Sunday, December 31, 2023

"A man loves to review his own mind"

The flyleaf of my 2010 journal, when I was reading the Loeb Seneca and Boswell's "Life of Johnson"

     Ever since this column passed its first decade mark last July 1, I occasionally glance at what was written here 10 years ago. To remind myself, and sometimes post a memorable essay in the "10 years ago on EGD" section at the left side of the page.
    So yesterday, I noticed that, 10 years ago today, I wrote a longish essay on keeping a journal, on the occasion of embarking upon my 30th volume, "You do something for 30 years, you should ask yourself why." Which means tomorrow I open the 40th.
     What's the difference between 30 years of journals and 40? That's easy. There's certainly more spark to an endeavor in your early 50s than early 60s. Whatever I write now won't be as complicated, either because I've already said it once, or finally seen the value of brevity, or I'm simply tired. 
A.E. Housman's "The faintest of all
 human passions is the love of truth,"
alas will probably prove handy in 2024
 My handwriting certainly grows worse.   
     Since I don't want to replicate the piece, I glanced at a few journals, and quickly noticed an aspect completely overlooked at the close of 2013— not only did I write down my own thoughts, such as they were, and happenings of the day, but also record quotes from others I've stumbled upon, admired, thought might be useful, and wanted to hold onto for ready reference. 
     Grist for the mill. In the flyleaf of the journal for 2018 are two passages. One, a line from Brecht: "don't yet rejoice in his defeat, you men/Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard/the bitch that bore him is in heat again."
     Under it, a second quote: "He 'never did or thought of anything but deceiving people," credited to Canto VI p. 192 Dante's Divine Comedy."
     That was referring to
 Pope Alexander — Dante was a passionate hater of popes — but I hardly need to tell you who those quotes struck me as describing. Though I never had reason to use them, probably because I promptly forgot about them. It's so easy to forget stuff. That's why I write it down, hoping I'll stumble upon it again.
    The Brecht quote, by the way, is from a play, "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" that I never saw or read. I must have lifted the quote, second hand, from The New Yorker probably, though looking at the following description of it, from a CSU production, makes me wish we could lure Bob Falls out of retirement — he stepped down from the Goodman in 2023 — to produce it: 
     "Brecht’s shudderingly accurate parallel between Hitler and his henchmen on the one hand, and the old crime lords of Chicago on the other, is a vigorous eye opener that was produced on Broadway with Christopher Plummer. The Cauliflower Trust in Chicago is in need of help and turns to a racketeer by the name of Arturo Ui to begin a 'protection' campaign. His henchmen look astonishingly like Goebbels and Goring. Their activities include 'accidental' fires and a St. Valentine’s Day massacre."
     Some of the quotes did inspire columns — the always-apt remark of Samuel Johnson about society being "held together by communication and information" was the starting off point for a column on Johnson six years later.
     And some turned into 2016's "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," written with Sara Bader, whose entire premise is that these dusty thoughts are useful in running an ordered life. Mental coins to rattle around in your pocket.
     Some years are blank, others full, like 2006, where I wrote, not on the flyleaf, but the page facing the title page: "Journalism is a fleeting thing, and the man who devotes his life to it writes his history in water," crediting H.L. Mencken, the exception who proves the rule. 
     Next to it, in the same vein: "But stay unregenerate. Life knocks the sauciness out of us soon enough," Clifford Odets, in "The Country Girl's Last Links,"no doubt again  found in The New Yorker. Plus a second Odets passage: "I am seething and swollen, lumpy, disordered and baffled, as if I were a woman fifteen months pregnant and unable to sleep or turn, crying aloud, 'Oh God, out, out, out!'"
    Well, that isn't very pleasant — remember in 2006, I was fresh in recovery, and writing "Drunkard," not to mention 30 pounds heavier than I am now, so that sounds about right. The last one, oddly, has no citation, just "Don't heed the distant calls and hold tightly to the golden door. There, beyond it, is hell, longed for." I'm sure Mr. Google can fix that. From "Solitude," by Rilke.
In places, as in the 1991 journey, it was easier
to just cut out than copy.
    Only two on 2003: "Dietrologia (Ital.) the art of finding dark motives behind obvious decisions," which seems a word we could use in 2024, and "Communications have reached their numbing roar," T.H. White, Making of the President 1960, p. 26. If that was true more than 60 years ago, how to describe the blinding wordstorm now? One hesitates to contribute a single additional syllable. But what choice is there, at this point?
     Okay enough. I think that will do, both for sharing not-quite-random quotes and trying to make sense of the year 2023 through words, a task we'll now leave to historians. On deck, 2024, speaking of history. I wish I had the foggiest idea how it'll unfold — my bet is it'll be 2020 on steroids. Or not. Whatever it becomes, dull it won't be, unfortunately. (Doesn't a dull year sound glorious about now?) Whatever is coming, we'll face it here together. Happy New Year. Don't drink and drive. See you tomorrow morning, bright and early.




 

 

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 murdered 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.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Whoops! Mistakes, we’ve made a few in our 75-year history


     This is the final piece in the yearlong series I've been writing for the 75th anniversary of the Sun-Times. I'm proud to have thought up the topic of highlighting our errors, and proud that the paper happily — and prominently — published it. And grateful for my colleagues who spoke candidly about their mistakes, as all good journalists must do. The funny thing is, we were double-checking facts and pulling out flubs and typos until about 10 p.m. Thursday night. I think we got them all but really, if a mistake or two slipped by, well, that would be somehow fitting. 

    National party conventions do not respect deadlines. With their carefully planned spontaneous demonstrations and endless stem-winding speeches, the quadrennial presidential campaign gatherings are famous for running into the wee hours.
     Newspapers do not have that luxury. They must hit their deadlines. Particularly for their print editions. The presses are waiting. The trucks, waiting. If thousands of subscribers are to receive their newspapers at dawn, as expected — no, demanded — then those stories better be written on time and edited on time, so the presses can roll. On time. 
     On the evening of July 16, 1980, Republicans at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit argued over who would run as vice president with Ronald Reagan. Jack Kemp? George Bush? Or former President Gerald Ford? It was a choice designed to add political heft to a candidate whom many considered a lightweight, an actor, co-star of “Bedtime for Bonzo.” A consensus built.
     “I had guy after guy come up to me and say, ‘It’s all settled. It’s Reagan and Ford,’” recalled the nominee’s brother, Neil Reagan. “It’s signed, sealed and delivered. The governor has left the hotel with Ford.”
     Sun-Times reporters on the scene thought official word was coming at any moment.
     “People we have every reason to believe would have known,” said Ralph Otwell, the Sun-Times editor at the time. “It was a matter of going with a story a few minutes before it was made official or missing the edition and not getting the news to our home-delivery subscribers.”
     A decision was made. The row of mighty Goss presses in the basement of the Sun-Times Building at 401 N. Wabash roared to life, printing out 147,000 issues of the paper’s three-star edition with the headline, “It’s Reagan and Ford.”
     Only it wasn’t Reagan and Ford. George H.W. Bush was chosen to run and, eventually, win as Reagan’s vice president. An instant collector’s item was created, though without a gleeful president holding it up, the way Harry Truman displayed the Tribune’s notorious “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN,” the Sun-Times gaffe didn’t become nearly as famous. Gerald Ford did frame a copy on his study wall.

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Thursday, December 28, 2023

Lost Larson


     Fate has a way of upbraiding you.
     For instance, a few weeks ago I celebrated a bakery, Delightful Pastries, on Lawrence Avenue. The baked goods were excellent, and — luckily — I didn't present the place as the best bakery in the city, or some such claim that would roil the groundlings. It was just a very good bakery run by an interesting baker.
     But I had reason to reflect, a tad uneasily, on that column when my youngest and his beloved stopped by for brunch last Saturday, bringing two white cardboard boxes containing eight baked goods from Lost Larson in Andersonville.
     My wife and I knew of Lost Larson — we had been wandering Andersonville a year or two back and bought a superlative sugared bun that I can still see in my mind's eye.
     On Saturday, we sat in the dining room, cut the pastries in quarters and shared them around — I should have taken notes. There was much discussion of the exact cheese in the ham and cheese croissant. I thought emmental. The tebirke — the poppyseed covered pastry at left — was luscious, the almond nothing like the fake high octane marzipan sometimes found in such goodies, but finely ground almonds. The afternoon tea bun — the roughly Q shaped pastry, rolled in Earl Grey and citrus sugar. I regretted the slice of my wife's spinach bake I'd served myself, not that it wasn't excellent, in its own elementary fashion, but because it was taking up room that might have otherwise gone to more Lost Larson. The fruit salad too, and I like fruit salad.
     I also felt — perhaps giddy from the sugar — that I had now formally, officially and irrevocably succeeded as a parent, in raising a child who would collect pastries at Lost Larson and deliver them to their aged mum and dad. They paid and everything, which is no small consideration since these delectibles cost about five bucks a pop.
     A crazy amount of care and effort is reflected in these baked goods. The croissants alone ... I started to feel a sort of duty — if I've gone to Delightful Pastries, twice, with a promise to return at Easter, then what is my obligation toward Lost Larson? Or do they exist at such an empyrean that any attention from a hack newshound would be seen as unwelcome, as beneath them? I looked at their lovely website. The owner, Bobby Schaffer, ran the pastry program at Blue Hill in New York City — we've eaten there, thanks to the spot-on instincts of my older son. So we have that in common. How would Schaffer react to my suggesting I slide by and, oh I don't know, roll out croissants? Perhaps not as welcoming as Dobra Belinksy had been. He certainly doesn't need the ballyhoo. Excellence is his calling card. I placed a call anyway — out of town. Perhaps just as well...
     Anyway, I've made my point about Lost Larson — the name is explained on their website this way: "Lost Larson takes its name from owner Bobby Schaffer’s ‘Lost’ last name – Larson."
    Not a very satisfying explanation, is it? Lost how? Enough of a thread to keep pulling in the New Year. That, and the pastries. Especially the pastries.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Or maybe Bob Dylan. Or Carole King. Or Bob Gaudio....

 

     I seldom pause to wonder how readers might react to whatever it is I'm writing. First, because my starting premise is that, whatever the topic, they don't care — that's my job, to make them care, to present a situation in such a way that they find it interesting, despite lack of previous interest. 
     So the idea of taking their temperature, first, and then spoon feeding their biases back to them — what fun is that? That's a recipe for Fox News, for a feedback loop. They wouldn't need me then — they could just look in the mirror and start talking. No, I write what interests me, and hope readers take the bait and don't complain too much. That generally works.
    There was no particular reason to laud Randy Newman on Christmas Day. But he was on my mind, so that's what I did. Naming him "the greatest living American songwriter" wasn't a daring aesthetic choice. It's just the attitude that presented itself — the organizing idea, a mistake, probably. Not because I don't think he is — I do. But because the "greatest" appellation was a red flag waved in front of the readership. I hadn't considered that. 
    Cut to Christmas Day, at 7:03 a.m.. The column's up, and the very first email out of the blocks is this, from a Michael M.:
    Having read your columns for years, I've respected your opinion even when I disagreed with you. So the lazy blindness of your column today surprised me to no end. Like white Americans do all the time, you declared a "Greatest" only considering other white Americans as contenders for the title. It's so expected and accepted, I'll venture a guess you didn't even remotely think about it being offensive to the millions of people who don't have a clue to who Randy Newman is. Your column is ready by millions of those people so declarations like yours do matter. The truth of the matter is the greatest American songwriter living is William "Smokey" Robinson. From the Motown era thru today he had written literally hundreds of chart topping hits that have defined American music. As we used to say, no other American songwriter could " even carry his jockstrap." To be clear, I'm not accusing you of being a racist, you're not. I'm kinda dismayed that you unconsciously engaged in the thoughtless exclusionary belittling of Black and other minority Americans. And oh yea, Merry Christmas. 
     Michael M.
     I initially only thought of Tom Waits — for years he was my go-to greatest songwriter, before considering Newman. Trying to think of a second, for rhetorical purposes, I came up with Bruce Springsteen. It isn't as if I conducted a poll or made lists of options.
     Chewing on this — "lazy blindness," ouch — I read a few more emails.  Bob Dylan was mentioned. Shit, I never thought of him. And the racism stuff — like I'm Jann Wenner forgetting to include a black musical figure in my book of icons. I figured, if I'm going to lose my job over a frickin' column about music, I might as well go out swinging, and answered Michael M.:
     I appreciate your reading. But the "music is personal" aspect of my column must have flown past you. Newman is the greatest songwriter to me. I never thought about Smokey Robinson, didn't know he was still alive and, honestly, wouldn't have changed my opinion if I had. Another reader brought up Bob Dylan. Who, like Robinson, was important, and I'd have picked above him, despite the taint of being white. "Like a Rolling Stone" surely is a more important song than "Tears of Clown."
     Thanks for writing. If I post a few choice responses on my blog, I'll shield your name, to protect you from the embarrassment of being associated with your opinions. Oh, and Merry Christmas.
    Thank goodness that was the most ... strident email. Nobody calling for my head for lack of inclusivity. From there, it was various readers offering up various favorite artists. I thought they made some good points.
     I appreciate Randy Newman’s often quirky songs and really like Tom Waits (especially “The Heart of Saturday Night”). But I’m stumped as to how you can write a column on America’ greatest living songwriter without at least mentioning in passing Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
     Just my take — and taste,
     Daniel F.
     Now Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" hit me like a freight train. When I was 16. But I'd no sooner declare him the greatest songwriter than I'd dub him America's best poet. Very important yes, but also generational. I pointed out to one Dylan fan that I was in kindergarten when "Like a Rolling Stone" was released. It was a bigger deal if you were 20. 
     The most surprising thing, for me, was the Carole King contingent. Quite a number of them. I'd put Joni Mitchell (okay, Canadian) or even Joan Baez above her. King seems feminist agitprop. 
     No, Neil — the greatest living songwriter is Carole King. She wrote for herself and dozens of other artists. While I'm sure you are familiar with her work, if not, get out to the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire to see "Beautiful" while it's still there.

      This one sent me rushing to Wikipedia.

     Um, no. I usually agree with most of what you write. Even when I don’t, your sarcasm makes me laugh.
     But Randy Newman? I give you: Diane Warren, Bob Dylan, Bob Gaudio, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, Barry Gordy, Carole King, and yes, Taylor Swift.
    To save you the effort: Diane Warren wrote "If I Could Turn Back Time" and dozens of forgettable top 10 hits, all of which could be heaped together and erased from our collective memory with no loss whatsoever to American culture. Bob Gaudio wrote "Sherry" and other songs for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The rest you know.
     Actually Brian Wilson — of the Beach Boys — gave me pause. Not my cup of tea either, but obviously great. And someone suggested one who made me wish I had given this some premeditation: Stevie Wonder. His songs might not have been the soundtrack of my life, but you can't ignore his genius.
    Oh, and before I drop this subject with a sigh of relief, there were a few who agreed with me:
You’re right, he is.
     Tom K.   
     I find most or your work to be timely, interesting, and informative. That said; I rarely agree with your conclusions. Today’s article is different for me. I could not agree more with your sentiments concerning Randy Newman. Thank you for the piece, it made my Christmas a little brighter.
    Kevin. 
    Which was the whole point. If you're wondering whether I learned a lesson from this, I have: never declare someone the greatest or the best at anything. Or maybe, ALWAYS declare someone the greatest or the best at something. It seems to stir the pot.
    Do you see the dilemma? That's why, in the main, it's better to focus on writing the stuff — that's hard enough — and let the readers react how they may.






Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Flashback 1988: Harvard program helps principals remain sharp


     Did you have a nice Christmas? We did, in a secular fashion, listening to rock-and-roll Christmas songs and drinking homemade hot chocolate. 
     Honestly, even though I said atop Sunday's chestnut about school choice that I would post this, I thought of backing out, and going with all the reaction I got to saying that Randy Newman is the greatest living American songwriter. Much unexpected stuff, like the groundswell for Carole King. 
     But re-reading this got me thinking of a group I would otherwise never think about — principals — and I wanted to post it, for that reason. For all the ink spilled on the Chicago Public Schools, I can't recall reading an article on principals, collectively. That might be worth doing again. 

     CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Principals can make or break schools.
     They can pave the way for teachers to do their best or they can create an obstacle course.
     They can generate parent and community support or slam the door.
     They can foster innovation or reinforce routine.
     Yet they receive scant guidance or support.
     The mayor's education summit wants to change that with rigorous training "initially and on an ongoing basis in areas such as administration, budget management, effective leadership, staff development, human relations and effective communication."
     Some school reformers are eyeing the Principals' Center at Harvard University as a model.
     "Many people do not understand the complexity and difficulty of a principal's job, or give credit to the amount of thought and energy principals put into making a good school," said Sarah Levine, the center's associate director.
     The center was opened in 1981 to give principals a place to learn about school management, reflect on what they do, exchange ideas and receive encouragement and support.
     Today the center coordinates a network of more than 100 similar operations in 36 states.
     "One of the main things it does is put you in touch with the latest trends and research," said Ellen Cunniff, a principal in Cambridge, Mass.
     Lewis Roderick, a principal in State College, Pa., said the center "works well because it is voluntary and principals are involved in the design of programs. It is difficult to force people to do additional training, because the commitment is not there."
     Although participation is voluntary, the center has no problem attracting applicants. Last year, 700 principals applied for 117 places in the summer institute.
     In Illinois, the Legislature mandated a limited amount of staff development for administrators as part of its 1985 education reform package. Principals are required to attend 15 hours of training offered through the Illinois Board of Education, mainly in teacher evaluation, every two years.
     Many principals contend the training does not meet their needs and is a waste of time. Some suburban school board members agree and are trying to remove it from state mandates.
     "Most principals hate it," said the principal of one inner-city school in Chicago. Each principal faces a unique set of circumstances, he said, and any training should be aimed at specific problems.
     "Here, our written scores are low, our attendance is low, a lot of children do not do homework, we have a lot of child abuse, child neglect. Those are the areas where we need help," he said. "The principal training doesn't revitalize principals. It just gives them more stuff to do."
     Other principals find the sessions helpful even though they often cover old ground.
     "It brings some things back to the surface," said Roberta A. Chapman, principal of Ravenswood Elementary School, 4332 N. Paulina. "There is sharing with other principals, which is very helpful because we are so isolated."
     However helpful training may be, sessions scheduled during the school year exacerbate what is perhaps a principal's greatest problem: lack of time.
     "One of the biggest problems principals have is to get into the classroom as often as they would like to," said Mary A. Ransford, principal of the Newberry Mathematics and Science Academy, 700 W. Willow. "It is very difficult to find time in the day."
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times May 8, 1988

Monday, December 25, 2023

A little Randy Newman for Christmas

Randy Newman at Symphony Center in 1996
(Sun-Times file photo)

    
On one hand, this is completely out of left-field. On the other, I'm supposed to have Christmas off, so I figured, "It's better than nothing. I hope." It's long as it is, so I couldn't go into his comfortable Jewishness. And I didn't dare mention his "Christmas in Capetown." I also ran a follow-up post of reader reaction to this column.

     Randy Newman is the greatest living American songwriter.
     Forgive me for sidestepping the usual introductory throat-clearing. Sometimes you need to cut to the chase.
    Particularly during the holidays. Everyone’s busy, wrapping gifts — I almost said “shopping,” but nobody shops anymore, right? Not in stores. Amazon just drops stuff on our doorsteps.
     At least we’re still listening to those Christmas carol collections. Apple Music is chocked with ’em. People complain about holiday music, but I love it. Great songs by timeless composers like George Handel and Felix Mendelssohn. (What, you didn’t know the former inspired the music to “Joy to the World” and the latter to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”? They did.)
     When the subject of great American composers of holiday tunes comes up, we’re left with Irving Berlin, whose “White Christmas” has not aged well, even though it’s about snow, supposedly.
     Raising the question: Who’s the greatest living American composer? Not Bruce Springsteen — his songs are too personal. Nobody sings a Springsteen song; it’s unimaginable. I’m tempted to say Tom Waits, just to hear that groan that goes up when I mention his name. “Hold On,” “Mr. Siegel,” “Train Song” and dozens of other classics. Fantastic.
     But he doesn’t compare to Randy Newman.
   Even if the name leaves you blank, you know his work, at least the soundtrack to “Toy Story.” Newman wrote “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and no doubt cringes to consider his best-known song is a bit of hired fluff. He’s scored dozens of movies.
     Music is personal, and I should show my hand. Randy Newman songs have been the soundtrack of my entire life, from his first hit, “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” which came out in 1970, when I was in fifth grade, a hint of the sort of parties I’d seek and, to my sorrow, eventually find.
     Newman is a humorist and storyteller who sings in character. That would trip him up as his songs became hits, and listeners had to figure out he didn’t really, personally think short people have no reason to live.
     In 1988, he stepped out from behind the mask and offered up “Land of Dreams,” an obviously autobiographical album, since nobody could imagine “Four Eyes.” And how could anybody who ever showed up to elementary school in glasses not love him after that?

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Sunday, December 24, 2023

Flashback 1988: Can school `choice' work?

     I see school choice is on its way out, again, according to my colleagues at WBEZ. A reminder that when you are confronted with an intractable problem, like the Chicago Public Schools, which reflects every woe in our society and can only be improved by addressing  those woes, the easier route is to cycle through old solutions.
      The story below,  a relic from when the paper sent reporters to other cities to study urban problems.  CPS has exactly 100,000 fewer students than when I wrote this, the result of parents fleeing Chicago or seeking out private schools. Yet they attend 50 more schools than 35 years ago, the result of Mayor Richard M. Daley opening 100 charter and magnet schools when he pushed choice as the panacea which — spoiler alert! — it wasn't. 
     Why? The piece is more than twice as long as a regular column, so in case that daunts you, I can save you the effort: school choice doesn't work because there are a finite number of excellent schools and a finite number of parents who give a damn, and the latter make sure their kids are jammed in the former, which is how every school system ends up working anyway.  Still, pulling away from one plan and embracing another creates the illusion of change, and I guess that's the best we can do.

     CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Mark and Elaine Haliday quietly slip into the back of a third-grade class at the Peabody School, a few blocks from Harvard Square.
     "Glove is to hand as boot is to . . .," teacher Mary Murphy is saying, as hands shoot up and enthusiastic students call out "oh, oh, oh."
     Mark rests his chin on a palm and suppresses a smile, studying the classroom. His wife leans over and whispers, "This is more structured."
     The Halidays are doing what all parents in the Cambridge public school system must do: select a school for their child. While the vast majority of school systems in the nation base their enrollment solely on where students live, and many districts permit exceptional students to attend special schools, only a handful allow all parents to choose any school in the district.
     No large city gives every parent a choice, but there's a movement afoot to make Chicago the first, as part of a general restructuring plan.
     "We're trying to do two things," said Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago school research and advocacy group. "One, give parents more of a voice in how their schools are run. And two, give parents more of a voice in choosing their children's school."
     Gov. Thompson's educational staff also is studying choice, for use in Chicago and throughout the state. Last month, the Illinois Board of Education recommended expanding Chicago parents' opportunity to choose schools.
     Choice, said Illinois Education Supt. Ted Sanders, "promises to foster diversity, healthy competition and school responsiveness to community concerns."
     But it also carries risks and poses logistical problems in a school system as large and diverse as Chicago's.
     Choice can take a variety of forms. In Cambridge, the process is known as controlled choice. It was implemented in 1981 as a route to desegregation. Choice is "controlled" because the final assignment of a student to a school is determined by racial quotas as well as by parental preference.
     In the East Harlem area of New York City, the program is just plain "choice." It was implemented in 1982, not as an integration tool (the area is almost completely black and Hispanic) but as part of an over-all drive for academic excellence in the junior high schools. Its main purpose was to draw parents into the education process.
     "If you can select your school, you feel you own that school," said Seymour Fliegel, assistant superintendent of the East Harlem district.
     "You treat what you own better than what you don't own. It's a healthy thing."
     In Chicago, most students must attend schools in their neighborhoods. About 8 percent get to choose other schools under the board's desegregation program, which relies on the bait of specialty magnet schools and programs - in foreign languages, for example — to create racially mixed student bodies where they would not otherwise occur.
     The results of Chicago's current program of limited choice are up for debate. While magnet schools are unquestionably beneficial for the students who attend them, critics say they hurt neighborhood schools that the more ambitious students leave behind.
      "The downside of magnets is they tend to skim out of the neighborhood the most resourceful families, leaving behind those less able to navigate those choices," said Mario J. Aranda, co-chairman of the education task force of the Chicago Partnership, a business and development coalition.
     The expanded system of choice being proposed for Chicago is closest to the East Harlem version. The main purpose is to improve schools by exposing them to the same competitive pressures felt by businesses. Under choice, schools would no longer be guaranteed a pool of students. Thus, they would be forced to improve to keep parents from transferring their children into better schools, and, in effect, driving ineffective schools out of business.
     Opponents contend that choice will only magnify the problems associated with magnet schools.
     "The more ambitious families would take advantage of choice and leave in large numbers," said Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance. "Those schools would then be overwhelmed by less-supported and less-talented students. We could have a further widening gap between better-performing and worse-performing schools."
     There is evidence a significant percentage of Chicago parents might continue to send their children to poor schools just because they are close by. The biggest problem in Cambridge is getting low-income parents to shop around for schools. A massive outreach program, which went so far as to send megaphone vans into poor areas and volunteers into supermarkets to buttonhole parents with pre-school children and urge them to evaluate schools, had only moderate success.
     "Most people I show around here are white, middle-class people," said Mary Frawley, who conducts parent tours of the Tobin School in Cambridge, where the district is 45 percent minority.
     "A lot of parents don't want to go out of the neighborhood," said Daniel Kelly, a Cambridge elementary school principal. "No matter what you have at the end of the bus ride, it doesn't matter."
     Ironically, besides having a problem with the parents who fail to avail themselves of choice, Cambridge also has difficulty handling the parents who do visit schools.
     "Everything stops," said Frawley, noting that classrooms are disrupted by groups of parents trooping through. The Halidays were visiting the Peabody School for the third time, and some parents insist on visiting all 13 Cambridge elementary schools. Because of the disruption, Cambridge is considering replacing tours with videotaped presentations.
     East Harlem doesn't have a problem with parents visiting schools, because it does not see a need to educate parents about the schools they are selecting.
     "Most choice is made through word of mouth," said Fliegel. "Most parents know what the best schools are. Only educators think it's a big mystery to find out where the best schools are."
     Both programs are successful. Cambridge has desegregated its schools without inducing a lot of parent protest, and East Harlem is nationally recognized for the improvement of its district.
     While both districts include choice as an important part of improving the schools, neither district claims that choice alone produces improved schools.
     "If I give you the chance to pick one inadequate school out of six inadequate schools, I haven't given you much," said Fliegel, who stressed the importance of having schools at certain standards before choice is implemented.
     "There are no bad schools in Cambridge," said Margaret Gallagher, head of the Parent Information Office there. "We had a good system to begin with. The concept of choice is only as good as the choices you have to offer parents."
     But there are bad schools in Chicago. The nation's third largest school system, with 429,000 students attending 594 schools, Chicago suffers from a high dropout rate, poor teacher morale, decaying facilities and a litany of other woes. Some 70 percent of students are from low-income families.
     Advocates of choice in Chicago recognize the need to improve schools first. Their method would be to shift power from the central administration to parent-dominated school governing councils.
     "We don't think one will work without the other," said Moore. "The main thing that we need to do is train and organize parents to get involved with their schools."
     Parent involvement has been used, with good results, on a case-by-case basis, in Chicago schools.
     For instance, parents from Whitney Elementary, a mostly Hispanic school on the West Side, joined forces with parents from Mason Elementary, a predominantly black school on the West Side with a lot of unused capacity, to see if they could improve both of their schools. As a result, 188 parents agreed to bus students from Whitney to Mason, easing overcrowding at the former and improving the racial mix at the latter.
     "That's only one example," said Phyllis Aron, of the system's desegregation office. "We do all kinds of activities with parents encouraging other parents to participate in programs."
     Moore's group would allow only two years for the governing councils to produce improvements.
     Assuming that governing councils are put into place and a system of choice follows, new problems arise, such as paying to transport students to the new schools their parents have selected. Cambridge, with only 13 schools, found its choice system required stepped-up bus service, which accounts for a large part of the $1 million yearly price tag for choice. New staff was also required - including a full-time parent information coordinator and part-time paid parent liaisons such as Frawley at each school.
     Chicago advocates of choice don't see a need for hiring more workers, though. Teachers and parents could run the program at their schools, said Moore.
     Not everyone feels there is that much leeway in the system.
     "I don't think Mr. Moore knows what he is talking about," said John Kotsakis, assistant to the president of the Chicago Teachers Union. "There is no way that a teacher has enough free time to supervise and administer an additional program. They barely have enough time to do the paperwork and record-keeping required of them."
     The bottom line regarding choice is that, while it sounds good in concept and has worked in other smaller districts, a lot more thought must be put into how it would work in Chicago.
     "Whenever you say parents should have choice, that's like saying people should have fresh air; it's promoting apple pie," said Michael Alves, of the desegregation office in the Massachusetts Education Department. "How that choice process works in practice is what you have to be extremely careful about."

TUESDAY: Getting good principals.

— Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 3, 1988

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Flashback 1987: Wrap session — pros prep pretty parcels


     Christmas is almost upon us. And I imagine more than one reader still has presents left to wrap. Luckily, I have just the thing to help — this 36-year-old chestnut from back when I worked at the Adviser, a section of the paper that did exactly that: advise readers on how to do stuff. It breaks the heart, a little, to consider the newspaper once had a special section, with a staff of three, devoted to dispensing practical information. A quick search of the internet could find the same information now.
     Or maybe not. Reading this over, I'm struck by the tone — a certain insouciance that gives the story a certain flair, even if you, like me, don't have any gifts to wrap, nor Christmas to celebrate. 
    There are a few aspects of historical interest — Carson Pirie Scott is long gone: it's a Target now. And I'd never dare mention the Uncle Remus "Tar Baby" character in any context.

     In an ideal world, you would never have to wrap a gift. Your gifts would be wrapped at stores, by professionals who know what they are doing. You would watch.
     But in the same way that you occasionally are called on to change a tire, the day will come when you will be forced to wrap presents.
     Perhaps the line at the gift-wrap center will be intolerably long. Perhaps you are giving so many gifts that the $2 to $6 most stores charge to wrap gifts will start to add up. Perhaps you got the gift at a place that doesn't gift wrap.
     For whatever reason, you find yourself face to face with a present (or, worse, several presents, or, far worse, several presents of odd sizes). You can't just thrust it, unwrapped, into the recipient's hands, though that idea might seem preferable to trying to learn how to wrap.
     An unwrapped present is almost worse than no present at all; no matter what care and time you put in to buy a present, without any wrapping, the gift screams: "I bought it on my way over."
     Actually, gift wrapping need not be an ordeal, if you know what you are doing. Before you spend the money on gift wrap, tape, ribbons and the like, only to get yourself all tangled up like Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby, spend some time looking over the shoulder of an expert, such as Carrie Bobo, who has been wrapping presents at Carson Pirie Scott & Co. for 17 years.
     First, you need the right equipment. Bobo uses a large, heavy tape dispenser so she can tear off pieces with one hand. Odds are you don't have one, so plan to use a small roll of tape that requires two hands.
     The problem is that you have to take your hands away from the gift you're working on, making it that much harder to wrap neatly. You end up trying to do things with bits of tape stuck to your fingers. So a dispenser may be worth the investment: After all, Christmas comes every year, not to mention all the birthdays and anniversaries in between.
     Bobo begins by placing several sheets of white tissue paper in a box. Since the paper is longer than the box, she makes an "S" fold in the center, drawing in the ends until they are the right length, then creasing the fold down. (Tip No. 1: It is always neater and quicker to fold something instead of cutting it. You also can redo a fold if it is too short, but if you cut it too short, you have to start over.)
     Amateur wrappers often overlook the tissue, in the mistaken notion that only department stores have access to it. But tissue is available almost everywhere wrapping paper is sold.
    "The tissue is very important," Bobo said, putting a leather jacket into the box and folding the tissue over it. "It keeps the merchandise so it will be nice when it's unpacked."
     After securing the tissue with a Carson's sticker (you can use tape or a sticker of your own), she begins the actual wrapping of the gift.
     Before doing anything, Bobo taps the four corners of the box with the handle of her scissors, to blunt the edges and keep the box from ripping through the paper.
     Cutting a piece of wrapping paper so that it will just overlap when wrapped around the box, Bobo then places the paper on the table, design side down. (Tip No. 2: If you want to save money on gift wrap, use materials around the house. The Sunday color comics can be used for children's presents, and the stock tables pages for a gift to a stockbroker.)
     Then she puts the box, top down, in the center of the paper. She takes the end of the paper closest to her and folds it up and over and tapes it down, so the seam is just in the center of the bottom of the box (which, remember, is facing up). It's a common mistake not to do this, out of a reluctance to affix tape to the box. A key to wrapping a gift is tightness: A loosely wrapped gift looks sloppy.
     Pulling hard, Bobo draws the other end around and, because it is too long, folds the end under until there is just a little overlap. Then she tapes that end down as well, keeping it taut and using small squares of tape. (Tip No. 3: Small pieces of tape work as well as long strips, which tend to fold over on themselves and ruin the job. You want the gift wrap to stay put, not be watertight.)
     Now she has the left and right ends to take care of. Using both hands, she folds the two sides on the left of the box in, creasing to create a top and bottom flap. The top flap gets folded down and taped. Then the bottom flap goes up and is taped as well. (Tip No. 4: If you want a more professional look, use double-sided tape, which can be tucked under the flaps, out of sight. But be forewarned: Double-sided tape is trickier than regular tape). Bobo repeats the process on the right side: tw o sides in, top flap down, bottom flap up.
     Here you might cheat a bit and slap on one of those pre-formed bows and be done with it. Bobo doesn't, because pre-formed bows tend to get crushed. She uses a cloth ribbon instead. She makes a loop around the width of the box, staples it (tape won't hold cloth ribbon very well), then adds a loop around the length of the box, and staples it.
     Where the two lengths of ribbon cross, where the staples are, she makes a bow by cutting two short lengths of ribbon, folding them over, and stapling them in place. Then she cuts a tiny ring of ribbon, staples it around the center of the bow, and rotates the ribbon to hide its staple and the others as well.
     As a final touch, Bobo snips the loose ends of the bow into points. (Tip No. 5: For added pizzazz, curl the ribbon. Holding it taught against a scissors blade, draw the ribbon across the scissors blade.)
      You can make simpler bows. For a snowball bow, you need to curl about 8 yards of ribbon, then gather the curls into a ball shape and tie them in the center with a separate piece of ribbon. Then attach it to the gift.
     Making a tie bow also is quite simple: Just take a piece of ribbon, tinsel or yarn, loop it back and forth several times, tie it in the center with a shorter piece, tug the loops into shape, and attach to the gift.
     Finally, before slipping the finished gift into a shopping bag, Bobo makes a small ring out of a strip of cardboard and tucks the ribbon inside to keep it from being crushed. (The ring, of course, is removed once the gift has arrived at its destination.)
   If you are wrapping a cylinder shape, like a liquor gift box or an oatmeal box (within which, it is assumed, you are hiding a more desirable gift than oatmeal), there are two ways to go about it: the difficult way, and the not-so-difficult way.
     To wrap a cylinder the difficult way, trace two circles on the paper, using the bottom of the box as a guide. Cut them out. Then wrap the cylinder in paper, taking care to leave a bit overhanging on top and bottom, and tape this paper in place. Take a scissors and make small snips in the paper sticking out from the top and bottom, and tape these tabs down. Then tape the cut-out circles to the top and bottom to hide the tabs. Slap a ribbon on top, and voila!
     The not-so-difficult way leaves the gift looking something like a Tootsie Roll. Wrap the cylinder in paper that is about twice as long as the package, with half a length projecting past either end. Gather the excess together and tie it with ribbon or yarn, then cut the leftovers into strips, which can be curled or left straight.
     The key to wrapping odd-shaped gifts is to put them in boxes. The whole point of gift wrap is to create a moment of suspense, a thrill of expectation, before the happy recipient claws through the paper with a giddy "what is this?" look on her face.
     Some countries take this to extremes. In the Netherlands, for instance, there is a tradition known as julklapp, where gifts are wrapped in layer upon layer of elaborately prepared wrapping, designed to hide the nature of the gift. Thus, a piece of jewelry might be wrapped up in paper normally used for candy, then wrapped in brown paper, layers of cloth and, perhaps, baked in a casing of dough and then wrapped in a few more boxes.
     For ultimate convenience, new gift bags are the perfect solution. The bags resemble small shopping bags and are gaily decorated. Pop the gift in, toss in some crumpled tissue paper, and: instant present. It may not have the wallop of a Dutch julklapp, but if the present inside is nice enough, no one will mind.
                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 13, 1987

Friday, December 22, 2023

Ed Burke’s unwelcome birthday present

Graphic by Harebrained, used with permission.


     Edward M. Burke turns 80 in a week. In an alternate universe, his half-century-plus on the Chicago City Council would be celebrated in the days leading up to Dec. 29. Instead, he could be going to prison.
     Before Burke was an alderman of the 14th Ward, he was a policeman, as was his father, Joe, before him — well, a Cook County sheriff’s policeman (and an alderman). Close enough. And though Burke was on the council for 54 years, the longest anyone has served on that body and a safe bet to be the longest anyone will ever serve, the swagger of an untouchable Chicago cop always clung to Burke. It was baked into his skin, his soul.
     Only he was touchable, as Thursday afternoon’s verdict showed. Heck, not merely touched, but beat down. Thirteen of 14 counts — bribery, extortion, racketeering.
     On one hand, the verdict was no surprise — based on the evidence presented in court, collected in recorded conversations with former Ald. Danny Solis, once of the 25th Ward, Burke sounded guilty, like a man who wanted to make sure that a Burger King franchisee used his law firm for its tax work in return for Burke’s not blocking the permit for a new driveway.
     On the other, it was pitiful. Not just to see the lion of the council humiliated — there was some satisfying payback in that, at least to anyone who ever encountered the Burke arrogance firsthand, so tangible it was almost a physical Chicago landmark, like the Bean. But the triviality of it, the pettiness, the way the Field Museum, having refused some kind of intern post to Burke’s goddaughter, scrambled to appease him somehow.
     In a nation where the inflamed ego of longtime politicians is driving us into the ditch on all fronts, it’s revolting to see it on a local level, a Chicago institution groveling before a man who feels his slightest requests should be acted upon, even without ever having to be made.

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Thursday, December 21, 2023

Rocky mountain high



     The steady drumbeat of bad news — war in Gaza, fascism on the march abroad, "democracy hanging by a thread" at home — missed a beat Tuesday evening, as the good news radiated out from Colorado: the state supreme court had ruled that Donald Trump cannot be on the ballot there, since he was an insurrectionist in open rebellion against the United States government since Jan. 6, 2021, rendering him unfit to hold office according to the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution.
      A very satisfying, "The emperor has not clothes!" moment. For those of us dwelling in the reality-based world, anyway.
      Hope flickered. Maybe the legal system, abused and insulted, ravaged and humiliated — I almost said "beaten," though not quite yet — will surprise us by standing up, straightening her garments and telling Trump to get the fuck off her.
     That's premature. The United States Supreme Court is still packed with Trump's hand-picked toadies, and respecting the rule of law versus servicing their guy is probably too much to expect. Clarence Thomas is wholly corrupt — bought and paid for by right wing donors, not to forget his wife is practically a Jan. 6 insurrectionist. The chance of them upholding the Colorado decision is somewhere between zero and none.
    Still. Colorado reminds us that as bad as it is, the game is not over. As terrifying as the general support of Trump is — though not in any way mysterious. The duped are invested in the scam. Get your head around it — there are cards to play. As my son said when I asked him, in 2016, why he wasn't as frantic as I was and am, he said, coolly, "The institutions are strong."
     Not quite as strong now as they were before seven years of the most mind-blowing carnival of idiocy, venality and cowardice imaginable — actually beyond imagination. I would not have thought it possible. Just last month, Trump brought up, unprompted, accusations that he had been urinated on by prostitutes at an encounter at the Moscow Ritz Carlton in 2013. "I'm not into golden showers" the former and likely future president confided to his audience, who cheered. There were zero repercussions. A story you probably missed because it was immediately lost in the continuing shitshow of jaw-dropping wrong that is Donald Trump and Red State America. Even when things do linger, like his comment that he would be a dictator "on day one," few felt the need to observe that this wasn't really new, coming from the man who wanted the Constitution to be suspended so he could be declared president by fiat.
     I did have a thought I would share with Republicans if it were worth bothering to share ideas with them: Aren't you tired of this? God I am. As much as I shudder at thinking of America becoming a Hungary-style dictatorship, I'm just so weary of the house-of-mirrors blather, the constantly lying, exaggeration, whining. Colorado, with its crisp mountain air, provided us a gust of that most bracing, invigorating and hard-to-find-lately scent: hope.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

‘Art can take you to a particular place’

Claes Oldenburg "Ghost Version II" (Art Institute of Chicago)

     “Contemporary art, unlike modernism, is not a style,” said Giampaolo Bianconi, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago, as we passed a Claes Oldenburg light switch sculpture. “It simply means things that are happening right now, in the present.”
     We were in an empty gallery on a recent Tuesday. The Art Institute is closed to the public on Tuesdays — thank you COVID! — but I was there on a singular mission: to better understand contemporary art.
     I’d gone to the museum with my wife, younger son and his fiancee. We naturally headed straight to the Impressionists — the museum practically funnels visitors there, through the entrance doors, up the stairs, toward Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”
     Only the young lady announced she didn’t care for this pointillist nonsense. And off the happy couple went, headed for the Dutch masters. My wife and I were left behind, blinking.
     We met up later in the modern wing, for drumbeat denunciations of the what-kind-of-garbage-is-this? variety. I mustered the best defense I could, then realized reinforcements were needed.
     Bianconi and I paused to admire Alma Thomas’ abstract “Starry Night and the Astronauts.”
     “The artists we’re looking at here have asked themselves in a sense the same question your future daughter-in-law was asking ... ” said Bianconi.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Remembering Frank Babbitt at Christmas



     Frank Babbitt approached me, maybe 15 years ago, after we stepped off a Metra Milwaukee District North line train that had just disgorged its passengers at Northbrook station, and were waiting in the crowd for the gate to go up. He said he enjoyed my column and, as usual in such circumstances, I said thank you and changed the subject to himself. Who was he and what did he do? He told me he was a violist for the Lyric Opera.
      This was a double thrill. First, I was a regular attendee, and took 100 readers every year to a night at the opera. And second, my older son played the viola. I asked Frank if he gave lessons. He said he did. Later, I asked Ross if he wanted private viola lessons. He did.
     Thus began my casual acquaintance with Frank Babbitt, a talented musician and deeply cultured man. He lived on Glendale Avenue, maybe a mile from my house, and I enjoyed dropping Ross off for lessons. 
    I also enjoyed picking him up, standing in the entryway for a minute or two, listening to the rich tones of the viola and Frank's thoughtful instructions, eyeing his shelves of sheet music, his piano, and various mementos from his travels with his wife, Cornelia, herself a musician who plays the cello, their instruments cast about in attitudes of readiness. They had three boys of their own, slightly older than mine, who would be coming and going.   My younger boy also briefly took voice lessons with Frank, who was a powerful singer.  He came over to our house once for a poetry reading party — we asked guests to bring a poem to recite — and his rendition put the rest of us to shame, an eagle among sparrows.
     Knowing Frank made going to the opera even more of an occasion. At intermission my wife and I would make our way to the front row, and wave to Frank in pit — he'd be there, immensely handsome in his tux, and if he noticed us he'd wave back. Sometimes we'd catch the train home together and talk about the performance.
     Some years, during the holidays, he performed a one man show, based on the 1868 reading script that Charles Dickens used for public presentations of "A Christmas Carol," accompanying himself on the viola. We saw him do it twice, first in 2011 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Park Ridge — parishioners brought home-baked cookies for the reception afterward, which enhanced the occasion. The second time, in 2016, at the Winnetka Community House, for maybe thirty people. I tried to drum up interest, both in the paper —"It’s an extraordinary, intimate evening of live storytelling and music, the tale delivered the way it was meant to be, in Dickens’ language, enhanced by Babbitt’s resonating voice and rich viola" — and on EGD, and remember urging Frank to make a bigger deal out of it — it was such a marvelous performance, he should be doing it at the Chicago Theater for a thousand people, not for three dozen in a church meeting room. But nothing ever came of that, nor of the opera about Clarence Darrow we talked about writing together, during one of the train rides we shared when we bumped into each other.
     He was also a proud member of SEIU Local 73, the musicians' union, and I remember him, joined by other musicians, briefing me on whatever labor difficulties were going on at the time. He taught music at Loyola, and contacted me when 300 non-tenured track instructors there went on strike in 2018.
     “For me, the question is: are your high-minded Jesuit social justice values anything more than a marketing ploy?” he said. “Do you really, truly live them not just in word but in deed.”
     The Babbitts moved to Chicago, and Ross put down his viola as too time-consuming, to my great sorrow. Frank always said he had a talent for it — good hands — and he did. We fell out of touch after that.
     Frank Babbitt developed a particularly aggressive form of cancer — in January, his friends set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses, and by February he was gone. We miss our absent friends more at Christmas, and Frank doubly so, because of his wonderful embodiment of Dickens and "A Christmas Carol." The holiday classic famously ends with Tiny Tim not dying of his unnamed sickness, but living, which is a satisfying way to end a work of fiction. Alas, we do not live in a well-crafted story, but in a cruel and chaotic, all too real world, where beloved figures sometimes do not get better, but vanish offstage, trading music for silence, leaving a hole in the lives of those who knew them. It seems the very least we can do is remember they were here.