Monday, April 28, 2008

Spring Book List

Some folks clean out their basements, attics and closets in spring. I clean out the nasty belfry behind my eyes.

Spring is a time for renewal. For me, it's a time to refresh intellectual passions. Here are a few things I'm reading to enliven and inform my view of the world, dust off preconceptions and get me started on new ideas on winding roads.

Want to know what was behind subprime lending? Check out the award-winning piece "The High Price of Home Ownership." It was researched, reported and published by the Chicago Reporter (, a newsletter put out by the Community Renewal Foundation. The Reporter is powerful organ of investigative reporting.

The piece they ran on subprime mortgages not only showed that Chicago was the capital of subprime, two major brand-name lenders were among the leading underwriters of these loans. Minorities were marketed to in an effort to sell loans that not only made brokers and bankers rich, they carried interest rates 3 percent points higher than conventional loans. Were blacks and Latinos targeted in a racist scheme to gouge the poor? In some cases, upper-middle-class African Americans were sold these loans. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is investigating.

Don't like the way the American economy is going with the dominance of shifty financial service outfits that peddle things like subprime loans? Then check out Kevin Phillips's "Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (Viking Press). A fiscal conservative and NPR commentator, Phillips dissects what the debt merchants on Wall Street have done to the American economy and it's not a pretty picture. I was surprised to see two quotes from yours truly on what a fraud the government's Consumer Price Index is in tracking inflation (it's a sham). Read it to learn why the growth of financial companies that produce nothing but debt is imperiling the American way of life.

I relish digging into the classics to round out my steady diet of current nonfiction. One classic on architecture is John Ruskin's "The Stones of Venice." Ruskin, the great critic of the 19th Century, went to the city of canals to discover something new about architecture. The essay "The Nature of Gothic" was so influential it led to the gothic revival movement that's still in evidence in many McMansions. Ruskin found something sacred in his Venetian buildings and it's always worth re-reading.

It's always a pleasure to discover short books that are gems of thinking. Jim Cullen's "The American Dream" starts out with the Puritans and ends up with the Great Gatsby. It's a mini-history of an idea we're still grappling with -- and need to redefine.

When I was in the Museum of Natural History in New York recently, I picked up a seemingly glossy coffee table book entitled "Water: The Drop of Life." I thought it might be a companion book to the water exhibit currently at the museum, but I was delightfully mistaken. It's a series of vignettes about water problems around the world and what communities are doing to solve them. Anyone concerned about the world's most precious resource should read this book by Peter Swanson. For a more in-depth portrait of American water shortages, read Robert Glennon's "Water Follies."

On the subject of urban planning, two New Urbanist books continue to provide ideas: "Suburban Nation" by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and "The Wealth of Cities" by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. Both lay out ideas for what cities and suburbs need to be if they are to become sustainable. I interviewed all three recently for my upcoming book on housing "The Fractured American Dream."

For those who love early American history, Joseph Ellis's "American Creation" is a special treat. Through Ellis's eyes -- the author of the classic "American Sphinx" -- we learn how frail the early republic was. It could have collapsed dozens of times. Ellis presents a snapshot of all of the major players from Washington to Madison (who had a much bigger role than I previously thought).

If you are desirous of an optimistic view in these waning months of the failed Bush regime, drop by your bookstore's newsstand to land a copy of the spring issue of "Yes!" magazine. No, this isn't a fanzine of the 70s art-rock group. It's subtitle is "building a just and sustainable world." It's chocked full of good ideas that could be antidotes to our energy gluttony, global warming and resource depletion. Among the helpful pieces are "13 Best Ideas in Clean Energy (Plus a Few Duds)," "How Your Family Can Get Carbon Free in 10 Years," and "The Secret Life of Plug-In Cars." It's really practical advice and provides some hope as we deal with an election season that never quits, two relentless wars, dopey media nonsense and the Cubs torturing us for another year.

Oh well, it could be worse. You could just stop reading and play with your iPod and iPhone and let the neo-cons run the world come November.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Earth Daze

I'm in a tizzy over what not to do for Earth Day. My family and I have always been conscious about environmentally sound living and we've done our level best to green our lifestyle. Since I mostly work at home, my transportation/carbon footprint is almost nil -- except for the three trips I took to Costa Rica, Orlando and New York this year (and two more on the way this year).

Then I encountered EarthLab (, which laid a major guilt trip on me and I hardly felt I was doing enough. The site, which features Eco-celebrities like Eg Begley, Jr. and carbon offset companies, is a strange mix of green marketing and feel-good ways of countering climate change. Most of it is lifestyle oriented and stays positive by imploring you to make a pledge on more than 100 items that could further green your mode of living. The pledges range from the seemingly trivial (using natural personal care products, whatever that means), to the substantial (driving less).

Many of the pledge items we were already committed to: Turning off lights, eating locally, taking shorter showers, using cloth napkins (and washing them for re-use), composting kitchen waste, using left-over plastic shopping bags for garbage (and bringing our own bags to the grocery store), biodegradable cleaning products, cold/warm water washing and taking public transportation downtown (two train lines).

Some of our recent actions will even help us knock down our substantial energy bills. When the weather finally warmed up, we switched to carbon-neutral clothes drying (a clothesline) and I'm hoping to install a solar pump in my sump-water pond and collect some rainwater for gardening.

When I ran our basic lifestyle mode through the EarthLab carbon calculator, I found that while we were pouring somewhat less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the average Grayslake, Illinois and U.S. resident, we were still outputting 13.4 tons annually! I didn't feel good about that and I suspect the lion's share was generated by the tens of thousands of miles I will spend in an airplane this year. I'm at all sure how to address this problem other than to travel less, which is an option, but not always a good idea in the dynamic world I must inhabit. Face-to-face meetings are still quite valuable in this age of email and Facebook.

Still, I'm looking to improve our gargantuan carbon footprint, which rivals most households in Europe, Africa and Asia. The fact that we generate so much carbon dioxide is not only an eco-lifestyle issue, it's one of fairness. Why should my family use up a disproportionate amount of resources relative to families in developing countries? Somehow it's not fair that an accident of birth enabled me to eat heartily at the energy and resource trough, which is finite.

As Bill McKibben says in the recent issue of YES magazine:

"We need to stop insisting that we've figured out the best way on earth to live. For one thing, if it's wrecking the earth, then it's not all that great. But even by measures of life satisfaction and happiness, the Europeans have us beat -- and they manage it on half the energy use per capita. We need to be pointing the Indians and Chinese hard in the direction of London, not Los Angeles; Barcelona, not Boston."

Speaking of Barcelona, one way we can cut our carbon diet is to walk and ride bikes more. I've recently started a regular regimen of bike riding and will extend that to errands to the grocery/hardware stores and the number one destination for me: the library. Barcelona not only provides ample opportunities to walk in their many pedestrian strips, there are markets, restaurants and coffee shops along the way. Our own Prairie Croissant was infinitely more satisfying the other day because we could walk and bike there (and became a cheaper family meal as a result). Every US metropolitan area should take a good look at Barcelona and emulate her many charms.

I'm also pledging to grow more food and buy more locally grown produce. I can use compost and mulch (from my own compost bins) and can freeze what I don't eat this summer, which is usually what I do with my tomatoes. I'm adding to my winter stores by growing beans and other legumes. I'm not planning on watering my lawn or use any chemicals on it. I have an electric mower that I set on the highest mowing height.

Since most of my business is transacted via the Internet and the four computers in our household, I'm also going to squelch the energy vampires by turning off power strips at night on all my electric gear. I've seen my electric bill climb 25% over the past year and I know it's not because of air conditioning.

And I'm going to try to buy less stuff and recycle used things (like bicycles, clothes and other gear). I already patronize "Play it Again Sports" to get trade-ins on outgrown sports equipment and to upgrade. We've gone through three sets of skis and several pairs of ice skates through these transactions.

Finally, I'm going to monitor energy use and try to do low-tech things like employing shading in the summer and use ceiling fans more.

To broadcast my concerns, I'm going to urge my elected representatives to extend and increase tax credits for energy-efficient/producing appliances (which expire this year in the federal tax code). Lobbying may be the most effective thing anyone can do to help the earth. It's virtually carbon neutral and can impact everyone in a positive way.

Happy Earth Day!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Three New York Museums

Millions of people were cursing American Airlines last week for grounding their MD-80s to inspect and repair wire bundles so they wouldn't catch fire. I was one of those caught in the wave of some 3,000 canceled flights. After four re-bookings, I managed to fly to and from New York City.

When it comes to safety, I'm the last one to gripe. Safety is the most important detail in flying. I don't mind being inconvenienced by it. Although I had to spend an extra few hours in New York Friday night, it was an entirely pleasurable experience.

Usually when I come to New York, I'm booked solid with meetings and other social engagements. I could literally spend weeks there checking in with people I know. My friends Dave Tainer and Mary Butler, for example, recommended an excellent restaurant on Wall Street called "Bobby Van's," which was set in JP Morgan's old vault, complete with Fort Knox-like doors and safety deposit boxes. Even though there was a special event going on, the maitre'd put us in the wine room, which is a soundproof glass box with climate control. It was delightful and we had an ample choice of wines, of course.

It's experiences like these that make New York a city of constant serendipity. Like any place else in the world, if you're willing to be patient and meet the natives half way, they will treat you with courtesy, respect and unrivaled hospitality. I've found this to be the case whether I'm in San Francisco, Madrid, Chicago or even Paris.

The weather was gorgeous while Chicago still shivered during its theoretical spring. Walking is one of my favorite pastimes in the Apple. I've walked from downtown to midtown countless times, which routes me through FiDi, SoHo, the Village, Union Square, Murray Hill and Times Square. I never see the same things twice. It's like a living, dynamic sculpture. I even saw a random act of kindess. An elderly woman had fallen in the street and a man rushed out from a bodega to help her up and offer her a glass of water.

I've never quite understood why people pay hundreds of dollars for Broadway shows when all they have to do is walk down the street. Every block is different. Different faces, clothes, nationalities. It is the vibrant success of America that it all somehow works on a second-by-second basis.

That brings me to my Ferris Bueler experience. I was tired and wanted to get home Friday night. I never sleep in hotels, even quiet ones like the Wall Street Inn on William Street. So when I learned that my flight was canceled (for the third time), I called my friends in Dallas, who had already booked me on a flight Saturday morning. Fortunately, I got the last seat on a flight leaving at 9pm out of LaGuardia. That's when my odyssey began. Instead of fulminating about the FAA or the world's largest airline, I planned to see three museums that I'd always wanted to see: The Museum of American Finance, The Morgan Library and the American Museum of Natural History.

The finance museum was a chirpy one-room operation off of Wall Street. Nestled in the lobby of an old bank, it's perfectly situated in an early-20th century marble hall. Monitors and displays told you all about bonds, stocks, commodities, money and the various market meltdowns. There was even my old friend the Bloomberg terminal, the conduit through which I make my living. I chatted with the gift shop manager and a few other staff folks. I even mentioned my book "Merchant of Power," which was even stocked at one time. It was a stellar find that I recommend to anyone who wants to know about finance. I even found a stock certificate signed by Thomas Edison and Samuel Insull, the subject of my Merchant book.

After lunch at the Fraunces Tavern, which hosted George Washington and many patriots of his day, I headed to midtown to the Morgan Library, which had been closed for a major renovation the last two times I visited.

The Morgan, featuring a grand public reception area designed by Renzo Piano, was somewhat disappointing. I expected to see some Mark Twain or Beethoven manuscripts, but that kind of material is only open to scholars doing research. So I settled on drawings by Michelangelo, Vasari, Pontormo and Bronzino, all of which had sketched some projects for the Medici's Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Morgan, who must have seen himself as a Medici prince (he certainly had more money and power), decorated his library and study in the Italian style. The fireplaces were so large you could fit a half-dozen people in them.

Yet the drawings were a revelation. So much talent coalescing in that period of time. What would these great draftsmen, painters and sculptors had done if the wealth and patronage of the Medici was not bestowed upon them? Why did that period produce so much great art, architecture and the genius of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Brunelleschi? The time was rare combination of commercial prowess and some political stability (when the Medici weren't warring with other city states).

I had some time on my hands, so I headed up to the Natural History Museum, spending most of my time in the Rose Center. I heard Maya Angelou narrate the Big Bang and then walked down a spiral stairway to the present (starting with 13 billion years ago). The rest of the Rose Center is rather disorganized and I didn't have time to see the older stuffed animal sections, so I headed off to dinner at Oceans on Columbus and 79th. I found the place by stopping the first man who came by. "Jim" gave me a list of places, including a Chicago Uno pizza place. Been there, done that.

Having thoroughly enjoyed a piece of bigeye tuna lightly seared and a carrot cake with ginger, I flagged down a cab. The driver was Dr. Om Dutt Sharma, who also runs a charity in India called the Pt. Sita Ram Balkishan charitable trust ( He provides schools and programs for girls' education in India. But I didn't discover this until he dropped me off at LaGuardia. The 45 minutes we spent talking (me mostly listening) ranged from George Bush and the trillions in American debt to the Iraq War to whether Gandhi was a saint (he was). The conversation went like this:

"What do you think most Christians don't know about Jesus?"
"That he was Jewish?"
"No, that he went to India. Yes, He visited there."
"I didn't know that."
"Yes, he stayed there for some time."

Well, this led into a discourse on Islam, arms control, the meaning of Satyagraha and American aggression the world. I refused to apologize for George W. Bush (I didn't vote for him), but the concept of Satyagraha intrigued me, so Dr. Sharma told the story on how the Mahatma marched hundreds of miles to the sea on barefoot to protest the British salt tax, which the Indian leader said should not be taxed because it was freely given by the ocean.

"The best charity in the universe is not food or medicine, Dr. Sharma's motto goes. "It is the light to the mind, through education."

I didn't know quite what to think of Dr. Sharma or his charity. Yet something was compelling about him. Like many New Yorkers, he was unafraid to offer his opinions or remedies for the world. And I love the idea that someone is practicing Satyagraha in the world. It's figurative meaning is nonviolent resistance, although Dr. Sharma says part of the Sanskrit word means "truth." We could all use more of that from our leaders. And I once again thank American Airlines for giving me the opportunity to find it in one of the most truth-seeking places on the planet.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Going Home Again: Returning to Rich South

The Return of the Native

The author Thomas Wolfe once titled one of his novels "You Can't Go Home Again." In many ways, you can't return to the past, reclaim your youth or inhabit a body that has changed over time. But when I came back to Rich South for its 35th anniversary, I felt as if I had come home, but to a place that had changed in myriad ways. I had graduated from high school there in 1975, the first graduating class of that campus.

When I first received the invitation from Betsy Williams, the organizer of this splendid event, I had a vague sense of dread. What if no one recognized me? Like many people my age, my hair is now gray and I've not been able to push away far too many plates of mashed potatoes and french fries. What if Rich South was so different that I didn't recognize it? What if my favorite teachers didn't recognize me? After all, I hadn't set foot in the school since I graduated in 1975. That's a long time to be away.

When I toured the building, I noticed how small the corridors seemed to be. When you're 17 years old, hallways seem infinite because that's the center of your world. Then I visited the relatively new auditorium, which not only featured sound acoustics, it had a large stage. As a performer in school plays, speech club member and musician during my high school days, I would have relished the idea of playing in a real auditorium. Instead, we settled for the cafeteria, which we affectionately dubbed the "cafetorium." Then my anxiety dissipated as I heard the joyous sounds coming from the new performance space. The band played Count Basie and Stevie Wonder with delightful verve. I can still hear "Sir Duke" in my head. As if that weren't enough to raise my spirits -- we would've loved to play jazz and swing during my days in the band -- the Gospel Choir raised the roof with several energetic conductors.

Then it struck me. I was feeling the same thing that those young men and women were experiencing. The pure joy of performing. Getting people to clap, to dance, to sing. The power of this emotion can't be underestimated because it lasts the rest of your life. Unlike an ipod or MP3 player, it doesn't need batteries. You can turn it on anytime from now until the time you shuffle off this mortal coil.

Rich South immersed me in music, theatre, speech, English, math and a host of other things. Most of those passions I still carry with me. Perhaps I was always interested in these things and high school merely reinforced my love of them. More importantly these experiences created an indelible image that shaped my soul.

Another fear that I had was that I would have this overpowering sense of being disconnected to a place that gave me so much. Frankly that was the worst emotion, since I hadn't been there for so long. I felt somewhat ashamed that I had done nothing to give back to my alma mater and I couldn't exactly explain why. Then I got reconnected fast. Before the concert began, I wandered through the halls to the bandroom, where I met Yolandus Douglas.

"Are you related to Art Wasik?" Yolandus asked me.
"He's my Dad," I replied.
"I was there the last year he was at Thornidge High School. Tell him I said hi."

My father had taught the Rich South band director! The circle was complete. Where we could once boast our band went to Ireland for St. Patrick's Day, the current band was going to Beijing for the Olympics. I'd be lying if I didn't feel a surge of pride welling up within me.

But I wasn't grounded yet. I had to see for myself how the universe of my youth had changed. Before the banquet on Saturday evening, I drove into what used to be the Park Forest Plaza, where my Mom worked at Marshall Fields, one of her favorite jobs. The long-abanoned department store looked like a neglected country club with its green and white awnings and elegant window spaces. It will soon be torn down to make way for homes in another effort to revive what was one of America's model post-war suburbs.

The Plaza, where I saw movies, bought books at Maeyama's Book store, bought underwear at Sears and frango mints at Fields, was not there anymore. In its place was something that was evolving on its own terms. I toured some of the new homes in "Legacy Square," literally built in the Plaza parking lot. They are affordable, efficient and in keeping in the spirit of Park Forest. Also capturing the soul of this remarkable suburb is the Illinois Theatre Center, which used to reside in the library's basement, an art gallery and several small shops. While most of the storefronts were vacant, I think if more people buy homes in Park Forest, the merchants will return.

Then I hit the road, driving down Western Avenue to Route 30 into Chicago Heights. Just past St. James Hospital, where I was born more than 50 years ago, I took a right into Chicago Heights' downtown. I looked for the Star Publications building, where I got my first job as a cub reporter with the Star right out of college. The building was there, but occupied by the police department's youth program. The center of "the Heights" was mostly gutted except for the police station and a few other government buildings. I drove down as far as Beecher, seeing where I first carried the banner of the high school band (one of my Dad's first jobs) in a Fourth of July parade -- one of my earliest memories.

Then, driving through Crete and Monee, I saw the tremendous building going on in what had been endless cornfields. This was the edge of my known universe. Nearly driving all the way to Joliet, encompassing Frankfort, New Lenox and Mokena, I saw even more building. The homes just kept getting bigger the more I headed west. Driving back to Rich South for the banquet, my grand tour of the Southland was nearly complete.

The banquet was a humbling event. Donald Trimble, our first principal, thanked scores of staff members -- alive and now gone -- who had contributed to the high school in some way. George Egoske, our first athletic director, ever the volcano of school spirit, cited the accomplishments of the many teams that have played at Rich South, including the first state championship girl's softball team. Then I had to speak, nervous that I was following some great acts.

I recalled the time I had a lead in a play and a ketchup bottle cap accidentally came off and squirted all over me. The unintentional slapstick produced roars from the crowd and we had to repeat the apparent mishap the following night for our epic two-performance run. All I had to do was step back in time to the concert of the previous evening to know what I really needed to say.

Education was more than reading, writing and arithmetic. It was about shaping your soul. The triumph of the spirit is that it endures no matter what happens to you. I recalled principal Dr. Roudell Kirkwood invoking the motto "learners today - leaders tomorrow -Stars for life." I also had to apologize for not being involved in helping such a seminal place -- something I hope to remedy in the future.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Let's Play Two

Well, opening day at Wrigley Field certainly broke the ice.

After a long, cold, snowy winter, Chicago was ready for it and only a win would suffice.

Fukudome came through with a sizzling bat,

But the closer Howry threw pitches as big as a cat.

Oh well, there's another game on Wednesday

and about 160 after that.

Plenty of peanuts and beer to sell

and crisp cracker jack.

I know, you moan, with the dyspepsia of a true fan --

it's been a century since the Cubs won the series

it's time to end the goat's ban.

Wait a minute, didn't Ernie open the season?

His presence and statue, typos and all, give us a reason

to holler and hoot for DLee, A-Ram and Woody

to play their best and not sleep in.

I'll be up there in the grandstands

with my Dad and my girls,

hope springs eternal

and we come for the thrills.

So let's play two and hit for the ivy

not getting lost in history and South Side rivalry.

For the Cubs aren't always about winning

although that's always a delight

they're there for the epic struggle

and the grit of the fight.

It's doesn't matter what year it is

or if the dugout hosts a Lou or Leo

we have to live in the moment

and not let the past congeal.

It's time to play ball and get in the game

throw back those homers and go insane,

for the Cubs are an illness

of which there's no cure

baseball is zen, of that much I'm sure.