Sunday, October 1, 2023


What they're saying about Jim's provocative blog:

--"Джим - забавный парень, но он не Яков Смирнов!" (Jim's a funny guy, but he's no Yakov Smirnoff!  Nyet!")--Vladimir Putin
--"I love how he says he doesn't always agree with everything he says!"--Joe Biden
--"He's from this country, Mexicans don't read him, so that's good enough for me."--Donald Trump
--"The one thing I didn't delete from my private server."--Hillary Clinton
--"Jimaschizzle!"--Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr. (aka Snoop Dogg)
--"The one thing I DO read!"--Sarah Palin
--"The most fun you can have with your clothes on (but DO take a shower afterwards)."--Dick Cavett

jimjustselling . . .

Actually, I'm not, but the good folks at HenschelHAUS are.

The book is also available at:


From the Summer/Fall issue of THE NOTE, a celebrated quarterly publication devoted to jazz.  I knew they were running my interview with Willie Maiden, a genius of a composer/arranger/saxophonist and longtime confidant of Maynard Ferguson, but I didn't expect this!  (They said they would add "a little blurb" about me.)

Scroll down to Page 7 (and also enjoy the interviews with two of my all-time favorites, alto sax legend Phil Woods and clarinet virtuoso Eddie Daniels).!&&p=6966ff0ee36d89b9JmltdHM9MTY4Njk2MDAwMCZpZ3VpZD0wNzAwMmUxNS1kNjE1LTYwOTctMTVmYi0zY2FlZDc4NjYxMGMmaW5zaWQ9NTE3MA&ptn=3&hsh=3&fclid=07002e15-d615-6097-15fb-3caed786610c&psq=The+Multi-faceted+Jim+Szantor&u=a1aHR0cHM6Ly9pbWcxLndzaW1nLmNvbS9ibG9iYnkvZ28vMzM5NjYyZmEtNzJkMi00ODI5LWE3MmItMzU0YWJmZjNkNWYwL1RIRSUyME5PVEUlMjBTVU1NRVIlMjBGQUxMJTIwMjAyMiUyMHdlYi1lMzJiOGM4LnBkZg&ntb=1


By Jim Szantor

Rhetorical questions, questionable rhetoric and whimsical observations about the absurdities of contemporary life

I was a teenage air-traffic controller.

"The universe is not complicated, There’s just a lot of it."--Physicist Richard Feynman

jimjustsaying’s Fortune Cookie Message of the Month (courtesy of Huan Xi, Milwaukee): “You are the center of every group’s attention.”  (How DID THEY know??? Incredible!)

Brands of beer that were once sold in the United States: Bull Frog, Purple Cow, Kool Mule, King Turkey, Happy Hops, Quittin' Time, Old Cars and Gorilla.  ("Hey, bro, while you're up, get me another can a that Quittin' Time, will ya?")

The Law of Unintended Consequences will never be repealed.

It has come to this:  Headline: “Users rate which stores are easiest to steal from.”

Where is the odious intel coming from?  That social media abomination called TikTok, where Walmart, Walgreens and The Dollar Tree were ranked the easiest.  (The end of the world as we knew it!)

Re the problem of finding public bathrooms—a problem that is universal and increasing--several business owners have come forth with reasons for not having facilities open to the public:

Says one: “I own a retail store, and at one time my bathrooms were open to the public. This was until my bathrooms were being used for drug deals and injections. With people marching in and out of the store to use, buy or sell drugs, I had to shut down the parade.”

Says another: “While I am sympathetic to the people with conditions that make for urgent trips to the bathroom, I am a huge NO on forcing businesses to open their employee-only restroom to a customer. The employee bathroom is usually in a backroom area where there is stock not yet tagged with antitheft devices, employee shelves, lockers, coat racks, etc. And there is the ever-present danger the customer will make a horrific mess and not clean it up. Hard NO.”

Good points all, but one wonders what these store owners do when they are on the other side of the fence? 

"If you're the smartest person in the room, find another room."--Michael Dell,

For baseball fans only:

What do Pat Borders, Marquis Grissom, Adam Kennedy, Mike Devereaux, Sterling Hitchcock, Mike Lowell, Eddie Perez, Cody Ross and Jeff Suppan have in common?

Answer: All of these not-exactly-household-name players were postseason MVPs sometime during the last 20 years.   (And some of baseball’s biggest stars—Barry Bonds being the most recent—have been abysmal playoff flops.)

Baseball pregame shows (and there ARE 162 games, compared to pro football’s 18!) are a colossal waste of time, repetitive time-fillers.  The only people who watch them are the people who tuned in thinking the game was starting.

"Baseball players are smarter than football players. How often do you see a baseball team penalized for too many players on the field?"--Jim Bouton, author of the baseball classic “Ball Four.”

I'm not saying I'm a mediocre poker player, but let's just say nobody ever called me Amarillo Jim!

I see where Alaska has been named the No. 1 most sexually diseased state in the country, followed by Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and several other states.  (Alaska may be "America's Last Frontier" but at least they now have a “first” to its credit.  Congrats!)

At least the residents still get their annual dividend from the state's co-called Permanent Fund--in 2022 a record $3,284 (after a paltry $1,114 in 2021).

But "Alaska, The State That Has to Bribe People to Live There," won't fit on a license plate.  More's the pity.  (True, $3,284 sounds like a lot, but ask any of the 50th state’s residents if that comes close to offsetting the sky-high prices of groceries and other goods that residents pay due to the much higher transportation costs of said goods. So the “dividend” is just (partial?) reimbursement for their cost of living. And the ice fog.

“To the world, you may be just one person. But to one person, you may be the world.”—Brandt Snyder

jimjustsaying's Word That Doesn't Exist But Should of the month: “Kawashocki.”  n. The feeling experienced when pulling into a parking space between two cars and suddenly realizing there is a motorcycle already parked there.—“Sniglets,” Rich Hall and Friends

The Friendly But Not-So-Safe Skies?

Nearly 5,000 pilots are suspected of hiding major health issues.

Federal authorities have been investigating the pilots, who are suspected of falsifying medical records to conceal problems that could make them unfit to fly.

Most of the pilots under investigation are still flying. And about 600 of them are licensed to fly for passenger airlines, according to one U.S. official.

An idiom in the English language that has never made sense to me: “Under the weather,” as in, “Joe couldn’t make it today; he’s under the weather.”  So when Joe is well and shows up, is he “over the weather. Even with the weather”?  (A silly euphemism! Just say he is sick or not feeling well and leave the meteorology out of it!)

And in my continuing uphill battle against imprecise speech there is this:  People will enumerate examples of whatever subject they’re discussing, or whatever has gone wrong, or what idiocies they have observed, and end by saying, “The list goes on and on and on.”

Whenever you hear that, you can bet your bottom dollar that they have in fact exhausted said list and probably couldn’t come up with another example of their “endless list” if their life depended on it.  (Another example of a flawed figure of speech or verbal tic that took hold and won’t let go.)

Oxymoronic America: "Genuine vinyl," "authentic replica" and "nonstop flight."  (Hey, I want to get off at some point! You mean the nonstop to New York doesn't stop in New York?)

Sign on door of a Target store: “Only service animals permitted." What it should say: "Guide Dogs permitted; no other animals allowed." That would take us humans out of the trespasser category.  (Say what you want about Wal-Mart, but I haven't seen a sign that idiotic on any of its doors.)

Redundancy Patrol: "Enter in," "pick and choose," "natural instinct."

jimjustsaying’s Fall Foliage Report (as a public service to you, my devoted readers): Turns out there’s a new wrinkle: The forecast for the brightest hues is getting trickier. Climate change affects when leaves change--and how colorful they get, Axios reports.

DRUDGING AROUND: Why bearded men are more attractive, according to science . . . Florida school vouchers can pay for TVs, kayaks, theme parks . . . Colorado family trying to live off grid died of malnutrition, hypothermia . . .  Montana town faces homeless problem similar to SF and LA . . . STUDY: Opposites don’t attract; couples likely to be more similar than different . . . Health effects of weed laid bare . . . A baby’s brown eyes turned bright blue after antiviral treatment . . . People rely on laxatives so much there aren’t enough to go around . . . Atheist says he died and returned and now believes in God . . . School faces backlash after hiring drag queen as principal . . . Adults ordering from kids’ menu to save money . . . TRAVEL HELL:  Couple seated next to farting dog that drooled on their legs . . . Shoplifting battle getting dangerous for workers. (Thanks to Matt Drudge and Co.)

People Mr. Popcorn is doing his best to avoid these days:

--People who pretend the shopping-cart corral doesn’t exist.

--People who wear sweatpants/sweatsuits (glorified pajamas) and shower clogs in public (and even to church).  Ditto sports team regalia.

--People who either don’t signal their turns or signal them halfway through the turn you already know they are making.

--People who answer cell phones . . . where they absolutely shouldn’t. 

--People who leave their fast-food garbage on the tables, usually forcing the next person who wants to use said table to do it for them.

--People who decide not to buy those pork chops they had put in their cart and abandon them on a shelf next to the canned goods or dish detergent. 

Ah, Madison Avenue, that bastion of annoying, bizarre and downright distorted advertising. Viewing commercials today would have you think that interracial couplings (white-black, primarily) are now the rule in America . . . although U.S. Census Bureau statistics list them as 11.9 percent.  (So how are we supposed to believe flowery product claims when they’re painting downright inaccurate pictures of America right and left?)

He said it: “Whatever you do, always give 100 percent.  Unless you’re giving blood.”—Bill Murray

She said it: “News is what somebody wants suppressed.  Everything else is advertising.”—Katherine Graham

I see where Vladimir Putin rolled out the red carpet for North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Un.  Gala state dinner, no doubt.

Entrée?  Filet of Doberman?  Casserole a la Canine? German Shepherd’s Pie? Make the guy feel right at home! (Remember, I don’t always agree with everything I say!)

jimjustsaying’s Newspaper Obituary Headline Nickname of the Month: “Shrimp.” As in, Helen “Shrimp” Panetti Stout, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 18, 2023.  R.I.P., “Shrimp.”

 A study of rat brains revealed how play can improve mental health.

The study: Researchers identified groups of cells in a part of the brain involved in instinctive behaviors, like pain perception and defense, that lit up while the rats were being tickled.

What it means: The urge to play is deeply ingrained in the brain. And understanding its neurological basis could help develop new therapies for troubled children.

I understand that there is a new cut-rate insurance firm in the marketplace:  Mutual of Mukwonago.

Another in jimjustsaying's series of Media Words:  Words you see or hear only in print or on news broadcasts and never hear anyone use in real life:  "hustings."  (As in, "The candidates have once again taken to the hustings for another round of campaign speeches.")

“He was identified through polite photographs.”—San Francisco Chronicle, via “Still More Press Boners,” by Earle Tempel.

jimjustsaying’s Stupid Actual Product Package Blurb of the Month: On a bag of Doritos: "You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside."

“Women aren't embarrassed when they buy men's pajamas, but a man buying a nightgown acts as though he were dealing with a dope peddler.”—Jimmy Cannon

I think I could stand it if I never ever heard another commercial touting Free Credit Report Dot Com.

Today’s Latin Lesson: Populus qui nos ad annos 70 laborare volunt, iidem sunt qui nos post annos 50 non conducunt. (“The people who want us to work to age 70 are the same people who won’t hire us after age 50.”)

Thanks to Simon Saesz, this month’s Popcorn intern.



Emotional repression gets a bad rap

People who repress their feelings often get a bad rap. It is widely believed stuffing one’s emotions, particularly the painful and negative varieties, is detrimental to both mental and physical well-being. And, in certain circumstances, this is the case. While humans are not steam boilers, their emotions can reach a critical pressure point that requires a psychological relief valve of some sort. Crying is a common example. Absent this sort of emotional discharge, we may internalize our feelings, creating psychosomatic symptoms, anxiety or depression. But not always.

The bias in favor of venting one’s emotions finds approval among many mental health professionals. As Freud put it, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” What’s more, our expressive-oriented, hyper-sharing, increasingly uncivil society often derides emotionally reserved folks as rigid, repressed, buzz killers or shy. Introverts often bear the brunt of these criticisms. It has long been a predilection among many psychotherapists that, when it comes to feelings, one should “let it all out.” Entire therapies are based on this principle (think primal screaming).  

In our haste to critically judge reserved people, we fail to recognize some individuals keep their feelings in check because doing otherwise has caused them more harm than good. Some victims of childhood trauma fit this profile. However, others are reacting to their current circumstances, rather than past wounds. Andrew was a case in point.

“My family is a drama circus,” he told me. “My wife and relatives are hyper-sensitive to each other’s feelings, including positive ones.”

In his world, being out there with one’s emotions all but guaranteed setting off a melodramatic chain reaction. Over time, Andrew determined that whatever price he paid for holding his tongue paled in comparison to what he endured when he was emotionally transparent. It was basically a psychological cost-benefit analysis, and his findings indicated he should zip it.

Jean faced the same conundrum but with the opposite slant. She held back her feelings because, when she let them out, she received little or no response from her spouse and his family. This felt like an implicit rejection of her personality, as her natural tendency was to be an expressive type. So, around them, she learned to hold it all in.

“It’s like I’m talking to myself. I discovered early on that the more I expressed my feelings, the more they became uncomfortable and shut down,” she explained.

Another instance in which letting it all out can backfire is if that behavior proves incompatible with one’s innate temperament. Some of us are not expressive by nature, preferring to relate to our emotions inwardly rather than manifesting them in the external world. Sometimes, such folks feel pressured to emote, often by a spouse, partner, family or friends who are far more demonstrative. Submitting to coercion to morph from their authentic reserved style into an emotions-on-my-self type involves a denial of self.

Ironically, some emotionally reserved folks encounter this same denial of self from their therapists. While hopefully less common today, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a pseudo-therapy involving “encounter groups” emerged. The stated purpose was to cast off emotional inhibition and put one’s feelings out there, and forcefully, for all to witness. If the group members concluded that one of the participants was holding back their feelings, that individual was given a card that read, “Cop out.”

Granted, in some emotionally restrained people, their repression is not healthy for them nor those in their midst. But in others it may simply reflect who they are, their developmental history or the circumstances in which they find themselves. Let’s remember that the freedom of expression also includes the right to hold it in. 

--Philip Chard, Out of My Mind

'With this ring, I thee  . . . plunge us into serious debt’

Weddings are roaring back with bigger budgets, longer guest lists and grander settings.

Why it matters: Almost every aspect of planning, hosting and attending weddings is getting pricier. Even guests are going into wedding debt.

The average cost of a U.S. wedding ticked up from $28,000 to $29,000 from 2022 to 2023, according to wedding planning website Zola. But the average was far higher in some places, including D.C. ($45,400), New Jersey ($44,219) and Massachusetts ($40,097).

What's happening: Inflation and high demand are driving up costs, as everything from music to flowers to makeup gets more expensive. Plus social media has infiltrated the wedding planning process. More couples feel pressure to spend big to make their events pop.

One in three 2023 couples are looking to TikTok for wedding inspiration, Zola notes.

Guests are getting hit, too: 40% of people who've gone to weddings in the past five years went into debt to be there, according to a LendingTree survey.

That jumps to 62% if they were in the bridal party — which comes with obligations like showers and bachelor and bachelorette parties.

Trend to watch: One wedding cost that's declining: attire for the groom. Guys are increasingly opting for a more casual outfit than a tuxedo.

--Erica Pandey, Axios 

GenZ’s nonchalance infects the workplace

When it comes to the job market, Gen Z doesn't seem to care all that much. At least that's how some managers and employers feel corralling a generation of workers they believe (erroneously or not) is entitled, lazy and full of pushback. How are "zoomers" affecting the workplace?

What complaints do people have about working with Gen Z? 

In a survey, researchers found that "of 1,300 managers, three out of four agree that Gen Z is harder to work with than other generations — so much so that 65% of employers said they have to fire them more often," Rikki Schlott wrote for the New York Post, adding that 21% of managers also believe "entitlement is an issue" with new Gen Z hires. Peter, a hospitality manager based in New Jersey, told the outlet that he feels "kind of hamstrung on what [he] can and can't say," adding that he "doesn't want to offend" anyone and always worries that he'll "get freaking canceled."s most controversial moments

How does Gen Z feel?

Zoomers are making it very clear that their sole purpose in the workplace is to get in, do the job, and get out. Rather than forming emotional attachments to their roles, they prioritize a work-life balance over everything. Perhaps because Gen Z and even millennials are the only generations to have experienced the combined trauma of the debt crisis, gun violence, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic, losing a job sounds almost like a vacation. "It's not necessarily that different generations hold different attitudes about work," Sarah Damaske, an associate professor at Penn State University, told Vox. "For millennials and for some members of Gen Z, they've witnessed two recessions, back-to-back. This is a very different labor market experience than what their parents and grandparents encountered."

So are they slackers?

"Young workers are not lazy, entitled or keen on slacking off," Kim Kelly argued for Insider: "They're simply choosing to reject some of the practices that previous generations were forced to accept." Not to mention they might also find themselves working under managers that "are so burnt out they have little time to spend training the next generation, or even noticing what their workplace experience is like," Melissa Swift, a partner at the consulting company Mercer, told Financial Times' Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson. In other words, Edgecliffe-Johnson summarized, "you can't pin this all on Gen Z."

But while "quiet quitting" and detachment may seem enticing initially, younger workers would do well to remember that the world is constantly growing and evolving. In "slacking off" now, they run the risk of ruining their chances for a job down the line, Allison Schrager, an opinion columnist, wrote for Bloomberg. "Careers are long and so are institutional memories," Schrager said. "The pandemic aftermath may have given workers more power for now, but young staffers with decades of employment ahead should be thinking about what happens when that inevitably changes."

Is Generation Alpha any different?

Generation Alpha, which includes people born in 2010 and after, "will perpetuate our workplace burnout crisis" as a "side effect" of their ambition to "make work and societal change," said a 2020 LinkedIn analysis from Dan Schawbel, a managing partner at research agency Workplace Intelligence. Despite these intense efforts, which will "increase productivity temporarily at the cost of their mental health and long-term value contribution," Alphas "will demand even more from their employers than Gen Z's and millennials," Schawbel said. "They simply won't work for a company that doesn't align with their values and that isn't producing a product that benefits society."

Work and life will be "completely integrated" by the time Alphas enter the job market, where they will choose to work for less at a flexible job that supports their "emotional, physical and mental well-being" rather than deplete their tank for higher pay somewhere else. They will also "shatter old work norms and recreate the workplace based on how they interact in their personal lives," Schawbel concluded.

--Kelsee Majette, The Week

Why won't corporate America answer the phone?

When I recently called an MRI facility about an overcharge, a prerecorded voice told me, over and over again for 45 minutes, that call volume was “unusually high” and, by the way, the weather was compounding a labor shortage.

On another recent day, I needed to resolve a problem with a company with no listed phone number at all — which is how I found myself furiously pounding the keyboard in conversation with, yes, a chatbot at a vegan meal delivery service.

It shouldn’t be this hard to speak to a human. But, increasingly, companies large and small are making it difficult to access a real, live person when help is needed. Contact numbers are hard to find. Wait times to speak to an operator are long — one industry analyst estimated the average wait tripled from 2020 to 2022 and says he believes they still are a third worse than before the pandemic. Some phone lines are seemingly staffed entirely by robots, forcing you to go through menu after menu in quest of a live, real person. Or, increasingly, companies don’t offer a telephone option at all.

This is not simply inconvenient. It’s contemptuous. And consumers pay the price in emotional aggravation, in precious time and in literal money, as people give up on legitimate financial claims because they are unable to surmount the barriers in their way.

“It’s an absolute disaster,” says Abraham Seidmann, a professor of information systems at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “It’s a major abdication of corporate responsibility.”

Companies say they are reducing options for human contact by popular demand. They claim customers often prefer a virtual option — so said Frontier Airlines after it recently ceased offering customers access to live phone agents, directing them to text, chatbot or email instead. But as the Wall Street Journal noted late last year, Frontier is simultaneously telling its investors that call centers are “expensive,” while use of chatbots eliminates the customer’s ability to negotiate.

There are nods to surveys showing millennials and Gen Z’ers prefer online contact. (Little wonder, since they’re naturally phone-shy, but it’s worth noting that they have also come of age in a world of dreadful phone service.) Employers also say that in the post-pandemic world, they can’t hire enough help.

All of this is, for the most part, excuse-making. If there are humans clamoring to end customer contact, it’s the ones in the c-suite, where the suits are happy to save a few pennies on call services at your expense.

“I don’t want to put nefarious intent in people’s mouths, but I’m positive that a lot of these companies looked at it and went, ‘Hey, our service levels went down [during the pandemic], and we didn’t lose customers over it, so let’s keep them a little lower. Let’s see how hard we can make this before they start pushing back,’” says Jeff Gallino, the chief technical officer at CallMiner, an analytics firm.

A survey by OnePoll in 2021 found that more than two-thirds of respondents ranked speaking to a human representative as one of their preferred methods of interacting with a company, while 55 percent identified the ability to reach a human as the most important attribute a customer service department can possess. “When people are anxious or have problems, they really, really want to talk,” says Michelle Shell, a visiting assistant professor also at the Questrom school. “You need human contact.”

As for the claim they can’t find willing employees? Yes, turnover is traditionally high in the call center industry, and even higher in the wake of the Great Resignation. On the other hand, given that call centers are located around the globe, that’s quite the worker shortage.

What’s really going on here is a question of power. Increasingly, leverage belongs not to the customer paying the bills but to the company offering the needed service — sometimes one for which there is no competition. Foisting the work onto the consumer is a bet that the customer has no other options or won’t choose to exercise them. And often, that bet is a good one.

None of this to say is that it’s always necessary to speak to a human. It’s easy enough to make a restaurant reservation online. But we need a human touch when things go wrong. We want help, not to spend hours looking for a useful phone number for Facebook (in case you were wondering, it doesn’t exist) or navigating endless phone trees.

There are some models for better regulation. In 2018, for example, California passed legislation mandating that chatbots disclose when there isn’t a human on the other side of the conversation. But there is no pending legislation in Congress that demands companies offer a human point of contact.

The difficulty of reaching humans for customer support is an imposition on both our time and our finances, forcing us to spend what can be hours of labor — sometimes known as shadow work or a time tax — to resolve what should be simple problems. It’s one factor contributing to the sense that we as American consumers are fighting our battles alone, as so much prey for Big Business. And it’s not so unreasonable to say we deserve better than that.

--Helaine Olen, Washington Post


Requiem for a newsroom

Nobody's going to make a movie about reporters and their cursors

'Tiredness of life'

As scientists race to lengthen life, more elderly itch for early dismissal

Near misses, fires, severe turbulence . . .  

What’s happening to flying?

A trashy subject!

Here’s why students love Garbology




By Jim Szantor

Some people do not cry when onions are peeled, chopped sliced or diced.  Others cry when they are merely mentioned or even implied.  What is it about the allium cepa that causes it to be de rigueur in recipes, seemingly mandatory at McDonald’s and compulsory in casseroles?

What magical properties accrue to this vile vegetable of the hollow, tubular leaves and edible, rounded bulb? What culinary clout does it hold? Do onions cure cancer, prevent baldness or remove unsightly age spots? Are they a surefire Covid killer?

Were onions served at the Last Supper?  Does Taylor Swift eat them?

Some answers, assertions and affirmations in a moment. First, though, a position paper of sorts on the plight of one who must make his way as a consumer in an onion-obsessed world.

If the onion does to you all the things it does to someone who cannot stand, bear, countenance, abide or otherwise tolerate its taste, you know what it is:

--To sit down to a meal anywhere and find the main dish (not to mention the appetizer, soup or salad) loaded with the loathsome ingredient.  How to negotiate this culinary minefield politely if not furtively without offending the hostess?  How to suppress the whimpering and retching attendant to the ordeal?

--To wait endlessly—punitively—at fast-food establishments that package the item with other, more respectable and comestible condiments.  Kudos to the franchises that make the onion an option; a pox on those that operate under the assumption that those little white, chopped interlopers will be loved and consumed with relish by all.

--To grab eagerly for a new entrée in the supermarket’s frozen food section, only to recoil when it is discovered that onions--dehydrated, flaked, powdered or fuel-injected--are part of the bargain, take it or leave it. (In the finest of print, of course.)

It is a mystery why the onions are so omnipresent in the gustatory scheme of things, when to some they are slimy if boiled, repugnant if raw and palatable only if fried to a crisp—to such a crisp, that is, that only the crisp, and not the actual onion essence, is tasted.  (Full disclosure: I recall quite fondly the Onion Straws served by a New Orleans eatery, a close encounter I have yet to live down, there being is a living witness.)

The true enemy of the onion feels not only persecuted but also triumphant when able to detect the faintest evidence of its flavoring.  Cook a beef stew with boiled onions in a mesh bag and remove them prior to serving? The congenital onion-hater can tell.   That’s because the onion has little subtlety, is totally devoid of finesse.  It always lingers near the scene of the crime, fouling the breath and otherwise making its ingestion hard to forget.  But this seasoned onion adversary survives each close encounter, his palate and olfactory glands able to detect its unpleasant properties everywhere.

It could be argued that eating a hamburger with onions is—dare I say it?—an antisocial act.  My hamburger with tomato and pickles flies under the radar, even in close quarters.  Someone eating one loaded with onions in whatever form?  He or she is, in effect, broadcasting with appallingly broad bandwidth, callously indifferent to the consequences!

The onion’s raison d’etre?

According to noted chef Jean Banchet of Le Francaise in the Chicago suburb of Wheeling’s fabled Restaurant Row, “Onions add a lot of flavor, a unique flavor, to soups, sauces and salads.”  He prefers cooked over raw, though, and opts for the shallot, an onion cousin, for fish and bordelaise sauce.

The onion, in the allium giganteum genus, is a real attention-getter, both in the garden and in cut flower arrangements.  It is one, however, that even Mr. Anti-Onion can appreciate, for this flowery version is not to be eaten.

But the more common garden variety is one that a former colleague, Chicago Tribune food editor Joanne Will, says “is worth crying over.”

“Onions not only enrich other flavors but they make a statement of their own.  Just think of some of the things onionophiles would have to give up: deeply browned and caramelized sweet onion soup, boiled baby onions saturated with cream sauce (a must with Thanksgiving turkey), crisply delicious, battered onion rings.”

To a close and cherished associate (one who has prepared this author’s meals for 53-plus years), the onion is an ingredient both pleasurable and problematic.  To cater to her husband’s unfathomable oddity, meal preparation is fraught with strategies, dodges, reluctant omissions and, sometimes, downright deceit. In short, to keep peace in the family, she has to keep the onions out of the crock pot.

There are untold hardships for one who was born unequal in that his tase buds are out of step with the rest of humanity’s.  The onion, in its ubiquity, has made coping more cumbersome, ordering more odious and tasting more tentative for the afflicted.  Unquestionably, the onion is an affront, an imposition, equally detestable, whether served by gracious hostesses, celebrated chefs or sullen countermen.

But if you are among the majority who cannot live without onions, by all means indulge and enjoy.  This is only an open admission of an aberration, a venting of a lifelong loathing, not a produce section polemic.  Some of my best friends buy, cook eat and even grow them. But they’ve never grown on me.

Until the onion makes the headlines (remember the Great Potato Famine, the cranberry scare of 1959, Red Dye No. 2 and other periodic pantry-related panics), it will be the same old story for those who can’t stand them, those who dream of the day when restaurant signs and menus everywhere will contain these words:

No smoking, no substitutions, no onions.



The chili could be malicious and downright unforgiving.  The omelets sometimes look like yellow Play-Doh flecked with foreign bodies.  The coffee isn’t strong enough to defend itself, and the waitress puts the plates down with an offhand finality.  Breakfast served any time.  Eggs any style.  The soup? It’s navy bean.

 It’s easy to put down the greasy spoon, that ubiquitous testament to the tacky and the Tums.  But by whatever name—luncheonette, diner, café, grill, coffee shop, ptomaine parlor—it used to account for 40-50 percent of the eat-out dollar, according to industry sources.  Now?  Not so much, as changing tastes and the sweep of urban renewal have relegated it into a virtual museum piece--a slow-food square peg in a round hole of a fast-food, instant-everything, drive-through and highly hyphenated universe. Some things just sort of happen, with no grand design or Machiavellian malice aforethought.

 But the greasy spoon was a slice of Americana that clung to the fork with nary a nod to fad or fashion.  There were no vegetarian plates, as meat and potatoes carried the day and the night and the mortgage.  The Serv-Naps filed out of their countertop compartments as the daily duet of eat-and-runs and lingerers played their way through an unconducted arrangement.  The beef was “govt.-inspected”—but did it pass?  There was a counter-top jukebox selector, with some pop, some country, some rock but definitely no Rachmaninoff.

You know the place.  Everyone, whether through happenstance, resignation or momentary indifference has ended up at one of these Edward Hopper-esque establishments, clutching a greasy knife or fork. How the spoon, which generally just stirred the coffee, got left holding the bag is a mysteryforever lost in the mists of time.

Whatever their culinary merits, one could develop an irrational affection for the emporiums of this genre.  And they were more than eating places.  Sociologically they could be an over-the-counter salve for the tattered psyches of the urban disenfranchised, who hoped they wouldn’t close on Christmas and trap them in their cheap hotel rooms.  They were sort of halfway hash house social clubs, with no membership list but plenty of dues, where the help was as transient as the trade.

Some of these motley establishments were actually respectable—sometimes good—and do not deserve to be painted in such tawdry tones.  Almost always locally owned, they were probably more consistent at their level than some tonier “destination dining” spots and had a more devoted clientele, who prided themselves on being regulars, never had to state their orders and were probably as good as the National Guard should someone get surly with the waitress.  Perhaps the key to their fate is how many such places are opening these days, not how many are closing.

But while there’s time, the eyes above the menu survey the scene and laugh and marvel at a few things:

--The waitress always looks like she is glad they sre out of whatever they are out of.

--The catsup bottle says “restaurant pack,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

--The busboy is a strong man--a bit too strong—but he didn’t shower up with Irish Spring.

--There’s a fill-up-the-sugar-container fetish that is hard to fathom.  Today’s two fingers’ worth on top of yesterday’s two fingers’ worth.  The sugar at the bottom was refined in 1952.

--The “chef” has more tattoos than specialties and thinks “Guide Michelin” plays for the Montreal Canadiens.

--The cream pies and such are kept at a tongue-numbing 33 degrees.

--The sandwich plates are larger than they need to be, but the dinner plates. . . .

--The cashier/owner always seems to be eating ice cream out of a coffee cup on a stool near the cash register.

--They honor the “law” that says coleslaw shall be served in flimsy paper or plastic cups and in minute amounts.

--The spaghetti always comes with “rich meat sauce.”

--The menu always has an item or two that no one has ever ordered.  Who orders Red Snapper in places like this?

--If you want something to go, you have to stand in a special place, probably so they won’t confuse you with people who prefer to eat standing up with their hands in their pockets.

--The floor is usually brown-and-yellow tile squares, in accordance with the Seedy Restaurant Color Scheme Act of 1942.

--Some old guy always comes in about 10 p.m. and orders a bowl of bran cereal.

---The menu is a Sargasso Sea of misspelled names and fanciful if not fraudulent descriptions.  From the Broiler.  From the Sea.  But never From the Freezer.

--The server never fills in all those bureaucratic squares at the top of the “guest check” and writes diagonally across the lined form.  What’s more, she has a Ph.D. in abbreviations.

--One of the customers always looks like he is doing his income tax at one of the tables.

--Somebody always walks by the window and waves in just before he disappears.

--You’re the only one at the counter, and some guy walks in and sits right next to you.

--The french-fried shrimp comes with enough cocktail sauce to cover about two pieces.

--The table’s wobble is always half-corrected with a dirty folded napkin or three.

--The clock is always stopped at something like 2:42.

--The Muzak is always playing something like “Never on Sunday” or “Nom Domenticar.”

--The cook  flip-slides the plates across the high stainless-steel counter, and they always stop short, as if equipped with disk brakes.

--The cashier always puts your change down on a spikey rubber thing that looks like an oversized scalp massager.


In the early morning lull, after the midnight rush hour subsides, the buzz of the fluorescent now equals the sizzle of the grill as the beat cop walks in and sinks into the house booth.

 “Say, where’s Sally?  She off tonight?”

“Nah, she quit.  Went back with her old man.”

“Oh . . . . Say, you got any a that meat loaf left.  Haven’t eaten all day.”

“Nah, meat loaf’s out.  All’s I got left is thuringer.”

“Thuringer, huh.  Well . . . gimme a piece of that blueberry.”

(Illustration:  Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” 1942)

Forecast Follies (or . . . "Here's Jim with the Weather")

Mark Twain famously said, ”Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” 

And since reports of Mr. Twain’s death were not highly exaggerated, I’d like to fill in for him and address something we apparently can’t do anything about, either—the nonsensical, downright insulting barrage of verbiage issuing forth daily from what used to be called TV “weathermen” (and they were all of that gender back in the day) but are now known as “meteorologists,” as if space rocks were an omnipresent factor in our lives.  As in, “60 percent chance of precipitation by daybreak, with 0.000001 percent chance of meteor collision.”  (Meteor showers do occur, but usually are not perilous enough to cancel your picnic plans. They have yet to be seen in the Bus Stop Forecasts or the Car Wash Advisories that “humanize” these bloated segments.)

The weather portions (there are usually two—a fairly brief “teaser” early on and later, the Big Production) of most TV newscasts are, first of all, way too long (and coupled with all those time-wasting teasers about “what’s coming up,” leave precious little time for what we actually tune in for—news).  We don’t need to know where the Alberta Clipper fizzled, that an El Nino is in mid-formation or that a front in central Montana caused a “dusting” in northern Iowa.  And as for those “pockets of snow” we were supposed to get last night, I looked in mine and, blessedly, found none. But the station has paid serious coin for all of the glitzy graphics and radar capabilities, and by God, they are going to be used, if even just to show us what the rainfall looks like in downtown Racine “right at this very moment.”  Gripping.

And then there is the universal, comically contrived “personalization” factor, apparently de rigueur on all stations. It’s never “Thursday’s forecast,” it’s (ahem), “the forecast for your Thursday . . . .”  One can only envision the rapturous glow viewers must feel when luxuriating in the warmth of that gratuitous pronoun! (As if that forecast applies only to you, no one else. Ah, exclusivity.)

If one were to awaken from a 30-year coma, he or she would probably be mystified not only by cellphones, laptops and GPS devices but also by the existence of a curious phenomenon known as The Weather Channel: All weather, all the time--a nonstop barrage of jargon, gaudy graphics and arcane factoids.  How did we ever exist without it? When it’s a slow weather day (and in this day of acute climate change, there’s always a crisis on the front burner somewhere), footage of past calamities will fill the bill for weather junkies or the aficionados of disaster porn.

Those with (ahem) backgrounds as editors find the nightly weather segments to be cringefests in the extreme.  Temps don’t just drop into the 20s, they “drop down,” as if “dropping up” were a physical possibility.  Is snow or rain in the forecast? No, we’ll have “snow showers” or “rain showers.”  And it’s never just “sun”; it’s “sunshine,” as if that extra syllable ramps up the warmth.  These folks never pass up an opportunity to gild the lily, because we’re often told of the possibility of “rain events” or “snow events,” which leads me, at least, to wonder if I will need a ticket, if there will be guest speakers and if refreshments will be served.  (Spotty Showers?  That was my clown name back in the day, a story to be told when the Vernal Equinox rolls around.  Which this year, in the Northern Hemisphere, will be at 10:33 a.m. CST on March 20.  Mark your calendar.)

But my pique rises to fever pitch in winter, when we’re often told during our seven-month layered-look season to “bundle up,” as if we lifelong Midwesterners have no prior experience with winter weather--as if we had all just parachuted in from Jamaica in our underwear and had no idea on how to adorn ourselves in these brutal climes.  We don’t need to be told how to dress when icicles form—we’ve been there, done that—and resent the insinuation. One of the local weather wordsmiths hails from San Diego, and he’s telling us what to wear?  Outrageous.  I’d like to send him back to sunny California on his surfboard or his skateboard, preferably when the barometric pressure equals the dew point and, optimally, on a jet stream.

More and more women are seen these days holding forth during TV weather segments, and they have proven themselves every bit the equal of the men—long-winded and grammatically challenged. Positive role models apparently are non-existent; the often-parodied “weather bunnies” are blessedly a thing of the past (their anatomical attributes far outweighed their academic credentials), and the first exemplary female trailblazer with any gravitas has yet to be found. 

So please, Mr., Mrs. or Ms. Meteorologist, do us all a favor:  Stop behaving as if you are getting paid by the word, spare me the details about weather phenomena that have no bearing on our locale and, most of all, stop insulting our intelligence.  Chill out, stick to the weather and let us worry about our wardrobes.  Failing that, my fondest wish is that I could take all of you, get you all bundled up and sent to the Sahara.  There’s a 99.99 percent chance that you won’t need an umbrella or have to worry about a lake effect, a polar vortex or banal banter with the anchor desk. 

And now here’s Al with the Sports.

--Jim Szantor