I Hate Swimming, But I’ll Never Stop

The Welles Park pool in Chicago where I swim. In the summer, the walls slide aside to the open air. On winter mornings, sunlight streams in.

I hate swimming. The act itself is unnatural. Humans are just not built to spend long periods of time submerged in water, holding their breath. Think about the position a person takes in the water: Stretched out, windmilling arms, wiggling legs back and forth. There is no elegance, nothing attractive about it. When a person gets out of the water, their skin is pruny and tender, with hair a complete mess. They’re likely out of breath from holding it for so long.

And yet, I do it three times a week. I don’t think I’ll ever stop swimming if I can help it.

Swimming has changed my life. Since I started going regularly last January, I’ve lost weight, gained energy and for the first time in my life, managed to do something that requires long-term discipline.

Early in the morning I walk three blocks to my local park district pool. I change into my swimsuit, sharing the showers with a pair of very clean homeless men that shower there every morning. I push open the heavy metal door dividing the men’s showers from the pool, drop my ID on the table by the door and plop my towel on the metal bleachers to the right.

Then, I pad to the middle lane – the fast one with people doing freestyle or breast stroke rather than the crawl – and jump in the pool. I take a deep breath, and dive in. Twenty laps on weekdays, thirty seven, one mile, on weekends.

I get into the pool and start swimming as soon as possible. Some people hang out at the shallow end and talk a bit, or psych themselves up. I just go. Waiting is my enemy. If I wait, I’ll think. And when I think, I imagine other things I’d like to do instead of swimming. Instead, I just plunge in, forcing my body to do something it would much rather not.

Now that I’ve been swimming for a while, I’ve gotten to know the characters of my pool. The lifeguards are all interchangable and almost never interact with the lap swimmers. They do set the music on the boombox, which echoes throughout the room and fills your ears when you stop at the end of a lap. Mostly they choose pop stations, but one guy sometimes punches in the classical station, sublime on an early, cold morning. I wish he worked more often.

The swimmers however, are all very different. The first lesson you learn about lap swimmers is: Body type and age is not an indicator of swimming ability. Of course you can imagine some muscle-bound, trim guy or woman splashing uselessly in the pool. But your mind gets bent when a rotund woman in her mid-60’s does a flip-kick off the end, then a dolphin kick into a breast stroke, lapping you twice in five minutes. These are the people who intimidate me.

One of them, a woman I call “blue suit” (I have names for everyone in my mind) is blindingly fast and well into retirement. Sometimes a buddy of hers shows up in a black suit. Together they dominate the fast lane, setting a pace for everyone, so we all go faster, rushing not to keep up with blue and black suits, but to avoid the thing that silently creeps up on you in the pool: The overtake.

The overtake can be a delicate thing during lap swim. Either the person being overtaken stays politely to the right, or they flail arms everywhere, swerving back and forth so the faster swimmer needs to knock them about a bit. When someone like blue suit attempts to overtake Mr. Crawl, then everything goes nuts.

Mr. Crawl is a guy I just hate. He’s probably in his late 50’s, balding, wears a black volley shorts suit. And he does the fucking crawl, a stroke where your arms and legs go as wide as possible, in the fast lane. In my mind, this is an offense of the highest order. The fast lane is where you go fast. So, the crawl? He’s taking so much space, it’s almost impossible to pass. Basically, Mr. Crawl is saying “fuck you” to everyone in the pool, since he’s throwing himself into the pool as a monkey wrench to all of our attempts to keep a rhythm.

Don’t be Mr. Crawl. Go to the slow or medium lanes if you’re doing the crawl.

Now, just because I have strong opinions about my exercise doesn’t mean I’m some kind of pool nut. In reality, I’m a very mediocre swimmer. I swim five laps at a time, because I really start to run out of breath after that. Five laps, break, five laps, break, and so on. I don’t bring a water bottle or use any kind of swimming aide. Just googles, because swimming without them is plain dumb.

Eventually, after my twenty or thirty-seven laps, I pull myself out. Grab my towel and my ID card, rinse off in the shower, change clothes, go outside and walk home three blocks. I’m always super hot and sweaty. I pull out my phone and type my distance into Swimtivity, an app that allows you to enter exercise into the iPhone/Apple Watch activity tracker. I close my exercise circles for another day.

I managed to do it one more time. Even though I hate it.

What Did You Do On Saturday Morning?

Last week over a dozen friends sent me amazing videos from around the world to show what they were doing on their Saturdays.

First, I want to say thank you for taking a risk and getting in front of the camera. It’s scary! But it was great to see your faces. You sent in great stuff!

Second, it was just amazing to see so many scenes from so many places. Many of you sent much more video than I could use.

If there’s anything I got from your submissions, it’s that regardless of the political moment, the world is a big and wonderful place. Your videos allow us to peer into your personal worlds. It was a reminder that, when we think about ourselves, in these mortal coils, our lives may seem humdrum, normal, maybe even boring. But the truth is that we each have wondrous, fantastic existences. Even the most boring, regular things we do can be interesting to someone else.

Thank you for letting us in and giving us a glimpse of your day.

The End of Sympathy And Compromise

Embed from Getty Images

I was raised in a decidedly left-wing family. My mother and father both marched on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr., and when I was a kid, my father practiced an annual ritual of yelling at the TV during President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address.

But my parents, both psychologists, were empathic souls, constantly trying to understand why someone felt a certain way. At the dinner table we spent a great deal of time talking about why people might feel they way they do. Since conversations about politics when I was a kid were less about tactics and more about motivation, I learned my parents’ empathy, so as an adult I often feel as much for political opponents as with those I agree.

This week has been toxic for everyone in America. None of us have been left untouched by the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination fight, and the race to declare our own side more aggrieved – regardless of what side we may claim – has left us all wounded and raw. Kavanaugh’s confirmation is our era’s Bleeding Kansas, with no winners, only losers and survivors more committed to scarring the opposition more than ever before.

Incredibly, we all recognize that the partisanship will only get worse. Like Kansas in the 1850’s, and the European military build up in the 1930’s, a perverse gravity pulls us towards more conflict fueled by the appropriate righteousness of our leaders, colleagues and loved ones injured by wounds both material and spiritual.

The ideologies of our political combat inhabit totally different frames of reference: the army of collective well-being versus the church of personal responsibility. Everything can be viewed through our nation’s First Conflict, where Hamiltonians governed to level the playing field while Jeffersonians pushed government aside to celebrate the triumph of the individual.

Each American era has been caught up in this conflict, from the Whiskey Rebellion, to the Civil War to the Progressive Era battles between unions and Pinkerton agents and the fights between Nixon’s “moral majority” and anti-war protestors.

Our First Conflict will never be resolved. Not because of pettiness or ignorance, but because each viewpoint is propelled by a deep moral philosophy. Gender complementarianism is inherently incompatible with gender workplace equity. Socialized health care and calls for a basic income conflicts with a conservative government of non-interference. Everyone can agree that racism and misogyny is abhorrent, but who is responsible for stopping it? The individual, or the collective?

“It will only get worse,” we all say, with no clear idea of what “worse” really means. We are all aggrieved now, with the most strident among us demanding we “stomp”, “destroy” or “obliterate” our political opposition. Sampling political Twitter, talk radio or cable news is like sampling heroin: The first jolt is exhilarating, but subsequent tastes leave us craving more righteousness, gradually obliterating equanimity, viewing America as nothing more than “us” and “them”. We are all addicts now.

My political beliefs have never been clearer to me, but today I weep for all Americans. Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation is emblematic of our new political reality: Although his ascension is a victory for conservatives, the manner of his confirmation has de-legitimized the new Supreme Court for a wide swath of America, making justice seem unattainable for those who opposed his confirmation.

American political conflict no longer allows for compromise. The Kavanaugh fight has instead told us that we must choose sides and fight to the end, no matter how terrible the result.

Saturday Morning Around The World

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that the American world fell into a shitstorm this week. Rather than write about the big topic we’re all talking about, I want to invite you to be part of something positive, demonstrating togetherness.

Please help make our Saturday Morning Around The World video. Already people from half a dozen countries and from all over the United States have volunteered to be a part of it.

You can get details here. It really shouldn’t take you more than three minutes on Saturday between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. your time, and dang, it would be great to see your face along with all the others. With your help, I’d like to help show that people all around the world, are pretty much the same.

Yes, it’s quaint. And, no, it won’t alter world history. But it will feel good. And it will be cool to show so many great people be a part of it. If you know someone overseas or somewhere in the U.S. that might want to be part of it, please forward this message!

After I get everyone’s clips, I’ll edit it all together and release to you next Friday, October 5.

I can’t wait to see your video! [Here’s the details again.]

Flipping The Script

This week, I’d like to flip the script and ask you to help tell a story. I want to tell the story of 9:00 a.m., Saturday morning of people around the United States and around the world.

Anyone, anywhere can do this! If you have a smartphone less than five years old, you’ll produce broadcast quality video. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. A shot with a greeting from you, family, friends, or whoever you like from wherever you are, in whatever language or manner you choose. Don’t forget to say your name, and where you are.

  2. A second shot where you describe where you are and what you’re doing.

  3. A third shot that shows the area around you and what’s going on.

  4. On top of that, any other kind of shot or shots you like. No more than three minutes of video. It can be just people or cars, or boats going around, you holding the camera while you walk through the neighborhood, or you doing what you usually do on a Saturday morning.

Remember: make sure your shots are steady! Tripods are great if you have one. Also, be sure to keep your camera running for three seconds after you finish your shot – we’ll need that space for editing.

When you’re done, I’ve got a dropbox folder for you to upload video to. Email me at mike@fourcher.netso I can send you the settings.

I’ll edit everything and post it within the next week. I know your video is going to be incredible.

Just A Shell

Lou Fourcher, at Loyola Beach in Chicago, June 2012.

It begins one of two ways, either a call to your cell marked “No Caller ID”, or from that gut-wrenching number from the nurse’s station you’ve memorized.

“Hi, Mike. There’s no emergency with your dad. I just wanted to check in on some things.”

These kinds of phone calls are never good, but they’re better than the alternative, when there is an actual emergency.

“So, we haven’t talked in a bit. But have you taken care of funeral arrangements?”

That isn’t exactly what the social worker said, in fact he never said the word “funeral”. Instead, he said something artful and sympathetic, so you understood the topic without an overt mention of death. But still. The dull pain hits you.

My father, who has been living with Alzheimer’s for twelve years, well, at least since he was diagnosed, is in a nursing home here in Chicago. He isn’t married, and I have no brothers and sisters, so all the calls, all the paperwork comes to me.

And yes, I’m the main one who visits him too, although over the last couple of years I’m ashamed to admit, the visits aren’t that often. But also in the last couple of years he’s been a total vegetable, so I don’t feel like I’m really hurting anyone.

Well, I do feel bad about it, actually. But it’s so complicated. I mean, he’s totally gone now. The details of his current illness are ugly, and my father’s modesty and propriety keeps me from describing how bad things are. So, please take my word for it: He is a shell now. None of the man I, or anyone else once knew, is there.

Gone, all gone. Except for the shell of a being that looks like a person. Except it really isn’t.

And so now, and for the last couple of years, I’ve been responsible for someone that’s really not there anymore. I could tell you all kinds of things about how wonderful a man he was, how loved he was, and how he loved me, his son and only child.

I could tell you about his failures. His two divorces, lost jobs and people tired of his endless crusading.

But at this point it’s all gone. Supported by Medicaid and Social Security, my father eats and breathes in a facility that tends to his bodily needs. A chaplain visits at least once a week, and so does a volunteer that plays CDs of music I know he used to like. His nurses and their assistants are good to him.

I visit when I feel like I can stomach the grief. Which seems less and less often these days. But who, except the nurses and nurses’ assistants would know the difference? Not my dad.

I love him so much.

But I can’t help him. When he was declining, my love made a difference. I knew.

Like when he began to have paranoid freak outs common to Alzheimer’s, I’d stand in the room with him, and hug him. I’d play Earl Hines piano jazz on my phone to distract him. It usually worked. And as painful as it was, the knowledge that I was helping him, being a good son, filled a hole for me.

I felt like I was loving him as well as I could.

But now. The shell.

There’s nothing I can do for the shell.

I miss him so much.

But he’s not gone yet.

I had already taken care of funeral arrangements. I bought a funeral package with his savings before he went into the nursing home.

How I Should Have Seen The Fall Of Alternative Newspapers In 2003

New York City newspaper boxes, April 5, 2016. Source: Flickr/Dumbo711

After years of working in the federal government, the annual conference of alternative newspapers seemed downright decadent to me, and maybe it was. Taking over a downtown Pittsburgh hotel in July 2003, many attendees wore shorts and t-shirts, while evening conference activities included a rave on top a 9-story parking garage slated for demolition, and an awards ceremony emceed by Dan Savage, where every winner had to either take off an item of clothing or do a shot with him. Savage was drunk by the end, but he’d brought two largely naked go-go boys to help him get through the afternoon.

My friend and business partner Steve Sherman and I were in Pittsburgh to meet some alt paper owners and maybe see if we could find an owner interested in selling to us. I was finishing business school after working in the Clinton Administration and was looking for a new cause to take up. Steve, a commercial banker by training, was attracted by the average 25% annual margins many alts were taking in.

In 2003, the future looked bright for alternative newspapers. Led by the Village Voice, Chicago Reader and Phoenix’ New Times, not only were the papers making money hand over fist, but they also retained the patina of counter-culture, with a balance of local muckraking articles, grunge band and art reviews, Dan Savage’s sex advice columns, along with thick classified sections including thinly veiled ads for sex workers.

They were an incredible, heady mix of money-making and cool. How could anyone resist?

It turns out, just about everyone at the conference thought so too and were ready to party down to celebrate. Yet, big changes were lurking on the edges, and Steve and I were earnest enough to want to warn everyone, but not sharp enough to see who and what would be bringing the changes.

Introduced around  earlier in the year by the Madison Isthmus owner Vince O’Hern, by the time we got to Pittsburgh Steve and I had already talked to dozens of alt owners about selling and had looked at the books of at least a dozen publications. There were over 100 alternative papers around the country, most founded in the 1960’s and 70’s, so many owners were looking for a way to sell and sail into retirement. Steve and I saw an opportunity in buying alts, tightening up loose business practices and reenforcing fading journalistic standards to draw in new readers.

But the biggest discovery we’d made talking to alt owners was that alternative newspaper readership was nowhere near the 20-something audience the papers’ counter-culture content led many to assume. In fact, alts’ biggest readership by far was late-40’s to mid-50’s college-educated whites at the time. 20-somethings still read alts, but their interest was soft.

Keep in mind, in 2003, we’d just come out of the first dot-com wave, were still just getting used to the idea of texting, and smart phones were still years away from reality. It was still a paper-based world and Craigslist was still just beginning to rollout from San Francisco.

But from the perspective of alt owners we’d talked to, they were making tons of money and the future was bright. The internet was still mostly dial-up and terrible flip phone apps, so nobody was reading articles online and search was dominated by Yahoo. Still, most alts had at least one “digital editor” on staff, and publishers were trying to figure out where this internet stuff was going. It seemed as if every idea was as good as the last, and conference discussions were open and free-ranging.

Dodging Hawaiian shirt-clad editors and ripped-jeans clad conference-goers, Steve and I desperately tried to pin down publishers and owners of small market alternative newspapers to talk about a sale. We’d put together a couple million dollars of equity from investors, so we could either buy a couple small papers or one medium-sized one. O’Hern, who became a believer in us after we went through his books and helped him make a couple hundred thousand dollars more while keeping our hands off his editorial team, was making introductions for us.

A few owners politely listened, a handful welcomed follow up discussions requesting absolute secrecy. But the vast majority of owners outright rejected us, saying, “Who are you anyway? You don’t work in the newspaper business!”

It was shocking to us, since at the time every single one of the alt paper owners had started their anti-establishment publications from scratch, with little to no previous newspaper business. Now that they were the establishment, alt owners wanted credentials. But outside of our work for The Isthmus and our M.B.A.s, we had none.

As we sat and listened to conference sessions we were staggered by the general lack of forward thinking. The Big Internet Sensation everyone at the conference talked about was a web page created by The Reader that showed all the Chicago zip codes in their delivery area. It had become a traffic magnet since it was one of the few places online that mapped Chicago ZIP codes. Everyone ooh-ed and ahh-ed at how such a simple idea became a great web traffic draw.

Print at conference was given much more credibility than digital. Of course back in 2003 a small percentage of people were surfing the web, but even so, it took a lot of work to ignore the digital future. And yet…the conference hosted innumerable sessions on print design, and only one session on digital. The one with the Chicago ZIP code map.

Being young, I took rejection from alt owners and backward thinking as evidence that I needed to try harder to get their attention. I just lacked an opportunity.

My chance came in a conference session labeled “The Future of Alternative Audiences” or something like that. It was a panel discussion with about 100 or so editors and publishers listening and asking questions. I clearly remember the panel members kept dancing around the fact that their audiences were getting older. Ad revenues were steady, and music venues still placed ads, so there was no real problem, was the gist of it.

O’Hern, sitting a few rows away from me in his own Hawaiian shirt, raised a hand and was called on. Bestowed with a massive brush mustache, hirsute arms and a “dees and does” accent, O’Hern commanded the room when he stood to speak. And then he began to talk about me and the work Steve and I had done for him, and that everyone should listen to us. Then O’Hern stood me up and commanded, “Tell them something they should know, Mike.”

Rifling through my brain to come up with something good, I squared my shoulders and looked around the room as I said something like: “We’ve been doing research for the last year. Your audiences are getting older and your brands are becoming associated with middle aged people. You need to either rebuild your pubs with content for younger people or launch new ones to address younger audiences.”

My speech was as popular as a Nixon campaign button for this room of middle-aged counter-culture warriors.

There were a couple of boos, and more than a few people clucked their tongues. But maybe that’s just my memory covering up the dark, dank silence that met my words. I had come to the big party of successful alts to just dump a big pile of shit on them.

Walking out of the session, Vince said, “I think you did great. They need to hear this stuff,” and truthfully, a couple of owners did seek me out to ask more questions, but I certainly hadn’t endeared myself to anyone.

That night Steve and I went out and got hammered and decided that if we were ever going to get an alternative newspaper to sell to outsiders like us, it would be sheer luck.

What we didn’t know then was that around the same time, the owners of the Village Voice in New York, New Times in Phoenix and Creative Loafing in Atlanta were teaming up with private equity firms to buy other alts. Just like us, the private equity firms also saw a huge opportunity in those 25% annual returns, but unlike us, they came armed with much more money and access to tremendous bank debt.

Over the next four years, almost every alternative newspaper in the United States changed hands, most going to either Village Voice Media, New Times Media or Creative Loafing Inc. As Steve and I made calls to alt owners looking for a seller, we heard stories of huge payouts to founders. The new media groups were doing big leveraged buyouts, offering many times more than current revenues as they planned to grow audiences with digital and increase returns with better operations. It was pretty much the same playbook Steve and I had, except we wanted to target a younger demographic and didn’t have access to the same amount of cash as the private equity firms.

Quickly, Steve and I were pushed out of the game by the big boys.

For us, it turned out to be a good thing, since Craigslist came roaring across the country in 2005 decimating alternative newspapers’ huge classifieds business. Then, after the economy crashed in 2008, print display ads crashed too. By 2009, the one-two punch had eviscerated alternative newspaper groups, forcing asset fire sales and layoffs around the country. It didn’t help that most of the papers still lacked strong digital strategies – and their audiences kept getting older while younger readers started using growing digital arts & entertainment sites like Metromix and Time Out to plan out their weekends.

I’d like to say that Steve and I saw it coming back in 2003. But the magnitude of the crash, the death of alts around the country was just too big to conceive back then. Sure, we thought owners were misguided and headed for trouble, but the death of The Village Voice? Impossible!

And right there is the crux of it: As much as you might believe a daily or weekly newspaper is a pillar of our community, that has nothing to do with the strength of its financial foundation and whether or not enough people think it’s worth paying for.

For too long, people in the news business have been dining out on their own legend: That newspapers are critical, important heros we should all honor and value. But the thing is, average people just aren’t paying attention unless you’re producing something interesting.

The signs were there in 2003: Alternative newspapers were attracting fewer new readers with interesting, valuable content. But those of us who cared about them were too in love with them to see the beginning of the end.

Going Deep On Vacation

Every summer Teresa, Nicolas and I take a week vacation right before school starts after Labor Day. This year I tried to think hard about what the time off means for me, and for the rest of my family.

I’ve tried to capture some of what we did on our trip, which ends tomorrow, and to get a bit of what each of us think about our time away from reality. If you like what you see, please subscribe to my channel.

What The Road Forward Looks Like

Capitol Hill sunset, September 14, 2014. Source: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Congressional Republicans are not going to impeach Donald Trump.

Let’s be straight up about that. Polling continually shows the GOP base still believes everything from the Mueller investigation is either a lie or irrelevant. So among Republican senators and representatives, there’s almost no appetite for an impeachment trial.

Democrats may take control of both the House and the Senate this fall, but only under the craziest circumstances will Democrats take more than a narrow majority in the Senate. A successful impeachment requires a majority vote in the House and a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Just like with Bill Clinton in 1998, a Trump impeachment would likely fall along party lines and fail in the Senate.

The Democrats will not have enough votes to impeach Donald Trump.

But oh! Mueller will report out a devastating list of crimes committed by Trump and GOP members will get a backbone!

Yes he will, and no they won’t. Because here’s what we should expect:

The Mueller investigation will grind on, maybe even send Don Trump, Jr. and others to jail.

Democrats will take the House by a significant margin this November, and maybe a slim majority in the Senate. Immediately upon taking legislative control, Democrats will be consumed by a left vs. center party battle, where the former wants to impeach and the the latter wants to pass meaningful policy. Congress lurches from stalemate to forward motion on both policy and impeachment.

Trump, under intense legal pressure, continues to be awful. Tears apart international relationships, hurls needless insults at Democrats, holes up in the White House, basically talking to nobody that isn’t a far right toady.

Republican legislators interested in political survival (which will be most) will be forced to choose one of two positions: Rally under Trump, hurling more insults at Democrats or try to become invisible, hoping to can position themselves as moderate in the 2020 elections.

And then the 2020 elections, which will become an even more massive referendum on Donald Trump. The Republican Party will eat itself alive, while a broad field of Democratic presidential primary candidates, maybe the most racially and gender diverse in history, will compete to be the most non-Trump offering.

Finally, in the general election, Donald Trump will be, incredibly, the nominee, because the GOP base will still stick with him to the end, becoming more raucous and bile-filled than ever before. Trump rallies become outright dangerous for press to attend, and all the white nationalist crazies will come out of every crack, maybe even mounting physical attacks.

Americans of every stripe will be pulled into participating in the 2020 election, recognizing it as a fight for survival. There will be right wing violence, left wing too. American elections will begin to look like something from 1980’s Italy where polling places are raided by barely-legal or extra-legal “election monitors”. Voter suppression will be at an all time high. Latinos and black people in rural areas will be targeted and maybe killed.

And then? I don’t know.

I hope a majority of America comes to its senses and votes out Trump. But maybe not.

But even if Trump is voted out, the transition will be ugly. Trump will cast doubt on the electoral process we’ve held sacred all these years, and America will be forever scarred.

It’s only going to get worse.