Tuesday, May 31, 2022



     Our son works in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan. So when we visited him last week, we got a hotel room next to the new One World Trade Center, steps away from the site of the old, and of course we paused to contemplate the 9/11 Memorial, "Reflecting Absence."  
     If you've never been, the footprint of the north and south towers of the old World Trade Center have been preserved, two squares formed by bronze parapets, listing the names of the 2,983 people who died that day in the terrorist attacks, plus those lost in the 1993 precursor bombing.
    Water cascades 30 feet down each side — the largest manmade waterfall in North America— and in each pool, what I consider the brilliant stroke, is "a smaller, central void," in the words of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Those two square pits you can't see the bottom of, a perfect physical evocation of endless grief after profound loss. You yearn to see a bottom, but there is no bottom. Only emptiness.
    The design, by the way, was done by an Israeli-American architect, Michael Arad, his work picked out of more than 5,000 submissions. While not generally a fan of memorials, some events are so enormous, our humanity demands it. Which makes me wonder how we will commemorate COVID. Arad has proposed something interesting to honor the 50,000 New Yorkers who died of COVID: a "floating sanctum" at the bottom of the Central Park Reservoir.  It would only appear when the water is lowered for maintenance. Most of the time it would be out-of-sight, which is fitting, since even the most terrible events submerge in our consciousness. Time heals whether we want it to or not.
     “I liked the idea that for one week each year, you could access a place in the city that at other times is just a submerged memory,” Arad told Architectural Digest. “The Reservoir exhales, the level of the water sinks, and the dam appears so you can traverse it on foot.”
     I imagine, on that one week a year, it'll draw quite a crowd. For a long time. But not forever. Nothing is forever. Not even grief.

Monday, May 30, 2022

O (You Aren’t Fleeing to) Canada

Canadian cultural institution

The world’s a fine place and worth the fighting for. — Ernest Hemingway

     Every day that Americans agonize over abortion, decry the war in Ukraine or rake their fingers bloody over the brick wall of guns is another 24 hours closer to the day Republicans try to steal the 2024 presidential election, with better odds this time. More pliant secretaries of state. More true believers waiting in state legislatures. A hyper-partisan Supreme Court.
     And as much as I’m concerned about women’s rights, Eastern European atrocities, school massacres, etc., those issues pale compared to the prospect of the United States no longer being a functioning democracy. Where a candidate like Donald Trump can lose, as he did in 2020, by 7 million votes — quite a lot, really — yet insist he won and, far worse, be supported by an enthusiastic mob of leering lackeys and blind bootlickers.
     With that in mind, I posted on Facebook a chilling column by the Washington Post’s Max Boot. “We’re in danger of losing our democracy. Most Americans are in denial.”
     The very first comment ended: “The outlook is bleak. I’m going to study a move to Canada.”
     Again with the Canada.
     The “Ho for Canada!” crowd has to realize they represent a vein of weak, selfish, cowardice that is among the worst qualities of the Left, almost as bad as the subservient, anti-democracy terror that causes supposedly free Americans to sprawl before seditionists like medieval peasants groveling at the passing of a nobleman on horseback.
There are many potato diseases in Canada.
     First, have you been to Canada? It isn’t free; it’s empty. A nation a little larger, in area, than the United States with 1/9th the population. California has more people.
     Second, if the point is we are trying to avoid letting the United States devolve into the white fantasyland of Republican dreams, well, some 80 percent of Canada is white. I’m surprised Republicans aren’t mooning about escaping there. The national health care system must put them off.
     Yes, I understand there’s a “Why-didn’t-they-get-out-when-they-could?” dynamic. All those good German Jews who stuck around as the nation went insane in the 1930s, hoping for the best when they should have been on the next boat out of Bremen.
     But we aren’t anywhere near that, and if Democrats can find a spine, maybe we never will be. Pre-emptive surrender is not a success strategy. The United States isn’t 1938 Germany. It’s 1931. There is still time to avoid the catastrophe. But that takes work. And people.

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Sunday, May 29, 2022

New York City is quiet

     On Wednesday, the day we arrived in New York City, we joined 3,432,047 other riders on the subway, according to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or 58.2 percent of the ridership on a comparable day before the pandemic struck in early 2020. 
      As it happened, that was the last time we were in the city, Valentine's Day, 2020, and you could feel a palpable difference. It was a little quieter, the streets a little emptier. We always got a seat on the subway. Though accuracy demands that I point out the above picture was taken after boarding at the World Trade Center stop of the No. 1 train—near the beginning of the line. It got busier soon thereafter. But never too busy.
    I don't want to overstate the case. New York isn't a ghost town. Katz's Deli was jammed when we hurried there for our welcome-to-New-York hot pastrami sandwich and chocolate egg creme. (And what does a hot pastrami sandwich cost at Katz's? $25. In its defense, the sandwich must have had a pound of warm, juicy pastrami—we split it—and was worth every penny).
     The High Line, a hiking trail salvaged from abandoned elevated train tracks, was certainly populated, losing a bit of charm since we first went there, after it had just opened. "It's more crowded than the street," I groused. Still, an amazing amenity, and good to see it so popular. We walked the entire route.
     We did some fun things I can recommend. My son popped for the "Chaos at Hogwarts" virtual reality experience at Harry Potter New York. I agreed, but reluctantly—I couldn't imagine it being worthwhile. But it really was. You don VR goggles, a backpack, wristlets and foot monitors. The experience plunks you in the middle of the Hogwarts world, the VR headset augmented by fans and dripping water and vibration as you walk gingerly through the castle and finding yourself contemplating vertiginous vistas, the shifting staircases and dining hall and such. You have a wand, and help battle various creatures. Someday we'll occupy our movies as they unfold around us.   
     We went to the Guggenheim, not expecting much—we hadn't gone in years, and the main show highlights Vasily Kandinsky, who always left me cold. He hadn't improved, but we appreciated his twee, colorful paintings. And there was an unexpected treat, a show "Wearing Masks" by British artist Gilliam Wearing, on the issue of identity, that was challenging and weird and quite enjoyable.
     But the best part was walking the streets, seeing the buildings and the people. The murder rate here is far lower than Chicago's—I guessed a third; it's actually a sixth. There just isn't the sense of menace you can feel on some streets in Chicago, though that might have been visitor's naivete. I hesitate to say it: but New York feels safer than Chicago. 

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Wilmette notes: My Corona

     When I heard that our Northern Suburban Chief Caren Jeskey had come down with COVID, my first thought was: "Great! I can't wait to read her take!" But I suppressed that thought, and came up with a better one: "Oh no! I hope you're okay." Then slyly hinted: "At least you know what your topic will be for Saturday." She did not disappoint. Me, I'm jamming into subway cars and packed delis in New York City. So my COVID diary is no doubt next (And yes, the title is meant to be an echo of "My Sharona.")

By Caren Jeskey

     That dreaded moment when you know you have it. 
     Monday night, you're laying in bed, and your throat feels funny in a way never experienced before. It seemed that the mucus was especially clingy. Droopy Dog tired.
    You’ve been running away for over two years, successfully evading the evil beast, yet it turns out your days were numbered. (I am a big fan of talking about myself in the second person when I want to deny reality. It isn't me this horrible thing is happening to; it's this other person).
     When I woke up in the morning I tested myself using the cheek, throat, and nose swab method I learned from this smart Canuck video. As I squeezed four drops of the sample into the little hole on the testing strip, the pink liquid made its way from the solid control line towards to the T line. I was accustomed to the liquid permeating the rest of the strip without a 2nd line, but not this time. The second line was as dark as the first. I was positive for COVID-19. After 15 minutes it was still as clear as day. Same went for the 2nd test I took.
     Well, shit.
     I made the first available appointment at Physicians Immediate Care on Golf, my whole family’s go-to place for rapid antigens and PCRs. The first test, the antigen, came back negative. I asked the nurse to please do it again, using the 3 step process, and she balked. How odd. Even though it’s best practice, seems our medical system is not there yet.
     Hey Canada, you’re looking better and better and better. If I could only find a way there. Forever. (Editor's note: for a stinging rebuke to this line of thinking, see Neil Steinberg's column this Monday).
     She said they’d do a rapid PCR, which was fine by me. The PA came in with my official “You’ve Got COVID” paper. I felt I had failed in a huge way.
     I’d gone to a concert at SPACE on Evanston Thursday evening. I kept my mask on and was not close to others, except my friend, but I had a long conversation with a group of people outside after the show. I’ve learned that Coachella became a super spreader event. We are not safe, even outdoors, and especially the way I was behaving. I’m sorry. I stood too close and felt too comfortable with fellow humans, knowing that the surge was here. I’m not sure why I did that. I’m embarrassed. It may be the biggest mistake I've ever made.
     Or maybe it was this? I went to a family gathering on Saturday night, the first once since last summer when things were safer. I masked the whole time, with the exception of three or four quick photos. No one else was masked, except the family members I’d driven there with, and they stayed outdoors the whole time. My first thought was “did I give it to them” in the car to and from the party? That is, if I'd been exposed Thursday. That thought was just too much. So far they are in the clear, and if you pray please pray for them. If you hope, please hope for them. Let's all wish each other well.
     As I type this, the continual coughing segment of the adventure has begun. Folks I know have gotten pneumonia and lengthy bronchial coughs post-virus. A friend sent me a YouTube video about how to use certain stretches to keep the lungs in better shape while trying to force mucus up and out. There are variations that can be done without getting down on the floor, and Adrienne is my favorite YouTube yogini for floor work.
     I have followed public health guidelines and have not left my property since I was diagnosed. (Burns me up to think about the people I know who have been as reckless as flying just a few days after being diagnosed and are not following recommended quarantine and isolation guidelines in general.
     It occurred to me that I have the disgusting thing that has killed at least 1 million people in the U.S., including my former landlord Angelo back in April of 2020. A sobering, yet surreal, thought.
     I spent Tuesday sobbing on and off about the children in Uvalde. As the facts present, all I can think is “many so called ‘good people’ with guns could not stop one 18 year old with guns.” The Good Guys With Guns myth makes me want to vomit. And scream. And we have to be very careful. Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz have eyes on the Oval Office. God help us all.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Songs about Lawyers #5: "Don't Be a Lawyer"

Burl Moseley

     Songs about Lawyers Week concludes with a bang. Thank you for indulging me. 

     In case you didn't check out the Justia web site mentioned yesterday, let me plug one can't-miss song from their round-up, the joyful, pointed and altogether true "Don't Be a Lawyer" performed by Burl Moseley during season four of the CW show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."
     This is too much  fun to overlook. Great production values, solid dancing, true lyrics: "The job is inherently crappy/that's why you've never met a lawyer's who's happy."
     Here's an irony: Moseley, made his TV debut on "Law & Order."
     Although, despite all the shade tossed on the profession, in this and the other songs I've featured this week, there is deep dark secret that I've noticed manifested by the actual lawyers I've come to know: many people love the work. Some are really well paid. And a few even manage to do some good, from time to time. There, I said it.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Songs about Lawyers #4: Divorce songs

Patsy Cline

     I'm helping a certain slick Fi-Di attorney celebrate his belated commencement, so this week am featuring music about his chosen profession.

     People who never have reason to hire a lawyer in their lives rush to them when they get divorced. Yet we haven't even mentioned divorce songs, which leads us to country music. As a Montgomery Gentry fan (surprise! I saw them twice, once at the Grand Ole Opry, once outside Chicago) I have to start with "Man's Job," which is more a delicious chuckle at a former wife's poor choice of romantic partners. But it does begin with a satisfying bass rumble of, "It tore me up to sign them papers, that set you free..." though skirting the legal world after that.
     Still, it's worth a listen for the way the singer gets his back into the lyrics. "You were riiighhht when you said he's everything I'm not..."
     Classic country music is an endless exploration of divorce. "A Church, a Courtroom, and Then Goodbye," was the first hit for legend Patsy Cline. More to the point is the classic country chestnut, "Will Your Lawyer Talk to God" by Kitty Wells.  ("I hate the sight of that courtroom," she sings, a sentiment that no doubt many of my lawyer readers will come to embrace.) A Facebook friend offered up "D.I.V.O.R.C.E." by Tammy Wynette, though that focuses on the emotional and not the legal aspects of the proceedings. 
    And while awareness of the Montgomery Gentry song is from the smithy of my own experience, I should add that the Cline and Wells songs are not from my encyclopedic knowledge of music, but cribbed from Justia's web post, "The Law in Music: 20 Cool Songs About Courtrooms, Lawyers and the Law."  You should check it out.
     Meanwhile, perhaps I should explain how I came to be an occasional country music fan. Because it does seem off brand for me. A magazine asked me to interview the great Loretta Lynn, and due diligence (you don't have to be a lawyer to use the term!) demanded that I listen to her music. By the time I was done, I was hooked. Nice lady, by the way. Hugged Edie, who by happenstance ended up sitting in on the interview ... well, that's a story for another time.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Songs about Lawyers #3: "Lawyers, Guns and Money."


     I grew up in Cleveland, and so of course went back at some point—25 years ago probably—to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
     More like the Rock and Roll Mausoleum, if you ask me, a collection of cases of fringed jackets and sequined platform shoes leading to, if I recall, some kind of cheesy glass and starlight holy of holies at the summit. It was the least rock and roll place I've ever been to. A judgment confirmed anew each year when they usher in another off-key group of entrants, like this year. Dolly Parton is a lovely lady, with wonderful charitable impulses. But to admit her to an establishment supposedly dedicated to rock music before Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull, should result in the building being torn down and the ground sown with salt.
     Or worse, before Warren Zevon. One of the great wordsmiths of rock and roll. I couldn't focus on lawyer songs without his essential, "Lawyers, Guns and Money." It should have been the first, but that was too obvious.
     "I went home with the waitress/the way I always do," has to be one of the better opening lyrics in popular song. "How was I to know/she was with the Russians too?"
     Plus I don't like it, and include "Lawyers, Guns and Money" even though it isn't nearly my favorite Warren Zevon song (that would have to be "Studebaker") nor even in the Top Ten. Or 20. 
     I think it has something to do with the entitled, reprobate narrator. "Send lawyers, guns and money. Dad, get me out of this." You could see Donald Jr. singing it. I don't like "Excitable Boy" for the same reason. How can you like any song with the lyric, "Then he raped her and killed her and took her home"? It's just grotesque.
     I'd much, much rather listen to his last album, "The Wind," an act of bravura creativity written and recorded while he was dying of cancer. Or the marvelous tribute album, "Enjoy Every Sandwich," the title taken from Zevon's deathless answer when David Letterman asked him what he learned from dying. You know a musician is special when his songs are covered by both Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, as they are on this album. The Wallflowers' version of "Lawyers, Guns and Money" is quite good too.
     Returning to the Hall of Fame, Jackson Browne was admitted in 2004, and his "Lawyers in Love" is even worse. It was a big hit almost 40 years ago and I cringed at the thought of hearing it again, with its sha-la-las and chiming piano and warbling, near-yodeling "Ah-aaaas." Browne deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as much as I do. Then again, the whole thing is a joke, so why not? There is no justice in this world. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Songs about Lawyers #2: "This Song."

George Harrison in the video for "This Song."
     "Songs about Lawyers" week continues. If you missed the first installment, you can find it here.

     I hesitated to include George Harrison's "This Song" in my week of tunes related to attorneys, since it never mentions lawyers or the law, specifically. You have to know the backstory. In February, 1976, a trial began against the former Beatle,, accusing him of stealing the tune for "My Sweet Lord" from the Chiffon's 1963 hit of Ronnie Mack's "He's So Fine." 
    The song is an upbeat, joyous, piano-driven middle finger waved at the lawsuit, which had just begun.
    "This song, as far as I know, don't infringe on anyone's copyright, so..." Harrison sings. 
    Harrison had recently found himself in court, on the stand, guitar in hand, demonstrating the process by which he allegedly wrote "My Sweet Lord" and trying to point out the musical differences between it and "He's So Fine." 
    Had Harrison waited until the case concluded, in 1998, 22 years later, "This Song" probably would have been far slower, darker and more melancholy. It has a certain buoyancy that would be ground out of him.
    After I watched the proudly cheesy and amateurish video (which Harrison directed), shot in a Los Angeles courtroom, and was glad I included the song. Besides, it's got that great sax solo. 
     There's a lot going on in the video, including the Rolling Stones' Ronnie Wood, in drag, mouthing Monty Python's Eric Idle's screech, "Could be 'Sugar Pie Honey Bunch'? Naw! Sounds more like 'Rescue Me!'" (indeed, both classic Motown songs echo the introduction of "This Song" as well as each other, a reminder that there is a lot of borrowing in music). 
     The song is larded with such sly winks at the case, including "This song has nothing 'Bright' about it"—Bright Music owned the copyright to "She's So Fine," and in turn was owned by Allen Klein, who until recently had been Harrison's manager, putting him in the unique position of profiting from both the release of "My Sweet Lord" and, potentially, from its copyright infringement settlement. Their animosity also helps explain what should have been handled with the quiet cutting of a check ended up a legal "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a case that has been described as "without question, one of the longest running legal battles ever to be litigated."
     Harrison released the song Dec. 3, 1970, and it became a huge international hit—the first by a former Beatle, and his biggest solo single. That is highly salient to the lawsuit, equal to the two songs' similarity. Without that pot of gold, the parallels would have been a bit of music trivia, like Mick Jagger singing backup on Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." Indeed, honorary Beatle Billy Preston released his version of "My Sweet Lord" three months before Harrison did, and nobody sued anybody.
    The similarities were obvious. Radio stations would start playing "He's So Fine" then segue into "My Sweet Lord." In 1971, country music star Jody Miller put out her version of "He's So Fine," designed, rather maliciously, to highlight the two songs mirroring each other, complete with weeping slide guitar. Harrison said it "really putting the screws in."
    Harrison might have been proud, and creative, but he wasn't an idiot. He first felt chagrined when the resemblance was pointed out, and remembered thinking, "Why didn't I realize?" Later, as the legal noose tightened, he tried to downplay his gaffe, blustering, "Well, it's not exactly the same." 
     In his autobiography, "I, Me, Mine," Harrison does his best to feign outrage, dismissing the merits of the suit with, "It's a joke ... just greed and jealousy and all that."
    Despite the clear borrowing—it's the same tune—the case itself was maddeningly complex. Since it defied belief to suggest that a talent like Harrison, fresh from the Beatles, merely copied the music, the judge suggested it was a case of "subconscious" plagiarism. 
     Harrison said he tried to give the plaintiff the rights to the song, just to be done with it. But his lawyers (boo, hiss) wouldn't permit it.  Judge Richard Owen ruled that it was "perfectly obvious" that "the two songs are virtually identical."  Which they are. During the trial, a keyboardist was recalled pointing that out when they were recording "My Sweet Lord" in May, 1970. Which didn't help. Maybe he wasn't forceful enough. In September, 1976, Harrison was found to have inadvertently copied the song. Which is when the years began to really clock by, determining the judgment. Harrison was eventually stuck with a $1.6 million penalty,  which observers felt was excessive, ignoring the role his fame as a Beatle and the artistry he brought to "My Sweet Lord" played in its success in favor of the tune, which is not exactly hummable. 
     Eventually, factoring in Klein's double-dealing—he used information he knew from producing the song in suing Harrison—in 1981, the judgment was cut to $600,000, which included Harrison gaining rights to "He's So Fine." He did not, however, cut his own version.
     Instead he left us with, "This Song." Written, Harrison notes, at "the end of a nightmarish week in court." 
    One noteworthy thing about "This Song" is, it isn't the only mainstream rock song about copyright infringement. There's also Weird Al Yankovic's "Don't Download This Song." (Set to the tune of "We Are the World," with a plot development borrowed from the end of "White Heat") It's worth seeing for the whimsical animation, and of course Weird Al's spot-on satire: "'Cause You start out stealing songs, then you're robbing liquor stores, and selling crack and running over school kids with your car."
     That always reminds me of that cultural moment, an eternity ago, when the Napster free music sharing website first appeared, and I took the plunge and downloaded the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," while my wife, an officer of the court, remember, stood over me, remonstrating, "You're committing a crime!"
     "So I'll send Mick Jagger a check," I said. 
     I never did. I hope he doesn't sue me.  

Monday, May 23, 2022

Songs about Lawyers #1: "Alas for You."

     My hometown of Berea, Ohio isn't known for much. There is sandstone: large quarries that left picturesque lakes, in my youth, that eventually filled up into silty, not-quite-so picturesque bogs. There is a university, Baldwin-Wallace, with a modest reputation for its music program.
     And "Godspell," written by John-Michael Tebelak, who graduated from Berea High School in 1966, a dozen years before I did.
     That put the joyous musical on my radar more than would be typical for a 1970s suburban Jewish kid. The show didn't have the dark, dramatic swoop of "Jesus Christ Superstar," which came one year later, but still managed to upset some Christians, who didn't like to see their faith rendered into show tunes.
     And "Godspell" is fun, bouncy, with the campy, Rudy Vallee-esque "All for the Best," and an actual minor hit, "Day by Day," covered by the Fifth Dimension, Judy Collins and Cher.
     Not music I choose to revisit much, to be honest. Lately though, I've been listening to the show's "Alas for You," simply for the dig at lawyers (You can also watch the video version from the movie, but it's cringingly awful). The song begins:
Alas alas for you
Lawyers and pharisees
Hypocrites that you are
Sure that the kingdom of heaven awaits you
You will not venture half so far.
Other men who might enter the gates
You keep from passing through.
Drag them down with you.
     Why do I like this? I'm not sure. The law is interesting and important. I respect the legal profession, in the main, being the husband of one lawyer and the father of two more. Not to forget my many friends who are lawyers or judges. So I'm not slagging them personally. There's just something funny about tweaking lawyers, even in their absence. Even if they don't perceive the tweak and wouldn't care if they did. A sort of private joke, I suppose.
     Anyway, this week my oldest boy is having the graduation ceremony from New York University Law School that got scrubbed last year, due to COVID. Not coincidentally, I'm taking this week off, so as not to be left with a big mass of vacation at year's end, to do some gardening around the house, and attend to other duties. So in honor of his belated commencement, and so as to not leave you with nothing, I've come up with the next best thing: A week of posts on songs about lawyers. Enjoy. Or don't. Up to you. Either way, see you next Monday.


Sunday, May 22, 2022

"I swear on GoD."


     We are hit by such a barrage of scams, come-ons, grifts, ploys and frauds of all kinds, you'd think we'd be more discerning by now. Yet those who bat away the pleas of Nigerian princes fall 100 percent and forever to the oily entreaties of lying leaders. It's very worrisome.
     While I have no problem ignoring the hammering of crooks, commercial or political, at my various electronic doors, there is my playful side, and sometimes I just can't help screwing with them a little bit. Yes, I know I'm not matching wits with Lex Luthor, but merely causing a flash of puzzlement of someone in a basement boiler room in Burkina Faso. If that. But I occasionally do it anyway, for my own amusement.

     I don't owe anything to the grifters, and they approached me, so I'm free to respond as I please. There is no rule that I must stay on script. Besides, I figure every second they parley with me, who is never sending them a dime, is a second they can't use to squeeze the retirement fund out of some gullible elderly couple in Idaho. So I am actually doing some small amount of good. Besides, I can be bored sometimes, and it's interesting to see how they handle it. Usually by fading away.
      Although it was a little disconcerting to see Facebook friends this week posting the amounts they received back from their Facebook settlements, because those of course were real, I think, although they followed the scam pattern. I do wonder what the fraudsters I respond to make of our exchanges.

         But eventually I get bored, and move on. An important skill in social media, one that many never seem to master.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Northshore notes: Alive to the Dead

     I never know what Caren is writing about until I read it on Friday, and sometimes odd synchronicities present themselves. Next week, I'm planning a five day run featuring songs about lawyers, for reasons which will be made plain. And I too never much liked the Grateful Dead, or their unwashed legions of fans, though I was extraordinary fond of "Friend of the Devil." Enough prelude. Here is Caren Jeskey's Saturday report:

By Caren Jeskey

              Shall we go, you and I while we can
              Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?
                                 — Grateful Dead

In the Rogers Park neighborhood where I grew up, music-loving hippyish intellects abounded; there were many Jerry Garcia fans around during my formative years. Yet the Grateful Dead never made sense to me. I thought of them as a mediocre band with a boring cult following. When people identified as Deadheads, I’d quickly write them off as potential friends — what could we possibly talk about? Tie-dye? 
     When groups of my peers packed up to go camping at Alpine Valley to “follow the Dead” I never had FOMO. I’d rather be clubbing it up at Kaboom right here in the city.
     Dead & Company is coming to Cubs Park soon and there’s a lot of buzz about it. I decided to pop the song "Truckin’" onto Apple Music to see what all the fuss is about. I was surprised to discover that, not only was I familiar with many of the other songs, I knew quite a few well enough to sing along with at least the chorus. I felt uplifted by the simple, bright, plucky sounds of the band as Apple fed me more. 
     It seems I was subconsciously indoctrinated into the world of the Dead by many years of listening to WLS, The LOOP, and accidentally catching the Grateful Dead Hour on WXRT. I also lived with a bunch of people from Barrington for a year or two in the late 80s and our 6-CD multi disc player was always loaded up with their music. The Dead occupied one of those slots on many a Saturday night as we danced around and pregamed before going to Hamilton’s on Broadway. I didn’t pay much attention, but the songs have stuck in my craw.
     Thanks to my roommates and their crew, I finally got to know Ian Anderson, CCR, Van Morrison, the less well-known Americana of David and David, and a band that became one of my all time favorites, The Silos. My new friend group was apparently full of Deadheads and I even made out with one of them once— he had long blond hair and wore pastel colored tie-dyed shirts— outside of a dive bar on Sheffield.
     Before I had taken the time to listen this week, I rudely said to a self-proclaimed Deadhead (I promise I did know know about this identification when our friendship organically sprouted up) “They’re not good,” and I laughed when I noticed dancing bears embroidered into his clothing. He’s a very pleasant person so just smiled and commented “you’re right. The band isn’t that good.” Looks like I owe that person an apology.
     I learned that the band played songs differently each and every time, in their live shows. The audience was watching art in action; a canvas that was freshly painted based on how they were feeling at the time, I'm guessing often with the use of mood altering substances. “Fortunately we had a chance to play [Estimated Prophet and Terrapin Part I] three times onstage and it made a huge difference," Bob Weir once said. "Then we came back and we knew what the songs were about.”
     I found the song "Estimated Prophet" worth more than one listen, and Bob Weir’s voice compelling. I wanted to listen with over the ear headphones to catch the trippy nuances of sound and composition more clearly but I broke my pair. This has inspired me to replace them soon.
     While I’m writing this I’ve had the album Terrapin Station playing in the background, and I’m soothed by the cheerful sounds of Donna Jean Thatcher Godchaux-MacKay’s "Sunrise" and the sweet harmonies between her and Weir in "Passenger."
     MacKay wrote the 2007 song "Passenger," which is sadly apropos today. “I hear the sounds of war. And they say, we are not to blame Today, let the anger take aim. Piercing to the heart and to the soul.”
     This trip I’ve taken with the marching bears (which I did not place under my tongue, by the way) has helped me with humility. The Dead don’t suck. I need all of the reasons I can find to stay connected to others these days, not more reasons to establish an us and them delineation. The next time I see someone with one of Jerry’s bears subtly incorporated into the cuff of a shirt, instead of scoffing I’ll see if they know some kind of Zen secret I’d be better off embracing.

          “Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.” 
                   —Grateful Dead, "Box of Rain"

Friday, May 20, 2022

Flat-bottomed bags make the eating world go ’round

      Sharise Stamborski packs newly-made bags at Fischer Paper Products in Antioch

     When 7-Eleven stores in Texas suddenly needed to put their hot chicken legs in some kind of bag — thank you, COVID! — they had to find the right little bags to put them in. ASAP. So they made a desperate call to Fischer Paper Products in Antioch, 50 miles north of Chicago
     Typically, it takes 10 to 12 weeks for Fischer to get a new type of bag to a customer, assuming it isn’t one of the thousand varieties they stock. There is design, then creating prototypes, then testing them. Fischer keeps half a dozen fast-food warmers in their break room for product testing.
     “If the food is going to be sitting in this package in a warming oven for an hour, the materials have to hold up to heat or grease,” said Joshua Fischer, company president and grandson of the founder.
     In this case, they got the bag designed, tested and shipped to Texas in three weeks.
     Restaurants, in a two-year-plus state of continual emergency during the society-jarring disruptions of the pandemic — customers staying home, supply chains tied in knots — will gather to blink at each other, celebrate their survival and plot out a future at McCormick Place starting Saturday, for the National Restaurant Association Show, the first in three years.

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Thursday, May 19, 2022

We need the eggs

     Social media likes to serve up scary robots. You know what I mean. Those Boston Dynamics Atlas robots doing parkour, like some kind of mechanical stormtroopers come from the future to show us what kind of nightmare will be kicking our asses someday soon. Or, even creepier, the company's headless robot dogs, dubbed "Spot," perfect for exploring the poisonous dead zone half our planet is sure to become. (No need to wait for the dystopian future; you can buy one now for $75,000). Then there are the realistic robots we increasingly see blinking and turning their heads, smiling and chatting, our closest companions in a world I am glad I'll never live to see.
     Me, I take comfort in how short the attempt to ape human behavior fails, as represented in the 16 photos above. Hopping on a box is one thing; discernment something else entirely. Turns out, it's harder to think than dance. The photos are from my iPhoto account. Long ago I learned to plug a location in the search bar, so if I want to use a shot snapped at the Smithsonian Institution, I plug "Washington D.C." in. It can be very precise, down to streets and even buildings.
     But I did not realize, until recently, that you could also plug in nouns—horse, house, train—and the search engine would round up candidates. Or try to.
     The blog's Saturday star, Caren Jeskey, turned in an essay keyed around robin's eggs. She usually offers a photo or two, but this time she hadn't yet. I knew I had photos of the nest that sat on our porch railing one spring. So I plugged "eggs" into the iPhoto search bar, generating the above dozen and a third photos.
     Take a look at the results. Starting at the upper left, we have: my son eating a sunny side up egg topped burger at the old Joe's Diner in San Francisco. A melon patch. A Peter Max poster of Saturn that the artist sent my son. Six glasses of non-alcoholic beer from a taste test at Harry Carry's, viewed from above. A Jeff Koons sculpture at The Broad in Los Angeles. A Murakami painting of flowers. Five images of orange juice balls served as an amuse bouche at Alinea. Three fried eggs, the last two being at one of the best meals I've ever eaten, in Santiago, Chile. And a jack-o-lantern from the Chicago Botanic Garden.  
     Let me show you what the algorithm did NOT find. This:     
     I bet you pegged them as eggs right away, didn't you? God bless Apple, wonderful company. But based entirely on their inability to tag the image at right as containing "eggs" I would say that the robot rebellion is still a work in progress.
    Being human is hard. That should not be an epiphany. Even with our sophisticated wetware, perfected over the past 100,000 years, with software de-bugged over the past 10,000, half the people can't seem to regularly pull off all the high-functioning tasks required of them. Given how consistently humans fail at being human, I don't think we have to worry about machines quite yet. They can do some tasks better some times in some places. But they also have their spectacular failures as well. I'm still clinging to hope. Let's see a computer do that.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Picking over GOP idiocy

Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo in "The Maltese Falcon" (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.)

     “What they shake out of you?” Sam Spade asks a disheveled Joel Cairo in “The Maltese Falcon” after the slimy little crook had been grilled all night by police.
     “Shake out? Not one thing. I adhered to the course you indicated earlier in your rooms,” Cairo protests. “But I certainly wish you have invented a more reasonable story. I felt distinctly like an idiot repeating it.”
     I know the feeling. In that dim, cat-leaving-something-disgusting-on-your-pillow way the media sometimes has, we are batting around the “Replacement Theory” supposedly spouted by the alleged murderer of 10 Black shoppers and staff at a supermarket in Buffalo on Saturday.
     I really wish they’d craft a less stupid worldview for us to pick over. Show some pride. But we must play the hand we are dealt. So here goes.
     The term itself has been spreading in public discourse for almost five years, since August 2017, when hundreds of white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, bearing tiki torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
     Yeah, like Jews want to go live in your mother’s basement with the Nazi flag thumb-tacked over the washing machine.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Judge a book by its cover

     One of my personal mythologies is that, when it comes to writing stuff, I'm an endless font gushing quality material, a steely newspaper veteran who can firehose a constant stream of columns and blog posts and freelance articles and books, on command. That's being a professional.
     On Monday, however, I hit SEND on the proofread galley of my next book, due out in the fall from University of Chicago Press, and felt, well, about as drained as a human being can feel and not actually be dead. If I were a cartoon, I'd just collapse into a heap of ash and be blown away on the breeze. 
     It's always been an article of faith that the extra writing I do enhances, rather than detracts from, my job as a newspaper columnist. But this past six weeks, well, I was starting to think I was cheating the boss. Not that the column suffered—I think the writing was up to snuff. But I took on a big story on a certain Wisconsin manufacturer that would have been in the paper by now, but kept getting pushed aside. No gas in the tank. Which isn't the worst crime in the world, and a lapse I'm going to leap to address.
     But not now.  After sending the nearly-500-page book on its way (don't get scared; there's art) I sighed, stood up, and went to water the tomatoes, which helped, then folded a load of laundry.
     Now I'm back, good to go and onto the next task, today's post. Let's, ah, umm, share the cover of the book whose copy I have just picked over like an obsessive mother ape going after ticks on her child. For the past six weeks.
     Seeing the cover of a new book is always a moment of excitement and anxiety. It's like seeing your new face, designed by a stranger. This is my ninth book, and some covers I loved on sight, some hated. This one, I liked it when I first saw it, and like even more now. 
     Although when I first saw it, I did have a nagging qualm. I liked it; but I didn't love it, in the sense that what I wanted was a gorgeous Barry Butler photo—I already had one picked out, and helpfully sent to the Press—something that would shimmer like a gem on the shelves at the book shops at the Art Institute and the Chicago Architecture Foundation the way "You Were Never in Chicago" has done for a decade.
    This was bold. But not shimmering. I'm proud of my response, applying one of my superpowers to the situation, the realization that it isn't all about me. People smarter than myself in the art of selling books chose this route. So I didn't complain. Didn't ask or changes. What I did say is, if I've learned anything, it's that the purpose of a book cover is not to tickle the aesthetic sensibilities of the author, but to catch the attention of readers, to draw them in, and this cover will look fantastic on your phone, shrunk to a half inch tall. 
I remember looking at this and
thinking, "Could you MAKE it 
any smaller?"
      That was my initial take. Love builds over time, and now that a month or two has passed since I first saw it, I do kinda love the thing. Take a look at it and figure out why. Well, there is the artwork of Lauren Nassef, a Chicago artist and illustrator, who did a masterful job illustrating the book, and was a pleasure to work with (the "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" domed silver server illustrates the Chicago Jewish community's famous, to me anyway, "dinnerless dinner" at the Drake in 1921, to benefit the needy in Europe. It was smartly repurposed to give the sense of presenting the city of Chicago, on a platter). I like the colors, the big bold block letters of "EVERY GODDAMN DAY," the way the server cover just hooks the top corner of the Y. And the way the gloved hand nudges my name up. Okay, I'll say it: I like my name being so big, splayed across the whole cover, and not the tiny type other books have used. Maybe they didn't get the memo from the Humility Department.
     The cover, I should point out, was designed by Isaac Tobin (who happens to be married to Lauren Nassef. Small world). 
     Does it work? Well, you can pre-order the book from the University of Chicago Press (it costs the same as on Amazon, and you aren't underwriting the Leviathan). There's a value to that beyond merely displaying enthusiasm. One way the University of Chicago Press stays in business is by not ordering up vast print runs. My last book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise" kept selling out, especially after Scott Simon interviewed me on National Public Radio. So when it was published, sometimes people would have to wait for weeks while the presses ground out more copies and barefoot children sitting cross-legged in drafty warehouses in Malaysia sewed the bindings (kidding; I believe they use machines now). 
     Although to be honest, I'm not hanging fire on sales. First, it's my ninth book, so I'm familiar with the range of the possible. They always do well, or wellish, or well enough that I get to write another one, which is my main goal. And second, I learned so much doing this one, it was so much fun exploring the wide sweep of Chicago history, blowing dust out of the crannies and taking a peek inside, that I've already had my success. "You don't even have to publish the thing," I told my editor, turning it in. It was worth doing even if I were the only one to read it.
     That said, I'm glad it's coming out—Oct. 21, for those of you who want to mark it on your calendars (what? You haven't ordered yet? Order it! Please).  And I do hope you read it, because, well, it's got a lot in it. I'm glad they gave the book such a kick ass cover. Because despite the old saying, you can judge a book by its cover. People do it all the time.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Why would an 18-year-old kill?

     Do you remember being 18? I do. Graduating from high school, going to prom, spending one last summer in my hometown, Berea, Ohio, baking biscuits at a Bob Evans restaurant. There were worries — I’d be going to college in the fall, living in a four-man dorm room. What about the mini-fridge? What if we all rented one? Then we’d have four.
     When news of the shooting in Buffalo broke Saturday night, everyone grabbed a fact that seemed most important and waved it around. Ten people dead! A supermarket in a Black neighborhood! Toxic white supremacism seemed to motivate the alleged shooter! A lunacy once on the fringe of American society, now planted and growing at the center of the Republican Party.
     The preparations this guy took — that helmet and body armor, which kept him from being wounded by the store security guard. He drove 200 miles. With an AR-15 rifle, of course. Few people even mention the gun, because it’s such an accepted part of American life. That would be like pointing out the air he breathed. Air is everywhere; everyone has access to it. Guns too.
     Me, I kept thinking about his age: 18. To be that young, and throw away not only all those other lives, but your own too. To spend your whole life in prison, probably. Worse than being dead. And for what? To scratch your itch for two minutes.
     Think of all the lives he destroyed or altered. Not just the dead: the wounded, the grieving, their city. I almost included us, too, in the circle of the harmed. But that’s bombast. These shootings are both shocking and routine. The Buffalo shooting was Saturday evening. I’m writing this Sunday morning, but first sincerely wondered whether by Monday this will fade so much as to be not worth addressing. Old hat. No, I think I can slip it in before we move on and forget all about it.
     I focus on the apparent shooter’s age because it’s the aspect I can most relate to — I’ve never been to Buffalo, or shot anybody, or wanted to, or been shot. But I was 18. Sitting in Introduction to Russian in the fall. Shto eta? Eta capoosta. “What is this? This is a cabbage.” Russia seemed a direction I might want to go. Because at 18, you can go anywhere you want. Not everyone knows it. Not everyone has the same resources. But most 18 year-olds have choices.

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Sunday, May 15, 2022

Flashback 1999: Lasso the kids for Donley's

     I was sad to hear that Donley's Wild West Town is closing after 45 years in business. I was only there once, nearly a quarter century ago, with the boys, then 3 and 4, but I remember it being a fun, unusual place, with a little train, and a jail, and panning for "gold," and energetic employees working hard to give kids a great experience. 
     Usually, my old stuff doesn't make me cringe, but this one did,  a little. You could slice the first four paragraphs off and lose nothing. If this were someone else's work—oh that it were—and they asked me to critique it, I'd say, "You buried the lede. Start with 'I never had heard of the place...'" Or, better, "I'd never heard of the place..." Less awkward. Ah well.
     News is by nature negative. Headlines point to the disasters and tragedies of the day. You never see "EVERYTHING'S FINE" in big type.
     That's good, since everything is not fine, as a rule. So the bad gets publicity, and the good can be ignored. Run into something wonderful and enjoy it, but keep it to yourself. You don't want to be a publicist. What is forgotten is that others might enjoy it too, if only they knew.
     So, realizing the risks involved in praise, I have to let this one out:
     Donley's Wild West Town in Union, Ill. Fun. Unexpected.
     I never had heard of the place. Never heard of Union, for that matter. My wife found it. She has been running her own one-woman summer camp, and, in her endless quest to occupy the boys every day, found Donley's in a book. My first thought was: "I've never heard of Union. It must be far away."
     Make that far, far away. A solid hour's drive from Chicago. Plenty of time to dread the kind of cheesy, rundown joint a bitter cynic such as myself would expect from "Wild West Town." Neglect. Decay. A few pathetic attractions, run by indifferent teens forced to wear plastic uniforms.
     It wasn't. Not close. A big area enclosed by neat wooden buildings. For nine bucks, kids pan for gold in a miner's flume and ride a pony and a small choo-choo train. They are taught to lasso and invited to watch a bullwhip demonstration and a 20-minute Wild West show with gunplay and chases and corny jokes and bad guys tumbling from balconies.
     The place had an enormous restaurant where a tired dad could enjoy a beer with his lunch, and a jail cell where the sheriff herds the kiddies into a real old-fashioned lock-up and lets them ponder their imprisonment for a moment before compelling them to sing a song before he lets them out, all with a deft good humor, as if he hadn't done the same thing a dozen times that day, a hundred times that week, and thousands of times over the years.
     That wasn't the best part, however. The best part, for me, was the faces of the employees. They were adults. Men. One face after another, deeply tanned, lined, sun baked. Cowboy faces. Grizzled Marlboro men. A long, white mustache. A Clint Eastwood squint. All dressed like real, genuine cowboys. My kids will remember the pony, but I will always be amazed that the guy leading them around looked like he just stepped out of "Rio Bravo."
     Enthusiastic, authentic employees couldn't be an accident.
     "What we try to do is attract people who have a love of the old West," said Mike Donley, son of the founder, adding that the town has been there 25 years this summer. "We get a lot of retirees looking for something to do. The first thing we try to instill is: We don't pay your salary. Those guys coming through the door do. If those kids go home at night thinking you're camping under the stars, eating beans, then you've done your job. If you haven't, those kids aren't coming back."
     So that's the story. My apologies for sharing something positive. I'm sure I'll be my old self again next time. But with my kids clamoring to return and, incredibly, me looking forward to taking them, I couldn't just sit on this. The bulk of August stretches long and hot before us, and more than a few readers must need somewhere to take the kiddies that is worth the drive.
          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 3, 1999

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Wilmette Notes: Respite

   After you've read a certain writer for a while—last month Wilmette Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey passed, without fanfare, her second anniversary contributing to this space on Saturdays—you get a sense of their moods, their rhythms, their ups and their downs. I read the essay below and thought, "She seems her old self again; a little lighter mood. The spring must be doing its work." Maybe you feel the same.

By Caren Jeskey
I will take an egg out of the robin’s nest in the orchard,
I will take a branch of gooseberries from the old bush in the garden, and go and preach to the world;
You shall see I will not meet a single heretic or scorner,
You shall see how I stump clergymen, and confound them,
You shall see me showing a scarlet tomato, and a white pebble from the beach.
                                —Walt Whitman
     Ever since childhood, the eye popping blue of robin’s eggs has been one of my favorite things, probably because my mother felt the same way. My folks put birds, trees, insects, woods, water, and dirt on our radar from the moment we hit this planet, my siblings and me. I can still feel sand crunching between my teeth from peanut butter sandwiches on Wonder Bread at the beach. We lived outside whenever we could. 
     When I was gifted with eggs from neighbor’s chickens in Austin I’d carefully blow out the insides and save the almost weightless shells. They sat decoratively on windowsills and eventually ended up in the compost bin. When I lived in a tiny house with a chicken coop in early COVID times, the hens would leave warm oval offerings and I’d interact with them in multiple ways. First, just picking them up gently and feeling the weight in my palms, and admiring their hues. Then I’d place them into a bowl on the kitchenette counter as a pretty display. I’d gaze at the prettiness in the bowl on and off for days, and eventually crack them open— one or two at at time— to scramble up in a cast iron skillet on the portable electric stove top.
     The mind can be a complicated place. The same murky matter that plays traumas and insults over and over— and fears aging, loss, and death— can become still and serene by a simple unexpected joy, such as finding a nest full of eggs at the lakefront as my niece and I did last weekend. What a boon for this egg lover!
     We were at the Lighthouse Beach off of Central in Evanston on a much needed sunny day, and ended up in the wooded area with a gigantic climbing tree and rocks overlooking the lake. We built an epic fort with a tree-stump living room. My niece had me peel long strips of bark off of branches and sticks we had scavenged, which we used as twine.
     I noticed a thick ropy vine hanging down over a small tree, and pulled at it to see if I could break it off for fort lumber. As I tugged, I quickly realized that it was holding tightly to the tree, so I let it go. As the tree snapped back into place I saw a female robin flutter away. I took a closer look and there it was. Her nest, just a foot or so over my head. I held up my camera and snapped.
     I’ve never before found four perfect little blue eggs in an exquisitely crafted nest. I needed this tiny gift. Being at the lake with loved ones on a sunny day was great, and finding these babies was the sweet buttercream icing on the cake. In this truly vida loca, Mother Nature is still my refuge.
     I thought a lot about those eggs in the coming days and had a strong feeling that they would not make it. As the season finally relented and invited us outdoors, the beach and surrounding parks are becoming busier. With all of that activity I felt concerned for the birds. I also saw plenty of squirrels perching nearby, and a hawk hangs out there too.
     Last night I finally made it back to check on the babies. I held my camera up and snapped, and it was just as I’d thought. There were two eggs left, one sliced wide open with sticky yellow insides exposed. The other had a small round hole pecked clear out of it, with no movement inside. I also found a near whole, empty egg shell under the tree.
     All living beings are the same. We come into this world, and if we are lucky we survive. Along the way we might get henpecked or worse, and we also accomplish great things, big and small. We will all, as Walt Whitman did, eventually lose our ability to enjoy any of them. It’s time for me to get out on my bike now and do as Mary Oliver said in her poem "Summer Day:" Take advantage of this one wild and precious life.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Abortion is murder; oh wait, no it’s not

Museum of Science & Industry

     Less than 48 hours after the draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would scuttle Roe v. Wade was leaked in the press, the Louisiana legislature moved a bill out of committee that criminalizes any abortion, from the moment of conception, as a homicide, allowing women who have such a procedure, or anyone who performs one, to be charged with murder.
     Meanwhile, at the same time, states like Illinois rush to guarantee the right of women to control their own bodies, and certain companies, like Levi Strauss, Yelp and Uber, announce they will pay for female employees to go out of state to have an abortion — raising the specter of a nation where a citizen doing something in one state can get reimbursed by her boss, while doing the exact same thing in another state lands her in prison.
     Unless it doesn’t. Late Thursday, after even anti-choice advocates protested that they were overplaying their hands, supporters clawed the bill back. For now.
     Punishing women who get abortions makes for bad optics and, besides, it implies that they are responsible for their own decisions, and not merely the playthings of men, who are the ones with volition and therefore the ones who should be punished.
     Louisiana tossing out harsh laws and then yanking them back is the kind of chaos we can expect in the months to come. Religious fanaticism and forethought do not go hand in hand. If you set your daughter on fire because you feel shamed by who she is dating, then you probably didn’t deeply consider that you won’t have a daughter anymore and might be casting an even greater shame on your family.
     Ditto for political fanaticism. If you bar immigrants because you are terrified at the thought of a diverse America, then the strawberries rot in the field, because we actually need immigrants to make the economy work — to be surgeons as well as pick fruit, I must point out.

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