Thursday, December 8, 2022

Don't play Wordle today.

     Writing is my job. And because of the topics I tackle, and the way I go about addressing them, the emphasis is usually on the first part of that sentence, the writing. I'm proud of that. But today, I'd like to talk about the second part, the job. The Sun-Times has been my place of employment since March 23, 1987, and it's been a good job, thanks in large part to the Chicago Newspaper Guild, which won a decent salary and generous benefits and fought off all efforts to undermine them. Thanks to the union, I was able to buy a house, put two boys through college, travel. If I got sick, I had health insurance to offer me the best care, was paid while I recuperated. It shocked me to realize that rail workers, during the recent negotiations, were simply trying to get paid sick leave. It's bad enough to be sick. But to be lose your income as well....
     As you might know, the guild at the Sun-Times is negotiating a contract with our new owners, Chicago Public Media.  Probably the less I say about that, the better. The talks progress, and I'm not in a position to know whether they are going faster or slower than previously. Though from what I glean from union communications, the warm, humane velvet glove that WBEZ projects to the public seems to be concealing an iron fist, at least when it comes to negotiating with their employees. There's a big union meeting Friday, and I should know more then.    
     We're not alone here. The union for the New York Times, one of the most successful newspapers in the world, is staging a one-day walkout, and has asked its subscribers to make a little sacrifice today to show their support by avoiding the NYT platform. Don't check the news. Don't play the games. I usually play Wordle first thing, a five minute cracking of the mental knuckles before I get down to the business of doing my job, writing stuff. And I use the news app throughout the day.
     But not today.
     Not today, for reasons outlined in the tweet above. And my wife, who is even more of a word game junkie, tackling Wordle and Quordle, Spelling Bee and the Crossword Puzzle, has agreed to go cold turkey, for today, to remind the suits at the Times that their readers are not panjandrums, like the owners, but regular working folks, like the writers, who don't like to see other workers kicked around. 
     I hope you'll join us.
     It's a very small sacrifice to make for a very large and important principle: that there is no reason why working people can't enjoy the fruits of their labor, and have stable, rewarding jobs with good benefits that add up to satisfying lives. I think we've become so used to corporations squeezing profits out of their employees that we've forgotten there is another way. There is. I know that from first hand experience.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Do we all get to do that?

"Christ Destroying His Cross," by Jose Clemente Orozco (Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil: Mexico City)

     Are you a Christian? Then I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to stop reading now and direct your attention elsewhere. The comics, maybe. Nothing personal, understand. It isn’t that I believe you and your children are damned to burn in hell for all eternity. It’s that my religion forbids addressing you, in my view. “These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel,” God tells Moses in Exodus, which obviously leaves Gentiles out.
     Wait a second! “Sons”? Maybe women readers should move on too. Let me pray on that and get back to you.
     “When did this happen?” you might ask. And I might ask, “What are you still doing here?” But OK, for argument’s sake, while you are moving yourself down the pike, I was reminded by the Supreme Court’s taking up another Colorado business unwilling to bow to the humiliation of providing services to people of whom they disapprove.
     Ten years ago it was a Colorado baker who didn’t want to create a cake for a gay wedding. Now it’s a graphic designer floating the argument that she is a creative artist whose First Amendment rights are being infringed upon by the government, and its pesky insistence on treating all citizens equally.
     Yes, there is an alternate view, that not only democracy, but also the basic capitalist system demands treating all paying customers the same — your cash is good, you buy a newspaper, you get to read every story in it.
     But that is a fallacy, in that it chafes against my sincere religious belief.
     Yes, some might argue sincere religious belief is not a justification for anything — sincere religious belief is also what prompts suicide bombers to detonate themselves in crowded markets.
     But faith is on the march, the Supreme Court crowded with ideologues who have shown themselves all too willing to tear up the social fabric to scratch their religious itch, forcing millions of women to drive across the country to manage their gynecological business. The next step is to make the freedom of every American subject to the whim of whatever employee says “Yes, may I help you?” when you walk into their shop.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Welcome yourself to Zenwich


    People are expensive and, increasingly, hard to find. Businesses that once might have been looked down upon for a scarcity of employees are now pitied, in that, in this odd post-COVID era, certain professions seem hard to staff. Though in my mind that's nothing paying them more won't fix. 
      I suppose it began with gas stations. Once Jack jogged out of the Clark station in Berea, pumped the gas, cleaned the windshield, joked with my mom and gave a stick of gum to us kids in the back. Now you hop out of your car, slide your credit card into a slot, take off the gas cap, jam the nozzle in, and pump the gas yourself, while a screen cheerily hectors you and some unseen person slouches in a bulletproof booth a dozen yards away.
      Then self-checkout at drug stores, and grocery stores. My wife and I resisted, for a while. Solidarity!  But during COVID, when the practice came to Sunset Foods, I yielded to what suddenly seemed like a strategy to address the staffing crisis. And I discovered there is an advantage to checking your own groceries — you pay closer attention to the prices ringing up, and have an easier time catching the chronic pricing errors, discrepancies that before tended to only be noticed once you were unbagging back home, necessitating a grumbling trip back to the store to recover that dollar or two.
     Last week I met a longtime reader for lunch in Elmhurst, at Zenwich, an intriguing "Asian fusion" sandwich shop.  Where I had a new experience at a fast food restaurant, one that seemed worth recounting as an augury of the future. We walked in at 12 noon to find an entirely empty restaurant. No customers. Nobody behind the counter. Only a screen. We worked our way through the various prompts, ordering a pair of sandwiches and a pair of sodas. I got a Thai BBQ pork belly sandwich and a Diet Coke. He paid, kindly, despite my protestations that the columnist is supposed to pay, we grabbed our beverages from a case and had a seat. Eventually a tray — a wooden board, idiosyncratically, perhaps supposed to be redolent of nature or some such thing — arrived up front, I heard his name called, and I jumped up — I was closer to the counter — turned, retrieved the board, noticed out of the corner of my eye a person of some sort, whose features, to be honest, were not arranged in a friendly greeting of warm hospitality and who soon fled back into the kitchen.  
     The sandwich was ... alright. Fresh bread, at least. Very wet with their "sweet and tangy" sauce which was more "meh and mayonnaise" in my view. I kept going for my napkin. And the meat ... well, take a look. It only covered half the sandwich, though they do say "thinly sliced" on the menu, so, points for candor. Still, human attention isn't the only thing in short supply at Zenwich.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Not my Constitution, buddy

Smithsonian Museum of American History

     You know we’ve sailed off into the stratosphere of national dysfunction when the former president of the United States, citing the same imaginary voter fraud he’s been raging about for two years, can suggest the Constitution be suspended, along “with all rules, regulations and articles,” through some equally imaginary process, so he can be returned to power, through notional governmental machinery that also doesn’t exist, and it’s not the main topic of conversation in the following days.
     But here we are. He said this on his Truth Social platform Saturday. It was the third headline on the Washington Post web page Sunday, under an article about sick leave among railroad workers.
     “So, with the revelation of MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION in working closely with Big Tech Companies, the DNC, & the Democrat Party ...” begins the latest lie.
     The funny thing ... not funny ha-ha but funny sad ... is that Trump still can’t even vaguely offer a plausible theory of how this uppercase wrongdoing might have unfolded, never mind provide evidence.
     He then muses whether “you” (the American people, I suppose) should “throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER” (him, I assume, again through some process that isn’t there, assuming he doesn’t mean violence, which of course he does) “or do you have a NEW ELECTION?”
     That’s cute. Because if you sincerely thought the election was stolen, in some obscure way you couldn’t articulate never mind prove, then what would be the point of calling for a new election? Wouldn’t George Soros just smile and tap a few figures into his phone, again, and that would be it? We wuz robbed again!
     Or gee, maybe Trump really doesn’t believe it himself and is just a grifter working a con. Letting his deluded faithful do the dirty work for him. Which is why nearly 1,000 Jan. 6 insurrectionists have already been arrested and charged, with hundreds pleading guilty and dozens going to prison. All except the ringleader, who struts around, trying to reprise his crime, with greater success next time.

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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Oh no, not another one!

     "Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg has come out with yet another book, this one called 'Every Goddamn Day,' in which he presents 366 vignettes keyed …"
                                                                  —Axios, Justin Kaufman and Monica Eng, Dec. 2, 2022

     Okay, time to play, "You be the author!" in which you get to place yourself within the enormous head of Neil Steinberg and try, for a moment, to see the world through his eyes.
     Read the quote atop this page, the opening sentence of a fun Axios Q & A with me. Any word, ah, pop out?
     But first, a friendly wave to Justin and Monica. Two of my favorite Chicago media people. Many happy memories of working with Justin, first when he was a producer at WBEZ, then radio host, then after he moved to WGN. A thorough pro.
     And Monica. I've known her since she was just a sprite, cutting her eye teeth at the Sun-Times. Also top notch. I particularly appreciated her pulling me in to speak on the moving tribute she produced for Jim Nayder after he succumbed to the demons he had battled successfully for so long.
     So no criticism, implied or overt, in today's question concerning their work. All in a spirit of good fun.
     However. That opening sentence, well one word did sneak out of line, abandon his brethren, shimmy down the page of type, leap from the computer screen to my shirtfront, haul itself up from button to button, then cling to my beard with one little serif hand while using the other to slap me back and forth across the nose.
     Have you found it yet?
     Yes, indeed, that's it: "yet."
     "Yet another book..."
     Like I'm pelting the world with them. 
     Yes, I've written nine books. Quite a lot really. Though dwarfed by truly prolific authors — Stephen King has published 71. Not to equate myself to Stephen King in any way, beyond I suppose our both writing books, he far more than I, and sharing bilateral symmetry. Perhaps it's that yawning gap between us in popularity that prompts the "yet," the unvoiced rest of the sentence being, "yet another book that nobody asked for but he feels somehow compelled to keep showering us with anyway."
     Or maybe that's just me airing the typical why-don't-you-love-me-more? writerly neurosis. Well, I tell writers to be who they are. Which is fine, if you're Stephen King or Jonathan Eig or one of those others who straddle the world like colossuses, waiting for packages with exotic postmarks to arrive so they can line up the translations of their work into Japanese and Norwegian and Farsi on the shelf dedicated to their foreign editions. While with me, well, not so fine, being the sort of guy who wonders: do Stephen King fans groan upon the next arrival? I mean, those King novels, they're hefty tomes. Yes, my new book weighs in at almost 500 pages. But King's just getting started at 500 pages..  "Yet another book..."
     It has been six years, since my last one. A respectable interlude. Long enough for readers to recuperate from the last one. "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," written with Sara Bader.  A compendium which, now that I think of it, quotes Stephen King several times. I sent him a copy, shipped to his home in Maine, hoping that inclusion would please him somehow. It was, remember, a literary companion to recovery, and knowing that King, despite being such a prolific and skilled writer, could appeared cranky and vexed — it isn't just me — by literature's reluctance to admit him to the pantheon, gazing hard at the horror genre, not to forget his wild popularity, like a maitre d' dubiously eyeing a moth-eaten jacket on a prospective luncheon guest. I figured, he might like being grouped with Faulkner and Shakespeare and Dante and such. In recovery himself, perhaps King would appreciate what I was trying to do.
      "Neil Steinberg's new book 'Out of the Wreck I Rise' is just the right medicine for the 20 million Americans who struggle with sobriety," is one of the many things King didn't say, having no reaction whatsoever, probably never even seen the thing, buried in the big canvas rolling postal cart jammed with the volumes arriving every day, sent by hopeful authors and trucked directly, unopened, to the Bangor Goodwill. "I encourage everyone who has ever cracked open a book of mine to rush right away to buy Neil Steinberg's excellent, creative and essential book."
      Instead I get "yet another book." I suppose it could be worse. "Here comes Steinberg, apparently unsatisfied with writing a newspaper column three times a week in a major metropolitan daily, and ginning up something to run on his blog the other four days, not to forget freelance pieces and the occasional lob of a bon mot on Twitter and Facebook, inflicting yet another book, even more of his increasingly dated, outré, unwelcome and off-point old white cis-gendered male worldview on a city that has already suffered under his lash for 40 years..."
     Sorry. I'm grateful for the attention, truly. Axios' "Best Day Ever" feature is lighthearted, and I'm flattered to be included, and hate to use my thumb to pull down the lip of the perfectly beautiful thoroughbred of publicity and examine its teeth. But it is the writer's fate to focus on tiny particulars — my fate, anyway, and boy, sometimes it seems like some condemned-by-Zeus doom, to be chained to a rock for all eternity, noticing molecules as they flit through the air, in that annoying fashion molecules have, all hectic and harried and vectoring off in all directions, swirling like dust motes in the sun...
     A word of warning. Wednesday, after turning in the big magazine cover story I've been crafting for the past few months, I wrapped my hands around the thick rope, leaned forward, and started pulling the first huge granite block of the next book I'm working on up the inclined plane at Giza, and sent the first couple chapters off to my agent. 
     Maybe, my failing to take the hint baked into "yet," this next one will earn inevitable progression to "Please God make him stop!"  My apologies. Honestly, I really write them for the pleasure of doing it. "Work is more fun than fun," as Noel Coward once said. The publication part, as I've said before, is just the punishment that fate inflicts upon a person to counterbalance the joy of writing a book. Yes, I suppose, they do seem a sort of significance. At least I try to view them that way, and sometimes even manage to succeed. And yet...


Saturday, December 3, 2022

Northshore Notes: Star Stuff

By Crisóstomo Alejandrino José Martínez y Sorli (Metropolitan Museum)

     We live on in the memories of others, and it was good to see the name of my late friend Jeff Zaslow in today's essay by EGD's Northshore bureau chief.

By Caren Jeskey 

“I quote my father to people almost every day. Part of that is because if you dispense your own wisdom, others often dismiss it; if you offer wisdom from a third party, it seems less arrogant and more acceptable.”
              ― Jeffrey Zaslow, The Last Lecture

     Like Jeff Zaslow did, I quote my father often. “Don’t let the turkeys get you down” is a favorite. Particularly in this season, when turkey and its related holiday has a way of getting even folks with the most copper-bottomed psyches down.
     There was an enormous emptiness inside of me this week — I was gutted like the birds we consumed last Thursday. In yoga speak, the solar plexus is a chakra that rests between the chest and the abdomen. It is said to be the center of confidence and also holds one’s sense of personal power, or lack thereof. When I’m feeling nervous, restless, or scared, I often notice a hollowness emanating from that area.
     This time, the existential crisis was Thanksgiving’s fault. The disruption of the holiday unbalanced my precarious apple cart. I’ve noticed others in my life feeling similarly. There have been a lot of tears for lost loved ones, and regrets, mixed in with memories worth keeping. Regrets that nothing is perfect.
     I’m not where I want to be in life, even though I know I have a lot to appreciate and enjoy. If I allow myself to admit it, I want to be footloose and fancy free again. I miss gallivanting off to islands and rainforests. (Though even a crowded movie theater and restaurant would be daring these days). I want to be more successful. I want all of my teeth back. Reuniting with family members is an opportunity to admit what's really going on, or to put on an act and pretend that things are great even if they're not. I wish I’d been more prepared to host my brother and his girlfriend in a grander manner. Instead I was embarrassed by my own life. I wish I wasn't too scared to join them at Rosa's and Buddy Guy's and Thalia Hall in Pilsen. I wish I was the young confident person I used to be. And the regrets just kept coming. I don’t have the children I’d wanted to have. I’m single and renting living amongst families who most certainly own. “Pass the tea and crumpets!” Though I don’t want to be single, my last date (last weekend — a walk through a forest trail on sunny warm day) was so awkward I never want to try it again. At least this one wasn't still married and "in the process" of divorce.
     Sometimes I have what those in traditional twelve-step recovery programs call a God-shaped hole, what Buddhists understand as a Hungry Ghost, and what I call a feeling that something is missing. There’s not enough food, drink, smoke, “love”, blissful meditation retreats, Netflix or AppleTV to fill it up. (I cancelled Amazon Prime and Netflix last month and can report that life is better).
     The longing to be satisfied has roots in our physical bodies, not just in our minds. The solar plexus is a real thing also known as the celiac plexus. In 1914, Julia Seton, MD (a native of Decatur IL) authored The Psychology of the Solar Plexus and Subconscious Mind
     “The solar plexus is a large collection of nerve cells and it forms the great center nerve generating energy for the sympathetic nervous system … The solar plexus is the home of the ego or spirit of men … From our solar plexus we receive our visions called faith, and when we register them in the field of consciousness of our physical brain, and work them out through scientific human reasoning into tangible expression, then they become facts.”
     Stale Edwardian wisdom perhaps. But I'm inclined to learn more about whether there is science behind any of this. Here I was thinking that chakras were too woo-hoo for me anymore, but maybe I'm not done with them yet.
     In the still formative years of my teens and twenties, All that Zazz — the advice column Jeff Zaslow took over from Ann Landers in the Sun Times in 1987 — was a voice of reason for me. I wouldn’t listen to my folks, even though they were full of wisdom, but I’d listen to Jeff as I had listened to his predecessor. There was a comfort in knowing that there were simple answers to life’s big problems.
     I still believe that’s true.
     I have to give Neil a shout out before I go. Just as I relied on Zazz, I turn to EGD for comfort, wisdom, and laughs. Thanks NS.*
          "We are star stuff harvesting sunlight."
                                   — Carl Sagan

* Editor's note: De nada.

Friday, December 2, 2022

You had me at chia pudding

     At the end of October, I found myself zipping down to Dallas for a story. A quick 24-hour jaunt. Arriving the evening before, I met my sister for dinner at a fabulous restaurant called Roots Southern Table, gorged on collard greens and cast iron cornbread served with sweet potato butter, then jerk lamb chops and orange juice cake.
     The next morning, with that huge Southern dinner still under my belt, breakfast was a Clif bar eaten on the run. Lunch was spent talking to people in the rain. Then boom, back to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, trucking through Terminal E about 3 p.m., heading toward a 5 p.m. flight home. It dawned on me that if I didn’t want to subsist on a foil bag of pretzels tossed at me by an unhappy flight attendant, now was the moment to root out something to eat.
     What were my options? A big soft salt-crusted dough twist drenched in hot cheese-like product from Auntie Anne’s Pretzels? A Chick-fil-A sandwich which, setting aside the moral qualms of supporting haters, raises gustatory objections that my wife succinctly summarizes whenever we pass one, in a tone of mingled wonder and disgust: “Breaded chicken ... served on bread?!”
     Hurrying along, I was just thinking that the path of prudence would be to eat at home when I approached a wood-tone vending machine. A Farmer’s Fridge, stocked with large jars of salad.
     I love salad and eat one almost every day for lunch. Finding salad on this soul-dead airport causeway was like encountering a real twice-boiled bagel in Indiana.
     I selected the Harvest salad — lettuce, dried cranberries, pecan couscous — for only $9.49. I poured in the balsamic vinaigrette dressing and gave the thing a shake, and ate in silent joy. For dessert, chocolate raspberry chia pudding.

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Thursday, December 1, 2022

Hello DALL-E, well hello, DALL-E...

"A sad Al Capone sitting on a park bench 
all alone" suffers from not resembling the 
mobster. The park bench is fine.
      The press prides itself as watchdogs, investigators, the people who dig up the bad news and shine the light of day on it.
     But there's also a pervasive cheerleader aspect to the media that doesn't get acknowledged often enough. At least not publically. Privately, we've all had the experience where some trusted writer or critic or news source raves about something — a new restaurant, movie, even a computer program — so much that we try it out ourselves, and what was presented as a fragrant ladle of savory wonder turns out, in real life, to be an unappealing spoonful of mediocre meh.
      In late September, the Washington Post went wild for DALL-E — yes, the name is a mashup pun of "Dali" and the movie "Wall-E"— an artificial intelligence image generator, in "AI can now create any image in seconds, bringing wonder and danger," by Nitasha Tiku.

     "Wonder and danger." That seemed something to try out myself. Particularly as someone who needs fresh images on a daily basis, for my blog, and sometimes for special projects — for my new book, I had to hire an artist and pay her slightly more than I received for writing the book itself.
     Wouldn't it be easier to just plug my needs into a free program that "has dazzled the public, attracting digital artists, graphic designers, early adopters, and anyone in search of online distraction"?
     I went to the site and signed up and found WaPost-level enthusiasm.
     "DALL·E 2 can create original, realistic images and art from a text description," it promised. "It can combine concepts, attributes, and styles."
     Let's go! I pursed my lips, thought hard, then typed, "Dante Alighieri smoking a cigarette on the moon."
     "Something went wrong," a message told me, vaguely. "Please try again in a few minutes." I did. Something was still wrong. A couple more attempts, then I deployed my "wait a while" strategy and came back the next day.
      In the fresh dawn of a new day, an image of the dour Florentine was now doable. DALL-E tossed off four drawings. Only in the first did the man look vaguely like Dante. In one he was in inexplicable whiteface. None were on the moon — the moon was behind him. They did get the cigarette right. But at least it was working.
     Okay, try something else. A Beatles lyric came to me. I typed: "Rocking horse people eating marshmallow pie." DALL-E understood "rocking horse" and "people" but couldn't combine them. It could do "marshmallow" but not in a pie.
     Again again, as the Teletubbies used to cry.
     "A train station filled with birds reading newspapers"

     The first image was quite pleasant, though missed the "birds reading newspapers" aspect. None were up to the level of a skilled high school art student working on an assignment.
    I tried to think of an image I might actually need: guns. I write about guns from time to time, so asked. "Many handguns all pointed at the viewer." Here DALL-E balked.
    "It looks like this request may not follow our design policy" pouted a dog and cat — I bet they hired a. artist to render them — looking at me reproachfully. A reminder that the online world, when it isn't busily vile, is reflexively timid. 
     When I wanted to see "Criminals on a street corner in Chicago" all the images where of men in hoodies with their backs to the viewer — a reminder that earlier DALL-E versions were criticized for the race bias the creators had initially hardwired into the system. Obviously nobody wants to be accused of that.  Their idea of a Chicago cop was closer to a mall security guard. They did create images of a beautiful sunflower.

  I'd say 90 percent of my requests generated unusable garbage. "Humpty Dumpty juggling maraschino cherries" showed AI has yet to grasp the concept of the famous eggman — they seemed to think he was a clown, with the same splayed, clawlike hands DALL-E seems to prefer; AI, like all novice artists, seems to do a particularly bad job of hands. 
     "A beautiful woman playing Scrabble with martians" contained women who weren't beautiful, games that weren't Scrabble, and no denizens of the red planet. (Beauty of course is subjective, but DALL-E faces, composites of many photos, have a blurred stitched-together quality more scary than appealing)
     I thought I'd try out a real life example. In my book, for the day the Cubs finally won the World Series, I thought of the Hindu god, ganesh, "the remover of obstacles" and asked artist Lauren Nassef to draw it with arms holding various Cubs tokens. I asked DALL-E: "The elephant-headed god ganesh wearing a Cubs cap and holding a pennant." I got this:

     It couldn't do a Cubs cap — trademark infringement? — but it got ganesh down fairly well and we executed enough to give me pause. Was DALL-E getting better? Or perhaps my standards were just lowering.
     Are artists endangered? We have to remember that the human default is to fear doom at every new development. A century and a half after Edison offered recorded music, there are still jobs for violinists and violin-makers.
     But art, well, while I'd encourage you to go online and give it a spin — it's free — there are still more than a few bugs in the system. For the moment. One thing about technology is, it gets better. I scoffed when my wife bought a robot vacuum. Now I love it; no cleaning lady ever vacuumed downstairs with the singular focus of our Eufy.
     I went back to the Post story, to see if maybe I missed some faint whiff of disappointment. I found a little:
     "The ability to create original, sometimes accurate, and occasionally inspired images from any spur-of-the-moment phrase, like a conversational Photoshop, has startled even jaded internet users with how quickly AI has progressed."
     "Sometimes accurate, and occasionally inspired..." So there was a wink there. The Post hedged its bets, went for subtle. It takes a certain confidence to declare something not up to its advertising. I don't know why they didn't want to come out and say it flat out: WALL-E, not so hot. Maybe Jeff Bezos is an investor.
     I was about to splash the above in the newspaper, maybe on a Monday across two pages, tisk-tisking the entire operation, when I had breakfast with my younger son, and he raved about DALL-E, and whipped out his phone, and showed me images that were much more arresting than mine. That gave me pause. I realized I was trying for broad esoterica when what was needed was narrow, concrete  and specific. I held this, for over a month, and figured I was safe to let it rip here in the less rigorous world of online punditry. 
     Since then, using DALL-E (an apt name, given that Dali too was given to excessive hype and fraudulence) I've dialed back my scope and increased my success rate. "An angry man in profile vomiting a stream of fire" for a Caren Jeskey post gave me exactly that (actually three: the program gives you four different options for every request). I couldn't find an apt photo for Wednesday's column on anti-semitism, and asked WAll-E for a picture crowded with hooked noses. The automaton delivered, again nothing great, but good enough. The future isn't here, AI artwise, but we sure can hear its approaching footsteps.

Wall-E had the Ford Mustang down fairly well, but failed at the "made of red brick" part.


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Hatred is their secret sauce

Generated by Dall-E.
     So it’s left to me to tell the secret?
     If I must.
     The current tizzy over this kid, Nick Fuentes, a vile antisemite — is there any other kind? — dining with two other vile antisemites, Kanye West and Donald Trump, is ...
     What? Oh. Don’t slide into the ditch on me here regarding that last one. Doesn’t matter that his son-in-law is Jewish. Trump could be a Jew himself and that wouldn’t change anything. Stephen Miller is Jewish, in theory. Moving on ...
     ... having dinner with two other big-mouth bigots, Kanye West and Donald Trump ...
     Better? I aim to please. Though after 40 years in this business, I’m convinced that the object of bigotry hardly matters. Haters are cowards — they’re searching for anyone safe to attack and thereby feel ... I don’t know, powerful and manly, I suppose. Their victims are fungible; anyone will do, provided they are vulnerable enough. Trans kids, Muslims, Blacks, Jews, what’s the difference? Remember Trump’s escalator descent at Trump Tower, deus ex machina, to announce his candidacy? All that poison about Mexico sending us drug dealers and rapists? You elected him president anyway. To make a fuss now, over this, is just daft. Rolling around in bigotry like a dog in ordure doesn’t hurt Trump; it’s what made him. Half of America loves this.
     Which brings us back to Fuentes and the secret. Have you asked yourself how, at 24, in a media landscape that is a 24/7 howling hurricane, a billion voices screaming at once, does this knucklehead get to be a national figure in the first place? What’s his secret sauce?
     Right. Hate sells. Vile sells. Antisemitism sells. It cuts through the clutter. People who have nothing else to say say that, and everybody perks right up.
     Look at our own homegrown hater, the Right Honorable Louis Farrakhan. Smart. Ambitious. With valid points: self-reliance; avoid drugs and alcohol; respect women; shop in the community.
     But he can give a two-hour Founders Day speech and what gets reported? The three minutes he fulminates against the Jews. Which isn’t wrong. You can’t expect the papers to focus instead on his bean cake project. Farrakhan learned the lesson and the vicious circle turned for years: He condemns the Jews for plotting against him. Jewish groups issue their pro forma complaints. Which Farrakhan points to as proof of animosity against him. He just couldn’t stop.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Flashback 1999: Jews' history as victims doomed to repeat itself

    Anti-semitism. In the news. Again. God, do I have to pinch my nose with one hand, reach WAY down into the gutter with the other, and drag that wriggling thing up and look at it? Again? Do you know how many years I've been dissecting this thing? Cutting it up into little chunks, bottling those bits in formaldehyde. Affixing educational labels. Only to wake up the next day and find it intact and squirming on the tray, ready to be vivesected again.  I'm going to pass, this time, and dig up a chestnut on this topic which, unsurprisingly, is as relevant now as it was 23 years ago.


     "What we have heard about the suspect and his motives is deeply disturbing." 
                 — President Bill Clinton
     The moment I heard the TV people speculating on the reason for Buford O'Neal Furrow Jr.'s gunning down a bunch of kids and an elderly lady in a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, I asked myself, "Who cares?"
     What would be the non-disturbing motive for bursting into a community center and spraying it with machine gun fire? Altruism? Concern for the whales?
     What does it matter if he did it out of hatred for Jews — the old standby — or voices in his head or because his dog told him to?
     Chicago Jews interviewed before Furrow turned himself in expressed the pathetic hope that anti-semitism wouldn't be the motive. As if everything would be all right then.
     As if, so long as the crazed assault came from nondenominational madness, we could all wipe our brows and relax.
     Naive. And deserving to be rewarded with Furrow's comment that his act was "a wake-up call to America to kill Jews."
     Now, there's a sentiment that kicks you in the gut. And you know what? He didn't invent it. It's out there. If Furrow had told the FBI that the aliens made him do it, that wouldn't change a thing. Anti-semitism would still be out there, under the surface. The Holocaust only made expressing one's disdain for Jews impolite, made it hidden, except in cases such as this. It didn't root out the disdain itself.
     This isn't going to change. Know why?
     The Egyptians hated the Jews. The Babylonians hated the Jews. The Turks, Greeks and Romans hated the Jews. As soon as they shed their own Judaism and evolved from a fringe cult to a powerful religion, the Christians hated the Jews, as policy, for about 1800 years. Every nation from Iran to England had all sorts of laws, expelling or restricting or somehow dampening down Jews. Some still do.
     Notice a pattern here?
     Sometimes I wonder, to quote the classic question: Why the Jews? I have a theory. The reason isn't the old Christ-killers chestnut. A guy isn't motivated to gun down random children because he's upset about the passion of the savior.
     Rather, my theory — and I'm sure this is glommed from some college textbook I can't recall — is that Jews are hated because we are both successful as a group and something different. Difference alone can be shrugged off, as long as it keeps its place among the downtrodden and the underclass. But do well, and do well generally, and suddenly somebody whiffs a conspiracy, and the difference becomes intolerable. To be different, in the eyes of certain, insecure people means criticism.
     If I could ask Buford O'Neal Furrow Jr. a question, I'd want to know what sort of world he thinks he'd get without the Jews. Would that suddenly make him king? Fix Social Security? End the nation's problems? Apparently he thinks so.
     Wouldn't happen. Look at Poland. People there used to think the Jews were causing all their problems. Then they got rid of their Jews. And guess what? Poland still has problems, and many there still blame the mostly absent Jews. Not all. The really odd thing is, among a certain segment of Poles, being Jewish is sort of hip. The tiny shred they have left has developed a certain fashionability. Which would be funny if it weren't so sad.
     The TV mentality likes to learn little lessons from tragedies. So here's one I don't think you'll get from TV: Hate is eternal. If you're different and you're successful, people will hate you. Whether Jewish, black, Hispanic, Asian, gay or, in about 40 years the way demographics are going, white Anglo-Saxon, there will be people who loathe you sight unseen because, in their poisoned little minds, everything is your fault.
     Better to be aware of this. To foster a healthy pessimism, an attitude I have long thought as "Keeping a bag packed." You fall into a false sense of security, you tell yourself that because you don't wear a beard and a long black coat that you're just like everybody else, and the next thing you know you end up face down in a slit trench.
     That might seem negative, a downer on a Sunday. But I believe it; it's in my blood. My grandfather was a pessimist, or at least dissatisfied with his future prospects on the farm in Poland. So he quit, gave up, blew town. He headed for the paradise of Cleveland, Ohio, America. His entire family — and it was a big family — was more complacent and stayed put in Poland. They were optimists. They hoped for a brighter future. They're all still in Poland, somewhere, in the form of white ash. That's the ugly lesson behind Buford O'Neal Furrow Jr.'s timeless message.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 15, 1999

Monday, November 28, 2022

Fight mass shootings with education

     How to get unstuck? Say an impasse at work, where two people go head-to-head over opposing views of what to do.
     You don’t last 35 years at a company without strategies for this, and a favorite is what I call “The Third Way.” A shot of interpersonal WD-40 to get the frozen gears moving again. You want Plan A. Your boss comes along and touts Plan B.
     “That’s a stupid idea,” sticks in your throat. What to do? Insisting on your own way, telling them they’re wrong gets nowhere. But meekly submitting to the bad idea feels like surrender, and the wrong strategy wins.
     Enter The Third Way. Not your idea, not theirs. But a different approach, not as good as yours or as bad as theirs. A compromise that gets you moving again. Both sides save face.
     I thought of the Third Way after our most recent spate of mass shootings: University of Virginia, Colorado Springs, Chesapeake. Keeping track hardly seems worth the effort. The Republican solution to America’s gun nightmare is ever more guns. Arm everybody, everywhere, all the time, and let them shoot it out. We’re seeing how well that works.
     The Democratic solution — shore up the tattered framework of laws into something a bit stronger — seldom goes very far. That isn’t to say it can’t help. Our nation banned assault weapons, whatever they are, for a decade. We could again. I don’t want to underplay the value of restrictions entirely, as states with more sensible gun laws have lower rates of gun crimes. A car loving nation, we still manage to demand driver’s licenses and speed limits.
     But there is a third way that gets ignored. Not arming teachers or crafting laws but education, in the form of advertising. We gained all sorts of social goods through advertising. The public didn’t just naturally stop tossing their trash out their car windows. They had to be taught. Guns are an area where people flail in the dark. Why not teach them? Most handgun deaths aren’t murders; they’re suicides.

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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Telling you nothing is certain


     Lies are often irrational, but seldom purposeless. They have a point, a function, as little squirts of oil intended to lubricate the path forward for those to whom the truth is rocky and an impediment. 
     They are grease, camouflage, an octopus's inky cloud, disguising the continual getaway that is life for the dishonest. 
     But lies also aggregate, accumulate, take on weight and substance. Grain by grain, the mountain is constructed. Taken together, they form a terrain, a landscape where anything is open to doubt, to questioning. Where the simplest fact becomes an arduous climb up a steep slope of argument. Where nothing is certain. And in that topsy turvy world, embracing the lie becomes the sign of an open mind, while pointing to the truth is seen as self-deception. 
     Lies corrupt. What began with a septic stream of confabulation coming from the mouth of Donald Trump has animated his growing army of imitators. Deceit rolls likes gas across the countryside, until we catch whiffs of it in the most unexpected places.
     Tuesday I was driving in the car, and a CBS radio feature on the 59th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy came on the air. It was standard stuff, neutral, historical — Dallas, the news breaking, a stunned nation. But one phrase leapt out. The crime was "blamed on Lee Harvey Oswald." Not "committed by..." I heard that and felt a chill. The "unfairly" was unvoiced, but present. Why say it that way otherwise? Who was to say Kennedy died that day at all? Another CBS report called Oswald the "accused" gunman. 
     No, no, no. Oswald shot Kennedy, acting alone. There was no trial, true, but an enormous investigation, the Warren Commission, whose report concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin. And to see how far we've slipped into the ditch of conspiracy theories, even typing "Oswald shot Kennedy, alone," felt somehow daring. Which I suppose is true, when the world becomes a forest of fabrication. As far as anything can be true. As has been observed many times, the function of lies is not to get the public to believe that any particular fib is true, but that nothing is true. 
     Sure, lots of people get lots of mileage arguing the blizzard of conspiracy theories that have grown up in the past 59 years. Anything that generates the mass of data that the Kennedy assassination — or Pearl Harbor, or Sept. 11 — produces will churn out enough "evidence" to support an array of alternate imaginings and hypotheses. So many variants that they inadvertently undermine their initial premise. Just as UFOs can't really be cylinders and saucers and cubes and orbs, glowing or dark, silent and shrieking, the vast armada reported by the credulous and the deceived, so JFK couldn't have been killed by the mafia and the Russians, the CIA and LBJ and Jimmy Hoffa. First you realize that all of it can't be true, then, duh, that none of it is.
    Denial is not fact-based — the Holocaust, Sandy Hook, Lee Harvey Oswald. Rather it is malice-based, bald attempts to carve reality into a shape more pleasing to the carvers. That is why it has to be so actively resisted. Not just because lies are bad on their face — they are. But because these particular lies are so particularly bad. 
    This is so disappointing. I expect CBS to have a little more integrity than that. Obviously they do not.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Northshore Notes: Good Tired

Photos by Caren Jeskey

      There's so much in today's post by our esteemed Northshore bureau chief, the less I say by way of introduction, the better. Here it is, enjoy:

By Caren Jeskey 

"maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea"
     — maggie and milly and molly and may by e.e. cummings
     Lake glass and hunks of granite, silt, and sandstone are slowly taking over my tiny living room. When my brother and his girlfriend — who are visiting from California — wanted to stop by on Wednesday night I shouted “no!” in horror (via text). No one can see my place in such disarray. I have appearances to keep up, and I was too tired after a short but intense holiday work week of counseling to tidy up.
     A warm November has beckoned many of us to the lake shore this past week. As soon as my last client and I disappear into nothingness from the new treatment room, Zoom, it’s time to go. Fanny-pack on, I dash out the door and head east. It’s essential to move quickly if one wants to beat the impossibly early sunset of late autumn in the Midwest. 
     I make a deal with myself. I’ll only keep the rare finds of lake glass that I plan to incorporate into holiday gifts this year. I crouch down in a squat and scan thousands of pebbles placed there by the wind and waves. Many are pretty, especially when they are wet. Yet I ache for the satisfaction of the sudden gratifying glimpse of a morsel of smoothed, smokey glass. When one jovially appears, winking and saying "hey, there," I harvest it and drop the little gem into my pack. I’ve learned that as our waterways become cleaner and there is less waste, natural water glass will one day be a thing of the past.
     If I’ve been crouching long enough and have lost all sense of time, when I wake back up I wonder if my musculature will be able to support my stiff body back into standing. Sometimes I sit on the damp beach, which is easier, but the words of one of my yoga teachers rings in my mind. She'd often sit in the sand in her home country of Brazil, legs spread-eagled, and lean forward with a book propped up in the sand in front of her. It was a good way to gain flexibility without even trying. Similarly, crouching is good for balance and flexibility, and it feels like a good thing to do. Even if it means I might get stuck there forever.
     This week I instinctively sat back onto a low retaining wall to avoid a giant unexpected wave. I ended up with my rear end in a pool of cold water. I laughed aloud. I imagined that if an alien was studying humanoids from afar they might be very confused at what was happening down below. The next day I brought a little stool to sit on, and decided not to put myself between any retaining walls and the power of Lake Michigan again.
     Even a hundred shards of glass will not fill up my pack. If I kept my promise (of lake glass only) there’d be no problem. But inevitably things go south. Before I know it, my the glass in my pack is joined by fossils, geodes, pottery shards, and who knows what else. Nothing on the beach is safe from obsessive collector Caren. My Grandpa Carl was like that too. He was the guy at the beach with the metal detector. My brother John followed in his footsteps, and as a teen had a detector of his own. I bet he got lost for hours too. I'll have to ask him.
     The pockets of my jacket get heavy on my collecting sprees, and as my single-pointed focus continues, my pants pockets are compromised too. One day when I had pocketless yoga pants on, I tucked rocks between the fabric and my lower legs. Once all possible receptacles are laden with damp chunks that have been formed with “layers of sand, silt, dead plants, and animal skeletons,” aka rocks, I retreat back home. The long walk up the stairs from one of the North Shore beaches is harder with an extra several pounds.
     When I shared a photo of my lake finds with my friend Tup, he told me a story. “My mom was very down to earth, a loving and kind woman who loved the simple pleasures. [The man who] lived next door was kind of a grump. One time, across the fence, he asked my mom how I liked graduate school. My mom told him that I liked it but that it was a lot of hard work. Said [the neighbor], ‘well, anything worthwhile requires a lot of hard work and effort.’ My mom replied, ‘Oh, I don't know. I like to drive down to the Lake and watch the sunset and that doesn't require a lot of effort. I think that's worthwhile.’” Tup’s mom was a cool lady.
     This holiday was perfect for my little family. Delicious food and a low-key dinner full of great conversation. My brother’s girlfriend Gail brought an O. Eugene Pickett poem to the table, a copy for each person. I’d printed them out and glued tiny pebbles to each one, then rolled them into scrolls tied with one of my favorite fibers, jute. Each of the eight of us read one of eight passages from the poem aloud. It seemed that each person got a passage that was just right for them.

Giving Thanks
a poem by O. Eugene Picket

“For the expanding grandeur of creation,
worlds known and unknown,
galaxies beyond galaxies,
filling us with awe
and challenging our imaginations:
We give thanks this day.

For this fragile planet earth,
its times and tides,
its sunsets and seasons:
We give thanks this day.

For the joy of human life,
its wonders and surprises,
its hopes and achievements:
We give thanks this day.

For our human community,
our common past and future hope,
our oneness transcending all separation,
our capacity to work for peace and justice
in the midst of hostility and oppression:
We give thanks this day.

For high hopes and noble causes,
for faith without fanaticism,
for understanding of views not shared:
We give thanks this day.

For all who have labored and suffered
for a fairer world,
who have lived so that others
might live in dignity and freedom:
We give thanks this day.

For human liberty and sacred rites;
for opportunities to change and grow,
to affirm and choose:
We give thanks this day.

We pray that we may live not by our fears
but by our hopes,
not by our words
but by our deeds.

We give thanks this day.”


Friday, November 25, 2022

Going to Milwaukee

When I was in Milwaukee in June, I took exactly one photograph: this.

     I'm driving up to Milwaukee this afternoon to take in a Bucks game. Not a typical outing for me, but my brother-in-law is in town from California for Thanksgiving. He's a basketball fan and suggested going to the game, and I couldn't very well say no. It's been years since I've been to a basketball game; heck, with COVID, it sometimes feels like it's been years since I've been anywhere. They're playing the Cavaliers. Who knows? Maybe it'll be fun.
     Plus Milwaukee's only an hour away. Seventy miles due north. Thinking about the trip, I started assembling what I knew of the place. Milwaukee is the four-faced Allen-Bradley clock tower that announces you've arrived — usually, in my case, while passing through to some destination further north in Wisconsin, a state whose cheddar cheese friendliness has become curdled in recent years by all their red state nuttery. They don't fly flags declaring, "We've gone insane!" But the effect is the same.
     Not that I never stop in Milwaukee. 
I visited there for lunch in June, driving that new Porsche Taycan on a mad tour of charging stations. The Milwaukee Art Museum has this intricate, white, wing-like architecture that opens to greet the dawn, and 11 Georgia O'Keeffe's. My wife organized a visit there, as a sort of family field trip, maybe a decade ago. It's been a while since I read it, but I remember their display had an unmistakable Badger State slant, presenting O'Keeffe as a Wisconsin artist who grew up on a farm in Sun Prairie and, later, also did some work in the Southwest. It's as if the Art Institute of Chicago colored her as a Chicago artist because she went to school here for a year.
     Otherwise, we did once drive up to tour Marquette for our younger boy, which I think was some kind of homage on his part to Bulls star Jimmy Butler, who went there. I have the vaguest memory of red brick buildings, an urban school, and an immediate sense that this wasn't the place for him. Sports fandom must skip generations.
     And at some point — I think it was for the pranks book, which would make it the early 1990s, I drove up to use the library, and remember parking downtown on the strangely unpopulated main drag thinking, "It's so easy," and later meeting a former colleague from the Green Bay Press Gazette, where I interned during college, at some vast, empty German restaurant.     
    That's about it.
     The odd thing about Milwaukee is, despite having lived, if not quite in its shadow, then in close proximity, for the past 45 years, is how neutral I feel toward the place. I don't mind going, but also wouldn't feel bereft if I never went back. There's no sense of competition — Milwaukee has a quarter the population of Chicago — but also none of that automatic desire to tease a rustic hamlet. I don't have a lot of associations with Milwaukee — big for beer in the 19th century and, I suppose, still, and while I am a particular fan of Pabst NA in those blue cans — it tastes just as bad as regular Pabst — it isn't like I want to tour the plant and see them make the stuff.
     This has to reflect lack of initiative on my part. Maybe next year it would be worthwhile trying to get to know Milwaukee better, establish a sort of virtual Sun-Times Milwaukee Bureau and cable back some reports next summer. Who knows? There must be more to the place that I'm missing.



Thursday, November 24, 2022

Birthday lunch


     Certain readers have written to me so consistently for so long, I feel as if I know them, even when we've never met. It helps to have a distinctive name, like Royal Berg, which sounds like a character out of Tolkien, but is actually an attorney in the Loop specializing in immigration law.
     He said he had bought two copies of my new book, and would it be possible to swing by and sign them? I said sure, and we arranged to meet downtown Monday. He said there was a luncheon of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity, honoring the birthday of a judge at Delmonico Restaurant, across from City Hall. Why don't I come as his guest?
     Putting those data points together — law fraternity, a judge, a restaurant called Delmonico's — what would you expect? I pictured the Union League Club, men in Brioni suits murmuring over their folded copies of the Wall Street Journal. I wore a jacket and a tie to fit in.
     The first surprise was Delmonico's. That's the name of perhaps the most famous New York restaurant of the 19th century. In the 21st century Chicago version, it was a nondescript interior room in the lobby 111 W. Washington, with steam tables and a cash register but no windows looking out into the street. I blew past it the first time, trucking through the lobby, not perceiving it as a restaurant, and had to ask directions, literally while standing directly in front of the place.
     I was directed to the buffet, selected a slice of Yankee pot roast and some broccoli and put them on my sectioned styrofoam plate — that seemed safe. There were eight or 10 people gathered to celebrate the 78th birthday of Judge Martin Moltz. Sixteen years on the bench. How's that going?
     "I love it," he said. "I enjoy it way too much. I'm so happy to do it at my age."
     I know the feeling. Judge Moltz, and the others gathered, some from the city law department, had a certain low-key, salt-of-the-earth quality — the German word heimlich comes to mind: familiar, agreeable. Not law as practiced by Ed Burke. There was no pretense, no aloofness, no pretense. We traded stories. They all seemed to have read the Sun-Times for their entire lives and were pleased to meet me. Everybody was relaxed. Nobody was in a rush — I had to remind Judge Moltz to blow out his candles. Otherwise they might have just burned down to the frosting.
     Judge Moltz was appointed an associate judge of the Cook County First Municipal Circuit Court in 2007. In case you assume, as I did, that his canary yellow jacket was a birthday indulgence, it's not. The Chicago Lawyer published a photo of his closet: suits of purple, orange, aqua, salmon. 
     This is not to say he doesn't have legal chops. As Deputy Director of the State Appellate Prosecutor's office, he argued 1 ,700 cases before the appellate and state supreme Courts, a record that will probably never be broken.
     Soon we were happily discussing ... roller coasters. He grew up going to Riverview, remained an enthusiast all his life, and has ridden every roller coaster in the United States. And Canada. And England. And Wales.
But that isn't the incredible part. The incredible part is that he didn't mention that personal achievement. I dug it up later. Accomplished and modest.

     Perhaps all that swooping and hurtling has primed him for Illinois politics. He had no reluctant last year to declare in open court that J.B. Pritzker's eviction moratorium is "utter idiocy," which it was, as much a stab at the rule of law as any MAGA machination. Landlords have to make a living too.
     It's Thanksgiving, so I should leave it at that and let you get back to preparations. I worried for a moment that I was setting some precedent, pointing out that I had agreed to meet a reader for lunch just because he'd purchased two books. But it's worse than that. I sometimes go to lunch with readers just because they ask, no books involved. Though I should flog the product: if you buy two books, I'll meet up with you and sign them, and we might as well have lunch while we're doing so.  It certainly worked in this case; pleasant, distinctive company and the great inert stone of my publishing career moved two inches forward. Happy Thanksgiving.