Thursday, February 7, 2019

2007 flashback: Maritime law vs. the love boat

      I don't want to spoil the opening joke of this column. Just to say, after you read it, and want to immediately act, there is the convenient Eli's Cheesecake link to the left. This ran back when the column was a full page, and I've left in the original section headings. Though I'll warn you, it runs a thousand words, and if it seems to go on forever, well, yeah, it seemed that way to me, too. Nobody says you have to finish the thing, but I'm including it all for anyone so inclined.

Opening shot

     There are three key issues relating to Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which, while perhaps striking the average reader as tedious in the extreme, are in fact so important to our global ocean habitat that I'm going to devote my entire column today to carefully analyzing them.
     Issue No. 1 relates to seabed mining provisions . . .
     Nah, not really. I just wanted to drive away the fair-weather reader. Why should the easily discouraged benefit by the secret knowledge that I'm about to impart?
     Today is Wednesday, Feb. 7. Which means—and I don't know why you need me to point this out, but apparently you do, because otherwise you'd wait until the last minute, as always —that a week from today is Valentine's Day.
     Time fleets. You've already blown your New Year's resolutions. Christmas was, as usual, a depressing disaster. Valentine's Day is your last chance before the Mother's Day/Father's Day nexus to get it right.
     Here is my central piece of advice: Whatever gift you're going to buy, get it by Friday. Don't wait.
     Because forethought is three-fourths of the present, particularly in longtime relationships, when surprise is most elusive.
     Those who procrastinate—who tell themselves, "Hey, I've got a whole week"—wake up and it's Feb. 14 and they're in a rugby scrum for the last gleanings at Fannie May's. They end up with sagging White Hen carnations.
     Sure, it's a challenge to grab the paddles and deliver a jolt to romance. I don't know what you should do for your sweetie; I have a tough enough time thinking up something to wow my wife, never mind wow yours. But whatever it is, do it by Friday. Time is fleeting.

Recherche du froid perdu

     Smell is the most nostalgic of the senses. A certain scent of boiled hot dog and baked bean, and I am cast back to the Fairwood Elementary School lunchroom, my pudgy hand hesitating above a plate of ice cream sandwich halves, bisected and sold for a nickel, trying to pick one where the lunch lady's slice faltered, making it a quarter-inch longer than the others.
     Or preparing for the weather Tuesday. The walk from the station to the office Monday had been like blowing bubbles in a bowl of cold acid. So I wrapped my Irish lambswool scarf around my face.
     One whiff of that breath-moisted wool and I was transported back to the white moonscape of my boyhood, to that frosty suburban noplace, kicking a chunk of snow down the sidewalk, wearing a brown corduroy Mighty Mac coat and a hat knitted by my grandmother, a hat whose pompon had been snipped off, at my insistence, as a show of maturity.
     Why do young people equate casting off their clothing with coolness? Figurative coolness, as opposed to literal. Shuffling up Wacker Drive, I noticed that the underdressed pedestrians were invariably in their 20s, youngsters braving the elements hatless, gloveless, wearing a thin spring jacket instead of the Eddie Bauer Gore-Tex Ridge Line Robert Falcon Scott Edition Arctic Coat System I wore.
     Bundle up, people. It's cold out there. There's nobody to impress. We wrap our children so thickly because we love them and don't want them to be cold. Dress yourself like somebody loves you, and the cold weather will bring only warm memories.

The more the merrier

     They don't invite me to the editorial board meetings anymore. I detract from the air of gravitas, apparently.
     Then again, you didn't have to actually be in the room with Todd Stroger Monday to see his problem at Cook County.
     Passing in the hallway was enough.
     It was like a lackey convention. Too many to actually cram into the board room. So they sat, thumbing their BlackBerrys, or talking into cell phones, or wandering about, examining the photos on the walls.
     I couldn't tell who was an underling and who was a coatholder, who was playing security and who was somebody's ne'er-do-well cousin. But they made quite an assemblage. One reporter counted eight—in my view, there might have been 80.
     All vanity, of course. When Sen. Dick Durbin, who has become one of the most powerful politicians in America, arrives for our periodic breakfasts, he is usually by himself, as befits a politician in a democratic society.
     Then again, Durbin is a savvy statesman, not a flailing, tone-deaf whelp like Stroger, padding the payroll with his relatives even while under close scrutiny, just like his father did. Who can't even grasp that just as charity begins at home, so does economy.

The readers speak

     I don't normally print fan mail—it violates my air of Christ-like humility. But this e-mail, sent under the heading, "Sometimes you're ok" is too splendid not to share:

Mr. Steinberg,I read your column most days depending on my mood, and I am glad to see that you are less of a jerk than you used to be. I always like when you write about your sons. I do want to commend you for the very nice piece you wrote on MLK day. I was a little surprised to be honest.Paula Taylor
Today's chuckle

     Vol. VIII of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud is titled Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, and it struck me as a stroke of brilliance—or a sign of desperation—to pull down the light blue book and see what it might have to offer.
     I only wish space permitted me to do more than suggest how spectacularly unfunny most of Freud's jokes are, undone by a near complete shift in cultural references—nobody eats salmon mayonnaise anymore, there are few marriage brokers, we don't know where Galicia is, never mind the reputations of Jews there. Then of course there are nearly insurmountable problems because of translation, which the editor struggles in vain to overcome.
     "In the German the first syllables of 'spas' [Bader] and "brooms" [Besen] sound alike," he explains, unhelpfully. "And in the German proverb the last word is 'well' [gut]."
     Oh I see! Ah-hah-hah.
     But there are enough funny Freud jokes—or at least funnyish jokes—to warrant launching Freud Joke Week, if only to justify my plowing through the damn thing.
     Much of what he presents as jokes are actually pithy phrases, such as the following, which might not be humorous, but certainly is true:

Human life falls into two halves. In the first half, we wish the second half would come. In the second half, we wish the first one were back.
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 7, 2007


  1. Proust's novel begins, I believe, with the narrator being drawn into the past by the smell of cookies and tea. Whoever hasn't read it should give it a shot, even though an early would-be publisher rejected it because he read the first 40 pages and the narrator hadn't even gotten out of bed yet.


  2. Somehow I don't have a hard time believing that, as great a man as Sigmund Freud was, humor wasn't really his thing.

  3. Probably no need to point out the infinite varieties of the "grass is greener" syndrome, but I have often suffered from the realization that when I have a job that allows me to work whenever I feel like it (really whenever I'm hungry), I wish I had a 9-to-5 gig, which when I do get such, I wish I could work whenever I felt like it.

    Love the first half, last half observation, but these days it's hard to know where to draw the line; most of us, I think, delude ourselves as to the length of the first half, at 50, 60, even my present 76, we may on occasion insist that the first half is still going strong.


  4. "Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief..." Polonius


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