Saturday, December 31, 2022

Northshore Notes: Teaching Children

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     Well, we made it through 2022, almost. The year ends with a sweet reminiscence from our Northshore bureau chief, Caren Jeskey. They didn't offer yoga in school when I was a kid. But this sure makes me wish they had. Happy New Year.

By Caren Jeskey

     After spending hours writing and erasing and writing and erasing, at 10:00 pm last night I realized I have a full-fledged case of writer’s block. So, I took a note from my fearless editor Neil and decided to offer a piece I wrote in 2001 for Yoga Chicago Magazine, a simple and sweet story on this last Saturday of 2022.

     This past summer, I had the pleasure of teaching yoga to sixth to eighth grade Chicago public schools students. They were enrolled in the DePaul Preparatory Academy, a summer enrichment program. We met weekday mornings in a classroom at DePaul downtown. I’d surreptitiously (and very carefully) burn a stick of my favorite incense, Nag Champa, before the children arrived. “Why does it smell like marshmallows?” they’d ask.
     They’d request to “please start class with that lying-down pose.” They’d take their shoes and socks off, and lay down on their backs on yoga mats. I’d talk them into a deep state of relaxation, savasana. A form of meditation. Sometimes snoring would ensue. After allowing the tired kids to decompress for a while, I’d gently talk them back into the room; they’d wake up rejuvenated and ready to try some yoga poses.
     I encouraged the children to ask questions during the times we sat around discussing whatever was on their minds. “How do planets float in space? If teachers know things, how come they look in books to teach us? Is there life beyond our world? What is love and hate? How do you forgive someone you care about even though they were wrong? Why are there locks on 24-hour Walgreens stores?” Fun conversations would commence.
     It was a good-vibe class. The youngest student told me “besides lunch, my favorite class is yoga.” He shared that yoga helps him get over feelings of anger. I once taught the children how to use techniques to keep an ornery teacher calmer. The teacher came to me afterwards and said “I don’t know what you told the kids, but they were terrific today. Thank you.” Once must have let it slip that something unusual was going on. I simply asked them to sit next to someone new that day, rather than the friend they normally sat next to (and probably chatted with a lot, frustrating the teacher). I suggested that they think “may you be happy, Mr. O” when he seemed angry.
     When we practice peace towards others, we might see it in return if we are lucky. And at least we are not adding fuel to the fire.
     On the last day of class, a perky, muscular girl of 12 with a calm demeanor sensed my frazzling nerves. We were completing displays for families to visit during the closing ceremony later that day. (I found that it was much easier to teach yoga than it was to get the children to complete a more academic assignment). She took my hand, gazed into my eyes, and said: “Ms. Jeskey. It’s OK to have a bad day. Even if you do yoga.” She rejoined her poster-making group, lay down on her stomach and got back to coloring. I was a little embarrassed, then realized she was only giving back to me what I had been offering her all summer. Kindness.
     So now back to the present day. December 31, 2022. I’d love to know where my former students are today. They'd be in their 30s by now. I hope they've all landed on their feet. I've often wondered about the 12 year old who brought gin in a 7-Up can to class. At that time I took him to lunch and let him know that people cared about him.
       Reflecting back to memories of connection with other humans is reassuring, especially in these disconnected times. Wishing you a safe and cozy New Year’s Eve. See you in 2023.

     "A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; how could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he."
        — Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Friday, December 30, 2022

When should you listen to doctors?

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     Anti-vaxxers have a point.
     Not in their blanket rejection of vaccines. Those save millions of lives, maybe mine. I’ve taken five, count ‘em, five, COVID shots and wish you would too, even though you probably haven’t — 90% of Americans didn’t bother with the latest booster.
     But they have a point about questioning medicine. Doctors are not always right; their advice is sometimes clouded by self interest. Some are highly skilled; others, less so. How to tell the difference?
     In 2019, when something was obviously wrong with my spine, I fled the first surgeon I spoke with, but let a second, at Northwestern Medicine, cut open my neck — decisions based on differences of bedside manner and because Illinois Bone and Joint Institute’s name sounded to me like something plucked from a Lemony Snicket novel.
     It’s a gut call. Earlier this year my father contracted COVID at his senior lifestyle community in Buffalo Grove. They sent him to a hospital. After a few days he was discharged into a rehab facility in Arlington Heights, and the facility told me he’d need two weeks of physical therapy to learn to walk again.
     Interesting if true, as they say in my business. As soon as he was out of isolation, I hurried over to the chaotic facility. Eventually I found him in a wheelchair in a dim room. We exchanged pleasantries. His roommate watched a blaring television.
     “Let me wheel you into the hall, Dad, where we can talk,” I said. I looked closely at him. He smiled back. A youthful 90, heavier than in the past, due to not remembering that he’s just eaten.
     “Dad, can you stand up?” I said. He did. “Dad, could you walk over there and back?” He walked over there and back. I went to the nurse’s station.

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Thursday, December 29, 2022

"I don't want to go on the cart" — The State of the Blog, 2022.

In January, we went with the Night Ministry to visit the homeless.

     Two thousand twenty-two was another bad year for newspaper columnists. Media critic Robert Feder threw in the towel and Sun-Times obit maven Maureen O'Donnell retired. As did the always readable Leonard Pitts at the Miami Herald, citing "emotional exhaustion" as if that were a bad thing. I kinda like the drained-of-everything feeling that comes from cranking out a big story. Good tired. Makes me feel alive. 
     But maybe I'm strange in that regard. When I plug "newspaper columnists retiring" into Google I find a cemetery worth of folks whose names I've never heard, or forgot if I did, the fate of every columnist not named Mencken or Royko. That's why I'd be reluctant to write a farewell column — that seems how you learn about the existence of most columnists, at their goodbyes, their lives illuminated by their final spark as they gutter out. No thanks.
     And 2022 followed 2021, another lethal year in the pundit biz, when both Eric Zorn left the Chicago Tribune and Gene Weingarten was shown the gate at the Washington Post, his two Pulitzer Prizes tucked under his arm, driven out after a lame joke about Indian food. Mark Brown quietly stepped back from the daily thrust and parry, offering up the occasional column as the mood strikes.
     Honestly, those last two give me comfort. Because if Gene Weingarten can hang it up without the sun going dark at noon, and Mark Brown can decide to cough into his fist and amble offstage, then Dante's quiet harbor can call to me, too and, when the time comes, I can furl my sails and coil my rope without reluctance or regret.  Anything more is hubris.
     Though in the time that remains, it is getting lonely. The very idea of opining on the news, or having a distinctive voice, seems antique, out of favor in a world become free-fire zone where everybody is upchucking opinion at everybody else all the time. Sometimes it seems like I'm already performing a useless task, polishing the zeppelin mooring mast, scanning the skies, ready for the airship that isn't ever coming.
     What makes it worthwhile, still, are the stories. To me anyway. I can recall those without regret or foreboding or anything besides pride of accomplishment. A quick recap of the highlights of 2022:
Ashlee, left, at Roseland's COVID ICU.
     In January, I teamed up with Ashlee Rezin, covering the hospital side of COVID, returning to Roseland for "People are exhausted." I tend to pooh-pooh augury, but on Feb. 15, I did write "Why Russia is about to invade Ukraine," nine days before the war began, while many were still in denial of the obvious. In March, we cleaned out my father's art studio in "Doing time's dirty work."
     In April, the US Census for 1950 was unsealed, and I packed a lot of personal exploration along with some Chicago celebrity sleuthing with "Tracking down the family and the famous."
     In May, I let Smuckers conduct a master class in inept public relations with "Why does peanut butter taste so good?" 
     In June, I wrote my second most clicked post ever, "Why restrict child porn but not guns?" You'll notice that I didn't say "most read," because it's hard to believe the bowl-haircut yahoos reacting to it — with a Beavis and Butthead babble of "heh heh, you said 'child porn'" — actually read the column. One tweet had 10,000 comments, and I didn't read one, though people who did expressed concern for my safety, which I waved off. Bullies are cowards, and the fact that I'm still here means I gave their threats exactly the consideration they deserve.
Photo by Ashlee Rezin
      In July, Ashlee Rezin and I attended "Hearts to Art," a program for children who have parents who have died, "A camp that saves young lives." Again, her work is so outstanding, my writing functions pretty much as something to fill the space between her photographs.
     In August, I had a lot of fun with the dance of the seven veils that former Tribune columnist John Kass did over where he lives. "And John went down to the land of Indiana." Self-importance is a folk illness among columnists, and nothing keeps me humble better than watching the Kasses of the world fail to even try.
     Talk about things that keep you humble, in September, the book based on this blog, "Every Goddamn Day: A highly Selective, Definitely Opinionated and Alternatingly Humorous and Heartbreaking Historical Tour of Chicago" was published by the University of Chicago Press, a fact I ballyhooed in "Book Event This Weekend." If you remember Daffy Duck going down on one knee and spreading his arms to a chorus of crickets, you'll know what that felt like.
     In November, I finally submitted to the constant drip-drip-drip encouragement of Chicago Public Square's Charlie Meyerson, and started sending out emails with the link, "Receive EGD via mail." Forty days after I began, it now has 150 subscribers, which is both laughably small and enough.
     Which brings us to December. Caren Jeskey finished up her second full year of providing a clear, distinctive, alternate voice on Saturdays, with gems such as "Silurian Sea."  I am grateful for her consistency, professionalism, kindness, imagination, energy and spirit. The advertisements went up for Eli's Cheesecake, the 10th Christmas in a row that the venerable Chicago cheesecake company has supported this blog. If for some unfathomable reason you have not ordered their cheesecake, shame: go to it right here, right now.
     It seems we've all made it through 2022. Good for us. Hearty back pats all round. I can't imagine what 2023 will bring, but you can read about it here, before the day comes when I look down and see the big hook that has already yanked so many other better writers offstage now fixing itself around my waist. Until then, thank you for reading, and commenting, and sending in your email addresses to subscribe, and for buying cheesecakes. This won't last forever, but I am fairly confident we can get through another year. Let's give it a try.
Can't forget June's fulfillment of a longtime dream: a visit to the Neenah Foundry. 


Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Will this get me banned at Radio City?

     I don’t hate New York City as much as many Chicagoans do. In fact, I don’t hate it at all, but enjoy visiting the museums and drinking coffee at Caffe Reggio and walking the High Line.
     Why? It’s a great city, and I tend to like every city I’ve been to, to a greater or lesser degree, including Los Angeles, Cleveland, Santiago and Gary, which I once recommended in this space as a tourist destination.
     I didn’t go to New York Christmas, but have in the past, to see a Broadway show, enjoy the lights on Fifth Avenue. I haven’t yet gone to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes, but can easily imagine doing so. Unless this column cheezes off the owners and they ban me, the way they did all the lawyers at firms that have sued them.
     In case you missed that story, over Thanksgiving, a personal injury lawyer named Kelly Conlon tried to attend the “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City, chaperoning her 9-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout troop. But guards barred Conlon.
     “They told me that they knew I was Kelly Conlon and that I was an attorney,” she told the New York Times. “They knew the name of my law firm.”
     What happened? Cameras captured Conlon’s face as she entered Radio City, facial recognition software identified her as someone on the “attorney exclusion list” that MSG Entertainment, which owns Radio City, Madison Square Garden, and other venues, created over the summer. MSG is a publicly-traded company controlled by the Dolan family, who’ve been accused of ejecting people from their venues for reasons having little to do with security.
     Conlon never sued MSG. She just belonged to a firm that had.
     Why is this significant to people in Chicago?

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Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The odds of Lennon Scott's birth

The Scott Family
  Math is hard and precise writing even harder; try to combine the two, and mistakes are to be expected.
     In that light, are they worth pointing out? Or is that nitpicking? I go by the broken windows theory: that if you ignore the small errors, then bigger errors start happening. Standards ought to be maintained.
     Being statistically-inclined, not to mention a fan of babies, my attention was drawn to a story on the CBS website, despite its unlyrical (but no doubt search-friendly) headline, "This couple who shares a birthday just welcomed their first baby – on their birthday" by Caitlin O'Kane, about Cassidy and Dylan Scott, an Alabama couple who were each both born on Dec. 18, and who recently welcomed a new baby, Lennon, on their joint birthday. All was happiness until this sentence:
     "For the couple to have their baby on their birthday is a one in 133,000 chance, according to Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children, which shared the family's story on Facebook. "
     No. It's not. Not close. The chance of Lennon being born on their birthday was 1 in 365.
     To see whether the error was the hospital's or CBS's, I checked the cited Facebook page. This is how Huntsville Hospital put it: "On Sunday, Dec. 18, a chance that's one in 133,000 occurred when their daughter Lennon was born."
     Their mistake, though the writer, O'Kane — who graduated from Fordham University in 2014, went on to get her masters there and then has worked in TV ever since — is no neophyte, so should have paused to think about the figure. Off-loading responsibility by quoting the source making the mistake doesn't cut it.
     It's easy to see how the 133,000 was reached — 365 x 365 (which equals 133,225, but 133,000 will do). Either way, that is not the odds of the Scotts having a baby on their shared birthday. Rather, it's the odds of any two people who marry first sharing a birthday and then having a baby on that birthday. The odds for the two-part sequence of events, not just for the second occurrence.
     Do I need to show my work?
     Okay. My birthday is June 10. When I asked my future wife out, the odds of her also being born on June 10 were 1 in 365 (ignoring the leap year). Let's for argument sake say she had shared my birthday. Once married, the odds of us having a baby on that birthday were also 1 in 365. The 133,000 to 1 odds were the chances of a couple both meeting, sharing a birthday and then having a baby on that birthday. 
     To provide a metaphor, it's as if today, Tuesday, I flip a coin and it comes up heads, and the Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children declares the chances of that happening to be 1 in 14. When that actually represents the chances of me flipping heads on a random day of the week and that day turning out to be a Tuesday. The chances of the flip itself are 1 in 2.
     See? No? Well, I tried.  As I said, math is hard, for many, which is why it needs to be contemplated by professional journalists before being passed along to the public. Apologies to O'Kane — it sucks to have your flubs flagged, never mind commented upon, even on the obscure hobby blog of some old crocodile in Chicago. I am reluctant to highlight a small mistake of a media colleague. I've made my share. But that stat was quoted in mainstream publications around the world and not one, as far as I can tell, paused to figure out whether it is correct. Letting such matters pass with a shrug is how we get to a world where facts don't matter at all, and we're sliding down the slippery slope in that direction fast enough already. 

Monday, December 26, 2022

Beth from electronics takes a hike.

Beth McGrath I
     Amazing how memories can sleep for years, decades even, only to be suddenly unlocked.
     I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter Christmas Day, manfully digesting mounds of homemade cookies so I could go eat more, and there was a video of a Walmart clerk in a pink neon vest talking over an intercom.
     "Attention Walmart shoppers and associates," she begins. "My name is Beth from electronics. I've been working at Walmart for over five years and I can say that everyone here is overworked and underpaid. The attendance policy is bullshit. We are treated by customers and management poorly every day. Whenever we have a problem with it, we're told we are replaceable."
     A classic take-this-job-and-shove-it moment. Posted Dec. 23, it had three million views two days later. Why not? Who hasn't dreamed of quitting a job in dramatic, public fashion? In the years when I was on the night shift at the paper, slumped over on my desk waiting to be sent out to cover the next apartment fire, nursing a raft of slights both real and imagined, I passed the time conjuring up a Scottish band. They would show up toward day's end, while there were still lots of people around. A drum major in a bearskin headpiece carrying a mace, a guy pounding on a bass drum, and a couple of bagpipers. They would arrive, start to play, all eyes upon them. I would leap onto a chair, make a quick speech of resignation, condemning my bosses and all involved, then lead them out, stepping high, to "Scotland the Brave." I'm not sure why a Scottish band and music — I suppose there's something very "fuck you" baked into the soul of Scotland.
Beth McGrath II
     In other variations I'd be down on the river, sailing on some kind of elaborate party barge, decked out like King Herod on a throne, being fanned by palm fronds, surrounded by bathing beauties and flags, and harangue the managing editor through a bullhorn. "Dennis Britton!!! I'm talking to YOU!!!"
     Those memories seemed the natural stopping point. But here is the odd thing — and on social media, if you haven't found an odd thing, you probably haven't looked hard enough. When I tried to find out more about the video, the backstory, as it were, I quickly discovered that the one caught on Twitter isn't the original. A video of the same speech, but being given by a white employee, Beth McGrath of LaFayette, Louisiana, was posted on YouTube over a year ago. Looking back, though the clerk in the recent Twitter video punctuated the "five years" by holding out five fingers, the camera soon cuts away to customer reaction and stayed there. You hardly see the faux Beth speaking. It smacks of falsity, in retrospect.
     So either the false resignation was staged, to synch with the audio, or a benign video was made to match with the audio. I was wondering why, approached Jazzie654, the person (with 175,000 followers) who tweeted the second video, followed them and was followed back. "Hey, thanks for the follow," I wrote. "I'm a news columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times, and I thought I'd write a post on that Beth from Walmart video you tweeted. It seems that the audio was put over a video of a completely different person. Did you do that? Any insight into what happened? Thanks."
    Jazzie654 replied, rather cryptically: "Greetings Neil, although this did happen, it's not the original video." And then, a dozen minutes later, "Quitting Wal-Mart over the intercom has turned into a thing."
     That didn't add much clarity.
     "Yes, but what's it a video of?" I persisted. "Someone else quitting? Why use the old audio? I'm confused."
     "I think it was changed to be more effective, since the original person that quit hid her face," said Jazzie. "I'm only guessing since I didn't record it, I wasn't aware of the original version until after I posted."
      Which is a reminder that with the growth of deep fakes, even a video apparently showing something can't be taken at face value online anymore. The record of one person quitting can be re-staged to show an entirely different person pretending to quit. Does that matter? I bet it will, more and more.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Chicago Christmas, 1945

Chicago Daily News, Dec. 24, 1945

     The story I originally tell for Dec. 25 in my new book, "Every Goddamn Day," takes place in 1973, when a 350-pound slab of marble detached itself from the newly-constructed Standard Oil Building and fell onto the roof of the Prudential building next door. The opening salvo of a shower of chunks of stone falling over the next decade. Leading to, in the early 1990s, the entire skin — 43,000 slabs of white carrara marble — being replaced with granite at about half the cost of originally constructing the building itself.
     I love that story. In a city that reveres architects, it's good to remember that sometimes they just don't think things through — the guys building Big Stan obviously believed they were building a skyscraper in Miami, and hadn't properly considered the expansion and contraction that comes with the 100 degree shift between summer and winter in Chicago.
     But I had overlooked something key myself, a lapse my wife neatly summarized when I mentioned the falling stone story to her.
     "It's CHRISTMAS!" she said, or words to that effect. "Can't you find something a little, oh, Christmasy?"
     Not being entirely without sense, I saw her point. The question was then, "Which Christmas?" I figured the one immediately after World War II would have stories, and I was right.

Dec. 25, 1945

     The soldiers have been mustering out for months. But that barely dents the 12 million Americans in uniform. The arrival of the first peacetime Christmas in five years only intensifies the rush to get them home as quickly as possible.
     There are so many, and they keep coming. Today alone, 20 troopships arrive in eastern ports, and on the West Coast, California has 150,000 demobilized troops waiting for rides. The trains are full—the Southern Railroad estimates that 94 percent of passengers are military vets. Hundreds of civilians simply give up their reservations for veterans. Chicago train officials say Christmas breaks a passenger record. Though some trains are eight hours late, they all depart, eventually. Six marines grab a cab in San Diego and hire it to take them to New York City. Illinois servicemen who borrowed a furniture van in Denver are spending today snowbound in Kansas City. As the nation’s rail hub, Chicago hosts an occupying army of stranded vets. The city’s four Service Men centers host 132,000 uniformed soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen for the holidays. One sees boxer Joe Louis arrive at Municipal Airport, on his way to visit his daughter, ill at Children’s Memorial Hospital. In asking for an autograph, the vet explains he’s been marooned at the airport for two days. The champ reaches into his pocket, removes a Chicago–to–New York ticket, and gives it to the soldier. “Here, take this,” he says. “And have a merry Christmas with your folks.”
     Those who can’t go home phone instead. Bell Telephone reports that all its long-distance operators are on duty, a first. In part, because the pricy calls are being given away. One thousand wounded vets recovering at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital each get a five-minute call home, paid for by the Phone Home Fund, financed by readers of the Chicago Times.
     Compounding the chaos, Chicago, like much of the Midwest, is glazed by ice, the worst since records have been kept. A navy plane carrying nine sailors east lands at Municipal Airport but can’t take off again.
     Dale Drew and June Kemper, two young ticket agents for Consolidated Airlines, see the Pacific vets sulking around the airport this morning. They phone their mothers, who are already preparing Christmas dinners for 11 and eight, respectively. What’s a few more? The sailors are split up and sent to their homes, where presents materialize under the trees. After dinner, they gather at the Drew home, where friends of the two agents arrive. The carpets are rolled back, and there is dancing and singing.
Before they leave, the nine sailors draw up a resolution: “This has been a wonderful Christmas for us,” it reads. “One just like you read about in books or see in the movies. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.” They all sign.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Northshore Notes: Common air

    I tend to be linear, to err on the side of structure, clarity. But that is only one way to roll. Today's post by EGD's Northshore bureau chief Caren Jeskey is more freeform, more of a koan, a mystery to unwrap, circling in on itself. I'm not sure I get it, but then, it isn't for me. It's for you. Enjoy.

By Caren Jeskey

”These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.”
              — Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
     We sometimes hurt the ones we love, but we don’t have to. We can use our incredible brains with more finesse.
     Here are seven basic communication tips from retired Gary Noesner, the former chief of the F.B.I. Crisis Negotiation Unit, that might come in handy. You can write them down on a piece of paper and keep it in your pocket to remind you, along with a smooth stone to ground you, or perhaps a doll to poke with needles under the table if you must.
     Nod and say “yep. Yep. Yep.”
     Paraphrase, letting them know what you heard them say to be sure you got it right.
     Use Emotional Labeling, such as “it seems as though…” to learn more.
     Use Mirroring, repeating the last few words of their sentence. This breeds comfort, which leads to bonding.
     Ask open-ended questions to better understand. Stay curious.
     The tried and true favorite, “I” statements. “What I heard is…”.
    Allow for effective pauses. "'Eventually, even the most overwrought people will find it difficult to sustain a one-sided argument and will return to meaningful dialogue.'"
     I’m not saying I don’t need to be talked down sometimes, because I do. Sadly, I had the first brief row in many years with my brother this past week. We will repair, and I'll be sure to pre-game by reviewing active listening skills next time. We snap at others as if we have buttons they can push when our frustration tolerance is low. One way to improve in this area is to cultivate our thoughts and emotions into the direction of harmony rather than discord. There are countless guided meditations on my favorite (free/donation based) app that you can also stream online, Insight Timer.
     What we think of as focused, undivided attention in the west is akin to — but not quite the same as — to what’s considered to be meditation elsewhere. In that vein, I've found that spending focused hours on clients, playing music, reading and writing, and getting out for walks relieves intrusive thoughts, and fears and worries disappear. I don't have time to hold a grudge or worry about the planet if I'm immersed in something captivating.
     The big trick is taking serenity out into the world with other people.
     As some of you know from my recent Saturday posts, I end up at the lake often, and my new hobby of rock gathering ensues.* I was out at a beach in Evanston for three hours this past Wednesday a sunny day with a windchill that was under 20 degrees. It was glorious. I got lost staring at the water, engulfed in the sound of waves, and searching for morsels. I ran around and jumped and stomped my feet here and there. I sang Go Tell It On The Mountain for some reason. (Raised Catholic). I was a kid again. I found about a cup of lake glass that day — some smooth and frosty, some that I call half-baked, and some still with sharper edges.
     Friends who live on islands, whom I consider ecologically-minded beach experts — have told me to throw the last kind back into the water so they can have more time to soften into the glass most people cherish. I stepped into a heap of trouble yesterday, when I posted the images of my finds (and my plan to return some shards to the lake) on a Great Lakes rock fanatic group, online. I was called dumb and ignorant and harassed for being an idiot who would even think of throwing glass into the lake. A litterer. My favorite? “Gee, thanks for the bloodletting garbage.”
     I responded calmly for the most part, clearing up the confusion. I let the name-callers know that I felt hurt and uncomfortable, which the moderators don't allow. One man gave a heartfelt apology. I reported the gif with a bunch of men labeled "The Group" surrounding a person labeled “You” who cowered in the middle of a circle while everyone else flipped them/me the bird. Oy vey. This is how folks spend their vacations. (This is why Neil cautioned me not to read the vitriol I noticed on his Twitter thread once. He doesn't. Wise).
     I turned the volume down on the haters, and focused on those who kindly taught me the right way (in their eyes) to handle the unbaked glass. I will keep it as is, or tumble it. .
     Happy last week of December to you! May you be the calm in the storm if there's a storm. If not, may you have the good fortune of having a hostage negotiator nearby.

* The rocks I put in the tumbler 2 weeks ago will be changed out today, and I'll share the progress another day.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Christmas in Catalonia

     Christmas is Sunday, but I have an early present for you. Maybe something that can warm this frigid holiday weekend a little.
     Back in October, my wife and I visited Barcelona — it was supposed to be a 30th anniversary gift to ourselves, but COVID. But after a couple of years, we realized the pandemic is never going away, so we steeled ourselves and flew overseas.
     I was vaguely aware that Barcelona is a city in Spain, important during the Spanish Civil War, having read George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.” That’s about it. My wife stepped up, as she always does, and picked what we’d do: at night, eat magnificent tapas dinners at crowded cafes; during the day, visit sites designed by the city’s star architect, Antoni Gaudi.
     We picnicked at Park Güell, the rambling high-end housing development turned pleasure compound. We took a night tour of La Pedrera, the curvy apartment building Gaudi designed and lived in, where from the roof we first glimpsed that capstone of our visit, the Basilica de la Sagrada Família, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, an enormous cathedral begun in 1882 and set to be completed in 2026, maybe.
     Trying to describe Sagrada Família in words and pictures is something of a fool’s errand. It can’t be conveyed. But given this is Christmas, a season of wonder, with the Three Magi setting out to witness a birth in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem, this seems a time for boldly venturing forth. Were you to go, you’d exit the subway station and first see this mountainous mass — it looks almost organic, a series of pointed conical towers wrapped in protective netting, rising from a mound of mud, with construction cranes jutting out at odd angles.
     “Looking for all the world like a cluster of gigantic stone termites’ nests, a colossal vegetable patch,” wrote architectural critic Jonathan Glancey. “A gingerbread house baked by the wickedest witch of all or perhaps a petrified forest.”

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Thursday, December 22, 2022

My conversation with Janice Taylor.

Mask Masked by Gillian Wearing

     Having a book published can drive you a little nuts. Me anyway. After going through all the hard work required to paddle yourself to the center of this vast ocean of publishing, you now bob there, scanning the empty horizon,  ready to hail any distant sail.  
     That might be one reason why, after a person who instantly struck me as a Facebook scammer dangled her bait by inquiring about my book, I didn't do the smart thing and immediately block her. Instead I replied sincerely.
     Mind you, I hadn't gone completely mad — I never thought this was anything other than some guy in a windowless basement boiler room pinging 50 prospective marks at a time, looking for the one who'd doesn't pause and ask himself why a cute 20-something would suddenly be interested in a worn out old boot like himself. But she did start off her pitch in an unusual fashion. And I did let the line play out for a couple days — I guess I felt I was the angler as much as the prey. I was bored, curious how she'd spring the trap. Our chat began like this:
     Honestly, I didn't think much about it, at first. People do ask about how to get the book, as if they've never bought a book before. I looked at her Facebook page. It had some Chicago references on it. We do live in a diverse city. Nineteen of my friends — all men — had already friended her. She could in theory be a legitimate young person unfamiliar with the book buying process. The daughter of some businessman perhaps. It's possible. 
    The idea to create a professional account ... that was also different. A very specific suggestion, not one that would benefit her. Not the standard claim of a suitcase of cash found in Afghanistan that needs a trustworthy person to help with its disposal. It was the day before my book signing at Atlas, and I figured, okay, if she wants the book, and is real, she can stop by and purchase one. 

    I had looked at our mutual friends. All white men in their 50s or 60s. That screams scam. Alleged women romance and flatter older men and ... I'm not sure what. Hit them up for money for plane tickets for their joyful meeting. Or if she is supposedly in Winnetka, for bail or ... I'm not sure what. One of her friends was Vincent P. Falk, the genius programmer/fashion plate. That also told me she wasn't real.  I just couldn't picture Vincent Falk chatting up Janice Taylor at a North Shore soiree.

     It does? We'd lapsed into almost normal, nice-to-meet-ya conversation.     

     Thus ended our first evening's relationship. She was there, waiting, the next morning. I almost replied to her opening salvo with a testy, "Don't toss platitudes at me." But that seemed unkind, even to someone whose end game was ripping me off. I settled on acerbity.

     I was annoyed to find her back, but also sitting in a coffee shop, killing time. What was the harm?

     "Chicago is one of the bustling cities in the United States" sounds like a direct translation from Korean Wikipedia. And that page of drawings was snagged from the Instagram feed of an actual young California fashion designer, Amiko Simonetti. You can see her signature on the page that Janice posted. That was enough for me to unfriend her — and figured it was time to move this charade along. Why not just block her? I guess I wanted to see her try to spring her trap.

    I told myself there was an element of altruism to extending the conversation.  I figured, while she's after me, she can't also be sweet-talking someone else who might actually fall into the trap.  Plus people are not exactly lining up to chat with me. There is definitely something pleasant in just talking to someone. Those AI chatbots being developed now are going to make a fortune someday.

    The sun doesn't set over Lake Michigan. It rises. Okay, ignore her. But she kept circling back.

     I found myself lulled by another weakness: my tendency to want to share my own writing with others.
   Yes, Kumamon isn't technically anime, but yuru kyara, a "loose character." Close enough.

     Are you getting bored yet? I was. But somehow just blocking her seemed ... rude. No doubt a guy in some godforsaken place. But what if she was actually what she appeared, some 23-year-old daughter of a Korean businessman based in Wilmette, stealing other people's fashion designs, trying to seem impressive? Why be mean to that person? She hadn't done anything yet, nothing but chat. 

    The dumplings looked too good to be true. A Google Image search didn't find a source; no stock shot I could find. But I worried this could go on forever, and wanted to press her and see what happened.

    If you've hung in so far, we're nearing the denouement. 

     And so our conversation ended. I thought. I planned to post this a week ago Wednesday. Then the night before, she phoned me, just as I was sitting down to dinner. I have no idea how she got the number. We exchanged a few words — she didn't seem to want anything in particular other than to call me. As soon as I got off the line, I blocked her, which is what I should have done at the start.
     Her calling, stepping out of the realm of Facebook and into the telephone, creeped me out enough to hold this. I didn't want to do anything to encourage her presence in my world. But a week has passed, and I figure the coast is clear. Besides, I need something for today. What's the worst that could happen?


Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Finding the fun in functional

Ben Graham, left, examines a jacket designed by Columbia College fashion students.

     Fashion is cool and fun, daring and young.
     You can see that just walking into Reyes Witt’s classroom at Columbia College Chicago and noticing what her students are wearing. The sleeveless cowl T-shirt on Adam Salame, 20. The off-the-shoulder black batwing blouse on Paige Bernby, 20. The black slip worn as a dress over a turtleneck on Sandra Walkowicz, 21. Not to overlook Madison Chain’s hot pink beret worn with a sequined miniskirt and white knee-high boots.
     But fashion can be functional as well as fun, geared toward seniors instead of kids, as evidenced by the course name, “Design Solutions for Fashion Design,” and by what Witt’s students have been up to for the last 15 weeks: creating clothing to be worn by those facing physical challenges, such as the mobility limitations of the elderly, or being in a wheelchair, wearing absorbent undergarments or requiring help to dress.
     Students conceived their designs while learning to use new 3D design software, then created prototype garments. Today the top three designs are being presented to Joe & Bella, a new Chicago company that designs and sells adaptive apparel for seniors and people with disabilities.
     Once the students are ready, that is.
     “Some people are still sewing,” says Witt, as the class begins.
     Ben Graham, vice president of marketing at Joe & Bella, arrives.
     “We’re going to pick one, pass it on to our design team to finish it,” he says. “Put it up on our website and sell it.”
     First up is a convertible unisex blue jacket with zip-off sleeves.
     “We had a few issues,” says Salame, pointing to the prototype on a seamstress dummy. “We used this material that we discussed last time.”

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Tuesday, December 20, 2022

How can we miss Elon Musk if he won't go away?

     Hunkering down is a survival skill. There are times to fight, and times to flee, and times to keep your head low and wait.
     That last option seemed the only thing to do when Tesla mogul and Space X founder Elon Musk rode into town as the new boss of Twitter in late October. Yes, I began ballyhooing my stuff on Mastodon, or whatever they call their imitation of tweets ("PUBLISH!" the purple button says). But the service is even more random and ineffectual than Twitter, which is saying a lot, given how little traction my work gets there. Mastodon seems more like storing a few gallon jugs of water stashed in the basement — a symbolic gesture that won't really help much should  disaster occur.
     Besides, whatever change Musk was fomenting — inviting antisemites out of their holes to strut around in the light of day, banning a few journalists who had the temerity to write stories about him — didn't affect me in any direct sense. Twitter has always been a free-fire zone of malice and 99.999 percent of the stuff flying around I never see anyway. It's a breeze upon which to send my little balloons of writing wafting off into the aether.
     Honestly, I wouldn't have noticed a change except that I lost about 400 followers. I was closing in on 10,000, which is nothing in the larger picture, b
ut a milestone in my dusty corner of the Sunset League. Now I've sunk below 9,500 and falling steadily, though I can't tell whether those are people more moral than myself fleeing the service, or robot followers being evaporated by some more efficient purging system put in place by the new regime.

    Now Musk has done one of his spurious polls to see whether he should step down as the head of Twitter, and the answer was a resounding "yes"—57 percent of 17 million voters said, "Don't let the door hit you in the ass, Elon." Never mind that those polls can easily be manipulated by the spambots and web robots that supposedly proliferated after the people in charge of getting rid of them were fired, or quit, when half the staff left upon Musk's arrival. It seems as if Musk will ignore the result anyway, in classic MAGA it's-only-fair-if-I-win style.
Last week I did ask myself if, by staying, I'm passively enabling evil, the good German sweeping his front step and not looking at the smoke coming from the crematorium. But all human systems are freighted with bad, and tweeting once a day doesn't seem like participating in wrongdoing any more than paying taxes or buying products. Leave reaching for moral purity to the vegans. Donald Trump was president for four years and I didn't go anywhere; how is this different?
     Musk has said he will abide by the people's choice, and maybe he will. Hard to tell when you're dealing with such an established hypocrite and liar. He could always bring in some even bigger asshat to run the thing. One hopes he goes back to running Tesla's, whose stock cratered in his absence, losing a third of its value over the past six months (including the 5 percent leap for joy it did Monday on learning Musk might stop spending his days sniping at people on Twitter).
     The poll strikes me as a fig leaf. With both Twitter and Tesla hemorrhaging value, the farce is bound to end sooner than later, as adults nudge Musk aside to a setting better suited to his ranting and preening.

     There's a reason children are warehoused in schools and not put in positions of authority. Ego is poison, attention an addictive drug, and people without the moderating influence of humility, maturity and good sense should avoid flailing around in public. Elon Musk spent $44 billion — most of it other people's money, of course — to cement his reputation as a bully with the impulse control of a toddler. From the public point of view, that might be a service, long term. Now we know. At least he was born in South Africa, and so can't be elected president of the United States. It's happened before.
     And then Trump went away. Or at least is in the painful, protracted process of going away. Waiting works. I've worked for my share of bad bosses before. They tend to move on down the pike if you just are patient. They arrive, manifest their inability, flail around, and then head off to explore new horizons while those behind heave a grateful sigh. The model I used was a previous classic business disaster, when Quaker Oats bought Snapple for $1.7 billion in November, 1994, twice its actual market value, ran the brand into the ground, and sold it for $300 million, half its actual worth, in March 1997. The entire fiasco didn't take three years to unfold, start to finish. I can't imagine Musk lasting that long. Heck, at this rate, he'll be gone by springtime.

Monday, December 19, 2022

A better picture of Willie Wilson

Willie Wilson
     “Willie Wilson wishes to speak to you ...” a colleague informed me, passing along his phone number.
     Geez, I thought. What’s this about? I pondered, and it came to me. Must be the column on predictions, where I say his becoming mayor would be “the worst possible outcome.”
     That didn’t bother him. Just the opposite.
     “I like that prediction,” he said. The trouble lay elsewhere.
     “That picture you did of me. ... That looked bad.”
     I apologized. While he was on the line, I felt obligated to pick his brain and started with a question perplexing many Chicagoans:
     What’s wrong with Lori Lightfoot?
     “She feels that being mayor gives her the authorization to do things on her own,” Wilson replied. “I think she’s got a complex. She’s a dictator, in my opinion. She’s getting all these kickbacks.”
     “Kickbacks”? That’s a serious accusation, I told Wilson. Could you elaborate? Kickbacks in the envelopes stuffed with cash sense? That doesn’t seem the mayor’s brand.
     No, he said, contributions to her political fund.
     “When I say ‘kickback,’ I mean people who do business with the city, that set up these PACs,” he said. “That’s a conflict. They set up a PAC so they can put more than the limit of $1,500. They’re putting $50,000 or more, and she’s taking it.”
     I ran this charge by the mayor’s people. Our conversations revolved around a recent Tim Novak expose pointing to the $68,500 Lightfoot accepted from companies belonging to a city lobbyist, Carmen Rossi. Lightfoot’s spokesperson’s reaction, in essence, was: Whoops. That isn’t like us. We gave the dubious money back.
     This is where being really rich helps. Wilson says he’ll accept small donations but not the big chunks of change the mayor accepts if nobody calls her on it.
     “I wouldn’t take that kind of money,” he said. “I’ve always been giving that kind of money away.”

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Sunday, December 18, 2022

The other Lori

Lori Cannon

     Saturday afternoon was a cold, bleak, gray day. Outside, in the streets of Chicago, that is. But all was warm and bright and colorful inside GroceryLand, 5543 North Broadway, when I stopped by to visit an old friend and conduct an unusual transaction.
     GroceryLand, run by Lori Cannon, is an Edgewater food pantry for people living with HIV. (And, sometimes, though you didn't get it from me, for people who don't have HIV, such as mothers of hungry families, but who are needy nonetheless. Lori is good at many things, but turning away those who she could help is not one of them. Particularly during COVID).  Lori knows that her clientele spends a lot of their time in drab, institutional settings, and wants her operation to be as homelike and festive as possible. There are two other locations on the South and West sides of Chicago.
     It had been several years since I last visited, and the place was even more warm and inviting than I remembered.
     Lori, who helped found Open Hand Chicago in 1988, produced an article mounted on foamcore that I had written in 1994 when the forerunner of GroceryLand opened. (I posted the article on EGD in 2019 to mark GroceryLand's 25th anniversary). Also in 2019, I wrote about Lori, when she received a Legacy Advocate Award.
     We've both been at our respective professions for a long time. We must really like it.
     She took me on a tour of the place. In one corner, a pile of stacked banker boxes. "Jon-Henri Damski's literary estate," she said, suggesting it should stored somewhere more secure than against the wall of a food pantry, no matter how nice. I suggested the Gerber/Hart Library & Archives and she made a face — apparently they are not up to her standards, which can be very high. My second suggestion was the Newberry Library, and she found that a better idea. I promised I would reach out to them Monday and see what I could do.  Damski was a longtime gay columnist, supposedly the first to use his real name, and while I've seen him referred to as "the gay Studs Terkel," I always thought of him as "Chicago's gay Socrates," since he was always crouching at the gates of Lakeview, disheveled but piercingly intelligent, challenging passersby with his unconventional views.
     GroceryLand's walls were festooned with work of Chicago artist and illustrator David Lee Csicsko. Years of posters for GroceryLand — how many food pantries have a strong graphic presence? — plus a whimsical oil painting of, I believe, Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf
     We talked a long time — Lori mentioned that Saturday was the birthday of our late mutual friend, Andrew Patner. She has an incredible memory for names and dates and places, for departed friends and clients, aldermen, mayors, governors, activists, a walking history of the past half century of Chicago gay life, and somebody should sit down with her and a tape recorder and get it all down. 
     Oh, the transaction, I almost forgot. Lori came to my book signing at Atlas Stationers with a big Ziploc bag of ruggaleh, because she's great. Baked herself, and perhaps the best I've ever eaten in my life. My wife, even more impressed, pleaded for the recipe so she could serve them at our Hanukkah party Sunday. Lori said there is no recipe — her mother Bluma taught her and the process just lives in her head — but she'd whip some up for us. We of course tried to dissuade her from going to the trouble; she has more important things to do. But as anyone who has ever tried to dissuade Lori Cannon from doing anything knows, that is not easily done. Impossible really. (A 1996 Reader profile referred to her as a "Demon of Mercy.") So we showed up with all the canned soup we could carry as a donation to GroceryLand, and she gifted us with a tremendous bounty of homemade ruggaleh. Kindred spirits helping, manus manum lavat, one hand washing the other, the Chicago way. Anyway, Hanukkah starts tonight, and I hope those who celebrate have a happy one. And those who don't celebrate it, well, you have the comfort of your own holiday coming in a week. And if you haven't done your holiday good deed yet, GroceryLand could use your cash and your high-quality packaged food items, particularly canned soups.