Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The weather is good, but the news is bad

     Sometimes I forget what country I’m living in.
     What country we’re living in.
     Because like you, I’ve been ignoring the national political stuff lately. Why? Just tired of it, I guess. And distracted. Between the brief window of Thanksgiving — 28 people for dinner at our house — and the unexpected warm weather, there was fun to be had. It was just too dreary to turn away from local life, blink hard, lean in, squint, and take a good hard close look at the proceedings out in Washington.
     I’m sure I’m not alone here.
     But the past couple of days ... there’s the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection holding former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in criminal contempt for defying its subpoena. The panel’s releasing emails of various Fox News hosts urging Donald Trump to call off his mob.
     “Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” Fox News incendiary Laura Ingraham texted Meadows. “This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”
     By “us” she didn’t mean the media. Nor did she mean Americans, generally. Ingraham meant die-hard Trump supporters like herself and Fox News. That night she led her newscast by suggesting that Antifa might be behind the insurrection.
     Even Donald Trump Jr. urged his father to do something.
     “We need an Oval address,” Donnie texted. “He has to lead now.”
     But Trump was leading. Leading a mob into the Capitol to overturn the election he lost by 7 million votes.
     So he stood by and smirked at the fire he set. When that didn’t work, he hammered the big lie of voter fraud. And most Republicans bought it.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Into deep storage


     The end of the second year—"anniversary" sounds too festive—of COVID arrives in February. But it's not too early to start brooding—"reflecting" sounds too upbeat— about the loss. Not just the 800,000 dead. That's impossible to fathom; how do you comprehend just one life, never mind nearly a million? None I knew, thank goodness. Luck, combined with lots of mask-wearing, vaccine-getting, social distancing and good old fashioned staying at home.
     Much, much staying at home.
     There's also the loss, or temporary suspension, of a future. What with omicron showing up, which we don't yet understand, and other variants no doubt waiting in the wings. A lot of Greek alphabet left. What are you doing this week? Nothing. Work. How about next week? The same. And onward into eternity.
     So the path ahead seems at best hazy. Except for the staying at home part. That's crystal clear. Lots more of that. Stayinghomepalooza.
     I don't think I quite realized how much I'd been out of circulation until I looked deep in my closet, at my suit jackets, and saw that dust. Ah. Nearly two years of neglect will do that. Not worn because there are no events when I might wear them. Or maybe there are, but I didn't go. 
      I've worn a sports coat three times in the past two years. Twice on Zoom calls—one with the head of the Taiwanese economic development office in Chicago, because the Taiwanese tend to be formal folks. A second when I made a video for the Chicago Journalist's Association, to be shown at their awards dinner. And a third time, last month, into the living world, to Evanston, to a party at a mansion on Sheridan Road, previewing the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.  
     I couldn't not go. I like puppets. It was a swell event, and I'm glad I wore it. The puppetry they previewed was marvelous. People were masked, though would dip their masks down to nibble on hors d'oeuvres, like these little cigars of confit, served in ash trays, the wrappers grape leaves, the ash being, I'm not sure, special poppy seeds or some such thing. I had never seen that before. Tasty and whimsical. 
     I suppose I could have pushed myself, found other things to do, other parties to attend. Toward what purpose? Not getting dressed up is only the surface of the social loss. You get out of the habit of human interaction. I can think of a number of people I fancied friends, or close to it, whom I kept up with in the first six months of COVID and then just let go and watched them float away. I figure, if I haven't talked to you in a year, in a year and a half, during all this stuff,  then I never have to talk to you again. No big loss. We'll both survive, if that is what this is, survival.
     Things could change. There could be other occasions. But December is half over, and nothing on the calendar. No need to keep the suit coats handy in my bedroom closet, with the flannel shirts and fleeces and stuff I actually wear. Better to pull them out, dust them off, tuck them in suit bags, and exile them into a closet in one of the boys' rooms. The better to endure the passing years to come, though as I put them away, it occurred to me they'll be out of fashion by the time I finally put them on, assuming they're not out of fashion now. Might as well give them to Goodwill now. No, that takes effort, physical and mental. And there's a shortage of that. So for now, out of sight, out of mind, hidden in the boys' closets. It's not like they're going to be using those closets anymore. But that's another somber reality, and it's best to limit ourselves to one loss at a time.

Monday, December 13, 2021

‘There are a lot of bad clowns out there’

A scary clown mask on display at the paper during the Great Clown Panic of 2016.

     Clowns don’t terrify me. Not the way they do others. But I understand the fear. Clowns have a way of popping out when you least expect them.
     For instance. I had just begun to grind my way through The Economist’s special “The World Ahead 2022” issue, with articles like “Ensuring a fair future of work,” and “Calendar: Our selection of events around the world.”
     The events of world importance move from France becoming head of the European Council in January, to Queen Elizabeth marking the 70th anniversary of her reign in February, when the winter Olympics also opened in Beijing.
     Then bam, clowns, and close to home, too. This March: “Coultrophobics should avoid Northbrook, Illinois, as participants converge for the World Clown Association’s annual convention.” It was the first occurrence of note in North America.
     Did not see that coming. How is that happening in my own leafy suburban paradise?
     “We’re looking forward to it; can hardly wait to get together,” said Leslie Ann Akin, marketing director of the World Clown Association, who estimated that up to 300 clowns will attend. “There are competitions, classes, all sorts of educational opportunities. Vendors— people coming that sell costuming, props, rubber noses, floppy shoes, baggy pants, all the things that clowns love.”
     The public is welcome. How’d they settle on Northbrook?
     “We had it there a couple of years ago,” Akin said. “They loved it and are thrilled to come back.”
      In 2014, though it galls me to admit. Here Chicago politicians can’t have an impure thought without the Sun-Times watchdogs stopping whatever they’re doing and freezing, heads cocked, sniffing the air, sensing something afoot.
     Meanwhile hundred of clowns can slip into my own backyard and hold a big party, and I don’t find out for years. Sorry, chief.

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Sunday, December 12, 2021

Do you know these people?


     I am not, almost needless to say, an especially good person. Not a bad person, mind you. But very little of my time or energy is spent for the benefit of others. I volunteer nowhere. I give infrequently and stingily to charity. Rationalizing the whole thing by pointing to the writing: the writing is my good work. It brings comfort to people, surely. Maybe.
     Well, it's possible.
     That said, when I find myself in a situation where good needs to be done, and there is no obvious third party I can off-load the doing of the good upon, I try not to shirk my duty. If a person struggling with sobriety reaches out to me, I do what I can to help that person, best I can, a phone conversation or an hour over coffee or a phone call, trying to find a space where they can get help. Beyond that, I love giving directions on the street. I am overjoyed when sat next to babies on airplanes, looking forward to the moment when the baby starts howling, and the parent shoots an exhausted, "How is this going over?" look in my direction, and I get to nod sympathetically and say, "We've all been there..."
     During the hour open mike session at the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill two weeks ago, one of the poets ended his reading by getting down on one knee and proposing to his girlfriend. I wasn't quick enough to get a photograph of that, but I did get a passable picture when she came up to accept. I was seated right in front of the stage, and as his people seemed further off, I might have been the only one to get a shot.
     I don't know who the poet was, or his girlfriend, and since then I tried to shrug the whole thing off. But had he dropped a pair of gloves, I'd take steps to get them back to him—being, as I said, the kind of person who tries to do the right thing when it lands at his feet and can't be avoided. And I figure this photo, of their romantic moment, might be something a couple might value as the years went on, certainly more than I'll value it being photo No. 44,135 on my iPhoto stash in the Cloud. I suppose I could quiz Slam founder and master-of-ceremonies Marc Kelly Smith about the poet's identity, but my guess is he doesn't have them memorized, and would have no idea. Besides, he's busy, with poetical matters, and I don't like to bother him. So I decided the easiest thing to do would be to toss it up here. Word will probably get back to him, or her, and one of them can ask for the photos. If it doesn't, well at least I tried, which is the low standard that I set for myself.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Ma

Ganesha (Art Institute of Chicago)

     I was reading over today's report from Ravenswood bureau chief Caren Jeskey, and reflecting on how very different people we are, both in personality and outlook, when she hit upon my absolute favorite Hindu deity, Ganesha. Though my affection stems mainly from his title as "Remover of Obstacles,"  according to the placard next to the thousand-year-old Indonesian carving on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. 
     While not given to ritual, whenever a new book is being shopped around, or published, I make a point to pause before Ganesha, touch my thumb to my middle finger in a gesture of entreaty, and utter a single syllable: "Please."
      Although now that I read up on him, I see that Ganesha is also the Placer of Obstacles, when he thinks it'll do you good. So maybe I'm tripping myself up, alerting him to the next opportunity to give me a well-deserved karmic smackdown. Anyway, Caren's report awaits:

     Yes, the strange tragedy of Jussie Smollett and much sadder news is on my mind. I’m as tired of distancing, and as dismayed by the state of our city (and beyond) as anyone. So I decided to take a break from December 2021, pull out an old story of happier times, edit, and share with you.
     A group of joyful yoga teachers bounced out of Moksha Yoga on Carpenter near Ogden, right around the corner from The Matchbox Bar. We piled into cars and ended up at a funky apartment on Milwaukee and Damen one night in the early 2000s. We were young and energetic, and felt invincible. Someone broke out a didgeridoo, an aboriginal Australian wind instrument. I was heck bent on learning, and gave it my all. My lips were swollen for hours afterwards. We had a blast that night, making music, singing, and dancing, then heading home to collapse into bed.
     A favorite friend back then was a young woman from Detroit we called Ma because she was forever whipping up delectable meals for us, and finding other ways to nurture the group. She drove a big old vintage Cadillac—the color of a purple grape— that had belonged to her Grandmother. One night, Ma (whose real name was Dara, pronounced Dada) and I set off, quite late, towards a giant hotel in the northwest suburbs. We were heading to see Ammachi, the hugging “saint” from India. We parked far away from the entrance after driving past a sea of hundreds of already parked vehicles.
     Amma is the consummate social worker. She has raised millions of dollars for various social causes. She once (pre-COVID) traveled the world, “blessing’ people, and raising money along the way. Yes, she is a religious figure to some, but not to me. As an atheist I still find value in many aspects of religious traditions. The beauty of stained glass, the pungent aroma of Frankincense smoke permeating Catholic and orthodox churches, the ritual of bar and bat mitzvahs, and so much more.
     The moment we walked in an Indian couple grabbed me, ebullient, and playfully demanded to know if I had a raffle ticket. I did not. They thrust a small piece of paper with a number into my hand, and pulled me into the banquet hall. There were rows of hundreds of padded banquet chairs, and they pushed me into an empty seat. They laughed and said “now you wait here” and they disappeared. I had no idea where Dara went. This started a journey that was to last deep into the night and into the dawn of the next day.
     As the minutes ticked by, we were guided to move chairs, closer and closer to the front of the room towards a lavish gazebo. It was placed in the middle of a stage that was bedecked with an extraordinary collection of potted trees and flowers. Back center sat a woman with long black hair pulled back into a bun, seated on an elaborate throne of sorts. She was wearing white flowing garments and was covered with rose petals. The stage was packed with devotees sitting all around her, ready to jump to be sure her every need was met.
     On the wide expanse of floor between the padded chairs and the stage were hundreds of people sitting on meditation cushions or blankets, some singing along with mantras (prayers) being played and sung by top notch musicians. There were children sleeping, elderly people leaning on their loved ones, and eyes were fixed on Amma or closed in meditation.
     There was a long single file line of people dressed mostly in loose white garments along the left side of the stage. The line led to a set of stairs. After chair hopping for a long while, I finally found myself in a little tent next to the stage. I was asked if I wanted a mantra. Don't laugh. According to an article in Yoga Journal, "Neuroscientists, equipped with advanced brain-imaging tools, are beginning to quantify and confirm some of the health benefits of this ancient practice, such as its ability to help free your mind of background chatter and calm your nervous system.” It sounded good to me, and so I received one. I still have the little piece of paper it’s written on.
     I use it sometimes as a way to simply focus on one thing, which quiets my mind.
     My moment had arrived. I was swept to the feet of Amma by a handler on each side of me. I knelt, and she pulled me close and wrapped her warm arms around me, folding me into her bosom. I almost fainted, feeling the deep sense of relief a hug from a grandmother can give you. She fervently whispered into my ear and then handed me a small bag of candy, flower petals and pretty baubles that she had “blessed.”
     Then she placed a little piece of paper into my palm and pressed it there. My mantra. She pulled me back towards her, embraced me again and whispered a long chain of prayers into my ear. Before I knew what was happening I was pulled to my feet and to the stairs to the right of the stage, then released into the seated crowd. I sat for hours, meditating and singing along with the kirtan music being played.
     We sang to the elephant headed god Ganesha who carries a rope to pull us to our highest good, and to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and purity. At some unknown time— it was close to dawn and I was exhausted— I ventured out into the crowd of thousands and found Ma and other friends. We ate delicious savory saag paneer, which is fresh Indian cheese mixed into an aromatic creamed spinach. For dessert I picked gulab jamun, which I like to call balls of joy — rightly so since they are made of milk powder, flour, rose water and lemon, and remind me of deep fried donut holes that are served hot in a bowl of rosewater sugar syrup.
     Amma, which means Mother, has traveled the world blessing people and raising money to alleviate homelessness, poverty, and injustice. She was born in 1953 in what is now known as Kerala India. Amma’s organization has donated millions to alleviate the suffering brought on by COVID. A month into COVID a free hotline run by her organization in Kochi was set up to provide free mental health counseling. I have heard countless stories over the years about how this woman and her group have worked tirelessly to provide relief to those who need it, and not one iota of scandal, ever.
     What if we were all Ammas? What would this world look like today?

Friday, December 10, 2021

Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ long but worth it

                                                    Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.
     Sometimes you write something, and later realize it missed the crux of what you wanted to say. What I wanted to say was that I always took the Beatles for granted—they were a given like air. The "Get Back" documentary gave me a new appreciation for their artistry. Maybe that's implied.

     “I want to watch that again,” my wife said, surprising me. We had just sat through the three-part, seven-hour-and-48-minute “The Beatles: Get Back,” a Disney+ documentary on the January 1969 recording sessions that led to the group’s last album. We see the Fab Four trying to knock together new songs while planning a concert to give the TV special that they think they’re filming a big finish.
     But where should they perform? On a ship? At some ancient amphitheater in North Africa?
     Amazing that a show can be that long and slow-moving — almost nothing happens in the way of dramatic development; George Harrison gets in a snit; there’s that concert to plan — yet also so compelling. My wife and I hurried to the TV after dinner to watch the second and third episodes, as if it were some kind of cliffhanger.
     As the musical glacier formed before us, flake by flake, one question kept tugging my sleeve: What does Terri Hemmert think of this?
     You know Aunt Terri, the beloved radio disc jockey whose soothing voice has been a fixture on WXRT-FM (93.1) for almost half a century. For nearly two decades, Hemmert has hosted Breakfast with the Beatles on Sunday mornings and been dubbed “Chicago’s #1 Beatles Fan.”
     I tracked Hemmert down in her car. To my surprise, she hasn’t finished watching “Get Back.” Too busy.
     “I’ve seen all but the last two hours,” she said. “I’m going to see the last part Saturday. I don’t even have a TV.”
     Is this not a big deal for you?
     “I’ve been waiting for it,” she said. “Anticipating it for a long time.”
     And the verdict is?

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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Flashback 2008: Cowardly retreat

The Great Pyramid, Giza, by Adrien Dauzats
(Metropolitan Museum of Art) 
     The United States Congress is trying to decide whether it has the institutional integrity to push back against the loathsome anti-Muslim rhetoric of several members. About time. For some reason, this particular bigotry is too often not seen as being as completely unacceptable as, say, racism or anti-Semitism. It should be. I wrote this 13 years ago, when the Spertus Museum realized it had put on an exhibit that was too fair for its donors' tastes. It also is a reminder why Barack Obama never warmed to me. This ran when the column was a full page and ended with a joke and, as the joke is not half bad, I've left it in.

     Cultural institutions in the Arab world are not known for their political balance. Which is what makes it so disappointing that the Spertus Museum would bow to pressure from donors and yank an exhibit about the borders of Israel. I didn't go to the show—the Jewish museum isn't exactly on the must-see museum circuit—but the specifics hardly matter. However offensive a particular display may have been, however starkly it demonstrated an opposing view, assuming it was incorporated within a halfway balanced exhibit, the show should have stayed, as testament to the ideal that you should at least be aware of what the other guy is saying.
     Spertus's shameful capitulation is nothing exceptional. Museums have a long history of cowardice, between the Smithsonian caving in over World War II controversies to our own local institutions being so in the thrall of corporations that they never mount anything controversial in the first place. But if the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock teaches us anything, it is the limited benefit of bulldozing forward without regard to conflicting viewpoints. We condemn the Palestinians for feeding their children a narrow view of the world. And then we take a page from them and spike an exhibit because some aspect makes the check-writers uneasy. Shonda fur di goyim. From a Jewish museum, we expect better.


     People are giddy over Barack Obama, and not without reason. He represents a real opportunity for our nation to get back to being the kind of nation we fancy ourselves to be— thoughtful, competent, respected.
     Myself, I'm disappointed in Obama, at least in one regard. Every time he explains his Christian upbringing, every time he emphasizes that he is not a Muslim—to counteract the right-wing fanatics trying to twist his multicultural heritage into something it is not—he misses a wonderful opportunity.
     At one point—just once—between now and November, he should ask, "And what if I were a Muslim? Would that bar me from being elected president, the way being black barred millions of Americans from being president for hundreds of years? Is that the American way? Do you not realize that there are millions of United States citizens who are Muslim? Can you think of one ever committing a terrorist act against this country? Don't you realize that the entire notion of a war between the West and Islam is a major part of the Osama bin Laden philosophy, that it is only true to the degree that we let it be true? When I am president, I will show the Islamic world that we are not natural enemies, but inevitable friends. Americans have shown that they are willing to judge a man, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. Surely, were I Muslim, I would be judged by what I have done, myself, and by what I have said, myself, and not condemned at the start because of crimes committed by others who claimed they were done in the name of faith."
     I'm not a politician—perhaps that paragraph would lose him Florida. I'm always surprised by the number of Jews who do not feel a moral obligation to support other embattled minority groups, to extend to them the same humanity we were so often denied ourselves.
     America thrives only to the degree that it refuses to submit to the tribalism and hatreds that so poison the world. When is Barack Obama going to say that?


A well-dressed man called on a rabbi and told him a distressing story of poverty and misery in their very own neighborhood.

"This poor widow," he said, "with four hungry children to feed, is sick in bed with no money for the doctor and, besides, she owes $1,000 rent for three months and is about to be evicted. I'm trying to help her raise the rent money so she won't be thrown into the street. I wonder if you can help?"

"Of course I can," said the rabbi. "That's what rabbis are for. But tell me, we haven't met before -- who are you, to be so kind to this poor woman?"

"I'm her landlord," he said.

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 23, 2008