Old friends, old jokes and an old column
Plus more than you want to know about my ear wax problem
7-21-2022 (issue No. 45)
Eric Zorn is a former opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Find a longer bio and contact information here. This issue exceeds in size the maximum length for a standard email. To read the entire issue in your browser, click on the headline link above. Below:
News & Views about Evanston’s flirtation with ranked-choice voting, J.B. Pritzker’s flirtation with the presidency and more.
Today’s Tune: The intriguing backstory of “The Bells of London Town.”
Forgive the lack of timely content in this issue. Items this week were prepared last week because I’m traveling — on my now-annual reunion trip with the guys I lived with in college. Here’s part of what I wrote in 2011 about this trip:
Even before I reached the halfway buoy of life — roughly age 40, statistically speaking — I was fond of the apt but brutal nautical metaphor "headed back into port" to describe the declining phase of man's journey.
We set sail as youths. The seas are often rough and the course uncharted, but the horizon of possibility and wonder still recedes before us. If nothing else we have time.
Then at some point, usually well after it has become a reality, we realize we're on the homeward leg. Not that it's necessarily a clear, straight voyage without detours, adventures or choppy waters ahead, but that we sense the inevitable harbor in the distance and the melancholy urgency of our approach.
The metaphor came up last weekend when I got together with two shipmates out in the appropriately oceanic setting of Cape Cod.
In college, we'd lived on the same dorm hall and then in the same rental house. We figured the last time we were under one roof together was sometime in the late 1980s, before it was clear that our connection would survive the geographical and professional distances that had even then opened up among us.
Before, even, we knew why it mattered. Friends come and go, particularly when you're young and always finding yourself in new situations. At times it feels as though there's an endless supply of new people cycling in to replace those who are cycling out for one reason or another.
In fact, old friends can feel like — and here I beg your pardon for torturing this metaphor of mine — anchors. They've known you at your worst, your most confused, your least wholesome. And it's hard to reinvent yourself in the eyes of someone who's fished you out of a toilet stall after you've drunk yourself unconscious because your girlfriend dumped you. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
But those very memories, leaden as they are, make old friendships the easiest and most comforting of all.
What did we do on Cape Cod? Nothing, really. We'd planned to play golf but the weather was rotten, so we took long walks, ate long meals and yapped and yapped and yapped. From the minute I met one of the guys at the Boston airport Friday night for the drive to the other guy's house in West Falmouth, Mass., until I said "this was fun, let's do it again before so long" on Monday morning, we talked.
About everything and nothing. Our kids. Our wives. Our jobs. Politics. Sports. Books. Bad jokes. Old times. Encroaching ailments. The future.
It was during a walk along a beachfront road that I brought up the notion that now, entering our mid-50s, we're indisputably headed back to port. The shore's getting closer, but we don't know how close. We've made most of the big decisions we'll ever make, a startling realization once it hits you, but, with luck, the adventure is far from over.
And, with luck, we won't face it without our shipmates. They come into our lives through circumstance and whim. They're not obvious at first, the way sweethearts tend to be, nor are they always close in a literal sense.
But somehow they last. The best of them stick around longer than anyone but family to care about you, laugh with and at you, give you advice no one else can, and forgive you as necessary. It's not so much a reunion when you get together as a resumption.
The conversation never ends, it's merely interrupted until next time, when it will be even harder to pretend that there will always be a next time.
Last week’s winning tweet
This tweet was originally in the list of runners up for inclusion in the poll. Then, in her pre-publication review of last week’s issue, my wife flagged this tweet —
— and said it really wasn’t working for her. Did I have another one in reserve? I made the substitution, but now I’m wondering if I should include “taco truck” in a future poll. Help me out:
Last week I also conducted a “dad tweets” poll. Read the finalists here. The winner was:
Wax in, wax out. Our family’s 2022 ear in review
In May, my 90-year-old mother precipitously went deaf. Or so it seemed.
Conversations with her had become quite difficult due to her struggles with dementia, which I wrote about here, but they suddenly became nearly impossible. We had to shout at her from inches away just to let her know it was time for meals or to ask her if she wanted to go on a walk.
We took her to her audiologist to see if perhaps her hearing aid needed adjustment or if she was suffering from some sort of infection. But it turned out that she was merely experiencing the effects of severely impacted ear wax.
The audiologist carefully extricated a few large chunks and improved her hearing significantly. But it required several visits to various medical offices — including, finally, an otolaryngologist (or ENT in common parlance) — and extended applications of carbamide peroxide ear drops to remove all the obstructions and restore her hearing to where it had been.
The technical name for the oil that can harden and accumulate in the ear canal is cerumen, which sounds a lot like a coinage of the pharmaceutical industry. (“Ask your doctor if Cerumen is right for you”). The ear-wax site for New York City’sMount Sinai Health System says that in most cases, the excess should fall out naturally with a little maintenance washing. Also:
Never try to clean the ear by putting any object, such as a cotton swab, into the ear canal. … Whenever you put something in the ear like that and rub around, you're moving the hair cells inside the ear and stimulating the body to make more wax. So it actually perpetuates the problem. It gets out what's there, but it makes you have more very soon thereafter.
Less than a month later, then, I began feeling a pain in my left ear and suspected an AirPod related infection was to blame. I wear my wireless earphones all time time, frequently when they’re not even in use and often all night. And some doctors say they’re seeing an increase in infections related to these in-ear speakers.
Overuse can, in fact, lead to both irritation of the ear as well as potentially otitis externa, or swimmer’s ear, which is when bacteria and debris collect in the canal and cause swelling and pain,” said Dr. Neil Brown, a board-certified emergency medicine physician … Earbuds essentially block the ear canal, which can cause moisture to build inside, Brown said. “This increase is a fertile breeding ground for bacteria, and if circumstances are right, an external infection can occur.” (TechRepublic)
I went to an urgent-care facility in Ann Arbor when I all but lost hearing in that left ear. The nurse practitioner told me it wasn’t an infection but a serious buildup of hardened cerumen, which she was confident her assistant could wash out with jets of warm water.
A technician went at it for half an hour and made almost no progress. She told me to try using Debrox — the brand name of popular carbamide peroxide ear drops — for four days, then come back. Four days later I was back in Chicago, still almost deaf in the afflicted ear but now a student of ear wax.
A niche interest ? Hardly. Videos on the TikTok channel devoted to ear wax have 8.3 billion views so far.
“The content (of the videos) ranges from in-office extractions performed by ear, nose, and throat doctors to at-home videos of people using various tools to get the sticky stuff out,” wrote Consumer Reports. “It’s more than just a fad. According to a report on hearing by the World Health Organization, some 10 percent of children and 5 percent of adults have impacted earwax. And over 50 percent of older adults may be affected. …All of this adds up to a boom in earwax removal products—and the options seem endless.”
Yet cerumen is beneficial in modest amounts.
“The wax traps dust, dead skin, and other debris inside the ear canal, helping to keep your ears clean,” says another CR article on this fascinating subject.. “The oily quality of earwax moisturizes the skin inside your ear canal, helping prevent cuts and scratches. And the wax’s acidity can destroy bacteria, protecting you from infection.”
And, as seemed likely to me, experts say genetics plays a role in the quality and quantity of the buildup.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology cautions against Q-Tips, ear candles, scooping tools and drill-like apparatuses — basically everything except for ear drops, which they recommend using to soften up impacted wax so that a medical professional can do the removal properly.
Another half an hour of water-jet treatment at another urgent care office allowed me to hear intermittently through the ear, but the technician told me I needed to see a specialist. When I called my primary-care physician for a recommendation, he told me to come on in and let him have a go at it.
His tool of choice was a Waterpik. More progress. My hearing was back to normal, but he sent me to an ENT in his office building. That doctor — my fourth office visit, if you’re keeping score — used what amounted to a high-tech vacuum cleaner to suck out the remaining bits, which had a grip on the skin in my ears that even the drops couldn’t break.
Given my mother’s recent experience and the genetic link, I choose to tempt fate and exonerate my AirPods. I’m wearing them for no reason even as I type this.
News & Views
News: Evanston voters will decide in November whether to use a ranked-choice voting system.
View: On balance, I think ranked-choice — also called “instant runoff” — elections are a better way to have elected bodies reflect the consensus views of the people. They’ve got drawbacks — Harold Washington would not have been elected mayor if Chicago had used a ranked-choice system — but I’m glad to see that Evanston will be debating the idea and perhaps implementing and experimenting with it. (see Evanston Now)
News: Governor J.B. Pritzker appears to be dipping his toe into the presidential waters with several recent out-of-state speeches
View: I can see it. It’s customary for residents of a state to scoff at first at the idea that the person who is “just” their governor or senator could become president. Pritzker gives strong speeches, he’s progressive without seeming radical, his administration hasn’t been touched by scandal and, indignant braying on the right notwithstanding, he’s done a decent job leading the state through the COVID-19 pandemic.
He’s not perfect. We’re going to be hearing a lot during his run for re-election against Darren Bailey about how he removed toilets from a mansion under rehab in order to save money on his taxes. But neither will be any of the other hopefuls who jump in if and when Joe Biden announces he’s not running again.
In “Is J.B. Pritzker The Democrats’ Only Hope For 2024?” Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs writes
Pritzker has been signing bill after bill, and many of them are exactly what progressives want. In his time in office, Pritzker has approved legislation that has:
“Effectively ends immigration detention in the state” and appointed public defenders to help immigrants in deportation cases
Initiated a giant state-wide capital plan promising “$45 billion worth of investments in roads, bridges, railroads, universities, early childhood centers and state facilities over the next six years, creating and supporting an estimated 540,000 jobs over the life of the plan and revitalizing local economies across the state.”
Made Illinois the first state in the country to ban police from lying to minors
Introduced a suite of criminal punishment reforms, “abolish[ing] cash bail beginning in January 2023, reform[ing] police training, certification and use-of-force standards, expand[ing] detainee rights, and requir[ing] body cameras at all departments by 2025.”
Incentivized employers to hire people who are in recovery programs for mental illness or addiction
Pritzker is a pragmatist, not a radical. He might have ended cash bail and increased state spending, but he has also improved the state’s finances over all, and signed a measure cracking down on rings of criminals that organize retail theft. Still, when you talk to a leftist in Illinois, they are likely to tell you that Pritzker is about the best Democratic governor one could reasonably hope for.
On the other hand, a new report from Morning Consult shows he’s not a particularly popular governor compared to his peers.
News: ShutDownDC is offering a bounty of up to $250 to Washington D.C. service-industry workers who report to the organization public sightings of U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.
View: I favor the right to protest and I am angry about the overturning of Roe. There obviously shouldn’t be laws against protests on sidewalks outside of restaurants. But, as I’ve written before, this isn’t a tactic that the left or the right should embrace. When we blur the line between demonstration and intimidation, we not only normalize harassment of people with whom we agree, we endorse the idea that elected officials, judges, jurors and the like should heed those who are loudest, scariest and best organized, not necessarily those who make the better arguments.
This is some bull from sidewalk solicitors
A group of those earnest fundraisers whose job title is “canvasser” stopped my wife Johanna on the sidewalk in the Loop the other day and asked if she’d like to donate to Heifer International, the charity that supports farmers and agricultural communities in the developing world by providing them with livestock and other aid.
She was agreeable, and one of the workers started the paperwork. Would she like to give a dollar a day? Maybe $25 a month? No, she said, how about I just give you a one-time donation of $100?
They stopped short and said they can’t do that. It’s either a recurring donation on your credit card or it’s nothing. OK, said my wife, it’s nothing. She walked away.
I wrote about these clipboard warriors in 2009, and quoted Columbia University sociologist Dana Fisher to the effect that about 75 percent of them get fired or quit in under a week because they fall short of the daily fundraising requirement. This was according to more than 100 canvassers she interviewed for her 2006 book, "Activism, Inc., How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America."
Because the experience is often very disillusioning. The training period -- less than half a day, according to several former canvassers I interviewed at the time -- deals almost exclusively with sales techniques, not the fine points of the issue for which the canvassers are raising money. Passersby who don't ignore them tend to be confrontational or rude — hard to blame them, really. And the daily fundraising minimum — $125 for Environment Illinois canvassers 13 years ago, for example — is a tough nut.
"It's an incredibly cynical system that recognizes that idealism is often shallow and can be exploited for at least a brief period," said Greg Bloom, a former canvasser who has covered simmering labor disputes in this area for In These Times, a progressive monthly newsmagazine. "For every 10 canvassers launched into political careers, 990 walk away with a horrible, sour taste. Progressives should know better."
Not to pick on Heifer International — they almost certainly outsource their sidewalk begging to Fund for the Public Interest or some other third party — but this sort of effort to rope people into giving every month is leaving money on the table.
Land of Linkin’
“The Trials of Brittney Griner” by Julia Ioffe in Puck News is the best summary I’ve yet read about the Russian legal system and the grim situation in which the WNBA superstar finds herself. She is in “the same court that, just last month, sentenced American Mark Fogel, a teacher and former U.S. embassy employee, to 14 years for weed that customs agents found in his luggage at Sheremetyevo (airport). Russia, it turned out, did not recognize his medical marijuana license. … the Kremlin now finds itself in possession of a high-value prisoner, one whose value goes higher and higher the more Griner’s supporters, led by her wife Cherelle, publicly push on Joe Biden to bring Griner home.”
Hot Money, a new podcast from the Financial Times and Pushkin Industries, “sets out to discover who rules the porn industry. Through the eight episodes, it tells the secret history of the adult business, stretching across three decades with a cast of billionaires, tech pioneers and some of the biggest financial companies in the world.” The major role that credit-card companies play in deciding what you can see may surprise you.
In “An Octogenarian Biden Should Pass the Torch in 2024,” syndicated columnist Steve Chapman lays out the case against President Joe Biden seeking a second term: “The lesson of recent elections is that the public tends to prefer presidents who differ markedly from their predecessors. … After two elderly presidents in a row, with high federal office increasingly a geriatric monopoly, comparative youth should be an asset in 2024. …Democrats have no shortage of plausible contenders. Among them: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.”
“Chicago Spire, Elon Musk’s ‘X’ and more: Chicago projects that won mayor support but were later sidelined,” by the the Trib’s Kori Rumore is great look at recent local pipe dreams.
Politico’s Michael Schaffer explains why Ruy Teixeira left the liberal Center for American Progress for the conservative American Enterprise Institute even though he remains “just a social democrat.. trying to make the world a better place.” “The reason, he says, is that the relentless focus on race, gender, and identity in historically liberal foundations and think tanks has made it hard to do work that looks at society through other prisms. It also makes people nervous about projects that could be accused of giving short shrift to anti-racism efforts.
In the chilling Chicago Magazine article, “Finding the big truth behind the insurrectionists,” Mark Caro quotes University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape: “The Capitol riot revealed a new force in American politics — not merely a mix of right-wing organizations, but a broader mass political movement that has violence at its core and draws strength even from places where Trump supporters are in the minority.”
“Just Sign the Damn ERA Already” has persuaded me that it’s a good idea. “What would the Republicans be doing if they were one signature away from changing the Constitution?”
“Who is GOP Nominee for Governor, Darren Bailey?” asks my friend and former colleague Steve Johnson writing for the Center for Illinois Politics. One answer— he is a politician who skipped scheduled debates with his opponent in 2020, which means he won’t be able to bleat and whine if J.B. Pritzker declines to debate him this fall.
538 on an interesting upcoming referendum: “On Aug. 2, Kansans will vote on a state constitutional amendment that would clarify that the state’s bill of rights does not protect Kansans’ right to an abortion. And even though the state leans Republican, new polling and fundraising numbers suggest it’s a close race.”
Slate on “NOVIDs” — those who, for some reason, have yet to contract COVID-19. Neologism alert!
Geek out on this post: “USB Type-C is going to last a very long time. Why?”
Some of the “168 Writing Prompts to Spark Discussion and Reflection” in The New York Times could well be conversations starters at the next dinner party you attend. Such as: “What disgusts you?” “Have you ever benefited from rejection?” “What is the coolest thing you have seen in nature?” “How useful is it to be multilingual?” And “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?”
The Picayune Sentinel preview: Tuesdays at 11:30 a.m. I talk with WGN-AM 720 host John Williams about what’s making news and likely to be grist for the PS mill. The WGN listen-live link is here.
Unsolicited endorsements: Three things I like
Luxtude’s “Global Traveler” portable plug-in phone charger — with built-in lighting, USB-C and micro-USB cables and a standard USB port.
Pricey — $63 was what I paid — but the best charger I’ve ever owned.
Homeopathically flavored Crystal Light water. Ten years ago I developed a nodule on my vocal cords and a voice coach told me to cut way back on carbonated drinks. So I switched from Coke Zero to Snapple, but lately I’ve been drinking tap water just lightly infused with a squirt of Crystal Light concentrate. The taste is subtle and the cost is minimal. (Here is more detail on my vocal cord nodule and what I did when forgoing soda didn’t do the trick)
Lonesome Pine Violin Rosin. I realize not many of you will have use for this recommendation, but the bowed stringed-instrument player in your life will love this artisanal rosin.
Unsponsored and uncompensated recommendations. If I ever take ads on this site, you’ll know.
In Tuesday’s paid-subscriber editions I present my favorite tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the classic Tweet of the Week contest where the template for the poll does not allow the use of images). Subscribers vote up their favorite, which I now include in Thursday’s main issue:
The new nominees for Tweet of the Week:
Calling pizza “’za” is a form of birth control. — @topaz_kell
If I'm in a fancy restaurant and there's more silverware than I know what to do with, I'll eat with my hands to avoid embarrassing myself. — @WilliamAder
As an adult, I have made peace with the idea that my parents must have had sex, but as an only child, I am comforted by the fact that it was just the one time. — @UncleDuke1969
Nature abhors a bassoon. — @BeeeejEsq
I learned absolutely nothing about crypto and so far it's been a great investment. — @SvnSxty
Think about your hairstyle from 20 years ago. Now think about your tattoo 20 years from now. — @AmishSuperModel
My memory is pretty bad until I'm pissed off, and then you are in for quite the surprise. — @LoveNLunchmeat
In a song titled “Listen To The Music,” the Doobie Brothers demand that we listen to the music while we are actually listening to the music. — @RickAaron
[On set of the hit Swedish TV show "So You Think You Can Flørgën"]. Contestant: *Begins to flärgën* Judge: It's a no from me. — @AdamBroud
I have only myself to blame . That's why I blame you. — @JimmerThatisAll
I’ve been saving the flørgën/flärgën tweet for a long time. It makes me laugh every time, but I suspect it will do even worse with voters than the Pagliacci tweet did last week.
“The Mincing Rascals” panel this week — John Williams of WGN Radio, freelance journalist Mark Guarino of the Washington Post and Good Morning America, Austin Berg of the Illinois Policy Institute, and Laura Washington from the Chicago Tribune and ABC7 somehow put on a show without me. Topics covered included the speed camera vote, NASCAR in Chicago and the race for Governor. The panel is also joined by journalist and podcaster Mark Caro, who discusses his Chicago Magazine piece about University of Chicago professor Robert Pape’s efforts to find the truth about what happened on January 6th.
Watch a bit of the video above before you read more about it.
What looks like an exhumed archival TV appearance by the folk-revival duo Maureen & George is, in fact, the creation of the brilliantly inventive Dan MacDonald, 34, a fine artist and musician who wrote “The Bells of London Town” and, here, sings the part of George with Chicago singer-songwriter Sara Coral voicing the part of Maureen. Local musician Brandon Cummings and his sister Kate dressed in 1960s period attire to lip synch for the video, which is a carefully rendered pastiche with no hint of parody.
I had questions. And MacDonald, who performs musically under the name Spitzer Space Telescope and recently left Chicago for an indefinite stay in the British Isles, had answers:
In 2011 the idea hit me that I learned most of my folk music repertoire from watching fragments of clips and footage on YouTube (as we all do), and how much it enhances the experience of the song to see the person’s face actually performing it. … So then I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to emulate the YouTube experience I loved and make a whole album of faux-historical video clips. … I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I had a music album that was an app — that contained an immersive little world of album art, videos, hyperlinks, lyrics, etc. …
I wrote seven songs, and — much like my folk song digging on YouTube — I rearranged each one into two to three iterations. Users can select one version of each track and hit play for a customized playlist, or they can double tap and watch videos a la carte. While it’s playing, every video in the album can be swiped aside to show pages of additional content like lyrics, musical notation, links to YouTube videos that inspired me, and images.
So that’s the background on “Colonies in the Wild Frontier.” As far as the nitty gritty of how I made it, it was painstakingly assembled almost frame by frame, so there is definitely no app with filters that can do it (at least not to this level). They make editing packages with some preset video effects you can apply to footage, but unless you’ve spent ten years studying the folk music clips it would look super amateurish. … I’ll promote the re-release of “Colonies” in August. But you should absolutely share with anyone and everyone. This took probably 5-plus years of rigorous work so I’m eager for people to see it
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