Thursday, January 30, 2014

Two inches?

We here in Chicago are feeling not a little smug these days as news reports coming from the great city of Atlanta tell us that city came to a standstill this week because of two inches of snow. In Chicago, an incapacitating snowfall is measured in feet not in inches so it does seem a little ridiculous to us that two measly inches would cause such a fuss.

Chicago this month has had its own problems with the severe winter, schools and places of business have closed due to unusually cold temperatures. Of course cold and snow of any kind is unusual in the Sun Belt; consequently cities like Atlanta are not equipped to deal with the white stuff. The entire city I'm told has all of three trucks equipped with snow plowing apparatus, and folks there have little experience driving on snow and ice, not to mention adequate clothing for sub-freezing temps. Consequently many Atlantans were stranded in their cars for up to 24 hours in the cold, trying to get home from work. Before we get too cheeky up here in Chi-town about our friends' plight in the Peach State, we have to remember it's all relative. I have no doubt that people in places like Minneapolis and Winnipeg are laughing at us right now for bitching and moaning about our chilly weather.

But two inches, really?

Sorry, I got a little carried away. A city after all can't be expected to come through unscathed whenever there's a once in fifty year weather event. I'm reminded of the 1979 blizzard in Chicago. Over a period of three days, about 200 feet of snow fell on this city. OK that's a bit of an exaggeration. Anyway the mayor at the time, Michael Bilandic was asked why the city was so slow in dealing with the snow problem. His answer, "what snow problem?", cost him his job. I can still see the famous campaign commercial of his soon-to-be successor, Jane Byrne. She wasted no time taking advantage of Bilandic's miscue by standing outside in the middle of the blizzard promising voters that if she were elected mayor, it would never snow again. She won the election and gosh darn it, we haven't had that much snow since. The other result of that blizzard is this: such is the fear of a repeat of the Bilandic fiasco, at the mere mention of the possibility of a trace of snow, the sitting mayor orders the entire fleet of plows and salt spreaders onto the streets. This city dumps so much salt on the streets in the winter that you can literally taste it in the air. It's not uncommon to see more salt on the streets than snow, although rumors of children in Chicago building saltmen are urban legend.

That's beginning to change. Due to budgetary constraints, we simply don't have as much money to spend on salt as we used to. It's mere speculation, but since our current mayor has aspirations other than being mayor for life, perhaps he's not quite so gung ho about dumping salt before the snow even starts to fall. A couple of weeks ago on a Sunday, we got about a foot of snow (no exaggeration) and at least in my neighborhood, there were no plows to be seen for most of the day. Still, people managed to get out, walking and driving about town without too much fuss. Of course most people in this town at least own a snow shovel.

My guess is that most people in Atlanta don't. Still, two inches?

I was transfixed on the TV while eating lunch today. The entire broadcast dealt with Atlanta's snow problem. There were helicopter shots of highways filled with stranded vehicles, people checking in to hotels after abandoning their vehicles, and live coverage of the Governor of Georgia apologizing to his constituents at a press conference for the chaos that ensued after their ahem, snowstorm. He's up for election later this year  and my guess is that the press conference was largely damage control. While politicians can't be blamed for bad weather, all indications point to the fact that the city of Atlanta and the State of Georgia screwed up:
  • Turns out there was a severe ice storm a few years back in the area with much the same results. 
  • This storm had been predicted for many days, heck I even knew it was coming thanks to a Facebook friend, so there was plenty of time to prepare. 
  • When the storm began, the city advised businesses to send their employees home early without any thought of staggering release times, meaning that everyone was out on the roads at exactly the time the storm was at is worst.
But it's a double edged sword. Had government officials told people not to come in to work at all in anticipation of bad weather and the storm had proven not to be severe, you can bet there would have been hell to pay due to lost production and revenue from those businesses. It's a crap shoot and this time the local and state officials lost.

A few years ago, we had a bad storm that dumped between two and three feet (again, no exaggeration) on the city. Everybody knew it was coming for about a week, and almost everybody was prepared. Still, several motorists were stranded on Lake Shore Drive in snow drifts that literally covered cars up to their windshields and higher. Few however felt much sympathy for those people as they simply defied logic by driving that day.

That's not to say the folks in Atlanta should have been more prepared; the real culprit is the fact that Atlanta and so many other cities like it are designed around the automobile, allowing for little or no other transportation options. Here in Chicago when we were confronted with the very real threat of a major blizzard hitting later in the day, most everybody who elected not to stay home that day, chose not to drive to work. That meant even if they got stranded on say, a bus, they could get off and walk to a transportation alternative, or simply walk home. That is not an option in a city like Atlanta where most people live several miles from where they work and have no option other than driving.

The good news is that despite being terribly inconvenienced, people in Atlanta experienced something we experience up here in the Snow Belt more often: the misfortune of a community bringing people together. There were lots of stories of people helping out strangers by opening their doors to them, by bringing food, or simply commiserating with one another. Here is a link to a feature made by the Atlanta CBS affiliate featuring the husband of a friend of mine among others, helping out. I remember three years ago when we had our last big blizzard, people were nicer to each other. I have nothing but good memories of that experience and I imagine given some distance from the event, most Atlantans will feel the same. Nothing brings people together more than shared misery. As they say, if it doesn't kill you it only makes you stronger.

I close with some words of wisdom from Facebook. Yes between all the babble and photographs of cats you can find some real wisdom there. One friend posted that he found the terms describing our recent arctic blast, namely "Polar Vortex" and Chiberia" to be rather unsatisfactory. One of his friends replied: "I just call it January." The winner came from another friend who posted this:
If you're not homeless, please don't complain about the weather.
I rather liked that one. Try to stay warm everybody.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger

Thank you for your life and your work. The world will be a much less worthwhile place without you. May you rest in peace.


Thank you Stefan K. for originally posting this.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Another one bites the dust

First of all let me be blunt: the Sears store on State Street in downtown Chicago really sucks. It was badly designed from the get go, is poorly stocked, and the salespeople who work there are woefully ignorant about the few items they actually do stock. At least that has been my experience for let's say... oh about every single time I shopped there. While I've been there on countless occasions hoping against hope I might find something I need, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I actually bought something there. Every time I'd go back thinking: "well I'll just give this place one more chance" ...and they have never failed to disappoint. That's some record. The piece de resistance was the time I visited their hardware section. If Sears is known for anything, it's hardware. I was looking for nails. Despite the fact that they carried hammers in all shapes and sizes, presumably for the purpose of pounding nails, the response I got when I interrupted a sales clerk who was busy engaged in a personal conversation with another clerk was: "no, we don't carry nails." I don't think I've been back since.

I can safely say all this now because the company that owns Sears has just announced plans to close the flagship State Street location in April of this year. This particular store opened up in 2001 after the Chicago insititution's nearly twenty year absence from State Street. The opening of the new store at State and Madison in the building that once housed the Boston Store was a welcome surprise for several generations of Chicagoans who had only known of great department stores closing on the great street, not opening up. And while the new store was certainly a disappointment, barely a shadow of the old one between Van Buren and Congress Streets, at least it was something.

I wrote about Sears and its parent company a few years ago. You can find that piece here. In a nutshell, Sears and Kmart, two struggling national icons were bought up by corporate raiders whose main interest was to sell off vast holdings of real estate belonging to those two companies, earning a fortune for themselves and their stockholders in the process. The name they chose for their corporation was appropriately enough, Sears Holdings. They did pretty good for themselves until the real estate market crashed a few years ago, at which point the honeymoon with their stockholders was over. In the meantime, the stores bearing the Sears and Kmart brands continued to flounder, the victims of changing economic times and corporate indifference.

It's hardly a surprise that yet another "brick and mortar" retail establishment is closing its doors; admittedly it's a very hard business to maintain in these days of convenient, low-overhead, discount, on-line shopping. Yet for the past thirty years or so, it hasn't seemed as if Kmart or Sears were even trying. In that time, very little effort has been put into making the stores up to date. Walking into a Sears or Kmart today is no different than walking into one thirty years ago, except that every year there are fewer and fewer customers. As for the unmotivated employees, one might argue that it's hard to find enthusiastic people to work in retail because of the low wages they are offered. However one only needs to cross the street to the new Target or any other comparable store to find employees who are more than willing to go out their way (at least a little) to help customers. I'm guessing those folks wearing red don't earn any more than their counterparts across the street. Indifferent employees are a sure sign of an indifferent company.

It's only speculation but it seems likely that the reason so little effort has gone into improving Sears and Kmart is because the mission of their parent corporation is selling off real estate, not selling refrigerators, tires and nails. The retail stores are merely window dressing, the public face of the corporation. As long as there are buildings somewhere that bear the name Sears or Kmart, investors will have a modicum of confidence in Sears Holdings. Without the stores, all will be lost, and the way things have been going for the corporation, that fate looks more and more certain.

As I concluded in my previous piece, the stockholders will go on to find other investment opportunities while employees, consumers and businesses who depend upon those stores, and the people of the city of Chicago will be left holding the bag.

This isn't exactly the trickle down economics that the right wing drools over. This is the old story of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer; unfettered capitalism (as Rush Limbaugh calls it) at its ugliest.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A cautionary tale

There's a commercial making the rounds, (don't ask me what it's for), that features people affixed to their smart phones shall we say, inappropriately. There's one shot of a bride and groom at the altar staring at their personal devices as they take their vows. Another, the punch line of the ad, has a man fishing his phone out of a urinal, having dropped it while "multitasking." The man at the adjacent pissoir stares at the unfortunate fellow and gives him today's universal sign of sardonic incredulity, the terse comment: "really?"

These little skits would be funny if they weren't so true to life. You see them everywhere, people teathered to their portable devices as if they were lifelines, which I suppose to many, they are.

Don't get me wrong, smart phones are marvelous inventions, the long dreamed of "all in one" machine that can do the same amount of work it used to take dozens of machines, hands, and or human minds to accomplish. In that sense, they're not so different from this fabulous invention of yesteryear:

Yes, it slices and it dices, but the real question is, can your smart phone core a apple? Well perhaps not, but it can do just about anything else.

As with all innovations, there are down sides to this brave new technology. Ever have dinner with a friend who insists upon answering his cell phone AND carry on an entire conversation with the disembodied voice at the other end while you're left to eat your lasagna alone? Or ever attend the theater or a concert when some goofball's phone starts to ring?

Of course those are the minor inconveniences. Tragically, people have lost their lives as a result of some knucklehead finding it necessary to text someone while driving a car. How it ever occurred to anyone to text at the same time as driving I'll never know, but years ago I did see someone reading a newspaper while behind the wheel so nothing surprises me. The fact that there are people dumb enough to text and drive making it necessary to create laws to prevent such things really says a lot about the intelligence or lack thereof of many of our fellow inhabitants of the planet.

A news item just aired about a tragedy that happened the other day in Chicago. Three young visitors from Minnesota spent the night here out on the town, presumably having a drink or three in the process. As they were strolling along the River Walk at about three in the morning, one of them took out his smart phone to take a picture of the frozen river. He accidentally dropped the phone into the river, then decided to go in to fetch it. As the temperature had been well above freezing for three or four days (after the so called Polar Vortex),  the river ice was thin and the poor fellow fell through. His two companions, another man and a woman went in after him. The two men were eventually pulled out of the water by the Fire Department. One of them, the owner of the cellphone, died later at the hospital. The CFD called off the search for the woman after divers spent several futile hours in the complete dark of the near freezing water. Her body was recovered the next day. The third victim fortunately survived the ordeal.

No word on the fate of the cell phone.

Despite feeling terrible all day about the tragedy of these three young people and their grieving families, part of me couldn't help but think about what a stupid way to die that was. Two lives, nearly a third lost over a two hundred dollar appliance. The whole sordid incident reminded me this morning of the Darwin Awards, the annual tongue-in-cheek prize given posthumously to those individuals who gave their lives (in stupid ways), thereby contributing to the survival of the species by taking themselves out of the gene pool.

However after thinking about it for a moment, putting myself into the late cellphone owner's shoes, I couldn't assure myself beyond a reasonable doubt that I wouldn't have done exactly the same thing, especially after an evening of taking delight in the juice of the barley.

Let's face it, outside of a cherished toy or a Little Leaguer's beloved baseball glove, I can't think of any physical object that brings as much personal satisfaction or elicits more feelings of protectiveness from its owner than the modern day smart phone. Of course this is only conjecture since I don't actually have one; my portable phone, bless its little silicon heart, is decidedly dumb by comparison.

Done up to the extreme, a smart phone can perform hundreds of tasks from book to camera to jukebox to personal movie theater to e-mail box, to command center of its user's social life. And yes it can also be used as a telephone. Throw in the countless apps available with the touch of a button, and the sky's the limit to what you can do with a smart phone. As a constant companion, most smart phone owners feel naked and lonely if they happen to leave home without their device.

Compulsive as I am, I know that if I had one, I too would be transfixed, which is one of the reasons I resist the temptation to get one.

Thinking about all this, I conducted an informal survey on the trip home on the L this evening. I'd say that about 80 percent of the passengers were using one kind of portable electronic device or other. To be fair, some of those people were listening to music through ear buds while reading an actual book made out of wood fiber and offset printed with ink. Others read a traditional book or newspaper without the benefit of a soundtrack. Still others were engaged in honest to goodness, one on one, face to face conversation, which quite honestly, warmed my heart.

Those last two groups are the people I'm convinced, who will survive the apocalypse.

As for myself, well I can only say this: there but by the grace of God...

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Jinx

Dread came over me the other day as I hit the publish button sending my post extolling the virtues of winter into the world. Being a little superstitious, I had a feeling that something bad was going to happen after I spoke of how happy I was that after a couple of mild winters, we finally had an "honest to goodness winter." I could see the headlines:
Blogger professing love of winter drops dead while shoveling snow.
Now there's some bitter irony for you.

Well, glad to report that I haven't keeled over just yet, but that lovely, joyful winter that had all the makings of a Currier and Ives print on a Hallmark card, took a nasty turn this past weekend as a major winter storm dumping about 14 inches of snow was followed by record setting sub-zero temperatures, the likes of which we haven't seen in about twenty years.

All that was followed by the predictable posts from the folks living in warm climates thumbing their noses at us. "So do you still like winter?..." I could hear them saying under their breath to me.

In all honesty I'd have to respond with a resounding yes. For as much as I get tired of all the hassles of the winter season: the layers of extra clothes, the boots that take five minutes to put on and take off, digging cars out of snow banks only to discover their batteries have given up the ghost, despite all that, I'd take winter drudgery over summer misery. Now don't get me wrong, I love summer as anyone who has read this blog faithfully can attest. But miserable is not an adjective I'd use to describe cold, even bitterly cold weather. In fact, there is a sense of satisfaction being out and about in the dead of winter, a feeling of accomplishment as if you're telling Mother Nature you can take all she has to dish out. Fifteen degrees below zero? No problem. Minus fifty degree wind chill? Bring it on.

Summer heat waves are another story. While it's always possible to get out of the cold in winter, it's very difficult to escape the summer heat. True there's air conditioning, but I always feel like Goldilocks in that artificial environment, it's either too cold or not cold enough, never just right.

I never feel quite so alive as when I'm walking around outside in the bitter cold, properly dressed of course. On the other hand, tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep on a hot summer night just makes me want to die.

Back in 1995 during a terrible heat wave here in Chicago, some 750 poor souls did just that. There are surely winter casualties as well but a small number in comparison.

The summer misery we experience here in Chicago can't hold a candle to the misery our friends suffer in places like the Gulf Coast and the southwest. I have experienced 110 in the shade in Phoenix. True it's a dry heat but so is the heat found in an oven. It's not unusual for folks in the Valley of the Sun in the midst of the great Sonoran Desert to experience days or weeks of temperatures that hover consistently around 120 degrees Farenheit. From my experience, the streets of summertime Phoenix are as deserted as Chicago's were during the past two days of double digit below zero weather. The difference is that today, with the temperature finally above zero if just barely, life has returned to our streets. And believe it or not, after the past two days, today feels downright balmy.

The summer temperatures in the Gulf Coast can't match those in Phoenix, but then again they can't brag about the low humidity either. But the real misery comes during hurricane season when people are routinely forced to evacuate their homes, not knowing for sure if there will be a home to come home to.

No thank you. It may be tempting fate to say it, but I'll take the cold any day.