What We Talk About When We Talk About Neighborhoods

Yesterday I attended a business-group luncheon on the North Side to talk about Boy Scouting. Afterward I met an older man in the group, and we chatted as we walked to our cars. He asked me what neighborhood I lived in, and I told him Lincoln Square.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “that neighborhood had a lot of Koreans there years ago. Do they still have a lot of Koreans there? Koreans and Greeks.”

These types of frank comments are not uncommon when you talk to Chicagoans of a certain age. He wasn’t being racist or exclusionary, as far as I could tell, but often the first thing some older people will say about a neighborhood is the racial makeup they remember. Of course, racists say these kinds of things too, but their intent is usually betrayed by a sneer or a slight lift in the voice. But this old duffer, IMO, was just reaffirming his mental map of the city. Such comments might be right or wrong demographically (from what I know, he was right about the Greeks but notsomuch about the Koreans), but in our “enlightened” age, assigning races to neighborhoods is completely bad form. Brings up images of redlining, ghettos, and the boundaries “that everybody knows about” that can result in ass-kickings for those who cross them.

Enlightened types like yours truly don’t chop up the city that way. We do it by subtle comments about socioeconomics and class. The operative phrase is “So, Is that neighborhood nice?”

“Nice” can mean many things. Sometimes it means, friendly neighbors who watch out for each other. Lots of trees. Good looking buildings. Maybe parks and a library.

Other times, by “nice”, people mean, has it been gentrified enough to be safe? Does it still have some ethnic flavor so I can feel superior to the “whitebread” suburbs? Are the other homes fixed up so I won’t lose the value on mine when I sell? Is it full of college grads from other midwestern states that I can chat with while I’m walking the dog? Are the fences in the front yard wrought iron (good) or cyclone (bad)?

For reasons like this, I generally don’t challenge comments like the old man made at the restaurant. Correcting a 75-year-old about “proper” race relations would only result in high blood pressure for the both of us. And we still have plenty of versatile ways to map out the city in our minds. I wanted to tell him Lincoln Square is now full of yuppies, but the term wouldn’t have meant much to him. So I told him there were a lot of Germans here, but didn’t mention that they were all pushing 80.

Spell WHAT Now?

The Trib’s Eric Zorn has repeatedly said that spelling bees are a waste of time, an unreliable measure of intelligence, an exhibition and exaltation of a specialized memory quirk. But that didn’t stop him from posting some very cool videos taken at the National Spelling Bee in Washington. This one is my favorite. Can any of us imagine we’d retain the composure this kid did in this situation?

Dick Cheney’s B-Movie Bullshit is not Going to Ruin MY Weekend

While driving around town last night and today, all sorts of snarky, angry comments about Darth Cheney and his CYA, paranoid, astoundingly fact-free speech yesterday careened through my head. For a comprehensive (so far) list of the lies and near-lies that he pulled out of his black heart at the American Enterprise Institute speech, check out this coverage from the McClatchey newspapers.

But this morning, as the beautiful weekend looms, it’s almost repulsive to wade into that muck, so I’m not going to. I’d rather spend Memorial Day thinking about the men and women who did what they thought was right, pray for their families and friends, and hope that as Cheney and his defenders shrink in stature irreversibly, politicians will soon begin to live up to the ideals that America was founded on.

Now, if I could only purge my head of the combo of Cheney’s voice with the image of General Jack D. Ripper, lecturing us about our precious bodily fluids.

D-Train Arrives in Detroit!

Good news from Motown: Dontrelle Willis is back. Off the DL and apparently having licked his anxiety disorder for now, he shut down the Rangers last night. At one point he retired 16 batters in a row. And from what highlights I saw, he looked like the Dontrelle of old: slow windup, lots of power building up in the butt, and then the quick release with good control. If he’s pitching well this year, it will be a good time at Comerica this season.

(It’s interesting that Willis’ anxiety issues put him on the disabled list when I read about the same problem hitting Zach Greinke a couple years back. After taking some time off and clearing his head, Greinke is now arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Good to see jocks admit that once in a while, it DOESN’T do any good to tough it out. If you haven’t read the story by Joe Posnanski in the May 4 Sports Illustrated, you should.)

Bardball has been kind of skint lately with current event verse, so I had to whip up a poem this morning, while I sat in the shade in the backyard, enjoying a freakishly warm summer day. It’s not my best, but it’s as fresh as the morning headlines.

Triumph of the Willis

It brightens baseball’s heart, Dontrelle,
To have you back and pitching well.

Your fastball cutting like a knife,
Endangering the catcher’s life,

Your off-speed floating up and down,
Your hat too big like Charlie Brown’s.

Your rookie year is long behind–
Was that the thing that messed your mind?

We all get old, last time I checked.
That doesn’t mean your life is wrecked.

You’ve got the stuff, now find the guile,
And you’ll be here a good long while.

Appearing at Oak Park Public Library Thursday Night

This Thursday night, I’ll be on a panel at the Oak Park Public Library, along with other contributors to the anthology Cubbie Blues, to talk about 100 years of failure and frustration on the north side of Chicago.

Joining me will be Donald Evans, who edited the book; Don DeGrazia, author of American Skin; Rick Kaempfer, webmaster at Just One Bad Century; Robert Goldsborough, journalist and mystery novelist; and George Rawlinson, who runs Can’t Miss Press which published the book.

We’re there in connection with the library’s presentation of the traveling exhibit, Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience. “Pride and Passion” was put together by the Baseball Hall of Fame and the American Library Association, and Oak Park is the only place it will be shown in Illinois. I’ve heard very good things about this exhibit, so you could at least come out and enjoy that, if you don’t feel like listening to a bunch of middle-aged white guys talk about Cub bizniz.

But it’s always a good time at these Cubbie Blues events, so come join us at the library, 834 Lake Street,
7 p.m. in the Veteran’s Room on the 2nd Floor.

Instant Replay Creates Perfect World

Posted yesterday on Bardball, in honor of the home runs called back in Wednesday’s games:

Now that cameras can detect and correct
Our errors and human frailty,
I call for a replay of

Fidrych talking to the ball,
Reggie hitting in October,
Bob Gibson staring,
Koufax stretching,
Veeck laughing,

DiMaggio’s war years,
And Hank Greenberg’s,

And 1994, which could have saved the Expos,
And spared us the Nationals,

And Cap Anson shutting his damned mouth
And Buck O’Neil playing for the Cubs,
Satchel Paige for the A’s,
And Cool Papa Bell for the Cardinals.

Why Creationists Hate Monkeys, Part VII

Because the monkeys are just biding their time, biding their time. An innocent foray here, a little poking of the security measures there. All innocent fun. While they wait, and watch…….


Orangutan’s great escape causes zoo evacuation
A 137 pound orangutan with a history of mischief short-circuited an electric barrier, then built a makeshift ladder to escape from her enclosure, forcing Adelaide Zoo to be evacuated on one of its busiest days of the year.


What’s the Opposite of “Bushy Tailed”?

Today will not be a very productive day, on the writing front. One reason is that I only got about 4 hours sleep last night. There’s no good reason for the insomnia–it was a busy enough weekend with lots of physical exertion that I should’ve slept all night. But at 3AM, I woke up with a bunch of little details for the week in my head, not even pressing ones, and they managed to keep my head revving all night. This went on to a soundtrack of Yes’ “Close to the Edge”. These sleepless periods always come with a song that won’t stop looping, and when I’m lucky, it’s not a song I hate (when I’m not lucky, it could be anything from Sting to The Buggles, which Number One Son keeps talking about for some reason). In this as in so many ways, I hope I’m not turning into my mother, who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in 30 years.

I also agreed to go downtown today to speak to a writing class at Columbia College about humor. I hope I can convince them that I know what I’m talking about, b/c I have a hard enough time with editors. My main goal will be to scare them into making hundreds of revisions–either scare them straight or scare them straight out of the profession. I wanted to be able to show them the first marked-up pages I ever wrote for Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, which some interviewers and critics said was such a slam dunk that anyone could’ve written it. Those slam-dunk pages, of course, were rewritten 20 times before publication. But unfortunately I can’t find those files anywhere. I have other examples to show, but I really wanted those first entries b/c they looked like redacted CIA documents. Just want to be able to beat it into their head to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. But I’ll probably be lucky to get them to turn off their Facebook pages.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

I sure am glad that we had swine flu to kick around in the news this week. The talking heads on cable probably feel a whole lot better, even purged and colonicked, now that they’ve been able to scream about “Black Death” and “pandemic” ad nauseam.

Wait, is nausea a symptom? Ooooohhhh, I don’t feel so hot.

But as the newsworthiness of the economic meltdown has subsided, there’s been a shortage of articles on a topic that I was really beginning to enjoy: First person accounts of the people who lost money with Bernard Madoff. I gobbled these news reports up whenever I found them, even reading more than one article in an issue of Vanity Fair, which is probably a first.

Now, I’ll say up front, to avoid looking like a heartless bastard, that of course I’m sorry that this guy got away with swindling people for all those years, even as the SEC was tipped off again and again that the returns Madoff was getting were incredibly suspicious. I’m also sorry that charities were devastated, and that many people lost their life savings. Terrible thing. Horrible thing. And I think Madoff is a criminal of the first order.

But as I absorbed the articles, a faint glow of satisfaction would often came over me, that reassured me that I wasn’t quite as ignorant about financial matters as I’d thought. I try and keep up with things, and show a little economic acumen (especially around the first of the year, when resolutions and good intentions are flying through the air), but finance simply not my area. My father was an economic whiz, slaving for Ford Motor Credit Company for almost two decades, in a job his successor told me would burn him out in three years. My eldest brother has made a nice career in the tech industry balancing costs and savings and keeping his company at the top of its field. But I try to be honest with my limitations and don’t get fancy with my money.

But at least I can attest to one investing principle that works: DIVERSIFY!

That’s exactly what most of Madoff’s victims failed to do. Many got greedy, mortgaged their houses and sank every penny into his brokerage. And, as so many articles pointed out, these were people who knew how to make money. They weren’t greenhorns, they were very successful and had been around the block several times. But the desire for more riches–and the need to be let in to Madoff’s inner circle of investors, the cognoscenti, the non-suckers, which seems to be at least as strong a motivator here–proved so strong that they ignored the most basic single word that an investor should remember. Diversify your holdings, or you’ll get burned.

My heart goes out to these people, but my sympathy is also tempered by incredulity. How could they let this happen to themselves? Is it true what Fields said, that you can’t cheat an honest man? Sometimes I read the articles to find the one or two voices of reason that, amid all the wailing and the anger, points out common sense, and the negligence people showed in trusting all their money to a single company. But maybe sometimes, I read them to realize again that not being overly clever with my money has generally worked out for us.