"Good column today," Neil Liptak, a reader in the far southwest suburban town of Elwood writes. "Made me want to ask you: What have you learned after writing your column all these years?"
The prudent route would be to thank him and go on. "The first thing that came to mind was, 'People are crazy,'" I replied. "But that's extreme. Maybe Hemingway's, 'The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.'"
Still glib. And the question lingered. Nobody ever asked me that before, and I began to suspect it deserved a sincere answer.
Where to begin? Thousands of columns . . . geez, what haven't I learned? There is a Chicagoland Puppetry Guild. The United States and China are almost exactly the same size, in area. The pleats in a kilt go in the back. Some survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima fled to Nagasaki, where they also survived the second atomic bomb. The only elective office Jane Byrne ever held was mayor of Chicago. The Cook County medical examiner performs autopsies with a 10-inch kitchen knife. The 14th floor sky bridge on the Wrigley Building was built to skirt banking regulations. There is an S/M dungeon on Lake Street, two blocks from the Thompson Center.*
I could go on and fill the column with trivia — the first cell phone call placed by a member of the general public was to Jack Brickhouse; the globed streetlights on Wacker Drive have the lovely name "boulevard electroliers" — but my sense is that the reader was aiming for something more, something akin to wisdom.
I'm uncomfortable with the notion of dispensing wisdom. First because it means I consider myself to be wise, which is both untrue and an invitation to ridicule. ("I'll tell ya what ya learned, Steinfart, ya learned that a no-talent HACK can make a living spewing his psycho liberal bull..."), and second because wisdom tends to be both contradictory and situation specific. "A penny saved is a penny earned" is good advice, unless you're hiring a band to play at your wedding, when you should spend every cent you can scrape together or borrow, because otherwise you'll have a lousy band and what's the point of that? (Instead of wisdom, I'd rather dispense wedding advice: Skip the rental napkins. Jews, don't ceremonially step on a wrapped light bulb instead of a wine glass; light bulbs pop. Splurge the two dollars for a real glass).
But general, one-size-fits-all wisdom?
There must be something.
How about "Doubt is good"?
Doubt gets bad press, because it's seen as lack of self-confidence. But in the sense of questioning your assumptions, doubt is wonderful, the difference between being a thinking person and being a zealot. The world is full of zealots, glittery-eyed and certain. Better to be characteristically uncertain, skeptical and demanding proof.
"Am I wrong here?" is always a good question to ask yourself. In the column, it isn't the things I'm unsure of that come back to haunt me — I check those. It's the parts that I am convinced are correct that can cause trouble.
So, re-evaluate now and then. Do a spring cleaning of your biases as well as your garage.
What else? Memory is faulty. People lie, all the time; they lie to others and to themselves. One example or two isn't proof of anything.
Persistence is important. More people quit than fail. They want the big "I Tried Once" trophy and the idea of dropping their head down and working hard is repellent to them. I don't know if I got this from writing the column or from being half-Polish — I think of we Poles as grab-the-traces-and-drag-the-plow-through-the-hard-earth kind of people.
Or at least we were; my branch of the family hasn't been there for almost 70 years. Which brings up another bit of wisdom: Times change, and you need to keep up with them.
The beauty of a column is it forces you to stay current. I'll be on the cusp of opining what Tokyo is like then realize, whoops, I was last there in 1989. Keep on top of stuff. Don't be naive. Don't believe things credulously.
Brevity is good. Nothing helps a 1,200 word column like cutting it to 800 words.
Nostalgia is a lie. If someone suggests the past was better, make them name a year, then dredge up the forgotten horrors of that year.
There is more world than we have time to grasp, and people too often wall themselves off and dismiss anything they're unfamiliar with out of fear — fear of the unknown being a major motivator in people who'll jump through hoops rather than admit they are wrong about anything, out of vanity, another universal. Everybody makes mistakes, but not everybody can admit it. Recognizing that you are capable of error is the path to wisdom.
There's never enough space. Maybe that's what I've learned: Columns are short, life is short. Try your best to make it interesting.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 22, 2011
* No longer true; they tore the building down this month.