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And once again, the backroom deals reign supreme

Friday, May 18th, 2018

As most people know, Barack Obama is planning his presidential legacy center for the part of Chicago’s south side where he lived and taught law before become a U.S. Senator and then President. This isn’t a presidential library, which will be built in some other, as yet undisclosed location, but a private facility. The City of Chicago has given him 19 acres of land in Jackson Park, for a lease whose terms are secret. The city has decided to close roads that are heavily traveled to accommodate both the Obama Center and a proposed PGA golf course. All of those decisions are also cloaked in secrecy.

As is tiresomely all too often the case in my city, all the deals have been done behind the scenes. I testified before the Chicago Plan [sic]  Commission, but mine was a drowned out voice in a room full of people desperate to believe the city’s promises.

I’m attaching my remarks here. FYI, Rahm Emanuel is Chicago’s mayor, Mike Kelly the superindentent of the Chicago Park District.


Questions Regarding the Plans for the Obama Presidential Center

Sara Paretsky, Hyde Park resident since 1968

It’s fitting that President Obama’s center return to the South Side where he, and especially the former First Lady, lived and worked. I’m delighted the center will be here, but disturbed by the process by which the park district and the city made decisions to dismember Jackson Park, close roads, upend commutes and install a PGA golf course in an area that can’t support one economically.

I’ve lived a few blocks from Jackson Park for fifty years and I’m in the park at three or more days a week. One of my least favorite places is the underpass at 59th Street, which I’ve dubbed, “Lake Rahm Kelly.” This underpass has been flooded and impassable for 46 of the past 52 weeks.

Looking west under Lake Shore Drive at 59th Street

Every time I get there and see I have to retrace my steps, I think, Mayor Emanuel and Superintendent Kelly are two of the people asking us to take their proposed massive disruption of Jackson Park on faith: trust us, they say, as Lucy does to Charlie Brown when she holds the football for him. We can close roads, take away big chunks of Jackson Park to give to a private foundation, eliminate parking, turn Stony Island into a six-lane road, we can do all this without hurting the 2200 children who go to school near Stony Island. We can do all this without causing traffic bottlenecks for the commuters who are already bumper-to-bumper on the roads the city wants to close or narrow. We can bring new commerce to the South Side, we can bring jobs, we can do all this.

You taxpayers don’t need to see data on how we decided on this massive upheaval. You just need to trust us. We can’t keep one lonely underpass free of water, but we can do all this other bigger stuff.

We can build a PGA golf course, which requires intensive use of herbicides and pesticides, without allowing one single molecule of these chemicals into Lake Michigan. We can give almost twenty acres of Jackson Park to the Obama Presidential Center for a lease whose terms we will not reveal to you – how many years, how much rent, how big a burden for maintenance and security will fall on taxpayers. Just trust us.

We’re giving public land to a private center, but this won’t create a precedent for giving public land to other private users such as George Lucas or even Donald Trump. Why won’t it? Because you can trust us.

The Obama Presidential Center similarly demands our trust: for access to the nineteen acres of Jackson Park where they will sit, for economic revitalization of the South Side without a community benefits agreement, for replacement of football, baseball and soccer fields that the OPC and the proposed road changes will displace.

Mayor Emanuel recently said that skeptics like me aren’t ready for the 21st Century.That could be because the Jackson Park plan process looks very much like Chicago politics as they’ve been practiced for one hundred-fifty years.

Out-take from Shell Game

Monday, May 7th, 2018

When I started writing Shell Game 20 months ago, I imagined at first that it would center on a Syrian poet. My poet was called Tarik Kataba and he was in the U.S. illegally. He had been imprisoned and tortured by Bashar. When he was released, he fled and made his way here through what John le Carré called “the soft routes.” I imagined VI having an affair with him. It turned out not to be possible to use him to tell the story I was trying to write. He still exists, but not in the same role. I thought it might entertain some readers to see where I started.

chapter 4: Scars


When I closed my eyes, I saw not the battered head in the woods nor the smooth skin of the dead young man, but Tarik Kataba’s back, criss-crossed with welts.

That hot August day, the Hope Against Fear picnic. Tarik had gone for a swim at the far end of the private beach across from Max’s home. I’d noticed him walking up the beach to a rocky outcropping at the far end, but at that time, I didn’t know his name – we were a motley gathering of immigrants, refugees, high-end donors, friends of Lotty and Max like me.

Felix Herschel was there, hanging out with the younger people; presumably that’s where he met Rasima. Mid-afternoon, Felix joined me in playing beach volleyball with some of Lotty’s surgical residents and other energetic people. Rasima had left for work.

Partway through our game, Tarik’s shirt blew from the rocks into the water. Wind and waves were carrying it toward our end of the beach; I darted into the water to collect it before it sank. I took the shirt up the beach to the rocks just as Tarik was climbing out. The sun had burned the newer flesh around the scars, highlighting the puckered stripes against his olive skin.

He was mortified that I’d seen his wounded back. He grabbed the shirt without speaking and disappeared behind the rocks. During supper, Max told me his name, and that he’d been tortured in Assad’s prisons because of his poetry.

Later, as the sun was setting, I had taken a break from the yammer of the crowd to sit on the beach and watch the light on the water change color. After some minutes, Tarik appeared noiselessly at my side.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I also am sorry. Sorry for the rude action when you make the kind action.”

We sat quietly for a few minutes, and then I asked about his poetry.

“Poetry is my life and also almost end of life.”

As dark gathered around us, in fractured English, he softly told me his story. Tarik spoke Russian: during the Cold War, when Syria was closely allied to the Soviet Union, he’d spent a year in Moscow as a student. He’d made friends among people who circulated samizdat; through them he learned the work of the great dissident poets of the Thirties.

“Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva. For me best is always Mandlestam. I try translate. Language hard, also hard is –“ he beat a rhythm on his thigh.

“Rhythm? Meter?”

“Yes. Hard and therefore happiness to put in Arabic. My bad mistake: I choose wrong poem, poem Mandlestam write to Stalin.”

Tarik recited “Stalin’s Epigram” for me in Russian and then in Arabic. It sounded beautiful in both languages, although I understood neither. Tarik tried to explain what it said, but his English wasn’t up to the job.

When I pulled out my phone and looked it up, it was instantly obvious that it would rile a dictator. Mandlestam wrote that Stalin had a mustache like “cockroach whiskers;” his followers were “a rabble of fawning half-men” who “whinny or purr or whine” at his command, his laws were “horseshoes” which hit people in the head or the eye or the groin.

In 1933, after the “Epigram” reached his ears, Stalin had Mandlestam arrested, and ultimately killed. In today’s global war against ordinary citizens, a poet should not be surprised when the police arrive in the middle of the night.

“Problem is moustache. Stalin has big, like – like brush. Bashar moustache tiny, like pencil –“ he rubbed his fingers in the sand, imitating an eraser.”

“Smudges,” I guessed.

“Smudge, hmm. I ask daughter, Rasima know English perfect. Bashar moustache smudge. Not big like Stalin. Bashar not same like Stalin, I trying say.”

“I’m sure that didn’t help.” I couldn’t hold back a laugh, and instantly apologized, but Tarik laughed softly as well. “Yes. Not help. Bashar want big cockroach moustache.”

Tariq had spent nineteen months in Assad’s prisons, nineteen months where he was whipped with electric wires, among other tortures. His son, seventeen at Tarik’s arrest, slipped across the border to safety in Jordan. When Tarik was released, he left Syria immediately with Rasima, flying to Panama and moving overland to the United States. In 2013 we still seemed like a haven.

“My son, Adam, stay at Jordan. Better there.”

It was full night when Tarik finished talking. He and I left the party together. He spent the night with me, and I felt the scars in the darkness. We never repeated the encounter, not out of shame nor fear of Rasima’s discovering us. Whatever we both had needed was satisfied by that one night.



Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

When Dorothy Salisbury Davis turned eighty, I flew to New York for her birthday. She wasn’t feeling well, and during the three days I spent with her she finally admitted to some bleeding and a low-grade fever. I urged her to let me take her to her doctor but she was adamantly opposed. In retrospect, I suppose she was afraid of hospitalization instead of the festive dinner she’d been planning. At any rate, I respected her wishes, we had dinner. The next day I urged her again, but she remained resolute — or perhaps obdurate, and I returned to Chicago.

Two days later a good friend found her passed out on her living room floor. She was rushed to an ER where they diagnosed a kidney infection, eminently treatable. She was resilient as well as obdurate and was soon back in top form.

Dorothy lived to 98 in pretty good health except for her last few years, but the question of when she needed care and what kind continued to be a struggle. The friend who got her to the ER was also resolute and pushed Dorothy far harder than I ever could have or would have.

I’ve been thinking about that recently, thinking about agency. My husband has COPD and it is worsening. He doesn’t want to go to a pulmonologist; he doesn’t want oxygen. I think I have a right to insist he uses his inhalers, but I think he has a right to decide how much additional treatment he wants.

I’m torn on this question of agency. If he were younger, if he were as mentally sharp as he was at 75 (he’s 94 now), maybe he’d make the decision to go to oxygen or other treatments, but he might not. He needs me to administer any therapies he receives and he has never liked being dependent. He’s always been the caregiver, not the care receiver, and I imagine myself in his head, thinking, “I won’t be that helpless person.”

I was in my twenties when a beloved friend succombed to a particularly lethal form of lupus; I was with her when she died. The night before, she pulled all the treatment lines out of her body. She’d had enough in her twenty-five short years. When I was 25, I couldn’t bear the decision she made but I understand it better now — I was clinging to her in my own neediness, not letting her go where she needed to be.  As Stewart Alsop put it so poignantly, A dying person needs to die just as a sleepy person needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong to resist.



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May 2018