I’ve never been a big fan of cruises and the reasons are many, but one particular issue is looming large in my mind these days.
In most of the world, it’s tough to get through a week without some form of wind and rain, or both, and this is absolutely true on the ocean. As a result, anyone on a seven-day cruise is going to experience a 52-magnitude earthquake at least once. It’s a thrill ride on steroids and a great reminder that even the largest vessel is a drop in the ocean. Shockingly, this little bit of excitement is never mentioned by the cruise lines in any of their ads.
Now that we’re deep into hurricane season, I think about the people who choose to experience this kind of torture, including those who live in places that are prone to natural calamities. Florida is in hurricane alley, more than half of New Orleans is below sea level, California is perpetually on fire and, sometimes, earthquakes, a huge swath of the country is always in drought, and there’s undoubtedly a hundred chronic disaster zones that have slipped my mind already.
Frankly, I feel a lot safer in Chicago. It’s not that we don’t have our challenges with rain and cold and sleet and hail, but let’s get real here. We have crime, absolutely, and it makes for nearly orgasmic coverage on cable news. But there are no sharks swimming in our streets, the water is clean, and we haven’t had an Armageddon Fire since 1871.
Regarding crime, by the way, let’s take a look at the stats from the past few years:
The five cities with the highest murder rates this year are St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit and Cleveland. By state, the top five states to be murdered in during 2020 were Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri and Arkansas. Broaden the topic to include all violent crime and the top five are Monroe, Louisiana; Memphis, Tennessee; Detroit, Michigan; Saginaw, Michigan; and St. Louis, Missouri. The sources and specifics vary from year to year, but it’s rare to find Chicago on the top five list per capita, or the top ten, for that matter.
Yes, there is crime, and, yes, I am certain to become a victim a minute after I post this, but the reality is not even close to the myth. We’re safer walking down the street in Chicago than in more than a dozen other major cities that never seem to make the evening news.
Besides, there are steps I can take to reduce my risk when it comes to crime. I avoid walking down unlit streets at night with $100 bills sticking out of my pocket, for example, and I avoid picking fights with tattooed beasts when the bar is about to close. When it comes to natural disasters, though, my defensive strategies might not succeed as well.
Every so often, usually during the bleakness of winter, I’ll think about moving to a sunnier clime, a location where my bicycle tires would fail from overuse instead of dry rot. When I scroll through the listings, though, the pickings get very slim very fast. Of course, the competition with Chicago is already slanted in our favor.
We have the most vibrant live theater community in the country, a ton of great restaurants, world-class museums, incredibly convenient airport connections, clean water, and more than four million craft beer breweries. Yes, our taxes are high and some of our political leaders are legendary idiots, but we don’t have to worry about weekly hurricanes, forest fires or drought.
The next time a storm brings Lake Michigan into my living room, maybe I’ll rethink this whole thing. Until then, though, I’m staying put.
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Our 50th high school reunion finally arrived and I can’t tell you how relieved I am about the whole thing. Thinking back on my high-school years, I knew I would be ridiculed the instant I walked in, mocked for the failure I was then and the loser I’ve continued to be, while all the rest of my class flourished in universal adoration.
As it turns out, not so much.
Thankfully, nobody seemed to remember when one of the cool kids convinced David and me to go together to the homecoming dance because lots of girls went solo and we could find dates there. It goes without saying that we didn’t find any unattached females when we arrived, so we left very quickly for a hamburger with a side of regret. David didn’t show up at the reunion—clearly too embarrassed by our humiliation—but it turns out I was worried about nothing. No one mentioned it, so maybe it’s long forgotten and I can just keep this disaster a secret for another 50 years.
In fact, not many people seemed to remember me at all. A few recalled my name or where I lived and two people remembered something specific that we did during our high school years, but the rest mostly nodded as if we’d just boarded the same elevator. To be fair, I didn’t remember them either, or anything in particular that I did during those years. I know I had one math teacher who farted a lot during a tutoring session with me, we had to swim naked in gym class, and our sports teams made us much more stoic about the setbacks in life…but that’s about it.
I don’t know what I was expecting after fifty years, but the whole thing felt like a retirement dinner where everyone was the guest of honor. Maybe they were whooping it up in other corners of the room, but almost all I heard from people were stories about the career they left behind, the ailments they’d gained, the grandchildren they did—or didn’t—see regularly, and the fogginess of their memories about teachers, classes, and the four years we spent in a shared space.
And why not? We’re all a bunch of 70-somethings who moved on to have full lives between then and now, replacing teenage torment for the glories of adulthood.
On the upside, I met a few people I’d like to know better; not to rehash our distant pasts, but because they seem to be interesting people today. My life includes a constant search for enjoyable conversations, challenging ideas, and maybe a free lunch or two. Now that we’re all over this high school thing, maybe I should reach out to a few and make a connection.
Gee, I hope they like me. I hope they don’t think I’m weird or desperate or really, really needy. I hope they don’t reject me. What if they all just text each other with mean notes about what a loser I am? What if they’re still laughing at me when our 100-year reunion rolls around?
Ah, the joys of high-school. Like Hotel California, you can never leave.
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I keep thinking that Lenny was really unhappy with his painting, but he didn’t have enough time to fix it. He kept making little adjustments until he died, and then the world fell in love with the very screw-up that he regretted. At least that’s how I would tell the story.
It was the smile, or the smirk, or the half grin that made the picture so appealing, but what did it mean? Had Lenny witnessed her pleasure when she recalled her affair with Cesare or was it the moment when she had just passed gas and grimaced, hoping he hadn’t noticed?
Whatever it was, it was done. Or, more accurately, he was done and his favorite painting would never be completed. Da Vinci is said to have fiddled with the Mona Lisa until his final days, never quite achieving whatever perfection he was seeking. Like the rest of us, he died with a to-do list.
Now I’m wondering about other great works of art, along with the lesser lights, in all the museums I’ve visited. How many of their creators regretted a stroke or daub, wished they could add another frog to the pond or a tire swing in the tree? Is there any artist anywhere, or any person for that matter, who doesn’t have second thoughts about their stories, a yearning for something just a bit different, a need for just one more opportunity to get it right?
In fact, we all have a million unfinished projects in our lives. Most of the time, we just let them go and move on. Too often, though, we dwell incessantly on the Three Horsemen of Regret: Woulda, Coulda and Shoulda. It’s not over until we say it’s over and, for some self-destructive reason, we find it impossible to close the door.
Somewhere along the line, we probably make a choice about the issues we’ll drop and the ones we’ll hold dear. From a million slings and arrows, we pick a handful to fill our quivers and toss the rest to the side, never to be addressed again. I can’t imagine there’s that much difference among all these hurts, all these unfinished conversations, but somehow we select the ones that will haunt us and we never, ever let go.
Why am I still mad at Max for ditching me at the party, but I didn’t care when Ed did the same thing? Why can’t I forgive Sandy for blabbing about my arrest, but I didn’t have any problem when Danny spilled the beans? Very complex, and confusing, isn’t it?
Looking back at Da Vinci, we’re clearly in good company. Still, there comes a time to turn the page and write a new chapter, to declare the competition over and a new game begun. Today is a good day to say goodbye to some unfinished business, simply by deciding it’s done.
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The first thing to understand is that, in the receiving line at my wedding, my wife needed to introduce me to some of my relatives. In my defense, my aunt Frieda looked a lot like Henry Kissinger and, well, I just wanted to be sure.
It’s not that I have a faulty memory. I have no problem remembering the jingles for carpet cleaning companies and car dealers from 50 years ago, and I know the names and occupations of everyone on that three-hour tour. I remember that Joe Friday’s badge number was 714 and that Contadina put eight great tomatoes in that itty-bitty can. I know to call 761-3489 if I need a ride home…in 1960.
Still, there’s something about faces that I simply cannot master. A stranger once started up a conversation with me in the hardware store and, yeah, he looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite remember where I had met him. Then he said, “Well, see you on Monday,” and I realized it was my boss.
In my defense, he was wearing a hat.
At weddings and funerals, old people will come up to me and ask, “You don’t remember me, do you?” And they’re right. I don’t. Of course, these are people I never see except at weddings and funerals, so our connection isn’t very deep, is it?
It’s getting to the point that I need to bring a puppet to social events, just so I can ask any unrecognized person, “Oh, have you met Mr. Wiggles?” Not only will that trick people into re-introducing themselves, but I suspect I’ll have fewer social interactions of any kind after a while. Win and win.
Well, it’s not completely a win, because I’m also challenged on the other end of the spectrum. Somehow, as I age, I keep thinking I recognize people I have never met before. There are only so many shapes and sizes of faces and colors for hair, so everyone starts to look familiar after you’ve been around the block a few times. For me, though, people start looking exactly like someone I know or, more likely, knew.
“Look, there’s the guy we knew from the parents’ group at camp.”
“No. He died.”
“No, he didn’t. There he is.”
“That isn’t him. He died.”
“No, he didn’t. I don’t recognize people and I recognize him, so he didn’t die.”
“You’re wrong. He died.”
“Yeah, right. If he died, what’s he doing here?”
Yes, it sounds really stupid when you put it in writing, but I guess you had to be there.
Then there are the times I introduce myself to someone who looks exactly like one of the girls my daughter went to school with…20 years ago.
“Jane, how are you?”
“I’m not Jane. You have me confused with someone else.”
“No, don’t you remember me? From when I knew you in high school?”
“You’re thinking of somebody else.”
“No, don’t you remember me watching you in the assembly hall?”
It’s amazing how quickly people can get a restraining order.
Clearly, I need an update to my facial recognition software. In the meantime, if you happen to run into me and I recognize you, it’s only because we’ve never met before. And if I don’t recognize you, that’s only because we are very, very close.
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I ran into a beggar on LaSalle Street the other day and I was about to suggest to him that he get a job, but then it occurred to me he has a full-time job already.
Because, really, how different is his workday from the guy who stands in front of the donut shop with a sign announcing free coffee when you buy a dozen donuts? Well, lots of ways, as it turns out, and none of them is particularly good.
Both the guy hawking donuts and the beggar are outside all day, through rain and snow and heat and gloom of night, subject to the vagaries of weather and the catcalls from passing motorists. Both of them have limited advancement opportunity and neither is getting a pension. But the guy in front of the donut shop gets minimum wage, or maybe $300 per hour in the current labor market, and nobody yells at him if he goes into the store to use the bathroom. Also, sometimes, free donuts.
The beggar, though, is in sales, not marketing, and he’s working strictly on commission. His product is an intangible, but there’s a real delivery of value when someone makes a purchase. For me and everyone else who coughs up a buck or two, the beggar gives us the opportunity to feel better about ourselves. We get to think of ourselves as good people, moral, charitable, upright, the kind who get into heaven. Hey, God!! Are you watching this or what?
Of course, he’s also selling hubris, which is always in demand. We all think we live in God’s grace, but we also want to believe we aren’t like him because he made bad choices and we didn’t. And, man, are we kidding ourselves on that one. At various points in my life, I was probably three drinks or two hours at a slot machine distant from a life on the street. I have no idea what my tipping point was, but I have no doubt I've been on the guard rails more than once over the past decades. When I see a beggar, though, I can comfort myself with the notion that he is weaker, he made worse choices, he is less than I am.
All this emotional healing is very cheap, a virtual steal in today’s market. For the same money I’d spend by saying Venti instead of Tall, I can feel so much better about myself, about my virtue, about my guaranteed mansion in the afterlife.
And what does the beggar get in return for his service? Not nearly enough. He puts in his eight or ten hours a day, delivering salvation of sorts, while the fussbudgets at Streets and Sanitation are busily tearing up his space under the expressway and putting up a fence to keep him from sleeping there tonight. He never knows if he’ll make any money on any given day, but he does know he’ll have a hard time finding a place to go, when he needs to go, and there are no free donuts at the end of his shift.
He’d have it a lot easier if he could get a “real job,” but that’s a huge lift for a guy with no clean clothes, no place to take a shower and, even worse, a deteriorating ability to communicate. When you’re standing on the street all day and you have no real conversations, your voice can drop to a whisper and your vocabulary atrophies. In spite of those challenges, I see this guy every time I walk past his office, because he’s working very hard at his full-time job.
On LaSalle Street the other day, I handed a beggar three bucks and he gave me both moral absolution and a blog post. I should have given him a five.
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There was a gunfight on the street a couple of blocks from our condo, and everyone is still panicked about it. As gunfights go, it was pretty special, with at least two cars racing down the street and people firing at each other from the windows.
I missed the excitement, though, because I was having dinner at an outdoor restaurant about 1,000 feet away and it was too nice a night to take cover. Yes, I noticed the news helicopters overhead and, yes, I heard the sirens as cop cars headed to the scene, but this is the city and you don’t run unless the perps are closing in on your 20.*
That doesn’t necessarily make me brave, although I won’t object if you all say I’m your hero. Rather, it’s a reflection of the fears I’ve chosen to focus on most and the ones I have exiled to the overstuffed attic in my brain. In other words, I’m just like everyone else.
Most of us have some kind of phobia that we picked up in childhood and a few of us go through a truly scarring trauma that affects our panic buttons, but we also choose the bogeymen to fear once we become adults. Almost without fail, what we’re afraid of says more about us than it does about the threats themselves.
I took part in a conversation a few months ago with a cop and a bunch of people I know, discussing the violence that seems to be running rampant in Chicago. Shootings are up, flash mob robberies are up, murders are way up, but the top concern of the people in our group was carjackings. Naturally. That’s because they don’t think they’ll be in an area where gun crimes are a big deal, but they all drive nice cars.
They might argue that they’re being realistic, placing their concern where they are most at risk, but “most at risk” is not really a thing. Their odds of getting shot are about 0.0000001% and their odds of getting carjacked are 0.00000011%, so we’re not really talking about the risk, are we?
For most of my friends and neighbors, the risk being victimized by random violence is very, very low; so low, in fact, that it approaches zero for most of us. That doesn’t mean we’re immune and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful, but we’re about 8 zillion times more likely to be hit by a car while we, or the driver, is staring at our cellphones than we are at risk of getting carjacked.
In spite of that reality, I know people who are afraid to come into the city for dinner or a show, but they have no problem walking through a mall parking while they and every driver are staring at their screens. Consciously or not, we choose our fears and, once we’ve made that choice, we fixate on any bit of news that tells us we’re correct.
That has been the prevailing theme over (almost) the past two years, as we scrolled through the menu of items to panic about in the pandemic. Am I afraid of Bill Gates or Donald Trump, new viruses or new vaccines, QAnon or government mandates? Am I more afraid of a ventilator or a bureaucrat, big Pharma or infected bats?
Because, really, whatever fear is driving me, or anyone, it’s our demon of choice. We can argue that our fears are realistic, and maybe some of them are, but they’re also a lot like our wedding vows. We choose on this day to live with this specific fear as our most beloved, and to forsake all others.
Absolutely, there are a ton of risks in this world and, one day, one specific threat will prove fatal to each of us. For most of us, though, it won’t be the one we dwell on every day.
We love using terms like perps and “your 20,” because it makes us sound like we’re tough and know what the heck we’re talking about. What other ways will we try to look much cooler than we really are? Subscribe now to find out. (10-20, btw, is police radio code for location.)
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.