Monday, February 28, 2022

Don’t buy paczki on Paczki Day

Dobra Bielinski, right, with her mother, Stasia Hawryszczuk.

     First, say it right.
     The word “paczki” is not, as I sometimes do, pronounced “pash-key,” like artist Ed Paschke.
     Nor “push-key,” like the Jewish charity box.
     “Punch-key” is close. But not quite.
     “Poinch-key,” said Warsaw-born Dobra Bielinski, of the Polish pastry so ethereal it has its own holiday in Chicago, Paczki Day, Tuesday March 1. “That’s how you properly pronounce it.”
     Bielinski is pastry chef and owner of Delightful Pastries, 5927 Lawrence Ave., and with my fierce commitment to shoe leather reporting, I sat down with her Friday to talk and eat paczki — the word is plural. “Paczek” is singular, though good luck limiting yourself to one. I couldn’t.
     Second, they’re not doughnuts.
     “What’s the difference between a paczki and a doughnut?” asked Bielinski. “Doughnuts have water and yeast and whatever the hell they put in. They’re very, very sweet. Paczki are not very sweet. There’s butter, eggs and milk inside the dough. That’s very important.”
     “Because they’re part of the cleaning out of ingredients in your house,” added James Beard Award-winning chef Gale Gand, who Bielinski worked under as a young baker. Gand swung by Delightful Pastries on Friday to join us.
     Paczki Day is also known as Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” the blowout before the 40-day denial of Lent.
     “Certain old-school Catholics don’t do desserts,” Bielinski said. “I don’t see them in my store except to buy bread.”
     Third: It’s what’s around the fillings that’s important.
     “We eat paczki for the dough, not the filling,” Bielinski said. “Polish people judge paczki by the dough. The filling is the cherry on the top.”
     Though not actual cherry, at least not here. Bielinski sells the trinity of traditional fillings, “The Pantheon” she calls it: raspberry preserves, rose petal jelly and plum butter, augmented by 10 more haute flavors, like salted caramel and apricot, fresh strawberry and custard topped with chocolate fudge, not to forget her “drunken” paczki in flavors like lemon and moonshine or Jameson whiskey with chocolate custard.
     A reminder that, fourth: Don’t underestimate the sophistication of a bakery just because it’s Polish.

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Sunday, February 27, 2022

Русский военный корабль: иди на хуй.


     Cowardice and surrender are hardwired into the human psyche. If nothing else, we've learned that over the past six years, as powerful people—senators and representatives, TV pundits and internet stars—have betrayed their country, their supposed values, and themselves, to curl up cooing the lap of a swaggering traitor.
     But not everybody takes the easy route. Not everyone looks to their own ease and comfort first. Those who risk their lives rebuke those who won't risk a bit of power and what they consider prestige but is actually deathless shame. If you aren't following the Russian invasion of Ukraine closely—and I can hardly blame you—and haven't heard of the incident on Snake Island, allow me to fill you in.
     When the invasion began, a Russian warship confronted the garrison on "a tiny island in the Black Sea ... a speck of land south of the port of Odessa," according to a Reuters account.
     "I am Russian warship," the ship radioed, in Russian. "Lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary deaths. Otherwise you will be bombed. Repeat: I am a Russian warship."
     The reply will live in the annals of defiance:
     "Russian warship: go fuck yourself."
     There was a too-good-to-be-true element to the story that gave me pause. Though the president of Ukraine lauded the 13 guards who "died heroically" after the Russian warship fired on the island. Later reports questioned whether any died at all. 
      To me, the important thing is the resistance, not the casualty count.  While propaganda must always a concern, particularly in war, a recording seems to exist, and the general consensus right now is that the bold retort occurred.
     One more caveat. It's human nature to focus on the thrilling part of the narrative, and we should keep in mind that the invasion is still an overwhelming disaster with the odds severely stacked against Ukraine. Sometimes you have to gaze without mitigation at the death and loss and ruin. Turning everyone into Anne Frank is merely a more subtle form of holocaust denial.
       Still, when the battle is raging, it is fitting to focus on the brave resistance. And not just on Snake Island. Ukrainian citizens returning to fight. Staging protests around the world. Others joining in solidarity. The Russian assault stalling at the get go. So there is hope. And there is Snake Island, a modern Alamo, for the moment. We should take the encouragement it offers. The battle is weak against strong, but also good against evil, truth against lies. It's that simple, and hardly surprising that the MAGA crowd has gone all in for Putin. Trump called the invasion "pretty smart," as if it were a savvy land grab. (As do some on the Left, Rev. Jesse Jackson arguing that Ukraine belongs to Russia, and they've bad people, anyway). 
     The key mistake in the Russian demand was the word "unnecessary" (or "unjustified.") This fight is completely necessary, here and there. Despotism never gives up; it only loses. Resistance is not merely justified; it is required.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Wilmette Notes: Normal

     The question of who are strangers and who are "us" is perhaps the fundamental issue of all human societies. One we see constantly reflected in many, if not most, of the issues we confront every day. Saturday correspondent Caren Jeskey, writing at this fraught time in international affairs, brings a keen, compassionate eye to the issue. Her report:

By Caren Jeskey

     So, let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense: Since
     Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And
     since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.
            — Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
     My friend Stacey and I have a history of laughing at inappropriate times. Nervous laughter is an automatic way for the body to regulate when a person feels an emotion they’d rather not feel. So please don’t judge us for cracking up at a dinner table in a home outside of Kumasi in Ghana, West Africa back when we were in our twenties. Our well intentioned host reminded me of Mrs. Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. She seemed unable to see us and be present, and instead was offering us a performative experience of the home she wanted us to perceive. The problem was the absurdity of the situation in her home, and the practiced way she was treating us. (Though I must add that I am very grateful that she had us, and tried).
Akan memorial head,
Metropolitan Museum of Art
      Stacey is a black woman and I am white. When we got to Ghana one of the most surprising things was that we were both called obruni, a word in the local Twi language for white man. When we’d step off of our tour bus, people would gather and point with an unabashed curiosity and call out “Obruni! Obruni!” My black companions balked. “Why are they calling us that word?” Some of them voiced that they thought they’d feel more welcomed home upon their arrival to their Motherland. Instead, they found that they were considered just as much outsiders as I was and as a white man would have been.
     I have since learned that obruni means white man in Twi, but it also means foreigner, depending on the dialect. It might be said in an affectionate manner, or it might be said distrustfully— as in “don’t trust the outsider.”
     Stacey’s and my host for the week was a Ghanaian woman who ran a local restaurant. She had a white Jesus posted prominently in her living room, and she seemed to have a thing for me. Instead of treating us equally, she made eye contact with only me, not Stacey. When she knocked on our door to let us know a meal was ready she’d address only me. “Caren! Breakfast is ready!” Stacey and I would reel at the rudeness, and then laugh our butts off from behind the closed door.
     There was a pregnant teenage girl sleeping on the floor of our host’s home, and being treated as a servant.  Stacey and I were already on edge, and as we sat at the table eating one day, the skinny teen bowing and scraping and serving us, we just lost it. We laughed so hard we cried. Our host thought we were insane, and we could not explain. The next day the trip coordinators found us a new host home where we felt more comfortable. 
I truly hope this woman and her baby fared well.
     Lately, memories have been flooding back to me, as though I am watching my life flash by through the window of a train.
     This was the week I decided to venture out into a public event for the first time since "Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!" at Harris Theater last October. I was invited to the opening of the Frida Kahlo immersion experience at Lighthouse ArtSpace on Wednesday evening, vaccine cards and masks required. I put on a dress for the first time in ages. It felt good. Normal.
     I welcomed the exposure to art and music, and the sheer beauty of the space, but it did feel odd. It will take a while to feel OK about being in the world again. I got to spend time with Sylvia Puente who had received the invitation, and kindly asked me along. When I picked her up I got out of the car for a long, heart-to-heart hug with the dear friend I was seeing for the first time since last summer, due to my extreme COVID hermitism.
     Tragically, the next day we awoke to terror in the air with the Russian invasion of Ukraine adding a new level of helplessness to the world. I decided, that day, to reach out to Stacey since she is one of the few people in the world with whom I am sure to have a good laugh of two. It’s a gift to have people who help us feel seen, understood, stimulated, humored, safe, and loved.
   Yesterday, Stacey and I had our first phone call in years, and it was as refreshing as I knew it would be. Her words, as always, were powerful and comforting. Stacey is a high school teacher. I was moved to think of the good fortune those young people have, with such a steady presence as their teacher.
     Listening to Stacey speak is like being in a pool of natural hot spring water at just the right temperature—the sun peeking gently through a canopy of trees, a cool breeze rattling aspen branches and prompting songbirds. The timbre and cadence of her voice, as well as the wisdom that spills out of her, is a testament that the deepest calm can come without the use of mind altering substances.
     Stacey also works with organizations to improve their group dynamics, and recently added her expertise to the team at the Chicago Greater Food Depository. She guides people to “realign and redesign existing relationships within and beyond the organization to co-create believable, relevant, measurable organizational change.”
     In this world of too many dilemmas to sort out, our best recourse is what Dr. Victor Frankl, who spent three years in his late 30s in four Nazi torture camps, is to “find meaning in life, and free will.” (I am quoting and paraphrasing from Wikipedia). This can be done “by making a difference in the world, by having particular experiences, or by adopting particular attitudes.”
     In order to focus on one’s purpose, the background noise of anxiety, self-doubt, depression and fear can be tamped down by what Frankl teaches in his logotherapy practice. We can use paradoxical intention where we learn to overcome obsessions or anxieties by self-distancing and humorous exaggeration, through dereflection, which draws our attention away from painful, debilitating symptoms since hyper-reflection can lead to inaction, and via Socratic dialogue and attitude modification; asking questions designed to pursue self-defined meaning in life. If a man whose mother and brother were murdered by Hitler's minions, and who spent four years interred, can put one foot in front of the other, heal, grow, and thrive in some ways, I believe we too have a chance.

                 When we blindly adopt a religious,a political system, 
                  a literary dogma, 
                  we become automatons. We cease to grow. 
                                                                            —Anais Nin

Friday, February 25, 2022

Strangers on a train

     “Excuse me; is this the right track for the train going downtown?” an older man asked Tuesday, as we stood waiting in the Northbrook Metra station.
     I told him it is, adding that he needn’t worry about missing his stop, Union Station.
     “The train will empty out,” I said. "Everyone will get off."
     The man explained he had not been downtown in a long time, since he is retired. I asked what he did when he was working. He said he was an engineer; he did architectural drawings on the first 40 floors of the John Hancock Center.
     I asked him what was it like to work for Fazlur Khan, the great structural engineer who, along with architect Bruce Graham, conceived the building in the 1960s. Those Xs on the outside of the Hancock aren’t just cool-looking — they provide structural support, freeing up floor space. It made very tall buildings economically viable for the first time.
     “He was wonderful,” the man said, proceeding to tell a story about the large technical drawings they’d produce.
     “The paper was thin, and there was only so many times you could erase it,” he said. An architect arrived with a mass of changes, and the man despaired at fitting them all on the existing drawings.
     The train arrived. I entered first, took the double seat at the front of the car, and gestured him into the seat across from me.
     The man told how he presented the situation to Khan.
     “Whenever you bring someone a problem, you should also bring a solution,” he said, excellent general work advice.

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Thursday, February 24, 2022

Era of Contempt VII

    Though I had not set foot inside in four months, I hoped to avoid the office when I went downtown Tuesday. There would be no one there, and nothing but a bit of mail, and who writes letters to newspapers nowadays? Cranks and haters, and the ceaseless accumulation of Poetry Magazine, which is almost frightening, considering what somehow gets through what one assumes has to be a vigorous vetting process. Given what they print, what must they receive? The heart breaks for the editors. I suppose the bright spin is that though these verses do not speak to me, generally, they must speak to someone.
     One hopes.
     Though there in the pile was a reward, a new missive from Alan P. Leonard, who six times has graced this blog with his sadly not-at-all unique worldview.
en last we heard from him, in 2019, Mr. Leonard had entered what struck me as a mature phase, and I'm happy to report that he continues to progress. Gone, or at least submerged, is the self-abased sprawl before the former Liar in Chief, as well as the nauseating, unashamed racism at the heart of Trumpism. In its place, Mr. Leonard expresses something that I believe is both entirely true and perhaps even important to understand.   When that happy day comes when the Trump enormity is finally exiled safely to the past, we will have to deal with the reality of the large fraction of the America public, from a third to 49 percent, who embraced his blathering self-regard, his addiction to lies, his cruelty and strutting xenophobia and cowardly racism, and of course his war against democracy, its values and norms.
     How shall these people be viewed? How can America take pride in herself knowing how many readily abandoned her bedrock practices, and all to glorify a clown? Our best path toward  understanding and forgiveness is here expressed by Mr. Leonard, albeit inadvertently: that part of America collected together in a tribal knot, like
 a band of homo habilis sleeping in a pile for warmth 100,000 years ago. Yes, unlike our ancestors, they are responsible for blocking the outside world, and rejecting all thought they did not already believe. But that was the way of their brethren, their environment. You can't haul a translucent blind fish up from the depths of the ocean and fault it for not being an owl. They developed and grew adjusted to the world around them. Alas.
     Yet growth and change is available to all, even the most debased among us. Even Mr. Leonard is maturing, both in tone and stationery, abandoning the odd time warp letterheads of the past for something more simple, nearly adult. The orange is almost pleasing.
     Anyway, enough prelude. I give you Mr. Leonard and his inarguable truth:

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

‘Complicated, but it’s alright’

Frank Orrall (photo by Rob Myers)
     There is no First Amendment when it comes to poetry. You can print almost any sentiment that originates in the smithy of your own soul. But if you want to adorn your work with, say, a few lines of Mary Oliver’s about wild geese, you have to track her down — or her estate, now — get permission, and pay.
     I knew this intellectually, the way you know that falling down a rocky embankment would hurt. But I didn’t really grasp the reality until I found myself tumbling along, working on my last book, which uses literature to explain addiction and recovery. Securing the rights from nearly 80 poets and novelists took over two years — longer than writing the book itself.
     Song lyrics were the worst. I found myself conducting negotiations in French, tracking down three different people who got together and wrote a song 30 years ago.
     Some cut a hard bargain — I haggled with the John Lennon estate over 13 lines of “Cold Turkey.” Poi Dog Pondering, a sprawling multi-ethnic party band, is rooted in Chicago, and so at first seemed getting rights from them might be easy. I called Frank Orrall, who wrote “Complicated,” and asked for permission to quote from it, beginning “Sorrow is an angel, that comes to you in blue light, and shows you what is wrong, just to see if you’ll set it right...”
     “Sure,” he said, or words to that effect.
     But oral permission from Orrall (sorry, couldn’t resist) wasn’t enough. “He said I could, your honor, over the phone...” wouldn’t cut it in court.
     “Frank,” I said, “I need written permission.”
     “Sure,” he said, or words to that effect.
     Musicians are not famous for their attention to legal detail. Though I stalked him via letter and email, written confirmation was not forthcoming. The book’s due date neared.
     Then I noticed that a few members of Poi Dog were providing musical backing to Tony Fitzpatrick reading at the Poetry Foundation. I typed up a letter, and hurried over. At intermission, I made a beeline to Orrall.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Just Faucets

     As a general rule, I leave uncovering deception to the watchdogs, to investigative reporters and those who dig and probe.
     But, well, sometimes y0u just stumble across it.
     Our to-the-studs bathroom remodeling project, nearing its first anniversary, had hung up on a particular piece of plumbing: a pop-up drain that had to fit into the old bathtub, which we did not remove because a) it is made of iron and you can't buy that kind of thing anymore; b) it would cost thousands of dollars more to take it out and rebuild the floor underneath and c) my wife wants a tub in the house anyway, to bathe the dog and any grandchildren who may come along in the next decade, hint hint.
     But when it came time to put the spanking new white PVC drain pipe in she had bought, our contractor kept the original drain pipe because it is brass and brass is better, which made sense. 
     In theory. In reality, that meant the new pop-up drain we bought wouldn't fit in because, while the proper diameter, the threads were spaced differently. That is a thing, apparently, in plumbing, as I learned this week.
     The solution I came up with was to go to Banner Plumbing Supply, because I had passed it on Lake Cook Road, driving out to Buffalo Grove, where my parents now live. The place is enormous, and I imagined it would have the piece we were looking for because it was big enough to hold all pipes and valves and drains and faucets that could have ever been conceived or manufactured since the dawn of time. It's that big.  
      My wife and I—we tend to do these journeys as a team, for company, and I suppose for self-protection too, the way gun ranges will only rent weapons to a pair of people, to cut down on spontaneous suicide— entered with confidence. The people at Banner were brisk and polite, efficient and pleasant and helpful, everything we could have hoped for, except for one little thing: they didn't have the part we needed. They did, however, point us toward something called "Just Faucets" in Arlington Heights. They had a photocopied map and everything. Which struck me as selfless.
     I thought of saying, "Can we really expect to find a drain at a place called 'Just Faucets?" Is this not deceptive, to claim they're only in the faucet trade, publically, in their very name, and yet seem to be engaged in sub rosa non-faucet commerce as well? 
     But honestly frustration had drained the wisenheimerhood out of me, and as we drove the half hour from Banner to Just Faucets. Plenty of time to brood, darkly and aloud, on all sorts of grim, defeatist tangents. Such as: why are we were doing this at all? Why isn't our contractor doing this? He's the guy who spurned my wife's perfectly good PVC pipe in favor of the supposedly better half century plus brass pipe, which might even be better in theory but not in the suddenly crucial area of allowing the new drain to be screwed in. Maybe we could just re-plate the old drain, battered and corroded though it was.
      "We could use a white rubber plug on a chain," I suggested. My wife didn't respond. "Or we could just stuff a rag in the drain, fill the tub, and drown ourselves," I didn't say, or even think that second part. But it succinctly captures my mood on the drive.
      "Just Faucets" seemed a refugee from a David Letterman sketch—what was it? "Just Lightbulbs" or something? We found a cluttered, small—the polar opposite of Banner Plumbing Supply—yet somehow reassuring store of the sort that it would seem international chains had eliminated. Except this one exists, or at least I think it exists, assuming it didn't just rise from the mist of our despair, like Brigadoon. Lou took our old battered drain and walked over to an array of threaded rings and started fiddling with them, hope, which pretty much had been drown by a sloshing tubful of cold pessimism, threw off a single spark.
     Lou made a satisfied sound and presented us with a new drain, gauged to fit thanks to an adaptor, and for only $38, which you can bet your ass is coming off what we owe the contractor. I'm at the stage of life where problems loom larger than they should, so much that their solutions become thrilling, glorious releases from failure and anxiety. I felt so delighted I considered hugging Lou, but this was not a place where men hug for any reason, even for moving their endless bathroom project through its final yet eternal, Zeno's Paradox, halfway to the goal every day phase. I did immediately think of this blog, and asked Lou his name, which I didn't know up to that point, and how old "Just Faucets" is. He said 40 years, 20 in this location, and introduced me to the owner, sitting nearby who looked up at me with a minimum of curiosity. 
    "Thank you for your important work," I said, and meant it.


Monday, February 21, 2022

Who was the first president to visit Chicago?

No, it wasn't Abraham Lincoln

     When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, in the first wave of nauseating shock, my immediate, unfiltered thought was perhaps a strange one: Now he’s always going to be on presidential placemats. You know, those laminated arrays of placid white male faces peering out from oval frames: Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Trump.
     You can never unring that bell. Schoolchildren 100 years from now, assuming we still have a country, an increasingly shaky bet, will look at his leering orange visage and be presented the chirpy, sanitized tale that kids always get: Donald Trump, American Hero.
     Today being Presidents’ Day, it seemed appropriate to wonder if the White House has been so besmirched by a man utterly unfit for the office that the usual American affection and interest for presidents is gone. Did Donald Trump break the presidency? Who cares anymore about Washington’s false teeth or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s stamp collection?
     (Though the story of FDR’s postal scandal is dear to my heart. Just like Trump larding the government with lackeys, FDR picked a croney, James Farley, as postmaster general. In the knee jerk currying of favor that defined politics, then and now, Farley pulled a few sheets of the 1933 Mother’s Day stamp off the presses before they had been gummed or perforated and gave one to his philatelist boss, never pausing to consider he was creating hugely valuable philatelic rarity. Word spread, outrage ensued, and the post office figured out an ingenious fix: issuing sheets of ungummed, imperforate stamps, making the president’s private boon available to all).
     See, that’s the thing about presidential history. It draws you in. The simplest question isn’t so simple.
     For instance: Who was the first president to visit Chicago?
     Go ahead, plug that query into Google. Nothing, right? Random stuff.

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Sunday, February 20, 2022

O Canada.

     I never suspected there were stupid people in Canada. Smug, yes. Passive-aggressive? Certainly.
    But the kind of towel-biting, conspiracy spewing, chest-thumping, fact-deprived, fantasy-dwelling dumbasses that jam every diner in America? Well, that's a new discovery. Their knowledge might be skewed toward the various flaws and misdeeds of the great vibrant democracy on their southern border. But they were generally up on the way the world worked.
     My fault. Of course ignorance is a universal. The quality that makes us human, really. You don't see many truly stupid animals. No squirrel could last long with the skewed, bullets-cannot-harm-me worldview that people approach COVID with. "That fox can't hurt me, it's just fake ne...."
     I don't know why it took me until now to realize this, to grasp that there are idiotic Canadians too. The anti-COVID restriction truck drivers and their anti-masker allies, have been parading around Ottawa (sigh, the capital of our frosty neighbor to the North) for weeks already. And just now are being driven off the streets of Ottawa (east or west of Chicago? Close to Seattle? Or Maine? You have no idea, right?) and are finally being driven back into their holes.
     I ignored them, both because everything that happens in Canada is so easily ignored, particularly in Ottawa (near far more familiar Montreal, or about 775 miles northeast of Chicago, or 440 miles due north of New York City) and the world political scene is so crazed and random that focusing on any particular lunacy seems overkill. We're fucked, the irresistible gears of history are turning, grinding our country into a miserable powder of screwedness, what's for lunch?
     But Saturday afternoon I was coming from Buffalo Grove, where my parents now live, and couldn't help notice a knot of protesters on the corner of Milwaukee and Dundee, waving heretofore unimaginable mash-ups of the American and Canadian flags. An echo of an echo, the nutsoid anti-COVID movement in the United States, bouncing into Canada, and now bouncing back.
    It reminded me of the mini-rallies that Trump supporters used to hold on the corner of Shermer and Walters, to harangue passing cars and manifest themselves. Trump denied the significance of COVID, initially, to try to get himself re-elected, because of his worldview where acknowledging anything bad is weakness, and even though now he has tried to walk that back, it's too late. Denialism as a political belief has escaped the lab and infected half the country.
     Wearing masks is a bother. Boo-fucking hoo. The dynamic active elder lifestyle community where my parents now reside requires masks. And temperature checks. Which I happily consent to because a) I'm not an asshole; b) I don't want to kill somebody's grandmother and c) it requires almost no thought or effort.
     There is something almost funny that people who are otherwise busy trying to kneecap elections, throttle the media, pull down American democracy and install a strongman in the former of Loser L. McLoser get all frantic over the prospect of being asked to save their lives with a vaccine, or somebody else's with a cotton mask, the wearing of which interferes with your personal freedom to a lesser extent than wearing pants does. It's gotten so bad that now Canadians, in all their decency, have begun acting like Americans—a charge I level in the full knowledge of just how profound an insult they will consider that to be.
     No matter. Insults are now the air we breathe, drawing condemnation of ourselves into our lungs, expelling denunciations of others. It's both immensely worrying and strangely freeing to us in the words-on-paper business. None of it really matters, does it? It's like we're providing play-by-play commentary to a forest fire.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Timeless Notes: Fathers

     I've been thinking about Shel Silverstein lately. The United States Postal Service is issuing a stamp in his honor later this year.     
     He's one of those Chicago writers who seldom make the casting call of Chicago literary talent, even though he was born here, grew up in Logan Square and went to the University of Illinois. He started writing and drawing for Playboy, living here until success hit and the moved, quite prudently, to a houseboat in Sausalito.
     Silverstein should be on the list, "The Giving Tree," featured on the stamp, certainly having as much impact on our culture as "Humboldt's Gift." He was an amazingly broad talent: he also wrote "A Boy Named Sue" for Johnny Cash, and deserves some hoopla in his hometown to go along with this stamp.
     But our Saturday correspondent, Caren Jeskey, beat me to the punch, at least with the opening quote to today's report, which I've delayed your reading too long already. Here it is:

I cannot go to school today!"
Said little Peggy Ann McKay
My leg is cut, my eyes are blue
It might be instamatic flu
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke
I'm sure that my left leg is broke
My hip hurts when I move my chin
My belly button's caving in
My back is wrenched, my ankle's sprained
My 'pendix pains each time it rains
My nose is cold, my toes are numb
I have a sliver in my thumb
My neck is stiff, my spine is weak
I hardly whisper when I speak
My tongue is filling up my mouth
I think my hair is falling out
My elbow's bent, my spine ain't straight
My temperature is 108
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear
There's a hole inside my ear
I have a hangnail, and my heart is... what?
What's that? What's that you say?
You say today is Saturday? Ha-ha
G'bye, I'm goin' out to play”
— from "Sick" by Shel Silverstein
     Long gone are the days when I played sick to get out of an exam at school. I’ve barely been able to get off of the couch for weeks after an exhausting move, then the flu. I can’t wait to be well again. I am hoping I’ll be able to get out and play this weekend, maybe even today.
     These days, typical stressors can feel like a lot more to contend with than they used to. We don’t have room to process normal life phases right now. Even though a pandemic was inevitable, we are dealing with collective shock and grief. The texture of our lives has been altered. L
ife stages and aging cannot be sufficiently processed with the angst and pain of a bigger demon on our tails.
     Enter the gifts of the humanities, and of our own imaginations and memories to get us out of this mess.
     The original Whip In opened in 1986 and was a cozy, wood paneled convenience store with a small bar and restaurant with red vinyl booths that served generous portions of aromatic, authentic Indian food. It’s on a major interstate, I35 (the most terrifying Indy 500 wannabe thoroughfare I’ve ever travelled save Chicago’s current incarnation of the Dan Ryan), in Austin Texas.
     I stumbled upon it several years ago before it was sold (and sadly rearranged but that’s another story). The long side of the L-shaped bar boasted tap after tap of crafty beers, some brewed in house. The short side had just a handful of stools, wine on tap, and several shelves of cheap to fancy wines.
      I ordered some food and a glass of red wine. It was impossible not to notice the dapper chap sitting at the other end of the small bar. He was dark haired and grizzled in a handsome cowboy way. He wore a white fedora and it didn’t take me long to realize that it was James McMurtry, Larry’s son.
     His body language said Keep Out, and so I did. I chatted a bit with the barkeep, and very quietly told him that I was dying inside a little, one of my favorite songsters a few feet away. I’d been known to sell James’ music to my friends with “he’s one of the greatest living American poets!” And who can not dance to Choctaw Bingo?
     I once listened to James’ "Complicated Game" driving east down rural highways to a work training in College Station. In his music, I felt the southern blues in my bones as deep as Chicago and Gary steel mill rusty melancholy. Amidst the stark pain of dreams deferred and the longing sensitivity of an artist’s soul, James is witty and funny. When he strums his guitars they are an extension of the rest of his sentient being. He’s a joy to behold through the airwaves and even more so in person.
     The barkeep took the matters into his mains compétentes. “James! My friend Caren here is drinking the same wine you are!” An eye cautiously looked up at me from under the white felted hat. “Hmm, you don’t say?” Within a short time James had moved a few stools closer until there was just one in between us.
     I sat very still, having wooed a forest creature into trusting me. A woman came up and let him know “the boar sausage is in the freezer and ready for you to pick up!” James was pleased by this news. He generously regaled me with a tale about his recent wild boar hunting expedition with his crossbow.
     Here I was, the mythical McMurtry family the reality of my life.
     I’m not sure what prompted it, but suddenly James was telling me a long story. I dared not look straight at him, for fear of ruining the moment. I soaked up his gravelly voice in my left ear. As I recall, the story involved a saloon owner who, during the Gold Rush, travelled from town to town opening establishments in booming towns. When the area dried up, he’d pack up and move the gig to the next hot spot, sticking his sign into the dusty ground, tiny town after town, as he travelled.
     James said something about the moral of the story, and it was not something simple about industriousness. Maybe one day that memory will come back to me. I hope so.
     The story was told to him by his father, 
 Larry McMurtry who we sadly lost last year. (I think it’s a book too, but haven’t been able to find it yet. If you know, please let me know). It registered that James McMurtry just shared, in detail, one of his father’s magical fantasies with me. Time stood still. No amount of money can buy the most valuable things in life. James commented “oh. I reckon I just spoiled the story for you.” I assured him that he had not.

Friday, February 18, 2022

P.J. O’Rourke, scribe of a franker time

     When I wrote this, it never occurred to me that the Sun-Times would refuse to print the offensive way that O'Rourke described a Korean political rally back in 1988. But we wouldn't. Respecting that decision, I won't share it here either. I realize that my bosses are just trying to protect me from being run out of town on a rail, a quivering ball of tar and feathers. Neither of us want that, and better safe than sorry. 
     Though you can be too safe, which is also a sorry situation. Nobody writes in to complain about that, so perhaps I should. This is an example of something we can think of as "N-Word Creep," where banning one word as being too disturbing to be mentioned in any context ever leads to other words receiving the same banishment, because it's the path of least resistance. I guess that's also why you can't guess "wench" or "slave" on Wordle. The danger is that you do it enough and it becomes, not a sign of enlightenment and consideration, but condescension and timidity. Maybe that day has already arrived. The bottom line is, I don't set newspaper policy, I follow it, sometimes grudgingly.

     Every time another 1960s musician dies, Facebook keens with grief. Tears spatter Twitter, as people clutch at their hearts, decrying this latest loss.
     And if the departed are in any way famous — say, Michael Nesmith of The Monkees — a process I call “The Full Diana” starts up, wheezing like a circus calliope, with the stacked teddy bears and cellophane-wrapped flowers.
     “Save it for somebody you love,” I mutter.
     Sitting at Denver Airport Tuesday, waiting for my flight home, I saw that P.J. O’Rourke had died. I felt ... well “sad” is overstating the case. “Sorry” is more accurate. I was thinking of him just last week, wondering what became of the arch, edgy humorist, so big in his day, and whether it might be worth tracking him down for a chat. Too late now.
     Even “sorry” is too strong. “Grateful” might be more to the point. Not grateful he is dead, of course. But that he lived, and wrote, amusing millions while inspiring an army of lesser talents such as myself. He was frank and fearless.
     When I got home, I went to the bookshelf and pulled down my O’Rourke books. “Parliament of Whores,” his keelhauling of the U.S. government, begins, “What is this oozing behemoth, this fibrous tumor, this monster of power and expense hatched from the simple human desire for civic order?”
     Did I mention he was a Republican? He was.
     My favorite of his 20 or so books is “Republican Party Animal,” containing the delightfully titled, “Ferrari Refutes the Decline of the West,” one of those delicious assignments freelancers once dreamt about:
     “Ferrari North America, which is based in Montvale, New Jersey, had a 308GTS that needed to be delivered to Los Angeles by January 2, to be featured in a movie. Ferrari called Car and Driver and asked if they’d like to assign someone to drive it across the country. Car and Driver was good enough to ask me, and of course I said yes.”
     Though a member of the media — he was “international correspondent” for Rolling Stone; the title initially something of a joke — O’Rourke could be critical of the press. With good reason. I just waded through two long obituaries, in The New York Times and the Washington Post. Neither mentioned his most relevant story, “Seoul Brothers,” a report on the South Korean presidential election in 1988.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Sharing Wordle scores: "This is all madness."

"Random Word Machine," by Daniel Faust
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     People despise Facebook. And rightly so, as an addictive time sink, a gigantic 24-hour carnival of triviality and pathos and malice that they can neither abandon nor embrace. A cheap simulacrum of life and the world that keeps them from experiencing the real thing. 
     I get that.
     Myself, I kinda like it, as a curated 5,000 member shock troop of readers, as a source of ideas—I often learn the news, not from publications such as mine, but from snippets people post. Now that we don't gather in public anymore, Facebook delivers the zeitgeist, the tone of culture, at least those clustered around me. 
     Then there is my own life, served back at me from a decade ago.
     "Don't do anything reckless," I told Ross a dozen years ago, when he was in his mid-teens and heading downstate for an overnight chess tournament, the precious memory preserved in amber like a paleolithic wasp.
     "What do you mean?" he asked, guileless.
     "Don't open with anything other than your king or queen's pawn," I sputtered, improvising.
     "What about the Sicilian?" he answered, sailing beyond my chess knowledge.
     I shared that with the public. Some readers fill their page with Bible quotes, or real estate listings, or trite memes. Which is their right. I would never dream of objecting. "What's all this about your wife being in heaven? Heaven is an artificial human construct. Ludicrous, really, in its..."
     So it surprises me to see the pushback directed at Wordle, the popular little game where you have six guesses to nail a five-letter word. There is a button that lets you post your score—not the mystery word itself, which is the same for all players every day, but the colored boxes reflecting how accurate your series of guessed words was. 
    I post my score, because dozens of people then comment. They have a Wordle party on my Facebook page. I posted Wednesday's score with the remark, "Nailed it in three." All sorts of people chimed in: from my college roommate's mother to director Bob Falls.
     Most comments were along the lines of this:
     "Took me 5. I just couldn't pull it together!" wrote Joe O'Connor.
     It doesn't seem the sort of stuff to annoy people. But it does, big time. Forty-six people commented on my Feb. 12 score, including this, from Joe Lenord:
     "This is all madness to me and I refuse to be a follower."
     The classic refrain of all the objectors, which is curious, given the actual madness going on, and what people are clearly willing to follow. Their objections reminded me of the Chicagoans-don't-put-ketchup-on-hot-dogs trope, which of course is not a culinary debate at all, but a parody of the sneering you-don't-belong-here exclusion that our tribal city used to feel comfortable projecting at anybody arriving on the block uninvited, now preserved as this very odd, ritualized condiment scruple.
     In that spirit, given what an enormous wildfire Facebook represents, it is very human that public ire would be directed at the five-minute commitment required by Wordle. Yet "madness" is the word people frequently use. 
     "Feel free to play, but for G-d sakes please STOP sharing this madness!" Bruce L. wrote on Wednesday's post, setting off an interesting exchange.
     "How about people stop getting so upset about it?" I replied. "You don't hear me complaining about golf."
     "Because we’re not posting about our golf game!" Bruce riposted. "Yet 20% of our feeds these days are people posting this silliness... That’s why you hear complaints..."
     "I'm confused," I wrote. "Are Worlde scores any more trivial than baby photos or what somebody ate for lunch today?
     That drew a lengthy, thoughtful exegesis from Bruce:
     "Yes Neil Steinberg, Wordle scores are infinitely more trivial than baby pics and modestly more trivial than food pics..."And again, we’re not posting our golf scores, our Scrabble results, our bowling scores, or our completed NYT Sunday crossword puzzles...
     Why do so many people feel the need to share their Wordle scores? I guess that’s the part the rest of us are confused about... Why do Wordle players think that other people care, yet nobody else seems to share any of their scores from those other trivial activities...
     Go ahead and play and enjoy! But why the need to share? Unless the ulterior motive is to clear out your friends list because you know so many people hate it and will stop following you... in that case, you may just be a genius! ."  
     While I do need to periodically thin the herd, that isn't my intention.  I replied:
     That's easy. Because they can. Wordle gives you a button to paste the score to your clipboard, for easy posting to social media. I guarantee if there were a button next to the handle on your toilet, posting your efforts online, Facebook would be crammed with those photos. So perhaps gratitude is in order; worse is no doubt coming.
    Even as I typed that, 
it occurred to me that my reasoning was doing more to bolster his argument than mine. I try to be able to be persuaded; it's my superpower. I'm sure the blush will go off both the playing and the posting of Wordle. New baubles will appear to distract us with their shine. Until then, if anybody should be bitching about Wordle, it should be me. The column I wrote about Wordle drew two comments when I posted it on Facebook Feb. 9. My Wordle score for that day drew 38.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Saying goodbye to Colorado

     When I think of my wife's amazing ability to prepare for complicated situations, I remember her getting our apartment ready for children more than a quarter of a century ago. Not just gathering baby furniture and hiring a consultant to go through the place and point out unprotected electrical outlets, but laying in all manner of necessary supplies.
     In one flash of recollection, I idly reach over to a table and pick up a large bag of cotton balls.
     "Cotton balls?" I inquire idly of my very pregnant wife, holding up the white puffy bag. "What do we need cotton balls for?"
     The next moment it's 3 a.m. and I'm pressing the baby, squirming and howling, gainst my shoulder with one hand while the other reaches out in her direction, fingers waggling frantically. "Quick!" I cry. "Give me a cotton ball!"
     Although I still don't know what the cotton balls were for. To dab something, no doubt. Or administer some kind of ointment. Forgetting the specifics being part of the amnesia process that allows second children to come into the world.
     Anyway, last Thursday we arrived in Colorado to shut down and pack up my parents' home after 35 years and my wife shocked me, and I imagine my parents, by striding in, saying hello and not ... as I would have done, left to my own devices ... making tea and small talk and playing Scrabble, or going to the Pearl Street Mall to browse the hip boutiques, or wandering down the trails that begin practically in their back yard. 
     Instead she promptly mobilized everybody, hands flying while issuing instructions that somehow never came across as orders, while we all busied to the task at hand, into getting the million things done that needed to get done before before the movers showed up Monday morning.
     Groping for a way to convey what she had done, I came up with General Eisenhower planning Operation Overlord.
     "Operation Overlord?" she asked.
     "D-Day," I explained. 
     So passed Thursday and Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a blur of busyness, building boxes, wadding up newspapers, filling bags of garbage, hauling them out to the dumpster. My little brother was a superstar, in business meetings much of the day but still shouldering the burden in a way that amazed me. He also popped for a lux lunch at Japango at a key moment, keeping us all from going insane. My mother was coaxed into making decisions: keep this, get rid of that, and did so with a minimum of sentiment and a maximum of what can only be described as courage. My father gradually perceived that a change was in the works. 
     "I'm going to miss this house," he announced one morning, surprising us all. "It's been a good house." So he was on board with the move, at least for the moment.
     Now it was Monday morning, and my task was a simple one: get my parents out of the way for a few hours. Otherwise my mother would captivate and charm the moving crew, and the hours that were supposed to be dedicated to loading the truck would instead be spent sitting at her feet, fingers laced around their knees, raptly listening to her sing, "Embraceable You."
     First breakfast at Tangerine, complete with a pair of mimosas for them to celebrate their new life in Chicago. I surprised myself by ordering the vegetarian hash (when in Rome) served on a bed of pumpkin puree. My mother, true to form, chatted with a young lady at the next table about the tattoos on her upper leg. Penguins? No, the ghosts from "Beetlejuice."
     But even lingering, breakfast took less than an hour. So Plan B was in order.
     "I wouldn't mind a good picture of the Flatirons," I told my mother as we got in the car afterward. She directed me this way and that, driving past gorgeous Victorian houses and construction sites, always too close, or the view blocked, I gamely took a few shots of the distinctive formations, which hove into their current position about 50 million years ago and symbolize the city of Boulder.
    Now what? Luckily she thought of friends who live a few miles out-of-town.
     "Let's go say goodbye!" I suggested, and we headed there. That was very nice, sitting in their lovely, enormous living room—her husband owns a big roofing company. I killed time telling stories until my mother cut my performance short ("You're giving a monologue," she said, curtly) and we returned to their home—for the past 34 years and the next five days—a few minutes after the movers left. (United Van Lines, by the way. Not just professional, but kind. Communicated thoroughly beforehand, always available, the process orderly and transparent. I felt I got to know Barbara and Bill. The crew arrived when they said they would. Pay the extra money. It's worth it)
       Tuesday, I had to run to Home Depot for more boxes—for stuff that wasn't being moved, but shipped to my sister in Dallas. At at a red light a block from their house, at the intersection of Valmont and Foothills Parkway, I looked over and realized the mountains were at the angle and lighting that struck me as characteristic of what I've been gazing at for the past 49 years, since I first came blinking in wonder to Colorado so my father could spend the summer working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. After all that chasing around, all I had to do was roll down the window and snap a picture. Though of course the Flatirons are too huge and impressive to be captured by anything as paltry as a photograph. A single shot and then the light turned green and I hurried on my way.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Why Russia is about to invade Ukraine

     Have you ever seen anything made in Russia? I don't mean an automobile or a toaster? I mean slacks. Or a steak knife.
     I bet you haven't. Russia doesn't even have a significant share of the vodka market. The United States exports more vodka than Russia. So does Sweden. And France.
     Ever wonder why that is? This is the nation that once known for its craftsmanship. Whose jewelers constructed those amazing Faberge eggs, the treasure of kings. The answer: because Russia is a failed state. Nearly a century of soul-crushing, initiative-dampening communism morphing into an organized crime kleptocracy. A totalitarian state reflecting the grain-of-sand soul of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB goon. Without natural gas they'd be even more impoverished than they already are.
     Its people are crushed down, cynical bitter. The result of living in an atmosphere of official lies. Something for Americans to look forward to, perhaps.
     Hence the pending Ukrainian invasion. Because everyone wants to be significant, or at least pretend to be, even nations screwed by themselves and history. They need to shine on the world stage, and aggression is the go-to move of the weak. Every 5th grade dimwit, every isolated octogenarian sputtering contempt at the others in the day room; constant criticism and knee jerk hostility is the language of the weak, oppression their philosophy, their religion.
 It's all they have left to feel important, powerful, alive. That's why the Republican Party, as it shifts into a totalitarian cult, has to conjure up imaginary weeping liberals and lap up their tears, an elixir to maintain their strength. Because otherwise they got nothing. And why they must be opposed. The only argument they understand is defeat, their natural condition.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Flashback 2010: Kinky Llama delivers on the double

     In October, I visited Andersonville's Early to Bed sex device store to celebrate their 20th anniversary—they sent a press release, and I figured it was a chance to peek into a world that doesn't get into the paper much. While was checking to see if "dildo" is the sort of word than can run in a family newspaper, I stumbled upon this, and thought it might serve as a Valentine’s Day diversion while I'm in Colorado. It was back when the column covered a page, and I have left in the sub-headings.

Anthony Mikrut with his custom-made Gary Fisher bike
 with studded tires. (Sun-Times photo by Al Podgorski)
     Valentine's Day gifts can be a puzzlement to us long-married folk. Candy is out—diets— anything expensive roils the budget; anything cheap, well, is cheap. Though this year I blundered upon a novel romantic gift source that, frankly, would never cross my mind in a million years. But I'm getting ahead of the tale.
     Male homosexuality was made a crime in Great Britain while lesbianism wasn't, the story goes, because Queen Victoria objected to the lesbian clauses in the law, announcing that ladies simply do not do that kind of thing.
     Too good to be true, but the tale nicely serves as an image of sexual naivete, and came to mind the moment I heard of the Kinky Llama.
     Not because the Kinky Llama is an online purveyor of sexual devices—dildos, vibrators, gags, that kind of thing. I realize people buy that stuff.
     But what threw me is that, for a mere $5 fee, Kinky Llama's owner, Anthony Mikrut, will bicycle over to your Chicago home, apartment or office, any time of the day or night, and deliver your new sex toy. Business is jumping—Tuesday, he rode 35 miles in all that snow, making deliveries. Ninety-eight percent of his delivery customers are women.
     "No!" I said, incredulous. "Do women really DO that?"
     "Oh yes," said Terri Miller, a Kinky Llama customer. "It happens. You're in a situation. You're looking for something, like lube. Something is necessary in the middle of the night."


     And these people in these situations . . . they're hookers, right?
     "He has clients who are in the sex industry," said Miller, 36, who sells telecommunications equipment. "Bachelorette parties—there are a lot of reasons why."
     Some are in need of condoms. Others keep odd hours.
     What threw me was the middle-of-the night immediacy; would not one improvise rather than go online and order up material?
     "Say you lost your handcuff key," said Miller. "And you realize it after the fact. You can order up handcuff keys and have the Kinky Llama deliver them to your partner."
     The need must be out there.
     "My business tripled last year from the year before," said Mikrut, 34, who started the Kinky Llama in 2006.
     He does have a day job—a manager at Village Cycle Center on Wells. That one detail convinced me this is real. After all, $5 isn't enough for you or I to hop on our bikes, but for a bicycle fanatic, it's plenty.
     I could see where "Kinky" is from, but "Llama"? Are llamas known for . . . ?
     "It's my nickname," said Mikrut, explaining it's from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," where a llama figures in the credits. "My family called me 'Llama,' everybody calls me 'Llama.' "
     OK Llama . . . so what exactly are we talking about here? What's a big seller?
     "A lot of rabbits," he says.
     Such as the Waterproof Jack Rabbit, $52.99 in pink or purple.
     "I delivered a rabbit to a couple making out in a car," said Mikrut. "I showed up to make the delivery, and no one was there. I was leaving, and people in a car said, 'Wait, wait, that's for us.' She tipped me 30 bucks."
     And those rabbits, they're, umm, effective devices, are they?
     "It's insertable. It vibrates, it turns," said Miller. "It . . . does all kinds of crazy things."
     A good gift for one's Valentine?
     "She might like it," said Miller. "You might eliminate the need for yourself."
     Well that's the rub, isn't it? It seems a lose-lose proposition (at least for the guy) -- either the gift is rejected as an obscene joke, or it's welcomed, and used, making certain people moot who do not want to be moot.
     What shocked me was the ease with which Kinky Llama customers discuss this.
     "I heard about it; I ordered some things delivered," said Becky Welbes. "There're all kinds of things to choose from. The one I bought was to be used by myself, but could probably also be used by a partner."
     And the one-hour delivery?
     "You're like, 'I don't really feel like going to the store right now,' " she said. "It was, like, 12:30 and I didn't feel like going outside. I thought: 'I could use something' and didn't really want to go to Walgreens at 3 in the morning."
     This struck me as contrary to the dictum that a lady should see her name in the paper three times, when she is born, when she marries and when she passes on.
     "With the younger generation people are a lot more proactive and open-minded about sex toys and all that," said Welbes, 24. "The younger generation grew up with it; people are a lot more accepting of sex as being part of pop culture. I don't think people are as bashful."
     That they aren't. Mikrut says that yes, customers do inquire about, ah, product demonstrations.
     "I've been invited in a couple times," he said. "But I don't go. It could be bad. I try not to mix the two together. I don't want to ruin a customer either."
     He expects to ride 150 miles Sunday on his black custom-made bike sporting carbide studded tires. The Web site, if you need to be told, is


     I'm not sure if this is actually funny, but I laughed, and the guy in my office laughed, and my wife laughed when I told her, so if you don't, you're outvoted, three to one.
     REPORTER: So, what are you going to do for Valentine's Day?
     COLUMNIST: Stay married.
       —originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 12, 2010.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Turn around.


     It was 6 a.m., still dark, when my brother and I set out to the Wonderland Creek Greenway Trail, just beyond our parents' town home in Boulder, Colorado. We spoke of the practical and emotional difficulties of closing down the place where our folks have lived for 35 years, and moving them to Chicago. We paused to admire ducks on a pond, the sky slowly brightening, and went about a mile and a half when we decided we'd better turn around and get back at our task.
     The "VEHICLE CROSSING" sign was illuminated by the first morning rays. It practically glowed an I briefly considered taking a photo of it for future use. But "VEHICLE CROSSING" is not a particularly enigmatic sign, not like "CAUTION" or "GO SLOW." It didn't seem something that could prove useful to me here, not worth fishing my phone out of my back pocket and bringing it to my eye.
     But some subsystem in my brain must have been working, considering what the sun bouncing off the sign meant, that faint pink cast to the clouds. I stopped and looked behind us.
     "Hey Sam," I said. "Turn around."

Saturday, February 12, 2022

North Shore Notes: Soaring

    Our Saturday correspondent, Caren Jeskey, is back on her feet, and returns with her regular report, sharing a surprising development:

     A ruddy faced man with gleaming eyes and a glossy Irish Setter heeling by his side rounded the bend towards me. I’d gotten turned around on a walk in Kenilworth on my way to downtown Wilmette. The streets were designed to keep outsiders out— not easy thoroughfares. A man kindly stopped and offered me directions. “Just take this street to a wall with two doors in it.”
     I collect quotes of the day— sentences I repeat in my head or aloud to myself that conjure up fun images. or otherwise bring me delight — and this one was it.
     “A wall with two doors.” My life, once again, is a French movie. (An artistic ex used to remind me that all we have to do is choose to see the world through the eyes of Amelie or another acteur dans un film d'art et d'essai if we want to soak up the deliciousness). As I moved on, I smiled and gazed up at the stark bare trees on this glorious winter day. I was hoping to see an eagle, or a hawk at least. I settled for a giant crow, cawing majestically from the very top of an impressively aged elm.
     I headed in the direction apple cheeks pointed me to, and found myself on 10th Street. I turned right to head the mile or so to my destination. A couple walking a graying black lab named Fiona cautioned me that the sidewalk was icy. I wanted to walk in the street but feared the wrath of drivers. I’d chance the messy sidewalk. I yielded to a man wearing black Adidas sneakers with crisp white stripes. As he passed me I warned him about the ice ahead.
     I stayed a virus cautious 20 feet or so behind him. Sure enough, he misjudged the situation and I watched him tumble into a hard fall, his arms flailing about and his messenger bag flying into the snow. The first thing he did was look back at me from his flat on the back position— I’m not sure if it was out of embarrassment or camaraderie. The two of us just trying to get some exercise in the dead of a Chicago Winter. I called out “are you ok?” and he said “yes!” He got up and brushed himself off. I suggested that we retire to the street, drivers be darned. He agreed. Again I gave him about 20 feet of space and we walked single file towards Central Avenue.
     At the end of the trek we chatted a bit. He thanked me for my support and the warning that he had not heeded. I reminded him to take some ibuprofen as soon as possible, for I knew he’d be bruised and in some pain when the adrenaline wore off. I had wiped out on the roof of Mariano’s myself just a couple weeks ago, and again when I forgot that Yaktrax are not ideal for a dark foyer with concrete floors. These little coils that slip over your shoes work great on the ice, and I highly recommend them, but please be careful on surfaces other than snow, ice, or nubby concrete when you have them on.
     Adidas and I parted ways. I passed an old wood-framed house with a porch that’s made for sitting. I passed the bell that was originally rung to gather Wilmette residents to the town square many moons ago, and the Lutheran church with the banner reading “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us.”
     I stepped into Torino and ordered a citrusy ramen to go — double masked of course— then I headed to Central Station Coffee & Tea. I left there with an oat milk latte with their homemade raspberry syrup. Small paper shopping bag of noodle soup in one hand, coffee cup in the other, I gingerly made my way back to my new rental home a mile and a half west.
     A mere two weeks ago I was miserable and sleep deprived since loud neighbors had moved in on December 1st. The stress of it all put a damper on my holidays, my career, and my well-being. Today I sleep in a place so quiet I can easily forget anyone else is around at all.
      Three weeks ago a neighbor was carjacked in her alley in my old neighborhood of Ravenswood after dropping her child off at school. A woman was carjacked on the 5100 block of North Broadway three weeks ago today. She had just gotten her car back from her last carjacking the previous Wednesday. I am very concerned for her. I had to stop reading a local neighborhood group’s Facebook posts since the outrageous number of shootings less than two miles from where I was living, on a weekly basis, were impossible to digest.
     A savvy friend commented “I knew you’d end up in the suburbs” because I was so craving a quiet home to live, rest, and work in. If I am to show up for my burgeoning caseload of clients I have to have peace and safety myself. I sincerely wish everyone on this planet could have the same.
     Just before I moved, a neighbor snapped a photo of an eagle in a tree near Wilson and the river. There is beauty and delight around every corner for all of us, but only some of us have the good fortune to be able to enjoy the wonders of this world. For others, life is a daily exercise in survival.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Boulder flashback 1999: Traffic signals curb risks

     I have an affinity for fire hydrants, traffic signals, street lamps and stop signs. So it made sense that I would notice a new kind of WALK sign that is now ubiquitous but I first noticed on a trip to the People's Republic of Boulder.

BOULDER, COL.— How you cross the street says a lot about who you are.
     Young bucks, for example, clad in the false immunity of youth, saunter into the intersection whether or not they have a WALK sign, laughing and talking among themselves.
     They never notice the cars jamming on the brakes, allowing them to live. Or, if they do, they toss an indifferent "Hey, kill me" shrug.
     On the other hand, we older people tend to respect the crossing signs. We perch patiently on the curb, holding our coats tight at the collar, waiting for the signal.
     There is safety in the cautious approach, though it does hold its own kind of danger—an emotional rather than physical danger. It's humiliating to stand planted like a palm, respectfully gazing with Pavlovian obedience at the DON'T WALK sign while assorted passersby—old ladies and 8-year-old boys and such—brush past, crossing in that yawning period of time after the WALK signal goes off but before the light changes.
     I thought this was a problem with attitude, perhaps a lack of courage. But an invention I spied while visiting Boulder, Colo., not only suggested it is a mere technological matter but also presented a clever solution.
     Boulder has a downtown pedestrian mall, the way Oak Park used to, only this one succeeded and is popular with mobs of shoppers, jugglers, funny hat salesmen and grubby youth hanging out, waiting for Jerry Garcia to rise from the grave.
     At the mall's main intersections, surging crowds tended to fill the intersection the moment traffic stopped and not leave until the cars actually began rolling forward, shooing them to the curb.
     To address this problem, Boulder installed a WALK/DON'T WALK sign unlike any I have ever seen: the moment the little pedestrian is displayed, signaling it is OK to walk, a red big numeral next to it begins counting down the seconds until the street light will change and traffic will start up again.
     "We call them the Countdown Pedestrian Heads," said Joe Paulson, signal operations engineer for the city's transportation division, explaining that the city put them in last year at two high-traffic locations.
     We talked a long time about pedestrian signals. I never thought about it before, but the reason you have trouble at crosswalks is because, when the system was designed, they tried to economize and squeezed the information conveyed by traffic lights with three signals—red, amber and green—into just two signals: WALK and DON'T WALK.
     "It's an unfortunate nomenclature," Paulson said. "What we really mean to say is, start crossing and if you haven't started, don't start now."
     Paulson said the countdown indicator, which begins when the WALK signal is flashed and ends when the light changes (with four seconds of grace for daredevils) is a great success.
     "People notice them, they intuitively understand them and, generally, they like them."
     We don't have anything like that in Chicago, and given the system's lone drawback—at $ 550 a pop, it costs more than twice what the standard signals cost—we aren't likely to get one soon.
     But at least it's good to know that the problem is solved somewhere and that it's not our fault.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 25, 1999