Saturday, August 31, 2013

Time to stick a fork in Charlie Trotter.


     When Charlie Trotter's restaurant was named "the best restaurant in the world," or something close to that, we were still living in the city, not far away. I told my wife, "I'm not living within walking distance of  'the best restaurant in the world' and never going there." So we went. The place was so pretentious it was disorienting: it felt like the floor was a few degrees off kilter. All the other diners were languid Eurotrash, like the background characters in a James Bond movie. My central memory of the evening was counting 18 $20 bills onto the table and wondering what had possessed me. 
      That informs a bit of this column, which is slated to run in the paper Monday but got posted Friday. I've met Charlie on a few occasions, and to be honest always got along well with him. The me-me-me closing last year set my teeth on edge. I've had a number of high profile chef friends who chose another route. Not just Sarah, but Gale Gand, the mastermind of Tru, who steps away from the restaurant to explore other options, teaching classes, working on  a farm, without making a huge deal of it. You can be great without believing yourself the font of all greatness. 
    That isn't to say I'm not without sympathy. I have an ego myself, and it gets inflamed at times, and I feel neglected, and have to re-calibrate myself. I hope this episode leads Trotter to perhaps do the same, though it probably won't. If not, he told another reporter he was going to go the Yukon. I guess we were all supposed to blanch and shout, "No, Charlie, no!"  Me, I thought that might be a good idea, and wished him Godspeed to Alaska. We'll get on fine here without him. We already are. 

     There are two types of chefs. There is what I think of as the "Sarah Stegner Chef," so named after my first glance of Stegner, in a tall white toque, standing dignified in her kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton, arranging the artisanal cheeses she championed, quiet as beauty, still as a river, entirely focused on those gorgeous orbs of fromage, as if they were land mines she was defusing.
     And then there's the "Charlie Trotter Chef"—think of the chefs in Bugs Bunny cartoons, snarling, screaming, flailing, an inflamed, overcooked ego in chef's whites. Those chefs do well on the Food Network. They become stars. The reality, however.
     "He's gone off . . . it's weird," said an associate of Trotter, who knows him well.
     On Thursday, Trotter had some kind of ugly encounter with a group of high school students participating in After School Matters. Trotter allowed them to use his now shuttered namesake restaurant at 814 W. Armitage as a gallery to display their photographs, but became offended, it was reported, when the instructor supervising the students refused to order them to sweep floors and plunge toilets. Trotter also made inappropriate comments to a female student, suggesting she get a Charlie Trotter tattoo.
     So has Trotter gone around the bend?
     "He is . . . a . . . difficult person," said the associate, who didn't want to be named so as to not endanger their relationship. "He comes across like, 'Once you get to know me, I'm a good guy, a funny guy, but everybody hates me, I don't know why.' "
     I do, Charlie, so let me explain it to you.
     People hate egomaniacs. They see the self-regard flowing like wine and naturally want to stop it up. When you closed your restaurant—one year ago; time drags when you're doing nothing, huh?—with maximum drama, it was a curtain-clutching death scene worthy of "Tristan und Isolde," complete massive, three-part hagiography in the Tribune. The observation I bit back—why rain on the man's victory lap?—was: Closing your restaurant was self-immolation, tossing your whole staff out of work in a recession, and why? New chefs were rising, being lauded in the Chicago scene.
     Attention was straying from the only chef worthy of attention—Charlie Trotter. If other restaurants are going to be praised, then you were just going to close yours down, take your ball and go home. You said you were going to read philosophy, which made me laugh. I almost sent you the passages of Seneca where he tells us to welcome loss, because someday life will snatch back every single thing it gave to us, and so the smaller deprivations before then are reminders and practice. But I figured it would be lost on you.
     Charlie took his ball but wouldn't go home. There you were, stomping around the auction of your restaurant's effects, shutting the thing down a third of the way through. A man with any grace wouldn't even have been in the room. If you're going to close, then close.
     And Trotter's still there, rattling around your empty, shuttered restaurant, terrorizing schoolchildren. It's a scene from a tragedy.
     OK, Charlie, you and I are about the same age. And at this point, you're saying: "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich, like I am?" To which I'll retort, "If you're so rich, why aren't you smart?" It's never too late.
     You might want to use this embarrassing public spectacle as a wake-up call; if not, there are more down the road. Trust me on that one. If you can control yourself, do it.
     A little humility might help. I asked your friend: Would you call Charlie a humble man?
     "No, not humble," the friend said. "He knows he's not a humble person. At the end of his run his perception was, 'Where did the respect go? I was the one who brought Chicago fine dining, gave it its reputation.' He kinda started a lot of it, and at the end he felt, 'What the hell, where did the love go?' "
     It goes where everything goes, Charlie. Into the Bonfire of Time. Everything ends.
     It's a shame you never read that philosophy, because it may have helped you now. "A generation of men is like a generation of leaves," Homer writes. We have spring, shine greenly for a summer. It feels like forever. Then autumn comes, Charlie, and we wither, even great chefs like you, and fall off the tree or, in your case, jump—there's a drawback of being rich, you forget that there's a purpose to work beyond making money. Work is joy, if you're lucky. You may have forgotten that.
     But never too late to remember. When Sarah Stegner tired of the Ritz, she quietly re-invented herself and opened the excellent Prairie Grass with husband Rohit Nambiar and partner George Bumbaris. Time to reinvent yourself, too, Charlie, if you can. Grab a spoon, stop talking and start cooking. The respect you seek is waiting for you there.

  
    

Friday, August 30, 2013

"Real good for free."



     I admire anybody who has the gumption to take their talent out on the street. Because there, you are unfiltered. You see the indifferent people hurrying past, grasp just how few pause, how easily the skill you've devoted your entire life to can be ignored. It's hard enough when you have a screen -- I write for a newspaper, and they pay me, and the people who read it either pay the newspaper or gaze upon its advertisements. But they're far away, generally. I'm shielded from their reactions, for the most part. I don't know if I'd have the balls to take a stack of photocopied columns and stand on the street corner and wave them at passersby trying to entice one to give me a buck. Actually, that's a lie; I do know -- I wouldn't, I couldn't do it. I suppose because no one would pause, never mind give money, or just a few would, out of confusion and pity. It would seem not bold on my part, but sad, even pathetic.
     Somehow, this mother and daughter, playing beautifully on Michigan Avenue, did not seem sad or pathetic. There was something artistic, pure, even noble about it. I'm not the first one to notice the brave dignity of the street performer. There's a beautiful, though obscure Joni Mitchell song, "Real Good for Free," (okay, I guess they're all obscure now) dedicated to a guy who played clarinet on the street in New York while the crowd hurries by. Mitchell sums it up with the line, "They knew he had never been on their TV, so they passed his music by," a succinct way of saying that most people need someone to tell them what is good. They have a hard time figuring it out themselves.
     In its raw public form creativity, no matter how well-wrought, is "art without a frame," as my pal Gene Weingarten put it in his brilliant article, "Fiddler in the Subway," where he coaxes star violinist Joshua Bell to play in the Washington Metro. Bell plays for 43 minutes on his $3.5 million Stradivarius, more than a thousand people walk by, "cups of coffee in their hands, cell phones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia, and the dingy, gray rush of modernity," as Weingarten describes it.
    Just seven out of the thousand stop to listen to Bell, and Weingarten's story becomes a meditation on time, and beauty, and busyness. (Speaking of not rushing by, you can read Weingarten's piece, plus other unforgettable classics, in his collection The Fiddler in the Subway, and if you don't own the book, you should buy it immediately, here.)
     So give the next musician you see in the street a dollar or two. You'll be taking part in something very old. Because before there were orchestras, before there were concert halls or recordings or contracts or scholarships, there were musicians and their instruments, or singers and their songs, on a street corner, and the people passing by, either pausing or, more likely, not.

      Playing in the street isn't always a matter of need. This cellist was at the Northbrook train station earlier in the summer. He's in my younger son's class at Glenbrook North High School. I only had a minute to listen, before the train came, and didn't get a chance to ask. I wish I had; I assume he was there on a lark, because he only came that morning and never returned. But still, kudos to him. If I taught teenagers, I would insist that they master something and spend an hour doing it in public for change. It would be a challenge—maybe too much of a challenge. Even Joshua Bell, who played in the great concert halls of the world for queens and presidents, admitted he was scared to stand at the L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop and play for commuters. Scary, but also liberating, freeing us from our fears, from that inhibition, that chain, the almost physical dread of embarrassment that holds so many people back from doing what they want to do. Four years ago I found myself in London, at Hyde Park's famous Speaker's Corner. Recognizing an opportunity that would never come again and that I would hate myself for missing, I stiff-armed my reluctance and hopped up on a milk crate to harangue the passing crowd. Only briefly, a little impromptu speech about America. But when I stepped down off the crate, grateful and grinning, I was thrilled, as if I had done something incredible, and I suppose, for me, I had.

Addendum:

Gene Weingarten sent me this amazing coda, how his Joshua Bell piece had been done decades before,  in Chicago coincidentally enough. It also contains a link to the Pulitzer-Prize winning story. You can read it by clicking here.




Thursday, August 29, 2013

欢迎美国博客的好运气欢乐与和谐关系的中国读者 (Welcome Chinese Readers to the Joyous American Blog of Good Luck and Harmonious Relations)



      Blogger breaks down your audience into all sorts of statistics -- how many people are looking at your blog over the past day, week, month, what specifically they've looked at and even where they're from. It's sort of cool to email a pal in Paris about a post and then see the readership from France click upward by one.
     Last month, I noticed a sudden surge in readership in China—maybe 50 in a day. It seemed inexplicable, and I tweeted about it. "It means you're about to be hacked," said a tech-savvy co-worker. If so, it must have been a hack so subtle I haven't noticed it. Since then, I get a regular daily readership in China. Not many -- Wednesday it was 16—and I imagine those are homesick Chicagoans nursing their hangovers in Beijing and Shanghai, trolling the web, looking for something familiar from home.
      And while I fervently believe that one shouldn't skew one's writing toward any particular individuals or groups, nor flatter trying to appeal to a certain audience, I couldn't help assume there must be some Chinese citizens who somehow crack through their government's Great Wall of Cyber Security and read this, and wonder what they must think of it. 
     I also sense opportunity. Lots of people in China. One point three billion, last time I counted. It might be worth one day's post to throw a bone their way. Not by resorting to toadying, of course. No surge in readership is worth that! Maybe just a slight moderation of my actual opinions, in the hope they'll share this with their multitudinous friends. Maybe I could become one of those international anomalies, the obscure American well-known abroad, like that singer who for a couple of decades was the Elvis of France, though unknown here. It's worth a try (one of the advantages of writing a blog every single day is that just about anything is worth a try). So here goes:



问候中国人!感谢您抽出时间从繁忙的工作日程,抬起你的国家,出身卑微,成为21世纪的经济和政治强国,为了读此消息来自芝加哥市的放荡和著名暴力。尽管我们有非常不同的价值体系 - 你正确地强调和谐,尊重,艰苦的工作和自我牺牲精神,而我们美国人喜欢不和谐,粗鲁,懒惰和自私的路径,但当然,我们称其为自由,自由,舒适性和个性。
    虽然我从来没有去过中国,其实,我已经看到了,在我访问期间台湾的叛离的一省。试图为了讨好西方腐朽,妄图推迟其必然与中国母亲和解,台湾集团邀请我,以满足他们的叛逆帮汉奸。作为一个球迷的尼克松和肯尼迪的辩论,我要求看金门,现在被称为大金门岛2,000码中国大陆外海,所以能够通过望远镜在你可爱的土地渴望凝视。
      我的大儿子,但是,谁在学校学习普通话(他的小兄弟一样,美国学生通常学习中文,更好地服务于我们的最终霸主)访问了您的伟大民族,在今年夏天,和其庞大的故事回来难怪,以及高品质的商品,如$ 3腕表在各方面都好,西方耗资一千倍以上的原稿,虽然一些不太重要的手画上。实际上他们无法保持时间,而是转达了空的状态,我们渴望代替有一个和谐的道德哲学在西方。
     你都在忙,所以我不会占用更多的时间,除了感谢您阅读这篇博客,希望您与您的朋友分享,让他们更好地了解这个伟大的城市生活是什么样子。这个博客的名字,“每一个该死的一天,”可能是一个有点令人费解 - 这意味着,“面带微笑迎接每天早晨幸福的生产力,它是一个美国的成语。”我希望你能这样做,并欢迎您来到我的世界高品质的美国新闻业。

     Oh, okay. For our non-Chinese readers, a translation:

     Greetings Chinese persons! Thank you for taking time away from your busy work schedules of lifting your nation out of its humble origins to become the economic and political powerhouse of the 21st century in order to read this message from the debauched and famously violent city of Chicago. Even though we have very different value systems — you rightly emphasis harmony, respect, hard work and self-sacrifice, while we Americans prefer the path of discord, rudeness, sloth and selfishness, though of course we refer to it as freedom, liberty, comfort and individuality. 
    While I have never visited China, I actually have seen it, during my visit to the renegade province of Taiwan. Trying to curry favor with the decadent West in a futile attempt to postpone its inevitable reconciliation with Mother China, the Taiwanese clique invited me to meet with their rebellious gang of traitors. Being a fan of the Nixon-Kennedy debates, I asked to see Quemoy, now known as Kinman, an island 2,000 yards off the coast of mainland China, so was able to stare longingly through binoculars at your lovely land. 
      My oldest son, however, who studies Mandarin in school (as does his little brother; American students commonly learn Chinese, the better to serve our eventual overlords) has visited your great nation, over the summer, and came back with tales of its vast wonder, as well as high quality merchandise such as $3 wrist watches that were in every way as good as the Western originals costing a thousand times more, though some of the less important hands were painted on.  They could not actually keep time, but rather conveyed the empty status that we in the West crave in lieu of having a harmonious moral philosophy.
     You are busy, so I will not take up any more of your time, except to thank you for reading this blog, and hope that you share it with your friends so that they may better understand what life is like in this great city.  This blog's name, "Every goddamn day," might be a bit puzzling — it is an American idiom that means, "Greet each morning with a smile of happy productivity." I hope you will do so, and welcome you to my world of high quality American journalism.


Photos by Ross Steinberg

     



     

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Because life brings our misfortunes to the bees."

 
   When the various forms of human communications are discussed—Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and the like—you must go well down the list, past human speech, past newspapers, lower than billboards, to just above semaphore flags, in order to find, "the sides of buses."
     I can't remember ever learning anything from the side of a bus. But there was the 125 Water Tower Express --I think the "express" part of the name is a bit of wry CTA humor, because it was lumbering slowly along Wacker Drive, at about the same speed pedestrians were walking; truly, I noticed the bus well north of Lake, and it tagged alongside me, panting at my elbow like a faithful pup, all the way until Randolph. 
     "SAVE the BEES" a sign bannered on its side said, in bold blue letters against a honeycomb yellow background. "Say NO to NEONICS." 
    I like bees. Not so much as individuals, thanks to a few nasty encounters over the years (they sting). But as a class. I like bees generally. Part of this has to do with a favorite author of mine, Virgil, who elaborately praises bees in his small book on farming, Georgics, describing them as stout-hearted warriors busily making honey "in their waxen kingdoms" until it comes time to take to the air and defend the hive.
      The author of The Aeneid observes bees fighting like ancient heroes, "their large souls pulsing in very small breasts:"
     If they have flown forth to battle... from a distance, you may discern the mob's temper and the feelings stirred by war, for that martial call, from hoarse-resonating brass blares to those that dally, and a tone like the broken blurting of trumpets is heard; then, restless, they come together, their wings vibrate and flash, they sharpen their stings with their mouthparts and ready their strength; around the king and to his royal tent itself, they swarm densely, summoning the enemy with a great clamor; therefore, when they've gained a bright spring day and an open field, they burst from the gates to join battle, high in the air the sound buzzes...
     You have to love that.
    And "neonics"—that was new to me. One doesn't typically learn words off the sides of buses. But I did, and later discovered that neonics is short for "neonicotinoids," a class of pesticides currently being blamed, on the sides of buses and elsewhere, for the collapse of Americ's bee population (in case you're not paying attention to the world around you, almost a third of America's bees have disappeared over the past five years. This is bad not only for people who like honey, but for people who like to eat, as bees are responsible for pollinating many of our fruit, vegetable and nut crops. Other animals pollinate too--non-bee insects, birds, even bats—but bees do the heavy lifting).
      Neonics were introduced in the early 1990s to replace phosphate pesticides in the production of corn, cotton, soybeans and other major crops. They were considered less hard on nature than the phosphates. The bee population began to dwindle in 2004, though at first it was blamed on a certain kind of mite, and then, on genetically altered plants.  Where science is vague at explaining bad new developments, people tend to blame what they don't like already. 
     I can't tell if that is the case with neonics. The science is still controversial. On one hand, bees are doing fine in Australia and Canada and other countries that use neonics. On the other, bees in labs tend to react poorly to being doused with neonic pesticide. Then again, bee colonies collapsed periodically in the century before neonics were introduced, for reasons that are, as yet, mysterious.
     Looking over the evidence, it does seem that neonics are the bogeyman du jour, and just as hysteria against, oh, vaccines caused harm needlessly, so banning neonics would disrupt agriculture, hurting people—the one species environmentalists don't seem to care much about—while perhaps not helping our friend, the honeybee. It seems premature.
     Though to be honest, I'm less concerned with the politics of the situation than the fact that I first heard of it on the side of a bus, despite the fact that the New York Times has run a front page story on the issue. Easy to overlook a story on the crowded front page of the Times. Harder to miss a big honking yellow billboard lumbering alongside you at a walking pace, shadowing you down Wacker Drive, practically begging to be read. "I learned about the problem on the side of a bus." I don't why, but that has a nice ring to it.
    Virgil, by the way, noted 2,000 years ago that bees sometimes mysteriously die off. "Because life brings our misfortunes to the bees," he wrote, which sounds about right. "If their bodies languish from severe sickness, this you can know from the first by undoubted symptoms: their color changes at once with disease."
     He suggests that the bees' woes be addressed by burning aromatic gum and bringing the bees honey in hollow reeds, thus "cheering them." If that doesn't work, try raisin wine, or scattering starwort and lavender petals. If all else fails, slaughter an ox in the Egyptian fashion, and in time its  carcass will miraculously issue bees. 
     If banning neonics doesn't work, we can consider those measures next. 



     
     

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Americans are good at punishment, bad at rehabilitation



      We either have to make all crimes capital crimes, and kill everybody convicted of an offense, or adjust ourselves to the idea that most criminals get out of jail again, and will have to get on with their lives in the outside world, or try to. You'd think that the Millikin professor in this column would be the poster boy for mercy, since he obviously has lived a productive life. You'd be surprised at the number of people who registered their ire after this ran in the Sun-Times Monday. I think they'd sincerely like to see those blanket executions, in the public square at noon, not only to rid the world of criminals, but for entertainment. 


     Like you, I had never heard of Millikin University in Decatur; heck, I’ve barely heard of Decatur. If you asked me to speculate what kind of place Decatur might be, I’d imagine it a smaller, less flashy version of Peoria, were such a thing possible. If it’s actually Golden-Age-Athens-in-Modern-Day-Illinois, my apologies. I didn’t know.
     After a Texas newspaper revealed that a longtime psychology professor at Millikin murdered his family in 1967, my reaction was, it had to be a shock for the school. But not knowing the professor, the school, nor the town, I shrugged and skimmed the story.
     Initially.
     Last week, however, I carefully read Becky Schlikerman’s piece about it, start to finish, because the headline, “School standing by prof who killed family in 1967,” conveyed something unexpected. I’m not sure if we live in a particularly timid time, or it’s just me growing older and even more cynical, but that seemed unusual. Organizations tend to take the path of least resistance, and do whatever necessary to make bad publicity go away. While this is less true in academia, where the illusions of intellectual freedom breed latitude, that indulgence doesn’t extend to self-confessed killers.
     Yet the school backed its employee.
     My gut reaction was “Good for them.” Part of the reason why people are so afraid to admit they have mental illness is that too many of us still view psychiatric disorders as some kind of scam. Forget that a court found James St. James not guilty by reason of insanity for killing his father, mother and older sister. We also easily dismiss what juries decide. Gullible dupes. We forget that lots of people get ill and some get better and are entitled to a second chance at life.
    Not everyone agrees, of course. Toward the end of the article, a comment by Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider stood out: “If you kill your family, you deserve to never walk free in our society.” I tracked down his full statement, which continues: “Although I believe in redemption I can’t find redemption or rehabilitation when it involves killing three innocent people.”
    Hard to argue that. But argue it I will.


To read the rest of the column, click here.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What a gas!



     This story is why I still love my job. On Monday morning I knew basically nothing about helium. Then my boss said, "write something about the helium cliff" and the next thing I knew I was talking to a range of people from Boeing to Loyola University Medical Center, from the U.S. Senate to a balloon company, plus of course reading up on helium. It may be the ideal news story, for me, a blend of both bumbling by Congress AND details about one of the more interesting elements.  If you click on the rest of the story, make sure when you get to the newspaper's site you click onto the artfully-hidden sidebar, "What a gas." I think that's my favorite part.

     Helium is the second-most-abundant substance in the universe; roughly 23 percent of the mass of everything that exists is helium. So it reflects a certain perverse genius on the part of the U.S. Congress that it has managed to blunder us into a looming helium shortage.
     This issue is nothing new — industries that use helium, of which there are a surprising number, from aerospace to medicine to party balloons — have been dealing with supply problems and price spikes for years.
     “There’s tons of it on Jupiter,” said Christine Doolin, co-owner of Doolin Amusement Supply, 511 N. Halsted, which sells tanks of the noble gas, or tries to. “We don’t get as many tanks as we want, and haven’t for a year and a half.” She said that a large tank that sold a few years back for $95 now costs $200, and so her customers are using less.
     The immediate crisis — some call it the “helium cliff” — is this: the U.S. government, through its Federal Helium Reserve, supplies roughly half the helium in the United States and a third of the world’s.
     That spigot will turn off, completely, on Oct. 8, thanks to a well-intentioned but operationally disastrous law designed to force the government out of the helium business so private industry could take over. The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 compels the United States to sell off its reserves and exit the market as soon as it recouped the $1.3 billion it managed to lose selling helium, primarily because it set the price too low (which also is what kept other players out of the market). The assumption was that other suppliers of helium would crop up by the time the debt was paid. But strong demand, coupled with the feds raising the price, trying to spur others to supply helium, meant that the debt was eliminated early, in the fiscal year ending this Sept. 30. Which means, by law, the helium flow stops a week later.
"We want to emphasize the urgency of the situation," said David Isaacs, vice president of government affairs for the Semiconductor Industry Association in Washington, D.C., representing the $150 billion American industry. "There is a lot of talk about deadlines in Washington, but this is a real deadline. If this reserve was to go offline, it would create problems."
     A variety of local companies would be adversely affected. Medical image scanners account for a third of the helium market.
     "We do have concerns," said Dr. Scott Mirowitz, chairman of radiology at Loyola University Health System, which operates nine MR scanners. "There's quite a bit of helium in MR scanners." Super cold helium keeps the powerful magnets cool. Shortages would mean the $2 million machines couldn't be operated without risk of damage or inaccuracies.
     Boeing uses helium to test for leaks in fuel tanks and to heat-treat landing gear parts. "Because of the importance of refined helium to the U.S. economy, Boeing shares the concerns that industrial and government users have expressed about a potential disruption to the global supply of helium," said Angie Yoshimura, a Boeing spokeswoman. "Steps should be taken by Congress to reauthorize funding to operate the Federal Helium program to ensure a smooth transition over the next several years to a full-commercial marketplace for helium."
     Hope seems justified. The House has passed a law to buy more time. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed its version in June. And the expectation is that the Senate will race to act in September when it returns from its break.
     "The good news is that Congress has given every indication that it wants to prevent this helium cliff," said Keith Chu, press secretary for the Senate committee.
     One response could be relief. Or you could use this as a cautionary tale of what happens when government runs markets - though the United States entered the helium business in 1925 when there wasn't one, and it worked well for decades. The government's reserve is still the only significant long-term storage facility for crude helium in the world.
     The bad news, in my view, is that this crisis ever loomed, and what it says about our leaders. Even if we dodge this bullet is no occasion for self-congratulation. Our government should function better than this.
     In 2010, the National Research Council did a study to examine what effect the U.S. government shutting down its helium operation would have on industry, and concluded that its exit would be so disruptive that, for the first time, the United States would become an importer of helium from the two regions that have stepped up their helium production.
     Those two regions are Russia and the Middle East.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why pie is better than cake



    Eloquence takes many forms—poetic descriptions of nature, deep philosophical ruminations about life, clear-eyed explanations of complex situations. But sometimes eloquence can be very brief, a flash of insight, a simple blunt statement. Churchill's "Never give up." The Delphic oracle's: "Know thyself."
     It was that last variety that struck me Sunday during a Twitter conversation with my old pal, Phil Rosenthal, for years at the Sun-Times, now ensconced at the Tribune. I had posted an ode to Tastykakes prepackaged pies, noting the Philadelphia treat is impossible to find in Chicago, and Phil felt he had seen them at a certain Philly-based fast food joint. During the discussion that followed, he tweeted a single, three word sentence, almost as a non-sequitur: "I want pie."
    A straightforward expression. Yet it bowled me over, coming as a revelation, almost an epiphany. I read it and immediately thought: "My God! Yes, he's right. I want pie too. I've always wanted pie. That's all any of us ever want. Pie."
    You don't know this as a child, when your addiction to chocolate and sweets makes you prefer cake. And there is something dense and rich and devastatingly wonderful about a thick slice of deep, dark chocolate cake—think of the kind of cakes they lovely craft at House of Fine Chocolates, on Broadway in East Lake View. For several years after we moved from the city, we'd return to House of Fine Chocolates, to pick up birthday cakes—with the raspberry filling, natch. And it was a sign of bonds breaking when we stopped making the trek. 
    My tastes had shifted anyway. I had set aside sweetness, with childish things, and gone for the more complex intermingling of a good pie—the tartness of fruit filling, the solidity of crust, so much more substantial than mere cake. And the glory of that tip, so perfect.  
     In recent years, we're even done away with the cliche of birthday cake. My wife has been baking birthday pies, such as the sour cherry example above — to me, sour cherry is the ne plus ultra of pies, though I had a wonderful blueberry pie on our visit out East, baked by a Berea friend who knows of my affection for blueberry pie, the blueberries both substantial and evanescent, dissolving at the touch of a fork, simultaneously there and not there, like some Quantum mechanics riddle. 
     There is another connection between particle physics and pie. Working on two stories in recent years I just completely dropped the ball, as a writer, and for the same reason. One was when I spent the day at Fermilab, talking to physicists about this Top Higgs Boson they were seeking. At the end of the day, I realized I was still completely in the dark—I still had no idea what they were doing, no idea what this mysterious thing they were looking for might be. I never wrote anything about the Higgs. I had been overwhelmed.
     And the second was spending a few hours watching Paula Haney make dough at Hoosier Mama Pie Company on West Chicago Avenue. There, I roughly understood what was happening -- she was baking these really good pies, in a bakery so dedicated to pies that it only sold pies, both sweet and savory, luncheon pies. She knew the secret to great pie is great crust, and had this complex philosophy of crust-making, which she explained to me and I understood, sort of.

     And I left filled with ambition, a front page Food section pie story, pitting Haney's vision of crust versus other crust masters, Sarah Stegner at Prairie Grass, and Gale Gand at Tru, and such. The vista of my grand pie story lay before me and glittered, the definitive crust expose, blowing the lid off the entire Chicago situation, pie-wise.  Then I was swept away into my daily duties and the vision was lost. I never wrote anything about Hoosier Mama. Wracked with guilt, I pointed a young couple I knew who were doing  these lovely on-line kitchen tours for WBEZ toward Hoosier Mama, and they at least gave Paula some publicity, so I didn't feel quite so bad.
     I try not to think about it. Try not to think about pie. As much as I love pie, I force myself to wait for pie to come to me, for the birthday to roll around, or to blunder into a restaurant that happens to offer really good pie. Because once I start looking for it; once I activate the "seek pie" circuit in my brain, it would be all I'd ever do. My eyes would slide open in the morning, and I'd think, "I want pie"—the imperative so eloquently expressed by Phil Rosenthal. So I have to block the concept of pie out, most times. this present post notwithstanding, and focus on whatever mundane, non-pie task is in front of me, and demand my brain be distracted by lesser thoughts, thoughts that aren't of pie. That's the grown-up way, I suppose. I'd hate to have too much pie. As if such a thing were possible. 
     

Click here to listen to Paula Haney talk about the lure of pie.
     

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Good pie is hard to find


   
      It wasn't a fixation. While we headed East, none of us were thinking, "Here we come, Tastykakes!" We weren't thinking of them at all. Rather, they came as a pleasant surprise. Like bumping into an old friend. When we pulled in for a pit stop at that service station in Pennsylvania and saw all those familiar beige oblong boxes.
     And only the familiar oblong boxes — the rest of the Tastykake line of products, the cupcakes and donuts and Krinkles and such, well, they could be fine. Or they could be lousy. I don't know. I've never tried them. Because, frankly, the oblong pies were so satisfying the first time we tasted them that the idea of skirting one for, oh, a chocolate cupcake, would be like avoiding your own child to take the hand of a stranger's, just to see what it was like. 
     Tastykake pies are delicious. I hope this doesn't indict my opinion for all my chef friends whose fine, high quality pies I have praised in the past -- Sarah Stegner at Prairie Grass, Gale Gand at Tru, Laura Sayler in her kitchen. If they are cringing in utter moral revulsion, well, I'm sorry. I never pretended to be the pure palate of pie justice. It's just that the Tastykake has a really good crust. Not the greasy, flaky mess you find in most mass-produced pies. Or did. The collapse of Hostess seems to have deflated the packaged pie market. 
     But Tastykake is still here; well, still there, on the East Coast. There's something about it, almost a little undercooked. It has a pie dough taste. The filling is almost secondary -- I go with the lemon, a lemon meringue that's not too sweet. But the blueberry is good too. And of course the custard. And cherry isn't bad.
     Don't underestimate the rarity factor.  In this age when you can get anything anywhere, you can't get Tastykakes in Chicago (with the exception of a couple Philly cheesecake places that order a few Tastykake products on Amazon, and then, inexplicably, the one I called to confirm this ignores the pies. Go figure).
    My guess is the secret to Tastykakes is they don't load them up with preservatives. On our way back to Chicago, on Aug. 15th, we went to a service station in Pennsylvania where the Tastykake truck had just pulled up and was loading a shelf full of new pies. Their pull date was the 19th, four days away, which seemed extraordinary. My assumption is that a Hostess fruit pie would be good for months —I have to assume, because I tried to confirm this, but of course they're gone. I looked for something similar, but the five places I tried in Chicago didn't have any prepackaged fruit pies at all. Note to savvy businessmen: an opportunity! The closest product I could find, a Kellogg's cinnamon apple Nutri-Bar, is good until March, 2014—well, not good, but "good," in theory. "Good" as in "not stale," which is not the highest of compliments.
    How do they do it? The Tastykake people say they keep homemade in mind.
    "We try to use the basic ingredients, like your wife making a pie at home, but on a much larger scale," said Brent Bradshaw, a vice president of marketing at Flowers Foods, in Georgia, which owns Tastykake. "The pies are a unique item, in that little tin."
     Don't underestimate the role of the tin either — it's nostalgic, of course, and adds to the aesthetic experience, the way the foil around a Hershey bar did before they got rid of the foil. The tin helps, because the pie can be more delicate in a tin; it doesn't have to hold its own shape together as a lozenge pie does, or did, when someone still made them. 
     Bradshaw said one secret is that the pies are not sent to warehouses to sit around ossifying. "We're not going to put a lot of days on it," he said. "We want it brought in fresh on our delivery trucks. Other brands may ship to third party distributor, then to somebody else, they may take a few days to put it on the shelf We want our drivers in there every day."
     So do I. The short shelf life is the good news. The bad news is that, because of the short life of the pies, Chicago is just too far away from the old Philadelphia Naval Yard, where their bakeries are a located, to permit them being sold here. Distributing here just wouldn't be worthwhile—the extra day on the road would cut into the pies' already brief lifespan. And, frankly, they don't need us.
    "They sell very well, especially in the Pennsylvania market," said Bradshaw.
    So pie, among its many wonderful qualities, also helps maintain the uniqueness of the nation's disparate regions. I hope Tastykakes, perhaps lured in by the collapse of Hostess, never gets greedy, shoots its pies full of preservatives and starts shipping them to warehouses around Chicago.  It wouldn't be the same. There should be some things that are only available in certain parts of the country. Otherwise why travel at all? Why take the trouble and time to go somewhere if all you are going to find is exactly what you left behind? If the people at the Tasty Baking Company—is that a great name or what?— are reading this, remember the lesson of Krispy Kreme, which exploded from hard-to-find exotic Southern treat to over-exposed dull failure, and quickly too. Once upon a time my wife and I walked nearly an hour through early morning Manhattan to get to the Krispy Kreme on 6th Avenue, the first one north of the Mason-Dixon line. Now I wouldn't extend my arm to pluck one off a plate right in front of me. A word to the wise, Tastykake. Good pie is by definition hard to find. You have to earn it.


Friday, August 23, 2013

Strong at the broken places




     Justine Fedak and I met in the living room at Joakim Noah's house. I was there to interview the 6'11 Bulls star center. She was there because, well, she's everywhere — in charge of brand strategy, advertising and sponsorships for BMO Harris Bank across North America, she is the bank's liaison to both the Bulls and Blackhawks, among other duties, and is responsible for the fact that you can't watch a minute of basketball or hockey in Chicago without having positive thoughts about BMO Harris gently massaged into your cerebral cortex.
       In 99 out of 100 cases, that would have been that. I can't tell you whether corporate media relations harbors more incompetents that journalism or dentistry or any other field. But many marketing types have the tentative, I'm-just-visiting-here quality of birds setting down before a park bench. Land, peck a bit, then they're off and good luck ever finding them again, particularly when you need them most.
    Justine Fedak is not like that. Once I got within her field of vision she saw to it that I stayed there. She kept circling back, to check up on things, with such deftness that I found myself convinced she just sincerely likes me as a person and wants to enjoy the pleasure of my company, which may very well be the case. Or she might just be a very skilled communications executive doing her job. Hard for me to tell. You'll have to ask her.
    To be honest, I should have disliked Justine, on general principles, just for the fact that she is writing one of those guest columns in Splash, the Sun-Times celebrity/fashion magazine, a pickaxe to the foundation of my own gig. If any random bank executive with a certain flair can suddenly snag the interest of readers, well, then you don't really need guys like me hanging around on salary, do you? I try not to think about it.
     What kept me from disliking her, beside her disarming manner, is that she is good at column-writing, having discovered the secret of compelling writing: calibrated honesty. Not the make-myself-look-good-at-all-costs myopia that drags down even professional writers, not the let-it-all-hang-out excessive candor that causes amateurs to send readers cringing away.  But just the right deft touch, not too hot, not too cold. In a column about how she had to stop drinking when she learned she had Multiple Sclerosis in 2001. Or another about the cane she has to use because of the disease. Or even about her trademark funky eyeglasses.
     So though I avoid luncheons like the living death they often are, particularly luncheons involved with any kind of good cause, when I saw that Justine was being honored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Greater Chicago Chapter at the Ritz-Carlton in Monday, I made a point to be there. I'm not sure what I expected, but not the 500 people who also decided to show up. Oh, right, I'm not the only person she knows. Shit. I thought I was. Justine has a way of doing that.
     Still, I was glad to be there. I learned a lot. Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic, disabling disease where the immune system attacks the central nervous system. Myelin, the fatty substance that shields nerves, is scarred ("sclerosis" is medical-speak for scarring, or hardening of body tissue) and the multiple part comes because it can attack the brain, the spinal cord, the optic nerve.  Nobody knows what causes it and nobody knows how to cure it. Yet. But Justine is on the case.
     A lot of people got up and talked about how wonderful she is. Alan McNally, the former CEO of Harris Bank (and the former chairman of Walgreens; busy guy)  introduced her, and she demonstrated how right they were, with a powerful, effective, brief speech that merged the heretofore separate realms of impassioned disability activism and savvy brand management.
    "When you first get a diagnosis of MS, it's pretty macabre, it's pretty dark," she told the room. "Multiple sclerosis—I had no idea what that meant. I thought it was muscular dystrophy, and find out from the MS Society I was not alone in that thought. But what I knew is, I couldn't feel my left leg anymore. I was extremely tired, I was in terrible pain, felt like my body was being seared. Things that used to come to me very easily were very, very hard. And I started to doubt myself. I wanted to hide it. I wasn't always this open, because I was worried people would judge me.  And the career... I really figured I couldn't do it anymore."
   What allowed her to carry on and triumph over the disease was her employer, her boss at BMO Harris Bank, who "knew me well enough to push me. For me it was my work." 
   She said she shouldn't have been surprised, but she was.
   "The irony is BMO has always been a company that has broken the glass ceiling, that has given people an opportunity," she said. "It was all about your performance. I knew this, but I still doubted it, because it was too overwhelming and too scary. BMO embraced me when I was ready to give up."
     As can happen with difficulties, coping with MS forced Justine be a better person than she thought she could be. She learned to use a cane, then learned to love it.
    "It's forced me to look at myself differently," she said. "It's forced me to be more forgiving of myself. It's forced me to talk openly about what scares me. It's forced me to ask for help, and I hate asking for help, because I like to do things myself."
     After the speech, I leaped to my feet with the rest of the audience, clapping my hands sore, heart swelled for her and the great people she works with.
     It was only later, upon reflection, that I understood what she had pulled off, and my admiration deepened. She had a wonderful message, true—"I started to realize that I had to be in love with my life, every minute"—but she also managed to plug, not just BMO Harris, but a range of corporate interests: the Bulls, the Blackhawks, Walgreens, Edleman, the Sun-Times, Splash, her doctors, the National MS Society.
     Which some people will naturally smirk at, clinging to the too-easy, corporate-equals-bad mentality. Corporations have a bad rap because they often do bad things. But they also do good things, at least if you believe Justine Fedak, and I do.  You kinda have to. Because she knows a secret that many PR sorts never grasp—that if you are obviously candid in one area, particularly a difficult area, then you build trust, and people will believe you in another, completely unrelated area. And Justine is obviously candid.
     "The disease betrays you, it's very unpredictable," she said. "You never know when it's going to take hold of you....We don't think about disability, because we don't have to. But now I do, because I have to...People don't donate  because they don't understand MS. I have it and I don't understand it. This is the most random, ridiculous disease of all time."
    She referred to herself in the speech, several times, as "broken," the disease had broken her. She left it to her audience, or at least me anyway, to think of that Hemingway line from  A Farewell to Arms, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." 

To help fight the most random, ridiculous disease of all time, click here.

 

 
   
   

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Look! Clean sheets! And fresh toilet paper too!




     It must be really hard to run a hotel. There are so many things to get right -- rooms to clean, carpets to vacuum, toilets to scrub. Reservations to keep straight. Phones to answer. Breakfast to dish out. The elevators have to work.
    And still people complain. All the time. Even when everything is perfect, as the Hampton Inn & Suites in Streetsboro, Ohio seemed to us, at first. We had a long drive, from New York City, over 400 miles, and had one more night before we gratefully reached home. We were tired.
     This Hampton Inn, a modern, smartly-decorated lobby, all muted orange and tomato red. Square water container with sliced oranges. A tray of cookies. Free newspapers. A pool off the lobby that looks inviting -- most motel pools are gross. This one you wanted to sit beside, and I did. Outside, a basketball court. Next to each room was a different black and white art photo of some comforting, homey object: a compass, an Adirondack chair, a vintage pickup truck. A well-equipped fitness center. 
     Every little thing was considered. Our room happened to look out on, well, nothing -- a tar paper roof filled the window. I never would have noticed, might not have pulled back the curtain -- I didn't care about the view. But there was a small, plasticized coupon, apologizing for the view, offering us a free snack, soda and a sweet, from the gift shop, their way of saying, "sorry for the vista of shingles." Thoughtful. I let the boys use it to pick treats.
      But it wasn't quite perfect. In fact, there was something wrong, something bothersome. This one little thing, this fly in the ointment, and I'm reluctant to say it. Makes me sound nit-picky, which I certainly am. But the Hampton Inn was having a big advertising push, a media blitz, that included the above poster, affixed across the entire inside elevator door—a promotional technique I had never seen before—plus Post-It notes on each headboard, another first, ballyhooing this special feature that the hotel was extraordinarily proud of:
     Clean sheets. 
     The poster read: "daily special: clean bed," in lower case letters, perhaps to stress the e.e. cummings modernity of this benefit. The fine print drove home the wonder: "duvet covers & sheets are laundered fresh, every guest, every room, every day." A blissful blonde child and her teddy were shown sleeping serenely on their clean sheets.
    My first thought was: so much for the environmental kick. Because up to now, hotel communications on this topic were mostly trying to shame guests into not having their sheets changed every day and to urge them to hang up their wet towels instead of tossing the towels on the floor, in order to save the whales. That too was a bit annoying—it seemed a disingenuous gambit to cut down on the laundering bill disguised as environmentalism. Now this; now they were lunging the other way, making a grand show of washing your sheets as a quotidian gift, which is nice, but it's not as if you don't leave them on the bed for a week or three at home. The pendulum swings. 
     That they wash the duvet cover before you get there is unquestionably a benefit; most hotels don't—most hotels don't have a duvet, which is sort of a pillowcase the comforter goes in. Rather, they have a bedspread, and my wife immediately, ritualistically, cringingly strips it off the bed, expounding about God knows how many people have done God knows what upon it. She doesn't quite burn the bedspread in the sink, but the attitude is the same. She flings it in a corner as if it were crawling with smallpox and vermin and lice, crusted with secretions. Maybe it is.
     So clean duvet covers, hooray, and had it stopped there, it would have been welcome, although better had they just done it a little more quietly. This was a step away from "We Dig the Hair Out of the Drain." Well golly, thanks.  
    Then Hampton Inn took it a step too far, as sometimes happens in advertising. They included sheets, which to me should be a given. Plugging the cleanliness of the bedding struck me as, not an improvement, but a ratcheting down of standards. It implies that giving guests fresh sheets when they arrive is suddenly an option at Hampton Inn. This week they're doing it and proud —the "daily special" they called it—next week, who knows? No special sales event lasts forever. Maybe the clean sheets promotion won't either. "Oh the sheets are stained in your room? Yes, that is how we do it now. Clean sheets are only in August...."
    Up to now, I've never considered whether the hotel I was in wouldn't automatically—and modestly—give me clean sheets, and I've stayed in hotels in Haiti that cost $16 a night.  Hampton Inn, however, thinks doing so is special -- they're proud of washing their sheets, lately. Gosh, I hope they did so before. I just assumed....  
    Enough. I should say, before I let this go, having gnawed the topic too long already: the place was great. Even with the strange blurt of pride over basic hygiene. I'd stay there again in a heartbeat. The Hampton Inn & Suites, just off I-80, in Streetsboro, Ohio. Redecorated just last year. Run by nice, proud people. Big, tasty breakfast. And I'm sure not one guest in 100 would be annoyed by the clean sheets promotion. I just happen to be that one guest.


And if you need something to read in your motel...


     The paperback edition of "You Were Never in Chicago" is officially published today:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Smile! The Google car is watching you.



     The Suburu Impreza is not the kind of car that normally gets the kiddies pressing their faces to the car window on a road trip. No snarling Ferrari this. But it wasn't an ordinary compact car either that we encountered blasting down I-80 through the blankness of Indiana. Rather, it was one of the fleet of vehicles that Google Inc. has dispatched all over the world, taking pictures for their Google Street View application. Hard to believe, but they have been doing it for six years now -- in 2007, they had seven cities roughly photographed. Now they have 3,000 covered, with the ambitious goal of photographing every inch of the civilized world and much of nature as well.
     The project has not been without controversy, particularly overseas, where they take privacy more seriously than in the U.S., though 38 U.S. states sued Google, not for the photos, which are stitched together digitally to create 360 degree panoramas, but for hoovering up electronic data — passwords, emails, even medical records — from unprotected wi-fi networks as they drove along. Google promised to stop, and paid a $7 million fine, which is a rounding error on the company's daily profits.
     My boys wanted me to drive alongside the car, not only so they could eyeball the colorful vehicle, but so that our silver 2005 Odyssey might actually appear on Google Street View and thus achieve immortality. I did as they asked, though at first I was a little resentful. These are the same boys who shrug at being in my newspaper columns, and are completely indifferent to appearing in my books. Ho-hum, de nada. But to get the family van into Google Street View? That's significant. 
     Relax, I told myself. One must adapt to the times. Sneering at the Google Street View car is the 2013 version of Pop Hates the Beatles. Why not get excited? Of course it's wonderful. It is indeed very cool. You must admire the nerve of a company that set out to map the earth and offer the result to its customers for free. I've used Street View myself, to eyeball a building that I might have otherwise jumped in the car to go look at (convenient as hell, though not exactly an improvement in investigative rigor. Google Street View notwithstanding, it's still better to get your ass out of the chair and go look). Sending these compact cars skittering over the planet's surface might not be exactly the same as raising the pyramids or constructing St. Peter's Basilica. But it comes from the same impulse toward mastery, toward grandeur, toward taking on a seemingly impossible task and doing it.
    We drove along, snapping pictures, until one of us wondered whether the bearded gent driving the Google car might not mind being tailed and photographed. Which gave us all a laugh, given that he was part of a company criss-crossing all seven continents in a global like-it-or-not invasion of everybody else's privacy, if that isn't already an antique term. He had better not mind; turn-about is fair play. 
 
Photos by Kent Steinberg

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cleveland is looking good.




     Growing up on the outskirts of Cleveland when I did — the 1970s — left me with plenty of love for the city, though not a deep well of civic pride. Between our risible mayors, like Ralph J. Perk and Dennis Kucinich, and our burning Cuyahoga River, and our miserable baseball team, and our lone skyscraper, the Terminal Tower, that looks like the box the Statue of Liberty came in, well, Cleveland was, as I put it, "a good place to come from" though not bursting with specific present day accomplishments.
      Still, it was home, and I went back, periodically, though mostly to my actual hometown of Berea, west of the city. But during visits, I would still foray into Cleveland, to the Cleveland Museum of Art, or to go to a restaurant, or hear music. There was sort of brave yearning to Cleveland, a hunger to be better than it was, a feeling that was perfectly encapsulated in a card I found by the cash register in a store in the woebegone, fading Arcade in the mid 1980s, titled "Reasons to Be Proud of Cleveland." The idea, I suppose, was to tuck the card in your wallet and, should you find yourself put on the spot to explain what you like about the place, you could always whip the card out and consult it. The heart breaks.
     In the mid-1990s, the city seemed to finally undergo a renaissance. The suddenly hot Indians were winning games in the new, way cool Jacobs Field. The Ritz Carlton took over the formally moribund Terminal Tower Plaza and installed these dramatic high tech fountains. They even built another skyscraper downtown, so now there were two.
    Then, over the past decade, Cleveland seemed to slip again. The Indians weren't doing well anymore. The overbuilt Flats pleasure zone crumbled. The recession was on. Even comfortable little Berea sagged sadly, with boarded up houses and depopulated schools. Berea was bad enough; I was afraid to go to Cleveland and see how bad things were there.
Cleveland Museum of Art
     Earlier this month, however, heading to the East Coast to check out colleges, we planned to stay with friends in Berea, and scheduled ourselves a day to hang out and catch up. It says something about my perception of Cleveland that, even though my younger kid had just asked me why we never visit Cleveland, and even though I have happy memories of the place, the thought of actually going there for a few hours never crossed my mind. Why depress ourselves?
     But our Berea hosts, suggesting a Saturday afternoon activity, pointed out that they were showing "Citizen Kane" at the Palace Theater, a grand old movie house downtown. That sounded fun, and if we going downtown, well, it made sense to go early and look around.
     We stopped first at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which I vaguely remembered for a nice Henri Rousseau painting of oranges and a tiger, for a good Blue Period Picasso, for the fact that its Rodin "Thinker" sculpture had been bombed by radicals in 1970. And that's about it. 
     The museum, which marked its 100th year this year, has just undergone a $350 million overhaul. Its courtyard has been turned into a vast, jaw-dropping interior exhibit space, giving the museum a new, dramatic air. It looks great, and was thrilling to wander around. They're still got the Rousseau, too. 
     We had a picnic lunch between the Thinker and the lagoon, which I remembered as a dismal, deserted place. No more. Now it is bright and welcoming. An engaged couple was having their photos snapped around the fountain there while we ate, and gradually it dawned on me that we weren't in peril.  I explained to the boys that, rather than repair the statue after it was blown up, the museum cleverly returned it to its perch, damaged, a stronger commentary than the statue, overexposed to the point of cliche, would convey on its own. (I also told them the little known identity of the Thinker: he's supposed to be Dante, conjuring up his Inferno). 

    People tend to lump Cleveland with Detroit and St. Louis and Gary and other dying cities, and while it certainly still has challenges, Cleveland bounced back strongly from the recession, and the downtown shimmers.  Euclid Avenue—which I remember as a gritty, blasted, roll-through-the-stoplights-praying thoroughfare—looks refreshed, with the world-famous Cleveland Clinic having gobbled up block after block, turning them over to prosperous constituent medical facilities.
      The show at the Palace, complete with popcorn and a live organist, was surprisingly well-attended for a 70-year-old movie. Tickets were $5, as was all-day Saturday parking nearby.
The Arcade
    We stopped at The Arcade -- built in 1890, the first large scale interior shopping mall in the country, which I remember as a Godforsaken melange of dying shops — and found it taken over by a Hyatt Regency, polished and peopled. East Fourth Street, once a hooker hangout, is now closed to cars and a jammed pedestrian restaurant strip that makes you think of Little Italy in New York City or even New Orleans.
     We skipped the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so I can't assess it—my wife and I had gone there once, when it opened, and seemed more tomb than celebration, a mothballed collection of fringed jackets and sequined boots that only faintly hints at the living spirit of the music. "I saw the Ramones at the Agora," I said, explaining that visiting the Hall of Fame is like strolling through a cemetery. 
Soldier and Sailors Monument
     Each Cleveland icon we visited was in better shape than I recalled. Cleveland's Public Square is framed by the Terminal Tower and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, an elaborate Civil War memorial, a massive pillar surrounded by life size bronze sculptures. In my day it was a grimy hangout for winos—now it's scrubbed and fresh-looking, closely watched by a friendly docent who told us about the Civil War. Across the street, the Higbee's Building—movie fans might recall it as a setting for "A Christmas Story"—is now a Horseshoe casino, which we quick-stepped through, just to absorb the transition. Frankly, I'd rather have a department store, but it's better than nothing. 
      We strolled over toward the lakefront, by City Hall, where Chris Kennedy's $465 million Medical Mart & Convention Center is set to open in October, and we marveled that his investors were able to snag such primo property for the endeavor. The Medical Mart would be a major enterprise for any city to pull off in this economy, a source of pride that Clevelanders won't need mnemonic devices to recall. 
     Not all is beer and skittles in Cleveland, of course. While we were there, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland's sole newspaper, switched to three-day-a-week home delivery, and while that might be necessary as newspapers fight to stay alive and transition to all-electronic forms, it was sad to see the paper attempt to ballyhoo the loss as a benefit, pretending that cutting back on delivery was an exciting new development, a favor to readers, and that their continued ability to buy it daily in stores represented some kind of groundbreaking new service. I suppose candor would have been too much to expect—"We're trying to stay in business, bear with us"—but a bit of historical perspective might have eased the transition. Newspapers used to print five editions a day. The Plain Dealer used to be kept on its toes by the Cleveland Press, a spunky rival that once printed an open letter to John Paul II on its front page, in Polish, begging him to come to Cleveland. Home delivery three times a week, soon they'll print three times a week, then they'll print none, and now we're in the painful interregnum. Things change. Sometimes puffery only makes it worse. If your newspaper won't tell you the truth, who will?
     But I don't want to end on a sour note. We pulled out of Cleveland marveling at the good time we had—the new museum really is a must-see, and the Chicago Theater should take a tip from the Palace and start showing movies now and then, though I bet they'd charge $30 before they'd charge $5.    
     There had been a bit of foreshadowing to all this. A few days before we left Chicago, a coworker, knowing I'm from Cleveland, told me he had just returned from a few days in the city. "Business?" I asked. No, he said, he just took his family there on a brief vacation, and they all had a swell time. At the time I just looked at him dubiously. Really? Leave Chicago to go to Cleveland? And have fun? But having spent just one Saturday poking around downtown, now I understand. It's a changed city.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Nice work if you can get it: the college tour





     Eight colleges: Princeton, Yale, Brown, Williams, Amherst, Middlebury, Dartmouth, Columbia. Visited, one after another, boom-boom-boom, during a two-week, 2800-mile trek to the East Coast. Probably not the typical American summer vacation. Not exactly Disney World. But we are odd ducks, we Steinbergs. We liked it.
      We went to kick the tires of prospective schools for the oldest boy, the 17-year-old incoming senior — a “rising senior” I’ve learned to say, just one of many details of the academic world gleaned on the trip, from the proper pronunciation of Amherst — “Amerst,” no “h,” who knew? — to the fact that Middlebury has its own private ski slope, to the full name of Columbia University, “Columbia University in the City of New York,” which made me reflect on the economic, almost beautiful concision of “University of Chicago.” 
Nassau Hall -- Princeton
      The older lad picked the colleges. His brother, 16, gamely tagged along. My wife plotted the itinerary and found good hotels. My input, other than genes in the mid-1990s and resisting the urge to constantly quote Robert Browning’s line “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” was to insist there be some pure vacation stuff tucked in as well, between the tours, lest we go mad. Thus three days in a mountain cabin in Vermont, plus a couple days at the seashore in Massachusetts. I also drove most of the way.
     Prospective student tours are a big deal to colleges. Tens of thousands of potential customers beating a path to your place of business, begging to be impressed, fighting for the chance to give you money. It's an opportunity to be seized upon, even though only a fraction of the visitors — a handful in a hundred — will end up attending.
    As a guy in the communications biz, I was interested in how the schools met this challenge, how they presented themselves. Some were first rate. Some did a surprisingly cack-handed job of it. We attended an information session and a tour at each of the eight — tag team affairs where an official from the admissions office would talk up the school, or try to, then a student would lead a tour, though sometimes students were warm-up acts for the official, or even joined in the discussion.
      Princeton has the loveliest campus — sedate, beautiful, historic. Just strolling around lures you into the dream of luxury, of perfection. “I wish there were some animals, such as peacocks,” my older son actually said, as if he were landscaping Heaven. The town of Princeton adjacent to campus has the feel of an old money resort. The jeweler where I went at lunchtime to get a battery for my watch waved away my offer of payment, perhaps out of kindness, perhaps out of the charmed notion that I might return and buy a Patek Philippe or — my suspicion — perhaps because they do not traffic in trifles.
Yale 
      The Princeton info session took place in a vast science lecture hall, with a vaulted ceiling and old wooden desks, a complex, two story blackboard with giant, mysterious antique gauges above it, as if Michael Faraday had just stepped away for a beaker of benzene. The session, run by an assistant dean of admissions, was brisk, polished and without a false note.
     Afterward, our guide, Christine, a confident Californian sophomore, reminded me how out-of-touch with youth culture I have become. None of the bands or celebrities she mentioned attempting to impress us sparked even the faintest flicker of recognition with me — they could have been made up. It all sounded like, We had concerts by Woodburning Set, Dingus and the Feathered Friends last year. Plus Peter Piper filmed his last movie, "Delirium Tremens" here. That happened at nearly every tour. 
     The Princeton campus is wired for wi-fi, of course, and one has to wonder how much the traditional academic trimmings are mere backdrop. In praising the library, our guide said, “I like to touch 19th century books because they’re cool.” And here she paused, musing. “I don’t do anything, I just touch them and move on with my life.” No one hissed.
Sterling Library -- Yale 
    If Princeton felt somehow delicate and colonial, Yale had a more solid, medieval cathedral feel, even though those Gothic edifices usually turned out to be dorm bell towers and dining halls. The younger boy and I ducked out of the info session to explore New Haven’s city cemetery, where we found the graves of Glen Miller and Charles Goodyear. We returned for the tour. Our spunky North Carolina guide kept being interrupted by gas mowers and heavy machinery — lots of summer landscaping and construction at these cash-washed universities.
    Then we went to Brown. “Is this the college? No!” my older son said, aghast, after we parked at the periphery of campus, something of a hodgepodge after Princeton and Yale. Sitting, waiting for the information session to begin, I pointed to a brochure calling Brown “a microcosm of architectural styles.” The bright spin. “PR 101,” I told my wife. “Try to turn your flaw into an attribute.”
      The Brown admissions official — I should shield her name, lest I inadvertently add to the ranks of the unemployed — began her talk by introducing herself with these words: “I love cloudy weather, rainy days and my favorite animal is the baby penguin.” I wish I could say she was being ironic, but she wasn’t. After Princeton and Yale’s sharp presentations, it was like stepping from a fancy restaurant to a child’s lemonade stand. Helping her not at all was a student who spoke so fast he could hardly articulate words. “Like an auctioneer,” I jotted in my notebook and showed my wife, who nodded grimly. “Eighty percent of Brown students go to graduate school,” the official said. “The other 20 percent become admissions officers.” That wasn’t quite: “Don’t get a degree from Brown because it’s practically worthless.” But it sure came close. (Note to proud Brown alumni: don't blame me for telling you. I'm not saying the school isn't a fine one — it may very well be. Just that the presenters didn't manage to convey it, at least not to us). 
    In fact, the duo did such a thorough job of undermining any interest in Brown we might have had that, when their effort came to an end, we all stood up, looked at each other and mutually agreed to skip the tour and just hurry to Amherst. At the last moment, my oldest son said, “Well, we’re here already,” and we reversed course and joined a tour. We were glad we did, because the guide, an enthusiastic young man from Mexico City (“Daniel, like the girl’s name,” he said, pronouncing it “Danielle”) did much to repair the battered reputation of the school, earnestly explaining how he had found his home at Brown. He radiated energy, though didn’t keep Brown from sinking to the bottom of the list and staying there.
     We made it to Amherst late, though in time for most of their last session of the day, guided —practically passed hand-over-hand — to the proper place by helpful students. Arriving at an intense disquisition in a spare, white meeting room, flanked by balconies, I felt like we had barged in a 1650 Pilgrim chapel. I kept wishing this serious conversation could be projected on a split screen to the assembled Brown community, alongside their own clownish performance, as penance.  “We have the resources to support your creative and intellectual endeavors,” the Amherst official said.
     Amherst is nestled in mountains. Our Amherst guide took great pride in walking backwards, and swung mightily for the home team. "Liberal arts does not mean unemployed," she said. She was also the only guide to stress a school's anti-substance abuse policy, including substance-free dorms (all dorms are theoretically drug free, but the designated substance-free dorms really mean it, apparently). 
     Alas, like many guides, she didn't have the whole talking-to-people thing down, and used the word "actually" in every other sentence, as an intensifier. "There's a reason why we love our alumni," she said. "Roughly 50 percent of all our alumni are actually active. Regardless of whether or not you are formally on financial aid, your education is actually subsidized by $20,000. That's because of our large endowment here. We are actually going to see their presence through our alumni database. When it comes to our alumni, we actually have their information on a data base...."
    The word became like a ball peen hammer tapping on the base of my skull, but my family afterward said they didn’t notice it, so maybe it was just me.
     Williams offered perhaps the most impressive spiel, the admissions officer — a canny vet, a few weeks from retirement — who asked students to identify themselves and talk about the reasons they are interested in Williams, then seamlessly wove their expectations into a presentation that covered all aspects of the school. At Williams, you could clearly see the tension between the parents’ interest — that their kids' expensive education would lead to a career of sorts, eventually — and the undergraduate imperative for fun. Williams has a system where you can hop off the study treadmill to pursue personal passions, and the examples given were: stone masonry, cheese-making, exploring surfer culture and a jaunt to Burgundy to learn winemaking, which I’m sure was loads of fun. Why you need a pricey college to master cheese making is another question.
    Of the eight schools, Dartmouth was the only one I had visited previously — Rolling Stone sent me there 20 years ago to do a story about a new way students communicated with one another, using a computerized message system called email, which became so popular some students weren’t even having phones installed in their dorms. I had expected the students to delight in the big shot magazine’s attention, but found them surly, unhappy that Rolling Stone had recently done a profile on the Dartmouth frat that inspired the film “Animal House” and was, apparently, inspiring it still.
Dartmouth
    None of this I mentioned, not wanting to affect my son’s search process with decades-old biases. And indeed, the associate director of administrations, Katie Madden, was as far from Dean Wormer as imaginable: easily the best of the eight, smartly explaining Dartmouth as part of a sharp, well-ordered career strategy that —and I’m exaggerating here only slightly — starts with excelling in high school and ends with winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine. She could easily be cast in the next big budget action thriller as the Secretary of Defense, briefing the president about the unfolding crisis with coolness and precision. Rather than any rambling, I-like-clouds digression, she gave an organized talk, explaining the three aspects to Dartmouth she was going to emphasize — “access, flexibility and engagement” Madden was also the only one of the eight to use real student examples, Dartmouth students she named who were patenting medical devices and forming their own companies and teaching African villages to use foot pump nebulizers.
     “The world is their classroom,” she said. “There are no boundaries to the experience you can have.” Those people at Brown, I kept saying to myself, ought to be ashamed.    
    After that, I was ready for my boy to go all out for Dartmouth. Then came the tour. Our guide had lived in London and Tokyo and Singapore and did, generally, an excellent job of pointing out the locations on campus. He also delved into the realm I had been reluctant to mention. “Everybody drinks under age,” he said, explaining that this is a major reason for fraternities, which — and he didn’t use these exact words, but this was the essence of his meaning — beside their continual charitable work, are basically temperance organizations designed to minimize the harm that comes from campus drinking by providing controlled settings for it to occur under the close supervision of responsible individuals. “Our parties serve really diluted beer,” he said, noting that 70 percent of the student body at Dartmouth join a frat or sorority, prompting my boy, who had researched all these schools down to the last detail, to ask his first question of the trip: “Would you comment on Dartmouth’s unofficial mascot being Keggy the Keg?” To which our guide replied, in essence, “umm.” 
     The last school was Columbia, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  As my boy bounded up to the desk to give his name to admissions clerk, I couldn’t help but think of his great-grandfather, Sam Steinberg, painting billboards in the Bronx in the 1920s, in his coveralls and painter’s cap, lugging around his buckets of whitewash. What would he think about his great-grandson even having a shot to go to Columbia? Proud, I hope. I sure was. In fact, I was what my people call verklempt.
     That quickly passed. Before the administrator showed up, Matt, a perky Columbia student — trim, mod eyeglasses, maroon v-neck, perfect pompadour — gave a presentation that was almost a performance piece, like one of the monologues from “A Chorus Line.”  Much of the appeal of Columbia, apparently, involves Hollywood stars joining your 
a capella group and seeing Daniel Radcliffe — whose name I at least recognized — shoot a movie scene on campus.
Columbia
     Still, he was sprightly and sincere — so sincere I wished his remarks, too, could be recorded and saved. Not to shame Brown, but so Matt, who no doubt will make a fine professional someday, could be shown it in 20 years time, to his certain horror.  Asked his favorite class, he replied “salsa and reggae dancing” and praised a student club called “Feel Good.”
     “They make grilled cheese and then just bring it to you,” he said. And to think Columbia only charges $60,000 a year to attend.
     He was relieved at last by a grown-up, James Minter, the director of international admissions, a robust, mustachioed man in a blue polo who had a calm, steady demeanor that I liked very much. He was like someone from the Army Corps of Engineers sent to explain how Columbia University would build a bridge to your future life. “Argument is what we do here,” he said, detailing the core curriculum of classics, and I looked over at my boy, to whom argument comes as naturally as breath. Minter spoke about himself, but in a sophisticated fashion. He was born in Georgia, he said, and was asked: did not moving to New York City seem a cultural shock?
     “For me, the culture shock was birth,” he said. “Coming to New York was correcting the mistake.” By the time he was done, the audience was leaning forward, breathless, its collective heart pinned on Columbia. Or, again, maybe it was just me.
      Regarding my older boy's impressions, he's a very close-to-the-vest lad. Let's just say, not Brown. Applying to high end colleges is the rare situation in American life where it's unarguably far better to be a rural black child or a Navajo. Bright middle class suburban Jewish kids are a dime a dozen, and need to bring clean drinking water to an African village or figure out something clever in their essays or snag a bit of luck to get themselves snatched from the slurry. We had managed to boost our prominent noses over the cliff's lip and were staring at the Promised Land of upper crust academic success. But whether my hard-working kid could claw his way that last mile, to an actual spot under one of those majestic oaks, is another matter. We didn't dwell on it.
Morgan Library -- New York
     The younger boy is into celebrity food television, so as a reward for his preternatural patience, we let him pick the restaurant in New York to go to after it was all over, and he chose Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster, at 125th and Lenox, where we had a glorious Southern feast, outdoors on a beautiful summer day, watching the lively Harlem streetscape stroll by. Which made me think that Tolstoy was wrong when he said that all happy families are alike. Each happy family is happy in its own idiosyncratic way. At least ours is, happy just to seek, to explore, to learn, to try. A bit of success would be nice, too, but we aren't expecting promises.
     After lunch, while the older boy headed uptown with his mother to huddle with a Columbia neurological researcher and tour her lab, my younger son and I slipped downtown to have some fun, and visit the Morgan Library. That would not be considered fun for every 16-year-old, nor for every dad, but it was thrilling for the both of us, and we spent a long time studying the treasures that old Pierpont Morgan had hoovered up from Europe.  Next year, we will visit the colleges my younger son is interested in, and while he has only mentioned one so far—the University of Glasgow, because it was founded in 1451—I told him that people have gone to colleges for worse reasons, and that we stand poised to hie ourselves to Scotland and check it out, should he so desire.

   
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Columbia University