Saturday, February 27, 2010

Johnny Yen's Chicago: The Abbott Mansion and Factory

Last week, I found myself walking by the handsome Brundage Building near Lincoln and Belmont and it occurred to me to have a new series of posts where I feature things of interest in my hometown of Chicago. I'll have a post soon on the Brundage Building, which you may have seen in a movie. Today's feature is the Abbott Mansion and the old Abbott factory.

On the days that I ride my bike to school (it's about a two mile, ten minute ride, and not too bad even when the weather is bad), I ride a couple of blocks north to ride along Wilson Avenue, which has a bike lane and leads, literally, directly to my school, which is right on Wilson Avenue. I pass by many handsome buildings, of many ages and in many different styles. As I near my school, I pass by a beautiful Queen Anne style mansion-- The Abbott Mansion.

Here's a picture I took last June, on my way to a summer school anatomy class that shows the mansion in its summer glory. You can tell by the sign in the first picture that it's since gone on the market.

The six thousand square foot, 17-room Abbott Mansion was built by Wallace Calvin Abbott, the founder of Abbott Laboratories, the drug company. University of Michigan graduate Wallace Calvin Abbott was a physician and drugstore owner who was one of the first Americans to adopt a process that had been developed in Europe for extracting alkaloids, the chemicals with the medicinal properties, from plants, in 1888. This paid off handsomely and quickly for him-- he built his mansion in 1891, just three years later.

Today, Abbott Laboratories is a $29 billion dollar a year business, with a main manufacturing facility in North Chicago, Illinois, a suburb to the north of Chicago. Back in the late 1800's, it's main manufacturing facility was just a few blocks away from Dr. Abbott's mansion, at Ravenswood Avenue, just north of Lawrence Avenue (across the railroad tracks from the Sears on Lawrence, for all you Chicagoans). These pictures were also taken last June.

Fortunately these handsome old brick buildings have been preserved-- they now have condo lofts in them.

Coincidentally, the old factory is just down the street from the site of an epically failed bank robbery that I posted about some time ago in this post, in which the robber failed to realize two things: one, that banks put dye packs in with the loot, and two, if your getaway involves jumping on the nearby commuter train, it might be a good idea to coordinate the robbery with the train schedule.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The "Sigh of Relief" Friday Random Ten

Last year was an unexpectedly difficult year, between the general recession (and consequently less money at my waitering job), my wife being out of work for 5 months and the auto accident I had in June. I realized that I had to manage my debts somehow until I finished school. After researching debt management companies, I finally made a call to the one I chose. Within a half hour, everything was straightened out. I'll be making a monthly payment that is about half of what a bunch of minimum payments would have been. When I'm done with school, I can pay the balance off without a penalty. I'm quite relieved to have a plan.

Later today, at the suggestion of a classmate, I'm also going to hang a sign at the local Whole Foods offering tutoring. I figure that parents may be willing to pay pretty well to have a certified former elementary school teacher to tutor their kids. Keep your fingers crossed.

1. The Long Black Veil- Johnny Cash
2. Good Vibrations- The Beach Boys
3. Smiling Faces- The Dramatics
4. Centerfold- The J. Geils Band
5. Darling Be Home Soon- The Lovin' Spoonful
6. A Fool For Your Stockings- ZZ Top
7. Slow Ride- Foghat
8. Daddy's Tune- Jackson Browne
9. Come Running- Van Morrison
10. Spitting In The Wind- The dB's

1. Today would have been The Man In Black's 78th birthday. Following a Facebook thing that's going on, I'm wearing some black today. Of course, I wear a black t-shirt almost every day of my life, so that's not too difficult...
2. The instrument on this song is not a Theremin, contrary to popular belief, but a very similar homemade instrument.
3. These guys were a 2-hit wonder-- they had another hit with "Whatcha See Is Watcha Get."
4. In his 1980 book "The Rock Book of Lists," rock critic Dave Marsh listed the J. Geils Band as one of the top ten great rock bands to never have a #1 hit. The next year, they released their smash hit record "Freeze Frame" and had a #1 hit with "Centerfold." And then they broke up. Damn Marsh for jinxing them.
5. This lovely song might be my favorite love song ever. I've included a live clip I found on Youtube at the bottom.
6. Saw that "Little Ol' Band From Texas" on the tour for Dequello, the album this was on, in 1980.
7. Two of the three bands I saw in my first concert, at the Superbowl of Rock in Soldier's Field are represented on this list. One was Foghat, and another was J. Geils Band. The third was the one-hit wonder Climax Blues Band ("Couldn't Get It Right")
8. This is tied with Steve Goodman's "My Old Man" as my favorite father song.
9. From the great Moondance album.
10. Nobody was happier than I was when the dB's' 1984 "Like This" album was rereleased on cd a few years ago-- it had been out of print for a long time. Along with the Replacements' Hootenanny and Let It Be albums, it was a mainstay during my college years.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When You Know

I had my once-weekly clinical yesterday. As I've mentioned, I'm working this semester at in the cardiac ward in a hospital that is considered to be one of the best in the country. I had a really interesting and productive time there.

Yesterday, it was my turn, along with my friend Justine's, to administer meds. My instructor got ahold of the "MAR," the list of meds and dosages for my patient. It was four pages long.

My patient, as it turned out, was a 60 year old African-American man who was suffering from a number of ailments, the chief among them being congestive heart failure. He was also suffering from severe asthma, gout and a bad cold-- he'd been admitted for shortness of breath. He was also morbidly obese-- he weighed nearly 400 pounds.

I spent about 45 minutes filling out a med chart for him-- I had to look up all of the meds he was on, their use, their possibles complictions, etc. I was astonished at how many medications he was on. I was a little surprised that he was not diabetic, one of the few patients I've worked with who wasn't.

When I finished, I checked in with my instructor, giving her a little overview. I told her that I was going to give my patient a "head to toe" exam, and would get her when I was ready to administer the medications.

When I got to my patient's room, he was working with a respiratory therapist. I introduced myself to him and to her and asked if I could observe. She did better than that-- she invited me to help her.

My patient walked about 40 feet down the hall with a Pulse Oximeter attached to his finger-- a device that uses infrared light to measure the oxygen saturation of the blood's hemoglobin. He struggled on his walker down the hall and sat down. His oxygen saturation was 88 %; under 92% is cause for concern. He rested and his saturation got up to an acceptable level. We walked him back to his room and checked his oxygenation again. It was once again low-- even on oxygen, which he is on full time.

When the respiratory therapist finished with him, I gave him his head to toe. He had severe edema (swelling) in his ankles and "wheezing" in his lungs. It was the first time I'd heard this in a patient and known what it was.

I got my instructor and we administered his morning meds-- all 10 of them. Afterward, I asked if there was anything else I could do for him. He answered yes: could I just sit with him for a while.

I asked my instructor if there was anything else she needed me to do, and if I could honor his request. She told me to go ahead and stay with him.

I pulled up a chair and started chatting with him. We talked about our lives and kids. I asked about his hobbies-- he told me that he loved to sew, but couldn't anymore since he'd lost most of the sight in one of his eyes (probably from arteriosclerosis). He told me about taking old clothes and scraps and re-sewing them into new clothes for his kids. He loved to play chess on the computer.

And then he opened up about how scared he was. He had so much wrong with him, and just struggling to breath was frightening to him. I remembered last year, when I spent three days coughing, wheezing and gasping for breath-- how frightened I was after three days of that. I'm able to eliminate it now with one puff of albuterol; that's just one of the nearly two dozen meds he is on, and he still struggles.

I stayed with him until he had to work with the respiratory therapist again. Later, at the end of my day, I popped in to say goodbye to him. And I had two thoughts. The first is that as I cruise into middle age, I'm glad that I made the decision, when I was about 15, to start taking care of myself-- to eat well, exercise, etc. It's way easier to do little things over a long time, rather than take drastic measures later on. And secondly, I'm glad to be entering a profession where I get to help people.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Johnny Yen's Chicago Stories: Lucky and Unlucky Gangsters

When I was doing the research for a post on the "whacking" of gangster Allen Dorfman on January 21, 1983 in a hotel parking lot not too far from my home, I discovered that another notorious gang hit-- or non-hit, as it turned out-- happened around the same time: the attempted gangland murder of Ken "Tokyo Joe" Eto.

Eto was an oddity in the Chicago Outfit-- a Japanese-American in a world dominated by Italians, Irish and Jews. The Tacoma, Washington native had learned gambling on a troop train on the way to his deployment as a soldier in World War II. It turned out that he had a knack for gambling, and after the war he migrated to Chicago, where eventually began to run the mob's "Bolito" rackets on Chicago's North Side. Aided by several thousand dollars a week in payoffs to the police, Eto was handling $150,000-$200,000 a week.

The FBI caught on to Eto's operation, and Eto was convicted of running the illegal gambling operations. Like Dorfman, the mob was afraid that Eto would become a government witness rather than face prison time. Just a few weeks before his sentencing, Eto was called to a dinner meeting. While sitting in his car in this spot, in front of the now-demolished Mont Clare theater (this is a southward view), Eto was shot three times in the head by John Gattuso and Jasper Campise. In a sign of how corrupt Chicago was then, Gattuso was a Cook County Sheriff's deputy.

Incredibly, the .22 calibre bullets bounced off of Eto's head. He got out of his car and made his way into a nearby pharmacy, where he called for help.

(Here is a picture of the same area in the early 1970's, with a view to the north. You can see the Mont Clare Theater to the far right)

Eto saw the writing on the wall. He immediately fingered the two gunmen. Unfortunately for them, the mob got to them before the police. On July 14, 1983, they were found beaten and strangled to death in the trunk of a car in suburban Naperville, Illinois.

What had happened? It turned out that the gunmen had packed their own ammunition in order to reduce the chances of the ammunition being traced back to them. They'd put an insufficient amount of powder in their bullets, which had bounced relatively harmlessly off of Eto's head. They paid for this mistake with their lives.

And what of Eto? No fool, he entered the FBI witness program. He died of old age in Georgia in 2004.

The location of the attempted hit was interesting: the northwest Chicago neighborhood of Mont Clare. Mont Clare abuts the Chicago suburb of Elmwood Park, home of many mobsters over the years. By gentlemen's agreement, the town was generally off-limits to hits: in fact, one of notorious mob henchman Anthony Spilotro's most infamous and brutal murders came in retaliation for a hit that violated this agreement. The site of Eto's attempted hit was literally within sight-- but just outside of Elmwood Park. Apparently there was still honor among thieves back in those days.

Two years later, there would be less honor in another more successful hit just about a mile away, just on the other side of the border of Elmwood Park and Chicago, of Charles "Chuckie" English. A lieutenant of Sam Giancana, his star fell somewhat when Giancana was murdered in his Oak Park, Illinois home in July of 1975. Still, he soldiered on, working as a bookie in Florida, but eventually returning to Chicago, where he allegedly badmouthed Giancana's successors. It all caught up to him February of 1985, when he was whacked outside of Horvath's, a then-popular and now-demolished restaurant.

This time, the hitman, who was probably Charles Schweihs, who was also probably responsible for the murders of Allen Dorfman, Sam Giancana, Anthony Spilotro and Michael Spilotro, shot English in Elmwood Park, though just barely so; Harlem Avenue, where the restaurant was located, is the dividing line between Chicago and Elmwood Park in that particular location.

These days, there's a Staples office supply store where Horvath's used to be. Across the street, on the Chicago side, nothing has changed; the building that was there back then serving as a warning to English, Eto and all the other mobsters is still there:

The Galewood Funeral Home.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Late Friday Random Ten

I spent the day running some errands, doing a little work on a family project and doing the legwork for a future "Chicago Tales" post when I should have been studying. I'll try to make it up during the week.

My son has a band event tomorrow, so he's at my ex's. We'll get together on Sunday and catch up over a Chinese meal or barbecue.

1. Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)- R.E.M.
2. Bang A Gong- T. Rex
3. Bodhisattva (live)- Steely Dan
4. Lord Have Mercy On My Soul- Black Oak Arkansas
5. Planet Claire- The B-52's
6. Brandy- The Looking Glass
7. One Less Bell To Answer- The Fifth Dimension
8. Will The Wolf Survive?- Los Lobos
9. Istanbul- They Might Be Giants
10. Running Up That Hill- Kate Bush

1. From R.E.M.'s terrific first record, the EP Chronictown.
2. Elton John played the piano on this one.
3. A rarity that I'm going to post soon on Boxnet-- a live performance in the early seventies, in Santa Monica, where the band brought on a wino to introduce them. Very funny.
4. Downloaded this one after hearing it while watching "Dazed And Confused" with my son a few months back.
5. The B-52's beat the sophmore jinx with their second album "Wild Planet."
6. I know it's bubblegum, but I love this song.
7. One of many great pop tunes from this band.
8. Los Lobos are one of the last acts left to fulfill on my "must see" list.
9. Love this band!
10. This song reminds me of a punk bar I hung out with on the Southwest Side of Chicago after college. Grist for a future post.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"It's Bad Luck Just Seein' A Thing Like That..."

Recently, my son and I watched one of my favorite movies, Quick Change. I was fishing around Youtube for a scene from the movie and came up with this one, in which the main characters, who are trying to get to the airport after robbing a bank, stop to ask for directions.

Sears Tower

This is a picture I took of the Sears Tower, er, I mean the Willis Tower last weekend. The reason I could snap a nice picture of it was because my son was driving the car.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Tales Of Sonny Boy: The Turning Point

A couple of months ago, while looking through a box of old pictures, I came across this picture of my son, which was taken in 1996, when he was 2 years old. It's quickly become one of my favorites. It shows his personality very well-- sunny and good-natured. It also reminded me that there was a time, shortly after this picture was taken, that those qualities disappeared temporarily.

After my son was born, I moved in with his mother. I was hoping that she would overcome her lack of communication and basically passive personality (or so I thought) and we could be a happy couple raising our child together.

The old saying "watch out what you wish for, you may get it," applies here. Soon after we moved in together, she became hell on wheels, regularly following me around screaming, assaulting my character, frequently throwing and smashing household objects. Afterward, she would cry and swear it wouldn't happen again. And of course it eventually would. It was classic abuse behavior.

When Adam was about a year old, I decided I needed to move out. I was going back to school to finish my teaching certification and knew that I would not be able to finish school with my self-esteem being constantly battered. I left the possiblity of reconciliation open-- if she would get counseling. She never did, and eventually I started dating someone.

She erupted in rage at this. She filed a paternity suit, though I'd never contested paternity-- and filed for sole custody of our son. She began taking counsel from a trashy friend of hers who had 6 children by 7 different fathers, and lived off the child support from the various fathers. She apparently imagined that she was going to get a bunch of money from me.

A bruising custody fight ensued. I hired a lawyer and, mirculously, started working a web design job that paid very well. My friend Mark, who was shot to death in a robbery nearly four years ago, secured this job for me. I was eternally grateful. It paid for a lot of lawyer time.

Things quickly got ugly. At one point, she broke into my apartment and attempted to take my son out of the place while I had time with him. I called the police, who asked if I wanted her arrested. I declined. I had to contact the police and phone company-- she was making harassing calls.

I began dealing with the court process, which sucks. Your child is basically treated as a piece of property that is the subject of ownership dispute. We were put into remediation. It did little good.

In the meantime, his mother was able to use procedural manuevers to try to keep me from seeing my son. I did not dispute paternity, but until the papers saying this were filed, she could technically keep me from seeing him. The people who owned the day care center he attended saw this, and saw that it was distressing him not to see me-- I'd been the primary caregiver-- and began letting me in to see him every day.

When my son's mother figured this out, he pulled him out of that school and put him into the preschool at the New City YMCA.

As things dragged on, it became apparent that the people at the YMCA had figured out what an ass my son's mother was. Several times, when I went to pick my son up, after my lawyer had been able to force his mother to give me time with him, documents were left "accidentally" for me to see-- this helped me anticipate the often-ridiculous moves his mother was making.

This whole thing wore me down. I'd married the woman I'd been dating, but she suddenly asked for a divorce when it became apparent that this was going to drag on for a while. So much for "stand by your man."

I was doing my student teaching, the final step for my teaching certification, working full time as a waiter and trying to spend time with Adam. One day, I got a call from the school. I just had enough time to stop in and talk to them on my way to work.

It turned out that as distressing as this whole thing was for me, it was even worse for Adam. He gone from the good-natured, friendly kid to one who was defiant, argumentative, and had even hit other kids at school. I'd been called in, along with his mother, to discuss counseling. I met the counselor, Dr. Carl Hampton and quickly agreed to the counseling.

I saw my son sitting near the room and hoped he didn't see me-- I knew he would want to come home with me, and I had to go to work afterward. Unfortunately he saw me and jumped up and shouted "I'm going to dad's house?" I tried to explain to him that I couldn't-- that I had to work. He cut me off, turned away and said "Go. Go, Dad." He refused to talk to me. I had to fight back tears-- it was probably the most heartbreaking moment of this whole sorry process.

It was at that moment I realized that this could not go on any longer. I called my lawyer the next day and told him to settle this as quickly as he could.

Adam began working with "Dr. Carl," as he was known at the school. I was later to find out that his likeness was used for a children's book by his friend and neighbor, illustrator Michael Hays, for the book "Kevin and His Dad." (Hays is probably best known for the children's book he wrote with musician Pete Seeger, "Abiyoyo.") I wish Adam remembered his talks with Dr. Carl-- I would love to know what they talked about. What I do know is that I am eternally grateful to Dr. Carl. My gentle, friendly kid quickly returned.

I do also know that my ex-girlfriend was regularly telling my son what a bad person I was, and calling me things like "asshole." He does remember that. For my part, I kept my promise to my old friend Tasneem, who'd dealt with her parents' bitter divorce, where each parent had bad-mouthed the other. She secured a promise from me to never do that. I kept that promise.

Over time, things have become calm. My ex-girlfriend was diagnosed with a degenerative thyroid disorder, which probably explained her behavior, though according to my son she still yells a lot, despite taking medication for the condition. He's learned to shrug it off. He and I are very close, despite his mother's attempts to keep that from happening.

In a little over two years, he will turn 18, a few months before he finishes high school. He has already started making plans for moving out of his mother's house on his 18th birthday and into my home.

I try not to dwell too much on it all. As an old friend advised me, "Don't rent her free space in your head." But once in a while I think about that evening I made my decision, and realize that the moment I decided to do what I thought what was best for my son, despite what I wanted, was the turning point.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Three Day Weekend Friday Random Ten

We've got Monday off of school-- President's Day. The day off will be welcome-- Saturday and Sunday should be some of the busiest nights of the year at the restaurant-- Valentine's Day.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to hanging out tonight with my old friend and college roommate Scott.

1. Lovers In A Dangerous Time- Bruce Cockburn
2. Baby, Baby- Quicksilver Messenger Service
3. Peter Gunn- Duane Eddy
4. The Prisoner- The Clash
5. I Will Dare- The Replacements
6. Long Tall Glasses- Leo Sayer
7. Wild Horses- The Flying Burrito Brothers
8. Cry Baby- Janis Joplin
9. There's No Way Out of Here- David Gilmour
10. Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby- The Beatles

1. One of my favorite tunes ever, about loving someone while fighting the good fight in society.
2. One of the many great bands that came out of San Francisco in the 1960's.
3. One of the great instrumental hits of all time.
4. This was on "Black Market Clash" originally, a collection of Clash b-sides and outtakes.
5. Man, these guys still sound great.
6. A guilty pleasure, from the '70's.
7. The late, great Gram Parsons with one of the best Stones covers ever.
8. Janis Joplin was a national treasure.
9. From Pink Floyd guitarist/singer Gilmour's first solo album, which came out in 1978.
10. The Beatles at their most rockabilly, from "Beatles For Sale."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


My nursing education has necessitated more reading than I've ever had to do for a degree, including my Master's in Political Science. It's limited the amount of discretionary reading I can do. I'm able to get some done, but have another list: books to read when I'm done with nursing school.

I'm currently reading Thomas Ricks' book "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq." The title is pretty self-explanatory. I'm only about a quarter of the way through the book, and it's stunning. The evidence of the "WMD's" in Iraq was so flimsy, the drive to war so clear, the preconceptions, myopia and ambition of people like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and Wolfowitz are very transparent. As this pack of idiots stampeded the nation into an ultimately disastrous war, intelligence that clearly contradicted their assumptions was summarily dismissed. The arrogance and denial of those involved to this day is infuriating. The thousands of American dead, the tens of thousands who are physically and psychically maimed, the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis-- this blood is on their hands.

I've checked a few other books out of the library to preview them for reading later. Here are some previews of them.

There is nothing like someone who has fallen from a faith to attack it. David Brock wrote the exscrable "The Real Anita Hill" and other right wing crap. He has since turned against the right, and has written a number of books against the American political right, including "The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy." In "Fiasco," Ricks points out that the media, including the supposedly liberal New York Times completely failed to question the headlong lurch into the Iraq war. Previewing "The Republican Noise Machine," it appears that Brock elaborates on how this has happened and how much of the media has failed in its duty to inform.

I've been previewing two books by Eliot Cohen; there was a reference to one of the books in "Fiasco," and the other book looked interesting.

In "Fiasco," Ricks alluded to one of the few congressmen who questioned the Iraq war, mentioning that he'd read Cohen's "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership In Wartime." It examines civilian leadership in the time of war, looking at Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, David Ben-Gurion and Lyndon Johnson. I'm fascinated with how leaders deal with war when it's thrust upon them, and it looks to be a good read.

Looking up Eliot Cohen, I discovered that he had written a book with John Gooch titled "Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure In War." I've actually considered writing a book about military fiascoes, including the Dieppe Raid, the Mayaguez Incident, Operation Marketgarden and others. The working title is "Clusterfuck: Military Fiascoes." Cohen and Gooch's book looks like it will be a good background for this if I ever do write my book.

The last book I'm previewing is Stewart Lee Allen's "The Devil's Cup." I saw the author on the "Coffee" episode of "Modern Marvels" on the History Channel. I picked the book up at the library and it appears it will go on my future reading list. Reading the dust jacket, the author alone is intriguing-- he's clearly a dedicated bohemian. The book is an account of the author's travels to examine the history of coffee. It looks like a good one.

What's on your future reading list?

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Refuge of the Roads

"These are the clouds of Michelangelo
Muscular with gods and sungold
Shine on your witness in the
refuge of the roads"

-- "Refuge of the Roads," Joni Mitchell

This last year has been both some of the most fulfilling and most stressful of my life.

Going into the nursing program at Truman College, a Chicago City College, was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I am thoroughly enjoying everything about the program-- the material, my instructors, my fellow students, everything.

My old friend Michael used to have a tag on his email that is variously ascribed to different people: "You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans."

My plan a few years back was to go to Pharmacy school and to work at a fancy downtown restaurant while I did it. I've changed the school plan-- for the better, I think. And I got fired from the fancy downtown restaurant when I walked in on the manager doing coke. Also for the better, I think.

Still, the last year had a couple of unplanned crises. In June, a guy blew through a stop sign with his SUV and hit the door of my little Toyota Corolla dead on. The sidebeams held and my son and I walked away from the accident, despite the car being totalled. About a month later, the recession caught up with us and my wife was laid off from her job.

We weathered 5 months of her being unemployed-- and me trying to adjust to starting nursing school at the same time as I was trying to adjust to having her here in the day, when I was used to having the place to myself. And we've been weathering money problems.

I've done some short term things. First, today, I contacted Vonage and changed our phone number. For less than $12, I've stopped the creditor calls. In the long term, tomorrow I'm calling a credit counseling agency so that I can manage the credit cards I've juggled my debts with until I finish nursing school.

The upshot of it was that I really needed a good weekend.

I had a feeling that the fact that my son had no high school commitments-- no band, debate or bowling bode well. I was right.

Friday evening I ran and picked him up and brought him home. I cooked up my famous chicken enchiladas while my kids chatted and played video games. Kim got home and we had a rarity-- a dinner with all four of us there. It was a delight.

Kim, who'd had a hellacious week, went to lay down and while the kids played an old Nintendo 64 game they love, I cleaned the kitchen and caught up with my emails and chatted with some friends on Facebook.

I'd Netflixed the last Indiana Jones movie, so Adam and I got ready to watch that while Mel prepared to watch a movie with her movie boyfriend Alan Rickman in it. Before the movies started, they asked if I could make some microwave popcorn. There would be no such thing. I was making it from scratch.

I dragged out the now-beautifully-seasoned iron skillet I dragged home on the bus sometime back in the early nineties-- before either of them were born. As I poured olive oil and popcorn kernels into the skillet, my kids crowded around it. I realized all of a sudden that they'd grown up with microwave popcorn. They'd never seen popcorn popped the old-fashioned way-- the way my mother had cooked it for my brothers and I when we were little-- in an iron skillet. Their fascination with this provided me with a really enjoyable parenting moment.

The skillet, which has been seasoned by thousands of meals cooked in it over 17 or 18 years, cooked the popcorn perfectly. We sat down to eat the popcorn and enjoy our movies.

Saturday morning, I took Adam for a visit to the dentist-- the first one in a couple of years. I provide health insurance for him, and recently Blue Cross/Blue Shield offered to add on dental coverage for $26 a month. Over a year, that's about the cost of two checkups. I had recently come to the realization that his mother was not going to provide dental care-- she hadn't brought him to the dentist for a couple of years (when I'd last provided optional dental insurance). When he visited my parents around Christmas, my mother had noticed that his gums were red, a sign of gingivitis. Sure enough, the dentist confirmed this. Fortunately, she told me, there was no infection or abscess or permanent damage to his teeth. Needless to say, he'll be going every six months from now on, now that I'm in charge of it.

I realized that from here on out, more and more was going to fall on me. His mother fought me tooth and nail over custody, yet she is completely oblivious about a bunch of basic parenting stuff.

Not surprisingly, the lion's share of teaching him to drive has fallen on me. Beginning last fall, I began taking him to a high school parking lot near my home to begin the process of learning to drive and specifically to learn to drive stickshift. His mother has done some driving practice with him, but I realized that he needed a long drive on the open highway. With that in mind, we planned a long trip, to my college town, Charleston, Illinois.

To kill two birds with one stone, I made plans with my old friend Dan H. to meet up with him while we were there. He'd worked as a journalist when I met him about 25 years ago and a few years ago took a job teaching journalism at Eastern Illinois University.

As we hit the road, Adam was a little wobbly with the stickshift-- he'd driven his mother's car, which has an automatic transmission. Within an hour, he was much smoother.

I was exhausted from having worked late the night before, but enjoyed for once being the passenger on a trip I've made many times over the years-- since graduating I've gone down to visit friends down there.

I was a little nervous the whole trip-- he's doing a great job, but as any parent who's done this can tell you, it takes a while to be totally comfortable with your child driving. As he drove, I remembered being nervous for another reason-- when I'd nervously driven him home as a newborn nearly 16 years ago.

As we pulled into Charleston, I called Dan and made plans to meet him in about a half hour; I wanted to show my son around the campus. He knows most of the people who were my friends there and has heard many of the tales of what went on there. I wanted him to get a picture of the place where this all went on.

We met Dan at the Starbucks-- I'm still in disbelief that my college town has a Starbucks. Within minutes, we were talking about the things we always talked about-- politics, comic books, history-- as my son joined in. I regretted that our visit had to be short-- a half hour (I had to get Adam back to my ex's house by 5 pm). We could have talked for hours. I promised Dan that we would get down there for a longer visit.

I realized later that the road trip was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Later, Dan messaged me on Facebook and complimented me-- on how intelligent my son was. I realized that Dan, who was part of a big group of friends I've mentioned before who hung out together and met every Saturday afternoon at what we called "The Gentlemen's Lunch" (though there were eventually many women included in the Algonquin Table-like weekly gathering) was a big part of whatever successes I've had in raising him. It was in that social circle that I felt, for the first time in my life, that life could be intellectually stimulating, satisfying, and, well, fun. I've tried never to lose that, and I've tried to impart that to both of my kids.

When I met Dan, I was a pissed-off 23 year old guy with a big chip on his shoulder. I was sure that I didn't want kids and sure I would never make it to 30.

But I did make it to 30. And 40. And I'm creeping quickly up on 50. I've ended up with two great kids. And here I am getting ready to start one last career. Despite the fact that I'm overworked and completely broke I've realized that for the first time in a long, long time, I'm really happy with my life. It's finally sunk in that it's not just the destination, but the road itself.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The "Everybody's Home" Friday Random Ten

Had a long, but productive day. Got together with two of my old classmates from last semester to study for a test we have Monday. We're not in the class anymore-- they had lower numbers in the lottery and were able to get our old instructor. We studied for 3 1/2 hours, but it didn't seem like it. I think we were just all happy to hang out once again.

For once, my son doesn't have any commitments this weekend-- no band practice or performance, no debate, no bowling team-- and we have a whole weekend with him. I cooked Chicken Enchiladas for dinner and then we played "Settlers of Cataan," a game they love. He and his stepsister are playing an old Nintendo 64 game they both love, while I enjoy a glass of Shiraz and do my Friday Random Ten. Later, Adam and I are watching the last Indiana Jones movie and Mel is watching a movie that has her boyfriend Alan Rickman in it.

It's nice to have both of of my kids home for a change. And it's nice to see how close they've become.

Sunday, Adam I are tenatively planning a road trip; he's finished driver's ed but still needs about 30 hours of driving time to get his license. If all goes well, we're driving down to my college town and visiting my old friend Dan. It should knock about 7 hours off time needed. It'll be nice to have a bunch of time with him and have him meet a friend who was a big influence on me.

1. Bad Luck- Social Distortion
2. Animals- Talking Heads
3. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For- U2
4. Across the River- Bruce Hornsby and the Range
5. Green Onions- Booker T. and the M.G.'s.
6. Lonely Too Long- The Rascals
7. Two Hangmen- Mason Proffit
8. How Do You Sleep?- John Lennon
9. Ruby Room- The Foxboro Hottubs
10. Famous Blue Raincoat-- Leonard Cohen

1. My ex-wife (ex-wife #1) has a videotape of a disastrous road trip Mike Ness did with a band he was in in the eighties. They set out for California in a school bus, which kept breaking down. They made it to California, where the bus died for good and they all had to call their parents for money to get back home. Wish I'd made a copy of it while I was still married to her.
2. From "Fear of Music," my favorite Talking Heads record.
3. There's part of me that wishes that U2 had hung it up after the Joshua Tree album and gone out on a high note.
4. This song keeps popping up on both my laptop Itunes shuffle and the Ipod shuffle I use in the car. Love the tale this song tells, of a woman who tries to break out of her old town. She fails at first, but the narrator knows that she'll try again.
5. This group was unusual at the time in that it was racially integrated. Future "Blues Brothers" Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn were "M.G.'s," which stood for "Memphis Group."
6. Love these guys!
7. A song by a Chicago folkie group about Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre", in which Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than follow Nixon's demand that they fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.
8. John Lennon's rather pointed-- and ugly-- swipe at Paul McCartney. McCartney responded more gently and with much more humor on "Band On The Run" with "Let Me Roll It To You."
9. The Foxboro Hottubs are a side project for a couple of the guys in Green Day. The Ruby Room, which is in Oakland, is one of my favorite bars in the world. I had a post a couple of years ago about me and my friend Viktor Zeitgeist almost getting thrown out of the Ruby Room.
10. I love Leonard Cohen's music, and particularly love this song, which takes the form a letter to an old friend who had slept with Cohen's girlfriend.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

See No Evil- Television

Seventies New York scenesters Television doing their classic "See No Evil" live.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Stepping Outside of Your Comfort Zone

This morning I got up at 5 a.m. and set out by 6 a.m. to get to my first day of this semester's clinical. I swung by the homes of a couple of my classmates, who were catching a ride with me to Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago Hospital, where we're doing our clinicals are this semester.

It had been a while since I'd been in that part of town, but I knew my way around-- my friend Larry grew up there and used to catch a ride with me when we had breaks in college. Also, my brother got his PhD at the University of Chicago, and I used to visit him there. Still, it had been a while, and we foundered around a bit until we found the hospital. Happily, we were able to find a street space to park in and avoid the $20 parking fee.

One of my classmates got a call from our instructor-- she was running a half hour late. I was glad that a couple of the people there had had her as an instructor before; I had never met her and had no idea what she looked like. At about 7:30, she walked into the lobby and we went upstairs to the cardiac unit, where we'll be working this semester.

We gathered in a conference room and introduced ourselves to her and one another. I pointed out that I was leaving a teaching career to start a nursing career. Ms. B., the instructor talked about her basic policies, and talked about her love of the job (and made it clear that she expects us to have enthusism for it), showed us around the unit and set us off on a scavenger hunt-- we had to gather up a list of things on a list she gave us, things like an emesis basin, catheter tubing, a "4 x 4" gauze pad, a 23 Gauge needle etc. It was a great exercise. It made us comfortable with being on the unit and with identifying and handling various medical devices.

We gathered together so that Ms. B. could answer any questions we had on the equipment we gathered, then we returned the equipment to where it belonged. Happily, she dismissed us early. Next week will be the real deal.

At some point we discussed some of the stuff we'll do this semester. One of the biggies is dispensing medicine. This semester we'll stick to pills and lotiions, but at some point in the future we'll have to stick needles into people-- shots and PICC lines (IV's). I realized that from here on out, I'll be stepping outside of my comfort zone on a regular basis. And I think I'm okay with it.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Johnny Yen's One Hit Wonders: "C'est La Vie," by Robbie Nevil

It's funny how a song that you might not necessarily listen to becomes a beloved song because it brings you back to a time in your life.

When I was 25 and just out of college, I started hanging at a place called Gaspar's, on Southport and Belmont Avenue, in Chicago. The place had two parts, a bar and a small concert area. It was down the street from where a legendary Chicago punk bar, Tut's, had been, and in fact they also had many, many great shows there. A lot of punk legends played there and many others-- it was where "They Might Be Giants" played whenever they were in Chicago back then.

The front of the house was a wonderful place too. It was where I inevitably brought old friends to have a drink, and the occasional date. There was an old bar (which is still there in its current incarnation, Schuba's) and a great jukebox: Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay," Richie Valens' "La Bamba," and many other oldies, and some great newer songs. One of my favorite memories of Gaspar's was of an old girlfriend, who was Latina, translating the lyrics to La Bamba for me back in pre Spanish-speaking days.

One of the songs on the jukebox I grew to love was Robbie Nevil's "C'est La Vie." I ended up buying the 45 of it, which is still somewhere in my basement with the rest of my old 45's. I remember being surprised, when I bought it, that he was white. Given that he's written mostly for R and B artists, I guess I shouldn't have been.

Los Angeles native Robbie Nevil was at first known as a songwriter for the likes of the Pointer Sisters, Debarge and Earth, Wind and Fire. In 1986, he hit a home run on his first at-bat, as "C'est La Vie," a song from his self-titled first album went up to #2 on the charts.

He released a few more records, but sales were successively less with each album. He returned to writing songs for others, and has done quite well, authoring songs for Babyface, Jessica Simpson and Destiny's Child. He has done work for Disney on High School Musical and Hannah Montana.

Here's a link to the video: