Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Flashback 2006: "We didn't know what it meant."

Captured Syrian tanks

     Usually, I have a nose for anniversaries. I can see them coming. Not this time; I didn't realize that Monday was the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War until the rabbi leading the service mentioned it at the start of his sermon. Though I suppose it's fitting that the anniversary snuck up on me. It reminded me of the moment captured at beginning of this column, from 17 years ago. Back then, the column ran a full page, and I've left in the subheads, and the rest, including the lame joke at the end, in case you feel like reading it.


     I once found myself on the Golan Heights, chatting with an Israeli general. We stared down at the sweeping vista; you could see for miles, into Lebanon and Syria.
     He was a veteran of the 1973 war, when the Syrians recaptured the heights, briefly, and I had a question that — though impolitic — I just had to ask:
     How'd they ever sneak up on you? How could the Syrian tanks possibly have stormed the heights and taken you guys by surprise?
     He paused, thinking — this was obviously a difficult question — then gave me an honest answer, one that has stuck in my mind ever since.
     "We saw them coming," he said. "But we didn't understand what that meant."


     I didn't go into the office Monday, deciding instead to camp out in front of my computer and watch CNN's coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks, rebroadcast online as if in real-time.
     I didn't watch the day the attacks happened — busy — and was interested in seeing how the coverage transpired.
     What impressed me was how difficult it was for the anchors to process what was happening in front of them. Even though the second plane struck on live television — as some witness to the first attack prattled on, unaware — it was unnoticed and unremarked upon for a long time. At first they thought it might be a secondary explosion, related to the first plane. Even after they realized a second plane had hit, the CNN announcer clung to the notion that some kind of navigational beacon error might be sending airplanes into the World Trade Center.
     The word "terrorism" was never used, nor the possibility raised, until an unnamed government official announced that this was indeed an attack.
     I don't think CNN did a bad job, under the circumstances. Only it does remind us — as we cope with this uncertain future — how very human it is to cling to normalcy, to ignore what is going on under your nose if it deviates too much from the standard script. If Osama bin Laden himself, in turban and flowing robes, got aboard the 8:16 Metra Milwaukee North Line train this morning, and sat quietly holding a black spherical cartoon bomb on his lap, my guess is that most people on the train wouldn't give him a second glance, not until he drew out his lighter and lit the fuse, and only then because smoking isn't allowed on the train.


     President Bush's first remarks on that day five years ago — Florida schoolchildren standing incongruously behind him, as if he were still going to talk about education — were to pledge the full support and power of the federal government to aid the disaster in New York.
     He needs to keep that pledge. As you probably have heard, as many as 70 percent of the firefighters, police officers, construction workers and ordinary citizens who rushed to the World Trade Center site to help, and who aided in clearing the scene, are now suffering from lung disease due to inhaling all that dust. Just like Americans as a whole, 40 percent of them do not have health insurance.
     Are they to be punished for helping? To suffer for their heroism, unaided by government? I watched Bush's speech Monday night, and was jarred to see him praise the dead and ignore the living. This is unacceptable, and the president should say nothing until he commits the nation to stand by its bravest citizens. He needs to make good on his past words before uttering any more.


     The Sept. 11 anniversary brought a blizzard of commentary, much of it daft. The most ridiculous, to me, was the statement, repeated again and again, that the United States enjoyed a groundswell of international sympathy immediately after 9/11, support we squandered by acting the way we did.
     Well, yeah. But what of it? They always love you when you die. Take it from a Jew — the world likes nothing better than to sit back and cluck sympathetically at your destruction.
     Act, however, in any kind of decisive fashion, protect yourself, and disapproval is swift. Israel was the spunky underdog when the Arab nations had its neck on the block and were sharpening their scimitars. Now that Israel has a bit of might, the world wails that it's a bully and an aggressor.
     President Bush had to do something after 9/11, and what he did — go after bin Laden and his supporters, the Taliban in Afghanistan, made perfect sense. The Iraqi war was more a stretch, but even then, WMD or no, there was a logic: One of the lessons of 9/11 was not to turn a blind eye to threats.
      It is fooling ourselves to pretend that, if only we had left Iraq alone, then the world would be our buddy. It wasn't before, and the flash of pity at 9/11 was certain to pass no matter what we did.


     You don't remember Lynda Gorov. But I do. She was going to be a big-deal Chicago columnist. In the hoopla welcoming her, which included billboards, she told Michael Miner that she was preparing for her newspapering fame by lying on a beach in Mexico, reading a Mike Royko anthology. The gods stirred.
     It has been nearly 20 years, but I can still feel the headshaking shiver of utter, slack-jawed, visceral disgust that rattled across me.
     Flash to today. Michael McCarthy, a Second City alum, is telling the Tribune all about his new radio show debuting next week on Q101. It's going to be Chicagoriffic!
     "At the end I do a commentary," he said. "I used Mike Royko as my model. I'm rereading his columns."
     Good idea. Hope it works. Though isn't that like rubbing a $20 bill against your wallet, trying to breed money? Royko doesn't rub off and only fools try. Whenever a reader writes in to say that I'm no Royko, I thank him, sincerely, because not being Royko is one of my major life goals.
     I particularly wouldn't use Royko as an example were I in broadcasting, given how wooden he was when he did political commentary on TV.
     But maybe you'll do better, Michael McCarthy, in however many months you've got before Q101 gives you the flush. Welcome to Chicago, pal, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. (Editor's note: McCarthy lasted a little more than a year at Q101 and died in 2020, age 61).


     This one is not my fault. It is the fault of Robin Reizner, of Vernon Hills, who in turn blames a client:
     What is Irish and stays out all night?
     Patio Furniture

     A lucrative client, I assume.
                                        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 13, 2006

Monday, September 25, 2023

Danes make bikes work; so can we.

Bikes parked at the Copenhagen train station.

     I first rode a bicycle in downtown Chicago the summer of 2000. We were about to move from East Lakeview to Northbrook, and I figured this was my chance to bike to work. I took the lakefront bike path to Grand Avenue, then cut over to the paper, then on Wabash.
     Or tried to.
     Nearly a quarter century later, I still remember that terrifying gantlet of zooming cars and idling trucks. I felt lucky to get to 401 N. Wabash alive.
     That might have also been my last bike ride downtown. But in the summer of 2013, Chicago introduced the Divvy bikeshare system. Pay a few bucks, undock the heaviest bicycle ever made and ride around the city to your heart’s content. A dock was installed right outside the paper: duty called.
     Starting small, I’d Divvy to lunch spots a bit farther than comfortable walking distance. Before I knew it, I was a pro, riding in February, my hands snug in their pricy lobster gloves. Zipping up the center of LaSalle Street at noon felt like being 12 years old again and standing on the pedals of my green Schwinn Typhoon. Riding a bike meant freedom, happiness.
     The Divvy led to adventures. Riding a Divvy, I was mocked by both Rahm Emanuel (rolling down the window of his SUV to give me grief in traffic) and Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, the president of Mongolia. (I went to his opening of the new consulate here in 2013 because there was a Divvy dock out front. As the only journalist present, I was bustled over and told to ask a question. I inquired about their border with China. “That’s a stupid question,” the Golden Swallow of Democracy replied, to general hilarity.)
     I haven’t Divvied since COVID struck — I’m not downtown enough to justify the annual fee. But my experience left me attuned to the struggles of those who navigate Chicago by bike, or try to.
     My social-media-formerly-known-as-Twitter feed is filled with reports of riders killed by careless motorists and the frustrating struggle to make Chicago more bike-friendly, which can seem one of those impossible tasks like building affordable housing or reforming the police.
     It was certainly on my mind during my recent trip to Copenhagen and Amsterdam, which can be considered the bike heaven and bike hell of Europe.

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Sunday, September 24, 2023

The sheer tenacity of clematis



     Were I to ask you to start naming flowers — rose, daisy, daffodil, marigold — I believe that no matter how long you went on — zinnia, astor, petunia, iris — you would never get to clematis.
     Which is curious, because they're everywhere, especially now. An enormous bank of clematis is in front of a charming brick bungalow on the next block, putting off a sweet scent so intense that it presented itself while I was still across the street and several houses down.  An almost powdery floral smell, like sticking your face in a powder puff and breathing deeply.
      This is apparently typical.
     "Though well adapted for walls, trellises, pillars, and such like positions in the dressed garden, this plant is perhaps never more effective in pleasure-ground scenery than when planted on some rocky eminence," Thomas Moore and George Jackman write in the 1872, The Clemitas as a Garden Flower, "where, being allowed to assume a decumbent habit, its myriads of pure white blossoms seem to pour down the declivities like masses of drifting snow, at the same time embalming the air with their fragrance."
     There are some 380 species of clematis, some quite similar, but I'm going out on a limb and guess that these are Sweet Autumn Clematis, Clematis Paniculata J.F.Gmel.
     Maybe one reason clematis don't reside easily among the other flowers is because it's named, not for the delicate blooms, but for the plant below. "A genus of twining shrubs" is how the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, citing it as a direct borrowing from Latin, clematis, or "some kind of climbing or trailing plant, prob. periwinkle," and the Latin stemming directly from ancient Greek, κληματίς.
     Given the word's age, and the proliferation of the flower across the northern hemisphere, it's surprising how little the plant has twisted into our conscious. It's not a very literary flower (though there is a Victor Hugo clematis, with bold purple blossoms). Maybe because, unlike "rose," very little rhymes with "clematis." Bursitis? "Come fight us?" See the problem?
     Shakespeare doesn't mention clematis, though he does cite woodbine — with Oberon's "Quite over-canopied with luscious Woodbine" in "Midsummer Night's Dream" and some scholars think the term might have been referring to the wild clematis.
     There is a truly awful poem by Scottish poet Alexander Bathgate called "The Clematis" that punishes those who push through its far too numerous two dozen lines by calling the flower "Emblem of a perfect wife" whose work is unnoticed until it somehow benefits her husband and others remark on it. Ewww.
     Irish poet Eamon Grennan, who often cites flowers in his poetry and even wrote one poem about killing his houseplants, does a better job in "The Search," where he lauds the clematis for its perseverance, beginning: “It’s the sheer tenacity of the clematis clinging to/ rusty wire and chipped wood-fence that puts this/ sky-blue flare and purple fire in its petals."
     They do hang on. I've had some planted before my front porch, and they go up the trellis and over the rail forming an enormous mat that I finally cut away last year, discovering that my tolerance of the thing had caused significant portions of the wood underneath to rot. So no affection here. Though no hard feelings either. The clematis are quite pronounced on my front porch, though nowhere near as grand as the house above. Springtime gets all the good press, but autumn is not without its compensations.


Saturday, September 23, 2023

Danish notes #3 — Eats


     So why Copenhagen? Nobody asked, but I'll answer anyway. Simple. Because the best restaurant in the world, supposedly, noma, is in Copenhagen, and announced it's closing in March ... so we decided to go.
     To Copenhagen, that is. Not to noma. Due to an editing error, where the ellipsis is in the above should contain the words "and our older son, a dedicated foodie, was taking the time to swing by for a bite."
     Honestly, I never considered eating there. With dinner at noma running about the price of one round trip Chicago-to-Copenhagen airplane ticket, we satisfied ourselves hanging out with him during the time he wasn't lapping up chow like a marinated pine cone.
     Not that we didn't eat very well in Copenhagen. I don't want to say lining up at the food trough is why we travel. But it certainly because a key factor. You're in a new place, you try new stuff.
   As soon as we parked our bags at the Coco Hotel, we headed for breakfast to the oldest bakery in Copenhagen, Sankt Peders Bageri, founded in 1652. So they've had a lot of practice, and it shows. There was a line out in the street, though that is more a sign that other people can search Google too. In this case, the treats were well worth it. Fresh, delicate. I particularly enjoyed the pistachio number with the green frosting — although, just as they don't call them French fries in France, so there are no Danish in Denmark. 
     The Danish national dish is called smørrebrød — literally "butter bread" — but it's really a slice of dark rye with a lot of food piled on it. The next day, for lunch, we headed to the sprawling Torvehallerne food market and got in an even longer line at Hallernes Smørrebrød, which was good, because it gave us time to debate a large array of options. There were so many varieties that just ordering one seemed a failure of imagination , so we each got two — I went for pork loin with pickled cabbage and one with roast beef with fried onions and horseradish, and my wife got salmon salad with smoked salmon and caviar and liver pate with lingonberries and pickled beets. We finished them handily — we walked a lot, and built up an appetite.
     Our other smørrebrød experience was at the more stylish Schonnemann, which advertises itself as "the best traditional lunch in Copenhagen" which struck me as completely on the mark. Founded in 1877, it had the feel of the old Berghoff before it went out of business in 2006 and was replaced with a facsimile. The waiter was a welcoming mix of brisk and friendly, explaining the importance of schnapps to the herring experience — we ordered curry, mustard and elderberry varieties. I satisfied myself with a TeeDawn Gentle Lager, one of the many excellent NA beers I sampled in Copenhagen.
     We only ate at one "high end restaurant" — Kappo Ando, which served us a dozen skewers of yakitori. I can't say I was overwhelmed by the food, but the process took two hours, and made for a restful evening of chow and conversation.
     My wife and I agreed that one of the best meals we had was a 6o kroner — about $10 — boar hot dog at Johnny's, the hot dog cart at the Copenhagen train station, which came with marinated onions and a corn relish. (Though be advised — the boar hot dogs are only available on the weekends, the proprietor told us).
     Oh, and noma? Our son showed us the obligatory photo of every course, and while they looked intriguing, and he certainly enjoyed the experience, and felt the venture worthwhile, I can't say I was stricken with remorse over not going. Although there was one dish, a soup made of flower petals, that was quite beautiful, and I asked him if he would share a photo of it with you, and he agreed.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Call them by their name: ‘refugee camps’

UN Photo/Mark Garten (used with permission)
    They’re refugee camps.
     Who does the city thinks it’s fooling, calling their plan to call 2,000-person settlements “winterized base camps.” They’ve got tents. They’ve got refugees. They’re refugee camps.
     Regular readers know that I’m all for immigrants. They’re what makes America great; not taking away women’s reproductive choices, not burning books, not demonizing vulnerable youth.
     Immigrants. They’re why we’re not in a demographic death spiral, like Japan. Immigrants. C’mon in guys, make yourselves at home, grab a shovel, start digging, maybe your kid’ll go to Yale. If you want to celebrate your nation-of-origin’s independence day by driving around, waving flags, that doesn’t bother me a bit. Native-born Americans celebrate our country’s birth with cheap explosives that blow off their fingers and scare their pets. I can’t argue that’s any better. We’re a nation of personal freedom. Which is one reason you’re here.
     But in this great, free country, words are important. A “base camp” is what Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set up at the foot of Mount Everest before pushing for the summit. Base camps are where the rebels operate from in the Nicaraguan jungle.
     That plural is also important. Not a camp but camps, as in a number of them. Fran Spielman’s story Thursday mentioned one possible site, at 115th and Halsted. Where will the others go?
     I know why the city balked at calling them by their proper name. Refugee camps are just not places we expect to find in 2023 America, or in America at any time, for that matter. Looking back over the sweep of history, I see what were at the time called “internment camps” — where American citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned after being ripped from their West Coast homes during World War II, moved inland under the spurious belief that their racial ancestry trumped their patriotism. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
     Maybe we can soften “refugee camps” by branding them. Can we sell naming rights? The Kenneth C. Griffin Outdoor Residential Facility? Goose Island Lager Gulag? Chicago was slow in branding Divvy when it was rolled out 10 years ago, and left millions on the table. Don’t make the same mistake again.

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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Danish notes #2: You already know a Danish word

    When I travel to French- or Spanish-speaking countries, I usually can suss out a few words, a bit of the language, enough to get by. Hommes are men, si is yes.
     But Danish is another kettle of fish. A difficult language to learn, heard by an English speaker, it's an incomprehensible gabble, like an audiotape being played backward. Luckily every single person we encountered in Copenhagen spoke fluent English. Considerate of them.
     Danish is, as I mentioned Tuesday, a Germanic language, spoken by only about six million people. So knowing a tiny bit of German helped, as did context. Take the sign above — Brug for lid frisk luft? Being a stamp collector, I recognized the word for "air," luft, as in Luftpost, or airmail. Frisk is close enough to "fresh" and lid must be "little." Putting them together, I came up with, "Want a little fresh air?" and was pleased with my growing Danish mastery. I was close: "Need some fresh air?" according to Google Translate. Of course the nearby bike and air hose helped immensely.
     This sign was even more enigmatic: Ungdom giv en fuck for din kommune! Based on the photo of the three happy multi-ethnic young people, it seemed a public service poster of some kind. I wondered: could "fuck" have some separate meaning in Danish? That would be awkward.
     No, fuck means in Danish exactly what it means in English, and the sentence translates out as, "Youth, give a fuck about your community!"
     Well, points for reaching out to kids, and speaking their own language, as it were. But that leaving us with the enigma of why the Danes don't have their own word for "fuck" — why import it from English? 
     Lots of languages import English words — "hamburger" "sexy" "smartphone" and such — just as English borrows lots of words from other languages: "taco," "rendezvous," "stein."
    And many languages have their own version of "fuck" — in Greek it's ya moto," which sounds very Japanese — ironic, since Japanese does not have an equivalent to "fuck" — if they're looking for an obscene expletive, they use kso, or "shit." Many languages do the same, using female body parts, for instance, to convey the sense we have with "fuck."
    Others, like the Danes, just take the blunt English word. In Afrikaans, it's fok. Ditto for Norwegian, it's føkk, which is quite close.
   I tried to find out why some cultures adopt it, and others don't, and pretty much came up empty, except for the general reason to snag English loanwords — because the language is seen in many quarters, still, as young, modern and cool. 
    As for why the Danes would display an obscenity in a context where it would never appear in the United States, that's easy. Remember, we are a nation of busybodies and prudes, the descendents of martinets, religious fanatics and busybodies. Denmark, on the other hand, is famously liberal. "The Danes are known for being cosmopolitan, well-educated, and open-minded people," the AFS website observes. Not three qualities that could ever be attached to our country, alas. A teacher was fired in Texas for reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" to her eighth grade class. It's starting to feel like, as a nation, we're føkked.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

‘It’s YOUR fault if I hate you!’

     Just over 63 years ago, in the summer of 1960, the “Greenville Eight,” led by 18-year-old Jesse Jackson, were arrested. Their crime was insisting on reading at the main public library in their South Carolina town, despite clearly being Black, and thus not permitted.
     The case led to a federal court ordering Greenville to integrate its libraries. So the town did what it thought was the only decent, moral, Christian thing it could do: close all the county libraries rather than accept the obvious impossibility of letting Black people paw books intended for whites.
     Now nobody could use the library, and it was clear who was to blame.
    “The efforts being made by a few Negroes to use the White library will now deprive all White and Negro citizens of the benefit of a library,” Greenville Mayor Mayor J. Kenneth Cass said in a statement.
     The fault lay with the eight teenagers trying to use the public library, not with the town trying to stop them.
     Bear in mind this nimble sleight of hand, almost a magician’s trick. Because we see it all the time, now, in our day.
     The Greenville Eight echoed when Elon Musk said he was going to sue the Anti-Defamation League because the ADL called for companies to suspend advertising on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, until Musk addresses the neo-Nazis and other hardened haters he permits to run wild there.
     “ADL seems to be responsible for most of our revenue loss,” Musk posted. Not himself and his policies. The pushback is to blame.
     The NAACP also begged advertisers to avoid the website.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Danish notes #1: Spiral city

Church of Our Savior, Copenhagen

     "Leitmotif" originated as a German word, used by critics picking apart the works of Richard Wagner. A fitting term to start my reflection on Copenhagen, as Danish is a Germanic language. It means, roughly, a recurrent theme, and in the case of our recent visit to the capital of Denmark, the theme we kept returning to was, of all things, spirals.
Eliasson bridge
The overture began hours after we landed, with an enigmatic tower glimpsed from the canal tour my wife cannily put us on, in the sound theory that we'd been traveling all day and would need some low energy activity to introduce us to the city. It worked. We saw all sorts of wonderful sights — a bridge designed by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson that looks like a sailing ship and collapses in on itself to let boats pass. The Rem Koolhaas-designed Danish Architecture Center, which I immediately tweeted at Lee Bey ("EAT YOUR HEART OUT!" I wrote, having decided years ago it is hysterical to taunt Lee, our architecture critic, when I see noteworthy architecture abroad. I can't hope he finds it as funny as I do; but he hasn't asked me to stop, which I take as license to continue). We even locked eyes on the backside of the Little Mermaid statue, sparing us the need to carve out time and face the throng for the obligatory visit.
     Above all, the Church of Our Savior, whose spiral steeple is unlike anything I've ever seen atop a building. Gold and black, we could see tiny figures working their way up the staircase. I wanted to be one of them.
Dragon Spire
     Moments later, we cruised past a second spiral steeple, the Dragon Spire atop the Old Stock Exchange, hove into view, evoking my favorite German saying, 
Einmal ist keinmal und zweimal ist immer, or "Once is never but twice is always."
     I noticed a trend, but did not expect a third spiral. The next day, however, we were wandering away from the Rosenborg Castle — delightfully downmarket, compared to palaces in Paris and Madrid — and happened upon the Rundetaarn, or Round Tower. We were looking for a particular marketplace, to lunch on their brand of open-faced sandwiches, and I figured atop the tower would be a good vantage point to eyeball it. 
     Don't let the bust of Tycho Brahe outside the tower fool you — the Danish astronomer died in 1601, in exile in Prague, while the Round Tower wasn't completed until 1642.
     The tower has no stairs, but a spiral path  winding seven and a half times around the building, the way the tower of Babylon is depicted. We paid our eight Euros and marched gamely upward. 
     "What's with Copenhagen and spirals?" I typed into Google, expecting all sorts of sites rhapsodizing bout Spiral City. Nothing. A lot about Church of Our Savior.  And that's about it. Nobody seemed to have made the connection before. 
Path up the Round Tower
     So the field is open to me. Readers might remember how in 2015 I used four shapes as a lens to view Chicago — the parabola, the circle, the square, the triangle. A spiral is the perfect representation a city, which also unwinds out from a central point over time — in "The Wizard of Oz," remember, Dorothy starts skipping along a spiraling Yellow Brick Road that leads her to the Emerald City. 
     The Round Tower went up in 1642. The Church of Our Savior spire was added in 1759. So I assumed the former inspired the latter. Not so. The Church of Our Savior website says it is based on the Church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, and I have no reason to doubt them.
     Those are the only two spiral church towers in the world I could find, which is odd, because spirals are an omnipresent natural design form, from starfish to galaxies. They've been used in architecture since Greek times — the capital of an Ionic column has a pair of spirals. Trajan's Column in Rome, built over 2,000 years ago, still has its spiral staircase inside. Modern buildings use them — Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim comes to mind (though honestly, as a museum warrior, I'm no fan of that ramp). 
    I started to see them elsewhere in Copenhagen, pausing in the middle of the street to snap this spiraling brick chimney, the likes of which I've never seen before.
The Treetop Experience
    The Danes are still twirling. In 2019, a 148-foot-tall spiral ramp the Treetop Experience opened in 
Gisselfeld Klosters Skove,, a forest an hour south of Copenhagen. The structure is 12 loops around a hyperboloid, for you geometry geeks (an hourglass shape for everybody else) offering visitors a treetop view of the surrounding area. I didn't visit; next time (kidding; there never is a next time).
     My wife wanted to go to Christiana, the hippie commune turned tourist attraction, and I cut short her consultation with bus schedules by suggesting we bike there. 
    On the way, we saw the Church of Our Savior, first in the distance, then looming before us. Turns out, the church is a block from an entrance to Christiana. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. We parked our bikes at the church, and after wandering about Christiana, enjoying an ice coffee, we went up the spire, which, rather than opening out on an observation deck, basically got narrower and narrower until you were jammed into an endpoint below the giant golden ball. It was not something pleasurable to do, but definitely something worth having done.

Fence around the Church of Our Savior.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Show some respect for your elders

Respect for the Aged Day ask we “upload pics to honor the elderly people in your life.” My father Robert, 91, at home in Buffalo Grove.

    When I was a little boy, an elderly man from our neighborhood would go from house to house with a wheelbarrow, selling vegetables from his garden. I don’t remember his name or what he looked like.
     But I remember my father asking him a question: “Who was the first president you ever voted for?” His answer: “Teddy Roosevelt, 1904.”
     I bring that up because Monday, Sept. 18 is Respect for the Aged Day. Didn’t know that? No shame there. I wouldn’t know either, except that Chicago Public Media’s manager of diversity, equity and inclusion sent an email encouraging us to celebrate the day.
     It began in Japan in 1966 — that word “aged” is the giveaway. Not a word many Americans would use to describe themselves or anybody else. Nor is “old.”
     I remember being at the birthday party for Harry Heftman, who owned the Chicago hot dog stand at Randolph and Franklin. He was looking a bit rhumy about the eyes, and I thought of beginning a column, “Harry Heftman is looking old ...” and asked his daughter if she thought he would mind. “Oh no, you can’t,” she said, aghast, “Harry would hate that.” Heftman was 103 years old.
     If you can’t be old at 103, when can you be old? And the honest answer is: never. Not in our culture. Disdain for the aged is the last acceptable bias. Our culture sticks old people in ghettos, so automatically we never even pause to question the practice.
      At 63, age-wise I have a foot on the boat and a foot on the pier. Especially since my parents are both alive, at 91 and 87. Having moved them from Boulder to Buffalo Grove last year and been mother-henning their increasingly complicated care ever since, I have “respect” down cold, but can’t pen a general encomium to being old without recognizing that much of age is simply horrible — a sheering away of every hope and pleasure you ever had, while undergoing expensive tortures straight from Dante’s hell.
     “The cold friction of expiring sense,” as T.S. Eliot writes. “Without enchantment, offering no promise/But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit/As body and soul begin to fall asunder.”

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Sunday, September 17, 2023

The third prayer

View out our window Saturday morning at the Lion D'or Hotel in Haarlem

     Saturday was a long day. We woke up in Haarlem at 6:29 a.m., a minute before the alarm was set to go off. Caught the 7:36 No. 300 bus to Schipol airport at the train station across the street — the airport bus leaves every 10 minutes, on the sixes, which is kinda embarrassing when you're from a place where there can be two hours between trains.  

Note the little golf hole.
     At the airport I admired and participated in, once again, a tradition invented by the Dutch at that very airport — urinal targets. Cooked up by an airport custodial official to reduce "spillage," it was estimated that cleaning costs for Schipol bathrooms fell 8 percent afterward. Perhaps a dubious figure, in my estimation, but one cited in a captivating 2017 Washington Post article that gives the little images as an example of "nudge"economics: getting people to do the right thing by gentle persuasion, as opposed to, say, punishment. The piece quotes University of Chicago Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler talking about the targets — I also saw a housefly used. One does tend to aim for the target.
     We boarded an 11 a.m United flight to Chicago. Airline problems are so commonly dissected we forget to notice that they usually work just fine, and are still a wonder. Here the flight was completely unexceptional — at one point I marveled, six miles up, 500 miles an hour, into a 100 mph, 50 degree below zero headwind. "A lot quicker than walking," I said to my wife. Three movies — "Singing in the Rain," "Eighth Grade," and "Bohemian Rhapsody" — and we were back in Chicago. As the plane taxied to the gate, the windows flecked with rain, the first we'd seen on our entire trip.
     O'Hare, as usual, was less impressive than the flight to it, or the urinal target for that matter. The passport control line to enter the country filled a room, and was worse because I knew it was coming. Open borders my foot. At least the huge line moved quickly. They're remodeling Terminal Five — so maybe it'll resemble those sleek and pristine European airports at some point in the far-off future. Right now the place is a maze of construction barriers and exposed conduit. As we snaked through the room, I juxtaposed the billboard boasting about Chicago being a "world class city" with the ripped up ceiling and the hundreds in line. It's an empty boast when we can't even put on a good face for visitors who have just arrived. (I spoke with a Dutch engineer on the plane, here for the first time, to spend 10 weeks working on coffee roasting technology in Lincolnwood. I gently suggested that Lincolnwood is perhaps not the best Chicago has to offer, that he not spend all his time there and, perhaps, make his way to the Art Institute. He hadn't heard of the place, but seemed willing to give it a try). A United official shouted to the mob that, contrary to the instructions they received, they'd have to retrieve their bags in the process of missing their connections. 
     At least American Taxi worked well, as always, a new electric car pulling up a few minutes after I ordered it. The skies were overcast, the familiar highway now felt odd. One of my favorite parts of vacation is that decompression back into your life, and after almost 10 days away, everything was satisfyingly strange, even new. "Nice house" I said, as the taxi pulled up.
     We emptied our suitcases, threw the laundry in the machine, stacked up our pile of presents for relatives and helpful neighbors. I hurried across the street to retrieve Kitty who, as always, was a much appreciated houseguest. We were delighted to learn that the first neighbor who had sat for four days later asked the second if they could have her back for one night, as a birthday treat for their daughter.  A dog of love.
     Saturday was Rosh Hashanah, so after a nap and a shower, we drove — "Nice car!" I said — over to my sister-in-law's in Skokie for dinner. We brought toys from Tivoli Gardens for the grand niece and nephew, plus Dutch chocolate and weird Danish licorice — spheres wrapped in lemon-flavored chocolate, purchased at a shop that resembled a jewelry shop in the basement of a swank Copenhagen department store, with two pretty clerks seriously handing us various orbs to sample.
     Before dinner, there were three prayers — over the wine, the bread, the apples and honey for a sweet new year, 5784 for those keeping track at home (not that anybody does, beyond the holiday, except for weddings and bar mitzvahs). The Hebrew rang a little melancholy, having been through Anne Frank's house the day before, and noted the brass "stumbling stones" in front of houses noting where residents had been rounded up and sent to their deaths — three-quarters of Dutch Jews died in the Holocaust, a much higher percentage than in Belgium or France.. You can't see the little animated film at the end of the tour, plugging the need to vigilantly protect democracy, and not think about our own orange fuhrer, still a growing threat.
     My brother-in-law, Alan, said the prayer over the apples, and added something I liked, quoting his friend, Rabbi Menachem — that at Rosh Hashanah, while we ask God to inscribe us into the book of life, it is actually we ourselves who do the writing. We whose acts and thoughts make the coming year a good one. Or not. We save our own lives, Alan said, by doing what we love. "You write yourself into the book of life for a good year." he said and I smiled,  thinking, That's a plan. 

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Chicago Voices #3: Road sign warrior

     I was walking north up Wells Street the other day, looking for Erie, when I was reminded of a pet peeve of mine. The signs on one way streets downtown often only have print on the side facing traffic. Thus pedestrians, such as myself, going the opposite way of the car traffic, are left to our memory, or GPS, to figure what street we are approaching or, must pass the sign and look back. Which does not seem a system that behooves a great city.
    I thought of complaining, but what would be the point? Who would listen? Nobody. What would happen? Nothing. 
     That is not the way of Steve Bahnsen. Readers with long memories might recall the column in 2015 that I wrote about Bahnsen, a self-appointed monitor of highway signs or, should I say, the abysmal state of highway signs. Since that ran, I have received a steady stream of countless updates.  I thought I would share one. Whether you view him as a tireless advocate or a fixated crank, he reflects that very American notion that gaps should be filled and wrongs should be corrected, 

     I am thrilled and delighted to be able to share the attached photos of the new Exit Number plaques and gores just installed along US Highways 61/151 in Dubuque. This culminates a 20 year project to have these done.
     The photos are in an order coming from the south with the first exit being 183. The exits continue north with the last one being 190.
     (Not all of these have exits or entrances in both directions thus the gap in numbering them.)
     Gores are at the exit with a green arrow. New gore signs were installed featuring the next exit number also.   
     One photo shows the Mile Post 189 sign. Miles begin at the southern or western border of a state. US 61 enters Iowa from Missouri south of Keokuk. Mile Post 1 is a mile north of the border. Dubuque is thus 189 miles from the Missouri border.
     After crossing the Mississippi River, US 61/151 continues in Wisconsin where the numbering system begins all over with Exit 1 where the highways go to Hazel Green, Wis and East Dubuque, Illinois.
     Numbering these exits will be helpful for those who need GPS to find where they are going.
     Exit numbers are shown on the new 2023 Iowa highway map.
     These signs are near the US 20 bridge that was shown last year on the Mighty Mississippi River stamps.
     I hope you have enjoyed this information about I O W A.


Which leaves a question: what is a gore? I put it to Steve. A few days passed, and then I received this:

     I was downstate and in Kentucky yesterday. Now I have about fifty reports to write about
signs and postal problems. So I just got to your message.
     To define a "gore" on an expressway or Interstate:
     It is the area where the exit is. And is between where the mainline continues straight
and the exit ramp begins. People get into the right lane to exit through the gore to get
to the exit ramp.
     The green sign here with an arrow is called the Gore Exit sign.
     If the expressway has exit numbers, that number is now shown on the Gore Exit sign.
as another reminder for travelers of where they are going.
     Those Dubuque exits were not numbered at all before so that is why everything is new.
     Also, less that one tenth of one percent of the exits nationwide are to the Left. So the
arrow on these signs point to the left. An example is when you are going to O'Hare on
I 190, there is a Left Exit to go south on the Tri State, I 294.
     However that Gore Exit sign has been down for months!!!

Friday, September 15, 2023

Wagon of Fools

Wagon of Fools by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot (Franz Hals Museum)

     It's not that I don't trust you. That would be nuts. I don't even know you. But my wife, well, she is convinced that if readers are aware when we go on vacation, then one will rush over and rob our house. Heck, she could be right. It is a crazy world. Things happen. And she does tend to be right. But even if she is not — and in this case, I suspect she isn't -- one secret to staying married for 33 years is to respect the  improbable concerns of your loved one. 
     So when we're away, such as our current jaunt through Denmark and the Netherlands, I try to draw the veil, and prop up the pillows of these posts to make it seem like there's a person here. 
     But now we're heading home. So unless you're very quick and grab your pry bar and your big sack and race over and start looting within the next few hours, we should be okay. (Not that I'm encouraging you to do that. We have a tight-knit, vigilant block of dog walkers and sharp-eyed, concerned people. My greatest protection is that there really isn't anything worth taking. A few nice Cooper lamps, maybe).
     That leaves me with the challenge of what to say. The past week was lined up before we departed.  But I carelessly left Friday unaccounted for, forgetting the bone-deep exhaustion that comes from marching around foreign capitals for a week. A few days ago, my wife looked at her FitBit and announced that we had logged 25,000 steps. More than 10 miles. Phew.
     So okay, writing. Mmm... There must be something, right? Observations galore, just waiting for me to blow a whistle and order them into formation. Tweeeeeet!  Line up!
     No? That didn't work. The perceptions just sprawl around the divans of the mind, gazing at me with languid torpor
     Can't have that. Not after biking around Copenhagen, climbing several tall towers, and seeing every painting in Amsterdam.
     Paintings like the one above, in the Franz Hals Museum in Haarlem, It stood out, or at least will have to do until I can get home, drop my bags, and slide behind my iMac — provided you haven't stolen it — and organize my thoughts, which right now pretty much revolve around where to get the next herring sandwich.
      It's called "Wagon of Fools" by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot. Painted in 1640, the work is a commentary on the infamous tulip craze of 1637, when the Dutch went mad for the bright flowers, and fortunes were made ... and then lost ... on speculation in bulbs. You see the travelers drinking and counting their profits while hope — in the form of a bird — flies off. Notice the tulips on the flag, and being worn as crowns, or cuckold horns. 
     I was about to say "I hope this doesn't perfectly encapsulate our current political situation," but hope, as I like to say, is not a success strategy. And it kinda does.
      But even if it is apt, there is also a kind of comfort. Some reassurance in realizing that widespread self-destructive idiocy is not the sole property of America in 2023, though it sometimes does feel like that. We didn't invent it. Folly is a general characteristic of the human condition. The Dutch somehow muddled through their tulip craze, and managed to laugh at themselves later. Americans will somehow get past this, and even learn to laugh at ourselves. We might as well. Everybody else does.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The Matching Game.

    Are parlor games even a thing anymore? They can't be, because parlors — formal rooms reserved for entertaining — have pretty much vanished, turned into living rooms where we slump in front of the flatscreen (I originally typed "slump in front of the television" but "television" suddenly felt wrong, like calling a refrigerator an "icebox.")
    Is entertaining still a practice? Occasionally we invite people over, after realizing we haven't seen them in years. And even more occasionally we are invited over. But work isn't the only realm where we've retreated indoors to play Wordle. 
     Or maybe that's just me. Maybe you are partying with your pals like Holly Golightly. I don't want to forget Thoreau's essential dictum about never mistaking a private ailment for an infected atmosphere.
     Perhaps I should define my terms. I think of parlor games as the silly challenges hosts impose upon their guests at cocktail parties. (Cocktail parties! I remember those. Thirty years ago we had cocktail parties and invited our many friends. I'm sure young people still have them. At least I hope they still do. Cocktail parties were fun).
     Now we have family gatherings — lots of them. For Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashanah is coming up. Passover in the spring. Beer and brats at Hanukkah. And secular holidays. Fourth of July. Or  the Sunday before last, a joint Labor Day/Oldest Son in Town barbecue. Not a lot of people — 15 friends and relatives; we might have had 10 more, but several families were out of town.  We grilled hot dogs, chicken and salmon burgers.
    My sister-in-law and her eldest daughter had been shopping at the Skokie International Market on Lincoln Avenue, and were struck by the array of unusually flavored chips. Wanting a pretext to try them without saddling themselves with lots of bags of chips they could never eat, they  concocted a game: guess the flavor, dubbing it "The Matching Game."
     She prepared eight paper bowls, numbered one through eight. Then gave us sheets headlined "Matching Game: Identify the flavor of chips in each bowl!!" 
Game sheet
     Down the left side, numbers 1 through 8. Then a list of the flavors: Mexican Chicken & Tomato; Peach Beer; Beef Wellington; Steak Kebab; Roasted Cumin Lamb; Numb & Spicy Hot Pot and Roasted Fish.
     At the bottom, more instructions: "Draw a line to connect the bowl number to the flavor you think it is! " And then a final reassurance, given the number of vegetarians and vegans at any family event: "Note: these are artificially flavored .. none contain actual meat or fish!" (More exclamation points than I would use, being miserly in that department. But a key to games is to impart enthusiasm, so exclamatory zeal can be forgiven).
    We sat around the coffee table, passed the bowls, one at a time — this seemed important, for encouraging discussion. Much better than just having the guests have at the bowls in a random rush.  Fun was had,
    The most notable thing about the results were how indistinct most of the flavors proved to be. Only one really stood out and was universally declared — the really repulsive Peach Beer. I kept score, in my reportorial role. Some flavors completely stumped the dozen players — nobody identified Kebab correctly.  The most flavors anyone guessed correctly were three — the winners my wife and our 8-year-old grandniece. One player was disqualified for amending his answers as the flavors were revealed. The process took, oh, 20 minutes. It was fun.
     In retrospect, if you want to add spice (sorry) to the game, you can ask players to speculate what cultures enjoy which particular flavors. "Peach Beer" struck me as Middle Eastern, simply because I encountered a bottle of Mood Peach Malt Beverage in a taco place a few years back, and it hailed from Jordan.
    Wrong. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. While peach beer is a common beverage — I found this article on 26 popular American peach beers, Lays Wavy White Peach Beer Chips are imported from China.  I suppose we're going to have to get used to it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Katy lied.

                   Katy lies
                   You could see it in her eyes
                   But imagine my surprise
                  When I saw you
                                 —Walter Becker/Donald Fagan

     Amazing how a word can slumber at the back of your brain for years, for decades, only to leap up, ready for duty, when the moment calls for it.
    "A katydid!" I cried, spying the gorgeous specimen atop my storm door when I returned from taking Kitty on her nighttime stroll a week ago Sunday, perching prettily atop the five coats of marine spar varnish.
     A round-headed katydid, I think. One of the 14 species of amblycorypha. 
     Not very well camouflaged in this context. Taking a risk to closely inspect my work. Nor am I 100 percent sure it's a katydid — it could be a false-leaf grasshopper — the decisive head is a bit tucked down. Though now that I look at it, it does seem a little grasshoppery.
     Either way, you have to admire the way the camouflage leaf on its back includes the veins of the leaf — details are important in any deception. An art form all their own. Vladimir Nabokov, a devoted butterfly lover, savored this sort of thing. "The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction to me," he wrote. "Its phenomenon showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. . . When a butterfly had to look like a leaf, not only were all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes were generously thrown in." Details no predator would ever notice, Nabokov cooed.
      The next morning, I spied a monarch flitting about a milkweed — they lay their eggs in milkweed. I couldn't get a good photo, I'm afraid, as the beastie was instantly on the wing. 
     But it does lead to an interesting question: two insects, both trying to survive, one by hiding, the other by advertising itself boldly. What's the difference? The katydid would make a tasty snack, while the monarch is poisonous, like the milkweeds it feeds upon as a caterpillar. So the bright orange and black coloration is a big lepidopteral "fuck you!" to potential predators. "Go ahead, eat me. It's your funeral."
     Which has to be encouraging to us toxic, out-in-the-open sorts. Leave hiding in the shadows to others, the timid leaf munchers. Fear nothing; our poison protects us.
      When I opened the screen door, the katydid oafishly moved to the lip of the door frame, where closing the door would crush it. Good thing its ancestors cooked up that leaf disguise, over countless millennia, and willed it to their progeny, because they're not very bright, the trademark curse of heirs and legacies everywhere. Kind soul that I am, despite my venom, I shooed it away and let it live to hide for another day.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Flashback 2005: "Fancy lamps"

     The assignment was to write about a Chicago factory. Any factory. I remember flipping open the business-to-business Yellow Pages — it was that long ago — and settling on a small company that made dental tools. Because who writes about that? It could be me. But the owner or, rather, his brother, didn't want to talk to the media. So I settled on Cooper Lamp, because I drove by their factory on the Kennedy. And, by the time I was done, found myself comparing it to the Ford factory on Torrence Avenue. It's a long piece, but I'm away for a while, so I thought I'd share it with you to pass the time.   

     From the street, the factory housing the Frederick Cooper Lamp Company is not as ugly as most. The building was originally a ladies undergarment plant, built around 1900; it has a courtyard and windows, luxuries that would later be dispensed with in most factories. The four-storey brick building, with a square tower double that height, is a reminder that a factory was once the centrepiece of a neighbourhood, second only to the local church. The tower, like a steeple, catches the eye; it advertises the product with a sign informing the 260,000 cars that pass every day along the Kennedy Expressway leading out of Chicago that Cooper produces lamps of elegance.
     ‘Elegance’ can be taken as an euphemism for ‘costliness’ and Cooper lamps are indeed expensive. The lamps are made of brass and copper, maple and marble, bronze and china, silverplate and gold leaf. No one has any idea how many different styles they make and the number keeps changing. The cheapest costs $200, and from there prices soar into the thousands for crystal chandeliers.
     None of the luxury of Cooper’s product extends to the factory itself. The entrance is through a single flight of narrow stairs leading to a small, not particularly clean, reception area. This was last decorated, from the look of it, in the early 1970s: pea green carpeting, and fake wood-panelled walls. A few well-tended plants, a carved eagle and some handmade sparkly butterflies on the bulletin board save the room from dreariness.
     The public face of Cooper Lamp is more attractive: Suzanne Lauren, an energetic woman whose dangly bracelets bear an uncanny resemblance to decorative elements of certain Cooper lamps. She has worked at Cooper for twenty-three years and is now the vice president of design. She is accompanied by her dog, Cooper, a German shepherd that has the run of the front office, a room as cluttered as the reception area is bare. One wall is given over to manila folders; the desks are piled high with catalogues and promotional materials; lamps in various stages of assembly crouch in the corner as if they have wandered off the factory floor.
     A lamp is divided into four parts. First is the shade—a screen of paper or cloth that softens the harshness of a bare bulb. Second is the electrical socket that receives the light bulb. Third, holding the socket aloft, is the base which is often decorative. Anything can be used for a lamp base—bowling balls, football helmets, toy trains—but given Cooper’s high-end market, the bases tend to be brass urns, china vases as well as an eclectic range of objects that seem designed to appeal to wealthy widows: brass elephants, bronze bulldogs, Chinese horses, verdigris dancing frogs, copper Nepalese horns, metal palm trees. Floor lamps tend to be more uniform because of their larger size, their bases simple brass poles or turned wooden posts.
     Under the base is the part that most non-lamp people never consider: the mounting. This is a little circle of wood or stone or, in less expensive lamps, plastic, that acts as a buffer between base and table top. The mounting is like a pedestal for a statue. Without it, a lamp looks unfinished, like an urn with a lampshade on top.
     In practice a lamp has many more pieces than just these four main components; each part consists of many more parts. A mounting might be three circles of wood, each a bit smaller than the one below. A base might be an urn that is assembled out of a dozen various rings and handles and curving sections. An electrical socket includes a cord threaded through a metal channel and a plug and a harp (the loop of brass that holds the shade). A shade can be a complex confection of cloth, metal, cardboard, or even a decorative fringe consisting of one hundred inch-long threads, each one holding a colourful glass bead.
     This multitude of parts—wooden feet, stone discs, copper tubes, glass beads, porcelain dogs, brass finials, tin pineapples—dictates the set-up of the 240,000 square foot Cooper factory. Most of the plant is given over to rows of shelves and bins and tables to hold the thousands of dusty parts. The pieces are stored where they are made since the Cooper plant consists of a series of shops. This makes the factory unusual in this age. The typical modern factory either makes something—forging steel rods, moulding rubber tires, dipping chrome plating; or it assembles something—putting together bicycles. But Cooper does both, out of necessity.
     ‘All the small businesses in the Chicago area stopped—wood carving, plating, metal forming and casting,’ says Frederick Gershanov, who owns Cooper Lamp with his older brother Peter. ‘So all those operations we took into our company.’

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