Monday, January 31, 2022

Chicago is a fine place and worth saving

     There's a back story to today's headline. I recently read Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which contains my second favorite line from his work: "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for." (Second to, from the end of "The Sun Also Rises": "Isn't it pretty to think so?") When I finished today's column, I originally thought to echo that with "Chicago is a fine place and worth the fighting for." But given the grim toll of gangs fighting over turf, I thought I'd better not, and give it the slight twist above.

     One evening a few years ago I was walking in Harajuku, Tokyo’s trendy fashion district, when I noticed a bright neon sign: “CHICAGO.” I went in. There is joy in finding evidence of home when you’re far away, plus a special insider delight in noting what they get wrong, like those palm trees on the sign. Or the fact the store sells used kimonos.
     So when an email from the mayor’s office hit my inbox, announcing the “Chicago Not Chicago” publicity initiative, highlighting Chicago’s global impact, I felt ready to play along. Not to snarkily tick off the many ways the world misinterprets Chicago. But to elaborate on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s theme that “Chicago is truly a trailblazing city of firsts” that pulse out of our beating heartland and animate the world.
     Where to begin? The city is right to stress architecture, one of Chicago’s most obvious global gifts to the world — Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, a parade of greatness right up to Jeanne Gang, who used to be described as a top female architect, and now is just a top architect. When Tom Cruise does his stunts on the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” that’s a designed-in-Chicago building he’s bouncing off of, created by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Adrian Smith.
     Next? Let’s pick music. The first composition considered to be jazz by musical scholars is Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jelly Roll Blues” published in Chicago in 1915; the New Orleans transplant so appreciated the welcome given him by Chicago, which he found not nearly as racist as St. Louis, he renamed the tune “The Chicago Blues.”
     Chicago drew the greats to itself. From Louis Armstrong to Willie Dixon, a house musician at Chess Records, who in one three day stretch played bass on both Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" and Chuck Berry's "Maybelline." (Which is not even. the most significant product called "Maybelline" to come out of our city. That would be the cosmetic Thomas Lyle Williams created after watching his sister Mabel highlight her eyes with a concoction of coal dust and Vaseline during World War I).
     I could fill three columns with ways Chicago music rocked the world. The Rolling Stones are one of many bands sprung root and branch from the Chicago sound. Their name, remember, is based on a lyric from a Muddy Waters song, and they came to Chess in 1964 to record his “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” which a year later they reinvented as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
     The mayor mentioned cell phones, debuted in the parking lot of Soldier Field. Don’t forget 
the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction was achieved at the University of Chicago, which also discovered REM sleep while inventing sleep research. Videotape debuted here. And loudspeakers. And shortwave radio.
     The most iconic piece of technology to come out of Chicago has to be Shure’s Unidyne Model 55 microphone, its distinctive look inspired by the grill of a 1937 Oldsmobile, a rare piece of electronics almost unchanged for 80 years. To convey that a person in a picture is singing, and not just standing there with their mouth open, a Model 55 microphone is the go-to prop.

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Sunday, January 30, 2022

'Good places for a pipefitter to work'

     Sometimes I give the impression that my mail is one raging septic river of abuse—probably because there is something empowering about sharing a really nasty letter, using the writer's momentum against him, so instead of wounding me, he wounds himself, or would, were he capable of shame, which I can assure you such people are not.
     But I also get far more interesting letters from smart, decent people that are valuable for a variety of reasons such as this, reacting to Friday's front page story about candy company closings. Read it and see if you can detect the reason I want to share it:
I was saddened to see another candy plant closing. Not because of our candy capital status, as I honestly was not aware of that. But because of the jobs lost. I am a member of the Chicago Pipefitters Union Local 597. I retired in 2018. Over my 37 years I worked at many candy plants. Brach, Wrigley, Tootsie Roll, the Butterfinger plant by O'Hare, and also the Mars plant. Candy plants were always very good places for a Pipefitter to work. There are miles of pipe needed to manufacture candy. Candy cannot be conveyed through pipe without be heated to its melting point, so a lot of steam or high temp water pipe is needed. A lot of candy is run through “jacketed pipe” which is a small pipe placed inside a larger pipe, with steam running through the “jacket” in between the 2 pipes. The candy runs through the smaller, inside pipe with the steam keeping it in liquid form. Building jacketed pipe, the necessary boiler work, and all of the related piping is good work for a Pipefitter. And a candy plant is a much more pleasant place to walk into in the morning than say a corn plant, a steel mill, or an animal rendering plant. And you smell much better to your family when you walk in the door at night! Sorry to hear another one has closed.

Love your articles!
Tom Mandernach
New Lenox, IL

    No, not because I've been to the Pipefitters Union Local 597 training facility in Mokena, and wrote a column about it in 2014. But good memory. What I found very cool are jacketed pipes. A pipe within a pipe. Amazing, right? Even though I'd toured the pipe fitters' facility, jacketed pipes somehow escaped my notice until now.  I had to share.


Saturday, January 29, 2022

Notes: Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure. (Rumi)

      It's odd to see yourself reflected in your friends. Like Caren, I subscribe to the New York Times and the Sun-Times, and like her, I ritually read the Sun-Times first. You have to dance with who brung ya. I happened to now be reading Harold Bloom's  "Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles." Much of which has to do with "Paradise Lost." And here today is Caren, well, maybe I better just let you read it. Enjoy.

     “You’ve been served!” bellowed the voice on the other side of my front door after a loud banging that had me jump out of my skin. That was earlier this week.
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying,
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.
                                                      —Walt Whitman

     It’s been a strange week over here in Ravenswood. I can't say much due to a pesky non-disparagement agreement, but that's probably for the best. Due to said agreement, I had to axe most of today's blog. It will suffice to say I've had a but of an exhausting battle on my hands. Such a thing can wear on you, but I am here to say that we can overcome. We cannot let haters rent space in our heads for too long. My wish for all of us today is that we focus on the good in our lives. Savor delicious moments. Find joy where we can. Be silly. Take ourselves less seriously.
     I’ve turned to poetry, baths, and naps to get there. I took most of this week off to soothe my jangled nerves from a stressful situation.
     I found solace in e.e. cummings:
your homecoming will be my homecoming —

my selves go with you, only i remain;
a shadow phantom effigy or seeming

(an almost someone always who's noone)

a noone who, till their and your returning,
spends the forever of his loneliness
dreaming their eyes have opened to your morning

feeling their stars have risen through your skies….

     For me, this poem means that I am coming home to myself. Carl Jung’s inner partner; bell hooks’ self-love. I find this to be the only answer to tolerating the warring factions of 2022. I will not trash talk those who unjustly "served" me. I will not trash talk Trump supporters. I will not spew vitriol at people who do not vaccinate. I will feel angry at times, and I will be honest about that anger, and I will do what I can to advocate in small and big ways. Yet I cannot let terrible drums rule my life.
     I am moving tomorrow, so I’ll be sitting in a cottage on the north shore (within walking distance to the Music Center of the North Shore where I started learning flutes at age 6), sipping rich coffee with heavy cream and reading the New York Times in quietude. (Of course I’ll read a bit of the Sun-Times first).
     I will breathe deeply, hug my parents, my sister, my niece and her father. I will bike to the Botanic Gardens. I will walk to charming downtown squares and find cafes. (No, I will not eat and drink inside yet).
     A wise man with the initials NS once reminded me of Milton’s words in Paradise Lost. “The mind is its own place, in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."
     May we all find heaven in our minds today.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Chicago’s candy crown slips with Mars exit

     Jelly beans grow like pearls, around a grain of sugar instead of sand, while tumbling in drums that look like cement mixers.
     I know this from seeing it happen at the Ferrara candy factory in Forest Park, a rare glimpse inside one of Chicago’s secretive, dwindling world of candy companies. When I heard we’re losing another, that Mars Wrigley — the two merged in 2016 — is closing its West Side plant, dubbed the most beautiful factory in America when it opened in 1928, with its Spanish-style architecture and red-tiled roof, I must admit my first thought was not that Chicago is losing its grip on the “capital of the candy universe” brag, nor the 280 jobs lost. But a pouty, “Now I’ll never get to see the place.”
     I was badgering Mars just last summer, for all the good it did. Put it this way: Every time I interact with candy companies, I suspect anew that in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Willy Wonka character, rather than being Roald Dahl’s flight of fancy, is closer to straight reportage.
     Like children growing up in a family of oddballs, Chicagoans don’t quite grasp how unusual all this candy is. We are, remember, a city with a chocolate factory at its very heart: Blommers, seven blocks north of Union Station, one that, when the wind is right, bathes downtown in the most delicious aroma of warm cocoa.
     Have you ever walked up Michigan Avenue, and noticed the allegheny nickel skybridge that William Wrigley Junior threw between the 14th floors of his new pair of Wrigley buildings? (You do know there are two, don’t you? Right next to each other, built at different times, with two separate addresses: 400 and 410 N. Michigan Avenue.) A flourish of architectural whimsy more at home in Venice than in our pork-fed Midwestern city, famous for its Miesian brutalism.

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Thursday, January 27, 2022

I hope your mother is okay.


     I try to be the person I wish other people were.
     But it doesn't always work.
     Sometimes it seems to never work.
     For instance.
     New neighbors moved in on our block. I'd better not say exactly where. People who don't care at all about their behavior seem to still care about publicizing that behavior. The embarrassment, I suppose, from caring what people think about you in general, as opposed to what any specific person thinks. There's a lot of that going around.
     So let's say, they moved to a place within sight of our house, and leave it at that.
     "I should bake them a pie," I said, to my wife. An old half joke. When we moved here, 21 years ago, well, it took a bit of time to get to know folks on the block. Whenever the doorbell rang, I'd say, "It must be one of the neighbors, bringing over a pie." It wasn't.*
     So I try to welcome new neighbors. Not with a pie. I've never baked a pie in my life. But with a plate of cookies, something. To show up and say hello. I assume they appreciate it, because I sure would have. 
     But maybe I'm wrong.
     I decided on a gift box from Misericordia, full of cookies and sweet breads. They have a bakery in Glenview. I wasn't sure anybody would be home, so took a Sharpie and wrote, "Welcome to the neighborhood! The Steinbergs" on the box lid. Planning ahead. I strolled over and stood in front of the side door; for some reason, it looked like one of those houses where nobody uses the front door. I knocked.
     There was a wait. I stood there. Finally, a man about my age came to the door, holding a cell phone at his ear.
     "I'm on the phone!" he said, with asperity. I could see that.
     What do you do at that point? Apologize and promise to come back later? The box was in my hands. I blundered forward.
     "Hello, I'm Neil Steinberg," I said, brightly. "I just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood." I raised the box, as if to draw attention to it.
     He opened the door and took the baked goods.
     "If you ever need help with anything, I live right across the ..." I continued.
     "Thank you," he said, and shut the door.
      He never even said his name, a fact that echoed in my head as I walked away.
      I don't think I can describe how the encounter took the wind out of my sails. How to describe it? Semi-amused, semi-desolate. Because of course, this is how people are.  Sometimes, I feel like my whole life has been like this. Scraping my fingers across the brick wall of other people. Not to make it all about me. Maybe it was a really important phone call. That must be it. To a doctor, regarding his mother's fragile health. A surgeon, a specialist, hard to reach, on the phone now, discussing options for her care. Yes, that must be it.

* CORRECTION: "Someone did bring us a pie," my wife said at breakfast. "I've told you before, but you never remember. Elisa Staniszewski brought a pie from Three Tarts Bakery. I think it was triple berry. I remember because it was so effin' fantastic."

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

‘Half the way to rehabilitation’

     There is a poem by Robert Lowell, “Epilogue,” where something has gone wrong with his writing.
     “Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme,” it begins, “why are they no help to me now”?
     The problem, he explains, is, “sometimes everything I write/with the threadbare art of my eye/seems a snapshot/lurid, rapid, garish, grouped.”
     Midway, the path out hits him, an epiphany, a knife cutting through the confusing clutter.
     “Yet why not say what happened?”
     Clarity. Just tell the truth. Why not? It really does set you free. The Jussie Smollett calliope wheezed to life Tuesday when his attorney confirmed the former “Empire” actor will be sentenced March 10 — moving the actor, found guilty by a jury and the court of common sense of staging a racist attack against himself, toward eventually receiving some kind of punishment. A sharp tap on the wrist, no doubt.
     But how sharp? I had this fantasy of the judge brandishing two sealed envelopes, saying: “Explain right now exactly what occurred, and I’ll give you sentence A. Keep up the charade, and you get B. Your choice.”
     Which made me wonder: Why do convicted criminals sometimes get a break if they admit their crime, even after refusing to do so at trial? Why reward tardy contrition? What’s the logic behind it? The crime is the same, whether you admit it or not.
     “So they won’t recommit the same kind of crime. Sentencing is not supposed to be for punishing, but mostly for rehabilitation,” said Howard J. Wise, noted Chicago criminal defense attorney. “If people admit they’re guilty, that’s half the way to rehabilitation. They give them credit for that, and a lighter sentence.”
     “The judge must take in several factors,” said Kevin P. Bolger, former Chicago police officer, former Cook County prosecutor, and defense attorney for over 40 years. “One factor is acceptance of responsibility. Contriteness. That goes a long way in the judge’s mind.”

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

"Jesus of Western Avenue"

     What is art? I used to have a little pat definition I liked to trot out: that art is something extraordinary in execution, concept, or impact. Both a John Singer Sargent painting and a bobblehead doll are portraits. But the first is art while the latter is kitsch because of Sargent's gorgeous technique. It isn't what he does—convey the human image—but how he does it.
     For the second, concept, consider Duchamp's "Fountain"—a urinal presented as art in 1917. That is also art, while an actual urinal in a restroom is not, because of the radical idea behind Duchamps provocation (that anything can be art, ironically).
     As for the last, impact, think of Christo's "Running Fence." I can't vouch for the execution, the skill with which he draped the orange fabric. And it was the same idea he had been flogging for 50 years: wrap something. 
     But to see it, in Central Park, was powerful. That's also art.
     When I went to the opening of Tony Fitzpatrick's show "Jesus of Western Avenue" at the Cleve Carney Museum in Glen Ellyn, way back in the middle of October, a fourth definition came to me.
Tony Fitzpatrick
     Which is ironic, because I really didn't go for the paintings/drawings/ collages, fabulous as they are, with their colorful birds set against explosions of words and logos and tidbits, like a cloud of memories scattershot out of Tony's restless mind. I've seen those, at other galleries, heck, in Tony's studio, being made. I went because he's a friend, and friends show up for that kind of thing.
     It was only looking at the paintings in the museum that something struck me. You kinda have to be here, in front of the work. They just aren't the same in reproduction.  The colors are the same. The images, the same. But in reproduction they lack the depth—part of his designs are ephemera, logos and bits of found design, layered upon the surface. Reproductions are close, but no cigar.
     So that's another definition of art: something that can't be reproduced, not without losing a vital quality. You've no doubt seen bits of Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—God touching Adam's finger maybe. Photos. But unless you fly to Rome, go to the Vatican, shuffle into the Sistine Chapel and look up, you really haven't seen it. Not at all. To compare the two, is like comparing a recipe to a sonnet.
     Not that I'm comparing Michelangelo with Tony Fitzpatrick: Tony would be the first to shoot me a what-the-fuck? glance for that. Though Tony was very busy during COVID, despite some health concerns of his own, and the good news is the work isn't any the worse for it. If anything, it's better, more luminous, more stunning. I meant to write something about it, but the media jumped in quicker than I could, and there didn't seem much point in my leaping up and joining in the applause. 
     But the show closes Jan. 31. So you've got a few days still. And Tony says it's his last museum show, though I'm not sure I believe him. "You mean when the Art Institute asks, you'll say 'No'?" is how I put it. Better late than never. I do have a duty, as a reporter, in my alert-people-to-stuff mode, that it's still up, and if you haven't seen it, and can go, you might want to. Because seeing it reproduced isn't the same.

Monday, January 24, 2022

‘The need gets larger and larger’

Night Ministry case worker Sylvia Hibbard checks on homeless clients.

     Two weeks ago, after our Roseland story ran, photographer Ashlee Rezin called me. "It's cold outside," she said. "Let me make a call," I replied, and phoned the Night Ministry. "I've written about your medical bus, your street medicine team, your CTA outreach, your Crib shelter. What else have you got?" This story is the result.

     Wednesday, 9:17 a.m., 21 degrees. The Night Ministry street medicine van is about to set out from its Ashland Avenue headquarters.
     Once the two staffers inside figure out where they’re going on their rounds.
     “We have a client who had an encounter with a bus — the bus won,” explains case manager Sylvia Hibbard, who’s in the driver’s seat. The homeless man with a cast on his foot is first stop on the list that senior nurse practitioner Stephan Koruba makes, taking calls, jotting notes on a clipboard.
     “We’re missing an outreach worker who normally drives, answers the phone, plans the route and does needle exchange,” Koruba says. “We have a reduced presence due to COVID. We’re struggling a little bit.”
     So those duties are now theirs, the missing worker one tiny twist of the vise that is slowly crushing frontline social service agencies at the beginning of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
     On one side, the pressure of ever-rising need.
     “We’ve seen families coming to us for the very first time who have never had to ask for help before and now have to,” says Xavier Montenegro, divisional secretary for programs at the Salvation Army, metropolitan division. 
     “There have been a significant increase in the number of youth reaching out to us under the age of 12, down to age 8, a 53% increase in 2020,” says Susan Frankel, CEO of the National Runaway Safeline. “It’s indirectly or directly COVID-related.”
     “COVID threw us all a curveball,” says Kristina Lowenstein, executive director of the Honeycomb Project, which supports charitable organizations. “Nonprofits have seen ballooning demand. Food pantries seeing 300, 400% increases in folks looking for their services.”
     On the other side, decimated, weary staffs. The Runaway Safeline pairs help with desperate teens and children anywhere in the country who call any time day or night, so they have a granular sense of both the rising nationwide demand and overtaxed available resources.
     “Your pool of services and supporters continues to get smaller and smaller,” Frankel says, “while the need gets larger and larger.”
     Agency staffers are exhausted from two years in full crisis mode, increasingly sick themselves, thanks to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Some simply quit, leaving their organizations scrambling.
     “The Catholic Charities staff is resilient, off the charts. I’m in awe of our people,” says Ami Novoryta, chief program officer for the archdiocese’s network serving hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans. “But they are tired and need help. We need staff. We need help.”

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Sunday, January 23, 2022

The puppetry of disappointment


      The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival has put on some fine performances. But Thursday's opening night of their 2022 season at the Museum of Contemporary Art was not among them. As it unfolded, I passed the time by puzzling how something produced by so many adults—10 on stage, by my count, with no doubt more behind the scenes—could so consistently fall flat, hitting that sweet spot of mediocrity where it isn't so bad as to be awful and maybe even camp and thus nearly enjoyable, yet not skilled enough in concept or execution to quality as professional entertainment. The dancing was clunky, the songs forgettable, and while there were several quite lovely voices, harmonies were nonexistent. The thing had the flimsiest narrative thread: a ship and the sea, a crew and onions. The puppets—a large whale, a mermaid, a moon—were well-made, and handled competently enough. Nobody dropped one. Someone played a fiddle.
     There was a pair of exquisite illuminated jellyfish puppets—their presence, the highlight of the show, a hint of what might have been had anyone applied rigor—and halfway through I decided that it was amateurish enough that any kind of specific criticism would be futile, maybe even cruel, which is why I'm not naming the company. I'm sure they're all fine people, with loving families and personal feelings, proud of their endeavor, and I have no desire to hurt them. Maybe they'll improve.
     Or is that the racism of low expectations? A lower bar based on the degraded status of puppetry? Or even condescending sexism? It appeared to be an all-female cast, and to suggest that they are thus somehow freed from the obligation to put on a competent show for patrons paying money in a downtown theater .... that isn't fair to everyone else. No. Shouldn't they be held to the same standards? And what about the audience? Aren't patrons of their art entitled to both form opinions based on their work and to express them? To urge them to do better? Out of respect for every street corner theater that does manage to produce something worth watching? So yes, it was Chicago's own Cabinet of Curiosity, performing "Sea Change," described in their materials as "their celebrated outdoor exploration of the power of the sea and the feminine divine." Celebrated? Truly? 
Maybe I caught them on an off night, then.
     There certainly could be something here. A kind of rollicking "SpongeBob" cabaret of lost sailors invoking an indifferent, maybe non-existent God. The big whale could have done something beside circling the stage, crying for Charlie. These seem to be different vignettes written by different authors. Maybe something more unifying than a bawdy cook braying at the audience about onions. Maybe they just needed to refine the thing. Try harder.
     I did wonder how the puppet theater festival could commence on such a slapdash fashion—if they actually hope to insinuate themselves into the cultural life of Chicago, as their founder claimed to me, they'll have to do better than this. The Great Chicago Fire Festival also had big aspirations (and also came from the puppetry world) but they too could not stick their landing and lasted two years. This was as soggy as a barge in the middle of the Chicago River in the rain.
     I considered leaving halfway through the performance—it was that bad—but we were sitting in the middle of our row, and I knew the show was only an hour. Maybe that's the line they could pull as a promotional quote: "Cabinet of Curiosity offers a thought-provoking hour of song and dance, every minute fully-felt, culminating in a disquisition of the difficulty of putting on a coherent performance that will linger with the audience long after the last skeleton fish puppet has fluttered offstage." Having endured two years of pandemic, I knew I could get through this and, frankly, toward the end of the performance, the idea of being homebound with no live entertainment options suddenly seemed a Lost Eden.
      The only line that I jotted down was one of the closing lyrics, "We are not ashamed," which might neatly explain how this show came to be—and why coughing into my fist and passing in silence would not really be a kindness, would do nobody any favors. A functioning sense of embarrassment is essential for performers to keep themselves from being blinded by their self-assigned sense of the  divine and thus able to disgorge such unpolished stuff before a discerning Chicago audience: whom, I should add, seemed thoroughly satisfied, applauding and cheering. "It's cool!" said a young woman in front of me. Maybe the internet has so eroded young minds that seeing living people going through actual motions on a physical stage is enough.
      Maybe I'm just not the target audience. I should leave the door open to the idea that perhaps being a male in my early 60s, my senses dulled by decades of performances that were not sunk into coffeehouse mediocrity, that I missed the studied charm of the thing, that what I mistook as artless was in fact intentional, some kind of dada parody of a production, a carefully crafted confusion specifically designed to discomfit snobs like myself who insist that skill and intelligence animate a performance. I suppose that's possible.
     And truth be told, the show's blend of simplistic and incomprehensible did not dampen our moods. Halfway through, I locked eyes with my wife, and saw the same stunned look. I leaned in close to her ear. "Sorry," I breathed. But we were still out on the town, dinner—a block away, at the excellent Cafecito on Chestnut, was undiminished. She did not seem perturbed that I had dragged her here, dismissing the audience's enthusiasm as the delight of relatives and friends, plus assorted generous souls and those happy to see absolutely anything whatsoever transpire upon a stage.
     When the lights came up, and we broke for the exit like pearl divers reaching the surface, lungs burning for that first gulp of sweet air—in that way, the show did evoke the actual sea—my only goal was to flee without encountering anyone from the puppet festival. I made it to the lobby, but there was the executive director I had interviewed for my column Wednesday celebrating the festival before the fact. She planted herself in our path.
     "Well, off and running!" I said, hoping that would suffice.
     "What did you think of it?" she asked directly. I hesitated. 
     "Sincere," I said, nodding meaningfully, hoping I had found a word both true and inoffensive. She seemed satisfied.
     "Yes, it was earnest," she agreed. If only that were enough.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Ravenswood Notes: Five Years North

     Poetry is the fire axe behind glass, the bottle of water in your backpack, the thing you reach for when you need to reach for something, and I was glad to see Caren Jeskey bookend her Saturday essay with a pair of powerful poems.

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

—Robert Frost

     Skeins of unwoven yarn and instruments unplayed pepper the corners and gather dust on the shelves of our pandemic homes. After a few months of learning chords, a guitar hangs unplayed behind a friend as we Zoom. She guiltily explains that she stopped playing after a few months of lessons. Others mention undone projects that fizzled out. Unused packets of bread making yeast are being frantically given away in neighborhood sharing groups before they expire. Indoor gardeners are pawning off a preponderance of aloe pups and clippings from prolific Wandering Dudes.
     Folks are afraid to tell their friends, when asked, “I laid in bed and watched Netflix for four hours,” or “I scrolled Facebook for most of the morning," or “I ate three bowls of cereal and went to sleep.” However, they will proudly share if they spent a couple hours reading an actual book or another “worthy” endeavor. They feel ashamed at their lack of productivity and as though are being scrutinized by social media or another eye in the sky at all times, won’t often share about the amount of time spent vegging out or simply resting.
     I heard on NPR the other day that during the Great Depression, Americans were urged to take up hobbies. This was partly classist. It’s hard to take up a hobby when waiting in breadlines and coming home to hungry babies, not to mention little to no means for crafting, cooking, or musical supplies.
     Hobbies are a good idea though. Not the kind you spend too much money on and never touch again after the initial good intentions and energy. Baby steps are fine too. A hobby can be cloud gazing. Counting the different kinds of mullions you see on a brisk winter walk, on a bus or train, or in the passenger’s seat of a car. Meditating. Just stopping.
     After days of isolation mostly indoors save the occasional walk, due to an avalanche of work and not enough sleep, I was overjoyed that I had to drive to Wilmette for an errand on Thursday. I took Sheridan Road and ogled the frozen white water at the bend by Calvary Cemetery. I kept within the 15-25 mph speed limit past stately houses and patches of lakefront, and felt soothed. When stressors tried to creep back in, the freedom of driving on a sunny day brought me to the perfect moment.
     I curved around the magnificent form of the Baha'
i Temple and by then all of my mental clutter was gone. It was just me, my clean car—since we had stopped for a $3 wash—and a gorgeous 16 degree day, driver’s window down for some real sun rays. On the way back I stopped and contemplated the brilliant white iced-over lake from the deck of the Lighthouse Beach.
     We have learned that stressors of our world community can become a formless, faceless behemoth. Only the very privileged are less scathed by what’s happening down on the ground. The rental market is out of control. Everyone seems to have COVID (thank goodness, not me, but I can’t count the people in my life who do). Medical staff are quitting in droves and have been completely traumatized. Folks still don’t get it and continue to take risks. I get it, but it seems to speak to delusion, diagnosable folie à deux.
     On the up side, this could be a world war, and it’s not, even if it feels that way sometimes.
     I believe that finding oneself in this mess is the key. If we can do that, we can live more mindfully. We can accept our limitations and use our power to affect the changes that we can. I long for a world movement of refining our senses. Instead, I fear that the collective nightmare of this pandemic will end with us being in worse shape that we were before.
     This week I’ve had great challenges that might have completely robbed me of my peace in the past. What saved me was knowing that my inner partner was always there for me. She had my back. She reminded me that the only way out of a mess is to clear the clutter.
     On Wednesday night I took the time to watch a documentary film Five Years North about the journey of a young man named Luis. I knew I had to make this small effort (rather than my guilty pleasure Hulu show that makes me laugh my butt off) to remind me that the world is full of people who have much, much less than I do and I have to remember that in order to stay grateful for all I do have. To appreciate my life and my loved ones now. This is not a dress rehearsal.
     Luis was sixteen when he took the harrowing journey from his small Mayan village in Guatemala to New York City. He spent the next several years working from before dawn until well after dusk to pay his smugglers so that his family in Guatemala would not lose their home. It was more than $20,000. Then he stayed so that he could continue sending money home so his sisters could go to school. One washed dish at a time. He then became a line cook and moved up to being a chef. He may have prepared a meal for me or you one day when traveling was safe.
     Yes, the world is overpopulated. Yes, it’s a sacrifice to care for others.
     What is the purpose of being on this earth? The one good thing this pandemic has done for many of us is to reset and turn back to the simplest things in life. From a place of calm grounding we can move mountains if we try.
     While Ms. Plath in the words below does not seem to see her worth, I feel she cuts to the quick of the starkness of life. And death.

Poppies in October
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly —

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
            —Sylvia Plath

Friday, January 21, 2022

Don’t be afraid, it’s just public radio

I've been on WBEZ many times. You talk, the words go over the airwaves.
No non-profit police yank them back.

     When the idea of merging the Sun-Times with WBEZ — OK, we’re being given to them, but allow us a fig leaf of pride — was initially bandied about, my first impulse was to write something mocking the station, perhaps a parody of their membership pledge drives, a regular cup rattle that can send the most passionate National Public Radio listener lunging for the dial.
     But I never got beyond contemplation. Talk about an easy target; what I call a “duck in a bucket.” Imagine: the mallard placidly floating in the pail at your feet, quacking softly as you raise the shotgun. Where’s the challenge in that?
     With readers asking for my take, I remember how for decades I’ve fought my way to the WBEZ studios through the dense crowds packing Navy Pier — trying not to have an eye put out by a churro, reflecting glumly every time at how before the pier was renovated, I scoffed that anybody would go all the way out there. It became the most popular tourist attraction in Illinois. A prophet I am not.
     The folks at WBEZ always seem earnest, professional, young. True, they look at me like some mud-caked rhinoceros lumbering unexpectedly into the Botanic Garden’s annual orchid show. But that could be my own unease.
     Yes, I read the Tribune editorial, snapping open their lorgnette and examining the merger, umm, acquisition, tutting about election endorsements being scuttled by our non-profit status. Having spent five years on the editorial board, let me tell you, endorsements are a nightmare to produce, like running a geography bee over six counties. So now suburbanites will have to pay attention to their own local politics and come to their own conclusions. Or use the Democratic Party cheat sheet in the voting booth. Not the end of the world.
     Readers worry: Will I be muzzled? Will I start solemnly intoning about global warming, instead of my usual chirpy, trivial, out-of-the-blue, oh-my-God-I-can’t-stop-talking blabbery?
     I’m not concerned. The fear seems to be that nonprofits must be neutral. But consider how that plays out in reality. WBEZ is not some generic radio news ticker spewing anodyne information. Listen for 15 minutes and certain political shadings are easily detected. There is a particular worldview, a perspective, despite their non-profit status. WIND it is not.

To continue reading, click here.

The tough part about going on WBEZ is fighting through the crowds at Navy Pier. Getting to the
station without gagging on the smell of honey roasted nuts or having your eye put out by a tourist's 
churro can be a challenge. 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Ready and waiting

     Work on a longer story that's set to run this Monday took me to various locations downtown Wednesday morning, and at one point we passed Racine, a few blocks south of the newspaper office, and I felt a passing desire to stop in, even though I had no reason to stop by and knew there would be no one there. Just to see the place, because it has been ... what? ... three months since I last visited. Quite a long time really.
     In late October, I went to the office because I happened to be downtown anyway—using the special collections room at Harold Washington Library—and I thought I'd check in to see if there was any mail.
    There was mail, some readers thanking me for a particular columns, others complaining bitterly, a few more copies of Poetry Magazine; man, they stack up quickly. Nothing urgent. I looked out at the utterly empty newsroom. It all seemed so ... wrong.  Usual life frozen in time, like a bakery in Pompeii. All that was missing was the ash.
      The paper was the subject of conversation Wednesday with the colleague I was working with, as the Sun-Times' merger with WBEZ seems as if it has gone through, and we talked about how good it'll be when COVID is behind us and everybody is back working in the same place again. If we are ever back working in the same place again. There's an energy, a life, that's has been missing, well, for years.
    Though the whole point of newspapering is seldom to be found in the office; it's usually anyplace but the office. (Except for editors and such; it's hard to copy edit a piece in a dark alley). Out and about, as we were, climbing over fences and clambering over concrete abutments. 
     As I was reminded in October, when I gazed around the newsroom, and noticed this bulletproof vest, slumped against a colleague's desk, as if exhausted, no doubt left there after some summertime disturbance. I wouldn't lump reporters in with cops and firefighters—that's closing your eyes, tilting your chin up, and asking to be socked. But we do  
run toward danger too, sometimes.
     Anyway, it was a long day, Wednesday, with more climbing and clambering than I'm used to. And very cold. So really, apologies, but all I've got at the moment to share with you are these three ph
otos. Above, the homeless encampment under the Kennedy at Belmont. The flak jacket at right. And below, the newsroom as it appeared last time I was there, on Oct. 20. Ready, and waiting. That's two of us. Well, not ready right now. But surely tomorrow. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

‘People are hungry for puppetry’

“The Bluest Eye" will be performed as a puppet drama Jan. 28-30 at the DuSable Museum.

     Chicago is a puppet town. Or was. Not only did the word “puppeteer” first see print here in 1915, but perhaps the most influential puppet show in American history, Burr Tillstrom’s “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” debuted on TV here in 1947. It not only got parents buying televisions en masse, but — my own pet theory — the funny, ad-libbed program helped spawn Chicago’s live improv comedy scene in the 1950s.
     Chicago is certainly Puppetville from now until the end of the month, as the 4th Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival takes over, offering 100 performances from 20 local and national companies at more than a dozen locations, from the American Indian Center in Albany Park to the DuSable Museum in Hyde Park.
     I’ve always felt an affinity to puppets. When the Festival began in 2015, I threw “Puppetry Week” on my blog, and tried to explain the appeal:
     This odd subcellar of culture, part sculpture, part folk art, part vaudeville, also has personal appeal to me. There is a kinship between journalism and puppetry. Both require dedicated craftsmen, albeit in dwindling numbers, practicing a profession that neither thrives nor vanishes, but somehow remains perpetually defunct. Both are rough simulacra of life; both had some legendary moment in the cultural spotlight in the hazy past — Hayden composed puppet operas for the royal court, a popular puppet dinner theater was steps off Michigan Avenue — but now linger on in the margins, practiced by various oddballs and misfits.
     Puppets are generally seen as comic, Kermit the Frog types. So it can surprise some that puppets are also dramatic, even tragic. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is being performed during the festival. One excerpt I saw in preview: Nick Lehane’s “The Chimpanzee,” to be performed at the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago Jan. 22-24, is a poignant, almost heartbreaking work about a chimp who once lived with a family, now mournfully remembering happier times, a captivity that strikes a chord in our COVID-19 locked-down world.
     “When we see puppets, we see ourselves in the puppets’ experience,” said Chicago puppeteer Blair Thomas, the festival founder and artistic director. “When we are caught up in the suffering of the pandemic, the puppet world is not caught up in that, but reflecting back, a mirror to us.”
     Last year Thomas didn’t consider holding the festival. Why risk it this year?

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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Martin Luther King Drive

Barbara Kruger
     I have a benefit that most bloggers don't: my work often runs in print, a newspaper. And unlike the internet, a newspaper is not an endless plain where enormous assemblages of words may be parked. Most days, I can't write beyond 719 words.
     Quite brief really. Thus I write, then I cut. 
     Generally a good thing. You lose a lot of fat. But you also lose some fascination. I didn't really miss the part below until I read Rick Kogan's fine piece on honoring Martin Luther King Jr. by naming streets after him, in Chicago and across the country.
     This graph was cut from my Monday column, explaining the chilly reception that King often got in Chicago: 

     Thus Chicago had is own entrenched Black leaders, men like Rev. J. H. Jackson, powerful pastor of the Olivet Baptist Church, who were more than willing to tell King to go back where he came from.   
      Jackson opposed King's non-violence campaign (because, he said, it suggested that Black people were violent). Indeed, he opposed the word "black" (arguing that "negro" was more inclusive). After King was assassinated and South Park Way was re-named "Martin Luther King Drive" Jackson changed the church address to 405 E. 31st. while denying that it was done to shun King. "You entered from 31st St., didn't you?" he told a newsman.
     "You entered from 31st Street." A reminder: there is always a code. No one says "I'm bought off" or "I'm turning my back on one of the great men in American history." Just in the way Donald Trump gained national political prominence by doubting the birthplace of Barack Obama—a ludicrous, easily-disproved lie that stood in for questioning whether a Black man could ever be a citizen, never mind president. Or calling the accurate portrayal of America's racist past and present as "critical race theory," an obscure academic term that at this point is nearly meaningless.
     Another tangent I really didn't get to explore was King's remarks on Black anti-semitism, which I mentioned just to illustrate that history is not about making you feel good. One Black reader, doubtful that such a thing could exist, since he hadn't noticed it, asked me for my source. It was a Sep. 28, 1967 letter from King to Morris B. Abram, president of the American Jewish Committee:
     "The limited degree of Negro anti-Semitism is substantially a Northern ghetto phenomenon; it virtually does not exist in the South. The urban Negro has a special and unique relationship to Jews. He meets them in two dissimilar roles. On the one hand, he is associated with Jews as some of his most committed and generous partners in the civil rights struggle. On the other hand, he meets them daily as some of his most direct exploiters in the ghetto as slum landlords and gouging shopkeepers. Jews have identified with Negroes voluntarily in the freedom movement, motivated by their religious and cultural commitment to justice. The other Jews who are engaged in commerce in the ghettos are remnants of older communities. A great number of Negro ghettos were formerly Jewish neighborhoods; some storekeepers and landlords remained as population changes occurred. They operate with the ethics of marginal business entrepreneurs, not Jewish ethics, but the distinction is lost on some Negroes who are maltreated by them. Such Negroes, caught in frustration and irrational anger, parrot racial epithets. They foolishly add to the social poison that injures themselves and their own people.
    "It would be a tragic and immoral mistake to identify the mass of Negroes with the very small number that succumb to cheap and dishonest slogans, just as it would be a serious error to identify all Jews with the few who exploit Negroes under their economic sway."
     The last part that I had to cut was perhaps the biggest loss: King reflecting on the impact that living in Lawndale had on his own children:
     He was concerned at how his own children were being affected, living in a slum two blocks from the Vice Lords street gang headquarters.  
     "Our own children lived with us in Lawndale, and it was only a few days before we became aware of the change in their behavior," King wrote. "Their tempers flared, and they sometimes reverted to almost infantile behavior. During the summer, I realized that the crowded flat in which we lived was about to produce an emotional explosion in my own family. It was just too hot, too crowded too devoid of creative forms of recreation."
     For how many is that true of today?


Monday, January 17, 2022

King’s time in Chicago echoes today

Martin Luther King, struck by a rock in 
Marquette Park (Sun-Times file photo)
     Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Chicago, briefly. At 1550 S. Hamlin Avenue. He moved in Jan. 26, 1966, with his four children and wife Coretta, who found the stench of urine in their new apartment “overpowering.” But King felt he had to come to Lawndale to spread his message of non-violent resistance to America’s entrenched racism.
     “There are more Negroes in Chicago than in the whole state of Mississippi,” King said.
On Martin Luther King Day 2022, it is doubly important to reflect on the history of race in this country, because that history is imperiled in a way both real and chilling to any truly patriotic American.
     The Republican Party is at war with the past, part of its general campaign against any reality that reflects the party as it truly is: a totalitarian cult that has turned its back on democracy and freedom. That feels obligated to smudge any shiny surface: science is wrong, the press is fake.
     And history.
     The GOP premise is that any true telling of America’s racial past is some kind of plot to make their children feel bad, perhaps by cluing them in to what haters their parents really are. Talk about snowflakes ...
     They don’t realize that any true telling of history is a challenge to anyone’s inflated sense of self worth. For instance, before we take too much pride in Martin Luther King, Chicago resident, we should understand how hard a challenge the city posed for King. The city’s Black population was far less promising material than King was used to molding.
     “The Negroes of Chicago have a greater sense of powerlessness than I ever saw,” said Hosea WIlliams, King’s chief lieutenant. “They don’t participate in the government process because they are beaten down, psychologically. We are used to working with people who want to be free.”

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Comforting Effect of Unprofessional Environment


     It says something about myself—whether good or bad I can't decide— that I've had the same scraps of ephemera stuck to the wall by my desk for more than 30 years.
     For instance, the "Have you forgotten anything?" sign snagged from an Amtrak sleeper compartment in 1979, heading from Cleveland to Chicago at the end of winter break, into an epic snowstorm. It struck me as useful advice in professional journalism. (Both that side and the flip side, which shows a sleeper and the words, "Quiet please.")
     Or the photo of a hangdog pooch snipped, if I recall, from some kind of veterinary magazine I was scanning to pass the time on the night shift back in the late '80s, posted by my desk as an unsubtle "Fuck You" to my bosses.
     Above the dog is the caption: "Terrifying Effect of Unprofessional Environment."
     Why display that clipping? Maybe because I had a job where I had to show up at 4 or 6 or 7 p.m, and do whatever anybody on the desk told me to do, often attend some tedious zoning hearing, or try to find some spot where a crime or fire or accident had occurred and hang around the yellow tape with a few other reporters and wait for some official to come out and talk to us. Maybe because more than a few of my bosses viewed me with bewilderment and contempt, at least in my view. It was all so disappointing. I never had much of a plan in life, but whatever it was I once wanted, this wasn't it. So "terrified" might have been a slight exaggeration to describe my state of stymied ambition, but it wasn't far off. 
      Now of course those fluorescent-lit offices we all scorned and decorated with countless "Dilbert" cartoons bewailing our fate, are a Lost Eden. Remember the colleagues, commotion, desks, chairs, mail, snacks. People would show up unannounced! Coworkers would bake things! And bring them in to the office, cranberry bread and cookies and red velvet cupcakes, simply because they were so kind and generous and what else were they going to do, eat all this stuff themselves?  ("You're going to poison us all someday, aren't you?" I once quipped to an older colleague, a lovely Southern lady, whose stricken expression haunts me to this day).
       Swapped for an endless exile of computer screens and intruding spouses and the same meals eaten again and again and again. The torpid grind of working, or trying to, in some basement next to a washer and dryer, or while the kids try to learn long division, or in some similar dire situation. In a corner of the living room. In a coffee shop.
    Not me of course. I'm very lucky. I've been working at home since 1997, when I quit my job at the Sun-Times and, in allowing myself to be wooed back, inserted the right to work two days a week from home. And it's a pretty nice home. I've always had an office: this one might be the best room in the house, on the second floor, with a bay window, facing trees. I can see the sun coming up as I type this, will watch it transit the sky through the day, eventually setting to my right. Literally able to watch the world turn. If I look up at the right moment I can see birds, hawks. The train occasionally makes itself known. People walk their dogs past.
    But still I keep this woebegone mutt. Why? Habit, I guess. Though when I think about it, now that I'm in an extremely unprofessional environment: no one barging in while I'm trying to work, no hour-long commute, no bothersome dress code, no time-wasting meetings, no interrupting phone calls, no science experiment communal refrigerator in a dreary lunch room. I get to eat in my own luxe kitchen, often in the company of my beloved wife, who is working downstairs. That is many things, but terrifying is not among them. 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Ravenswood Notes: TKO

     One of the more difficult parts of being a professional writer is learning to trust the people you work with. Sometimes my book editor will make a decision that rubs me the wrong way, and I'll have to pause and remind myself that I had no trouble embracing his judgment when he was praising me, so maybe I ought to consider that he still might be right about this edit I disagree with.      
    With Caren Jeskey's Saturday offering below, I was nearing the end, and references to me  started thudding down like hail. I was just at her last paragraph, thinking, "All this has to go," when I got to the part where she says that no, Neil-be-damned, it has to stay. Well, okay. If you insist, but it goes against my better judgment. Speaking of which, I thought it high time to add a formal bio of Caren to the blog, and you can find it on the right hand side of the page, under mine.

“The world feels dusty when we stop to die; we want the dew then.” 
          —Emily Dickinson (who died at the age of 56, with ten of her poems published).

     Lately I’ve been reminded that time is short. How do I want to live my one wild and precious life?? My first choice would not have been to experience a deadly pandemic on a dangerously warming planet with the threat of oligarchy at our heels right here on US soil. But what choice do I have?
     I am no Pollyanna. I’m dismayed at the state of the world, and sometimes scared. My saving grace is savoring micro moments. Simple pleasures are all around us all the time, if we pay attention. Helping others—(trigger warning: virtue signaling ahead), which this week came in the form of coordinating a donation and delivery of furniture to two young Afghan men who’ve recently relocated nearly 6,000 miles away from home—helps me remember how lucky I am, and brings light to others. Warm baths, long walks, connecting with people, fresh air, stretching, resting, playing music that makes me happy, taking deep breaths, reading EGD to keep me laughing, and keeping a house full of plants helps too.
     One of the most delightful things that happened this past week was noticing that mushrooms had sprung up among the peppers I am growing from the seeds of a big red, orange, and yellow pepper I ate last year. I dried the seeds and did not follow propagation protocol the babies popped out of the rich dark soil anyway. When I noticed that fungi had voluntarily joined the party I did what anyone would do. I laughed and smiled and talked to them. Then I snapped some photos for others to enjoy.
     I’m not sure what prompted it, but I also ended up in a Facebook chat with a friend who lives on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. Sir Sidney Poitier’s name came up, and my friend shared some thoughts that a Bahamian local, Leslie Vanderpool, had posted on Facebook about Sir Sidney. I quoted Leslie in last week’s piece, and then I had the true pleasure of a 90 minute Zoom conversation with her yesterday.
     Leslie is the founder and Executive Director of the Bahamas International Film Festival, which is entering its 18th year. Leslie was born in The Bahamas, where her father Dr. Cyril Osborne Vanderpool was the first government dentist in 1960, before starting his thriving private practice. Dr. Vanderpool played golf with Sir Sidney. The Doctor and the Sir were dear friends. “I was always hearing great stories,” the kind where “you wish you could live them out again. They were such gentlemen. They loved life. They loved to have fun. They lived as if life was going to be their one last day.” Leslie had the good fortune of having Sir Sidney in her life, and he became a lifelong mentor.  
  “He was loving and unguarded; one of the memorable," she said. "Because of Sir Sidney, I always knew I wanted to act— since the age of 10. Having him around when he was in town, my father referring to him, seeing this larger than life person” made an impression. 
      Through her studies in performance schools, and throughout stints of living in New York, LA and The Bahamas, Leslie experienced Sir Sidney’s comforting presence as a constant thread. “He was a gift who came into my family’s life that I will never forget. That shining light that never lets you go.” They may not have spoken often, but when they did Leslie felt “in my adult life I had somebody who knew my family, and had my best interests” in mind. “He was honest. He did not tell you things you wanted to hear. He was intuitive. His daughters Anika and Sydney always talked about how he’d never hurt a fly. Or an animal. Or an ant. He was always so present and conscious.”
     “I see Sir Sidney in his children. They all have unique personalities. Charm. Gentleness. Concision that Sir Sidney had. Conviction. Tenacity.” Their mother is “the classiest lady. They all exude love and kindness. My breath was taken away in his presence. I felt comfortable, loved. He instilled in himself and others a sense of wanting to do the best we can. He strove every day to be better than the last day."
     Leslie feels that “his generation really wanted to nurture and guide and mentor. They knew they had nothing to lose by giving. They always shared. I remember several conversations” where Sir Sidney said “'I am talking to you as though you are my child. I want the best for you.' He was a mammoth of a human being, this soul that had my back. And that was enough. I still make decisions based on what he told me, keeping those thoughts and discussions present. An actor of that magnitude, the intuitive ability he was gifted with, it was so strong."
     "He really respected himself and wanted to make sure people gave him that respect. Everything was serious, with light-hearted undertones. He was adamant about what he wanted to convey and how he wanted to deliver. What he wanted to see in The Bahamas. He constantly made sure arts were prevalent in The Bahamas. He made a video for me on our website" to help make sure people come to the film fest.
     “The last time I saw [Sir Sidney] was in 2017, in LA. I remember being in his home office. He was always curious, very curious. He was still wanting to learn and know what’s going on in The Bahamas."
     Leslie feels a strong calling to continue to bring arts to The Bahamas, and seeks to use film to "celebrate, entertain, and educate."
     “We need people who are mentors and see the vision we don’t see for ourselves. We have to continue to lift people up. There are people who believe in others. You are blessed to have Neil in your life.” 
     I am. The experience of writing for this blog has been one of the most fun and exciting things I’ve experienced. It also gave me a part of my purpose since the pandemic began, and I lost most of my livelihood. As Leslie said, mentors like Neil help people like me “continue that torch and flame” of talent within ourselves. Leslie shared a little ditty where "Muhammad Ali's wife used to ride my horse," and showed me a photo of Ali holding her in his arms, lifting her off of her horse. Another giant we all love.
     When I think of the fact that I write for THE Neil Steinberg, I do get a little bit starstruck here and there. He's the same guy I've read for much of my adult life, who my parents have read at the kitchen table for many years, and who they revere and respect. He's the guy whose signed book I read and re-read years ago. I am sure Neil will try to edit this out, but I'll try not to let him. Talking to Leslie was another delightful moment in my week. She reminded me that it's important to express gratitude. So thank you Neil. It's time we continue to knock this thing called life right out of the ring as we support, celebrate, and uplift each other.
     Over the last several days the ‘shrooms did some funny things. They morphed and turned gray. Some passed away. New ones keep sprouting. It’s quite the journey and I’m grateful to be here for all of this, drinking from the dew of life. Thank you, dear readers.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Stalking the elusive present participle

    When I was in third grade, Mrs. Nemeth handed out a mimeographed worksheet listing phrases that students had to deem either “possible” or “impossible.” One was “a pig with a bushy tail.” I checked “possible” and she marked it wrong.
     This offended me to the bottom of my fussy little 8-year-old soul, and the next day I marched into class with my Giant Golden Book of Biology, and showed Mrs. Nemeth the page about salamander body parts being grafted onto each other. If the leg of a big salamander could be attached to the body of a small salamander, I huffed, was it not possible that a bushy fox’s tail could be grafted onto a pig?
     I think she hated me after that.
     Correction by students — either rightly or wrongly — is one of the countless challenges of being a teacher.
     When I was cobbling together my faux English class for Wednesday’s paper, parsing Lori Lightfoot’s very schoolmarmish “You’re not listening!” (really, our mayor has more snaps than a onesie) and surfing grammar web sites, it did cross my mind that I was out of my depth and should enlist an English teacher to check my work.
     But I was fairly confident — always dangerous — so I shrugged and decided, were I wrong, well, somebody would correct me. And besides, wouldn’t being wrong add a layer of verisimilitude to my classroom presentation? A sly dig.
     Consequences began rolling in. Here’s Peg Cain, who taught literature for 20 years at Nazareth Academy in LaGrange:
     “Are listening,” of course, is a compound verb. “Listening” is, in this case, not a gerund, but the present participle of the verb. ... “Not listening,” therefore, cannot be a predicate nominative because “listening” is not a noun in this sentence. “Not” is merely an adverb, hanging around ...
    So not a gerund but ... a present participle?
     Jeanne Parker, who was teaching English at Palatine Township High School before I was born, joined in:
     In the sentence “You’re not listening,” listening is indeed a verb; you’re the contraction, does indeed contain the subject you as well as the verb are, which is NOT, however, the main verb but rather an auxiliary verb, making are listening the main verb phrase, NOT a predicate nominative.
     So ... a main verb phrase?

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