Sunday, June 30, 2024

Maybe Facebook will like this headline better — The state of the blog, Year Eleven


     Traditionally, I top my year-end review with a nonsequiteur headline pulled from the Right Wing thunderdome. This year's, ""I JUST left the rally for my friend, President Trump" caused Facebook to immediately take down the post. While they indeed have a point — the headline IS unsuited to the content — it was done in a sense of irony, not deception. Apparently, the algorithm is still working on irony. Anyway, the back of my hand stung by Facebook's ruler, I renamed the post and am trying again. There are lots of new readers, recently, and this can be seen as a guide to the more noteworthy posts of the past year.

     Last September, I wrote about the prevalence of spirals in Copenhagen, "Danish Notes #1: Spiral City." Looking back over the 11th year of this blog, which ends today, I think that post can serve as a synecdoche for the blog itself.
    Did you need to know about spirals and Copenhagen? No. Could you easily live your life  ignorant of spirals in Copenhagen? Yes. But are spirals in Copenhagen interesting (maybe even belatedly relevant, given that one of the spirals featured burned down in April). Something that learning about embellishes your day, along with knowing the word synecdoche, a literary term for a part that stands in for the whole, the way you'd, oh, call a car your "wheels." 
    Again yes. I hope so, anyway. A spiral turns in on itself, and there is a lot of inward motion here. I actually fight introspection and self-reference — "The only wisdom we can hope to achieve," T.S. Eliot writes, "is the wisdom of humility." That I often fail, well, one of my rules as a writer, beside not having rules, is to be who you are.
     The numbers are good: 1.6 million clicks over the past year, a healthy 130,000 a month. I should probably leave it at that. But candor is a value esteemed here, even over modesty, and I have to note that 2/3 of those clicks are from China and Hong Kong, so certainly do not represent actual readers. I severely doubt this blog has one  regular reader among 1.3 billion Chinese, which is sad, because that would be an interesting person to get to know. I wish I could explain what accounts for those Asian clicks, but imagine a box bristling with wires, sitting in a windowless room in some basement along an industrial road in Shantou, a device I think of as a "thrummer," clonically clicking on this site. A glitch of some sort. Which is, in its own way, apt.
    There was reaction from actual human beings — a term made all the more relative by the rise of AI. In July I wrote the third most read post of EGD history, "Wrangle carts, earn quarters," what I thought was an innocuous first visit to an Aldi supermarket, but was turned into some grotesque opera bufo by the torch-bearing mobs on Reddit. The dynamic that drove them into a frenzy is worth noting — the crime I committed was timing my wife when she returned the cart, to see how much labor Aldi was getting for its quarter. This struck Reddit as arrogance, and punishing the arrogant — selectively — is a major culture force in America today, along with punishment in general. I didn't mind, was happy for the new readers, and never went on Reddit to see the hundreds of thousands of comments. Keep the poison out.
    A spiral also, if viewed another way, turns outward. I like to think I did that too.
    In August, I weighed in on the immigrant crisis in Chicago with "Chicago needs every busload." I try not to natter on about my failures — others do that for me — but I'll always regret not finding a way to write more about immigration. It was the moral test of our time and I didn't study hard enough and got a C. That column is notable for the Tyler Pascale photo, which hadn't been run in the paper, and I was glad to expose to the public. The baby's face — the tableau made me think of the Madonna and Child. 
    Maybe the problem is I keep getting distracted by mundane details, such as the difficulty in maintaining infrastructure, laid out in another August story, "Hydrant Repair Crews face water, pressure." 
    Mocking the media always does very well — my columns roasting John Kass are perennial favorites. It doesn't take a genius to see why: the media, or what's left of it, is fascinated with itself, just like everybody else, and such stories get bandied about. In September, in addition to my Scandinavian notes, I chided the New York Times for its prissy send-off of Jimmy Buffett, "It's my own damn fault," which turned out to be the third most read post of the year.
    I don't have a column in the newspaper on Sundays, but that doesn't carry over to the blog, so I was able to immediately weigh in on the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that sparked the Gaza war. "War in the Middle East" struck themes I'd revisit in the months to come, and also could be run without being vetted by every assistant producer who can fog a mirror at WBEZ, which is not true for my Sun-Times columns. 
     November began with "From the river to the sea..." which appeared on the blog, and online, but not in the physical newspaper itself because ... because ... well, my superiors at WBEZ never did quite explain it to me in a way I could understand. 
     In December, rather than gripe about my future daughter-in-law's disdain for modern art, I tried education instead, walking through the contemporary wing of The Art Institute with two curators in "Art can take you to a particular place." 
     January found me in Phoenix, hanging with my younger son and his fiance, but I paused to point out a gaping hole in the entire Republican stop-the-steal lie, "Won't it just get stolen again?"
     Attention to artificial intelligence  rose steadily all year, and in February I used AI to craft a column — a tissue of cliched crap easily pulled apart, in "Robots rise up? Relax, Chicago, it's not Skynet" — yet." Chicago Public Media graphic artist Angela Massino designed concocted a way cool Robot Neil bug to go with it, an irony for certain.
    In March, I published a column that was a metaphor for the electoral choice America will be facing, "Drink poison or eat Chex? The choice is yours." I wrote it as a half sly way to get around the paper's 501(c)3 restrictions against endorsing a candidate. But my bosses saw through it, and wouldn't run the piece. I don't want to cast the blog as a consolation prize. But at least it allows spiked columns to get before the public.
    In April I did one of those fun deep dives, in to the world of trumpets, visiting Conn Selmer in Elkhart and spending time with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's main trumpet player. "A great trumpet is 'a thing of beauty, an extension of you'" 
    In May I remarked on Ken Griffin trying to purchase some respect in his former hometown. "Sorry, Ken — Chicagoans will call the Museum of Science and Industry what they please."
    In June, I returned to CSO musicians and their instruments, featuring percussionist Cynthia Yeh. I had hoped this would be the start of a running series, featuring classical musicians and the instruments they play, intending to methodically work my way through the orchestra. The double bass was next.  But Yeh complained that I hadn't treated her reverentially enough — I quote her swearing — and the CSO told me not to bother trying to profile their musicians in the future. We shall have to stumble forward without them best we can.
      Also in June I introduced you to Off. Angelo Wells, a Chicago cop who had been shot and ended up moving to Northbrook — which is why he would talk to me, having escaped the cone of silence that falls over all CPD matters. His Chicago partner wouldn't even return my calls. Nor would the CPD comment on the subject of officers in rehab trying to return to work after being shot. I can't get the superintendent of police to have an off-the-record coffee with me.
      Do you see a pattern here? I do. The struggle continues to get my hooks into situations and draw them wriggling out of the unseen depths and into the sunlight to share with you. Year Eleven, done and in the bag. On to Year Twelve. Thank you for reading. Thank you for all of you who comment, particularly those who point out typos, including where the mistake they noticed is to be found. Thank you Marc Schulman of Eli's Cheesecake for your advertising. Thank you Chicago Sun-Times for continuing to exist. I'll see you here tomorrow, and every day after that, onward toward eternity.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

This is the Hour of Lead

Emily Dickinson

    The first thing I did after the debate was check an Emily Dickinson poem that came to mind.
    Strange, I know. 
    Not the one about hope being the thing with feathers. Honestly, I felt no hope. "Trump won," I told my wife, before she fled the room, unable to watch the fiasco.
     I believed that. And yet when it was finally over, I felt ... oddly light. And not just because I no longer had to witness two elderly men flailing at one another, nor the current president gazing at the floor, as if in shame, letting the hateful maunderings of Cheetolini go unanswered. 
     There was a line I was looking for.
     "After great pain, a formal feeling comes—" begin Poem #341 — Dickinson gave titles to only a very few of her poems, written mostly for herself, folded into little bundles and wrapped in thread. The poem continues:

      The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
      The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
      And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

     Not that I would describe what seeing Biden's awful show of age and infirmity as "great pain." That's overly-dramatic. Shock, and horror. How could it be a surprise? The Republicans have been saying as much for months. Who could imagine they'd be right? That something they said wasn't a lie. What else have been they saying that is true? Is Trump really a super-genius? He certainly shone, by comparison, at least in speaking ability. The toxic lies and hate, not so much. Then again, I turned the sound off for a while, unable to hear more.

          The Feet, mechanical go round—
          Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
          A Wooden way
          Regardless grown,
          A Quartz contentment, like a stone—

     I was surprised how peaceful I felt. Not light-hearted, not happy. But not dismal and doomstruck either. A certain calm focus — "a formal feeling" is close — the kind of quiet clarity in an emergency situation, where you see what's unfolding in slow motion and know exactly what you have to do. "A Quartz contentment" almost nails it too.   
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
   Does that explain the serenity?  The drown reflex? The way peace supposedly settles on those who stop thrashing and sink to the bottom? Or a person freezing to death? Had Biden thrown away his worsening chance between 8 p.m. and 8:03 p.m. CST, and now all that's left is the mechanical go round, as Trump lurches toward his return to the White House, and the nation slides into extremism and repression? Have the marshals of doom seized the nation, one at each elbow, to escort us to our richly earned punishment? Was the fate sealed in 180 seconds of live television, the dice thrown, the ball settling into the roulette wheel cup and croupier chance sniggers and scrapes our life's savings off the table?
    Maybe. But you know what? I don't care. Because I don't plan to surrender. Not until the last second of the clock plays out and then after the game ends. Once the shock wears off. I plan to oppose Trump with every fiber of my being, and if that means backing a decent man who had a bad night, so be it. Biden seemed to recover himself Friday, and gave a good speech in North Carolina. Counter-intuitive things happen. Maybe Biden's near political death experience will  mobilize support in a way it never would before, that for each person who doesn't vote because his face was slack and confused, two more will head to the polls because the alternative is still so much worse. You could put Joe Biden in a wood chipper and what spewed out the other side wouldn't be pretty, but it wouldn't be a liar, bully, fraud and traitor either.  If they dragged Joe Biden's corpse to campaign events and stood it up behind a podium and Kamala Harris worked his lips while giving a speech out of the corner of her mouth, a real life "Weekend at Bernie's," I'd still vote for Biden. He might be raspy, but he isn't Vladimir Putin's catspaw.
     A couple hours after the debate, my wife and I walked our dog through the lovely little downtown park in Northbrook. Another beautiful summer night. I wasn't angry or upset or scared. I felt focused. The Hour of Lead had already passed, and now I was responding to the crisis, in the zone. The tide of battle turned, for the moment. It sure looked like a rout. And some have already throw down their muskets and bolted for the trees. Yet others are still in the field, standing firm, ready to take what's coming. 
      When I'm low, I often turn to my hero, Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer. He was a man beset with problems — gouty, with faulty eyesight, hard of hearing, scrofulous, ugly, alcoholic, depressed. And yet possessed with an iron will. Facing his final illness, he said something worth remembering. "I will be conquered," Johnson vowed. "I will not capitulate." That sounds like a plan.


Friday, June 28, 2024

Debate? What debate? Did anybody really expect a debate?

     Watching the disaster unfold Thursday night, I considered jumping in and changing this. But honestly, what need be said? Joe Biden started the debate feeble, almost wide-eyed, staring at the ground, as if in shame, as Donald Trump bloviated and lied. Biden rallied, at points, but it was too late. The fiasco was so painfully clear, any Democrat watching realized it almost immediately. I suppose that is a comfort — at least we can recognize a new reality —well, new to the public — in front of our eyes. Turns out the Republican libel was right. Now as to whether anyone will do anything about it, well, I wish I had hope of that. Something could happen. But, to paraphrase Renault in "Casablanca," that would take a miracle, and the Republicans have outlawed miracles. Or, rather, the Democrats have. We did this to ourselves. We made our bed. Now we have to lie in it.

     My profession has lots of rules. Spelling rules, grammar rules, usage rules. People quoted in stories ought to both actually exist and have said the words attributed to them. Were I to tuck in a sentence like, "'I think the mayor is a fumbling stumblebum,' said John Q. Chicagoan, relaxing in the bleachers at Comiskey Park ..." my boss would be on me like a ton of bricks.
     Writing authoritatively about events that have not yet occurred is also frowned upon. The ideal way to comment on Thursday night's debate between President Joe Biden and former president and, oh, dear God, perhaps future President Donald Trump would be to watch it and then craft my opinion on the fly while it is happening.
     But that's problematic, too. The debate began at 8 p.m. and lasted 90 minutes. I might have spent this column discussing an exchange in the first hour when, five minutes before the end, CNN producers will have had to pry the candidates' fingers off each other's throats. That would look stupid, or worse. I remember a colleague who lost her job after reviewing a concert she left early, remarking on songs that were never performed.
     Besides, I know of one thing that definitely, 100%, take-it-to-the bank was going to happen Thursday night. Or, to be more precise, not happen.
     OK, again, lots of things might not have happened. The whole debate might not have come off at all. Trump might not have shown up — people kept saying that, citing his proven track record of cowardice. After protesters scuppered a Chicago campaign appearance in 2016, Trump never showed his face at a public event in Chicago again and certainly never will. A distinction that should be added to the city seal, perhaps replacing the naked baby on a clam shell.
     Or the debate could have been incomplete. The TV lights could have melted Biden like a wax figurine under a blowtorch. He could have crumbled to dust and been blown away on the hot gale of Trump's nonstop jabbering. Anything is possible.
     But of the range of possibilities, there is one thing I was 100% certain wasn't going happen, even though it is tucked into the very name of the event under consideration: the first 2024 presidential debate. I'll give you a hint. It is certainly presidential — one current and one former president was there. But the presidential debate wasn't a debate. Did anybody expect otherwise?
     Did you tune in, expecting the presentation of arguments? The marshaling of relevant facts? One candidate shrugs off the very idea of factuality, living in a constantly changing fantasy hall of mirrors that millions and millions of Americans are all too glad to wander alongside him in, docile as lambs.

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Thursday, June 27, 2024

Flashback 2006: King Lear, "I would not be mad"

Stacy Keach, left, as King Lear. (Photo courtesy of the Goodman Theatre)

     Many emails Monday from readers grateful for my pushback against muscular Christianity trying to wrestle public education to the ground and break its arm. One mentioned that this was the third letter of praise he had sent to a public figure, in his life, the first being to Christopher Plummer after seeing him in "King Lear." 
     Good company. My inclination was to send him, as thanks, my observations on Robert Falls' benchmark 2006 "King Lear," but realized I'd never posted it here. Let me fix that right away.

'I would not be mad. . .'

     Theater, like life, is fleeting. The most elaborate production is quickly gone, the sets broken down, the cast dispersed, never to return.
     But you can't see everything, not in a town like Chicago, where dramatic riches are being tossed from a stage somewhere almost every single night.
     Which is why I nearly missed "King Lear" at the Goodman, for the simple reason that "Hamlet" opened at Navy Pier a few days earlier. How much Shakespeare can I reasonably ask my wife to endure?
      As October clicked by, I began to feel a rising panic, the desperate urgency that grips my boys when they hear the receding jingle of the ice cream truck. My chance was slipping by. Still I dithered.
     Then the Wall Street Journal, a perfumed hankie jammed under its nose, panned the play as an "appallingly expensive desecration," as if it were footing the bill. "Oral sex, anal rape, male and female nudity, murder by garrote" — the Journal huffed, as if Shakespeare didn't stud his work with both killings and low puns about country matters.
     Could director Robert Falls have really stumbled that badly? I remember being awed at his "Hamlet" nearly a quarter century ago. It shocked, in a good way. When Ophelia came on stage, late in the play, hiking up her skirts and drawing on her face with lipstick, you recoiled, thinking, "She's crazy!" and then laughed at yourself because, duh, it's Ophelia.
     Was the Journal right? Or was my colleague Hedy Weiss, who praised the play, particularly Falls' decision to set it among the embers of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, which the Journal found a stunt?
     If I didn't see it, I'd never know.
     So I went, alone, having failed to entice anybody to go with me. Drove downtown in the snowstorm Thursday, ponied up the $26 to park and the $60 for a ticket, feeling slightly sheepish — some strange vestige of directorial brand loyalty. "Lear" isn't even one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.
     Or wasn't, until now.
     The good news is that the Journal's theater critic is as perceptive as its editorial writers, who consider George Bush in a class with Lincoln and Jesus. Without replicating Hedy's spot-on review, I'll note that the murderous dukes and lecherous ladies of "Lear" fit perfectly into the bloody post-Soviet chaos.
     At one point, I did turn my face away, revolted. But that was when Gloucester's eyes are ripped out, and isn't that what an audience should do at that point? Falls didn't write the scene — Shakespeare did. Falls just gave it the horror it deserves. I guess the Journal would have preferred his eyes be put out demurely, perhaps by a committee.
     The sad thing is that "King Lear" only runs for another week, though tickets are available. As I said, these things end far too soon.
          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 15, 2006

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

I scream, you scream, we all scream for Lemon Meringue Pie ice cream!

     One crisis after another — climate change and nationalism, crime and, oh yeah, don't forget, Thursday's presidential debate. "From wrong to wrong, the exasperated spirit proceeds," as T.S. Eliot put it.
     Unless restored by ... well, it's summer; let's talk about ice cream.
     The world won't deteriorate faster because we pause to consider cool creamy goodness.
     In my defense, I seldom write about ice cream. There was a 2009 column ripping the lid off the spumoni question — it isn't Italian — and then, way back in 1996, when I escaped parenting a newborn long enough to inhale a jumbo atomic hot fudge sundae at Margie's Candies.
     I wouldn't write now, but Graeter's Ice Cream, a venerable Ohio company founded in 1870, converted an old auto body shop in downtown Northbrook into its first Illinois ice cream parlor in 2015. They offer a wide array of flavors, my previous favorite being black raspberry chocolate chip — think inch-long shards of Dove-quality dark chocolate.
     Graeter's offers tasting spoonfuls. As much as I hate to hold up the line with gustatory experiments, it seems a failure of imagination not to sample a new flavor before ordering black raspberry chocolate chip. In the spring, Lemon Meringue Pie was featured. I like lemons. And I like pie. One taste. Boom. Bits of crust. Bits of lemon candy. My mind rearranged itself. I ordered a bowl.
     That was it. Black raspberry chocolate chip was forgotten. For the first time in my life, I actually went to an ice cream parlor seeking out a specific flavor. A few days later I returned for another bowl. And bought two pints so I'd have it around. Two.
     Lemon Meringue Pie Ice Cream — how'd they do that?
     "It was a team approach," said Bob Graeter, chief of quality assurance and part of the fourth generation to run the company. "We're always working from a portfolio of 15 or 20 concepts. Seeing what's trending, what's out there. Lemon is an on-trend flavor. We're seeing a lot of citrus flavors in ice cream right now. We've been toying with lemon-flavored ice cream, along with the idea of reinterpreting bakery items. We have a baking business in Cincinnati."

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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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