Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Ed Burke sentenced to prison: 'There's more to life than a little money, you know'

     The heat broke on Monday, a beautiful, clear, low-humidity early summer day in Chicago, beginning to end. A great time to be out and about, free and easy. I rode my bike to the paint store, got on my knees in the garden. The very last place anyone would want to be is inside a courtroom, particularly if you were the guilty party, like former City Council member Ed Burke, waiting to see how long you'd be put away.
     Citing his role in "this erosion ... this chipping away at our democracy," Judge Virginia Kendall gave Burke two years in prison, plus a $2 million fine.
     I wonder which hurt more — the time or the money? For a man who would endanger his reputation to grab some more money and gain a client. Over a Burger King driveway easement. I'm always amazed at how little people wreck their lives over. For Dan Rostenkowski it was postage stamps, crystal and a couple of chairs. George Ryan got a grand back from some vacation. Rod Blagojevich didn't get anything, but tried to shake down a children's hospital.
     Two years. Not the 10 the prosecution sought. A light sentence, but more time in jail than anyone, never mind an 80-year-old with nine-tenths of his life behind him, wants to contemplate.
     Give Burke credit. Unlike Blago, who multiplied his own prison time by being too stupid to realize he'd done anything wrong, Burke copped to his guilt.
     "The blame for this is mine and mine alone," he said.
     That is refreshing. We live in an age of denial, when nobody is caught so red-handed they can't off-load responsibility somewhere else. Then again, Ed Burke always had style.
     It'll be in a minimum-security federal prison. Not quite a resort, but he won't be raking a tin cup across the bars, either.
     But still, prison. Lights on, lights out, go here, go there. It's like being sentenced to two years in a cinder-block-walled, fluorescent-lit cross between junior high school and the worst summer camp ever.
     Was I the only one, when Burke received his punishment, to think of Frances McDormand's great speech from the end of the Coen Brothers darkly comic thriller "Fargo?"
     The very pregnant chief of police, Marge Gunderson, is driving a wrongdoer to his appointment with justice, and recounts his crimes.
     "So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there?" she intones, in her somber, yah-hey-dere Minnesotan accent. "And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."
     Burke probably couldn't help himself. Half a century of power and habit, he just expected anyone who wanted to make something happen with the city to throw business his way, too. His interests and the city's were one. He didn't need the money, didn't need to buy more expensive suits. Quality like that doesn't wear out or go out of style. It was just Monopoly money at that point, another marker of success, like a Brioni label.
     That has to be the most galling thing. He was already rich. He sent himself to prison out of habit. For pressing too hard into a federal wiretap for more business he didn't need. There's a lesson in there somewhere: Know when you have enough. I might buy my suits at Suits 20/20, but I don't have to extort money from anybody to pay for them.

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Monday, June 24, 2024

Why stop at the 10 Commandments? Let's teach Hebrew to schoolchildren in Louisiana

     Children aren't born religious. They have to be taught. I was taught to be Jewish at home and at Beth Israel — The West Temple. "West" because it was on the West Side of Cleveland, where my family lived. I learned Hebrew, with the same sense of joy I mowed the lawn or other obligatory tasks required of me.
     But Rabbi Eric Hoffman's Talmud class was different. It made me think, and I liked that. This was in the mid-1970s. I was around 16.
     The Talmud consists of dozens of books of rabbinic commentary on Jewish law. For instance, the central tenet of Judaism is the Schma. A brief prayer — "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" — said by devout Jews three times a day: morning, evening and bedtime. The question we were discussing in Talmud class was: when to say the Schma for the third time each day? Answer: at night. When is it night? When it gets dark. When does it get dark? When the stars come out. How many stars? Three. How big? Medium sized stars.
     I raised my hand. Given that Reform Jews like ourselves don't say the Schma daily, never mind three times a day, I asked, why does it matter when the third time should be? Why are we learning this?
     Rabbi Hoffman — a trim, compact young man with a dark black beard — explained the Talmud offers a way of thinking."Talmudic reasoning." A method of breaking down problems into basic parts; that has been very useful ever since, both personally and professionally.
     What he didn't say was, "Do what you're told." Compulsion is not educational. Compulsion is slavery. The way the state of Louisiana is legally forcing all public school classrooms to display the Ten Commandments.
     That bit of news drew no surprise or outrage from me, but pity for a state that is a backwater. Louisiana is called the Pelican State, but it is also the Dead Last State. The perennial bottom dweller of state rankings. The worst crime. Worst economy. Nearly dead last health care, in education. Sticking up the Ten Commandments is gilding a turd.
     The real point is to float the case to the Supreme Court, where Donald Trump's missionaries can enshrine it into law and other states can follow suit, under the flag that being denied a chance to shove their own religion down everybody's throat is oppression — to the top dog religion doing the shoving, that is. Everybody else has to smile and take it.

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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Nothing conveys the warm human touch like a robot

Elmhurst Hospital
     Hospitals make a lot of money. And since they can't lower the cost of healthcare — that would violate some unwritten maximalist healthcare provider code — they tend to build ever more ornate structures, such as the lobby of Elmhurst Hospital, part of Endeavor Edward-Elmhurst Health. An indescribable medico-magnificent decor, all stone and woodwork, the unimaginable Prairie Style on steroids outer office of Ayn Rand.
     I was there last week because my mother has been there — she turns 88 today, by the way, I'm going over there later for an impromptu birthday lunch — being treated for the effects of age. I'll admit, I welcomed the grandiosity — it was soothing, made me think she was in a good place. As did the attentiveness of the 5th floor nursing staff, who answered all my questions, assured me they'd keep us posted which, I assumed, meant they'd let me or my brother know when they released her. Even though they didn't, sending my mom back to Golden Haven in Addison without telling anyone, only to have her pass out as she left the medical transport van. She had to be taken straight back to the hospital. Nice work guys.
     They might not have gotten the call-the-family-of-aged-patients-before-you-kick-them-out routine down. But they do have Moxi, an "autonomous point to point delivery robot," which I passed in the 5th floor corridor after visiting my mother. The product of an Austin,Texas company, Diligent, it — whoops, "she," the robot is female — is supposed to free up nurses from the bother of delivering prescriptions, lab samples and small medical devices from one place to another. Its — whoops, her, I guess the idea that nurses are female dies hard — little blue screen read "Pickup Going to 1A Telemetry," but Moxi just sat there in the few seconds I regarded the thing while it, she, blinked stupidly, like a cow.
     Moxi has a robot arm and, according to the robot's web site, "A friendly face that nurses and patients look forward to seeing," which seemed quite the oversell for two dozen blue dots arranged into a pair of circles.  Though the circles not only  blink but, judging from this video on the Moxi at Edward Hospital in Naperville, form half circles and even little hearts — to show affection, I suppose. Moxi wuvs you. There were 100 Moxis blinking and delivering bottles of ibuprofen in various hospitals by the end of 2023, including Northwestern Memorial, which is an investor, and six other Chicago area hospitals. You don't buy the robot, you lease, ah, her. It — whoops, she — was doing 20 tasks a day at Edward, though the company says some hospitals get 100 jobs a day out of Moxi, which supposedly isn't intended to replace hospital staff. Yet.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Salon of Hairdressing


It's always good to take two snaps of a scene. In case you get a mayfly in one of them.

     Being a two-birds-with-one-stone type of guy — okay, I don't like the idea of hitting birds with stones, even as metaphor. A multi-tasker then. 
     Either way, after realizing I had to leave my car to be serviced at the Mazda in Evanston for a few hours on Thursday, my first thought was how to fill the time. Sure, I could sit in the comfortable Mazda lounge, reading The New Yorker and drinking spring water and trying not to eat too many granola bars. But that seemed so passive.
     The drop-off was for 11:30 a.m., so lunch seemed appropriate. My usual Evanston lunch companion, Prof. Bill Savage of Northwestern University, was unavailable, so I tapped ... oh, I shouldn't say ... a local politician. We'd talked about having lunch. 
     Trouble was, the Mazda service center is sort of off the beaten track — 2201 Autobarn place, behind a Target. Way off the beaten track, actually. A 50 minute walk to Lucky Platter, where this fellow and I met last time, years ago. An Uber would cost more than lunch, and be a sort of surrender. I thought of asking him to pick me up at the dealership. But that seems, oh, high-handed. So I looked at Google Maps, and found an eatery just a 15 minute walk away, Main Pizza Chalavi. Never heard of the place. I looked at their menu online. They had salads. He agreed.
     It felt odd to be walking down Howard Street on a bright June day, past the tiny brick homes. But also good. I got to my destination about 15 minutes early, and paused before the above unassuming structure pictured above and saw ... well, let's see if you notice what I noticed. Take good look.
     The sign on the building said, rather grandly considering its modest brick facade, "Salon of Hairdressing" while the sign jutting from the building read "Franz Hairdressing Salon." And I realized that I hadn't a clue what those various parts of speech are called. No grammarian I. And what is the difference between A of B and BA? The former certainly sounds grander. "House of Lords" is much more high toned than "Lords' House." What part of language is this?
     At first I suspected the genitive case — showing possession. "The health of Bob" is also "Bob's health." " But hairdressing doesn't possess the salon — it isn't Hairdressing's Salon. Rather, the dressing of hair is what occurs there. There is no possession. It's really a noun-as-adjective pair, like "bowl of water" and "water bowl." The water describes the bowl, as the sort of vessel water goes in. Franz works in the sort of salon that does hairdressing.
     Setting aside the grammatical issues for a later time, I approached the door. The place seemed abandoned, and I assumed it would be locked. But I pushed. The door opened several inches. Peering in, and saw those old-fashioned hood dryers that I associate with women in the 1960s smoking cigarettes and having their bouffants teased. I should have gone in and written a column about the quirky characters there. But it was silent, empty inside — and I could have just as easily been shot. I departed, already castigating myself as a coward.
     Main Pizza Chalavi surprised me, by the way. Since I was early, I took a stroll around inside. It did not scream haut cuisine. But the bins of salad looked fresh. I took up position outside, thinking I might persuade my lunch mate to go anywhere else, maybe the Mexican place across the street. The railing I leaned on gave way a bit, and I quickly stood up straight. Checking the rail, it wobbled. I could have easily wrenched it off. The building was a former Gulliver's, and whoever had turned it into a Kosher eatery hadn't put much money into rehab. Maybe something they could take care of. The place seemed busy, populated by men in beards and tzitzit, and several matched sets of ultra-Orthodox children.
     My lunch mate showed up. I suggested we hop in his car and go anywhere else. No, he said, this was intriguing. We went in. I ordered the cranberry salad, which was truly excellent. Really, a first rate salad, even though I couldn't get any chicken on it — it was a dairy salad, and God forbids it. They made do with cashews for protein. My friend and I had a lively conversation and I even remembered to stop talking at various points and ask him about himself. 
     I'm tempted to go back, have another salad, then gird my loins and plunge into Franz Hairdressing Salon or, to put on airs, the Salon of Hairdressing. There must be a story there.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Cruelty to immigrants a game all can play — even immigrants

"La Soldadera" by Enrique Alferez (National Museum of Mexican Art)

     Since you're here, I assume you are a regular reader of newspapers, just like me. I get the Sun-Times and New York Times delivered at home, going through each pretty much cover to cover. I also subscribe to the Washington Post online. And the Tribune, though I don't always get to it.
     Many, many news stories. Most, you glance at the headline and move on. Others, you read a few paragraphs and quit. A few are worth finishing. Most are forgotten forever two minutes later.
     But every now and then, you read a news story, something clicks and you think: "That's it!" And you know the story will linger with you for a long, long time.
     I had that thought reading Emmanuel Camarillo's story (headline: "Ring of Ire") in Wednesday's paper. A story well summarized in the first sentence. "Advocates say the owners of a building across from a Pilsen migrant shelter have installed a loud noisemaker to deter shelter residents from gathering outside."
     But that isn't the really interesting part. The really interesting part is conveyed by two salient facts lower down. Two facts that might be missed.
     First, the building with the high-pitched noise device on the roof is used for storage but mostly vacant. So it's not an apartment building, where the baby can't sleep because the migrants are blasting merengue music.
     Elaborate spite projected against a notional harm that isn't actually being experienced by the aggrieved party — how much current American life can be explained by that? The desperate refugees arriving at our border are damned as "an invasion." No, what they are is an inconvenience. A logistical problem. A temporary challenge and permanent boon.
     Let's use a metaphor. One night trucks start pulling up in front of your house, offloading building supplies: stacks of lumber, bags of cement, boxes of nails, metal bracing, rolls of insulation. The stuff piles up and is unsightly. You can't give it back, so you grumble and hire trucks and rent warehouses and store it all, which is expensive and and bothersome. Until time passes and you start using it to build houses and make money.
     That's immigration. Raw material that built our country in the past and will continue to build our country in the future, unless we go crazy and seal the borders. Which lots of people want to do, even though it would be national suicide.

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Thursday, June 20, 2024

A bullet to the leg put Chicago police officer on the path to the suburbs

Off. Angelo Wells touches the back of a car he has stopped for a traffic violation, a police
tradition designed to put a fingerprint on the back of a vehicle. (Photo by Ashlee Rezin).

    For years, I've been asking the Chicago Police Department to let me write something about what happens to an officer after being shot. Nothing. Silence. Then I met Angelo Wells. The Northbrook Police Department invited Ashlee Rezin and myself in, allowed us to sit in on roll calls, go on ride alongs, and were completely proud, open and candid. Meanwhile, the CPD couldn't even issue a comment, or put me in touch with someone in the department who could talk about what wounded officers go through. Transparency is a value in any organization. The results speak for themselves. 

    "I am God!" the big man screamed out the window of an apartment in the 1300 block of South Lawndale Avenue. "I am the man!"
     Then he started singing.
     What the Chicago Police Department calls a "domestic disturbance." A particularly dangerous situation for police to walk into, accounting for nearly a quarter of the murders in Chicago.
     Officer Angelo Wells Jr. and his partner had just come off a call and were leaving the District 10 station. They headed to the scene. Four more officers arrived. It was just after 3 a.m., Aug. 5, 2020.
     "Why don't you come down and talk to us?" Wells called up, framing the 33-year-old man in his flashlight beam. The man, on PCP, stopped singing, and started spitting at them.
     "Are you guys going to come up and help me?" a woman yelled from somewhere inside the apartment. A Chicago Fire Department ambulance arrived. Wells walked over to brief the paramedics on the situation.
     Five shots, in quick succession. Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. Wells took cover behind the ambulance.
     "Get down," he yelled, "Get out. Go go go." So the ambulance did, toward Douglas, leaving Wells exposed. Thirteen more shots were squeezed off. In two years on the force, Wells had previously been exposed to gunfire six times. The seventh proved unlucky — as he ran for cover, one bullet entered his right thigh and shattered his femur.
     "I'm hit," Wells shouted.
     Making him one of the 2,587 Chicagoans shot but not killed that year — including 10 police officers -- and changing the direction of his life.

Rebuilding a leg, and a life

     About 25 miles and a world away from District 10 lies the leafy suburb of Northbrook, where the police department is holding 5:30 p.m. roll call for five uniformed officers, Wells is one of them. The events of the past 24 hours — a beautiful early June day in 2024 — are reviewed. A woman locked out of her house. A man who thought people were following him committed himself to a mental hospital. An iPad disappeared from an office. A car blocking a driveway.
      How did Wells get here?
     "After the incident happened I had to figure out what my purpose was," he said. "I had to reevaluate a lot of things with my life, especially with my oldest two kids. Because they were old enough at that time to realize what happened to me. My son, my 11-year-old, was 8 at the time. To hear him crying over the phone, thinking something was going to happen to me. My son didn't want me to do this anymore. I told him to trust my decision."

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Off. Angelo Wells at the 5:30 p.m. roll call at the Northbrook Police Department (photo by NS)

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Flashback 2006: Reparations can't fix problems of the past

Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial (National Gallery of Art)

     Mayor Brandon Johnson has established a task force to look into the city reversing the wrongs of slavery. Good luck with that. The obvious retort is that Chicago can barely run the present, never mind repair the past. Evanston does have a reparations program, which seems more high-minded boondoggle than anything else. I wrote a column for today — on the Northbrook police — but it was held for tomorrow for reasons of space. So, this being Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the freeing of enslaved Americans, I thought I would share this 18-year-old column — which back then ran 1100 words and filled a page. I have kept the various subheads, and the joke at the end.


     Are you a victim of history? Or a beneficiary? Do the crimes of the past echo in your head? Or do you see farther, to paraphrase Newton, because you stand on the shoulders of giants?
     How you answer depends, I believe, less on your station in life than on your outlook.
     Though generally glum, I consider myself a beneficiary of the past, beholden to countless individuals who have gone before, from the Founding Fathers to Alexander Fleming to my ancestors to the guy who invented indoor plumbing.
     Their suffering and struggle turned sweet for me. I'll give you an example. Anti-Semitism was a terrible thing in Europe in the 1930s. But it got my grandfather on that boat.* If things were better then, maybe he wouldn't have gone, and I'd be writing this in Polish or, more likely, not writing anything at all.
     Their loss; my gain.


     In many ways, black people -- as a group -- get a raw deal in this country, compared with other Americans. Their salaries are lower. They go to prison more. Their health care is worse, and their lives are shorter.
     But if you compare them with Africans living in Africa, all that changes. Their lives are far, far better, by every measure.
     My guess is that the average African, scraping out a living in Uganda, would leap at the chance to change places with the most humble resident of the West Side of Chicago.
     Thus the slavery reparations struggle is a mystery to me. While slaves certainly suffered, terribly, their descendants benefit, tremendously, by being here and not being back in Africa. Why focus on the harm of the past and not the benefit?
     Bottom line: The reparations effort will fail, and that is a good thing. It both would not solve the difficulties of black America — it might make them worse — and would set a terrible legal precedent, inspiring other ethnic Americans to wander back into the past and lay claims based on historical grievances. Why couldn't Chinese Americans sue the railroads for their undercompensated labor? Or descendants of socialists deported in 1919 sue the steamship companies that bore them into unjust exile? The possibilities are endless.


     Whenever I address reparations, a few readers triumphantly bring up the reparations pried out of Germany and German companies for World War II atrocities. Their assumption is that, being Jewish, I would support such payments.
     I don't. Rather, I find them unseemly — a kind of extortion, just like slavery reparations.
     Yes, there are elderly people living in poverty who once, say, worked as slaves in a BMW factory, and if some cash can be coerced out of the company to help them, great. And if Germany wants to soothe its eternal shame by giving cash to Israel, that's great, too.
     But don't be fooled. Nothing is repaired. The damage of the past is not undone, not by an inch.
     Similarly, slavery was too great a wrong, its damage too pervasive and — I believe — lingering for a lawsuit against a few banks and insurance companies to do anything. Ironically, those backing reparations minimize the very tragedy that inspires them, by suggesting that a check might fix things. It won't. We can't correct the past; we can only move forward.
     Being a slave meant that someone else was responsible for your well-being. Being a free person means that you, yourself are responsible, no matter the past. That is hard responsibility for some to accept. It's easier to sue somebody.


     I look up from my newspaper and lock eyes with a silver-haired lawyer who also rides my train. I flash him my standard, tight, I've-got-no-people-skills smile and am halfway back to the news when I realize he isn't just gazing at me, but also pointing and saying something.
     "Write a column about that!" he hisses in a half whisper, half shout, trying to communicate with me while not tipping somebody off. I look to where he is indicating: a heavy man in a blue jacket jabbering into a cell phone.
     "It's going to be a good week, a good week, we're going to see the football game Sunday, so that is good. . . ."
     I cup my hand over my mouth and do the same whisper/shout back to the lawyer: "I already wrote that one."
     Then I try to go back to my reading. But the guy on the phone has one of those voices — a certain timbre, like a heavily rosined bow — that just cuts through your head. I didn't notice him before. But now I can't tune him out.
     "Stotis is just like us," he says. "He's just like us. He's a good guy to have on our side. Un-huh, yeah. We'll have to concentrate on the meeting. We'll have to get that over to Near North. Who's his partner? I never met him. . . ."
     Why is it, I wonder, that people never say anything interesting into their cell phones? It's always what's-for-dinner and I'm-on-the-train. Why not . . . and here I slip into reverie:
     "Look, I simply must have more tritium! Un-huh. Tell Og to dial it up to 90 million volts and open all the valves and see if that helps. . . . Right, the magnospectrometer. . . ."
     "But I am naughty, a naughty little kitten, and naughty little kittens must be spanked. . . ."
     "I want him dead! I want his head, in a bowling bag, on my desk first thing tomorrow morning, and Reginald, try not to leave the hacksaw behind this time, OK?"
     By now I'm chuckling to myself, having completely forgotten about and tuned out the cell phone guy. A reminder: Annoyance with public cell phone yammering is a temporary cultural phenomenon, based on the technology's newness. We will, in time, learn to ignore it. I hope.

It's alive!!!

     This column passes under no fewer than four pairs of eyes, in an attempt to make me seem less flawed than I actually am, and to avoid lawsuits.
     Since I see such oversight as completely necessary, you'd think I would avoid public utterances that are not carefully screened.
     But I don't. The latest folly begins at 9:04 a.m. today, when I and other journalistic luminaries join Steve Edwards on WBEZ-FM (91.5) to discuss September's blast of alarming news. **


     Humor is fragile, and trying to analyze it proves inevitably futile, like trying to study clouds by catching them in mayonnaise jars.
      Only Joking, a new book by British wits Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves (Gotham Books: $25), is an exception to that rule, not only commenting thoughtfully on the nature of humor, but passing on some really, really funny jokes.
     This one, by Carr, stands out, for its loopy simplicity:
     Throwing acid is wrong, in some people's eyes.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 29, 2006

* This was showing ignorance of my own family history. My grandfather came to this country in 1924.
** While not having much value now, I kept this in as a reminder that, once upon a time, I regularly was a guest on WBEZ. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

"It was a wild time"

     Both my sons came in town for the older boy's bachelor party, at a friend's lake house in Michigan. My concern immediately crystalized around the water — guys getting drunk, going boating, drowning. It happens. 
     A typical dad concern. I wasn't eager to mention it. Shutting up is an art form, one I struggle to master. Like all parents everywhere, I worry, and there is a talismanic quality to expressing that worry by delivering warnings about specific dangers. If you mention them, they go away or, at least lessen, and maybe even absolve you from blame, a little. I warned the younger boy: you're the best man. It's your job to make sure nothing goes awry. The point of a bachelor party is to set the stage for a wedding, not derail it.
     They left Friday. A cone of silence. "I hope they're having fun in Michigan..." I'd say to my wife, wanly, several times. Like trying to light wet kindling, but the topic died out there. Then both returned Sunday afternoon. At first reluctant to say what had happened. But eventually my wife and I drew it out of them. Jet skis. Fishing. Pickleball. Poker. And something called "Hand & Brain Chess."
     Despite a lifetime of playing chess, I had never heard of Hand & Brain Chess. It's a way for four people to play a game, two teams of two. On each side, one player is the Brain. The Brain announces which of the six varieties of pieces will move next: rook, knight, bishop, queen, king or pawn. Then the Hand makes the move by selecting one of the named pieces — a bishop, say — and deciding where it should go.
     Later, my older son was describing the weekend over the phone to his fiance back in New Jersey. He was sprawled on the sofa in our living room, so I didn't feel guilty listening in.
     "We opened to E4/C6," he said. The Caro Kann Defense. "Then D4,D5. There were isolated tripled pawns. We played to a draw. It was a wild time."
     I smiled, repeating that phrase to myself. "It was a wild time." So good to have the boys home, even briefly. I missed having their lives going on around me, and was silly to have  worried.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Let's all play 'Sit in Judgment of Ed Burke'

     No, I didn't write a letter about former Ald. Ed Burke to the judge in advance of his June 24 sentencing for corruption. He doesn't need me. Hundreds spoke up, asking for leniency. (Does anyone write in and say, "Throw the book at him, your honor!" I imagine so. Though people know these letters become public record.)
     Frankly, this seems a situation where, to coin a phrase, less is more. Two hundred letters. Quite a lot really. I'm not sure whether that is mitigation of undue influence, or dramatization of it. No City Council meeting was complete without Burke firehosing official declarations and honors in all directions. Of course, some would leap to return the favor. Manus manum lavat, as the Romans said. One hand washes the other.
     Though I imagine I could write a good one. First, I'd ask U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall to set aside Burke's personality. Being arrogant isn't a crime. Just as wearing $2,000 chalk pinstripe suits that make you look like an extra in "Guys and Dolls" isn't a crime. Maybe it should be.
     I can see the temptation to send Burke to prison on general principles. While Burke seems more shell-shocked than smug in recent photos, he is a known quantity to anyone on the Chicago scene: Burke strode about in a haze of haughtiness you could cut with a knife. The insider's insider. When Richard J. Daley died in 1976, it was Burke who commandeered the late mayor's office on the fifth floor and huddled with a few others to decide who should be the next mayor of Chicago.
     He was found guilty of 13 counts of racketeering, bribery and attempted extortion. In his defense, I would observe that Burke tried to stay on the right side of the law. The Better Government Association said Burke recused himself from 464 council votes over his last eight years in office, four times as much as the other 49 alderoids put together.
     So he tried not to commit crimes, or not be caught committing crimes anyway, which is almost as good. Burke dwelled in a hazy realm of near criminality, of lawyers dancing a hair's breadth over the line. That's really what we should focus on — it's the legal stuff that is truly unacceptable, not the occasional Ed Burke or Michael Madigan who gets careless in their old age and puts the squeeze on into a federal wiretap. Burke was like a guy who goes to Costco regularly to load up on free coconut shrimp and then, aghast one day to find himself there when free coconut shrimp isn't being doled out, simply shoplifts a couple boxes. Habit has made him blind to the key distinction; in his mind, it's all his shrimp.
     Prison sentences are supposed to be a deterrent — the idea that horse thieves are hanged, not because stealing horses is such a bad crime, but in order for horses not to be stolen. That's weak. You know what would be a strong deterrent? Give city council members raises, then forbid them to work other jobs. The highest paid alderperson pulls down $142,000 a year; not bad for you or me, but peanuts for a slick lawyer. We expect them to work side hustles, then flutter our hands in shock when they trip over the fine line between you're-my-client-and-this-is-your-zoning-request-to-be-judged-purely-on-its-merits and hire-my-firm-or-I-won't-support-your-variance.

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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Flashback 2008: Father's Day

     I took a stab at writing something about the big stretch that the concept of fatherhood is undergoing for me this Father's Day, from tending to the shell of my own father, to twisting streamers and blowing up balloons, metaphorically, as father of my two sons whose weddings are rushing toward us. 
     But the essay was stillborn and, wrapping it in newspaper and tucking it into a dumpster, I instead fled into the past looking for something I'd written for Father's Day. This, from 2008, seems worth sharing.


     Coffee at sunrise is a ritual for me — hot, strong and black. One morning last year my son Ross popped up and asked for a cup. I poured him one; I didn't see the harm — caffeine stunting children's growth is an old wives' tale from the era when frugal parents would substitute coffee for milk.
     For a few days he joined me, and it was wonderful to sit there together in the kitchen, to clink coffee cups and silently sip, reading the newspapers.
     When he asked for a second cup, I said no. One cup is plenty for a little boy. OK then, he ventured, would I sign a note so he can drink some of the coffee that his teacher brings? Or could he take his own thermos to school, so he could drink coffee at lunch?
     "I need it," he said.
     They never teach you in rehab about what to tell your children about being an alcoholic, and I'm sure plenty of drunks and addicts struggle with what to say. The tempting route is silence. While overcoming an addiction is some of the hardest work you will ever do — I think of Virgil's line about fleeing hell: "But to retrace one's steps and escape to the upper air; that is toil; that is labor" — it is not the sort of achievement you typically brag about to your kids.
     Silence might be most comfortable for the adults, but it doesn't help children, who are invariably dealing with their own concerns and fears. But what do you tell them? Rehab stresses honesty, and that seems the best approach. Answer the questions your kids may have. While addiction is thought to be partially genetic, and the risk for children of alcoholics is certainly greater, it is not a preordained doom, and you can use your understanding of your situation to guide your kids. My boys haven't reached high school, the age where problems typically begin. But at least I know where to go if they need help; they won't have to wait 25 years before they take a hard look at themselves. I'm planning to tell them that while alcohol is a joy of life, drinking alcohol is no fun if you have to.
     Nor is drinking coffee. My boy's words in the kitchen startled me. "I need it." I took a deep breath and gazed intently at him, carefully framing my reply.
     "You know what happened last year," I began. "And the problem that I have."
     He nodded.
     "Well, if I've learned one thing being an . . . alcoholic, it's this: if you need something, you can't have it. So if you can drink a cup of coffee with me and then stop, then you can have one. But if you are going to have to drink more and more coffee, because you need it, then you can't have any at all."
     He seemed to understand, and stopped asking for coffee. I filed away that chilling phrase — "I need it" — and moved on. Father's Day is supposed to be about passing along traditions — fishing and football, golf and gardening. But not every tradition is a happy one. The key is to not be angry or ashamed, and approach the difficult family legacies with the same love, thought and care that you bring to the joyous ones.
      — Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 15, 2008

Saturday, June 15, 2024

You be the ethicist


     Things happen. Unanticipated events — acts of nature, accidents, problems, confusion. Which is why we have legal and moral precepts. To help guide us when things go wrong. But they don't always offer a clear direction.
     Maybe it's best to just say what happened.
     Blufish is an excellent Glenview restaurant, on Willow Road. Good food, good service, good prices. A definite Manhattan vibe to the room, with its high ceiling and chandeliers. My boys love it. I do too, and go there whenever I can. Twice this week, to celebrate their being home. The first time, Wednesday, with the older boy. We both ordered chirashi bowls — raw fish over rice and daikon. I ordered an extra piece of tobiko — fish eggs — and he asked for an ebi, or sweet shrimp. One ebi. Tuck that thought aside.
     Friday I was back with my wife and the younger boy. I got the chirashi, again — I really like the chirashi. He got a salad with chicken, and ordered a sweet shrimp. The boys love sweet shrimp.
     The meals came — the waitress apologized that the sweet shrimp was on the way. When it arrived, it was not a sweet shrimp, singular, but eight sweet shrimp. We all looked at the plate, and immediately explained we hadn't ordered eight.
     "But I checked with you!" she said. I instantly realized what had happened. My son had asked for "a sweet shrimp" and she had asked back, "eight sweet shrimp?" Say it out loud. "A sweet shrimp." "Eight sweet shrimp." Sounds almost the same, particularly in a loud restaurant.
      She hurried away. We ate in silence. The plate of sweet shrimp sat there, untouched. Then she returned, said it was no problem, we should enjoy the extra seven shrimp, adding, "I'll have to pay for it." That brought us all up short. It didn't seem right. But we didn't know what else to do. I suggested she take the platter of food — $42 worth of sweet shrimp — for herself. No. But we didn't want seven extra sweet shrimp, especially not paid for by this young lady. We had plenty of food. I don't even like sweet shrimp. We left it on the table.
I pondered what to do "Do you want me to talk to your manager?" I asked her. I figured, explain, ooze some charm, get the waitress off the hook. She said no. I asked my wife — maybe we should split the cost with her? Both parties are to blame. She thought not — we had ordered plainly enough. The fault wasn't ours. I decided to pretend it hadn't happened, paid the bill — after checking that we had been charged for one sweet shrimp, not eight — adding the typical 20 percent tip. She had apologized at the end, which counts for a lot in my book. But I left with a gnawing sense of unease. The meal felt mitigated, reduced. The misunderstanding might have been hers, but we participated in it, albeit unwittingly. Maybe we should have split the cost of the wasted meal. At home, I had to stiff-arm the urge to go back, slip her a $20. I'd never miss it and it might help her. But I shook that notion off. Maybe the experience would inspire her to get the order right next time. What do you think? Did I do the right thing?

Friday, June 14, 2024

Mayor Brandon Johnson sure looks good while running away from questions

     Why yes, $30,000 does seem like a lot of money for a man to spend in a little more than a year having his hair cut. And make-up, don't forget. Television makeup, one assumes. I hasten to add that we are free to festoon ourselves however we please, and I would never judge anyone. I have no idea what a tube of lipstick costs nowadays, but imagine it's expensive.
     So I am not criticizing Mayor Brandon Johnson because he spent $30,000 in campaign funds — $82 a day, every day, 365 days a year, quite a lot really — on trims and concealer. It shows. He's always so ... soigne. So put together.
     Honestly, when I first read my colleague Bob Herguth's fine piece outlining the mayor's greasepaint tab, my initial reaction was relief: At least he didn't steal the money from taxpayers. So kudos there.
     Then, concerned about possible hypocrisy, I started toting up the price of my own vanity. Visits to Great Clips cost $21, if there isn't a coupon — and those have been harder to find lately — plus $5 tip for the stylist. With me going at least every other month, that's ... urggg, doing the math ... about $156 a year. Plus razors. That's gotta be another $2 a week. Add shampoo and we're up to around $300 a year.
     Or 1/100th of the mayor's tab. I would never have waded into this topic were it not for what Johnson said when asked about the money his campaign spent to make him presentable.
     "It's always appropriate to make sure that we're investing in small businesses. Especially minority-owned, Black-owned, women-owned businesses," Johnson said after Wednesday's City Council meeting, piling on more verbiage, never answering the question, his go-to move. "I encourage all of you in this room to support small business. Go get your hair and makeup done, by Black people in particular."
     Ignore the question while turning the topic into a racial issue — the usual Brandon Johnson playbook. I'm just glad he didn't use his own family as human shields, again, as when discussing the migrant crisis.
     Nor did Johnson run away, like in that clip of him fleeing Mary Ann Ahern, which I predict will be his undying image no matter what he spends on cosmetics. Honestly, Johnson could hire a private jet to fly Tom Ford in to thread his brows and the central image the city has of him will still be the mayor's stylishly clad backside, vanishing into the distance.

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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Drowned in the Gulf of New Mexico

     John McPhee has been a pole star my entire professional life. From his choice of topics, like "Oranges," a book about ... wait for it ... oranges, to "La Place de la Concorde Suisse," where he goes on maneuvers with Switzerland's citizen army, McPhee has been a reliable font of fascination since I was in kindergarten. Brilliant structure — "The Search for Marvin Gardens" alternates a game of Monopoly with a tour of Atlantic City, whose streets line the board — coupled with detailed observation and gorgeous, unforgettable language and metaphor. In "Coming into the Country" he falls in a river in Alaska. The "gin-clear water cold as an ice bucket."
     When I was writing my first book, on college pranks, one chapter was to be about Ditch Day at Caltech. There was plenty on the annual student spree, and my first inclination was to save a bunch of time and money and assemble the chapter from published reports. Then I thought: "What would John McPhee do?"John McPhee would go. So I pried the secret date out of the senior class president, bought an airplane ticket, and flew to Pasadena. It was the right move.
     Yes, I have not read all 32 of McPhee's books — he took a detour into geology that left me behind. The fault, I assume, is my own. But now, at 92, he is offloading his lifetime knowledge, and it's a cold compress on the head of any fevered writer. Well me, anyway, but I assume others.
     Plagued by idiotic covers? John McPhee was plagued by idiotic covers. Tormented by typos? John McPhee let some doozies through. As did writers he knows or is related to.
     In "Tabula Rasa" in the May 13, New Yorker, he tells the story of a son-in-law, Mark Svenvold, who wrote a book called "Big Weather."
     "When 'Big Weather' appeared in hardcover, a sentence in the opening paragraph mentioned 'the Gulf of New Mexico,''' McPhee writes. "Where did that mutinous 'New' come from, a typo right up there with 'pretty' for 'petty'? Mark said it was unaccountable. For a start, I suggested that he look in his computer, if the original manuscript was still there. It was, and in that first paragraph was the Gulf of New Mexico. Remarkable, yes, but think where that paragraph had been. It had been read by a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, an editorial assistant, a copy editor, a professional proofreader, at least one publicity editor — and not one of these people had noticed the goddam Gulf of New Mexico."
     Some errors just lodge in your mind. I can't tell you how many times I've called the Edward Hopper masterpiece in The Art Institute "Nighthawks at the Diner." It's just "Nighthawks." "Nighthawks at the Diner" is a Tom Waits album. I make the error, Bill Savage corrects me, then two years pass and it happens again. Bill must be exasperated, but I can't stop myself.
     But that isn't the story I want to tell.
     Deep breath. Okay. The way participants in a 12-step program meeting will be emboldened by someone's tale of woe, I will now tell mine. I worked very hard to keep errors out of my most recent book, "Every Goddamn Day." I dragooned friends who were imbued in Chicago history to give it critical reads, invoking Lee Bey's classic dictum, "Read it like you hate me." Three, count 'em, three academic readers reviewed the book. I was feeling pretty confident as publication approached.
     Particularly about the introduction. That image of history not being a place or an artifact. Quite proud of that. I would read it for pleasure, to reassure myself, as publication loomed. Including this sentence on the second page:
     "History gathers at certain places — battlefields, coastlines, cities — and congeals around certain dates. The arrival of the shock: Dec. 7, 1941. Nov. 22, 1963. Sept. 11, 2001. Jan. 6, 2020..."
     Wait a second. That isn't right. It's 2021. Jan. 6, 2021. I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. A frantic email to my editor at the University of Chicago Press. Then a desperate phone call. I'm sorry, he said. There is nothing to be done. It's too late. The book has gone to press.
     That was unacceptable. I'll buy up the initial press run, I said, mulch it, and go to a second printing. We can't do that, he replied, because it would delay the publication by three months. We've set up events, publicity (plus it would have cost me, oh, $20,000 that I didn't have. But it's a sign of how desperate I was that I made the offer without even doing the math).
     This error was on the second page. It wasn't something readers would miss. People would see it, and would think, "This guy's an idiot. He can't even get the year of the insurrection right." The whole book was ruined. Two years' effort, kafloosh, down the toilet.
     As it happened, I was meeting my old NU classmate, Rush Pearson for sushi that day. You may know Rush as a skilled comedian, actor and longtime star of the Mud Show at the Renaissance Faire. I of course gave an agitated rendition of this terrible blunder, and how humiliating it was.
     "I dedicated that book to my boys!" I moaned. He smiled wickedly and raised an eyebrow.
     "Did you spell their names right?" he asked. That stopped me dead, and I laughed. A lot really. Being able to laugh at the disaster was highly therapeutic. I've always loved and respected Rush — he is a sui generis individual — but I love and respect him double for that.
     This is going on too long, but I can't stop here. There is a coda. That afternoon, Timothy Mennel, my editor at the University of Chicago Press phoned. "You're the luckiest son-of-a-bitch on the face of the earth," he said, or words to that effect. The editors at the Press were sitting around, saying how sad it was that this midlist nobody's book they were generously publishing was forever marred by this forehead slapping blunder. And someone looked at — in my mind's eye — a clipboard on the wall and said, "Actually ... you know ... they're pressing the big red button at three o'clock." Or words to that effect. The printing hadn't started, but was set to. In an hour. Calls were made. A few electrons rearranged. And the date became "2021" in print.
     So if I seem a little bit more grateful, these past two years, well fate has been kind to me. As has John McPhee, who generously shared a few of his own blunders and disappointments. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone. I do not share much with John McPhee, in the talent or effort or reputation. But we both fuck up in exactly the same manner.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Never bang a drum, slowly or otherwise — a CSO percussionist takes center stage.

Cynthia Yeh

     Picture a symphony orchestra: the conductor, front and center, standing before the strings; violins to the left, violas and cellos to the right. Beyond that, woodwinds and brass. Then way in the back, off to the left, out of sight and pretty much out of mind, except for the occasional cymbal crash, are two or three percussionists hidden behind their elaborate kits — snare and bass drums, tubular bells, and timpani, aka kettle drums.
     Not tonight.
     Tonight — May 30 — is the world premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s “Procession,” written especially for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal percussionist, Cynthia Yeh.
     A drum set, plus vibraphone and glockenspiel — sort of a baby vibraphone — are to the immediate left of the conductor, where a guest violinist might stand.
     Sure, it felt odd.
     “I’m not up there often,” said Yeh, who had the unique position of being both inspiration and featured performer of the piece. “I’m never under his nose. I’m always surprised by how hot it is there.”
     Classical music does not serve up many drum concertos — major musical compositions featuring a specific instrument, usually piano or violin.
     So how do you get a concerto written for yourself? If you’re Cynthia Yeh, it’s simple.
     “I asked her if she would,” Yeh said. “She shockingly said ‘yes.’”
     Maybe not so shocking, considering Yeh’s reputation.
     “She is incredibly devoted to the passion of the music,” said Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor at the premiere. “She has a technique which is unbelievable. Really accurate. She knows everything, actually.”
     Montgomery has been composer-in-residence for three years at the CSO, and this piece caps off her tenure here.
     “I am forever grateful to Cynthia Yeh, who urged me to compose this work and who has been an extremely patient and thoughtful collaborator as I navigated my first large work for percussion,” Montgomery wrote in the program.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Welcome the 9th most important Jewish holiday


   The cheder boys on scooters showed up Friday, as they always do, asking me to pray. I was upstairs, scrolling through social media, and almost sent them away. I'm too busy a man to be expected to go through this arcane religious ritual, and why? Because I paused to talk to them on the street at the end of March and foolishly pointed out which house is mine when they asked. 
     Send them away, tell them not to come back. Enough with the ritual already.
     But nowadays, it's smart to take what social connections presents themselves. I went downstairs.
     "Let's do this," I said, sticking out my right arm, while Elchonon indicated the left, proper arm, and wrapped it in a shiny leather band, while his partner, Mendel, busied himself with Kitty. Someday I'll get it right.
     I repeated the ancient words after him, managing to string a few together myself. Someday I'll get them down pat. Or, more likely, get tired and stop doing this entirely. He pointed out that Shavuot was coming.
     The regular reader might have perceived by now that I'm a Jewish person who is at least passingly acquainted with my faith, even the more arcane particulars. Not only do I knew what a pidyon ha-ben is, but my older son had one ("Redemption of the first born," an obscure ritual where the first son is purchased from God. Five pieces of silver are required, just like with Judas, and I went to a coin store and bought five old silver dollars to give to the rabbi. My in-laws were Orthodox). 
    But Shavuot? I'd heard the name. But for the life of me, it doesn't register. If I started reeling off Jewish holidays, given $100 for each one I could name, there would be Passover and Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, Purim and Simchat Torah, T'Bhish Vat and Tisha B'Av. I don't think I'd ever get to Shavuot, unprompted.
    "What's Shavuot?" I asked. Elchonon explained that it celebrated being given the Torah 3,000 years ago on Mount Sinai. Which doesn't count, apparently, in attaching Jews to that particular spot on earth. But is true nevertheless. 
    "And what do we do on Shavuot?" I pressed.
     "On Shavuot we eat cheesecake," he said. My ears perked up. 
    "Why cheesecake?" 
    "It's nice, and fancy, and tasty," he replied and the yawning chasm between these pious teenagers and a fairly cynical and agnostic 63-year-old closed to a hairsbreadth. Eat nice, fancy, tasty cheesecake — if more religions came up with requirements like that, I think they'd fare better in this modern world. I shot off an email to Marc Schulman at Eli's — is this not a marketing opportunity — and circled the beginning of Shavuot, the evening of June 11. God knows I have enough cheesecake in the freezer. 

Monday, June 10, 2024

Put down the Colgate, honey.

     A thought experiment:
     Pretend, for a moment, that instead of nominating religious fanatics to the U.S. Supreme Court, Donald Trump had instead packed the high court with dentists.
     And instead of reversing Roe v. Wade, the ruling that for half a century protected the right of American women to make their own reproductive choices, this new court of oral activists allowed state legislatures across the country to mandate what brand of toothpaste women must use.
     Men, of course, would be free to continue using whichever toothpaste they like.
     Certain states, such as Illinois, would continue to allow their female residents access to the range of available brands. Crest. Colgate. Herbal toothpastes like Tom's. Sensodyne. Their choice.
     But other states would rush to make that decision for women and mandate a particular brand — or even bar toothpaste entirely. Use a rag and baking soda, honey, just like in the good old days.
     How would people react?
     Some would no doubt shrug and do whatever the state says. Freedom can be stressful, and there's always a big slice of the population that resents the pressure of being expected to run their own lives. The secret shame of totalitarianism is that a slice of the oppressed like it. Slavery is freeing, ironically, to them. No need to think for yourself, to agonize over choices — your betters do that for you. All you need do is obey.
     But others would rebel at the idea of the government telling us what dentifrice to put in our mouths. We saw how people resisted being told to do something as simple as wear a paper mask during COVID. And gratifyingly seven states — including backwaters like Kansas — rushed the abortion question onto their ballots, protecting the right of women to figure out their lives themselves. These initiatives didn't fail anywhere, because Americans overwhelmingly want the right to choose to have an abortion. Just like Mexico, Ireland, the rest of the Western world.
     Which brings up the connection between undermining voting rights and pushing mandatory religious fundamentalism. What the far right is doing is not popular. Most people voters don't want it — there are heartening signs that Americans are standing up and making their will known — so voting has to go. Since that's too naked a totalitarian flex, even for religious zealots, it's disguised as fighting election fraud, which scarcely exists.

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Sunday, June 9, 2024

Facebook finds me unacceptable.

     The nation of Poland once demanded that the Sun-Times take down a column of mine, "True greatness comes from facing history."  At least their embassy in Washington, D.C. did, claiming I was defaming Poland by suggesting that it didn't need the Nazis to show up and teach them how to be anti-Semitic.
    Though they didn't put it in those terms.
    "We respectfully ask for the immediate withdrawal of the article from your website, as it contains a shocking number of blatant factual errors," wrote one Rachon Nikodem. 
     These errors were all along the lines of one author I refer to as "a historian" actually had a degree in sociology. That sort of thing. 
     We made a few tiny corrections, more to placate them than anything else. In discussing the situation, I said something that I've had occasion to repeat a number of times, alas:
     "They think they're refuting the charges, when actually they're manifesting them." Nothing says anti-Semitism — or racism — louder than pretending your bigoted history doesn't exist. It's a bad look.
     The paper, I'm proud to say, stood firm behind me, even after a local Polish lawyer then sued us on their behalf, dragooning two local Polish yokels as injured parties. 
The attitude of the Sun-Times lawyer when we spoke was, "Yeah, I got this." No need for me to be involved, though this was 2021, and I attended the Zoom court hearings.  I can't say watching a judge laugh the lawsuit out of court was the highlight of my career, but it certainly was right up there.  I felt my dead Polish relatives were, in a tiny meaningless way, avenged.
     Newspapers don't yank down their work. Not without strong compelling reason. The idea is, good or bad, once published, it becomes part of the public record, and thus must be available. Unless it's plagiarized or libelous or in some way far beyond the pale. Which might make me extra sensitive to the idea of things I've written being purged.
     But Facebook tossed one of my blog posts off their social media platform last week, and I found it chilling. It had only happened once before, but that was a column about why Howard Tullman's art collection was so heavy in the nekkid women department. The column included a few photos of his collection and, well, squelching exposed flesh, even when painted, has such a long history that it somehow doesn't seem as objectionable.
    But this post was a list of quotes that I had researched. Donald Trump had just been found guilty of 34 felonies, and his objection, "I was just convicted in a rigged political witch hunt trial: I did nothing wrong" seemed like it called out for context. I gathered together the justifications of other traitors. Benedict Arnold: "Love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man's actions" and Vidkun Quisling, the betrayer of Norway: "I am convicted unfairly and die innocent."
     For good measure I threw in some obviously guilty fellow felons, like John Wayne Gacy: "You will have executed someone who didn't commit the crime...I have no knowledge of the crime whatsoever. Never have had."
    The best part of the whole exercise was, rooting around to see what Iago says in "Othello" that might apply, I found the evergreen "I am not what I am," which could be a generic summary of half of the statements that come out of Donald Trump's mouth.
     I was so pleased with the result, I considered running it as a column in the newspaper. But there was no exposition — just a list of quotes. And it included a line from Hitler's final testament, written days before his suicide: "It is untrue that I or any other person in Germany wanted war in the year 1939. It was desired and instigated exclusively by those international statesmen who are either of Jewish origin or work for Jewish interests."
     I imagined an editor having trouble with that. "So you're ... comparing Trump to Hitler?" and didn't feel like arguing the point.
     Immediately several readers who had posted it on their Facebook pages complained that Meta had taken it down. I figured it was something to do with their pages. Mine was fine. A day later, Facebook lowered the boom.
     "We removed your post," it declared. "Why this happened" It looks like you tried to get likes, follows, shares or video views in a misleading way." Then it showed my link. "You're post goes against our Community Standards on spam."
     Ouch. I never try to get likes, etc. You can't. You never see that kind of thing coming — go to a discount supermarket with your wife, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of Aldi fans on Reddit are baying for your blood. Nobody plans that.
      I appealed the decision to Facebook, which said they'd get back to me. They must be whistling all the way. Nothing yet. In fact, they did it again Sunday morning, yanking a fairly anodyne farewell to "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak. A reminder that oppression is addictive, even when done by machine.    
     I recognize the dilemma. You don't want Facebook clogged with spam and offensive crap ... of others. You also don't want your original, thoughtful food to be deemed offensive muck and hosed away.
     The chill, of course, is to realize that someday everything will be online, and that online world will be in control of six companies, some of them run by irresponsible egomaniacs like Elon Musk. There is something very "1984" — Winston Smith, strapped to a chair in the Ministry of Truth, straining to see a scrap of paper — about the idea of what can be shared being determined by ... actually, not even a few people. A few algorithms. That's a very frightening prospect. Our voices will be stifled by a few semiconductors.
     Yes, every medium has its standards, and I've had  a few columns rejected over the years. I remember New Zealand press lord Nigel Wade tersely informing me that the paper would not be printing my column explaining why Oprah Winfrey is the embodiment of Satan. As bad as that is, at least it is always a person making a decision. The way Facebook does it — it's as if the columns were weighed and then rejected for being too heavy.
      Blogger doesn't do shit like that. Blogger is more of a neutral communication channel, like AT & T. That's one reason I didn't shift over to Substack when they invited me to join — I got the sense they reserved the right to pass judgment on what I am doing. The New York Times ran a chilling story about how China scrubs their internet history. We need to make certain that it can't happen here. 
     The upside, I suppose, is that the more Facebook deteriorates, the more it is an ad-choked wasteland of irrelevant pap, the easier it will be to avoid. Elon Musk did us a favor by wrecking Twitter. People vote with their feet, as religion has discovered, belatedly. Having your work arbitrarily pitched off by some machine is part of that process. I suppose we should be grateful.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Kind soul


     A cicada got in the house. Not sure how. Some sneak in as stowaways on my shoulder, hopping on after I'd inspected the yard. This one was seen in shadow on the back of the roller blind in our bedroom. My wife pointed it out.
     The roller blind was new, pure white and quite expensive. The last thing I wanted to do is smear a tablespoon of cicada gore across it. The stain would never come out. That streak would mock me for the next decade. I paused, contemplated, did that spatial cognition thing that men are so good at, and determined I could pull the shade without crushing the cicada.
     "Get me a Dixie cup," I asked my wife, not wanting to take my eyes on the cicada, lest it make its getaway and secrete itself in a hidden nook in our bedroom, from where it would torture us with its shrieks for weeks to come. My wife brought the cup. I nudged red-eyed bug deftly into it, without blotching the shade. I strode into the bathroom, shook the cicada into the toilet, and flushed.
     Then I returned to the bedroom, and saw my wife's face. She was ... not crestfallen. Not shocked. A slight shade of a something that, after 40 years together, I immediately understood.
     "You thought I would take it outside?" I said.
     "Yes," she replied.   

     "To join the trillion other cicadas nibbling on our sapling branches?"
     And that, dear reader, is why we've been married for 34 years come September. "A woman of valor, who can find?" Proverbs 31:10 asks. "For her price is far above rubies." Maybe so. But a woman of kindness? A truly sympathetic person? Someone who can relate to the inherent value of the primitive flying insect that finds its way to her bedroom? That is rarer still.
     Friday I walked over and picked up lunch from Little Louie's — a Northbrook icon, and if you haven't patronized the place lately, you should. We ate on our back porch, while the cicadas filled the air over our heads, leaping off and on the spreading branches of the two sugar maples that form a partial canopy above our heads. She marveled at them in a way that, for all the media coverage, I'd never heard before. The cicadas were beautiful. She was so happy we live here, and not some other place, where the unfortunate residents miss this spectacle. What a special time!
     That evening, in our bedroom, I reclined onto the pillow and realized something light was moving on my neck. A cicada, I hoped. Sitting up, I requested her immediate attention. She grabbed a Kleenex and, after some Marx Bros. fumbling, plucked it away. Then she exited the room and hurried down the stairs. I did not have to ask where she was going.