Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Love, luck, loss: How Lisa Rezin lived is a lesson for all of us

Lisa Rezin (from left) with daughters Ashlee Rezin and Dawn Baxter.

     It’s a five-hour drive from Detroit to Chicago. Yet Lisa Rezin would make the trip just to attend a school play featuring one of her nieces and nephews. Or go to the Shedd with her grandchildren. Or the beach. Or to take her family to the theater — she bought tickets for everybody to see “West Side Story” at the Lyric Opera in June.
     That’s how she rolled.
     “She used to say, ‘I’m your biggest fan,’” said Dawn Baxter, her older daughter. “She made everybody feel like that. Went to every event for her nieces and nephews. She really was their biggest fan.”
     Her family will have to go to “West Side Story” without her. Lisa Rezin, age 64, died last Thursday from a particularly aggressive form of cancer, diagnosed in March.
     Which is how she entered my world — her younger daughter, Ashlee Rezin, is an ace photographer at the Sun-Times. She asked me to help the family collect their thoughts for the obituary in the Detroit Free Press. I talked to Ashlee, Dawn and their father, Bobby, then wrote up my notes. As a creative effort, it was akin to taking three bowls of diamonds, scooping a few gems out of each and putting them in a fourth, larger bowl. It didn’t require any creativity or effort on my part to make the result sparkle.
     Though as we spoke, there was something I really wanted to say, but managed to hold back. Shutting up is an art form, one that I have imperfectly mastered. One thought kept waving its hand in the back of my mind.
     “You’re so lucky!”

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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Memorial Day, 2023


     I was happy just to leave the house Monday, walk around the corner to Cherry Street with my wife, and sit on the curb on Cherry Street, the dog between us, on a beautiful May morning. The fact that a parade would soon pass by, well, icing on the cake.
     Yes, I noticed the big public works trucks parked to block the side streets. Keeping us safe. But didn't think too deeply about them. For a smart guy, I can ignore stuff when I want to. My wife drew attention to the heightened security, observing that it made her, paradoxically, feel less secure. A reminder of the changed reality.
     This was the first patriotic holiday after the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, a few suburbs to the east and north. There didn't seem to be an unusual amount of police around. My wife observed that Greenbriar Elementary School was directly behind us. The roof. I countered that the roof was pretty steeply sloped. Not much of a perch for a sniper. Still, what she was suggesting rattled me, a little, and I idly wondered what we'd do if something happened. Run away. That way, I guess.   Would we make it across the street? Maybe not.
     The parade kicked off promptly at 10:30 a.m. with a Northbrook policeman on a motorcycle. Then the flag color guard and the vets. We stood and clapped. I removed my hat. Thumbs up to Tom Mahoney, commander of American Legion Post 791. We have coffee sometimes. A wave to my neighbor Ray Garcia, in his Vietnam watch cap.
     Then vets from Covenant Village, marching alongside the retirement center's bus. The junior high school band. Then the Boy Scouts, the Cub Scouts — which included, I noted with satisfaction, girl Cub Scouts. A big deal, at the time. Now, not so much. Then the actual Girl Scouts. No boy Girl Scouts, that I noticed. Maybe that's next. The high school band. One fire truck. And to end the parade, another cop on a motorcycle.
     That's it. I looked at my watch: 10:37 a.m. Seven minutes — or less. I didn't check the time when it started. It could have been a minute or two late. A seven-minute parade. Maybe five.
     We made our way home, stopping to talk to Zelig Moscowitz — he runs Circle of Friends, an outreach program for people with disabilities. "Important work," I told him. I knew his father, Daniel, head of the Chabad in Chicago. And his brother, Meir. By the Village Hall, a firefighter who lives in Huntley said hello. I reminded him of the parade in 2000 to celebrate Northbrook's 100th anniversary. With 100 fire trucks. I had one of those bulky video cameras, and was filming the trucks. It was heavy, and my arm would get tired. But every time I lowered the camera, my 5-year-old started to cry. He didn't want to miss preserving a single firetruck. I don't know if we ever looked at the video. Probably not. He lives in San Francisco now.
      We spoke to assorted neighbors. Other people walked past — a man and his two sons arrived for the parade, too late, and missed it all. The boys seemed to take it well — perhaps the reality hadn't yet dawned that they were heading home. We felt bad for them. One neighbor speculated that the parade was so short because the village didn't want the logistical headache of securing a longer parade. A seven-minute parade is enough of a soft target. They didn't want to push their luck with 10 or 15 minutes. The entire parade route was five blocks long.
     Yes, it was sad that they felt the need to dial back the parade — if that is indeed what happened. And that heavy public works trucks had to be parked at intersections, to deter ... what? Suicide bombers. Vehicles racing down side streets to plow into the Boy Scouts? Anything is possible, in the worst sense of the term.
     Still. I'm still glad they held the parade. "A community building event" I told the firefighter. We don't live in a world where sleepy suburbs are too afraid to hold Memorial Day parades. Not yet, anyway. If violence is contagious, maybe so is tranquility. Maybe some of it will rub off.

Monday, May 29, 2023

75 years, 10 mayors: How Sun-Times coverage of City Hall evolved

     Look at the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times for Monday, May 15. Inauguration Day, the day Brandon Johnson would be sworn in as the city’s 57th mayor. What don’t you see?
     Well, no beaming mayoral portrait, for starters. No gushing headline, “A new era” or some such thing. The main page-one story is about a suburban mom with kidney failure.
     The arrival of a new mayor gets a plug in the upper right corner: “HOW JOHNSON COULD AVOID INAUGURAL MISSTEP OF LIGHTFOOT” referring readers to an article pointing out that inaugural addresses are remembered mainly for their gaffes, and inviting political pros to speculate about ditches Johnson should take care to avoid.
     That skepticism is hard-won. Survey the Sun-Times’ coverage of the fifth floor of City Hall since its birth 75 years ago, and what stands out is the progress from credulous mouthpiece to critical observer and relentless investigator, making the waves that rock the mayor’s office.
     The daily Sun-Times began publication quietly — the union of the Sun and the Times was a cost-cutting move — in February 1948, and in the early years could often be found curled up in the lap of Mayor Martin Kennelly, purring contentedly.
     “The public approval of the Kennelly businessman administration reflects the people’s confidence in his integrity,” a purported news article insisted on April 15, 1948. “His policy of good government first and politics last has ‘sold’ Chicago citizens though it has aroused some grumbling among the politicos.”
     Though even in that praise, the unnamed writer pauses to note: “The most significant lack has been in the police department.” Some things never change.
     Kennelly was a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil millionaire businessman, a bachelor who lived with his sister. The Sun-Times did notice shady doings around him. The Democratic paper had no trouble going after a Democratic administration when corruption was involved. Great New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling, who lived in Chicago during the winter of 1949-1950, noted this about the Sun-Times in his classic travelogue, “The Second City:”
     “It sometimes raises a great row with stories about local political graft. Although Chicago municipal graft is necessarily Democratic, since the city’s government is Democratic, it is the Sun-Times, rather than the Tribune, that gets indignant.”

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Sunday, May 28, 2023

Library, foundation, potato, potah-to

     The changes rattling Twitter affect me very little. Were it not for the endless examples of owner Elon Musk being a bully and a crybaby — not conflicting qualities; nobody cries like a bully — lapses he himself publicizes in a characteristic display of his own stunted self-awareness, I wouldn't even know that the company is being slashed to the bone and run by a self-obsessed, increasingly right wing maniac.    
      Despite the cuts and the drama, Twitter is still the most dynamic network in my social media palette. Facebook smells of mothballs, and is practically the day room in a senior center. Instagram an addictive chain of mesmerizing yet ultimately empty snippets of TV shows and car crashes. Email is clogged with spam and all but useless. Only Twitter can bring you both the news of the day and the doings of your friends.
     Twitter even has rare small moments of — dare I say it? — grace. Saturday night, Chicago TikTok  historian Shermann Dilla Thomas, whom we met in April taking his bus tour of Bronzeville, tossed out a question to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

     Yes, wisenheimers fired off cracks like "Queen Victoria?" (okay, that was me. In my defense, it was a sly historical reference to the fact that, when Chicago burned in in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, sympathetic English literary lights, including Queen Victoria, donated books to replace the ones that weren't lost in the library we didn't have. The arrival of the donated British books shamed the city into finally establishing a public library. I hadn't realized that the Pritzkers went back that far in Chicago history).
     The question alone would have been charming, in "a cat can look at a king" fashion. Then the governor, unperturbed by being addressed as "big homie," actually chimed in, or at least some aide posing as him did, tweeting to Dilla:
     I had no idea what the governor was talking about. Cindy Pritzker had a hand in founding the Chicago Public Library? Since when? There is a Cindy Pritzker Auditorium in the Harold Washington Library. But that doesn't reach the level of helping to create the library system, not in the usual sense of the term. It's a room.
Shermann Dilla Thomas
      After conducting seconds of research online, I realize the true situation. Cindy Pritzker "and a core group of civic leaders" created the Chicago Public Library Foundation, which puts the squeeze on private donors to help fund the Chicago Public Library system. 
     It's like asking the identity of Spider Man, and someone volunteers the name of their 2-year-old because he's wearing Spider Man underpants.
     Now had Dilla asked if the governor — who, I should say, is generally doing a bang-up job keeping Illinois running and preserving it as a human rights sanctuary, secure from the right wing repression deepening in states around us — if he has a relative who helped support the library, I'd have no qualm. But "helped create"? No way. It might seem like a fine point. But details matter, particularly in history.  Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War, true, but the American Civil War. Not the one in England in the 1640s. There's a difference.
     To summarize what we've learned: Cindy Pritzker didn't help create the Chicago Public Library, not being alive at the time. She came along a century afterward, with nameless others, and set up a fundraising arm of the CPL. Her nephew giving her credit for starting the system is like me claiming to have begun Misericordia because I once bought a box of heart-shaped brownies. 
     And people say history isn't fun!
     Honestly, the governor's misunderstanding (or deception) makes this even more of an archetypical Twitter moment. A heart-warming exchange between a sincere ComEd worker turned history maven with the governor of Illinois that also happens to be factually incorrect. 
     Later, I asked Dilla — on Twitter, the easiest way to do these things — why he had asked the governor about the library in the first place. He replied, "I plan to do a 150th anniversary thing for CPL and was just checking facts I had heard." He'll do well to keep in mind that "facts" and "Twitter" are not natural bedfellows. Particularly when it comes to the claims of politicians — or, I imagine, the claims of their 28-year-old social media staffers who don't intuitively understand the difference between a system and a foundation.  Let's leave self-aggrandizing untruths to the Republicans.


Saturday, May 27, 2023


   Yes, I look in the Spam filter. Occasionally. Okay, every day. Why? Boredom, I suppose. Curiosity. Amazement, really, that people — a good number of them, actually — read stuff they hate, regularly, just to top up their outrage tank, apparently. And then they write to the author, dutifully, informing him how much they hate his work. Expecting ... what? Not agreement, surely. To inflict the distress in others that makes them feel powerful, alive. Even though they never quite think through the writer's reception — well, mine anyway. "Oh no! The people I sincerely believe are imbeciles and traitors don't LIKE me! Boo hoo!"
    I never write them back. Okay, almost never. Rarely. I try not to answer the citizens of Spamland because, what would be the point? They're never chastised, only encouraged. "Aha! That response was just what I expected from YOU!" 
    Though sometimes I just can't help myself.  This, from Don Jones, or someone calling himself Don Jones:

     Are you seriously telling me that most Americans don't know anything about Black American History? Are you also saying we should know more about Black American History than our own and others? What are you trying to say? Shouldn't you guys be finding out why all our laws, rules etc. pertaining to equal treatment of all American citizens for all these years aren't being obeyed? Get to work, try doing something constructive.
    To which I answered:
     Yes, I am. I’m saying it IS your own history. And no, I don’t expect you to grasp that. Not when it’s so easy to be confused and aggrieved and pretend like somebody’s doing you wrong.
     As for “what are you trying to say?” please allow me to quote the great Samuel Johnson: “I have given you an argument, sir. I am not also obligated to give you an understanding.”
     And no, I won’t explain that to you either.
     Thanks for writing.
    See how much fun that is? I had almost forgotten one of my favorite Dr. Johnson quotes, which I used to send quite frequently to boggled readers. After all, why does something have to benefit the confused and blockheaded? I benefit. Isn't that enough? Writing to such readers is like wishing upon a star. It's not that the stars care. But you have a little moment, making the wish, and that's something.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Don’t be scared — it’s your history, too

     Earlier this year I found myself in Washington, D.C., with a free afternoon, so I beelined to the National Mall. There are found the various and wonderful Smithsonian museums: the National Air & Space Museum, worth going just to set eyes on the Grumman Gulfhawk; the Museum of American History, with its tattered Fort McHenry flag, the original star-spangled banner; the National Portrait Gallery, showing off a newly discovered painting of Lincoln.
     None of those were considered.
     Instead I headed to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had to, because the place hadn’t been open for business last time I was in Washington, in the summer of 2016. I wanted to see what it was like.
     As I crossed the mall, a kinsman who happened to be in town phoned. He also had some free time. Wanna get together? I asked if he wanted to visit the Museum of African-American History and Culture with me.
     “No,” he said.
     Nothing more. Simply “No.”
     That “no” was disappointing, but not surprising. History can have an obligatory, eat-your-peas quality even when it’s not the history of a people other than your own. Many Americans say “no” to most history, but particularly Black History — an unfortunate impulse being cemented into law in states all over the country. Ron DeSantis raged against Black history in announcing his candidacy for president Wednesday.

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Thursday, May 25, 2023

Tinkered with.


      My wife and I headed over to Glencoe a few Saturdays ago to meet a lovely young couple at the Guildhall for lunch. I wasn't particularly hungry — eggs for breakfast — so ordered a cup of black coffee and a $7 bruleed grapefruit. I do love my grapefruit. Made with mint, quite good. 
     Social dynamics required that I pay the bill — $138 with tip, our guests were hungry. A tidy sum, but I only smiled, gratefully. I'm lucky to be paying for this as opposed to, oh, bail.
     Next door is a toy store, Wild Child, and though none of us have young children, we all headed inside to coo over the wares. My nostalgic nature was pleased to see a Fisher-Price Chatter Telephone pull toy, basically unchanged since introduced in 1962 as a means to teach children how to dial a telephone. 
    Rather an anachronism, like a toy butter churn. In Fisher-Price's defense, they did try to change the toy over to a push button phone in 2000. But change-averse parents pushed back. I understand sentiment toward vanished times, but have to wonder exactly what they think this rotary phone is teaching their children. Maybe it's just fun, which is fine. Not everything must have a practical purpose. They still sell hobby horses, even though few kids later graduate to real ones.
     My attention was caught by this big can of Tinkertoys. Invented by an Evanston stone mason, by the way. I took down the handsome can, examining it more closely and noticed the price: $75.  Quite a lot, really.
     "Must be expensive to fabricate all those little spools out of wood," I thought, still generous of spirit. Then paused, a suspicion dawning. Ohhhh. I popped the can and peered inside. Plastic. All the pieces are plastic. Somehow the Lincoln Logs folks manage to still use wood — also a Chicago toy, invented by John Lloyd Wright, inspired by observing the interlocking beam construction of his father's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (in my recent book, I express that information in what struck me as a neat antithesis: "Frank Lloyd Wright learned architecture by playing with wooden blocks as a child. His son, John Lloyd Wright, learned wooden blocks by playing with architecture as an adult.")
    Back home, checking out Amazon, I learned a) you can still buy all sorts of real wood Tinkertoy clones, such as this Zanmai set, for a fraction of the cost; b) if you are so brand loyal that you just must get the retro Tinkertoys can, you can buy it online for $35.99, less than half the price of the Glencoe store.
    I know stores have rent. And the folks at Wild Child no doubt like to pop over to Guildhall for their $37 steak and eggs platter. People do order that, I can vouch from personal experience.  And I generally like to support bricks-and-mortar stores. Still. Half price online is a hard deal to pass up. When I needed a new speedbag recently — mine had been pounded to pieces — and stopped by Dick's Sporting Goods to admire a $60 black leather Everlast bag (punching bags MUST be Everlast, speaking of brand loyalty, in the same way that ketchup must be Heinz). I was about to go buy it at Dick's, when, on a hunch, I put the bag back and went home, castigating myself as I did. Jumped online, my hesitation was rewarded: the identical punching bag for $28.61, delivered for free. Less than half of what the store was charging. Works for me. Generosity has its limits.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Honor Jane Byrne on her 90th birthday by taking the train

Jane Byrne Interchange

   All honors have teeth. Reach out to accept a plaudit, and it bites you. That’s my experience, anyway. The boring dinner. The stumble to the podium. The plaque.
     But an infamous highway interchange? That has to be a league of dubious tribute all its own.
     I can’t be the only one who, unfortunate enough to be trapped in the tangle once called “The Spaghetti Bowl,” thinks that deciding to name the crawling knot of sclerotic cars upon concrete after Jane Byrne was some kind of grim joke. The mayoral ghost of Richie Daley, exacting his revenge.
     Even though it’s kind of my fault.
     It was nine years ago that I wrote an open letter to Byrne on what I thought was her 80th birthday. I didn’t realize she secretly shaved a year off her age, a reminder that she faced the strong headwind of a society that likes its women young, pretty and not in positions of power.
     That really hasn’t changed much. Donald Trump loved to say that the only reason Hillary Clinton was able to run against him in 2016 was because she was a woman, when the truth is 180 degrees opposite. The only reason a highly qualified, smart and savvy former secretary of state nevertheless lost to the most unfit individual to ever run for the presidency is because she is a woman. A mediocre man would have whupped him, as Joe Biden illustrated.
     The column got the wheels turning to eventually extend small public honors: a tiny park, a knot of congestion. She died in 2014, but her 90th birthday would have been Wednesday, May 24, and reason to consider her anew. The Byrne legacy lives on, and not just in the looping connections between I-90, I-94, I-290 and Ida B. Wells Drive.
     Wells Drive. Another odd distinction. Only in Chicago could the powers-that-be create a situation where there would be a corner of Wells and Wells. Fitting in a city where a major thoroughfare, Wacker Drive, goes north, south, east and west.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2023

"Some magic, mysterious thing"

Christie Hefner, right, talks to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner.

     They considered calling it New Times or The Electric Newspaper, in keeping with the fad for odd, non-sequitur names, with bands calling themselves things like "Jefferson Airplane." But in the end Jann Wenner settled for the original idea, "Rolling Stone" when titling his groundbreaking magazine in 1967.
     And yes, lawyers from the band that already was going by the plural, Rolling Stones, did send a cease-and-desist letter. Wenner, speaking to a small gathering of about 40 people in downtown Chicago, said he replied, "prove to me that your clients want this." Otherwise he ignored the threat, and the subject didn't come up again until he partnered with Mick Jagger to put out a UK edition of the magazine.
     The gathering Monday evening, to celebrate Wenner's autobiography, "Like A Rolling Stone," was held at Christie Hefner's lovely 42nd floor apartment near the Water Tower. The former CEO of Playboy — daughter of founder Hugh Hefner — played her interlocutor role well, guiding Wenner through his reminiscence about his life at the intersection of music and politics.
      Hefner asked him about Hunter S. Thompson, the archetypal gonzo journalist.
     "Hunter was a brilliant, brilliant writer loved practical jokes, loved wickedness, loved taking drugs, loved having fun," he replied, describing "this incredible collaboration that we had ... We just kind of took to each other instantly, recognized some kind of insanity in each other, and a kind of mission we both shared, the same idea: that we could use Rolling Stone to galvanize the youth population to political action." 
     Wenner was born in 1946, the first year of the Baby Boom, and his magazine was directed at fellow Boomers, "a new generation of Americans, the wealthiest, biggest, best-educated generation in the history of the world." 
      I liked his succinct summation of various politicians: George W. Bush, "lazy"; Ronald Reagan, "ignorant"; Barack Obama, "very organized, careful, and just doesn't budge" and Joe Biden, "a terrific president."
       Of course he also spoke of music.
       "Music was the language which young people could express their frustration, their sense of alienation with society itself," Wenner said. "Some magic, mysterious thing." 
       And musicians — he was starstruck only by Jagger — Bruce Springsteen was too much of a regular guy to inspire awe, except in performance. Bob Dylan too. 
      Wenner is a star in his own right, a fact he tacitly admitted. 
      "A great magazine really is its editor," he said. "It's a totally collaborative effort, everyone brings ideas, but finally it's the editor who galvanizes it. The editor has a mission."
     The mission of Rolling Stone was to draw together the world of music and politics, to remind young readers "you could be a rock and roll fan and be taken seriously, in the same company as the president of the United States."   
     It was a casual, friendly evening, though Hefner didn't flinch from asking tough questions. "You had conflicts about your homosexuality..." she ventured at one point.
     "Growing up in the 1950s, it wasn't spoken of, you didn't know of it," Wenner began — a world that certain Republican politicians seem eager to drag us all back to.
     Coming out, Wenner said, "was wonderful and liberating and didn't change my life at all."
  When it was time for the audience to ask questions, one was if there was a cover profile that got away from him.
     "I wanted to get Sinatra," he said. "But he wasn't available to us." No, I suppose he wouldn't be. No doubt the Chairman of the Board shrugged it off as a hippie rag. He'd have held out for Life magazine long after it went out of business.
     Someone mentioned how Rolling Stone highlighted Black musicians years before mainstream publications took up the practice.
     "Rock and roll is Black music sung by white people," Wenner said, adding that Rolling Stone covered Black musicians better than Ebony and Jet, prompting a caution from Hefner that Linda Johnson-Rice, daughter of John H. Johnson, founder of those publications, was here, and he recovered artfully. 
     I should probably mention some other notables in attendance. Rich Melman was there, with sons R.J. and Jerrod — we talked food, and Jerrod's new child, 10 weeks or so away. My old Sun-Times colleague Bill Zwecker was there, with partner Tom Gorman. He's doing some travel writing. Matt Moog, the CEO of Chicago Public Media, whom I introduced to my wife as my "boss's boss's boss's boss." Writer Alex Kotlowitz; the Tribune's Chris Jones, past publisher of the Reader, Tracy Baim, and the new young publisher, Solomon Lieberman, and I couldn't resist pitching myself to him. "Always be closing," I said to my wife as we walked away.
      I promised myself beforehand, if I spoke to Wenner at all, not to tell him about working for him 30 years ago, and doing a cover story on "Drugs in America." Of course that's the first thing I blurted out when we were introduced. But he instantly knew what I was referring to, and we talked about drug policy. I meant to tell him how proud I'd been, to be at a story and say, "Hi, I'm Neil Steinberg from Rolling Stone." Though I did thank him for the oral history of Hunter S. Thompson he wrote, "Gonzo," and how I admired that he said aloud what everyone else seemed to miss — that Thompson was an alcoholic and his affliction destroyed his ability to write. 
      It was a lovely night, and my wife and I walked to Union Station, glad to be out on the town glad to see Michigan Avenue so alive and crowded with strollers, the River Walk restaurants and bars filled to capacity. On the train home, I began reading Wenner's book: taut, candid, captivating. It's easy to be honest when you come from picaresque poverty like, oh, Frank McCourt. It's harder when your parents, like Wenner's, are successful California entrepreneurs and you were raised at private schools and summer camps. Fortune favors the brave, and Wenner lays it out without apology. It works.
     I shouldn't say any more, since I've just begun, but I've made it 25 pages in and plan to keep reading, which is not true for most books I open.

Monday, May 22, 2023

"The life they didn't lead"

Jay Tunney at home under a painting of his father, boxer Gene Tunney.

     Chicagoans endlessly parse their city’s best-known features: pizza and hot dogs, crime and weather, the blues and the Cubs. While other significant aspects of Chicago are too often simply ignored.
     Boxing, for instance. Chicago was a big boxing town. The top three heavyweight champions of the 20th century — Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali — all lived in Chicago.
     Johnson was locked in Cook County Jail for violating the Mann Act — the law passed by Congress attempting to stop him from having relations with white women. Louis won his first championship at Comiskey Park. Ali fought in the Golden Gloves in Chicago, would have fought here for a title, too, but local officials cancelled the bout to punish him for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
     And the boxing match that contained what many considered the greatest moment in professional boxing — if not in all athletics — the famous “Long Count” between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey took place at Soldier Field in 1927.
     Almost a century ago. Yet Tunney’s son, Jay, still lives downtown. He is a sharp and energetic 87, and the driving force behind a new play about the improbable friendship between his father and the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, “Shaw vs. Tunney,” by Doug Post, making its world premiere at Theater Wit later this month.

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Sunday, May 21, 2023

"The best mailman ever"

    The suburbs get a bad rap, as a bland neutered nowheres devoid of the charm and crackle of the city. You don't hear that as much post-COVID. And while there is some truth to it — nothing radiates silence and emptiness like a deserted suburban street — there are also human hearts beating outside the boundaries of Chicago. There are
people living here too. We too leave our mark, sometimes.
     For instance, my wife and I were wandering downtown Northbrook — a few blocks from our house — and we walked down Church Street, a bit off our beaten track. We noticed an improbable sight: a bronze mail bag on a metal bench at the corner of Church and Chapel, in front of what used to be Hope Union Church, now the offices of the Northbrook Historical Society.
     I'm believe we've seen it before, years ago. And driven past it many times unnoticing. But cars blind us to the details of life. And time effaces. We read the plaque. "In loving memory of Rudy Alex Loosa," it began. "Mailman extraordinaire on Northbrook Route 8 from 1997 - 2017. Rudy dedicated his life to his faith, family and friends and was a true gift to our neighborhood. Sit down, relax, and remember his contagious smile and share his love for all!"
     We sat down — you kind of have to. We relaxed, just for a minute, soaking in the beautiful early spring Saturday. long enough for our own red-bearded postman to come by, his boxy white truck parked directly across the road. It would look trite in a movie. I thought of yelling something. "Nice tribute to your fallen comrade!" Or some such thing. But that didn't feel right, he didn't look in our direction, and I decided not to stay this courier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds.
Rudy Alex Loosa
     I draped my right arm over the warm bronze mailbag, and we studied the details. Beautifully wrought. Someone put a lot of time and money into this. Somebody or group of somebodies cared, a lot.     
      The music from the arts festival in the park wafted over on the soft May breeze, and we got up and headed over to look at the artists' booths.
     Back at home, some details seemed in order. Loosa died in 2017, while delivering mail, at age 59. "Beloved Northbrook mail carrier dies on job" is the headline on the Tribune story.
     "He was the quintessential mailman some of us remember from 1950s television, where everybody knew the mailman, knew the milkman, and they knew about you and your family, knew about your losses, your celebrations, your victories," Scott Cawley told Irv Leavitt. "There was always a smile on his face and a great sense of optimism."
     He would deliver holiday cards to his customers, introducing himself, telling them how much he appreciated them.
     There just aren't enough people like that. I'm certainly not one. After I read about Loosa, I was sorry I hadn't said something to our mailman, passing right there. Our only communication is my ritual call of "Sorry!" when Kitty barks at him — she isn't a barky dog, but she's taken an unusual emity to the mailman, as dogs sometimes do. Maybe next time.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Flashback 1994: "Drug Sentencing: The Law of Unintended Consequences"

     A friend is hosting a party for Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner on Monday night, and I plan to go and meet the great man. If we actually get the chance to speak, I'll have to suppress the urge to say, "I wrote a cover story for you once." Technically true though the story, if I recall, was part of a package that was on the cover. Close enough.
     Anyway, I remember being vastly impressed with myself to be writing it — serious journalism for a national publication! My relationship with Rolling Stone began after they excerpted my pranks book, and I began writing stories for their college section. It was when magazines sent writers places, and I once had to fly to Boston to cover a story, returning that night, and it felt very on-the-edge to get on a plane without luggage. 
      I thought this piece was the beginning of being a Rolling Stone writer in earnest, though it actually was the end, the last piece I wrote for them — Wenner was unhappy with it somehow, though I can't recall the details.  I sure hope he doesn't. Probably best not to mention it. 
     Mandatory minimum sentences are still imposed in about half of federal drug cases.

     Tonya Denise Drake, a 28-year-old mother of four, mailed a package for a man she met in a parking lot, earning $47.40 and a 10-year jail sentence. Jason Cohn, 19, was sentenced to a decade in jail for shipping 12 grams of blotter paper containing LSD for a fellow Deadhead who, unknown to Cohn, had been busted by the feds. Michael Irish, a 44-year-old carpenter from Portland, Ore., spent three hours helping to unload hashish from a truck and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Keith Edwards, 19, sold crack cocaine to a federal informant, who then set up four more buys to accumulate enough crack to qualify Edwards for the 10-year sentence he is now serving.
     A decade into our nation’s most recent infatuation with mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, the horror stories continue to pile up. In 1993, 60 percent of the 87,000 people in federal prisons were serving time on drug convictions, up from 22 percent in 1980. Like Drake, Cohn, Irish and Edwards, half of these prisoners were first-time offenders. Had they chosen to rob a bank or rape someone or even murder someone, their sentences would probably be less than the mandatory no-parole sentences Congress has been writing into law since 1984.
     Nor are mandatory minimum sentences limited to the federal government. Forty-nine states have their own mandatory laws, such as Michigan’s “650 Lifer” law, which requires life sentences for possession of more than 650 grams of cocaine. In that state, some 150 people are sitting in prison for life for cocaine possession, perhaps half of them first offenders like Gary Fannon Jr., now 25 and seven years into the life sentence he got for a drug transaction that he merely helped to arrange. (See RS 638 and RS 664.)
     Compulsory drug sentencing is kept alive by fear-mongering. After creating the first set of harsh mandatory-drug-sentencing laws, the infamous Boggs Act, in the 1950s, then repealing them as unworkable in 1970, Congress plunged back into mandatory minimums with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. Since then, stiffening or adding to the mandatory minimums has been an election-year ritual, with the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 and the 1990 crime bill. The 1992 crime bill died at the end of the congressional session only because of the gun-control controversy.
     New to her job, Attorney General Janet Reno appeared to have taken a position on mandatory minimums based on common sense and experience. Unwisely, she spoke up: “We are not going to solve the crime problem by sending everyone to prison for as long as we can get them there and throwing away the key.” Apparently chastened by the administration, she has backed off. Her office now insists: “Attorney General Reno never was against mandatory minimum sentences. She said we need to look at them and determine who they’re affecting. She is still saying the same exact thing.”
     President Clinton declined an invitation to talk to Rolling Stone on mandatory minimums, and members of the Senate and House judiciary committees, fearful of being called soft on crime, tend to be reluctant to discuss the subject publicly. Of 10 key members polled for their opinion for this article, only Orrin Hatch, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, responded. “He’s recognized the problem of inflexibility when dealing with drug cases,” a spokesman said. “He’s willing to try to give the judges some measure of flexibility. The problem is, people can’t agree on a definition.”

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Friday, May 19, 2023

‘A little extra artillery’

     Why did Jordan Eldridge, of Michigan City, Indiana, submit to a series of 20 injections in a part of his anatomy where most men would never want even one?
     He considers before answering.
    “Well ...” the 33-year-old landscaper began. “I guess it’s just part of the culture. Bigger is better. I never really had too much of a problem in the bedroom. I have had a girlfriend tell me my johnson was small before. But it was an argument. You have to take it with a grain of salt.”
     I’ve always thought penile enhancement is invariably some variety of scam.
    “Historically, you’ve got to be careful what is out there,” agreed Dr. Jagan Kansal, a board-certified urologist in Chicago who specializes in sexual and reproductive medicine. His practice, Down There Urology, performed the PhalloFILL procedure on Eldridge. “There are a lot of advertisements promising you take a pill and your penis is going to get bigger. Oral medications won’t do that.”
     Eldridge said he did not do it for romantic reasons.
     “I asked my girlfriend that I was with currently, and she said, ‘No, I don’t think you need to do it.’”
     Then why?
     “It’s more of a personal thing,” he said. “You know, guys in the locker room. Everybody takes a glance, and you don’t want to be the smallest guy. Don’t want to be the biggest, but it never hurts to have a little bit more.”
     PhalloFILL does not make the penis longer — Kansal says no reputable procedure promises that — but wider. Eldridge received shots of a substance called hyaluronic acid filler, a natural compound found in body joints.

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Thursday, May 18, 2023

The future is always murky

     "I imagine cards will go first," my wife said, giving the card she had just opened several little punctuating shakes as she spoke.
     Wednesday. Her birthday morning. She had opened her card, affixed atop a present, given the requisite ooo's and ah's for its beauty and aptness, then boom, straight to the effect of artificial intelligence on the the communication industry. 
     By "cards will go first" she meant that algorithms will replace the teams of wordsmiths and artists laboring for Hallmark and such. I didn't have to ask for elaboration. Cards have different types — the humorous, the artistic, the poetic, the affectionate. I had opted for the beautiful. The product of humans, but that can change. Scan enough cards in and let the code do the rest. Words and pictures. She didn't add, "With newspaper columns shortly thereafter." She didn't have to.
     The media has been pounding the What-Will-AI-Do? drum furiously for months. I tend to ignore it, because when I roll up my sleeves and read one it turns out, like Gertrude Stein's Oakland, that there is no there there.
     I abandon the cautionary essays unmoved. My take on the AI menace remains the same. It's hard enough to get people to act like people and fulfill their full creative potential. Machines do it wrong, slightly, and when it comes to something like a greeting card — or a newspaper column — even a slight wrong is a lot. It only takes a little spit to spoil the soup.
     Besides, there will be no AI writing newspaper columns because the demand will die long before they get good at it. I haven't yet gotten an email from a reader demanding, "Who ARE you and why are you telling us about your life?" But that moment approaches day by day. Hatters kept trying to make cheaper hats when the problem was that men no longer felt like wearing them.
     That said, I'm reluctant to predict the future, as the guys who called cell phones a fad in 1983. (They might be. When was the last time you talked on the phone? Phones could yet end up like compact discs, a change that showed up, seemed permanent, and then years went by and it wasn't. Which makes sense. Nothing is permanent).
     The model I use is my youth in the 1960s, when the space program carbonized our brains. Tang was big. So were "Space Food Sticks," a sort of bland, mushy Tootsie-Roll-like concoction. Someday we would all enjoy entire meals in the form of a single pill.
     Or not. Turns out people liked preparing real food, or at least eating real food. I ate TV dinners all the time as a child — that pair of hot dogs in their shallow sea of beans. Mmm! Now I never do. If my wife came home and I served her a Hungry Man dinner her reaction would be comparable to if I served a pair of roasted hamsters.
     My hunch is that people want to read cards or stories, view paintings or hear songs created by other people. That readers will never curl up with some book churned out by a robot. Maybe I'm wrong. People do read boilerplate thrillers churned out by anonymous writers pretending to be a certain best-selling author . Maybe AI-created works will be fantastic in some unimaginably wonderful way, and my suggesting otherwise is like scoffing that someone would attend the opera without a top hat. The future is always murky.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Weighing ‘the soul of Chicago’

Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin

     “The soul of Chicago.”
     An easy enough phrase to toss out. It’s emblazoned on Willie Wilson T-shirts: “Restoring the Soul of Chicago.” Only $31.67.
     Brand new mayor Brandon Johnson also invoked the soul of Chicago, in his inauguration address Monday, repeatedly, seriously. So it seems worthy of serious consideration.
     What is the soul of Chicago?
     Johnson began his exploration by suggesting the soul of Chicago is a general human condition, like opposable thumbs. The soul of Chicago, he said, is “alive and well in each and every one of us here today.”
     Unless he meant just the people in the room. I hope he wasn’t implying that the soul of Chicago is a thing possessed only by those who’d go out of their way to see him inaugurated in person. If that’s the case, it’s going to be a long four years.
     Besides, Johnson immediately opened the category up to “the Miami, the Sauk, the Potawatomi, who lived on this land for centuries.”
     Hmmm. I see how mentioning Native Americans helps Johnson check off a box. But the Potawatomi war-danced out of town in 1835. A proud heritage, for certain. But if they are the soul of Chicago, today, then why are all these buildings here? I don’t think Johnson is saying the true heart of Chicago is the dispossessed, the exiled. The city does sometimes seem headed in that direction. I hope the soul of Chicago isn’t something that gets driven to Arizona.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2023


 Readers often write in with questions and I do my best to answer them. This is from Ed Perchess:

     Neil, how is it ok for you the Left to say and do all you can against the so called Right but when the Right goes after the Left it is Wrong? It’s called Hypocrisy, which Liberal Regressive Socialists are full of, besides themselves!! Shame on you, ask for a refund from wherever you were brainwashed at. You are nothing but court jesters to entertain your elite.

     I did my best to answer honestly:

     Gosh Ed, none of this is complicated. Let me explain again: Donald Trump is a fascist, doing all he can to pull down America's democratic ideals. He opposes free elections, obviously. He opposes free media. He opposes freedom of religion, in forcing arcane sexual mores on women. Which makes you, forgive me for pointing it out, the dupe of a fascist, either consciously or unconsciously undermining American values in your own small way. Patriotic Democrats can do all we can to oppose you because we love America, in its pure, small "d" democratic form. You do all you can to prop up your sad and ridiculous demagogue because those taken in by shams eventually become invested in the fraud they have fallen for and can't face the truth.
     I hope that clears things up for you.


Monday, May 15, 2023

King’s life just won’t stay in the past

     I don’t like to write in books. Even bound galleys — it just feels wrong. Besides, you still have to later find the page where the underlined passage appears. Better to slap a Post-It note by the parts you want to recall later.
     So when I pulled down my advance copy of Jonathan Eig’s “King: A Life,” which comes out Tuesday, I smiled. The pages sprout with magenta and orange notes. It’s been five months since I read it, before the King holiday last January. While I knew the book was interesting, I forgot just how interesting.
     So interesting that I don’t even have to check the citations to immediately remember riveting details, such as that for the first 20 years of his life he went by “Mike King.” That one fact alone might unsettle your entire view of what being Martin Luther King Jr. must have been like. Not the young preacher, waiting for the greatness he knew was coming. But just Mike, just a regular guy, maybe more sensitive than most, who threw himself out of a second floor window when his grandmother died. Twice.
     A man deeply flawed — he bit his nails, liked to play pool, liked to drink. King had a habit of plagiarizing, in school, in speeches and later books. He cheated in writing, and he cheated on his wife.
     Not a particularly flattering portrait of King, except for the civil rights part. Yet one being celebrated as the new standard King biography.
     “Magnificent,” wrote the Economist.
     “The most compelling account of King’s life in a generation” wrote the Washington Post.
     Why? Because life is messy. And those who keep alive King’s dream of a country where people are judged, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, know this must be done by facing reality, not concocting self-flattering mythologies.
     “Great men,” Eig writes, quoting Emerson, “have not been boasters and buffoons.”

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Sunday, May 14, 2023

Flashback 2012: "Mother's work is never done."

Photo for the Sun-Times by Al Podgorski, used with permission.

     This was an assignment: for Mother's Day, show how hard a mother works. Eleven years later, a couple things stand out in memory. First, it was a an early lesson in the value of Facebook. I put out a Facebook status appeal for anyone who knew a busy mom I could focus on in the newspaper, and the nominations flowed in.
     And second, in our pre-visit conversation, I mentioned to the mom that I wanted to be at her house when her husband left for work — reflecting my own frame of reference — and her explaining there was no husband; her partner is another woman.
     I was already known as someone with more sympathy to the LGBTQ community than is usual, and worried that my boss would think I had sought out this particular subject deliberately, as a political statement. So I mentioned to him that I had put out a call for a  mother with her hands full, the perfect candidate had been presented: a mom with newborn triplets and a toddler.. But that she turned out to be a lesbian. What should I do?
     "You're always saying this is normal," replied city editor Andrew Hermann. "So treat it as if it were normal." So I did.
      One reason I've lasted 36 years at the Sun-Times is because we tend to have very good bosses, a fact that doesn't get mentioned nearly enough.

     Shhh. They’re sleeping. 
     In four cribs nearly filling the small dark back bedroom of a modest brick home on a quiet street in Skokie. Four little daughters: Malynn, the oldest, who turns 3 next month, plus triplets Annette, Samantha and Cecilia. 
     It’s 5:50 a.m. The day is about to begin — well, the sun is coming up. When any given day begins or ends is an arbitrary distinction for a mother of four children under the age of 3. You could just as well say the old day is about to end. 
      “Samantha just went down,” whispers Michelle Baladad-Widd, 38, sitting in her dim living room a few days before Mother’s Day. OK, “living room” is deceptive. Think “nursery.” Much of the floor is interlocking squares of multicolored foam. The entrances are barred by child gates. Scattered toys. A single orange plastic ring speared on a yellow post. A changing table. Three identical red high chairs wait against one wall. 
      “It was a little rougher night — not too bad,” Michelle says.  Cecilia — Ceci — was up from 1 to 2. Sam got up around 5. Michelle thinks she herself slept from 2 to 4. 
      Did she always want to be a mom? “Did I?” she wonders, as if considering the question for the first time. “I didn’t have that burning desire that a lot of my female friends did to be a mom. I thought it would be cool. But it wasn’t anything that I sought growing up.” 
     Michelle was raised in Wood Dale. Her parents — her father a doctor, her mother a nurse — are from the Philippines. She went to Fenton, then Loyola, and has an MBA and a masters in information system management from Keller. 
     News of triplets “was a shock.” 
     The living room is dim because the electricity is out; it went out the day before. Michelle’s partner, Jennifer Baladad-Widd, 36, returns with coffee. They have been together 17 years, meeting when both were at Sigma Kappa at Loyola. 
     At 7:07 a.m., a sound imperceptible to non-maternal ears sets Michelle to her feet and into the back room. She returns with Ceci — always first out of the blocks. 
    “She’s our wonderful challenge — she’s just much more active,” Michelle says. “She gives us the most run for our money. Being the most active she’s also the most interactive.” 
    One by one the rest awake. Malynn appears, clinging sleepily to Jennifer. Both women busy themselves helping ready the girls. 
      The first diaper of the day is changed. The record is 31, one awful day of triplet diarrhea.  “My mother counted,” says Michelle. 
     “All right ladies, why don’t we get dressed,” Jennifer says at 7:35 a.m. She has the calm command of a public school teacher, reflecting seven years in Chicago schools. 
     Ceci cries and twists away from her clothes as if they hurt. Samantha — Sam — awakens, then Annie. The next half hour is a chaotic ballet. Pajamas are removed, and identical pink-and-white striped T-shirts and gray leggings — Malynn’s choice — are tugged on. The triplets are strapped into their chairs, eventually, and kept occupied with Honey Nut Cheerios while Michelle prepares scrambled eggs. Whatever ends up on the floor doesn’t stay long, thanks to rescue dogs Destiny and Duke. “The clean-up crew,” Michelle says. 
      At 8:10, Jennifer, holding a frozen meal, hurries to the door, late. “OK, momma, I’m heading out,” she says. A substitute after the four-month bed rest required during pregnancy with the triplets, today she is teaching kindergarten.  

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—Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 13, 2012

Saturday, May 13, 2023

A cautionary tale

Metropolitan Museum of Art
     "Ouch!" I said, aloud, reaching for a fork at lunch a week ago Friday.
     A stabbing pain on the tip of my left index finger. I knew the reason: my project. Our front steps, replaced more than 20 years ago, are now rotting around the edges. I'd been chiseling rotten wood away, custom-making new pieces of trim, doing lots of sanding, and got a splinter in my fingertip from an old board I'd pulled out of the scrap pile. I yanked the splinter out — I thought — and kept working. But obviously some piece of it remained, embedded.
     This is what is known in literary circles as "foreshadowing."
     No biggie. Finished lunch, upstairs to the bathroom, sterilized a tweezers with rubbing alcohol, and began digging. It was a tenacious little bugger, emphasis on "little" — it was like trying to grab the period at the end of this sentence with ice tongs. I finally invoked a higher power — asked my wife to help me. She took a look, and went to find a needle. Thus inspired, I concentrated my efforts and got it out myself.
     Flash to evening.
     When I went to sleep, my eye was watering. I flushed it with Refresh eye drops, and went to bed. The next day, the problem was there, particularly when I looked at the computer. Tears streamed down my face. Maybe eyestrain, I thought — I am on the computer a lot. The weekend passed, sanding and pressing plastic wood into gaps. Then there was the 3,000-word magazine piece to read, and I read it.
     Monday, my eye was still watering, and my wife suggested maybe the problem was COVID. That's sometimes a symptom. I took one of our stack of tests. No COVID. 
     "You should have an eye doctor see it," my wife said. I phoned an opthamologist we had seen last year for our prescriptions. Her examining room was dusty and her staff shrugged the fact off when my wife pointed it out. So we weren't ever going back. But ... any port in a storm. I talked to her nurse — the next available appointment was in August, she said, recommending Refresh Gel drops to tide me over until then. 
     So off to Walgreens to get the high octane, $21 gel eye drops. They helped. The problem seemed to be going away. Then it didn't. Tuesday I phoned my primary care doctor, Dr. Gregory Wallman. His nurse was aghast when I told her about the "See you in August" reaction from the dusty optometrist's office. 
     "A doctor needs to look at that eye!" she said in a tone that made me listen to her. She gave me the name of a glaucoma center in Glenview. I phoned. It was a FAX line. It whirred, and I figured, don't bother. That was Wednesday.
     Thursday I was I was stretched out on the couch, and pressed on my eye. It hurt. That couldn't be good. I found the actual number for the Glencoe eye care center — a digit off from the FAX line. I phoned. They'd see me in two hours.
     I arrived. Lots of questions. First a form. Then a quick eye exam with a technician. I waited for nearly an hour, flipping idly through old copies of Rolling Stone. I don't know any musical celebrities anymore. This ... is a waste of time, I thought.
     Right up until the moment the opthamologist had me put my chin on a device and looked in eye. The examination took all of three seconds.
     "You have a foreign body impacted in your eye," she said, matter-of-factly. The information arrived like a fire bell.
     Oh. In all candor, some weisenheimer subsystem considered making a play on words with "foreign body." But I thought better of it. She numbed my eye and showed me a little hair's thickness cannula she intended to flick the piece of grit or splinter of whatever it was out. If that didn't work — and she didn't seem optimitic — we'd have to consider sterner measures.
     I told her I'd probably be babbling the whole time she did it — I tend to talk when medical procedures are being done to me. She said it might work better if we both were silent, and I took her hint.
     Removing the splinter took another three seconds. Done. I expressed my deep gratitude for her and went directly to Walgreens to get the two types of antibiotic drops she prescribed. Friday I stayed off the computer and gardened and the eye felt better.
     Which leads us to the moral of the story. Check stuff out. Don't wait. And be your own medical advocate. Don't spend nearly a week with a splinter in your eye. If I had been discouraged by the first opthamologist who'd have me wait until August I'd still have that crap in my eye, with scar tissue already forming around it, the doctor who actually saw me said. So all hail Dr. Wallman's nurse, whose tone in that "A doctor needs to look at that eye!" was the kick in the ass that propelled me forward. And all hail my wife, who told me to make the call. Several times. Those of us who have access to health care ought to use it when we need it, and everyone should have access to health care. It's astounding that we live in a society where they don't. And where there are people who do have both access and need but are still too inert and stupid to use it as quickly as they ought to.