Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Judge a book by its cover

     One of my personal mythologies is that, when it comes to writing stuff, I'm an endless font gushing quality material, a steely newspaper veteran who can firehose a constant stream of columns and blog posts and freelance articles and books, on command. That's being a professional.
     On Monday, however, I hit SEND on the proofread galley of my next book, due out in the fall from University of Chicago Press, and felt, well, about as drained as a human being can feel and not actually be dead. If I were a cartoon, I'd just collapse into a heap of ash and be blown away on the breeze. 
     It's always been an article of faith that the extra writing I do enhances, rather than detracts from, my job as a newspaper columnist. But this past six weeks, well, I was starting to think I was cheating the boss. Not that the column suffered—I think the writing was up to snuff. But I took on a big story on a certain Wisconsin manufacturer that would have been in the paper by now, but kept getting pushed aside. No gas in the tank. Which isn't the worst crime in the world, and a lapse I'm going to leap to address.
     But not now.  After sending the nearly-500-page book on its way (don't get scared; there's art) I sighed, stood up, and went to water the tomatoes, which helped, then folded a load of laundry.
     Now I'm back, good to go and onto the next task, today's post. Let's, ah, umm, share the cover of the book whose copy I have just picked over like an obsessive mother ape going after ticks on her child. For the past six weeks.
     Seeing the cover of a new book is always a moment of excitement and anxiety. It's like seeing your new face, designed by a stranger. This is my ninth book, and some covers I loved on sight, some hated. This one, I liked it when I first saw it, and like even more now. 
     Although when I first saw it, I did have a nagging qualm. I liked it; but I didn't love it, in the sense that what I wanted was a gorgeous Barry Butler photo—I already had one picked out, and helpfully sent to the Press—something that would shimmer like a gem on the shelves at the book shops at the Art Institute and the Chicago Architecture Foundation the way "You Were Never in Chicago" has done for a decade.
    This was bold. But not shimmering. I'm proud of my response, applying one of my superpowers to the situation, the realization that it isn't all about me. People smarter than myself in the art of selling books chose this route. So I didn't complain. Didn't ask or changes. What I did say is, if I've learned anything, it's that the purpose of a book cover is not to tickle the aesthetic sensibilities of the author, but to catch the attention of readers, to draw them in, and this cover will look fantastic on your phone, shrunk to a half inch tall. 
I remember looking at this and
thinking, "Could you MAKE it 
any smaller?"
      That was my initial take. Love builds over time, and now that a month or two has passed since I first saw it, I do kinda love the thing. Take a look at it and figure out why. Well, there is the artwork of Lauren Nassef, a Chicago artist and illustrator, who did a masterful job illustrating the book, and was a pleasure to work with (the "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" domed silver server illustrates the Chicago Jewish community's famous, to me anyway, "dinnerless dinner" at the Drake in 1921, to benefit the needy in Europe. It was smartly repurposed to give the sense of presenting the city of Chicago, on a platter). I like the colors, the big bold block letters of "EVERY GODDAMN DAY," the way the server cover just hooks the top corner of the Y. And the way the gloved hand nudges my name up. Okay, I'll say it: I like my name being so big, splayed across the whole cover, and not the tiny type other books have used. Maybe they didn't get the memo from the Humility Department.
     The cover, I should point out, was designed by Isaac Tobin (who happens to be married to Lauren Nassef. Small world). 
     Does it work? Well, you can pre-order the book from the University of Chicago Press (it costs the same as on Amazon, and you aren't underwriting the Leviathan). There's a value to that beyond merely displaying enthusiasm. One way the University of Chicago Press stays in business is by not ordering up vast print runs. My last book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise" kept selling out, especially after Scott Simon interviewed me on National Public Radio. So when it was published, sometimes people would have to wait for weeks while the presses ground out more copies and barefoot children sitting cross-legged in drafty warehouses in Malaysia sewed the bindings (kidding; I believe they use machines now). 
     Although to be honest, I'm not hanging fire on sales. First, it's my ninth book, so I'm familiar with the range of the possible. They always do well, or wellish, or well enough that I get to write another one, which is my main goal. And second, I learned so much doing this one, it was so much fun exploring the wide sweep of Chicago history, blowing dust out of the crannies and taking a peek inside, that I've already had my success. "You don't even have to publish the thing," I told my editor, turning it in. It was worth doing even if I were the only one to read it.
     That said, I'm glad it's coming out—Oct. 21, for those of you who want to mark it on your calendars (what? You haven't ordered yet? Order it! Please).  And I do hope you read it, because, well, it's got a lot in it. I'm glad they gave the book such a kick ass cover. Because despite the old saying, you can judge a book by its cover. People do it all the time.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Why would an 18-year-old kill?

     Do you remember being 18? I do. Graduating from high school, going to prom, spending one last summer in my hometown, Berea, Ohio, baking biscuits at a Bob Evans restaurant. There were worries — I’d be going to college in the fall, living in a four-man dorm room. What about the mini-fridge? What if we all rented one? Then we’d have four.
     When news of the shooting in Buffalo broke Saturday night, everyone grabbed a fact that seemed most important and waved it around. Ten people dead! A supermarket in a Black neighborhood! Toxic white supremacism seemed to motivate the alleged shooter! A lunacy once on the fringe of American society, now planted and growing at the center of the Republican Party.
     The preparations this guy took — that helmet and body armor, which kept him from being wounded by the store security guard. He drove 200 miles. With an AR-15 rifle, of course. Few people even mention the gun, because it’s such an accepted part of American life. That would be like pointing out the air he breathed. Air is everywhere; everyone has access to it. Guns too.
     Me, I kept thinking about his age: 18. To be that young, and throw away not only all those other lives, but your own too. To spend your whole life in prison, probably. Worse than being dead. And for what? To scratch your itch for two minutes.
     Think of all the lives he destroyed or altered. Not just the dead: the wounded, the grieving, their city. I almost included us, too, in the circle of the harmed. But that’s bombast. These shootings are both shocking and routine. The Buffalo shooting was Saturday evening. I’m writing this Sunday morning, but first sincerely wondered whether by Monday this will fade so much as to be not worth addressing. Old hat. No, I think I can slip it in before we move on and forget all about it.
     I focus on the apparent shooter’s age because it’s the aspect I can most relate to — I’ve never been to Buffalo, or shot anybody, or wanted to, or been shot. But I was 18. Sitting in Introduction to Russian in the fall. Shto eta? Eta capoosta. “What is this? This is a cabbage.” Russia seemed a direction I might want to go. Because at 18, you can go anywhere you want. Not everyone knows it. Not everyone has the same resources. But most 18 year-olds have choices.

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Sunday, May 15, 2022

Flashback 1999: Lasso the kids for Donley's

     I was sad to hear that Donley's Wild West Town is closing after 45 years in business. I was only there once, nearly a quarter century ago, with the boys, then 3 and 4, but I remember it being a fun, unusual place, with a little train, and a jail, and panning for "gold," and energetic employees working hard to give kids a great experience. 
     Usually, my old stuff doesn't make me cringe, but this one did,  a little. You could slice the first four paragraphs off and lose nothing. If this were someone else's work—oh that it were—and they asked me to critique it, I'd say, "You buried the lede. Start with 'I never had heard of the place...'" Or, better, "I'd never heard of the place..." Less awkward. Ah well.
     News is by nature negative. Headlines point to the disasters and tragedies of the day. You never see "EVERYTHING'S FINE" in big type.
     That's good, since everything is not fine, as a rule. So the bad gets publicity, and the good can be ignored. Run into something wonderful and enjoy it, but keep it to yourself. You don't want to be a publicist. What is forgotten is that others might enjoy it too, if only they knew.
     So, realizing the risks involved in praise, I have to let this one out:
     Donley's Wild West Town in Union, Ill. Fun. Unexpected.
     I never had heard of the place. Never heard of Union, for that matter. My wife found it. She has been running her own one-woman summer camp, and, in her endless quest to occupy the boys every day, found Donley's in a book. My first thought was: "I've never heard of Union. It must be far away."
     Make that far, far away. A solid hour's drive from Chicago. Plenty of time to dread the kind of cheesy, rundown joint a bitter cynic such as myself would expect from "Wild West Town." Neglect. Decay. A few pathetic attractions, run by indifferent teens forced to wear plastic uniforms.
     It wasn't. Not close. A big area enclosed by neat wooden buildings. For nine bucks, kids pan for gold in a miner's flume and ride a pony and a small choo-choo train. They are taught to lasso and invited to watch a bullwhip demonstration and a 20-minute Wild West show with gunplay and chases and corny jokes and bad guys tumbling from balconies.
     The place had an enormous restaurant where a tired dad could enjoy a beer with his lunch, and a jail cell where the sheriff herds the kiddies into a real old-fashioned lock-up and lets them ponder their imprisonment for a moment before compelling them to sing a song before he lets them out, all with a deft good humor, as if he hadn't done the same thing a dozen times that day, a hundred times that week, and thousands of times over the years.
     That wasn't the best part, however. The best part, for me, was the faces of the employees. They were adults. Men. One face after another, deeply tanned, lined, sun baked. Cowboy faces. Grizzled Marlboro men. A long, white mustache. A Clint Eastwood squint. All dressed like real, genuine cowboys. My kids will remember the pony, but I will always be amazed that the guy leading them around looked like he just stepped out of "Rio Bravo."
     Enthusiastic, authentic employees couldn't be an accident.
     "What we try to do is attract people who have a love of the old West," said Mike Donley, son of the founder, adding that the town has been there 25 years this summer. "We get a lot of retirees looking for something to do. The first thing we try to instill is: We don't pay your salary. Those guys coming through the door do. If those kids go home at night thinking you're camping under the stars, eating beans, then you've done your job. If you haven't, those kids aren't coming back."
     So that's the story. My apologies for sharing something positive. I'm sure I'll be my old self again next time. But with my kids clamoring to return and, incredibly, me looking forward to taking them, I couldn't just sit on this. The bulk of August stretches long and hot before us, and more than a few readers must need somewhere to take the kiddies that is worth the drive.
          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 3, 1999

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Wilmette Notes: Respite

   After you've read a certain writer for a while—last month Wilmette Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey passed, without fanfare, her second anniversary contributing to this space on Saturdays—you get a sense of their moods, their rhythms, their ups and their downs. I read the essay below and thought, "She seems her old self again; a little lighter mood. The spring must be doing its work." Maybe you feel the same.

By Caren Jeskey
I will take an egg out of the robin’s nest in the orchard,
I will take a branch of gooseberries from the old bush in the garden, and go and preach to the world;
You shall see I will not meet a single heretic or scorner,
You shall see how I stump clergymen, and confound them,
You shall see me showing a scarlet tomato, and a white pebble from the beach.
                                —Walt Whitman
     Ever since childhood, the eye popping blue of robin’s eggs has been one of my favorite things, probably because my mother felt the same way. My folks put birds, trees, insects, woods, water, and dirt on our radar from the moment we hit this planet, my siblings and me. I can still feel sand crunching between my teeth from peanut butter sandwiches on Wonder Bread at the beach. We lived outside whenever we could. 
     When I was gifted with eggs from neighbor’s chickens in Austin I’d carefully blow out the insides and save the almost weightless shells. They sat decoratively on windowsills and eventually ended up in the compost bin. When I lived in a tiny house with a chicken coop in early COVID times, the hens would leave warm oval offerings and I’d interact with them in multiple ways. First, just picking them up gently and feeling the weight in my palms, and admiring their hues. Then I’d place them into a bowl on the kitchenette counter as a pretty display. I’d gaze at the prettiness in the bowl on and off for days, and eventually crack them open— one or two at at time— to scramble up in a cast iron skillet on the portable electric stove top.
     The mind can be a complicated place. The same murky matter that plays traumas and insults over and over— and fears aging, loss, and death— can become still and serene by a simple unexpected joy, such as finding a nest full of eggs at the lakefront as my niece and I did last weekend. What a boon for this egg lover!
     We were at the Lighthouse Beach off of Central in Evanston on a much needed sunny day, and ended up in the wooded area with a gigantic climbing tree and rocks overlooking the lake. We built an epic fort with a tree-stump living room. My niece had me peel long strips of bark off of branches and sticks we had scavenged, which we used as twine.
     I noticed a thick ropy vine hanging down over a small tree, and pulled at it to see if I could break it off for fort lumber. As I tugged, I quickly realized that it was holding tightly to the tree, so I let it go. As the tree snapped back into place I saw a female robin flutter away. I took a closer look and there it was. Her nest, just a foot or so over my head. I held up my camera and snapped.
     I’ve never before found four perfect little blue eggs in an exquisitely crafted nest. I needed this tiny gift. Being at the lake with loved ones on a sunny day was great, and finding these babies was the sweet buttercream icing on the cake. In this truly vida loca, Mother Nature is still my refuge.
     I thought a lot about those eggs in the coming days and had a strong feeling that they would not make it. As the season finally relented and invited us outdoors, the beach and surrounding parks are becoming busier. With all of that activity I felt concerned for the birds. I also saw plenty of squirrels perching nearby, and a hawk hangs out there too.
     Last night I finally made it back to check on the babies. I held my camera up and snapped, and it was just as I’d thought. There were two eggs left, one sliced wide open with sticky yellow insides exposed. The other had a small round hole pecked clear out of it, with no movement inside. I also found a near whole, empty egg shell under the tree.
     All living beings are the same. We come into this world, and if we are lucky we survive. Along the way we might get henpecked or worse, and we also accomplish great things, big and small. We will all, as Walt Whitman did, eventually lose our ability to enjoy any of them. It’s time for me to get out on my bike now and do as Mary Oliver said in her poem "Summer Day:" Take advantage of this one wild and precious life.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Abortion is murder; oh wait, no it’s not

Museum of Science & Industry

     Less than 48 hours after the draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would scuttle Roe v. Wade was leaked in the press, the Louisiana legislature moved a bill out of committee that criminalizes any abortion, from the moment of conception, as a homicide, allowing women who have such a procedure, or anyone who performs one, to be charged with murder.
     Meanwhile, at the same time, states like Illinois rush to guarantee the right of women to control their own bodies, and certain companies, like Levi Strauss, Yelp and Uber, announce they will pay for female employees to go out of state to have an abortion — raising the specter of a nation where a citizen doing something in one state can get reimbursed by her boss, while doing the exact same thing in another state lands her in prison.
     Unless it doesn’t. Late Thursday, after even anti-choice advocates protested that they were overplaying their hands, supporters clawed the bill back. For now.
     Punishing women who get abortions makes for bad optics and, besides, it implies that they are responsible for their own decisions, and not merely the playthings of men, who are the ones with volition and therefore the ones who should be punished.
     Louisiana tossing out harsh laws and then yanking them back is the kind of chaos we can expect in the months to come. Religious fanaticism and forethought do not go hand in hand. If you set your daughter on fire because you feel shamed by who she is dating, then you probably didn’t deeply consider that you won’t have a daughter anymore and might be casting an even greater shame on your family.
     Ditto for political fanaticism. If you bar immigrants because you are terrified at the thought of a diverse America, then the strawberries rot in the field, because we actually need immigrants to make the economy work — to be surgeons as well as pick fruit, I must point out.

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Thursday, May 12, 2022


     And we thought the first Trump administration was a nightmare. During the Biden administration, rather than slowly grope their way back toward being decent people and loyal Americans, the MAGA crowd is deteriorating into a permanent state of foaming nonsensical madness, where no fact cannot be dismissed nor situation twisted into something contrary to what it is. Those lost in fealty to the former president have a phrase, "Trump Derangement Syndrome," they apply to anyone paying critical attention to his crimes or, indeed, critically pointing out anything about the 45th president did or does, such as my observation here Tuesday that the news he wanted to lob missiles into Mexico, then deny we had done it, revealed in former secretary of defense Mike Esper's memoir this week, would have been big news in a less crazy America.
     Prompting the following tweet. I know I shouldn't reply—what is the point? This guy has four followers. But sometimes you just have to point out the obvious, out of fidelity to reason, the country and whatever shred of hope remains of our nation avoiding utter ruin. Of course he never responded. They seldom do.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Rainbow Cone shines up north, too


     Once upon a time, in order to savor the quintipartite joys of an Original Rainbow Cone, you had to somehow get yourself to Beverly. Not too difficult if you were already in Beverly, or near it, or at least on the South Side. But an insurmountable hurdle to guys like me, far, far away from the Pepto Bismol-pink ice cream shop at 9233 S. Western Ave.
     Then Rainbow began popping up at Taste of Chicago, where I first tried the five-layer frozen delight, perhaps the pinnacle of the Chicago ice cream world. (Which is a small planet. There’s Margie’s hot fudge. And Lezza’s Spumoni & Desserts. And ... that’s about it, right?)
     For the unenlightened, a Rainbow Cone’s fivefold path is, from top to bottom: orange sherbet, followed by four ice creams: pistachio, Palmer House (New York vanilla with walnuts and cherries), strawberry, chocolate. As with actual rainbows, the wonder was hard to find, but that’s changing.
     The past half-dozen years, Rainbow Cone has run a summertime kiosk on Navy Pier. Last year, another opened in Lombard.
     Beginning Wednesday, deprived North Siders can partake, as Rainbow Cone opens at 3754 W. Touhy Ave. in Skokie in a symbiotic relationship with Buona Beef.
     I swung by Monday with one goal: to enjoy a Rainbow Cone — whoops, I mean, to talk to Lynn Sapp, granddaughter of founders Joe and Katherine Sapp, who opened Rainbow Cone in 1926.
     “I grew up right behind it, and my grandparents lived above it,” she said.
     Has a lifetime of proximity muted the allure?
     “No. I’ve always loved Rainbow,” she said. “It’s kinda like a drug for me.”
     But scarcity drives value. Is she concerned the proliferation of Rainbow Cones — there’s also one in Darien — will dilute the magic?

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