Saturday, May 30, 2009

Open Letter to My Neighborhood

Dear Object of My Fond Affection and Head-Scratching Chagrin . . .

Ok, maybe it was that meltdown the last night of vacation, or my recent angsty dreams, or the routine 4am wakefulness, or my general tendency to prattle on (and on) to anyone who'll listen-- and many who would prefer not to--but I'm ready to admit it: I'm feeling some stress. You know me better than most, and you've noticed that my feet thud a little harder on your sidewalks as I walk to the train. You've seen my pace vacillate between the rush of always being late to work and the sluggishness of wanting to put it off for just a few more minutes, pretty please, if possible. You've witnessed the changes; you can't deny it.

So here's the skinny. What would be great, if you could see it in your heart, is for you to be your best self, just for the next couple months while we get through the summer heat together.

If your building walls could stay free of gang tags and other graffiti. If your front yards and parkways could harbor a few more perennials and a few less Cheetos bags and motor-oil containers. If your alley parties could feature backgammon and gin rummy and food and drink and laughing and yes, even music, even occasionally loud music, but maybe not bass-heavy NC-17 hip hop and maybe not past 11pm. If your dog owners could clean up after their pets. If the rash of vacant, foreclosed buildings might get sold affordably to people with the best of intentions. If your trees could stop getting chopped down for no apparent reason. And, oh yeah, if your local kids could stop shooting each other.

We've both seen what's possible. We've seen the new neighborhood gardens popping up in empty lots. We've seen the children at play, the cheerful block parties, the yard sales and elotes vendors and improved soft surfaces in the parks. We've seen cars stopping behind crosswalk lines so pedestrians can cross the street safely. We've seen Spanish- and English-speaking neighbors learning a few words of the other's language so they can get to know each other better and exchange a friendly greeting. We've seen and become 'eyes on the street' so we can watch out for our nearby neighbors.

I guess what I'm saying is, it would be great if this is what we could aspire to this summer. Isn't it fair to say we both need a break? You know I'm willing to do my part, but it'd be awfully nice if we could meet halfway. Thank you in advance for your consideration. I look forward to your reply.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

She's a carry-on, I swear

Sorry, Inez. If Southwest would've sold us a seat, you'd be coming with us. Happy long weekend, everybody. Enjoy your reprieves, wherever you are.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The people in the neighborhood

We're headed to Northern California Thursday and in overdue need of a break. This morning there were police cars nearby and a Chanel 7 news helicopter overhead, which tend to be early-warning signs of chaos. Gang graffiti is up and funding for summer youth jobs way down. The news has a daily story on the number of public-school kids lost to violence in Chicago this year. Tis the season to prepare for the worst.

But one thing I'll miss this week is another of our harbingers of summer. Our neighbor Junior, part of a household of at least two branches of an extended family, is joined every weekend by his cousins Alex and Julie. They seem to like our front porch, and also our dog. They like our sidewalk for biking and our brick path for wandering through. And for some reason they also like calling John "Chris," which he's tried to correct a few times but eventually just learned to accommodate.

The long and short of it is, we like these kids. An awful lot. Junior's a goofball who lives for other kids' company and approval. Alex is the show-off: a sweet, smart know-it-all who looks you in the eye when he's talking to you. And Julie is plainly inquisitive: every sentence lifts up at the end like she's asking a question, even when she's not (though most of the time, she is). Here's an excerpt of a recent conversation with Junior that says it all.

Junior (looking at the mosaic tiles we just laid in the front corner of the yard): 'Umm, what are those things made out of?'

Me: 'I'm not sure. I think it's cement and a bunch of broken glass. Maybe even some broken mirrors.'

Junior: 'Oh' (looking around, like he doesn't know what to make of any of that). 'All my teeth are falling out!'

So listen, tooth fairy (if that is your real name): Keep these kids safe while we're gone, ok? And put a quarter under their pillows for no reason at all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


To the uninitiated, this may look like . . . well . . . a whole lotta nothing. And maybe in the final analysis it is. But it all comes down to the back story, right? And this one, I suppose, is about finding one's rightful place in the world.

This peace lily was given to me almost five years ago by a woman who either A) had no further use of it, or B) felt that a childless, aimless person like myself needed something fragile to take care of.

In the ensuing years, I've overwatered it, underwatered it, let the leaves go brown and brittle, impacted its roots in an insufficient planter, denied it light, refused to talk to it, neglected to provide it my used coffee grounds, and essentially almost killed it nearly a dozen times. But a couple years back, I got the gumption to do some repotting. And I figured out by accident that this particular plant likes sunlight. Suddenly the lily turned green and lush, and I no longer had a sandwich-board of my rotten caretaking on display in the house. Still, she made no sign of flowering, but I made peace with the prospect I'd never see a bloom (as one is called upon to do with a peace lily).

Suddenly last night -- after a five-year relationship together, after nearly two years of decent but uninspired health -- I noticed tucked there in the greenery, quietly emerging with no need for attention, not one but three separate blooms. Now I'm no believer in symbolism, and I can't take much credit for this surprising surge of life, but I guess I'm overdue for a promising sign of something or other. So I'll take this for what it is, and maybe I'll share an 'After' photo or two once the blooms do their unfolding. I'll leave it to you to untangle what the whole thing might mean. As for me, I'm a happy bystander.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Manly yes, but I like it too . . .

My favorite gender-specific product, ever.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Signs of the Times

A neighboring artist/sound engineer rents a storefront apartment that provides a picture window for his 'work.' The place has seen better days, but I have to give the guy credit for trying. For about 6 months he displayed a collage of food photos from what I'm guessing was a stint as a local magazine photographer. The first few weeks it all looked pretty delicious. But as the sun started to take its toll, each dish became about as appetizing as real food left out in the elements that long. Faded turkey legs. Gray omelets. Yummy.

His latest installation is hard to see (the fault of my camera delay), but it's an image of a guy playing guitar in front of a light show that creates a kind of strobe effect. The whole thing runs on a constant loop on an old, beat-up television. And even though this is better than when the guy had a video camera connected to the tv, so you'd see yourself reflected on the screen as you walked by (creepy), I've found myself wondering if this really is the best use of this exhibit window. Is this really what we come up with, as a culture, when life presents us the tools and opportunity?

Then again, as I continue to walk down the street and see window displays like this . . .

and this . . .

and this . . .

and this . . .

I have to acknowledge: it'll do.