August 30, 2003
Et Tu, August?

I haven't been around here much lately. There are about 500 reasons for this, but I tend to wrap them up in one big pre-packaged excuse: It's August.

August has always been a bad month, as far as I'm concerned. When I was a kid, it was always too hot and my friends and I were usually lost in a pre-back-to-school torpor. In college and thereafter, August was not kind to my university town; friends moved away (a tradition that still continues), hordes of clueless freshmen and their ill-informed parents drove badly through the neighborhood streets, and old couches and bins of trash lined the streets as people moved in and out. Finally, one August I moved away, too.

In recent years August has traditionally been a month for overwork, and that is what is happening now. So if it's a little quiet here, it's just because I'm taking care of business elsewhere in the best way I can. Don't hold it against me; I'm struggling through August.*

One good thing has emerged from this chaotic month:

Back in the spring, my dad sent me a box of caladium bulbs. I planted them in May without much hope, because they're tropical plants and my climate is decidedly non-tropical. Nothing happened in June, but in July we began to see a few brave stalks poking their heads up. And this month we've seen even more. Here are two of the latest:

* Unfortunately, early September doesn't look like it's going to be much better.

Posted at 11:43 AM
August 26, 2003
From the Business Page

Seen on Business Wire today:

Seeing Stars at Planetary/Kitty Joyce Summit

Cats and planets converged Monday night in Logan Square at the Planet Shwoop/KittyJoyce summit.

The historic meeting, which featured officials from B&W, Pickhits, Planetary Delight, Use Your Hands, and Driving through Nebraska, took place to recognize a rare Chicago visit with the board of Berkeley, CA-based Goliard Dream.

Digital camera flashes sizzled as Felicity and son recounted tales of Windy City touristing in the hot August temperatures. Fellow diners and restaurant staff seemed "a mite taken aback" by the commotion, according to sources.

"We encourage our patrons to make themselves at home," muttered one restaurant employee who asked not to be identifed. "But those people were camera-crazy. My stars!"

Topics of conversation ranged from books and bookshelves to Jackson Pollock to jazz to the vicissitudes of living in the Bay Area and Chicago. Excellent food was also enjoyed. "Hey! Those are my potatoes!" one diner was overheard to say.

The evening wound up with a mid-tempo stroll in the somewhat soggy evening through scenic Logan Square. The group noted numerous architectural features of the historic neighborhood, including turrets, stained glass windows, and hipsters.

Summit participants indicated that they enjoyed the summit and hoped it would be repeated. A letter of thanks to Planetary Delight CEO Brian was issued from KittyJoyce headquarters this morning.

Posted at 07:18 PM
August 24, 2003
Gnat Invited

Plenty of attention has been given to the current gnat invasion we've seen in Chicago this summer. An invasion with longer-term implications is the current onslaught of CVS drugstores we're seeing this year.

I admit I thought it was convenient when a CVS appeared in my office building earlier this year (although there is a Walgreen's right across the street). Less happy to see another one currently going up near Irving Park and Western (where, too, there is already a Walgreen's just across the street) where we already have plenty of congestion, thanks. I was pretty dismayed, however, to see a CVS sign going up in the window of a beautiful old building downtown at State and Division (and yes, there's a Walgreen's about a block...oh, forget it).


A little research tells us that the drugstore chain has agreed, after being pressed by local preservationists, to build its store within the existing facade of the building.

This seems mighty generous of CVS, until we find out that they've been up to these same tricks--commandeering historic properties--here in Chicago in Portage Park, and in Boston, St. Petersburg and Westfield, NY, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.(Other chains, like Walgreen's and Rite-Aid, have also been involved in similar skirmishes with local preservation activists.) In many cities, preservationists have persevered, but not always. In 2000 CVS hit back with a $7 million lawsuit against more than a dozen individuals, nonprofit organizations and government agencies, claiming they had “conspired” to prevent local approval of a new CVS store in Homestead, PA.

Why do the pharmacy chains want to raze historic buildings? Because they want to profit from the cities' aging populations. In 2002, CVS's vice president of real estate development was quoted as saying, "Chicago has the fastest growing population of people over 50 years old and we see it as a high-growth market for people in that age bracket, similar to Phoenix, Dallas/Ft. Worth and Las Vegas." He also said that long-term, the chain hopes to have 80 to 100 stores built here.

Lucky us.

Posted at 11:13 AM
August 20, 2003

I ritualistically save (but do not often read) those statements I get periodically from the government telling me how much I've paid into Social Security over my lifetime and how much I can expect to receive. Some day when I am feeling really strong, I will take a long hard look at them and try to figure out how I can possibly save up enough money to finance retirement. Even if I give up essentials like hair conditioner and magazines, it's hard to imagine how I'm going to do it. While I'm waiting for better rates of return, it might be fun to try what may be the next big thing in personal finance: corporate sponsorship.

This may be an idea whose time has not yet come, but look at it this way: Sooner or later, the corporations are going to run out of stadiums and ampitheaters and public squares to buy naming rights to. Just imagine the viral marketing potential waiting to break loose if you could get someone to sponsor your day-to-day life.

Imagine, for instance, that I am sponsored by a name-brand soft drink, like Fanta. I could wear a Fanta T-shirt on casual days. I could use the Fanta logo on my personal stationery and, say, maybe the cell phone. I could get a Fanta-colored car, once I figured out what color that was. Of course I could bring Fanta to all parties and serve it to my guests. And I certainly could make a big splash on the job. "Thanks for dialing into this conference call, everybody. And remember, my presence here is made possible by a generous grant from Fanta."

I'd better get started scoping out potential buyers. Remember, as Tom Peters says, it's all about the brand called "me." Or rather, the me called "Fanta."

(Memo to self: They still make Fanta, don't they? Check on this.)

Posted at 09:07 PM
August 14, 2003
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere

Buy me a flute and a gun that shoots,
Tailgates and substitutes
Strap yourself to the tree with roots
You ain't goin' nowhere

This entry at Use Your Hands made me stop and think today:

During a conversation this weekend, a friend mentioned that when he was a kid, he thought adulthood was all about going to a sidewalk cafe and reading the paper. And my vision was serving a turkey. How is that different from who I am now?

My first idea of what adulthood should be rose up before me when I was taking a standardized test in the first grade. It was one of those long-drawn-out tests that probably took an hour to administer but to my six-year-old self seemed to take all day.

I went to a small Catholic grade school nestled at the a foot of a steep hill. At the top of a hill was a university and a convent. During the middle of the test I looked up and saw my French teacher (yes, French teacher, for reasons now obscure to me) outside the window, walking up the hill. At that moment I just wanted to be a grownup on a sunny day, walking up the hill without anyone interfering with me (or making me take [now in hindsight, completely ridiculous]tests).

I was thunderstruck. She could go anywhere! Without asking anyone, without having to take someone with her!

I watched until she disappeared from sight. When will I be able to do that?

And then I stared out the window a while longer, dreaming about it. I was pulled back rudely into my then-present reality, which was that I was a heavily supervised six-year-old, in school, who had managed to miss a whole section of my test. Had to scramble to catch up.

How is that different from how I am now? Probably not at all. Still prone to dreaming out the window. Still inclined to pay attention to something other than what I'm supposed to be doing. And an inveterate walker in all weather.

What did you think adulthood was all about?

Posted at 06:51 PM
August 11, 2003
How Now

Just back from a trip to Ohio and that perennial favorite, the state fair. I hadn't been to the fair since the late '80s and I had a sneaking suspicion that it had been moved, or at least changed, since then. But when I got out of the car I knew it by the humidity, and the dust, and the smell of bug spray. (Here's a representative link, accompanied by a photo of some reluctant-looking children dressed as llamas.)

The highlight of the fair, for me, has always been the Butter Cow, a lifesize butter sculpture that stands in a refrigerated glass case in the Dairy Barn. Fairgoers can shuffle past it on their way to buy gigantic bowls of ice cream (which, alas, I did not do). I did get to take a few photos, seen below.

I was not able to photograph:
-the pig race ("a snort time to post time!")
-our group eating roasted corn like a pack of crazed wolverines
-E. laughing in the chicken barn (well, I did photograph this, but have opted not to post, as it seems bad manners to laugh at animals)
-fried twinkies in any form.

Here's the Butter Cow, with its own Butter Churn. There was also a Butter Calf.

What's more, there was also a Butter Orville and Wilbur Wright.

We also saw a "Border Collie Demonstration" in which border collies herded sheep and ducks. This was actually a much lower-key event than you might think. The moving dark blur in this photo is the dog, of course, somewhat successfully inducing these ducks to run up and down a slide into a wading pool. The man off to the side is the trainer, a retired schoolteacher whose patience seemingly knew no bounds.

I find it suspicious that one bear in this group is wearing a hat. What does he know that the others don't?

Posted at 09:10 PM
August 06, 2003
In the Weeds

I don't write here about my job, except in the most oblique ways. Suffice to say, due to recent developments it looks like I'm going to be in the weeds for some time.

So I'm telling this story to reassure myself that it's going to be fine. That everything is going to be all right. It's about the summer of 1994, when E. and I went to Olympia, Washington, for the first "yo-yo-a-go-go" festival for five days of indie-rock madness (see this remarkably well-written review). About how we spent the week seeing bands in the Capitol Theater, a beautiful old theater in downtown Olympia. About how the upper levels of seating were not very well lit. About how I was climbing up the steep old stairs of the theater in one particularly dark spot, trying to remember where I had been sitting. About how I lost my balance and started to fall backwards and flung my arms out desperately to try to recover my footing. About how a stranger's hand came out of the darkness and grabbed mine just in time. (About how this sounds cheesy beyond believability, but I swear it happened.)

I never did see the friendly person who saved me. I'm just glad they were there. I'm proceeding again into the dark, hoping there will be a hand to grab me if I need it, just in time.

B&W is on the road this weekend. Back next week with pictures of the Butter Cow.

Posted at 09:13 PM
August 05, 2003
Hair-splitting on the Nomenclature

I dislike metablogging, but it's never too late to continue hair-splitting on the nomenclature, I guess. (Sounds something Naomi Wolf would write, doesn't it? Coming soon: Hair-splitting on the Nomenclature: A Personal History.)

The analysis here gave me pause today. Some of it has been covered elsewhere, but I liked his point about blog authors and self-denigration:

One of the striking aspects of this genre is the author's denigration of himself: the blog is purported to be "chaos," "random," "neurotic," and generally reflective of a failed life.

This analysis needs to make room for irony, and it may be coming on a bit too strong ("a failed life"?) but I've always chafed at the convention of using "random" as a premise for a blog or anything else. I suppose such people want to leave themselves open to possibility, but it comes off as if they can't be bothered to decide what's important. "Random" is like someone's grocery list. Who wants to read that? Why start writing if you don't have at least a sneaking suspicion that you have something to say?

As for B&W, nothing here is random, baby! The B&W elves often work overtime hand picking these nuggets and testing them for quality. At other times they are napping; our demanding publication schedule takes quite a lot out of them.

Posted at 06:31 PM
August 04, 2003

Gaper's Block points to this, and I admit the performers did make a lively show this weekend (here's another perspective). I am a little baffled by the motives of the sponsoring organization, which seems to be a chamber of commerce-type thing. Having worked in this area since 1999, I'm puzzled by what they're trying to accomplish with this boosterism ("you just can't find another downtown neighborhood with virtually everything anyone could want"). Yes, there are some nice parks and more condos than there used to be, but the "new east side" is hardly a triumph of new urbanism--it's canyonville. With its overbearing skyscrapers with stark modern exteriors, very few trees and very few walk-in places like restaurants or services (there are restaurants in the lobbies of the office buildings, but they're not visible from outside), it's pretty stark. What could anyone want? I'd settle for a few charming sidewalk cafes and some people-sized stores.

Posted at 06:36 PM
August 01, 2003
In Between Stations

In late July 1997, I walked away from a subway fire on the Red Line.

I think about it every year at about this time. I also think about it whenever the subway stops in between stations, without any apparent reason, for an undetermined period of time.

Here’s what happened.

It had been a long, hot, miserable, overworked summer and there was no end in sight. I was breaking in a new job and an entirely new magazine staff and was working a lot of weekends. On the Sunday afternoon in question I was going downtown to the office, so right off the bat expectations for the day were at a low ebb. E. was out of town and I was resigned to working all day. In what was the dominant mood of the summer, I was trying very hard not to want anything or look forward to anything.

Somewhere between Clark & Division and North & Clyborn (almost downtown, but not quite) the train stopped. And there it stayed. For a while I didn’t notice, but I eventually turned off my headphones in the middle of “I Could Never Be Your Woman”) and tried to figure out what was going on. Typically, the CTA almost never tells you anything when there’s a service problem, but as I was sitting near a conductor (this was when they still had conductors in cars, instead of prerecorded messages) I thought I might overhear the radio.

All I could make out was one jagged transmission: “Can you tell me the exact location of—“and then there was a burst of static. Still nothing happened and nobody knew anything, nobody said anything.

Suddenly the door that led to the next car burst open and all the passengers from the rest of the train began to pour through and head for the door at the end of our car. With them came a wave of smoke.

I am high-strung and angst-ridden about a number of things, including air travel, hangnails, and nuts in food. But when faced with an actual dangerous situation, I was the last person to figure it out. My first reaction, as they pulled the emergency door latch, was to get annoyed. This seemed like just another CTA stupidity. Surely it would all stop and everything would go back to normal.

While I was pondering this, the whole car turned into a panic-ridden mob scene. People were shouting at each other not to panic, which seemed only to cause more panic. I tried to step out of the way as I hate to be pushed; someone grabbed my arm and dragged me back into the crowd, which surprised me into motion. There was more smoke and it started to get hard to see. I pulled my shirt over my nose and wondered if we should crawl, like I learned in school. I started to realize that this was serious, it was actually bad, and I wondered how much worse it was going to get.

I usually don’t mind being alone in a crowd, but I suddenly wished I had someone to talk to. I had no idea what to do. The conductor had vanished. I saw an old man sitting in a seat ahead of me and was relieved to see a young woman give him a hand. Behind me a big guy in a ball cap was shepherding his wife and yelling: “Let’s go! We’ve got a pregnant woman here!” I wondered where he thought he was going to take her, because I sure as hell didn’t know where I was going.

When we got to the doorway, people were jumping across a short distance to a narrow ledge running along the side of the tunnel. Some people fell between the wall and the train and had to be pulled back up. Although I didn’t worry about getting across the gap, I did wonder which way I should go from there. I hadn’t seen any flames, but there was a lot of smoke. It occurred to me—still quiet, still calm, not screaming—that I might not get out of the subway. I hadn’t told E. I was going downtown, and how long would it take him to figure out what had happened? And then I was out of the car and onto the ledge.

But going where? There was enough room to stand and a small handrail to hold on to, but there wasn’t enough room to walk forward; you had to face the wall and shuffle sideways. Some people were shuffling to my left, but since the smoke was coming from that direction, I opted to shuffle to the right.

It was mostly dark, except for an occasional light bulb in the wall. I was carrying a big purse and an umbrella, so it was hard to keep my balance. If I stopped, my legs shook so badly I didn’t think I could keep going, so I tried not to stop. I followed two African-American ladies in Sunday dresses and ahead of a middle-aged hippie type on a long, flowing dress. The tunnel continued to fill with smoke and the line didn’t seem to move very quickly. From time to time I heard rumblings in the tunnel, but it seemed like the rest of the normal world had disappeared.

The shuffling continued for a long time until we came across an emergency exit. Somehow someone from the CTA had re-materialized and I was shown to a ladder, at the top of which was daylight.

We had climbed out into the middle of an empty lot. I had no idea where we were, but according to the newspaper it was in the triangle created by the intersection of Halsted, Clyborn, and Ogden. It was at that time the projects; I’ve never gone back to see what it has become as the area has gentrified. It must have been a very odd sight; a lot of people emerging from the ground, covered in black grime and soot. Some people were scraped and bleeding, but there didn’t seem to be many very serious injuries. One woman with two small children in tow couldn’t find her teenage son; her worry was terrible to see (I never found out what happened, but he must have been found).

It’s not clear to me but we must have been instructed to stay there for a while, because everybody spent a lot of time milling around in the vacant lot. My mind was completely blank and it was very hard to think what to do. The fire department showed up and the police were there too, and eventually somebody turned on a fire hydrant so we could wash some of the grime off. The police were very jolly, as apparently there was no real work for them to do except to cheer people up. It was not so jolly when over the hill came, like an invading horde, the local news media. The last thing I wanted was to be on TV; I tried to hide behind the cops.

Eventually people began talking to each other, complete strangers, although you never speak to people on the train itself. I sat next to a kindly old guy in a green T-shirt for a while. “I only heard men yelling,” he told me. “All the women kept their heads.” Wiping my eyes, I agreed shakily. Another guy, a yuppie type, attached himself to me. “I had my head in the newspaper,” he said. “I didn’t know where we were. I thought we were walking back to Fullerton.” I must have laughed at that.

All the time I was trying to figure out the problem of getting home (I was now too dirty to go to work). I couldn’t imagine getting back on a train that day, but we were several blocks from any of the bus lines. Eventually we were pointed in the direction of North Avenue. I walked with Yuppie Guy who wouldn’t stop talking, but I had very little to say. For a long time we all waited at Crate & Barrel for a bus. An old man with bandages on his knees was telling some bystanders about the fire. He was carrying several plastic Jewel bags of groceries. “At least you got your food out,” I pointed out to him. “Yes,” he said. “I learned that in the concentration camp. No matter how bad it gets, you always save your food.”

Finally, alone on the bus, in complete safety and nowhere near fire, smoke, or the underground, I cried and cried all the way up Lincoln Avenue. I was unable to explain why to the clueless old ladies riding the bus with me. I spent the rest of the day on the couch staring straight ahead of me and coughing up black goo. (A few weeks later I talked on the telephone to a friend in Colorado who told me that about the same time she’d gone white-water rafting and been washed out of her canoe. As the water closed over her head, she said, she, too, was very calm. We marveled.)

The story did turned in the papers the next day. According to the Sun-Times, about 100 people were evacuated from the train but only 9 were injured. The fire was caused, the paper said, by a wooden support for the third rail which caught on fire, due maybe to an electrical fault or litter falling onto the rail and catching on fire. As for me, the only thing permanently damaged was my lime-green umbrella; I was never able to get all the soot out, and I never liked using it so much after that. Eventually it broke.

The Red Line still runs, of course. I try not to work on Sundays these days, but I still ride the subway. And when the train stops for no reason, I get a little nervous, but not much. If we need to evacuate again, at least I know the way out.

Posted at 05:20 PM