Friday, May 31, 2024

Which Chicago is the real one? Crime scenes or flower beds?

     Tuesday night, I was sitting in a coffee shop, talking to a former Chicago cop about what it feels like to be shot.
     Wednesday morning found me at a rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, asking a percussionist about a distinctive bass drum.
     Say what you will about the city, it certainly runs the gamut, A to Z, and my job is to trot alongside, taking notes. Talk about lucky.
     Though it can be a challenge — for me, anyway — to strike a balance. Is Chicago a horror show? A musical delight? Crime scenes or flower beds? Hard to decide. Focus on the downsides of city life, the bloodshed and poverty, and it feels an offense against the springtime. Summer doesn't officially begin for another three weeks, though now that we've checked off Memorial Day, it seems tantalizingly near, setting up its linen tents. June starts Saturday.
     But escape into the pleasures of city life during these peak months, the nice restaurants, fascinating museums and one of the great orchestras in the world, and it seems a willful blindness. Children are burning to death in Gaza and I'm musing over pineapple salsa.
     So it's a lose-lose? Whatever you think is wrong? That can't be right.
     The answer, I believe, is to ply the range, the good and the bad. Absorb it all. Keep moving, looking around with an eye to the future. The beauty of things that haven't happened yet is we don't know how they'll transpire. The pivotal Chicago event this summer will be the Democratic National Convention, and until it actually occurs, there's always the hope it could, theoretically, work out fine. Like in 1996, with new iron railings everywhere, the West Side revitalized and everyone saying how the ghosts of 1968 are finally laid to rest.
     Only they weren't laid to rest were they? They're still very much here, out of their graves and prowling the shadows. Yes, the convention could buff the gouges out of the city's battered reputation. It's possible. But you'd have to be an idiot to expect that. Not when all the ingredients for full-blown, 1968-level disaster are lined up on the counter, waiting to be mixed together. Every aggrieved person in the country heading to Chicago to raise their klaxon voices about a panoply of gut-twisting crises. A party nominating an octogenarian grandpa that even its stalwarts don't feel excited about. A timorous amateur in City Hall who couldn't plan a successful sack race.

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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Flashback 2007: Venturing among the ascended masters

     Maybe because I'm a non-believer, all religions seem pretty much the same to me. So if you are the pope, or a feathered chief in the Amazonian jungle leading a group of tortoise-worshippers, well, it's more a matter of popularity and personal style than validity. In fact, I have a soft spot for marginal cults and oddball beliefs, ever since I worked in Wheaton, and headed over to the Theosophical Society to see what the acolytes of Madame Blavatsky had going.
     The other day I passed the I AM Temple on Washington Street. Someone had broken their front window, and I was glad to see it repaired, and took a photo of the weird paintings they have in it. On one hand, this is not the join-the-cult-and-uncover-the-secrets-the-place-must-hold treatment they deserve. But at least I tried.

     There has never been, as far as I can tell, an article in a Chicago publication attempting to explain the organization that has, since 1948, owned the elegant white 12-story building at 176 W. Washington. And now that I've been looking into it a bit, I can understand why, because it defies easy summarization.
     For years, I was intrigued by the building and the displays in the windows — most recently a framed copy of the U.S. Constitution, illuminated like a medieval manuscript; a portrait of a pale Christ, arms spread; marble busts of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington; an enigmatic tableau mixing patriotism and faith.
     Over the doorway is carved, in gold letters: "I AM Temple."
     I AM is not a church or a religion but, to use their term, an "activity." The I AM Activity was started in Chicago in 1932 by Guy W. Ballard, based on dialogues he had on California's Mt. Shasta with someone he believed to be St. Germain, a figure who is, to quote I AM literature, "one of the Great Beings from the Spiritual Hierarchy who governs this planet . . . the Purifying, Cleansing Power that is helping to raise the Earth into its permanent Golden Age."
     There is a 7-foot-tall photograph of Ballard and his wife, Edna, in the lobby of the temple, both dressed in white outfits. There is a reception desk and a reading room. I've stopped by several times — the place is always staffed by older ladies, clad in lovely white or ivory dresses.
     "We are here to offer instruction to those who are interested," said one woman, asking that her name not be used because she is not a spokesperson and has only been with the I AM Activity for 12 years. "We do not advertise. Rather, we offer instruction in the laws of life as they are conveyed through these materials, through divine beings we refer to as the Ascended Masters."
     I asked about the portraits of Washington and Lincoln.
     "This is also a patriotic activity, which may seem unusual," she said. "It is our understanding that the Constitution is divinely inspired."
     They believe St. Germain is an immortal figure who not only had a hand in our nation's founding, but the French Revolution, the writing of the Magna Carta, and other noteworthy historical events.
     "He was referred to as 'the wonder man of Europe,' " she said. "It may seem highly implausible to many people, and I don't want to create a misimpression. But it is our understanding that he worked for many centuries in Europe."
     There are other I AM centers around the country, though the organization's headquarters, the St. Germain Foundation, is based in Schaumburg.
     They have meetings, she said, but not services in the traditional sense.
     "It is not for everyone, and we respect that."
     The lady seemed quite concerned that I would scoff at or ridicule the I AM Activity, even after I assured her that it was not my practice to mock a belief just because it is unusual, and that I differentiate between religions that go around bullying people and those that simply wait and offer inspiration to anyone who decides to embrace them.
     Which this woman has obviously done.
     "This Activity instructs us with a right relationship with the power of God that is in our hearts," she said. "It manifests our lives."
     — Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 4, 2007

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Cicada sex show says something about human life, and it's not good


Hard to plant your eggs in a tire. 

     So the cicadas are having an orgy, right? Pop out of the ground, fly around, singing their whirring love song, meet, mate, lay their eggs and promptly expire. Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking chitinous nymphal exoskeleton behind, stuck to a tree branch.
     The circle of life. Yet the double dose of cicadas in Illinois right now seem to leave the media focusing on their strangeness, the exotic red-eyed bug pageant, while willfully ignoring the larger implications they offer to us. Charles Darwin, prompted by an ancient plow to consider the plowing done by earthworms, certainly saw it, writing: "Man with all his noble qualities, with his godlike intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system ... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."
     Does he ever. The cicadas are not exactly an advertisement for the deep spiritual meaning of earthly existence. They're here to procreate and die. We are too, more or less. Pop out of a dark place, mature in a moment, flap around, do the deed and vanish — though humans do have midnight feedings and help with homework to kick-start the next generation, which cicadas manage in a few strands of DNA.
     The cicadas arrive by the trillions since a good percentage are gobbled by squirrels and trampled underfoot. People populate the earth by the billions to make sure there's a partner for just about everybody. Our gravestones and photo albums and memorial halls barely conceal the fact that we're here for only a little bit longer than cicadas. A mumbled sentence or two versus an eye blink.
     This central place that procreation holds in the scheme of existence has to be a real bummer for the childless. They won't like the suggestion that the only purpose of being alive is to pass on your DNA, and the rest is distraction.
     Not that I'm saying this, mind you. Don't get mad at me. I don't care what you do, or don't do. It's nature sending this horde of winged monsters to frolic under our noses, reminding us, subtly, of our primary job. I'm just the messenger. Ditto for those who believe their purpose on earth is so their eternal soul can eventually sit cross-legged in heaven, smiling up at Jesus. I wouldn't dream of arguing with you. Which is not the same as saying you're right.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

C'mon Everlast, do better.

     "Mere puffery" is a legal term to describe advertising language that the public understands is an empty boast. "The world's best cup of coffee" comes to mind. Nobody expects that to mean anything other than their coffee tastes pretty good, supposedly. The cafe owner isn't expected to have done a global survey.
     Of course the courts have hashed out the details, in cases such as Pizza Hut Inc. v. Papa John's International, where the former sued the latter claiming their slogan, "Better ingredients. Better pizza," was an untrue slur that undercut Pizza Hut's market position. (Papa John's lost the case, and an appeals court found that while the slogan indeed "epitomizes the exaggerated advertising, blustering, and boasting by a manufacturer upon which no consumer could reasonably rely" the campaign was nevertheless misleading). 
     So I suppose the "Everlast" brand of boxing equipment falls under the rubric of mere puffery. Despite their notable pedigree — the company got its start making equipment for Jack Dempsey — the stuff isn't supposed to last forever. Though I still have the boxing gloves that my father bought so my brother and I could go at each other, and they still seem new, because I don't believe we ever used them for that purpose — though I do recall my father and I trying them out a time or two.
     He had boxed, briefly, while a teen in New York City. There are photographs I could dig up were I so inclined. We had a speed bag and a heavy bag, at home, though nobody ever used them. I certainly didn't.     
     That changed a few years back. My younger son was whaling away at the speed bag at the YMCA, putting up a satisfying machine gun clatter. I expressed interest, and he showed me the proper technique.
     Once I learned that, I enjoyed the exercise. Now whenever I work out, I put in 20 or 25 minutes at speed bag — or at the Y, the heavy bag, which is really a good workout.
     The YMCA speedbag kept breaking, as things that are repeatedly hit tend to do, and eventually they stopped replacing it. I missed the bag, so bought my own at Dick's — it wasn't a lot, under 100 bucks — and put it in the garage. The bag that came with it was cheap, red faux leather, and got pounded flat fairly quickly. So I hung that up, as a kind of trophy, replacing it with a black leather Everlast PowerLock speed bag. 
     Except, well look. I don't think that's due to wear — it's too high up the bag, and seems to have happened all at once. It's like the skin just gave way. Might be my fault — I like to inflate the bag so it's hard, and comes back fast — easier to work up a rhythm that way. But I bought the bag in March, 2023. So it lasted 14 months. A long way from forever. And I'm not exactly Mike Tyson. Plus over the year I hit it, what, maybe 24 hours total. It strikes me that their bags should do better than that. Or start calling them "Daylast."
    I'm not even mentioning the swivel, which also broke — it was a cheap eye hook in a plastic socket. So I replaced it with something better.
     In Everlast's defense, the gloves I use must be 50 years old. A little frayed around the edges, but holding up just fine. Maybe the new stuff isn't made as well. Either way, I'm still brand loyal. There are lots of other lines of boxing equipment now, but I'm sticking with Everlast, just because I find the logo cool. The name too. I only wish it were a little more accurate.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Flashback 2010: Honor our war dead by doing your share

Honor Flight, 2015

      My editor asked if I'd be writing a Memorial Day column and I surprised us both by saying no. First, I'm tired. Second, I think I've already done my best to honor the holiday 10 years ago, writing about Wyatt Eisenhauer, and anything I'd write now wouldn't be half as good.          
    But the holiday is still here, and I thought I'd mark it by sharing this 2010 Memorial Day column, which asks a question even more relevant today. To take you back, the Tea Party movement had begun the year before, and I was amazed to see common-sense, vastly-beneficial government programs, like ObamaCare, drawing these shrieks of quivering right wing outrage. It was a portion of the column, back when it filled a page and had several items. A reminder that Donald Trump wasn't inflicted upon the United States. Rather our country conjured him up, like a beast from hell. 

     When we honor the war dead on Memorial Day, we naturally assume that we are doing something for the fallen. By our remembering those who gave their lives for this country, it implies that they somehow benefit, when of course they are dead, and beyond either benefit or harm from the living world.
     No, it seems clear, if you think about it, that though we are honoring them, it is not the fallen, but we, the living, who benefit. They are helping us. How? I believe we benefit by being reminded that, despite our conflicts and divisions, we are still, as the pledge says, "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
     One nation that people gave their lives to support. While there are pacifists opposed to war, the general opinion is that it is good that young Americans serve their country, and noble that they fight and sometimes die to ensure its security.
     So here's my Memorial Day question: if we approve of the idea that some Americans sacrifice their lives for their country — they willingly give all they have and all they might ever have — then why are so many Americans so broken up because the government asks them to make some far smaller sacrifice, such as pay taxes? Why do they gather in public to shudder in unashamed outrage that part of their bounty is siphoned away to benefit the same nation that other people are asked to die for?
     Not to inject a political note into the summer fun and sober reflection of the day. But it hardly seems fair. Do your part.
     — Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 31, 2010.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Old State House


     Was I a little uncertain about writing a Sun-Times column about taking the Boston subway? Sure. Because it seemed off point — literally, by a thousand miles.  
     But I was interested in the process, and excited, and figured that enthusiasm would carry over and make the thing work. And it did, I think. The paper was excited about it — the audience engagement folks imagined some kind of eyeball grabbing feud with Boston. I did hear from people in Boston, including the couple I had quizzed on the Silver bus as to whether I was going the right way, who turned out to be Sun-Times subscribers. Small world. 
      And I talked about the column with John Williams for 1o minutes on WGN — always a lot of fun, first for the pleasure of conversation with the radio icon. Second, if I catch his attention, well, that means the column has grabbed the brass ring on its whir past the readership. 
     The column didn't mention my return journey, since it took place the day the column ran. But it also went smoothly. I gave myself plenty of time — that's key — setting out for a 12:20 p.m. American flight at 7:15 a.m., when my cousin's wife drove me to the West Concord station, where I had a very pleasant cup of coffee and cinnamon crumble muffin, reading my book, "The Winter Fortress," and enjoying the perfect spring day. 
     There was no ticket agent at the station, so I downloaded the app and bought my ticket online. Easy. Then took the Fitchburg line in, got off at North Station, caught the Orange Line to State, where it connected to the Blue Line.I followed the signs. Only instead of finding myself on the Blue Line platform, I was shunted up a staircase and outside.
     Unexpected. On the way in, I had stayed within the subway. But okay. Technology to the rescue. And here's where having three hours to spare helped. Google Maps told me I had to walk three blocks to get to the Blue Line station.
     No problem. Still a lovely day. And I walked directly past the building above — the Old State House. More than 300 years old. Where the seeds of our nation germinated, watered by atrocity — the Boston Massacre took place in 1770 out front. Five people died, a slaughter that shocked the soon-to-be nation. Our dormant sense of outraged, alas, now takes a lot more blood to germinate. You can murder 20 1st graders in a classroom and half the country yawns and mumbles about thoughts and prayers. 
      I'd been here before. But somehow, happening upon the Old State House by accident, taking public transportation ... well, one of the advantages, right? Sealed in the back of an Uber, you hardly notice your surroundings, never mind interact with them. You can't reach out and caress a brick that had been in place for over three centuries, and remind yourself of the depth of our history, the solidity of our nation's foundations. This tradition of freedom won't be so easy to undermine, not completely. Though God knows people are trying.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Out to Sea

      My parents' move from a one bedroom apartment in a assisted living facility to a single room in what is basically a staffed private home meant even more stuff sloshing into my possession. More piles of papers and albums of photographs. I added them to what I had already taken, unsure of when I'd ever get a chance to figure out what to do with it all, or even whether that was humanly possible. 
     At one point, I pulled open a filing cabinet draw and noticed a brown photo album with black pages, from the days when you positioned your photos inside with little gummed corners. I don't think this was from the most recent culling — more likely the one two years ago, if not before. I flipped through it — my parents as newlyweds, my sister as an infant. 
     And the above, which took my breath away. In some ways, it's unremarkable. Me, newly five — the margin says July 65, in that helpful way that old photos used to have their development month stamped in the margins.
     I'm sitting on an overturned tub in the barrel of a wheelbarrow in a square wading pool.
    So why highlight this photo?
    Because it's the moment that opens "Don't Give Up the Ship," the book I wrote about my father's time as a radio operator in the Merchant Marine, and the voyage on his old ship we took from New York to Naples in the summer of 1999. The book begins this way:

                                                         BOOK ONE: Out to Sea. 
             "Being on a ship is being in a jail with a chance of being drowned."                                                          — Samuel Johnson 
     My father made me a boat. It wasn't a real boat, just the bed of a wheelbarrow unscrewed from its frame, with a red plastic tub overturned in the center as a seat. On a bright, hot summer day. We had a small wading pool in the backyard of our raw suburban tract and he set the craft in the center of the square of water. I might have been four. Excited and amazed at my good fortune, I climbed aboard the boat. And sat, carefully balancing on the unsteady vessel. There was a single moment of pleasure.
     But my father hadn't considered the holes from the screws in the wheelbarrow bed. Four of them. The water jetted up, in gentle, dome-topped fountains, and within a few seconds the wheelbarrow boat sank to the bottom of the pool, which was less than a foot deep. I looked down at the water around my knees, then up at my father, who looked back at me.
     This was not how the voyage was supposed to go.   
     I didn't realize there was a photo. Seeing it, I wondered if I had been recounting the memory of the event itself when writing that little scene-setter, or or just remembering the photo. Is there a difference? Maybe I was combining the two, the photo embellished by recollection. But I must not have directly referenced the photo — I would have gotten the age right — I was only a month past four. And I remembered the bucket being red, which I wouldn't have know from the photo alone.
     I tried to do a Lucy Sante and pull all the data I could out of this frozen shard of 1965. In the lower left corner part of the aluminum folding chair, the seat and back a web for green and white nylon fabric, that everyone had in the 1960s. A bit above it, a discarded penny loafer — my father's certainly, removed for the purpose of getting me settled in my precarious vessel. The photo so artlessly framed that the stick of a tree in our backyard seems to be sprouting directly out of my head.The kind of indignity that would follow me my whole life, quacking like a pull toy duck.
     I'm not fat — I thought of myself as a fat kid. But that must have come later. My hair, bleached from the sun, blond-looking. Lots of time playing outside. And that expression? Squinting up at my father, not smiling so much as trying to smile. That missing front tooth. Before Phillip Flanigan's mother stopped short while driving her Ford Falcon and put my mouth into the top of the front seat, taking out the rest. 
     "Trying to smile." That sums me up pretty well, doesn't it? I could use that as a title for an autobiography. 

Friday, May 24, 2024

Ghost of Adam Toledo hovers over ShotSpotter debate

"Ofendra for Adam" (National Museum of 
Mexican Art)
     In 1983, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted a big exhibition of Vatican treasures. My brother and I went but split up at one point. "I'll meet you under the picture of Jesus," I said, and he laughed, the joke being: They're all pictures of Jesus. (OK, plus a few cherubs and lions and popes thrown in.)
     I thought of that quip when Brandon Johnson announced hiring a liaison to the progressive movement. Really? Isn't his administration already one big prance around the progressive maypole?
     Speaking of progressivism, can we think about ShotSpotter? Somebody should.
     Walk through the process. You hear a loud bang. You think, "Fireworks?" A few more and experience tells you: "Gunshots."
     What do you want to happen next? I suppose that would depend on several things. Are you shot? Are you the person shooting? Do you live in a neighborhood where this happens all the time? Where it never happens? Do you welcome the police? Or fear them?
     The gunshot detection technology that Johnson, through characteristic ineptitude, has bungled into an ongoing issue prompted the City Council to try to snatch the issue out of the mayor's hands Wednesday, the way you'd take something away from a bungler saying, "Here, let me do it."
     Over this flutters, like a Vatican cherub, the ghost of Adam Toledo. Three years ago, the seventh grader was walking at 2:30 a.m. in Little Village when his companion shot several times at a passing car. ShotSpotter alerted police, who rushed over. Officer Eric Stillman chased Toledo into an alley. He fired a split-second after Toledo dropped a handgun, turned and raised his hands.
     If you watch the body cam video ... here's how I described it at the time:
     "The footage makes for sickening viewing: the jumpy chase through an alley; the barked, ignored commands; the boy’s hands going up followed instantly by the gunshot. The red blood. Watching it once, I can’t imagine ever watching it again. Once is too much."
     Opinion immediately fractured — Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) lauded Stillman's "amazing restraint" — I guess for not firing the traditional 16 shots. Former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez called it "an execution."

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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Roux the day.


     I referred to myself as "a punster" in the lede of my Wednesday column. I don't think I've ever called myself that before — blame shame,. Because it's true. Too true, crew. Ewww...
     Sorry. How bad is it? A few weeks ago I was in Hyde Park, with my young son and future daughter-in-law. You'd think I'd be on my best behavior. But one forgets oneself.
     The question of dinner arose, and as always, I was pretty much go-with-the-flow as possibilities were aired: there was an all-you-can-eat sushi place, a Thai place, a Southern place. Any of those were good. A restaurant called Roux was mentioned.
     I tried to resist. Shutting up is an art form. For a second, maybe two, I struggled manfully to stiff-arm the impulse. But failed.
     "You mean 'Rue,' the French street food place...?" I ventured, gazing at a spot on the wall.
    No, this is a ... my close blood relation said. 
     "Or do you mean 'Roo, the Australian restaurant...?" I continued, talking over him.
     My loved ones began to draw away from me, casting me sidelong glances.
     "Or 'Rue,' the regret-based theme eatery..."
     I would have kept going, had I thought of "Rue, the bitter evergreen herb tea emporium..." But instead I ran out of a homophones and stopped. The others gave a sigh of relief. We hit the street and walked over to Roux,which turned out ot be a a large, brightly lit place on 55th Street. I had the fried chicken and cranberry salad, which was quite good. The beignets weren't Cafe du Monde beignets, but did serve their purpose.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Persistence — and public transit — take you places

     BOSTON — They call the L the "T" here, and, punster that I am, my first thought was that both cities should join forces with someplace calling its train line the "B" and form a sandwich.
     Sorry. But I'm in a good mood, almost giddy, having navigated a challenging journey via public transportation from Boston Logan Airport to Boxborough, a suburb about 30 miles away. Densely forested, it makes Northbrook look like the moon.
     "Don't be cheap," my wife advised, urging me to take an Uber, which would cost $72, and take 90 minutes in nightmarish Boston traffic. The T costs $2.40, for starters, though unlike Chicago famously it charges more depending on how far you go. The Kingston Trio wrote a song about it.
     So, the train. But how? At first, Google Maps balked.
     "Sorry, we could not calculate transit directions from Boston Logan International Airport to ..." and here it gave the address of the cousin I'm visiting.
     Undeterred, I did that thinking trick machines still haven't mastered, studying a map of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system. OK, I couldn't get directly to Boxborough. But the Fitchburg line stops at South Acton. Four miles from my goal. That would do.
     Yes, I'd have to take a bus, three trains and an Uber for that last leg. But heck, I wasn't in a rush. The purpose of my visit was to hang with my cousin, who's fighting kidney disease. He could use some company, though a fellow really must be in a bad way if he is expecting me to cheer him up. That's like throwing your kid's birthday party at the Holocaust Museum.
     Taking the T was worth it just to realize the powers that be in Boston, despite representing a metropolis founded in 1630, couldn't manage to run the train all the way to the airport. It stops 1,000 yards away. In Boston's defense, Mayor Michelle Wu makes a habit of joining Bostonians on their daily commutes to see for herself what's happening. Can't imagine Brandon Johnson doing that. He's studying the inside of the basket he's hiding under.
     I got off the plane, jammed onto the Silver Line 1 bus, and was on my way. Ten minutes later, we were at the Blue Line.
     "Which direction to the Old State House?" I asked a guy on the platform. Of course the other side, and the train was now arriving. I bolted up the stairs across the tracks and just made an incoming train.
     See, that's the great thing about public transportation. I was in no rush whatsoever, provided I arrived in time to drive my cousin to dialysis the next afternoon. But suddenly I'm Ethan Hunt racing against the clock through exotic train stations.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Salad as concept

     Think of a table. Now imagine it without a top. Or legs.
     No, seriously, imagine it. Right now. I'll wait.
     Doo-dah doo-doo. Doo ta doo...
     Done? Good. What have you got in mind? Nothing? The disembodied idea of a table? Congratulations, you're a philosopher, grappling with a problem that has vexed great minds since Plato, who talked about pure forms, which he considered divine. A chair in the messy physical world can have splinters and be missing a leg — and at some point, played with enough, becomes a stool, or a bed.  But the idea of a chair ... pristine. Perfect.
     Now look at the above photo of S & S's "Wild Maine Salad." I had walked into the deli with a hankering for my standard deli fare, a corned beef sandwich on rye. Maybe hot pastrami — my wife likes that better, and as the star at the center of my world, has drawn me toward her tastes, in the corned-beef-vs.-pastrami question, as in all things.
     But I scanned the menu, and noticed this salad. I'm a sucker for salads — eat one for lunch at least four days a week, sometimes more. And I'm a sucker for fresh mozzarella, blueberries. I can get good corned beef at Max & Benny's or Kaufman's or Manny's when I'm in the vicinity. When in Rome, and all that.
    I'm not complaining about this salad, which was indeed very good. Lunch had been a corn muffin and coffee, so I was hungry and ate every bite. But I did take a photo of it first — feeling a little ridiculous, because taking pictures of your meal has become a rube move, like lauding your host's indoor plumbing. "Why am I doing this?" I wondered. "I'm never sharing this or writing about it."
    Wrong. Look at the photo. Anything ... not quite missing, but in far less abundance than one might expect? Almost completely obscured by the chicken and fresh mozzerela, the blueberries and the candied pecans? That right: lettuce. The thing had hardly any lettuce at all. An inversion of what I had expected — I found of nuts with a garnish of lettuce, instead of the other way around.
     Is it still a salad then? What if the kitchen had left out lettuce out entirely? Would it still be a salad — a salad of chicken and nuts and blueberries? Why not? A scoop of chicken salad has no lettuce yet we call it salad. What is meant by the word "salad" anyway? The Oxford definition is: "a cold dish of various mixtures of raw or cooked vegetables, usually seasoned with oil, vinegar, or other dressing and sometimes accompanied by meat, fish, or other ingredients."
     So the vegetables are key, definitional — without them it's something else, and while the lettuce was there, its minimal nature begins to make us question whether the term even applies. Although ... why "green salad" then if salads are always green? Maybe the mistake is mine, a strong bias toward lettuce, which I do use in abundance. I've ordered salads with extra lettuce.
    Okay.  There can be a thin line between rumination and rambling, so I should wrap this up. But it's interesting to reflect on at what point does one thing transform into another? When does a salad change into an antipasto tray? A table into a chair. Day into night. A democracy turn into a dictatorship. The change can be so gradual you hardly notice, though I imagine it will come the way Hemingway famously wrote about bankruptcy: gradually then suddenly.

Monday, May 20, 2024

'Crime of the century,' a century later

Nathan Leopold (left) with attorney Clarence Darrow (center) and Richard Loeb 

    Chicago wasn't safe.
    Ghastly crimes regularly occurred, even in upscale neighborhoods like Hyde Park. The body of a murdered University of Chicago student was dumped at 58th and Kimbark. A young man went out to mail a letter and disappeared, his bloated corpse washing up on the beach at 64th Street a month later. A cab driver stepped from a streetcar at 55th and Dorchester, was jumped, etherized, and castrated — two other men were similarly maimed by "gland pirates" feeding the market for a quack testicle rejuvenation therapy popular at the time.
     And then 14-year-old Bobby Franks disappeared, on May 21, 1924 — 100 years ago Tuesday. Coaxed into a car near 49th and Ellis, then bludgeoned with a chisel wrapped in tape, his body doused with acid to hide his identity before being hidden in a culvert.
     Why has should that particular crime should echoed for 100 years while the others, equally horrible, faded? Why all the books and movies? The mystery didn't last long — 10 days. Suspicion quickly fell to a pair of teenage University of Chicago graduate students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Self-described intellectual "supermen," they turned out to be lousy criminals. Leopold dropped his distinctive prescription eyeglasses near the boy's body. The two promptly confessed.
     Motivation made the crime stand out. Not the usual jealousy or hate or financial need, but to stave off boredom. Asked what gave them the idea, Leopold replied, "pure love of excitement, or the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different.”
     The crime had class overtones — both boys' parents were multi-millionaires. There was sex — Leopold and Loeb had a relationship and might have assaulted Franks.
     That both murderers were Jewish fed the attention in a nation rife with antisemitism. "Once again Jewish degeneracy and anti-Christianity have done their work in America,” the Ku Klux Klan's American Standard declared.
     That their victim was also Jewish — Loeb's cousin, in fact — provided the American Jewish community with relief; had he been a Christian boy kidnapped and killed, it was thought, the ancient blood libel would have surely flared up again.
     Having the effervescent Clarence Darrow as their attorney arguing to spare them from execution certainly helped set the trial in history.
     It made a difference that the case unfolded in Chicago, with its six aggressive daily newspapers. Two of them, the morning Herald and Examiner and the Evening American, were sensational sheets owned by William Randolph Hearst.

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Sunday, May 19, 2024

An easy choice

     I doubt that my friends would describe me as "easygoing."
     But I do know when it's time to just shrug and go with the flow.
     Circumstances demanded that I kill a few hours on Saturday. I had a book to read, but needed someplace to sit, plus food of some sort — it was 1 p.m., past my lunchtime. So I walked over to a donut shop, and was confronted with the tableau above. 
     The clerk was apologetic, at first. And then when she saw me taking a photo, a little defensive. They'd had plenty of donuts at 5 a.m., she said, when they opened. Now, not so much. I didn't want to give her a hard time.
     "Hmmm," I said, pondering my options. "I think I'll have a corn muffin." 


Saturday, May 18, 2024

Lunch at 12 noon on a Monday


     An acquaintance suggested meeting for lunch, mentioning her expense account.     "We could do a basic Rosebud on Randolph or Chicago Cut," she wrote. "I’ve never been to NoMI, and we might get a glimpse of George Lucas and Mellody Hobson and their $33M condo. Or we could go more casual – Labriola, Purple Pig or a dive Irish pub."
     I've been to all those places, including a dive Irish pub or four. And I once sat next to George Lucas at RL. The experience was underwhelming. So I countered with an idea of my own: Gene & Georgetti. I like to meet people there because the food is good, the memories thick, the service excellent, and I feel as if I'm supporting a cherished Chicago institution. She agreed.
     We met at 12 noon a few Mondays ago. I gasped walking in. The room was empty, but for a couple guys doing paperwork at the bar. The only actual customer was my friend, at the corner table, by the plaque of Dominic DiFrisco. How many times had Dominic and I sat at that very table while I tried to explain how smart it would be for the Italian-Americans to let go of the Columbus millstone that was pulling them down. Name the drive after Enrico Fermi. He had the advantage of not only living in Chicago, for a time, but splitting the fuckin' atom, a discover on par with Columbus's. Be done with it. Move on.
     No go — some people never consider changing themselves, not when it's so much easier to try to change the entire world instead.
     I'd planned on ordering my go-to meal — speaking of never changing — what used to be called a "Steak sandwich" but was actually a hunk of filet mignon on a piece of toast. Or a pork chop. But I just wasn't very hungry, so went for a classic — the iceberg wedge salad, blue cheese dressing, thick bacon. Hard to go wrong with that. It tasted better than its picture looks.
     I also snapped a few photos of the emptiness, and tweeted one out. I paused, beforehand, wondering if I would be causing embarrassment to the owners. But then decided that tough times require bold acts.
     "Gene & Georgetti at 12 noon Monday," I wrote. "C’mon Chicago, get your asses in here. The food’s still fantastic."
    Honestly, I didn't think much of it, certainly didn't check up on how my message was doing online. You tie a note to a balloon, set it off in the wind, you don't go chasing after it to see how it fares. Later in the day, a friend from New York sent me a screenshot of the tweet: 77,000 views. Quite a lot for a snapshot of a restaurant. The next day it was over 100,000, with 100 comments. As I rule, don't read the comments on X — keep the poison out — but now I was curious. Who was retweeting this 70 times, and why?
     "I don’t wanna get robbed as I’m eating my food. I’ll stay in the suburbs thanks." said FMC.
     "If you don't get mugged on your way in you are unlikely to afford the food anyway," wrote Gator. "Know who you vote for."
     The salad I ordered, I should note, cost $17. Which is not the cheapest plate of lettuce available, but no head-spinning extravagance, not for someone with a job. Besides, she paid.
     To be fair: some observations were reasonable.
     "Had dinner there not too long back," wrote Dave Miska. "Absolutely fantastic."     "No one is in the office on Monday. Re shoot this tomorrow" wrote one — that's true.     But most evoked some imaginary nightmare Chicago of their fever dreams, all dysfunction and chaos.
     "Trains don’t run enough," wrote Sean Alcock. "Driving? Not driving 35 minutes to get 3.5 miles from home to the Mart."
     Funny, because I took the 10:33 in from Northbrook just fine.
     I could go on, but you get the point. I just don't get it. How bitter and angry do you have to be to spend your time mocking a city you don't live in? (I don't live in it either, but I don't sit around catcalling the place). I mean, I've spent time in struggling cities — Port au Prince, Haiti, comes to mind. Spent about three weeks there, on two trips, years ago. They have real problems. I'd never jump online and start tweeting, "Ha ha! Some 'Pearl of the Antilles YOU are! Controlled by gangs much? Why don't you..."
     I don't like to even pretend doing that. It's such a bad look. A "self-own," where your supposed criticism indicts you far more than it does the thing you're criticizing.       Media maven Dave Lundy summed it up best.
     "Wow, @NeilSteinberg some of these comments are amazing," he wrote. "It's almost like so many on the right are a bunch of snowflakes afraid of their own shadows. C'mon downtown. There everyday. It's just fine. And Tuesday through Thursdays restaurants are packed. Lots of tourists."
     Right you are Dave. I don't want to be a pollyanna. Chicago is a city with problems — a hollowed out city center, faltering population, a clueless mayor who's literally running away from his responsibilities, police force curled into a defensive ball. We can't keep people from smoking on the Red Line or shooting at each other in places where people did not used to shoot each other.     But what place doesn't have problems? The question is, how are those troubles being faced? I walked from Union Station to 500 N. Franklin and back, at a slow pace. Nobody so much as glanced crossly at me, an older gent with a white goatee, shuffling along. I stopped at Atlas Stationers, bought a pricy pen, gave $5 to a woman with a baby. Sad that people are wetting themselves in Florida at the thought of doing this.
     You can read the thread — now at almost 140,000 views — here.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Sorry, Ken — Chicagoans will call the Museum of Science and Industry what they please

     Last year, the Oriental Institute, having tried getting by with the abbreviation "OI," finally changed its name to the inclusive if wordy "Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa."
     This Sunday, the Museum of Science & Industry, or MSI for short, officially changes its name to the Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science and Industry.
     One door opens, another closes.
     "We are thrilled to announce our official new identity," wrote Brianna Wellen, communications specialist at the — for a few hours yet — Museum of Science and Industry.
     They can't be too thrilled. The new name was bought for $125 million by Florida financier Kenneth C. Griffin back in 2019. I wish the five-year delay represented reluctance by the MSI brass to recast themselves in tribute to a right-wing greedhead who fled Illinois for the more welcoming political environment of Florida. But given the place's responsiveness on non-naming matters, like bomb scares, it's probably just characteristic foot-dragging. A newlywed announcing she's taking her spouse's name in five years would be suspected of lack of enthusiasm.
     As to whether "Griffin" is the sort of slur that "Oriental" has become, well, that depends on your politics. To MAGA types who consider Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis bold for banning abortion and dragooning frightened immigrants into transcontinental political theater, the Griffin name might class up the joint and balance that scary, disreputable word "science."
     To me, "Griffin" echoes with the shriek of fear heard from Chicago expats who sit at keyboards in the Sunshine State and exult over each new strong-arm robbery in Uptown.
     Though I'm not broken up by the name change. First, because the future KCGMSI has bigger problems. If you've ever visited a proper science museum, such as the Science Museum in London or the Exploratorium in San Francisco or the Ontario Science Center (all of which muddle forward without plutocrat branding), you realize just how far from the mark we fall here.

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Thursday, May 16, 2024

Not going anywhere

     Peter Baker has covered the White House for the New York Times under five presidents, and it shows. Stare into that supernova of power too long and ... what's the saying? Too much light makes the baby go blind.
     His May 5 article, "Gallows Humor and Talk of Escape: Trump’s Possible Return Rattles Capital" shows how a supposedly unbiased publication with the Times can be tone deaf and trivializing toward our moment of extreme national peril.
     Granted, the story lays out its meager ambitions in the opening sentence: "It has become the topic of the season at Washington dinner parties and receptions. Where would you go if it really happens?" and then talks to a smattering of insiders encountered at those soirees, asking them where they would flee if Trump were re-elected. Portugal, Australia and Canada are popular destinations.
      To be fair, the hollowness of past vows to escape overseas is mentioned. And the story ends with a scholar at the Middle East Institute promising to stay onboard the ship, bailing with all his might, even as it settles under the waters of totalitarianism.
     But that isn't exactly balance. It's not enough. Far, far more people are going to stay put, and fight like hell, and have no intention of giving up on this country, ever. When do they get their story in the New York Times? Let me guess: never.
      No matter. We don't need the Times to validate what we know to be true. There is a reader in Florida I sometimes trade emails with, and we had this exchange on Tuesday after he wrote to me in reaction to "Heads I win, tails you lose," my column on Trump's efforts to skew the election. 
     "I fear for this nation like never before," wrote Steve H. "I’d be one of the first to go ... Toronto may be the place to be. I really fear this election. Politics has already divided my family and it’s invaded my faith. I’m tired. I’m tired of the pointless hatred and nonsense. I wonder if Toronto would be far enough."
     I thought about that, and tried to respond firmly but sincerely.
     "Obviously, you haven't spent much time in Toronto," I wrote. "Forgive me for chiding you, but to even consider running away makes us the cowards that the right already considers us as being. I plan to stay, write whatever I can, resist however I can, even if that means suffering repercussions. I can't imagine a greater accolade than to be sent to prison by the second Trump administration. It' would be my crowning achievement. I encourage you to reconsider. As the great Samuel Johnson once said: 'I will be conquered. I will not capitulate.'"
     This had an effect on him. Reconsidering our positions is the liberal superpower.
     "You have the right attitude," he wrote. "My talk is cheap. I don’t care for colder weather anyway. Thanks for the advice. You’re right…running isn’t the answer, but it seems like it sometimes."
     I thought I should recognize the shift and meet him halfway.
     "Believe me, escape has its time and place — I like to say that all the optimists in my family are back in Poland in a pit," I wrote, trotting out a favorite line. "But the key is to take the last train out. Not the first."
     He responded:
     "I’m sorry to hear about your family members that didn’t make it. You’re right… work and fight until the end. I don’t think I cower from much. This is certainly the time in which all good men come to the aid of their nation. There’s a lot of good women and men who know better. I’m hoping and praying that intelligence will prevail."
      As are we all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Heads I win, tails you lose

     Let's play a game. Doesn't matter what — checkers, chess, heck it could be a coin toss. Let's go with that, for simplicity's sake.
     A game needs rules. So here's how we'll play. We toss a coin — let's make it a Morgan silver dollar. They're beautiful. If it's heads, I win, and you give me $20. If it's tails, I still win, because you must have cheated. You give me $20. I don't have to provide any evidence of cheating, though I can air some theories: The coin wasn't flipped properly. The wind affected the throw. The coin was loaded. Doesn't matter. You still give me $20.
     And if for some reason you balk at handing over the money, insisting the game was indeed fair, I reserve the right to punch you in the mouth and take your $20. Violence is always an option. For me. Not for you.
     Would you play under those conditions? Would anybody? Why not? Because my coin toss scenario is the essence of the dire situation the United States of America finds itself heading into the presidential election of 2024. With far, far more at stake than $20.
     What amazes me is how transparent this all is. Nothing is hidden. The putative Republican candidate, Donald Trump has a long, well-publicized history of loudly declaring that any contest he might enter into is rigged against him, ahead of time, as insurance in case he loses. Fluffing the pillows in case he needs to swoon into them.
     The Emmys were "all politics" because Trump's TV show, "The Apprentice" didn't win one "many times over."
     When he ran in 2016, he declared that the caucuses were rigged. When he cut through a field of Republican mediocrities to face Hillary Clinton, he saw cheating everywhere.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Bob Dunning takes a bow

     "Journalism," G.K. Chesterton famously observed, "largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive."
     That's a good thing — better late than never. Also unavoidable. Even the most educated person is ignorant of nearly everything. By necessity much of what we read is bound to be news. Also a good thing — my definition of boredom is being told what you already know.
     When a reader forwarded without comment the last column of Bob Dunning, who wrote for a California newspaper for 55 years and was unceremoniously sacked this week, I did not feel embarrassed that it was my introduction to the man. Nothing shameful there, even though he's written for The Davis Enterprise since I was in 4th grade. Davis has a population double that of Northbrook, and is 2,000 miles away. A local oddity myself, I understand and accept my status as a mote of dust in a continent-wide wordstorm. If after writing for the Chicago Sun-Times for 40 years, one out of 10 Chicagoans were vaguely familiar with me, I'd be surprised and gratified. It's probably closer to one in 100. 
     When others of my ilk deliver their swan songs, it's typically how the greater world first learns of us. Birth announcement and funeral pyre in one brief flash, a tiny puff of smoke far away on the horizon alerting outsiders to our existence even as we vanish.
    Dunning's ave atque vale begins:
    "This is a column I thought I’d never have to write. Through these many years, the local owners of this newspaper regularly told me that as long as The Davis Enterprise existed, I would always have a job. ..."
     And you believed them? Well, there's your mistake right there, Bob. The owners of the Sun-Times never gave me such assurances, nor would I put any stock in them if they had. Any boss who flashed me a vulpine grin, and cooed, "Don't worry, Neil, you'll be here forever...." would leave me shaken. And I have the security of a union. If it weren't for the Chicago Newspaper Guild, I would have been put out to pasture years ago. I might still be, despite it.  It's happened before.
     Quality has nothing to do with it. The Tribune allowed the consistently excellent Eric Zorn to go without even trying to keep him. The great Gene Weingarten, who won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for the magnificent "Fiddler in the Subway," was banished from the Washington Post for the sin of making a joke about Indian food. If it can happen to them, who can't it happen to? Certainly Bob, or me. We are all dead men walking.
     "I upheld my end of the bargain," Dunning continued. "They did not."
      What are you saying? That life isn't fair? Let me jot that down for future reference.
      Sorry. I'll stop now. It takes a lot of ego to fill that blank space, day after day, year in and year out, and a lot of humility to realize it doesn't matter to anyone else a fraction as much as it matters to you. Easy for that delicate balance to get out of whack, particularly in moments of duress. I don't want to critique the dying gasp of a colleague, even one I've never met or knew existed. When my time comes, I like to think I'll tip the executioner and lower my head to the block with quiet dignity. But who knows? I might clutch the radiator and shriek like James Cagney at the end of "Angels with Dirty Faces." 
     I'll try to stop, anyway. One does drone on, as I'm illustrating here. Dunning expended over 2300 words, triple the word count of my daily column, to valorize his exit. That's like the last act of "Tristan & Isolde." You can really like Wagner and still think, "C'mon, get it over with." I've been on staff at the paper for 37 years. However I go, I'm not going to shake my fist at the sky and demand, "Why Lord, why?!?" I know why: the profession is falling apart in big chunks. I'm not indispensable.  On days my column doesn't run, they still publish a newspaper. It was a good run. 
     Dunning writes with candor — he mentions his pay, which most writers would not, particularly when that pay is $26 an hour. He wasn't doing it for money, clearly, he was doing it for love, and nothing feels worse than love unrequited.  He has my sympathy. The Davis Enterprise should have treated him with a modicum of human compassion. Stop the presses: that is in short supply in newspaper owners. 
     Then again, life is precious because it ends. We all have an arc, and now that I'm well into my downward plunge, and see the canyon floor racing toward me, I hope I can splat with a certain finesse and not too much indignation.  The world has changed. Newspaper columnists offer the answer to a question fewer and fewer bother asking.
     I'm 63. Bob Dunning is 77. So maybe I'm displaying the casual cruelty of youth — not something I get the chance to trot out much anymore. But the end can come at any time from any direction. When that sad day arrives, it isn't up to us, but to others to determine what value we  had, if any. When my time comes — tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or at 77, or 90 — I hope that I don't go on and on telling what few readers who have stuck around how unfair it all is, and how much I enjoyed writing for them. Hopefully, they'll already know. 

Monday, May 13, 2024

Cicadas won't eat you, but you can eat them

Metropolitan Museum of Art

     Let's cut to the chase: How do cicadas taste?
     Papery. A tad bitter.
     Which I know, not from dry research, but direct personal experience. This is not my first rodeo, cicada-wise. Seventeen years ago, I was knocking cicadas off my spirea — the bugs covered my yard, "like the invading insect army in a horror movie." Inspired by a colleague, I raised a glove bearing one of the five-eyed beasties to my lips and popped it into my mouth.
     Not at all unpleasant.
     I also fried them up, for my boys, then 10 and 11.
     This is the week trillions of cicadas are expected to emerge in Illinois — ground zero, cicada-wise, due to the overlap of the 13-year and 17-year cicada broods, an alignment not seen since the Jefferson administration.
     "We're going to start to be able to see them," said David Horvath, a certified arborist with The Davey Tree Expert Company. "Right now, squirrels and raccoons and possums are running around, having a field day chowing down on cicadas."
     Which is also why there are so many — they're flooding the zone.
     "Their whole survival strategy is predator satiation," Horvath said. "They're going to overwhelm the predators; it's impossible for squirrels to consume them all."
     I was concerned after reading Kade Heather's piece in the Sun-Times quoting the Morton Arboretum warning about the advisability of protecting young trees with netting. I have a lot of young trees — planted 15 at the end of 2022. Like anyone facing something they don't want to do, I sought a second opinion, from Northbrook forester Terry Cichocki.
     "The tree species cicadas favor are oaks, maples and fruit trees," she said. "However, if you don’t do anything with the smaller trees, they will most likely have some damage, but not life-threatening. The cicadas prefer the mature trees. The damage would show up as broken branch tips, which could recover."
     Horvath finds netting something of a 2024 fad.

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Sunday, May 12, 2024

Cicada flashback 2007, Pt. I: "And then you die...

Figure of a cicada (China, late 18th century; Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

     The cicadas return this week to find me just where they left me 17 years ago: writing a column for the Sun-Times. I'm going to lay out the welcome mat properly on Monday — though I'll be hard-pressed to top how I greeted them in 2007. Back then, the column ran over a page. This item was toward the bottom.

"Males die soon after mating."
          —Cicada-palooza, Chicago Sun-Times, May 20, 2007
     Darwin was right. You pop the kids out, lick them into presentable shape, pay for college and then hang around as long as modern medical science permits, growing silly and superfluous while your pleasures are, one by one, plucked off your plate.
     No wonder people distract themselves with elaborate cosmologies, dragooning God and angels and nature itself in one vast dance of self-significance — the universe exists as one big frame for you, a gilded stage on which your soul struts forever, in glory.
     Pretty to think so. But my reluctant hunch is that the cicadas — who make their once-every-17-years appearance this week, if the cool weather breaks — are a better indicator of how reality works than any gem-crusted icon. Wake blinking into life, eat something, pass along your DNA, then waddle off to die.
     OK, enough of that. The Sunday Blues. I'm actually looking forward to the cicadas, as a change of pace. The primordial beasties won't be much of a big deal at my half-acre of the world, I expect, because it already boasts about every known pestilence — mice and rabbits, moles and raccoons, wasps, hornets, bees, ants, grubs, flies, mosquitoes, spiders, earwigs. No cattle disease, yet, but I assume that's coming.
     Over the weekend, I removed a nest of tent caterpillars from a newly planted crabapple tree, reaching in with my gloved hand and grabbing fistfuls of the squirming, furry caterpillars, to my wife's cringing revulsion, and dropping them into a plastic bag.
     I tossed the bag into the fire pit, doused it with a blurp of gasoline and lit it with my Zippo — the resulting "foof!" of flame was the highlight of the week.
     Which is how we refute the bad news of the cicadas: Post-reproductive life might be a pointless ordeal, but it's all we have, and we should enjoy ourselves as best we can.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 21, 2007

Saturday, May 11, 2024

"I'm a weirdo; all my friends are weirdos" — more from Steve Albini


     When a reader makes a suggestion, I sometimes testily reply that I'm not a Holiday Inn lounge pianist or short-order cook. I don't take requests. Other times I nod and get busy. I suppose the difference is what the request is..
     A reader pointing to a line in my second 2021 piece about sound engineer Steve Albini — "I only wish I could have printed more of our conversation" — and observing that now, with his untimely death last Tuesday, would be an apt moment to fulfill that wish, well, I nodded and checked, and found a lengthy transcript. Normally I like to flit from one topic to the next, but it's a pleasure to hang with Steve, let's do it a little longer. I hate to pile on, but the New York Times gave his obit 2/3 of a page on Friday, so it's not just me. I'll begin with a few observations from a version of the story that never ran.

     "I miss Steve," I thought, which was odd, because I hadn't seen him in nearly 40 years, when we were both students at Northwestern. I helped run the humor magazine, Rubber Teeth, and he drew for the magazine. He also was a punk musician, and I was on the far periphery of the campus music scene because my freshman roommate had been guitarist in a popular band.
Albini had made a name for himself, as a student, by confronting the calcified strata of mouth-breathing frat certitude that encrusted Northwestern like a coral reef. He was most notorious for inviting his enemies to throw things at him — a stunt I witnessed, or remembered witnessing, Steve crouched behind a plexiglas shield as a kind of performance art piece....

     Like any old college classmates, we talked about school, and teachers who inspired us. Albini said he really admired David Protess, who taught journalistic ethics and ran The Innocence Project. I said I felt lucky to study drawing with Ed Paschke.

     "He and I became friends," Albini said. "My wife threw an elaborate birthday party for my 35th birthday, I was really touched he showed up. When he died, I met his son, corresponded with his son.
     "He was easily the best educator at Northwestern. He had a really interesting relationship with his own work that I really admired. He had a regular thing he would do where he would take his class to his studio, and he would have work all around his studio, and he would tell his students they were free to add anything they wanted to to his paintings. If you wanted to do something to one of his paintings, go ahead. I didn't understand that at the time. We talked about it afterward, and he said, 'Every once in a while someone would do something really intrusive and really bold. Or sometimes people would just do some really tiny thing, continue filing in a color, something like that.' He said that was an interesting display of their relationship with someone else's work, whether they would be respectful, or make their mark on it.
     "The most important thing it did for him, it gave him a problem to resolve, he saw most of his work as solving the problems that are presented by the image. If you are trying to convey something , and it's not there yet, that means there's some problem you need to find the problem and address the problem and that will get you on your way to finishing the image. I really admired that for a number of different reasons. It was very playful. His paintings were sold on subscription, anything, they were selling for astronomical sums, $100,000 and more, and here he was willing to let some sophomore fuck it up."

     We talked about Northwestern.

     "What was a big shock to me, I had never been around people with money before," said Albini. "People my age who had no concern with money. Bottomless wealth at their disposal. One of my first roommates, Lauren James Godfrey III. He had a leather valise. A freshman going through his stock portfolio. . . "

     I mentioned my roommate Kier helped widen my musical horizons. I showed up at school liking Bob Dylan and Elton John, and he was playing the Talking Heads and the Buzzcocks.

     "Kier Strejcek is actually an important musical figure," Albini said. "His brother, Nathan Strejcek was in The Teen Idles with Ian MacKaye who later started Minor Threat and Fugazi."
     "Can I tell him you said that?" I asked. Albini was nothing if not an arbiter of cool.
     "He knows that," Albini said. "It's his brother..."
     "No," I replied. "...that he's an important musical figure."
     "He was revered. He was the big brother, well literally, to the hardcore punks in Washington DC. who started a movement. He was sort of seen as the older brother who knew... he learned to play guitar before everybody else. He was in bands before everybody else. He moved away, he had a band when he moved out here. He's a seminal though not necessarily critical figure."

     I told him a story about Kier and I giving a ride to Nathan Kaatrud, the future Nash Kato of Urge Overkill, a pompous poseur who sneered at people like Kier and myself as grinds who work for a living while artists like himself soared into the empyrean.

     "That's an early indication of what a piece of shit that guy was," Albini said. "He was my roommate for years. Putting everyone else down is super fun."

     We talked about how to live a moral life.

     "My ethics are principally about my behavior," Albini said. "On a personal level I don't want to be involved in things I don't respect. As professional, whatever walks in the door I have to do a good job on it doesn't matter what it is. I'm not very selective with my clients. That surprises some people just because I am fairly rigorous about the way I conduct myself and the way my band behaves.
Electrical Audio

     "The money is not really a big part of it here. Everything operates on a knife edge in the music scene at the moment. Pandemic aside, the margins people operate on in the music scene are so so small. The amount of money that can be made off a recording has dwindled over the years because physical formats are less and less, though recently there has been a huge resurgence in vinyl, which is heartening. A lot of record labels will do a release, it's an official release if there is vinyl. That's the only physical format that sells anymore.
     "It's weird being involved in music," he said. "You're at this nexis between youth culture and broader culture and artistic ambition, creative impulse and whatever, and then all these secondary material concerns that impinge on it in a million different way. I love making records and love working with musicians, people I admire and respect. The people that work in the studio, I would take a bullet for any of those people. But that I have to do it in a capitalist system is oppressive, that I have to do it as a business owner, and be the president of the organization in order to have standing in certain scenarios.
     "When I first got into music, the music I was attracted to was weirdo music. I'm a weirdo. All my friends are weirdos." Here he laughed. "My peer group is weirdos. All the music that I've ever done has had, it's never bothered me who listened to it. My main consideration was I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it in a way I felt good about. The way my bands have always conducted themselves has been internally consistent. We knew why we were doing things the way we did. We had a process we were going through . The end result was we were going to make music and we would perform it if people would have us. Other people just don't enter into it. I described it once as an extremely selfish enterprise. Shellac of North America — we are the only three people on earth that matter, in terms of opinions about our music. We don't do press releases, don't do advertising. We don't do any kind of promotion for our records at all. We will announce our tour dates, and when a record comes out there is an announcement that it is coming out. But we don't advertise it, we don't do active promotion of any kind because I've always been bothered by things being thrust at me. I detest advertising. I have TIVO for watching television at home. I haven't seen a commercial in 10 years. I have ad blockers on all my computers. Don't see ads on YouTube videos. I don't see it. That's intentional, I don't like having that kind of commerce intrude into my experience. I think it's cheap and crass when someone is trying to make money from my attention. Someone wants my attention, and their purpose is to try to extract value from me. That seems like a dishonest relationship and I just won't participate in it.
     "How many of our records sell? I have no idea. We make money. I don't know how we do relative to our peers. I don't know what a good selling record is, what a bad selling record is. We make music exclusively for ourselves and we're lucky enough that other people like it and buy it.
     "The music scene, because it's so cliquish, with so many different subcultures contained in the music scene. My band is well known, within our circles, right? But I'm smart enough to know our circles aren't very large."
     He laughed again.
     "If you took a random sampling of people, I used to say from the phone book, random sampling from any neighborhood in Chicago, if you got a thousand people you might find one that knew my name. And that's in the city I live in at the time I'm alive."

     There's more, but that should do. We did talk about what he'd do when his hearing went, I suggested he write a book. He said that he did get asked to write things pretty regularly, and that he would love to write "a comprehensive manual of recording practices" including "all the institutional knowledge we have inside the building." I put him in touch with my editor at the University of Chicago Press, but nothing came of it, which is a pity, because Steve Albini was a true professional and unique, unsparing, fearless voice. He will be missed by many.