Saturday, July 13, 2024

Wedding flashback #2 — 2010: Plan for a perfect wedding then wait for the problems

Group Portrait: A Wedding Celebration, by Gillis van Tilborgh (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     My boy is getting married today, meaning that EGD needs to operate on automatic pilot for a while. Luckily, I've written a number of columns on the subject, including this one, which is extra apt because ... actually, no time to go into details now. Let's put it this way: my observation that there is always a glitch or two when trying to pull off a wedding is not refuted by current events. Though as always, everything will work out fine in the end. I hope.

     By 50, a man should have played a role in a few weddings, and I've been involved in my share. I've hosted two, one for my brother at my apartment on Logan Blvd., one for a pair of readers at the Willis Tower Skydeck. I've been a best man and a groomsman and helped throw a surprise bachelor party at a bar in New York City. Not to mention the many weddings I've attended as a guest, including one atop the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier and, of course, my own gilded affair in the Babylonian splendor of the Hotel Intercontinental in downtown Chicago.
     My involvement in these weddings has left me with one central piece of wedding wisdom that I impart to all prospective brides — something those brides-to-be whose wedding dresses went up in flames Wednesday at Eva's Bridals of Oak Lawn learned big-time, but which holds true for every wedding and deserves being stated whenever possible:
     Something always goes wrong.
     Always, always, always.
     Oh, I suppose the most casual affair — a quick exchange of vows in the Cook County Clerk's office — can go off without a hitch. But anything more complex than that — plan to open a jar of nuts and beat a tambourine afterward — and the possibilities for screw-ups swiftly multiply.
     This of course is completely opposite to the standard bride's goal of a "perfect" wedding, whatever her idea of perfect might be, from arriving in Cinderella's glass carriage in a cloud of doves at a ceremony officiated by Mickey Mouse, to standing barefoot behind the counter at the McDonald's where you met your beau.
     These brides operate under the false impression that just because they've planned something for months and paid an ungodly sum of money for it, therefore they can expect everything to come off without a hitch.
     That's not how life works
     At our wedding, I wasn't hoping for perfect — guys seldom do. A guy, if he's marrying the right person, will be happy if his bride shows up. I was content to let my bride plan the wedding of her dreams, limiting my participation to a few symbolic contributions which consisted, if I recall, of a) putting carrot soup on the menu. (I like carrot soup) and b) insisting that, if we were going to have a band, it had to be a good band.
     Carrot soup is easy. And a good band is attainable, if you spend enough. But "perfect" is another matter entirely. "Perfect" is generally synonymous with "impossible." Oh, you can bowl 300 or pitch a perfect game, but with something as complex as a wedding, with the flowers and the chapel and the reception and the music and the meal and the guests, the odds of it all coming off perfectly are scant.
     Expecting wedding perfection is a recipe for disaster because there are so many things that can go wrong. A colleague and his wife asked for their wedding cake to be "creme" and it showed up "green" -- say the words out loud. A wedding cake with mint green icing.
     They laughed — which is key. The secret to a perfect wedding is not guaranteeing that everything unfolds perfectly — it won't — but in ignoring or shrugging off imperfections.
     I was immensely proud that my bride, when she opened the box from the florist containing her bouquet, calmly noted that it was not the round bouquet she ordered, but a draped nosegay. Some brides would have lost it at this point, but she observed that they were still beautiful flowers and it was too late to do anything. An even-keeled acceptance that probably explains how she could marry me in the first place, and that has served us well, lo these past 20 years.
     You can plan for perfect. You may think of your wedding as a stage play — you may write a script, plan various entrances and exits.
     But once it is happening, you must abruptly shift, abandoning the stage play paradigm, jettisoning hopes of "perfect," and view it as a party. You know how parties work — you plan, then let the thing unfold.
     That way, if something happens that's not in the script — your aged uncle stands up in the middle of the vows and begins a rambling toast, or your wedding dress is burned up in a fire — you adapt. The uncle is coaxed to his seat; another wedding dress is found elsewhere. It immediately becomes a good story.
     Weddings are luxuries, but useful luxuries — they can give a couple a good running start up the hill of married life. Sure, you can stamp your foot and insist on perfection. Good luck; maybe that'll work for you. But it's easier if you expect something will veer off course, look for it, wait for it, and when it occurs, say, "Right, this is the thing that's going to go wrong at my wedding."
     My wife and I, to this day, sometimes warm ourselves on the still-glowing embers of our wedding. Not because it was perfect, but because when glitches happened, we hopped over them and kept going. It didn't unfold perfectly, but it's perfect now.
    — Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 29, 2010

Friday, July 12, 2024

Wedding flashback #1 — 2010: Marriage bigotry an old pastime


      My older son is getting married this weekend. Lots to do. So I hope you will forgive me if I shirk my EGD duties for the next few days and dig into my considerable backlist of wedding columns. As a rule I don't edit old columns, though I almost balked at publishing the sentence below with four dashes — I did that? Ouch! But I kept it, both as penance and to show I've grown. Two dashes per sentence, max. Your indulgence, as always, is appreciated.

     On June 2, 1886, President Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom in the White House. He was 49. She had turned 21 that day, making her the youngest first lady the United States has ever had.
     I almost added, "or will ever have." But that would be a mistake, the common blunder of assuming that the way things are now is the way they always were or the way they always will be.
     So yes, today no savvy national politician would wed a woman 27 years his junior. It would violate the protective cocoon we increasingly build around our young people. A hundred years ago, a girl turned 14 and could, in many states, get married or go to work in a thread factory.
     Today that's not the case. Marriage is a social institution, a civic bond with religious overtones, and as with all social institutions, it changes. How young you can legally marry shifts, as does whom you can marry. Issues once thought of as trivial — youth — are now viewed with deadly earnest. I doubt Ringo Starr could get away with singing "You're Sixteen" the way he did in 1973, when he was in his 30s.
     Meanwhile, issues that once were huge stumbling blocks — race, religion, class — are increasingly seen as no big deal, except in those places where they still are.
     I bring this up in the wake of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling last week that California's ban on gay marriage violates the Constitution. Of course it does, unless you are trying to use said Constitution to promote your religious morality, in which case you will be talking about gay marriage violating the timeless traditions of marriage. Someone needs to point out how that's a lot of hooey.
     Not only have we seen the average age of marriage shift — 20 for a bride in 1954 when my mother got married at 19, rising to 24 when I got married in 1990 to a bride who, like me, was newly 30. But almost every aspect of marriage has shifted.
     Heading out to the train this morning, I grabbed my copy of Edward Westermarck's 1926 A Short History of Marriage, to remind myself of just how ductile, plastic and malleable the institution really is.
     Westermarck (at the time the Martin White professor of sociology at the University of London) makes a lively guide, pausing at one point to mention, I believe with a hint of satisfaction, that no more significant critic than Sigmund Freud objects to one of his theories.
     In his chapters on "Endogamy" — marrying within a certain group — and "Exogamy" — marrying outside a group — he points out that forbidding certain sorts to marry certain other sorts is as old as time, focusing not just on race and religion, but nationality and class. He skips around the globe illustrating his points.
     "In Polynesia, commoners were looked upon by the nobility almost as a different species of being, and in the higher ranks marriages between nobles and commoners were strongly opposed by the former. In Rome, plebeians and patricians could not intermarry till the year 445 B.C."
     Hmm . . . sounds familiar. We have an echo of this today in fairy tales — stories of forbidden class romance lingering in an age when Cinderella would marry the Duke of York and few would mind.
     "Modern civilization tends more or less to lower or pull down the barriers which separate races, nations, the adherents of different religions and the various classes of society," Westermarck writes.
     Ain't it the truth? With that in mind, not only does the eroding of the stigma against gay marriage fail to detract from the institution, but it is in harmony with marriage as we have been redefining it for 100 years.
     Which brings to mind another point clear in the book: Marriage has value.
      "Marriage is something more than a regulated sexual relation," he writes. "It is an economic institution, which may in various ways affect the proprietary rights of the parties."
     Spouses have economic rights that unmarried couples don't, relating to insurance and such. Plus, there is still some stigma to being unmarried, particularly in politics — Cleveland was our last president elected as a bachelor.
     Despite the changes we've seen, marriage still has worth, and withholding it from gay people based on nothing is mere religious oppression. It's odd — in some American colonies before the Revolutionary War, clergy were not allowed to perform wedding ceremonies; that was the realm of judges. The colonists, with fresh memories of the monolithic Church of England, did not want to let state religion get its foot in the door. So if you know your history, marriage in the United States is not a religious realm being intruded upon by the government, but a governmental realm that has been shanghaied by religion. In that light, it's time to correct the balance, and to treat all American citizens with the equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that they were endowed with by their Creator.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 8, 2010

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Talk about anxiety


"The Scream," by Edvard Munch

     Anxiety. The fight-or-flight instinct hardwired into our brains by 100,000 years of evolution gets short-circuited by our complex modern world. You can't stay and can't go, but sit frozen, scoured by whatever the hell is the matter. Or you flee and are chased by it. You both sit and run, mentally, as the problem harries you in a circle, from pillar to post. The car alarm shrieks and shrieks and you can't shut it off and you can't ignore it so you try to do both at the same time and do neither. You are torn apart.
     The fallout from the recent presidential debate disaster is a textbook example of anxiety disorder. After the first two minutes of the debate, when President Joe Biden's face appeared on the screen, vacant, stricken, his mouth an open rictus, his eyes gazing down and to the right, as if crushed in shame, the damage was done. Self-immolation, defeat. At that point, he could have grabbed a straw hat and bamboo cane tossed to him from off camera and started refuting Trump in a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song while tap dancing rings around him, and it would not have mattered.  He was cooked, finished. The shock rippled across the world.
     The immediate thought among t
hose who would protect the United States from four more years being molested by Donald Trump and his gang of revanchist stooges was: Biden must go. We can't run that man on the screen, gaping in senile infirmity while Trump rages and lies. If we do, the American voters will take the critical judgment they can't direct at Trump and use it to dismiss Biden. Fair? No. But stop the presses. Life ain't fair and politics is double unfair. Ask Howard Dean. 
      So the Democrats need a more dynamic candidate, like Hillary Clinton ... whoops, she lost. Like Gavin Newsom then ... but isn't he a Californian?  Or Pete Buttigieg (gay). Or Gretchen Whitmer (a woman, like Hillary). Kamala Harris then (a woman, Black and the vice-president). How many Trump voters will these candidates lure over to the light?
      Not enough, perhaps. Pollsters suggest all those options might do worse than Biden. At least now, though that could change. Unless it doesn't change. Unless Biden is the best we've got. The best hope for America.
     "He must go" quickly morphed into "He must stay." First, because Biden isn't about to go. He's the president. He powered himself to his plum job and he isn't about to step aside just because he can't arrange his features in a look of intelligence for five minutes when his job depends on it. A fairly low bar. So we stay with Biden. Yay! We're ridin' with Biden!
     Although the events he staged trying to wipe away memory of the event he just royally botched also fell flat. Crap yourself on live TV, and there isn't much interest in how precisely you clean up. And even the clean-up was messy. When George Stephanopoulos asked him on ABC how he'll feel if Nov. 5 comes and Trump crushes him, Biden said that so long as he tried his best, then that will be okay. Oh my God. That's worse than any gaffe. Not what you want your would-be hero to say. "Well George, in the end, it doesn't matter if I get that baby out of the burning building or not. What matters is I tried..." Actually it does matter. To the mom anyway. A lot. We don't care if Joe Biden feels good about himself. We want the baby not to burn.
     "Let's all try our best so we'll take our loss philosophically" is not a banner Dems will flock to. That's the white flag of defeat. As is denouncing those still pointing at the debate performance saying, "You know, that's really worrisome..."  Issuing demands for loyalty, to ignore the evidence of your eyes and shrug off unfitness — don't we already have one candidate doing that aplenty?
     Does all of this mean Trump wins? That providence, which has rolled a red carpet in front of Donald Trump literally since the day he was born, is ushering him back to the White House? Like all good nightmares, we thrash against our fate, but we're being tumbled in a torrent, over the falls. Trump was ahead in the polls before the debate. A relative phoned me to ask why, why, why the media is harping on Biden's decrepitude and not Trump's latest misdeeds, which seem to include showing up all over a truckload of newly released Jeffrey Epstein material. The man is literally accused of raping children. I remember a time when that would matter in presidential politics.
     Why why why? my relative cried.
     Do you want me to answer the question? I kept saying.
     "Why?" he wondered, never letting me speak. "Why?"
     Had he allowed me to respond, I would have said that Biden revealing himself to be as out-of-it as Republicans claim is now news, to the Democrats anyway, while Trump being a liar and a rapist and a fraud and a traitor, well, we've been showered with that daily for nearly a decade. Focusing on any particular Trump fib or fantasy has a so-what-else-is-new, and-Napoleon-escaped-from-Elba quality at this point.
     What to do? Anyone lashed by anxiety knows that the only thing to do is let it happen. Lean into your intrusive thoughts. Close your eyes and power forward, head down, legs churning. "If you find yourself going through hell," Winston Churchill said, "keep going."
     I wish I could say if only Biden would resign, then our problems would end. They wouldn't. We'd immediately be flung into a spiked pit of a new set of problems. The moment a candidate is identified the targeting systems lock in and blast away. Kamala Harris has been failing to meet expectations for four years. The process of selecting someone else would be messy and time consuming while Trump offers himself as the golden calf/savior he is already considered to be by 43 percent of the country. There seems to be no solution because there is no solution. November is coming and the only hope is that so many people cast a ballot for Not Trump that we move from the election phase to the beating back whatever Second Insurrection Trump has got planned phase. Talk about anxiety. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

'Enjoy just being here' — At almost 110, she's still baking pie, with a little help

Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin

     Edith Renfrow Smith is baking a sour cherry pie.
     "I just love sour cherry," she confides. "My father planted a sour cherry tree in the yard. He was a cook ... all the fruit; he had peaches, he had plums, he had gooseberries, currants and grapes. Everything that momma could can, because we were poor."
      That yard was in Grinnell, Iowa, where Smith was born on July 14, 1914, two weeks before the start of World War I. Regular readers might remember meeting her in 2021 for her 107th birthday and learning her down-to-earth world view, "Nobody's better than you." I figured, if 107 was noteworthy, how could 108 not be? Or 109, for that matter? The year she got COVID-19 and weathered the deadly disease so easily she didn't even mention that she'd had it.
     For her 110th, this Sunday, I wondered how to shake things up. Such "supercentenarians" are an extreme rarity. Researchers estimate one person in a thousand who reaches age 100 will live to see 110, which makes Smith one woman out of a million, maybe out of 5 million.
     I asked her daughter, Alice Smith, 78, if her mother still makes homemade jelly and wine.
     She does, Alice said, inviting me to come by and watch production of a cherry pie last Friday, an offer I suspect she had reason to regret.
     "It takes 45 minutes to pit a quart of cherries," says Alice, arriving at her mother's apartment with a bag from a farmer's market. "I won't be doing that ever again."
     Alice is late, and perhaps not in the best mood, having had to fight NASCAR traffic from the South Side. "I'm only bringing this stuff," she says. "I'm not making the cherry pie. That's not something I want to make."
     But as daughters know, what you want to do, and what you end up doing, are two different things when your mother enters the equation. Alice is pressed unwillingly into the role of de facto pastry sous chef.
     "Open the cookbook right there and check," Edith says, gesturing to a 1960s-era Better Homes & Gardens ring binder cookbook on the floor.
     "Mother, I don't need to open the cookbook," snaps Alice. "I understand how to bake."
Not easy as pie
     The cookbook surprises me — I had anticipated cherished family baking traditions dating back to the 19th century, which is why it's always good to check your imagined notions against the yardstick of p but reality. Edith sets me right.
     "Momma didn't make pies," she explains. "She didn't give us dessert. She said children should have apples and peaches. 'No garbage.' She called cookies and doughnuts and what have you 'garbage' because they were not good for you. She didn't give us cookies. She didn't bake pie. She made bread, three times a week, and she only used graham flour."

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Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The hatless man, in a hat

     Look at the above photograph. John F. Kennedy at his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961. Study it carefully. There will be a quiz. Right now.
     Question: What do you see? The familiar handsome face of JFK, correct? His beautiful wife, Jacqueline, to his left. And anything else? Look closely. I'll give you a hint. It is cylindrical and black and sitting on his head.
     It's a hat. You see that, right? A silk top hat. Kennedy was the last American president who wore a silk top hat to his inauguration. Why is that so hard to grasp? Actually, I know why. I wrote a book on the death of the men's hat industry, "Hatless Jack," using Kennedy's inauguration day as a narrative arc. Some people who know me well remember that, and will sometimes share hat stories that come their way.
     "Read this this morning," wrote Michael Cooke, my friend and editor at both the Sun-Times and the New York Daily News. "Thought you'd have an interest."
     He shared excerpts from "Suffering with Style: A brief history of the Borsalino—from Al Capone to Indiana Jones, Bogart to Gatsby" posted on Graydon Carter's Air Mail blog June 29 by Vanity Fair contributing editor Sam Kashner.
     The article included this passage:
     Fashions changed—dramatically—in January of 1961, when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president of the United States without wearing a hat. Soon, hippies were growing their hair, letting their freak flags fly.     
     That's the type of mistake that spurred me to write the book in the first place. I pointed out to Michael that, as displayed in the photo above, Kennedy certainly did wear a hat to his inauguration. And men's hats didn't die in January, 1961 — they had already been on the decline for half a century. Kennedy took off his hat to deliver his actual speech, which also contributed to the notion he didn't wear one. T
he public in 1960 were so removed from hat etiquette that they didn't realize that nobody wore a hat while giving a speech. It wasn't done. Removing your hat was a sign of sincerity.
     Glance at this photo of Abraham Lincoln giving his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Use your powers of observation honed above. Notice anything missing? No hat. His famous stovepipe hat is nearby, ready to be worn. When he's done with his speech. 
     I wasn't about to bother trying to inform Kashner of his blunder — East Coast writer types don't acknowledge mistakes, never mind correct them, particularly when pointed out by heartland rustics. 
     Not that I'm in the habit of leaping to correct historical inaccuracies. The continuance of this error frustrates me, particularly, because it speaks to the complete non-influence of my book. It sank without a trace — no shame there, most books do. My use of Kennedy's inauguration day to tell the story of the death of men's hats confused people. The Boston Globe thought I had written the most trivial Kennedy book ever, not grasping that it was a book about hats using Kennedy as a lens. One Amazon reviewer complained there was too much about hats in my hat history, not enough Kennedy.
   I don't think Kennedy actually wearing a hat at his inauguration is a particularly complex, inaccessible historical puzzle, and it's sad to see how easily it flies past folk who otherwise are in the business of parsing reality. It's also comforting that some manage to grasp the situation.
     So kudos to Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker stalwart, who got it right in "The Knotty Death of the Necktie"
     At first I thought he, too, was going to blow it. Gopnik wrote:
     As surely as the famous, supposedly hatless Inauguration of John F. Kennedy was said to have been the end of the hat, and Clark Gable’s bare chest in “It Happened One Night” was said to have been the end of the undershirt, the pandemic has been the end of the necktie.
     Which staggered me a bit. I thought Adam was vaguely familiar with me. We've shared meals together — I once took him to Al's Italian Beef. He asked me to be his interlocutor when he was here 11 years ago at the Chicago Humanities Festival. I was just beginning to pout over someone I respect falling into the usual trap when Gopnik unleashed:
     In “Hatless Jack,” a fine and entertaining book published several years ago, the Chicago newspaperman Neil Steinberg demonstrated that the tale of Kennedy’s killing off the hat was wildly overstated. The hat had been on its way out for a while, and Jack’s hatless Inauguration wasn’t, in any case, actually hatless: he wore a top hat on his way to the ceremony but removed it before making his remarks.
    Well. Okay then. That's better. I don't know whether I like the historical accuracy more, or "fine and entertaining" or "Chicago newspaperman." If you haven't read it, you can pick up a used copy of "Hatless Jack" on Amazon for $7.26. It was my favorite book to write, in that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring this generally-ignored realm, and sharing something that not only hadn't been presented as significant, but people were reluctant to see clearly. I must not have made my case, however, because they still don't get it.      
     This isn't just pickiness, or trivia. As with much history, there is an important truth nestled within the Kennedy and hats story. He was known for being a hatless man — he had a reputation. So when Americans saw him, the dashing, rich, hatless young president, nevertheless wearing a hat at his inauguration, rather than change their assessment to comply with the evidence, they simply edited the hat out of the equation, adjusting collective memory to match their preconceived notions. Perception trumps reality — I didn't chose that verb randomly.

Monday, July 8, 2024

Korean War reminds us freedom must be defended

Sam Casali (left), a 95-year-old Marine Corps veteran who worked with aviation ordinance in Korea in 1952, shakes hands with Consul Taesu Yeo (right) after being presented with the Korean Ambassador for Peace medal at the American Legion's George W. Benjamin Post 791 in Northbrook. Vice Consul Jongyun Ra (center) also attended Tuesday's event. 

     American Legion George W. Benjamin Post 791, a small storefront on Shermer Road in Northbrook, was packed with vets on Tuesday. Brianna Owen, 18, read her essay that won a $1,500 scholarship toward tuition next fall at Ithaca College, where she will play volleyball as an outside hitter.
     "This planet that we are on together is a beautiful one," she began. "We are all very lucky to be on it. However, this planet is also dangerous ..."
     After she finished, the assembled said the Pledge of Allegiance. Thomas Mahoney, post chaplain, led the opening prayer.
     "Please uncover," Mahoney said. He thanked God, "source of all our freedom," then added: "We humbly request a special blessing on those individuals in this room tonight who in serving both God and country preserved our freedom and the freedom of the people of the Republic of Korea."
     The Republic of Korea — what we think of as "South Korea," when we think of it at all — doesn't get name checked much in prayers at American Legion halls. But there were three guests from the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Chicago: Consul Taesu Yeo, resplendent in his police uniform, Vice Consul Jongyun Ra and cultural coordinator Eojin Shin.
     They brought along two Ambassador for Peace medals, given to service members who fought in the Korean War. The medals were presented to Salvatore Casali, 95, an Evanston resident, and, posthumously, to the family of Mario Faldani.
     "We honor the courage, sacrifice and selflessness of those who answered the call of duty and served," vice consul Ra said. "We remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, laying down their lives during the Korean War. On behalf of the Korean people, I extend my deepest gratitude. Your service and sacrifice have secured the blessings of liberty for generations to come."
     That last line summarized the reason I was there. While I am not a regular attendee of honorary ceremonies, South Korea is a lesson worth reminding Americans of, as we struggle to shore up freedom around the world, in general, and support Ukraine as it fends off Russia, in particular.

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Sunday, July 7, 2024

Hot Dog Report: Wolfy's


    Over the years I've driven past Wolfy's, with its distinctive frank-on-a-fork sign, I don't know how many times. Dozens and dozens. While blasting down West Peterson Avenue, the major route between 94 and the North Side — exit Touhy, slide down Lincoln Avenue, left at Peterson. 
    I always cast the sign a wistful glance. But I never stop to eat because it's not lunchtime and I'm not hungry. Only Friday it was lunchtime — about 12:40 — and I was hungry. I'd had an 11 a.m. appointment on Sheridan Road, just south of Belmont. To watch a 109-year-old bake a pie, if you must know. That should be in the paper Wednesday. And while I could have made it home without collapsing at the wheel from hunger, I sensed an opportunity to fulfill a tacit civic responsibility. Hot dogs are part of the culture of Chicago, and a person of my station has an obligation to keep track of the major vendors. Wolfy's has been here since 1965, and while I have a dim memory of having eaten there sometime in the hazy past, it's been decades. I pulled into the parking lot.
     Waiting my turn — there was one guy ahead of me — I scanned the menu for anything out of the ordinary. Not really. Burgers. Italian beef. A rib-eye sandwich. My eye paused on the ice cream, in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. But no. We were having guests over for dessert — my future daughter-in-law and her parents — and would be eating Graeter's along with fresh-baked brownies.
     I ordered a hot dog, mustard and relish. "Anything to drink?" the counterman said. "No," I replied, and I thought I sensed a trace of disappointment at such a minimal order. Though that could have been just guilt on my part. The customer behind me ordered two Polish. I had contemplated french fries. Before dessert at home, we would be going out to dinner at Kamehachi. Restraint was in order. I also considered a Green River — exotic. But I don't particularly like Green River, and being rare doesn't make something good. So one hot dog: $3.79, plus tax. Ordering one hot dog is so spartan, it's almost a kind of decadence. 
     I stepped aside and waited. The man already waiting was wearing a black t-shirt celebrating the 70th anniversary of Godzilla. A father and his two children sat eating at a table. The place was clean and well-lighted. My order came quickly. "A hot dog," the counterman said, handing over a crisp white bag.
     The hot dog was boiled — that must be why I so seldom stop by Wolfy's, I'm more a char-dog kind of guy. But hot and good, with that glorious Vienna Beef snap to the casing.  The bun was S. Rosen's, poppyseed, fresh. If you're wondering why I didn't order ketchup, despite vigorously defending the right to eat hot dog with ketchup, well, I haven't had an abortion either, but I believe the ability to decide to have one should not be constrained by religious asshats. Hot dog stand workers tend to be over-liberal with condiments — to ward off complaints, I suppose. Look at how much relish is on the frankfurter below. Ordering both mustard and ketchup would risk a drenched dog. As it happened, there were a few unopened packets of Red Gold ketchup on a piece of wax paper from the previous diner, and I opened one and applied a thin line of red to half the dog, for the ketchup experience.  Eating the dog took a minute, maybe. Then I was on my way home.


Saturday, July 6, 2024

"To an illegible stone"

     Last May I visited the New South Cemetery in Boxborough, Massachusetts, for no other reason than I was walking down Stow Road and there it was.
     My intent in steering myself onto its gravel path was to walk briskly through the graveyard and keep going. But I noticed a raccoon staring at me from a tree, and paused to stare back.  
     Next thing I knew, the gravestones themselves started catching my eye. Some for their unusual form.  Several were fashioned as benches, which seemed thoughtful — inviting visitors to linger. Here, visit my grave, have a seat.
    Some were noteworthy for the mysteries they held. Charles Brown, born in 1846, was buried here 60 years later, his grave marked by a stone prepared to include his wife, Eliza M., her dates given as "1851 - " and a blank. So ... was she buried there, but no one was left to update the stone to include her presence? Could fate have spun her away and she died elsewhere? She was 55 when her husband died. Could she be buried in another place, beside another husband? Were I Anne Rice, I might wonder, "Maybe she never died..." and be off to the races.
     The most evocative thing I noticed was a pair of headstones along a row — one had tipped forward, and the other back. The words on the one that had tipped back were illegible, worn away by the rain, covered in lichen. The other, being hunched forward, had shielded the writing, and maintained its purpose of recording who was buried there.  The front was almost pristine.
    "In Memory of Tabitha Taylor," it began. "Daughter of Capt. Silas & Mary Taylor. Who Departed this Life 3 Jan. 1789, "Aged 4 years, 4 months & 18 days."
    Above the inscription, an engraving of a drooping flower.
     Why had one pitched one way and one another? A tiny error in the setting of the stones? Random chance, a quirk of topography? Something to do with the micro-geology of the ground? We're all big believers in merit, but blind luck has a big role in what is preserved, what destroyed.
     Not that the affected parties care. The body buried under the effaced marker, and little Tabitha Taylor, are equally nonplussed in death, the same way that Samuel Clemens isn't happier in the afterlife than Finley Peter Dunne because his books are still in print.
     Ambition is all well and good, and I'm glad it goaded me forward for the past 50 years. But I'm also glad to be able to bank the fires now. We all end up in exactly the same place, eventually, and there's no harm in acquainting yourself with your inevitable destination a bit before you arrive.
     Of course I thought of T.S. Eliot's fine lines in "Little Gidding":    

     Every poem an epitaph. And any action
     Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
     Or to an illegible stone...




 "Every poem, an epitaph. Any any action is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat, or to an illegible stone."

Friday, July 5, 2024

Hungry, hungry birds

Photo by Edie Steinberg
     "Maybe I'm a bastard..." I said, gazing out the kitchen window on Thursday, watching a dozen brown birds scrabble over each other to get to our backyard feeder. "But I'm only filling the bird feeder once a day."
     This dramatic pronouncement hung in the air for a moment. My wife, doing bills at the kitchen table, glared at me.
     "You jerk!" she hissed, or words to that effect.
     "Otherwise, I feel I'm being taken advantage of," I hastily elaborated, watching the avian feast.
     Habit might be at play here. Usually, I fill the feeder every few days. A task I leap to — can't keep hungry birds waiting.
     (Okay, okay, you're probably wondering what word my wife actually said. Well, she is an officer of the court, so she asked that I not quote her saying this particular word. An obscene agent noun. Let's leave it at that.)
     But this past week, well, a particularly ravenous crew of small brown birds has moved into my yard and taken up residence. No sooner do I fill the feeder than they swoop in, make themselves at home, and get busy.
      (An agent noun, as you may know, is a noun created by adding "-er" to a verb, just as a gerund is a noun created by adding "-ing" to a verb.)
     Part of me suspects my problem is with the quality of these ravenous birds. If the peckish birds were cardinals and woodpeckers and orioles and such — colorful birds — I'm sure I'd just bite the bullet and keep the seeds coming. But this lot ... I don't know. Somehow, filling the feeder twice a day seems like spoiling them. Like I'm their servant or something.
     (The word begins with "f" and rhymes with "pucker." Does that help?)
     Not that birdseed is incredibly expensive. About $20 for a 40 pound bag at Ace Hardware. And that's good for ... I don't know ... several weeks. Or was. This new accelerated rate of consumption ... well, I suppose it's me who'll do the adjusting. I don't know how long I can hold out watching birds fighting over a few stray seeds. Eventually, they'll wear me down, these birds.
     Not to forget the squirrels and rabbits — really, sometimes I look out my back window and feel like I'm gazing onto some kind of idyll menagerie. I'm waiting for the Teletubbies to come bounding into the frame. 
     (Which is another reason to be frank. My experience is, by attempting to conceal something, you end up drawing attention to it. Better to just let the word fly and be done with it. You'd have forgotten it by now. But I try to be respectful — one should be able to speak in an unguarded manner without worrying that you'll end up in a blog post).
     So what do you think? Feed the birds as much as they can cram into themselves? Or stick with the one refill a day rule? 

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Don't be full of shit.

     It's not that I'm a fan of obscenity, per se.
     Rather, I like effective communication, and occasionally that means a well-delivered swear. There is "please be quiet" and "shhhh" and "shut up" and "shut the fuck up," each registering the same idea with varying degrees of emphasis. But that last one is the fire axe behind glass, when you really want someone to stop talking.
     That name of this blog, as I've remarked before, is meant to be exclusionary. Like one of those "You Must Be This High" sticks at the entrance to a roller coaster. If you can't measure up, this is not for you. If "every goddamn day," ruffles your feathers, then stay the fuck away. "Not everything is for children," as the great Robert Crumb once observed. "Not everything is for everybody."
     Which makes it ironic that I write for a newspaper, one of the few media realms where obscenity is tightly restricted. Oh, we make exceptions — when Donald Trump called Haiti a "shithole," we ran that unexpunged — a sort of precursor to this week's Supreme Court ruling. If the president says it, it's printable.
     I wish the situation were otherwise. Every time the paper gets a new editor, I ritualistically suggest writing a column that begins, "Fuck this," introducing the word into the Sun-Times lexicon for the first time in 76 years. They always say no, which gives me a hint that, yet again, we're being led by editors more concerned about offending a few readers than they are about attracting a lot more.
     Part of it might be generational. I was recently at the Apple store with a lady about my age who, in buying an iPhone, deployed the Germanic monosyllable for excrement — see, it's plainer just to say "shit." The sales clerk, a woman in her 20s, seemed genuinely taken aback, so much so that my companion apologized. Later, the clerk admitted she sometimes uses the word herself; the "I'm just not used to hearing it spoken by old people" went unvoiced.           
     Politics is another realm where dirty words cause notice. You don't expect obscenity in the state of the union, for instance. And I was surprised, in a good way, to see Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, say in her personal X feed: "Anyone who claims that I would say that we can't win in Michigan is full of shit."
     You go, girl. I felt like sending her tweet to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which, if you recall, got its underwear in a knot because I quoted one of its musicians saying "shit," twice. There is a backstory there. I found the usage so refreshing, uttered in the grandeur of Symphony Center, that after I wrote my column, I phoned my boss and asked if we couldn't, this one time, use the word undashed, so as not to soften its impact. He said no, unsurprisingly enough, and I went along — I follow style, I don't set it.
     But I share this background because some readers felt I used the quote maliciously, when I really, sincerely included it admiringly. Though the admiration curdled when the CSO informed me that my attention was no longer welcome. Writing has consequences, or should. Which is why so many do it badly — it isn't that they can't assemble words, though that is often a problem too. But they aren't willing to take the heat.
      "Shit" is a good word because it conveys the noxious quality of the substance being discussed. It's "dog poop" when deposited on a lawn and scooped up in a plastic bag, but dog shit when you step in it. That's a valuable distinction. I probably use it more as an interjection, "Shit honey, we need to do our taxes...." than as a noun.
    Originally the word was a verb related to separation — shit was the thing left behind. Thus the word "schism" is related; it's "schei├če" in German, a word I sometimes deployed in younger days, influenced by Thomas Pynchon, trying to give a vaguely menacing Teutonic air and, I imagine, failing miserably.
     "Shit" is a milder obscenity than "fuck." We can see that in Norman Mailer's 1948 war novel "The Naked and the Dead." He was forced, famously, to replace "fuck" with "fug," but "shit" was fine, unleashed 14 times, including the essential "shit-storm." 
    As late as the 1970s, my 1978 Oxford English Dictionary ignores one of the most common words in the English language, moving straight from Fucivorous,"Eating, or subsisting, on sea-weed" to Fuco'd, "beautified with fucus, painted." 
    But Shiton the other hand, gets the full treatment, after the prim trigger warning, "Not now in decent use," posted before unspooling, "Excrement from the bowels, dung." and giving a first usage dated 1585, ""Dond flytter, shit shytter," though it appears in Alexander Montgomerie's poem, "The Flyting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart," that seems to have been actually published in 1621 and is described as a "lyrical joust" between two poets, quite similar to rap put-downs.
     The OED truncates the full line, which should be shared in its entirety: "Dond flytter, shit shytter, bacon bytter, all defyld!" The poem is quite fond of the term, using it 11 times, and I'm not sure the OED took the best example. I liked: "They fand the shit all beshitten in his own shearne," that last term being a synonym for shit.  (And yes, Wednesday morning I looked up from my dip into obscene Scottish insult poetry, at the summer rain falling hard, and thought, "I'm living my best life!")
      The second OED definition is "A contemptuous epithet applied to a person," and this usage is older still, also Scottish. "A schit, but wit.'   
     There are some noteworthy cognates. The aforementioned "shitten," "defiled with excrement" goes back to 1386. Shitfire "a contemptuous epithet applied to a hot-tempered person" deserved reviving, as does Shit-breech — though I would update it to "shit-pants" and apply it to the young. Shit sack "an opprobrious name applied to non-comformists" would also come in handy, though there really isn't a public morality to conform to anymore.
     In his notes to Capt. Francis Grose's "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," Eric Partridge gives a lengthy explanation of how "shit sack" was tied to nonconformity during the Restoration, involving a frightened preacher and the sack he was hiding in. He also explores its World War I usage: "In 1914-1918 the soldiers used either shit or shit-house of any unpopular person (very rarely of a woman); they used it also as an expletive, cf. Fr. merde! ... Pre-War was in the shit, in trouble; but a specifically military application was: in the mud and slush, in mud and danger, in great or constant danger; and shit meant also shelling, especially shelling with shrapnel."
    There's more. Wentworth and Flexner's "Dictionary of American Slang" gives a dozen more definitions that are almost too familiar —- lousy merchandise, poor performances, "any talk or writing intended to deceive" not to overlook the essential "shit list."
     I won't go through all the phrases — "shit on a shingle," etc. — though did admire "shit in high cotton" defined as "To live more prosperously, pleasantly or luxuriously than one has formerly."
    Though my copy dates to 1975, Wentworth and Flexner note the growing acceptability of shit. "Wide Armed Forces use during W.W.II and the general loosening of moral restrictions and taboos has encouraged 'shit' uses among all strata of the population."
    Even the governor of Michigan. About time. Linguistic daring implies courage in other realms. Our nation needs that. Because otherwise we're up shit creek without a paddle.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Words are weapons in fight for freedom.

     We live in an odd house. There is a dictionary stand in the dining room. Bought on a whim at a resale shop. But my office is too jammed with books to accommodate the stand. So we tucked it near the dining room table, to refer to during family Scrabble games, increasingly rare in recent years.
     There is also a copy of the Constitution in the kitchen. Any room where three lawyers periodically break bread together should have one handy to resolve arguments — not used much lately either, until Monday. I was alone, drinking coffee, reading the Sun-Times and thinking about July 4. How this year the holiday finds a bitterly divided country, loping toward an election where one party promises to win or seize power. This was the same day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law doesn't apply to the presidents if they can couch their wrongdoing in the trappings of office.
     What is there to celebrate? The rule of law is a candle guttering in a rainstorm.
     I sprang up. The little booklet, published by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, was in a cabinet, nestled beside plates. To read the whole thing now — it takes only a few minutes — is to realize once again how problems of the past echo today.
     Article I, Section 2 goes straight to elections: "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People ... ."
     If you're wondering where the Constitution allows elections to be ignored if the will of the People isn't to your liking, that line isn't there.
     The pamphlet also reprints the Declaration of Independence, the reason for Thursday's holiday, marking this "Action of the Second Continental Congress, July 4, 1776." I read it aloud, beginning to end, my voice echoing off the granite counters.
     The self-evident truths begin, "all men are created equal." The word "men" is significant because women wouldn't get the vote for another 144 years. And enslaved Blacks didn't count because they weren't even considered human beings, never mind "men" with rights and dignity.
     I mention that not to make you feel bad about America but as a reminder: Our entire history is one gradual widening of whose voice gets to be heard. Freedom is always a work in progress. As is oppression: There are always Americans fluttering their hands, clutching their pearls and crying, "Oh no! Surely not these people too!"
     The famous beginning gets all the attention. But the bulk of of the Declaration — easily 2/3 of the text — is a direct complaint against King George III, starting with, "He has refused to assent to laws ..." and faulting him for thwarting the popular ballot, "a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only."

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Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Flashback 2012: Maybe tomatoes don’t taste like sun

     A reader wrote in, praising my use of metaphor. I considered writing something on that subject, then realized I had already done so, a dozen years ago. This column somehow managed to combine the subject of metaphor, tomatoes, slavery and LGBTQ.

     ‘Eat a tomato, boys,” I urged, spearing another fat red chunk of home-grown, vine-ripened bliss and transferring it greedily to my plate at dinner Monday night. “It’s like eating the sun.”
     A strange phrase, granted. “It’s like eating the sun.” Why say that? A bit of advertising puffery. A plea for help. The tomato crop is crazy this year — my plants are tossing off tomatoes like a pitching machine firing fastballs. Try as I might, my wife and I can’t eat them all. The boys weren’t touching any and wouldn’t, without encouragement. Heck, they probably wouldn’t with encouragement but I had to try; the idea was to evoke the sun-blessed, deep, resonating goodness of fresh-picked tomatoes. It didn’t work.
      “Like eating a vast ball of exploding gas?” scoffed the teenage boy to my left, busily picking the pasta out of his pasta salad, ignoring the non-pasta parts. “It would kill us in an instant.” I tried to speak ...
     “A mouthful of superheated plasma...” mocked the teenage boy to my right or words to that effect, I wasn’t taking notes — I was eating dinner, or trying to.
     What I meant to say was, “It’s like eating sunshine” — warm, dense, moist ...
     Oh heck, sunshine isn’t moist, is it?
     See, that’s the problem. All metaphor is imperfect. The world is not really a ball — it doesn’t bounce. Love is not a rose — it isn’t pollinated by bees. There is no metaphor you can’t shoot down. Buttons are not cute. Feathers, in sufficient bulk, are not light.
     Yet metaphor is crucial to communicating the feelings behind the flat facts of our lives. When we say our day was “hell,” we do not mean we were immersed upside down in a pool of molten lead in a fiery underworld of unimaginable woe while winged demons jabbed at our smoldering feet with pitchforks. What we mean is, it was a hard day. The computer crashed. The boss yelled at us.
     But that doesn’t resonate with other people. “Have pity — my supervisor scolded me” doesn’t quite do it. “My day was hell” is an attempt to draw indifferent others into sharing our own emotional state.
     Metaphors and similes (a simile is a metaphor that uses “like” or “as” — “like eating the sun” is a simile) are helpful not only in expressing feelings but in condensing arguments. That’s why people always compare situations to Hitler — it saves time and delivers a complex emotional punch or did.
     Metaphors are risky — not only can they be overused, as with our old pal Hitler, but as my boys illustrated, they have flaws that can be easily seized on and used to try to discredit whatever a person is trying to say.
     For instance, last week, in my column I used religion’s reaction to slavery as a metaphor, relating it to two situations where religion would like the final word today: gay marriage and abortion, realms where the freedom of affected individuals would be swept aside by fervent third parties who feel entitled to use their faith to trump the liberty of others. Rather as was done with slaves.
     Agree or disagree, the argument is clear. Some readers, rather than address the point, went after flaws in the metaphor. For instance, comparing the two situations therefore meant I was suggesting they are the same in all regards, that I was saying that being forced to work on a planation is the same as being forced to live in the closet.
     Some felt obligated to explain the difference between being black and being gay.
     “An African American had and has no way of disguising her identity to receive fair treatment while the traits of being a homosexual surely and are at times masked to further one’s career and financial goals against inherent bias,” wrote one reader.
     Even long-established metaphors are easy as pie to pick apart. “Easy as pie? Are you crazy. Have you ever made a pie? Pie is hard.”
     We expect our metaphors to be accepted. It’s a shock when they’re not. If you said that a certain friend has a heart of gold, it would be jarring if the reply were an angry, “What? Impossible! A heart couldn’t circulate blood if it were made of gold. You’d die in minutes!”
     At dinner, beset from both sides, I paused to form a little speech: “Someday, boys,” I was going to solemnly intone. “You will be tomato gardeners, too ­— all good men are. You will think back to the luscious, fire-engine red tomatoes of your father and how he offered them to you with an open hand. How they sat before you in perfect beauty, untouched. You will wish in your deepest heart that you had partaken of the fruits of his honest labor, your father’s tomatoes, instead of scorning them with the glib pig ignorance and shrugging indifference that are the hallmarks of wasted adolescence. You will be scoured with regret, and wish you could apologize. But I of course will be long gone by then....”
     Rather than blurt this speech out, I composed it carefully in mind. But when I went to tell my sons, they had already leapt up and were gone. Probably just as well.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 29, 2012

Monday, July 1, 2024

Biden is faltering, but what he represents remains strong

     People try to "live in the moment" without realizing what that really means. Living in the moment is fine if, at the moment, you are hiking in the Colorado Rockies, pausing to sip cool water and admire the vista.
     But how often are you living in that moment?
     My father, Robert Steinberg, 91, lives in what I call "the immediate moment." Whatever is happening right now is all there is or can be.
     There is no past — his 30 years as a nuclear physicist at NASA have vanished.
     There is no future. He has no volition. There is nothing he wants to do. He won't be attending my older son's wedding next month — the crowd would confuse and frighten him.
     There really isn't much of a present, either. A sofa. A television. And if I'm there too, I also exist, for the moment.
     "How's the world treating you, Neil?" he'll ask, and I'll tell him. It's the only thing he says to me, those exact words. Over and over. I think of those cheap little music boxes, with a cylinder plucking metal tines. Turn the tiny crank and a dozen notes of "Pop Goes the Weasel" tinkle out: ba-dump ba-dump, ba-daddidy dump ...
     No shame in that. Just nature taking her course. But to not recognize what has happened would be irresponsible. My father holds patents in nuclear reactor design, but I would not ask him to design a nuclear reactor now, nor would I want to live near one he had worked on recently.
     At some point, responsible parties must close the door. Three years ago, my father was driving the car, despite my telling my mother, repeatedly, "He's going to kill a child in a crosswalk and it's going to be your fault." When we moved them to Belmont Village Senior Living in Buffalo Grove, we sold their car.

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Sunday, June 30, 2024

Maybe Facebook will like this headline better — The state of the blog, Year Eleven


     Traditionally, I top my year-end review with a nonsequiteur headline pulled from the Right Wing thunderdome. This year's, ""I JUST left the rally for my friend, President Trump" caused Facebook to immediately take down the post. While they indeed have a point — the headline IS unsuited to the content — it was done in a sense of irony, not deception. Apparently, the algorithm is still working on irony. Anyway, the back of my hand stung by Facebook's ruler, I renamed the post and am trying again. There are lots of new readers, recently, and this can be seen as a guide to the more noteworthy posts of the past year.

     Last September, I wrote about the prevalence of spirals in Copenhagen, "Danish Notes #1: Spiral City." Looking back over the 11th year of this blog, which ends today, I think that post can serve as a synecdoche for the blog itself.
    Did you need to know about spirals and Copenhagen? No. Could you easily live your life  ignorant of spirals in Copenhagen? Yes. But are spirals in Copenhagen interesting (maybe even belatedly relevant, given that one of the spirals featured burned down in April). Something that learning about embellishes your day, along with knowing the word synecdoche, a literary term for a part that stands in for the whole, the way you'd, oh, call a car your "wheels." 
    Again yes. I hope so, anyway. A spiral turns in on itself, and there is a lot of inward motion here. I actually fight introspection and self-reference — "The only wisdom we can hope to achieve," T.S. Eliot writes, "is the wisdom of humility." That I often fail, well, one of my rules as a writer, beside not having rules, is to be who you are.
     The numbers are good: 1.6 million clicks over the past year, a healthy 130,000 a month. I should probably leave it at that. But candor is a value esteemed here, even over modesty, and I have to note that 2/3 of those clicks are from China and Hong Kong, so certainly do not represent actual readers. I severely doubt this blog has one  regular reader among 1.3 billion Chinese, which is sad, because that would be an interesting person to get to know. I wish I could explain what accounts for those Asian clicks, but imagine a box bristling with wires, sitting in a windowless room in some basement along an industrial road in Shantou, a device I think of as a "thrummer," clonically clicking on this site. A glitch of some sort. Which is, in its own way, apt.
    There was reaction from actual human beings — a term made all the more relative by the rise of AI. In July I wrote the third most read post of EGD history, "Wrangle carts, earn quarters," what I thought was an innocuous first visit to an Aldi supermarket, but was turned into some grotesque opera bufo by the torch-bearing mobs on Reddit. The dynamic that drove them into a frenzy is worth noting — the crime I committed was timing my wife when she returned the cart, to see how much labor Aldi was getting for its quarter. This struck Reddit as arrogance, and punishing the arrogant — selectively — is a major culture force in America today, along with punishment in general. I didn't mind, was happy for the new readers, and never went on Reddit to see the hundreds of thousands of comments. Keep the poison out.
    A spiral also, if viewed another way, turns outward. I like to think I did that too.
    In August, I weighed in on the immigrant crisis in Chicago with "Chicago needs every busload." I try not to natter on about my failures — others do that for me — but I'll always regret not finding a way to write more about immigration. It was the moral test of our time and I didn't study hard enough and got a C. That column is notable for the Tyler Pascale photo, which hadn't been run in the paper, and I was glad to expose to the public. The baby's face — the tableau made me think of the Madonna and Child. 
    Maybe the problem is I keep getting distracted by mundane details, such as the difficulty in maintaining infrastructure, laid out in another August story, "Hydrant Repair Crews face water, pressure." 
    Mocking the media always does very well — my columns roasting John Kass are perennial favorites. It doesn't take a genius to see why: the media, or what's left of it, is fascinated with itself, just like everybody else, and such stories get bandied about. In September, in addition to my Scandinavian notes, I chided the New York Times for its prissy send-off of Jimmy Buffett, "It's my own damn fault," which turned out to be the third most read post of the year.
    I don't have a column in the newspaper on Sundays, but that doesn't carry over to the blog, so I was able to immediately weigh in on the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that sparked the Gaza war. "War in the Middle East" struck themes I'd revisit in the months to come, and also could be run without being vetted by every assistant producer who can fog a mirror at WBEZ, which is not true for my Sun-Times columns. 
     November began with "From the river to the sea..." which appeared on the blog, and online, but not in the physical newspaper itself because ... because ... well, my superiors at WBEZ never did quite explain it to me in a way I could understand. 
     In December, rather than gripe about my future daughter-in-law's disdain for modern art, I tried education instead, walking through the contemporary wing of The Art Institute with two curators in "Art can take you to a particular place." 
     January found me in Phoenix, hanging with my younger son and his fiance, but I paused to point out a gaping hole in the entire Republican stop-the-steal lie, "Won't it just get stolen again?"
     Attention to artificial intelligence  rose steadily all year, and in February I used AI to craft a column — a tissue of cliched crap easily pulled apart, in "Robots rise up? Relax, Chicago, it's not Skynet" — yet." Chicago Public Media graphic artist Angela Massino designed concocted a way cool Robot Neil bug to go with it, an irony for certain.
    In March, I published a column that was a metaphor for the electoral choice America will be facing, "Drink poison or eat Chex? The choice is yours." I wrote it as a half sly way to get around the paper's 501(c)3 restrictions against endorsing a candidate. But my bosses saw through it, and wouldn't run the piece. I don't want to cast the blog as a consolation prize. But at least it allows spiked columns to get before the public.
    In April I did one of those fun deep dives, in to the world of trumpets, visiting Conn Selmer in Elkhart and spending time with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's main trumpet player. "A great trumpet is 'a thing of beauty, an extension of you'" 
    In May I remarked on Ken Griffin trying to purchase some respect in his former hometown. "Sorry, Ken — Chicagoans will call the Museum of Science and Industry what they please."
    In June, I returned to CSO musicians and their instruments, featuring percussionist Cynthia Yeh. I had hoped this would be the start of a running series, featuring classical musicians and the instruments they play, intending to methodically work my way through the orchestra. The double bass was next.  But Yeh complained that I hadn't treated her reverentially enough — I quote her swearing — and the CSO told me not to bother trying to profile their musicians in the future. We shall have to stumble forward without them best we can.
      Also in June I introduced you to Off. Angelo Wells, a Chicago cop who had been shot and ended up moving to Northbrook — which is why he would talk to me, having escaped the cone of silence that falls over all CPD matters. His Chicago partner wouldn't even return my calls. Nor would the CPD comment on the subject of officers in rehab trying to return to work after being shot. I can't get the superintendent of police to have an off-the-record coffee with me.
      Do you see a pattern here? I do. The struggle continues to get my hooks into situations and draw them wriggling out of the unseen depths and into the sunlight to share with you. Year Eleven, done and in the bag. On to Year Twelve. Thank you for reading. Thank you for all of you who comment, particularly those who point out typos, including where the mistake they noticed is to be found. Thank you Marc Schulman of Eli's Cheesecake for your advertising. Thank you Chicago Sun-Times for continuing to exist. I'll see you here tomorrow, and every day after that, onward toward eternity.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

This is the Hour of Lead

Emily Dickinson

    The first thing I did after the debate was check an Emily Dickinson poem that came to mind.
    Strange, I know. 
    Not the one about hope being the thing with feathers. Honestly, I felt no hope. "Trump won," I told my wife, before she fled the room, unable to watch the fiasco.
     I believed that. And yet when it was finally over, I felt ... oddly light. And not just because I no longer had to witness two elderly men flailing at one another, nor the current president gazing at the floor, as if in shame, letting the hateful maunderings of Cheetolini go unanswered. 
     There was a line I was looking for.
     "After great pain, a formal feeling comes—" begin Poem #341 — Dickinson gave titles to only a very few of her poems, written mostly for herself, folded into little bundles and wrapped in thread. The poem continues:

      The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
      The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
      And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

     Not that I would describe what seeing Biden's awful show of age and infirmity as "great pain." That's overly-dramatic. Shock, and horror. How could it be a surprise? The Republicans have been saying as much for months. Who could imagine they'd be right? That something they said wasn't a lie. What else have been they saying that is true? Is Trump really a super-genius? He certainly shone, by comparison, at least in speaking ability. The toxic lies and hate, not so much. Then again, I turned the sound off for a while, unable to hear more.

          The Feet, mechanical go round—
          Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
          A Wooden way
          Regardless grown,
          A Quartz contentment, like a stone—

     I was surprised how peaceful I felt. Not light-hearted, not happy. But not dismal and doomstruck either. A certain calm focus — "a formal feeling" is close — the kind of quiet clarity in an emergency situation, where you see what's unfolding in slow motion and know exactly what you have to do. "A Quartz contentment" almost nails it too.   
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
   Does that explain the serenity?  The drown reflex? The way peace supposedly settles on those who stop thrashing and sink to the bottom? Or a person freezing to death? Had Biden thrown away his worsening chance between 8 p.m. and 8:03 p.m. CST, and now all that's left is the mechanical go round, as Trump lurches toward his return to the White House, and the nation slides into extremism and repression? Have the marshals of doom seized the nation, one at each elbow, to escort us to our richly earned punishment? Was the fate sealed in 180 seconds of live television, the dice thrown, the ball settling into the roulette wheel cup and croupier chance sniggers and scrapes our life's savings off the table?
    Maybe. But you know what? I don't care. Because I don't plan to surrender. Not until the last second of the clock plays out and then after the game ends. Once the shock wears off. I plan to oppose Trump with every fiber of my being, and if that means backing a decent man who had a bad night, so be it. Biden seemed to recover himself Friday, and gave a good speech in North Carolina. Counter-intuitive things happen. Maybe Biden's near political death experience will  mobilize support in a way it never would before, that for each person who doesn't vote because his face was slack and confused, two more will head to the polls because the alternative is still so much worse. You could put Joe Biden in a wood chipper and what spewed out the other side wouldn't be pretty, but it wouldn't be a liar, bully, fraud and traitor either.  If they dragged Joe Biden's corpse to campaign events and stood it up behind a podium and Kamala Harris worked his lips while giving a speech out of the corner of her mouth, a real life "Weekend at Bernie's," I'd still vote for Biden. He might be raspy, but he isn't Vladimir Putin's catspaw.
     A couple hours after the debate, my wife and I walked our dog through the lovely little downtown park in Northbrook. Another beautiful summer night. I wasn't angry or upset or scared. I felt focused. The Hour of Lead had already passed, and now I was responding to the crisis, in the zone. The tide of battle turned, for the moment. It sure looked like a rout. And some have already throw down their muskets and bolted for the trees. Yet others are still in the field, standing firm, ready to take what's coming. 
      When I'm low, I often turn to my hero, Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer. He was a man beset with problems — gouty, with faulty eyesight, hard of hearing, scrofulous, ugly, alcoholic, depressed. And yet possessed with an iron will. Facing his final illness, he said something worth remembering. "I will be conquered," Johnson vowed. "I will not capitulate." That sounds like a plan.