Thursday, September 30, 2021

Read the Picayune Sentinel


Eric Zorn, a firebrand considered too dangerous by the sprites at DePaul's newspaper to be allowed
on campus, at the finest radio station to ever grace the airwaves of Chicago, WBEZ. 

     So it's Thursday morning, which means the Picayune Sentinel arrives in my inbox. The PS is Eric Zorn's newsletter, begun after the Chicago Tribune columnist sewed his salary into the lining of his coat and quietly slipped across the border into Substack, just as Alden Capital tightened its grip the Trib and started requiring that columnists show their papers.
     In it, once you get past the jokey stuff at the top, Zorn calls out the DePaul student publication, the DePaulia, for thundering against his planned inclusion in Wednesday's panel discussion, “Tough Times for Local Journalism.” They denounce Zorn for his "racist views" over Adam Toledo, the 13-year-old shot and killed by a police officer in an alley last March, and insist that such a person not be allowed to soil the campus with his presence.
     Eric's column, if you recall, basically said, "Let's wait until the video comes out before we form judgments as to what happened." That is not racism in the usual meaning of the word, a term which gets expanded by some people, particularly the young, to include, well, just about anything they don't like. What the column did do, I felt at the time, was lack the necessary head-ducking, ass-covering, self-protective, read-the-room gear that columnists sadly must shift into to avoid such accusations. It wasn't timid enough—a frequent problem of Zorn's, I must add. The worst that could be said was it lacked the cooing bear hug sympathy that the precise moment called for. It was as if his neighbor's house were burning down, and Eric sidled over to the family, wrapped in blankets, numbly watching the flames, and wondered aloud, "Did ya have working smoke detectors? Were the batteries fresh?" Which is an excellent point—smoke detectors are so important. Perhaps not the moment to bring it up, though I don't believe that doing so should make a man a pariah, like Lord Jim, moving from port to port to escape his shame. 
     I admire Eric for expending the mental energy on DePaul's craven retreat from everything an institution of higher learning is supposed to represent, using their supposed sensitivity to the downtrodden as an excuse to tread down on people like Eric Zorn, a writer who was fighting vigorously and eloquently for a wide range of social justice issues long before the staff of the DePaulia were being toweled off in a delivery room and piercing the air with their first cries of aggrieved arrival.
     Me, I wouldn't bother. I'd just shrug—whaddaya expect from a bunch of babies?—and invoke the truism, "The reason debates in academia are so bitter is because the stakes are so low" then move on. As with ignorance proudly displayed on Facebook, if I responded to shameful self-own cancellations at colleges and universities, it's all I'd ever do. But that feels irresponsible in this situation, as it will be a sad day when the fingers-in-your-ears, I-can't-hear-you-you're-not-there self-imposed purdah of the Right becomes equally common on the Left. Assuming we aren't at that moment already. If Eric Zorn is too toxic a voice to be heard at DePaul, then they truly have retreated into the nursery, and welcome only those who tiptoe in, tickle their tummies—whoops, ask permission to tickle their tummies, certify consent, and only then do so, murmuring soothing words—before tiptoeing out again.
     Anyway, I know I already
 posted something today—a two-decade old piece of self-indulgence that barely held my own interest, and it's about me. But I've been meaning to draw attention to Eric's welcome emerging from the ashes of the Tribune to spread his crystalline wings and fly off into the heady stratosphere of independent commentary, and today seemed as good a time as any. Make sure to subscribe to the Picayune Sentinel so you get it every Thursday morning, as I do.



Reader Flashback, 2002: Where Is the Love?


      Friday is the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Reader. I'm proud that I wrote for spunky free weekly quite often in the 1990s. There were the two years of my monthly BobWatch column, which many readers remember fondly, and an even longer run of True Books, an idea that I carried over from the National Lampoon when it folded. I would also place columns that had gotten spiked at the Sun-Times into the Reader, like Swiss Gold and The Plumber's Dream. Most newspaper columnists hate to have their work rejected. To me it was a bonus payday.
     The Reader also had lots of advertisements, back in the day, which meant they needed a lot of copy to go around them. The Reader was sort of famous for printing these huge, honking articles, like this one, written about my biggest flop, "Don't Give Up the Ship." If it is an imposition upon the patience of the reader well, there was a lot of that going on at the time.

    Harry W. Schwartz was empty. Oh, the books were there, fresh and smart on the shelves in the large, upscale bookstore in a strip mall in Milwaukee. The salespeople were there, eager, friendly, eyes twinkling with bookish goodwill. And I was there, hungover, wearing a sports coat.
     They were ready for me. Posters of the cover of my new book, Don’t Give Up the Ship, were in the window, along with stacks of the book. More books were piled on tables in the front of the store, and an array of empty chairs waited for the one thing that was missing: customers.
     Not only was nobody there for my reading on a pleasant evening last June (“It was in the Journal Sentinel,” the manager said apologetically), but there was nobody in the store at all. Not a soul, no one I could stare at, draw over with my tractor beam. I looked at all those books. Seed corn, I thought dolefully, cast on rock.
     Writing is a constant struggle to avoid cliches–half the battle is striking out stock phrases like “half the battle”–so it’s fitting that the agony of a bookstore humiliation doesn’t even have the benefit of being unique. Every author goes through one, or many.
     This sure wasn’t the first time for me. I had endured similar ordeals with previous books–that reading in Tacoma that Doubleday had scheduled during the Mariners-Indians playoff game at the Kingdome. The time at the Barnes & Noble on Diversey when they had me read to the people in the coffee shop. When I opened my mouth they looked up, as one, annoyed to have been interrupted by some jerk at a podium, then dropped their noses back down into organic chemistry and guides to cheap hotels in Paris, while I stammered and flop-sweated.
     But those were exceptions for books that did reasonably well. The same book that drew nobody in Tacoma sold 247 copies at an author’s luncheon in a ballroom at the Phoenician in Scottsdale. The nightmare on Diversey was for a book excerpted in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear…
     This most recent book, however, was an entirely new level of disaster. And the thing is, I had tried to avoid it. My father, a retired scientist, had been writing his memoirs, as many retired guys do, about his days as a radio operator in the merchant marine in the 1950s. He wanted me to help him, and I, recognizing a nightmare in the making, said no. We never went camping or fished or took in a baseball game, how could we attempt something as complex as writing a book together?
     “No” didn’t satisfy him, however, and he kept harping on this memoir of his, and I kept saying no until he finally mentioned that the ship he’d been on was still operating, taking cadets from the State University of New York Maritime College across the Atlantic each summer on a training cruise. Something clicked for me–we would take the ship to Europe together, have an adventure. I would use the time to interview him about his life, then present his story, filtered through me, sandwiched into a father-and-son odyssey. It would be fun. He was reluctant, but I talked him into it and we went. It wasn’t fun. We fought like cats in a bag. I wrote what I thought was a gentled-up version of what happened.
     Reviewers ignored the book utterly, magazines coughed into their fists and turned away, and all the while my father stormed and protested and denounced, a Greek chorus bursting out of the telephone, damning me and celebrating the book’s failure. I never knew, when the phone rang, whether it would be him, proclaiming once again how my book was a vindictive lie, or my mother, happily informing me that there were a few copies at the Boulder Book Store but that she’d hidden them behind other books. Or my sister, weeping that I had betrayed the family in a story about the book in the Chicago Jewish News by referring to our upbringing as “assimilated.”


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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

‘The news is all lies anyway’


     George Orwell was an optimist. As bleak as “1984” is to read, his cautionary tale against totalitarianism makes an assumption about people that, almost 75 years after its writing, has proven an unrealistically generous take on human nature.
     The novel is remembered for telescreens, the system of constant surveillance necessary to enforce the party line, and “Big Brother is watching you!” But it is also about the link between oppression and lies. Its hero, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth writing lies, specifically rewriting old news stories so they jibe with the current political pieties. Disgraced party members must be edited out. When the eternal enemy shifts from Eastasia to Eurasia, history must be revised. Orwell suggested people need to be forced to accept lies, and that they will care if those lies are contradicted in news accounts and text books.
     Turns out, they don’t. Not judging from Donald Trump and the Republican Party. In their protracted war against truth, they don’t bother altering the past. People will edit reality themselves. The continual lies pouring out of Trump’s mouth—does the media still count them, with a certain idiot gravity, or have we finally given up?— are just taken automatically as gospel, a refinement of totalitarianism George Orwell never dreamed of. Nobody has to do it for them. They volunteer.
     This week, the so-called “full forensic audit” run by Trump’s Arizona allies showed that Joe Biden won by more votes than he was initially credited with.
     “Truth is truth, numbers are numbers,” said Arizona Senate President Karen Fann, sharing the news.
     To some. For now.
     In “1984,” “Ignorance is Strength,” and that sure works for Trump, who didn’t bother trying to dismiss the Arizona report. He didn’t say it is unreliable because it was performed by his amateur supporters. No, Trump simply pretended that the report offers vindication, and any suggestion otherwise is not to be believed because it comes from the media.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Maybe offices are like gas station attendants


     If I see one more article on when and how office workers will return to the office, I think I'm going to hurl.
     Such essays always dwell  on three main points. First, that white collar employees are entirely happy working from home, if they can. Second, despite this, employers want them back an inevitable "two or three days a week" though I've never seen anyone try to figure out why those figures, and not one, or four.
     And finally, there is some hint at the bountiful benefits to be found going into the office, the hallway conversations that lead to breakthroughs, the energizing meetings, the eureka brainstorming sessions around the foosball table.
     While such articles sometime mention that there is no real data backing any of this up, they never take that extra step. Those who can work at home are obviously happy about the prospect of remaining there. Why? Maybe because going to the office is a bad idea for many, maybe most employees. What if the guilty secret of COVID is that a big swath of white collar workers never needed to come into work, not five days a week, not two or three, not ... gulp! ... ever. What if nothing that happens at the office can possibly counterbalance the time lost commuting, and the smartest thing any business could do is ditch their physical space entirely and distribute the savings to the staff as bonuses.
     I don't have a dog in this race. Since I began my column in 1996, I've worked at home far more than in the office—in fact, the first 10 months I was on paternity leave and never came in the office at all. Not once. 
     Don't get me wrong A newsroom is an exciting place, and I would occasionally go in to pick up my mail, to schmooze, to press the flesh, grab lunch somewhere. It was fun, and it helped that I went in when I wanted and stayed home when I didn't, which was most days.
     Going to the office always has risks, downsides. I remember a certain manager who rode the same Madison bus as I did. I'd notice her there, and fixedly look out the window, because I knew, if we made eye contact, she'd smile and try to draw me into whatever cracked project she was hatching at the paper, and I'd have to spend part of my limited face time at the office extracting myself from it. Luckily, she was only there a couple years, but any office is filled with such people. Bad idea generators. Martinet bosses. Treacherous colleagues. Bumbling subordinates. Time sink coworkers ready to snap their teeth into your ear and start chewing.
     I might be one of the latter, by the way. I'm a PWC, a person with chattiness. Many the time I'd slide over to a colleague's desk and start executing one of those meaningful personal interchanges that are the holy of holies to what passes for business journalism. And I'd notice, just as I was approaching my point, or the punchline, or nearing the midway point in my exegesis anyway, and my prey would toss the briefest of glances toward their computer screen, yearning to return to the story they had been working on when I barged in. At least I got the message, wrapped up, and moved on. Not everybody does.
     As someone who wrote a book on the death of men's hats, I know that society clings to the most ridiculous practices, essential right up to the point they are abandoned as pointless. Of course top hats would survive: how could there be weddings and funerals otherwise? I see a similar fate for the office. We needed workplaces the way we needed someone to pump our gas. It was nice, to have Jack say hello and ask what octane, clean the windshield and hand a stick of gum to the kids in the back seat. But it wasn't actually necessary, and we got rid of Jack, long ago, to save a nickel a gallon.


Monday, September 27, 2021

Culinary creativity keeps ill elderly eating

Chefs Adrian Arias, left, and Keyva S. Linton show off plates of pureed food that have been styled back into their original shapes at Northbrook Inn.

     Today’s lunch menu features beef stew, mashed potatoes and gravy, with green beans as a side dish, a watermelon amuse bouche and a peanut butter cookie for dessert.
     So chef Adrian Arias takes cooked green beans, puts them in a food processor and purees them, adding vegetable broth to boost flavor, a bit of starch for body and several drops of green food coloring. Pureeing with broth dulls the hue of the beans, so the green dye snaps it back. Then the mash goes into a pastry bag and is piped into a facsimile stack of green beans.
     By now you might be wondering what strange new haute cuisine this could be. The answer is, we’re not visiting any three star Lincoln Park scientific gastronomy hot spot but in the spotless kitchen of the Northbrook Inn Memory Care Community.
     Which brings us to the bad news.
     Most of you know that Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia rob a person of the ability to remember. The body endures, almost mockingly, while the personality recedes. It can be baffling and terrifying for sufferers and heartbreaking for their loved ones.
     As bad as that is, memory is only the first of a series of losses. Dementia is a hell with many levels. For instance.

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Sunday, September 26, 2021

'Stay close to the orchestra'

 
      "Tonight of course is a very special occasion," conductor Riccardo Muti said Thursday night, standing on stage at Symphony Center, the assembled Chicago Symphony Orchestra behind him, the long absent audience in front. "After 19, 20 months of separation, of disaster in the world, so many people killed, we've almost forgotten: lack of culture can damage society."
     It can? I suppose so. Though with all the other harmful factors, the continuing plague and corrosive politics, the rising chorus of lies and entrenched delusion, with all the vigorous partisan structural vandalism being inflicted upon our country, I'm not sure how far down the list of harm the loss of classical concerts should be placed. Does it even register? I suppose it must. Music is in some ways the most essential thing, in that it offers us an abundance of harmony, grace and perfection in short supply anywhere else. Maybe music calls us to our highest selves.
     "Culture is not entertainment," Muti said. "You did not come tonight because you did not know how to spend your evening. You're here because you needed to hear music."
     I can hear music wherever and whenever I like, with a flick of the thumb. What I needed, very badly, was to go somewhere. A functioning orchestra has long been the hallmark of any great city. The CSO starting up again means something, if only a determined show of normality as we try to beat back this COVID epidemic that just will not go away.
     Muti asked the audience to consider the musicians, how they have endured and kept themselves in world class form over a year and a half of lockdown.
     "That is the reason I am playing 'Eroica'" he said, referring to the third piece on the program, Beethoven's "Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55." The Sinfonia Eroica, or "heroic symphony," supposedly named for Napoleon, then yanked back when the little corporal crowned himself emperor (something for us to look forward to, perhaps).
     "They have been heroic. .. they couldn't communicate the real reason of their life, to give the public beauty."
    Now they can.
     He pointed out that the first two composers on tonight's program—Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Florence Price—are both Black. Saint-Georges a contemporary of Mozart (the two lived together briefly). Price was a Chicagoan who work was featured at the 1933 Century of Progress Fair. In 2009, new music of hers was found in a run down house in Kankakee County. Quite the story, really.
     "It shows culture is open to everybody," Muti said. In theory, yes. Still an overwhelmingly white audience at Symphony Center. Neither Saint-Georges nor Price were geniuses—his "Overture to L'Amant anonyme," his only extant opera, was pleasant baroque fodder, Maybe his other five operas were better, but they were lost in the span of time. Price's "Andante moderato" struck me as something you'd hear on a 1940s movie soundtrack, vaguely Southern (she was born in Arkansas). But then I am not a classical music critic, and if you want the performance assessed by someone know knows what they're talking about, you can read the Sun-Times review.
     Muti's point is taken, about the desire for openness telegraphed by featuring those two composers (I'm tempted to lump in the third, Beethoven, just to be a wise-ass. There have been several attempts over the years to argue that the composer was Black, but those are more arguments made for rhetorical impact than anything based on empirical evidence)  Two out of three ain't bad, and it takes a long time to turn the ship of society. Before people feel welcome at a place, the place first has to welcome them. Sometimes for a long while. Across the street, the Art Institute is going large for textual artist Barbara Kruger, splaying her work across the building's facade, even on the walls outside. That doesn't make women suddenly well-represented at major museums, but is another step in the right direction. Her show is certainly engaging, and taken along with the recent exhibit of Bisa Butler's wildly colorful quilted portraits, you can't help but think that the two mainstays of Chicago's cultural life are hitting the ground running in the post George Floyd, post COVID (please God) era.
     Muti surprised me by pleading with the audience to spread the word about this orchestra thing.
      "Where most of the world will become more and more savage, I am asking you to stay close to the orchestra," he said.
     Okay, maestro, that sounds like a plan. 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Assuaging Fear


    So much is said about a city like Chicago, it's unusual to run into an entirely fresh take. But if anybody has ever postulated, as EGD Ravenswood Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey does today, the city as revered ancestor, I haven't encountered it. Her Saturday report:

     It’s 5 a.m. and I’m up writing from my Chicago apartment. The Brown Line and Metra rumble by repeatedly in the near distance, sounds that make me smile. I don't even mind the gentle shaking of the building. I am a die-hard Chicago fan who experiences this city as a living entity, a family member— perhaps one of my eldest ancestors. At once warm and fierce, she lays down the rules. Be strong. Don’t give up. Don’t complain, and if you do get over it soon. Be smart and savvy, and know your place. You might be privileged but don’t forget where you came from. Don’t look the other way when others need help. Stay on your toes, aware. Keep those car doors locked these days and stick to safe areas at safe times of day, but love and respect all of me. Do not live in fear. Be brave. Be tenacious.
     Since I am speaking of my particular family, Chicago has also guided us to grow things in her soil. Green beans under the skyway on the far south side. Roses wrapping around the Virgin Mary statuette in the Vet’s Park area of South Deering. Tomatoes and cucumbers, grown out of necessity by an immigrant railroad worker, to sustain the family, precariously (and often unsuccessfully) protected from rabbits, squirrels, and birds in the shadow of Senn High School. Eye popping, deep green leaves and happy, colorful flowers in a copious container garden on a back deck in Rogers Park. Rows of crops planted outside of the McCormick YMCA in Humboldt Park, where a Schwinn bike factory once stood. Palms rescued from the alley on a porch in Ravenswood. And always, always propagate.
     Avocado pits cracked open as roots break free, rambling vines spilling out onto window sills in glass jars filled with water. Jade and Tradescantia zebrina pups sprouting up from clippings that friends and neighbors shared. A baby rubber plant that’s at least 25 years old on an alley salvaged end table in a window on Wilson.
     I thought I’d be writing about fear today. Waking up at 4 a.m. after not enough sleep prompted me to take two hydroxyzine (not a regular habit since as an old school Polish/Irish/Lithuanian girl— who turned 52 this week— I am deathly afraid of prescribed medications even if they are needed). I have a feeling my Polish ancestors were the type who made tinctures from herbs and medicinal plants they grew themselves. While I am also drawn to natural remedies, I am out of practice and don’t have the intuitive sense of which plant medicine I need these days. Plus I don’t trust it enough not to die while forsaking pharmaceuticals like a Sri Lankan shaman tragically did this week
     In the past, I had tens of jars of dried flowers, roots, and leaves that I’d pull out in the wee hours when anxious thinking tried to take hold, preventing me from enjoying my zees. Chamomile and peppermint to relax, star anise to settle a tummy, sage for purifying and comfort, senna after eating too much cheese, St. John’s Wort to boost the mood.
     Today I reached for the prescribed meds and embarked upon a meditation. This combination usually works. Breathe deeply, choose a mantra. “Clear mind” on the inhale, “don’t know don’t know don’t know” on the exhale (as taught to me by Ana Forrest many moons ago), or simply “I am OK right now. It’s time to sleep.”
     But no. I’m wide awake and realized that fear woke me up in the first place. I’m having complications after round two of three of a dental procedure, and that scares me. Will my gums ever be the same? I’ve had a falling out with a childhood friend, which is unnerving even though our expiration date may have come. I’d like to be in a state of calm acceptance about this. I will get there, but have been ruminating about our last conversations and how angry I feel about being misunderstood. It will take some processing and active healing though, since one of the reasons I came back home was to reconnect with people. Since I got back in May, I’ve learned that I have some healthy friendships and familial ties, but I also have vestiges of a sometimes broken past to face.
     I could go on about what troubles me, but you get the drift. We all have things on our minds. I know that as I age, and those I love age, it behooves me to live a life that’s as present as possible, taking each challenge as it comes with as much grace and courage as I can muster. Good rest and healthy habits that contribute to the most balanced version of myself are the only recourse for the daunting task of being human.
     Off to water and prune. Wishing you a good day.






Friday, September 24, 2021

‘A cheap and easy way to save lives’


     Like most boys, I have an outsize interest in emergency gear. From road flares to safety goggles. It could be the most mundane thing. A fire extinguisher. A sewing kit. You name it. Certain devices practically vibrate with possibility. Even a flashlight is halfway to an adventure story: the rainy night, the dark cave, the unexpected bear.     
     Especially life rings. Beats there a human heart so dead as to be able to pass one of those, on a Chicago bridge, say, and not imagine the cry for help, the perfect toss to some unfortunate thrashing in the river below? The dripping rescued person. The stammered thanks. “Mister ... you saved my life!”
     That’s the fantasy. The reality is more complicated.
     The Chicago Park District announced it was going to start placing life rings along strategic spots on the waterfront, in the wake of the tragic drowning of Miguel Cisneros in Lake Michigan in August, less than six feet from the pier. His family felt that if there were a life ring, the 19-year-old could have been saved.
     Maybe. I don’t want to dispute with a grieving family. But the views of the bereaved and public pressure do not always lead to good policy. A question arose that cuts to the heart of this: Does anyone ever get saved by life rings?
     A quick check of the Sun-Times and Tribune archives found nothing, unless you count sailors plucked out of the Atlantic during World War II. Ditto for a century of the Daily News. The Red Cross deferred to the Coast Guard, which is mum. The Department of Transportation maintains 27 life rings on the Riverwalk, and 135 scattered around branches of the river. But they don’t keep track of how they’re used, other than to note that 20% vanish every year.


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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Flashback 2012: The secret joys of piano tuning

 
     The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs tonight at Symphony Center after a COVID-induced hiatus of a year and a half. I've got my tickets and am looking forward to it. I don't write about the CSO as much as I should, perhaps because the cultural icon is already well-covered by others who know far more about classical music than I do. But a certain aspect of the operation just didn't get the attention it deserved, in my view, and in 2012, with a month-long piano festival going on, I saw my opportunity.

     The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a lot of pianos. At least 20 scattered throughout Symphony Center, including three concert grands, three baby grands plus uprights in rehearsal spaces and studios.
     And now, with its “Keys to the City” piano festival going on until mid-June, there are even more pianos, brought in for the occasion. Chicago Piano Day on Sunday, an afternoon of free performances and activities, culminates with a “monster finale” of eight Steinway concert grands on stage, thundering through “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
     No matter how talented the artists playing these pianos, however, none of them will sound good if the pianos are not in tune.
     Which makes this an ideal moment to examine a vital yet rarely considered aspect of music: piano tuning.
     A piano has hundreds of strings — 243 in a Steinway concert grand — plus hammers, dampers, pedals.
     “The piano is an intensely com­plicated instrument — 12,000 parts — and all of those parts have to work as one,” said Paul Revenko-Jones, director of the Chicago School for Piano Technology in the West Loop.
     Piano tuning is not a calling heard by many. A dozen students at any given time attend the Chi­cago School. The Piano Technicians Guild, based in Kansas City, Kansas, records 61 registered piano technicians in the Chicago area.
     This is one of the rare corners of commerce not overseen by the government.
     “It’s an unregulated profession,” said Revenko-Jones. “You don’t have to be licensed or certified to be a piano tuner. The way you become one is by saying, ‘I’m a piano tuner’ and no one would know the difference.”
     That’s how Jack Zimmerman got into the business in the early 1970s.
     “A guy thought I was a piano tuner and hired me to tune his piano,” said Zimmerman. “I needed money, desperately, so I ran out and got a set of tools, got a book, and tried to teach myself.”
     That first tuning was “a disaster,” but Zimmerman took a class and ended up working as a tuner for 15 years.
     “It’s a good profession,” said Zimmerman. “You can make a good living at it.”
     Contrary to expectations, you don’t have to play the piano in order to tune one.
     “Probably 75 percent of tuners including the really, really good tuners don’t play or don’t play much,” said Revenko-Jones. “We have to play something, we all have some tiny repertoire in order to hear what we’ve done. The skills are entirely separate.”
     The CSO has four part-time staff tuners, who rotate being on call, each taking a week a month; otherwise, they work at other venues. Charlie Terr, for instance, the day before Chinese superstar Lang Lang played at the Lyric earlier this month, headed over to the Civic Opera House after Steinway & Sons Chicago delivered a nearly 9-foot-long, Model D concert grand. Terr first let it sit for a few hours, to warm up — a change of temperature will throw a piano out of tune, as will changes in humidity. (Harpsichords are notoriously susceptible to humidity — the moisture in the breath of an audience can put the fragile baroque instruments out of tune, and they often must be retuned during intermissions.)
     Not only did this piano need to be tuned, but it had to be adjusted to suit a world class artist’s preferences. “I need to work on the tone of each note and brighten it up a little bit,” said Terr, who has been tuning for 41 years. “He likes a bright piano.”
     Terr first worked mutes — strips of grey felt — between the strings to isolate each string — some notes are actually three strings being struck. He hit one key, then stopped, got up and checked the brass wheels of the piano to make sure they were locked.
     Rolling into the orchestra pit will put a piano out of tune in a serious fashion.
     “It has happened before,” he said. “Just not to me.”
     The $148,000 piano secure, he took a tuning fork out of his tool box and hit it against his knee, sounding one of the most famous notes in music: A440, the “Concert A,” 440 standing for 440 hertz, or vibrations per second, a standard set in this country in 1926.
     From that A, Terr tunes by octaves, working his way down the piano to the bass notes.
     “I’m always playing two notes together,” he said. “I’m listening for how the harmonic series interacts with each other.”
     After Terr tuned the piano, he “voiced” it for Lang Lang, adding drops of liquid acetone to many of the felt hammer heads inside the mechanism, to give a brighter sound.
     “For me, it’s very important to have a piano that can do a lot of range of colors,” said Lang Lang. “Also, I need a very strong sustaining sound, ringing tone. A piano can be quite percussive sometimes. We need to make the piano more lyrical.”
     Piano tuners report a high degree of job satisfaction.
     “It’s all I’ve ever done for a career,” said Jim Houston, another CSO staff tuner, who started in the late 1960s. “You are entrusted with a lot of responsibility. You get to rub elbows with great artists. Tuning itself is a very enjoyable activity. ”
     “Getting three strings to make one note, that becomes a Zen moment,” said Zimmerman. “Sitting alone, trying to get three strings to sound as one, it can be quite remarkable.”
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 27, 2012

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Should Illinois bring back parole?

Michael Simmons speaking at a convocation for North Park University’s School of Restorative Arts inside Stateville Correctional Center in 2019./Photo by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom


     There is no parole in Illinois. I did not know that until Katrina Burlet told me.
     “We got rid of our parole system in 1978,” said Burlet, campaign strategy director of Parole Illinois, a coalition committed to addressing the needs of prisoners.
     Along with Illinois, 15 other states have abolished parole. California, on the other hand, has mandatory parole and in August pushed the issue into the headlines when a parole board voted to free Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
     This is one of those debates where people of goodwill can have opposing views. You could argue that Sirhan’s crime is so vile, not only snuffing out the life of a father of 11 but a beloved leader who inspired millions, that he should never go free. I can see that.
     Or you could counter that 53 years in prison is punishment aplenty, that keeping Sirhan in jail until he dies won’t bring RFK back, that we are too punitive a nation already, with 1.8 million incarcerated at any time. I can see that too.
     Burlet is pushing Senate Bill 2333, which would allow convicted criminals in Illinois who have served 20 years in prison to be eligible for a parole hearing.
     “It restores parole for people serving the longest sentences,” she said.
     People like Michael Simmons. Burlet came to this issue after running a debate program at Stateville Correctional Center. I asked her to put me in touch with a prisoner who might be affected by changes in the law, and she offered Simmons, convicted of murder in 2001 for killing Kurt Landrum during a robbery and sentenced to 50 years.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Keep your day job

 

      Every morning begins with me deleting all the emails that arrived during the night. It doesn't take long. Check a few dozen boxes, flush it all away, unread. Something very satisfying about that, like brushing fresh snow off your windshield. Rarely does anything catch my attention, because most communication is poorly-crafted spoodle that doesn't warrant a second glance. 
     But something called "Digiday Daily"—a bit redundant, yes?—dangled the intriguing headline,
 "‘Quit your f – king job’: How the pandemic has pushed journalists to exit the industry" by Sara Guiglione, and that seemed as good a way as any to dip a toe into the day's media pond. Maybe one of my adventurous former news colleagues will point out a path that could prove useful should I, like the Von Trapp Family, suddenly need to chirp my brief farewell, then make a quick exit out of Austria, through the Alps, toward some unimagined fresh start.
     The story opens with David Rosenfeld, a reporter for the Daily Breeze in Southern California. While noting the Breeze is owned by Alden Capital, the vivisectionist hedge fund, the article doesn't hint at the kneecapping that invariably follows. Perhaps it's assumed everybody already knows. So Rosenfeld quit his $45,000 a year job. His current situation is described this way: "Rosenfeld teaches sailing lessons and charters boat rides from his sailboat." He also has a real estate license and does research for attorneys and is a Lyft driver. Quite busy, though he claims to also be far happier than when he was a journalist.
     Maybe so. And good for him for taking dynamic action. Though that sailboat kinda stuck out for me. Who owns a sailboat on $45,000 a year? Perhaps it's a very small sailboat. But it's also a reminder that people sometimes have all sorts of invisible means of support, well-compensated spouses and such, and the Digiday Daily (try saying that three times, fast) story, for me, waves more unquestioned red flags than May Day in Beijing. Another of the four, count 'em, four journalists in the story recovered from his ordeal at the New York Times by spending a month in Hawaii. A third flees the Wall Street Journal after two years of servitude for the security of a tech start-up, which is like leaving your wife for a stripper you met last night. People do it, though I can't imagine encouraging anyone to consider that path without at least hinting at possible downsides.
     I don't want to pick apart the story, which is competent enough, other than to point out the last sentence:

“The pandemic has drained the life out of [these journalists]. My answer to them is to quit your fucking job," Herrera said. 

     Which made me wonder: why dash the obscene gerund in the headline only to deploy it full strength in the kicker? Maybe Digiday Daily (what's that Australian horn? A didgeridoo) has different standards for headlines and text, or, more likely, no standards at all. That's okay. We're all making it up as we go along.
      Nor do I want to be unkind to the article's author, less than a decade out of college (go Cavaliers!) and gainfully employed as a media critic in a profession that is falling away in big chunks. So my sympathy. Being a media critic nowadays must be like being a village's officially designated mourner during a plague, a hard enough job without having some old crocodile you never heard of rear out of his obscure midwest swamp to snap at you. Think of it as part of the education. Mike Royko once threatened to break my legs: scary then, now a point of pride. (Well, not pride. That's the first thing to go in journalism, whose continual, doglike humiliations are a ... wait a sec, maybe we should all quit).
     Sorry. Yes, writing can be a thankless grind. And the temptation of leaving the sun-baked desert island of any particular place of employment and paddling away on your lashed-together raft to find some imagined ambrosia-scented paradise must be a powerful one. But I feel responsibility dictates pointing out that people who try that also drown. Not everybody who leaves journalism is glad they did. I've seen more than one colleague who quit the paper to go scale the heights of their dreams, or at least snap at a 25 percent raise shilling for some pol, later return to smear their face longingly across the newsroom window and plead to come back. The process of prying their fingers off their old desk and gently leading them away is a heartbreaking one, softly reminding them that certain professions are like being baptized. Some stains just won't wash off.
     Anyway, as a guy who has been on staff of the same newspaper for 34 years, I thought I would put in a good word for holding onto your job, despite the pandemic. Bad years come and then they go. Yes, times have changed, and being strapped to the block, listening to Alden Capital whetting their cleaver, must be a terrifying situation to be in. I thought my friends over at the Tribune did the right thing, grabbing their cush salary-for-a-year buy-out life ring with both hands. Because odds are, if they didn't, they'd likely be laid off anyway in three months with nothing to cling to. Though they're still facing the problem of which direction to go. Sailing off into uncertain waters is no panacea, particularly if you don't own a sailboat.
      It's possible to step back, strip off your barnacles, exercise self-care, as the kids call it, while still maintaining your connection to a publication—my colleague S.E. Cupp just did it, apparently to good effect. In my third of a century at the paper, I've taken off ... calculating ... nearly two years, total, between paternity leave, travel, book projects, rehab, medical leave and, umm, suspensions. I recommend considering that as well, if it's an option. (And it may not be. I'm well aware that anything said by a journalist working under a valid union contract risks straying into "Let them eat cake" territory. If this piece is merely a self-own, a bleat of obliviousness revealing my utter failure to grasp just how lousy the profession has become for people who are not me, well, sorry. I hope I'm not snug in the lifeboat, wrapped in a wool blanket, carping about those splashing around in the icy chop. And I hope this isn't as serious a lapse as Gene Weingarten dissing Indian cuisine, which seemed to echo and reverberate across the globe. For a flippin' month).
     Consider the source. As I've said before, if you're not in the paper, you might as well be dead. That isn't a life imperative that meshes well with becoming a Lyft driver. There is no question that being a journalist is a calling, like being a doctor, though not nearly as well paid. For some of us. For others, well, if you can be more fulfilled renting out your sailboat, don't let me stand in your way. One problem in journalism is that too many people attempting to practice it don't grasp the privilege they enjoy, to snag the attention of the public and give them something worth reading. Or not worth reading, as the case may be. 





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


     Sigh.
     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 imagine are judging Jews based on our current actions, as opposed to condemning us out of the gate based on ancient, inviolable hatred. Anti-semitism as a contest, a game we are losing due to our own poor play, but might yet somehow win, if we try hard enough. The sad habit of victims blaming themselves for drawing the hatred they get no matter what. 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 didn't read it all—it will 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 response 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

Moonshiner

 

     "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.