Monday, June 30, 2008


This is a variation of a game I played with telemarketers when left on my own without adult supervision for a few weeks between moves from Chicago to Minneapolis.

Only, in that case it was a faster game because it was a game of "What?" and not a game of "Yes!"

Also, no one called me a moron. Jerk, yes. Moron, no.

An open post to the gas price created bikers

One of the biggest surprises in returning to Chicago is the explosion of bicycle riders on the city's streets. I think we arrived at the perfect storm of high gas prices, the green movement and cheap, accessible public transportation, but for whatever reason there are significantly more bike riders in our neighborhood this summer.

Normally, I avoid the lakefront bike path because it's just too difficult to predict when it will be jammed with people for a benefit walk or just the usual crowds heading to the beach. For anyone who has had to dodge toddlers wandering in front of your bike, you understand the issues that arise from shared spaces on the lake.

Not that it should be a drag strip for bikes, but a little personal responsibility from the people wandering along the bike path in flip flops while they burn through their phone's anytime minutes would be nice.

The better option for an experienced biker is to take the surface streets. For the 9 to 5'ers, a street with wide bike lanes is a slightly better alternative, especially when cars are gridlocked.

One of the biggest plusses for me when weighing my transportation options is the predictability of my bike. Door to door, it's 40 minutes on a bike. When I add a bus to a train, there's a window of 20 to 40 minutes depending on when the bus hits our corner and whether or not it's the weekend or off-peak hours.

It's apparent that others have done this math as well.

Unfortunately, a rising number of these riders are the weekend warriors, used to empty streets and drivers who aren't fighting the clock to get to and from work. The complexion of traffic swings wildly depending on the day and time, which is something that some riders aren't taking into account.

It's not enough to pull your bike out of the basement, slam the door and bomb down the streets to work in the morning. I've seen a handful of woefully unsafe bikes - bone dry chains that wail under the stress of small rises in the streets and bike paths, wheels that swing from side to side because they are several inches out of alignment and brakes that are there to decorate handlebars - and even more oblivious riders.

This post is for them, on the off chance that they stumble across it:

Hello Fellow Rider,

So you've decided to use your bike more often, huh? Great. Whether it's gas that costs over four bucks a gallon, a desire to go green or if you're just hoping to shed a few pounds as the weather is warm, we're all glad to have you. Biking can be incredibly enjoyable, and as a friend told me when I started commuting by bike, after the saddle sore wears off, you start to crave the ride and will get antsy if major storms force you onto the trains and buses.

Still, you need to take personal safety into your own hands. While biking seems like a fairly innocent undertaking, keep in mind the fatal accidents that Chicago's streets have seen this season alone. It's all about minimizing your risks and making it easy for cars to stay out of your way and vice versa.

While the ride down to the farmers' market or park is usally a breeze, commuting means there's another set of factors to account for.

* There's the car door problem, where you need to keep track of the cars stopped in traffic as well as those parked next to the curb. The driver grabbing their dry cleaning/iced coffee/kid from day care at 5:30 p.m. is probably not thinking to check for you. Look for heads in the drivers seat and be ready to brake or dodge to keep from slamming into an opening door.

It's much better to curse someone out as you safely glide past than to question them as you're laying in the street.

* Wear a helmet. Always wear a helmet. A little helmet hair that you can fix in the restroom at work is a much nicer fashion statement than trying to hide the scar around your head after you slam your skull into a curb.

* A pair of gloves helps, too. They'll save your palms if you go over your bars in an accident, protect your knuckles a bit if your hand goes through a tail light and might help take some of the strain off your forearms in city riding.

* Make sure your bike is ready for the extra abuse. Keep your chain greased up, make sure your brakes work correctly, keep your tires inflated and bring the whole thing into the shop when problems crop up. You wouldn't drive your car without an oil change for years on end, your new commuting vehicle needs the same type of maintenance, too.

While we're on the topic, a tune up wouldn't hurt, either. This goes double if your bike has sat collecting dust since you bought it in anticipation of Y2K.

* Don't jump the lights. I'm not saying you can't coast in and try to time things to keep your momentum going, but ducking in and out of crossing cars is an awful idea. I was stopped next to another biker this weekend as we saw someone rush past us into a red light. We could only shake our heads and mentally prepare our statements for the police.

* Obey the traffic laws. In one of the biggest beefs that drivers have, bikers run lights and stop signs, bike the wrong way down one-way streets and weave in and out of cars, making it hard to keep track of who is where. I'm not saying you can't ride against traffic for a few doors to get off your street, but use a little common sense.

Chances are that if you're biking two miles against traffic, there's another street a block over going your direction with traffic. Explore a bit and try to give the cars a break from looking for oncoming bicycles.

When you come to a stop sign, make sure you're going slow enough to stop. Make eye contact with the driver and chances are that they'll flag you through anyways. Nobody would blindly walk into an intersection on foot and it's just as stupid on a bike.

* Dress for your ride. In addition to wearing clothing that is comfortable, make sure you're not wearing a flowing summer dress that is begging to get caught in your chain or spokes. For guys, learn from my mistakes and watch the inseam on your shorts. The one appealing function of bike shorts is that you won't get them caught on your seat as you swing your leg over to get on or off.

I'm not saying I'm going to wear them any time soon, but just be careful. Plus, there's nothing more embarrasing than gliding up to work on your bike and hopping along as you try to get unstuck and keep your balance while smashing a testicle all in the name of fashion.

* Check your blind spot often. In addition to approaching cars, you also have to contend with faster bikes. If they're faster than you, chances are they've been riding longer and are going to be just fine. Try to avoid the surprise factor when they fire by you by seeing them a half a block back.

* If you are't sure that your bike will fit - bars and pedals - maybe you should err on the side of caution. As much as I fantasize about running a pedal down the side of the Mercedes that is hanging into my lane, it's probably not legal to actually do it.

* Give the bus some space, too. Aside from turning cars, the city bus becomes your natural enemy with regards to blocking your bike lane. I can't see a single scenario where bus vs. bike ends well for the bike.

* Leave plenty of time when you get started. I like the rule that I commute in and race home. You'll sweat less, should get in a little earlier and have time to throw on more deodorant if you need it and have time to fix your hairdo before you start working.

Aside from that, it's a matter of getting comfortable in your bike lane with cars next to you and learning to judge the weather before you leave home. Protect your lane, assertively keep your spacing from the parked cars and don't be afraid to stop if you run out of steam and really need to.

Bottom line? The streets are not a bike path and you need to keep your end of the bargain with regards to safety, just like the cars, buses, motorcycles and scooters. While it's certainly frustrating to keep an eye out for wayward pedestrians crossing in the middle of the street, it's all better than the alternatives.

While this list if far from all-inclusive, keep one thing in mind - If you hear someone shouting "What the hell are you thinking?" more than once every few weeks, maybe that's the perfect question to be asking yourself.

(Image taken for Siberia, Minnesota)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Backyard Disasters (Major and Minor)

Our current backyard is best described as a series of cement slabs, paving stones and gravel that doesn't really lend itself to the kind of quiet relaxation that we've grown accustomed to. I'm not exaggerating when I say that we don't have a single square foot of green space - a minor oversight when we signed the lease.

First, a quick history:

When my wife and I first moved in together, we lived in a small three-flat that shared a modest yard that was freshly sodded when we moved in at the end of the summer. With six apartments, five dogs and a host of friendly folks, we all came home from work and let our dogs romp around while we chatted and contemplated dinner plans.

It wasn't over the top, but it was nice and green and the grass was cool when the dogs wanted to take a break.

All of this came to an end when Rottweiler puppies became fully grown dogs and tore up the grass the following spring. The party was over when the landlord left one of the most unintentionally funny notes on the front door expressing his anger over the "Alabama Dog Run" that we'd turned the backyard into.

From there, we moved to suburban Minneapolis where we had actual front and back yards and took care of the mowing and upkeep. The Girl found out that she really enjoyed planting flowers and vegetables in the gardens (apparently she can keep plants alive outside of the home, but never inside) and I was able to play with the sprinkler systems and lay down bark for the dog to pee all over without destroying the grass.

Best of all, there was no sharing of the yard, so no one else was there to screw things up.

We aren't so lucky anymore.

Following our downstairs neighbors' Cinco de Mayo party, a cooler full of Jell-o shots and a stuffed Speedy Gonzales (they went for the authentic fiesta this year) and a 3/4 full keg of cheap beer were left right next to the back door. It's now well past Mayo and on the doorstep of Uno de Julio and it's all still sitting outside, right next to the back door.

They've been moved around a bit as the landlord has fought the good fight against the Mystery Hole - a four foot sinkhole caused by an old drain pipe that fell apart and mainlined sand and dirt into the sewer pipe under the apartment. Considering the building dates back to 1918, it's probably safe to guess that nothing had changed since the walls went up.

A flurry of PVC pipefitting took place last week when the old drainage system came out and the new one went in and things are fine, but a new sinkhole might be starting. I'll post pictures if the back of our apartment falls two stories into the garage.

Back to the keg/cooler combo - keep in mind that a keg of beer runs almost entirely on pressure to take the carbonated beverage from the barrel to your cup. What I learned yesterday morning as I sipped my coffee and watched my dog poop was that two months is on the far end of outdoor exposure for a cheap plastic tap.

After that much time in the sun, rain and heat, the tap couldn't hold out any more, blew the hose against the the fence six feet away and unloaded several gallons of beer all over the backyard, which as I mentioned before is almost entirely paved.

It smells like living next door to a small scale brewery that makes awful beer.

When we get our own place, the first thing I'm doing after the boxes are unpacked is stripping off the first four inches of topsoil, laying down gravel underneath and creating a drainage system to rival the best ballparks and golf courses in America.

I'm still on the fence about getting a weighted mower to cut designs into the turf. That would be so rad.

(Image from:

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When my train of thought goes off the rails

Heading home from work last night, I was thinking of the concept of tipping as a means of showing your gratitude.

In addition to the arguments against it in Freaknomics - essentially, why would you tip at a restaurant that you rarely visit or, worse yet, at a restaurant out of town, where you will likely never visit again - I was thinking in the larger sense of the tour company I work at now.

First, there's no real frame of reference between guides. Even if a coworker gives a better, higher energy, more informative tour, how does the customer have any clue how good or bad my tour is? It's a hard thing to quantify.

Second is the idea that many other countries and cultures don't tip at all. The answer for those tours where you walk away empty-handed is a shoulder shrug and a comforting, "Well, in Country X, people don't tip," from someone else in the shop.

Great. That's why we provide a gentle reminder at the end of the tour that tips are acceptable in the States and specifically in our shop. I don't intend to go around Europe in a cowboy hat, dumping ketchup on every meal I'm served - when in Rome, right?

Still, despite that potential post kicking around, I was thinking of the service industry and the story that "tips" is an acronym for "To Insure Prompt Service." Only, isn't that the wrong homophone?

Here's where comes in handy:

Insure: 1. to guarantee against loss or harm. 2. to secure indemnity to or on, in case of loss, damage, or death. 3. to issue or procure an insurance policy on or for.

Ensure: 1. to secure or guarantee: This letter will ensure you a hearing. 2. to make sure or certain: measures to ensure the success of an undertaking. 3. to make secure or safe, as from harm.

Yup. Thought so. Though I might pull in more cash if I did make threats of loss or harm.

Regardless of the situation, don't forget to tip tep your service industry workers. Many of us need that supplemental income.

(Image from:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The most shocking thing that used to happen

I watched And the Band Played On last night for what seems like the 50th time and was irate with the United States government, the Reagan Administration and the egos of men of science just as I had been since the first time I saw the movie.

I had my heart broken by the stories that were woven together all over again and wanted desperately to know if the country's front line against the spread of the disease really boiled down to a half dozen people at the Centers for Disease Control working on a shoestring budget.

About the only thing that was different with this viewing, the first in a few years, was that at the end, the AIDS epidemic seemed so far away. Honestly, the big realization that hit me was that the three most recent references to the disease were lyrics to a Kanye West song, a South Park episode making fun of Magic Johnson and how his sleeping in a room full of money kept the disease at bay and dated episodes of ER that play on TNT during the late morning hours.

Worse yet, it the ongoing hopper of possible blog fodder, this post was only top three in amongst the animal rights episode of 30 Days tonight and the mixed feelings I have from retiring my old bicycle. It's almost shameful how far I've pushed AIDS from my own stream of consciousness.

AIDS has gone from the forefront of public awareness as a death sentence to something that is manageable here in the U.S. and a disease that ravages small, poor, African nations that the average American can't identify on a map. It took me a few seconds to correctly remember which color ribbon is for AIDS research.

When the movie was released in 1993, I was a sophomore in high school and the Magic Johnson press conference had already taken place. The epidemic had already begun to plateau and even the most sheltered homes in America had come to terms with the disease and how it could and could not be transmitted.

The movie - for better or worse - is a docudrama with very little guidance as to what is fact and what was pure inference. I turned to The Girl during the charged scene where Matthew Modine shouts down into the suits from the nation's bloodbanks who were refusing to test for the disease and told her that I knew that scene was probably made up, but it was still one of my favorite scenes.

The PBS affiliate in Chicago recently ran Out and Proud in Chicago about the history of the homosexual population in the city and a familiar refrain rang out when the AIDS era was discussed - if anyone other than gay men and drug addicts were dying, the government would have jumped in from the start and aggressively fought the disease.

The charges are that because gay people were seen as different and unimportant to most Americans, they became expendable when the AIDS epidemic broke loose in the country's major cities.

While the movie is over a decade old, the themes remain fresh and at the heart of the movie is constant drumbeat that gay rights are human rights and shouldn't need to be legislated or fought for - they should be granted as humans are supposed to respect other humans.

And therein lies the contemporary issue - with fights over gay marriage bills, domestic partner benefits and basic levels of humanity, AIDS may have faded from the front pages, but the climate that allowed the disease to spin out of control is still shamefully present. It's just a matter of degree.

If you think this is an overstatement, I'll just point you to the final few blocks of Chicago's Pride Parade which is fenced off and reserved for protesters who will scream all sorts of filthy things at marchers and many of those things in the name of God. I absolutely refuse to believe that any God worthy of worship wishes death upon anyone dependent on whom they love.

While most of us now have at least one openly gay friend, coworker, classmate or family member, the country still requires its gay citizens to jump through hoops or do without for many of the same things that most of us now take for granted.

While working through to proper legal channels is a wonderful thing, it should at least cause most people to pause and wonder why gay marriage needs to be legislated in the first place. Why it is met with such strong opposition is another question altogether.

Consider this quote: "This is not a political issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue."

Now consider that it came from Roger Gail Lyon's testimony before Congress regarding the AIDS epidemic: "This is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue. And I do not intend to be defeated by it. I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape."

Just look at how far we've come.

(Image from:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Another day, another list

This morning marks the day that I turn 30 and as a trailer to last night's post, I offer these basics from three decades of accumulated knowledge:

* If there's any question about whether or not food is still good, throw it out. It's the same choice you'd make if offered the chance to dodge a 24-hour stomach flu in exchange for buying a new pizza/sandwich/gallon of milk.

* The preseason favorite is rarely there in the end. This is great news for 99 percent of the world.

* Sometimes simple things make all the difference in the world. One bad mood drastically changed my life years and years ago. You can't truly take back stupid things you say. You can't un-disappoint people once you've crossed that line. It makes no difference if you worry about these things or not, so it's best to just play the hand you're dealt each day and keep moving forward. By the time you see the impact, it's usually years later and much to late to change the outcomes.

* Bad haircuts will always grow back. Always.

* You can easily follow Major League Baseball 12 months a year.

* No matter how many times you tell your wife to quit reading over your shoulder and wait until you're finished writing, she'll never listen. You just need to get used to this.

* Never enter a casino with more money than you can afford to lose. While we're on the subject, gambling should be viewed as an entertainment expense and never any sort of investment. No, I don't care about your "system" for blackjack.

* It's significantly harder to reconnect friends once you've lost touch with them. It's surprisingly easy to stay friends with a call or two each month.

* There are two types of people when it comes to conversations. Those who listen and respond intelligently and those who are trying to tell a better story once you shut up. It pays to be in the first group.

* Always pay your bills on time. You cannot imagine the problems that are caused when you don't. Even when people make jokes on television about not paying their bills, they still do. Don't be fooled into thinking no one else is keeping up because of that.

* Self-control is one of the most underrated virtues in the human experience. Whether it's saying no to seconds or waiting a few months in order to pay cash for the new flat panel television, it is a very valuable trait that is worth the effort.

* Don't eat yellow snow.

* Nothing in life is free except for bad advice and a hard time from underpaid security guards.

* Some people need a hug as a motivator and some need a kick in the ass. Knowing the difference between the two can make you a very successful person in the world of business or professional sports.

* While it's trite, I don't remember much of the time spent driving out of my way to see or do something new because I was somewhat close, but I constantly remember those things I've seen and done.

* Once you start settling for things that you don't really want, it becomes a slippery slope. Try not to settle very often.

* Television news is for pretty people who aren't very bright but are very good at reading the newspaper in front of a camera

A short list of things in life for which there are no substitutes:

* Full fat ranch dressing
* The unconditional love from a dog you've raised from a pup
* The joy on your wedding day when the doors at the rear of the church open and you realize you've made the best decision of your life
* Second chances
* Friends you've had for longer than you can remember
* A cold beer on a July evening after working all day
* The feeling of limitless opportunity you feel as a 20-year-old
* New car smell as you leave the dealership
* Cable television
* Scoring the winning run/goal/touchdown
* Being there - spanning from a Civil War battlefield to Graceland to Wrigley Field, there's never a substitute for being there
* Hearing the door shut behind you on the last day of work at a place you can't stand
* Collapsing on the couch after you've moved the last box into your first apartment
* Meat cooked on a grill
* Day baseball
* Live music
* Finding the place in this world where you fit
* Bacon
* Central air
* Classic cars
* Spending an entire Sunday in a bar with your friends watching football and eating hot wings
* The first two days of March Madness
* Seeing your name in a newspaper byline for the first time
* The night your favorite team wins a championship
* True love
* True friends
* A good night's sleep

(Image from:

Monday, June 09, 2008

It's been three decades, what do I have to show for it?

In a few hours, I'll technically turn 30, which isn't so bad now that it has arrived. Not that I thought it would be awful, it's just a strange, if arbitrary, milestone.

When all is said and done, I could easily run this into a marathon post, consuming hours of my time and ending up right back where I started. There has to be an easier, more entertaining way to handle this, not to mention the fact that most of my friends have already hit the milestone with little fanfare, crying or hospitalization for geriatric illnesses.

Why make a mountain out of a molehill, right?

It just brings to mind how many times I've seen an achievement punctuated with that familiar refrain of "before they were 30." Some people have made their first million by now, others have churned out works of art of unthinkable complexity and beauty.

I'm not in that group. I like to think I'm in the second group, who continue to produce throughout a lifetime in lieu of a jarring burst of brilliance.

Still, for 30 years, I've seen some stuff and done some stuff from the utterly mundane - I was potty trained - to the moderately bizarre - I have collected multiple concussions, including one from slamming my head into the bunk above me my freshman year of college.

Here's a small sampling, just to help me keep things in perspective. Plus, you never know what will happen in the future and I'd like to leave an easy roadmap for journalists of the future tasked with writing human interest stories when I invent something humanity simply can't live without or eat the world's largest steak.

In my first 30 years, I have:

* Worked in the locker room of a professional sports team.
* Stood at the 50-yard line at Lambeau Field and Solider Field
* Caught a foul ball, had one lofted to me in the outfield from a pitcher warming up and had one rifled above my head for annoying a visiting outfielder
* Lived in several major cities, including one on the East Coast
* Married a wonderful woman who still hasn't figured out that she's out of my league
* Helped people train their dogs at the Humane Society
* Learned more than enough trivia about my hometown to keep tourists busy at every stoplight in the downtown area
* Written for a handful of important newspapers and ran several inconsequential ones
* Peed in the Governor's bathroom at the Illinois governor's mansion (8th grade field trip)
* Dipped my feet in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans - this includes seeing the sun rise and set on both coasts
* Learned to work with my hands, be it inside a wall, under a hood or in order to build something useful
* Spent enough time behind a camera lens to take pictures that others can't believe I captured
* Fell in love and survived
* Fell out of love and survived
* Made major and minor mistakes and can still honestly say that I'm happier today than I have ever been in my adult life
* Hung around long enough to be respected for being intelligent after hiding from it in grammar school when it wasn't nearly as cool to be bright
* Ridden in a Model T Ford
* Emerged from my turbulent 20s with all my fingers and toes intact
* Visited over half of the 50 states
* Worked on several career paths - some I'd do again, some I'd do again if the money was better and some that I'd need powerful narcotics to get back into
* Learned that much of life revolves around balance. It's a strange lesson and one I'm still working on
* Learned that there is a time to sacrifice for your principles and it's rarely convenient. It's still worth it in the long run
* Learned to drive a stick shift vehicle without any major incident

(Image from:

Creating a race of human hummingbirds

Didn't anyone watch Supersize Me when it came out? Do we need a collective refresher course?

After taking strides to make McDonald's, ahem, "healthier" in the form of milk or apple slices as substitutes for the usual sugary sodas and french fries, it looks like the Hamburglar has deemed it time to reinstitute his plan for world domination.

According to a story found by the always outstanding, McDonald's is going to test market Red Bull at their crapshacks. Oh, and they're throwing in a little Mountain Dew for good measure.

Can we just mix the two?

Apparently, McDonald's will not be happy until every man, woman and child in America is hovering between six and eight inches above the ground at all times. I suspect this may be a sinister plot by the McDonald's board of directors, who have been secretly buying stock in digital camera companies and once they pump us full of sugar, they'll make a killing selling faster cameras to try and catch us in between twitches.

(Image from:

Sunday, June 01, 2008

How much is your sanity worth?

By and large, I am very skeptical when any major corporation wants to "give" me something or do something that appears in my best interest.

Want to sign me up for a rewards program? Who will you be selling my e-mail address, phone number and home address to?

Would I like to be a preferred customer and receive 15 cents off a can of soup? What kind of consumer profile are you attempting to create by dissecting my shopping habits?

Usually, it's a combination of my own paranoia and looking too far into things that eventually result in the big "gotcha" moment - though I suppose that's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy to an extent. It's something I've come to terms with.

Still, when I was getting the pieces in place to switch cell phone companies this week from AT&T/Cingular to Sprint, I saw the light. Rollover minutes are a devious plan to trap cheap punks like me who can barely stomach the idea of throwing away theoretical money once it has started to pile up in our accounts.

I'd been a customer with AT&T first and weathered the storm when they were bought by Cingular. With that switch, the Cingular folks introduced rollover minutes and I watched them pile up for over a year now.

AT&T didn't offer this option and I rarely used my monthly allotment of minutes - primarily because it's expensive to go over, especially on a monthly plan. With that month-to-month deal, I was charged as I went, with the account reloading once a month.

When I was on the road, I could tear through minutes like there was no tomorrow and watch them repopulate when I was home and could turn the phone off. Still, for a benefit that I didn't have when I opened the original account, I grew very protective of my tiny savings account of talk time - especially because it held a set dollar amount for me on my phone.

My new plan is the same price, but instead of 250 minutes, period, I now get 500 weekday minutes, free nights and weekends and unlimited data. For another 100 bones, I have a Palm Centro that streams everything but nuclear launch codes to my pocket when I'm out on tour.

Yet, it stung just a little to let those $150 in minutes slip away when I cut AT&T loose.

I have a better plan, I'm a lot happier with my phone and Cingular made no attempt to try and keep me as a customer after a handful of phone calls to check account status as I prepped the number to be ported to Sprint, so in the big picture, it's all upside for me.

Just a word of warning to all the cheap people out there - use up those rollover minutes or be ready to feel a small sense of loss when you switch cell phone companies. It kind of feels like being shot with a small caliber bullet.

(Image from: