Friday, April 12, 2024

Bumped to Sunday

DALL-E AI program
      No column in the paper today. I asked if the column could run a little long — okay, almost twice as long — in order to unspool a sweet story I thought needed  room to stretch its legs, and my editors bumped it to Sunday, where there's more real estate to fill. 
     A very 20th century, black-ink-on-dead trees concern. Although if I've learned anything in writing, it's that your hindrances are also benefits, and as vexing as it can be to cram your thoughts into a set space, doing so does encourage concision. I write my column in Blogger, which through some odd quirk has no word count function — maybe because online you have no limits. Online you can ramble on for as long as you like. Online, the idea that few are following you to the end because you're such a prolix bastard might never cross your mind.  Online, you can just say the same thing, over and over and...
     Sorry. Where was I? When I finish drafting my column in Blogger, and go to put it in BrightSpot, the latest platform the paper dredged up somewhere to compose our work upon, I'm always happy to see it's 850 or 900 or 1,000 words. That means I can then tighten the thing up to 750, 760 tops, the word count to park myself on page two. Without any loss whatsoever. Just the opposite: it's an improvement. Shorter is better. Back when I used to speak to students, I always told them, if they want to ace any assignment, just write it twice as long as the assigned length, then cut it in half. They reward me with boggled, yeah-that's-never-happening expressions.
    In honor of the above, I just cut out the next 10 lines of exposition. Trust me, you'll never miss it.
    When BrightSpot was rolled out, the biggest change was that I could no longer correct errors and simply post the new version. I had to find an editor to do it for me. Which was an earthquake, to me, because I'm always finding mistakes in past columns. I called the editor and begged her — truly beseeched, voice quavering — to let me post corrections. It was pathetic, and she said no. Basically, a control thing, and the kindergarten teacher view of staff — if we let Johnny do it, then we have to let everybody do it. Because we're all the same. When in fact, I always took the night shift employee's proprietary view of the place. At 1 a.m. the office is often empty, and you can go nap on the sofa in the editor-in-chief's office.
     For all its flaws, BrightSpot does work. Last week Facebook served up my Neenah foundry story from two years ago, and I reread it and noticed that I talk about "slats" in manhole covers when I meant "slits." Four times. Quite a lot really. The mistake flew past me, while carefully writing it, and all the editors carefully reading it, and every reader over the past two years — or none who wrote in pointing out the flub. So I created a new draft, replacing "slats" with "slits," called up a night editor and had him post it for me. Then checked to make sure it had actually happened, because with BrightSpot, you never know. Correcting errors that nobody else noticed in a story two years old. That's a good thing, I think. Unless it isn't. Anyway, fun column coming Sunday. 

Thursday, April 11, 2024


    Assessing reality is my stock-in-trade. I can't afford to let illusions and ego guide me. Thus it's natural for me to acknowledge just what a small pile of pebbles I've managed to accumulate in my life. Humility comes easy; it's not only true, but useful. I'm proud that, in Friday's column about hot honey pizza, I could disgorge a paragraph like this one:

It's so obvious, now — you splash hot sauce on chicken; you pour honey. But it never occurred to me to combine the two. That's why some men run growing $40 million companies — Mike's Hot Honey is on the menu in 3,000 restaurants and sold in 30,000 retail establishments nationwide — and some are wage slaves jammed onto the No. 36 bus going up State Street, excited at the prospect of free pizza.

   If I asked you, what about that paragraph would prompt you to write in, aggrieved, I bet you would be hard-pressed to find the flaw to criticize. No so Chris S., who wrote:

Noticed in your writing you like to boast about yourself whether it’s how you used to get included at Gene & Georgetti’s political luncheon and now free pizza for this.

You should try some manual labor (ya know a real job where you actually produce something) and not just a bunch of hot air about a bunch of smorgasbord bullshit funded by a non for profit organization backed by JB Pritzker.

You’re one of the great hack writers of your era with little to no insight in Chicago newspapers. You’re legacy amounts to an article your colleagues will write that will be forgotten in tomorrows paper when the new headlines roll out.

    Usually I'd shrug that kind of thing off without reply. But I felt extra generous. He was obviously a reader — the Gene & Georgetti reference was from a column on Jay Doherty that ran three months ago. Plus he was criticizing me over something for which I am actually proud. It was so vituperative, plus grammatically spotty ("you're legacy," "tomorrows paper") that getting angry didn't seem an option — he was mad enough for the both of us. So I read his remarks again, thought carefully, and replied this way:


         No argument here. Thanks for writing.


     Most people are actually pretty nice. Even hateful trolls — that sounds odd, but I find that if you meet the nastiest remark with a dollop of kindness, the person in question dissolves in a puddle of gratitude. Hurt people hurt people, but they coo at a touch. I realized long ago that the psycho who writes me a dozen hateful emails a day also, in his topsy-turvy world, really likes me, and wants my attention, like a schoolboy pulling a girl's pigtails.
    He replied:

    lol no problem. I’m just jealous

    I did pause at the lol — "laughing out loud." Right wing haters are always laughing — trying to show their indifference and superiority, in a kind of "look at them Siegfrid, they're just ants" fashion. Anything that confuses them is deemed funny. It's a cover.  I could have left it there, but I was on a roll, and replied to his reply:

     No worries. I have a great life. A little jealousy is understandable.

     Not something I ever actually come out and say much. But true, nevertheless.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

A thing happened at a place, maybe.

                        "Yet why not say what happened?"  
                                              — Robert Lowell

     The tiniest detail can reveal something bad. A strangely-shaped freckle . The crack in the foundation, spreading.
     A small story popped up at the end of last week and was forgotten. The Museum of Science and Industry abruptly closed last Wednesday afternoon, sending visitors home "as staff moves military artifacts from archival storage" to allow a bit of "unplanned maintenance."
     "Out of an abundance of caution, and to ensure proper and safe removal, we have specially trained military personnel as well as local officials on-site," the museum statement read.
     What does that mean? "Military artifacts?" They aren't talking about old uniforms and mess kits. That has to be ... what? Hand grenades? Unexploded shells? What else requires "specially trained military personnel" to handle? You don't bring in the Army to remove a canteen.
     I waited for updates. Nothing.
     Fine. I'm a reporter, I'll do it. I phoned and emailed Museum of Science and Industry spokesperson Kelsey Ryan.
     Hours passed. I called its current president, Chevy Humphrey. When she arrived in 2021, the newspaper sent me to greet her with the big hurrah-for-Dr.-Humphrey profile. She had no trouble talking, then, about the new “Marvel: Universe of Super-Heroes” exhibit. Surely she'd explain what happened now.
     "Chevy doesn't take phone calls" said the MSI receptionist. I waved the Sun-Times like a paper flag and she put me through to her voicemail. Nothing.
     Okay, work the other side of the story, the "special trained military personnel" and "local officials." Who could that be? I called with the U.S. Army. It wasn't them. I put in the ritual calls to the Chicago police and fire departments — crickets chirping in a field. I texted Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois Secretary of State. His office has its own bomb squad.
     Giannoulias is old school, in that he still believes in an open democracy where information is freely shared. He got back immediately, reminding me that the world where we're heading — a world where major Chicago institutions abruptly eject visitors and shut their doors, calling in unspecified military units to cope with unnamed threats — is also a world where libraries that dare feature books about a penguin with two dads receive bomb threats. Twenty-two in Illinois last summer alone. He described HB 4567, passed out of house committee last Thursday, to better protect libraries against being silenced by people who, like the MSI, are allergic to the unfettered flow of information.
     “Our librarians and libraries have faced an onslaught of threats of violence and ideological intimidation for simply serving their communities,” said Giannoulias, who also serves as State Librarian. “We have seen an escalation of violence seeking to censor and restrict information."
     His office pointed me toward the U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Group.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2024

"The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured"

     "Go to Target, get yourself a pair of glasses," ordered my wife, bustling in the kitchen Monday morning, getting ready to leave for work.
     "So you read my column ...?" I ventured.
     "No," she said. Maybe she heard me in the basement, clattering around. 
     "The next time there's an eclipse, we'll be dead," she explained. "Go to Target and get glasses."
     I don't recall her ever saying something like that, the "next time this happens we'll be dead" formation. I'm not sure I like it.
     Though it is true. The next eclipse in the Chicago area is Sept. 14, 2099. So yes, long dead and forgotten. You too.
I tucked away everything from the 2017
eclipse, including the Saluki-shaped fan.
Except the glasses; I'm not sure why.
     Even as I was writing "Skip the eclipse" column (and yes, I was proud of the little interior rhyme) I could feel my mood shifting. First because I could tell there was something unspoken underneath it. A buried Something Else. And I knew what. I file things, quite methodically, and assumed that I'd tucked the 2017 eclipse stuff away. But couldn't lay my hands on it just yet. I hated buying a new pair of glasses when I still had the old ones., somewhere. Frugal to a fault. 
 I searched drawers, files.
     Screw it. My wife's instructions gave a bit of steel in my spine. I'm good at following directions. Just past 8 a.m. I strolled over to Ace Hardware. No eclipse glasses. So I drove over to Target. No glasses. 
     I was just about resigned to construct some crude viewing device out of a cereal box, when a thought bubbled up that should have occurred to me at the start. I might be solitary, but I am not in fact alone. I emailed three neighbors. Surely they were on top of this who eclipse situation. No response. I headed over the Y to work out before lunch, and driving back down our block, found a knot of neighbors standing in a driveway across the street. I lowered a window. They'd texted me back, and had already gathered three special eclipse glasses and two types of cookies, and their own homemade viewing device, which didn't really work, plus a dog, adding energy. They'd organized the whole thing down to the minute: come back at 1:35 p.m. I told them I would return in ten minutes.
     We tramped over to the public library — in my backyard —  where more Northbrookites had assembled, to view the wonder en masse. We set ourselves up across the field — soccer in summer, ice hockey in winter — because we were going to be joined by one of my neighbor's daughters, a high school senior, and her boyfriend. Maybe we all shared my unspoken tendency to want to be near others but not necessarily in the main scrum. Music was produced — Bonnie Tyler, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," natch, and "You're So Vain" ("You flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia, to see the total eclipse of the sun...") Conversation ensued, though I did not mention Shakespeare's Sonnet 107, which begins, "Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul/Of the wide world dreaming on things to come," and includes a line that almost projects my initial discomfiture onto one of the heavenly bodies involved, "The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured/And the sad augurs mock their own presage."
    That last line means that grim worries are ridiculed by their very direness when "Incertainties now crown themselves assur'd." 
     In other words: don't get stressed. Stuff works out. I saw the eclipse — in a better situation than I could have imagined, at first, with friends, eating homemade macrons. I didn't go blind. "And peace proclaims olives of endless age." Not sure what that means, but it sounds nice.
     As much as I tried to fix in mind the moments I observed the bright orange crescent sun gobbled up by the pitch black moon — this would never happen again, not to me anyway — that wasn't really the memorable part. The eclipse had been so fussed over, culturally, but really didn't seem all that significant, not compared to the pleasant company of my neighbors. There's no marvel in the sky like others showing up, earthbound though we be, the happiness of someone having your back when you think that you're on your own.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Skip the eclipse (or don't)

In 2017, visitors to Carbondale paid $25 apiece to look up in Saluki Stadium.

     "Turkey in the Straw" is a terrible song. Grating, plodding, particularly when plinked out on a toy piano. It's also an old minstrel tune, to add an extra layer of offensiveness.
     And yet it moves me. In summertime, as I hear the sound, or, even worse, "Pop Goes the Weasel," dopplering toward me, and some powerful primal urge makes me want to grab money — well, really run to my mother and beg her to give me 50 cents, but that isn't a possibility — then rush outside to buy a Blue Ribbon Chocolate Eclair bar from the ice cream truck. You have to hurry, or you're going to miss it. By the time you hear the music, your chance is already passing by. I don't even like Chocolate Eclair bars, not being eight anymore. No matter. Now is the moment to act.
     I call that reaction — the urge to grab something you don't even want because your window of opportunity is limited —"The Ice Cream Truck Reflex," and it's a useful term to remember when confronting any rare, fleeting event, such as this damn solar eclipse Monday afternoon, which I am hoping to muster the strength to avoid, and I am giving you permission to miss, too.
     First, been there, done that. In August 2017 I drove down to Carbondale — with my entire family in tow — and occupied a spartan dorm room at Schneider Hall, which Southern Illinois University charged us $800 for three nights in classic soak-the-strangers fashion. (A bargain, actually. The Carbondale Holiday Inn charged $550 a night). For the big moment, we jammed into Saluki Stadium — along with 14,000 other dupes — and kudos for SIU contriving to charge visitors $25 for the privilege of watching what they could see just as well for free by standing in the parking lot and looking up.
     Or not see. The day was cloudy. Though that, too, built up the tension, released during the 10 seconds or so when the clouds parted and we actually eyeballed the eclipse. What was it like? "Hot, sweaty, exciting to see bite out of r. side of sun," I noted in my journal. "V. dramatic."
     Was it worth three days? Plus that $800 dorm room, and the other expenses (paid for by the paper, true, but I was still offended, on its behalf).

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Sunday, April 7, 2024

On big words

     Regular readers know I sometimes deploy big words. Usually it's a natural process. When comparing two diverse elements, I call it a "juxtaposition." Happy chance is "serendipity." 
     Sometimes it's a little forced. When I was writing about the arrogant, the-truth-delivered-from-on-high air that Corning used in response to last Monday's column, I referred to their tone as "ex cathedra," Latin for "from the chair" — i.e., issuing from the pope on his throne in Rome. The word dredged from my deep knowledge of Latin, achieved from years of scholarship and study.
     Kidding. I was reading "Cave Canem: A Miscellany of Latin Words & Phrases" by Lorna Robinson while in the john, happened upon the word a few hours before writing the column, decided it was apt, and tucked it in.
    Writers are encouraged to avoid using big words. Hemingway sure didn't, to great effect. "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for." (A good refutation to those who suggest a sentence must never end with a proposition, even better than Churchill's apocryphal "Nonsense like this up with which I will not put."). 
     But there are three reasons to permit fancy terms to creep into your prose, in order of importance: 1) because no other word serves as well; 2) to show off your erudition; 3) to educate people. 
     Sometimes a longer word should be used because you've already described a certain thing in shorter words and you fear falling into grating repetition. After calling something "magic" a few times, "conjuring" or "prestidigitation" or even "legerdemain" are allowed to creep in. 
     Sometimes a word is too good not to share — "defenestration." The act of throwing someone out a window. Not the most useful word, outside of Putin's Russia, but still fascinating — to some of us — to know exists.
     Trying to impress people might be slightly shameful, but it does have value. Sometimes they are impressed, and think better of the author, which helps, I suppose, building brand loyalty. Look I'm smart! Hang around me!
      And there is true pleasure in learning new words — I think that's the best reason. Readers invariably like them — they write in to say they enjoyed looking up a recondite (difficult to understand) term. I don't think I've ever had someone write in, "Fuck you Steinberg with all your fancy words."  Which is significant, since I get reprimanded for about everything else (a reader complained that I had bragged about getting free pizza, an exchange so delicious I might post it next week).
     Though the other day, I did snatch back a sesquipedalia verba ("words a foot-and-a-half long.") Another term plucked out my deep knowledge and study of ... okay, also from "Cave Canum." Horace coined it to upbraid fellow poets who lard their verse with "verbose, obscure, lengthy words that didn't add anything to the poem."
     I was having fun, writing about Lou Malnati's hot honey pizza, and mentioned Burt's in Morton Grove, which is truly my absolute favorite pizza. I eat Lou Malnati's more, because it's excellent and there's a take-out place two blocks from my house. But Burt's is more of ... an occasion. You have to eat it there — the pie is best seconds from the oven. When the family went to Alinea, one of the best restaurants in the world, to celebrate the boys' graduations from college (the younger boy blew through school in three years so they graduated a month apart) my birthday came four days later, and we went to Burt's, which held its own against the 3-star Michelin experience.
     In describing the Burt's pie, I initially called it the "unspeakable tetragrammaton of pizzas." But "unspeakable," I immediately realized, has a quality of "so horrible you can't describe it," so I changed the word to "unsayable." Thus in the process of alteration, I considered that second word? The tetragrammaton is the unsayable four-letter name of God, יהוה‎, or YHVH in English. Pronouncing the Hebrew letters sounds like "yud hey vuv hey," which is where the rasta "Jah" comes from.
     Maybe I was feeling a certain loss of confidence. Over the weekend I typed in a 40-year-old column as a post — itself a step back from the high quality original journalism I like to present here — but neglected to read over my work, and so posted it with something like 20 typos in the text. I fixed it about 7 a.m., but 100 readers got the mangled version. It was embarrassing, particularly because only two thought this enough of a departure to complain. The others just shrugged and silently said to themselves, "Steinberg is slipping." So not quite in the position of authority to blithely unleash "tetragrammaton."
     I changed it to "pinnacle." Which isn't nearly as fun. When I mentioned the original to my wife, she laughed out loud, and I felt a pang that I had denied a chuckle to the dozens of readers who'd know what the word meant. My apologies for that. Some other time.*

* Actually, been there, done that. Five years ago I not only used it, but did so initially by making a pun on the word, which makes me worry that I'm writing this thing mostly for my own amusement. Which sounds about right, now that I think of it.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Waaaaah! Your existence spoils my party!!!!

     Prejudice is a blend of ignorance and fear.
     That doesn't get said nearly enough.
     You're a stupid person, viewing the world through the keyhole of your own limited experience, and rather than assuage your terror at the unknown by learning something about it, you try to valorize your unease into a defining characteristic and lash out at the ooo-scary thing that's so frightening you.
     I just read "Biden’s Easter Day proclamation insults Christians while pandering to progressives" by Willie Wilson, the perennial mayoral candidate known for giving away free gasoline to poor Chicagoans. Like white right wingers, Wilson piles on President Joe Biden for issuing a proclamation recognizing International Transgender Day of Visibility, observed on March 31 for the past 15 years. Because this year, March 31 also happened to be Easter, and that day is owned by Christians and nobody else can do anything on it but observe their holiday.
     "Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and this day should be kept sacred," writes Wilson, adding: "Biden has a bully pulpit, and if he uses it to undercut Christianity, it could give citizens a license to move away from God. Any proclamation issued on Easter should be focused on strengthening the bond of our Judeo-Christian nation to God."
     This is bigotry on its face, and shame on the Chicago Tribune, or rather, its shell, for disseminating it. Not that Alden Capital will care. A ghoul who digs up corpses and sells the zinc extracted from them hardly cares how the body looks when they've finished. 
     Just in case it isn't plain, let's examine why Wilson's column is the definition of bigotry, in two important ways:
     First, his assumption that the loathed community is somehow corrupting the delicate sensibilities of regular normies. They are the spit that ruins the soup. They can't attend your school, live on your block. They wreck everything. You can't have a day acknowledging the existence of trans people fall on the Christian holy day because then the Christian holy day is ruined. It's an insult! The same reason gays couldn't marry — why, their doing it would destroy the very concept of marriage. Corruption by association. The notion Donald Trump is using to make political hay regarding the border: keep the animals out.
     Second, his assumption that everyone views Christianity as he does — as a club to take upside the head of those who stray from his very narrow definitions of conduct. When of course there are people who view Christianity as an occasion for acts of kindness. Not to forget trans people who are themselves Christian.
     The funny thing — funny ironic, not funny ha-ha — is the moment I read this, I thought of Willie Wilson walking into an Easter service at an all-white church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1959. The sudden silence. Those white Christian ladies gasping, then glowering under their bonnets, chattering harshly among themselves, regarding him with the same scorn and horror he unthinkingly extends towards the trans world, even as the men leap to give Willie the bum's rush to the street, perhaps delivering a quick beating with axe handles to remind him of his place in life: he didn't belong, not on this side of the tracks, not in this church. Because his presence ruined things. It's an insult.
     The idea that Christian love requires the church ladies to welcome Wilson as a human being never occurs to them. Not with his skin color. Just as it doesn't occur to Wilson, whose sentence "if he uses it to undercut Christianity, it could give citizens a license to move away from God" simply assumes that anything suggesting tolerance toward a wider spectrum of humanity is by definition anti-Christian. Not a man in a skirt. God scorns the part of His creation that troubles Willie Wilson, who of course presents himself as the zenith of heavenly perfection, twirling in glory as the Lord applauds.  As if God wants us all to be haters and fools.