Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Three Kings

"I asked for everything.  XBox One, PS4, iPod, iPad, everything."

Right, I said.  And what did you put on your regular list?  You know, for your relatives who don't have a million dollars?

He shook his head.  "I don't think about that.  If I thought about who couldn't afford things, Christmas wouldn't be any fun.  All I do is build my list, ask for what I really want, and if I get it, I'm happy.  And if I don't get it, I'm still happy.  Because it's still presents."   

Triston was on intervention.  He had to come to my office every day so I could make sure he was in school. 

"Listen to him," said Jose.  Jose had an attendance problem too, but ever since I started promising him free candy at the end of every perfect week, he'd been there every single day.  

"What?" said Triston.  "I like nice stuff."  He flipped to his sheet in my book and put a sticker in today's square.

Jose laughed.  "You only like that stuff because you don't have to work for it.  I've got a job. Spoiled."

Listen to you, I said.  I'm sure you like presents too.  What did you ask for?

"Nothing," said Jose.  "I work for what I have."

You don't celebrate Christmas?  How about Three Kings?

"Both," he said.  "We celebrate both."

"What's Three Kings?" said Triston.

"It's like ..." Jose paused a moment.  "You know how you don't get everything you want for Christmas?  You get it on Three Kings."

I laughed, and I made him explain how it was because of the gifts of the Magi and it was a big holiday in Mexico.

"Oh yeah," Jose said.  "Los Reyes Magos.  And Baby Jesus.  But really, it's the presents you don't get."

Triston thought hard for a moment.  "Oh," he said.  "I just made the connection.  We still have Three Kings here.  Except they call it Tax Day.  Refund!  Presents!  What? What?"

Go to class, I said.  You Maniacs.

They both grabbed a Reese's.  I always kept candy on my desk because I'm not above bribing children to do the right thing.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Room of One's Own: For Your Wonder Walls

from the busy mockingbird

The internet feeds my soul, because there is such easy access to working artists across the world.  I've taken about three good photographs in my entire life, which is possibly why I'm so drawn to some of these artists.  So, I thought I'd collect a few here and share them with the world.

Interesting.  I just pulled up all of the artists I want to share and realized something: they're all women.

First is Mica Angelica Hendricks, or the Busy Mockingbird.  Hendricks is an illustrator with a four-year-old daughter, and when her daughter insisted that Hendricks share her art one day, a partnership was born that is just stunning.  Mom draws faces, and her daughter fills in the rest.  Mom then takes the drawing and colors it in.  The result is surrealistic art that Dali would have envied.

Next is Maja Daniels, and her series of photographs entitled Monette & Mady.  While living in Paris, Daniels happened upon a pair of identical twins who dressed the same every day.  I want to know everything about them.

Julia Kozerski is a young woman whose photographs are almost completely focused around self-portraiture. Kozerski's series Changing Room is a chronicle of her weight loss through a series of photos in mirrors.  Start there, and then move on to Half, the series that just gutted me.  A weight loss success story looks a lot different when all the clothes come off.  Go ahead, click it, and then cry with me.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Remember Remember the 5th of November

I always think of my Uncle Teddy on Guy Fawkes Day.

My Uncle Ted was a bona-fide hero, but I never thought about that when he was around because he was always too busy making us laugh.  They called him Beady-Eyed Baader, because he often saw the enemy planes coming before the radar picked them up.  No kidding.  He tell his wingman there was a bogey on their two o'clock and seconds later, the radar would beep.

Uncle Ted receiving a medal.
Nobody in the family has seen this photo before.
I just found it.  On the internet.

Uncle Teddy saw combat in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, but that was never what he talked about. More often, his stories were about things like how they learned not to use heat-seeking missles around camels or the time the guy in his squadron discovered that methane gas was still gas and that it wasn't a good idea to light your farts on fire.  All your hair will burn right off, even your eyebrows.  When I was a child, I spent hours imagining the logistics of that escapade.

I'm pretty sure that was his intention in telling it to me.  To be sure, Uncle Teddy loved a tall tale.

My Dad's birthday is on January 1st, and at midnight on New Year's Eve every year, the phone would ring and it would be Uncle Teddy.  In about thirty seconds, my Dad would burst into peals of laughter and wouldn't stop until he hung up the phone.  "What did he tell you?" I'd always ask, but my Dad would shake his head.  "I can't repeat it, honey."  (That only made me want to know even more.)

Uncle Ted is the guy on the right.  He always looked like he was about to laugh.
I just found this photo after searching a little while on the internet.
(I can't wait to show my Dad.)

And then there's my favorite story.  When he was a young man, he was stationed in Stratford with his family.  One foggy November evening, he left the base for home (in a 1950 Ford, my Dad is always careful to note) and he came across the bridge.

Then: BOOM!

He was so startled he drove himself straight into a ditch.  "What the...?" he yelled into the darkness.  (I'm sure he added more colorful invective, but when he told this story to a fourteen-year-old me, he edited a bit.)

More firecrackers went off.  Out of nowhere, a gang of young men appeared wearing masks and carrying torches.  He had no idea what was going on that November fifth (See Gunpowder, treason, and plot if you don't know about Guy Fawkes either).

A typical Guy Fawkes Day mask

"Oy, Yank!"  they shouted as they ran through the fog.  "It's Guy Fawkes Day!"

That's why I always remember my Uncle Ted on the fifth of November.  Because, as he said, only he could survive three Pacific wars only to get blown off the road by drunk Englishmen.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Add It Up

"Well, you know, some part of this is they don't have their priorities intact," he said.  "They're spending moey on iPhones when they need to be buying calculators."

I looked at him, considered a moment, and instead walked away.  

I've learned not to engage.  I always thought to myself that if a guy like that saw what I saw every day, there's no way that he could think like that, but no. He works here.  He interacts daily with our children and our parents and he still believes in his rhetoric.

Yes, our children have cell phones.  They have to.

Once I was observing a math class that wasn't going very well.  The teacher was in his first year, and he had some real characters in the room.  One of the boys, Chuy, sat in the back row and took his cell phone out in the middle of the lesson.  I waited for the teacher to react.  He didn't see because he was busy coaxing a couple of girls in the front of the room who were talking through his lesson to try the next problem.  "I don't get this!" they were telling him.  "You don't know how to teach."  

And still Chuy texted.  In fact, he leaned over, showed his friend his screen, and started laughing.

I try not to discipline students in a teacher's classroom because that undercuts their authority, but this was too much.  I  stood in front of Chuy's desk and held out my hand.

"Aw, no!" he said.  "I didn't mean to.  I'll put it away, I swear."  Chuy liked to come and talk to me over his lunch breaks, and it was clear that he thought I'd let this one slide because he was one of my favorites.

Still, I held out my hand.  Even my favorites had to give up their cell phones.  Especially them.

But he wasn't ready to give up.  He looked down at his desk, saw his math work, and looked up. "I was just using the calculator.  See?"  He pointed to his math, but the screen flashed in the motion.  He wasn't.  He'd been texting jokes, and a goofy picture was on the screen.

I waited, my hand out.  Eventually he handed me the phone, I sat back down, and the teacher continued the lesson.

After school that day, when Chuy walked in, I was ready for him.  His grades were up on my screen, and I was counting the Fs.  

"I know," he said.  

Do you? I asked.

"I've already gone and got my work.  It's a long weekend, and I'll get it all done, I promise."

It was a long weekend, but we had a policy of not returning phones to anyone but parents.  His mother would have to come up to school for a discussion.

He pulled his books out of his bookbag and started showing me what he had done.  "I swear.  I'm going to do it.  I just ... I can't go home without that phone.  Not this weekend.  Not this one.  It's too long, and I need it."  He sent me a sidelong look.  "And also, I use my phone for a calculator.  So if you don't give it to me, I can't do my Math."

Stop playing, I scolded.

He straightened up.   "I'm serious now.  I can't go home.  Don't make me leave this building without that phone.  I'll have no protection on the streets."

Now, this is the kind of time when you look at a kid and you can see it in their eyes that they're not bullshitting.  Chuy needed that phone, and he was scared to go home without it.  He wouldn't explain why, either, just repeated that he needed it.

So, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I decided to give the kid a break.  I pulled his phone out of my desk drawer (it was rubberbanded to keep the battery on), and put it on the desk.  I need some promises, I said.


So I made him promise that he'd talk to his Math teacher before leaving to get his missing assignments, that he'd spend the weekend doing them, and that he'd check in with me on Monday to discuss his progress. "This is your life," I told him.  "You're running out of time to turn this around."  We'd been talking all week about applying to colleges and how important his junior year was.

"I know.  I promise.  I swear."  

"Do you pinky swear?" I asked, and stuck out my pinky.  The toughest kids in the world know what it is to pinky swear and won't do it unless they mean it.  

Chuy stuck out his pinky, and we linked.  I handed him back his phone, and he bounded out of my office.  "Peace out!" He yelled, just before slamming the door.

The next day, Chuy was shot and killed by somebody who lived on the other side of 47th Street.  He'd been walking home from the store because his mother needed something for Thanksgiving dinner and he went to buy it for her.  He had his phone on him when he died, thank God.  I'd have never forgiven myself if he hadn't.

So yes.  I can understand why a parent would choose to buy a phone before buying a calculator. 

Calculators can't dial 911.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

In Defense of Kim (No, Really)

Tonight I ran to the Walgreens and the line was ridiculously long, so it was almost impossible to miss this magazine cover (I snapped the photo with my phone, so forgive the poor quality.):

Please consider this my open letter to Star Magazine.

Dear Star,

I understand that celebrities are your raison d'etre.  I also understand that you need to sell magazines every week, and Kardashians sell.  I get that.  I do.


When I was an undergraduate and didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up, I took a class in journalism.  We talked about libel and slander and how it's more difficult to prove when you're famous, because when you're a public figure, you must open yourself up to criticism simply by virtue of being famous.  We looked at all kinds of case studies and somewhere in the course of all of this study, I walked away with one thing: all a publication needs to do to defend itself is to prove an absence of malice.

We didn't intend harm by publishing this, they say, and so you can't sue us.  And so it goes.

But here's the thing:  this magazine cover is an act of pure malice.  There is intent to harm here.  You are making fun of the figure of a woman who is growing a tiny human inside of her.  That tiny human requires nutrients, and when it gets those nutrients, it will grow.  And as she grows, her mother's only job is to keep her healthy.  That sometimes means getting fatter than you ever thought you'd be.

But when a magazine cover focuses on the expectant mother's weight gain, and the mother is as image conscious as our Kim, what do you think the result will be?

She will:
a) Brush it off because she's used to this by now and knows you are all a bunch of weasels.
b) Stew over this throughout the pregnancy and react with a crash diet that makes similar headlines over her fantastic post-pregnancy shape.  And then, while her daughter is growing, raise her with unrealistic expectations of body image.
c) Internalize this hurt that you're surely causing and start dieting.  Dieting, while growing a tiny human inside of her.  Gosh, your little headline is starting to have huge ramifications, isn't it?

I'm hoping for the first one, that she's come to the conclusion that you're rodent-adjacent, and will come out of this stronger than she went in.  That's certainly true of many women I've known who've become mothers.  But Kim?  Kim isn't known for her good choices.

Especially when it comes to her clothing.  Make fun of those ugly pants she was photographed in a few weeks ago, because god knows she needs to burn them, but leave her weight alone.

Because here's the other thing: every time you create this unrealistic expectation in celebrity culture, you are creating the same expectation in the women who read your magazine.  And let's face it: they're aren't the brightest bulbs to begin with if they think there's much truth behind your lurid headlines.  These women reproduce, and you've just given them a very skewed picture of what it means to grow a tiny human inside of you.

Stop.  Just stop.  Because there's a fresh place in hell just waiting for the likes of you.

Yr. mt. obd. & hmbl. svt.,

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


"What are you looking at?"

I nearly jumped out of my chair at that.  I'd been alone in my office late in the day and had just finished my last report when I began browsing the headlines.  And I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for a good headline.  This one read "Boy Charged With Killing Baby is 1000% Not Guilty."  I mean, would you leave that news story unread?

So of course I was reading it and Marcus, as he is wont to do, walked silently in my office and was staring at my computer screen before he announced his presence.

No, I said.  Just no.  You can't walk in my office and scare the bejeesus out of me, Marcus.  Go back out that door and knock.

"But you know I'm here," he said.  "What's the point?"

The point is it's polite.  You can't scare people.

"You was scared?"

Knock, Marcus.  Knock.  And I gave him my best teacher look.  Just because I'm not in the classroom anymore doesn't mean that they don't still know it when I mean it.

So he did, because he enjoys it just a little too much when I scold him.  Then he came back and made himself at home. "We good?" he asked.

Yes, I said.  But only kind of.  You need to knock every time.

"I really scared you?"

You were silent, and you walked up behind me when I thought I was alone.  What do you think you did?

"I didn't think I was silent.  I really scared you?  You're scary."  He laughed.

Now, when kids at my school announce that I'm scary, it doesn't mean that they think I'm a monster.  It means they think I'm scared and I'd better get over it.  The last thing I am is scary, I said.  I just don't like silent people who walk in without knocking.

"So what are you looking at?" he asked again, and I showed him the article about the kid who shot the baby who was 1000% not guilty.  "Oh, yeah, I heard about that one.  They shot the baby in front of the father."

No, I said.  I knew exactly which one he meant, because everybody was talking about it, but this one was in Georgia.  The one in Chicago was where they were changing the diaper in the car and they did a driveby to get the dad but hit the baby instead.  Georgia was the mom and the baby in a stroller.

But he was fixated on Chicago.  "So they was after the dad and not the baby?  That's not so bad."

I just looked at him.

"It's not.  They didn't mean to hit the baby.  That's different than aiming for the baby and shooting it."

And I supposed he was right.  I mean, if you discount everything about precious lives and sweet-smelling feet and toothless smiles lost, there was a difference.  A driveby is different than deliberately aiming for the baby and shooting him in the face.  It's a long time since I thought to myself that anywhere was worse than Chicago for violence, but we may have found a winner.  Georgia.  Who knew?

But Marcus was still thinking.  "Did the dad die in that one and the baby lived?  That's messed up.  They should shoot that dad.  He should have died, not the baby."

Then again, perhaps not.  I couldn't make him walk outside and knock again for that one, though.  Some things you just can't redo.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Kiss me, I'm a South Sider

The South Side Irish Parade was this past weekend, and everyone was very well-behaved.

We had to be.

There's actually two parades in Chicago in March.  One, the weekend before St. Patrick's Day, happens on Columbus Drive near the Art Institute.  Huge crowds come out for that one, and they have fancy floats.  The big politicians attend, people bring their children, and it makes beautiful pictures for the six o'clock news.

Then there's the other parade.  The one on the South Side.  The South Side parade is nothing like the North Side.  At the South Side parade, we're local.  People walk down the street with dogs.  Little people dress like leprechauns. There are floats, but they're not fancy, and they were probably used last year.  And then there's the people.

For a while there, people thought it was the South Side's answer to Mardi Gras.  You wouldn't believe it unless you saw it.  All these people in their Irish wool sweaters drinking it up and puking all over the sidewalk.  In 2009, there were 54 arrests.  To give you a frame of reference, the Bud Billiken Parade, which goes through the streets of some of the sketchiest neighborhoods in the South Side, had one arrest, two years ago, and people still talk about it.

I still have that hat.  I bought it for $5 on the street that day.
Don't judge.

So yeah.  South Side Irish.  Bars on the North Side used to charter buses and cart their drunks down to the South Side to join our drunks.  As the parade floats wound their way down the street, they'd shout for green beads until they got bored and then end up in one of the pubs on Western.  Then they'd end up in the street, pissing everywhere and getting into brawls.  It was a big beautiful mess, and the force pulled all the cops from all the bad neighborhoods to contain it.

I tell you, if I were a criminal, I'd do about ten jobs on the day of the South Side Irish Parade because there's no way I'd get caught.  The police are all in Beverly.

The Beverly association that put on the parade got fined so heavily and they needed so many police that they might have actually been losing money on the parade.

So they decided to cancel the parade.  And they did it.  Nobody could believe it.    My brother was getting home from somewhere with his daughters and a news truck rolled up and he told him that they could send their north siders back where they belonged.  (All the locals blamed the North Shore.)

And for two years, everybody found something else to do that weekend.  It was incredibly boring.

The Parade wasn't always this way.  When I was a kid, it was a pretty small affair.  My Granny lived in a townhouse on Artesian, and on the day of the parade, we'd go out her back yard, cross the alley, go through the parking lot of Keegan's, and end up on the street watching the parade.  Those were the days where you had no problems seeing everything, where the parade participants were limited to a few Irish dancing troupes, the Pipefitters Union, and a couple of really big families who decided to represent.  I remember a car rolling by with speakers on top blasting the South Side Irish song.

That's right.  We have a song.  Want to hear it?  (Click on the link if you want to hear the whole thing.  This is a multi-media experience.)

South Side Irish
We're the South Side Irish as our fathers were before
We come from the Windy City and we're Irish to the core
From Bridgeport to Beverly from Midway to South Shore
We're the South Side Irish-Let's sing it out once more!

So they finally brought the parade back last year because enough years had gone by that everyone forgot what it was like and everyone else remembered cutting through back yards just like I did  to watch the families parade down the street.  It could be good again.  It could be neighborhoody again.  We could do it.

And because we really wanted it to work, we were good.  They made it clear that they'd arrest you for open containers and automatically fine you $1000.  I certainly didn't have that much money lying around, and neither did anybody else.  We're South Siders, not North Siders.  Cops, firemen, teachers.  That's who we are, and when somebody tells us we've got to behave, we know how to make that happen.

And?  Only one guy got arrested last year, and nobody got arrested this year.  Take that, Bud Billiken.

I'm not sure how long this will last.  As my friend Brian said, a few years from now, people are going to forget that the parade was ever cancelled and return to their revelry.

Backyard revelry.
I never saw that boa again, come to think of it.

People still drink, because they're Irish, and Irish people drink, but they drink in their back yards and front porches.  And nobody knocks over port-a-potties or pukes all over a cop's shoes.

It's a bit tame, actually.

I'm not sure if I like it.