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Remembering Mrs. Erikson

April 26th, 2017

I learned today that Mrs. Erikson, my teacher in 1st and 2nd grades, passed away last month. I learned this while writing a post, about an article about math education. It made me think of looking her up. I wasn’t expecting to find an obituary. So let this be my belated eulogy.

I started 1st grade in 1982. This was at Beyer Elementary School in Rockford. We were in the gifted program, and there were two gifted classrooms for each grade level, for the entire city of Rockford. It so happened that Beyer was practically my neighborhood school, and it was indeed the neighborhood school for where my grandparents lived. It was a short walk from the school to their house, or to their laundromat, Kishwaukee Coin Laundry. So Beyer was in my neighborhood. Besides me, there were two others in my class who lived about as close. But almost everybody else lived a lot farther away, and none of my classmates actually lived within walking distance of my house.

I was also the second-youngest kid in the class. My birthday is in November, and back then, the cutoff date was December 1. I hadn’t gone to preschool. And back then, kindergarten was only half day. So 1st grade was the very first time I spent the entire day with my peers.

So even though I was in a gifted classroom, the reality was that relative to my peers, I was younger, smaller, and less socialized. I was also poorer, didn’t have friends in my own neighborhood, and didn’t live near my school friends, even though I lived near my school. Plus, my parents were divorced, which was really uncommon among my classmates. And then on top of all that… I was smarter than everyone. Specifically, I was a math genius. I knew this to be true, because people told me so. Plus, math was (and presumably still is) that one subject which most objectively demonstrated one’s relative intelligence. This was years before Rain Man. Nobody talked about savants. If you were a math genius, you were a genius. You were smarter than everyone else. You were better than everyone else. And so I was. In my mind. Kind of.

I was also 5. 35 years later, I can reflect back and understand that there was a superiority complex at work, which was counteracting a very real inferiority complex. I was very socially awkward. I was the last kid in class to learn how to tie my shoes. I was the only kid in my class who went to see the speech therapist (my SSHH came out as SSSS, I’d say SEEP instead of SHEEP). I remember a day when we had a book read to us about a boy who didn’t lose his first tooth until 1st grade. We were in 2nd grade. I still hadn’t lost a tooth.

Simply put, I was a complicated kid. In the midst of a classroom where we were all told we were special – we were all gifted, after all! – I was a kid who was really special, in a very expansive sense of the word. And there was one person there to manage that: Mrs. Erikson.

I’m not going to claim to have photographic memory from being 6 years old. My memories of that time crash together confusedly. But I remember a lot of weird stuff. I remember September 1982, when the Brewers beat the Orioles the final day of the season to win their first AL East title. I remember being in the hospital for yet another surgery to get yet another set of tubes put in my ears. I remember Korry Keeker writing a program that would tell you how many teeth you should have. I remember selling the most raffle tickets of any kid in second grade and getting to be part of a pizza party for it. I remember being in Beyer Stadium – the same place where some 40 years earlier the Rockford Peaches played – and running around essentially pretending to be Inspector Gadget. I remember not being allowed to play in the snow because I was the only kid who didn’t have appropriate boots. I remember at lunch one day eating 8 pieces of chicken.

I also vividly remember the day in 2nd grade when the lice inspector came. She went around and looked through everyone’s hair to make sure we didn’t have lice. She got to me, looked through my hair, and turned to Mrs. Erickson.

Lice Inspector: “Well, he doesn’t have lice, but he does have glue in his hair.”
Mrs. Erickson: “That’s Phil!”

In 1st grade, we would be given one homework assignment each week. It would be a single sheet we were supposed to fill out, about a subject. I don’t remember the subjects very well. I guess they might have been things like Paul Revere, or snakes, or Sitting Bull. We’d turn them in on Fridays. They wouldn’t be graded, but we’d get a sour ball when we turned them in. And I never turned them in. Was I forgetful? Stubborn? I’m not sure. Then in 2nd grade she gave us the same kind of homework, and the first week, I turned it in. And I still to this day remember how when I turned it in, she was so happy, and gave me a big hug in front of everyone.

There are the moments like those that really stand out. Beyond that, there are just sentiments, things I’ve pulled together from old pictures, old partial memories. I know I was stubborn, but did that explain not doing the homework? I know I was awkward – it would really come back to bite me a couple of years down the line – but I don’t specifically remember what that awkwardness was like.

I also know I loved being there. I was a sponge, just like a 1st or 2nd grader should be. And I know I was persistently being challenged. I remember a little green math problem book Mrs. Erikson had me working out of, doing long division. I remember a textbook which introduced me to alternate number systems – not decimal or even binary or hexadecimal, but the concept of different bases, and different ways of thinking about how numbers work. I got pushed in ways that I’ve never been pushed since. If I was indeed exceptional in some ways, then that meant I should be held to higher expectations. And if I needed help in other ways, then I got that help.

I can look back today and better understand. In some ways, I really needed to be pushed. In other ways, I really needed a lot of patience. My combination of needs might have been unique. But there were 26 unique combinations of needs in that classroom. And Mrs. Erikson filled those needs. I’m not claiming that I didn’t have other good teachers along the way. But I look back and think that I had teachers who really liked working with kids, maybe even loved working with kids… and yet in Mrs. Erikson, I had a teacher who I feel really loved me. I’m sure I’m in part remembering how 1st and 2nd graders had to be treated different than older kids, and I’m also sure I’m remembering two years instead of one so that makes the feelings stronger.

It’s not like I magically stopped being awkward by the time I got to 3rd grade. Ask my wife, and she’ll tell you that she’s still waiting for it to stop! And I’m also sure an argument could be made that a child who was vacillating between feelings of superiority and inferiority could have used a stronger kind of correction. But working out those vacillations has taken me a very long time. I’ve had people try to deal with the superiority issue by beating me down, and I will tell you, that shit doesn’t work. And, well, when you’re 7, the finer points of understanding that being exceptionally good at something doesn’t make you better than other people… that’s not a very easy thing to get to stick. Plus, the superiority and inferiority were intertwined. The one was in large part a coping mechanism for the other. And the best that anyone could do with that was to help me move forward in all respects. To self-actualize. To push where I needed to be pushed. To gently guide where I needed gentle guidance. Mrs. Erikson provided all of that.

The words elude me, because I’m a 40 year old trying to give voice to a 6 year old. I had no frame of reference then… and I have little frame of reference even today. My son is still only 3. I don’t understand what happens in a 2nd grade classroom. Frankly, it seems like it must be one of the craziest places on Earth.

I know though that Jane Erikson entering my life in 1982 was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I may be at a loss for how exactly to explain it, but I know I’m a better person today for having been in her classroom those two years.

A couple of weeks ago, my dad brought a couple of boxes full of grade school era curios: old report cards, art projects. There are hundreds of things in this menagerie of paper. Among those things is a class picture: Beyer School, Grade 2, 1983-1984. I’m in the middle of the picture… not smiling, making a preposterous face, one eye squinting, the other eye apparently looking off to the left, my mouth more closely approximating a slash than anything else. Rest assured, classmates, none of the rest of you look as ridiculous in this photo as I do. Mrs. Erikson is at the top right, and she looks just as I remember her. It’s funny to me that she looks fairly old in the picture – again, just as I remember her – but now I know that when this picture was taken, she was only 45 or 46.

She was 79 when she died on March 19. I don’t know how long she taught for, or how many hundreds of students went through her classrooms. After 2nd grade, they moved us away from Beyer to King. I have a vague recollection of seeing her again at the 3R’s store off of Alpine, but even that must have been 30 years ago.

Mrs. Erikson never left Rockford. I had thought about looking her up three years ago, when we were in town for my 20 year reunion. I never followed through on it… honestly, it’s that awkwardness, I was just never able to fully think through what to do. And today I deeply regret not having just done it. If someone was very important in your life, even if it was a long time ago, even if you’re not really sure how to articulate it… Make sure they know. Try not to save it for the eulogy.

So long, and thanks for all the miles

January 1st, 2017

This week, we traded in our 2004 Nissan Sentra. It has a little over 132,000 miles. I bought it new in early 2004 – although, curiously for a brand new car, it had about 500 miles on it. Over the course of almost 13 years, it wound up surviving three significant accidents, multiple trips almost halfway across the country, two campaigns for state legislature, and a whole lot more. I had always intended to keep the car until it hit 200,000 miles. In the end, though, with something wrong with the transmission, it just didn’t make sense to pour a lot of money into it. Our other car – a 2004 Hyundai Sonata – is in better shape, no accidents, and in general, it just made a lot more sense to keep it.

As many of you know, our son was very premature. He spent 74 days in the Infant Special Care Unit at Evanston. And every day, the Sentra went back and forth from our home in Chicago to Evanston. He came home in the Sentra. To him, the car’s name was “Mommy’s Car”.

The Sentra’s long history was also very much caught up with the history of the two small berserk mammals which preceded the current small berserk mammal. My old beagles spent a lot of time in that car, often going to and from some veterinarian or another. The most traumatic incidents with the Sentra always involved the beagles – even when they technically weren’t in the car.

The first accident – and the worst of the three – occurred in 2007 (or maybe 2008 – so long ago I’m not even sure anymore!) I was driving along Clybourn Avenue, looking for a place to park. I went to make a three-point turn to go back down the street the other way, and a car came out of nowhere and smashed my front left corner. I banged my head hard against the headrest, and having never seen the other car before it hit me, I was suddenly dazed and confused, staggering out of the car, seeing it crunched in front of me, feeling strangely contemptuous toward it, but mostly baffled. Bizarrely, the accident occurred immediately in front of a body shop, and a half-block from a police station, so there were immediately cops and people from the body shop there. They pushed the car into the body shop and wound up being the ones who fixed it. The damages were something like $5,700, and years later, that’s the wheel of the car which had started to rust.

While sitting in the body shop, waiting for the process to finish playing out, I figured I may as well complete the errand which had brought me out that day. I went into the car, got what I needed, walked the four storefronts down from the body shop to the veterinarian, and dropped off a small green bag of Murray Beagle’s shit.

When I got the Sentra, I began a process which I still maintain, which drives Michelle a little batty, but also demonstrates how fantastic she is: I (and now we) log every gas purchase in a spreadsheet. Technically, I do all the logging. But this requires getting a receipt each time and writing the mileage on it.

On February 17, 2004, I went to the Qik ‘n’ Ez on Morrissey Avenue in Bloomington, and filled up the tank. The Sentra had 565 miles at that time. It was the first of 464 times that Michelle or I would put gas in the tank. That includes the one time we ran out of gas on July 9, 2007 (which she will never let me forget about) and had to get gas in a container. The final time was this Tuesday, December 27, 2016. I actually had to stop and get one gallon of gas on the way to the Toyota dealership because I was in imminent danger of running out of gas for the second time!

Over the course of almost 12 years, according to my records, the Sentra averaged an estimated 27.73 mpg. I put 4,736 gallons of gas into the tank, at a total cost of $13,585.71. The longest I ever went between filling up was 74 days, from January 7 until March 22 of 2014, although at the time it went to the dealership, it had been 79 days since its last fillup.

The best ever tank in terms of mpgs came in at an impressive 39.71 mpg, across February 29 and March 1, 2008. Apparently I filled up in Buffalo and then again in some place called Tannersville, Pennsylvania, then went on to Washington DC. I look at the map now and can’t figure out what the hell I was doing. And I can’t help but think something is screwy with that number anyway.

The best ever tank in terms of raw mileage came in at an astounding 443.6 miles. On April 2, 2005 I filled up in Washington Court House, Ohio, and then on April 3, 2005 I filled up in some place called Rheems, Pennsylvania. This trip, at least, I can explain, and more vividly remember overall. I was on my way to Lancaster for the annual meeting of COFOE (Coalition for Free and Open Elections). I loaded up the Sentra with a crapload of unreviewed CDs from the pile at WESN, took a silly route, and remember driving across Ohio on U.S. 22 listening to all kinds of silly stuff which I’ve forgotten, but also a Stereo Total CD which for some reason I remember. I stopped that night and ate at a Buffalo Wild Wings just west of the West Virginia line in Ohio, because I knew it was a place where I could watch the Illinois-Louisville Final Four game. I drove on from there into the teeth of a blizzard, which should have killed my performance, except that it forced me to drive at a consistent 40 mph down Interstate 76. I got 36.96 mpg that trip. In retrospect, seeing how many times I drove across all or most of the length of Pennsylvania is pretty ridiculous.

The Sentra and I went as far due east as Brooklyn and Queens. Technically, it looks like the farthest north we got was Rochester, though Madison was pretty close. And the farthest west AND the farthest south wound up being Tulsa, where it was 104 degrees upon arrival. By my count, we went through 19 states and DC. Somehow, we never made it to Canada though!

On December 30, 2006, it had 54,891 miles – which means I was averaging over 18,000 miles a year over the first three years. But December 2006 is also when I moved to Chicago. Across the last 10 years, the annual average was only about 7,700. Imagine that: driving 10,000 fewer miles a year when no longer driving to see a girl.

Aside from the three accidents, the car was very reliable overall. It looks like I spent about $6,000 on maintenance over time – but almost half of that was in the last 3 years, after reaching 110,000 miles. I can look back now and see that it probably would have made more sense to trade it in back then. But at the time, not only was I still thinking of reaching 200,000 miles, I thought it would be the Sonata which would be traded in. It took the balky transmission to convince me that it was just time to let it go.

The Sentra was, at $11,500, the largest purchase I’d ever made up to that time. I’ve told people before that I bought it brand new, and they were like, woah, why’d you do that? But it was absolutely the right decision. I had gone through years of highly unreliable old cars, and I wanted a full warranty, and good mileage, and I got a really good deal because of the 500 miles it inexplicably had on it.

As the statistics above show, I had it in me to be really anal about some things. The Sentra really solidified that. We took good care of it over time. I kept all kinds of records on it – records which ultimately were totally useless when it came time to trade it in. It had 132,000 miles, a history of 3 accidents, a balky transmission, a big dent, a couple small dents, some rust… nobody gave a shit that I had paperwork from an oil change from 2006. But keeping that paperwork arguably was less about what any individual piece of paper might show. It was about the process. The mileage logs we keep are similarly about the process. A car is not just an expensive piece of equipment which needs to be taken care of. It’s also the most critical piece of safety equipment for your child. You damn well better know what’s going on with it! And even if I might take that to a seeming point of overkill, I’m okay with that. You should all keep mileage logs too!

The funny thing is, for as much as I went through with that car, I somehow never actually named it. I toyed with a couple of names but they never stuck. My previous car was Darwin – because Darwin sailed on the HMS Beagle, and that car was used to haul beagles around – and the car before that was Daisy, because in every single possible respect it was the antithesis of a daisy. But the Sentra was always just The Sentra, or maybe The Black Car, or, eventually, Mommy’s Car.

It rode great. It fit great. It got really good mileage for a long time. It needed very little work until the last three years, and that’s even though it had been through those accidents. It served us really well. I feel just a little bad that at the end it was hardly even worth trading it in, but I guess that’s how these things go.

When I bought the Sentra, I was 27. It was over a year before I met Michelle. I was still living in my depressing rental home in Normal with my knuckleheaded dogs. I had a decent but weird job. I had ideas, but I wasn’t really going anywhere.

It’s now four jobs later, my beagles are gone, we’ve owned a house for 5+ years… So much has changed over time. I put so many miles on that car driving to Green Party functions, and yet somehow, the Sentra even outlasted my time in the party.

We had a damn good run.

Oh, lordy: a small imposition on my friends and family

November 11th, 2016

I’d like to beg a favor. Beings how it’s my birthday, I hope y’all can put up with this tiny imposition.

Yes, the election is over, and yes, a great many people are hurting, still shocked, and many very much afraid for their futures and especially the futures of their children. I’m not going to tell anyone to get over it. I’m not going to diminish what people are feeling. So please don’t think I’m trying to do that.

That said: Where I’m going with this is to a place of OPTIMISM. It’s not an easy path to get there, I admit. But that’s where I’m headed, and I hope you can come along.

I had intended to write something like this for a little while, before knowing how Election Day would turn out. In the aftermath of Election Day, what I think and how I feel has changed – but not all that much. See, the prospect of turning 40 has led me down a deep path of contemplation – deeper than usual, and many of you know how deep that can get. Now that prospect has become a reality, and it’s far from the scariest reality to be confronted this week. But that scarier reality doesn’t much change my thought process. If anything, it bolsters it.

(A quick work about privilege. It is a lot easier for me, a 40-year-old straight white man, to speak about optimism, to speak about looking forward. I’m not ducking that. I’m owning up to that privilege, as best as I can.)

There are three key places where I’m coming from:

First, we’ve got a three year old who’s going to grow up in a turbulent world. My thinking is largely focused on his future.

Second, reasonably or not, I see 40 as an effective midpoint in my life. Anything I’m serious about doing with the rest of my life, I have to *really* be serious about doing, and have to not jack around with shrugs and what-ifs. And anything I’m serious about in terms of making a difference for our son but also for the world as a whole around us, I have to *really* get serious about, and not jack around with shrugs and what-ifs.

Third, no matter how bleak things might look on any number of fronts, optimism simply isn’t optional. If I’m going to focus on our son’s future, and I’m going to dedicate myself to the betterment of his life but also human life generally, then it can’t be done from a place of pessimism or fear. That doesn’t mean that at times people can’t be pessimistic, fearful, depressed, etc. But it does mean that on the whole, we’ve got to be optimistic about the future of humanity. We have to be the change we want to see, and we have to start by saying, yes, we are going to change the world for the better, no matter what forces seem to be stacked against us.

Now, change the world for the better – what does that mean? In short, it means a world where, increasingly, people can lead meaningful, fulfilling lives, free from mistreatment based on identity, and free from mistreatment by the wealthy. Even shorter: I’m talking about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The word “increasingly” is important there. Our aim is not global perfection. Our aim is constant global improvement. There is no magic way to strip away poverty and prejudice all at once. But we must also never accept that _on the whole_ whatever is happening around us is “good enough”. Put another way: there is no such thing as the perfect me. But there can be the constantly improving me. Aiming for perfection is nonsensical. Aiming to constantly improve is not.

Neither the perfect nor the good can be allowed to be the enemy of the better.

To that end, I am resolving to do some things, and making some decisions to facilitate those resolutions:

* I will recommit to achieving fluency in Spanish.

* I will do more to be around people, because you can’t hear and understand people when you’re not around them.

* I will find new ways to enhance my overall education.

* I will maintain an even stronger focus on my personal health and that of those around me.

* I will continue to speak out about injustice around me. I will give my voice to the people who are most the targets of hatred right now.

* I will find and work with groups and people who will elect better progressive officials.

And I am asking all of you to join me in the above. We all need to go out and be around people. We all need to keep learning, to focus on our health. We all need to speak out on injustice. We all need to commit to changing our political system.

To these ends and more, I am, effective today, declaring myself to be an Independent. I won’t dwell on this decision much here, except to say that it is made in light of my resolutions above. It’s not a decision I make lightly, though of course it’s been a long time in coming. But it’s time to move on.

I could write a lot more. But I’ve already imposed enough. And it’s my birthday, so I do need to get on with some other things.

I just ask again that you all join me in the above. This is an easy throwaway sentence, but let’s not make it so:

Let’s be the change we want to see. For us, for our kids, for the planet, for all humankind.

I am an optimist.

February 21st, 2016

I am an optimist.

In the midst of neverending racism, the unbelievable attacks on our public schools, a largely incoherent economy, and worst of all, the spectre of advanced climate change, I am nevertheless an optimist.

Even in the midst of so many bad things, I see legitimate progress on the social justice front. I think as a whole people younger than me are much more justice-conscious than people older than me. Gay couples can get married almost anywhere in the U.S. And even on race, I think the overall trajectory is a positive one.

Even seeing somewhat from the inside the way in which our schools are under attack, I see reasons to look ahead. The fact is that our education system has been failing a huge chunk of American children for decades. The greediest of the profiteers have demonstrated how much more is at stake, and I think that the general public is slowly but surely coming around to understand what’s going on.

Even though the rich keep getting richer and more and more families are struggling, I think that for many people, especially the young, there is a greater understanding of how the fix is in, and they are responding. There is a greater resilience in the face of some of what the Powers That Be are throwing at people, and the kind of reforms which need to happen – in government and elsewhere – we will see more of in future years. We will see a growing adoption of local-centric economies in many places, and perhaps even a restoration of the kind of neighborly spirit which I think corporate America has sought to undermine for so long.

And even on climate change, where the science offers no good news, I can remain somewhat optimistic. Yes, Americans in general are lost on this issue. But here too I see a growing sense of broad camaraderie among the young; I have confidence that wind and solar and other renewable energy forms will become cheaper and proliferate more; and I think the economy as a whole will come around to realize that wastefulness is economically hazardous, and much more intelligent action will increasingly be taken. While I understand that the direst warnings of some scientists suggest it may already be too late, I think at the species level and at the social level, we will necessarily adapt, and while it may take a great struggle, I think that struggle could be unifying, as the people who best understand that the struggle is coming also understand that we’re all in this together.

I am not in denial about everything which is going wrong. The person who sees only the light and not also the darkness is not an optimist. They are something else entirely.

Humanity is not some sort of team sport, where we all spectators. The optimist is not someone in the stands who believes their side is going to come back. We’re all on the same side here. We’re even on the same side with the people who are led by hatred and fear. We all buckle down, and we all get to work. Together. As close to together as we can.

I will admit that I buy into that age old American thing: My child’s life should be better than my own. I know that a lot of people have lost track of this. I even know there are a great many people who resent the idea that their children might become more successful than they were. There really is an illness in our modern society which I can’t claim to fully understand. But I will neither deny its presence, nor allow its presence to hold us back as well.

Instead, when I declare that my child’s life should be better than my own, I think of “better” in terms distinct from “more successful”. Yes, a better life may mean one which is freer from want. But it especially means a life where every child he will go to school with is regarded as an equal, based solely on their common humanity. That’s not something I experienced. It means a life full of music and art, full of games and frivolity, full of broad mutual respect for people. It means a life with a greater balance of work and leisure. It means a life of uplifting the people around you. The reality is that my own life has been better than most in a lot of these respects, whether I have always acknowledged as much or not. But I too have known poverty, and crime, and grave personal disappointment. I am not so delusional as to think my child can be protected from everything; such shielding would only deny him the full richness of life. But even much of what I have seen and experienced, I hope he will be able to avoid.

And so I commit myself, best as I can, every day, to this optimistic path. I admit that I don’t always know what that means, and often great frustration can set in. I feel like I can and should be doing more, but lack perspective and/or knowledge to find that more productive and fulfilling path. But I will keep plugging away, for myself, my family… for all people. Because my optimism and the work attendant to it must be a small piece of a much greater fabric of optimism and work. I would rather run the risk of overstating my role than run the risk of understating it, because the second a person falls into the funk of believing that they don’t matter in the grander scheme of things, the whole network takes a hit.

So I encourage everyone around me, and for that matter everyone around the world, to join me in saying:

I am an optimist. And I will prove it by working for a better world for all.

Help With Your Property Assessment Appeal

January 29th, 2016

Property owners in Jefferson Township can appeal their assessments to the Cook County Board of Review, but only until February 2. Local aldermen have sent out information about how to appeal and a lot of my neighbors have likely received something in the mail. But even with a lot of publicity, the whole thing is still very daunting, and my observation is that most people don’t even consider doing it.

We appealed in 2015. And we won. I would estimate that as a direct result we saved $400-$500 in property taxes for Tax Year 2014. I spent time preparing the appeal, and I did request a hearing, but I did it myself. And for most people, their best available argument is something which requires no hearing. The entire appeal can be done online, and can be done in less than 15 minutes.

But I am taking it a step farther, and making it more realistic for more people to be able to file the simplest kind of appeal. I’m going to explain exactly what this “simple” appeal is, and for many of my most immediate neighbors, I will also provide the information that can help them make such an appeal.

Jefferson Township, for those unaware, includes these community areas: Jefferson Park, Avondale, Logan Square, Hermosa, Forest Glen, Dunning, Albany Park, Portage Park, Irving Park, Montclare, and Belmont-Cragin. That’s a whole lot of you!

Before I go any further, I want to be clear on a couple of points. First, I am not an attorney, and I have no background in real estate, assessment, or anything related. Any and all advice provided here is lay advice only and should not be interpreted as formal legal advice. Second, I am not going to try and explain all of the various reasons why an appeal might be made. I am going to specifically talk about only two, because they are the two which worked for me last year.

The reason I am doing this is because I think a lot of property around me is significantly over-assessed, and I believe that systemic over-assessment of property is a mechanism by which taxing authorities squeeze property owners. If more of my neighbors start filing appeals, I believe that the result will be a slight overall lessening of assessments in the area, which will be good for the collective neighborhood. Assessment and appraisal are not the same thing. In my opinion, it can hurt more than it can help if your property is over-assessed, because that over-assessment may make it less attractive than a comparable property, as it means prospective buyers would have to expect to more in taxes. This is a point on which I think reasonable people can disagree, and for people who disagree with me, I respect where you are coming from. But given that every elected official under the sun encourages people to file appeals, it clearly is not seen as a bad thing by government generally that people will appeal. And the bottom line is, it’s simply being a good neighbor to help people who may not understand how easy it can really be to file.

And one final thing: FILING AN APPEAL IS FREE so long as you file it yourself. There is no filing fee! So it is a no-risk situation.

Appeal Rationale #1: Recent Purchase

This rationale can only be used if you purchased your house since the beginning of 2012, though, so it won’t work for most people. But it is very simple.

If you bought your house for $200,000, and it is now assessed for $230,000, then you are most likely over-assessed, and the Board of Review will agree, and lower your assessment.

When I appealed last year, I requested a hearing, and prepared a lot of documentation. Notably, I had to make a copy of the Bill of Sale on the house, which showed the purchase price and the date. I am not going to go into a lot of detail on that here as I have not gone back and re-researched what documentation needs to be pulled together. What I will say is, the documentation requirements are such that this is not the “simplest” way to appeal. But it is the simplest of arguments, which is why it is such an important one to pursue.

As I go on further below and talk about actually using the Board of Review website, keep in mind there may be additional things you will need to do involving submission of supplementary documentation. As I said above, I’m not a lawyer. I’m not telling you absolutely everything about how to do this. I am just trying to provide more concrete information so that you can be more successful if you choose to do it yourself.

Appeal Rationale #2: Comparable Properties aka Lack of Uniformity

We live on a street that is all Single Family Homes (SFHs) and almost all of a very comparable size (slightly over 1,000 square feet). They’re almost all technically bungalows, but not the classic brick ones; what we have here are a lot of basic A-frame houses dating from the 1920s.

Our house does not have a finished attic or a finished basement. We have central air, but I suspect everyone on the block does, or nearly everyone. Long story short, our house is eminently comparable with the rest of the block, and boasts nothing exceptional that might cause it to sell for substantially more than another house. Therefore, it should be assessed pretty much in line with the rest of the block, or even on the low end, as I know several of the houses do have their attics and/or basements finished, or a deck in the backyard, or other things.

In 2015, I was able to find 6 comparably-sized houses on my block alone which had lower assessments than ours. These included both adjoining houses. So in my appeal, I identified these houses by their PINs (PIN is short for Property Identification Number).

The appeal based on comparable properties, as it so happens, is the easiest type of appeal to file. It requires no additional paperwork and no additional narrative. The argument is based solely on data which the Board of Review has at their fingertips anyway – the assessed values of the other properties. All you have to do is identify relevant properties and submit their PINs.

Here is where I can provide the most help, especially for those of you who live closest to us.

Again, I am not an expert on these matters. I am strictly a layman and my advice should be regarded not as expert advice but rather as common sense advice.

Very generally, there are five things that can make properties especially comparable. First, they are in the same neighborhood, maybe even the same block. Second, they are about the same size, as measured in primary square footage. Third, they are in about the same shape maintenance wise. Fourth, they are about the same age. Fifth, they have about the same amenities, especially things like a garage, a deck, a finished basement, a finished attic, a similar number of bedrooms and bathrooms, etc. None of these things should come as a surprise. If your property is sufficiently comparable to another, and the other property is assessed lower, the determination can be made that a “Lack of Uniformity” has been found, and upon that basis, your assessment can be lowered.

I was able to gather all of the information I needed from the Cook County Assessor’s Website. Choose “Property Address Search”. For House Number, enter your hundred block, say 1000. For House Range, enter the last possible number of your hundred block, say 1099. The rest is pretty straight-forward. You don’t need to select a Property Class and you may be better off not selecting one and instead seeing absolutely everything, for reasons I’ll get into below.

Now, you can also enter a range that spans multiple blocks, say from 1000 to 1499. Or you can choose some other street. In any case, if you use valid search criteria, you will get a list of properties with their PINs, Addresses, Property Classes, and Assessed Values. Remember, Assessed Value needs to be multiplied by 10 to get Fair Market Value. So if you see an Assessed Value of $24,000, it really means that the Assessor’s Office guesses your property is worth $240,000.

Each PIN is also a hyperlink. Click through and you’ll see a picture of the property with a lot more details about it. Now, you know your immediate neighborhood better than I do (hopefully!) You may not even need this deeper information. If you live on a row of little brick bungalows and you know the houses are all reasonably comparable, then, well, you already know it.

What you would be looking for here is to find multiple nearby properties which are superficially comparable to yours, and which have lower assessments. By “superficially comparable” what I mean is that even without deep digging, you know that they’re close, of a similar size, most likely of a similar age (since most houses on most streets tend to be of a similar age anyway), and even most likely in similar shape with similar amenities. If there was a house on your block which had been gutted by a fire in the last couple of years, you’d know it (again, hopefully!) and would understand to exclude that one.

It may be that you need to look beyond your immediate block. This is where the whole process can get very tedious, and this is where I can be of particular help.

This link sends you to an Excel file. That Excel file includes a listing of 4,171 distinct properties in Jefferson Park and Portage Park, all of which are within or nearly within the street from the primary attendance footprint of Prussing Elementary School, which looks like this:

Instead of having to conduct a bunch of different searches on the Assessor’s website, you can just take the spreadsheet and slap some filters and sorts on it. It may be easiest to sort by Street Name, then Street Number; and to simultaneously filter for the two most similar property types. Or filter by Street Name (select a couple of relevant ones) and also Property Class, and then sort by Assessed Value.

I want to stress here that I have not “captured” any bad or illegal or improper information. All of this was readily available on the Assessor’s website. It took me a total of maybe 90-120 minutes of work to compile all of the data in this manner. Anyone who has read on this far must be serious enough about wanting to appeal their assessments that they would have been likely to find the exact same information themselves. But here it is easier to sort, easier to make sense of. This is the piece which I think can take it over the top and make it so that a person on the fence about whether it would be too difficult to do all of this can actually just do it for themselves.

It was much too difficult to try and grab more than I grabbed. The Prussing footprint made a lot of sense to me, though, because a) all of the properties feed into the same school, which makes them very comparable in that respect; and b) this is where I live and the people I hope will be best able to take advantage of this information will be my closest neighbors!

It is not a bad idea, if you have identified 10 or so properties which you feel may satisfy the comparability parameters, to go back to the Assessor’s website and enter the PIN numbers directly and make sure there’s not something weird about them. For example, I have noticed in looking through the list several situations where a single house actually lies on two lots, and although it has only one address, it somehow has two PINs. That’s not going to be comparable for most people. You also need to make sure the Property Class is the same or at least very similar.

One other word on Property Class. Our house is a 2-03 meaning a SFH between 1,001 and 1,800 square feet. But it’s way at the low end of that. A 2-02 house with 950 square feet is more comparable than a 2-03 house with 1,100 square feet. That said, it’s super unlikely that a house much larger than ours could possibly be assessed for less than ours. It’s people with houses in the 950 sq ft range who might find nearby houses in the 1050 sq ft range which have lower assessments.

And also another word about the spreadsheet. I included ALL properties, not just SFHs, so a lot of condos, and some retail, and some other weird stuff wound up in there. Don’t make the mistake of comparing your SFH against a condo, or a parking lot, or anything weird like that!

Filing Your Appeal Online

There may be very good reasons to NOT completely file your appeal online so just because I am going to explain how easy such filing is doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to do it. With that said, if the extent of what you’re trying is the Comparable Properties rationale, filing online could very well be all you need, and the whole filing process might be super fast.

The body that takes appeals right now is called the Cook County Board of Review. This is all they do: review assessments.

The Board of Review offers Filing Procedures online. If you want to be really thorough, read what’s on these pages. I did last year, and so I wound up taking pictures of the other comparable properties. That’s a more impressive approach, one that they’ll pay more attention to. You don’t absolutely have to do all of that, but especially if you’re going to prepare a more thorough argument, do it by their book.

Note that February 2 is the deadline for filing a complaint. It is not the final deadline for submitting all evidence. If however you are only going to submit a list of comparable properties and just want to do the whole thing online up front, then it is my understanding that you should do that at the time of filing the complaint.

In terms of the very basics, start with the Appeals Page. You can create an account or you can file as a guest. Then click on Submit Appeal. Enter your PIN and mark your appeal type as “Property Over-Assessed” – an easy choice since it’s the only one available.

As you go through the steps, you will wind up at a Notes Page. On this page you can enter the PINs of Comparable Properties. The language there says simply “List comparable property index numbers (PIN’s) below, or provide additional comments regarding your submission.” So you are not expected at this stage to provide any more detailed information about those properties, as the Filing Procedures information might appear to suggest.

I went ahead and filed my complaint online on Thursday night. I provided a list of 6 comparable properties – though because I already won an appeal from the Assessor’s Office, it turns out that we’re already on the low end of assessments of comparable properties in the area.

But I also checked the box to say I would be filing additional documents. One nice thing about the online process is that you can submit documents online without having to mail them in or go in for a hearing. What I’ll be submitting – and this is admittedly unusual and not what most people would be able to do right now – is a scan of an appraisal done on house in mid-2015. You can also file other documents online if you have them – this could include paperwork related to your house purchase if it’s within the last 4 years.

In 2015 I requested a hearing. My hearing lasted about 2 minutes. After waiting in line for a while, when I got up to the counter, my hearing was with an employee of the Board of Review, and basically consisted of me handing over paperwork, providing a synopsis of what was in the paperwork, and answering a couple of perfunctory questions about the appeal (i.e. was my house bought in the last four years, such that an appeal based on the price of sale would make sense.) The employee did no evaluation at that time, except to say that if all I was telling him was true, I would likely be getting my assessment lowered. And he was right. But having gone through one in-person hearing, I am disinclined to go through another, not because it was difficult or tedious, but because the hearing itself was so insubstantial that I personally feel comfortable just filing my documentation online. Now, it might well be that you’re better off for having an in-person hearing. I can’t tell you for sure. I can only say that I feel comfortable this year without one.

More on My Thinking

It may seem like this was a lot of writing and a lot of effort to just explain something esoteric to people. I want to here expand on a couple of my thoughts above and explain more about my motivation to try and help people with all of this.

Based on my past bills and the knowledge that property tax rates are going up, I conservatively estimate that for every additional $10,000 of assessed value, a homeowner carrying the homestead exemption will pay an additional $200 in annual property taxes. (As an aside – if you own the home you live in and you do NOT have the homestead exemption – MAKE SURE YOU ADDRESS THIS! Look it up! It will save you a lot of money because there is a significant tax break for people who own the home they live in. A lot of people overlook this.)

I mention above that my own appeal this year is based largely on a recent appraisal. Even though I was successful in getting the Assessor’s Office to lower our assessment already, I still feel our assessment is too high, and I feel the appraisal bears this out. Our house was appraised for $210,000. Our current (reduced) assessment is just about $220,000. That’s a difference of $10,000, which I think will translate into about $200 a year in taxes.

Here’s the thing. The assessment is conceptually supposed to be pegged to the Fair Market Value (FMV) of the house. It is super unrealistic for the Assessor’s Office to go around and evaluate every house individually for its FMV. So what they do is they take the old assessment, and if it’s a year in which your township is being reassessed, they come up with some formula by which to raise the assessments of a lot of comparable properties.

I did some investigating and found that on my block, the Assessor’s Office simply raised everybody’s assessment by 8%. Now, it might very well be the case that the FMV of houses on my block has legitimately increased 8% in the last three years. But what if the block had been overassessed in the first place?

See, we bought our house in 2011 for $195,000. That was near the bottom of the market, so it makes sense that it has appreciated since. Indeed, our appraisal was for $210,000. That’s an increase of 7.7% – pretty much in line with the multiplier the Assessor’s Office used.

But our house was clearly overassessed as of the time we bought it, because we paid less for it than the assessed value. This makes sense, of course, since it was near the bottom of the market at the time. Assessments are very inexact are only done every 3 years. A neighborhood can get very hot very quickly. It can also get very cold, if the local school collapses, or there’s a rash of crime, or something like that.

My feeling, though, is that my entire block is overassessed. Now, real estate isn’t my gig. I don’t closely follow local purchase prices. But I did notice that the very next block over wasn’t subject to the same 8% increase as my block. And the homes on that block are worth more – they tend to be brick, slightly newer, etc. And the Assessor’s Office frankly agrees with me; after all, they did lower our assessment from what they had originally come up with, which strongly suggests that some of my neighbors on my block could at least get a similar reduction.

If I thought every house on this block could definitely fetch in sale what it’s assessed at, I would just say okay, it’s all good. And believe me, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong. The real estate site Trulia, using whatever bizarre metrics it uses, estimates the value of our house at $250,000 – way more than any other number I’ve seen. If I could legitimately get $250,000 for the house by selling it tomorrow, then I would accept paying taxes appropriate to such a valuation today. (I won’t say happily pay, because all of our property taxes should be slashed in favor of a state income tax increase – but that’s an argument for another time and day!)

I have heard the argument that if all of the assessments were lowered that it would also in the process sink the price people could get for their homes. I don’t know enough about the real estate market to completely refute this, so my argument should be regarded in that light. But I can say that we did not consider the assessment when we bought our house. We considered the purchase price (because we were operating within a budget) and we considered the appraisal. My feeling is that the market itself will correct for most incorrect assessments, and only if given assessments are very wildly off would there be an issue.

Consider this: What if we spent $20,000 this year and got our basement completely refinished and did some other work besides? For the sake of argument, let’s say that such improvements would make the house worth $20,000 more on the open market. But would it actually impact our assessment? In the short term, certainly not, because the house won’t be reassessed again for another three years. Even then, it’s not like anyone from the Assessor’s Office is going to come take a look at our basement. It’s very clear to me that many properties do not have up to date amenities on file with the Assessor and it’s unrealistic to expect that they would. Is the Assessor’s Office’s failure to take account of our substantial interior improvements likely to hurt our Fair Market Value when it comes time to sell the house? I can’t remotely imagine a real estate agent trying to sell our property telling us we can’t sell it for more because we haven’t been adequately reassessed lately.

The point is that the assessment process is necessarily just a bunch of guessing. Maybe that 8% increase in property valuation isn’t totally unrealistic, but maybe the starting point simply wasn’t right, and they can’t account for things like the higher demand for certain amenities that we don’t have (like a finished basement or finished attic?)

It’s not that I think we and our neighbors should be able to shirk on taxes relative to the next block or neighborhood or whatever. Rather, I feel that the taxation system we operate under is so arbitrary – and maybe so necessarily arbitrary – that it is not only appropriate but indeed desirable to have a neighborhood or especially a block fighting together for fairer taxation. It’s not going to hurt our neighborhood school, the money for which comes from a much larger pool. And it’s not going to hurt our ultimate selling prices, for those of us who do eventually sell.

Again, I freely admit, I might be wrong about some of this. But I would submit that many elected officials strongly encourage homeowners to appeal their assessments. That’s a tacit acknowledgment of the arbitrary nature of the whole model, isn’t it?

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone on my block could save just a little bit – maybe as little as $50 a year – and then turn around and apply those savings to something like having a really awesome block party every year? That kind of thing would enhance the value of our neighborhood, and not just in a monetary way. As the neighborhood gets stronger, it will have a carryover effect in making our elementary school stronger as well. Yes, the eventual outcome of all this would be that our properties would actually be worth more, and we’d wind up more highly assessed as a result. But that would all be because this had become an even better place to live. Surely that’s a goal worth striving for.

I hope this long-winded explanation of the appeals process can be of use to people, especially people close to me. Maybe even in a small way, it can be a catalyst for a stronger neighborhood. At the very least, if it helps to empower just one family to pursue an appeal, and they ultimately win, this has all been worth it. Chicago is a great place to live in a lot of respects, but it is often a terribly disempowering place. Democracy, schools, neighborhoods, blocks – all of these things are better served when people are more empowered.


On Being Healthier, Losing Weight, Numbers, etc.

January 2nd, 2016

In August 2014, I weighed about 184 pounds. Today, 16 months later, I weigh 159.

My one resolution for 2015 was to run a 5K. I did this, in late September, running it in 30:24. Then in mid-November I ran a second 5K, and my time went down to 24:54.

I’ve learned a lot over this time that I think could be helpful, inspirational, and/or cautionary to others. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on being healthy. I’m not writing this from the “here’s what you need to know” perspective. Rather, I’m writing from the “here’s what I think you might be interested to know” perspective. Nominal experts might disagree with some of what I write. And you might too. And that’s okay by me.

Before I get into the specifics, I want to note three things. First, weight is not some sort of end-all be-all number, and I’m not going to claim it is. Rather, it is a very simple benchmark, a figure which allows for some sort of imperfect quantification of “how much healthier” a person has become. It’s been very useful to me, but as I’ll explain below, there are some very real potential problems with it.

Second, I didn’t do anything exotic. This is a story primarily about fairly ordinarily diet and exercise, or at least I think it is. It’s because of the “regularness” of the story that I think it’s worth sharing.

Third, I want to note a bit about my methodology. I will weigh myself in the morning before I eat or take a shower, as doing so gives me the best apples-to-apples comparison (i.e., no fluxuations in terms of how much my clothes weigh, or time of day, or how much I’ve eaten on a given day, etc.) I also think less in terms of how much I weigh on a given morning and more in terms of what my average weight has been for the last couple of mornings. My weight can potentially be +/- 5 pounds over the course of a given week. Eat a lot one day, eat little a different day, it makes a difference. Thinking in terms of a moving average levels that out, and keeps a person from freaking out too much about being +/- 3 pounds on a given day.

Officially, I’m 6′ tall, though I’d probably need my winter boots on to pull that off. Over perhaps the last 5 years, my average weight has probably been somewhere around 180. My peak weight of 209 came about 17 years ago when I was in grad school. I definitely weigh less today than at any time since high school.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 12 years. I’ve never been a smoker. I’ve never been a heavy alcohol drinker. Those are all kind of baseline things to know.

I know I was about 184 in August 2014 because that’s when I came up with a half-conceived plan for steady weight loss. I wasn’t huge and I wasn’t thinking “Oh crap, I have to get healthy.” But I was thinking, well, I’ve got an infant at home, and I’m in my later 30s, and I simply have to get in shape if I’m going to be chasing him around.

That initial plan kind of went nowhere. I tried to start running a little that August / September. There was one particular day in October where I ran outside and thought I’d done pretty well. Then the next day my body kind of fell apart. I had crazy joint pain, was very weak. Whatever exactly that was at that point, it degraded into a sinus infection. I wound up having numerous sinus infections over the course of the winter and into the spring of 2015. All of this could have demoralizing to the point of not getting anywhere, but two things kept me driven throughout this. First, that 5K resolution was intended to be a very tangible goal, not to be sloughed off. Second, I was adamant about being in shape for Dylan.

At some point in the spring, I finally got to where the sinus infections were less frequent, and the weather was more forgiving, and I slowly got into a running habit. We live about three-quarters of a mile from four different parks, three of which have loops through the inside of the park. What I settled into was putting earbuds in and listening to music while running to a park, running through/around the park, and then running home; or, I would just run around the blocks of our immediate residential neighborhood, which is very easy to do.

As the summer came on, and I got a little more focused, I also downloaded a couple of running apps to my phone. The one I’ve settled into using is MapMyRun, and for me, it’s legitimately made a big difference. It’s given me the ability to better understanding pacing myself; to think in terms of how often I’m running and how far those runs are; and even to kind of challenge myself by trying to run better times on a couple of “courses” which coincide with loops through or around local parks.

I also lucked my way into being able to play 16 inch softball this summer with the Gapers Block team. I’m not going to claim that playing 8-10 softball games over the course of 2-3 months made a huge difference in terms of fitness, but it did make a difference in terms of my measuring myself. By the end of the year, my stamina was higher, I was hitting the ball better, and I went from being kind of just an extra guy out there to holding my own (or at least so I’d like to think!)

In mid-September I changed jobs. I went from working in the Loop and taking the El downtown everyday to working from home. As of this point I had gotten myself down to about 170.

Working from home presented a couple of challenges. First, most days I had been doing a lot of walking just to get to and from train stops, perhaps 2 1/2 miles of walking on a typical weekday. Second, working from home means taking all meals at home, with a full refrigerator immediately available.

The first challenge was fairly easy to address. Although I was no longer walking as much, I had won back about 2 hours a day which had previously been spent in transit. It made it far easier to find time to run or use my exercise bike. But it’s the second challenge where I think the second part of the overall story kicks in.

When I was going into work downtown, it was very common that I would have coffee and something like soy yogurt or a smoothie before I left, and then I’d stop and get a latte and a pastry before I got into the office. I tried to have something like peanut butter and jelly on hand at the office, but I’d still often wind up having to get something like Subway for lunch. If I was hungry for anything else that I didn’t have immediately on hand, my first option was usually the weird convenience store on the ground level, run by someone we simply new as Snack Guy, which probably says a lot about what kind of fare was available.

I made a conscious decision to keep extra junk out of the house. As a result, what I essentially did was cut out the latte/pastry combination, in favor of more basic coffee, plus a lighter snack like an apple or a piece of cinnamon toast or some cheese. That whole change in and of itself pretty much slashed 300-500 calories from the day, most of those in sugars. Lunch has wound up being very redundant – it’s peanut butter and jelly the vast majority of the time – but one other thing I did was I simply stopped bringing sugary soda into the house. Almost all of the time now, the only soda in the house is one or another kind of Zevia, which is sweetened by stevia; and when I have coffee, my sweetener there is also stevia. In addition to excising a sugary soda from lunch, it also meant I haven’t been having one for dinner either; and what else has happened along the way is that I’ve simply stopped drinking beer at home. It’s not that I was ever drinking to excess, but if my drink with dinner is now Zevia or water instead of Dr Pepper or beer, that’s another 150 calories slashed.

My daily existence, then, involved getting up a little earlier (since I start work for the day at 8); exercising more often (because the recovered travel time has made it easier to find exercise time); and also cutting down significantly not just on calories but on really shitty calories (pastries, sodas, beers) – perhaps 700 calories a day. On top of all that, I’ve saved money. (Lattes are expensive!)

And so about 4-6 weeks in to working from home, I went down from about 170 pounds to the low 160s. And in December, it’s slipped slightly below 160. The goal I had set in 2014 had been solely to get down to 170. I didn’t expect to keep falling from there, and I never anticipated eventually getting down under 160.

I can be very obsessive about numbers. I keep logs of every time I get gas, so I can try and see if the car’s performance is badly slipping. So as I saw that weight very steadily slipping down over time, it was almost like a game at times. It was a strange kind of game, admittedly. It’s not like I ever went to any extremes out of some need to see the number keep dropping. But the thinking about it is always there, and I know that it’s led to a lot of decisions about what and when to eat and not eat.

At 6′-ish, with slightly broad shoulders and slightly long arms for my height, I arguably shouldn’t be below 160. As I’ve lost this weight, the fat from a lot of parts of my body has just kind of gone away. My arms are really skinny now, for a good example. My exercise regimen hasn’t been solely about running, but it also hasn’t been super-balanced. Even though I feel stronger, and I’m definitely in much better shape, I arguably ought to bulk back up a little. But I still look in the mirror and wish what’s left of my gut would tighten up too. It’s kind of a weird mental place to be in.

I think what makes it weirdest, though, is that really, I’ve moved beyond “needing to get in shape” and “hoping to lose weight”, and I’ve really moved into that place where I “simply” need to maintain. I have to put “simply” in quotes because while maintaining really just means doing more of the same, it’s hardly an easy thing, and I find it’s an especially difficult thing to mentally wrap my mind around, if for no other reason than because there are no obvious targets available. I guess I could lose more weight, but I’m kind of at the point where I think it might be counterproductive to do so. I could set new physical / athletic challenges – for example, this year I intend to run a 10K, maybe working myself up to a half-marathon after another year or so – but in terms of that being a target that helps push me to real fitness, that’s beginning to feel kind of esoteric.

Now, one thing I could do is make an even bigger point of improving my diet. We’ve talked about this at home – every few months we read or watch something which reconvinces us of the need to cut out even more processed foods. But here too it’s so hard for this to turn into anything measurable.

I think maintenance is going to prove more difficult than having gotten to this point. I think, somehow, I’m going to have to find some way to turn basic diet and exercise into something else measurable, just because that’s how it works for me. It’s kind of a way of harnessing my OCD tendencies. But it’s also kind of a way of giving in to them, when they might just drive the people around me a little batty. That’s a hard balance to strike.

With all that said: I think that the having been able to measure both “health” using the proxy of weight and “fitness” using running frequency and distance – and, importantly, measuring them in tandem as the weeks have gone on – has made a huge difference. Having sort of instituted “house rules” which I follow mostly strictly has been very important as well.

I know for a lot of people it’s very hard to break habits, or to set new habits, or anything like that. And I know most people aren’t as OCD or as number-obsessed as I am. But I hope there’s something in here that can help other people who are trying to figure out how to get on a healthier and fitter track. And I also hope by sharing some of this it can spur some conversation which will in turn benefit me as well.

Fitness has simply never been a top personal priority until recently. It might have gotten lip service as such, but honestly, it was always pretty far down the list. Even at times when I was going to the gym 3-4 times a week, I feel like it wasn’t because I’d made a huge priority of fitness, but more so that I’d kind of made a priority of putting a fitness show on, if that makes sense.

I’ll be 40 this year, though, and damn it, I’m going to be in good shape throughout my 40s and throughout my 50s. I’ll be in my mid-50s when Dylan graduates high school, and when that day comes, I’m going to be fit and I’m going to be regularly exercising. I’m going to be a good example for him, and I have to be, because this kid is going to run us ragged, and we better be in shape enough to keep up with him for a long time.

Life as a series of unread periodicals

May 4th, 2014

There are 4 periodicals larger than newsletter size which I read on a consistent basis:

Chicago Reader.  Publication frequency:  Weekly.  If you’re in Chicago, this needs no explanation.  If you’re not in Chicago, it probably still needs no explanation.  It’s the city’s main weekly paper.  I read most of it.  I don’t tend to read the theater reviews or things having to do with visual art or dance, and I don’t read Dan Savage’s column.  I tend to read pretty much everything else.

MAGNET.  Publication frequency:  Monthly.  This is a music magazine.  It published either quarterly or bimonthly from the mid-late 90s until about 2009 or 2010.  Then it stopped.  Then, inexplicably, it returned a couple of years ago, and suddenly publishing monthly.  It is basically an indie-rock magazine.  There are short articles on about a dozen bands each month, a mid-sized feature, a long feature, a couple of regular columns, and a boatload of album reviews.  I read it almost word for word.

Preservation.  Publication frequency:  Bimonthly.  This is the official publication of The National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Ostensibly the writing is mostly about American historical treasures which have been saved or which are in danger of being demolished.  It’s very well done.  A large chunk is devoted to place-specific advertising; I don’t read that.  I read everything else.

Journal of Illinois History.  Publication frequency:  Quarterly.  A typical volume of JIH has 3 pieces about 25-30 pages long and then about 8-10 book reviews.  At least 2 of the book reviews are always for books about Lincoln.  This is the last vestige of scholarly interaction I have with my once-chosen field.  I read everything.

At any given point in time, I can assess “how far behind” I am relative to “the world” or “whatever” by counting the stack of unread periodicals.  Now, since the Reader is weekly, it’s a bit preposterous to declare the current week unread as of 7:00 on a Wednesday night.  But if I get to the weekend – yeah, then it’s unread.

Right this very minute, I have no backlog of unread periodicals.  It is liberating!

This is a stupid way to approach existence, of course.

Here is the thing:  I simply have a hard time reading books anymore.  Five years ago, I kept track, and I read something like 50-60 books that year.  Four years ago I was at maybe 40.  Last year I maybe read 4?

There are a lot of factors that play into this.  I used to read primarily on the train, and I used to have a longer overall train ride.  I spend a lot more of that train time jacking around on my phone.  And the periodicals always seem to get in the way of books.

But the main thing is that I can’t just sit down and absorb a book.  My attention span is shot.  The phone is definitely part of that, but the phone is symptomatic at least as much as it could be considered causal.

I especially can’t read at home.  I used to read before bed.  I can’t do that anymore.  I can mess around on the computer for a long time but it’s incredibly difficult to stay focused on a book for a long time.  If it’s a book of essays or short stories – especially if it’s sort of light, something like David Sedaris or Chuck Klosterman – then it’s all potentially a little easier.  But I still just can’t seem to sit down and read.

In my mind, it would even be hard to go to a movie anymore.  That would require sitting there for 2 hours.  That’s not how we watch movies at home.  Hell, we don’t even watch movies at home!  It’s too involved most of the time.  We watch TV on DVD or Roku but those are all like 45 minute episodes.  We’ll watch a documentary, but most documentaries are in the 60-75 minute realm, and even then, we’ll probably get up at least 2-3 times each.  And we were doing that before there was a baby involved in the process.

And so in the context of all this, the periodicals take on a weird, strangely heightened importance.  They become actual tasks.  Sometimes I really have to buckle down and focus to finish an issue of MAGNET.  It’s not that I don’t like what I’m reading – it’s just that even the feature-length articles can sometimes seem too involved to sit down and read at once.  They’re like 6 pages!

I have seriously been thinking about the idea of hauling this tiny family off to some place for 4-5 days of reading and not much else.

Part of the problem, and this is a long-standing problem, is that if I do read something, there’s no followup, nobody to talk to about it.  I’ll read a Nelson Algren novel, and it’ll be amazing, and there’s so much in it to talk about, and it’s all about Chicago, and I’m, you know, in Chicago, and there are thousands of people somewhere around me who have read Algren and have things to say about it, and I know like 1 of those people and I don’t know that guy well at all and how can this possibly make any sense?  A few years ago I blitzed through 3 of Fitzgerald’s novels back to back and somehow had nobody to talk to it about any of them.  This isn’t some random schmuck writing some weird YA fiction that might vaguely involve wicca.  This is F. Scott Fucking Fitzgerald, and I can’t actually talk to anyone about this?

We’re a very fragmented culture.  I don’t mean that entirely in a bad way.  I think it’s fascinating and interesting that everybody seems to be interested in very different music or books.  Now, yeah, it seems like everyone is interested in the same television shows.  But there’s really a rich diversity of thought and taste when it comes to so many things and I think in a lot of ways this makes for a stronger society and it is indicative of how much better a world this is than it was for my parents.  And yet, there is something really bizarre about feeling culturally isolated when I’m reading books straight out of the decades-old established canon.

The culprit, and the savior, is the Internet.  The Internet has been this amazing engine of allowing people to pursue their own tastes.  It brings ideas together in unquantifiable ways.  But it also boils so many of those ideas out to tiny nuggets, often hyper-disposable.  People become united in weird ways, pushing into greater abstraction.  It’s like a Big Bang of Culture – the universe keeps expanding and things are flying all over the place and it’s all terribly exciting but it’s so chaotic.  In the midst of the chaos we seem to be able to be transfixed by things like major sports and political stories but there’s precious little depth there.  The Internet holds us together, but in the loosest possible way.  We’re so fractured now that if not for Facebook we’d be lost.

And so the impending arrival of another issue of MAGNET provides cohesion and regularity.  The two primary touchstones of the week are Monday morning when we go back to work, and Thursday morning (or Wednesday evening if lucky) when the Reader magically appears.

The rumours of print being dead?  Don’t believe the hype.  Someone, somewhere, is going to keep printing something on a periodic basis, and it’s going to provide an important serving of mental fiber for our bizarrely constipated existence.  They – in some form – will never stop arriving, and so life will truck along, perpetually a series of unread periodicals.

Now, if I could just find somebody to talk about that article from JIH about horror movies being broadcast on Quad Cities television in the late ’70s, I’d be all set.

Football, America, and the Frontier

May 4th, 2012

I don’t know when it was exactly, but at some point, football overtook baseball as my sport.  I don’t think it was anything baseball did wrong.  I think it’s just that the nature of football, and the nature of America – of the media, of the workweek, of other aspects of mass culture – those things just made it inevitable that football would be our sport.

One thing we can lose track of with football is how at a base level it requires so little equipment.  All you really need is the ball.  When I think about recess from fourth to sixth grade, I remember playing 500 and kickball and basketball but when the weather got cold it was mostly football.  And the other weird thing about football, I think, is how you just didn’t need to be that athletic to play football at recess.  Basketball took a lot more coordination.  Even kickball did more to separate the athletes from the wannabes.

The idea that you could get injured playing football – I think it’s always been easy to think of that as a known risk.  Even the idea that it could really mess you up… that’s a tradeoff in the eyes of people who think about it at all.  Football screwed up your brain because you got hit so many times in the head?  Well, what did you expect?

While it’s true of all professional sports, and for that matter of a great many other things, football in particular embodies the idea of pushing boundaries without acknowledging the consequences of pushing those boundaries.  In this sense, football really is the quintessential American sport.  The boundaries that are pushed in football are largely individual and physical, with payoffs coming in terms of boundaries in media and money.  Similarly, the American approach to mass energy consumption has largely been about pushing the boundaries of energy extraction.  The American approach to finance has largely been about pushing any boundary you can imagine.  The last two presidential administrations are fascinating case studies in pushing boundaries – and in seeing which boundaries they really aren’t that willing to push.

Is it possible that football is reaching a breaking point?  It may not get there this year, but there’s this sense that football has gotten too fast, too powerful, too violent.  Of course it’s always been fast and powerful and violent.  Dick Butkus was a previous generation’s Junior Seau.  But Dick Butkus went on and did whatever kind of goofy acting Dick Butkus did.  Junior Seau shot himself in the chest at age 42.

Roger Goodell seems to get it.  The Bountygate suspensions are evidence that he gets it.  The growing number of casualties – he sees this.  But isn’t there an irreversible trend here?  How can you tell football to stop being even faster?  How can you tell football to stop being even more powerful?

Isn’t the NFL just a manifestation of that simple game we played as kids, pushed to its logical extremes?

Isn’t America’s excessive energy usage just a manifestation of everything America has been for two-plus centuries?

Isn’t Wall Street exactly what we should expect from the continuing evolution of an economic system based in a heavy mythology of capitalism?

Aren’t all of these things basically just examples of the Frontier Thesis in operation?  Specifically, the idea that there will constantly be new frontiers, that there will always be an aggressive push toward being smarter, faster, more powerful, etc.?

And at some point, does that push reach a breaking point?

The conundrum that faces the NFL, and, I’d argue, the conundrum that faces America, is that there are such breaking points.  Again, Roger Goodell seems to get it.  His approach seems to be to try and steer the NFL away from some of these breaking points – maybe even to the idea that the product really doesn’t need to evolve much more at this point, except in terms of safety, and that instead of the product evolving, the focus can be on pushing its reach internationally.  But this is really just a recognition that one frontier has been met, and an attempt to try to find another frontier, another direction for growth.  I’m not convinced that direction for growth is going to work, because I feel like the inherently American nature of the game will tend to undermine that growth.  And so I think what we’re actually witnessing right now is the beginning of the peak of football.

Similarly, it’s fairly obvious that the American economy is in some really deep shit, whether people in Washington want to admit it or not.  It’s not just America, of course.  A lot of the Euro zone is experiencing negative growth.  Well, gee, maybe there’s something inherently flawed with the idea of a constant-growth-economic model.  But of course we can’t talk about things like that.

And also similarly, our energy situation is pretty damn hosed.  We’re at Peak Oil.  Why else would there be attempts to do such insane things like hydrofracking through the slate of Southern Illinois?  It’s just an attempt to pick up the frontier boundary and go somewhere else with it.  There’s no serious discussion of scaling back on energy usage.

The thing is, I like football.  It’s my sport.  It has been since I was young.  And I like making money.  I think I’m worth more money than I’m currently making, so why shouldn’t I try to make more?  And I like using energy.  We pretty much all do.  It’s about as unrealistic to think that I could “break up” with football as it to think that I would somehow go off the grid, or that I would be content to stay at the same or a lower salary for the rest of my life.

But I know those are the directions we collectively need to be headed.  I might fall short on a personal level in some ways, but the deeper into all of this we get, the more I think in terms of somehow needing to challenge the Frontier Thesis.  In simplest terms, the Frontier mentality is not sustainable.  This is a brutally difficult thing to get across to people.  It might not be so hard for some of us to accept it on an intellectual level, but let’s face it, a lot of the endeavors we think of as sustainable are really just an attempt to sustain the Frontier mentality.

Will it take more suicides like Junior Seau’s to fundamentally alter the way people approach football?

And what will need to happen in society more broadly that can fundamentally alter our Frontier outlook?


awww yeah

April 28th, 2012

So.  This blog has been moved, and has been switched over to WordPress, and I am trying to make something coherent happen with it.  I’m downloading something called GIMP to try and accomplish something graphical.  We’ll see how all this goes.

the day I came down with the chicken pox

March 7th, 2012

This was spurred on by a recent discussion I randomly started about 11th Street in Rockford. This is the story of the day I came down with chicken pox. I am not sure if I should say the chicken pox.

I want to stress, though, that this story is not really about chicken pox. It is about 11th Street. Really, it’s more about 20th Avenue, and important lessons people learn in their lives.

So. I was in third grade! We had a substitute teacher that day – a substitute we’d never had before, and by my recollection she was kind of cranky.

I can’t remember exactly what happened, if I said I was feeling bad, or if somebody asked why I had red bumps all over me, I don’t know. School had only just begun, or maybe it hadn’t even begun yet, who’s to say. But I was in my classroom and all of a sudden it was like, oh hey, you’ve got chicken pox. I don’t really remember anything else about all of this except that I remember putting my coat on and the substitute was cranky and was all like, you should be doing that out in the hall. Okay.

So, my dad came and got me. At this time our car was a Ford Pinto. I don’t know what year it was and I doubt it mattered. The reason we had a Ford Pinto is because our AMC Gremlin had been totaled in the previous year. The Gremlin had been brown, kind of a metallic poop color. The Pinto, I think, was kind of a faded orange-brown, but I may be getting the exact color confused with my grandfather’s Mercury Bobcat, which was kind of a burnt orange. The Bobcat, of course, was the step up from the Pinto. I swear I am not making any of this up.

Now my school was King, and King was on the west side. We lived on 6th Street. So for us to have been on 11th Street doesn’t really make sense – we must have stopped somewhere else.

Anyway, it was a school day, and it was the morning, and it was cold enough for me to have a coat, so it was probably early in 1985 though maybe it was late in 1984, and I had come down with the chicken pox, and my dad picked me up, and now we were driving south on 11th Street, just past Bowl-Mor, and yes, that was the actual name of the bowling alley. And so we turned right onto 20th Avenue.

And as we turned, my door flew open. Not like, immediately it was wide open, just like, it came unlatched, and just kind of started to open. So when I say flew, I mean “fly” in the graceful, birdlike sense, not in the speedy, timelike sense.

We were not going that fast. As the door started to fly open, and I think I said something, but who knows for sure what was or was not said, and my dad realized that my door was flying open, he naturally stopped the car. That is when I fell out of the car.

I really do not remember if I had tried to reach for the door at some point and failed… I just know I fell out of the car, onto the street. It was not a violent fall. I was not injured. I did still have the chicken pox.

And so all of this is how I came to be sitting on the street, on 20th Avenue, alongside my father’s stopped brown/orange/tan Ford Pinto.

All of this was not far from our house. I am pretty sure that I got up and back in the car, and we locked the door, and I held onto the door as we continued slowly home.

Several important lessons were learned that day:

First, wear your seatbelt! In 1985 this was not exactly standard practice, not even for an 8 year old in the front seat. I know this sounds crazy but I was wearing my seatbelt long before most people I knew.

Second, do not drive a Ford Pinto! Now, this was before it was widely known that upon side impact a poorly located fuel tank would cause such vehicles to explode. Pintos were still common then, even though they hadn’t been made since 1980.

Third, maybe do not drive a Ford at all!

Fourth, quarantine yourself when you have the chicken pox! Or, alternately, visit people who wish to receive it themselves, or who wish to have others receive it. My mother was keen on having me give chicken pox to my sister, then age 3, and she did indeed receive it. She therefore missed out on ever getting to go home from school because she had come down with the chicken pox. Jessie, I am sorry.

All of you fall into three camps: those of you who know nothing about Rockford, those of you who know precisely where I’m talking about but haven’t seen the area in many many years, and those of you who are intimately familiar with the area as it stands today. 11th Street, in the vicinity of 20th Avenue, is a post-industrial hovel. Bowl-Mor has been shuttered for years. Most of the nearby factories are not operating. It is not the worst part of the city by far, but it is, as was pointed out earlier tonight, “vaguely creepy”, and this is the case both by day and by night.

Whatever else may happen, though, that corner, of 11th Street and 20th Avenue, that part of 20th Avenue specifically, from now until the end of time, it can be said, Phil Huckelberry Sat There, and I can say, Yes, I Sat There, The Day I Came Down With Chicken Pox.