Thursday, January 27, 2022

I hope your mother is okay.


     I try to be the person I wish other people were.
     But it doesn't always work.
     Sometimes it seems to never work.
     For instance.
     New neighbors moved in on our block. I'd better not say exactly where. People who don't care at all about their behavior seem to still care about publicizing that behavior. The embarrassment, I suppose, from caring what people think about you in general, as opposed to what any specific person thinks. There's a lot of that going around.
     So let's say, they moved to a place within sight of our house, and leave it at that.
     "I should bake them a pie," I said, to my wife. An old half joke. When we moved here, 21 years ago, well, it took a bit of time to get to know folks on the block. Whenever the doorbell rang, I'd say, "It must be one of the neighbors, bringing over a pie." It wasn't.
     So I try to welcome new neighbors. Not with a pie. I've never baked a pie in my life. But with a plate of cookies, something. To show up and say hello. I assume they appreciate it, because I sure would have. 
     But maybe I'm wrong.
     I decided on a gift box from Misericordia, full of cookies and sweet breads. They have a bakery in Glenview. I wasn't sure anybody would be home, so took a Sharpie and wrote, "Welcome to the neighborhood! The Steinbergs" on the box lid. Planning ahead. I strolled over and stood in front of the side door; for some reason, it looked like one of those houses where nobody uses the front door. I knocked.
     There was a wait. I stood there. Finally, a man about my age came to the door, holding a cell phone at his ear.
     "I'm on the phone!" he said, with asperity. I could see that.
     What do you do at that point? Apologize and promise to come back later? The box was in my hands. I blundered forward.
     "Hello, I'm Neil Steinberg," I said, brightly. "I just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood." I raised the box, as if to draw attention to it.
     He opened the door and took the baked goods.
     "If you ever need help with anything, I live right across the ..." I continued.
     "Thank you," he said, and shut the door.
      He never even said his name, a fact that echoed in my head as I walked away.
      I don't think I can describe how the encounter took the wind out of my sails. How to describe it? Semi-amused, semi-desolate. Because of course, this is how people are.  Sometimes, I feel like my whole life has been like this. Scraping my fingers across the brick wall of other people. Not to make it all about me. Maybe it was a really important phone call. That must be it. To a doctor, regarding his mother's fragile health. A surgeon, a specialist, hard to reach, on the phone now, discussing options for her care. Yes, that must be it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

‘Half the way to rehabilitation’

     There is a poem by Robert Lowell, “Epilogue,” where something has gone wrong with his writing.
     “Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme,” it begins, “why are they no help to me now”?
     The problem, he explains, is, “sometimes everything I write/with the threadbare art of my eye/seems a snapshot/lurid, rapid, garish, grouped.”
     Midway, the path out hits him, an epiphany, a knife cutting through the confusing clutter.
     “Yet why not say what happened?”
     Clarity. Just tell the truth. Why not? It really does set you free. The Jussie Smollett calliope wheezed to life Tuesday when his attorney confirmed the former “Empire” actor will be sentenced March 10 — moving the actor, found guilty by a jury and the court of common sense of staging a racist attack against himself, toward eventually receiving some kind of punishment. A sharp tap on the wrist, no doubt.
     But how sharp? I had this fantasy of the judge brandishing two sealed envelopes, saying: “Explain right now exactly what occurred, and I’ll give you sentence A. Keep up the charade, and you get B. Your choice.”
     Which made me wonder: Why do convicted criminals sometimes get a break if they admit their crime, even after refusing to do so at trial? Why reward tardy contrition? What’s the logic behind it? The crime is the same, whether you admit it or not.
     “So they won’t recommit the same kind of crime. Sentencing is not supposed to be for punishing, but mostly for rehabilitation,” said Howard J. Wise, noted Chicago criminal defense attorney. “If people admit they’re guilty, that’s half the way to rehabilitation. They give them credit for that, and a lighter sentence.”
     “The judge must take in several factors,” said Kevin P. Bolger, former Chicago police officer, former Cook County prosecutor, and defense attorney for over 40 years. “One factor is acceptance of responsibility. Contriteness. That goes a long way in the judge’s mind.”

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

"Jesus of Western Avenue"

     What is art? I used to have a little pat definition I liked to trot out: that art is something extraordinary in execution, concept, or impact. Both a John Singer Sargent painting and a bobblehead doll are portraits. But the first is art while the latter is kitsch because of Sargent's gorgeous technique. It isn't what he does—convey the human image—but how he does it.
     For the second, concept, consider Duchamp's "Fountain"—a urinal presented as art in 1917. That is also art, while an actual urinal in a restroom is not, because of the radical idea behind Duchamps provocation (that anything can be art, ironically).
     As for the last, impact, think of Christo's "Running Fence." I can't vouch for the execution, the skill with which he draped the orange fabric. And it was the same idea he had been flogging for 50 years: wrap something. 
     But to see it, in Central Park, was powerful. That's also art.
     When I went to the opening of Tony Fitzpatrick's show "Jesus of Western Avenue" at the Cleve Carney Museum in Glen Ellyn, way back in the middle of October, a fourth definition came to me.
Tony Fitzpatrick
     Which is ironic, because I really didn't go for the paintings/drawings/ collages, fabulous as they are, with their colorful birds set against explosions of words and logos and tidbits, like a cloud of memories scattershot out of Tony's restless mind. I've seen those, at other galleries, heck, in Tony's studio, being made. I went because he's a friend, and friends show up for that kind of thing.
     It was only looking at the paintings in the museum that something struck me. You kinda have to be here, in front of the work. They just aren't the same in reproduction.  The colors are the same. The images, the same. But in reproduction they lack the depth—part of his designs are ephemera, logos and bits of found design, layered upon the surface. Reproductions are close, but no cigar.
     So that's another definition of art: something that can't be reproduced, not without losing a vital quality. You've no doubt seen bits of Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—God touching Adam's finger maybe. Photos. But unless you fly to Rome, go to the Vatican, shuffle into the Sistine Chapel and look up, you really haven't seen it. Not at all. To compare the two, is like comparing a recipe to a sonnet.
     Not that I'm comparing Michelangelo with Tony Fitzpatrick: Tony would be the first to shoot me a what-the-fuck? glance for that. Though Tony was very busy during COVID, despite some health concerns of his own, and the good news is the work isn't any the worse for it. If anything, it's better, more luminous, more stunning. I meant to write something about it, but the media jumped in quicker than I could, and there didn't seem much point in my leaping up and joining in the applause. 
     But the show closes Jan. 31. So you've got a few days still. And Tony says it's his last museum show, though I'm not sure I believe him. "You mean when the Art Institute asks, you'll say 'No'?" is how I put it. Better late than never. I do have a duty, as a reporter, in my alert-people-to-stuff mode, that it's still up, and if you haven't seen it, and can go, you might want to. Because seeing it reproduced isn't the same.

Monday, January 24, 2022

‘The need gets larger and larger’

Night Ministry case worker Sylvia Hibbard checks on homeless clients.

     Two weeks ago, after our Roseland story ran, photographer Ashlee Rezin called me. "It's cold outside," she said. "Let me make a call," I replied, and phoned the Night Ministry. "I've written about your medical bus, your street medicine team, your CTA outreach, your Crib shelter. What else have you got?" This story is the result.

     Wednesday, 9:17 a.m., 21 degrees. The Night Ministry street medicine van is about to set out from its Ashland Avenue headquarters.
     Once the two staffers inside figure out where they’re going on their rounds.
     “We have a client who had an encounter with a bus — the bus won,” explains case manager Sylvia Hibbard, who’s in the driver’s seat. The homeless man with a cast on his foot is first stop on the list that senior nurse practitioner Stephan Koruba makes, taking calls, jotting notes on a clipboard.
     “We’re missing an outreach worker who normally drives, answers the phone, plans the route and does needle exchange,” Koruba says. “We have a reduced presence due to COVID. We’re struggling a little bit.”
     So those duties are now theirs, the missing worker one tiny twist of the vise that is slowly crushing frontline social service agencies at the beginning of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
     On one side, the pressure of ever-rising need.
     “We’ve seen families coming to us for the very first time who have never had to ask for help before and now have to,” says Xavier Montenegro, divisional secretary for programs at the Salvation Army, metropolitan division. 
     “There have been a significant increase in the number of youth reaching out to us under the age of 12, down to age 8, a 53% increase in 2020,” says Susan Frankel, CEO of the National Runaway Safeline. “It’s indirectly or directly COVID-related.”
     “COVID threw us all a curveball,” says Kristina Lowenstein, executive director of the Honeycomb Project, which supports charitable organizations. “Nonprofits have seen ballooning demand. Food pantries seeing 300, 400% increases in folks looking for their services.”
     On the other side, decimated, weary staffs. The Runaway Safeline pairs help with desperate teens and children anywhere in the country who call any time day or night, so they have a granular sense of both the rising nationwide demand and overtaxed available resources.
     “Your pool of services and supporters continues to get smaller and smaller,” Frankel says, “while the need gets larger and larger.”
     Agency staffers are exhausted from two years in full crisis mode, increasingly sick themselves, thanks to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Some simply quit, leaving their organizations scrambling.
     “The Catholic Charities staff is resilient, off the charts. I’m in awe of our people,” says Ami Novoryta, chief program officer for the archdiocese’s network serving hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans. “But they are tired and need help. We need staff. We need help.”

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Sunday, January 23, 2022

The puppetry of disappointment


      The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival has put on some fine performances. But Thursday's opening night of their 2022 season at the Museum of Contemporary Art was not among them. As it unfolded, I passed the time by puzzling how something produced by so many adults—10 on stage, by my count, with no doubt more behind the scenes—could so consistently fall flat, hitting that sweet spot of mediocrity where it isn't so bad as to be awful and maybe even camp and thus nearly enjoyable, yet not skilled enough in concept or execution to quality as professional entertainment. The dancing was clunky, the songs forgettable, and while there were several quite lovely voices, harmonies were nonexistent. The thing had the flimsiest narrative thread: a ship and the sea, a crew and onions. The puppets—a large whale, a mermaid, a moon—were well-made, and handled competently enough. Nobody dropped one. Someone played a fiddle.
     There was a pair of exquisite illuminated jellyfish puppets—their presence, the highlight of the show, a hint of what might have been had anyone applied rigor—and halfway through I decided that it was amateurish enough that any kind of specific criticism would be futile, maybe even cruel, which is why I'm not naming the company. I'm sure they're all fine people, with loving families and personal feelings, proud of their endeavor, and I have no desire to hurt them. Maybe they'll improve.
     Or is that the racism of low expectations? A lower bar based on the degraded status of puppetry? Or even condescending sexism? It appeared to be an all-female cast, and to suggest that they are thus somehow freed from the obligation to put on a competent show for patrons paying money in a downtown theater .... that isn't fair to everyone else. No. Shouldn't they be held to the same standards? And what about the audience? Aren't patrons of their art entitled to both form opinions based on their work and to express them? To urge them to do better? Out of respect for every street corner theater that does manage to produce something worth watching? So yes, it was Chicago's own Cabinet of Curiosity, performing "Sea Change," described in their materials as "their celebrated outdoor exploration of the power of the sea and the feminine divine." Celebrated? Truly? 
Maybe I caught them on an off night, then.
     There certainly could be something here. A kind of rollicking "SpongeBob" cabaret of lost sailors invoking an indifferent, maybe non-existent God. The big whale could have done something beside circling the stage, crying for Charlie. These seem to be different vignettes written by different authors. Maybe something more unifying than a bawdy cook braying at the audience about onions. Maybe they just needed to refine the thing. Try harder.
     I did wonder how the puppet theater festival could commence on such a slapdash fashion—if they actually hope to insinuate themselves into the cultural life of Chicago, as their founder claimed to me, they'll have to do better than this. The Great Chicago Fire Festival also had big aspirations (and also came from the puppetry world) but they too could not stick their landing and lasted two years. This was as soggy as a barge in the middle of the Chicago River in the rain.
     I considered leaving halfway through the performance—it was that bad—but we were sitting in the middle of our row, and I knew the show was only an hour. Maybe that's the line they could pull as a promotional quote: "Cabinet of Curiosity offers a thought-provoking hour of song and dance, every minute fully-felt, culminating in a disquisition of the difficulty of putting on a coherent performance that will linger with the audience long after the last skeleton fish puppet has fluttered offstage." Having endured two years of pandemic, I knew I could get through this and, frankly, toward the end of the performance, the idea of being homebound with no live entertainment options suddenly seemed a Lost Eden.
      The only line that I jotted down was one of the closing lyrics, "We are not ashamed," which might neatly explain how this show came to be—and why coughing into my fist and passing in silence would not really be a kindness, would do nobody any favors. A functioning sense of embarrassment is essential for performers to keep themselves from being blinded by their self-assigned sense of the  divine and thus able to disgorge such unpolished stuff before a discerning Chicago audience: whom, I should add, seemed thoroughly satisfied, applauding and cheering. "It's cool!" said a young woman in front of me. Maybe the internet has so eroded young minds that seeing living people going through actual motions on a physical stage is enough.
      Maybe I'm just not the target audience. I should leave the door open to the idea that perhaps being a male in my early 60s, my senses dulled by decades of performances that were not sunk into coffeehouse mediocrity, that I missed the studied charm of the thing, that what I mistook as artless was in fact intentional, some kind of dada parody of a production, a carefully crafted confusion specifically designed to discomfit snobs like myself who insist that skill and intelligence animate a performance. I suppose that's possible.
     And truth be told, the show's blend of simplistic and incomprehensible did not dampen our moods. Halfway through, I locked eyes with my wife, and saw the same stunned look. I leaned in close to her ear. "Sorry," I breathed. But we were still out on the town, dinner—a block away, at the excellent Cafecito on Chestnut, was undiminished. She did not seem perturbed that I had dragged her here, dismissing the audience's enthusiasm as the delight of relatives and friends, plus assorted generous souls and those happy to see absolutely anything whatsoever transpire upon a stage.
     When the lights came up, and we broke for the exit like pearl divers reaching the surface, lungs burning for that first gulp of sweet air—in that way, the show did evoke the actual sea—my only goal was to flee without encountering anyone from the puppet festival. I made it to the lobby, but there was the executive director I had interviewed for my column Wednesday celebrating the festival before the fact. She planted herself in our path.
     "Well, off and running!" I said, hoping that would suffice.
     "What did you think of it?" she asked directly. I hesitated. 
     "Sincere," I said, nodding meaningfully, hoping I had found a word both true and inoffensive. She seemed satisfied.
     "Yes, it was earnest," she agreed. If only that were enough.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Ravenswood Notes: Five Years North

     Poetry is the fire axe behind glass, the bottle of water in your backpack, the thing you reach for when you need to reach for something, and I was glad to see Caren Jeskey bookend her Saturday essay with a pair of powerful poems.

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

—Robert Frost

     Skeins of unwoven yarn and instruments unplayed pepper the corners and gather dust on the shelves of our pandemic homes. After a few months of learning chords, a guitar hangs unplayed behind a friend as we Zoom. She guiltily explains that she stopped playing after a few months of lessons. Others mention undone projects that fizzled out. Unused packets of bread making yeast are being frantically given away in neighborhood sharing groups before they expire. Indoor gardeners are pawning off a preponderance of aloe pups and clippings from prolific Wandering Dudes.
     Folks are afraid to tell their friends, when asked, “I laid in bed and watched Netflix for four hours,” or “I scrolled Facebook for most of the morning," or “I ate three bowls of cereal and went to sleep.” However, they will proudly share if they spent a couple hours reading an actual book or another “worthy” endeavor. They feel ashamed at their lack of productivity and as though are being scrutinized by social media or another eye in the sky at all times, won’t often share about the amount of time spent vegging out or simply resting.
     I heard on NPR the other day that during the Great Depression, Americans were urged to take up hobbies. This was partly classist. It’s hard to take up a hobby when waiting in breadlines and coming home to hungry babies, not to mention little to no means for crafting, cooking, or musical supplies.
     Hobbies are a good idea though. Not the kind you spend too much money on and never touch again after the initial good intentions and energy. Baby steps are fine too. A hobby can be cloud gazing. Counting the different kinds of mullions you see on a brisk winter walk, on a bus or train, or in the passenger’s seat of a car. Meditating. Just stopping.
     After days of isolation mostly indoors save the occasional walk, due to an avalanche of work and not enough sleep, I was overjoyed that I had to drive to Wilmette for an errand on Thursday. I took Sheridan Road and ogled the frozen white water at the bend by Calvary Cemetery. I kept within the 15-25 mph speed limit past stately houses and patches of lakefront, and felt soothed. When stressors tried to creep back in, the freedom of driving on a sunny day brought me to the perfect moment.
     I curved around the magnificent form of the Baha'
i Temple and by then all of my mental clutter was gone. It was just me, my clean car—since we had stopped for a $3 wash—and a gorgeous 16 degree day, driver’s window down for some real sun rays. On the way back I stopped and contemplated the brilliant white iced-over lake from the deck of the Lighthouse Beach.
     We have learned that stressors of our world community can become a formless, faceless behemoth. Only the very privileged are less scathed by what’s happening down on the ground. The rental market is out of control. Everyone seems to have COVID (thank goodness, not me, but I can’t count the people in my life who do). Medical staff are quitting in droves and have been completely traumatized. Folks still don’t get it and continue to take risks. I get it, but it seems to speak to delusion, diagnosable folie à deux.
     On the up side, this could be a world war, and it’s not, even if it feels that way sometimes.
     I believe that finding oneself in this mess is the key. If we can do that, we can live more mindfully. We can accept our limitations and use our power to affect the changes that we can. I long for a world movement of refining our senses. Instead, I fear that the collective nightmare of this pandemic will end with us being in worse shape that we were before.
     This week I’ve had great challenges that might have completely robbed me of my peace in the past. What saved me was knowing that my inner partner was always there for me. She had my back. She reminded me that the only way out of a mess is to clear the clutter.
     On Wednesday night I took the time to watch a documentary film Five Years North about the journey of a young man named Luis. I knew I had to make this small effort (rather than my guilty pleasure Hulu show that makes me laugh my butt off) to remind me that the world is full of people who have much, much less than I do and I have to remember that in order to stay grateful for all I do have. To appreciate my life and my loved ones now. This is not a dress rehearsal.
     Luis was sixteen when he took the harrowing journey from his small Mayan village in Guatemala to New York City. He spent the next several years working from before dawn until well after dusk to pay his smugglers so that his family in Guatemala would not lose their home. It was more than $20,000. Then he stayed so that he could continue sending money home so his sisters could go to school. One washed dish at a time. He then became a line cook and moved up to being a chef. He may have prepared a meal for me or you one day when traveling was safe.
     Yes, the world is overpopulated. Yes, it’s a sacrifice to care for others.
     What is the purpose of being on this earth? The one good thing this pandemic has done for many of us is to reset and turn back to the simplest things in life. From a place of calm grounding we can move mountains if we try.
     While Ms. Plath in the words below does not seem to see her worth, I feel she cuts to the quick of the starkness of life. And death.

Poppies in October
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly —

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
            —Sylvia Plath

Friday, January 21, 2022

Don’t be afraid, it’s just public radio

I've been on WBEZ many times. You talk, the words go over the airwaves.
No non-profit police yank them back.

     When the idea of merging the Sun-Times with WBEZ — OK, we’re being given to them, but allow us a fig leaf of pride — was initially bandied about, my first impulse was to write something mocking the station, perhaps a parody of their membership pledge drives, a regular cup rattle that can send the most passionate National Public Radio listener lunging for the dial.
     But I never got beyond contemplation. Talk about an easy target; what I call a “duck in a bucket.” Imagine: the mallard placidly floating in the pail at your feet, quacking softly as you raise the shotgun. Where’s the challenge in that?
     With readers asking for my take, I remember how for decades I’ve fought my way to the WBEZ studios through the dense crowds packing Navy Pier — trying not to have an eye put out by a churro, reflecting glumly every time at how before the pier was renovated, I scoffed that anybody would go all the way out there. It became the most popular tourist attraction in Illinois. A prophet I am not.
     The folks at WBEZ always seem earnest, professional, young. True, they look at me like some mud-caked rhinoceros lumbering unexpectedly into the Botanic Garden’s annual orchid show. But that could be my own unease.
     Yes, I read the Tribune editorial, snapping open their lorgnette and examining the merger, umm, acquisition, tutting about election endorsements being scuttled by our non-profit status. Having spent five years on the editorial board, let me tell you, endorsements are a nightmare to produce, like running a geography bee over six counties. So now suburbanites will have to pay attention to their own local politics and come to their own conclusions. Or use the Democratic Party cheat sheet in the voting booth. Not the end of the world.
     Readers worry: Will I be muzzled? Will I start solemnly intoning about global warming, instead of my usual chirpy, trivial, out-of-the-blue, oh-my-God-I-can’t-stop-talking blabbery?
     I’m not concerned. The fear seems to be that nonprofits must be neutral. But consider how that plays out in reality. WBEZ is not some generic radio news ticker spewing anodyne information. Listen for 15 minutes and certain political shadings are easily detected. There is a particular worldview, a perspective, despite their non-profit status. WIND it is not.

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The tough part about going on WBEZ is fighting through the crowds at Navy Pier. Getting to the
station without gagging on the smell of honey roasted nuts or having your eye put out by a tourist's 
churro can be a challenge.