I am that guy by Dave Schanding

Writer’s note: We were to write as if we were another person. Beginning around 2010, my wife and I began taking and enjoying cruise vacations. I wrote about a Filipino housekeeper we got to know on one longer cruise. I got into a little difficulty in class for singling out one ethnic group. I realized in discussion with a classmate afterwards that our classmates didn’t realize that 70-80% of cruise staff come from the Philippines and Indonesia. I intended to portray the reality—that the majority of service staff on cruises are from these islands and that they are universally seen as being extraordinarily friendly on cruises. But one must keep one’s reading audience in mind, and I missed the mark that day. The learning curve continues…

These cruisers must think that all Filipinos are perpetually happy and smiling. Most of us have learned to be this way as our job is to make the cruise patrons feel like they are REALLY on the vacation of a lifetime. My friend, Maribel, tells me she enjoys seeing the smiles on people’s faces as she sprays their hands with a hand cleanser as they enter the dining room. Her “happy, happy, washy, washy” sounds like she just came from a remote village, but it gets a smile and helps keep food borne illnesses down on our ship.

I’ve been with the company for eight years now, cleaning bedrooms, 10 per day, twice a day. We call the bedrooms ‘staterooms’ or ‘penthouse suites’ and this seems to make our guests happier with the money they’ve spent. And I’m NOT a housekeeper. I’m a stateroom attendant. Some of my cruisers learn my name and talk with me like I’m a fellow human being. Others just talk with me when they need an extra towel or a bucket of ice. Regardless, I do my job well and keep smiling.

I could write a book on the habits of my cruisers. Some leave clean staterooms that look like I’ve already been there. Others don’t seem to know that drawers and closets are the preferred location to store one’s clothes. I won’t go into the conditions of bathrooms I clean.

I start my day at 8 a.m.. I get a three-hour break in the afternoon, then do my evening rounds. I put in 10 hours of work. We work every day for eight months, then we get a two-month paid vacation. Sometimes I use my 3-hour break to head into the town we are visiting. This week we’re traveling to Croatia and Greece. Over the years I’ve visited several of the Greek Islands.

Yesterday I used my afternoon break to head into town in Corfu. I went along with Maribel, and we stopped for some local cuisine. We looked at trinkets that looked like Corfu, Greece but probably were made in Corfu, China. I ran into the couple from Stateroom 8662. I don’t think they recognized me. 8670 seemed embarrassed that they didn’t know my name and didn’t know what to say to me away from my job duties. The fellow in 8630 yelled out my name and chatted like we were old buddies. I feel really good when I’m greeted like this. After all, I am more than my stateroom attendant self.

I’ve learned to swallow. Like when I ask a guest how his day went and get a barrage of how it was too hot and the pavement was too uneven and how the filet wasn’t cooked to his satisfaction. Oh, you poor thing, I think. I had to work extra today, so I missed the chance to get out. And my feet are ALWAYS tired at the end of the day. And the only filet mignon I get is ground up and says 84% lean. Yes, I swallow and smile. Mr Smith, it must have been a trying day for you.

It’s a strange life working on a cruise ship. If my guests are nasty, I have solace in the fact that they will be gone in a week or two. And I always seem to have one room of this type. When my guests are friendly and ask about my life, my family, my opportunities to see the sites they see, I feel sad when their tour of duty is over. People come on cruises to be pampered and to see interesting places, and I enjoy helping this happen, at least most of the time. And I’d definitely rather clean staterooms than greet everyone with ‘happy, happy, washy, washy’.

by Dave Schanding

Ozzy the Arhat by Regan Burke

 

Do the dead always visit us in the morning? I wake up listening for the click-clacking tap-dancing, rat-a-tat across my hardened floors. Ozzy had well-padded soles, wide feet and solid toenails meant to root out rats and badgers from their earthen dens. No Scottie-level potted plants ever made it past the first day, neither inside nor on my third-floor balcony. His diggers instinctively, fanatically worked their way into the soil to get to something, anything that proved his worth, duty done. Satisfied with nothing more than a dirty nose and paws, he gave me a message: don’t worry, I’ll protect you from any danger, man or beast.

At the Takashi Murakami exhibit in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I wondered aloud to my 20-year-old grandson, CJ Kelly, why the artist painted so many colorful frogs at the feet of the arhats. CJ mindfully revealed those are the arhats’ toenails, not frogs. Ah, toenails. Murakami’s arhats are Buddhist spirits who hesitate between two worlds, the physical and the not, to comfort suffering earthly beings. His bulbous toenails are a tribute to the noble path of those enlightened ones whose feet are moving them through their death and decay. The parade of toenails is Murakami’s day-glo gratitude for arhats who stop along the way to ease our sorrows.

Murakami called his Chicago exhibit, The Octopus Eats His Own Leg, based on an ancient Japanese adage that an octopus eats its own decrepit limb to save itself from death rot. A new leg grows back, the octopus is healed and lives a long and healthy life.

In the exhibit, the 33-foot-long painting, 100 Arhats, has 1,000 intricately painted toenails. I misinterpreted the toe protectors, thought they were frogs. After all, how could toenails mean so much to anyone but me? I harbor an unspoken repulsion of human toenails. Summer sandals expose these keratin plates sitting atop ugly toes that hardly ever match each other—some curled under, some straight, some turned outward, some inward—all on the same foot.  Toenails are often fungus-rotted discolored thick globs that women hide with colorful paint instead of covering with cool shoes. God clearly missed the boat in his design of the human toe apparatus.

But Ozzy’s coal-black, perfectly formed, hardy toenails witchy-curled out of his all-business paws, ever-ready for the hunt, the prowl. At rest, his legs stretched out before him showing off his toenails as if he’d just had a pedicure.

His body turned in on him overnight. Like the octopus, his system ate up his dying kidneys and liver but left a beleaguered heart that had to be put to rest. I now have my own arhat who will walk me through the sound of silent, unseen toenails until the hard margins at the edges of grief fade into the path.

murakami_portrait
Takashi Murakami in front of his epic work “The 500 Arhats.” (Courtesy MCA Chicago)

 

Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman by Regan Burke

In Beth Finke’s latest book, Writing Out Loud, the following brief memoir was excerpted. I post it for those who’ve asked for the full story.  Check out Beth’s book for more stories from Chicago writers: Writing Out Loud.

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Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman

I worked in politics my whole life, always hoping for the perfect politician, one who acted in the best interest of the whole. Bill Clinton could have been my hero. I loved his rallying cry in the 1992 campaign, “personal responsibility.”

But I had doubts. Could I work for a candidate who was pro capital punishment and unsure of his view on abortion? Those were two issues I thought every Democrat knew to be against and for.

The “personal responsibility” message won me over. In October 1991 I abruptly left Chicago for Arkansas to work as Clinton’s campaign scheduler, a grueling job that required 24/7 attention. One cold January night Clinton and his entourage, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey, returned to Little Rock in a small private jet from all-important New Hampshire. I met the plane on the dark, deserted tarmac to give Clinton his next-day schedule. He descended the jet stairs with a big smile, came directly at me, grabbed my coat and ran his graceful elongated fingers up and down my long furry lapels. “Nice coat, Regan,” he whispered in my ear.

This encounter may be the reason I love Bill Clinton.

When he won, I relocated to Washington to work in his administration. I moved into the first floor condo of an 1880 townhouse on Church Street in DuPont Circle. In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected. Both policy shifts were spearheaded by White House insider, Rahm Emmanuel, who decidedly did not have the public good at the forefront of his self-serving mind. But Clinton loved him. Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next six years.

In the early still of a hot D.C. August morning in 1995, NPR told me Jerry Garcia died. I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my phony world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia. Reality glared back at me in the mirror as I brushed my hair, seeing for the first time a wrinkled face and rubbery neck. I dressed in soft yellow, a flowery cotton frock, and pinned a silk flower in my hair, ready for the grieving day.

My dog Voter squirmed away from my extra long hug and I went out the door to my old friend, Keith Lesnick waiting to drive us to work. As soon as I got in the car tears spilled out. He asked about the sadness, and I slobbered out a few words, “Jerry Garcia signed into rehab last night,” I said. “He died in his sleep.” Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat—don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”

Hazmat Blues by Regan Burke

One hundred and seventy days into the Trump Administration I flew to Washington DC for the annual board meeting of the national anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN.org, (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network). Lively meals with DC relatives, the board meeting and coffee afterwards with old political cronies were old-shoe comfortable and safe, though conversations periodically broke into expressions of danger. This is, after all, the nation’s company town, Trump’s ground zero.

I arrived at the Washington National Airport an hour early for the non-stop flight home to Chicago. Packed with fellow travelers, pop-up phone and sunglass vendors, fast food and maintenance workers and airline personnel, the terminal sizzled. I managed to nudge a stool into a space at a long table rigged with outlets and nose-dived into the computer-news rabbit hole: click, Trump crashed a wedding at one of his resorts, click to an old story about a sinkhole in front of Mar-a-Lago, click to a twitter storm of jokes about draining the swamp.

Annoying conversations buzzed my ears about a hazmat incident at the control tower. Click! a local TV station reports fumes from roof construction at the Leesburg, Virginia control tower has shut down all flights for 4 airports around DC. Click. Is Steve Bannon, the President’s sneaky architect of distraction, trying to terrorize awaiting airline travelers?  Or did he sabotage the timetable to turn the screw on some disagreeable Administration insider?

The announcement came. “…we don’t know when flights will continue, we’ll update you as soon as we know.” It was 10:00 pm when I learned my flight was cancelled until the next morning. The United gatekeeper told us all the hotels were booked for 50 miles around and that maintenance crews would be handing out blankets for those who’d be sleeping in the airport.  No problem, I’d just contact one of the five people I know in DC and ask to lay my aching bones down on a couch. Click. Click. All five were non-responsive. Travelers were staking out their spots on the floor. In front of the gatekeeper I pleaded, “I just cannot sleep on the floor. I’m old and have arthritis. Is there no other solution?”

He shook his head.

“How much would it cost to get to the nearest hotel?”

“Sixty miles away? About $100.”

“Oh no. Are you giving vouchers for cabs?”

“No”

I was dragging my carry-on away from any hope of a reprieve, doomed to slumping to the floor by Dunkin Donuts, when a young man pressed something in my hand.

“Please let me help you. Take this.”

A $100 bill. Before I could thank him, my FaceBook message lit up with a query from Dan Murphy whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years: Click. “FB is telling me you are nearby! Can I see you?”

And right then, I was no longer afraid to die.

Click.

Click.

Click.

The Race Midpoint That Never Ends by Dave Schanding

The sign reads 35th St exit 1 mile.  Southbound Lake Shore Drive has been closed to allow for the Soldier Field 10-mile run to use this novel running surface.  The runners have navigated through this turn-around point.  Now we walkers are approaching the half-way point of the race.

In Spring, 2011, Kevin and Dave decided to improve their stamina.  They set their initial sites on the Hot Chocolate Run, 9.3 miles from Grant Park to the United Center and back.  After its successful completion, they sign up for the Soldier Field 10-mile run.  The novelty of this race is completing the run on the 50-yard line at Soldier Field.  What Bear fan could pass up this opportunity?

Dave has discovered that walking in a race is a bit different than sauntering down Michigan Av.  Participants are required to average 4mph, or a 15-minute mile.  Most of us typically walk 2.5-3mph.  As Dave nears the turn-around point, his son, Kevin, waves from the northbound path.  Kevin has done a combination of jogging and walking.  Dave checks his left knee with its titanium insert—no more running after the knee replacement the prior year.

In Dave’s driving mind, 1 mile to the exit at 35th Street should be reached in a minute.  When one is on an expressway, a mile takes a minute.  After that minute, Dave doesn’t feel any closer to the exit.  His body reminds him that he’s not driving today.  Dave looks around and sees ‘the bus.’  Race organizers have paid a pretty penny to have the city shut down Lake Shore Drive, and they are strictly enforcing the 15-minute mile race standard.  ‘The bus’ picks up stragglers and returns them to the starting line, without accolades and without the race medal.  Fortunately, the bus is a good half-mile away—Dave is a little ahead of schedule thus far.

He notices the next 1/10-mile marker.  Each marker should be passed every 6 seconds—10 markers per mile, one minute per mile.  That 5/10-mile marker remains annoyingly fixed in Dave’s sights.

Dave maintains a steady pace, staying a little ahead of the 15-minute-per-mile.  He is joined by many weekend warriors.  There are folks of all ages that seem to think they can run 10 miles but instead have to make frequent stops.  It’s the tortoise and the hare all over again. Some folks are actually wearing dress shoes or flip-flops.  Dave’s feet ache just thinking about going 10 miles in that footwear.

5 minutes have gone by and that 35th St exit sign looms just as far in the distance as it did 5 minutes ago.  Not really, but it feels like it.

After 15 minutes, the crowd reaches the exit ramp.  Another revelation.  Dave’s mind is in driving mode again.  One zips down an exit ramp only worrying about whether to turn left or right at the end.  But Dave is still walking.  He wonders if he will have to move into the left-turn lane to legally stay in the race. The exit ramp is interminable.  He’ll have plenty of time to figure out which lane to get into.

Dave finishes the race a couple of minutes before the 2 ½ hour time limit.  He goes into sprint mode for the final 200 yards, including that magical run on soldier field.  His sprinting self-image is dashed as he reviews the photo-for-purchase that shows a lumbering 60+ y/o fellow rather than an athletic 30 y/o.  Kevin finished 15 minutes earlier and the father and son team take a couple of pictures of themselves on the field.  They proudly wear their medals through the park and cab ride home.  They are feeling every mile, but they’ve made it.

D&K finish at soldier field 05262012

The Power of WE by Dave Schanding

A bit over seven years ago, my friend, Mike, asked me to join a history book club. He described how he had felt his brain thirsting for something challenging, and reading and discussing history books was his prescription.

I had hated history in school.  It consisted mainly of memorization of dates, which I did not excel at, nor did I find it particularly interesting.  I also hate sound-bites.  Life and its challenges are almost always more complex than a 30-second segment I hear on the news.  I thought that a history discussion could provide an opportunity to look at events in detail and to begin to understand them in context.  I readily joined.

Our discussion group is an eclectic bunch.  Mike works in human resources.  Bob and John are attorneys.  Another Dave is a handy man and Bill a teacher.  A second Mike works in commercial real estate.  Peter was in pharmaceutical sales.  I worked in mental health and drug abuse treatment.  It’s always been a men-only group.  The ground rules of the group are pretty simple.  We meet every other month to discuss a book.  We take turns picking the book and hosting the meeting.  The books can be about anything historical, with preference for actual history rather than historical novels.  We are to remain respectful of one another’s opinions.  We can agree or disagree, and we oftentimes do plenty of both.  Some clearly have deeper knowledge of history, and we appreciate their perspectives.  But no one seems reticent to speak.  Our membership spans the traditional conservative-moderate-liberal scope of opinions.

As of the summer of 2017, the group has discussed something over 40 books. It has been eye-opening for all of us.  Mike chose two sociological studies.  Why is the Dominican Republic thriving while Haiti is not, despite the fact that they share the same island?  We learned that, at some point, the ruler in Haiti wanted a massive palace made of wood.  Haiti’s forests were leveled.  Topsoil no longer had roots to hold it into place and much of the topsoil blew into the sea.  No top soil, no food.  No food, poor economy.  A similar event occurred in several South Pacific islands.

John tossed in a book about epidemics and governmental responses to disease outbreaks.  I felt pretty smart that meeting, as I’d worked at a health department.  I could describe the system we had in place to assure rapid distribution of prophylactic antibiotic medications. The group was comforted to know that someone was thinking and planning to handle large disease outbreaks.

Mike had us read a book about George Washington’s revolutionary war spy ring.  Six individuals in New England spied in plain sight against the British and helped turn that portion of the war.  Most of us had no clue of this phase of the American Revolutionary War.

I believe that most of us think of Prohibition as a puritanical movement against the evils of alcohol.  While there certainly was some of that, the reality at the turn of the century was that beer was served routinely in factories starting in the late morning—a recipe for disaster.  There were no safety standards for what we typically call ‘hard liquor,’ leaving many poisoned or dead after consumption of bad batches of brew.  Per capita consumption of alcohol was 2-3 times today’s rate.  Something had to be done—Prohibition makes much more sense in this context.

Bill, our resident historian, tossed in a book on the portion of history where Great Britain controlled India.  At one point, it used India as a wedge to battle against Russia.  Most of my school-based history only discussed foreign life as it related to U.S. history.  Looking at history from the perspectives of Britain, India and Russia was an eye-opener.  Dave, the handy man, selected General George Rommel, the German ‘desert fox’ who was initially very successful in northern Africa during World War II.  He also brought us Hannibal’s battles against imperial Rome.

Did you know that British tea was essentially stolen from China?  The Brits actually sent a botanist secretly to China to steal hundreds of seedlings.  Charles Lindbergh was an amazing pilot and inventor, but had many shortfalls as husband and father.  Ty had us read about the U.S.-led overthrow of the democratically elected government in Iran in the 1950’s.  In our sound-bite world, we wonder why Iran hates us wonderful democracy-focused Americans.  It has only been with the recent declassification of CIA documents that we learn why we’re not on their Christmas card list.

It has been interesting to learn that U.S. presidents assist one another in what one author called ‘the presidents’ club,’ and party affiliation is largely irrelevant. Sometimes this has meant that former presidents assist in diplomatic travels representing the country; sometimes it has meant calling for public support and financial donations related to humanitarian needs; and sometimes it has simply been a phone call or visit. Regardless of the expertise of staff in each White House administration, there’s nothing like talking through a difficult issue with someone that has faced it previously.

Two books I brought to the group discussed the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg and the building of the Panama Canal.  In both instances, I’d visited the locations shortly before the gatherings, and so I was able to add pictures and video to the discussion.  This helped get a more complete understanding of the stories behind the history.  Gettysburg lasted just three days, and primarily a foolish decision by Southern generals to charge through open fields against the North turned the tide.  The Panama Canal was started by the French, who unfortunately had more political than engineering knowledge.  A large sale of stock meant that a large number of French citizens had supported the unsuccessful effort to build the canal.  Fortunately, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was more successful.

Our group membership seems to remain at between 8-12 members, although the make-up of the group changes over time.  And while we’ve covered a hodge-podge of stories, we can see that we’ve filled in many blanks on our historical journey.  I have found the history discussion a personally enriching experience.  History is no longer dry and dusty and filled with dates.  It has complexity and challenge—things I always guessed were present all of the time.  And while our membership comes with a wide range of knowledge and background, I believe that our collective wisdom has made us all smarter historians.

A People’s History of Chicago

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Chicago poet Kevin Coval came to a luncheon of forty older adults in the Gold Coast to read from his new book, A People’s History of Chicago. This was not Kevin’s usual audience, which is young, disaffected and enlightened high school kids from the neighborhoods. After his reading, he passed out small notebooks and pencils and asked us to write a list of what you see when you walk out your front door. Then he gave us 8 minutes to write a poem.

Kevin is the Artistic Director at Young Chicago Authors, an ongoing free workshop that meets every Saturday at Milwaukee and Division. He invited all of us to the workshop, saying “we need you.”

And so the next Saturday I climbed to the 2nd floor high-ceilinged room of bare brick walls and planked floors. Twenty chairs were arranged in a circle in the middle of the room and loose, unlined sheets of paper and pencils were in a box in the middle of the circle. This is not just organization, it’s respect.

Poet-teacher Jose Guadalupe Oliverez sat on a chair in the circle and as people emerged from the staircase, he motioned to them to join him. He asked us to state our first names, age and our high schools. A group of 16-year-olds from Crane High School and their spoken-word coach, a 19 yr old poet from Calumet City, a 16 year old Lincoln Parker home from boarding school and a 20 year old jewelry maker made up the group. I apologized, “I’m Regan and I’m old. Thank you for letting me sit in.” Jose prompted us to write lists, reading various poems for inspiration about truth and lying. He gave us 8 minutes to write. At the end, each of us recited one poem.
_____________
Lying

I get on the bus
See a cohort
Where you goin?
To the March at Trump.

You go girl, he says
thinking I’m alive in pursuit of justice

Am I? I dress for the day
with buttons and banners
Tell others I’ll see you there!
Notify on Twitter and FaceBook

Then go downtown and what?
I tell others it works
to be in the number, to yell
This is What Democracy Looks Like

I write letters, make calls, send emails
Proclaiming the what and why
but then in silent spaces
I doubt.

Does my voice matter?
I tell others theirs does, mine does.

I doubt.
Will it get better?
for me
or you
or them
or us

Am I acting, lying?
What about the rest of ‘em?
Are we all just hoping, acting, lying?
_______________

Hot and weak at the bus stop I was thinking about the racism-felt poems I’d just heard from the young poets. A woman in a McDonald’s uniform came along complaining, “Where the fuck is the bus?” She asked if I had been to the new Division Street Target and before I answered, she added, “I can’t go there. They tore down my home to build it.”

I beseeched God, “when will it ever end?”