On Thanksgiving Day, Americans Disinvite 2016 Presidential Candidates


“It’s Thanksgiving Day and we need a little levity. So let’s unite two themes – holidays and unlikeable presidential candidates. A recent series of polls asked the American people their thoughts on spending Turkey Day with some of our most high-profile office seekers. Here is what we learned.”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

Noël Coward’s Private Lives


I recently had a discussion with a colleague about the Noel Coward revival currently taking place on Chicago’s theater scene. Pride Films & Plays just wound up its production of “Design for Living” at the Rivendell Theater, which Paul and his wife attended. Later this week, Remy Bumppo will raise the curtain on “Fallen Angels” at Greenhouse Theater Center.

My colleague and I were discussing the general “chattiness” of a Coward script, and I drew a comparison between the cheeky, mid-20th century artist, and prolific, present-day play and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Both men have earned a place in the literary canon for witty, rapid-fire dialogue that (not coincidentally) gained public popularity in parallel with the modernization, mechanization and quickened pace of Western culture.

But you know what? When I proposed the analogy to Paul, I’d never actually read a Coward script, nor audited a production. Strange for a critic with a Master’s in English Literature and nearly seven years of theater criticism under her belt, but true nonetheless. This past Sunday afternoon, I addressed the oversight by attending the press opening of Coward’s most famous piece, “Private Lives,” from ShawChicago Theater Company. I had high expectations given Coward’s fame and ShawChicago’s solid reputation for quality shows. I’m sorry to report that these expectations were sorely disappointed.

“Private Lives,” as directed by Barbara Zahora, is a failure on many levels. But I suppose it’s logical to start with the questionable and distracting decision to have the four major players read their lines from music stands. This lent the appearance of a table read, rather than a fully developed production, and the actors themselves seemed at a loss.

As a divorced couple, newly married to other partners, Mary Michell and Michael Lasswell (Amanda and Elyot, respectively) strike the right vocal notes of banal boredom, self-involved passion and elite, upper class carelessness. So it would have been nice if they’d been able to look each other in the eye beyond the moments of physical altercation that occur in the script. How are audiences supposed to feel an indivisible connection between these two characters, when they are mostly standing still and flipping sheets of paper?

Leslie Ann Handelman does solid, whiny work as Elyot’s new bride Sybil — from a dialogue perspective. But the character’s lack of movement underscores that one is indeed, watching a performance. The comical wailing is there but there’s no corporeal bond with the material. It’s just line reading. And possibly the most likable character in the story, Amanda’s husband Victor, would have been so much more in the able Doug MacKechnie’s hands, if he’d been able to come out from behind the stand and engage a his audience.

I still found Coward’s writing fundamentally interesting and entertaining. So much so that I was prepared to forgive “Private Lives” its humorous attitude toward domestic violence. When the play was first produced in 1930, it was a different era. Women had the vote, but were struggling to shed the public and legal perception of them as frivolous property deserving of a slap.

However I was unfortunate enough to be seated next to an effusive male patron, who audibly repeated the “best” in misogynistic lines and laughed uproariously at the mere mention of assault. And as I think I’ve made clear, I had nothing else to look at. No scenery. No characters engaging with each other.

As it turns out, Coward and Sorkin have more in common than a general proclivity toward wordiness. The latter is famous for the “walk and talk” directing technique that provides fluid action served up alongside lengthy monologue. It gives the discourse organic liquidity. Sorkin doesn’t work without movement. Note to Director Zahora: Coward doesn’t either.

“Private Lives” runs through Dec. 14 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-587-7390 or visit the ShawChicago website.

The Incidental Writer Takes on Hate – And Goes Viral

Max and Jen

Last Monday night I sat dejectedly in front of my laptop, tears streaming. Many people had been killed, injured and assaulted in recent days. Others had felt the sting of cruel, frightening rhetoric. My little sister was hurt. I can’t see my sister in pain. I’ve endured many challenges and am certain more lie ahead. I can grit my teeth and bear when I’m being laid bare. Jenny’s wounds are a different experience. She’s my woobie.

The Paris attacks perpetrated by ISIS caused so much shock, grief and misery – as well as unfortunately, a virulent strain of Islamophobic political and social media discourse. For reasons she’s eloquently explained herself, the casual ease with which some are discussing closing our borders to Islamic immigrants, or worse, forcing Muslim citizens to register, is a sickening blow. One that hits close to the home Jenny shares with her Muslim-American husband Max and their two girls. As an older sister accustomed to doing whatever it takes to make my girl feel safer, I felt so useless. A single threat I can use my body to block. A vast and often nameless field of online hate? I’m a female web writer. I know how overpowering that crowd can be.

Jenny sent me a text and told me she was ready to take a digital break until the post-Paris hysteria receded. I understood. A short while later, she had a surprising change of heart:

“I feel like I want to write something. If I do, can I run it on your site?”

That “something,” Love, Hate and Islamophobia, which I am proud to have edited, has (absolutely no hyperbole here) turned into a sensation. Thousands of reads and almost 1,000 Facebook shares from this humble website. Rerun on People’s World, Nikki Nigl’s #WordsByWomenWednesday feature, supported by friends and strangers alike who’ve offered lovely words of support to Jenny and her family. She felt defeated, like the oppression of hate and intolerance was more than any one person could push through. But then she spoke. She was brave enough to disagree. And it’s a story that’s connected with people across the globe.

Once again, there’s no overstatement involved with that declaration. In the wee hours of Monday morning, Dawn, Pakistan’s #1 English-language website, ran Jenny’s essay – giving her message of love and compassion a wider audience than I think either of us dared imagine. No matter how worthy Jenny’s voice, how strong her prose, and regardless of having written for all the right reasons, that’s not always enough for the soft protest. There’s just so much damned din. But this quiet, firm revolt is being heard, read, shared, discussed. There’s a hunger to get away from the blanket canvassing of our friends and neighbors.

Somehow, even after all this, Jenny doesn’t believe she’s a writer. I told her a writer, quite simply, is one who writes. If one is read, by tens of thousands spanning at least three continents of which we’re aware (G’day Australia!), offered a regular opportunity to share a viewpoint, well I can think of a few scribes (cough) who consider that rather qualified. My pride and love only grow with this adorable, genuine humility.

We’re getting to her. My sister yearns to do important work. She told me so five days before Paris presented a terrible, urgent need for perspective. I can think of few labors more necessary than what she’s started – placing a relatable stamp on the regular Muslim family. My brother-in-law cooks mostaccioli while yelling at the Chicago Bears on television. It doesn’t get much more American than that. Max’s otherwise smiling, kind face is the one of Islam.

I’m starting to think Jenny’s a closeted poet as well. When she sent me some notes for this post, she asked me to try to convey “how a seed sprouted into a giant tree.” A kernel of exhausted disgust with hatefulness, the underbelly of humanity, blossomed into something lush and healthy – for her and in an impactful way, for community dialogue.

It’s been a full week since I cried those bitter tears of powerlessness in front of the computer. Every one who’s since spoken to me about Jenny’s forway into activism has been treated to waterworks. Only now the tears stem from another kind of pain – a pride and awe at this person you love that injects helium into the heart. You’re light, yet feel as though you’ll burst. How is it possible to sustain so much warmth and joy in someone who swims in your gene pool?

With any luck, I’m going to have to learn to cope with the sensation.

The Cubs Learned How to Trade: Samardzija Rumors Underscore Exciting Evolution


Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija (29) throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first inning of their opening day baseball game on Monday, April 1, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija (29) throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first inning of their opening day baseball game on Monday, April 1, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

“The Cubs have given their legions of fans many gifts in 2015. But the greatest of all is the big-picture, long-term strategic thinking that made Epstein a hero in Boston. It seems rather unlikely that this management team would perpetrate a Lee Smith/Greg Maddux – style debacle. Getting an even-to-better end of a deal? Who’d have thought?  It really is a new era of hope and possibility in Cubs Nation.”

Read the full post at Wrigleyville Nation.

Mainstream Media Joins GOP in Abandoning Syrian Refugees


“I am not even going to try to parse the nonsense that flows through [Ben] Carson’s hateful rhetoric. It’s disproven by facts – a group of inconvenient truths members of the doctor’s party run farther from each election cycle. My issue is with mainstream media outlets. Are you not required to do more than just nod your heads and record words when potential leaders of our democracy engage in treasonous dialogue? Because you know what’s really a threat to America’s safety? Bigotry pumped throughout the Internet, the television and print for all the world to see. Reinforcing the notion in the minds of fringe groups that would destroy us that they are merely returning hate with hate.”

Read the full post on the Contemptor website.


Love, Hate and Islamophobia

I’m exceedingly proud to introduce my first guest blogger since the launch of the website earlier this year – my eminently talented and thoughtful younger sister, Jennifer. I will not be posting this week because nothing I have to say is nearly as urgent, and this deserves our collective attention. Please read and share.

Max and Jenny

In 2001, I met a man at work who intrigued me. We began dating shortly after the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2003, I married this man, and in 2007 we had our first child together – a beautiful little girl to join my older daughter from a previous marriage.

In 2016, we will celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary with our children at Disney World – our favorite place on earth. Max loves me more than seems justified, but he’s exactly the father my kids deserve, the kind of man I wish I’d been able to look up to as a child. Everyone he works, prays, plays or engages with loves and respects him. He’s one of those rare people who doesn’t seem to have any enemies. But there’s just one little thing. Max is a Muslim.

The sad fact is, despite the qualities listed above, and the other terrific nuances that make Max a better man than most, some people that don’t know him at all hate him because of his religious beliefs. Oh, and they hate my 8 year-old daughter too. Facebook taught me that yesterday. In fact, Facebook has been educating me about the inherent disgust for my family for years now. However after last Friday’s senseless tragedy in Paris, the rejection of my loved ones reached a fever pitch.

It was a former aunt by marriage who posted a “fact” sheet (which I have not yet vetted) that delivered the blow that led to this post. The data in the meme purported to reflect Japanese restrictions on Muslims in their country. Said aunt (who has, it must be owned, recognized her prejudicial error, removed the post and apologized) added the editorial comment, “And so should the US,” in reference to Japan’s alleged closed door policy to Islamic people.

It’s not like I haven’t experienced different forms of hate or racism by proxy over the course of my relationship with Max. Quite the contrary. I’ve had my luggage contents dumped on the floor for all to see in an airport in Omaha. You know, because I was traveling with a bearded brown man. A hateful employee at O’Hare, the world’s largest as well as one of the most diverse travel hubs, attempted to prevent my husband and I from flying on the same plane to our honeymoon destination.

More recently, I was waved through a security checkpoint at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City even though my bracelets were tripping the metal detectors. However my cousin by marriage, wearing a hijab, was harassed about a blue dolphin statue that I purchased for my daughter at the Museum of Natural History. My cousin had been kind enough to tote the item for me on her stroller, and her kindness turned into an ugly memory.

I’ve asked these questions a million times. Does every Christian (or even an atheist gun owner) pay the price every time a rogue member of the flock shoots up an abortion clinic? Did every white American male have to apologize for or denounce the Unabomber? How about Timothy McVeigh? Did we close the borders to white Protestants after the evils perpetrated by the Klu Klux Klan? The obvious answer to all of these queries is “No.” Why obvious? Because it’s absurd to expect every American or Christian to denounce the distorted beliefs of a crazy person in order to stave off personal suspicion. As a culture, we do not afford the Muslim community that same courtesy.

You know those people that spout racist speech but then take cover under dubious claims when caught? They’ll say “Oh, I have black friends” after making pointedly ignorant statements about African-American culture. This phenomenon exists in discussions about the Islamic faith too. When I’m frustrated and emboldened enough to call someone out for their hate speech, and this has happened a few times, some are very quick to tell me they have Muslim friends who are “good people.” All better then, right?

1) No. I don’t believe you have Muslim friends. Because if you did, they would tell you that your gross, painful generalizations are unfounded.

2) I don’t think a Muslim – or any religious/ethnic minority – would befriend you knowing your opinions.

3) The second you protest that you have a ____ friend and are not a prejudiced against ______s as a result, you have lost the argument.

Max is a man of seemingly limitless tolerance and patience. But I’m not. Those security disasters I mentioned? My husband waits for them to end with humility. He does what he’s told and asks me to remain quiet so we can get through it and not draw extra attention to ourselves. He accepts that additional layers of mistrust and scrutiny are his lot in life – that he has to deal with being unnecessarily harassed for the good of the country. I sit there incensed and mortified. He just endures. I’ve learned to internalize my anger because if Max is willing to undergo racial profiling so we can board our plane to Disney World, who am I to presume greater entitlement to respect? Who am I to disrupt the peace he so desperately wants? But instead of getting used to the repetition of these indignities, they fester inside.

This is the world my daughters will inherit, the youngest of whom is being proudly raised in the Islamic faith. That’s what hurts and scares me the most. My husband is a big boy who can take care of himself. He was an adult with excellent coping skills before, during and after the horrible events of 9/11 that changed our country. But my baby girl is sweet and innocent, thinks the best of everyone. I dread the day she realizes that some will reject her based on one part of who she is. How will she react the first time she’s on the receiving end of a racist remark or hate speech about the only religion she knows? How will I react? My nearest and dearest should start saving bail money.

I spent part of yesterday morning watching President Obama’s speech at the G20 Summit in Turkey. I mentally applauded a particular quote as it was uttered, but in light of this recent, personal emotional roller coaster it bears repeating:

I had a lot of disagreements with George W. Bush on policy, but I was very proud after 9/11 when he was adamant and clear about the fact that this is not a war on Islam. And the notion that some of those who have taken on leadership in his party would ignore all of that, that’s not who we are. On this, they should follow his example. It was the right one. It was the right impulse. It’s our better impulse. We don’t discriminate against people because of their faith. We don’t kill people because they’re different than us. That’s what separates us from them.”

For inquiries, please contact jennifer.ashrafi@yahoo.com 

Dogs & Cats, Living Together! Mass Hysteria!

Meko and Jude

This evening, during our regular constitutional with the dogs, Bob told me that Jude ate some random, discarded alley bread in the morning. Worse, it was the bleached white variety devoid of any nutrition or flavor. When they returned home, Jude made a beeline for the toilet in order to rinse his verboten snack down with some refreshing tank juice. An eight year-old, 65-pound Australian Shepherd/Rottweiler swarmed with affection, high quality food, medical care and fabulous designer dishes has the culinary inclinations of a starved Depression-era chain ganger. Bob and I imagined him a prisoner/bootlegger, using his white bread and john water to ferment jailhouse gin.

This is Jude.

In June, shortly after Bob and I began co-habitating, I came home to a household of three pets for one of the first times. Dino, my fluffy, four-pound, 16 year-old ball of kitty might, is renowned throughout the blogosphere. I’ve written about our relationship for some years. But life progresses unpredictably, and a woman never considered a dog person suddenly found herself eagerly learning the quirks and schedules of two new, very large babies. I met Bob one cold February night and that was it. My heart stretched to fit the exact dimensions of this motley crew.

I returned home that rainy June evening to Dino, Jude and our 10.5 year-old German Shepherd/Rottweiler mix, Meko. When Bob rescued her at age six, she had the longer name Kameko. Bob, ever the enemy of needless syllables, shortened the moniker. It fits. She’s a no-frills gal. I swear she even looks like a Meko.

Anyway Meko has been, as they say in the adoption world, “re-homed” twice. Bob is at least her third daddy. We’ll never know her complete history. But we’re certain that she’s very much afraid of storms. Not when she has the chance to run around in one in the yard, mind you. Fear of proximity would make entirely too much sense and dogs don’t operate on logic. Instead Meko cowers from tempests – but only when indoors. Actually no, cowers is absolutely the wrong word. More like she goes WWE on our garbage cans and rugs, tearing up the recyclable shopping bags with her considerable 70-pound fangs.

This is Meko.

So that June evening. It was raining rather intensely in the Chicago way, with lots of spring lightening and gusty wind. I walked home from the train after work as fast as I could, expecting to encounter one of two typical scenarios – a peed upon bath mat or golden showered doggie bed. Thankfully we have access to a large washing machine. But this was no rehearsed production. My adopted darling canines had much more in store for the new mom.

By workday because he is a grazer, tiny and both rescue dogs were ill-fed in their past lives (Bob adopted Jude at one, but the poor fella still has a strong aversion to old men bearing canes or umbrellas – sad and enduring), Dino is sequestered with his food, litter box, heating pad, kitty condo and water in our second bedroom. There’s a window facing East and the little bambino likes watching the sun rise.

One may access this room in two ways: a conventional door off a long hallway, or from a bathroom closet that hangs a sharp left into the back of the bedroom’s laundry space. No human being over the age of six can fit through the latter entrance, owing to the built-in (backless) shelves that straddle the width. But if one were to say, leave the bathroom closet door unlatched, there’s room enough for a burrowing duo of determined, troublemaking doggies.

On this stormy eve, as if ripped from an Edgar Allen Poe scene, I returned home to gruesome carnage. I entered through the kitchen and saw the red metal garbage can, slammed several feet distant into the front hall entrance – broken and twisted. Coffee grounds and stale beet juice remnants were smeared across three different rooms looking eerily like human waste and blood. Already horrified (by sight, smell and the knowledge that I’d be cleaning this mess) and unable to locate Jude and Meko, I ran toward the bathroom.

Sure enough, the closet door was open. I could see through it to the dramatically overturned laundry baskets that had been stacked against the french doors. Clean and dirty linens flung about the room in a tornado of chaos. Meko, the massacre’s ringleader, had burst through the blockade in a mad fit of rain distress, the sartorial fortress intended to add another layer between dog and cat food. Jude crept behind in her wake – the shameless scavenger. I’m not svelte enough to scrape through the passage, so I headed to the hallway to enter the second bedroom.

What greets me? The sight of two calm, satiated dogs leisurely relaxing on the floor, adjacent to a non-plussed feline covered in socks. Dino’s food (and water) of course long gone. I was furious. Dino looked at me with betrayed, accusing, hungry eyes (without the joy of the classic Eric Carmen tune).

But here’s where unmitigated gall surpassed credulity. Both pups had the nerve to look at me with innocent joy, I dare say relief, that someone they love came to the rescue. For as doggedly determined (pun intended) as they are to reach a goal, they’ve never figured out they need to retreat the way they invaded. Obedience school should teach the domestic harmony of covering crimes more intelligently.

Jude was so eager to run from a self-inflicted prison that he took off from his resting place like a shot, stepping on my bare right foot with untrimmed claws, cutting the big toe at the nailbed. Tons of delicate blood.

When Bob came home, I was in a fully outraged stir. Bandaged and 30 minutes into cleaning, straightening, and refreshing Dino’s food, I couldn’t wait to tell him what “his dogs” had done.

But as I started spinning my yarn (and you know? I do that), the body and spirit rejected righteous indignation. I reached the part of the story where Jude sliced my toe in haste to leave the scene, complete lack of guilt about his mien. I started laughing so hard I had no option but to let go. In anarchy, there is often delicious, humorous harmony. Bob labeled Meko’s destructive, trash and laundry-scattering fit, not an emulation of the Incredible Hulk, but rather a special Meko-brand Smash.

We giggled. Bob devised fake apologies and voices for the dogs, issuing long-winded regrets about our cheap, parental taste in cat food. He also created a bit involving an affronted Dino, shaking an elderly paw at the damned kids (middle-aged dogs) on his lawn. Then we laughed some more, toasted the silliness and wondered how we entertained ourselves before we became a family of five. A happy, messy menagerie.