Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Debate all crosstalk and confusion

     "Maybe 'debate' is not the word to use to describe tonight’s event," Princeton historian and CNN commentator Julian Zelizer tweeted a few hours before the brawl between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday. 
     Prescient. Although you didn't have to be Nostradamus to see that coming.
     Though "debate" might be the word for it. The first definition of "debate" in my Oxford English Dictionary is "To fight, contend, strive, quarrel, wrangle." 
     Sounds about right. The news networks certainly kept their questionable policy of treating the event like a boxing match.
     "A pretty well-matched fight," said CNN's Abby Phillip, ahead of time, introducing what she called "a slugfest."
     Though I wrote a column Tuesday morning, the paper asked if we could hold that so I could react to the debate. I was happy to be in the mix, but in doing so I had to whip together the following almost immediately. So if you're interested in what a column looks like written in 15 minutes, this is your chance. 
     In doing so, I saw how the national media tends to layer a kind of unfair balance over such situations. It's the default mode. The truth was that Trump's lying, bullying manner upended the civility required for real debate, and made it the stressful, unpleasant embarrassment it was.  But that takes five minutes' reflection, at least for me. The pros in immediacy were better at instantly nailing it.
    "That was a shit show," said CNN's Dana Bash, live on TV, and to illustrate just how true that assessment is, nobody seems shocked to hear her say it on air. Yes, yes it was. 
     I didn't quite come out and say that—I was too busy trying to get the words down in some kind of coherent order. I hope it comes through. Yes, good that Joe Biden stood up for democracy and handled himself admirably. Yet the affair leaves any thoughtful person not glad, but sad, and deeply concerned for our country. With two more shitshows left.

      “This is not going to end well,” President Donald Trump said toward the end of Tuesday night’s debate — or should that be “debate,” since it was more of an exercise in crosstalk and confusion, the first of three.
     He was referring to the election he insists will be “a disaster” with “30, 40%” of the mail-in ballots lost.
     But after 90 minutes of his free-for-all with former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump might be talking about the American experiment itself. It’s hard to have watched the mud wrestle in Cleveland and not come away with a certain despair for our country, based on the low state of anything resembling discussion of the issues.
     I suppose I should point to parts as significant.
     Once again, Trump was pressed to condemn white supremacy. And again, he did the opposite, telling violent groups such as the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
     Stand by for what, he didn’t say. Dog-whistled orders, perhaps.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

"A wild roller coaster ride through a dark tunnel"


     When I wrote last week, in a follow-up to my Sept. 8 Cologuard column, that the danger of follow-ups is there can be no end to them, I wasn't kidding. I thought I was done. I wanted to be done. And then I received this email from Timothy Hufman of Willowbrook. Tell me, what would YOU do? I really have no choice here:

Dear Mr. Steinberg:

     I have been reading your articles on Cologuard. I appreciate your mixture of humor and helpful information. Yesterday, you pointed out the pros and cons of using Cologuard as compared to getting a colonoscopy. One of the risks you mentioned with a colonoscopy was that its effectiveness depended greatly on the doctor who did the procedure. You pointed out that “Some doctors look harder than others. Some spend three minutes snooping around your colon. Others spend up to 14. The harder they look, the more they find.”
     I have come up with a technique to insure that my doctor does a complete examination – I join him (or her) in the examination. In essence, I have had a colonoscopy without taking any anesthesia. This allowed me to remain awake and alert during the whole examination looking at the same monitor the doctor was watching as he traveled through my colon.
      The experience was not painful as the colon has no nerve endings. “Meaningful discomfort” may be a more accurate description of the event. Most problematic was the initial insertion of the scope. All of a sudden, I got that “full” feeling similar to what one experiences seven hours after a huge meal when you are desperately looking for a bathroom. Thereafter, I was happily able to watch the show on the monitor from the comfort of my gurney with only mild cramping as air was blown into my intestine to inflate it for easy passage of the scope.
     Significantly, the procedure does not include an examination of the colon while “going in.” Thus, the scope quickly moved up my intestine with a view on the monitor similar to a wild roller coaster ride through a dark tunnel with only one small headlight illuminating the way.
     It was fascinating watching the scope make the hair-pin turns following my large intestine as it wound through my bowel cavity. Along the way, we came to one real sharp bend which the scope had a hard time maneuvering . As the doctor continued to struggle with getting the scope around the curve, I looked down at my abdomen, where the scope was stuck, to see my skin go up and down as if there was a finger in my bowel trying to push out.
     Finally, the scope reached the ileocecal valve which separates the small from the large intestine. At that point, the doctor began the examination by slowly retracting the scope as the camera, with its miniature light, illuminated the portion of my intestine that we were just leaving. At one point in our journey, I saw a dark spot on the colon wall. I cried out, “Wait, wait, what was that we just passed?” The doctor sighed and dutifully retraced his steps up the intestine to the dark area of my concern. It turned out to be a bran flake or some other debris that had apparently clung to the intestine wall during the preparation period when I flushed out my system. Having satisfied my concern, the doctor continued the journey.
     “Slow down” I said, when he began going too fast for me to carefully see the area we were passing through. Again, there was that sigh as he slowed down the retraction of the scope. Thereafter, aside from a few other pieces of partially digested food that we passed by, the rest of the trip was uneventful.
     Finally, at the end of the inspection, just before removing the scope, the doctor bent the camera around so that I could look at my hemorrhoids as they appeared from the inside. I think the doctor took a little pleasure in seeing my look of horror at what I was observing.
     With that, my journey was over. Although I was still cramping a little from all of the air still inflating my intestine, I was relaxed knowing that the examination of my colon had been thorough.


Timothy Hufman

Monday, September 28, 2020

Biden isn’t Bernie, but he’s good enough


     Friday I worked downtown, and ate lunch in Washington Square Park. It was a lovely day, and I lingered, just watching people walk by, glad to be in the city. Eventually I got up, and crossed Walton to spend the afternoon at the Newberry Library. Just as I crossed the street, this van drove up and parked, directly in front of the library.
     As I often say, it's better to be lucky than good.
     I snapped a photo, and almost turned to go. But I had to know: GOP stealth mockery based on ambivalence about Biden? Or sincere Democratic effort? I'd have bet on the former. The graphics were too slick for Democrats.
     "Sort of a Jews for Jesus thing?" I asked the driver, meaning, a wolf in sheep's clothing, trying to disguise itself as its prey. We talked at length. But even after I interviewed him, and then Sam Weinberg, the founder of "Settle for Biden," that qualm still lingered—this might be some elaborate scam, and I was falling for it. But I decided nobody is that good an actor, and you have to go with your gut.

     Sam Weinberg had to do something.
     He had returned last spring after 18 months abroad and found himself in the teeth of a pandemic. Instead of getting ready for his freshman year at college, the Chicago teen was watching disaster tighten its grip on our nation.
     Meanwhile, his friends looked at the upcoming presidential election and shrugged. What does it matter who wins?
     “I was seeing lots of people in my personal social circles and online saying things like, ‘Joe Biden and Donald Trump are two sides of the same coin,’” said Weinberg, 19. “That really incensed me on a personal level and on a policy level.”
     Rather than despair, Weinberg acted, using his generation’s irreverent view as a starting point, calling the group he started “Settle for Biden.
     “The name is reflective about begrudging support,” Weinberg said. “Yeah, he’s not our first choice. But he’s our only choice, and we have to live with him. Joe Biden is not the progressive ideal. But he’s a step in the right direction.”
     Chris Madden also had to do something.
     The Minnesota teacher heard about Settle for Biden and took a dramatic step. He bought a 2020 Ford van and spent $5,000 to wrap it in a mural touting the organization. Then he began to drive across the country.
     He arrived in Chicago Friday.

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Sunday, September 27, 2020

The world isn't really dying

Photos by Tony Galati

     "Got to the cabin yesterday," faithful reader Tony Galati writes. "The leaves started without me this year."
     Nature will do that. One of her sterner yet more valuable lessons is that the world chugs on whether we are there or not, whether we like it or not. Always has; always will.
     The vast majority of it anyway. We all have our little corners that we decorate or ruin, then mistake for the whole thing, a bit of unconscious synecdoche that no doubt is essential. We'd be overwhelmed if we pulled back too far too often and understand just what a dust mote we are traveling for a split in second in the vast twirling icy eternity of everything.
     Still, when things go south, as they do, and our minute slice of space and time curdles, as it has, that exercise can be curative. To divert our gaze away from our precious selves toward the beauty of the parts we aren't part of, the things we haven't screwed up yet. Pull back, look around, notice the forest from the trees, the leaves and not our footprints through them.
     Between the election and the pandemic and the economic calamity and the racial reckoning, I've heard the phrase "the world is coming to an end" more than once, and might have even used it once or twice myself. But the world is more certainly not coming to an end. Our little part of it, perhaps, though not yet and not without a fight. In the meantime, it's autumn.
Lake Superior

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Texas Notes: Socked feet over shag rugs


     EGD Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey weighs in with her weekly update.

     Eight-point-one miles into a recent walk I started to hear a voice in my head. 
      “What is the meaning of your life? Why are you here?” 
      I am not sure why my mind went there on this particular day. How many of us have asked ourselves that question? If we have not, perhaps we are on the right path and have always been. Perhaps our calling came at a young age and we had the good fortune and drive to follow it. There have been times in my life I have been sure about my direction and did not question it, but these days I am full of questions. I want to be sure I am living my best life based on my true gifts and desires, and not based on what I think I should be doing, or what I feel falsely limited by.
     As a child, I figured my purpose was to have lots of fun: ride bikes, climb trees, and explore the underground sewers with flashlights during construction projects. I knew I was supposed to pitch in at home and bask in the love and attention of my family, extended family, and friends. I was supposed to show up at school on time and participate in learning, then have lots of fun and get into mischief during recess, lunch and after school, (and sometimes during school in the form of copious note passing). I was told I was smart, but I was not a disciplined student unless I loved the teacher and the topic interested me. While in class I often dreamed of swinging from the weeping willow branches outside, or skating on the iced over field outside of school at Rogers Park— where, sadly, many trees have been uprooted by a recent tornado in Armageddon 2020.
     In my daydreams I wondered whose house we were going to go to for lunch, or how much money I’d dig out of my pockets for a visit to Eastern Style Pizza on Touhy, the buttery crust dripping with grease calling my name like the pied piper. I kind of paid attention too, and was granted a space in the coveted philosophy class in 5th grade where we sat in a circle and contemplated our usefulness in the world. 
     Perhaps this planted the seed for me to realize that there is a purpose for me, and this may have been around the same time I started making a conscious effort to include everyone as much as possible. (Mom, Dad, is this true?) I’d sit next to the shunned kids in class, knowing it was the right thing to do. My heart always went out to the disenfranchised among us, and I felt it was my duty to help them feel welcomed.
     I’ve always had a problem with cliques that exclude others. I have to admit I was in one or two over the years, I suppose when I let my guard down and aimed for my own inclusion above all else. Honestly, I was happier hanging out with the smart, quieter kids and had a lot more fun with them. Being with the popular girls was stressful. They were more competitive and less present. They could not spend hours dragging socked feet over shag rugs and shocking each other, falling to the floor in hysterics. They were more concerned about hair and makeup and boys. I’d try to fit in but often felt like an outsider when doing so. There were some good memories, but my core group of two other girls and me playing with Barbies until we were “too old,” and sleeping three to a twin bed was more than fine with me. I wish I’d lived in that state of innocence for a lot longer than I did…
     Today it seems my purpose is simple; keep getting my chops up as a therapist via hours of Zoom classes and FaceTimes with mentors each month, staying as balanced as I can in order to show up for work and cope with pandemic stress, and get more clear about who I am and what I want. A quote attributed to Helen Mirren has been circulating around social media lately— her only regret at the age of 70 is not having told more people to fuck off. I’ve been finding ways to do this without those harsh words, by simply speaking my truth and setting clear and firm boundaries when necessary. It’s fun.
     After some COVID slumps and periods of intense anxiety, I’ve been in a good mood lately. I attribute it to radical self-care, nightly meditation to clear my thoughts and re-set, long walks and bike rides. A surprisingly lovely pandemic birthday a few days back— albeit far away from family and lifelong friends— also helped. For the third time in this blog I now have to mention my new favorite icon (among my old stand-bys: Jane Addams, Frances “Sissy” Farhenthold, Emma Goldman, and Snezana Zabic): Elisabet Ney. Two friends and I were granted a very special guided tour of her castle museum house on my birthday. We learned that the marble cherub boys signify how the combination of knowledge and an open heart (or for the religious, a connection to their god) leads to personal elevation and a sense of moving upwards on the journey of life. This resonates with me. Life feels so short now and something is telling me to keep things simple and as light as possible. It’s impossible to tune out the noise and haste of the world, and the dire nature of our country right now. If I can keep my head to the sky perhaps I will survive and help others do the same.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Leafy suburban paradise roiled by COVID stats

Lee Goodman updates the COVID death toll on his sign in Northbrook

     The media consisted of a camera crew from ABC 7, a helicopter, and me.
     Although I was there in my unofficial capacity. Not as newspaper columnist but as local resident. I had heard the chopper, looked at my phone — 3:57 p.m. — and remembered that at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Lee Goodman would update the number on his sign to 200,000 to reflect how many Americans have died from COVID-19.
     Lee is the sort of fellow no town should be without and, indeed, most towns have one. The local gadfly, or activist — lately I’ve referred to him as “the spoon that stirs the pot.” A retired lawyer, Goodman left the profession to devote his full energies to endeavors such as posting a sign at the busy corner of Shermer and Walters, an area set aside for free expression. It is significant that the other sign, already there, is promoting the annual Lobster Sale at The Episcopal Church of St. James the Less.
     As much as I would like to dive into exploring the identity of St. James the Less — cousin of Jesus, apparently — let’s keep our focus on Goodman’s sign.
     I witnessed its arrival Saturday — again, again, not in my journalistic capacity, but as a man smoking a cigar while walking a little dog. The sign drew reaction: a zealous spontaneous rally celebrating the glories of Donald Trump and the insulting absurdity of suggesting that a large number of Americans have died of COVID. I watched the commotion, briefly, then left with the conviction that this is going to be a very long six weeks, if not six months, if not six years.
     Tuesday, while I gazed at the helicopter, wondering what it costs to keep that thing in the air, a large, angry man marched up. “Why is the president’s name there?” he demanded. “What’s Trump got to do with this?” I am not given to direct personal confrontation. But the slow pitch of that question just hung there, right over the plate. Why should this guy be the only one allowed to yell? I swung on my heels.
     “If you have to ask,” I said, con brio, “you’ll never know.”

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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Apology to Wisconsin

     In mid-September, against my cautious nature, if not my better judgment, I drove up to 
the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to Ontonagon, on the shores of Lake Superior. 
     Yes, it was risky. I'd be hanging out with half a dozen guys for the weekend. Mostly careful, older men like me. A couple younger guys, in their 30s. All people outside the bubble.
      I made up my mind not to go, initially. I've gone, geez, seven times before. Nothing worth getting myself sick over. Yet when the moment came: "Yes or no?" I surprised myself by saying, "Yes."
     Why? I always go. The year I didn't go, nobody went. It was my fault. I take risks as it is: shop in stores. Do interviews. I've been safe so far. It was a calculated risk. This pandemic could go on for years. You can't cower forever. Mental health is as important as physical health.
     I was more concerned about the drive up. My pal who has a place in the UP said he had gotten some hostile looks from gas station attendants on the trek. The mask. I knew we would stop at Held's. We always stop at Held's, in Slinger Wisconsin, about 90 minutes out, to load up on beef jerky for the weekend. It's thick, soft, homemade beef jerky. I used to buy enough to bring home. A souvenir from the Great North. But my wife complained about it smelling up the kitchen. My older son coined the perfect description:
     "It tastes like a burned-down house."
     That it does. So I only bought a pound and a half—about $33. It didn't last a day. 
     I was worried about walking into Held's. The transaction. Would I wear my mask? Or would I cave to local convention and go in unprotected? When in Trumpland, do as the Trumpkins do. How timid is that? Wear the mask and not care? I'd only be inside for a minute. Not a rough crowd, exactly, but not high tea in Andersonville either. Last year, a guy in front of me had a pistol. Not in a holster. Just sticking out of his trousers pocket.
     "Obscure columnist beaten to death with a side of jerky for wearing a mask..."
     I was relieved to see this sign on the door. Insisting, politely. The clerk—nah, that's too highfalutin a term for Wisconsin—the guy behind the counter, wore a mask. He cut me a generous hunk of jerky.
      Honestly, I wasn't worried until the drive back. What had I done? Now I have to wait two weeks to see if I get sick. Plus, when I got back home, I began to worry I'd have to quarantine. Went online, tried to figure out the requirements. I have a research day Friday at the Newberry. Would I have to cancel? No, there was a window—their numbers were down, while I was there. The COVID quarantine gate didn't slam shut, for a second time, until Tuesday. Whew. That was lucky. I
've been home for 10 days, and not so much as a tickle. Lucky. So I seem in the clear. 
     Bottom line: I'm glad I went. Took the heat in the sauna, plunged shouting into the frigid lake, hiked for a few hours, smoked cigars and drank can after can of Pabst Blue Ribbon NA. Talked and laughed and cooked—well, cleaned up, Rory did the cooking. Told jokes, dirty jokes, if you can imagine. It was a lot of fun, and fun can be hard to find nowadays.
    And although I did some across some kind of spontaneous Trump parade near the aptly-named Butte des Mortes, I was wrong about the mask situation. So my apologies, Wisconsin, for underestimating you. Those folks in Wisconsin can still manage to surprise. Let's hope they do it again in November.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Cologuard has drawbacks, but better than doing nothing

from Bartholomeo Eustachi: Tabulae anatomicae
     Three times a week is a lot to stand on my little newsprint soapbox, raise a tin trumpet to my lips, and blow.
     So if I expect you to regularly listen, I’d better not sound the same note, but skip from one tune to another. Because repetition is boring. But sometimes a shoe is left dangling, such as when I wrote about the Cologuard colon cancer test on Sept. 8.
     Reaction fell into two camps. Those grateful to learn of this new way to detect colon cancer with a home test. And those concerned with aspects I didn’t address.
     “Your comprehensive article on Cologuard does not cover the most obvious question — how many false positives? False negatives?” wrote Dr. Robert W. Brandstatter, a North Side dentist.
     “We have no real data to help guide patients and clinicians with what to do after a Cologuard test is done,” wrote Dr. Tibor Krisko, a New York gastroenterologist and assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical in New York City. “If positive, a colonoscopy is clearly warranted (though there is evidence to suggest many people with positive results do not get the all-important, potentially life-saving colonoscopy).”
     The traditional colonoscopy — a doctor snakes a tiny camera into your intestines to look for tumors — has drawbacks. You must go to a hospital, risky in the age of COVID. You’re under general anesthesia, also presenting risks. Doctors might perforate your colon with the probe. The procedure is uncomfortable, time-consuming and expensive. So 40% of adults skip the test, despite its big benefit: detecting cancer when early and treatable instead of advanced and lethal.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2020



     The summer of 2020 ends today.
     Thank God. What a strange season. No travel. No ballgames. No family barbecues. A summer of masks and anxiety.
     And yet; there were definite highlights.
     Most nights, when our work was done, my wife and I would go walking in the Chicago Botanic Garden. It seemed important, and was relaxing, although not without its own set of challenges. When you walk in, under the trellis of flowers, you are presented with a choice: break left, toward the Rose Garden, or right, proceeding along the lagoon, or straight, toward the orchard.
     "Which way?" my wife would ask, unless I asked first.
     "If I had my druthers..." I began once.
    "What's a druther?" my wife asked, interrupting me. 
     I stopped, mouth open. I had no idea. I've been saying it ... forever. But what does the word mean? From the context, I'd say "choice." It sounds kinda British. A good name for a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. "Jeeves, prepared for a weekend at Lord Druthers' estate in Cambury!"
     I had a presentiment, pulling down the "D-E" volume of the Oxford that it wouldn't be there, and it wasn't: straight from "drut" an obscure term for "Darling, love, friend" to "Druvy" a varient of Drovy "turbid, not clear or transparent."
     Not in the Oxford. A regional term, then? An Ohioism? No...couldn't be. Not in the American Heritage either. Am I spelling it right? Could it be, oh, "durothers?" No.
     Okay, time to cheat and go online. Merrian Webster: "free choice: PREFERENCE —used especially in the phrase '
if one had one's druthers.'"
     Another online dictionary pegged it as "Informal—North American." That's us! Particularly this summer. I never put on a tie or a suit jacket, not once. I think I put on khakis once.
     But where did the word come from? Webster's read my mind:
     Druther is an alteration of "would rather." "Any way you druther have it, that is the way I druther have it," says Huck to Tom in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Detective. This example of metanalysis (the shifting of a sound from one constituent of a phrase to another) had likely been around for some time in everyday speech when Twain put those words in Huck's mouth. By then, in fact, druthers had already become a plural noun, so Tom could reply, "There ain't any druthers about it, Huck Finn; nobody said anything about druthers." Druthers is essentially a dialectal term and it tends to suggest an informality of tone, but in current use it doesn't necessarily suggest a lack of sophistication or education. 
      Whew, that's a relief. Or should I say a disappointment, given how popular abandonment of both sophistication and education have become. Too late now to try to fake our way into the uneducated crowd: just this morning my wife and I spent a while discussing the etymology of the expression "Oh my." My suspicion is that it's what's known as a "minced oath." A digression I'll save for another day.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Has our nation hit rock bottom yet?


     Almost four years ago I was tagging along with medical workers from the Night Ministry. We found ourselves standing before three people sprawled in a nest of blankets and sleeping bags off Lower Wacker Drive.
     At first I held back. Then, I gingerly nudged forward, afraid they’d clam up as soon as I took out my notebook. But they didn’t. They answered whatever question I asked — their names, what drugs they were taking. I could take pictures. They weren’t embarrassed. They didn’t care about anything except getting those drugs inside themselves.
     Addiction does that. You are locked into feeling that pleasure, or relief, or passing sense of normality. End of the story. You don’t care about the damage you’re inflicting upon yourself or others. You don’t care that the addiction is killing you. You could shake this emaciated woman and ask what her younger self would think of what she’s become. She’d stare back at you, hollow-eyed and uncomprehending. She doesn’t bother to eat food; what does she care about lost dreams?
     That’s why I have to laugh when my somehow still idealistic friends wonder when Donald Trump’s base will abandon him. When they will finally see the ruin his presidency has caused this country and regret their role in supporting it. That’s easy: never. They’ll never give him up, just as many addicts never quit their substances, except by dying.
     The concept of addiction is the best way to make sense of our country today. Trump makes his followers feel good. He soothes the ache in their broken parts. Like heroin, he makes them feel safe and secure even while doing the exact opposite. They’re not safe and secure, but on the street, endangered, living in a country wracked by a pandemic that their drug of choice trivializes and ignores. They’re teetering on an economic cliff, while shivering in fear at pipe-dream fears about socialized medicine.
     What do they care of deterioration of American democratic institutions? They’re in denial. That’s like asking a drunk driver whether his tires are properly inflated. All he cares about is how much is left in the half pint.

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Ginsburg death makes a bad season worse


"The Four Justices," by Nelson Shanks (National Portrait Gallery)

     The stakes, already high as could be, just got higher.
     But before we dive into politics, a pause, to contemplate the humanity too easily swept aside in the rush to spin and analyze.
     Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an American legal hero who struggled upstream against a rushing river of sexism to become a respected attorney, winning key court victories for the rights of women.
     She was a wife, mother and grandmother, and her passing Friday evening at age 87 — on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a time of hope and renewal — is deeply felt. She is mourned by her family, friends, and a nation that had come to idolize her — well, half did, anyways — for her courage, incisive legal mind and relentless efforts for the marginalized.
     She was also a liberal associate justice on the United States Supreme Court, and her vacancy will be immediately filled by a grinning arch conservative whose name Donald Trump will blindly pluck off the list provided by the Federalist Society. A slim Republican Senate majority will lunge to approve that choice, possibly before the Nov. 3 election.
     Those frantically waving Mitch McConnell’s words from 2016, when he blocked Barack Obama appointee Merrick Garland from consideration, are painfully naive, if not fools, appealing to a sense of fairness that has utterly vanished. Amazing at this late date they could even bother scraping together outrage. We’re long past that. The gears of American life are greased by hypocrisy.

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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Texas Notes: Jazz Break

Hamid Drake

     A musical interlude from our Austin bureau chief, Caren Jeskey.

     Ernest Dawkins and his ensemble took the Velvet Lounge stage and solemnly bowed to each of the four directions. Bedecked in intricately woven golden hued cotton and silk garb, fezzes, and dreadlocks, they began to play. Their hybrid of free jazz, funk and soul reached inside of us and elicited feelings we didn’t know we had. At one moment the upright bass soothed our souls, and in the next, bright sounds of a Treme-style trumpet kicked into full gear and had us on our feet.
     We were at the original Velvet Lounge on Indiana near 21st. With its exposed brick walls and red velvet wallpaper, and a collection of musicians and audience members who are there to truly listen and not just drink, it was a cozy and captivating place to be. When it relocated around the corner to a  swanker listening room on Cermak it still held its power. Fred Anderson, the proprietor, was one of Chicago’s jazz greats and endowed us with his brilliance. He was wise and generous enough to also treat us to a showcase of artists. Only the cream of the crop stood on his stage. When the glass door closed and the $20 cover was paid, patrons were expected to sit down and pay attention to the show, and that we did. Drinks were quietly and discreetly secured between sets. 
     Certain music elicits deep inner worlds where there are no words, but only mystery and  possibility. It shocks the listener into silence, first, by the sheer prowess of the voices and instruments and how they are used and second, by a huge sigh of relief that life can feel so darn good for a stretch of time.
     Hamid Drake is another gifted showman in our midst who I first met at Velvet Lounge— a percussionist extraordinaire. (By ours, I mean yours up in Chicago). He is a towering presence of power often adorned in clothing fit for a king and amulets with secret meanings. Though I more easily picture him in a chariot, one just might run into him at Starbucks on Lincoln and Wilson as I once did (as he sat to wait for his daughter who was in music classes at the Old Town School). The area around him seemed to be filled with a vibrating presence. Perhaps his drums followed him around? I wonder if having such genius in one’s mind takes up more space?
     Hamid’s discography is endless and includes work with The Mandingo Griot Society, Herbie Hancock, Pharaoh Sanders. He is dedicated to the creation of his art and COVID has not stopped him. This year marks the 30th consecutive Annual Winter Solstice Percussion Concert that Mr. Drake and his creative partner Michael Zerang will offer as way to bring reverence to that time of the year. It’s an experience designed to get us off of the conveyor belt of holiday chaos and into a quiet, reflective zone.
     I started going to these concerts back in my Velvet Lounge days, the early 2000s. At that time they were running for 3 days straight— the 21st, 22nd and 23rd of December— at Links Hall on the corner of Sheffield, Newport, and Clark. The first time I went I was hooked and returned as many times as possible year after year. We’d line up at about 4:30 a.m. to be sure we’d have a good place to sit. The doors opened at 5:30 or so, and we’d silently shuffle up the stairs, many of us clutching pillows and meditation cushions. When we entered the dark space, we could just make out two drum kits set on woven rugs in the center of the hardwood floored room. Hundreds of tea light candles surrounded the drum kits. Peppered all around the kits were frame drums, mallets, bells, shells, rattles and other music makers. Floor to ceiling windows overlooked the 'L' tracks.
     I’d sit on the floor as close to Hamid’s kit as possible. Hamid and Michael would silently walk in at about 6 a.m., sit down, and start to play. They'd play on and on through rumbling 
'L' trains as the sun came up. If I didn’t know better I’d think the trance we all fell into was drug induced, but it was not. When it ended we’d feel a sense of well-being, thanks to a combination of the steady, deeply resonant beats and the shared and joyful experience. We were wowed by the unique and unparalleled techniques we’d just witnessed. They played off of each other, speaking in the language of music. Sometimes it was delicate and tinkling, other times thunderous. There were also deep moments of silence. We felt we were hearing a lullaby that drowned out fears and doubts, and replaced them with an emptier mind with more space to rest and breathe. Whether we were heading to brunch or to work the rest of the day would be blanketed in a sense of calm. 
     This year I see that the show is planned to be held virtually at ESS, also known as Elastic Arts, in their Quarantine Concert Series. Who knows where we will be in December of 2020, this mad year? Instead of being glued to the revolution that very well may still be televised, perhaps we can consider taking a break.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Rosh Hashanah livestreamed in COVID-19 era

     The Jewish year of ... checking ... 5781 begins at sundown Friday, and is a reminder that the Chosen People are not newcomers at celebrating holidays during hard times. As grim as the COVID pandemic has been, it doesn’t hold a candle to Babylonian captivity or Roman persecution, the Inquisition or the Holocaust. 
     Not yet, anyway.
     The business of maintaining Jewish identity, already under siege by modern life, is complicated in the Plague Year of 2020 as Judaism celebrates Rosh Hashanah — literally, “head of the year” — and then atones for sins in the year to come at Yom Kippur nine days later.
     “This is an interesting year, unlike any other,” said Rabbi Steven Lowenstein, whom I called because his synagogue, Am Shalom of Glencoe, is one of many streaming high holiday services.
     “We’ve been livestreaming for eight or nine years now,” he said. “We originally did it as part of our outreach to people who were sick or couldn’t come to services. This year is much more complex and more difficult.”
     Complex because they can’t just turn one camera on the bima — the raised platform where services are conducted. The clergy are scattered, for their own protection.
     “Now we are spread out in four different locations,” said Lowenstein. “Seven or eight different cameras, six different lecterns, socially distanced from everyone. We’re attempting to bring it all together.”

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Thursday, September 17, 2020

Bartlett water ski show to thrill no more

     The Palmer House Hilton closing indefinitely, I can endure through pure denial; it recovered from the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Great Depression, it’ll somehow pull through COVID-19 and bounce back with its Wedgewood ceiling intact.
     Ronny’s Steakhouse, well, having eaten there several times, I could accept its demise philosophically. Things happen.
     But the Tommy Bartlett Show? The Water Thrill Show?
     Cut out the heart of the Dells — out of Wisconsin, out of the entire Midwest. Exile the ornate faux riverboat of Mr. Pancake to the salvage yard, sell the Packers to Austin, Texas and sign our country over to the Russians while you’re at it. White flag. We surrender.
     I’m semi-serious. My family loved going to the Dells. Seeing the Tommy Bartlett Show was as American as apple pie.
     ”The boys liked the speedboats and clownery,” I reported after a 2002 visit, “and I savored the show as a pure form. One doesn’t get much chance to see a chorus line of gals doing the can-can on water skis, never mind a flag-waving pyramid streaking by to ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’"
     Is that not America? How could that not survive? That is the central quality of the Midwest. We don’t quit. We continue. Did a duck boat sinking in Branson, Missouri, killing 17 people, put a stop to the Dells duck tours? Of course not. Did the death of Tommy Bartlett, famous radio star, slow his empire? No, the concept he expropriated in the early 1950s from Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., kept going without him.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

If Donald Trump is trying to quash something, it must have real value

     Vacation days are dumb beasts. They don’t know there’s a pandemic. They keep reproducing, even though they’re unnecessary, since the prudent person never goes anywhere anymore. Busy yourself working — isn’t that the best?
     Yet they keep reproducing, out-of-sight. Then when your attention is finally forced in their direction, say, by your company’s human resources director, you’re shocked to see there are now dozens of them, a flock, cooing gently under the porch.
     Use those days or lose them, and the only thing I like less than taking vacation — if you’re not in the paper, you might as well be dead — is losing vacation. You feel cheated. So I winnow the herd.
     I was going to start vacation two weeks ago today. But the paper had scheduled me for diversity training, and that isn’t something the prudent employee skips. “Maybe if you had attended diversity training, you wouldn’t have . . . ” insert some head-slapping blunder here.
     My only thought, beforehand, was an imperative. “Say nothing.” This event is transmitting information to me, not drawing information from me. Now is the time to show off my hard-won shutting-up skills.
     The two-hour meeting transpired on Zoom. And might have vanished down the memory hole, except two days later, a presidential memo barring such sessions in the federal workforce was released. “The President has directed me to ensure that federal agencies cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions,” wrote Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The blue jay, the president of birds

     Just when I thought the whole summer would be a waste, three blue jays showed up at my feeder Monday.  I lingered to admire them too long, and didn't get a shot of the trio as they flapped around, vying for position at the seed trough.  Not that an iPhone can shoot birds that aren't roasted and on a platter.
     John Jay Audubon did a much better job of capturing a trio of blue jays. 
     Of course he had the luxury of killing them so they'd sit still for their portraits.
      Mine spent about half a minute pecking at their lunch. Then they were gone, no doubt off to visit with their wide range of admirers, which are many for these handsome if vexing birds.
     "Their saucy, independent airs, sprightly manners, brilliant colors, and jaunty, plumed caps have gained them many friends," F.E.L. Beal notes in his 1897, The Blue Jay and its Food."
     I try not to find augury in birds, but I took a certain meaning from their arrival at this perilous point in time, knowing that blue jays are particularly American birds.
     "The blue jay, Cyanocitto cristato (from the Greek kyanos, "blue," and kitta, "jay"), is the very first bird in Alexander Wilson's famous nineteenth-century American Ornithology," Diana Wells writes in her essential book 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. "And he surmised, correctly, that this 'beau among the feathered tenants of our woods' is uniquely American."  
    This is not necessarily a compliment. Audubon depicts his trio of blue jays gobbling another bird's eggs.
     "Who could imagine that a form so graceful, arrayed by nature in a garb so resplendent, should harbor so much mischief," Audubon writes. "That selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection." 
    Yeah, a lot of that going around...
    "Selfishness, duplicity, and malice." I sense a replacement for the eagle as our national symbol, depending of course on how the election goes this November.
      The blue jay's range does include most of the southern half of Canada, and in 1976 the otherwise anodyne city of Toronto appropriated the blue jay for the name of its expansion baseball team. "The Blue Jays" was picked among 4,000 entries by the majority owner, Labatt Breweries, though common wisdom is that the color won the day more than the bird itself: Labatt's Blue is their major brand of beer, so the team was always going to be the "Blue Somethings." Blue Bells, Blue Valentines, Blue Bayous—when you think of the alternates, it almost had to be Blue Jays. 
    The "blue" in the name doesn't need any commentary. The "jay" is obviously an onomatopoeia, as the things are always screaming "jaaayy, jaaayy!" The Oxford English Dictionary traces "jay" back 700 years in connection with "a common European bird, Garrullus glandarius, in structure and noisy clattering resembling the magpie, but in habits arboreal, and having a plumage of striking appearance, in which vivid tints of blue are heightened by bars of jet-black and patches of white."
     Wells points out that the word was often used to describe a silly person—hence "jaywalker"—but this is unfair, since "in fact, like all corvids, jays are very intelligent." ("Corvid" is a general term for large birds with clawed feet adapted for perching, including crows, ravens, magpies and jays). 
     A very stable bird genius, perhaps.
    "He is more tyrannical than brave," Aubudon writes, "and like most boasters, domineers over the feeble, dreads the strong, and flies even from his equals. In many cases he is a downright coward.
     Yup, we know the type.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Swampy's Revenge, or, "Hey, wait a minute...."


     People cling to stuff, and it accumulates.
     That was especially true for me. I had trouble getting rid of possessions, precious relics all, debris from my ruined palace of self. Maybe if I held onto it, I could build the past back up someday...
     Lately I've been better. Having seen my wife having to dispose of her parents' possessions—her mother had 11 roasters—I'm keen not to put our own kids through that. So stuck at home, and with a vacation last week, we went at the basement. It helps we have a grand-nephew now, crawling like nobody's business, to whom we can deliver plastic crates of toys and books.
     The old video games were pitched. Don't write in to tell me they were valuable and I could get as much as $3 a pop on eBay. Not worth the time. Not thrown away, but taken to Goodwill. Maybe someone else can use them.
     Except this one. It's going too, but it is infused with a tale, and I have to wring the story out before I discard the rind.
     Frogger 2: Swampy's Revenge, the second version (I assume) of the vastly popular kiddie video game where bold-if-reckless amphibians are sent hopping across busy highways. The small print on the back says it was released in 2000, which sounds right. My boys would have been 3 and 5, freshly moved to this house.
    The game was brand new, and they really, really wanted it. I don't remember this part, but pleading was usually involved. Out-of-stock 0n Amazon (it's scary to think Amazon is 20 years old—it's actually 26, and started selling computer games in 1998). 
     It's hard for boys to wait, and I had an idea. Online might be overwhelmed, but there was still the living world. I swung by the Borders on Waukegan Road, made my way to their music and video games department, and sure enough, there was Frogger 2.
      An ordinary dad would have purchased the game, brought the thing home and delivered it to my jubilant lads. But I am not that dad; I had a kink in my programming that caused me to look for the more ... ah .. whimsical route.
     I deposited the game in our mailbox, then went upstairs.
     "Should we see if Amazon has Frogger 2 in?" I said, settling in before the computer, a boy on each arm. I scrolled quickly past the part saying it wasn't available.
     "It is!" I said. "Should I order it now?"
     "Yes yes!" the boys cried in chorus. "Now now!" 
     I pressed the order button with an exaggerated plunge of the finger.
     "There!" I said, ignoring all the other screens needed to settle credit cards and shipping before the order was actually placed.
    I waited a moment. 
    "Okay!" I said, hopping up. "Let's see if it's here!"
     We all ran downstairs and burst outside, and tore open the mailbox.
     "It is! It is!" the boys cried, faces aglow.  We headed upstairs in joy and triumph. 
     If that's all there were to the story, I would never tell it. But there is one more part, as we headed up to the computer to play, a moment occurred afterward I always cherished. Crossing our front room, heading up the stairs, our older boy paused.
    "Hey," he said, or words to that effect. "Wait a minute...."
     Something was amiss. The brief time that elapsed between clicking the button and the game arriving in our mailbox. That was ... awfully fast.
     That "something's wrong here" reflex is key to the intellectual development of any adult. Not every adult, sadly. Lots of people never acquire it, which is why Donald Trump is president of the United States. But the ability to grasp that something — even something that is good, something you want — just doesn't make sense is as precious as gold.  It serves me well, and I'm proud I've passed it on to my sons, who it will no doubt will continue to benefit.
     Frogger 2: Swampy's Revenge goes to the Goodwill, eventually. Though I might keep it on my shelf for another couple decades first, as a token a of a father's small prank, and a flash of nascent skepticism in a 5-year-old.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Whimsy and good steak at Gene & Georgetti

     Early in the pandemic—April it was—the boys had been home a few weeks, we were enlivening up Friday nights and supporting our besieged restaurant community by ritualistically ordering takeout. The boys, both sent home from their schools, realized we could, by ordering out, put normally wildly-expensive Alinea chow in our mouths for a fraction of the price—1/10, by my estimation, with the duck confit cassoulet dinner costing $39.95, about a dime on the dollar of eating it in their Lincoln Park dining room.
    The food was fantastic. I did something I had never done before. In cleaning up afterward, I took the little round transparent plastic lid from the raspberry vinaigrette and, glancing around guiltily, licked it clean. That's good salad dressing.
     But something was missing. If you have eaten at Alinea, you know that, as great as the food is, there is also sense of drama. Small clever flourishes of conception and presentation. Dinner there is like watching a magic show. How, I wondered, would they translate this whimsy to the carry-out experience? I expected a rolled note tied with a ribbon. An enigmatic seashell. A clever token. Something fun.
     And the answer was, they weren't. Just excellent food, period. In regular aluminum containers with cardboard lids. Which was fine. But I had expected something more from one of the best restaurants in the world. Something was missing.
    That something was found when we pulled into Gene & Georgetti for our anniversary earlier this month, before I even sat down I smiled at the little clear "stash your mask" envelope. Score one for old school. Michelle Durpetti will never be featured on "Chef's Table." But she figured something out that Grant Achatz' couldn't (Actually, she tells me, she borrowed the idea from a restaurant in LA. That works too).
     The flourish couldn't have cost much. A nickel for the opaque envelope. A dime for the sticker. But somebody had to think of it, a mask holder which, I rush to observe, nobody really needs. I dutifully slipped my mask inside, taking it out when the waiter approached. They are very, very COVID conscious at Gene & Georgetti. We felt safe. And coddled.
     Our first dinner in a restaurant in six months was excellent. We sat for two hours, outside, enjoying the 'L' occasionally grinding by, the passersby on the street. Service was friendly and impeccable. Our opening course, shrimp dejonghe, came in a butter sauce of such excellence that my wife asked for some bread to sop up every last drop up. She ordered a brace of lamb chops that were first rate. Our older son—we weren't going to leave him at home—was interested in the aged steak. Aged steak is like aged blue cheese—a very distinctive taste. He liked it very much; let's leave it at that.

     I have a favorite meal at Gene's that I've been ordering for decades, which they call a "steak sandwich" which is actually a filet mignon on a piece of toast. But since this was our 30th anniversary, and we were not in Spain, where we had hoped to be, I threw caution to the wind, and ordered their top-of-the-line $78 t-bone steak, medium rare.
    Let me re-iterate. I adore Gene's, have been going there for 20 years and hope to go for 20 more. But I do have a fidelity to truth, and the truth is, while the steak looked fantastic, was perfectly grilled, and I finished every morsel, it was not indeed fantastic steak. At least not fantastic a way that I could comprehend. If it was superior from what could be picked up at Costco and slapped on the grill, I was blind to those superiorities. My guess is that it is a supply chain issue, due to the current crisis, and completely out of Gene's hands.  I trust they'll forgive me mentioning it; I couldn't write about the experience otherwise. In fact, I know they will; you don't stay in business for 79 years by getting upset over a little loving criticism from a regular customer.
     That mild disappointment—good, not great steak—did not detract from an unforgettable dinner, I hasten to add. With the steak was a fabulous dish of roasted Brussels sprouts with apples and chunks of thick bacon, and their trademark creamed spinach. For dessert, we had a first rate tiramisu and something new—an intensely rich chocolate cake. I tipped well and will return happily, assuming they'll still have me, and urge you to dine there soon.  Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their restaurants. Nothing is guaranteed in this life, and Gene & Georgetti is one of those special places that make Chicago Chicago.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Texas Notes: The Revolution Will Be Televised

           Austin  bureau chief Caren Jeskey reports in.

   Gil Scott-Heron disappeared at his own show. He was performing at Cabaret Metro in Chicago in October of 1998. We’d been bobbing our heads to his smooth and sultry partly spoken, partly sung poetry while the band played mesmerizing blues-jazz-funk tunes. We were transfixed by the visionary before us. This was our church—live, soul-enriching hypnotic music. Gradually we realized that we hadn’t heard his voice for a while as the band played on. It took many long minutes before the trance was broken and we opened our eyes to see what gave. He was no longer front and center at his microphone stand. As pleasantly lulling as the band was, we missed our superstar and had to know where he had gone. I made my way to the front of the stage and scanned for Mr. Scott-Heron.
     As though watching the fog lift during a film noir scene, I made out his impossibly thin frame crouched down against the wall alongside stage left. He must have leaned against it, and his tired legs slowly gave way, leaving his knees pointed sharply out towards the band, his bottom sagging almost to the floor. His bony back was deeply rounded into a C, and his head drooped heavily into his long-fingered palms. I had heard he’d battled a long history of drug addiction, but to actually see our hero taken down by drugs was heart wrenching. As I recall, he did not return to the mic that night.
     We had gotten all we had hoped for at the show—he’d delivered our favorite songs in perfect tune. His lyrics summarized each and every truth about social injustice that we were painfully and acutely aware of as young people from Chicago involved in social work. His lyrics were what we called next level—he “overstood” in our eyes. He was a wise sage for whom understanding was simply too banal. Yes, we took ourselves and semantics pretty seriously. He saw things crystal clearly and said them in a such a warm and inviting way that he could have melted an ice cap. His words predicted everything happening in the United States of America today. A Nostradamus of his time.
   His extraordinary talent made it easy to forgive his flaws. He modeled how to use one’s voice and speak the truth, and he did so with genius level lyricism and musical composition. We could chill out to his music droning on endlessly in the background of coffee shops as we played backgammon and philosophized about changing the world for the better. We could also dance to his songs as spun on vinyl records at the Muzic Box on lower Wacker or at C.O.D. on Devon.
     When we danced to this kind of music, it was a form of activism. We moved our bodies to thumping beats while contemplating lyrics to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, thus focusing on topics that mattered. We awakened more deeply to why we felt that things were just not right. We’d been with our black friends and harassed by cops, knowing that we were all good kids who did not deserve the tyranny and fearing deeply for our black friends’ lives—we knew many who did not make it. We closed our eyes and danced away our blues while singing and relating to The Bottle, a song about alcoholism and the destruction it wreaks upon families and children; or the incredibly sweet sounding Angel Dust he recorded in 1978. “He was groovin’ and that was when he coulda sworn the room was movin’—but that was only in his mind. He was sailin’, he never really seemed to notice vision failin’, ’cause that was all part of the high… He might not make it… down some dead end streets there ain't no turnin' back.”
     Prophetic lyrics from Winter in America: “The Constitution, a noble piece of paper with free society. Struggled but it died in vain, and now Democracy is ragtime on the corner hoping for some rain.” Since this blog is for the not-easily offended I feel comfortable sharing Whitey on the Moon: “A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the moon. Her face and arms began to swell and Whitey's on the moon. I can't pay no doctor bills but Whitey's on the moon. Ten years from now I'll be paying still while Whitey's on the moon.” If he were alive and writing today it might say “I take the bus to and from work and Whitey works from home. I may die of CO19 while Whitey works from home.”
     Gil Scott-Heron did not know that Instagram and Facebook feeds and iPhones would be streaming our current revolution live when he wrote his famous song, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: “Because the revolution will not be televised, Brother. There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mae pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run, or trying to slide that color TV into a stolen ambulance. There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkins strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he has been saving for just the proper occasion.” Lo and behold, it is.  
     I will try to rest in knowing that what is happening today is a tragic yet inevitable piece of our history. Our current circumstances have been building for generations—both the uncorking of exploitation as well as the pandemic. Sociologists and common folks, as well as scientists, have been trying to warn the rest of the world. Conflict has and will always be present in civilizations. We can only hope that all of this unrest will yield true change, true democracy.
     I will take solace in the gestures of activism I am able to make, such as collecting donations and feeding, clothing and supplying my unhoused neighbors with essentials and taking good care of my clients in this global multi-layered crisis. I will also gratefully ask Gil Scott-Heron to continue to sooth and inspire my soul. In 2010, one year prior to his death, he gave us something sweet to ponder. “No matter how far gone you've gone you can always turn around… and I'm shedding plates like a snake. It may be crazy but I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reason. Turn around, turn around, turn around and you may come full circle and be new here again.”

Friday, September 11, 2020

Correction: It was the Chinese

Gutenberg Bible: The Chinese beat us to moveable type by 400 years.
      When was the last time you learned something from a card on a museum wall? Not trivia, not a detail from a French Impressionist's sordid private life? But something important that you did not know before? Some new historical information that contradicted what you had always believed was true and changed the way you see the world?
Our reputation preceded us: America is the naked
lady holding the severed head in the foreground.
      I was working on the book at the Newberry Library Wednesday, when I took a break for lunch. I got downstairs a little ahead of schedule, and steered myself into their new exhibit, to kill 10 minutes. 
     While not on the usual stations-of-the-cross rotation of the Art Institute, Museum of Modern Art, Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, the Newberry still mounts some wonderful shows, if you recall our visits to "Creating Shakespeare" in 2016, "Religious Change in Print" in 2017, their marvelous Melville exhibit last year. 
    This new exhibit, Renaissance Invention: Stradanus's "Nova Reperta, based on a series of 16th century engravings about then cutting edge technology by Medici court artist Johannes Stradanus, is up there with the best of them.
     In the first room is a framed page from a Gutenberg bible, and as I went up to admire it, I glanced at the explanatory card. I didn't jot the text down—must have been sapped by my morning of professional-quality historical research—but it basically said, "While Gutenberg is credited with inventing moveable type in the West, Asian cultures had been using it since the year 1000." 
    Oh. So now you tell me.  I suppose we could hide behind the detail that Gutenberg's type was metal and the Chinese type porcelain, but really, what you make the type from isn't really the sticking point in the invention. Score one for the Chinese.
    Much in the show was truly beautiful—Abraham Orteleus' colorful 1570 "Theater of the World," the first modern world atlas (above).  Or the title page of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum.  
Galileo tried to hide his heresy by disguising it as a
friendly argument among three philosophers.
 The pope was not fooled
       As the afternoon wound down, I kicked off a half hour early so I could return to the show, and was amply rewarded. Next to a brass astrolabe—a device for finding the latitude of a ship—we are told that this one comes from the famed wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha which went down off the coast of Key West in 1622 and, incidentally, "Over half of the 100 surviving examples of mariner's astrolabes come from such shipwrecks."

     See? Treasure hunting is not all about gold doubloons and pieces of eight.
     There might be more. I ran out of time before I ran out of exhibit, and could only leave knowing I'll soon be back at the Newberry, doing more research. 
     Of what I could take in, my favorite object has to be a copy of Galileo's Dialogo. I knew he had published something supporting the Copernican system and got in trouble with the pope. But I had never seen the actual book that sent him kneeling on a rail, nor imagined it was such a lavish volume. 
      The exhibit is free and open to the public. The gallery was utterly empty while I was there: one other patron in the 40 minutes or so I was exploring. So if you're looking for a safe, convenient, interesting diversion—interesting if you are of a certain mind, that is—well, now you have a place to go.
Not crowded.