Friday, January 10, 2020

Strange Interlude, 2008: Return to sender

     Well, I did something Thursday that I have not yet done in 2020: put on pants. Which is my subtle way of saying the recuperation proceeds apace: slowly but surely. I also began reaching out to sources for what I hope to be my first column when I return. Small steps. 
     I stumbled upon this looking for something else, and liked it for two reasons: one, a reminder that a dozen years ago email used to be far more significant than it is today. And for my visit to the Rotary which, needless to say, never asked me back. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I including the godawful joke I coined about Barack Obama at the end because it seems cowardice to delete it. What is the old saying? Dying is easy; comedy is hard.


     Every few seconds, the computer on my desk emits a pleasant three-note glissando chime — do-do-dooo — telling me another e-mail has arrived.
     Well, it was pleasant 20 minutes ago. Now, it's getting annoying, as dozens, then scores, then hundreds of messages arrive, all announcing that my e-mail has failed to reach its destination and is being returned.
     Not that I'm sending them—I'm writing a column, or was trying to. Now, I'm deleting e-mails by the hundred. A bank of computers somewhere — some musty basement in the Ukraine, or a stifling, windowless warehouse in Nigeria — is "spoofing" me, using my e-mail address to send out thousands of scam e-mails touting an online casino. "Are you our next massive jackpot winner?" it asks. 

      No, I'm not. Not me. This is nothing personal — they have digital spiders crawling over the Web, grabbing e-mail addresses and using them to try to fool computer filters into thinking an actual person is writing to them.
     And even though my involvement is accidental, there's something disquieting about having the fallout from this attempted ripoff collecting in my inbox. I don't know why I feel moved to delete it immediately — but I do. I want it out, as if it were diseased, or might drown me.
     I wish some of those sociologists studying Yanomamo Indians in the Brazilian rain forest and nomads in the Punjab would instead cast their attention to what being connected 24 hours a day into this enormous, often-enigmatic grid does to people, to all my plugged-in friends, frantically thumbing their BlackBerries as they walk down the street. I'm all for the Internet, but, like The Phone Company, it has its dark corners. From the froth-flecked lunatics who, unlike objects in the rear view mirror, appear much closer than they actually are, to the vile extremes of humanity only a few keystrokes away, to being bothered in your office by electronic scamsters a dozen time zones removed.
     So I delete and delete and delete and delete. It isn't terribly difficult, and there is a sense of sweeping away the bad. It's almost like weeding. At first.


     With phantom rejected e-mail messages clogging my in-box, I hopped a cab to the Union League Club for a Rotary Club of Chicago luncheon.
     If Facebook is new networking, then this is old networking — flesh-and-blood people with their names on big round badges, gathering at round tables to exchange business cards and chat before listening to whatever speaker was snared into accepting the job — in today's case, me.
     My hunch is that many people cling to a Sinclair Lewis view of groups such as the Rotary, the Elks and the Lions. A half-censorious, half-sneering sentiment left over from after World War I, when fraternal groups were the hidebound sentinels of Main Street status quo. With perhaps a bit of lingering 1960s scorn tossed in, a relic from when change was in the air, and anything that smacked of business was bad. The Rotary was The Man.
     But young people are entrepreneurs now, or want to be, and it's easier to name billionaires under 30 than it is to name rock stars. After exchanging banalities with your "friends" — Facebook code for people you've never met and most likely never will — a Rotary Club meeting feels positively revolutionary: real people in a real room, talking about their common bonds.
     George J. Kondik, a visiting Rotarian from Weirton, W.Va., seemed genuinely pleased that I know Weirton is the home of National Steel, though he probably wouldn't have minded being spared the reason why — that I took a bus there, with my high school girlfriend, to celebrate New Year's Eve 1979 at her sister's house.
     "That's where I first saw cable television," I said, with a bore's attention to detail. "Because of the mountains."
     Brian Sabina, just 24 and seemingly interested in helping people, despite having graduated from Northwestern, explained his new philanthropic group, "Reach the World." Jean-Hui Yao was the first college student I met who has a business card announcing the fact that she'll receive her master of science from Medill in December.
     Yes, none of us is a titan of industry — I'm not George Will, and none of the people digging into their beef stew were Warren Buffett. There was more than one toupee in evidence, and the general tone among the younger people was one of utter earnestness.
     But you have to grow where you're planted, and we can't all be Bill Gates and George Soros huddling in our Gulfstream Jetstars. There was a brief ceremony where visiting Rotarians — from Switzerland, from Taiwan, from Salinas, Calif. — presented little silk banners from their home Rotaries, and in turn received a banner from the Chicago Rotary, which is where the whole thing began in 1905.
     I like that. Any organization that exchanges little silk flags is all right by me. You can't do that online.
     Yes, there is a fleetingness to the social contact — the business cards inevitably go into a drawer, and are swept away at some future date. But when you are being inundated by a droid e-mail army of gibberish messages churned out by robot spiders, there's nothing like black coffee and sincere conversation to give you the strength you need to get back to the office and start deleting.


     The media has been noting that there are few Barack Obama jokes and no funny ones. The reasons range from the high hopes he inspires in his serious supporters, the frothing hatred in his detractors (it's hard to make a funny joke when you're foaming) to the additional level of complexity brought in by racial considerations.
     Does anyone out there have a good Obama joke? I tried to cobble one together and couldn't do any better than:
     If Barack Obama is such a big fan of change, then why is he always wearing the same suit?
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times July 23, 2008


  1. Well, Rotary certainly didn't do due diligence about who the nominated to be their president in 1976, as their nominee was a German who was a Nazi & an SS member!

    1. From what I can tell from multiple google searches, Robert Manchester II was elected the president of Rotary International in 1976, the U.S. Bicentennial year. Maybe you had someone else in mind?

    2. Wolfgang Wick was nominated, but apparently was vociferously opposed and eventually defeated by Manchester. Wick said that he had no choice but to join the Nazi party in 1945. Others maintained that he joined in 1933.

  2. President Obama as a normal person is a good premise for a joke, same suit is not godawful, I wouldn't be embarrassed. The gathering of small details is not the work of a bore, it can be the basis of a good joke. In the case of O.J. Simpson, at the murder scene of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, forensics matched the bloody foot prints to the pattern of a pair of Bruno Magli. In a search of O.J.'s house they found a pair of Bruno Magli shoes. Simpson's response was I never wear those ugly ass shoes!
    If someone has a sense of self awareness, a joke can include self depreciating humor. Thus when the usual suspects were deriding an Obama proposal, he said "if you have a better idea, I'm all ears!" Whereas Trump has no sense of self awareness, the rare instance of Trump being funny is unintentional or written by a speech writer.
    To the challenge, in my opinion here is an example of a funny President Obama joke.

  3. I was "spoofed" a few years ago too. Someone sent emails to everyone in my contacts, including my wife's relatives in Korea, advertising cheap viagra. The Koreans wrote me back, saying how nice I was to keep in touch.


  4. I thought you were pretty nice to the Rotarians, all things considered.

    One phrase had me scratching my head a little:

    ...just 24 and seemingly interested in helping people, despite having graduated from Northwestern...

    I know you're a Northwestern alum, and I'm not. But I've known quite a few of them, including my sister, and they never struck me as a particularly flint-hearted or rapacious bunch. I just don't see putting NU on the same plane with, say, the University of Chicago School of Economics.

    1. I grew up a few miles from Northwestern, and NU has always felt like an elitist, self-absorbed, self-serving, self-involved institution, mostly for the well-to-do.

      They refused a housing contract to my sister in '69, and bluntly told her she could commute and live with her folks. Even earlier, (in the early Sixties--before the landfill expansion), the Sheridan Road frat boys often booted me and my friends off "their" beach when we tried to hang out there and smoke.

      Years later, when I was in my late twenties and desperate for a job, the library rejected me multiple times me for "not speaking French." Around the same time (late Seventies) the campus police routinely chased white non-student bicyclists and black fishermen from the landfill (the Northwestern lakefront), citing concern for the safety of female students.

      I don't mean to insult anyone's sister, or Mr. S, but in adulthood I was a South Evanston townie for twelve years, and Northwestern students never seemed interested in helping anybody but themselves, mostly to as big a piece of the monetary pie as possible upon graduation. I've never had much love for the place, or even a little affection.

    2. As you know Grizz, I've never been an NU booster. That said, seeing you air these half-century old grudges as if significant makes me want to revisit that position. The line about the young person being helpful despite association with NU was a tweak. This is a cartload of baggage that, viewed from the outside, says more about you than about NU. Maybe I've been too hard on the place ....

    3. I recall a comment here, a long time ago about student protesters at my old school. Having been one of those protesters, I naturally jumped all over that poster. One doesn't have to be a booster, but one usually has a good deal of loyalty to their alma mater--and defends it. I was first a town kid, and then an adult townie, an outsider looking in. You were an insider--a member of the club and a student...and that has made all the difference.

      Unfortunately, I possess a long memory, and while I often forgive, I never forget. I'm sorry if these ancient personal grievances (and old whines in new bottles) have touched a nerve. And I apologize even more for my original mistake--that of not realizing you were being facetious.

  5. The picture of a UNVAC computer brought back memories. I went to work in the early 1960s at a Navy facility powered by a UNIVAC II, the second generation of a machine originally developed for the U.S. Census. Considered something of a marvel at the time, it was as big as a small garage and you could go inside to watch the electronics blinking. Your modern smartphone probably has as much computational power, but it was revolutionary at the time. The name UNIVAC disappeared over time with corporate changes, but people interested in technological advance will recognize it as an important advance.



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