Sunday, March 31, 2024

Flashback 2006: New-shoe purchase laced with ambivalence

     Cary Millstein, shoe salesman extraordinaire, was buried Friday. At his funeral, the rabbi mentioned that I had written a column about him in 2006, and one of the mourners later asked me if she could read it. The column isn't online. But I told her I would dig it up and post it here. The column is long, over 1100 words, filling a page back then, and evokes a lost downtown world, of going to work in suits and ties and wingtip English shoes. 
     I always say that these columns utterly vanish in the howling wordstorm, affecting nothing, without any significance whatsoever. That is partly true, but partly a protective pose, shielding myself from the knowledge that, sometimes, they can be a very big deal, the sort of thing mentioned at somebody's funeral 18 years after they run. "He was so good at being, not just an owner, manager, salesman, he had such contact with people that Neil Steinberg wrote a column about him," the rabbi said at Cary's graveside. I find that very touching, very humbling, and am grateful to do work that is significant not only to myself, but occasionally to others too.  

     As a rule I don't buy shoes. As a rule, I don't buy anything, but merely work away, earning money to pay for the mortgage and the car, the kids and the wife, the grocer's bill and the electric bill, the 401(k) and the insurance, the guy who cleans the gutters and the lady who cleans the house, summer camp for one boy and golf lessons for the other. We rent a viola and a tuba and see to it that two cats get better medical care than 95 percent of the people in Africa. It adds up.
     But an errand took me down Wabash Avenue, past the Palmer House, where the old Church's shoe store was located, where, back when my wife was working, I would buy fine English, bench-made shoes that actually fit my triple-wide duck feet.
     Always the same type of shoe: Oxford wingtips. Heavy and black and shiny, with a thick slab of leather for a sole and an upper of tooled holes.
     Yes, the wingtip is the defining shoe of the uncool. Tom Wolfe calls them "FBI shoes" in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, an outstanding feature of the comatose, marshmallow-headed, work-a-daddy world, the "non-musical shiny-black-shoe multitudes" casting Ken Kesey and his LSD-addled merry pranksters a glance of bovine curiosity as they flash by, jeering, in their rainbow-hued bus.
     When Richard Nixon — poor, doomed, tragic Nixon, a character out of Sophocles — made his stab at popularity, and invited the press to watch him frolic on the beach, as carefree as a Kennedy, it was his black Oxford wingtips that the horrified newsmen focused on as Nixon marched grimly up and down the wet sand.
     I don't care. I like wingtips. They're comfortable. They go with a suit. They are not trendy.
     So I found myself pausing on Wabash, where Church's once was, looking through the window of what is now Cary's Footwear.
     I needed shoes — there are only so many times you can have soles replaced before the uppers start to go. I almost kept walking, out of residual loyalty to Church's — but the new place also sells English shoes, and they are having a sale. I went inside.
     "Hi Neil," said the clerk — and owner — Cary Millstein. Incredibly, he remembered me. "You're still wearing the brogues?"
     "Yes," I said, sheepishly.
     A brogue is another word for a wingtip — the word was first used to describe shoes the Irish wore, and later was applied to their lilting manner of speech.
     "Eight and a half, triple E, right?" he said, ducking into the back. Amazing. I hadn't bought a pair of shoes there in five years. You won't see that happen at a Payless.
     I tried on the shoes and marched around the tiny store — 650 square feet — to see if they fit. Millstein had already worked there for 20 years, he said, when Prada absorbed Church's and he saw his chance and bought the place. That was four years ago. Business is good. "The tourist trade is vital," he said. As if to prove his point, some visitors from Madrid came in and bought shoes, while I pondered, like Saul in his tent, whether to make a purchase.
     Eventually, I bought the shoes — $249, plus tax. It made me feel like Imelda Marcos.
     The transaction was actually much more complex than I've outlined, involving reflection, analysis, sweat and a phone conversation with my wife. But I've boiled it down to its essentials for public consumption. I left there envying the man who can just walk into a store and buy a pair of shoes and not think so goddamn much about it.


     Anxious guys shouldn't go on television. For one, they put makeup on you, and try as I might to smear it off afterward, it lingers throughout the day, and I feel like Quentin Crisp. I can't help but suspect, washing my hands in the men's room, that the guy next to me is glancing over and thinking, "Hmmm, I wonder if Steinberg's personal life is more, ah, complex than he lets on."
     That said, I will nevertheless be among Antonio Mora's guests on "Eye on Chicago" this Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on CBS Channel 2.
     That's another reason to be nervous: CBS. What if I run into Diann Burns, the TV news diva being pilloried in the press for her unwise lawsuit over crown molding? What if we're in an elevator together?
     In fact, isn't she Mora's co-anchor? What if the whole thing is a trap, and I go to shake Mora's hand, and he grabs it and twists, spinning me around and putting me in a full nelson, and then Burns comes raging out from her hiding place, eyes aflame, a straight razor in her hand . . .
     See, as I said. Anxious guys shouldn't do television.


     As usual, I left out the joyful part. At the end of a long workday, gathering up my stuff to drag home, there it was: the bag with the shoes. My heart swelled, and I thought: new shoes!
     That evening, I showed my new shoes off to my wife.
     "They're a classic form, like an Oreo cookie," I said. "And smell them — the new leather and the polish."
     "Just this once . . ." she said, taking a tentative whiff.
     "And look at the shoe box," I said to her. "It's a great shade of green — and thick cardboard. That's a quality shoe box, and I can keep all sorts of stuff in it."
     Obviously, I had lost my mind.
     But heck, the shoes will be battered and worn and scuffed and ready for the trash heap, just like their owner, soon enough, and the news being what it is, I think it's good to be happy about whatever you can find to be happy about, even something as trivial as new shoes.


     State Fair time is almost upon us, and this gem, from Mike Horstman, seems in the right spirit:
     A man and his wife are visiting the bull-breeding exhibit at the State Fair. At the first pen is a sign reading, 'This bull mated 50 times last year."
     The wife pokes her husband in the ribs and says, "Fifty times last year!"
     They walk a little farther and see another pen with a sign that says, "This bull mated 100 times last year."
     The wife socks her husband in the arm and says. "About twice a week! You could learn a lot from him.''
     They walk farther and a third pen has a sign saying "This bull mated 365 times last year.''
     The wife says, "Once a day! You could really learn some . . ."
     The husband cut her off with: "Why don't you go up and ask him if it was all with the same cow."


     Of course, no wife in the history of the world ever teased her husband about not having enough sex.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 28, 2006 

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Jews on Scooters

Elchonon and Mendel, right, on the hunt.

      Suburban street life has a bad reputation. Or rather, no reputation at all. Generic houses along curving nondescript streets. Astroturf lawns. Block after block of empty sidewalk, devoid of humanity, art, interest.
     No paleta carts. No street musicians. No knots of kids hanging out on stoops. Hardly any stoops at all.
     Even my own section of the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, close to the train station, the library, the Village Hall, downtown, public garden and soccer field can, particularly early in the morning, feel lonely, even forlorn. Where is everybody?
     Other times, life is to be found here. I routinely happen upon fellow dog walkers.  Conversation ensues. Banners hang from light poles. In the winter, the trees are decked with lights, in the summer, hanging baskets of flowers. There are festivals, parades, lemonade stands. I can stand in my backyard and hear trains and shouts from hockey games. Not to forget exotic fauna: owls, hawks, even a stray fox or coyote. 
     Plus the occasional religious zealot. Friday afternoon I was giving Kitty her afternoon stroll by the Civic Foundation — which regularly draws crowds of business people, Rotarians and recovering alcoholics, arriving for their 10 a.m. Sunday meeting — when I spotted the above pair of Hasidim on scooters. Their black hats; the white strands of their tzitzits dangling out from below their jackets.
     I had the presence of mind to instantly whip out my iPhone and snap some shots. Usually I'd be reluctant — the polite thing is to ask permission first. But as these young men are in the business of accosting strangers for their own religious purposes — in their worldview, getting Jews to do their duty hurries along the time of the messiah (assuming he wasn't just here, in the form of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, but I've addressed that previously). Turnabout is fair play. I fired away, then asked them if they mind me taking their photos. They didn't seem to. Or at least didn't say so.
     I mentioned that I had been friendly with the late Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, who headed the Lubavitch movement in Illinois, and know one of his sons, Rabbi Meir. They nodded vaguely — kids of any faith seem fairly oblivious of the world they've sprung up in.
     I've written before about the cheder boys who'd come to the newspaper to hunt for Jewish men to prod into donning on prayer boxes, as required in Deuteronomy 6:6-9: "And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them upon thy hand and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."
     That last line, by the way, is why most Jewish homes have mezuzahs — little decorative boxes containing key prayers. Even Jews who don't observe much of their religion manage to put up a mezuzah, and why not? It's a comforting ritual, to touch the little lozenge as you come and go.
    The lads — Elchonon and Mendel, both 15, the pride of the Yeshivas Ohr Eliyahu Lubavitch Mesivta of Chicago on Morse — asked me if I wanted to pray. How could I refuse, given my documentation of their arrival? I said I was game. Elchonon (he said it means "the land" though Prof. Google translate it as "God has graced") handed me a black yarmulke, and instructed me to roll up my left sleeve so it could be wrapped in a leather strap. I took off my fleece to facilitate that. Mendel looked on — usually, with these pairs, there's the alpha boy and the beta boy, the doer and the watcher.  I set down Kitty's leash, stepped on it to keep her from bolting after a bunny or squirrel — more street life — and expressed a concern that the dog might be tref, or unkosher. Dogs do not figure largely in Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. But they didn't seem to mind Kitty, which I took, like the scooters, as a sign of uncharacteristic liberality.
     I must be getting thick-skinned in my old age, but I cared not a whit what any passing Northbrookites might think to see me putting on phylacteries in the street. I repeated the half-remembered prayers after Elchonon's prompting.
     Truth is, over the past years, I've soured a bit on the Lubavitch, as the New York Times documented how their East Coast schools fail miserably when it came to non-Talmudic subjects like science and math. A shonda fur die goyim. Religion should expand a person's scope, not clap him in blinders. And the Ultra-Orthodox have been cheerleaders for right wing nationalism, at home and in Israel. Not the spirit of Adonai as I understand it. What good is Judaism if it's just another brand of oppression?
      That said, the home team has been suffering enough lately, as the hostility being firehosed toward Israel for defending itself splashes Jews in general, many of whom were pretty down on the country before, for picking a Trumpish criminal and self-dealing stooge like Benjamin Netanyahu to lead it. If I had to choose which is a more pressing priority, crushing Hamas or tossing Netanyahu into the dustbin of history, I'd say both are important, though maybe not in that order. 
    Anyway, Elchonon — sounds almost Spanish, doesn't it? El Chonon! — handed me a little brochure analyzing this week's parsha — the portion of the Torah read in synagogue. Regarding burnt offerings in the Temple 3,000 years before the latest group who showed up and announced the land is theirs and the Jews should quietly die where they stand or go live someplace else, far, far, away. In your dreams...
     He asked where I lived, and I pointed toward my house, already worrying about weekly visits — I suppose I could just tell him to scram, though that seems unkind. The news being what it is, we Jews need to hang together or eventually, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, we'll run the risk of hanging separately. It's happened before.

Friday, March 29, 2024

We love and value you — whoever you are

     Humans and machines ... they're not the same yet, right? We recognize a difference.
     A big difference, in my estimation. The difference between a plumber at your door and frantically thumbing through a fix-it manual. The difference between a lover and pornography. A very big difference.
     Maybe the distinction is hiding in plain sight, overlooked in the general hurrah for artificial intelligence. The chasm, still, between something from a real person and something from an algorithm. Or is that an antique distinction?
     Last Saturday I received an email from CHICAGO SUN-TIMES MEDIA INC. It read:
     "Happy 37th Work Anniversary Neil Steinberg! Congratulations on another successful year with CHICAGO SUN-TIMES MEDIA INC. Your dedication and hard work continue to inspire us. Here's to more achievements and growth in the coming years!"
     Time to play "You be the Columnist." Reading that, I felt a) embraced, recognized and loved by my bosses and peers; b) slightly amused and a little impressed that someone would bother programming this generic boilerplate flattery into the payroll system to be automatically spat out on anniversaries or c) a blast of chill wind blowing across the barren hearth of modern life.
     Hint: Not "a."
     Perhaps in recognition of that third choice, there was, below the email, a big orange button reading "See who's Celebrating." Click it, and you're brought to Paylocity, the payroll system. In case anyone was so moved, a few helpful hints were offered. "Happy anniversary!" "Congrats!" "Appreciate You!" and "Thank You!" and a counter showing "0 Comments."
     This isn't a complaint. I don't believe, while plugging my hours into the payroll system, I've ever noticed, never mind clicked, to wish a colleague "happy anniversary." My guess is they aren't crying in their pillows.

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Thursday, March 28, 2024

"A little somethin' you can't take off."

    "But I do have one question," Aldo the Apache asks the Jew Hunter at the end of "Inglourious Basterds. "When you get to your little place on Nantucket Island, I 'magine you're gonna take off that handsome-lookin' S.S. uniform of yours, ain'tcha?... That's what I thought. Now that I can't abide... I mean, if I had my way... you'd wear that goddamn uniform for the rest of your pecker-suckin' life."
    Quentin Tarantino's violent revenge fantasy about World War II ends up with the Nazi villain having a swastika carved on his forehead, or as Lt. Raine puts it: "a little somethin' you can't take off."
    I thought of that moment when Ronna McDaniel was trounced out of NBC News after four days trying to pass as a journalist. The former chairwoman of the Republican National Committee thought she could shed her Trump-coddling, election-denying, democracy-shredding raiment and simply rejoin polite society. And, sadly, the out-of-touch NBC brass hoped she could too, briefly. Imagined McDaniel might provide some of that good old fashioned Red State perspective, make the case for lies and delusion, maybe snag a few viewers drifting away from Fox News.
     But legitimate NBC journalists rebelled, on air. Thank God. That's how it should be. Some things cannot be forgiven. Maybe casting a ballot for Trump two or three times, in the privacy of the voting booth, can be reframed as a secret shame. But at some point, as you rise up the ladder in the pyramid of cowards, quisling and craven opportunists, you lose the chance to walk away from your treachery. At some point you end up in the dock in a plexiglas booth.
     And if you're hung up on my comparing Nazis to MAGAzis, well, tough. Get over it. Or don't. The common element is clear — an identical ability to suspend decent moral values. To be blind to ethical duty. To confuse right and wrong. To hurt innocents and call it purity.
      Those who love America should, at some point, state the obvious: that denying the rule of law is unforgivable. That being a dupe in service of a fraud, year in and year out, in spite of clear, enormous evidence, is unforgivable. That rebelling against our country is unforgivable. Betraying our nation to despotic foreign enemies is unforgivable. 
     I'm sick of the media pretending otherwise. Pretending there is a balance. There is no balance. Joe Biden isn't perfect: he's old. He's a political hack. But he also could live to be 105 and he would still never become a seditionist. Never become a liar, bully, fraud and traitor. There is no comparison. The Trump enormity is clear, or should be clear, and those who don't get it, who willfully refuse to understand, should know they are following him down. 
     They should know that when he loses — as he will — they lose too. They have already lost. Now and forever. They can't just shower off their infamy and try to reclaim a spot at the table of the decent. Not at my table anyway. They can take their red baseball cap and stow it, lovingly, in a closet. And while it's a shame Aldo Raine can't take his gleaming bowie knife and carve, "MAGA" on their foreheads, it will still be there, nevertheless, for those of us who can't help but see it. Some stains never wash off. If you don't like it, well, you should have thought of that when you began betraying your country. Too late now.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Flag burning IS free speech — so is sham patriotism

A U.S. flag is retired by burning in 2018. The U.S. Flag Code states that worn-out flags “should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.

     Monday, June 16, 1997, was memorable for two reasons.
     First, my younger son was born that afternoon. The nurse toweled him off, handed him to me. I gazed down and thought — sorry, buddy — "He looks just like Edward G. Robinson." Truly, there should have been the tiny stump of a cigar hanging off his quivering lower lip.
     The other memorable event was that morning, the start of what began as a regular workday. I was having breakfast downtown with U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez. You'd think the life-changing event later that day would have wiped out any memory of what we discussed. But it didn't. Our exchange stuck with me.
     Flag burning was in the news. Congressional action pending. I was surprised that Gutiérrez, a Democrat and supposed champion of liberal causes, would not oppose any ban. He explained that a Chicago TV station had a video clip of him, talking into a microphone at a forgotten 1970s protest rally where, behind him, somebody set fire to an American flag. If he opposed the latest government attempt to bunch the flag into a ball and jam it down the throats of protesters, that video would be disinterred and aired.
     Not a profile in courage. It burned into my memory, because of the visceral disgust I felt. Really? You'd stand, hands in your pockets, gazing at the sky and whistling while free speech gets mugged in an alley? So you don't risk looking bad?
     Thus I can't stand by while 25th Ward Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez gets beat up for appearing at a rally outside City Hall after a U.S. flag was burned. Ald. Chris Taliaferro (28th) and "quite a few" of his colleagues are considering censuring Sigcho-Lopez. I bet they are. Flag-waving theatrics are the go-to move of Trumpies who think that if they smooch Old Glory long enough, then their betraying every value America represents will be OK.
     Let's be crystal clear. Setting flags on fire isn't the issue. Every VFW hall has a special bin where used American flags are to be deposited, later to be burned, with respect. It's burning a flag without respect, as a protest — aka free speech — that twists my-way-or-the-highway false patriots into a knot.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Nowruz celebration

           Northeastern Illinois University student Tahmina Herewaie holds the Afghan flag,
                  joined by other Afghan Refugee Transition Program scholarship students.

     The upside of my job is that I get to go interesting places. The downside is that when at those places, I am always working. At some level. Since literally any experience can be captured, retained, understood, synthesized, and shared with others, I need to be always on, listening, taking notes, looking around, processing. Or at the very least the pilot light has to be lit, waiting, ready to leap into action.
     It gets tiring. Sometimes you want to stop, put your pen down, shut your brain off, and live. Like last Thursday night. The Afghan sisters whom I wrote about earlier this month, doing their paperwork at a Loop law firm invited me to attend a celebration of Nowruz — the Persian New Year observed by communities from Albania to Iran— at their school, Northeastern Illinois University. 
      It didn't seem a particularly compelling story — Students Celebrate Holiday With Food. But they invited me. It seemed to mean something to them, and to me too, being invited somewhere, not by an organization, but by a person. So I said I'd go, representing the newspaper at an event held by a growing ethnic community. Colorful Afghan dress was involved, so I assigned a photographer.
     I asked my wife to come along — she is an alumnus of NEIU and hadn't been back since she graduated, decades ago. She agreed. 
     In researching what I was going to — "Nowruz" means "New Day" in Persian and falls on the spring equinox — I came upon a video from Disney, of Mickey Mouse explaining Nowruz. No wonder the Republicans are so mad at Disney, treating other people's faiths as if they have value too.
     Dinner was late — after 7, because it is Ramadan, and devout Muslims can't eat until after sundown. It can be a struggle — someone I was talking to checked his watch as we spoke, said something about Ramadan and bolted for the buffet table. My wife urged me to go up and eat. "I'm not pushing ahead of people who've been fasting all day," I said, keeping my seat, waiting for everybody else to get up first. 
     The grub was worth the wait — succulent chicken kebabs and rice, Jerusalem salad and pita bread, custard and cookies and haft mewa, a traditional Nowruz dessert of nuts and fruit in rose water. 
     Several NEIU officials said hello. Handshakes and introductions. I briefly sat down next to a sociology professor, here to support a student in his class. We talked, but nothing noteworthy came of it. There was music, and poetry, some in English, some in Dari. There was a dramatic moment when some of the young women present, dressed in flowing Afghan outfits, marched in waving an Afghan flag to a stirring patriotic song, Watan Ishq Tu Iftikharm ("Love of my homeland is my pride") and I slipped over, knelt down, took a couple photos.
    Back at the table, taking in general vibe. listening to poetry in a language I don't understand, I had a moment to reflect, yet again, how everybody is pretty much the same: glad to be in this country but proud of where they, or their parents or grandparents, came from. And that thing right wingers are so terrified of — a diverse nation welcoming all sorts of people who get to live their lives, even if those lives are markedly different than the general flow— is a very desirable dynamic and an economic necessity to boot. These red staters are afraid of the very thing that actually does make American great.
     After 90 minutes my wife noted it was getting late, and I went over to offer my thanks and goodbye to one of the sisters, who was so surprised I was leaving that I worried that I'd committed some kind of gaffe. Then she asked when I would be writing something about Nowruz, and I paused. "Never," caught in my throat. But that lit the fuse. Honestly, I didn't think about it again until yesterday, looking through my photos for something to write about today, and saw the shot above of that statuesque young woman waving a flag, and said to myself, "Heck, maybe I could put a few words together; it is the New Year, after all. Why not welcome it in a spirit of generosity?"

Monday, March 25, 2024

'Black Houses Matter' with radio jock treasurer

     "I see trees of green ... I see snowflakes, too," sings Maria Pappas, only a little off-key, accompanying the Louis Armstrong song "What a Wonderful World." "Red roses, too. Nothing's blooming! For me and you. And I think to myself, what kind of city is this? ... Hey hey, this is WVON, 'Black Houses Matter!'"
     It's just after 11:30 a.m. last Monday. The Cook County treasurer is sitting behind a microphone in the River City studio of the historic Black radio station, doing what she likes to do best: reaching out to ethnic communities, trying to give back money overpaid in property taxes.
     "And we are killin' it, killin' it!" she says. "Get these numbers, kids. From 3/20 of 2020, until 3/15 of 2024, we are up to ... almost to $300 million. We're at $285,571,000. How about that?"
     Pappas has brought along five staffers, including one in the chair across from her.
     "I've got Maurice Torrance with me this morning," she says.
     "Like the street," he observes, in classic radio sidekick fashion.
     "Maurice is my guy," Pappas says. "He's in charge of the tax sale in Cook County. He's in the legal department."
     Pappas began the radio show on AM 1690 in 2020, designed to prompt taxpayers in the Black community to find out if they've overpaid their property taxes. Last year, she added "Latino Houses Matter" on WVON's sister station, WRLL-AM 1450.
     "We are ready to roll," Torrance says. "And treasurer, for all those callers out there that are saying, 'Oh no, I never overpay, I never double pay,' just how easy it is to do so? Let's say your mortgage company does and you do, too. Guess what? That's an over-payment. Or if you pay, and the wife or spouse doesn't tell you that they pay, too — it's happened to me already. Guess what? You overpaid."
     The show is simulcast on Facebook Live. Pappas, who publishes an annual calendar illustrated by photos of herself wearing chic outfits, stands up and vamps for her viewers. She is wearing a cornflower blue coat, large round earrings and a white spiky pixie hairdo.
     "Don't throw eggs at me, this is phony fur," she says. "I bought on sale. I got it for 40 bucks. This is not one of these designer things. ... I have something very special to tell you this week. I have a good friend, and she told me to go to — get this! — 7214 N. Harlem. This is called Juju's, J-U-J-U apostrophe S. Vintage, Antique and ReSale Shop ..."
     Pappas takes two prearranged calls from people receiving refunds.
     "Denise! Denise! It's Pappas!" she cries. "How are you? Are you retired?"

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Sunday, March 24, 2024

The burden of our illusions

     Saturday morning I handled two cutting surfaces.
     The first was a small cutting board, a white, plastic, five-by-eight inch rectangle. We were having lox and bagels for breakfast, and I used it to slice up some cucumbers to go on top. Typically tomatoes are used for this purpose, but this isn't the season for tomatoes and, frankly, I like cucumbers better.
     The other was an enormous butcher block that I moved a few feet to vacuum underneath. It occurred to me that it has been many years since I've cut anything on it; typically it sits in the corner of our dining room, with a strip of South American cloth on it. Not the ideal spot for a cutting board — it belongs in a kitchen. But there isn't room there.
     How, you might wonder, does a person end up with such a thing? And the answer is, well, embarrassing. But I'll give it anyway. When I was a young man, and began to work, and receive a regular paycheck, from holding a job, there were two purchases that I considered with my newfound solvency.
     The first was a set of stamps, Scott #C13-15, the Graf Zeppelin set. I'd been a stamp collector growing up, with a special fondness for airmail stamps, and an aesthetic appreciation for zeppelins. They looked cool. I had always wanted this particular set, produced specifically for letters carried aboard that famous airship. They cost about $600 back then. But I saw that purchase as impractical.
     So instead I bought this butcher block at J.D. Brauner on Ashland Avenue. Something useful, a kitchen tool. I know I custom ordered it, nearly 40 years ago, because I remember pondering whether to get it with wheels or not. On one hand, I thought the wheels would detract from the clean line of the legs. On the other, I also knew that butcher blocks are intensely heavy, and that being able to roll it would be of practical value. Butcher blocks also tend to be square, and I got this one in a rectangular shape, to make it less massive. So in the spirit of practicality, I ordered the wheels.
     Why? Well, the honest answer is, that as a young man, I felt I needed a butcher block. To cut up things. And to add to the continual festivity that would be my life. Indeed, I remember, when we lived on Logan Boulevard, using it to dice meat to go into enormous pots of jambalaya and chili, and cut bags of citrus to go into the rum punches which I liked to prepare. The block did see use, based on the cross-hatching of cuts slashed across the top, which I used to regularly dose with block oil. 
   I'm only mildly embarrassed by all this, because I imagine most people have some tangible representation of their youthful illusions, whether an object, or a tattoo, or a scar — some people manage to combine a butcher block with a scar, a professional chef of my acquaintance who contrived to pull hers over — they are top heavy — and broke her foot. Looking back, I wish I'd gone with the zeppelin stamps instead — they're more beautiful than a butcher block, and a mint set will run you $1,750, so their value tripled, while I doubt the butcher block would draw much from anybody — I'd probably have to pay someone to haul it away.
     My wife would get rid of it in a heartbeat. But I've refused. Sure, it's been useless these past, umm, nearly 40 years. But maybe it's just biding its time, waiting for its true use to manifest itself. As it is, it stands very stolidly in the corner of our dining room, holding whatever is put upon it very steadily and without complaint. It represents something, that big hunk of wood. I'm not sure exactly what. The burden of our illusions perhaps. Anyway, I imagine — or at least hope — that I'm not alone in this. 
   So what's yours? 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Flashback 1989: Viewers rate eclipse a total joy

"Two Men Contemplating the Moon," by Caspar David Friedrich (Metropolitan Museum)

     My job sends me places. I decide where, mostly, like the Nowruz celebration — Afghan New Year — at Northeastern Illinois University Thursday night, where I shot the photo atop the blog. It didn't generate a story — none presented itself. But I was invited, so I went.
     Back in the day, after I first joined the staff of the Sun-Times — 37 years ago today — I'd show up for work, for a while at 7 p.m., and be sent somewhere unexpected, whether a zoning board meeting or a church fire or an alley where a man had leapt out of window and been cut in half on the sharp edge of a dumpster.  I never knew where I might be going or what I might find when I got there, which was both a blessing and a hardship.
    For this story, one warm summer evening, I was told to go over to the Adler Planetarium. Two memories stick out. First I walked from 401 N. Wabash. And second, as I did, I wondered, "Who the hell is going to go to bother going there watch an occurrence they can see as easily literally anywhere?" A thought I held until I got to the point where I crested a rise and the planetarium hoved into view. A lot of people, as it turned out, gathered on the lawn for the communal thrill of it. That isn't in the story, for some reason. I clearly remember Willard Fontain sitting on a lawn chair, in a yachtsman cap, a portable radio set to soft music. As well as the lip-smacking relish he used after I asked him why he was there and he replied: "I'm a moon watch-ah!"

     Willard Fontain raised a snifter of cognac toward the moon, a dusty smudge of deep rose, and offered a toast as it was eclipsed for the first time in seven years Wednesday night.
     "A very beautiful sight," said Fontain, who went to Adler Planetarium with his friend Jerry Williams to watch the moon on its 3 1/2-hour transit through Earth's shadow.
     "It lets you know there's really a man up above," he said.
     The first hour of the eclipse was partially obscured by clouds, but the spectators' enthusiasm wasn't dampened. Hundreds of people on the grounds of the planetarium cheered when they saw the last glimmer of light disappear in a gauzy haze, and people waxed poetic while the moon waned.
     "The moon's always been a romantic thing; it symbolizes the unattainable," said Bob Pejovic, of Chicago, fiddling with his telescope. "We'd like to reach out and touch it, like Neil Armstrong did. But in the meantime, we look."
     For the planetarium, the eclipse drew a rare nighttime crowd, pressing around the exhibits and packing lecture halls to hear astronomers speak of the eclipse and to watch it on video monitors.
     "I think it is very good for the planetarium," said astronomer Larry Ciupik. "People don't understand eclipses, and they want to learn more."
     At the Images Lounge, on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center, the crowd was less welcome.
     "It's been crazy," complained a waiter. "I don't know what the moon does to people, but it's been nuts."
     The moon was completely covered for one hour and 36 minutes, just 11 minutes less than the maximum time physically possible.
     A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon, the Earth and the sun are in a straight line, with the moon in the Earth's shadow.
     As the moon began to pass out of the Earth's shadow, at about 10:30 p.m., student filmmaker Hal Marshall, 24, began packing away the 16-mm. camera he used in taking stop-action photographs from the Hancock's observation deck.
     "It's a symbol of the highest thing that man's attained," he said. "Our machines are there. The American flag is planted there."
     The next total eclipse of the moon will occur on Dec. 9, 1992.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 17, 1989

Friday, March 22, 2024

Inspired Home Show, umm, inspires

Sami Xia

     Hualien is on the eastern coast of Taiwan, a beautiful area of beaches covered in flat, round stones, a short distance from Taroka National Park, its waterfalls and thermal pools tinted a stunning blue due to calcium carbonate leached from limestone in the ground.
     I've been there, years ago. Not much of a connection but, arriving at McCormick Place Monday and confronting the 360-degree visual overload of the Inspired Home Show, it was enough to point me in the direction of Hualian Ceramics, not immediately noticing the difference between "Hualien" and "Hualian." I wondered what is new in the world of china.
     "Matte glaze is a popular trend," said Sami Xia, a customer manager at Hunan Hualian China Industry Co.
     It took a moment to get my mind around "matte glaze" — it seemed a contradiction in terms, like "dull shiny" — and in that spirit of clarity we should probably address the 2024 show's new name.
     If the "Inspired Home Show" drew a blank, that's because prior to the 2022 show, it was the International Home + Housewares Show. Of course I had to know how that happened. It's like changing the name of the Chicago Auto Show to the Impressive Wheels Show.
     "The Inspired Home Show name connects not only buyer to seller but also product to lifestyle, and the housewares industry to the consumer mindset," explained Debbie Teschke, a senior manager in public relations and communications at the International Housewares Association.
     OK then. As an admirer of tangible objects — they have such solidity compared to the evanescent, flapping luna moths of words — I like to go to the show, whatever it's called, to revel in bowls and cups, mops and sponges.

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Matt Hall of Matt Halls — no possessive — Toilet Table greets Lise Schleicher of Basket Works.


Thursday, March 21, 2024

"I have a voice!"

     Do you prefer to watch new movies or movies you've already seen?
     It might seem an odd question. Who doesn't want to see a new movie? But given how many films are garbage, the question can be seen as: is it better to take a risk, or go for the sure thing?
     Sometimes I prefer the safety of the familiar. I know I'm going to enjoy "Master and Commander" for the characters, the dialogue, the action. Some other film? Who knows, except it probably won't be as good.
      Or "The King's Speech." I can't tell you how many times I've watched the 2010 film about Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who helped King George VI overcome his stutter in the years before World War II.
     Why that movie? A trio of fabulous actors. Colin Firth plays the stuttering monarch. Firth has a presence that somehow far surpasses his bland handsomeness. Viewers have to like him, even when he is playing an aloof king, or, in "Bridget Jones Diary," a jerk barrister. He's also the cuckold Lord Wessex in "Shakespeare in Love," which put him in the same movie with his star here, Geoffrey Rush, who plays Logue with an unshakable dignity, going toe-to-toe with royalty. "My castle, my rules."
     The third is Helen Bonham Carter, as Queen Elizabeth, who is something of an emissary between the royal world and the grungy environs of an Australian self-taught audiologist. Her face is an essay of pained concern as her husband blubbers that he's a naval officer, not a king. The pivotal moment of the movie is hers as she pops up unexpectedly in the Logue apartment and encounters his wife Myrtle, who learns what her husband's been up to by finding the Queen sitting at her dining room table.
      "It's "Your Majesty" the first time," the royal consort explains, a bit wearily. "After that, it's 'ma'am.' As in 'ham.' Not 'mum' as in 'palm.'"
    The writing is just top notch — the royal couple, his brother, the short-reigning King Edward VIII and the woman he loves, Wallis Simpson, plus the Logues at home, the way their children gather around the radio as war is declared, stand-ins for all those young people about to be swept up and perhaps killed.
    What I didn't know was the story of the film, laid out in the obituary of screenwriter David Seidler, who died last week while fly-fishing in New Zealand at age 86. A thoroughly unexceptional Hollywood journeyman, "The King's Speech" reflected his own experience with stuttering, and shows how important first-hand knowledge is to creativity. His other films — "Tucker" and "Come On, Get Happy: The Partridge Family Story" are uniformly ordinary. Only "The Kings Speech," labored on over decades, stands out as extraordinary. He won the Academy Award for best original screenplay.
    If you haven't seen it, well, you know what to do — you can watch the trailer here. Honestly, I'd rather watch one great movie a dozen times than a dozen so-so movies one time each.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Cook County state's attorney race down to the wire

Clayton Harris III

     Election night tests a news organization. Lots of races, lots of information pouring in on deadline. The paper asked me to write about the state's attorney match-up, probably the most significant race decided Tuesday night. 
     Polls closed at 7 pm. My deadline was 7:45 pm. For 15 long minutes, there were no results at all. Then they began to trickle in. I told my editor the column was finished at 7:43 pm.
     How did I do it? Of course, as with any magic act, preparation is key. I'd already written what I call "A-matter." A background story that could run as-is if — say through a computer glitch —we never got any results at all. The trick was to quickly update the existing story with the best information we had on hand. Which was frustrating, because while we could see Burke was ahead, a winner still hasn't been officially declared. So we did the best we could with the information at hand, which might be the definition of a newspaper.

     There are two speeds in the American criminal justice system: too fast and too slow, and society lurches from one to another.
     Too-fast justice fills the jails and wastes law enforcement resources pursuing petty criminals. Too slow lets the small fish escape to become big fish and leaves law-abiding citizens feeling unprotected against the lash of crime.
     The public doesn't like either for very long. Which puts the Cook County state's attorney — the elected official responsible for 700 lawyers prosecuting crimes among a population greater than Ireland's — in a bind.
     The public — the estimated 20% who voted anyway — made their choice in the Democratic primary Tuesday, leaning toward tough-talking former Judge Eileen O'Neill Burke, playing for Team Too Fast, over Clayton Harris III, representing the too-slow faction, with half the votes counted.
     If elected, Burke would be a pivot away from current two-term State's Attorney Kim Foxx, protege of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who put the brakes on prosecutions, tossing out thousands of cases, declaring the system "inequitable, unfair and totally unjust” and pushing to be more fair ... to accused criminals.
     Theft of items worth more than $300 could be handled as a felony, but she more than tripled that threshold to $1,000 which, combined with the post-COVID-19 hollowing out of downtown, and the George Floyd riots, created a sense of a Loop awash in unchecked crime.
     That might have been forgiven. But Foxx kneecapped herself in the case of Jussie Smollett, the obscure actor who, in an apparent bid for notoriety, beat himself up in 2019. Foxx botched the prosecution of the case, then botched her handling of the botch.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

River City Marina


    Several Chicago architects are remembered for their fondness for particular shapes. Harry Weese, for instance, loved triangles — the city's two triangular buildings, the Metropolitan Correctional Center and the Swiss Hotel, are his. 
    Bertrand Goldberg worked in curves. He's best known for Marina City, the twin corn cob towers between Dearborn and State, just north of the Chicago River. They were iconic symbols of the city, briefly, between their completion in 1967 and when the Picasso sculpture a few blocks south replaced them at the center of our civic imagination.
      Those aren't the only buildings — and I think I'm correct using the plural, since there are two — Goldberg designed downtown. Business Monday morning took me to two of them. First,  his lesser known River City Marina — sort of a squashed, serpentine, version of Marina Towers, with wide oval windows, also on the river, its southern branch,at Wells and Polk. 
     The ground floor is big, sprawling, spread out, mostly empty and poorly marked, and as I searched for the room I was looking for, I passed the study area above. 
    What caught my eye? The books of course. At first glance I thought they were a wall of decorative volumes, with color coded spines. But a second look revealed it to be something worse — a photo mural of books. The giveaway was how outsized the books are — too big to be real. Kinda nightmarish, really. From font of knowledge to exaggerated graphic device in one generation.
      Which raised the question: why? To create a scholarly atmosphere? Be artistic? Fill a blank wall? Then why not use a photo of actual books at ordinary scale? Or heck, install actual shelves and stock them with real books of some sort. A little more cost and effort, sure. But perhaps worth it. Books are cheap enough nowadays, you can buy them by the yard or the pound. As ersatz as that seems, this is worse.
      The book mural seems a triple whammy — books chosen for their dust jacket color. And then photographed. And then made huge. Is that where we are now? I suppose. It didn't help that I had been the only person in my Metra car consulting an actual physical newspaper. Nearly an affectation, like wearing spats.
     I've only stepped in Goldberg's Marina Towers once, years ago. We were looking for a place to live downtown, and my wife and I figured we'd check out the famous, pie-shaped apartments with their balconies overlooking downtown. Only I never made it past the lobby — too dreary. I didn't even like walking through once, and turned around before I got in the elevators, thinking, "I can't come home here." Maybe they've remodeled it since — I don't want to malign the place unfairly. But River City felt the same — we had been there years ago, my wife and I, scouting out places to live. River City seemed the sort of place you'd live on your way to Mars. An architectural misfire, a literal dead end. Do any readers live there? Am I missing something?
    Oh, and the third Goldberg buildings were the Hilliard Tower Apartments on Cermak, passed on the way from River City to McCormick Place. A pair of big round towers, Hillard seems like Marina City grown squat and fat. Much of that housing is for low income seniors. Perhaps I'll be visiting there next. 

Hilliard Tower Apartments

Monday, March 18, 2024

“History repeats itself” — Hellenic Museum to consider voter suppression

    The Illinois primary election is Tuesday. With November's pivotal moment in American history looming beyond that. So now might be an apt time to pause and ask ourselves: this whole voting business, where did it come from?
     Partial credit for citing the American Revolution, 1776 and all that. A major step away from being ruled by kings.
     But where did American revolutionaries get the idea? Voting initially sprang from a very specific time and place — Greece 2500 years ago — and like any new tool, it had a specific purpose: to create a new form of power.
     Elections in ancient Greece represented "the new weapon of the popular vote against the old power of family politics" according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Being in charge because you were the son of the ruler was fine, if you were the son of the ruler. But those non-relatives had begun to chafe. Shouldn't their views count? An idea sprang up — ask people to give or withhold their consent, aka democracy.
     Then the question became: who votes? Could foreigners earn the right? About 451 BC, Greek general Pericles changed the Athenian constitution to require that to be a citizen, you had to have Athenian parentage on both sides.
     In April, Chicago's National Hellenic Museum is putting Pericles on trial for fiddling with the constitution.
     "Hero or tyrant?" is how the museum presents the issue. "Audience members will cast their votes to decide the final verdict."
     Raising the subject of voter suppression and xenophobia can't have been an accident.
     "No accident," confessed retired Circuit Court Judge Anna Demacopoulos, a trustee of the museum and co-chair of the event. "This year's presentation is so relevant. You can actually see the first time somebody was accused of voter suppression. Do you protect your citizens or do you do what it takes to retain your power? Which is exactly what leaders might be grappling with right now."
     As if voting rights and treatment of foreigners were not relevance aplenty, there is also the matter of the status of women.

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Sunday, March 17, 2024

Flowers. Folks. Forever.

     Sometimes I wonder whether media professionals really think about their audience. The other day on the morning news, WBBM AM 780 ran a notice that the orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden had opened. Why would that go out over the air in Chicago? Without any hint of an extenuating detail that might be of interest to a listenership who were, one and all, not hurrying to the Bronx to see it. What purpose does that serve other than to fill dead air? The item seemed doubly strange, since they'd never mentioned the one at the Chicago Botanic Garden, at least not in my hearing.
    Then again, neither had I, even though my wife and I went a few weeks ago. Maybe because I had nothing particularly noteworthy to say about it. "The flowers are pretty?" Stop the presses. The only mildly substantive observation would be a criticism — last year's orchid show, built around the idea of lens magnifying the unearthly blooms, was packed with information about orchids. While this one, maintaining a circus theme, was mere fun. Not a fact in sight. 
     I just didn't feel like carping about a flower show. (Last year, circumstances dictated that I attend the show three times — squiring people through — and my post, "Orchids — Like sex dolls for bees," was built around a visceral disgust for orchids).   For me — and this might be telling — the prettiest sight wasn't the flowers at all, but a plate in a book on orchids on display in the library. The Chicago Botanic Garden has a considerable library, even though not one visitor in a hundred steps in. I am that one visitor.  
     The Orchid Show of Wonders opened Feb. 10, and runs until March 24. Tickets are $21, but that includes admission to the garden, which has changed its logo — this weekend, in fact. Inspired by the center of a coneflower, it is a colorful seal that well encapsulates the beauty of the place. As for the tagline "Plants. People. Planet." Hmmm.... Again, I wonder whether the audience was considered. "Plants." Not a very enticing word, is it? With that adenoidal "a" sound. Plaaaaaaaants. How long would you drive to see "plants"? And "people." Even worse. Generally considered a negative, particularly among earth-hugging sorts. People are what's causing the problem. Nobody says, "There's a crowd, let's go!" And "planet," well, huff some patchouli oil, transport me to the 1970s and let's all start saving the planet. 
     Since I never criticize another writer's word choice without coming up with an alternate myself, I'd prefer ... oh ... "Flowers. Folks. Forever." An improvement, right? That'll be $10,000 please.
A circus theme throughout.

Saturday, March 16, 2024


     Wednesday was the fourth anniversary of Presidential Proclamation #9994, declaring COVID to be a national emergency. "A moment that changed the world," is the way one story put it.
     I'm not so sure of that. Not that COVID didn't change the world; we still live in the fall-out of its isolation, division, private death and public disorder. I mean whether the proclamation was the decisive moment when the world shifted. In my own memories of the advent of COVID, that day, March 11, doesn't particularly stand out. I did watch Trump's announcement that evening, and snapped a photo of the television. Americans are used to travelling about freely, and the notion that now we no longer could, well, it was frightening. Then again, much of COVID was frightening, except for those who couldn't grasp the situation, which was also scary.
     Still, emotionally, March 11 didn't touch the surprise in mid-February, having lunch in an utterly deserted Chinatown restaurant in New York City, or March 13, seeing the shelves at Target stripped of bread, or March 16, the day before Gov. Pritzker closed the restaurants in the state. Sitting alone in an empty Kamehachi in downtown Northbrook, watching the sushi chef work, thinking, with true dread, "I'm killing myself for a negi hamachi roll."
     Other moments stand out. Wiping our groceries off with disinfectant. Putting on a mask for the first time before going into a store. "I feel like we're going to rob the place," I said to my son. Walking the dog at night, passing knots of neighbors, gathered in folding chairs in their driveway, having a party of sorts, social distancing in the darkness.
     Now COVID is gone, mostly, but not forgotten. Not by me anyway. Others, not so much. 
     "I still can't believe that happened," I sometimes say to my wife, perhaps an indication that it is still happening — almost the dazed remark of a survivor hauled into the lifeboat and wrapped in a wool blanket. I finally came down with COVID last July, and sometimes wonder if it isn't lingering in some ineffable way. 
     Have you noticed how little we think about COVID now? There is no memorial or even talk of a memorial. 
They're building a monument to fallen journalists in Washington, D.C., while the 1.1 million Americans dead of COVID, and counting, are forgotten, not that we ever considered them much in the first place. I can hardly accept it myself.
     Very little souvenir crap that events invariably produce, if you discount all the little bottles of hand sanitizer that still pop out of junk drawers. The only tangible relic is my vaccine card, which I'm holding onto for future reference. 
     That's another moment I'll never forget — March 15, 2021. My older son, at home with his girlfriend because their school had shut down ("Maybe you should get out before they blow the bridges," I told him on the phone. "Dad," he reminded me. "We live in New Jersey....") had gotten a hard-to-snag vaccine appointment at a Walgreen's two-and-a-half hours away, in Springfield. All the appointments in blue state, rational Chicago were taken. At the time I felt flattered, that he was looking out for me. Only later did it dawn on me that he wanted somebody to drive them there.
     Either way, I assumed that when I got to the Walgreen's in Springfield it would be jammed, like that last scene at the Jakarta airport in "The Year of Living Dangerously," with Mel Gibson waving his passport over his head and pushing through the crowd. 
     Instead the place was empty. Not even any customers, never mind downstaters queuing up for the vaccine they decided they didn't really need. I walked up the empty aisle toward the pharmacy in the back with a sense of wonder. I was excited to get the shot, and later regarded with mingled scorn and bogglement all those who spurned it. Rejecting this one aspect of a modernity they otherwise embrace, drinking purified tap water, speaking into cell phones and enjoying all the other benefits of technology, while scorning this one just because some talk show host told them to. I'll never understand it.

Friday, March 15, 2024

When it comes to Social Security, don't let a scammer sign up first

Pension certificate, 1873 (National Postal Museum)

     When I joined the Chicago Sun-Times — 37 years ago this month — my job was to be half the writing staff of The Adviser, a weekly publication giving readers practical advice: how to raise a dog in the city, fight a traffic ticket, pick a health club (I cooked up that last one because I wanted to find a health club myself, and figured why not combine business and pleasure? Bottom line: avoid scams that present membership as an appreciating investment and pick something close to you, so you might actually go).
     I wasn't with the features department long — on my second day at work, the city editor stopped by to say he wanted to lure me to the news side. But The Adviser gave me an affinity for those practical, how-to-get-a-stain-out-of-a-broadloom-rug type of story. A good news article makes readers think about something, a great one makes them do something.
     In that light, "How Fraudsters Break Into Social Security Accounts and Steal Benefits," by Tara Siegel Bernard, which ran Sunday on the front page of the New York Times, must be a great article, because I don't believe I've ever snapped into action the way I did after reading it.
     The story begins with an 88-year-old woman who had her Social Security benefits redirected by a criminal, who changed the bank account her check was sent to.
     "This particular fraud — where criminals use stolen personal information to break into online Social Security accounts or create new ones, and divert benefits elsewhere — has plagued people for more than a decade," Bernard writes.
     And I realized: I'd never signed up online with Social Security to create an account, at So anybody who got my Social Security number — from a data breach, say — could go online, sign up for me, apply for my benefits which, being 63, I'm eligible to start receiving, then direct the money wherever they pleased. And I'd never know it happened, maybe not for years, until I go to retire and discover that someone is already receiving my benefits.
     I leaped up from the breakfast table, bolted upstairs and immediately signed up.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Unexpected visitors


     "Hey honey!" I said, looking up from a magazine. "I think the 'Northbrook Voice' is casting shade on our house."
     I was reading the January/February issue, a page two story headlined, "Visionary That Helped Make Our Village What It Is Today." That should be "Visionary Who Helped..." but no matter. The article was about Edward D. Landwehr, the postal carrier who was one of 35 men to sign the petition incorporating the village of Shermerville. When a contest was held to rename the town, his suggestion — Northbrook — got the most votes. The leafy suburban paradise I call home.
     My interest was personal — we live in Ed Landwehr's old house on Center Avenue, built in 1905. The Village Hall, public library and old water tower in my backyard are in his old cornfield. The article mentions the house.    
     "Ed and Annie lived on a large piece of property on Center Street," the unnamed author writes. "Although changed, their house still stands today."
     "Although changed...?" Ouch. 
     Tell me if I'm being overly sensitive.... 
     "Although changed..." 
     Yes, the house has faded piebald olive aluminum siding on it now, and a two-story addition on the west side added in the relative yesterday of 1959. A master bedroom above and a rec room below. The place would be quite small without them. I replaced the rough front porch made  of two-by-fours and crumbling brick steps with wooden steps and a nice railing made of lathework. And maybe I'm being touchy — not without reason. It IS my house, after all. But that "although changed..." Do I detect a note of asperity, of censure, in that? Is there a house that hasn't changed since 1905? At least it's still here. The place was sold to us "as is," practically a tear down. The kitchen was a ruin, floor sloping, counters pulled away from the walls. We didn't have a working stove for the first two years we lived there. But we decided to keep it because a) we liked it and b) we couldn't afford to build a new one.
    So yes, we bloody well changed the house, all we could. I plan to change it more.
    Though changed, it is not without interest. I was attuned to this topic because of something that happened in November. I looked out the front window and was surprised to find a half dozen people, gazing at the house, taking pictures. Hesitant to imagine that this might be about — are these the piqued readers that John Kass so worries about? Come to get me? Unlike John, I didn't bolt to Indiana like a terrified bunny and start digging a burrow. Instead I went outside and said hello. They were descendents of Ed and Annie Landwehr, in town for a civic event at the historical society, honoring their ancestor.
     Of course I invited them in — we try to keep a modestly neat abode for just such a contingency. They went from room to room, sharing memories. A grandfather had lain in state in our front parlor. We showed them that the pocket doors between the living and dining room still work. They were curious, friendly, polite and grateful.
      I have a letter I found at the historical society from Ed's son Martin, and sent it to his descendents. I hadn't read the letter in many years. The house was built without bathrooms — that was in the backyard, and Saturday night bathwater was heated on the stove in the kitchen. I was charmed that the same line of evergreens lining the driveway were planted when the house was built, as was the hedge of van houtte spirea that I have battled to keep alive.
     A sane man would have torn that spirea out years ago. That's what the neighbors across First Avenue did. But I am not a sane man, when it comes to spirea, and I estimate I've spent nearly a thousand dollars and planted 15 shrubs if I've planted one. It's worth it every spring when that thing turns into a bed of snowy white. Were Ed Landwehr to suddenly arise and walk among us next month, he would see the thing from a block away, and it would make him happy. Although I imagine heaven is just silly with vanhoutte spirea.
     I thought I should write my own letter someday, encapsulating the quarter century my family has spent in the house. We raised two boys here; I wrote five books in the upstairs library. I like to imagine it would be of interest to a future owner, though the sad reality is that anyone who buys the place will certainly tear it down to build one of those jumbo white faux farmhouses with black trim that are all the rage. Me, I prefer an actual farmhouse, that once was associated with an actual farm — complete with a horse, stabled in the garage in the living memory of our next door neighbors when we first moved in. There are two horseshoes nailed to a main beam in the basement — for good luck. The wood is cracked, but holding — one of the first things we did when we moved in was add a support brace, to keep the place together.