Friday, December 2, 2022

You had me at chia pudding


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

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Thursday, December 1, 2022

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 












Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Hatred is their secret sauce

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

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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

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

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

 

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

Monday, November 28, 2022

Fight mass shootings with education

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

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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Telling you nothing is certain

   

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

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Northshore Notes: Good Tired

Photos by Caren Jeskey

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

By Caren Jeskey 

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

Giving Thanks
a poem by O. Eugene Picket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We give thanks this day.”

 

Friday, November 25, 2022

Going to Milwaukee

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

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

      

      


Thursday, November 24, 2022

Birthday lunch

 

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

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








Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Are you ready for Thanksgiving?

 
Janice Sackett, from left, Edie Steinberg and Alan Goldberg

   Three turkeys. One roasted. One fried. One smoked. Which is a lot of turkey. But I have help. My brother- and sister-in-law, Jay and Janice, do the deep frying honors, in our driveway. My other brother-in-law, Alan, smokes another turkey at his house. And my wife roasts the third.
     Did you notice the sleight of hand above? I said, “I have help ...” but actually I’m not preparing any of the three turkeys. My role is to buy two ... OK, I don’t do that either. My wife does. But I did lift them, when requested, transferring the birds from supermarket case to cart.
     And I’ll carve one, inexpertly, a hack job that will be greeted with indulgence. If you get nothing else from this column, take away the idea that this Thanksgiving you will be kind, especially to those who do something wrong. And double kind to anybody spilling anything. Especially a child. Because such moments linger. I know a parent who once yelled at a child who spilled soda at Thanksgiving, and that yell echoes across the years — it was mentioned a few days ago. You can’t unring a bell, as the lawyers say, nor can you suck back a yell. Keep paper towels handy.
     Things spill. Things go wrong. The bad is as much part of Thanksgiving as the good. Maybe more. The ritual trundling out of terrible moments and Thanksgiving disasters. One year my Grandma Sarah didn’t pan fry the celery before she put it in her stuffing, and it was crunchy. I, a child, hated that. Crunchy seemed antithetical to the soft comfort of stuffing. I reminded her every year, for the rest of her life: “Grandma. Make sure the celery isn’t crunchy.” It’s all I remember of those long-ago feasts, what I think of when I’m poking a wooden spoon at the sizzling celery. Sorry, Grandma. Children can be cruel.
     Three turkeys for 23 people. A lot of people, but not as many as in years past, when we could serve three dozen. Neither boy is coming home. I’ve generally drawn the veil on their lives, as they are now professional adults who don’t want their private doings chronicled in a newspaper. But that leads some readers to imagine they’re still toddlers, and I don’t think I’m spilling the beans to say they’re both away, kicking the tires of their girlfriends’ families. I practically clamped my hand over my mouth, trying not to give advice on that front. “Make sure you ...” Shutting up is an art form. Although I’m secretly worried, not that these visits will go poorly, but too well. They’ll like what they see so much, we’ll never get them back. Our house will become the thatched roof hut of the old sod, cherished in memory but never returned to. If not exactly cherished, then remembered fondly. Or at least remembered. I hope. That’s the trick of being a parent: you wind their propellers then let them fly, holding your breath, scanning the skies for their return. It’s like being in a cargo cult. Maybe next year. Maybe not.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2022

That's a lot of Cheerios.

 
     "I'm sorry," I said, pausing the quickstep to my car in the windy Costco parking lot as evening fell last week. "But I have to ask..."
     One of the beauties doing my job for the past third of a century: I can intrude into the lives of other people, autmatically, without hesitation or embarrassment, I didn't break step, tossing out my remark as I vectored past.
      The man loading dozens of bright yellow jumbo boxes of Cheerios into the back of his car paused and looked at me.
    "You must really like Cheerios," I continued, half statement, half question.
    I stopped and introduced myself. He said he is Moha Bouacha, a member of the Winnetka/Northfield Rotary Club, and they're putting Thanksgiving food baskets together to donate to Good News Partners in Chicago. 
     "Rotary is all about service," he said, and immediately snagged me to speak. I told him I've spoken downtown at Rotary/One — so designated because it was the first chapter, founded in Chicago by a homesick New Englander on Feb. 23, 1905. 
Preparing food baskets
     That merited a page in my new quotidian city history book,"Every Goddamn Day." 
     Their motto is "Service above self," such as feeding the needy at the holidays, a practice I'm in awe of, being essentially a self above service kind of guy. I feel charitable enough providing table space for 23 relatives at Thanksgiving.
     Rotary is not all self-sacrifice, however. It is also about making beneficial connections. Research for the Rotary vignette in my book  led to my reading "Babbitt," which contains a group modeled on the Rotary, and three other Sinclair Lewis novels, and writing about them in the newspaper. You follow a thread, it can lead unexpected places. Bouacha was wearing a purple NU sweatshirt, and I asked out that too. Turns out, he was associated with Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.
Delivering food baskets
     "Hail to purple, hail to white," I said, my standard greeting when meeting a fellow Wildcat. He looked me quizzically and, pressing forward, I explained that I've
 started writing for Rotary magazine, published in Evanston. My first piece, about recovery, ran in the September issue, and now I'm working on a cover story about, well, I probably shouldn't say. A serious subject of national importance, one that I feel proud to tackle. Lives will be saved. More on that another day.
     I should point out that by tucking Cheerios into their food baskets, the Rotary is giving out the most popular cereal in the country — almost half of American households regularly purchase Cheerios, or one of its numerous variants and brand extension flavors. Ours is one of them; my wife enjoys them dry, as a snack. Delving into the corporate history, I see there is the echo of a lawsuit baked into the name. Originally the half-inch wide life preservers were called "Cheerioats." But Quaker Oats brazenly claimed it had exclusive rights to the word "oats"— quite cheeky for a company that appropriated the reputation of a religious sect, against their will — so General Mills switched the name to "Cheerios" in July, 1945.
 


Monday, November 21, 2022

‘You are still left with doubts’


     Eric Snyder sat in silent contemplation before the massive carving of a human-headed winged bull. One guardian of the entrance to the throne room of King Sargon II in Assyria, the limestone creature is the foremost treasure of the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.
     “It’s impressive,” said Snyder, visiting from Pennsylvania. A fork lift truck operator at a food plant, he naturally pondered the logistics of getting the 40-ton carving to Chicago.
     “Imagine what it took to bring it here,” he said then, without prompting, putting his finger on the issue that for decades has been roiling the world of archeology and museums. “Taking this from the place where it should be. Basically robbing it. In a word, stolen.”
     That’s perhaps putting it harshly. There is paperwork — in fact, the first artifact on display at ”Making Sense of Marbles: Roman Sculptures at the OI,” the museum’s exhibit of all nine of its Roman statues, is the export license related to their transfer here from Libya in 1957.
     “So much discussion today is about looting and repatriation and illegal acquisition,” said Kiersten Neumann, the Oriental Institute interim chief curator. “It’s very complicated.”
     From Greece thundering for the return of the Elgin Marbles — friezes pried from the Parthenon and spirited to the British Museum —to the Smithsonian last month giving a trove of Benin bronzes back to Nigeria, it’s hard to display a golden cup without conversations about how it got here and whether it should go back.
     That ambivalence extends all the way to the name of this small-but-potent museum. It’s still officially the “Oriental Institute,” though staffers’ shirts and press releases use “OI.” The name will officially change in February; Neumann won’t say to what.
     “Oriental” is considered a slur, not so much because it’s a direct insult but an anachronism, viewing Asian cultures as exotic, incense-shrouded mysteries, perspective encouraged by the West’s tendency to romanticize what it can’t understand, the same way hieroglyphics assumed to be supernatural incantations sometimes turned out to be grain inventories and recipes for beer.

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Sunday, November 20, 2022

Receive EGD via email.

 

     Every morning, I do a bit of blog housework. Waiting until a decent hour, usually sunrise, when people are awake, I copy the link to that day's blog and post it on Facebook, then tweet it on Twitter. Shoving my work under reader's noses. In my dream world, that wouldn't be necessary — they'd seek out the blog on their own, no prompting necessary. No doubt some do. But I do not live in my dream world — no complaints; I imagine you don't either. Live in your own dream world that is. Or mine, for that matter.
     Sorry, start again. As you know, Elon Musk's bumbling mismanagement has decimated Twitter, and it leading many to fear the whole thing might just implode. So, before that happens, the prudent person packs a bag and tries to find new outlets. I joined Mastodon, which is kept on numerous servers. But it seems more like a tar pit, lethargic and lethal, that trapped those ancient mastodons, than the trumpeting beasts themselves Far more blunted and ineffective than Twitter, at least for me, which is really saying something. Barely worth the effort. Instagram held promise — I already had an account, and 720 followers — but you can't put live links in your posts. So people have to cut and paste that day's link, and it's hard enough to get them to click something. 
     My pal Charlie Meyerson, of Chicago Public Square, thinks I should send out a mass email. There are automatic email services, like Mailchimp, but when I look at those, I see something you need to pay money for, sooner than later, and I spend enough time putting out my hobby blog; I don't want to throw cash after it too. Paying for the privilege of doing this would be just one more reason to chuck it altogether, and I'm trying not to do that.
     So I thought I'd try sending out a daily blog link email. Charlie is the first recipient, but if you would like to be added to the list, email me your email address at dailysteinberg@gmail.com and I will put it in the database. Though if not enough people are interested after, oh, a month, I'll give it up. The email effort, that is. How many people are enough? Let's say 50. I'd drive to a library across town to speak to 50 people and consider it time well spent. So let's shoot for 50. That seems a modest goal. Which is fitting, since this is a modest enterprise.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Northshore Notes: Emotional Safety

     I typically include a headshot of my Northshore bureau chief Caren Jeskey atop her Saturday essay, to help remind readers who is writing this. But she looked out of place amongst the fire-breathing men I created using the Dall-E AI program, so we're doing without it this week. I'm hoping, after two years, most readers have gotten with the program. Me, six days a week; Caren on Saturdays.

By Caren Jeskey

Created by Dall-E
     We cannot always avoid difficult people. They cut us off and rage on the roads. They go postal. They take the parking spot we were patiently waiting for. Since we cannot change them, what do we do? How do we make our communities safer? The health of a community, after all, depends on its individual members.
     On all of us. The change isn't something we need permission to make. First of all, I am sure I’ve cut someone off without realizing it. I've also gone too slow in the fast lane before being able to merge. I always remind myself, when annoyed with strangers, that no one is perfect. It’s better to let it go than sacrifice my nervous system balance. (Plus these days I might get shot if I react at all). A pick-up owner I know in Austin used to say "accidents are the fault of the slow drivers. Not the tailgaters." Hard not to let that one piss me off, but over time I tried to see her perspective. 
She's right, but what's the use of fighting when she was not open to hearing my take on it?
     We can be around difficult people and react less. You aren't responsible for what they do, but you are for how you respond to it. I practice particular meditations, often called Metta or Loving Kindness, that help me think good thoughts towards others. All others. With practice, it becomes easier. When on a crowded train I stay calm and alert, and if I’m feeling irritated I remember that we all have beating hearts within a cage of bone. Realizing their precarious human form helps me move out of anger more quickly. I remind myself that adults are kids in grown up suits, and we are all marching towards death in our very short lives.
     I still have the urge to talk shit about MAGA maniacs. I have been actively trying to cut it out. I can better spend that energy helping campaign for more mature, wise, and intelligent politicians. I can focus on my own self-growth and keep the finger pointing down. 
Those we rail against generally don't care. In my brief martial arts training I learned that directing vitriol towards others weakens us. Push-ups don't. With loved ones we are on a more intimate journey, and sometimes there are opportunities to talk. This short video about how to talk to MAGA friends and family (yep, I know some) more effectively is helpful. I also have "safe topics" with some folks so that we can avoid arguing about something that one of us cannot seem to have a conversation about.  Sure, there's also the selfish piece where I don't want to accidentally get shot with a hunting rifle by an anti-feminist.
     Granted, it's hard to live amongst those we feel are a threat to democracy. "Looks like the U.S. will never separate church and state. I had a man call me a “wacko” just this week, for being a trans ally. It smarted for a bit. Then I realized it's best to simply move on. It's not his fault that he did not mature past elementary school. It's partly the fault of our society. Tolerance and compassion must be taught at home, and in schools more often. We must teach ourselves to raise our emotional IQs over time throughout life, and model this intelligence. It's considered to be more important than IQ, even in excelling academically."
     
This topic came up for me today, Friday, because I attended a talk based in Austin, Texas (via Zoom). We learned more about how to protect the liberties of Texan residents and therapists that are being stripped away by those in a Trans (and any other form of "other") Panic. Those of us who hold equal rights for all in high regard are being threatened in this bizarre period of time, a throwback to less-enlightened ages. I also had the pleasure of spending 90 minutes or so in a group on Zoom with Reverend Ward Ewing this past week. He’s a non-alcoholic chairperson of Alcoholic Anonymous' General Service Board, who said “... the greatest difficulty I have with the institutional church is with the claim of knowing the truth. Anyone who has studied theology knows that ‘truth’ has changed dramatically over the ages. This claim to know the truth plays a central role in the churches’ developing a view of us versus them. At its worst it has led to witch hunts, inquisitions and persecutions; at its best it leads to hypocrisy and arrogance. I believe it is this claim that encourages within religion the desire to control and the spirit of perfectionism.” 
   As long as those who believe in heaven more than practicing the golden rule on earth- and as long as we have people in the world who do not see the value of all human life - have any degree of power, our world will continue to be broken.

Friday, November 18, 2022

All work and no play makes Elon a dull boy

 

"They all work until 9 p.m." 1913, Lewis Hines photographer (Library of Congress)

     My particular unit of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Neil Steinberg column division, keeps long hours.
     Most days, I’ll wake shortly after 4 a.m. and stare into the darkness, puzzling out some wrinkle in whatever I’m working on. Then toss back the covers and pad up to the office to iron it out. That shifts into polishing it in earnest in the morning after the coffee’s brewed. Hunting around for the next column in the afternoon. And it’s not unknown to get a far-away expression at dinner — oops, it’s “separate,” not “seperate” — and bolt back to make a change.
     Still, I don’t consider myself overworked, because a) it’s my choice, b) I really like doing it and c) if you counted up the scattered minutes, I don’t think it would exceed the 37.5 hours a week I officially work. It’d be impossible to tally.
     Everyone’s job is different, of course, and I’m in something of a unique position. Still, COVID-19 has taught many employees to value flexibility. They’re more interested in having a life outside work, not less. Nobody wants the boss hovering over their shoulder, and many professionals are trusted to do what they need to do, where and when they need to do it. “Get ready to put in a lot more hours!” is not a diktat that anybody, columnist or carpenter or cop, will greet with much enthusiasm.
     So while the ongoing public tantrum that Elon Musk has been throwing since he paid too much for Twitter last month grew extra boring of late, Wednesday’s twist of the knife caught my attention.
     Musk ordered his remaining employees — he has already fired half of Twitter’s staff — to commit to “long hours at high intensity” or quit. Why? Basically because he spent too much and now wants to squeeze more return on investment out of his employees’ lives. Working for Twitter, Musk wrote, will become “extremely hardcore,” a term with an apt connection to pornography since both forms of grinding are obscene.

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Thursday, November 17, 2022

The New York Post does a reverse ferret

     Consider the conundrum of the reformed sinner. Should their past wrongs be held against them? Or the slate wiped clean, to celebrate their epiphany by joyously welcoming them back into the band of the righteous?
     It depends on why they made the shift. A convicted murderer who runs into a burning home to save a baby has still done something heroic; it might not obviate his crime, but it does accrue to his credit, assuming he didn't do it with an eye on the cameras. The key is whether it was done selfishly, or for pure motives. Liz Cheney might be a rock-ribbed Republican who adheres to their various revanchist policy beliefs. But her leading the Jan. 6 committee still was magnificent, and I didn't join my fellow liberals grumbling about her stance on abortion rights or her telling Dick Cheney she loves him. The act was too important, too self-damaging among her cowardly and traitorous peers.

The moment the votes were counted,
the New York Post reversed course.
     Her motives seemed to be a desire to do what is best for the country. It can be a tough call. Mike Pence certainly did the right thing on Jan. 6.  
     Of course, his years of groveling compliance helped bring our nation to the brink. And his book tour courage now has the air of a rat darting out of its hole to nibble on the carcass of a rhino. Compare Cheney's self-immolation to the New York Post this past week doing what my friends in the British media call a "reverse ferret" — an institutional 180 degree spin in outlook. That is a different matter.
     Yes, I am glad that, after the Republican midterm shellacking, they licked their finger, tested the wind, read the memo from Rupert Murdoch and reversed course, turning on Donald Trump with a snarl. Welcome to the Resistance. 
     Yes, I think their treatment of Loser L. McLosey's throwing his hat in the ring, "FLORIDA MAN MAKES ANNOUNCEMENT," reporting that he is making his third run for president, is epic, ranking right up there with "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR."
     The Post treated him as one of those "Florida man..." stories (Since 2013, the sharing of "Florida man..." headlines highlighting the Sunshine State's supposed lock on tales of down-market and absurd criminal behavior, have been a source of Twitter humor: "Florida Man Arrested in Local Park for Practicing Karate on Swans" and such.
     The Post ran across the bottom of its front page Wednesday, sending the reader to page 26 — part of the joke, deep in the paper, along the tide tables and the horoscope. The Sun-Times played it straight, story on page 1. Myself, I would have delivered a bit more heat with that. Mainstream publications seem to finally have figured out how to treat Trump. Even NPR tweeted the news this way: "BREAKING: Donald Trump, who tried to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election and inspired a deadly riot at the Capitol in a desperate attempt to keep himself in power, has filed to run for president again in 2024." That is both completely factual and the proper light.
     So, returning to my opening question, are the Post now among the good guys. The New York and Washington Posts, brother in arms? Hardly. Why? Because for years the Post, and its Fox parent, amplified and encouraged Trump's bullying, sedition and lies. Because the Post is turning on Trump now for the same reason they embraced him: to kiss up to the powerful. It isn't as if they suddenly care about immigrants. In Rupert Murdoch's calculation, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is more likely to be president in 2024 than the twice-impeached flailing fabulist. It's what I long ago dubbed "Horserace Journalism." Put your bet on the horse you think is going to win. That isn't ethics.   
     Welcome the Post to the fight, but don't turn your back on them. Because the winds could yet change direction.