Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Meet The Duffers: An intergenerational hockey team with a standing reservation in Downers Grove

     A bonus column this week, written for a special Sunday section on community. 

     It’s Wednesday, it’s noon, it’s Grand Dukes, an Eastern European restaurant in Downers Grove. Which can only mean one thing. The Duffers are assembling.
     “Hey, Bob!” says Jim Glynn, the “Young Guy” at 61, sitting at the bar. Bob Granato is hockey royalty, the uncle of Tony and Don Granato Jr., NHL former players and current coaches, and Cammi Granato, the first woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
     Everyone has a nickname. Greg Lopatka is “the Beak” for obvious reasons if you see him in profile. Arvetis M. Dikinis is “Harvey” — you can’t expect the guys to handle “Arvetis” — and wears a Duffers jersey, which expropriates the Hamm’s Beer bear (artfully if not legally) as their mascot.
     And what are the Duffers? Well, that is a long story, starting in 1970, at the new ice-skating rink opened in Downers Grove. Shortly thereafter, the future Duffers found themselves in the stands, watching their sons play hockey.
     “Most of us had kids playing at the rink,” says Lopatka, 84. “The original guy, Jim Miceli — we call him ‘The King’ — he said, ‘This looks like fun. We should do this.’”
     So they started playing Sundays at the rink.
     They never stopped. For the next 53 years. They hang out, they play. They even take the team on the road, traveling to distant cities — they’ve taken 42 road trips over the last half-century — to play at actual NHL arenas after the pros have vacated the ice.
     “We’ve had a lot of fun, thanks to the Granatos,” says Greg Zerkis. Tony Granato’s brother, Don Sr., is also a member.

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Monday, June 3, 2024

Trump's felony convictions the straw that didn't break the camel's back

     When news broke Thursday that Donald Trump had been found guilty of 34 felonies in his payoff of porn star Stormy Daniels, I felt surprise — I assumed at least one juror would refuse to convict — then emptiness. Not the elation ululating over social media. Not a desire to plunge into the reams of reportage and analysis boiling out the press. Nothing.
     When my editor at the paper called a few minutes later, I was glad to be walking up Western Avenue, on my way to interview a 5-year-old about cicadas — we'll get to that Wednesday. No, I wasn't in a position to opine on the conviction for tomorrow's paper. No, I really didn't have anything to add, other than what I've been saying about this for years:
     Once you get in the habit of ignoring reality, the specifics of the reality being ignored hardly matter.
     Has anything changed? Not really, making it a truth that bears regular repeating.
     A kind of mantra to distance myself from the rest of the media, which display a startling inability to grasp the situation here, the dynamic that has settled over half our country. For followers of this man, there is no truth, no moment of revelation, no bottom to bounce up from. If trying to corrupt an election, then leading an insurrection didn't sour his acolytes, what is the dry legalism of 34 felony convictions supposed to do? His fans immediately cried persecution, flying flags upside down and off-gassing grievance.
     In their world, anything goes. Literally. Trump isn't trying to steal the election, the Democrats are. By holding Trump accountable for the crimes he commits. And allowing mail-in ballots.
     Once you get in the habit of ignoring reality, the specifics of the reality being ignored hardly matter.
     Of course, that isn't true in real-life situations. If your house is on fire and you sit on the living room sofa popping malted milk balls into your mouth and grinning as the curtains ignite, the reality you are ignoring definitely will matter, and soon. The reality being ignored matters if your pregnancy goes wrong in Texas and you need emergency surgery. You can ignore facts, as I also like to say, but that doesn't mean facts will ignore you.
     Friday morning I did my due diligence, re-reading W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming."
     "Turning and turning in the widening gyre," it begins — a gyre is a vortex. "Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
     Testify, brother. Yeats wrote that in 1919, after the First World War killed the Western notion of order and progress. The idea that leaders don't know what they're doing wasn't born in the gore-washed trenches of the Somme. Rather, it was confirmed there, subject to periodic reminders.

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Sunday, June 2, 2024

Flashback 2013: Marriage is . . . (hint: it’s not just sex)

      Gay Pride Month already? It does creep up.  Not being gay myself, I can't have much pride in the gay department. But I am proud of how the vicissitudes of gay life have been reflected in my column. I am what is sometimes called "an ally," though I prefer to think of myself as a sentient, caring person who has mastered the empathy-with-others-unlike-yourself trick that eludes many, if not most, folks. 
     I hope this is still worth rereading, for the way I lay out the argument which, alas, remains relevant today. And yes, I was curious about my use of "boinking" in the first sentence. Checking, in the hope that my usage was some kind of hapax legomenon* in the Sun-Times, I found that, alas, it was not, but had been deployed before me by Roger Ebert, Judy Markey and Richard Roeper, who introduced the term to our readership in 1988 by noting: "Donna Rice becomes famous for boinking Gary Hart."

Dear Cardinal George:

     So marriage is all about boinking?
     Forgive me for being blunt — lucky you didn’t read the above before I watered down the gerund, out of concern for your sensibilities. But that idea — sex = marriage — is the gist of the letter you sent to the faithful last weekend: Marriage is about sex, gays can’t have sex, at least not good old-fashioned heterosexual sex, thus gays can’t get married, and any attempt to allow them to marry — for instance, any new law passed in Illinois — is a “legal fiction” and a “serious danger”; oh wait, the “serious danger” part is in your second letter, to government officials, urging them to follow your religious dogma when forming laws for the State of Illinois.
     Where does one begin?
     First, Cardinal, thank you for your insight. Given that I have been married — 22 years and counting — and you haven’t, perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I reply to your letters with a letter of my own. Letters are so friendly.
     I should be clear at the get-go, since so many readers have such a hard time with this: I am not Catholic, and my concern is not about what Catholics do or don’t do in practicing their own religion. It’s a free country, sort of, and all may follow whatever faith they like. As the leader of Chicago Catholics, you have a duty to tell your flock what being a good Catholic means. And were that the extent of your letters, I’d never dream of arguing. It would be none of my business.
     But that is not what you’re doing. What you’re doing is instructing Catholics to pressure legislators, and pressuring them yourself, joined by like-minded clerics, to craft laws that force non-Catholics to follow Catholic doctrine. That makes it everybody’s business. It is the right — I would say duty — of non-Catholics to resist religious notions being imposed on Illinoisans through law.
     In an attempt to justify an unjustifiable intrusion of religion into secular life, you write, in your letter, “Marriage comes to us from nature” — one of the wilder statements to issue from a prelate, which is saying a lot. “The human species comes in two complementary sexes, male and female” — no argument here — “their sexual union is called marital.”
     Really? By whom? Because people nowadays mate like ferrets, while fewer call it “marital.” What comes to us from nature is not marriage but sex. Some species do indeed mate for life, but that is the exception, not the rule. Biologists say it isn’t fidelity, but random copulation that comes from nature.
     Surely, Cardinal George, you are not endorsing random copulation, natural though it may be. Rather, this is the latest in a long history of the church trying to control sex — first straight sex, and now that effort has fizzled, roundly rejected by both society and most Catholics, you’re focusing on gays, perhaps because you can or you think you can.
     You worry, in your letters, not about the families you would blithely squelch, but about your own feelings, the risk that devout Catholics will be seen as “the equivalent of bigots” after gay marriage becomes completely accepted — which it certainly will.
     Well, yeah, that’s the drawback of being a bigot, no matter how you gild it in theology. But worry not — look at the church’s stance on females. While society long ago let them be doctors and lawyers and, yes, even clergy, the church refuses to follow suit. Yet it lives with the anti-women stigma just fine. It’ll be no different with gays, and the church’s position will be just one more antiquated cruelty the world will tolerate. You’ll hardly notice.
     Because marriage — and here you’ll have to listen to an old married guy — isn’t just about sex. Yes, that’s part of it. But someone who gets married for the sex is like someone who flies on an airplane for the meal — there are easier, cheaper ways to go about it.
     Sex is not the central defining element of marriage — that would be commitment a.k.a. staying together, often raising children, sometimes cleaning the house, paying bills, talking quietly at night, having a relationship recognized by society and law, a vessel solid enough to navigate the tempests and calms, storms and lassitudes of the years. Marriage is about love and responsibility. And here homosexuals are on an even playing field with straights. Yet here you are mum — as if, because you don’t see them, they’re not here.
     But they are here, and you’re hurting them, or trying to. Religion is a tool — a hammer that can be used to build a house or to hit someone in the head. Your choice. Rather than try to make life better for gays — a long-oppressed group only now achieving freedoms most take for granted — you choose to set your faith as a stumbling block before them. Rather than help the more hidebound members of your church see why this is rightly happening now, you vigorously rally them to desperate, last-ditch resistance. That is your misfortune, and theirs, and ours.

With respect,

Neil Steinberg

                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, January 4, 2013

* "Hapax legomenon" is Greek for "being said once," a term used to denote a word used once in a particular body of literature. For instance, in the Torah, God tells Noah to make his ark out of atzei gopher (עֲצֵי-גֹפֶר) or "gopher wood," a term that does not appear anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

'I am not what I am' — Traitors and villains explain themselves

The Circle of Traitors: Dante's Foot Striking Bocca degli Abbate, by William Blake (Met)

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages. ”
                      —Judas Iscariot

“There is no other way of enjoying riches and money than by riotous extravagance; only stingy and ungenerous fellows keep a correct account of what they spent.”

"I am not what I am.”
                        —Iago, "Othello"

"Love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man's actions." 
                       — Benedict Arnold

"I think I have done well, though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me."
                        —John Wilkes Booth

"Every time a boy falls off a tricycle, every time a black cat has gray kittens, every time someone stubs a toe, every time there's a murder or a fire or the marines land in Nicaragua, the police and the newspapers holler 'get Capone.'"
                         —Al Capone

"Stalin is left standing and wins; I fall and lose. History only concerns itself with victors and the volume of their conquests; triumph justifies everything."
                         —Benito Mussolini 

"It is untrue that I or any other person in Germany wanted war in the year 1939. It was desired and instigated exclusively by those international statesmen who are either of Jewish origin or work for Jewish interests."
                          —Adolf Hitler

"I am convicted unfairly and die innocent."
                      —Vidkun Quisling

“I believe I’m innocent of this crime and that I did not commit this crime."
                     —Sirhan Sirhan

"Remorse for what? You people have done everything in the world to me. Doesn't that give me equal right?"
                       —Charles Manson

"People don't want to know the truth and the honesty of it. If they want to be convinced, they're brainwashed into what they believe. Then fine, go ahead and kill me. But vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. You will have executed someone who didn't commit the crime...I have no knowledge of the crime whatsoever. Never have had."
                       —John Wayne Gacy

 "I never intended or agreed to spy against the United States."
                      —Jonathan Pollard

"I am an innocent man. I don't believe most of America believes I did it."
                     —O.J. Simpson

"I was just convicted in a rigged political witch hunt trial: I did nothing wrong."
                       —Donald Trump

Friday, May 31, 2024

Which Chicago is the real one? Crime scenes or flower beds?

     Tuesday night, I was sitting in a coffee shop, talking to a former Chicago cop about what it feels like to be shot.
     Wednesday morning found me at a rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, asking a percussionist about a distinctive bass drum.
     Say what you will about the city, it certainly runs the gamut, A to Z, and my job is to trot alongside, taking notes. Talk about lucky.
     Though it can be a challenge — for me, anyway — to strike a balance. Is Chicago a horror show? A musical delight? Crime scenes or flower beds? Hard to decide. Focus on the downsides of city life, the bloodshed and poverty, and it feels an offense against the springtime. Summer doesn't officially begin for another three weeks, though now that we've checked off Memorial Day, it seems tantalizingly near, setting up its linen tents. June starts Saturday.
     But escape into the pleasures of city life during these peak months, the nice restaurants, fascinating museums and one of the great orchestras in the world, and it seems a willful blindness. Children are burning to death in Gaza and I'm musing over pineapple salsa.
     So it's a lose-lose? Whatever you think is wrong? That can't be right.
     The answer, I believe, is to ply the range, the good and the bad. Absorb it all. Keep moving, looking around with an eye to the future. The beauty of things that haven't happened yet is we don't know how they'll transpire. The pivotal Chicago event this summer will be the Democratic National Convention, and until it actually occurs, there's always the hope it could, theoretically, work out fine. Like in 1996, with new iron railings everywhere, the West Side revitalized and everyone saying how the ghosts of 1968 are finally laid to rest.
     Only they weren't laid to rest were they? They're still very much here, out of their graves and prowling the shadows. Yes, the convention could buff the gouges out of the city's battered reputation. It's possible. But you'd have to be an idiot to expect that. Not when all the ingredients for full-blown, 1968-level disaster are lined up on the counter, waiting to be mixed together. Every aggrieved person in the country heading to Chicago to raise their klaxon voices about a panoply of gut-twisting crises. A party nominating an octogenarian grandpa that even its stalwarts don't feel excited about. A timorous amateur in City Hall who couldn't plan a successful sack race.

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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Flashback 2007: Venturing among the ascended masters

     Maybe because I'm a non-believer, all religions seem pretty much the same to me. So if you are the pope, or a feathered chief in the Amazonian jungle leading a group of tortoise-worshippers, well, it's more a matter of popularity and personal style than validity. In fact, I have a soft spot for marginal cults and oddball beliefs, ever since I worked in Wheaton, and headed over to the Theosophical Society to see what the acolytes of Madame Blavatsky had going.
     The other day I passed the I AM Temple on Washington Street. Someone had broken their front window, and I was glad to see it repaired, and took a photo of the weird paintings they have in it. On one hand, this is not the join-the-cult-and-uncover-the-secrets-the-place-must-hold treatment they deserve. But at least I tried.

     There has never been, as far as I can tell, an article in a Chicago publication attempting to explain the organization that has, since 1948, owned the elegant white 12-story building at 176 W. Washington. And now that I've been looking into it a bit, I can understand why, because it defies easy summarization.
     For years, I was intrigued by the building and the displays in the windows — most recently a framed copy of the U.S. Constitution, illuminated like a medieval manuscript; a portrait of a pale Christ, arms spread; marble busts of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington; an enigmatic tableau mixing patriotism and faith.
     Over the doorway is carved, in gold letters: "I AM Temple."
     I AM is not a church or a religion but, to use their term, an "activity." The I AM Activity was started in Chicago in 1932 by Guy W. Ballard, based on dialogues he had on California's Mt. Shasta with someone he believed to be St. Germain, a figure who is, to quote I AM literature, "one of the Great Beings from the Spiritual Hierarchy who governs this planet . . . the Purifying, Cleansing Power that is helping to raise the Earth into its permanent Golden Age."
     There is a 7-foot-tall photograph of Ballard and his wife, Edna, in the lobby of the temple, both dressed in white outfits. There is a reception desk and a reading room. I've stopped by several times — the place is always staffed by older ladies, clad in lovely white or ivory dresses.
     "We are here to offer instruction to those who are interested," said one woman, asking that her name not be used because she is not a spokesperson and has only been with the I AM Activity for 12 years. "We do not advertise. Rather, we offer instruction in the laws of life as they are conveyed through these materials, through divine beings we refer to as the Ascended Masters."
     I asked about the portraits of Washington and Lincoln.
     "This is also a patriotic activity, which may seem unusual," she said. "It is our understanding that the Constitution is divinely inspired."
     They believe St. Germain is an immortal figure who not only had a hand in our nation's founding, but the French Revolution, the writing of the Magna Carta, and other noteworthy historical events.
     "He was referred to as 'the wonder man of Europe,' " she said. "It may seem highly implausible to many people, and I don't want to create a misimpression. But it is our understanding that he worked for many centuries in Europe."
     There are other I AM centers around the country, though the organization's headquarters, the St. Germain Foundation, is based in Schaumburg.
     They have meetings, she said, but not services in the traditional sense.
     "It is not for everyone, and we respect that."
     The lady seemed quite concerned that I would scoff at or ridicule the I AM Activity, even after I assured her that it was not my practice to mock a belief just because it is unusual, and that I differentiate between religions that go around bullying people and those that simply wait and offer inspiration to anyone who decides to embrace them.
     Which this woman has obviously done.
     "This Activity instructs us with a right relationship with the power of God that is in our hearts," she said. "It manifests our lives."
     — Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 4, 2007

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Cicada sex show says something about human life, and it's not good


Hard to plant your eggs in a tire. 

     So the cicadas are having an orgy, right? Pop out of the ground, fly around, singing their whirring love song, meet, mate, lay their eggs and promptly expire. Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking chitinous nymphal exoskeleton behind, stuck to a tree branch.
     The circle of life. Yet the double dose of cicadas in Illinois right now seem to leave the media focusing on their strangeness, the exotic red-eyed bug pageant, while willfully ignoring the larger implications they offer to us. Charles Darwin, prompted by an ancient plow to consider the plowing done by earthworms, certainly saw it, writing: "Man with all his noble qualities, with his godlike intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system ... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."
     Does he ever. The cicadas are not exactly an advertisement for the deep spiritual meaning of earthly existence. They're here to procreate and die. We are too, more or less. Pop out of a dark place, mature in a moment, flap around, do the deed and vanish — though humans do have midnight feedings and help with homework to kick-start the next generation, which cicadas manage in a few strands of DNA.
     The cicadas arrive by the trillions since a good percentage are gobbled by squirrels and trampled underfoot. People populate the earth by the billions to make sure there's a partner for just about everybody. Our gravestones and photo albums and memorial halls barely conceal the fact that we're here for only a little bit longer than cicadas. A mumbled sentence or two versus an eye blink.
     This central place that procreation holds in the scheme of existence has to be a real bummer for the childless. They won't like the suggestion that the only purpose of being alive is to pass on your DNA, and the rest is distraction.
     Not that I'm saying this, mind you. Don't get mad at me. I don't care what you do, or don't do. It's nature sending this horde of winged monsters to frolic under our noses, reminding us, subtly, of our primary job. I'm just the messenger. Ditto for those who believe their purpose on earth is so their eternal soul can eventually sit cross-legged in heaven, smiling up at Jesus. I wouldn't dream of arguing with you. Which is not the same as saying you're right.

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