Thursday, December 31, 2020

How long was 2020 in dog years?


     So, the final day of 2020, come at last.
     A singularly challenging year. A fatal year, a plague year, one where 330,000 Americans died of a disease that was thoroughly booted by our bumbling nincompoop of a president, Losey L. McLoser.
     Don't do that little celebratory dance quite yet. Still a few hours left. Much can go wrong in that time, if 2020 is any guide. A volcano could rear out of Grant Park at 10 p.m.. Or a meteorite to come winging in your direction at a quarter to twelve. 
     What's to say it won't happen? Hope? Ah, ahahaha.... 
     And looking ahead ... what? All we have is a whiff of our old narcotic hope, plus Joe Biden and a nadir of a year already behind us, nearly, permitting us to imagine that 2021 must be better.
     Should midnight approach, and we make it there, to the end of Dec. 31, you might be wondering what you can do to ceremoniously bid farewell to 2020. A rude gesture, an obscene toast, a guttural shout, something that will represent the year in all its splattering splendor.
    Don't bother. I already beat you to it. You will be hard-pressed to conjure up a tribute to 2020 more fitting than the one that fell—okay, was hurled—into my lap Wednesday.
     I was on the sofa late yesterday afternoon, reading the new New Yorkeran excellent Talk of the Town piece by Adam Gopnik pointing out how autocracy is the rule, and 
democracy the exception, and how all the elements of fear and ignorance we've seen rampant this year have been faithful handmaidens to our national experiment because, well, they're omnipresent. "The only way to stave off another Trump is to recognize that it always happens."
     And I was feeling ... well, calm, and ready, fortified by Gopnik's perceptive take on the situation.
 Poised, and maybe even a little comfortable, as the winter daylight dwindled. So comfortable that I beckoned Kitty, my faithful dog over, and boosted her up, so we could sit on the couch together, one prone master, one loving dog.
     Poor dog, she's had a rough few days—hurt her knee Sunday, a torn ligament probably, then poked and prodded by two vets, on a variety of anti-inflammatories and herbal joint remedies. None of the long walks we both love for ... shit ... eight weeks. If that is even possible. 2021 is already souring. I can't even walk the goddamn dog.
    Accept. Endure. Overcome. All will be well. A moment of calm. I look at Kitty, scritch her behind the ear. And Kitty looks at me with her large, liquid, brown eyes. Which grow larger and more liquid, taking on a certain expression of ... distress. Yes, distress. The significance of which dawns on me just in time to slide her a few inches to the left so she is right over my midsection, when ... well, let's draw the veil a bit ... she coughs, and then lets loose a geyser. Like Old Faithful. Which luckily I catch with my cupped hand, trapping it against my body, sparing the sofa.
     I call for my wife, who run for towels and a garbage bag.
     Much scooping and daubing and squeegeeing. 
     Eventually I get to my feet and have a thought:
     Perfect ... that's just perfect.
     What better way to ring out the year?
      So unless an anvil falls out of an upper story window this morning, or a tree crashes through your roof, I think I have retired the prize for banishing 2020 in proper style. By being thrown up upon by a dog. Because really, has not the whole damn year been like that? It sure has for me, and I bet you too. And we're the lucky ones. Anyway, Kitty seems better now, and I'm okay too, and together we plan to face whatever comes in 2021. What choice is there? Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Mitch McConnell will CRY when he reads this: State of the Blog, 2020

     At the end of every calendar year, I pause to evaluate the past 12 months of this blog. Though frankly, with the epic global train wreck of 2020 finally coming to a sheering, twisting, screeching, smoking halt, it seems the thinnest and most trivial piping—a bird chirp after a bomb blast—to use the silence to puff the steam from my own teacup. A bit too self-absorbed, even for me. 
     But heck, maybe a long gaze in the mirror will hit the spot, for me if no one else. Besides, it's what I do.
     To begin, global pandemic and societal disaster must be good for clicks. Eyeballs increased in 2020. On Jan. 28, had its highest number of visitors in one 24-hour period, ever: 182,625 hits. Kind of a lot, really. More about that later.
      First, thank you everyone for stopping by. I'd sure feel stupid if nobody read the thing. The blog has quite a flock of regulars at this point, and I appreciate you sticking with me, despite my occasionally pausing to—reading off a card—"gratuitously insult the very people upon whose good nature I depend, a misstep for which I am truly sorry."
    There's, that's out of the way. Thanks to Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey, who joined the party in April, for illuminating our Saturday mornings with ... heck, what would one call it? Her woke feminist Texas-via-Rogers-Park transcendental spiritual karmic splendor? For starters. She is a woman of parts. I've enjoyed getting to know her, and I know readers enjoy it too, particularly since they don't complain about her anywhere near as much as they do about the guy responsible for the other six days. My favorite columns of hers are about the various critters she's encountered, such as scorpions. I would read a book of that, "My Adventures Amidst the Texas Vermin."
     Thanks to Marc Schulman, who didn't want a holiday season to go by without Eli's Cheesecake showing its support for America, free speech and He is what makes this blog an economic endeavor and not pure hobby, and I appreciate it, and the cheesecake. It really is excellent cheesecake, and if you haven't ordered any yet, well, damn you.
     Thanks to Tate and Jakash and all the readers who have pointed out my continual stream of typos and errors, so I could correct them. Too right is two air—whoops, I mean, "To write is to err."
     There were three main stories of 2020: COVID, racism and the election, and I tried to cover all three. When the pandemic struck, the question raised in that British World War I poster designed to goad men to enlist lodged tauntingly in mind, "What did you do in the war, daddy?" I wanted to make sure that, when this is over, should it ever be overthat I felt I did my share, as a newspaperman, and didn't sit out the crisis on my ass in Northbrook, sheltering in place. 
     My best-read post was in January, "Profiles in Cowardice," had 4,600 views, pondering in amazement how Republicans senators can grovel before Trump instead of impeaching him, yet sounding a defiant note:
I am certain that opposing Donald Trump is a patriotic duty, almost sacred in its alignment with all concepts of democracy, freedom, morals, human decency. I have no doubt whatsoever that no matter what occurs in this country, it is something I will look back on with pride, or my children will look back on with pride, and if that is in conflict with the general consensus, it will mean that Trump has triumphed—as he might—and we are still in the dark age that follows. But that dark age will end because all dark ages do. The story can't end with Trump winning. It can't it can't it can't. Enough people will stand up, vote, resist. It has to happen.
     And it did, barely. Okay, a quick glance at the year's highlights.
     In January, the last normal month, I used having a new hip put in the week before to deep dive into the etymology of "crutch,"
     In February, I looked into filing cabinets.
     I beat a drum all year against the treason of Trump and the idiocy of his administration, but in March paused to point out that coronavirus would far surpass historic reckonings of presidential blundering.
America took a gamble, allowing itself to be led by a charismatic fraud, and now we see we lost the bet. The awful toll of the Vietnam War, 58,000 Americans dead, was my previous high water mark for presidential folly, Now that’s chump change. And if you still like to imagine that our fellow Americans would not literally follow that man into their graves, you can stop now.
     I've written dozens of COVID stories, but I was particularly proud of April's column-length Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. May started at Roseland hospital, with a nursing supervisor would couldn't end her shift until she found someone to replace herself.
     In late May and early June, the civic unrest following the killing of George Floyd took center stage. I wasn't downtown when the first riot broke out, and hurrying straight there seemed both unwise and unnecessary. But I still managed to convey a sense of the chaos.
     In late June, as if to mock that decision, I wrote a post that pinballed around the country, "Virus Mystery: The Case of the Missing Fresca." I had been reluctant, even embarrassed, to turn it in—it's about Fresca—and the column blowing up seemed a kind of punishment. The piece seemed to lodge itself into Google so if you type "What happened to Fresca?" it pops up, and topped the leader board in our newsroom for so long, my bosses asked for a follow-up, which I dutifully delivered in August, "Fresca's Back! Mystery of its absence solved."
     In September I posted probably my favorite column of the year, about the Cologuard test. Why? Because I was proud of wondering, "Hey, who opens the jar?" And prouder that I drove to Madison to find out. That isn't cutting edge journalism in the usual sense of the word, but it's the standard I aspire to myself: I want to be the guy who wonders who opens the jar.
     During the pandemic, Amazon tightened its grip on our lives, and in October I went inside one of its enormous procurement centers to glance at the live of workers there.
     What else? We had our five millionth hit, of which I estimate a quarter are robots and spiders and other quirks of robotic attention, including 180,000 of the 182,625 hits on Jan. 28. I figured, many people probably bail out midway through these, and there is no harm in giving them the impression they're bailing out of a big deal. Usually it gets about 2,500 hits a day—75,000 in December. Not much, but it'll have to do. 
     Anyway, thanks for reading. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Goodbye 2020: A year like ... well, you know

     An Easter like no other.
     A summer like no other.
     A World Series like no other.
     A year like no other.
     The description “a _____ like no other” wasn’t invented in 2020. It has been used for more than a century: ”It has been a year like no other,” wrote R.M. Squires, summing up the world of dentistry in 1919.
     But the phrase was worn to a nubbin over the past nine months by journalists lunging to convey in a handy three-word code the baked-in strangeness and continuous turmoil we’ve been enduring. A branded logo to rubber-stamp this slow-motion train wreck: COVID-19 pandemic meets civic unrest meets economic disruption. Our locked-down society of shuttered schools and struggling restaurants, all playing out against a political clown show that veers from farcical to frightening, sometimes within the same hour.
     A presidential election like no other.
     A Thanksgiving like no other.
     So often was “like no other” flung, at times I wanted to scream, “EVERY year is a year like no other!” Years are unique, like snowflakes. And besides, 2020 is like other years. It’s like 1968, 1945, 1918 ... all the way back to 1066, landmark years where you won’t have to purse your lips and ponder, trying to dredge up a single event. We all know what happened in 2001. Nobody is going to snap their fingers and try to recall what year COVID struck: 2020, a year to remember, whether you like it or not.

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Monday, December 28, 2020

COVID-19 has mixed impact on beekeeping

Corky Schnadt and bees

      But how has COVID affected beekeeping in Illinois?
     “It’s actually been a positive, oddly enough,” said Eugene Makovec, editor of the American Bee Journal, based in Hamilton, Illinois. “Everybody wants to buy honey. The honey I sell is from a dozen hives that typically produce 500 pounds of honey.
     “Last year I sold primarily around the holidays to three or four local stores. This year, the stores I sell to went crazy in honey sales, starting in April. It’s been difficult to keep up with them. I’m actually going to run out of honey.”
     His explanation: Honey is comfort food.
     It’s important for beekeepers to keep abreast of new developments in their field, and that, too, has benefited.
      “I find Zoom meetings very helpful” said Corky Schnadt, president of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association. “I just attended a symposium by the University of Nebraska. There were entomologists from all over the country. I thought, ‘There is no way I would have gotten all this information otherwise.’ I would never have gotten in the car and drove to Nebraska. Zoom meetings keep us connected with the latest data.”
     Not all is rosy in the apian world, however. Novice beekeepers, after sinking $500 or more into a hive, a colony of bees and protective gear, have concerns they like to share with experienced beekeepers.

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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Houston, we have ... an issue here.


Traffic, Buenos Aires

    Headline writers generally grab the shortest possible term. Storms "hit" rather than "arrive." Victims are "killed" rather than "murdered." But take a look at this headline from last night's on-line Trib.

     "Person of interest" is a way to say "suspect" at more than twice the length. There is a certain rational, of course—sometimes authorities investigate someone who turns out to be innocent. "Suspect" has darker connotations which "person of interest" does not yet have, yet, and labeling someone a "suspect" can tar them though guilt is not implied. Though the practice is decades old and those have been labeled "persons of interest"—such Richard Jewell, who was falsely-accused of the Atlanta Olympics bombing—have argued that people see through the ploy.
     To me, it is cover-your-assery, not the noblest motive in professional journalism. But at least when dealing with humans, there is a justification. It's important not to injure the innocent. But I've noticed what I refer to as "euphemism creep" where the softer, more amorphous terms is used where no mitigation is actually necessary. Out of reflexive timidity. The example that sets my teeth on edge is the morning traffic report on WBBM radio. If a semi jackknifes on the Eisenhower, cutting off three lanes of traffic, it creates "an issue." As does every other delay that in a less-enlightened time would be called "a problem" on the highways. Sometimes the i-word is deployed three or four times in a brief report. 
     Now, I can see how you don't want your kid's teacher to say he has a problem with anything. And you wouldn't want to risk having a problem child. "Problem" is like "suspect," a malign term. "What is your problem?"
     But how does this translate to traffic snarls? Clogged highways don't have feelings. Nobody at IDOT will feel bad if there is a problem on the Dan Ryan. No trucker is going to cry himself to sleep because the radio reporter said his breakdown on the side of the Kennedy caused a problem with gapers. 
     The trouble is that we train ourselves to hold back the dogs in one area, and it bleeds into the others. Thus language is dulled, and made more confusing, and reporters train themselves to err on the side of caution. So, for instance, when the president started lying continually, it took parts of the media a shamefully long time to use the word "lie." That's a problem.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Texas notes: Tired

     Today's report from EGD Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey.  

    As my car turned the corner on 47th and Shields the tire fell off. At first it just wobbled a bit, so I went ahead and took the turn. As an optimistic teenager I was “sure” nothing was wrong. We got out and surveyed the damage to the long blue station wagon. A 1978 Chevrolet Caprice Classic was the tank my protective father decided his teenaged daughters needed, and he was correct. My friend Kristin and I had been visiting someone we’d met out at a club. Back then in the mid-to-late 80s, we pretty much danced our lives away. We had to fit school and work into the schedule, but house music (and later goth and new wave) came first.
     We’d dress up in designer clothes that I couldn't honestly afford, even with my job at Marshall Field’s, and we’d hit the clubs. There were parties at Operation PUSH, Mendel Catholic High School, Evanston Township High School, the Hotel Continental, The Muzic Box on lower Wacker, The Warehouse, and too many more to name.
     I lived it, but Wikipedia says it well: “The Warehouse became a hub for the people of Chicago, specifically black gay men. It was compared to a religious and spiritual experience. At the time, many black gay men felt excluded from the religious communities that they had been raised in.” We danced all night long to lyrics such as “gotta go to church y’all,” and “I’m every woman.”
     These clubs offered a culture of acceptance that was most welcoming. We’d arrive decked out in Norma Kamali suits, paisley Kenneth Cole shoes, shiny black riding boots and Marithé et François Girbaud baggy pants and silk shirts. We affixed sparkling broaches to the collars.
     We met Leon out dancing one night. He had an amazing haircut known as a “box,”— like Kid in Kid ’N Play. After hanging out at clubs, Ronnie’s Original Steak House and Water Tower Place for months—as we did back then—he invited us over to meet his family. We went over on a weekend afternoon and met his grandmother, siblings, and a few others. We watched TV, had snacks, and laughed our tuchuses off.
      When we left, Leon walked us to my car. We said goodbye and pulled away. Enter tire fiasco. As we took a look at the wheel I felt confident I’d be able to fix it. After all, I had a jack and a spare and I’m my father’s daughter. He made damn sure his children knew how to change a tire before we were allowed behind the wheel. Just then a group of young people came by to see what was happening. They took a closer look and realized the lug nuts were gone.
     Someone had stolen them. The crowd around us reassured us that they could help. They ran off, and came back with the six lug nuts we needed. We worked together and the wheel was fixed. We said goodbye and headed home to lie to our parents about being somewhere else for the day. We often found ourselves in parts of Chicago that are not considered safe. That’s why I know firsthand that Chicago is full of good people.
     Despite its trials and tribulations, I feel fortunate that my Grandma Olive hopped on a train from Delaware to Chicago when she was a mere 14. She moved into an apartment with other Irish girls and became a career cashier (including a stint at the Hotel Continental before my days of partying there). She met my Grandpa Carl at Oak Street Beach. They created my beautiful mother who met my dad at The Old Hangge Up, and here I am, with a heart full of admiration and respect for the city of big shoulders. It’s a complicated, yet special city and I am proud to call Chicago my home.

Friday, December 25, 2020

‘Every difficult problem ... is disguising a blessing’


André De Shields in "Hadestown."

     Christmas has pagan roots, in holidays designed to illuminate the darkness of winter and keep the gathering cold at bay with the warmth of love and celebration.
     Which can be tough to manage in the best of times. Our COVID-19 Christmas, with so many people isolated, careers wrecked, bank accounts emptied, is even harder.
     You need a light to guide you.
     On top of everything, 2020 has been almost entirely devoid of live performance: no concerts, no theater. Unless you were lucky enough to catch one at the beginning of the year, and I was. Singer Anaïs Mitchell took the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and turned it into a thoughtful musical, “Hadestown.” Last February, just before the world shut down, my wife and I met our boys in New York City and we saw it on Broadway.
     In the tale, lovely Eurydice goes down to Hell to live with Hades, king of the underworld, and her lover Orpheus tries to bring her back, with a helping hand from Persephone, Hades’ wife. Her absence brings the winter; her return, the spring.
     The star of the show is veteran Broadway actor André De Shields, and he has one line that kept returning to my mind as the days grew shorter, colder and grimmer.
     “The world ... came back ... to life!”

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Thursday, December 24, 2020

Bye bye BK Lounge

Burger King's creepy mascot

     Food is emotional.
     That's obvious. Every bite wrapped in taste and memory, smell and perception. Satisfying a craving older than language, older than fire, broader than humanity, felt by every creature, from flea to vole, hawk to whale.
    Yet for some reason, as obvious as that is, as much as I've not only eaten, but thought about eating, talked about it, wrote about it, the food/emotion link didn't really stand up and wave until I read that the Burger King in Evanston has closed permanently. 
     Because I felt nothing.
      Which is odd for several reasons. The food at McDonald's is crap, generally, but I nevertheless have fond feelings toward the chain, despite its way creepy mascot, Ronald. A bond stretching back to the red and white tile buildings that had nowhere to sit (okay, a small alcove, if 50 year old memory series, that people never actually used). I have complex associations with the yellow paper that wraps McDonald's cheeseburgers, and every year or three I find myself wanting one—the way you taste that pickle when you bite into it. Somehow the pickle is key, the ketchup. The cheeseburger itself is just the vehicle.
     Every few years, I think, "I'd like a McDonald's cheeseburger." Despite being sober. And I have to actively remind myself of that grotesque moment after you've eaten something  from McDonald's, and your body shudders with the violation done to it, and you feel that oily residue on your teeth, and that McDonald's smell, the same smell that invades every corner of a Metra car the moment someone opens a McDonald's bag, started to percolate out your pores. I think it's the grease.
     Burger King is far better, food-wise. Flame-broiled. Real lettuce. Its own even more horrifying mascot. Yet Burger King is an eternal also-ran, Pepsi to McDonald's Coke. I might have to bat away temptation to patronize McDonald's every few years, but I never, ever think: "We should go to Burger King." It never crosses my mind, and were it to vanish, I would never notice it was gone, the way you typically never wonder what happened to Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips. The last Burger King I ate in was seven years ago, because I happened to be in a car with someone who stopped at Burger King to eat as we were driving to the UP.
    Even stranger. I have very specific memories of that Burger King in Evanston, closed permanently due to the pandemic after 44 years in business. "The BK Lounge" we called it, an undergraduate stab at ... what? Hipness I suppose.
     I lived for two years directly across the street, 1725 Orrington Avenue, at what was then the Northwestern Apartments, a vast 600 student freshman hive. The building is still there, but it's the McManus Center, housing Kellogg School of Management students and their families.  Once upon a time, reporters would have hung out, interviewing people going in and out of the center about their views of Burger King closing. But nobody has the staff or the time or the inclination anymore, and there's a pandemic going on, and even the Daily Northwestern didn't bother. Nor did it track down anyone with memories of the place.
     Here, I'll do your legwork for you, and contribute mine, for what it's worth.
     My first day at college, in 1978. My family drove in from Berea, Ohio. We unloaded my boxes of records and stereo system and big ass speakers and steamer trunk. Then it was time for lunch, and we trooped across the street to Burger King.
     Here's the memory: we get our food—burgers, fries, soft drinks, not much else you could get there back then. Whoppers, I suppose. And my little brother is fussing with his ketchup packet, for the fries, and both squeezes and tears it at the same moment, projecting a splurt of red ketchup across my sternum.
    And I remember looking down at the splash, with dumb bovine incomprehension, then up at him, and then off to the side, as if looking for the studio audience. I wasn't mad. I wasn't even particularly surprised. It was almost as if I had expected this, or something like it, and now it had occurred. The reaction was more a "So this is how it's going to be, eh?" resignation. Which was apt, because that was indeed about how it went. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Happy birthday, pizza matriarch Jean Malnati

Jean Malnati, center, with sons Rick, left, and Marc.
     We had a nickname for my Grandma Sarah: “The Christ Child.” Please forgive the blasphemy. But she was born on Christmas Day, and certainly adored. Besides, it wasn’t our religion we were playing loose and weird with.
     People born on Christmas get their celebrations lost in the glare of the holiday. Even those born near the holiday. In some ways, they have it worse. All the preparations, the distractions, and not even the quiet of Christmas Day. Add COVID, when all our birthdays are denied the attention they deserve.
     And some individuals really deserve attention.
     Where to begin? Let’s start in 1980, with the great Sun-Times sports columnist Bill Gleason sitting in the Bears locker room, amidst the discarded tape and sweaty socks, having a post-game chat. Gleason brings up Brian Piccolo, the Bears running back who died of cancer 10 years earlier, at age 26.
     “What made you think of Brian?” he is asked.
     Gleason replies he always thinks of Brian this time of year. Someone makes it easy for him to remember.
     “He is garlanded with fresh flowers, a gentle hero among us,” Gleason later wrote, “because a lady who is beautiful on the inside as well as on the outside throws a party for him every autumn.”
     That lady is Jean Malnati, who with her husband, Lou, founded Lou Malnati’s Pizza in 1971. She is one of those unfortunates whose birthday (Dec. 22) falls around Christmas.
     “We’ll always have the Brian Piccolo Scholarship Party,” Jean told Gleason, 40 years ago. “I’ve never given a thought to discontinuing it.”

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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Sore loser

Stag at Sharkey's, by George Bellows (Cleveland Museum of Art)

    “Honey, I forgot to duck.” 
     Many people credit that line to Ronald Reagan, who supposedly said it to his wife Nancy after being shot on March 30, 1981.
     But as was often the case with Reagan, he was just re-packaging popular culture from his youth. In this case, what Jack Dempsey said to his wife after losing to Gene Tunney in Philadelphia in 1926.
     "What happened?" Estelle Taylor wailed.
     "Honey..." etc., Dempsey said.
     “From that day on, the gallant loser was a folk hero whose fame never diminished,” Red Smith wrote when Dempsey died in 1983. Dempsey was far more popular than Tunney, who beat him. Twice.
      "Gallant loser." Now, there's a concept you just don't see bruited around much in 2020.  When did showing class in defeat go out of style? Because among the long line of pejoratives that can be accurately added to Donald Trump's name—liar, bully, fraud, con man, traitor, adulterer, cad, hypocrite, imbecile—the most recent should be among the most damning: the sorest loser ever, like so much about the man, is contrary to decades if not centuries of American values, in this case, all notions of sportsmanship, dignity, fair play. 
     Not a drop of grace, style, pizzazz. Just bracing himself in the doorway, squinching his eyes closed and screaming that he ain't going. No no no no NO!
     He will go, of course. Because he lost.  Not that he admits it. No, we get this constant whining sound. This shriek. It's like a sawmill. It's unbearable. Yet millions smile and nod. That's our guy! Loser McLoser, bitchin' about losing.
      I mean, if he wants to be president so much, you'd think he'd spend these last few weeks being president. It isn't as if there's no pressing work to be done. Instead he's on the toilet, tweeting.
      Really. Imagine if other people started imitating Trump. Sports would grind to a halt, first of all. Every play appealed, every call questioned. The cheers for every victor would be drown out by the howls of the defeated. No official would ever leave office, no county commissioner replaced without leaving claw marks on his desk. It would be awful. 
     Just this one situation is awful. Doesn't he have any friends? Obviously not. 
     I guess 40 percent of Americans don't care. They're like parents of a newborn. The spittle dribbling down the onesie is beautiful. They fall asleep at night smiling to the lullaby of his infantile mewls of "No fair!" The 2-year-old tantrums of "rigged election." The fact free farting of conspiracy crap?  C'mon folks. Discipline your child.
     I've had years to wrap my head around it, but it's still difficult. Our troubled yet in some ways still glorious democracy. Thrown over for this. This crybaby. It's like trading your house on the lake for a cardboard box on Lower Wacker Drive. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Countdown to anti-vaccine backlash


Dr. Nancy Glick, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital, prepares for its first round of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations. (photo by Ashlee Rezin Garcia for the Sun-Times)  

     Welcome to the Chicago Sun-Times Latin Lockdown Workshop. Please direct your attention to the chalkboard, where I’ve written: “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.”
     Let’s say it together and remember to trill your Rs. Ancient Romans called “R” the “littera canina,” or dog letter, for the little growl in it.
     “Post hoc, errrgo prrropter hoc.
     Good, good.
     In English: “After this, therefore because of this.” It’s what we pointy-heads call a “logical fallacy,” the faulty circuit that connects you to a wrong conclusion when two events occur close together.
     I mention it now because the joy of getting millions of vaccines to millions of American arms will be quickly followed by a backlash of imaginary bad results. That isn’t a crystal ball prediction; it’s a take-it-to-the-bank certainty. With the exception of a few extremely rare allergic reactions, the most common vaccine side effect will be passing soreness. But some getting the vaccine will blame it for later being hit by a bus. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.
     “With the vaccine, you’ve got to be careful when you hear side effects,” said Dr. Michael Ruchim, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Medicine well-versed in pharmaceutical trials. “The question arises, ‘Are they cause and effect? Or something random the person getting the vaccine was going to get anyway?’” On average, 730 Americans per 100,000 die every year. About two a day. So if you give everyone in a random group of 100,000 a teaspoon of water, expect 14 to die over the next week. From heart attacks. Cancer. Hit by buses.
     Now give them a vaccine. A week later, another 14 deaths. But in public perception, the vaccine is now deadly. Two people died the very next day! Don’t laugh, this is how the anti-vaxxer movement started. “Timmy got a polio shot, and now he’s autistic!”
     Especially since vaccines will be given to seniors first, who are not a random slice of the population but a group already more likely to get sick.

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Sunday, December 20, 2020



     So we're remodeling the downstairs TV room. A new light maple floor over the hideous old white linoleum one. New cool blue paint. It seemed criminal to return the dented, chipped, rusty beige metal baseboard heater covers. So into the garbage with them, and in with fancy baseboard covers that look great. Cover Luxe from Plastx. I was hesitant to order an element of the house made of plastic. But we have a small bathroom with even more foul baseboard covers—you don't want to know—and I ordered a small Plastx cover for that, as an experiment, and it looks awesome. I grew up with plastic being a shoddy, flimsy material. But it seems they've gotten better at it. The plastic is sturdy, looks better than the metal, and won't corrode like metal does. 
     I might have hired somebody to put the covers in, but during the small one in the bathroom experiment, I seemed to manage, even though it involved the
Cirque du Soleil level calisthenic trick of folding myself into a corner behind the toilet while drilling, I seemed to manage. 
    The fancy baseboard covers require brackets to be put into the studs. I usually shrug off the whole "put-it-into-a-stud" aspect of home improvement—the framed posters and paintings never fall off the wall. But these fancy baseboard covers really need to sit flush. Tight. My wife urged me to and, reader, she was right. This demanded a stud finder. Off to Ace, where they had one that cost $30, a Zircon, the substance that Frank Zappa encrusts a pair of heavy duty tweezers with in his ode to dental floss, "Montana." I held it in my hand and thought. "This can't work." It looks like the data recorder from some 1970s Chinese line of knock-off Star Trek toys. 
     On Amazon, checking its dozens of cautionary reviews, frantically waving off potential buyers—"Doesn't work" and "Garbage" and "More accurate randomly guessing" and "You couldn't give me a free one"—I got the impression it was an unwise purchase. To work, it seems a stud finder must cost $75, at least.
      If you live 60 years without a particular device, the temptation is to keep going through life without it. I strolled through YouTube, the home improvement amateur's friend. First looking at videos evaluating the vast universe of stud finders when I noticed this one, "5 genius ways to find a stud ... without a stud finder." Intrigued, I gave it a look, and they said basically, to get a general idea where the stud should be, since the electrical socket box will be screwed against one, then wave a strong magnet up and down and you'll find a nail in the stud (for readers even more clueless about construction than I am, "stud" refers, not to a certain kind of man's wildly-inaccurate self image in the 1990s, but to the vertical 2x4 lumber within a wall). 
     I looked at the metal bulletin board in our kitchen, and there, holding coupons, was a red magnetic dart from a long-ago dart set—I guess the idea was that these would not be as injurious if the boys started throwing them at each other. It needed a pretty strong magnet to affix itself to a target when thrown from a distant, and the tail made a handy way to hold it.   
    Damn. It worked. I passed the dart up and down the wall by the electrical socket, then at 16 inch intervals, and found the studs to put the anchors in so my brand new baseboard covers would be flush to the wall and not pull away. I loved having the little red dart just stuck to the wall, boldly outing the deeply closeted nail head, bird-dogging the stud, telling me where to screw the baseboard bracket. It was an arduous morning of lying on our new floor, concentrating not to somehow drag the spinning drill bit across it, putting in those brackets, cutting the moldings to length. But I put an entire wall's worth in. Only two more walls to go.
     Plus—and this is the surprising part—I felt happiness at denying the Jeff Bezos Pricy Ineffective Electronic Stud Finder Cabal its pound of flesh, and clawed back $30 or $75 from a the project, which could turn out to be as much as 1/2 a percent of the total cost.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Texas Notes: Things That Go Bump In The Night

    Into the realm of darkness with Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey. 

     Early one morning I heard something running around my tiny house as I slept. It knocked a few small things down on the cedar chest that I use as my bedside table. I was slightly startled but more than that I was tired, so I told myself not to worry and I fell right back asleep. I forgot about it until the next day when I saw a bright green anole lizard clinging to the screen of an open window in the bathroom. I wasted no time and moved quickly. I caught him gently under a jar and brought him outside where he belongs.
     A few days later in the wee hours before dawn, I heard something drop onto my bed with a thud. Little feet scampered past my ears at a furious pace. Like the last time, I forgot about it until the next day when I felt somebody watching me. Another lizard—this one staring at me while perched frozen on a kalanchoe plant. After some hilarious cartoon-like running around on both of our parts, I finally caught him under a Tupperware container. He tried desperately to contort his way out. Despite his acrobatics I was able to slide a piece of cardboard over the lid and escort him out to the yard. His poor little tail was caught between the cardboard and the plastic and I was worried I may have hurt him. Later, a friend told me that their tails can regenerate. What a relief.
     Sleep has been a bit of an adventure for me lately—much more so than I’d prefer. I’m usually a very good sleeper. I’m serious about habits that lend to a solid night of rest. I teach classes that promote sleep, including one called Beditation. Lately I get into bed between 8 and 10pm, and am out like a light for 8 or 9 hours, sometimes more.
     That’s why the past couple of weeks have been difficult. One night while deep in REM sleep I woke up with a dream fresh in my mind. I noticed that the bottom of my bed was shifting around. It seemed that someone was sitting there and my legs rolled towards the indentation. I was half-asleep and didn’t even bother taking my big silk eye mask off. In and out of awareness, I thought “did the opossum that lives under the house get inside?” I realized that was probably not possible, and I was too tired to really care. The bed kept moving.
     I thought, “Is it June? Is she visiting me?” June is the elderly lady who lived in this house until she died last year, I’m assuming in this bed. I don’t really believe in ghosts but in my half-dream state I decided to let her know that she is welcome here. I thought “If it’s you June, that’s OK. You can stay.” I drifted off. Then the bed started moving again, and I imagined a scary demonic ghost of June hovering over me, unhappy that I was in her bed. I felt terrified for a moment, but then reminded myself that there was nothing to be afraid of. I finally fell asleep again.
     I was woken up every half hour or so for the rest of the night. The bed kept shifting. I actually thought “maybe some lizards have hatched in the mattress.”
     The next night it happened again, and then again on the the third night. I finally thought to Google “side effects of SSRIs.” I had started taking an SSRI, aka an antidepressant, to boost my mood a month or two earlier. Sure enough, tactile hallucinations, as well as tremors and night terrors are all possible side-effects of this class of medication.
     I immediately consulted with my doctor and stopped taking it. As soon as I did, the next night was slightly better. I was awoken by the magical moving mattress, but remembered that it was a side effect, nothing more. I noticed that my legs seemed to be vibrating from the inside, another known side effect. Over the next few days I was woken up before it was time. Armed with knowledge, and also from the effects of weaning off of the medication, I was able to simply notice what was happening, and put myself back to sleep.
     It’s been two weeks since I’ve been off the SSRI. Luckily my mood is fine, though my energy seems lower. The unwelcome nighttime activity has almost ceased.
     On top of all of this, I’ve also had a few nightmares that seem to be COVID related phenomena many are experiencing. Collectively, people are reporting an increase of vivid dreams and nightmares. This indicates increased central image intensity, the central image considered the emotional focus of a dream, according to Yale Medicine’s website.
     This Fall I’ve been telling myself “this too shall pass,” and it will be 2021 soon. Now I am starting to see that we are a long way from how things used to be. I am preparing myself for the inevitable truth that it will be years before things seem normal, and even then some things will never be the same again.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Goodbye Tribe, hello Spiders.

      My grandfather Irwin and I never fished, or played poker. We did not golf, build models or play cards. He did teach me how to play chess, and gave me a dollar if I won. Or if I lost.
     And once we went to the enormous cavern of Cleveland Municipal Stadium, sometimes around 1966 or 1967. I can't tell you who we played or whether our team won. All that was preserved in family lore is that we went, and that I ate two hotdogs. It was not a compliment.
     In 1973, I had perhaps my peak sports experience. A double header against the Boston Red Sox, a far better team. I saw Carl Yastrzemski at the plate in his trademark bat high stance, and afterward got his autograph as he headed for his car through a swarm of us kids. I still have the program.
     There was more: I collected baseball cards, which I also still have. I was a card-carrying member of the Buddy Bell Fan Club. I read Gaylord Perry's memoir "Me and the Spitter"—the Tribe had a habit of getting good players on their way down. I particularly liked former Oriole Boog Powell, if I recall, because he was chunky, like me, and named "Boog." I listened to sports radio so much I can still imitate callers to the Pete Franklin Show. "Pete...Pete, I'd like to tell you my Cleveland Indians dream team!!!!"
     If there is a trace of mockery in that, well, that's why I'm not a true sports fan. I have the same trouble with pol
itics, evoking that classic line of Eugene McCarthy's combining the two: "Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, 
and dumb enough to think it's important."
     I understood both games. I just can never quite master the think-it's-important part. Though there certainly were moments when both seem important. 
     The team was a Rapid Transit line ride away. Esther Otterson and I went to see the Yankees on the 4th of July. Maybe 1980. Again, I can't say whether the Indians won or lost.  But it sure was important to be there.
     There's more, but that's enough. What I'm trying to say is that I'm a Cleveland Indians fan, sort of, or was, during various periods of time, and would still be if I were in the habit of putting on airs, which I'm not. Enough of a fan that when the Indians won the pennant in 1995, I cried, and would have attended the World Series, had my wife not been giving birth during the game I had a ticket for. I decided to stay in Chicago for that. It was the right choice.
    Two years later I did go, to the '97 series, and saw us lose during a hideous, four-hour, 42-degree debacle. My buddy and I slipped out before the end of the game to hit the strip clubs in the nearby Flats.

     A certain flexibility has always been necessary to follow the Indians—or whatever they're going to be called next. The current name never offended me, but then I am not Native-American. I loved Chief Wahoo, found him appealing, not degrading—he represented out team, remember—but I also understand that fish don't consider water wet. When people more woke than myself tried to make me understand why Chief Wahoo was offensive, and said to imagine the team were suddenly called the Cleveland Jews, my eyes lit up. I would love that. A Hassid done in the Chief Wahoo style, with earlocks and that grin. I'd put that pennant on my wall.
 again, as tough a time as Jews did, historically, we sailed through history untouched compared to what the Native-Americans suffered and suffer. Jews kept our traditions and language, did well enough in whatever society we were in, and even have our own little scrap of a country punching above its weight. Let's just say if newsreel images existed of what the Native
-Americans endured, we'd view our history very differently, and none of these racist symbols would have survived to 2020 to be fussed over.
     In other words, it's hard to perceive the realm you're raised in, and when Native-Americans say that the team name, and its mascot, are offensive, and racist, I am not inclined to argue with them. Nor do I th
ink changing the name is a bad idea. Things change. One of my favorite bits of can't-make-it-up baseball trivia is that the White Stockings were founded before the Cubs but the Cubs are older than the White Sox. How can that be? Because at one point the White Stockings became the Cubs, and then the new White Sox were created. You can't make this up. The Cubs also used to be the Colts. Teams change names. When you see the white-knuckled terror with which some white folk cling to the tiniest shift in cultural tradition—say "Happy Holidays" to a multi-ethnic classroom and you're waging war on Christmas—a thinking person lets go of this kind of thing even more easily. I'm a third-generation Cleveland Indians fan, but if it's time for the name and the mascot to go, then be off with them. I approve. 
     Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them.
     Now if only the Italian-Americans could do the same. A word to the wise: Enrico Fermi Drive.   

     This is Cleveland after all, the city that lost its football team. The Cleveland Browns—the most anodyne name ever—moved away in 1995, becoming the Baltimore Ravens. Four years later the NFL waved a wand and created a new Cleveland Browns out of nothing, which is pretty much what the team has been worth over the past 20 years. So it's not like the city can start crying about legacies and traditions and unbroken sports bloodlines.
     The way baseball has been going, I expect they'll find some completely lame name. The Cleveland Rock 'n Rollers. Bleh. I'd reach back into history and return to "Spiders," which was Cleveland's National League name in the 19th century. I visited the University of Richmond, on a college tour with the younger boy, and their team, the Spiders, offers such great graphic possibilities I almost bought a t-shirt just because they looked so cool. Cleveland needs all the cool it can get. Go Spiders.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

And that's how it's done.


     The years flit by, irretrievable. But by jotting a quick gloss of the day's events, you can manage to preserve a teacup full of facts for future reference.
      Unlike you, if I want to get an idea what I did on, oh, Oct. 24, 1992, I have a way to find out. "Travel to New Orleans—took cab to Prytania House—enormous, decayed mansion with soaring ceilings of perhaps 20 feet. Walked around Garden District, then took St. Charles streetcar to French Quarter. . . Lunch on the balcony at the Royal Cafe. Seems like we had just been transformed there; so sudden."
     I think I meant "transported." But heck, I was 32. A pup, relatively. 
     Getting back to keeping journals. Of course the books must be jotted in, every day, ideally, which takes a kind of discipline. Honestly, in years gone by, I'd sometimes miss months at a time. But I've been better in the past decade or two. More alert at the end of the day, if you catch my drift. 
     The books must not only be written in, more or less regularly, but they also must be purchased once a year. That's a non-negotiable requirement. No book, no record. For the first 15 years, from 1985 to 2000, that involved a letter or, if running late, a phone call to Waterstone's in London. Then when Waterstone's stopped making literary diaries—no future in it, I suppose—I started buying a simple red Brownstone journal at Atlas Stationers on Lake Street. I would carefully take my old journal out of my briefcase, compare it with the new to make sure they were the same size—they make a range—and then conduct the transaction.
     Even with the pandemic, I planned to pick one up in person. I phoned in mid-November, and asked them to put one aside. If you wait until too close to New Year's, you risk Atlas running out. I did that one year, and they had to scramble to find one and get it to me. They did, because they're that kind of place. But it was a near thing.
      So I had one set aside. Then suddenly it was the second half of December, and I realized: I might not get downtown to pick it up. Not in this very strange Plague Year. Definitely would not, unless I made a special trip. Which seems silly, what with the postal service right here, despite everything. Maybe even risky too. So I phoned Atlas, and asked if they would mail it. Of course. I'll have to have the pleasure of chatting with owners Therese and Don Schmidt another time. They're doing well; online business is booming.
     When I got the box Wednesday, I cut it open, and found the new diary, just like the old diary. And something extra. 
 A post card, with a simple thick-lined painting of their store, under the 'L' tracks, with its distinctive cast iron pillars. Quite beautiful really.
     A lagniappe, as the Cajuns say. A little present that seals the deal. 
     See, that's why no matter how efficient Amazon becomes, or how big Office Depot grows, there will always be room for an Atlas Stationers. Because someone had to secure the painting from artist Kathy Los-Rathburn and someone had to print the postcards and someone had to scrawl, "Hi—So long 2020, Hello 2021—Bye" with a smiley face on the back, then tuck it in the box. Jeff Bezos will never cook up an algorithm to create and insert the unasked-for post card with a friendly little note at the end. Not without charging extra, that is. I don't know if everybody who places an order gets one, or just super special minor local media personalities, though I suspect it is the former.
     Anyway, it perked up a dark wintery COVID era day for me, and I thought it just might perk up your day too.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

When the doctor becomes the patient

Dr. Roy Werner (photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia) 

     Paul Kalanithi’s 2016 posthumous memoir “When Breath Becomes Air” was a big best-seller for obvious reasons. Here was a brilliant neurosurgeon facing terminal lung cancer, grappling with death at a young age.
     It also served up one of those prince-and-the-pauper role reversals that capture the public’s imagination. The bold, resourceful doctor becomes the fearful, helpless patient, perched on an examining table in a thin cotton gown, awaiting his fate. The proud made humble.
     When I was writing Monday’s column on how hospitals are faring at this point in the COVID-19 epidemic, I came upon a digression too lengthy to fit in but too interesting to leave out.
     I was talking with Dr. Roy Werner, director of the department of emergency medicine at Roseland Community Hospital, about whether medical personnel are more at risk in the intensive care unit, masked and gowned and leaning over a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator, or sitting in their living room at home with their children traipsing in and out.
     “My family has been fantastically supportive,” said Werner, who lives in Huntley. “I have a wife who really gets it. We have two teenaged kids, and I’ve been able to explain it to them. I had COVID a few weeks ago, stayed in one room of the house, the kids did their own things.”
     I asked how the illness affected him.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Flashback 1992: The Literacy Effort that Could; Persistence Pays Off in Pilsen as Kraft Grant Boosts Program

     Once upon a time, I was the charities, foundations and private social services reporter at the paper. That was my title. As such, corporations would always come to me with the news that they were giving X amount of money to Y organization. 
     Instead of the reaction they obviously expected—"You ARE?! How amazingly GENEROUS of you! Let me get that into the paper RIGHT AWAY!!!"—I would ask a question that stopped them dead in their tracks and usually killed their interest in having me write anything.
     "Could you tell me how you picked this particular recipient? Because That might make an interesting story."
     The answer was inevitably "No, we couldn't." They didn't have to say why. Because that would involve effort, on their part, going to the various levels of whatever nightmare corporate bureaucracy they had going on, thus revealing something of themselves. Plus the story would shift from what they wanted to see—"WIDGETCO GIVES BUNDLE TO DESERVING CHARITY 'This is just the kind of caring, generous folks we are at Widgetco," said Widgetco president and CEO Clark Manningly...—to something else. Something unknown and therefore scary.
     Then Kraft Foods bit, and I wrote the following. What made me smile, in a rueful way, is that after it ran, then companies started asking me to write a story on how THEY decided to give to a certain charity, and I had to turn them doing say, "Sorry, I just did that...."

     With happy, reading children sprawled photogenically at her feet, Joyce Grant, of Kraft General Foods, stood in the Rudy Lozano library in Pilsen on Thursday and presented an oversized check for $25,000 to representatives of a literacy project for Mexican Americans.
     It was the sort of do-goodery that corporations cherish. A truly worthy cause, supported by the fruits of our great American economic system.
     But exactly how did these two very different entities meet? How did giant, multinational Kraft General Foods, with $28 billion a year in revenues, find itself handing over a bit of cherished corporate profits to a shoestring literacy program based out of a crowded office on Harrison Street?
     Thousands of programs of every size, description and merit set out on the journey; far fewer have the skill, worthiness and luck to finish successfully.
      The literacy program, called Project FLAME, was among the lucky.
FLAME stands for Family Literacy: Aprendiendo, Mejorando, Educando (learning, improving, educating). It was created in 1989 by Tim Shanahan and Flora Rodriguez-Brown at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
     As often happens, FLAME was a program created—in part—by a funding availability. In 1989 the Department of Education announced it wanted to give out grant money for bilingual literacy programs.
     Rodriguez-Brown, a specialist in second-language education, read the department's announcement in the Federal Register and joined forces with Shanahan, whose focus is reading education and literacy. They hammered out the FLAME proposal and sent it to the federal government.
     FLAME would increase the availability of reading materials in Mexican American homes, encourage parents to be better role models regarding literacy, and include Spanish literacy as a value along with English literacy.
     Impressed, the Education Department gave a grant of $ 135,000, over three years, to FLAME.
     The program flourished. By fall, 1991, FLAME was at three locations in Pilsen. The next step, as Rodriguez-Brown and Shanahan saw it, was to begin training participating parents so they could run the program themselves.
     But the federal government would only give money if FLAME was relocated.
While the idea of backing the program in a different area was attractive, the UIC professors did not want to leave the parents in Pilsen high and dry.
     So, while accepting the government money to start up FLAME in a West Side Chicago neighborhood (and managing to redirect $25,000 to keep the Pilsen FLAME going), they began searching for additional funding.
     They turned to Pat Wager, UIC's liaison with the philanthropic community. Wager scanned the Taft Directory—listings of corporate philanthropies and the type of efforts each supports. Corporations, striving to have the biggest impact with limited budgets, tend to direct giving to specific, narrow fields.
     Kraft General Foods has three target areas: hunger, the arts and, as Wager carefully noted, education, particularly involving parent-child interaction.
     Wager called Grant, the manager of community affairs at Kraft, who said FLAME sounded interesting. Grant doesn't pretend her company gives away millions of dollars out of a warm, fuzzy, anthropomorphic big-heartedness.
      "Our business is here," she said. "You need educated, capable employees. For that, the schools have to be in good shape, plus community infrastructure, transportation, capital needs. All this is working to help customers."
     Janet Kuhl Marcuson, a professional grant writer in Wager's office, spent nine months researching and revising 20 drafts of the FLAME proposal.
     In June, a 14-page proposal was sent to Kraft, one of 346 they received in "a pretty average month," according to Grant.
     The proposal passed before a temporary employee who opens the mail that pours into Kraft's foundation. She rejected 176 requests, responding to each with one of 10 form letters saying: No, Kraft does not donate products. No, Kraft does not give money to individuals. No, Kraft does not underwrite benefits.
     The remaining June proposals, including FLAME's, moved upward to community affairs administrator Linda Burda, who gave them closer scrutiny.
     "The first determinant is: Does it meet our focus area?" Grant said. "Does it meet the budget? Does it conflict with other things we fund? Is it redundant to other things we fund? Is it a good organization?"
     Then there is the influence of what certain Chicago ward heelers used to call "Vitamin P" - power. Grant doesn't pretend that the influence of powerful Kraft executive sponsors won't affect a proposal.
     "It isn't the driving force, but it helps," said Grant, pointing to a request to sponsor a cooking station at a benefit gala—not something the company would normally do.
     By July, the FLAME proposal was on Grant's desk, and she set up a visit.
     "It's a very important part of the job, not only to learn who they are, but they can meet somebody from Kraft General Foods," Grant said.
     The site visit went smoothly. The Mexican American women, eager for the program to continue, directly lobbied Grant in their limited English.
     "One woman, very shy, very hesitant, walked up to me and said: 'Do this,' " Grant remembers. "I was very impressed with the program."
     Things moved quickly after that. Because FLAME was seeking $ 114,609 over three years (Thursday's check was a first installment), Grant had to meet with her board of directors.
     They gave approval, and, after the congratulatory phone calls, the traditional check presentation ceremony was set up. About 20 women and 40 or so children sat at tables at the Lozano library. A festive Mexican buffet, prepared by the women, was spread out on a long table. Before handing over the large ceremonial check, Grant discreetly slipped the real, rose-colored Kraft General Foods check to Rodriguez-Brown, who put it in her purse.
     "What this check means is there will be English classes this year," said Shanahan, and everyone clapped.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 9, 1992.

Monday, December 14, 2020

‘Oh my God — this is carnage’

 ”With COVID, you can decline quickly. You can be walking, talking and within minutes have to be intubated,” said Roseland Community Hospital RN Jessica Bell. “It’s very depressing. This guy was walking, talking, friendly. To see him go so quick, it makes me sad because it can happen to anyone.”   (Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia)

     Look closely, through the face shield, over the mask. You’ll see it.
     “Walk around the hospital, you can see the fatigue in people’s eyes,” said Dr. Roy Werner, director of the emergency department at Roseland Community Hospital on the far South Side. “We have an entire staff of physicians, nurses, tech staff, housekeepers, working harder than they have ever had to work.”
     Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with a vaccine tantalizingly near but still not in hand, the relentlessness of fighting the virus—the endless stream of patients, the round-the-clock-shifts, the deaths, the need to plug holes in the schedule created by colleagues who are themselves sick—is grinding down hospital workers.  
     Werner said that “close to 50, 60 percent” of the emergency room staff at Roseland have already contracted COVID, including himself, and many still battle it while their colleagues struggle to carry the additional work load. That’s true across the city.
     “You can’t take vacation, you can’t escape at work,” said Dr. Meeta Shah, an emergency room physician at Rush University Medical Center on the near West Side. “Sometimes you can’t escape in your sleep. There is an overall fatigue, not being able to get the break we need. That can be exhausting.”
     The Chicago Medical Society polled its 17,000 members: two-thirds report symptoms of burn-out: physical and mental exhaustion, listlessness. emotional numbness. And that was over the summer.
     “It’s worse now, because everybody is busy all the time,” said Dr. Vishnu Chundi, chairman of the COVID-19 Task Force for the CMS. “There’s no let up.”
     He said that not only are doctors overworked, but more are coping with their own post-COVID symptoms like shortness of breath and chronic pain.
     “Now we’re seeing more of the staff getting it,” Chundi said. “They not having enough time to recover from COVID — the fatigue, the cough. They’re coming in ragged around the edges.”
     When they do, they’re facing patient death on a scale they are simply not used to.
     “It’s horrible,” Chundi said. “I’ve never seen so many people die. It’s just a number until you see it happen in front of you. Then it’s, ‘Oh my God—This is carnage.’”

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Patronize the Creative Clock Service Center

     Suburban Clock and Repair has been on Front Street in Berea, Ohio since long before I was born: 1953, to be exact. Growing up the clock shop, as we called it, was a place of wonder, for its fat antique Elgin pocket watches, and the enormous German cuckoo clock that the owner was constructing in the basement.
     When my parents left Berea for Boulder, Colorado, my mother bought me a beautiful Hermle mantle clock that I had my eye on for years, for its deco numerals and sloped wooden beauty. The transaction has an almost mythic place in my memory, as there was no drama, no wheedling, no mitigation of any kind. She bought it for me because I wanted it,  as a we're-leaving present, as a souvenir of my home town and I suppose a kind of solace.
    For 30 years it has sat somewhere in my house, on my mantle in the city, when we had a mantle, on Logan Boulevard and Pine Grove Avenue, or on the Shaker hutch in our dining room in Northbrook. Sometimes I have it set to peal the quarter hour, sometimes not, according to my whim.  Once a week I wind it.
     A few decades ago, the clock mechanism gave up the ghost, and I had it replaced by the Chicago Clock Shop in Palatine. I know this because of a sticker they placed inside, the smallest advertisement ever.
     Eventually, there was a mishap: the tiny circular nut that holds on the hands managed to fall off in such a way that it was lost. My theory is that it fell into the round face glass, then made its break for freedom when I opened the glass to wind the clock, not noticing. It vanished, going to wherever tiny round nuts go when they don't want to be found. 
     The nut wasn't vital. The hands stayed on. Mostly, but perhaps gently vibrated by our footfalls, or passing trains, the hands would eventually shiver off, and collect in the bottom of the front glass. Dynamic action on my part seemed required. 
     I started by calling Chicago Clock. I tried to make the job easy for them, by first going online and figuring out exactly what kind of clock I have—a Hermle Stepney mechanical tambour mantel clock (a tambour is a round embroidery frame, and must refer to the circular glass face of the clock, which swings open for winding). I told Chicago Clock that I'm looking for the tiny brass serrated hand nut that holds the hands on.
    "We have those," the man on the other end said.
     Success! God, this was easy.
     "Great," I said. "I would like to buy one and have you mail it to me."
     "We don't send parts through the mail."
     Ah. A complication. "Why?" I asked.
     "We've had a bad experience sending parts through the mail."
     And I've had bad experiences writing stuff, but I still do it.
     He gave the impression that he had a box filled with such parts, and would just give the nut to me, but I would have to show up and get it. In Palatine. A half hour drive. Not bad. Sixty minute round trip. It would be an outing. I could take the clock with me, strapped into the back seat, to get it eyeballed while I was at it.
     But something grated. They should be able to mail the nut to me. Amazon manages. Eli's manages to send four pound cheesecakes packed in dry ice across the country. Thinking I would find Another Way, I went to Ace Hardware and bought the smallest nut they had. It was hexagonal, but it cost 23 cents. It was still too big.
     So I went online, and appealed to several other clock shops. One in Michigan. And another in Oregon. I explained what I was looking for.
     Creative Clock in Eugene, Oregon called and left a message. They had the nut, and I didn't have to drive to the West Coast to get it. They would send it to me for $7, total, including shipping. Before I could return his call, Amber, from the Michigan store phoned. They too had the nut, and would sell it to me. For $28. Plus $4 shipping.
     I went with Oregon. The nut arrived in three days. And I was left with a sense of wonder. One place wanted $4 for what another wanted $28; a factor of seven. Quite a lot, really. That's like one car dealer wanting $15,000 for a car, and another $105,000. For the same car. While the third place, the local place wouldn't even try. Because putting the nut in an envelope and mailing it was several orders of complexity beyond, say, repairing a broken clock.
     And since Chicago Clock might read this, I should add that you did a great job putting a new mechanism into the clock, and should it once again break, I'll return, and I hope you'll let bygones be bygones. But geez, it's 2020. Mail stuff.
     Oddly, until this moment, I never considered asking Suburban Clock, back in Berea. Maybe because I've walled off that part of my life, and if I made a habit of reaching out to folks back in Berea, I'd soon find myself sitting on the Triangle on Front Street, watching the cars go by, like Forrest Gump. I'm very glad to have the nut in place, and the clock working, chiming the quarter hour, bonging the hour. It makes me feel like I have an ordered and established life of quiet dignity and leisure, even though I have nothing of the sort, except in this one regard.