Monday, May 22, 2017

Federal judges lend helping hand to ex-cons

Federal Judge Sara L. Ellis, from left, Judge Susan E. Cox and Jennifer Colanese, a U.S. probation officer, review cases at a meeting of the intensive supervised re-entry program run by the U.S. District Court in Chicago. The program is designed to help ex-cons stay out of prison. 

     “How do you deal with life when it’s going well?” asked Judge Sara L. Ellis, airing the dilemma of one ex-con adapting to life on the outside. “There was a reduction in the chaos of his life that made him very uncomfortable.”
     She was addressing three fellow federal judges — Susan E. Cox, Sidney Schenkier and Chief Judge Ruben Castillo — plus three probation officers, two assistant U.S. attorneys, two federal defenders, and one drug treatment specialist.
     It was 9 a.m. Thursday. The group sat around a long table in Castillo’s spacious chambers on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building. The beginning of an extraordinary morning where, every two weeks, the vast, overcrowded, harried, understaffed, often-indifferent, reflexively punitive American legal system pauses for a few hours to turn careful attention to, on this day, 11 long-incarcerated ex-cons — armed robbers, drug dealers — who put their post-prison lives under the supervision of four federal judges.
     The group trades mundane minutia of fractured lives coming together.
     “But he has been writing his poetry . . . .”
     “Have him attend 30 meetings in 30 days . . . .”
     “He did attend counseling this month, group and individual . . . .”
     “He was supposed to meet with me, but didn’t show . . . .”

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Clothes make the man"

     As I mentioned a few years back, I spent a summer learning Latin with my older boy. One of the phrases ground into my mind, vestis virum reddit, was memorable because it was particularly difficult -- you trill "R"s Latin, as in Russian, and I've always struggled to get my mouth around that. 
     It was also a useful phrase, meaning, "clothes make the man." Though it seems no longer true nowadays, as workers troop downtown in flip flops and cargo shorts and the president wears the same tie, held in place with Scotch tape. Maybe it should be pecunia virum reddit, or "money makes the man." 
     But then there is no need to create a new aphorism, as there is already a very suitable line in Petronius' Satyricon, "sola pecunia regnat"—"money alone rules." That's all too true today.
     Getting back to clothes. vestis virum reddit — the "v" is pronounced like a "w," by the way: "westus wirum" — is s a medieval proverb. Erasamus put into Quintilian's mouth,* and many sources cite him. Even though what Quintilian actually writes, "To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority" referring, scholars believe, to a vague line in the Odyssey that doesn't mention clothes at all.
     A reminder that history tends to improve upon aphorisms. Leo Durocher didn't say, "Nice guys finish last." He ranted about nice guys ending up in seventh place and helpful sports writers did the rest.  
    I recount this because the New York Times web site on Saturday offered content "Paid for and Posted by" Will, a new TNT series, or rather whatever PR sorts TNT hired to cobble together "Turns of Phrase," a colorful, flashy, but flawed collection of seven "phrases that first appeared in Shakespeare's works and continue to resonate in modern times." 
     The third phrase is "Clothes make the man," which is odd, because the phrase neither appears in Shakespeare nor resonates in modern times. The line the PR puffery cites is "the apparel oft proclaims the man," in Hamlet, noting it was considered ironic even then.  
     An advertisement, I know. No point in complaining to the Times, which didn't write it, and TNT obviously doesn't care—their point is to publicize their TV show, which they've done, and in that sense, since their error sparked that, all's the better. Even wrong, it's high-intellect for a TV show ad.
     So why think about it at all? The piece is ultimately inoffensive, I suppose, and credit should be given for the various barbs it takes at a certain president. But that president is known for his casual relationship with truth. And there is something unsettling about sniping at a man while committing the very sin he so manifests. Untruths must be pointed out, or else truth suffers—I just wrote that, but would never claim that it isn't also tucked into some Loeb Classic somewhere without looking good and hard for it. I just figure someone who cares for facts should note the Grey Lady taking money and promoting poor scholarship. The media isn't valuable because it is never wrong; the media is valuable because it acknowledges when it is wrong, and if the Times won't, I will do it for them. 

* According to the very useful "The Adages of Erasmus" edited by William Barker (University of Toronto Press: 2001)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     At first I thought this might be unfair. An older man against a dark background. How could anyone figure out a location from that? Even King Dale. 
    But someone might be familiar. He isn't a famous man, but he has been in the press. And it's more of a thinking puzzle. In order to get the gears turning, though, I need to give a clue. Here it is: the man isn't real. 
    Well, he is real somewhere. But he wasn't really in front of me when I took his picture. Does that help? No? Good.
    Let the fun begin. You don't have to name the guy, just where I saw him, or an image of him. The winner gets one of my way-cool "Don't Give Up the Ship" flags, expressing a sentiment more necessary than ever as Donald Trump's America unfolds in day after I-can't-fucking-believe-this-is-happening day. Place your guesses below. Good luck.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Insisting you are the best is part of being the worst

"Reception du Grand Conde par Louis XIV" by Jean-Louis Gerome (1674)

     Buckle up. You’re about to read the best column ever written, penned by the greatest columnist Chicago has ever known.
     Kidding. Let’s talk about grandiosity.
     Even if I thought the opening sentence were true — which, for the record, I most profoundly do not — I’d have enough self-awareness not to say it. Everyone hates a braggart and wants to bring him down, even when he is correct.
     Especially when he’s correct.
     When he isn’t, when his claims are just oblivious flummery, it just seems sad and deranged. Think of the stereotypical insane asylum. Who does the cliched inmate believe himself to be? Napoleon, right? Delusions of grandeur.
     I do not want to join the platoon of armchair psychiatrists speculating about the mental health of the president of the United States. I am not qualified to diagnose what may be wrong with him. And I recognize that a significant, if dwindling, chunk of the country thinks that the only thing wrong with the president is the vast deep state conspiracy allied against him. A mindset we can examine another day.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Expensive ink

    You can spend $30 on a printer. You can spend $300. You can spend $3,000.
    Hard to figure out what to do. When my home printer died a few months ago, I knew I didn't want the very lowest end. I knew I couldn't afford the highest end. So I split the difference. A Canon MB2320 was an impressive looking cube. Consumer Reports rated it well. Only $100 at Best Buy. It has two paper feeds, a flatbed scanner. It seemed like it would Do The Job.
    And it does, more or less. Flash forward to a few weeks back. The black ink supply ran out. I thought: need new ink. I phoned Atlas Stationers--my office supplier of choice--and ordered the full set. Figured, might as well, have the cyan, the magenta, the yellow, when they went out too.
     I didn't ask what they cost.
     Atlas phoned. My ink was in. I stopped by the quaint little store on Lake Street. A thick plastic bag with my order was produced. The price was rung up: $103.
    "That's more than the printer itself," I gasped.
    "Yeah," said the clerk. "Sometime, when I run out of ink, I just buy a new printer. It's cheaper."
    That made sense. But there was also something senseless, something terribly wrong about that. I hate to think I've become one of those "This is the problem with society..." writers whenever I come upon something I don't like. But the ink supply shouldn't cost as much as the printer and the ink supply.
     Yes, the drug dealer/Barbie doll paradigm. The first hit is free. Sell the dolls for cheap and make money on the clothes and accessories. Hook your customer first.
     But there is a flaw. Because each new printer comes with ink — it's as if there was a new Barbie included in each stewardess outfit, which you could buy at the same price as the stewardess outfit without Barbie. The Canon is not the best printer. It's slow to actually start printing. Real slow. And the software is balky. As it is, I can print documents on my iMac through the printer, but I can't scan anything onto the iMac. I have to physically insert a thumb drive, copy the image onto that, then stick the thumb drive into the back of the iMac and access the image. It's a pain in the ass.
     And it occurred to me. When the ink runs out, rather than spend $103 on another quartet of Canon printer inks*, I could just take that C-note and buy a different printer made by a different company complete with new ink. That's a plan.
    I did notice one positive thing about really expensive ink. I tend to print less. In the past, I'd go for the printed ticket, somehow worried my phone wouldn't be up to the task, say, displaying a boarding pass. At a hundred bucks for a palmful of ink, I'll take my chances electronically.

      * And yes, I noticed the inks are cheaper online. About $90 on Amazon as little as $23.95 at dubious web sites that may or may not send what was ordered or anything at all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

First draft of American Writers Museum is highly promising

Canadian architect Dennis Rovere and his daughter Adrienne, 19, came from Calgary to visit the American Writers Museum.


    No man was ever as ready to dislike a place as I was primed to loathe the new American Writers Museum. As I strolled toward Michigan Avenue Tuesday morning for the museum’s grand opening, I was practically stropping the blade of scorn, eager to put it to use.
     I had studiously avoided all previous AWM publicity, my opinion of such places set years ago after visiting Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a mausoleum that reduces the vibrant disruptive force of my generation into dead glass cases of fringed jackets and sequined shoes. Just last month I had plunked down four euros to enter Casa di Dante in Florence, the slapped together tourist trap the city established to prove Florentines are the same frauds that Dante sunk into hell 700 years ago.
     How could so vast a subject as American writing be condensed into an 11,000 foot space? It would be reductive, like the Illinois Holocaust Museum, turning the greatest atrocity of the 20th century into a school lesson about bullying.
     I was the third person in line, behind a father and daughter from Calgary who came here, specifically, they said, to see the only historical artifact on display: the 120-foot-long scroll of taped-together typewriter paper upon which Jack Kerouac batted out “On the Road.” (“They’re not writers,” Truman Capote quipped of Kerouac and the Beats. “They’re typists.”)

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On the block


     Hmmm...this is a toughie.
    The prudent thing would be to stay silent. Say nothing about tronc, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, et al., entering into a deal to buy the Chicago Sun-Times, which was made public Monday afternoon.

    Best be mum. Safer. Hard to get in trouble that way. 
    Because saying anything is a lose-lose proposition.  And I have a cute little piece about the high cost of printer ink all ready to go...
    Nah, that stinks of cowardice.
    Lose-lose. No question about it. And I have no secret insider information. I'm a bystander too. 
     Being positive looks like sucking up to the new boss. Even when the new boss is really my old boss, Michael Ferro, who shed the Sun-Times—giving it away to a charity—so he could buy the Trib, seeing value in it that others missed, apparently. Remember how Gannett kept offering him more money, crying about his irresponsible stewardship all the while, even as they upped their offers, bidding against themselves while he waved them away?
    Kinda cool really. Maybe he'll buy Gannett next.
    But being negative also has risks. It's almost impossible to mention "tronc" and not observe it sounds like the name of a robot Muppet in a 1970s Sesame Street episode. I'm not sure that matters much in the upper echelons of finance. Most Sun-Times employees can spool out a variety of gripes about Ferro, though that does not make him unique in the pantheon of owners.  
     Not much of a risk to candor though. I can't honestly imagine he'd care. You need a pretty thick skin to own a newspaper. If the sale goes through—if the Justice Department allows it, and they blocked a past Trib deal— those cobbling together the transaction won't add a line to the complex contract purchasing, "All dunnage, office equipment, warrants and deeds belong to the Sun-Times ... except for Neil Steinberg. He gets the boot because he smirked at the corporate name on his hobby blog." 
     These big money guys, they're not china dolls.
     So fuck prudence, as I can say here, but not in the newspaper. Not yet anyway. I sometimes politely suggest we break that barrier because, well, it's coming, and we might as well be the first through the door. Imagine the attention. I've already crafted the lede to the column introducing obscenity. "Fuck this." Maybe I'll mention that to Michael next time I see him, assuming I ever do. 

    Would I prefer the paper not be bought? Sure. Change frightens me. Because I know how good I have it, how blessed I am. It's easy for me to me smug, now, because I'm not paddling around the frozen slurry with all the other folk—good, bad or indifferent—who got pitched over the side. I know it can make you bitter, like those former newsmen who gather every day at the end of Rob Feder's column, sticking up their thoughts about journalism, like dried boogers over a men's room urinal. One of my primary ambitions is to never be one of those guys.
     But change comes whether we want it or not. It's like Hemingway's line about how bankruptcy happens: "Two ways: Gradually and then suddenly."
    The Trib buying the Sun-Times is gradual and sudden. So. Enough throat clearing. To the heart of the matter. The Tribune and the Sun-Times joining together, the lion and the lamb, the suburban burgermeister and the scrappy city kid getting hitched.
    It isn't as if they're going to mash them both together and sell the thing as the Tribune-Sun-Times.  The two papers appeal to different demographics, and I imagine they'll be maintained as separate entities for the same reason Nabisco sells both Oreos and Fig Newtons. A blend would be gross. Killing one paper doesn't drive its readers to the other. There's no point in buying the thing if it won't remain a separate title. As it is, the Tribune already prints and delivers the Sun-Times. It won't rock your world if the Sun-Times marketing department cooks up Tribune promotions.
    That said, there will certainly be individual peril. Less job security, which is really sayin' something, and then there's the question of the union, on life support since 2009 but still there. Journalism has been on a race to the bottom, trying to find something hard to bounce up from in an attempt to regain the surface. The Tribune and the Sun-Times wrap their arms around each other, figuring they'll both float better that way.
    I'm ... what? Guardedly optimistic, a reaction that has to be a little colored by how I perceived the news. When I saw the publisher's email Monday I was momentarily confused. It began:
I wanted to update everyone on some developments in regard to the Sun-Times and other assets owned by Wrapports, LLC. We just issued a press release (attached) announcing that in tomorrow’s edition of the Sun-Times the newspaper will run an ad (also attached) that it is seeking a buyer that will continue to publish the newspaper.   
     I stopped there, confused. An ad seeking a buyer? That had a whiff of doomed desperation, like old Aunt Sadie putting her profile on That'll never work. And the "that will continue to publish the newspaper" seemed to suggest there are buyers who won't. Why buy the thing if not to run it? It isn't as if we own land anymore.
     But I kept reading—always smart when you're in the understanding-stuff business.  It turns out there was more. The ad is just a bit of pro-forma legalistic throat clearing so tronc—which also sounds like the place in his little automobile where Inspector Clouseau stashes his luggage—can buy the Sun-Times. We are told there are no other suitors.
     So a specific purchaser, even the Tribune, came as a relief, compared to just angling around for anybody flipping through the paper to buy the place. There are worse people than the Tribune to buy you. Last I checked, Rupert Murdoch still owned newspapers. WGN was just purchased by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a low rent right wing broadcast group, kind of Hunts ketchup to Fox's Heinz. There are hells below this one. 
     Those still using old dance cards will decry the sale. What of the storied Trib v. Sun-Times rivalry? The Front Page. Rival reporters racing to be the first to a pay phone? They were like Field's and Carsons.
     Field's is gone, I should point out. I hate to be the one to tell you. The Daily News is gone. City News too. And Napoleon escaped from Elba.
     Nostalgia only gets you so far. The first obligation of a newspaper, the trick question in J-school went, is to stay in business. The past decade of newspapering have been a struggle to do that, a constant game of staffer musical chairs. The music stops and they yank a chair away. Fewer folks putting out a leaner product. Am I happy about it? No. I'd prefer we hire the photo staff back ... and a jazz critic and a medical reporter and a few kids to run get coffee. And Italian cookies. I love those. 
     I do not dread going back to work for Ferro. That will seem like toadyism, but screw it. He was always fair to me, and I can't resist the impulse to try to be fair to him in return. He seems to have a plan. Ferro obviously has something going on. In 2015 IBM paid a billion dollars for Merge Healthcare, that he rescued in 2008, netting him a cool $200 million. I can't even tell you what Merge Healthcare is—something about merging health and care. He seems to have mastered the hoover-up-money part of the online world, and never pushed me to write anything I found odious. If he wants to spend more of those millions being fire hosed at him on the Sun-Times, well, that's just fine. Somebody should. 
    The great Irish playwright Brendan Behan once said, "A change is as good as a rest." There really is no rest in daily journalism. But there certainly is change, whether we like it or not. What will it be like? We don't have to guess. All we have to do is wait and find out.