Friday, March 31, 2017

Trump shocks come fast, furious and postal

Dimitry Strashnov, center, CEO of Pochta Rossi, the Russia postal service, looks at first day ceremony for Trump stamp. 

     The most outrageous thing about Donald Trump is that there is no most outrageous thing. There can't be. The man is a constant whirlwind of outrage. Nixon had the drip drip drip of Watergate.  Trump is a fire hose of ethical lapses, a new Watergate every day if not every hour. Outrage over Tuesday's shock barely builds before Wednesday's jaw-dropper arrives, and those still going on about Monday's astonishment seem positively mired in the hazy past.
      Thus I was only mildly surprised to read in Linn's Stamp News, and nowhere else, that two weeks ago the Russians featured their pal, President Donald Trump, with his own postage stamp. This is the first time the Russians have ever honored a U.S. president, and while the Russian issued the stamp without explanation, it doesn't take a genius to see what is going on here. One hand washes the other.
     Trump's reaction was pure, well, Trump: "I'm much better looking than that," he told Fox News' Brett Baier. "I am a very, very handsome man."
    What adult says things like that? 
    Yes, on one hand, like so many of the tawdry occurrences during the Trump administration, this is dwarfed in significance by worse excesses: his war against immigrants, Muslims the environment, health care—thwarted at the moment, but just wait—against a free press, fair elections, free trade, internet privacy, the very idea of factuality itself, our most precious possession...the list goes on, but you see what I mean. 
     Nor do we need the Russians to issue a stamp in order to illustrate their fondness for our 45th president—their machinations to throw the election to him demonstrated that aplenty. 
    And yet. Somehow. Maybe because I'm a former stamp collector—that's why I check Linn's Stamp News from time to time—the new Trump stamp somehow embodies all these ills in one flimsy paper parcel. 
     This isn't the first time the Russians have honored those in the West who do their bidding, you know.  In 1990, the Soviet Union issued a stamp honoring British double agent Kim Philby. But the Trump stamp is, in a sense, worse. Philby was dead when the stamp came out. Trump is very much alive and doing, well, whatever it is he's doing that makes the Russian love him so.  
     The Trump stamp, by the way, was designed by an American, graphic designer, Patrick O'Neil, who has not only created stamps for a number of infamous regimes, including a series of stamps glorifying Saddam Hussein, but also created the graphic presence for the Pakistani military government, including a pamphlet entitled, "Why Am I Being Tortured?" 
On sale last week in Moscow
     If Trump offers endless outrage, there are at least a handful of comforts. First, American institutions have stood firm under the onslaught and that, combined with the determination of clear-headed Americans, his most egregious schemes, regarding immigration, regarding health care, have so far been thwarted. The nonsensical wall still remains on the drawing board. And there is every indication that the excesses that swept him into power over a far more qualified opponent will prove to be illegal as well as immoral, and that we might yet be spared four (or, shudder, eight) full years of a Trump presidency. 
      Meanwhile, though I haven't purchased any new stamps to augment my boyhood collection in years, I plan to shell out the $2.25 plus shipping for one from Loral Stamps, which specializes in Russian stamps online, write away to one of the companies advertising in Linn's and get my own copy of the Russian 25 kopek Trump stamp. Not as a collector's item, nor because I think they will become valuable. But because I believe it represents, as all good stamps will, an embodiment of its historic moment, a moment that sees an American president in thrall to our nation's bitterest opponent, and that opponent boldly blowing kisses back in his direction. It would look tawdry in fiction but it is, as this new stamp starkly reminds us, all too real.

If you'd like your own Trump stamp, you can order one by clicking here.


When you stumble out of that bar, at least cross at the corner


     In 2015 I looked at the red crossing flags of Evanston, a charming 19th century practice that somehow popped up in the 21st century. But only here on the blog. It seems something worth sharing with the Sun-Times readership, and this study of pedestrian fatalities seem the perfect opportunity.

     Seldom in modern society do you engage in an activity where anyone makes the suggestion: You know, this might go more smoothly if you wave a flag over your head.
     Celebrating patriotic holidays, perhaps.
     But if you attempt to cross the street at one of 11 busy locations in Evanston, you will find a white cylindrical container holding wooden dowels bearing red flags — unless delinquents have swiped them — and a stark sign warning: LOOK LEFT & RIGHT WHEN CROSSING — FOR ADDED VISIBILITY CARRY RED FLAG ACROSS WITH YOU." The concept is, you pluck a flag out of one container, cross in safety, then deposit it in the cylinder attached to the sign across the street.
     A little unsettling, isn't it? If the crossing is dangerous enough to demand flags, why not install a stop sign? Then again, perhaps being unsettled as you walk around town is a good thing.
     Pedestrian traffic fatalities are soaring in this country, up 25 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to a report issued Thursday by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Which means pedestrian fatalities are rising four times faster than auto deaths.

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Where is your home?

Child's sidewalk drawing, Northbrook, 2017

     "Home," wrote Robert Frost, in his heartbreaking poem "Death of a Hired Man," "is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." 
      It's a fraught sentence, with more going on under the surface than might immediately appear. It has the perspective of youth built in. Implied is the prodigal, all possibilities squandered, arriving unwelcome on his familiar doorstep. The door is half opened, by a powerful arm. A surprised, almost angry glare. Then a sigh. A step back, the door now open all the way. Welcome home.
  Frost was 40—his birthday was this past Sunday—when the poem was published, in his collection "North of Boston" in 1914, for which he collected one of his four Pulitzer Prizes. Forty hovers between the man who shows up at the door and the man who opens it—Frost had already had his six children by then, and seen two of them die. If you haven't read the poem, you should do so now by clicking on the link above, as nothing here will reward your time like that will. 
    It's told mostly in dialogue, the cadences of New England: Ezra Pound thought it Frost's best poem. Though it isn't about the return of a son, but a broken down farm employee with no where else to go.
     I've always taken that line out and repurposed it, which you are allowed to do. It's my favorite line from Frost, who gets a bad rap, for "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" with its village and little horse and the woods, "lovely, dark and deep," not to mention those two roads diverging into a yellow wood. Based on that, he's thought of as sort of the poetic Norman Rockwell. Though, like Rockwell, he is judged harshly by what the crowd embraced.  And just as Rockwell came out slugging for civil rights, so there is "Out, Out" about a boy who cuts his hand off in a buzz saw. Frost saw poetry as starting in something real.
     A poem, he said, is “never a put-up job.... It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.”  

    "A sense of wrong ... a tantalizing vagueness." Lot of that going around lately.  Living in Northbrook for the past 16 years, it of course is my home, at least officially, technically. And while I am fond of the 1905 Queen Anne farmhouse where we live and raised our boys, when I walk to the park downtown, and sit on a bench, regarding the stillness, I can't say I feel that this is my home. Which raises the question: if not here, then where? Where might home be? My parents are both alive, in Boulder, and though I've been visiting there since 1973, Boulder certainly isn't home. Nor is Berea, Ohio, where I grew up, though I do love to go back, and can't help but notice we could buy four similar houses there for what our house costs here. 
    Digging deeper, I suppose home is where my wife is. That makes sense. Even on a Metra car, riding the train to work in the morning, has a warm, comfortable, sleepover feel with us shoulder to shouler, reading the papers in companionable silence. If not that, then home has to be something I'm still looking for, the impulse that caused me to set my sails at 18 and drift away in the first place. I'm assuming I'll know it when I see it. But maybe not. 



Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Doing good while going broke



 

    Getting clean is expensive. There are counselors to pay, sheets to launder, and all that coffee to buy. In-house rehab can cost $10,000 a month or more, and that is not anything fancy. Fancy will set you back $50,000 a month. Sound like a lot? Exclusive rehabs in exotic locales charge twice that.
     Then there is St. Martin de Porres House of Hope, a recovery home in Woodlawn. Its residents pay nothing. Located in an old Catholic school, next door to the burned Shrine of Christ the King Church, St. Martin offers“a safe and structured community living environment for women and children to recover from substance abuse addiction.”
     Don’t overlook the “and children” part. Very few rehab centers permit kids. St. Martin de Porres has cribs and a toy-strewn playroom.  

    “By 5 o’clock this place will be filled with kids,” said Yaiso Hagood, executive director, giving a tour Friday while residents were at morning meditation class. “Since we have an older population, their grandchildren come on the weekend. It’s a very therapeutic process for them.


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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

4 Tips for Gravel Driveway Maintenance


     I've been reading lately about artificial intelligence, how someday it will replicate the judgment that people show, and threaten human primacy. We won't need writers, artists composers. Machines will do it better.
     To which I think: hmmm, maybe yes. Or maybe no. Given the difficulty that people have consistently demonstrating the mental acuity expected in a full-fledged person, machines have a long, long way to go.
     Even a task as simple as mine, on this blog: toss up something interesting to others once a day, every day.
     In the three and half years I've done this, I've developed a few readers—just passed the 2 million mark, which is either moderate success or abject failure, I can't decide: another difficult human judgment call.
     In that time, nobody has ever volunteered to write a post.
     And then, March 10, I received this:



     The link was to a quarry equipment supplier in Australia. Curious, I replied, linking to my Thornton quarry post:



     Ten days passed, while my custom content was being crafted. Then this:




     Attached was this story: 


4 Tips For Gravel Driveway Maintenance

Lofts Quarries




First impressions are the most important, right? So when someone comes to your home, the outside is the first thing they see. That’s why having a beautiful driveway is so important, and gravel driveways can look particularly impressive.

Water problems

You might find that you’re having water problems on your gravel driveway, with ruts, washouts and birm. This likely means that you have drainage issues. You’ll need to evaluate your driveway to decide the best way to fix it. If you have higher areas around your gravel driveway, you could add more gravel to make it higher. Alternatively, you could also install a ditch or culvert to help pull the water away from where it flows over the gravel.

Remove debris

An easy way to help maintain your driveway in pristine condition is to ensure that you keep removing any debris. This could include leaves and sticks, and the longer your avoid the problem, the more time consuming the task will be later. Try and get them removed once a week to keep on top of the problem.

Keep on top of weeds

Even with landscaping material underneath the gravel driveway, weeds can still be a problem. The best and easiest thing to do is to keep applying weed killer to the surface, to stop any pesky weeds growing through.  

Despite this, they can be challenging to maintain. To help, we’ve created our top tips to keep your gravel driveway looking brand new all year round.

Cover potholes with more gravel


Ok, this is just a quick fix, but it’s still useful if you’re short on time. Your gravel driveway is likely to develop potholes, and these can be fixed by using a shovel to even out the driveway. Simply even it out and tap it down. Be aware though that this will leave a weak area, so the pothole is likely to come back.

     Now do you see why editors are always so drawn and testy? Look back at what I requested: "something about Loft quarries." And what I got: something about weeding and pouring more gravel on your driveway. 
     Did I mention Loft Quarries sells gravel? It does.
     I could have rejected it. But assuming Jyoti Kakkar is a real person—the name might sound exotic to you, but there are 23 Jyoti Kakkars in Linked-In, and I imagine this one in some windowless room the outback, among 300 other women tapping at keyboards, and did not want to vex her, nor add to her life's burden. I wrote back what every writer the world over longs to hear:



     Redline Media seems to be in the business of helping companies with their online presence. As their web site puts it:
We assist our clients by integrating creativity with today’s technology in order to achieve your online business objectives. By working through a goals-based assessment of your real-world business requirements, we will develop effective online and offline strategies to provide a measurable return on investment. 
     Remind me to kiss the ground in my office. I should experience the nauseous crack of doom in all this, should feel like a Neanderthal, standing in the damp, dark chill of nighttime on the veldt, gazing in dumb envy at the cook fires of the Cro-Magnon men who will replace me. My old boss, Michael Ferro, now the master of tronc, certainly believes machines will be constructing watchable videos and writing news stories any moment. Certain short, generic news items are already computer-generated.
     But I just don't see it. Yes, the Internet is created by vast banks of young persons working for peanuts churning out material such as the above. But would you honestly spend much time on-line if that was the general quality of what it offered? Hell no. Even if execution gets better, much better? The human mind is a profoundly complicated organism, and most owners of it can't write a halfway engaging post or edit a decent video. 
      Still, this experience is, I hope, worth thinking about, while human thought is still occurring online and not just dead algorithms grinding away. Some money must be trading hands, somewhere, right? How this Australian gravel company can find it in their interest to hire this marketing company to generate content on my page, through the good offices of Jyoti Kakkar is an utter mystery. Though let me point out that I'm sure Ms. Kakkar is a fine individual supporting a family or just starting out in the world and I hope she is not too distressed by seeing the, ah, addition material that I've generated to frame her piece. But she should know, you reach into the dark box of the Internet, you never know what is there, waiting to sink its fangs in you. 
     

Monday, March 27, 2017

Trump twists crime numbers to demonize immigrants


   

     The realm of integers — numbers such as 1, 2, 3, 4 — is perfectly divided between odd and even. There are as many even whole numbers as odd. That isn't my opinion. It's just a fact.
     Were you to respond, "Oh yeah, what about 13? Kinda blows your theory out of the water, Neil, don't it?" you would be a fool, because focusing on 13 does not change the larger situation. Were you to add, "And don't forget 15. And 17. And 19, 21, and 23. I rest my case," you would not be cementing your victory, but further illustrating your folly.
     Because evidence is not proof. This is easy to see in math, where emotion is at a minimum. In politics, however, as the Season of Trump illustrates to our daily amazement, emotion reigns supreme. People pretend to be analyzing when, in fact, they are buttressing their own rigid beliefs with cherry-picked data points.
     Regular readers might have noticed that I don't visit Trumpland much lately. For the simple reason that the media is turning a thousand spotlights on the flaming disaster, and my adding one more wouldn't provide additional light. Repetition becomes dull, and readers deserve regular relief from our national agony.
     However, some things are so horrible that every responsible American must point at them and scream "NO!" Such a pressing wrong is Trump's Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office, or "VOICE," a government agency designed to demonize undocumented immigrants by drawing attention to crimes committed by them, in an attempt to justify his anti-immigration policies. Trump highlighted VOICE in his address to a joint session of Congress Feb. 28.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

"You need to link the ducks"




      How wet is our yard? We have ducks. This happy couple hang out after a few puddles form — at least I assume it's the same couple. I can't believe that whenever it rains a pair of ducks happen by. I always pause to admire them, and for some reason, Saturday, seeing ducks reminded me of this column, which really has nothing to do with ducks other than the cabbie's enigmatic phrase, which I used as a headline. 
    It's from four years ago, when my book about Chicago came out, the New York Times panned it, along with two other books and the city itself. It was a shocking thing — I took it as cosmic payback for my caring what the Times or anybody else thinks — and I wrote a column about it. That helped give me strength to endure later seeing the Tribune take the author of the slur out to lunch to hold her hand and coo sympathetically to the hurt she suffered because proud Chicagoans objected to her deluded calumny. I myself couldn't face her — when WTTW phoned, and asked me to appear on "Chicago Tonight" with her, I replied, "I'm not going to try to out-hiss that snake." It was the right call. 

     At 5 p.m. I lowered the venetian blinds, put on my sport coat and then my raincoat and stood in the office, mustering the strength to leave.
     The phone rang—my father.
     "Mom told me," he said. "It's hard to believe. Are you sure? They don't do that sort of thing."
     "Well . . . they made an exception for me," I said, with a rueful laugh.
     "Maybe you should write a letter to the editor," he suggested.
    "I'm not going to do that, dad." We talked some more; I said I had to get going promised a friend I'd go to his cocktail party, to add my single sequin's worth of luster.
     "But I'm really glad you called," I said. "That means a lot to me. Love you."
     I took the elevator down to the street.
     "A taxi, young man?" Marvin, the always-friendly doorman called out as I pushed through the revolving door.
     Normally, I would walk—between the river and Wacker Drive, past Marina Towers, turning down State Street. I like to walk. Never tire of being downtown, of seeing the buildings, the people, the trains. It's beautiful, and a joy just to be there. But the phone call meant I was running a little late and, to be honest, I was so heartsick, I didn't feel like walking. I didn't feel like anything.
     "Yeah Marvin, a cab, thanks," I said. He blew his whistle, a boxy maroon Royal Three CCC cab rolled up."17 East Monroe," I said, getting in. "The Palmer House."
     "How is your day?" the driver asked.
     "Lousy," I said. "But if I told you why my day is lousy, you'd laugh at me. So tell me, how are you?" His day wasn't doing too well either. The chip from his cellphone? He had removed it, folded the tiny chip into a receipt, like so— he showed me the receipt—and put it in a padded envelope. But somehow the chip had fallen out and was lost in the cab.
     "It held many special pictures," he said—of his fiancĂ©e, for instance. I offered suggestions for finding the errant chip, and asked him to pass the padded envelope back to me.
     "Sometimes a second set of eyes helps," I said, peering inside, feeling around. I scanned the carpet in the back, scrutinizing every speck. He seemed discouraged.
     "Is this your cab?" I asked. He said it is. "Then look for it in the morning," I said. "It has to be here somewhere." He was worried it had fallen into the gearshift.
     "It's hard to lose something," I commiserated. "I bet it'll show up."
     We crossed the river and were in the Loop now. What, he asked, about my day?
     My day, my day. Was I really going to tell the cabdriver about my day? Why not?
     "Well I'm a newspaper columnist, a writer," I said. "I learned that on Sunday, the New York Times is going to slam my book about Chicago. A complete pan. On the cover of the Book Review. I not only embarrassed myself, but drew contempt upon the city."
     The cabbie wasn't having any of it.
     "No, no, no!" he cried. "New York cannot review Chicago!" He glanced back at me. "You're upset? C'mon now. Street cred. That's what they just gave you. Street cred."
     He was jubilant. "Street cred?" I smiled. Nobody ever suggested I had "street cred" before. I asked him his name: Christian, from Nigeria, driving a cab 10 years.
     "I'm an American citizen now. I'm a Chicagoan," he said. "I love it. I've been to New York, and you know what? They put garbage in their streets. Chicago is one of the best cities that have ever been. No no no no. It's a privilege to be in Chicago. No please sir." He chortled. He handed back a receipt.
     "Please write down the name of the book—I want to read it."
     "Cost you 15 dollars and 58 cents on Amazon," I muttered, scribbling. "My handwriting isn't the best," I added, handing it back, reading aloud what I had written: "You Were Never in Chicago—Neil Steinberg."
     "One reason is, they feel embarrassed. You tell your wife..." —I had told him I was reluctant to tell her about the review—"...she will laugh at you. She will laugh and say, 'What does that matter?' They are unhappy. Unhappy people, they try to hurt other people. New York and Chicago are completely different. You need to link the ducks."
     I'm not sure what he meant by that last part, or if I heard it right through his accent. But I liked the sound, and took it to mean, "You need to make sense of a crazy world."
     "And you're upset?" he laughed again. "Are you serious? Your wife is going to have a ball! That's the way that I feel." We pulled up to the Palmer House. He was laughing and to my vast surprise, I was too, shaking my head, the stone on my heart miraculously lifted.
     I tipped him very well, and told him I thought that God had sent his cab to me.
     "Keep your head up—you're a Chicagoan!" he called after me as I walked into the intricate glittering splendor of the Palmer House. He's right: You need to link the ducks.

                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 21, 2013

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Meep-meep

   
 
     I came to awareness in a particularly mediocre time for children's cartoons, the mid-1960s. Huckleberry Hound. Beanie and Cecil. Magilla Gorilla. Not exactly art for the ages. Not exactly "Krazy Kat." The Flintstones wasn't bad—we didn't know it was a bald rip-off of "The Honeymooners." But it was on at night; intended for adults. People forget that.
     Luckily, there was relief, in the form of Warner Brothers cartoons. They had begun their lives in the 1940s in theaters, part of the elaborate set piece that was going to the movies, along with newsreels and travelogues and such, intended to pad the intervals between features. They had ended their useful cinematic purpose, and were now pressed into endless duty in the saw-dust floor vaudeville of Saturday morning VHF television. There they stood out like a Fabrege Easter egg set among plastic ones: funny, well-produced, fast-paced, artistic, mini-movies. They easily withstood being watched over and over and we did.
     Of course I was a Bugs Bunny fan, appreciating his mordant wit and detached style that at the time I didn't realize was lifted from Groucho Marx. The Road Runner tended to bore me, with its constant chases and desert dry locale and hardly any witty dialogue at all. The occasional boast or "ulp" from the inevitable loser, the sputtering mockery of "meep-meep" from the inevitable winner.
     But the cartoons did give us a classic trope, a metaphor, a stock character in the form of Wile E. Coyote or, as he would put it, in an arch, thespian voice completely at odds with his mangy, underfed demeanor, "Wile E. Coyote"—pronouncing it "Kie-oh-tay"— Genius." It was on his business card.
    He came to mind Friday afternoon, frozen in that eternal moment after he has grabbed at the Road Runner and plunged over a cliff, that instant where he looks at the viewer, his pupils dilating, before hurtling to earth with a twanging "Ptooooo," and then the Doppler effect whistle of a falling bomb.
    How very like the Republicans,  fulminating against ObamaCare for years, pinning their hopes on the liar, bully and fraud Donald Trump, grabbing at the prize, too crazed and egomaniacal for caution, then tumbling to earth at their own hand, with only each other to blame. The whole quest, a fervid revenge fantasy straight out of "Moby-Dick"—maybe Ahab would be a better motif for today, but let's dance with who brung us.
     The Republican replacement of ObamaCare was certainly a Rube Goldberg device on par with the elaborate Acme contraptions that our unfortunate canis latrans would uncrate and attempt to use to snare our his swift nemesis, inevitably with disastrous results.
    Wile E. was the definition of pride, going before a quite literal fall. As are Paul Ryan, et al. Swelled with the wealth of their business masters, and the power they wield, or could, if they could only agree, they view those who think otherwise, who, oh for instance, see the value of helping people get health insurance with such utter contempt, they are so certain, they failed to notice the American people tiptoeing out of their tent. Only 17 percent supported their American Health Care Act. They elected Trump to repeal and replace ObamaCare, not spike it and replace it with a thinly-disguised jackpot for the rich. The Republicans always insisted it would be replaced with something better, or at least similar. Not gutting the health care of 24 million Americans to put more money into the pockets of the wealthy, all for the chimera of "access" and choice, an obvious dodge that operatively was like a tyrannical father throwing his children in the street, explaining that he doesn't want them limited to the narrow range of choices in his poor larder, but is encouraging them to sample the cornucopia the world has to offer.
        Being geniuses, they just assumed the gullible public would just fall for whatever has they served and, I suppose, given the election of Donald Trump, they had good reason to think they might pull it off.
     Though if there is any moral here, the failure of the Republican efforts to pass their sham health insurance plan is a reminder that believing you're a genius and actually being a genius are two very different things.
     I don't want to treat lightly the national tragedy that is the Trump administration, nor the disastrous Republican Congress ripping up the planks of civil, decent, intelligent society. But this latest, biggest, most risible failure of a string of failures has to be encouraging to those of us in the fact-based world. To see Trump chortling, still, about the potential collapse of ObamaCare—something that could still happen, given the country is in their hands—you'd think he doesn't realize there are millions of American lives involved. And of course he doesn't.

 

Friday, March 24, 2017

A joyous mother of children, thanks to Planned Parenthood

Tre and Courtney Everette with their children, Dru, left, and Kinlee. 


     Adults waved off Courtney Everette's painful menstrual cramps. Just part of the joy of being a woman, the teenager was told. Deal with it. So she did, for years. Until one day when she was 17, staying with her grandmother.
     "She recognized things seemed a little more intense," said Everette, now 35. "I was really rundown. The level of pain was getting worse."
     Her grandmother took her to the hospital. Doctors diagnosed endometriosis, a condition where the tissue usually forming each month inside a fertile woman's uterus instead grows outside it, in the abdominal cavity, leading to scar tissue, cysts, pain.
     Added to those woes, for Everette, was fear of infertility.
     "Even at 17, I knew I wanted to be a mother," she said.
     Endometriosis can be treated, however.
     "I was lucky," Everette said. "My doctor told me my best option was to use hormonal birth control, and that would reduce pain and preserve my fertility."
     Time went by. She attended graduate school at DePaul.
     "Back then, you got kicked off your parents' insurance at 21, 22. So I got booted and found myself unable to afford the hormonal birth control I needed to manage my endometriosis," said Everette. "I called a good friend, crying, and told her 'I'm in pain and really worried this is going to hurt my chances to be a mother.'"
     The friend replied: You're in a big city. Chicago has to have a Planned Parenthood.
     It does. So Everette went...


To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Shedd fish food for thought

 © Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

     Today is my 30th anniversary on staff at the Sun-Times. Last year, I marked the day by posting a favorite story, and I think I'll continue that tradition.
     Though it does seem an apt moment to pause and ponder: 30 years at the paper. Quite a lot really. How did that happen? Just lucky, I guess. The opportunity arose, I gave it a try, and kept beavering away while the industry fell apart around me. Kind of like Sweet Pea crawling through a clangorous construction site in a "Popeye" cartoon. Whenever I got to the end of one girder, another arrived and swept me to safety.
     It's a good job—work at something I enjoy, with like-minded professionals, generally, plus good pay and benefits. Old salts rhapsodizing their own careers tend to overlook the latter, as if it's beneath notice. It's not. When my side of the political spectrum is ululating in horror at our fellow citizens who voted for Donald Trump—how, HOW could they do that?—I try to remind myself that I am employed, have been for decades, that whenever I jam my hand into my pocket there is money there, and how very, very disturbing it would be for me if that were not the case.  
     Still, working in the same place for nearly a third of a century can seem timidity. In my defense, I took some breaks. A year when Ross was born; three months for Kent. A few months to visit my brother in Japan. A few for a book. Some time for rehab. Close to two years away, total, which I think is beneficial in any career. Didn't earn as much as would be the case had I never stepped away, but I had a better life.
    Nor did I cling desperately to the job. I kept my eyes open. I did quit once, handing my polite resignation letter to the editor-in-chief. But he talked me off the ledge.
     I went in at 26 and now I'm 56. My whole life only to find myself on the downward slope. But not, I believe, coasting. Not yet gone too far into decay. Still pedaling hard. 
     Regrets? I am in no way a Big Cheese. No $20,000 Clarence Page speaking gigs in Paris. I bet that's nice. I would have liked to been a George Will-like player for a while, my face set in a mask of self-importance, striding into the White House to canoodle the president.  
     But as T.S. Eliot said, "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business." I never phoned it in. This work was always important, to me if to nobody else. It was what I wanted to do with my life and I did it, and it was fun, and I like to think I was good at it, and am still good at it. The Trump enormity reminds us that this stuff is important, or can be, if people only pay attention to it.
     I didn't write to cause change, which is good, because I didn't. My highest goal is to hold the interest of readers, and I think I do that. To think about life, and sniff out compelling facts. An ideal story, in my eyes, has three things: a good lede, a few astounding facts, a few strong quotes. This story has all three. A concise, surprising start. One of the favorite facts of my career—what the Shedd Aquarium uses to make seawater. The "oh wow" moment when I noticed the big boxes of the stuff. And the ending quote, I'm proud of drawing that line out of her. 
    And I'm also proud of how the story came about. It didn't arrive as a press release. It was my idea. I had to badger the Shedd. The notion that someone would write about how they feed fish, well, it just didn't scan.  "Most people can't keep a goldfish alive" "I implored. "You feed tens of thousands of fish every day." Eventually, over years, I wore them down, or more likely just found the right person to ask, and someone relented, allowing me to look behind the scenes. The Sun-Times gave it the space it required, and played it prominently—pages 2 and 3.
    Anyway, to the story. Thanks for reading these past 30 years. I think I have another decade left in me. I hope you stick around.



© Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
     Fish eat fruit. And vegetables. Some do anyway. Lungfish nibble lettuce. Stingrays eat their peas, though floating peas will clog a tank's filter if you're not careful. The Shedd Aquarium goes through about 4 tons of fruit and vegetables a year.
     Aquatic creatures have a range of surprising eating habits — some turtles like bananas. If you asked which eats more, an 80-pound sea otter or a 2,000-pound whale, most people would probably guess the whale — much bigger — and they would be wrong. It's the otter. Otters have no blubber, and thus must consume a quarter of their body weight every day to stay alive.
     When you think of feeding fish, what do you imagine? Tapping a small canister of dried fly flakes over Goldie's bowl? Just doing that can be enough of a challenge. What must it be like to feed the roughly 32,500 animals housed at the Shedd Aquarium? Seven days a week, 365 days a year?
     How do they do that?
     "Everything is compartmentalized," said Michelle Sattler, the Shedd's collections manager. "We have reptiles, birds, mammals, invertebrates, fish. We have everything." (People might forget the Shedd's birds: 20 penguins, plus two owls and two hawks).
     Sattler's particular responsibility is the Caribbean Reef, a 90,000-gallon tank housing hundreds of fish, from 60-pound stingrays to butterflyfish weighing a few ounces. Divers go into the reef to feed the fish, which I always thought was purely for show, but has a practical purpose — some fish are aggressive and territorial, and if aquarium personnel just dumped food into the top of the tank, as with goldfish, half of the fish would starve to death while the other half got fat.
     Yes, fish can get fat. That's why the Shedd keeps track of what many animals in its care eat, particularly larger species, and uses clickers to train some fish to eat on cue.
     Piscine competitiveness makes hand-feeding less fun than it looks — it isn't all floating around and answering tourists' questions. Divers can get beaten up by hungry rays.
     "The stingrays in the Caribbean Reef, they're big and they're strong and they can be bullyish," said Sattler. "They weigh 60, 70 pounds and they can push you around, if they feel like they can get away with it."
     What else do fish eat? Just about everything. The Shedd uses 100,000 crickets a year. Plus tons of a seafood gel. Then there's regular seafood — the Shedd buys a quarter million pounds of restaurant-grade seafood each year — shrimp, herring, squid, mullet, mackerel. The staff checks over every last smelt in the Shedd's five kitchens.
     "We have a crew that start at 5 a.m. We do a quality sort that usually takes four hours," said Madelynn Hettiger, senior trainer, of the marine mammal department. "We look through every single fish, to check for missing eyeballs, to see there are no tears or breaks in the skin, no freezer burns" (important because bacteria that could harm the Shedd's fish could settle in the cuts).
     If you've ever grumbled about the admission price at the Shedd ­— and who hasn't, with an adult pass being $28.95? ­— think of those ravenous sea otters.
     "It costs more to feed five sea otters than all the animals in the oceanarium combined," said Hettiger.
     Increasingly over the past decade, the Shedd raises its own food for its animals.
     "If we can grow our food here, we do," said Mark Schick, manager of special exhibits. "There are several advantages ­— one, we know we always have it." Which isn't always the case when grub is jetted in. The Shedd has had some nervous moments in the past due to shipping snafus, suddenly out-of-business fisheries and the occasional gulf hurricane. It isn't as if you can serve your sea lion a few TV dinners while waiting for FedEx to track down that shipment.
     "If you want to get a cheeseburger, there are many places out there," said Schick. "If you want mysid shrimp, there are very few places out there."
     Thus hidden from visitor view, in low spaces behind the tanks, is a burgeoning effort to raise food — water fleas, crayfish, rotifers — for the Shedd's collection.
     "It's far less expensive to grow food here than to ship it priority overnight," said Schick.
     Living food is necessary, because some fish will eat only moving food and won't touch prepared food. They also have to raise food to feed the food that feeds the fish. That explains the 24 bubbling gallon bottles of algae, the various shades of green denoting degrees of maturation. (The Shedd also makes its own sea water using — what else? — crates of Instant Ocean, "The World's No. 1 Sea Salt.")        

     One mainstay of the Shedd food program has an unexpected nostalgia connection — mysid shrimp — which have the benefit of being able to stay alive in suspended animation until needed and mixed with water, a talent developed in dry African lake beds, which gave them a passing fame under a different name in the back of comic books.
     "Sea Monkeys," said Schick. "Remember when you were a kid?" He feeds the quarter-inch-long brine shrimp — which, contrary to the comic illustration, do not have faces or hands, but look like tiny translucent grains of rice — to the Shedd's sea horse and sea dragon collection.
     "If we were buying them, it would be hundreds of dollars a week," said Schick. "Raising them is a fraction of that."
     As with most people, fish crave variety in their diets.
     "Salads are great for you, but you don't want salad every day," said Schick. "With fish, it's the same way. We like to spice up their diet and enrich them with living moving targets." Sometimes food is frozen into ice blocks, or tucked inside feeder balls, just to keep it interesting.
     As much a routine as feeding fish at the Shedd is, as with human food, there is an aspect to feeding that transcends the physical. The staff, which sometimes names the fish under their care, develops attachments to certain fish and demonstrates those attachments through food.
     "I have a fish that, for me, is very coveted," said Sattler, who has been at the Shedd for 14 years. "It's a beautiful little fish, When I took the exhibit over there was one individual of this specifies, I saw it, it was smaller, hanging out in the corner, I asked, 'What is that fish?' They said, 'That's a boga.' It's beautiful."
     She encouraged the Shedd to collect more bogas.
     "I have a group of them, kind of like my babies," she said. "Even though the exhibit gets fed four times a day, I like to go up to the top and sprinkle food for them."
     Because you love them?
     "Yes," she said. "Because I love them."


                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 3, 2013



© Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez