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.

Maybe.

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.

This is the place.

Our house, before and after we got new siding in 2011.

I live on the top floor of a two-flat on a leafy street, just a few doors from Western Avenue, one of Chicago’s main drags. Chicago’s Elevated train runs behind the houses across the street from me, and Western Avenue has an L train stop, so in the summer when our windows are open, we can hear the electronic “bing-bong” of the train as the driver warns riders to get on before the doors close.

Covered in stucco when we bought it thirteen years ago, we switched it to blue clapboards with grey trim eight years ago, after some of the stucco slid off the house. The new color is still sharp, and makes our house standout on the block, I think. We still have the original, grungy front porch though, which provides plenty of space for sitting on both the first and second floors. In summer nights, my wife, Teresa, and I like to sit on the upstairs front porch, feel the breeze and listen to couples talking as they walk beneath us. 

Most of the houses on our block are two or three-flats, occupied by renters. We’re one of the few owner-occupied homes, so my wife and I haven’t gotten to know many of our neighbors. But the Bakers live right next door, and their two kids are about my son, Nicolas’, age, so in warmer months, they play outside or run back and forth between each other’s houses. 

So much of our lives are centered on our neighborhood within a few square blocks. Nicolas’ public school is just two blocks away. Only in fourth grade, he walks to school on his own every day. A nearby park hosts Nicolas’ little league baseball. I swim laps in the fieldhouse there three times a week. Teresa attends a weekly art class a couple blocks away, across the street from a first-run movie theater. Every month I go to a book club with some neighborhood dads in a bar just down the street. And perhaps my favorite feature, I can walk to my neighborhood grocery store, where the owner every year sells me a trussed up pig for my birthday pig roast.

It’s idyllic and hard to believe that we live in a big city with these kinds of amenities. When we were engaged, we talked a lot about where we would settle down and chose the city more for ideological reasons than anything else, I think. We believed the city was where humanity was trying hardest to solve societal problems, and where we would most likely be challenged by people and cultures unlooked for. 

While we get some of that where we live, I more often just find myself ambling from place to place, getting to know the various shopkeepers and characters of the neighborhood. We’ve woven ourselves into the community, by coaching little league, volunteering for our local public school, making local friend groups. 

Truthfully, we stumbled into our situation. Teresa and I started looking for a house to move into almost as soon as we got back from our honeymoon. It was a long and arduous process, since we had a specific price target and a long list of demands: To be in the city, near a rail line, a big park and with a backyard and parking. For months our Saturdays and Sundays were consumed by reviewing listings and visiting homes. I didn’t keep track, but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that we walked through forty or fifty homes.

When got to the house we’re in now, it was in sore shape. Many of the windows were broken, it had poor insulation, the garage was collapsing, the house had original electric from the 1920’s and many of the rooms were filthy. But, my wife the architect, after examining everything carefully said, “It has great bones.”

Indeed, “the bones” were good, and the neighborhood was exactly what we were looking for. But I was squeamish because it needed so much work, and if we rented out the bottom floor, we’d have barely over 1,000 square feet of living space. We didn’t have kids then, but it was easy to imagine how the house could fill up quickly.

“This is the place,” our Realtor said, leaning in to me to make his point clear. “You’re not going to find anything better.” After forty houses, he was probably right.

We’ve poured money into our house ever since, and still rent out the bottom floor. We’d love the extra space, but the extra income too hard to give up. Meanwhile our neighborhood’s average income has raced ahead of us as numerous two-flats have been converted to single-family luxury homes. At one point last year, five houses on the block surrounding us were listed for more than $1,000,000. Hard to believe.

The rising prices has changed the kind of neighbors we have. When we moved in, it was a smattering of white professionals in a soup of Latino, Italian, Greek and Serbian families, mostly working class, many retired. 

Before it collapsed, we took down our garage, giving us a clear view of the alley, and people in the alley, a good view of our back yard, where my wife and I are usually found on summer weekends. Frank, an older gentleman with a thick Italian accent and a button-down sweater he’d wear no matter what the weather, would walk up and down the alley on summer afternoons, looking for useful junk people might have thrown away. He lived down and across the alley from us, and after talking with him a bit, we learned that he owned four different houses on the block, acquired through probate court over the years. 

Frank was paleolithic in his attitude. He’d stop and talk about all kinds of ancient things in the neighborhood, and how women should behave. Once, he was walking past us as Teresa and I were working in the yard. Teresa was trying to get my attention as I was working intently on something, so I said something like, “Can you hold on, Sweetheart? I’m trying to do this.” 

Frank, hearing this, immediately chimed in, “That’s the ladies!” Then, moving his hand like it was talking, “Yappita-yappita-yappita!”

Looking up, I said, “Yep! That’s it, Frank!” then looked pleadingly at my wife. She made a gagging motion, I think.

The old ones have moved on or died. Frank’s junk-stuffed garage no longer houses an illicit wine-making operation, since a nephew or somebody related came by to clean it out one weekend. We haven’t seen Frank in years. He’s probably passed on.

I haven’t really gotten to know many of the new neighbors. Most of them either don’t have kids, or their kids are a different age from mine. It’s lazy, I know, but kids are the major way I’ve gotten to know most people in my neighborhood. They’re a natural social lubricant, since kids are able to just walk up to another kid and start playing.

The area around my house is full of this kind of kid stuff. Halloween is gangbusters for trick or treaters, kids hang out at the elementary school park nearby, and going to the little league games us adults horn in by hanging out with all kinds of neighbors. Bring a bottle of wine, some chips and a blanket to the game. You’ll have plenty of people to hang out with.

I suppose none of this is remarkable, you may have a very similar kind of story about where you live. But for me, it is a kind of warmth and inclusion I never anticipated when I was a young man trying to imagine my middle-age years. Growing up in fast-gentrifying Lincoln Park with my mom, or crime-ridden Hyde Park with my dad, neither I, nor my parents felt the kinds a connection to their communities we experience today.

As strongly bound to the neighborhood I feel today, I wonder how tenuous it is in the long run. Will we feel this way once my son moves out for college? What about if my grocer retires? My dry cleaner? What if a new crop of rich idiots moves in?

I feel like I’m in the middle of a good ride right now, and I don’t know how long it’ll last. Maybe a couple years, maybe forever. Let’s hope for the latter.

‘I wasn’t really an activist – I just learned a lot.’

Embed from Getty Images

Far, far in the back, there’s Lou Fourcher.

Last month my father, Lou Fourcher, passed away after a fourteen-year struggle with Alzheimer’s. Since then, our family has been going through old papers and photos, rekindling our memories of him. Last week, my aunt, Charlene, found a printed copy of this old email exchange between my father and his niece, my cousin, Abby, who was working on a high school report on the Civil Rights Movement in 2001. 

From a small New England town and the first in his family to go to college in 1961, my dad was quickly swept up by the civil rights movement. Although he was far from important, he was one of thousands who participated. Dad response to Abby’s questions remind me of ha many war veterans talk about their war experience – I was just one of many, it was no big deal compared to others. And yet, there he was, doing his part.

Dad was incredibly modest, throughout his entire life. It is as remarkable to read how much he downplayed his role, as it is to understand how far he pushed himself to live in the shoes of others. 

Abby, although she was just sixteen or so, asked some really good questions. I’ve made a couple grammatical fixes, but most of what’s here is how he wrote, eighteen years ago, about his experience.

Subj:    Civil Rights Movement Interview

Date:   1/14/2001 11:55:53 PM EST

From: Fishy333

To:       LAFOURCHER

Hi Uncle Lou,

How are you? I’m pretty well. Anyway, thank you for agreeing to do this. My assignment is to interview someone who lived through an important event in U.S. history, such as the Civil Rights Movement. Mom told me that you were involved with the Civil Rights Movement, so I figured that you would be an excellent person to interview. I will list my questions below and you may answer them whenever you have time. Feel free to omit any questions that you don’t know or don’t want to answer, but for those that you do answer, please write as much as youcan.

Thank you,

Abby

1. What made you decide to become active in the Civil Rights Movement? Was there something that happened or someone that influenced you in particular?

I don’t think I was ever an “activist” in the Civil Rights Movement. However, there were some early experiences that probably helped me to be tolerant and curious about people who were not “white .” My parents, despite the old prejudices of their pasts, were certainly accepting of the very few black playmates I had. Then there was Jerry, an older Jewish kid on our block (he was probably 16 at the time); I remember hearing him telling a couple of us – with anger and tears – how local business people wouldn’t hire him for summer work because he was Jewish. That affected me. Sometime in 1960-61, when I was in high school, there was young African-American man (Rev. Woody White) who had come to our church in New Bedford to be the “Assistant Minister.” He was studying theology in Boston and would come down on weekends. I guess he was the “youth” minister. He won over the group of teens at church pretty well. But one day he said that he and a fellow student were going to picket (or sit-in if possible) at the local Woolworth’s in New Bedford – todemonstrate solidarity with the people who were sitting in stores and lunch counters across the South. He invited all of us in the youth group to join him the following Saturday. I really wanted tojoinhim but I had to ask my parents.Of course, they had heard the news reports from theSouth; they were scared, they thought it might be dangerous, and there were those old prejudices.We argued – I argued – a lot;it was probably the worst disagreement we had had. It changed me. But I was a church-going “good” kid and I obeyed my parents. As it turned out none of the other kids wenteither.

Perhaps as a way of compensating for my non-participation in the Woolworth’s demonstration, I began to think about organizing – again through the church (and with Woody’s support) – a kind of conference on civil rights and racial tolerance. joined with another teenager, David (from another church), and an old and wise minister and leader of the local “interfaith council.” Together we managed to get several hundred teen-agers – Protestants, Catholics and Jews in an auditorium to listen to mostly adults talk about race. It was a pretty good event – lots of good talk.

Perhaps as a way of compensating for my non-participation in the Woolworth’s demonstration, I began to think about organizing – again through the church (and with Woody’s support) – a kind of conference on civil rights and racial tolerance. joined with another teenager, David (from another church), and an old and wise minister and leader of the local “interfaith council.” Together we managed to get several hundred teen-agers – Protestants, Catholics and Jews in an auditorium to listen to mostly adults talk about race. It was a pretty good event – lots of good talk.

2. (I switched this question to keep the chronology straight.) Mom also mentioned that you participated in the March on Washington. When did this occur? What was it like? Who did you go with? What did you hope to accomplish by participating in it? Do you think that you did accomplish your hopes? How does it feel to have participated in such a significant event of U.S. history? Did you hear Martin Luther King’s speech? What was listening to his voice like? Did it influence you? How?

At the end of my sophomore year in college (Bowdoin), I was looking for something “different” to do that summer (1963). I volunteered for a job working with “inner city kids” in New Haven, CT, under the auspices of a big old Episcopal Church. I was not a great “youth worker” but I learned a lot. Much of my time was spent with Black kids living in the local public housing – not far from Yale. There were gang fights that I would hear about the next day; there was lots of tension between Blacks and Italians – the old Italian neighborhood was shrinking… The church had a basketball team that was quite famous – they had won something like their last 40 games. Their coach was this very earthy Italian guy who gained the respect of these young black guys most of whom lived in the “projects.” But for some reason, when I arrived he decided to quit. It became my job to take over the team though I knew nothing about coaching basketball. I was not popular with the team. Nevertheless, a game was scheduled with a very tough team on the lower East Side of New York . I drove someone’s Volkswagen bus and the assistant pastor at the church drove the remainder of the team as we tried to find our way to a blacktopped basketball court somewhere on the East Side. We did; I tried to be coach-like, but the older guys on the team knew better what to do; so I mostly cheered them on. The team lost its first game in years… [The New York team came up to New Haven several months later…and we won.] At the end of the summer, the head pastor (Priest?), who was very active in civil rights, asked me to join a large New Haven group who were going to “March On Washington.” We went by train – it was dubbed the “Freedom Train.” On it were hundreds of people, just a few of whom I had met in passing during the summer. In our car was William Sloan Coffin, a pretty famous minister-activist who was the Chaplain at Yale. It was my first trip to D.C. It was very hot; and there were lots of people; and it was very exciting. I ended up with some of the people from New Haven that I had met, but we were a long, long way from the Lincoln Memorial (which is where I think the speeches were made (but maybe it was the Capital steps…). I do remember being moved by King’s speech (over loudspeakers in the trees of the Washington Monument park). There was certainly a sense of history being made that day, but I was probably more overwhelmed with the size and momentousness of the event than I wasinspired.

I had arranged that on the train back to New Haven I would get off in Penn Station in New York City to go to a conference on Religion and the Arts at Columbia (arranged for me again by the Pastor in New Haven). I mention this because at the conference there were two Black students at Morehouse College in Atlanta who had met some Bowdoin students who had visited for a couple of weeks. They talked about setting up a real exchange of students between the two colleges. This interestedme.

3. Mom mentioned that you attended Morehouse College, an all-Black school, for one semester as an exchange student. Where is Morehouse College located? What year did you attend this school? How was this school different from all-White schools? Which school did you like better? How did the other Morehouse students treat you? What was it like when you returned from Morehouse to your regular school? Were you ridiculed by anyone when they learned you were going to spend a semester at Morehouse? How did your experience at Morehouse influence you?

Lou Fourcher’s Morehouse College student ID.

In the Fall of 1963 there was a whole process of applying to be an exchange student at Morehouse (not very many people applied…). I was very pleased to be accepted (and my parents were supportive). Unlike Bowdoin, Morehouse was on a Quarter system; so I got to be a student there for two ten week terms from January to June of 1964. Morehouse was, like Bowdoin at the time, an all men’s liberal arts school attended largely by middle class students. Unlike Bowdoin it was surrounded by several inter-related schools – including the women’s school, Spellman College. The facilities were not as good as Bowdoin’s; there was less money. But there were some very good teachers. One especially, Mr. Campbell (who taught Shakespeare and took groups of us to movies that we later critiqued) had a great effect on me. The place, in many ways, was in the center of civil rights activities. M.L King, Jr. preached at his father’s church which was a walking distance from the school. King senior was on the Board of the School. Its President at the time was Benjamin E. Mays). I did get to hear King preach a couple of times; I met a young activist (perhaps 2 or 3 years past his graduation from Morehouse), John Lewis, who has been a Congressman from Atlanta for quite a few years. He was famous for being in the think of many sit-ins, demonstrations, etc. Julian Bond. another Morehouse graduate who later became mayor of Atlanta, spoke to us a couple of times. But most impressive were the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) people who we met and learned from as we joined them on several demonstrations in Downtown Atlanta. Like John Lewis they were the real activists – in Atlanta and across the south. Imagine these very preppy looking white guys from New England, standing on a sidewalk in downtown Atlanta getting taught to hold tight to your fellow demonstrators’ hands in order to avoid the powerful shock of the cattle prods used by restaurant and store owners (and police I think) to discourage sit-in demonstrators. I never got shocked – we usually left the restaurant when the police were called.

Atlanta was going through incredible change. There were integrated restaurants popping up all over, but there were still plenty of segregated places. There was this one segregated restaurant, a very famous place in one of Atlanta’s neighborhoods. It was run by Lester Maddox who was famous for having a weekly “advertisement” in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper that really was a vehicle for him to comment (negatively) on the civil rights movement, promote segregationist ideas, and generally comment on politics. Early one weekend morning several of us, both Bowdoin and Morehouse students, had been told that there was going to be an attempt to demonstrate at many restaurants simultaneously at once around the city that very day. Actually, our information was bogus, there were no other demonstrations. Nevertheless, about eight of us decided that we would go to Lester Maddox’s famous fried chicken restaurant. We went in two cars – the drivers (wisely, it turned out) stayed in the cars; the rest of us went to the main door – but got no further. There was immediately lots of yelling and threats. Mr. Maddox was giving orders. The black help at the restaurant seemed to be pretty well versed in what to do with demonstrators – out came these wooden axe handles – yes, axe handles (big axe handles). We stupidly kept standing there saying we wanted to eat… Then there was this old maid on a balcony across the street yelling out something like “Go get ’em Lester, get those “nigger lovers.” By then we were already backing off and yelling to the drivers of the cars – the restaurant guys were bringing out a big fire hose and one (at least) picked up a brick (and threw it and more) as we retreated to the cars – flying around the parking lot with doors open and us trying to get away…One thing we learned that day – civil disobedience is a serious thing – not a game. I think it was in the early 70’s that Lester Maddox became governor of Georgia.

I never really was able to express what I felt during those times. Later I kind of expressed it with my actions. Otherwise, I’ve pretty been inarticulate about the feelings that I must have had, and the things I saw in Atlanta, the transportation system was pretty much officially integrated, but most white people still sat in the front of the bus. On my first bus ride there I went to the back of the bus – no big deal for the black people sitting there, but I felt like I crossed over some very strange boundary). Well there’s a memory I haven’t had since then!

4. Did you participate in any sit-ins? Where? When? Were you afraid that you might be arrested? Did you know anyone who was arrested? Were you afraid you might be hurt? Can you tell me anything else about thesit-ins?

I sort of answered this above, but… yes, I was pretty much afraid at each demonstration (though I never thought my life was in danger (accept maybe at Lester Maddox’s place). I participated probably in five demonstrations while there. Though I must admit I was pretty self-conscious at this very nice downtown “integrated” restaurant – whenever a mixed group of us would enter it, the place would go silent for a fewminutes…

5. What other kinds of protests did you participate in? How did you feel when you protested? Scared? Nervous? Powerful? Benevolent?

I participated, but, again, I wasn’t really an activist – I just learned a lot.

6. Does your experience during the Civil Rights Movement still affect you today? Do things that happen around the world today remind you that time? How does it make youfeel?

Yes, it has affected me and how I think. I was the clinical director of a mental health center in Skokie, Illinois which has a very much white population about 35% of which is Jewish. Our staff make-up reflected the population (though not our clientele). I felt good about hiring the first black person to thestaff.

Later I was the Executive Director of a Community Health Center [Ed. Note: Erie Family Health Center] (several sites) in a largely Hispanic community – actually there were several communities – some largely of Mexican descent; then there was a large Puerto Rican population as well as many different nationalities from Central America.I felt very good about working well with various community groups, opened our facilities up for community meetings, etc. Because we were concerned about AIDS in these populations, we joined with a new community organization to form a the “Hispanic AIDS Network” which did HIV education and preventive work on the streets (especially with drug addicts). I was proud to be the Treasurer of thatorganization.

Then there were clashes between Hispanic and black gangs on the West Side – they would have battles in Humboldt Park – the blacks came from the south of the park and Hispanics from the north. Our clinic site – the “Humboldt Park Health Center” – was on the north end of the park and it was dominated by Hispanic patients and Hispanic staff. Black mothers were afraid to bring their kids to the clinic because they would have to cross a (symbolic) boundary. I got some of our staff to start planning a new “satellite” clinic in south Humboldt Park. We hired black staff, and finally got space in a school. It still functions.

7. Do you think that the U.S. has pretty much dissolved racial discrimination since the Civil Rights Movement? If no, where do you most often see racial discrimination? What do you think can be done to eliminate racial discrimination?

I think there is still plenty of discrimination. But the worst of it is experienced by poor people. Middle class people are discriminated against (there are still plenty of scared, ignorant people who will respond to people they know little about with stereotypes and anger). But black people (and to a great extent Hispanics) in cities deal with a state of poverty that has evolved over many years in which for example, many jobs were lost because of the closing down of large unionized industrial companies (i.e., good paying blue collar jobs) and economically integrated neighborhoods were destroyed because of the process of integration which brought middle-class blacks out of the poor neighborhoods – leaving them all the poorer. This is the case in Chicago and several of the old “rust belt” cities. So, in some neighborhoods there are huge numbers of young (teen­ age) single mothers, kids still in gangs, many young men in jail for drug offenses, crummy schools, and some neighborhood that are so poor that the local McDonald’s can’t survive. I worked as director of another community health center in such a poor community [Ed. Note: New City Health Center, in Englewood] – it wasn’t really a community – it was a place where I might see (out of my second story office window) a young boy on a bike at noon time, stop for a moment, take aim with a large pistol, fire it at some other kid down the street and then disappear down an alley…

8. Is there anything that you wish you had or hadn’t done during that time? What would you have done differently?

I wish I had paid attention more. Much, much more happened in New Haven or Atlanta – or even on the west side of Chicago – when I was around, but I was often paying attention to the small stuff – what movie to go to, watching the 10- o’clock news, etc…l didn’t really understand that the news was happening around me.

9. How did the Civil Rights Movement affect you overall? Who or what was the most influential part of the Civil Rights Movement in your opinion? Why?

Perhaps it was my age (around 13), but Jerry’s tears and anger at not being hired for a summer job because he was Jewish has stuck with me as much as any events since. The “Movement” for me was some of the people I met and respected. I think it led me to choosing the various community health care jobs that I’ve had over the years in Chicago.

10. Please write anything that you can think of pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement that I have leftout.

You asked some good questions. I think l’ve waxed a little biographical, but I hope some of the historical stuff is useful.

Well, that’s it! Sorry for any misspelled words or unclear questions. I appreciate you taking the time to write as much as you can. Thank you once again.

Thanks for asking. It was fun!

[Final Note: Incidentally, my mother, Barbara Ireland, and her father Paul, were at the March too, but Barbara and Lou were not to meet for another two years.]

Finding The Mindset For Major Personal Change

Sometimes an RV is bigger than a house. Rob and Susanna’s RV before they left Denver for good.

I’ve become fascinated with people who actually make major life changes after 40. It’s expected that in our twenties and thirties that we might move to a new city, start a new career, or commit to a life-long relationship. But people who manage to make those kinds of changes later in life seem braver than the rest of us.

As we get older, and collect the life baggage we call kids, mortgages and careers, it becomes harder to consider big changes, let alone actually make them. Stability becomes a kind of shield against the world’s ills, encouraging us to do whatever we can to make sure things stay the same.

So, recently I interviewed three friends who’ve made major life changes to learn why and how they did them. Rob, who convinced his wife to sell their suburban Denver home and trade it in for an RV and a year of driving around the United States. Sandra, who created a plan five years ago to retire early, and recently left her lucrative civil engineering job in Chicago to retire at age 50. And Ruth, who, despite a passel of kids in Western Massachusetts and friends around the world she loves, decided to stop using Facebook.

Rob, Sandra and Ruth each made changes I’m not sure I could undergo. But each person says they feel secure and happy with their choice and can’t imagine doing anything different.

Until last month Rob and his wife Susanna lived in a 4,000 square foot house outside Denver, with a view of the mountains. Rob was an urban planner in Thornton, Colorado, while Susanna managed a federal grant program. They lived in a friendly community, and their five-year old son, Rafe, was happy.

But something just didn’t seem right for either Rob or Susanna. “We started thinking from a materialism point of view. Why do we need all this stuff?” said Rob.

Filling a big house with possessions, climbing the career ladder, and living far away from family (Rob’s parents live in far-upstate New York, while Susanna’s live in New Mexico) was just not fulfilling. Sitting outside with a friend one day, Rob realized, he wanted to leave Denver. And then talking about it later with Susanna, Rob suggested selling everything and moving into an RV for a year. 

Susanna was not against the idea. Her job was coming to a close in early 2019. Maybe this was an opportunity, they realized. “I think we were done with Denver after 25-plus years,” said Rob. “It took from the end of June to August 1 for us to commit to the idea.” 

Since the Denver housing market is booming, Rob and Susanna sold their house at a big profit, allowing them to buy the RV and keep their retirement savings safe. They sold or donated most of their household items (“One place had to close for two days to process everything we gave them,” said Rob. “We had enough stuff to create six starter kitchens for refugee families coming to Colorado.) and put the rest into a 10×15-foot storage unit.

“I had 45 button-down shirts. Thirty-eight hats. Why do I have all that stuff? I believe I still have half of them, because I haven’t been able to get through them. I must have had 20-plus jerseys. It’s ridiculous. You collect,” said Rob.

At the start of December, they moved into their 28-foot Winnebago RV, and drove to Albuquerque, to stay with Susanna’s parents for a while. Later they’ll drive across Texas to Florida, then up along the Atlantic Coast, stopping to visit friends along the way. By fall they want to end up in Cairo, New York, to visit Rob’s parents, who owned a dairy farm there.

“We are focused on our son’s life now. Time on organic farms, digging in the dirt. I want him to ride his bike. Dial down the electronics and working on becoming respectful, with more face-to-face time and learning how to do things,” said Rob.

They made plans for a year, since Rafe would normally start first grade next year, but Rob and Susanna are maybe up for homeschooling. 

“I am a fan of unschooling,” said Rob. “I would be stepping further into experiential learning. I feel between Susanna and I, Rafe can get what he needs without the benefit of public education. What would be underserved would be socialization. We might enroll him in classes just to spend time with other kids.”

“There is no set end time on this adventure,” said Rob. “There will be a significant amount of time at the Larsen homestead. And then we’ll go to Canada, and then to Alaska, because Rafe has been talking about Alaska.”

Ruth has two boys, aged 15 and 10, and one girl, 13. A part-time English as a Second Language teacher today, Ruth served in the Peace Corps in Albania and Romania right after college, and ever since I’ve known her those in college years, she’s managed to keep a broad collection of friends from every corner of the world. 

But then last month she decided to stop using Facebook and delete her account. Her reasons why are excellent, so let me just transcribe what she said to me on the phone recently.

“They [Facebook] have the winning formula for keeping you as a customer. It’s not a normal service they’re offering. They’re selling you your own life; your emotions. You’re so invested emotionally: your pictures, recipes. Your life: it’s all there. Without it, you’re potentially throwing away anything you might see again. ‘I might not be able to find that friend again.’ They have people as captives, because people can’t break away.

“But I decided to reject it anyway. I don’t like feeling trapped. In the end, I was feeling exhausted. It’s a series of pictures and it elicits emotions. You feel all these different things: nostalgia, remorse. But it’s all in your head. There’s not an actual interaction because your emotions have been played. You end up feeling exhausted. 

“Then, the people you’re actually with: your family. [The time you spend on Facebook is] at the expense of the people around you. You could instead take a shower, go outside, meditate, cook. It’s not relaxing. It just makes you more tired.

“What will happen if I don’t do it? What will the cost be to me?

“You feel like you have to keep giving and giving. In the end its all fake. Your friend on Facebook feel like they’ve seen you, they know you, but it’s not really there.”

But, Ruth admits she has a few advantages: Her husband doesn’t use Facebook, and all of hers and her husband’s family live within a short drive of her house. Her oldest daughter uses Instagram, but none of the kids are Facebook users. 

When I checked in with her, she said feels pretty good about being without Facebook or social media. 

“I feel better, because I don’t have nagging in the back of my mind to look at it. It’s one less thing on my to do list. I’m not drawn to my phone.”

She’s noticing the lack of interaction, though. “I miss the Mike Fourchers in my life. I like seeing what people are doing, but I’m ok with not having seen it. If I could check in again in five years, that would be good. You could call me or let me know if you’re going to be nearby.”

For Sandra, the decision to retire at 50 was about gaining time for her many hobbies. Originally a theater major, Sandra graduated college and started working in small storefront theaters, eventually helping to run Stage Left Theater, a well-respected non-equity theater in Chicago. But she was always working a waitstaff job on the side to make ends meet, so by the time she was thirty, she’d figured out math and gone to graduate school to earn an engineering degree at University of Illinois-Chicago. 

“My starting salary [out of school], was almost double what I’d ever made my entire life. I was hired out of school by Parsons Brinkerhoff and I haven’t worked anywhere else since then.”

Work was always satisfactory, Sanda says, but it was never really the core of her life. One of her hobbies, political activism, is how I met her over ten years ago. She is also an avid dancer, loves to read, and has a habit of walking all over Chicago, long distances.

“I’m not that into [work]. It was just a day job to me,” Sandra said.

Never extravagant, Sandra lives in a one-bedroom condo that she paid off years ago. She’s not married, doesn’t have kids, and managed to pay her student loans off quickly.

“I have a lifestyle where I don’t care about fancy stuff. I worked at a place where I was paid well and got lots of money. I basically decided I didn’t want stuff,” so she spent a lot of time saving, rather than spending.

Five years ago, Sandra decided that what she really wanted was more time for her hobbies and friends. So, like the engineer she is, she made a plan to retire at 50.

“All I had to do was get to 59 and a half when I could get into my 401K.”

Quietly, Sandra enacted her plan. The reality of it arrived about a year ago.

“Last December, I was talking to my boss. I’d been there 15 years, and he was talking about 2018 and all the projects coming up. I felt bad for him. And then I told him I would be retiring in 2018.”

Sandra’s firm specializes highway construction, and Sandra specialized in roadway hydrology. She was basically the person who figured out if the planned road would be able to drain water, rather than make pools you’d skid across and kill yourself from.

“When I told Dave, my boss, I was afraid of his reaction, but he said, ‘That sounds great, I wish I could do that too.’ But he makes a ton of money, much more than me. I‘m sure he could retire now if he wanted.”

Sandra’s firm needed her, because there really aren’t too many people that can do what she does. A one-year notice seemed about right.

“I gave them a long lead time. But even then, the last month was crazy before I left.”

Right after quitting work, Sandra had some elective surgery to take care of a cartilage problem in her knee. Now she’s using her convalescence to think about what to do with all of her time – for the rest of her life.

She thinks of becoming a personal financial coach. Or maybe taking a part-time job in a coffee shop just to have structure and a guarantee that she’ll talk to people on a regular basis. She has dance classes, and for summer, she’s planning walking dates with friends along Lake Michigan. 

More than anything, what strikes me about Rob, Ruth and Sandra is how clear minded they all seem about their choices. None of them expressed any hesitation now they’re committed to their choice, and all of them described their decision-making process as matter-of-fact. Almost to the point where they couldn’t imagine doing anything different. In retrospect, their decisions seemed obvious.

But their choices are certainly their own. When I told each one about the others, they were all impressed by one another. (“That would be psychologically harder than what we’re doing,” Rob said about Ruth leaving Facebook. “I haven’t totally committed to that kind of disconnect yet.”) 

So, it seems to me that while each person has circumstances that made their choice easier than it might be for others, those circumstances are no accident. There’s a kind of psychological positioning each person seemed to begin for themselves, long before they sold their house, left Facebook or took early retirement.

Perhaps, it’s not the decision, or taking the big leap that’s the hard part. It’s creating a mindset to make those decisions in the first place. 

The Great And Good Things Dad Did For Me

A movie I made 18 years ago, of a day Dad and I spent in New York City. Here he is at his best.

Lou Fourcher was far from perfect, no man could ever be. But as his only child, I was showered with love, encouragement and wisdom like no other. Of course, he and I had our fights, but they were usually because of my own impatience, rather than something he did.

“He was a man completely without guile or ego,” remembers his long-time friend Steve Wheatley, words that described him perfectly as a father. 

My mom and dad divorced when I was two. It was a sorrowful split, but friendly. Dad moved a short distance away, within walking distance in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He gave me as much of himself as he could, with two overnights a week in his series of tiny studio and one bedroom apartments. I didn’t notice their shortcomings, because we played and played together with Legos, trips to the park and my favorite, a make-believe game called “Emergency” where I’d climb in his lap, and he’d make helicopter noises as I pretended to pilot him to find a person in need of rescue.

Those years when he was single and mostly poor, bound us together as tight as you can imagine. A cerebral man who just couldn’t figure out how to make money, the 1970’s were slim for him. A big weekend outing for us would be to go to a Sunday morning matinee, which were extra cheap, and maybe to the Museum of Science and Industry for the one hundredth time, which was still free back then.

My grandfather, Charles, with me and my dad, as we waited in Logan Airport for a plane to take us home to Chicago. Probably taken by my dad.

One extra slim Christmas when I was six, Dad told me he could barely afford presents, and definitely not a tree. So, in a stroke of genius, he suggested we cut out our own ornaments from magazine ads, and hang them from his rubber plant with paper clips. Topped off with a short strand of blinking multi-colored lights, I was tremendously proud of the tree my dad and I had made together. Years later, in wealthier times, we’d recall the “ornaments” with gales of laughter. We had us, and I loved it.

Later, when I was eight, dad remarried, choosing a wonderful woman, Penny. She was warm and caring, with two older children of her own from a previous marriage. Dad and Penny also eventually split, sorrowfully but amicably, but for years Dad and Penny loved all us step-children, and their home became a refuge during my bumpy teenage career.

Through the years, Dad, a natural athlete and one-time captain of his high school football team, gently encouraged me to get outside and play sports. A bookish kid, I resisted fiercely, but he persisted. In my pre-teens, he pulled me outside for long walks to the park with a baseball and gloves he kept to play catch. Then, one Sunday afternoon we stumbled on a pickup softball game. He pushed me to join, first volunteering himself to play. I had never played any organized sports, but that game, and the following Sunday pick-up games in that field with my dad and neighborhood kids, converted me into a baseball lover. 

Middle school and high school were difficult for me. Enrolled in an elite private school, and constantly told I was a smart kid, I still struggled in class and often erupted in fits of rage. The elite school setting didn’t fit me well, as I was acutely aware of the income disparity between me and much wealthier classmates. 

My father, and his home with Penny, was where I retreated every weekend, to prepare for the week to come. More than anything, he gave me empathy, as I’d yell, rage, cry or just sulk through my twice-a-week visits to his house. It was a relief from the pressure cooker I believed teenage-hood to be. When the weather was warm, we’d walk around Hyde Park, bouncing a ball between us on the sidewalk. I’d talk about whatever, or not, and he’d just be there. 

We usually ended up in the many bookstores of Hyde Park, and I’d struggle to stay entertained, as dad plunged into the philosophy, sociology or anthropology sections stocked for brainy University of Chicago students and graduates like him. 

“Ooh, I got some good ones,” he’d say, and I’d glance at the long, meaningless titles, wondering how he stayed awake when reading them.

His bookcase was magnificent. Self-built, it was far from artful. It was just really, really big. Hundreds of books, all of which plumbed the mind, the psychology of inter-personal relations, or just something super deep and full of academic gobbledygook. He read them all, filled them with underlines and notes in the margins. 

The bookcase was in the same room I slept in at his house, so as I drifted asleep, I’d admire it wondering if I could ever be so well read. 

Noticing my interest, Dad gave me books of my own. They were often hard, always challenging. Biographies of people he thought I should know and admire. Edward R. Murrow, Saul Alinsky, George Orwell, Phil Burton, Robert Moses. The lives in those books set my mind on fire. They enabled me to dream big, and set my own course for working in Congress, starting my own news publication and believing that I could change the world for the better, just like my dad.

If you knew him, you understood that Dad believed that fighting for social justice was the highest calling a person could answer. The first in his family to go to college, he found himself pulled to the civil rights movement almost immediately after leaving his small New England town. Once, as part of a group of white students who attended the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta for a semester in 1962, and then joining Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington the next year. 

As a graduate student, he was part of one of the first community health centers, the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Valley Project, in 1971. That brief stint led to a stunning set of photographs he took of people living in one of Chicago’s poorest ghettos, and then a life-long passion for community health care. 

Although he was a practicing psychologist, Dad’s real career became managing community health centers across Chicago, most in neighborhoods devoid of investment and ignored by white society. He pulled me along to his jobs, pressing me to volunteer, where I inflicted patients with my high school Spanish, and learned about a world my elite private school barely acknowledged.

Dad, some time in the early 1990’s, on the back stoop of his sister Charlene’s house. Credit: Richard Carle.

He was selfless in his commitment to work. There were plenty of people that needed much more than he could give, and they were ignored by society, he’d say. If he could make a difference, he would try to do his best.

His passion for fixing society’s ills never included personal glorification or accolades. He was embarrassed to be recognized for his work, and when we was, by me or others, it was uniformly met with, “Well, thank you. That’s enough, now.”

It’s a tricky thing to achieve: a drive for good works without personal ambition. It’s a standard that has eluded me throughout my own work, but one I constantly reference. Dad’s love of people, and his need to make the world better is a thread that runs through almost all of my career decisions.

Dad struggled with the ravages of Alzheimer’s for a long time. The first external signs of it came almost fourteen years ago, he was diagnosed twelve years ago, and lived in a care facility over eight years. When he was able, he and I talked about his fears, and mine, constantly. I loved being his friend and confidante, it was an easy way to repay him for all the great and good things he’d done for me over the years. 

Like an acid test for personalities, they say that Alzheimer’s strips away the edifices, your barriers, as it progresses. For Dad, that meant he just became calmer, and more giving as the disease took away his memory. The nursing home staff told me Dad would minister to other patients, holding their hands, sitting with the anxious. Befriending the lonely. “We all love him so much,” each of his nurses said to me in turn.

In a strange quirk, the nurse who admitted him eight years ago, was the one who ministered to his final hours, and pronounced him dead. “He was a great man,” she said to me as I left his room the last time last Sunday night.

Dad loved jazz, played it constantly, and dragged me to Chicago Jazz Fest and Blues Fest performances. He knew the names of obscure drummers and bassists and would regale me of times he’d seen them at the old Jazz Showcase club years ago. 

But anyone that knew Dad well, knew him for his piano playing. Eschewing sheet music, he’d play his own songs, a unique one every time, because he claimed, he couldn’t remember anything he’d played before. But wherever he lived, most weekend afternoons, you’d find him at his stand-up piano, starting with a boogie-woogie, then a tune that transformed into a sweeping rhapsody with a repeating leit motif. 

His piano playing could come at any time: Waiting for people to put on jackets, venting rage from a terrible Bears game, digesting dinner. The songs were an expression of his emotion and state of being; a way to talk to anyone who could hear.

Like a fingerprint, his music was unique and indescribable. But if you heard it a few times, you’d recognize four or five themes that repeated themselves. Never sad, they always ended up ranging and expansive, drawing you to imagine a vast world of many wonders. After he played for a while, he’d be relaxed, happier, ready for whatever was to come.

There is so much more I would like to tell you about Lou Fourcher. The sound of his walk down the hall, his love of sly humor and his guffaw-like laughter, his love affair with Lake Michigan and bodies of water in general, the natural way he took to a picnic blanket in a patch of grass, like it was the best place in the world, no matter where it might be. His radiant intelligence that was somehow never cutting, but instead managed to fold you in.

I have anticipated writing this memorial essay for years. And to finish it, I feel like I am letting go of him just that much more. Feeling the beauty and love that was my father, slip away from me. 

It is so hard to stop writing.

Sitting at his piano bench, playing that piano with the funky A key he could never get fixed, is how I’ll remember Dad forever. I am so grateful he was my father.

If you read this in time, and remember him, please join us at his open memorial service, Sunday, January 27 at 2:30 p.m., at The First Unitarian Church of Chicago, 5650 S. Woodlawn Ave. Dad was also a huge fan of Ruth Rothstein, with whom he worked to help make Erie Family Health Center one of first health centers to apply Medicaid funding to treating AIDS patients. So, in lieu of flowers, please consider making a contribution to The CORE Foundation, 312-572-4549, 2020 W. Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60624, which benefits the Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center, a clinic that focuses on the prevention, care and research of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

We’re All Part of The Team

I was part of a team today.

This afternoon I went for my regular swim at the local park district pool. Loaded down with Thanksgiving food, it was harder than usual. Making my usual number of laps was hard in a pool crowded with more than the usual number of swimmers.

I made a turn after completing a lap, heading back behind a woman I’d never seen before in the pool. She was fast, and wearing a streamlined suit, the mark of an expert swimmer.

But as I came up on the halfway point of the lane, I saw her floating underwater, on her back with her arms extended ahead of her, reaching towards the deep end. It was strange, and I thought maybe it was some expert trance I’d never seen before.

I swam over her, saw that she was motionless. I reached for her arm and pulled it. She didn’t move so I pulled her up, and pushed her body into the air, holding her from behind. She gasped for air, and suddenly, almost every swimmer in the pool headed for us. Two lifeguards yelled, diving into the pool. One was next to me in seconds, maneuvering her into an expert carry. Another lifeguard at the shallow end set up a board, and two lifeguards in the pool carried her out.

“Everyone out of the pool, please!” yelled one lifeguard. “Please go to the locker rooms!”

Another was on the phone, calling 911. “Is she conscious?”

“Yes!” shouted back another.

We lap swimmers streamed to the edge, as a group gathered around the half-drowned woman.

“What happened?” a man who just finished a lap asked me.

Now I had to think. What had happened? “I think she had a seizure. She wasn’t moving under the water, so I pulled her up,” I said.

“Ah,” said the man.

“Move to the locker rooms, please,” reminded a lifeguard. Three other lifeguards surrounded the woman, who seemed to be coughing, breathing. I couldn’t see her.

Picked up my towel, walked to the locker room in shock. Showered. Changed. Other men talked about the incident briefly, then circled around a scale weighing themselves, discussing weight loss.

I was shaken. Walked around to the pool door to the street. An ambulance had arrived, the woman was now on a gurney. Paramedics wheeled her out. Eyes open, awake, looking pale. Staring into space as she wheeled past me.

I stood there. Wondering what to do.

“Can I help you?” one of the lifeguards asked.

“I pulled her up.”

“Oh yeah? Hold on,” he grabbed a clipboard with a sheet titled, Incident Report.

“Put your name and contact information here. They probably won’t call you, but you know.”

I filled it out. He took the clipboard. Closed the door.

So, I walked home and thought: Today, I was part of a team. I saw someone in need and helped her. Then passed her to another person who helped, who passed her to someone else who helped.

That’s what we do. We help when we can, and we make a team.

I hope she comes back to the pool soon. I’d like to learn her name.

After A Visit To New York, Some Reflections On American Cities

Second Ave. and 60th St in New York City, taken by me from the Roosevelt Island Tram, which floats above the street.

I visited New York City this weekend to visit my sister and a few friends. I’m trying to visit more of my friends and family that live in other cities, to broaden my experience beyond Chicago. Besides New York, this year I’ve visited friends and family in Milwaukee, Boston, Cincinnati and Lexington, Kentucky. After five years of not much travel beyond the usual family vacations, it’s been a good opportunity to see how other parts of the United States work.

When I visit a city, for the first time or fiftieth, I try to walk as much as I can, take public transit and if possible, do things that regular residents might do: grocery shop, see a doctor, eat lunch at a joint frequented by office drones (of which I am one). I find the regular things are much more revealing of a city’s character than anything else. Where does a city put its energy? What is the struggle or joy of being a resident?

So, here are, in no particular order, some observations about American life in some big and small cities I’ve visited this year.

  1. New York’s density makes it vast, and difficult to traverse. Moving from borough to borough takes concentrated effort. I love the subway system, but to go five miles from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to downtown Brooklyn took me forty-five minutes. I don’t know how that can be improved, but negotiating closed subway lines, transfers, etc. was hard, even for an experienced traveler like me.
  2. Although it has so much to offer many cities don’t, just doing the basics in NYC can be grinding. At one point it took me 20 minutes to refill my MetroTransit card (the story isn’t worth it). Going grocery shopping in Manhattan requires a dedicated trip and once you’re in the store, you’re faced with much smaller pickings than other cities and much higher prices. Every friend I visited with had a harrowing commuting story. That kind of stuff could wear you down.
  3. Beyond America’s biggest Northern cities like New York, Boston and Chicago, it’s hard to live without a car. I know there are people who do it, but most American cities are just not designed for life without a car. I know many Americans like their cars, but that’s a huge sunk cost, and will keep us from enjoying the benefits of density.
  4. I’ve visited Boston maybe fifty times in my life since I have family in Massachusetts and I went to college nearby. This spring, I tried using BlueBike, one of the bikeshare services in the city. It was a revelation. Going from West End to Fenway, with a few stops in between was easy, and cheap as heck, since I had bought a $10 day pass. Easier than taking the T and a ton of fun, since I got to see much more of the city than I would have if I were underground. I didn’t get a chance to use Citibike in NYC this time around, but I saw I ton of people using it in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. Total game changer for getting around in a big, dense city.
  5. New York’s subway system is really incredible. While you expect it to move you around the city easily, you don’t really appreciate how special it is until you’re three stories down, walking to transfer from one line to another, and you come across a vast underground mall lit by a skylight four stories up. It has been upgraded and improved so that it’s more than just transit, it’s an experience. I haven’t ridden the subway in Los Angeles, but Boston, Philadelphia, D.C. and Chicago’s subways are certainly not this nice. I wonder if every city had subways as clean and convenient as New York’s, would more people use them?
  6. The culture of “Internet Delivery Everything” has taken New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco by storm. But the rest of the U.S., especially medium-sized cities like Milwaukee and Lexington, is experiencing this economic-phenomenon in fits and starts. Amazon delivery is everywhere, but not necessarily Uber Eats, Grubhub, grocery delivery services, and especially good Uber/Lyft coverage. These services have transformed my life in Chicago, freeing up hours of time a week and changing the way I think about shopping and getting around. When I travel to cities without these services, I realize how much I depend on them, and how I really don’t want to be in a place without them. I’m not confident delivery services will eventually get to every small and medium-sized American city, largely because of a lack of density. I imagine this will become a major drawback for those used to big-city life and make it hard for smaller cities to compete.
  7. With the exception of the biggest, many Northern cities are experiencing a hollowing-out, with big population drops and significant downtown vacancies. The big test for any city is – how busy is the downtown after 5:00 p.m.? But visiting Cincinnati was an especially big shocker for me: Almost the whole western half of downtown, the part without Proctor & Gamble or Fifth/Third Bank headquarters, was virtually empty. While three blocks away the city was buzzing, whole city blocks on the west side were mainly occupied by pigeons. Like Cincinnati, big chunks of Milwaukee are vacant – as are parts of Chicago, which has lost 250,000 African-Americans in the last ten years. This is a crisis of epidemic proportions, and it worries me that it isn’t part of our national dialogue.
  8. Travelling around, it becomes hard to ignore that American cities are in serious competition with one another. The winners are ones able to demonstrate a specialized niche, like Pittsburg’s tech sector, Boston’s higher education offerings, New York’s everything. I seriously worry about the future of small and medium-sized Midwestern cities. Sure, Peoria is a nice place to live, but if Caterpillar were to leave, why would anyone move there? The biggest cities are sucking up talented young people (Chicago’s 60661 ZIP code has the most Millennials of any in the country, do you think they’re planning to move elsewhere?) and smaller cities don’t have a convincing story. This also seems like a burgeoning crisis we’re just not talking about enough.
  9. This last year I’ve been wowed by New York’s subways, Boston’s Big Dig, Cincinnati’s riverfront athletic complex, Louisville’s new Ohio River bridge. In each one, every detail has been attended to, every standard met. These infrastructure projects change the way we interact with cities and the way we think about what’s possible. America at its greatest, is when it changes what’s possible. We need more of these kinds of projects, because it will change what we think about ourselves.

I really need to visit more American cities more often. If you’ve got an air mattress, let me know, because I’d love to stop by and go for a long walk. Drop me a line!

Gov.-Elect Pritzker, Let’s Heal Illinois’ Cultural Rift

Embed from Getty Images

Dear Governor-Elect J.B. Pritzker,

I write to you with serious concern about our divided state. While Democrats have won a tremendous victory in Illinois, winning not only the Governor’s office but every constitutional office as well as veto-proof majorities in both the State House and Senate, this election revealed a widening gap between city and rural, metropolitan and country.

While suburban Chicago voted more Democratic than ever before, Southern and Central Illinois voters – a demographically dwindling constituency – redoubled their Republicanism. The urban-rural Illinois divide is not only about support for President Donald Trump, but also on gun laws, abortion and immigration.

Not since the late 1800’s has there been such a yawning social gap between these communities. But unlike 120 years ago, the farm economy has collapsed, providing our rural counties and small towns with many fewer economic opportunities than our biggest cities. While some rural residents are able to take advantage of what cities have to offer, many more are alienated from our biggest cities. Simultaneously, most metropolitan Chicagoans have no connection to our rural areas and couldn’t even begin to understand the culture country life has to offer.

It is a mistake to consider the problem as solely economic: The most troubling divide is cultural. Southern and Central Illinois communities lack thriving immigrant and minority communities, as in Chicago, and as a result have come to view them as a threat to the American way of life. Meanwhile, metropolitan Chicago residents rarely hunt and as a result tend to consider gun culture as violent and disruptive.

As an inner city resident, I know from my conversations with rural Illinois residents, that my way of life not only seems unfathomable to many Illinoisans outside metropolitan Chicago, but potentially threatening. Chicagoans feel much the same way about rural Illinoisans. Many rural Illinoisans have no desire to set foot in Chicago, while most Chicagoans can’t imagine what rural and small town Illinois could have to offer them.

These differences have become rooted into the most elemental aspects of our daily lives. There are certain things rural Illinois does and places it goes to, while metropolitan Chicago does not. These differences, like Walmart vs. Target or NASCAR vs. basketball, have become more than just lifestyle choices, but totems of identity that keep us apart. This is not a problem unique to our state, but this is our state, and thus our problem.

If Illinois is going to achieve economic greatness, we must find a way to heal our cultural rift, so that rural Illinoisans are comfortable with coming to Chicago, while metropolitan Chicagoans see value in visiting and investing in rural Illinois.

As the governor-elect of Illinois with a sweeping political mandate, you, Mr. Pritzker, have a unique opportunity to bring our two communities back together. Now that you’re elected, we need a new kind of campaign: one that demonstrates the welcoming and vital cultures of metropolitan Chicago and rural, small town Illinois.

Of course this kind of campaign should include an advertising component, to educate Illinoisans on how their state’s cultural diversity enhances their lives, but it should also include extensive outreach programs that personally introduces inner city Chicagoans to rural life, and small town Illinoisans to urban diversity. Building on Jahmal Cole’s My Block, My Hood, My City program would be an excellent start, although his program has been limited to connecting Chicagoans to one another.

College students from rural Illinois could spend a semester in urban Chicago colleges, much as my father, a white Bowdoin College student from New England, spent a semester of 1961 as a Morehouse College exchange student in Atlanta. Rural extension programs could host Chicagoans, while Chicago City Colleges could host Christian County residents. We could conduct cooking class exchanges, class trips, connect car clubs, knitting circles, and a dozen other hobbyist groups.

The goal would be to foster dialogue, friendships and communication. Ride the L, eat a taco, debate who makes the best rib tips. Cruise in a pick up, make venison, hike in a state park. We need to experience each other’s realities and communities so that Illinois can lift itself up, rather than debate who should be called a “True American”.

As we venture beyond our home communities in Illinois, we need to believe that our neighbors understand us and want to assist us. Only then, will Illinois truly achieve the greatness it deserves.

Let’s defy the rest of America, and do what Midwesterns do best: pull together as one.

My News Diet

Fallow newspaper boxes in downtown Chicago, January 2012. Credit: Dan X. O’Neil.

Because I work in politics, friends often assume I like to talk about the politics and the schemes or expected outcomes of various elections and maneuvers. But really, I’m much more interested in talking about where people get their information. Where you gather your information informs how you think, and whether or not you’re a critical thinker, versus someone who operates on received wisdom.

My parents and grandparents on both sides were sharp, critical thinkers, so as a young man talking about something I’d learned, I’d often hear, “Are you sure about that? You should check your sources,” from some elder. My desire to have a bulletproof argument turned me into a reader of as many sources as I could find. As a professional, I don’t think I have any bulletproof arguments, but they’re at least nuanced.

Generally, when I’m consuming news, I categorize content into four groups:

Hard Information – This the basic who, what where and when. The most valuable kind of reporting. It’s the hardest to produce and the least sexy. Original reporting (not a retread of someone else’s work) is typically found in only the big daily newspapers, CNN.com (not the TV channel) and niche reporting sites.

Analysis – This is a tricky one, since there’s lots of analysis written by people that don’t know their topic well. I try to look for experienced reporters who can explain why a thing is happening, not what will happen next.

Future Prediction – Here I’m looking for clear domain experts. People that have been in the industry or following it for decades. Good writing in this genre is rare, because it requires deep research and constant immersion with other deep thinkers in the chosen domain, as well as an ability to explain the technical aspects of a domain.

Gossip & Political Sports – This is the garbage I try to avoid. Most of what you see on any cable network and the vast majority of political reporting. He said, she said reactions. Horse race poll reporting. The stuff that just gets you outraged or fired up. I try to block it out, because I don’t understand the world any better as a result of consuming it.

So, to give you a sense of my process, here’s the news media I read and consume regularly:

Daily Local News

Blessed with a robust local news scene, Chicago is bursting with news outlets. It’s impossible to get to them all every day, so I do a lot of skimming, focusing on reporters I know and like. Every weekday morning I read a stack of local email newsletters, starting with my old publication, The Daily Line, and then Politico’s Illinois Playbook, Capitol Fax, Crain’s Chicago Business, and Block Club. TDL and Playbook include roundups of big political stories from other local publications, so that’s how I usually end up getting to stories from the Chicago Tribune, Sun Times, Pro Publica Illinois, and WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station.

Time is a big factor every morning, since I need to get through a lot of content before I start my work day. I don’t really surf local news website front pages any more, since I find scrolling through their sites to find stories to be slower than getting links from local aggregators. Yet, I’m still reading a ton of articles from these local publications, so I’m a paying subscriber to the Chicago Tribune, Sun Times, Block Club, The Daily Line and Capitol Fax. I know it’s a lot, but I still get through the political news of each one daily.

I should note that I’m usually not reading entire whole articles. Instead, I tend to skim articles rather than read them in depth. Most Chicago City Hall reports are structured so that the real news is only in the first four or five graphs. After that comes reaction quotes, and then background. Reaction quotes are totally useless to me, since once you know who the players are, you can pretty much guess what they’re going to say. And the background is well, background. I’ve been there before.

I’m also not really reading paper versions of anything any more. Except on Sunday, I just don’t have time to read through paper – and I’m not really interested in most of what’s in paper editions. So it’s digital, digital, digital.

Daily National News

I used to subscribe to a few national email newsletters, notably Morning Briefing from the New York Times, The 202 from the Washington Post, Politico’s morning Playbook and Axios AM. I’ve stopped reading most of them for various reasons, because I felt like the content was too gossipy, with more of a lean towards “the sport” and gossip of politics, with less hard information.

I figured out that most of what was in NYT and WaPo’s newsletters could be found on their excellent website front pages (I subscribe to both digital editions), and most of Politico’s gossip was totally disposable. I enjoy Axios AM largely because its writer, Mike Allen, is so smart and every few days he has some insight nobody else has.

So, every morning I scroll through the NYT and WaPo front pages as well as The Atlantic, clicking on articles and opinion pieces I want to read. I usually end up with six or seven articles per publication. Again, I skim the articles, because many times the coverage is similar. Here, I’m mostly looking for details I didn’t see somewhere else, or an analysis on a topic I hadn’t considered before.

I find that between those three sources, I’m able to keep up on the basics on a daily basis.

I should note here that I’m not a cable news watcher. I just don’t find any of it useful. I can get a more in-depth story faster in print, and I just have no use for the bombastic commentary the broadcast in the evenings.

Weekly National News

A couple times a week, usually during my lunch break, or a slow period at my desk in the afternoon, I surf through a series of sites I call “other news”. I never know what I’m going to find, but generally I look for analysis and future prediction here. These often turn into long reads, which I generally save to read on my phone during my evening train ride home using the amazing Instapaper.

My reading list is a varied stack, including Buzzfeed News, New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, Foreign Policy, American Spectator, The Intercept, Pacific Standard, Talking Points Memo, Chicago Magazine, Business Insider, DefenseOne, The Root and The Guardian. There’s plenty of others that I check out once a month or so, but the above get my regular attention. I think of these as the variety that gives me my “hmmm” moments, from a perspective or insight that hadn’t occurred to me before.

Technology News

Technology is interesting to me mostly because it seems to portend so much of what’s to come. The tech business is struggling with our world’s biggest social problems, so I tend to think of it as a canary in the coal mine. When I was younger I hung on every last technical development, and could argue the merits of RISC versus CISC processors (R.I.P. Byte Magazine), but today I don’t have the interest or energy to follow it as in depth as I once did. Now, I’m mostly looking to understand business strategies more than anything.

I used to subscribe to PandoDaily, The Information and Stratechery. They are all excellent, but their detail turned into an information overload. Now I subscribe to the free weekly version of Stratechery, the well written Monday Note email newsletter and Benedict Evans’ weekly newsletter. Every week I also browse Recode for Kara Swisher’s consistently newsmaking interviews and watch Marcus Brownlee’s fun-to-watch product reviews, MKBHD, on YouTube. Felix Salmon’s new weekly “Axios Edge” newsletter seems like it’ll be a keeper too. Then, I love to watch Scott Galloway’s Winners & Losers videos as well as his new, hilarious podcast, Pivot with Kara Swisher.

Finally, because I can’t get enough Apple-related news, I read Daring Fireball, an Apple-centric blog started sixteen years ago by John Gruber, that has turned out to be some of the sharpest technology commentary available.

Media News

I’m constantly intrigued by the business of news, since I spent eight years starting, running or working in news startups. It’s a terrible, unforgiving business that touches everyone’s life, and yet continues to evade most attempts to create a sustainable business. The business of news, as opposed to the editorial part, attracts an incredible mix of super-rich egotists, crusading brainiacs and bombastic salespeople, creating a thinking person’s soap opera, all in service of our democracy. How could you not love it?

There’s been lots of great analysis and reporting on media. But it media reporting is a slippery slope into preachy, leftist commentary. I’m more interested in the business of news: How are you going to make enough money to keep the doors open? Avoiding gossip and preaching cuts down my sources quickly.

Every morning I read Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources email, a staggeringly thorough review of what every network and big publication ran with the last day. For Chicago media, I read Robert Feder’s email newsletter, which is basically like a local “who’s working where” tracker.

Weekly, I check out CJR.org, Nieman Lab for stories on what news publications are worrying about, and listen to Peter Kafka’s Recode Media podcast and the Digiday Podcast for interviews with media industry leaders. The podcast interviews are where I learn the most and get the best sense of where things are going.

For Fun

Hard to believe, but I still have more time left to read and listen for fun. I read Dave Pell’s Next Draft email, which comes out every weekday afternoon, Jason Kotte’s website of cool stuff and commentary, which he’s been running since the 90’s, Ed Yong’s “Ed’s Up” newsletter, Tyler Cowen’s “Conversations With Tyler” podcast, which comprises of smart interviews with smart people of all kinds, and I recently subscribed to Matt Taibbi’s The Fairway, which is a political non-fiction book about Washington published in the form of a weekly newsletter. Finally, I make sure I read the print versions of New York Magazine, which is just the most beautifully laid out and well written magazine you can find, as well as The New Yorker, which has great writing of all kinds and is a pleasure for the eye. Oh! And on Sundays, I pour through every section of the The New York Times in print with my weekly cup of coffee. A ritual I’ve kept for over thirty years.

It’s a lot. In fact, now that I’ve written all this down, I can’t believe I consume all this regularly. And yet, I’m always looking for more. If you know of a newsletter, website or podcast I should, check out, please drop me a line!