Sunday, December 4, 2016

No Royko

     On Friday, Mark Konkol wrote a column about "Out of the Wreck I Rise," and on Saturday Scott Simon featured it on NPR, and suddenly the book rose to No. 36 among top sellers on Amazon. OMFG, as the kids say. I wanted to link here to Mark's column, and link to Scott's interview. I figured I should also write something, though what I ended up with is only tangentially connected with either of these pieces. What's the connection? I suppose it's that I know both guys, and that their drawing attention to my book and me trying as a matter of policy not to be a jerk to colleagues, or at least my struggling to restrain my jerkish tendencies, are not unconnected.

     Mike Royko hated younger columnists, because he viewed them as competition. Which was silly, because they certainly were not competition, given the singular place he occupied—and occupies still, almost two decades after his death—at the summit of Chicago journalism. 
     Among the many blessings in my life is the insight that you don't have to try to be Mike Royko—some guys never grasped that, and their misfortune is on the page. When readers, as they sometimes do, write to snidely inform me that I'm no Mike Royko, I surprise them, I imagine, by thanking them, and pointing out that, given Royko was a mean drunk whose son ended up robbing a bank, not being Rokyo isn't the stark fate they imagine, certainly not as rough as being him seemed to be.
     It has also made me reflexively nice to new writers and reporters, because I remember the disappointment I had the handful of times I actually interacted with Royko, how I would have given anything for a kind word, and never got anything close. Just the opposite. Once he threatened to break my legs. Not in a joshing way, but as in an I'm-the-guy-who'll-break-y0ur-legs way. A story for another day.
     Trying to avoid that, I say hello to young reporters, compliment them on their writing when possible. Their good work doesn't diminish me, it enhances my experience as a reader and makes the profession we're all in more valuable. As I once told my late pal Jeff Zaslow, success is not a pie—your getting a bigger slice doesn't make my slice smaller. I'm glad there are so many good columnists in Chicago. Over at the Tribune, Eric Zorn, always a thoughtful and engaging writer, has been on fire since the advent of Trump. Lately, in my column, I'm torn between the need to raise the alarm and the need to comfort the alarmed, and when I'm doing the latter, I feel less guilty knowing that Eric's concentrating his fire on the target undistracted. Rick Kogan is the city made human flesh and among my most reliable friends—and, I should point out, someone who was very good friend of, and a golfing partner with, Royko, a reminder that Royko could be very kind to people who weren't me and frantic little would-be parvenues like me. Others at the Trib: Mary Schmich is ruminative, Rex Huppke often manages that toughest of tasks, to be genuinely funny. 
     How could admitting that be anything but a sign of confidence? There are more. At the Sun-Times, I appreciate Mark Brown, Mary Mitchell, the obits of Maureen O'Donnell, the reviews of Richard Roeper, the celebrity insights of Bill Zwecker, Rick Telander in sports—I could go on and on, and hope my colleagues forgive me for not including them, but I have to think of the reader first, and lists tend to grow tiresome.
     I haven't even mentioned online. There are years when I turn my head and spit when speaking Robert Feder's name—he did once compare me to the lunatic Jay Mariotti, which is the height of unfairness—but he still owns the media beat, and if I walked past Tribune Tower and saw workmen tearing it down with crowbars I would hurry to Feder to find out What the Hell Just Happened. 
     Which leads to my former colleague, Mark Konkol, now at DNA Info, whom I remember back to when he was one of the youngsters on the staff at Red Streak, the free training wheels newspaper we rushed out, in a truly dramatic show of Front Page daring, to steal the thunder from the Tribune's new kiddie paper, Red Eye. Konkol had the fire—most people, even most reporters, just phone it in. You could just tell he wanted it, whatever it was. During the last mayoral election, he did a column—he was in Chuy Garcia's house, chatting with him, that I remember reading, and thinking, "Wow, that's how it's supposed to be done."
     Anyway, I haven't been able to hang with Mark as much as I'd like, since he's off scaling the heights of Hollywood, and several times I had to manfully suppress the urge to pick up the phone and snarl, "Where the fuck are you?" My patience was rewarded Friday, with Mark's spot-on column about my book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," written with Sara Bader. I'll let you in on a secret. Sales are nice. But what an author really wants is for someone to Get It. And while the page 4 notice in the Sunday New York Times Book Review was nice, and the full page review in the Toronto Star was nice, those authors did not grasp the book in front of them. Especially the Star, whose review called the book "a pub crawl," which left me pounding the heel of my hand against my forehead.
    Mark got it. He really did. If you haven't seen his Friday column from DNA Info, here it is.  The only thing better than reading a really good column by a fellow columnist is reading a really good column by a fellow columnist about a book that you wrote and love. 


  1. Reminded again why the first thing I do(lieing iin bed with my android) most days is to read this blog. I loved both todays blog and the article to which you linked. Reminded me of why I so enjoyed Out of the Wreck despite neither being nor knowing an addict.

  2. I experienced Royko's wrath when I wrote him a letter questioning a beer tasting contest he had set up. He addressed my questions adequately but signed off with a gratuitous ethnic insult that struck me as bewildering and pointless. Yet he could write up a storm and I continued to read him until he joined the Trib.


    1. Yeah, he was a bigot of the "I can't be bigoted, my grandson's a Jew!" variety.

    2. A line Mr. Trump might have occasion to use.


    3. IIRC, Royko's bigotry is what terminated his career, or came close to doing it. He wrote a truly vile column about Mexico and Mexicans, in which he called Mexico "a useless nation," and his just-kidding shtick wasn't able to bail him out of the resulting furor.

      That said, sometimes I ache to see what he would have made of the Tea Party and Donald Trump.

      Bitter Scribe

  3. I am struggling with MS, just turned 67, and am devastated by the election results and this on-going train wreck of the new administration choices. I can't seem to get past it. I wake up every day to the realization that THAT MAN will be president.

    Is there anything in your new book that would help me? I need something that will calm me down, or the stress will kill me before the MS does.

    1. There is a chapter on time, and on enduring difficult straits. Post-Trump I've been quoting a brief line of Thomas Campbell's in the book: "To bear is to conquer fate." There is also a passage by Austin Grossman that I feel applies: "The pain was like burning or drowning, and it went on and on, unbearable. I wanted to faint, to leave my body. When you can't bear something but it goes on anyway, the person who survives isn't you anymore; you've changed and become someone else, a new person, the one who did bear it after all." So the answer is yes.

    2. Thanks for replying. I appreciate it, and the quotes.

  4. BethB, Mark Konkol indicates the answer is yes: "But it’s also good read for anyone who might benefit from the smart, witty, insightful and brutally honest words of a pal, someone who knows a thing or two about how difficult it is to recover after being blindsided by life — a break-up or the shocking results of an election, for instance."

  5. Glad to hear the book is selling well. Lovely column. As is Kincol's review.

    On the subject of Rokyo, W.H. Auden wrote a great poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," that dealt largely with the subject of separating an author from his works. Yeats was acknowledged by Auden to be a transcendent poet, but was something of a kook, believing in spiritualism and holding proto-fascist political views. A couple of lines:

    "Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique.

    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives,
    Pardons cowardice and conceit
    Lays its honors at their feet.

    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views
    And will pardon Paul Claudel
    Pardon him for writing well."

    Tom Evans

    1. Beautiful Tom, thanks for sharing that.

    2. Interestingly, the lines you quote were later deleted by Auden, so there are two versions of the poem. The stanzas that follow are chillingly apt to our time:

      In the nightmare of the dark
      All the dogs of Europe bark,
      And the living nations wait,
      Each sequestered in its hate;

      Intellectual disgrace
      Stares from every human face,
      And the seas of pity lie
      Locked and frozen in each eye.

      And if that isn't scary enough, remember this: Yeats died in January, 1939.

  6. Back in the late 80's and early 90's I was a skilled bicyclist who could easily navigate through the densest city traffic with ease. So one day on an empty street with enough room for two semis to pass, I here someone behind me lean on their horn. Glancing back long enough to see a late model black sedan with a Jaguar hood ornament, I give the one finger salute. The driver slowed down no doubt preparing a few choice words, when I see its Royko, and waved yelling "sorry Mike I didn't know it was you!" He laughed and waved back.


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