Saturday, December 19, 2015

Some thoughts regarding Lillian Vernon Schoolhouse Frames

    It's been a long time since we've veered into the truly trivial, and this seems a good moment.
    Because really, you can only hammer so long on the inadequacy of the Republican presidential candidates, the angry aggrievement of the cops, the country's thickening miasma of fear, the wrecked circus train of various national woes, before it all gets too frustrating and repetitive. 
    Besides, what can be done? Not much.
    Today's topic, I guarantee, will lead some to bold definitive, decisive action, at least for a certain kind of reader.
    Lillian Vernon died last Monday. and if that name rings a bell, it is for what the New York Times called her "sprawling catalog business that specialized in personalized gifts and ingenious gadgets" in its fond send-off.
    Lillian Vernon, the company, sold Christmas stockings and customized doormats, lawn furniture covers and throw pillows, wicker baskets and yard signs.
     Not the sort of stuff I'd run to purchase, though, like everybody else, I flipped through the catalogues when they arrived. It was like sneaking through the window of a those small box homes  you drive past and wonder about. This is where they get their stuff, their personalized place mats, their beach tote bags.
     If that sounds elitist, I've said it wrong. All of our lives are small and human and poignant and proud in equal measure, whether you get your cluttered crap from Neiman Marcus or Lillian Vernon or Goodwill.
     Besides, the Steinberg household proudly displays one item from the Lillian Vernon catalogue. Something we saw on display at the home of our friends in Naperville, and immediately purchased for ourselves, not once, but twice.
     Which is the purpose of my post today. Not to make a political point, or to share an obscure bit of history. But to alert you to a product that you might want, if you are a  new parent or know one. It makes a great gift—surprise, surprise.
     Every year, every school in America takes pictures of its students. Parents don't demand the photos; they don't have to. They just occur. It's always been done, and nobody complains, beyond a wince at the price of things. Someone is getting rich off school photography. Still, it's a service. Time passes so quickly, why not force the tykes to comb their hair and look presentable once a year?
    But what to do with that baker's dozen of wallet-sized formal portraits, from kindergarten to senior year in high school? They go into billfolds and purses, then drawers, then are lost, flotsam in the sea of time. 
    Enter the Lillian Vernon Schoolhouse Frame. It is not cheap, at $29.95, but it does the job of displaying the history in portrait form of your child's transit through public education. And considering the 13 photos they hold probably cost several hundred dollars, I suppose the additional cost isn't much more to guard and display your investment through the years. Ours have been sitting on our buffet for a decade and I'll imagine they'll be there for the rest of our lives. Then one boy, or another, or both, will hold it at arm's length, draw a sigh, and toss it into a box. Anyway, now you know about them. Please don't be one of those readers who complains if you have to read something that isn't gnawing on the Issue of the Day. Even noble Homer dozed.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Breaking the code of silence

"Conflict management" by Jerry Truong

     "Chicago is the capital of the code of silence," says Craig B. Futterman, law professor at the University of Chicago and national expert on police ethics. "If you break with that code, you get crushed."
     This is not news in Chicago, though Rahm Emanuel seems to have only recently discovered it.
     "It's always been this way," says Futterman. "You don't rat out your fellow officer or else you're going to be hazed from within and, just as importantly, it's enforced from above. It's the culture, the practice of the department. Under Rahm it's been no better. And now he says, 'Yup, we have a problem' and admits it."
     Well, hallelujah.
     Futterman has been at the center of the Laquan McDonald case for a year, since his legal clinic received a tip about a dashcam video of Officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 bullets into McDonald. With the city in turmoil and the mayor hounded by protesters everywhere he goes, Futterman believes this moment might lead to real reform.
     "I'm hopeful because the vast majority of officers aren't benefiting from this," he says. "It's hurting them. ... This moment may give them an opportunity to not just do the right thing, but what's in their own best interest." 
Craig Futterman

     How so?
     "If you look at the data," he says, "the good news is the vast majority of Chicago Police officers on the force are not out there busting heads; 80 percent of officers have less than four complaints [of misconduct] in their career. Most have none. A small percentage are responsible for the lion's share of complaints, and that small percentage are allowed to run roughshod."
     "Loyalty to fellow officers is something highly valued and taught, and it's a good thing," says Futterman. "They've got to rely on one another in some pretty hairy situations. [The trouble is] when loyalty to one another trumps loyalty to the truth, to their fundamental job."
     When that happens, there is no option besides silence.
     "You know who the bad officers are, but you can't say," says Futterman. "Many would love nothing more than to get rid of that few percent, because they make their jobs a living hell. [Bad cops] wear the same badge, but they dishonor them. [Good cops are] working rough neighborhoods, trying to solve crime, but everybody hates them and distrusts them because of some jerk harassing people. Lack of trust means they can't do their jobs well."
     So they don't.
   "In Chicago, per officer, there are a lot more complaints on average, particularly those of brutality," says Futterman. "We also shoot more folks than virtually every other department in the country. We stand out as among the worst when it comes to identifying, rooting out and disciplining officers who have abused their powers."
     Another reason cops don't talk: because nothing is done. The department has a stake in that. You pull a thread, the whole fabric could unravel.
     "You expose four bad guys, they made a couple hundred arrests," says Futterman. "Some arrests are good, some are bad, it undermines all of them. These guys who had been corrupt, they didn't start doing this yesterday. Who was minding the store? There are some pretty big political costs for whoever's in charge."
     Costs the mayor is tallying right now. Costs that add to our city's hemorrhaging bottom line. A staggering $521 million since 2004, to hush up these cases.
     "A code of silence about the code of silence," says Futterman.
     My guess? Outrage fades, but habit endures. Smoke will be blown, maybe more heads roll, but nothing substantive. Futterman is more optimistic.
     "I think we're at a moment where change is actually possible," says Futterman, "For the first time, a public official has been forced to even acknowledge the systemic nature of the problem. Now we'll see if he makes that more than words. Everyone has the right to be skeptical of his actions up to this point."
     So what has to happen?

     "When I go around the country, I get stories from officers all the time of someone from the inside who made the department better and got rid of bad cops," says Futterman. "I always ask, 'Can anybody share a happy ending for the whistleblower?' No one ever does. That's gotta change. That's where leadership matters. There is an opportunity now to not just do obvious things — you fail to report, you lie, you're fired — but also to protect and honor the folks who come forward, to treat them like the heroes they are."

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pearl Harbor and Donald Trump

     I finished my morning work a little early Thursday, and thought I would spend the 15 minutes before lunch curled up with A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall. Prometheus Books published it in October and a Canadian friend was kind enough to send to me, thinking I would like it, which I do. 
    I had barely begun reading when I came upon this paragraph, in a section about rumor. The authors are discussing assimilation,  which they define as "the tendency for people to shape the emerging rumor in such a way that it is sharpened as a reflection of social and cultural stereotypes." 
     The paragraph is a bit long, but bear with me, because I want to see if it sparks in your mind the same thought it sparked in mine:        
     A classic example of assimilation took place in the hours and days following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, as rumors questioning the loyalty of Japanese-Americans spread quickly across the Hawaiian Islands. Such fears, while unfounded, had long been the subject of concern on the Islands, as 160,000 Hawaiians had Japanese ancestry. [Sociologist Tamotsu] Shibuttani recounts some of the rumors, which included claims that a ring from a local high school (McKinley High) "was found on the body of a Japanese flier shot down over Honolulu; the water supply had been poisoned by the local Japanese; Japanese plantation workers had cut arrows pointing to Pearl Harbor in the cane field of Oahu; the local Japanese had been notified of the attack by an advertisement in a Honolulu newspaper on December 6; ... automobiles driven by local Japanese blocked the roads from Honolulu to Pearl Harbor; Japanese residents waved their kimonos at the pilots and signaled to them [and[ some local men were dressed in Japanese Army uniforms during the attack." Despite failing to be verified, these stories continued to persist long after the attack, especially in the mainland press. When a rumor persisted that the Pacific fleet had been destroyed in the attack, and continued to circulate across the US mainland for several months, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt the need to give a national radio address to dispel the claims and restore public confidence. 
     Did you read that and think: "Donald Trump"? I sure did. 
     Propagating the rumor that Muslims in Garden City, New Jersey, celebrated the Sept. 11 attacks, breathing new life into the calumny, sticking to the ugly lie even after it was shown there is no hint of evidence behind it. 
    FDR took pains to correct the false story about the Pacific fleet, knowing that such rumors stoke fears and undercut morale. Trump does the opposite, because his presidential run is a candidacy based on fear. It doesn't matter to him that alienating American Muslims is exactly what ISIS wants, that it hurts our security rather than helps it.  Trump perpetrates the falsehood because he needs such stories to justify his plan to bar Muslims and harass mosques, to justify his entire candidacy. Only terrified supporters could have brought him this far. Fear is the fuel Trump runs on.
     Of all the wild and damaging statements Trump has made, I think disseminating the fabrication about Garden State Muslims is the most obscene, anti-American and immoral, not just because it is a patently-false racist slur, one he clings to even after its falsity is established. But also because it undercuts our political environment's already tenuous grasp on fact. Trump establishes himself as as man who does not care what the reality is, and his success inspires imitation and warps democracy. His strategy is the bedrock of fascism. Forget facts. You are what we say you are. 
    The Pearl Harbor rumor is important to remember because it shows the perverse genius of hatred, its creativity in manufacturing libels to pin on victims and justify their oppression. It's so varied: the class ring. The kimonos. The arrows cut in sugar cane fields. We've seen similar wild imaginings repeated a dozen different ways around Sept. 11. 
     I've been called upon, from time to time, to justify my support of Muslims, and I have a solid response: This is America. In America, we don't judge people by their religions, nor condemn them for the real acts—never mind the imagined ones—of their co-religionists. Period.
     There's one more rationale. Occasionally someone will point out that Muslims in other countries and even in the United States, often have dim views on Israel, or Jews, and I don't deny that. I reply that I am not treating them according to their standards of morality, but according to mine. Pointing out what they do or think in Saudi Arabia has no bearing on what we think or do. Of course descending to the level of others is always tempting. Their behavior is seen as a kind of permission. This is nothing new. There have always been a species of false patriots, like Donald Trump, ready to try to protect America's greatness by abandoning the practices that make us great.  Not realizing that it is in the face of danger that we must cling even tighter to the things in which we believe.  I would be more concerned if I weren't also convinced, in my heart, that Trump will fail, eventually. He has to. His kind always does. If they didn't fail, we'd have never made it to this day. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The morning after

      So now I've watched all five Republican presidential debates.
     Ten hours—more or less—staring into the cesspool of the GOP psyche. The fear. The bluster. The Donald.
      The press leaps to critique their performance, citing various lines, moments, gaffes.
      And my impulse is to say ... nothing. Because it really twists the gut to imagine that one of these guys—or, gasp, Carly Fiorina—could end up president of the United States. A big country with big problems.  They could be the ones to apply their intelligence and world view to our running our nation for the next four or eight years.
     The impulse is to fall silent, stare at a spot on the floor. But you sort of have to try, to say something sensible, if only to wave the flag for sense.
     Lest it fall from favor entirely.
     So what's the takeaway?
     Man, they hate Obama. You'd think the country was a smoldering ruin the way they talk about the past seven years, that other landmarks had been desolated in more 9/11-like assaults. You'd think 10 million people didn't get health insurance or the banks saved and the economy righted. You'd think Osama bin Laden hadn't been killed, and unwise wars wound down. None of it matters of course. To them, he's the Worst. President. Ever. I wonder why they feel that way? I'd say racism, but then, they really, really hated Bill Clinton too. Partisan blindness perhaps. I could scrape together the good things George W. Bush did. No one is completely bad. But not a syllable in support of anything Obama ever did cross the lips of any of these debaters. Not once. Evidence of the vast areas of life they just can't see. That Marco Rubio can say he'll roll back gay marriage ... why? Because of all the damage it causes to straight marriage?
    Second. They are willing to surrender our freedom for the illusion of security. I'm being influenced by the last night's debate more than the others, but if these debates are a testament to anything, they are proof of the fact that a mouse right now dwarfs an elephant last week. You'd think that the San Bernardino massacre occurs every day.
     Actually it does—general gun violence. Many times over. But they never talk about that either. Another region their eyes just can't focus on. Listening to their view of the country was really a case of the Blind Men and the Elephant.
     And Carly Fiorina. Has ever a dud career of failure ever been spun so vigorously? And regarding foreign relations. You'd think she had been Secretary General of the United Nations, to hear her talk. I guess Hewlett-Packard once pressed a button in response to a national security request. Or maybe she went on a Carnival Cruise once. Hard to say.
     Third. The whole thing is so sad, so painfully sad, for patriotic Americans who love the country and want it run well. Donald Trump, pressed to the wall, invokes the best and the brightest, the great minds who'll come in a fix things in some as-yet-to-be-seen fashion. Hasn't he read a history book? Sometimes the smartest people make the biggest blunders. Ted Cruz went to Princeton and Harvard, not that he'd ever mention that—too smart, given the people he's trying to fool. For all the good it did him.
     Okay, enough. Too damn depressing. I had only one central thought, after each debate, after them all. Not a happy thought, but a grim, determined thought: Hillary Clinton better fuckin' win. Not the perfect candidate either. But a clear-thinker living in the fact-based world. Better do all the basic, meat-and-potatoes campaign work necessary: register the voters, kiss the babies, collect the money, produce the TV commercials. Because our nation depends on it. When somebody asks me why I don't wave palm fronds at Bernie Sanders, I reply: because he won't win. This national moment is too fraught for naivete. I won't say that a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz would destroy the United States—a great nation, it survived eight years of George W. Bush, it can survive anything.
     But they'd sure give it their best shot.

Jeff Magill: " A profound part of that order"

Jeff Magill

     Early this year, Tom Chiarella wrote a fantastic profile of Jeff Magill for Chicago magazine. So when a boss suggested that I was the person to serenade Magill into retirement, I almost blurted out: "It's already been done!" But that sounded kind of lame, and Jeff's a complex enough guy that a little room could exist for my own take on the man.  Though I deliberately left myself out of the equation—didn't want to get between him and the reader.

     Jeff Magill stands behind the bar at the Billy Goat Tavern and hooks his right arm around a Schlitz beer tap as he speaks, a gesture of utter confidence and familiarity, as if he's part of the bar itself, which of course he is.
     He has been tending bar at the subterranean landmark at the corner of Lower Michigan and Hubbard for nearly 35 years. His 35th anniversary would be March 4, if he stayed that long.
     But he won't; Magill is retiring when his shift ends at 7 p.m. Christmas Eve. 
     "It's one of the happiest days of the year," says Magill, in a soft, pleasant voice you lean forward and strain to hear above the bar clatter. "Especially with this place. It starts out, very frenetic in the morning. People are tying up loose ends, with shopping. Almost a crescendo down here. Early afternoon, people peter out. For the most part, quiet. When I walk out the door it's very quiet. So there's a wonderful contrast, the activity of the morning and the quiet of the evening. I love that. I always have. For whatever it's worth, I found a little bit of a symbolic parallel there, trying to figure out the right day to retire on."
     If his language—"frenetic," "crescendo" "symbolic" "—does not sound like the typical "Whaddaya have, pal?" bartender snarl, well, that's Jeff.
     "Jeff has a background in psychology," says long-time patron Michael Gillespie, 72. "Very apropos to this job. He's probably the most eclectic bartender I've ever met, and I used to be in the business."
     And yet there is nothing pretentious about him. He wears his erudition lightly.
   "He's an old-time bartender," says Gillespie. "Today, you know, they're mixologists. In the old days, this place used to be a shot and a beer place."
     Magill once offered a shot and a beer to Hillary Clinton as she was visiting the bar—equal part sincere hospitality and sly taunt, also characteristic. He was there when Julia Child got behind the grill to flip burgers and when George H.W. Bush stopped by for lunch, none of which be brings up. Nor does he mention Mike Royko, the great columnist. But I do.
     "He kind of tested me," remembers Jeff, recalling a moment about six months after he started."Some guy at the bar was talking, and he said, 'Mike, you live in the suburbs.'  
     Jeff drops his voice to a growl to imitate Royko:  "'I don't live in the suburbs! I hate the fuckin' suburbs! When I go out to the suburbs I throw up on the steering wheel.'" Jeff jerks his thumb.
     "He looked at me and said, 'He lives in the suburbs!"
     "I said, 'Mike, as a matter of fact, I don't. Live at Diversey and Ashland. But you live in Edgebrook. Literally just a couple of blocks from the suburbs, a neighborhood indiscernible from the suburbs.' He hesitated for a minute and said, 'I pay my taxes in the city.' And that was it. And I never had any kind of negative thing with Mike from the on. We got along from then on. We played golf a handful of times together."
     Hours can pass like this, but time is short. What has Jeff learned from his 35 years behind the bar?
     'Certainly a lot is revealed in a tavern," he replies. "We know that. We know that sometimes, for good or for bad, alcohol can be a kind of truth serum. For a lot of people, it can reduce inhibitions, in a good sense. I see good fellowship. I'm amazed at how people of disparate backgrounds, income, social status, can get along famously and develop real intimacy. That's the great joy of this business. To see that. All of those friendships, truly devoted to each other. It sounds grandiose, But to preside over that, there's really an honor in that. I don't want to be corny about it, but it really is."
     So what will he do when he retires?
     "No plans," he says. "I've never been good at compartmentalizing my life. I admire people who can. I think they're the most successful among us. But I won't know until I enter that space. That's my intention. Get there first and decide what to do next. Doing repairs around the house that are long overdue."
     Patrons drift in. A couple of pilots, so conversation floats to Meigs Field and, of course, wings back to Jeff.
      "Jeff symbolizes, to me, the era when a local bar was part of Chicago's personality," says Tim Coverick, a retired pilot. "He was able to perpetuate the true essence of a local bar, a classy bar, to downtown and it will never be the same."
     Bars aren't supposed to change.  The Goat has stayed the same for half a century, the same yellowed clippings, the same black and white photos for forgotten politicians and beauty queens.
     But the people inside change.
     "I've seen people's lives evolve over 35 years," Magill says. "I've had the good fortune to have enough regulars. A lot of lives develop and change. the irony is what people look for coming here down in a tavern is a constant, something you shouldn't change. Perhaps that's the function of me being here all those years. Leaving, and some recognition of my leaving, confirms that. I'm finding that this meant more to me probably than I thought it did. There's an ordering of our lives, conscious or unconscious, and you find you're a profound part of that order for a significant number of people..."
     Something catches his eye and he breaks off and hurries down the bar.
     "What will you have?" he says.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Closing the Los Angeles school system is a mistake

     I said it before, at the end of November, when the University of Chicago cancelled classes after what turned out to be an empty threat, posted by some angry idiot and retracted, but not quickly enough to keep someone from sending it to the FBI.
     But it merits saying again:
     We over-react to these online threats at our peril. The Los Angeles public school system cancelled class Tuesday for nearly 700,000 kids.
     Someone who intends to carry out a terror attack doesn't issue threats—they don't want to scare their targets away. Threats are issued by hoaxers or mopes or idiots or someone who wants to cancel something for some small personal reason and hasn't thought through the Now-I-go-to-prison part.  There might be instances of threats being followed by action, but I can't think of any.
     Closing down a school system like Los Angeles' doesn't just deprive hundreds of thousands of kids of a day's worth of education. It also puts the students at very real peril, because instead of being in classes they'll be at home or on the streets or somewhere they could be hurt or injured or get into some other kind of trouble. I would bet money that no true peril will be found from whoever is behind this threat. But the peril of keeping the kids home is very real, a more tangible threat than the threat that prompted authorities to close the schools in the first place.
    It also represents a cowardice on our parts. When I wrote that U of C made a mistake, a number of people replied along the lines of : We must do EVERYTHING to stay safe!!!
     No we must not. That is the direction of tyranny and totalitarianism and defeat. New York City received similar threats and did not shut its schools. Places that have regular random attacks know the importance of carrying on. You sweep the glass away, right the tables, mop the blood up, and re-open the next day. Otherwise we're cowering in fear, no one goes to school and whoever wants to carry out an attack will still do it.
     There's an easy way to tell that this is a mistake: ask yourself, if LA gets another threat tomorrow, what will it do? Close? And the day after that? And the day after that?

"I'm a homeless child in need"

     Yesterday's Letters to Santa column mentioned my attempt to play Santa to a needy child in 2011. I went back and looked at that column to check which distant street I traveled to—West 123rd—and discovered that it was actually two columns, and it struck me that maybe you guys might enjoy seeing them. Coincidentally, both Monday's column and the pair in 2011 began with a quote from my wife.

     "Feel my hair," my wife said. I did what I was instructed, taking a handful of reddish golden locks.
     "Soft," I ventured, hoping it was the right response.
     "It's that oil!" she said. That what? Oh right, the oil — "L'or D'Afrique — 100% Organic Argan Oil," the pride of Morocco; a sample had been delivered to me months ago by Tarik Khribech over at the Billy Goat Tavern. I sure wasn't sure what to do with the stuff, so I left the sample for my wife.
     "Do ladies really oil their hair?" I said.
     "You know how women brush their long hair 100 times?" she said. "It's done to get the oil from their scalps to the ends."
     Who knew? I'd read about brushing but never knew why they did it. See, that's how we stay married — I make her laugh, she claims, and she always surprises me.

     Another example of her catching me off-guard. A kindhearted editor passed me a homeless child's letter to Santa. Might I, she asked, help this poor girl? Sure, in an ideal world. I foot-dragged for days. The editor prodded me — what about that little girl? I finally read it, each letter printed in a different color, underlined in yellow, decorated with colorful hearts.
     "I'm a homeless child in need," it began. "My situation is bad and I know it's bad because my mom doesn't talk about it, that means she's trying to protect me."
     Touching. But it's a bad world, and we're all busy. The last thing I wanted to do was play Santa to some child I'd never met. I have my own children to worry about.
     Besides, she wanted a lot: "LPS" — whatever that was — "A Secret Password Journal, Monster High dolls, and Bratz."
     Google told me LPS is "Little Pet Shop," an ultra cute animal play set. But it was the journal that pierced my indifference — as if being homeless weren't bad enough, homeless and a budding writer, too. The poor waif. We writers must stick together.
     My wife announced she was going to Target. They sell toys at Target. "I'll go with you," I replied, worried that, being frugal, she'd balk at my buying gifts for unknown girls. I told her about my mission.
     "Only $20 or $30," I promised, since "$10 is too little and $40 is too much."
     At Target, we started with Bratz. "Platinum Shimmerz Yasmin" with purple hair and extra "Shimmer Powder," a doll that makes Barbie look like an Amish widow. Price: $12.99. Then Monster High. "Cleo De Mummy." Another $10.99. Our limit reached, I was ready to head for the registers. But my wife was off talking to a clerk. Did they have Password Journals? ("Of course not!" I answered, to myself, hopefully) Sure, next aisle over. The journal cost $23.89. Obviously a deal-breaker. As I went to put the box back and make our escape, my wife took it from my hands and added it to our cart.
     "Don't be cheap," she said, a cast coming over her eyes, a fierce determination I knew better than to question. We pushed on to the Little Pet Shop section to discuss which "Shimmer and Shine Pet" was the cutest.
     "A girl wants four toys, you get her four toys," she said, returning to Monster High to swap the basic Cleo I had selected for a more complex and expensive — $18.89 — doll classroom set. By then this girl might as well have been our own daughter.
     "How's she going to carry all this stuff around if she doesn't have a home?" my wife fretted, sadly, and I realized I'd be lucky to be out only 60 bucks and not end up with my wife inviting this gal's family to move into our guest room.
     See, that's the drawback of caring. Once you start, who knows what'll happen? Not that I'm complaining — it was worth it to see my wife click into this unimagined cost-be-damned, mama-bear-feeds-the-cub mode. Even I felt odd, unfamiliar stirrings of altruism. And heck, maybe it'll make this little homeless girl happy.
     Anyway, if you still want to help, despite all your valid reasons not to, you may request a child's letter — and they still have 500 to place by Friday — at, or e-mail or call (773) 890-7373.
     Or donate money by going to or by sending a check or money order made out to Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust to: Sun-Times Season of Sharing, P.O. Box 3596, Chicago, IL 60654. But don't say I didn't warn you. Caring is addictive.
                        —Originally published Dec. 14, 2011

     Some days, it all makes sense.
     I was standing at the kitchen counter early one morning last week when my older boy knocked over his lunch bag. It fell to the floor and the can of Diet Dr Pepper he had snuck inside cracked open in such a way that it sent a sheet of soda pop spraying four feet into the air between us.
     I was regarding this phenomenon, not with distress, but a certain bovine curiosity, musing that you couldn't re-create that curtain of mist if you dropped 100 cans, when my younger son's voice shouted from the next room. "There's a dead mouse!" he cried.
     "You get the soda, I'll get the mouse," I said, grabbing a paper towel, choking back my snarky comment ("You wear size 12 shoes; take care of the mouse yourself.") I did the dirty work, returned to the kitchen, and thought, sincerely, "I'll miss this."
     Half an hour later, I strode out of the house, toward the train station, got half a block, remembered, "Oh, the gifts!"—the shopping bag of neatly wrapped presents, the purchase of which, for a Season of Sharing letter, was outlined in a recent column.
     I pirouetted, raced back, grabbed the bag—"Can't talk!"—and bolted for the train.
     At the office, I asked the editor who gave me the letter where I should deliver the gifts. I thought she'd say a certain room on the 10th floor executive offices. Instead, she gave me an address on West 123rd Street. I didn't know there was a West 123rd Street in Chicago. But there is, in West Pullman.
     "The donors are responsible for hand-delivering the gifts," she said.
     Now you tell me.
     I assessed my options. I could go down to the street and try to press the gifts on random passing girls— "Here honey, take a present." But considering our world today, that might not go well. It seems fraught.
     I asked a hotshot colleague who lives in Pullman. Could you . . . ? "Busy!" Clarity descended on me, and I had what I call a "Nineveh Moment." If you recall your Bible, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh but, also being a busy, can't-be-bothered kind of guy, Jonah tries to shuck the task, a storm comes up, buffeting the ship he is trying to escape on, and Jonah gets tossed into the sea.
     That happens. Shirking certain missions only backfires and you end up in a big fish. I told my editor that I'd take care of it.
     My intention was to drop the gifts off the next morning then flee downtown. Between the round trip the day before and today, I had already schlepped the gifts 100 miles. The lady at the shelter had a different idea.
     "I want her to meet you," said Marshe Owens, a case manager at the shelter, located in an old convent house, the floors and woodwork worn, the ceiling patched in places, the space tight —60 people living in 13 small rooms. But clean and homey.
     I sputtered, trying to back off: aren't donors supposed to be anonymous? But that was brushed aside. First I met the mother, a bright-eyed lady to whom fate has handed some bad breaks. I had jokingly supposed her daughter wanted to be a writer, based on her asking Santa for a journal. But more than a glib line, that turned out to be true. The girl has the optimism that gets writers through the disappointments of our profession, ascribing significance to trivial matters such as meeting a newspaper columnist.
     "She said, 'I'm on my way, Mom! This is a big break!' " her mother told me. I've been having that thought daily for the past 30 years. So the girl, 12, was sent for.
     There we should draw the veil. Suffice it to say that I found myself driving north up South Halsted, really, really, really glad that I had, with prodding, paused from dancing around the bonfire of my own ego to think of someone else for once. I felt nestled in a rare bubble of happiness and tranquility. A very—dare I say it?—Christmassy feeling, followed by a realization: Don't wait until next Christmas to do this kind of thing again.
                                                  —Originally published Dec. 23, 2011