Thursday, December 4, 2014

Neil Steinberg, not dead at 54.

    Several readers of yesterday's column on advance obituaries wondered if I had written my own obit. I answered, "Of course not." A person is too biased, too clouded by the fog of self, to write his or her own obituary. I remember a late colleague—Bill Braden—who did do exactly that, leave his own obit behind when he retired from the paper, and it was both leaden and puffed up and I deleted it and wrote his obit myself, when the time came. I'd hate to fall into the same trap, eyes wide open. 
     But one reader persisted. Sure, it would be biased, he said, but "I'd read it and I think I would enjoy that unique insight Maybe you should write it as a column!"
     Hmmm.... while I am not a short order cook, or a cocktail lounge pianist taking requests, there is an idea there. Almost a challenge. Sure, it might be a mistake, but it could be my mistake. Suddenly refusing to do it seemed, not prudence, or modesty, but a kind of cowardice, and I thought it might be fun to give it a crack and see the result, which you will find below. If it's wrong, well, I'll try again with something else tomorrow.
     Since people skim these things, and can be surprisingly thick (I sure can be; for years I thought the Kinks song "Lola" was about a girl), I should clearly state that, as of Wednesday evening, NEIL STEINBERG IS NOT DEAD, and while my dying in the night before this is automatically posted would be one of those just-too-strange ironic marvels that get so much play online, I'm not planning on that. Though if I do expire suddenly, through a wild coincidence, take comfort that I would savor the ensuing spurt of attention which, as you can glean from this obit, is generally in short supply, at least compared to my expectations. Not that I'm complaining. It's been a swell life, in the main, even boiled down to a thousand words. 

     Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis—in English, "Juvenal"—was a Roman poet, little known today and, judging from the utter lack of mention of him in contemporary writings of his era, and his own bitter complaints, also little known during his own lifetime, in the late first and early second century A.D., when he wrote the 16 satires that have come down to us today, concerning a range of topics, from the viciousness of women to cannibalism in Egypt. Juvenal always seems to be crouching in some rich patron's doorway, waiting hours to be seen, wondering if there'll be any table scraps left from the feast the night before.

     Neil Steinberg, a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, was a fan of Juvenal's acid wit, not only reading him with savor, but taking comfort from Juvenal's life when considering his own career spent churning out daily journalism, essays that could be sharp and funny, and strove to cast an intelligent eye on his times. Despite being well-wrought, his work had no discernible impact on the world around him, other than to serve as his livelihood and keep what small band of readers he had generally entertained, or at least occupied.
     Steinberg, XX, died WHEN and WHERE.
     His columns in the Sun-Times, which he began writing in 1996, and his various articles and editorials, reflected his wide range of interests: reading, Chicago history, opera, science, math. He would comment on the news of the moment, but also delve into obscure areas as diverse as the concrete industry, a group collecting dead birds that strike buildings downtown, and the translation of show tunes into sign languageHe particularly enjoyed visiting unusual factories and businesses, and wrote columns on the cardboard tube trade, the manufacture of table pads, and the S&M dungeon on Lake Street.
     He was the author of eight books, also on odd subjects, from his first, a history of college pranks, to "Hatless Jack," a book about the decline of the men's hat industry, to his pending volume, "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," which uses poetry to help alcoholics and drug addicts strive toward sobriety. It was written with New York author Sara Bader, and The University of Chicago Press is publishing the book in 2016. He cared deeply about his books, and it's telling that he would use his own obituary to plug them. 
     Neil Steinberg was born in Ohio and grew up in Berea, a small town in the western suburbs of Cleveland. His father Robert was a nuclear physicist who spent most of his career at NASA and later painted. His mother June taught students with learning disabilities. 
     He wrote a column for his junior high school and high school newspapers, and came to the Chicago area to attend Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, graduating in 1982. 
     Steinberg initially intended to be a novelist or humorist, finishing a novel at the Ragdale writers' colony in Lake Forest, and publishing humor in magazines like the National Lampoon and Spy, and writing for several programs on the Nickelodeon cable channel. But his day job as an editor and columnist at the Barrington Courier Review led to a job at the now defunct Wheaton Daily Journal which led to the Sun-Times. He joined the staff in 1987.
     He also wrote for many other publications, such as Esquire, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Forbes and the New York Daily News.
     In 2008, he wrote a memoir of his struggles with alcohol, "Drunkard," and the process of accepting his alcoholism made him better able to accept everything else, including his humble position well toward the bottom of the greased pole of money and status. He felt blessed that he truly enjoyed researching topics, setting words down, and having the freedom to select his own subjects, generally. He decided that he might as well be content with how things turned out, because there was no changing them now and, besides, as with Juvenal, perhaps someday somebody would determine that it had actually meant something significant after all.
     On July 1, 2013, he began a daily blog,, as the name implied, writing every single day, without fail, and took satisfaction in the idea that it would sit in cyberspace, if not forever then for a long time, serving as a kind of rump immortality, and such people who might be interested could visit it and perhaps take away something valuable, such as his favorite lines from Juvenal, this description, from the Third Satire, of the cranky Roman pundit's envy of an aristocrat in a sedan chair navigating a congested marketplace:
    The crossing of wagons in the narrow winding streets, the slanging of drovers when brought to a stand ... When the rich man has a call of social duty, the mob makes way for him as he is borne swiftly over their heads in a huge Liburnian car. He writes or reads or sleeps inside as he goes along for the closed window of the litter induces slumber. Yet he will arrive before us; hurry as we may, we are blocked by a surging crowd in front, and by a dense mass of people pressing in on us from behind: one man digs an elbow into me, another a hard sedan-pole; one bangs a beam and another a wine-cask against my head. My legs are beplastered with mud; soon huge feet trample on me from every side, and a soldier plants his hobnails firmly on my toe.
     Steinberg loved that last detail, the centurion stepping on Juvenal's foot. He felt it reached across some 1900 years and made the vexing commotion of ancient Rome come alive again. He strove to do something similar for early 21st century Chicago and fancied that, occasionally, he succeeded. Whether anyone will care 1900 years from now is impossible to say, but, as Steinberg would observe, were he alive, "A fellow is allowed to hope."
     Survivors include his wife Edie, sons Ross and Kent, as well as his parents, his sister Deborah and brother Samuel. Services are private.


  1. You should turn it up to eleven and write your an obituary in Telegraph style. Leave it in the file and go out with a bang. How many writers have that opportunity?

    Read the first paragraph of the obit of Count Gottfried von Bismarck and you must read the whole thing:

    "Count Gottfried von Bismarck, who died on July 2, 2007, aged 44, was a louche German aristocrat with a multi-faceted history as a pleasure-seeking heroin addict, hell-raising alcoholic, flamboyant waster and a reckless and extravagant host of homosexual orgies."

    And the classic obit of Graham Mason:

    "Seated at the bar, his thin shanks wrapped around the legs of a high stool, he would swivel his reptilian stare round behind him to any unfortunate stranger attempting to be served, and snap: "Who the f-- are you?" "

    "He had been conceived on a sand dune, and to this, as a devotee of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, he sometimes attributed his abrasive character. "

    "Among those he interviewed in a Rhodesia moving towards UDI were Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe; he did not take to the latter."

    "After Marsh Dunbar's death in 2001, with almost all his friends dead, he sat imprisoned by emphysema in his flat, with a cylinder of oxygen by his armchair and bottles of white wine by his elbow, looking out over the Thames, still very angry."

    1. Those were two of the weirdest & best obits I've ever read.
      I have no doubt, the writer[s] had a lot of fun researching & writing them.

  2. This is where being alive, and it being himself, forces the writer to pull back the reins considerably. Besides, if I put it all on the table now, then what would there be for me to agonizingly grope toward in years to come? Though my favorite nasty obit was The Economist's on Howard Cosell. I'll have to see if I can find it.

  3. I would have thought that you would have alluded to the "the gift of being awake" somehow. You've got to be kind to your advertisers you know.


    1. It would help me more if YOU were kind to them. It is good coffee. And cheesecake. There must be someone on your Christmas list.

    2. Hadn't entered my mind. But now that you've gave it a nudge, my Xmas list is complete.


  4. He was a good man, except for dying before I got a chance to say "I told you so" on a half dozen issues.

  5. Neil, as a former colleague of yours at the Barrington Courier-Review, I was disappointed you didn't say more about those days.

    (Just kidding. I barely remember them myself and don't want to.)

  6. Mean of you to make the services private Neil. I would have attended if I could have been borne there swiftly over the heads of the mob in a huge Liburnian car.

    All in all, a fairly productive life, which means you might have approached the end with some degree of satisfaction, the obverse of John Betjamine's nightclub proprietess:

    " There was sun enough for lazing on the beaches
    There was fun enough far into the night
    But I'm dying now and done for.
    What on earth was all the fun for?
    I am ill and old and terrified and tight."

    I was vaguely aware of the Daily Telegraph's store of wonderful obits Mr. Smith, but wouldn't know how they can be accessed in bulk. Has a collection been published?

    1. Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer; An Anthology of Great Lives in 365 Days
      The Telegraph; Telegraph Books.
      Quetteville, Harry (Editor)
      The obituaries pages of the Telegraph are renowned for their quality of writing and a capacity to distil the essence of a life from its most extraordinary moments. Mixing heroism, ingenuity, infamy...

  7. Loved your posts. I've just completed the experiment of writing my own obituary as a record of how I'd like to have my life played out. It's a way of turning time upside down and looking backward instead of forward --- motivating me to accomplish what I hope to accomplish without further procrastination.

  8. I've always liked Jackie O'Shea's speech from the movie "Waking Ned Devine." For those who haven't seen it, Michael O'Sullivan – the object of the eulogy – is actually alive and sitting in the congregation (it's a complicated, and charming, story):

    "Michael O'Sullivan was my great friend. But I don't ever remember telling him that. The words that are spoken at a funeral are spoken too late for the man who is dead. What a wonderful thing it would be to visit your own funeral. To sit at the front and hear what was said, maybe say a few things yourself. Michael and I grew old together. But at times, when we laughed, we grew young. If he was here now, if he could hear what I say, I'd congratulate him on being a great man, and thank him for being a friend."

    I hope some day someone can say the same for me.

  9. You're now 57, and still not dead! Dude, you're on a roll! Keep up the good work.

  10. It's now a year later, and he's 58. But he wouldn't have made it to 59, or sixty, if that falling pine tree in front of his house hadn't missed him by a whisker after last week's blizzard. This column would be running--perhaps on the front page, and FALLING TREE KILLS CHICAGO JOURNALIST would probably be national news.

    Just a few minutes just before I read about the near-miss, in the next day's column, I saw Mr. S. on the "Engineering Catastrophes" series that airs on the Smithsonian Channel. He was on-camera for the episode about the '92 Loop Flood.

    Couldn't help feeling a chill after reading his story.

  11. Still not dead! And you've held up nicely.

  12. Glad you’re still here! Your obit is fake news, of which I never thought I would accuse you. It’s a lengthy account and I’m thinking the Trib would charge your wife an arm and a leg to have it printed and a few hundred more to include the photo. Since it is fake news maybe you can add a Pulitzer.

    1. Like many people who write criticizing, Janet, it is you yourself who are mistaken. The obit is NOT fake news. Everything in it is completely accurate, including the my not being dead part. The aspects about my dying are not filled in, yet. But someday they could be, and then it would be completely accurate. Who the fuck would want to be in the Tribune for free, never mind pay them for the privilege? I think the whole "advance obit" concept flew past you. Perhaps you want to contemplate it anew before spewing undeserved snark on my blog.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.