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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

One Fine Morning

I was up and astride my Cannondale Hybrid bicycle at 5:27 a.m. this morning. The air temperature was in the sixties; scattered clouds were being shoved about by stiff breezes. The Cannondale is a recent acquisition - my old Mongoose lived through one too many crashes, and it felt so heavy and clunky on the roads and bike trails. As its name implies, the Hybrid is a cross between a fat-tire mountain bike and a skinny tire road racer. It is still sturdy but not as heavy as the Mongoose. I can actually keep up with some of the Lycra-suited dandies on their $5,000 racers.

My goal on these rides is to sweat. I am not dawdling and gazing at the surroundings. But this morning was impossible to ignore. The cool air from the north chased away the summer humidity. The winds blew away the haze and smog. The clouds on the horizon amplified the light show as dawn broke. As I rode back south across the lakefront Northwestern campus, the towers of downtown Chicago were flashing in the light of the rising sun. It was all so clear, so clear.

There were an unusual number of bicyclists, runners and dog-walkers out early this morning. I saw lots of smiling faces, several friendly people called out to greet me as I whizzed by. I felt lifted up and encouraged. Strangers can still share their delight as they experience a fine morning - all is not lost, after all.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Demise of the One-Eyed Cat

If you dig into the archives of this blog back to December 20,2004, you will read about Jade, the one-eyed cat. This creature was dying slowly of Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), but continued to be a friendly feline presence around the house. The vet told us that FIP would kill Jade quickly, but she kept on living. Jade had a special fondness for yogurt, hopping up on the kitchen counter to lick the yogurt cup after I finished my breakfast early each morning. My wonderful 13-year old daughter, Amanda, showered that cat with love and attention. I think that this helped to prolong her life.

Jade managed to sneak out of the house into the backyard a couple of weeks ago. She was happy in the yard - we let her out regularly. This time, she did not return. When cats feel death approaching, they often wander off to an isolated spot to face the reaper alone. This is what Jade did. Amanda was very upset and searched for the cat for days. We haven't found her. She is certianly dead, and I expect that her body is not going to be found. We have wild critters that wander through our leafy suburb at night, and the little cat's corpse probably ended up as a midnight snack.

Well. of course this event has been expected - FIP is always fatal - yet there remains a feeling of surprise and mystery to this ending. We won't have our anticipated cat burial in the backyard. Amanda has recovered from her grief, but we still feel unsettled.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Old Colleagues

From 1987 until the end of 1996, I was employed by a company called Heller Financial. Heller was one of the first commercial finance companies in the United States, founded in 1919 by a cantankerous curmudgeon named Walter Heller. The company went through many phases in its history, and shifted in a big way back in 1984 when the firm was sold to a large Japanese bank. The new owners had bought a "pig in a poke" and the company's problems were immense. New professionals were hired and the turnaround effort began. To make a long story short, the effort succceeded - eventually. The Japanese took the company public in 1998, and Heller was sold at a huge price to GE Capital in late 2001. During the last years, and especially after the sale to GE, many Hellerites jumped ship. Here in Chicago, there are dozens of organizations with former Heller folks in positions of responsibility. GE absorbed the Heller organization, discarded its name and brand and lost or fired almost all of the poeple.

A small group of Heller alumni had a fine idea. Since Heller was a seminal experience in the careers of so many people, perhaps there would be some interest in a reunion. The word went out, e-mails flew through cyber-space and the event occured on Thursday, August 11 at a two-story bar just north and west of the Loop. It was wild - probably 500 people crammed into the joint. All sorts of folks came to the reunion - from mail room staff to Group Presidents. It was equal parts nostalgia and networking. Many fermented beverages were consumed and many backs were slapped.

I have always found it interesting how work experiences augment, or even substitute, for family units in modern America. Heller was a corporation but it was also a social grouping and a collection of shared experiences that caused people to bond. I was sad when I left, and I am told there was basically a wake on the night before the company was officially sold to GE Capital. All of this merger and acquisition activity has a large emotional component, and the emotions live on for quite a while - they were on display at the Heller reunion last Thursday.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Junior Parker, SBII and Big Walter

Junior Parker has slipped into blues obscurity, dead now for 34 years. He came from Clarksdale, Mississippi - like so many other giants of the blues - and eventually died in Chicago of a brain tumor - he didn't live to see his 40th birthday.

JP was a singer and harmonica player. His motto was "I sing stories sad and true. I sing the blues and play harmonica. too. It is very funky." He had his first hits in the 50's, and was a bigger act than Bobby "Blue" Bland, for a while.

My friend and harmonica guru, Joe Filisko, burned a CD for me of some out-of-print Junior Parker tunes. Junior cut some great tracks during his heyday - "Funny How Time Slips Away" (I love his long conversation with his dog, Sam, between the verses); "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water;" "I Done Got Over It." He was a calm, soulful, understated musician - a major contrast to other cats who were big blues men - Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, et al.

Junior Parker's harmonica playing came from exposure to and lessons from Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka Rice Miller), an edgy dude who inspired legions of blues harp players, wannabees and posers. Sonny Boy II was out there - he stole another harmonica player's name, his vocals had a wierd, gargling thing going on during sustained notes; his harmonica snarled and spit at you. Late in his life, he toured England, where he was loved by British Blues crowd. This experience influenced him - he took to wearing a bowler hat and even effected an English accent at times.

I spent the early hours this Sunday morning on my back porch with my battered "A" Special 20 harmonica. (This is the harp that I sat on, which severely bent the cover plates. I pounded out the covers with a small ball peen hammer; I kind of like the way it looks now. It isn't very airtight, though). So I sat in the rocker on the porch and toiled away trying to perfect "Big Walter's Boogie," an intrumental tune that is a rite of passage for all blues harp players. Big Walter Horton was overshadowed by other blues musicians - he was even overshadowed by other harp players. This is ironic, since he was an amazing player - very innovative, and the tone he pulled from the little old harmonica was huge. "Big Walter Tone" is one of the many quests we blues harp players pursue. Big Walter gave tips to Little Walter Jacob and Sonny Boy Williamson II. He started recording before he was 10 years old. He had quirky musical tastes, often tossing in a cheerful version of "La Cucaracha" during his shows. He was a serious drinker. Bluesman to the core.

So I will keep plugging away at Big Walter's Boogie. I may never get it right, but it feels right to work it.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Traveling and Taxi Drivers

I have an adult son who is currently living in the Chama Valley region of northern New Mexico. I traveled from Chicago to see him recently. There is still lots of space in northern New Mexico. My son is living on an organic ranch near Los Ojos, a town that is 2 hours north of Santa Fe. He is in the middle of the boondocks, but my God, it is beautiful. He seems to love it.

I did a bit of business traveling right after my family trip. I ususally take a local cab to the airport from Evanston - Norshore Cab. It appears that all of the Norshore drivers are south Asian immigrants these days - from Pakistan or Bangaldesh. I hopped into a cab to Midway Airport on Tuesday evening and the gentleman behind the wheel was a very polite 50-something fellow from Karachi. We struggled through traffic for an hour - it was raining steadily that night, a blessed change form the persistent drought we have suffered this summer. While the rain was welcome, it turned into an annoyance for my driver. The roof of his weathered cab was not watertight, and a leak developed directly over his head. The poor guy was subject to an accelerating drip on his balding pate as we crawled toward the airport. It was a funny/sad sight. I gave him a big tip.

In Minneapolis, all of the Gold Star Cab drivers are Somalis. Minneapolis has the largest Somali community in the U.S. (Toronto has a slightly larger Somali population). Of course, Somalia is one of the most desperate places on our planet; Twin Cities is heaven to these folks. I caught a cab from the hotel at 6 a.m.; my driver was a lean, well-groomed fellow in a bright white shirt and dark trousers. The weather was cool and blessedly clear, and we small-talked about that. My driver was celebrating his seventh anniversary in the U.S. He projected optimism, and he had lots of questions about Chicago. He might be thinking about leaving Twin Cities for a new venue. I would think that the taxi business is more lucrative in Chicago...

Taxi drivers work hard and take home little disposable income. I tell all my friends to tip these folks generously - they need the dough. Driving a cab is the immigrant's profession - I rarely ride with a native-born American in a taxi these days. Driving a taxi is not a bad way for a relatively new U.S. resident to learn a lot about his community and his new country. It is an honorable path.