Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Farewell to Scott Adams

     Seventeen years is a long time for a cartoon to hang on your wall. Or door, now. It's shifted over the years. But that's how I roll. I'm looking at a photo of a woebegone beagle that has been tacked over my desk for at least 30. "Terrifying Effect of Unprofessional Environment" is the caption. No idea if the point was ever conveyed to its intended audience in the decades it was displayed in my office downtown. 
     As for the above Scott Adams cartoon, as someone frequently chided by readers, this one spoke to me, and my truism that most people who offer corrections are themselves mistaken.
     That last panel, where the irked reader shifts into false accusations of hating minorities, never really factored into the joke. Now it seems ominous. Oh, I knew Adams had become an increasingly strident right wing asshat. But I try to separate the work from the person. Wagner was a jerk too. So what?
     That all blew up last week when the cartoonist went on a tirade in the wake of a poll that purports to show that about half of Black people disagree with the statement, "It's okay to be white." Which itself is fairly meaningless, first because the poll taker, Rasmussen, has a reputation as being biased and inaccurate, presenting questions in a way to shore up right wing talking points. Only a hater or an idiot or both would put any kind of significance on that.
     Because even if the poll were accurate, what would it mean? The question is vague enough, and the key missing data is how white people would respond to a similar question. One essence of racism is to fault a particular group for exhibiting flaws that you yourself possess. People like Adams, the boo-hoo-white-people-have-it-so-bad crowd, think they're refuting racism, when in fact they're manifesting it.
     Anyway, the result was Adams being cashiered at hundreds of major newspapers, including, eventually, the Chicago Tribune. Which is not a particular loss to cartooning — "Dilbert" had long passed its sell-by date, particularly after COVID stripped offices of their workers. I can't vouch for how Adams reacted to the pandemic, since I stopped reading it years ago. But if he kept to desk-bound wage slaves sparring with their nincompoop bosses, well, that's like those single "Grin and Bear It" gags the Sun-Times runs where men in fedoras sit at bars and gripe. Times change. I used to love the comics. 
     I spoke with Adams once, now that I think of it. He did some strip I really liked — not the one above — and I thought I'd try to get the original. I have drawings from everyone from Matt Groening to Bill Mauldin, James Thurber to Mort Walker, Joe Martin to Pat Brady. Somehow, cartoonists seem more approachable — I'd never ask John McPhee for a manuscript page. Maybe because of their association with journalism. 
    Adams was nice, but explained that he doesn't actually draw "Dilbert," just assembles it on a computer screen from stock images. Which made me shiver, and think of how Charles Schulz dismissed the thought of somebody else lettering his wildly remunerative strip with, "That would be like Arnold Palmer hiring someone to do his putts." 
     All people are biased, by the way, all people of all colors and religions. Every single one of us, to a greater or lesser degree. A person can recognize that without falling weeping onto a sofa, clutching at oneself, as Adams did. The mistake he and those like him make is that they consider being called out on their biases a form of oppression. They think they're victims, suffering from the category error belief that squelching hate speech violates their First Amendment rights. Which might carry some truth were the government doing it. But there is no amendment to the constitution requiring newspapers to run the cartoons of clueless bigots. I decided 17 years is plenty, gently pulled the cartoon off my door so as not to damage the paint, tore it into small pieces and tossed it in the trash.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Punch ticket, grab book

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

     The Bangkok to Chicago flight was about to board. Our hero shuffled toward the gate, exhausted after three weeks away from home, pinballing across Japan and Thailand. A terrible realization dawned:
     It’s a 14-hour flight to O’Hare. And he ... had nothing ... to read. Acting on instinct, he bolted into a small gift shop, spun a black wire rack. With experienced fingers he deftly plucked up “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” by Tom Clancy.
     That book saved my life. I’d have gone mad otherwise. It was also the last thriller I read until Wednesday, when I was rushing out the door, toward a long weekend in Washington, D.C. The cab was out front. “Oh a book!” I thought, grabbing “Shadow State” by Frank Sennett.
     Why that book and not, oh, “Theogony Works and Days Testimonia” by Hesiod, also waiting to be read? First, “Shadow State” was published last week. Second, Sennett is a Chicago author, longtime journalist, now mellowed into public relations. We had lunch once.
     As someone who left nine books on the doorsteps of many a media acquaintance who just shrugged and let them die there, squalling, ignored, I feel a moral obligation to at least start any book sent my way. To read the first page. Usually the first page is plenty. Most books are crap.
     “Shadow State” isn’t crap. I kept reading. There’s no choice.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Do work, get paid.

     For years I was general assignment reporter. My schedule was Sunday through Thursday. Which meant I went to a lot of church services, on Sundays. Fridays were my day off. One Friday, when I lived on Logan Boulevard, I was heading to the health club, one hand holding my gym bag, the other on the doorknob, when I heard the phone ring inside the apartment.
     "Don't answer it," I thought. "Just leave."
     I went back inside and picked up the phone. Being a reporter is a responsibility, almost a calling, that transcends clocks and schedules. It was the paper, of course, telling me to get over to Christ Hospital right now. The Tribune was unleashing some big piece on trauma centers Monday and we were going to try to steal their thunder — spend 24 hours in Christ's ER, write it up Sunday, hit the newsstands at the same time. I was expected to produce the same story in two days that the Trib probably had four reporteres spend a month preparing. That's how the Sun-Times rolls: lean, mean, by the seat of our pants. A trust drop into the dedication and professional of its employees.
     "Okay," I said. 
     Spending 24 hours at Christ on my day off meant, the way our comp time system works, that I would earn 36 hours, almost a full week, of time due — vacation I could take when I like. That struck me as a fair trade for spending my Friday night unexpectedly watching gunshot victims writhe in agony, having to avoid being splashed with blood, and catching a quick catnap on a stainless steel gurney in a brightly lit unused operating room, wondering, idly as I drifted off, whether I would awake to someone sawing off my leg.
     Now imagine that I wasn't contractually assured that eventual time off. Imagine I wasn't confident I would be compensated at all, at least not any more than my usual week's salary. That changes the story, doesn't it? That affects whether I step back into the apartment to pick up the phone or continue with my carefree weekend. It injects a corrosive element of doubt and disrespect. How can you give your all to an organization that doesn't give its all back to you? 
     A question that keeps poking me in the shoulder while watching the new Sun-Times management dicker concerning overtime, and other contractual fine points, during our union negotiations, which drag on. Sun-Times reporters and photographers have been  guaranteed overtime since 1945 (when the paper was just the Sun). Now it's an issue. To even float the idea that overtime might be watered down, seems ... ominous. Get paid for the work you do, and paid more if you are asked to do more — not a very radical concept. 
     Progress is being made, and I don't want to bite the hand that feeds us. Yet. Maybe gum a few digits, as practice, because this is taking longer than it should, and the guild is slowly, gradually, turning up the pressure, reminding the people that a certain organization presenting itself over the airwaves as responsible and thoughtful and concerned and caring about all people everywhere is, behind the scenes, is alternating between dragging its feet and playing iron glove hardball when it comes to giving their employees a fair deal. Which is doubly strange, because the main reason that Chicago Public Media snatched up the Sun-Times (in addition to gaining access to our far more popular online platform) was to tap this ocean of charitable giving by people who want both organizations to endure, even thrive, despite the Great Media Die-Off. Some $60 million, right? It's like winning the lottery and then stiffing the paperboy.
     When I first joined the Sun-Times, I gave a wide berth to union activities. First because it was a union grievance that got me hired in the first place — I freelanced so much, they considered me a scab, so I walked in the door a dubious figure, corrupted by magazine work.  And second, due to my big mouth, I was unpopular enough with management without also establishing myself as a union firebrand. Which I might be doing now, unwisely. Maybe I should have stuck to that strategy but honestly, I'm entering into stage of life where there just isn't as much to lose.  I got mine, enjoyed a long career at a good job with good benefits. I can't sit on my hands now while the next generation gets the shaft. 
     This round, for the first time, I signed up as a union shop steward. A role of minimal responsibility — I have to keep other columnists informed of what is going on — but that duty  requires me to at least keep abreast of how negotiations are proceeding. And I've been disappointed. First, at the 
agree-right-now-or-we'll-sic-Jones-Day-on-your-ass attitude that management assumed right off the bat. That's not how it works. They're called "negotiations" because, well, you negotiate. Otherwise it's just demands being flung. 
      And second, the way they're playing with the benefits for new hires. Which is doubly objectionable because at the same time they're  patting themselves on the back for their attempts to encourage staff diversity. The idea seems to be to quietly create a new set of performance hoops and then lure underrepresented employees to try to leap through them. A bad mix I have dubbed, "Welcome people of color and then fuck 'em."
     This isn't my first rodeo. Both sides talk tough, scare each other. The talks seem to go on forever and at the last moment, with the newsroom putting on their coats to walk out the door, the clocks are stopped, the brass tacks gotten down to, and an agreement is signed that everyone likes, sort of, and we all breathe a deep sigh of relief and go back to the work we love. I fully expect that to happen again. At least I hope it will. Any moment now.
     In the meantime, we need to remember why jobs at the Sun-Times ought to be great jobs. To attract great people. Who'll create great journalism. To benefit a great city. Chicago deserves no less.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Works in progress: Eric Zorn


      Last week I kicked off a new Saturday feature, "Works in progress," where my writer friends talk about what they're doing. My favorite columnist on the Chicago scene — other than myself of course — is Eric Zorn, formerly of the Tribune, lately of the Picayune Sentinel.
So it is natural, after Cate Plys got the ball rolling with the complex world of "Roseland, Chicago: 1972," that I'd ask Eric to go next. It's well-timed that it run today, as earlier this week he gave a shout out to EGD on the Picayune that resulted in about 150 new subscribers. So thanks for that, welcome to the new readers, and I'm glad you'll have a familiar voice to help you make the adjustment.
     Enough preface; take it away, Eric:

     I'm pleased and honored that Neil has invited me to contribute an entry to his hobby blog.
     “Hobby blog” is a distant callback – a deep cut – to those who have been following my relationship with Neil over the years, which I date from 1996. I’ve told this story before, but here it is: I was intrigued by the title of a recently-published book by a Sun-Times reporter, “A Complete and Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres & Total Flops,” so I bought it and took it on a family vacation to Sanibel Island.
     I liked the writing and the journalistic sensibility so much that I called from Florida to leave a complimentary message on Neil’s work machine (this was before email was the dominant mode of communication), and a friendship was born. But we were competitors after the Sun-Times made him a columnist, and would occasionally needle one another in print or online.
    In 2003 I started the Tribune’s first blog, and used it as I use my current platform – a Substack newsletter called The Picayune Sentinel – as a vehicle for little tirades such as one in 2005 under the headline “Steinberg, pimping.”
      I turned on public radio Saturday morning hoping to hear the handwringing, bedwetting liberal blather that so vexes Sun-Times print blogger Neil Steinberg, who picks on NPR in his column almost every chance he gets.
     What did I hear instead? Why, none other than Neil Steinberg himself, flogging his new book yet again in a public radio interview.
     Recently, Steinberg described himself in print as "brash" and "mouthy," but I felt that description was inexact. Readers helpfully contributed many alternative adjectives – some more complimentary than others.
     But if I must pick just two to replace "brash" and "mouthy," I'll go with "shameless" and "touchy."
     Yet because I am such a fair fellow, I'll note that he's shameless and touchy in a compelling and usually eloquent way
     Neil responded in print:
     So I was enduring another lecture from Prof. Zorn, not in his newspaper, of course, but in the hobby blog he uses to gusher on at a stridency and a length too tedious even for his Trib column (I tell you, I get bored and skim sometimes, and it's about me.)
     I typically refrain from comment. But this week's tirade was so nagging and unfair that I began to break my rule and leap to my defense. But after a few paragraphs I deleted it all, realizing just in time I was falling into his trap, becoming as petty and prolix as he. And why put you through that? 
     I snapped back:
     OK, here's how it happened.
     I was on a CTA bus today when a stinking wino roused himself from sleep and staggered to the exit, shedding pages of the Chicago Sun-Times that had been covering him during his extended nap.
     And what should fall on my lap but a fetid copy of page 22, the very page upon which Neil Steinberg was feasting on the chum I had thrown into the quaint little shark tank that he calls a column – a column I never, ever would have occasion to look at or read, of course. But there it was.
     I then quoted the above passage from his column and added:
    He calls this a "hobby blog." It's not. It's formally one-third of my duties here at the Tribune (I used to write three columns a week; now I write two columns plus the Notebook).
And as I've noted before, Steinberg, who spends much of his free time writing books that almost nobody buys and fewer people read than visit this blog in one week, is the last person to accuse anyone of writing for a hobby. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
     He says that he typically refrains from comment, but, in fact, the beautiful thing is that he frequently mentions my name in his column – and always in that brittle tone of superior contempt.
     I never mention his name in my column.
     No, that's not quite true. I did once, July 30, 2003, when I listed him in the company of Chris Rock, Al Franken, Roy Blount Jr., David Sedaris and others who'd made me laugh--in a good way — in the previous year.
     I do mention him here from time to time — sometimes favorably, because I am the bigger person, sometimes critically, because he asks for it — but by no stretch of the imagination is this site about him, as he dreams; not like his old "Bob Watch" column was about Bob Greene.
Where are we? Oh, yes. "Striden(t)....tedious... nagging and unfair...petty and prolix."
     Hey I started the adjective war, I can take it
     The towel snapping was all in good fun, though some readers never really got it and thought Neil and I were actually bitter rivals. In truth, I have long considered Neil the most interesting, most gifted newspaper columnist in Chicago – even when I was writing a column of my own.
     You’re a reader of “Every Goddamn Day” so I need not persuade you of this, I’m sure. But as Steinberg fans, you no doubt share certain sensibilities with me – wide ranging curiosity, a tolerance for heterodox takes on the news, a certain fearlessness in shoving sacred cows into the rhetorical abattoir (Neil would have come up with a better metaphor) and a delight in pitilessly examining seemingly insignificant developments in the news.
     If so, I invite you to try the Picayune Sentinel. It arrives in your mailbox just once a week (twice for paid subscribers), not every fuckin’ day, my suggested title for his blog, one that probably would have prompted less pearl clutching. It features takes on the news of the week, a bit of original reporting, funny tweets, highlights from Mary Schmich’s Facebook posts, hot links and other random stuff – often shameless and touchy, I admit, as well as petty and prolix – that I hope readers find diverting.
     I’ve been at it since shortly after leaving the Tribune in mid 2021 and, as I tell people, I’ve never had more fun as a writer. Hope you’ll check it out. Visit https://ericzorn.substack.com/ or you can email me ericzorn@gmail.com and I’ll put you on the list. Put "Steinberg" in the subject line and I'll add a free month, no strings attached, to the Tuesday Picayune Plus editions.

Friday, February 24, 2023

What would you ask Jimmy Carter?

     With Jimmy Carter, 98, in hospice care, the paper asked me to write a reflection on him. I THOUGHT it would run after ... umm ... the inevitable. But there it is posted on the Sun-Times website. Jumping the gun, perhaps, though other news sources are doing the same. Laying the groundwork. Anyway, I thought I should also share it with you here.

National Portrait Gallery
   I made Jimmy Carter smile.
     Which at first doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment. The man was famous for his smile. It embodied him. That and peanut farming. A peanut with a big toothy grin was enough to symbolize Carter on campaign pins: No name necessary.
     But I was meeting Carter at a bad moment — eight years out of office after being crushed by Ronald Reagan, in the middle of what had to be a long day of back-to-back press interviews. Promoting a book he’d written with Rosalynn, “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.” He was sour, grumpy, talking over his wife when she tried to speak. I remember thinking, “I don’t care if you were the president, you should let her get a few words in.”
     Though Carter really has made the most of the rest of his life. There certainly was enough of it. He was in the Oval Office for four years; he was out of it for 42. (Recently, Carter entered hospice care at his longtime home in Plains, Ga.)
     Nor was his single term as bad as remembered. Carter’s eventual subsequent slide into malaise makes it easy for Americans to forget what a breath of fresh air he had been in the mid-1970s, after the Greek tragedy of Richard Nixon and the bumbling buffoonery of Gerald Ford. Carter was smart — a scientist. I campaigned for him, signing up for the “Carter Impact Team.” The Carter White House sent me Christmas cards the four years he was in office.
     He led by example in office, and his Camp David accords came closer to creating peace in the Middle East than anyone has since.
     All that went wrong by 1979. Between the Iranian hostage crisis, the energy crisis. The botched rescue. For me, voting for Reagan was out of the question — I thought the man was Satan, based on his record as governor of California, shrugging off the death of a student protester, shotgunned by a cop, with, “Once the dogs of war have been unleashed you must expect things will happen.”
     Reagan received 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. Third party candidate John Anderson — I threw away my first presidential ballot on him — took 6.6% of the popular vote, meaning that if myself and every single naif who voted for Anderson instead had voted for Carter, Reagan still would have beaten him handily.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

The birds certainly won't care.

      The Sun-Times ran a story on Tuesday about how the Chicago Audubon Society is dropping the name of its inspiration, John James Audubon, because the famed artist owned slaves and believed various strands of nonsense that were popular in the early 19th century. They didn't say what the new name will be: The Chicago Bird Lovers Society, maybe. They also urge the national Audubon Society to do the same.
      I'm sincerely conflicted when it comes to this sort of thing. On one hand, times change and we change with them.  Language changes. We don't have asylums for the criminally insane, or schools for poor orphans, or that sort of thing.  Out with the old, in with the new.
     Values change. Blind obedience to authority was once drilled in our children. Now, not so much.
     That said, the idea of purging those morally tainted by residing in the past — it's always low-hanging fruit. They never say, you know, this Jesus Christ, when we tote up all the harm done in his name, geez, it's second only to disease. Let''s shitcan him. Actually, I could get behind that. But no. Instead they go after Audubon, wandering the pristine forests of our nascent country with his boxes of paints and his "Bird of America." It isn't a show of strength, but of weakness. 
      And yet. Why not show a bad man the gate. The Audubon Society, in the second paragraph of their biography of the organization's namesake, unleashes this:
It’s fair to describe John James Audubon as a genius, a pioneer, a fabulist, and a man whose actions reflected a dominant white view of the pursuit of scientific knowledge. His contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day. He was contemporaneously and posthumously accused of — and most certainly committed — both academic fraud and plagiarism. But far worse, he enslaved Black people and wrote critically about emancipation. He stole human remains and sent the skulls to a colleague who used them to assert that whites were superior to non-whites.
     So there it is. Obviously the national Audubon Society plans to try to skate by on candor. And there is an argument that being named after Audubon embeds this grim history into their story where it might be found, to the benefit of those who know more bird lore than human history. Join for birds, get a lesson in the loathsome side of early 19th century America. To me, that is a good thing, and the best argument against this kind of makeover. Plus some of those crimes weigh heavier on him than others. Martin Luther King was also a serial plagiarist. Yet he gets by.
     It isn't as if the 435 life-size plates in "Birds of America" are being pushed into a drawer, to strike a tardy blow against their creator. Not yet anyway. Maybe that's next. Revive the idea of degenerate art. You already see it regarding Paul Gauguin. Whitewashing the name is a step in that direction: it seems to me healthier to live with difficult truths, not hide them. But I also get there is honor in naming a society, and John James Audubon has already received honor aplenty. More than he deserves, in realms apart from glorious paintings of birds. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Ukraine war to be a long haul

Ruined bridge after the Battle of Bull Run, 1862 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Friday, it will be one year since Vladimir Putin sent his Russian army crashing into Ukraine.
     An unmitigated disaster all too familiar to most. An act of unprovoked aggression conducted to boost the massive ego of an autocrat, the invasion was supposed to be quick and easy. Instead, one year on, it has been terrible for Russia — 200,000 casualties, freedoms scuttled, their country turned into a pariah state.
     Worse of course for Ukraine: thousands of civilians dead, cities ruined, economy wrecked. If the war ended now, it would take years to rebuild. Though there is no sign of the war ending now, or anytime soon. It could go on for years.
     Are we ready for that? America and her NATO allies stepped up quickly and decisively in response to the assault, providing armament and expertise to the Ukrainians while managing to stay out of the war itself, so far. Joe Biden just made a daring trip to Kyiv this week to demonstrate American resolve to stem Russian aggression.
     Good for now. What about the long haul? With Republican leaders like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis boosting Russia and the rest of the country’s famously short attention span, how do we keep focused on what will be an expensive, long-term commitment?
     The way to do it is to do it, and I admire how veteran Chicago broadcaster Bob Sirott has woven Ukraine into his morning show on WGN AM 720.
     “Let’s check in with Joseph Lindsley in Ukraine,” Sirott will say, handing his podium over to an American reporter who moved there in 2020, just in time for a ringside seat at the calamity.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Ducks and geese.

     We saw a magnificent hawk soaring directly above our heads when we first entered the Chicago Botanic Garden Sunday. For a moment I thought it might be an eagle — it was that big, and seemed to have a white head. But then I saw the distinctive brown markings on its wings. A hawk.
     Soon we were debating whether certain birds far in the distance on the water were ducks, or geese.
     We walked. A thought grew.
     "Do you know..." I began, "that, in nature, there is a strict ratio for ducks and geese?"
     My wife chewed on that a moment.
     "Is this the set-up to a joke?" she asked.
     Damn. Busted. I used to be so good at this. I told her that, yes, it was. Then I told her what the joke would have been, had she not ruined it. She admired its primitive beauty.
     "I should have let you play it out," she said, regretfully.
     But my wife, like a skilled jazz musician, picked up the refrain of the thwarted joke and riffed upon it anyway.
     "Because then, you could have said, 'I learned about it in nursery school," she continued.
     I didn't immediately see where she was going with this.
     "And then I would be impressed that you still remember it, after all these years."
     I nodded, realization dawning.
     "And you would say, 'The ratio is very simple. It goes, 'Duck. Duck. Goose.' Then repeats."
      I know I'll be living to tell it to someone someday. Or you are free to use it as your own on some future occasion.
     Assuming there is anyone else in the world who might want to.
     Which there probably isn't. We are a particularly well-suited couple, having grown into each other like a pair of old oaks leaning against each other.
     On Monday, we were back in the garden — we go there a lot. We found ourselves standing before a mixed group of ducks and geese. Mostly the latter.
     "You're wrong," she observed.
     I knew exactly what she was talking about.


Monday, February 20, 2023

Cut your bitterness with cookies

     Elmhurst lures; it entices. Even on an ordinary day, just driving down 294, going somewhere else, it takes an act of will to pass by Elmhurst.
     I see that green “ELMHURST” exit sign and have to fight the urge to pull off and hurry over to Lezza Spumoni & Desserts on Spring Road and ... well, it’s embarrassing. Stock up on mind-blowing spumoni and little white boxes of powder-sugar-kissed cannoli and big white boxes of biscotti and lemon knots and wedding cookies.
     So when I heard that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is scheduled to speak in Elmhurst on Monday — talk about a fish out of water story — the urge to head to Elmhurst is strong.
     But head over where? Yes, Elmhurst, but it’s big, for a little place. The problem, of course, is not only are journalists not invited to the Floridian fascist’s jamboree, but the public isn’t invited either.
     DeSantis nudged Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7 cappo John Catanzara, who discreetly invited his buddies to gather somewhere in Elmhurst to listen to the Sunshine State Savonarola. Who, if he stays true to form, will be heaping abuse on the far right’s designated villains of the moment: trans people, history teachers and whoever makes up the stuffed tackling dummy of their midnight fears.
     Hence the secrecy. I like to think they’re privately ashamed — it’s the optimist in me. But the more likely motivation is it just won’t do to have the very untermenschen you are trying to purge from both the present and the past show up at your lawn party to wave signs and express their disapproval of your brand of backwater demagoguery.
     Not that a protest is really necessary: The bare fact that DeSantis can safely expect the Chicago Police Department to show up en masse, to nod solemnly at the woes they are forced to endure by living in a society that tolerates those other than themselves, is condemnation aplenty. That Chicago police can be relied upon to cheer Trump 2.0 on is an indictment of the CPD culture more eloquent than 100 liberals could dream up.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Email of the week

The reality doesn't change, so I try not to get hung up on terminology.

     Not every email is a criticism. Some readers bring up valid issues or ask legitimate questions, and I try to answer them honestly. On Friday, the paper ran a story I had contributed to, using my contacts among social service agencies to add remarks about homeless people living at O'Hare. Art G. sent an email whose subject line was "'unhoused' vs 'homeless'" and whose entire message was a succinct:"Why is one word okay and not the other?" I thought for a moment, then replied:
     My experience is that the words get randomly changed from time to time in a futile attempt to shake off the negative associations that gather around negative conditions. So "crippled" becomes "handicapped" becomes "disabled" becomes "special needs" becomes "otherly-abled," etc. Changing the terms, or trying to, also gives people facing difficult situations a way to create the illusion of power and progress. I try to stay ahead of the curve so as to avoid needless agita. Thanks for writing.

     It's a bigger issue than you would imagine. In talking to a social service, also Friday, for a future story, one that involves access being granted and scheduled visits and lots of time invested, I told them that while I am sensitive to the current style, I'm not a slave to it, and if you go too far in to the buzzword of the moment, readers don't know what you're talking about and, worse, laugh at you. I told her about the "Face Fear" story I did for Mosaic, the London medical website. They were reluctant to use the word "disfigured" preferring some euphemism, "different in appearance" or some such thing. My position was that nobody is tormented on the playground merely for looking "different," and that the danger is we minimize the lived experience of people. We ended up with a compromise: I used the word as little as possible. A few readers still complained. But the bottom line is I don't write for activists or fanatics, but for some imaginary average person, who benefits by describing what we're talking about in plain words. If you don't, you do things like take a perfectly good name like "Chicago Rehab Institute" and turning it into the "Shirley Ryan AbilityLab," which sounds like a room at the Kohler Children's Museum where kids put on plastic aprons and play with water and white PVC pipes. 

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Works in progress: Cate Plys

     Caren Jeskey stepping up to pinch-write on Saturdays helped the EGD community to see many things. For me, it became clear that there is a benefit to a weekly breather, both to myself and to the readers: a different perspective, a palate cleanser after six days of Neil-Neil-Neil-Neil-NEIL-Neil. So when Caren decided to step away and start an audio blog (which you can find here) my first thought was that I should keep the tradition of Somebody Else Saturday going.
     But how? With whom? 
     Luckily, I know many creative folk, few longer and none better than my Northwestern classmate, Cate Plys. We were on the college humor magazine together, and have been close friends ever since. She's had a wide-ranging career — columnist at the Chicago Reader, the  Sun-Times and Tribune, and more. Since October, 2021, she's been exploring the complex world of "Roseland, Chicago: 1972." I invited her to tell you about it. In coming weeks, I'll turn Saturday over to other friends with interesting projects. If you'd like to nominate yourself, you know where to find me. Take it away, Cate:

     Thanks, Neil!
     Full disclosure, I can’t quit Neil, and vice versa, because he came to my Gramma’s house in Hegewisch for Thanksgiving in 1982. That, and we know where each other’s bodies are buried.
     “Roseland, Chicago: 1972” started as the serialized story of Steve Bertolucci, a 10-year-old Roselander in 1972, and what becomes of him. But Roseland, Chicago, and 1972 — they all demanded more. They got it. I’m just a girl who can’t say no.
     The thing is Steve and his friends live in a strange world called 1972, a place so far removed from 21st century Chicago that even those of us who once dwelt there may barely recognize it when we catch a brief glimpse of it now, whisking around a corner or disappearing into a crowd, always just out of reach.
     I was there. I saw it. But the more I wrote, the simplest things began to feel like science fiction in reverse. I had to ask myself: Would anyone who wasn’t there believe it?
     It was a brave old world:
     Every expressway into Chicago was guarded by a massive set of neon red lips, looming 80 feet in the air on black steel pylons, blinking electronic messages underneath like “Celebrate National Secretary’s Week!” and “Happy Birthday, Eddie Barrett!” The Dan Ryan lips, which Steve’s family passed on rare car trips downtown, kept vigil over the city at 85th Street.
     Chicagoans believed in God and the devil so viscerally that when “The Exorcist” played here to massive crowds in ’73, Tribune film critic Gene Siskel saw a teenage boy faint at one showing. Six more terrorized teens retreated to the lobby, one literally trembling for a full half hour.
     Knowledge was distributed to the people each morning and afternoon by young boys who threw onto their front porches folded wads of cellulose which had been boiled, mashed, and flattened into sheets later embedded with information. These were called “newspapers,” and everybody read them. Everybody. Even kids like Steve.
     Who’d believe kids used to read newspapers? Yesterday I saw two parents pushing a stroller. The approximately 18-month-old child seated inside was clutching an iPhone with both hands, focused on it to the exclusion of all else.
     I realized I’d have to persuade readers that the 1972 world had, in fact, existed. Marshal the evidence. So Steve’s story became an immersive project on Substack for anyone who’s game enough to take a dunk in 1972. To start, each chapter is followed by Chapter Notes explaining points of interest covered, ranging from MAD Magazine  to Jays potato chips.
     Optional Chicago History Chapters delve deeper into places, people and pop culture as they emerge in the story, so far including the Wrigley Building, Chicago before it was Chicago, and a look at Chicago newspapers circa 1972.
     For those brave enough to jump in the deep end without a lifeguard, there are two additional sections to explore: THIS CRAZY DAY IN 1972, and Mike Royko 50+ Years Ago Today. As I warn readers on the About page, however, enter at your own risk. No sensitivity reader has combed through any of it. 1972 isn’t a safe space--though frankly, neither is any other year with which I am familiar.
      TCD 1972 goes through the year week by week, pulling fascinating pieces out of all five of Chicago’s daily 1972 newspapers. This material is the news--and so to a great extent the reality--that Steve and everyone he knew swam in. If you dip a toe into the roiling 1972 waters regularly, the first cold shock of sexism, racism, and teenagers getting expelled for long hair begins to wear off. You get used to the water, you see beyond the splashing, and you start to feel what the world looked like to 1972 Chicagoans.
     And the letters are hilarious.
     Why Royko? 1972 newspapers are peanut butter, and Mike Royko is the chocolate that elevates the peanut butter into a delectable treat. You can have one without the other, but why would you? Royko dominated the Chicago newspaper landscape in a way that can’t be overstated, and uniquely in the city’s history.
     Also, 10-year-old Steve’s family subscribed to the Daily News. That meant they got an afternoon newspaper thrown on their front porch by a paperboy, and the first thing a Daily News reader did was open the paper to page three and read Royko in a long, thin column next to the fold.
     Each Royko 50+ covers a week of columns, pulling the best quotes and providing the sociopolitical context that Mike’s contemporaneous readers brought to his work--so you’ll even get the inside jokes. For instance, Mike’s column from September 19, 1972
     Mike proposed a new statue for the Civic Center Plaza—now Daley Plaza—which was already home to the Picasso. Mike’s statue idea was based on two recent news events he assumed his readers knew all about. First, the city and its newspapers were going nuts over the recent announcement that Marc Chagall would create a huge piece of public art for the First National Bank plaza, rivalling the nearby Picasso.
     Second, the Better Government Association (BGA) had just completed a hilarious investigation with the Daily News in which reporters followed CTA workers around and documented their busy work days. The pièce de résistance was a worker named Tad, photographed on the clock carrying five cases of beer from a liquor store to his CTA truck.
     Mike's readers had all seen the BGA's picture of Tad in the Daily News — it would have been like a viral Tik Tok video. Mike's column, then, only included Tad's statue, created by the paper's art department. For Royko 50+, I hunted down Tad's original infamous picture so readers today can see him in all his glory, compare with Tad's statue, and appreciate Mike's delicate wit:
     “Before all of our downtown plazas are covered with great works of art by Picasso, Chagall and other international artists, we should set one aside for a statue that would have meaning to Chicagoans,” wrote Mike. “Unlike our famous Picasso, there can be no confusion about who Tad is and what he is doing: He is a man carrying five cartons of beer….It is inspirational, because most of us would like to have a job in which carrying one armload of beer gives us our daily sweat. But the fact is, most of us don’t have the gumption to get out there and find a city job that allows us to flop down and rest.”
     As I recall, Mike Royko threatened to break Neil’s legs once (editor's note: he did, and not in a joky, "ha-ha, I'll break your legs fashion" but in a "next time asshole I'll break your fucking legs" fashion), or something like that. I cover extra-column Royko doings in a Weekend Edition, and we’ll have to get Neil’s story in there soon.
     Lastly, sometimes an item in the news or Mike Royko sends us down an unexpected Chicago History Rabbit Hole, and then anything can happen. Take Mike’s February 25, 1972 column, in which Mike gets a tip that a has-been mobster named Louis Tornabene is scheduled for a small-time hearing at the Chicago Avenue police court. Mike shows up to mock Tornabene, because he used to be a tough guy running a mob strip joint called Eddie Foy’s, and now he’s a used car salesman.
     This rabbit hole leads us through FBI wire transcripts to the seedy strip joints that used to line the South Loop streets, on to one of the most famous entertainers of the late 19th century-early 20th century, and finally to the worst single-building fire in U.S. history, the Iroquois Theatre fire. That’s all thanks to Mike mentioning Eddie Foy’s, seen here in its 1950’s-60s heyday courtesy of John Chuckman’s Photos on Wordpress.
     Come over some time and take a stroll in 1972. It’s easier to appreciate when you can get out any time you want.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Amara Enyia is fighting all problems everywhere

Amara Enyia in Geneva.
     If you are unaware, as I was, that we are nearing the end of a 10-year global initiative to spotlight concerns of special importance to Black people, don’t feel bad. Some efforts get more attention than others.
     “The United Nations designated 2015 to 2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent, all around the world,” said Amara Enyia. “This is a mechanism designed to deal with all of the issues: climate, inequality, education. Part of this is doing a lot of advocacy.”
     Regular readers might remember my spending a day on the campaign trail with Enyia when she faced Rahm Emanuel in 2014.
     “Unlike the typical marginal eccentric who feels compelled to run against a powerful if not popular Chicago mayor, she is neither a crank nor a fool, but a thoughtful, grounded community activist,” I wrote, “one of six children of Nigerian immigrants, whose only obvious sign of unbalance is the apparently sincere belief that she will defeat the mayor in February.”
     She didn’t win. Unlike most former mayoral candidates, she did not utterly vanish. She tried again in 2019 and recently popped up in Geneva serving as chairwoman for the international civil society working group at the United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent.
     Most of us have enough trouble dealing with one problem in one place; Enyia is trying to address all problems everywhere.
     “You’re essentially dealing with all of the languages, all of the geographies, prioritizing issues, working to make it as impactful as possible,” she said. “It’s a pretty significant undertaking.”
     It is? It seems to me the woes of the world barrel onward, bursting through the paper barriers of working groups and multinational programs.
     Enyia disagrees. She thinks it is important that Black people in America understand that the problems disproportionately affecting them in this country are also afflicting their brothers and sisters around the globe.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Flashback 1994: Ina Pinkney Offers True Partnership

Ina Pinkney

    On Tuesday I ran a profile of Bill Pinkney, the first Black sailor to circumnavigate the world alone. It seems fitting to follow up with the sidebar about his wife at the time, Ina, extraordinary in her own right. After today's profile, we'll catch up with what Ina's up to lately.

     Bill Pinkney might have never gone to sea, never lived his dream, never become a role model, if it weren't for the effervescent whirl of joyous energy also known as his wife, Ina Pinkney.
     "We have an obligation as a partner to encourage the people we love to be all they can possibly be," says Pinkney, explaining what must strike many married people as a riddle of intractable mystery: how their relationship not only permitted, but encouraged him to go to sea for two years. "When people say how could you let him go sailing, I said I didn't let him do anything. I helped him going sailing. I didn't let him go. So, we have had a very different philosophy about what it means to be partners in this life."
     In some circles, Ina is the more famous Pinkney. "I'm Ina Pinkney's husband," laughs Bill Pinkney, recognizing that, for fans of dense, well-made desserts and hearty breakfasts, her Ina's Kitchen, on West Webster, is a more notable achievement than any mere boat trip.
     She was Brooklyn-born Ina Brody, a 22-year-old shop clerk, when she met Pinkney in a Greenwich Village cafe in 1965. It was love at first sight.
     They married a few months later. No one from her family attended the wedding of the bi-racial couple. "Total rejection," she says.
     She never had an interest in sailing. "I packed him great lunches, said `Have a good day, honey.' But I never, never felt the pull," she says.
     She does not want anyone to mistake her openness about his trip for indifference. She missed him "desperately" while he was away and worried about his well being.
     She taped hundreds of hours of television and shipped the tapes to his next port of call. She made him pillows of varying fabrics so he could feel different tactile sensations on the long, dulling voyage. Each day, without fail, she made a tape of the events of the day and sent those to him as well.
    "I was concerned about sensory deprivation more than anything," she says.
     While Bill was pursuing his dream, Ina pursued hers. "I always wanted to have a breakfast restaurant," she says, of the restaurant she opened with partner Elaine Farrell, who had been a customer of her bakery. Ina's Kitchen just celebrated its third anniversary. In addition to supporting her husband's future plans, she has a Bill Pinkney project of her own in mind.
     "I want very much to have a street named after him," she says. "I think Monroe right down to the harbor, where the boat was, would be Captain Bill Pinkney Drive. I want to do that."
          –Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 30, 1994

     I reached out to Ina Pinkney for an update. She replied:
     The BREAKFAST AT INA’S documentary about my closing screened in 48 film festivals after the world premier at Chicago’s International Film Festival. I was invited to 31 of them.
     My cookbook tour was terrific especially through the Jewish Book Council.
     I spoke for clients at food conferences about breakfast.
     As a polio survivor, I travel and zoom to speak at Rotary Clubs nationally about the late effects of polio finally acknowledged as Post-Polio Syndrome. I now chair a global advocacy group for survivors.
     After breaking my polio leg in December 2018, and surgery, I’m a wheelchair/scooter user now.
     My world and life are different but not smaller.
     And on April 26th, about 50+ chefs will have an 80th Birthday Bash Fundraiser for me for my favorite charities…Pilot Light and Green City Market.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Dancing into a minefield

Suzanne Lopez, left, talks with two dancers at the Joffrey Ballet rehearsal space on Randolph.

     Plays have scripts that tell actors what words to say, plus occasional stage directions, indicating how to deliver a certain line or when to move in a particular direction — the most famous being Shakespeare’s notation in Act III of “A Winter’s Tale”: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
     Music has chains of notes representing various pitches and durations, with extra instructions delineating whether they be played loud or soft, fast or slow.
     But how do ballet dancers know where to step?
     There are videos, of course, and a complex system known as Benesh Movement Notation, resembling notes on a scale. Neither works particularly well.
     “I can tell when someone learned off an audition video,” said Suzanne Lopez, one of two choreography directors from the Joffrey Ballet for “Anna Karenina,” opening at the Civic Opera House on Wednesday. As for the notation system, “It takes years of learning how to do that,” she said, “and I’m not qualified.”
     So how does a troupe learn a new ballet? Surprisingly, the way dancers are taught their steps in the 21st century has much in common with the way bards were taught to recite “The Iliad” in ancient Greece.
     “It needs to be person-to-person,” said Lopez. “It needs to be passed down. Copious notes. I have a giant binder for ‘Anna Karenina,’ constantly updating.”

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Flashback 1994: Man Who Sailed Around World Looks Toward His Next Journey

     In Sunday's post about Paul Vallas, I mention Bill and Ina Pinkney, both profiled years ago. I'm posting Bill's today, and Ina's on Thursday.  This is a long piece, 1900 words. The paper used to do that sort of thing. But if you soldier on until the end, I'll give an update on what Bill is up to today.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun? . . .
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
         — Langston Hughes, 1951
     Bill Pinkney does not lead a life of quiet desperation. He does not race with the rats. His nose is not to the grindstone. His dream, undeferred, did not dry up like a raisin in the sun.
     Pinkney wanted to sail around the world, and did so, two years ago, becoming the third American — and the first African American — to make the trip solo while rounding all five major Southern capes.
     But the story does not end there. At age 59, Bill Pinkney says he is just warming up. He sees new challenges, like distant sails on the horizon, approaching in his future.
     "I could never be the person I was before I left," says Pinkney, dapper in a black silk shirt, new jeans and tasseled loafers. "No way. Never. People say, `Oh, Bill, how are you doing now that you're back in the real world?' No, no, I left the real world to come here. This is not real - " he gestures to his near West Side loft, with its shelves of books and walls of awards. "This is manufactured. . ."
     While he is looking ahead, the nearly two years he spent circumnavigating the globe are still very fresh with him.
     "I'll give you an example of real," he continues. "A 50-foot wave breaking behind your boat. There is nothing more real than that, not your mortgage payment, not whether or not your American Express bill is paid. That's not real."
     Captain Pinkney — the title is not an honorific, but refers to his Merchant Marine 100-ton captain's license — relives his adventure, in motivational speeches before groups ranging from major corporations to public school classrooms. He has written an illustrated children's book, Captain Bill Pinkney's Journey and a $39.98 video, narrated by Bill Cosby, has just been released.
     The bare facts of his journey have the power to amaze. He covered 27,000 nautical miles over 22 months, 16 of which were spent at sea, alone, aboard a 47-foot yacht. He faced 50 mile-per-hour winds and 30-foot waves. Yet, with hindsight, he views the journey as a peaceful, almost boring time.
     "Seventy-five percent of the voyage was quite enjoyable and rather uneventful," he says, pointing out that half the battle was careful attention to preparation and a sailor's caution. "Most of the time when you hear of great disasters, it's because the expedition was planned and executed poorly. Rarely do experienced seamen really get caught in bad conditions."
     But friends say that Pinkney is just being modest.
     "If you know anything about sailing, it's a hellish, hellish proposition," says fellow sailor Morris Bleckman. "There's one leg (of the round-the-world trip) about 61 days, by himself. It's not for the fainthearted. Single-handed sailing demands more from anybody else than any other sport. You depend entirely on your own wits and your own guts and nothing else."
     Asked anything he would do differently, Pinkney mentions trifles — having; a refrigerator would have been nice. But as far as his own performance, he surprised even himself.
     "I found my capabilities were greater than I thought," he says. "You really never know these sort of things about yourself until you are pressed."
     Little of Pinkney's life would, at first glance, seem to have pointed him toward his epic journey. He grew up in the neighborhood of 33rd and Indiana, "what at that time was known as Bronzeville," he says, accenting the word in what sounds like contempt. "My father was a houseman, a male domestic. He and my mother got divorced when I was a small child."
     He grew up, at times on welfare, and graduated from Tilden Tech in 1954. Like so many adventurous young men, Pinkney went to sea with the Navy, where he worked as an x-ray technician. He loved it, served eight years, and might still be there today if it weren't for the racism common in the Navy.
     "The only reason I got out of the Navy is they wouldn't give me a commission," he says. "They weren't interested too much in giving blacks commissions in the 1950s."
     Back in civilian life, he worked at a variety of jobs — in a hospital, as a bartender, elevator repairman and limbo dancer in Puerto Rico, where he moved on a whim. Relocating to New York in the early 1960s, he decided he was tired of x-rays and trained as a makeup artist, working as a freelancer on commercials and movies. He met and married his wife and together they sailed remote-control sailboats on the pond in Central Park.
     Pinkney eventually moved into the corporate cosmetic business, launching brands aimed at African Americans, first for Revlon, then for Johnson Products.
     Revlon transferred him back to Chicago in 1974, where he hooked up with Flash Cab founder Arthur Dickholtz, who served as his sailing mentor.
     The idea of sailing around the world began to gel for Pinkney in the mid-1980s, as he set out on the daunting task of taking an indistinct dream and making it real.
     The assumption is that anyone who sails yachts must be a wealthy man. But Pinkney had only limited resources, and to make his dream real he first had to find corporate support. On his side were two lures: not only would the voyage generate publicity, but Pinkney devised an ambitious plan to involve thousands of schoolchildren in his journey, communicating with them via satellite and using his trip to teach math, geography, history and science. Still, it was a hard sell.
     "I had 30,000 kids every day for two years for $375,000 (the cost of the trip) — you couldn't buy them a piece of bubble gum on that kind of money," he said. "But an Anheuser-Busch, a Quaker Oats, couldn't see the value of that."
     Chicago educator Iva Carruthers helped Pinkney craft his proposal, though not without initial reservations.
     "I said, `Bill, you're absolutely crazy,' " remembers Carruthers, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who told him to meet her at her office at 8 a.m. the next Monday in the hopes that he wouldn't show up.
     "When I got in, he was already there, waiting for me," she says. "He started sharing with me his dream. It became clear to me that all he was asking me to do was write a proposal, and that if he was willing to risk giving up his life alone at sea, I could certainly do what comes easy to me."
     Industrialist Armand Hammer could, too, and contributed $25,000 in seed money. But full sponsorship was not forthcoming. Pinkney approached some 300 different companies over a period of two years. All rejected him. Particularly galling to Pinkney were rejections from two categories he thought should be eager to support him — black-owned corporations and the makers of marine products. In the end, the crucial money came from a Boston financier named Todd Johnson.
     Pinkney feels he was at a disadvantage because of the perception that black people aren't sailors. It is a thought that sends him hurrying to his bookshelves to refer to volumes documenting black seamen, flipping pages to show photos of ship's records listing black crews.
     "The assumption is . . . black people don't sail," he says. "Nothing is further from the truth. Look at the history of our country. We are a maritime nation, and (black people) have been part of the maritime history of this country from before it was a country."
     He set sail from Boston in August, 1990, and returned in June, 1992. The videotape of his adventure, which originated as a Peabody Award-winning special for the Discovery Channel, consists mostly of videos Pinkney shot himself, sometimes happy and invigorated, admiring fantastic sunsets, other times wet, sick and miserable, battened down below decks and outlining dire conditions while his sailing gear rocks back and forth in the huge swells.
     Included are scenes of eager classrooms tracking Pinkney on maps, talking to him through the roar of satellite static, or watching his "video postcards." (Pinkney, though cut off from all direct human contact for months at a time, manages pearls such as praise for the "wonderful sovereignty of being alone.")
     Still, the connection with schools was not a complete success, particularly in Chicago.
     "It didn't work out as well in Chicago as I would have liked it," says Pinkney. He says going through the Board of Education led to the mishandling of the Chicago end of his voyage, particularly when he got back.
     "I would do three schools a day," he says. "I'd get to the school and they didn't know who I was or why I was there. It was crazy."
     All that is going to be fixed in his next project — a journey, with crew this time, retracing the triangular slave route between Brazil, the Caribbean and West Africa. This time he hopes to involve a half-million students.
     This will take money, and Pinkney has already started the distasteful process. His first dollar was easy — ponied up by a Charleston chief quartermaster named Manning Harvey. Pinkney has the dollar pinned to the wall.
     "I'm well on my way," Pinkney laughs. "I only have 849,999 to go."
     So what does a man learn, alone in a boat, facing the boundless ocean, for the better part of two years?
     "The simple truths of life," he says. "When I was out there, there were no days of the week. Because I was alone, because my life functions around what I have to do to maintain it, the only place in the world that exists is right there. The old saying, `There is no tomorrow'? There is no five minutes from now. There's only now, and that's the thing, to take action.
     "This was a dream; this was not the dream," he says. "I wanted to leave a benchmark of achievement for my grandchildren. (Pinkney's only child, Angela Walton, 35, a daughter from his first marriage, lives in Florida with her husband and two children.) This showed me that you can make dreams come true. But I should be able to accomplish more. I've got a list I can't even get halfway through in my lifetime. I'm writing my book — an adult book, not about sailing, but what about my life made this happen. I've got a film I want to do about this. And I want to go out and sail some more."
     Jake Fisher, a Chicago entrepreneur, considers Pinkney one of his heroes, but says that Pinkney only considers himself heroic for one thing.
     "He said, `There was just one day in my life when I was hero. That was the day that the boat left Boston. It was a beautiful day, with people all over the place, wishing me well. When I reached over and took the anchor out of the water, that was the moment."
     Fisher asked him why that moment was heroic.
     "Because most people go through life with their boat tied up next to the pier," Pinkney told him. "What made me a hero was that I weighed anchor."
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 30, 1994

     I caught up with Bill Pinkney by phone Sunday night at his home in Puerto Rico.
     "I feel great for a man of my age, great for a man of any age. We've been here, this is our 13th year," he said, referring to his wife of nearly 20 years, Migdalia.
     He first retired in 2003, then came back in 2007 and sailed the tour of the Amistad, a reproduction of the Spanish slave schooner whose 1839 uprising became an abolitionist cause and a widely-followed legal case (and, eventually, a Steven Spielberg movie). 
     "Nova Scotia, England, Portugal, Senegal, Sierra Leone, then I retired again, then I came back again, took the Amistad to Havana Cuba." Pinkney said. "Then I retired again for the last time and moved to Fajardo, on the east coast of Puerto Rico.
     Not everything has been gravy — his catamaran charter business, running passengers to the British Virgin Islands, was a victim of COVID, when American tourism to the island almost completely dried up.
    But generally life is good for Capt. Pinkney. He was presented with the Mystic Seaport Museum's "America and the Sea Award" in 2022. And he just released, "Sailing Commitment Around the World with Captain Bill Pinkney," illustrated by Pamela C. Rice, a very handsome children's book.   
    "I'm close to the ocean," said Pinkney, who doesn't own a boat but — even better — has a friend who owns a boat, and still gets out on the water from time to time.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Don’t divert public money to private use

     Chicago is the only major American city with an elevated train ringing its downtown — OK, one of two, if you consider Miami to be a major city and its free little Metromover a real elevated train.
     So Chicagoans (and any stray Miamians finding themselves here) might have an easier time participating in a thought experiment I’d like to try today. Imagine if, along with an elevated train, we had an elevated sidewalk downtown. A private, members-only sidewalk, raised 20 feet in the air, with access granted to Chicagoans who pay a fee — say, $200 a week — to pass through the turnstiles, step into well-maintained elevators, or climb pristine stairways.
     Let’s call it the Sky Sidewalk, an overhead array of curving pathways — glassed in, air-conditioned in summer, heated in winter — where the choice few could avoid the cracked, dirty, windswept, crowded Chicago sidewalks (OK, not so crowded lately; work with me here). Certainly cracked and blustery, sometimes crime-ridden.
     Problems for the masses below to cope with best we can, stepping over potholes, hurrying past panhandlers. Frequently finding ourselves at street corners, shivering in the February cold, waiting for the light to change, trying not to cast an envious glance at the anointed above on the Sky Sidewalk, strolling easily across the street — no waiting on traffic for them.
     Now imagine there’s an election — actually you don’t have to imagine; there’s one for mayor in a couple of weeks. Some candidates mention a plan to address perennial pedestrian concerns: the cracks, the crime, the cars turning right whether you are trying to cross or not. You’re all ears. What is this plan?
     “So this is what we’re going to do,” says a candidate. “We’re going to take your tax dollars, and use them to buff the Sky Sidewalk. Maybe carpet part of it. Or put planters of fresh flowers. Some wind chimes perhaps. Because nice as it is, it could be even nicer. Where will the money come from? Tax dollars. Let’s give a break for people on the Sky Sidewalk. Really, why should those who don’t use the city sidewalks pay for their upkeep? They’re already paying $200 a week. Let’s give them a hand.”
     How would that fly with you?

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Paul Vallas, man of mystery

     Almost 30 years ago I wrote a profile on Bill Pinkney, the first Black sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone — I think I'll repost that later this week. In interviewing his wife Ina, the restaurateur, it came out that while married, they lived in separate homes. In my mid-30s but naive as a lamb, I remember looking up and thinking, "Golly, what's that about?"
     Cohabitation is the predominant condition of marriage — I initially wrote "natural" but that is a fraught term nowadays, when even the concept of "normality" can be seen as a weapon in the supremacist's arsenal. Whatever you call it, 97 percent of married couples manage to live under the same roof.
     In Fran Spielman's excellent interview with Paul Vallas in the Sun-Times Saturday, the former Chicago Public Schools head tries to tap dance past by various controversies that have wrapped their arms around his knees. He explains only being registered to vote in Bridgeport for only the past year this way:
     “When I left Philadelphia to go to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, my wife did not want to go with me. She wanted to move back to where she was most comfortable. She bought a home right next to her aged parents in the same house where she grew up. … My kids were still relatively young, and she thought that’s where she could be most easily supported.
     Were I to respond to that by asking, "If your own wife didn't want to go with you, then why should the city of Chicago?" But that could be seen as mean, and personal. Besides, I am not a hard-charging A-list crisis administrator like Paul Vallas, who I suppose must go wherever someone is willing to hire him. The separation can be spun as consideration, I suppose, that his wife is encouraged to live where she is happiest, even if that is in a different part of the country from her husband. That's how the jetset fly. Cohabitation is for the earthbound ordinary.
     “Sometimes, people stay married because they make certain arrangements," Vallas continued, sounding like a character in a Barbara Cartland novel. "I’ve always lived where I’ve worked. This has been our understanding. I wanted my wife to be in her most comfortable setting with her friends and family ... while she allowed me to do what I do: rescues, turnaround projects, crisis management.”
     We are certainly a city in crisis. And sometimes an outsider brings the rigor needed (such as O. W. Wilson coming in to reform the Chicago Police Department in the early 1960s). But when it comes to Chicago, Paul Vallas is not an outsider. From city budget director to CEO of the Chicago Public Schools to consultant for the Fraternal Order of Police, he has had his chance ... whoops, has had a wealth of valuable experience he could bring to the fifth floor of City Hall.
     "Understanding." "Arrangement." These are freighted words. And having endured the tight-lipped mystery wrapped in a cipher befogged by enigma that is Lori Lightfoot, I suppose anyone is an improvement. But notice how he shifted the discussion — if his residence wasn't Palos Heights, where was it? The apartment in Bridgeport he got a year ago? Louisiana? Connecticut? At least Rahm was elected to Congress, and had a semi-legitimate reason not to live here. Vallas is just a hired gun who sees a potential opportunity for a fresh gig back in his hometown and is hurrying back, pretending he never left. If he thought he could be elected mayor of Phoenix, he'd have been living in Phoenix for the past year. Or claim to.