|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.
From one of many who appreciate that you do "bother": I'll give you one, three-word guess as to how often I read this blog...winky-face emoji.ReplyDelete
EGD is the first thing I read in the morning. EGD. You have a gift, and I am grateful to you for sharing it with us.ReplyDelete
I read it everyday. Sometimes I read it in the Sun-Times, but like today when your not in the Sun-Times I come here. I love when you go visit places like the Amazon Building. I think those are really cool stories and only something a columnist would do. Hope you keep it up.ReplyDelete
All of my adult life, I've subscribed to newspapers at home or bought them away from home because of their columnists. It's a learning experience with personality.ReplyDelete
Congratulations on EGD's success and please keep on, Neil.
Thank you for the year in review column. Here’s a correction for you… it’s only half over.ReplyDelete
Les, I'll see if I can beat Neil to the punch with an, "Ouch!" for you.Delete
No mistake, it's fiscal year ending June 30th.Delete
As I point out in the post, it began July 1. Hence the year ending June 30. I used to also do a recap Dec. 31. But that seems one recap too many.Delete
Living in a world where millions of people fawn over a sociopathic, emotionally damaged criminal and are willing to destroy democracy to protect his tissue thin sense of self is an exhausting burden. Getting to start each day with a thoughtful, self aware, informative essay is just the tonic to mitigate this existential lunacy. Keep up the great work helping us hold despair at bay.ReplyDelete
U talking about Bill Cosby?Delete
Keep up the good work.ReplyDelete
I don't always comment but I always read your column. With the trashing of the Tribune, you are one of the few newspaper columnists left in Chicago who's worth reading. Tell Eli's that I love their cheesecakes but can't afford the cost of having them shipped to me. I wish they were being sold in stores downstate like Meijer.ReplyDelete
Thank you for EGD. I'm glad you do bother and hope you'll keep on bothering for a long time to come.ReplyDelete
Speaking of EGD, what happened to the banner picture at the top of the column? It was always a pleasure to see that and study the subject. For the last several days, it has been reduced to a blackbird scrunched into the upper left corner.ReplyDelete
I wish I could tell you. At the end of last week, photos just stopped posting regularly. Other photos don't "take" at all; they hover under the title when I post them. That's why I'm sticking with the bird, at least it helps the blog name be read (the type won't change either). Blogger can be idiosyncratic like that. I've tried various settings and fixes, and am my wit's end. I'd happily pay a consultant if they could fix it for me, but I don't know where to find one. Any suggestions would be appreciated. It's very frustrating.Delete
Sorry -- the above comment from Unknown at 10:10 a.m. was from me.ReplyDelete
EGD brings to mind what Virginia Woolf wrote about another master of the personal essay:ReplyDelete
"Mr. Beerbohm in his way is perfect...he has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. He is without doubt the prince of his profession."
I came late to the party, Mr. S. Got your Chicago book for Christmas of 2014, but didn't start reading your blog until right before the election. I remember how you predicted, multiple times, that Trump would win. I laughed. Soon afterward, that prediction ceased to be so funny.ReplyDelete
Even after the orange horror began, I still lurked for another year, mainly to get the lay of the land, and to see what flew and what didn't, and what would and would not piss you off. And how much I could swear.
Finally posted for the first time in early 2018, about taking a whiz next to Royko at the Billy Goat. Hard to believe so much sand has trickled through the hourglass. It's been a great ride. Reading your essays and columns brighten my day, and I hope to hell you don't join the ranks of the "former columnists" anytime soon. Like all the other survivors, you still have one of the best jobs in the world. Here's hoping you get to remain in it for a long time to come.
Our local alternative weekly is dying, thanks to the Plague. They pulled the plug on their comment boards last year, so EGD is one of only two sites that I still visit every goddamn day, without fail. Soon, it will be the only one. The owner of the other one died last winter, after seventeen years, and his daughter is keeping it on life support...but just barely. So glad you got the jab. He never got the chance. Stay healthy.
Happy belated birthday. And a happy birthday to EGD. "Zei gesunt" to you and yours.
Thanks Grizz. I hit the Y, hard, today, so trying to keep the old systems going.Delete
Oh, and I miss the banner images, too. I assume you took most of them, if not all of them, and they were great. Hope you can get them to come back. Gotta be a computer whiz in Chicago, or elsewhere, who can fix it for you. I hope somebody offers their services soon. I miss those pix.ReplyDelete
I went looking for a fix. It seems Blogger recently changed the code to make it look good on phones. There is a fix involving directly manipulating the HTLM code, and I've messed around with it, but really didn't get anywhere. I'd counsel patience; maybe it'll sort itself out.Delete
Is this better? I created a second heading for the photo (if I try to put up words, it shrinks).Delete
Best wishes to you!ReplyDelete
Thank you for "bother[ing] with that thing." It means a lot to so many of us.ReplyDelete
I think they're trying to force everyone into using their fancy new themes. Chances are good that you're still using a "Classic" and the updates will not be very helpful to you.ReplyDelete
If you go into Layout and edit your Header Gadget, there's a place to select Image Placement > Behind Title and Description. Make sure to Save changes.
Go into edit your page and select the <> HTML View. Find the Header photo image name and right after the file name (.jpg) you should see width="###" Change that ### to 1300 or so. You might want to add height="400" or the image will be distorted. You can wiggle both of those numbers until you are happy with the proportions.
If you're feeling brave, you might want to go ahead and convert to a new layout. You have to option to preview your current blog in all of the new styles with the click of a button. There's a fair bit of customization available within the new templates and the interface is more drag and drop than before so it should be much more user friendly.
No matter what, we'll still follow you EGD. Cheers, Lori
Thanks Lori. I've been fiddling with the HTML code, to no avail. Some people on the discussion threads say it also doesn't work for them. I might try the new layout. I'd hate for the blog to go all generic, or to lose my way-cool yellow legal paper. Maybe if I get bold. Right now, the bird photo is the only one that goes behind the blog title—important, because it's so light it can't be read. But the thing reacts different ways, depending on the time of day it seems. For now, I'm going to focus on the words and wait. This problem is only a few weeks old. Maybe Blogger will react.Delete
Can you lift the curtain a bit more on the upcoming book? I remember reading something about Chicago day by day in history, but I could be wrong? If there’s a reference to the number of Chicago aldermen or women indicted, I see today it’ll need to be updated.ReplyDelete
Yes, no number of alderpeople indicted, though I mention the number of governors in prison. It is the story of Chicago conveyed in 366 dated entries. Jan. 1, Jan. 2, Jan. 3, ... corresponding to what happened on that day in a certain year. Sharp vignettes about history. I think it came out well. An artist is doing illustrations.Delete
I thought perhaps you had been dive-bombed by a particularly aggressive red-winged blackbird and were leaving up his photo, akin to a criminal's mug-shot on the wall of the post office, until he might be brought to justice.ReplyDelete
As sad a state as the world is in, we're at least better off than if that reality-show guy had slithered into a second-term. Which has allowed EGD to feature more serendipitous fare and fewer timely analyses of his malfeasance.
Congrats on keeping it going day after damn day for yet another year. With the competition thinning, your efforts are all the more appreciated by those with the sense to look for them.
And thanks for the shout-out! Happy to be of whatever assistance I can.
As an EGD reader of EGD, let me join the chorus with congrats and thank you. Your boundless range of topics, masterly writing and spot on humor offer the best way to start (yes) EGD. We laugh, we cry, we THINK.ReplyDelete
So glad you continue to soldier on Neil. I no longer live in Chicago (Tucson now), so EGD keeps me in touch with the heartbeat of my old stomping grounds. Your writing doesn't suck, which is nice :)ReplyDelete
thoughtful well written and reliable. grateful for your work. hope you write for a newspaper for as long as you wish.ReplyDelete