Thursday, December 8, 2022

Don't play Wordle today.


     Writing is my job. And because of the topics I tackle, and the way I go about addressing them, the emphasis is usually on the first part of that sentence, writing. I'm proud of that. But today, I'd like to talk about the second part, the job itself. The Sun-Times has been my place of employment since March 23, 1987, and it's been a good job, thanks in large part to the Chicago Newspaper Guild, which won a decent salary and benefits and fought off all efforts to undermine them. Thanks to the union, I was able to buy a house, put two boys through college, travel. If I got sick, I had health insurance to offer me the best care, was paid while I recuperated. It shocked me to realize that rail workers, during the recent negotiations, were simply trying to get paid sick leave. It's bad enough to be sick. But to be lose your income in the process....
     As you might know, the guild at the Sun-Times is negotiating with our new owners, Chicago Public Media.  Probably the less I say about that, the better. The talks progress, and I'm not in a position to say whether they are going faster or slower than previously. Though from what I pick up from union communitions, the warm, humane velvet glove that WBEZ projects to the world seems to be concealing an iron fist, at least when it comes to negotiations. There's a big meeting Friday, and I should know more then.    
     We're not alone here. The union for the New York Times, one of the most successful newspapers in the world, is staging a one-day walkout, and has asked its subscribers to make a little sacrifice today to show their support: avoid the NYT platform. Don't check the news. Don't play the games. I usually play Worlde first thing, a five minute cracking of the mental knuckles before I get down to the business of doing my job, writing stuff. And I use the news app throughout the day.
     But not today.
     Not today, for reasons outlined in the tweet above. And my wife, who is even more of a word game junkie, tackling Wordle and Quordle and the Crossword Puzzle, has agreed to go cold turkey, for today, to remind the suits at the Times that their readers are not panjandrums, like the owners, but regular working folks, like the writers, who don't like to see workers kicked around. 
     I hope you'll join us.
     It's a very small sacrifice to make for a very large and important principle: that there is no reason why working people can't enjoy the fruits of their labor, and have stable, rewarding jobs with good benefits that add up to satisfying lives. I think we've become so used to corporations squeezing profits out of their employees that we've forgotten there is another way. There is. I know that from first hand experience.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Do we all get to do that?

"Christ Destroying His Cross," by Jose Clemente Orozco (Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil: Mexico City)

     Are you a Christian? Then I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to stop reading now and direct your attention elsewhere. The comics, maybe. Nothing personal, understand. It isn’t that I believe you and your children are damned to burn in hell for all eternity. It’s that my religion forbids addressing you, in my view. “These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel,” God tells Moses in Exodus, which obviously leaves Gentiles out.
     Wait a second! “Sons”? Maybe women readers should move on too. Let me pray on that and get back to you.
     “When did this happen?” you might ask. And I might ask, “What are you still doing here?” But OK, for argument’s sake, while you are moving yourself down the pike, I was reminded by the Supreme Court’s taking up another Colorado business unwilling to bow to the humiliation of providing services to people of whom they disapprove.
     Ten years ago it was a Colorado baker who didn’t want to create a cake for a gay wedding. Now it’s a graphic designer floating the argument that she is a creative artist whose First Amendment rights are being infringed upon by the government, and its pesky insistence on treating all citizens equally.
     Yes, there is an alternate view, that not only democracy, but also the basic capitalist system demands treating all paying customers the same — your cash is good, you buy a newspaper, you get to read every story in it.
     But that is a fallacy, in that it chafes against my sincere religious belief.
     Yes, some might argue sincere religious belief is not a justification for anything — sincere religious belief is also what prompts suicide bombers to detonate themselves in crowded markets.
     But faith is on the march, the Supreme Court crowded with ideologues who have shown themselves all too willing to tear up the social fabric to scratch their religious itch, forcing millions of women to drive across the country to manage their gynecological business. The next step is to make the freedom of every American subject to the whim of whatever employee says “Yes, may I help you?” when you walk into their shop.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Welcome yourself to Zenwich


    People are expensive and, increasingly, hard to find. Businesses that once might have been looked down upon for a scarcity of employees are now pitied, in that, in this odd post-COVID era, certain professions seem hard to staff. Though in my mind that's nothing paying them more won't fix. 
      I suppose it began with gas stations. Once Jack jogged out of the Clark station in Berea, pumped the gas, cleaned the windshield, joked with my mom and gave a stick of gum to us kids in the back. Now you hop out of your car, slide your credit card into a slot, take off the gas cap, jam the nozzle in, and pump the gas yourself, while a screen cheerily hectors you and some unseen person slouches in a bulletproof booth a dozen yards away.
      Then self-checkout at drug stores, and grocery stores. My wife and I resisted, for a while. Solidarity!  But during COVID, when the practice came to Sunset Foods, I yielded to what suddenly seemed like a strategy to address the staffing crisis. And I discovered there is an advantage to checking your own groceries — you pay closer attention to the prices ringing up, and have an easier time catching the chronic pricing errors, discrepancies that before tended to only be noticed once you were unbagging back home, necessitating a grumbling trip back to the store to recover that dollar or two.
     Last week I met a longtime reader for lunch in Elmhurst, at Zenwich, an intriguing "Asian fusion" sandwich shop.  Where I had a new experience at a fast food restaurant, one that seemed worth recounting as an augury of the future. We walked in at 12 noon to find an entirely empty restaurant. No customers. Nobody behind the counter. Only a screen. We worked our way through the various prompts, ordering a pair of sandwiches and a pair of sodas. I got a Thai BBQ pork belly sandwich and a Diet Coke. He paid, kindly, despite my protestations that the columnist is supposed to pay, we grabbed our beverages from a case and had a seat. Eventually a tray — a wooden board, idiosyncratically, perhaps supposed to be redolent of nature or some such thing — arrived up front, I heard his name called, and I jumped up — I was closer to the counter — turned, retrieved the board, noticed out of the corner of my eye a person of some sort, whose features, to be honest, were not arranged in a friendly greeting of warm hospitality and who soon fled back into the kitchen.  
     The sandwich was ... alright. Fresh bread, at least. Very wet with their "sweet and tangy" sauce which was more "meh and mayonnaise" in my view. I kept going for my napkin. And the meat ... well, take a look. It only covered half the sandwich, though they do say "thinly sliced" on the menu, so, points for candor. Still, human attention isn't the only thing in short supply at Zenwich.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Not my Constitution, buddy

Smithsonian Museum of American History

     You know we’ve sailed off into the stratosphere of national dysfunction when the former president of the United States, citing the same imaginary voter fraud he’s been raging about for two years, can suggest the Constitution be suspended, along “with all rules, regulations and articles,” through some equally imaginary process, so he can be returned to power, through notional governmental machinery that also doesn’t exist, and it’s not the main topic of conversation in the following days.
     But here we are. He said this on his Truth Social platform Saturday. It was the third headline on the Washington Post web page Sunday, under an article about sick leave among railroad workers.
     “So, with the revelation of MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION in working closely with Big Tech Companies, the DNC, & the Democrat Party ...” begins the latest lie.
     The funny thing ... not funny ha-ha but funny sad ... is that Trump still can’t even vaguely offer a plausible theory of how this uppercase wrongdoing might have unfolded, never mind provide evidence.
     He then muses whether “you” (the American people, I suppose) should “throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER” (him, I assume, again through some process that isn’t there, assuming he doesn’t mean violence, which of course he does) “or do you have a NEW ELECTION?”
     That’s cute. Because if you sincerely thought the election was stolen, in some obscure way you couldn’t articulate never mind prove, then what would be the point of calling for a new election? Wouldn’t George Soros just smile and tap a few figures into his phone, again, and that would be it? We wuz robbed again!
     Or gee, maybe Trump really doesn’t believe it himself and is just a grifter working a con. Letting his deluded faithful do the dirty work for him. Which is why nearly 1,000 Jan. 6 insurrectionists have already been arrested and charged, with hundreds pleading guilty and dozens going to prison. All except the ringleader, who struts around, trying to reprise his crime, with greater success next time.

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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Oh no, not another one!

     "Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg has come out with yet another book, this one called 'Every Goddamn Day,' in which he presents 366 vignettes keyed …"
                                                                  —Axios, Justin Kaufman and Monica Eng, Dec. 2, 2022

     Okay, time to play, "You be the author!" in which you get to place yourself within the enormous head of Neil Steinberg and try, for a moment, to see the world through his eyes.
     Read the quote atop this page, the opening sentence of a fun Axios Q & A with me. Any word, ah, pop out?
     But first, a friendly wave to Justin and Monica. Two of my favorite Chicago media people. Many happy memories of working with Justin, first when he was a producer at WBEZ, then radio host, then after he moved to WGN. A thorough pro.
     And Monica. I've known her since she was just a sprite, cutting her eye teeth at the Sun-Times. Also top notch. I particularly appreciated her pulling me in to speak on the moving tribute she produced for Jim Nayder after he succumbed to the demons he had battled successfully for so long.
     So no criticism, implied or overt, in today's question concerning their work. All in a spirit of good fun.
     However. That opening sentence, well one word did sneak out of line, abandon his brethren, shimmy down the page of type, leap from the computer screen to my shirtfront, haul itself up from button to button, then cling to my beard with one little serif hand while using the other to slap me back and forth across the nose.
     Have you found it yet?
     Yes, indeed, that's it: "yet."
     "Yet another book..."
     Like I'm pelting the world with them. 
     Yes, I've written nine books. Quite a lot really. Though dwarfed by truly prolific authors — Stephen King has published 71. Not to equate myself to Stephen King in any way, beyond I suppose our both writing books, he far more than I, and sharing bilateral symmetry. Perhaps it's that yawning gap between us in popularity that prompts the "yet," the unvoiced rest of the sentence being, "yet another book that nobody asked for but he feels somehow compelled to keep showering us with anyway."
     Or maybe that's just me airing the typical why-don't-you-love-me-more? writerly neurosis. Well, I tell writers to be who they are. Which is fine, if you're Stephen King or Jonathan Eig or one of those others who straddle the world like colossuses, waiting for packages with exotic postmarks to arrive so they can line up the translations of their work into Japanese and Norwegian and Farsi on the shelf dedicated to their foreign editions. While with me, well, not so fine, being the sort of guy who wonders: do Stephen King fans groan upon the next arrival? I mean, those King novels, they're hefty tomes. Yes, my new book weighs in at almost 500 pages. But King's just getting started at 500 pages..  "Yet another book..."
     It has been six years, since my last one. A respectable interlude. Long enough for readers to recuperate from the last one. "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," written with Sara Bader.  A compendium which, now that I think of it, quotes Stephen King several times. I sent him a copy, shipped to his home in Maine, hoping that inclusion would please him somehow. It was, remember, a literary companion to recovery, and knowing that King, despite being such a prolific and skilled writer, could appeared cranky and vexed — it isn't just me — by literature's reluctance to admit him to the pantheon, gazing hard at the horror genre, not to forget his wild popularity, like a maitre d' dubiously eyeing a moth-eaten jacket on a prospective luncheon guest. I figured, he might like being grouped with Faulkner and Shakespeare and Dante and such. In recovery himself, perhaps King would appreciate what I was trying to do.
      "Neil Steinberg's new book 'Out of the Wreck I Rise' is just the right medicine for the 20 million Americans who struggle with sobriety," is one of the many things King didn't say, having no reaction whatsoever, probably never even seen the thing, buried in the big canvas rolling postal cart jammed with the volumes arriving every day, sent by hopeful authors and trucked directly, unopened, to the Bangor Goodwill. "I encourage everyone who has ever cracked open a book of mine to rush right away to buy Neil Steinberg's excellent, creative and essential book."
      Instead I get "yet another book." I suppose it could be worse. "Here comes Steinberg, apparently unsatisfied with writing a newspaper column three times a week in a major metropolitan daily, and ginning up something to run on his blog the other four days, not to forget freelance pieces and the occasional lob of a bon mot on Twitter and Facebook, inflicting yet another book, even more of his increasingly dated, outré, unwelcome and off-point old white cis-gendered male worldview on a city that has already suffered under his lash for 40 years..."
     Sorry. I'm grateful for the attention, truly. Axios' "Best Day Ever" feature is lighthearted, and I'm flattered to be included, and hate to use my thumb to pull down the lip of the perfectly beautiful thoroughbred of publicity and examine its teeth. But it is the writer's fate to focus on tiny particulars — my fate, anyway, and boy, sometimes it seems like some condemned-by-Zeus doom, to be chained to a rock for all eternity, noticing molecules as they flit through the air, in that annoying fashion molecules have, all hectic and harried and vectoring off in all directions, swirling like dust motes in the sun...
     A word of warning. Wednesday, after turning in the big magazine cover story I've been crafting for the past few months, I wrapped my hands around the thick rope, leaned forward, and started pulling the first huge granite block of the next book I'm working on up the inclined plane at Giza, and sent the first couple chapters off to my agent. 
     Maybe, my failing to take the hint baked into "yet," this next one will earn inevitable progression to "Please God make him stop!"  My apologies. Honestly, I really write them for the pleasure of doing it. "Work is more fun than fun," as Noel Coward once said. The publication part, as I've said before, is just the punishment that fate inflicts upon a person to counterbalance the joy of writing a book. Yes, I suppose, they do seem a sort of significance. At least I try to view them that way, and sometimes even manage to succeed. And yet...


Saturday, December 3, 2022

Northshore Notes: Star Stuff

By Crisóstomo Alejandrino José Martínez y Sorli (Metropolitan Museum)

     We live on in the memories of others, and it was good to see the name of my late friend Jeff Zaslow in today's essay by EGD's Northshore bureau chief.

By Caren Jeskey 

“I quote my father to people almost every day. Part of that is because if you dispense your own wisdom, others often dismiss it; if you offer wisdom from a third party, it seems less arrogant and more acceptable.”
              ― Jeffrey Zaslow, The Last Lecture

     Like Jeff Zaslow did, I quote my father often. “Don’t let the turkeys get you down” is a favorite. Particularly in this season, when turkey and its related holiday has a way of getting even folks with the most copper-bottomed psyches down.
     There was an enormous emptiness inside of me this week — I was gutted like the birds we consumed last Thursday. In yoga speak, the solar plexus is a chakra that rests between the chest and the abdomen. It is said to be the center of confidence and also holds one’s sense of personal power, or lack thereof. When I’m feeling nervous, restless, or scared, I often notice a hollowness emanating from that area.
     This time, the existential crisis was Thanksgiving’s fault. The disruption of the holiday unbalanced my precarious apple cart. I’ve noticed others in my life feeling similarly. There have been a lot of tears for lost loved ones, and regrets, mixed in with memories worth keeping. Regrets that nothing is perfect.
     I’m not where I want to be in life, even though I know I have a lot to appreciate and enjoy. If I allow myself to admit it, I want to be footloose and fancy free again. I miss gallivanting off to islands and rainforests. (Though even a crowded movie theater and restaurant would be daring these days). I want to be more successful. I want all of my teeth back. Reuniting with family members is an opportunity to admit what's really going on, or to put on an act and pretend that things are great even if they're not. I wish I’d been more prepared to host my brother and his girlfriend in a grander manner. Instead I was embarrassed by my own life. I wish I wasn't too scared to join them at Rosa's and Buddy Guy's and Thalia Hall in Pilsen. I wish I was the young confident person I used to be. And the regrets just kept coming. I don’t have the children I’d wanted to have. I’m single and renting living amongst families who most certainly own. “Pass the tea and crumpets!” Though I don’t want to be single, my last date (last weekend — a walk through a forest trail on sunny warm day) was so awkward I never want to try it again. At least this one wasn't still married and "in the process" of divorce.
     Sometimes I have what those in traditional twelve-step recovery programs call a God-shaped hole, what Buddhists understand as a Hungry Ghost, and what I call a feeling that something is missing. There’s not enough food, drink, smoke, “love”, blissful meditation retreats, Netflix or AppleTV to fill it up. (I cancelled Amazon Prime and Netflix last month and can report that life is better).
     The longing to be satisfied has roots in our physical bodies, not just in our minds. The solar plexus is a real thing also known as the celiac plexus. In 1914, Julia Seton, MD (a native of Decatur IL) authored The Psychology of the Solar Plexus and Subconscious Mind
     “The solar plexus is a large collection of nerve cells and it forms the great center nerve generating energy for the sympathetic nervous system … The solar plexus is the home of the ego or spirit of men … From our solar plexus we receive our visions called faith, and when we register them in the field of consciousness of our physical brain, and work them out through scientific human reasoning into tangible expression, then they become facts.”
     Stale Edwardian wisdom perhaps. But I'm inclined to learn more about whether there is science behind any of this. Here I was thinking that chakras were too woo-hoo for me anymore, but maybe I'm not done with them yet.
     In the still formative years of my teens and twenties, All that Zazz — the advice column Jeff Zaslow took over from Ann Landers in the Sun Times in 1987 — was a voice of reason for me. I wouldn’t listen to my folks, even though they were full of wisdom, but I’d listen to Jeff as I had listened to his predecessor. There was a comfort in knowing that there were simple answers to life’s big problems.
     I still believe that’s true.
     I have to give Neil a shout out before I go. Just as I relied on Zazz, I turn to EGD for comfort, wisdom, and laughs. Thanks NS.*
          "We are star stuff harvesting sunlight."
                                   — Carl Sagan

* Editor's note: De nada.

Friday, December 2, 2022

You had me at chia pudding

     At the end of October, I found myself zipping down to Dallas for a story. A quick 24-hour jaunt. Arriving the evening before, I met my sister for dinner at a fabulous restaurant called Roots Southern Table, gorged on collard greens and cast iron cornbread served with sweet potato butter, then jerk lamb chops and orange juice cake.
     The next morning, with that huge Southern dinner still under my belt, breakfast was a Clif bar eaten on the run. Lunch was spent talking to people in the rain. Then boom, back to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, trucking through Terminal E about 3 p.m., heading toward a 5 p.m. flight home. It dawned on me that if I didn’t want to subsist on a foil bag of pretzels tossed at me by an unhappy flight attendant, now was the moment to root out something to eat.
     What were my options? A big soft salt-crusted dough twist drenched in hot cheese-like product from Auntie Anne’s Pretzels? A Chick-fil-A sandwich which, setting aside the moral qualms of supporting haters, raises gustatory objections that my wife succinctly summarizes whenever we pass one, in a tone of mingled wonder and disgust: “Breaded chicken ... served on bread?!”
     Hurrying along, I was just thinking that the path of prudence would be to eat at home when I approached a wood-tone vending machine. A Farmer’s Fridge, stocked with large jars of salad.
     I love salad and eat one almost every day for lunch. Finding salad on this soul-dead airport causeway was like encountering a real twice-boiled bagel in Indiana.
     I selected the Harvest salad — lettuce, dried cranberries, pecan couscous — for only $9.49. I poured in the balsamic vinaigrette dressing and gave the thing a shake, and ate in silent joy. For dessert, chocolate raspberry chia pudding.

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