Monday, November 30, 2020

Federal flaw spurs unemployment fraud letters

     There are many ways to find out you’ve been fired. The classic “Could you come into my office?” delivered with grim faux casualness on a Friday afternoon. The mass layoff email. Chicago radio folks sometimes learn of their professional demise in a Robert Feder column.
     I was informed of my unemployment by letter, on Monday, Nov. 16. About 4 p.m. I was about to walk the dog and checked the mail. There was an innocuous window envelope from a P.O. Box in Springfield. Its very blankness screamed, “Open me!”
     “UI Finding” the letter was headed. For a moment I thought it was UL, Underwriters Laboratories. Then a few key phrases caught my eye: “Last Employer” and “Unemployed Reason: Laid-Off (Lack of Work)” and “Last Day Worked: 04/29/2020.”
     I took off my coat. The dog could wait.
     “Honey!” I called. Though I didn’t need savvy legal advice to immediately call the 800 number on the letter while firing off an email to the newspaper’s human resources department.
     “Welcome to the Illinois Department of Employment Security Benefit Payment Control Division,” chirped the voice over the phone. “Your call may be monitored for quality or training purposes ...” It took a few tries to worm my way to where I needed to be.
     “Rather than wait on hold or call multiple times, you will receive a call,” the voice lied.
     I’m still waiting.

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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Stop means stop


     What is more standard than a street sign? Designed to convey a single simple message to drivers zipping past, they are one form that isn't played with. Stop signs are always a red octagon. They're never blue. They're never square.
     So driving down a street in Norridge Saturday I was instantly intrigued with this stop sign addition, a little mini-me sign, adding an exclamation mark to the standard stop sign. As if the town were saying, "No kidding, we mean it." I'd never seen one before.
     Could it be official? Or some desperate measure from a local resident? It looked too well-wrought for that. They got the font right, and that is usually a giveaway.
     At home I jumped online, and found the signs as early as 2008 in Hinsdale, and references to a "Stop Means Stop Program." But I couldn't find an original source—not the program itself., obviously a play off "No means no." Kinda risqu
é for a street sign. Then there is a tradition of newer signs having a little edge, trying to cut through the clutter and stand out from the overfamiliarity of the usual. New York's classic, "Don't even THINK of parking here" comes to mind. 
     I found them in Georgia, but most seem a suburban Chicago thing. Forest Park tried them. Park Ridge too, which inspired Lincolnwood to consider doing so as well. 
In 2018, the Lincolnwood Traffic Commission didn't think much of the "Stop Means Stop Program."
     "The Commission discussed the facts that the program is discouraged by the Illinois Department of Transportation, it contributes to sign clutter, there are no warrants or standards and there is no available evidence to suggest it improves safety or compliance."
     Ouch. In its defense, the sign made me stop completely, but then I wanted to take a photo.  Street sign clutter seems a real concern, to some people, but to me that's one of those criticisms that says more about the observer than the the thing being criticized. "There are too many street signs." That's like complaining there are too many molecules flitting through the air. Or am I making the mistake of treating a genuine concern lightly just because I don't happen to share it? I thought the thing was cute. Then again, I've seen it once. 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Texas notes: The soul of a man

     "The ability to give" should top all of our lists of reasons to be grateful, as Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey reminds us.

     “Hey Siri. Play Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.” 
      His name had been floating around in my mind since I heard it mentioned on NPR the other day. She complied, and I was greatly rewarded. Lilting, bending guitar chords slowly built up to the moment when a rich, boyish yet distinctive voice began imploring the listener. Mr. Elliott played and sang an old gospel song, "Soul of a Man."  
     Time stood still in the way only a song or another stunning piece of art, nature, or sentient connection can accomplish. The lyrics with more questions than answers matched my mood on this strange and lovely Thanksgiving day.
     The morning had started as usual with freshly ground coffee, newspaper headlines and my attention being pulled in and out of radio stories. I like to keep WBEZ Chicago playing in the background, even down here in Texas. Sure, it can be disconcerting to hear “a high of 47 and overcast,” and sometimes I have to take a moment to reorient. After years of living down here in the South it still surprises me, somehow, that there are places where winter doesn’t really exist.
     After coffee, I got dressed and decided it was time to get out of the house. I drove off listening to Ramblin’ Jack, windows open on a mid-70’s Fall day, to nowhere in particular. I had only a loose plan for this holiday. Once the song ended and the trance was lifted, I decided to start at the grocery store. Masked and distanced with hand sanitizer in my fanny pack and peppered all around the store in touch-less dispensers I felt like a character in the Jetsons. I thought “make sure your helmet and space suit are on, lest the very air around you cause sudden death.”
     Reasonably sure I’d survive this visit, I picked out one of the last containers of freshly baked Pao de Queijo (Brazilian cheese bread). I got back into my car and as I drove off continued listening to Jack. I could not find a song nearly as transfixing as the first one I’d heard, so I played it again and again.
     I headed to my friend Richard’s house where he met me in his garage. I left the cheese bread on a chair for him. He took a box of Saran-wrapped plates and Tupperware loaded up with holiday foods and placed the box on the trunk of his car, then backed away. I felt grateful and humbled that he (and others) offered me holiday meals and distanced visits, so far away from my family this year. Richard and I were both masked and kept a good distance from each other. We chatted for a little bit and then said our goodbyes.
     I took the food and headed to my happy place— a small field behind the castle-like museum in the Hyde Park neighborhood nearby. I laid a blanket out on the grass, unloaded the box and turned it over as a table. I put a nice cloth over it and unwrapped the feast. Baked chicken, yams with pineapple, green beans with thick-cut bacon, tart cranberries, stuffing and gravy. The works. I started with the pie of course.
     I marveled at the sky and how utterly content I felt. I’ve gotten used to solitude and while I miss people, we have found ways to stay connected. In some ways I feel closer to family and friends who are far away than I did when we visited more often. When we do talk it’s with more presence and reverence than before. The fragility of life is now ever-present.
      After my meal I took a short constitutional and saw families sitting in circles on their lawns. I wondered if they were wishing they were somewhere else. Sheltering in place with family members usually seen much less has been taking a toll on folks I know. Or were they basking in gratitude for being close to the ones they love? Perhaps they were wavering between the two, or something else entirely.
     As I headed back towards home I passed by a disheveled man talking to an unseen force in his head, standing next to a large dumpster near the gas station. I stopped at the store, picked out a vitamin water, and put together a bag for him— the rest of the feast that I had set aside as leftovers, a plastic spork and napkins, and a waterproof jacket a neighbor donated to my trunk-stash for folks in need. As I slowly approached him (keeping 20’ or so of distance) he bent down and hid. I called out “sir?” and he peeked out at me. I said, "If you’d like a meal and a jacket I will leave them here for you,” and left them on the curb.
     As I walked back to my car he called out a feeble and garbled thank-you and quickly took his gifts down the alley. I saw him sit down in his encampment, about a half a block away, and dig right in. I wished I’d given him more and now that I know where he is, with the generous flow of gifts from my neighbors, I will look for him again. “What is the soul of a man? I’ve traveled in different countries. I’ve traveled in foreign lands. I found nobody to tell me, what about the soul of a man?” In this COVID era I’ve never felt more comfortable with the fact that I do not know.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Why the media isn't fake.

Donald Trump, White House press conference
Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020

      Because nobody could make this shit up. 
     That's it. That's the entire post. I could add more. (What is that? The Irresolute Desk?) But the picture of Donald Trump's first press conference since losing the election Nov. 3 says it all. He is the living embodiment of John Milton's observation, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven." Outside conditions are wildly over-valued, particularly by crude frauds like Trump. It is the person within, his mind and character, that color everything. Look at him. Look at his condition: Rich. Powerful. Famous. The president of the United States. And yet such a tiny, pitiful man. He radiates the essential pettiness within, emits a constant whine of grievance, no matter the circumstance, a howl that drowns out everything else. That's why I'm really not very concerned whether he goes to prison or not. What difference does it make? He carries his cell with him wherever he goes. Some people are their own worst punishment.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving 2020

     Happy Thanksgiving!
     I suppose I should just leave it at that. After a brutal, endless, emotionally-wringing 2020 presidential campaign, with its unprecedented attempt by a sitting president to subvert the election process, conducted against the background of a raging viral pandemic, we deserve a moment of relief, of stepping away from the maelstrom and concentrating on our own personal lives. I still feel blessed, and hope you do too. I hope there is food on the table and a loved one or two in your bubble and you find time to pause, and reflect, and give thanks for the good things, the rocks that are not washed away in the tempest, solid enough to set up a table and sit and share something plentiful and good.
     Period. End of post.
     But this is far from the usual Thanksgiving, even though an alarming number of Americans are pretending it is just another holiday, hopping on planes and gathering in big family groups, while all of the medical experts and the responsible parts of government beg them not to. Why? I suppose being heedless, even stupid, has something to do with it, or at least on automatic pilot, zombies vacuuming a house that's on fire.
     It isn't entirely their fault. We've been grinding through eight months of this. The impulse to say, "The hell with it," is human and strong. Plus many are being led astray. It isn't as if Trump is alone setting fire to the curtains. Yesterday I notice a post on Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas' Twitter feed and, well, perhaps it's best if I just show you:
     In one sense, that is a standard GOP bullshit, the hallucinatory conjuring up of some insane stand—the War on Christmas migrating to Thanksgiving—and projecting it on the bogeyman of liberals, so it can be decried. Squeezing a little imaginary victimhood into a paper bag so it can be huffed, for the high it obviously produces. Not that there aren't academic sorts pointing out that the actual first Thanksgiving took place in September, or that it didn't work out so well for the Native-Americans welcoming the pilgrims. Not that some don't cluck at Thanksgiving, as people do about literally everything. Yet all of it scraped together doesn't amount to a collective eye roll, never mind "losing their minds." Rather, it's the same comic Yosemite Sam bow-legged bluster, Cruz firing his rhetorically six-guns into the air, swaggering against imaginary enemies who are, again remember, trying to cut down the number of conservatives who are dying on ventilators in three weeks.
     It is grotesque enough from a stupid man, from a man like Donald Trump. To see it from Cruz, who was educated at one point, and knew enough to denounce Trump in 2016, before he fell at his feet and began rolling like a puppy. It's despicable and should excuse him from the office he holds—in Texas, remember, where they called out the National Guard to help with the morgue overflow—never mind let him aspire toward higher office, as he so obviously does. That he is a member—I almost said "respected member" but don't want to overstate the case—of the United States Senate, and not some fringe loon, is a hard pill to swallow. Never mind the prospect that he might be the 47th president since, after Trump, anything is possible. So I had to take that tweet and seal it in a bottle and set it on the shelf, here, where we can find it in 2022 when Cruz starts vigorously running for an office even further beyond his abilities. (Assuming he's still not crouched over Trump's shoes, licking). 
      This is criminal negligence, to make business-as-usual Thanksgiving into an act of political defiance and egg his flock of Lone Star State sheep to rush baaing to the nearest pack of wolves and show their bellies.
     Enough, let me let you get back to your celebration, the more modest, safe and low key the better. If Ted Cruz can wildly cheer on folly, then I can provide a knowing nod of approval to caution. There is nothing wrong with stepping away from the herd. When you're giving thanks, you might want to give thanks for being able to breath, unassisted, because not everyone can.
    We will always remember this Thanksgiving. Crisis holidays are like that. I remember a distant New Year's Eve, 2000. The coming of the millennium was a big deal, and people were doing all sorts of wildly excessive things, rushing off to the pyramids, seeing laser shows in Paris. Not only did I not do any of those things, but I had to work, the newspaper sounding an all-hands-on-deck alert in case the Y2K computer melt-down some experts feared actually occurred. (Before COVID, before 9/11, we had no idea what a crisis looked like...)
     So it's 11:45 p.m., Dec. 31, 1999. A quiet night, none of the bad stuff we feared occurring, and I look up at the harsh florescent-lit newsroom at 401 N. Wabash and think, "I'll be damned if I'm ushering in the millennium sitting in this goddamn place." And I get up, and go downstairs, and stroll south on Wabash Avenue, an unusually warm December night, and stop at the middle of the Wabash Avenue Bridge, lean against the rail, and watch the clock on the Wrigley Building slowly advance toward midnight, utterly alone, the street empty. It was quiet and solitary and peaceful. At 11:55, a knot of partygoers, rushing somewhere down the block. Then still again.
     At midnight, a soft cheer, from somewhere, from everywhere, and some fireworks popped in the general direction of Navy Pier. It was a very nice, comforting moment that became a beautiful memory. I hope this COVID Thanksgiving is the same for you. There will only be the one, if we're lucky, and we might as well make the best of it. We can celebrate in the traditional fashion next year. Those of who live to see it, I mean. Stay safe. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"I've got a BAD feeling about this..."

     The "Raiders of the Lost Ark" quality of the Trump ordeal, how it keeps coming at you—deadly spikes bursting out of tunnel walls replaced by giant boulder rolling toward you leading to Amazonian tribesmen shooting poisoned arrows—means that the president finally admitting the obvious, that Joe Biden will be sworn in as president Jan. 20, brings only a small frisson of relief and the immediate question, "What's next? What peril is right now zinging in our direction?"
     Will Trump consolidate his stranglehold on the Republican Party? Build his own media juggernaut and stride toward the 2024 campaign? Defect to Russia while babbling secrets? A thousand days of rallies and tweets and rhetorical boulders tossed into the political pond? Or will he, could he possibly, begin to fade, Cheshire-cat like, until there is only that horrible hairdo hovering behind some neglected podium?
     Nah, not that. That isn't how these things work. "Oh look Indy, I guess we got the priceless statue, got away clean and are home free..." Won't happen.
     Will some other Republican lunge to take Trump's place? Is that even possible? That's the question I've been chewing on: Is Trumpism transferable? Can Ted Cruz simply put on a red baseball cap and be worshipped like a little toy god too? That is a risk, but very hard to imagine. Then again, all of this was hard to imagine. But my gut tells me no. To get the momentum Donald Trump did, the running start of Manhattan megalomania and years of reality TV, you have to be Donald Trump. Marco Rubio can't do. Donnie and Eric Trump can't do it. There was a Fox News in 2012, but nobody was shrieking because Mitt Romney touched their hand.
     Then again, all that frenzy, the illusion-based calliope they've built, has to go chugging off in some direction. Conservation of mass, energy. Nothing vanishes in a puff. They aren't going to look at each other, blinking, and suddenly wake up. "What? Where are we? Who? Joe Biden is president? How can we help him move the country forward?" That ain't happening either.
      Earlier this year, I cast Trumpism as an addiction, a damaging compulsion clung to by broken people in full flight from the world of facts. If we keep the addictive mechanism in mind, then the concept of growing tolerance for the substance of choice might be useful. Don't let our craving for moderation, for relief, blind ourselves to how these people function. The dullness of normality, policy, programs is what they're fighting. They need more insanity, not less, to raise a tingle in their blown-out senses. Trump will be replaced with something wilder, grosser, more destructive. Not Ted Cruz but Alex Jones. The crazy will give way to the really crazy.      
     That's fairly terrifying. And a reminder that prediction is pointless. Nobody could have seen the Trump juggernaut in the spring of 2015. Whatever giant spider or six-headed cobra is hurrying our way, we can't really prepare for it, much.
     So, speaking for myself, I plan to enjoy this moment of calm, the part of the movie where the China Clipper is flying along a little dotted line over India, a breather, the naming of governmental officials who aren't bumblers, fanatics and children of president. Given how horrified we were when it seemed like it was never going to happen, we owe it to ourselves to be pleased, for a little while, that it has happened. To sigh, smile, and await what comes next—a dozen assassins with scimitars raised, shouting "Aiyeebah!" and rushing at us from all directions. That sounds about right.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Live to see another Thanksgiving

    Why yes, I am proud to have snapped this not-all-that-bad photo of a Cooper's Hawk Sunday at the Chicago Botanic Garden with my iPhone 8, not a device well-suited to taking pictures of birds on the wing at a distance.
     And yes, I would like to spend this entire post musing on hawks, and their various splendors and glories. While recognizing that it might not really be a Cooper's Hawk*; I have a tendency to call every hawk I see a Cooper's Hawk.
     But I'm not going to do that, discuss hawks, I mean.
     I can't do that.
     Because of you.
     That is assuming you're one of those people who are actually gathering for a big traditional Thanksgiving dinner this Thursday, despite there being a Level 3 Code Red Emergency Pandemic Alert, or whatever they call it, because you've already bought the turkey or you always have a big Thanksgiving and people expect it and you just can't imagine missing Thanksgiving dinner even if your life depends on it which it may very well.
    I know. Tradition and family and expectation.
    Well boo-fucking-hoo.
     You think I don't miss Thanksgiving? We had 27 people at our house last year. Twenty-seven. My sister came in from Texas. My parents came in from Colorado. We made two turkeys, one roasted, one deep-fried, because one turkey just isn't enough.  We always make two turkeys. So yes, tradition. 
     You know how many people we're having over this year? None. Sure it's stressful. My wife is making a full Thanksgiving meal anyway, complete with a 14 pound turkey, due to ... I don't know, muscle memory. Which isn't quite Miss Havisham in her wedding dress. But in the realm. You know what I said when she asked me what we should eat this year? I said, "Swanson TV dinners. The frozen is just as good as the real." An homage to "Broadway Danny Rose" and sincere expression of the who-gives-a-fuckism that has been getting me through the past eight surreal-if-not-nightmarish months in this country.
     And you see how well that worked. Big turkey. Gravy. Stuffing, Sweet potatoes. Green bean casserole. Some kind of carrot salad and God knows what else. Homemade cranberry relish. 
     So we're going to make this enormous spread and get it on the table and sit down and just look at each other. No guests at all. Nor did we accept any of the invitations to have Thanksgiving dinner anywhere else. Not with my brother. Not with our son studying across the country. And do you know why? Because we don't wanna die. We wanna live to have a better Thanksgiving next year. It wasn't even a decision. It was the biggest no-brainer of all time.
     Returning to hawks. You know how I was able to sneak up close enough to get that quasi-good shot of the hawk? Because he was focused on a squirrel, which was standing still, as frozen as a squirrel ever is, whispering whatever squirrel prayer squirrels say when a hawk is bearing down on them. Because we live in a natural world where hawks hunt squirrels, and eat them for lunch, if the squirrel is not careful and often even if it is. Where the predator swoops in on the breeze and carries you off, from hawks to viruses, and neither care that it's your special holiday. COVID-19 moves from host to host without giving a rat's ass whether it's Thanksgiving or not.
     I'm not writing this to upbraid you. Well, yes, I am. But there's more to it. I'm actually passing along a useful, thoughtful, spiritual idea. Which makes this the blog version of Hints from Heloise, to date myself. A warm, loving suggestion which, needless to say, did not originate from me. The extended family was communicating our general agreement that we were not getting within throwing distance of one another this Thanksgiving when my sister-in-law said yes, yes, that notwithstanding, she'd still like to bake pies for everyone, as a way to off-gas all the goodness in her heart, and to keep her pie-baking muscles limber and what kind of pies would we like? And I put in my order—pecan please—and manfully restrained myself from adding, "...and pumpkin and sour cherry, if possible. Plus chess. And key lime." Then I spent a few minutes thinking about the pie I'd be getting, and then an alien, unfamiliar, completely uncharacteristic thought came to me, like a stranger edging into a vast, empty hall, raising a finger and clearing his throat.
     "You know..." the thought went. "The stuffing I'm making for Edie and I .... the trademark challah stuffing ... I could ... I suppose ... in the same away Janice is making a half dozen extra pies .... could, without the expenditure of too much extra effort, really ... make MORE stuffing, by using extra ingredients ... and put that additional stuffing into those little square aluminum tins, and when I go to her house, to collect my pie (or, ideally, pies) I could leave a few tins behind, for her and her family, and other members of the extended clan, who could get their care packages of stuffing, the stuffing they always eat at Thanksgiving, and enjoy my primo perfected over a quarter century stuffing instead of whatever sucking-pebbles-in-the-desert stand-in for my stuffing that they would cobble together on their own.
     I examined that idea, blinking, surprised. That came from me? With inspiration from my sister-in-law, of course. A boost over the wall. But still. My idea.
     And it felt ... nice.
     So if instead of getting together, and getting each other sick, as millions of Americans seem to be doing because they're dumb as dirt and their lives are forfeit, you could adopt the patented Janice Live Through the Holidays Strategy and safely swap homemade foodstuffs. It seemed an idea worth sharing. I know there's only 48 hours until Thanksgiving, and you might have to scramble. But heck, that should be plenty of time, so get to it. 
     And, if not, well, I tried.

* It isn't. Tony Fitzpatrick tells me it is a red-tailed hawk, and if there's anybody who knows his birds, it's Tony. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Storm door

     So how you doing? Holding up, between the election and the endless vote tally and the laughable lawsuits and the COVID? Good, good. Me too. Not much news to relate. The boys were home, for about six months, but they're back at school—well, the younger one. The older one went to study in Florida with a classmate, which is possible thanks to remote learning. Smart and resourceful.
     I finished a wooden door. And since some readers are outraged when I write about something that isn't politics, I should say, we'll get there, but it'll take time, as good things often do.
     But finishing the door, is a far, far more complicated process than I could have ever imagined. I'm tempted to write a weeklong series about it. There was the genesis of the project. The hideous battered old black aluminum screen door that was completely wrong for our 1905 Queen Anne farm house but I nevertheless walked through several times a day and tolerated because, well, people will tolerate just about anything, particularly if it is already in place when they show up. There was a period of years where I talked vaguely about "replacing the door" but did nothing, as people also tend to do. Then my wife floated plans of buying a new white aluminum door, and pointed out this complicated Suburban Screen Door System at Home Depot which reminded me of the hatch of a battleship, airtight, which I assume was the appeal.  
     Maybe that was her way of giving me a nudge. Maybe it was sincere, who knows? Anyway, it worked, and I realized that if I was to have a door in harmony with the 115-year-old aesthetic of the house, I'd have to take charge of the project, which I hate doing. But she gave me an additional nudge by going online, and finding the exact right wooden door, in the right wooden door factory right in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. It was quite expensive. For a wild moment I contemplated driving up to Fond du Lac to examine this door candidate. But, COVID. So I put my reportorial skills to work, and phoned up the factory and quizzed someone over the phone—friendly people, in Wisconsin, Scott Walker notwithstanding—getting various details, including the fact that the door is sold at Evanston Lumber. 
     I sent an email, then when that did nothing, phoned the owner, and went there, to look at the door, and got to know the owner, a little, who told me he bought the nine neighboring houses so they wouldn't complain about his lumber yard that had been there for nearly a century before they ever showed up. Which is one way to solve that problem. 
    A series of columns would be easy. The factory. The lumberyard. The process of buying the door would be one column, as would Tom, the salt-of-the-earth carpenter  hired to hang the door, since I knew that if I'd put one screw hole 1/64th inch off and the door would never hang true or open properly. His services cost more than the door itself, but I was glad I hired him.
     But since your time is precious, and news is going on, I'd better cut to the chase. The door had to harmonize with our current door, and that took buying a multitude of cans of stain—four, maybe six—before I found the exact right shade, Gunstock ("Gunstock"? Jesus. Why do woodworking and conservative politics go hand-in-hand? That could be yet another post). Once the stain was found, we arrived at the main challenge: marine spar varnish. Close friends of ours treated the old door of their lovely old house in Berea, Ohio with marine spar varnish, and my wife, who'd have been happy with the metal aircraft carrier hatch door let slip, several times, the advisability of using marine spar varnish. It was almost an order, though I liked the idea—it seemed very nautical, and my father was a sailor, and we did once sail across the Atlantic in a ship together, so I guess I'm a bit nautical too, if only in fancy. 
Only $40 a quart
     But applying spar varnish is like building a house. It's like gall bladder surgery: an enormously complicated process. Go online, and look at the tool porn videos of salt-of-the-earth handyman types explaining how to apply spar varnish. At first I thought I would mix the stain into the varnish but the guys I consulted at J.C. Licht—a Northbrook paint store around the corner from our house that I have to plug for all the times I raced in, asked them some frantic question and left—said, no, you put on the stain first, then the marine spar varnish. 
     Only you don't. There is also preconditioner, as my wife discovered, doing her own independent online research—teamwork—which keeps the stain from going on splotchy, and nobody wants splotchy stain. So I watched a variety of wildly differing videos online, some suggesting the stain be applied 15 minutes after the preconditioner, and some saying no, no, it has to be 24 hours. I tried to balance who was right. The divergence was so extreme, it was like watching competing home handyman videos by Martin Luther and the Pope.
     I practiced. I'm ashamed to admit it. I cut up little blocks of wood and practiced applying precondition and stain and marine spar varnish. Then practiced sanding them, a process that itself took a few days. Practice seemed to make sense. Given the cost of the door and the carpenter, I didn't want to then swoop in and Fuck It Up with a bad finish. That would kill me.
     When time approached to actually finish the door, I thought to do it in the garage, and was sweeping out the thick layer of crumbled leaves that lives on our garage floor 12 months a year, no matter what we do, when my wife, who has a genius for bold, out-of-the-box insight, pointed out that our TV room is utterly empty—like many, we're remodeling the homes we're trapped in, covering over a hideous linoleum floor that we tolerated because we're dead inside with real maple flooring—and I should do it there, and I looked at her, amazed, love blooming anew, because I never, ever would have thought of that, and would have suffered for hours and hours in the bone chilling unheated detached garage instead. I prepared the TV room, putting down a drop cloth to protect the floor that is going to be covered by maple flooring anyway because I'm an idiot that way, and set up a pair of sawhorses.  
     So how long to finish a door? A solid week. A day for preconditioning, which I decided needed the full 24 hours because it says so on the can. That's how serious I was about this. I read the can. Then two days of applying stain—the first coat, not dark enough, so sand and apply a second coat, which is just right.
    Then three coats of marine spar varnish, which take six days—and given how bad people are with simple practical situations, I should immediately explain why, though I'm tempted to make you squirm. Three coats require six days...why?
    Sigh. Two side of a door. You stain one, carefully stroking it on, slowly, to avoid bubbles. Then the thing has to dry for 24 blessed hours. Then you turn the door and do the other side. So each coat takes two days.
   Not solid days, mind you. I'd say it took 15, 20 minutes tops to do the door, plus the inset for the screen, for springtime and the glass, for winter (both had to be masked off, using painters tape and brown paper; I'm leaving off all sorts of intermediate steps, like sanding in between coats; I told you, this could run over a week. Or two). 
     So for six days, the door sat on sawhorses in our utterly empty TV room, just before the wood flooring arrived—and on the seventh I gave it a final caress with 350 grit sandpaper: really more like emery cloth—and the spar varnish was like glass.
     The process could not have been rushed. If I hadn't let each coat dry 24 hours it would pill up when sanded (touch the surface after 20 hours and it was still a bit tacky). If I skipped the preconditioner it would have been splotchy. One coat of stain was too light. And three coats of spar varnish were needed for the fabulous glass-like finish I was looking for. I could have done a fourth—some of the endless YouTube videos mention a possible fourth. But I decided not to gild the lily—a glasslike finish would have to do.
     So here's my question: as laborious as the above was, nobody read it and thought, "He should have rushed the door. He should have only given it one coat." So what's the problem with waiting three weeks to thwart the various pathetic legal dodges of the would-be demagogue who would undo it? To make sure every vote validly counted by an American citizen is recorded and certified and shoved up Donald Trump's ass? How is preserving democracy less important than my storm door? Yes, it feels like forever, while it's going on. But when it's done, it'll just be a moment in the long history of our great country. As will be waiting until Jan. 20 for the beast to be booted from office. We should be ecstatic. Squirm as he likes, he's going. The rest are details. So no, I'm not too worked up about his selling drilling rights in the Arctic or appointing judges. He can steal the light plates from the Oval Office for all I care. All that matters is, he's going. Eight weeks from Wednesday. It only seems forever.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Extra special

     "I don't think we've been on this path before," I say, part as threadbare joke, part in sincere wonder that no matter how many times my wife and I walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden, dozens and dozens, hundreds even, we always see new things. What I mean is, "This is fresh, this feels new, I like this."
     I always do. We've been members for years, gone regularly for years. But during the past eight months of the COVID crisis, we've really leaned on our membership. Three, four, fives times a week. Six. After work, usually. Or as a lunch break. For an hour, usually.  Just walking, this way and that, randomly chatting about this or that, our day, our kids, sometimes politics, if we can't avoid it, but we try to. Sometimes not talking at all. Sometimes in what our older son calls "companionable silence."
     It's never gotten dull. It's kept us sane. We've never gotten tired of it. Of course not. The Chicago Botanic Garden is big, 385 acres, and with our going at different times of day, light to dark, and different seasons, summer, winter, spring, fall, dazzling heat and bitter cold, flowers awash in bright springtime colors and retreated into the browns and ochres in winter. Not to mention heading down different paths—you really can't walk it all in one visit. You can't take in half, plus and facing different directions. There really is always something fresh, something we haven't done in a while—the woodland path. It's a little apart. We haven't walked it in a couple months now. Maybe three. Must do that. 
     "That fire hydrant is new," I said, pointing it out. Not meaning "new"—it's obviously quite old, the fire plug from a children's book, and clearly has been there every single time we've visited, by the entrance to the orchards and vegetables gardens, waiting patiently to be noticed. Or maybe I clamped eyes upon it 10 years ago and subsequently forgot. That's possible. the thing doesn't exactly call attention to itself, other than its charming old-fashioned quality. No reason for it to vibrate in mind.
     Why notice it now? Maybe the light was right. Or we were vectoring in just the right direction to bring it into our line of sight. We notice a lot of things that way. Never seen before, then suddenly right under our noses.
     My wife noticed this bell, tucked behind some evergreen branches by the carillon, which a certain family member pronounced "carillion," until occasional gentle correction and the passage of years, nudged them into the proper pronunciation, so now just saying "let's walk by the carillon" has the sense of a complicated bit of personal business. An ingrained demi-tradition, so that hearing it said right, "carillon," is almost a let down, a loss, at least to me, a uniqueness that was allowed to fade through inattention. I have to bite back expressing the desire to hear in incorrectly.
      In the summer, there are carillon concerts—not this past summer, of course, but previous summers, the bells chiming out across the gardens, and, one hopes, next summer. People bring picnics, spread blankets. It's nice. Though over the summer we did happen by when somebody, a student I imagine, was practicing, and we felt lucky to be there. Though honestly, we always feel lucky to be there, bells or not, and usually say it, one of us or both, at various times, "We're lucky to have this," one of us will say and the other will echo "yes lucky" the word resonating a few times, itself like the peal of a bell.
     We stay for an hour. Not only do you discover aspects that are always there, but
sometimes there are ephemeral displays. Orchid shows and cacti shows, back when people did that kind of thing. I usually take a brochure, planning to join, not for the plants, but for the members. It seems like the ideal setting for a murder mystery, the Cactus and Succulent Society of Greater Chicago, awash with violent controversies and seething, suppressed hatreds, all out-of-scale with the tender attention to little spiked spheres. I always smile just contemplating it.
      Pumpkin festivals, art fairs. They're having their light festival right now—don't try to go, it's sold out— and we happened upon these metal men. Not my cup of tea, frankly. Escapees from a Barney's window in the year 1988. But we saw them from a distance and wandered over, then paused before them a moment to take a looking. Knowing they might be gone next time we visit. Hoping that.
    "They're all men," my wife observed, and so they were. 
     Not only are there paths and ponds and plants but, to continue the "p" motif, people, all ages and races and conditions, black and white, Hindi and Chinese. Elderly couples and mothers changing babies on blankets. Hispanic families taking quinceanera photos on the sly. Engaged couples posing on the bridges. Orthodox Jews on dates. Christian families fresh from church. Generational groups. There always seems to be a lot of nationalities there, I'm not sure why. A lot of Russians, and I plan to someday ask a few what it is about Russians and Botanic Gardens. Somebody must know. I'm always hearing snatches of conversation—they talk to each other constantly, or into cell phones.
     "Konyeshna," I said Saturday, repeating a word I had overheard. "'Of course.'" Then we talked about how odd that that word would slumber somewhere. I haven't studied Russian in 40 years.
     At home Saturday night, preparing dinner, we did our usual post-walk post-mortem, and came to our usual conclusion.
     "It was special," my wife said.
     "It's always special," I said. She pondered that logical contradiction.
     "Extra special," she replied.



Saturday, November 21, 2020

Texas notes: Island City

     While we're all locked down, more or less, a welcome tale of life on the move from Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey. 
     A broken toilet is a good excuse for adventure. I learned the water in the tiny house I rent would be shut off for repairs, so packed my bags and headed southeast. I settled on Galveston and drove a few short hours to the yellow Airbnb cottage I’d call mine for a three night getaway.
     The first night was fresh redfish on a deck overlooking barges, yachts and fishing ships in the Gulf as the sun set. The next morning I put Barry White’s deep crooning tunes on one ear pod and biked to his childhood home at 917 Avenue K. It was modest but impressive because he had been there.
     I kept Barry on as my soundtrack and biked up Seawall Boulevard along the coast. White sand beaches morphed into marshes with giant snow-white, yellow beaked herons and muted pink flamingos trying to blend into the grasses.
     I biked from the eastern tip of the island back down Seawall and found myself on a small highway with giant signs painted on the asphalt depicting barges carrying cars. A friend had suggested taking the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula and it seemed I was on my way. It was mid-afternoon and not having planned well all I’d eaten was a Cliff Bar, water and 2 cups of coffee—but forged on.
     I walked my bike onto the giant barge and climbed a steep set of stairs to the outer deck. I let the wind whip my hair around as we took off. It was all that the ocean promises. Shiny black fins of dolphins appeared as they dove gleefully in and out of the huge rolling wavs. Seagulls galore, soaring eye level with me on the deck. A huge pelican flying solo and seeming to hover completely still in the wind as he eyeballed me to see if I’d be tossing any bread his way.
     When we docked the crew suggested that I head to the closest restaurant, La Playita. When I arrived the neon sign in the window said “open” but it was off, not lit up. I scanned it hard to be sure that was right— I was in need of sustenance.
     I mapped the peninsula and Yelp told me that most of the restaurants were temporarily closed. I almost decided to head back to the ferry and call it a wash— I could always return the next day with my car— but that would have felt like defeat. Just then, a black pickup turned the corner towards me and pulled over. It was the same man in the Trump 2020 hat and little brown dog on his lap I had nodded to as we passed a mile or so back. Man and dog peered out at this stranger on their turf, and I told them I was looking for a place to eat.
     The gentleman asked me if I’d like a ride to a good fish place in Crystal Beach and then I could bike back. I hedged my bets and said yes, carefully climbing 
into passengers seat in the large cab, windows wide open, mask on, hand sanitizer in my fanny pack on the ready. He gave me a tour along the way. We passed the Lago Vista Harbor, the Intracoastal Waterway that runs for 3000 miles–from New Jersey all the way to the Gulf of Mexico— and the shrimping boats. He explained that this part of Bolivar, pronounced to rhyme with Oliver, was the quiet part. He’d moved away from Crystal Beach since progress was ruining it. “I don’t like cities.”
     I mentioned how much Austin has built up in the six years I’ve lived there. His last visit was in the mid 70s, a Linklater beatnik distanced memory where weird really was OK. Today it’s more like a mini Chicago, and that’s what I told him. “Chicago!” he said. “I lived there for 20 years.”
     When he was working as a DEA agent in Illinois he met his wife who was from the far south side of Chicago. His brother-in-law lived on 106th near Torrence. My Busia (great-grandmother) lived near 103rd and Torrence. When he mentioned that they used to go to Gayety’s Chocolates “even on the coldest days of winter to get ice cream” I felt comforted by this small, interconnected world. A distant relative of mine now owns Gayety’s and they still have the best chocolate and ice cream.
     He dropped me off at Stingaree Restaurant & Marina, nearly 15 miles from the ferry, and we said our goodbyes. After he’d pulled off I tried the doors and found that they were closed. At least I had that bottle of water. I headed back to Highway 87 and pedaled away. I ducked into a convenience store where locals with masks in various states of undress (noses poking out and such) sat packed around gambling machines.
     I settled on a Snickers bar, a bag of seasoned almonds, and a watermelon drink and got out of there as fast as I could. I got back on the bike after a short rest and cruised, enjoyed the landscape as it flashed by. I passed full pelts of roadkill stretched out perfectly, my very own natural taxidermy museum. The weather was perfect. 70s, breezy, with the wind at my back. A bright blue sky. I put jaunty tunes in one ear pod, the volume low to stay alert to traffic sounds.
     When I was a couple of miles from the ferry Trump 2020 pulled up ahead of me on the shoulder. I passed him, called out “I am ok!” and waved. He said “be careful!” We went our separate ways, perhaps both of us feeling a little less alone.

Friday, November 20, 2020

"The secret weapon of democracy"

     As we wait for the next two eternal months—from today—to see if Donald Trump is able to subvert our democracy through backroom legal maneuvering, or will leave office to lead his 73 million dupe army in a furious rear-guard war against their own country, sentient America holds our breath, raises our voices, huffs on the spark of hope, prays, despairs, worries, laughs, and yearns for, if not a better future, then at least an end to the Trump ordeal.
     Searching for a hard bottom to our descent through this mire, I keep returning to those facts that Trump and his followers so blithely ignore. Facts matter, not out of some airy moral calculus, but because they're there, being facts, and will bite you in the ass. The brick wall will not be passed through, no matter how ghostly you feel. COVID-19 is a real virus that has killed a quarter of a million Americans and will kill a quarter million more before that vaccine gets in our hands. You can pronounce it a hoax, cast off your mask, hold a big, packed, sweaty pig roast for yourself and your friends. But it's still there, and your actions might put you in that second quarter million. 
     Being able to face unpleasant facts, to recognize and act on them, has to put a thumb on the scales for our side, long term. It has to. Maybe not on any given day. But eventually. 
     Or such is the hope. Every game worth playing requires a strategy, and that is mine. Though I worry, at the lowest moments, that faith reality, dedication to honesty, belief in truth, the idea that right prevails—all of it—they're just another delusion, like all the others. Its not the axle the world spins on either. Obviously.
     We'll see.
Reading history, I stumbled upon some words of Adlai Stevenson, spoken in Chicago while accepting the 1952 Democratic nomination for president. History doesn't carve out much space for Stevenson. I imagine that most Illinoisans remember him, if they remember him at all, as the former governor who ran against Dwight D. Eisenhower twice and lost both times.
     Stevenson was a very smart man (though the term "egghead," while popularized in the 1952 election, tied to Stevenson's bald dome, was not coined for him; Ben Hecht used it in the Daily News in 1919) . When I was a student, Northwestern printed in its calendars an inspiring quote from Stevenson, "And don't forget, when you leave, why you came." The implication was he said it at NU, but he didn't. Rather, at a Harvard's commencement.*
     At the 1952 convention, Adlai Stevenson said in his opening remarks, "Where we have erred, let there be no denial; and where we have wronged the public trust, let there be no excuses. Self-criticism is the secret weapon of democracy, and candor and confession are good for the political soul."
     Or at least they were. Now of course, we see in Trump, the triumph of deceit and denial, of willful blindness in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. You can completely botch the battle against a deadly illness and plunge your arms up to the elbows in the blood of 250,000 Americans, and 73 million of the Americans who you haven't killed will still vote for you and passionately support you as you pervert and undercut the basic notions of democracy.
     I don't know how Democrats can fight that. But I do know, if we ape it, we've already lost. Then there are two parties blind to reality, and we've already got one too many as it is. The idea is to defeat them, not double them. Stevenson's words reflect a battle plan, the strength of character that we must cling to, even if it hobbles us, short term. I think they are not only the right thing to do, but a winning strategy, eventually. We'll see, won't we?
     That's my plan to anyway. You of course are free to do what you like. It's a free country. Or was.

     *The full quote is quite beautiful: "Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good friends. And don't forget when you leave why you came."

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Saul Bellow calls up our courage

Saul Bellow and Richard M. Daley, 1989 (Sun-Times files)

     I am an American, Northbrook borne—Northbrook, that virtuous village—and since being carried here by indifferent fate, have suffered a few knocks, none too hard and most of my own infliction.
     I am also on vacation this week. But rather than leave you stranded, I'd like to rescue a digression from yesterday's column, on cowardice and our craven Republican non-leaders, that ended up on the cutting room floor. Not that there is a cutting room—a movie term—though in my world there is certainly much cutting and many floors too.
     I had an interesting conversation with Chris Walsh, head of the Boston University College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program, ranging from Dante to Kipling. He floated an idea that I thought was very trenchant, one that did get into the column:
     "Before you accuse somebody else of cowardice, think what your own duty is, what you should do, out of excessive fear, out of complacency, or love of security."
     And then he did something extraordinary, particularly among academics: he applied is own advice to himself, speaking of "a sense of my own failures, from excessive fear" offering up "a more prosaic fact"—he was going to write his dissertation about Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road," but was dissuaded by his first reader, Saul Bellow.
     "Bellow said I would get bored and grow to hate the guy," Walsh said.
     That's the sort of stray detail that catches the eye of a professional journalist. I sought elaboration. Walsh explained that he was Bellow's assistant for the last five years of the novelist's life.
     Here my interest grew focused and practical, almost mercenary. Bellow has a cameo in the new book I'm working on, and I couldn't resist doing a little fact-checking. Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 and, as per the James Atlas biography, the next year when the Nobel was handed out, by necessity to someone else, Bellow was depressed because he could not win it a second time. That seemed to speak to the essence of the man.
     "Was Atlas being fair?" I wondered. "He presents Bellow as something of a cocksman. Bellow was also very unfair to his friend, Sydney J. Harris in 'Humboldt's Gift.' The colostomy bag."
     Harris was a Daily News columnist I admired, with a lying-under-cherry-trees, thinking-about-stuff style not unlike my own, or should I say, my style is rather an echo of his. Bellow depicts him wearing a colostomy bag, a not-subtle, almost cruel comment on the quality of Harris' writerly output. They were friends from childhood. Harris was a proud supporter of Bellow's. It seemed unkind of Bellow to depict Harris churning out shit.
     Walsh told a story about the book coming out, and Bellow asking his latest wife—he had five—not to read it, and asking Walsh not to read it. I noted that he did not contradict the account. Bellow was a jerk averse to the hard truth about himself, at least when presented by somebody else.
     In the spirit of loathing cowardice, conquering fear and banishing complacency, I should probably admit that I didn't read Bellow as a young man. I was an aspiring humorist, and preferred writers who were funny (James Thurber, Kurt Vonnegut) or eccentric stylists (Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin) or tortured Germans (Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann). 
     To me, Saul Bellow was John Cheever with a circumcision, the John Updike of Maxwell Street. I read "Humboldt's Gift" only because part of it takes place at the Division Street Russian Baths, which, as a former card-carrying member, I was writing about in my Chicago book. I think I just read the parts that took place in the baths. 
     The only reason I eventually read "The Adventures of Augie March"—and I am half horrified, half proud to admit this—is my older son shamed me into doing so. He read it, and would taunt me by periodically firing the famous first line, "I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago that somber city" in my direction, a shot over my bow, until I broke down and read the thing, just to make him stop.
     It's good.
     Chris Walsh and I got to discussing Bellow's work, briefly.
     "It seems to me he is totally passé," Walsh said "He's virtually disappeared. It's a shame, because I think he's worth reading."
     "The wrong race," I observed, quietly. In the 1950s, Jewish writers were the Other. Now we are the Man.
     When Walsh mentioned the need to confront one's own cowardice, and ask what is not being done out of fear, I of course silently wondered what I wasn't doing, out of love of security, but should do. Since were were talking politics, my thought was that firing these columns into the night sky and watching them pop and sparkle for a moment against the swirling darkness is about the best I can do, and anything more—go to Washington, protest the existence of Donald Trump by solemnly setting myself on fire in front of the White House gates, like those Cambodian monks during the Vietnam War—would be not bravery but overkill.
     Although ... there is one thing. While on the topic. I met Saul Bellow once. I've never mentioned the details before for reasons that will be clear. But as Napoleon said, if you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna. In 1989, I was a general assignment night shift reporter, and began work at 5 p.m. My old college roommate, Didier, was in town, and we were celebrating each other's company by passing the hours at a beer hall on Roosevelt Road famous for its 100 types of beer. We didn't hit them all, but certainly tried. He introduced me to the glories of Belgian beer. The nickname of Chimay Ale in Belgium is "Death." It is an apt nickname.
     I was supposed to start work at 5 p.m. At some point I realized I was smashed and tried to call in sick to the city desk, which I guess is a kind of responsibility. It didn't work. You can't call in sick, the eternally patient city editor, Steve Huntley explained, you need to get over to Saul Bellow's condo at Hyde Park. He's going to endorse Richard M. Daley for mayor.
     The fire bell rings, the horse stirs from the straw. That's professionalism. So I went, and was there, and have the haziest memory of the event, viewed through the dark lake of Chimay sloshing around inside me. The resultant article turned out fine, they always did. I came away with a dim impression of Bellow—that he was a racist, endorsing Daley as a bulwark against Black people invading Hyde Park. Daley won. Bellow fled Chicago anyway, heading toward the East Coast and his rendezvous with Walsh. When I got out of his condo, I couldn't find my car, and had to search for it a long time, almost frantic, practically calling the car's name aloud. That's the strongest memory of that visit, and not a good one. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Struggling to understand GOP cowardice

"Shield with the Face of Medusa" by Arnold Böcklin (Musée d'Orsay)

      Enough about President Donald Trump. I’m sick of him, too. He isn’t conceding. Not today, anyway. He may never concede the election he lost but will be dragged from the White House sobbing and pleading like James Cagney going to the electric chair at the end of “Angels With Dirty Faces,” his hands pried off a radiator.
     Let’s talk instead about the Republicans who support Trump as he tries to overturn an American election. How can they shirk from their sworn duty at this moment of national peril? Is there anything in history to help us understand?
     There’s no trouble finding traitors: Benedict Arnold, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jonathan Pollard, and of course our current president, catspaw of the Russians, friend of dictators.
     But when reflecting on the moral repugnance of men like Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — four powerful Republican senators who know better, who see what Trump is attempting, yet do nothing, or worse abet him — I search history in vain for similar craven cowardice.
     Literature offers a few: “Lord Jim,” by Joseph Conrad. Jim is a British sailor on the crew of the Patna, a ship on the Red Sea. The ship founders, and the captain and crew — and after some hesitation, Jim — abandon the ship and its 800 Muslim pilgrims.
     Only the Patna doesn’t sink. It’s towed into port, and Jim and his shipmates are publicly vilified. He wanders the world, fleeing his shame. But that’s fiction.
     I turned to Chris Walsh, author of “Cowardice” and director of the College of Arts & Science’s Writing Program at Boston University. So many leaders are hiding from their duty; why am I having trouble finding parallels in history?

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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Flashback 2007: Dorothy Goldberg is mad at the Bulls

     Jews have a lovely tradition called "yahrzeit"—lighting a candle in memory of lost loved ones on the anniversaries of their deaths. My wife lit one Saturday for her mother, who passed away in 2011. Between that, and the holiday season approaching, I was reminded of this column.

     For Jews, Christmas is a void to be filled with Chinese food.
     So I am at my sister-in-law's on Christmas Eve, digging into the spare ribs—yes, I know—when my mother-in-law addresses me from across the crowded table.
     "Who can I write a letter to?" she says. "I want to write a letter, even though they probably won't care what I write. Who should I tell?"
     Now, Dorothy Goldberg is the refutation of every mother-in-law joke in the world. I've known her for 25 years, and if she has ever uttered an unkind word about me, or about any other member of her family, for that matter, I haven't heard it. She's 82 now, red-haired, feisty and a moral lesson to all those lonely seniors puzzling over their own fractured family relations. Sixty years of common sense, unconditional love, hard work and rectitude, and your children and grandchildren will jostle each other to shovel your walk, change your light bulbs, take you shopping.
     Or, in this instance, air your grievances.
     "Why don't you tell me?" I say, setting down a rib.
     "I'm very upset," she confides. "About Scott Skiles."
     Scott Skiles? Scott Skiles? The name means nothing to me. 
Dorothy in 2010
     "The coach of the Bulls," my sister-in-law adds, helpfully.
     It turns out that my mother-in-law, widowed two years ago, watches all the Bulls games. Or did.
     "I probably won't watch them anymore," Dorothy sighs. "[Skiles] was the Bulls! Who do I write to? Really. It's not his fault because his boys don't throw the ball in, and the other team, well, they throw the ball in, and it goes through the hoop. It's not his fault. He's worked hard. And right before Christmas! I imagine he felt bad."
     She practically scowls, perhaps thinking about Skiles breaking the bad news to his kiddies that Santa won't be bringing any presents this year. My wife interjects that Skiles will be OK.
     "I'm sure he tried," my mother-in-law continues, angry now. "It's the players, they just didn't throw the damn ball in! That's all. I'm sure they practiced, trying to. They throw the ball, and it doesn't go in. They can be two feet away, and it doesn't go in!"
     "Two feet away, and it doesn't go in" sets the table laughing. Conversation stops as the family regards her with something approaching wonder. This is out of character for her. She looks at our smiling faces and is sincerely indignant. "What gets me is none of you feel bad—you don't, do you?"
     I admit I don't.
     "If you put a gun to my head on the way here and asked me who the manager of the Bulls was, I couldn't have told you," I explain.
     "Coach," my wife corrects me. "Coach of the Bulls. The manager is John Paxson."
     "I watched them, and I really enjoyed them, with him sitting there!" says Dorothy. "He was the Bulls! I was really upset. I was shocked."
     I tell her not to worry—the Bulls will be apprised of their folly at the first opportunity. You can't eat at a woman's table for two dozen years, shoveling in the high-quality Kosher chow with both hands while basking in the warmth of unconditional love and not spring to your duty when called upon. After dessert—homemade ice cream and three kinds of home-baked cookies—Dorothy asks when she might expect this in the paper.
    "Wednesday," I say. "Take it to the bank."
                                        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 26, 2007

Monday, November 16, 2020

Voting rights swept away in Trump era

     I’m old enough to remember 1965. A year when Americans were churning cream into butter, learning the alphabet and singing “All the colors that I know/Live up in the rainbow.”
     Oh wait, that was just me, in Miss McCloud’s kindergarten class. The most significant event for the rest of our country in 1965 was passage of the Voting Rights Act.
     When the media revisits Selma, it’s too bad we focus on state troopers attacking marchers with their nightsticks and dogs but skate past the reason the protesters are there in the first place: trying to give Black Americans the ability to vote. They already had the right, by law, thanks to the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. 
     But what the law allows and what people are actually permitted to do can be two very different things. African Americans were turned away from voting by all sorts of sham literacy tests and poll taxes. For 100 years.
     Today “voter fraud” is the 2020 version of literacy tests, and restricting vote-by-mail and ballot drop boxes was the latest incarnation of poll taxes: vehicles for disenfranchising voters. Turns out that the same folks who so adore the 2nd Amendment don’t care at all about the 15th.
     As we blink into the roaring cyclone of lies that is the Trump administration, it’s easy to overlook the ever bolder racism. But where in Pennsylvania does Trump lie about, over and over, as having a corrupt voting process? Philadelphia. And what is the largest racial group in Philadelphia? African Americans, at 44 percent.

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Sunday, November 15, 2020

"Thank you for writing to the office of Neil Steinberg"


     As much as I complain about email, I still like it. Receiving email shows that what I'm writing is touching people, for good or ill. I read and respond to every one—with the exception of the perennially negative, who get one response, and then are immediately put into the filter and never read again.  My never responding does not seem to faze them. Many continue hectoring me, unperceived—I glance into the filter sometimes to see if anything wanted is there—like patients in some dim locked ward gibbering to the wall. I feel sorry for them, but helping is not within my power.
     The complimentary are received with gratitude. Those raising valid points have those points addressed. Rare is the email that evokes something extra, but such was the case with the email below, which arrived with the dawn Saturday. Why don't you read it and see if what leapt out to me leaps out to you:
Hello Neil, or Neil's staff,
     I want to comment that it looks like the Republicans have been holding their collective noses for so long that their noses have now become permanently pinched (hence, the label, "The Pinched Nose Party.")
     My dad was a staunch Republican all of his life, but he finally became disgusted with the GOP in the last years of his life and felt forced to switch allegiance.
     My father died in 2018, but I think that I can picture him, holding his fatherly nose and saying in a nasally voice, "desperado." It's not a good thing when our politicians, on either side of the aisle, become a bunch of desperate desperadoes.
     Notice anything? It's the salutation: "Hello Neil, or Neil's staff." I thought that was incredibly sweet. "Neil's staff"? I mean, who could possibly live in a world where a guy like me would have a staff? And suddenly I was plunged into the dream that my reader, who asked that her name not be used, had evoked. I thought a moment, and replied with the following:
     Thank you for writing to the office of Neil Steinberg. Unfortunately, due to the incredible volume of email he receives, not all correspondence can be shared with him. However, you can be certain that were he to read   your remarks about your father considering Republicans to be "The Pinched Nose Party,"     he would be gratified to learn them, and would in addition     express condolences for the loss of your father, 2018 not being all that long ago.
     Thank you also for reading the Neil Steinberg column. It is readers such as yourself, in Chicago, the United States and around the world, who have made the Neil Steinberg column a Chicago Sun-Times institution for nearly 25 years. Thank you as well for taking the time to write to Neil Steinberg. He highly values all his readers, and would wish you a good day, warmly and personally, if only he could.
          Best regards,
          Pierce Bronard
          Senior Assistant to Mr. Steinberg

P.S. Kidding. I'm lucky to have a job, never mind a staff. I've never had an assistant or legman and, the economics of newspapering being what it is, if I did I would have lost him long ago. But it gave me a smile to imagine what that might be like, having a staff, and I hope you will forgive me a bit of Saturday morning levity. I of course feel all the sentiments above, having written them myself. Thanks again for writing.
          Neil Steinberg

     Alas, no reply, so I have no idea how that was received, unless the reply is coming, via channels, some wildly indignant complaint even now filtering down through the Sun-Times hierarchy. But I didn't find anything offensive in it, and it certainly enlivened my morning, and as I say to new hires at the Sun-Times—or as I said, anyway, back when we actually had the chance to talk to each other—"Welcome aboard. If you're not having fun, you're doing this wrong."

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Texas notes: Twinkies

Nancy Peppin was a Reno artist who painted Twinkies (Nevada Museum of Art)

     My usual role in the presentation of Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey's much-anticipated Saturday report consists entirely of providing the medium by which is it conveyed to you. But this entry is different since, in our friendly email communications during the week, I mentioned that I had spent the day ... wait for it .. researching Bozo's Circus, the beloved children's show. And thus a seed was planted...

     I have been thinking of my grandmother a lot. She lived on 95th near Commercial in an industrial part of Chicago, under the shadow of the skyway to Indiana. Acrid steel mill odors filled the air and choked us as we arrived. After an hour or two we’d acclimated and no longer detected the smell. We played in fields of overgrown prairie grasses and hid in the jungle of green bean vines in her backyard. We snapped bean pods off the vine and chomped on their sweet crispy shells and tiny green seeds inside. 
     Her house was simple with brown vinyl siding and a concrete staircase with a black metal railing leading to the front door. She’d be standing on the porch waiting when we arrived. My sister and I scrambled out of the wood paneled station wagon and into Grandma’s warm embrace, racing to see who could get there first. She’d have freshly baked bread on a cutting board in the kitchen, and toasted as many pieces as we wanted, each drenched in butter.
     If we were lucky we’d be spending the whole weekend there, along with our black standard poodle Felix. We’d wave at my folks as they drove off and then we were instantly lured back into Grandma’s cozy house. She spoke to us in a baby voice and used the same voice with Felix, who she also fed hot buttered toast. The love in her voice was tangible; she adored us to pieces.
     Grandma Marie spent most of her time in the kitchen, sitting at the oblong dark wooden table on a sturdy wooden chair with a rounded back and arm rests. She chain smoked and always had WBBM Newsradio 780 AM on a little black transistor with the antenna extended as high as it could go. When my sister and I were otherwise occupied, Grandma would play solitaire and sometimes pray with her rosary. She cried sometimes. A wooden plaque with an inlay of Jesus and his disciples at The Last Supper hung on the kitchen wall that she faced at all times, yellowed from years of cigarette smoke. I remember them looking sad and longing, as though they wanted things to be different.
     Grandma Marie was an ardent church goer and we’d join her for Latin masses— we’d genuflect, sit, stand, and kneel along with the rest of the congregation, a silent dance of sorts. The nave was drenched in Frankincense that wafted out of an ornate vessel attached to a chain that the priest waved hypnotically up and down and side to side. I had no idea what the priest was saying, but I simply loved being at my grandmother’s side. The smell of her Walgreen’s perfume, Emeraude, enveloped me. If I reached up to touch her arm it was crepe-like and as soft as a baby bunny.
     One day Grandma told us something that was such big news for little girls that we are lucky our little hearts did not palpitate straight out of our chests. She was taking us to Bozo’s Circus. As my mother recalls it, Grandma had requested tickets for us when we were babies, and maybe that’s true. What I remember is that we’d be leaving from the elementary school she worked at as a kitchen manager and taking a yellow school bus with the students to WGN studios. I was 8 or 9.
     That day I meticulously picked out my flared jeans with the roller skates on the back pockets that I had gotten at Wee Modern on Devon. I put my giant tube of Bonnie Bell Lipsmackers into my back pocket and I was set. My sister and I met my Grandmother at the school and piled on the bus with children we did not know. I felt at ease since all that mattered was Bozo. I remember being on the expressway and as we got closer I felt that I was about to achieve something great.
     We lined up in the hallway cordoned off by velvet ropes waiting to be allowed in. All of a sudden a man was talking to me, urgently. What was he saying? They needed girls in pants (most were wearing skirts) to play a game on the show and if I wanted to play I’d have to go with him right away. I got the clearance from my Grandmother and off I went.
     A dozen or so other kids and I were given a quick set of instructions. We divided into two teams and sat next to our teammates, across from the other team, our legs in V-shapes and our feet touching to create a human chain. We were tossed a balloon and used it to play volleyball, our only job to keep it afloat when it reached our side. The whole thing happened so quickly that I barely remember it, or the show at all. All I knew is that I was sitting on the stage of the Bozo show, cameras all around and felt very special. We lost the game so each won a box of Twinkies.
     As we rode the yellow bus back to the south side school I held my Twinkie box and fell asleep. It had been a long day.