Wednesday, April 25, 2018

'The world wouldn't be a world without the newspaper.'

Labor, by Will Barnet (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 
     You know what's hard work? Deboning whitefish. A machine can't do it. So a guy stands in a chilled room—has to be chilled so the fish won't spoil. He runs his bare—has to be bare, so he can feel the pin bones—left hand over the whitefish, while the right one pulls out the nearly-invisible bones with a needle-nosed pliers.
     I know this because I once watched it done. And what did the whitefish deboner talk about? How fortunate he was to have his job. How happy it made him.
     That stuck with me, and explains why I winced, a little, at the Sun-Times' new slogan: "The hardest-working newspaper in America."
     My first thought was: "How do we know? Did we study all the other newspapers? Because otherwise we've installed a lie atop the front page."
     Loyal employee that I am, or try to be, I groped for a bright spin: "mere puffery," as my lawyer friends would say. Like "World's Best Coffee." Why not? The Tribune called itself "The World's Greatest Newspaper," for half a century (a boast fossilized in the call letters "WGN") and that wasn't true either.
     So I understand why “hard-working” now appears on every page of our print editions. What is the task of this newspaper? Only absorbing everything happening now in the entire world with an emphasis on Chicago and Illinois. Filter out the superfluous and present the essential events in a completely accurate and public form within a few minutes of their occurring. Do so, lately, in an environment where bald lies are boldly uttered at the highest levels while preserving a reputation for accuracy so great that our mistakes are remembered forever. “IT’S REAGAN AND FORD” a Sun-Times front page headline trumpeted about the 1980 presidential ticket. It wasn’t.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Abandoned Babies Week, #1: "You never forget seeing a dead baby"


Daguerreotype of a dead baby, 1840s (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     April is Safe Haven month, a reminder that, for the first 30 days after giving birth, new mothers who cannot care for their infants can leave them, no questions asked, at fire houses, police stations and hospitals. Since the law was passed in 2001, at least 126 babies in Illinois have been sent on their way toward loving homes in this fashion, and saved the risk of dying after being abandoned, as often happens to newborns who are not delivered to a secure location. 
    I've written about the law over the years, and this week will be posting a couple of those columns here. This one was originally headlined "Show your concern over real babies."

     You never forget seeing a dead baby. This one was maybe a month old, perfect features, mouth slightly open, bluish skin, swaddled in a blanket, waiting its turn on a stainless steel table at the Cook County Medical Examiner's office on Harrison Street.
     Nearly 20 years later, I can see the baby as if it were in front of me now. My buddy, the photographer Robert A. Davis, and I were doing a profile of the first Cook County medical examiner, Dr. Robert Stein. We had been watching Dr. Stein work since 5 a.m., and we hadn't flinched at the man who had laid on the floor of a transient hotel for two weeks in the August heat (well, OK, a little flinching when the sheet was first drawn back), or the young guy shot through a lung, or any of the other unfortunates who had been rolled in and cut up.
     But the baby seemed a different matter entirely. Neither Bob nor I had kids yet, but we both must have known they were coming, because something told us that, story or no story, this wasn't a deposit we wanted to make in the old memory banks.
     "C'mon," I said, nodding toward the door. "Union-mandated coffee break." We left the baby to Dr. Stein.
     I mention this, because when young women abandon their babies, it often means not only a slow, painful death for the baby -- which would be bad enough -- but also a grisly discovery for whatever poor person stumbles upon the baby too late. A dead baby is hard enough to see in the morgue, where you expect it. I can't imagine what it does to a person who opens a trash can and finds one.
     Tuesday is National Safe Haven Day, which Gov. Quinn has declared is Save Abandoned Babies Day in the state.
      Illinois passed a temporary Safe Haven law in 2001, designating hospitals and fire stations as places where new mothers could abandon their unharmed newborns without fear of legal repercussion.
     Originally the babies had to be 3 days old or younger, but after the law was made permanent in 2005, it was expanded to cover infants up to 30 days old, and police stations were included.
     The Save Abandoned Babies Foundation estimates that 55 Illinois infants have been turned over to state care because of the law, including Lilli, whose mother left her at Engine 98's firehouse in 2008.
     "We are so grateful that our daughter's birth mom knew about the law and was brave enough to follow through on that plan," said Lilli's adoptive mom, Carrie, a northwest suburban woman who didn't want her last name used out of privacy concerns.
     "In her case she didn't know she was pregnant, she had delivered the baby at home, and knew enough about the law [that] she knew she would be able to bring her to the fire station."
     Lilli is now 2, and likes baby dolls and books.
     "Lilli has helped make our family complete," said her mother. "She's so, so cute. We couldn't imagine our lives without her."


     The clattering sound you hear is dozens of anti-abortion activists pounding away at their keyboards. "Dear Stinkberg," they write, "how can you even pretend to care about babies when you approve of women murdering their children in the uterus?? Please see the attached 12 color photographs of aforementioned diced children . . . ."
     And the answer — not that they are interested in an answer, but let's pretend — is that I, like most Americans, differentiate between actual, born-and-alive-in-the-real-world-now babies and the fertilized egg the size of the period at the end of this sentence that typically gets aborted.
     This of course flies by the anti-choice crowd, who have deemed these "babies" with such forceful finality that I'm sure the idea that they're simply locked into a convenient fantasy will shock, amuse and offend them. They've found their label, their metaphor, their easy code word, and they're sticking with it, just the way that the hate-immigration crowd has seized on the word "illegal," and though try as you may, nothing will make them perceive the falsity of their stratagem. ("Really? Concerned about illegal immigration only because it's illegal? What other 'illegal' things are you really worked up about? Just illegal immigration, huh? Nothing else? Thought so. Hmmmm. . . maybe it's the immigration part and not the 'illegal' part then, cause there's a lot more illegal stuff that you're ignoring. . . .")
     Caring for actual babies is hard, and the state struggles to find enough foster homes to park them in. That's another reason why people gin up this outsized concern for other people's non-babies: It's easy. You can stand in the street holding a 5-foot photo of a tiny bloody foot, call it a day, tell yourself you've saved a lot of babies, when in reality you haven't changed one diaper. Merely professed your undying concern for proto babies, which hardly exist, and ignored a bunch of baby babies, who most certainly do exist and could use your help. And you felt morally superior to boot. Congrats.
     Just wanted to put in my two cents, because these people act as if nobody else thinks about these things except them. Most people give this matter careful consideration, even those who are dismissed as hell-bound whores murdering their infants.
     Respect for life means respecting those who are actually alive, even if they make decisions that go contrary to your personal religious scruples. It's a tough-to-grasp concept, I know, particularly if you don't even try to understand.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 12, 2010

Monday, April 23, 2018

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition to Beto O'Rourke


     "We have to hope and pray that things turn around in November," a friend said over dinner on Friday.
     I felt a muscle in my jaw tense.
     "If only Ted Cruz could be defeated in the Senate," a Facebook friend mused. "But I'm not holding my breath. Texas is a red state ... So I wouldn't bet on Cruz losing this year. But I can dream, can't I?"
     Hope. Pray. Dream. A certain peasant fatalism has crept into Democratic thinking.
     Not without reason. Our nightmare president builds his cult of personality every day while the party supporting him sheds its values and beliefs, rolling at his feet like puppies.
     Yet surrender is premature. Our nation was not forged and preserved by a bunch of quitters.
     So while I try to religiously avoid all Facebook debates as pointless time sinks, I couldn't resist commenting after his "dream" remark: "Well, that and send Beto O'Rourke money. I am."
     Everyone knows who Ted Cruz is. The most hated man in the Senate. "Lucifer in the flesh," in John Boehner's memorable description. But who is Beto O'Rourke? He is the Democrat running against Cruz this November and doing surprisingly well. Last week, a new poll showed a close race, Cruz leading 47 to 44 percent. O'Rourke has raised more money than Cruz, thanks to small donors such as myself.
     No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas in 24 years, so it's a long shot. But Satan's senator is obviously scared.
     Even before O'Rourke's victory in the March 6 primary was confirmed, his campaign aired a radio commercial mocking O'Rourke's first name, accusing him of changing it to appeal to voters. In response, O'Rourke released a photo of himself as a toddler, wearing a sweater with "Beto" — his nickname since birth — stitched across the front.
     Cruz's actual first name is "Rafael," a reminder that Trump does not hold monopoly on either deceit or hypocrisy.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cookie dough wins

     "Pick up some romaine lettuce," my wife said on Monday. 
      I was going to the supermarket and asked what we needed.
     "Okay honey," I said. Romaine hearts were on sale, two packages for $4. Seemed like a deal, because usually they cost three or four bucks apiece. Though we already had a package at home, I eat a salad almost every day. No harm in stocking up. The stuff lasts a while.
     "Throw away the romaine lettuce," my wife said on Wednesday, pointing to a Centers for Disease Control directive that romaine might be tainted with deadly E-coli.
     "Okay honey," I said, thinking, guess that's why it was on sale. 
     I'll be honest. Left to my devices, I would take my chances and just eat the stuff, washing it first, as I always do—a vigorous dousing in the salad spinner—Get behind me, Satan! All you germs, down the drain!
     It's not that I'm against caution. I wear my seatbelt and my bicycle helmet, usually. I look both ways crossing the street and own a variety of insurance.
     But certain kinds of caution are a bridge too far. The worry about salmonella from cookie dough, for instance. I once crunched the numbers for getting salmonella from raw eggs, and they're infinitesimal. Which means, in a country of ... check ... 325 million people (crikey, I thought it was 310 million; they'r reproducing like rabbits!) that somebody is going to get salmonella from raw eggs. But it probably won't be you. So grab a spoon and scrape away, clutching the big stainless steel mixing bowl to your chest, going after that delicious dough, beaming like a child, as primal a joy as there can be (well, ahem, ignoring a primal joy or two).
    Why pitch the lettuce but eat the cookie dough? A good question, and one that deserves a logical answer.
     We can eliminate the listen-to-your-wife factor, because she certainly shook her finger in my face vigorously about the cookie dough, to which I responded with a shrug and a lick of the wooden spoon.
     If that isn't it, then what?
     In the case of the lettuce, the tiny risk of sickness is weighed against the loss of a $4 investment in produce (it's not worth four bucks to spend 45 minutes returning it to Jewel, assuming they would take it back, which they might not). It's not worth $4 to risk getting sick. Caution wins. 
     In the case of the cookie dough, the tiny risk of sickness is balanced against a lifetime of eating raw cookie dough when the opportunity arises. As barren a prospect that can be imagined, especially in a life where a few pleasures have already been pitched over the side in the name of survival. So in the tug-of-war between tiny risk of sickness and decades worth of cookie dough, cookie dough wins.
     Make sense?

Flashback 2011: "Got $5 million? Give it to the Goodman now!"


    Be careful what you wish for.
     Because my fervent mumblings, asking God why, WHY won't somebody significant run against Rahm Emanuel were answered by a flash mob of potential opponents, led by former police superintendent Garry McCarthy, crawling out of the tar pit where he and the other Ditka-grade knuckle-draggers reside and tossing his tiger skin in the ring.
    Now I've been forced to re-evaluate my visceral loathing and years-long write-off of Rahm. Yes, he's a jerk. Yes, he mishandled the Laquan McDonald shooting—to be kind, either mishandled or is complicit in covering up a murder.
    But Garry McCarthy ... sweet Jesus no.
    The Sun-Times ran a story Saturday that after businessman Willie Wilson, one of the vanity candidates challenging Rahm, helped him out by blowing off the contribution cap. Rahm promptly raised $1.6 million by snapping his fingers. Which made me think of this column, from the early days of the Emanuel administration,  back when I still manfully struggled to like the man. 
    I don't know if I ever could again. But I suppose I might have to try. Despite his flaws, Rahm Emanuel does ... ah ... does have ... bi-lateral symmetry. That isn't saying he's human. But it's a step in that direction.

     Before he was mayor of the city of Chicago, before he was congressman from the 5th District, before he was an adviser to two presidents, Rahm Emanuel was a fund-raiser, and while I knew, in a dry intellectual fashion, that he was a good one, I really didn't realize just what that meant, on a gut emotional level, until I slid by the Goodman Theatre Thursday morning for breakfast.
     It was the sort of look-to-the-future event I normally wouldn't be caught dead at, but a variety of small nudges put me there: a) they asked (you'd be amazed at how many organizations screw up that part); b) there was food; c) the mayor would be there—that usually means something is worth glancing at.
     Coffee was being zupped, scones nibbled. I ran into my pal, the director Robert Falls, and teased him about his play "Red," starting Saturday. ("Gee Bob," I said, or words to that effect, in my best faux naive wide-eyed fashion. "That play was such a big hit on Broadway - whatever made you bold enough to decide to put on your own production here?")
      Then we moved to the auditorium, to listen to the five, count 'em, five speakers who went before Emanuel: Roche Schulfer, the Goodman executive director; Falls, its artistic director; Patricia Cox, chairman; Joan Clifford, the Women's Board President, and Shawn Donnelley, the immediate past chair.
      "This is a milestone in the long history of the Goodman Theatre," Schulfer began, with the rest of the remarks—plus a short film—recounting how the Goodman is an important institution, one that is culturally diverse, one which moved from its original home at the Art Institute 10 years ago, an edifice that helped revitalize the theater district, and now is well on its way to assembling a $15 million endowment to guarantee its continuance, having already snagged $10 million in pledges.
     As thrilling as all that is, I didn't see how it belonged in a newspaper column. I clicked my pen shut and tucked my notebook away.
     Then it was the mayor's turn to speak.
     "This is a no-brainer," he said. "You're here. You know what it's about. It's the last $5 million ... Here's the deal, folks: 10 years ago this was a dead zone. You've anchored something. People from around the world come here because of this theater. Finish it."
      The contrast between Emanuel and the sincere yet sedate directors and chairs who went before him was enormous. If the general emotional tone behind their remarks was this-is-an-important-cultural-institution-worthy-of-support then Emanuel's was the-house-is-on-fire-get-the-baby-out, where giving $5 million to the Goodman right now is the baby.
     As Emanuel continued, it turned out this isn't just about the Goodman. It was bigger; the fate of Chicago itself hangs in the balance.
     "When you think of downtown today, you think of the theater district," he said, jabbing a finger in the air. "You raised $10 million already. Finish it! You are not just a cultural institution, you are an economic engine. You know why you're here. Let's finish the job."
     But driving the economy of Chicago turned out not to be the full extent of it either; the future of creativity itself is at stake. No other city in the world allows artists their freedom.
     "In Chicago, you can create," he said. "You can't do that in New York, you fail [there], you might as well get a passport out of town because you're never going to succeed again. In Chicago . . . you can do something, maybe not make it, improve it, come back and do something. That's in the visual arts, architecture, theater, music, dance, in every other space. No other city has what we have."
     Bits of this I had heard before, but never had I experienced the full rendition, and it struck me, hearing him, that fund-raising is also a performance, when done well. Emanuel was doing the hard job of taking material people already knew and selling it to an audience.
     It worked; the donations are expected.
     "I would be surprised if we didn't get some today, he was so persuasive," Cox said after.
     Ever since the days of Daley I, the media saying anything positive about a mayor automatically is seen as an act of toadyism. Believe me, I'm loathe to do it; I have my own audience to think about. I'm eager to sink my pointy teeth into his leg as soon as possible.
     But Thursday wasn't the day to do it.
     It gets bad press, but fund-raising is an art, like acting on stage in a tragedy or playing the blues in a club or running the football at Soldier Field, and to the pantheon of uniquely Chicago peak artistic experiences—Brian Dennehy performing Eugene O'Neill at the Goodman, Muddy Waters perched on a stool, bending a note, or Walter Payton breaking a tackle on a Sunday afternoon—you have to include Rahm Emanuel shaking a cup for a good cause. It's a bravura performance.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 16, 2011

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Cool tools #3: Wilton Tradesman Bench Vise.

     The vise is the heart of any workshop. A vise holds what's being cut, steady and unwavering. You'll notice I've added an extra layer of support before bolting the Wilton—which has four bolts instead of the standard three—to my work table, to encourage it not to pull through the particleboard.
     The really extraordinary thing about this Wilton Tradesman Bench Vise is not that it weighs 70 pounds or its sleek green finish or that it rotates 360 degrees: it's where the glorious object is made: not China, not Mexico, but Carpentersville, Illinois. The company began in Chicago in 1941 by Czech immigrant Hugh W. Vogl, and while some production has moved down to the right-to-be-ripped-off-while-working state of Tennessee, these "bullet vices"—so-called because the screw is encased by a rounded casing that keeps out grit—are still made locally.

     Don't overlook the little square anvil area. Very useful.
   The obvious question is what connection does "vise," the badass tool, have with "vice," the bad personal habit? The romantic in me would conjure up a t00-easy answer: some medieval moralist opining how we are squeezed by the shame of our moral failings.
     The actual, the world-sucks-but-we-have-to-live-in-it answer is "there's no connection." In fact, "vice" is used for both the tool and the sin in most of the English speaking world, the depravity-related meaning being older, and tracing to the Latin "vitium," meaning, simply enough, "fault, or defect." The thing with jaws pressing together is from "vitis," or vine, which grow in corkscrews ("Vite" is screw in Italian). Without the casing that Wilton so handily features, the large screw mechanism was most distinctive. 
     In his great 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson defines vice as "1. The course of action opposite to virtue; depravity of manners, inordinate life" then "2. A fault; an offence." The third definition is, obscurely, "The fool, or punchinello of old shows," citing Shakespeare, and only in his fourth definition gets to "A kind of small iron press with screws, used by workmen" citing a Dutch word, "vijs," which must, like all of Johnson's etymologies, be taken with a big blue Morton canister of salt. 
     Only in the United States is the "vise" spelling generally used, trying to get a little distance I suppose between our tools and the urgings of Satan.
     It was this column, almost a decade ago, that first put the Wilton company on my radar. And in my basement.

     "This isn't Chinese. I can tell from the box, they're American," says Gordon Stade, holding a microphone and sitting high in a booth mounted on the back of a red Ford F-250 pickup truck parked in the middle of the Northbrook Garage. "What are they, Jerry? They're tire wrenches, boys."
     The "boys" are 50 or 60 men, substantial, hardworking men, many in baseball caps, some in bib overalls or leather jackets atop plaid shirts atop hooded sweat shirts. Others wear sleeveless T-shirts, one showing off a red-white-and-blue Chevy logo tattoo. They crowd in a circle around the truck, fully bearded or scraggly faced, pony-tailed or balding, rail thin or hauling around cantilevered beer keg guts. They are truckers and towers and garage mechanics, the kind of guys who would show up early Saturday morning to bid on one and a half centuries of clutter from what, until last weekend, was one of the oldest businesses in the United States, the Lorenz auto garage on Shermer Road, which began as a horse carriage repair shop in the 1840s.
     Think of how cluttered your garage is—now imagine that on an immense scale after five generations. Hydraulic jacks and chain hoists, tow cables and breaker bars and tires stacked chest-high. Huge hooks attached to pulleys the size of dinner plates. Shocks and wrenches and little boxes of little bulbs.
     And air hoses—red air hoses.
     "I'm going to sell 'em to you, you can send air all over the farm," says Stade, a livestock auctioneer, himself in business 55 years out of Huntley. "Fifty? Who'll give me 10? Now 20. Now 30."
     Not being in the market for a 25-ton press or an acetylene outfit or the hood from a Firebird, I didn't plan on attending the auction. But the warm weather drew me outside, and I wandered over—the brick garage, built in the early 1920s, looks like something out of a train diorama and is only two blocks from my house.
     I take my place among the men gathered around Stade's pickup truck, which moves along the center of the garage, selling first one pile of stuff, then another. A pair of axes goes cheap —I could use a good axe—so I think to register at the trailer in the back, resolving not to buy anything I don't actually need.
     So no 5-Speed Heavy Duty Drill Press produced by Central Machinery of Hollywood, Calif. No hubcaps from a Nash Rambler. No "Your LaSalle—An Owner's Manual" from 1938.
     "We're selling the trailer, boys," says Stade, who wears a cowboy hat and speaks in an easy, burbling patter. If the family farm has to go, this is the guy you want selling it.
     "He's really good at what he does; he'll get more per item than anybody," observes a big bearded man standing next to me, Chris Horcher of Horcher's Towing of Wheeling. Horcher is here for trucks and chains—"I would have bought more, but he was getting more than the chains cost new."
     I don't want to fall into that trap. But when the longest industrial extension cord I have even seen in my life is held up for sale, I remember scrambling to piece together every cord I own. One hundred feet of heavy-duty orange extension cord goes to bidder No. 106—me—for $6, and lugging the coil makes me feel like less of a well-scrubbed scribbling toff amongst men who actually work for a living.
     I pause to admire a vise—two feet long, made by the Wilton Tool Corp. of Schiller Park. Dappled with 50 years of hammer blows and saw nicks, worn, with a dust brown patina, it looks more like a natural formation, something carved by the wind perhaps, than an object manufactured by human hands.
     "You need a vise?" asks a guy, who sees me examining it. "These are not made in China, you know."
     "Every man needs a vice," I answer. "And frankly, I've been lacking in the vice department lately."
     But this is not the crowd for wordplay. I hang around for more than an hour, hoping to snag the vise, or at least one of the tire irons—those big metal X's, not the little jack sticks that comes with cars nowadays. Lunchtime approaches, however, and I decide to leave the tools to those who really need them. I am also afraid that I'll shrug and make the easy observation: that, as if our big car companies failing were not bad enough, now even the corner car repair shop is going down, breaking apart and spilling its contents to the winds.
     Despite the fever dreams of the village fathers, I can't imagine a hip restaurant opening in this yawning cavern. I can't see the high-ceiling space, with its skylights and metal struts, becoming a mall—a candle shop and an olive oil boutique and a stand selling artisanal cheeses—not one that ever progresses beyond an artist's drawing published in the Northbrook Star. My bet: It'll sit empty for the next five years.
      That goes without saying. More worthwhile noting is that my wistfulness for the Wilton vise was misplaced—Wilton, now of Elgin, made its first vise in 1941 and is still going strong. The Wilton Web site touts 132 vises—though whether they are made in China or here, I could not immediately determine. Either way, I might have to pick one up because sometimes a man needs a vise.
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 9, 2009


Friday, April 20, 2018

And then there's all that trouble ordering the cake...

     Adolf Hitler's birthday is Friday, and here I am without a present.
     Or a person to give it to—well, there's Arthur J. Jones, the sorta-Nazi running for Congress on the Republican ticket. We'll get to him later.
     April 20. Hope it passes peacefully. Ever since April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School, kicking off the current era of mass school shootings, there's been a certain clenched expectation to the date, even though the pair actually planned their attack for the 19th, but delayed a day to collect more ammunition.
     The media unhelpfully increases the dread by lumping in April 19—it's so close!—with Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. But McVeigh was thinking, not of a pre-birthday blow-out for Hitler, but to avenge the deathes of 80 Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993.
     Which is why it's good to pay attention to anniversaries. Terrorists sure do.
     The bright spin: at least they're remembering history. A poll released last week shows that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of Millennials, can't identify what Auschwitz was (oh, sorry kids: concentration camp—1.3 million people killed there. Notorious in its day. Now, obviously, not so much).

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Cool Tools #2: Eggbeater hand crank drill

     And sometimes all a tool has to do is hang there, looking beautiful. 
      Like this eggbeater drill.
      I wish I could tell you more about it. It looks very much like a Miller Falls hand drill, of the sort manufactured by the well-known Massachusetts company during the first few decades of the 20th century. 
      But I spent more time than I should have Wednesday looking through on-line sources about hand drills—I am not alone in my appreciation—and going over this drill with a magnifying glass. 
     Drills from Miller Falls and other noteworthy manufacturers all seem to have identifying hallmarks on them. This piece has nothing, which makes me think it is a lesser knock-off. 
     Though a well-made knock-off. Turn the crank and it purrs with a light zipping sound, the well-tools gears meshing perfectly after what has to be the better part of a century's use.
    Not so much use in recent decades, I imagine, as cordless electric drills have mooted this kind of thing, though I still use it occasionally for delicate tasks—countersinking a screw, for instance, where you want to make the smallest indentation and no more. Guides I've consulted recommend the drills for teaching young children carpentry, as they require two hands to operate, and a reckless child would really have to show determination to contrive to injury himself with it.
     Whatever the provenance, the drill  looks very much like the drawing that Herbert D. Lanfair submitted with his patent application On Aug. 13, 1895 he was granted Patent No. 544,411. This was an improvement over the C-shaped crank brace drill, that had been patented 40 years earlier.     If you notice in the first drawing, bits are held in the handle, and until I began my research, I didn't realize that the handle of my drill was hollow. Unscrewing it, I found eight blue steel bits, not spirally, like drill bits today, but simply cutting tips, like the ones shown here. 
     A reminder of how ancient drilling is, back some 10,000 years, when prehistoric man drilled holes by rubbing a stick with an obsidian point between his palms. 
       The bow drill was an improvement on that—the same dowel, with an iron bit instead of stone, twirled by a stringed bow, with the string looped around the stick so that it turned when the bow was drawn back and forth. 
       A variant of this was to wrap leather straps around the drill bit, which one man would hold upright in place, while another man pulled the thong, a process that I just read described in Emily Wilson's fine translation of "The Odyssey," where a sharpened, red hot olive spear is rammed into the eye of the sleeping Cyclops:
                                       ...I leaned on top
and twisted it, as when a man drills wood
for shipbuilding. Below, the workers spin
the drill with straps, stretched out from either end.
So round and round it goes, and whirled
the fire-sharp weapon in his eye.
     At which point we've probably said enough. Old tools are beautiful, not just for their aesthetic form—this this case the red wheel with its gently arching spokes—but because they remind us we are the latest stage of a very old tradition, that use of tools is truly what sets humanity apart from the animal kingdom.
     Yes, a few animals use rudimentary tools—digging for ants with sticks and such. But they do not recraft their world, for good and ill, the way we do. We've earned our nickname homo faber, "man the (tool) maker," 
    The phrase was first used by Roman politican Appius Claudius Caecus. He gave his name to a road, the Appian Way, and wrote in his book of proverbs, Homo faber suae quisque fortunae—"Every man is the maker of his own destiny." Which is largely true, again for good and ill. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How popular is 'The Big Bang Theory'? Even I watch it.

     Shame is funny.
     "Funny" as in odd.
     I have no trouble writing about personal stuff. My kids, my life. I once wrote a column about getting naked for a dominatrix. I've written about being an agnostic, about going to rehab, all the time my large head—which    I've also written about—held high.
     But a certain subject has been straining forward in its seat, going "oh oh, pick me!" For months and, coward that I am, I've been ignoring it.
     Because ... I'm ... well ... embarrassed.
     Okay, here goes.
     The Big Bang Theory.
     When I say to my wife after dinner, "Let's watch TV," what I mean is, "Let's watch 'The Big Bang Theory.'" The only show on television, now in its 11th season Thursday nights on CBS. Plus shown continually in syndication. Some nights TBS runs it seven times in a row, from 6 p.m. to 9:30. Reading the newspaper listings is like giving a hammer to a toddler: "BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG." 

    And there, on the couch, night after night, is Mister I-Don't-Watch-TV, aka me.
     At least I'm not alone. "The Big Bang Theory" is the top rated show on television. The most popular show in syndication for the past ... 338 consecutive weeks.
So what is the allure? 
     The premise—for the handful not familiar—would not seem something guaranteed to captivate a nation where half the citizens cower in self-constructed hallucinatory states. Viewers are invited into the lives of a pair of Caltech physicists, Dr. Sheldon Cooper and Dr. Leonard Hofstadter. We meet their colleagues: engineer Howard Wolowitz and astrophysicst Rajesh Koothrappali. Plus their loves—"Big Bang Theory" is probably the most risqué double-entendre title of a hit TV show)—Amy, Penny, Bernadette, and whomever Rajesh is seeing at the moment.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Cool tools #1: DeWalt Log-Splitting Axe

     Spring just won't arrive. Oh, it's here, technically, according to the calendar, though that usually trustworthy grid has taken on a slightly disreputable air, more akin to a mimeographed sheet of lucky policy wheel numbers than a reliable guide to what part of the year we find ourselves in.
     Though the weather did cooperate enough last week for me to try out my latest tool, and since we need something positive to remind us that the season of building and repairing and doing outside is nearly upon us, I thought, until the temperatures get back into the 60s, I would inaugurate a new occasional series I am dubbing "Cool Tools."      

      For a half dozen years now, I've had the good fortune to spend a weekend every autumn in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, at my buddy Rick's sprawling compound—a big main house, barn, sauna, and cabins—seven hours due north in Ontonagon.
     The place is on the sandy shore of Lake Superior, but woodsy in the extreme. Once I've gotten settled in my cabin—"Chipmunk," meticulously crafted by the inimitable Moonshine Mike Guzek—and admired the views, and chatted with the other guys, I'll slip on a pair of J. Edwards elk skin linesman's gloves and go split wood.
It doesn't split itself
     Why? Why go to the effort? Why not just sit on the porch and admire the thin blue of the lake and wait for dinner?
     That's complicated. A variety of reasons, I suppose. It's good exercise, yes, and Rick has a lot of logs that need splitting—split wood dries better and burns better, for you city folk. 
      But that isn't quite why I do it. It isn't as if Rick is expecting me to put in sweat equity, though I like doing that. 
    There is something manly and Reaganesque about splitting wood, and immensely satisfying. You take a section of log, about two foot long, set it on a solid base—a tree stump is perfect. Then line up your axe, holding it with both hands, draw it way back behind you, then bring it down fast and hard, as hard as you can, on the circular top of the log. If all goes well, the log explodes into two halves. If it doesn't, the axe impacts into the wood and you need to lift the entire heavy conjoined thing, the log with the axe embedded, and bring it down until it splits. Graceless.
     Split a dozen logs with an axe and you feel like you've accomplished something.
     "Axe" isn't exactly the proper term. I'd never use my Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe for splitting wood—too light and delicate; that would be like using a surgeon's scalpel to cut a hole in a galvanized steel tub. Rather I use one of Rick's mauls—he has a few. 
    If you don't have an mental image of what a "maul" is, don't feel bad.  Most people are familiar with "maul" as a verb, as what bears and pit bulls do to you, if you're not lucky, or what various sports teams do to each other, metaphorically. 
     But the verb "maul" is several hundred years newer than the noun, which were used to describe various big hammers, and now are used primarily for a tool that is like the love child of an axe and a sledgehammer—the blade to split the wood, and the heft to push it apart.
     I'd always had what I thought of as "maul envy." But I couldn't bring myself to go out and buy one. Yes, I chop trees on my property, but logs will burn with the bark on them, particularly if you use enough gasoline, and I try not to get more tools than what I absolutely need. The time never came when I headed to Home Depot thinking, "Better pick up that maul."
     Then the good people at DeWalt sent an email. If I read every bit of corporate puffery to land in my in box that's all I'd ever do. But I have Big Love for DeWalt, as the proud owner of one of their compound mitre saws, though I think of it, incorrectly, as a "chop saw," perhaps the most useful power tool I own other than a cordless drill. I used it to build a cedar play fort for the boys, and a magnificent piece of equipment it is, having stood up to 15 years of hard use.
     So my interest was perked when the DeWalt people sent an email, almost like a birth announcement, ballyhooing the arrival of a new addition to the family:
     DEWALT® ExoCore™ Axes are available in 20 oz. with a 12” handle and 3.5 single bit and 4.5-pound log splitter with a 32” handle. All DEWALT® ExoCore™ Axes feature a scalloped cutting edge, which ensure a deep cut and improved release from material, and carbon fiber composite handles for overstrike protection. The durable rubber over-mold on the grip provides comfort.
     Available now where DEWALT products are sold, the ExoCore™ Sledge Hammers and Axes will come with a limited lifetime warranty for $29.99-$54.97 MSRP.
    I don't think they actually expect journalists to reply to these emails—they're probably designed for jaded professionals in the hardware industry media, God help them. But I was overcome with enthusiasm, and wrote back the following slightly-embarrassing reply:
 Ooo, I might have to pick up your log splitter. I already have the best light axe made. But I use a maul a lot when I'm up at Lake Superior, and have been in the market for a really good one. 
     That was not disingenuous. I was not trying to lure the DeWalt people into sending me their new log-splitting axe. But send it they did—respect for the media has not died entirely, I'm happy to report. 
     It took a week, maybe 10 days, to arrive. Long enough that I had just about given up hope. Companies say things all the time and never follow through. I've talked to the Pendleton people twice since November, when I foolheartedly ordered a wool blanket and thought that simply because I had selected it and paid for it that meant I could, in reasonable span of months, expect a Pendleton wool blanket to arrive at my home.
     No such luck. I phoned Pendleton in January—it was supposed to be my wife's Hanukkah gift for me—and again in early April. To be honest, I was just curious, as to what the hold-up was. Factory burn down? An invasion of moths? Sudden global run on green heather Yakima camp throws? Just tell me. I spoke to a variety of people there, some charged exclusively with talking to the media, and ended up with nothing but a bad taste in my mouth. They would neither explain what the problem is or acknowledge that they were not explaining it. Maddening. I came close to cancelling the order, but it really was my wife's order, her gift to me, and I didn't want to make her feel bad—the Kindle I bought her is one of her favorite toys—just because the Pendleton Woolen Mills of Portland, Oregon doesn't know how to handle would-be customers whose only crime is trying to purchase one of their products.
   The DeWalt folks are much more on the ball. A big cardboard box arrived. Perhaps I overreacted, but I ripped the box open on the spot, took the axe onto the couch and watched television with it, it's 4.5 pound head—with, I will point out, a rubber guard protecting its razor-like edge—cradled lovingly against my chest. 
     My wife, who is used to this kind of thing, and in fact finds it an appealing boyish enthusiasm, or so she claims and I choose to believe, suppressed concern. "The Shining" sort of ruined the idea of a husband with an axe.
     On that one single, precious day last week when suddenly the weather became nice, and it seemed like spring was finally here, I ran outside with my new DeWalt to put it through its paces.
     Well, first I put on my pair of Red Wing steel-toed boots—a certain amount of force, quickness and aim is required when splitting wood, and the chance of the maul skittering off the target and ending up planted in your foot needs to be kept in mind at all times.
     The DeWalt log-splitting axe was all it was advertised. Solid hardwood logs fell apart at a stroke. Easy to grip, light to swing yet the 4.5 pound head delivering the force where it's needed. I feel a little sorry they don't call it a "maul"—trying not to confuse the tool-buying public, I suppose. But it's mine now, and I plan to call it a maul, and don't expect anyone to contradict me on the matter.    


Monday, April 16, 2018

Nation's librarian wants you to see our country's treasures

      The CVS drug store across the street had been looted. Buildings were burning. Rioters tossed rocks, injuring 15 police officers. The governor imposed a curfew and called out the National Guard. While the University of Maryland closed its downtown campus and the Orioles postponed their home game against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards, head librarian Carla Hayden decided to not to close the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of Baltimore's venerable Enoch Pratt Free Library, even though it was at the center of the turmoil surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray.
     Because it was at the center of the turmoil.
     "We had to be open and available for the community in need," said Hayden, now the Librarian of Congress—the 14th, and first African-American to hold the title. "We did it because, in that neighborhood, like in so many others, the library is the opportunity center and there were people who needed it, to have a safe place."
     In addition to its usual functions, the library distributed food and diapers, since stores were closed.
Hayden will visit Chicago next week to receive the 2018 Newberry Library Award, in recognition of her lifetime of service to libraries.
     Born in Florida, Hayden came to Chicago when she was 10 after her parents divorced, and graduated from South Shore High School and Roosevelt University.
     She got into library work, at the Auburn branch on 79th Street, after a friend told her the library was hiring "anybody with a bachelor's degree." She shifted over to working at the Museum of Science and Industry while earning her her masters and doctorate from the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Library Science.
     Hayden, who spent 23 years in Baltimore, has seen how libraries have been transforming into community centers, even before the Internet.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Tax Day, 2010: Poking in the soil Trump sprang from.

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Money Museum
     Today is April 15, traditionally Tax Day, when what is Caesar's due must be rendered up to Caesar (actually, federal taxes are due April 17 this year, due to today being a Sunday and tomorrow being "Emancipation Day" in Washington, D.C., a local holiday marking Lincoln freeing the slaves in our nation's capital in 1862).
     Nosing around for something relevant in the vault, I came across this visit to the Tea Party eight years ago. A reminder that Donald Trump was a product of our brokenness, not its cause. And that we liberals, if not guilty of summing it up, then certainly misread the warning signs, as my lack of alarm at the end of this column amply illustrates. The original headline was "Tea Party 'revolt' looks like a pity party to me."

     "Chicago Tax Day Tea Party," read the colorful card handed to me as I emerged from Union Station into the soft, summery day Thursday.
     "Liberty" it continued, in spidery, colonial-era script. "Constitutional Principles. Fiscal Responsibility." Then, in bright-red type -- the blood of patriots, no doubt -- "Repeal it! Replace Congress." And finally: "Chicago. Daley Plaza. 12:00 Noon."
     Oh, right, I thought, sadly realizing that, though I'd love to toddle off to Gene & Georgetti as planned, I was duty-bound to cancel lunch -- another sacrifice on the altar of freedom! -- so as not to miss this moment in history. I'm sure guys were sheepishly telling their grandchildren, "No, Johnny, I was not at Lexington & Concord. But I was quite near -- the Spooner Tavern, two miles down the road, sharing a potato pie with Jim Griswald . . . "
     Can't have that.
     I entered Daley Center Plaza. Elvis' "It's Now or Never" burbled muddily from loudspeakers. There seemed about . . . and this is sensitive, so I'll tread carefully . . . 500 protesters, though the Tribune estimated 1,000 and the Sun-Times called it "thousands." So let's say 2,000, but if you want to make that 20,000, be my guest. I sure didn't count them, but took my place in the crowd.
     Radio host Cisco Cotto led singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Or tried to. The response was a murmur, and I turned to look around -- most mouths were set in a grim line. One speaker said this was a happy movement, but they sure didn't look happy.
     "Keep it respectful" read a yellow sign a lady carried, and there was obvious effort to rein in the excesses of previous Tea Party rallies across the country, despite the taunts of counter-protesters.
     "Keep the rich rich!" chanted some young men. "Take my freedom!"
     A round man in a straw hat carried a sign: "We Gave Peace a Chance and We Got 9/11" with "Peace" crossed out and replaced with "Hope" and "9/11" replaced by "Ft. Hood."
     "So you don't think the Fort Hood massacre was the isolated act of a lone disturbed individual?" I asked, by way of starting conversation.
     "No, I do not!" he said, fleeing. A common reaction. They want media attention, so long as it is not on themselves personally. I drifted over to a counter-protester, a young man in an aluminum foil hat.
     "I've used tinfoil hats as metaphor," I said. "But I've never seen anyone actually wearing one . . . "
     "Why don't you talk to the actual Tea Party members!" demanded another man, swooping in.
     "OK," I said, trying to disarm him with my boyish smile. "Why don't I talk to you? What would you like to say?"
     He turned and fled, at a trot.
     Onstage, less tax, less tax, less tax. Clear enough. Though sometimes it seemed the partiers hadn't actually thought about what they were saying. Someone began reading an analysis of the Pledge of Allegiance that has circulated on the Internet for years.
     "I," he read. "Me; an individual; a committee of one."
     "Pledge; dedicate all of my worldly goods to give without self-pity . . . "
     I looked around. Nobody here seemed willing to dedicate even some, never mind "all" of their worldly goods, and self-pity was the operative emotion.
     "We want our country back," they said. But who has taken it? There were taxes and debt before. What is different is Barack Obama, and his central difference. . . .
     "I don't give a damn that Obama is black," read a sign held by a man in a Soviet greatcoat. "It scares the hell out of me that he is red."
     What to make of all this? Of the yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags and tri-cornered hats? I could probably work up indignation at the co-opting of revolutionary icons. Our founding fathers were risking their lives, signing their names boldly across acts of treason, and these guys can't even put their names behind their vague complaints.
     But, to be honest, I found the whole thing harmless. Just because they've adopted the self-inflating rhetoric of revolt that so inflames every Saturday afternoon Young Communist League pep rally doesn't make them a genuine threat to anybody.
     My feeling was, heck, if staging public gripe fests gives these people something to do, then great. It's outside. It involves handicrafts, the making of signs and costumes. It's like Scouting for irked middle-aged white people.
     As to whether this is an actual grass-roots moment, or a sham orchestrated by larger interests, well, after the rally I pulled out that large card I had been handed when I got off the train. Stiff cardboard stock. Four-color. Glossy. Expensive, like something J.B. Pritzker printed up when he was running for Congress. A real grass-roots movement would use colored copier paper from Kinkos.
     Despite all the talk of the American Revolution, the era of history they really evoke, at least to me, is the America First, the isolationist organization started in Chicago in 1940. Like the Tea Party, the America First was also conservative, nativist, at odds with both parties, since Democrats and Republicans wanted to help the English stand up to Mr. Hitler, which America First found a waste of our beloved money. Like the Tea Party, the America First gloried in huge rallies, featuring its own populist star, Charles Lindbergh, and mistook these displays for actual significance. America Firstism vanished on Dec. 7, 1941, and was promptly forgotten.
     And while I would never be so bold as to predict the same fate for the Tea Party, it wouldn't surprise me either.

        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 18, 2010

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Era of Contempt, III

     Being creative is hard. Especially over time. To hold readers' interest, to be both recognizable and fresh. Expectations rise, if you're good, and then have to be met. Or, inevitably, not met. Lurking in the shadows is that enemy of continued excellence, Regression to the Mean—the tendency for exceptional performance to be followed by more humble results, skewing toward the average, toward not the outstanding, but what people usually do on any given day.
     So as promising as it was to receive another letter from Alan P. Leonard, I should have seen what was coming. 
     His first letter, defending our "wonderful president" and damning me was a masterpiece of unintentional humor, among the dozen most popular posts ever to appear on this blog, between its comic misspellings—"a wessel like you"— and its lashing out at Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Dozens of readers commented.
     The second letter, with its bold, sex panic opening line—"Are you one of those transgender people I've heard about"— didn't rate quite as high, but still was more popular than most anything I could write. It had a certain grandeur that demanded admiration.
     To be honest, I thought my Tinley Park correspondent had run his course. It was too much to expect a steady stream of crazed clickbait from Mr. Leonard.  
     Then this third letter arrived. I opened it with excitement, then felt ... well, let down. I mean, the misspellings are there—my name, "your resent articles"—but it somehow lacked the dynamic tone of the previous two offerings. It was flat, limp, lifeless. To be honest, I at first decided not to post it at all, that it was not up to my standards for risible contemptuous reader emails.
    But I couldn't throw it away either. It lingered in my briefcase, and now that a few weeks have passed, and no further letters, I feel obligated to end this as a triptych, and share his swan song, the last dinosaur, the end of an era.
    I'll let you be the judge. Is this up to his high standards for nitwittery? The stationery alone merits attention. Still ... am I slumming sharing it? To be honest, I looked at the current national scene, the White House dissolving into chaos, the investigative net closing around the president, and had nothing whatsoever to add to the chorus of critique. I'm a spectator like everyone else, shorn of insight, just waiting in a mental crouch for the next development.
     So, in the meantime, why not Mr. Leonard? As well him as another, to paraphrase Molly Bloom. So yes I said yes I will yes, and put your hands together, one last time.


Friday, April 13, 2018

'Fox Hunt' author, plucked from war-torn Yemen by social media, to visit Chicago

Calligraphic Galleon, by Abd al-Qadir Hisari, Turkey (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     The young man was trapped.
     In a small apartment in a country that was coming apart.
     It was late March, 2015. A week before, he'd fled his home in the capital of Yemen as that nation's civil war intensified. Now he was on the coast, in Aden, where it turned out the fighting was worse: gunfire in the street, Saudi air strikes raining missiles, and nowhere to go.
     Yet the Western world was tantalizingly close. At his fingertips, on his laptop: Facebook. Twitter. It was a fragile thread, but it was all he had, so he pulled it.
     There is something heartbreaking in the faux casual way the young man started his email to Daniel Pincus, a man he had met in Jordan at an interfaith conference.
     "Daniel, I hope everything is great in your side! I hope you still remember me ... I thought it will be a good idea if I ask you if you can help me out ... If you watch the news lately, you may have heard about what's happening in Yemen."
     He had already reached out to another friend, Megan Hallahan, who emailed everyone she "had ever met in [her] whole entire life" on behalf of this acquaintance whose life "is really in danger."
     "Any idea or contact will help," she wrote.
     One of her emails reached Justin Hefter, a native of Highland Park, who was himself actively trying to foster Middle East peace, particularly between the Israelis and Palestinians.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Half a mind to struggle

     Without the union, I probably would have never been hired by the Chicago Sun-Times.
     It was 1987, and I had been freelancing for the paper for two years. 
     It was a perfect arrangement, as far as the newspaper and myself were concerned—the paper needed reporters who could quickly and accurately bat out stories. And I needed the $125 that such stories paid. If you wrote five a week—and I could, easily—it almost constituted a kind of living. 
     Left to our own devices, we'd have continued that way. I was freelancing for other places, heading down to Haiti to study voodoo for the Atlantic. I was in no rush to tie myself to any particular publication.
     But there was a fly in the ointment. The world did not consist solely of the newspaper and myself. There was also the Chicago Newspaper Guild, an entity that looked askance at the regular freelancing of news. It tolerated it for a while, then told the Sun-Times management: This guy is basically a scab, undercutting union reporters. Hire him full time or stop using him.
     Thus a job was offered to me. I took one look at that princely salary—$33,000 a year in 1987–and felt I really had no choice. "I have to give this a chance," I told my girlfriend Edie.
    I will admit, it was not the ideal work environment to be flung into. I was unpopular walking in the door, not quite seen as an anti-union thug, but not a fresh-from-the-box new hire either. More of a kind of patsy, a semi-scab, someone dubious and tainted and taken advantage of, not to mention sullied by my magazine work. Real Chicago newspaper reporters were annealed in the low-wage furnace of City News. I was hired by features, to write for The Adviser, a weekly publication telling readers how to keep Japanese beetles off their lawns.
     As my career unfolded, I kept the union at an arm's length. My philosophy was, I'm unpopular enough with management as it is, for my habit of speaking frankly, sometimes in print about them. Let's not make it worse. I spent five years on the night shift, and was the last 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. reporter the paper employed. I had a boss tell me that, if it weren't for the union, he'd have fired me on the spot, on general principles.
     Working nights got me an extra 10 percent pay, as stipulated in the union contract. The contract was filled with other protections and rights. In 1995, I invoked a line in the contract that allowed male workers to take up to a year unpaid paternity leave. I would have certainly never have done it otherwise—the contract not only granted permission, but it gave me the idea. There was no reason not to. I had been on staff for eight years. I was a night shift grind with no future, at least not one here. I had written three books, and with money from the latest, I could step away, take a break from deadline reporting, look at my options and, oh yes, help raise this newborn.
    So I walked away. Thank you Samuel Gompers. Thank you John L. Lewis. The paper didn't miss me—in fact, I'm certain I was given a column while I was gone because I was the Man Who Walked Away. It gave me an appeal that my actually being there would have dissipated. 
     Another union perk.
     I paid my dues, accepted benefits with both hands, and left the organizing to others. Having a contract made the job better. It prevented abuse. I remember, living on Logan Boulevard, closing the door to my apartment on a Friday, my day off since I worked Sundays, hearing the phone ring inside. "Leave it," I thought, hand on the doorknob. Instead I went back in, and picked up. An editor telling me to get to Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn and spent 24 hours in its ER—we wanted to scoop a pending Trib story on trauma centers.
     So I did. Some businesses would require a low level employee to work 24 hours on a moment's notice and then say "Thanks." If that. Being a union business, that meant I could take time and a half off for the weekend overtime. So in working 24 hours on my day off, I earned a week's paid vacation. Seemed fair to me. More than fair. I've always viewed working at the Sun-Times as a sweet job, and the union was the spoon that stirred the sugar.
     That is what unionism is about. Taking the buckets of benefits that pour over owners and re-directing a few tablespoons to workers. If that week off seems generous, it pales next to the millions that owners sucked out of the paper without ever having to gingerly watch large, howling men who had been shot at a street corner dice game being catheterized.
     Without a union, you're naked. The reporters at the Tribune certainly were. People assumed they did better than Sun-Times reporters—I think the Tower, and its fancy aura, and the Tribune's general tone of hauteur threw them off. But whenever I actually compared specifics with my colleagues at the Tribune, to my vast surprise, they were doing worse: worse pay, worse benefits, worse health care, worse job security. 
     They didn't have a union because their bosses had always been paternalistic mini-Col. McCormick's who convinced their underlings to trust them. What unions they had were brutally repressed. The Tribune was the place where pressmen picketed for years, to no avail. Those miserably marching pressmen are why I'd never subscribe; I don't think I've ever bought a copy of the Tribune at a newsstand, ever, to this day.
     So now the Tribune newsroom is organizing. About time. And congratulations.
     As momentous as this is, I hope they remember—with those pressmen in mind—the union is a means, not an end. Forming the union is only the beginning; you have to stick together, hang tough, make it work. There's still a fight ahead. Many fights.
     Sure, there are downsides to unions, as there are to any organization or human activity. I've never met a coworker so deficient or crazy that the union wouldn't go to bat for them.  So you'd hear some doorjamb-gnawing lunatic you couldn't believe was ever hired has finally been called on his or her particular madness. Then you'd inevitably hear that the union is fighting it.
     That said, the management claim that the union made it impossible to fire people was not true—the procedures made it difficult, but there are procedures, and though often management was often too slipshod and lazy to actually go through it, to build the paper trail. Under the proper motivation, it was possible, and they did do it.
    Sometimes we did find ourselves picketing the company picnic, to get a point across. That sucks. Picketing sucks. As does leafleting. But I do it, when called upon, because you have to. Otherwise, you're a parasite, living off the blood of others.
    The union was weakened by the financial crisis of 2008. In 2009, when Jim Tyree bought the paper, he had three stipulations: we had to take a 15 percent pay cut. We had to freeze our pension plan. And seniority—the requirement that people be fired in the reverse order they were hired—was done away with.
    The union resisted—the first vote turned the offer down. In my memory—and I might be over-dramatizing my role—I remember being one of the few who supported taking a deal. "I'm a Jew and we survive," I remember saying. "The purpose of the union is to protect our jobs at the newspaper. But if there is no newspaper and no jobs, I'm not really concerned whether the union is strong or not."
     So the union undercut itself, to protect what was important. We muddled through. Now the union is trying to recover what we surrendered. I don't know of anyone who regrets that decision—it's been a good job this past decade, still.
      It's encouraging to see our colleagues at the Tribune moving to unionize. Given how they have been manhandled by a series of cash-sodden jerks: grave dancer Sam Zell, tech toddler Michael Ferro—they need something strong on their side, protecting them against the whims of whoever can muster the cash.
     This resistance is happening all over. Last Sunday, the Denver Post ran an extraordinary editorial denouncing their own owners as "venture vultures" and calling for someone who cares about the city to buy the Post. Newspapers, having been beaten up for a decade, and under a president who prefers fascism to a free press, they are finally fighting back. 
   Fighting back is good. There is a New Yorker cartoon that shows two explorers up to their necks and sinking. "Quicksand or not, Barclay," one says to the other, "I have half mind to struggle."
     That's where longtime newspaper employees have been for a dozen years. Struggling. Fighting. Not giving up. Samuel Johnson said it best.
    "I will be conquered. I will not capitulate."
    That's the spirit. If victory is the opposite of defeat, then forming a union is the opposite of surrender. I don't often wish the Tribune well, but I wish them well now. We are all cooking in the same pot. So much of the economy is pushing workers toward the piecemeal home workers who were so abused a hundred years ago. Success for one means improvement for all. Forming a union is a step in the right direction. Not victory. But a step toward it.