Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Imagining injury in order to inflict it

     Are there a lot of trans people? That depends on what you consider “a lot.”
     A government survey found 1.4% of 13- to 17-year-olds identify as trans, compared to 0.5% of adults. That shift partially explains part of the perception that this is a new, growing phenomenon.
     Living an ordinary suburban life on an ordinary suburban street, I personally know ... let’s see ... one, two, three, four trans young persons. I would call that a lot. They impact my life — beyond when I occasionally grope to recall their preferred pronoun — no more or less than any other acquaintance.
     So why are trans folk such an enormous political issue in 2023 America? Three reasons:
     First, for a person who spent their entire life grounded in binary gender identity, the trans presentation can be confusing, in a what-the-heck-am-I-looking-at? sense. I once glanced out the window and saw a neighbor’s adult child with a beard and breasts, pushing a baby carriage down the street. It took a bit of pondering to sort that one out, eventually filing the image under “Business, none of my.”
     If you strip the process of malice, I don’t see anything wrong with allowing people this adjustment. It can take a trans individual a long time to work out their own particular gender identity — to understand who they themselves are — so it doesn’t seem fair to then demand that any random passerby immediately achieve a similar understanding.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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

Captured Syrian tanks

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

Monday, September 25, 2023

Danes make bikes work; so can we.

Bikes parked at the Copenhagen train station.

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

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Sunday, September 24, 2023

The sheer tenacity of clematis



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


Saturday, September 23, 2023

Danish notes #3 — Eats


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

Friday, September 22, 2023

Call them by their name: ‘refugee camps’

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

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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Danish notes #2: You already know a Danish word

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