Monday, August 31, 2020

About more than playing ballgames

     Sports is the same thing happening over and over.
     Teams meet, agitate a ball, which is thrown and caught. Tossed through a hoop or hit with a bat. Sometimes kicked. There’s also hockey.
     I am not insulting sports fans, mind you. I understand that for them, sports is the hub on which the universe spins. It just isn’t my table. The night the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, I attended a lecture at the Field Museum on tattooing in Polynesia. I was not alone.
     Sports is the same thing happening over and over.
     To me. Generally. But not always. Occasionally, something noteworthy happens. Something will transpire in the world of sports so seismic that even I perceive it, like a deaf person sensing the orchestra by vibrations through the floor.
     Last Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks announced they wouldn’t play their first round playoff game against the Magic. Not with Kenosha roiled nightly with unrest over the shooting of Jacob Blake.
     The NBA didn’t count the game as a forfeit but picked up the series three days later. The rest of the NBA, even some baseball teams joined in. Now they’re talking about using basketball arenas as polling places.
     That seems significant.

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Sunday, August 30, 2020

Flashback 1996: Sometimes the one you can't trust is yourself

     Trying to keep the house we're confined to orderly, I pulled open a night table drawer and started to unjam. There, an expense check from December 19. $100.43. Quite a lot. The checks says "VOID AFTER 90 DAYS." Ever the optimist, I deposit it anyway, thinking maybe that's more of a suggestion. 
    It's not. The check bounces back, and the bank charges me $12 for my trouble. I appeal to our human resources department, which, used to my bumbling, says they will look into a new check, and delicately suggests I consider direct deposit for my expenses.
     Yes, I say, "that would be smart." I already have direct deposit for my pay, arranged after the episode outlined below. 

     "Bzzzz!" The buzzer. "UPS!" the intercom cries. A glance out the front window confirms the presence in the street of a big, boxy, brown truck. I let the guy into the building.
     That glance is a practiced part of city living. Can't be too careful. This supposed UPS guy could be a maniac, fresh from Stateville, with a double-edged ax under his coat. The truck is a good indication that everything is on the up-and-up.
     In day-to-day living, you have to assume the worst. Scan the bill for ripoffs and bad math. Check for complaints to the state when hiring the new plumber. Nothing dire about this; just being smart.
     Spending my days as I do scanning the horizon for trouble, I was doubly shocked last week not only to lose a big chunk of money, but to do so in a manner so stupid and careless that I never before imagined possible.
     I'm sharing the tale here, despite deep humiliation, for the purpose of perhaps helping one poor hapless individual avoid a similar circumstance.
     Also, my wife insists it is funny. She's been laughing all week. Perhaps you, too, will find it funny. I certainly don't. Maybe in several years. But not now. Not anytime soon. Maybe never.
     Here goes. Every week I take my paycheck and deposit it in the bank, personally. I understand doing this has become an antiquated process, on par with dipping candles or spinning wool. I understand banks discourage their customers from actually showing up and demanding services. A reader complained that his bank charges him 5 percent to run coins through the change machine. Make a deposit at the wrong ATM and you end up owing the bank money.
     What's next? A whack with a big mallet when you open an account? They used to give away toasters. . . .
     The bank wants us to use direct deposit or their ATM machines. But I like going to the bank. Or used to. It was a manageable errand, like dropping off a pair of shoes for repair at the shoemaker. No stress. Something I could do often and do well. The bank tellers are nice young people who respond politely and quickly.
     Returning to the tale: Every week I deposit my check, carefully filling out a bank deposit slip. About a month ago, I noticed the balance on the receipt was huge—many times what it should have been.
     I mentioned this to my wife, who handles the bookkeeping. She didn't blink. "You must be reading the wrong number," she said. "A code or something." The matter dropped.
     The next week it happened again. And the third. I gathered my courage and tried again. "Honey, I really think this is the amount in our checking account. It's got a dollar sign in front of it."
     The dollar sign usually means something.
     She got off the couch, sighed, and took the receipt from me. There was a long silence. I could hear the clock ticking in the next room. Her face went slack, and when she spoke, her voice sounded tinny and far away, as if filtering up through the heating ducts.
     "You've been writing the wrong account number—see, two numbers are switched," she said. "You've been depositing your paycheck into somebody's else's bank account."
     A month earlier, with great effort, I had memorized our account number. I had been so proud.
     In the movie version, the camera, at this moment, would pull back quickly, perhaps spinning, while the soundtrack filled with boisterous cosmic laughter: "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-hah!"
     There's a feeling common in childhood, mine anyway, a kind of sinking in the gut, a horrid, "I'm-in-trouble-now" feeling that doesn't happen much in adulthood, thank God.
     I felt it now, and no matter how much my brain reassured me that of course the bank would rectify the error, my gut tormented me with images of grinning bank clerks shrugging their shoulders. "Tough luck, pal. Be more careful next time and don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out. . . ."
     My wife added this helpful thought: "Well, maybe the people whose account you put our money into will be honest and agree to give it back." Thanks, dear.
     The most galling thing to me was this: It was a problem I had never imagined possible. I just assumed the tellers checked the number against the name on the slip. I had counted on the kindness of strangers, bilking myself the way so many people get bilked, through trust.
     The next morning I slunk to the bank, hat in hand, and presented my case. I could have taken the offensive and yelled that it was their fault—why have a spot on the bank slip for a customer's name and address if nobody looks at it?
     Instead, I meekly pushed the crumpled deposit slips I had found in coat pockets and atop dressers at the teller and begged for my money back.
The teller was very nice—of course they'd look into it, he said, right away. He would pull the records and set everything right. Very friendly and sympathetic. I'm going to miss those bank people, I thought, as I immediately arranged for direct deposit. Better safe than sorry.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 15, 1996

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Texas Notes: Trusty Steed

     Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey takes us for a spin through life today. 

     “Can I put your bike in my car?” 
      My pat answer to the bike question was “no, thank you,” but that usually did not suffice. “You can’t ride home from here! Let me take you,” or “it’s too cold/late/rainy.” The well-meaning friend or family member thought they were doing me a favor by offering to drive me home when, in fact, my body and soul wanted nothing more than to get on my bicycle and ride. A cyclist has a sturdy countenance and a hankering for the wind. We can tell you if it’s blowing at 5 or 10 miles per hour, and at 12 or more we know we might be in for a bit of a challenge. This depends on whether it’s a headwind, coming from one side, or mercifully at our backs. We’ll only concede and remove the front tire to gingerly place our babies into the trunk of a car if we are absolutely beat or— as happened once or twice in my drinking days— a friend absolutely insisted.
     My love of bikes started early. First came the shiny red tricycle with tassels flowing from the grips. Then came the Big Wheel. I remember the day my mom picked me up from school, a giant wheeled tricycle of sorts rolling around in the folded-down back seat of the station wagon It was a few days before my birthday. She said “don’t look in the back!” so of course I did. I was overjoyed to see it there and counted down the hours to my birthday morning. From that day on I’d ride in endless loops around the house. I was lucky that the living and dining rooms were divided from the kitchen and downstairs bathroom by one long partition wall, making a perfect race track for my little legs.

    When I got my first real bike, it had training wheels that my dad had firmly affixed for my safety. One day when in the early 70s when I was 5 or 6, my tough Nana— my grandmother’s sister Kate— had enough. She unceremoniously removed the trainers. I got on the bike, and she pushed me away from her to sail or to crash, a cigarette dangling from her lips. I sailed all the way down the whole block of Birchwood Avenue between Albany and Sacramento.
     The next bike had a big banana seat and could easily fit a friend or two, or even three; one on the seat with me, one standing on the hubs of the back wheel, and one perched on the handlebars. We learned from an early age that it was necessary to have wheels to get to McDonald’s quickly to assuage the craving for a hot apple pie or vanilla milkshake and fries.
     I don’t quite recall what I rode in high school— too distracted by boys, Water Tower Place, and L and subway train excursions.
     When I moved to Santa Monica in my early 20s I bought a Diamond Back mountain bike that became my trusty steed for many years. She carried me along the ocean from Santa Monica to Venice Beach and beyond, day in and day out for the year and a half I lived there. When I’d had enough shots of booze at the 2nd Street Bar & Grill where I worked, and smoked enough Mary Jane to last a while, it was time for me to come back home and finish college.  

     Diamond Back and I moved back and cruised Chicago streets year round; neither snow nor rain nor sleet nor ice could stop us. Her sturdy nubbed wheels kept me safe. Many folks don’t realize how quickly the body warms up when riding. Just keep your face properly covered and wear glasses or goggles, and voila; it’s almost like biking on a 70 degree day. We were living in West Rogers at that time and would cruise down California to Dodge to the Family Focus community center in far North Evanston where I worked at non-profits. At the end of the day we’d bike to various and sundry yoga and meditation schools, or to the green markets full of health food and tinctures that were starting to burgeon in Evanston and the near north side. We might grab a bagel at the shop on Ridge that sold the yummiest “bagel bites” I’d ever had, before they got shut down for selling LSD (or at least that’s what legend holds).
     Poor DB finally got stolen, due to my negligence. I’d been living in Hyde Park and going to graduate school when I had a short stint in a co-op of activists who gave me a room to rent. I left her there and a so-called friend “borrowed” her. Allegedly he had her locked up in front of a Kinko’s on 57th Street where she was stolen. I didn’t quite buy the story—the “friend” was more of an acquaintance with a recent incarceration that involved theft. I have a feeling she was sold for his profit. I tried to get him to at least pay me for her but he ghosted me, never to be seen again.
   Fuji Cross Trek was next. She was lighter and more upright than DB. She could easily sail me from Uptown to the West Loop to Andersonville in a day. She got me to the 6 a.m. yoga classes I was teaching on Clark and Balmoral from where I was living on Racine and Adams in no time. I loved her the way a gearhead loves a hotrod. I peppered her with stickers of local community gardens and my favorite coffee roasteries. She had a bumper sticker that said something about peace. The fix-it crew from our favorite mechanics at Uptown Bikes on Broadway under the Wilson L would let me know that they’d seen her parked downtown or other places around the city. She stood out. I rode her until she fell apart and there was no fixing her.
     I ordered a Felt Verza City 3, a hybrid, from Iron Cycles on Montrose. She was chocolate brown and sleek, with no fenders or rack so I could keep her light. When I got to the store to pick her up, they told me they had accidentally ordered me the fanciest version of this bike— the golden colored City 1 with the burnt caramel leather seat. Since it was their error, they decided to be angels and gave it to me without an upcharge. This baby was the Mercedes of all bikes to me. She gleamed with elegance. I hopped on and was a little scared to have such a fancy object in the city. As I rode through Ravenswood Manor on my way home a man called out “nice bike!” and I turned to wave, proudly. I was somehow not surprised to see the man’s thick head of dark hair as he watered the flowers in front of his classic Chicago blonde brick home. It was Blago. Yes, I had arrived.
     Sometimes I’d return to her after an errand or a movie, surprised to see her $1500 frame still securely locked up and waiting for me. More than once a person or two or three would be ogling her as I walked up. They’d crouch down to get a better look. They’d ask about the disc brakes and internal gear hub, which I didn’t know much about, and I’d collude with their delight because it was fun. They’d walk away plotting their next big purchase. She came out to Texas with me and is currently snugly locked on the porch of the tiny house I rent. She’s looking forward to hitting flat Chicago streets again one day.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Trump ends convention with one truth

     It had to happen.
     Donald Trump said something entirely true.
     Not true in the way he meant it, of course, and nestled in his usual thicket of lies.
     But there it was, in his speech Thursday closing the 2020 Republican National Convention, with the White House gang-pressed into service as a scenic backdrop, in violation of both law and American tradition:
     “This is the most important election in the history of our country,” he said. “At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies or two agendas.”
     No kidding. Those two philosophies are the fact-free, law-flouting, malevolent cult of personality that is Trumpism, taking a pickaxe to the foundations of American democracy.
     And the other, offering at least hope of return to an America of decency, intelligence and integrity.
     The choice between ignoring a pandemic and doing everything possible to stop it.
     Trump’s speech capped what has been a four-day master-class in cynicism, beginning to end.

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Black Lives Matter

     The thing about Jews is, we don't like to go to synagogue, or practice the requirements of our faith. We recognize Judaism as the team we were born onto, but find life too short for saying prayers or following kosher or any of that stuff. That said, some of the rituals are cool. We do like challah, though matzo, not so much, unless its rendered into matzo brei—egg matzo—a breakfast dish, which we eat with sugar, never salt. Jews enjoy bacon and pork chops too, though we draw the line at those big pink glutenous canned hams. Yuck. 
    Oh wait, maybe that isn't Jews in general. Maybe that's just me. Yup, definitely me.
    See, I have trouble doing what so many individuals seem to do automatically: presenting themselves as the spokesmen, the embodiment and voice of their entire group. I know why they do it: it adds oomph to what is really their opinion. Me and all my friends, standing notionally behind me, nodding in agreement, in my fantasy world.
     But Jews are not me. Or you. They are this enormous range of people representing a wide spectrum of beliefs, from black-hats ticking off every single commandment, to Stephen Miller, the president's shadowy, serpentine Goebbels. Every group is enormously diverse and complicated. I don't see how anyone can argue that fact, and in reality, they don't. They just ignore it.
     Not only do people making statements pretend to be representative, but so do those who embrace them. Whom you accept as a spokesman for others says more about yourself than about the group you are trying to characterize.
    On social media, the act of sharing the voice of the member of a minority group is often a kind of tacit slur. For instance. Social media throbs with that video of Chicago Black Lives Matter organizer Ariel Atkins explaining why looting is okay.
    “That is reparations,” Atkins told NBC Chicago. “Anything they wanted to take, they can take it because these businesses have insurance.”
    That's dumb, and I imagine that most responsible people of all hues consider it dumb, and unhelpful, in that it allows folks to dismiss the entire movement as a rationale for stealing Gucci purses. 
     Sure, many are going to reject the message anyway, and if not with this they'd find someone else. Remember, many, maybe most people aren't looking to engage in the world in a meaningful way, but to cherry-pick facts that support exactly who they are and intend to always be. 
    But why make is so easy for them to do so?
     While against violence and chaos, I nevertheless support Black Lives Matter because I know both history and current events. I particularly like "Black Lives Matter" as a slogan, a rallying cry, exactly because it is so understated. Compared to "Gay Pride" or "Never again!" or "Black is beautiful," "Black Lives Matter" is so modest, so utterly unobjectionable. We have significance. Our lives have meaning. Who could argue with that?
     And the answer is, "Lots of people."  Those who hate seeing police held accountable counter with "Blue Lives Matter." White supremacists float "All Lives Matter," as a kind of code that the only lives that matter are their own. 
     "Black Lives Matter" is part of a fine tradition of setting a subtle snare. If you look at the key moments in the Civil Rights struggle, the line is drawn, not at something grand—the protests are never over the right of Black people to sit on the Supreme Court. But over something ordinary: riding on a bus, eating at a lunch counter, attending 2nd grade.
     A simple ask, that nevertheless draws out the haters, forces them to reveal themselves, to battle something prosaic. To oppose basic decency. To make them show up with their dogs and firehoses, then, or their pepper spray and batons now. And in that sense, BLM should do as much as it can to distance itself from the looting and riots that often follow their protests. If after his encounter with Alabama cop, John Lewis had led marchers to burn Selma, he would not have been as revered and effective as he became, nor would that encounter at the Edmund Pettus bridge be remembered the way it is. Not doing so hurts BLM and their cause.
     In my opinion. Of course I'm one guy, and a 60-year-old white guy at that. I am not speaking for all white folks, nor all 60-year-0lds, nor all Jews. Unfortunately.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Would-be friends

"Waiting for the Stage," by Richard Caton Woodville (Smithsonian Museum of American Art)

     Facebook is kinda curdling, along with everything else. Getting weird and unpredictable. It changed its entire look last week, then allowed me to change it back, which I did, hungry for consistency. Then Facebook told me that it would change over again anyway, soon, and then I won't be able to change back.
    What's the point of that? Either change or don't. It's like they're playing with us. I guess given how stuck we are with Facebook, we should consider ourselves lucky Facebook doesn't start doing all sorts of random shit, turning the screen 90 degrees, so we have to sit with our heads angled hard to one side to read.
    Because we'd do it. We're addicts. So I guess we're lucky Facebook doesn't start fucking with us, just because it can.
    I'm not sure what the point of the thing is anymore. Scrolling the news feed, I see how messed up my friends are, what nutbag conspiracy crap they've fallen for, or how they've wandered into some distant pasture of irrelevance. Arguing is pointless.
    Unless of course they say something that reflects exactly how I believe. I'm fine with that.
    Odd stuff keeps happening. Monday I got 15 Facebook friend requests. On an ordinary day I get none. Or one or two, from youths in Ghana, or lonely hearts in the Philippines. 
     Some Q-Anon infiltration squad? Organized Targeted Individuals? I looked at them, and they seemed fairly normal people. Russian bots designed to do damage once admitted? No ... seemed really real. Not the usual fashion shot of some busty young lady with an Urdu man's name. But actually people—all men—with hundreds of friends and posts.
    I sent them all this message:
    "So I got 15 friend requests this morning, which is very unusual, and I'm wondering what is going on. What prompted you to ask to be my friend today?"
One replied:
     You appeared in my friend suggestion, and you are my favourite Chicago columnist.
     Good enough for me! Another:
     You came up in my feed last week though I didn’t see you before. I related to your Drunkard book so long ago and appreciate your writing. I can see why you might be suspicious in this climate so just ignore the request if you’d like. 
     Of course not! Welcome to the party! A radio host wrote:

           Your line of work, my line of work, and our mutual friends!

     Okay then. C'mon in. Everybody who had a halfway sensible answer was friended. The rest, the majority, deleted. Obviously, some microscopic circuit clicked and I was dangled in front of a horde of Facebook users and 15 bit. 
      No, this isn't really going anywhere. I had a column slated for the paper for today, and here, about the Republican National Convention. But it got spiked, which doesn't happen much. Not a quality issue, I am told, but more a space issue, a game of musical chairs that I lost. Or something to that effect. Anyway, I'm not dwelling on it. Things happen. It isn't that my fierce truth was yanked back by the Powers that Be. More likely they opted for real news over the same old Neil Nattering. Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you. Some days I have two columns in the paper, so it seems fair play there should be a column day where I have none. As to why I'm not posting the column here anyway, well, call that a judgment call. I might want to cannibalize it later in the week.


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Three cheers and a tiger

     Strange. I really don't talk much about writing books here. 
     Several reasons, I suppose. I don't want to create the impression that producing a high quality newspaper column doesn't take up  all my time and energy, 24/7. The skilled carpenter doesn't want to be caught on the job, whittling away on his side project.
     Second, I suppose there is a certain magic act quality to books. You undermine the effect if you show the machinery to the audience, the hollow compartment in the top hat, the years of gerbil-on-a-wheel effort required to produce a manuscript. Better to pretend it isn't happening then,  every few years just produce the finished volume—"SHAZAM!!!"—from out your sleeve, along with a few fluttering white doves.
     Those two motivations seem better honored in the breach than in the keeping.
     So I was grinding through the May 2, 1893 Chicago Record on Monday, reading about opening day of the World's Columbian Exposition for my next book. Being reminded, yet again, of the glory of having several news outlets cover a story. Because the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News inflicted the drudgery of the unedited speeches, the opening Columbian ode, in all its stultifying glory, while the Record reporter seemed to be lost somewhere in the crush of the mob, slogging through the "cheerless drizzle" and the yellow mud, while the speeches were an inaudible garble somewhere far away. Women fainted, soldiers held back throngs with fixed bayonets. Everything was late. Not the happy Cracker Jack and Ferris Wheel image of the fair that abbreviated histories tend to present.
    Though eventually the Record catches up with President Grover Cleveland, in town to press the gold-and-ivory key to start opening (is it the key that gets the machinery going, or is it a certain young man conspicuously waving his hat?) 
    The Record followed Cleveland to the train, where this sentence stopped me.
     "As Mr. Cleveland was alighting from his carriage at the station gates three cheers and a tiger were given with a will."
      For a moment, I thought a big cat was presented to the president, as a parting gift. But the proximity of "tiger" to "three cheers" sparked some dusty memory of the after echo of pre-World War I collegiate football, something in an old Mickey Rooney movie perhaps. 
    Into the Oxford English Dictionary. First reference defines "tiger" as "a large carnivorous feline quadruped," a word whose origin is lost in those unknowable countries to the East ("a foreign word, evidently oriental, introduced when the beast became known.")
     "Oriental" is a taboo word now, by the way. In case you didn't know.
     I kept reading.
     Bingo: "8. U.S. slang. A shriek or howl (often the word 'tiger') terminating a prolonged and enthusiastic cheer; a prolongation , finishing touch, final burst. "
    The first usage listed is in 1857, with plenty of mentions online among soldiers on both sides during the American Civil War. "Three cheers and a tiger" is almost a cliche by 1893, not to mention a contemptuous bit of American enthusiasm, as reflected in this remark from the London Daily Telegraph of Oct. 8, 1880, cited in the OED: "'Three cheers' in properly hearty unison, without the hysterical American supplement of 'tigers.'"
      Judging from descriptions elsewhere, the tiger itself is a kind of enthusiastic growl. 
      We are still a passionate people, lost in zeal. The election is proof of that. But somehow, I have a hard time picturing the kind of "hip-hip, hooray!" cheering that our great-grandfathers seem to have done, never mind capped by a yowl of inarticulate, feline joy. 
    How come? Why are verbal tigers following actual ones into oblivion; indeed, racing ahead of them and arriving at extinction first?
    Theories: Maybe it's just a matter of style. Maybe people are too busy taking cell phone pictures to give a few "rah rah rah, sis boom bahs." Maybe we've simply forgotten the practice, or are so atomized that the idea of doing anything in unison is alien to us. That last one sounds right.


Monday, August 24, 2020

‘The bad that is bad now’ began a long time ago

     When Dorothy Parker heard that Calvin Coolidge had died, she quipped, “How can they tell?”
     Which about summarizes my reaction to news that Donald Trump is wrecking the U.S. Postal Service.
     Without question, new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has hurt the USPS during his brief tenure, particularly by ending overtime.
     It’s also true that some changes he’s being blamed for, like pulling out high-speed letter sorting machines, were already in the works. 
Mack Julion

     “You cannot say horrible service in Chicago started this spring,” said Mack Julion, a Chicago postal worker for 23 years and president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 11. “Bad service in Chicago began at least a year ago and got worse during the pandemic.”
     An institution as enormous as the post office is like an ocean liner. It takes time to turn. DeJoy showed up in June.
     “The directives we hear are coming from his office have yet to hit the workroom floor in Chicago,” Julion said. “The bad that is bad now, that’s basically Chicago management. He can make it worse. You can’t cut overtime in Chicago because we don’t have enough carriers to deliver the mail. Here’s, that’s unthinkable.”
     And unworkable....

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Not anytime soon.

Chalked sidewalk plea, Northbrook, Aug. 20, 2020

      One common mistake among middling writers of opinion is to take whatever emotion they are experiencing and universalize it.  The viewpoint being aired is not their own particular private perspective. Oh no no no no. Nothing that singular. Nor are they responsible for airing this set of notions. Not at all. Rather, they are merely reporting and seconding common wisdom, merely conveying the vox mundi. 
     Haters do this a lot; Trump supporters often slip into the first person plural, like a tiny creature puffing up, trying to look bigger, adding heft—in their own minds if nowhere else—to their taunts. "We read your column and have to chuckle..." 
      I try not to do this, try not to conjure up imaginary friends and dragoon them to nod in approval behind me. Try not to fall into the trap of those, as Thoreau so neatly put it, "mistake their private ail for an infected atmosphere.”
     So I'm reluctant to announce that, five months into the pandemic, the public has entered into a new, brittle phase. It would be easy to do so: tempers are short, eyes narrowed, teeth grinding. Maybe they are, generally. It sure seems that way.
     Or maybe it's just me. Maybe 150 days of ... sitting around and writing stuff, with occasional forays into the living world, have made me ... slightly punchy. Ground down and hopeless. Certainly welcoming other people's expressions of strain, such as the sidewalk art above. The frustration, the fed-up-ness, detected in others. Not schadenfreude. I'm not glad they are unhappy. But rather, I am glad not to be alone.
     Just saying that gives me pause. "Unhappy." It's such a whine. Such an unwelcome development. I glided through the first four months of pandemic on gratitude. April, May, June, July. Not fake gratitude either. Real, genuine, got-a-job, not-sick, kids-at-home thanksgiving. Dissatisfaction seemed a rude gesture to everybody in worse shape. The sick. The unemployed. The friends and loved ones of the thousands and thousands dead. That's unhappiness.
     This is ... well ... what? Blessing fatigue? I'm glad I didn't go down with the ship, glad I didn't drown with the others, glad there's still some water left in the canteen. But boy this lifeboat is starting to feel cramped. And the sun....
    Blessed. I know that. Blessed blessed blessed. I would say, brightly, "I'm having a good plague!" And I was. Both boys home, finishing up their spring semesters, baking bread and playing Bananagrams. "A stolen season!" I would say. My job, clicking along, as far as I can tell. 
     And while all that is still true .... maybe it's the looming election. What are the chances of Trump being defeated and going quietly? I'd say even odds for the first, and no way for the second.  So fairly certain some cataclysmic historic foundation shaking in six dozen days, as the worst human being to occupy the Oval Office grabs the curtains and shrieks as decent Americans try to drag him out and throw him onto the dustbin of history. 
    Reason enough alone to be grim. And it might not even work. There is no guarantee that these aren't the good days, before whatever horrific Sixth Act shocker comes lumbering in from the wings. Heck, Russian tanks, rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue—laugh, sure. But who could be surprised by anything anymore? 
    So yeah, the bright spin is slowing to ... the slightly glossy creeping rotation. Like hands of a clock—tick ... tick ... .... ... ... tiiiiick—the steady march of the calendar. What? Aug. 23? You're kidding me? How did that happen? What? Still 2020. Will this never end? 
    What do to about it? I tore out some drywall Saturday. Water damaged, from a leaky radiator. Needed to be done. Well, I can't go on vacation, but I can do this... I thought. It wasn't fun, but what is nowadays?


Saturday, August 22, 2020

Texas Notes: Ernie

      It's Saturday, which means EGD's Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey checks in:

      Chances are you did not see the live mannequins posing in lucite boxes at Limelight, a club that stood for a few short years in Chicago in the 80s. Nor, some of you are thinking, would you have wanted to. 
      I, on the other hand, was in my late teens and felt like Madonna as my boyfriend and I got whisked inside as the friends of a 6’ tall model who worked the boxes. A goth woman dressed in black platform boots and a tiny black mini skirt stark against her milky white skin passed my boyfriend a little piece of blank paper. He somehow knew that it was her number in invisible ink. I missed the memo on that stealth technique so didn’t realize what had happened. He was so grandiose in his 21 year old glory that he bragged about it to me. I took the paper, ripped it up and threw it away. Ah, the good old days of being a club girl. My priorities were really in order.
     My then-boyfriend— I’ll call him Ernie— was in Chicago without proper immigration papers from Coahuila Mexico. After running away from home at the age of 18 (after my freshman year at DePaul) and telling my folks that I was moving in with a gay friend, I lived with Ernie and his two friends, also immigrants to Chicago. We drank tequila and grilled cheap cuts of beef on the grill on the back porch of our little apartment on Belmont near Damen. We played cards until the sun came up, watched TV, went to the park to throw balls around, and threw big parties. 
     When we met, Ernie told me that he was from Spain with a wealthy father and a 13 bedroom house. He was tall and had long black hair, and was quite the fashionista. I bought it, hook, line, and sinker until one day he said he had something to tell me. He asked me to sit down on the bed with him. Silently he passed me a black and white photo. I recognized him as a much younger man, and he was surrounded by a dozen more children and a plump and warm-looking woman, his mother. I’d listened to him talking to her on the phone for hours each week so many times that I understood every word he said to her, and I felt I knew her. Somehow I never learned to speak Spanish, to my regret. As I looked at the photo he revealed that the family I was looking at was his family in his home city of Piedras Negras. He had been afraid to tell me that he was born in Mexico. 
     One day Ernie came home in tears— the man who owned the retail store he worked for had died in a fire, right in the top level of the business. There was talk of suicide as the business was going under and the owner had his children to think about. It was a very, very sad day and took Ernie months to start to recover from. Thankfully, a man who owned a similar business a few neighborhoods to the south of us quickly gave Ernie a new job. There was a whole underground system that employed a crucial part of the backbone of our society. Sad that they had to live in fear while the oblivious shoppers happily purchased the large items folks like Ernie sold and loaded onto their backs and into trucks to be delivered to the homes of the privileged. These men had no days off, no PTO, no health insurance. They were grateful to be employed and they all sent most of their income back home to their families. Even Ernie at the young age of 21. This is the sole reason he moved to Chicago, to support his mother and siblings.
     I moved on from this relationship when I found out that Ernie had been dating another club girl; for six months by the time I discovered the truth. I was on the couch watching TV on a Saturday morning while Ernie was at work, and the landline rang. I answered. When she heard my voice the first question she asked was “who is this?” I said “Ernie's girlfriend.” She said “This is Ernie’s girlfriend.” 
      I got the essential details so he could not attempt to gaslight me— they had met at Avalon, a club on Belmont and Sheffield, when I was in the ladies' room. I remembered her. He and I had been admiring her style. I called for help and a nice lady named Dawn who I worked with at a luggage store on Michigan Avenue came right over to pack me up while I cried, and we got out of there. I had first called Ernie at work to tell him that I knew, and I was leaving. He rushed home and made it before Dawn and I had loaded up the last of my things into her car. He cried and pleaded and lied and told me he loved me. Good thing Dawn was there, a step-aerobics instructor in her spare time and quite tough. She shooed him away, ushered me into the car, and off we went. 
     Her roommate Paige met us there and they helped me settle into their spare bedroom in a rambling vintage apartment on Sheridan Road near Loyola , where they were students. The room had French doors that opened up onto a stone balcony, and a big, blue, soothing fish tank. We watched soap operas, hung out at Hamilton’s bar, spent nights in Barrington where some of their friend group lived, and I started to feel normal again. When Ernie came by with roses and tears they sent him away as I ran out the back door to the Lunt beach. 
     Years later I learned that Ernie and our roommates had not paid the last gas bill, and before I was able to turn the gas on at my new place the bill would have to be settled to the the tune of over $400. I knew where he was working and called the store. When I got him on the phone I demanded that he pay the bill. Within an hour he had paid it, in person, at an outpost on Milwaukee Avenue. I did not want anything more to do with him even though he tried although was already dating someone else. He said he’d leave her for me. I was too smart for that. Years later I somehow found out that he had married this lady, a cute Jewish woman who was a teacher and cheerleading coach at a high school on the northwest side. I hope he and his family in Chicago and in Mexico are doing well today.

Friday, August 21, 2020

‘Choose hope over fear,’ Biden says. We should believe him

     The paper asked me to write a short column for Friday, reacting to Joe Biden's acceptance speech at the end of the Democratic National Convention, with a hard deadline of 10 p.m. Thursday.
      So how does that work? Well, the key is assembling ahead of time. What is called "A-matter"—information that can be plugged into the column. Or in my case, preparing what I think of as a "holding column," a version that could go in, even if he didn't speak by 10 p.m., which I use as a framework.
      At 9 p.m., I plugged in information from the first hour, and then sat to see if Joe would start speaking before the witching hour. At 9:50 I phoned in: Could I have until 10:05? Sure. Biden began at 9:52, and luckily he weighted some of his most powerful remarks up front. At 9:55 p.m. I bolted upstairs, got the column together, wrote a headline and moved it at 10:02. Faster than I like to work, but what the circumstances required.  Then I went up to watch the rest of the speech. It was an exciting, hopeful, perfectly-measured address, and gave me hope that we just might drive our traitor-in-chief from office.
      "Trump isn't going to just roll over," I told my wife after. Now we face the cornered beast.

     ”Keep the faith, guys,” Joe Biden said early in the fourth and final night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention on Thursday, talking to four union workers in a video.
     Biden later accepted his party’s nomination for president, promising, “I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”
     The whole night was a powerful, unexpected yet effective blend of religion and humor, of Common and John Legend singing “Glory,” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus hosting and delivering probably the sharpest line of the night:
     ”Joe Biden goes to church so regularly that he doesn’t even need tear gas and a bunch of federalized troops to help him get there.”

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Thursday, August 20, 2020

Back to, well, not normal, per se....

     I visited a museum for the first time in over five months —since catching the El Greco show March 9 at the Art Institute. On Wednesday, I stopped by the Chicago History Museum to do some digging in its archive, and left myself some time to see the exhibit of Sun-Times photography. It was like a visit with old friends, not only photographers I had worked with—Bob Black, Robert A. Davis, Bob Ringham, Bob Kotalik (you had to be named "Bob" to shoot photos for the Sun-Times, apparently). Kidding, there were non-Bobs as well: John H. White, Al Podgorski, Rich Chapman. 
     While I was at it, I took in the rest of the museum. That felt very normal, as much as anything can feel normal anymore. Yes, there were more guards than patrons—I counted three museum goers: a couple and their child. But some interesting new exhibits: a look at Chicago design keyed to the 1933 Century of Progress Fair, and "American Medina," a thorough exhibit of Muslim life in Chicago. 
The Pioneer
     In the permanent exhibit, they have what has to be one of the key artifacts in both the commercial and technological history of Chicago: the Pioneer, the very second-hand locomotive that arrived here on a ship—since there were no tracks connecting the train-happy East with the train-free Midwest—and chugged west, from Kinzie Street, on Nov. 20, 1848, heading 10 miles to what is now Oak Park, carrying the first men to leave Chicago by train. On their return, one passenger, Jerome Beecher, spotted a farmer driving a load of hides and pelts, negotiated a purchase, and took them back to the city. And so it began.
     It's a miracle the train survived and is here, so small and colorful and cute, compared to the giant locomotives to come. The Pioneer worked for about 25 years, then was tucked away. Someone must have recognized its value; the Pioneer was displayed at both the 1893 and 1933 fairs.
   That was the highlight. The research itself was a dry well: searching for a needle in a haystack that did not in fact contain a needle, at least not anywhere I could find it.  Ah well. If you caught a fish every time you dropped a hook into the water, you'd eat well, but what would happen to the joy of fishing?

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Dems manage not to screw up convention, yet

     If Republicans gambled their souls that they’d be able to control Donald Trump and lost, forfeiting everything they once valued, Democrats seem committed to beating them by doubling down on who we are and what we represent.
     That’s a bet I’ll take.
     Because if we’re gonna lose, let’s lose wagering on our best selves.
     If the United States of America is really going to deal itself four more years of tinpot demagoguery, conspiracy craziness and whoops-somebody-broke-it incompetence — don’t kid yourself, Donald Trump is still president and presidents usually get re-elected — Democrats can comfort ourselves that, at least on the first night of their 2020 national convention, we bet on who we are.
     In a display of messy inclusiveness, the typically marginal and dispossessed were shoved front and center. Those who still, despite everything done to them, insist on believing that America becomes great, not because of a slogan sewn on a hat in China, but by doing great things.
     Yes, being Democrats, we stumbled out of the blocks Monday night.
     “Eva Longoria?” I thought, settling before the TV. “Why am I seeing a ‘Desperate Housewife’?” For a terrible moment, I thought we had stolen a page from the Republican playbook, and she would Vanna White us through two hours of politics as reality television.
     But Longoria radiated dignified conviction, or at least a good imitation, and soon the screen was broken into a Brady Brunch grid of pledging, singing faces, then cut to a prayer to Jesus — which I suppose we can let pass. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
     This festival of inclusion seems a pre-emptive counterbalance to next week’s Republican “It’s a Small, Small (White) World.” It’ll be interesting to see, as the convention unfolds, if this is indeed a tone-setter, or a one-off, something gotten out of the way. Whether the message continues, or is the convention version of the old schedule-the-public-policy-program-at-5-a.m. Sunday gambit.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Flashback 2011: Neither snow, nor rain, nor Congress . . .

     While I don't want to suggest that the Donald Trump era is anything other than a flaming swan dive into unprecedented widespread disaster, it isn't as if we didn't cope with these issues before, to a lesser degree. The government certainly was busy kneecapping the postal service long ago, while President Clownshow was still hosting "Celebrity Apprentice."
     I'm passing this along to offer some background, and as a nostalgic look back at when folks still worked downtown and bumped into stuff, a dynamic I fervently hopes returns very soon, along with good government and an operative mail system.

     Like you, I didn’t think much about it when the U.S. Postal Service announced it might need big cuts.
     Who gets mail anymore? When was the last time you got a letter you were eager to read? Junk mail, bills — we pay most of ours online. The volume of first class mail has dropped 25 percent in the past four years.
     Sure, people feel residual affection for the local postman, whose job harkens back to an era when there was a milkman and a butcher and a baker and a candlestick maker.
     But postal carriers (I’ve always disliked that term; PC, sure, but it makes them sound as though they’re transmitting postalosis) are like Congressmen: you have affection for your own, but as a group they can go hang.
     Then I turned a corner this past Tuesday and saw 500 postal workers gathered in front of the Thompson Center, a crowd of zippered blue sweaters and sensible shoes.
     I might have kept going, but they seemed to be chanting to reduce funding to their own retirement health care. That made me pause.
     In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, designed to increase the post office’s flexibility. Tucked in was a provision forcing it to fully fund its retiree health benefits for the next 75 years, which costs the postal service $5 billion a year; another payment was due Friday. In the past it borrowed — this one it missed.
     Now a bill, HR 1351 — stalled in our gridlocked Congress — would end the obligation to fund health care for employees the service might never hire and audit the situation.
     “We don’t want no handouts, we don’t want no bailouts,” said Sam Anderson, president of the Chicago branch of the American Postal Workers. “All we want is our money.”
     The postal service has about 600,000, down 110,000 through attrition. Earlier this year, it floated a report suggesting the work force will have to be decreased “more aggressively,” according to Chicago district spokesman Mark Reynolds.
     “It suggested we need flexibility in terms of layoffs to stay alive and hopefully profitable again.” Layoffs would need Congress’ approval, which is pending, in the form of HR2309, which would allow the postal service to void its union contracts, fire people at will, close post offices and contract delivery.

     “It would destroy the postal service,” said Mack Julion, president of the local branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
     It would also be a kick to the struggling African-American middle class. The protesters at the Thomson Center were overwhelmingly black — Julion estimated that some 70 percent of letter carriers in Chicago are African American. This potential impact is one area where management and unions agree.
     “The postal service has been a gateway to the middle class for generations of Americans; my grandfather used to work for the post office,” said Reynolds. “When the American economy sneezes, the black economy catches a cold.”
     “It’ll hurt,” said Julion. “It is a very diverse workplace.”

     The unions insist that, without the funding obligation, they would be profitable, to the tune of half a billion since 2006. Eliminate the funding requirement, problem solved.
     Not so simple, says the postal serivce.
     “The unions believe if we get money back we’ll be fine, that we don’t have to reduce delivery [to] five days and close retail units,” said Reynolds. “We don’t believe that. We want long-term legislation to address operational ability. We could save $3 billion a year by going to five-day delivery.”
     The post office is a national resource, and to simply let it fall apart seems risky.

   “We’re still important because, No. 1, everybody isn’t online and everybody isn’t going to be online,” said Reynolds. “No. 2, we deliver everywhere. We serve the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we serve people living on summer cottages in Lake Erie islands, we do it through rain and sleet and snow — that’s 150 million delivery points we service. When the post office was created 200 some odd years ago, the notion this would bind the nation together, as the nation has grown we have continued to fill that purpose. We are additionally the straw that stirs the drink of a trillion-dollar mailing industry. Two of our biggest customers are UPS and Fedex — they’ll deliver packages to local post offices and we take the packages to the customers. America still relies upon the postal service and we still want to be here for America.”
     The future, though, can’t be chanted away.
     At the rally, a reader from Indiana came up to say hello. I asked her why she was there. “I got an email telling me about it,” she said.     
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 2, 2011

Monday, August 17, 2020

Fresca’s back! Mystery of its absence solved

     Hooray! Fresca’s back, Fresca is back. At least back at the Jewel in Northbrook. In liter bottles, at first, and now in the way God intended: cans.
     And no, I did not clear the shelves. The sign said “Two for $4” and I limited myself to two of the big green plastic bottles and then, on my next visit, two 12-packs of cans. Why deny others the joy of slugging back that cool, grapefruitish non-calorie beverage?
     For those whose attention has wandered — understandable, between raging pandemic and erosion of every institution and value Americans once held dear — it was late June that I hesitatingly asked: “What happened to Fresca?”
     That column exploded. I heard from frustrated Fresca drinkers all over the country.
     “I couldn’t find it anywhere in/around Sacramento CA and even called the local distributor who gave me no information, no call back, zero,” explained Rebecca Weaver.
    “Here in the Dallas, Texas area, my husband and I covered a 20-mile radius searching for it,” commiserated Jamey Garner-Yeric.
     “After a fruitless search today in Charleston, SC, I found your article on the internet,” wrote John Shilling.

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Sunday, August 16, 2020

Jim Thompson, dead at 84


     Back when there was such a thing as a liberal Republican politician, James Thompson was the GOP’s rising star.
     “Big Jim” — he stood 6 feet 6 inches — was Illinois’ longest-serving governor. The native Chicagoan was elected four times and served 14 years. Though the most popular governor of the past half century, talk of his running as a Republican candidate for president in the late 1970s was scuttled in part by his strong convictions, beliefs that he refused to abandon merely to achieve his lifelong dream. 

     “I still believe that a reasonable pro-choice position is not only right but is a majority view of my party,” he once said. “But it’s not the majority view of the people who control my party.”
     Thompson died Friday, according to his wife, Jayne Thompson. He was 84.
     As a zealous federal prosecutor in the early 1970s, he sped the collapse of Cook County’s Democratic machine. Early in his career Thompson helped put one Illinois governor in prison and toward his career’s end he worked tirelessly and in vain trying to keep another out of jail.
     As governor, Thompson spurred construction of more highways and prisons than any other governor — he needed those prisons to house all the inmates incarcerated after he pushed through Class X mandatory minimums in his first term.
     Thompson expanded McCormick Place, fought to keep the White Sox in Chicago when the team was practically on a plane to Florida, and built the $173 million salmon-and-blue Loop government office building later named for him. He also supported legislation that cleared the way for what would become the United Center.

     To do all this, however, he had to raise taxes — the largest increase up to that point in state history — which caused his popularity to suffer in his last term, particularly after he arranged for the legislature to double his own pension.

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Saturday, August 15, 2020

Texas Notes: Redheads

Trionfo Di Virtu. Libro Novo, 1563 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     As a fan both of poetry and of writing that sets you in a particular place, I especially enjoyed today's essay from Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey.

          I picked up a clumsy log 
          And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
          I think it did not hit him…

          And immediately I regretted it.
           I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
           I despised myself and the voices of my accursèd human education.

          And I thought of the albatross,
          And I wished he would come back, my snake.

          For he seemed to me again like a king,
          Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
          Now due to be crowned again.

          And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
          Of life.

          And I have something to expiate:
          A pettiness.
                                                                      —Snake, by D.H. Lawrence

     Living with scorpions isn’t so bad. The night I moved into a house in the woods I noticed one of the little buggers crawling up my new bedroom wall. I screamed bloody murder and ran and told my sister that she couldn’t possibly leave me there—I’d have to move back into her home where I’d been living.
     It was settled. Being the stoic one, she calmly said “I’ll take care of it,” and she did. Once it was gone she heartlessly left me there, alone. I may or may not have slept that night. This was back in 2016 when I was still a wimp. After three and a half years of living in a heavily wooded lake community outside of Austin, I mastered the art of living with these heretofore dreaded arachnids. Other fun and frequent victors were pinkish transparent geckos, arthropods of shapes, sizes, and breeds new to me, beetles—ok, giant tree roaches to be honest— and even a couple of red headed centipedes. My own little menagerie. 
     My friend Vivian and her husband John visited from Chicago once, the night of the Cubs big win a few years back. When we got home I remembered that I’d neglected to shake out the sheets and check under the foam mattress that rested right on the floor. They said “oh no, don’t worry about it! It’s late.” I insisted. My heart leapt when I saw the first telltale sign. A scorpion’s molt under the blanket on the top sheet. Vivian said “oh! Looks like the skin of a scorpion.” Yep. I knew what that meant. “Let’s lift the mattress up,” I said. “Oh no, we’re fine,” they said, not wanting to put me out. “I insist,” I said as I raised the mattress off the floor to see the little guy scurry quickly away. I propped the mattress up and grabbed the nearby glass jar and piece of cardboard one must always have handy in homes like this. I caught the little guy and escorted him or her outdoors and my job was done. I hope they were not too freaked out.
     I learned that as long as you don’t stick your hand in a dark place without checking first and you shake towels, sheets and blankets out, the chances of getting stung are rare. Even if one did sting you it might hurt quite a bit for a while but would heal up rather quickly. Scorpions do not prey upon and attack humans, they only react if startled. Dangerous scorpions are not endemic to Texas.
     I’d run around the house catching geckos in said jar while they briefly joined me as roommates, and escort them gently outside. They were cute as heck.
     The first time I saw a wolf spider in the kitchen I must admit I jumped. When I learned that they are harmless and quite beneficial in eating up the small insects they catch, I left them alone. I’ve heard it said that spiders dwell in the homes of kings, so I take them as honored guests. I learned to identify the violin pattern and extra set of eyes on brown recluses, and luckily never saw one.
     The cutest were the jumping spiders with their big eyes that seemed to watch me. Turns out they are able to see very well since their eyes act like telescopes. They hear well via sensory hairs that take in vibrations, and they sing and dance to woo their mates. Who would kick a jumping spider out? Not me.
     The roaches have such a bad rap that even I, lover of creatures small and large, had to help them find the door. They are not hard to catch as long as you are committed. Some of them fly, so hunting and catching them sometimes involved tall step ladders, patience, and a very quick hand to pop the jar over them and slide the cardboard over the jar while the fast and furious mini armored submarine tried to wriggle its way out. When their long antenna would get caught in the struggle and become casualties I’d feel bad, but hopefully they were able to sprout some new ones once they got back to their homes in the trees where they belong. 

     One day I ran the water to warm it up for a shower and went to grab a towel. When I got back to the tub I beheld a magnificent being. It’s long purple body was partially stuck in the drain, and it’s countless yellow legs were moving the speed of light, trying to break loose. It’s head looked like a mini lobster with long curly tentacles. I went to the kitchen, got the tongs, and gingerly removed it from the drain to a table on the back porch. I thought it was a goner since it looked like a drenched noodle. I left it there, took my shower, and by the time I got back outside to check on it, it was gone. I told my neighbor about it and she scolded me. “Never let one of those go! You should have killed it.” It was a red-headed centipede and can grow to the size of a large man’s forearm. It’s sting is incredibly painful and it can do damage to small pets. I also learned that their favorite meal is scorpions. I wonder what kind of ecosystem I’d destroyed by escorting this guy outside?
     I’m now tough as nails when it comes to critters of the arthropod and small reptile variety. The next frontier will be snakes. Wish me luck.