Thursday, March 30, 2006

Indiana, We Hardly Knew Ye

Chicago motorists are bracing themselves for the most hideous of traffic jams when half of the lanes on the Dan Ryan Expressway shut down for repairs. As the city’s main southbound artery, the Ryan carries 320,000 vehicles every day. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has weighed in with a number of helpful suggestions:

  • Stay off the Ryan

  • Seriously, stay off the Ryan

My typical response to such news would be, “Yawn.” Since moving to Chicago in 1992, I have studiously avoided the city’s expressways, save for occasional forays on the Kennedy to IKEA—and never during rush hour. So intense is my aversion to sitting in traffic, I actually choose public transit as the lesser evil. If I can walk somewhere, even better, which is largely why we live in the city and not the suburbs, where cars are a virtual appendage. I would sooner spend a year in Abu Ghraib than a weekend running errands in Naperville.

To many of my fellow North Siders, the Dan Ryan is utterly inconsequential, leading as it does to the South Side. We operate under the vague impression that this part of the city is “scary” and “gang infested” and a great place to visit only if you’re aiming to get yourself shot. Never mind the World Champion White Sox, the University or Chicago or the Museum of Science and Industry. We’ll content ourselves with the Cubs and the dinosaurs at The Field.

Unfortunately, the positioning of Lake Michigan means that to travel east of Chicago, one must first head south. And by east, I mean Ohio, which is where my niece and nephew are located, along with assorted siblings, parents and in-laws. Barring the sudden appearance of a pair of ruby slippers, the Ryan is the only way home.

So am I slightly concerned that our usual 4 ½-hour drive to Toledo will become an 8-hour exercise in ass numbing? Yes, yes I am.

As Easter approaches and we contemplate our first trip in the Drastic Lane Reduction Era, I am grasping for ways to minimize our time in the car and spare myself an aneurysm.

Alternate routes recommended by IDOT have already been exposed as bottlenecks in their own right. Besides, the last time Dave and I attempted to navigate our way around the Ryan and the Chicago Skyway—in protest of the Skyway’s toll increase from $2 to $2.50—we became hopelessly lost in what I can only call “the hood.” The avoidance of which is why they built the Skyway in the first place.

We could maybe start our own ferry boat business across Lake Michigan, but by the time we put together a business plan, secure funding, procure a ferry boat, hire a skipper and someone to swab the decks, Ryan construction should be at the halfway mark. I need relief now.

As I see it, that leaves one course of action. We’re going to have to wipe Indiana off the map.

I realize that to residents of the state, this seems a bit drastic. Hear me out.

I have traveled I/80-90 east and west to and from Toledo more times than I can count. The scenery is so relentlessly dull, Dave and I entertain ourselves with a little game we call “Count the John Cougar Mellencamp Songs on the Radio.” I ask, are these “highlights” worth saving?

  • The City of Gary. Michael Jackson’s hometown. The entire population can join him in Bahrain. We’ll even send along the belching smokestacks.

  • The RV/Motor Home Hall of Fame. It has yet to break ground but I’m guessing its potential exhibits are mobile. Road trip!

  • The Cracker Barrel in Elkhart. Why settle for pseudo-Southern cooking, hospitality and worthless trinkets? With Indiana out of the picture, Kentucky will be that much closer.

  • Which just leaves the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. I’d be open to granting this swath of territory a reprieve, as it is my grandfather’s alma mater. I’ll create a separate fiefdom, sort of like Vatican City, installing Dan Brown as mayor and replacing the city council with Templars.

That takes care of the northern portion of the state. I also have a plan to Win the Peace in the land along 65-south and 70-east, which stands between us and our nephew Connor in Columbus.

  • I think it’s safe to say that no one would really miss the cluster bombs of Steak ‘n Shakes, Motel 6s, Super 8s and Waffle Houses that dot the landscape along 70-east.

  • “There’s more than corn in Indiana,” is the best the Board of Tourism can muster from its billboards. I suppose that’s true, if by “more” they’re referring to Hobart Chevrolet, “Home of the Trunk Monkey.” I bet PETA has a position on false imprisonment of a simian. Free the Trunk Monkey. The San Diego Zoo promises to give him a good home.

  • We’ll take the cities of Lebanon and Hebron and send them back to the Middle East. I don’t know how they got here in the first place.

  • Indianapolis will be harder to dismantle. Chicago will open its arms to Peyton Manning and the rest of the Colts, along with all non-Indy fans. We’ll dispatch the pro-Indy citizens to Daytona, which I understand also boasts a fine International Speedway plus the added bonus of Spring Break.

Now, if we could get this all taken care of by April 14, that would be super.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

When Bad Things Happen to Good TV Shows

Now that Entertainment Weekly has officially named “Everwood” one of the Ten Best Hours on Television, I feel it’s safe to admit that I watch this show.

I like that the kids aren’t always smarter than the parents. That conflicts go unresolved. That none of the characters are caricatures. That actors over the age of 35 are given storylines equally as compelling as those of their younger counterparts.

Curiously, “Everwood” has been absent the past four months from The WB (soon to morph into the CW), home to such drivel as “Modern Men” and “Life with Fran.” But the show came off the bench last night with back-to-back episodes.

Would charmingly/annoyingly moody Ephram find his passion in life? Would the gulf between college and high school prove too wide for friends Amy and Hannah to bridge? Would the empty-nesting Abbotts follow through with their plans to adopt? The genius of this show is that aside from Ephram (a big fat “yes”), the other issues remain “maybes.” If you like your solutions neatly packaged and tied up in a ribbon, go watch “CSI.”

The finest moment in the two-hour block: Resident asshole with a heart of gold Dr. Andy Brown revealed that his wife cheated on him (not, as we always suspected, the other way around) shortly before she died. His telling of the discovery of the affair was masterful in its understated heartbreak—he saw another man hand her a drink, and he knew.

But the distractions, oh the distractions.

I couldn’t help but notice that Amy never wore the same coat twice. I mean, I know she decided not to go to Princeton so she could stay home and care for her cancer-stricken mother, but is she spending the equivalent tuition, room and board on outerwear?

Ephram, my friend, you are cute in a looks-like-he-plays-guitar-in-a-garage-band kind of way. But do not think you can pull off that newsboy cap ever again. Seriously, without your cowlicks to distract me, I fixated on your eyebrows. The view wasn’t pretty.

And Hannah, what can I say. Kudos on the new spectacles (could contacts be next?!). Sorry that you were stuck with the most blatantly inappropriate product placement ever witnessed on network television.

Pity poor Sarah Drew, who portrays our not-so-plain-Jane cock-eyed optimist. She deserves an Emmy for acting enthused about her new Mercury Milan. Yes, the script actually called for her to utter the name of the car on air and rave about its headlights and cupholders.

Mind you, Hannah is a teenager. A VW Beetle or Mini Cooper I could almost swallow. But a Mercury? My friend Bill drove a Mercury Cougar back in high school. It was a hand-me-down from his parents. The front passenger seat was tilted in permanent recline. Cupholders had not yet been invented. We did not enthuse over its V-8 engine.

I can’t imagine that Mercury believes it has found a target market for this oh-so-sedate sedan among teenage girls. Worse, I can’t believe “Everwood” pimped itself for this ride. I have to believe that the show’s producers sold their souls for a slot on the CW’s 2006 fall schedule.

What’s next?

  • The Abbotts decide to adopt and go on a shopping spree at Babies ‘R Us

  • Hannah and Bright concur that TGI Fridays really does have the best mozzarella sticks

  • Amy forgets to cut the Old Navy tag off her, you guessed it, new coat

  • Andy prescribes Levitra for all his patients

Which, come to think of it, sounds suspiciously like an episode of “Reba.”

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

In a Pickle

I voted yesterday. Actually, I tried to vote twice, which isn’t all that uncommon in Chicago politics.

I cast my first ballot in the Illinois primary election, where a good number of the candidates were running unopposed. But I wanted to show my support for our incumbent congressman, Rahm Emmanuel, former Clinton adviser/attack dog and overall burr in the Bush Administration’s saddle. And while I have no idea what the job of Cook County Board President actually entails, I thought it should go to someone (Forrest Claypool) who didn’t suffer a debilitating stroke last week (John Stroger). Not to appear utterly heartless, but it took Dick Clark a year of intensive therapy to work himself up to “Happy New Year.” You don’t elect a man to office just because you feel sorry for him—that’s why Hallmark invented “get well” cards.

Mostly I walked the half a block to the polling place because it was on my way to the produce market and I actually like to vote. It’s like taking a multiple choice quiz where there’s no such thing as a wrong answer. Our new simplified ballots (kiss those hanging-chad-prone butterfly versions goodbye) even looked like a standardized exam, what with the instructions to fill in the circle or mark clearly with an “X.” I was very good at taking tests in school and felt equal to the task.

I even studied a little beforehand, checking endorsements for judicial candidates. But I forgot to take my cheat sheet with me to the polls and did my best to recall from memory. When in doubt, I opted for the female on the slate. Because, you know, I am one.

I remember a particularly dull seminar course in college on “gatekeeping” of the news. I don’t know how this subject cropped up, but our professor wondered why women, being more than 50 percent of the population, couldn’t get their act together and elect a female president.

Well, Dr. Krompak, we are awfully busy thinking about shoes. Of course, the answer is that women voters aren’t ruled by gender so much as issues. Yes, I checked off female judicial candidates because they were women but also because they’re Democrats. Over on the Republican side of the ticket, Judy Baar Topinka earned the right to challenge Rod Blagojevich for the governorship. She would be the first woman to hold that office in Illinois. I would love to see that happen—if she were affiliated with a different party. I won’t be voting for her in November, although I would be happy to help her choose a hair color found in nature.

I tried to cast my second ballot for Chris Daughtry, who’s running for American Idol. Between 9:10 and 10:33 p.m. (Central time), I placed five calls to 1-866-IDOLS-04. The line was busy every time. Clearly I need to work on my dialing technique.

“Idol” is the sort of show I could take or leave and I haven’t followed it with any particular interest since Season 1. I find the whole concept of a musical “idol” irksome. Do we need another Madonna, with her limited vocal range and dreams of world domination? Fans of Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, J. Lo and Beyonce seem to think so.

Me, I’m not so interested in this constellation of star power, with their bootylicious dance routines and Red Carpet mannequin poses. I’m not looking for an untouchable god or goddess, I want someone real. When I first moved to Chicago, I fell asleep every night listening to Shawn Colvin’s “Steady On” CD. I was homesick, lonely and heartbroken. Shawn understood. She had been there too, and I found comfort in her words.

Last night’s guest svengali, Barry Manilow—not an idol. But he knows how to connect with his audience. The same can be said for Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Carole King—none a vocal powerhouse or conventional good looker but superstars all the same.

I’m not saying Chris Daughtry is of this ilk. But he strikes me as someone more interested in becoming a musical artist than a designer of perfume fragrances and clothing lines. I can not say the same for the others.

Not to name names, but Kellie Pickler. This girl has some singing chops. But not much else.

Ryan Seacrest to Kellie: “So, what’s new this week?”
Ryan: “Anything going on?Kellie: “Look, it’s a pickle,” gesturing to sign in the audience.

Get it, “pickle/Pickler.” I’m not so sure she did. I got the feeling that if you unscrewed the top of her head and looked inside, you would find the cast of “Lost” staring down a bottomless hatch hole.


Luminous Sightings

The New Yorker, March 20 issue, pg. 150, “Mysterious Skin” by Paul Goldberger: “I was glad I wasn’t behind the wheel when I rode in a car to the arena at night, since I couldn’t take my eyes off its luminous form and unsettling monumentality.”

Television and online ads for Maybelline’s new Superstay Lipcolor: “16 feel-good hours of luminous color.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Needs Another Coat

Call me the Goldilocks of outerwear. I’ve got eight coats in my closet, none of them just right.

I trace my obsession with this particular garment back to the sixth grade, when Starr Elementary shipped our entire class of hard core suburbanites off to the wilds of Michigan for one of those week-long back-to-nature experiences. In February.

The bus dumped us off at Camp Storer and after a quick orientation, we set off for our cabins. The boys’ were located just outside the main activity center and dining hall; the girls had a mile hike through the snow and woods. We were floored. Lisa Perry and Jamie McNeal had combined their packing efforts and were sharing the sort of steamer trunk that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Titanic. Camp Storer did not provide porters.

But at least these classmates were prepared, sartorially speaking, with their snowsuits and ski boots, purchased expressly for the occasion. I had on my everyday brown plaid wool coat, with faux fur trim on the cuffs and hood—it wasn’t waterproof and neither were my corduroys. My vinyl boots lacked both tread and lining, suitable for walking a few blocks on shoveled sidewalks, completely insufficient for tramping through a winter wonderland. I would be wet. I would be cold. I would be wet and cold.

It was a long week.

Like so many childhood memories, this one sticks in my craw in a Scarlett O’Hara with-God-as-my-witness-I-will-never-be-caught-without-Goretex-again kind of way. Yet the ghost of the brown plaid continues to haunt me as each successive outerwear purchase proves ever-so-slightly flawed, not quite up to the task at hand.

  • Too flimsy: Banana Republic black wool overcoat. The fabric suggests winter. The wafer thin lining says otherwise. Completely useless when the mercury dips below 50 degrees, which describes Chicago from October to June. Would work best in spring if it weren’t, well, black and wool. Mostly it just hangs around the closet, giving its heftier counterparts a complex about their body image.

  • Too hefty: Eddie Bauer black polar parka, goosedown filling, hood with lamb’s fur “ruff.” My favorite line from “It’s a Wonderful Life” comes courtesy of Violet and goes something like, “This old thing? Why I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.” I believe she was modeling this coat. I trot it out whenever temps go sub-zero, adding bulk to my frame like Barry Bonds after a summer of “weight lifting.” I am consoled solely by the knowledge that no one I know could possibly ID me through the ginormous hood. The “ruff” comes with its own comb, by the way. I reach into the coat pocket and think I’ve found my keys, loose change or missing CTA fare card. It is always the comb.

  • Too dressy: Gap cotton trench coat in robin’s egg blue. The color is Audrey Hepburn gorgeous. Alas, I am more likely to be found browsing for deals at Costco than breakfasting at Tiffany’s.

  • Too frumpy: Old Navy quilted cotton barn jacket, chocolate brown with corduroy accent on collar and pockets. Fits like a paper sack. Somehow manages to be too casual yet not quite casual enough—equally ill at ease going out to dinner or taking a walk in the park.

  • Too short: Gap wool pea coat, charcoal gray. Doesn’t even cover my butt. Fashionistas may extol the merits of tiny cropped winter jackets. I can only imagine that beautiful people or, at minimum, the designer-clothed do not experience cold the same as the rest of us. How lovely for them.

  • Too long: Jones of New Work, gray wool overcoat. I think this one technically qualifies as a burkha. I’ll admit, the full-body coverage is mighty toasty on the coldest of days and the ankle-length splashguard is killer whenever the forecast calls for precipitation. (My particular form of ambulation causes me to kick up spray onto my slacks like a semi-truck on a rainy highway.) But this coat is at least two sizes too large, as if Nicole Richie happened upon Kirstie Alley’s wardrobe. I hang onto it simply because if I’m ever homeless, it will make a kick-ass mattress.

  • Too derivative: Gap down parka, silver-grey, with hood. Polar parka puffy + pea coat short + barn jacket ugly = one woeful garment.

  • Too frustratingly close to perfection: Kenneth Cole black down coat with geometric quilted pattern. The warmth of down with none of the bulk. Hits below the calf. Plays well with others, be it a pair of jeans or boots and a skirt. But just misses the mark. It doesn’t have a hood but instead boasts a double collar that when fully zipped forms a sort of turtleneck. I never, never, never wear turtlenecks. They swallow up my pinhead. For the same reason, I can’t wear hats. I find what I think is the smallest adult-sized chapeau ever manufactured. I place it on my head. It droops halfway down my nose. Hence the importance of hoods.

I continue my pursuit of the One Coat to Rule Them All. My friend Aleks has this North Face black parka with hood….

Friday, March 17, 2006

News of the Week

Scissors Cut Paper: You might want to brush up on the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” rules. Seems it’s now an organized sport. More than 300 people from across the U.S. will compete in a national tournament, April 9 in Las Vegas. The winner will receive $50,000. That’s right, $50,000. What’s next—Red Rover, Freeze Tag? I’m thinking of organizing my own competition. Anyone up for Hopscotch?

Behind Every Famous Man…: Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” has had a death grip on the bestseller list for the past three years. A movie version is due in May, starring Tom Hanks and his haircut. During the current copyright infringement trial against Brown’s publisher (brought by the authors of the awesomely titled “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”), we learned that Brown’s wife Blythe conducted a hefty portion of the research for the book and provided some of the more provocative ideas included in the “Code.” So now we’re clear on who to blame for “The Last Templar.”

I’ll Drink to That: A Norwegian woman turned on her kitchen faucet, and beer came pouring out. At the pub downstairs, employees were “horrified” to discover the reverse—water coming out of the beer taps. Seems someone at the bar accidentally hooked the beer hoses to the apartment’s water pipes. All was eventually righted. In a related item, Ireland reported soaring enrollment in plumping courses.

What’s in a Name?: U.S. and Iraqi forces announced “Operation Swarmer,” aimed at insurgent strongholds. I keep mis-reading this as “Operation Shwarma,” which would be really tasty with some hummus and pita bread on the side. When did the military start releasing the code names of its offensives? And when did they become so ridiculous? The Pentagon has, like, a gazillion dollar budget. Note to Rummy: Put a couple of Hollywood copywriters on the payroll. How about “Rambo VII: The Search for Rocket Propelled Grenades.” Or, I know this one is taken but Tom Cruise might loan it out, “Mission Impossible.”

It’s Miller Time: I’ve been following Bode Miller so you don’t have to. The over-hyped Olympic bust finished first in the season’s final World Cup Super G. So he doesn’t actually suck at this whole going-downhill-on-skis thing. Miller now claims that perhaps he was a little too eager to excel in Torino, and pushed himself to take too many chances. “Arousal-control” has always been an issue, he says. I think Levitra just found itself a new pitch man.


Call it March Madness, but I correctly picked #12 Montana over #5 Nevada in the NCAA Tourney. I’m just sayin’. Of course, some Pavlovian reflex also caused me to once again predict Connecticut in the championship game. I have no affiliation or attachment to this team, I just like saying UConn. Come on guys, U Conn do it!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Off Track

You have to hand it to the city’s traffic and weather personalities (hey, show me your meteorology degree and I’ll be happy to call you a bona fide Weather Man). They work hard for their money. It’s not everyone who can gesture vaguely in front of a green screen or announce for the umpteenth time that “traffic is building on all the major expressways.” The latter being the Windy City equivalent of Hawaii’s 80 degrees and sunny.

(Oh, the bitter pill they all must have swallowed when Mike Barz graduated to Good Morning America’s weather spot from the WGN sports—sports—desk.)

So I don’t really blame them for over-hyping every 30 percent chance of showers, every gaper’s delay. We all know by now that the Storm of the Century usually translates into flurries. As I await today’s much ballyhooed 4-8 inches of snow—north of Interstate-88, as if flakes will refuse to cross the median—I’m fully confident that were I to vow to make snow angels buck naked in the back yard, I will not have to fulfill that pledge.

No, what really annoys me is Ken and Barbie’s habit of encouraging citizens of our fair city to “take public transportation” in the face of actual or imagined traffic and weather emergencies. As if this would be a jolly fine way to avoid an aggravating commute.

Um, have they met the Chicago Transit Authority?

If they had, these Talking Heads would know that any condition less than optimal is precisely when the CTA is most likely to fail. Rain, snow or construction—buses will grind to the same halt as your car. Anyone else remember those 45-minute waits for Red Line trains following the Blizzard of ’99? I mean, CTA can’t even grasp the concept of running more trains to accommodate Cubs games. (Truly, I think there should be separate trains, or minimally cars, for Cubs fans, particularly first-time riders. Rush hour commuters coming off another wretched work day are not amused by your frivolity, drunkenness or inability to master the art of maintaining an upright stance when the conductor slams on the brakes.)

Regular commuters all have their horror stories, which vary by degree much like Homeland Security's color-coded Terror Alerts.

Green--Low: Minor common annoyances such as people who think their fare also covers a seat for their backpack, and riders who begin moving toward the doors a full two stops before they actually intend on exiting.

Blue--Guarded: Shoe-horning oneself onto a bus or train with no air conditioning. Face firmly planted in another rider’s over-ripe armpit. (A corollary: Never, and I do mean never, believe the “another train is immediately following” message. Oh really—show me the headlights.)

Yellow--Elevated: Fellow passengers missing the majority of their mental faculties. The crazy woman who shouts passages from her Bible; the crazy man who claims to be blind and begs for money in a robotic monotone; the woman who, upon exiting the train, moons you while pulling her underwear out from between her cheeks.

Orange--High: Foul odors and noxious fumes. Despite successive fare hikes, CTA remains relatively affordable as Porta Potties go. If it happens to be winter, you can try stuffing your nose in your scarf, but this will not provide adequate defense. The true pro can exit one rail car and enter another in a single stop.

Red--Severe: Here’s where we find the most valiant of our transit warriors, survivors of the truly hideous commute. My personal best:

Picture a nondescript evening on the Red Line.
6:00 p.m.: I debark at Belmont for a haircut appointment at Milios.
6:30 p.m: I return to the platform, where I catch a Brown Line to Kimball. I should be home in 20 minutes.
6:30:15 p.m.: The train stops, just feet outside the station. Not unusual, as this marks a junction of three different lines.
6:30:30 p.m.: Rail power is cut. Kill the lights and air conditioning. The car is not particularly full, but does include a pack of teenagers (which, on its own, rates an Orange). Passengers exchange querying looks. I pull out my book.
7:00 p.m.: The pre-recorded message informs us “We are experiencing delays.”
7:15 p.m.: The conductor appears. He silently begins to unlock and open the windows. I do not take this as a good sign.
7:15:01 p.m.: I call my husband from my cell. I ask him to check local news for any reports that might explain why we’re stuck. He turns up nothing and flips back to the Cubs game. He stays on the line to offer play by play.
7:40 p.m.: We’re informed of a house fire along the tracks. Rail power has been cut for the safety of the firefighters. It starts to rain in the open windows.
7:40:00:01 p.m.: I fight off claustrophobia and panic attack. We are never going to get off this train!
7:40:00:05 p.m.: I consider crying.
7:40:00:10 p.m.: I wonder what would happen if I pound on the doors and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
7:40:00:15 p.m.: I start to question why the CTA would let our train leave the station seconds before cutting the power.
7:40:00:20 p.m.: I begin composing vitriolic messages to CTA Chief Frank Kruesi.
8:10 p.m.: The conductor speaks! We will be moving shortly.
8:40 p.m.: The train lurches forward.

The next morning, Chuck Betzold pops into my office. He thinks he has a whopper of a CTA tale. He was on the platform at Belmont, waiting for a Brown Line, when service was cut. He had to call his son for a ride home. Oh, silly Chuck.

His is a bubble begging to be burst, and I pull out my pin-prick of a horror story.

So I ask of you, Mr. Winter Storm Warning, and you, Ms. Bottleneck on the Eisenhower, is this what you had in mind?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Sounds of Un-Silence

How awesome would it be to work from home, you think. You could lounge around in sweat pants, surf the Internet at your leisure, cut your commute time down to nothing, and tune into Oprah or the occasional soap opera if so inclined. You could be the Master of your own schedule. And sure, you might miss shooting the breeze with co-workers, but you’ll never have to hear the words “outside the box” again unless you speak them to yourself in jest.

It’s all true, and mostly all good.

But there is a dark side, young Jedi: Noise.

Your average hermetically sealed office tower or campus not only pens you in, it also keeps the rest of the aggravating world at bay.

Barking dogs, vacuum cleaners, car alarms, lawn mowers—the banes of any home office located with earshot of a neighbor. All operate at decibels higher than sounds encountered in your typical cubicle—conversation, copy machines, telephones—and all can be heard right outside my door. Reams have been written about one particularly offensive piece of yard equipment. A Google search will turn up “Leaf Blowers: Scourge of Humanity.” I’m not sure the title was harsh enough.

Our handyman loves his leaf blower, wielding it for hours at a time, several days a week during peak foliage season. In fact, if I hadn’t seen our condo association budget, I’d swear we were paying him by the leaf. No molecule escapes his blast. At our annual meeting, I asked if we could purchase him a silencer as part of his Christmas bonus. No one thought I was funny, or serious.

For the past two days, I have been serenaded by jackhammers and the sort of saw blade that cuts through concrete. We are having the rear porches replaced for the entire building, based on an engineering report that pronounced them “structurally unsound.” Was that really such a bad thing?

The jackhammer clocks in at 120 decibels, the equivalent of a jet takeoff. A jet takeoff that lasts eight hours. I’m ready to throw myself out the window or cry.

And now it is my turn to envy my neighbors, those lucky stiffs who leave in the morning before the work crew arrives and return at night after they’ve left.

How awesome would it be to work outside the home.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Strangers on the Train

Because I used to work in marketing, I’ve seen demographic breakdowns of Chicago’s population by ZIP code—race, gender, age, income, education level. As often as you hear that the city is racially segregated, there’s nothing like a printout of ZIPs with 98 percent white residents or 98 percent black to hammer home the point.

I don’t know how much companies pay for this sort of research—all you really need to do is ride the “L.”

Take the Red Line south to 95th. Count the white people on board after the Chinatown stop. If you need more than 10 fingers, there must be a Sox game—witness the mass exodus at 35th Street. On my own line, the Brown, it’s elbow to elbow during evening rush until Southport or Paulina, where we lose most of the yuppies. The last of the gentrifiers usually debark at Rockwell, which is where I bid farewell to the three people left in my car, almost always Latino.

On Friday (March 10), an estimated 100,000 immigrants held a rally in the Loop to protest proposed federal legislation that would crack down on those who employ or help illegal immigrants (read “Mexicans”). Workers and students walked off the job and out of the classroom to join the throng. The Chicago Tribune quoted one attendee: “Most people don’t realize how much work we do, but it’s part of their daily lives. We are putting up all the buildings and cooking all the food.” And, I might add, doing all of the landscaping along the city’s premier tourist attraction, Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile.

I didn’t know about the rally when I boarded the Brown Line on Friday at about 4 p.m., heading north. The train was packed when it pulled into Armitage, unusual for that time of day. I squeezed into the car and hung onto the pole near the door, doing my best to protect a set of newly purchased wine glasses from the crush.

The car was filled with Latinos. Subdued, but chatty. Adults, high schoolers, men, women, small children. Suddenly I was the minority.

It wasn’t so much unsettling as weird. And I thought about what it must be like to have this experience every single day.

How does it feel to stand out in the proverbial crowd? To be noticeably different, to be singled out. How does it feel to wonder if judgments are being made about you based solely on your appearance? How does it feel to be constantly on edge, watchful, on guard?

I stepped off the train at Western (Rockwell has been completely razed). My life as a minority had lasted all of 20 minutes. Were it my permanent status, I would have to say, not a lot of fun.

The next day, a Saturday, I took the train to Lakeview to hang out with my friend Aleks. We spent the afternoon walking along the lakefront, basking in the kind of warmth that lulls people into believing March is actually spring.

Again, I boarded the Brown Line north to home at about 4 p.m. Again, the train was a sardine can on electrified tracks. Cars were jammed with twentysomething white kids returning from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, all of them having apparently bar-hopped the entire return trip. And again, I found myself a minority, the rare sober individual among the intoxicated, my clothing conspicuously devoid of shamrocks in a sea of kelly green Jameson t-shirts. The revelers’ obnoxiously garrulous conversations seemed to congeal into a single word, “Dude.” I plowed through the group blocking the door and looked for a safe position, away from the swaying girls in their Mardi Gras beads and plastic leis. I felt watchful, on guard, on edge, alert for potential vomiters or otherwise rude behavior.

The group was gone by Addison, where the taverns and pubs give way to a higher proportion of housing and adults over the age of 25. I exchanged eye rolls and “phews” with the couple sitting across from me.

I ponder these two commutes and which made me feel more uneasy. I have to go with the drunks. I’ve observed this crowd before, usually clustered around Wrigley Field. Peeing in alleys. Throwing up on the sidewalk. Fighting.

Then I think about the Latinos, struggling to gain a toe-hold in this country. I see them with their families, picnicking in the park every Sunday during the summer, setting up nets and playing volleyball with their soccer equipment.

And I question whether we’re talking about deporting the right people.

Friday, March 10, 2006

News of the Week

Call the Exterminator: Paleontologists are excited to report the survival of a rat-squirrel thought to have been extinct for 11 million years. Originally believed to be an entirely new species, the nocturnal rodent lives in Laotian forests and was traced through fossil records to its ancient ancestors. The natives apparently are less enthralled by what anyone other than a scientist would consider a disgusting pest. Researchers first spotted the creature for sale at a Laotian meat market. They may have outlasted the dinosaurs, but can they outwit the cheese and glue trap?

Can You Spare a Square: Armed with a plunger and a mop, two motel maids in South Carolina duked it out over rolls of toilet paper. One landed in the hospital, the other in jail. The fracas broke out after the pair accused each other of stealing rolls from each other’s cart. Mr. Whipple will preside over the trial and the Charmin Bears—Leonard, Molly, Bill, Dylan and Amy, I kid you not—will sit on the jury.

Seniors Are Slackers, Too: Older Americans are no longer interested in working themselves to death. A recent government report shows that only 19 percent of men 65 and older were part of the labor force in 2003, down from 46 percent in 1950. Researchers attribute the trend to the growth in private pensions and investments, as well as Social Security and Medicare benefits. For further insight, I turned to my father, who retired at age 58 after losing his job to a merger. “Dad, why would you rather play golf than work as a greeter at Wal-Mart?” His reply, “Duh.”

Enron’s Silver Lining: I continue to follow the Enron trial so you don’t have to. This week the prosecution’s star witness Andrew Fastow, the company’s former chief financial officer, took the stand. My apologies, but because I was an English major, it’s impossible for me to interpret or otherwise summarize his business-speak testimony, apart from quoting that he was told to “buy Enron assets that had lost significant value and wipe millions in debt from the books.” I have no idea what that means, but I’m guessing it wasn’t a particularly responsible or legal thing to do. But it didn’t take an accounting degree to understand the related item in this week’s Chicago Tribune. Our own Peoples Energy was in cahoots with Enron back in 2000-01 and overcharged its customers during an unusually arctic winter. Over the next year, Peoples will credit each of its customers a total of $100 as part of a $196 million settlement. I know what I’m doing with my cash—cranking the thermostat up to 68.

Nothing to Crow About: Lance Armstrong spent a day comforting the now-orphaned child of Dana and Christopher Reeve, following the death of the boy’s mother earlier this week. And we know this why? Seriously, who sent out the press release on this one. Apparently Lance wasn’t getting enough media attention for breaking up with fiancée Sheryl Crow right before her surgery for breast cancer. What a swell guy.

Not Quite Opening Day: I’m sort of following the World Baseball Classic (or whatever it’s called) so you don’t have to. Today’s headline, “U.S. Shows No Mercy to South Africa,” initially grabbed my attention because I couldn’t for the life of me think how our government managed to squeeze in a grudge against South Africa what with the Axis of Evil still at large. But I digress. The U.S. squad, led by the incomparable Roger Clemens, smoked its rivals 17-0 and advanced to the second round. Whose next on the schedule, that perennial powerhouse Lithuania?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Be Very Afraid

The attack ads are back! The attack ads are back!

It’s about time.

Firmly entrenched as a Blue State, Illinois was ignoooored by both the Bush and Kerry camps in 2004, a snub of Glenn Close-ian proportions. We didn’t even merit a stop on the Swift Boat Veterans for Semi-Truths and Downright Falsehoods tour. If I hadn’t traveled to Swing State Central to visit family in Ohio, I might not have known it was even an election year.

But now we find ourselves in the midst of gubernatorial primary season. The incumbent, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, is taking the high road. I’m sure he’ll mudsling with the best of them in the general election, once he has an actual opponent (and I don’t mean the Eisendrath dude with the ninja chainsaw jugglers), but for now he’s content with reminding us that he fought for affordable prescription drugs for helpless seniors and health care coverage for innocent little children. And if he made a few mistakes along the way with the budget, well he’ll try to do better next time.

The Republican challengers have fixated on the word “corruption,” flinging it at Blago and each other. Each, of course, promises to “clean up government,” “protect pensions” (who still has one of these?), and “work for you.” The clichés are so hackneyed and repetitive as to render the candidates indistinguishable from one another. Judy Baar Topinka stands out solely on the merits of her unfortunate dye job.

I long for those heady days back in 2002, when repeat Republican aspirant Jim Oberweis featured a flyover of Soldier Field and warned us that a stadium full of illegal immigrants was pouring into the country every day. I suppose as governor of Illinois, he would personally patrol our borders with Iowa and Wisconsin. We need him on that wall! Now that was a memorable ad, though probably not for the reasons intended. Mr. Oberweis made his fortune selling milk in expensive glass bottles to rich people, the very constituents who hire illegal immigrants to clean their homes, raise their children and mow their lawns. He got beat in the primary by Jack “I took my wife to sex clubs” Ryan.

Yet if even the dullest ad for State Treasurer spares me one more viewing of Volkswagen’s horrendous “My Fast” commercials, I will kiss Ron Gidwitz full on the mouth.

Ostensibly, these spots promote the VW GTI. Why exactly they feature a globular demon to embody the “Fast” of the car isn’t quite clear. The drivers in the ads are all men, apparently because the GTI is being sold as a “high performance” vehicle. And all are in thrall to the aforementioned goblin, which looks like the sort of creature Super Mario dispatched by the hundreds in his quest to save Princess Zelda. Some people find the Fast to be more than a little misogynistic, encouraging one driver to ignore his girlfriend’s pleas to roll up the windows and preserve what’s left of her no-longer-nicely-coiffed hair.

I just think the Fast is creepy, with his vaguely electronic Voice of Satan, and I get a little scared whenever these ads pop up. It actually took me several viewings to realize the Fast didn’t come with the car as the plug-in from Hell. But that just means these drivers are unstable individuals whose imaginary friend fills their heads with evil thoughts.

I propose a new category on Don’, which exposes cheaters to the entire world wide web in the form of a searchable database. How about a GTI channel? Spot one in a parking lot and post its license plate on the site. Meet a guy who owns one—before running in the opposite direction, be sure to get his name.

The AMA has been busy the past couple of days warning young women to avoid binge drinking and group sex during spring break. If they really are concerned about our safety as a gender, I recommend they amend their advice to include: Steer clear of the Fast.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Year of Being Crazy

With memoirs suffering from an image problem, what’s left for non-fiction writers whose name isn’t Doris Kearns Goodwin?

Enter the I’ll-do-anything-for-a-year-if-it-means-I’ll-get-a-book-deal genre.

Danny Wallace said “yes” to everything for a year, and tells us all about it in “Yes Man.” Judith Levine has just come out with “Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping,” in which she gives up all but necessities (leading to a discussion on whether one can live without Q-tips).

It should be easy to locate this category in your local bookstore—just look for the longest titles on the shelf. Witness A.J. Jacobs “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World” (he read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica) or Julie Powell’s “Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes,1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.” If it takes a colon to explain your high concept, you’ve found your calling.

Because I lean toward the obsessive-compulsive myself, I’m intrigued by the discipline and rigid rules required to pull off a year of anything. Because I’m also looking for that One Big Idea that will justify quitting my job last year, I’m starting to seriously ponder my options. Since imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, as well as the lazy person’s way out, a few ideas immediately spring to mind.

There’s “Just Say No,” my year of turning down everything. Because I’m oppositional by nature, this won’t be that big of a stretch. The possible scenarios are endless.

At a restaurant:
“Are you ready to order?”
“Shall I give you a few more minutes?”

It’ll be the new “Who’s on first?” Leno and Letterman will both come calling, although of course I’ll have to turn them down.

Or I could take my cue from Jacobs and become the dumbest person in the world.

I would limit my reading to James Patterson and US Weekly and my movie viewing to the oeuvre of David Spade. I would listen to nothing but Country music. (Seriously, try to top this lyric: “I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.”) I would get all my news from “Regis & Kelly.” I would spend alternate weekends with Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton. I would stop believing in evolution, and perhaps science and modern medicine altogether.

I’m not sure I want to inflict that sort of pain on myself, but I wouldn’t mind riffing on Julie Powell, who went through every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

I will master the art of the grilled cheese. Or perhaps the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There are dozens, nay, hundreds of varieties of bread out there, scores of different cheeses and the whole chunky vs. creamy and jelly vs. jam debates to explore. If I can’t eke out 365 different permutations, I’ll expand my repertoire to include any recipe with Cream of Mushroom Soup as an ingredient.

But I think my favorite idea is “The Year of Living Irresponsibly,” in which Dave and I spend beyond our means. We will swap out our home décor every season, just like they show in the catalogs, and have all new furniture, drapes, area rugs, shower curtains and kitchenware to match the varying moods of winter, spring, summer and fall. We will max out the thread count on our sheets and just make the minimum payment on our credit cards. In fact, we will apply for every card that sends us a form in the mail. We will stop putting money in our 401(k). We will stop going to matinees. We’ll get cable TV, heck, let’s even throw in the premium channels. We will cut up our Costco card and refuse to buy anything on “special.” We will book expensive direct flights during peak travel times. We will never wear the same article of clothing twice, including underwear, socks and sports bras—all labels must be designer and preferably Made in Italy as opposed to Made in Thailand. I will have a closet full of nothing but handbags. We will luxuriate in every spa and cosmetic treatment short of surgery. If we’re looking a little pale, we won’t spray on our coloring, we’ll get our tan the old-fashioned way, on a beach in the Bahamas. We will eat out three meals a day, boycotting all restaurants that qualify as “cheap chow,” and order the most expensive items on the menu. Water that hasn’t been bottled will never cross our lips. We will lose our fully-loaded public transit fare cards—we won’t need them anyway because we’ll take cabs everywhere. We will insist upon paying full price for prescription medications and all health care procedures, and will visit doctors out of network whenever we feel like it.

We will buy, buy, buy. Spend, spend, spend. We will have the best of everything.

The book practically writes itself. And so does the sequel, “Our Year of Debt Consolidation.”

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cross Training

If you are married and at all attached to your spouse, perhaps you share my reaction to Joan Didion’s bestselling “The Year of Magical Thinking.” It goes something like, “I’m screwed.”

Didion’s account of the year following the death of her husband is unbearably heartbreaking—and sobering. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” she writes of the sudden heart attack that changed her life. Whether you’re a newlywed or about to celebrate four decades together, you realize at some point this will be you. The widow. The widower. The one left behind.

I wrap my arms around Dave and say, “Don’t die.” I am staggered by the shared experiences we have accumulated in the years since our first date, and the way they supersede everything that came before. I am astounded by the number of times each day he says something that makes me laugh or smile. I am amazed by the breadth of catch phrases and in-jokes we have developed, and the unique language they form. I am overwhelmed by how foolish I have been to allow myself to become so utterly dependent on one lone individual for happiness, support, comfort, security, companionship. So intertwined.

I fought this at first. Wouldn’t let him drive me places. Wouldn’t merge our finances. Wouldn’t let him wheel our grocery-laden cart home from the supermarket.

Wouldn’t rely on him.

The relenting was imperceptibly gradual. But now is complete.

Barring an unforeseen illness or sudden accident, we are still young enough, there is still time enough, to prepare for that instant when nothing is ever again the same. I propose a strict cross-training regimen that will leave us, in the other’s absence, if not armored against grief, then at least capable of basic functionality.

I will start to take out the garbage. I will go to Blockbuster and rent a video. I will open jars. I will wash the car, have the tires rotated and the oil changed. I will attempt to affix something to the wall, which means I’ll have to learn how to operate the power drill, the stud finder and the level, and probably figure out the difference between an anchor and a nail. I will mop the kitchen floor. I will watch “Meet the Press.”

He will pick out curtains for the living room and a paint color for the spare bedroom. Stay abreast of celebrity gossip. Choose ripe avocados and melons. Make the bed. Pay the bills. Prepare our taxes. Send the Christmas cards. He will attempt to whip up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, which means he’ll have to learn how to operate the stand mixer, and figure out the difference between the dough hook, whisk and paddle attachments. He will organize the photo albums. He will read The New Yorker.

“You are no longer of use to me,” I laughingly say whenever I accomplish a task that falls under his area of expertise, like reaching something down from a really high shelf.

But I know this isn’t true.

I’m screwed.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Day After

Do 1 billion people really watch the Oscars? I don’t think so. Do they know what they’re missing? Clearly not.

We watched the Academy Awards at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, a significant upgrade from our own little hovel, as they have cable and we do not. For years I have made do with our local Red Carpet coverage: Roger Ebert reports for one of Chicago’s network affiliates; WGN-TV turns the night over to Sam Rubin and sister station KTLA.

Because the pre-Oscar telecast matters far more than the actually handing out of gender-neutral golden statuettes, the prospect of flipping between Giuliana DePandi on E! and Joan and Melissa on the TV Guide Channel felt like Christmas morning.

I can now confirm that there is absolutely no difference between the insipid art of the celebrity interview on broadcast or cable television, particularly with Isaac Mizrahi on a strict no-groping diet. In fact, Ebert (a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic) looks like Edward Murrow compared to Ryan Seacrest, who looks like Edward Murrow compared to Giuliana.

DePandi provided some of the best laughs of the night. “You don’t know how early to arrive,” she said of the nominees. “You don’t want to look like … a tool.” (Cut to shot of Rachel Weisz.) I don’t think I’ve ever heard “a tool” spoken in quite this context. Surely this must rank up there with the Three 6 Mafia “historical” win as a new first for Oscar.

Then there was her assessment of the celeb publicist’s salary. It must be $2,000 or $3,000…a month, she estimated. Yes, that must be it Giuli. George Clooney’s flack must make 25 grand a year to issue all those he’s-not-dating-Teri Hatcher-they’re-just-good-friends denials. Let’s add a couple of zeros.

Toss in Billy Bush and Co., and it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite moment from among the Night of a Thousand Miscues.

  • The Smile, You’re Not Katie Holmes Award. Fellow “Dawson Creek” alum Michelle Williams bagged Best Actor runner-up Heath Ledger and an Oscar nomination of her own, and got down to her pre-pregnancy weight like a good little starlet. So why must she always look so glum? It’s like she lost the baby fat and her sense of humor. You’ve got TomKat jumping on couches, while Wedger crawls under it. Asked how she was able to dig so deep to find the character of Alma, she responded, “I had a great performance to react to,” as she shot a root-canaled Look of Love to Heath.

  • The I’ll Say Anything to Get Away from This Guy Award: George Clooney promised Mizrahi, “If I do win, I’m thanking you.” Didn’t happen.

  • The Who Let Him in Here Award. Joan Rivers meets Gary Busey. The question on my mind: Who’s had more work done on their face? The question on Gary’s: What is a smart blonde? Answer: A Labrador retriever. Joan closed the interview with, “Missy, back to you. It couldn’t get worse.”

  • The Here’s Why Screenwriters Should Make a Lot More Money Award. A previous contender in the Best Actress category, Naomi Watts didn’t want to talk to Seacrest about pal Nicole Kidman’s rumored impending nuptials. But she did want to talk about her ride to the Oscars. She came in a Lexus hybrid that gets, like, 20mpg. “We’re just doing what we can,” she said of her efforts to save the environment. Wow, Naomi, really?! Twenty whole miles per gallon. That’s showing the simple folk how to break their addiction to foreign oil.

Lots of yellow. Lots of nude lipstick. And, who knew, evening gowns have sprouted pockets.

Hits: Michelle Williams (the color looked better as the night wore on), Keira Knightley (demerit for the junior high school bow in her hair), Jennifer Garner, Jennifer Lopez, Uma Thurman, Reese Witherspoon

Misses: Naomi Watts (blondes may have more fun but they shouldn’t wear flesh tones), Nicold Kidman (ditto), Felicity Huffman (I’m not a fan of the peek-a-boob), Sandra Bullock (there’s a difference between casual up-do and bangs courtesy of a wind tunnel), Charlize Theron (prom dress gone wild), Salma Hayek (her one-shouldered gown unbalanced her cleavage)

The Men: Two words—Clooney, Bana. Everyone else can go home.

Somebody better re-hire Jon Stewart for next year. Somebody better fire producer Gil Cates.

Stewart was sharp, the jokes were smart, he was quick with reactions and his political commercials for Best Actress were pure genius. The man found a way to turn “Munich” into a joke. That alone deserves an Oscar.

Cates, on the other hand, weighed the show down with pointless montages. “Holy crap, we’ve run out of clips,” Stewart quipped. But it was no laughing matter. After an hour and a half, 10 Oscars had been awarded. At the two-and-a-half hour point, the number was up to 13. And we’d seen nearly as many montages. Seriously, what was Lauren Bacall introducing? Films in black-and-white? I was so busy hoping she wouldn’t suffer a stroke on stage, I lost all powers of concentration.

Personal highlights:

  • By 8:50, not a single winner had thanked the Academy, but the newly-Oscared costumer designer gave props to the “people of Japan.”

  • “Luminous” sighting: Best Supporting Actress Rachel Weisz throws a bone to her overlooked co-star. “I’d like to thank Ralph Fiennes, my luminous acting partner.”

  • Charlize Theron turns “memoir” into a foreign word. Quoth my sister-in-law: “Who does she think she is—Gwyneth Paltrow?”

  • I can’t help wondering why Cates didn’t ask Beyonce to sing “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”

  • George Clooney refused to attend the Academy Awards until he was nominated. Explain the appearance of Three Jennifers and a Jessica. Quick, name the Oscar-worthy films Jennifers Garner, Lopez and Aniston and the ubiquitous Jessica Alba have graced. Time’s up. They look good in pretty dresses. That shouldn’t be the only prerequisite needed to score a ticket to the Governor’s Ball.

  • Diana Ossana, Best Adapted Screenplay winner, gives credit to Annie Proulx, who penned the short story that became the punchline “Brokeback.” “She’s sitting right over there,” Ossana said. And the camera panned to…Ang Lee.

  • Hooray for Larry McMurtry. It’s 11:10 and somebody finally thanked their lawyer!

  • And the Best Picture Award goes to…Crash. I almost saw that one coming. But who would’ve predicted Paul Haggis’ wife as most likely to suffer a wardrobe malfunction.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Week in News

Belgians Take Coke Bottles to Netherlands. The Associated Press reports that thrifty Belgians are gathering up their Coca-Cola bottles and taking them to the Netherlands to collect the deposit from Dutch supermarkets. Wasn’t this a “Seinfeld” episode? And raise your hand if you thought the Belgians were the Dutch.

The Handwritten Note Gains Currency. It seems that people are suddenly charmed by the handwritten note. How do we know this? Because handbag designer Kate Spade agrees—in fact, she’s just launched a line of high-end stationery. Quoth an NYC graphic artist: “The handwritten note is elitist and therefore a must for the fashion-conscious set. Of course, it must be written on fabulously heavyweight monogrammed stationery.” People in Nebraska read these kinds of statements and think folks from big cities are high-falutin’ crackpots. And this is why George W. Bush is president. New Yorkers, I beg you, think before you speak. At least until December 2008.

Poll Aims to Find Best-Kept Bathrooms. Five finalists have been named in the contest to spotlight businesses that maintain “exceptional hygiene, with style.” Sponsored by a bathroom supply company, the online poll is open to voters at The winner will be announced in April. Wouldn’t we all be better served by a guide to the worst public restrooms. And it has to be written by women—guys’ standards in this area are not to be trusted. Among my personal Top 10:

  • Toll plazas along the Indiana Turnpike; the sort of bathrooms where you poke open each and every stall at arm’s length and then choose the least disgusting option.

  • The National Park System—I know funding is an issue and you can’t expect five-star toilets on the trail up a mountainside, or even anything flushable, and we’re really here for the spectacular views, but Holy Horror Stories, Batman! If you’re trekking down the Grand Canyon and can hold your breath for vast periods of time and don’t mind flies landing all over exposed body parts, knock yourself out at the provided facilities.

  • Interestingly, any place of business where I’ve been employed. Ladies, do you make this sort of mess at home?

  • PortaPotties at outdoor festivals. I’m not even gonna go there.

Witness Says Enron Management Team Lied. Ever since I rented “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” I’ve become mildly obsessed with the trials of Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, who are charged with lying to defraud investors. Because I believe everything I see, I’m convinced these two are Dr. Evil and Satan, or at the barest minimum, greedy bastards. But I’m trying to keep an open mind. So I paid a visit to, where I learned that Ken is innocent of all charges and Enron’s bankruptcy can pretty much be blamed on the shady dealings of Andrew Fastow, Enron’s chief financial officer. Well thanks for setting me straight, Ken.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

From the Sacred to the Profane

So, what are you giving up for Lent?

I claim no knowledge of what goes on with the other Christian persuasions, but if you grow up Catholic, you’d better have a good answer for that one.

Some people take this quite seriously. Forgoing chewing gum, for example, is their way of suffering right alongside Jesus on that cross. Pious little grade-schoolers stop biting their nails or go cold turkey with the sweets. Or perhaps just the subset of “candy,” or a sub-subset like M&Ms. Adults might swear off alcohol, coffee or cursing, all the while counting the days, hours, seconds until the Resurrection.

Then you've got your Self-Improvers. Every bit as committed as the Sacrificers, these folks take the Gospels a bit more metaphorically. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, Jesus makes these people want to be better men and women. They vow to get to work on time every day. They promise to read to their kids every night. I swear I will stop mocking Lisa Rinna lips.

At best, I only ever half-heartedly dipped my toe in either camp. I might offer to cut, say, canned peas out of my diet. And then donate said languishing cans to the school food drive.

Now I find myself on yet another Ash Wednesday wondering whether this is the year I will make the ultimate sacrifice. What are the big ticket items that will cause me the greatest pain to do without?

  • Photos of my niece and nephew. Connor is 7 months old; Gabrielle is 5 months behind. I live 250 miles away from them both. What would Jesus do? He would open every gosh-darned “Connor Cutie” JPEG-attached-email, print the image and magnetize it to the refrigerator, that’s what.

  • Television. But the Oscars are Sunday. And “Lost” might suddenly start making sense. WWJD? Unless He’s willing to divulge how it is that Jack and Locke are keeping their heads perfectly shaved while Sawyer, Charlie and Sayid grow more hirsute by the day, I’m not compromising here.

  • Exercise. Me and Condi gotta get our daily cardio fix. Now we know how she out-muscled Colin Powell—Ms. Secretary of State hits the gym every day. WWJD? He would beg me not to cede this territory to the Neo-Cons.

  • Cookies. Oh, me loves cookies. I’m not saying I can’t live without them, I’m saying I don’t want to. WWJD? He would say it’s bad enough Sesame Street has Cookie Monster eating vegetables and let me slide with avoiding trans fats.

I wonder what, exactly, is the point of denial, especially if it just makes me cranky. I find it nearly impossible to feel the love for my fellow man in a self-enforced cookie-free zone.

So sacrifice is off the table. Perhaps the Self-Improvers are onto something.

The other day, I was shredding our bank statements and I came across my husband’s credit card bill. I saw how much he paid for my Christmas iPod, which, needless to say, has yet to see the light of day. I am bordering on ingrate. He is threatening to return the gift.

So this is what I'm prepared to do for Lent: I will take the iPod out of its box. I will crack open the user's manual and revel in its gloriously painstaking detail. I will read about the gadget's various buttons and capabilities. I will linger over the diagrams. I will absorb information about functions I have no intention of using. I will not look for corners to cut. I will not throw in the towel if operational instructions include more than five steps. I will not throw anything, period.

I will become the sort of person who enjoys following directions, who doesn't look for easy answers. Who doesn't expect life to be as simple as pressing an "on" button.

And if that fails, I will give up peas.

* * *

The Race Is On

If you remember Team Guido from Season 1, you may equal my fandom for “The Amazing Race.” If you have no idea who won the horrid “Family Edition” of this usually stellar series, ditto.

Last night, the show returned to form. That is, the airport. While the challenges were yawners—helicoptering over Sao Paolo, Brazil, might totally rock for the contestants but had all the drama of a traffic chopper for viewers—all the other key Race elements were present and accounted for. Language barrier (Portuguese is not the same as Spanish)—check. Crowded, chaotic urban streets—check. Death by cab driver—check. Ugly American Syndrome—check and double-check.

This early in the Race, it’s usually impossible to keep the teams straight without resorting to short-hand pejoratives—the gay guys, the old couple, the hippies, the black team (mercifully this time out, not literally the Blacks, as in Family Edition). But our duos proved immensely adept at providing quip-worthy monikers for competitors. Uber-intense Lake is “Scott Peterson,” Danielle and Dani are the “Double Ds” (in every way). I’ve taken to calling we-work-as-little-as-possible Eric and Jeremy the “Horn Dogs.” See “Double Ds.”

Scott Peterson aside, the as yet not-so-sleep-deprived teams kept the gloves on. I tallied four kisses between the old couple (aka Fran and Barry), followed closely by three for the nerds David and Lori. Credit David for perhaps the funniest self-assessment of all time: “I’m really great at taking tests.”

Highlights from the first episode: The Double Ds trying to assemble a motorcycle. When locals proved immune to the charms of their cup size and refused assistance, the gals from Staten Island were forced to abandon the task.

Comic relief via the “Frosties,” a pair of fiftysomething, six-foot sisters. Upon learning Brazil is their destination: “We’ll probably be eating monkey testicles.”

Cabbing it through the streets of Sao Paolo:
Frosty #1: What’s that smell? Did you fart?
Frosty #2: No, it’s the city.

Reaching the helicopter challenge: “Well crap a big load of turds.”

But the best moment of the night went to Fran and Barry, a dead ringer, by the way, for one of the guys from Peter, Paul and Mary. Why is it that the old couples always claim they’ll whip the young ‘uns with their mental ability and then spend hours walking by the clue box? Which is right in front of their eyes. I swear I thought I heard someone yelling, “Meredith.”