Sunday, January 31, 2016

A visit from Lou Bovitch

      Yesterday's post about pausing to pray with some boys from a Jewish school prompted a Facebook friend to mention "Lou Bovitch," referring to the column below. It's flattering for someone to recall something that ran five years ago, so I thought it worth posting, not only for its own merits, but because it shows a certain softening in the author related to the visits. While I'd never go all pious on you—that would just be sad—it's natural for a veneer of religiosity to settle over man as the years go by, if only to guard against the various indignities of life.
     The poem "There is no God," by Arthur Hugh Clough captures this perfectly. It's from 1850, a reminder that those in the past weren't as rigid as we fancy them to be.

There is no God,’ the wicked saith,
   ‘And truly it’s a blessing,
For what He might have done with us
   It’s better only guessing.’

‘There is no God,’ a youngster thinks,

   ‘Or really, if there may be,
He surely did not mean a man
   Always to be a baby.’

‘There is no God, or if there is,’

   The tradesman thinks, ‘’twere funny
If he should take it ill in me
   To make a little money.’

‘Whether there be,’ the rich man says,

   ‘It matters very little,
For I and mine, thank somebody,
   Are not in want of victual.’

Some others, also, to themselves,

   Who scarce so much as doubt it,
Think there is none, when they are well,
   And do not think about it.

But country folks who live beneath

   The shadow of the steeple;
The parson and the parson’s wife,
   And mostly married people;

Youths green and happy in first love,

   So thankful for illusion;
And men caught out in what the world
   Calls guilt, in first confusion;

And almost everyone when age,
   Disease, or sorrows strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God,
   Or something very like Him.

     Oh, and if you're wondering what the line about nothing being funny in the fourth sentence refers to, remember the date: Nov. 3, 2010. The Republicans crushed the Democrats the day before in the mid-term elections.

     Want to hear something funny? Of course, you do. Me, too. Though I'm not sure anything could be funny today, let's give it a try.
     So I'm listening to my telephone messages, and I hear the burly, salt-of-Chicago voice of one of our security guards. "Hello, Neil?" he says. "This is the 10th-floor desk. You have Lou Bovitch here to see you."
     That alone drew a laugh from me. Despite never having met, or heard of, Mr. Bovitch, I knew exactly who was standing before the guard, asking in vain to see me.
     I guess some background is in order.
     It was a Friday. That's important. Every Friday, almost without fail, for nearly the past decade, I am visited by a pair of teenage boys in black coats and big hats -- missionaries, though they'd hate that word -- from the ultra-Orthodox wing of Judaism.
     They want me to put on tefillin, those little prayer boxes that Orthodox Jews wear when they pray, and to talk to me about the Torah portion being read that week.
     Sometimes I'm not in my office and miss their visit, like this time. Sometimes I'm busy, or not in the proper frame of mind, and tell the guard to send them away.
     But they're kids, they get gold stars toward, I don't know, a baseball mitt or a new Talmud or something, for visiting wayward Jews and goading them to perform their duty. "A coffee break of the spirit," a rabbi called it. Or maybe they don't get gold stars, maybe the effort is an utterly selfless attempt to repair the world -- it's their ideology, not mine.
     So sometimes I let them come down and give their spiel about this week's reading.
     The education may go both ways -- I see them gazing around the office, wide-eyed, as if they've never been outside before.
     "Do you read the paper?" I once asked.
     "Oh, no," one said. "We're not allowed."
     Of course not. Religion isn't generally about expanding your scope in life, is it?
     Sometimes I even put on the prayer boxes and say the prayers, which strikes me as very odd: an agnostic indulging in this exotic bit of religious theater, one that most Jews dispensed with long ago, when jettisoning most requirements of their faith.
     I've asked myself why I do it. For me, the natural, automatic reaction to such a time-wasting demand on a Friday would be to send them away. Scram, boys, and don't come back! That would be easy enough.
     Yet I don't. I see them more often than not. That they're in their mid-teens is a factor. They're kids. Kids fall under the umbrella of indulgence that Girl Scouts fall under. The League of Women Voters could never get away with selling those too sweet, generic and not-really-all-that-good cookies.
     There is also a shock value in going through the motions of ritual. Our offices have glass walls, and sometimes I'll be there, arm straight out, wrapped in a leather strap, big square black box on my forehead and on the back of my hand, uttering the ancient prayers, and some colleague will come trucking down the hall and catch sight of this strange tableau -- me locked in some weird prayer ritual with two black-clad kids. Their eyes will widen, they'll lose a step and then hurry on, wondering what to make of that -- the resident Arch-Cynic, the Anti-Zealot, if not the Anti-Christ of Chicago, lost in religious ecstasies.
     Nobody ever asks me about it.
     Did I mention the sect is called the Lubavitch, an ultra-Orthodox group that busies itself urging Jews do the rituals that they would do unprompted if they actually believed any of this stuff? The school the boys belong to is the Lubavitch Mesivta of Chicago, at Morse and California.
     The Sun-Times' guard is new, so after the boys asked him to say the Lubavitch were here, he called me and said: "Hello Neil? You have Lou Bovitch here to see you."
     Well, I thought it was funny. Maybe you had to be there.
                                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 3, 2010

Saturday, January 30, 2016

It couldn't hurt

Rob Chimberoff, who does pagination at the Sun-Times, greets (left to right) Yakov Rosenblum, 16, Mendel Friedman, 15 and Schneur Ehven, 16, 

     Prayer is defined as ... what? Talking to God? Praising His glory? Asking the cosmos for something you really want?
     That strikes me as a very limited definition. It seldom seems to work. And I just can't wrap my head around a Supreme Being as powerful and all-knowing as the Supreme Being supposed is who is also so insecure that He needs His holy ass kissed constantly.  
     I would suggest that prayer could be all sorts of things.
     For instance, most Fridays for the past 20 years, two or three Hasidic boys show up the Sun-Times offices to try to get me to pray. Because in their circles I am the notorious Meshumed fun Tshikago, or Apostate of Chicago, and the Lubavitch movement has vowed to win me over to their side.
     The truth is there is some master list of Jewish office workers, and they go around trying to get them to put on tefillin—Yiddish fophylacteries, or prayer boxes—and say some Hebrew prayers. The tefillin are a black leather strap wound around your left arm—well, on my right, since I'm left-handed—and a small black box containing lines of Torah that sits atop your head, in satisfaction of Deuteronomy 11:18, "You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes." (Later in the passage the same words are slapped "upon the doorposts of your house," which is were mezzuzahs  come from).
     While most ultra-Orthodox sects of all religion are seriously into coercion, the Lubavtch are more gentle, low-key. They go around pushing tefillin out of the charming notion that doing so gets us all closer to the arrival of the Messiah (so in that sense, they're trying to bring about the End of the World. But in a good way). 
     And every week, Amy, the charming receptionist, sends an email telling me that the boys are here, and every Friday I can't act on it, because I'm home, or because I'm doing something else and didn't see it for hours later. I can't say I'm consumed with regret to have missed them.
    But this Friday, not only was I at my desk, but drinking coffee to beat the band. So much so that mid-morning I leaped up, briskly marched toward the front desk, and ran smack into Yakov Rosenblum, 16, Mendel Friedman, 15 and Schneur Ehven, 16, all students at Lubavitch Mesivta Chicago in Rogers Park. 
    Knowing when I was caught, dead to rights, I jovially waved them back to my office. On the walk, I told them about the only Bible story I quote with any regularity: Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh and preach. Not wanting to, he flees to Tarkshish, or tries to, but ends up in a whale. Sometimes fate boots you toward Nineveh, so you just have to shrug and go.
    At the office, I automatically rolled up my right sleeve and took off my wristwatch.
   "You've done this before," one said. I don't think any of the boys had been there before. I tend to treat them as the same individuals, but the truth is, the teens who first came to see me are now no doubt rabbis in Montreal and Brooklyn with growing families of their own. 
    One of the boys wrapped the leather strap around my arm — I've never shot heroin, but there is something about wrapping the extended arm that always struck me as being like a junkie tying off his arm to raise a vein.  I also put the box upon my head, and repeated the Hebrew prayers after another one of the boys, haltingly and half-remembered.
     Why do it? A number of reasons. Altruism, mostly. The lads are here and want me to, to further the philosophical notions their sect possesses. 
    "You guys get points toward a bicycle or something for me doing this," I said, my standard joke, and they denied it, as the boys have done for decades. 
     It must also freak out passersby — I have a glass wall in the office. I like the thought of people walking by and seeing Steinberg lost in some arcane religious act with three black-hatted attendants. 
     And I do like that the Lubavitch are low-key, or at least as low-key as you can be showing up at people's offices in the middle of working day and dragooning them into your ritual. They never say I'm going to hell otherwise. They don't set off bombs. A lot of faiths could take a lesson from them. 
     But it's also a pause from the day, for me. Their reason strikes me as specious. I can't conceive of a world where the Supreme Being, throned in glory, looks up, smiling, thinking, "Neil's putting on tefillin. All riiiiight!
     But for me, the combination of the pause, the interaction with the friendly black-hatted boys, the doing of a small favor for them, the muttering of the ancient words, well, it all blended together to perk me up. Without going into detail I had been feeling particularly lousy Friday morning, one of those minor professional annoyances involved with the new book, one that 99 out of 100 writers would leap to have to go through in my place, but which just left me sour-stomached and frustrated and viewing the whole writing process, not as work I love, but as another damaging addiction.
     By the time the boys left, the problem, which had been a noxious fog surrounding me, blocking my view in every direction, was now a cloud on the horizon, large, yes, but no longer so present. And it was diminishing, and I was feeling my old self again. 
    Maybe that was unrelated to the prayer. Maybe it would have happened whether the boys showed up or not. But I'm not sure. The prayer probably didn't help. But it couldn't hurt.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Why 'Downton Abbey'?

     Chicagoans watch four hours and 47 minutes of television a day, on average, according to Nielsen, making us 13th in the ranking of big city TV viewing, a full hour less than glued-to-the-tube Cleveland, where they watch nearly six hours a day, one quarter of the time available for humans to live.
     Having spent my first 18 years in the Cleveland area, I can explain. You watch a lot of TV because, well, otherwise, there you are, in Cleveland.
     I tend to sniff at television. When people ask how I manage to write a regular newspaper column plus magazine articles and a steady stream of books, I reply, "I never watch TV."
     It's true. Excluding Bulls games, I don't turn the thing on, and never at a set time to watch a particular show. I haven't seen "Game of Thrones" or "Empire" or "Broad City" or "Veep" — in fact, I had to Google "Top TV shows" to generate the list of programs I haven't seen, because otherwise nothing came to mind.
     Since avoiding TV sounds precious, and I try to keep an honest column here, I feel compelled to confess that I recently went off the TV wagon, big time.
     Two words: “Downton Abbey.”
     Not only have I watched every minute of the first five seasons and the four (!) shows so far this year, the sixth and final season, but I’ve done so since the autumn, in one glorious orgy of elegant dinners and witty retorts and scullery drama. At some point every Sunday I look up and exclaim “Downton Abbey!” the way a 4-year-old would say, “Christmas!”
     It was all an accident. Half a decade of PBS hype sluiced off me without effect, water off a duck’s back. We were far from the lure of television — or so we thought — on vacation in October, hiking in Pennsylvania. My wife had found the picturesque hamlet of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and booked us in a picturesque bed and breakfast that had a decidedly unpicturesque flat-screen television.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

GQ sells its birthright for a mess of ice cream

     How magazines stay in business nowadays is a mystery. Some manage it by sheer excellence. I subscribe to three: The New Yorker, The Economist, and Consumer Reports. 
     The rest must resort to other stratagems....
     I was in the barber shop on Schermer Road a week ago Saturday, waiting for Leo to finish up with a customer. I turned my attention to a pile of magazines—are there enough barber shops and doctor's waiting rooms to keep the profession afloat?— and fished the July Gentleman's Quarterly out of the pile on a low table. Not my usual fare, but I figured, why not? See what the hip metrosexuals are up to. Nothing really registered until I got to this advertisement for Klondike ice cream bars.

     It seemed very familiar, even though I was sure I'd never seen the ad before. Nor have I ever eaten a Klondike bar, to my memory. Nor would I want to, even after seeing this ad. Especially not after seeing this ad. I paused, and began flipping backward through the magazine, until I came to this:
     The same stack of Klondike bars—the photo from the ad, under the serious sounding heading, "@GQREPORTS," which suggested information dug up by the hardworking hipsters on the GQ staff. I squinted hard and saw the word "promotions." Ah, paid content. 
    Here is how they described the wonders of the aforementioned Klondike bars:
     Is that not the lamest block of copy you've ever read in your life? It's one thing to sell out and pretend that the average reading of GQ is having trouble deciding what kind of frozen comestible to ask his mom to pick up at Jewel. But "a little spice to their lives" doesn't even mesh with the idea of ice cream. Nobody wants spicy ice cream. It's repulsive.
     I don't want to make too much of this.  The actual, non-paid, produced-by-journalists-of- some-sort editorial content of GQ was never exactly hard-hitting reportage: more how to wax your pubes and an interview with whatever passing 20ish celebrity was enjoying his spasm of fame at the moment. The cover story of the July issue, "The Most Stylish Men Alive" is not only banal, but uses the cliched, tired, unfortunate "Blah Blah Blabbity Blah Alive!" structure pioneered by People magazine that leads one to suspect, grotesquely, that a future GQ might turn its attention to nattily-dressed corpses.
     So hardly better than a stack of Klondike bars.        And if you pressed a gun to my temple and demanded I declare the name of an endeavor that Ryan Gosling was involved with, I'd be a dead man. Movies, based on his looks.
     But still. All a magazine, all any publication has, is its credibility, its voice. And while that voice will be stilled if it goes out of business, it can also be so strangled by commercial considerations that it loses all meaning.
    Yes, there's a lot of that going around lately. Sponsored content is not the Kiss of Death. The Tribune has its Blue Sky Innovation and, from what I've seen of it, manages to pull the somersault off. The Sun-Times has a fat wad of USA Today living inside it, which I comfort myself by observing, "It's better than nothing." The key is to have stories that are actually interesting, in themselves, despite being sponsored or appropriated from elsewhere.  It can be done.
     I haven't tried it yet, but I've considered nodding at my advertiser. Like a diver bouncing at the end of a high dive, summoning his courage, trying not to look down. This blog is just ending its third season being sponsored by Eli's Cheesecake, a financial arrangement that gives me a sense of validation, plus spending money. And though I am vastly grateful to Marc Schulman for buying ads on my blog, and though I have Eli's cheesecake right now in my freezer, there by demand of my oldest boy, who loves the stuff, I have yet to figure out how to create some editorial content here without seeming like a complete sell-out and a fraud, or even if I should make the attempt. I mean, what about those readers who don't notice that nice new Valentine ad in the upper right hand corner, who are wondering, "If only there was some rich and satisfying desert substance I could send to the significant person in my life at Valentine's Day to show just how much I care?"
     Not that Eli's has ever requested it. But I do want to encourage them to return next year. And it seems almost a creative challenge, to put my head in the lion's mouth and pull it out. Why not write about cheesecake? I write about every other flippin' thing, every goddamn day. Cheesecake can be interesting too. 
     Is avoiding that topic courage or cowardice? The Tribune seems able to manage it., and they're a respected mainstream publication. Plugging "GQ sells out to Klondike bars" into Google reveals no outrage on the Internet, which can build up a mob of criticism over a 6-year-old's drawing for his mother. Maybe this is how we do it nowadays. Maybe caring at all about this kind of thing is an antique concern, like worrying about accuracy on Facebook. Thoughts? 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Preparing for President Trump

     President Trump. President Donald Trump. "... and in international news, President Trump arrived in Berlin today for the start of the NATO summit ...." The Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Museum.
    Sorry. Just practicing. Newspapers are nothing if not cheerleaders for the status quo. We howl, for a while, then we fall in line. This was driven home to me a couple Decembers ago when I was in Boulder as Colorado welcomed legal marijuana. The Sunday Denver Post suddenly read like High Times, with recipes for pot brownies in the lifestyle pages, tips for raising your own weed, and such a general sense of ballyhoo you had to smile.
     If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
     I've observed a lot of presidential elections — 14, by my count, from the day in 1968 when I pressed my parents to take me to the Hubert Humphrey headquarters in Berea, Ohio, and scoot me in to receive a "Humphrey/ Muskie" button, which I still have, to the current free-for-all contest of extra odd characters, like a brawl in the Mos Eisley cantina in "Star Wars."
     One thing I noticed, long ago, is there is a presidentification process, as various wannabes stride toward the White House, where the media starts slapping layers of varnish on the deeply flawed individuals who want to be president, just in case we have to keep looking at them.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Droste Effect

     I am an impulsive shopper.
     For instance, when I saw these boxes of cocoa from Droste, the venerable Dutch chocolate company, I didn't not wonder if we needed cocoa, or check to see that other cocoas cost a third as much. I bought one, at the usurious price of $10.49 because ... well, any guesses? ... yes, of course, because the box looks so cool, with its 19th century nurse wielding her tray of the hot cocoa you need for whatever ails you.  Plus that rich red background. Isn't that the best red you've ever seen? 
     To be honest, I didn't intend to open and use the cocoa at all; I knew that just seeing it on the shelf, among the teas and spices and such in our kitchen, would give me an added boost. The fact that there was something inside the box was just a lagniappe, an added bonus. 
      My wife, who scans the newspaper for sales, creates shopping lists and goes from store to store, stalking bargains like a lepidopterist netting rare butterflies,, eventually quizzed me about the luxurious cocoa that showed up in our kitchen cabinet. Though to her credit, she did so gently, with genuine puzzlement and none of the cold outrage I'm sure was simmering in her gut. She probably assumed I had lost my mind, and was both trying to be kind, and a little frightened.
     "Cocoa is all the same," she said, calmly and evenly, resisting the urge to add, "You crazy person you." 
     I had to admit there was more to it than a pretty box. When my father was a young man, he went to sea, and his ship stopped at the Netherlands, where he rode a motorbike—shooting a movie using his wind-up Bolex camera—and developed a taste for Droste, which he brought home with him. 
     So trying to add a little cachet to our white bread and Cheez Whiz suburban Ohio upbringing, he made a habit of purchasing Droste products, wherever in God's name you got such things in Ohio in the 1960s and 1970s. The black market, I suppose. We ate creamy Droste milk chocolate bars and tapped Droste orange-flavored chocolate oranges on the table to watch them shatter into sections and popped bittersweet Droste pastilles in our eager yaps. Droste chocolate made Hershey's taste like plastic and Nestles' Crunch taste like gravel. 
     Though I doubt that was the deciding factor in my father's buying habits; to him, Droste's was high class, international, Euopean and a tribute to his seafaring years, and I guess I view it the exact same way, with the added bonus of nostalgic mixed in.
     The box looked different then, with a little Dutch boy and girl. An old-fashioned look that for some reason I was able to utterly ignore for decades in my adulthood; if I ever saw it, it never registered.
    The new box is a vast improvement, even though it isn't new at all; just a re-issue of a design from 100 years ago. 
    Before we let go of this subject, no doubt with a sigh of relief on your part ("Really, was there no news at all?!") I would draw your attention to the tray the nurse is holding. It is an example of what, believe it or not, is called "The Droste Effect," a picture that contains a smaller image, which holds an image that is smaller still, an infinite recursive dwindling, vanishing beyond the limits of reproduction.  
     Just so I don't seem a total spendthrift I did, to justify my purchase, whip up a batch of homemade pudding, using this recipe off the Internet. Edie was then horrified, not that I was wasting my pricy cocoa by putting it into food, but that I would use a recipe requiring heavy cream to  make such rich, fattening pudding and not the sensible low-cal puddings we who are watching our weight should eat if we must consume pudding at all. To show me how it was done, she made the proper, sensible pudding that, I couldn't bear to tell her, until now, tasted like congealed water. I ate it with husbandly duty.
     Sometimes a fellow has to sin boldly, within his narrow limits, and if I'm going to have a cocoa orgy and go off the rails, puddingwise, full strength, sinfully rich chocolate pudding made with cream and genuine imported Dutch Droste cocoa seems the way to go.  After all, as I'm always saying when called out on an extravagance, they sell the stuff, right there in Sunset Foods in Northbrook. It can't just be me.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Flint water reflects Illinois woes

     In enormous disasters, there is often one small detail — I almost called it a "grace note" — that clicks a huge, blurred tragedy into focus. That drives the horror home.
     The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, for instance. It's difficult, maybe impossible, to conceive of a nuclear firestorm that kills 100,000 people at a stroke.
     But the shadows of victims vaporized in the blast, ghostly outlines left on sidewalks and against walls. Those you can see. The faint shadows somehow they symbolize the entire unfathomable, humanity-annihilating power of the explosion.
     Perhaps you're not paying attention to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. And I can't really blame you; Chicago is a city where children are gunned down in the street while they play, so it's hard to get too worked up over some folks in Michigan failing a blood test. Besides, we have all the good clean fresh Lake Michigan water we need.
     But there are aspects of the crisis that directly apply here. So a quick refresher.

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

The future is here, maybe

     The future is always over the hill. That's what makes it the future. Tomorrow never comes. Change happens so slowly that its forward creep isn't detectable to the casual observer. Life rolls along pretty much the same way it always has.
      But occasionally, society takes a lurch, so abruptly that you can almost feel it move. You pause and think "Something just happened."
      I had such a moment Saturday.
      There was a bit of foreshadowing, an initial shock: the stark black two page advertisement in the New York Times by Mercedes Benz announcing that its 2017 sedan will be the first car licensed for self-driving.  I knew it was coming, fast, knew Google was testing it's little bean cars. But next year Mercedes will be selling them—not to me, God knows, but to somebody. The cars will drive themselves—just in Nevada, for now—I'd make some joke about taking a gamble, but self-driving cars make too much sense to not become the norm. Tens of thousands of deaths each year are caused by humans driving their cars erratically. 
    We all like to be captains of our destiny on the open road, "Born to Be Wild" and all, but to save 90 percent on our car insurance most of us will happily let a bundle of sensors and micro-chips drive while we sit back and stare at our phones and send text messages to our friends. (Heck, half the drivers seem to be doing that already, half the time. It's only sensible that the cars should pay attention to driving—somebody ought to.
   If that weren't enough to chew on, just this Saturday, running into Northbrook Court to
stop at the eyeglass store, I saw this: a pair of free Volta charging stations, with two Tesla Model S sedans cheek-by-jowl at the trough, slurping up electricity.
     I'm familiar with the Tesla — I've driven one. Quite a lot of giddy-up for a car running on batteries. Maybe not the vehicle I'd purchase if I had $85,000 burning a hole in my wallet. But a wide, low slung car with those way-cool door stainless steel handles that retract flush with the doors. I notice them everywhere. I used to say, "There's a Tesla," but now I don't bother. There are too many of them.
     The stations are newly installed by Volta, a San Francisco start-up that, according to a Fortune article in June, had installed 100 stations at shopping centers around the country and hoped, by now, to install 300 more.  They give the electricity away free and pay for themselves with advertising on their kiosks. There's another pair at Oakbrook Terrace.
      Someday, I imagine, most parking spaces, or at least many more, will have these, a little inducement to do your shopping at a bricks and mortar store. Amazon can do a lot of things, but it can't charge your car while you shop, at least not yet.
    We came out of Northbrook Court, oh, a half hour later, and one of the Teslas was gone, and there was an unusual silver sports car, a Fisker Karma.  I had never seen one before: Fisker was a short-lived Finnish hybrid, sort of the Bricklin of the second decade of the 21st century. They only made a few thousand of them before the company went belly up. A reminder that the future isn't always what it seems at the moment, and guesses about what's is to come are just that, guesses, reflecting more on the anxieties of any given moment than offering an actual roadmap of what's ahead.
     So yes, maybe self-driving cars and mall charging stations. Or maybe not.  I also paid $1.75 a gallon to fill up the day before, as oil companies pump out petrol and gas prices tumble. Which hurts the market for electric cars. So instead of being the future, electric cars could be an aberration, a blip, someday seen as amusing relics of once upon a time, back when we were still trying to stop climate change, before Donald Trump got elected and we all gave up, all decided 'Ah, what the hell, have a good time" while doom crept up on us.  I suppose they can make those Hummers self-driving too.  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Twenty years a columnist

Enhanced image courtesy of Philip Wizenick
     Twenty years ago today, on Jan. 23, 1996, the Sun-Times' new editor-in-chief, Nigel Wade, whom I had met once, maybe twice, phoned me at home on Pine Grove Avenue, where I was in the third month of a year's paternity leave. In my memory, I have a baby balanced on a cloth diaper on my shoulder, spewing down my back as I juggle the phone. But that is perhaps a faulty recollection.
     Nigel asked if I'd like to write a column for the newspaper. I said yes, and got busy.
     While I try to avoid attaching any particular significance to my column—I've known too many self-important journalists, puffing themselves up like frogs—20 years as a newspaper columnist in Chicago strikes me as significant. Almost a miracle, really, given how many ways there are to blow up, burn out, give up, go away, slide into the ditch and stay there. Each new day, each next sentence, is an invitation to hang yourself, the entire endeavor a kind of public Russian roulette, for 20 years, and here I am still spinning the cylinder and clicking away, somehow unscathed. 
     A milestone worth noting, and since nobody is leaping up to celebrate the event, I'll have to do it myself, which is fitting, because while I do value my helpful colleagues, being a columnist is mainly a DIY affair. That's my picture on top of the column, nobody else's. 
      Yes, there are better ways to spend one's life. I was named a columnist along with Leslie Baldacci, a kind of his-and-hers matched set. She gave up journalism in 1999 to become a teacher, and while you'd have to ask her, I'd bet money she never regretted it for a second. And if you ask me who made more of a difference in life, who was more important, I'd put my chips on Leslie, no question. She's still a teacher, teaching other teachers to teach, and I'd say that injects more real good into the world than spooling sarcastic about the crisis of the moment.
     Then again, injecting good in the world was never my goal. I do not regret two decades spent doing this.  Not at all. It is a peculiar task, filling that space, and I like to think it is suited to my personality and I do it with skill.  Unlike Phil Kadner, who just retired after a long tenure at the Southtown Economist, I cannot point to a list of changes fomented and wrongs exposed. In fact, I can't think of one. But it has been, I believe, an interesting column to read, and that really is my only ambition.  That, and to have fun, which I do. I'm the rare writer who likes to write, who sits happily pounding away at the keyboard, laughing at my own stuff. I know that isn't the cliche of the tortured perfectionist,  and suspect that self-satisfaction is the mark of the hack. So be it. You gotta dance with who brung ya.
     Do I sound grateful? I am. I'm glad I have colleagues whose work I respect and am inspired by, a few who have become friends and whose insight I value: Eric Zorn comes to mind, Rick Kogan, Rick Telander, Mark Konkol, Esther J. Cepeda.  I'm proud to be among a stable of talent at the Sun-Times. Mary Mitchell, Mark Brown, Fran Spielman, Richard Roeper, Chris Fusco, Tim Novak, Frank Main, Maureen O'Donnell, Scott Fornek.  When I started this, I wasn't a kid—I was 35—but knew a few giants of the business. Some were extraordinarily kind to me—Roger Ebert, Jeffrey Zaslow, Andrew Patner, Michael Cooke, Steve Neal—and some weren't kind to me at all. To this day, I go out of my way to make new reporters feel welcome, and I suppose I have Mike Royko to thank for that, because I remember how it stung to get the back of his hand, every single time. Not that it's difficult. I'm genuinely excited that the paper is once again hiring new talent, like Andy Grimm. I like reading stuff that's good, and know that success is not a pie, and somebody cutting himself a bigger slice doesn't diminish my share.
     Having been through many editorial incarnations and permutations over the years, I'm happy to say that the professionals I work most closely with now work very well together as a team: copy editor Bill Ruminiski, assistant metro editor John O'Neill, Steve Warmbir (who is called the "Assistant Managing Editor for News" but in my mind is just the "City Editor," a far more august and apt title) and publisher Jim Kirk. I don't want to speak for them, but from my perspective, we respect each other and get the job done.
     Five years ago, someone asked me what I learned, doing this:

     "Good column today," Neil Liptak, a reader in the far southwest suburban town of Elwood writes. "Made me want to ask you: What have you learned after writing your column all these years?"
     The prudent route would be to thank him and go on. "The first thing that came to mind was, 'People are crazy,'" I replied. "But that's extreme. Maybe Hemingway's, 'The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.'"
     Still glib. And the question lingered. Nobody ever asked me that before, and I began to suspect it deserved a sincere answer.
     Where to begin? Thousands of columns . . . geez, what haven't I learned? There is a Chicagoland Puppetry Guild. The United States and China are almost exactly the same size, in area. The pleats in a kilt go in the back. Some survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima fled to Nagasaki, where they also survived the second atomic bomb. The only elective office Jane Byrne ever held was mayor of Chicago. The Cook County medical examiner performs autopsies with a 10-inch kitchen knife. The 14th floor sky bridge on the Wrigley Building was built to skirt banking regulations. There is an S/M dungeon on Lake Street, two blocks from the Thompson Center.*
     I could go on and fill the column with trivia — the first cell phone call placed by a member of the general public was to Jack Brickhouse; the globed streetlights on Wacker Drive have the lovely name "boulevard electroliers" — but my sense is that the reader was aiming for something more, something akin to wisdom.
     I'm uncomfortable with the notion of dispensing wisdom. First because it means I consider myself to be wise, which is both untrue and an invitation to ridicule. ("I'll tell ya what ya learned, Steinfart, ya learned that a no-talent HACK can make a living spewing his psycho liberal bull..."), and second because wisdom tends to be both contradictory and situation specific. "A penny saved is a penny earned" is good advice, unless you're hiring a band to play at your wedding, when you should spend every cent you can scrape together or borrow, because otherwise you'll have a lousy band and what's the point of that? (Instead of wisdom, I'd rather dispense wedding advice: Skip the rental napkins. Jews, don't ceremonially step on a wrapped light bulb instead of a wine glass; light bulbs pop. Splurge the two dollars for a real glass).
     But general, one-size-fits-all wisdom?
     There must be something.
     How about "Doubt is good"?
     Doubt gets bad press, because it's seen as lack of self-confidence. But in the sense of questioning your assumptions, doubt is wonderful, the difference between being a thinking person and being a zealot. The world is full of zealots, glittery-eyed and certain. Better to be characteristically uncertain, skeptical and demanding proof.
     "Am I wrong here?" is always a good question to ask yourself. In the column, it isn't the things I'm unsure of that come back to haunt me — I check those. It's the parts that I am convinced are correct that can cause trouble.
     So, re-evaluate now and then. Do a spring cleaning of your biases as well as your garage.
     What else? Memory is faulty. People lie, all the time; they lie to others and to themselves. One example or two isn't proof of anything.
     Persistence is important. More people quit than fail. They want the big "I Tried Once" trophy and the idea of dropping their head down and working hard is repellent to them. I don't know if I got this from writing the column or from being half-Polish — I think of we Poles as grab-the-traces-and-drag-the-plow-through-the-hard-earth kind of people.
     Or at least we were; my branch of the family hasn't been there for almost 70 years. Which brings up another bit of wisdom: Times change, and you need to keep up with them.
     The beauty of a column is it forces you to stay current. I'll be on the cusp of opining what Tokyo is like then realize, whoops, I was last there in 1989. Keep on top of stuff. Don't be naive. Don't believe things credulously.
    Brevity is good. Nothing helps a 1,200 word column like cutting it to 800 words.
    Nostalgia is a lie. If someone suggests the past was better, make them name a year, then dredge up the forgotten horrors of that year.
     There is more world than we have time to grasp, and people too often wall themselves off and dismiss anything they're unfamiliar with out of fear — fear of the unknown being a major motivator in people who'll jump through hoops rather than admit they are wrong about anything, out of vanity, another universal. Everybody makes mistakes, but not everybody can admit it. Recognizing that you are capable of error is the path to wisdom.
     There's never enough space. Maybe that's what I've learned: Columns are short, life is short. Try your best to make it interesting.
                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 22, 2011

* No longer true; they tore the building down this month.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Bruce Rauner accomplishes the impossible

     Let's be fair to the governor.
     Sure, anyone paying attention to Illinois is compelled to believe that Bruce Rauner has accomplished nothing in his first year in office except shred programs for children, the disabled and the poor.
     Not only did Rauner fail to make tangible progress, but he didn't even tread water properly. The normal operation of the state, such as passing an annual budget, failed to occur, sacrificed on the altar of the governor's hunger for term limits, union enfeeblement and other unrelated pet causes. He's like an office manager geting himself hired by promising to expand a business who then promptly fails to pay the electric bill, as a point of principle against the electric company monopoly, so they turn the lights off.  Now we're sitting in the dark, listening to him explain.
     The temptation is to conclude Illinois would do better with no governor at all, than this one who can't seem to manage basic human interactions. On Thursday, Rauner announced his support for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton's pension reform plan, only to have Cullerton immediately cringe away, shivering, from the governor's embrace. "It's not my plan," Cullerton said, explaining that Rauner had twisted his idea.
     But give credit where credit is due: Rauner has accomplished something real,  something that I would have thought impossible:
     He makes Rod Blagojevich look good.

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Romans managed it

     That was fast.
     It's been, what, a month since the bright red "Loop Link" lanes opened on Madison and Washington, special bus-only routes designed to more than double the speeds that Chicago Transit Authority buses transverse the Loop, from an average of 3 mph, which is slower than briskly walking,  to a giddy 7.5.
     But just look at at them. A month of being pounded by traffic and what was described as "red pavement" in the city's grandiose plans of last year has revealed itself in the harsh light of January to be more like red tar paper, and is already coming up in big chunks. You can't very well expect drivers to avoid the red lanes if the "BUS ONLY" designation has peeled up and blown away. 
    Already plagued by delays over the past six months and greeted with a chorus of complaints from drivers who suddenly find Loop streets a lot narrower, the $32 million project might not have increased bus speeds, but it's given the downtown a shabby, am-in-Detroit-or-what? feel. 
      If this were in the newspaper, I'd feel obligated to call the city department of transportation  four or five times to squeeze out whatever half-hearted and feeble explanation they'd offer to illuminate What Went Wrong, and what Might Happen Next and why pave-the-road-so-it-doesn't-come-up-immediately technology, which was mastered in Roman times, seems to have eluded the City of Chicago, the City That Works Except When It Doesn't. But if I hear from the city, I'll rush to append it below.  
     In the meantime, the in-depth investigative work that led to these photos delayed my walk to the train a full 10 or 20 seconds one day last week. Additional investigation, which entailed walking down Washington Street on my way into work Thursday morning, showed that the red bus lane there is fine, so perhaps this is a localized screw-up limited to Madison Street's unique ecology, whatever that might be. Perhaps you, in your leisurely strolling, can find further examples of this latest embarrassment. Still, I suppose we should count our blessings, and not complain too much about a screw-up like this. At least no one was killed.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Abner Mikva laughs at 90

     Abner Mikva turns 90 Thursday. To mark the milestone I took the revered Chicago icon, who made his mark on all three branches of government—former congressman, retired federal judge and White House counsel—to lunch last week.
     How does it feel to be 90?
     "It's going to be kind of a shock," he said, using the future tense with a lawyerly precision. "I keep thinking of all the good reasons why I should be happy about it... I've already given up all the things I really enjoy: golf, tennis, sex, poker. There's nothing left to give up in the 90s."
     I get the golf, tennis and sex part. "But why poker?"
     "I have macular degeneration," he said. "I can't see the cards. I love the game."
      Mikva used to fly in just for the Washington Post's poker game. He said his favorite Washington figure to work with was Bill Clinton.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"What matters infamy if the cash be kept?"

     I had lunch with former congressman, former federal judge, former White House counsel, current Chicago icon Abner Mikva last week—my Wednesday column will be about our conversation. He mentioned a column I wrote about him 10 years ago. I couldn't find it, but I found this, from the long-ago era when Rod Blagojevich was our governor, and it was so much fun I thought you might enjoy.
     This was back when I had a full page, with a brief "Opening shot," several small segments, and a joke at the end.

     Obscurity pressed hard upon Juvenal, the Roman satirist who spent
his career crouched miserably in the antechambers of rich patrons, waiting for a half-gnawed chicken leg to be tossed his way. 

     That's why his satires remain so fresh today — you see this poor mope, thwarted at every turn, overlooked, underfed, trying to make his way through the crowded Roman streets, enviously eyeing the rich in their curtained sedan chairs, not noticing the burly centurion about to plant a hobnail boot on his toe. 
     So it would do the old Roman's heart good, I believe, to know that in 2008, in a nation he never heard of in a world he could not imagine, one of his pithier lines spontaneously popped into the head of a Chicagoan when he heard that his old boss, David Radler, had been released from a Canadian prison after less than a year in jail. 
     "What matters infamy if the cash be kept?" I thought, quoting Juvenal, figuring that, for the money Radler got from his crimes, minus penalties and legal fees, I'd gladly make birdhouses in the federal penitentiary for a year, and so would you. 

     Am I bragging by mentioning a classical writer? Maybe so. But why is it viewed that way? Nobody says, "How can you guys pay attention to these football games, week after week, month after month, year after year. It's the same thing happening over and over. Doesn't it get boring? Why insist on talking about it?" 
     No, I accept that football is a passion that many love, one that adds richness and texture to their lives. Who am I to judge their fancies? Yet do they return the favor? Nooooooo. I was listening to the radio the other day — WGN — and this jamoke starts mocking people who talk about reading War and Peace. "Oh, I'm reading War and Peace," he gushes, in a smug, Homer-Simpson-imitating-a-fairy voice, as if the only reason to read War and Peace is to impress strangers. 
     I was truly offended, and I don't offend easily, and for the very reason most people get offended — because my ox was gored. I am currently reading War and Peace, out loud to my older son, and we're both loving it, not because it gives us something to brag about, but because it's great. When Tolstoy describes a horse, it's like an actual horse canters into the room, twitching and snorting. When Natasha jumps into her mother's bed to tell the old countess about Prince Andrei, it could be any 16-year-old girl gushing about her dreamboat.
     It's real. I know the common wisdom is that classics are these horrendous blocks of stone written by dead white males and forced upon the unwilling through some malign conspiracy. And I can see how people feel that way. Classics have their drawbacks. War and Peace is 1,200 pages long, and every character has four names. It gets confusing. I'm sure climbing Mt. Everest has drawbacks, too. But must I suppress enthusiasm, keep quiet, just because you can't imagine any reason to read it other than braggadocio? Every Monday we all have to hear about what the flippin' Bears did, yet let slip something about a book you love and you're a bigmouth blowhard preening your feathers. It's not fair. 

     Usually experts have to be hunted, cornered, flushed out. So it was a pleasant turnabout to have one of the foremost legal authorities in Chicago phone me up out of the blue Tuesday. 
     "I want to talk about the attorney general's lawsuit," said Abner Mikva, former federal judge and adviser to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, referring to Lisa Madigan asking the Illinois Supreme Court to freeze embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich's powers. "I know you're questioning it, but we thought long and hard and looked at it carefully before we filed." 
     The Illinois Constitution clearly sets out reasons a governor can be relieved of power: death, impeachment, failure to meet qualifications of office, "or other disability," the loophole that Mikva believes the court can use to spike Blagojevich. "It doesn't say 'mental' or 'physical'," said Mikva. "It would cover just about anything the court wants to prevent the governor from carrying out his duties." 
     Isn't that the problem? If this is a disability, it is a political disability, and is not the governorship by nature a position given to controversy? True, the governor is not typically caught scheming to sell a seat in the Senate, but the particulars are not the crucial aspect. Do we really want this precedent, that our courts can strip our governor of power for being accused of doing something bad? Could not an attorney general with fewer scruples than Madigan—who I believe is a straight arrow—abuse such a system? 
      "We thought it made more sense for the attorney general, the highest law enforcement official in the state, to make the case to the highest court in the state," said Mikva. "I don't think it is asking the court for an outlandish interference. It is the least invasive thing anyone could do. . . . Well, the least invasive thing he could do is resign." 
     Amen. Not that anyone expects Blagojevich to do the noble thing.
     "Had he been thinking about what's best for the state, he wouldn't have gotten himself into this mess in the first place," I said. 
     "Of course not," said Mikva. "But that's not his bag, I'm afraid."


     I bumped into George Lemperis, owner of the Palace Grill, the famed diner and Blackhawks hangout on West Madison Street. He told me the following: Two inmates go through the lunch line with their tin trays, then find a spot in the crowded prison lunchroom.
     "This slop tastes awful," says the first, grimacing over his spoonful of gruel.
     "You think this is bad," says the second. "You should have tasted the food here when you were still governor."
               —Originallly published Dec. 17, 2008

Monday, January 18, 2016

"Possible criminals on the loose"

     Martin Luther King Day is upon us, again, and me without a card or anything...
     See, that's the problem. There's no upside for a white guy to talk about race. It's all risk and no reward. At worst, you end up making some inadvertent slip and lose your job.
     At best? You're still a white guy commenting on race. What could you say that would possibly matter? Why bother? "Sorry, not my table. Mary will be serving you today..."
     So ... nothing about race here. Just another regular, not-about-race column. The 1958 UN Law of the Sea conference; how many Chicagoans understand its implications....?
     Oh, hell, in a for a dime, in for dollar.
     I was walking my cute little dog through the lily-white suburb of Northbrook (black population, 0.6 percent) thinking about race Friday morning. What to say? There are more black people on the Metra Milwaukee North line in recent years? A good sign! There used to be none, and now there are some. And in the street -- a black kid on his bicycle. A black guy living on the next block. We've stopped together on the corner of Shermer and Walters, across from the train station, and I've looked at him, expectantly, but he never looks at me. So whatever hale, awkward white guy greeting I would blurt out just curdles in my mouth. "Welcome to suburbia, black person! Allow me to vent my innocent white guy goodwill upon you!"

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Johnny Chung scores again

    College pranks don't get much attention. Which is why it was surprising on Saturday to pick up the New York Times and not only see a story about a prank in the paper, but on the front page, under the headline, "Forget the Quarterback Sneak: A Deception Play for the Ages."
    In it, writer Bill Christine describes the 1941 Plainfield Teachers College prank, which he calls "one of the greatest hoaxes in sports history." It wasn't. It was a slight, charming deception that took place in the agate football scores at the back of the sports pages of a couple East Coast papers. Though Christine tells the story in great detail and at length—a full inside page—he never explains why he's telling us now about this 74 year old prank, and I can't explain why he would. It's a curious lapse. You can read it here. 
     Or you can refer to my 1992 book on college pranks, "If At All Possible, Involve a Cow," where I relate the incident with the concision it deserves:

     There is no rule that a college prank has to be pulled by a college student. Morris Newburger certainly wasn't in college: he was a stockbroker with the firm Newburger, Loeb & Company. He was also fascinated with the obscure schools that were listed in the college football roundup in the New York Herald Tribune.
     In the fall of 1941, he amused himself during America's last moment of global innocence by creating his own school—Plainfield Teachers College—and phoning the scores in every week to the Herald Tribune. 
     Newburger did his homework. When asked, he was ready with 22 names for the lineup roster—names of his friends, neighbors, business partners. There was also a certain Morris Newburger starting at right tackle.
     Every team should have a star, and Plainfield's was Johnny Chung, the half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian tailback known as the Celestial Comet. Under his leadership, Plainfield went 6-0, and seemed a shoe-in for the prestigious Blackboard Bowl.
     As can happen with these things, matters got a little out of control. Newburger found himself printing up letterheads for the Plainfield Teachers Athletic Association and took a post office box in Newark. Jerry Croyden, the imaginary director of sports information, sent out news releases and phoned tidbits to the papers. The Celestial Comet was tearing up the field.
     Sadly, the Plainfield Teachers never made it to the Blackboard Bowl. Enjoying himself immensely, Newburger bragged to one pal too many, and word leaked into journalism circles. With Time magazine preparing to expose the hoax in their next edition, Newburger rushed out a release having the Celestial Comet flunk his exams, and so many players became ineligible that the rest of the season was cancelled.
     The Herald Tribune finally smelled something fishy and checked with the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce, discovering the utter nonexistence of a Plainfield Teachers College about the same time the November 17, 1941 issue of Time hit the stands.