Monday, September 20, 2021

Like being stabbed all the time

     The pain never goes away.
     Pain is a constant of Beverly Chukwudozie’s entire life. Not every minute of every day, and not always severe — what she calls a “10” level of pain.
     But most minutes of most days, somewhere between discomfort and agony. And the rare times the pain vanishes altogether, it is always still in the background, “a constant fear.” Certain to return, the only question being when, and where and how severe.
     Chukwudozie, 43, doesn’t remember a time when it was otherwise. As a girl in Nigeria, she was told she was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. That’s what made her joints ache, sometimes as if they were being stabbed with a knife.
     “I had a major complication that kept me in the hospital for about a month,” she said. There, a hospital resident told her, offhandedly, that no, it wasn’t arthritis. It was worse; she had sickle cell disease, and might expect to live to be 21.
     She was 12 years old.
    “There was really limited knowledge at the time,” she remembers. “I did my best to find out more about it.”
     So did I. After Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office announced September is Sickle Cell Disease Month. I realized that while I’d heard of the disease, I knew almost nothing about it except that it affects Black people, primarily, making their blood platelets, rather than being vaguely round, take on a crescent shape — the “sickle” part of the name.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

A shanda fur die goyim

By Damien Hirst

     I knew, when I wrote about not going to synagogue on Yom Kippur, "God doesn't want you to read this," that I would hear from one particular group that would be especially irked to find certain Jewish practices described in a family newspaper. Not anti-Semites or fundamentalists, not nationalists or dyed-in-the-wool haters.
     No, I knew, with certainty, that the most hostile, offended, cringingly awful responses would be from my coreligionists, my fellow Jews, dwarfing whatever the iron-ribbed haters had to say. And I was right. They sounded several common themes that were both shocking and, once grasped, completely expected.
     Several claimed that my not going to temple on Yom Kippur complicates their own observation of the holiday.
     "You make it harder for others to take time off, which people expect Jews to do, which many people think should happen," wrote MG. As if it were my job to stand behind him, nodding, adding moral support to his vacation requests.
     Even when readers do exactly what I do, they bristled at the idea of admitting it in public. A shanda fur die goyim, as they say in Yiddish. Embarrassment before gentiles. "Though I'm Jewish, I'm not overly observant," wrote AC, which you'd think would put him in my camp. "But, I do not believe that this is something that should be shared with the gentile world."
     Why? He shared a confounding misapprehension, one that I hear repeated again and again from fearful Jews, despite being completely untrue: that anything not showing Judaism in the most sparkling light is ammunition for haters who, in a weird and pathetic inversion of what is actually going on, are actually judging Jews based on our current actions, as opposed to condemning us out of the gate based on ancient, inviolable hatred. Anti-semitism if a contest, a game we are losing due to our own poor play, but might yet somehow win, if we try hard enough. Not realizing this isn't the case, my fellow Jews seem to think that if only we stand up straight and do our level best, why, then maybe those haters might grow to love us.

     "You and I both know that antisemitism is on the rise," AC continued. "Jewish people should not give what my grandparents called 'Jew Haters' additional grist for their foul mills."
     The Nazis are suddenly our moral pole star, and we should do our best to impress them favorably.
     I could share more. But I want to get to the prize of this week's haul, and since it is long—I initially couldn't read it all—I will have it be my final example of the form. You do know who sent the most tone-deaf, prolix, sententious reply of them all? Think hard. What sort of person? Hint: it's a learned profession. You know when the word "response" is in the subject line, it's time to strap in, lean forward and get into the crash position, with hands laced around the back of your head. Ready?

     "A Rabbi's response to your column of September 17."

Dear Mr Steinberg
     I am a long time reader, so I send this e-mail knowing that I might possibly be held up for ridicule and with little hope that you might take me seriously, for while you are so often spot on with your observations, when it comes to Judaism, well, I wish you wouldn't say anything, because your hostility towards your tradition, my beloved tradition blasts as loud as the Shofar and I so do not understand where you are coming from.
     I just finished a marathon of services and dvrei Torah, words of Torah, that have been gestating in my heart and mind since last yontiv, in one of the most difficult years of our lives and to have this time of profound introspection, this time of personal work, this time of reaching inside to do more, to do better, dismissed as "a smokescreen-everybody else does and grabbed a day off" truly is a mortal wound. And this is why:
     I was born to Jewish parents, with a Jewish identity that mostly consisted of knowing what Jews don't do (much like your pork analogy) and very little about what Jews do, and not receiving any Jewish education, I shared much of your dismissiveness. I am an RN, worked Chicago metro area emergency rooms for 25 years, and could have been quoted as saying, "I work Yom Kippur because my work is more important than services." And for sure, it was. However at some point my Jewish husband and I decided we should do better for our kids than we had and we joined a congregation. And with that relationship came an opportunity to learn Judaism as an adult, not some pediatric version.
     I will spare you my biography other than to say, once I began to learn, suspending my preconceived notions of Judaism, our tradition seduced me. And the more I learned, the more I began to understand my life and my purpose based on a single idea: Existence is not a happy accident, and that there is a creative force/energy, whatever... call it God or the Big Bang, it doesn't matter to me and I don't have the brain to understand. But what I do understand is that  I am connected to a people, who have for 4000 years undertaken a promise and relationship with that creative energy for the purpose of the ongoing act of creation.
     And the only way I could begin to understand Judaism was to learn and I am not talking about the miserable Hebrew School experience that is probably the foundation for your disdain of your tradition, but real adult learning.
     And that is what I want to say to you: Could you please actually learn something about Judaism, and while I have attached my Kol Nidre Sermon to better illustrate what I am saying, learn beyond a random sermon from a live stream video? I would be happy to recommend some books, but even better, take a Melton Class or some of the many learning opportunities that abound in the Chicago area, if you need help finding something, count on me.Then, if you continue to have such contempt for a tradition that I consider a treasure, have at it and I will avoid those columns. But enough of our world hates the Jews and we are far from perfect, we need a lot of work but when we hate on ourselves, well it breaks my heart, not just for the Jews, but for you Neil. Do not let your prejudice blind you and be an obstacle for growth but at the very least, could you stop sharing that prejudice with the rest of the world? It does not further the ongoing act of creation.
     G'mar Chatima Tovah, may you be sealed for a good year, a year of health, good deeds and better understanding.
     Rabbi Marcey Rosenbaum
     I wanted to just shrug and move on without a word. But I felt silence implied surrender, and some response was in order. I ended up with what I thought was a moderate, perhaps even gentle reply:
Dear Rabbi Rosenbaum:
     Allow me to summarize: You used to work Yom Kippur, then had a change of heart, and now view those who do what you yourself did as somehow showing "contempt" for our religion, which you would like to educate me about, though you doubt I will take anything you say seriously, adding as a persuasive flourish in closing that I need to "learn something about Judaism" through the source of Jewish knowledge that is embodied in yourself and your work.
     Have I summarized your message accurately? Having done so, I will cough into my fist once—ahem—and bid you a good day. Thank you for writing.
     No reply of course. Which I suppose, under the circumstances, can be viewed as a kindness. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Ravenswood notes: Better Jesus people

     Today's report from Ravenswood Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey dredged up a memory of some 35 years ago. My brother lived in Japan, and since calling long distance cost $1 a minute, we would mail micro-cassettes to each other. In one, he said how he was heading to a gyoza shop, ordering gyoza, eating gyoza. Listening in—this was the mid-1980s, I kept wondering, "What's gyoza?" (Japanese dumplings, for those as clueless as I was). Anyway, I had a similar lone lingering question reading Caren's piece—let's see if you guess what it is—one that I resolve afterward. Enjoy.

     “Stop barking Charles! Charles!” The couple on the patio next to me at Frasca was fervently talking to their phone screen. It seemed odd at first, then I realized they were using a doggy cam to to spy on their pooch. Charles was not behaving, guessing by the continued admonishments coming from his humans.  
     I giggled. Dogs are such delightful creatures. Poor Charles, stuck at home alone while his humans tried to enjoy a quiet date night. How dare they? Doggy stalking is not new but seems much more popular these days. Friends are forever mentioning that they are hopping online to see what their dogs in daycare are up to. (I wonder how the human caretakers feel about being watched all day)?
     About ten years ago my technologically savvy sister and her husband rigged up a camera to confirm their suspicions about their crafty canine. Sure enough, the footage revealed that Ms. Clytie, a regal apricot standard poodle, would jump onto the comfy couch the moment her humans left the house.
     I respected her more after that.
     A few minutes after the Charles FaceTime exchange at Frasca, I noticed that the gentleman had disappeared. He returned with their pleased pooch in tow. Turns out this couple and their four-legged friend lived close by. Dan, Charles’ human dad, had gone home to relieve their neighbors of his incessant barking and give Charles what he wanted. To be joined at the hip with his humans. Naturally. He’s not afraid to admit it.
     When Dan returned with Charles I could not resist saying hi to the caramel colored wavy haired Labradoodle, and giving him a pat. I’m partial to all versions of poodles having grown up with Felix, a black standard, (though I have to admit I am not informed about the ins and outs of breeding).
     Thanks to Charles I also met his sweet mom Angela. Angela, Dan and I chatted a bit— the usual anti vaxxers driving us crazy small talk specific to our new world. This led to the fact that at least here in Chicago I have not (yet) been blatantly harassed for wearing a mask, such as the time a man biked up to me and sneezed in my face back in Austin Texas last summer
     I’ve been thinking a lot about Austin lately. The heat index is over 100 degrees most days this time of year. Here in Chicago I can’t go a day without someone saying “summer is over” or “I see you are enjoying this summer-like day.” I resisted pointing out that it's still summer. (Just as I typed that last sentence from the patio of Uncommon Ground, my waiter came over to inform me they will be working on their winter menu soon).
     I do my best to turn the volume down on what might happen later this year (perhaps a blizzard? A polar vortex?) and instead I choose to get outside every single day and experience what is happening. I hope to report to you all winter long from hikes in the snow with and without snowshoes and cross country skis, and I promise to provide photos of the snow people I build.
     I’ve been having a rough month. Crashing from the big move in May, two of three dental surgeries under my belt as of this week, and bone deep fatigue I can't seem to shake. My client caseload is exploding, which I am grateful for, but it also shows the level of emotional pain so many of us are in.
     I miss the hills and the twisty live oaks covered with moss all over Austin. The rambling walkabouts I was able to enjoy when I had very few demands upon my time last year.
     Now that I am back in Chicago I can’t keep up with social invitations. I’m grateful to have friends and family to commune with, but I don't have the energy to handle all of it. I'd become quite comfortable meeting my inner self more deeply, and spending most of my time alone. I usually say yes though, since life is precious and I don't want to have any regrets.
     The best part of being back is being surrounded by kindred spirits. I don’t have to hide that I am an atheist, or fear being judged by my beliefs. I don’t have to justify wearing the beautiful Black Lives Matter t-shirt my friend Ben Blount created. Many of my friends, family, and clients are highly religious but I have not been evangelized to once since I’ve been back and I feel there is more room for everyone here. Not so in the South. Not even Austin.
     As I talked about some of this with my patio companions at Frasca the other night, Angela joked that we have "better Jesus people" here. I couldn’t agree more. We have better female reproductive rights people here. We have better chivalry-isn’t-dead-but-misogyny-is people here. We have better pizza, a fabulous lake, and most importantly we have basic Chicago dogs like Charles and his cool folks to help us keep it real.

     I was left wondering about the restaurant. To learn more about Frasca Pizzeria and Wine Bar, click here.

Friday, September 17, 2021

God doesn’t want you to read this

     While this column generally focuses on weighty public issues, it sometimes lets slip a personal detail like, “I was eating a pork chop the other day...” This invariably inspires a reader to object: “PORK CHOP!?!? I thought you were JEWISH!!!”
     This is what I call a “self-reveal.” They’re carrying around this cliched notion of what being Jewish means, and a pork chop has no place on their dance card. Rather than reevaluate their obviously mistaken belief in light of new information — who does that? — they find it easier to try to hoot down the contrary fact.
     It doesn’t offend me. Little does. There’s a lot of stupid in the world, and I’m not in charge of stamping it out. I’m not even sure where on the scale of offensiveness this would go. Something less idiotic than saying, “If you’re Native American, where’s your horse?” though worse than assuming that someone whose parents are from Mexico must speak Spanish.
     A pork chop doesn’t represent much of a slide from my upbringing. My mother never prepared pork in our house. But she served bacon. Her idiosyncratic personal theology saw a difference between the two, one not actually found in the strictures of Judaism, where a pig’s a pig. What part you eat isn’t the issue.
     Why shouldn’t she? Given all the contradictory nonsense that organized religion imposes upon our supposedly modern world, it seems only fair that individual participants get to inject a few irrationalities of their own. Fun for everybody.
     So yes, I’m writing this on Yom Kippur. I used to go to synagogue, back in the day. It wasn’t bad. Long. I liked the chest-pounding. You hear about chest-pounding, but how often do you actually have a chance to do it? Though the service did drag on and I was glad to shuck it. Frankly, when my boss asked “Are you writing for Friday?” my first thought was he didn’t realize the project I’d been working on that kept me from being in the paper Monday and Wednesday was done. Then I thought it could be a nicer version of the pork chop question. “Aren’t you busy praying?” Umm, no. Had I been more nimble-minded, I would have happily used my religion as a smokescreen — everybody else does — and grabbed an extra day off. But honesty is my default, and I said I’d write something. This, apparently.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Norm Macdonald passes quietly


     Norm Macdonald's death was notable for two reasons.
     To me, I mean. You might have a third or fourth, or, heck, as many aspects of interest in the passing of the Canadian comedian as you feel are...
     Start again.
     First, the Saturday Night Live comic's death Tuesday, though at a relatively young 61 (youngish, at least, to a guy who is himself 61) was not met with the usual ululations of outsized grief that meet celebrity deaths online. "The Full Diana" I've dubbed it. Maybe because he's firmly planted in the secondary or even tertiary strata of celebrity: no Chevy Chase, no Adam Sandler he. No one claiming how their week is ruined, a chapter of their lives clanging to a close. People who knew him were sad, as is appropriate.
     Or heck, maybe there was and I missed it: it wasn't as if I looked. But we've become comfortable with puffing our limited perceptions into general conditions, through the magic of assumption, so why should I do otherwise?
     And second, and this is the reason I'm writing this, Macdonald made the unusual decision to keep his cancer, which he fought for the past nine years, "largely private." This tacks against the general current of contemporary social behavior. We live in a time when nobody can have a wart burned off without posting photos of the wart on Facebook, plus the bloody gauze dressing and maybe a selfie in a hospital bed. Those selfies are extremely unflattering, inevitably. Somebody should tell them. I'd sooner post a snap of the contents of a bedpan than post a hospital selfie. 
     In a rare inversion, celebrities seem to manage their privacy better than supposedly private persons do. I don't see photos of J Lo in the hospital for a high colonic. Maybe their professional communications staffs help them in this regard.
     Mind you, I am aware that I am the fellow who documented his own medical states, from rehab to spine surgery to sleep apnea. I did so, not out of a particular impulse to overshare, I hope, but because the processes were interesting, to me, and I was confident that I could convey them in such a way as to be interesting to others too. At least to the admittedly select group of people who are interested in anything I have to say on any topic. I'm not against sharing, per se. I admire how Roger Ebert coped with his disfigurement due to salivary duct cancer by writing about it, and even permitting Esquire to run a full face portrait of himself, his jaw proudly reduced.
     But I also admire Macdonald for choosing to do his dying in private. There is a dignity and maturity to that which I believe cannot be matched by tweeting out your death rattle. Perhaps that is old-fashioned of me—I am, as I said, 61. The idea, as laid out in Dave Eggers "The Circle" of abandoning your privacy entirely and expecting every outing and event and visit to a clinic to be shared is fairly terrifying.
     Maybe the key is curation. Ivan Albright painted self-portraits of himself as he died, and those hang in the Art Institute, sometimes. If, when my time comes, I'm still doing this (please God no) and I decide to livestream my demise, senilely mistaking momentary morbid interest for the audience that has eluded me up to that point ("Look! 16,000 hits! Top of the world, ma!") well, don't link back to this as proof of hypocrisy. Or do, it won't matter at that point. By then hypocrisy will be the water in which we all swim, assuming it isn't already.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Regarding a new and more efficient process for dealing with the mouse problem.

     Our house has mice. Every now and then we can hear them, at night. A quick patter of invisible feet in the attic above our heads, a gentle drumbeat rousing me to action.
     When we first moved in, 21 years ago, I'd set mousetraps in the basement. The kind set on a small rectangle of cheap wood, where you'd place a square of cheese on a yellow plastic trigger, carefully pull back the metal bar, set it with a wire, then delicately place the trap,  your fingers placed out of harm's way, on some flat surface where a mouse might find it.   
     But those traps had significant disadvantages. I never caught my finger in one, but the risk was always there in that set spring, that straining bundle of potential energy. Sometimes they'd sit there for weeks, the cheese drying out, disquietingly. Other times you'd find them, face down on the floor, a tell-tale tail protruding from underneath. Maybe even a rivulet of deep crimson blood. That felt very cruel. You had to look: the crushed mouse head, the bar embedded in its skull, the snout just beyond the cheese that lured it to its death. Cheese it would never now eat. I'd cringingly, though not without a trace of satisfaction, drop the fatal duo, trap and victim, in a bag and go throw the bag directly outside in the garbage, as if the wee timorous mouse corpsie couldn't be allowed to remain in the house.     
     About 10, 15 years ago I abandoned the wooden trap system, and went for the big guns. A five gallon bucket of Blox mouse poison. It had the great advantage of not having to be set like the wood trap. Nor were there victims to deal with; the poisoned mice seek water, supposedly, and go off to some unseen place to die. Instead, there were these little triangular black plastic traps, designed to contain the poison and keep any prying cat or child from getting to it. Originally there was an odd metal key that pried the trap lids open, but that was lost long ago, and I learned a flat head screwdriver would do in a pinch. I would slip on latex gloves to handle the poison, which felt like a prissy bit of excess caution, but there you are.
     The Blox came with three traps. I'd put one in the garage, at the base of the back wall, which was simple enough. One in a hole in the brick wall in the basement, and one in the attic, accessed through a small metal trap door
 in our bathroom ceiling. That was the hardest part of the whole process, opening that metal door above my head, as mice would congregate there, eating the poison, and leave behind small hard black oval droppings. If you weren't careful, you'd open he metal door, above your head, and receive a baptism of mouse droppings. But that only has to happen once. Twice at the most. And I open the door slowly, holding a garbage bag under it as I did. Three times, tops, before I got the message. Lead with the bag.
     So this is the process. I would remove the trap from the basement wall, fill it and return it to its niche. Then I would go upstairs with a stepladder, climb up, gingerly, if not slowly, open the door, leading with the bag, remove that trap, go down two flights of stairs into the basement, fill that trap, then go back up two flights, return it, close the little door, sweep up the mouse droppings that fell onto the sink and floor anyway despite my best efforts to catch them in the garbage bag, and call it a day for another six months.
     But here came the epiphany. Almost two weeks ago, I removed the trap from the basement wall, and was filling it, when I thought: Hey! If I took this upstairs, and swapped it with the trap upstairs, first, it would save me the journey down with the empty trap. I could remove this from the basement niche, fill it, go upstairs with the filled trap, climb the stepladder, reluctantly open the metal door so as not to get a face full of mouse poop, remove the empty trap, put this full one in, then return downstairs with the upstairs trap, fill it, and put it in the niche in the basement, thus saving a trip up and down the stairs.     
     Have I explained that clearly? I hope so. And yes, I understand that the destination of today's column is hardly worth the effort of getting there, assuming I have, and I'm not sure about that. But the truth is, it was a long day yesterday, finishing this big project for the paper which turned out to be due weeks earlier than I imagined it would be, requiring a big push to complete, leaving me fairly well sapped at the end of the day. Now it's ... ah ... 3:50 a.m., and I've gotten up to write something for you, because that's the kind of responsible person I am, and the mouse trap situation presented itself, since it seemed a good idea as it was unfolding, and I took out my iPhone and snapped a couple pictures, leaving them like bread crumbs to lead me to the topic, for good or ill.
     So no, not how Lori Lightfoot should cure violence—no friggin' idea, start with curbing guns, then creating jobs and do everything in between. But you don't need me to tell you that and, besides, I've said it before, repeatedly, for years. While this is something new and, as the great Brendan Behan said, a change is as good as a rest. With the mouse poison, there was a certain joy in figuring out a more efficient process for doing something. It felt like progress of a sort. And we need all the joy we can get now, the murdered mice notwithstanding.
     And yes, I have sympathy for the mouse. If it weren't for that quick nocturnal scamper, I'd never think to kill them. Live and let live. Big house, lots of voids and false walls and attic spaces. You stick to your realm, we'll stick to ours. But one mouse then two then 20, and we can't have that. Nature is cruel; I didn't invent it, just trying to live in it. Besides, they don't  stick to their realm, whatever mouseworld exists in the unseen hollows of the house, with little easy chairs made of fabric scraps and tiny reading lights and broadloom rugs on the floor. Oh no. Occasionally they will get into the larder, or nibble into a bag of bread left on the kitchen counter. Bold, unprovoked vandalism of bun bags, clumsy thefts that can't be ignored. They're criminals, these mice, and deserve what they get. If you disagree with that, well, there's the comments section below. Now I'm going back to bed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Waiting is undervalued

     It might come as a surprise, but I DO have standards. Occasionally, I will write something, then squint at it, and think, "No. Not that. That just will not do." I don't delete the draft, however. It sits there, waiting for a moment like now, when need lowers the bar. Whoops, I mean when the situation changes. A long day Monday beavering away at a project for the paper. So that now there's no bullet in the chamber, no gas in the tank. But this, from the end of July, just sitting there. Not much, perhaps, but it'll have to do.

     Sometimes you just have to wait.
     While I am not in the business of offering canned life advice, the truth of that struck me anew Wednesday morning. I was suffering through a work situation too trivial to be worth recounting. I knew in a few hours it would be completely resolved, and it was.
     At the same time, I looked at the photo atop my blog, and it was especially blurred. A few weeks ago, Blogger suddenly stopped allowing me to post a photo behind my blog title. I went on-line, searching for a fix, and it turned out that in reconfiguring itself to better appear on phones, Blogger had made it so any photo posted with the heading would be small and off to the side.
     I was surprised at how irked I was, and tried all sorts of fixes, including manipulating the HTML code directly, which is the computer version of trying to cure a headache by trepanning, particularly when you don't know what you're doing.
     The best I could come up with is posting the photo under the heading, though it was slightly blurred. This, the online chatterverse assured me, was another bug.
The past returned
     A few weeks went by. Then Wednesday I pulled the blurry photo down, and tried the photo behind the heading, which hadn't worked when attempted a dozen times before. This time it did work. I have no idea why. My assumption is that either Blogger healed, or someone there harkened to the cries of pain online and fixed it.
     I also learned something about myself. Judging from the bubble of honeyed happiness that rose within me to see the old way regained, I must like this blog a whole lot more than the woe-is-me-how-can-I-go-on? annual assessment I give at the end of June. Because it felt great to see its Georgia serif type set out against a photo once again. I doubt any readers will notice. But I sure noticed, and was glad, and all I had to do was wait.