I still don’t know what Sherry thinks about the border wall and I never found out whether Neil favors our current tax treatment for carried interest. I probably should have asked, but the conversation never went in that direction and then the opportunity slipped away.
So I went up to Hudson’s Bay a couple of months ago to take pictures of migrating polar bears and I ended up living with two dozen strangers from four or five countries. None of us could leave our makeshift hotel because polar bears get hungry while they’re waiting for seal-eating season and, fun fact, they run much faster than humans.
I’ve never been more isolated. We had no television, no internet, and almost no cell reception. You had to stand near the window next to the space heater and hold your phone high above your head to get any signal at all and it took six days to download an emoji. It was like being trapped on the Orient Express, but with less snow and fewer murderers. I think.
Anyway, we had nothing to do for three days but ride around the tundra, looking for photogenic polar bears and an occasional arctic fox. At night, we ate dinner at communal tables and spent hours in the “family room,” ‘til boredom overtook us and we began to speak.
And speak we did. We talked about favorite places, travel memories, photo tips and nature. We talked about hobbies and life stories and how we chose to join the tour. We talked about food and restaurants and plays and movies and families.
And in all the conversations over three days together, we didn’t debate politics or celebrities or conspiracies or crises. We didn’t choose sides or tribes or lines that we dared each other to cross. Maybe we were all afraid of getting voted off the island and thrown overboard as polar bear chum, or maybe we were just open to the idea of engaging with new people and enjoying shared experiences.
Remarkably, we figured out how to meet with strangers, engage in conversation, find common ground, and enjoy each other’s company. After three days together, we were all on speaking terms and nobody got fed to the bears. Well, nobody we’ll admit to, anyway.
Best of all, it felt totally organic. I don’t remember our guides issuing a warning about political conversations or any topics that were off limits for our time together. More likely, the hyper-partisan bombardments of our daily lives were generally out of reach and nobody thought them important enough to import into our refuge.
It was all very refreshing and an important reminder of what’s possible when we get together with strangers. Now, if only we could do the same thing with people we already know.
Now that I’ve written a blog post about the trip, it’s deductible as research, right? Follow my future engagements with the IRS by clicking here to subscribe.
How much would it cost to save this guy?
The guy who lives in this tent has been camped out on the sidewalk under the Orleans bridge for well over a year now. He’s almost a mascot to the people who walk by on their way to work, or maybe to the East Bank Club, a fancy gym a few hundred feet west of his humble abode. They slow down, check out his digs, leave a buck, and continue on their way, proud of their charitable souls.
His digs have improved over the months/years, from a couple of blankets to a small enclosure to a truly fancy tent that any out-backer would be proud to own. Maybe someone donated the tent, maybe he bought it with the stray quarters and dollars and occasional five-spots that passersby dropped along the way. In truth, none of that matters.
He is living on the sidewalk.
He has been living on the sidewalk for as long as anyone remembers.
He will continue living on the sidewalk forever.
Well, not really forever, because he will die first.
He could pass on as the result of untreated illness or a sore that gets infected without a stash of Purell on hand. Maybe he’ll die from starvation or spoiled entrees from a dumpster.
He could simply freeze if the city enforces its rule against “placing items that are an obstruction on the public way.” Streets and Sanitation posted a notice that they were going to remove the tent on December 22—Merry Christmas!!—but they haven’t followed through on it. Yet.
Maybe he’ll be attacked and suffer the same fate as the Walking Man, another fixture of Chicago’s streets who was set on fire last May while sleeping on the same street, just five blocks east of here. Walking Man—turns out his name was Joseph Kromelis—died in December, reportedly due to complications from the attack.
It’s too late for Mr. Kromelis, but what about this guy, the one in the fancy tent on Kinzie, the one who depends on the kindness of strangers and also faces scorn and threat? He knows he’s hated by some of his fellow citizens, he knows he's at risk, and his tent now includes a plea for a more lasting solution than spare change.
“I know I’m hated and not wanted here,” the sign says. “Help me leave this area. Frost bitten hands. So much pain. Help me to never be here.”
So, what would it cost to save this guy?
What would it take to get him into an actual apartment, or a room, with running water and heat and, maybe, a toilet? What would it take to get him clean clothes and to prep him for re-entry into a world that’s been just outside his flap, but disconnected, for so very long? What would it take to get him a job that he could still do after months/years of isolation? Could it be done for $10,000? $20,000? Could his life be saved, turned around, for the cost of a semester in a fancy pre-school?
It’s easy for us to talk about people in groups, because it frees us from the need to come up with solutions. It’s much less messy to talk about the homeless, instead of focusing on this homeless guy. It’s so much easier to shame people for saying homeless instead of the much trendier unhoused, than it is to bring one person in from the cold. But none of that actually does any good. And so...
What would it cost to save this guy?
This guy who is pleading to be saved.
“Frost bitten hands. So much pain. Help me to never be here.”
The girl at the train station loves, loves, loves her town, which is cold and empty and expensive and unreachable by cars. And, as an added bonus, polar bears amble down the street every so often to see the sights and forage for food, which could include incautious locals.
Still, she’s crazy about the place and her decision to move there from a much bigger city with more heat, more creature comforts, lower costs and decidedly fewer apex predators. She’s young, yet, and she might change her mind someday, but right now she loves knowing everyone in town and having everyone know her. She loves the quiet and the crisp winter air. She loves conversing with tourists and then sending them on their way.
It’s easy to lose track when you travel by air, especially if you’re spoiled like I am with O’Hare airport 12 miles from home and a non-stop flight going anywhere. Take a close look, though, and you realize that the world is a gigantic canvas of empty space with a few human settlements to break up the monotony. Some of
the settlements have obvious appeal, but others require a footnote or two.
Whenever I head out to some isolated stretch of land, I wonder about the people who choose to live there. What made them decide that this cold stretch of barren wasteland would be a great spot to settle down, maybe raise a family, maybe build a life?
I talk to the locals whenever I travel and they all have their reasons for coming, or for staying, in a town that wouldn’t make my top 1,000 list of home towns. Unlike Mr. Rogers, they don’t want to be my neighbor, either. They like where they’re at just fine and there’s no way to convince them that big-city life is worth a spin.
We’re all the same, at least in theory. We all have the same hierarchy of needs and pretty much identical genetics. Hair and eyes and skin and height and weight will vary all over the place, but the fundamentals are the same at birth. Our vision is shaped by our experiences, though, and the girl in the train station cannot help but see the world much differently than I do, and vice versa.
In a very real sense, we live in different worlds. Both of us need to survive and thrive in the environment we’ve chosen, which can lead to markedly different interpretations of the same developments, sharply different views of normal and safe and sane.
No matter how hard we try, we all end up in some form of echo chamber, relishing the reassurance that comes from familiar voices. We engage mostly with people who live near us, look like us, and share our educational/economic/religious/cultural histories. We mock the people who take a deep dive down the rabbit hole, but pretty much all of us slide into our own circles of trust, unintentionally and unaware.
I have no idea if the girl in the train station is trapped in an echo chamber, or which chamber it might be. As I listened to her story though, she helped to lift me out of mine.
There's another trip or two on the agenda and we'll be meeting some strange ducks, or other waterfowl, along the way. Be sure to read all about it by clicking here to subscribe.
All my friends have been wishing me a happy new year, but it’s pretty clear they don’t really mean it. Let’s face facts here. If they really wanted me to have a happy new year, they’d have sent me a million dollars and a pizza.
Ignore those glad-handers, though, because the folks at Dad Writes are sincere about this whole “happy” new year thing. That’s why we sent $1 million and a pizza to everyone who solved our super-secret, invisible riddle before midnight on December 31. And, for all of you losers who didn’t make the cut, we’ve put together a consolation prize, our guide to How to Have a Happy New Year Even if You Don’t Have $1,000,000 and a Pizza. Starting with…
Does this really have anything to do with my life?
Spoiler alert: Roughly 99.9999999% of the time, the answer will be ‘no’ and you can continue on your merry way, enjoying a truly happy new year. Not quite as happy as it would have been with $1 million and a pizza, but happy nonetheless.
Of course, the most important key to happiness in 2023, or any year, is to click here to subscribe to Dad Writes.
Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.