Friday, January 29, 2010

The "Tired of Winter" Friday Random Ten

I realized yesterday that I was officially tired of winter. It came early this year-- usually I make it a week or two into February until this happens. Seattle and Oakland are looking mighty good as places to live when I get my kids off to college. One of the advantages of my soon-to-be nursing career is that there's a shortage of nurses everywhere-- even in places with decent weather.

1. Missin' You- Little Feat
2. The Safety Dance- Men Without Hats
3. What Goes On- The Velvet Underground
4. Subterranean Homesick Blues- Bob Dylan
5. Dancing the Night Away- The Motors
6. Romeo Had Juliette- Lou Reed
7. All In My Mind- The Quicksilver Messenger Service
8. Rollin' and Tumblin'- Bob Dylan
9. All My Lovin'- The Beatles
10. You Can't Roller Skate In a Buffalo Herd- Roger Miller

1. Sad, lovely song from "Time Loves a Hero," the last Little Feat album that Lowell George was on.
2. One of the stupidest-- and most fun-- one hit wonders ever.
3. I always think of my late friend Mark whenever I hear this one-- it was one of his favorites.
4. "I'm on the pavement/Thinkin' 'bout the government..."
5. Another great song from the "No Thanks!" collection of seventies punk.
6. From the terrific "New York" album.
7. I originally bought the album this one's on when I was 19 and living in Salt Lake City in 1980. I finally got around to buying the cd recently.
8. Some rockin' Dylan from "Modern Times."
9. Man, doesn't this song still sound great, nearly 50 years down the line?
10. This was one of the songs I loved singing with my girl Cathy, one of my girlfriends during my days as a third grade "playah."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Milestones and Memories

In the nursing program we have a "skills lab" once a week in which we practice the physical skills we need to have in order to work as nurses-- making a bed in a hospital room, taking blood pressure, ausculating breathing and heart sounds, etc.

One of the skills I'm most nervous about is using needles. It's no secret that we use a ton of them in my chosen profession. And since I dreaded needles most of my life, I was very anxious about this.

Today's skills lab was on needles.

About a year ago, I went to the doctor after coughing non-stop for 3 days. My doctor tenatively diagnosed me with asthma (correctly, as it turned out) but had blood drawn to rule out a couple of other things-- including a "PE"-- a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in my lung). It turned out that it was the beginning of a year of being a virtual porcupine-- I've had so many needles in me in the last year. That night, when a test for the pulmonary embolism turned up positive (falsely, as it turned out), my doctor sent me to the emergency room for CAT scan to check for a blood clot in my lung. I had a "PICC" line put in my arm so that they could give me one of many things they put in my veins or took out that evening. And I got a hepatitis shot, just for good measure.

Fortunately, it turned out that I didn't have a PE, but the nursing school application I turned in earlier that day would make sure that I would see many more needles. I've had to have blood drawn for various tests and titres (blood tests to make sure you have an immunity). I've lost count of how many shots I've gotten. I got two, for the seasonal flu and H1N1, a couple of weeks ago, and have to get another in a week or two for the last of my Hepatitis shots.

My skills lab went well. I was nervous as hell at first, handling the needles, learning to draw from vials and ampules and how to inject IM (intermuscular) and an insulin shot-- we actually have dummies to practice on. The instructor also sent us home with a couple of needles and a vial to practice with.

Afterward, I mused on how the last year of my life had helped me get ready for this; I'm pretty okay with needles, finally. And I thought about how a lot of things have led up to this.

I've mentioned before that my old drinking buddy Marty, a guy I hung out with in the Gingerman Tavern back about 20 years ago, is in my class this semester. This week in class, we were talking about the ideas of Eriksen, which a lot of the program is based on. Last semester we focused on "older adults" (geriatric is generally not used any more). This semester it's young adults (18-40) and middle-aged (41-65). Our instructor expressed gladness that there were a few people who were, like her, in the latter group, and made a comparison-- would it be appropriate for someone in the "older adult," in the "generativity vs. stagnation" phase to be sitting in a bar drinking every night? And right on cue, Marty and I looked at one another and chuckled. I knew that he was thinking what I was thinking: "We took care of that in our 'young adult' years."

Marty and I get a kick out of being looked at as the "wizened elders" in the class by the youngsters. I realize that he and I have no regrets about our past lives. It all led here. I don't know about him, but the years spent hanging out, making great friendships, having great conversations-- and burning off some anger-- were just what I needed after a youth spent dealing with both a troubled parent and suburban dickheads who didn't like me because I was from the city and hence different from them. It was great to have those years to indulge, to have some great (and some not so great) relationships. I learned a lot, particularly about myself and how I needed to change. I'm a better father than I would have been if I hadn't had that time to blow off steam and I'm a better husband than I would have been. And a better student.

As wearying as my life can be lately, I'm still very happy with it. I like being a dad. I like being married. I like the stability I have these days.

But once in a while, I pour a glass of wine, slip the earphones on and listen to Jim Croce's "Careful Man," which I've put up on my "Boxnet" widget to the left ("The Soundtrack To My Life.") It's nearly a dead-on biography of my younger days. I'm reminded that I spent 6 or 7 of my 9 lives already, and I pay close attention to the last line: "I used to be a terror, but now I am a careful man."

I don't gamble, I don't fight
I don't be hangin' in the bars at night
Yeah I used to be a fighter but
Now I am a wiser man

I don't drink much, I don't smoke
I don't be hardly mess around with no dope
Yeah I used to be a problem but
Now I am a careful man

But if you used to want to see a commotion
You shoulda seen the man that I used to be
I was trouble in perpetual motion
Trouble with a capital "T"
Stayin' out late, havin' fun
And shot off every single shot in my gun
Yeah I used to be a lover but
Now I'm an older man


But if you used to want to see a commotion
You shoulda seen the man that I used to be
I was trouble in perpetual motion
Trouble with a capital "T"
Stayin' out late, havin' fun
And shot off every single shot in my gun
Yeah I used to be a terror but
Now I am a tired man
Yeah I used to be a terror but
Now I am a tired man

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Walking Portrait

Tonight, I went to the library to study without the distractions (and noisiness) of home. I stopped first at the Redeye, a cafe near my home, for a cup of motivation.

I chatted for a couple of minutes with with twenty-something barista before I hit the books. He was surprised to find that I'd lived most of the last 24 years in the neighborhood, North Center. I mentioned how much it had changed-- how dirty, crime- and drug-ridden and seedy it had been when I moved here in the Spring of 1986, less than a year after I'd finished college (or at least my first round of college).

I thought about all the changes in the neighborhood-- and in my life-- in the last quarter century. And then, right on cue, my portrait of Dorian Gray walked by.

When I first moved into the neighborhood, at an apartment on Ashland and Berteau, I'd walk down to the strip of Lincoln Avenue between Irving Park Road and Montrose for most of my shopping. Back then, aside from the Jewel's grocery store, it was an assortment of resale stores, cobblers, laundromats and such. Shifty looking people walked up and down the street-- there was obviously a drug scene (heroin) going on back then.

Through the two and a half decades, the neighborhood has changed. One by one, the seedy little shops have closed and a little fancier ones have taken their places. There are still a few places the same-- the Korean restaurant, the Jewel's-- but most of the places and people have changed-- including my "portrait."

I remember noticing this guy almost immediately after I moved into the neighborhood. He had a red "white man 'fro" and was usually wearing a dress shirt and a tie. My reckoning was that I was seeing him getting home from a job as an accountant or some other office job.

Over the years, I wore a lot of hats. I worked as a law clerk, a waiter, an assistant manager in a restaurant, a construction worker, a manager of a restaurant, a teacher. I saw a bunch of relationships come and go, including two marriages. I became a father. And I've gone back to school to set out on one more career. And all through it, I've seen this guy shuffling down Lincoln Avenue.

I saw a quote recently that you usually have the face you deserve by the time you're fifty. I've got a year and four months to go, but barring a serious accident, I have to laugh at this. For having used up at least 6 or 7 of my nine lives, I somehow managed to have a face (and with the possible exception of my right knee, my body) that's about ten years younger than what shows up on my driver's license. My classmates last semester were shocked to discover that I was the oldest person in the class. I suspect that it was a combination of good genes-- my parents both are regularly mistaken for being ten years younger than they are-- a pretty high physical activity level over the years, and a good diet; I'd made the decision as a teenager to eat healthily, despite all my other bad habits.

But tonight, as this guy, who's about my age, trudged by the cafe, slightly hunched, pasty, paunchy and nearly all gray, I had the oddest thought-- that over the years, he's been the one aging for me, like the portrait of Dorian Gray.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday, Monday

"Monday, Monday, so good to me
Monday morning, it was all I hoped it would be."

My Monday morning started out a little rough; I couldn't find a parking space on Montrose Avenue, where I usually park, so I kept going and parked at the lot the school has near Lake Shore Drive while it's building a new multistory lot that's built into the new administrative building they're also erecting. The shuttle bus that runs between there and the school sat for over 20 minutes, so I was about ten minutes late for class, which I hate doing.

Fortunately, there were a handful of other people who were late for the same reason and the teacher didn't seem upset by it. We had a great class session. This teacher's friendly, but really rigorous. When a friend of mine in class complained about it later, I replied that I don't mind rigorous-- rigorous equals passing the state nursing boards on the first try.

We discovered that our clinicals for tomorrow are cancelled. While we have homework assignments on the "Blackboard" online system, it means that I don't have to get up at 5 am tomorrow. A one week reprieve.

I hopped on the shuttle bus and turned on my Ipod shuffle and The Mamas and the Papas' "Monday, Monday" came on. I smiled and thought how appropriate it's turning out to be, and how much I still love hearing old Mamas and Papas songs.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The "Back To School" Friday Random Ten

I've been a bad blogger this week. Work and going back to school, and just being tired with winter sapped my energy.

It was great getting back to school. I wasn't able to get the instructor I had last semester, so I took my old friend Marty's recommendation and signed up for the instructor he had. It was a good recommendation; I can tell that she and I are going to get along fine. She's got a great combination of rigor and humor.

It's fun being in class with Marty. He was one of my good drinking buddies back in the day-- 20 years ago we used to hang out at the Gingerman Tavern, just down the street from Wrigley Field. These days, we're settled down-- both married, both changing careers. And it was good to see my old classmates. There's nothing like the camaraderie of school to bond people.

All last semester, the school kept trying to figure out the schedule of a series of computerized practice nursing board tests. We were all getting a little nervous about it all. On Wednesday, we finally had the first of them, on Critical Thinking. It was 30 questions, about prioritizing care, ethical questions and problem-solving. We had one hour and fifteen minutes to take it. I was done in 15 minutes. The guy who runs the computer lab allowed me to print up a PDF with the report on how I did and put it on my USB memory stick. I'd brought my laptop, so I went into the hall to open up the file and look at it. We needed to get at least 800 of a possible 1000. I got a 940. I guess I'm doing something right.

Tonight I'll take a break from the books. I'll run and pick up my son at 5 and then Bubs and Mz. Bubs are dropping by for cocktails tonight. We might have to break out the Rock Band and show them how it's done.

1. Only Wanna Be With You- Hootie and the Blowfish
2. Tulsa Time- Don Williams
3. Eugene- Crazy Joe and the Variable Speed Band
4. Sundown- Gordon Lightfoot
5. Ballad of the Little Man- World Party
6. Here Comes A Regular- The Replacements
7. God Save The Queen- The Sex Pistols
8. I Want You- Bob Dylan
9. Memories Can't Wait- The Talking Heads
10. Just Another Sunday- The Blasters

1. I know they're fluffy pop, but I love this song. I'm always amused by the two Dylan references in this song, both songs from "Blood On The Tracks;" "Idiot Wind" and "Tangled Up In Blue."
2. Eric Clapton had a hit with this song. I prefer this version, by the guy who wrote it.
3. This one got a lot of airplay here in Chicago in 1981-- it's a hilarious song about an idiotic oaf trying to pick up girls with the worst lines ever. I don't think it ever made it into digitized media. A few years ago, I pulled it off of the lp, which I still have, and digitized it myself.
4. This song is about Cathy Smith, the woman John Belushi was partying with the night he died. Lightfoot had had a relationship with her.
5. From "Private Revolution," one of my "desert island" albums.
6. The normally raucous Replacements getting reflective.
7. Ah, to be young, loud and snotty...
8. From "Blonde On Blonde," another one of my "desert island" albums.
9. "There's a party in my mind/And I hope it never stops..."
10. Funny-- "Little Honey," which was also a John Doe/Dave Alvin collaboration was on the shuffle last week. They played this one when I saw their reunion show in 2002, the night I became Dave Alvin's favorite Blasters fan

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Belated Elvis Post

A week or so ago, it would have been Elvis Presley's 75th birthday. I had a few thoughts about Mr. Presley.

When I was 18 years old, just starting college, the first album I bought was an album I'd been hearing on the radio, the Clash' "London Calling." I was just beginning the awakening of what would be a lifetime passion for politics. Living in the midst of a bland suburb southwest of Chicago (Western Springs), the angry politics of the album stirred something in me that was stunning.

When I bought the album, I kept looking at the cover; I kept getting a sense of deja vu; the sense I'd seen it before. It wasn't until years later it dawned on me that it was a very deliberate homage to the cover of Elvis' first album. While the Clash may have decried cheap nostalgia and "phony Beatlemania" in song, they realized where their roots were. They realized that there was a road that ran from the raw blues and hillbilly music to Elvis' blending of those musics, and shaking up all the bluebloods with his shaking pelvis, to the Clash' own angry stance.

On Little Steven's Underground Garage, they frequently play a little biography Steve Van Zandt did of Elvis. Presley grew up, as everybody knows, in Tupelo, Mississippi. What most people don't know is that Presley's family lived in a mostly-black part of town due to their poverty. He went to school with white kids, but was regarded as a loner-- a weirdo who played "hillbilly" music.

Through his childhood, Presley was indeed immersed in that "hillbilly" music, along with black blues and gospel. Out of this stew came an exciting new sound. As another great, Roy Orbison, recalled upon seeing Presley perform for the first time in Odessa, Texas when Orbison was 19, "His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing. ... I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it."

Once he hit the big time, Presley created an amazing body of work. While there are a few clunkers here and there, the breadth and depth of his work is amazing. From the rockabilly romp of his first single, "That's All Right Mama" to the out and out gospel "Run On," with stops at country, boogie-woogie, rock and roll and other genres in between, I find I'm still discovering new favorites.

Elvis has become completely ingrained in Western culture. There was a very funny scene in the 1991 movie "The Commitments," where the main character Jimmy's dad is questioning veteran saxophonist Jimmy "Lips" Fagan about meeting and working with Elvis. Fagan tells Jimmy's father that he never once saw Presley "taking narcotics." All of this is with pictures of Pope John Paul II and Elvis hanging on the wall behind him. Guess which guy is on top?

Presley's personal life was definitely erratic and flawed. I sometimes wonder how I would have done had I had all the temptations he had suddenly thrust upon me. I wasn't a rich rock star and I spent a good deal of my life succumbing to various temptations. Many of the stories that have come out over the years may or may not have been true, but one that is definitely not was the story that he'd said that "The only thing Negroes can do for is buy my records and shine my shoes." This fake quote, which circulated in 1957 was complete bosh; Snopes has even confirmed this:

One other story, though, is true-- the one about Elvis buying a Cadillac for a woman who was looking at one through a dealer's window. He did buy the car for the woman, who was black. Elvis had black friends, worked with black musicians and readily acknowledged the influence gospel and blues had on his music. So much for his "racism."

Over the years, the specter of Elvis Presley has loomed in my life, and been the source for many a great time, such as the now-fabled road trip to check up on the King in April, 1985 when I was in grad school, and great stories, such as the time my old friend Dan and I were miraculously rescued by Elvis in 1996. Even my family is not immune to Elvis' charms: when my son was about 4, he suddenly decided that Elvis' "Kentucky Rain" was the best song ever.

In January, 1989, I was rooming with my old friends Dan and Mark in the Wrigleyville neighborhood. On January 8th, I met up with another old friend, Tim, and we went to Danny's, on Dickens and Damen to have a drink with the King on his birthday. Back then, the bar was heavily Elvis-themed. Angie and Karen, the main bartenders, were huge Elvis fans. Karen had, in fact, been in Memphis intending to visit Graceland on August 16, 1977, when she discovered Presley had died.

That night, Danny, the owner, was there. As I walked in, I was handed a raffle ticket. Over the evening, a bunch of Elvis memorabilia was handed out to lucky winners, as well as a Quija board-- so that you could talk to the King. As the prizes dwindled down, I was convinced that my status as "The guy who never wins a thing" would continue.

Then, suddenly, Danny pulled out one last surprise prize: a flesh-colored bust of Elvis Presley. He called out a number and I realized to my shock that it was my number.

That night, I came home a bit inebriated and woke my roommates up to meet our new roommate. They were nonplussed. Still, Elvis has had a place of honor in my home every place I have lived. He currently resides where he belongs, on a pedestal, in a shrine we have on the back porch, pictured at the top of this post. Someday, if you're lucky, you can come by on some lovely summer night and under the stars and the christmas lights, have a drink with the King and I. Long live the King. We still love you.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The "Back To School" Friday Random Ten

My long break is just about done. I go back to school on Tuesday-- it's delayed one day because Monday is Martin Luther King Day.

I feel very ready to go back. I realize how much I had to decompress-- what a year 2009 was. Just as I started nursing school-- and spending money hand over fist on tuition and books, Kim got laid off of her job. She went back to work in November, but we're still scrambling to get caught up.

In May, I was in an auto accident. I walked away from it, but looking back, I realize how shook up I was, particularly since my son was in the car. And though the other guy's insurance company issued a check for most of the value of my car, all the other little costs bled me just when we couldn't afford it.

And finally, I sat through some of the trial last summer of the guy who murdered my friend Mark "Atwood" Evans. He was actually being tried for killing one of his accomplices in the robbery in which Mark was killed, but it felt like justice when he was sentenced to 75 years without parole. It was cathartic to see this guy told he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison, and it gave me some closure.

In the meantime, I'm eager to get back to school. I wasn't able to get my teacher from last semester, I was, though, able to get another teacher who I keep hearing raves about. And even better, I finally found out where my clinicals are this semester: the University of Chicago Hospital, one of the best in the country. I'll have a new teacher, a new clinical location and a new set of classmates to get to know and adjust to, but I'm excited about it.

1. Hong Kong Garden- Souxsie and the Banshees
2. The Wall- Johnny Cash
3. Everybody Knows- Leonard Cohen
4. I Don't Know Why- The Rolling Stones
5. Too Many Bad Habits- Asleep At The Wheel
6. Summer Days- Bob Dylan
7. Little Honey- The Blasters
8. Beyond the Horizon- Bob Dylan
9. Nothing Is Wrong- Gomez
10. Sugar and Spice- The Cryan' Shames

1. From the fabulous "No Thanks!" collection of seventies punk.
2. A prison tale from Johnny Cash.
3. One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite artists.
4. I've been discovering a bunch of old Stones songs that were off the beaten path thanks to Little Steven's Underground Garage, including this one. Pretty funny that this one came on in the shuffle right after the Cohen song. Everybody knows, except me.
5. A funny song from a great live album, "Served Live" that these guys did in the late seventies.
6. From the great "Love and Theft" album.
7. Written by Dave Alvin and John Doe (from X). Originally on the "Hard Line" album, now available on "Testament," a collection of everything the Blasters did for Slash Records.
8. Another more recent Dylan song, from "Modern Times."
9. These guys had a great record and a song that got a lot of airplay (this one)-- and their record company dropped them. And the record industry wonders why it's in trouble.
10. A hit from a group that hailed from Hinsdale, Illinois, a suburb southwest of Chicago.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Funniest Thing I've Heard In A While

Yesterday evening, I was chatting with my friend and co-worker Karol, who is as big a Cubs fan as I am. She was telling stories about the Cubs Conventions she'd been to; every January, there is a Cubs Convention here in Chicago where you can meet and chat with current and past Cubs players.

She told me about a fan "question and answer" session at a Cubs Convention a few years back with ace Cubs reliever Lee Smith, who was one of the great firemen in the history of baseball. One of the fans asked Smith if he had ever tested positive for steroids. He replied that he hadn't but he'd be in trouble if they were testing for Tanqueray.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


About ten years ago, when I had the time for such things, I used to volunteer at a left-leaning bookstore here in Chicago, the New World Resource Center. It was an interesting experience. It was a great source of a variety of political and historical materials-- books, magazines, political pamphlets, etc.

It was never very busy, and I had time to do the things I rarely had time to do-- read and write. One night, I picked up one of the many pamphlets they had and read it. It was an informational pamphlet about the brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan toward the Afghan people, particularly toward women. Women were not allowed to go to school or even appear in public without a male family member. The Taliban banned everything-- television, music, shaving, even kites.

A couple of years later, when it was revealed that the Taliban had given comfort and aid to Osama Bin Laden, allowing him to plan and execute the slaughter of thousands of American civiliians, I was glad that we now had a reason to intervene in Afghanistan. I thought about Germany in World War II; that the war gave the United States reason to go in and take out a brutal regime.

Of course, we all know what happened. The idiots in the Bush Administration-- Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Condaleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, etc.-- had a hot nut to invade Iraq, a country that had had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks (indeed, Saddam Hussein considered Muslim fundamentalism a threat to his regime, and bin Laden considered Hussein to be a corrupt infidel). I'm reading Thomas Ricks' account of the drive to war in Iraq and the disasterous consequences, and hope to find the time to read Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack." Both books examine the ideological biases, personal ambitions and ignoring of contrary intelligence in the build-up to the second Gulf War, which has been disasterous on many, many levels-- including the completely unnecessary deaths of thousands of American and allied troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

It appears that we are on our way out of Iraq. What then of Afghanistan?

A few weeks ago, I was looking through some old books and magazines in my basement and came across the sole copy of Time Magazine I've ever saved. The reason-- Colin Powell was on the cover. I used to subscribe to Time. This issue is dated September 10, 2001 and was titled "Where Have You Gone Colin Powell?" Over the years, this cover was to become quite telling.

Powell, who had fought in Vietnam as a young officer, had actually participated in one of the "low intensity conflicts" that many military analysts saw as the immediate future of warfare as the Cold War ended. He had come up with "the Powell doctrine"-- basically the idea that you go into a war with enough force to win the war. And he didn't buy fully into what was to be called "the Bush Doctrine"-- preemptively striking regimes that were considered dangerous.

The Bushies put their fake case for war together, cherry-picking evidence, ignoring anything that didn't fit (and there was lots of it) and squelching anyone who tried to present any evidence or ideas contrary to theirs, they brought it all together in a dog and pony show at the UN in which Powell presented the (unknown to him) fabricated evidence of Saddam's "Weapons of Mass Destruction." It was shameful.

Powell may have had the last laugh though. It was he who warned the Bushies that invading a country was like being in a china store; "You break it, you own it."

The invasion of Afghanistan was botched in so many ways. For starters, the Colin Doctrine was ignored; it was executed with not nearly enough troops to do the job. An early oppurtunity to capture or kill bin Laden at the Tora Bora pass was botched. The backing of Hamid Karzai has been a disaster-- he blatantly stole the most recent "election" in Afghanistan. Opium production has once again soared, funding the Taliban, which has rebounded.

The Taliban leaders know what every insurrectionist from America's General Washington through Vietnam's General Giap knew-- that in a guerilla war, all you have to do to win is not lose. That then begs the question: Should we still be in Afghanistan?

Years ago, I was watching the PBS show "Vietnam: A Television History," and remember watching former Secretary of State Clark Clifford talking about a meeting he had with General Westmoreland. Westmoreland was asking for hundreds of thousands of more US troops. Clifford asked Westmoreland if he could win the war if given those troops. Westmoreland said "I don't know." Clifford pressed on, asking how many troops would be needed to win the war. Westmoreland again said he didn't know. It was at that point that Clifford knew that at that point, they needed an exit strategy rather than a victory strategy.

There have been a lot of similarities some have pointed out between Vietnam and Afghanistan. On a surface level there are similarities. I would contend that once one digs a little deeper, the similarities end.

Yes, like Vietnam (at least in the early and middle parts of the Vietnam War), the Afghan War is a guerilla-style "low intensity" war; the other side is using roadside bombs, hit and run tactics and terrorizing civilians to keep control. That's where the similarity ends. The Viet Cong, the insurgents in the South of Vietnam, were supplied one superpower, the Soviet Union, and one future superpower, China. For the Soviets, to arm the Viet Cong, and later the North Vietnamese Army, was a relatively low-cost way to counter and bleed their rival superpower, the United States. By low-cost, I mean that yes, they sent billions of dollars in miltary hardware, but few Soviet lives were lost. With China on North Vietnam's border, there was no way to stop the funneling of weapons to the opponents of the United States, the attacks on the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" notwithstanding.

There were a lot of ironies, in retrospect, about how the Vietnam War ended. The Viet Cong were annhilated during the Tet Offensive, and from that point on, the war was the "set piece" army on army battle that the United States was prepared to fight, as the regular North Vietnamese Army took over. However, public support for the war was gone. With the Soviet Union and US moving toward detente and the diplomatic opening of China, it appeared that the Cold War was done heating up.

Importantly, also, the whole intellectual rationale for the war, the "Domino Theory," turned out to be a complete sham. In fact, in 1979, just a few years after the Communist regime took over in Vietnam, Vietnam went to war with another Communist regime, the genocidal Pol Pot government in Cambodia. They took down the fellow Communist regime and left the country.

The Taliban do not have the limitless backing of a superpower. They do not have tanks and airplanes. And they don't have the backing of most of the people of Afghanistan.

The great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz wrote many brilliant things. Perhaps the most important thing he said was "The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes. " War, as he pointed out, is "a mere continuation of policy by other means." One must determine realistic poltical goals that one desires to achieve.

Last month, the New York Times had a great article about the deliberations President Obama made in deciding, as Commander In Chief, what to do about Afghanistan. If you have time, take some time and read the article.

Reading it, I was reminded of a History Channel piece I saw on John Kennedy, "John Kennedy: A Presidency Revealed." I was so impressed with this particular show that I bought it on DVD to watch it again. What I found particularly fascinating was the part on how Kennedy handled the Cuban Missle Crisis.

At the beginning of his presidency, Kennedy had inherited the April, 1961 "Bay of Pigs" plan-- a plan to send 5000 Cuban exiles into Cuba to overthrow the Castro regime. Kennedy allowed himself to be pushed into continuing the ill-conceived plan by the Joint Chief of Staff, ignoring his own doubts about the plan.

As the invasion turned into a fiasco, Kennedy accepted responsibility for the disaster-- and learned from it.

When the Cuban Missle Crisis evolved a little over a year later, in October, 1962, Kennedy handled it completely differently. He gathered people with completely conflicting views and listened to them. He pressed everybody-- asked them to defend their thoughts on it. Reading the account of President Obama's deliberations on how to handle the situation in Afghanistan, I'm struck by how similar it was to Kennedy's ultimately successful approach to Cuba. The vital national interests were kept first and foremost in mind-- as well as what resources were available.

Like Kennedy and Cuba, Afghanistan has been dropped into President Obama's lap. Kennedy understood about Cuba that victory entailed not defeating Cuba, but assuring that a regime that posed no serious threat to the United States remained at the end of it. It's clear to me from reading the article that President Obama understands this about Afghanistan. In addition, he realizes that we cannot have an open-ended commitment to have huge amounts of troops there. He's set a limit on the amount of troops, asked for help from allies-- and set a timeframe to attain the goals that have been set.

It's clear to me, also, that he understands the nature of the threat-- that it's like a ballloon-- you squeeze one end and the air runs to the other end of the balloon. You may run Al Queda out of Afghanistan, but it runs to Yemen, or the (oh horrible irony) a destabilized Iraq. Reading the account of his deliberations on Afghanistan, I was reminded of Kennedy, as he listened to people with wildly differing opinions, asking hard questions and taking nothing for granted.

I agree with the decisions made so far on Afghanistan. He's set tangible goals, with the military being an instrument in attaining the political goals. Afghanistan can never again be a base for those who would harm US citizens.

In the end, we have to look at the longer view. The real enemy is not Al Queda, the Communists or any other group or ideology-- those come and go. Throughout history, people look to any system-- whether right or left, religious or ideological-- that can provide for it better than the other side. In the end, the real enemy is poverty and any system that perpetuates it.

I'm curious how things are going to pan out in Obama's four or eight years in office. I've been pretty impressed with him overall-- particularly his health care fight (unlike some, who apparently think that no loaf is better than 8/10's of a loaf). I've been impressed with his ability to grow into the job. And I suspect that a guy who started out in politics fighting poverty as a community organizer will understand that the real fight in this world-- from Afghanistan to the West side of Chicago-- is against poverty. I've got high hopes. And my fingers crossed.

Friday, January 08, 2010

One More Week Friday Random Ten

I've got one more week left to my unusually long holiday break-- I've been off since December 10. I've been reviewing material, getting ready to go back. I got a text from a classmate who's in my section, asking if I had found out where our clinical is. We still don't know and probably won't know until we go back on Tuesday.

1. Take a Picture- Filter
2. Dock of the Bay- Otis Redding
3. Boredom- The Buzzcocks
4. Drugs- The Talking Heads
5. Temporary Like Achilles
6. I'm Still Standing- Elton John
7. More- Kai Winding
8. 88 Lines About 44 Women- The Nails
9. Night Train- James Brown
10. Workin' Man Blues- Jon Wayne Texas Funeral

1. An atmospheric one-hit-wonder from about ten years ago.
2. I've loved this song since I was a kid. I recently read that Redding began writing it while sitting on a houseboat in Sausalito and finished it with Steve Cropper in the studio. It was his only #1 hit, a month after he died.
3. Love these guys!
4. From "Fear of Music," my favorite Talking Heads album.
5. From "Blonde On Blonde," on of my "desert island" albums.
6. An EJ hit from the early eighties, responding to detractors who said he was finished.
7. An instrumental hit from the sixties. I have no idea why I like this one, but I do.
8. This one got a lot of play on my college radio station.
9. I didn't know until I was older that "Night Train" was a cheap wine. When I taught in a tough Chicago neighborhood, I'd see empty bottles of Night Train, MD 20/20 and Richard's Wild Irish Rose in the gutters when I got off the el.
10. One of the big college radio albums of 1986 and one of the friggin' funniest records ever. I got down on my knees and thanked god the day it finally came out on cd. And I'm an athiest.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Winter, 2010

Since my car is being worked on, this morning I drove Mel to school in Kim's car and dropped Kim off at an el stop. I dropped her at the el stop across the street from Wrigley Field, which is near Mel's school. I took a second to snap a picture of Wrigley Field, where the only sport going on right now is ice skating in a rink set up in the parking lot.

The Cubs were sold recently to the Ricketts family, who made their fortune as owners of TD Ameritrade. I think that old fans like me are subdued in our excitement over the change in ownership, remembering how everyone thought that when the Chicago Tribune bought the Cubs from the Wrigley family in 1981 that we'd see some championships. While we went to the playoffs in 1984, 1989 and 2003, we're still waiting for that championship.

One bright note in this typically harsh Chicago winter was the news, yesterday, that former Cubs great Andre Dawson ("Awesome Dawson"), was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I was living near Wrigley Field, and young and single around 1987 to 1989, some of Dawson's greatest years with the team, and spent many a lovely afternoon in the "friendly confines" watching him play. Not only was he a great player, word is that he's a great guy.

When I got home, I ate breakfast and went to shovel the snow off the porch and front walk. I saw my elderly neighbor across the street doing the same. I wondered why her grown son, who lives with her, wasn't doing this. I thought about going over to help her when I finished our walk.

Then I saw her son come out of the house, and figured he was going to help her. He did no such thing. He walked past her, spent ten minutes brushing snow off of his car and then drove off. And it was then I recalled a neighbor referring to him as "unemployable."

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Keeping It All In Perspective

Yesterday, while going to pick my daughter and her friend up at school, I stopped by Trader Joe's to pick up a couple of things. I parked on the street to avoid their nightmarish parking lot. When I went back to the car, I couldn't get it started. I'd had problems with it before-- I knew I needed to put a new battery in it, and the battery cables were horribly cheap, shitty ones. To make matters worse, the cable to pop the hood snapped a couple of weeks ago-- I was praying that I could wing it a couple more weeks until I could bring the car to my mechanic. Alas, my luck had run out.

Fortunately, yesterday was not too terribly cold (today is), so we walked home from school. This morning, I took Kim's car and drove Mel to school and Kim took the el to work. I went by the car and tried to start it one more time. No luck. I dropped a key off with my mechanic's guys and told them what was going on. I knew the car was going to have to be towed to be worked on.

I got a call a while ago. New battery, new cables, oil was low, new $150 hood cable, and some sundry light bulbs and electrical connections. My heart sank. We are already behind on so many bills.

I was comforted a little remembering that I'd picked an extra shift up last night from a sick co-worker, and that my friend Carol had asked me to pick up several shifts over the next couple of weeks while she vacations in California.

Then I started counting my blessings. I have two terrific teenaged kids that still seem to like to spend time with me. I've got a lovely wife whom I just celebrated a fourth anniversary with. That same wife got a job in November after five months of unemployment in a field that is not doing a lot of hiring right now. The government subsidy to COBRA extension of medical benefits was about to run out. And I keep in mind that I literally won the lottery-- that the highly-regarded (and relatively inexpensive) nursing program I got accepted into last year takes fewer than 1/3 of its applicants-- there are far more applicants than slots. They have a lottery to determine who gets in. And finally, I realize I am blessed because I love the field I'm going into and am doing well academically.

It's funny how life sometimes reminds you to keep it all in perspective. While I was doing some stuff around the house, right after getting the bad news about the car, I had the History Channel on as background noise. I realized that they had a show about the December 2004 tsunami.

I've mentioned before that my old friend Dobie has made the decision to move back to Chicago. He and I had lost touch with one another after he moved to Arizona, then Asia.

When we were in college, he and another friend, Larry, and I roomed together the summer of 1984. At some point that summer, Dobie asked a favor-- he asked if I would teach him to swim. In the South Side Chicago neighborhood he'd grown up in, the local pool was inhabited by gang members, and wasn't a safe place for a kid to be. Consequently, he'd never learned to swim.

We started going to the pool at Lantz Gym, at our college. I'd never taught anyone to swim-- I had to remember back to when I'd taken swimming lessons. Over the summer, he learned to swim.

As I mentioned, in the mid-nineties, he and I lost touch, until I tracked him down in 2005 by correctly guessing his email address, after I'd read in our college alumni newsletter that he was working as a teacher in Singapore.

Not long after we continued our friendship, via email, I discovered that he'd been on vacation in Phukat, Thailand on December 26, 2004. He'd taken up scuba diving at some point. He was scuba diving when the tsunami hit the shore at Phukat.

He told me that he hadn't felt a thing-- that one member of the diving group said he'd felt a little pressure wave, but that neither he nor any other member of the group had felt anything. When they got back to shore, they came upon a horrific scene. The least of it was that the cabana they'd geared up at was gone. There were hundreds of dead and dying people in the town. He and the others spent the day helping who they could. Dobie came upon a kid who'd been separated from his parents. He was able to repatriate the boy with his parents, who had, happily, survived.

My friend survived the worst natural disaster in history-- 230,000 people were killed-- because he knew how to swim, and he'd randomly decided to go scuba diving for that particular hour or two that day. Thanks to that little miracle, he and I have been able to renew our friendship. So instead of sweating about a few hundred dollars, I'm going to count my blessings and realize that nearly everyone who reads my blog is dealing with these things and more in their lives. As my mother says, "This too shall pass."

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Johnny Yen's One Hit Wonders: "Midnight At The Oasis," by Maria Muldaur

Maria Muldaur (born Maria Grazia Rosa Domenica D'Amato) was born and raised in Greenwich Village and became part of the same fertile and diverse New York folkie scene that launched Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Peter Paul and Mary, Buffy Ste. Marie, Jose Feliciano, Richie Havens, John Sebastian and many other folkies. She married fellow musician Geoff Muldaur, whom she met while performing in the 1960's with Jim Kweskin & His Jug Band, which also included John Sebastian, David Grisman and Stefan Grossman.

In 1972, Maria and Geoff Muldaur parted ways personally and professionally, and Maria, keeping her married name, embarked on a solo career, moving with her young daughter to the west coast to do so. She hit a home run at her first at-bat, with a single from her first, self-titled album. "Midnight At the Oasis" went to #6 on the Billboard charts in 1974.

Here's a performance on the popular "Midnight Special" show from around the time it was a hit.

In this video, Ms. Muldaur tells her story and the story of how the song came to be. It was a last-minute addition to her first solo album, written by her guitarist, David Nichtern. The song's lyrics tell of a desert love affair, presumably in the Middle East. It contains one of the silliest lyrics ever:

"Come on, Cactus is our friend
He'll point out the way
Come on, 'til the evenin' ends
'Til the evenin' ends"

On top of that, as many have pointed out, cacti are native to North and South America, not the Middle East.

In her interview, Ms. Muldaur recounts the many, many people who have told her that they conceived their children, lost their virginity to, or got married to the song.

Ms. Muldaur has continued to record and perform, sometimes with the Grateful Dead and their spin-offs. "Midnight At The Oasis" remains her only charting hit. In 2005, she won both a W.C. Handy Award and a Grammy in the Traditional Blues Category for her album "Sweet Lovin' Ol' Soul."

"Midnight At The Oasis" was immortalized in pop culture one more time in Sophia Coppola's "Lost In Translation," in the scene where the lounge singer who has spent the night with Bill Murray sings it as she walks around his hotel room.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Neighborhood Mysteries

I moved to the North Center neighborhood in Chicago in 1986, after rooming with a couple of guys in the far-north Roger Park neighborhood for a few months. With short breaks living in Edgewater, Lakeview, Roscoe Village, Logan Square, Avondale and Albany Park (where I'd also lived as a kid), I've lived most of the last 24 years in this neighborhood.

I've lived in the apartment I live in now for over 11 years. I moved in here with my now-ex-wife Cynthia. Like most couples, we had a lot of in-jokes. One of the big ones revolved around "neighborhood mysteries." Some examples: Why is the Sunnyside Tap, an "old man" bar near here, on Western Avenue and not Sunnyside, a block away? Why was Pilsen Auto Glass in North Center, and not in Pilsen, a neighborhood on the south side? Why was the tacqueria around the corner from our house always grilling up enormous mounds of meat, yet there were never more than a couple of people in the joint?

About ten years ago, another "neighborhood mystery" got added to the list when Cynthia and I took my son to the Illinois Rail Museum in Union, Illinois, near Elgin, Illinois. The museum is an amazing place. Not only does it have an amazing collection of rail trains, street cars, buses and trolleys, it actually operates some of them on days the museum is open, including one of the fabled "Zephyr" trains (the Nebraska Zephyr). For the price of admission, you can ride any of them all day long. It's operated by retired rail employees, including uniformed conductors on the trains.

While riding an old street car, I noticed a vintage advertising poster in the street car. The poster advertised the "Old Settler's Picnic" in Harm's Park in 1939-- at Western and Berteau. It picqued my curiousity-- there is no park at that corner, which is a block from my home.

Over the years, I would check the internet, with no luck, for Harm's Park. I began to wonder if it had been a fictional park, made up for a poster on the trolley. A few weeks ago, I hit paydirt. On a website called Forgotten Chicago, I found information on it.

Harms Park was a private park founded in 1893 by Henry Harms, who was responsible for many things, including building Lincoln Avenue (a major artery on the north side of Chicago), founded Niles Center (now Skokie) and worked as a farmer, a building contractor, postmaster, highway commissioner and other positions.

Henry Harms died in 1914, but his park continued, hosting the Old Settlers Picnic until the park closed in 1946. The Old Settlers Picnic was a celebration of Chicago's oldest citizens.

In the 1930's, a public housing project was proposed. Area residents petitioned against this, and it never came to pass. Finally, in 1946, Harms Park was razed to put up a car dealership and a subdivision with 29 houses. Ironically, I have been walking right by the subdivision every day on the way to work for ten years.

Looking back, I realize that there were clues about this mystery. One of the big ones is that the Colonial-style houses where the old park was are completely different from the rest of the buildings in the area, most of which were built between 1900 and 1920. Another is that the street was made into a cul-de-sac-- there are few cul-de-sacs in the city. Also, there are no alleys, a ubiquitous feature of most Chicago neighborhoods.

The auto dealership exchanged hands a few years ago-- it was known for decades as "Jack Hagerty Auto." It was one of many, many auto dealerships* on the entire 25+ mile length of Chicago's Western Avenue.

Besides a handful of crimes, unusual in this peaceful neighborhood-- the murder of two bar owners in the last year and a half that were apparently not motivated by robbery, and a Halloween hit and run that left a bartender dead-- there is one last mystery yet to be solved in this neighborhood: the origin of the name of Agatite Avenue.

In 1988, Don Hayner published "Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names." The author documented the origins of Chicago street names. Some are quite simple-- for instance, the names of Presidents that the downtown Chicago streets bear. They go from north to south from Washington to Polk in the order that the presidents served. Others, like Pulaski and Cermak, are for historical figures (Pulaski for Kasimir Pulaski, the Polish officer who was killed at the Revolutionary War battle of Savanna and Cermak is Anton Cermak, the Chicago mayor who was slain in an attempt on FDR's life in 1933).

Others are not, according to the book, what you might think; when I first read the book, I was living on Magnolia Avenue and assumed that it was named after the tree. It was not. It was named after a ship that ran up and down the Chicago River rescuing people trapped by the Great Fire in 1871.

Other streets changed names during World War I during the anti-German hysteria that was whipped up (despite the fact that Chicago had an enormous German population). Some had rather strange stories, such as the change from Robey to Damen Avenue.

The origin of the name of Agatite Avenue, which runs east-west just a couple of blocks from my home, defies explanation, remaining a mystery. Many assume it is named after a mineral, but the mineral is "agate," not "Agatite." This is one of the few street names that the author admits not being able to explain in "Streetwise." It may remain the last unsolvable mystery of the North Center neighborhood.

*Those auto dealerships have a rich cinematic history: one that was recently razed just a few blocks away on the 3900 north of Western was featured in the "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene in "Wayne's World." Also, the auto dealership James Caan's character owned in Michael Mann's terrific 1981 movie "Thief" also on Western Avenue.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

And You Say You Left Your Laptop Behind?

In keeping with my threat promise to post more often, I've realized that not every post has to be about a life-changing event or my take on current events. Indeed, I've realized that sometimes my everyday life and work have enough absurdity to fill a blog.

When I made the decision to go back to school and get a degree in the health care field so that I had a fighting chance to be able to afford to pay for my kids' college and eventually retire comfortably, there was one big decision to make: what to do for a living while I was back in school. While I was a teacher, I'd kept a part-time job as a waiter. The extra money was a godsend, especially after I had to kick a thieving roommate out, and suddenly had to pay the rent and bills on a three bedroom apartment on my own. Since my ex-girlfriend kept moving with our son from one apartment to another in the bad neighborhood she lived in, it was important to me to keep this place; my son had come to think of it as home. We moved in here when he was four years old.

When Kim and I got married, it took some of the financial pressure off. I kept my toe in the waitering water, though-- I kept my Thursday night shift, and would pick up a shift here and there. When I went back to school I made the decision to work as a waiter while I was in school. A good friend of Kim's got me an interview at a high end downtown Chicago. I got the job, but immediately sensed trouble. There was a lot of nonsense going on there and hostile management. I ended up losing the job. Fortunately, something had told me to keep my old waitering job. As luck would have it, two people were leaving, and a bunch of shifts were opening up. This did not happen often-- the turnover at the restaurant was and is glacial. In general, it's a nice place to work. I like most of my co-workers and most of the people who come in there. A couple of the cooks are monuments to lassitude, obstinance and stupidity and should have been fired long ago. Were it not for the intense sense of loyalty that the managing owner has-- the offending cooks worked there at the beginning when there was little business-- they would have been drummed out a long time ago.

The vast majority of the people who come in are very nice. A while back, Steve and Margaret, a couple whom I'm very fond of, came in with their young son Richard. They were celebrating the tenth anniversary of when they brought him home-- when they adopted him. They reminded me that I had waited on them the first time they'd brought him into the restaurant. It meant a lot to me to be involved in a celebration as joyous as that. There are customers who come in with their kids whom I remember them being pregnant with-- the kids are now in grade school, and can read the menu on their own. There are couples who first came in as dating couples and who are now married. One of my regulars celebrated his 100th birthday with us a while back.

But there are the handful of people who make me question my decision to work as a full time waiter for another year and a half. Many of these people have nicknames among my co-workers and I. Some examples: "Stinkhead;" "The Fonz (who's a woman);" "The Leaning Tower;" "Christmas With the Crabs." There are people who come in who, despite clearly defined terms on the generous coupons the owners mail and email out, still try to weasel the price down. There are people who feel as if a couple of hours in a restaurant is a license to be an asshole. And then there are those who are incorrigibly and hopelessly stupid.

A couple of weeks ago, I was working a Monday with Oscar, a co-worker I hold in high regard. When he came to us seven years ago, as a teenager straight from Mexico, he spoke little English and worked as a dishwasher and busser. Since then, he has learned to speak fluent English and has worked his way up through the jobs, and now works primarily as a server and bartender. He had the early shift that night, so he had a handful of tables when I arrived.

A few hours into the shift, we got a phone call from someone who'd apparently been in earlier. He'd left his laptop behind. The host and bartender talked to him trying to ascertain where he'd been sitting and/or who his server had been, to narrow down where we'd look for it. Then both Oscar and I talked to him, trying to figure out if we'd waited on him. In the course of talking to the guy, we realized that he had no idea where he'd been sitting and had no idea if his server was a 25 year, five foot seven, 150 pound Mexican or a nearly-fifty year old white guy who weighs 200 pounds. The bartender told the guy, who was becoming increasingly angry as we failed to find his laptop, to feel free to come in and look for himself-- we'd checked everywhere he described himself as having sat.

About fifteen minutes later, a guy walked in. I recognized him immediately-- he was with the Asian woman he'd been sitting with at table 16-- a table near the back, not the front of the restaurant. Oscar had been waiting on him. There was a new couple sitting at the table, which is a "deuce"-- a two-seater. The bag was jammed so far under the table that we were only able to see it when the couple who were now seated there stood up for us too look.

The guy grabbed his laptop bag and walked out in a huff, leaving the four of us to chuckle and shake our heads. Let's see, you couldn't tell us where you were seated, couldn't describe which of the two very disparate servers you had, AND you left your expensive laptop behind. And this was our fault somehow?

I pointed out that the guy reminded me of the guys I'd met while visiting my youngest brother while he was working in his PhD in Chemistry at the University of Chicago in the late eighties-- guys who were educated to the point of not functioning any more. Oscar observed that the guy seemed to be in an agitated mood when he had originally walked in-- that it struck him that they might have been squabbling before they walked in. The John the host added that this was going to be one of the "restaurant stories" that we would tell in the future. And I realized that it's going to be a long next 18 months until I finish nursing school and can leave the business.