|Northbrook street repair crew, July 29, 2020|
Can things be going great and you don't even know it?
I sat down to assess the State of the Blog as its eighth year comes to a close, and eight years just seems an impossibly long time. Every ... goddamn ... day.
Then again, a lot's been going on. This past year Donald Trump was dragged kicked and screaming from the stage, but not before his clown coup gave us a taste of worse to come. COVID dialed back from raging lethal lockdown to semi-controlled openness, at least for the moment. The decent and somewhat effective Joe Biden was ushered into power.
On the home front, both our boys graduated law school, snagged brass ring jobs and are studying eight hours a day for their bar exams. I finished my next book, based on this blog, suggested by the University of Chicago Press, which is not generally known for its vanity projects. I enjoyed writing the book and it was enthusiastically receive by the academic readers, and is steaming toward publication in the fall of 2022.
So why the sour-stomach sense of dread? Well, there is the Tribune, cashiering its top columnists. My reaction was not, "Hooray, I'm still here, I win!" Rather, dark foreboding. Alden Capital kneecapping their own paper by way of hello is bad enough, but it made me look at the crop of new columnists coming up. Or rather, look for them, not find any, and realize: there isn't one. It's almost as if writing a column is not a thing anymore, as my kids would say.
How did the Washington Post put it, in sending off the Tribune's Mary Schmich and the nameless drudges who left with her? "But columns like Schmich’s are becoming nostalgia items. While people still write about cities, the classic metro newspaper column is fading as fast as the sound of a bundled bag of newsprint dropping on the walkway each morning."
"Nostalgia items." Ouch. Does that sting because it's true? Or because it isn't? Maybe the operative word here is "classic." If the classic metro newspaper column is Mike Royko, whom the Post lights a candle for, sitting in the Billy Goat in front of his vodka tonic, talking to an imaginary friend then yes, the appetite for that kind of thing has dwindled, and rightly so. Times change and we change with them. But looking back over the past year of EGD, it seems a lively reaction to a difficult time. Yes, I'm biased. But it's not just me. The numbers are up, at last: over 81,000 readers in June, up from 72,000 in May (Blogger, which doesn't change for the better, no longer offers a month-by-month breakdown. And those numbers seem to be people, not robots. That's improvement. Closing in on a million readers a year.
This past year (EGD debuted July 1, 2013) began in the COVID summer of 2020 with what turned out to be the most popular column of the year, "Virus mystery: The case of the missing Fresca." With Chicago in flames and people dying and no end in sight, picking the topic seemed embarrassingly unimportant. But the Internet rewards not only malice, but triviality, and if you typed "What happened to Fresca?" into Google that column came up first. I heard from grateful readers across the country, and it was so popular that my bosses did something highly unusual: they asked for an update, which ran in August, "Fresca's back: Mystery of its absence solved!"
In September I wrote a column I was even more proud of, "A do-it yourself colonoscopy? Sign me up." I might not be sitting in a basement bar talking to Sam Sianis, at least not anymore. But I am the guy who wondered "Who opens the jar?" I can live with that.
In October, Ashlee Rezin Garcia and I visited a vast Amazon procurement center for "Amazon robots, workers speed stuff to you."
One thing about my column that I believe sets it apart is that it is a bit more writerly than most. Certain forms present themselves. In November, summing up the never-ending shock of the Trump administration, writing a single run-on sentence seemed the way to go.
Researching the book pointing me toward a number of columns. Perhaps my favorite was in December, after learning The American Bee Journal was based in Chicago for decades and is still going in downstate Illinois. That led me to look into the apiary situation, resulting in a piece with the legendary—to me if no one else—opening sentence. "But how has COVID affected beekeeping in Illinois?"
The day of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, I wrote about the lingering echo of the Civl War and saw a flash of what was to come:
The Lost Cause marches on, as we will see Wednesday, when Congress faces another ego-stoked rebellion: Donald Trump’s insistence that his clearly losing the 2020 presidential election in the chill world of fact can be set aside, since he won the race in the steamy delta swampland between his ears.In February, I reflected the city's souring view of Lori Lightfoot, "Mayor needs less hope, more responsibility." In March, I drove down to Springfield to get my Pfizer vaccine. In April, I indulged my curiosity for obscure medical conditions by attending a Zoom therapy session for men with paruresis. In May, Ashlee and I reunited for dinner at a billet house in Aurora with three teenage hockey players. In June, my family bid farewell to our cat Gizmo. The column began, "Gizmo was a naughty cat..." and varied that phrase throughout, prompting one reader to observe that I should have included, "Gizmo is a lucky cat," for being so well tended. He's right.
Then again, I have a way of either ignoring good luck, or analyzing it to death, and the bottom line is, while American society shatters and journalism crumbles, my platforms remains intact. I am lucky, employed, read, and grateful to be able to do what I do. No stopping now; the blog has to chug on to a decade, at least, of solitary mornings, tossing up this ball of words, batting fungos into the weeds.
Solitary, but never alone. Caren Jeskey, our Austin Bureau Chief, who had her own notable year, quit the loathsome conservative hellscape of Texas to return to pleasant, cool, comfortingly blue Illinois. She carries the ball every Saturday, and I'm grateful to her. I tried to let Marc Schulman off the hook this year; I figured, he'd sacrificed enough. But he insisted on running his Eli's Cheesecake ads on the blog for the seventh holiday season, which was very much appreciated. I have a cast of regular readers, who enhance and correct what I do. Thanks particularly to Jakash, who has fixed 100 errors. And thank you readers. I sure would feel stupid writing this stuff if nobody read it. Love and gratitude to my wife Edie, who never misses an opportunity to say, "I don't know why you bother with that thing." It's complicated, honey.