lab is something new, and he said it is indeed new. 
     The breed dates to the 1950s, which is yesterday when it comes to dog breeds. Though some think it actually is just a chocolate lab in a new light, sort of the canine version of the blue dress. Turns out, there is all t
his controversy over the silver lab, at least in circles who care about such things. Part has to do with their breeding: are they pure labs, or mixed with Weimaraner?  (which is what I suspected he was, at least partly, before I asked, though it seemed thick for a Weimaraner).
     "Dogs are an inexhaustible subject," as George Orwell writes in Burmese Days, and I probably
 should wrap this up. In closing, I have to mention that I've noticed people don't sneer at Kitty, being half-Bichon, half-Shitsu, the way they used to, nor insinuatingly demand to know what rescue shelter she was gotten at. I used to tell them she was rescued from a breeder, and point out that she was already born when we found her, and someone had to give her a home. I've either managed to better avoid such people, perhaps through good luck, or otherwise our national problems are such that grilling people over the provenance of their dogs just isn't as important as it used to be.





Saturday, October 16, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Chills


   Credit to Caren Jeskey, she gets around. If I pulled on a random door, I don't believe I would find ... well, better let her tell it:

     Pre-pandemic you would have walked right past The Violet Hour, perhaps admiring the facade— an oft-changing mural the length of several storefronts. You would not have noticed the door hidden away within the strokes of the art. This posh cocktail and small-plates bar boasts “pre-prohibition style libations” and rules including “No Jager-Bombs. No bombs of any kind.”
      The Violet Hour sits on Damen, just south of North Avenue. My Grandpa Carl is rolling around in his grave at Rosehill knowing he missed out on all of this swanky fun, and remembering his days at the Busy Bee diner a few doors down where he sat at the counter sipping five cent coffee, black.
     COVID robbed The Violet Hour of their secretive allure when they realized they needed to set up outdoor seating on their limited parcel of concrete real estate. I called to fact-check and spoke with bartender-turned-manager Abe, who shared that the patio (along with a cocktail delivery program) helped them stay afloat. He stressed that the patio “is on a busy street in Chicago” to reduce expectations. He told me that he uses the mantra “make it work,”— words that have rung in his ears ever since he heard them spoken by Tim Gunn of Project Runway— to keep moving forward in solution mode at all times. This, he found, was particularly important during this past long year and a half for those in the now precarious business of service.
     I’ve not been to The Violet Hour for years, and was reminded of it recently when I found myself accidentally entering another mysterious joint. While on an Andersonville walkabout, I happened upon a black metal door, framed by an exposed brick wall that was peppered with Houdini, Thurston, and Alexander posters. I pictured a young boy with shorts and saddle shoes slapping them up there with a bucket of glue and a long-handled brush.
     I’m not 100% sure why, but I pulled the handle of the door marked with the address 5050, and was very surprised that it flew open. I was greeted by a suit-wearing chap with salt and pepper hair warmly saying “Welcome! Do you have your vaccination card?” (This snapped me out living in the land of timeless make-believe, but I still went with it). “Yes, I do.” I popped on my ubiquitous bracelet, aka mask, and followed him.
     The foyer was filled with laundry machines with big round glass doors, packed with clothes in various stages of wash cycles. He pulled at one of the machines, which opened up into yet another door. This time we were standing in an elegant, dimly lit, high ceilinged bar with black walls and vinyl booths. Salt and pepper turned out to be The Amazing Bibik. He showed me around the place and I was tickled to be led into a full sized theatre and stage hidden behind yet another door. I stuck around for some witty banter and card tricks, made a mental note to get back there for a show soon, and headed back out to meander some more.
     The other night a friend and I were on a walk and I thought to show him the magic place. He loved it. The show was already sold out, and we were looking for something to do. I checked the Music Box schedule and saw that The Rescue was starting. (As a member there I know that they require vaccination cards and masks, and if not too crowded the theatre is big enough that one can usually find a seat tucked far enough away from others).
      We high-tailed it to the theatre (on foot) as I bought the tickets online, and made it just in time for the film to start. It was a documentary about the 12 boys and their soccer coach who were rescued from the cave in northern Thailand in 2018, and it was made by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin of Free Solo fame. Steve James, the creator of Hoop Dreams, introduced the film, and invited us to stay for a talk back afterwards. The movie was as enthralling as you’d think it would be, with unlikely heroes of shy, brilliant, socially awkward cave divers who feel more comfortable squeezing through muddy little passages than they might feel while sitting at a dinner party.
     After the movie Mr. James introduced the guests. First was John Volanthen, the British cave diver who first found the boys alive and was a crucial part of their rescue. We all stood, clapping. I am getting the chills again just thinking of that feel-good moment that we all need so badly. The other guest was Captain Mitch Torrel of the US Air Force, who had a big hand in helping plan and facilitate the successful mission. After the talk back we went up to the small circle that had gathered around these men, and though I wanted to hug Mr. Volanthen with all of my heart, it didn’t seem appropriate so we shared a hearty handshake instead.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Wisconsin mystery

     We hit four state parks and two county parks during our five days in Wisconsin, the last being Whitefish Dunes State Park. It seemed fitting to end our trip walking along the sand, watching the waves roll in.
     Just before we left that park and headed home, we tucked into a small lakeside area, the dimness under the trees contrasting with the bright beach just beyond. We sat for a while, watching the water through the trees, then turned to walk back to the car.  
     "Look, a doghouse," my wife said. It seemed incongruous, this small canine dwelling, just set there.. We walked around it. No door. No window. No entrance of any kind.  It had obviously been there for a while. A theory immediately came to me, ludicrous in its wrongness.  
     "Maybe they are testing roofing materials," I said. "For park structures and such. They built this little model here to see how it stands up to the elements."
     I hesitate to share this here, lest I establish myself as a stupid man. But that is what, confronted with the object, I thought and said aloud, sharing my wildly improbable theory. It shows imagination, if nothing else.
     My wife, far brighter, pointed to the concrete base.
     "It's probably covering up some unsightly thing," she said. Of course. An electrical meter or gas valve or some such device. That has to be it.
     "Some unsightly thing." I want to pause, and savor that phrase. Heck, I could use that as the title of my autobiography. One of the really enjoyable aspects of the trip was our conversations, and my wife, as always, would say things I just had to admire, with the surprise and appreciation of a philatelist discovering a rare issue. There was one during our first hike.
     "It's so friggin' quiet," she said, with feeling. I did marry a city girl—well, Bellwood, close enough. A simultaneous praise and dismissal of the Wisconsin natural idyll. I wish she had used the actual obscene present participle, and not a euphemism. But nothing is perfect. Close enough though.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

A whole new spin on being at death's door.

     "What have we been doing all these years?" my wife asked, incredulously, as we worked our way under the towering limestone bluffs along the Eagle Trail in Peninsula State Park.
     I knew what she meant. She wasn't asking for a point-by-point recapitulation of our 38-year relationship, but wondering how we, who like the outdoors, like nature, like to hike, had nevertheless managed to miss Door County until this week.

     My fault, surely. First, because most things are. And second, I do recall her mentioning a desire to go to Door County, one that I shrugged off because a) I had worked my first internship in Green Bay Wisconsin, from January to March, 1981, which did not leave me with happy memories of the place b) a few years after that we had gone to the Horicon Marsh in Fon du Lac, which I assumed was the same place, or near enough, but is actually 150 miles away and c) I tend to shrug off most things that aren't staying right where I always am, doing what I'm always doing. 
      Well, we're here now, at last, making up for lost time. We got a $38 annual Wisconsin State Parks pass, which might seem imprudent given it is mid-October, but hit the state parks four days in a row, so came out the better for it. Rain was predicted all week, but it politely retreated into the wings during our hikes, though once starting to sprinkle as we approached the van after a two-hour hike, just to show us what we were missing. I'm not going to write a travelogue—not while we're in the midst. But we're staying in Ephraim, a pleasant if touristy spot—like a wee Wisconsin imitation of Bar Harbor—but with plenty of authentic fun, like the fish boil at the Old Post Office. We drove up to Sister Bay yesterday for lunch at the goats-on-the-roof place, Al Johnson's (the goats, alas, had the day off because of the aforementioned rain. Union rules). Excellent coffee, excellent herring, and Swedish pancakes with lingonberries that I assume were excellent. As I don't believe I've ever eaten them before, I don't really have a point of comparison. I finished them all.
      Being me, I started wondering where the "Door" in "Door County" comes from. I assumed it had to be from some person—Frederick Door, an early pioneer perhaps—or because the place is the entryway somewhere. It actually comes, quite spectacularly, from Porte des Morts, "the Door of Death," a name given to a region offshore where Lake Michigan meets the waters of Green Bay that many Native-Americans supposedly lost their lives traversing. I don't want to say it was worth coming just to find that out—it was the hiking, the hanging-out-with-my-wife, and the not-being-at-home-working parts that made it worth coming. But I was glad to learn it nonetheless.

Door County Headlands 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Flashback 2009: "And what's with all this singing?"

"Odd Fellow Complaining" By Thomas Rowlandson (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

      I'm kicking around Door County, enjoying some long overdue R & R. But don't worry, I'm not going to leave you in the lurch. Not when I have chestnuts like this one in the computer banks, perched alertly on the edge of its chair, hands folded in its lap, waiting to be asked to dance. I invited the Lyric Opera to share with me some of their complaint letters from patrons and, mirabile dictu, they did. This column came to mind last week when I was chatting with the folks at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra about possible future stories. 


     This is the dilemma. You go to the opera, your senses fully open, your ears straining to savor every sublime note, your eyes, eager to take in every aspect of the colorful pageant unfolding in glory before you.
     And yet. There are other things going on, in addition to the sound and action on stage. You're also in a room with 3,300 other people. People who are coughing. People who are shifting in their seats. People who are unwrapping mints, though it sounds like they're unwrapping Christmas presents just as the orchestra hushes and the fawn enters the glade.
     What to do? Here human nature cleaves into two groups. There is the ignore-it crowd—the majority—and there are those who complain.
     Every year, some 140 letters from opera patrons complaining about boorish behavior—or about completely innocent behavior—reach the desk of Jack Zimmerman, the Lyric's manager of subscriber services.
     They complain about perfume. They complain about fellow patrons clearing their throats. They complain about hairdos, and the size of people's heads. They complain of too few intermissions, or too many. They complain about other patrons complaining—one patron, dubbed "The Shush Nazi," had to be told to stop telling others to be quiet, as his outbursts were annoying more patrons than the outbursts he was trying to quell.
     Cell phones are a problem. The Lyric tries to keep distractions to a minimum by instructing people to turn off their phones before a performance. People complain about that, too.
     "Sad to think that grown-up, mature adults would have to be so instructed," wrote an Oak Park patron, complaining about applause before the end of the act. "I find the clapping to be annoying and disruptive."
     No aspect is too small for consideration. A loose screw in a doorknob. A word in the supertitles.
     "I am writing regarding one line of the projected titles for 'La Traviata,' '' a subscriber from Wisconsin wrote last year. "If I remember correctly, when in the last act Germont seeks to console Violetta this year's production translated a line, 'weep, weep and let tears soften your grief.' Am I correct that in the 2003 production, this same passage was supertitled, 'Weep, weep and let tears comfort your grief'? To me, the latter has an almost visceral punch which is lacking in the former. How much more poignant that tears could comfort the very grief which produced them to begin with. . . . Won't you rethink this for the future?"
     That letter was passed on to Frank Rizzo, the person responsible for the Traviata supertitles. In this era of form letters, not only does the Lyric respond specifically to each complaint, usually with a letter from Zimmerman, a novelist and former newspaper columnist, but he then tries to solve the problem.
     Sometimes this requires considerable tact. Phoning a subscriber and bluntly accusing her of wearing too much perfume seemed out of the question, so Zimmerman instead contacted patrons in the general vicinity, informing them of the problem and asking if they had been bothered by it. The offending patron got the hint.
     Opera fans must have some awareness of the tradition of complaint letters, because one cast his praise for the "Ring" cycle in the form of a gripe. "The Wagner works are simply not long enough," he wrote, an opinion perhaps never before expressed in the history of opera. "I really wanted to see the time stop."
     One of my favorite complaint letters to the Lyric was not so much a complaint as a request. A woman in Westfield, Wis., had tickets to an opera she planned to attend with her daughter, but first she needed to raise "an important concern."
     "When my daughter was growing up, we enjoyed some opera on public TV," she wrote. "Often the female singers wore distracting low-cut dresses. These indecent dresses portrayed the women as sex objects and took attention from their voices. I taught my daughter that Catholic-Christian women do not dress immodestly to provoke sexual impulses in men who are not their husbands."
     The woman requested, "if low-cut dresses are part of your usual wardrobe," that the brazen female vocalists be covered up during the performance she and her daughter would attend.
     "I don't want to pay to fill my mind with immodest images. These degrade family life, already severely damaged in our nation."
     There are two salient points that leap out from her letter. First, the daughter in question was 23 years old.
     And second, the opera they were traveling four hours to see was "Don Giovanni," Mozart's bawdy sex comedy that includes murder, beatings, attempted rapes, seductions and a recitation of the hero's 2,000 amorous conquests, all ending with the defiantly unrepentant rake being dragged down to the flames of hell by the vengeful spirit of one of his victims.
     The Lyric's files do not contain further communication from the Wisconsin lady, but her reaction can be imagined.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 30, 2009