Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pandemic? What's that?

It's a bit gray and hazy out in Streeterville, 53 degrees at the Mini. Yet I look out the windows on the 14th floor and a dinner cruise boat is making its way around the end of the little sprit of land that holds Navy Pier and the water treatment plant. Pretty soon they'll be close enough to my part of the lake that they'll be telling people about Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive buildings. People will show up on deck and flash their cameras at my building. Babs and I just wave at them. I doubt they realize anyone on the 14th floor is actually waving at them, but it amuses us. We're easily amused.

The word today, boys and girls is pandemic. An epidemic is an outbreak of a highly infectious disease that is widespread. A pandemic is an epidemic that is really widespread geographically. Currently we have a swine flu outbreak that has gone worldwide, sort of like Bono and U2. Can they be classified as a pandemic? Hmmm.

Now this current outbreak of swine flu that apparently has elements of swine flu, but also has some DNA that is similar to bird flu. It has killed over 100 people in Mexico, and the whole world is now on the verge of panic. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) in the U.S. is busy passing on alerts to the public. The WHO (World Health Organization) is busy trying to get the whole planet on alert. On a 1-6 scale the alert was just updated from 4 to 5. The President has just said that widespread school closings are a possibility. I hear students and educators across the land going "Yeeaaaaaaahhhhh!"

Pardon me for being a little bit suspect of the whole thing, but in my lifetime I have lived through a number of "threats to the entire planet." I have seen the public get in an uproar over a great many things that, in hindsight, turned out to be a bit overstated by the media, the government, and all the resident crazies in general. This flu outbreak may be serious, for the flu, but with modern healthcare in advanced societies I really doubt it is going to be the killer of millions that it is being hyped for. Mind you, I like a day or two off from work as much as the next guy. I like a snow day every now and again. When I taught school in Guam, we had typhoon days. I have photos of some guy windsurfing in the bay in 65 mph winds. Power went out, but nothing was really hurt. Now that 8.2 earthquake, that was another story. Survived that too.

Any of you out there been around long enough to remember Kahoutek? It was going to be the comet that smacked into the Earth and the crazies were out in force at the stoplights, passing out "The end of the world is coming," literature. All I remember about the actual comet is that I never even saw it, much less experienced any negative effects from it. I believe the Hale Bopp Comet produced much the same reaction in the public at large and produced much the same results. Halley's Comet (not to be confused with Bill Halley and the Comets) recurs with regularity and every time it shows up, it brings out the doomsayers. We're still here.

In 1976, I was working at the Southern Illinois University Health Service and as I recall, we were giving away free flu shots, Swine Flu Shots. The much ballyhooed Swine Flu outbreak of 1976 turned out to be a non-event. With all of that said, it is true that over 100 people, young healthy people have died of swine flu in Mexico. Of all the cases that have been verified at this point in the U.S., most have been reasonably mild in comparison. The one verified death in the U.S. was an infant, with minimal resistance to viral infections.

So pardon me if I am a bit skeptical. I encourage everyone to be alert. Take precautions. If there is a possibility that you are developing symptoms that are swine flu-like, by all means go to a doctor. As I understand it this flu bug is susceptible to Tamiflu. You should be alright. This is the U.S.A., not a 3rd world country, not a Stephen King novel where 3/4 of the world dies from a super flu bug, and the world gets divided into 2 camps, good guys and bad guys.

Perhaps I will be proven wrong, but I doubt it. I fully expect to be going to work for the next month without losing half my students to a flu pandemic. If, however, the CPS opts to shut down the schools for a few days to ensure the health of our students and staff, hey I could use a couple of days off, provided it is with pay.

Monday, April 27, 2009

How Fragile a Flower, Life Is

April showers bring May flowers, so they say. I certainly hope so. We're mere days from the onset of May and I'm really sick of the showers. I try to keep some perspective by reminding myself of Noah. Currently it's 68 degrees under rainy skies in Streeterville. I long for those flowers, those flowers whose life spans are brief, but beautiful in the ever-changing seasons.

Today was one more Monday at the Outpost in Back of the Yards. Lately the gang activity at the school has been getting out of hand. It's an indication of what is currently going on the neighborhood at large. There have been numerous gang-related shootings. If you don't keep up on the news over the weekend, you come to work on Monday morning and get blindsided by the general tenor of the student population when they arrive. Generally if there has been a shooting, someone knows the person who was shot. Someone knows the person who did the shooting. It turns into fights in the hallway, and provides fodder for the next violent event in the streets of the neighborhood after school lets out.

Today one of my students came to class about 5 minutes late, as usual. He signed in on the tardy sheet, and sat down with as little commotion as possible. When I walked back to his seat and handed him an assignment, he whispered very quietly, "Did you hear about Zachary?" I confessed that I hadn't, but his general tone suggested to me that something serious had occurred. I asked him what happened, and he replied, "He was shot Saturday. He's dead." The whole exchange was entirely free of emotion and unnecessary nonsense. Just matter of fact. "Zachary was shot Saturday. He's dead."

It was the middle of a class and I didn't want to create a big stir. I got as much info as I could without alerting the entire class, and went on about the business of running a history class. The young man in question went about the business of completing his history assignment, and we both moved on. Bells rang. Classes changed. Zachary was still dead.

I passed this information along to my fellow history teacher across the hall and he was stunned. He reminisced a bit. "Zachary never was the kind of kid who created any trouble in my class. I knew he hung out with a few bad kids, but....." Later, at the end of the day, he told me that he had searched out the incident involving Zachary and found it in the Chicago Tribune. Apparently Zach was the victim of a drive-by shooting. A car pulled up and shot. Zach tried to get away. The guy jumped out of the car, ran up to Zach and shot him 2 or 3 more times, jumped back in the car, and rode away. Zach died in a pool of blood on the sidewalk, mere blocks from the Outpost where he went to high school. Classic gang-related bullshit violence. "I wear black and red. You wear another set of colors. You gotta die M****r F****r!"

You read about this kind of thing in the papers every day in large cities. This was no different than any of those other stories you read about, except for one thing. This kid was a student of mine. He was a friend of some of my current students. It's entirely possible that I know the kid who did the shooting. It was senseless, and another life was snuffed out entirely too soon.

How did we arrive here? How did it come to pass that teenaged boys can ride around in cars with Glock 9mm pistols, shooting at one another? How can it come to be in an advanced society that some portions of that society are so alienated and lacking in hope that they live lives of violence, shooting each other in the streets, like some perverse version of Shootout at the OK Corral? How did it come to pass that mothers must mourn their babies who die in the streets at age 16,17, 18? Why can we not put an end to the bullshit?

There are no easy answers. For myself, I try every day to reach a set group of kids, one at a time. Some you reach. Some are destined to be a shooter or the shot. Some are destined for lockup. A few will survive and get beyond it all. I try, and have tried for the last 15 years to help as many as possible to survive and get beyond it all. For those who don't make it, well...Zach, we knew you well. We mourn for you.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Running Out of Gas

It has been an odd day, as seen from the 14th floor. Woke up this morning and looked out the window. It was cloudy and the sun was trying to peek through the clouds. The reflection on the water looked a bit like the moon's reflection on a clear night. The sun has come and gone and it has rained a couple of times during the day. Currently the sun is once again trying to peek out from behind the clouds and is creating that moonlit night effect in its reflections on the water. When I came back from the grocery store, it was 57 degrees at the Mini.

Yesterday morning was the Lakefront 10, a 10 mile race along the, you guessed it, lakefront in Chicago. I signed up for the race and I actually appeared to run it, but sadly I did not have what it took for that one yesterday. I have been obsessing about this ever since. My training has suffered a bit lately. I was sick for a while. I still have a cold and some congestion in my chest. I had spring break a couple of weeks back and took a trip to Miami. Needless to say, I was not regular about running during vacation. My weight is up from what it needs to be, to be running successful 10 mile races. All of these things, and a breakdown in mental focus, may have contributed to my running out of gas before I finished the race yesterday and my packing it in early.

At any rate I was on pace for 4 miles and about then I realized that my legs were not going to keep that pace up for another 6 miles. During that 4 miles, I ran strong, but I began to obsess about my ability to finish and about my huffing and puffing. I had to stop and blow copious amounts of mucous out of my nose 3 or 4 times along the way, so that I could breathe halfway normally. At the mile 4 clock, I got so disgusted that I stopped, pulled my race number off, and began walking back to turn in my timing chip.

While I was walking back to the start/finish point of the race, I ran into 2 or 3 friends who had been behind me, and they stopped and acted very concerned. "Are you alright?" I had to admit that I was actually alright. I just was not going to finish the race in anywhere near the time that I normally do. I suppose I could have finished the race, but it would not have been pretty. After explaining that to my friends, they went off to finish the race, shaking their heads and trying to shout some encouraging words to me. I walked on, and tried to cope with the fact that I had dropped out of a race for the first time in my life. Did I defeat myself mentally? Should I have toughed it out despite my flagging energy and taken the attitude, "Well at least I finished the race."?

All of these things and more went through my head while I was walking my way back to the finish and watched the sea of people passing me, continuing the race. This sea of people was a sea of people who run at a slower pace than I. Many of them run a great deal slower than I, yet they continued on. One particular woman stopped and asked me, "Do we have to run back to the start?" I could see the realization dawning on her that not only did she have to run 5 miles out, but she then had to run 5 miles back. I expained to her, "The race course goes down as far as Fullerton Ave. and then it loops around and comes back. The mile 4 marker is just up there a little way." She looked ready to pack it in, but she drew on some inner reserve and took off running again.

It occurred to me that I probably would have finished ahead of a great many of them, even if I did not finish in the time I wanted to or in a time a bit slower than I am accustomed to. It occurred to me that I may have wussed out and should be ashamed of myself. It occurred to me that kicking everyone's ass in a 10 mile race might not be what it is all about in light of the sea of really slow people just pushing onward and being proud of the fact that they finished a 10 mile race. I began to feel a bit ashamed of myself for stopping at mile 4. I took my number and threw it in the trash. I gave my race shirt to someone else, because I had not earned it.

Then I got to the finish line just as the 2nd place finisher overall was crossing the finish line in 54 minutes. Had I continued on, I would have been somewhere around mile 6 at that point and he was the 2nd place guy. The 1st place guy had already finished a minute or two before. To these guys, I, even on my good days when I finish strong, I am one of those really slow people who plod along by their standards. Six years ago I finished the Lake Front 10 in 1 hour and 25 minutes, almost twice as long as it took those two fast guys to finish this race. That, to me, was an incredible accomplishment. I averaged 8:30 per mile that day. These guys were running 5 minute miles for the entire 10 miles.

Yesterday, I didn't even have it in me to run 9 minute miles for 10 miles and it disgusted me. I think it's time to rethink the whole motivation thing. I think it's time to get back on the horse and renew my running program. I'm not exactly proud of yesterday, but I think I learned something. Hey, fat old guys can run too. They just need to recognize that sometimes you might not have a good day and you're going to run out of gas. They need to recognize that sometimes, just finishing is good enough. Sometimes, that in itself is a victory, even if it doesn't win one a medal.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What Is Success?

The attempts at actually becoming spring are making progress. When I left the Outpost in Back of the Yards, it was 68 degrees and sunny. Unfortunately there are Southeasterly winds and when I arrived in Streeterville, it was 59 degrees. Still this is under sunny skies at the Mini. Not bad. Tomorrow the weather dudes predict 80 degrees. I'll believe it when I see it, much like the Cubs winning the pennant. The view from the 14th floor is quite lovely in the late afternoon sun, however. I actually saw little leaves popping out on trees this afternoon and a great many early spring flowers have bloomed.

There were no students at work today. We, the staff, were subjected to what is known as Professional Development, PD in professional jargon. Present and ready for PD sir! Most times PD is mind-numbingly boring. I have to admit that when the Principal of my school begins speaking, my eyes automatically glaze over and my mind goes somewhere in another dimension. Inevitably, I am forced back into our real world when I realize that someone has asked my opinion on some really dufus topic, and not having been listening, my astute response is often something on the order of, "Huh?" Then I'm always forced to B.S. to beat the band to cover for the fact that I really wasn't listening. Tried listening a few times. Never lent itself to any forwarding of mankind's knowledge or competence. Waste of time at PD. Frankly, if someone would just recognize that PD, itself, is a waste of time, and just let us do our jobs for a change, schools, in all likelihood, would improve. How about just giving us a day off every once in a while, to recharge our batteries. Send us all to the beach for a day. Buy the staff a drink and some Happy Hour munchies every once in a while. Listen to what they really have to say for a change. That would improve schools, and morale, for goodness sakes.

Oddly enough though, something came up today, during PD, that provoked some thought. The thing that came up was this, "What is success?" I honestly thought about that, in relation to our students, in relation to myself, in relation to society in general. Is there one overarching measure of success? Is success for one person, success for another? How can we measure success?

Mind you, in PD today, we were all required to swear that we honestly believe that all children can be successful, no exceptions. It's all a part of a movement, supposedly based on research that supposedly improves schools via "Positive Psychology." Does anyone really believe this crap? What planet are they from? I'm just getting over being required to read Who Moved My Cheese in another PD session. I can believe in kids ability to succeed all I want, but in a neighborhood like Back of the Yards there are some damaged children who will not live up to that expectation. All the love and believing in the world is not going to change that. Some of them will still go to prison. Some of them will still get shot. Some of them will live in awful poverty, living hand to mouth. Yet a great many of them will experience some degree of success. What is that?

For some kids success means that they will go on to college after high school and will eventually have a good job. For some of them it means they will go to a technical school after high school and that will lead to a respectable life. For some of them, being the first person in their family to graduate from high school is a success their parents never dreamed of.

Then there is the world I live in. For some people, it is enough to be happy. That begs another question, "What is happy?" For some Type A sorts, it means being richer and owning more stuff than anyone else. Remember the 1980's mantra? "He who dies with the most toys, wins." Ugly? Yes. A very real measure of success for some. Yes, as well. For some success means a PhD. For some it means being able to work at a job they like. For some it means pursuing their art and not "selling out to the man." I have met some people, for whom success means getting through the day without freaking out and committing suicide.

There are as many ways of being successful as there are people walking the face of this planet. Then the PD lady asks us all to swear that we believe that all students can be successful. The overarching tenor of society in the U.S. suggests that means all of them will make good money. Social worker sorts might suggest that means that all of them will be well adjusted, productive citizens and happy with their lot, and will stay out of prison or mental institutions. Some, more cynical sorts might suggest that it means that all of them will avoid really serious fuckups.

Truth? We, as educators, will try our level best to reach every one of them, and some of them just won't be reached. Some will do well. Some will die young. Some will live absolutely miserable existences. A great many will muddle through, like the rest of us. Somehow, in spite of it all, a poor kid from Arkansas ended up on the 14th floor with a lake view in Chicago. Somehow some of these kids will struggle and find their way as well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

We Once Were Friends

Blogging is a funny thing. You never know what is going to touch someone. I'm feeling a bit better now, but for the last few days I have felt like holy crap. I stayed home from work yesterday, and blew my nose incessantly. I slept. I read. I got tired of that and got up and posted a blog. I wasn't exactly feeling inspired, so I wrote about what was going on. I was sick. I have memories of being sick as a kid. I like being catered to when I'm sick. Apparently this strikes a chord with people. I thought I was just blathering to fill space since I hadn't felt like blogging for a few days. Well, thanks to any who read my blathering in this space, and I hope every once in a while I manage to strike a chord with all of you.

Anyway, today is a lovely day as sunniness goes. It's still a bit cool, though. When I left the Outpost, it was 63 degrees. When I arrived in Streeterville, it was 61 degrees under sunny skies. Currently Mr. Online Weather guy tells me it has dropped off to 58 degrees. Nevertheless, the view from the 14th floor is much lovelier today than yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. There is not a cloud in the sky. Lake Michigan is a wonderful shade of blue. One could almost believe that it's warm enough for al fresco dining, if one were to judge by the picturesqueness of the view. (For the record, it's still a little cool.) By Friday, Mr. Weather Guy tells us we may see 80 degrees. Then my friends, we will be dining with my friend Al, Al Fresco.

I'd like to depart a little from my usual modus operandi today. Recently I was contacted by an old friend whom I hadn't heard from in 30 years. At one time, just after I graduated from college, we shared an apartment. We had a little act, and played at parties. He played guitar and sang a bit. I sang a lot, and did in between songs patter. We moved on. He started playing with a band. I took up acting. I left the state and the next thing you know it was 2009 and old friends were contacting me via Facebook.

Now my friend in question still lives in Arkansas and I have moved around the world and alit in Chicago. He still lives for the woman he loves and his music. I have had a huge world of experience since leaving Arkansas, and I feel like I am a completely different person than I was 30 years ago. I like to write all about it. He tends to send 3 sentence e-mails once every 2-3 weeks. Anyway, I was thinking about this today, and suddenly the following poem came gushing out in a 5-10 minute spurt. I'd like to share it with you.

We Once Were Friends

We once were friends
We're different now
Not good, not bad
Just diverged somehow

Our paths once crossed
We shared a dream
We went our ways
Then came new schemes

Your life was yours
My life was mine
Came back together
On down the line

It's nice to visit
Remember times
Find out what's passed
Both yours and mine

But in the end
We all must go
Back to our lives
Where we did grow

We are the products
Of diverse paths
Must needs continue
For life goes fast

Salute old friend
Respect to you from here
For your life's troubles
And my life's tears

Just keep my image
In mind somehow
We once were friends
We're different now

R.D. Ray

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Taking a Sick Day

The online weather tells me that it's 43 degrees and overcast out. Looking out the window on the 14th floor, it looks 43 degrees and overcast. Very gray and London-like out there. I haven't been out of my perch on the 14th floor all day. I'm taking a sick day, with all that seems to imply. That's right, the traditional runny nose, accompanied by resident sneezing, coughing, and occasional bouts of fever. Today I finally feel well enough to sit here and write something.

For the past couple of days the being indisposed thing was so indisposed that it got in the way of lucid thought. Headaches. body aches, and a general sense of malaise just seems to get in the way of sitting down to actually create sentences and string them together in a fashion that says anything of value, except "Could you take care of me? I'm sick." Babs, by the way, does an exceptional job of caring for the sick and wounded. Comfort food. Cold wash cloth for the forehead. Stupid TV when you need it. Almost makes one regret getting better and having to return to the working world.

I have some very vivid memories of sick days when I was a child. I work in a public school and it seems that kids take a great many sick days these days. When I was going to school, "back in the day," we only missed school when we were really sick. Those usually involved puking and such. This happened only once or twice a school year. When they did occur, it was a real trauma. OK, there may have been once or twice when I hadn't studied for a test and I suddenly got sick, and my mom let me stay home, but those were a few isolated incidents, honest.

My mom was not much of a soap opera person, so when I stayed home sick, there was a great deal of game show watching. I developed such an attachment to Jeopardy that I even contemplated going on that show and competing. It would be like going back to a warm fuzzy time in the innocence of my childhood when I, as a nerdy child, would see if I could answer the questions that grown adults couldn't. Alas, working for a living and responsibilities got in the way of any appearances on Jeopardy. I couldn't make the auditions where you have to take a test and prove your genuine nerdy credentials. I coulda kicked butt. I swear I coulda.

Everyone who has ever been sick has certain comfort foods that their mom fed them. Then when you get sick as an adult, people inevitably return to their childhood roots and demand those same comfort foods. Babs has an affinity for plain old Campbells Cream of Mushroom Soup or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Sometimes she will accept Chicken Noodle Soup, but her favorite is the Lipton's variety that comes in a packet you add to boiling water. Campbells doesn't get it for her. I must admit that Lipton's Cup o' Soup is pretty much OK, but basic Campbells Chicken Noodle from the can is my childhood fave. There are those in my family who would have you believe that the only thing I ever ate as a child was Campbells Chicken Noodle Soup and plain hamburgers. I must protest this. Not so! I occasionally had Fish Sticks and Tater Tots. Oh, and ice cream. Had to have the ice cream.

But I digress. We all have foods, stupid mindless TV shows, and rituals that get us through those times when we feel like holy crap. All of these rituals started somewhere back when we were young, small, innocent, and vulnerable. It's just funny how those rituals survive with you into adulthood. Even when you are old enough to be a grandparent. Not that I am a grandparent, mind you, just old enough to be one. Even then, your childhood rituals comfort you, with a few updates here and there. We never had a 37 inch flat screen TV in those days on which to watch that stupid TV. We never had 500 channels to choose from. The experience is still much the same though. Lay on the couch. Read a little. Nap a little. Watch some TV a little. Eat something light. Make it through the day and hope to feel better tomorrow so you can go play with your friends again. Trouble is instead of returning to play with your friends, you have to go back to work.

Maybe I'll be sick again tomorrow. It'd be a real shame to waste all of those sick days I accrue at work on actually being sick. Some of them ought to be used for something good, like a Cubs game. Maybe I could convince someone else to take an accrued "sick day," and I could go out and play with my friends. I hear ballpark beer and peanuts make great comfort food. A wise man once told me, "I should have been born rich instead of so good-looking." Then every day could be like one of those warm, fuzzy sick days.

Now if you'll excuse me, I hear the couch calling to me. All of this exhaustive labor on a sick day has worn me out. Oh Babs! Babs! Could you bring me something to drink? My throat feels a little scratchy. Cough! Cough!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Playing Sherlock Holmes

It was an OK day today. It was 55 degrees and sunny at The Outpost in Back of the Yards. It was 51 degrees and sunny in Streeterville when I got back to the hood. Currently the lights have come on at Navy Pier and their reflections are shimmering in the lake. Still waiting for a sign of warmth.

A student of mine will be suspended from school tomorrow, and in all likelihood he will be arrested and fined. It seems that we figured out who it was that spray painted blatant gang graffiti on the wall in a locker area on the 3rd floor today. The young man in question thinks he got away with it. He thinks other people are stupid, apparently.

We all watch cop shows on TV. We all have read a mystery novel or two. Deduction is part of our repertoire. How is it that teenaged boys still continue to think that in a small school, people won't notice that they and their friends were in the wrong place at the appropriate time for the crime in question?

Unfortunately, I work in one of those schools where there are metal detectors at the entrance to the building. We have two Chicago Police Officers on duty on any given day, and 3 full-time Security Guards in addition. We have little cameras on the ceilings in the hallways all over the building. Still there are teenaged boys who think that no one will know that they were the perpetrator.

I came out of my room during my lunch period and encountered a female teacher who requested that I go into the Boys Restroom and run the two young men in the restroom out and send them to class. I went in and the two were, as it turns out, actually using the facilities. Still, it was the middle of a period and they had no business being in the restrooms in the first place. I went into a stall and proceeded to use the facilities as well. The young men, sensing that a teacher was in the restroom, left in short order. Couldn't dawdle with a teacher in there.

When I emerged from the restroom, I looked straight ahead into an alcove that contains lockers and Voila! There was a two foot tall gang symbol spray painted in red on the wall. At that point I became aware that there were two other teachers in "seriously concerned mode" standing in the hallway discussing said item of graffiti. I asked them when they first noticed said graffiti and they told me that it must have appeared sometime during 5th period.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Alarms went off in my head. Just before 5th period I had been trying to herd my students into my classroom and one particular young man, instead of going into my class, made a turn into the alcove with the lockers. He was in the company of a friend. I need to add at this point that the two young men in question both dress in clothing that signifies their gang affiliation and both obviously belong to the same, shall we say, "Social Club." The young man who is in my class came knocking at my door to gain entrance about 10 minutes after class started. Hmmmm. Where was he for the previous 10-15 minutes?

"I say Watson. All signs point to the young men in question being the perpetrators of the crime. They belong to the gang whose sign is spray-painted on the wall. They were in the location of the crime at the appropriate time. Perhaps we should check the video on the security cameras and see if anyone else was there at that moment in time." Case closed.

Have I had cause to deduct on anything any more asinine recently? Hmmm. Well there was the case of several young men wearing very similar clothing who went into the restroom at the same time and consequently the smell of marijuana smoke became very evident in that same restroom. Jeeesus! How stupid do they think we are? Or more to the point, how stupid are they being? How long before they have all ruined their lives and ended up either locked up or shot? In the school, they use drugs and get caught. They sell drugs and get caught sometimes, sometimes not. They tag walls and act like total assholes. On the streets after school, they commit serious crimes, get shot by rival gangs, and arrested by the police.

One former student of mine shot another student as he walked two blocks from the bus stop on Ashland Ave to the school. The shooter was arrested that same day and at this point is still in prison downstate. One former student of mine was showing off a gun he had come into the possession of and accidentally shot himself in the groin. Very embarassing for a macho badass guy. The point is that the behavior in question is all very dumb, and the young man in my class, who will be suspended and probably arrested, is in an honors class. He is a young man who can have a future. He can get out of the neighborhood. He can rise above all this, or.....he can become one more victim of the neighborhood.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Happy Tax Day

Good afternoon and welcome to Tax Day. I've always felt that it should be a national holiday, a formal day of both celebration and mourning. By the way there is a lovely view from the 14th floor today. The sky and the water are both a lovely shade of blue. Navy Pier and the the water treatment plant are glorying in the late afternoon sunlight. The shadows of the high rises along Lake Shore Drive are taking a dip in the lake. It's still cold! It was 53 degrees when I left the Outpost in Back of the Yards. It was 48 degrees when I arrived in Streeterville. Will this never end? It looks quite lovely out there, but when you walk out the door you better have a coat.

Even yet, there are signs of Spring. I saw little bitty leaves on trees on my way back from the gym at 900 North today. Then I had to shove my hands into my pockets in my coat because they were cold.

Tax Day is a bit like that. You get bitter with the sweet. Old Beatles songs lamenting the "Tax Man" not withstanding, I have to admit that taxes not only are inevitable, but necessary. It just sucks when you realize that out of every $5000 you make, you only see $3500 of it. When I look at my W-2's I realize that I made a heck of a lot more money than I ever saw.

Mind you, this is America and people here are more anti-tax than anywhere else in the industrialized world. We also enjoy the crappiest government services of anywhere in the industrialized world. I'd pay a little more in taxes if healthcare were universal. I'd pay a little more if the safety net were a little more safe. I'd pay a little more if they'd just fix all of those potholes between here and work that are playing hell with the shock absorbers and suspension on my car.

I can sort of understand why really wealthy people don't want taxes. They can afford to wall themselves off from the rest of humanity and say "To hell with the rest of them." What I fail to understand is why the lower 98% of us are so hell-bent on not paying any. We are who will benefit from the taxes, and we pay them at a lower rate than those really rich guys.

The trouble is that everyone wants the government to step in when they need them, say for police protection once in a while, or fire department services once in a while, or for roads, military, and in light of the debacle of our current economy, regulation of the business community. They just don't want to pay for it. When Uncle Bill gets laid off, everyone wants the government to send him a check so he can pay his bills and not lose his house, but no one wants to pay for it. When everyone wants their kids to go to a decent school, they certainly need the government, but no one wants to pay for it.

I have to remind everyone that in a civilized society, it is a social contract. That is how we got here. Read some John Locke ladies and gentlemen. There is anarchy and there is total government control. We live somewhere in the in between, and exactly where in between is a matter of how we draw up our country's specific social contract. If you want the government to do stuff for you, you have to pay for it. If you want to take care of everything all by yourself, you better have your own private army and a shitload of money and resources. So suck it up and pay your damned taxes. It's necessary.

All of that being said, I don't like making out checks to the government any more than anyone else, and I was positively ecstatic when the accountant dude told me that our Quarterly Estimated Tax Payments this year more than covered the taxes and we didn't have to send a single solitary cent to the Feds or the State on April 15. I was even more ecstatic when he told us that we were in such a good state that we won't have to make any Estimated Tax Payments this year, because we overpaid and it was all covered. I suppose that means that we made a lot less money this past year than the year before, but on tax day I can overlook that. Now if they'd just fix all those damned potholes.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What Makes You a Grownup?

It has been an absolutely dreary day in Streeterville. It's currently 40 degrees with light rain at the Mini. It' what I think of as Arkansas winter outside, wet and cold and windy. Not that it's that cold really, but when you add drizzly rain and wind, it kind of goes right through you like winter wind through a house without insulation. (Insert big sigh here.) The view from the 14th floor is just gray, or should I say grey (British spelling) since grey, cold, and damp is ultimately very Londonish, or San Franciscoish for that matter. On the subject of San Francisco, I believe Mark Twain said, "I spent the coldest winter of my life, one summer in San Francisco."

The sad thing about the current weather is that it's mid-April and it was Cubs Opening Day today. They went ahead and played in this crap. At least they won. I hope no one got frostbite, or consumption. I've always loved the sound of that. Consumption sounds so much more romantic of a way to cough up blood than to say you've contracted tuberculosis. OK, so no one gets TB from the cold and damp, just pneumonia. Not so romantic sounding either, unless the winning pitcher threw a no hitter with.....Ready? "walking pneumonia." Get it? No one got any hits. They all walked. He had "walking pneumonia." Oh never mind. I just cannot help myself sometimes.

I've been wondering a lot lately about just what it is that makes a person a grownup. Babs just finished co-authoring a book about why young people today are postponing the traditional markers of adulthood. Now academia has laid out some very definite signs of adulthood, marriage, living on one's own and not with parents, buying a home, having children... But that's not what I'm talking about. I suppose they have a point in a very academic way, but when someone says to you, "Oh grow up," what exactly do they mean?

In this last case, I suppose it means behaving in a fashion not considered juvenile. Sometimes that means don't laugh because someone farted. Sometimes it means "Get a job and keep it." To some people it can mean, stop moving from city to city, stay in one place, and live a semblance of a normal life. When you start looking at what is grown-up in that way, it becomes a very individual kind of thing, and who's to say what grownup is?

My older sister once told me that she thought no one ever is really grownup until they have children, and have to care for someone other than themselves. She has a view of grownup in which grownup means to quit being selfish and self-obsessed and learn to give to others. I also believe she saw her children as extensions of herself and thus a means to show her own success when those children succeeded as a result of her own giving. This means of measuring one's own success and grownupedness, in some cases, can be a bit disconcerting. Children have free will. (Any Calvinists out there still, who don't believe that?) They do things despite the parents' best efforts. They disappoint. If a child never grows up on your personal grownup scale, and they were the measure of your success, does that mean you never really grew up successfully?

I have many friends who are artists and general counterculture ne'erdowells. Many of them have rejected getting jobs that at one time would have been thought of as "Selling out to the man." They have cobbled together existences and managed to live a non-traditional and personally meaningful life, but they never had the kind of job that promotes comfort in one's retirement. Are they grown-up? There are those who would say to them, "Oh grow up! Get a job and sock away something for your retirement. Get some health insurance. You're going to get old and what are you going to do then?" Good question. Is that being grownup? That is to say, "Is behaving in a responsible manner by planning for your old age what it means to be grownup?"

By many of these measurements, even by the academic definition, I most certainly am a grownup, though I probably never became a grownup until I was at least 40 years old by those definitions. I never set out on a real career and began saving for retirement until I was 40. I never even owned a new car until I was 40. I didn't own a house until I was 46. I still don't have any kids, and at this point it's highly likely that I never will. I'm happy with that. I hold a decent job. I make a decent living with a decent pension attached to it. I've been married to the same person for 20 plus years. I pay my bills. I have an accountant, a lawyer I use when I need to, and even a semi-regular mortgage broker for when I buy or refinance a home. I think I'm pretty grownup.

Yet, there are many things about me that lead people to question that. I don't have children. I travel all over the globe and spend scads of money in the process. I take guitar lessons at the age of 58. I go out and run distance races with 25 year olds. I still find puns humorous. I still think I can write a book, and haven't given up on that. I still like listening to loud music (and playing it on occasion). I drive a Mini Cooper, and not what most people think of as a sensible car. Hey, Babs boxed in the Golden Gloves when she was 40 and won. Are the two of us refusing to grow up? Are we behaving in an unseemly manner for middle-aged people? Or are we just re-defining what it means to be grownup?

For the record, my parents didn't have a lot of money, and I put myself through college. I've been supporting myself, and making my own life decisions since I was 17 years old. That means I've been doing what it takes to survive without assistance for 41 years now. I think I've pretty well earned the title "Grownup." Screw what anyone else thinks about what it means to be "Grownup" I've achieved it on my own terms, and I'm willing to give others the leeway to define "Grownup" on their own terms. I also reserve the right to disagree with them about the appropriate way to be a grownup. Some ways of living are dumb and ill-conceived. Some ways are just different. Trouble is I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up, even if I'm already there.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Easter Bunny Who Died For Our Sins

It's been a low key kind of day in Streeterville. Had to run 8 miles with the running group this morning, picked up the dry cleaning, went grocery shopping, ate some lunch in there somewhere, took a short nap. It's 41 degrees under sunny, very windy skies at the Mini. The lake looks lovely and blue way out in the deep water, but churned up and brownish next to the shore. Big waves are breaking over the concrete barrier.

Tomorrow is Easter and that makes this, what, Easter Eve? Is there such a thing as Holy Saturday? Not really sure about that, but I do know for sure that tomorrow is the end of the long Lenten period. Not that it matters a great deal to me. I've never observed Lent anyway. It's an observation in the same way as I observe that this week was Passover, or that Elvis's Birthday is a big deal in Memphis. I wasn't raised Catholic and the idea of giving up stuff that I like for a 40 day period, well that just never appealed to me. I've never been big on New Year's Resolutions either. If I want to turn over a new leaf, I will. If I don't, I won't. Don't need a New Year to do either.

Easter is a really big deal to a great many people, though. It's a time of year when families get together to renew their bonds, to eat ham, to make all the little kids go out and hunt for hard-boiled eggs that have been dyed bright colors and subsequently hidden all over the yard. Man what a mish-mash of traditions and beliefs went into this one.

Now, as we all know, officially Easter is a remembrance of the day Jesus was crucified and consequently arose from the grave. As a kid, it was one of those days where people who never go to church, go to church. It was a day when little sisters always had new frilly dresses and new patent leather shoes and frilly little socks that folded down and usually a little girl's purse. There usually wasn't much in those little girl purses. What do you have to put in a purse when you're 7 years old? I can still hear the Easter Sunday church congregation singing, "Up from the grave he arose, with a roaring triumph o'er his foes. He arose! He arose! He arose!...." My wife and her brother and sister get the giggles when they have a couple of glasses of wine in them and they start reminiscing about this particular aspect of Easter. Everybody sitting and drinking and singing "He arose! He arose! He arose!" Ah that's the stuff memories are made of.

I realize that the big Easter dinner began as the end of the denial process that began on Ash Wednesday. Gave stuff up for 40 days. Now you get your reward. You get to indulge yourself with a feast. A worthy Catholic tradition. It somehow caught on with the Protestants too, however. Everybody needs a little celebration now and again. As a kid, I never liked boiled eggs, so Easter Egg Hunts weren't my idea of a good time. Pretty much a waste of time. I was always ready to go straight for the ham.

Then there was the thing that really piqued my interest about Easter. If Easter is about the crucifixion of the Son of God, what do eggs and bunnies have to do with it? The mish mash of traditions, right? Apparently, when the Romans made all of Europe become Christians, a great many pagans didn't like having their traditional holidays stolen from them, thus celebrations of Spring and rebirth and fertility (Eggs and bunnies, OK?) got blended into the Easter celebration just as surely as decorated trees and giving gifts and celebrating the Winter Solstice got blended with the celebration of the birth of said Son of God.

As a smart-ass teenager my friends and I always joked about the Easter Bunny that died for our sins. I think I would have enjoyed the Greeks and their Rites of Spring, the Rites of Dionysius. Wine sampling and theater contests. Now that's a celebration of Spring. I believe the Romans followed in this tradition and had some spectacular traditions of their own to celebrate the coming of Spring, that is until they got Christianized. Drinking to excess, sinful. Sex to excess, sinful. Eating to excess, sinful. Man, everything fun got to be sinful.

Now, if it were the Romans who blended pagan and Christian celebrations, and made everyone become Christians, it was the Americans who took it to a whole other level. Is there money to be made off this? Let's do it. Easter Baskets? A profit there. All the food for Easter Dinners? A profit there. New clothes to be seen in at church on Easter Sunday? A profit there. Eggs? Check. Egg dye? Check. Plastic eggs to hang on trees in your yard? Check. Chocolate eggs and chocolate Easter Bunnies? Check. Oh, and while the kids are hunting for Easter Eggs, there always has to be at least one prize egg. This is America after all. There's money and a profit motive involved in everything. Start 'em out young. Get 'em thinking about what's in it for me. Oh, and while you're at it, get the kids to the Mall to meet the Easter Bunny. Got to pay some dude to dress up like a giant bunny, but it brings 'em in. Pay to have the kids' picture taken with the big bunny. Then they'll spend more money on impulse buys while they're there. Is this a great country or what?

Babs and I have managed to avoid the big family Easter this year. We will get to sleep in and have a traditional Ray family breakfast with the Sunday paper, instead of shining our shoes and waltzing off to church. We can lounge about at home instead of driving 6 hours one way to watch kids wander around in the yard with baskets. I expect our presence will be anticipated about Memorial Day, though. In the meantime, if the spirit moves us in the morning, we can engage in a spirited round of "He arose! He arose!...." Happy Easter all.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday Evening Ramblings, 4/10 Good Buddy

Well, it's Friday evening once again, and that means that the week has brought one more weekend to us. Usually that means that the work week has ended and a respite has begun. This week it means that the vacation, albeit a short one, has ended and the final two days before returning to work have arrived. I take solace in the fact that this year we will not be driving long distances to visit with family on Easter, and driving long distances back home again Easter evening so I can be at work on Monday. Dodged that bullet. Now on with some unfinished business.

I was on vacation in Miami when the NCAA tournament ended so I didn't have the chance to wrap up my gloating over the fact that I do a better job of picking NCAA basketball winners than our President does, and it's a darned good thing. As it turns out I chose 43 winners and our President, Barry Baby, chose 41 winners. I had him by two in that category, but as it turns out he picked the eventual winner of the whole thing, North Carolina, and I, alas, did not. I picked Connecticut to win it and maybe I was thinking about the Women's NCAA, because they did win that one, but not the one I had brackets for. They lost to Michigan State, who went on to get their butts beaten soundly by North Carolina. I now go to shred my brackets along with paid American Express bills and bank statements. They are useless to me now. Time to move on. The Cubs have not broken my heart yet this year, although I find Lou Pinella's choice of that Gregg guy as closer is a bit disturbing. Carlos Marmol is my guy. For the record, Gregg blew it in Milwaukee this afternoon. Went into the 9th inning with a 3-2 lead and well you know the rest, 4-3 Milwaukee. Tomorrow's another day.

One really good thing happened today. Babs and I went to the accountant to pick up our tax returns and to find out the bad news. As it turns out, the tanking economy and making slightly less money this year than last made a big difference in the tax bill. We paid big time in estimated taxes every quarter last year and that was more than enough. We did not have to pay a cent to the feds or the State of Illinois this year on April 15. It was all covered, and we do not have to make any estimated quarterly payments this year. How cool is that?

Now we are on to refinancing the home on the 14th floor. 5.85% mortgage rates are passe. We're looking at a much lower rate and a 15 year mortgage instead of 30. Let's get this thing paid off for goodness sakes. I want to retire and sell this place so I can buy a year round warm weather residence and pay cash for it. Won't be any of those $1 million plus condos in Miami for me, but there is something nice waiting down the line. I'm sure of it.

In more good news, the Dow Jones finished the week above 8000 for the first time in a while. Babs and I got our monthly statements from Wachovia and the stock investments are larger this month than last. That's new. We've been hemorrhaging money like my nose loses blood in a fist fight. Got into a fight with Kenneth Ansley in 6th grade and actually I won the fight, but you never would have known it by the blood gushing from my nose. Looked worse than it was. The money gushing outward from our retirement accounts, on the other hand, well that looks bad and damned if it isn't bad. Just glad to get some of it back. Never got any of the blood back after that Kenneth Ansley debacle, but he learned not to mess with me. A lot of my blood ended up on his prissy monogrammed shirt, and very little on me, and he ended up on the ground getting pounded. Then the bell rang and recess was over. Had to go back inside and do math. Don't think my retirement account managers have learned shit, except maybe, "Thank God no one named Bush is running the country any more." A lot of working people's blood and sweat has ended up on themselves, and GW has waltzed off to Texas without a trace of a struggle.

Forgot to give the weather report at the beginning of this one. It's 41 degrees at the Mini, under partly cloudy skies. The wind is steady out of the Northeast at about 5 miles per hour in Streeterville. There are whitecaps on Lake Michigan, and the water is looking pretty brown and churned up close to the shore. The lights just came on at Navy Pier and the Wheel of Life keeps turning. The lights of Indiana are clearly visible in the Southern distance. It looks as though Indiana may have moved a couple of miles closer while I was in Miami. Turn your back for a moment... TGIF boys and girls.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bullshitters I Have Known

I returned home from South Beach this afternoon, and with all that implies. Yes it was warm and sunny there. Yes it was 55 degrees and partly cloudy in Streeterville when I returned. Yes I spent outrageous sums of money, ate in restaurants for days, lounged by the pool, read a mystery novel, ran on the beach, and served as witness to some of the most outrageous bullshit you have ever heard. The sky is overcast and gray at the moment, and Lake Michigan does not look nearly so lovely as the Atlantic Ocean under sunny skies at 82 degrees. Still, the view from the 14th floor is not so bad.

There is a lot of bullshit running loose in the world, but somehow places like South Beach breed a boatload of it. I'd just like to share a bit of it with you today. It helps me, and perhaps amuses me a bit to let others know the degree to which much of humanity is scoring so highly on the B.S.ometer.

Babs and I went for a long walk yesterday. After a brief stop in one of the seeming millions of Starbucks, we encountered a sign that read Open House. We looked at one another and after a consult, decided, "Hey, why not? I'd like to look at a condo on a high floor in what is known as "South of Fifth" in South Beach." Apparently South of Fifth was at one time the only area of South Beach where jews were allowed to live. Then it just became a rundown, seedy area of South Beach. Now it has become a booming new area filled with exclusive condos, with very "exclusive" prices. Without further ado, we wandered into a real estate office to get someone to show us said property. The pretentious real estate lady in the office took one look at us and decided that we were most certainly not going to see said property. I believe it was an ocean view apartment that was selling for something on the order of $6 million. That's right, $6 million smackers. There was a note in some of the literature that if you bought one of the last available units in this building they would throw in a free Lambourghini. My B.S.ometer is still off the scale on this operation.

This lady showed us various units for sale all over the area known as "South of Fifth." They started at about $1 million and went up from there. The killer is that they were not that large. Units the size of my spot overlooking Lake Michigan on the 14th floor were easily $2.5 million. Furthermore, anyone who follows the news knows that real estate in certain locations, Southern California, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and yes Miami is tanking. The real estate lady in question had the chutzpah to deny that she was having trouble selling this stuff. Who in their right mind would pay that much for that little? B.S. reading of 15.5 on a 10 point scale there. Oh there are some who would, mind you. I believe the saying goes, "A fool and his money are soon parted." I have to remind you here of the gentleman mentioned in my last posting who bragged about paying $12000/year in property taxes, and who lived in one of the buildings in "South of Fifth." I don't believe he had an ocean view either. He justified this fact by telling us, "At night the ocean is just blackness. A city view is better." I saw where the gentleman in question lived. A city view from there means that he has a view of the port of Miami and lots of big ugly ships and cranes and assorted ship loading and unloading equipment, with the skyline of the City of Miami in the distance. B.S.ometer reading of 12.2 on the 10 point scale there.

Ah but we have barely scratched the surface of B.S.ville yet. I have to tell you about the Queen of B.S., whom Babs and I encountered at Happy Hour last evening in the hotel. Before heading out for dinner last evening, Babs and I decided to go out back to the outdoors restaurant and bar at the hotel. When we got there, a lady with a small doglet was ensconced at the bar, eating a salad and drinking Chardonnay. The doglet was a yipper and was demanding food from the salad. I believe said doglet received quail eggs for his demands. "Yip! Yip! Yip!" "Jeeesus! Can ya shut that mutt up?" Never said that last part, but thought it loudly.

Anyway, the lady in question, whom we shall call ummm, Sally, was a very entertaining lady, quite the extraordinnaire. We sat and drank two glasses of wine and chatted with her for about an hour. In that time, we were told how Sally used to sing with a band, used to hang out at CBGB in New York, once kissed Joey Ramone, had seen the Ramones at least 25 times, used to be an actress, used to be a ballet dancer, stopped just short of getting a PhD in psychology and had written a book about why people have sex change operations, but had it rejected, had a father who owned lots of real estate in Miami, called Gore Vidal a family friend, knew people who write at The New Yorker and for Slate online, and just now was renting an apartment, had a roommate, and was working as a bartender. I forget which exclusive New England college Sally had graduated from, or where she attended graduate school. All of this, she had managed to squeeze into 38 years. Oh yeah, she was conceived at Woodstock. Her parents were hippy geniuses who scored 1500's on their SAT's and she had disappointed them with a mere 1050. Made up for it by scoring in the top 1/3 in the country on her GRE. Babs and I just nodded and took it all in. I hope she actually was listening when Babs let on that she actually will have a book published later this year, and received a good advance and the whole nine yards. No B.S. from our part of the conversation. The other side of the conversation was producing plenty of that. By 7 PM Eastern Daylight Time, last evening, my B.S.ometer was solidly off the scale, attempting to register 758 on the 10 point scale.

The question is, "Who are these people and do they really, honestly believe that we are going to swallow all of that B.S. they are throwing around?" I am reminded of the saying, "I was born at night, just not last night." Maybe it's because our parents taught us some manners and we're essentially very polite to people. We don't confront them, and the longer we allow them to go on with their B.S., the more encouraged they get. Meanwhile we are rolling our eyes inwardly, and thinking to ourselves, "What a Type A asshole! What a psycho case!" or other such things. The world is full of these B.S.aholics. The only thing I have found to do about it is to just grin and nod and let them go on. It seems to give them pleasure, and on occasion it provides me with a little entertainment.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Views From South Beach

It has been a few days since last I was here. That is because I have been soaking up the sun and tourist culture in the South Beach section of Miami Beach. Today was a bit on the cool side with a high temperature in the mid-70's under partly cloudy skies. I was very sorry to hear that there have been temps in the 30's and snow and sleet and such in Chicago, but not sorry that I was here instead. I saw a horrid photo on the sports page of the New York Times this morning that showed some poor groundskeeper at U.S. Cellular Field shoveling snow and slush, with the notation that the Opening Day game was canceled due to inclimate weather. Well at least the Cubs were in Houston playing in warmer weather, and in a domed stadium, I believe.

Life in South Beach has been just lovely these last couple of days. We got an upgrade on our room and we got a room with a terrace. From the terrace, we have a view of the Atlantic Ocean in all its stunning blueness in one direction. In the other direction we have a "City View," with Biscayne Bay in between us and the skyline of Miami proper. Between our room, its terrace, and the restaurant and pool in the hotel, there has hardly been any reason to leave the hotel. Nevertheless, Babs and I have ventured out on occasion.

South Beach is an interesting blend of people. There is a sizable gay population here. We had to witness an obligatory Drag Show. Babs has photos of that on her I Phone. We went up to Miami Beach proper to the newly rejuvenated and restored Fontainbleau. The lobby is stunning. The bar by poolside, La Cote, is much ballyhooed and ridiculously overpriced. We had a ball, and spent the Gross National Product of a small 3rd world country there. Took a cab ride down to the point at the extreme South end of Miami Beach and went to Smith and Wollensky's for drinks and dinner. A completely different atmosphere there. It is away from the tourist areas and apparently there are real people who live here and they have money. Had a bit of a chat with a plastic surgeon who keeps one home in South Beach (He told us that he pays $12000/year in property taxes there.) and another in Anapolis, Maryland (He volunteered that he has 24 acres of land there and 20 acres of it is wooded and for some reason he is not taxed on the non-homestead portion.). Mr. Plastic Surgeon was big on sharing his tax status with us. The bartender shared with us that he carried a Black American Express Card. Apparently, there is something beyond Platinum for the people who really like to rub their money in people's faces.

As for the tourists here, we sometimes feel a bit odd amongst them. We seem to be outnumbered by Europeans, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Spanish, French, all being served by a large cadre of Cuban waiters, and Haitian cab drivers. OK not all waiters are Cuban. Along Ocean Drive in the bars and restaurants, there are a considerable number of what, in Chicago, are known as snotty gay waiters. There is an entire stretch of Ocean Drive where you cannot just walk down the sidewalk without having menus thrust into your face with a hard sell on the particular restaurant or bar/restaurant you happen to be in front of. Luckily, I am from Chicago and I am very good at saying "No!" to people

Then there is the beach culture. The weather is perpetually warm here and it breeds large numbers of runners, bikers, roller bladers, assorted skateboarders (Saw one big skateboard with an electric motor and what appeared to be off-road wheels like you would see in larger perspective on trucks at a monster truck rally.). Babs and I actually went out for a 4 mile run this morning before breakfast. Odd thing about breakfasts here at the hotel. Yesterday I had an omelette. Today I had a typical American Breakfast with scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. With both orders there were tomatoes and grilled asparagus spears. Got to say, in spite of the oddity, I could get used to asparagus with my breakfast. The Cuban style coffee is kick-ass as well.

After 2 days of spending a great deal of time outdoors, most of it at the pool reading a mystery novel, I have managed not to get sunburned as yet. Apparently it took 58 years for me to figure out that if you use sunblock, you don't get beet red. I may learn slowly, but eventually I get it.

One last observation about South Beach, the warmth and the tourists attract a lot of homeless, hustlers, and assorted oddballs. This morning on our run, in addition to the movie company shooting a scene from some movie, I saw men with shopping carts harvesting coconuts from the palm trees in the park (A public park.). I saw some guy who makes hats, birds, and assorted little pieces of art from palm fronds. I saw a lot of dreadlocks on people who obviously had been sleeping in the park, and had just woken up. I saw a lot of very happy dogs out to the park and the beach with their owners on morning excursions. I saw a 75 year old man in a jean jacket that said Hard Rock Cafe, Las Vegas on it. Frankly, he didn't look the sort, but who am I to judge?

All in all, it is a very lively and vibrant community here. I think I could learn to like it here. I definitely would want to move into an area away from the serious tourist areas, but warmth and beach culture is nice. Nothing wrong with a view of the water, and running, biking, or even just strolling in the sun. It gives one's spirits a lift. It's not so hard on my respiratory system. I didn't even bring my allergy meds with me. Now if someone would just pay me a decent living that would allow me to move from the 14th floor in Streeterville to a 14th floor in Miami Beach. Got to keep scheming, just at a little higher level than the palm frond weaver or the coconut harvesters, or the assorted hustlers who see the benefits of a warm climate as well.

Have a good day boys and girls. I hear it may get up to 56 degrees in Chicago tomorrow. Meanwhile I'm going to the terrace and enjoying the sunshine in my shorts and flip flops. I lift a glass of cold Chardonnay to you hardy souls in the Northland. I'll be back with you in a few days, so I cannot afford to gloat. Meanwhile, I wonder what the real estate market here has done recently. Hmmmm.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday Evening Ramblings

It's a lovely afternoon in Streeterville. The slanting yellowish afternoon sunlight is hitting the water treatment plant and Navy Pier just so. The wind has died down so there are no longer white caps on the lake, or waves crashing up over the running path. It's 45 degrees under partly cloudy skies at the Mini. It is officially Spring Break. I sent the little suckers home, or wherever it is that they go after they leave school, and now the next week is for me. After all, what is important in life? I believe it's me.

A long time ago, somewhere in the realm of 1960, I saw a movie length thing on my family's old black and white TV. It was written by Rod Serling, yes that Rod Serling, of The Twilight Zone fame. It was a futuristic story about after the nuclear apocolypse, and the world was being run by youngsters. They had set up a society in which the most important concept was "Me." Nobody gave a shit about anybody else except themselves, and one 20 something guy was the "Leader of the Pack," so to speak. His title was "The Imperial Me." He exalted the concept of self-indulgence, belief in self-worth, and belief that everyone else exist only to serve "Me."

I'm not so sure that I buy into the belief that we are devolving into a bunch of self-obsessed pricks who will stab everybody else in the back for a buck, but there is a great deal of egocentrism in the world. Actually, I believe in a greater good, but I'm not sure I'd go to war to ensure it. I was a Conscientious Objector back during the tail end of the Vietnam War. I certainly saw no greater good in that conflict. Nor do I see a greater good in Iraq. Afghanistan, and over the border in Pakistan, now there might be an argument in favor of that being for the greater good of the world. Taliban and Al Qaeda bad. Tolerance for others, not like onesself, good.

Speaking of which, there was an item in the papers and online yesterday and today about a new law that was passed in Afghanistan. The law guarantees the right of a husband to have sex with his wife at least every third night, or was it fourth. At any rate, human rights groups are protesting the law because they say it basically legalizes rape. If a woman doesn't want to have sex on a given night and it has been 3 or 4 nights since she last had sex with her husband, she must, by law submit to him. If he forces himself on her, she has no recourse. Who in the hell puts that kind of stuff into law? Mind you this is not from the Taliban. This is from the mainstream government of Afghanistan.

The Taliban forbade women from attending school. Forbade women from leaving home without the accompaniment of a male family member. Forbade women from most everything except being dominated by their fathers and husbands. The Taliban stoned people to death in soccer stadiums, with large audiences, for committing adultery. The Taliban are busy taking over whole areas of Pakistan, and trying to retake areas of Afghanistan. They take Shariah and the concept of Jihad very literally. This is definitely not Vegas boys and girls.

The Taliban represent an extreme faction of Islam that thinks it has a responsibility to see that everyone becomes their version of Muslim, and anyone who disagrees with them has to die. Meanwhile in Northern Idaho we have anarchists who reserve the right to do whatever they please and shoot anyone who disagrees with them. On the one hand, total responsibility for a society in your own vision. On the other hand total disavowal of any structure for society and actual rejection of it. Both reserve the right to kill anyone who disagrees with them.

This brings to mind the discussions in my old political science classes where some were convinced that when political beliefs get too far to the left or the right of the spectrum there is no difference between the two. Far left and far right justify their actions with different stances of why they do what they do, but inevitably their stance at the far extreme of the spectrum leads them to embrace the same repressive methods, namely they kill or severely punish anyone who disagrees with them. Hitler-Far Right. Stalin-Far Left. Both Leaders-Mass Murder. Enter the Taliban and theocratic repression. Same shit.

I'm not really certain where I'm going with this ramble, nor am I quite sure how I got here, but one thing I am certain of is that we live on a planet with 6.5 billion people and we are not going to agree with all of them. It is insanity to try to push the "Me" vision of reality on everyone else. It is insanity to try to enforce your vision of reality on everyone else at the expense of their lives if they disagree with you. Furthermore, it must really suck to be a woman in a Middle Eastern country. I'm willing to live and let live. I'm willing to let people continue believing whatever they think is real as long as they don't try pushing it at me. There lies the rub. Fundamentalists, in the religious sense, and in the political sense, always feel the need to make everyone else think what they do. Then there are those who do not get converted willingly. Then comes the killing.

In the end, it comes down to this. I believe that "Me" is an important concept. One should believe in his or herself. One should not believe that to the point that he or she believes that everyone else needs to believe the same, or pay the consequences. There are a great many right ways for people to live their lives on this planet. Mine is just one. Yours is another. The founding fathers of this country believed the Enlightenment thinkers who said we all have certain natural rights, "Life, Liberty, Property." We all have the right to do any damned thing we want as long as it does not infringe on the natural rights of others. When we take ourselves so seriously that we begin to take away "Life, Liberty, Property," from others, we have stepped over the line. I can accept you as you are. Can you accept me? And if you cannot accept me, can you at least avoid recriminations because you cannot?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Parents and Teachers

It's been a gray day in Streeterville. Got that haircut I alluded to yesterday. Got my eyebrows and ear hair trimmed as well. Left my nose hair and back hair alone. Went to work. Came home. It was 44 degrees with light rain at the Mini when I returned to the Hood. Lawyers and princesses in $200 running shoes were still active on the running path. The current view out the windows on the 14th floor is, well dark. The usual lights are active at Navy Pier as well as those blinking ones that tell boats that there is a concrete barrier here, so steer clear you drunken idiot.

Today was a special day at The Outpost. It was Parent-Teacher Conference Day, aka Report Card Day. Many of my colleagues are sorely bored on these days. When kids get old enough to reach High School parents sort of stop coming to Report Card Pickups to speak with their kids' teachers. Teachers of Freshmen get the most parents. The numbers drop off by year so that teachers of Seniors get the fewest visits. Hope those guys have plenty of little chores to keep them busy for the duration of the day.

As it happens, many of these colleagues are continually amazed by the numbers of parents who show up at my room to speak with me about their children. I have a secret. I fail lots of kids. I have standards. A great many parents show up when their kids are failing. Invevitably, the kids who are used to lesser expectations get the message, from me, and from their parents about this time of the year, "Put out some effort or you're going to be paying the cost in Summer School." Most figure it out and get their butts in gear enough to at least get a D by the beginning of summer.

Of course the real trouble kids, well their parents never show up. That's part of the issue with many of them. The kids have issues. Their parents have issues as well. The "at home socialization" is how the kids got their issues in the first place. We can try to serve as a surrogate at school, but for many, they are lost by the time they get to high school. It's always sad to see it. Their futures are dim, and getting dimmer by the minute. With those in a gang, there are really two options for their future, 1. Death by violent means, or 2. Prison. For many of the girls it means 1. Children by age 16, 2. Single motherhood, and 3. A life of poverty.

For a teacher the difficult part on Parent-Teacher Conference Day is learning how to diplomatically approach the bad news that you have to give to parents. How can you say to a parent, "Well the problem is that your son is a member of a gang and he is involved with drugs and guns and shows up for class high as a kite if he shows up at all."? How do you tell a parent that her daughter is failing because she spends all her time cutting classes with a boy who is a gang-banger with no future and she's probably pregnant? For that matter, how do you tell a parent that her daughter is in love with another girl who is a member of a lesbian gang who sometimes sexually assault other girls in the bathrooms?

Reality? The above scenarios are very real, but extreme cases. Most kids are really good kids. Most of the parents who show up for Parent-Teacher Conferences are the parents who are actively involved in their kids' lives and care, and as a result their kids do really well. Most of the parents of the above kids, rarely show up. Some do occasionally, and let me tell you that it can be awkward. Today, I had to tell a mother of a young man who is in an Honors Class, who is making a D, that his problem is that he is a member of the Black Disciples street gang and all of the ramifications that go with that are why his grades are slipping. I was worried when I told her. I have confronted some parents in the past about the affiliations of their children, and had those parents respond with angry, vehement denial. This particular woman responded with an "I know. I work so hard. I try so hard, but the neighborhood is taking him." It breaks your heart to see a mother, her own heart visibly breaking, trying her very best to raise a son, and trying to save him from himself and the thugs on the corner who want to own him, only to have the thugs on the corner win the battle.

It's also hard to tell a parent who has come to the school, prepared to be enraged by an unjust teacher, that the reason their child is failing is that their child has spent the previous ten weeks flirting with the boy or girl across the aisle in the class and hasn't turned in 3/4 of the required work. It's hard to tell a parent that their beloved child spends large numbers of periods hanging out in the halls, hiding in the bathrooms, doing anything but going to class, and then clowning and doing their best to disrupt the class for the good kids when they get caught in a roundup and are made to go to class. It's hard as hell to have to tell them that. It's hard as hell for a parent to have to hear that about their child. Every parent comes into this thing with high hopes for their child. It's incredibly difficult to find out that your child is another of those kids that have been swallowed up by the poverty, by the low expectations, by the gangsta mentality, by the endless bullshit that causes poverty to continue from one generation to the next, instead of putting the fucking stop on it so no more kids have to live angry, poverty-stricken existences with no hope for the future. In this, the parents and the teachers share a great sorrow.

Then when all seems darkest, there comes a moment to brighten your day. An older brother of one of my students came to pick up the student's report card. He came into my room and told me that the mother was pretty sick and couldn't make it to pick up the grades. He was checking up on his little brother. The older brother was probably in his late 20's or early 30's, and acknowledged that he had two little sons of his own and was doing his best to guide them on the right path, and now he wanted to see that his little brother was doing the best he could. I had to tell him that his little brother "is easily the most capable, hardest working student I have seen in the entire Freshman class." I had to tell him that his brother is the nicest kid I have met in a long time and I want to personally see to it that this kid gets everything he works hard for. He has a bright future, and if he keeps up the hard work, great things are in store for him. We talked about scholarhip opportunities. We talked about AP classes and outside opportunities at community colleges and internships that pay money while providing teaching opportunities. I thought the gentleman was going to cry. He was so happy to see that his little brother had a bright future and people were there to help him achieve, and that people care about him. That was one of the moments that makes it all worth it.

It's funny how emotions work. You just want to cry because so many young lives are being squandered and lost in the sociology of poverty culture. You just want to cry because some kids manage to rise above it all and soar anyway. It all comes out at the Parent-Teacher Conferences. (Haven't had an irate parent curse me out in many years now. Knock on wood. Maybe I've gotten better at dealing with it all.) The love for their children is what brings the parents there. The love for the children in general, and the endless hope of the future generations, that's what brings the teachers there. Together, we try to make a difference.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Divergence; The Convergence

It has been a perfectly lovely afternoon in Streeterville. The sky above is blue. The lake below it is blue. It is 56 degrees and sunny at the Mini. It was so lovely that I went out to get a haircut but they couldn't get me in this afternoon so I put it off until tomorrow and went for a run instead. The weather is just warm enough for a really pleasant run. Too bad Babs is in Princeton and was not able to join me.

It's funny how lives intertwine over time, just as others are unwinding and separating. When I was 19 years old I wrote a poem called "Change is Permanent." That thought comes back to me at times, and I just searched and I can't find my poetry notebook anywhere. When Babs gets back I need to get her to help me find it. All I can remember of the poem is the line, "I've pondered and questioned. It all seems quite clear. Change is the only thing permanent here." How true.

Anyway, my parents have both passed on. My two older brothers are grandparents and are consumed with their Texas lives. We correspond via e-mail and send birthday and Christmas greetings. Every two or three years someone goes to visit someone for a couple of days. Our lives have diverged. My two sisters have become estranged. They are consumed with a religious life that demands that they go to church twice on Sundays and again on Wednesday evening. Then there are the extra functions with friends from church, and various assorted extra church functions. They do not smoke. They do not drink. They do not dance. They do not visit brothers who have wine with dinner, do not attend church, and live on 14th floors of high rises in large scary cities. They are fundamentalists. They are the religious right incarnate. Our lives are wayyyy diverged.

I have cousins who range from suburban conservative to rural redneck and frankly I haven't interacted with most of them since I left home to go to college in 1968. Weddings and funerals there. My childhood friends and friends of my youth, well we all had agendas to pursue and who knows where they all are or what they're up to. A select few have elected to friend me on Facebook. Usually what I discover is that my life and their lives are way different. We have diverged.

Along the way, I have lived in Little Rock and Jonesboro, Arkansas, Carbondale, Hoffman Estates, Lombard, and Chicago, Illinois, Austin, Texas, Minneapolis, Minnesota (Twice), and on the island of Guam in the Western Pacific. I have made friends in every place I have moved. After you move again, it's difficult to keep up with people. You move on physically, mentally, psychologically, and socially, as do they. You diverge.

Since 1985, the one constant has been Babs, my wife and life companion. It's funny, but I see her family more often than I do my own blood relatives. I can go for holidays at her family's home and have a cocktail and relax without feeling chastised. I can not go to church when I visit them and it's OK. They are in-laws though. Babs is the one best friend through it all. We spend time together. We eat together. We sleep together. We travel together. We share all that life throws at one another. We have converged. We are a unit. We are a family.

When all else is wrong. When all else is right. When you just need someone to lean on for whatever reason. That is when you (I) need that family unit. In this case, that means I need Babs and she needs me, when life gets tough and you need someone to help you along, or when life is really good and you need someone to share it with. Unfortunately, that means that when life's twists and turns separates us from one another for a day, for a week, whatever, it means a sense of loss. We have converged and to a great extent are dependent on one another psychologically, emotionally, socially.

There are those who, no doubt, think this is an unhealthy relationship, that we have become too dependent on one another. Don't get me wrong. We survive. We adapt. We just miss one another when we are separated. We each need that other psyche to bounce stuff off of. We like to call one another in the evening and report the day's doings. Then comes bedtime and that other side of the bed is empty. Nobody there but the cats, and they don't listen to you worth a damn. They take love, but don't really give it back very well, except on rare occasions when they feel like it.

What I'm getting at I suppose, is that this convergence, this sharing, this feeling that you can't do without someone special who has shared 20 plus years of your life with you and probably will share 20-30-40 years more is more than just a simple convergence. Going back to that change poem I wrote when I was 19, change is permanent. It's just that in some cases, you find someone to grow and change with you, to share the whole ride with you. What I'm talking about is love.

Have a great day boys and girls, and may all of you have a convergence.