Sunday, August 30, 2009

Planes and Plans

Except for random nocturnal strollers getting bashed over the head just down the street, it’s pretty quiet in Lincoln Park these days . . . now that the Chicago Air and Water Show has come and gone. Not long ago Jill and I trundled our folding chairs and rolling cooler out to the Diversey Harbor inlet to catch the aero thrills.

You can’t beat Chicago’s lakefront on a hot August Saturday when over two million people are spread out as far as you can see and the boaters are anchored all the way to the horizon. Add to that the bawling of the propeller planes and the howl of those jet jobs and you’ve got yourself a good old time.

It would be enough just to watch the people. They say the place is a city of neighborhoods, and all the neighborhoods are here, drawn to the lake just as they have been for a century and more. It’s summer, and the living is easier at lakeside. It’s cooler here, and the off-shore breeze is a welcome relief to the hot dust of the stone city. That’s the way it has been for over a century.

A hundred years ago Edward H. Bennett and Daniel Burnham published the Plan of Chicago, a city-changing document under the direction of the Commercial Club. These were the words the authors used to press home the importance of the city’s lakefront . . .

Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated by individuals to the exclusion of the people. On the contrary, everything possible should be done to enhance its attractiveness and to develop its natural beauties, thus fitting it for the part it has to play in the life of the whole city. It should be made so alluring that it will become the fixed habit of the people to seek its restful presence at every opportunity.

I don’t know how restful the Air and Water Show is, but to be a part of the shoreline throng stretching from Montrose Harbor all the way to Navy Pier is to see, a century later, the large part that the Lake Michigan shore plays in the life of the city.

“The Lake front by right belongs to the people,” Burnham and Bennett wrote. They would be pleased.

So the show went on.

The Golden Knights jumped. The Lima Lima team traced the sky in precise strokes. Chuck Aaron strapped his 60-year-old body into the Red Bull helicopter and did back flips and 360-degree rolls, the only man in the country licensed to do such stunts. And to finish it off the U. S. Air Force Thunderbirds screeched and screamed and blasted their way past the crowd in a 20-minute display of brute power and absolute control.

All the while hundreds of thousands of folks just like me surveyed the sky as they picnicked. Children clap-hopped. The ice cream venders pushed their bicycle carts through the crowd. And hundreds of boats swung easily at anchor.

Show me another city with such heroic action in such a beautiful place, a walk or bus ride away from the neighborhood. Show me another city that, a hundred years ago, would not only have anticipated such a day and such a place, but worked to make them happen.

Just as we owe those early city planners a debt of gratitude, we also owe those who will be a century from now an honest attempt to improve and enlarge the legacy that was given to us. That’s only fair.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fair Enough

Made the yearly trip to the Wisconsin State Fair a week ago. Great fair . . . better than ever. We chose a good day – two got in for the price of one. Mobs of people already there at noon, probably in anticipation of the Main Stage show at 7:30 featuring Big & Rich with Cowboy Troy and Candy Coburn. You may not know Big & Rich, but you have certainly heard of its signature song, Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).

Yeah, I haven’t heard of the group or the song, either. We didn’t stick around for the Big Evening Show, anyway.

The fair has many of the same attractions that I remember from 40 years ago. Some things shouldn’t change. The animal barns are all still there, completely open to the public. The animals look good, even the hogs, most of which were sprawled out on clean straw with their eyes closed. The Percherons were, as always, magnificent, well-muscled and proud, clearly aware of their origins as battle mounts in the Middle Ages. And how can there be so many different kinds of rabbits?

The super-sized cream puff line was churning out cream puffs full tilt, and fair-goers were buying them by the half-dozen. I abstained . . . way too difficult to keep the powdered sugar and spewed filling off the Tommy Bahama.

But some things have changed, though. They serve wine at the fair now . . . some places offer two whites and two reds. They have a special tent for micro-brewed beer. There are fewer stands to get a bratwurst, it seems like. Too bad. It’s a sensible meal – only 29 grams of fat and 900 mgs of sodium.

There is the brand new Machine Shed Restaurant, which boasts Real Food, Real People and Real Memories! The place advertises the “best breakfast in America” and serves up All You Can Eat Pancakes with 4 New Varieties! Plus Chocolate Covered Bacon on a Stick!

And the bathrooms are clean enough to eat a cream puff in. They have washroom attendants up there in West Allis now, with tip baskets by the exits. The powers that be latched onto an idea Europeans have understood for generations – a little stimulus money will keep those attendants hopping.

But the dominant impression you get strolling around the fairgrounds is one of large people eating substantial servings of cheese and washing it down with lots of beer.

Did you know that in 1841, Mrs. Anne Pickett made history when she established Wisconsin's first cottage industry cheese factory using milk from neighbors' cows? That’s according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Today, the milk marketing folks tell us, 15,000 dairy farms, with over 1.2 million cows produce an average of 18,850 pounds of milk each per year, and cheese makers use close to 90 percent of this milk to produce cheese at 115 plants. The result is over 2.4 billion pounds of Wisconsin cheese each year, much of which is consumed at the Wisconsin State Fair.

So Wisconsin really is the cheese capital of America, and the residents are entitled to wear those cheesehead hats that drive Chicago Bears fans crazy. (By the way, visit to find all of the latest in cheesehead gadgetry, from a 15 buck cheesehead fez to a ten dollar pair of cheesehead hanging dice that dangle from your rear view mirror. . .)

Wisconsin, it turns out, is also way up there -- numero uno, in fact – in several areas of alcohol consumption. According to statistics compiled by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and, Wisconsin is first in the whole great U. S. of A. in the percentage of its citizen who engage in binge drinking (21.8%), casual drinking (67.8%), and heavy drinking (7.4%).

You probably wouldn’t be surprised at how great a cheesehead fez looks after eight or nine cold ones.

I had a dream last night that I got to the exit of the Wisconsin State fairgrounds, and the coppers made me take a breathalyzer test. When I didn’t register, they sent me back inside to drink some more.

“Great,” I gurgled to myself. “I can buy some more cheese curds.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

And Now It's All This

Yesterday Jill and I had a great old time at the Wisconsin State Fair. Cheese, cheese and more cheese, followed up by a plate full of feathery cream puffs. If Sarah Palin were the governor of Wisconsin she could see cheese from her back porch.

The first time I experienced the magic of the fair was about this time in 1966, and that got me to thinking.

See, for me the fair wasn’t the only big event in August of that year. I looked it up when I got home and yesterday was the day, the exact day 43 years ago, that I irked the bejeepers out of my mother. She was in the passenger seat of the family’s brand new Malibu while I, the one with the brand new learner’s permit, held steady at the wheel. Well, not that steady, actually. Instead of listening to her instructions I was focused on the car’s radio and the news conference taking place on the north side of Chicago.

She told me to turn left off Sheridan Road somewhere around Lake Forest College. I went straight. She told me to take the next right onto Deerpath Road. I turned left against traffic. She grabbed the dashboard with her right hand and squelched the radio with her left.

That was that. We went around the block, and I muddled my way back home as she fussed and sputtered.

The cork on my mother’s temper popped because I loved the Beatles, and there they were in Chicago for the first stop on what would turn out to be their last tour. And the lads were singing the blues at the press conference that ended my driving practice for the day.

In March of that year John Lennon had made some comments to a friend and reporter for the London Evening Standard, Maureen Cleve. Asked for his views on organized religion he had replied, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink . . . we’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was alright, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.” (

It took five months for the casual remark to make it into print in the states, finally showing up in a magazine, called Datebook, an unlikely forum for things theological. It didn’t take long. Public bonfires. Trash cans, labeled Place Beatle Trash Here. Beatles music banned on 35 radio stations across the country. (Norman. Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation)

And all this just as the nationwide tour was beginning.

So the four young men sat down before the press and got on with the damage control. Straight away John Lennon, at 26 the oldest of the four, came out with it. "Well, originally I was pointing out that fact in reference to England -- that we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion, at that time. I wasn't knocking it or putting it down, I was just saying it as a fact . . . I'm not saying that we're better, or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is, you know. I just said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong. And now it's all this."

Lennon’s conversation with his London friend took place in a country in which only 10% of the population reported regular church attendance. He couldn’t have understood that in the minds of many Americans a resurrected Christ would be living in a double-wide somewhere in Cumberland County, Tennessee.

I can’t say how many times since then I have used Lennon’s line And now it’s all this in my own life when a simple statement or action leads to unimagined consequences. Things are going smoothly and you say something without thinking and suddenly someone is crying in another room. You make a loaves and fishes choice that will hurt the fewest and help the most and end up offending everyone.

Lennon couldn’t have imagined that his innocent conversation in the midst of a back breaking tour that took the group from Liverpool to Hamburg to Tokyo to Manila would end up so badly awry.

For somewhere down in Decatur, Georgia a tortured soul began a slow swim toward what he saw as the light. "I would listen to this music,” Mark David Chapman would say in a prison interview. “And I would get angry at him, for saying that he didn't believe in God and that he didn't believe in the Beatles . . . I just wanted to scream out loud, 'Who does he think he is, saying these things about God and heaven and the Beatles?' Saying that he doesn't believe in Jesus and things like that.” (Schultz. March 4th, 1966: The Beginning of the End for John Lennon?)

And now it’s all this.

As an aside, the August 11, 2006 press conference was held at the Astor Towers Hotel at 1300 North Astor Street in Chicago. Bertrand Goldberg designed this building just prior to planning Marina City, the twin concrete towers that changed the way Chicagoans viewed their city. Now a condominium, Astor Tower is located about three blocks south of the residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Promise Keeper

With rain moving in and the stock market going up, I waited the other day for the well-muscled young men with the new sleeper sofa to show up with their delivery -- the third sleeper sofa lugged into our lives in the past 40 years.

The first was a big black leather affair that we got at one of the furniture warehouses that were once so popular. I miss them. I miss the forklifts beeping urgently as they scurried about the floor. I miss the showrooms where gals looking like Shelley Long held long clipboards and lured you into the galleria of mid-priced furniture. I miss the neatness of it all, the promise that came with the neatness – that we, too, could arrange the rooms in our house so that they were painted and papered perfectly, accesorized with all the right gee-gaws in just the right places.

It was a promise that was never kept.

Anyway, we wrestled that leather beauty into our first apartment by ourselves because the 25 bucks they wanted for delivery seemed a foolish extravagance. Aside from a mattress and box springs, this was the first piece of real furniture we owned. A good friend’s parents had a black leather sofa in their home in Glenview, and we must have thought that having one would like theirs would send us zooming up the scale of 70’s sophistication. We hadn’t realized that theirs was part of an extravagant mise en scene of upper bracket suburban life, including a pool table and wet bar.

Their sofa almost certainly was not a sleeper sofa. And it certainly was not purchased at a furniture warehouse.

We moved the thing once after that. It sat in front of the fireplace in our first little house until late one night or early one morning, while entertaining friends, things turned serious and she who is wiser than I began to cry about the couch. Six years after its purchase we had no pool table, no wet bar. One Christmas season we had to sell the little bar that came with the house to pay for gifts. The couch was as good as gone at that point. Black and brooding, it was the promise that is never kept.

Raising kids kept us away from sleeper sofas for a long time. A house with two kids, a neutered poodle and three bedrooms is no place for a guest to stay the night, especially if that night is to be spent on a sleeper sofa.

But then came the day when the sensible floral print couch the Carsons salesman had soberly sold us – a cushioned definition of middle class status -- had to be replaced, defiled by the piddle of an aging poodle and the rigors of seating a family for a decade and more. Wary of the upcoming college tuitions for two daughters, we happened upon the Sale of the Century. A sleeper sofa and love seat for just the price of the love seat.

Bam! We knew what we were needing and didn’t want to waste more time. We were (once again) in a sleeper sofa state of mind. But it was never really a part of the family. The girls went off to college shortly after, we had the dog put to sleep, and another attempt was made at redecorating the room. If more than two or three welcome and pampered guests felt the unyielding cross rail of that sleeper sofa in the middle of their backs, I would be surprised.

Now it is a half-dozen years later . . . we are a little older, not a whole lot wiser. The latest sleeper sofa sits in the wrong room, crammed between two other sofas that do belong there. At its most narrow point it is 30.5 inches wide. The doorway to the room in which it belongs is 29 inches wide. The couch won’t get smaller. The door won’t get wider. The apartment conspires against the delivery.

So we called Dave, and today Dave came by. Big guy – the kind of guy you see at fire stations and loading docks. He has found a way to make a living in what trendsetters call a niche market. He takes furniture apart, squeezes the parts into the room where they belong and then reassembles the parts. He works seven days a week.

“No problem,” Dave said as he ripped the staples out of the sofa’s rich backing material. “We do this all the time. It’ll be good as new. I promise.”

He and his partner wasted no time, went right to work, and within 15 minutes the special order couch, the most expensive sleeper sofa of our lives, was sawed apart and lay in large sofa chunks in the right room. Another 20 minutes, and the thing was reassembled and sat submissively where it belonged.

Big Dave, smiling as he took the check for 125 bucks, said, “See. I promised. Good as new. We do it all the time. Armoirs, dining room tables, you name it.”

In a lifetime of believing the promise that is never kept, we finally found a guy who could make the promise, cut it in pieces, and put it back together again. Good as new.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It'll Be Easier to Get Past the Adults

So I had a birthday a couple weeks ago, a sobering celebration of walking upright for six decades. Next year I’ll be 60-years-old. Sixty? It looks better spelled out than glaring at you with its round-numbered glibness.

Perhaps you saw the replay of the gentleman at the Cubs game who lent his wife the ice cream cone he had just bought. She took a couple of licks, handed it back to him and before he could take a single taste, the whole mass of soft-serve rolled out of the cone and into his lap. Wow. The look he gave her was the same one that the Duke of Medina Sidonia must have given to Phillip II after losing half the country’s fleet instead of sailing to the greatest triumph in Spanish history.

That’s kind of like what having a birthday at my age is like. You hand your day to friends and family, and absorb all the happy family stuff -- the nice wrapped presents, the dinner out, all the swell Facebook remembrances. But then, when you’re alone and the day gets handed back to you, it plops right into your lap with a cold splat.

Another ballpark story. Jill and I were at the Cubs-Astros game a week ago. Great game. The Cubbies scored 12 runs, and Soriano went three for four. It used to be that despite the parking situation everyone pretty much showed up at game time. These days there’s a continuous dribble of fans finding seats right through the third inning. It’s bothersome – all the getting up and down for the folks who have the seats in the middle of your row and politely wave their iPhones in your face as they march between you and your beer.

Anyway, a 20-something couple comes up the steps of Section 228, stops at our row and the guy points to the row behind us, empty all the way to the middle. Standing right next to me, he says, “Let’s climb over. It’ll be easier to get past the adults.” Adults, meaning us. Adults, meaning the old guys on the aisle who look like they get out of their seats about as easy as Kevin Gregg gets out of the ninth inning.

A couple days earlier, reading what is left of the Chicago Tribune, I came across a letter to Amy from someone who signed “Facebook Friend.” Here’s the gist of it . . .

Dear Amy: Not to sound rude, but at 63 “Faced Out” is too old to use Facebook . . . Younger people know that when technology is involved, not everything is personal. There is a different culture going on around here, and Baby Boomers are going to feel left out.

Not to sound rude? No, Facebook Friend, you little twit, you don’t sound rude. You sound smug and full of yourself and your electronic gizmos. No, you don’t sound rude. You sound like a visionary who sees a world in which the elders on the aisle who don’t get up quickly enough to get out of your way stay seated while you go up a row and climb over them.

You sound like me when I was your age.