Friday, June 30, 2023

Colleges can still grab that trombonist

     The United States Supreme Court is wrong in its ruling Thursday that affirmative action is unconstitutional. The easiest way to understand why is to consider what, if not race, colleges can still consider when evaluating students for admission.
     Can they use athletic ability as a guide? Sure! How are the Big Ten supposed to field competitive football teams otherwise?
     Can they give special consideration to legacy applicants — the children of grateful alumni? Of course. If the college goes broke it can’t admit anybody, and multi-generational bonds bring home the bucks.
     Foreign students paying full freight? Check. Hollywood stars stepping back from the limelight? Double check.
     As anyone knows who has ever taken a prospective freshman tour, led by a perky sophomore fiercely proud of her ability to walk backwards while delivering paean of praise to alma mater, colleges consider all sorts of qualifications. If they need someone from Idaho so they can say they enroll students from all 50 states, the bar is nudged downward for an Idaho applicant. If the band is short on trombones, then this is the lucky day for rising seniors who list “trombone” as their passion.
     But being Black or Asian, apparently, doesn’t affect one’s life the way, oh, being captain of the high school chess team does. Not according to the Supreme Court. Ruling in two lawsuits, against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, it decreed that their efforts to ensure an integrated college violated the 14th Amendment guaranteeing “equal protection under the law.”
     Or in Chief Justice John Roberts’ words: “The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

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Thursday, June 29, 2023

The air hurts


     Chicago had the worst air quality in the world on Tuesday. The sky was smokey grey. Wednesday didn't seem much better. I was downtown both days, attending to business at Navy Pier.
     "If you go outside, wear a mask," my wife texted. Considerate as always. I didn't mention that I had tucked a cigar in my briefcase to smoke if I had any downtime downtown. I sorta liked the image of sitting the middle of some global air quality emergency, puffing on a stogie. It smacked of defiance, if not common sense. When the sun blows up, the last human being on earth will be standing tall, giving the supernova the finger.
    Nah, will have vanished billions of years earlier. We're on that path.
    More people were wearing masks downtown. I didn't, because the air didn't affect me much — maybe a little extra watering around the eyes at the end of the day. My wife suffered more. I defrosted some matzo ball soup to combat the ill effects of toxic air, a folk remedy so inadequate it seemed almost poignant, like treating an infection by singing to it.
    Blame wildfires in Canada. The numbers were staggering. This sentence leapt out of one report: "The amount of land burned so far is 4,000 percent of the average amount." Forty times times the usual. But that story was from a few weeks ago. Now it's 50 times. Tommy Skilling, trying to put the situation into graspable terms, observed that an area as large as West Virginia has burned.
    In case it isn't staggeringly obvious, the cause should be pointed out:
    “Climate change, including increased heat, extended drought, and a thirsty atmosphere, has been a key driver in increasing the risk and extent of wildfires in the western United States during the last two decades," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observed. "Wildfires require the alignment of a number of factors, including temperature, humidity, and the lack of moisture in fuels, such as trees, shrubs, grasses, and forest debris. All these factors have strong direct or indirect ties to climate variability and climate change.”
     Is there hope? Probably not. But we can grasp at anything. I went to RL Restaurant for lunch Wednesday, hopped on a bus at Navy Pier, and was surprised to see it was an electric — the CTA has run them, experimentally, for two and half years now. It pulled up under a large square box and an orange connector dropped down so the bus could charge while it sat there, waiting for passengers. Very high tech.
     I chatted with the driver — he said that unlike electric cars, the electric buses are slower. "Even the doors open slower," he said. Still, given the air quality, it was comforting, if you didn't think about it much, to see this wan attempt to combat the global emissions problem though, as is typical of human response to gradual ruin, too little, too late.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Nikki Haley’s search for lost times

     I try not to use fancy words. OK, stop laughing; it’s true. I did it just now — my fingers itched to type “recondite words” — meaning “obscure.” But I held back. Flaunting your vocabulary is showy and pretentious, and what’s the point of writing something that nobody understands?
     But sometimes a word is too perfect, sitting there, waving its little lettery arm in the air, serifs flapping, straining, going “Ooo, ooo, me me.” Eventually, you relent and use it.
     Like “revanchism.”
     The dictionary defines revanchism as “a policy of seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory.” This can be figurative as well as literal. You want something back you once had, or think you had.
     Revanchism is the primary moving force today in the Republican Party, and understanding it explains much. The entire Trump monstrosity grew out of a promise to claw back what was lost. “Make America Great Again” implies it sure ain’t great now, not with all these immigrants and minorities strutting around as if they belong.
     To that end, the GOP is trying to grab the steering wheel and put the nation into a skidding U-turn. We hear that every time Ron DeSantis opens his mouth and wages his cruel two-front war on trans kids and Black history — we don’t want to see the people we once didn’t have to see.
     That includes even supposed moderates like Nikki Haley, who sent a three-sentence tweet that roiled Twitter like a cinder block tossed into a koi pond:
     “Do you remember when you were growing up? Do you remember how simple life was, how easy it felt? It was about faith, family and country. We can have that again, but to do that, we must vote Joe Biden out.”

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Tuesday, June 27, 2023

"Fireballs of dissention"

     "Fireball" is one of those words that has a clear literal meaning — a ball of fire — but no obvious figurative uses. If I say someone is a "firecracker," it's obvious that I don't mean they're an exploding tube filled with gunpowder, but someone with a vivacious, sparkling personality.
     But who or what would a fireball be? The term does come up figuratively in baseball — pitchers with a very fast fastball as "fireballers." That's an exception, though.
     It isn't used very often. Myself, I only deploy the word in one setting, again very literally. We'll be on the highway, and a car will blow past us, weaving in and out. 
     "I'll drop back," I say to my wife, "and avoid the fireball."
     So it was odd on Sunday to encounter the word, not once, but twice, in independent situations. My Ohio friends and I were strolling on the beach at Put-in-Bay, and I noticed a pile of Sprite cans, along with a scattering of little single serving empties of Fireball, a gross cinnamon whiskey drunk by youngsters, the gustatorily challenged and emotionally immature.
     There are other products that use the term — Atomic Fireball candy, made by Chicago's own Ferrara, a reminder that the mushroom cloud rising up from an atomic bomb was called a fireball. Both share an unsubtle cinnamon connection, and I suppose giving it the "Fireball" moniker is an attempt to cover up its harshness with intentionality: it's supposed to taste this searingly bad.
     I wouldn't have given the word a second thought. But later in the day, my friend and I had to pop into his old wooden barn, and we looked in on his 1947 Buick convertible, which normally we ride around the island in, the cynosure of all. The old beauty been acting up, lately, and is in need of repairs.
     "Do you want to see the engine?" he asked — I didn't recall ever seeing the engine in the car before, and I've been riding in it since I was 17.
     "Sure!" I said. (Now that I think of it, I bought a new car in January, without ever popping the hood to look at the engine, and have not done so once since. I can't think of any kind of defense other than I assume it has one).
     He opened the massive hood as I thought of the relevant lines from Bruce Springsteen — "big old Buick" —and there, for the second time in an hour, was the word "Fireball" (which, upon reflection, is not the best name for a part of the car receiving gasoline).
     Seeking other uses, I consulted Wentworth and Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang and found "fireball" defined as, "An ambitious efficient, and fast worker; a very active person."
     Online, I noticed that the American Meteor Society defines "fireball" as "another term for a very bright meteor" and encourages readers to report any sightings back to the AMS, including as many details as possible, such as brightness, color and duration, for inclusion in their Fireball Sightings Log.
     In 1907, there was a "Fireball" racehorse, and "fireball" was used to describe an orb-shaped gas light, which were sometimes erected on a cement stand "to safeguard the boulevards and compel motorists to be careful." They were common enough on Chicago streets to be described as "familiar" — there were several on Michigan Avenue — and motorists complained about them.  
      My Oxford English Dictionary has mostly literal meanings: "A ball of fire or flame; applied esp. to certain large luminous meteors, and to lightning in a globular form." It traces "fireball" back to 1555, noting that it also describes balls of coal dust used to kindle fire, and includes a few figurative uses, such as this, from 1718: "At this Time there were Fire-Balls of Dissention flung all over the Kingdom."  
     That's certain evocative of the incendiary nature of dissent. Though doesn't it seem that, lately, dissent is not the exception, but the rule? We've become a society of complainers, objecters, arguing forcefully for whatever private individual phantasm holds us in thrall. It's been a while since anybody worried about our being a nation of sheep and, in all candor, a bit of conformity in any realm would be met with gratitude and relief.  

Monday, June 26, 2023

Zealotry is never satisfied.

Julius Gari Melchers, "Mother and Child" (Art Institute of Chicago)

     Religion is supposed to be voluntary, right?

     I mean, imagine that a particular sect — say the Jews — found a way to force one of their idiosyncratic ritual practices on the general public. Let's say Kosher food laws.
     That wouldn't work well, would it?
     What if cheeseburgers were suddenly illegal in half the country, due to judicial decisions? Pork chops, banned in 20 states. 
     Even though it wouldn't be all that inconvenient. Yes, plain old burgers are never quite as good. But nobody's life is going to be severely altered. 
     And they'd have reasons: it's healthier! Morally superior! No risk of boiling calves in their mother's milk. Billboards along the highway would go up, showing plaintive calves, begging not to be boiled.
     Still, it just wouldn't fly. People would rebel.
    Because Jews are an extreme minority. And their rituals are unfamiliar. And not many people care much about cattle.
    So why ... why why why ... when it comes to arcane Christian practices — Christian sexual practices — is somehow forcing a particular religion on others is okay? Maybe because they struck upon a really good metaphor — not calves, but babies. Warm cute cootchie cootchie coo babies. And convinced themselves, and others, that these entities — in reality unborn fetuses — were babies, and had to be protected. Car seats. Fuzzy blankies. And an abortion ban. A ban that went into effect in half the country a year ago, on June 24, 2022, the day Roe v. Wade was reversed. 
    You know the story. Yet it doesn't seem to enrage you. Or anybody else. Women haven't risen up. Because some buy the fiction, and others are cowed, or complacent. Though what has happened is that American attitudes have shifted. Abortion, which is supposedly murder, is now more popular than ever — about two-thirds of the country think it should be legal in the first trimester. Where it is illegal, no women or doctors are finding themselves in jail (because the zealots behind it don't really think it's murder, generally. That's just words they say when imposing their religious practices on others by law). Plus, having finally got their way, zealots move to the next step in their dance back into the imaginary past, going after contraception. And gays. Because zealotry is never satisfied. Repression of unbelievers is the end, not the means. 
      Which is another reason the democratic system of voting and elective representation is under attack. It isn't just about worshipping Trump. He's a symptom, remember, not a cause. A symptom of an extreme minority trying to impose its will on the majority of non-believers. Welcome to America, 2023.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

What's Russian for "maybe next time"?

Assassination of Czar Alexander II

       Didn't see that one coming. 
        Well, we did. At least the possibility. As Vladimir Putin plunged his nation into a pointless, endless, bloody war against Ukraine, hand-wringing onlookers in the West optimistically speculated that maybe this would end by somebody moving against the Russian dictator for botching the situation so thoroughly. Maybe his people would rise up. Maybe somebody would stop him.
       Yet nobody really believed that possible. Russia's second revolution, in 1991, turned out to be more of a shift from Communist tyrants to non-denominational dictators, like Putin, who seems cemented to office like a barnacle. He won't simply go away. It can't be that easy. Previous Russian leaders whose policies were epic disasters — Stalin allying himself with Hitler, only to be betrayed by him — were allowed to continue their campaigns of terror and error. For years.
      Then for a few hours Saturday, Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries were headed to Moscow. Maybe deus ex machina, the nightmare would just stop. Who knows what might happen?
     Turns out nothing, yet. Prigozhin fled to Belarus. Putin's misrule continues, the threat to his power banished. The meat-grinder in Ukraine grinds on. 
     Perhaps this is a necessary reminder that heroic action leading to actual change is the realm of the movies. In real life, the tectonic forces of history grind on. Greed, self-interest and pitiless inertia mean that missteps, once taken, turn into calamitous journeys into ruin. "The road to hell is smooth," Virgil writes. "Easy the path and simple the way. But to turn, and regain the upper air. There the work, there the labor lies."
     Although. The fact it began, that it seemed to almost happen, does remind us that anything is possible, and those that rise by raw power can fall by it too. With totalitarian successes being chalked up over the globe, and would-be fascists vying for position in this country, the pilot light of hope should be kept lit. We'll need it in the days ahead. And seeing Putin squirm to fend off enemies at home is just the fuel we need right now. Maybe next time it'll work. 

Friday, June 23, 2023

One sign, two people

     Forty years is a long time for two people to hang around each other. And while I’d never claim that their minds start to run on parallel, even identical tracks, well, maybe I should just describe what happened today.
     So my wife and I are driving to spend the weekend with friends. And we’re a little early, with time to kill. So we stop by Potawatomi State Park, to hike for an hour.
     At one point, we pass the sign above, and I turn to read it as we walk by: “Please carry out your trash.” And I instinctively consider making a joke about it. But I immediately shake off the idea — no man should suggest that his wife is trash — preferring to smile inwardly than to air the joke and risk causing offense. Shutting up is an art for that requires constant practice.
     But even as I am silently basking in my triumph over the weisenheimer impulse, my wife stops, turns, takes a step toward me, reaches out, grabs my elbows and lifts.
     “What are you doing?” I ask, knowing the answer.
     “Trying to pick you up,” she replies, with a wicked smile.

No more ridiculous than golf

Rey Kadon took this shot of the Miller High Life 400 in Brooklyn, New York, in 1989.
“Who wouldn’t have fun on a charter bus with a bunch of your coworkers and kegs of beer?” he recalled.

     An apology is in order.
     I’m so inured with the toxic free-fire zone that pops up around controversial issues, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most people are decent and sensible. When I invited readers Wednesday to write in explaining the allure of NASCAR, I didn’t really expect that people would then actually, you know, write in explaining the allure of NASCAR.
     But that’s exactly what they did — wrote thoughtful, often heartfelt reflections and celebrations of the sport. So as much as I like to flit nimbly from topic to topic, it felt wrong to just ignore them. So here goes.
     Neal Elkind finds beauty in the races, writing:
     “NASCAR has more in common with watching baseball than maybe you may realize. It’s a wonderfully lazy spectator sport. It’s auto racing perfected (in its traditional oval) as a spectator sport. ... The strategy of cars maneuvering for position and the use of aerodynamics. F1 and Indy, you only see cars whooshing by for 1 second (like watching competitive downhill skiing in person). The noise, which is astounding, and motion, is hypnotic. Like baseball, it’s pastoral. Really. You can wander off to the concessions for 15 minutes (or, a whole inning) and not feel that you’ve missed anything. The crowds tend to be families that do not fight or swear in the stands. I could go on about how this race shows the beauty of our city’s lakefront to a whole new audience.”
     Doug Nichols traced the appeal of racing back to antiquity:
     “There are the funeral games held by Achilles to honor Patroclus. Among other sports, the games featured a chariot and a foot race. Centuries later, the chariot racing in Constantinople’s hippodrome was important to the social fabric.”

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Thursday, June 22, 2023

Lost at sea

              "Ocean Life," by James M. Sommerville (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Has anyone credited the Titanic with five more victims? I can't be the first. Maybe they're waiting until the theoretical air supply runs out on the on the Titan, the deep diving submersible lost Sunday in a voyage to the bottom of the sea to ogle the famous wreck.
     Waiting a polite span of time.
     I'm taken by the respectful air of restrained solemnity with which the media greeted the disappearance of the 22-foot-long submersible craft that vanished at the start of its nearly two and a half mile plunge to get up close and personal with the wreckage of the Titanic.
     Five passengers spent nearly a million dollars, collectively, to gaze at the sunken vessel through a thick porthole (though perhaps not thick enough, according to a former employee, who complained five years ago that the craft, run by OceanGate Expeditions, was not safe).
     While it's sad when anyone died, the pointlessness of the endeavor should also be remarked upon. Yes, the Titanic continues to fascinate more than a century after famously sinking on its maiden voyage. I've written about the allure. 
     At least that trip was transportation, getting from Point A to Point B, albeit in style. This latest fatal jaunt was just a lark, without any practical, scientific or aesthetic justification. At least when you go into space, you see the curve of the earth, the blackness of the cosmos. I'm not sure why you'd go to the great expense and obvious danger of setting eyes upon the corroded ruin of the Titanic. To see the thing? To say you did it? What?
     The ocean is vast, and my hunch is the Titan will never be found. My friends were already talking about the movie that will be made from the disappearance, but I just can't envision it. Particularly because the most likely scenario — some part gave way, the intense pressure of the ocean crushed the submersible like an egg, and they were all dead within two seconds — does not lend itself to drama.
     And I'll make another prediction— interest in this kind of thing will soar, not suffer. People with more money than sense will learn about the possibilities and become intrigued, ignoring the "and then you might die" part.
     One of the victims — if that is the proper term for someone who willingly puts themselves in that much danger — was 19 years old. A true tragedy. If he really wanted an incredible adventure, he should have stayed on dry land and lived his ordinary life.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

People pay for that?

     So NASCAR. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, roaring around downtown Chicago in less than two weeks.
     A nightmare I’ve come to think of as “Lori’s Revenge.”
     We’ve all read about it. The course. The disruption. Taste of Chicago booted from its traditional perch. Not only this summer, but for two more to come. Nowhere near the epic proportions of Rich Daley’s flush-billions-down-the-toilet-for-the-next-75-years blunder. But quite a commitment to expensive folly nevertheless.
     And, pardon me for asking, is Lori Lightfoot even going? Or has the former mayor already decamped to Cambridge, where she sits at a window, tapping a pencil against a yellow legal pad. Puffing out her cheeks. Gathering her thoughts. About leadership ...
     Sorry. So Monday, with June suddenly two-thirds over, I began looking ahead, and had this thought: “Maybe I should go to see NASCAR.”
     Stock car racing is a bedrock American sport — 10th place, anyway, behind pro wrestling and tennis. I’ve gone downtown to witness what I imagined was a comparable event — the Chicago Marathon — to cheer my brother when he ran. Masses of onlookers craning for a glimpse. Not the most enjoyable time — I never did catch sight of him among the lank bundles of sinew loping past. But not a bad way to spend the day, either. It wasn’t as if it cost anything.
     I assumed going to see the NASCAR race would be something similar. Hop off at Union Station, stroll down Adams. Eyeball some stock cars roaring around a curve. Snap a few photos for social media. Watch for, oh, half an hour, until you get the point — vroom vroom. Then go find lunch.
     I plunged into the Internet and quickly found the City of Chicago’s Ticket Options page.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Flashback 1996: "A leery owner learns the power of the pet'

Anna, left, Vronsky and Gizmo share a bite.

     Yesterday's column included lots of cats.
     Which might make it seem strange that I then thought, "More cats!"
     It's not a subject I turn to much. 
     But it's mid-June. Time to slow down a bit. Here, in one of my first columns, I tell a story I've since  repeated many, many times.

     I hate to identify myself as a cat man. There is something, oh I don't know, dainty about male cat owners.
     Cats are so feminine, after all. They don't have the rough and tumble manliness of dogs. No presidential candidate, surely, would allow himself to be photographed roughhousing with his cats.
     But if those guys who collect Barbies, and line their apartments with custom shelves, can publicly admit it, then I suppose that I can cop to cats.
     And besides, they're my wife's cats, really. Lord knows I hated them to begin with. I would have married her years earlier if she didn't have cats, if she didn't discipline them in a loud voice, at the breakfast table, while I cringed behind the morning paper.
     We got married, despite the cats — a brother and sister pair, white with gray splotches, that she named Anna and Vronsky, for the doomed lovers in Anna Karenina.
     Like other aspects of domestic life, the cats grew on me. Anna is a fat cat, a little mean, intelligent, single-minded in her pursuit of food. Vronsky is thin, sweet and somewhat dim.
     They never leave the house. Bringing pets outdoors only causes problems, as evidenced by Tina Popplewell, who found herself in court last week after her dog got hit by a car and was saved by something called "Pet Rescue," which later tried to hold the animal hostage, apparently for ransom for the $810 owed for medical care.
     I've learned to have a healthy skepticism about pet groups. They rain compassion down upon dumb animals yet always seem to suddenly yank it back when a human enters the picture.
     There is some question over whether Popplewell offered to pay over time, and was rebuffed, or whether it was the other way around.
     The woman did, however, strong-arm her dog back, which is not surprising. I know that should our cats, say, be kidnapped by Saddam Hussein and kept under less-than-ideal conditions in a cat prison in Baghdad, my wife — a slim, slight woman — wouldn't think twice before assembling a group of cat-loving mercenaries who, with faces blackened and AK-47s clutched to their chests, would make a low-level commando parachute drop over the desert. They'd get those cats back.
     The snafu with Pet Rescue reminds me of the nightmare of getting our cats in the first place from the well-regarded Anti-Cruelty Society on LaSalle Street. There we saw Anna and Vronsky, about eight years ago, two tiny white kitties, huddled together in a bare cage.
     My wife-to-be's heart melted. She wanted those cats. We went to fill out the paperwork — the Anti-Cruelty Society interrogates you to make sure you aren't going to serve your new pets for dinner or sell them to the Iraqis.
     A line on the form demanded a landlord's consent. But her landlord wasn't available — it was a Saturday — and adoption was held up until he could be found.
     "Oh," said the clerk, off-handedly, sending us away. "It looks like one of these kittens is sick. He might have to be put down tonight."
     Well, my wife-to-be already loved those cats. While she stood distraught out on the sidewalk, I tried to grease the skids with the Anti-Cruelty Society volunteer.
     "Look, this is Chicago," I said, winking largely, pulling out my wallet and thumbing through the twenties. "Surely, we can work something out. Maybe I can adopt the cats."
     But the same rigidity that sent Pet Rescue to the cops stiffened the spines of the Anti-Cruelty Society — or the "Cruelty Society," as I later dubbed them. They sent us away, to search madly for my wife-to-be's landlord and pray that the little kitty wouldn't be dispatched to the compassion of the society's gas chambers before we could return.
     Sunday dawned. We were there when they opened the doors, and bolted for the cage where the cats had been. Another woman was making a beeline for the two white kittens, but my wife-to-be gave her a Chris Chelios shoulder check and claimed them. "Those are my cats!" she shouted.
     We hadn't found her landlord, but in true lawyerly style, she pointed out a line in her lease about pets not being permitted to "soil the sidewalks." Pets couldn't soil the sidewalk, she argued, ergo pets were permitted. A shaky case, but the Cruelty Society people bought it.
     As the years passed, first she, then I, fell under the spell of the cats. Like many pet owners, each new day holds the prospect of being held hostage by skyrocketing medical costs. If we learned we had to mortgage our home to send one of the cats to the Mayo Clinic for a heart transplant, we might not snap at it, but we sure would give the situation hard thought.
     That's what pets do to people — they burrow into your soul and stay there. Pet Rescue should be ashamed of itself for hounding this poor woman, if indeed it did.
     And the woman, on the other hand, should pay what she owes, over time if necessary. It's only right.

        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 18, 1996

Monday, June 19, 2023

A visit to cat heaven

Kaye Larsen Olloway, founder of Fat Cat Rescue (photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin)

     “Do you want to meet my husband?” asks Kaye Larsen Olloway, pausing from portioning out soft cat food on her flower bedecked patio to scoop up an off-white, 17-year-old cat and press him to her cheek. “This is Johnny Ringo. He’s so sweet. He has five other wives. We fight over him.”
     Hard to know where to go with that information. Umm, named for the Beatle?
     “You know why we named him that?” Olloway replies. “When you look at his tail, he has five orange rings on his tail.”
     The naming of cats might have been a difficult matter for poet T.S. Eliot. But it’s just part of the daily routine at Fat Cat Rescue in Wadsworth, where hundreds of feral cats trapped on the street are taken to live in genteel comfort on a seven-acre farm, with a pond, a three story antique barn and various quaint outbuildings decorated with cats in mind.
     Outside, an electrified fence keeps predators away, while inside, many walls have wooden chairs, legs removed, strategically mounted so cats can leap up, get comfortable and observe life from a comfortable distance.
     At 7:30 a.m. on a recent beautiful June morning, Olloway places cardboard troughs of food around the compound, keeping up a steady conversation.
     ”Hi, babies!” Olloway says. “What’s going on here, huh?”
     The felines present themselves for scratches — they seem more interested in love than food — and are introduced: Sammy the Bull, Gracie Mae, who just got over an illness. Baby Blue, who is called, conversationally, Blue-Blue, or just Baby (“a cat must have three different names” Eliot writes).

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Sunday, June 18, 2023

‘A beacon of light in a dark world’

"Drag March for Change," June 14, 2020. (Photograph for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin)

      This is my fourth column in a yearlong series celebrating the paper's 75th anniversary. Since June is Pride Month, it seems apt to look at how we've covered the LGBTQ community. In the paper today, this runs alongside reflections by Tracy Baim and Ismael Perez.

      Night-shift reporters do what the desk tells them to. And this night, late in 1991, a sneering little bully of an assistant city editor I thought of as “Quartz” ordered me to get myself over to the Town Hall police station.
     “The cops are having a meeting with the fags,” he said, or words to that effect. "Go see what it's about."
     I went. The night is seared into my mind for the pure slapstick quality. The police, embarrassed, formal, had actually brought a rape specialist — the cops’ thinking no doubt being, “gays=sex crimes” — to talk to the group. They did ask about the safety concerns of what we still called the homosexual community, and those gathered responded in one voice: We’re afraid of the police.
     As Windy City Times columnist Paul Varnell eloquently put it that night: “I’ve been arrested and I’ve been mugged and I’d rather be mugged.”
     At the time, as a night reporter, my interaction with what is now thought of as the LGBTQ+ community came through protests — AIDS awareness, Act-Up, Silence=Death vigils around the governor’s Chicago residence. But that was only one phase of a long history.
     The Chicago Sun-Times, published since February 1948, has reflected and led society’s slow integration of sexualities that depart from traditional heterosexual male/female roles. (As well as, sometimes, lagged behind.) This being our 75th anniversary as a daily newspaper, and Pride Month, it’s a good time to look back.
     The word “homosexual” didn’t appear in the paper until May 1948, in an AP report of a “homosexual ring” charged with sodomy at the University of Missouri. Gays tended to appear in print related to crime or in reviews of edgy books and plays, with an occasional vice story, such as Mayor Martin Kennelly closing a couple of bars for “homosexual activities.”
     Of course, no period is as uniform as it seems at a remove. There is a story in 1950 quoting the Kinsey report that “homosexual contacts accounted for as much as 22.6 percent of the total sexual outlet of bachelor men from 31 to 35 years old” and the “Kinsey figures on women it can be anticipated will show an even greater incidence of homosexuality among women.” The news is delivered plainly and without sensation.
Advice, sympathy from Ann Landers
     The most important writer at the paper changing attitudes about gays and lesbians was Eppie Lederer, known to the world as Ann Landers, who wrote a widely syndicated advice column.
     “Dear Ann Landers,” a letter published in the Sun-Times in 1961 begins, “I’m a happily married man who needs an outside opinion....”
     A childhood friend had moved to town; brilliant, talented, thoughtful, kind.
     “The problem is, he’s a homosexual,” the letter continued. “His effeminate manner, his haircut as well as his flamboyant manner of dress leaves no room for speculation.”
     The writer wanted to invite the man to dinner, but his wife forbade him even to be seen talking to his old friend. “It will ruin us, socially,” she said.
     “I feel like a heel ignoring him,” the man wrote. “Please give me your thinking.”
     Today, Ann Landers’ response at first might seem unsympathetic, even shocking.
     “You wouldn’t snub a friend if he was crippled by polio, would you?” she began. “Well your boyhood friend is an emotional cripple.”
     Then, she made a point that was radical at the time.      “Many homosexuals lead useful lives and enrich society through their creative efforts,” she wrote. “A person so afflicted, if he behaves in a socially acceptable manner, should not be insulted or snubbed.”
     It was the first time she had addressed the topic in almost six years on the job, and the response was enormous. The Sun-Times ran a page.
     “I am thoroughly disgusted with you,” a reader from Cleveland wrote. “The idea of a woman of your position standing up for queers!”
     “Your column about homosexuals was like a beacon of light in a dark world,” a reader from Los Angeles wrote.

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Saturday, June 17, 2023

Inside John Deere Harvester Works: Think your iPhone is cutting-edge? Try driving an X9 combine.

     You know how some guys are about visiting ballparks around the country? They'll go to, oh, Baltimore, just so they can put a Camden Yards notch on their belt. I've always been like that about publications. I still like to add a new scalp. Particularly a publication like Crain's Chicago Business, a first rate, must-read title. 
     It helps that I really, really enjoy visiting factories — I can't think of another journalist in Chicago who makes a habit of that — and have been itching to get to John Deere, a mere 170 miles west of here. I loved every aspect of this story, both immersing myself in the company lore and rich history of a vastly cool cultural icon. I loved figuring out how to present the complicated manufacture process. 
     It was difficult, when Crain's posted the original 3200-word story two weeks ago, not to post the first graph here and then link to their site. I wanted to crow. But they have a solid paywall, and it didn't seem fair to catch your interest and then frustrate you.
     Besides, I knew the Sun-Times would be running an abbreviated, 2100-word version. To pull off that double play, honestly, took some gymnastics. Running a big article in a competitor and then a version in our own paper is not exactly standard operating procedure. But fortune favors the bold, and it seems to have worked. This is running in Sunday's paper, and I am, in theory, free to do more work for Crain's, provided all involved have a chance to sign off.
     Enough prelude. I hope this is half as fun to read as it was to write:

     Don’t be fooled by the miles of grain blurring into one endless field as you blast by on Interstate 88.
     Those stalks might all look the same to you. But farm equipment today can perceive each individual plant and know which one’s a crop, which is a weed.
     A John Deere combine rattling across Gaesser Farms in Ankeny, Iowa, can recognize which type of grain is being harvested and consider the direction of the wind and the slope of the ground to orient itself with far more precision than the smartphone in your pocket can tell you where you’re standing.
     GPS will place your phone’s location to within a couple of feet. But a modern combine triangulates the signal with even greater accuracy.
      ”We apply everything within one inch of where it’s supposed to be,” said Chris Gaesser, who farms 5,400 acres.
     Such precision is necessary if you want to, say, spray herbicide on weeds but not on the dirt between them. A farm generates data faster than it generates alfalfa after a rain. Both must be handled properly to keep everything running smoothly.
     If your image of a farmer is a man in overalls and a straw hat driving a tractor, daydreaming of peach cobbler, welcome to 2023. A modern farmer is more likely to be making phone calls and checking the number of “likes” on his latest #FarmTok post while the combine drives itself.
     He doesn’t have much choice.
     ”You’re sitting in this thing 16 hours a day, many times in the fall, this is the farmer’s office,” said Jason Abbott, manager of value realization at the John Deere Harvester Works. “Think about it that way. You have to not only run your machine efficiently and productively, in many cases you have to run your business while you’re in the machine.”
     City drivers are so dazzled by their shiny new hybrid vehicles’ traffic-sign recognition and 360-degree bird’s-eye view they might not realize that the same artificial intelligence revolution has revolutionized farming and the way farm equipment is manufactured.
     ”The tech adoption in agriculture would absolutely shock people that aren’t in the loop,” said Miles Musick, factory engineering manager at the Harvester Works, about 170 miles west of Chicago in East Moline, Illinois.
     Spend a morning at the 3 million-square-foot Harvester Works, and you get a sense of how high-tech it’s all become. When a Deere factory opened in the city in 1912, it already was toward the end of the company’s first century. The company was started in Grand Detour, Illinois, in 1837 by John Deere, a Vermont blacksmith who turned an old saw blade into a self-scouring steel plow that did a better job of cutting through Illinois’ sticky black earth.

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Friday, June 16, 2023

‘Stop the steal’ isn’t a new lie

     When someone learns where I work, they sometimes will fix me a sympathetic look and coo, “How is the paper doing?” Nodding with anticipation, they clearly expect me to share some tale of woe. Ready, it seems, to pat my hand sympathetically, if not give me a supportive hug after I burst out weeping.
     And not without reason. We are still in the age of the Great Newspaper Die-Off, where journalistic brachiosauruses regularly roll their eyes and collapse to the ground with a thundering crash.
     So it surprises them when I reply that the paper is doing great, really getting my back into that word, Tony the Tiger fashion: “grrreat!” Their faces betray disbelief and perhaps a little disappointment, the way you would react to news that Nana, 96, has checked herself out of hospice and gone on a Carnival Cruise to Antigua.
     But it’s true. The Chicago Newspaper Guild recently signed a three-year contract that, unlike past contracts, is not a full-face slap. There are raises. I can’t speak for anyone else on our burgeoning staff — they’re also hiring — but for me, it’s like being about to surrender to the icy chop, closing my salt-crusted eyes for the last time upon this storm-tossed world, only to open them later to find myself blinking in a bright stateroom, being dried off with fluffy towels as hot broth is spooned into my mouth.
     There’s also new equipment. The tech folks told me to come get my new laptop, even though the old Apple, circa 2012, still works. I almost argued. The long-established rule at the paper is, you can’t get a fresh pencil until you turn in the stub of the old one.
     First, I was instructed to go over the old laptop, removing my files. The laptop, with me from Tokyo to Tierra del Fuego, had thousands of photos. Instead of just transferring them, I saw a chance to cull.

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Thursday, June 15, 2023

Don't be afraid, it's just a book...

     We can take living in Illinois for granted, as an oasis from the revanchist madness gripping parts of the nation. For instance, on Monday, the state banned book bans.
     "Book bans are about censorship; marginalizing people, marginalizing ideas and facts," Gov. J. B. Pritzker said, stating the quiet part out loud. "Regimes ban books, not democracies."
     Illinois was the first state in the country to pass a law cutting funding to any library that restricts books because of "partisanal or doctrinal" disapproval. And while the devil is in the details, it means that any censorious individual can't count on the state as an eager partner if they get bent out of shape because a book acknowledges the existence of LGBTQ people, or goes into America's racist past in detail that makes them uncomfortable. They'll just have to be satisfied with not checking out books they don't like, instead of pretending those books are dangerous for everybody, and forcing their narrow outlook on the entire community, a common practice in the red-tinted regions of the country.
     Books help, not hurt, as I was reminded Wednesday, when I introduced readers to Sara Bader's newest book on pet love and grief, mentioning a column, gulp, nearly 20 years ago, when I wrote about her first book.


     History once meant the lives of kings, which grew old before somebody had the bright idea to also look at the lives of common people: laborers and farmers and artisans. Suddenly we understood the past a little better.  
       Researcher Sara Bader has had a similar insight, realizing that she could learn an awful lot about the past through old classified ads, and her lovely new book, Strange Red Cow, is an illuminating delight. She uses classifieds, mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, to riff from the whimsical to the heartbreaking, from ads for lost livestock (the title comes from a plea, beginning, "Came to my plantation . . . A STRANGE RED COW . . .") to ads for runaway slaves ("RUN away from the Subscriber, on Saturday the 1st Instant, a Negro Woman named JUDITH, who carried her Child with her. . . .").
     Bader discovered that if you, for instance, are wondering what people kept in their saddlebags in 1777, you could find out by consulting the advertisement of someone who lost two between Worcester and Hardwick ("Lost . . . a pair of SADDLE BAGS containing a Cheese, some pulled Sheeps Wool, a number of Apples, a striped small Apron, and a small pair of blue Stockings . . ."). She writes well, too.
     "We can untie the twine that once wrapped up their parcels, rifle through satchels, empty out coat pockets," she writes, in the lucid commentary surrounding the old ads. "That our collective ancestors forgot their books in carriages, left their capes on battlefields, and dropped their keys and their cash is oddly reassuring."
     Like classifieds, the book is divided into subject headings "Help Wanted," "Lost and Found," "Swap." You'll learn things you never thought of before -- how after the Civil War, former slaves took out poignant ads in the black press, searching for their lost children -- and you will never look at the classified section of the newspaper in the same way again.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times Dec. 26, 2005

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

‘The one gift we cannot give’

     “How many summers does a little dog have?” poet Mary Oliver asks in her 2013 collection, “Dog Songs.” I usually mark lines that strike me with a Post-It note. Here there was no need. I carried it away, indelible as a tattoo.
     The question, well, I almost said it haunts me. But that’s over-dramatic. The question sits there like an unwelcome visitor in a waiting room, briefcase jammed with sorrow on its knees, looking around impatiently, tapping the face of its wristwatch.
     I thought of the line again recently, meeting Bella, a Bichon mix, like my Kitty. In front of the Northbrook Public Library. She was very thin and shaky and clearly not long for this world.
     “How old?” I asked, the usual dogwalker’s question, freighted with more than the usual significance.
     “Eighteen,” the owner, a lady about my age, replied.
     Kitty is 13. So five years. Relief. And concern. How fast does five years go? Will it be more? Or less? How many summers does a little dog have?
     In the past, when I thought of Kitty’s ultimate end, I sought shelter in a facile line. “I’m hoping to go before she does.” Now that seems too glib. Some pains demand anticipation. Luckily, pet owners now have a whole book to prepare and brace us: “The Book of Pet Love & Loss: Words of Comfort & Wisdom from Remarkable People,” by Sara Bader, a gorgeous volume intended to both celebrate our love of companion animals and bring solace when bereavement comes.
     “How do we make sense of the desolation that sets in so quickly?” the author asks.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Stitcher Fast

     "It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me," I sang to a neighbor across the street Monday morning, setting down the hose I was using to water my vanhoutte spirea and doing a choppy little dance move with my arms. 
     "How did you know that?" she replied, startling me in turn. 
      How did I know?
      "I exist in the world!" I objected. 
      To provide urgently needed context, a) the opening line is from Taylor Swift's hit song "Anti-Hero" and b) the neighbor had gone to Detroit over the weekend with two  other ladies from the block and one very lucky elementary school girl, to catch the Swift show there at Ford Field. My foray into song was an attempt to acknowledge her adventure.
      For a moment, I thought that her surprise was because I'm old. How could an old person know a currently popular song? And there is truth to that. Working out, I listen to music, and it occurred to me that all my favorite songs are 45 years old. That was kinda depressing.
     Although in truth, I'm only a few years older than she, though not the sort to travel hundreds of miles to take in the hottest teen sensation.
     I do try to keep up. I've listened to Lizzo — bash, joyful, juicy, fun. I've made a point of hitting the "Browse" function on Apple Music and discovered lots of songs that are good to exercise to and bear repeated listening. "Tick Tick Boom" by Sage the Gemini and "Paralyzer" by Finger Eleven. "Mr. Brightside" by the Killers and "Float On" by Modest Mouse.
    As for Taylor Swift, it isn't as if the songs speak to my condition, though I admire the humor of the "Shake It Off" video, plus of course her pulchritude. Maybe because she first came to my awareness when Kanye West grabbed the microphone away from Swift at the 2009 MTV Music Awards, but there was always a pall of victimhood about her — her songs always seem addressed to the haters and fakers she refers to in "Shake It Off." I find myself wishing someone would share with her former Sun-Times City Editor Don Hayner's excellent advice: "Don't let them live in your head rent free."
      But we live in an age when obvious things sometimes shouldn't be remarked upon — that's why I used "pulchritude" instead of "beauty" — depending on who is doing the remarking.  I was reminded of that when a man about my age remarked on how Madonna had disfigured herself with plastic surgery and was set upon on social media as a sexist and a swine. Okay then. I haven't studied Swift's oeuvre, but I'm hoping her gigantic concert success this year is restorative for the young woman, who seems a genuinely nice person, constantly surprising fans by sending them presents and popping behind them on street corners. The video clips from the Soldier Field concert made me wish, well, not quite that I were there, but that I had been there (echoing something Dr. Johnson quipped about the Giant's Causeway — and thanks to John O'Rourke for tracking it down: "Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see."
     Okay, I think we've had enough of this subject for today. Let's wrap up.
     As if seeing my face fall and immediately understanding the cause, my neighbor quickly explained that she was surprised I knew of the song because I am a man. No argument there.
     "There were probably 10 men in the entire audience," she said, recounting one in a t-shirt that read, "It's me, hi, I'm the dad, it's me."
      That's a shame. While I don't think I'd ever take the time or spend the $500 or a thousand bucks to see a Taylor Swift show on my own volition, should the opportunity come my way — the need to squire a young grand niece perhaps, or a newspaper assignment, or neighbor's spare ticket — I think I would embark upon the experience with an eager and open mind. After all, I once survived a live performance of "The Big Comfy Couch" children's television program without any noticeable ill effects. We can't stay young, but at least we can be vaguely aware of what the young are up to.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Democrats need to wake up

Dryer lint Donald Trump, center, at 2016 Republican National Convention. 

     This Friday, June 16, marks many things. It’s Bloomsday, the day in 1904 when the entirety of James Joyce’s great novel, “Ulysses” takes place. It’s also my parents’ anniversary — 67 years and still going strong. (Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad!) And my younger son’s birthday.
     It’s also the date in 2015 when Donald John Trump descended that escalator in the vomit-colored lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, declared himself a candidate for president and promised to save this country from the twin perils of Mexican immigrants and Muslims.
     Eight years. Three thousand days, most of which saw Donald Trump twirling like a demented ballerina in drippy orange makeup in the spotlight of American life. From that introductory moment — the first words out of his mouth a lie, natch, inflating the few dozen people present into “thousands” — to last week, when he was indicted by federal authorities on 37 counts related to seven charges under the Espionage Act.
     What a strange, terrible time in American history. Sometimes I consider it punishment for, having missed the tumult of the 1960s, wishing I could have lived in a momentous era of American history when great issues were being resolved. I take it back.
     No time for regret now. Not with Trump followers urging violence at the prospect of his being prosecuted for his crimes. Not when they question the value of law enforcement before they’ll ever question their Chosen One.
     Trump certainly will never pause from lying. Why would he? The lies work. The federal case, outlining his betrayal of national interest and endangering our security by exposing America’s military secrets to her enemies, was instantly shrugged off. Republicans have honed a variety of survival skills — perpetual imaginary victimhood, look-a-squirrel whataboutism, but-the-trains-run-on-time tunnel vision — allowing them to instantly ignore anything Trump does, did, or ever could do.
     If Republicans are in a trance, so are Democrats. Because we keep waiting for Republicans to wise up.

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Sunday, June 11, 2023

"You better party"

     "Who is he? (And what is he to you?)" is a great title for a blues song, and Sugaray Rayford delivered it with power, sincerity and a surprising dance groove for such a big man.    
     "Six-foot-five, 365 pounds baby!" he enthused to the crowd at the Pritzker Pavilion stage of the Chicago Blues Festival Saturday night.
St. Regis Hotel
      As glad as Rayford said he was to be in Chicago, as opposed to all the other places all over the world the Texas native has performed, we were a seated crowd, and that just would not do. Rayford urged us to our feet, several times, until everyone was standing and swaying.
     "You better party," he half urged, half threatened, invoking the possible return of COVID to dampen scenes like this one. "It could shut down again tomorrow."
     That sense of urgent fun seemed the general mood on a jammed Michigan Avenue, packed with people enjoying perfect June weather. Lines of latecomers to get into the Blues Fest stretched around the block. Summer seemed in full swing. Musicians played, families strolled, children gawked.
     We couldn't stay for the end of Rayford's set — reservations at Miru, a Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant opened last month in the new St. Regis Hotel, the shiny green Jeanne Gang tower with its way cool two floor "blow-out" section to keep the 100-story structure from swaying in the Chicago wind.
     "It's a thrill just going in the building," I told my wife, as we went in. "The fact we also get dinner is just a bonus."
     We got off the elevator, edged into the young, hip crowd. From the maitre d' station, the restaurant looks small, intimate, but then as you step inside, it unfolds, through an expansive section out onto one of the great romantic restaurant decks in Chicago. Miru is Japanese for "view," and offers an expansive sweep across the river, from Trump Tower ("I'm going to be standing there when they take those letters down," I told my wife, leaving out the part about cheering) to Navy Pier, the Ferris wheel and the lake, and the biggest challenge of the experience was deciding which way to face at our table, and even then, we kept swiveling in our seats, admiring the glorious city all around us.  
     While we were b
eing ushered to our table, we bumped into Lettuce founder Richard Melman. I don't know why I was surprised to find him there on a Saturday night, if not quite bussing tables, then midwifing the birth of his latest creation. He paused his efforts to join us at our table, advising us on the best things to order — grilled avocado in a spicy soy, which was truly wonderful. The broccolini gomaae in sweet sesame sauce was a fun twist on the classic spinach, the vegetables firm yet yielding. We had chopped Bluefin tuna on little leaves of crispy shiso, and smoked pork belly skewers in apple cider glaze. I couldn't resist trying the miso black cod, and Edie opted for their hamachi ponzu maki. Sometimes dessert is a trifle, a sweet afterthought, but dessert at Miru was perhaps the highlight; coconut cake and mango sorbet, and — my favorite — black sesame mochi with charcoal vanilla ice cream and black sesame praline.
     And the sushi.... I've eaten at some first rate sushi places — like the eight-seat Omakase Ume — and Miru is right up there with the best.
     The St. Regis is on Wacker, just west of Lake Shore Drive, and it's a 1.7 mile hike to Union Station. But my wife shrugged off my suggestion of a cab and we power-walked it in half an hour. Oddly enough, the sprint to the train was itself fun, almost marvelous, the capstone of a very busy day — my 63rd birthday. It like a dream — a good dream this time — to race across the Loop, through all the color and lights and noise and crowds, the familiar buildings sliding past, the cars and commotion. Our train car heading home was host to a cluster of loud, laughing girls, talking excitedly, as if they'd never been downtown before. Maybe they hadn't.  

View from the patio at Miru in the St. Regis Hotel.