Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Fourth of July, 2022

Augustus Saint Gaudens, "Adams Memorial" (Smithsonian Museum of American History)

     Early this morning, I thought, "Well, I'll just take a photo of something at the Fourth of July parade, and comment on that for Tuesday." There's always something fun or noteworthy at the parade. A politician doing cartwheels. A brass band. Some unexpected business float. I seldom miss it. Who doesn't love a parade?
    Of course there was no 4th of July parade in Northbrook, or Evanston, or many other area communities, out of respect for those slaughtered at the parade in Highland Park. Six dead, three dozen wounded. Plus a security concern, since the shooter was still at large until late in the day. 
    Besides, nobody was in the celebratory spirit. Except perhaps for GOP gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey, who really did react to the shooting by saying "let's move on and let's celebrate the independence of this nation." After all, 90 whole minutes had gone by, and while the killer was still on the loose, no reason to let a detail like that get in the way of a good party. 
     Though to be fair, Bailey did later apologize for being a heartless asshat, though not in those words.  Maybe he'll gather the fortitude to also apologize for carrying water for a traitor whose policies encourage this and every other gun crime. But don't hold your breath. Guys like that don't change: guns first, people second.
     I have nothing else to add, at this moment. I began writing a column, but that'll run in the paper Wednesday, and I don't want to cannibalize it for this. When I got the news, my wife and I were on my way to visit my mother in her rehab facility in Arlington Heights, across from the hospital where she spent more than a month. We were stopping by a Jewel to pick up chocolate. My sister-in-law phoned my wife. 
     "Oh my God..." my wife said. "Oh. My. God!" I looked at her. "What? What?"
     I walked into the store, phoning my editor at the paper. "Henneni," I said, for some unfathomable reason. "Here I am." It's what Moses says when God calls to him on Mount Sinai. But they didn't need me to race up to Highland Park. Our veteran political columnist, Lynn Sweet, was already on the scene, and had turned in photographs of several bodies, draped in sheets, lying in pools of blood. I looked at the photos on our Slack channel and any desire to be part of the story drained away. They were ghastly. The paper was discussing whether they could be printed. 
     "Run them," I said. They didn't, which is probably the right call. If it were my mother, I would not want to see those in the paper, and it isn't as if they would move the deadlock of the issue an inch. There is enough horror in the world without the media making it worse by waving the bloody shirt. We are supposed to afflict the comfortable, yes, but we're also supposed to comfort the afflicted. And there were many, many afflicted, heartsick people on the North Shore Monday as it was, and very little in the way of real comfort to offer.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Flashback 2004: Life in the village is great, even if it's not perfect

     A lot of Americans are wondering what we have to celebrate this 4th, between the delegation of women to second class citizen status and the continuing Republican war on democracy. Then again, wondering what we have to celebrate is a very American thing to think, as evidenced by this column from the relative Eden of 2004.
     Of course, life isn't worse in every way. Lorenz's garage, the 1851 business I was trying to save indeed was forced out ... and replaced by a Graeter's ice cream parlor. I have to admit, it was an improvement. Happy Fourth of July, stay safe around fireworks.

     Ready for a shock? This will be my fifth Fourth — the fifth 4th of July in Northbrook, the fifth time we all trooped to the Village Green for the pancake breakfast hosted by the VFW, lingering for a little bocce ball. It's a nice moment, settling in under the swaying trees, pouring the syrup, securing the napkins. The Village Green is the best part of town — a fountain, a little gazebo where they have bands, a playground and a ballfield. I sip my coffee, take a big mouthful of pancake, look approvingly around and let the waves of burgermeister satisfaction roll over me.
     And why not? A great country, this. A great suburb. Sure, the leafy suburban paradise has its problems. Across the street from the Village Green, the little strip of Shermer Road that Northbrook calls a downtown quivers on the brink of decay, with a vacant lot and a down-at-the-heels drug store and a thrift shop. Not exactly downtown Lake Forest.
     But I like that about Northbrook. Well-off, but not so well-off that a person like myself feels bad about his blown opportunities. One of the nicest buildings downtown is an auto repair shop — the Northbrook Garage, a quaint 1922 brick structure, the cleanest repair shop you will ever see in your life. It looks like something out of a train diorama. The Northbrook Garage has operated on that spot for 153 years, ever since it was founded as a wagon repair business by Frederick Lorenz in 1851.
     "There wasn't an awful lot going on here at the time," said his great-great grandson, Jay Lorenz, the garage's current owner.

     How about a nice BMW dealer?

     Lest we dwell too long on that quaint image, I should point out that the Village wants to seize Lorenz's property and force him out so they can put in a business more in keeping with their dreams of grandeur, such as the inevitable Williams-Sonoma found in every downtown on the North Shore.
     "I find it very disturbing that my building can stay but my 150-plus year old business must go," Lorenz said. "Something is very, very wrong in Northbrook."
     Not to single out Northbrook. People who run village boards are usually the type who think asphalting over cobblestones is progress. The town I grew up in, Berea, Ohio, demolished half its downtown to put up an outdoor mall of small, linked storefronts that seemed very retro chic in 1976. Ten years later, it was completely empty, and they ended up filling it with a senior citizen center. Nothing quite sparks up a downtown like an old-age home.
     That's why small towns shouldn't engage in social engineering. They screw it up, kicking out the 153-year-old repair shop and ending up stuck with an empty building.
     But I didn't want to carp today. Not with the fine July 4 weekend on tap. Did I say that the parade passes a block from our house? Let's save condemning those mini-Norman chateaus my fellow villagers insist on jamming between 1950s split-levels for another day.
     I'd rather tell you that next month's "Northbrook Days" holds a bachelor auction, and if that isn't something out of "Oklahoma," here is the small print from the sign-up form: "I agree to participate in the Northbrook Days Bachelor Auction by fulfilling my obligation to attend the agreed upon dinner date and represent the organization in an appropriate and gentlemanly manner."
'Take your hands off me!'
     Isn't that sweet? Or maybe my mind has been addled by too much time breathing the trackside air in Union Station. I suppose you could view the small print as evidence that Northbrook is concerned about being confronted by weeping, despoiled bachelorettes holding them legally culpable for their hellish evenings spent fending off the advances of some guy they bought at a charity auction.
     No, let's not think that way. People here can be truly nice. The teachers at my kids' school —they're incredible. It's like they're in a cult or something. I remember the teachers when I was growing up — a grim gang of sourpusses, their clawlike hands digging into my shoulder as they glared at me, mouths twisted into these sneers of gleeful, acid, contempt.
     "Your son . . ." Mrs. Southam, my fifth-grade teacher, told my mother, "will never amount to anything."
     I probably shouldn't go into detail about Northbrook's Greenbriar Elementary School, because Chicago parents, whose kids are bravely blowing the asbestos dust off their moldy 1950s science texts, will feel bad. And every aspect is so off the charts you'll think that I'm making it up. The classrooms have 20 kids, tops, and because no teacher can be expected to handle that mob on her own, they all have assistants. Every day the kids come home with their backpacks stuffed with memos and newsletters and updates. Teachers send home poems of welcome and reassurance to soften the beginning of the school year. They have the kids construct homemade gifts for all major holidays and prepare scrapbooks of each child's year in class. The books are bound. The school has more special days on its calendar than the Catholic Church — science fairs and carnivals and concerts and open houses.
     So life is good. And whatever the problems, from a zealous village board to the bog in Iraq, they shouldn't dampen the Fourth. Just because a place has issues doesn't mean you can't love it.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Flashback 2008: Robert Feder: "a slave to fairness and factuality"

     When I saw Robert Feder's announcement on Twitter Friday that he is stepping away from his daily media column after 42 years, my immediate response was "No no no no no no no no no..." I typed that as a tweet, then deleted it. Denial won't change anything. We've trusted him for this long; we can't stop now. If he's doing this, it must be the right thing to do.
     Although honestly, how will we know if anything happens in the media world? Robert was invariably the first to report every significant development. There is no second place, never mind a competitor or equal. He is unique, and now the Chicago media is left to thrash about in the dark, in Feder-less cave of ignorance and uncertainty. 
     Still, there is comfort: the Chicago media world has been through this before. Maybe, as before, he will re-emerge in some new form. Let's hope so.
     And after the initial moment of shock, I immediately began to smile, imagining various scenarios of heinous wrongdoing to explain Robert's abrupt departure. "First R. Kelly, now Robert Feder. It was a bad week for..."
     Which reminded me of this column from 2008:

     "For how does any man keep straight with himself," Nelson Algren asks, in The Man with the Golden Arm, "if he has no one with whom to be straight?"
Robert Feder
     For me, that person at the Sun-Times has long been Robert Feder, retiring after 28 years at the paper, his last column running today. Robert is the straightest of the straight arrows, a man so honest and upright that it borders on becoming a personal flaw. I've always thought the man could use a little ethical turpitude.
     But that's me, and as Robert would happily point out, I dwell in the shadows, in the compromised, egocentric, corrupted, skewed, slanted netherworld of pals and politics, logrolling and back-scratching. The difference between Robert Feder and myself is that he's never accepted a free lunch, and I've never turned one down. He's trying to cover the news; I'm trying to enjoy myself.
     I like to think that my column is zesty and interesting anyway — my central moral value is to be funny — yet I've always appreciated Rob, chained to probity though he is, a slave to fairness and factuality. We all have flaws, and Rob's are redeemed, in my eyes, by his willingness to condemn me to my face. I mean that. Most people are too scared to say what they think, and it's just as well, because they have nothing much to add anyway. But little gets by Robert's keen eye, and he has no reluctance to illuminate my flaws in great detail, like a sodium vapor lamp. It's an education.
     That said, what I'll miss most is all the laughter I've had at his expense. His seriousness, his formality — he'd no sooner show up to work in a flannel shirt than I would in a sarong — combine to make him a cat's paw of humor, the offended Margaret Dumont to my Marx Brothers, and I adored writing unhinged imaginary scenarios based on something Rob had written, guffawing in my office before gleefully sending them to him, under the pretense of getting his approval since I planned to run them.
     One of these items — to his lingering horror — actually got into print, about four years ago, on Christmas Eve. I had just lampooned a few other colleagues, placing them into alarming situations, and, reflecting on this curious habit, couldn't resist adding:
     "Of course, the most fun of all is calm, quiet, dignified, self-contained and highly respected radio critic Rob Feder. You can't imagine the hours I've spent entertaining myself by placing him into the foulest debauches I can conceive.
     "Just this morning, I was walking along, cackling aloud, for some reason picturing Rob in a loosely tied yellow silk robe, slumped in one of the smoky wooden bins at his corner opium den, touching the end of a glowing stick to the tarry chunk of pen-yan in the bowl of his long pipe."
     He was aghast — doubly so since, playing along, he had told me to go ahead and print it, never imagining that I actually would.
     This shouldn't end on a happy note. There is a serious, even grim, aspect to Robert leaving. Not only will everybody miss his nonpareil media coverage, but I will miss him in the office, and as he delights in telling me, "It's all about you, Neil, isn't it?"
     Why yes, Rob, it is, at the moment. I feel like an actor who auditioned for some big, rollicking musical — think "Oklahoma" — that in the third act abruptly and inexplicably changes into a grim minimalist drama. All the boisterous dancing cowboys and leaping senoritas vanish into the wings, and I find myself, still in my fringed jacket, slumped miserably with a couple of tramps under a bare tree on an empty stage.
     "Nothing to be done," says Estragon.
     Once I viewed leaving a newspaper as a minor form of suicide — you survive, but as an animate corpse stumbling through a life devoid of meaning or savor.
     But when it's someone who loves this business and whose judgment is so trustworthy? My gut tells me if Robert Feder is leaving then the show must be over and it's time to get to my feet, mustering what dignity I can, place my oversized cowboy hat upon my head, straddle my broomstick pony and gallop off into the sunset.
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 17, 2008

Saturday, July 2, 2022

North Shore Notes: All The Single Ladies

     I was glad that Northshore correspondent Caren Jeskey picked up on my mention of Mary Todd Lincoln the other day — the widowed First Lady just isn't thought of as a Chicago figure, though she lived here for years. I've done some research on her myself, for my upcoming book, and while I'm not quite as willing as Caren is to characterize Lincoln merely a dynamic woman misunderstood — she certainly was plagued by depression and paranoia and compulsive buying jags — I do  agree that she's a compelling personality who merits more contemplation than she receives.

By Caren Jeskey

     Neil’s annual review of this blog made mention of Mary Todd Lincoln who lived in Chicago during the Great Fire. Hearing her name started the creaky wheels of my brain turning. Aha! It came back to me after a minute or ten. I was reminded that I’d like to pay a visit to a place my Thai massage therapist mentioned after a divine 90 minute pummel and stretch session last year.
     The Groesback Building at 1304 West Washington now houses a yoga studio where Thai yoga teacher trainings are held. Masseuse Extraordinaire Jenn Cooper informed me that on top of being a fantastic way to spend a couple hundred hours (namely getting stronger and healthier and learning to pass this gift of body work on to others), it would be held in this beautiful old building where the widow of Abraham had once lived.
     My interest in the building was sparked again, so I did a bit of digging and learned more about Mary Todd. You may know this, but I did not. I must not have been paying attention in history class those days. Or more likely we never really learned about her, except as a side note. Mary had a host of problems (which are nauseatingly well documented). We know what is likely the most traumatizing of her experiences. Legend has it that after her husband’s 1865 assassination, “at first, the crowd interpreted the unfolding drama as part of the production, but a scream from the first lady told them otherwise.”
     During her tenure in our fair city Mary bounced around Chicago quite a bit, perhaps having a hard time finding housing stability? Perhaps by choice?
     According to this historian, she initially arrived to the Tremont House Hotel, moved to the Hyde Park Hotel, then to a South Wabash address. From there she bought a home at what’s now 1238 West Washington, which she rented out a short time later, moving into the Clifton House Hotel. Then back to another West Washington address, back to the Clifton House, and then in 1868 (three short years after arriving in Chicago) she and her then 15 year old son Tad traveled abroad (where she also bounced around). They got back to Chicago in 1871. She stayed at her son Robert’s place for a bit, and as her fate would have it she was three blocks away from the O’Leary house (of cow infamy) when the Fire broke out. Then to the Grand Central Hotel. A year later in 1875, her son and the courts petitioned her to be committed to jail for the mentally ill 45 miles outside of town, in Batavia Illinois. "A jury of twelve men ruled her insane and appointed Robert as conservator of her estate. Mary — who did not know about the trial until that day — sat quietly through the proceedings.'
     I doth protest. Lock her up, drug her, and strip her of all of her rights and freedoms? No. Help her. Hug her. Someone please take care of this woman. If you have to lock her up, send her somewhere to heal from her horrible losses and grief. They traumatized her again. Twelve Angry Men, then Batavia? Prior to being shipped away, she accomplished amazing things. Mary had no source of income to speak of after her husband was gone, so she successfully petitioned the government for a pension. It took years, and she won her case five years after his death. Can you imagine that? A woman ahead of her times. She received $3000 per year, roughly $80,000 today.
     Prior to her husband’s murder mere feet away from her while out enjoying some laughs, she’d already lost an infant son and an 11 year old son. Son Tad, who’d accompanied her on travels abroad and during part of her stay in Chicago, died at the age of 18, probably of TB.
     Mary is described throughout history as insane, unconventional, bold, and odd. How about a smart, savvy and shrewd survivor? That seems more complimentary, and that’s who she was. A hero. Not a nutjob. A heavily traumatized woman trying to make a buck in the big city at a time when people born with her anatomy were not even allowed to vote.
     Chicago’s not the easiest place. In fact, most of it burned down during her tenure here. At one point she had to sell furniture to the Hyde Park Hotel. Mary was a true hustler.
     The silver lining of this tale? “On May 19, 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln was arrested and tried for lunacy before a jury of twelve men in the Cook County Court in Chicago.”
     Today, people with mental health conditions have the right to much more gentle, caring care. I won’t get into how unaffordable it is, nor how difficult it is for even the brightest among us to find. That’s for another day.
    I want to thank Neil for mentioning my contribution to Every Goddamn Day in the yearly review of his blog. I was touched by his description  of me— "caring, engaged, active and joyful." I see and experience myself as much more melancholic than the rest of the world sees me, and for that I am grateful. For what is a woman if she is not a strong survivor?

Friday, July 1, 2022

Why isn’t Darren Bailey ashamed?

     In my career, I’ve reported on many people sunk in a state of debasement. Emaciated crack addicts nestled in filthy nests of rags on Lower Wacker Drive. Diseased prostitutes selling their bodies to passing cars on Cicero Avenue. Impoverished street people huddling in Uptown doorways in sub-zero weather.
     I try to treat them with humanity, to convey their life stories honestly, without judgment.
     But state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, the newly minted Republican nominee for governor, poses a challenge. There he was, last weekend at a downstate Trump rally, a proud supplicant before the disgraced and disgraceful former president, who should be in prison, not regally bestowing blessings on acolytes.
     “Darren is fearless supporter of the 2nd Amendment and a tireless champion of religious liberty,” Trump said.
     Given the source, a chronic liar, much of that statement has to be assumed to be untrue, and it is.
     “Fearless” and gun fetishization certainly don’t go together. Fear is what the whole secular religion built around guns is about. Me, I can go to the store to buy eggs without strapping on an arsenal. Others can’t, and should be viewed with pity. It must be awful to be so terribly afraid.
     Set that aside as a word choice quibble. Bailey is your guns guns guns guy, and if that’s the world you want to live in, or try to, vote for him.
     But “tireless champion of religious liberty”? Again, a bit of truth. For Bailey himself, sure. His notion of religion, his brand of rigid Christian white supremacy, is pushed relentlessly. Zeal never rests.

To continue reading, click here.


Thursday, June 30, 2022

"Woke" Democrats are about to destroy America — the State of the Blog, Year Nine

      My 10th year of writing Every Goddamn Day begins Friday, and this is my annual pause to review the blogical year now past. I've looked back at the form, and these annual reports seem to have become occasions for public whining about fatigue and carping about obscurity. The good news is that I'm not doing that this year. At least I'll try to keep it to a bare minimum. EGD is not a burden, it's a benefit, not a flaw, but a feature of my life, a valued feature. I'm glad for the chance to do it. It's an oar in the water, a dog in the race, albeit a very small, very slow dog loping along far behind the bounding pack.
     Whoops, it's so easy to slip. But that's just candor. I can't pretend this is rattling the windows. That isn't my brand. I honestly think existing under the radar is a good thing, as illustrated by the single post this year that achieved what I consider a hint of the social media shock waves enjoyed by the big dogs: June 8's constitutional analysis, and that got notice only because the headline mentions child porn, and that caught the attention of toxic screamers, who excited their groundlings. When I first noticed the tweet had 120 comments I reflexively cried out, "Oh no!" Within hours it reached 10,000 comments.  I was steely-eyed, determined, locked in; I didn't read one, which took resolve, but was smart strategy, as I will explain. Keep the poison out. Besides, certain plants grow best in the dark, and I'm one of them. Or so I tell myself.
     The big news of the past year is that in May I finally finished the book that this blog inspired, "Every Goddamn Day: A Highly Selective, Definitely Opinionated, and Alternatingly Humorous and Heartbreaking Historical Tour of Chicago" (yes, I know. I think it's a search engine optimization thing, or a Victorian exuberance which crops up now and then in publishing. The title originally was even longer, but I implored them to chop a little.)
     When I turned the manuscript in to the University of Chicago Press, I told my editor, sincerely, that the book was so much fun to research, so interesting to write, that I didn't care whether they publish it or not. That might sound strange, but it was sincere. I'm at a point in my career when whatever eyebrow twitch or stifled yawn my work extracts from the public can't be the reward. The reward has to be the doing. You rarely hear a writer say he likes to write, and it might be a sign of hackdom, but so be it. It's true. 
     Well, except for copyediting and proofreading the galleys, which was an exhausting grind. And terrifying, given the errors I managed to pluck out at the last moment. I hope that I don't spend its publication in October in a kind of miserable crouch, waiting for the assorted typos and factual errors to come pelting down on my back, like hot ash from Mount Vesuvius. I won't be surprised though.
     But that's ahead. In the past year, EGD has gone to some interesting places, and I appreciate you tagging along. The monthly highlights:
Edith Renfrow Smith
   In July, 2021, we met Edith Renfrow Smith in advance of her 107th birthday. A reminder of the importance of just going. I had no idea of her history, and was merely tagging along with a reader who invited me to meet a really old friend. Then she started talking about being the first Black graduate of Grinnell College and Herbie Hancock teaching her daughter to play "Chopsticks' (it also was a reminder to do your homework, which I hadn't).  I was pleased that Hancock not only gave me a quote, but called Smith on her birthday.
    In August we popped in on S. Rosen's to watch them make buns, and learned about how COVID affected even the production of bready hot dog wrappings.
    All year of course I kept pouring water on the Trump flare-ups still threatening to burn down democracy. In September, I reminded everyone that for all the grimness associated with "1984," from the perspective of today, George Orwell was an optimist. Nothing seemed to diminish the monstrosity, but that doesn't free any of us from the obligation of trying.
     In October, I challenged myself to find a fresh take on that hoary chestnut of Chicago history, the Great Chicago Fire, to mark its 150th anniversary, and believe I succeeded, starting with Mary Todd Lincoln, the president's widow, who was living in Chicago at the time of the fire.
    In November, we paused after a Trump stalking horse won in Virginia to savor the ululations of his minions in "A word from Scut Farkus and friends."
     In December, we looked to the past, as preview of the social disaster that was indeed coming when the Supreme Court would reverse Roe v. Wade half a year later in "Pro-Choice Priests and Suicide Girls."
Peanut butter
     January kicked off 2022 with photographer Ashlee Rezin and me in the COVID intensive care unit at Roseland Community Hospital, tracking the front line medical battle against the Omicron variant. While some commentators indulged in false hope, on Feb. 15, nine days before the tanks rolled across the border, we explained "Why Russia is about to invade Ukraine." In March, I accompanied Thresholds as they treated the mentally ill on the streets of Chicago. April saw a farewell to my friend Lee Flaherty, founder of the Chicago Marathon. May saw one of my patented attempts to praise a product, in this case, why Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter tastes so good, turn into a far funnier study of corporate incompetence. 
    Which leads us to the month now ending. I can't overlook my Neenah manhole cover story, which took years to set up, and got solid reaction and big front page treatment. Then there was the headline that blew up on Twitter, "Why restrict child porn but not guns?" If you read the piece, you see it's a sober legal juxtaposing the 1st and 2nd Amendments. But the Twitter mob doesn't read the actual articles, that would delay their simply melting into bubbling pools of indignant hysteria. But I refused to feed the trolls, and was rewarded by the entire kerfuffle utterly vanishing in about three days, a valuable lesson to others who find themselves being raked by a Twitter enfilade. Keep your head down and just wait. Nobody really thinks you're a pedophile. Nobody is actually going to come and kill you. You can also restrict who can comment on your tweets, and I've now been doing that routinely. The post became my second most popular, with over 23,000 hits. A good thing, I guess, though I'd trade that for 2,300 people reading the column and thinking about it. No? How about 230?
     Which leads us to the all-important numbers. The blog didn't seem to have the randomly generated spiderbot spikes of past years. So with 800,876 clicks for the year, that translates into an average of 66,739 readers a month, or almost 2,200 a day. Not the big leagues, but consistent. Seven months were in the 60s, two in the 50s, two in the 70s and one in the 80s. 
     Look, if a scoutmaster finds himself with an audience of six 7-year-olds around a campfire, he still tries to tell a good story, the best he can, and doesn't pause to shake his fist at the sky because he's not telling it to 100,000 scouts gathered at a jamboree in Soldier Field. I can do no less. 
     What else? The Chicago Sun-Times was purchased, for the traditional dollar, by WBEZ, the local National Public Radio outlet, and that was considered a good thing, both for the improbable lion-and-the-lamb union, and for the $60 million plus in charitable dollars doing so magically unlocked. We announced Wednesday that we're moving our downtown newsroom from Racine Avenue to the Old Post Office, which is exciting. I marked my 35th anniversary on staff in March, an astounding figure, and wrote myself onto the front page with sufficient consistency for me to entertain hopes that I won't be sacked in the coming year, the way most of the established columnists over at the Tribune have been. This was the year that writing a newspaper column felt as if it had sunk into the mock heroic, like wearing spats or being a professional luthier. It is still a job category — people write columns, just as they make violins — but not precisely a growth field. Nothing would be more encouraging than to spot a sharp young columnist making waves, but there isn't one that I can detect, either because no one wants to try, or because there are no jobs to be had if anyone did. No one seems to care, and I'm trying not to either. One day at a time.
     EGD's North Shore bureau chief, Caren Jeskey, hit her mark 52 weeks in a row, providing an alternate voice to mine, an amuse bouche of caring, engaged, active, joyful enthusiasm offering a valuable counterpoint to my more languid, inert, doleful contemplation. 
      Marc Schulman, of Eli's Cheesecake, ran his traditional series of holiday ads, nudging EGD from a pure hobby into the realm of commercial enterprises, and for that I am truly grateful. For the ads, and for the cheesecake, which is in my freezer right now, and should be in yours. You can and should purchase some Eli's cheesecake here. 
    Comments after the post seemed to have dwindled, and I'm not sure why. People just don't react as much as they did. Maybe I've lost some readers to senescence. I've considered just shutting down the comments, as not worth the bother. But between half a dozen and a dozen loyal readers seem to really like commenting regularly, and I see no reason to shut them out. Not yet anyway. Thank you for your thoughtful contributions to the blog, and for the corrections.
     The headline on today's post, by the way, is taken verbatim from the first line of a Charlie Kirk fundraising letter, the far right fountain of fascism suggesting that being sensitive to history and to the lives of others is somehow fatal to America — and I suppose, to his America, it is. Let's hope so. I have no illusion that the past year, or all nine years, of curious centrist exploration of Chicago and the world around us will ever resonate beyond we happy few. But you can't say I didn't try, and I appreciate you hanging around to read it. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Why bother voting?

     The gym at Greenbriar School is large, cool, dim, new. And nearly empty Tuesday morning, Election Day for a midterm — known for low turnout — primary, which are historically even lower. Two election judges, one a teenager too young to vote but who wants to be involved. Hope for the future.
     Of course, I’m here, at the Northbrook elementary my kids attended. I never miss an election. Demographics help explain why.
     I’m in the sweet spot of people who benefit most from our system: white, older, in the top 10% of household income, barely. I fly the flag, stand for the pledge and believe in the promise of America no matter how many times that promise is revealed as a lie.
     So why bother voting?
     That was the traditional question long before Donald Trump spent years taking a pickax to public trust in elections. Millions of Americans — a block equal in size to voters in either party — vote by not voting, a silent shrug that says, “What does it matter, Democrat or Republican?”
     Voting sure mattered in 2016, when a few swing states sent us crashing into the abyss of Trumpism triumphant. Voting also mattered in 2020, maybe. Depending on whether our brush with autocracy was thwarted or merely delayed.
     Voting matters now in Illinois, a blue island in a sea of red states. A state where women enjoy safe reproductive freedom ,while Indiana and Missouri and Iowa drag them kicking and screaming back to the dark ages.
     As important as the 2020 presidential election was, only 66.9% of those eligible cast ballots. With a plague raging and a sociopath in the White House, a third of America yawned, shrugged and couldn’t be bothered.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Flashback 1987: Abortion counseling can differ

Barbara Kruger (Art Institute of Chicago)
Last week, the New York Times ran a story on its front page about Christian zealots who disguise themselves as abortion counseling services to lure in unsuspecting women who fear they might be pregnant so they can harangue them about keeping their babies.
     This loathsome practice particularly resonated with me because I wrote about the exact situation more than 35 years ago. We've been fighting this battle so long ... 
      The odd thing about this story is, I was less than a month on the job, still worked for the features section, on the staff of the Adviser, the weekly insert giving readers tips on cleaning their garages and keeping Japanese beetles off their lawns.
     What I remember most, besides the shamefully anodyne headline my timid editor gave it, is that Scott Powers, then the features editor, hauled me in his office afterward and dressed me down — I had done some reporting by visiting the sham centers, accompanied by a staffer from the organization posing as my girlfriend. This is exactly the sort of thing that caused us to lose the Pulitzer over the Mirage Tavern, he said. Of course, doing the story is what made us even considered. I was unmoved and felt, then and now, it was not bad initiative for a 26-year-old a few weeks after being hired.  A short time later I moved to cityside.

     Late last July, Cathy Berndtson thought she was pregnant. She went to the Women's Center on Lawrence Avenue for a free pregnancy test.
     "I wanted to be pregnant," she said. "I wanted this free test because I was too impatient to wait two weeks for my next hospital appointment to find out."
     Berndtson gave a urine sample, and was told it would take a half hour for the results to be ready. While she waited, she was asked to see a film.
     "They didn't say what kind of film it was," she said. The film turned out to be about abortion, with graphic photos of bloody fetuses in white plastic pails. It stressed the physical danger and moral criminality of abortion, how it can lead to sterility and suicide.
     "I was appalled — it was pretty disgusting," Berndtson said. "I watched out of curiosity. They didn't have any facilities for children, so my daughter, who was 2 1/2 at the time, was with me. I tried to keep her from watching it."
     Berndtson had stumbled into one of eight bogus abortion counseling centers in the city, according to Women Organized for Reproductive Choice, a women's group that monitors abortion centers.
     The clinics are listed in the Yellow Pages alongside regular abortion counseling centers, but their purpose is to promote the pro-life philosophies of the Christian groups that run them, using the lure of free pregnancy tests to draw women in.their anti-abortion stance ("Someday your child will thank you for giving him (or her) the gift of life," a Birthright ad reads).
     "We don't oppose groups that are upfront about it," she said. "What we are opposed to are groups that advertise themselves as abortion counselors — that implies they will give you information about the full range of services, not coerce the woman into continuing her pregnancy."
     The eight centers — the Women's Centers at 5116 N. Cicero and 2334 W. Lawrence; Aid for Women centers at 8 S. Michigan and 730 Waukegan, Deerfield; Crisis Pregnancy Center, 6416 N. Western; Uptown Crisis Pregnancy, 939 W. Wilson; Loop Crisis Pregnancy Center, 185 N. Wabash; Southside Crisis Pregnancy Center, 7905 S. Cicero, and Crisis Pregnancy Services of DuPage County, 890 E. Roosevelt, Lombard — were all visited by WORC investigators.
     The WORC investigation found that all eight centers misrepresent the time it takes for the test, which can be purchased in any drugstore and costs $6 at Planned Parenthood. Results are usually provided in two to three minutes, but the clinics all claimed the test took up to an hour, to provide an excuse for showing women a film or slide show.
     All the clinics are listed in the phone book under "Birth Control Information" although none of them gives information about birth control. One center offered a WORC investigator the loan of baby clothes and a crib, while the Crisis Prevention Center in Berwyn presented a tiny baby jacket as a parting gift.
     When a couple asked about forms of contraception, a counselor at the Women's Center on Cicero displayed a chart that showed the medical risks of all forms of contraception, including condoms, as well as their cost projected over a 30-year period. She then asked them to think seriously about chastity.
     "It's basically emotional abuse," said Catherine Christeller of WORC. "They want women to feel pain, they want women to be upset. A very young woman who doesn't have a lot of information on abortion is upset enough about being pregnant. This could be very disturbing. Even if she isn't pregnant, none of these places provide birth control counseling, including prevention of AIDS, because these people feel the woman should not be having sex, period."
     Besides emotional stress, Christeller said, the clinics act to delay a decision that women already tend to put off, making the abortion process more dangerous and expensive.
     The ads for such clinics usually emphasize free pregnancy testing. Although phrases such as "low-cost plans" or "excellent safety record" might be included to throw people off, WORC said, the ads will not list specific medical practices, such as "gynecological services," or "tubal ligations."
     Both WORC and Planned Parenthood suggested the following strategy: When making an appointment on the phone, ask directly if the clinic provides contraceptives, or if it will refer you to an abortion clinic. If the answer is evasive — "We provide contraception information," or "We will give you information about abortion services" — then be wary. Finally, ask how long the test will take. If the answer is anything longer than five minutes, you should suspect it's a bogus clinic.
     "I felt I was led there under false pretenses," said Berndtson, who is about to have her second child. "I just wanted the free test — I could have been a teenager, already traumatized thinking I was pregnant, only to have someone show me this terrible film. I would have rather waited the two weeks and paid for it."
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times April 19, 1987

Monday, June 27, 2022

How many fetuses can dance on a pin?

     There is an old joke: The French national railroad did a safety study and, after discovering that most accidents involve the last car on a train, removed all the cabooses.
     If that doesn’t register, see, there’s always a last car on a train, and taking off the caboose merely shifts which car is last.
     That works for first place, too. Thus Ken Griffin, Illinois’ richest man, relocating to Miami doesn’t deprive Illinois of a richest man, merely transfers the honorific to ... Neil Bluhm, the casino magnate.
     Friday I contacted Bluhm through Walton Street Capital, but they didn’t think he’d reply.
     “I doubt it (I know that I would not!),” wrote one of his partners. “But I have forwarded your note to him in the unlikely event that he does.”
     Figuring I could do better, I phoned a mutual friend, someone who’d flown aboard Bluhm’s jet — quite the brag in the early 2000s.
     At that moment, word broke the U.S. Supreme Court has made obstetrics the hot issue in American politics for the next decade.
     Suddenly, the new richest man in Illinois didn’t seem interesting anymore. My friend had something else on his mind.
     Those coat hangers, he said, they’re just a symbol. Nobody ever really died from trying to give themselves an abortion with a coat hanger.
     I believe they have, I replied, my fingers already on the keyboard. Countless.
     He didn’t think so. I called up a 2001 interview with Dr. Quentin Young, who in 1948 was a resident at Cook County Hospital’s so-called septic OB ward.
     “A euphemism for women who had been damaged in self-induced or criminal abortions,” he told me then. “Of course, all abortions were criminal then.”

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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Flashback 2004: How many people are gay?

Louvre Museum
     Today is the Pride Parade. I'll be staying home — crowds. But I've written many pieces to mark the occasion over the years, including this one, from 2004, when I ask the seemingly simple question: How many LGBTQ people are there? 

     Gay people are everywhere. An Urban Institute study of data from the 2000 U.S. census found same-sex couples living in 99.3 percent of the counties nationwide. In Illinois, all 102 counties have gay couples living in them, as do 636 of the largest 688 Illinois cities, towns and villages. And while gays are thought of as being concentrated in Chicago's Halsted Street Boys Town, the fact is they live in every neighborhood of the city, practically on every street.
     They show up in concentrations you might not expect: For instance, 9 percent of Chicago Public Schools high school students said they were gay in a survey this year.
     Perhaps. The actual number could be less — or more. A reliable approximation of the number of homosexuals in society has long bedeviled researchers, who come up with statistics ranging from half of 1 percent — the number of couples living together who tell the census they are of the same sex — to 21 percent, the share of the population Harvard researchers found who reported having homosexual urges or experiences after the age of 15.
     "Estimating the size of the gay population is an incredibly difficult number [to find]," said Gary J. Gates, a researcher at the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute, who conducted the census study.
     These numbers are not the stuff of dry sociology. With the issue of gay marriage being hotly debated nationwide, numbers are seen as important political allies. The 350,000 or so people expected to march in or watch Sunday's Pride Parade are an indication of societal strength and acceptance, as are presence in businesses and on voter registration lists.
     Thus, not only are the numbers affected by who is being considered, but by who is doing the considering. Gay activists, for instance, tend to embrace a figure of 10 percent — the number put forward by the landmark Kinsey studies of human sexuality in the 1940s.
     Social conservatives tend to find fault with those numbers — Kinsey's methodology was later criticized as flawed — and they support subsequent researchers who found a figure closer to 3 percent. A comprehensive 1994 University of Chicago study found that 2.8 percent of American adults are gay. And Gates' study, which uses census data, concluded the nationwide figure is between 2.8 percent and 3.5 percent, depending on what percentage of gays conceal their identity.
     That becomes a particularly important issue when dealing with students — how many are too intimidated to even truthfully answer a confidential survey — or how many are uncertain or even joking.
"Les Baigneuses," Renoir (Musee d'Orsay)
     The 9 percent number for the CPS comes from a survey funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Every other year since 1991, the survey has asked high school students 87 questions about "risky" behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use. This year, for the first time, students were asked two questions about sexuality. One was whether they had had sexual intercourse — 55.1 percent said yes — and the other was: "Which of the following best describes you a) heterosexual (straight) b. gay or lesbian, c) bisexual and d) not sure.
     Almost one in 10 answered b, c or d. And while that figure might seem high, it doesn't to educators.
     "I wasn't surprised," said schools CEO Arne Duncan. "That was my sense, 9 or 10 percent."
     "It could be more," said Shannon Kenney, consultant to the Coalition for Education on Sexual Orientation and project director for the Mental Health Association of Illinois. "Being gay is such a stigma that not everyone self-identifies."
     The truth is that we just don't know how many people are gay.
      "We know that this is very, very underreported because a lot of people aren't going to report that they're in a same-sex household," said Rick Garcia, a longtime gay activist here. "You're not tapping into African-American couples, you're not tapping into Latino couples, you're not tapping into Asian couples. They're not going to tell governmental bodies much of anything."
     A few other trends are worth noting. There seem to be twice as many homosexual men as women. And as with any major city, Chicago has a higher concentration of gays than the nation as a whole — perhaps two or three times the national average, drawn to the city for its vibrant gay community and the anonymity a city offers.
     Gates said what was most important in his study was not the percentage of the population that is gay but how widely distributed gays are and how, for instance, one quarter of gay couples are raising children and those couples tend to live, not in gay communities, but in communities where there are other families.
     While gay people have been increasingly accepted into mainstream society, the struggle for rights is bound to be connected to their prevalence in society.
     "If the question is of discrimination and civil rights, it is not important for a group to be numerically large if you believe in fairness," Gates said. "It shouldn't matter in the end how many people are being discriminated against. It should matter that discrimination is wrong."
              — Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 27, 2004

Saturday, June 25, 2022

North Shore Notes: Abortion

Photo by Caren Jeskey
   Friday was a grim day for Americans who care about freedom. Personally, I took comfort in the belief that going back into the past is not indeed possible, no matter how passionately fundamentalists try. That most people do not want to live in a theocracy where their most intimate life choices are dictated by religious fanatics. And that, as always, those with totalitarian impulses overplay their hand. Yes, this will not stand. But that reversal is years away, and I felt glad I wasn't obligated to sit down and write something.
     North Shore Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey was, however, and in her typical reliability and professionalism did not disappoint. Her report is understandably brief and blunt, reflecting a numb day that was a shock though not a surprise.

By Caren Jeskey 

     "Good ideas come from everywhere. It's more important to recognize a good idea than to author it.” — Jeanne Gang

     A friend lives on Randolph near the lake, and I am lucky to be enjoying her home (and adorable, tiny pooch named Holly after Mrs. Golightly) while she takes a long weekend away. Jeanne Gang’s Vista Tower fills the window in front of me, and her Aqua Tower also adorns the picturesque frame. Whenever I see Gang's buildings I marvel at the empowered woman who made them happen. A modern day superhero. Aqua Tower was the tallest woman-designed building in the world at the time it was constructed in 2007. Her buildings blend in perfectly with Chicago's skyline, and though they are taller than the other buildings around here, they are elegantly understated and delightful to behold. Her structures are eco-friendly with recycled materials and rooftop prairies and gardens. Gang's Harvard trained eye is a great gift to our city.
     At the same time that women's power is being supported in many ways, today we face the day after Roe v. Wade was overturned despite the fact that “Gallup polls show Americans’ support for abortion in all or most cases at 80% in May 2021, only sightly higher than in 1975 (76%), and the Pew Research Center finds 59% of adults believe abortion should be legal.” I called a friend yesterday afternoon and she greeted me in tears. “Did you hear?" Yes, I’ve heard. Lately I’ve been feeling like I do not have the bandwidth to deal with the larger issues our country is facing, then I recall that I have to conjure up the will to care.
     When we were in our late teens, or perhaps early 20's, another friend and I were invited to a Thanksgiving gala hosted by an important person. I can’t say who it was, since I have to be mindful about legal repercussions, so I'll suffice it to say that we were at a party that only a privileged few Illinoisans were invited to. During the dinner and subsequent party, a prominent young man became enamored with my friend, and she with him. They found a way to “see” each other- this word conjures up puritanical suppression of sexuality à la the play Spring Awakening (my first COVID play) that I saw this past Spring at Porchlight. In this heavy and tragic performance, secrecy, shame, and denial killed 2 young people and traumatized others.
     After one long date, my friend became impregnated with her suitor's child. She really liked him but at that point he was done with her. Before she could even catch her breath, he had arranged for an abortion. He was a monied financier, she was a nothing in comparison at that time, as far as privilege was concerned. She felt she had no choice. After the mandated abortion she was dropped off at my parent's house where I was living. She came up to my bed and passed out from exhaustion. She slept off the physically and emotionally taxing removal of the embryo from her womb. It was not yet a fetus, which happens at eight weeks.
     I wonder what her life would look like today, had this person been truly interested in the gem of a woman she is — stunning, brilliant, and now very successful- and they had developed more of a relationship?
     Now we can all be worried about the women who are going to be harmed during back-alley abortions on top of everything else this decade has cursed us with. It's time to help in any way we can. Vote, march, donate money to help women get to Illinois and other safe havens when they need it. And try to stay out of the line of fire of the armed haters.

Friday, June 24, 2022

After your abortion, grandma might sue you


"Government Bureau," by George Tooker (Guggenheim Museum)

     Now that the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, a shoe that's been expected to drop since early May when a draft opinion spiking the 1973 decision was leaked, let’s have a brief pop quiz:
     Question: What’s the really bad part about reversing Roe v. Wade?
     If you answered something like, “denying American women the right to make their own reproductive decisions, a freedom enjoyed for the past 50 years and one extended to most women around the globe,” I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.
     That’s just the bad part.
     The really bad part, in my estimation — and, yes, I am a man, so my view might be skewed — is the police state that will be quickly set up to punish not only doctors who provide abortions but anybody who facilitates an abortion — with one notable exception.
     But don’t take my word for it.
     Take a look at the model law prepared by the National Right to Life Committee. Banning abortion is only the start.
     “Current realities require a much more robust enforcement regime than just reliance on criminal penalties,” the draft notes. Waiting to snag offenders isn’t enough. States need “RICO-style laws” that turn whisking Molly across the border into Illinois to fix her “little problem” into a criminal conspiracy.
     Where to begin? The fact that a girl is 11 years old doesn’t matter. (That’s not a random number. It’s the age of a girl who became pregnant after being raped in Brazil, where abortion is illegal. She’s now confined by a judge so she can’t have an abortion.) Otherwise: ”We recommend prohibiting abortion except to prevent the death of the pregnant woman.”
     They’re talking about physical peril, period.
     “Psychological or emotional conditions” are deliberately excluded because, well, suck it up, sister, we’re not falling for that touchy-feely gobbledygook.
     The law recommends an abortion be a Level 2 felony. In Indiana, where the firm drafting the law is based, that’s on par with voluntary manslaughter, child sex trafficking and kidnapping, with prison sentences of from 10 to 30 years.

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

A note on sources

     A reporter is only as good as his (or her) sources. Usually, that means the contacts that he (or she, or, of late, they) has (or, in the latter case, have) developed, allies who will pick up the phone or, better, call unprompted and pass along some glowing shred of news.
     People (whew, that's easier) have never been my strong suit. But I do have a close relationship with books, which are also sources. Over the years there are certain dependables that I go to when I need a quick, in-depth education. 
     For instance, the calendar drives a considerable amount of journalism, and reporters often find themselves confronted with finding a new spin on a shopworn holiday, and if I'm tryin to fill a blank page about, oh, Valentine's Day, Jack Santino's "All Around the Year: Holidays & Celebrations in American Life" (1994: University of Illinois Press) has for decades offered a fresh observation or approach I wouldn't think of on my own. 
     For instance, Santino noted that the holiday dedicated to romance isn't just dropped randomly into the calendar. It mirrors Halloween. In a 1997 column on Valentine's Day, I quoted him: 
      "Halloween is approximately seven weeks before the winter solstice and marks the progression into the darkest period of the year," he writes. "Valentine's Day is about seven weeks after it and marks the progression out of winter and into spring." Santino points out that Halloween imagery is all about harvested crops and death, while Valentine's Day is flowers and romance and life."
     Another essential volume in any home reference library is "Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements," by John Emsley (2001: Oxford). It's that rarest reference that can be read cover-to-cover, for pleasure and I know that no quick dive into a particular metal or gas or whatever done with the Encyclopedia Britannica or online, will come close to the detail and fascination Emsley has already concisely assembled.
     Herein lies the trouble. If what I need is all right there, the temptation is to quickly gather up the nuggets, share them with the eager public, and skip giving the big public thanks to Emsley.
     That's what I did in my manhole cover story in the paper Sunday. Crediting him for the fact that iron is the fourth most common element in the universe seemed unnecessary — he didn't invent that fact, but got it from somewhere himself — and, more to the point, also took another 13 words in a story already three times the usual length of a column.
     Of course, nothing was copied. But ideas were re-worked. For instance, he writes of iron: "In effect it is the 'ash' of the nuclear burning process; once the core of a star has become mainly iron, that star has run out of its primary source of energy." Which I converted, through my own reductive process, into "Iron is, in essence, star ash."
     Now that is laudable condensation, and nobody was ever going to accuse me of plagiarism, the way a reader once sincerely did when I ended a column, "Isn't it pretty to think so?" the concluding line of "The Sun Also Rises" (I wrote back that I assumed my readers are familiar with the line, asking, "If I ended with "Thou shalt not kill" would you accuse me of ripping off the Bible?")
     But as reader after reader singled out that ash line to compliment me, a definite taste of ashes began forming in my mouth. I felt like I was taking a bow for Emsley's performance, and though I should wave the flag for his book.
     You can buy it here. It'll set you back $25 — it's lack of deep discount a reflection of just how useful a resource it remains. Not only is "Nature's Building Blocks" fascinating to read, with the inside scoop on the elements from actinium to zirconium, but it includes the lyrics to the Tom Lehrer song and an essay on the periodic table. Emsley, a British science writer, now 84, cleverly divides each elemental essay in "Human Element," and "Medical Element," "Economic Element" and "Environmental Element" and so on, including an "Element of Surprise" that bring in some cool facts out of left field. (Though he does despair at thulium, throwing up his hands with, "What is surprising about thulium is that, unlike the other rare-earth elements, there is nothing at all surprising about it... This is probably due to its rarity and cost, which may have deterred people from investigating it or seeking uses for it.")
     But I do the book an injustice ending with a rare lacuna. In the essay on fluorine, the element of surprise offers a brief history and explanation of Teflon, the coating made from poly(tetrafluoroethene). "Contrary to popular belief," Emsley writes, "it was not space exploration that led to the development of the non-stick frying pan, but the other way round." But I won't quote too much of it here. Read the book yourself.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Texas Republicans turn up the crazy

Metropolitan Museum of Art

     Could somebody please explain Texas pride to me? Isn’t Ted Cruz still one of their senators? That loathsome, cowardly, sniveling, whining, lying, wriggling invertebrate human excrescence? I’m embarrassed to belong to the same species as Ted Cruz. It’s like finding out you’re related to a worm. “And that’s a photo of your great-grandfather, who was a sipuncula, or peanutworm ...”
     Sharing the same state would be unbearable. It’s bad enough that Bruce Rauner is here, somewhere, hiding in one of his homes.
     Yes, Texas is an economic powerhouse — the 9th-largest economy in the world. And what are its chief economic products? Agriculture, energy and ... tourism. Which is what makes one particular line in the draft Texas Republican Party platform — “Texas retains the right to secede from the United States.” — so curious.
     The Texas GOP is taking pains to remind everybody that they find mainstream American values — diversity, public education, free elections — so odious they must officially give a big middle finger to the other 49 states. There’s a tourism slogan for you: “Texas: We hate America so much we might quit at any time ... until then, yeehaw, c’mon down for some down-home cowboy fun!”
     Good luck with that one.
     Of course, lack of bone-deep Republican hypocrisy forbids me from casting shade on anyone’s tourism slogan without pointing out that Chicago has perhaps the worst advertising line devised by humankind: “When you GO you know,” with the “GO” in yellow, lest the connection to micturition be overlooked. Can you imagine the gathering of talent that produced that one? And the bar was already set very high with the previous slogan, “Chicago Not Chicago” which, with a little punctuation, becomes the thought process that accompanies the suggestion of visiting our troubled city. “Chicago? Not Chicago!”
     These slogans have to be intentionally lousy, right? I can only assume it’s some kind of long game by chessmaster Lori Lightfoot, trying to tamp down the inevitable stories about visitors being shot at Chicago tourist destinations this summer by encouraging them to never arrive in the first place. Our next tourism campaign will be “See beautiful Milwaukee.”
      Back to Texas. Yes, secede, by all means. The state gets back $1.20 for every dollar it sends to Washington, and 17.5% of its state budget comes from the rest of the country’s taxes. Illinois meanwhile gets 94 cents back on each dollar we send, after six cents is snatched by Texas. So leave, parasite. Don’t let the door ...

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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

‘Shall I chew that for you, sir?’

     My gut tells me that light columns of a personal nature are probably both out-of-step with journalistic fashion and not smart, from a self-protection standpoint. Indeed, as I was writing this, I remembered with a shudder that the great Gene Weingarten, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner at the Washington Post, was shown the gate after just such a column, for failure to sufficiently appreciate Indian cuisine. So if it seems like my praise is one twist too strong, that was deliberate, my winking tribute to Gene. 

     I turned 62 last week, and new indignities of age already are rushing at me, with their seltzer bottles and flappy paddles, the calliope of time wheezing derisively in the background. You’d think, at threescore and a pair, I’d expect them by now. But no.
     We caught the 5:22 to Union Station Thursday night to take our younger son out for an elegant birthday dinner — his, not mine; our birthdays are less than a week apart. He chose Rooh, a trendy progressive Indian restaurant on West Randolph Street.
     On the trip downtown, I entertained myself cooking up lame dad puns that I knew later would have to be manfully suppressed. 
     “I hear the chef is opening a French version of this place, called ‘Rue’, serving Paris street food ...”
     “Have you been to his Cajun cafe, ‘Roux’?”
     “The chef has one of these in Australia, too. ‘Roo.’”
     Really, it’s a sickness.
     A pleasant stroll west and north from Union Station. Well, OK, young people did tend to blast up to us, pause as if confused, even slightly offended that we didn’t automatically hop out of their way, then grudging factor our perplexing existence into their navigational systems, then vector around us, picking up speed, like comets slingshotting around a pair of lifeless moons.
     We got to Rooh and joined the knot of supplicants at the front door. Edging to the maître d’ station, we gave our son’s name. The gatekeepers huddled, consulted, glanced at us, disapprovingly. Looked at a screen again, murmured, reluctantly agreed it seemed this couple has a reservation upstairs.

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Monday, June 20, 2022

Nothing lasts forever, but a manhole cover comes close.

A new manhole cover shakes off its mold sand. (Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin)

     Visiting the Neenah foundry was a longtime dream of mine. I pestered them for years, and it was thrill earlier this year when they finally agreed. As far as I can tell, this was the first time Neenah allowed a Chicago newspaper reporter to visit their operation in its 150 year history.

     NEENAH, Wis. — This is where they undergo their fiery birth, those overlooked essentials of urban life.
     Most of us seldom notice them, even though they can brave the extremes of weather for 100 years while being run over by trucks without deteriorating, and we depend upon their steadfast operation to keep us from falling into open sewers.
     They are literally everywhere, around the world and at our feet, on every block, every street corner: the manhole covers, stormwater intake grates, bumpy rectangles where the sidewalk slopes to meet the street (formally known as detectable warning plates) and other cast-iron infrastructure that help keep Chicago from reverting back to the swamp it was at its beginning.  
     “It’s stuff that’s always there, but no one thinks about it,” said Joe Falle, director of research and development and application engineering at Neenah Foundry in Neenah, Wisconsin, 190 miles north of Chicago, between Oshkosh and Appleton. “It doesn’t do anything special but cover a hole.”
     Many, many holes. The city of Chicago Department of Water Management, which wrangles the city’s manhole covers, estimates there are about 148,000 sewer covers on Chicago streets, plus another 205,000 catch basins.
     “We have a manhole cover down the middle of every street, going directly into sewers,” said Matt Quinn, deputy commissioner of the Department of Water Management. “Six catch basins per block and three manhole covers.”
     Manhole covers are solid — to keep sewer odor from wafting up to the street. Catch basin covers have slats — to let stormwater in. And, in case you’re curious, no, gender neutrality has not reached this realm of society.
     “Yes, we still call them ‘manhole covers,’ ” Quinn said. “Most people don’t care because it’s a cover over a sewer.”
     But what a cover. Two feet across, about two inches thick, solid cast iron.
     While there are other suppliers, many Chicago covers originate here, in the sprawling, loud Neenah Plant No. 2, the main facility of a company that has been producing cast-iron products for the past 150 years. Ever since William Aylward started the Aylward Plow Works in 1872. The company expanded from plow blades to sugar caldrons and barn door rollers. Alyward’s three sons entered the business, which added cast-iron stoves. In 1904, it began making manhole covers.
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