Sunday, May 31, 2009
The first occurred to me as soon as I got behind the wheel of my car. I turned on satellite radio and was reminded once again of how much I like it. I started out by listening to old Irving Berlin tunes and ended up on the Grateful Dead channel. Talk about contrasts! And none of what I heard could be found on your AM/FM dials. I've often thought that comparing satellite with terrestrial radio is like the difference between a typewriter and a PC.
As I moved out of the Chicago metropolitan area, I was reacquainted with "downstate Illinois" and the chasm that separates it from where I live. The first thing you notice is the topology; central Illinois has the flattest land I have ever seen. The second is harder to pin down; it's just the "feel" of the place. For example, not long after crossing I-80 you begin to see a series of "Burma Shave"-style signs that have been placed by a group called the Champaign County Rifle Association. They say things like:
ON UNARMED FOLKS--THUGS DO PREY--ILLINOIS LAW--KEEPS IT THAT WAY;
WHEN GUN CONTROL--HAS US BEAT--CRIMINALS WILL--OWN THE STREET; and my own personal favorite:
NEVER WORRY--THUGS WON'T ATTACK--IF THE TEACHER--MIGHT SHOOT BACK.
I thought that last one was especially charming. The signs include the association's Web site, GunsSaveLife.com, which doesn't sound right to me. Shouldn't it be something like GunsSaveLives.com? Whatever. At any rate, I visited the site and found out that the president is a guy named David Pike. Essentially, the organization is "working to correct Illinois law to allow law-abiding citizens to carry holstered side-arms." Huh? Pike says that "When a criminal doesn't know who's armed and who's not, they're far more cautious and in many cases, give up the idea of committing that crime."
This is one issue on which I'm a bit of an agnostic. On the one hand, I've never been a big fan of gun control--I don't think it's practical. But on the other, I've only fired a gun a couple of times at Boy Scout Camp and didn't really get a big charge out of it. And I never did understand hunting and fishing. Why do some people feel the need to kill animals that aren't bothering them in the first place? I don't own any guns, don't expect to ever own any, and don't feel particularly unsafe in my home. The truth is, sometimes we lock our doors at night and sometimes we don't.
But what's interesting to me is how passionate these people are about gun ownership, especially in a part of the world that I would think is relatively crime-free. Take that last group of signs, for instance. Are small town schools in central Illinois really filled with menacing thugs? Do teachers really feel the need to carry side-arms? Hard for a suburbanite like me to believe.
Another set of signs makes reference to some pending invasion and citizens' preparedness. Do these people really believe that the Russians or the Muslims (or whomever is just dying to invade us) are going to march right past places like Lake Forest and the Gold Coast to take over some godforsaken little town in central Illinois? And if the invaders should get that far into the nation's hinterland, wouldn't the war be pretty much over by then? I think some of these people took "Red Dawn" a little too seriously.
As I drove on, I passed mileage signs for places like Arcola and Effingham. (Yes, there really is a town by that name. Whenever I mention it, people look at me with arched eyebrows as if I meant F***ing Ham.) I decided to take a bathroom break and get a cup of coffee. Needless to say, there wasn't a Starbuck's anywhere and what I ended up with tasted like a big cup of hot water with cream. Yum!
I finally arrived at the track meet, which was at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. It's a nice school with a nice stadium, but not exactly The Big House. And what always goes through my mind when I'm at EIU is that Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys played Division 1-AA there. It seems odd to me that a guy from Wisconsin could get overlooked by the hometown Badgers, get overlooked by the NFL draft, and still go on to lead America's Team to the playoffs (and date Jessica Simpson). This is while dozens of other star quarterbacks in college never make it in the pros. Is there that big a disconnect between playing quarterback in college and in the NFL?
Friday, May 29, 2009
A reputed mob boss, a police officer and five other men were charged Thursday in a sweeping racketeering indictment that alleges eight years of armed robberies, burglaries, jewel thefts and arson based in the western suburbs of Chicago.
Michael "The Large Guy" Sarno, 51, of Westchester allegedly masterminded much of the group's illegal activity, including a February 2003 pipe-bomb explosion that wrecked the storefront offices of a company distributing video poker machines.
You gotta love those mob nicknames! I used to know a guy at the Merc named Sarno who lived in the western suburbs and was rather large himself. I always thought he was just one of a hundred guys down there who were mob wannabes. Every now and then he would take a few days off. I'd always ask him what he'd been doing, hoping in vain for that classic response, "Don' worry abouddit." Instead, he always looked away and said something a little more ambiguous, like "Things." Much to my disappointment, he never followed it up by saying, "Let's just leave it at that!"
Now I wonder if he really "knew people." I'd like to ask around, but I think I already know the answer: "You writin' a book?" Nope, just a blog.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Sunday, May 24, 2009
So maybe it's time for some of us to re-think some of those deeply-held assumptions from the Reagan years.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Now we're reading a novel called Driftless, by David Rhodes. He writes about southwestern Wisconsin. I just started the book but I liked this particular passage about two people meeting each other for the first time:
The most primitive parts of themselves immediately began speaking to each other, without permission. Their imaginations entered caves deep in unexplored forests, and joined painted bodies dancing around orange fires.
I like to think of myself as current on the latest writers, but I have to confess that I'd never even heard of either of these authors before. And that's one of the great advantages of a book club.
If I ever met the former vice president, I'd like to tell him just one thing: I never, ever--in my worst nightmare--thought I'd live in a United States that tortured people.
Thank God those thugs are gone.
Kiddieland, like Wrigley Field, has occupied a special place in my imagination. Not only did I go there as a kid, but I took my own sons there as soon as they were old enough. In fact, one of my earliest memories is riding to Kiddieland in a miniature open-air fire engine with a bunch of other kids on one of my brother's birthdays. I think we still have a picture of it at one of our houses. I was reintroduced to Kiddieland when my older boy was about two years old in the early 1990s. He was watching TV one day when a commercial for the park came on. "Can we go there?" he said. "It's in Melrose Park, Illinois." Kiddieland, I thought. I can't believe it's still there. "Yes, Joseph, we can."
Since 1929, Chicagoans like me have been parking their cars across the street from Maywood Park Race Track and entering Kiddieland, carefully crossing the railroad tracks that line the perimeter. Once inside, you'd pass the Merry-Go-Round--which dates back to the 1950s--and the Tilt-a-Whirl. Then came the Bumper Cars, which provided generations of chiropractors with patients. Beyond that was the Polyp, which I always thought was an odd name for a ride (why not the Tumor or the Cyst?). Further down was the Ferris Wheel, which dates back to 1940. (The oldest ride at the park is the Roto Whip, from 1938.) And don't forget the Scooters, which were antique cars that "let" you steer them while you stepped on the gas. I say "let" you steer them because there was a strip of metal in the middle of the road that would keep the cars from going off into the grass. It was always fun to ram the one in front of you and then adopt a look on your face as if to say, "Who, me?"
At the far north end of the park were some of the newer rides, like the Pipeline and the Log Jammer, which were added in the 1990s. Both involve water. The Pipeline is 40 feet high and propels you through dark, winding tunnels on an inflatable raft. It's very disorienting but fun. The Log Jammer is an open-air ride that brings you slowly up a "river" in a boat that resembles a large log. At the top is a seemingly concave waterfall that dumps you 35 feet to the bottom and a huge splash. Both are great.
But my favorite ride would have to be the Little Dipper, an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster from the 1950s that's perfect for beginners. I still enjoyed it as an adult when I took my kids. I'll always wonder how many of the current daredevils at Great America cut their teeth on the Little Dipper at Kiddieland.
Another later addition was the Volcano Playcenter, with net climbs, a ball crawl, and tube slides. Nearby was the Raft Ride, which was essentially a Tom Sawyer-type raft that you'd pull across a small pond with a rope. Not fancy, but kids loved it.
This would bring you full-circle to the seven "kiddie" rides, such as the spaceships that would allow kids to shoot with the same buzzing noise that their parents did in the 1960s. There was also the tiny Ferris-wheel-type contraption that was only about ten feet tall and consisted of metal cages instead of seats. These rides were right next to the concessions, which I always thought were clean and reasonably-priced. Even the bathrooms, with their ancient MEN and WOMEN signs were well-tended. I never ceased to be impressed with how well the place was kept up.
Kiddieland was a great amusement park and will be sorely missed. Maybe I'll stop by one last time this summer and then head over to Russell's Barbecue on Thatcher for some ribs. It's only been around since 1930. Let me know if anyone else would be game.
Monday, May 18, 2009
As far as television is concerned, I'll admit I'm starting to like "The Office," although it's taken me a while. I'll concede that it's creative but I'm not completely sold on it just yet. To be fair, my older boy swears by "Lost," and says it may be the best show he's ever seen. And I especially liked Alec Baldwin in the couple of times I've seen "30 Rock."
Having said all that, I'd like to put in a plug for HBO. I've been a big fan of "Real Time with Bill Maher" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" for a long time now and am enjoying the new season of "In Treatment," with Gabriel Byrne. Larry David really takes "Seinfeld" to a new level with "Curb" and anyone who's ever seen a therapist would appreciate the realism of "In Treatment." I think the shows on HBO are infinitely better than anything else on TV or on the Big Screen. They're edgy, gutsy, and deeply textured in a way that I haven't seen elsewhere. "The Sopranos" needs no bona fides from me, although the mob isn't my cup of tea. "Big Love" gets a Big Thumbs Up from my wife and my older boy speaks highly of "Entourage." Other series that I've heard good things about are "The Wire," "Rome," "Deadwood," "Six Feet Under," and "Da Ali G Show." Maybe now that the election is over I can stop watching all those political shows and check out more of the stuff on HBO. It's a premium channel and costs extra, but I'd tell anyone to skip paying nine bucks for a movie and get a subscription instead.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
There's one place that I've passed by that seems to be doing a good business, though. It's called Bollywood Salon and from the sound of it I think it caters to Indian women. It's in a strip mall and has one of those signs outside that's made up of a bunch of little light bulbs. For a while there, it was advertising EYEBROW THREADING. I don't know what that is, but it sounds painful. Recently they changed it, and now it says FULL ARM WAX $18. Is that what I think it is? I guess I didn't realize that women did that. It doesn't sound very attractive. Do Indian women have a lot of hair on their arms? I never thought about it before. And if you need to get your arms waxed, what does that say about the rest of you? Are you a werewolf? And I couldn't tell from the sign, but I assume they mean both arms for $18, not just one. I figure if one of your arms needs to be waxed, then both of them do. But what exactly is a full arm wax, anyway? Not just your forearms, I suppose. It must go all the way up to your shoulders. That would be a lot of wax! I wonder if I know any women that do that. I can just imagine the conversation between a woman and her husband on some Saturday afternoon:
"Honey, I'm going out. Do you mind if I take your car?"
"No, not at all; I'm just watching the game. Where are you going?"
"To get my arms waxed."
Maybe this is something that only Indian women do. Maybe they've been told it's something uniquely American.
"First thing you do after you get to Chicago is get your arms waxed at Bollywood."
And how often do you suppose they need to get this done? Do they get their arms waxed before a big date? I can just picture some guy picking up his girlfriend on the way to the multiplex.
"Hey, you look great! I especially like your arms. They're so, so...hairless." Is that a compliment?
Oh well, after Bollywood Salon comes McCormick Boulevard and Evanston. Dempster then returns to normal (sort of).
Friday, May 15, 2009
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Elizabeth Edwards has appeared on a number of talk shows and won't even allow her interviewers to mention Rielle Hunter's name. I saw her on Charlie Rose and didn't feel much sympathy for her--and this is a woman that lost a child and has battled breast cancer! I just found her to be both naive and narcissistic. And all I could think was, why is she airing her family's dirty laundry like this? On another show she said that she wasn't sure if "that woman's" baby was her husband's or not, because the affair only lasted one night. Apparently, this Ms. Hunter approached him, not the other way around. And anyway, it was his only indiscretion. Uh-huh. The question I'd like to ask Mrs. Edwards is, are you trying to convince us, or yourself?
As far as Spitzer is concerned, he reportedly spent a total of about $80,000 over the space of about ten years on his "habit." In a recent interview, he said that a decade was "not long in the grand context of my life." Huh? Spitzer is almost 50 years old. He's been married since 1987. Assuming that he didn't see any prostitutes for the first 20 years of his life, then this behavior went on for about a third of his adult life and almost half of his married life. As for the money, it's his to spend as far as I'm concerned. But even though he's from a fabulously wealthy family, that's still a lot of dough. I think my wife would notice if I spent 80 Grand. So what I'd like to know is, are we to believe that his wife, a Harvard-trained lawyer, had no idea what he was up to all those years? Does she care? And can Spitzer quit cold-turkey? Does he want to? Is it reasonable to expect him? I dug out my Magic 8-Ball from the closet and its answers were, in order, "Don't count on it," "My reply is no," "Very doubtful," "Ask again later," and "Outlook not so good."
Then there's the question of their political futures. Personally, I never bought into Edwards's phony populism. I always thought it was just a market segment that he thought he could fill. It's hard to identify with the poor when you live in a 28,000 square-foot home. I don't know where he goes from here.
As for Spitzer, I can't make up my mind if he was a good public servant or not. He sure had enemies, though. I've seen Frank Langone and Hank Greenberg on CNBC recently and it's clear that they both despise him. I wouldn't be surprised if someone hadn't been out to get him. But there's no doubt that he's a good politician and polls show that New Yorkers would prefer him to his successor, David Paterson. I always thought that he'd be the first Jewish president; that's hard to picture now. But I'll say that unlike Edwards, we haven't seen the last of Spitzer.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Hey, you're a foodie. Have you noticed the Food Channel doesn't have very many chefs anymore? Nobody is cooking. They have the diner and dives show, the cake show and those stupid yell at everyone challenges. Not much cooking.
Fair criticism. But I told him to check out Good Eats, with Alton Brown. It's probably my new favorite show on the Food Network right now. He's not nearly as cute or as funny as he thinks he is, but the show is very informative. He delves into the history behind various dishes, where exactly certain cuts of meat come from, and explains in plain English how to prepare different types of food. He shows the best way to cook even simple things that you thought you'd mastered. I've learned a lot from watching the program and I can tell you from personal experience that his pot roast is to die for! So tune in and tell me what you think.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
...could be the major point of contention in health care reform this year. A New York Times editorial today says that:
The insurance industry is so desperate to avoid competition that it has already pledged numerous reforms and called for tighter regulation of the private market to expand coverage and control costs. But even with tighter regulation, Congress should include a public plan option to give consumers broader choice, provide a refuge for people who don’t trust private insurers to have their best interest at heart and serve as a yardstick for judging the performance of private plans.
Private plans have done a poor job at restraining premium increases; they mostly pass rising medical costs on to the subscriber. A good dose of competition from a public plan with potentially lower administrative costs and no need to generate profits might be the right competitive medicine to improve their performance.
If you've worked for large companies for most of your career you're probably happy with the health insurance you've had. After all, private insurers have an incentive to keep large customers happy. But if you've ever been self-employed and had to deal with a private insurer directly, you begin to see the inherent conflict that this excerpt describes. Remember, insurance companies are in business to collect premiums and avoid paying claims. That's their business model. And individuals have very little leverage with a large company. Your business is just as much a nuisance to them as anything. A public plan, without the incentive to maximize profits, might just be a better option for the consumer. (There was a time not too long ago that I thought I'd never write a sentence like that. But as Colin Powell, a Republican, said recently, "Americans are looking for more government in their life, not less." I guess the pendulum has swung.)
Now the editors at The Wall Street Journal would like to have it both ways. On the one hand, they are fond of reminding their readers, again and again, how inefficient government is at running things and what a disaster it would be to let them run health care. (I actually think the Post Office does a good job; try getting FedEx to mail a letter for 44 cents.) But the government isn't seeking to run health care; the public plan would be an option. In the next breath, The Journal says that private insurers could never compete with such a plan. Why? Is that because a public plan would be, gulp, better? So which is it, WSJ? Would a public plan be inefficient or more efficient?
The bottom line here is that if you will always be employed at a large company you will never have to worry. You will always have first-rate coverage. But that's a big assumption nowadays. If you ever find yourself out of work or would ever like to go into business for yourself, just don't do it when you're too young for Medicare or if you have any pre-existing conditions, because you might find yourself without insurance. I, for one, am self-employed, healthy, and have a private policy. But I'm the exception, not the rule. And my luck could change tomorrow--so could yours. Simply put, my experience with the private insurers has been an eye-opener. I've learned that their interests are often at odds with the patients and doctors. So I wonder if a public plan could serve the consumer better. I'd certainly be willing to give it a try.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Friday, May 8, 2009
Thursday, May 7, 2009
(To be fair, Matthews was a little confused himself. He maintained his belief in a god that created the universe and then "guided" evolution. This is only marginally better. As the biologists E. O. Wilson and James Watson have said, evolution implies "no designer.")
Representative Tancredo, who is generally thought of as one of his party's wing-nuts, came across last night as a Happy Warrior. It was hard not to like the guy. But his response was so muddled that all I could think was, can't the Republicans find one person who can come on Matthews's show and defend science? Are they that intellectually bankrupt? And if so, how can they ever hope to have any credibility as a party going forward?
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
The Lake County Health Department is reminding residents to avoid contact with bats because three rabid bats already have been found this spring.
Lake County residents have to be reminded to avoid contact with bats? Really? Do they normally seek out bats? I can just picture some family sitting around on their deck, having dinner maybe, when suddenly little Johnny spies a bat up in a tree. Immediately everyone jumps up from the table and runs frantically toward the creature. Maybe someone has a dog whistle or something, but they all wave their arms madly in an attempt to attract the critter down from its perch. Once the beast has been successfully lured down onto some lucky family member's forearm, the rest of the clan can ooh and aah at the little darling. Maybe sis will even take the adorable bat into her arms and cuddle it while Mom and Dad look on approvingly.
Somehow I don't think that's how my family would react in a similar situation. I don't know exactly how it would go down, because I don't think we've ever seen a bat in our backyard, but I think it would be more like the Seinfeld episode where George pushed aside the old lady in an effort to get out of a burning building. I can picture us literally climbing over one another to get in the house while knocking over the table and chairs. Food would be flying every which way and there would be much yelling, screaming, and maybe even some bad language. Once safely inside, the finger-pointing would begin as we all desperately gasped for air. I don't know exactly how blame would be allotted and on what basis, but we'd think of something (we're pretty creative that way).
But we live in Cook County, not Lake, so maybe we don't need to be told to avoid rabid bats.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
But who could be in a hurry to get through a lovely state like Wisconsin? Not only are the convenience stores loaded with Packers and Badgers paraphernalia, but they also have every kind of garment you could possibly imagine in camouflage--just in time for Mother's Day. At one stop we saw a huge display case with a large assortment of beef jerky and Slim Jims. It was like a cigar humidor. Perfect for your next deer hunting trip! Or fishing, or whatever lower life form you choose to hassle or harass. We stopped in at one little wood-paneled restaurant with a cheerful hostess named Dolly that looked like she was straight out of Central Casting. Charming! Then I noticed all the hunting knives, machetes, and other weaponry designed for maiming that were on sale directly behind her. Yikes! Think I'll check out that burger joint down the street.
And let's not forget all those obnoxious "CHEESE" signs you see everywhere. They're enormous and stand hundreds of feet in the air so that you're sure not to miss them. Do people from Wisconsin think that cheese is some kind of delicacy or rare commodity that can't be found anywhere else? I half expected to see a sign saying "Last Chance for Cheese!" What do they think I'm going to do, take a thirty minute detour to buy some Gouda? Who cares? My local grocery store has a ton of cheese and I only buy Kraft singles anyway. And it's not like I'm worried about a shortage or anything-- we're talking about cheese!
Oh well, my wife is from Wisconsin so I'd better be careful. It's good to be back in Chicago, though.
Friday, May 1, 2009
To be fair to Haass, he resigned his post in 2003 and went on to become president of the Council on Foreign Relations. But what I'd like to know is, why didn't people like him and Powell speak out at the time? Why didn't Powell resign if he had serious reservations? When Cy Vance disagreed with President Carter's rescue mission in Iran, he resigned in a very public manner. And why did it take until now for Haass to conclude that the war that went well was a good idea while the war that didn't was a mistake? Why not say so at the time? Why make the rest of us guess? He could have saved thousands of lives. Wouldn't that be better than writing a book to show how smart he is?