Thursday, January 7, 2021

"This god-awful display today"

    I had planned to run an old column today about the man who oversees the model railroad at the Museum of Science and Industry.
     But events interceded.
     And while I'm not someone who feels the need to wedge myself into every big story, the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol Wednesday seemed to demand comment. 

     Marathon political theater not being my thing, I had no plans to watch Wednesday’s certification of the presidential election in Congress. Toward what end? The Trumps-in-training, hoping to catch the fancy of his followers, and the votes and dollars that go with it, lining up to lie to them from the floor of Congress for up to 24 hours. Then Joe Biden still gets sworn in Jan. 20.
     But there was lunch to think about. So I headed downstairs, where my boys, in their mid-20s and still interested in absorbing the details of any picturesque train wreck, were watching CNN. There was Mitch McConnell, majority leader of the U.S. Senate. While I had seen his startled mouth-popping, wattle-waggling grouper mug a thousand times, I couldn’t remember actually hearing him speak. I found a spot on the sofa.
     “We’re debating a step that has never been taken in American history,” he began gravely. “Whether Congress should overrule the voters and overturn a presidential election. I served 36 years in the Senate. This will be the most important vote I ever cast.”
     To my amazement, he said the right thing. Time to put on our big boy pants, using a tone approaching contempt when he mentioned “sweeping conspiracy theories.” McConnell outlined the emptiness of the election fraud claims.
     “Nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale that would have tipped the entire election, nor can public doubt alone justify a radical break when the doubt itself was incited without any evidence.”
     I applauded. That’s the Democratic superpower — we can find value, even in those we generally oppose.
     I couldn’t have said it better myself. Mitch McConnell, Republican, Trump supporter, American hero.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The South shall fall again. And again. And again.


Robert Gould Shaw memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (National Gallery of Art)

     The South was never going to win the Civil War.
     If you consider the resources of the North, the moment the first Confederate cannon fired on Fort Sumter, the South’s doom was sealed. A week later, the Chicago Tribune ran a prescient editorial explaining why.
     “It is a military maxim of modern war that the longest purse wins,” it begins, outlining the North’s advantages in manpower, manufacturing, maritime strength and, most of all, money. “The little State of Massachusetts can raise more money than the Jeff Davis Confederacy.”
     The conclusion may have been foregone, but it took four years and 620,000 American lives to play out.
     It’s still unfolding. The Confederacy lost the war, but never gave up the fight — its baked-in bigotry, the proud ignorance required to consider another human being your property, marches on, from then to now. Manifesting itself plainly in the Trump era, his entire political philosophy being the slaveholder mentality decked out in new clothes, trying to pass in the 21st century. They even wave the same rebel flag. Kind of a giveaway, really.
    The Lost Cause marches on, as we will see Wednesday, when Congress faces another ego-stoked rebellion: Donald Trump’s insistence that his clearly losing the 2020 presidential election in the chill world of fact can be set aside, since he won the race in the steamy delta swampland between his ears.
     No way. Not as long as there are Americans, like the Chicagoans rushing to sign up to fight in April 1861, who are true patriots and willing to stand up for democracy.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

You can't live my life; but you can wear my hat

Chillin' in a Cara cap in Chile.

     Okay, I admit it. I'm a cool guy. A big shot, big city, Chicago newspaper columnist for years and years kind of fellow. Marinated in success, yes, but still retaining a sharp-elbowed street cred that comes with real-life experience and bone-deep savvy. Grounded in hard-working, union card carrying, measure-it-twice craftsmanship, yet on a first-name basis with all sorts of famous folks. ("Oprah!" I once said, bumping into the TV host unexpectedly, "What are you doing here?")
     I don't normally say it. In fact, I've never said it. That's part of being cool. You don't have to say it. There's no need. Other people say it for you. "That Neil Steinberg..." they begin, not  having to finish the sentence, because everybody knows.
     But for the few who might not know, I suppose I should explain. Cool ... in what way?
     No! Cool should never be explained. Probably can't be explained. Leave 'em guessing. But if I had to say... Well okay. Partly the stuff I've done—worked my way across the Atlantic on a ship. Traveled the world from Kyoto to Klamath. Flown in a stunt biplane doing barrel rolls over Lake Michigan. And the Goodyear blimp. Been down the Deep Tunnel. Twice. Ever look up in wonder at the communications masts atop 875 North Michigan, formerly known as the John Hancock Building? I've climbed up there. Plus I know the new name of the building—you had no idea, right? That's part of being cool. Not only doing stuff, but knowing stuff. Beowulf's dad? Edgetheow? Australia? Wider than the moon. The former Hancock and the former Sears Tower were designed by the same guy, who was born in Puerto Rico, but is not Puerto Rican. Chew on that for a while.
     Knowing stuff makes a person stand out, particularly during our current carnival of idiocy. It helps a person to write books. Most would-be authors push and struggle and beg and wheedle for years and years and can't get their stuff published. Sad. Me, I simply wait, making a cathedral out of my fingers, listening to Mozart, watching the trees sway in the wind and nodding sagely. Eventually big publishing houses ring me up and say, "Neil, would you please write a book for us..." and I sigh, and roll my eyes and say, "Well ... okay ... if it'll help others...."
    I suppose more than experience, or knowledge, cool is an attitude. A general air of coolness, of authenticity that can't be faked. That's how I can live in Northbrook and yet be as Chicago as a Hegewisch bungalow. Being me is like being a bar of gold. The same no matter where you take it. It's gold here. It's gold there. In a garbage dump or the Taj Mahal. Still gold. 
     Part of it must be how I dress. Look at the photo above. That's me touring glaciers in Chile in 2018. While you were busy ... what? Yawning and scratching and wishing something would  happen? While you were doing that, I was poking around the Patagonian coast, among scientists and bon vivants, all for free, of course.
You want this, right?
     Notice the hat? Very cool, right? Here's a closer look. A great shade of blue, with a stylized C in a circle that looks like something the Cubs would design, were the Cubs cool, which they most definitely are not.
     You want it, right?
     Tough. You can't have it. It was a gift from Cara, which is an extraordinarily cool program that helps people who are homeless, jobless, recovering drug addicts, and ex-felons get back on their feet, find employment, and begin living productive, happy lives like the one that I live every goddamn day. I've written about them in the past, most recently about their Cleanslate program last year.
     Helping people is cool, though the reason I wear the hat is that it is also extraordinarily comfortable. 
     Plus I suppose there's a kind of anti-status that I would appreciate if, you know, I cared about such things. Which I don't. Because cool people don't have to. Status is to cool folk like water is to fish; it surrounds us, so we never notice it. Fish don't know they're wet. You can have your tired sports team logo or your generic polo player or what have you on your cap. I have a program that saves lives in Chicago.
     You can't get a hat like that. Because ... wait. What? A bulletin. That's part of being cool. You're kept up to the minute on everything that is important.
     Up to right now, you couldn't get a hat like that, unless you were me, which you're not. But it seems that Cara, generous souls that they are, has just now opened up an online store. The announcement was made Monday, and you're finding out on Tuesday, because you know a cool, connected person such as myself. Cara is selling merchandise whose profits support their important work, and allowing regular ordinary folks who are not living ultra cool newspaper columnist lives to outfit themselves in Cara products. Not only the hat. But sweatshirts. T-shirts. Coffee mugs.
     My first thought, when I was notified first thing about the creation of the store was that I mustn't breathe a word of it to anybody, lest I start seeing other, less cool people who are not myself wearing my way-cool Cara hat. But I'm bigger than that, so I renounce that fleeting, unworthy thought, and graciously guide you to the inner sanctum of coolness. You can access their on-line store here.
     Make no mistake, the hat will not make you completely cool—not Neil Steinberg cool. For that, you need an entire lifestyle such as mine, built up over decades and scrupulously maintained. But it will make you cooler. At least a little. I can promise you that.
     The only downside—for me, not you—is the hat is very inexpensive. Just $15. When it should have been $25 or $50 or $100, to keep the hoi polloi away. That's what I would have suggested, had they asked me, which they didn't. They probably felt intimidated, approaching a super cool guy like me. Which is a shame because, as cool as I am, as famous and successful and top rung, I'm really very down-to-earth, if I say so myself.

Rockin' a Cleanslate hat in Venice.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Bears survive one more week, but starch goes on forever


     The Bears lost to the Packers on Sunday but made it into the playoffs anyway, so their suffering continues.
     The season started so well, if I recall, base on snippets overheard Monday mornings on WBBM radio news. Not that I watched a single second of a single game. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the team.
     I’ve been reading about how, 100 years ago this October. the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company of Decatur, producers of starch, sent their factory team, the Staleys, north, along with its young coach, George Halas, to become the Chicago Bears.
     Learning this led to the rare football-related question that intrigues me: Does Staley still makes starch?
     Yes, they do, but not under that name. The company was purchased for $1.4 billion in 1988 by British sugar refiner Tate & Lyle. I contacted them at the end of August. We hear so much about the football part of the tale, but drop the ball — look, a sports metaphor! — when it comes to the starch aspect.
     Tate & Lyle not only has a 400-acre factory making starch in Decatur called Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas LLC but a mixing plant in Sycamore that employs 100 workers; various silos; a purchasing facility, Tate & Lyle Grain; and a research lab, the Commercial and Food Innovation Centre, in Hoffman Estates, which is the place they decided our two-hour Zoom dog-and-pony show should showcase.

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Sunday, January 3, 2021

"I am a legend, a beloved legend"—RIP, Bert Raynes

Bert Raynes

   I was sorry to hear that Bert Raynes died on Friday, at the ripe age of 96, after a life well lived in nature.
    When the boys and I went on our big trip out West in 2009, we were lucky enough to run into Raynes at the 4th of July parade in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A legendary columnist who always wrote "whatever suits his fancy," Raynes only spoke with us for a few minutes, but they were memorable ones. 
     This excerpt is from my unpublished memoir of that trip, "The Quest for Pie."

     The next day was the 4th of July, and there is no better dramatization of the blend of Old West rawhide nostalgia and affluent modern herbal tea ease that characterizes mountain resort towns such as Jackson than to watch the Independence Day parade go by.
     There was a grey-bearded prospector driving a Conestoga wagon and a clean-shaven guy driving a Mercedes gull wing sports car. A rifle-toting cowboy in chaps and an elderly gentleman sitting in a brown recliner in the back of a blue pick-up. Beauty queens wearing cowboy hats and holding American flags, their sequined gowns fanned out over the flanks of their horses, and a squad of unicyclists. Girls in pigtails were riding with both the 4H Club and with the Therapeutic Riders Association (slogan, “Horses for Healing”). There was a float for a dude ranch and a float for Compassion Moves Mountains, the umbrella group for social service agencies in Teton County.
     A hundred years ago the parade would have been freighted with civic societies—the Masons, the Lions, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Now they were mostly businesses, like the Barker-Ewing White Water Rafting Outfitters, which featured employees rowing a big inflatable raft and spraying the crowd with Super Soakers. There was exactly one marching band, though it did not march—the musicians played their instruments while sitting on folding chairs, arrayed on a wide trailer pulled by a truck. There was something sadly supine about that.
     Before the parade began, rather than claim one spot, we explored the downtown strip of shops. From snatches of conversation, filtering in from the crowd, stray words like cricket chirps, I got the impression that Dick Cheney, the former vice-president under George W. Bush, was somewhere nearby, and the boys and I worked our way toward the thickest part of the crowd—his position clearly marked, ironically, by the big security agents milling around him. We’d have never noticed the man otherwise. Cheney was sitting in a chair, wearing a beige suede leather jacket and a white Stetson hat—he has a house around here—and I figured the boys might enjoy saying hello to such a prominent political figure.
     “You want to meet Dick Cheney, the former vice president of the United States?” I asked them. Kent made a face as if he had eaten something bad.
     “No!” he said.
     “Why would we want to do that?” asked Ross, genuinely puzzled. We moved on. I was proud of them for snubbing Cheney—me, I’d have said hello, just for the bragging rights, but I could also pass him by with only a faint regret. 
     The guy in the brown vinyl recliner in the back of a vintage blue Dodge pickup was a different matter. He intrigued me—an elderly gentleman, wearing a brown cowboy hat and a bright red zippered fleece. The only identification of this enigma was a large white sign that read simply, “Bert.” As he passed, the crowd cheered and chanted, “Bert! Bert! Bert!”
     “Who’s Bert?” I asked the lady beside me. She shrugged—another tourist. Jackson has only 8,500 full time residents (the town itself is “Jackson,” the town and the surrounding area are known, together, as “Jackson Hole.”)
     “Must be some beloved local,” I told the boys.
     After the parade ended, we wandered, looking at the shops selling t-shirts, selling knives. We noticed the blue Dodge pickup truck parked at a corner so Bert could watch the end of the parade. Here was my chance; I went over and complimented Jackson Hole.
     “Thank you,” he said, regally, as if he had built the place himself. “We like it.”
     One of his companions whispered that this is Bert Raynes. I observed that, given his reception, he must be some kind of luminary.
     “I am a legend, a beloved legend, no doubt about it,” said Raynes, a newspaper columnist, whose column, “Far Afield,” has appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide for the past 37 years. Raynes arrived here 50 years ago, drawn by photographs in National Geographic.
     When I asked, with requisite apology, how old he is, he smiled enigmatically and said, “Very.”
     The local perspective is different than a visitor’s. A tourist comes for a couple of days, hikes in the summer or skis in the winter, then leaves, wondering: what’s it like to live here year-round? I posed the question to Raynes.
     ”The sex is great,” interjected a 60ish woman standing nearby. A comment I paused at then decided was best to ignore.
     “The living is easy,” Raynes replied. “Even though it’s a boom town now, it’s still easy to make friends. You can walk up to anybody and say, ‘I’m a little lost—can you help me?’”
     In that spirit, I told him what we planned to do while in town—hike around Jenny Lake, maybe raft the Snake River—and he gave us a few tips.
     “Keep an eye out for thunderstorms,” he said. “They can come up fast.
     One doesn’t run into a fellow newspaper columnist very often—we’re a dying breed—so I took the opportunity to talk shop.
     “I don’t type,” he said, with pride. “I still write my column by hand, with a ball point pen on yellow paper.”
     How does his column get into the newspaper? I asked.
     “Some poor guy back at the office gets the short straw and has to type it up,” he laughed. “If he complains, they tell him he’s lucky to have a job.” A common refrain in the profession.
     At lunch, I plugged five dimes into an outdoor newspaper box for a copy of the Jackson Hole News & Guide, and read Raynes’ latest column at a diner counter as we gobbled our burgers.
     The column was about vultures, and begins: “A while back—say 20, 30 years ago—a turkey vulture (a large scavenging bird) in Jackson Hole was a rare sight. Just didn’t seem to happen, even in those times of year when lots of carcasses or parts thereof are available in quantity.”
     Now vultures were being observed “fairly often.” I learned something about vultures I had never even thought to wonder about, but seems worth knowing—why they have “unfeathered, naked heads.”
     “This feature evolved in response to a vulture’s method of probing with strong, white-tipped bills to feed upon the often decomposing entrails of carcasses,” Raynes writes.
     That would also explain why so many journalists are light in the hair department. Raynes’ column was packed with interesting vulture information, and has a “Field Notes” section at the end where readers share their own observations and are credited. “Rufous hummingbirds are back (Dick Hobbins, Mary Louis, Roger Watson, Amelia Gelssler, others).”
     I smiled, thinking: I might have to borrow the Field Notes idea and transplant it to Chicago: “Hector Smith reports that the tin-whistle-blowing lunatics usually roosting on North Michigan Avenue in warm weather have been migrating down to Congress Parkway this summer.”
     It’s incredible—almost unbelievable—that a columnist at such a small paper would have more than four readers contact him regarding rufous hummingbirds. He must have his audience well-trained.
     We wandered over to the Snow King Lodge to take a gander. Though the Virginian was completely adequate—stripped down and aging, but clean— a pal back in Chicago had nabbed us a fancy condo, gratis, at the Snow King, and we decided to relocate there.
     We checked in, sprawling happily in our fancy new digs. The boys would have their own bedroom, and we had a deck to watch the fireworks that evening.
     Edie phoned. Ross talked to her, and I couldn’t help noticing that, in describing Jackson Hole, Ross did not mention the glory of the snow-capped Tetons, nor the cherry-paneled luxury of our brand new condo at Snow King Lodge. He did not mention that we saw former Vice President Dick Cheney at the parade. What he said was:
     “Mom! There’s a columnist here who’s actually respected!”

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Texas notes: Ode to 2020

     Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey glances back at 2020, then looks down the road of 2021.

I wake up, not certain I’m in the right world.
  Every day is the same song, the same verse.
I’m quiet, but screaming inside;
  I’m on the edge of feeling it’s going to be OK.
Inside, I raise Cain for hours.
  Yet I feed others with a long handled spoon—
It seems better to keep things to myself these days.
  I don’t have the strength to get into a Donnybrook with anyone.
It is comforting to know we are all in this together.
  Still, I don’t know from Adam’s off ox what to do—
Perhaps a Quarantini?
     Each of these lines was uttered by clients in our sessions during COVID season. The poetry of their words astounds me. The silliness of the last word illustrates their overall resilience. Each person I know, personally and professionally, has dug inside and found ways to cope with the hard, cold truth of this period.
     I did not anticipate feeling such a deep inner peace today. I’ve been thinking that 2021 will not be much different than 2020 was; we still have obstacles galore on the horizon. I’m not sure if it’s the power of suggestion—that each year for my whole life I’ve found New Year’s eve to be a fresh start—or something more tangible, such as welcoming President Biden to office. I will not miss saying Resident Rump or feeling sickened by his dangerous, egomaniacal, greedy ways.
     Today I’ll sit in a yard, ten feet away from my friend Richard, the one COVID buddy whose house I used to go for visits during all of this. When the virus flared we cancelled our holiday meal plans. After that I felt it was best to stay away, since I do not want one single inkling of an opportunity to infect him. With nice weather and confidence that an outdoor hang can be safe, off I’ll go on my bike in a bit. The thought of sitting with Richard—a warm and elegant Renaissance man and sculptor—in the cool sunshine of Texas, sends feel good chemicals coursing throughout my body. Being grateful for such a simple thing makes me see that a healthy and happy inner landscape is all that really matters.
     The thought of hugging my family again—hopefully in 2021—embodies almost more more joy and comfort than I can handle. I feel that we are all coming back from limbo, and did not know if we’d make it. I realize it’s not guaranteed, but I will hold onto hope for now.
     The grief that comes in waves is sure to continue. I am sure part of me is in denial about realities I cannot face. The luxury to focus on self care, my career and hobbies seems like an absurd boon. What did I do to deserve this standing in the world?
     Since March I’ve been overcome at times. I once broke into sobs while biking, so had to pull off of the path. I stood barefoot in the grass of a field. I wanted to lie on the ground and let it out like a toddler would, but I was too afraid of scaring others. As I cried like I have not done in ages a friend called. I did not want to pick up, but I did. Julz talked me out of my despair for all of the suffering I felt—the lives lost in antiseptic hospitals, or worse yet, alone at home. I generally do not like to be talked out of my deepest feelings; I see great value in feeling them. But I let Julz walk me over to the swings and I let her cheer me up. I hopped on my bike and rode home with her still on the phone with me, and I actually felt good.
     This type of hand-holding from friends and family has given me the strength to put one foot in front of the other time after time during COVID season. Cheers to allowing others to help me, rather than doing the lone wolf thing, and cheers to the gift of others turning to me so we can all hold each other up.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Make the Most of a Brand New Year

    Good morning! Happy 2021. Well, so far anyway. As for the rest of the year, well, we'll see. A new president, almost certainly, with that 0.1 percent doubt half the story of what we've been through. The same old COVID, but we're working on it. Turning the corner, maybe, soon.
     Did you have a fun New Year's Eve? We really did, at the Steinberg household. Both boys home, little hot dogs wrapped in crescent dough, a relic of the 50s, passed from my parents, through me, to the next generation. Sorry about that. It's only one night. Watched "Soul," which is truly excellent. I highly recommend it.
     Now to the year ahead. The village of Northbrook asked me to write something for their Northbrook Voice magazine about starting the new year afresh, and I came up with this:

     The black aluminum front screen door, battered and completely wrong for our 110- year old farmhouse? The one I nevertheless walked through for 20 years? After looking around for a replacement and finding nothing suitable, I took what was for me a dramatic step: unscrewed the thing and just threw it away.
     "There are no new beginnings," the poet Kae Tempest says. "Until everybody sees that the old ways need to end."
     Welcome to 2021. It’s a safe bet that this year will be better than the last—on a grand scale.
     But what about your life? What are you going to do to better yourself? A single digit changing on the calendar can be powerful inspiration.
     "It's very motivating for a lot of people," said Marilyn Fettner, a Northbrook life coach. "It’s a fresh start, especially this year. Midway through the year, people were saying, 'I just want 2020 to be over.' It's been such a difficult year. People want a clean slate, mentally, an opportunity to say, 'Okay, here are the things I've been wanting to do.’"

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