Friday, November 30, 2007


My birthday is coming up and people have started to ask me what I kind of a present I want.

At this point there is no particular thing I can think of that I truly want. I have more than I need, too much that owns me these days, and I’d like the Salvation Army to come clean a lot of it out. My wife would object to that, of course, and she’s right.

The kinds of things I want these days are intangible. I want close friends to share long conversation with. And please don’t wait until I’m in Tuesdays-With-Morrie shape for that to start.

Snow for Christmas would be nice, but probably a selfish request that would mess up people’s holiday travel plans. A couple of years ago we went to Prague in December and waited on the tarmac at O’Hare for seven hours before the expired wing de-icing could be reinstituted. We had bought each other business class for Christmas, which was a good thing because I would have been arrested if I had gone crazy in steerage waiting to take off. I don’t know how those people handled it, but they did. Perhaps I should ask for patience instead of snow.

I want an agent for my unsold books. I know for sure that they both need at least one more good revision before anyone will look at them. That’s not something anyone can give me, and it will take a lot of time with my ass in the chair focusing on the books before that will happen. If it ever does.

I’ve made more money this year with my watercolors, which is not to say much, than with my writing. It’s nice to have people ask to buy a painting occasionally. Having people ask more frequently would certainly stroke my ego, not that it needs stroking, just ask my friends.

I’d like a non-judgmental partner to go to the health club with me four times a week. That, of course takes the opposite of revising my books. I have to get my ass out of the chair to do that. I might even lose the hundred pounds I need to see go. [N.B. I can talk about being fat, but you are not permitted to talk about my being even a touch portly.]

A surprise party with a good band and a nice dance floor would be terrific. As far as that goes, I’d like to go dancing at least once a week. For that I’ll need a comfortable pair of shoes with leather soles, but fit is problematic and I can’t ask anyone to take me to Nordstroms, particularly during the Gigantic Holiday Buying Season that passes for Christmas. I’ll get up there with my credit card within the next couple of weeks, fight off the hordes of shoppers, and find something that fits.

I’d like ten acres full of rabbits within close driving distance so I could take the dogs and let them loose to hunt. Last night shortly before midnight when I let them out for one final potty before bed, they cornered a rabbit in the back yard and chased it for about five minutes. It finally escaped under the fence. I don’t think they had any intention of catching it, and neither they nor I would have known what to do with it if they had. Ugh. I know this might offend some of my animal-loving friends, but Stella and Brando are animals too. Hmmmm. As one of my favorite columnists says, “When political correctness collides with political correctness.” I wouldn’t mind 500 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline within close driving distance, either, for the dogs to run on. The point is moot (perhaps even mute), of course, because there’s no way I can find and afford ten close acres; and no Lake Michigan property of that size is available for even a one hundredth of what I could afford.

I’d like to establish a substantial scholarship fund at Goddard College, a place that truly changed my life. Maybe that will be part of my will, or perhaps my friends will create a scholarship after I die. I certainly won’t be able to enjoy flowers then. That would be a good place to scatter my ashes (eventually! Let’s not jump the gun), but I won’t know the difference, and it won’t mean the same things to the people who do the scattering.

None of these is a helpful gift suggestion for anyone. And Christmas is coming, which is even worse. But at some point in most people’s lives, there’s very little they need. I think I’ve reached that point in mine.

Happy birthday to Beth T, with whom I share the date!

Please feel free, as always, to comment below.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


If you read the Chicago Sun-Times on a regular basis, or occasionally the Chicago Tribune, if you watched television news in the Chicago area, you would come to the conclusion that the most important event in the past month in the entire country, on the whole planet, is the disappearance of Stacy Peterson.

She vanished from her home about a month ago leaving two young children - and a husband about thirty years older than she. She was his fourth wife, and the third died under what the media are making out to be suspicious circumstances.

Not since Lacy Peterson’s disappearance or the O.J. Simpson trial have domestic difficulties made so much splash.

Search teams from Texas arrived and conducted mass searches. The Illinois State Police declared her disappearance the most important investigation in the state, perhaps the country. People Magazine has put her putative husband, Drew Peterson, a now-retired local cop, on its cover, and he seems to relish the oats he munches at the media trough.

In the spring, another woman, Lisa Stebic, disappeared from her suburban Chicago home, and she too has yet to appear dead or alive. In fact, Drew Peterson and Craig Stebic, the ostensibly bereaved husbands, have, according to ubiquitous media reports, become fast friends. On the other hand, it may be that no one else understands their plight and they joined together in a common bond. Lisa Stebic’s disappearance drew almost as much publicity as Stacy Peterson’s.

Don’t get me wrong. The idea that a woman, or in this case, women, vanish, leaving their families, is tragic. That they may have been murdered, abducted, violated, all are terrifying, and cause me to double check the locks on the doors each night. But I don’t believe their disappearances deserve so much media coverage. If their husbands did away with them, and that’s a big if, and if they are arrested, another big if, there is no place in the entire Midwest either one will be able to get a fair trial. I suspect Drew Peterson knows that and has become the media’s darling as some kind of a ploy.

But none of that matters in light of the fact that we have our priorities wrong.

This has been the year of biggest casualties in Iraq, buried somewhere in the newspaper. President Bush has the opportunity to take a stand on a Palestinian State with the conflicting parties meeting this week at a summit, but that too is buried. We are in the midst of an overly long presidential campaign, and it’s important that we scrutinize each candidate to choose the best one so we don’t end up in four or eight years in the same mess we’re in now. In Chicago a couple of weeks ago, a fourteen year African American old girl disappeared on the way home from visiting her mother in the hospital. She turned up almost two weeks later, but the media pretty much ignored her. We seem to be headed for a recession, despite the Black Friday and Cyber Monday bunkum we see on the news. Scandals proliferate at the Cook County level (so what else is new?) and in the City of Chicago (although Mayor Daley seems to be surviving them).

Unfortunately, television news, and to a large extent struggling print media, have become mere entertainment for the masses. All these important events swirl around us and instead of being thoughtful citizens, we have become total air heads. The media say they give us what we apparently want, but I don’t believe that’s their responsibility. TomKat’s baby and Brittney Spears latest automobile hit-and-run are not as important as the war in Iraq, the possible invasion of Iran, or the current summit. Given the opportunity, I believe the American public will rise to a more serious, thoughtful level.

The news media must stop treating us as slack-jawed yokels, stop lowering expectations to the lowest common denominator. Give us, instead, something to ruminate on, something of importance.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is the obvious day to be grateful for all our blessings. I particularly am grateful for our freedoms, my health, my relative prosperity, but most of all for my family and friends. Without them the other stuff would be dreck.

First I am thankful for all those who, unfortunately, won’t be present at the Thanksgiving table today, particularly Daniel, our late son, who made the world a better place by his presence.

I am also thankful for these people, and I send Thanksgiving blessings out to them. I have listed them in alphabetical order, and I haven’t included duplicate names – one may stand for several people.

Ann, Albert, Anne, Shannon, Barbara, Beth, Bill, Brian, Carmie, Carol, Caroline, Carter, Cathy, Christian, Cindie, Cindy, Clif, Connie, Cosette, Cynthia, David, Dawn, Derek, Debbi, Dianne, Dick, Donna, Elena, Eric, Erin, Fran, Frankie, Gail,

Harold, Harriet, Howard, Jack, James, Jeanne, Jeff, Jennifer, Jerry, Jill, Jim, Jimmy, Jonathan, Joseph, Judy, Ken, Kim, Kristin, Laura, Laurie, Lenny, Leslie, Lucy, Lois, Maggie, Marian, Marguarite, Mark, Martini, Mary, Marylyn, Mike, Nancy, Nell, Neil, Paul Peggy, Peter, Polly, Priscilla, Randy, Robin,

Rochelle, Ron, Sandy, Sandie, Sandra, Sharon, Sherry, Steven, Susan Sue,, Tom, Rebecca, Stewart, Tamara, Ted, Theresa, Tim, Tracy, Virginia, Yvonne.

I am sure there names I have forgotten, but rest assured, I am thankful for you too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I look forward to reading your comments.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


There’s nothing like being a tourist.

For the past week and a half our travel buddies Ted and Carol (we met five years ago in Venice) have been visiting us and we’ve been showing them Chicago, all four of us tourists. In that time we’ve been places we had not visited, at least not lately.

The day after they arrived we went to the Museum of Science and Industry. I hadn’t been there since the early nineties when we went to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian House exhibit. This time we took the submarine tour and went down in the coal mine, neither of which I had ever done before. My wife had been in the coal mine when she was a child, and it has been revamped completely.

We took Stella and Brando to the Indiana Dunes National Park and let them race along the shore for an hour or so. We were the only people there, and the only dogs. The dunes is (are?) one of my favorite places to go, and I try to take the critters for a good run at least every other week when it’s mostly deserted.

We drove into Chicago at rush hour (a nightmare!)to go to Tony and Tina’s Wedding, and had a great time. Alas, I didn’t get to dance with the bride, but we sure dished the dirt with the bridesmaids.

We visited the Jasper Johns Gray exhibit at the Art Institute and toured Millennium Park, with emphasis on Cloud Gate. Ice skating has begun for the winter, and I had a hard time not rushing down, finding a pair of fat boy skates and soaring out on the ice. Or at least trying.

We spent a day in Oak Park, where we toured the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, and took the walking tour to see the Wright houses in the vicinity. We had never taken this opportunity and it’s fabulous.

Today we took the memory lane tour, which truly opened my eyes. In a circuitous route, I drove us back to Joliet, a place we hadn’t been for years, to see the house we lived in over twenty years ago. The neighborhood is completely different, thanks to a tornado a few years ago, and completely the same. Some houses are gone, some houses are painted, but I felt as if I could park the car, get out and be home. It was tempting to stop and ask for a tour. I didn’t.

On the way to Joliet, we drove through the school district where I taught for 33 years until I retired almost seven years ago. The school looks the same on the outside, but I know all of the students I taught are gone, and many of the faculty have retired, replaced in part by some of these former students. (A huge new school will be ready to open next fall, and another one the fall after that.) What is more amazing than one school building where I used to teach, however, is the area. When I started teaching, Lincoln-Way High School had around 1,200 students in the district, which covered abut 100 square miles. When I retired, there were about 1,700 students in the graduating class. This year, there will be far more graduating seniors than that. Those students all have families, and they all live and shop in the area. The fields are gone for the most part – at least along the main drag. Those fields are filled with commerce and upscale homes, townhouses, and condo buildings.

Every square foot of land seems claimed.

I guess that’s progress, and it may pretty far off the point I intended to make. Or not.

I think what I’m trying to say is that every so often we need to step back. By looking at Chicago through Ted and Carol’s eyes, I gained a new perspective on the city. It truly is magnificent. Except at rush hour when we were trying to get from the south burbs to Piper’s Alley on the near north side. The school district I taught in is overwhelming. Thomas Wolfe said we can’t go home again, and it’s true. I never feel quite comfortable when I go to the annual Christmas party the school district puts on for old timers. But I was able to look at my surroundings as if seeing them for the first time. And that’s an astounding experience. Thanks, Ted and Carol.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Distant Memory

The year is 1948. I am two and a half. We have lived in Minneapolis for the last two years in the house on Ewing Avenue South. We will move again in two years to Virginia where my father will be an army captain at Fort Belvoire and my sister will be born when I am six.

My mother has never lived away from her family, and although she has made many friends here this first time she moves away from her hometown, she will not be so resilient the next eight times she moves and will sink into chronic mildly functional depression. Perhaps to avert that inevitability, perhaps a prescient dream has told her, perhaps because she is lonely for the friends she has had for more than thirty years, perhaps because my father travels the state to sell chemicals for Pittsburgh Plate Glass and leaves her alone with me from Monday to Friday, girlfriends from her hometown in Ohio visit this summer.

Our house is small. White clapboards shelter two bedrooms, a living room that opens to a dining room, the kitchen, single bath and stairs to the attic where the floor, painted cream and spattered with primary red, green, blue, and yellow, delights me. This decorating statement may be from a previous owner too timid to display energy in the public areas of the house. Indeed, the living room is papered with two-inch cream and off-white stripes.

“Aunt” Margaret, a spinster with whom my mother taught grade school, and whose brother she once dated but didn’t marry because he was Catholic, and Aunt Georgia, whose husbands proliferate throughout my young life, each one wealthier than the last, arrive in her '48 Cadillac to visit for a week. I can’t remember any of her last names.

Nor can I remember where they sleep, but I do remember the paisley comforter they sleep under, feathers of orange and blue intertwined on a sea of pale yellow. When we moved from Minneapolis to Virginia and then to Albuquerque, it remained boxed, probably at my grandmother’s house in Ohio. Not until we move back to Minneapolis for a couple of years until my dad was transferred yet again, this time to Illinois, do I see it.

Aunt Margaret always brings me books and reads to me. She carries herself with dignity and never misses mass. When we live in Albuquerque, she lights candles in the ancient church in Old Town, candles for her parents and the brother my mom had dated, now, sadly, dead.

Aunt Georgia wears her hair tied up in a scarf, with shorts and halter to match. She delights me in ways only a boy can appreciate. Her best trick is to sit on the toilet and boom out farts that echo in the bowl against water, against porcelain. Each time she uses the bathroom, I follow her in, a giggling shadow at her side. Each poot reverberates in the tiny space. Each time I laugh until my side aches.

No doubt we trek to Daytons in downtown Minneapolis – long before malls are built. No doubt we walk to Lake Harriet to watch the ducks and geese. No doubt we lounge on the beach at Lake Calhoun. Perhaps I even wade chest high under watchful eyes. No doubt.

Somewhere in heavenly life Aunt Margaret lights candles and prays. And somewhere Aunt Georgia delights celestial boys by sitting on the pot, reverberating farts.

Please comment below on your childhood memories.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Veterans Day

At the Eleventh hour on the Eleventh day of the Eleventh month in 1918, hostilities ended in the Great War, the War to end all Wars, the one we know today as World War I.

President Woodrow Wilson declared Armistice Day the following year to commemorate the end of the war. We celebrated Armistice Day until 1954 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the commemoration to Veterans Day.

Today we honor those men and women who have fought for freedom in the armed services of the United States.

Let light perpetual shine upon those who died in the service of our country as well as those who have died since.

And we honor those who continue to live: Veterans of World War II, the Korean Conflict, Viet Nam (including my best man Mike Baldwin!), Somalia, Kosovo, the first Gulf War, and the mess we continue to fight currently, as well as all other conflicts we have been involved in. We also honor those Veterans who were lucky enough to serve in times of peace, especially Derek, who chose me his dad several years ago.

(Unfortunately we have devalued this day by declaring it a time to have special sales. Somehow the American way is about buying mattresses rather than honoring the lives of people who have served our country to keep our freedom.)

Thank you, Veterans, for your sacrifices. We honor you and appreciate your courage.

Click comments below to name those veterans you honor.

Eurabia and Fear Mongering

I am tired of people trying to scare me to death. We live constantly in fear from
*terrorists (or at least those in government who tell us terrorists will hit malls this Christmas shopping season even though they could wreak more havoc at a Bears’ game),
*toy makers trying to poison our children,
*the heart association (and the cancer society and a myriad of doctors who tell us about the toxins in our systems, the food we eat, the danger of red meat, coffee, chocolate, food in general),
*researchers who point out that test scores among school children are falling and America will soon be filled with illiterates,
*bankers and economists,
*you name it.

The most recent fear monger is an expat American living in Norway. I have been reading his disturbing book called While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within by Bruce Bawer (Doubleday, 2006).

Bawer says that Europe has a huge number of Muslim immigrants who do the same kind of work that many of our illegals supposedly do. Bawer draws a clear distinction between moderate Muslims and Islamists, whom he describes as fundamentalist fanatics.

The problem, he says, is that while most Europeans deny any bigotry based on color/race, or origin, or religion, they completely segregate (isolate, separate, alienate, and all those other ates) immigrants, keep them on the dole, and condescendingly call them “our colorful immigrants.” Europeans don’t want them – or any foreigners/outsiders - to integrate into society and allow them to remain outsiders, even calling children and grandchildren second and third generation immigrants rather than giving them full citizenship. This turns even the most moderate Muslim into an Islamist.

Many of these immigrants never learn the language of the country they live in, and their children go to religious rather than public schools. And the Europeans support the schools, the imams, and the mosques with huge monetary grants. The immigrants never assimilate into European society and never follow the laws of the country to which they have moved. Rather, they live in ghettos, follow fundamentalist Muslim law above national law, and have become a huge force that works against the country in which they live.

The murder/assassination of Theo VanGogh a couple years ago in the Netherlands is a prime example of fanatics following religious law above national law, Bawer says. Immigrants feel compelled by their religion to kill infidels. And while this drew great public attention, the rape of European women because they dress, according to Islamist belief, like whores becomes acceptable and the women no longer are victims because they violate the fanatics’ core beliefs. In France, he points out, many young French women cover their heads to avoid the rapes and beatings from Muslim youths who beat and rape them for their immodesty.

These fanatics, Bawer also says, have such strong Islamist values that they practice widespread female genital mutilation, beating of women, and “honor” killings of women who violate the Islamist’s beliefs by having the misfortune to be raped, thereby bringing dishonor on their families. The rapists go free under sharia, Islamist law. European courts, rather than allowing themselves to be seen as biased, excuse the crimes as cultural. That, of course is terrible.

Bawer, I believe, is sincere. And making money from his book, which is ranked 1,733 in sales on Amazon, 7,193 on (I was glad to get into the low 100,000s when my novel Family Plot was in print.) But living in the middle of the European culture wars, and comparing them with America’s relatively open society, which does not provide financial support for Muslims to remain separate, keeps him from having a broader perspective.

The Economist (November 3, 2007, “The power of private prayer: A heretical thought about religion in Europe,” p. 9) debunks Bawer’s hysteria: “[T]he imminent arrival of Eurabia can be dismissed as poor mathematics. Muslim minorities in Europe are indeed growing fast and causing political friction, but they account for less than 5% of the total population by American standards of immigration. Even if that proportion trebles in the next 20 years, Eruabia will still be a long way off.”

Of course, as long as Europe remains segregated, cultural problems will magnify. I have no pretensions of telling Europeans what to do about the “problem” of Muslims. In fact, the “Muslim problem” of today sounds scarily like the “Jewish problem” that got the Nazis going.

But I do have a word for American experts who work for their own ends by spouting fear in the various media every day (which raises my blood pressure and will cause my early death!). I want to hear from reasoned, intelligent people who truly have my best interests (not their own paychecks) at heart.

Otherwise, fear mongers should shut the hell up.

Please click comments below and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Central Standard / Daylight Savings Time

I hate changing to and from Daylight Savings Time.

It heralds the beginning of flu season, caused by the stress of not sleeping correctly. It messes up children’s body clocks and hinders them from learning, even when they have the extra hour to sleep in the fall. I know it puts my body clock out of synch, and I am convinced that I am not the only adult to whom this happens.

It was probably a good idea at the time, during the last “good” war when a paternalistic government gave workers more daylight in which to play after their shifts at war industries making the products that helped us win WW II. It allowed children more time to play in the daylight after school in the good old days when they didn’t have two hours of homework every night beginning in third grade, and when they weren’t thralls to video games and the television.

Farmers never liked the time change. My late Uncle Acen (who died in 1967) never changed the clocks on his farm in Central Illinois near Arcola. Rather, he kept them on “God’s time.” He always said the cows didn’t know if it were daylight savings time or not, they just kept on their own schedule and needed to be milked when they needed to be milked. Ironically, he grew broom corn, which migrant workers from Oklahoma harvested each fall. He and my Aunt Edith, my father’s eldest sister, didn’t have livestock except for the occasional beef steer, some gigantic hogs, a few geese for Christmas, a smattering of chickens for eggs, and a German Shepherd named Bernice.

Nor did they have running water in the house. There was a hand pump at the kitchen sink and a reservoir on the wood stove in the kitchen they kept filled for hot water. When they needed to wash themselves, they would undress except for a robe, go outside and open bulkhead to cellar, go down the steps, and then stand under the reservoir in the kitchen, pull a chain and shower. Briefly.

(Uncle Acen was a curmudgeon, and so am I. He was not my role model, however. I somehow just grew into the job.)

Sometimes after a time change it takes me a couple months to change all the clocks in the house. The digital ones are harder than the ones with hands, except for our antique clocks which cannot be turned backward without breaking the works or forward too fast because the chimes go fonky. The ones in the cars are easier than they used to be, but I still need to get out the manual to figure it out. I don’t wear a watch, but the digital ones used to drive me insane because I’d lose the directions and only certain males under the age of sixteen could figure out how to adjust the time on them.

On the first day after a time change I wake up on my previous time no matter when I went to bed the night before. By the third day I am a wreck. This morning I poured cream all over the counter instead of into my coffee. I slopped coffee on my hand and robe because I couldn’t manage the cup correctly. If I follow true to form, I’ll be fine by the end of the week, but revert the second week. After that I find a routine. When I was teaching, my students were worse the second week, too. I can’t imagine what happens to automobile mechanics or Air Traffic Controllers if they have the same reactions I do (there’s a horror show in the making!).

I do have an idea. While we could do away with changing time altogether, I don’t think that would solve the problem.

What I believe we ought to do is split the difference.

WHAT? Turn the clocks ahead half an hour once in the spring and never touch them again? Am I crazy!

The idea is not without precedent. India is on a single time zone, with the time based on the center (east to west) of the country. That puts it ten hours and thirty minutes later than Central Standard Time. Thus when it’s noon here, it’s 10:30 in the evening there. Is this a problem? For some people, no doubt it is. But most manage to adjust. On the bright side, if we switched our time by 30 minutes, all those out-sourced workers who answer our computer questions might have it easier figuring out when to call us back after we’ve been put into the telephone queue.

If we changed the time in the United States by 30 minutes past Standard Time, we would still have time zones, but we would never have to adjust our bodies, or our clocks and watches, again. Schools might change the time they start and stop. They do it all the time. Businesses could also adjust, and save money because they would adjust the time only once.

And if we never fiddled with the settings on clocks, despite not being on “God’s time,” even Uncle Acen might approve.

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