Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Running of the bulls(hit)

     Some things are so obviously stupid their stupidity hardly needs to be remarked upon. But when news broke that a promoter is planning to bring a watered down faux version of the running of the bulls from the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain to Stickney, Illinois next July, at Hawthorne Race Track of all places, I feel obligated to roll my eyes, take a deep breath and shout the obvious.
    And not for the expected cruelty-to-animals complaint—if you think running bulls along a brief course is cruel—and it isn't— remember where they are running to, in the real festival: from the corral to the bullring to be stuck with lances and, ultimately, run through with a sword and killed. Some people like to watch that, and far be it for me to question their enjoyment. I'd probably watch too, given the chance. Nature is cruel too.
    None of that bull-killing stuff in Stickney next July, just 1,000 goofs—who have signed up so far, I'm sure there will be more—clutching at something beyond their reach, in this case the cool and excitement of the characters in Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises, which brought what would have otherwise been an obscure Spanish religious festival to worldwide fame. They will tie sashes around their waists, no doubt, drink the cool, crisp wine, wait for the rockets to signal the start of the faux run, ripped out of its context, shorn of its reason, and transported across the globe.
   Not that I'm against fakery as such. There can be good fakery: think Disney World. And then there is fakery that is just inexplicable and commercial. Perhaps because flying to Spain to risk your life running with the bulls is questionable enough.  Every year somebody gets gored, and what a dumb way to buy the farm. How much worse to get trampled by a bull in Stickney.
   What those running at Hawthorne will have forgotten, if they ever knew it in the first place, is this: none of the characters in Hemingway's book, Jake, Lady Brett, etc., actually runs with the bulls. They sit and watch and drink and bicker. And have a lousy time. In that one regard, I'm sure next year's event will be a faithful reproduction of the original.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A few survived both Hiroshima AND Nagasaki

    History offers many lessons. About suffering. About struggle. About resilience.  About the cruelties of fate. On Aug. 6, we remember the atomic bombing of Hiroshima—68 years ago today—and, to a lesser extent, three days later, on Aug. 9, we sometimes remember Nagasaki too. 
    Though, being second, Nagasaki doesn't hold the central place that Hiroshima claims in our collective memory, assuming such a thing as collective memory exists anymore.  Having a limited capacity for history, people tend to remember events in a stripped down, outlined fashion, if at all. I've never seen a poll asking if Americans have any associations with "Hiroshima" — most ask if the bombing was justified, which I'm sure spilled the beans to more than a few who at first drew a blank, wondering, "Bombing? What bombing?"
     In that light, this might seem unimportant. But ever since I read this letter in The New York Times 18 years ago, it's lodged in my mind, teaching something that is more than mere World War II trivia -- that a number of people survived both the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, having fled from the former city to the latter just in time for the second bomb. Here's the letter itself:
     There would almost be something funny about it, in a dark, horrible way, the ultimate example of fleeing one disaster by running into the arms of another, if it weren't so enormously tragic.     
     And perhaps this is disingenuous — the very human tendency to focus on the positive scrap in the face of an overwhelming horror, to think about the Warsaw ghetto uprising and not the 6 million Jews who died, sheep to the slaughter. As many as 200,000 people died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and bringing up a handful of survivors of both should not distract from that awful fact. But that said, we may also remember, as we face our own daily challenges, that the human vessel can be very resilient, and there were some people who were in a city that had a nuclear bomb dropped on it, not once, but twice, and yet lived to tell the tale. There's something incredible about that, something also worth remembering. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Some dream of pocket combs

      I love stories about things made in Chicago, especially new products, such as this one:

      If you walk into the swank Gilbertson Clybourn Pens at 55 E. Chicago, you might be surprised to see, among the fine Waterman fountains and Parker ballpoints, a stainless steel comb produced by the Chicago Comb Company.
     And if you’re wondering why a comb is sold at a pen store, well, there’s a story there, one that says something of the intricate path businesses can take, the connections made as a product winds its way from idea to reality.
     The story could start in Downers Grove in the early 1980s, where John Litwinski met Tedd Strom at O’Neill Junior High School.
    They shared their dreams, as friends will; unlike most, however, those dreams involved industry.   
     “I’ve always been fascinated by manufacturing,” said Litwinski, 37, an attorney. “And I’ve always been bugged, even when I was a kid, by the whole Rust Belt thing. It always bugged me that high-end products are always made somewhere else, and not a low wage place — Germany, Japan. You always hear it’s too expensive to make things here. Why? Why isn’t that stuff made here? It always bugged me. I wanted to make something here before I knew what I wanted to make.”
     The two searched for something to manufacture. They looked at razors — wet shaving is a trend among young men. Germany already makes fine razors. Which led them to combs. Most combs are plastic.
     “They are so gray, so ugly, so cheap,” said Litwinski. “Just wrong on so many levels.”
     A comb is a fairly simple product “without a million different design steps,” he said.
     They tapped an industrial engineer friend to come up with design drawings. “Something clean, very modern, classic, timeless,” said Strom, a product manager. He sketched out Model No. 1, as they ambitiously called it, as if there would be many others, a clean look with a big round hole. The first prototype was aluminum, but that was too light. Steel was better— “an iconic Chicago metal — you see it on L cars — a very Chicago-y kind of material,” said Litwinski.
    The first batch was produced at a steel company in Ohio, but the two men really wanted to make their product in Chicago. They were promoting the combs at the 2011 Great Shave Event held by Merz Apothecary — the type of gathering that would draw high-end customer who would dole out $40 for a comb. One of the barbers at that event was Joe Wortell. He admired the comb, the two said they were looking for a place to manufacture it in Chicago. That’s funny, Joe said, because my parents own a metal finishing plant in Chicago, Triton Industries.
     It takes about 30 seconds for a 6,000 watt industrial CO2 laser to cut a small comb out of a 10-foot-long sheet stainless steel.
      “Smartest thing I ever bought,” said Brent Wortell, owner of Triton Industries, 1020 N. Kolmar, founded by his father in 1961. The bulk of his business is producing the innards of vending machines. “Lots of formed metal in a vending machine,” he said. But Triton’s claim to fame — if a small metal processing plant can be said to have a claim to fame — is that it is the largest producer of those diamond-shaped flip signs denoting hazardous cargo that are on the back of semi-trailer trucks.
     The comb is Model No. 2, a mustache-beard comb, which goes on sale Aug. 25. The laser quickly traces each of the comb’s 33 tines, sending out a spray of sparks.
     Model 2 will cost about $30. That might be seen as a hard sell to people used to buying a plastic comb for a buck.
     “We recognize there’s a little bit of a learning curve,” said Strom. “We emphasize quality, longevity.”
     Model No. 1 went on sale in late 2011, and sold 200 before the year ran out. A thousand more sold in 2012, and Chicago Comb hopes to sell 5,000 this year. Model No. 3 already is on the drawing board.
     A lot of Chicago companies have their fingers on this one little beard comb. Charter Industries buys rolled stainless steel from Kentucky and cuts it into the 10-foot sheets that Triton can put through its laser. The Chicago Paper Tube and Can Company makes the distinctive packaging the combs come in.
     “It’s neat to keep it close to home,” said Strom.
      The combs often are given as gifts, and Strom says the same sort of person who buys an expensive pen might pop for a pricy comb.
     Which is not, however, why the combs are sold at Gilbertson Clybourn pens.
     Gilbertson Clybourn pens is owned by the Clybourn Metal Finishing Company, which in the 1970s bought a company in Winnetka, Gilbertson Silversmiths, where wealthy families would bring their sterling silver tea sets to be buffed or refinishined.
     The silver tea set buffing business was not robust in the 1970s, so Clybourn Metal looked for something it could sell that would appeal to the sort of person who owned a silver tea set.
     “All these guys in Winnetka walked in, nice suits, nice watches, nice pens,” said Dan Collins, whose family owns both companies. “We finally decided pens were the way to go. Why not pens? No one was selling pens. We did very well for a very long time and we’re still around.”
     So Gilbertson Clybourn sells the Chicago Comb Company’s line because they help make them.
     “We do the finishing,” said Collins, whose father Frank started his metal finishing business 70 years ago. “They contacted us, and wanted Chicago-only people to do the polishing.”
      The rough combs cut at Triton go to Clybourn, where they are hand polished to either a mirror or matte finish, and some end up in the little store on Chicago Avenue, which is where I first noticed them. 
     Is this a great city, or what?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Let a cat guide you

    The question that struck me as I entered my office was not how the cat got into the keyboard drawer of my desk. Cats are nimble. No, the question was: how did Gizmo—that's his name—contrive to put the keyboard up on the desk, out of the way, so he could nap. It had been on the drawer when I left the room earlier. Now the cat was in its place. Cats aren't that nimble.
     I had a hunch, and asked my older son, who is very solicitous of the cat. He surprised me, rather than teasing me or stringing me along or being evasive, as he is fully capable of doing, by just saying outright what had happened: he was checking something on the computer, the cat jumped up on the drawer and pawed around, looking as if he wanted to make himself comfortable. To facilitate that, my boy whisked the wireless keyboard out of the way so that Gizmo could settle down—albeit in a hard place—for a brief nap. Which is where I found him.
    Making the cat comfortable reflects good values on his part, and it pleased me. I didn't want to spoil Gizmo's rest, even for something as important as this post. Which is why there will be nothing in-depth today. Far be it for me to disturb a sleeping cat who, truth be told, looks very comfortable, despite a piece of hard oak as a pillow. Cats have a genius for finding comfort in the most unpromising places. A skill we humans could learn from them. We do not want a wooden pillow, but if all we have is wood, then wood will do.

Oh, the telephone. The AT&T dial telephone. I figured people would notice that. Five bucks on eBay. I just wanted to have one. Iconic. Beautiful, in its own right. And yes, it works, though it's better for receiving calls than dialing them, since most times you need to push button your way through an automatic switchboard.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Notice this!

     I didn't even have to look at the envelope to see there was something special about it. Just holding it in my hands, walking away from the office mailboxes. The envelope had that rag paper feel. Nice. Hand-addressed. I glanced at the back. A return address in Paris -- Boulevard Raspail.
      Inside, nothing extraordinary. An 80-year-old Chicagoan, retired in Paris — nice — a lawyer, of course, had watched a continuing legal education video I made, years ago. He liked it and wanted to share a few comments.
      Writing him back, I thought how few actual letters I get, and how effective a way it is to cut through the communications clutter. It just takes a little extra time, a little postage. Everything arrives by email nowadays, or text, or a tweet, so anything that doesn't tends to stand out, and seems a little special. For instance, these notices on the bulletin board at the train station in Northbrook. People standing around, waiting for a train, idly glance over them, maybe even study one, which is more than they would do for ads about used cars and babysitting services that arrive via emails. I'm not arguing that sticking something up on the wall — a practice that goes back to Pompeii and beyond — is more efficient than email alerts and Twitter blasts. But people still do it. There must be a reason. Someone must think it works. More than that. They do work. When people wonder about the future of books — or newspapers — they should remember that people still communicate with posters. They still deliver speeches, just like Marc Anthony did. They still go into the street and talk to passersby, one-on-one. Sometimes they distribute handbills, the way they did 300 years ago. We always assume that whatever new technology we're in love with will wipe away everything that came before. And we're always wrong.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Carousel captures life's fleeting moments

     It's August. Already. Vacation time. It you have a young family, you'll probably be trooping together somewhere. The strains of the family vacation are well-known and commonly remarked-upon. The joys of family trips tend to be left unsaid, perhaps because they're more poignant and  subtler than the comic pitfalls. I took a stab at describing the bittersweet sense of time passing in this Aug. 13, 2000 column.

     PUT-IN-BAY, OHIO —Merry-go-rounds are so sad, so ineffably sad, sad in such a subtle way that you forget about it until you step upon one.
     That's how it is for me, at least. It's not that I don't love carousels. I do. How could you not love something so superfluous? So outmoded and nostalgic and beautiful. No one would ever come up with a merry-go-round today. They'd write a horse-riding computer program instead.
     And even if somebody wanted a spinning mechanical contraption, there would be no woodcarvers to fashion the horses and no public space willing to take a risk on such a loud, dangerous device.     
    These thoughts always fill my mind as I approach a carousel, particularly one as pretty as the one in this little island resort town, a 1917 model with not only horses, but chickens and dogs and dragons.
     Our hosts and their two daughters walked beside us.  
     "I have a picture of them holding hands, walking up to the carousel," their mom told me. "They don't hold hands anymore."
     Perhaps I could duplicate that picture. "Hold hands, boys," I called to my crew. But they didn't. Too late. At 3 and 4, too worldly for that. Or maybe too excited to get on the merry-go-round. They surged ahead.
     I stepped aboard the wooden platform, squiring the boys to their mounts. Then I began to feel it, a tingle. A certain unnamed sorrow. Maybe it was the music. Some unidentifiable 1890s anthem. Maybe it was the brightly painted animals, frozen in mid-stride. 
     The older boy wanted to sit on a dog -- he loves dogs. He tried to climb up himself, but couldn't do it. Too high. So I lifted him and set him on a spaniel. The younger boy was set upon the pug beside.
     I took up a defensive position behind them, though they really weren't at risk of sliding off. Not the way they were last year.
     Still, I placed a protective hand on the flank of the older boy's ride. He turned in his saddle and wordlessly brushed my hand away.
     The surprise lasted only a second. Of course he wouldn't want me hovering. He's nearly 5. Ready, at least in his own mind, to go it alone. (Ready, in his own mind, to drive a car.)
     Other children scrambled on. And then the carousel started up. I snapped a few photographs, then stopped, worried I was taking too many. ("My father was always in my face, snapping pictures," I imagined them saying someday. "I hated him for that.")
     Perhaps the spinning is the sad thing. Around and around. Like the hands of a clock, like the wheel of seasons. Time passing. The music repeats. The downtown flashes by -- the ice cream stand, the restaurant, the park, the marina, the ice cream stand, the restaurant, the park . . .
     The 10-year-old daughter of my friends rode with us. Her older sister sat with her parents. After all, she is almost 12. The girls used to have season passes, but don't anymore. They don't ride that much. 
The Steinbergs, Put-in-Bay, 2000
     I studied my boys' faces. Very serious, concentrating, as if somehow they understood that this was a significant occasion. And it is. There are not that many merry-go-round rides in a person's life, when you think about it. Carousels are uncommon, and cost money, and if you're on one a few times a year you're riding a lot. So maybe a few dozen rides, maybe 40, between the time you are first held on as an infant, and the time you are too ashamed to climb aboard the painted horse and instead go sit with the grown-ups.
     I remember being a young adult, riding for the last time, feeling large and conspicuous. I was young enough to still want to ride the carousel, rationalizing that I was doing so as a kick, and old enough to know that I was lingering at a party where I wasn't welcome anymore.
     Now my role is to stand close — for another year or two, until they can go on their own, for a few more years, when they won't go at all.
     I have not decided if being aware of the fleeting nature of events as they are unfolding is a good or a bad thing. On one hand, it makes me strain to fix the scene in my mind. My older boy, switching to a horse for the second ride, urging his steed forward, a slight smile on his face. The younger, who moved to the animal beside his big brother, looking so heartbreakingly solemn, perched aboard a gaily painted chicken.
     Yet memories fade no matter how hard you seize them, and the very act of trying conjures up loss, casts a shadow toward the darkness.
     Maybe it's unnecessary to try. Merry-go-rounds serve a function that counterbalances their melancholy. They are a festive frame for memories, a sacred space to enter occasionally. You remember them.
     Just like family vacations. I believe that the point is not to see any particular sight, but to escape forgettable routine, and give the mind unique, permanent hooks to hang memories upon. I don't care where we go, particularly, as long as we go there together.
     In fact, the most precious memory from this trip wasn't from the trip at all. We had just gotten home. The younger one was perched on his soft potty seat. I was making conversation to pass the time. "What," I asked, "was the best thing about the vacation?" The carousel? The campfire on the beach? The steam locomotive? The swimming pool?
      He turned his little monkey face up to me.
     "You dere," he said.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Renaissance Faire

     Sunday afternoon at the Renaissance Faire in Bristol, Wisconsin. Always a pleasant family activity, some low-key wandering amidst the booths and trees, crowds and commotion. We enjoyed what we always enjoy — the dollar sarsaparillas, the sauteed mushrooms, the ornate costumes, the well-made crafts for sale. We bought handmade soap, and howled at the exuberant, vaudeville fun of the Mud Show, the highlight, as always.
     Cool weather helped — not so much for us, dressed in our 21st century cotton dishabille. But it can be uncomfortable just watching hardcore Faire-goers sweating under all those layers of velvet and brocade and armor beneath a fierce summer sun. Not this time.
      My boys speculated on the historical accuracy of it all. Was this really the Renaissance? Northern or Italian Renaissance? Wouldn't it be closer to the Medieval? (I didn't reply "Medieval Times may have already been copyrighted." Nor did I point out the growing Steam Punk presence, which might be historically accurate, but historically accurate to 2116. What I did say is, "There's no such thing as a historically accurate elf.")
      I'm not one to quibble over someone else's fantasy. This is a carnival, not a textbook. Visitors are offered plenty of undraped bosoms and weaponry — really, what more could a guy ask for on a Sunday? There's also mystery at the bottom of the Renaissance Faire, something substantial to chew on. What is it about the past that is so appealing to these people? What is buried there that they would dig for it so energetically, making costumes and assuming roles and talking in accents? Is it just fashion? The chance to dress in feathers and silk and steel? To escape the comfortable if drab casual of today, with our cargo shorts and t-shirts and flip-flops?
    Or is it the sense of freedom suggested by a more disordered time? The idea that you can take your staff and your tankard and wander the forests of yore? And maybe score with some woodland sprite or garden gnome? Or is this what you do instead of having a sex life?
     Of course their view of the past as an enticing fable is a lie. Pardon my buzz kill, but the true stink and cruelty and disease of that era would send any of us shrieking back to the modern world for a shower and a slug of penicillin. But why be harsh? It's a lie, but a benign lie. An illusion that harms no one and seems to embroider the summer for many. (As for sex, well, one shouldn't speculate; it's probably more of an enhancement than a substitute). Nothing wrong with a thread of fantasy to help us grope through our lives. Maybe the allure is the new start that we like to repeatedly discover for ourselves, a fresh beginning in the past, a blank slate, a step away from our plain and ordinary, scrape and struggle workdays, to re-invent our personalities in some imagined superior past where we can finally get to be the kings and queens we know ourselves to be, if only for one golden afternoon.