Saturday, December 30, 2023

Trump strangles puppy, popularity soars — The State of the Blog, 2023

Prince Edward Island, 2011 (Photo by Martin Cathrae, used with permission).

      Trying to hold 2023 in mind and comprehend the year before it slips into history, I picture an old truck, heavy, lumbering down a muddy road, big tires spinning in the ruts, ancient diesel engine shrieking. Moving forward, sorta, shuddering, fishtailing, sliding sideways here, lurching forward there. Making slow and spattered progress.
    Along the route, the monthly blog highlights:
     In January, I tried to put the rise of Artificial Intelligence in context, not to mention eyeball the competition, with "Get your human generated content here!"  February saw the first of a series of stories marking the 75th anniversary of the newspaper with a look at long-departed colleagues, "Gather in the newsroom for a brief meeting."
    When COVID-19 hit in 2020, I told myself I wasn't going to spend the pandemic sitting on my ass in Northbrook, and wondered how to best contribute to our coverage. I decided, given my connections to hospitals and experience viewing operations, to try to convey medical aspects of fighting the pandemic, and marked the third anniversary of the arrival of COVID in March by surveying the maxxed out medical community in "We nearly broke the system," working again with my ace colleague, photographer Ashlee Rezin.
    In April, in the constant quest to include voices not often heard in the media, we met Antonio Cox, AIDS patient, in "I'm glad I got HIV."
    In May, we greeted new mayor Brandon Johnson by thinking about his inauguration speech, "Weighing 'the soul of Chicago.'" I figured somebody should. After pestering Lori Ligthtfoot, for naught, I've decided to step back, let Johnson serve out his term, and hope for better luck next time. Though this year I did skip the middleman and interviewed Chicago Teachers Union president Stacy Davis Gates. A fun talk — always better to talk to the puppeteer instead of the puppet. But even that didn't result in anything printable. 
    June was a good month. On the 17th, we visited the John Deere combine plant in East Moline, in a 2,100 word essay on farming and technology — the story originally ran in Crain's Chicago Business. Then two days later, perhaps my favorite story of the year, "A visit to cat heaven," aka Fat Cat Rescue, again with Ashlee, who'll I'll always remember carefully moving  among the mewing, cat-strewn landscape murmuring, "Best. Assignment. Ever."
    July brought the most-read post of the year — and the third most read, ever — "Wrangle carts, earn quarters," which I thought was a trifle about visiting a certain discount supermarket for the first time. That was before it hit the significance distortion field of Reddit, where it got a million hits, I am told, among the army of Aldi fanatics, who damned me as if I had murdered a child for marveling over the cart system and clucking at the inferior products on sale. A reminder that sometimes social media is like going outside for a stroll only to be killed by a mob outraged at the kind of socks you're wearing.
     In August I wrote "What I can't say anymore," alerting readers to a dynamic I fear is going to be an increasing problem as 2024 unfolds — the Sun-Times' hesitancy to weigh in forcefully on political candidates, for fear of endangering their 501(c)3 charitable status by "endorsing" someone. I feel that is not only over-cautious, but also a betrayal of our beloved country for money, and plan to push back against it as hard as I can. 
    In September, I used a recent trip to Copenhagen to offer one of those out-of-left field posts I find so engaging and hope maybe you do too, Danish Notes #1 — Spiral City.
    The brutal Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel was the jarring event of the year, and here the independence of the blog proved vital. Both in allowing me to immediately react, that day, with "War in the Middle East" And to disseminate, a few days later, "How does this end," when my leash was yanked a second time, when a single complaint from some unnamed person within the organization was enough to keep the column from being printed in the physical newspaper, despite my willingness to make changes. Though it was permitted to remain online, I believe because it had gone up before somebody disapproved of ... well, I never did get a good reason out of anybody. I tried pointing out that the purpose of my column is to raise valid issues and provoke thought and conversation, not make the staff feel good about themselves. That opinion did not carry the day, alas. As I often tell people, I just work there; I don't run the place.
    I didn't interact with Chicago politics as much as I should in 2023, so in November honored my old pal Ed Burke's downfall by actually reading the rules he broke, in "C'mon guys, read the ethics code."
    Bringing us to this month where, in my continual quest to neither risk endorsing anybody nor  tread on the tender sensibilities of colleagues, I spent two days featuring Delightful Pastries, the first being "Baking bread with Dobra Bielinski." The bread was very good, and if I'm going to become the trifles beat reporter, I might as well enjoy myself.
    Thank you again for another year. Specifically, thanks to John O'Rourke, Grizz 65, Clark St., Coey and all the other regular readers and faithful commenters who pointed out at least 100 errors and allowed me to look more thorough than I actually am. Thank you to the Sun-Times for tolerating me on staff for 36 years and, if we both can stand each other, perhaps three or four more. Thank you to Marc Schulman, who insisted that Eli's Cheesecake sponsor the blog for the 11th consecutive year. If you haven't bought a cheesecake yet, well, get to it, right now, right here. When Edie and I were considering what treat, of all the conceivable delicacies in the world, we want to indulge in to mark New Year's Eve tomorrow, we settled on a slice of Eli's tiramisu cheesecake.
     The blog overall had 1.25 million hits this past year; I figure half of those actual human readers. The rest seem to be ... well, I'm really not sure. A device in China seizing on my URL like a dog grabbing a rubber toy and vigorously shaking. I picture a device the size of a microwave oven, only painted dirty white enamel, on some high shelf in a basement in Szechuan, vibrating madly, emitting a high hum, racking up hits on this blog for some purpose I just can't fathom.
    Not success in the usual definition of the term, but not bad either. Or, if it is bad, it's my bad, and I'll have to live with it. Acceptance is key to several realms of my life and I think, finally, I've come to embrace the idea that This Is It. I'm truly grateful it's something you find worthwhile and check in on, either regularly or now and again. Here's hoping you have a very Happy New Year. I'm looking forward to spending 2024 with you. If you're the type who makes resolutions, I hope you'll consider sharing mine: to usher out the upcoming year living in the same sort of democracy we enjoyed when 2024 began. One of those resolutions, like losing 30 pounds or writing a book, that won't just happen by itself, but requires continual attention, care and effort. I believe it's worth it.

40 comments:

  1. I discovered you in 2023. I always heard of you, but Robert Feder always caught my eye. I wish I had started reading you sooner. Not only do we share the some of the same views of politics, but you understand what it’s like to be in a really bad, dark place. Most people, thankfully, have no idea what I mean. But you do. Thanks for being you. Looking forward to more in 2024. (Feel free to use that as a political ad or maybe a nifty billboard campaign).

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    1. Thanks for reading — there are a lot of newcomers, and maybe I will put some sort of Top 10 feature on the side so recent arrivals can catch up.

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    2. Better yet, can you go over the best way to post for those not familiar with Google protocols, and when is the best time to post - is it fruitless to post a day or two after publication? And, what are rules of moderation - staying polite and on topic? What does ‘manage your comments’ mean on Google? Sometimes, I think you’re messaging to the choir of regulars, with few newcomers tempted to join in because they don’t know how.

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    3. Not at all (fruitless to post long after publication, though I don't know who reads those besides me). Polite and on topic helps — do you really need me to tell you that (some do, alas). I generally don't post non-sequiturs. There's a reader who reacts to that day's post on my bio page, and I never print those. That last sentence is your own baggage being dragged in, and another time I might not post your remark for that reason. Most comments are posted; malcontents and crybabies are shunned, to their displeasure. There are a few cranks who bitch about having had a comment excluded a year ago — get over it — who reflect that lingering hurt that their current remarks, dredging it up again, which also isn't published, no doubt deepening their sense of victimization. Being anonymous doesn't help either. Remember: I write for people who like my writing. So if you don't, generally, then you're in the wrong place, and your thoughts aren't really something I'm eager to read myself, never mind share with others, who have figured out the complexities of the comment system. Or as I've said before, quoting the old song: "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

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  2. I’m so grateful for your blog. It’s the first thing I read every morning, and by 7:00 am, have often learned something, had a chuckle or a tear. I usually check back in later to read the often worthwhile comments. 2024 will be an interesting year, and I eagerly await your takes.

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  3. So there's no way for another opera contest give-away we read so much about? Perchance a Riverwalk tour by boat guided by Neil as it seems we have less than 2,000 days left until this original column expires, in his own words. Awaiting response.

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    1. An opera giveaway is possible. I noticed the paper was giving away tickets without involving me — the Lyric was unhappy with the candor of my coverage. I like the Riverwalk tour idea — maybe I could work something out with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. As much as I like their boat tours, it's all I can do not to wrestle the microphone away from the docent. It's malpractice not to mention that the Willis Tower and the John Hancock — okay, 875 North Michigan, for now — were designed by the same architect, Bruce Graham.

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  4. If success and happiness come to those who inspire thought and us to read every goddamn word, you, sir, are a success and should be very happy!

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    1. I am, in the main. If you notice, I didn't do the curtain-clutching, shall-I-go-on bullshit I usually do at year's end. That was growing tiresome, even for me. This is my mountain — okay, hill ... okay, small elevated spot — and I'm sticking here.

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  5. Not sure why it took me so long to discover your blog this year at the tender age of 68 but boy am I glad I did. I look forward to reading it EGD! May the bigwigs at the ST loosen their tight hold on you in 2024 especially with it being the most important election year of our lives so the faithful readers can enjoy your musings in the newspaper as well as this blog. Judy

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  6. I appreciate your thoughtful musings on subjects others don't write about, even while recognizing that you're probably the last columnist standing. And I appreciate the opportunity to post my own musings in response, while acknowledging that pretty much no one responds to them. But compared to the comments I get when posting political opinions on Facebook, that nonresponse is blessed silence. Thank you for the effort you put forth to keep us aware, amused, and intrigued.

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    1. I tend not to reply too much, as it becomes time intensive. Though today is pretty quiet, and the column for Monday is done, and people are being so nice it seems warranted. Generally, I let folks duke it out, figuring, I've had my say already.

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  7. Thanks for your work; I've enjoyed reading it.

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    1. Hey Kier, happy New Year. I thought of you this morning — I was talking to a singer in Scotland, Josienne Clarke. Very thoughtful songs. Ever hear of her?

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    2. As a half McPherson, maybe I should have heard of her, but I haven't :(

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  9. A fine body of work Mr. Steinberg and all in a single year! I dont know how you do it but I appreciate it.

    I usually start my day with EGD and then check back several times to read the comments , possibly see if I can get one of my own past the gatekeeper and occasionally find a bonus full length piece by Grizz or a screed by Clark st.

    So if you're concerned about bots i'd suggest many people check in more than once which drives hit traffic beyond actual total number of readers.

    I was at the Aldi on Cermak a couple times recently and they have discontinued the quarter system for carts. I dont know if its company wide but I have to say I was surprised when an employees explanation was complaints about too many wranglers in the parking lot trying to snag those quarters . Poor people aren't hanging about offering to return the cart anymore but now there are abandoned carts here in there. so it goes ,KV.

    So many observations about so many interesting and entertaining topics.

    thank you, keep up the good work

    frank in pocket town

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    1. Thanks Frank. Just to restate the rules — I tend to shitcan snide remarks about myself, or direct personal attacks on longtime commentators. Otherwise pretty much any opinion is immediately publishable. Though I do get in a bad mood, particularly with respondents complaining about past spats I've long forgotten about. And I do have crazy commentators who deliver dozens of rants at a time and sometimes, in deleting big blocks of their bile unread, legitimate comments are lost as well, and I regret that. But I can't wade through the toxic delusions of the insane. It's too dispiriting, not to mention time-consuming.

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  10. Wow! This year raced by...it seems like yesterday that I read about Aldi's! I do read this daily and thank you. I was born in Chicago but left for college in 71 and now visit a few times a year. But your space and the Picyaune keep me informed. A friend gave me your book as a gift this month and I've begun reading one a day. Yesterday I read about the rather remarkable Hazel Lavery and went down a rabbit hole to find her paintings and a documentary. Today, the Iroquois Theater Fire-it seems I've seen photos of the aftermath somewhere. So, I will end the year, "finishing" your book and "beginning" it in the New Year. Hope it is a good one personally for all; as it seems the world is going up in flames as it likely always has been doing.

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    1. That's good company. Eric really provides a valuable service. I'm glad you're reading the book — I might start it myself tomorrow. That Hazel Lavery story came from Gene Tunney's son, who has a portrait of his father by Sir John Lavery in his Gold Coast condo, which is how I learned about her. The idea of a Chicago gal being on Irish banknotes for 50 years, and few here realizing it, mesmerized me, and when I heard she was name-checked in a poem by Yeat,s I had to include her. Finding a date to pin her on was a challenge, which is why I had to settle on her wedding to the doctors her gratefully died young, allowing her to live her truest life. Think of how many never get that lucky break.

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  11. Love the variety and the clarity of your observations, as well as your dogged persistence in being yourself. Best to you and yours in 2024 - to all of us.

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    1. Thanks. That's one of my few rules — be yourself — and it truly helps. So many guys trip up trying to be something they're not, laying claim to the "Chicago Way," whatever that may be, a line from a Hollywood movie, while living in Indiana. I remember Nigel Wade calling me in, giving me my column, and saying I could be their next Mike Royko, and having the presence of mind to say that I didn't want there, there was already one, and I was going to work hard to be the next Neil Steinberg. I'm proud of that.

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  12. "Inferior products" at Aldi? Would you please care to be a bit more specific? You do realize that they're not the only store to sell house brands? And that the cart system is just a visible manifestation of a different way of doing retail?

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    1. Absolutely not. The beauty of what I do is that I can gratefully move on — today's retrospective notwithstanding. Feel free to discuss Aldi to your heart's content. Just don't expect me to join in.

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  13. I get 20 or 30 emails every day from various Substacks, organizations asking for money, news sources, etc. etc.. Many (most) get deleted, but I always look for and read your blog. Thank you for keeping it going and have a happy and healthy 2024.

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  14. Thank you Neil for another year of EGD. And tomorrow I will end the year the way I have started every day this year by reading the December 31 entry of your book. Happy New Year!
    Arthur

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  15. I read both the blog and the paper everyday, and as someone mentioned earlier, its the variety that is so great. From the manhole covers, to bakeries to the Colorguard, which when I did one I had a good idea of what they were doing in the lab when they received it.

    18 months ago when I retired and cleaned out my office I still had some Ed Gold columns from the Reader saved in some old manilla folders. I hope you keep going on for a long time. But putting this out everyday certainly can be no easy task. Thanks and hopefully we all have a great 2024!

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  16. In the original Dec. 30 EGD "State of the Blog" post, written 10 years ago when this project was only six months old, you pondered: "The question I am more concerned with is: does writing every day lower the quality of my work? Am I burning out, running out of steam?"

    From this vantage point, given all the columns, blog posts, magazine pieces and books you've created since then, it's quite clear that a resounding "no" was and is the answer to that question!

    Congratulations on another outstanding year. Your dedication is remarkable.

    I surely hope that the populace of this nation can find the resolve to maintain the democracy you refer to above. It seems that Benjamin Franklin's reply about what kind of government had been established in 1787, "A republic, if you can keep it" has seldom seemed more prescient.

    Happy New Year to you and all the EGD enthusiasts!

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  17. "A reminder that sometimes social media is like going outside for a stroll only to be murdered by a mob outraged at the kind of socks you're wearing."
    fucking priceless, i love those little polished gems.

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  18. Your blog is a must-read every day and I appreciate your perspective and all the new information. Thank you!

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  19. So glad I discovered your blog this year always interesting. Thanks for keepin real writing going in Chicago. Happy New Year 🎉

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  20. Well I knew your big before this year *sniff* because I'm that cool.
    I like your books, too!

    Happy new year to you!

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  21. Even though I moved to Tucson in November 2019,I still look forward to your blog post every goddamn day. Thanks Neil!

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  22. Thank you for yet another honorable mention, Mr. S. Just saw it...I was out of town for New Year's. And thanks for printing the vast majority of my comments and observations and even my kvetching, despite the fact that I edit for grammar and punctuation and typos, but not for length. Some of them are probably as long as your EGD entries, but even through they're nothing like yours, you post them anyway.

    Three years from next August, I will somehow manage to turn 80, but not for anything I've done or haven't done. Only because I haven't died yet. I'm hoping to be still be able to post at EGD on that less-than-momentous day.

    Right now, I'm looking forward to making it to 2025. Yes, you read that right. A year from now, the suspense will be over, and we will know whether we've survived a narrow escape...or if we're toast. Zei gesunt and Happy New year, boychik.






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