Sunday, December 27, 2015

Houston International Airport, 27 Dec 2015

I think what I like about being at an airport is that it's a kind of limbo. Right now I'm at IAH, where I was booked on a 7:28p flight back to Chicago O'Hare Airport. Instead, I'm now waiting for a 10:45p flight because my other one was canceled.

So I sit, pace, eat a late dinner, read, people-watch and wait. Do I mind how late it's getting for a 2 1/2 hour flight? No. Am I worried about having to stay another night in Houston instead of sleeping in my own bed? Nope. I trust I'll be fine no matter how little sleep I get or where I end up at 3:00a. It'll be fine. 

I don't mind delays that cause me to sit in airports or on the runway for the same reasons others hate it: I enjoy time spent doing nothing, I like someone else being in control of the vehicle I'm riding and I'm rarely life-or-death eager to get where I'm going. Arguably being at home is better than sitting in an airport, but my apartment isn't going anywhere. I'll enjoy it when I get there. 

What it comes down to is that I like being in airport limbo. In this state, I'm neither on vacation nor at home. While I'm in transit -- or waiting like this -- my life is on hold, there are no decisions I can make or actions I can take. Everything has to stop because I'm effectively untethered and unplugged from my life. It's a respite from the tasks, habits and relationships that usually occupy my mind every hour of every day. While in airport limbo, I don't have a life and that feels good to me. I'm always ready for a break from life. 

So, sure: delayed flight, airport dinner, book to read.  No problem. Can I go so far as to call being peacefully stuck in an airport meditative? Maybe, but I doubt anyone would buy it.

UPDATE 12/29/15: I ended up leaving Houston on a Chicago-bound flight 22 hours later than originally scheduled. I spent the night in Houston International Airport, which wasn't as much fun as a dinner party with my friends, but I don't mind things that pull me out of my usual habits. It was an interesting experience, and I knew all along that I'd eventually get back to my Rogers Park apartment; it wasn't like being a refugee with no home to go to. Sure enough, after two canceled flights and one flight that boarded three times before it took off, I spent last night in my own bed. Contentment.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review of The Lyric Opera's Bel Canto

The set of the Chicago Lyric Opera's Bel Canto.
In 2012, work began on the impressive challenge of turning Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto into a staged, modern opera. Now Bel Canto is playing at the Lyric Opera through January 17, 2016. I heard about it at the beginning of December and, even though I'd never been to the opera, I had to buy a ticket. Patchett's Bel Canto is one of my favorite books and I've now read it four times. It reads as richly as one long poem with the focus on relationships and character development rather than shoot-em-up action. So, at the age of 49, I attended an opera for the first time, hoping to see the lyricism and humor of the novel, which shows the unpredictable alliances that form when you give people a chance to bond. The following review of the opera will make more sense to those who have read Bel Canto, but I offer it to anyone who is considering going to the Lyric's production.

I saw the performance on Thursday, December 10th. I didn't like it. I guess because opera is so visual, the libretto focuses on the action, which includes gun violence, fighting and yelling. I longed to witness the characterizations of Gen, Carmen, Rubén, Thibault and Ismael. Instead, we saw the rebels and hostages as two groups in conflict with each other rather than as individuals. In the novel, General Alfredo is one of an ensemble of characters. In the opera, his bellowings and proclamations elevated him to a major character, and not an interesting one. At one point, the women hostages who have been released begin to protest loudly outside the mansion, demanding the freedom of their men. What was the point of this? It doesn't happen in the novel and kept the focus on the kidnapping instead of the fascinating details of the dynamics within the house.

Also disappointing was the opera singer Roxane's characterization as a spoiled, entitled prima donna. I don't know why they did that to her opera character when in the novel Roxane shows admirable consideration of others from the beginning. The literary Roxane has an unusually strong ego and sense of self, but she doesn't come across with the shrillness of the Lyric's production.

Speaking of shrillness, I wasn't impressed with the voice of Danielle de Niese, the woman who played Roxane. I liked J'Nai Bridges/Carmen's voice much better. I also didn't hear much melody that appealed to me and that I'd want to carry around in my head. The only times when I felt I was hearing a true song was when the Russian sang, when Cesar sang and the first time Gen, Carmen, Hosokawa and Roxane sang together. Besides that, I found the music rambling and tedious. Is modern opera always like that?

One of the main themes of the novel is language and communication. The characters have come together from all over the world, but manage to communicate even though they speak Spanish, English, Russian, Japanese, Italian, German, etc. I was looking forward to hearing each character sing in the language in which he or she speaks in the book. Much of the singing in the opera is in different languages, but there was also an almost random amount of singing in English. In the novel, the rebels only speak Spanish, so why do they often sing in English in the opera? One of Hosokawa's most salient characteristics in the book is that he never learned to speak anything but Japanese, yet his opera character sometimes sings in English. Why? Opera doesn't need translation like movies do because the libretto is displayed for the audience. 

Mainly I was disappointed by the opera's emphasis on tension and conflict instead the relationships the rebels and hostages build, which are the beauty and heart of the novel. How could Patchett let the focus of her novel disappear into shooting and yelling? The opera had none of the novel's humor or the slow melt of its characters' animosities into affection. The novel is a brilliant study of the human character in all its pain and helpless evolution, but those themes didn't translate to the opera stage.

Then again, this could all indicate that I'm just not an opera lover. I suspect that I need not spend another $100 on a ticket to the opera because it's just not my medium. I'd rather stay home with a good book.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The shine is off Christmas for me

Now that I spend more time with people who weren't born in the US, I see American culture differently. I'm fascinated by the things such people identify as being good and bad about us. I have new appreciation for our American never-say-die attitude and the way we're a culture of second chances. We pride ourselves on not quitting and that's often an admirable trait.

But I'm now much more aware of how hollow our Christmas is. I know, I know: it's been this way my whole life and I've been listening to others complain about the commercialization of Christmas for decades. But I've still maintained a child's glowing view of the Christmas season. With my child's adoration of it, I've overlooked the crass merchandising and pretended our American enthusiasm for Christmas items in October showed how devoted we were to celebration and warm feelings.

But hearing how the American Christmas makes us look to others has been very sobering. Apparently, it doesn't take long for someone who moves here as an adult to see through Christmas buzz words like "joy" and "family" and "celebrate." They can see that each of those words is usually connected to spending money, in spite of our heavy insistence that Christmas is really about God. No, American holiday hypocrisy isn't news to me, but I was successfully deluding myself that we weren't so different from the rest of the world. I wanted to believe the whole planet used Jesus' feast day to make truckloads of money.  But they don't. It's uncomfortable to realize that in France and Mexico and Germany they celebrate without our drive to conduct massive commerce at the same time. The United States is unique in how fiercely we insist that Christmas is about Christ while we inextricably link our celebration of his feast day to spending money, money, money and acquiring more things, things, things.

So, sadly, a bit of the shine is off of Christmas for me. This year, my Christmas inner child has grown up a little.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

[I originally posted this on January 5, 2006.]

What's Christmas without tradition? The Christmas tradition for my blog is the annual posting of my summary of the History Channel's Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas. I find it extremely relevant to the annual discussion of the true meaning of Christmas. The title of this post, of course, was the plaintive cry of Charlie Brown in his Christmas special, which Linus tried to answer with a Bible passage. Wrong, Linus. The following historical facts are from the History Channel program, but the opinionated statements are mine.

Christmas Started Without Jesus

It turns out that early Europeans were observing a winter solstice celebration centuries before Jesus was born. In Norse country it was called “Yule” and it lasted for as long as the enormous “Yule log” took to burn, which was about twelve days. In preparation for the cold, dark season people would kill almost all their livestock since they couldn’t feed them through the winter. The feasting and general revelry that resulted became the annual Yule celebration.

In Rome the winter solstice marked the period known as “Saturnalia.” During this festival people drank, behaved raucously and generally overturned the normal social order. While this was going on, the upper classes of Rome worshipped Mithras, the sun god, whose feast day was December 25th and  who was believed to have been born in a field and worshipped by shepherds.

Early Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth, focusing on his resurrection (which makes a lot more sense to me), but by the fourth century the new Church needed to establish Jesus’ holy birth, so it began to put together the nativity story. It knew it would never manage to outlaw the pagan traditions already in place, so it appropriated them and that’s how December 25th became Jesus’ feast day.

It Had More Sex Than Saints

In England during the middle ages, the pious went to church on December 25th for “Christ’s mass,” but for most of the population it was just a regular day. Most of those who celebrated made it a festival of drunken revelry and sex that would look more to us like Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve. It was a saturnalian free-for-all with little connection to Jesus except in name.

By the 17th century the Puritans had had enough of this and they made attempts to outlaw Christmas in both England and the New World. These devout people saw Christmas as a depraved tradition that had to be stopped. That didn’t work in the fledgling United States of America, but the holiday was greatly downplayed for a long time, as evidenced by the U.S. Congress being in session on all Christmas Days for its first 67 years!

America Needed a Tradition

When the United States were established in 1776, the early Americans wanted to rid themselves of all things English, including Christmas. But over time they also needed new culturally shared holidays which led to a reinvention of Christmas.

One new aspect of the American Christmas was how it addressed the growing class divide of the industrial U.S. In the early 1800’s the holiday became quite dangerous as working class people turned it into a time of violent payback for the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots. In response to growing economic imbalances, writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens created works of fiction that instilled a spirit of generosity and demonstrated sharing wealth with the poor. These popular stories gave the upper classes guidance about what their responsibility was to those who had less and established “giving” as a central Christmas theme. Christmas now gave people a chance to correct some of the socioeconomic unfairness of newly industrialized America. (I'd argue that we're overdue for such a re-focusing.)

The view of the family was also changing. Traditionally, the American family was supposed to discipline children and turn them into hard workers, but by the end of the 19th century the family was seen more as a nurturing body that protected childhood innocence. Christmas, with its emphasis on giving gifts, allowed people to pour attention on children without seeming to spoil them. The holiday became a celebration of children, honoring them with presents and sharing in their joy.

Why Shopping Is Central

The creation of the American version of Santa Claus in the mid-1800's did a few things: it reinforced the idea that Christmas distributes wealth, it solidified the focus on children and it removed gift-buying from the marketplace and placed it in the realm of family love and affection. Shopping became an expression of love! This diminished the obvious commercialism of gift-buying and obliged parents to fulfill their children’s expectations. Thus did shopping become the central activity of the Christmas season. (Nice move, American merchants.)

But Where Was God?

By the late 1800’s Christmas was just about everywhere in the U.S, except in church. In fact, the author of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was an Episcopalian minister who initially kept his authorship a secret because he thought the poem was too friviolous; after all, it didn’t mention Jesus once. The celebration of Jesus’ birth was an established part of the Catholic tradition, but for quite a while American Protestant churches pretty much ignored it. For decades they stayed closed on December 25th until their parishioners made clear that they wanted services on that day.

So it's not quite true that Jesus’ birth was the original reason we have Christmas. December 25th was part of a pagan festival that morphed into a holiday of gift-giving that American churches didn’t want anything to do with until almost the 20th century. There was no golden age during which most people observed Christmas primarily as a holy day. Sorry Linus, but Snoopy's right: Christmas is as much about the big decorated tree as it is about the manger.

Does Christmas Even Need Jesus?

By the 1920’s the sex and revelry were gone from Christmas and by the 1950’s it was all about kids and presents, but a spiritual focus was appropriate since religious services are about connecting with a greater power. In the centuries before Christ, people needed to believe they’d survive the winter and they worshipped the sun as their source of life. Modern Christians worship the son of God, whom they recognize as the source of life.

But for as long as December 25th has been recognized as Jesus’ feast day, there have been lots of other activities going on at the same time. I think if Christmas were really just about Jesus, the holiday wouldn’t occupy American public space as it does. Strictly religious holy days tend to be observed only by those who practice that faith. Our grand scale yuletide traditions -- big decorations, big eating, big shopping -- support the religious significance of the day, but don’t engage it.

Pick Your Own True Meaning

The History Channel’s program ends with the observation that only children understand what Christmas is really about: pure joy and celebration, and the magic and mystery of opening gifts. That’s why those of us whose families celebrated Christmas often experience a moment of delight when we see a Santa truly in his role or glimpse a dazzling light display. Such moments take us back to our childhood and the unadulterated awe and glory that Christmas held for us then. Our American Christmas tradition was tailor-made for children and they are essential to its magic.

(I think the child-focus of the holiday is also why Christmas becomes ever more dim and disappointing to us adults: the essence of this holiday isn't about us.)

The true meanings of Christmas include Jesus, but they're also about children and gift-giving. There was never a time during which the majority treated December 25th as a solemn holy day; the drunken orgy it used to be caused the Puritans to try to stamp it out altogether. Although Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, it's as much about decorations, kids and presents as it is about God, an interesting outcome for a holiday with a rich pagan history of drunkenness, gluttony and sex.

Let us all celebrate whatever we choose during the Christmas season. For some it's the birth of Jesus, while for others it's an excuse to eat, romance someone in particular, indulge others, make family be nice to you, etc. I'm an atheist, but I love saying "Merry Christmas," and when I do, it has nothing to do with The Church. I'm just wishing you a really good season of partying.

Merry Christmas!
Yup, this is how we do it in the U.S.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

U.S. Latinos - the facts

During Chicago Ideas Week I attended Univision's seminar on "Marketing to Hispanics." This is what I learned from the data collected by Univision's marketing department.

General facts

There are 58 million Hispanics in the U.S. which is 18% of the total U.S. population.
There are 2.1 million Hispanics in the Chicagoland area, which is 22% of the total Chicago population.
By 2060 Hispanics are expected to be 29% of the total U.S. population (119 million).
[Okay, I can't keep using the term "Hispanics." I'm switching to "Latinos."]
U.S. Latinos are an average of 12 years younger than the non-Latino population.
75% of us are under 45, compared to 56% of non-Latinos.
Latinos make up 21% of all Millennials.

Purchasing tendencies

Latinos are 72% more likely than non-Latinos to buy our first home in the next 12 months.
We're 68% more likely to have a baby in the next 12 months.
Between 2000 and 2015, the number of Latino households earning $75K+ grew by 188%.
83% of Latinos own smartphones (vs. 79% for the total market)
We've had more growth in tablet ownership (vs. total households)
32% more weekly time is spent by Latinos using smartphone apps.
113% more weekly time is spent by Latinos watching video on smartphones.

Social media

Latinos are twice as likely to share any given item than the general population.
Latinos share items five times as often as the general population (as evidenced by my cousin-once-removed Gregory Rivera)
Items that Latinos have shared are 35% more likely to be clicked on.


In the United States, 8 out of 10 Latinos live in a household that speaks Spanish to any extent at all.
In the Chicagoland area, nearly 9 out of 10 Latinos live in a household that speaks Spanish to any extent at all.
And Spanish isn't going anywhere. Univision's numbers predict that in 2034 71% of the U.S. Latino population will live in households where at least some Spanish is spoken.

Cultural pride

Among Latino Americans:                                                                      
"I feel a need to preserve my family's cultural traditions" - 72% agreed in 2010. 80% agreed in 2015.
"I feel very proud of my Hispanic background" - 93% agreed in 2010. 97% agreed in 2015.
"Being part of the Hispanic community in the U.S. is extremely important to me" - 79% agreed in 2010. 83% agreed in 2015.
"I would prefer that my children choose Hispanics as their role models" - 49% agreed in 2010. 59% agreed in 2015.

Up until now I hadn't felt intimidated by the growing number of U.S. Latinos, but now I'm a little nervous. Will I be expected to display an equal amount of pride in being a Latina? What if I'm not proud enough? Will this become another metric by which I'll be measured, undoubtedly disappointingly? If everyone's going to keep speaking Spanish and having lots of babies and flying the flags of Latin countries, will I always feel like I'm on the outside of Latino culture, feeling like I became too white too early in the history of Latinos in the U.S? I just don't know when, if ever, I'll feel like I'm on the inside of this demographic.

No wonder El Idiota and others who support his candidacy for president are scared. We brown people aren't going anywhere and even if you could seal the border against Latino immigrants, the ones that are already here are passing on our traditions and marrying people of other backgrounds and reproducing and multiplying by the day. It's turning into Brown Nation with all the people of color intermarrying with each other and with white people. One out of every six Americans is Hispanic. You could be next.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Eliminate the penny

The week of  Thanksgiving, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story on the question of whether or not to eliminate the American penny: "Critics Wonder Whether Pennies Make Sense Anymore." I say: eliminate the penny. I agree with John Oliver and Citizens to Retire the Penny that it's past time to do so.

Why do we care about it so much? If the penny disappears, Lincoln lovers can still gaze at his face on the five dollar bill. No one even stoops to pick up a penny on the sidewalk anymore. Even charities and panhandlers don't ask if you can spare a few pennies. Businesses are willing to give you a pass if you're short a penny or they have those "leave a penny, take a penny" dishes where the coins sit there like stale peppermints in absolutely no danger of anyone taking advantage. Some businesses have even started rounding totals to the nearest nickel. And pennies cost so much to make that, economically, no one can deny they're almost worthless as circulating currency.

So why keep them? I think it's sentimentality and inertia, but it's sentimentality and inertia that's a drag on our economy.  Their street value doesn't justify the cost of making them, and yet many people balk at the idea of getting rid of the penny. What will it take for such people to agree to eliminate this coin that has no place in the 2015 economy?

I have a friend who I'll call Ceece (not her real name). (Actually it is.) Ceece agrees with the people who want to keep the penny. I challenge her and anyone else to please leave a comment on this post with an argument for keeping the penny in circulation that isn't about tradition or simply liking pennies. If I get no comments on this post, that will be a statement in and of itself. So there.
John Oliver's rant on the need to eliminate the penny

Thursday, December 03, 2015

This is what I have to say about the current state of regular American mass shootings

It's ugly in here

Oh, it's ugly in Chicago. Between the police brutality that gunned down a Black teenager who stood several feet from the nearest officer to the police destroying evidence of Officer Jason Van Dyke's crime to State's Attorney Anita Alvarez refusing to see that there's been any wrongdoing to Mayor Rahm Emanuel covering it all up during an election year when he barely retained his seat, many of us are FED UP. And we're no less fed up with the shoppers and merchants on Black Friday who refused to see the link between their business-as-usual and our protests. To people who don't see any connection between Chicago corruption and their purchase of an iPhone here it is: Rahm Emanuel hates anything that endangers Chicago's image or revenue. Interfering with your desire to shop in Chicago gets his attention like nothing else. Every time I read about someone plaintively wondering why protesters targeting their shopping day, I hear the denial that their actions have anything to do with racism and corruption.

Of course Rahm doesn't want an independent federal investigation into his police department. He's screwed up and he's scared. There's no way he would have won re-election last spring if we had known about Laquan McDonald's murder and the destruction of evidence. It should have been Mayor Jesús García overseeing the arrest of Officer Van Dyke and an investigation into all this bullshit. Now we know how hard Emanuel must have been sweating when he had to face a runoff in order to stay mayor. It's time now for Rahm to go.

But as disgusted as I am, I'm proud of the Chicagoans who have demonstrated and made clear that we aren't going to put up with this level of abuse, violence and corruption any more. Black Lives Matter has become a sophisticated organization that knows how to hit where it hurts: the city's wallet. Now we have to get rid of State's Attorney Alvarez and Mayor Emanuel. They must have realized by now that their days are numbered.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

"No" means "yes" and "yes" means "no?"

What is happening to the meanings of "yes" and "no?" I asked someone last night if he and his companion were old friends, and he said, "No, yeah we've been friends for years." On The Daily Show, Noah Trevor asked Gloria Steinem if she thought the women's movement still existed as it used to and she said, "No, absolutely." Both these people were clearly trying to answer the question in the affirmative, but they started their responses with the word "no." The dialogue in a movie I recently watched had a woman responding to the question, "Did you call her yet?" with "Yeah. I don't even have her number." A few minutes later, she answered the question, "Are you okay?" with "No, I'm fine." Have these words lost that much meaning? Is this only happening in the U.S?

Two years ago when I first noticed the trend of people saying, "yeah, no," some people tried to tell me that was sarcasm. They said the "yeah" of  "yeah, no" was a sarcastic acknowledgment of the question, while the "no" part was the true answer. This formula led to people saying things like, "Yeah, no, I'm not going to that," and "Yeah, no, that's not a show I watch." 

Okay, that's possible. But what's going on when someone says "no" when they're clearly trying to say "yes?" Why answer the question "Are you old friends?" with "No, yeah we've been friends for years?" Seriously, what's going on here? Anyone?

Now that Welcome Dialogue is up and running, I'm teaching non-native English speakers many crazy things about American English, and I don't look forward to explaining this. Ugh.

This is what I say to people trying to untangle the way Americans talk: don't pay too much attention to whether they start a sentence with "yeah," "no," "yeah no" or "no yeah." You have to listen to the whole sentence to understand what that person is trying to say. You'd think words like "yes" and "no" would be some of the clearest, but with Americans they're just as confusing as anything else. Grrr...