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.


  1. "There is more world than we have time to grasp"

    I say "wow!" and "bravo!". Thanks Neil.

    1. And thanks for inspiring me to revisit Andrew Marvell's "coy Mistress."

  2. Mazel Tov Neil! Such a delightful stir fry of modesty, sincerity and truth. Hell yeah, doubt is good. Scientists spend much of their time trying to prove themselves wrong (wish Republicans would consider this concept). Also, few columnists can so easily glide from puppeteers to S/M dungeons without so much as missing a beat. Strings to whips...thanks for helping to make life interesting!

  3. Kudos and best wishes!

  4. Congratulations on your milestone! And thanks for your efforts to introduce opera to Chicagoans.

  5. Many plums to pluck from this pudding. Your freedom to dip a line into diverse ponds inspires sympathy for the sports guys, all excellent writers tasked with dwelling on such existential matters as whether or not Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler are getting along. Or the moodiness of Jay Cutler.

    Confirmation of what one suspected about Mike Royko.

    Being old and plagued by contemporaries with flawed recollections of the good old days, I like your means of deflating the nostalgia balloon.

    You have much to be grateful for. Inside work (mostly) and no heavy lifting. And a written body of work to leave behind, which most of us can't aspire to.

    Tom Evans

  6. To be honest I don't know what I'd do with your column!

  7. I remember that column from five years ago; one of your best. May you continue bringing us your unique views and insights for as long as you wish.


  8. Your insatiable curiosity and awe-inspiring vocabulary have made you the most anticipated morning reading in our house. Congratulations on twenty years of always interesting columns. Please keep writing them until Ross or Kent is ready to take over for you.

  9. Have enjoyed your many columns, blogs and personal responses to my occasional emails!

  10. Bravo!! Congrats on 20 years, which means, holy cow, I've been reading you for 20 years. Here's to many more years of reading your work!

  11. Congratulations on your 20 year anniversary! WOW,what an accomplishment. Thank you for the great advice in this post. In my opinion the greatest good you do is share helpful information with so many members of the public everyday. Now I know I want to be a writer too.

    1. Good luck JB. Remember, the trick to being a writer is knowing that nobody cares what you have to say about anything. So you have to find things that you care about, or at least are interested in, and find a way to trick the reading public into caring too, or at least being interested, for a while. Good luck.

    2. Thank you, Neil! I really appreciate it.

    3. Thank you, Neil! I really appreciate it.

  12. I love this column, top to bottom, both parts. If I commented on everything I'd like to comment on, nobody would read it, so I'll just share my initial reaction: That's Leslie Baldacci next to Neil on that old paper! I miss her columns.

  13. Still reading, still learning, still smiling. Congrats!

  14. An additional 5 years of "spinning the cylinder and clicking away, somehow unscathed" -- a quarter-century now. Impressive, indeed, especially given the nature of what you've had to cover since 2016.

    Fortunately, there are always more concrete factories, beekeepers, life-saving medical folks, and dominatrices to discover, to leaven the disturbing mix of traitors, toadies and incompetents.

    Congratulations on a helluva 25-year run, Neil!


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