Friday, April 1, 2022

Bee careful what you pretend to be.


     Well, this is awkward...
     Regular readers will remember that, at the height of the COVID lockdown, I took it upon myself to delve into the Illinois beekeeping community. The column wasn't a joke, per se. I would never do that. These are real people keeping real hives of actual bees, making real honey. 
     Like all people, they deserve respect, and I treated the whole thing seriously. I was interested. I have an affection for bees—"stout warriors in their waxen kingdom," to quote Virgil's marvelous summation. 
     My opening sentence, however, "But how has COVID affected beekeeping in Illinois?" well it has a certain—what?—a wink, a sparkle. That opening word, "But..." designed to convey a sense of picking up the action in mid-story, in medias res, as the classicists put it. Enough with the vaccines and Trumpies and lockdowns and social turmoil. What about beekeepers!?!?
      Perhaps that was reckless of me. Perhaps I should have foreseen the risk involved. That I was setting myself up, pigeon-holing myself. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a line I feel is very true: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” (from Mother Night, It's important to cite the exact source since, like Mark Twain before him there is a tendency to ascribe any half witty line to Vonnegut, whether he wrote it or not).
     A couple columns about bees—there have been others— doesn't make me the beekeeping reporter, not yet anyway. But money is being infused into the paper, which encourages specialization. We're hiring more beat reporters. A classical music critic. A science reporter. Editorial member Lee Bey was just named the architecture critic, a slot that went unfilled for years. 
     So I was having a conversation with my editor the other day, and he said, out-of-the-blue, "Have you thought about circling back to the beekeepers? What's up with them, bee-wise?"
     I said something about it being only a year and a half since I last wrote about bees, and that it was the sort of topic that one examines every 20 years, if that.
     "I think readers really like that kind of thing from you," he said. "Beekeeping. Robotics clubs. Cheesemaking. Stamp collecting. You're so good at that. People get bored with the political stuff, and that's everywhere anyway. Embrace your uniqueness. Why drive readers away when you can draw them closer?"
     Something shifted in my gut. A sinking feeling. A kind of a shiver. An "Oh, I'm so screwed" dread. You spend enough time in an organization, you begin to know its ways. How things are done.

    Remember when WBEZ acquired the Sun-Times last fall? Some were concerned that it meant the paper, now a 501(c)3 charity, could no longer make political endorsements, through some quirk of law I never did figure out. Not that I minded particularly. As someone who sat on the editorial board for five years, I remember what an enormous pain-in-the-ass assembling those recommendations are, tracking down obscure suburban candidates, getting questionnaires to them and then from them, arranging your face into a look of interest while they prattle on about issues you neither know nor care about.
     So farewell to that stuff, and I'm not on the board anyway. Not my table. But I did kinda wonder if it would end there. Or is there another shoe to drop. When would the after echo of the sale reach me? What form would it take? 
     Now here it was, veiled by unmistakable. Bees. And maybe cheese. The oddities reporter. He kept talking while I sort of tuned him out, lost in my own reverie.
     Why not bees? A fascinating subject. Endangered. Our entire ecosystem depends on them. A complex social system: a queen and her Amazon army, the hive, entirely female, which makes them very of the moment. In a way I'd be returning to my roots—I was the paper's environment reporter for a few years in the late 1990s. And WBEZ is certainly within their rights. It's their newspaper. Why shouldn't they move the chess pieces around? Nobody ever bought a bike and  didn't ride it. The check clears, of course they have a say in the coverage. It's to be expected. Some part of the paper are hands off. I'm sure WBEZ isn't planning to give a lot of direction to the Tim Novaks and Andy Grimms and Frank Mains on the staff. Just sit back while they kick ass and take names and wait for the eyeballs, clicks, plaudits and praise come pouring in. Hard news. Exposes. Deep dives into the financial records of bad guys. That's what people talk about when they talk about the importance of journalism.
     But what about me? Staring with clonic fixation at the trivial, the mundane, the off-base and off-kilter. Occasionally pulling my gaze away from insects 
to regard the national and international scene with a cry of outrage. Maybe that's what drew this unwelcome attention, if that is what this is. My sense of alarm. It can be so ... visceral. Maybe too visceral for National Public Radio, which prefers to be more zen, shoeless in linen pajamas, sitting cross-legged in a meditation room, pinging whalesong burbling in the background, eyes half mast, murmuring into a microphone, remote, removed, steeped in that make-a-cathedral-with-your-fingers and intone approach. Nobody screams on NPR. Or pants. Or cackles. Nothing extreme, or Rabelaisian about NPR, they aren't crawling through the sewers and making rude noises and bringing you exposes on men who have difficulty peeing in public settings, as I have done. They don't drive to Madison to meet immigrants who open jars of shit for a living.
    I heard a buzzing in my ears, and realized he was still talking. I tuned back in.
    "...and the pieces you did on Fresca," my boss continued. "Those were excellent. People loved those. We need more of that."
     "Ummm, I...." I began. That's how they do it. No orders. No memos. Nothing in writing. Just a series of gentle nudges, water wearing away the rock. 
     "No need to discuss this now," he said brightly, wrapping up, confirming my worst fears. "Just think about it. More Fresca. Less of that other stuff. And more bees. There's a hive on top of the city hall. And a number of top chefs have their own apiaries. What kind of honey trends are coming up for spring? I've sent you a list of bee-related stories you might want to look into."
     You can see the list yourself here.
     I told him I would have to think about it.


  1. the end of the beginning long past. could this bee the beginning of the end? or worse the middle of the end?

    maybe you should familiarize yourself with top bar hives. I build them as a service , to the bee keeping community. it says so , right on my business card.

  2. Most amusing. They could not have chosen a more perfect emissary. April Fools to you!

  3. I get fooled every Goddamned year on 1 April. Maybe all the other days of the year as well, but it's not so noticeable least to me.


    1. And I take pride in that. If it helps, I tried to particularly low-key it this year, just a bit of daft English on the old pepper. It's only 10 percent off from reality. Well, that and the conversation never took place.

  4. So our pleas for the buzz on bees will continue to fall on deaf ears?

    1. I actually approached the Mayor's Office last week, trying to write something about their rooftop hives. I'm no expecting a response, because her team can't find their asses with both hands. But it could in theory occur.

    2. Maybe you could do something about spelling bees, Mr. S...

    3. Been there, done that.

    4. How about quilting bees? My first wife owned a quilt from 1897, that was made by her great-grandmother. It was comprised of recycled necktie samples that came from Marshall Field's downtown store. We mounted it on a long rod and hung it over our bed. And it was loaned out to the Botanic Garden, where it was part of a folk art exhibit.

  5. I liked the Virgil quote. Your very good and hard-hitting piece in today's Sun-Times betrayed the deception and showed you to not be moving on to bees and other ephemera.


    1. Thanks. From "Georgics," his book on farming, which has an entire parody of the Iliad using battling bees. I plan to post today's column here on Sunday.

  6. "...National Public Radio, which prefers to be more zen, shoeless in linen pajamas, sitting cross-legged in a meditation room, pinging whalesong burbling in the background, eyes half mast, murmuring into a microphone, remote, removed, steeped in that make-a-cathedral-with-your-fingers and intone approach."

    LOL. That part might not even be 10 percent off from reality! ; )


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