Eight American Cities in Eight Days: Some Observations

My son, Nicolas, loved climbing rocks in Central Park. My wife and I loved that it was an easily accessible respite from the city.

This year for Spring Break, my family and I drove 2,200 miles from Chicago to visit family in Boston and New York City. Along the way we stopped in Cleveland, Harrisburg, New Haven and New Bedford, Massachusetts and spent the night in Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Visiting eight cities in eight days was an amazing opportunity to not only see how varied America really is, but also learn a bit about what cities are doing right and wrong.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my observations from our trip.

1. Boston and NYC’s rapid transit has a much tighter grid, and seems to be much busier than Chicago’s, but Chicago’s system is cleaner, quieter and a better riding experience.

2. Every city, no matter what the size, has some kind of cool thing other cities should all be jealous of. For Cleveland, it’s the West Side Market. Buffalo, it’s the stellar downtown architecture. New Haven, it’s an Italian community with a genuinely unique and excellent native pizza (and Yale too, I guess). Harrisburg, a terrific minor league ballpark right on the river. Pittsburgh, it’s a tight, bustling downtown with a vibrant restaurant scene that is unusual for many mid-sized cities.

3. The American landscape, is varied and beautiful. Just between Chicago, Boston and New York, we saw five very different landscapes that took our breaths away. The spaces between our cities are magnificent.

4. Rush hour traffic in Boston and NYC is horrific. I will never complain about Chicago traffic again.

5. Most everything in NYC, especially Manhattan, is obscenely expensive. I can’t understand how any kind of middle class can possibly exist in Manhattan and most of Brooklyn. This is not a good development for the city.

6. Seafood on the East Coast is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. I’d forgotten this fact, even though I lived on the East Coast for twelve years. I miss it.

Buffalo’s City Hall. Completed in 1931, it is an art deco masterpiece covered with friezes.

7. We only spent a night and a rainy morning in Buffalo. I’d like to spend more time there. The city is absurdly inexpensive, and we stayed in a great hotel and had a spectacular meal at a French restaurant downtown. Maybe we hit the best parts, but I sense there’s more to the city.

8. Boston’s new Seaport district is a development triumph, but a failure of city planning, in my opinion. We visited the Institute of Contemporary Art (not worth a return, I think) and explored the Seaport area a bit. It is full of glassy buildings, trendy young people and pricey-looking restaurants. I suppose this is appealing to corporations and twenty-somethings looking to burn inflated salaries, but it lacks soul. I wonder how popular it will be in twenty years.

Me enjoying Franco Pepe’s white pizza, which covered with clams and garlic and with a crispy crust, was probably the best pizza I’ve ever had. Better than in Chicago. No lie.

9. Now that I’ve had New Haven-style pizza, I think it’s better than Chicago-style and Brooklyn-style. I know this is sacrilegious for me to say, considering my Chicago roots, but facts are facts. Get to Franco Pepe’s Apizza as soon as you can.

10. Coney Island is wonderful. It’s a good thing Chicago doesn’t have an amusement park I can get to by L, because if I lived in NYC, I’d hit Coney Island’s roller coasters at least once a month. So great.

11. We visited downtowns of Buffalo, Boston, Harrisburg, New Haven, New York and Pittsburgh. It doesn’t take much observation to see how dense downtowns – and really entire cities – are able to offer many more amenities. Buffalo and New Haven’s downtowns have large amounts of empty space, but Boston and Pittsburgh have downtowns hemmed in by either water or neighborhoods, enforcing density (NYC is a whole other category). These dense areas create virtuous circles of culture and commerce in ways obvious to any observer. I can’t understand why so many Americans fear density. It makes more things possible.

12. I lived in Harrisburg for three months in 1996 and hated it. Visiting last week for the first time since then, I was happy to see that it has improved somewhat, especially the historic neighborhood just north of the Capitol between Front and Third Streets. The city still has a long way to go, but I would no longer call it a “dump”, as I did twenty years ago.

Downtown Pittsburgh is dense, busy and vibrant, even on Easter weekend, when we visited.

13. We did not have much time to explore Pittsburgh, but the downtown has visibly improved since I last visited fifteen years ago. Most of the empty lots have been in-filled, there’s a real restaurant scene, and on Easter Sunday, there were plenty of people wandering around a downtown that lacks residential buildings, which suggests to me that people find downtown worth driving to hang out.

14. Most on-the-road fast food is total garbage. I’ve come to adore Culver’s in the Midwest, and man, it’s a great go-to when you’re just looking for an O.K. lunch on the road. Also: Why the heck do so many toll road service plazas have Sbarro? It is so unbelievably bad.

15. American interstates are incredible. I drove from Paris to Madrid in 2002 and was stunned at how poor the roads in both France and Spain were – sometimes they were barely better than gravel with tiny signs you could miss in a blink. American interstates on the other hand are pristine, have excellent signage and easy to use on/off ramps. We Americans spend an incredible amount of money on our highways, an amazing subsidy for trucking and citizens with enough time and money to use the roads for long distance travel.

The Cleveland West Side Market. Jammed with real vendors in a beautiful building.

16. Cleveland’s West Side Market is amazing. Noticing it on the map while driving through the city on I-90, we decided to get off the interstate to check it out and we couldn’t have made a better decision. This is not a tourist market – stocked with working butchers, bakers, fish sellers and produce stands, it is the kind of place regular people could go shopping on a regular basis. Oh! And the building is gorgeous. Every American city needs places like these. Shopping becomes a social experience and you get to meet the people who care about bringing you great food.

17. Boston is crawling with university students. While the city residential population is about 685,000, the city reported 152,000 students from its 35 colleges, universities, and community colleges in 2010. From past experience, I’ve noticed that Boston during the summer break has a completely different vibe than during the school year – it’s like the city is quieter and more relaxed.

18. I haven’t mentioned New Bedford’s incredible working harbor, the super cool Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan’s Battery, Boston’s North End, Buffalo’s great Pierce-Arrow Transportation Museum, Central Park, the tire shop in The Bronx that fixed a flat for $12 and so much more.

Finally, if you have an opportunity to take an American driving trip like ours, I strongly recommend it. You’ll see so many great things.

The Emotion Of Election Night Parties

Melissa Conyears-Ervin, Chicago’s Treasurer-Elect comes to the stage cheered by her supporters on Election Night, April 2, 2019. She might have done a funky line dance with her sorority sisters later on, but I’m not telling. (Credit: Mike Fourcher)

American election night parties are a unique thing. If you’ve been a committed campaign volunteer or, worse yet, a member of the staff, the amount of tension and mental and physical exhaustion building up to the party can be overwhelming. Unlike any other effort, democratic elections are a totally zero-sum game, either you won it all, or lost it all. Maybe you can try again in a few years, but even with the benefit of past experience, you’re pretty much starting a brand new campaign all over again.

So, when you get to that election night party where you find out if all your efforts were worthwhile – the polls are closed and there’s nothing to do but wait for the results – things start to happen.

For one, just about everyone you met during the course of the campaign suddenly seems like your best buddy. Everyone is hugging. They could be smiling or crying depending on the expected outcome, but that’s irrelevant compared to the fact that everyone at this party IS NOW YOUR TRIBE. Tonight, you would fight a thousand samurai warriors with your bare hands for these people.

Even the old guy volunteer that brought donuts every day. Especially that old guy.

Except for the big parties in Washington, D.C., Most election night parties are decidedly low budget affairs. Union halls, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, a cheap bar at the edge of town, or maybe a meeting room at the Holiday Inn. Big U.S. Senate or governor campaign often rent a fancy hotel ballroom, but it’s a cash bar with a DJ and certainly no appetizers.

Probably the two most extravagant election night parties I’ve been to occured on the same night in 2004.

For the Illinois Democratic Primary, a high school friend was the daughter of one candidate, Blair Hull. A wealthy man, his good government campaign fell apart after local media forced open his divorce files, revealing that he and his ex-wife had physical altercations. But determined to see things through, Hull campaigned hard until the last day.

So, a friend and I decided to check out his election night party, even though he was guaranteed to lose.

It was in a beautiful, high-end hotel ballroom in Chicago. Free drinks, shrimp cocktail and tasteful decorations. But the room was largely empty as a few volunteers and staff drank themselves into oblivion, waiting for the inevitable bad results to come in later that night.

So we left. Down the street, at the Hyatt Regency, was the party for another guy running: Barack Obama.

We knew the party was somewhere in the hotel, but where? It was late and hotel staff were mostly gone. There were no visible signs. Someone we bumped into said, “Down the escalators.”

The Hyatt Regency, a convention hotel, has what seems like four or five basement levels. We went down all of them. Following escalators and a steady trail of people heading the same direction. Then, we reached a bottom floor, turned a corner and heard a raging crowd and thumping music down a dark hallway. We walked a bit, then pulled open some doors, and there we saw a thousand people crammed into a room for five hundred. No bar, no chairs. Just lots of people and a sound system blaring Motown. A stage was at the front, and we stood on tiptoe, craning our necks to see over the crowd.

Then, only minutes after we arrived – Barack appeared! But this wasn’t the international rock star we know today. This was a guy who had just won an unbelievable, come-from-behind win in his first statewide election. He wasn’t even elected yet! This was just the primary election!

He was skinnier, younger than today. Maybe more awkward. But he strode across the stage with a huge smile, pulling a woman that must have been his wife–Michelle did not campaign with him at first–and swung his arm up in a broad wave to us all. The room erupted. Total bedlam! These were people who had worked, really worked to get him elected. Illinois was still learning how to say “Barack”, but these people knew. They were the originals. The core believers.

He took the microphone and said that thing we’ve heard so many times, but it was the first time I’d ever heard it: “Who would believe, that a skinny boy, from the South Side, with a funny name, could ever get so far?”

If it was belam before, now people were crying. Screaming. Laughing. The panoply of human emotion was entirely on display. Even though I was an interloper, new to the whole Obama thing, I couldn’t help but laugh and gush with excitement myself. Maybe-This-Was-A-Big-Deal!

Mercifully, his speech was short. But when it was over, it seemed like everyone in the room – all one thousand of them – knew one another except for me and my friend. We stepped out, as the true believers began to really party for the night.

Five Reasons Chicago’s Coming Election Will Indicate America’s Future

Chicago mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle. Credit: Mike Fourcher and WBEZ

Unless you’re a local, American mayoral elections can seem provincial and quaint. “How could a contest for chief garbage collector and town booster be important to the rest of America?” we ask.

But Chicago, preparing for a groundbreaking city election on Tuesday, is a true bellwether city for urban America, and much more conservative than decades of Democratic Party control lets on. Tuesday’s runoff election for mayor and city treasurer, and final contest for many City Council seats, will reveal a great deal of insight on what urban residents, now 80% of America, will be prioritizing in the coming years. While city dwellers set the pace for American politics, Chicago’s Midwestern values hew more to the middle than coastal Los Angeles and New York City, providing a better prediction of what’s to come on the national stage.

Since the start of Chicago’s runoff campaign five weeks ago, polling has pointed to a mayoral victory by rookie politician Lori Lightfoot. Yet, the mayoral runoff has been mostly about style, rather than policy substance, since Lightfoot and her opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, have very similar liberal outlooks on policing, housing, taxation–and just about everything.

Meanwhile, polling for many for City Council runoffs has been favoring lefty, progressive candidates seeking to sweep out old guard pols, making it unlikely that the last few “machine” aldermen will be able to keep the reins of power away from a new, progressive mayor. On top of that, Chicago is about to elect for the first time a city treasurer who was not pulled into office by mayoral coattails, resulting in a new city-wide office held by someone with their own, independent electorate.

Once the ballots are counted, Chicago will see a whole lot of change Wednesday morning. There are five major reasons why all of America should pay attention.

1. Race and minority status have been election issues in brand new ways. Both Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot are African-American women, a first for Chicago in the mayor’s office, no matter which is elected. And Lightfoot is married and openly gay with a daughter, another big first for Chicago, if she is elected. Yet, because both candidates are black women, minority status has not been a divisive campaign issue, but instead repeatedly affirmed as a gain for Chicago.

This is a remarkable development for a city that has lost 181,000 African-Americans in the last eight years, and one that has struggled with “a tale of two cities” with crime and economic underdevelopment raging in minority communities, while white Chicago has been booming in every way imaginable. A black, woman mayor with working-class roots (Preckwinkle’s father was a letter carrier in Minneapolis and Lightfoot’s was a steelworker in Ohio) will be a radical change from the white, professional class mayors Chicago has had since 1989.

Under Lightfoot or Preckwinkle, perhaps the project of racial reconciliation and equitable neighborhood development begun by Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, and halted by his untimely death in office in 1987, can be restarted. All signs seem to suggest that Chicago voters are ready for it.

Unlike Chicago’s other recently famous black politician, Barack Obama, both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot have a history of speaking plainly about race and the role it plays in policymaking. Also, both candidates have demonstrated an awareness of how white, Latino, black and Asian perspectives differ, and how personal racial transgressions can feel. With its new leadership, Chicago will be positioned to be a model for post-Donald Trump racial reconciliation.

2. Chicago’s coming crime and policing policies will worth watching. As I mentioned before, Chicago is much more conservative than its Democratic voting record suggests. One leading “moderate” candidate for mayor eliminated in the general election, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, was nicknamed “Electric Suzy” when she was a state legislator, because of her strong support for the death penalty. As a 2019 mayoral candidate, Mendoza attracted campaign staff from outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team, and made “get tough on crime” policies a major plank of her campaign.

In contrast, both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle are strong proponents of police reform, and each of them played a role in pushing Chicago towards the consent decree it is now under that will make major changes in how the police department operates. This is a big departure from Mayor Emanuel (and his predecessor Richard M. Daley) and from many other leading mayor candidates eliminated in the first round of voting. Long before Laquan McDonald was killed by a Chicago police officer in 2014, views on policing had been a dividing line between white and minority communities, with Emanuel and Daley resisting major policy changes.

Despite President Donald Trump’s promotion of 1980’s-era police tactics, urban America is calling for change. Preckwinkle’ leadership on eliminating cash bail, and Lightfoot’s recognition as principal author of the 2016 Chicago Police Accountability Report stating that the Chicago police department struggles with racism, suggests that Chicago is preparing to address crime and race in ways America’s federal government has been avoiding.

3. Chicago policymaking is about to get much more progressive. There was an incredible moment in one of the many televised debates between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, where they argued over which one would be a more aggressive proponent of affordable housing and moving resources to underdeveloped communities. After eight years of Emanuel’s New Democrat, pro-business policies, where the Chicago Housing Authority sat on hundreds of millions of dollars while the city endured a low-income housing crisis, it was revolutionary to hear an argument about who would build houses faster. Both mayor candidates have promised liberal-friendly changes to city school governance, policing, neighborhood development and cannabis law, all areas where Emanuel has exhibited feet of clay.

While nationally, urban America is having a left-wing moment, Chicago’s incoming leadership will be liberal enough to make big changes but yet challenged to move a big city bureaucracy that naturally resists lefty impulses. Like much of America, Chicago will resist quick fixes and illustrate how hard it will be to implement a progressive agenda.

4. Downtown big business won’t be the first priority. Elected in 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley put a top priority on building up Chicago’s downtown and pushing it to diversify into more finance and national corporate headquarters, as many other Rust Belt cities’ downtowns withered throughout the 1990’s. Emanuel, Daley’s successor in 2007, put the downtown-first policy on steroids, pouring resources on while doing everything he could to draw corporate headquarters to the Loop. Emanuel’s downtown focus has been hugely successful, as Crain’s Chicago Business recently reported that since 2010, the Loop added 130,000 new jobs.

But this boom has been mostly to the benefit of professionals, who are mostly white, as high wage industrial jobs working class blacks and Latinos relied on dried up. During the same time black neighborhoods have emptied out, and large parts of the South and West Sides have been locked into a cycle of disinvestment and high-unemployment since the 1960’s. Preckwinkle and Lightfoot have both made neighborhood investment top planks of their campaigns. While it’s possible for neighborhood investment to not be anti-business, many of Chicago’s business leaders are concerned about what they hear from the mayor candidates, expecting rent control, higher commercial property taxes, and less support for big downtown projects.

Like the rest of America, Chicago’s neighborhoods need infrastructure and private investment to spur growth. The 21st Century manufacturing and knowledge economies still need to take hold in Chicago and the city’s next mayor will have to write a playbook most of America has yet to discover.

5. The end of mayoral autocracy and a more activist City Council is coming. Chicago’s fifty alderman have long quailed under the gaze of their mayor, but come Wednesday, more independent-minded aldermen will hold office than ever before, with the vast majority of alderman elected to office without significant help from the mayoral candidates – a big change from past elections. Past mayors have held power by allying with aldermen who ignored city-wide issues in return for dominance over their home wards and help from the mayor around election time. But this year’s Council will bring a majority of aldermen with a history of asking unpleasant questions, and too few of “old machine” pols to keep the levers of power away from activist Council members.

We should expect a bumpy ride for the new Chicago mayor, as City Council pushes back in ways it hasn’t done since the early 1980’s. But unlike those days’ Council Wars between a progressive African-American mayor and reactionary white aldermen, Chicago’s next Council session is likely to be pulled between independent-minded aldermen that are more left than the mayor, and reactionary whites and minorities who are more conservative on policing and/or taxation than the mayor. As it stands today, it is unclear what kind of legislative coalition a new mayor will be able to assemble, and that suggests conflict is on the horizon.

America’s Democratic Party wrestling match between lefty populists and centrist establishment-types is about to be played out in Chicago. What happens here could be a good indicator of how hard it will be to establish a coalition if a Democratic president ascends to the White House in 2020.

For Chicago: Preckwinkle For Mayor, Conyears-Ervin For Treasurer

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There’s truism about politics: campaigning and governing are totally different skills, and just because you’re good at one, doesn’t mean you’re good at the other. Campaigning is packed with artificially black and white comparisons, inflated statements, and poorly declared ideas. Messaging and advertising is the messy and imprecise business of elections. But in a democratic system, we citizens have agreed that campaigning is what politicians need do to get elected, and when the votes are counted we hope the winners are just as good, or better at governing.

This is the root of my lament about Toni Preckwinkle, my preferred candidate for Chicago mayor. She’s run an abysmal campaign, wasting opportunities, allowing herself to be defined by opponents, and generally seeming leadfooted. While I have no real complaints about her runoff opponent, Lori Lightfoot, Toni’s thirty-year record of progressive accomplishment in government is tremendous, and something I’d like to see continued in the mayor’s office.

Her work as Cook County Board President, the job she currently occupies, has been a study in the hard work of governing. After decades of mismanagement before her tenure, Preckwinkle steered county government into solvency, moved the massive county hospitals and health system into the black, enrolled 320,000 people onto a new CountyCare managed health insurance program, rebuilt the state’s second-largest public housing agency and helped to push back the judicial travesty of cash bail.

These are boring, unsexy accomplishments that none-the-less affect hundreds of thousands of people in very real ways. And while Preckwinkle has earned a reputation of grinding through staff, and her demeanor is gruff and unforgiving, few statues have been erected in honor of a leader’s sense of humor. We demand concrete results from our leaders, and Preckwinkle has delivered it time and again.

Yet, Preckwinkle has run a terrible campaign. She was largely invisible during the first round of elections, nursing her resources for the second round and expecting that her base of support would give her a first place finish in the first round. But because she didn’t spend time and money defining herself to voters for the February election, other candidates did, setting the tone and defining what they had to offer.

Then, nine days before the February election, a hubris-filled Preckwinkle supporter crashed a Lightfoot press conference, attempting to belittle her. Instead, in an unprompted, televised argument that will go down in Chicago political history, Lightfoot directly engaged the man and earned her bonafides as the change candidate.

It was a terrible “own goal” by Team Preckwinkle, and Team Lightfoot has been matching “change” and “machine” with “Preckwinkle” at every opportunity since then. We’ve heard very little from Lightfoot about how her turn at the mayor’s office would be substantially different from Preckwinkle’s (in fact, it seems both candidates would make many of the same policy choices), but Chicagoans seem to be hungering for a break from the past. And since Preckwinkle has a 40 year history as a Chicago and Cook County elected official – no matter that almost that entire past was opposing the old machine and reforming the dreck they left behind – the zeitgeist has shifted to Lightfoot’s candidacy of new, rather than Preckwinkle’s history of reform.

I’ll be voting for Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but I don’t have anything bad to say about Lori Lightfoot. I spent a great deal of time talking to her about police reform when I was running and reporting for The Daily Line. She is a deep, thoughtful person, genuinely interested in service – and she has a sense of humor. She can be a bit imperious at times, but so has every other person I’ve met that has achieved her level of success. While it doesn’t serve her well, I suspect it’s a habit born of being in command – I’ve never sensed her to foster self-doubt.

Me and State Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin, candidate for Chicago Treasurer.

And while so much attention has gone to the mayoral campaign, I’ve been spending most of my energy on the city treasurer race, volunteering for Melissa Conyears-Ervin. I’ve worked and volunteered for dozens of candidates over the years, and Melissa is one of the few I’ve known to be the “whole package”. She’s got a Horatio Alger story, having risen from a West Side family, raised by a single mother working a union job to become the first in her family to go to college, and then get a job working for Allstate, a Fortune 500 company. While there, she earned an MBA in finance and managed a office of hundreds. Then, sensing there was more to life than the corporate ladder, she left her corporate job to work at a West Side non-profit focusing on housing. Only after all this life experience, did she run for State Representative. And, except for when she went to college, she lived the whole time on Chicago’s West Side, never leaving her roots.

Volunteering for and working with Melissa, I’ve found her interest in people to be genuine, her grasp of financial issues to be real (I have an M.B.A. myself) and that she reads and studies in depth to get up to speed on issues. She understands and is committed to protecting Chicago’s $8 billion of cash and short-term investments. She has some genuine ideas on how to help our pensions perform better, and she is energized by the idea of forcing Chicago banks, who benefit from holding our massive cash deposits, to create programs to serve significant Chicago’s unbanked population.

Melissa is deeply committed to the boring, uninteresting parts of government that create real long-term results. And for this guy with twenty-five years in and around government, her commitment to the boring, is the most exciting thing ever. If you live in Chicago, please give Melissa Conyears-Ervin your vote.

Four Non-Americans’ Views of America

University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Bascom Hall. You can study here and get smart, but you can’t stay. (Credit: Richard Hurd/Flickr)

Listening to non-American friends living overseas, the United States seems like a lumbering giant with little idea of how it impacts the world. Its democracy and merit culture remains a draw for people in developing nations who desire to do better, but President Donald Trump’s immigration policies are confusing everyone.

Two weeks ago I told you about my conversations with four American friends living overseas and how they view the United States as expatriots. This week I spoke with four more friends, all non-Americans that once lived in the United States at some point, live in other countries now, and occasionally travel here on business or on vacation.

Everyone I spoke to is highly educated: We all went to business school together at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sebastien Rexhausen is an energy sector business consultant living in Bonn, Germany. Faisal Siddiqui, whom I wrote about last week, has been a hospital CEO in numerous Indian cities. Leonel Preza is an El Salvadoran now working as a factory manager in Vancouver, British Columbia. Qasim Munir is a chemical engineer working for a fertilizer manufacturer in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Geography it seemed, was everything, as I spoke to my old friends. My German buddy, Sebastien, who flies into Houston for work on a regular basis, finds America to be pretty much the same as he’s always experienced it. He applied for and obtained a five-year work visa with no problem. But as a European, he’s acutely aware of America’s sharp divide between rich and poor.

“The big divide between the affluent and poor is a topic that’s big in the news back home – coupled with drugs,” particularly the United States opioid epidemic, says Sebastien.

My El Salvadoran friend living in Canada, Leonel, now views everything through a Canadian lens (more on that later). Looking over the U.S. border just a few minutes away from his home in Vancouver, he sees the U.S. as divisive and centered on capitalism, that forgets to provide residents with the basics.

“[Canada is] like the U.S. thirty years ago. They are not as competitive, aggressive as in the States. In general people are nice, everything is organized, orderly. Here in Canada, you get health care and schooling for free. The university is less expensive than in the States. For me, experiencing the States is the sheer volume of the economy,” Leonel says.

Leonel and his family drives to visit Seattle every few weeks, and he has family he visits in Las Vegas and Boise, Idaho. So he manages to check in regularly on the U.S.

“The States have changed. You see more immigrants, but you see more poverty. Divisions from the rich to the poor, you see those big gaps. But you don’t see that as much in Canada.”

But my friend in Islamabad, Qasim, sees less of the rich-poor divide and more of the opportunity.

“[America] is an ideal place to immigrate, because the systems and processes are fair, there’s very little corruption, and you can excel and go fairly. My time there I found it to be the same. It’s a dream place for lots of people.”

Qasim expressed a bit of concern about prejudice against immigrants, but not too much. “It’s a country which 95% of the time makes you feel welcome. Every now and then you run into a person who makes a remark and it ruins your next hour or so, but that happens very little.”

But when discussion turns to American foreign policy, everyone had big criticisms for the U.S.

“Who would think people in Wisconsin would vote for Donald Trump?” asked my friend from India, Faisal. “What we hear about America is that it is not what it used to be. As a free country, as a place accepting of people of different backgrounds. From our perspective the bubble has burst.”

Qasim, whose country, Pakistan, just finished a series of deadly border battles with India, says many Pakistanis blamed the United States for the fighting since India’s fighter jets, bombs and artillery mostly comes from American arms manufacturers.

“We all know who was backing it up. There was someone that supporting it – the U.S. That’s who was pushing it,” he said.

Pakistanis, wedged between Afghanistan where the U.S. is fighting a hot war, and India, which the U.S. is warming up to in an effort to hem in China, are predictably sensitive to American actions.

“People here are almost convinced that whatever India was doing was with the backing of the U.S. That does not leave a good feeling at all. The more literate people say it’s more about business, there’s no such thing as ethics. It is all about give and take so the United States can leverage China. The U.S. needs a check on them.”

Pakistan is still a largely illiterate country, Qasim laments, and because of that, few people are able to read newspapers and form their own opinions about the world. So if the government says the United States is to blame, they’ll go along with that idea.

“The bottom line for a commoner, is they lack the capacity of interest to go into the depth and details. They just want a one liner from the government. Whatever they hear becomes their belief,” Qasim says.

Leonel, the El Salvadoran in Canada, thinks the U.S. is often totally unaware of its impact, and just bigfoots its way through the world. For instance, he thinks the twelve-year long El Salvadoran civil war from 1979 to 1992 was probably unintentionally lengthened by American largesse.

“The civil war in El Salvador lasted for 10 years, but the U.S. gave [the government] intelligence on where the guerilla commanders were. If they wanted, they could have ended the war in a year. But the U.S. kept sending money to maintain the war. That money [went to] the government, ‘Hey, we’re receiving free money for a war, why stop it?’ That’s why the war lasted 10 years,” Leonel claims.

I think Leonel’s analysis is oversimplified, but it does illustrate something very real, which is that America, the largest economy in the world, can quickly swamp a tiny country of 6.5 million people, and not even notice. What is certainly true, is that the United States was sending around $500 million in aid a year to El Salvador during the 1980’s, and American military officers were helping run the war for the government. We were in deep, with big consequences for El Salvadorans, and barely any for Americans back home.

This is felt by Sebastien, from Germany too. It’s big news in Germany that the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords, that Trump is pressuring Germany to stop building natural gas pipelines to Russia, and that the U.S. is demanding Germany not use Chinese telecommunications technology in favor of American tech. Most of those things aren’t really talked about in the United States.

“[Trump is] trying to go away from being the institution of the world to ensuring everything benefits the U.S. [He is trying] to take a different stance of the United States’ role in the world, which in the past was balancing. But now it’s U.S. first,” Sebastien said. “The U.S. was an institution for global policy making. I’m not sure if that is not lost to a certain degree. He is enabling other bloks or parties to win in that global race for positioning.”

Finally, because that seems to be the biggest concern between the United States and the rest of the world, Leonel’s immigration story is another great illustration of how the rest of the world works.

Born in San Salvador, Leonel came to earn an M.B.A. at the University of Wisconsin after he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. Graduating in 2003, he headed back to El Salvador to manage a massive Maidenform factory with 10,000 workers. He gradually climbed up the ladder, and by 2008 he was managing nine factories for Hanes Brands across Central America.

By then gang violence was getting worse in San Salvador, and concerned for their two young children Leonel and his wife decided they needed to emigrate. But he told me, “To get the States, it’s very hard. You need a family sponsorship or a company visa,” neither of which this Fulbright Scholar who managed nine factories for a major global company could conjure up.

But Canada offered an opportunity, he said. “In Canada they have a point system based on education, level of English and your skills.” The system is straightforward – meet certain requirements, you get points. Get 67 points or more, and you can become a permanent resident. (Try an example test for yourself here.)

Leonel had enough points, and he and his family obtained residency in Canada in 2014. Then, just four years later, they applied for Canadian citizenship in October 2018 and became Canucks. Just like that. You only need to be a Canadian resident for one year.

“Now we have Canadian passports!” Leonel said.

These are the El Salvadorans we’re keeping out of the U.S.

Can America Be A Welcoming Country Again?

The Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan. (Credit: EAS ART/Flickr)

A successful man in his early 40’s, working in an industry he loves, Faisal Siddiqui is the first to tell you that he’s a lucky man. He has a perennially sunny outlook on the world – it takes a serious effort to put him in a bad mood. Blessed with a wife he loves and two daughters who dote on him when he comes home from twelve-hour days, Faisal is none-the-less passionate about his work, moving from hospital to hospital as a CEO who specializes in difficult turnaround cases.

He’s a voracious reader, consuming as much material as he can make time for, often stacking up books focused on whatever esoteric business problem he’s currently puzzling out. A believer in fitness to focus the mind, Faisal is an avid racquet sports player and hits the soccer pitch too, striving to out-run his opponents – both sports with intense cardio demands.

Although he’s a practicing Muslim who’s noticed attitude changes since 9/11, Faisal still thinks America as the best of countries. “I think of it as the most welcoming and open country,” he told me last week. But the rise of President Donald Trump worries him. “The greatness of the United States has been denigrated because of the extreme thought processes out there. He has been fanning a lot of extremism that’s not just in the U.S.”

One of my closest friends, I haven’t seen Faisal in person in over ten years, but I called him up at his home in Hyderabad, India last week as part of a check in with a few non-American friends on how the U.S. has changed in their perspective. I’ll write about more of my conversations next week, but Faisal told a story that made me think hard about what America offers to the world today.

An Indian patriot, Faisal’s father was a decorated brigadier general in the Indian Army who fought in the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. As a son of an Indian national hero, life has been privileged for Faisal, and he knows it, so he’s committed himself to lifting up his country, one of the reasons he’s so passionate about health care.

Faisal’s sense of morality and devotion to merit is emblematic of the best of liberal democracy, a core value of both the United States and India, and what Americans hope for when we take in new immigrants.

I asked him to tell me his thoughts on the United States as an Indian, and he sounded like a man torn between two countries, unsure if either one could be a good home for him and his family.

“I spent five years in the U.S. in the shadow of 9/11. And then continued to live there and work there, and not once did I have to realize the color of my skin or religion,” said Faisal with pain in his voice. “But in my own country I have come to realize that I can’t live in certain areas because I’m a Muslim.”

The rise of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, the leader of the Hindu nationalist party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has brought a chill to India, Faisal says, as right-wing Hindus have suppressed and sometimes terrorized the country’s Muslim minority, which makes up about 15%, or 200 million people of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Before becoming the Indian PM in 2014, Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat State, where RSS actively suppressed the state’s Muslim minority.

Faisal started a new job in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat in 2013, to run a failing hospital. And already, you might know where this story is heading.

After a few weeks of living in a hotel, Faisal decided to look for an apartment, so his wife and kids could move to Hyderabad to live with him. He hired a broker and began to look at apartments.

“I’d go with a broker, find an apartment I like. [Then] they’d talk in Gujarati saying that they’d get back, and the call never came. This happened multiple times,” Faisal told me.

“Eventually someone on my team said, ‘You will not find an apartment in this area, the community lines run very deep. Because of your religion you are not supposed to live here, you live 10 kilometers from here.’ So I said, OK, I’ll take a look.”

“We go to the area. It’s a ghetto. It’s over a bridge, very nice on the Hindi side, but on this side, it’s a royal muck. I’m told by the broker there, who is a Muslim, ‘All the wealthy Muslims stay over here, because we are supposed to say here.’ So, show me an option, I tell him. He shows me something then asks if I’m a Sunni or Shia. Are you screwing around with me? I say. If you’re Sunni, you get this block, a Shia, that area.”

Faisal was shocked. Maybe he shouldn’t be, but raised by a veteran of India’s highly meritocratic Army, and educated in the United States, he expected more from his country.

“Eventually I found a man who said God dammit, I’m a Gujarati Hindu and I’ll do what I want. We got a ground level apartment in a good neighborhood. Very nice place.” So and his family moved in. “But then I’ll tell you what happened: Every day people put garbage in front of my door; one day a dead pigeon.”

Eventually, the harassment got bad enough that his wife told him a ghetto would be better than their “good neighborhood”. She begged him to move.

At one point, a man claiming to be a top member of the RSS, the far-right Hindu party run by Modi, visited Faisal at his hospital office. “He told me, ‘Hospitals are very difficult to run. I’ve seen CEOs like you get burnt up. I hope bad things don’t happen to you.’”

To his credit, Faisal ran the man out of his office, but he was upset. “Discriminated to the core, in my own country,” he said.

Soon after, the owner of a apartment building next to Faisal’s hospital visited him, wondering if any doctors might like to rent an apartment. “Can I see it? I said to him immediately. So we went to look at it, and it was wonderful. I offered him a lease on the spot. We moved into the apartment.” But now an experienced Gujarat resident, Faisal was smarter. “When I got the apartment, my company made the lease in the company name, which gave the owner cover.” Nobody could claim the Hindu apartment owner knew he was renting to a Muslim – even if he was a hospital CEO.

Fast forward seven years to today: Faisal’s older brother lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and after almost 20 years of living and working in the U.S., he’s decided to apply for permanent American residency, and is attempting to bring his parents along too. This has set off new thoughts for Faisal, of maybe moving to the U.S. himself.

When I met Faisal seventeen years ago, he was so gung-ho on India, that he tried to convince me to move there after graduate school. His persuasion skills are so strong, I almost did. But now, he’s thinks he might want to move to the U.S. Yet, he hesitates because he hears things have changed in the U.S. since he lived here.

“What we hear about America is that is not what it used to be, as a free country, as a place accepting of people of different backgrounds,” he said. “Nobody is going to make me a hospital CEO that’s for sure.”

“If I make this move it’ll not be for myself. I want to bring a better upbringing for my children. What’s going on now, it’s something my wife and I have not seen growing up,” Faisal said.

All around the developing world, there are talented men and women like Faisal who would like to be part of the American dream. Even though racism has come out of the darkness under President Trump, the Faisals of the world still want to come.

We need to change America back to a place where everyone who dreams of a better life can have a chance to build one.

Note: In my original version I mixed up some cities Faisal lived in, originally saying his old job was in Hyderabad. He now lives in Hyderabad, a very accepting city. His struggles with discrimination was in Ahmedabad. He also only has two daughters, not three. This version has been changed to reflect those fixes.

Four Reports From Abroad

The American consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. (From NBC News)

For Americans living overseas, the rest of the world’s reality is difficult to escape, since they’re swimming in it daily. I wondered about those differences and what it’s like to be an American expatriate, so last week I interviewed four friends and family members living overseas: An Episcopalian priest in England, an English teacher in Vietnam, a journalist in Turkey and a teacher in Nigeria. Each one has lived in their current country for a least a year, most have lived overseas for ten years or more.

Most of them spend a good deal of time explaining the allure of President Donald Trump to their foreign friends. My friend Mike Gibson, who works for an English-language news service based in Istanbul, Turkey says, “When people look at what’s going on [in America]. It’s really bad. We’ve basically lost any credibility we might have had, that was tenuous at best. The whole Trump election, it looks awful. It encourages the worst elements,” he says. “It encourages the worst elements in different societies to follow their worst instincts.”

“I get asked the most about Trump. It’s the thing Britons find so confusing,” says Devin McLachlin, an Episcopalian priest living in Cambridge, England. “There’s a large [American] cultural influence [in Britain], so they do find Trump disorienting. It’s creates a cognitive dissonance with what they understand of the optimistic view of American culture.”

They all had fewer reports on foreign views of Trump than they did about than they did about the difference between living in the United States versus in their new home. All of them remarked on how little crime they experience – no matter where they live.

In Lagos, Nigeria, a constantly growing city of 20 million people where my sister Susanna Pav is a teacher at an American School, there’s tremendous income inequality, sometimes within the same block, but that doesn’t translate into crime, like it does in the United States. “There isn’t the same sense of threat of crime. There’s guns and drugs, but it doesn’t feel as unsafe,” as in the United States. “My perception of crime is that it’s much lower because it doesn’t get the same media hype as it does in the U.S. and gun violence against expats is low relative to general population,” she says.

Even though there is is much poverty in Lagos, people are unfailingly polite in surprising ways, Susanna says. For instance, ever-present traffic ”go-slows” caused by people hawking everything from bananas to toilet seats result in people getting out of cars to argue. But Susanna recounted one man stepping out to shout at another driver, “Excuse me sir, did you not see the sign there that tells you to go left? I beg you, why did you not respect the sign?” The politeness can be shocking to how harsh Americans typically act, she says.

Father Devin, a Chicago native who lived in Hyde Park, is floored by the lack of crime in England. “I never see police officers here. Not only are they not armed, they just aren’t there. Even to me it feels underpoliced,” he says. “I went for a hike recently and grabbed a kitchen knife to bring on the trip, and my colleagues were very concerned, because they think about knives a lot here, because they don’t have guns.

“Our gun murder rate is unimaginable to people in Europe. They had a wave of youth violence which amounts to a bad weekend in Chicago. It amounts to how normalized violence has become to me in the city of Chicago. We’ve gotten used to a lot of violence [in the U.S.]”

Mike, who has lived in Istanbul for five years says that even in a country with political violence, he’s barely seen crime. “Turks are easy to get along with. I’ve never been robbed or physically assaulted. Like, we had a military coup!”

For these people living in a different country, It also becomes clear how culture permeates every decision and interaction.

Bill McGowan, an English teacher in Saigon after doing the same in China for eight years, grew up in sunny, suburban Los Angeles with a very non-political family. Now, he feels like he’s had a kind of awakening.

“I think with China and Vietnam and a lot of the Asian cultures, they are collectivist. They’re much more into it together, where the family is most important thing. Whereas looking at America, you can really see how individualistic we are. That has really affected me. American is a more selfish country. In terms of the health care thing: We’re such a rich and powerful country, but we could give a shit about our fellow Americans. ‘I’m going to get my own, screw the rest of you.’ Not to say that doesn’t happen in China or Vietnam. But there, there’s a sense of a group thinking moving forward,” Bill says.

Living in Nigeria, Susanna says she has become acutely aware of wealth. “One of the most striking things [about coming back to the U.S.]  is the size of the cars, the supermarket with twenty different brands of mustard. The consumerism. The space everyone takes up. The houses, the yards, everything is so well taken care of. It’s just dripping with wealth. Even in middle-income neighborhoods. The sense of privilege that you’ll always have these things. It will all be OK.,” she says.

Mike in Istanbul says the Turkish culture of politeness can be very difficult for Westerners to navigate.

“You will hear a lot of foreigners say, ‘The Turks are polite. But you can’t trust them. They don’t do what they say.’ I’ve been here five years, on a thousand occasions, people will say let’s make sure we have dinner that weekend. They are saying that, and it never happens. As a Westerner, my response is, that person is untrustworthy. But the reality is they are just being friendly. The distinction is in how Americans understand the relationship between truth and a lie.

“I think [Turks] think it’s important to be polite and tell people what they want to hear.

“For instance, asking for directions. ‘Do you know where this street is?’ And you can ask three or four Turkish people. They will all get it wrong, but will spend real time trying to explain how to get there, rather than say, ‘No I don’t know where it is.’ They all want to help you try to help you find it, even through they don’t know where it is. They can’t say, ‘No I don’t know where it is.’ They’re all trying to be courteous and helpful. That’s something every Westerner will have encountered here at some point.”

As alien as Lagos might seem to an American, once you get used to way life works, it can be managable, says Susanna, who has lived in Nigeria with her family for almost six years now. “Nigeria is different from other places in Africa, where there is more development. Nigeria is notoriously corrupt, [other countries are] corrupt, but Nigeria really takes the cake…Going out shopping, to the movies, locals are warm, helpful. We never experience hassles for the most part where there shouldn’t be. Every once in a while, we get stopped by a police officer with a machine gun, and they’ll ask us for money. They say like, ‘Hello! Hello! Do you have something for us today?’ And then you pay them and that’s it.”

There’s a flip side to the corruption too Susanna says, by applying a bit of “dash”, what Nigerians call bribes, you can smooth out bureaucratic paperwork, like when clearing customs or brushing aside getting fingerprinted for a new job. “The positive experiences far outweigh those negative ones.”

For all of my ex-pat friends, American identity never fades away, but the reality of where they live has maybe changed what it means to be a patriot.

“[America] is farther away,” says Father Devin in Cambridge. “Which is to say, more uniform than when I was living there. All that diversity does merge together…I’m aware of how particular and peculiar the U.S. is, that vast geography. That sense of being a nation of immigrants and that sort of diversity that you don’t have in the same way here in England, outside of London.”

“It’s home,” Bill, who is living in Saigon, says of America, “But maybe I’m seeing it without the American flag waving behind me, and a hand on my heart.”

The Death of Adventure

Above, the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, where I’ve got to get to at some point.

Lately my idle moments have been spent surfing Orbitz, Hotels.com and every manner of travel website. I’m trying to devise a getaway that satisfies three conditions that are ever at tension with one another: expense, exoticness and time limitations. There is an undefinable, perfect vacation that I imagine for myself, my wife and my ten-year-old son. A place that’s fun for all of us, not too expensive, and reachable within a brief, not-even-a-week time period because she-and-I-have-real-jobs-dammit, that is frankly impossible to achieve, but I still keep thinking about it daily.

Oh, God, I think about it.

It usually takes hold in the mid-afternoon, after lunch and when I have trouble setting myself back to work. “Maybe skiing in Idaho?” I think. And away I go, looking up flights to Spokane in late March or early April, rental cars, lift and lodge packages. But then it either crosses a cost threshold, or a time threshold, “It takes that long to get out there and back? What the heck?” And the whole idea crashes. No getaway for us.

I’ve done this too many times to count. Puerto Rico. New Orleans, Quebec City, Philadelphia, Mexico City, London, Reykjavik, Paris, Chennai, Bangkok, Saigon. Buenos Aires. 

My mind is constantly wandering, wondering: Could we get out there and back in a cost-effective way that would allow us to keep our jobs?

The answer is no, unless…

And arrrgh, the thing that kills my adventurous heart. 

I must plan. Plan many months in advance. 

Killing the dashing adventurer in me, with my passport in the top drawer and Instagram at the ready!

No, instead I must plan.


So, honey, what do you think about a trip to such-and-such?

“Oh, I’m not sure I have enough vacation time left. Eight days in August? Can we afford it?”

Well, how much time do we have to spend with your family for Christmas?

“Let’s not get into that again.”

And so it goes.

In my twenties, every December, Cathay Pacific would advertise, in the Washington PostSunday Travel section, an unbelievable deal. Get yourself to Los Angeles, and then for $999 you could fly from LA to Hong Kong, and then to as many Cathay Pacific destinations as you could fit in during the month of January. It was an open jawed ticket, meaning you just had to show up at the airport, present your ticket stub (this was the 90’s, so stubs were still a thing), and be willing to fly standby to your destination.

I could easily have taken off the month of January. No job was that important! But scraping together $999? Impossible. That was almost three times my monthly rent! The trip never happened.

And now, through the power of credit and cash flow, if such a deal still existed (it doesn’t, I check every year), I would now be obligated to triple the costs (wife and son!) and then have to leave our lucrative, responsible jobs and pull our son out of school.

Is it bad of me to look forward to my son heading to college, already?

There are people who manage to work around this and have amazing vacations.

I think they have either considerably more capital, or killer planning skills.

And so I go back to obsessing…

If I’ve got a trip planned for Thanksgiving, and it’ll cost XX, could I fit in a trip in August, that could cost YY?

Mexico City in summer? Budapest in January? Why doesn’t Orbitz provide a “cheap off-season trips” button?

I am excited to point out that Chicago’s first round of mayoral elections narrowed the choices down to two progressive Black women, Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle. I have been a long-time supporter of Toni. She has achieved an obscene number of boring but essential progressive accomplishments as Cook County Board President, like getting the Cook County Hospital in the black, urging along cash bail reform, putting tens of thousands of people on CountyCare health insurance and more. This is real work from a true progressive. 

But if Lori Lightfoot were to win, I would not despair for Chicago. Both choices will bring our city into a new world. Both prioritize bringing development into our neighborhoods and reversing the cycle of despair so many underserved communities struggle with. Both plan to break the cycle of insider dealing that benefits the haves, over the have-nots.

I’m also ecstatic Melissa Conyears-Ervin is in a runoff for City Treasurer. Melissa, the only MBA in the Treasurer race, wants to focus on turning the Treasurer’s office into a fiscal counter balance to the Mayor, by becoming the source of fiscal analysis of the city books, so we get an accurate portrayal of city government from an independent source, rather than rely on the Mayor to tell us everything and hope that it’s enough information for a good decision.

Election Day, April 2, 2019 is going to be amazing.

I Have No Idea What Happens Next

Thirteen candidates showed up for the January 10, 2019 Chicago mayoral candidate forum! (Credit: ABC7Chicago).

There is one thing I can say for certain about Chicago’s election coming on Tuesday: That there will be runoff elections on April 2 for mayor. That’s unfamiliar territory for people like me, who invest a great deal of energy into trying to figure out what’s will happen next in Chicago politics. With fourteen mayoral candidates, six realistically in the hunt to make it to the runoff, and a likely low turnout, it’s almost impossible to tell who’s going make it to round two.

For decades Chicago has been a political incongruity, touting a weak mayor system on paper but living with a strong mayor system in reality. Yet, looking back on history, that strong mayor system has been unraveling for the last fifteen years. Local Democratic party organizations have disappeared, mayoral endorsements have mattered less, aldermen have bucked mayoral authority in Council votes more often. The drip-drip-drip has led us to this moment, where the outgoing mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is hugely unpopular, unable to endorse a successor and a fractured Cook County Democratic Party won’t rally behind their own party Chair, Toni Preckwinkle.

The 14 candidates offer a spectrum of ideologies and personalities. Bill Daley, brother of the former mayor and President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, is the big business candidate, more fiscally conservative than most. Willie Wilson, an African-American business leader famous for creating a popular gospel song television show, is socially conservative, but is totally unclear on any other policies. And then there’s the former police commissioner, Gerry McCarthy; the scion of a South Side political broker, Jerry Joyce, Jr.; the Latino backroom politico, Gery Chico; the Illinois Comptroller, Susana Mendoza; the police reformer, Lori Lightfoot; and the aforementioned Preckwinkle, backed by liberal service unions and the current Cook County Board President.

There is no lack of talent in the race, and every single one is likely to take Chicago in a totally different direction. While I may find certain aspects of each candidate attractive or objectionable, the electorate at large seems lost without a clear signal of who to support.

How do we choose?

Clearly Chicagoans are overwhelmed. Early voting numbers have dropped, possibly an important indicator since early voting as a percentage of turnout has increased with almost every election, as voters discover its convenience. Does that mean voters are holding off to vote until the last minute? Or are they waiting for the runoff election when their choices are narrowed down? Or are they sick of politics and just opting out of the whole process?

I have no idea.

If Chicago does actually have a low turnout, and people don’t show up in droves to vote Tuesday, whom does low turnout benefit? And will it be just low African-American and Latino turnout, while progressive whites turnout in droves like they did in November 2018?

I could hazard some guesses. For instance, maybe it helps Bill Daley and Susana Mendoza, who enjoy higher white voter support but low overall turnout hurts Toni Preckwinkle, who relies on an African-American base. I have no idea how this would help or hurt Lori Lightfoot, who has been surging lately. Polling I’ve seen shows her support higher among liberal whites who might have problems with Toni Preckwinkle. Maybe higher white turnout helps her? But would it be more or less than Daley or Mendoza?

Hard to say.

Meanwhile there’s about sixteen competitive aldermanic races, out of the 50 wards. That’s fewer than in 2015, which had over twenty. And in this year’s 16 competitive races, maybe eight will go to a runoff. Progressive service unions like SEIU and the Chicago Teachers Union are pouring in cash to help their candidates. But so are conservative trade unions like the Plumbers and Carpenters. And of course developers are too. Given all that money, which candidates will spend their money well versus just spray it all over indiscriminate TV ads and direct mail campaigns?

I don’t know.

I’ve listened to consultants in all kinds of campaigns tell me with absolute certainty they know how things will turn out. That makes sense, since they’re selling certainty, and people quickly forget failures when they’re drowned by the noise of success. But I’m counseling caution, and for candidates and voters alike to act on their conscience.

Candidates: Go as hard as you can as long as you can. You’ll never regret taking action, only the ones you didn’t take.

Voters: Forget who you’re supposed to vote for, and vote for who moves you, if even a little. Chicago will change tremendously with the next mayor, and you’ll likely never have another Chicago election where your conscience will matter so much.

Go vote Chicago. Your voice needs to be heard.

How Do We Decide You’re Enough?

Some postcards I found.

Aren’t you enough?

I don’t really mean you, per se. I mean the plural you. All of you reading this.

Shouldn’t you be enough?

Addressed directly, personalizing the question – I’m now imagining faces and names I know – the answer is obvious. Yes. You are enough. The mere fact that you group of people are interested in reading this is flattering. When you write me emails, or mention in conversation that you like what I’m writing, my face gets warm and I am positively delighted that someone actually enjoys my efforts.

But in the abstract: considering you readers as numbered, faceless masses, of course I want more. I want more Facebook clicks, more email opens, more shares, more you. The more people reading what I write means more recognition, more status, more importance. 

I admit: Not far under the surface lurks a wish that my ticky-tacky writing will find a bigger, broader audience. One that will recognize me as the next, great American voice. One who speaks truth about our world and our souls!

My grandiose dreams seem downright laughable when considering “Middling Industries”. I mean it’s a BLOG for God’s sake. But when considering clicks, opens, shares and all that, how can you not consider the thought? When our personal experiences, our personal interactions are reduced to numbers and metrics, isn’t it natural to wonder, “Wouldn’t it be great if I saw 4,000 shares rather than just two?”

Our social mediaized world has given us piles of metrics with which to judge the velocity of our words. How many people are reading me? Are my cat pics popular? My rant about Trump? Or Pelosi?  Post often enough and you can figure out what’s popular; what people want to see. My Facebook series #wouldyoueatthis has a following, but why aren’t more of you liking and sharing it?

You’re great. But you’re just not enough. It has turned personal communications into a commodity.

Last month I interviewed my friend Ruth Nawrocki, who decided to leave Facebook and social media, because Facebook was, “not actual interaction because your emotions [are] played. You end up feeling exhausted.” She has a point, and I’ve been thinking about her decision quite a bit since then. Why not just quit social media?

I can’t though, because of the kind of work I do, political communications. I don’t feel like I can really afford to leave social media. Too much happens there that I can’t miss. 

But, if I can’t remove the toxicity of social media’s NOWness and commoditization of the personal, what can I do to slow things down, increase my attention to the personal?

Tim Carmody, a veteran blogger at Kottke.org, suggests that back in the 90’s and early naughts the blogosphere engendered a much slower, more considerate environment. While I wasn’t really blogging much then, I did read a lot of blogs (Kottke since 2001, for instance) and I admit, the bloggers and their commenters did create a tight, friendly environment. Two friends of mine, Erin Shea Smith with ejshea.com and Rachelle Bowden with rachelleb.com, have been keeping their blogs since the early naughts (amazing!) and both have made friendships and launched careers because of them.

Personal newsletters have lately seemed to have taken the place of blogs, lately. At least one friend, Andre Natta, has started a great personal newsletter that I love to read, since he’s a genuinely smart guy and just a wonderful person in general. When I read it, I remember why I like to hang out with him so much. And various writers I admire send out somewhat-personal newsletters, like Ed Yong and Tyler Coats

Other professionals I like in media and politics, like Kate Gardiner, Ann Friedman and Nancy Kohn also put out newsletters, but theirs bleeds into the professional, including links to people looking for work, promotion of projects they’re working on and in the case of Friedman, an opportunity to subscribe to a paid version of her newsletter that’s even more professional leaning.

I admire their forthrightness, but then, I’m trying to slow things down, rather than speed them up, right?

Video blogs, an incredible way to express intimacy have exploded in this space. Casey Neistat, the king of personal video bloggers, has been doing it for five years now, with 1.5 million views every other day while his friend `, who blogs from South Africa, gets about a quarter million views weekly. There are plenty of other examples in this space – but I think the pressure to come up with interesting content and then edit it down weekly or daily (!!) squeezes out the realness. Even Simone Giertz, whom I really think highly of for her incredible science empowerment of girls and total honesty in her videos, offers a link to an exclusive t-shirt in her most recent video announcing her brain tumor is back. 

If you like me, click, subscribe, share, buy, join my Patreon. Then, maybe you’ll be enough.


I can’t guarantee that I’m not going to ask you to click, subscribe, share, buy or join my Patreon. But for now, I have a different idea. I’d like to send you a postcard. 

I found a couple dozen European postcards from the 1960’s in my dad’s stuff and I also have some postcards of the Indiana Dunes my grandmother made in the 1960’s. So, I thought I’d send them to you. Email me your street address, and I’ll send you one with a note from me. Then, keep it, or write back! Whatever. We’re going to just share and communicate like humans do, when they can. It’ll be fun!

Thank you for reading. I really do appreciate it.