Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Wear your damn mask: State of the Blog: Year Seven

O'Hare, Feb. 13, 2020

     Are you having a good pandemic? I mean, not dead, and nobody you know dead? Not yet anyway. Good, good, that's the important thing.
     And your job? Secure so far? Excellent. Mine too. Sure, it could change at any time. But that was true before COVID-19 burst out of whatever bat's ass or pangolin's lymph gland or wherever the hell it came from. In December. Times can change. Fast.
     Not round here, of course. We soldier on, immutable. Every ... goddamn ... day. I won't belabor the state of the blog this year. First, I realized—and file this under "Obvious, realizations of"—that I've been doing two summations each year. One at the end of June, since the blog began July 1, 2013. And another at the end of December. That's one too many.
     No number crunching this time, for instance. Spambots made that pointless. One day in January we had 246,583 hits, which is about 245,000 more than usual. I thought, fleetingly, of presenting that as some kind of triumph. Alas, it's not. I don't think the whirling Chinese techno-dervish or thrumming chip caused the spike benefited from my high caliber prose. Otherwise, we lope along as usual, doing about the traffic we did three years ago—somewhat shy of 2,000 views a day.
     Hardly worth doing, right? Though if there were a hall with 1,500 people in it, I sure would show up, and be amazed and pleased at how I had packed them in. So it shouldn't be different here, though of course it is. Perhaps tweeting this every day is the problem. Every attitudinal 40-year-old seems to have 200,000 followers on Twitter. I have 8,600 and am stuck there. Twitter feels like I'm printing the day's blog out, rolling it into a tube, sticking it in a bottle and casting it into the sea.
     Again, hardly seems worth doing. 
     But it is, because, well, if not this, what? What would I do instead? Watch television?
     I must like paddling my little canoe among the big tankers and destroyers and nimble racing sloops of the more significant communications efforts. Year Seven certainly has been personally memorable, with all that spine surgery in July—an oddly uplifting experience, sort of in the way Churchill once said nothing is more exhilarating for a man than to be shot at without effect.  And then in February I wrote about getting a new hip. Which I'm reluctant to even mention now—makes me sound old and falling apart. But if I have one overarching principle to this, it's "Be who you are." I think a lot of bad writing comes from people trying to be who they're not—better, younger, smarter, whatever.  A writer doesn't want to sit around vomiting out complaints and unwelcome personal details either. But I think there's a sweet spot in there and I hope that, on some days, I hit it.
     The pandemic arrived in mid-February. My wife and I were on our way to New York, and a JAL flight crew came by, all masked, and I stepped in front of them and snapped off a picture of the unusual sight and sent it to the city desk. Might be news. Turns out it was, though we didn't realize it quite then.
      My goal was to cover the story, best I could, and not just sit on my ass in Northbrook, and I was satisfied I carried my share of the burden. I had contacts at hospitals, and so brought readers there, into the struggle to fight the virus, first at Mount Sinai, then Roseland. I started working regularly with one of our excellent staff photographers, Ashlee Rezin Garcia, and that was a very rewarding and fun collaboration.
     Three days a week EGD features my column from the paper. The other four I'll repost old columns, or write a fresh essay.  Saturdays I tried for a change of pace, for something fun. If you remember, I used to run the Saturday Fun Activity, but got tired of sending out prizes. Then I shifted to the Saturday snapshot, usually sent in by readers, and that proved a lovely rest at the end of the week. In April, Saturdays were given over to an uprooted Chicagoan now living in Austin, Texas, Caren Jeskey, and her detailed and heartfelt reports have been a welcome addition to the blog—some weeks her numbers are better than anything I've written.
     What else? The University of Chicago Press asked me to write a book entitled "Every goddamn day: Neil Steinberg's Chicago." That seems a kind of significance. Though the title may be a little deceptive. It's not a collection of blog posts, but a quotidian history of Chicago in 366 dated entries. (Jan. 1, 1920 is the beginning of the Palmer raids, eager Chicago cops jumping the gun on the rest of the country. Jan. 2, 1900 is the reversal of the Chicago River, and so on). I've had a lot of fun working on it,  It's due in March, which probably puts it out in early 2022.  The neat thing about that structure is it is limiting, like haiku. You have to choose which episodes to explore. Some days there are three or four worthy candidates. I'm working hard to get the balance and tone right, and it speaks to the question: what is history? What stories do we tell and why do we tell them?
    Which is the same challenge I have here. Thanks for sticking around for seven years while I try to figure it out.  Thank you to the core dozen or two who regularly comment, and of course to my advertiser, Marc Schulman of Eli's Cheesecake. Thank you to John for birddogging all the typos. Thanks to Caren Jeskey—like the readers, I've enjoyed getting to know her—for all your hard work. Thank you Ashlee Rezin Garcia for allowing me to repost your marvelous and dramatic photographs.
     I remember, when I began the blog, reading somewhere that most people make the mistake of giving up too soon, and one should stick it out three years to see if it's going to catch fire. I've stuck it out double that plus a year, and success, whatever that is, still floats somewhere in the distance.
    Unless just doing this is the success. "You are the music," T.S. Eliot writes, in the last section of "The Dry Salvages"—I've been reading a lot of Eliot this year—"While the music lasts."
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying.
     That sounds about right.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Statue savvy? Play to (not) win big prizes!

     Howdy folks, it’s time to play ... WHEEL ... OF ... DISASTER!
     Let’s get right to it. Give the old sinister circle a spin and see what comes up.
     Click click click click....
     What will it be? Raging Global Pandemic? Spreading Economic Collapse? Erratic, Ineffectual and Traitorous President? Ongoing Social Unrest? Murder of Chicago Children in Unchecked Random Violence?
     And it’s .... it’s ...
     Destruction of Civic Monuments. A good one! Johnny, a little background if you please.
     Thank you Neil. Along with peaceful protests following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis came anger directed at monuments to to the slaveholding South. First confined to Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee, eventually far more laudable historical figures, like Ulysses S. Grant and George Washington found also themselves toppled.
     Thank you Johnny. Let’s get the round started. For $50, answer the following: On Friday, the president of the United States issued an executive order related to monuments. Did he a) Resolve to address the festering institutional racism that sparked these attacks on public iconography; b) Form a committee to investigate how the federal government collaborated with the defeated Confederacy to steamroll the rights of its newest citizens; c) attempt to knit up our unraveling rule of law by assuring citizens that we are all part of this grand, if flawed American experiment or d) promise to prosecute “to the fullest extent permitted” anyone caught damaging a public monument or statue? Suzy!

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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Toilet paper wasn't our biggest problem

     You never did run out of toilet paper, did you?
     Or know anybody who did.
     Or hear of anybody actually running out.
     Didn't think so.
     I was saving that first line. I thought it would sound an elegiac note when this whole COVID-19 crisis finally was over. Kind of a chuckle over the panicky hoarding instinct that first ushered Our Year of COVID in. 
     Now that seems optimistic—the idea that it might be over. This year. Or even the next. Sure, it has to end eventually. One hopes. And we're blundering by. At least Illinois is coping, for now. But our national government, spurred by the criminal incompetence of Donald Trump, has booted the pandemic so thoroughly, allowed Red State government to kick the can, that who knows how bad it will get.  Call it a hunch, but I'm thinking: real bad.
     I hope I'm wrong.
     Until then,  the system operates pretty well. There is food at Sunset—and the above wry t-shirts, which I admired, though did not buy. It's the first epidemic souvenir I've seen. There will be more.
      But stowing away souvenirs seems premature.  Save the victory lap for after the victory.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Sahara in the Texas Sky

     Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey checks in.
     When my good friend Snezana was a child in Borovo Naselje, Croatia, she vividly recalls seeing a film of red dust on her balcony one day and her mother telling her “it came from Africa.” Snezana has been on the lookout for this red dust ever since. This past Thursday I sent her photos of a blindingly pink and surreal Austin sunset during yet another one of my COVID walkabouts, and her response was “Sahara in the Texas sky.” I had no idea what she meant, so I looked it up. As many of you know, a cloud of dust from the Sahara Desert has been projected by trade winds — winds that blow straight towards the equator — over 5,000 miles from the world’s largest hot desert (roughly the size of the United States) and this cloud is now doing its thing above Texas and other southern states. According to the National Weather Service the tiny dust particles scatter the sun’s rays at dusk and dawn, which accounts for the stunning sunset I was compelled to share with my friend.
     When I called her a smarty pants for knowing why, from Chicago, my Austin sunset was so special she said “I perk up when they talk about stuff like that on the radio. I never knew before that it provided nutrients to the marine life. What a planet!” I’ll have you know that Snezana is a brilliant and hilarious person but the last word I’d ever use to describe her is perky. Elegant, understated, sublime, low-key, quietly powerful, yes. Perky, no. It made me unreasonably happy to hear her use such excited language.

 This COVID crisis and the incredibly sad and scary uptick in cases in the obliviously irresponsible state of Texas I currently call home has me rocking and reeling. Not in that good way that the hundreds of teens at Pong Fest in Spicewood (just outside of Austin) gleefully swapping germs must have felt while they were doing so last weekend, but in that “how can I adjust to this new normal of irreverent souls killing others with wild abandon?” way. In the incredible confusion that is coming and going for many of us as we live through a plague, I absolutely cling to any and all moments of pleasure, such as experiencing a new image of my dear Snezana.
     Likewise, I have seen other friends and family members with fresh eyes since this crisis started. A couple of friends and I did an exercise together on Zoom called Authentic Movement that is described on its website as “a mindful movement exploration between a mover and a witness which encourages the development of consciousness.” As I watched one of my closest friends Debi move and express herself in a raw and unselfconscious manner on a little screen I usually reserve for Facebook and Netflix, I saw a side of her that I had never seen, and felt closer to her than ever. When several friends and I attended a yoga class on Zoom with my very first yoga teacher (from 1999), Shabad Kaur Khalsa of Spirit Rising Yoga in Chicago, my friends Debi, Laura Rose, Lynda and I shared a deep bonding experience that blew us all away. Zoom screens offer a strange intimacy that we may not have felt during less-present face to face interactions.
     A couple nights ago I hopped into House Party, an app that lets friends jump into virtual rooms together any time, day or night. When I get an alert, for example, that “Julz is in the house” I can hop right in and say hi to her, our faces in little squares. Others can join us, or we can lock the room. I joined Julz that night and it was as though she was sitting on a bench at the park, like when we were kids, and I just happened to walk by and join her. That night her sister Kim hopped in too, and we had a powerful conversation of women witnessing and showing up for each other that would not have happened pre-pandemic awareness of the immediacy of life. We’ve always needed each other and now we are not afraid to say it.   

     I have found other moments of deep contentment that come from being present, such as the one I shared in my EGD post Snail Eyeball at the beginning of all of this where I was able to capture a photo of a little eye peering at me when I had stopped to rest. If I had not been sitting still for such a long period of time in solitude, tired from the luxury of having time to walk miles and miles in the Texas sunshine, I might have missed that tiny black eye arching towards me. I would not have noticed the greenish smudge of slime under the picnic table had I been in normal Caren mode. Pre-COVID I was running myself much too quickly and I didn’t even realize it. I fancied myself chill. After all, wasn’t I the yoga and meditation teacher at a fancy spa? Wasn't I the sensible psychotherapist helping clients find themselves? Well yes, but now I can see how far away from mindful I really was. Staying sober from alcohol this whole time has also helped greatly — no fuzziness, no hangovers, no drama.
     Pre-COVID I was constantly distracted with all of the movies I wanted to see (sometimes I’d go to one a day) at local trendy theaters, with getting to clients' homes and even driving 25 miles in one direction to see one of them (I am never doing that again), with grabbing yet another cup of coffee on the run and sipping it as I diligently drove from place to place to get things done. Solitude and introspection have brought me to a screeching halt and I am grateful. I will do everything I can to stay out of the rat race as it was and practice a more sane and enjoyable way of life that I heretofore had not mastered.
     Today I walked nearly 8 miles and went from feeling positively unnerved by my impending move that’s coming up in a few days, during skyrocketing cases of COVID here in Austin, to calm, grounded and closer to fine. During this walk I spent a good amount of time in silence and also had conversations along the way with mentors and friends on FaceTime and Zoom. A sweetheart from my young adult days Diz and I have reconnected and laughed our butts off during a FaceTime call. I also noticed signs hanging from telephone poles reminding me of the ardent work ahead to do my part to end racist oppression, bathed my feet in a waterfall, and sat under a bridge.

   A few weeks ago I saw a water moccasin glide though the water under that same bridge. Would I have even known we have these terrifying and magnificent creatures so close by if a pandemic had not rendered me neighborhood-bound? I am not happy for this fatal virus among us. I am dismayed at the lack of intelligence and reason of non-mask-wearing anti-distancers, and beyond angry when I try to listen to what they feel is reason. All I hear is “I don’t care about protecting the lives of vulnerable people.” I am unbelievably scared, even panic-stricken, at times when I think about lives that have been lost and lives that will be lost.
     Some of you may remember my beloved landlord Angelo from the last place I lived in Chicago before moving to Austin? I told you of him in my second EGD post called Texas Recollection back on April 18. I shared that he and his wife Eleftheria were the kind of landlords one happily paid to be allowed to live in their peaceful abode. I am deeply saddened to tell you that we lost Angelo to this virus. I had written that if I could have rewound time that day (when I knew he was in hospice care but did not know he had died), Angelo’s wife Eleftheria would finally be able to give me the potted jasmine tree she’d be saving for years that was to be a gift at my wedding (something she always told me, but I never did get married). Angelo would be all scrubbed up in a fine suit at my wedding (had it occurred) and have a dance with me. Now that Angelo is gone perhaps it’s not too much to hope that Eleftheria may still give me that tree one day and I will believe, despite the realities of a pandemic and post-pandemic world, that all is well.

Friday, June 26, 2020

‘I’ll have the Post-Pandemic Special, please’

Kamehachi, March 16, 2020.

     Eating is a big deal. You don’t need me to tell you that. We give special names for the times throughout the day when we stop whatever we’re doing to eat: Breakfast! Lunch! Dinner! A big part of every faith centers around eating, all those feasts and fasts. Some folks can’t nibble a breadstick without gravely informing God.
     You could argue that making a fuss about eating is what makes us human. Animals generally gobble nourishment where and when they find it. “Only people actively, regularly, and continuously work on the portioning out of their food,” Margaret Visser writes on the first page of “The Rituals of Dinner.”
     To hint at how exaggerated our regard for eating is, consider the other end of the alimentary tract, briefly: going to the bathroom. No ritual, little lingering, no reviews. We don’t even like to think about it, never mind talk about it. That attitude could work for eating too — humans could consume enough food to get through the day in 60 seconds flat. Think of the time we’d save.
     But we don’t, generally. Eating in restaurants is an even bigger deal. Dining out can be one of the most significant parts of our lives.
     I can’t recall much from 1975. In fact, I remember only one moment: My sister and I, on our first visit to Chicago, in a leather booth, holding back laughter as a waiter in a tuxedo presents us a bowl of greens set in ice.
     “Here at zee Blackhawk, we spin zee sah-lad not wahnce, not tweyes, but sree tahmes!”     What began as a practical necessity for travelers — the stagecoach stops for the night, the innkeeper carves off some mutton and draws a mug of ale — now has assumed magnified importance, ingrained in our lives.
     Chicago, and Illinois, opening restaurants Friday for indoor dining should be a milestone in our civic recovery from COVID-19. V-E Day, Victory in Eating.

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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Maybe this'll help.

    A busy Wednesday—much progress on the book in the morning, then a pleasant social-distanced lunch on my pal Eric's back porch. In the afternoon, an interview for a future column, a quick 30 laps at the Y, and answering emails—is it possible to cheese off BOTH Fox News right wingers AND social justice radicals at the same time? Apparently so (the former didn't like that I seemed not to hold African-Americans responsible for every bad thing that goes on in their lives; the latter didn't like that I would address the topic at all).
     After dinner, this email came in, which was a more polite form of the Foxers. Polite enough to warrant a reply. Perhaps having polished my patter throughout the day, I achieved, I thought, a kind of purity in concision. Besides, it's all I've got.

    The reader, Jim, we'll shield his last name, writes:
     You'll have to forgive me.  I know it's been awhile.  I was glad to see someone finally touch on an area that many of us find very hard to understand.  Before you dismiss me as part of the Fox Nation or a Trump cultist, let me assure you that I am neither.  I do not consider the former to be a legitimate news outlet nor the later to be worthy or competent for the high office he holds.  That does not stop me from being troubled by the fact that there are thousands of young black men killed by other young black men in urban areas across this country every year with very little outrage or demonstrations for change in the black communities that are most affected.  But let just one of these young black men die at the hands of a rouge cop and you have thousands marching in protest wanting to shut down large parts of metropolitan areas and they don't seem overly concerned about the criminal elements that use their protests as a front to loot, trash and try to create anarchy.     
     What is wrong with this picture?
     I was just as appalled at the death of George Floyd as was the rest of the country but I am even more appalled by the shear numbers of senseless deaths that take place in Black Communities across this country every single day.  Most of the time we never even get to know their names.  They disappear from our streets without any fanfare or adoration.  Once in awhile a story will appear for a day or two about a three year old killed by a stray bullet or two cousins killed in the same bloody weekend in Chicago.  But the stories soon fade with no outrage or condemnation or protests for the kind of change that needs to come from within the Black Community.  So hard to understand.
I hope you are well and keeping safe.
  And I replied:    

Steinberg, Neil

7:12 PM (1 minute ago)
to Jim
Good to hear from you again, Jim. You bring up an interesting point. 

Let me restate the issue in a way that could help cut through the clutter and lead, perhaps, to clarity:

Do you expect more from police officers than from gang bangers? Why?

Thanks for writing.


Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Where’s the outrage? Funny you should ask

Anti-police protest, City Hall, March 28, 2018

     "Where's the outrage?" activist Tio Hardiman asked not once but twice. "Where's the outrage? For this 3-year-old that was killed. The same kind of outrage when George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis. There should be 30, 40, 50,000 people on the streets, right now, shutting down the Black community until we get it right. Black men need to shut down the Black community until we get it right."
     OK, I’ll bite. Can I fit in 10 thoughts? Let’s try.
     1. Did cops kill that 3-year-old too? My hunch is they didn’t. Because the outrage roiling the country is not about the victim, per se, but about living in a nation where a police officer, the representative of law and order, in theory, can leisurely strangle a Black man while his buddies stand guard. That’s what galls, as opposed to the age of the person killed. Though I suppose — I hope — that had the Minneapolis police smothered a toddler, not to give them any ideas, the national outrage would be worse.
     2. That question, “Where’s the outrage?” is a cliche, the half-clever way the Fox Nation sorts and their surrogates — not to point any fingers — try to avoid the admittedly slight risk of being drawn into a sincere conversation about racism. “Where’s the outrage?” is Fox Speak for “Fix it yourself.”
     3. Holding our noses, let’s dive into my spam folder, where the tone used to describe last weekend’s 104 shootings is between a leering chortle and a blatting raspberry.
     “Maybe the credo should be ‘Black Lives Matter — Except in Lawndale, Englewood, Etc.’ Very sad,” begins one, “very sad” being the polite form of Nelson Muntz’s bray of “Ha-ha!”
     4. “Black on Black murders. Horrible,” sighs another. “The media ignore it. Not a peep!”
     Well, Fox News certainly didn’t ignore it — that’s where I saw Hardiman’s interview. They even have a running logo, “Chicago’s Crime Wave.” The killings were the front page of Monday’s Sun-Times, not to conflate the two. And the Trib: “Outrage after toddler, teen die.” That sorta answers Hardiman’s question, doesn’t it?

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Reports of our death are greatly exaggerated, as usual

Investors in the Sun-Times are a low-profile group of civic-minded individuals

    Sure, I signed up for AARP — the American Association of Retired Persons — years ago, even though I wasn't retired and wasn't yet 60. The discounts alone seemed worth the pittance they charge for membership — or did, back when we, you know, went to restaurants and stayed in motels and stuff.  Plus they seem on the side of angels when it comes to lobbying for health care.
    They send out a sharp publication, the AARP Bulletin, printed on semi-glossy newsprint paper, the way certain trade publications used to. It has the brawny feel of Steel Pipe Quarterly or Chicken Husbandry World.
     That said, I don't fall eagerly upon the thing when it arrives. The June issue, "THE NEW NORMAL" sat around for a while. But I finally flipped it open Sunday.  
     I've been thinking about how the ongoing plague will affect society, long term. Money is gone, obviously, both in the sense of funds, and coins and paper money. We'll finally get Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill just in time for people to stop using currency entirely, the sort of cruel cosmic joke that America likes to play in these matters.
     "WHAT COMES NEXT" is subtitled "EXPERTS PREDICT HOW THE PANDEMIC WILL CHANGE OUR LIVES." Experts! Say no more. Although, I'd rather read a piece called "How experts are wrong about almost everything all the time."
     Still, pretty safe Sunday night reading. Our future seems to include lots of Purell but not many handshakes. 
    I can live with that. Then this popped up:
     "...digital media hasn't been kind to the newspaper and magazine biz, but COVID-19 could bury it. Gannett, the largest owner of local papers, lost nearly 94 percent of its value between August 2019 and April—much of that since mid-February. Media analyst Ken Doctor calls the pandemic 'an extinction event' for print, as newsstand sales, subscriptions and ad dollars shrivel, and beloved columnists you've been reading for years quietly disappear."
     Come again? What was that last part? As bad as it is to get an unexpected foreshadowing of doom, directed to you personally, it's even worse to get it in the AARP Bulletin. That's like flipping through the Vermont Country Store catalogue, wondering whether you'd really ever order the Brown Bread in a Can or the Chinese checkers set, only to turn a page and be confronted with, "Neil's Head on a Pike." Only $19.95. Very realistic looking.
     Not that I consider myself beloved. Far from it. Nor reviled, really. More unknown, ignored, not-thought-about-much and beside-the-point, like every other columnist for every other publication for the past decade or two.  I mean, I've got regular readers, thank God. But they don't love me. Okay, a few are obsessed in an unhealthy and probably pathological fashion. I wouldn't call that love. And though I read and appreciate certain columnists — Eric Zorn comes to mind. Or Leonard Pitts. Or S.E. Cupp. But I don't love them either.
    And quietly disappear?!? How is that new? When columnists go, quietly is pretty much the only option. Given the hook by death, yanked off stage as if by a string. Even those blowing up in the most dramatic exits — think Bob Greene — still go with the smallest poof. Really, it's like a gasoline storage facility on the far horizon exploding: a muffled ker-flump and a little mushroom of flame and smoke blossoms upward and vanishes. Replaced in 30 seconds by a sooty plume. "Oh look at that." Then a minute later, even that's gone. Nobody is clutching at the air where we've been nearly a quarter century later. That's only for Royko.  
      Hard as that is to take, it's even worse if we're still alive, and the exit is orderly enough to permit a final ave atque vale column. Usually, our supposedly poignant, thanks-for-the-memories good-bye to all our fans is also the greater general public's introduction to our existence. They look up at the flash of our self-immolation. A theatrical flourish, a deep bow, making twirls with your paired index and middle fingers, a few passionate kisses delivered to the mirror, then gone. Twitter serves up the goodbye of Arthur M. Blainford, the Rock of the Metro City Gazette for 47 years. Some black-and-white shot of him arm-wrestling with Kenny Loggins. And you think: who? Wha? Sorry pal, I somehow missed every single word you ever wrote plus the fact you were alive. I wish I could flatter myself that I won't appear that way to anyone who actually notices when my time comes but — spoiler alert! — I will.
      As for disappearing, you could argue that, with the internet, both nothing and everything disappears. Oh, everything you've ever written is there, swirling around in this snow globe of words the size of Jupiter. Accessible to anyone who wants it, 24 hours a day. Almost a mockery, since nobody knows and nobody cares, now that every single person is jabbering away full volume 24 hours a day. Columnists have already disappeared, lost in the constant roar. I wish I could convince myself otherwise but I can't. 
     So thank you AARP, thank you Ken Doctor, for alerting print to its demise.  Yes, these are tough times for the newspaper biz. And Napoleon has escaped from Elba. Both are not fake, but both are old news. Old, perennial news. Both are always the case. Print is always dying, ever since Johannes Gutenberg went bankrupt and lost his printing press. I've been saying that newspapering is like the M.C. Escher staircase that goes down and down and never reaches the bottom for a dozen years now. If not more. Didn't the Chicago Daily News — the best of Chicago's four newspapers, remember — crumple into dust in 1978? Remember where the Sun-Times came from: two newspapers, the Sun and the Times, joining forces to better survive. In 1947. 
      All sorts of media are declared dead all the time — Napster spelled doom for recorded music, remember? Only to somehow revive and endure. Not to contradict an expert like Ken Doctor, who was confidently predicting in 2012 that there was no economic reason that the Tribune would still be in business in 2015. But everyone's crystal ball is cloudy. The Trib is still here, last time I looked. Yes, arms bound behind her and in a tumbril heading to a wooden platform where Alden Capital is whetting a big double-sided axe. But not yet submitted to the fatal chop.
    Where there's life, as my people say, there's hope.
    Remember, we were doomed too. Cowering on the floor of some luxe Trump Tower condo at midnight as our owner Michael Ferro, doublet unloosed, advanced upon us, rubbing his hands together, jaws slavering, eyes aflame. 
    Yet we were saved at the last moment, spared that final despoilment. And now we've found a new home, and new friends, and things are snapping and popping once again at the Sun-Times.  Every time I look at the paper there are more reporters hired, unfamiliar names, new projects begun.  Our rescuers who galloped up and plucked us out of Ferro's clutches stand like a stone wall between us and the storm rattling the windows of journalism. Our owners, a confederation of labor unions, civic minded individuals and Chicagoans whose love for their city is only matched by their bottomless bank accounts, got together and decided to keep the scrappy newshound in kibble to prevent Chicago from becoming some eternally rainy Gotham City hellscape where all information is curated by Mark Zuckerberg.
    Sure, that could change in a day, or an hour, and you don't have to tell me that merely reporting a rosy outlook is asking for trouble, like a protester flipping off a cop off camera. But our credo is to call it like we see it and let the chips fall where they may, and that goes for good as well as bad. As somehow who has been through years when the paper was riding low in the water, waves crashing over the bow, star-flares exploding above the pitching deck, this feels like smooth sailing. COVID-19, the recession and the civic unrest has, as Ken Doctor said, made it harder to distribute the paper. People can no longer pick it up at newsstands that are no longer open on commutes they don't take to jobs they don't have. 
     But the news — credible, interesting, lively reportage of what's going on, plus thoughtful commentary from we liked-though-not-really-loved commentators — is more important than ever. We'll figure out how to keep it in your hands, somehow. 
     Things change. I bet there were plenty of folks in the cloth mask and hand sanitizer industries who were sitting around six months ago, glumly throwing cards into a hat and despairing whether business would ever pick up. It did. News is no different. Our time has come in the past and will come again. Until then, what is it Henry V says? "All things be ready if our minds be so." The times whir, and we whir with them, at least until the final curtain falls.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Mock trial parses contract conundrum

     “Any lane?” I asked the lifeguard last week, as I stood before the shimmering blue pool at the North Suburban YMCA.
     “Not many sign up this time of day,” she said, apologetically.
     The pool was completely empty. I felt like King Farouk.
     “It’s like a dream!” I gloated. “Except for the plague part.”
     It might say something about the mundane quality of my existence. But during months of lockdown, when I tried to look forward to the future, swimming laps at the Y was the first benchmark of the return of ordinary life.
     I kept paying dues, through April and May, even though the Y was closed. Because a) the Y rocks; b) I want the Y to survive — not all of them did; c) the dues aren’t that much — de minimis, as lawyers say; and d) I didn’t want to be what in legal circles is called “a jerk.”
     But let’s say I were a jerk. Let’s say I angrily demanded my dues back; only about 15% of members canceled, according to the Y. Would I get them? That would depend on the exact wording of the membership agreement, on what kind of force majeure clause it has.
     Force ma-what?
     “It’s a phrase that nobody knew about until three months ago, even among lawyers,” said Abbe Lowell, a top trial attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of Chicago’s Winston & Strawn.

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

Flashback 2011: Genius lurks in the heart of every father

     Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey's moving tribute to her father yesterday made me wonder what I had done to honor my own dear dad, this being Father's Day. I found this effort from 2011. I wouldn't call it a "moving tribute," necessarily. But like all sons, I did the best I could with the situation I found myself in.

     A father is far more important than his children, according to the Bible, someone worthy of automatic respect and complete obedience.
     My father, who turns 79 next month, is certainly more important than I, since I am a mere newspaper columnist, common as dirt, spouting our little opinions in every city and town, while he is an artistic genius who has created a radical new form of art which the world would have noticed long ago were the art community not in the thrall of charlatan dealers and flashy but untalented frauds.
     Today is Father’s Day, and since one should give his father the present that he really, truly wants, I thought I would pen a few paragraphs of recognition — or indulgence — that I’ve resisted writing for years.
     Is this perspective true? Heck, I don’t know. I have one of his paintings in my living room, and another in the dining room, and another in the hall. I don’t display them out of filial duty, entirely, but because they’re pretty and I like them and enjoy, when guests compliment them, saying, “My father painted that.”
     Whether that makes him the non plus ultra talent of the art world is another matter, one beyond my judging. I am biased and, as with most children, the bias cuts both ways. It isn’t always positive; like most children, I sometimes scoff. Perhaps this represents grudging acknowledgment of reality as I see it; perhaps it is my own mediocrity manifesting itself as jealousy of a greatness beyond my ken. I remember when my father wrote a paper on his art published in Leonardo, the journal of art and science — you can read the first page online by Googling “Robert Steinberg” and the title, “Self-Similar Structures that Amplify Natural Patterns within Paint, and the Feelings They Awaken in the Artist.”
     A mouthful, I know. But Leonardo is a prestigious journal — M.I.T Press publishes it. When that was printed, I turned to my brother and said, “Is it possible that we’re the idiot sons? That someday they’ll drag us in front of a camera for the NOVA special and we’ll have to admit that we sort of sniggered at him the whole time and never understood the important stuff he was trying to tell us?”
     So it is possible. Anyway, if my father taught me one thing in life, it is relentless pursuit of your goals. The man doesn’t have an ounce of quit in him. He was that way when he was 17 in the Bronx, writing certified letters to David Sarnoff, the head of RCA, trying to get himself aboard a ship as a radio operator, and he’s the same way now, hectoring the Museum of Modern Art to drop the scales from its eyes and stop obsessing over obvious fakes like Jeff Koons and turn its attention to the first dramatic advance in the art world since prehistoric men smeared images of bisons inside caves and urging his son to stop canoodling over meaningless drivel and focus on something significant, for a change.
     Credit where due. I could not be 51 years old and still rolling this stone uphill, still doing the shambling, groveling dance that a writer must do to get anything in print without having inherited his fierce, salmon-up-the-river-to-spawn ambition and stick-to-it-ness.
     So thanks Dad, and Happy Father’s Day. I hope this works. Though, as I told you previously, many times, I do not believe the doyens of the art world, whoever they are, read my column regularly, nor will they rush to elevate you to your rightful place in the pantheon of glory, wherever that is. But I didn’t want it to be because I didn’t give it my best shot, which is all a man can do in this life. You taught me that, Dad, and I appreciate it.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times June 17, 2011

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Texas Notes: Tony

     After kindly stepping aside last Saturday so I could honor my friend Kier, EGD Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey returns with this tribute to her father.

     Anthony Charles Jeskey is a good guy. He grew up under the shadow of the skyway on 95th and Commercial on Chicago’s southeast side where acrid poofs of smoke from nearby steel mills hung heavily and permeated the air. Loose dogs ran wild and terrified him and his brothers when they were kids running around in the tall prairie grasses of abandoned lots. His mother, my Grandma Marie, was a devout Catholic. Attendance at St. Patrick’s Church was mandatory for my father not just on Sundays, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays too. He became a good little alter boy, yet somehow I imagine him sneaking cigarettes and sips of sacramental wine when no one was looking. He had slicked back hair, a wiry frame, a handsome chiseled face and a glint in his eye. Today he calls himself a recovered Catholic.
     My dad is the eldest of three sons and became the man of the house when he was in his early 20s and his father died. When he learned of his father’s untimely death, leaving behind a wife, two teen sons and my father, he became distraught. The story goes like this: my father took a drive, lost control of his car and hit a tree head-on. He would not still be with us but an off-duty fireman — or maybe it was a policeman — was fortuitously behind him on the road that dark night and witnessed the crash. This stranger saved my father’s life and got him to the hospital for the 99 stitches that have left a scar from one end of his forehead to the other.
     No wonder this good-hearted, former filterless Camel smoking, ruggedly good looking greaser type won my mother’s heart, and I am so glad he did. They met soon after his father’s death at what was then Sully’s (now called the Hangge-Uppe), which was once a classy bar on Elm Street where folks generally went before and after the theater. My then single folks were probably there just to hang out with friends, no theater involved. Once he got my mother’s attention he worked hard to keep it. He’d spend all his money to rent fancy cars to pick her on the north side and take her on dates, fully ready in his early 20s to do all he could to woo a single mother and her young son (my half-brother) into his life. He succeeded. He asked her parents for permission and proposed after 8 months of dating with a ring he bought at Chicago’s Last Department Store. She said yes and they got married. She’d been married before so was not allowed to wear a white dress to St. Patrick’s on their wedding day due to an antiquated Catholic rule, but she sure looked stunning in a classy pale blue number.
     My mother and father put each other through school working long hours in difficult working-class jobs. My father earned degrees at the Illinois Institute of Technology and then the University of Chicago Business School and my mother graduated with honors from Mundelein (all women’s) College and then the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (also my alma mater).
     Tony filled the lives of my sister, brother and me with a sense of endless possibility and adventure. When I think back to how he swam around in pools with us on his back I marvel at the strength he must have had. My folks made sure to outfit us with skateboards, bicycles, S’mores, stilts, Weebles, Easy Bake ovens, Jiffy Pop, Big Wheels, summer camp, and hilarious vacations on a shoe-string budget. My father was always up to tossing a ball around, playing any game we wanted, putting our new toys together and fixing them when they broke. He happily poked holes into the tops of jars for us to keep the fireflies we captured before letting them go into the night. He’s the type of man who can fix or build anything.
     We were no stranger to summer vacations no matter how tight money got. There was the time we rented a huge unwieldy RV and a giant flying shrimp bug flew in the window of the driver’s cab. My siblings and I giggled in glee while my parents swatted at this strange and unusual creature as we careened down a highway somewhere between Chicago and an ocean somewhere. In our travels around the country we saw both oceans and countless national parks. We took a sleeper car on the Amtrak from Chicago to California. We met kids from all over the country at the myriad Yogi Bear campgrounds where we spent summer vacations when the sun never went down and mosquito bites kept us up all night. My parents gave us so much fun even though they must have been under a great deal of pressure trying to keep our struggling middle-class household going.
     My father always managed to make us feel that life was magical. The red light on the top of the Sears Tower was Rudolph's nose each Christmas Eve as we headed down Lake Shore Drive back to our north side home from Grandma Marie’s house on the south side. Our home was wildly decorated for every single holiday — Christmas, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, birthdays, even Bastille Day (“what’s that?” we’d ask year after year) and Easter. We were positive that the Easter Bunny existed just to bring us baskets of Whoppers and Peeps and giant chocolate bunnies from Gayety’s Chocolate and Ice Cream Shop (now located in Lansing IL, owned by a distant relative and as good as ever).
     I know Tony’s a good guy because I doubt almost anybody has a bad word to say about him. He provided for my mother and her son to the best of his ability, and then for us when we came along. He is the epitome of loyal, a solid and responsible man. He has always been quick to place a large bill into the palm of anyone in need, regardless of where his own finances happened to be in that moment. He shows up in every way imaginable. He tells his family “I love you” every chance he gets. He showed us the importance of family by loading us into the car time and time again for long trips to the far southern reaches of the city to pick up great uncles and grandmas and schlep them to the north side for graduations and every other excuse for a party imaginable. He is quick to smile and laugh and give out an encouraging word. He is well read and cultured and loves to succinctly share his thoughts and observations with his loved ones. He is a man of few words other than on topics that he is truly passionate about, such as social justice and ethical humanism. He was recently named the volunteer of the year for his work as a mentor and buddy to a young man in need of guidance, and now this young man is excelling. If we were Jewish I’d say my dad’s a mensch.
     Sure, he’s not perfect and we have had our differences. I am grateful to have had some very good psychoanalysis as well as garden-variety therapies and mentorship that have helped me individuate and see him as a person other than simply selfishly only as my father. The stories of our ups and downs are best reserved for more private settings. Now that this beast of a virus is among us it is imminently clear that my only jobs in relation to this man are to let him know how much I love him (I love you Dad), how grateful I am that he has taught me so well, and to enjoy his company on Zoom (since we live several states apart) and then again in person the first chance I can get.
     I’d like to write a poem about him but the essence of the father daughter dyad has been captured so often and well that a new poem seems redundant. “On the beach at night stands a child with her father, watching the east, the autumn sky,” says Walt Whitman in On The Beach At Night. We don’t need to know more as this image lets us know that the child feels safe with her little hand in her dad’s hand, and nothing more needs to be done than to simply stand there together.

Friday, June 19, 2020

A proposal for reforming the Chicago police

Officer Ja’Lance Hunt poses for photos with a student from Southside Occupational Academy High School, 7342 S. Hoyne, in West Englewood in 2016.

     Lots in the paper lately about race, and protests, and police.
     Sometimes it seems that’s all there is. Seismic unrest rattling the country. Politicians frantically trying to respond. Corporations too, scrambling — a bus ticket jammed into poor old Aunt Jemima’s hand, booted off her pancake mix box and sent back to Chicago, whence she came.
     Cases of police misconduct swirl like leaves in a storm. It can be hard to track them all. Meanwhile, a pandemic is going on somewhere, whoops, make that everywhere, and it’s a sign of just how frenetic things are that sometimes it falls from mind. “Oh yeah! I can die from going to the grocery store. I forgot!
     A jabber of voices. But anyone we don’t hear? Anyone missing?
     How about police? Here they are, public howling for their blood. Yet not a peep. Shy? That can’t be it.
     Being a journalist, of sorts, I thought I would fill that gap, to find their perspective. To discover what police officers think of all this. Futile, I know. But there is a ceremonial aspect to my job. So I ritualistically phoned CPD news affairs and, feeling ambitious, the Fraternal Order of Police, and explained what I want to do. Get police officers to talk about how these protests affect them, deep down in the little blue-flamed smithies of their souls.
     Neither wanted any part of it. Not that they said so. They didn’t say anything — echoes of the old Code of Silence that Eddie Johnson never noticed. Because the police aren’t part of Chicago. Oh, they live here, wink wink. And they work here. But really, police live in a separate Land of Blue, a dreamscape where everybody is a cop, and only cops understand other cops, and they’re all brother cops gazing in cop solidarity over the sharpened pine stockade of their Cop Alamo, blinking their cop eyes at the noisy mob of non-cops they’re supposed to keep safe — ”animals,” in police lingo — and the various idiot politicians like the mayor — ”Groot,” in racist police lingo (they sell derogatory t-shirts with Lightfoot as the Marvel Comics character, a talking tree) — issuing nonsensical directions based on naiveté, ignorance and malice.

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Say goodbye to Aunt Jemima

     My primary experience with Quaker Oats is writing about how thoroughly they screwed up Snapple, buying the brand and running it into the ground. Plus their oatmeal is way down the pantheon of beloved hot breakfast cereals, a distant third loping along after Cream of Wheat and Maypo.
     So my reaction to the company dumping Aunt Jemima Wednesday in the wake of the George Floyd protests, was a kind of gentle amazement.
     "Quaker did something right?!" I marveled. "Well good for them. Had to happen eventually."
    That for a century and a quarter pancake mix was hawked by an offensive racial stereotype goes without saying. The round jovial "mammy" was one of the happy faces that white folks put on the incomprehensible horror of slavery, which is why she was on the box, dutifully serving up her pancakes.  The name came from a song in a minstrel show, the "Aunt" a particularly direct relic of slavery. A white person couldn't call a Black woman, "Mrs." but "Aunt" was suitably familiar, diminutive with a sprinkling of affection and respect.
      The wonder is she lasted so long—130 years. To all those blinking bigots stepping out into the light of day to argue that this is all in the dim past, we can now point out that the last American receiving a Confederate Civil War pension died May 31 and that a major American corporation gave its racist totem retirement, ah, Wednesday. (Being late to the party is typical of Quaker, which finally let AJ take off her plantation do-rag all the way back in 1989).
      As a fan of brand mascots, I tend to be sorry to see them go, but Aunt Jemima won't be missed. First, because their products are so meh—their mascot could be Taylor Swift, or a snaked-headed gorgon and it wouldn't matter to me. I wouldn't buy that stuff, not while you can whip up your own pancakes and top them with real maple syrup.
      I might feel a pang of regret were Cream of Wheat to ditch their Rastus mascot. He's such a cheery presence. If you read the tale a few decades ago, he's a Chicago waiter given five bucks to pose in a chef's hat and never heard from again. But in recent years he became Frank L. White, a "master chef", which might show some strategists at corporate headquarters are finally thinking a little. That grounding in a real person, in theory, might be enough to get current owner B&G Foods off the hook—they say they are reviewing the situation—though don't bet on him sticking around. Uncle Ben is being called into human services as we speak and given the bad news about his future as a rice spokesman.
     But if our swirling times fling Rastus to the curb next, I'm certainly not going to be the guy braced in the doorway trying to stop them. The maiden on Land O' Lakes was nice, but it's still butter, and the Wisconsin landscape on the box is still quite pretty without her.
     Icons do have value. I revere the Big Boy character even though Big Boy Restaurants tend to be lousy and you couldn't prod my wife into one with a pitchfork, not after the series of awful meals we've endured there.
     But mascots aren't everything. McDonald's has perhaps the worst mascot ever—Ronald, a truly frightening clown, with his sex doll mouth, like an escapee from a John Wayne Gacy wet dream—and he didn't hold the company back too much.
     I hope Quaker replaces A.J. with somebody. They'd do well to take the Onion's sound advice, and find a real version of Sheila, the satiric site's "black female lawyer who enjoys pancakes sometimes." They could have a contest. People love contests. Trying to sell Nobody Offensive Pancakes just isn't going to fly.
    Let me tell you my concern about this type of thing. There is an argument that pulling down statues, exiling mascots, and the like create a world where the irrational bigotries of the past, which created these symbols, have no place. A racial version of the broken windows theory. Take care of the tiny stuff and the big stuff falls into place. Ditch Chief Wahoo and maybe not so many people in this country will be such narrow minded bigots. That is certainly possible.
     This process can also be seen as the ritual picking of the low-hanging fruit. We can't fix the police. Or jobs. Or education. Or the economy. We can't remove whatever gland—I think of it as being somewhere near the hypothalamus—secretes racial poison in so many people and sends it coursing their their veins. But we sure as heck can pull Aunt Jemima off the box, give her a bus ticket and send her on her way. It isn't progress so much as busywork, a distraction so maybe we don't notice that nothing substantive really happens. Again.
      I know extrapolating to ridiculous ends as a way to protect any given development is a Fox News trick, and I am not slyly defending Aunt Jemima. She's gone, good riddance, they can get rid of the Quaker Man next, for all I care. In fact, they should, because he's been a thumb in the eye of actual Quakers for 140 years. We wouldn't permit "Jew Oats," would we? A reminder of what this unrest is about: that African-Americans are fighting a special system of repression designed only for them. If you think slavery wasn't a huge boon to the America's economy, an unpaid debt, then, remember: its progeny was selling pancake mix up to this week.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Oh no! Cheated by Trump? What a SHOCK!

Chicago drag performer Jo Mama  to leads the “Drag March for Change”
in Boystown Sunday afternoon. (Photo by Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times)

     What’s this strange emotion? A sudden surge of ... what? Sympathy? Toward religious fanatics, home-grown haters and gimlet-eyed keyhole-peering revanchists. Is that it?
     Well, pity, anyway.
     I mean, man, that’s gotta hurt.
     You betray your country, handing control over to a notorious bully liar, fraud and buffoon in the casual way you’d toss your car keys to the village idiot, saying “Here, take ‘er for a spin.”
    You betray your faith, falling in line by a staggering majority — 81 percent of evangelicals — to cast your ballot for a thrice-married con man, casual bigot and serial ignoramus. You crowd auditoriums to shriek in rapture over this church-avoiding, lie-spewing, norm-shredding, sniffy abomination of all that is holy, a shambling, rambling, stumbling refutation of the very idea of grace, dignity or living a spiritual life.
     And for what?
     The idea was: you sign away your support to this Apprentice Archfiend, this strip-mall Satan, and he rewards you by picking Supreme Court justices who will sprinkle juridical fairy dust over the United States and magically transport it back to the Mayberry 1958 of your imaginings. The Court will protect the notional babies you claim to so adore, and drop-kick all those other — brrr, shudder — unacceptably different folks back in the far shadows where they belong.
     Ah, hahahahahahahahahaha.
     And then he ... and then he ... excuse me, inhaled a little coffee there, guffawing ... he turns around and betrays you, or his Supreme Court does anyway, on a cloudless Monday in June.
     C’mon, laugh along, hard though that may be drenched in soda water, pants yanked around your knees, the calliope wheezing away, derisively.
     No? Not laughing?

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