Wednesday, March 20, 2019

No quit in the boy

      Yesterday's post on quitting was something unusual. The back story is, I'm working on this big profile that's running Sunday, one of those rare collaborative efforts that requires conversations and team meetings and  careful calibration and fuss. There wasn't any gas in the tank for a post, so I grabbed this one I really intended to run should the day come when I decided to scale back the blog, made it less final, and put it up.
     It drew a good amount of reaction, and one line from regular reader Chris Wood resonated:
     "You're no quitter," he said. 

    And I thought, "Yeah, damn, he's right. I'm not." Which is a good thing, generally, I suppose. The unstated assumption that by not quitting you therefore go on to win. Pretty to think so. Growing up during the Vietnam War has to put a different spin on quitting—sometimes it's the smart thing to do, lest you end up Ahab and his crew on the bottom of the sea.  Sometimes quitting saves you from something worse. 
     In that famous line of Churchill's—"Never give in, never, never, never–never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty" people tend to overlook the next few words, "never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” But when is giving up sensible? That's the sticking point.
     I'm the one who used to say, "You can never fail as a writer: you either quit or succeed." And I suppose the success is in the doing of the thing, which is certainly true in my case. You can still win without ever standing on a podium; in fact, many people are pulled down by the weight of their accolades. I've seen it happen.
     Thinking about this, I remembered a moment related to my older boy. We were in Indian Guides—the last year they used the name, speaking of quitting. So Ross was about 7. We were at a summer camp, with cabins and a dining hall. There was a climbing tower, a mammoth assemblage of lashed together telephone poles, 47 feet tall. They had rigged up two stations, to move the crowd along, and the boys would climb at each, belayed by a rope. What happened is the kid would get five or 10 feet, if that, then give up, tap out and be belayed back down to the ground.
     Not my boy. He would climb a few feet, cling there like a monkey, gather himself, then push onward. For, oh, half an hour. Meanwhile generations of kids at the other station—I hesitate to put a number on it—5, 10, 15—attempted the climb, gave up after a minute or less, and were returned to Earth.
     My kid, like me not gifted athletically, had something that can be even more useful.
     "There's no quit in that boy," I said, marveling, head tipped back, squinting up at him with the other dads. It seemed to take forever, and at times I wish he would quit. There was almost something unseemly in this outsized determination. Eventually he attained the summit—I'm tempted to say he was the only kid to do so, but I don't recall that as a fact. I only remember that he did while most kids didn't.
     He must have gotten that from somewhere. It is true that one of my favorite quotes from the Great Cham of Literature, Samuel Johnson, is: "I will be conquered; I will not capitulate." That sounds like a plan though, now that I think of it, whether the end comes by defeat or surrender, the end result is still the same.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Everyone, everywhere, gets up, and goes home"

     Twitter continually gives you the opportunity to endorse the ideas of strangers without really thinking about them.
     I was scrolling through the assortment of news and trivia, bleats and bullying last week when I came upon a Tweet from someone I was familiar with, but not on Twitter: Yoko Ono, who I guess nowadays must be identified as the Japanese artist who married Beatle John Lennon:

     Sounds good by me. Because discouragement comes, efforts flag, especially toward the tail end of your 50s. Collapsing across the finish line just doesn't seem an option any more. There is no finish line. Death maybe.
     So you keep doing it and doing it and doing it until ... what? You pop? Discouragement comes up on your from behind and tackles you, hard, into the ground?

     Maybe there are other options. 
     There's a beautiful poem by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Brief—just a dozen lines—married to the cumbersome title “On the Strength of All Conviction and the Stamina of Love.”
     It begins:

Sometimes I think
we could have gone on.
All of us. Trying. Forever.
     As a writer, I really value the "we" and the "all of us" in the above. We are not isolated at our looms and wheels and keyboards, but together, a cohort, a mass, a team. Some doing better than others, sure, but all of us unified in our dreams, our effort.
     Then Hecht moves the ball.
But they didn’t fill
the deserts with pyramids.
They just built some. Some.
     Changing the dynamic. We aren't the artisans we fancy ourselves to be; we're slaves. Rolling the giant slabs of our ambition up these improvised ramps. Our sun-burnt cheeks pressed hard against the rough surface of the task, heaving with all our might. The idea of a pyramid-chocked desert seems fantastic, futile, silly.
     Then we leap from ancient Egypt to today in a single bound.

They’re not still out there,
building them now. Everyone,
everywhere, gets up, and goes home.
     Which sounds so enticing. The negation of a whimsical image straight from Billy Collins—all of those workers still out there, Giza abuzz with activity, masses of slaves, ropes, pulleys, new pyramids going up to this day, somehow overlooked by the indifferent world. 
     And that final "home"—who doesn't want to go home? The place where, as Robert Frost said so heartbreakingly, "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
     Honestly, I read the poem and, inspired, thought of posting it here and quitting the blog cold after five years. Here, figure this out, good-bye. 
Because whatever the world wants, this obviously is not it. Five years is plenty. 
      But then, I'm doing it for myself, because it's fun and not terribly demanding, really. I'd miss it. And maybe you'd miss it too. So on we go. Leading to the end of Hecht's poem, something of a rebuke, a twist to make us think harder about what has gone before. 
Yet we must not
Diabolize time. Right?
We must not curse the passage of time. 
     Why not? Time certainly won't care. Maybe because it's futile. There's a lot of that going around. 
     Anyway, that's enough for today. See you tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow after that....

Monday, March 18, 2019

"Fight hard for Judge Jeanine"

     The law has many concepts useful for the non-legal world. One of my favorites is "stipulate." When opposing sides in a case agree on a certain fact, or set of facts, they can stipulate those facts, meaning—if I understand correctly—that they don't have to argue over them. 
     "We will stipulate that my client was indeed in the store the morning it was robbed, but will show that he left without taking anything."
     Privately, I stipulate situations because I don't want to belabor them. Donald Trump is a liar, a bully and a fraud. This is clear to everyone it is ever going to be clear to, and anyone who doesn't see that by now never will. There is no need to wave around various examples of new lies, new examples of his beating up on the weak, fresh instances of chicanery. We get it. We've gotten it. We're going to get it. 
    Stipulating this allows a person thoroughly disgusted with our nation's dive into shame to divert his gaze from the oozing and grotesque horror unfolding hourly in Washington or, on the weekends, Florida. There is life outside of Trump's little shoebox diorama of a world, and I want to look at that. 
     There is a risk that the president will be tuned out so thoroughly, that the utter wrongness of his words and actions will be muted to a degree that is dangerous. We don't want to risk accepting his behavior by silence. We don't want to ignore the horror, repetitive though it may be. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to look, on general principles. As a patriotic duty. 
      Thus let me post a trio of his tweets Sunday, coming to the defense of a Fox host who was canned after suggesting that Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar couldn't be a good American because she wears a hijab. To read the president's tweets in chronological order, start from the bottom.

     This, 48 hours after 50 Muslims were slaughtered in New Zealand by a white nationalist who praised Trump before committing his atrocity.
      Judge Pirro was a Fox ranter—I can't comment on her because I've never seen her in action. But she seems to be among those mirroring Trump's thoughts back to him. Notice how the president of the United States calls for a TV host to be re-instated—itself a mile beneath the dignity of the presidency in normal times—then blames Fox News dumping her on the "Radical Left Democrats"—if they had control over Fox, one assumes the network would be sucked into the gaping hellmouth that opens up under it.
     In the second, a common theme: noticing the hatred they foment, against Muslims, against Hispanics, against whatever victim they've got their sights on at the moment, is "political correctness," a pearl-clutching collapse on the fainting couch of over-refinement.
    "Be strong & prosper, be weak & die." Where did he get that? It sounds like a snippet of Klingon philosophy that lodged in the Trumpian brain after watching "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." 

     And the third tweet. "Your competitors are jealous." Envy is a major motivating factor in the Trump world, second perhaps only to fear, so of course they see it everywhere they look. So many times I've heard from readers who can't wrap their head around opposing Trump for the aforementioned lies, bullying and fraud—it's just crrrrazy to them—nor perceive his valueless, pitiable life, but, dazzled by the gold-plated excess he wallows in, declare that those who oppose him are just "jealous" of his lux lifestyle. Like being Donald Trump were not a fate I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. 
     See why Trump is best ignored? Because if you don't, you have to think about this shit. And honestly, we haven't even parsed half of his grotesquely petty and sickening tweets on Sunday. With more certain to come today. I suppose we have to look, as punishment, for being part of a nation that permitted this. Then we have to look away. It's heartbreaking. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Memento mori

     Rare is the weekend where I have to work. Well, except for Sunday mornings, when I usually write my Monday column. Except not this morning, because I'm so busy writing this big important project for the paper, the column got pushed aside. 
    I don't want to ignore the blog post though. However ... I can't say that after a day grinding at this task ideas are straining in their seats, waving their arms, going "Ooo, ooo! Me! Me!" 
     In addition. Maybe the slaughter of 50 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand makes the whole effort seem extra pointless. Social media, so stuffed with words as it is. Words, words, words. Suddenly words seem ... I almost said "cheap." But they're worse than cheap, aren't they? They're free, and worth every penny.
    Enough that I don't feel like adding more to them. 
    I do, however, have this photo I do not believe I have posted before. My wife and I were in Paris two years ago, visiting out oldest son at the Sorbonne, and we passed this florist on the Rue Monge in the 5th Arrondissement. Apt for spring, don't you think? Lovely to look at, colorful comfort in light of all the grim news. With perhaps a bit of apt symbolism tucked in, if you look hard.
    Oh okay: they're cut flowers. Which means the clock is ticking. Beautiful now. But later, soon, not so much.  Enjoy them while you can.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #31

     The Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike Monday, and on Friday Linda Spadlowski drove in from the far Northwest suburbs to join them.  She is not a musician—she's a patron, a paraprofessional at an elementary school in Carol Street. 
    "I came to lend my support to the musicians," she told me. "The orchestra is one of the best in the world, and its musicians should be treated with the respect they deserve."
      We spoke for a few minutes—I was just blundering by, heading to the train from the Hilton, where I had attended the the ACLU luncheon, guest of my friend Howard Suskin at Jenner & Block. Picketing is tiresome, and I was impressed that a concert-goer would go to the effort; it speaks to the devotion that patrons have to the music, particularly since this was her first year as a subscriber. 
    These sympathetic thoughts were in my head as I walked away. Then, as if to ground me in the greater reality, a remark from a man next to me cut through the Michigan Avenue background noise.
     "I'm supposed to feel sympathetic for folks playing the goddamn fiddle?" a man exclaimed. I stole sly glance to my right. Enormous cantilevered gut. Brush mustache. Terrified slip of a wife. Young daughter he was dragging along by her arm. 
     The music is out there, free to all. But not everybody can hear the music.  The CSO has cancelled its scheduled concerts for this weekend.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Don’t be scared; they’re only homeless young people — they don’t bite

     At the Crib, the Night Ministry’s youth shelter in the basement of the LakeView Lutheran Church on West Addison, there is a 9 p.m. ritual that can break the hardest heart.
     There is room for only 21 foam mattresses on the floor of the single-room shelter. So whenever more than 21 young people — mostly members of the LGBTQ community — are seeking refuge from the streets, they draw lots. The losers must leave. There are tears, embraces, couples sometimes split, and it is not unknown for one homeless youth to give his place to someone who needs it more. I’ve seen it happen.
     So when I first heard that the Night Ministry plans to move the Crib to a sprawling industrial building at 1735 N. Ashland, I assumed the idea is to accommodate more kids.
     They won’t. They’ll still house 21, to preserve a homey environment. The Crib will, however, introduce a new level of luxury.
     “There will actually be beds and not mattresses on the floor,” said the Night Ministry’s Burke Patten, the benefit of having several dedicated rooms. “People won’t be sleeping and recreating in the same space.
     Maybe. The new location is leased, but its use as a shelter needs government approval; the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals will hear the case on Friday.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Poisoned Ivy

     So that's why my boys didn't get into Harvard...
     Because the slots that should have gone to them were snapped up by the spawn of rich celebrities who bribed coaches to pretend their couch potatoes were athletes, and other venal acts of fraud and criminality.
     A spot in a top college projects whoever snags it to the fast-track to success. But those exclusive colleges bat away 95 out of every 100 students who apply, forcing them through an obstacle course where all sorts of secondary hurdles besides academic excellence suddenly loom in importance. If the college has accepted kids from 49 states, and needs someone from South Dakota so they can boast students "from all 50 states," then suddenly South Dakotans go to the top of the stack. If the band needs a xylophonist, suddenly xylophonists start to sparkle. Not to mention all the attempts to create a diverse student body. As Orwell said in Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Not to forget money: they have to remember to let some students in whose parents can actually pay the tuition. For starters.
    As Frank Bruni pointed out in Wednesday's New York Times, it isn't that much of a stretch from giving a college $2 million and having your kid waived in—legal!—to bribing a coach to pretend he's on the water polo team—illegal!
     I don't want to excuse the underhanded tricks used by parents to try to jam their kids into the best colleges.  It hasn't been so many years since my boys went through this, and I remember the frantic, what-can-I-do?!? approach to their quest.
Harvard Lampoon (photo by Harrison Roberts)
     But I had a few advantages. First, I had sought the advice of Bill Savage, NU literature professor, master of all things Chicago and, not incidentally, someone involved with the college selection machinery. He gave me what I consider the No. 1, key bit of advice for a student or parent contemplating the college process, which is: Don't get your heart set on a certain school. That's a recipe for disappointment. What happens is, a student, or her parents, or both, decide that they don't get into Boola Boola University then their lives will be ruined. When in fact they might have a better experience at a different college.  
     He also counseled against the general, I'm-gonna-die tone of despair that parents bring to the process. That doesn't help. Important decisions, yes. Key forms and essays and hoops to leap through or, often, not. But the whole upper echelon college thing is also a framework of values that is only of vast importance if you believe it is of vast importance. Donald Trump went to the Wharton School, and look how he turned out.
     Oh, and the boys didn't get into Harvard because neither of them applied. I can't speak for them, but that might be my fault. We visited Cambridge when they were in their mid-teens, and I steered us over to the Harvard Lampoon castle, a quirky building supposedly paid for by William Randolph Hearst and designed as kind of Dutch revival sphinx. I explained how, while researching my pranks book, I had spent a few days there happily poring over their archives, and what fine fellows the Lampooners were.
    Our timing was off. We arrived during some kind of Bacchic revel—maybe because it was Friday. A round metal pool had been set up in front of the castle, students were splashing around in it, drunk, and firing off fireworks. My boys were aghast. We fled.
     Just as well. The older boy went to Pomona, a liberal college in California routinely ranked higher than Harvard. And the younger boy went to Northwestern, applying early admission, because that's where his dad went. Bribes were not necessary.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Was Congress condemning hatred or expressing it?

Republican National Convention, 2016
     So my boss tells me to take today off and focus on a special project.
     Yes sir! I think.
     And then, as if to mock me, I flip open the paper and read about Congress last week declaring that hatred in all its varieties — including that against “African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and others”—is bad.
     What’s a guy to do?
     First, bigotry doesn’t have varieties. Underneath the thinnest veneer, it’s all the same thing: treating people in a particular group with contempt because doing so somehow makes you feel better about yourself.
     Sure, the forms that might appear to be different. But that’s just personal style: Chocolate or vanilla, rocky road or rum raisin, it’s all ice cream.
     I can’t tell you how many readers insisted I weigh in on Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, one of two Muslims new to Congress, and her pair of remarks regarding Israel. My hunch is they do so not out of their overflowing human kindness, but from their own low-grade fever anti-Semitism. They want to nudge me into a trap: Ha, make this Jewish Democrat denounce his fellow Democrat. Sort of the way Louis Farrakhan is used as a pry bar to wiggle apart Democratic coalitions.
     Honestly, Democrat or Republican, feeling queasy about Israel as it slides toward extremism under Benjamin Netanyahu seems more an expression of sincerely-held Judaism than of anti-Semitism, and if that were a sheitel on Omar’s head instead of a headscarf (sigh: sheitel = wig worn by Orthodox Jewish women) nobody would have noticed her opinion, never mind initiated an Act of Congress.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Dear Subscriber...

      Newspapers, in their continual quest to stay in business, have tried just about everything. Last year, marque columnists at major papers began writing letters to subscribers, thanking them for their patronage. Someone at the Sun-Times thought it might be a fine idea if I were tapped to write such a letter. Doing my best to get into the spirit of the thing, I gave it a shot, and produced the following. I turned it in, and never heard anything more about it, which is usually how these things go. Honestly, I don't know whether it was ever sent out. I sure hope not. That said, it is, I hope, not without wit, and I thought I would share it here.

Dear Subscriber:

     For many years, the Sun-Times has brought you everything you expect in a newspaper; specifically the "Love is..." comic strip, with its two naked sweethearts expounding on the vast complexities of their affection.
     I swear, half the readers I talk to, when they hear I work for the Sun-Times, start rhapsodizing about "Love is..." They do that for a while, then eventually look at me, as if seeing me for the first time, and ask, "And what it is you do? Write a column? What sort of column?"
     Not that I'm complaining. It's a cute little panel. Very sweet and ... umm ... sugary.
     But a newspaper that merely presented a two-inch tall panel, no matter how popular, well, it would look a little thin. So we on the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times work hard, every day to build a dynamic newspaper around the "Love is..." cartoon, so that after you've had your essential fix of the multi-faceted ecstasies of affection, can find out what 's going on in the city, state and world.
     We try to offer clarity and consistency in a changing world. Every day for the past 70 years—since Feb. 2, 1948, to be exact—when the Chicago Sun joined the Chicago Times, the combined product has landed on the doorsteps of the city.
     For almost exactly half that time—34 years—I've been in the paper, first as a freelancer, then a reporter, then a regular columnist. The powers-that-be asked me to write a note to thank you for subscribing. Without you we truly wouldn't be here, and while we provide you with a portal into Chicago and the world you cannot get anywhere else, you do one better: you pay our salaries, and we are grateful for that, as well as for the other kind of support you show—the news tips, the letters (well, most of the letters. Some people, well, geez, get a hobby...)
     But most of all, your loyalty.
     Why are you loyal? Beyond an inexplicable addiction to "Love is..."
     I like to think it is because you trust the Sun-Times. You know what you get in the paper. A thorough sports section anchored by seasoned pros such as Rick Morrisey and Rick Telander. Investigative stories broken by Tim Novak, Bob Herguth and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Frank Main. Movie reviews by Richard Roeper. Columns by Mary Mitchell and Mark Brown and, if I may, me.
     Plus podcasts and videos and all that modern stuff we're obligated to put out because everyone else does.
     You trust us, and we trust you, to stick with us, through thick and thin, to keep reading, and forgive our occasional lapses: those newspapers that get tossed into a bush, for instance.
     Part of news writing is being brief, so I won't belabor the point. The Chicago Sun-Times offers a steady platform from which to view our ever-evolving city and world. We try to both maintain a comforting stability while adapting to stay current. We always keep our audience in mind, maintaining your high standards as well as our own, and want you to know how important you are to us, as both readers and a subscribers. We will always be on the lookout for ways to improve our paper, to make it both familiar and fresh, every day, to make what changes are necessary—except, I am quick to add, "Love is..." That stays, forever.
     So that after you enjoy "Love is..." there will be important, valuable information, as well as a certain quirky column written by a blowsy curmudgeon, to keep you occupied until the next installment comes around. Thank you for your support in the past, and to come.


Neil Steinberg

Monday, March 11, 2019

L.A. Burdick: "When luxury passes into necessity."


    The second half of my Lewy body dementia story, 'Where's Bob?' is running in today's Sun-Times. If you haven't read it, you can read it here.  If you have, well, mustn't leave you high and dry. Here's a little something sweet to tide you over until tomorrow. 

    What? Mid-March already? Nearly.
    That means I missed Valentine's Day.
    Not for my wife, of course. We enjoyed a spa day in the city and this exquisite box of L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates, which we broke open a few days before Feb. 14, because they only last about two weeks, and you've got to eat 'em while they're fresh.
     But for you. I meant to tip off procrastinating swains and sweethearts facing the traditional Valentine's dilemma of what to buy their beloved that, if stymied for a gift, they could always rush to the Chicago branch of L.A. Burdick's at 609 N. State and buy some really, really exquisite chocolate. Because not everybody knows about the place.
     We've been aware of Burdick's for years, from that most unromantic of publications, Consumer's Reports, which included it in a national chocolate roundup in 2002.  Something about the notice caught my fancy, and I ordered a box, and remember our liking the stuff, but we weren't so captivated that we ordered more.
      Then in October, we blundered upon Burdick's festive Greenwich Village outpost, twinkling with golden lights, while visiting our son at school.  The company was founded 30 years ago, is based in Walpole, New Hampshire, and prides itself in not using any artificial flavors. Burdick has been slowly branching out—the Chicago store opened in 2017. In New York, we loaded up on presents for the various cat-sitters and dog-walkers minding the home front while we were gone. And some chocolates for ourselves.
    Man. They were really good in a way that stuck with us this time. 
     Intense flavors. Lime zest and anise. Caramelized honey and saffron. Unique combinations: cherry and cumin seed. Dusted in cocoa. Not overwhelmingly sweet, the way, oh, Fannie Mae tends to be. I sent a box to my mother. She went wild for it. Over. The. Moon.
     Come Valentine's Day, we got lucky—bought a box as a present we weren't able to deliver, because of a snowstorm. So we delivered it to ourselves.
     That's it. No larger philosophical point today. Life's too short to eat mediocre chocolate. Tuck the thought aside for next year. Or maybe you have a birthday or special event coming.  Or if the world starts looking glum. The stuff is pricey, at $68 for a pound box, or more than twice what Fannie Mae will set you back. That might seem like a prohibitive amount of money; that only means you haven't tried it. Once you do, well, it brings to mind Dostoevsky's dictum about "how easily habits of luxury are acquired, and how difficult they are to give up afterwards, when luxury passes into necessity."
     Now I can't imagine buying a box of anything else. Not that we now have to eat Burdick's chocolates as a matter of habit. At that price, who can? But after Burdick's, all other chocolate seems not worth their calories, hardly worth the effort of chewing, despite their reduced cost. Burdick's heft price can almost be seen as a blessing—if they cost less, you might never stop eating them.  Our routine was to permit ourselves one of the "tiny bites" each evening after dinner. Okay, usually two. Three if we were feeling decadent. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

'Where's Bob?'—Love, loss and Lewy body dementia

     This piece has an unusual backstory. Bob Ringham was a photographer at the Sun-Times. In the mid-1990s, we took a road trip downstate to cover the Mississippi floods, and got to know each other better. Jump to late last year. He asked me to call him so we could talk about blogs—he reads this one, and thought of doing his own about his wife, who was dying of a lesser-known form of dementia. I gave him what advice I could, and then asked him if he were documenting her end, photographically. He said he really couldn't: he was the primary caregiver, and his hands were full. I asked him if he wanted me to come down, hang out for a few days, maybe take some pictures he could then use on his blog. He said he did. At that point, it struck me that there might be a story here, and I went to the paper's editor Chris Fusco, who said, "Do it." 

     Clare Ringham prepares a simple dinner: linguini with broccoli and chicken.
     She sets the table in the comfortable house she shares with her parents in a pine-studded suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina. Festive green-and-red pasta plates for herself, her father Bob and mother Peg — at Peg’s place setting, she puts special weighted silverware. Peg’s hands tremble with palsy, so the heavy silverware makes it easier for her to eat — or would, were she to use them.
     But Peg won’t be joining her family for dinner tonight. She hasn’t for over a month, and she never will again.   

     Making the bed that morning, Bob plumps Peg’s pillow, even though she does not sleep with him. She sleeps in a hospital bed in the living room where the mattress alternates pressure to avoid bedsores. With death near, she sleeps most of the time now.
     “Alzheimer’s disease essentially takes the main stage,” says Dr. James Mastrianni, director of the Center for Comprehensive Care & Research on Memory Disorders at the UChicago Medicine. “People don’t hear about a lot of the other forms.”
     Mastrianni says doctors have studied Alzheimer’s for over a century. Lewy body has been recognized for perhaps 25 years.
     “That’s a pretty short time when you think about understanding these disorders,” he says.
     Hundreds of researchers are studying Lewy body dementia, which you might think of as Alzheimer’s-plus. An Alzheimer’s patient might forget he has a family. With Lewy body, he might forget the family and also invent pets.
     “With Lewy body dementia, one of core features is hallucinations and visions,” Mastrianni says. “They will often see animals or birds flying around the house. I had one patient who put a cup on the floor with water so the dog could drink. But they don’t own a dog. Your perception is completely unreal.”  
Peg Ringham

     This is the Ringham household routine in late January: holding onto what they can of the past with Peg, coping with a demanding, almost overwhelming present and adjusting to a grim, inevitable future.
      “A year ago, 2017 Christmas, she went to the mall, got me a shirt,” Bob says. “This year, she didn’t even know it was Christmas, and she can’t even walk. It’s a terrible, terrible disease, a steady progression.”
    The disease is Lewy body dementia, a common though little-known brain disease like Alzheimer’s, combining the mental decline of that condition with the physical decay of Parkinson’s disease. A million people in the United States are thought to have it.

To continue reading, click here.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #30

     Of course the boys loved Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Easy, cheap, I would prepare it for them on the stove and maybe leave a few tablespoons for myself in the pot, a guilty pleasure craftily consumed between the stove and the sink while they were focusing on lapping up their dinners.
    Lately, Kraft Mac & Cheese has been out, in favor of other, newer, better M & Cs. Over Christmas I was dispatched to Jewel to pick up this Banza stuff—it has lots of protein and few carbs, or so I'm told. As often happens, I was dispatched on my mission thinking I was collecting one product and found myself confronting three: these blue, red and orange boxes, containing confusingly similar foodstuffs. I dutifully sent home a photo of my choices, and picked one, but forgot to buy enough. The younger kid plows through it.
     Shortly thereafter, I read of the troubles of Heinz Kraft, which lost $15 billion of valuation in one day in late February. The merger of two years earlier hadn't helped, it hurt. Of course it did. Smaller companies always come up the Next Thing, because they can make the nimble, daring choices that behemoths balk at.
    It gave me pause, to see our own little private shift, magnified 100 million times and reflected in giant economic doings. We think of there being a separation between our private sphere and the public realm. They feel separate, like fish bowls bobbing in the ocean. But the division is imaginary; the glass isn't there. It's all one big ocean.
    Banza was founded five years ago, in the Detroit apartment of Brian Rudolph, who thought, with all this gluten aversion, that pasta could be made with chick peas instead of wheat.  Why Kraft couldn't do that is a mystery. Or, more damningly, not a mystery. They introduced their Mac & Cheese in 1937. Why screw with success? (Spoiler alert: because if you don't, the world changes and you lose).
     Sometimes the world changes fast, sometimes slow. We live in a time of fast change—change is one definition of time. In theory. Yet change somehow also seems as somewhere between unexpected and shocking in practice. The bedrock keeps shifting. Small town stores vanished to big chains in malls. Then the chains started to vanish, and the malls themselves. Automobiles—cars!—are beginning to disappear. And now Heinz Kraft is in trouble. I would have bet on Kraft Mac & Cheese lasting through the ages. But who knows? Anything is possible.

Friday, March 8, 2019

R. Kelly was ‘guilty as hell,’ singer’s prominent lawyer from first trial says

Ed Genson

     R. Kelly is on television, saying he never did anything illegal with underage girls.
     “I didn’t do this stuff!” he told Gayle King on CBS. “This is not me!”
     Trying to reach over the head of the legal system and speak directly to those who might be in his jury pool.
     Which is his right, I suppose.
     But R. Kelly’s is not the only voice on the matter.
     There are the alleged victims. And the lawyers representing them. They will have their day in court.
     There is also the past. The 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse with four women he’s accused of now are not the first charges Kelly has faced. In 2008 he was acquitted of child pornography charges; that case was dragged out over six years by a defense team headed by Ed Genson, a well-known, even notorious Chicago criminal defense attorney.
     Genson is still around at 77, though ill, his usual candor honed by the approach of death.
     “I have bile duct cancer,” he said in the paneled study of his Deerfield home. “Terminal cancer.”
    Doctors gave him 90 days to live.
     “That was a year and a half ago,” said Genson. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
     Perhaps this is a good moment to set the record straight.
     “I’ve been a lawyer 54 years,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent criminal cases. I’ve represented entertainers, represented people connected to organized crime, represented professional criminals. I’ve represented guilty people, I represent innocent people.”
     “I can say whatever I want, but we’ve got to do it fast,” he said. “It would be nice to get it down so somebody knows besides me.”
     His father was a bail bondsman, and we talked about the profession of posting bond in the 1950s. Then Genson brought up a certain former client.
     “When I represented Kelly in Florida, they set the bond at a $1 million,” he said. “We paid the bondsman $100,000. He was out on bond on the Florida case for three days and they made $100,000. Because he had to fly back to Chicago because they were going to arrest him here.”
     Any insights into R. Kelly, the man? Guilty as hell?
     “He was guilty as hell!” Genson said. “I don’t think he’s done anything inappropriate for years. I’ll tell you a secret: I had him go to a doctor to get shots, libido-killing shots. That’s why he didn’t get arrested for anything else.”

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Thursday, March 7, 2019



       Cities are proud of themselves and rightly so. They have an energy, and crackle with creativity. 
      But that doesn't mean small towns are without their excellence, their innovation. All is not sleepiness and tradition.
      I was in Danville a few weeks back, as you know, reporting on the enormous sign that Watchfire Signs is creating for Las Vegas' Fremont Street.
     Before heading to the factory, my hosts took me to a charming eatery inside what was once a private home, Charlotte's Coffee and Tea.
      Typically, I avoid salads outside cities—you tend to get iceberg lettuce and half a hard boiled egg. Usually, the cheeseburger is a better bet. But I really felt in the mood for a salad, and theirs was excellent. As was their lemon meringue pie. And their coffee—surprisingly good. Sometimes these small towns have lousy water, therefore lousy coffee. 
    But the coffee at Charlotte's Coffee and Tea was really good.
    I know, it should be, given the name. But city or countryside, an establishment dedicated to coffee and coffee you can drink do not always, or even often, go together.
    Draining my cup, I excused myself from my two table mates and returned to the counter, where an array of sandwiches and salads were offered on a chalk board. The young lady behind the counter was on the phone, but eventually accepted my glass mug and tried to fill it from a pump urn that only wheezed emptily. So she headed in the back, to what I hoped wouldn't be too long an adventure, while I gazed back up at the board.
     "Cottage cheese," I noticed, thinking of a small white curdly pile I seem to remember eating more often than I wished, as a child, and haven't tasted in years. Then the price: "3.22."
     Three dollars and 22 cents? What's that all about? And a sandwich cost $4.08. 
     I asked the clerk. Her face did that thing that the incurious do when confronted with a question of incomprehensible origin. The price? Of the cottage cheese? Why was it ...? She had no idea. The owner set the price.
     Was he around? No.
     I returned to the ladies I was lunching with, finished off my pie and second cup, we lingered in conversation, then it was time to get to the factory I had come down here to visit.
     "Just a second,"  I said, as we passed the counter, noting a different young woman now behind the country. "I have to give it another try." I put my question to her. She said that would a matter for the owner, and disappeared to find him. Nope, just stepped out. I set down my business card.
    Ask him to call me when he gets back.
    He did, not a minute later And explained the mystery like this: Charlotte's gets busy. It slows things down to fumble with change. By pricing the cottage cheese at $3.22, that comes out to be $3.50 with tax. Less fussing with coins.
      I've eaten in restaurants from Bangkok to Belize. And I've never seen an off-pricing system like that. Maybe it's common and I'm admitting to an embarrassing ignorance. But I don't think so. It struck me as clever, and worth mentioning.  Of course a place trying to make their pricing easier would also have good food—if you worry one detail, you probably worry them all.
     I don't imagine I'll be going back to Danville anytime soon—so far, 58 years of living have required a single visit. But if I do ever find myself having to make the 120 mile drive, I'll think, "At least I can stop by Charlotte's for some pie and that good coffee." 


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Taking apart a watch is easy; putting it back together, however . . .

Eric Buth, a radiation oncologist from Grand Rapids, Michigan, disassembling a mechanical watch movement at a class recently in Chicago. The Horological Society of New York has been holding watchmaking classes in major cities to give collectors a better understanding of how watches work.

     Taking apart a watch is not difficult. You need the right tools: a magnifying eyepiece and pointed tweezers, to see and handle screws the size of mustard seeds and springs as big as eyelashes. To turn those tiny screws, three jeweler's screwdrivers. Plus a pointer to nudge parts into place, and an elevated tabletop, to lean your elbows on, to get your face close to your work. Don't forget to slip on pink rubber finger cots, to keep the oils from your fingertips from corroding delicate parts.
     There is one more tool whose purpose doesn't immediately reveal itself: a round metal tray with ten compartments. 
     To understand the role of the tray, you need to know what you are doing or, barring that, have the guidance of someone who does, such as Steve Eagle, director of education at the Horological Society of New York. A few Sundays back, Eagle led seven novices through the removal and return of most of the 78 gears, wheels and springs of a Unitas ETA 6497 watch movement.
     "Welcome to Horology 101 to 103," said Eagle. "You're in for an intense four hours of watchmaking."
     The survival of the mechanical watch half a century into the era of quartz watches — the 50th anniversary of Seiko introducing the Astron is this Christmas — is a miracle of savvy marketing.
     "We've seen this resurgence in the last 15 years where people are circling back and starting to appreciate the longevity of mechanical watches," said Eagle. "The artistry behind them, the history, these little miracles that will work under their own power. Such an analog product in such a digital world."
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Steve Eagle

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

"Asparagus will not bear too much winter"


    Asparagus. Now there's an interesting word. If I had to guess, I'd guess French. The things seem French. But no, I'd be wrong. In medieval Latin it was sparagus which the common folk in England, rather delightfully, turned into "sparrow grass," where it had currency for centuries.
     "Sparrow-grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry," John "Elocution" Walker wrote in 1791 in his "Critical Pronouncing Dictionary."
     Not that asparagus aren't big in France. They are. Asperges. Particularly the white version, grown with dirt piled on them, so the shoots are never exposed to the sun, and photosynthesis doesn't begin. Manet painted their pallid stalks, and Proust studied them in "Remembrance of Thing's Past":
     “What fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world.”    
     The word is almost unchanged by time or distance. σπαράγγι in Greek "sparangi." You don't need to know Latin to notice the citation leaping out in Juvenal's 11th satire: "...montani asparagi, posito quos legit villica fuso"—"some wild asparagus, gathered by the bailiff's wife when she is done with her spindle," part of a modest rural meal of his, along with goat and grape leaves, which he contrasts to the wretched imperial excess of the banquets of today that he isn't invited to anyway, where the deeper the flabby  and indifferent host is in debt, the richer the provisions groaning on the table to his insulted guests.
    Cato and Pliny also praise the vegetable (Pliny says that the best comes from Ravenna which, being a Dante fan, I nodded at approvingly, even though the dour Florentine wouldn't be planted there himself for another 1300 years).
     The Romans dried them, then dropped them in boiling water as needed, a quick process that led the Emperor Augustus to say, when he wanted something done fast: "Citius quam aspargi coquentur," or, "Do it quicker than you can cook asparagus." (So fond was the emperor of the vegetable he created what was known as the "Asparagus Fleet" to rush it to his table).
    There are about 3o0 varieties of asparagus, and yes, they were grown decoratively.
    "The asparagus makes the strongest appeal to our sense of the beautiful," writes Charles Ilot, in his 1901 The Book of Asparagus, noting it belongs to the same order as lilies and tulips. (True then; but even plant families have their ruptures, and asparagus stalked off and formed their own family, asparagaceae).
     Yes, there are poems about asparagus.
     "Asparagus will not bear too much winter," Greg Kuzma writes, in the opening line of his brief elegy "Asparagus Beside the Road."
     Neither will we. Not too much more winter anyway. Two below on Monday. Time for spring to rattle the bushes a little. Just to let us know it's coming.
    Oh, and finally, yes, Edie prepared them for dinner Sunday, to go with t-bone steak that I grilled outside. Broiled, with a little olive oil and kosher salt, pictured above, which struck me as prettily green. Worth taking a picture of and, having the photo, a topic I hope might be worth delving into. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Flashback 1999: Murders in Naperville hit too close to home

Detail of "The Slaughter of the Innocents," Vatican Museum, Rome
   There's a lot of sorrow in the world. As a columnist, I spend a good deal of time processing it for readers, or trying to help them process it, giving voice to something that, I hope, helps somehow. 
     Today is the 20th anniversary of a notorious Naperville crime, when Marilyn Lemak killed her three children. Why? Maybe because she was depressed. That's what she said. Maybe, as prosecutors insisted, she was trying to get back at her ex-husband. I suppose it doesn't matter now. I was curious what I wrote, and this is it: notice the date: 10 days after the crime. Even then, I was a fan of  waiting. A helpful strategy not only in writing, but in life in general. Time is our friend, until it's not.

     The murder of the Lemak children is the sort of crime that echoes. It sneaks into your safe and warm home, folded into a newspaper or leaking through the television, and it stays there, for a good long time. It is an evil vapor, a poison cloud in the corner, which you strain to ignore while trying to figure out how to make it go away.
     The Naperville neighbors, of course, are shocked. But parents in general are also shocked. For all parents, this is not only a hideous crime but also a betrayal of the cause. How could one of us have done this?
     It isn't that children are never murdered. They are. But we have, in the backs of our minds, a filter, a cast of usual suspects we expect to do the deed—selfish 15-year-olds, babbling crack heads, longtime lunatics. We understand it then.  

Marilyn Lemak
    But this one just doesn't fit. Forty-one-year-old Marilyn Lemak, with her cranberry Victorian house and her active-mom schedule, doesn't seem cut out for the role. She's miscast, unqualified, which magnifies the horror of the crime she is charged with committing. So we search, as experienced processors of such terrible stories, for the key that makes this one understandable. To explain it, or rather, to explain it away. To get it out of the house.     
     We could blame the struggle over a divorce, but the evidence is mixed. In the Lemaks' house, a small knife was found plunged through a wedding photo. Yet Mrs. Lemak's attorney said it "seemed like a garden-variety type of divorce," and the couple had worked out visitation and custody.
     We could blame mental illness, though there is a circularity to that reasoning. Anyone who could do such a thing must have been mentally disturbed at the time, obviously. But what about the day before? Or the week before? Was it there all the time and nobody saw it? Or was it not even there?
     That's why this is all so extraordinarily chilling. Being a parent is hard, at times very hard. It flays you down to a single raw nerve. I remember my wife, when our second boy was a sleepless newborn, stepping into the bathroom to pound the radiator and scream, out of exhaustion and frustration. I would have done the same thing, but I was too tired.   

     This is not to say that parenthood is grim. I tell my childless friends, when they survey the wreckage of our formerly elegant lives and ask what the appeal of this intrusion could possibly be, that having a child is like giving somebody the world. Literally, the great big spinning globe, handed over free in a gift box. There are tiring times, but the reward is that you can slap your knee one morning and announce, at your whim, that today carousels will come into being. Then you head down to Navy Pier and plop the boys on a couple of gaily painted horses and take videos while they go up and down, delighted, and if you didn't actually conjure the carousel from thin air yourself, then the result is exactly the same.
     If having a child is like giving somebody the world, then killing a child is like destroying the world. It has the same finality, the same terrible tragedy. The staggering senselessness defies understanding, but we go over it again and again anyway, looking not, I believe, for understanding, but for reassurance. We want to locate a comforting fact that shows us that we ourselves are not capable of this act, that it came from some foreign, alien place, the land of the psychotic. But if a nice soccer mom could just crack, spontaneously, then what is to say that any of us—all nice, all normal—couldn't someday crack, too?
     Our view of these murders is skewed because they happened here, not in France, not in California. They loom huge in our views because they took place down the road, in that nice house, the house everybody aspires to. Proximity means something. The Internet be damned, distance is still real. Half of a sub-Saharan nation can rise up and slaughter the other half, and we don't have the energy to raise a yawn. But even an area as big as the Chicago metro region is still a community. The same identification that lets you feel pride when the Bulls win a championship forces you to feel the proximate horror of this act. As if we all lived on that street.
     Now that understanding is slow in coming, I want to suggest that, if the comforting explanation is finally revealed, we not embrace it too eagerly—that we recognize that the gulf between those who crack and those who carry on is not as wide as we might desire.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 14, 1999

Sunday, March 3, 2019

End of an era, probably. Last Ford Taurus rolls off the line.

Last Ford Taurus rolls off the line at Chicago Assembly, Friday, March 1, 2019.

     Today's subject is unusual for me, perhaps. The short answer is: someone at the paper asked me to do it. The plan was to actually be at the Chicago Assembly plant when the last Taurus rolled off the line. But Ford wouldn't allow that, despite my pleading. Nor would they allow me to talk to any workers. Nor was the union any help. Still, I had to fill the column SOMEHOW, and all that delightful information about what a lemon the Taurus was when it first was produced was sitting in the open palm of Our Friend History, just waiting for me to pluck it out. I think the story would have turned out shinier, from Ford's point of view, had they let me into the plant, where I've visited in the past. But I think it is also interesting to remember how this American success story struggled at the beginning.

     All good things must come to an end, and Ford Motor Company's good thing, the Taurus sedan, came to its end Friday as the last of what was once the most popular automobile in America rolled off the Chicago Assembly Plant.
     "Taurus broke new ground at its start and we're thankful for its role in our portfolio," said Mark LaNeve, Ford's vice president for U.S. marketing, sales and service.
     That's one way to put it. What the Taurus did at the start, when the new 1986 model was introduced, was stumble out of the blocks, badly. An innovative car — the first vehicle Ford with front-wheel drive — "the latest in Ford engineering and design" was initially plagued by problems.
     A week after it debuted, 4,500 Tauruses and Sables — its twin sister under the Mercury nameplate — had to be recalled due to faulty ignition switches. More recalls followed to replace window glass, which had a tendency to shatter. Followed by problems with surging and stalling engines. And transmission troubles. Not to forget a smell of rotten eggs that took Ford months to solve.
     In all, 80 percent of buyers of new Tauruses and Sables reported significant problems, J.P. Powers & Associates reported at the time. One owner, picking his Taurus up from having its power steering fixed at the dealer, had the transmission fail on the drive home.

      Yet the flagship survived its difficult birth, for a variety of reasons. First, the car just looked cool. Based on the Sierra, introduced in Europe in 1982 — some called it a "spaceship" — the Taurus seems futuristic, with headlights and fenders flush into the body and a sleek, aerodynamic look — to see how radical it was, compare it to the sharp corners of the Ford Granada, the car it replaced. The       Taurus' look won the car a starring role as a Detroit police cruiser in "RoboCop" (the story is that the police car designed for the movie drew guffaws of derision on the set, and director Paul Verhoeven was just starting to panic when he saw a new Taurus drive by).

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Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #29

     My wife being a lawyer ruined the Shedd Aquarium for me, for many years.
     I probably should let you puzzle over what the connection could be for a little while, one of those links utterly mystifying until revealed, when it becomes obvious.
     The answer: her white shoe law firm would have its Christmas party at the Shedd. A band, a bar, a dinner—I always ordered the fish, it seemed an amusing perversity.
      Because of this, when there wasn't a lux party going on, the aquarium seemed plain. Just fish. I'd go back to do a story—my look at the enormous backroom operation feeding the fish is one of my favorites—but unlike the Art Institute or the Field Museum or the MCA, it just wasn't someplace I was going to swing by on my own volition.
     Years went by. 
     That changed over Valentine's Day. My wife and I didn't have any plans to go out-of-town this winter, so decided on a "staycation"—a morning at the indulgent Ancient Aire Baths, lunch at RL, and then a visit to the aquarium.
     Somehow, I knew I would like it more than previously, and I also knew exactly why: my iPhone. Somehow, taking photographs of the colorful fish made it more real than just looking at them. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, it just is.
    We spent two hours there, took in the whale show, bonded with an octopus to such a degree that I don't believe my wife will ever eat them again, not even perfectly broiled at Pstaria, though knowing myself I will find a way. I learned more about fish in those two hours than I've learned in the previous two decades, with plenty of intriguing species I want to explore more fully at a latter time, such as the swirling vortex of "false herring," a spinning sphere of fish which, given the name, must be something else masquerading as herring though, alas, the Shedd guide narrating to a group about fish in the tank could not illuminate the situation. I'll get on that.

Sea nettle