Friday, May 27, 2011

Saying goodbye to the ost important person to never know my name

Tonight I find myself mourning for a man I barely knew, but whose leadership and personal drive provided me with some of the best years of my adult life. This afternoon, Frank Wood, former owner and publisher of the Green Bay News-Chronicle died at the age of 82.

To be clear, I only met Mr. Wood on a handful of occasions - a Christmas party one year, around the office a few times, nothing major and certainly nothing that he would remember I'm sure - but the wonderful community he created at the Chronicle was something I'll always cherish.

Strangely, I started working at the rival Press-Gazette in the fall of 1998 when I began covering Junior A hockey after being on staff at the school paper for all of a few weeks. I cringe now, thinking of the first game story (that hadn't even gone to press yet) that I brought in as a writing sample. Considering that without any actual training, I wrote and edited that scrap and then had the balls to present it as my one and only sample, I still have no idea why I was offered the job. They must have been desperate.

Despite this, I started small and kept coming back each week, picking up new skills as I went and by the end of the season, I was able to string together a few words without the editor having to strike whole paragraphs or sit me down to interview me in order to get readable copy ready for the morning edition. Everyone there was nice enough, but other than basic feedback it was a pretty simple pattern of come in, type, wait, get a pat on the head and be on my way.

The things I remember most were the simple size of the space - high ceilings, sprawling desks that were usually empty by the time I rambled in after hockey games and the ancient terminals used to enter the copy. The whole space could have been designed by asking anyone on the street to describe what a newsroom looked like. I half expected Clark Kent to wander by looking for a cup of coffee some evenings.

When the season ended there, I was asked by a friend to come and interview at her paper, which was the Chronicle. I should point out here that I was incredibly naive at this point and all I knew at this point was a.) The Gazette was bigger and b.) The Chronicle was willing to hire me through the spring and summer. I made the jump.

The Chronicle was certainly smaller and quirkier, starting with the building. The story I'd heard was that it was a converted convent and the narrow hallways flanked by what would have been old bedrooms seemed to back that up. At the heart though, were the people.

Melanie was the friend who brought me in after dropping hints and clips on the sports editor's desk. I've never known her to run at anything less than full speed for anything in her life and we've been friends for 13 years. Even then as a full-time student, she was an award-winning journalist who ran circles around everyone in the city. Even in her early 20s, Melanie was doing the things I still talk about, like the time she had herself locked in prison for a story and had a hard time talking herself out when the message was missed that she was in there voluntarily.

Tim was my editor who never had an off day in any sense of the term. If the doors were open, Tim was there and if Tim was there, he was always focused. Some of my fondest memories of working late nights there were of Tim, hunched forward in his chair rocking slightly, fidgeting with some knickknack on his desk and going word by word through the small copy agate in box scores for mid-season high school softball games. The dedication required to not only read each name but to remember individual players, their usual positions and their older siblings was nothing short of superhuman.

He did this every night for every name in every game. The dedication to getting every little thing right bordered on obsession and it made every one of us on his staff hungry to provide perfect copy every night, no matter how long it took.

Finally, there was Warren who ran the news department and was the man I worked for when I started branching out into public record work. While a totally different personality, his drive matched Tim's, though he took a different route to that end. Warren was a character who I remember cherishing new vinyl when he could find it and being one of the few true journalists I've known who had run for office instead of just grousing about the state of politics. I still laugh at the memory of a grammar lesson he taught me about the difference between something being thrown "off" a bridge versus "over" a bridge by tossing a Beanie Baby around his desk. "Mufasa is being thrown over the computer monitor," he said while throwing the lion in an arc back and forth in front of his screen. "Mufasa is being thrown off the monitor." I got the lesson.

These three people were just a few of the many great folks I worked with there, but they were all a product of Mr. Wood's vision for what a newspaper should and could be. The Chain Gang is a great book that outlines the fight for Green Bay between these two papers I worked for that I didn't read until I'd already jumped ship to the Chronicle. Most people in town still have no idea that any of this was happening, even now, but that book shed a lot of light on the culture I'd been invited into.

The push to keep two voices in the community - vaguely referenced in Mr. Wood's obituary today in the Press-Gazette - was a guiding principle for both the paper and its owner. While I joined after the dust had settled, there were still plenty of people who were there for the real fireworks. It was something that wasn't talked about, but it certainly was felt on a daily basis. We had to be better in every aspect of production because we felt that a better product was the only way we'd be able to compete for another week.

It was a need to be right all the time, from breaking news in major criminal trials to the name of a shortstop on a softball team in Pulaski, WI. It was a need to not only try, but to achieve and to feel like your one story made the difference between life and death for the paper. More than that, it was our paper, regardless if you were the owner, an editor, a star reporter or just the guy who took phone calls from coaches to format box scores at someone else's desk after they'd left for the day.

"Well, you tried" was never good enough which was felt throughout the organization and that started with Mr. Wood. He created a culture where bright, dedicated people could work together and produce what a paper should be as opposed to what it had always been. He gave us a space to get together every day to laugh and talk and disagree and bust our asses in the name of telling all sorts of stories. He let characters hire other characters and then find ways to all work together to tell those stories to our community with a sense of dignity and heart that I never found again at other newspapers I'd worked at.

For me, the Chronicle was an opportunity to work with the smartest kids in school and to be able to say that I found my place there and was able to thrive at the best newspaper most people never heard of. The vindication I feel from that accomplishment is something that I will always treasure.

Now Mr. Wood is gone and the Chronicle is gone, sold a few years ago to the company that had been held at bay for so long. I can't help but feel sadness in knowing that this man who provided so much for the community, for his friends and family and for his work family is now gone. I feel sadness that the new generation of writers looking for their place in the world won't have the option to work for one of Frank Wood's papers any more.

It's rare that someone lives up to the hype of the legends that surround them. Frank Wood fought Gannett and won for years where others had failed. He created a fine paper, staffed by good people who all fought for a common goal. He gave me a place to belong and feel that I was making a real difference at a time when I had lost my direction.

If he could do that much good for someone he barely knew, I can only imagine all he did for his family and the people lucky enough to call him a friend. Rest in peace, Mr. Wood. I will miss you on so many levels.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fighting the Good Fight

I have a new mission in life which has become a nearly all-consuming passion taking up all of my free time that is not dedicated to fatherhood, shoveling or napping. In a few short hours, I hope to complete 100% of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption.

Needless to say, my wife is thrilled.

I don't usually complete games, mainly because I have so many more important and fulfilling things going on in my life it is hard and I am lazy. That goes double for Rockstar games like Grand Theft Auto and Bully.

While I loved GTA 4, the reality was that to "complete" the game, you needed to do a lot of running around in what amounts to a full-scale version of New York City. And while running around, you need to locate and eliminate 100 pigeons, steal a boatload of cars and do a ton of other side missions. Did I mention that the gamespace is essentially New York City?

Red Dead was different. I looked up how far along I'd progressed in the game and was surprised to see I was over 80% without really trying. For the uninitiated, this includes picking 100+ flowers in the wilderness, shooting and skinning animals and the usual busywork missions.

While Rockstar is known for its attention to detail and engrossing narratives, they took things a step further this time around and I have to admit I was a little shocked to be explaining the plot to my wife last night.

While I watched with varying degrees of interest as Roger Ebert battled the gamers over whether or not games could be "art," I found it a little strange to be covering character development and the plot twists as I tried to explain why I had just (accidentally) executed a horse.

While it may not be Citizen Kane, the characters had real depth and I had no shame defending my choices when it comes to time wasting. Again, my wife was thrilled.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The sound of democracy is silent

Years and years ago when I worked for a weekly paper on the Southwest side of Chicago, I wrote a short editorial on the one-year anniversary of 9/11 that spoke of my trip to Washington, DC and how I was impressed by how little had changed in the past year.

I wrote of sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the night with friends and how comforting that was in light of increased security at the airports and around the country in general. While it seems strange, I was most proud of the country when I was able to just hang out without an armed guard in sight.

With today's mid-term elections, the country is in the midst of a new round of growing pains as an energized electorate (in some sections of the country and the economic class structure) heads to the polls to shake up the Congressional makeup. It's foolish to deny that this is at least partly a reflection of how citizens feel about the Obama administration, whether you agree with the candidates and their platforms or not.

One important thing for me to keep in mind today is that despite the anger and opposing view points about what is wrong and how to fix it, on the whole this election should play out quietly and without violence in the context of our nation's history and when compared to contemporary attempts at democracy around the world.

When you go to your polling place today, chances are you will not be greeted by the National Guard, but at most a local police officer there to quell sandbox fights between supporters and to make sure no one is placing signs too close to the entryways. Compared to the fall of 1886, "when masked intruders burst into the room to seize the ballot box" from a black district in Texas (Donald Nieman, Equality Deferred), this year will be downright civil.

It's worth remembering that while the rhetoric gets ramped up at election time - my home state of Illinois featured an ad from the incumbent governor calling his opponent a puppy killer this year - that it has been worse in the past. Not that it makes things any more palatable or acceptable, but I can take a small degree of solace in knowing that we're continuing to improve the process. I got a small degree of satisfaction in voting this year with the benefit of a better perspective on our country's long history of exclusion at the ballot box and knowing that while over half the country will not vote, most of them could if they wanted to.

Look at any of the secondary stories today for the county's major newspapers and they will have at least one editorial or side bar on what voters have to go through in other countries to vote. Lines around the block. Threats and actual, physical violence. Widespread fraud.

Meanwhile in the United States, we will squawk about the process and the lack of civility. We will bemoan the role of the 24 hour news cycle and attack ads that annoy us as we wait out the commercial breaks of Dancing With the Stars. We will wring our hands over the gridlock in Washington and complain to too much or too little money is being spent to further our ideas of what we should offer our citizens at all levels of government. But aside from minor scuffles, I can't imagine there will be any sort of substantial violence as a result of the election.

Looking at the box score at the end of the night, we will still be miles ahead of most of the world and of our own history. Personally, my candidates will lose in my home district in the suburbs of Chicago. I've known this since I moved last October and considering I'm in the liberal minority of my community's residents, I can't really find fault in my representative's decisions to vote the way they will in Congress.

However, I also know that I will not suffer for my decisions made at the polls. No one has come to my house to threaten my family (the only contact has been the incumbent's campaign literature being left quietly on the handle of my garage door) for voting the way I do. I was not detained as a registered Democrat while I went to work this morning and there will be no rioting tonight as Republicans retake control. There will be nothing approaching the violence seen in Texas in 1886 and there will be no lynchings tonight in the town square. When the votes are counted, I will not be singled out or questioned by those in power. Most importantly for the United States in the big picture of our personal history, no one will be turned away from the polling places based strictly on race. While the 15th Amendment guarantees that, it's worth noting that it took nearly a century for that to become a reality.

We will all participate in (or be subjected to) the post-mortem analysis about what this all means for the country and how the mood of the electorate has changed since 2008. We will hope that things get better for ourselves and our neighbors, that the economy will get back on track, that our property will rise in value and that jobs will come back to a level that people will be able to provide for themselves and their families. While these are very serious problems for those impacted by unemployment or health care costs, these are what's known in the business as "rich people problems."

There are very real problems facing our nation and actual issues of inequality based on race, sexual orientation and class, but they are not at a point where any level of government is going to go knocking on doors tonight to round up people on either side of the issue.

We all want something better and assume that our views are the best way to achieve that end. We can all agree that there is room for improvement and that we have a long way to go before we reach our personal utopian dreams of what our government can achieve and how much or how little can be done for its citizens. In the meantime we'll just have to make due with a stable society that is covering the basics so well that we can focus on those secondary issues of policy and politeness.

(Image from

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Are we there yet?

Hopped up on the first episode of "When We Left Earth" I was pretty excited to see a story yesterday about missions to Mars. While most of these stories center on the costs, technological shortcomings or the existential question of exactly why we'd want to do that, this story had a different angle:

What if we planned a mission to Mars, but didn't have to worry about the return trip?

It's an interesting idea to kick around, but brings up a host of questions and related issues. How do you hold someone to that kind of "til death" contract? Assuming the crew is needed for decades on end, how do you account for changes of heart? What if there's an unplanned pregnancy en route? How long would the line of volunteers really be for a mission like this? How many of those volunteers would really be viable candidates? Worst yet, what if something goes wrong and there's no viable escape plan to leave Mars and return to Earth safely?

While this is certainly an interesting shift in the thought process, it seems like costs saved by planning a one-way mission would quickly be eaten up in research and development for creating a foolproof mission that would create a sustainable colony in space.

The logical thing to do seems to be a smaller colony on the moon first where there could be some proof of concept testing done with a shorter range if there's an issue. Plus, how much fun would it be to watch that happen? I'd be first in line for a telescope.

(Image from:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wait, you're not any smarter than I am, are you?

I got one of those "remember when" text messages the other night when Neal checked in to ask if I remembered an ill-fated late night bike ride to try and get a new Dave Matthews album in college. It's worth pointing out that we had no really solid idea of where the Best Buy was in Green Bay, my bike and fitness levels should have precluded me from trying this and it was the middle of the night when we started out (midnight CD release). Neal got it right when he concluded, "We're lucky we're not dead after that."

He has a totally valid point.

It's interesting to look back now and see just how determined we were to be the first kids in our dorm to grab the new album (Before These Crowded Streets, for the record). I have two, maybe three DMB songs on my iPod right now and really, I can't think of many reasons to be anywhere at midnight any more, aside from on my couch watching a movie or playing video games. That's just the hard driving rock and roll lifestyle I now lead.

The piece I've really been rolling around for some time now (that's where I was in the 18 months since the last post here!) is just how much your perception shifts as you get older and have the pleasure (or displeasure) of hanging around with musicians.

There's a definite point where it hits you that your buddy's band, which means so very much to at least a handful of people, is very likely full of shit. A few seconds pass and it hits you that your favorite bands are likely similarly full of shit.

Let me explain.

You get a new album and you furiously tear the plastic off and (if you're like me) cram that sucker into your car's CD player as fast as you can, sometimes with those stupid security stickers still attached to the CD itself. Then, you wait for something to grab you.

I normally don't know songs word for word when I buy a CD anymore, but I track down the songs that appeal to me musically, then start figuring out just what the hell they're singing about. It's an odd little afterthought in most cases.

Rarely do I pore over music like I used to, finding meaning in the lyrics that will give me clues about how to deal with a girlfriend or make it through the week or effectively fight the man. In short, I'm a little let down that music doesn't hit me like it used to. Granted, it hits me differently now, so I'm not a total robot, but I no longer turn to recording artists to explain my life to me or offer glimpses as to what it all means.

This is for the better, as hours spent in the company of musicians has taught me that they're by no means any wiser to the mysteries of the world and humanity than I am in most cases (in some cases, they are much, much dumber). It stops me just short of feeling sheepish for giving the idols of my teenage years so much credibility in my own mind, but I now find it oddly soothing when I catch a lyric or verse that makes me feel accepted or vindicated.

In short, I've gone from listening to albums for the answers to listening to them for the echoes.

Songs can now remind me of times in my life, specific people or trips or moments that we try to hold onto. "That's the song I listened to a lot when I drove to the hospital to see my son when he was born (Roger Clyne, Contraband). That's the song that reminds me of so-and-so's failed marriage (The Bottle Rockets, Gravity Fails). That's the song Neal played when he was showing me his new Harman Kardon speakers (Norah Jones, Don't Know Why)."

Again, not having any more or less insight than anyone else, I know I'm not the first to privately marvel at music's ability to serve as a cheap time machine, but the shift in how I interact with music has been something I'm cognizant of lately. The lyrics are still important, but are no longer the gospel I once assumed they were.

It's like Oasis sang when they said, "Don't put your life in the hands / of a rock and roll band / Who'll throw it all away."

Or something like that. I have a hard time keeping track these days.

(Image from:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The 365th Day

My son turns one tomorrow. In theory, he should be turning one some time in May, but his early arrival leaves us with a February birthday and that's something we've now accepted.

We've also come to terms with the simple facts that not everyone we shared our NICU experience with had the same wonderful outcome and that premature births are going to continue to impact people as long as there are births of any sort. I get an uneasy feeling knowing that as I write this, someone else is being forced into that same situation we faced a year ago and that there have been no substantial changes made in the past year to accommodate the financial or emotional toll that two to three months spent in a children's hospital takes on a family.

I put one foot firmly on my soap box a few months ago to bring up the topic of health care and how it directly relates to care in premature babies, with the main point being that the family leave system isn't geared for these types of situations. My wife's maternity leave ended weeks before my son would be able to come home and there was fancy HR footwork and an understanding boss to pull us out of that mess, but some people aren't as lucky to be in a position like that.

I've learned from experience that some people emerge from their time in the NICU with a stronger belief that the system is fine as it is, because they were able to use their allocated leave and health insurance without a hitch, but I just can't get behind that. I am thankful that we were OK financially (due in large part to the hours my wife had to spend on the phone to sort all of that out), but I also know that as a community, we can do better. I honestly feel it's a disservice to the families that come up behind us to leave everything the way it is, sigh deeply and think, "Well, I'm glad we got through that."

Looking back a year later, we've had a better outcome than we could have hoped for on the day our son arrived. My wife and I have held together better than I had hoped as well and developmentally, our son continues to hit his milestones and run ahead of schedule on a few things. When we switched pediatricians, his full history wasn't on the charts and his doctors had no idea that he was born three months prematurely. These are minor and major blessings and we try our best to recognize that, without dwelling too much on what could have been.

In the interest of giving back in ways other than monetarily (which is important as well - The Ronald McDonald House, March of Dimes and others provide irreplaceable and incredibly vital services to families and patients) I want to share a few things I've learned in the past year. Hopefully this will somehow help someone who is in the same situation we were in a year ago.

* You'll be totally terrified, know that there's very little you can do to impact the outcome and have to move past that. As we sat in my wife's hospital room, a series of specialists filed through, tossing numbers and vital stats around just a short time before she'd be rushed off to the operating room. This was only the first of many times when I felt completely out of control of the situation, had to recognize and accept that and then get my ass into the game. This also came up that day when I began to worry intensely about developmental and physical issues that my son would face from an emergency delivery. There's just a certain point where you have to realize that worrying has its place to help you get a handle on some situations, but after that you need to get back to the task of being a mother, father or parent.

* You'll have to trust doctors more than you'll probably want to. We had nothing but confidence in the team of doctors at the University of Chicago, in the hospital itself and especially in our nurses, but especially in the beginning, there were decisions that needed to be made quickly. You play the odds and make the best decisions you can on the spot. I had underestimated exactly how much "that's my child" can freeze you in your decision-making tracks.

* There is no right or wrong - there is only what works right now. That became our mantra, whether it was navigating different treatments or getting a handle on how the whole process impacted our relationships with friends, family and each other. There's no go to manual for these situations and you have to find the courage to face the reality that what worked last week might not work today. Being able to adjust and move forward is a skill that we had to learn, and it wasn't easy.

* Know when to say "enough." My only minor regret was that I didn't take enough time off the first few weeks. I suppose on a subconscious level, I was trying to restore order to my life by trying to focus on my work schedule and staying within the framework of my company's vacation policy, but in retrospect I could have used a few more days to adjust to my new life. Take the time you need and don't be afraid of not being a team player at work. When my wife needed to take unpaid leave the weeks after my son came home, we decided that you can't buy time and that if we had to make due with a smaller budget, so be it. When you're being pulled in so many directions, you can get tripped up trying to keep everyone happy and in the end, it just burns you out.

* Know when to say enough (and just head home for the night). We learned this one fairly early on in our stay at the hospital, where we'd opt to go home and start again in the morning if our son was having a bad day. We were warned time and again by our nurses that it would be a roller coaster (luckily, it wasn't for the most part) but there were just some evenings where his numbers ping ponged up and down and we had to excuse ourselves instead of driving ourselves crazy by watching his monitors.

* You're not a bad parent if you're not living at the hospital 24/7. This is a convergence of the previous two - we had to realize that we weren't doing anyone any favors by being zombies who spent every waking moment in the NICU. Go see a movie or sneak out for a girls' night every now and again and realize that your life doesn't stop just because you have this new and important responsibility. This is easier said than done, but I did notice it became easier to skip a day once I'd broken the initial streak of consecutive days visited.

* Embrace the parents around you. It's easy to become isolated from the other parents surrounding you who are going through similar experiences. I was hesitant at first for two major reasons - I didn't want to bother anyone who was under as much stress as I was and chose to keep a low profile and after a while, I felt a bit guilty that my son was showing obvious signs of improvement, while other kids were not. Not reaching out was a mistake and I was pleasantly surprised that my wife was constantly making an effort to keep up with the other families. They understand more than anyone what you're going through (down to the same complaints about stuffy masks if there's a cold or flu that gets loose in the unit) and this little subculture of parenthood breaks all societal boundaries. Secondly, my fears that the other parents would somehow resent me for having a healthy baby were unfounded and instead, it gave them some hope that their baby would turn a corner soon. When all you have is each other day after day, it's nice to have that network to check up on everyone and bring new families into the mix after you've been there for a while.

* If you're a new parent, all of this is more difficult. In addition to the major shakeup in your life by having a premature baby, you have to deal with all the run of the mill new parent stuff. It took a while for the "you are this baby's advocate" stuff to take hold. For a while, there was a total disconnect between the little person that kind of looked like me and realizing he was my son and that I had a duty to not only be there, but to make decisions for him and protect him. That took some time. On the plus side, if it's your first kid, you have nothing to compare it to, so it's all in your realm of "normal." That helps a lot.

I'm leaving out all sorts of things here, but that's the basic list. Most importantly, you just need to roll with things as they pop up and try to enjoy the experience as much as possible. Despite the unnatural surroundings, we never felt at a loss for love or the wonder of the first grandchild for both families. Our NICU was incredibly welcoming and while we couldn't have our son home right away, at no point did we feel like our stay was robbing us of the experience (once the initial shock wore off).

While we were incredibly fortunate to have a baby that kept clearing hurdles, put on weight and was discharged without incident, we realize that even with today's medicine, that isn't guaranteed. Still, you do the best you can with what you're given and then wake up to do it all over again the next day. You try to create routines and keep on track and with a little hope and a degree of luck, you get to take your baby home.

If you're just adjusting to all of this tonight, I can't say enough about how rewarding the whole experience is. I also want you to know that there are thousands of people like you who have been down this road before and are around to help, even if you don't know us yet.

Welcome to the club.

Friday, January 15, 2010

If you build it, that's a start

It all started with such promise when my wife and I dipped our toes into the world of suburban public transit:

Bus-train-bus. No driving, no parking headaches for a change.
8:53 AM Dec 9th, 2009

Then, those high hopes sunk a bit a day later:

Two strikes, PACE! Way to suck again jackasses.
6:40 PM Dec 10th, 2009

And lately it's been downright hostile:

Dear PACE transit - in case you forgot, you still suck. Expect more letters or hire better drivers. Your choice, jerks.
6:34 PM Jan 7th

Dear PACE transit - in case you forgot, you still suck.
6:40 PM Jan 13th

Why the hostility? Because after a month of riding consistiently, PACE is failing me constantly as a rider. In that month, I've been left at the station several times, been taken miles from home in the middle of a snowstorm because a driver didn't know how to change their route number (and didn't tip off riders to the fact that the bus wouldn't be traveling the route indicated on the bus) and had to wait an average of a half hour most nights for my route to come back around.

I'll stop here to say that my wife, who rides the same train each day, does not have these problems. Her PACE buses run like clockwork and she has nothing but nice things to say. So, for some people, even in my own house, PACE is great. For me, they provide nothing but headaches.

My issue revolves around the fact that it's hard enough to get to and from the Loop when you live in the suburbs. Parking is at a premium (Naperville's lot woes are well documented) and travel times are unpredictable and maddening. The simple, sustainable answer is to take public transportation, but given how unreliable PACE has been for me, I have no desire to do the "right" thing and would much prefer the option that consistently gets me home in a few minutes.

When you read the schedule for the feeder route that services my block, you notice two things. One, you have between 2 and 4 minutes to hop on the bus once your train gets in (no problem, I'm a spry 31). Two, depending on when you arrive in the burbs, you'll take one of three different bus routes (and they overlap). So, you need to keep track of multiple, overlapping routes and you have to hope your driver doesn't try to drag race the train out of the station.

This is the heart of the issue for me. It makes sense to take public transportation into the city, and the best, fastest option for that is the train. Great. I'm in.

In order to get you to the station, you can drive or you can save a few bucks and take a bus from the end of your block. Awesome, even better - I like saving gas and money.

When you get home, make sure you hit your timing right, because while the route schedule lets you know you only have a few minutes to get on a bus, chances are it won't be there and probably won't arrive for a half hour or more. Oh, and when it does arrive, make sure you ask if that's the actual route, because sometimes it isn't and you end up miles away.

None of this makes me want to ride PACE again or rely on it for my transportation needs. I know it's the smart play for the environment, for local traffic and for my wallet. However, I have no desire to stand around, wasting time, when for a few dollars a day, I can have a parking spot of my very own.

So, in the chicken vs. egg debate of why suburbanites don't use public transportation, I'd like to add another option beyond lazy, car-loving and snobby people with a misplaced sense of entitlement. Let's add shitty service that no one wants to count on because it's unreliable.

I will admit on the odd days that I've hopped off the train and found a bus waiting, it was a wonderful experience. However, those days are the exception and not the rule. So, as a presently disgruntled PACE rider, what do I suggest (instead of simply bitching, which is much more fun)?

1.) Pick a schedule and stick with it. Run buses at half hour intervals from 4:30 to 7 p.m. for the feeder routes. Forget the lie that the buses leave every 20 minutes (as trains arrive) because that just pisses riders off. Run a bus every half hour - no muss, no fuss.
2.) Hire drivers who can at least operate the equipment. The CTA has their share of sub-par drivers, but I've never gotten on the wrong bus because the sign was too difficult to change. (To my knowledge, these are the same basic buses.) I need two things from my driver - leave on time, have the right route displayed. Folksy, small town charm optional.
3.) Simplify the routes. Yes, I know it's more cost effective to run combined routes, but that's no help when the bus I'm waiting on isn't arriving. Do I wait on my bus, assuming it's on its way or do I go looking for the combined feeder because it is now past an arbitrary time? If this costs too much, back routes off to 45 minute intervals (because that's what is actually arriving anyways).
4.) (Optional) Enable the GPS routes like the CTA does. Know what's more obnoxious than a bus that's 30 minutes late? Looking up every 2 minutes to see if just maybe that's your bus at the end of the block (it never is).

That's it.

Will it increase ridership? Who knows, but it would certainly get me to give PACE a second look. If the choice is between $80 a month and a little more suburban traffic because I'm a selfish jerk or standing around waiting for buses that arrive at random out of the ether, well, that's not much of a choice at all, is it?

(Image from

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

I know it's a rough economy, but some things just aren't helping matters

About a year ago, I posted an ad on Craigslist to hire a part-time staffer for office work on weekends and occasional hours during the work week. We were paying $10 an hour for this and in any given week, the staffer would be getting under 20 hours.

In short, it was a pretty basic job, not paying a lot and primarily on weekends and I figured the hardest part would be finding someone who would both want to do the job and be able to do the job. I was so very wrong.

In 24 hours, I received over 400 resume submissions from all kinds of candidates. People with 15 years of experience as office managers for major companies. People with masters degrees in marketing. People fresh out of college in some small town trying to get a foothold in Chicago so they could afford a tiny, rat-infested apartment in an up and coming neighborhood. Extraterrestrials practicing their English skills via e-mail before an impending invasion.

After 200 submissions between noon and 4:30 p.m., I left the posting up overnight just to see what happened. I was forced to shut it all down the next day. Frankly, I was shocked that many people were scouring the ads, period.

Through that process, I was suddenly struck by just how arbitrary the whole hiring process can be. Every time I half-assed a submission. Every time I just skipped the cover letter. Every time I sent a hiring manager pictures of a basket full of sad puppies with the message, "Me wanna job."

At the time, I swore I would post about this as it would be funny to some people and educational to others. Kind of like the Not Hired site.

With that in mind:

* Handwritten resumes are a no-no. I heard this second hand from a friend I'd temped with for a while at Northwestern. He was at a job fair where someone was shopping resumes hand-written on loose leaf notebook paper. We would discuss this when sharing tales of woe from our misadventures in temp work.

* If you are 18 or older and plan to look for any type of job, you need to have a somewhat professional e-mail address. I'm not looking to hire JakDanielz45, SnookieBear22 or PotLover420 any time soon. This advice comes to you from someone who has an e-mail address with the word "Poop" in it. I have never submitted that one to a potential employer.

* Check your cover letter and resume for spelling mistakes. I make mistakes (and plenty here) just like anyone else. I'm talking about the forgetting to capitalize anything on the page or "I would be a great addition to your team?" variety.

* If the employer asks for a cover letter. Make sure you include it. I don't think I called anyone in for an interview who missed this step. Think of it as the "brown M&M" test of the hiring world. When you hear about crazy things in a rock band's rider agreement, chances are it's there to gauge how effectively the staff at a particular music venue pays attention to detail (or that person is Mariah Carey). When I ask for a cover letter and you don't provide it, it tells me that you are not good at following direction. I don't want to hire someone who doesn't follow direction well.

* Check your cover letter and resume for spelling mistakes again.

* The neck tattoo I saw today didn't seem to help with the other employers. When it is fully visible above a collared shirt, you can wear whatever suit you want, but I doubt you have a future in high end retail. Keep this in mind when you're 18, have no intent on ever working in an office (and totally selling out) and want the world to know your nickname in college is Captain Kickass.

* Check your cover letter and resume for spelling mistakes and then have your friend go through it one more time. Unless I'm wrong, I'm betting you don't really live in Chickago.

* While I know it's a mistake, don't send a cover letter for another business to me. Worse yet, don't send it addressed to a competitor/mortal business enemy.

* I know you think you're a people person / have a great work ethic / know how to throw around business buzzwords. Give me something I can work with.

Here's the bottom line (keeping in mind I've been on both sides of this equation several times in the past decade, so I say this out of love):

These points seem stupid and arbitrary, but if you needed to take 400 resumes and turn them into a more manageable 25-50, what kind of rules would you put in place just to keep your sanity? Always keep in mind that once you push "Send," someone has to receive it, sort it and start making cuts. Don't give them a reason to take you out of the mix because you didn't take an extra 30 seconds to confirm the business on the e-mail you're sending your resume to is the same one on the cover letter, KingCrapper4545.

(Image from:

Saturday, January 02, 2010

What a wonderful age we live in

The wash of end of the year "Best Of" lists was made much worse this week by the one-two punch of the year and decade ending. I even issued a minor plea via Facebook to call off the onslaught of lists that took up time and space on web sites struggling to get anything up in the week between Christmas and New Years.

Sure, it's nothing new, but with the advent of embedded video, it seems like this is getting worse. Don't get me wrong, I'm more than guilty of the yearly, "What did it all mean" navel gazing that is behind these exercises, but just once I'd like a little more variety in my best of the decade lists.

Without any research whatsoever (yay!) aside from the handful of posts I skimmed, I can safely say the majority of these posts listed the iPod/iPhone, a major video game console, some sort of digital book reader and an extra smart phone thrown in for good measure. Add another five or so gadgets and you can stretch it to a top 10 list and be home for brunch.

While all of these things are wonderful - and I fully admit to a moment of wonder on a road trip this week when I realized just how amazing it was as my wife Googled a random question from her iPhone as my GPS hummed along and the iPod powered away for nearly two days of traveling - I would like to drill down a bit further.

Of course, I'm talking about the rewind feature on Forza Motorsport 3 for the Xbox 360.

If you are a gamer and you are a parent, this is perhaps the greatest thing to ever appear on your console. Forget the game-changing graphics and always excellent gameplay - this is the piece of the puzzle that's been missing for too many years.

Let me explain the problem. I'll be happily racing along when my wife needs to know where I hid something in the kitchen. In the few seconds it takes me to transition from death-defying 200-mph speed demon to figuring out where the paper towels went when we unloaded the car, I have temporarily forgotten that I am piloting a digital race car at high speed.

(Anyone who asks why I don't simply pause the game has never tried to execute such a complex maneuver in a high pressure situation involving a missing can of baby formula.)

About the time I realize my mistake, I have take that ground-based rocket and slammed it squarely into a retaining wall. If the car still runs, it won't turn and there's no way to get back into the race or get the previous 10 minutes back. This has led to unkind words in the past.

No more - borrowing a gimmick from games like Prince of Persia, you can now back the game up a few seconds (when your car is still in one piece and has its structural components in tact) and pick up where you left off. No muss, no fuss, no in game penalty.

Yes, there are much bigger tragedies in this world than turning a digital Mustang into a few thousand assorted parts strewn across the track, but try telling that to someone who now has to start over against that damned, cheating computer opponent who keeps kicking your ass in an obviously underpowered car. It's not rational, but trust me, it just is.

(Bonus points if this happens on the track at Laguna Seca, which is the bane of my digital racing existence.)

I cannot say enough about this feature. If Forza decides to repeal this feature in the future, they will have an angry letter sent the next day and a possible visit to their offices, depending on how centrally located they are to my home and/or place of business.

While Apple has certainly won the technology decade in the broad strokes, Forza (more specifically its developer, Turn 10) has won for day to day bliss. Mark myt words, in the end, this will save more marriages than Viagra.

(Image from

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

OK, then what happened?

In the mix of finger pointing about irresponsible bloggers and posts that only fed page views because of shock value, I've noticed that mainsteam media outlets have been just as guilty.

Case in point is a video clip from the front page of this morning's Chicago Tribune which takes you to the video of a woman falling in front of a train in Boston. The link simply says: "Raw video: Woman falls in front of oncoming train in Boston" and drops you off here without any background or follow up on the incident.

For any sort of in depth reporting, you'll need to surf to the Boston Globe web site, hunt around a bit and find a story about the train's conductor, who has been honored for stopping the train in time.

I have a problem with this setup. Primarily, with the mainstream media dismissing bloggers and smaller sites for not doing enough research or reporting and then turning around and doing something like this.

It's not OK to stamp a video as "Raw Video" and failing to provide any background whatsoever. When the link has more information (such as the location) than the video page, that's a major problem with the system.

I will be the first to admit that blogs as a whole are still rough around the edges and for a quick fix, many people will just click away to see a woman fall in front of a speeding train. Without any background, this is a little sketchy for my tastes as it's hard to defend posting something like that as newsworthy without any actual news attached.

When we hit a point that a major metropolitan newspaper is simply tossing out links without any background - and especially something as strangely compelling as this - it's time to consider where the web product went astray.

Especially in a city like Chicago, where the El plays such a major role in most people's daily lives, a video like this will certainly draw attention. However, without any sort of context it's a pretty blatant grab for eyeballs and does a lot of harm to any newspaper's only real commodity - the trust it has from its readers. When they start throwing up odd, macabre links like this without any deeper meaning, it gets hard and harder to justify that trust.

(Image from

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Less is gore

Wired put together a list of 10 Creepy Video games for Halloween and while I don't think I have played many of them, I did see a kickass new trailer for Bioshock 2.

I'm not going to lie - while playing through the first one, I hit a point in the game where, late at night, something jumped out at me and I shrieked like a little kid. I may have peed on the couch a little, I can't really remember at this point.

It looks like the new one is going to be much worse for our furniture:

So between this game and Fallout 3, there's a cool new trend that's much different than what I grew up with in my games - the use of downtime to build suspense.

Someone pointed out in a Fallout review that the game made them sad. Set in the greater DC area after a nuclear war, they recognized the landmarks and subway tunnels they saw daily, but devoid of people and felt down after playing. It wasn't about the gore (trust me, there's plenty) that made people take note, it was about the wait.

In both cases, you have games that are fairly violent on their surface, but make use of minutes between killing things to really mess with you.

I really dig that about these games, especially as someone who grew up in an age where Mortal Kombat pissed everyone off because you could rip out a character's spine if you pressed the correct sequence of 27 buttons at the right time.

I find it interesting that while game designers have infinitely more computing horsepower at their fingertips, at least some of them have decided to use that memory and graphical output to tell better stories (Bioshock) and lay out ambitious storylines (Fallout 3).

While a certain degree of this is certainly a result of more sophisticated gamers and designers, there was a time not so long ago where the thought of dialing back the gore factor and expanding the scope of the game would have been strange. Whoever made that decision the first time is a freaking genius.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Things I will not miss about the city

1.) Cubs traffic - there are hundreds of roads other than Lake Shore Drive, so why do you have to add 20 minutes to my commute?

2.) Street parking - Especially if you own a larger vehicle. One of the plusses to our old neighborhood was plenty of street parking, unless it was a Friday or Saturday night.

3.) Rush hour on the El - Once a month, I'd melt down after being packed into a noisy metal box and wonder why I didn't move someplace nicer.

4.) Crappy little restaurants - While the burbs are trashed for their chain-friendly attitudes when it comes to dining, the city's dark side contains awful little restaurants that are only kept in business by adventurous diners hoping to find a diamond in the rough. Many times it's just an awful restaurant that no one goes to more than once.

5.) The smell of urine on the bus.

6.) Random traffic at any hour of the day or night - When you hit a jam at 11:30 p.m. on a Sunday for no real reason, it can be a bit much.

7.) Bike theft.

8.) The assumption that because you live in the city, you've heard of cool, edgy restaurants (work only) - No, I haven't eaten at the Hawaiian/French Canadian/Peruvian fusion restaurant. I eat burgers at the corner bar, just like you would if you lived here.

9.) Richard M. Daley - There was a saying that as long as the trash got picked up and the streets got cleared, he'd be mayor for life. The streets stopped being cleared last winter.

10.) The rats - Man, do I hate the rats.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The trouble with Randy (How I learned to stop worrying and love the short sale)

The months of waiting are over and my wife and I closed on our first home this afternoon. None of this (big picture wise) is possible without my wife, who thoroughly rehabbed my credit score (that's another story), spearheaded a house hunt while caring for a newborn and quarterbacked the network of agents, mortgage brokers and lawyers from start to finish.

The story ends well, with us in a new home and with plenty of reasons to buy new and dangerous tools. This is all any red-blooded American boy wants. It's the middle that makes things more interesting than any of us wanted it to be.

While my son is too little to remember any of this, I smile when I think about buying the home where he'll take his first steps, hunt for Easter Eggs and probably learn to ride his first bike (hopefully because he wants to be just like his dad.)

Not that it matters much, as the only concrete memories that I have of my parents' first true home is that the sweet older couple that was moving out gave us a cake shaped like a lamb. My folks remember meetings, home viewings and endless worry (and hope) - I remember cake. It's all about perspective, I guess.

First, a little background - our real estate agent warned us gently that people only did short sales once. The waiting and headaches are worth it if you're looking for a break on a house when you're first getting started, but no one really wants to repeat the process. On the other side of this divide, we can say that, no, we will not be volunteering for this again in the future.

(Short sales are those in which the seller is about to go under on payments and approach the bank with a proposition - they will try to get the best offer possible for the house, if the bank agrees to take less than the full amount that is owed. In short, no one on the seller's side is happy with the situation. This is generally the step before the bank forecloses on the property.)

In our case, we found a pre-approved short sale (same rules, but the bank has a magic number in mind that they will agree to if a buyer offers it), offered said magic number and waited. We did that "waiting" step for a while. Then, we sent e-mails to move things along and waited a bit more. Purgatory doesn't have a more apt twin on the mortal plane than a short sale.

In the midst of all this, we had our seller, Randy, who most definitely did not want to leave, but had little choice in the matter. In speaking with his parents, the legal owners of the home, we found out that they had taken over the house in name only and that they were totally shocked at the condition of the house as a whole. When you are apologizing for the actions of your grown son, it probably makes for a downer of a day, just saying.

Coming into the home stretch last week, we had a sneaking suspicion that today would not be easy. For one, every rock we overturned seemed to reveal a new, unpaid bill. From utilities to taxes to homeowners association dues, something was unpaid. We were hell bent on not paying a dime on this, but had very little wiggle room, as the house was sold "as is" with the bank being able to shrug and tell us to take it or leave it. As a buyer, this is a very interesting position to be in. It also makes you very nervous and more attentive to every line item on a contract. Our lawyer loved this - instead of sitting with eyes glazed over, we tore into the contracts and came loaded for bear. In the end, the seller's legal team ended up eating a few bills they'd missed.

We quietly did victory dances in our minds.

After closing this afternoon - and learning all sorts of gossip from pretty much every party on the seller's side, my wife and I were faced with a decision about whether or not to call in the authorities and halt the move or extend a few more hours to let the seller finally leave.

Seeing as they had already tried to leave with the washer and dryer, had refused to fix a gas leak we noticed and reported since our first viewing in July and smashed into the top of the framing on the garage (someone forgot to close the tailgate on their SUV before backing in), we were really in no mood to do them any favors. Additionally, as the house was sold "as is," anything in it at the time of close was technically ours.

With a son in the picture, we were more inclined to take the high road and give them a few extra hours to finish moving out. The high road sucks, campers.

Suffice to say the highlights of the afternoon included the Randy telling me with a straight face that there were no keys to the house (none whatsover), throwing a shoulder at me as I stripped the door hardware to install new deadbolts and referring to me as "rude" for having the stones to use my own bathroom after he tried to body block me from entering my on home so he could eat.

Other highlights include:

* No garage door opener turned over. It either spontaneously combusted, fell in the trash or was eaten by a half dead goldfish. The simple fix for this was to unplug the garage door before we left.

* Noticing that the rear patio door had been left unlocked and unbarred after I had shut it down earlier in the evening. Shady business.

* We now own a Pop-a-shot machine (score) with no basketballs (no score), a copier (full-sized office grade), a stash of temporary tattoos (no idea), a collection of zoning maps for every town in Illinois (?), various paperwork for his business (including bank statements and credit card mailings and a giant vase that sits atop the entryway, like an offering to Ikea, the goddess of questionable decorating decisions.

* Instead of moving full bags of trash to the garage or curb, they were thrown in the space where the washer and dryer were just hours before. Additional overflow seating for trash was moved to the guest bathtub. I failed to check if the plate of nachos, dog bed and coffee cups still reside under the sink in there. I can update any interested parties tomorrow.

* If you think the trash would go in the trash bins, you'd be wrong. This is because you don't have a Randy at your house, packing full trash cans onto a trailer. As this wasn't in our contract, we couldn't do anything about it.

At the end of the day, my brother-in-law, Jeff, and I saw everyone out and I was quietly pleased that this was done without incident. There was at least a 50/50 chance of the situation escalating over something as stupid as taking the washer/dryer, further damaged to a mildly mule kicked home or my losing my cool after having my wife, father and mother-in-law treated as interlopers in my own home.

On recapping the evening, my wife and I couldn't be happier. We have a wonderful home to raise our son in, closer to family and friends and with a big enough floor plan to grow. While the Randy's of the world have their days, we're confident that we'll be telling the story of our family in the years to come with only a slight flourish of the craziness of the day.

With that in mind, I really doubt we'll be getting that lamb cake.

(Image from:

Monday, August 17, 2009

I am a person like me

On the night my son was born as I waited anxiously for the nurses on duty to finish running a multitude of lines, I wandered about in the halls of the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Over the course of eight hours, I had gone from the mind-numbing boredom that comes from managing a tour company in Chicago in February to a new father, worried about his son who had to be delivered three months early. After crossing the threshold into the third trimester on a Sunday, my wife needed an emergency delivery on Tuesday to give both her and the baby any chance of making it through the night.

To see that sentence hashed out so bluntly is still quite a shock. It seems better suited to a subplot on an ER rerun than to my life and the disconnect is still nearly as wide as it was on that night this February. Months after the fact - and with the added security of a healthy baby boy and a wife who rebounded spectacularly in a matter of days - my wife and I would have a few discussions about what happened that day and how neither of us chose to focus on the danger she was in, only on the months that our son would be forced to fight in the hospital. We agreed that neither of us would ever fully understand just how bad things could have been and that we were each OK with that possibility.

That night, though, I was antsy and off-kilter and tasked with juggling two families who wanted to see their grandson or nephew and struggling to learn the rules of the NICU and what we needed to do in the meantime.

In the hallway, on the wall across from the elevators and just around the corner from the restroom was the huge quilt seen above. I immediately thought it looked like one of the kids from the Rugrats cartoons, only with a hospital band and a few more pieces of hardware. On some level, I thought it was cute and touching and was likely put up to make little folks feel more comfortable about their stay at a childrens' hospital.

It wasn't until weeks later that I made the connection that the only difference between that baby and my own was that my baby usually looked a lot less cheerful and had thousands more dollars of equipment in his pictures. There and then I was taken by a sudden and unmistakable feeling that I was not simply passing through this floor on my way to another floor - this was our life.

My son is coming up on six months old - less than that for those familiar with terms like "adjusted age" - and shows no signs of anything out of the ordinary for a baby of his "ages." Recently, I poked around the pictures taken since February and even I am amazed at just how far he has come.

In between, my stance on health care and the hospital experience has changed in some regards and been steeled in others as I came across families in the NICU and throughout the hospital who were just like us - in a place they didn't expect to be and trying to make the best of it.

I'll save the long-winded, impassioned plea for health care/insurance reform for later when I have more time and energy, but given the occasion of my son's six-month birthday, I was really struck by just how much things have changed in six months.

More than that, things changed without my being fully aware of it. When I hear the back and forth on reform, I'm amazed at how much of the debate is based on the premise that if you don't smoke, don't drink, are generally good health and have some form of insurance, you become bulletproof. You're not. My wife falls under all of those headings and we still had reason to worry for months on end.

The bottom line is that no matter how bulletproof you think you are, there's always that chance that you'll become a different person overnight.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Being a better main character

Years ago, I was assigned a writing exercise that was designed to give the writer focus in an attempt to better approach daily life. We were tasked with writing our own obituaries, not to make us better writers, but to make us pause for a bit and try to outline an arc of our next 50 years.

I've done this a few times since then - less lately, because my wife found a copy once when we were dating and it totally creeped her out - and depending on when I write it, the end products are wildly different from each other.

Like I said before, I now see the reasoning behind such exercises, but my frame of reference keeps shifting and the results move accordingly.

A few weeks ago, I flew back to Minneapolis for funeral services for a friend of mine who had passed away. Maggie was my mentor at the training school, where she taught me pretty much everything I now know about dogs. She is gone far too soon, but has again given me reason to pause and reconsider and try to figure out where that elusive perfect arc should travel.

A few hours in airports and on planes left me with ample time to think and as I am prone to do in these types of situations, I am amazed at how different the experience of another's passing is for everyone (and I mean everyone) involved.

There's a great sequence in both the novel and movie versions of High Fidelity where each character is progressively less interested in the passing of Laura's father. I notice that a lot more than I have in the past. Much of every individual's life is spent as the star of their own television show, with everything impacting them and not enough thought devoted to how the same events are playing out in everyone else's little shows.

While I was very much in the moment and focused on trying to reason with the loss of a friend, I also had the white noise of a flight to catch that evening, timelines for returning the rental car and phone calls to return from work while I was away. It may have been a funeral episode in my life, but the overall story of the Matt Show needed to keep moving forward, too.

I consciously try to focus on the departed as intently as I can, but always end up as everyone does - deeply engrossed in my own show. Not that any of this is bad or wrong, it's just something I become acutely aware of whenever there's a big event like a birth, wedding or death.

What really grabbed my attention at the memorial service was the frame of reference that was applied, depending on the circumstances where Maggie met different people throughout her life.

Those who knew her as a mother thought she was an amazing mother. Those who met her at the training school knew her as one of the best trainers. Those who worked with her raising money to fight domestic abuse saw her as one of the best fundraisers and bosses.

In short, I don't expect Maggie was much different than you or I and that she was the star of the Maggie Show, but damn if she wasn't one of the best main characters I've ever met. While her day to day life was probably no more exceptional than anyone else's, she did it all with such grace and perspective and a wonderful sense of humor that the whole was worth much more than the sum of its parts.

In the past, I've filled out my obituary with dreams of opening my own newspaper (not a strong business plan these days), having a house full of children (working on it) or writing well past my golden years (still on the table).

Having seen Maggie's friends and family say goodbye, I have a new goal - to be the best and brightest star of the Matt Show. To be the best father for those who knew me as a father. To be the best writer to those who knew me as a writer. To be the best friend to those who knew me as a friend and to be the best boss to those who knew me as a boss.

It's a tall order, but one that's totally attainable. I've seen it happen before.