Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Vice presidents are always obscure — until they're not

 

Vice president Kamala Harris campaigns in Wisconsin Tuesday
 (photo for the Sun-Times by Anthony Vazquez)

     Say what you will about Northwestern University's former Medill School of Journalism, those annealed in its furnace tend to stick together. Two of my classmates made the complicated trek to Charlevoix, waaaay up in you-can't-get-there-from-here Northern Michigan, for my older son's wedding.     
     Back in the day, I also schlepped to keep up with my far-flung classmates — I think it was my way to be quasi-adventurous while having someone who knew the territory close by and, not incidentally, a free place to stay.
     So when Medill classmate Mary Kay Magistad based herself in Bangkok, freelancing around Asia, I slid by to offer my support. It was a memorable visit — how could it not be? I saw the king and queen of Thailand, at least from a distance, in a procession of red Mercedes ferrying them out of the palace gates, where I happened to be loitering.
     And I saw Dan Quayle, then the vice president, up close. He came to town and I couldn't resist showing up at his press conference. The motorcade arrived, police motorcycle outriders, communications vans, Cadillac limousines flown in on Air Force Two. At least a dozen vehicles, this long line of flashing red lights, a strobing parade of American power where, at the very end, a door flies open and disgorges Dan Quayle. I couldn't help think of that scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon where a huge spaceship spits out a series of smaller vessels, Russian nesting doll style, until finally out pops tiny Marvin the Martian.
     Quayle was one of the more laughable vice presidents — remembered today, to the degree he's remembered at all, for telling a class he was visiting that "potato" is spelled "potatoe." Spoiler alert: It's not.
     But Quayle also represents all vice presidents, in his invisibility and inadequacy. Among the most astounding things of this very astounding week, after the fact of a powerful man doing a selfless thing for his country — Donald Trump had almost made us forget it is possible — was the alacrity with which the Democrats rallied around Vice President Kamala Harris.
     Not to take anything away from her many fine qualities. But it is a reminder that when you're dangling from a cliff from a sapling that's pulling out of the earth, you don't vet the person throwing you the rope too closely. The party ready to vote for Joe Biden's mummified corpse saw that dusty cadaver magically transform into a living, breathing, talking, fund-raising woman. Talk about an upgrade.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Unpublished draft: Biden stepping down gives Democrats a fighting chance.

 

Judith, by Jan Sanders van Hemessen (Art Institute of Chicago)

   Sunday was an odd day. First thing in morning I wrote my Monday column, as usual. Joe Biden had not yet withdrawn from the presidential race. But the possibility was on my mind though, honestly, I didn't think he would do it. Friday's optimism had curdled. So I wrote a melancholy column about infirmity and age and when it is time to go. Then when news hit about 1 p.m., I leapt to give the column a quick going over, to reflect the developments. That went online. One editor liked it, but another  suggested I was going to the dad well one time too often — that caught my attention like a right hook — and I should work up something entirely new. So I did. But that was never published — a third editor higher up the food chain found it "political," and decided not to run it. I was disappointed though, since I also liked the column they were going with, didn't argue too much. And as it turned out, many readers were grateful, and none said "Why are you rambling on about Warren Zevon when the tectonic plates of American politics are shifting?" Particularly since I knew that here, I have no higher ups, so you can read what the paper declined to print. 

     I'll admit it; I'd given up hope. Everybody is so selfish, maximizing their own advantage, ignoring the common good. So of course Joe Biden would dig in and cling to his prestigious job with its big jet airplane, even as polls tanked and Democrats scrambled over each other, begging him to leave. Saturday it seemed the whole tangled ball would tumble arguing and clawing and spitting over the precipice, leaving the path clear for juggernaut Trump to glide easily back into the White House. and end American democracy.
     Then ... surprise, surprise ... Sunday afternoon, Biden did the right thing.
     I will admit — I never liked Biden. Having read George Packer's "The Unwinding," Biden came off as the most plastic political hack ever, with his hair plugs and fake grin. Now I think he's a patriot, if not an American hero.
     Biden endorsed Kamala Harris. Not that she's a sure winner. Far from it. Harris has the same handicap that sank Hillary Clinton: She's a woman in a sexist country. Where a third of the women can't be trusted by the men running their states to decide when to have a baby.
     And honestly, in the four years she has been vice president, Harris has not exactly endeared herself to the nation. She has done what vice presidents do, keep busy, keep out of trouble, and stand by in case something happens to the president. That's okay. We'll get to know her better now. The slate is clean; she has a fresh start.
     Harris is 59 years old — almost two decades younger than Donald Trump. And now the focus of the election can shift directed where it belongs — not on Joe Biden's age or agility of mind — but on Donald Trump's utter unfitness to be president.
     And remember. The goal is not to appeal to the 40% who are zipping up their lemming outfits and hot to march after Trump into a brave new world of totalitarian America. It's to appeal to the 5% in seven states who could have sat out the election, thinking, "I'm not bothering to vote for the old guy" who now might be lured out and support a woman of color who can be counted on to do whatever is humanly possible to avoid a nationwide ban on abortion.
     Hope blooms. We now have a candidate who can speak in clear, complete, powerful sentences. Americans can once again hope we have a future that doesn't involve becoming a vassal state of Vladimir Putin.
     And who will she pick to be her running mate? I bet J.B. Pritzker is on the elliptical right now. I'd say go for Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, but a ticket with two women would cause parts of the country to implode out of sheer door-jamb gnawing, toxic male insecurity. Pete Buttigieg could fill the traditional vice presidential role of tailgunner, directing scorn at Trump from now until November.
     Heck, the whole thing could be decided at the convention in Chicago next month — we've sailed into uncharted waters. Chicago is the site of the last contested vice presidential slot, in 1956, when the choice came down to Estes Kefauver and John F. Kennedy. The Democrats, true to form, chose Kefauver, a senator from Tennessee.
     Maybe Biden will start a trend, of old guys realizing they've lost a step or three and deciding to pack it in.
     There's no shame there. The body decays, the mind crumbles. For every timely exit — and Biden's is late, but maybe in the nick of time — a dozen stay too long. Athletes whose legs are gone, singers whose voices are shot. It's not about the age — nobody is suggesting Mick Jagger quit, because he can still do his prancing rooster routine at 80. It's about whether you can still produce.
     So much is at stake in this election. As I said Friday, just the top three — mass deportations, ruinous tariffs, and a nationwide abortion ban — should have been enough to clear the benches and get people voting. But the American public, well, they can be inattentive. Hopefully Biden stepping down and Harris stepping up will catch their attention. Because when you look over the Project 2025 plan the Heritage Foundation has set out for Trump, it amounts to nothing less than a revolution, an overturning of American democracy.
     Who the president is matters. Up until Sunday afternoon, that man could have been Joe Biden, again, for another four years. But he gave up his chance because he recognized reality. Democrats pressed him because they recognize reality. Democrats are the party of recognizing reality, of facts and laws. Our work is cut out for us. But now we have a fighting chance.

If you're wondering about the illustration, recall your Bible. Judith is the heroine who saved the Jewish people by getting the Assyrian general Holofernes drunk and then cutting off his head with his own sword. She's just done the deed, and is looking at her arm in wonder, as if thinking, "I just did that." I love it for that.

Monday, July 22, 2024

It's hard to walk away, but it was time for Joe to go

Carnitas torta, 5 Rabanitos
     When Warren Zevon was dying of lung cancer, he spoke with David Letterman. The talk show host asked the great singer/songwriter what it is like living with his fatal diagnosis.
      "You put more value on every minute," Zevon replied. "I always thought I kinda did that ... but it's more valuable now. You're reminded to enjoy every sandwich."
     "Enjoy every sandwich." A great line, one that I think of, more and more. Even though I'm healthy as a horse. But I'm also 64. Nothing lasts forever.
     I can relate to Joe Biden's predicament, I really can. He's president of the United States, a job that comes with power and attention and a jet airplane. Hard to walk away, and kudos to him for making the tough decision and deciding not to run again. He dragged his feet, naturally, but in the end he did what he thought was necessary to give American democracy its best shot at survival.
Turkey club on wheat toast, Lou Mitchell's
     Stepping down has to hurt. Biden was at peak performance not long ago: defeated Donald Trump in 2020, mobilized Europe to respond to the invasion of Ukraine. One bad night, and suddenly the kids were taking away his car keys.
     Only it wasn't just one bad night but what that bad night represented. If I turn in my grocery list as a column, that wouldn't be just one bad column, but a clanging alarm bell that something bad had happened, and might happen again.
    Biden endorsed Kamala Harris. Not that she's a sure winner. Harris has the same handicap that sank Hillary Clinton: She's a woman in a sexist country. Where a third of the women can't be trusted to decide when to have a baby. But she can speak powerfully and get Americans excited.
Pastrami on rye, Max & Benny's
     Imagine if Republicans pushed against an unfit candidate half as hard?
For some, retirement is easy. My father retired from NASA at 56. Meaning he's been retired for the past 36 years, longer than he worked. The glory of a federal pension.
     At the time I was puzzled. Stopping so young seemed a refutation of his entire career. Did he not want to do something else? Find another job? No. He wanted to paint watercolors and hike the Rockies, which he did until the frost set in. 
     Now he sits and stares blankly at the television. So maybe retiring early was smart. As a bartender said in Buenos Aires, encouraging me to try the tango: "The life is only once."
      Right. But what if you like to work? And the job has a shimmer of significance. Shouldn't you stick at your post, tapping away, as the water rises around your ankles? I always assumed the decision would be made for me. The paper would break apart in the typhoon battering professional journalism. Or I'd make some joke that is no longer funny and be frog-marched offstage.

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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Crispy

     Were I trying to create a personal brand, to craft a writerly image, I suppose I'd try to cast myself as the hyper observant scribe, a kind of journalistic Sherlock Holmes, studying cigar ash, taking note of atoms as they flit through the air. Nothing would escape the iron claw of my notice.
     But that isn't true. I don't want to say I'm an oblivious blockhead — that isn't true either — though I have moments of staggeringly oblivious blockheadedness. Or, as I sometimes put it, for a smart guy I can be astoundingly stupid.
     For instance. When I was in Boston in May, hanging out with my cousin Harry, I went to the supermarket for him — he's ill, and shopping can be difficult. He texted me a list: potatoes, apple sauce, tapioca pudding, and such. I searched for the various items — surprisingly difficult in a store you've never visited before — parsing the various vague requests. What exact kind of cheddar cheese slices? (I actually blew that assignment by picking up non-dairy soy slices cleverly disguised as cheddar cheese. Or maybe not so cleverly disguised; still, it fooled me.) 
      One item was quite simple: "Rice Krispies cereal." I rolled my cart to the proper aisle. Except I couldn't find the Kellogg's Rice Krispies. I went down the cereal aisle, scanning the boxes. Once. Twice. On the third time I gave up and settled on the generic version, "crisp rice," all lowercase, an unexpected e.e. cummings homage, with a generic pink cartoon dragon gawping at the stuff. Not something I would eat, but then, not everyone is me. Maybe Harry would enjoy this "crisp rice." Still, I'd better check. The best thing to do was text a picture. So I snapped the photograph above and sent it to him. "No Rice Krispies, incredibly," I wrote. "This okay?"
   I hit "Send." Then looked at the photo I had just sent. 
    "Oh wait," I added. "Never mind. There it is." Which is a drawback of this instant communication. Sometimes just waiting — or looking yet again — works better. In trying to figure out how I overlooked it, I think I was distracted by the bedragoned cereal above. Shunning that, I missed the mark below.

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Dazzled by Georgia O'Keeffe


    A busy day Friday, preparing two long stories for our Democratic National Convention special section running next month. Suddenly it was 10 p.m. and I looked up, thinking, "Oh, the blog." Late, and no gas in the tank. So, apologies. This isn't much, but it'll have to do. Besides, it's Saturday. You shouldn't be cooped up, reading. Get outside. That's what I plan to do. 

     Look at the painting above, "The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y." by Georgia O'Keeffe. It's part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute, but currently on display with its exhibit of her Manhattan paintings, "My New Yorks." 
     The show works on a number of levels. First, one tends to think of O'Keeffe as a Southwest artist — all those cow skulls and giant vulvic flowers. So it's disorienting to think of her in a New York flat, at the Shelton, where she moved in 1924, the tallest apartment building in the world at the time. There she painted the factory landscapes she saw from her window. Looking up, she captured buildings framing the sky in a way that echoed the canyon walls she found in New Mexico. 
     Second, you realize that she was doing these skyscraper paintings at the same time she was doing those Southwest paintings, basically commuting between the two places with the seasons, like a bird.
     And third, the exhibit reminds visitors of her sheer technical skill. The above painting tricks the brain to think you're looking at a dazzling sun peeking out from behind a building. The viewer practically squints. You have to pause, and look a second time, to realize you're just regarding regular yellow and white paint. An incredible achievement. "My New Yorks" runs through Sept. 22.

"East River from the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel." Not the sort of image much associated with
Georgia O'Keeffe, who manages to make the industrial landscape almost whimsical. Maybe it's the tugboat.


Friday, July 19, 2024

Notes from a beautiful country (political rough edges notwithstanding)



     "Do you want to visit a lavender farm?" my wife asked. The honest answer would be: "God no — why would I do that?"
     But we were in Northern Michigan, with a few hours to kill before the weekend's wedding festivities began. I'm a blind blunderer, but my wife has this superpower; she investigates where we're going and discovers what there is to do. So her suggestion is an endorsement, practically a command. In that light, why yes, by all means, let's go. If I didn't take my wife's lead, I'd still be a single guy living in a one-bedroom apartment in Oak Park, and not the father of a groom.
     "Sure," I said. Shortly thereafter we were gawping at the purple wonderland of Lavender Hill Farm.
     This is such a beautiful country. The rural regions hold their own against the national parks or coastal waters or even the gorgeous skyline of a city like Chicago. Driving almost anywhere reminds me of that.
     I know. Democrats are supposed to be twisting in agony right now. Between Old Joe Biden tightening his grip on the steering wheel as the Democratic Party races toward a cliff, and Donald Trump escaping death (by the direct intervention of the Lord God Almighty, as he says, or by the same persistent dumb luck that had him born to a real estate millionaire in 1946), doom is nigh.
     But honestly, I don't feel it. Given how either man won't be around much longer, I'm already looking past them, to what each represents. Biden's biggest achievements so far are repairing America's crumbling infrastructure — bridges and roads like the ones we were gliding across — and mobilizing Europe to stand behind Ukraine. Plus standing for decency and honesty — his claims to spryness notwithstanding.
     Trump represents an America not only grovelling before dictators, but imitating them. On that note: enjoying the Republican convention? I didn't watch a second. News reports convey policy notions that are pure folly. Like those "MASS DEPORTATION NOW!" signs. I don't know if you've noticed, but companies can't staff as it is. Were the United States to actually do what the GOP is suggesting — deport millions of immigrants whom we didn't allow to become legal — besides being an epic human rights disaster, it would crater our economy.
     As would the tariffs Trump loves, whether imposed by him or JD Vance. Chicago should be especially sensitive to this. Remember candy companies? Remember Brach's on the West Side, running 24 hours a day? Swept away by daft sugar tariffs propping up beet farms in Minnesota. It was estimated that three candy company jobs vanished for every sugar industry job saved.

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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Motel life: analyze, adapt, overcome.

      Inflation is bad, I know. But the specifics can still be startling. We were striding through the Chicago Botanic Garden earlier this month. It was hot, I was thirsty and a lemonade was in order. So I got in line at a refreshment stand and, in a pro forma way, asked what a cup of lemonade costs. Answer: $12. Mind you, this wasn't a lemonade and vodka, or fancy lemonade squeezed in front of your eyes. Just a glass of plain old lemonade. Made from water, sugar and a lemon or two. Or lemon extract, more likely. 
     Maybe I'm cheap, but I couldn't do it. I turned and fled, muttering apologies. Setting off toward a water fountain, I asked myself what was the most I would have paid for a lemonade there at the Botanic Garden, and decided $8. 
     Or on Sunday. We decided not to drive straight home the day after the wedding, but to stop in Traverse City, an hour south. Take it easy. We booked ourselves in a Best Western motel. What would you think a room at a Best Western would cost? With the $20 fee for the dog, over $300. Not to diss the hotel. It was clean, the clerks were very nice. There were chocolate chip cookies that evening and make-your-own waffles in the morning. 
     Though we did check into the special dog suite — it had an exit to outside the building, and no carpeting. But my wife didn't like the uncarpeted effect, so we quickly changed rooms, from 125 to 108.
    Which meant, when the air-conditioning started this loud whining hum, we were not predisposed to change rooms again. I mean, once is acceptable. But twice, that puts you in the realm of chronic complainers, if not the unhinged.  I figured, we'd get used to it.
     But I am nothing if not handy. And I know that noise is created by vibration. Approaching the air conditioner, I placed my palm firmly on the surface and pressed. The hum stopped. Now the thing to do was try to replicate the effect of my hand pressing hard on the air conditioner front panel. I slid over the one chair and wedged it against the air conditioner. It continued operating, quietly. Amazing. Sometimes stuff works. I was pleased with my handiwork though, frankly, for $306 a night, you expect better.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Artist's Guest House


     As a rule, I like hotels. The thrill of luxury and perfection. The little twin bottles of shampoo and conditioner. The hush when the door clicks shut. The mountain of pillows. Or motels, with their bare bones comfort, rest, sanctuary from the road, uniformity, value.
     And yet. Nothing is more antiseptic than a hotel room. Ideally. You do not want a crumb, a trace of any of the thousands of previous occupants. Generic art on the walls. Anodyne furnishings. Nobody wants to live in a hotel room.
     An Airbnb can be different.  Much better. Or worse. There is a roll-the-dice quality. One pair of guests at the wedding last weekend had their Airbnb cancel at the last minute. Another compared their lodging to a Mediterranean villa. You take what you get. Then again, hotels can screw up too; my sister's hotel lost her second night's reservation, forcing us to scramble to relocate her.
     With an Airbnb, you are moving into somebody's home, often literally, a place they may have recently occupied. The owner is very present in quirky furnishings and decorations. 
     That can be a good thing, or a bad thing. There is a risk, but also a reward. You aren't a guest of Mr. Hilton or Ms. Marriott, but a real person — ideally. Some Airbnb's are pretty corporate themselves.
     Still, a good option, particularly in a pricey resort town like Charlevoix, Michigan. We'd be occupying an expensive suite the day before and after the wedding — the groomsmen would be changing there. So something a bit more affordable was in order for the first two days — and, crucially, a place that allows dogs, as our Kitty was a flower girl in the wedding. This led us to the Artist's Guest House
     There was an actual artist, John Posa, and I have never moved into an Airbnb where the presence of the owner was felt quite as strongly as it was here. 
     His widow, Oksana, showed us around the place, explaining that her husband recently died, and since they had bookings, she was continuing on with the Airbnb while she figured out what to do with it. Her husband had used the small building, a former mocassin store, as a studio — there were two big lithography presses in the living room.
   I gave my condolences and then asked how recently he had died, fearing it was last week. She had tears in her eyes, and said it happened in February. Recent enough.
     Not that she was dour. She was kind, upbeat, welcoming. She left us with a loaf of walnut bread baked that morning, some farm fresh eggs. A variety of wines were available at $10 a bottle.
     We settled in, looked around. I liked his prints more than his paintings — the dog over the fireplace seems to be floating in air rather than water — but he certainly had talent, and a sensibility. Having closed down my father's studio a few years ago, I was conscious that this was Posa's space, with tubes of ink scattered around, rollers, pencils he had no doubt sharpened. Long thin drawers contained stacks of fresh prints. He had also been a patent attorney, and had a hobby of going to yard sales and buying contraptions that had their 
patent number on them, then pairing them in tableaus with their patent filings. I was excited, the next morning, to notice a wooden box from Kraft American Cheese. (Any idea what Kraft was patenting? Weigh your options. Perhaps it would be best to think of actual cheese. What does it have that Kraft American cheese-like product lacks? Correct. Rinds. That's intentional. "The principal objects of my invention are to prepare cheese of the type described, in units of such size and shape that can be readily sold ... while at the same time drying out or spoilage of the unsold cheese is practically eliminated; to provide a cheese of the American variety which shall be free from objectionable rind or inedible skin...")  

     The bed was wonderfully firm and we slept well. 
In the morning, my wife made a lovely breakfast with eggs, peppers, real cheese and bread, plus a grapefruit we had brought with us (like Hunter S. Thompson, I make a point of traveling with grapefruit). I put on one of the artist's CDs: Boccherini quintets for string quartet and guitar. 
    The Artist's Guest House is right on 31, the main drag, but quiet enough, and a brief stroll from Charlevoix's touristy downtown of jam shops and cute little boutiques — certainly better than driving, since the bridge is raised every half hour, tangling traffic.
      We were glad to stay there and would be glad to return, if it's still around. The space's future is uncertain. Then again, all of our futures are uncertain. As a person shielding my own little guttering creative flame from the downpour of life, I tried to look extra hard at the dead artist's studio, reflecting on the brief span it will remain. The brief span that any of us will remain.



Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Anything is possible.

Traverse City, Michigan — July 14, 2024

      When I heard news of the shooting of Donald Trump on Saturday afternoon, my first thought was "Reichstag Fire." The 1933 arson of the German parliament that Hitler used as a pretext to suspend civil liberties. Not that Trump is in a position to do that, yet. But rather that this was a lucky wound, another stroke of good fortune for a man born with a horseshoe up his ass. The assassination attempt will be an excuse to eventually become the dictator he already intends to be. To play the martyr he already portrays himself in every breath. Trump gets rare confirmation in the physical world of his bone-deep belief that he is a victim. His followers, who already consider him to be Jesus on the Cross, find an actual nail to justify their passion. And the Democrats, already glumly backing an octogenarian who couldn't pretend to be focused for 10 minutes with everything on the line, now have another reason to go even limper as their bodies are swept over the falls. Our bodies.
     That's the bad news. The good news is that today is July 16. Nov. 5 is still almost four months away. As we have just seen, anything is possible. I hope. But as I've said before, hope is the last coin in your pocket when all of your money is gone. 

Monday, July 15, 2024

"The feeling we had come home"


     Northern Michigan is Hemingway country. Paris and Spain and Cuba came later. Here is the motherlode for early Hemingway, the Nick Adams stories. Though this woodsy, cherry-strewn realm does pop up elsewhere. In "Green Hills of Africa," Hemingway writes,  “The best sky was in Italy or Spain and in Northern Michigan in the fall.”
     Saturday's wedding of my older son and his fiance took place at Charlevoix, the lovely lakeside town which, for Nick Adams, represents domestic bliss with Marjorie in "The Three-Day Blow." Though his friend Bill assures him that a married man is "done for." 
     Not true. Fiction be damned, Hemingway personally liked marriage well enough — he did it three times. He wed his first wife, Hadley Richardson, at Horton Bay, and honeymooned 20 miles east of Charlevoix at Walloon Lake. Their signed marriage certificate is displayed at Harsha House, part of the Charlevoix Historical Society Museum. 
     The museum also holds a letter written by Hemingway saying how, in 1920, his mother kicked him out of their house, and he was only able to survive the summer by parlaying $6 into ten times that amount at a Charlevoix gambling den. The winnings, he wrote, “prevented [him] from having to go to work at the cement plant where Bay Harbor is now." 
     We admired the local cement plant, still on the shoreline. And Bay Harbor is where my son's wedding took place, close to his new wife's family.
     While I plan to take some time to process the whole event — you are, as I like to say, allowed to think about stuff —  there was one reading my son had incorporated into Saturday's ceremony, from "A Farewell to Arms," that I thought I'd share now, especially after a fellow guest whose son is getting married in September made a beeline to me afterward and announced that she is going to regift the quote: 
At night, there was the feeling that we had come home, feeling no longer alone, waking in the night to find the other one there, and not gone away; all other things were unreal. We slept when we were tired and if we woke the other one woke too so one was not alone. Often a man wishes to be alone and a woman wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others. We were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.
     Beautiful, right? Perfect. I've recently read "A Farewell to Arms" and at the reception asked my son when he'd come across that passage. Not while actually reading the book, he admitted, but by surfing selections of romantic quotes online. Not quite the same as stumbling upon it in situ, I suppose, not sighing in recognition of truth and marking the place to return to later. But good enough nevertheless.  Anyway, it's a moving and effective wedding quote, and if you'd like to borrow it, it's yours.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Wedding flashback #3 — 2011: Peasants and princes marry for one reason

Prince William and Kate Middleton on their wedding day


     My older son got married Saturday afternoon, in a lovely waterside ceremony. Meaning that I've got better things to do than craft the high-calibre journalism you've come to expect here. But I am not without compassion, and luckily I've commented on plenty of weddings over the years. I'm sure the happy occasion will make the cut, eventually. But not today.

     The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is one week away. Which means I better speak my piece now, since by Monday we can expect a Category 5 media hypestorm to be howling in full fury all around us, and you won’t be able to hear a word I say.
     So far the initial outlier Royal Wedding storms fall into one of two major types.
     First, the drenching downpour of mainstream hoopla, the standard, isn’t-this-lovely, let’s-parse-every-detail documentation, the traditional approach for the past century. The TV networks are all chanting “We’re there! Giving you the lowdown on every last flower (look for myrtle in the bride’s bouquet!) and every salient and non-salient detail (did you know that two horses in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment have been named in honor of William and Kate? You do now.)
     The second, smaller, more modern gust blows against the prevailing gale. In America, it’s a sort of “Didn’t we fight a revolution to get away from this sort of thing?” incredulity, bordering on anger. Death to kings! In Britain, there’s an even stronger current of rejection and contempt, of those insisting that just because one royal is getting married, that’s no reason to pause from despising the royals as a group and wishing they’d go away. The disgust over their lavishness and vapidity is magnified by the specter of jug-eared, red-cheeked Charles — think Bertie Wooster at 62 and a prince — and the memory of his tragic first wife, Diana, whose own storybook wedding is a cold rain on next week’s parade.
     My take is neither slack wonder nor hot contempt, though I see the appeal of both:
     Awe is appropriate. Most lives, including my own, are dull, if not dreary, our days spent taking out the garbage and clacking away at our jobs. The image, no matter how false, of a fairy tale wedding, with kings and queens and royal carriages, provides a powerful glow one can warm one’s routine-numbed heart over.
     Sure it’s a lie. But what drama isn’t? The loathsomeness of the royals is a function of our close study of their lives — they don’t seem, as a class, any more despicable than, oh, Hollywood actors or professional athletes or other providers of mass entertainment.
     But I sympathize with scoffers too. It’s too much. The media can’t seem to find a balance — next week all wars will recede, the budget brawl in Washington will mute, every news story will be drowned out by a Windsorian wave that I think would drive the most Union Jack-draped royalist mad. Is that the media’s fault? People tune in, read, they’re interested.
     Myself, not so much. I had to check which prince is getting married and which is next in line after Charles (William, for both).
     I did succeed in finding one aspect that intrigues me — the question of why they, or anybody else, get married. Why have a ceremony? I don’t mean singlehood vs. married life. I mean a wedding as a universal social custom. Why, from thatched huts to Westminster Abbey, from 10,000 years ago to next week, do humans make such a fuss when they decide to face life’s joys and woes together?
     A Short History of Marriage, by Edward Westermarck, is a surprisingly lucid piece of work, despite being written by an academic, which provides a reason for weddings that never crossed my mind, one so simple that it’s a revelation.
     “The most general social object of marriage rites is to give publicity to the union,” he writes. “Publicity . . . is everywhere the element which distinguishes a recognized marriage from an illicit connection.”
     If marriage is an institution designed to raise families, then weddings are designed to publicly commit the man, in earlier times, and now the couple, to the responsibilities soon to be literally crying at their feet.
     Hence the big wedding. Hence the feast, in order to draw the guests, who are there to witness the event and spread the word, a vital function in pre-cable TV days.
     So while the typhoon of press coverage is excessive and deadening, we can take comfort in the thought that publicity is not just traditional, but the true reason for a wedding.
     A little attention is in order — you smile at every bride and groom passing through a hotel lobby without parsing their backgrounds, why not smile at this couple too? I would not want to be either the person camped out on the sofa all week, drenched in the coverage, nor would I want to be muttering about the madness of King George III. The former might want to watch less and live more, the latter might take a day off, in the name of idealized young love. You can go back to despising the royals and eagerly awaiting their downfall bright and early next Saturday morning.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 22, 2011

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Wedding flashback #2 — 2010: Plan for a perfect wedding then wait for the problems

Group Portrait: A Wedding Celebration, by Gillis van Tilborgh (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     My boy is getting married today, meaning that EGD needs to operate on automatic pilot for a while. Luckily, I've written a number of columns on the subject, including this one, which is extra apt because ... actually, no time to go into details now. Let's put it this way: my observation that there is always a glitch or two when trying to pull off a wedding is not refuted by current events. Though as always, everything will work out fine in the end. I hope.

     By 50, a man should have played a role in a few weddings, and I've been involved in my share. I've hosted two, one for my brother at my apartment on Logan Blvd., one for a pair of readers at the Willis Tower Skydeck. I've been a best man and a groomsman and helped throw a surprise bachelor party at a bar in New York City. Not to mention the many weddings I've attended as a guest, including one atop the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier and, of course, my own gilded affair in the Babylonian splendor of the Hotel Intercontinental in downtown Chicago.
     My involvement in these weddings has left me with one central piece of wedding wisdom that I impart to all prospective brides — something those brides-to-be whose wedding dresses went up in flames Wednesday at Eva's Bridals of Oak Lawn learned big-time, but which holds true for every wedding and deserves being stated whenever possible:
     Something always goes wrong.
     Always, always, always.
     Oh, I suppose the most casual affair — a quick exchange of vows in the Cook County Clerk's office — can go off without a hitch. But anything more complex than that — plan to open a jar of nuts and beat a tambourine afterward — and the possibilities for screw-ups swiftly multiply.
     This of course is completely opposite to the standard bride's goal of a "perfect" wedding, whatever her idea of perfect might be, from arriving in Cinderella's glass carriage in a cloud of doves at a ceremony officiated by Mickey Mouse, to standing barefoot behind the counter at the McDonald's where you met your beau.
     These brides operate under the false impression that just because they've planned something for months and paid an ungodly sum of money for it, therefore they can expect everything to come off without a hitch.
     That's not how life works
     At our wedding, I wasn't hoping for perfect — guys seldom do. A guy, if he's marrying the right person, will be happy if his bride shows up. I was content to let my bride plan the wedding of her dreams, limiting my participation to a few symbolic contributions which consisted, if I recall, of a) putting carrot soup on the menu. (I like carrot soup) and b) insisting that, if we were going to have a band, it had to be a good band.
     Carrot soup is easy. And a good band is attainable, if you spend enough. But "perfect" is another matter entirely. "Perfect" is generally synonymous with "impossible." Oh, you can bowl 300 or pitch a perfect game, but with something as complex as a wedding, with the flowers and the chapel and the reception and the music and the meal and the guests, the odds of it all coming off perfectly are scant.
     Expecting wedding perfection is a recipe for disaster because there are so many things that can go wrong. A colleague and his wife asked for their wedding cake to be "creme" and it showed up "green" -- say the words out loud. A wedding cake with mint green icing.
     They laughed — which is key. The secret to a perfect wedding is not guaranteeing that everything unfolds perfectly — it won't — but in ignoring or shrugging off imperfections.
     I was immensely proud that my bride, when she opened the box from the florist containing her bouquet, calmly noted that it was not the round bouquet she ordered, but a draped nosegay. Some brides would have lost it at this point, but she observed that they were still beautiful flowers and it was too late to do anything. An even-keeled acceptance that probably explains how she could marry me in the first place, and that has served us well, lo these past 20 years.
     You can plan for perfect. You may think of your wedding as a stage play — you may write a script, plan various entrances and exits.
     But once it is happening, you must abruptly shift, abandoning the stage play paradigm, jettisoning hopes of "perfect," and view it as a party. You know how parties work — you plan, then let the thing unfold.
     That way, if something happens that's not in the script — your aged uncle stands up in the middle of the vows and begins a rambling toast, or your wedding dress is burned up in a fire — you adapt. The uncle is coaxed to his seat; another wedding dress is found elsewhere. It immediately becomes a good story.
     Weddings are luxuries, but useful luxuries — they can give a couple a good running start up the hill of married life. Sure, you can stamp your foot and insist on perfection. Good luck; maybe that'll work for you. But it's easier if you expect something will veer off course, look for it, wait for it, and when it occurs, say, "Right, this is the thing that's going to go wrong at my wedding."
     My wife and I, to this day, sometimes warm ourselves on the still-glowing embers of our wedding. Not because it was perfect, but because when glitches happened, we hopped over them and kept going. It didn't unfold perfectly, but it's perfect now.
    — Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 29, 2010

Friday, July 12, 2024

Wedding flashback #1 — 2010: Marriage bigotry an old pastime

 

      My older son is getting married this weekend. Lots to do. So I hope you will forgive me if I shirk my EGD duties for the next few days and dig into my considerable backlist of wedding columns. As a rule I don't edit old columns, though I almost balked at publishing the sentence below with four dashes — I did that? Ouch! But I kept it, both as penance and to show I've grown. Two dashes per sentence, max. Your indulgence, as always, is appreciated.

     On June 2, 1886, President Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom in the White House. He was 49. She had turned 21 that day, making her the youngest first lady the United States has ever had.
     I almost added, "or will ever have." But that would be a mistake, the common blunder of assuming that the way things are now is the way they always were or the way they always will be.
     So yes, today no savvy national politician would wed a woman 27 years his junior. It would violate the protective cocoon we increasingly build around our young people. A hundred years ago, a girl turned 14 and could, in many states, get married or go to work in a thread factory.
     Today that's not the case. Marriage is a social institution, a civic bond with religious overtones, and as with all social institutions, it changes. How young you can legally marry shifts, as does whom you can marry. Issues once thought of as trivial — youth — are now viewed with deadly earnest. I doubt Ringo Starr could get away with singing "You're Sixteen" the way he did in 1973, when he was in his 30s.
     Meanwhile, issues that once were huge stumbling blocks — race, religion, class — are increasingly seen as no big deal, except in those places where they still are.
     I bring this up in the wake of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling last week that California's ban on gay marriage violates the Constitution. Of course it does, unless you are trying to use said Constitution to promote your religious morality, in which case you will be talking about gay marriage violating the timeless traditions of marriage. Someone needs to point out how that's a lot of hooey.
     Not only have we seen the average age of marriage shift — 20 for a bride in 1954 when my mother got married at 19, rising to 24 when I got married in 1990 to a bride who, like me, was newly 30. But almost every aspect of marriage has shifted.
     Heading out to the train this morning, I grabbed my copy of Edward Westermarck's 1926 A Short History of Marriage, to remind myself of just how ductile, plastic and malleable the institution really is.
     Westermarck (at the time the Martin White professor of sociology at the University of London) makes a lively guide, pausing at one point to mention, I believe with a hint of satisfaction, that no more significant critic than Sigmund Freud objects to one of his theories.
     In his chapters on "Endogamy" — marrying within a certain group — and "Exogamy" — marrying outside a group — he points out that forbidding certain sorts to marry certain other sorts is as old as time, focusing not just on race and religion, but nationality and class. He skips around the globe illustrating his points.
     "In Polynesia, commoners were looked upon by the nobility almost as a different species of being, and in the higher ranks marriages between nobles and commoners were strongly opposed by the former. In Rome, plebeians and patricians could not intermarry till the year 445 B.C."
     Hmm . . . sounds familiar. We have an echo of this today in fairy tales — stories of forbidden class romance lingering in an age when Cinderella would marry the Duke of York and few would mind.
     "Modern civilization tends more or less to lower or pull down the barriers which separate races, nations, the adherents of different religions and the various classes of society," Westermarck writes.
     Ain't it the truth? With that in mind, not only does the eroding of the stigma against gay marriage fail to detract from the institution, but it is in harmony with marriage as we have been redefining it for 100 years.
     Which brings to mind another point clear in the book: Marriage has value.
      "Marriage is something more than a regulated sexual relation," he writes. "It is an economic institution, which may in various ways affect the proprietary rights of the parties."
     Spouses have economic rights that unmarried couples don't, relating to insurance and such. Plus, there is still some stigma to being unmarried, particularly in politics — Cleveland was our last president elected as a bachelor.
     Despite the changes we've seen, marriage still has worth, and withholding it from gay people based on nothing is mere religious oppression. It's odd — in some American colonies before the Revolutionary War, clergy were not allowed to perform wedding ceremonies; that was the realm of judges. The colonists, with fresh memories of the monolithic Church of England, did not want to let state religion get its foot in the door. So if you know your history, marriage in the United States is not a religious realm being intruded upon by the government, but a governmental realm that has been shanghaied by religion. In that light, it's time to correct the balance, and to treat all American citizens with the equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that they were endowed with by their Creator.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 8, 2010

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Talk about anxiety

 

"The Scream," by Edvard Munch

     Anxiety. The fight-or-flight instinct hardwired into our brains by 100,000 years of evolution gets short-circuited by our complex modern world. You can't stay and can't go, but sit frozen, scoured by whatever the hell is the matter. Or you flee and are chased by it. You both sit and run, mentally, as the problem harries you in a circle, from pillar to post. The car alarm shrieks and shrieks and you can't shut it off and you can't ignore it so you try to do both at the same time and do neither. You are torn apart.
     The fallout from the recent presidential debate disaster is a textbook example of anxiety disorder. After the first two minutes of the debate, when President Joe Biden's face appeared on the screen, vacant, stricken, his mouth an open rictus, his eyes gazing down and to the right, as if crushed in shame, the damage was done. Self-immolation, defeat. At that point, he could have grabbed a straw hat and bamboo cane tossed to him from off camera and started refuting Trump in a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song while tap dancing rings around him, and it would not have mattered.  He was cooked, finished. The shock rippled across the world.
     The immediate thought among t
hose who would protect the United States from four more years being molested by Donald Trump and his gang of revanchist stooges was: Biden must go. We can't run that man on the screen, gaping in senile infirmity while Trump rages and lies. If we do, the American voters will take the critical judgment they can't direct at Trump and use it to dismiss Biden. Fair? No. But stop the presses. Life ain't fair and politics is double unfair. Ask Howard Dean. 
      So the Democrats need a more dynamic candidate, like Hillary Clinton ... whoops, she lost. Like Gavin Newsom then ... but isn't he a Californian?  Or Pete Buttigieg (gay). Or Gretchen Whitmer (a woman, like Hillary). Kamala Harris then (a woman, Black and the vice-president). How many Trump voters will these candidates lure over to the light?
      Not enough, perhaps. Pollsters suggest all those options might do worse than Biden. At least now, though that could change. Unless it doesn't change. Unless Biden is the best we've got. The best hope for America.
     "He must go" quickly morphed into "He must stay." First, because Biden isn't about to go. He's the president. He powered himself to his plum job and he isn't about to step aside just because he can't arrange his features in a look of intelligence for five minutes when his job depends on it. A fairly low bar. So we stay with Biden. Yay! We're ridin' with Biden!
     Although the events he staged trying to wipe away memory of the event he just royally botched also fell flat. Crap yourself on live TV, and there isn't much interest in how precisely you clean up. And even the clean-up was messy. When George Stephanopoulos asked him on ABC how he'll feel if Nov. 5 comes and Trump crushes him, Biden said that so long as he tried his best, then that will be okay. Oh my God. That's worse than any gaffe. Not what you want your would-be hero to say. "Well George, in the end, it doesn't matter if I get that baby out of the burning building or not. What matters is I tried..." Actually it does matter. To the mom anyway. A lot. We don't care if Joe Biden feels good about himself. We want the baby not to burn.
     "Let's all try our best so we'll take our loss philosophically" is not a banner Dems will flock to. That's the white flag of defeat. As is denouncing those still pointing at the debate performance saying, "You know, that's really worrisome..."  Issuing demands for loyalty, to ignore the evidence of your eyes and shrug off unfitness — don't we already have one candidate doing that aplenty?
     Does all of this mean Trump wins? That providence, which has rolled a red carpet in front of Donald Trump literally since the day he was born, is ushering him back to the White House? Like all good nightmares, we thrash against our fate, but we're being tumbled in a torrent, over the falls. Trump was ahead in the polls before the debate. A relative phoned me to ask why, why, why the media is harping on Biden's decrepitude and not Trump's latest misdeeds, which seem to include showing up all over a truckload of newly released Jeffrey Epstein material. The man is literally accused of raping children. I remember a time when that would matter in presidential politics.
     Why why why? my relative cried.
     Do you want me to answer the question? I kept saying.
     "Why?" he wondered, never letting me speak. "Why?"
     Had he allowed me to respond, I would have said that Biden revealing himself to be as out-of-it as Republicans claim is now news, to the Democrats anyway, while Trump being a liar and a rapist and a fraud and a traitor, well, we've been showered with that daily for nearly a decade. Focusing on any particular Trump fib or fantasy has a so-what-else-is-new, and-Napoleon-escaped-from-Elba quality at this point.
     What to do? Anyone lashed by anxiety knows that the only thing to do is let it happen. Lean into your intrusive thoughts. Close your eyes and power forward, head down, legs churning. "If you find yourself going through hell," Winston Churchill said, "keep going."
     I wish I could say if only Biden would resign, then our problems would end. They wouldn't. We'd immediately be flung into a spiked pit of a new set of problems. The moment a candidate is identified the targeting systems lock in and blast away. Kamala Harris has been failing to meet expectations for four years. The process of selecting someone else would be messy and time consuming while Trump offers himself as the golden calf/savior he is already considered to be by 43 percent of the country. There seems to be no solution because there is no solution. November is coming and the only hope is that so many people cast a ballot for Not Trump that we move from the election phase to the beating back whatever Second Insurrection Trump has got planned phase. Talk about anxiety. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

'Enjoy just being here' — At almost 110, she's still baking pie, with a little help

Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin



     Edith Renfrow Smith is baking a sour cherry pie.
     "I just love sour cherry," she confides. "My father planted a sour cherry tree in the yard. He was a cook ... all the fruit; he had peaches, he had plums, he had gooseberries, currants and grapes. Everything that momma could can, because we were poor."
      That yard was in Grinnell, Iowa, where Smith was born on July 14, 1914, two weeks before the start of World War I. Regular readers might remember meeting her in 2021 for her 107th birthday and learning her down-to-earth world view, "Nobody's better than you." I figured, if 107 was noteworthy, how could 108 not be? Or 109, for that matter? The year she got COVID-19 and weathered the deadly disease so easily she didn't even mention that she'd had it.
     For her 110th, this Sunday, I wondered how to shake things up. Such "supercentenarians" are an extreme rarity. Researchers estimate one person in a thousand who reaches age 100 will live to see 110, which makes Smith one woman out of a million, maybe out of 5 million.
     I asked her daughter, Alice Smith, 78, if her mother still makes homemade jelly and wine.
     She does, Alice said, inviting me to come by and watch production of a cherry pie last Friday, an offer I suspect she had reason to regret.
     "It takes 45 minutes to pit a quart of cherries," says Alice, arriving at her mother's apartment with a bag from a farmer's market. "I won't be doing that ever again."
     Alice is late, and perhaps not in the best mood, having had to fight NASCAR traffic from the South Side. "I'm only bringing this stuff," she says. "I'm not making the cherry pie. That's not something I want to make."
     But as daughters know, what you want to do, and what you end up doing, are two different things when your mother enters the equation. Alice is pressed unwillingly into the role of de facto pastry sous chef.
     "Open the cookbook right there and check," Edith says, gesturing to a 1960s-era Better Homes & Gardens ring binder cookbook on the floor.
     "Mother, I don't need to open the cookbook," snaps Alice. "I understand how to bake."
Not easy as pie
     The cookbook surprises me — I had anticipated cherished family baking traditions dating back to the 19th century, which is why it's always good to check your imagined notions against the yardstick of p but reality. Edith sets me right.
     "Momma didn't make pies," she explains. "She didn't give us dessert. She said children should have apples and peaches. 'No garbage.' She called cookies and doughnuts and what have you 'garbage' because they were not good for you. She didn't give us cookies. She didn't bake pie. She made bread, three times a week, and she only used graham flour."

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Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The hatless man, in a hat




     Look at the above photograph. John F. Kennedy at his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961. Study it carefully. There will be a quiz. Right now.
     Question: What do you see? The familiar handsome face of JFK, correct? His beautiful wife, Jacqueline, to his left. And anything else? Look closely. I'll give you a hint. It is cylindrical and black and sitting on his head.
     It's a hat. You see that, right? A silk top hat. Kennedy was the last American president who wore a silk top hat to his inauguration. Why is that so hard to grasp? Actually, I know why. I wrote a book on the death of the men's hat industry, "Hatless Jack," using Kennedy's inauguration day as a narrative arc. Some people who know me well remember that, and will sometimes share hat stories that come their way.
     "Read this this morning," wrote Michael Cooke, my friend and editor at both the Sun-Times and the New York Daily News. "Thought you'd have an interest."
     He shared excerpts from "Suffering with Style: A brief history of the Borsalino—from Al Capone to Indiana Jones, Bogart to Gatsby" posted on Graydon Carter's Air Mail blog June 29 by Vanity Fair contributing editor Sam Kashner.
     The article included this passage:
     Fashions changed—dramatically—in January of 1961, when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president of the United States without wearing a hat. Soon, hippies were growing their hair, letting their freak flags fly.     
     That's the type of mistake that spurred me to write the book in the first place. I pointed out to Michael that, as displayed in the photo above, Kennedy certainly did wear a hat to his inauguration. And men's hats didn't die in January, 1961 — they had already been on the decline for half a century. Kennedy took off his hat to deliver his actual speech, which also contributed to the notion he didn't wear one. T
he public in 1960 were so removed from hat etiquette that they didn't realize that nobody wore a hat while giving a speech. It wasn't done. Removing your hat was a sign of sincerity.
     Glance at this photo of Abraham Lincoln giving his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Use your powers of observation honed above. Notice anything missing? No hat. His famous stovepipe hat is nearby, ready to be worn. When he's done with his speech. 
     I wasn't about to bother trying to inform Kashner of his blunder — East Coast writer types don't acknowledge mistakes, never mind correct them, particularly when pointed out by heartland rustics. 
     Not that I'm in the habit of leaping to correct historical inaccuracies. The continuance of this error frustrates me, particularly, because it speaks to the complete non-influence of my book. It sank without a trace — no shame there, most books do. My use of Kennedy's inauguration day to tell the story of the death of men's hats confused people. The Boston Globe thought I had written the most trivial Kennedy book ever, not grasping that it was a book about hats using Kennedy as a lens. One Amazon reviewer complained there was too much about hats in my hat history, not enough Kennedy.
   I don't think Kennedy actually wearing a hat at his inauguration is a particularly complex, inaccessible historical puzzle, and it's sad to see how easily it flies past folk who otherwise are in the business of parsing reality. It's also comforting that some manage to grasp the situation.
     So kudos to Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker stalwart, who got it right in "The Knotty Death of the Necktie"
     At first I thought he, too, was going to blow it. Gopnik wrote:
     As surely as the famous, supposedly hatless Inauguration of John F. Kennedy was said to have been the end of the hat, and Clark Gable’s bare chest in “It Happened One Night” was said to have been the end of the undershirt, the pandemic has been the end of the necktie.
     Which staggered me a bit. I thought Adam was vaguely familiar with me. We've shared meals together — I once took him to Al's Italian Beef. He asked me to be his interlocutor when he was here 11 years ago at the Chicago Humanities Festival. I was just beginning to pout over someone I respect falling into the usual trap when Gopnik unleashed:
     In “Hatless Jack,” a fine and entertaining book published several years ago, the Chicago newspaperman Neil Steinberg demonstrated that the tale of Kennedy’s killing off the hat was wildly overstated. The hat had been on its way out for a while, and Jack’s hatless Inauguration wasn’t, in any case, actually hatless: he wore a top hat on his way to the ceremony but removed it before making his remarks.
    Well. Okay then. That's better. I don't know whether I like the historical accuracy more, or "fine and entertaining" or "Chicago newspaperman." If you haven't read it, you can pick up a used copy of "Hatless Jack" on Amazon for $7.26. It was my favorite book to write, in that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring this generally-ignored realm, and sharing something that not only hadn't been presented as significant, but people were reluctant to see clearly. I must not have made my case, however, because they still don't get it.      
     This isn't just pickiness, or trivia. As with much history, there is an important truth nestled within the Kennedy and hats story. He was known for being a hatless man — he had a reputation. So when Americans saw him, the dashing, rich, hatless young president, nevertheless wearing a hat at his inauguration, rather than change their assessment to comply with the evidence, they simply edited the hat out of the equation, adjusting collective memory to match their preconceived notions. Perception trumps reality — I didn't chose that verb randomly.