Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving 2020



     Happy Thanksgiving!
     I suppose I should just leave it at that. After a brutal, endless, emotionally-wringing 2020 presidential campaign, with its unprecedented attempt by a sitting president to subvert the election process, conducted against the background of a raging viral pandemic, we deserve a moment of relief, of stepping away from the maelstrom and concentrating on our own personal lives. I still feel blessed, and hope you do too. I hope there is food on the table and a loved one or two in your bubble and you find time to pause, and reflect, and give thanks for the good things, the rocks that are not washed away in the tempest, solid enough to set up a table and sit and share something plentiful and good.
     Period. End of post.
     But this is far from the usual Thanksgiving, even though an alarming number of Americans are pretending it is just another holiday, hopping on planes and gathering in big family groups, while all of the medical experts and the responsible parts of government beg them not to. Why? I suppose being heedless, even stupid, has something to do with it, or at least on automatic pilot, zombies vacuuming a house that's on fire.
     It isn't entirely their fault. We've been grinding through eight months of this. The impulse to say, "The hell with it," is human and strong. Plus many are being led astray. It isn't as if Trump is alone setting fire to the curtains. Yesterday I notice a post on Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas' Twitter feed and, well, perhaps it's best if I just show you:
     In one sense, that is a standard GOP bullshit, the hallucinatory conjuring up of some insane stand—the War on Christmas migrating to Thanksgiving—and projecting it on the bogeyman of liberals, so it can be decried. Squeezing a little imaginary victimhood into a paper bag so it can be huffed, for the high it obviously produces. Not that there aren't academic sorts pointing out that the actual first Thanksgiving took place in September, or that it didn't work out so well for the Native-Americans welcoming the pilgrims. Not that some don't cluck at Thanksgiving, as people do about literally everything. Yet all of it scraped together doesn't amount to a collective eye roll, never mind "losing their minds." Rather, it's the same comic Yosemite Sam bow-legged bluster, Cruz firing his rhetorically six-guns into the air, swaggering against imaginary enemies who are, again remember, trying to cut down the number of conservatives who are dying on ventilators in three weeks.
     It is grotesque enough from a stupid man, from a man like Donald Trump. To see it from Cruz, who was educated at one point, and knew enough to denounce Trump in 2016, before he fell at his feet and began rolling like a puppy. It's despicable and should excuse him from the office he holds—in Texas, remember, where they called out the National Guard to help with the morgue overflow—never mind let him aspire toward higher office, as he so obviously does. That he is a member—I almost said "respected member" but don't want to overstate the case—of the United States Senate, and not some fringe loon, is a hard pill to swallow. Never mind the prospect that he might be the 47th president since, after Trump, anything is possible. So I had to take that tweet and seal it in a bottle and set it on the shelf, here, where we can find it in 2022 when Cruz starts vigorously running for an office even further beyond his abilities. (Assuming he's still not crouched over Trump's shoes, licking). 
      This is criminal negligence, to make business-as-usual Thanksgiving into an act of political defiance and egg his flock of Lone Star State sheep to rush baaing to the nearest pack of wolves and show their bellies.
     Enough, let me let you get back to your celebration, the more modest, safe and low key the better. If Ted Cruz can wildly cheer on folly, then I can provide a knowing nod of approval to caution. There is nothing wrong with stepping away from the herd. When you're giving thanks, you might want to give thanks for being able to breath, unassisted, because not everyone can.
    We will always remember this Thanksgiving. Crisis holidays are like that. I remember a distant New Year's Eve, 2000. The coming of the millennium was a big deal, and people were doing all sorts of wildly excessive things, rushing off to the pyramids, seeing laser shows in Paris. Not only did I not do any of those things, but I had to work, the newspaper sounding an all-hands-on-deck alert in case the Y2K computer melt-down some experts feared actually occurred. (Before COVID, before 9/11, we had no idea what a crisis looked like...)
     So it's 11:45 p.m., Dec. 31, 1999. A quiet night, none of the bad stuff we feared occurring, and I look up at the harsh florescent-lit newsroom at 401 N. Wabash and think, "I'll be damned if I'm ushering in the millennium sitting in this goddamn place." And I get up, and go downstairs, and stroll south on Wabash Avenue, an unusually warm December night, and stop at the middle of the Wabash Avenue Bridge, lean against the rail, and watch the clock on the Wrigley Building slowly advance toward midnight, utterly alone, the street empty. It was quiet and solitary and peaceful. At 11:55, a knot of partygoers, rushing somewhere down the block. Then still again.
     At midnight, a soft cheer, from somewhere, from everywhere, and some fireworks popped in the general direction of Navy Pier. It was a very nice, comforting moment that became a beautiful memory. I hope this COVID Thanksgiving is the same for you. There will only be the one, if we're lucky, and we might as well make the best of it. We can celebrate in the traditional fashion next year. Those of who live to see it, I mean. Stay safe. Happy Thanksgiving.



Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"I've got a BAD feeling about this..."



     The "Raiders of the Lost Ark" quality of the Trump ordeal, how it keeps coming at you—deadly spikes bursting out of tunnel walls replaced by giant boulder rolling toward you leading to Amazonian tribesmen shooting poisoned arrows—means that the president finally admitting the obvious, that Joe Biden will be sworn in as president Jan. 20, brings only a small frisson of relief and the immediate question, "What's next? What peril is right now zinging in our direction?"
     Will Trump consolidate his stranglehold on the Republican Party? Build his own media juggernaut and stride toward the 2024 campaign? Defect to Russia while babbling secrets? A thousand days of rallies and tweets and rhetorical boulders tossed into the political pond? Or will he, could he possibly, begin to fade, Cheshire-cat like, until there is only that horrible hairdo hovering behind some neglected podium?
     Nah, not that. That isn't how these things work. "Oh look Indy, I guess we got the priceless statue, got away clean and are home free..." Won't happen.
     Will some other Republican lunge to take Trump's place? Is that even possible? That's the question I've been chewing on: Is Trumpism transferable? Can Ted Cruz simply put on a red baseball cap and be worshipped like a little toy god too? That is a risk, but very hard to imagine. Then again, all of this was hard to imagine. But my gut tells me no. To get the momentum Donald Trump did, the running start of Manhattan megalomania and years of reality TV, you have to be Donald Trump. Marco Rubio can't do. Donnie and Eric Trump can't do it. There was a Fox News in 2012, but nobody was shrieking because Mitt Romney touched their hand.
     Then again, all that frenzy, the illusion-based calliope they've built, has to go chugging off in some direction. Conservation of mass, energy. Nothing vanishes in a puff. They aren't going to look at each other, blinking, and suddenly wake up. "What? Where are we? Who? Joe Biden is president? How can we help him move the country forward?" That ain't happening either.
      Earlier this year, I cast Trumpism as an addiction, a damaging compulsion clung to by broken people in full flight from the world of facts. If we keep the addictive mechanism in mind, then the concept of growing tolerance for the substance of choice might be useful. Don't let our craving for moderation, for relief, blind ourselves to how these people function. The dullness of normality, policy, programs is what they're fighting. They need more insanity, not less, to raise a tingle in their blown-out senses. Trump will be replaced with something wilder, grosser, more destructive. Not Ted Cruz but Alex Jones. The crazy will give way to the really crazy.      
     That's fairly terrifying. And a reminder that prediction is pointless. Nobody could have seen the Trump juggernaut in the spring of 2015. Whatever giant spider or six-headed cobra is hurrying our way, we can't really prepare for it, much.
     So, speaking for myself, I plan to enjoy this moment of calm, the part of the movie where the China Clipper is flying along a little dotted line over India, a breather, the naming of governmental officials who aren't bumblers, fanatics and children of president. Given how horrified we were when it seemed like it was never going to happen, we owe it to ourselves to be pleased, for a little while, that it has happened. To sigh, smile, and await what comes next—a dozen assassins with scimitars raised, shouting "Aiyeebah!" and rushing at us from all directions. That sounds about right.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Live to see another Thanksgiving


    Why yes, I am proud to have snapped this not-all-that-bad photo of a Cooper's Hawk Sunday at the Chicago Botanic Garden with my iPhone 8, not a device well-suited to taking pictures of birds on the wing at a distance.
     And yes, I would like to spend this entire post musing on hawks, and their various splendors and glories. While recognizing that it might not really be a Cooper's Hawk*; I have a tendency to call every hawk I see a Cooper's Hawk.
     But I'm not going to do that, discuss hawks, I mean.
     I can't do that.
     Because of you.
     That is assuming you're one of those people who are actually gathering for a big traditional Thanksgiving dinner this Thursday, despite there being a Level 3 Code Red Emergency Pandemic Alert, or whatever they call it, because you've already bought the turkey or you always have a big Thanksgiving and people expect it and you just can't imagine missing Thanksgiving dinner even if your life depends on it which it may very well.
    I know. Tradition and family and expectation.
    Well boo-fucking-hoo.
     You think I don't miss Thanksgiving? We had 27 people at our house last year. Twenty-seven. My sister came in from Texas. My parents came in from Colorado. We made two turkeys, one roasted, one deep-fried, because one turkey just isn't enough.  We always make two turkeys. So yes, tradition. 
     You know how many people we're having over this year? None. Sure it's stressful. My wife is making a full Thanksgiving meal anyway, complete with a 14 pound turkey, due to ... I don't know, muscle memory. Which isn't quite Miss Havisham in her wedding dress. But in the realm. You know what I said when she asked me what we should eat this year? I said, "Swanson TV dinners. The frozen is just as good as the real." An homage to "Broadway Danny Rose" and sincere expression of the who-gives-a-fuckism that has been getting me through the past eight surreal-if-not-nightmarish months in this country.
     And you see how well that worked. Big turkey. Gravy. Stuffing, Sweet potatoes. Green bean casserole. Some kind of carrot salad and God knows what else. Homemade cranberry relish. 
     So we're going to make this enormous spread and get it on the table and sit down and just look at each other. No guests at all. Nor did we accept any of the invitations to have Thanksgiving dinner anywhere else. Not with my brother. Not with our son studying across the country. And do you know why? Because we don't wanna die. We wanna live to have a better Thanksgiving next year. It wasn't even a decision. It was the biggest no-brainer of all time.
     Returning to hawks. You know how I was able to sneak up close enough to get that quasi-good shot of the hawk? Because he was focused on a squirrel, which was standing still, as frozen as a squirrel ever is, whispering whatever squirrel prayer squirrels say when a hawk is bearing down on them. Because we live in a natural world where hawks hunt squirrels, and eat them for lunch, if the squirrel is not careful and often even if it is. Where the predator swoops in on the breeze and carries you off, from hawks to viruses, and neither care that it's your special holiday. COVID-19 moves from host to host without giving a rat's ass whether it's Thanksgiving or not.
     I'm not writing this to upbraid you. Well, yes, I am. But there's more to it. I'm actually passing along a useful, thoughtful, spiritual idea. Which makes this the blog version of Hints from Heloise, to date myself. A warm, loving suggestion which, needless to say, did not originate from me. The extended family was communicating our general agreement that we were not getting within throwing distance of one another this Thanksgiving when my sister-in-law said yes, yes, that notwithstanding, she'd still like to bake pies for everyone, as a way to off-gas all the goodness in her heart, and to keep her pie-baking muscles limber and what kind of pies would we like? And I put in my order—pecan please—and manfully restrained myself from adding, "...and pumpkin and sour cherry, if possible. Plus chess. And key lime." Then I spent a few minutes thinking about the pie I'd be getting, and then an alien, unfamiliar, completely uncharacteristic thought came to me, like a stranger edging into a vast, empty hall, raising a finger and clearing his throat.
     Ahem.
     "You know..." the thought went. "The stuffing I'm making for Edie and I .... the trademark challah stuffing ... I could ... I suppose ... in the same away Janice is making a half dozen extra pies .... could, without the expenditure of too much extra effort, really ... make MORE stuffing, by using extra ingredients ... and put that additional stuffing into those little square aluminum tins, and when I go to her house, to collect my pie (or, ideally, pies) I could leave a few tins behind, for her and her family, and other members of the extended clan, who could get their care packages of stuffing, the stuffing they always eat at Thanksgiving, and enjoy my primo perfected over a quarter century stuffing instead of whatever sucking-pebbles-in-the-desert stand-in for my stuffing that they would cobble together on their own.
     I examined that idea, blinking, surprised. That came from me? With inspiration from my sister-in-law, of course. A boost over the wall. But still. My idea.
     And it felt ... nice.
     So if instead of getting together, and getting each other sick, as millions of Americans seem to be doing because they're dumb as dirt and their lives are forfeit, you could adopt the patented Janice Live Through the Holidays Strategy and safely swap homemade foodstuffs. It seemed an idea worth sharing. I know there's only 48 hours until Thanksgiving, and you might have to scramble. But heck, that should be plenty of time, so get to it. 
     And, if not, well, I tried.

* It isn't. Tony Fitzpatrick tells me it is a red-tailed hawk, and if there's anybody who knows his birds, it's Tony. 


Monday, November 23, 2020

Storm door

     So how you doing? Holding up, between the election and the endless vote tally and the laughable lawsuits and the COVID? Good, good. Me too. Not much news to relate. The boys were home, for about six months, but they're back at school—well, the younger one. The older one went to study in Florida with a classmate, which is possible thanks to remote learning. Smart and resourceful.
     I finished a wooden door. And since some readers are outraged when I write about something that isn't politics, I should say, we'll get there, but it'll take time, as good things often do.
     But finishing the door, is a far, far more complicated process than I could have ever imagined. I'm tempted to write a weeklong series about it. There was the genesis of the project. The hideous battered old black aluminum screen door that was completely wrong for our 1905 Queen Anne farm house but I nevertheless walked through several times a day and tolerated because, well, people will tolerate just about anything, particularly if it is already in place when they show up. There was a period of years where I talked vaguely about "replacing the door" but did nothing, as people also tend to do. Then my wife floated plans of buying a new white aluminum door, and pointed out this complicated Suburban Screen Door System at Home Depot which reminded me of the hatch of a battleship, airtight, which I assume was the appeal.  
     Maybe that was her way of giving me a nudge. Maybe it was sincere, who knows? Anyway, it worked, and I realized that if I was to have a door in harmony with the 115-year-old aesthetic of the house, I'd have to take charge of the project, which I hate doing. But she gave me an additional nudge by going online, and finding the exact right wooden door, in the right wooden door factory right in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. It was quite expensive. For a wild moment I contemplated driving up to Fond du Lac to examine this door candidate. But, COVID. So I put my reportorial skills to work, and phoned up the factory and quizzed someone over the phone—friendly people, in Wisconsin, Scott Walker notwithstanding—getting various details, including the fact that the door is sold at Evanston Lumber. 
     I sent an email, then when that did nothing, phoned the owner, and went there, to look at the door, and got to know the owner, a little, who told me he bought the nine neighboring houses so they wouldn't complain about his lumber yard that had been there for nearly a century before they ever showed up. Which is one way to solve that problem. 
    A series of columns would be easy. The factory. The lumberyard. The process of buying the door would be one column, as would Tom, the salt-of-the-earth carpenter  hired to hang the door, since I knew that if I'd put one screw hole 1/64th inch off and the door would never hang true or open properly. His services cost more than the door itself, but I was glad I hired him.
     But since your time is precious, and news is going on, I'd better cut to the chase. The door had to harmonize with our current door, and that took buying a multitude of cans of stain—four, maybe six—before I found the exact right shade, Gunstock ("Gunstock"? Jesus. Why do woodworking and conservative politics go hand-in-hand? That could be yet another post). Once the stain was found, we arrived at the main challenge: marine spar varnish. Close friends of ours treated the old door of their lovely old house in Berea, Ohio with marine spar varnish, and my wife, who'd have been happy with the metal aircraft carrier hatch door let slip, several times, the advisability of using marine spar varnish. It was almost an order, though I liked the idea—it seemed very nautical, and my father was a sailor, and we did once sail across the Atlantic in a ship together, so I guess I'm a bit nautical too, if only in fancy. 
Only $40 a quart
     But applying spar varnish is like building a house. It's like gall bladder surgery: an enormously complicated process. Go online, and look at the tool porn videos of salt-of-the-earth handyman types explaining how to apply spar varnish. At first I thought I would mix the stain into the varnish but the guys I consulted at J.C. Licht—a Northbrook paint store around the corner from our house that I have to plug for all the times I raced in, asked them some frantic question and left—said, no, you put on the stain first, then the marine spar varnish. 
     Only you don't. There is also preconditioner, as my wife discovered, doing her own independent online research—teamwork—which keeps the stain from going on splotchy, and nobody wants splotchy stain. So I watched a variety of wildly differing videos online, some suggesting the stain be applied 15 minutes after the preconditioner, and some saying no, no, it has to be 24 hours. I tried to balance who was right. The divergence was so extreme, it was like watching competing home handyman videos by Martin Luther and the Pope.
     I practiced. I'm ashamed to admit it. I cut up little blocks of wood and practiced applying precondition and stain and marine spar varnish. Then practiced sanding them, a process that itself took a few days. Practice seemed to make sense. Given the cost of the door and the carpenter, I didn't want to then swoop in and Fuck It Up with a bad finish. That would kill me.
     When time approached to actually finish the door, I thought to do it in the garage, and was sweeping out the thick layer of crumbled leaves that lives on our garage floor 12 months a year, no matter what we do, when my wife, who has a genius for bold, out-of-the-box insight, pointed out that our TV room is utterly empty—like many, we're remodeling the homes we're trapped in, covering over a hideous linoleum floor that we tolerated because we're dead inside with real maple flooring—and I should do it there, and I looked at her, amazed, love blooming anew, because I never, ever would have thought of that, and would have suffered for hours and hours in the bone chilling unheated detached garage instead. I prepared the TV room, putting down a drop cloth to protect the floor that is going to be covered by maple flooring anyway because I'm an idiot that way, and set up a pair of sawhorses.  
     So how long to finish a door? A solid week. A day for preconditioning, which I decided needed the full 24 hours because it says so on the can. That's how serious I was about this. I read the can. Then two days of applying stain—the first coat, not dark enough, so sand and apply a second coat, which is just right.
    Then three coats of marine spar varnish, which take six days—and given how bad people are with simple practical situations, I should immediately explain why, though I'm tempted to make you squirm. Three coats require six days...why?
    Sigh. Two side of a door. You stain one, carefully stroking it on, slowly, to avoid bubbles. Then the thing has to dry for 24 blessed hours. Then you turn the door and do the other side. So each coat takes two days.
 
   Not solid days, mind you. I'd say it took 15, 20 minutes tops to do the door, plus the inset for the screen, for springtime and the glass, for winter (both had to be masked off, using painters tape and brown paper; I'm leaving off all sorts of intermediate steps, like sanding in between coats; I told you, this could run over a week. Or two). 
     So for six days, the door sat on sawhorses in our utterly empty TV room, just before the wood flooring arrived—and on the seventh I gave it a final caress with 350 grit sandpaper: really more like emery cloth—and the spar varnish was like glass.
     The process could not have been rushed. If I hadn't let each coat dry 24 hours it would pill up when sanded (touch the surface after 20 hours and it was still a bit tacky). If I skipped the preconditioner it would have been splotchy. One coat of stain was too light. And three coats of spar varnish were needed for the fabulous glass-like finish I was looking for. I could have done a fourth—some of the endless YouTube videos mention a possible fourth. But I decided not to gild the lily—a glasslike finish would have to do.
     So here's my question: as laborious as the above was, nobody read it and thought, "He should have rushed the door. He should have only given it one coat." So what's the problem with waiting three weeks to thwart the various pathetic legal dodges of the would-be demagogue who would undo it? To make sure every vote validly counted by an American citizen is recorded and certified and shoved up Donald Trump's ass? How is preserving democracy less important than my storm door? Yes, it feels like forever, while it's going on. But when it's done, it'll just be a moment in the long history of our great country. As will be waiting until Jan. 20 for the beast to be booted from office. We should be ecstatic. Squirm as he likes, he's going. The rest are details. So no, I'm not too worked up about his selling drilling rights in the Arctic or appointing judges. He can steal the light plates from the Oval Office for all I care. All that matters is, he's going. Eight weeks from Wednesday. It only seems forever.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Extra special


     "I don't think we've been on this path before," I say, part as threadbare joke, part in sincere wonder that no matter how many times my wife and I walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden, dozens and dozens, hundreds even, we always see new things. What I mean is, "This is fresh, this feels new, I like this."
     I always do. We've been members for years, gone regularly for years. But during the past eight months of the COVID crisis, we've really leaned on our membership. Three, four, fives times a week. Six. After work, usually. Or as a lunch break. For an hour, usually.  Just walking, this way and that, randomly chatting about this or that, our day, our kids, sometimes politics, if we can't avoid it, but we try to. Sometimes not talking at all. Sometimes in what our older son calls "companionable silence."
     It's never gotten dull. It's kept us sane. We've never gotten tired of it. Of course not. The Chicago Botanic Garden is big, 385 acres, and with our going at different times of day, light to dark, and different seasons, summer, winter, spring, fall, dazzling heat and bitter cold, flowers awash in bright springtime colors and retreated into the browns and ochres in winter. Not to mention heading down different paths—you really can't walk it all in one visit. You can't take in half, plus and facing different directions. There really is always something fresh, something we haven't done in a while—the woodland path. It's a little apart. We haven't walked it in a couple months now. Maybe three. Must do that. 
     "That fire hydrant is new," I said, pointing it out. Not meaning "new"—it's obviously quite old, the fire plug from a children's book, and clearly has been there every single time we've visited, by the entrance to the orchards and vegetables gardens, waiting patiently to be noticed. Or maybe I clamped eyes upon it 10 years ago and subsequently forgot. That's possible. the thing doesn't exactly call attention to itself, other than its charming old-fashioned quality. No reason for it to vibrate in mind.
     Why notice it now? Maybe the light was right. Or we were vectoring in just the right direction to bring it into our line of sight. We notice a lot of things that way. Never seen before, then suddenly right under our noses.
     My wife noticed this bell, tucked behind some evergreen branches by the carillon, which a certain family member pronounced "carillion," until occasional gentle correction and the passage of years, nudged them into the proper pronunciation, so now just saying "let's walk by the carillon" has the sense of a complicated bit of personal business. An ingrained demi-tradition, so that hearing it said right, "carillon," is almost a let down, a loss, at least to me, a uniqueness that was allowed to fade through inattention. I have to bite back expressing the desire to hear in incorrectly.
      In the summer, there are carillon concerts—not this past summer, of course, but previous summers, the bells chiming out across the gardens, and, one hopes, next summer. People bring picnics, spread blankets. It's nice. Though over the summer we did happen by when somebody, a student I imagine, was practicing, and we felt lucky to be there. Though honestly, we always feel lucky to be there, bells or not, and usually say it, one of us or both, at various times, "We're lucky to have this," one of us will say and the other will echo "yes lucky" the word resonating a few times, itself like the peal of a bell.
     We stay for an hour. Not only do you discover aspects that are always there, but
sometimes there are ephemeral displays. Orchid shows and cacti shows, back when people did that kind of thing. I usually take a brochure, planning to join, not for the plants, but for the members. It seems like the ideal setting for a murder mystery, the Cactus and Succulent Society of Greater Chicago, awash with violent controversies and seething, suppressed hatreds, all out-of-scale with the tender attention to little spiked spheres. I always smile just contemplating it.
      Pumpkin festivals, art fairs. They're having their light festival right now—don't try to go, it's sold out— and we happened upon these metal men. Not my cup of tea, frankly. Escapees from a Barney's window in the year 1988. But we saw them from a distance and wandered over, then paused before them a moment to take a looking. Knowing they might be gone next time we visit. Hoping that.
    "They're all men," my wife observed, and so they were. 
     Not only are there paths and ponds and plants but, to continue the "p" motif, people, all ages and races and conditions, black and white, Hindi and Chinese. Elderly couples and mothers changing babies on blankets. Hispanic families taking quinceanera photos on the sly. Engaged couples posing on the bridges. Orthodox Jews on dates. Christian families fresh from church. Generational groups. There always seems to be a lot of nationalities there, I'm not sure why. A lot of Russians, and I plan to someday ask a few what it is about Russians and Botanic Gardens. Somebody must know. I'm always hearing snatches of conversation—they talk to each other constantly, or into cell phones.
     "Konyeshna," I said Saturday, repeating a word I had overheard. "'Of course.'" Then we talked about how odd that that word would slumber somewhere. I haven't studied Russian in 40 years.
     At home Saturday night, preparing dinner, we did our usual post-walk post-mortem, and came to our usual conclusion.
     "It was special," my wife said.
     "It's always special," I said. She pondered that logical contradiction.
     "Extra special," she replied.





    




     

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Texas notes: Island City

     While we're all locked down, more or less, a welcome tale of life on the move from Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey. 
 
     A broken toilet is a good excuse for adventure. I learned the water in the tiny house I rent would be shut off for repairs, so packed my bags and headed southeast. I settled on Galveston and drove a few short hours to the yellow Airbnb cottage I’d call mine for a three night getaway.
     The first night was fresh redfish on a deck overlooking barges, yachts and fishing ships in the Gulf as the sun set. The next morning I put Barry White’s deep crooning tunes on one ear pod and biked to his childhood home at 917 Avenue K. It was modest but impressive because he had been there.
     I kept Barry on as my soundtrack and biked up Seawall Boulevard along the coast. White sand beaches morphed into marshes with giant snow-white, yellow beaked herons and muted pink flamingos trying to blend into the grasses.
     I biked from the eastern tip of the island back down Seawall and found myself on a small highway with giant signs painted on the asphalt depicting barges carrying cars. A friend had suggested taking the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula and it seemed I was on my way. It was mid-afternoon and not having planned well all I’d eaten was a Cliff Bar, water and 2 cups of coffee—but forged on.
     I walked my bike onto the giant barge and climbed a steep set of stairs to the outer deck. I let the wind whip my hair around as we took off. It was all that the ocean promises. Shiny black fins of dolphins appeared as they dove gleefully in and out of the huge rolling wavs. Seagulls galore, soaring eye level with me on the deck. A huge pelican flying solo and seeming to hover completely still in the wind as he eyeballed me to see if I’d be tossing any bread his way.
     When we docked the crew suggested that I head to the closest restaurant, La Playita. When I arrived the neon sign in the window said “open” but it was off, not lit up. I scanned it hard to be sure that was right— I was in need of sustenance.
     I mapped the peninsula and Yelp told me that most of the restaurants were temporarily closed. I almost decided to head back to the ferry and call it a wash— I could always return the next day with my car— but that would have felt like defeat. Just then, a black pickup turned the corner towards me and pulled over. It was the same man in the Trump 2020 hat and little brown dog on his lap I had nodded to as we passed a mile or so back. Man and dog peered out at this stranger on their turf, and I told them I was looking for a place to eat.
     The gentleman asked me if I’d like a ride to a good fish place in Crystal Beach and then I could bike back. I hedged my bets and said yes, carefully climbing 
into passengers seat in the large cab, windows wide open, mask on, hand sanitizer in my fanny pack on the ready. He gave me a tour along the way. We passed the Lago Vista Harbor, the Intracoastal Waterway that runs for 3000 miles–from New Jersey all the way to the Gulf of Mexico— and the shrimping boats. He explained that this part of Bolivar, pronounced to rhyme with Oliver, was the quiet part. He’d moved away from Crystal Beach since progress was ruining it. “I don’t like cities.”
     I mentioned how much Austin has built up in the six years I’ve lived there. His last visit was in the mid 70s, a Linklater beatnik distanced memory where weird really was OK. Today it’s more like a mini Chicago, and that’s what I told him. “Chicago!” he said. “I lived there for 20 years.”
     When he was working as a DEA agent in Illinois he met his wife who was from the far south side of Chicago. His brother-in-law lived on 106th near Torrence. My Busia (great-grandmother) lived near 103rd and Torrence. When he mentioned that they used to go to Gayety’s Chocolates “even on the coldest days of winter to get ice cream” I felt comforted by this small, interconnected world. A distant relative of mine now owns Gayety’s and they still have the best chocolate and ice cream.
     He dropped me off at Stingaree Restaurant & Marina, nearly 15 miles from the ferry, and we said our goodbyes. After he’d pulled off I tried the doors and found that they were closed. At least I had that bottle of water. I headed back to Highway 87 and pedaled away. I ducked into a convenience store where locals with masks in various states of undress (noses poking out and such) sat packed around gambling machines.
     I settled on a Snickers bar, a bag of seasoned almonds, and a watermelon drink and got out of there as fast as I could. I got back on the bike after a short rest and cruised, enjoyed the landscape as it flashed by. I passed full pelts of roadkill stretched out perfectly, my very own natural taxidermy museum. The weather was perfect. 70s, breezy, with the wind at my back. A bright blue sky. I put jaunty tunes in one ear pod, the volume low to stay alert to traffic sounds.
     When I was a couple of miles from the ferry Trump 2020 pulled up ahead of me on the shoulder. I passed him, called out “I am ok!” and waved. He said “be careful!” We went our separate ways, perhaps both of us feeling a little less alone.

Friday, November 20, 2020

"The secret weapon of democracy"

     As we wait for the next two eternal months—from today—to see if Donald Trump is able to subvert our democracy through backroom legal maneuvering, or will leave office to lead his 73 million dupe army in a furious rear-guard war against their own country, sentient America holds our breath, raises our voices, huffs on the spark of hope, prays, despairs, worries, laughs, and yearns for, if not a better future, then at least an end to the Trump ordeal.
     Searching for a hard bottom to our descent through this mire, I keep returning to those facts that Trump and his followers so blithely ignore. Facts matter, not out of some airy moral calculus, but because they're there, being facts, and will bite you in the ass. The brick wall will not be passed through, no matter how ghostly you feel. COVID-19 is a real virus that has killed a quarter of a million Americans and will kill a quarter million more before that vaccine gets in our hands. You can pronounce it a hoax, cast off your mask, hold a big, packed, sweaty pig roast for yourself and your friends. But it's still there, and your actions might put you in that second quarter million. 
     Being able to face unpleasant facts, to recognize and act on them, has to put a thumb on the scales for our side, long term. It has to. Maybe not on any given day. But eventually. 
     Or such is the hope. Every game worth playing requires a strategy, and that is mine. Though I worry, at the lowest moments, that faith reality, dedication to honesty, belief in truth, the idea that right prevails—all of it—they're just another delusion, like all the others. Its not the axle the world spins on either. Obviously.
     We'll see.
     Reading history, I stumbled upon some words of Adlai Stevenson, spoken in Chicago while accepting the 1952 Democratic nomination for president. History doesn't carve out much space for Stevenson. I imagine that most Illinoisans remember him, if they remember him at all, as the former governor who ran against Dwight D. Eisenhower twice and lost both times.      
     Stevenson was a very smart man (though the term "egghead," while popularized in the 1952 election, tied to Stevenson's bald dome, was not coined for him; Ben Hecht used it in the Daily News in 1919) . When I was a student, Northwestern printed in its calendars an inspiring quote from Stevenson, "And don't forget, when you leave, why you came." The implication was he said it at NU, but he didn't. Rather, at a Harvard's commencement.*
     At the 1952 convention, Adlai Stevenson said in his opening remarks, "Where we have erred, let there be no denial; and where we have wronged the public trust, let there be no excuses. Self-criticism is the secret weapon of democracy, and candor and confession are good for the political soul."
     Or at least they were. Now of course, we see in Trump, the triumph of deceit and denial, of willful blindness in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. You can completely botch the battle against a deadly illness and plunge your arms up to the elbows in the blood of 250,000 Americans, and 73 million of the Americans who you haven't killed will still vote for you and passionately support you as you pervert and undercut the basic notions of democracy.
     I don't know how Democrats can fight that. But I do know, if we ape it, we've already lost. Then there are two parties blind to reality, and we've already got one too many as it is. The idea is to defeat them, not double them. Stevenson's words reflect a battle plan, the strength of character that we must cling to, even if it hobbles us, short term. I think they are not only the right thing to do, but a winning strategy, eventually. We'll see, won't we?
     That's my plan to anyway. You of course are free to do what you like. It's a free country. Or was.


*The full quote is quite beautiful: "Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good friends. And don't forget when you leave why you came."