Sunday, November 30, 2008

Penny wise?

You know you're getting batty when someone tossing out a 'perfectly good turkey carcass' sends you into such paroxysms of anxiety that you have to come back from the holiday, rummage through the crisper drawer, and simmer up a big pot of stock from all the peels and hirsute ends of root vegetables, just to restore a sense of equilibrium.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, good people

John's been encouraging me to be more earnest--to overcome my fear of preciousness or sentimentality, and maybe get over my cynicism a little. So this year (deep breath) I want to go on record with gratitude for the following:

-mornings with a lot less street noise

-generous friends and neighbors

-22 weeks a year when we can eat local organic produce, delivered just 3 blocks from home

-my sweet, sweet pooch

-thrift stores

-that Nick Cave continues to amaze, and will always be older than I am

-the many people in my life who've got my back

-good advice

-kind words


Have a lovely holiday and enjoy your various breathers, whatever form they may take.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Small (and not so small) favors

I'm this close, this close, to falling back in love with my neighborhood.

It's largely thanks to this guy . . .

and this guy on the right . . .

and this ravioli . . .

It's a long story, but that first guy--our good friend Thuan--staked out our corner at 5am last Tuesday to confront the horn honker (the driver who's been blaring her SUV horn before dawn every morning, including Saturdays, since August). Thuan got photos and a license plate number and even tried gently to talk with her, but in a repeat of what John and I got when we attempted the same, she rebuffed him through a closed window and drove off, horn blazing. Thuan lives several blocks away and doesn't ever hear the disruption: he just insisted on doing this out of the goodness of his heart. When I'm on my death bed hopefully decades from now, and someone asks me the kindest thing anyone ever did for me, this act will rank in the top three, guaranteed.

In a perfect stroke of kismet, that second guy you see above--whom you may recognize from an earlier post as my favorite member of the CPD--paid a visit the very same day to the house in question, where the tenant was being picked up every morning. Lo and behold, no car horn in the last ten days, and my insomnia seems to be subsiding.

Of course nothing gold can stay, Pony Boy, and we don't expect we're fully out of the woods yet. But if not, I'll retreat into the starchy euphoria of the homemade pasta now available from our local Mexican supermarket, also pictured above. We bought artichoke ravioli, wild-mushroom ravioli, and spinach tortellini, but those are only three of the dozen or so varieties they carry (including, wait for it . . . lobster. Oh yeah).

I know not to count on ravioli of any stripe as a permanent fixture. Things come and go at the Tony's Certisaver. Couscous and block parmesan have been fairly stable offerings. Recycled toilet paper and fresh baguettes, not so much.

For now, though, we have a freezer full of gourmet pasta. And some guarded hope.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Brushes with the Almost Famous

This Saturday we headed out of our noisy neighborhood to a party in north suburban River Woods, where Julie, an old friend of John's, was the guest of honor. Technically her new baby Maya--the baby that almost wasn't--was the star of the evening. After a miscarried twin early in the pregnancy, the remaining baby was given just a 20% chance of survival. Then, a couple of weeks from term, Julie had a front-first fall that left her nicked up and briefly unconscious. But four months later, there was tiny Maya: positively, otherworldly gorgeous.

I have to admit, as taken as I was with the baby, the real heart-stopper for me may have been when this woman walked in the door. No, your eyes don't deceive you. That IS American Gladiator Phoenix, also known as Julie's cousin Jennifer. Ok, ok, I'm not really assuming you watch the show. Just stay with me for a minute. She's actually much prettier in person, and I have to say incredibly warm, smart, and genuine.

I was going on about the general awesomeness of Phoenix in the car, until John finally said "You have a crush on the gladiator, don't you?" Gobstopped as charged. But I submit, it isn't every day you meet someone whose action figure is due out in April.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


It's been a banner week for nostalgia.

Sunday night found me in a small music hall listening to a former student's band, a two-piece outfit that owes a debt to vintage country, calliope music, murder ballads, and Southern blues, but mostly has its own thing going on. You can take a listen below to my favorite song from my favorite of their records (and as anyone knows who lives routinely with boom boxes and early-morning car horns, it's nice to have something that comes to your ears pretty). That's my student on the left in glasses; he's clearly not so much a kid anymore. I taught him about 14 years ago in a fiction-writing intro, and he was my only student in 10 years of teaching who never missed a class.

Then on Monday I met up with my old college friend Andy. Connecting with him required a 3-mile bike ride to the train station, followed by a 45-minute commuter train, followed by a $12 cab ride. But this was nothing compared to the 20 years it took for us to track each other down. Our last contact was in 1988, and though we've become very different people on the surface, nothing has really changed at the core. In an alternate universe we probably could have stayed up till 3 and ordered a pizza, like we used to do as untethered college kids in Bloomington, Indiana.

Now this next part is going to read like a non sequitur, but bear with me. I've noticed that every time I go to a job interview--and believe me, I've had way too many these last few months--someone always remarks how my resumé is all over the map. This always irks me a little, because I figure when you boil 20 years of professional experience down to a single page, it's probably (maybe even preferably) going to seem less than homogenous.

I've decided, in fact, that resumés don't go far enough to show what's really of value in a life, what truly defines a candidate's character. And shouldn't that be part of what's being sussed out by potential employers?

Resumés should be constantly reformed and reinvented, with placeholders for the experiences that define a person the most, which, for many of us, is superfluous to our professional histories.

So in addition to the many years of teaching; the hopeful but ultimately dashed forays into publishing; the awkward, ill-fitting position in a medical association; and the futile but defining years of community organizing; I'd argue for the following additions to my resumé:

1986-2000: hypochondriac

1980-present: insomniac

1989-present: reluctant jogger

2005-present: dogwalker

1995: teacher of Jeff

1984-1988; 2008- : friend to Andy

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Break out the spatula and measuring spoons

You may remember a post about William, a kid who breaks my heart a little. Shortly after that initial post, William disappeared for several months. Rumor had it that troubles had increased at home so he'd moved in with a relative. But he never said so much as good-bye to Mike and Diane, and we figured we might never see him again.

Lo and behold, just before Halloween, William resurfaced. He's back at home, but for how long a stretch is anyone's guess. This is a kid who seems destined, through no real fault of his own, to slip through the cracks. A person wants to guard against getting too close. And especially wants to guard against the arrogance that we have any control over his fate--that working together, we can somehow save his life.

But it's painful not to root for this kid.

Exhibit A is a letter he sent me by way of Mike and Diane. I'm sure it's tough to read, so I've transcribed it below:

Dear, Ms. Prahl I wooyld Love a cooking Lesson. I will Love to Learn How to Cook.

From: William Estrada

PS. I promise to rack your yard for you or or shovel.

I worry a little about what hanging out with a handful of aging nerds like us may do to William's street cred. But you can bet money that I'll be putting together this cooking lesson, probably along with a field trip to the grocery store and a vermicompost lesson involving our worm bins.

So I need to enlist your help, especially those of you with kids. What should I teach him to cook? My basic criteria are that it's something healthy, requiring no special equipment, with tasks that small and clumsy hands can manage. Any suggestions would be welcome.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Take Three

Wow, this is the third and hopefully final version of this post. I published two different iterations earlier, but ended up having misgivings about both. This goes to the heart of how difficult it is to write and think about race and class, especially in a neighborhood caught between gentrification pressure and a crumbling economy.

So here's the thing: Thursday night some neighborhood violence hit too close to home, and I decided in my initial post to let off steam and indulge some armchair analysis: wondering about Obama's victory, and whether its euphoria had reached as far as the Latino community. I suspected that some of our own neighbors might be feeling slightly left out of the party.

Suffice it to say, we've seen an uptick in crime, noise, and generally disrespectful actions lately that have me feeling both vulnerable and pessimistic. While these issues shouldn't be linked even remotely to presidential campaigns, part of me wonders how Latinos--who actually voted for Obama at a staggering 66% rate--are situating themselves in a presidency that's being framed in largely black and white terms.

The photo above points to some of the ambivalence that may swirl around Obama's victory, at least in communities like ours. It may not be easy to see, but that hand-painted sign--on a garage on the most affluent and desireable block in the area--has been tagged several times. Tiny scrawled 'yes'ses, and the more prominent strike-through across Obama's name, which appeared only since Tuesday's results.

I'm hopeful that the healing Obama's presidency represents will reach beyond black and white into richer and more complicated boundary waters. If Obama has the chance to make any policy at all, I hope he'll do so first in the interests of those who are struggling the most, which means class needs to be a key consideration. This seems to be our only chance for real and meaningful shifts that trickle down to the community level. For all too many, that's long overdue.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

So . . . what's new?


What an incredible day! For me this is less about a specific candidate than about a critical mass of marginalized, lost, and disappointed citizens--cautiously dipping a big toe into the waters of civic engagement--and waking up to feel that it actually matters. That's what's leaving me truly moved today. That, and the idea that the country said a resounding 'No more!' to leadership bereft of humanity.

The quote of the day came not from President-elect Obama himself, but courtesy of John, who noted the following while he waited for me to finish voting:

A young couple--obvious neighborhood toughs--were leaving the polling site after casting their ballots. Think of your standard hellraiser garb: oversized jerseys, baggy low-slung pants, lots of bling.

Guy: "I bet everybody up in this bitch is voting Democratic."

Girlfriend: "They better!"

Mildred, this one's for you.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I'll take a burger, fries, and regime change please

In honor of election day, I'll share an anecdote about our wonderful neighbor Mildred: nonogenarian, world traveler, avowed Socialist, widow, and walking enthusiast (pictured below with our alderman).

The other day was unseasonably warm, so Mildred was enjoying a little time on her porch. She doesn't see well so I shouted a quick hello followed by, "It's Christy."

"Oh, Christy . . . come on over and join me for a moment."

She went on to say how excited she was about Obama's chances. "I think he's got it in the bag," she said. "And before you go, I have a new slogan for you. Let me know what you think of this . . . "
She got a wry look on her face and--with great panache and perfect comic timing--delivered the following:

"How about, 'McCain . . . and Unable'?"

I'll tell you what I think of that, Mildred. With age comes great wisdom. Let's hope you get to see history made tonight!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween in the Hood

Does anybody have a rake?

Check out my caddy . . . I mean daddy.

I can't pay the rent!

You must pay the rent!

Look at this tasty morsel I just harvested . . .

And is that Farmer Thuan, or one of those guys from the Village People?

No candy for me, thanks. I just ate.

We posed for a picture and all we got were these crappy, fun-sized Three Musketeers?

I'll put a spell on you. You better believe it.