Saturday, February 5, 2022

Flashback 2006: Release the polar bears

     Ravenswood bureau chief Caren Jeskey is under the weather—not COVID, she assures me—and so will not be writing her usual Saturday report for today. All of us in the extended EGD community direct our best wishes and focused laserlike healing karmic energy (see, I can get with the program) toward her speedy recovery.
     But with the Olympics dominating television (or so I'm told; I don't know, I haven't watched a second) I thought I would reach back into the vault of a previous take on the biennial blowout. A reminder: you don't need China to dislike the Olympics. This is from a time when the column filled a page, and I've left the original headings.


     Gosh I'm enjoying the Olympics. Which is odd, because typically I disdain them. The summer Olympics are a weird conglomeration of tedious activities you wouldn't consider paying attention to the previous 206 weeks. ("Not now, Honey, the high jump is on!") And the Winter Olympics—how many times can you watch guys skiing down mountain sides? It's worse than golf.
     But this year is different. I couldn't breathe a word against the Olympics; in fact, I'm finding the Olympics a pleasure, because the wife and boys are really enjoying them. By 7 p.m. they're parked on the sofa, rooting for the old red, white and blue. Which gives me about two hours alone to relax and read a book, uninterrupted, confident that the shouts filtering up from downstairs are mere enthusiasm, and not some inter-boy crisis crying out for Dad's immediate mediation.
     Oh, I'll slide down for a few minutes—don't want them to think I'm standoffish—and watch a bunch of spandex-clad loonies flying around a patch of ice. (They really should release some polar bears or something to give the race a bit of pizzazz). Then I excuse myself and return to my book. I'll miss the Olympics when it's over.


The book I've been reading is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. The smoothest of writers, Bryson takes you by the hand and glides you through astrophysics and chemistry and biology and all that stuff you learned in high school and promptly forgot.
     In trying to humanize the science, Bryson tells the stories behind the various big discoveries, and here it becomes really interesting, because in every case—literally every case—the pursuit of light and knowledge is accompanied by a messy catfight of super-sized egos clawing each other's reputations to tatters. You'd almost think it was a history of backbiting and bumbling which only incidentally mentions stars and fossils.
     Deep in the book he quotes German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, in a line too delicious not to pass along: "He observed that there are three stages in scientific discovery: first, people deny that it is true; then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person."
     More than one researcher at Fermilab or the University of Chicago will want to embroider that on a pillow.


     In checking into Alexander von Humboldt enough to call him "a German naturalist," I discovered that a variety of things are named after him—a penguin, a lily, a skunk, a shrub and Humboldt County, Iowa, plus the city of Humboldt, halfway between Des Moines and Sioux Falls, population 4,452. How did that happen?
     The Humboldt County Web site gives no clue, but begins with this charmingly self-effacing statement: "Humboldt creates a favorable impression on most every visitor to this scenic city . . ."
     Perhaps the few who are unfavorably impressed feel Humboldt has restrictive parking for such a small town. You can't park your car on the street at night between November and May— unless you are a physician making a house call, which is lovely. Otherwise you risk getting a ticket that will set you back $20.
     The cost of living is a heck of a lot less there. You can buy six—count 'em—six spaces in the Humboldt Union Cemetery for $750, though if you want to erect a headstone the city charges you a fee, and that fee is $2.   
     Humboldt is not without controversy—it recently asked San Francisco welfare authorities to stop sending homeless people to Humboldt County. The City by the Bay has a program where homeless people can receive a one-way bus ticket anywhere in the country, and of the thousand or so shipped eastward, 13 chose Humboldt.


     San Francisco insists that its bus ticket program isn't just designed to get the homeless out of town, but to send them to their own former homes. Social workers—in theory—are supposed to ascertain that people using the program are actually going someplace where they'll be taken in and given help and support.
     That is the ideal solution to the homeless problem—help 'em find a home. Even the hardest heart—and it's all I can do to not snarl "scram!" as I hurry past panhandlers on some days—has to soften after the story about Raymond Power Jr., the disturbed New York lawyer and Vietnam vet who ended up on the streets in Chicago, living in a shelter with no memory of who he was or where he came from. You wouldn't want the city to have put Power on a bus and shipped him just anywhere. Would you?
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 22, 2006


  1. First, let’s hope Caren recovers soon.
    Regarding Humboldt, it would have been nice to learn why the thirteen SF homeless chose that city as a destination. Did any of them say, “I read somewhere that this city creates a favorable impression on almost every visitor.”

  2. I'm wondering about amnesia, the wonderful but sometimes dubious stories engendered from real life cases or fictional representations, and, "What the hell happened to Powers' car?"

    1. As a New Yorker, he may not have had one. Less than half do, especially in Manhattan.

    2. I looked him up; all the entries I saw dealt with his disappearance from New Rochelle, NY and his discovery here in Chicago. Somewhere along the line, the car got lost. Probably buried somewhere in the articles there may be information about his return and recovery, but I wasn't that interested.

  3. Adding my "healing karmic energy" to the beam headed toward Caren, though I'm afraid mine may be unfocused.

    My dwindling interest in the Olympics tracks pretty closely with my diminished interest in spectator sports, in general. If I wanted to scratch the itch, I'd watch the Opening Ceremony from Beijing in 2008, which everybody raved about, but we never saw.

    Why, I recently read "A Short History of Nearly Everything" myself, only a decade-and-a-half after you! While it was very good, indeed, and I was surprised by how much was at least vaguely familiar, because of "all that stuff you learned in high school" and college, I found that a little "inflation theory," that the universe "underwent a sudden dramatic expansion" in "one million million million million millionths of a second" goes a long way... As does stuff like "... a single bacterium could theoretically produce more offspring in two days than there are protons in the universe." Wouldn't like to be the one fact-checking stuff like that. ; )

    Surprised that your Humboldt paragraph omitted Chicago's lovely and delightful Humboldt Park, but I suppose that was too obvious of a reference.

  4. You have to be rich. And even then, a car would be an encumbrance. Denizens of Manhattans I know get around in taxis or on public transport and rent cars for out-of-town trips.


  5. Chicago-born, Chicago-bred, lived half my life in Chicago and its suburbs, Chicago history junkie. And yet, I did not know that Humboldt Park was named for Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the German naturalist, geographer, scientist, and explorer--even though his single visit to the United States did not include Chicago.

    The creation of Humboldt Park, and several other West Side parks, is a key part of Chicago's history. They provide beautiful green space, and link the city's boulevard system. The historic Humboldt Park stables now house the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the only museum of its kind in the country.

    My father grew up near Humboldt Park, so I heard too many stories about Polish kids chasing Jewish kids out of the park in the 20s and 30s. I've taken many drives along the lush green parkways and the connecting boulevards. And yet, I didn't know the origin of the park's name, and I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't even know who von Humboldt was.

    Like I've said so many times before, one learns so much at EGD. Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. S...

  6. Have you read anything by Carlo Rovelli? His _The Order of Time_ is a brief and beautiful book about physics that breaks down time. A little like Bryson, if you enjoyed that book.

  7. For a fascinating biography of Humboldt, I highly recommend The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf. He hobnobbed with Goethe, traveled through Venezuela, and his writings were inspiration to everyone from Darwin to John Muir.

  8. Thank you Les! I'd say I'm about 60% myself and hope and plan to see you next Saturday. Great piece Neil and thanks for the laser karma. :)

  9. I'd forgotten about the Power story, but I've helped people find their way back home when I was working in hospitals. It's amazing how differently we feel about most people when we learn their stories.


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