Bring On The Border Collies

FeaturedBring On The Border Collies

On cloudless Saturdays in the early aughts, I sloughed off my dead weekend chores—grocery shopping, haircut, the laundry. I chose the beach. I’d fill my backpack-chair with a bottle of water, mosquito spray, dog treats, a beach umbrella, Vanity Fair, and a small purse.

I’d strap the chair to my back, grip Usher’s leash and walk across Michigan Avenue through the bee-buzzing garden leading to the Oak Street Beach underpass. I’d hurry past the watery underground restrooms, holding Usher tight to keep his nose off the ground. We’d climb the cracked cement stairs landing on the maniacal bike path that gripped the edge of the beach.

During mid-week Junes, Park District beach workers spend early morning hours bulldozing clean sand over the previous winter detritus. Seagulls argue over the gleanings, anticipating the arrival of their human garbage dumpers.  

Usher and I would dodge the slipstream cyclists and jump down into the sand that swallowed up the sound and stench of cars on Lake Shore Drive. We’d set up shop at the shoreline. I faced my chair away from the sun to protect my ultra-violated skin, screwed the umbrella to the armchair, and settled in with my magazine. Usher dug into the sand under my chair and rested. As the beach turned to follow the sun, I’d stretch, take Usher for a swim and reposition my chair. 

Nearly every week I’d have lunch with a friend on the shady deck of the Beachstro Cafe. The hamburgers were lousy. But we sat with our backs to the skyscraping neighborhood, at the water’s edge, hearing nothing but the lake licking the sand and seagulls singing over the water. 

We might as well have been on a Bahamian island.

One day the lifeguard rushed over to me on the beach, “get your dog out of the water!”

“Didn’t you see the red flag? No swimming. E. coli. It’ll make your dog sick.”

I packed up immediately, ran home and gave the poor guy a bath.

Chicago beaches are tested for e.coli every day in the summer. In the 2000s, high concentrations showed up regularly, indicating a saturation of fecal matter. DNA studies showed the e.coli landed on the beaches from seagulls and washed into the lake. 

(Huh? It was in the sand, too?)

The press reported there was a 24-hour delay in test results so at that time, when the beach closed due to water contamination, it meant we had been exposed the day th-1before. The Chicago Park District solved the problem by hiring Border Collies to chase the gulls off the beach. 

A dime-size major ecosystem disrupter has recently multiplied in the Great Lakes. The quagga mussel hitchhikes from the Ukraine on ships moving through the St. Lawrence Seaway, siphoning and digesting microscopic food, including e.coli. These good-guys/bad-guys may have put the collies out of business.

My beach days were over the day the collies started shooing away the gulls. Usher didn’t mind, but I was constantly reminded of bacteriological threats. I don’t know if the quagga have made the beach safe now, but the Chicago Park District has abandoned their Border Collie program. 

I, however, have found simply watching the water reflect the ultramarine sky from the crazy bike path is just as idyllic.


Do you have nuisance birds? Wild Goose Chase, Inc. uses Border Collies to humanely control Canada Geese, seagulls, pigeons, sparrows, starlings and others. Contact them here.

Taking The Blinders Off

After separating from my mother in the 1960s, my father grifted around Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a string of girlfriends in swanky neighborhoods—Manhattan, Palm Springs, Brentwood and Palm Beach. A lawyer, he engaged in non-contractual legal work negotiating contracts for labor unions.

He eventually bought a coal field on a railroad spur south of Terre Haute, a semi-legitimate business with headquarters in Chicago. He registered the business as Great Lakes Coal Company. Loan guarantees from the State of Indiana paid for equipment to strip and haul the coal from the land. Once he had the equipment financed, he had leverage to obtain bank loans for mining operations.

The price of coal dropped in the 1980s, and when he could no longer make a profit, he shut down the company and walked away from his financial responsibility to the State of Indiana. With the help of a La Salle Street lawyer, he concocted a scheme to defraud the banks holding his loans, starting with hiding his assets in a trust.

I was named one of the beneficiaries as well as the trustee.

My father directed me, as the trustee, to stash $500,000 in a Canadian bank he’d found for this purpose and subsequently to invest $250,000 of the stash with his broker. I signed a lot of legal documents, blinding myself to what the consequences of my own actions might be. He bragged to me and his closest friends how he was getting away with cheating his creditors, the State of Indiana and the IRS. Breaking laws came easy to him, doubled down with the aid of a high-powered attorney. I trusted that he’d keep me from legal harm. I secretly feared he’d harm me in other ways, however, if I didn’t go along with his scheme—by cutting me off, not from his money, but from his approval. That fatherly approval seems to have been an ancestral deficiency, masked as love. It has caused permanent fissures in my entire family and led to my own fits and starts in psychotherapy.

He flew to Las Vegas, checked into Caesar’s Palace and pretended to gamble away his money to provide an alibi to bank investigators for why he was broke. Florida th-11homestead laws protected his property from creditors, so he moved from Chicago to a get-away home in Palm Beach where he could live with his new girlfriend and her little boy.

“I’m done with Chicago,” he told me, “I can’t stand living in a town where a ‘queer black man’ is the mayor.” He’d repeat that forcefully to friends over the phone adding, “There’s nothing here for me anymore.”

When Harold Washington was running for mayor I never heard my father express prejudice or bigotry of any kind about him. But he was obsessed with saving face, not from family and friends, but from future marks. So after Washington won the 1983 election, my father used sudden hatred for the Mayor to concoct a dramatic reason to get out of town before the creditors closed in and exposed him. He seemed to embrace his manufactured prejudice. He knew his wealthy friends would nod in solidarity. And they did.

Perhaps that is the genesis of  blustering bigotry—the need to hide from a completely unrelated truth.

Like cheating your creditors.

Shallow, I’m Into The Sha-la-la-low Now

When the attendant told me I was at the wrong gate, I froze. I’d been at Midway Airport for two hours waiting to fly to Salt Lake City for my granddaughter’s 2018 graduate school graduation. My vision blurred, my legs shook and I gaped at him without speaking. I actually couldn’t hear him. Someone grabbed my arm and raced me over to the correct gate just before the jetway closed. Inside the plane, I was escorted to Row A
where they keep an eye on people. th-4

I traveled twice more that summer. Once I was in the wrong TSA line, so confused that a stranger brought me to where I needed to go, again. I’ve since developed a phobia, thanks to nightmarish remembrances of Tom Hanks in the movie Terminal—about a man who lives in the airport after he is denied entry into the US.

A friend who works for O’Hare tells me airport workers regularly experience confused old people wandering around lost and panicked. I’ve traveled a lot in my life but familiarity with airport commotion holds no weight now.

When I first retired, I was unsympathetic to people with cognitive disorders. I joined the morning exercise classes at church but not to make friends. I told myself I wasn’t like those old people. Well, those old people have subsequently shown me how to be old, have compassion for those who talk slower than I do, who will never remember my name nor I theirs, nor the title of the book we just read or the movie we all saw. Our get-th-7togethers are often hilarious games of 20 Questions where we all guess what someone is trying to remember.

There’s just not enough room for all the bits lodged in my aging brain. A mysterious natural phenomena controls the shedding and changing of my grey matter, like menstruation and menopause in my body. Trouble is, the shedding seems to be more active these days. Oh sure, curiosity fills my brain with new information but its cells refuse to let those memories form and what I learned yesterday is soon forgotten.

One technique I use to block braincell destroyers is to ignore anxiety-producing articles that say cognitive decline slows if I eliminate sugar or learn chess. Perhaps the content is correct, but I’m possessed of my own version of old age, not a researcher’s cookie-cutter version. Similarly, I cast off brain-shrinking agitations delivered by younger friends who tsk me for walking too slow or for asking them to speak up. 

However, I love music so I responded to an article about choir singing strengthening the memory and joined the Good Memories Choir. Singing won’t get me back in airports, but learning music keeps me attached to the real world. In Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga sings about the love of the two main characters as “far from the shallow now,” as if the brain has no choice but to deepen the couple’s experience. In my case, like the reversed flow of the Chicago River, I have no choice but to spill out of the deep and into the shallow now.

___________________________________________________________

For those who don’t understand my title, I give you, with love, Shallow

 

Volunteer Bomb Squad

Last Friday morning Beth Finke, Whitney the Seeing Eye dog, and I met at one of Columbia College’s Michigan Avenue buildings in Chicago to volunteer for this year’s Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam. In the elevator, DJ Ca$hera gave us a hearty hello. She’s Louder Than A Bomb’s famous house DJ, working the entire six-week competition.

Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) is Chicago’s annual youth poetry slam. Sponsored by Young Chicago Authors, the slam hosts over 1,000 youth poets in tournament-style bouts, all open to the public. Students representing Chicago area high schools stand on stage performing their own original poems to an audience of spoken word coaches, teachers, peers and strangers.

LTAB requires an army of volunteers for the events to run smoothly. Beth and I could have been check-in/greeters, merchandise sellers, timekeepers, social

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DJ Ca$hera in action #LTAB19

media ambassadors or judges. Judges! What could be more perfect for Beth, who teaches writing by listening to student recitations in her five weekly classes, than to be a judge for a spoken word competition? When I offered to be at her side for the first round, she agreed to sign up.

So there we were Friday morning, seated ten feet from the stage in the front row with lap-size white boards and markers. This was one of the first rounds of the five-week competition. Before the bout began, MC Tim “Toaster” Henderson briefed us on how to judge.

“Write numbers on the board from 7-10. Use decimals,” he said.

“A ten means the student is so good you’d pay their college tuition.” Translation: don’t give tens out too freely.

I sat next to Beth thinking I’d help her write on the board. But guess what? Beth didn’t need help. I was at least able to handle the eraser, cleaning Beth’s white board for each new poet.

On stage, DJ Ca$hera fired out bouncy hip-hop tunes. I even recognized a few. A “sacrificial” poet came first to get the ball rolling, make the room competition-ready, and give the judges a practice round. Then one after the other, poets from five different high schools kicked up onto the stage, introducing themselves by giving their names and the name of their poem before starting their reading. Many poets read from their phones, beating out words that particularized a slice of their lives: hard-bitten parents, bullies, sisters getting raped, and “fear of falling off a mountain of success.” One girl pushed through tears throwing down bars about her mother’s drinking, “her cheeks deflated like old birthday balloons.”

DJ Ca$hera turntabled tunes that artfully reflected the poets’ words. MC Toaster shouted out the numbers we wrote on our boards, and his playful comebacks to some of our scores encouraged the audience to shout LISTEN TO THE POEM whenever a poet got a score of 9.0 or lower.

Next we judged the entire team of poets from each school. Each group performed one poem together, succinct, snappy and sophisticated.

In the end all of the young poets hopped onto the stage to hear the winners. While waiting for their scores to be tallied, they hugged and jammed to DJ Ca$hera’s rousing wind-up. When the winners were announced, they all cheered for each other.

Whitney, unharnessed, made friends with the high schoolers sitting behind us,

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LTAB Judge Beth Finke and Whitney

squirreling her way under Beth’s chair, encouraging them to rub her ears. We had to dig her out from under there when it was time to leave.

On the way out we met Eric Coval, a suburban high school spoken word coach. Eric’s brother, Kevin Coval, Chicago’s unofficial poet laureate, created LTAB 19 years ago.

It was only 1:00 in the afternoon when we breezed back onto Michigan Avenue, fully entertained and far too stimulated. Now we’re checking the online schedule to see if we can find a time slot to come back and judge again.

#LTAB19 is still looking for volunteers, no experience necessary, The slam continues through March 17, 2019.  2-hour shifts are available weekdays and weekends, and you can sign up here.

Tickets still available for the final rounds of Louder Than A Bomb at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater on Sunday, March 17, 2019. Look for me there.

Family In Three Parts: Skateboarding, Abortion and Jesus

Family In Three Parts: Skateboarding, Abortion and Jesus

 Part 1 Skateboarding

In high school a new boy arrived at the Jersey Shore from California with a skateboard. Someone made them for all of us using old roller skates and plywood. We skateboarded Skateboarding in New York City, 1960s (19)downhill in forbidden cemeteries until dark. It was the 1960s. Skateboards were outlawed, not because they were dangerous but because they were unknown, not a part of the mainstream and somehow subversive. We hid them in car trunks and behind
old tires in the garage. None of us had standard-issue parents so we formed our own family. Our family stuck together, laughed a lot and listened to each other. The police chased us out of the graveyards, creating a deeper bond of secrecy and protection. We vowed to call each other, not our parents, if we ended up in the police station. Later on, one did, with a bale of marijuana. He didn’t call. He went to jail. Another drank too many beers, drove himself  into a telephone pole and died.

Part 2  Abortion

I thought I should have an abortion. The boy I loved said I had to decide on my own. If I kept the baby we’d marry. If not, he’d never be able to see me again. How could a 20-year-old college student know that? He had more confidence than I, seemed less emotional, but had the same love for beer and the beach and rock & roll. She wasn’t hard to find, this illegal woman in Newark, NJ. When you reached a certain age in the ‘60s, everybody knew someone who knew someone. I drove alone.The three-story house had a small front porch. I climbed the wooden stairs, knocked on the rattling screen door. She answered and asked my name. Nothing came into my mind. Nothing came out of my mouth. She suggested I come back when I’m ready, but “don’t wait too long.” I drove to the boy and we started a family.

Part 3  Jesus

The poet pastor wandered around church saying hello to people with his Shrek voice, usually on his way to and from the courtyard. Sneaking cigarettes. I saw him frequently at the bar in a neighborhood restaurant. Sneaking scotch. As a former drinker and smoker myself, I had th-2a familial attachment to him. When a spiritual crisis befell me, I found him outside, lurking among the Gothic arches of the colonnade. I told him I have  something serious to discuss.  

“Sure, how ‘bout this afternoon?”

Tears got in the way of explaining myself any further until later, in his office. 

“I don’t believe in the Resurrection anymore,” I confessed.  

“Huh? Most people don’t even think about this stuff, Rrregan,” he confessed.  

“Do I have to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian?” I asked.  

“Well, it’s the main tenet of our faith,” I thought he exclaimed, but he probably just said.  

“What should I do?” I asked.

“Wait it out!” He definitely exclaimed.

“You will always be in the church family no matter what you believe. Just. Wait. It. Out.”

White Room Valentine

White Room Valentine

The all-white ceiling, walls, sheets and blankets, sealed the room in purity. My pain-free body, surrounded by downy pillows, laid on a pressure-sensitive mattress. A wall of windows showed off the unobstructed Chicago skyline three miles away. 

I had a new knee. 

“Ceramic,” said the surgeon, “like Corning Ware.” 

The nurse floated in, smiled, said my name and schooled me on the morphine drip. She set graham crackers and apple juice ever so carefully on my shiny spic-and-span tray, showed me how to operate the TV, and placed my phone within reach.

“Did my doctor put me on the VIP floor?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she laughed. “This is the floor for all the orthopedic patients. You just lucked out with the view.”

 The midday sun laid itself down on the city, my city, silhouetting the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building. I drifted in and out as Lake Michigan peeked into the downtown streets and into my outstretched heart. Such joy. Comfort. Bliss. The phone vibrated at my fingertips, jiggling me awake.

“Hello? Regan? This is Joe.” 

Ah, my son. He’s calling to ask how I’m doing. 

“I hate bothering you like this. I’m in the hospital with my Dad. I don’t think he’s gonna make it.” 

I’d been divorced from Jim, the only man I ever loved, for about 45 years. We’d met in a Jersey Shore bar in the 1960’s. I lived and breathed politics. He was on scholarship at Princeton and was the first boy I knew who read the same books I did. He proudly proclaimed himself a Democrat when the rest of us were simply anti-war.

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Lifeguarding in the summer, he loved the ocean, birds, rock-and-roll and beer. We were born for each other, but drinking and drugs destroyed our marriage. We divorced and I got help. Jim became helplessly addicted to marijuana. By the time he got help, his brain was fried. Between the irreversible brain damage and advanced diabetes, he could not survive on his own. Rather than house his father in a full-time care facility, Joe brought him to live with Joe and his family in a Chicago suburb.

I saw Jim once in a while—at Christmas, the grandchildren’s high school graduations, birthdays. He always recognized me and engaged in conversations about politics. Watching local news on TV all day left him thinking he lived and voted in Chicago.

“About the mayor’s race. Who should I vote for?” He asked. “I don’t like that guy Rahm.”

One last time Jim tried to shake off his dementia. He scheduled a cruise, making all the arrangements himself. Joe gave the ship’s nurse a detailed description of his father’s condition. She guaranteed his safety. But barely off the coast of Florida, Jim slipped into a coma and was airlifted to a Ft. Lauderdale hospital. He never recovered.

Joe and I talked until my painkillers wore off. Dusk overpowered the room. I banged the morphine pump, screamed for the nurse and wept for my long-ago lost love.

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

In 1982 newspaperman Paul Galloway made arrangements for me to volunteer on the Adlai Stevenson for governor campaign. Paul wrote features for the Chicago Sun Times and knew the campaign press secretary. It’s best to have a reference when volunteering on a campaign or you’ll get stuck answering phones or standing on a street corner passing out brochures. I was entrusted with driving Nancy Stevenson around to her scheduled events. She is one helluva quick-witted woman. I’ve never known any two people as funny as Paul Galloway and Nancy Stevenson. At the end of every day, I’d have hilarious conversations with Paul recapping the day’s events. He’d brief me on the serious issues of the campaign that I had missed while I was out with Nancy. Once in a while he’d relay bits of gossip about Adlai’s opponent, Jim Thompson, that he’d overheard in the newsroom—confidentially, of course, but I told Nancy everything.

Paul scheduled time with Nancy on the campaign trail because he was writing an article on the candidates’ wives. At the end of that day, as we dropped Nancy off, we doubled over out of the car barely able to recover from the previous sidesplitting eight hours. When the article appeared a few days later, a campaign staffer asked if we had given Paul an aphrodisiac because he wrote more of a love letter to Nancy than a journalistic objective feature story.

When the 2019 Polar Vortex was on its way to Chicago at the end of January, I decided to spend  the forced hibernation writing about my time in the ’82 Stevenson campaign. But my first draft notes were blank. I could remember very little about it. In writing memoir, when I sit down with a particular theme in mind, memories rise up. Other memoirists say the same thing; it’s why we call it bibliotherapy. Incidents hidden somewhere in the hippocampus come forward.

Not this time. No specifics of what-I-thought-were-memorable days with Nancy Stevenson and Paul Galloway. It’s as if Paul took the stories with him when he died ten years ago. Like they are his to tell, not mine. This has made me profoundly sad, not only at the lost memories, but at the loss of Paul.

And so the day before the Polar Vortex I figured out how to tee up the full 18 hours of  The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel on Amazon Prime. I threw half-a-loaf of stale bread cubes onto my 4’x10’  third floor balcony to nourish the house sparrows, finches and occasional chickadees that frequent my suet feeder. Then I shuttered myself in and Dapped all the fullsizeoutput_4cb7little crevices around the balcony door that were spritzing air into my not-so-insulated living room. That was the extent of my preparation for the coldest two days ever recorded in Chicago.

Day One: -23 °. I awoke to a thick film of silver ice covering all my windows. There were fractal peek-a-boos to the outside world near the balcony door handle and around my hardy geraniums on the indoor windowsills. The ice curtain shut me out of the humanity moving around behind the windows across the street, buses and cars on Lake Shore Drive and any fool pedestrian walking about in the feels-like-minus-40 degrees. The windows emitted a dazzling cold so I grabbed some goose down, hunkered down far away from the frozen glaze with Henry the dog and cuddled the TV remote.

My binge-watching was interrupted by a thrashing whomp, whomp whomp, on my balcony. Then another. And another. Then two more. I rose to inch toward a clearing in the frosty glass. A murder of crows had come to visit. 

The American Black Crow measures 20 inches long with a 3-foot wide iridescent wing span. The crow and its cousin, the raven,  show up in every ancient mythology as bad omens of storms, disease or death. Native American tribes believed the crow had the power to talk and was a stealer of souls. Recent research suggests their cognitive abilities are as sophisticated as chimpanzees. If they look you in the eye, they will remember you, follow you down the street and caw to you when they’re hungry, like wild pets.

As the arctic blast began serrating its way from the North Pole down toward the Lower Forty-Eight, the goal of every bird in the Midwest was to gorge themselves, find a safe 51281615_10218858609480733_4258526774826106880_nplace and stay still to conserve the calories heating their bodies. The weather should have kept the crows out of sight.

Instead, it brought them to me.

Day Two: -21°. The ice wall on one of my windows melted enough for a small lookout. I prayed to the crows, “Come back. Please come back.” They first landed mid-morning. A mighty set of black wings fluttered a plumped-up body onto the balcony railing and the rest followed, plucking for leftovers. They flew off and came back. Again. And again. And again. I remained still throughout, trying to lock eyes with the leader. Was this a bad omen? Come to steal more memories?

In the late afternoon the temperature rose to minus-2 degrees. I strapped Henry into his dreaded boots, packed myself in layers of cold weather gear and set out. We clipped along the crackling tree-lined sidewalk.  A crow cawed overhead. Again. And again. And again.