Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Flashback 2000: Prayer needs a 'private' sign


     The Uptown Poetry Slam returned to the Green Mill on Sunday after its long COVID hiatus. The most fun I've had in a while. The open-mike poets were funny and true and passionate and heartbreaking. The jazz was cool. And Marc Kelly Smith was the perfect MC, energetic and raw, reciting his own powerful poetry. There was tap dancing, and one poet proposed to his girlfriend from the stage. I was honored to be allowed to say a few words, and considered talking about Miss Eve, then didn't. I can't believe I haven't shared the following before, but here it is.

     The Green Mill is a wonderful old bar in Uptown. If you've never gone, you really should—dark, cozy, comfortable. I used to stop by whenever I could, back in the days when it had a regular pianist named Miss Eve.
     Miss E
ve played at the Green Mill for nearly 50 years. She was a big, fleshy woman, and she would sit perched at the small piano behind the bar and sing, her voice rough and low. She took requests, and I'd try to stump her. My mother had been a singer in the USO, so I was familiar with a wide range of obscure old chestnuts. I'd request "Goody, Goody," and "Embraceable You" and "There's No Tomorrow."
Miss Eve
     "Do you know `Avalon' ?" I'd ask. "Do you know `Come Rain or Come Shine' ?" Invariably, she did. But I kept trying. One day she interrupted me in mid-question. "Honey," she rasped. "I know 'em all."
      A flash of insight swept over me. She knows them all. She is omnipotent. Divine. A god. Of course! God is a sweaty fat woman in a dark bar, playing out the tune of the world.
     Right, I know: drunk. But it seemed profound, then. I mention it to illustrate why I don't pray much. If you are the sort of person who can entertain a thought as blasphemous as "God is a sweaty fat woman . . ." then you lack the sincerity needed for prayer.
     While I don't pray much, I do appreciate prayer. It is an amazingly efficient endeavor. Prayer doesn't require batteries. You can do it aloud, but you don't have to. You can pray silently. Nobody will stop you. There is no need to clasp your hands in front of you or to kneel. You can choose to turn your eyes heavenward or not.
     This subtle, flexible quality of prayer comes to mind when I hear of people trying to make it into a public spectacle, either by forcing it into public schools or, as we keep hearing from the Southland, shouting it out at high school football games.
     Ever since the courts struck down leading prayers over the PA system as unconstitutional, rabid ministers have been encouraging their charges to stand up before games and pray.
     What is the purpose of this? Down South, they argue that they are merely continuing a tradition—God and football. The argument that a person should be able to attend a high school football game without being forced to choose whether to stand for a public display of adherence to Christianity never seems to affect anybody south of Missouri.
     What they don't realize is that this only works so long as most people think alike. As we learned this year in Palos Heights, the face of America is changing, and as our country becomes more diverse, the bullying represented by those football game prayers will become more intolerable. How would they react if, after the spontaneous Lord's Prayer died away, a smaller contingent stood up to recite the Hebrew schma as a third group went down to the field to unroll their prayer rugs facing Mecca.
     They wouldn't like it.
     You can pray all you want—in school, at football games, in a bar. You just shouldn't make a show of it. The reason is that if you recite the Lord's Prayer—your Lord's Prayer—then I should be able to shake a palm branch, and little Haji should get a chance to light incense to the six-armed elephant-head god.
     This is only fair. Yet so many people just can't get it. Maybe I should pray for them. Miss Eve, do you know "As Time Goes By"?
        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 5, 2000.

Monday, November 29, 2021

‘Let’s reduce the misery’

Metropolitan Museum of Art

     Before we consider the issue that U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., phoned me to talk about last week — shipping fighting birds through the United States Postal Service — we need to wrap our heads around the general idea of animals being sent through the mail.
     It is a common practice.
     “They sent me a list of things you can legally mail,” Quigley said. “Poultry, honeybees, scorpions, live adult birds, which is depressing. Baby alligators, frogs, chameleons, lizards, etc.”
     Which makes sense. Animals need to get to farms and pet stores. It isn’t like they can take a bus. Posting them doesn’t strike me as particularly cruel. Given the amount of time a frog spends hibernating at the bottom of a frigid lake, four days in a dark container doesn’t seem a crime against nature.
     But that isn’t the problem Quigley is trying to address.
     “Today we’re focused on buying, selling, possessing or receiving any animals for purposes of the animal participating in a fighting venture,” Quigley said.
     Cockfights — putting two birds in a ring, with razor talons attached to their claws, and goading them to maul each other — is one of the more obscure sub-hells of sport. Illegal in all 50 states, it is still permitted in territories like Puerto Rico and Guam.
     Maybe I’ve been softened up by COVID isolation, But I was happy just to be approached by somebody about something. Quigley could have been exercised about the Oxford comma, and I’d give him my ear.
     Earlier this month, Quigley sent a letter to Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale, asking the USPS to develop a strategy to start better enforcing the 2002 federal law against shipping animals for fighting purposes.
     “There have been 500 shipments of fighting birds, mostly from state-based farms in the Carolinas, some 10,000 fighting animals sent to Guam,” Quigley said. The birds are also being sent to Puerto Rico.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

'Better I should know'

    Reality is a stern taskmaster. That's why so many people are so loose with their facts. Not that they are averse to factuality, per se. They never fudge random fact, never claim the moon is made of chalk.
    Rather, they want a pass, want to coast, want to ignore the costs baked into their behaviors. Nobody lies to make themselves look worse, or to emphasize the gravity of their misdeeds. Rather, they attempt to deform the truth—always in vain—to bend it out of shape rather than admit that it is they themselves who need adjusting. They try to pretend their wishes were horses, mounting air and riding away, in their minds if not in actuality. 
     That's why I keep an electronic scale in the kitchen. Because when the issue is as significant as what you put in your mouth, a person tends to err on the side of more. I've eaten a salad in a chain restaurant and figured it had to be 500 calories, then later checked the establishment's website and found it was really 1,200. Just as primitive cultures lacked words for large numbers, and could 1,2,3 and "many," so I have a hard time adjusting the upper limit of what I imagine certain foodstuffs contain, difficulty adjusting to just how fattening they are. It seems to defy possibility. I used to like a good blueberry muffin, until Jewel started posting they are 600 calories. I never ate one again.
     Still, even with the best, most accurate intentions, mistakes happen. 
     The other day. I cut myself a slice of my wife's delicious homemade cranberry bread. It was a thick slice, and I figured it had to be 1.5 ounces. Then I tossed it on the scale. More than twice that: 3.3. To my credit, I did not then announce that the scale was broken. Or suspect a problem with gravity. A lot of people seem to take that route. But the cranberry bread was 330 calories whether I recognized it or not. As Sarah McLachlan sang, "Better I should know."

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Oromo

     Damn! I read the Saturday post from our Ravenswood bureau chief Caren Jeskey and berated myself with: "Why didn't I think of that?" The only thing to do is to wait a respectful period of time—weeks? months?—and then dive into my own complicated relationship with the piping hot brown nectar of the gods. Until then, her report:

Dedicated, in gratitude, to my parents.

     Coffee has been a constant companion throughout my life and I know just why it's sometimes called "the poor man's gold." From before I was born, our house welcomed each day with the sound of a percolator, which was later replaced by the wheezes and gurgles of a good old drip machine.
     For some of us, there are few things as satisfying as the sound of coffee brewing. Well, maybe the pleasure of pouring hot water from the tip of a gooseneck kettle in concentric circles over fresh grounds, and letting them bloom as they release their heavenly aroma. When I grind my beans each morning, carefully reassemble the clean parts of the vessel I’m using to brew that day, heat up water, and add it to the grounds, I am immersed in the ritual and it's comforting.
     From my toddler to my teenage years, my mother kept a giant green thermos full of the pungent dark liquid by her side. This was necessary and justified, considering that she was raising three young children during the day and working all night long until the sun came up. She also went through another period of working full time while raising two of us, co-running the household, and getting various degrees of higher education that she did not have time for in her 20s. My dad was around too, but my mom had to fly solo when he was miles away working long days, and later when he traveled for work. She simply had to stay tanked up.
    In the early 70's it must have taken my dad hours on the bus to get from our white wooden farm-style house on Ridge and Lunt all the way to the Campbell’s Soup factory on 35th and Western where he worked. Legend has it that he took the bumpy CTA trip, day after day, while holding a piping hot cup of the brown stuff. Of course the cup was not covered with a lid — this tough, handsome, south-side greaser of a man was not soft enough for that. I am quite sure he never spilled a drop of the java, gracefully maneuvering his cup as the bus lurched over potholes, as he headed off to support his family with his strong, capable, and steady hands.
     I’m right there with my folks in our love for those roasted little beans. As a young kid I’d pour coffee out of the percolator into a cup, add milk and sugar, and drink away. I've liked the taste of java from the very first time it’s bitterness — not quite concealed in the condiments — hit my taste buds.
     When I was 17 and working the sunrise shift at Granny’s Waffle and Pancake House on Pine Grove and Diversey, my regulars were relieved to see that I knew how many creamers and sugars it took to make a proper Boston. I’d make sure it was well stirred, collect my tip, hand them their prize, and they’d head out to face their days, feeling bolstered by liquid energy. I was a dealer. Speaking of that town, a 2015 study found
 Coffee Drinking 'Not Uncommon' Among Boston Toddlers. In this upside down world we are living in it’s probably all of them by now. On this holiday weekend let’s not get too dreary by focusing on the dangers of caffeine or the fact that South Korea may be the only place that’s getting it right.
     Fortunately I am down to one or two cups of joe a day, with the rare third cup some afternoons. Rather than chugging the battery acid like I used to, and never being able to get enough of it (I once worked at a coffee shop where fellow baristas asked the owner to do an intervention since they were worried that I might achieve caffeine toxicity in my enthusiasm to taste all the drinks), I am able to enjoy a safe amount of homemade deliciousness. There are even days I don’t have any, and I don’t miss it.
Molly & Macallan
    Then there are days like this past Wednesday. I was on a long walk and decided to treat myself to a special coffee at Oromo in Lincoln Square. While I waited in the short line I noticed two young women in front of me. I admired the kicks on one of them; white lace up booties with goldish stripes reminiscent of bowling shoes. I also liked their color palettes— the rusts, browns, creams, and blues fit right in with the simple wood and Turkish tile ambience of the shop. I took a chance and complimented the shoes. Turns out the two are a couple visiting from the St. Louis area, Molly and Macallan, and they had the happy vibe of vacation.
     The little chat — one of very few human interactions off of a Zoom screen I had that day — put me in a brighter mood. I ordered a Pistachio + Rose Latte comprised of fresh pistachio milk, rose syrup, espresso, and rose petals. I sipped my fancy gem as I walked back home under sunny skies in the warmish fall air and I was grateful for the day.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Back from the dead

     During a very long day Thanksgiving Day of cutting, toasting, measuring, mixing, baking, covering, washing, sweeping, driving, greeting, chatting, serving—I could add another dozen gerunds, but you get the picture—I had plenty to time to reflect on the dynamics of family.       
     Yes, it's a lot of bother. Throwing a big party for crowds of people, some of whom you see once a year. But as with so much in life, you get out what you put in. When finally everything was ready, and it came time when we normally go around the table and give thanks, I suggested to my wife, sotto voce, that perhaps we jettison that part. There were so many of us—28. The feast had been delayed—complications with the mashed potatoes. Maybe we should just cut to the chase. 
     No, my wife said: tradition. So we began.
     Another value of hanging around other people: because you are not always right. Sometimes they are right.
     In this case, my wife was correct. The thanks that I was ready to ditch turned out to be the best part of the day, for me anyway, certainly better than merely eating. A poem of thanks by a 6-year-old was read. People were grateful to have survived COVID, to be alive, to be together. Nobody talked about material stuff. Few even mentioned the food. It was the family, us, here, now.
     A few brought up other things. When it was my turn, I stipulated what everybody had said, thanked my parents for coming from Colorado and my sister from Dallas, mentioned our own distant ancestors, who made their escapes so we could end up here, alive, then gave thanks for Joe Biden being elected president. That was well-received in our crowd. Though the thanks that will stay with me came from my niece Rachel, studying to be a rabbi in Jerusalem, who flew in. 
      She said there is a blessing for when you haven't seen anybody in over a year, and she gave the blessing, in Hebrew and in English: "Blessed art thou, our Lord our God, King of the Universe, who gives life to the dead."
     It's part of the Amida, the daily prayers that religious Jews say. Some say it upon waking in the morning, which, when you think about it, it a kind of arising from the dead. During the inevitable discussion that followed, my brother-in-law Alan pointed out that it wasn't so much physical resurrection that is being referred to, but the awakening of "dead souls." Or in this case, when someone you love is gone so long, a part of yourself become dead, or dormant, a part that reanimates should that person return.
     That is certainly true. The house rang in a way it hasn't rung for two years, with raucous laughter and a babble of voices and racing children. Say what you will about the family, it is life, in our case from a toddling almost 2-year-old, who pointed to a broken banister and said, "Uncle Neil will fix that," to a nearly 90-year-old, who marveled at the technology behind my large screen TV. All in the same place at the same time, basking in a warmth that goes back to the first protozoan cells clumping together deep within an ancient sea.
     I could go on, but about 11 p.m., after the last care packages of turkey—we had three, roasted, fried and smoked—stuffing and pie—we had six, pumpkin, pecan, sour cherry, mixed berry, and a couple I'm forgetting—were carted away, my wife and I ran out of steam and went to bed. Which means there's more washing, wiping, scrubbing, drying, unloading, sweeping, loading, stacking, disposing, climbing, sorting, storing and more waiting downstairs to be done. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving yesterday with all the loved ones you could gather together, and a quiet and restful day after today.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Giving Thanksgiving thanks.

     We call the room downstairs "the Toy Room," even though it has been many years since the boys sprawled on the linoleum floor, playing with their toys. Late last year, during the wave of COVID home remodeling that swept the nation, we finally threw away the sofa they had battered to a wreck, painted the walls a pleasing au courant blue, and put down a gorgeous new maple floor from Chicago Hardwood Flooring. It looked perfect.
     Until the spring when it didn't, the center buckling up, a hump that compressed a half inch when you stepped on it. Which could have signaled the onset of arguments and entreaties, delays and lawsuits. But the installer Chicago Hardwood had recommended, Arild Farkvam of A & K Floor Company of Oak Park, stood by his work, came over, assessed the situation, then returned as promised, with an assistant, and spent a very long day fixing the problem. Now it's back to looking perfect.
       I was grateful for that—new wood floors sometimes buckle, and I don't fault any lack of skill for it happening in the first place—and meant to thank Arild, and to toss his name out there in case readers are looking for a flooring guy who stands behind his work. But time hurries on, months pass, and sometimes important things, like thanking those to whom you owe thanks, get overlooked.
     Even today, on Thanksgiving. Ever notice how much of Thanksgiving is about the giving part—food, that is—and how little is about the thanks?
     Maybe because as massive an undertaking as the feast can be—we're expecting 28 today—attempting to give thanks is even more involved. There's always enough food to go around. You never finish the meal and realize you've missed someone.
     But gratitude? Trying to give thanks is an invitation to failure, to oversights and slights, and hurt feelings, the opposite of what you intend. Plus it's, well, personal. You can't give thanks without opening a door into your life and letting everyone look in.
     Which is kinda what I do. In that light, I almost have to try, with apologies ahead of time for anybody missed. There are a lot of you. So let's get to it.
     Thanks, first and foremost, to my wife Edie, for being the only person I'd want to endure a pandemic with. "I'll be with you 24 hours a day," as Randy Newman sings. "A lot of people couldn't stand it, but you can."
     Thanks to the boys, for working so hard and making us so proud. For being menschs. For always coming home, of their own volition.
     Thanks to my mother, for talking to me every day, for taking care of my father, for the both of them, though well into their 80s, braving two of the worst airports in the country, Stapleton and O'Hare, to celebrate Thanksgiving with us. And my sister Debbie, for coming in from Dallas.
     Thanks to the entire Goldberg clan, especially Janice, for the pies, and Jay, for the frying, and the tile. Not to forget the new moms, Sarah and Julia, for starting the next generation off right. To Esther, for coming in from California, where Don Goldberg is still sheltering in place. We'll miss him at the table. Thanks to Alan Goldberg, for being the new patriarch, and to Cookie, for helping him, and Rachel, for coming in from Israel. To my brother Sam, and his family, and my cousin Harrison, the gutsiest guy I know, and Yi and Gabrielle and Arianna. To Evie and Mark Levine, Carole Roberts, and all our kin, everywhere, including our long-ago houseguest, Valerie Levine, all the way in Germany, sussing out the secrets of the universe.
     On the professional front, thanks to publisher Nykia Wright, for charting an exciting course for the Sun-Times to move into the future, and to editor-in-chief Steve Warmbir, for his steadiness, and my editors, John O'Neill and Suzanne McBride, for their care and hard work, and to my colleagues, everyone on the staff of the paper, for creating something that we can all be proud to be associated with. Thanks to Erin Wheeler and Jeff Kleinhenz, for keeping the computers running.
     Thanks to Timothy Mennel, for tossing me the challenge of the latest book, whatever we call it, and for everybody else at the University of Chicago Press. Thanks to Lauren Nassef, for her drawings, which really enliven the effort. Thanks to Cari and Michael J. Sacks, for their generous and timely support.
     Thanks to Caren Jeskey for putting her shoulder to this blog, and making each Saturday sparkle and shine. Thanks to Marc Schulman for his holiday ads, this year being the ninth year in a row. 
Thanks to all my blog readers, for Jakash and Coey and Grizz and Tate and everybody who reads and writes in and everybody who reads and doesn't write in. Thanks to Chris Wood and all my actual friends on Facebook, and to my old pal Ted Allen, and everybody else who puts an actual human spirit in Twitter. Thanks to Molly Jong-Fast and everyone firing darts at the Trump enormity, trying to destroy the beast.
    Thanks to my friend and agent for many years, Susan Raihofer, and everybody at the David Black Literary Agency. 
    Thanks to Rick Telander, and all the guys at the Lake Superior Philosophical Society, particularly Rory Fanning, who was right about everything. Thanks to S.E. Cupp, for being a moral Republican, and to Thomas Dyja, Jonathan Eig, Marc Kelly Smith, and all the fellow writers I know.
     Thanks to all my colleagues, from longtime friends like Eric Zorn, to new ones, like Daniel Knowles, the new Midwestern Correspondent for The Economist. Thanks to Rick Kogan and Esther J. Cepeda, Robert Feder and Jim Kirk, too many to name. You know who you are. Thanks to Robert Leighton, for drawing up my ideas and submitting them to The New Yorker, and to the magazine for publishing another one a few weeks back.
     Thanks for all the Chicago friends who keep in touch: Paul Biebel, Lori Cannon, Robert Falls, Justine Fedak, Tony Fitzpatrick, Mark Konkol, Ron Magers, Bill Savage, Karen Teitelbaum. Thanks to my West End Avenue pals, Carol Weston and Robert Ackerman, and my Berea friends, Jim and Laura Sayler. Thanks to childhood friends Mark Paine and Gordon Gregg, who reconnected with me this year, particularly to Gordon, who showed the world how to bear unbearable loss with faith and courage.
      Thanks to all those friends who are more like family, to Larry and Ilene and Lane Lubell, for just hanging out, and to Cate Plys and Ron Garzotto, to Sandi and Lise Schleicher, plus Joel and Alex. Thanks to Kier Strejcek and Cathleen Cregier.
     Thanks to Dr. Kevin D Hardt, for the hip—everything should work so well—and Dr. Alpesh Patel, for the spine, and Dr. Steve Frisch, for the insight. And to all hospital workers, doctors and emergency responders everywhere. Not to forget all the medical researchers who developed the COVID vaccines that allowed those in the fact-based world to enjoy a sorta return to a semblance of regular life.
     Thanks to all the professionals, service people and tradesmen who've done such good work this year, to Village Plumbing and Yemi at Meinecke. Thanks to Tom Mulcrone. See you Tuesday.
      Thanks to all our great neighbors on Center Avenue—the Martens and the Harts and the Kesmodels and the Garcias and the Steins, the Rosenbergs and everybody else. Thanks to Northbrook forester Terry Cichocki, for all the tree advice, and to the Northbrook Department of Public Works, for doing everything they said they would and not being too noisy.
      Thanks to my friends at the Newberry Library, and the staffs at the Chicago Public Library and the Northbrook library and all libraries everywhere. Thanks to the Chicago Botanical Garden, and to Sarah Stegner at Prairie Grass, Frank Gallo at Francesco's Hole in the Wall, and to Blufish and Tong's and Basu and Smoque and Georgie V's and Sunset Foods. Thanks to Audible and Google and, yes, Amazon. 
     Who I have missed? I've barely begun.  Thanks to good fortune, which can be so hard on others, but smiles upon us, so far. Thanks to Joe Biden, for winning, and showing America what a president should look like. Well, the part of America that can see things in front of them, anyway. 
     There's still more, but this will have to do for now. I've got the stuffing to make, and all those guests arriving in a few hours. This isn't everybody. But it's a start, surely. And if I missed you, well, thanks for understanding. It can't be the first time. Happy Thanksgiving, one and all. Remember to thank those people who enrich and enliven your life.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Flashback 2000: In the best poetry, there is love, horror — and truth

     Robert Bly died Sunday. My generation remembers him as the author of "Iron John," the book about mythical archetypes that suggest men somehow aren't self-absorbed enough, and need to go out into the woods together and beat drums and howl. Some did that, while the rest of us hooted in ridicule. 
     I was looking for some reference to Bly in the vault, and found this, which sets the stage for the Uptown Poetry Slam, which starts back up this Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Green Mill after its forced COVID hiatus. I plan to be there, and may even be enticed to say a few words.

     My mother writes poetry sometimes. Perhaps all mothers do. Since she is almost certainly reading this, courtesy of the Internet, it would be prudent for me to say that she writes "wonderful poetry." But that would be pandering to my audience, or at least one member of it.
     The fact is—and I must be delicate here—her poetry is not the sort of writing that echoes in one's head forever. I dutifully read the neatly penned pieces that she occasionally tucks in her letters, praise them modestly in our next telephone conversation and forget them.
     Except for one line, a single sentence, written maybe 10 years ago. My mother began a tribute to her own mother this way:
     "She achieved the fame we all seek."
     I love that line, because it is the perfect, pithy encapsulation of who my grandma Sarah was: the star of her world of poker-playing department store clerks, the cynosure of the Jewish Singing Society.
     I never forgot the line because it is true, and truth is the entire point of poetry. To say true things, briefly.
     I don't believe many people understand this. They feel that, rather than being about truth, poetry is just a flowery nothing, an embarrassing waste. Men feel this particularly. Poetry is in the queasy realm of tea shoppes and dance recitals and all the ruffled stuff that a guy just naturally keeps a big distance from because he won't enjoy them. Poetry is not only lousy, it's feminine.
     There's a point in there, somewhere. Most poetry is lousy, just as most books and movies are. But that doesn't mean that it all is, and it doesn't explain why you get all sorts of junk in your e-mail—jokes and urban legends and lists of trivia—but never a poem.
     People just don't think about poetry. The occasional poetry popularizer—such as smarmy Robert Bly with his stupid drumming seminars in the woods—just end up presenting verse as maudlin, syrupy slop for fools.
     It doesn't have to be. Take Robert Frost. The most famous poet of the 20th century and—the way we're going—the 21st century, too. "The Road Not Taken" is the script of a Monster.com commercial gaining attention recently, for the creepy way pedestrians loom out of a busy downtown street to say a line of the poem, one of Frost's most well-known, the one that ends: 
       Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
        I took the one less traveled by
       And that has made all the difference.
     Of course pairing the poem with a commercial venture turns it into something of a lie, by suggesting that we, too, can be independent spirits, if only we follow everybody else to Monster.com, the career Web site.
     That particular poem also feeds the common image of Frost's work—assuming people have an image —as being all about yellow woods in Vermont covered in maple syrup and cool stone walls.
     But Frost is not the Currier and Ives print that people think of him as. Just as fans of Norman Rockwell -- during his recent revival -- tried to give him hip legitimacy by pointing to his stark civil rights canvases, so I will sally to Frost's defense, in honor of today's anniversary of his birth in 1874, by pointing out there is much more to him than scenic postcards of Stowe.
     The day Frost was born, his father—a journalist—brandished a pistol at the attending doctor and told him that if anything went wrong, he was a dead man. And death looms over the best of Frost's poetry.
     In my favorite, "The Death of the Hired Man," a weary farm couple sit on a stoop, discussing the old farmhand who has suddenly returned.
     "What good is he?" the farmer asks. "Who else will harbor him; At his age for the little he can do?; What help he is there's no depending on ; Off he goes always when I need him most."
     Casually, the man or the wife—it's hard to tell which—tosses off one of those stark, universal truths that make poetry worth reading:
     "Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
      They have to take you in."
     Frost broke with all the giddy, Emersonian naturalists of the past and presented a world grimmer than people were used to reading about in verse, but no grimmer than the world actually is.
     While I had my anthology out, I tried, once again, to read "Out, Out -- " without choking up and, again, just couldn't do it.
     In the brief poem, Frost recounts the scene of a boy sawing firewood with a buzz saw in the yard. The boy's sister calls him to supper and the buzz saw:
     As if to prove saws knew what supper meant, 
     Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap— 
     He must have given the hand. However it was,
      Neither refused the meeting. . . .
     The poem has the matter-of-fact horror of a Stephen King novel and, at 34 lines, tells a tale as well as one of King's bulked-up tomes.
     It ends without a whiff of sentiment, illustrating the gulf between the lucky living, like us, and those like Frost, or the boy, whose death only fleetingly alarms those around him. "And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."

We remember Frost's half century of celebrity but, on his birthday, we should also recall both his words and his struggle to express those words. Robert Frost was 39 years old when he published his first book.
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 26, 2000

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Pennies for traitors

Judas Receiving the Wages of His Treason, by Augustin Hirschvogel (Metropolitan Museum)

     Thirty pieces of silver. Some red pottage. Ten thousand pounds and a military commission.
     I'm always struck by the paltry price received by those who betray their most cherished principles. How they sell out for trifles. Well, not the 10,000 pounds that Benedict Arnold got to sell out his country to the British. Quite a lot in Colonial times: you could buy and outfit 10 ships with that.
     But the silver flung at Judas. The stew that Esau sold his birthright to lap up. It matters that he was hungry. All traitors are hungry, in one way or another.
     And whatever they get in return, it is never much, not compared with what they give up.
     What do spiritually-famished Republicans get in return for betraying the American democratic system, a free press, science and factuality itself? The smirking faux approval of Donald Trump. The chance to imagine some notional band of liberals gnashing our teeth in frustration. (Sneering in disgust is closer to the truth). A one way ticket back to Fantasyland, some imagined America where white people rule, Muslims are going at each other with scimitars back in the land of the Arabian nights, and Black folk know their place, stepping off the sidewalk with a sincere, "Pardon me, suh!"     
     Oh, I suppose there's more. The joy of forcing conservative Christian sexual values on women too poor to go to a state where abortion is available. The frisson of believing you are the perpetual victim—bullies always believe this, the set-up for venting their anger on whomever they don't like. They have to pretend to be wronged first. That's where "critical race theory" comes in. To them, it isn't the mere teaching of American history, which in huge areas and for enormous blocks of time was a horror show. No, it's indoctrination. Making their kids feel bad. About what their grandparents did. 
     They leave off that last part.
     Of course traitors end up with something significant; though never what they expect. 
     American has not had a significant fascist movement until today, and it's natural to think back to the last time that totalitarianism was so ascendent in so many places around the globe—it isn't just here—and revisit that touchstone of my generation, World War II.
     Some readers know the war began on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded its neighbor, Poland. Far less known is why, what they expected to get out of the deal. Yes, World War II was a continuation of World War I, with a pause to raise a new generation of cannon fodder. But how was the case made? Common wisdom is they were reacting to staggering reparations payments after World War I. But Germany never made these payments. The bill was presented but not paid. It was more the insult of being held accountable for your actions, the evergreen outrage that wrongdoers feel. Yes, their economy was suffering in the Great Depression, but so was every other country in the world. Some, like America, were trying to combat the Depression with massive social programs. A few, like Germany, Japan and Italy, were pouring that effort into their military. Their misery was blamed on other countries, and of course the Jews, and the lie told, again and again. If only Germany had more land, and no Jews, why then they would be great. Again.
     They told themselves that Germany had not lost World War I. Rather, the country had been betrayed. "Stabbed in the back!" Their loss was imaginary, fake news. Nor was it final. They would have a do-over. They would avenge the wrongs committed against them.
     Sound familiar?
     As in the Civil War, bigotry has so warped Germany that they would rather try to deform reality than admit it to themselves, particularly defeat. Since they had never been invaded, or occupied, they hadn't learned their lesson. They had to be beaten again, more catastrophically. That also is standard. The second American insurrection will be worse than Jan. 6. This is not good news, but we are supposed to be the people living in the real world, and we will have to understand what is happening and act accordingly. Evil is always unbelievable. The Germans taught us that. Or should have.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Standing leaf, er, leaves.

     So Wednesday, Edie and I were coming home from an hour's walk through the Techny Prairie, when I froze, one foot on the stairs.
     "Look at that!" I said, pointing to a leaf from the scoop magnolia next to our front door. A leaf embedded, tip down, in the crack between the boards, looking like a tiny modern sculpture. I snapped a photo. "What are the odds?"
     Quite good, when you think of how many leaves there are, falling from the trees in a span of a few weeks.
     Stop right there. How many leaves are falling from trees? Good question. This is a realm, obviously, where hard numbers are going to be scarce. But I found an estimate that made sense on a thoughtful blog called The Daily Apple where the author used an estimate for the number of trees in the continental United States—about 200 billion—times the number of leaves on a mature tree, about 200,000, and came up with an answer of 40,651,600,000,000,000, or 40 quadrillion.
     Squinting at that, my gut questions the 200,000 leaves per tree assumption. This seems too large to me, perhaps only applicable to the biggest trees. Most must have far fewer, a conviction that might come from planting dozen two-inch saplings this fall, each with maybe a few dozen leaves. That might have led me astray, however. An Illustrative Mathematics article, however explains how many times larger a large tree is from a small one, multiplying by height, breadth and depth, so that a small maple with 400 leaves means that a larger maple, seven times the size, has 137,200 leaves. A lot.
     In 2012, a Wired author did a fairly rigorous volume analysis and estimated 30,000 to 50,000 leaves had been on his oak tree (not that he identified it as an oak, though it clearly is from the photos. It says something about humanity that someone would do the math counting leaves on a tree and never mention what sort of tree it is).
     So close enough.
     And a reminder that in a world of 9 billion people, interacting continually, never mind possibly quadrillions of leaves, that fantastically improbable circumstances should not only come as no surprise, but should be expected,  counterintuitively, as ordinary. What would be odd would be if freakishly improbable events didn't happen, continually. 
        This was driven home to me, two days later, when I came home to find this:   
     Which led me to an unsettling question. The tree has been by our porch the entire 21 years we've lived in the house. If the Standing Leaf happened before, why did I not notice it? It seems I would have, given how arresting it was, and how it happened twice in three days. So if I didn't notice then, but did now, what changed? Maybe I did notice, but forgot.
     If it never happened before, why did it happen now? Has some environmental quality causes the leaves to be, oh, pointier, so they fall in a way to insert themselves into the crack? Or stiffer. Global warming perhaps? Maybe this isn't the work of nature at all but, for instance, a waggish postman? (We never think of the human aspect in this kind of thing which is why people believe in UFOs).
      I wish I could tie this all up, but I can't. Maybe these are the only two leaves that are going to do this, and I'll spend the next dozen or so autumns waiting in vain. It's a wild world.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Chicago Botanic Garden's new Mitsuzo and Kyoko Shida Evaluation Garden.


     Saturday afternoon was crisp and sunny, and the Steinbergs—all four of us, for once, gathered in anticipation of Thanksgiving—headed over to the Chicago Botanic Garden for a stroll. The crowds that greeted the unusually warm weather last week were scared off by the mid-40s, and while we didn't quite have the place to ourselves, it was close enough.
     We made a beeline through the running cathedral arch set up for the holiday light show—you almost had to. I was tempted to say, "Wouldn't this be a nice place for a wedding?" but then thought better of it and kept my mouth shut; shutting up being an under-appreciated art form.
     I noticed that the boys had a habit of drifting into us as we walked, as they did when they were pre-schoolers, and the family tended to all stagger forward as a pack, a literal family unit. Occasionally my wife and I would have to stop, to let them get a bit ahead, as we did 20 years ago. 
     We wandered randomly, as we tend to do ("Left or right?" my wife or I would say, at each fork in the path) but intentionally crossed the Trellis Bridge, because it is so cool, with is serpentine bent wood deck, steel girder supports and stone pylons.
     "We can look around the experimental garden and then double back," I said, figuring we'd dead end against all the unsightly construction that has been going on at the south end of the garden ... well, if not forever, then a long time. More than a year. Chain link fences and construction trailers and heavy equipment.
    All gone.
    In its place, two pristine round wooden structures, and beyond, a pair of large metal domes and a running tubular archway that someday will be covered with greenery.
     "Let's go look at the gazebo!" someone cried, though we were already rushing over there.
     "Isn't it more of a peristyle than a gazebo?" I said, unable to help myself. 
     "A peristyle?" one of the boys asked.
     "Don't you remember your Plato's Republic?" I replied. Plato taught at The Peristyle.
     "Most people don't know what a 'republic' is," my younger son remarked.
     Sadly true. You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. And while a peristyle is columns surrounding a space open to the sky, it is also typically within a building. So I might have been mistaken. Wondering if you're wrong, another underrecognized art form.
     This one, whether gazebo or peristyle, is gloriously outside. Two of them, each with a half dozen brand new Chicago Botanic Garden wooden benches. We sat, luxuriating on their lovely smooth wooden newness, running our hands over the unfinished wood, eventually to age to a soft gray, with the sweet Botanic Garden flower logo incised on the back.
    "I wish they sold these," I said. "We could put one in the back yard."
     We strolled the entire quarter mile path, taking in the fresh plantings of grass and young trees and shrubbery. This is the new—I don't think it has officially opened yet—Mitsuzo and Kyoko Shida Evaluation Garden. The various "rooms" designed "to provide diverse growing conditions for plant trials." Uh-huh. That might be the official scientific rationale. But I think it's just a new attraction designed to look inviting and modern and cool. Six years in the planning and construction. 
     "I don't think we've been in this part before," I said, an old joke—we've crawled over every inch of the garden, yet parts always seem fresh. But now, as my wife observed, it was actually true.
     I poked around the Internet, looking for something about the generous couple, the Shidas, but didn't find much, beyond that they're in their 80s and live in Northbrook.
     No matter. Whoever you are, thank you for the gorgeous addition to the Chicago Botanic Garden. My family had a tremendous amount of fun exploring it, the boys, reverting to childhood, took turns playfully bumping each other as they passed under the new trellis tunnel. I imagine many, many Botanic Garden visitors to come will also enjoy themselves in this new section of the garden. Though they will be hard pressed to have as much fun as we did, many will no doubt feel appreciation for the gift, and I'm glad to be able to speak for them.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Salt

     The best sort of friends take turns inspiring each other. My blog post on WBEZ earlier this week prompted this reminiscence from Ravenswood bureau Caren Jeskey, who in thanking me for "antediluvian" (which I meant in the sense of "primordial") offered up the glorious rarity "endorheic." It was all I could do not to phone her, immediately, and shout, "Endorheic! Where the hell did you get THAT from!?!" But I was too fascinated skipping through its etymology. A French mashup of Ancient Greek, from endo-, meaning "within" and rheîn, "to flow." (Which, though I haven't done the legwork, has to be connected to both "Rhine" and "rain." How cool is that?)
But too much preface; Here is her report:

     When invited to take a dip in Al-Baḥr Al-Mayyit, we stripped down to our suits without a moment of hesitation. Entering the gelatinous warm substance that resembled the bluest of waters, we immediately recognized that due to physics there would be no walking in. No standing on a sandy bottom. When we got thigh level or so, our bodies popped up like corks. We carefully placed ourselves on the surface and floated, hot Jordanian sun blazing down on us.
     We had entered the Sea of Death, or the Dead Sea as it’s often known— an endorheic lake, meaning that it has no outlet to a larger body of water, thus forming a basin. It is highly saline with no in- or outflow, and uninhabitable by any living creatures except for bacteria.
     Our bodies surrendered, completely buoyed in the temperature of a generously heated pool. We’d been warned not to shave that day, or the day before, to avoid the torture of salinity getting into any small nicks or scrapes. Still, some members of our group ran nearly screaming out of the “sea” moments after they’d entered, dashing towards fresh water showers. Apparently, some tender body parts could not tolerate the extreme burning and puckering that occurred.
     The surface of the sea is situated on the “lowest land based elevation on earth.” It’s less than 500 miles away from where Noah is said to have built his ark, in modern day Iraq. After a while we maneuvered our way back to shore and scooped up handfuls of green mud to cover our bodies from head to toe. We allowed the mud to dry and crack, and made our way to the showers. Once rinsed off, our skin was buttery soft and our insides were too. The high levels of magnesium in the water gave us the benefits of the most amazing epsom salt bath filled that we’d ever had.
     Several years before this trip I’d been intrigued by a place called Space Tanks that was located in the huge white concrete building at 2526 North Lincoln in Chicago. As a yoga practitioner, I'd heard many folks in the community sing the praises of the zero gravity sensory deprivation tubs Space Tanks housed. For some reason I’d never gotten the courage to try them, even though I was quite drawn to the idea. It’s good to take a break from sensory input. (Sadly, they closed in 2016. Happily, one of the founders William Faith let me know recently that they hope to offer the experience to Chicagoans again in the future).
     It wasn’t until living in Austin Texas in 2015 that I discovered the incredible value of “floating” in such vessels. There was a place called Aquatonic that charged only $99 month for unlimited floats, a great bargain compared to the usual price of $25-$50 or more per float that most places ask for, (rightly so, since the tanks and their maintenance are very costly). The owner felt that this practice was so healing and necessary for the athletes he coached, that he wanted to make it accessible to them, and to all.
     The first time I went I was escorted into my own private room. There was a shower, a bench, hooks on the wall, and a gigantic white tub filled with tons of Epson salts and water. The tub was pristinely white and clean, and an indigo colored light illuminated the water. As instructed, after I showered, I placed my ear plugs, made sure the spray bottle of clean water was in reach in case I got salty water into my eyes, and I stepped in. My body effortlessly floated on the surface. The temperature in these tanks is exactly the ideal body temperature, which is quite comfortable. I placed a small piece of a pool noodle under my neck as a pillow.
     Before I’d climbed in, I had arranged for the indigo light to turn off after a few minutes of floating, and I had also arranged for the hypnotic music to silence after ten minutes or so. The other option was to keep the light and/or music on for the duration, but I was aiming for complete deprivation. Once I was comfortable, I pulled the top of the tub down part way, and later on I pulled it shut, as I felt more safe. It became a beautiful addiction. It enhanced my sobriety and gave me a place where I felt at peace without the help of mood altering substances.
     Day after day after day, I’d work, then take the short walk to Aquatonic and climb into what I found to be the perfect place. Sometimes I’d fall asleep and have vivid dreams, or fall into a reel of daydreamed images that soothed my soul. Ten minutes before my 90 minutes was up, the music and soft light would turn on, bringing me back to reality. I’ve never felt relaxation like I did in those tanks. I moved away from the area a year or so later, and it was too far to go for daily floats anymore. I learned a few years later that they had shut down; perhaps because of their own generosity but I’m not sure.
     Neil mentioned his experience at Space Tanks in a recent post. I was delighted to read his words “…for about an hour, at one with the universe, an amoeba on the calm surface of an antediluvian sea. Serenity settled in,” since that meant he’s also felt the bliss of a float. Lucky guy. I had to look the word antediluvian up, and learned that it can mean “ridiculously old fashioned,” or “before the flood.” I flashed back to my time in Jordan and it’s been fun to relive such a special time. These days I take a bath almost daily, and you bet I have a 20 pound bag of Epsom salt in the corner of my bathroom at all times. The magnesium takes away my chronic pain, just like magic. This world is full of wonderful things.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Sidewalks: Silent killer of great oaks

Scott Carlini in the Cook County Forest Preserve.

     Scott Carlini rides west along Bloomingdale Avenue on a lovely mid-November day. At 79th Avenue, we detour south and park our bikes before a wide tree stump where the night before Carlini had penciled “White Oak” and “163 yo.”
     He points to the center of the stump.
     “Here’s the little tree, 160 years ago,” he says. “If you notice, the rings are really small here when the tree was young because it was in a crowded forest. Then in 1926, they came in here and cleared out the forest and started building some of these bungalows. Once the area was opened up to more light, then we’ve got the big rings, because it grew a lot faster.”
     Carlini knows trees, but then he’s spent years biking around Elmwood Park, neighboring suburbs and Chicago, trying to save trees, particularly ash, which he sometimes injects with his own formula of anti-emerald ash borer insecticide. Carlini cuts a distinctive figure: long hair, neon orange vest and stocking cap, Pall Mall cigarette often in one hand.
     “Oh boy, oh boy,” he says, sadly. “See here? Where they filed the roots away. That’s super bad. It’s stupid.”
     The white oak fell victim to a human ailment — the conviction that sidewalks must run straight.
     “In the old days, we used to move the sidewalk around it,” he says. “Normally this tree would have lasted another 200 years if it wasn’t damaged. But some sidewalk guy ground that away, and that’s not cool.”

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Thursday, November 18, 2021

Flashback 2012: 'Who makes the public space public?'

     Rev. Phil Blackwell sent me an email from St. Louis, where he retired to be near his family. He was commenting on my infrastructure column, and recalled that I'd visited him at his residence atop the Chicago Temple downtown, doing research for my Chicago book. Alas, this description focuses more on the politics of the day, taken up with the pending NATO summit, and left out such details as the wood carving of Jesus regarding the Chicago skyline, circa 1955, in the "Chapel in the Sky."  Though I did snap a not-very-good photo. But he raises some interesting points, still current today.

     Serendipity led me to Rev. Phil Blackwell. I had heard that the Loop, which today is home to thousands, once had only one full-time resident: the minister of the First United Methodist Church, who lives in a three-story parsonage starting on the 22nd floor of the Chicago Temple, the quirky gothic structure south of Daley Plaza, with its "Chapel in the Sky" on the 25th floor.
     Interesting If True, as I like to say.
     I got in touch with Rev. Blackwell to see if he could shed some light, but he had something beyond Loop demographics on his mind, and invited me by his office, its leaded glass windows overlooking Daley Plaza.
     He handed me a typed message:
     "I have lived across the street from Daley Plaza for 10 years," it begins. "During that time I have seen and heard:
     "Tea Party protesters. War in Iraq objectors. Halloween clowns, Whirling Dervishes, Blackhawks celebrators, World Cup spectators, Christmas ornament purchasers, 21-gun salutes, children sliding down the Picasso, wedding couples being photographed at the fountain, movie casts playing their roles, people who are homeless sleeping on benches, farmers selling produce, gun violence opponents bowing in silence, hundreds of bicyclists ready to command the streets, blues, country, gospel, and jazz musicians, workers sunning at lunchtime, Sox fans rejoicing, sister-city promoters, creches, menorahs, and crescents and stars, and placard-carrying/bullhorn-proclaiming/marching stalwarts for most everything."

     Yet suddenly, he said, the city seems to be reconsidering if our rights will be respected.
     "Daley Plaza is the public square in Chicago," Rev. Blackwell said. "As the mayor and the City Council discuss circumscribing the people's use of the plaza during the summits coming in May and then extending the limitations indefinitely, the question is: Do they have any capacity for nuance? The first indication suggests that the answer is, 'No.'"
      The city insists that permits will be issued and rights respected. And while I want to believe them, we have seen an ominous shift in this country, from our president claiming the legal right to murder American citizens at his whim, to new laws that seem designed to help foreign potentates party in peace in Chicago. How ironic that, as other parts of the world protest toward new freedoms, we who are theoretically the most free try to limit protest and coin new punishments.
      "It's a major commitment for the city and the mayor to make, to host the G-8 and NATO summits," Rev. Blackwell said. "I understand how it would be advantageous for it to go well, to be picturesque, for the world to see Chicago as an international outlet and I hope that's the case. The gathering in Grant Park after Mr. Obama was elected, it was one of the most glorious portrayals of Chicago, and it erased, mainly, 1968 . . . But who makes the public space public? And who decides that? And when you say, you have to talk to the Realtors who oversee the use of the plaza, I say, 'Wait a minute. When does a real estate company determine public use?' What makes this square public? Free speech - is it free if you corral it and move it off at a distance where the speech is not heard by those to whom it was directed?"
     I thought of the Chinese, who made those wanting to protest the 2008 Olympics apply for permits, then arrested anyone who did.
     "All I'm saying is I think the issues raised by the summit are general issues," he said. "Is it possible for the city to orchestrate something where free space remains free, public space remains public, and the agenda of the groups meeting is accomplished and the city comes out like it knows what it's doing? I think everybody agrees with that. Can anybody actually think through this thing without it being a billy club moment?"
     The mayor's a smart guy, I said. Don't you think the city will be doing just that?
     "When it says the police chief can deputize people for service, I remember in the Vietnam War protests, construction workers on Wall street with wrenches wrapped in American flags, beating up protesters. Is that who you're going to deputize?"
     While waiting to see if the mayor would talk to me on this subject, I checked to see what he has said publicly so far.
     "Guys, it's not a big deal," Emanuel said, trying to deflect questions about his preparations. "This is a one-time event."
     That's scary, almost a challenge to fate. "A one-time event." That can be the title of the official inquiry report. So was the 1968 Democratic National Convention. A one-time event, mishandled, can last a very long time.
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, January 11, 2012

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

COVID-19 brings out ‘resilience and valor’

Dr. Samantha Peterson
     In the spring of 2020, Franciscan Health Olympia Fields, like so many hospitals, was reeling under the onslaught of that first deadly wave of COVID-19. Patients gasping for air crowded the emergency room. Medical supplies ran low, treatment procedures changed by the hour, it seemed, with no vaccine in sight.
     In the middle of it was a young medical resident, Dr. Samantha Peterson. Her focus was family practice — those generalists treating everyone from newborns to the elderly for everything from colic to arthritis. But just then she happened to be doing her emergency medicine rotation.
     For two months, Peterson did nothing but treat COVID-19 patients.
     “Our numbers kept increasing,” Peterson recalled. “In the ER triage, all COVID patients had these biohazard symbols. In early March, there were a handful. By the end of March the entire ER was full of hazard symbols. I didn’t have a choice.”
     Peterson thought she didn’t have a choice. But more experienced doctors saw it differently, and some shied away from treating COVID-19 patients. The young intern ran in while others drew back.
     “We were a pretty hard hit hot zone hospital,” said Dr. Shanaz Azad, an infectious disease specialist leading the COVID-19 task force at Franciscan. “Sam Peterson was a medical resident. She really stepped up. I’d say 90 percent of the work Sam did, she volunteered to put her life in harm’s way. This is a novel virus. We didn’t know anything about it. She participated in the care of 2,000 COVID patients. She had no business seeing that many. This was all altruism. She was so inspired. So intense.”

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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Radio days

      Monday's column mentioned the anticipated merger of the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ which, while it has been reported, still flew under the radar for some readers.
     "I missed that completely!" writes Robert Nanni. "I infer from your writing that you are in 

     I wrote him back that indeed I am. While I haven't be
en on the station much in recent years, I've been reporting on WBEZ longer than I've been on the staff at the paper. When I was a mere egg, in my mid-20s, trying to find a fingerhold on Chicago media after being unceremoniously fired as the opinion page editor of the Wheaton Daily Journal, I started doing regular segments on Ken Davis' show, Studio A, beginning in January, 1986 when I was dubbed, with a healthy sprinkle of irony, their "World Correspondent" and spent most of that year wandering the world of Chicago, an assignment for which I was paid nothing—a reminder that the Internet didn't create the phenomenon of news organizations taking advantage of ambitious young people willing to work for free. The shtick was that once a week I would pop up on the phone in from someplace unexpected.
      My first broadcast was buck naked, from a sensory deprivation tank at Space Time Tanks on Lincoln Avenue—a fad at the time. I floated in total darkness atop warm, heavily saline water, waiting for the call. For about an hour, at one with the universe, an amoeba  on the calm surface of an antediluvian sea. Serenity settled in, just before the door ripped open, there was a blinding light and a draft of cool air, someone handed me a phone and Ken Davis asked me on live radio what I had been thinking the moment before he called.
     "That I ... had to go to the bathroom," I said, frowsily. "Wondering whether I should crawl out of the tank or wait until after you called."
      Somehow they liked it. The next week I broadcast from a pay phone at an early morning bar, Tiffany's, in Cicero, after a wake-up shot and a beer—such places were in the news at the time.          
Other vignettes followed, almost random except they were all odd: watching a chicken being slaughtered at John's Live Poultry, its throat slit, the poor bird then dropped headfirst into a galvanized funnel, a thin stream of blood running out the bottom, it's claws scratching futilely on the metal. Northeastern's Human Performance Lab, checking in from a treadmill while undergoing a stress test. From Ragdale, the writer's colony in Lake Forest, where I had gone to finish a novel, a bit of which I obliviously read on the air. From the table of an acupuncturist. From the Playboy Club. That June, from inside the scoreboard of Wrigley Field during a game. Looking at the enormous water cooling system in the attic of the new State of Illinois Building.
     Being live radio, my segment didn't always work. For April Fool's Day, I tried to do a broadcast that was f
rom an entirely white room, supposedly, which struck me as a clever idea. But it fell flat. A few weeks later, I was in the lab of a Chinese engineer working to turn moon dust into concrete for NASA, but the laboratory's switchboard didn't put the call through. To top it off, I walked outside and found I had locked the keys in my car. I was 25. I had to return the following week.
     The broadcasts became so routine that some days I merely noted "WBEZ broadcast" or "WBEZ" in my 1986 Waterstone's Literary Diary. 
     Once Ken phoned me at some ungodly hour—3 in the morning say—and ran a tape. I was so composed, talking with him, that listeners later thought I must have had advanced warning. But I didn't. I was just quick-witted and willing to play along. Still, as the efforts of the young so often do, the whole effort really didn't go anywhere, and eventually we parted ways and I went into newspapering, which paid far better. Some people get their foot in the door and become David Sedaris. Others become, well, me. Still, I remember it being fun, and kept going back to WBEZ over the years—for a while, Eric Zorn and I were regulars on Fridays, recapping the week's news. I know we were hoping to become a cherished radio item, but that never happened either. Given that track record, I can't imagine the station is tapping its foot waiting to get me back on the air, not that I would let that stop me. What's the T.S. Eliot line? About those "who are only undefeated/Because we have gone on trying." Yes, something like that.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Journey back to paper’s rocky past

     I’ve only glimpsed the back of my neck once in the past year and a half. Once is plenty. It happened by accident in the fall of 2020, in a chair at Great Clips. I thought: Better prepare the barber for a shock.
     “Spinal surgery. A C3-7 laminoplasty,” I said. “I’ve never summoned the courage to look at it.”
     “Here, I can help with that,” the barber said cheerily, angling the handheld mirror so I could see.
     Oh. It looked like somebody planted an ax in the back of my neck. Good thing I had to sit in the chair while my hair was cut. Even then, I was somewhat shaky walking away. Not a little-unsteady shaky. But I-hope-I-don’t-keel-over shaky. I never looked again.
     Despite the jarring sight, it was still good to be reminded. There is a certain amazed pride in surviving an ordeal. I sometimes say to my wife, out of the blue: “I still can’t believe that happened.”
     It’s a handy phrase when processing difficulties. Like nearly two years of COVID craziness, or the Jan. 6 insurrection. It doesn’t mean I doubt the reality — far too much of that already. Rather, it’s like a slow whistle of appreciation, almost awe. Wow, remember that? Did that really happen? Amazing.
     That line came to mind reading Cyrus Freidheim’s new book, “Commit & Delivery: On the Frontlines of Management Consulting.”
     Not a book I would typically pick up. A management guide, filtered through the soft focus of retirement. But its author used to be CEO of the Sun-Times and gave me a copy. “Commit & Delivery” shares Freidheim’s business wisdom culled at places like Chrysler, United Airlines and Amoco.

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Flashback 1997: In the chips at Jays

Tom Howe, at the Jays potato chip factory in 1997 (Photo by Rich Hein for the Sun-Times)

     Twitter gets a bad rap, and rightly so, what with all its helping fascists spread lies and undermine democracy. But Twitter does have value. I was just wondering what to post today when I noticed a tweet by Natalie Y. Moore, WBEZ correspondent and author (I've read her book, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation; it's excellent). She was waxing nostalgic: "My all-time favorite field trip as a kid was visiting the Jays potato chip factory. We got paper hats and free chips at the end."  Small world. My all-time favorite visit-to-a-factory story was going to Jays.
      I liked this, not just for the chips that I too got at the end (no paper hat, alas). But, because after absorbing the complicated clamor of a factory, with its complicated assembly lines and industrial processes, I realized what Jays' biggest challenge was: getting the chips from Point A to Point B, unbroken. 
     Jays went out of business in 2007, but the brand lives on, purchased by Snyder's. 

     A potato chip is a delicate thing. Fragile. A pound of pressure will crush it. So when you're moving 250 tons of chips through your plant, as they do every day at Jays Foods, you need to have a system.
     "You don't buy potato crumbs, you buy potato chips," said Tom Howe, CEO and co-owner of the Chicago company, at 99th and Cottage Grove. Jays makes 125 different types and brands of chips and several hundred varieties of popcorn, puffs, twists, pretzels and assorted bagged munchies.
     Jays combats the tendency of potato chips to crush into flinders with a variety of conveyer belts, radial filling chutes and gently vibrating slides, where masses of chips, a yard deep, are gradually massaged forward, the outer layer of chips shearing away like the face of a glacier.
     The raw material is far easier to handle. An entire semi-trailer of sturdy North Dakota "chipping" potatoes can be emptied in a matter of minutes, by backing the trailer onto a hydraulic lift, tilting it 45 degrees and letting the potatoes—grown for their thin skins and low moisture—tumble out.
     About a dozen semi-trailers' worth of potatoes arrive every day. The potatoes are immediately separated into big and small sizes for a purpose both reasonable and extraordinary: Big potatoes make big chips that go into large bags; small potatoes make small chips for lunch-size bags.
     "Nobody wants to open a small bag and find three big potato chips in it," Howe said.
     Computers keep track of everything, shunting potatoes to 15,000-pound holding bins. Each bin feeds into a pipe containing a turning screw—a version of the ancient Archimedes screw used to pump water—that moves the potatoes from the bin to conveyer belts, to where they are washed and skinned, the skin scrubbed off by metal bristle brushes.
     No machine can detect if a potato is rotten inside. So a pair of human inspectors reach into the passing brown parade and give the potatoes a quick squeeze. Occasionally, they snatch one and slice it open, usually revealing black areas of rot, a skill they attribute to experience.
     "I know," said Alicia Jimenez, asked to explain what about a potato tips her off to slice it open and find rot.
     The naked potatoes are sent into high-speed chippers—spinning brass rings, each with eight blades inside, straight blades for straight chips, ripple blades for ripple chips.
     The blades cut the potatoes, but the potatoes take their revenge. Every three hours the blades are dulled and the line must be stopped so the old rings can be replaced by new rings with sharpened blades.
     The sheer quantity of slicing spews big foamy banks of starch from either side of the chipper, which calls to mind a washing machine gone berserk.
     Potato chips account for about 55 percent of Jays' business. Older Chicagoans might remember the chips were called "Mrs. Japp's Potato Chips," for the wife of Leonard Japp Sr., who founded the company in 1927.
     Then came Dec. 7, 1941. Two days after Pearl Harbor, Japp's was changed to Jays—no apostrophe, since there is no "Jay."
     "They recognized it was not in vogue to call something 'Japp,' " Howe said.
     The raw chips spend three minutes cooking in hot corn oil, which is constantly circulated and filtered. Then they are salted, and flavorings—barbecue, for instance, or sour cream and onion, are added.
     After the chips are fried, there is another quality check, in which women pluck burned and deformed chips out of the masses passing by. The chips are conveyed on a link grid, wide enough to let broken chips fall through.
     The chips also are laser-inspected, rushing, in a single layer, over a complex device called an Opti-Sort Scanner. Chips with dark spots or holes are detected by a laser, which instructs one of 82 small tubes to fire a puff of air that knocks the substandard chip off the line, into a discard bin.
     The discards—about 3 percent of production—are gathered up and used: Starch is drawn out and sold to cornstarch makers; the rest goes to hog feed. Just as the stockyards were said to use every part of the pig but the squeal, at Jays every part of the potato is used but the rich, earthy smell.
     Jays even tried to sell burnt chips to the public once, about 20 years ago. "Consumers kept telling us they liked the brown chips," said Len Japp Jr., recalling the "Brownies" variety. "It went over like a lead balloon." Japp and his father, now 93 and honorary chairman of the board, sold the company to Borden in 1986. "They almost ruined it," Howe said, citing a slump in product quality and neglect of the Jays distribution system. "They lost the connection with the consumer."
     By 1994, Jays was on the rocks and the Japps, allied with Howe, bought the company back. "Not too many people have a second chance in life," said Japp, whose children are in the company.
     Getting the chips in the bags is another challenge: You can't just fill up bags and seal them; the chips would be smashed. Rather, a conveyer pours chips -- gently -- on the central hub of a large, wheel-like device, where the chips scatter into 15 buckets that are, basically, scales. A computer monitors the weight of each bucket and opens up the exact combination that, in this case, will fill a 14-ounce bag. The bags are packed into boxes that read: "HANDLE LIKE EGGS."
     While not exactly perishable, potato chips do have a shelf life of about eight weeks, only one day of which is spent at the plant.
     "Potatoes that are in this morning will be in our branches tomorrow morning, ready to hit the streets," Howe said. Jays is still a regional brand, sold in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri. But business has grown 50 percent in the past two years.
     "We connect to people's lifestyle," Howe said. "People treat themselves with Jays. We're in the fun food business."
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 26, 1997