Tuesday, November 08, 2016

There Are No Simple Solutions: Election Day Thoughts

It's fitting that it's rainy and overcast on this most unusual of Election Days. This presidential campaign has been long and bitter, and exposed rifts in American society that cannot be ignored and have no simple solutions.

One of our presidential candidates is counting on voters seeking the simple solution—"I alone can fix it"—to carry him to the White House. But democracy, especially our unique American version of it, is anything but simple. It's messy and resembles a Gordian knot at times. It allows for rational and irrational voices to be heard in equal measure, in the hope that we can find consensus to move the nation forward together.

I believe that the United States is a progressive nation, despite its stumbles. It always has been and always will be. (If you're unsure, read the Preamble to the Constitution.) We don't look back; we move forward and, hopefully, hand over a nation to future generations that was better than the one we received.

Radical conservatives are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." But they omit the next sentence: "It is its natural manure." Jefferson wrote that when the tree of liberty was merely a sapling. 240 years later, that tree has formed deep roots and boughs capable of bearing the weight of a modern nation. But it does need watering and sunlight to remain strong. Our votes provide that sustenance and deter the pests that seek to do it harm.

Don't succumb to the siren's call of simple solutions today. And reach out to those who do, empathize with them and let them know that it gets better and you're there to help.

Yours for the motherfucking revolution, always.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Go Cubs Go (For One Night Only)

I wear a 1972 White Sox replica ballcap these days, and my personal baseball allegiance lies with the Pale Hose. But it wasn’t always that way.

I grew up root, root rooting for the Cubbies, my love of the ballclub passed down from my mother, who learned to love the team from her family. Mom would take my brother and me to Wrigley Field whenever the opportunity arose, or let one of my uncles chaperone us when she couldn’t take the day off from work. This was in the mid- to late-1970s. The wounds from the 1969 collapse were still raw for those who bore witness. There was no “Wrigleyville.” Harry Caray wasn’t a Cubs fan and a Bud Man—he was shirtless and sunburned in the Old Comiskey Park bleachers, calling out the White Sox’ shitty play with Jimmy Piersall on Channel 44 and shilling for Falstaff. The Friendly Confines were nestled in a neighborhood settled by rednecks and white trash who followed the same rail and bus lines north as Southern blacks did during the Great Migration, and seeking similar financial emancipation. The Cubby Bear was a hellhole dive bar and tickets to Cubs games, on game day, were as plentiful and easy to obtain as Sox ducats are today.

I had little clue about the Cubs’ star-struck history, that they hadn’t won a World Series since 1908 nor sniffed a pennant since 1945. I had no idea about Tinker, Evers and Chance; Sam Sianis and his cursed pet goat; the College of Coaches; Leo the Lip; Ron Santo clicking his heels; Ernie Banks wanting to play two; black cats on the field; Babe Ruth’s called shot or that Lou Brock was once a Cub. But thanks to Mom, I became attached to Bill Buckner’s play at first base and the plate (and his pornstache), awed by the double play duo of Manny Trillo and Ivan De Jesus, gasped as Bobby Mercer threw his body into the right field wall chasing fouls, cheered as Dave Kingman launched balls out of the ballpark and well past Waveland Avenue, observed manager Herman Franks use the dugout phone to place trades with his stockbroker as often as he called for a reliever, bit my nails whenever Bruce Sutter was called from the bullpen for a three-inning save, and rolled my eyes at the TV whenever Jack Brickhouse—the hardest working broadcaster in Chicago history, but never the smartest—was called upon to improvise his way through a rain delay.

My deep, unconditional love for the Cubs didn’t mean there wasn’t room for the other team eight miles south of Clark & Addison. The White Sox, by comparison, were fun punks under Bill Veeck’s ownership. They sometimes wore shorts and collared jerseys on the field during games, had an exploding scoreboard, boasted an entertaining broadcast team in Caray and Piersall who may have drawn more fans to Comiskey as the team, and played their games in an equally rundown ballpark in front of a long-suffering fan base. In a city where you’re almost required to choose a side in its baseball civil war after you draw your first breath, I could respect the Sox if I couldn't root for them. When Mom remarried, my stepfather didn’t hesitate to tempt me with his White Sox fandom. Soon, we were attending as many games at 35th and Shields as we were at Clark and Addison.

Things weren’t the same in our home when my mother remarried. I can draw parallels between that and when the Wrigley family sold the Cubs to Tribune Company in 1981. If the Cubs were my mother, the Trib was my new stepfather, swaggering into the picture, vowing big changes while also claiming to love the ballclub as much as I did, if not more. And those first steps were promising. Jack Brickhouse was out of the broadcast booth, in favor of Harry Caray. The Tribune hired Dallas Green to build a contender. He hired Jim Frey and brought in players from Philly like Keith Moreland, Bobby Dernier and, most notably, a fresh-faced third baseman turned promising middle infielder named Ryne Sandberg. Corporate synergy meant the Cubs had a tailor-made broadcast outlet in WGN and, when cable television exploded in the mid-80s and WGN was included in basic cable packages, the Cubs—with Harry in full salesman mode—had an instant national fanbase. The 1984 Cubs taught me heartbreak. The ’85 and ’86 editions taught me how to swear like a sailor at the team on the field, and rail against an ownership structure that seemed to value keeping the turnstiles rolling than building a perennial. Not that that growing fanbase seemed to notice at the time.

After that, the shine was gone. I was ecstatic when the Cubs signed Andre Dawson in ’87, but confused as to why he only received a one-year, $500,000 deal from the team.  (He more than earned that money with an MVP season for a last-place team.) I cursed as Shawon Dunston sent routine throws to first base flying over Mark Grace’s head and into the stands. I first swore to stop rooting for the Cubs when they let Greg Maddux leave for Atlanta as he was entering the prime of his career. But I would still go to games at the now-Crumbling Confines, aware that thin netting hanging over my head was all that separated me and other fans from having chunks of concrete fall on our heads. The neighborhood gentrified, the hillbillies pushed out and “Wrigleyville” was born. Apartment buildings across from Wrigley became hot properties for owners who sought to cash in on the unobstructed views into the ballpark from the rooftops, and highly desirable addresses for college graduates who came of age watching Harry Caray (nearing the end of his storied career and as exasperated as the die-hards at Tribune’s chase for the almighty dollar) extol the benefits of fun at the old ballpark.

Still, I stuck with the Cubs, like being in a marriage of convenience, and kept repping the colors as Mark Grace never developed a power stroke (but he could drink like a champion at Murphy’s Bleachers), felt sorry for Sandberg as he came out of retirement a shell of the player he used to be, and watched as Sammy Sosa, fueled by steroids, became a Dominican Dave Kingman. 

There’s a point in every relationship where you take serious assessment and determine if it’s worth continuing, or if it’s time to move on. When it came to the Chicago Cubs, that point was Wrigley Field Premium Ticket Services. This was one of several low-water marks during Tribune Company’s ownership of the Lovable Losers. Aiming to capitalize on the secondary ticket market, the Cubs—with Tribune Company’s blessing—launched a service in 2002 where the team could sell tickets to games against select opponents to their fans, at ridiculous upcharges.

In short, the Cubs decided to scalp tickets to their own games to their fans.

A lawsuit was filed and the Cubs were found not guilty of any wrongdoing. Today, the “premium pricing” model is used by every team in Major League Baseball. By then, I had enough. I moved to Bridgeport three years prior. The White Sox were near my apartment. The team always put forth a good faith effort to be contenders, even if their play on the field spoke otherwise and New Comiskey Park, despite the criticisms, wasn’t that bad of a park to catch a game. I lacked the funds and, more importantly, the emotional capital to be in a one-sided relationship. I bid farewell to the Cubs and embraced the White Sox like someone free to love whomever he pleased. The next year, the Cubs collapsed in the NLCS, which justified my decision.

I felt further validation two years later when the Sox rode some of the most dominant starting pitching I’ve ever seen to Chicago’s first World Series in 87 years.

I was on the phone with Mom the day after the Cubs clinched the NL pennant. She’ll be 73 next month and sometimes her memory fails her. On that day, she was unusually talkative. “Are you excited about the Cubs?” She asked. I told her no and followed with, “You do remember I root for the Sox, right?”

There was a long pause on the line. Then Mom snapped, “that’s not how I raised you.”

Tonight, the Cubs can put 108 years of futility to rest with a win in Game 7 in Cleveland. Across Chicago, there are White Sox fans, fueled by the “second class in the Second City” syndrome, who have probably spent their mornings in front of a mirror practicing rubbing it into the faces of their Cubs fans counterparts if the team loses, or they’ll say “well, we won it first” or “at least we swept our World Series” if the Cubs win it all.

I’m not one of those folks. I see the Cubs today for what they are: freed from a partner who wasn’t good for them, transformed from head to toe, with a new beau who treats them like royalty and ready to tackle the world for years to come. Eight miles south, meanwhile, my team is switching out signage in its ballpark from U.S. Cellular Field to Guaranteed Rate Field, with a logo that perfectly depicts the White Sox’ current standing in Chicago’s sports hierarchy. 

I wish the Cubs well and hope the ground underneath Wrigley Field doesn’t open and swallow the mass of humanity gathered around the ballpark whole tonight, as payment for ending the title drought. I know my Mom would be happy to know she lived long enough to see a Cubs World Series championship.

Unlike 14 years ago, however, I’m sticking with my White Sox and, with the help of others in the fanbase, encouraging them to reinvent themselves in a similar manner to how the Rickettses have rebuilt the Cubs. Because the only thing better than one dominant baseball team in Chicago, is two. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Teach My Feet to Fly

Happy New Year, everyone! I got out of the 2016 blocks strong, but need to remember this isn't a sprint. This week has been dominated by loss and celebration, as tributes poured out to those who passed like David Bowie, Amiri Baraka, Lois Weisberg, and Alan Rickman. All of these folks left their fingerprints on local and wold culture in their own way.

My friend Scott Smith and his wickedly talented staff at Touchvision is looking for work after the company ceased operations yesterday. Touchvision was one of the more unique media experiments in years, bringing a digital edge to broadcast journalism and they seemed have found their footing before the rug was pulled out from under them. Chicago media is a brutal business. But the rewards are often worth the risks; Touchvision did some wonderful work in its short time.

Personally, I've been busy re-acclimating myself to work after a two-week publishing holiday. Sundays have been reserved for slow cooker recipes. Time management is still a problemit hasn't affected my work output so far but it's something I want to remedy soon. The story I read at Tuesday Funk last week was well-received. (Actually, I killed and I never say that!) 

I've donned my layers and, with the weather finally feeling like winter around here, laced my skates at McKinley Park and the Maggie Daley Park ice ribbon for a few laps for the dual purpose of getting some exercise and to train for Hustle Up the Hancock next month. (Note: All participants raise money for the Respiratory Health Association. If you have a couple bits to spare, please consider pledging me.)

This will work as the segue. I love ice skating. As a sport and exercise, it holds my attention the way only bicycling has been able to over the years. But I'm still relatively new to it and this is the tale of how I taught myself to do so. I read a more personal version of this at Tuesday Funk a couple years ago, so I did some editing to update it.

Assumption of Risk and Release: "I am aware that ice skating involves inherent risks, dangers and hazards which can result in serious personal injury or death. I hereby freely assume and accept any and all known and unknown risks of injury while skating at this ice arena and release owner, its management company, their affiliates, subsidiaries, successors and assigns from any liability whatsoever from bodily injury or property damage resulting from negligent acts and omissions in the design, operation, supervision and maintenance of the ice arena."

This subtle yet ominous warning, cloaked in standard legalese, is the Chicago Park District’s (“the owner’s") way of saying it isn't culpable if I happen to slip, fall, crack my head open and bleed on any of their ice rinks. It’s wrapped around my wrist whenever I show my season pass for the Park District's outdoor rinks. So far, the worst that has happened is the frequent loss of wrist hair by whatever bored 15-year-old girl working the skate rental trailer catches them with the adhesive. Sometimes I'll look at the disclaimer on my wrist and imagine myself prone on the ice, face down in a pool of my own blood after a nasty fall, holding my arm up to remind the other teenagers in charge of maintaining the rink's safety I knew exactly what I signed up for.

I've always wanted to skate but, for myriad reasons, failed to take up the sport until my late 30s, and even then didn't take it seriously enough to work on actually being good at it. Lord knows I wanted to. My cousin Patrick and I used to go to Blackhawks games at Chicago Stadium when I was a teen and watch Troy Murray, Steve Larmer, and Doug Wilson put the puck into the net, Al Secord and Behn Wilson act as the enforcers on the ice and Murray Bannerman skate out to the Hawks' blue line to freeze a puck.

But the Blackhawk we were most engrossed by was Denis Savard, who was the best stick handler of any player of his time not named Wayne Gretzky and had beautiful skating skills that matched his guile on the ice. There’s one video on YouTube titled “Unbelieveable! Chicago Blackhawks Denis Savard” where he dances between and around four Edmonton Oilers players after stealing the puck before he faces the goalie and puts a wrist shot into the net. 

Denis Savard epitomized the 80s Blackhawks' “cold steel on ice” mentality and we would stand in the upper obstructed view levels of the original Madhouse on Madison, screaming “Holy Shit!” whenever Savard would pirouette on the ice and set up another scoring opportunity for himself and his teammates.

Pat was an avid hockey player, still plays in recreation leagues to this day and passed his love for hockey and skating to his three sons. In those simpler times, Pat taught me the basics of following a hockey game and at one point even said he would teach me to skate.

I wanted to skate like Savard so bad I could taste it. But my teen years were marked by anger, impatience and a being easily disenchanted when things didn't immediately go my way. Rather than pester Pat to teach me some skating basics, I instead dug out his brother Danny's skates from the family garage and walked across the street to Hermosa Park on the Northwest Side.

Every winter the park fieldhouse crew, led by a man named Ray, would ice down Hermosa’s softball fields so the neighbors could enjoy some skating without having to leave the neighborhood. The problem with these makeshift rinks was that Ray and his crew did this without the knowledge or consent of the Park District and they were often stoned when they would break out the firehoses to flood the field. The ice wasn’t a smooth surface for skating and instead resembled a series of rock-solid moguls—extreme skating before there ever was an X Games.

My choice of skates was also shortsighted. I assumed, since the skates were Danny’s and we were close in age, they would fit me perfectly. And they would have… if I were five years younger; I picked up Danny’s size eight skates. That didn’t stop me from fully removing the laces in an attempt to force the skates on my size 11 feet. I eventually worked up blisters and hammertoes that would rival a runway model’s. I took the skates and threw them, without laces, back into the garage.

My hockey fandom grew as I became an adult, but I never acted on my desire to learn to skate. Once, a group of friends arranged a New Year’s Eve skate at McFetridge Sports Center. I didn’t let my lack of skills stop me from renting skates, loosely tying them to my feet and proceeding to make a royal ass of myself. My ankles wobbled inside the skates like a teenage Taylor Swift wearing stiletto heels to an awards show. Tightening them made things worse and suddenly I vacillated between repeatedly bouncing my head off the ice and barreling into small children like a 250-pound bowling ball, an endless stream of profanities flowing from my mouth. To this day my friend Todd reminds me that was the first time we met and that he didn’t know what to make of me.

Subsequent excursions to other rinks fared just as bad, although I learned to be self-aware, stopped swearing on the ice and instead used the children to balance myself and pull me around the rink, like sled dogs in the Alaskan woods. It still frustrated me to no end that everyone would lap me twice on a rink in the time it took me to make a half lap.

So I vowed after skating season ended a few winters ago that I would truly, really, seriously, cross my heart and hope to die teach myself how to skate. Unlike my teen years, I had two things in my favor: the patience of a man in his mid-40s and the Internet. The former taught me not to be discouraged by the failures of my younger self; the latter showed me the lessons I never allowed Pat to share with me.

I went to Play It Again Sports and bought a used pair of Sher-Wood Raptor 2 hockey skates in silver with black toes, heels and trim. The kid who sold them to me and sharpened them said they looked like they were never worn, but I bet he says that to all the boys. When I wear them, they give the impression that my skills are much better than they are.

With my purchase in hand I took to YouTube to search for videos on learning how to skate. The videos near the top of my search all involved learning to fall properly and get back up again, which comes in handy when you lose your balance and is the difference between getting back up to skate again and spilling your blood on the ice.

The next videos in my queue dealt with ice skating basics, taught by some blonde kid in cargo shorts from Florida skating on synthetic ice, which kind of pissed me off. I felt if a bro on plastic ice can do this, I can certainly try dressed in layers on a Chicago rink.

It turned out that this video on ice skating basics wound up being the one I returned to whenever I needed a refresher on shifting my weight, getting my balance and proper hip and knee placement.

The rink closest to my Bridgeport apartment is at McKinley Park on the city's Southwest side. Located on Western Boulevard just south of Archer Avenue, it serves as a slice of tranquility amid the constant bustle of motor vehicle traffic 20 yards away. I like McKinley not only for the proximity to my home but because of the beautiful views. I can see the downtown skyline on a clear day, the CTA Orange Line and freight trains curve around Archer to Western, ferrying passengers to flight delays at Midway Airport and empty shipping containers to temporary homes. Lindy’s Chili is a short walk away for when I’m done and need to warm up. But the main reason I like this rink is because I can work on my skills away from prying eyes.

My first trip to McKinley Park in November 2012 was one to remember. There was a United Nations of languages on the ice: people speaking English, Spanish, Lithuanian, Italian, Polish, Chinese, crackhead and gangbanger. There were girls in hockey skates and boys in figure skates; parents teaching their preschoolers to march on the ice and fall properly; gaggles of teens taking group selfies and flirting with each other around the rink; and other adults like me just trying to find a groove. I may have been the only one with Joni Mitchell's voice in his head singing about wishing for a river to skate away on.

I managed to get around the rink five times in a 90-minute span—no falls or wipeouts; the flat arches of feet aching only slightly. A return to YouTube showed me how to lace my skates properly for ankle and arch support and the next week I was back at McKinley putting the pieces together again. A visit to Millennium Park's ice skating rink with my then-girlfriend, her roommate and a friend visiting from out of town showed me where I stood in my endeavors, as I finally gained a measure of smooth gliding by the time we exited the ice.

Flush with confidence during that skate, I returned to McKinley Park between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the rink packed with families marching along their merry way, which provided plenty of opportunity to avoid the errant missiles that are kindergartners on skates.

As soon as I stepped on the ice I could tell a difference. The lessons I watched and the trips to the rink were starting to pay dividends. I skated for the first time with confidence and made my way around the ice with ease. Two hours flew by before I knew it and I wanted to skate more. My subsequent trips to the rink found me growing even more secure with how I skate.

I've found parallels between my improved skating and other areas of self-improvement off the ice. There’s been progress. Sometimes it’s barely measurable. Other instances, like when I successfully negotiate a turn on the ice, the smile on my face is so wide I couldn’t hide it if I tried.

We should always strive to grow even when we feel we shouldn't. At 35 I decided to focus on the writing career I always wanted, and it took me ten years to finally feel comfortable I achieved that. Now I’m trying to find that ever-vital work/play balance without pushing away the people in my life I love the most.

We can always be better parents, children, bosses, partners or spouses. And while it's nice to work on myself for their benefit, I've embraced that I want to be a better person simply because I’m through with settling for “good enough.” Having patience, learning from your mistakes and simply being aware of the world around you provides a knowledge base when you arrive at the obstacles that pop up unexpectedly. In many ways, I’m teaching myself to fall properly and get back up away from the rink.

The future guarantees few absolutes (and those aren't fun) but working on my shortcomings now will allow me to better enjoy the present and future. I'll never skate like Denis Savard but I don't have to. And Joni Mitchell may have had it wrong when she sang of wishing for a river on which to skate away. You want to skate to something, even if that means going in circles around a rink on the Southwest Side to get there.