Monday, September 20, 2021

Like being stabbed all the time

     The pain never goes away.
     Pain is a constant of Beverly Chukwudozie’s entire life. Not every minute of every day, and not always severe — what she calls a “10” level of pain.
     But most minutes of most days, somewhere between discomfort and agony. And the rare times the pain vanishes altogether, it is always still in the background, “a constant fear.” Certain to return, the only question being when, and where and how severe.
     Chukwudozie, 43, doesn’t remember a time when it was otherwise. As a girl in Nigeria, she was told she was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. That’s what made her joints ache, sometimes as if they were being stabbed with a knife.
     “I had a major complication that kept me in the hospital for about a month,” she said. There, a hospital resident told her, offhandedly, that no, it wasn’t arthritis. It was worse; she had sickle cell disease, and might expect to live to be 21.
     She was 12 years old.
    “There was really limited knowledge at the time,” she remembers. “I did my best to find out more about it.”
     So did I. After Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office announced September is Sickle Cell Disease Month. I realized that while I’d heard of the disease, I knew almost nothing about it except that it affects Black people, primarily, making their blood platelets, rather than being vaguely round, take on a crescent shape — the “sickle” part of the name.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

A shanda fur die goyim

By Damien Hirst

     I knew, when I wrote about not going to synagogue on Yom Kippur, "God doesn't want you to read this," that I would hear from one particular group that would be especially irked to find certain Jewish practices described in a family newspaper. Not anti-Semites or fundamentalists, not nationalists or dyed-in-the-wool haters.
     No, I knew, with certainty, that the most hostile, offended, cringingly awful responses would be from my coreligionists, my fellow Jews, dwarfing whatever the iron-ribbed haters had to say. And I was right. They sounded several common themes that were both shocking and, once grasped, completely expected.
     Several claimed that my not going to temple on Yom Kippur complicates their own observation of the holiday.
     "You make it harder for others to take time off, which people expect Jews to do, which many people think should happen," wrote MG. As if it were my job to stand behind him, nodding, adding moral support to his vacation requests.
     Even when readers do exactly what I do, they bristled at the idea of admitting it in public. A shanda fur die goyim, as they say in Yiddish. Embarrassment before gentiles. "Though I'm Jewish, I'm not overly observant," wrote AC, which you'd think would put him in my camp. "But, I do not believe that this is something that should be shared with the gentile world."
     Why? He shared a confounding misapprehension, one that I hear repeated again and again from fearful Jews, despite being completely untrue: that anything not showing Judaism in the most sparkling light is ammunition for haters who, in a weird and pathetic inversion of what is actually going on, are actually judging Jews based on our current actions, as opposed to condemning us out of the gate based on ancient, inviolable hatred. Anti-semitism if a contest, a game we are losing due to our own poor play, but might yet somehow win, if we try hard enough. Not realizing this isn't the case, my fellow Jews seem to think that if only we stand up straight and do our level best, why, then maybe those haters might grow to love us.

     "You and I both know that antisemitism is on the rise," AC continued. "Jewish people should not give what my grandparents called 'Jew Haters' additional grist for their foul mills."
     The Nazis are suddenly our moral pole star, and we should do our best to impress them favorably.
     I could share more. But I want to get to the prize of this week's haul, and since it is long—I initially couldn't read it all—I will have it be my final example of the form. You do know who sent the most tone-deaf, prolix, sententious reply of them all? Think hard. What sort of person? Hint: it's a learned profession. You know when the word "response" is in the subject line, it's time to strap in, lean forward and get into the crash position, with hands laced around the back of your head. Ready?

     "A Rabbi's response to your column of September 17."

Dear Mr Steinberg
     I am a long time reader, so I send this e-mail knowing that I might possibly be held up for ridicule and with little hope that you might take me seriously, for while you are so often spot on with your observations, when it comes to Judaism, well, I wish you wouldn't say anything, because your hostility towards your tradition, my beloved tradition blasts as loud as the Shofar and I so do not understand where you are coming from.
     I just finished a marathon of services and dvrei Torah, words of Torah, that have been gestating in my heart and mind since last yontiv, in one of the most difficult years of our lives and to have this time of profound introspection, this time of personal work, this time of reaching inside to do more, to do better, dismissed as "a smokescreen-everybody else does and grabbed a day off" truly is a mortal wound. And this is why:
     I was born to Jewish parents, with a Jewish identity that mostly consisted of knowing what Jews don't do (much like your pork analogy) and very little about what Jews do, and not receiving any Jewish education, I shared much of your dismissiveness. I am an RN, worked Chicago metro area emergency rooms for 25 years, and could have been quoted as saying, "I work Yom Kippur because my work is more important than services." And for sure, it was. However at some point my Jewish husband and I decided we should do better for our kids than we had and we joined a congregation. And with that relationship came an opportunity to learn Judaism as an adult, not some pediatric version.
     I will spare you my biography other than to say, once I began to learn, suspending my preconceived notions of Judaism, our tradition seduced me. And the more I learned, the more I began to understand my life and my purpose based on a single idea: Existence is not a happy accident, and that there is a creative force/energy, whatever... call it God or the Big Bang, it doesn't matter to me and I don't have the brain to understand. But what I do understand is that  I am connected to a people, who have for 4000 years undertaken a promise and relationship with that creative energy for the purpose of the ongoing act of creation.
     And the only way I could begin to understand Judaism was to learn and I am not talking about the miserable Hebrew School experience that is probably the foundation for your disdain of your tradition, but real adult learning.
     And that is what I want to say to you: Could you please actually learn something about Judaism, and while I have attached my Kol Nidre Sermon to better illustrate what I am saying, learn beyond a random sermon from a live stream video? I would be happy to recommend some books, but even better, take a Melton Class or some of the many learning opportunities that abound in the Chicago area, if you need help finding something, count on me.Then, if you continue to have such contempt for a tradition that I consider a treasure, have at it and I will avoid those columns. But enough of our world hates the Jews and we are far from perfect, we need a lot of work but when we hate on ourselves, well it breaks my heart, not just for the Jews, but for you Neil. Do not let your prejudice blind you and be an obstacle for growth but at the very least, could you stop sharing that prejudice with the rest of the world? It does not further the ongoing act of creation.
     G'mar Chatima Tovah, may you be sealed for a good year, a year of health, good deeds and better understanding.
     Rabbi Marcey Rosenbaum
     I wanted to just shrug and move on without a word. But I felt silence implied surrender, and some response was in order. I ended up with what I thought was a moderate, perhaps even gentle reply:
Dear Rabbi Rosenbaum:
     Allow me to summarize: You used to work Yom Kippur, then had a change of heart, and now view those who do what you yourself did as somehow showing "contempt" for our religion, which you would like to educate me about, though you doubt I will take anything you say seriously, adding as a persuasive flourish in closing that I need to "learn something about Judaism" through the source of Jewish knowledge that is embodied in yourself and your work.
     Have I summarized your message accurately? Having done so, I will cough into my fist once—ahem—and bid you a good day. Thank you for writing.
     No reply of course. Which I suppose, under the circumstances, can be viewed as a kindness. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Ravenswood notes: Better Jesus people

     Today's report from Ravenswood Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey dredged up a memory of some 35 years ago. My brother lived in Japan, and since calling long distance cost $1 a minute, we would mail micro-cassettes to each other. In one, he said how he was heading to a gyoza shop, ordering gyoza, eating gyoza. Listening in—this was the mid-1980s, I kept wondering, "What's gyoza?" (Japanese dumplings, for those as clueless as I was). Anyway, I had a similar lone lingering question reading Caren's piece—let's see if you guess what it is—one that I resolve afterward. Enjoy.

     “Stop barking Charles! Charles!” The couple on the patio next to me at Frasca was fervently talking to their phone screen. It seemed odd at first, then I realized they were using a doggy cam to to spy on their pooch. Charles was not behaving, guessing by the continued admonishments coming from his humans.  
     I giggled. Dogs are such delightful creatures. Poor Charles, stuck at home alone while his humans tried to enjoy a quiet date night. How dare they? Doggy stalking is not new but seems much more popular these days. Friends are forever mentioning that they are hopping online to see what their dogs in daycare are up to. (I wonder how the human caretakers feel about being watched all day)?
     About ten years ago my technologically savvy sister and her husband rigged up a camera to confirm their suspicions about their crafty canine. Sure enough, the footage revealed that Ms. Clytie, a regal apricot standard poodle, would jump onto the comfy couch the moment her humans left the house.
     I respected her more after that.
     A few minutes after the Charles FaceTime exchange at Frasca, I noticed that the gentleman had disappeared. He returned with their pleased pooch in tow. Turns out this couple and their four-legged friend lived close by. Dan, Charles’ human dad, had gone home to relieve their neighbors of his incessant barking and give Charles what he wanted. To be joined at the hip with his humans. Naturally. He’s not afraid to admit it.
     When Dan returned with Charles I could not resist saying hi to the caramel colored wavy haired Labradoodle, and giving him a pat. I’m partial to all versions of poodles having grown up with Felix, a black standard, (though I have to admit I am not informed about the ins and outs of breeding).
     Thanks to Charles I also met his sweet mom Angela. Angela, Dan and I chatted a bit— the usual anti vaxxers driving us crazy small talk specific to our new world. This led to the fact that at least here in Chicago I have not (yet) been blatantly harassed for wearing a mask, such as the time a man biked up to me and sneezed in my face back in Austin Texas last summer
     I’ve been thinking a lot about Austin lately. The heat index is over 100 degrees most days this time of year. Here in Chicago I can’t go a day without someone saying “summer is over” or “I see you are enjoying this summer-like day.” I resisted pointing out that it's still summer. (Just as I typed that last sentence from the patio of Uncommon Ground, my waiter came over to inform me they will be working on their winter menu soon).
     I do my best to turn the volume down on what might happen later this year (perhaps a blizzard? A polar vortex?) and instead I choose to get outside every single day and experience what is happening. I hope to report to you all winter long from hikes in the snow with and without snowshoes and cross country skis, and I promise to provide photos of the snow people I build.
     I’ve been having a rough month. Crashing from the big move in May, two of three dental surgeries under my belt as of this week, and bone deep fatigue I can't seem to shake. My client caseload is exploding, which I am grateful for, but it also shows the level of emotional pain so many of us are in.
     I miss the hills and the twisty live oaks covered with moss all over Austin. The rambling walkabouts I was able to enjoy when I had very few demands upon my time last year.
     Now that I am back in Chicago I can’t keep up with social invitations. I’m grateful to have friends and family to commune with, but I don't have the energy to handle all of it. I'd become quite comfortable meeting my inner self more deeply, and spending most of my time alone. I usually say yes though, since life is precious and I don't want to have any regrets.
     The best part of being back is being surrounded by kindred spirits. I don’t have to hide that I am an atheist, or fear being judged by my beliefs. I don’t have to justify wearing the beautiful Black Lives Matter t-shirt my friend Ben Blount created. Many of my friends, family, and clients are highly religious but I have not been evangelized to once since I’ve been back and I feel there is more room for everyone here. Not so in the South. Not even Austin.
     As I talked about some of this with my patio companions at Frasca the other night, Angela joked that we have "better Jesus people" here. I couldn’t agree more. We have better female reproductive rights people here. We have better chivalry-isn’t-dead-but-misogyny-is people here. We have better pizza, a fabulous lake, and most importantly we have basic Chicago dogs like Charles and his cool folks to help us keep it real.

     I was left wondering about the restaurant. To learn more about Frasca Pizzeria and Wine Bar, click here.

Friday, September 17, 2021

God doesn’t want you to read this

     While this column generally focuses on weighty public issues, it sometimes lets slip a personal detail like, “I was eating a pork chop the other day...” This invariably inspires a reader to object: “PORK CHOP!?!? I thought you were JEWISH!!!”
     This is what I call a “self-reveal.” They’re carrying around this cliched notion of what being Jewish means, and a pork chop has no place on their dance card. Rather than reevaluate their obviously mistaken belief in light of new information — who does that? — they find it easier to try to hoot down the contrary fact.
     It doesn’t offend me. Little does. There’s a lot of stupid in the world, and I’m not in charge of stamping it out. I’m not even sure where on the scale of offensiveness this would go. Something less idiotic than saying, “If you’re Native American, where’s your horse?” though worse than assuming that someone whose parents are from Mexico must speak Spanish.
     A pork chop doesn’t represent much of a slide from my upbringing. My mother never prepared pork in our house. But she served bacon. Her idiosyncratic personal theology saw a difference between the two, one not actually found in the strictures of Judaism, where a pig’s a pig. What part you eat isn’t the issue.
     Why shouldn’t she? Given all the contradictory nonsense that organized religion imposes upon our supposedly modern world, it seems only fair that individual participants get to inject a few irrationalities of their own. Fun for everybody.
     So yes, I’m writing this on Yom Kippur. I used to go to synagogue, back in the day. It wasn’t bad. Long. I liked the chest-pounding. You hear about chest-pounding, but how often do you actually have a chance to do it? Though the service did drag on and I was glad to shuck it. Frankly, when my boss asked “Are you writing for Friday?” my first thought was he didn’t realize the project I’d been working on that kept me from being in the paper Monday and Wednesday was done. Then I thought it could be a nicer version of the pork chop question. “Aren’t you busy praying?” Umm, no. Had I been more nimble-minded, I would have happily used my religion as a smokescreen — everybody else does — and grabbed an extra day off. But honesty is my default, and I said I’d write something. This, apparently.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Norm Macdonald passes quietly


     Norm Macdonald's death was notable for two reasons.
     To me, I mean. You might have a third or fourth, or, heck, as many aspects of interest in the passing of the Canadian comedian as you feel are...
     Start again.
     First, the Saturday Night Live comic's death Tuesday, though at a relatively young 61 (youngish, at least, to a guy who is himself 61) was not met with the usual ululations of outsized grief that meet celebrity deaths online. "The Full Diana" I've dubbed it. Maybe because he's firmly planted in the secondary or even tertiary strata of celebrity: no Chevy Chase, no Adam Sandler he. No one claiming how their week is ruined, a chapter of their lives clanging to a close. People who knew him were sad, as is appropriate.
     Or heck, maybe there was and I missed it: it wasn't as if I looked. But we've become comfortable with puffing our limited perceptions into general conditions, through the magic of assumption, so why should I do otherwise?
     And second, and this is the reason I'm writing this, Macdonald made the unusual decision to keep his cancer, which he fought for the past nine years, "largely private." This tacks against the general current of contemporary social behavior. We live in a time when nobody can have a wart burned off without posting photos of the wart on Facebook, plus the bloody gauze dressing and maybe a selfie in a hospital bed. Those selfies are extremely unflattering, inevitably. Somebody should tell them. I'd sooner post a snap of the contents of a bedpan than post a hospital selfie. 
     In a rare inversion, celebrities seem to manage their privacy better than supposedly private persons do. I don't see photos of J Lo in the hospital for a high colonic. Maybe their professional communications staffs help them in this regard.
     Mind you, I am aware that I am the fellow who documented his own medical states, from rehab to spine surgery to sleep apnea. I did so, not out of a particular impulse to overshare, I hope, but because the processes were interesting, to me, and I was confident that I could convey them in such a way as to be interesting to others too. At least to the admittedly select group of people who are interested in anything I have to say on any topic. I'm not against sharing, per se. I admire how Roger Ebert coped with his disfigurement due to salivary duct cancer by writing about it, and even permitting Esquire to run a full face portrait of himself, his jaw proudly reduced.
     But I also admire Macdonald for choosing to do his dying in private. There is a dignity and maturity to that which I believe cannot be matched by tweeting out your death rattle. Perhaps that is old-fashioned of me—I am, as I said, 61. The idea, as laid out in Dave Eggers "The Circle" of abandoning your privacy entirely and expecting every outing and event and visit to a clinic to be shared is fairly terrifying.
     Maybe the key is curation. Ivan Albright painted self-portraits of himself as he died, and those hang in the Art Institute, sometimes. If, when my time comes, I'm still doing this (please God no) and I decide to livestream my demise, senilely mistaking momentary morbid interest for the audience that has eluded me up to that point ("Look! 16,000 hits! Top of the world, ma!") well, don't link back to this as proof of hypocrisy. Or do, it won't matter at that point. By then hypocrisy will be the water in which we all swim, assuming it isn't already.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Regarding a new and more efficient process for dealing with the mouse problem.

     Our house has mice. Every now and then we can hear them, at night. A quick patter of invisible feet in the attic above our heads, a gentle drumbeat rousing me to action.
     When we first moved in, 21 years ago, I'd set mousetraps in the basement. The kind set on a small rectangle of cheap wood, where you'd place a square of cheese on a yellow plastic trigger, carefully pull back the metal bar, set it with a wire, then delicately place the trap,  your fingers placed out of harm's way, on some flat surface where a mouse might find it.   
     But those traps had significant disadvantages. I never caught my finger in one, but the risk was always there in that set spring, that straining bundle of potential energy. Sometimes they'd sit there for weeks, the cheese drying out, disquietingly. Other times you'd find them, face down on the floor, a tell-tale tail protruding from underneath. Maybe even a rivulet of deep crimson blood. That felt very cruel. You had to look: the crushed mouse head, the bar embedded in its skull, the snout just beyond the cheese that lured it to its death. Cheese it would never now eat. I'd cringingly, though not without a trace of satisfaction, drop the fatal duo, trap and victim, in a bag and go throw the bag directly outside in the garbage, as if the wee timorous mouse corpsie couldn't be allowed to remain in the house.     
     About 10, 15 years ago I abandoned the wooden trap system, and went for the big guns. A five gallon bucket of Blox mouse poison. It had the great advantage of not having to be set like the wood trap. Nor were there victims to deal with; the poisoned mice seek water, supposedly, and go off to some unseen place to die. Instead, there were these little triangular black plastic traps, designed to contain the poison and keep any prying cat or child from getting to it. Originally there was an odd metal key that pried the trap lids open, but that was lost long ago, and I learned a flat head screwdriver would do in a pinch. I would slip on latex gloves to handle the poison, which felt like a prissy bit of excess caution, but there you are.
     The Blox came with three traps. I'd put one in the garage, at the base of the back wall, which was simple enough. One in a hole in the brick wall in the basement, and one in the attic, accessed through a small metal trap door
 in our bathroom ceiling. That was the hardest part of the whole process, opening that metal door above my head, as mice would congregate there, eating the poison, and leave behind small hard black oval droppings. If you weren't careful, you'd open he metal door, above your head, and receive a baptism of mouse droppings. But that only has to happen once. Twice at the most. And I open the door slowly, holding a garbage bag under it as I did. Three times, tops, before I got the message. Lead with the bag.
     So this is the process. I would remove the trap from the basement wall, fill it and return it to its niche. Then I would go upstairs with a stepladder, climb up, gingerly, if not slowly, open the door, leading with the bag, remove that trap, go down two flights of stairs into the basement, fill that trap, then go back up two flights, return it, close the little door, sweep up the mouse droppings that fell onto the sink and floor anyway despite my best efforts to catch them in the garbage bag, and call it a day for another six months.
     But here came the epiphany. Almost two weeks ago, I removed the trap from the basement wall, and was filling it, when I thought: Hey! If I took this upstairs, and swapped it with the trap upstairs, first, it would save me the journey down with the empty trap. I could remove this from the basement niche, fill it, go upstairs with the filled trap, climb the stepladder, reluctantly open the metal door so as not to get a face full of mouse poop, remove the empty trap, put this full one in, then return downstairs with the upstairs trap, fill it, and put it in the niche in the basement, thus saving a trip up and down the stairs.     
     Have I explained that clearly? I hope so. And yes, I understand that the destination of today's column is hardly worth the effort of getting there, assuming I have, and I'm not sure about that. But the truth is, it was a long day yesterday, finishing this big project for the paper which turned out to be due weeks earlier than I imagined it would be, requiring a big push to complete, leaving me fairly well sapped at the end of the day. Now it's ... ah ... 3:50 a.m., and I've gotten up to write something for you, because that's the kind of responsible person I am, and the mouse trap situation presented itself, since it seemed a good idea as it was unfolding, and I took out my iPhone and snapped a couple pictures, leaving them like bread crumbs to lead me to the topic, for good or ill.
     So no, not how Lori Lightfoot should cure violence—no friggin' idea, start with curbing guns, then creating jobs and do everything in between. But you don't need me to tell you that and, besides, I've said it before, repeatedly, for years. While this is something new and, as the great Brendan Behan said, a change is as good as a rest. With the mouse poison, there was a certain joy in figuring out a more efficient process for doing something. It felt like progress of a sort. And we need all the joy we can get now, the murdered mice notwithstanding.
     And yes, I have sympathy for the mouse. If it weren't for that quick nocturnal scamper, I'd never think to kill them. Live and let live. Big house, lots of voids and false walls and attic spaces. You stick to your realm, we'll stick to ours. But one mouse then two then 20, and we can't have that. Nature is cruel; I didn't invent it, just trying to live in it. Besides, they don't  stick to their realm, whatever mouseworld exists in the unseen hollows of the house, with little easy chairs made of fabric scraps and tiny reading lights and broadloom rugs on the floor. Oh no. Occasionally they will get into the larder, or nibble into a bag of bread left on the kitchen counter. Bold, unprovoked vandalism of bun bags, clumsy thefts that can't be ignored. They're criminals, these mice, and deserve what they get. If you disagree with that, well, there's the comments section below. Now I'm going back to bed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Waiting is undervalued

     It might come as a surprise, but I DO have standards. Occasionally, I will write something, then squint at it, and think, "No. Not that. That just will not do." I don't delete the draft, however. It sits there, waiting for a moment like now, when need lowers the bar. Whoops, I mean when the situation changes. A long day Monday beavering away at a project for the paper. So that now there's no bullet in the chamber, no gas in the tank. But this, from the end of July, just sitting there. Not much, perhaps, but it'll have to do.

     Sometimes you just have to wait.
     While I am not in the business of offering canned life advice, the truth of that struck me anew Wednesday morning. I was suffering through a work situation too trivial to be worth recounting. I knew in a few hours it would be completely resolved, and it was.
     At the same time, I looked at the photo atop my blog, and it was especially blurred. A few weeks ago, Blogger suddenly stopped allowing me to post a photo behind my blog title. I went on-line, searching for a fix, and it turned out that in reconfiguring itself to better appear on phones, Blogger had made it so any photo posted with the heading would be small and off to the side.
     I was surprised at how irked I was, and tried all sorts of fixes, including manipulating the HTML code directly, which is the computer version of trying to cure a headache by trepanning, particularly when you don't know what you're doing.
     The best I could come up with is posting the photo under the heading, though it was slightly blurred. This, the online chatterverse assured me, was another bug.
The past returned
     A few weeks went by. Then Wednesday I pulled the blurry photo down, and tried the photo behind the heading, which hadn't worked when attempted a dozen times before. This time it did work. I have no idea why. My assumption is that either Blogger healed, or someone there harkened to the cries of pain online and fixed it.
     I also learned something about myself. Judging from the bubble of honeyed happiness that rose within me to see the old way regained, I must like this blog a whole lot more than the woe-is-me-how-can-I-go-on? annual assessment I give at the end of June. Because it felt great to see its Georgia serif type set out against a photo once again. I doubt any readers will notice. But I sure noticed, and was glad, and all I had to do was wait.

Monday, September 13, 2021



     "Yeast is the perfect animal," Moonshine Mike Guzek likes to say. "It eats sugar and shits alcohol."
     An expression that perfectly meshes the blend of science and rustic wisdom that go into proper moonshine manufacture. Readers with long memories might remember we visited with Moonshine eight years ago, in "Setting the scope on a Jackal bow." We visited him again Saturday afternoon, well, because no visit to Ontonagon is complete without stopping by his neatly-mown property. We visitors examined his solar lumber drying kiln, cleverly crafted out of an old school bus—his father was a bus driver. As well as his automatic deer feeder, constructed from a garbage can suspended under a tripod. "Twice a day," Moonshine said, with a touch of pride. Why go hunting for deer when you can just lure them to you and shoot them? He's had his health troubles lately, and didn't tell his usual skein of deer hunting stories, but my friend Rick knows them all, and told one or two, with laughter all around.
     Beers were distributed, and Mike's special Maple Moon brought out, for those so inclined, who pronounced it fine indeed, smooth and satisfying, while I asked him questions: the beverage was distilled from grapes and peaches, making it a kind of brandy. "Though you could distill water..." he added, trailing off, the "but why would anyone want to do that?" being unvoiced.
     The simple white house, he said, was built by his grandfather in about 1900. Though Mike expanded it, and he planted the tree above when he was a boy of about 6, which would make it 75 years old, since he is now 81. The white pine would grow straight and 100 feet tall in the forest but, finding itself uncharacteristically alone, spread out wide, as if in search of the company we all crave. Mike has been making moonshine for 60 years, and announced he has given it up, though not before teaching the art to a grandson. 
"Moonshine" Mike Guzek
     We talked about the local bar, Stubb's—well, there are a couple others, but Stubb's is the one that counts, in our book—named for its long-ago owner, Stubb Nelson, who acquired his nickname because one of his forearms was missing, back when people were named for their exceptional physical qualities. Whether the limb was lost to a logging accident was discussed, but it was so long ago now, it wasn't quite remembered. It probably was; logging was the main industry around here 100 years ago, and among the most dangerous professions ever. 
     While logging feels like part of the vanished heroic past, there are still some 800 logging and trucking firms in Michigan, not to mention sawmills, pulp and paper mills, and wood processors of all kinds. Bars are also doing well, though not around here.  
     "Once there were 11 bars in Ontonagon," Mike said. Rick explained how an unfortunate bypass highway skirted the town's main drag, which fell into decline. The various bars were discussed, including Johnny's, which was out in the woods. "My parents went there," he said. 
     Mike's mother was a nurse, and remembered loggers coming in after brawls Saturday night.
They'd have them strip off their clothes and wash themselves, prior to treatment, and once a bag of discarded clothing was so infested with lice that the bag moved, his mother said. Like his father, Mike was a truck driver for 30 years for the Gitchee Gumee Oil Company. Lately he's been a handyman—he built the tight, immaculate cabin I slept in. "Gitchee Gumee," in case you don't know, is not some garble that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow invented, but Ojibwe for "Big Water," the Native-American name for Lake Superior.      
     I lingered in his shop, admiring the neatly arranged, if cobwebbed, tools, and the smell of oil and metal and old rubber. They were beautiful. After saying our reluctant goodbyes, we headed back into town, and I noticed that we passed an ancient bar called "Johnny's," now boarded up and sagging. Time takes its toll on everything, but we persist, best we can.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Flashback 1998: A century of cornflakes

     I'm on my way back from the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula after a fun weekend of hanging with my pals. The paper doesn't let me go to Michigan much on business—off the beaten path. But once I persuaded them that readers would be interested were I to poke around a certain well known Michigan cereal company.

BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—This is the town built on cornflakes.
     Not just cornflakes. Also wheat flakes, bran twists, rice crisps and more.
     But cornflakes, which turn 100 years old this year, are the leader of the pack, the king of the breakfast table, the world's most popular dry cereal.
     The company that invented and first vended the humble flake of corn—the first product it ever sold nationally—has certainly come to dominate life in this modest town of 50,000 souls. A brief drive reveals the Kellogg Regional Airport and the Kellogg Community College, the Kellogg Arena, the W. K. Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research, not to mention the enormous Kellogg factory and the Kellogg international corporate headquarters, its soaring lobby displaying metal sculptures of stylized wheat stalks and a daily posting of the latest price of Kellogg stock.
     What you can't see are cornflakes being made, not anymore. The popular tours of the Kellogg's plant, part of the childhood memories of millions of Midwesterners, were discontinued in 1986 when a state-of-the-art, $500 million plant expansion opened. The company feared corporate spies.
     Despite secrecy, the manufacturing process is fairly simple: corn arrives in the form of grits. The grits are cooked in large rotary steam cookers, then dried, milled, toasted and sprayed with vitamins.
     The resultant flakes seem fragile to support such huge popularity. Kellogg's sells them in 160 countries. Search for reasons why, and the company, perhaps predictably, points to taste.
     "Simple is good," said Anthony Hebron, a Kellogg's spokesman. "You've got a simple formula; a crispy, golden brown flake with a bit of a nutty taste, a taste that travels well throughout the world."
     The cornflakes success story is more complex than that, of course. Advertising is vital. Kellogg's spends 50 percent more to advertise a box of cornflakes than it does to buy the ingredients inside.
     This is nothing new. Advertising always has been important; the Kellogg's advertising budget first passed $1 million in 1911, five years after the Kellogg Co. was founded by William Keith Kellogg.
     He was the son of a wealthy Michigan broommaker named John Preston Kellogg, who supported the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a sect formed in Battle Creek just before the Civil War and dedicated, among other things, to a strict dietary regimen: no meat, no caffeine, no alcohol. 
     W. K. Kellogg's older brother, John Harvey Kellogg, ran the Adventists' Western Reform Health Institute, turning it into a model sanitarium (a word he coined, along with "granola") visited by the rich and famous of the late 19th century when they needed relief from their killing diets of lamb and eggs and butter and drink. Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller were both guests.
     J. H. Kellogg, a respected doctor, something of a celebrity in his trademark white suits, toured the world dispensing nutritional advice, while his brother, a self-described "flunky," stayed in Battle Creek and kept things running.
     The brothers were constantly experimenting to find ways to get the foods they considered healthful into their sanitarium guests. As with many breakthroughs, the flakes were discovered by accident. The Kelloggs were flattening wheat dough with rollers and baking it in sheets. But W. K. Kellogg left a batch of dough out overnight, so it dried, and when it was run through rollers the next day, it broke into flakes instead of flattening.
     At first, the wheat flakes were served just to customers at the sanitarium. But visitors wrote in, wanting to buy the flakes after they returned home, and in 1896, Kellogg's started selling cereal through the mail.
     Two years later, in 1898, W. K. Kellogg repeated the process for corn—history doesn't preserve the exact date.
     The Kellogg brothers were slow to realize the commercial implications of breakfast cereal. While they were still doling out cornflakes to sanitarium guests, and sending a trickle through the mail, dozens of companies sprang up in Battle Creek to sell cornflakes—Korn-Kinks, None-Such, Checker Brand Corn Flakes, Indian Corn Flakes, Corn-O-Plenty—42 in all, including one founded by a certain C. W. Post, who first made his name with an imitation coffee called Postum.
     Post sold its brand of cornflakes, Post Toasties, before Kellogg's got its on the market. The Post factory is still in Battle Creek, directly across the train tracks from the Kellogg's plant.
     J. H. Kellogg was content running his sanitarium, but his brother yearned to take on a larger challenge. In 1906, he formed W. K. Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flake Co. He was 46 years old.
     Kellogg grabbed attention by running ads—the first, in July, 1906, appeared in 17 major magazines, offering coupons for free samples from local grocers. The hitch was that few grocers carried Kellogg's cornflakes—Kellogg gambled that customers would lobby their local grocer to carry the brand so they could redeem their free coupons. He was right.
     Kellogg tried to distinguish himself from the pack by touting his cornflakes as the original and instructing customers how to walk out in a huff if they weren't available: "What? Have you no Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes! Then bring my hat and coat—I don't want any of your substitutes," read one advertisement.
     Early ads explained that cereal tasted better with milk or cream.
     A survey of the company's archives shows it trying any angle that would boost sales. Cornflakes as a refreshing meal in the un-air-conditioned 1920s. ("Kellogg's for Koolness.") Cornflakes for lunch, "for extra meals at odd hours, for children's suppers" in a 1945 ad.
     Miss America graced boxes of Kellogg's cornflakes, as did Yogi Bear. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson smiled from election-season boxes.
     That year, Kellogg's hit on perhaps its greatest idea for selling cornflakes: sugar. The company's Sugar Frosted Flakes were an immediate hit, as was one of its two mascots, Tony the Tiger. Katy the Kangaroo, the alternate mascot designated for children "scared of tigers," didn't last as long.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 29, 1998

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Ravenswood notes: Heartfelt

     Something about enormous calamities spurs us to recount our own personal connection to them, if only the moment of discovery, and our immediate reaction. Maybe it is a form of witness, of testimony. Of participating in the pageant of history. Or the re-exerting of a tiny bit of control over chaotic, gigantic forces well beyond us. I would expect that Ravenswood Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey would have had a reaction that is both distinctive and challenging, and as always she does not disappoint. Her Saturday report:

     My mother adheres to a strict no-daytime-TV policy for herself. She’s a gardener, among many other talents, and maximizes rather than wastes her precious days. That’s why I knew something big was happening in the world when I came downstairs that warm Tuesday in September, 20 years ago today. Mom was stationed in front of the television with an expression I had never seen before.
     I joined her briefly until something inside of told me to get the heck out of there. The gist of the story was all I could handle. I said goodbye to this new model of Mom I was seeing, and walked out the front door of my folks’ home in Rogers Park (where I was staying while I completed my last year of grad school).
     I intuitively knew where to go. I walked into Evanston towards the toy store on Main Street. I bought bubbles and a ball and went to the local Montessori school where I picked up my best friend’s two children and their friend Jane. I ushered them to a park at the beach, and we played the afternoon away. I can still see their wide smiles, hear their copious laughs, and feel their youthful bliss. It was the perfect medicine.
     I knew that I could only protect them—and myself—for so long. We’d have to face the music sooner or later. I retuned them to their families, and made it home just before dark. My mother was still trying to process what was happening. My Dad was out of town on business, so it was just the two of us.
     In retrospect I’m sorry I abandoned my Mom on one of the most difficult days in U.S. history; however, back then and still today I tend to avoid and dissociate from the evils of the world. I prefer to live in a bubble of sorts, where it makes more sense to toss a ball around in the sun than it does to consume media designed to loop me into an insatiable quest for tragic information.
     The trial for the so-called architect of these attacks finally started a few days ago. I went down a rabbit hole of internet information about Al Qaeda, which led me to conflicting stories about whether or not they are currently becoming increasingly more affiliated with the Taliban.
     I was flooded with a sense that there is endless horror in our world. This led me to research theories of why there is so much war, why religion is often a driving force behind such strife, and then to the matter of how the brains of non-religious folks differ form those who are religious. Some call religion a delusion, others say it’s evolutionarily necessary to instill a sense of goodness within people so they can coexist peacefully with others.
     Some talk of a God-spot in the brain, others denounce this theory.
     In other words, no one really knows much of anything. Theorize, yes. Know, no. From where I sit, safe and sound on a comfy couch on my back porch, my good fortune astounds me. I was not forcibly recruited as a child soldier, I do not have to learn to build bombs, carry weapons, or arm myself in any way. All I have to do is live and read and learn and use my brain to philosophize about life, and do my best to live well and stay out of danger’s way.
      It’s heartbreaking to think of all of the people, near and far, who are out there right now planning ways to harm others, or in the very act at this moment. It’s not necessary. Greed, ego, fear, and the misuse of power are our mortal enemies. People don’t have to be.
     I know this because meditation has taught me patience, and a way to open my mind. I’ve learned that it’s ok not to get what I want when I want it. It’s taught me that I am no more or less important than anyone else, and I do not have to force my opinions upon others. The opposite of tyranny.
     As murderers sit around plotting how they will wipe others off the face of the earth I wish an army of concerned humans would just give them a paint brush, a book, a hug, a stellar education, alternatives, and let them see that it’s possible to live a beautiful, meaningful life rather than throwing it all away.

Friday, September 10, 2021

With COVID-19, a new 9/11 every day


     A decade ago, I looked back at Sept. 11, 2001 on its 10th anniversary, recalled its “crashing planes, burning buildings, tumbling bodies” and noted, “it hardly needs to be recounted now.”
     Of course not. Because the wounds of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the hijacked flight that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, were too fresh to require much description, but too raw to overlook.
     Remembering was a duty. The lives lost that day — almost 3,000 — demanded attention. Demanded to be put into context, to understand how enormous a loss it really was.
     “More Americans died on 9/11 than in the War of 1812,” I wrote. “It was the bloodiest morning on American soil since the Civil War.”
     Things have changed. In 2021, we don’t need to reach into the 19th century in search of perspective. We can look back to a week ago Thursday — 9/2 — a date which will live in obscurity, when 2,937 Americans were killed by the current foe attacking our country, COVID-19.
     Or Feb. 10, when 3,254 died. Or Jan. 21: 4,135. Or hundreds of other days. About 650,000 Americans slain, out of sight, the nation hardly noticing, never mind honoring its loss. Yet killed all the same by a far more lethal foreign assailant.

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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Michigan Flashback 2003: "The howdy boys"

     While I'm heading to the shores of Lake Superior, I thought I'd distract you with a previous foray into Michigan.

     ROTHBURY, Michigan: Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the American frontier closed in 1893, and our national psyche has yearned toward the spirit of adventure represented by the untamed West ever since. Just the words "dude ranch" and "horses" were enough to get me in a car with my family on a Friday afternoon, fighting 200 miles through Memorial Day traffic from Chicago to the Double JJ Ranch, just north of Muskegon.
     We wanted riding, cowboys and adventure, and we got it, though first we had to pass through an initiation of sorts.
     No matter how much research you do, vacationing in a new place is something of a trust drop. You close your eyes and pitch backward, hoping the unfamiliar place will catch you in a pleasant fashion.
     At first, I thought the Double JJ was going to drop the Steinberg family. We arrived at the quaint Western town, complete with jail and ice cream parlor, that is the center of "The Back Forty," the family section of the resort (there is also "The Ranch" for adults only, and "The Thoroughbred" for golfers) at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, hours behind schedule because of snarled traffic and the one-hour Michigan time change.
     The front office was mobbed—I counted 17 people milling before the check-in desk—and when our turn came, a pale young clerk was maddeningly vague about exactly what amenities the resort had and how we might gain access to them. As she mumbled her "yeah, maybes" as if she wasn't quite sure where she was working, my wife and I locked eyes and I had that plunging "what have I done with my weekend?" feeling of doom foretold.
     Thankfully, it was smooth sailing from there. The cabin was woodsy, but new and clean, with an upper loft for the boys and a bedroom with a big Jacuzzi for the exhausted adults. By the time the pre-dinner cocktails arrived at the handsome Sundance Steakhouse, overlooking the resort's championship 18-hole golf course, we were adjusting ourselves to the place.
     It was the next morning, however, that we really started to love it. We signed our boys up for the beginning corral rides—they like horses and I like putting them on horses, and they came prepared in their cowboy boots, belts, shirts and hats. The Double JJ has more than 100 horses and 1,500 acres of lovely Michigan property, and I could tell right away that this was no "walk 'em in a circle three times and call it a day" type of horse experience. Even at the most junior levels (my boys are 5 and 7) there was an emphasis on teaching them how to handle the horses, putting them through the paces of turning and stopping. You couldn't spit without hitting wranglers—at one point, with eight kids on horseback, I counted six staffers in the ring, helping them in the most gentle fashion.
     After the lesson, the kids were tested. I admired the way the wrangler, Nicole, kindly gave my 5-year-old his ribbon, while letting me know with a meaningful glance that he wasn't ready for the trail yet. So while he was hanging out with a group of kids and counselors, playing golf and doing crafts (one of the beauties of the Double JJ is there are activities for kids that you can hand them off to—even overnight cabins—then pluck them out as need be) my wife and I and the older boy spent a pleasurable 90 minutes on the trail, going through some of the scenic woodland and farm. The younger boy barely noticed we were gone.
     The rest of the weekend was a blur of activity—we swam in the pool and rode down the towering water slide, went on a hay ride and watched a pleasantly corny "stunt show." The ranch has about 30 sled dogs—they have dogsled races in the winter—and my boys insisted on walking one. I loved the frantic scene of the four of us, hanging on to this leash for dear life, being pulled along at a fast clip by one of these enormously-powerful, 80-pound wolfish animals.
     There were also cattle drives and camp fires, a pig roast and a rodeo—which, though we missed it, all the other guests were raving about, and seems to be a must-see.
     The best way to think of the Double JJ is as a Western summer camp for families. Guests who didn't wear their rustic name tags were called to the front of the dining hall (the food was tasty if unextraordinary) and compelled to sing—a fact I neglected to tell my wife until after she was caught tagless.
     Still, she kept calling the Double JJ "perfect" and vowed we would we return. And when we left, the boys were practically hanging out the windows, calling their goodbyes to their various horses by name. It was a rare, special weekend, and I'm glad that we went.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 15, 2003

 The Double JJ Ranch is still going strong, and you can learn more about it here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

‘Success means I get to do it again tomorrow’

Steve Albini

     One reason I let almost 40 years go by without reaching out to Steve Albini is that our last conversation was so engrained in my mind. It was the summer of 1982. I bumped into him at Norris Center, Northwestern's student hangout, and he showed me this little electronic drum machine he had just gotten. I told him that I was leaving soon for my first job in Los Angeles. "Well, don't die," he said tersely, and walked away. Coming from Steve Albini, that remark was the equivalent of a teary hug from anyone else, and I doubted I'd do any better than that. But perhaps driven mad by COVID isolation, I leapt across the chasm, and was glad I did.  A smart man, and there aren't enough of those around. I only wish I could have printed more of our conversation. 

     “Do you feel successful?” I asked Steve Albini, at a taco place near his Belmont Avenue recording studio, which readers visited Monday.
     Albini is successful, by any measure. A legendary sound engineer — known for producing Nirvana’s last album. Notorious lead man of Big Black, “some of the nastiest noisemakers in rock” according to Rolling Stone, and, more recently, Shellac of North America. They tour the world.
     But those tough on others, as Albini certainly is, are often hardest on themselves. So I was curious. Does he consider himself a success?
     “To the extent that I could care about that, I would say yes,” he replied. “I’ve lived my whole life without having goals, and I think that’s very valuable, because then I never am in a state of anxiety or dissatisfaction. I never feel I haven’t achieved something. I never feel there is something yet to be accomplished. I feel like goals are quite counterproductive. They give you a target, and until the moment you reach that target, you are stressed and unsatisfied, and at the moment you reach that specific target you are aimless and have lost the lodestar of your existence. I’ve always tried to see everything as a process. I want to do things in a certain way that I can be proud of that is sustainable and is fair and equitable to everybody that I interact with. If I can do that, then that’s a success, and success means that I get to do it again tomorrow.”
     COVID-19 has turned many friendships into slag heaps of cold ash. It seemed perverse to seek out Albini, whom I hadn’t seen in decades, who doesn’t suffer fools and can summarize your failings with a precision that’ll haunt you to your grave. Driving to lunch, I wondered if I was ready for his notorious scrutiny, conjuring a potential headline: “Steve Albini explains why I suck.”
     I told him I have a hard time sharing his perspective.
     “I can’t conceive of somebody who’s done what he’s wanted to do every day for four decades, published books and still writes a daily column and have that person think of himself as anything other than a success,” he said.
     That was unexpected.
     “You’re mellower than when we were in school,” I said.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Put Dante in the game.

     Guys talk. And not everything we say, we want to share with the public, right? For instance. In Sunday's description of going to the Cubs game, I left out a certain digression of mine at the ballpark. Didn't seem germane. But it actually was germane, as you will see. The problem was, it's embarrassing.  A little. Okay. A lot.
     I started talking about Dante. At the ballgame. I was with book editors, remember, and the topic came to books I'd like to write someday, and I explained my theory that Dante is funny, in a wicked, Spy magazine sense, creating this hell and putting all his enemies in it. They nodded politely.
    It wasn't easy for Dante. It took some creativity, see? I continued. For instance. He was betrayed by Pope Bonifice VIII. Whom he very much wanted to put in his newly-minted hell. But he couldn't, because the Inferno actually takes place at a certain time, over Easter weekend, 1300. And Bonifice had not yet died. So trying to be faithful to the faux verisimilitude that lets people forget this is all something he made up, in the narrative, Dante, led by Virgil, comes to this hole, where the popes are kept, head down, their feet kicking, the red flames burning their feet a parody of their red papal slippers. And one pope hears a sound above, and says, "What, Bonifice? Is that you? You're early?"
     Funny, right?
     Eventually I stopped. And no harm done, except perhaps two guys really, really sorry for whom they decided to invite to the game. My shame would have been hidden.
     Then a Facebook pal, Ann Hilton Fisher, alerted me to a program that begins tomorrow, that I have to alert you to: "100 Days of Dante," beginning Sept. 8 and running until Easter Sunday, they are reading three cantos of the Divine Comedy a week. Here's a story about it.
     I'm not endorsing the project en toto. And if you watch the video, you'll see they slip in that the Divine Comedy is "which has taught generation of people a deeper way to love God." That's one take. It could also better rationalize apostasy. It's put together by a consortium of American Christian universities, who are not famous for the range of their intellectual scope, and the lead organization is Baylor University, the Waco Texas Baptist school. For all I know, it's a thinly disguised 100-day orgy of anti-Catholicism, which Baylor was once known for. Though I hope not.
    The 700th anniversary of Dante's death is Sept. 14, and we have to do something, right? I plan to at least tune in until I have reason to drop out, and figure you might want to join me.

Monday, September 6, 2021

‘I want the music to survive’

Steve Albini

Monday is Labor Day, an apt moment to consider a profession rarely featured in a daily newspaper.

     “Let me show you the rest of the studio,” said Steve Albini, moving through a musician’s paradise of musical instruments — fine guitars, timpani, two grand pianos — plus an audiophile’s dream of equipment: Marshall amplifiers, reel-to-reel Ampex tape machines, high-end speakers, coiled cords, headphones, mixing boards, rows of phase shifters and fuzzboxes and other effect pedals. The walls are enormous bricks, each weighing 13 pounds.
     “These are adobe bricks we had brought up from New Mexico,” he explains. “They have some interesting acoustic properties. The walls are self-isolating ... massive, enormously heavy and that stops the transmission of sound from room to room. We built this whole place. Everything you see is a new construction.”
     Since 1997, here at Electrical Audio on Belmont Avenue, Albini has recorded music by thousands of musicians, from the world famous to the deeply obscure. Commercial clients, too. A few cases of Mamba fruity candy are scattered around the foyer — the manufacturer needed a recording studio to shoot a commercial, and hired the space, which has a feel that is somehow both cutting edge and classic.
     “Everything that we’ve seen so far is Studio A — the bigger, fancier studio,” Albini said. “Each of the rooms has a different sound footprint, and that is intentional, so you can make an active choice about what you’re recording. That room over there is Alcatraz — super dead, super dry sound. This room is called the Kentucky room, much brighter and more lively recording environment. It has a quick slap of reverb and not a long-sustaining decay. Very good for drums. Any acoustic instruments, acoustic guitar, banjo violin, mandolin. Any percussion instruments, vibes and marimbas and all that kind of thing — all that sounds great in there because you get this quick, bright, reverberant sound from the room.”
     If you’re wondering why we’re here, it’s complicated. Among the many bad things that COVID-19 has done is isolate people. Casual relationships vanish. It gets lonely. A few weeks back, I read a Tribune story about speed cameras that quoted Albini saying the typically challenging, contrarian things I remember him saying when we were in college together. Unlike drivers such as myself, merely irked to get speeding tickets, Albini finds the automatic speed cameras “a nicely implemented, mild reminder to keep speed under control in those areas.” Besides, he said, better to trust automatic cameras than give discretion to cops, who have proved “they will abuse that discretion.”

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Sunday, September 5, 2021

'Take me out to the ballgame...'

     Confession: I have never gone to Wrigley Field of my own initiative.
     That is, never conceived the thought, "I think I'll go to a game," and either taken myself, or invited a friend and headed to the Friendly Confines.
     I've gone because someone was in town—a business associate, relative, friend—and I wanted ot show off the park. I've gone to take my children, so they can experience a game. And I've accepted many invitations, such as Friday, when a pair of book editors invited me along to round out their group, blessed—or should that be burdened?—with free tickets from some season ticket holder too disgusted with the Ricketts gutting the team to attend another game.
    It occurred to me, arriving to meet them, slipping into my seat, Section 31, Row 7, Seat 1, that this was nice. Even. being by myself, even knowing the Cubs had traded away their good players. I vowed to someday come alone, of my own volition, just for the heck of it, maybe next summer. Just because I can.
     The whole process was enjoyable. Parking at the Skokie Swift. Getting on the 'L' at one of its rare forays into the 'burbs, with a variety of folks clad in their Cubbie gear, a few kids carrying gloves, the zenith of optimism 
     The seats were great. "Like sitting on the field," I texted to my wife. I bought a Bud Zero—a new and welcome development, and only $8. Munched peanuts, bought a hot dog from a vendor (the condiment options are ketchup, mustard and relish. Just sayin'). The game was exciting, to the degree I watched, with a home run, a wildly overthrown pitch.
      The really fun part was the conversation. A lot about Nicholson Baker, whom one of the editors had met and worked with. When he revealed that, I reached out and touched his shoulder with the pad of my index finger, as if to access by contact a bit of the Nicholson Baker writerly mojo. An extraordinary novelist.
     And there was one moment I really savored, which I should explain, because I doubt anyone at the ballpark would pick it as the highlight. Cubs coach David Ross being out with the COVID, Andy Green stepped in. He was spectacularly upset over the umpire's call at second base—we all missed the play, and my pals turned to their phones to find out what had happened. I didn't actually care that much, so my gaze strayed to the left field scoreboard while Green foamed and gesticulated and marched around the umpire.
     Whoever operates the video scoreboard, kudos to that person. At one point the camera zeroed in on the Wrigley clock, as if to say, "Tick tock, Andy, let's wrap up your tirade and get on with the game." I fumbled for my phone, but the operator cut away, and I took a photo of the clock.
    A reminder that as much as we focus on the players and coaches, there is an enormous substrata of people who make baseball worth experiencing, to the degree that it is. Friendly usher when you walk in. Unsung heroes, like the rangy afro'ed attendant—once I would have called him a "ball boy"—who sat on the field in front of us, snagging stray balls that rolled his way. When he did, a small boy would inevitably appear at his elbow and wait patiently, glove proffered. Eventually he would turn, tuck the ball through the net, into the mitt, and the boy would turn, agog and delighted, bearing his treasure in triumph. I listened as a father gently urge his son to do that—7-year-old boys can be maddeningly shy—and eventually he went and learned one of life's key lessons: you don't get what you want unless you ask.
David, left, and Gary.
       It rained for almost an hour, but a gentle rain, and we sat in it without complaining too much. I struck up a conversation with the beer vendor, Gary from Albany Park, who delighted to see that I was Jewish, spent a long time discussing Romanian hot dogs, which are sold at a certain stand in the field, as well as the Jewel on Howard, "the Jewish Jewel" he called it. Gary has been selling beer at Wrigley since 1984. But that's nuthin', he effused, calling over David, who has sold beer here for 58 years, or since I was in nursery school. I took their photo.
     We stood and sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and shortly thereafter the game was over. Filing out, I thanked my friends for inviting me, and thought what a thoroughly enjoyable time I had had at the ballgame. Just as we reached the steps down to the causeway out, I paused.
     "Just a second," I said, and turned, my eyes searching the scoreboard. Six to five, the Cubs won—I thought they had, based on how the crowd cheered when it was over.
      "My wife might ask me the score," I said, hurrying to catch up.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Fancy

     Like most people, I hold onto my possessions longer than I should: that butcher block my wife hates, jammed in a corner of the dining room. That red chair in our foyer that really doesn't match the style of the house. I'd probably be lighter and freer if I could give them up. The house certainly would be less cluttered. But as Walt Whitman suggests, they own me more than I own them. There is another way, as Caren Jeskey illustrates in her post today.

            “Luxury is not a necessity to me, but beautiful and good things are.”                                                                                          ― Anais Nin

     As I look around my home now, I see that it is filled with gifts. A cedar wardrobe friends in Texas brought to my home in the woods in 2016, that other friends drove back up to Chicago for me. A rug from a neighbor. A leather storage cube, and an orange poof to sit on.
     When I left Austin I gave away a beloved cedar chest, a memory foam mattress, frame and bedding, a full dish set and so much more. I miss these things sometimes, and then I remember that people like us will always have all we need, and much more— even if we don’t realize it at times.
     Giving and receiving possessions, as needed, makes more sense than clinging to them always. That's the genius of Buy Nothing, a movement that promotes creating a hyper-local gift economy.  I joined my first group in Texas a couple years back. Buy Nothing operates on Facebook and other social media platforms, and they also encourage groups.
     Buy Nothing is where I received gift cards last March when I abruptly lost my job and then my rental home. It’s where I met neighbors who came to find me sitting in a park, garnishing fresh eggs from their backyard chickens. This same pair offered me a below market rental — the charming tiny house I’ve shared about in previous posts, like this one, to bail me out during a peak of the COVID crisis.
     It’s where I met neighbors who dropped off bag after bag of masks, food, sanitizer, backpacks, blankets, clothes and more on my porch, which I then passed out to a group home and folks living on the streets in our neighborhood. A member made extra Thanksgiving food and offered it to those who were without families in November of 2020.
     Funny thing is that even with all of this goodness there were problems. Who was it who said “put two people in a room together and you have a problem?” There was the neighbor who was unhappy that I was giving hand sanitizer to folks he said were sure to drink it. Neighbors who were rigid and unwilling to have conversations, and pretty much trolled others rather than coexisting harmoniously.
     I decided to start a local Buy Nothing group in my neighborhood here in Chicago and already have people mansplaining incorrect things to me and criticizing the way I am using one of my new gifts— a fabulous piano-room-red velvet sofa.
     It started with a post on another giveaway group called Free Box. A person posted a photo of the couch with its approximate location in an alley, and I immediately jumped into action. My emergent root canal earlier that day would not stop me from scoring this baby. When I got to her I knew she was mine. Don’t worry! I’m not interested in a bedbug infestation either.
     I rang the bell of the impressive Frame Two Flat home with a Victorian feel, which I learned was built in 1890. 
A kind man introduced, who himself as Mr. Reece, and his little princess dog greeted me.  She vetted me, and he graciously wrapped up a call to give me the scoop. The couch came from Domicile and has had several incarnations. She’s lived in two offices of a food designer and more recently their backyard, which was set up for an outdoor soiree. She has not been touched by bedbugs.
     After her party debut where the guests marveled at her beauty, it was time for her to say goodbye to the Reece’s. She was standing up on her end, leaning against a garage. Mr. Reece gingerly placed her back down on the ground so I could sit on her while I figured out how to get her home. He also brought me a cup of ice and a Diet Coke.
     As luck would have it, new friends who work on the block where I live were able to come to the rescue with their landscaping truck. They were all the way on 31st and California dumping trash, and I was in the Lakeview area. It was 4pm on a weekday. I settled in for the wait. An antique coffee table came with the couch, so I sat down with my Coke on the table and enjoyed the smiles and laughs from a copious amount of alley walkers and drivers who passed by.
     When we got the couch to the back porch of my 3rd floor walk up it would not fit into the undersized door frame. We took the legs off and the couch was still several inches too wide and too tall to make it happen. (Please don’t suggest what we could have done. It won’t fit, and a professional couch disassembler has quoted me at $700 if I want them to get it inside). My friend said “why don’t you just leave it on the porch?” Aha! Solution. Along with my patio chairs I now have a perfect COVID visiting spot.
     Now I have a regal sofa where I spent all day yesterday working from home. Some folks in the free groups are criticizing me for leaving a couch “that nice” outside. Well it’s my choice and I love it there. She’s awkwardly covered with plastic bags right now since there’s a threat of rain, and her permanent, waterproof, forest green cover will be here soon enough. She and I can survive what’s sure to be a colder damper winter than I’m used to in Texas.
     Happy lounging y’all.