Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Flashback 1996: Gramm puts foot down right on son's career

Jeff Gramm performs in South Korea. 
     A Chicago public high school asked me to speak at its career day next month. My initial inclination was to  decline—it would take a full day, and I'm not sure I can in good conscience encourage anyone to go into professional journalism. 
     Then I reconsidered, thinking that I might be able to say something about the value of pursing a passionate career long shot versus a safe, though less fulfilling path. And besides, who knows what I'll learn from talking to the students? That is, if I can remember to shut up long enough to listen to what they have to say. I told the school I'd do it.
    At the same time, I stumbled across this column from my first year as a columnist, that speaks to the subject. After the column, we'll catch up with what happened to the budding musician over the past 23 years.

     Hey, Jeff Gramm! Don't listen to your old man, Senator Phil. He was full of beans last week when he said he's giving you an entire year to become successful as a rock musician. One year to try music after you get your diploma, at the ripe old age of 21, and he's going to put his foot down and insist that you become a lawyer or a doctor.
     I read what the Texas Republican told the Dallas Morning News and could feel my jaw tighten: "I don't want him to look back 20 years from now, when he's lancing boils or doing wills . . . and say, 'I wonder if I could have been a big rock star?' "
    That's very generous of him. Very GOP. He's implying, of course, that in 20 years you're going to be either a boil-lancer or a will-maker, that your rock ambitions—your first recording is coming out in November—are a chimera and a lark, doomed to fail.
     Thanks, dad.
     Why do parents always do this, generation in and generation out? Listen Jeff, when you were in kindergarten, my father wanted me to go into computers. "They're writing their own checks," he said. He was right, of course, but that didn't matter. I didn't want to go into computers. I wanted, for some crazy reason, to be a writer. My father thought I was insane, and anticipated exactly the same failure that your dad is so helpfully predicting for you. Now, after it has all worked out, he's proud.
     Pressuring your kids to follow in your footsteps is a combination of ego, love and stupidity. It should come as no surprise that my father was a scientist. And gee, coincidence of coincidences, Jeff, yours happens to have been an academic. Small world. I guess having someone carry on the family genes isn't quite enough—you need somebody to pass your professional books on to.
     Now, I'm not saying that law and medicine aren't honorable professions, and you might eventually decide to go into either. But it should be up to you. Senator Dad should have the restraint not to make grand pronouncements about your career in public. But then, he's a Republican, and they like to blow off their big bazoos.
     Sure, music is risky. But law and medicine are no guarantee, either. I know people who flamed out of medical school and are on public assistance now. I know people who never made it past the bar exam despite the agony of repeated attempts.
     And even those who get through law or medical school aren't exactly tripping down the primrose path. Look at the number of lawyers who end up pitching their careers. I know a guy who quit the law and opened up a mustard shop in Wisconsin.
     Jeff, let me tell you a story.
     I went to Northwestern, a hive of ambition just as crawling with achievers as your University of Chicago. There was a guy in my class named David Friedman. When David got out of school, he decided to go into balloon twisting. He became a clown.
     I pitied David, but felt especially sorry for his folks. Four years at Northwestern—a fortune in tuition—down the drain. For what? So David could make balloon giraffes for 5-year-olds at birthday parties. Nice career move.
     But a funny thing happened. David got really successful. He traveled the world twisting balloons. His clown character, Silly Billy, became a New York fixture. He licensed the character out. He built a Silly Billy empire. He was profiled, glowingly, in the New Yorker. He made a bundle.
     Now, of course, it could have worked out otherwise. No guarantees in balloon-twisting either. He could have been just another anonymous clown, standing on a milk crate on the street corner. But you know what? Still, he would have been better off doing what he wanted than going into a field he didn't care about.
     Even if music turns out to be a difficult, unprofitable living (and it's a good strategy to count on that, and for a lot longer than a year) you might still like it, even if it cheeses off old dad (maybe especially if it cheeses off old dad). I'll bet there are 1,000 lawyers and doctors in Chicago who would walk away from their careers, right now, today, if they could be playing behind chicken wire in a Texas honky-tonk tonight. More like 10,000.
     I don't know how your dad plans to enforce his edict next year. Maybe he expects you to hop on command. Maybe he doles out a stipend and intends to yank it back.
     Take my advice. Let him. You only get one life—a life that dad and mom were good enough to give to you. Don't allow them to fearfully demand it back at the last minute. Have faith in yourself and, trust me, they'll fall in line, eventually.
     And besides. We already have too many doctors and lawyers who went into the profession to please their parents.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 28, 1996

     Jeff Gramm's first album, Aden, named for his indie-pop group, was dubbed "an underrated classic" by one critic. The group put out three more, and performed until 2001. Then Gramm went to business school and into investing—he's now a respected hedge fund manager, author of a well-reviewed 2016 book, "Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism." 
     I caught up with him on Twitter. Like most dad's, his father's bark was worse than his bite.
     "He didn’t really enforce the one year deadline!" Gramm wrote. "I played music pretty full time (while temping to pay the bills) until late 2001."
     Does he regret the time lost, playing music when he could have been, oh I don't know, crunching numbers, or whatever it is hedge fund managers do?
     "I think being in a touring band was an incredibly valuable life experience that definitely helped with my investing career," he wrote. "No doubt."

     Phil Gramm, by the way, is doing well at 77, and has no regrets concerning his public skepticism about his son's choice of career.
“I knew Jeff would be successful," the older Gramm said. "I just wanted to live to see it.”
     There you have it. If I impart only one thing to the students, it is to get the single-straight-path-to-success notion out of their minds. Finding your life's work can be like fishing: you usually have to cast your line a number of times before you snag a keeper.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Veterans Day: Talking with one of Illinois’ 628,000 vets

Robert Richmond

     Robert Richmond was 17 when his grandmother took him to the Army recruiting station and signed the papers.
     The year was 1955. The Korean war had just ended.
     ”I went to Korea 16 months,” he said. “I got over there in July of ‘55. I was on the clean-up.”
     Why did he enlist?
     ”There wasn’t anything going on around here,” said Richmond, who grew up on the South Side, near 37th and Indiana,
     I met Richmond last week on the No. 3 King Drive bus. I noticed his Army baseball cap and we got to talking. He was on his way downtown on a few errands and I tagged along.
     Richmond, who like most vets never saw combat, has no regrets about enlisting. He’s glad.
     ”Yes,” he said. “Because it gave me the ability to be a man. Responsibility. I learned how to get up in the morning and do manly things. Things that I needed to do, like taking care of myself.”
     Richmond is one of about 628,000 veterans living in Illinois, according to the Veterans Administration, with 20.4 million veterans nationwide.
     The bus stopped at Randolph Street.
     ”Coming out, wheelchair,” he called out, working the joystick on his electric chair.
     First Richmond visited —choosing my words carefully—a social organization whose commitment to anonymity is equal to its commitment to temperance. To buy a commemorative coin for himself—18 years in January—and one for a relative.
     ”It’s a blessing,” he said, of the anniversary. “It’s a miracle.”

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Sunday, November 10, 2019

Enigmatic beverage

     Wednesday night I was meeting my buddy at the Super Burrito on Western Avenue to have dinner, catch up, then proceed together to an art opening at Tony Fitzpatrick's Dime Gallery across the street. I got there early, or he got there late, and I had some time to kill so drifted over to the refrigerator case. There was this bottle and, reassured by the big "0.0 %" on the label, I figured it was some species of Mexican non-alcoholic beer and worth a try. Even the worst of the stuff isn't bad, a belief that had never led me wrong, up to this point.
     The lady popped the cap off. I took a slug as I headed to the table. Peach. It was a peach flavored non-alcoholic malt-based beverage.  Which would be bad enough if actual peaches were involved in its manufacture.  But I highly doubt that. Some peach-colored chemical perhaps. Peachobufalliconate.
     It wasn't vile, exactly. I could sip the thing as I waited. Or maybe it was vile but I could still manage to ingest the stuff. Either way, I wasn't happy about it, particularly after I noticed the peach-colored label on front. I mean, they had tried  to warn me.
     Squinting at the label on the back of the bottle, I realized this is a product, apparently, not of our great sun-baked neighbor to the South, but Jordan, Israel's border-mate.  At least I think Jordan. The print was shiny and very small.
   Here's the interesting part, and why I'm writing this. Going online to find out more about Mood Peach Malt Beverage, I found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a reference. Not a photo. Nada, which is very rare for a manufactured product. Maybe it's the most popular drink in the Muslim Middle East, lauded in countless Arabic web sites. Though I kinda doubt it. Anyway, I was wondering if anybody has any information on this stuff, because I got nothin'. And if an appreciation for malty faux peach is a particular passion for cultures not my own, well, no insult intended. We are all allowed our individual tastes, at least in this country. I have never been to Jordan so can't speak for it. Maybe this is the national drink. If so, they really should get something online in English, where I can find it. Maybe it's an acquired taste; if so, I will have to take your word for it, because I'll be damned if I ever take another sip of the stuff. My buddy eventually arrived, and I ordered a horchata and a carnitas burrito. Both were very good. 

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: National Geographic

     It's flattering, I suppose, that regular reader Tony Galati would suspect that perhaps I would know someone who has a need for 11 linear feet of The National Geographic, a near complete run from 1976 to 2011. I seem to go in those circles. And double flattering that he didn't even ask whether I myself wanted them. I am a book-type, but leaping to acquire this seems, to me, as hoarding. 

     Not that I don't appreciate the magazine. I do, and have lauded a recent issue—last year's daring look at a face transplant. But I didn't fall under its sway growing up, the way I did, say, for the New Yorker. And even the New Yorker: I read my copy, then throw it away. Then again, the entire run of the New Yorker is available online, going back to 1925.
     As is the National Geographic, going back to 1888, including the maps. They're available online to subscribers.
     But I understand Tony's dilemma. Objects have a sway over us; they acquire us as much as we acquire them. They exert pressure, a mute demand. I asked Tony: why not just throw them away?
     "That might be their ultimate fate," he replied, "but it feels something like throwing out books. I always thought that they were worth saving for the photography, if nothing else. But I've reached the point where I realize that my life isn't infinite, and I'm never going to have any practical use for all the stuff I've collected over the years."
     No, life is not infinite, and I've found myself extra reluctant to acquire things—tchochkes, in my people's parlance. When I went to Europe for two weeks I came home with a shoe horn as a souvenir: an Italian leather shoehorn, to be sure, a memento from a leather shop in Florence that my wife just loved. But otherwise, I was content with the memories. And photos. I don't get rid of those, which explains Tony's fealty to his magazines. Then again, they take up the corner of a chip the size of a gnat.

     This issue—keep the tangible thing well represented electronically or pitch it—has been huge for a couple decades. Not just volumes of old magazines, but card catalogues, even artwork. I was at a school where the kids' fingerpaintings and smiley suns get scanned and put on a thumb drive that goes home, and the originals are tossed. That gave me pause. It's hard to put a thumb drive on your refrigerator. 
     It was my idea to post photos of the magazines here, and see if anybody is interested. Tony said he might even deliver it to the interested party, a measure of his commitment to see this wealth of information to a good home. Though even that phrase, "a wealth of information" sounds dated, doesn't it? We carry an infinity of information in our back pockets, for all the good it does us. I would study ever page of these old magazines if I thought the answer to our quandary were hidden somewhere there, how the diffusion of information has coincided with the coarsening and dumbing down of our country and world. Maybe it is there, somewhere, waiting, and you're the person to find it. Anyway, you know how to reach me.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Hard choices for mayor over new police boss

     Last April, when she still a candidate for mayor, I asked Lori Lightfoot why she would want to leave her cushy berth at a big law firm to play urban problem whack-a-mole, a game impossible to win.
     What I meant was, why condemn yourself to a series of bad choices? The recently-settled strike of the Chicago Teachers Union being a perfect example: She could give the teachers what they want and drive Chicago deeper into its pit of bottomless insolvency. Or hold firm and let the teachers walk, meaning 300,000 kids would start rattling around the city, each a wrong step away from blundering in front of a bus or a bullet and becoming a tiny body set at Lightfoot’s doorstep. She tried to split the difference and the teachers struck.
     I spent the strike manfully suppressing the urge to write a column that began with me marching into my boss’s office and demanding my own 16 percent raise. I would then share with a delighted reading public the eye-rolling rejection and bum’s rush I’d certainly be given. But frankly, the man has enough worries without his employees cooking up stunts then dragooning him as an unwitting participant.
     Now Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson is retiring, which has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with his being found slumped behind the wheel of his car after a festive dinner. And another jump-out-the-window-or-drink-poison decision is dangled in front of our still sorta-new mayor. Promote from within the department? The Matt Rodriguez Method. Or seek someone from the outside the force. Let’s call that the O.W. Wilson Gambit.
     Promote from within and you get men like Johnson, whose qualities I dare not characterize without being accused of slandering the guy as he grabs his cardboard box and hurries out the door with all the dignity he can muster. Perhaps the tactful route to recall what Johnson said last year when asked about the Code of Silence in the Robert Rialmo trial:
     ”I’ve never heard an officer talk about code of silence. I don’t know of anyone being trained on a code of silence.”

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Thursday, November 7, 2019

What if Trump won't go?

The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan by Lucas Kilian (Metropolitan Museum)

     It is still too early to even dream about defeating Donald Trump in 2020. Yes, flipping the Virginia state House and Senate from red to blue and winning the governor's office is a good sign. Yes, it is encouraging that Trump came out swinging for Matt Bevin, the Republican governor of Kentucky, and then he lost. Yes, there could be signs that the GOP might discover, to their shock, that welding their party to a liar, bully, fraud and traitor runs the risk of alienating voters. Even Southern voters.
     So yes, the news this week is good. But relief is premature. Any president has a built-in advantage, even one as toxic and unfit as Donald Trump. 

     Good signs, but only that. And if they lull loyal Americans into a false sense of security that the fight for the soul of this country might be won quickly, easily, or at all, then it does more harm than good. Trump could win, and history flow in his direction for years and years and years. And the winners write history.
     Still, there is one worry that can be put to rest now. I've heard several friends speculate about what happens if "Trump refuses to go" after his, please God, defeat in 2020. I don't know if they mean clings to the desk, weeping and wetting himself, or tries to lead some kind of coup d'etat after his electoral defeat.
     I reply that we are still a nation of laws and that, at 12 noon, EST on Jan. 20, 2021, if Trump loses he will stop being president and White House security will find some way to flush him out.
     Maybe my faith in America is blinding me. But I can't see Trump leading a military overthrow. He lacks the guile. Which might sound odd about such an inveterate liar, but Trump's falsehoods are ad hoc, spur of the moment, say-any-words-that-sound-good type of lies. Plotting an overthrow of the government is, I think, beyond him. He would tweet about it and give away the game. ("Big coop tomorrow! Very hush-hush. Which sounds better? Dictator or caesar?")

    Yes, he has fans in the Armed Forces. But look at the faces of those generals during the staged photo-op in the situation room last month. Are they going to violate their oaths, turn their backs on everything they believe in, and commit undeniable treason, all out of loyalty for a man who has no loyalty to anyone?  It's one thing for Bevin to refuse to concede defeat after the Kentucky secretary of state called the race for Democrat Andy Behsear. That's just being a poor loser. It's another thing entirely to try to negate the outcome.
    There is another way to spin the possibility of Trump clinging to power. Let's say it happens. Trump loses the election, but somehow remains—denying its legitimacy, military overthrow, whatever. Fox News declares him king. His base bows down. 
     Can that work? And if it does, we deserve it. Really. Because if that is how the United States of American ends, if that is how our nation derails, crumpling at a few taps from an erratic, ignorant buffoon like Donald Trump, then how real, how solid, how precious a structure could we have had in the first place? If that can happen, if there is even a chance of that succeeding, then it all was an illusion anyway, and we might as well join all the other nightmare totalitarian dictatorships that so clot the world, because our freedom was never real, and our vaunted laws were a sham. It was all a dream. I don't believe it possible. But that doesn't mean I won't be on the watch for it, and ready to fight against it with all my might. We all have to. The man is capable of anything. Anything. There is no bottom, no low beyond which he will not sink, if we let him. Never forget that.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

How did all those balls get into the bog?

     After this was submitted for publication I heard back from the Village of Northbrook engineers—yes, the area was created for stormwater management, "a wet bottom detention basin" in their evocative phrase. And to my delight, this is an instance of vigorous journalism having positive effect in the real world. After I inquired, they went to examine the marsh (not difficult; it's directly across the street from Village Hall). They discovered that it is "plugged"—it should drain in a day—and they will coordinate with the school to unplug it. For a moment, I imagined that my belief that nothing I write ever has any impact on the real world needed to be amended. Then a sharp-eyed reader observed that it wasn't the column, but the inquiry, that set the gears of diligent habitat husbandry into motion. Maybe next time....

     One reason we moved into the ramshackle 1905 farmhouse my family has inhabited for nearly 20 years in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook is its proximity to Greenbriar Elementary School, one block away. It gave an excellent grounding to our two boys, slingshotting them into the stratosphere of first academic, then professional success.
     They’re gone now. But I remain, a spectral late middle-aged man haunting the neighborhood. A dog owner, during our daily walks we sometimes drift toward Greenbriar. Though never during school hours, not after a jarring incident five years ago. The dog and I were ambling along an empty sidewalk between the building and the parking lot one afternoon, minding our business. Suddenly the school doors burst open and we were surrounded by kids. Really, it was like Rush Street the moment the Bulls won their first championship: empty, whoosh, mobbed.
     Children jostled to pet the dog,. Before I could get out of there, a woman strode over and informed me that strangers are not permitted on the grounds during school hours. I felt like Peter Lorre in “M.”
     She did not command me to leave that instant. Nor did I clap my hand to my heart and declare, “I am a Greenbriar parent emeritus!” Instead I hung my head, aghast, and fled.

     But 7 a.m. Saturday we had the place to ourselves, so vectored through the schoolyard, past the lovely little wetland next to the playground. It wasn’t there when my kids went to school, but installed later as an encouragement—I imagine—for migrating birds and besieged bees. As an educational tool and not—I hope—a moat to keep scary neighborhood men off the property.
     Admiring the miniature marsh, I noticed a ball, yellow, among the grasses. Then another. Then a third. I began to count. Five, 10, 15, 20...more. At least two dozen balls, of all sorts: kickballs, footballs, basketballs. Plus a pink hulu hoop, floating in the fen.

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