Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Gift

A couple years ago I was telling some friends a funny story about my mother. When I finished, one of them gave me a puzzled look. I asked her what was on her mind.

"I only think about your mom in abstract," she said. "I assume she exists, but not in the way our moms do; I don't think I could ever picture what she looks like."

Painting an abstract picture of my mother is light years ahead of how I used to acknowledge her existence. I tried like hell to erase her from my life. My brother, sister and I all left home at 16, each for a different reason. My sister was married and pregnant. My brother's budding juvenile delinquency had him bouncing between home and foster care. 

Me? Tired of being beaten by my stepfather, I was fighting back — often with whatever I could get my hands on. One time he took a swing at me and I split his head open with a fireplace iron. Another time, he was working on the car after kicking the shit out of me, so I followed him outside and tried to kick the jack out from the bumper while he was underneath. If I remained in that environment, there were two ways it would have ended: both scenarios end with my not being able to write this.

My mother saw this and signed over custody of me to my Uncle Stu before my junior year of high school.

I was angry and confused at what I saw was my mother choosing an alcoholic redneck asshole over me. Even though I knew I was in a better place with my uncle and aunt, I felt as though my mother washed her hands of me and getting rid of me was the best way to keep the family together. Worst of all, I felt there was something wrong with me and she had no patience to help me work through it.

As I entered adulthood, it was easier for me to acknowledge my mother’s existence in passing than to tell the details. I really didn’t want to talk about her, or with her. As I entered my thirties, I had effectively written her out of my life and didn’t want to talk to her again. That bitterness has softened over time. We chat regularly, catch each other up on what is happening in our lives, and tell each other we love each other.

The biggest change in our relationship came when I realized she saw giving my uncle custody of me as an opportunity. I could have vacillated between “foster care or whatever,” as John Kelly so callously put it last week. But both Mom and Uncle Stu saw a very gifted, budding young man who needed a chance to live up to his potential. This was a Hail Mary play: even though I was in a stable home environment with my uncle, there was no guarantee I would apply the life lessons he and my aunt were teaching me, as an adult. My teachers always told Mom I was gifted and my talents needed nurturing, but as a widow during most of the 1970s, Mom had a succession of second-shift factory or retail jobs and wasn't available much of the time.

Being honest with myself has allowed me to see my mother in a different light and recognize the traits I’ve inherited from her. 

I get my impatience and anxiousness from her.

She listens more than she speaks, and only interjects herself into conversations when she feels she has something to add.

She sings along to the radio while she cleans and cooks.

She makes the best banana pudding on the planet, even though most of it comes from a box of Jell-O pudding.

She’s independent and loyal.

She has great hair.

She knows how to stretch a dollar.

She loves her children and grandchildren.

She instilled in me a love of baseball.
We both wish for the best for the people we love, even if we can’t provide it.

The biggest trait we share is a stubborn nature and an insistence on self-sufficiency. Neither of us wants to ask others for help, but we’ve both come around to understanding that asking for advice or a helping hand is not a sign of weakness. It’s a lesson my mother imparted on me when I was sixteen, although I didn’t recognize it for decades after.

Saturday, April 28, 2018


With Art Shay at an exhibit of his photography in River North, January 2014.

Art Shay liked to tell people that I begged him to write a column for Chicagoist. In fact, his archivist, Erica DeGlopper, begged me.

Erica said it was Art’s idea, but I was skeptical as to why a then-87-year-old photographer wanted to write a weekly column on a website geared to a millennial audience. I was even more doubtful when Erica assured me Art would be OK with not being paid. All I knew was only an idiot would turn down a golden opportunity.

Art’s first Chicagoist column was published on December 22, 2010 but it wasn’t until his third column, a story of a chance encounter with Elizabeth Taylor, that it truly took off and I remembered good stories find wide audiences. That was also the first time I spoke with Art on the phone. I shared traffic numbers for that column with him, where the traffic was coming from and ideas for future installments. With business complete, I then asked Art to tell me about himself. 

For the next 20 minutes I listened and cried as Art told the story of his wife, Florence, their seven-decade relationship, her battle with ovarian cancer and how he felt powerless to see her in such pain. During that call, I realized the real reason Erica proposed the column: it distracted him from Florence’s deteriorating illness.

It was my first lesson that being an editor is more than fixing typos and shepherding stories from pitch to final proof. Sometimes, it involves being a therapist, managing egos and crises of confidence, knowing when to be gentle and when to be blunt, and when to simply shut up and listen. With Art, I recognized I had to be a protector as well as an editor.

Ever the professional, Art filed his columns every week for four years, even after Florence died in 2012. He wrote about covering Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, Studs Terkel, famous Chicagoans, tailing the mob, being an Air Force navigator in World War II, race relations in 1960s suburban Chicago, his mentor, how to edit a photo, his hobo friend, faith, the life and tragic death of his son Harmon and his friendship with Nelson Algren more times than I can count. He saved his most inspired columns about Florence.

By the end of 2013, he and Erica were increasingly busy with gallery exhibitions and a new book, and the column eventually ended as Art had other, emotionally and financially rewarding, distractions.

Art Shay died today, one month after celebrating his 96th birthday. Last year, I attended his 95th birthday celebration at an Italian restaurant in Highland Park. I had only seen him a couple times between Florence’s funeral and then, and he barely recognized me. At his 95th birthday, he was confined to a wheelchair but his mind was as sharp as during our first conversations. We caught each other up on our lives and careers. It was the last time I would speak with him. He outlived Florence by five-and-a-half years and I don’t think that would have been possible without Erica nudging him on. She was the driving force in Art’s late career renaissance and helped cement his already daunting legacy as one of America's best photographers. I’m thankful for her today for bringing Art into my life and for my playing a role, however small, in that victory lap.

In my living room, I have a framed photo of Muddy Waters and his wife that Art took in 1954 at some club on 47th Street in Bronzeville. Ever mindful of the value of his work, Art autographed the matte along with the inscription: “For one of the best editors I ever worked with — Chuck Sudo.”

Thank you, sir, for being an example to look up to when I'm feeling low.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Winter of 'Meh'

“Do you think it may be time for you to consider medication?”

I’ve been seeing my therapist for four years because I deal with anxiety, anger management issues and depression. Through behavioral modifications and cognitive therapy practices I’ve made progress, but not without the occasional backslide. We settled on this program because I look at mood altering meds as a last resort. But whenever I find myself stuck in a rut and with no breakthroughs, she’ll broach the subject of meds.

After this extended winter, I’ve been thinking about it more.

When 2017 ended, I received a middling performance review at work and was considering perusing job listings. I had nearly $22,000 in credit card debt, spread across three accounts. The gasket in my gas furnace wore out, covering the walls of my apartment in fine black soot. I could only open one window to allow fresh air inside because the others were covered in plastic insulation. At least one of my three daily meals was takeout. A hip pointer kept me from ice skating for exercise, and my dog contracted a urinary tract infection. There was a publishing break at work between Christmas and New Year’s where I felt if I could just stay away from anything related to my job, I could recharge my batteries for a bit and seize 2018 by the short hairs. I committed myself to seizing control of my credit card debt this year and putting in a good faith effort at work, and if I still felt like hot buttered blah come spring, I could begin the job search in earnest.

Instead, this winter has been one constant shoulder shrug emoji.

Oh, those early weeks were good. I was able to stock my freezer with the fruits of my crockpot labors. I’ve made steady progress on the credit card debt and am on target to cancel two of the three accounts by September. Mira is fit as a fiddle.

Work is another matter entirely. I started the year well, but a series of unforced errors a few weeks back landed me on a 30-day “performance improvement plan.” There is a good chance I may not have a job in a couple weeks, even as my editors are adding me to special projects months from now and I have my own editorial calendar set deep into May. For someone who constantly deals with impostor syndrome, this has been a crisis of confidence.

My dissatisfaction with work has a ripple effect over everything right now. When I left Chicagoist three years ago, I promised myself I would never find myself in another position where I needed to stay at a job because I couldn’t afford to quit. I took this job for a few reasons. I wanted to hone my reporting skills. The pay was much better than editing Chicagoist. Bisnow was a small, scrappy editorial staff that reminded me a bit of the early days of the –Ist. While I didn’t have a passion for reporting about real estate, I believed I could find stories that tied that to other interests like architecture, public planning, government, business and design. And for a while, I was able to do that.

Yet here I am, coming full circle.

A couple weeks back, my friend Michelle and I were catching up on things and I told her about what was happening at work. Michelle has a way of offering honest assessments while still being supportive. “You need to realize that you are an accomplished reporter and editor, and that is marketable,” Michelle said.

After that call, I sat down and completely rewrote my resume for the first time in years, focusing on those accomplishments. What I discovered was I’ve been a practicing journalist in some form, for 17 years. The parts of my resume I feel are weak, mainly a lack of education, are more than balanced by my accumulated experience. At my last therapy session, my therapist reminded me of my promise to launch a spring job search if things at work did not improve. She also reminded me that work has been a constant source of my anxiety for longer than I realize.

“I don’t believe you were ever really passionate about this job like you were at other points in your career. This is the kick in the ass you’ve needed,” she said.

I’ve always told aspiring writers of all stripes looking to make that professional jump the most important thing they needed was passion. If you can marry the passion of what you’re writing about with your technical strengths, you will make your readers passionate about your writing.

This probationary period has seen me go through the full range of emotions, from fear and anger, to disgust and sadness, to surprise and anticipation. It’s also reminded me that I’ve been disconnected from my own passions for some time. As I go deeper into this job search, I’ll be looking for the ways to connect the two again.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Act Like You've Been Here Before

I was vacationing in Nashville last month when I received an email from Jeremy Owens, the charming and immensely talented producer of the storytelling series, You're Being Ridiculous, inviting me to read at his most recent group of shows with the theme, "light bulb." (Tickets are still available for the Dec. 2 at Uncommon Ground Edgewater.)

I was well into a draft about a different subject — one I'll eventually finish — when Joe Ricketts abruptly shut down the DNAInfo and Gothamist networks (which included Chicagoist) on Nov. 2. So I called an audible and wrote a story for YBR about how Chicagoist grew into the site it became and what it personally meant to me. If it weren't for the doors that Chicagoist opened, I would still be a surly bartender even closer to death than I currently am.

This one is for everyone who wrote for Chicagoist over its history. For another take, my friend and onetime colleague Jim Kopeny has his reflections on his personal blog.


L-R: Some of the first wave of Chicagoist staffers: Julene McCoy, yours truly, Justin Sondak, Rachelle Bowden, Shannon Saar, Erin Shea Smith, Scott Smith, Mike Fourcher, Margaret Lyons, Kevin Robinson and Matt Wood, pictured at Gold Star before Chicagoist's 10-year anniversary party in October 2014 (Photo credit: Rachelle Bowden)

Chicagoist existed for thirteen years before Joe Ricketts shut it down a few weeks back. I was there for almost a decade, from its earliest days as a site finding its way to its final iteration as one of the most popular websites in the city. Even though my time at Chicagoist ended over two years ago, people say the same thing whenever my name turns the gears in their minds.

“What a fun job that must have been!”

And it was, but not in that cliched “if you love what you do for a living, it isn’t work” way, because there were days where I wanted to toss my laptop out the window, make a hobo roll and hop on a freight train out of town with my dog. What kept me sane at Chicagoist was one steadfast rule we observed throughout its lifespan: “Act like you’ve been here before.”

That rule and its corollary “fake it ‘til you make it” was what drove the site, especially in the early days of online journalism as a new, wild frontier. When Chicagoist launched in 2004, the concept of blogging was in its infancy. Gawker was only a year old, Huffington Post didn’t exist and Arianna Huffington was still a fucking Republican. Print journalism was relatively healthy: The Tribune and Sun-Times were thick with news and advertising, the Reader was the size of a cinder block and home to 15,000-word cover stories, but few in the print world recognized the threat the internet posed to newsrooms and how Craigslist would completely disrupt the advertising revenue model that was the lifeblood of newspapers. 

Few of the Chicagoist OGs had actual journalism experience when the site launched but we had moxie, a willingness to create our own thing and learn from our mistakes. The first wave of blogs took the news of the day, repackaged it with liberal doses of opinion and sarcasm and added context the original stories missed, hit “publish” and found an audience who understood the language we used to communicate.

We were wedding crashers, essentially. We showed up at a random reception hoping to down a few cocktails before getting kicked out and the next thing we knew, we’re leading a conga line with the bride and her blitzed father is trying to hook us up with his other daughter.

Another aspect to the “act like you’ve been here before” ethos was focusing our passions through our writing — we wrote about topics and subjects we couldn’t find in the dailies and weeklies. We brought aboard writers deeply involved in community organizing, political and social justice campaigns who taught our readers what it meant to give a shit about this city and its communities, and do the real, hard critical work it takes to inform themselves and others. We accepted writers who had deep connections to Chicago’s music, arts and culture scenes and could write about it with authority. We brought food writers into the fold who got creative covering the depth of Chicago’s food and drink scene on a non-existent budget while avoiding “pay for play” coverage. We had writers who taught readers and our fellow staff that a whole city and culture existed away from the North Side that can be explored without fear. As we informed our growing readership we also learned from each other, and formed a sense of teamwork, if not family.
A Chicagoist staff "Happy Hour" at Piece Pizza, some time in 2006. (Photo credit: Rachelle Bowden)

We took chances with our writing. We peppered articles with in-jokes that our most loyal readers understood. We had an “Ask Chicagoist” column that predated WBEZ’s “Curious City.” We had a podcast. We taught readers how to cure bacon inside a kitchen sink vanity and gave the process the very unappetizing term "sink meat." We criticized why City Council would rush to ban foie gras but took half measures legalizing food trucks. We clued readers to the existence of a marital aid called a “fucksaw.” We ran an April Fool’s Day article about a lost South Side neighborhood called “Little Hawaii” with doctored images so convincing, readers emailed us to learn more about this fictional neighborhood. We used publicly available crime statistics to map out Chicago’s douchiest nightlife districts
An empirical map of Chicago's douche vortices. (Map credit: Melissa McEwen)

We had a love-hate relationship with Billy Corgan and Steve Albini, regularly called out the Tribune’s John Kass on his Kassholishness, discovered that no amount of marijuana can mellow the easily triggered fans of Umprhey’s McGee, and stumbled into an online slap fight with Richard Marx, who assumed that all bloggers were in their mid-30s and lived in their parents’ basements. And we introduced millennials to the photography and writing of Art Shay, arguably America’s greatest living photojournalist. He wrote a weekly column for Chicagoist for three years and never missed a deadline, even as his wife of 60 years was slowly dying from cancer, which taught the staff, by example, the value of acting like a professional when my persistent reminders could not.

In acting like we’ve been here before, we hit upon a foolproof formula.

But there was another ingredient to that formula: we ran lean. By “lean,” I mean that no one was paid for the first couple years and I don’t feel that any of us who ultimately did make a living there earned what we felt our labor was worth. Chicagoist’s first paid full-time editor was hired nearly three years into its existence, and the beat editors were paid monthly stipends that may have covered the tab at one of our monthly staff boozefests (depending on how thirsty we were). I internalized the guilt whenever I told prospective staff that they would write for exposure, because I knew exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

In spite of that, Chicagoist had a queue of people interested in joining the site whenever calls for new writers went out because they recognized their work would reach a wide audience, and we editors worked hard to nurture their talents and instill a sense of professionalism so that the “exposure” could lead to better things, whether there or somewhere else.

One of the best Photoshops I even saw: Hawaiian emigres to Chicago kayaking in the shadows of U.S. Steel's South Works plant. (Image credit: Steven Pate)

By the time I became editor-in-chief in 2010, Chicagoist was a bullet train that constantly needed fuel to maintain top speed. Full-time editors had daily post quotas to hit — we called it “feeding the beast” — but being responsible for writing the majority of the stories on the site and managing a staff of editors and writers with day jobs was a stress for which I wasn’t completely prepared. As the only full-time editor for my first 18 months, I put in 12-16 hour days to feed the beast. It wreaked havoc with my personal life and my life-work balance. The long work days were a pattern I couldn’t completely shake, even as we added a full-time associate editor and brought on more staff to broaden our coverage. By the end of Year Three, I was burned out, increasingly detached from the tribe we worked so hard to develop and my work relationships with my bosses in New York, and my associate editors here, deteriorated. When I was finally fired two years ago, it came as no surprise and a great relief.

I moved on. I got a new job where I could work on the skills I allowed to atrophy while feeding the beast, and became part of another eager band of reporters that nurtures and encourages me to constantly improve as a journalist. And the work is paying off again. I feel as though I’m producing some of the best work of my career.

A part of the healing process was completely disconnecting myself from Chicagoist, which was necessary for me to figure out what I was without it, and to allow the staff to build on the existing foundation. One of the lessons I learned was that being an editor is like being a renter. You can arrange the furniture to your liking, hang photos and artwork on the walls, paint rooms and make minor repairs. But if the landlord chooses not to renew the lease, you’re out. I didn’t get to say goodbye to the staff I helped build and nurture in the way I wanted.

Joe Ricketts’ decision to shut down Chicagoist and DNAInfo Chicago was equivalent to him kicking everyone out of his guest house, and during the holidays, to boot. Having some distance from Chicagoist, I can look back at it fondly: the friendships that will stand the test of time, the unlikely relationships that turned into marriages, the staff that went on to bigger and better things in journalism and other corners of media, and the ones who took their experiences and created completely new things. And I can hold my head high knowing I played a role, however small.

A couple weeks back, a handful of us gathered at the home of our arts editor. We traded war stories and caught up on life and didn’t talk too much about the billionaire elephant in the room. We toasted the good times and what was left behind and the lives we hopefully enriched with our work.

We acted like we’ve been here before. Because we had.

I had this banner made for a fundraiser Sam Abernethy organized at Nisei Lounge in 2013. It finally made it back to my possession. (Photo credit: Chuck Sudo)