Sunday, April 30, 2023

Flashback 1988: "Loop's Ranch music bar seeking new homestead"

    Twitter gets a lot of criticism, and rightly so. But one well-placed tweet can send you tumbling back in time. Like this, from my fellow University of Chicago Press author Mark Guarino.
     Suddenly it was the late 1980s and I was on the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. night shift again. One benefit of working midnights is you'd actually see the paper you wrote. Turn in a story at 8 p.m., and by 1 a.m. the stacks of tomorrow's newspapers containing it appear.
    For this story, if I recall properly, I started the evening at the country and western bar in the heart of the Loop, returned to the paper to write the article. Then, after I got off work, say 2 a.m., Tim Gerber and I cheekily went back to the Bar RR Ranch with a pile of the latest edition, featuring a story about the place. We were well-received.
     Things get hazy from there, because of the press of years, and, ah, other factors. I do remember singing "Tequila Sunrise" on stage. And I seem to recall Tim later climbing halfway up the Dubuffet sculpture before the police arrived and suggested he not do that, though I suppose that could have been a different night. There were also pancakes at the Golden Nugget at dawn, maybe. Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading Mark's book.

     What good is progress if it means a person can't find live country music in the heart of the Loop at 3 a.m., or settle down across from the Daley Center to enjoy a steaming "chili mac tamale ham and cheese bowl"?
Not the Sundowners
     That was the question raised by several hundred people who gathered at the R. R. Ranch, 56 W. Randolph, to soak up ambience and beer at the Loop fixture.
     The Ranch, which originally opened in 1948 on Clark Street, faces eviction from its latest home at the doomed Woods Theater Building sometime this winter.
     "This is fun, this is old-time country," said patron Joel Montgomery, of Chicago. "It's too bad they've got to close."
     "Just what we need, another office building," his friend, Julie Hodson, of Chicago, said about the 40-story structure planned for the site.
     Emotions flowed with the beer Thursday night, which was billed as the "Last Roundup at the Ranch," though the basement bar is expected to be open through the end of January.
     "We love this bar! This is our favorite bar!" said Catherine Champion, of Chicago, who was out with co-workers from Crate & Barrel.
     "It's so much fun, and we love the Sundowners," she said, referring to the rustic trio the Ranch has featured for the last 30 years. "They play whatever we ask them, and we get everybody to dance."
     Barbara Scheid, a co-owner, reminisced about the many famous people who stumbled into the bar.
     "Robert Duvall was here, singing like a crazy person," said Scheid, who also remembered the rock star Sting showing up one night. 
Also not the Sundowners
     Scott and Gail Robson of Chicago, who got engaged at the Ranch to the romantic strains of a Patsy Cline song, returned to sit one more time at the heavily graffitied tables and soak up the boisterous atmosphere.
     Chris Harmon, of the Friends of Downtown, circulated petitions asking the owners of the Woods Building to allow the Ranch to stay as long as possible.
     "We're trying to generate public support to keep the bar open while they search for a new location," she said. "The Ranch is a dynamic, different part of downtown life, and we don't want to lose it."
     The Ranch's owners said they are trying to find a new spot for the bar, which was first located on Clark Street north of Madison, then moved to 56 W. Madison and finally to its present location in 1977.
     "We've got a couple of things going, but we haven't been able to finalize them," said Art Brown, another co-owner. "We'd like to stay in the downtown area. The big core of our business is downtown."
     Brown said that despite problems with finding a suitably large location and the skyrocketing rents that have forced many colorful small businesses out of the Loop, the Ranch management was optimistic it would find a new Loop location.
     "We're always one step ahead of the wrecking ball," he said. "In our hearts, we're very confident."
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 30, 1988

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Works in progress: Gene Weingarten

     Gene Weingarten is a humorist at heart, and as such is profoundly in touch with the inherent tragedy of life.  As a longtime columnist at the Washington Post, he won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for "The Fiddler in the Subway," where he put world class violinist Joshua Bell into the Washington Metro with his case open for change. What would have been a stunt in the hands of a lesser writer, like me, turned into a profound meditation on beauty, time and how we choose to live our lives. If you haven't read his collection, "The Fiddler in the Subway," you should buy it right now here.  The book contains some of the best-rendered, most heartbreaking, thought-provoking and worthwhile columns ever written. Reading it is awe-inspiring, like looking at the stars at night. I could never come anywhere close, but it made me proud to belong to the same profession, to be part of the same cosmos.  
     Besides being a professional inspiration second only to, perhaps, John McPhee, Gene has lately been a cautionary tale that has steeled me to meet whatever professional doom is hurtling toward me.  At the end of 2021, he tripped over his humor — fall-out from an offhand joke he made about Indian food that ran afoul of our exquisite cultural sensitivities. The Washington Post unceremoniously showed him the gate, a shocking coda that sadly encapsulates our moment in professional journalism.  Though it brought me both sadness and a strange kind of reassurance, almost comfort: if Gene Weingarten could be cashiered over a crack about curry, then I can be burnt at the stake and have no reason to complain nor feel fate had been unusually severe to me. In fact, I will lower my head, accepting my due, thanks to him. If he can take it, so can I.
     Not that Weingarten has surrendered quietly. Not his way. He launched a vibrant substack, "The Gene Pool." I signed up, and hope you do too. I asked him to tell us a little about it, and he honored EGD by agreeing to say a few words. Take it away, Gene:

     On my 21st birthday, when I was just out of college, where I was editor of the newspaper, I began my first day on the job as city hall reporter for a small afternoon daily in Albany, New York. The newsroom was dingy, the manual typewriters ancient and balky. The walls of the city room were faded to a wan yellow-orangish-green color that resembled the interior of one of those 1950s movie hotel rooms with a blinking neon sign outside the window ("Eats"), peopled by unshaven men in ribbed undershirts chain smoking unfiltered cigarettes down to the smallest stub, and looking nervously toward the street. Let's call the color "you'll-never-take-me-alive copper"
     Then the city editor told me what I was going to make: Just $72 a week. My jaw dropped. I was gobsmacked. These idiots were going to actually pay me for something I would have done for free.
     The Earth wheeled fifty times around the sun. I began earning a lot more money with jobs that had a lot more prestige at a succession of larger newspapers, until I arrived at The Washington Post in 1991 and nailed a great gig that gave me international prestige and rewarded me with significant prizes. And then, last year, when I turned 70, they jettisoned me.
     It's not easy getting a new position at 70;. A book proposal went nowhere. But the folks at Substack, a new online site that delivers publishing, payment, analytics, and design infrastructure. Would I be interested in starting a newsletter? It's a grueling endeavor that usually is not terribly lucrative.
     "Yes," I said, immediately. And I did. It's a blog-like thing and reader interactive chat called "The Gene Pool." It's doing pretty well. It has subscribers in 49 states and 72 countries. I am earning about a third of what I did at The Post. People have asked me why I did it. Why not just take a victory lap and retire? Here's why:
     These Substack idiots are going to actually pay me for doing something I'd have done for free.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Backlash over eyeliner just more anti-‘woke’ folly

     Myself, I’m proud to live in the state of Illinois. A hardworking, mind-your-own business kind of place. We wake up, do our various things, whatever they are, whether parking cars or assembling them, without constantly looking over our shoulders, worried about what everybody else is doing.
     Why are we so blessed? A legacy of freedom, I suppose, walking the same soil trod by Abraham Lincoln. Sure, there are dissenters, those downstaters who wish our wise and benevolent Gov. J.B. Pritzker had just allowed them to quietly die of COVID — honestly, sometimes I find myself agreeing with them, before the better angels of my nature object.
     Which brings us to other parts of the country, not as far along the Noble Eightfold Path as Illinois. Places to the south and west that seem a permanent carnival of anxiety over anyone unlike themselves.
     From a distance, it can seem simply nuts. Places like Florida, where they passed a law designed to gag school teachers from discussing sexual orientation, because parents are so good at that. The Walt Disney Co., burned by the backlash to the $250,000 it donated to backers of the bill, cleared its throat, raised an index finger and quietly objected. Setting Gov. Ron DeSantis on a mad, endless vendetta against Disney — using the full power of the state to punish the Magic Kingdom, Florida’s largest employer, which is now suing in federal court, trying to make them stop. You’ve probably read about it.
    The Bud Light tempest is even weirder. Every beer company has an endless amount of promotions and sponsorships. Hundreds — minor league ball teams, stock cars, barn dances, you name it. But let Bud send one custom can to one trans influencer, a certain Dylan Mulvaney, and red states have mounted one of the rare boycotts that actually works — sales of Bud Light are down 17%.

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Thursday, April 27, 2023

Flashback 2010: New green looks pretty old-school

       With "The Cherry Orchard" marking the end of Bob Falls reign as artistic director at the Goodman Theatre, I've been in a Chekhovian frame of mind. I wrote this recent column on the play, and was looking back at my takes on previous productions, I couldn't help but share this. Though not directed by Falls, how can I not be proud of managing to combine "Uncle Vanya" and the Home and Housewares Show?  

     'There's no such thing as a simple, honest love of nature," Dr. Astrov complains, in the excellent, Russian-language production of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" on stage this weekend only at Navy Pier's Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
     Among the modern surprises in the 1899 masterpiece is a dose of environmentalism — no, our era didn't invent it — in the form of Astrov, who plants trees and studies animal population trends, boring the heck out of his companions.
     "The goats are gone?" exclaims Elena, arranging her features into a parody of pained alarm.
     Astrov is right. We've got recycling down pat, but it often seems oddly uncoupled from actual love of the outdoors — of hiking, birding, gardening. It's become a nonsecular ritual, a kind of ecological kosher.
     Not to suggest that "Uncle Vanya" is an ecology pageant — I might just be green-minded, having earlier this week spent hours at the enormous 2010 International Home and Housewares Show at McCormick Place, tagging alongside my pal, Lise Schleicher of BasketWorks.
     Commerce, like life, pulls us in opposite directions, as illustrated by two objects tucked into the big bag of swag I gathered at the show.
     One is a piece of "Comboware," a cornflower blue plastic plate with a knife and fork molded out of the same blue plastic, attached to either side. Thus, standing at a buffet, you need not dedicate a hand to holding plastic utensils, but can access them with a quick twist.
     The other item is a small hunter green cloth napkin from Litter Free Lunch, a company set up by a pair of Naperville moms, Megan Wojtyla and Felice Farran, whose children attend Prairie Elementary in that famously family-friendly town.
    "I couldn't find cloth napkins that were the right size for a lunch box," explained Farran. "I wanted to have a zero-waste lunch."
     Don't we all?
     The Comboware is designed to be thrown away — whoops, recycled. The LFL napkin is to be used again and again, as we conserve our way toward the New Jerusalem.
     The napkin — literally green — is in perfect harmony with the zeitgeist of this year's show, a festival of the eco-friendly and earth-aware, the recyclable and recycled, the reusable and renewable. There were dozens of brands of high-tech lunch sacks, countless types of stainless steel water bottles.
     Companies like Back to Basics, CynerGreen, Green Smart, Greenair, Fertile Earth, Reduce, Preserve, all performed the rather neat mental gymnastic of using conservation as a prod to encourage more consumption.
     (If you disagree with my hunch that much environmental friendliness is corporate hype, I want you to rinse out an old soda bottle and use THAT to tote your water for a week — it works fine — then get back to me)
     Contemplating the LFL cloth napkin raised a question: How is the used napkin to be returned home for laundering?
     Our Environmental Eden will involve a lot of washing, apparently, with much toting of soiled napkins.
     In addition to cloth napkins, Litter Free Lunch also sells fold-over cloth bags for sandwiches, which means that the young environmentalist would also bring home a bag that had held a sloppy tuna fish sandwich for mom (or dad) to wash.
     It's as if homemakers, having spent 50 years freeing themselves from the drudgery of scrubbing lunch boxes, are now working their way back. Next, we'll be replacing energy-hungry washing machines with corrugated metal washboards and galvanized steel tubs, all in the name of a need Chekhov grasped: the hunger to give life significance.
     "I know those moms," my wife said dryly, and at first I thought she meant actual familiarity with the Naperville pair, and then realized she meant weary knowledge of those who combat the soul-sucking demands of parenthood and the anodyne suburban grind by grasping at the pueblo lifestyle, building chicken coops in the back of their Land Rovers and cooking blue corn tortillas on a hot stone outside their million-dollar homes.
     "When you don't have a life, you dream," writes Chekhov. "It's better than nothing."
     Or is that cynical? My favorite object in the show was a bright orange Spaceboy XL, a rocket-shaped garbage can with a chrome push front made by the German firm Wesco, which has a flair bordering on genius for naming its trash cans — the Kickfox and the Wasteman, the Big Push and the Ashmaster.
     Not coincidentally, rocketship-shaped garbage cans reflect the hot trend of my youth, when we were all going to live on the moon someday in giant domes, and so products with vague connections to the space program — Tang, Space Food Sticks — sold despite the drawback of tasting awful.
     We reflect the eras that formed us, and the question is whether this zeal for environmentalism is another atom-burst wall clock — a passing consumer gimmick — or indeed is the flowering of a new eco-friendly age that has been building for 40 years.
     Maybe someday you wouldn't dream of using a toothbrush that ISN'T made from old yogurt cups, like the Preserve, which comes in its own "easy to Recycle postage-paid mailer" so you can send your used toothbrush back to Waltham, Mass., to begin its life anew.
     The uppercase, boldface "RECYCLE" is theirs. And now, I guess, ours too.
     It's a seductive dream.
     "If in a thousand years, men are happy," Dr. Astrov says, defending his odd tree-planting behavior, "it will be in part because of me."
     — Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 19, 2010

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Apple to avoid the cobalt blues

           Before it was vital for the production of batteries, cobalt was primarily used to produce a                                         vibrant color known as “cobalt blue,” such as in this glass pitcher set.

     “Do they recycle cobalt?”
     Leave it to my wife to cut through the clutter.
     “Umm ...” I replied.
     Dozens of reader emails last week focused on the me-me-me flea circus drama of my column about backing out of a humanitarian trip to Congo. (For the record, my wife supported both when I was going — “You’re helping people,” she said, plainly and with a touch of wonder — and when I wasn’t. “Smart,” she concluded).
     Her follow-up reaction, in trademark fashion, zeroed in on the moral issue — children mining cobalt by hand in the Democratic Republic of Congo, source of 70% of the world’s supply of an element essential in the production of rechargeable lithium batteries.
     A few readers airily wished something could be done (the “but of course it can’t!” breathed in a Scarlett O’Hara sigh while collapsing on a mental chaise lounge of resignation was implied), while my wife identified the solution: Recycle the cobalt. She then posed the relevant question: Can it be done?
     I consulted Prof. Google. Why yes, it can.
     Turns out not only can the cobalt in lithium batteries be recycled, but a certain Apple Inc., a few days earlier, had pounded its corporate fist on its global desk and announced that, by God, it would do just that, in an April 13 press release titled: “Apple will use 100 percent recycled cobalt in batteries by 2025.”

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Tuesday, April 25, 2023

A nice library if you can get in


                                      Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress 

     National Library Week already? And here I am, without a gift. Though there is this, one of my favorite library vignettes, from my memoir "You Were Never in Chicago."  The only additions I remember, 20 years after the incident, are that the book I was working on was "Hatless Jack," we were staying at The Willard, a grand old DC hotel a block from the White House, and that night I took a sheet of their deluxe Willard stationery and wrote Mrs. Creighton a letter, telling her how my son wanted to drop her name as his library clout.

     The value of knowing people, the grease that connections can provide, is central to the Chicago experience — we learn it without being taught. I didn't have to lecture the boys on the importance of contacts; it's instinctual, inborn. The family was in Washington, DC, on vacation, and for an afternoon I slipped away to do some research at the Library of Congress while Edie and the boys saw the sights. When they came to meet up with me, at the end of the day, I wanted to show Ross the Main Reading Room — it was so beautiful, a gilded dome, a marvel of arches and stained glass, a Victorian glory of murals and friezes and statuary, and Ross is such a lover of books, I knew he would be delighted to see it. So I took him up to the guard — you have to be a registered researcher to enter the Library of Congress, which I was. Ross wasn't, but I figured: the kid's seven years old.
     "Can I slip this boy in for a moment to look at the Reading Room?" I asked, nodding hopefully, displaying my Library of Congress ID card. I'm sorry, the guard said, only researchers are allowed in the reading room. "But I am a researcher!" insisted Ross, thumping his chest and stepping up to this rent-a-cop. "I'm researching James Monroe. And I always take good care of my books and papers." The guard, of course, didn't budge, and as we turned away, Ross said to me, in a whisper, "Dad, do you think it would help if we told him I'm friends with Mrs. Creighton?"
     Mrs. Creighton was the librarian at Greenbriar Elementary School in Northbrook.
     That attitude — I know people, I'm in with all the librarians, cut me some slack — is a very Chicago attitude, and reassured me that while my sons had not been born within the borders of the city, and might be growing up in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, but they were becoming Chicagoans nonetheless.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Time to explore all of Chicago

Shermann Dilla Thomas

      “This is example one of why everything dope about America comes from Chicago,” said Shermann Dilla Thomas, delivering his trademark buzz phrase to a busload of tourists on a recent Saturday at the west edge of the Midway Plaisance. “This is my main man, Lorado Taft’s ‘Fountain of Time.’”
     I’d been to the fountain before. Even written about it. But never grasped why it’s here. Thomas filled us in.
     “It was made in honor of the 100 years of peace between Great Britain and the United States,” he said. “Let’s see: Raise your hand if you know why the White House is painted white? I can help you with that.” 
     Maybe something to do with the British setting it on fire? I almost said that but kept my hand down. Shutting up is an art form, and I didn’t want to intrude. Smart, since I could never have explained it with half the panache that Thomas did:
     “In 1812, we tried to jack Canada from Great Britain,” he began. “It didn’t really work out in our favor. In fact, any time you sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ you are talking about when Great Britain was kicking our butts in Baltimore with the ‘rockets red glare.’ During the War of 1812, they also burned down the presidential residence. We didn’t call the place where the president lived ‘The White House’ in 1812.
     “After the redcoats burned it down — sadly, chattel slavery was still going on. So they went up to the enslaved Americans and said, ‘Hey yo, y’all gotta rebuild this crib.’ They were like, ‘Damn, OK.’ So they rebuilt it.
     “And then when someone walked around to do the inspection, they were like, ‘Hey man, there are still some char marks from the fire. You gotta clean that off.’ So they tried, they tried, they tried, they couldn’t get the char marks off.
     “Then finally, some dude was like, ‘Hey, just paint the whole thing white!’ It’s been painted white ever since. That’s why we call it the White House.”

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Mail bag

National Postal Museum
     The reaction after
my column on not going to the Congo was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, there was only one negative email, this one, a prime example of what I think of as "You-suck-can-I-have-a-dollar?" letters from readers who simultaneously complain and request, which is not the most effective mix. Enjoy:

Mr Steinberg,

     I've just read your April 16 article.
     I suppose you mean well, but this piece will do nothing for the people of eastern DRC or to bring awareness to westerners who are unwittingly exploiting them.
     I am a Canadian.
     My son is a World Vision International senior director who leads their humanitarian efforts in the eastern DRC based in Goma. He has lived there with his wife and two small boys for two years and leads a team of over 300 employees and volunteers. They are trying to look after the needs of the vast community and 200,000 refugees in an environment with kidnappings, murders, guerrilla warfare, massive displacement, earthquakes and an active volcano. He has led similar projects in South Sudan, Zimbabwe, the CAR, and the Middle East. He doesn't have time to be afraid.
     If you want to continue to shine a light on this conflict zone (Heaven knows, it needs it), I could give you his email address. I'm sure you could get it through World Vision as well.
     Ron M.

     I try to be kind but firm in replying to such letters.

Dear Mr. M.:

     While I disagree with your belief that my column did nothing to alert people in Chicago to the situation in Congo — I have received dozens of emails that suggest otherwise — I'd be happy to correspond with your son and put his thoughts in the paper. Perhaps they will resonate more than my own meager efforts.
     I've worked for Canadians and am familiar with their weird blend of aggression and entreaty. So your mixed message — your column was pointless, maybe you'd like to write another about my son — was not as off-putting to me as perhaps it should have been. Please do send his email, if he's interested; it might make for a nice follow-up. Besides, I have two sons of my own; they're far better men than me, and one can hope yours is also a marked improvement on his sorta tactless dad. Thanks for writing.


     I detected a distinct tone shift in his reply.

     My goodness. Thank you for the prompt response.
     I'll reach out to David to see if that works for him.
     He has done lots of media, but I didn't seek his permission.
      Ron M.

     I didn't have to respond to this, but did, bringing an end to the exchange. Of course I will never hear back, for reasons alluded to in my final comment.

      Thanks. My experience is that most people who are recommended for stories by third parties decline the opportunity. But perhaps he will be an exception.


Saturday, April 22, 2023

Works in progress: Daniel Knowles

Library of Congress

     The Economist is a terrific magazine. "Reading it is like having an extra brain," as one wag said — okay, that was me. Of course I subscribe, and have attended several of the world-spanning, forward-straining seminars the magazine sponsored in Chicago — in 2019 I managed to chat with the magazine's editor, the delightfully-named Zanny Minton Beddoes, who invited me to sit in on an editorial meeting next time I'm in London, an offer I plan to accept at the first opportunity.
     I've make a point to get to know The Economist's Midwest correspondents — always sharp as tacks and good company.  Daniel Knowles is the fourth in the past 10 years — I imagine Chicago must be a hardship post for those used to London or Paris or, in his case, Mumbai, Nairobi and Washington, D.C. Daniel graduated from Oxford, covered the war in Afghanistan, and is as promising and energetic a young journalist as I've met. He took the train out to Northbrook for lunch— that should have been a tip-off to what was in store. I'm reading his anti-car manifesto now and plan to write a column about it in a few weeks. Until then, take it away, Daniel:

     When I first told people in London that I was moving back to America – and specifically to Chicago – several were surprised. “Won’t you have to get a car?” they said. An American colleague joked that all Europeans living in the States eventually crack and succumb to driving, however high their hopes were of sticking with their old habits of getting around by public transport, and on foot. It was going to be an especially difficult test for me – around the same time I accepted the job in Chicago, in late 2020, I signed a deal to write a book about why cars are dreadful and are ruining our cities. I was (and remain) perhaps one of the most militant cyclists on the staff of The Economist, an organisation full of people who bike to work.
     Wouldn’t I look silly if by the time the book came out, I had transformed into a petrolhead? A good friend joked about me turning up to the launch party in a Hummer and whining about parking it. The book, Carmageddon, is now out. And I can report that eighteen months since I got here, living without a car in Chicago has in fact never proven especially difficult. I have to rent them from time to time, but almost exclusively for work purposes, to go out of the city. I do not even use Uber much. Even though I whine a lot about the state of the CTA, and deeply miss the London Underground, where trains appear reliably every two minutes, it still seems a far better alternative to sitting in a traffic jam on the Kennedy Expressway, and then circling streets for half an hour looking for somewhere to park.
     In fact, a lot more Americans than I expected seem to agree with me that cars are not so great after all. I thought – hoped even – that the book would prove more controversial. After all, arguing that gasoline ought to cost lots more and that nobody should ever get free parking, seems to run against the grain of everything I know about American politics. And yet I seem to have a lot of allies. Even on a trip recently in rural western Illinois, I have had people tell me that they wish cars and parking lots didn’t so dominate everything. Perhaps small town America would be struggling less if you could walk to a shop on Main Street more easily than you can drive to a Walmart 20 miles away.
     I worry this is just Midwest Nice and I am being kindly indulged by people who secretly think I am a moron. But I think most of it is genuine. Most Americans wish that there were alternatives to needing quite so many cars. By reading the book, I hope lots more people will understand exactly how, unfortunately, it is exactly the number of cars getting in way of the alternatives working.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Armed teachers mean more tragedy

     My wife has a strategy I call “The Thinking Trick,” a last resort when we’re lost something. Like yesterday; I wanted my AirPods to make a phone call, but they weren’t in the usual places — desk, night table, dresser, various pockets. I was at the point where I start madly racing around, yanking open drawers, when I stopped cold, and remembered the trick.
     When did I last use them? I asked myself. Immediately the answer came: the night before. A call from my cousin. Sprawled on the sofa. I went into the living room. The sleek little white AirPods case lozenge was on the coffee table, right where I left it.
     The Thinking Trick is also useful in situations that involve, not lost objects, but lost reason. For instance, former president, Donald Trump spent a long time at the NRA Convention last weekend in Indianapolis airing the notion that a good way to stop school shootings is by arming teachers.
     “They’d go for special training and they would be there and you would no longer have a gun-free zone,” the former president said. “Gun-free zone to a maniac, because they’re all cowards, a gun-free zone is: ‘Let’s go in and let’s attack, because bullets aren’t coming back at us’.”
     So school shooting are the schools’ fault? For inviting shooters in, by not having a gun in every teacher’s drawer? O....kay.
     Trump went on, crediting guns in airplane cockpits as the reason hijackings faded away (me, I would suspect that the full body security scans of passengers to make sure they aren’t armed with so much as a nail clipper might have had something to do with it. Using his school logic, disarming airline passengers is just asking for trouble).
     But that’s the problem with thinking, as attempted by some. They keep tripping over their unexamined assumptions, like the former president’s theory that kids who shoot up schools first rationally weigh their options.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Flashback 2013: "How do we react to Boston horror?

    There is a quotidian routine to social media. Something that you have to do, like brushing your teeth. I send out my daily letter to subscribers. Tweet it. Post my column on Facebook, sometimes checking the Memories section there to see what I was doing a year, three years, five years, 10 years ago. It's encouraging: look at me! I lived.
     Sunday, as I scrolled down memory lane, I saw readers 10 years ago were reacting to a column I wrote about the Boston marathon bombing the day before. "You wrote a wonderful column today," Kelly Adair wrote. "Thank you." 
     Underneath, in the comments, a decade ago I considerately posted a link to the column, titled, "How do we react to the Boston horror?" The link was dead — these platforms shift, and the Sun-Times stories online are like leaves on a tree: they're there for a time until they're gone. 
       But there are places where such things gather, journalistic leaf piles. I went into Newsbank. Nothing. Nor our paper's Chorus system, where we write our stories. I tried searching without my byline — sometimes things get lopped off. Nothing. I felt both ignored and singled out. As if some malign, personally antagonistic force had expelled my work even from the endless strata of journalistic sediment. Boo hoo. Poor me.
    At this point I should have just shrugged and moved on with my day. Lost. Everything washes away to nothing anyway, someday. But as I like to tell young writers, if you don't care about your writing, nobody does. I found this under "Chicago Sun-Times: Web edition articles" which was a thing from 1996 to 2014. I'm not sure if it is worth the trouble to find, but it does capture a moment. Though I wouldn't go with that opening sentence now, not after the eight years of the Carnival of Cruelty that is Trumpworld.

     Most people are kind. Most Americans live in comparative safety. We are lucky that way, generally.
     Not lucky Monday however. Not at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, where two crude bombs sprayed death and mayhem, killing three, including an 8-year-old boy, Martin Richard, and injuring more than 170, including that boy’s sister and mother.
     Among the many bad things that such an atrocity radiates is a sense of danger, of terror. This could happen anywhere. Which is what it’s intended to do, as much as the intention behind such malicious insanity can be understood. Which means, as I see it, that part of the pushback, part of what is required of the bystanders, wondering what to make of all this, is to force ourselves to not be terrorized. “Gather your courage,” Virgil writes, “dismiss your grief and fear.”
     What are our responsibilities in this situation? The standard attitude, if Facebook and Twitter are any judge, is solemn prayer and goodwill toward the wounded, a flurry of black ribbons and photos of candles and expressions of blanket support for Boston. I’m not sure how that helps, but it couldn’t hurt, and if it makes you feel better, go for it.
     Many thought of themselves, their kids, the marathons they’ve run. That’s OK too — I think it’s natural. You don’t have to gin up a false selflessness just because somebody set off a bomb. I certainly brooded over my own experience of the horror. Monday, having gone out on a story in the morning, I relaxed in the afternoon. About 2 p.m. the dog looked at me in that let’s-go fashion, so I took her for a stroll around Northbrook, which was extra pleasant and at last springlike. Pedestrians smiled at the cute dog, a little girl on a scooter cast a longing look. We paused to let Janet, the always-friendly crossing guard, pet her. If you gave the people kitten faces and piglet tails, it could have been a page from a Richard Scarry children’s book. There was one bit of foreshadowing — it would be trite in fiction — before the Landmark Inn: a bottle cap, on the sidewalk, prongs up, and I thought: “The callousness of people! A dog could hurt her paw on something like that!”
     Then we crossed the tracks, rounded the corner for home, and heard the terrible news. It seemed a rebuke, for being so happy.
     The immediate questions were: How many died — first reports of two seemed a low figure for bombs going off in such a crowd. And who did it? Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen summed up the reasoning in his graceful, anguished column immediately after the blast.
     “And we are left with this unnerving proposition,” he wrote. “If it was home-grown, it was probably an aberration, the work of a ­lunatic. If it was foreign ­inspired or sponsored, we will never feel safe again in our own town.”
     That’s the mind-set, though I’m not sure how valid it is — the logic is, if it’s some twisted American maniac acting out of pure evil and personal damage, you arrest him and the threat is gone, while if it were the product of foreign plotters, then their network will still be in place, planning their next strike.
     But the overseas terror threat is real, whether it committed this particular act or not. And if a homegrown terrorist perpetrated this deed, there is an endless supply where he came from. No, comfort must come from within. We have to find a balance where we are vigilant without terrorizing ourselves. The marathon was an easy mark, but locking down marathons does nothing to protect the countless soft targets in a free society: the parades and street fairs and kindergarten recesses, considered safe only because no one attacks them, generally.
     The shock came Monday, and will only deepen into even-greater horror as the injured are released, the faces of the dead become familiar to us and — inevitably — the perpetrator or perpetrators are known. Authorities and the media have learned their lesson and are reluctant to speculate, and there is no need. We’ll find out soon enough.
     In the meantime, it is important that we remind ourselves of our freedoms, of the open and generous society that most of us live in. Not all — there are the Englewoods and places where some may look up and say, “Bitter medicine, huh?” Twitter was alive with radical sorts drawing a false equivalence between what happened in Boston and the wars in Iraq and elsewhere.
     That’s their right. When tragedies occur, you are entitled to your reaction. The loons certainly are unimpeded — I never heard the term “false flag” until some conspiracy nut confronted the governor of Massachusetts, wondering, were this not a state-sponsored hoax, like Newtown. If he can think like that, you too can have your feelings. If your instinct is to post a ribbon, or say a prayer, or shrug, or shake your fist, that’s fine. You can be scared, but that won’t help any. Me, I watched the Bulls game with my kid, and tried not to think about what just happened.

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 17, 2013

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

‘Chicago is still viable’

Ray Hartshorne

     You guys all know about the fire, right? The Great Chicago Fire? Of 1871? A long time ago, sure. But still remembered by many. Maybe most. The O’Leary cow kicking over a lantern — a myth, by the way. Not the cow. She was real. The lantern part. Just another slur. A reminder of how slurs endure because they reinforce what some people want to believe.
     Not to forget the city’s determined, never-say-die reaction. Also very real. The ruins were still smoldering and all Chicago could talk about was its bright future.
     So how come, once upon a time, the city could burn to the ground and Chicagoans lined up to declare their unshakable faith in their city.
     But now, some kids misbehave downtown and some are ready to give up?
     “The Loop was in chaos all weekend in Chicago, with insane woke riots,” began a typical tweet. “Big cities are dead.”
     Not close. A couple of incidents. But the videos pinballed around the world, gleefully traded by those who relish such things.
     Crime is not the main problem facing Chicago, which, like most cities, has more systemic woes, like people not going into offices to work.
     Monday morning found me in our blustery, semi-abandoned downtown, paying a long-scheduled visit with Ray Hartshorne, a partner at Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture, a firm that had a key role in changing Fulton Market from a ramshackle warren of loading docks and warehouses where retailers went to buy pickles by the barrel to a hip hot spot where diners fork over $16 for three artisanal pickles at Girl & the Goat.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Patent #2,504,679

    Based on the number of enthusiastic "Hey, you exist!" emails I've gotten lately, I seem to be getting some new readers, between those who finally wandered off from the slowly disintegrating Tribune and those lured in by my new daily newsletter blast. They might not know about my book, "Every Goddamn Day," a calendar year's worth of historical vignettes about the multitudinous wonders of Chicago, published by the University of Chicago Press. What better way to spill the beans than by sharing the entry for April 18? Included is the excellent artwork by Lauren Nassef. 

April 18, 1950

   The US Patent Office issues Patent #2,504,679 to Chicago inventor Eddy Goldfarb. Glance at the paperwork and it might seem some kind of dental appliance—those are certainly teeth in the patent illustration, seen in profile, set in their gums. But what about those gears? And the wind-up key? The category is “Novelty and Amusement Device,” and the invention’s purpose, the patent explains, is “simulating the opening and closing of the teeth of the mouth in rapid succession and creating the amusing illusion of a person who is jabbering.”
      Chattering teeth are only one of many classic gag devices to come out of Chicago, a hub of toy design for more than a century. Fake rubber vomit is another, conjured up in 1959. Goldfarb will go on to invent 800 toys and games. He soon leaves for California, but his partner, Marvin Glass, establishes a company that turns out a series of 1960s classics: Mouse Trap, Rock ’Em–Sock ’Em Robots, and Operation, created in 1962 when University of Illinois industrial design student John Spinello is assigned to design a toy. He develops a game using electric probes, then shows it to his grandfather, who works for Glass.
     Earlier classic toys came from Chicago and environs. Tinker Toys were devised by a stonemason taking the train from Evanston The Flat Iron Laundry on Halsted Street attracted business by giving away small white zinc charms to children of customers—cars and ships for boys, Scotty dogs and thimbles for girls, who wear them on bracelets. The company that made them, Strombecker Toys, manufactured trinkets that go into Cracker Jack boxes, and repurposed laundry charms—that flat iron, a top hat, a shoe, a cannon—became tokens moved around Monopoly boards.

Monday, April 17, 2023

'In short I was afraid'

     Cobalt is a key component in lithium batteries. More than half of the world’s cobalt supply is mined in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Which means there’s a good chance the battery in the phone in your back pocket contains cobalt from ore dug with a pickaxe by a 10 year old earning a dollar a day working in a mine in Congo. Or the electric car that you felt such moral purity buying as your blow against global warming also helped underwrite a system where Chinese metal conglomerates exploit a trouble-ridden African nation.
     I learned this reading “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives” by Siddharth Kara, in preparation for a two-week visit to Congo next month, guest of the Canadian international advocacy group, Journalists for Human Rights.
     The plan was to go and train journalists there. They speak French — Kinshasa is the largest French-speaking city in the world with a million more residents than the Paris metro area. I took French for a year in 7th grade. Translation would be provided by the former editor of this newspaper, Michael Cooke, who is board chair of the JHR, which also explains how they came to invite me.
     We’d go together, visit schools, maybe take in a refugee camp: some 6 million people have been displaced by violence in Congo.
     We talked about this trip for more than a year. Recently a date was set at the end of May and the proper journalistic credential acquired. Last Wednesday I had a fruitful conversation with the JHR’s international program manager. We discussed some of the stories I’m interested in covering. Moved by Kara’s book, I wanted to visit cobalt mines.

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Sunday, April 16, 2023

Rushing to face death, then telling the tale

     This is the latest in a series celebrating the role the Sun-Times plays on its 75th anniversary. Jesse Howe created a dramatic online graphic version of this story that explodes that first paragraph against a backdrop of images. It also represents a shift, at least for me, in thinking. I thought Howe was developing a "slide show" — a graphic presentation to accompany the story. But I see now what he's done IS the story, with a way-cool interactive presentation. There is no other publication of the piece, except I suppose the top here. You're free to draw your own conclusion, but I like it. It's vivid. 

     A CTA streetcar collides with a gasoline truck. A Catholic elementary school turns into an inferno. An Illinois Central rush-hour express train slams into a packed local commuter train. An American Airlines DC-10 loses an engine while taking off from O’Hare and explodes into the ground. One L train hits another and tumbles off the elevated tracks.

     For 75 years, Sun-Times reporters and photographers have been hard on the heels of first responders at tragedies great and small. Some are seared into the collective memory of the city. Most are quickly forgotten, except of course by the survivors who lived through them and the journalists who gathered their stories. 
     One thing that leaps out is the access that newspapers once automatically received. After a CTA Green Hornet streetcar hit a gasoline truck at 63rd and State on May 25, 1950, trapping 34 people who burned alive in the “Death Trolley,” the Sun-Times ran photos of dazed survivors taken at hospitals, of investigators going over charred possessions of victims, of relatives prostrate with grief after identifying their loved ones at the city morgue.
     In 1958, the Sun-Times and Chicago’s three other major daily newspapers were supplied with spot news by the famed City News Bureau, whose Charles Remsberg — a 22-year-old intern who’d graduated from Medill that June — was at Traffic Court on the afternoon of Dec. 1 when his desk told him to hurry over to Humboldt Park, to Our Lady of the Angels School.
     “I ran around to the front of the school,” Remsberg wrote to his parents the next day. “The north side of the building looked like a cereal box in an incinerator. Smoke was pouring out of every window, casting a light fog over the ground area and a dense pall above. At the back of the wing, flames still were leaping up. Police were struggling to keep a huge crowd of adults and children back of the fire lines. After getting a good overall picture of the scene, I headed for the phone. Women in the crowd were hysterical, their faces twisted and wet with tears. Men were holding them back, but they were screaming, ‘Where are they? Where are they?’”

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Saturday, April 15, 2023

Works in progress: Willie Weinbaum

     A surprising number of people I know from college ended up doing exactly what they wanted to do in life. There is Robert Leighton, who drew cartoons for the Daily Northwestern and now draws cartoons for The New Yorker. There is Steve Albini, musical iconoclast then and now. There's Cate Plys, who never stopped writing across a spectrum of genres and publications. Not to forget myself. And then there is Willie Weinbaum, who ... well, maybe it's better if I let him explain it. Take it away, Willie:

     I admit it, Neil. 
      Like you, I’m 62, and yes, we’re dinosaurs who cranked out stories on manual typewriters and got them back from instructors with mistakes circled and annotated in red ink (at least I did) as Class of ’82 undergrads at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. 
     The internet and Google, high def and hard drives, cell phones and social media, podcasts, zooms and a helluva lot more of today’s reporting and communications tools were well beyond the horizon and my (our?) imagination, but the principles and practices impressed upon us are not outdated. 
     And like you, I often draw upon those teachings about open-mindedness, truth and fairness, ethics and compassion. As a TV producer and digital journalist for ESPN — the cable network that debuted in September 1979 as we started our sophomore year — I also have a deep appreciation of the power of teamwork, something we experienced and learned about less than a decade after Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate revelations.
     Over the last year, I’ve been privileged to participate in three in-depth group projects and none of them would have come to fruition without constant collaboration and cooperation. It might seem trite for someone to tout teamwork when covering sports, but the games, wins and losses are not what our unit’s pursuits are about.  
Willie Weinbaum (Jon Hayt/ESPN Images)
     Most recently, I was a producer/reporter with Nicole Noren and T.J. Quinn for “LISTEN,” an investigative documentary that premiered last month and remains on ESPN+ (and ESPN+ on Hulu) about the 2018 murder of track and field athlete Lauren McCluskey. Despite the University of Utah senior’s pleas for help, people and institutions repeatedly failed to listen and protect her from a man she had dated until finding out he was a violent felon on parole who had lied to her about his identity and age.
      In November, reporting colleagues Dan Murphy, John Mastroberardino and I finished a text story about the “Redskins” name and mascot that’s been eliminated from the NFL and from college teams, but is still found at lower levels: “Washington finally shed the name, but 37 high schools haven’t.” 
     And I was a co-director/producer last year with Jeff Ausiello and Lauren Stowell on “Jackie to Me,” a multi-platform series for the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier.  Among the many memorable opportunities for me was a two-day trip to Chicago and New Orleans to interview Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ruby Bridges about their perspectives on Robinson’s civil rights legacy.
    Sharing challenges like going after and preparing for big “gets” and figuring out how to best tell stories — and even commiserating about disappointments — are among the rewarding aspects of what we get to do together. And I haven’t even mentioned the invaluable roles of each assignment’s editor, photographer, sound person, animator and other contributors.
    I still think of myself as a work in progress, just as I did in school. Learning on the job each day has made 28 years at ESPN and 11 before that at Major League Baseball Productions and Sports Newsatellite fly by. 
    Although for years I’ve been working mostly on subjects like safety and justice, I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to cover a game and go in the locker room where you’ll hear a classic line once in a while. 
   One that stands out from my time at Northwestern was when I was in the graduate journalism program in 1982 and the Wildcats had recently beaten Northern Illinois to end a Division I-record 34-game football losing streak (NU was 1-42-1 during our four years as undergraduates). 
      Northwestern then beat Minnesota in Evanston, for the home team’s first Big Ten victory in five years, so I asked Golden Gophers coach Joe Salem what the NU win meant for the conference. 
     He said, “It means we stink.” 

Friday, April 14, 2023

‘Life’s gone by’

             Kareem Bandealy, left, stars with Kate Fry in "The Cherry Orchard"
                    (Liz Lauren/Goodman Theatre)

     “Just another production ...” Robert Falls lied Monday night, in front of friends, colleagues and family at the dinner in his honor before opening night of “The Cherry Orchard,” his last play in 36 years as artistic director at the Goodman Theatre.
     OK, “lied” is strong — overly dramatic, if you will. I can’t see into his heart. Falls, no doubt, did approach the Anton Chekhov classic, as he claims, with professional aplomb, as the most recent of the countless theatrical endeavors he guided over the nearly half-century that he has blazed as the brightest star on Chicago’s theatrical scene.
     But forgive me if I insist that the man who pulled the pin on Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” in 2018 to resist Donald Trump steamrolling American life didn’t just shrug, close his eyes and pick “The Cherry Orchard” because his finger stopped its blind dance over the Cs on his bookshelf. This is a puzzle box; there are messages hidden here.
     “Life’s gone by,” says Firs, the aged peasant. “It’s like I never lived it. All gone now.”
OK, maybe not so hidden. Chekhov labeled his last play, written as he was dying, a “comedy.” Falls certainly provides farce aplenty, with Yepikhodov’s pratfalls and squeaky boots. Still, that’s passing comic relief in a play that includes a dead child, coldly spurned romantic gestures and a theme of facing the debts of the past that seem more 2023 than 1904.
     “Can’t you hear the voices of all those dead souls bought and sold by your family?” Trofimov, the “mangy moth-eaten student” demands of the maudlin aristocracy. “You’ve all been corrupted by it. ... If we want to live in the present, we have to atone for our past and break with it.”
     But breaking with the past can hurt. While hesitating to summarize the plot of a Russian play — the names tend to blend together — I think I can get away with saying when “The Cherry Orchard” opens, the aristocratic family is bankrupt and their estate is about to be sold. Lyubov, the grandiose matron of the family, and her entourage have returned from her self-imposed exile in Paris, where she has blown through the last of the money.

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Thursday, April 13, 2023

Flashback 1993: "People screamed for help, clinging to ledges"

Sun-Times file photo
      This Sunday the Sun-Times is running the latest in my periodic series on the paper's 75th anniversary. It's how we covered fires and disasters, and touches upon the Paxton Hotel fire, 30 years ago last month. This is the story I wrote from the scene.

     There were faces at every window. 
     When Tower Ladder No. 10 pulled up to the raging fire at the Paxton Hotel just after 4 a.m. Tuesday, firefighters at first couldn't take the time to try to fight the fire. The windows of the Paxton were filled with people, screaming for help. Some were clinging to the ledges. 
      "We used the tower ladder basket, just scraped along the side of the building, took the people in, then brought them in and laid them down on the ground and went back up for more," said Raymond Hoff, the company captain. 
     In order to set up their ladders, firefighters had to step over the bodies of those who had already jumped. One man knotted several sheets together and lowered himself down, falling the last few feet and hurting his elbow. Some first threw mattresses out in an attempt to break their falls. 
     Many were hurt critically, including 22-year-old Leslie Matthews, who jumped from an upper floor with her 4-month-old baby, Jalesa, cradled in her arms. The baby was not hurt. 
     Firefighters raced to cut the burglar bars that trapped some residents in ground-floor apartments. Del Clark, a longtime Chicago radio newscaster, was trapped in his apartment at the back of the hotel. He sat at his barred window, shouting to the firefighters, but they couldn't hear him over the noise. Finally he thrust his arms through the bars and, waving them frantically, caught the attention of firefighters, and was saved. 
      The uninjured who were displaced by the fire — some naked, others weeping, some without shoes, others in their underwear — were comforted by Red Cross workers, who guided them to an out-of-service CTA bus, pressed into duty as a temporary shelter. 
      "I was supposed to move in two weeks," said resident Terry Zeszut, 46, who lost everything he owned. "I have to call the movers and cancel." 
      Zeszut was among several residents who simply stood on the sidewalk, grimacing in the early morning cold and drizzle, wrapped in thin blue Red Cross blankets, watching. Many of the 130 residents of the hotel were elderly, some wheelchair-bound, and they stared out from behind oxygen masks, dazed and wide-eyed with shock. 
      From across the street, they were viewed by the well-heeled residents of area condominiums, along with early-morning dog-walkers, who stepped out of their buildings to watch the fire. High winds stoked the fire, forcing it through the roof, which pancaked onto the floors below. 
     At 8:30 a.m., more than four hours after firefighters first arrived, tongues of orange flame shot 10 feet out of one corner of the building, and four aerial towers shot huge streams of water into the building. Dirty water came flooding out the front door. Burning embers soared over the street, and nearby cars were smeared with soot. 
     At times, the smoke on La Salle became so thick that only the emergency lights on the fire trucks, pulsing and strobing and cycling back and forth, could be seen through the blinding brownish-yellow haze. The smoke set off alarms at nearby buildings, where silhouettes of the curious could be seen, watching the blaze from high above. 
      The roofless brick shell of the Paxton Hotel, with its ornate yellow facade and quaint urns rimming the top, did not collapse, however. As the fire was gradually brought under control, firefighters used axes and gaffs to break out the window frames to allow litters to be brought in to carry out the bodies. A police squadrol pulled up close to the front of the hotel, forming a discreet shield with a ladder truck. A policeman began pulling on white rubber gloves. 
      Contributing: Tom Seibel, Dan Lehmann

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times,  March 17, 1993 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

We can’t say we haven’t had practice

Sun-Times file photo

     “Queer” used to be a slur. Then gay people took the word back, claiming it their own, as a sort of general term for the whole rainbow-hued subculture in all its freedom and fabulousness.
     My first thought, learning that Chicago has snagged the 2024 Democratic National Convention, was that this is a good way for us to similarly reclaim both the adjective “Democratic” and the noun “Chicago” and make them a little less battered than they have been of late.
     For years Republicans have been trying to turn “Democratic” into an all-purpose insult by chopping off the ending and pretending that the problems facing cities are there because they tend to be run by Democrats, when it’s the other way around: Cities tend to go Democratic because they have problems that need to be addressed, not chuckled over. Thus, Democrats.
     This is a chance for Chicago, the poster child for urban woes, to marry itself once again to the party that for too long has seen its mantle of patriotism and efficiency stripped away, and by those bumbling shambolically toward treason.
     First, a few ground rules. This isn’t our third Democratic National Convention, though that might be the default assumption. It’s our 12th, having been the host in 1864, 1884, 1892, 1896, 1932, 1940, 1944, 1952, 1956, and of course 1968 and 1996.
     That 1932 convention is worth remembering not just because it led to the rare defeat of a sitting president. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first candidate to show up at a convention to accept the nomination (the habit had been to sit on your front porch and feign indifference), and he did it by arriving in a shiny silver Ford Trimotor, making him the first presidential candidate to fly in an airplane, arriving to promise a “New Deal” for America.
     Otherwise we have the twin bookends of 1968 and 1996 as guides. The first was a catastrophe that hardly needs explaining — masses of shaggy-haired protesters battling police. While the cops rightly get blame for that, the disaster was set in motion by City Hall. In trying to keep protests away from the site of the convention, the International Amphitheater, Richard J. Daley ended up pushing it onto Michigan Avenue. The 1968 convention might have transpired differently had Daley not spread the combustibles that the cops ignited.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Flashback 2013: "Measure for Measure" delivers jolts

Photo by Liz Lauren/Goodman Theatre

     Robert Falls bids farewell as creative director of the Goodman Theatre with "The Cherry Orchard," which opened Monday night. In honor of this transition, I'm featuring a few columns inspired by his work over the years. I've been marveling his plays since "Hamlet" at Wisdom Bridge in 1986. Many were shocking. But none were more so than his 2013"Measure for Measure." The audience didn't quite riot; but they wanted to.

     If you asked me to start naming Shakespeare plays off the top of my head, I think I would avail myself pretty well.
     There’s “Hamlet,” of course, and “Othello,” “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet” (telling that I would start with the tragedies — I’m a sucker for tragedy).
     What else? The histories — “Richard II,” “Richard III,” “Henry IV” (parts 1 and 2), “Henry V,” “Julius Caesar.” And the comedies — my least favorite category — “As You Like It,” “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “Taming of the Shrew,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Merchant of Venice,” which nobody thinks of as a comedy, anymore, but was originally intended to be.
     And then the obscure plays — “Titus Andronicus” and “Timon of Athens” and such.
     I could probably scrape up a few more, but you get the idea. The point I’m crawling toward is that I’m familiar with Shakespeare, and have seen his plays by the dozens, going back to Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, up to the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin, to our own underappreciated Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier.
     Yet, despite this familiarity, until a few weeks ago I could have squinched my eyes and listed plays until I turned blue and never gotten to “Measure for Measure.” I hope that doesn’t make you think less of me. Before the Goodman Theatre announced it was putting on the play — it opens this Monday — I never heard about it, never thought about it and even hours before going to a preview Thursday, didn’t have the foggiest what it is about.
     “What is it about?” my wife asked, as we got ready to go, with perhaps a bit of what-am-I-getting-myself-into dread.
     “A bit with a dog and love triumphant,” I guessed, quoting “Shakespeare in Love.”
     Completely wrong.
     Which means I had the benefit of seeing the play as a complete blank slate, expecting nothing, knowing nothing, and in my ideal world you’d set this column down right now and go see it, solely on my recommendation, then finish reading this, the way I at times rush to Hedy Weiss to explain what I’ve seen.
     Not exactly a spoiler alert — I’m not the spoiler sort. But even knowing a shock is coming lessens the shock; you expect it.
     And with this new production, there will be many moments when you think, “So, is THIS the shock that so rattled Steinberg’s windows?” No, it’s not. Patience. It’s coming.
     The shock of what happens onstage was magnified, for me, by the shock that I was shocked at all. I don’t do shock. Shock, like being offended, is for amateurs and the old.
     Besides, we have learned to expect shock in plays directed by Robert Falls. Some consider that a flaw, but I find it invigorating. He peels the velvet glove off the iron fist of sex and horror that pulses through Shakespeare and then jams it, unpadded, into your face.
     Thus Ophelia, hiking up her skirts and rubbing herself in his “Hamlet.” Thus Gloucester’s eyes not only plucked out — as the Bard intended — but ending up sizzling on a restaurant line grill in “King Lear,” the whole thing set in a dissolving Eastern Europe dictatorship, the opening scene spoken by characters standing at urinals, doing their business, their backs to the audience.
     That was tights and ruffs and declaiming “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a bare stage with one hand folded atop another compared to the opening minutes of Falls’ “Measure for Measure,” a Boschian, neon-lit hellscape, half “Taxi Driver,” half Ed Paschke’s early work come to life, a loud, dirty, overwhelming set piece (“Did you see that guy masturbating?” my wife asked, on the drive home. “No,” I said, “I was focusing on the stripper.”)
     Falls always shocks other people — the groundlings, the timid, the life-averse, those whose idea of tragedy is Bambi’s mother dying. Me, I collect Bob Falls shocks the way a lepidopterist collects butterflies — with zeal and appreciation: This is the stuff that upsets others but I find magnificent; a shock, yes, but in a good way, your shirt ripped open, the paddles applied and the tired old heart given a revivifying jolt, part of Falls’ lifelong rescue of Shakespeare from the rolled R crowd, returning it the alive thing it was meant to be.
     But this shock is truly shocking — a lady at the after-play conversation Thursday described it as “grotesque” and I didn’t argue with her. I’m not saying Falls was wrong. He’s right. It took me a while to see it. Not until the next morning, really, when I realized that, as the shock unfolded, my mind formed an alternate narrative — where I thought he was going — that was trite, ordinary and banal.  
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 17, 2013