Sending my best to Dominica


The first time I ever left the boundaries of the United States was for my honeymoon in August of 1992. My new wife and I took a Caribbean cruise, leaving from San Juan and going through the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Maarten, Barbados, Dominica, and Martinique. The sunshine and natural beauty of the Caribbean overwhelmed me, and so too did the crushing poverty that I saw. It was my first encounter with the meaning of the term “third world.”

Tourist dollars like ours seemed to be what kept these places afloat, if floating can accurately describe what was going on. The cruise ships bring the tourists, and the locals do what they can to separate the tourists from their money. Giving tours is a big moneymaker, for sure, and they may be the thing that I remember most about these islands. Our tour of Dominica may have been the one I remember the most.

The infrastructure, such as it was, of the islands seemed to decline as the cruise progressed. From Charlotte Amalie and the duty-free shopping it offered on St. Thomas, and the FU money of those who could afford to live or vacation on St. John, there was a precipitous decline when we got to Barbados, and even more so when we arrived in Dominica. But it was also the most pristine of the islands we had seen, and the explanation of how a rainforest worked was facinating, at least to me.

By the time we arrived at a waterfall on Dominica, and bought a piece of fruit from a local vendor, I had decided that the beauty and the poverty of Dominica were both beyond what I was ready for. I was grateful to have a cruise ship waiting for me, to take me onto the next island and, ultimately, away from the Caribbean altogether. But the tour guides and the fruit vendors weren’t so lucky. They had to stay on Dominica and wait for the next cruise ship to arrive, to repeat the same process all over again.

The devastation of Tropical Storm Erika on Dominica makes me sad today. The cruise ships that take their patrons to the shores of Dominca could surprise me and come up with some money or supplies to help the people of the island in their moment of need, but it would be far easier to look for other places to dock their boats, or simply bypass the island altogether. Who wants to see destruction and human misery on their vacation?

Places like Florida, which is next in the path of this storm, will also feel an impact, possibly even a strong one, but in the end they will rebuild. Insurance money and other resources will flow to Florida in a way that they never will to Dominica and the rest of the Caribbean. The people on that island–and the Caribbean as a whole–are truly on their own. I wish them the best.

On Subway and the Failings of Fogle


Unlike many people, I can remember Subway restaurants in the pre-Jared Fogle days. I first visited a Subway shop in the summer of 1988 in Evanston, Illinois, and it seemed like a revolution in fast food to me. In some ways, that’s exactly what it was.

You mean I can pick my own type of bread? and meat? Veggies, too? And sauce on the top of it all? Wow! That’s exactly what being in a Subway felt like back then.

I imagine it felt like that for Jared Fogle, too. He found that he liked the sandwiches, and he used them–and a lot of walking–to tell a compelling story about the inner determination that we all have, if we can only unlock it and harness it effectively. Those huge jeans that he never tired of holding up were his ticket–and Subway’s–to the explosive growth that has occurred over the past two decades.

Subway now has more than 44,000 restaurants all over the world. It’s safe to say that more than half of these only existed in the Jared Fogle days of the franchise. He was the face of the franchise, and quite literally its embodiment, too. Eat Subway and you, too, can get to a slimmer body size. And who doesn’t want that?

Jared is the opposite of Ronald McDonald, because he is a real-life person. His claim to fame was that he had eaten Subway and lost weight. That’s all. Athletes sometimes had endorsement deals with Subway–Apollo Ohno comes to mind on that front–but Jared didn’t have anything other than his backstory to offer. But that was enough, it seemed. Subway was Jared and Jared was Subway. And they both sold us all a lot of sandwiches as a result.

But real life people are human, after all. And when the freaky side of Jared Fogle was revealed, and then confirmed by his guilty plea to possession of child pornography, it created a major problem–perhaps even an existential one–for Subway and its owners, Doctor’s Associates. Can their brand, which depended on Jared’s smiling visage and uplifting personal tale, survive the things that Jared did on his own time? Should it survive?

Doctor’s Associates is a privately-held company headquartered in Milford, Connecticut. As a result, there’s been no precipitous crash in the company’s stock price, as there would be if this happened to McDonalds or Subway. But there’s also no spreading of the pain around between millions of individual and institutional stockholders, either. The pain is being felt by the people who own those 44,000 franchises around the world, and pay Subway for the right to use their name and sell their products.

The decline in sales at these locations is going to be very real. How could it be otherwise, when their corporate image is going to prison for at least five years? The food won’t taste any different today than it did last year or ten years ago, but everyone who steps through the door will have to ask themselves if they want to continue giving their money to a business that was at least partially created by a pedophile.

Subway has had a few weeks’ warning to scrub any and all images of Jared from their stores, and I’m sure they have done exactly that. But the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps this was all a misunderstanding of some sort, is gone, as of today. He did many terrible things, and his Subway-generated wealth will be used partially to repay his victims, and partially to pay lawyers who were able to work out a better plea deal than the average Subway customer could get in a similar situation. So Subway benefited Jared, one final time. But he now leaves an awful lot of franchise owners holding the bag, and facing a very uncertain future.

Jared will become forgotten, or the answer to trivia questions, or the target (because saying butt just felt wrong) of many cruel jokes. He brought all of that on himself, and I will shed no tears for him. But he will also serve as an object lesson for any company that expects to ride a spokesperson of any kind to bigger and better things. When you tie your wagon to just one horse, as Subway did for twenty years with Jared Fogle, you better be very sure that it’s a good one.

My Grateful Beard has disappeared

I spent much of February 2015 growing a beard. It originally grew out of the hockey-related idea of a playoff beard.
If you keep a routine that does not allow for shaving to intrude, the thinking goes, it will somehow create a benefit for one’s team. Or at least it allows you to share the experience with others who do the same silly thing.

I called this phenomenon the Grateful Beard, since it grew out of a waiting to see if I was going to get tickets to one of the reunion/farewell shows the Grateful Dead is playing this summer in Chicago.

I’ve been to four Dead shows over the years, with the last one being almost 22 years ago now. Four shows isn’t much by some standards, but most people haven’t even been to one show, so I’m happy to be as experienced as I am. For a rock lifer like me, hearing Jerry and his band play live confers some degree of street cred that few other bands can match.

Jerry Garcia once said that the trick is not to do something better than everyone else does it, but to do something that no one else is doing. The band was singular in their time, and that shows in what will surely be a hyper-crazy demand to be a part of the three shows this summer. this is a one-time thing, and I want in.

But as I posted previously, the mail order didn’t work out, and my money order arrived in the mail a few days ago. I took one last picture of my Grateful Beard, complete with a legitimate touch of gray in it, and shaved it off yesterday morning.

Now that the Beard is no more, I understand that it–like the Dead shows this summer–was a unique and singular experience. Never again will my whiskers depend on the content of my mailbox. So even though my efforts did not lead to the miracles I had been seeking, I still had some way of marking the time along the way. It’s a small thing, but I am memorializing it here, all the same.

Here’s hoping that the telephone and Internet sale this morning leads to greater success than the mail order did. What I can say confidently is that no Beard will be grown during this process.


Friends and Family–2013

This morning, as my teenager got in some practice ice time with her skating coach, I continued on my quest to purge my personally-identifiable pictures from Facebook. I’m working backward from the present year, and I made my way through 2013 today. It was an interesting year, but they are all with the benefit of hindsight.

Again, I’ll continue this until the storage space runs out. No explanations or captions are coming anytime soon.

Friends and Family–2014

The new Facebook Terms of Service are going into effect on January 1, 2015, and every user will have to agree to them in order to continue using their service. I’m sure Facebook expects the overwhelming majority of users to blindly click “I accept” and continue on with life. Maybe it’s a character flaw, but I’m not willing to go along so easily.

What’s the hangup?

Facebook is expecting–no, they are demanding–that any image put onto their website can be used by them for whatever commercial purposes they want, without that person’s consent, and without any compensation paid whatsoever.

Part of me is amused that Facebook thinks my image could ever be helpful selling anything to anyone. But part of me is offended that my family’s image could be used for these purposes. My grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my wife, and my children could all be put into the financial service of a multi-billion dollar business enterprise, simply because I once wanted my handful of friends to see them in a picture. My friends, colleagues, classmates, and everyone I’ve ever known, practically, could be pressed into service without their knowledge or consent.

And me, well, I’ve been in lots of photos in my life. Some of those have ended up on Facebook, on the pages of people who who go along with Facebook’s new demands. I’ll be sent into Facebook’s service, where I would prefer not to be, but there’s nothing I can do to stop it, either.

I actually don’t much care about my image, but I hate that Facebook wants to monetize millions–if not billions–of people’s images for their financial gain. Yes, Facebook is free, in the sense that it costs no money to sign up or to keep an account in your name. But when the price becomes pimping out yourself and all your friends, that’s a bit too much to pay.

So here are the images of my friends and family from my 2014 posts on Facebook. They’ve all been deleted from that site, and are being given asylum on a platform where I still think I have some control. Hope I’m not wrong about that.

How far I will take this remains to be seen. I joined Facebook in 2009, so there must be thousands of pictures that will need transferring. And I have lots of pictures from traveling, and local images I found interesting, that I don’t know if I want Facebook to control come January 1. I’d like to just take my images and walk away from Facebook altogether, but that’s a decision I don’t have to make just yet. We’ll see how that goes.

So here are the pictures. Captions and explanations won’t be forthcoming for a while, if ever.

Paying the price

A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

The decision by the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri to not indict officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown last summer ripped the scab off a wound that hadn’t healed up yet. It’s a wound that can never heal, not so long as young men can be murdered in a public place, in broad daylight, and left to decompose in full public view for more than four hours. That should never happen in a respectful, civilized society.

In the interregnum between the killing of Michael Brown, and the prosecutor’s decision that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for his actions, there wasn’t much in the way of constructive dialogue about the situation that exists between black and white in this country. The gulf between the races feels wider than I’ve ever known it in my lifetime. And the increased sense of drifting apart concerns me even more.

For every Michel Brown, and Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, there are many more names that aren’t reported in the media. And each and every time it happens, the names change but the equation never does: Black man+white man+physical altercation=death. And the white man is then believed in court, while the black man has no chance to tell his side of the story. Why? Because dead men make terrible witnesses.

It felt as if the prosecutor in this case couldn’t stomach the idea of putting a white officer on trial, for the act of shooting an unarmed black kid. He was big, he was high, he was a thief, and he got what was coming to him. A hundred witnesses, each one telling exactly the same story, wouldn’t have made a difference to him. In his mind, Darren Wilson was allowed to play the role of judge, jury, and executioner. The platitudes that he spouted off while reading his statement to the media don’t change this inalterable fact: Michel Brown is still dead, and Darren Wilson now walks free.

The shooting and its aftermath have already exacted a heavy toll on the financial resources of Ferguson, St. Louis County, and the state of Missouri. Insurance monies will be paid out to the businesses that were destroyed, and that won’t be cheap, either. But all of those things–whatever their final costs end up being–can be tabulated. Damaged or destroyed property can always be repaired or replaced, provided that there is the money and the will to have it done. Parts of Ferguson probably resemble a war zone right now, and they will continue to for a long time to come.

But the real price of the shooting and its aftermath can’t be measured in terms of money. Rather, it is the value of Michael Brown’s life that has been lost, and there’s no way to know exactly what that would be. Maybe he would have done good things with his life, and maybe he wouldn’t. We’ll never get the chance to find out.

But even more impossible to measure–and ultimately repair–is the damage that has been done to people’s faith in the judicial system. If people, whether black, white, brown, or any other hue don’t trust that the system works for them, there’s nothing that will bring that back. So they rage against everything and everything that they can. CNN brought proof of this into our living rooms all night long.

I’ve heard and read the term “exoneration” applied to Darren Wilson, but I don’t think it applies here. Yes, he has cleared a legal hurdle in front of him, thanks to a sympathetic prosecutor.  But the blood of Michael Brown will be on his hands for as long as he walks the earth, though not in a literal sense.

For all the damage he has done, both to Michael Brown personally and to everyone who has been disillusioned by the grand jury’s decision, Darren Wilson cannot possibly atone. He was allowed to walk free in a legal sense, but our society will have to pay the ultimate price for what he did that afternoon.

Like a trip through the past


If I could go back and see myself as an adolescent, I would probably find him in an arcade.

Aladdin’s Castle at White Oaks Mall is where I first caught video gaming fever, and if I had to put a date on it it would be around 1980. I eventually moved my video gaming to the Wabash Amusement Center, which was located at a bend where MacArthur turned into Wabash Avenue. I would ride my bike there several times a week, and shovel away my paper route earnings one quarter at a time.

Last night, with my wife and younger daughter away at a skating competition, and my teenager sleeping at a friend’s house, I found myself alone on a Saturday night. So I did exactly what I would have done as a 12 or 13 year-old, and I went to an arcade. And it was a lot of fun, too.

I played games that I had forgot even existed. I played Space Invaders and Defender, Zaxxon and Asteroids, Pac Man and Joust. I even played a game of pinball, although that was never really my thing. But finding the Donkey Kong machine was the peak of the experience.

Donkey Kong was always the first machine I sought out at the WAC, and the other games were what I played when someone else was on it. My high score back in those days was 204,000 and I had no illusions I would be playing at that level in 2014. In fact, the 13 year-old me would have disgusted with my play last night, but then again I’m not happy with the choices that the 13 year-old me made with our money, either. So I guess it all works out in the end.

After the last token was inserted into the coin slot, and the adolescent nostalgia bug had been thoroughly scratched, I went back to my car and drove home. Aladdin’s Castle and the Wabash Amusement Center went away a long time ago, but the kid who once frequented them still walks the earth, periodically indulging his prior obsession with a mixture of fondness and regret. But as always, he’s glad for the experience he had, and the memories they can still provide.

Thoughts from southern Indiana


There are some people–probably more than I would know how to count–who think that “government” is a bad thing. It exists solely to take their hard-earned money away and give it to those who don’t deserve it. Abolish the IRS, these people say, and the country will be much better off.

For the sake of offsetting such views, I offer the Interstate highways that connect our cities and states together. Those roads–and bridges, in some cases–didn’t just appear by accident. The government once had to design the routes, acquire the land, grade the roads, and pay the workers who put them into place. It had to also paint the lines on the roads, put up signs so people knew where they are going, and build exit ramps. And because they once went to all this trouble, all of us can travel around this country in the quickest way possible.

Governments are not perfect. Nothing designed and run by humans ever are. But to those who cling to the notion that all government is a waste of their money, I offer this advice: get into your car and drive, but avoid the roads that government funds have provided to you. That would not only make for an exceedingly short drive, but would also prove the point that you are actually getting something in return for your tax dollars.

Some food for thought as we head out for a long holiday weekend. The fall foliage is beautiful, by the way.

The year I started working


For some people, the penny is a waste of effort. It costs more to make them than they’re actually worth, so why bother with them in the first place? I can understand this line of thinking, but I respectfully disagree with it. For me, a penny is a relic from the past, and a chance to be transported back in time, if only for a moment. And so it was today, when I bent over to pick up a 1978 penny in a 7-Eleven parking lot here in Chicago.

1978 was an interesting and important year for me. That may be true of any given year, as I’m sure I made that point about other years in the past in this space. But 1978 was the year I got my first job, delivering a local paper called the Springfield Shopper to houses in my neighborhood at a penny apiece. The Shopper was a new paper, the 1970s equivalent of a start-up. Perhaps this was a reason they signed up a ten year-old to help get the word out. You do what you have to do, especially when you’re new.

I was glad to discover that the Shopper still exists. It’s still loaded with ads, trying to help people find places to spend their money. In the internet age, I’m sure that the business climate they operate in today is far different from what it was in the late 1970s. They probably don’t deliver to people’s homes anymore, either. That’s progress, isn’t it? And if nothing else, The Simpsons have borrowed their name many times through the years. That alone is something to be happy about.

My teenager recently auditioned for a musical based on Studs Terkel’s Working. The irony is that besides a few babysitting gigs, she hasn’t ever worked for anyone in her life. Her studies come first, of course, but the experience of making money through working for someone has been lost on her.

My Shopper experience lasted until I turned twelve, and then I started delivering the local newspaper instead. It was a job that I held until I turned sixteen, and got my first “real” job as a grocery bagger. I’ve done lots of things–for lots of people–in the years since then, and I’ve spent the past 36 years as a working man. And I’ll likely be working for someone until the day I die.

My two children will likely start working at some point in the future, and in the American tradition this work will probably define who they are to the rest of the world. When somebody asks “So what do you do?” they aren’t wanting to hear about the places that you travel to or the hours you spend parenting your kids or doing anything else you find interesting.

I’ve had some great jobs in my life–and some lousy ones, too–but doing something for someone else has been a constant in my life since 1978. Things really changed for me that year, in ways that I did not fully appreciate until now. That’s a lot of self-realization to be gleaned from a discarded penny.