|Megaphone, Chicago Museum of History|
Maybe I've got this all wrong.
Here I sometimes feel guilty about posting old columns. Because the world is such a whirling mess, why not grab a fresh horror, dripping, off the hook, and extemporize over THAT? What benefit can rolling some mossy chestnut out of the cool of the cellar offer for anyone beyond myself, what advantage beyond the ease of the proprietor of this fruit stand?
Then my old friend Charlie Meyerson goes and sends me this:
I cite this great column of yours (with credit to Bey) at least once a week. Why doesn't it live on one of your websites? It should.Say no more, Charlie! I can't control what the Sun-Times puts up, God knows. But EGD is my call, so if you want this, you've got it.
Though .... while I have the attention of the huddled hundreds. Yes, it is a general rule that I never plug other blogs you might visit, because I want you all here, all the time, always. But Charlie runs a valuable news aggregator site called Chicago Public Square and is doing something I'm terrible at: monetizing his efforts.
And though I'm reluctant to mention it, out of fear that you'll go there and never come back here, I feel obligated to do so. While acknowledging the possibility that his request for this column was just a clever, cynical ploy to gain attention for his own newly-monetized efforts. If so, as clever cynical ploys often do in this not-at-all-clever-but-certainly-cynical era, it worked—I even suggested promoting his site, which shows how thoroughly I was manipulated into displaying a false altruism entirely at contrast with my true character. The original headline was "A stitch in time."
Most of us speak in cliches.
"How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks."
The same tired phrases, over and over again.
"What's your opinion on this?"
"Oh, it's great."
Like pebbles, worn smooth, traded back and forth.
Nothing wrong with that, really. If we forced ourselves to dredge up something original, or even fresh, every time we communicated, the strain would kill us, or we would lapse into unbroken silences.
E-mail is worse. Mostly machine-generated come-ons or spare telegraphic phrases. The highest compliment—LOL, or laughing out loud—is reserved for something funny. Original is beyond us, generally.
One exception is Lee Bey, the director of governmental affairs at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the legendary Chicago architecture firm. I'd say we've been friends since Lee was the architecture columnist at the Sun-Times, but I don't want to put on airs, or sully him by association. Let's say we used to sit next to each other, and we've kept in touch since he left.
Lee has a way with words—that's a cliche, incidentally; I'm sure he would put it better. I can't tell you how many e-mails of his I've gotten where what he had to say just sizzled off the screen. More than once, I've leapt to put them into print—crediting Lee if the sentiment did not detract from his lofty corporate status, otherwise taking his ideas, happily wiping off the fingerprints and filing down the serial number, and presenting them either as the words of an anonymous wag, or as a genius divination of my own.
Last week, Lee sent me something that really set off the alarms. He is writing his first book— Paper Skyline: The Chicago That Never Was, a look at unbuilt buildings—and he asked me to read the first chapter and give him my honest reaction.
Only he didn't say that—didn't say "give me your honest reaction," which is what you or I or most people would write. What Lee Bey wrote was: "Read it like you hate me."
I immediately rushed to Google. "Read it like you hate me" drew a big fat zero hits ("big fat zero," another cliche, drew 54,800). Ditto on the Nexis database of all the newspapers in the country going back 15 years.
Not only is "Read it like you hate me" original, but it conveys the exact right sentiment for somebody trying to write well. Most writers say they want frank criticism when in fact what they want is praise.
"Read it like you hate me" machetes through that, grabs you by the collar and says, "I really, really want your true opinion, the criticisms you would lovingly tote up reading the work of somebody you loathed." But in six words.
People who hate you—trust me on this—parse the smallest errors of grammar. They point out tiny logic flaws. They don't sit back and applaud like seals.
It's Lee's phrase, but I'm proud to be the person who tosses it into the electronic soup. It's perfect. I don't think the thought can be reduced by another letter, never mind another word. Five hundred years from now, on a domed city on Mars, one engineer will brush his fingertips across the forehead of another, transferring a document by micro-field bubble diffusion osmosis. "My report on valve seal integrity for next week's meeting," he'll say, tentatively. "Read it like you hate me."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times Jan. 9, 2006