Friday, March 31, 2023

Trump indictment changes nothing

   
Metropolitan Museum of Art

      In Al-Anon, the organization serving families of alcoholics and addicts, one of the first messages they impart to desperate wives and husbands, parents and children, is to step away from the drama of their loved ones thrashing about in recovery.
     You can’t fix them. You might not even be able to help. The afflicted have to figure it out for themselves. Or not. For the time being, rather than argue and grapple with their lies and ego and excuses, just turn away. Attend to yourself.
     Approaching the eighth year of all Donald J. Trump, all the time, first as presidential candidate, then president, defeated ex-president, and now, full circle, presidential candidate once again, leading the Republican pack for 2024, I’ve finally reached that step-back part. I can’t fix him. Can’t make him go away. There hasn’t been anything to write about him. Readers don’t need guidance: they either figured out Donald Trump long ago, or never will.
     There’s really nothing new to say. Being an expect-the-worst kind of guy, I simply assume Trump will win in 2024 against a senescent Joe Biden. Of course he will. The whole thing will begin again, the lies and bombast, grievance and cruelty, will roll over the country like a tsunami. Worse this time, because the shock has become blunted, and helpers have stepped up and are ready, with a Supreme Court, a third of whom he picked himself, ready to sing “Amen” to his every overstep. Abroad, tyrants like Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu will be comforted by the success of a kindred spirit, and at home the people who live for this kind of thing will ululate like true believers, clap like seals, salaam in adoration, and the whole madhouse will thunder on for another four years.
     I don’t see how any of that changes because Trump now faces criminal charges in Manhattan for his botched attempt to cover-up his copulation — “affair” seems too elevated a term — with porn actress Stormy Daniels. The $130,000 Trump funneled to Daniels through fixer Michael Cohen, days before the 2016 election. Caring about the law, about morality, or even about the outcome of any given election, has become a partisan divide.

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"Man Seated in Prison," by Victor Jean Nicolle (1781) (Metropolitan Museum)


 

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Orchids — Like sex dolls for bees

 

     In March, I visited the Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Three times. Quite a lot, really, a sufficient number of visits to make an outside observer, such as you, suspect that I really like orchids a lot. Which I do not, particularly.
      Don't get me wrong. I don't mind orchids. They're a fine flower, even though they tend to look like colorful alien insects or the faces of screaming babies. There's certainly enough of them — 25,000 species of orchid scattered all over the world. They seem rare, and often are as individuals. But taken together, orchids are the most prevalent flower. And also the oldest, which makes sense, because they seem like something a brontosaurus would munch on under a purple Jurassic sky. 
     I just happen to prefer, aesthetically oh, zinnias, or daisies or irises, or roses, or just about any other bloomin' bloom. Flowers that are round, and less, umm, weird-looking, flowers without, as the Oxford English Dictionary demurely puts it, such notable "grotesqueness of form."*
     So how did I end up going to the Botanic Garden show three times? Quite organically. The first was with my wife, who wanted to see the show. I of course went along because where she goes I go. And the second with my sister, visiting from Dallas. I thought would like the show, and she did. And the third, last Sunday, with friends, scheduled by my wife.  
     The show ended Sunday, so I'm safe, for another year.
     "Orchid," incidentally, is a rather new word — the OED traces it only back to 1845. Though the word made up for lost time. No lesser scientist than Charles Darwin turned his attention to orchids, following up on his 1859 On the Origin of Species in 1862 with On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, not as well known, yet continuing his evolutionary theme by noting that orchids that are pollinated by the wind have pale, unscented petals, while those requiring insects to do the deed are equipped with bright petals and fragrant nectar to lure them in. 
     Better suited to the task at hand, though I suppose you could argue that this was due to intelligent design— there must be a God, because how else could certain species of orchid offer almost perfect approximations of female bee anatomy, so as to collect the pollen that scrapes off male bees as they try to fuck them. I wish religious sorts would. That's cosmology I would be tempted to admire, if not consider.
    Speaking of religion and other commercial endeavors, orchids do not have a lot of practical applications, beyond the horticultural display of the plants themselves. There's only one I know of, but it's a good one: the fruit of an orchid known as the vanilla planifolia, or as it is more generally called, vanilla.
    Anyway, while I don't have anything special to say about orchids,  I did take these photos of them that I thought I would pass along. If this all seems out-of-left field, the truth is, I had something else I wrote ready to go Wednesday night, regarding dead friends. But I want to hold it, and think about it a bit. We are allowed to think about things. Right? If only as a change of pace. Such as flowers. We can think about them. Not for long, true, particularly orchids. But they will have to do for today.

* On Twitter, my friend Bill Savage provides some literary backup for my lack of enthusiasm for orchids. "General Sternwood, in The Big Sleep, to Philip Marlowe re: orchids: 'They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.'"




Wednesday, March 29, 2023

More words about guns

World War I Memorial, Nashville

     Let’s see, guns blah blah blah. Children blah blah blah. Tennessee blah de blah-blah blah.
     There, am I done? Because this commenting on the latest school shooting — three 9-year-olds, three staffers and the shooter killed Monday at a religious school in Nashville — well, it gets tiresome. I suppose I could just join the great communal shrug that most people give, a sigh, a quick checking of the details, then forget about it and go about our business.
     Nobody really cares — or rather, these deaths don’t shake the deep, passionate, quasi-religious, quasi-sexual devotion that too many Americans have toward high-powered weaponry. They certainly care, intensely, about guns. They cared yesterday, they care now, and they’ll care tomorrow. Far more passionately than they care about children. That is clear.
     Nor do these killings stir the rest of Americans from our lethargy. We’re complicit. We watch the same movies, buy the same get-the-drop-on-the-bad-guy gun fantasies, and allow this situation to persist. For years and years.
     Three kids dead — not really all that many on the Columbine Scale. But it could be 30 or 300. What difference would it make? Does it matter if kids are picked off in bunches or one at a time? In a quiet Southern school or sitting on their stoop on the West Side of Chicago? Shootings are the leading cause of death for children in the United States, a kind of American folk illness, one that many other countries don’t have because they have sane gun laws.
     We have the Second Amendment. Which could still allow us to keep this from happening — it used to. Law is open to interpretation. The way the First Amendment stretches to allow any glittery-eyed parent with gumption enough to raise a fuss to start pulling books off the shelves at publicly funded libraries. Imagine if parents tried to tamp down gun ownership with half the zeal they use to go after books?

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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Galileo explains war on ‘woke’


     Whenever I’m cataloguing the benefits of being Jewish — bountiful comfort food, emphasis on education and family, interest-free loans from George Soros — I always include the advantage of being in an extreme minority. About 1% of Americans are Jewish.
     Not a lot. And steadily dwindling due to assimilation and intermarriage. Which is a shame. Because being an outsider has advantages. It sharpens your powers of observation. What is unquestioned, standard operating procedure to the majority is strange to you. It makes you think, even if that thought is, “Why can’t I celebrate Christmas like everyone else?”
     There are exceptions. Jewish ultra-Orthodox, like zealots everywhere, have the same tendency to live in uniform bunches, like grapes, and crave conformity. They emphasize learning, but won’t touch a book that isn’t approved.
     I’m thinking of mainstream American Jews, whose fish-out-of-water quality contradicts a central value of Christianity — that everyone should be like you, the culture revolve around you, and every shiny surface reflect a person just like you.
     They don’t know what they’re missing. Being an outcast encourages you to dance to strange music. To explore places not meant for you. Such as when my younger son was in high school and expressed interest in the University of Notre Dame. We took a road trip, then a tour. That doesn’t mean I left my personality in the car.
     “You can be the Jew,” I whispered to the boy — Notre Dame ranks last among the top 25 American universities when it comes to Jewish population.
     To Notre Dame’s credit, the cathedral-like stonework of the lovely Jordan Hall of Science includes not only Louis Pasteur and Madam Curie, venerated like saints with full-body statues, but Galileo, whom you may recall got in hot water with the Catholic Church for endorsing the Copernican notion that the earth revolves around the sun. This was heresy because in the Bible, the earth — and mankind — is the center of universe.

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Monday, March 27, 2023

Bill Zehme, master of the celebrity profile, journalism’s ‘bastard stepchild,’

 

Cast of "Ocean's Eleven" (National Portrait Gallery)

     Bill Zehme was your pal, and Frank Sinatra’s.
     Whether you were an unknown Chicago writer just starting out, or a king of late-night television, Zehme would turn his full attention and his Midwestern charm in your direction and make you feel as cool as a Bombay Sapphire martini, straight up, with a twist, at Jilly’s.
     A writer for Esquire, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Playboy and other top-shelf magazines back when magazines really mattered, Zehme pierced the shiny veneer of celebrity to capture the flesh-and-blood person within, writing best-selling books on Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman and his idol, Sinatra.
     Zehme, 64, died Sunday at Weiss Memorial Hospital after a long battle with cancer.
     “Bill was first and foremost an incredibly talented writer who had this rare ability to get inside the head and heart of famous people, everyone from Andy Kaufman and Frank Sinatra, very much with my dad,” said Christie Hefner, the daughter of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner and former chairwoman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises. “He was a personal friend, one of the loveliest and funniest men I ever knew.”
     Zehme was a master of the celebrity profile, a form he looked askance at.
     “I’m really not interested in most people,” he confessed to Ted Allen in Chicago magazine in 1996. “The celebrity profile is the bastard stepchild of journalism, and I’m embarrassed sometimes to be associated with it.”
     He shouldn’t have been.
     “Bill got people to talk to him who wouldn’t talk to anyone else, even members of their own families,” said Bob Kurson, former Sun-Times writer and best-selling author of “Shadow Divers.” “And you only had to join him for a single dinner in a darkened corner of a good steakhouse to understand how that happened — he was genuinely interested in people, even if there was nothing in it for him, especially if there was nothing in it for him.”


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    The photo atop the blog was shot in the Paris catacombs and translates as: "Happy is he who's been able to learn the causes of things, and set aside all fear, and unrelenting fate, and the noise of greedy Acheron under his feet."

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Sunday mail bag

     The negative emails that my column used to draw by the dozen every day have dwindled away to practically nothing. I'm not sure why. Maybe newspapers have fallen off the table, culturally. Maybe email has died as a medium of conversation, joining Morse code and the semaphore flag on the shelf of defunct forms of communication. Maybe the haters have finally wandered off, disgusted. Maybe it's just a slow week. Maybe some other thing. 
     My page two update on a trans reader, "There's no downside," drew a number of compliments and just one critical email, two days late. Her opening sentence refers to my lede, where I describe going through the Reader classified looking for story ideas. It isn't that she doesn't have a point, somewhere. It's the tone of aggrievement that I object to, the idea that a slice of pie given to A must necessarily steal some pie from B, C and D.
     I try to carefully compose my replies, subtly delivering a point that in the past might have been conveyed more forcefully. The reader's name was shielded, as a kindness.
Date: March 22, 2023 at 6:50:48 AM CDT
To: Steinberg Neil <nsteinberg@sun-times.com>
Subject: Today’s Article

Read your article in S-T’s today in which you mention seeking news articles to write about. As my Dad always said “it’s right under your nose” as we missed the obvious. Jill Biden recently gave the International Woman’s Award to a male transgender. What a slap in the face to woman of today (and the past) who have accomplished so much on their own. This has nothing to do with male gender or the gay community as they could never walk in our shoes!

Margaret C.
S-T Subscriber
Steinberg, Neil nsteinberg@suntimes.com





Dear Ms. C.:

I don't pay much attention to awards and honors, and feel people put too much stock in them. Though that might be sour grapes, as I tend not to win many. As far as slaps in the face of women, I'd say with half the country taking away women's rights to conduct their own reproductive health as they see fit, there are bigger problems than the birth gender of someone Joe Biden hung a ribbon on. Though as a subscriber, you have a right to feel offended by anything you please, and I appreciate your reading, and your letting me know what bothers you. I do agree with you that someone who lived most of life as a male could never have the full female experience. Though I've met more than my share of biological women who supposedly had the full female experience yet seem to have missed out on the sympathy and compassion that the public often associate with being a woman. Thanks for writing.

NS

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Works in progress: Frank Sennett


    This stratagem of inviting writer pals to pinch hit Saturdays seems to be working. Part of the fun is seeing what guests do with the opportunity. Always fun and surprising. Novelist Frank Sennett continues that streak today writing about his new thriller (you might recall my column singing its praises last month). I don't think I've ever seen anything written about book launch parties, never mind done so myself, so I enjoyed his perspective (and for the record, he got a good deal from Audible. I think they paid me $1500 for the rights to "Drunkard" for seven years. Which isn't good, but not bad for no extra work and, besides, now that the seven years have passed I'm actually getting royalties).
      Enough preface. Take it away, Frank:

     "It's like the before times!"
     That was the trite though heartfelt thought I expressed to Neil or one of the media luminaries attending his recent book launch at R.J. Grunts. There were servers with trays of miniature milkshakes and savory treats. There was Neil, seeming to relish the moment, chatting briefly with first one guest then another before stopping at a table to inscribe a copy for the latest purchaser. It was beautiful.
     Robert Feder had thrown a similar shindig for me at Petterino's when my Groupon book came out in 2012, an incredible act of kindness and friendship for which I'll always feel both grateful and undeserving.
     Speaking of that book, last year I received an email from the literary agency that sold it to St. Martin's Press and Audible.
     "I’m pleased to share with you a renewal offer for the audio edition of GROUPON’S BIGGEST DEAL EVER from Audible," the email began, promisingly.
     "This is the best offer that we were able to negotiate, and we recommend that you accept the terms of the renewal."
     That best offer? Forgiveness of my "$2397 unearned advance."
     Drinks are on me, I thought as I accepted the renewal. It had not occurred to me that Jeff Bezos might one day send a drone to my door to obtain a partial refund on the bad deal he'd made for my book more than a decade ago. I was relieved to know I would avoid that unpleasant eventuality in exchange for this minor humiliation.
     Some writers dwell on these types of disheartening publishing stories. We all have them. These days, they make me laugh. Mostly.
     A better payoff from my Groupon book experience came thanks to the wonderful editor on the project. He left St. Martin's to start a mystery imprint called Crooked Lane Books, and he told a mutual friend several years ago that if I ever wrote a mystery again, he'd like to see it. (I had published two books in a series about a crime-solving Chicago newspaper reporter with the tiny adult fiction imprint of a giant nonfiction publisher in 2003 and 2004. I wrote them as my creative writing MFA thesis circa 1993 and the manuscripts were literally sitting in my desk drawer when an editor who'd seen some of my magazine feature work called to inquire, "Do you have any novels in your desk drawer?" Why, yes, I replied. I thought you'd never ask.)
     In late 2021, I nailed down a polished draft of a new thriller involving a plot to kill the president, re-creations of infamous assassinations and the infiltration of white supremacist Proud Boys into law enforcement. I contacted my Groupon collaborator. Just as he'd promised our friend, he asked to read the manuscript and soon made an offer, which I gladly accepted. I was assigned to another wonderful project editor, Terri Bischoff, and the marketing team got busy brainstorming a more marketable name to replace my working title, The Secret Assassin. A consensus formed around Shadow State. The novel, first in a planned series featuring former Army Ranger and Secret Service agent Rafe Hendrix, came out in hardcover, e-book and audio Feb. 21.
     Time for a launch party! I knew I wouldn't top Neil's, but he gave me a target to shoot for. I reached out to my friends the Nardini brothers who run Club Lago, the classic Italian joint in River North. We penciled in Monday, Feb. 27 for the big event. Miraculously, more than 100 folks showed up over the course of two and a half hours that evening, including the proprietor of this blog, who recently gave me what will probably remain the best review of my writing career.
     The cadence of the event took me by surprise. At 5:30 p.m., a couple of well-wishers came in and purchased the book. I sat down at the sales table and signed as I chatted. A man who had seen the media coverage mentioning my Montana roots stopped in to buy a copy and ask if by any chance I had ever heard of the name Tom Judge, who was his college roommate at Notre Dame. In fact, I replied, when Judge served as Montana governor, my late father was his assistant, the youngest person in the nation to hold that title at the time. As Steven Wright says, it's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it.
     After that, the evening became a blur of friendly folks handing me books to inscribe as I stood rooted in one spot for more than two hours. I noticed a couple of friends across the room who ended up leaving before I could say hello because the line was so long. When the room thinned out around 8 pm, I almost fell backwards into the chair. My legs were locked up from standing in one position for so long. I didn't notice the ache until the end.
     It was my "It's a Wonderful Life" moment. Among the guests were friends, acquaintances and colleagues from high school, college and every job I've worked in Chicago, including four former bosses as well as the three partners who run the marketing firm I work at now. And throughout, I met friendly strangers who'd read Neil's review or heard me on Rick Kogan's After Hours show on WGN-AM the day before.
     During a commercial break, Rick took off his headphones and told me he sold 700 books during the 2001 publication party at the House of Blues for Everybody Pays, which he wrote with Maurice Possley,
     Thanks to Neil and several of you, Stephanie Kitchen and her crew at City Lit Books sold 75 copies of Shadow State at Club Lago. So ok, I'm no Kogan or Possley or Steinberg. But that launch party made me feel like (Stephen) King for a day.

Friday, March 24, 2023

‘We nearly broke the system’

 
Photograph for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin
 

    Dr. Jaime Moreno, head of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, was making the rounds Tuesday when he tried to take a quick mid-afternoon break.
     “I haven’t had the chance to sit down yet today,” he said, microwaving a container of beef and vegetables brought from home. “I don’t get a lunch, so I’m going to take my lunch right now.”
     Within minutes. a voice came over the hospital’s public address system: “Code Yellow, Code Yellow, trauma in the emergency room.” A teenager, gunshot wound to the hip. Lunchtime over, Moreno jumped up and hurried to help.
     At the three-year anniversary of the coronavirus shutting down Illinois, the pandemic has ebbed, but Chicago area hospitals are struggling to cope with the vastly altered health care world the plague left behind.   
     “COVID has changed many things,” said Moreno. “We’re still reeling from it.”
     While the public might be trying to forget COVID, that is not a luxury the medical community can indulge in.
     Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who headed up the state COVID response as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health for two years, said while we’re familiar with mass casualty events overwhelming a single hospital or city, COVID is a nationwide mass casualty event — more than a million dead.     ”It was an incredible strain on the system,” she said. “No one living has seen an overwhelming of all hospitals in the entire country at the same time, for a prolonged period of time, literally months at a stretch for each surge. This was unprecedented, and not something any system could fully plan for, prepare for, or endure.”
     “The landscape has changed so completely,” said Kristin Ramsey, senior vice president quality/chief nurse executive at Northwestern Medicine. “Health care providers in all fields are walking away.”
‘Unprecedented’ staff shortage driven by burnout
     Exodus of staff is the No. 1 problem cited by hospital administrators in Chicago and nationwide.
     “A lot of burnout,” said Moreno. Mount Sinai, almost always 10% understaffed, is even lower on “bad days,” with 30%, even 40% fewer personnel on hand than necessary.
     “Unprecedented,” he said. “People are stressed out. A lot of nurses have stepped away, leaving a lot of holes. Not just in my hospital but hospitals around the country.”

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Photograph by Ashlee Rezin


Thursday, March 23, 2023

Tie died

  
Portrait of a Man, by Frans Hals (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    
"Fuck you," I said, or maybe just thought, catching sight of my friend Bill Savage in the lower level hallway at the Evergreen Park Public Library before our program began Wednesday night.
     Not "hello." Not "thanks for coming." Not "good to see you; it's been a while."
     "Fuck you."
     Bill had kindly agreed to be my interlocutor — the guy asking the questions — at a discussion of my book, "Every Goddamn Day." Not to forget the only reason that I still have a book publishing career, of sorts, that I've written three books for the University of Chicago Press, is that 10 years ago Bill thought I might be a good fit. I owe him a lot.
     There's more. We keep up, we grab lunch in Evanston every few months, just to talk about literature and Chicago and the whir of the city we both love.  
     In my defense, there was no malice in my obscene imperative. More like a school days "aww, c'mon" conviviality, almost an affection, a chuckle, and I want you to look at this picture I snapped of Bill and see if the reason for my remark is as obvious as I think it is. Stop reading and look at the picture.
     What was I cursing at him about?     
     It's obvious, right? The tie. Bill wore a necktie. I wore a plaid L.L. Bean teal and red work shirt under a green REI fleece. Naturally, effortlessly, without consideration, almost without thought. I used to dress up more, but I remember my wife saying, "You're the writer; you can wear jeans."
     But there is an insecurity that underlies fashion. A sheeplike conformity. Why do you think men always tend to dress alike, to wear the same thing? There is an assumption that the other guy is right, knows better, is richer, smarter, and worthy of emulation.
     Or maybe that's my own insecurity talking. Maybe most people don't give a damn.
     I think the next thing I said was, "You win!" — or maybe "I lose" — referring to the unspoken competition of men being dressed for an occasion. I'd been blindsided. I don't believe I've ever seen Bill in a tie before, and the thought of wearing a tie would have never crossed my mind. It was almost unfair of him, to commence this contest without warning.
     When I got closer, I could see that not only was it a tie, it was a cool "Clout" tie.
    "Where did you get that?" I asked.
     "Ebay," he said, observing that the little skyline before "CLOUT" had the added graphic benefit of looking like an extended middle finger. 
    Honesty, my first inclination was to carry the fashion theme out to the program — to shunt aside the topic, my book "Every Goddamn Day," point out our differing approach to neckwear and survey the audience about who is in the right here. Me, dressed in the normal, acceptable, comfortable, ready-to-sprawl-on-the-couch, hike-a-mountain, or speak-to-an-audience ensemble of jeans and woodsy wear, or Bill and his friggin' cravat? We could spend the entire hour talking about it. I think I've worn a necktie once in public in the last three years — at a lunch featuring the book at the high hat Chicago Club. A tie, a blue blazer, khakis (good call; most men wore similar, I fit right in).
 
    But that seemed unwise and, besides, Bill was in charge of the program, and he started us off and kept us on topic and the conversation lively and interesting. People seemed genuinely pleased, and I sold 21 books. To my disappointment, the tie was never mentioned.
     I suppose the tie was a sort of compliment. I am after all a Chicago author — one whose work is part of the curriculum he teaches. So maybe Bill wanted to give the moment a sense of gravitas and dressed the part. I'm lucky he didn't wear a black robe and mortarboard, purple mantle, and carry a scroll. Unless the necktie was some kind of mockery. I could ask him. But honestly, it might be better not to know the truth.
 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

‘There’s no downside’


     “Sometimes I look up and wonder, ‘What the hell happened?’” says John, sliding into a booth at Dapper’s East, a classic family-style restaurant on West Addison.
     We order coffee, no food. John doesn’t want lunch, which strikes me as unusual.
     “Do you not eat, as a practice?” I venture.
     No, by necessity. Stomach cancer. Fifteen years ago.
     “They took the whole thing out,” says John, who doesn’t want his last name used. “I beat the odds, but lost my appetite at some point.”
     We last saw each other in 1992. I had been browsing the classifieds in the Reader, looking for story ideas, and noticed an ad for the store he owned on Elston Avenue, selling women’s clothing in large sizes to men.
     “Now there’s a business you just don’t see in the paper much,” I thought, and headed over and met John, when he dressed as a man, and Karen, when she dressed as a woman.
    Focusing just on the One to One Boutique seemed to miss the larger story. So I broadened my scope, attending a dance held by the Chicago Gender Society, also visiting a safe house — an empty apartment used to stash clothing and wigs and makeup away from prying eyes.
     The store is long gone. When did that happen?
     “The Yankees were just winning their first series in a long time” — says John, a baseball fan. “So it must have been ’96.”
     The resultant story was written without any snickering or judgment: just a group of ordinary people who are unusual in a certain way, trying to comprehend what motivates them. It’s an approach I wish more Americans would embrace: to at least entertain the possibility that people different from themselves can be understood instead of simply condemned.
     Cut to last fall, and a letter from a reader about the possibility of Texas secession. At the end, he mentions, “We met about 30 years ago. I’m the person on Elston ...”
     This seemed an opportunity to better understand the connection, if any, between men who dress as women — called “transvestites” 30 years ago — and another, possibly related, group much in the news lately: trans men and women.
     Even then, there were two distinct categories: transvestites, who were straight men, for the most part, dressing as women, and transsexuals, men who defined themselves as women, or women who defined themselves as men, and sometimes transitioned through hormones and surgery.
     We begin at the beginning.
     “My dirty dark secret is, I’m from Mount Greenwood,” says John. “I did not fit in well there.”
     I'll bet....

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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Flashback 1993: `Crazy' Commuters Scare Road Crews

     The arrival of the spring equinox and construction on the Kennedy expressway arrived simultaneously yesterday evening, and I can only assume the latter was timed to mock the former. Unlike spring, which in three months will yield to summer, the Kennedy congestion mess will continue on for three years, and if that seems an impossibly long time, consider this: I was writing about this the last time they tore up the Kennedy. The article below ran in the Sun-Times exactly 30 years ago tomorrow. I can't imagine either paper will, as I did,  buttonhole construction workers as they work on the highway and quiz them. But if they did, I wouldn't expect the construction perspective to have changed much. Some things are eternal.

     Who are these people, anyway, doing this to us?
     Scrambling over our besieged, vital Kennedy Expressway, with their orange vests, spanner wrenches, work boots, bandannas and heavy machinery. Raising dust. Committing clatter. Gazing at us as we inch miserably by, inscrutable behind their Ray Bans, welder's goggles and safety glasses.
     Meet Fred Williams.
     Williams, 48, is a foreman at Midwest Fence Corp. He and his crew will be working the Kennedy all summer. They are ironworkers, installing guardrails.
     Williams lives in Country Club Hills with his wife and three kids. When he is driving with his family, he sometimes shows off sections of the expressway he has worked on.
     "I'll point to something and say, `I did that,' " said Williams, whose son Theis, 13, is suitably impressed. "He'd love to get into this line of work."
     The Midwest Fence crew's current project underscores an opinion held by almost everybody working on the Kennedy. The crew is installing a guardrail along the Chicago Avenue overpass so that cars will not damage the bridge supports should they veer out of control and crash.
     The opinion is this: Commuters are insane.
     "The Kennedy is the worst for drivers — these guys are crazy," said Dorie Hodal, pausing from her work with the crew. "You never know what may happen; some crazy might run over you. You have to be alert all the time."
     "It's scary, scary, scary," Olga Alvarez shouted. She struggles to hold her orange "SLOW/STOP" sign and orange flag against the hurricane blast of a semi-trailer truck. "Especially the semis. They go fast, blow me and my stop sign away."
     "This morning, three cars missed the exit and cut through the barricades and cut across (the construction area)," said Refujio Puente. "We always have to watch out."
     At the peak of activity this summer, about 400 workers will labor over the expressway.
     Much of their complex feelings about the traffic can be expressed in two words: slow down.
     "If motorists would just obey speed limits and watch for signs, there would be less accidents," said Jim Senerchia, raising a huge orange sign with three curving arrows.
     Senerchia worries that drivers think some sort of malice motivates the construction workers.
     "Drivers act like we're out to get them, like the reason we're here is to slow things down and cause a mess," he said. "We're just trying to fix the road."
     Not everybody thinks the Kennedy is a special case. To John Panieri, operating a Gradall, an all-purpose piece of heavy equipment with a telescoping arm, the Kennedy is no better or worse than any other highway job.
     "It's always like this," he said. "All expressways are the same. It's just the nature of it."
     Rick Andryske, of Directions Metropolitan, is laying down temporary pavement markers - using a thick white paint-like substance, made of thermo-plastic with shiny glass beads.
     "This job has a lot more hectic time frame," he said, comparing the Kennedy to other projects. The scariest thing that ever happened to him in three years of working on the Kennedy was "mountains of ice breaking off from the bottom of a truck and sliding toward me, knocking me into traffic." 
     But you can't worry about accidents, only watch out for them.
     "It's dangerous, but you don't think about it," he said. "You have a job to do."
     But there are good things, too.
     "You do get a few people who know you beeping the horn and saying hello," said Raymond Dorgam, 47, also of Directions.
     If appeals to safety do not get motorists to slow down, another consideration might: heavy, fast traffic delays the work. Without a gap between cars, trucks cannot scoot onto the roadway and, if traffic is crawling, construction equipment crawls, too.
     "Our trucks get stuck in traffic," said a Palumbo Brothers construction foreman. "The first two days, when traffic was light, we nearly got two days of work done in one. Tell people: If they want this done faster, find an alternate route."
              — Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 22, 1993

Monday, March 20, 2023

French pension problems on their way here


     My brother, freshly back from Paris last week, reports piles of garbage everywhere.
     “Though it’s French garbage,” he observed. “More refined.”
     Until rioters set it on fire, that is. All burning garbage is alike.
     It’s the result of the nationwide protests that have rocked France for weeks, outcry over the national retirement age being raised from 62 to 64.
     We should be watching this unrest carefully here in Chicago, a city with a nearly $34 billion unfunded municipal pension liability. Double the size of the annual city budget. It’s almost funny to see our two mayoral candidates talk about how they’re going to finance their pie-in-the-sky, cop-on-every-corner dreams of urban perfection by digging into the sofa cushions and holding bake sales and cutting corruption. One dollar in five spent by the city services its pension debt. The next mayor will be lucky to maintain the status quo, to send the occupying army of retirees their checks while continuing to put out fires. We should scrap our motto, Urbs in Horto, “City in a Garden,” and replace it with Urbs in Foraminis, “City in a Hole.”
     It’s fun to sneer at the French — socialist shovel-leaners complaining about their sweet retire-at-62 perk shifting to a not bad retire-at-64. But at least they’re trying to do something. Our solution is to sell the family silver, or parking meters, kick the can down the road, and hope for a miracle.
     I should point out that U.S. Social Security also kicks in at 62, though it starts out at such a pittance, the general advice is to wait as long as possible, so it can grow into something you can scrape by on, maybe.
     If I combine it with the smoldering scraps of our exploded newspaper pension, and judicious, this-has-gotta-last-me sips at my 401(k), and it might add up to a kind of subsistence. I certainly won’t be nursing a pastis at a cafe on the Rue Mouffetard.
     Then again, I might be an oddity. Most of my fellow columnists have already hung up their spikes — whether defenestrated by the corporate butchers who bought the Chicago Tribune or shown the gate for an ill-considered joke at the Washington Post or various colleagues stepping down at the Sun-Times.

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Sunday, March 19, 2023

'Everyplace else is a location'

Barcelona

     I was in Barcelona last October, crossing the Ramblas toward our hotel, one of those wide, wide intersections by Catalonia Square where armies of people come thundering across the street. I looked down at my feet, where the tiles were designed by architectural genius Antoni Gaudi, at the mobs of people, and cars, and bicycles, vibrant urban life, and had a thought I've been reluctant to put in the newspaper.
     "Now THIS is a world class city!"  Yes, Barcelona has more than a million fewer residents than Chicago (though Madrid has slightly more). And yes, that may have been the thrill of travel, of seeing new wonders, eating new foods in new places. But Chicago, in its reduced post-COVID, post-George Floyd form, hasn't gotten its mojo back. Something tells me a NASCAR race won't help.
    What's a world class city? One that doesn't have to ask the question.
    Yes, running down your home is never a good idea. The American returned from abroad who speaks with a slight accent and is gushing with unusual wonders — journalists get into museums free! — is a cliche, and a bad look.
     That said, I thought of my moment in Catalonia about the third reader who said, "Give us a third column!" when I cut Hollywood director Michael Goi off at the end of my second piece on our interview without going into detail about his putting Chicago in its place as a film capital. I started with the above observation because I didn't want to let Goi go anywhere I wasn't willing to go myself. It seemed cold compensation for keeping me and my readers fascinated for two days, maybe three, depending on how this turns out.
     Though offering a civic reality check, however unwelcome, is one role of the journalist.
     And there was something unusual about that interview. Since we talked on Zoom, I taped it, rather than typing as he spoke. The first column of course related to his journey to Hollywood as an Asian-American, the topic of the moment. Transcribing to the recording, I wrote the interview, and it ran far too long. Normally, I'd have taken what I wanted, and not necessarily even listen to the rest. But I turned in the column — at over 1000 words, almost 50 percent longer than usual — then not only did listen, but kept typing it out, figuring I might use it later. When I finished, I clicked the wrong button and lost half a dozen paragraphs of his remarks. So I groaned, tapped my fist on the desk, and then listened again, and typed it again. That never happens, and what prompted me to write the second column, about interviewing for a job.  I figured, why wait?
     I could have sliced off the top, about the tension between ethnicity as a draw and a distraction, crowding out other aspects that are also of interest. Perhaps greater interest. But I like that line of thought. It doesn't get said enough during our Carnival of Identities. So I briefly summarized what he said about Chicago.
     Four readers asked for a third column, even demanded it. That's a lot. So while I'm not a short order cook, here goes.
     I asked Goi about raising kids in Los Angeles — he has three children, two teens and a preschooler. He agreed that raising children in Los Angeles can be a challenge.
    "Personally, I'd rather live in New York City," he said "I think growing up in Chicago and not just dealing with the snow , but dealing with everything, it kinda makes you tough and makes you understand how to navigate different people and personalities. It's different if you have to take the 'L' and interact with people than if you are driven in a car to school as happens in Los Angeles. But this is where the film industry is, where dad's work is, this is where we are."
    Goi sees an honesty in Chicagoans that might be harder to recognize among those remaining in the daily claw and grind of the city.
   "Most of the people I work with who are from Chicago, a lot of us already knew each other, knew what we were all about," he said. "Part of the nice thing, there is no bullshit. You can't bullshit another Chicagoan. They'll see right through it. That's refreshing in a lot of ways. The fact you know when somebody tells you something, no matter how you don't want to hear it, you're hearing the truth. That's incredibly valuable. I appreciate that candid way of approaching things. I never feel there is anything I have to hide anyway, being able to talk to Tyrone Finch (producer of ABC's "Station 19,"actually hailing from Cleveland) or Joey Mantegna or Charlie Carner (producer, known for "Blind Fury" and "The Untouchables" TV series). Any of these people I know from Chicago in this business, we know they're not going to be any level of deception in our relationships." 
Michael Goi
     
     Pretty to think so, as another former Chicagoan, Ernest Hemingway said.  I would counter that the supposed Chicago attribute of savviness is at odds with the notion that Chicagoans are inherently honest with each other, even Chicago expats in a distant city. But that's what he said, and he obviously believes it.
The part that came next pricked up my ears, for being red meat in the water for film board booster sorts:
    "The film industry in terms of the decisions being made in terms of what shows will actually be made is still based in Los Angeles," he said. "Everyplace else is a location, including Chicago. New York City, Atlanta, New Mexico, Vancouver. They're locations, They will pick up and travel to shoot at whatever place on earth is the cheapest to shoot in that moment  of time. People deceive themselves in some locations. I remember when doing shows in New Orleans, 'American Horror Story.' New Orleans at that time was getting a lot of work, I did a seminar and said, 'As soon as you stop being the cheapest place on earth to shoot, all these productions are going to pick up and going to move to wherever is the next cheapest place on earth to shoot.' And it happened to them. They didn't think it was going to happen to them. It happened a year later. Atlanta, Georgia, enacted tax breaks that were much more favorable and everything picked up and left New Orleans and went to Georgia. 
   "In this industry, you accept being part of the traveling circus. If you are going to survive in this industry, you will be packed up and shipped out to wherever is the cheapest place on earth to shoot at that time. It sounds very glamorous: 'Oh wow, you've done two, three movies in South Africa. You're done two movies in Morocco.' It sounds very glamorous. It's more the reality of what you have to do to stay in this business and make a living in it. You have to be able to go work in these places."
      I know nothing about making movies except that being on a movie set is like watching paint dry. But the above struck me as having what I call "the tang of veracity." It sounds entirely true.  Anyway, I think I've gotten my money's worth out of my hour with Michael Goi. I can't say we got on — he was very dry, very professional, with zero interest in me or in chit-chat. But he had that rare quality of being honest and forthcoming, and I had to share it with you.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Works in progress: Steve Sheffey

   The Judgment of Solomon, by Leonaert Bramer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Writing for publication is daunting. Even for a single twig snap in the vast bonfire of the internet. So when I mentioned that I would consider submissions from readers for EGD's "Works in progress" Saturday feature, I did not expect a lot of waving hands. In fact, there was only one, this week’s guest writer, Steve Sheffey, active in Democratic and pro-Israel politics. In college he submitted a piece to NU's humor magazine, “Rubber Teeth,” which we rejected. I can’t say that it was an error or that I regret, or even remember, it. But he requested another chance to submit a piece, and this time the answer was yes.

     Thank you, Neil, for inviting me to pinch-hit today. I’ve been reading your work since college and it’s an honor to contribute. 
     You would think that someone who’s been writing a weekly newsletter on pro-Israel politics for 17 years would have come up with a simple definition of “pro-Israel” by now, especially since he calls his newsletter “Steve Sheffey’s Pro-Israel Political Update, which The Forward referred to as “the Chicago Jewish newsletter that even Republicans have to read.” But it’s not that easy. 
     Israel is different from most political issues because disagreements stem from a common understanding of the facts. No one wants to get Covid; whether you favor wearing or mandating masks depends on whether you think masks work. Whether you favor getting vaccinated or mandating vaccines depends on whether you think the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks. These are facts. 
     Aside from the extreme right, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and settlement expansion in the West Bank is accepted as fact. The historic, national, and religious connections of Jews to the land that is today Israel and the West Bank is accepted as fact by all but the extreme left.      
     But these facts lead to different conclusions. Someone who supports the concept of a Jewish, democratic State of Israel, as I do, will oppose the occupation and oppose settlement expansion because only a two-state solution, one state with a large Jewish majority and one Palestinian state, can guarantee Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic state. 
     Someone who opposes the concept of a Jewish state can point to the occupation and argue that the answer is one binational state, a state that might have a lot of Jews but that will be democratic and not necessarily Jewish. 
     Similarly, one can oppose proposals by Israel’s ruling coalition to eviscerate Israel’s Supreme Court because one sides with the Israelis who want Israel to remain democratic, or one could look at the same facts and see proof that Israel’s government does not support democracy and is not worthy of U.S. support. 
     I call my newsletter “pro-Israel” not because I reflexively support any decision made by Israel’s government: I differentiate between supporting the State of Israel and the government of Israel, just as I differentiate between supporting America and supporting Donald Trump (or, for that matter, Joe Biden). 
      Rather, I call my newsletter “pro-Israel” because I want my readers to know that the candidates and policies I support are consistent with the belief that only by working toward a two-state solution – and giving up the notion of a Greater Israel comprising Israel and the West Bank – can the State of Israel remain safe, secure, Jewish, and democratic. Anything less than that is not good for Israel, good for the Jews, or consistent with the values that form the bedrock of the U.S.-Israel relationship. 
     A two-state solution is not politically possible now. Israel’s current government doesn’t want it and whether current Palestinian wants it or not, the Palestinian Authority is too weak. But Israel needs a two-state solution for its own sake, let alone to realize the aspirations of the Palestinians, which is why those of us who support Israel should oppose steps by Israel’s government that make a two-state solution less likely. 
     Some argue that it doesn't matter what Israel does because the Palestinians want not an end to the occupation of the West Bank but an end to Israel itself. Some probably do, just as some Israelis want a Jewish state from the river to the sea. The reality is that millions of Palestinians aren't going anywhere. Millions of Jews aren't going anywhere. Palestinians see the rebirth of Israel as a catastrophe, a nakba that conflicted with their national aspirations and led to displacement and worse. Jews see the rebirth of Israel as a modern miracle that realized 2,000 years of national aspirations and provided a needed safe haven from centuries of antisemitic persecution. 
     Neither side has to give up its narrative or accept the other side's narrative, but both sides must realize that the only path forward, a two-state solution, requires both sides to give up sovereignty over land that they believe should be theirs and both sides to accept that previous sins of the other side may never be fully redressed. And everyone who cares about Israel has a duty to speak up, whether for or against the policies of whatever government is in power. 
      That’s not everyone’s idea of “pro-Israel,” but it's mine. If you like what you’ve read, or if you’re curious, I’d love for you to join the thousands of people who read my newsletter. It’s free, it’s once a week, and you can sign up here or email me at steve@stevesheffey.com.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Talk about your passion

Michael Goi, right, directs Gary Oldman, left, in the 2019 horror movie "Mary."

     Identity expands and contracts. Let me try to explain. I’m Jewish. Jewishness can be a lens to view the eternal, to focus on ethics, knowledge, belief, ritual. Or it can be a set of blinders, the way some ultra-Orthodox sects neglect to teach their children math and science. This holds true for all religions, ethnicities, races. They can both widen and narrow.
     Take Wednesday’s column. Columbia College pitched veteran director Michael Goi because he’s Asian American and the success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has thrown attention on Asian heritage in Hollywood.
     That was one reason I agreed. But only one — the rest is because making movies is interesting work. Goi was a font of razor-sharp professional insight. As it was, Wednesday’s column ran 50% longer than usual. Even so, after turning it in, I realized I’d left out perhaps the two most interesting parts of our talk, because they were off-topic.
     First, what Goi said about job interviews. This is relevant because people nowadays move from job to job, interviewing constantly. Goi said something that I have never heard before from anybody in any profession.
     “The job interview is my favorite, favorite part of this business,” he said. “If I could get paid to interview and never have to do the job, I’d be perfectly happy. I always tell people they should embrace the job interview process. The only time that a job is going to be perfect is during the job interview. Because you don’t have to worry about all the stuff you have to worry about if you get the job.”
     Don’t try to flatter the interviewer.
     “People freak themselves out about the job interview and try to read the room and try to predict what it is they want to hear,” Goi said. “I don’t do any of that. That’s how you convince them that you’re not right for the job. They can tell that you’re lying. They can tell you’re just saying things to make them feel better.”

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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Farewell to Kenzaburo Oe.

 

   What prompted me to take Japanese fiction in college. I can't remember. The need to fill an English credit, no doubt. And some youthful desire to be of-the-moment; Japan was certainly cutting edge in the early 1980s — their economic miracle running full bore. They were the future. 
     I easily recall the novels we read. Some early stuff: "The Tale of Genji." "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon." Yukio Mishima's homoerotic "Confessions of a Mask."
    And "A Personal Matter" by Kenzaburo Oe. Mishima might have been the romantic hero, with his personal army of acolytes and his disemboweling himself on television after some daft failed coup. But he was also a right wing nationalist asshat. 
     Oe was the guy I could relate to, or more particularly, his character of Bird, a feckless instructor, dreaming over his maps of Africa, his name an ironic comment on his earthbound soul. Bird's wife gives birth to a child, killing the dream of Africa, and the child has a skull deformity. 
     While she is in the hospital, Bird goes on a bender, pinballing around Tokyo, visiting old girlfriends in his sports car.  There's a very Japanese scene where, hung over, he vomits in front of his class, and a student runs over to the puddle, falls to his hands and knees, gives it a whiff, and announces he smells alcohol. I used one passage from it in "Out of the Wreck I Rise:"
Guillaume Apollinaire

      "Bird himself was wary of the craving, occult but deeply rooted, that he still had for alcohol. Often since those four weeks in whisky hell he had asked himself why he had stayed drunk for seven hundred hours, and never had he arrived a conclusive answer. So long as his descent into the abyss of whisky remained a riddle, there was a constant danger he might suddenly return."

      But that wasn't why I love the book. It was a single paragraph that bowled me over at 21 and still does. Bird and his girlfriend take the child and plan, in essence, to deliver it to an abortionist and have him killed. There's a scene in an ambulance where he looks down at the child and thinks:     
"Like Apollinaire, my son was wounded on a dark and lonely battlefield that I have never seen, and he has arrived with his head in bandages. I'll have to bury him like a soldier who died in war."
     I'm not sure how beautiful and sad that reads yanked out of context. And I shouldn't say what happens in the book — you should read it. I will say that Oe's son Hikari was indeed born with a similar deformity, one that kept him at the mental level of a 3-year-old for the rest of his life. A nevertheless meaningful life where he became known as a composer of flute and piano music.
     Oe died Monday. He was an important literary figure in Japan, noted for pushing back against that country's tendency toward conformity and militancy. Oe won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, so he doesn't need my plaudits. But I felt the need to say goodbye to him anyway. Maybe it's time to read "A Personal Matter" again — I never read it a second time, because the first reading stuck with me clearly for 40 years. That itself says something about a book.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

‘Dreaming is not enough’

Michael Goi (left) directs Lady Gaga in 2015 for an episode of FX's “American Horror Story.”

     Michael Goi doesn’t want to hear your movie idea.
     “I will not engage in a conversation with somebody if they start out with ‘I’ve got this great idea for a movie,’” said the veteran Hollywood director and cinematographer. “No. Go out and make the movie and show me the movie.”
     He tells young people trying to break into the film industry: You don’t need fancy equipment. Everything you need is between your ears and in your back pocket.
     “You live in an era when there are no excuses for not making a movie,” said Goi. “You say you want to be a filmmaker; go out and make a movie. You can shoot it on your phone. You can edit on your tablet. You can post it on social media platforms for the entire world to see. All these things are no longer barriers to you.”
     Speaking of barriers. Goi was pitched at me by his alma mater, Columbia College, as an Asian American filmmaker, in context of the success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
     But as much as I tried to focus on the first part of that equation, his being Asian American, we kept returning to the second, filmmaker part. He worked on “Glee” and “American Horror Story.” He was executive producer, director and cinematographer for “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on Netflix and on Saturday just finished up shooting the next season of ABC’s “The Rookie.”
    A reminder that real-life individuals do not always easily accept the job as ethnic role models.
    For instance, Goi was at the Dolby Theatre for the Oscars Sunday night.
     “It was good,” he said. “I thought the show moved well.”
    And?

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Flashback 2007: "Time to pick up the pace"


 
    Today being Pi Day, I thought I would reach back into the vault and disinter another column about the mathematical holiday, there being quite a few, given my boys' inclination toward numbers.  
     Though in this case I'm torn, since this is from the day when my column ran over a thousand words and filled a page. Do I present the single, pi-related tidbit, in recognition of readers' social media-stunted attention spans? Or the full range of comments and risk alienating the easily-bored? I decided, since some readers have time on their hands, to go with the latter. Though feel free to skip to the second item, read that, and call it a day. No one will know.

OPENING SHOT

     We're still at war, right? In Iraq. In Afghanistan. American soldiers dying every day?
     I mean, it didn't end suddenly and nobody bothered to tell us, right?
     Because there was Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who you would think has a million urgent matters on his plate, the first dozen involving keeping our troops from being scattered alongside dusty foreign roadsides.
     Yet there he was, pedaling furiously away from his ham-headed comments that homosexuality is morally wrong, batting aside demands for apology, as if this were the most pressing military issue facing America today.
     Make no mistake. The "Don't ask/Don't tell" policy is institutionalized deceit and cowardice, and itself immoral, in that honesty is a virtue, one that some of us would rank even above the glittering good of heterosexuality.
     And one day, the military will rid itself of this particular phobia, and finally join the rest of the civilized world.
     But that can wait until 2008. First things first.

A BIG SLICE OF DELICIOUS PI

     Today is Pi Day or, to be precise, π Day, since March 14 can be written as 3.14 and the irrational number we call π — well, some of us call π — begins 3.14 before sailing off into infinity: 3.1415926535....
     And yes, I wrote that from memory, but only because my oldest son has "Pi-Offs" with his pals, where they compete to see who can remember the most digits of '. ("Shouldn't you boys be off smoking somewhere?" I want to ask them.)
     In case it has been a while since math class, ' is the ratio between a circle's circumference (the round part) and its diameter (an imaginary line through the center).
     Fixation with pi is surprisingly common — go to mathematicianspictures.com and you will find a blizzard of slick pi merchandise: pi t-shirts and pi mugs and pi posters, including a 4-by-8-foot, $200 monster displaying the first million digits.
    Some people, it seems, are hungry for pi. "It's pretty astonishing isn't it?" said David Blatner, author of The Joy of π. "It's the only mathematical constant that any educated person knows. [But] pi is also a fascinating mystery. It's infinitely long. That's very strange, and completely non-intuitive. To this day, I hear from people who believe they've figured out pi to the last digit, or discovered that it's really 3 1/8 or whatever."
     Meanwhile, at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, students from the Key Club and Mu Alpha Theta boards will be celebrating Pi Day today by selling $1 slices of pie with proceeds going to charity.

BIG GUN OR NO BIG GUN?

     That is the question up in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, where the American Legion ignited a dispute by donating the World War II howitzer that sat in front of its former Pfingsten Road headquarters to the village.
     They want the weapon next to Village Hall, and there was a meeting there Monday night to air opinions on the matter:
     The anti-gun people said, basically: A gun is a weapon. Weapons promote violence. Violence doesn't solve anything. A big gun next to the village hall would send a bad message to our youth, promoting war, violence and militarism.
     The pro-gun people — many wearing their VFW watch caps — said, basically: A gun is a reminder of war, where soldiers sometimes are called upon to give up their lives in defense of our freedoms. A big gun next to the village hall would remind our feckless youth about the sacrifices made in their behalf.
     I went there, not to report, but to put in my resident's two cents, which can be summarized as: I grew up in a small town not unlike Northbrook where our town square had a Civil War cannon and a plaque made out of scrap from the battleship U.S.S. Maine. The only reason I know there was a Maine, or that it blew up in Havana Harbor in 1898 is because that plaque is there. Hard as it is to believe, with all these W.W. II vets still here, but the years will pass and memory will fade. If you place the howitzer next to the Village Hall, without question there someday will be children in Northbrook who only know there was a World War II because they noticed the big gun sitting there.
     I meant to add that there is an obvious compromise — place the gun, but allow the peace cohort to protest there, filling the barrel with daisies or whatever. That seems fair.
     But it's nerve-wracking speaking in public — even for a big media star like myself — and before my time was up, I fled back to my seat, heart pounding, mouth dry. (Editor's note: the gun got the nod). 

NO 'PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT'

     You do not read the University of Minnesota Press catalogue. But I do, which is why I have a copy of Murat Aydemir's Images of Bliss: Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning in my, ah, hands.
     I ordered it, thinking it would be one of those pleasant omnium-gatherum cultural histories. The reader, cringing and entranced, would be led through a spunky view of world history, beginning with Onan and ending with Cameron Diaz's special hair gel in "There's Something About Mary."
     My plan was to read the book and present the fascinating parts to you. Alas. I had forgotten the ability of academics to take even the most promising subject and bury it in verbiage. Here is a representative sentence:
     "Placing semen on a semantic axis consisting of the oppositions between past and future, retrospection and anticipation, belatedness and precipitousness, the third and final dimension concerns temporality and historicity."
     That was in the introduction. By the first chapter, we are thrown Derrida and all those French guys who have made such a hash of academia. I began to skim, figuring there must be one interesting tidbit, somewhere, to share with a general audience.
     There wasn't.

TODAY'S CHUCKLE

     Jim Seguin of New Lenox was kind enough to send this fun nun pun:
     Several elderly nuns were in their third-floor convent one night when a fire broke out. The nuns took their habits off and tied them together to make a rope to get out of the burning building via the window.
     After they were safely on the ground, a news reporter came over to one of the nuns and asked her, "Weren't you afraid that the rope you made out of your habits could have broken, especially since they are so old?"
     "No, of course not," the nun replied. "Everyone knows that old habits are hard to break."
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 14, 2007