Thursday, April 30, 2009

The 21st Century Shower?

So my wife and I are having our two bathrooms renovated. A claw foot tub in the downstairs bathroom will be going upstairs to replace a small and hastily installed shower stall. Downstairs, we will have a new, large, custom-made shower – lovely porcelain tile, new fixtures, sliding glass door, a built-in bench, the works. (Having officially reached “middle-aged,” sitting down to wash one’s feet seems a priority.)

So – we need to provide our contractor with the fixtures for the new shower. Yesterday, we went to a store that specializes in this sort of equipment and suffered a severe case of sticker shock at first. We were thinking that we wanted a decent showerhead and a hand-shower wand attached to the wall, near where the bench will be installed. Well, the lady who helped us told us that we needed a thermostat, a volume control valve, the showerhead and hand-shower materials, and then an additional volume control for the hand shower, because “you never want to use a diverter!” (I need to mention here that both my wife and I were kind of scratching our heads at the mention of a “thermostat.”) All of this – plus the door – could be ours for only $2,200.

Said I: “Now, why exactly do we need this thermostat?”

The lady: “Well, it will always keep the water at the exact same temperature and it will be warm the instant you turn it on. Really, it’s how everyone’s doing it these days. You’re going to love it!”

Said I: “But, there is an option where we can just have a valve, right? Something you turn on and adjust to the desired water temperature?”

The lady: “Oh my! You want to fiddle around all day trying to find the right temperature?!?!?!?”

Said I: “You know, I’ve been finding the right temperature in the shower for 45 years now, and it’s never really been a problem for me.”

What amazes me about this is that I’ve stayed at four and five star hotels all over the world (Kuala Lumpur, Frankfurt, Vienna, Huatulco, and many US cities) and I have never encountered a shower with a thermostat. Since when did this become a must-have luxury? I can’t imagine it’s very energy efficient either to have one’s shower water kept at the same high temperature 24 hours a day. Yikes.

Call us old-fashioned if you like. We’re going old school and saving many hundreds of dollars (and energy) in the process.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The First 100 Days

So, do elections really make a difference?

I think that’s abundantly clear at this time.

Consumer confidence (it was revealed today) is rising for the first time since last summer. Gitmo will be closed within the year. The United States of America no longer engages in torture. The USA will, once again, support real science and advanced medical research, including stem-cell research that seems to hold a good deal of promise for eventually treating – perhaps even curing – diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. There are indications that the hemorrhaging of real estate values is beginning to slow down, if not yet turn around.

Yesterday I received an email from my brother Chris (a Republican leaning Independent) that recounted all sorts of bad things that he was told would happen if he voted for John McCain for president. Items listed were along the lines of: unemployment will rise, more troops will be sent to Afghanistan, the federal deficit would increase, things like that… then, the punch line at the close of the email was something along the lines of, “Well, I guess my democrat friends were right, because I voted for McCain and all these things have come to pass!”

It’s clever, sure.

But, it also fails to acknowledge what President Obama inherited upon taking office. How did this current financial crisis begin? With an ideologically driven compulsion toward deregulation and so-called free markets. The Bush administration (and, to a degree, the Clinton administration before it) sowed the seeds that led to our current financial crisis. Mr. Obama was handed a plate of feces on a platter and he’s working hard to try to fix things. Has everything been fixed in the first 100 days? Of course not. But, we are on our way. And there are some positive signs, indeed, some very positive signs of change.

The world views our country in a more favorable light. Greater than two-thirds of the country (according to a Pew Research poll) think that the country is “heading in the right direction.” And, nearly 70% of those polls give Mr. Obama high marks for his job performance.

Change is coming. That’s what he promised us and that’s what he’s delivering.

Today, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced that he’s trading in his ‘R’ for a ‘D.’ Cynics will call this a self-serving move designed to help insure his political survival in a state that has been steadily becoming more blue over the last several years. Pragmatists (as I like to think I am) will take him at face value when he says, “The Republican party has moved far to the right.” It has.

Welcome, Senator Specter. And, keep on keeping on President Obama. A lot of us have your back!

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Change of Seasons

Today in Chicago we expect to see temperatures above 80 degrees for the first time since October 12th last year. Ahhh, spring! Tulips have sprouted in the parkway in front of our house. Buds are opening on trees up and down the block, including the majestic maple that stands in front of our house. The day before yesterday I swept all of the branches, twigs, and dead leaves off of our porch and this evening I will fire up the Weber grill for the first time this year and cook our dinner outside.

Winter in Chicago can be a long haul. This last winter was one of the worst on record, with several record-breaking snowfalls and extremely cold temperatures. Sometimes people ask me how I can stand the bitter cold of winter, and sometimes I wonder myself as well. The answer is: spring, summer, and autumn (when we have autumn, which never really occurred last year). Spring and summer in Chicago are glorious. The lake shimmers and beckons, the sun doesn’t set until mid-evening, and there is often a pleasant breeze to check the rising temperature – often, not always.

There’s another thing about the change of seasons. It helps demarcate time. It helps me to feel as if I’m progressing in some way. Just as finishing one semester of my MFA in Writing and preparing to start the next semester provides a measure of sorts, so, too does the changing of seasons. For instance, I can vividly recall many instances and events from the summers of 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1989 (to name just a few) in a way that I doubt I would be able to recall had they not been summers – set off from the other seasons of those years. Likewise, I can recall events from the autumns of 1981 and 2008 with equal recollection because they are set against the backdrop of autumn. (In the case of 2008, it was a summer-like autumn, but I recall it nonetheless and always will. Something to do with a guy named Obama, you know.)

Every now and again I’ve been seduced by the idea of living somewhere like San Diego or Sarasota. A place where it’s relatively mild year round. But when I think about it for more than a few minutes, I always come to the same conclusion: I would really miss clearly changing seasons. As much as I sometimes don’t particularly enjoy winter (snow shoveling, digging the car out of a parking space, etc.) it is also clear to me that without winter, I would likely not appreciate spring and summer and autumn as much as I do.

It’s been more than six months since we’ve had an eighty plus degree-day here in my beloved city of Chicago. When you wait that long for a beautiful summer like day, you sure appreciate it!


Monday, April 20, 2009

Sea Turtles, Dolphins, and Whales

Last week, my wife Gloria and I were fortunate to spend six days and five nights on the Pacific coast in Huatulco, Mexico, a town that’s perhaps fifty miles north of the Guatemalan border. Huatulco is comprised of nine bays, four of which have been developed with luxury resorts, condos, and some private residences. The other five bays have been designated by the Mexican government as national park land, protected forever from any development – which is great!

Last Friday, Gloria and I took a four-hour boat tour of the bays. We rented snorkeling equipment and had been assured that there was a beautiful black coral reef in one of the bays. We also hoped that we would be lucky enough to see dolphins and a sea turtle or two. We were very lucky indeed!

Early in the boat trip, we came upon a large flock of seagulls and several pelicans that were engaged in a literal feeding frenzy. Fish were jumping in and out of the water and the gulls – which I’ve always thought of as beautiful and graceful and peaceful – nudged other gulls out of their way in order to get to a fish. The pelicans slowly circled overhead stalking their prey before executing a kamikaze-like dive straight down into the water plunging beneath the surface for a moment or two and then emerging with a fish crushed in their enormous beaks.

A short while later, we saw a sea turtle. Gloria saw it first and pointed it out to Primo, the captain of our boat (Paraiso 1 was it’s name), and he immediately cut the motor and reeled in the two fishing lines that were almost constantly trolling behind us. (More on the fishing lines later.) As we got closer to the sea turtle, we realized that it was two sea turtles! They were mating on the surface of the ocean. An amazing sight.

After the turtles, we proceeded out further into the ocean and it wasn’t very long before we came upon a school of dolphins. I had never before seen dolphins in the wild, in their own habitat, and I can scarcely describe their beauty and grace. There were at least a dozen of them, perhaps more, and I’m almost certain that they were bottlenose dolphins (like Flipper). Two or three abreast, they executed their beautiful arcing leap out of and back into the water over and over again as if they were performing just for us. But what made it so beautiful, so moving, was knowing that they weren’t performing for us – they were being who they are and doing what they always do.

Shortly after our encounter with the school of dolphins, we could see a geyser-like spray of water up into the air in the distance. At first, we thought it was another school of dolphins, but as we got closer we could see that these were much larger creatures: three grey whales, blowing copious amounts of water out of their blowholes. Gloria turned to me and said, “We’re going to need a bigger boat!” (If you haven’t seen “Jaws,” that last phrase will mean nothing to you.) At any rate, here we were about twenty or thirty feet away from three enormous grey whales. Stunning doesn’t begin to describe their majesty. Seeing them was absolutely awe inspiring, and “awe” and “awesome” are words that I generally avoid using given how they’ve been devalued by overuse in contemporary pop culture. A few minutes after we first spotted them, they dove, displaying their magnificent back fin, which I’ve since learned is called a fluke.

Throughout the journey, we also caught six fish - two chulas and four bonitos. The chulas were four to six pounds and the bonitos ranged from eight to perhaps twelve pounds. Gloria reeled in one chula and I reeled in the rest.

We completed our four-hour excursion by snorkeling in the bay that has an extraordinarily beautiful black coral reef. We swam among schools of tropical fish of every color imaginable – yellow, red, blue, orange, chartreuse, and purple, among others. Gloria spotted a sea turtle swimming above the reef and followed her for some time until the turtle decided to swim back out towards the open sea.

In that one day, we were privileged enough to see the turtles, dolphins, and whales, as well as gulls, pelicans, hawks, black eagles, and a few great herons. We saw a stony point that contained a blowhole such that when a large wave crashed onto the shore, a moment later an enormous stream of water would shoot up into the air, geyser-like, before falling back down into the open passage within the rock. It was breathtaking.

And I am filled with gratitude. Namaste.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Multitude of Things…

My mother Mary posted a comment to my last blog posting that read, “I need to remember now and then to honor my accomplishments and accept my failures and the multitude of things that fall between the two.” This got me thinking about “the multitude of things that fall between the two.” Between accomplishment and failure? I suppose so.

That led me to ask the following question: “What is accomplishment and what is failure?” And, a follow-up question: “Are they always (or ever) that easy to name or recognize or categorize?” For instance, what today might feel or seem like a failure might, in fact, be the first step in what will, one day, end up being a great success or a source of great happiness. How are we to know in the myopic vision of this precise moment? And isn’t it equally possible that that which we look at today as an “accomplishment” might tomorrow seem a mere triviality or a step along a long and winding (to borrow from Paul McCartney) road to a yet to be determined destination? Maybe it wasn’t so much an accomplishment as a crucial or critical stepping stone.

Yes, I agree that we need to honor our accomplishments and accept our failures. Absolutely. No argument. I also think that we need to allow ourselves to color outside of the lines every now and again and to realize that perhaps not everything we do can be tallied up on a scorecard as either an accomplishment or a failure. The in between, it seems to me, is where we likely live most (or at least much) of our lives. And, let’s not discard or disregard or disrespect that now, shall we?

I’ll attempt to get specific: Last weekend my wife, Gloria, and I spent a couple of hours with our accountant. We were completing our corporate and personal tax returns with him. We neither experienced any great accomplishment nor a great failure. We got the taxes done. Just today, we had a man over from Andersen Windows. We’d replaced about half of our windows nearly two years ago and now it seemed the right time to replace the rest. No great accomplishments or failures here, either. However, in each interaction, both last week with our accountant and earlier today with Frank (the window man), we got the job done. We made progress. So, maybe I was wrong earlier; maybe these do represent great accomplishments. And if so, all the better!

Either way, if we really examine the “multitude of things that fall between the two” we might realize that many of them are accomplishments (great or minor) indeed. Successful communication between human beings is, in my book, always an accomplishment. No one getting (or feeling) hurt or cheated or used is an accomplishment in my book. A nice, simple home-cooked meal can sometimes feel like an accomplishment, it seems to me.

And failure? I think we are too quick to attach that label to an endeavor. I think it takes (often) a good deal of time to determine whether or not a particular overture or impulse or attempt is a failure. And I also think that failure is part of life. Tires fail, light bulbs fail, computer programs fail, and, sometimes, we fail to do what we said we would do or fail to be who we’ve set out to be. It happens. We also have (until we die) another day to live and try to do better. But our failures – however we might define that term – do not define us any more than our successes do. We are who we are. We need to go to sleep with that and wake up with that. It is.


Monday, April 6, 2009

MFA Midpoint

Well, as hard as it is for me to believe, I’m roughly halfway through my MFA in Writing experience. I’ve sent my final packet of my second semester off to my mentor and am eagerly awaiting her feedback. And, just an hour or so ago, I submitted the creative nonfiction (an excerpt from a memoir in progress) that will be workshopped at May’s residency session at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

In the past year of being enrolled in this program, I’ve produced about 400 pages of original writing (fiction and creative nonfiction) and an additional 80 -100 pages of short critical essays on 18-20 books I’ve read as part of the program. I recall that at the end of my first term, my creative nonfiction mentor, Richard Goodman (author of French Dirt and The Soul of Creative Writing), suggested that I clear off a large table or workspace and lay out all the work I’d produced during that semester. It was a great idea. It’s easy while in the midst of a program or a project or just our everyday lives, I suppose, to lose track of how much we’ve accomplished over a certain period of time. How often do we take a moment to step back and “lay out our work” so we can take a look at it, regard it, appreciate it? Not often enough, I would assert.

Life is, of course, more about the journey than it is about the destination. But even allowing that, there are milestones. And they exist, in part, at least, in order to provide a moment of repose, of reflection, of perspective, perhaps. Birthdays can be milestones, anniversaries can be milestones, and the beginnings and endings of a year or a month or a semester (or even a single day) can serve as milestones.

Taking a moment to look at how we’ve spent our time in the past x weeks or months or even years can help boost morale and/or motivation, it seems to me, especially if we find ourselves in a relative rough patch. Maybe there are heavy storms or blinding rain or conflicting passions or just too many things to be taken care of in the hours with which we’ve been allotted. We’ve all been there, Lord knows. Maybe the gutter fell off of your house or the storm drain just outside of the basement door stopped draining water or maybe half of your windows need to be replaced. Well, I hear you. I’ve just described this spring at the Russell household. It can feel, at times, overwhelming. But, it also, simply, is. What is happening is happening. All we can do is choose how to react.

So tonight I’m choosing to put aside the drain and the gutter and the windows for a moment, and celebrate that I’m halfway through my MFA. I’m on my way.


Friday, April 3, 2009

The Seeing Glass

Several weeks ago I mentioned that I had started to read my friend and colleague Jacquelin Gorman’s 1997 memoir “The Seeing Glass.” Well, a few days ago I finally found some time to get back to the book, and I finished it early this morning. This is a magnificent memoir. Beautifully written, an amazing story, and deeply, deeply moving. Jackie’s writing is fluid, graceful, nuanced, and both brutally and beautifully honest. The twin tales she spins about her own temporary blindness (horrifying) and the short and difficult life of her autistic brother Robin are absolutely riveting.

A couple of moments ago I did something I’ve never done – I posted a review of a book on It was a review of Jackie’s magnificent memoir. In part, I wrote: “If you have ever lost a loved one or felt alone or felt afraid of anything, anything at all, you owe it to yourself to read this memoir, and recognize (perhaps again) that you are not alone. As Mary Karr writes in her introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of her memoir, ‘The Liars' Club,’ ‘the boat I can feel so lonely in actually holds us all.’”

Reading Jackie Gorman’s “The Seeing Glass” will remind you that you are not alone, that you are able to overcome your fears, and that there is so much more to live for than so many of us always remember on a day to day basis.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Taking Things Personally, Part 2 (Or, Dead Dog Walking)

For a few days there, Beau, our five and a half year old Sheltie was a dead dog walking. He’d done the unthinkable and bitten me in the face, my upper lip to be precise. Whether he would be literally dead or not was not completely decided, but it was certainly considered. My wife Gloria and I discussed whether we should try to return him to PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) here in Chicago, or simply have him put down by our vet. After all, if he’d bitten a child on the street, that is precisely what the Chicago Police Department would order – put the dog down, no ifs, and, or buts.

Fortunately, we decided to go talk to someone at PAWS. We wanted to talk to someone who knew something about dogs, who would be empathetic to our cares and concerns, and who might be able to offer some valuable advice. That was last Saturday afternoon. Can I tell you how glad I am that we did that?

At PAWS, we met Melissa Dragovan, one of the adoption program coordinator’s there. She was empathetic, non-judgmental, and very reassuring. She told us that PAWS would absolutely take Beau back if that’s what we decided we wanted to do. She also recommended that we consider meeting with a dog trainer – a “dog whisperer” named Curtis Scott – who has had a lot of experience dealing with negative dog behavior.

We called Curtis that late afternoon/early evening and spoke with him for 15 or 20 minutes. He could hear the nervousness in our voices and agreed to come to our home Sunday evening at 5:30, following an entire day of giving a seminar in Indiana. He quickly diagnosed the problem – a lack of clear leadership on the humans’ parts, and gave us a ton of specific and very helpful advice.

Even though it’s only been five days since his visit, some pretty extraordinary transformations have already taken place. And, not only has the change in our behavior not been difficult, it’s been enjoyable!

Old dogs, like this Chicago writer, can learn new tricks, it seems!


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A pre-blog blog

This was written the day before my 45th birthday, but I think (sadly) it retains some resonance today. I wrote this on October 1, 2008.

I’m flabbergasted. I know more about foreign policy and the financial markets than the Governor of Alaska, and current vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin does. Tonight I learned that she couldn’t answer Katie Couric’s question, “What magazines and newspapers do you get your information from?” Palin’s answer? “All of them. All that are available to me.” Well, I can tell you right now I get my information from the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, The Economist, The New Yorker, CNN, NPR, and other sources such as, MSNBC, 60 Minutes, and, yes, even now and then Fox News. Is this a difficult question for, oh, just about any citizen of the United States of America to answer?

Palin says she has foreign policy experience because she can see Russia from Alaska and yet she’s never (according to CNN) been to the island off the Alaskan coast from which one can actually see Russia. She has held a passport for a little more than a year. I – a non-politician who has spent the vast majority of his life working in the theater, the theater! – have visited more countries than Sarah Palin has. I’ve been to Malaysia, Mexico, England, Austria, and Germany. Both Palin and I have also been to Canada. And, let’s not forget, she had a fueling stop in Ireland, so that means she’s been there too. I changed planes in Hong Kong. Whoop-dee-dooh! I once stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska to fill up my gas tank, but I’ve never once represented to anyone that I’ve “been there.” I was at a Citgo station, for crying out loud!

My heart aches. I worry for our country. I am deeply afraid that too many white people – and I imagine some non-whites as well – are telling the pollsters that they are prepared to vote for Barack Obama now but that when they are in the voting booth, they simply will not be able to bring themselves to pull that lever or fill in that circle or touch that touch-screen button for… horrors!.. a black man. I worry that we, as a country, remain racist – hip to hip and stem to stern. I recall what happened with Tom Bradley in the 1980s in Los Angeles. I know the history of Harold Washington’s election in Chicago and know that he would never have won without some ninety-three percent of the African-American vote. North Shore liberals – many of them – voted against Harold the first time he ran. The encouraging thing is that a lot of them voted for him the second time he ran.

Our country is facing a potential financial meltdown. We remain embroiled in a supposed “War on Terrorism,” which is odd, because generally wars are fought against an enemy rather than a tactic. Al Quaeda is an enemy, Hamas is an enemy, the Taliban is an enemy. “Terrorism” is not an enemy; it’s a tactic. It’s a tactic radical Islamists (and others, including the IRA let us not forget) use to attempt to advance their political and ideological agendas.

This is part of why the “War on Drugs” is such a colossal failure. It’s not properly targeted and it’s hypocritical. We don’t put nicotine addicts or alcohol addicts or caffeine addicts in jail. Can you imagine? Starbucks would go out of business overnight if we adopted the same posture toward caffeine – which has been proven to make caffeine users (full disclosure: I am a caffeine addict) more prone to cysts, nervousness, anxiety, and heart disease. Yes, heart disease – the leading cause of death in men and women in the United States of America. Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it?

Now, let me be clear. I’m certainly not advocating that we should run Starbucks out of business – I am a stockholder, after all (more’s the pity these days) – and, I would tell any fascist-leaning leader that you can pry my grande coffee in a venti cup out of my cold dead hands before I agree to give up my daily caffeine fix. I’m simply saying, where’s the consistency? Where’s the logic? Where’s the smart and straight and problem-solving thinking being brought to bear on the challenges we face as a nation?

It seems to me that we spend too much time on the trivial. Who’s up and who’s down. Well, at the moment it appears that no one’s up and we’re all a little down. We’re all worried about our IRAs or 401ks or pensions (remember when there were pensions? We’re concerned about how the current credit-crunch might affect us.

The government has done a fine job of scaring us out of our wits and a lousy job at trying to solve the problems we are facing. Wall Street’s in the doldrums? Let’s give them $700 Billion dollars. And the worst part? We basically have to. Because if we don’t, we are going to see our access to credit stop on a dime. Jobs will be lost. Companies will have serious difficulty in making payroll. The housing market will get even worse than it already is. We’re stuck. Even though the vast majority of us didn’t make this problem, we’re going to have to be part of solving it, because if we don’t we will be in a mess of hurt. Is it a drag? Yes. Is it fair? No. Do we have to buck up and take some responsibility? Yes, I think we do. And then when things get a little calmer, a little more secure, I think we need to hold the greedy bastards accountable. Some heads need to roll, in time. Not for vengeful reasons, mind you, but for upholding the principle of accountability. If this happened due to your decisions, your mistakes, you must be held responsible.

How likely is it that that will happen?

Not a chance.