Saturday, November 10, 2007

The picture of health

I did not recognize my mother. In a hospital room she was tiny, propped up at an odd angle in a tall bed. And the lines on her face did not match the contours of my memory. Mom is always the same age in my mind, a time when I'd be playing on the beach and she was soaking up sun. Not at 76, paying for her luminous tan.

Dad gave us the green light for our weekend visit, but we were her first new visitors. She was finishing her lunch, or trying to. Her chicken soup was tasty days ago but a salty, unappealing broth now. Of course the menu had changed after surgery, but we needed a fixer. Mom called a nurse.

Nurses' watchful eyes and comforting words were much appreciated in her first unsteady attempts out of bed. One nurse lowered her guard with Mom as well. She had a 90-minute commute home when she finished her double shift and was trying to figure out what food she was going to get on the table when she got there. "I just want things to be perfect," she told Mom, crying.

"I don't know why she was telling me all this," Mom told us, choking up herself at the recollection. I changed the subject: A nurse at Rush had a similar long commute and crummy hours. She cared for my mothe-in-law when we had to add an emergency-room visit to her vacation itinerary.

Dad too has had enough hospital moments in the past year. He has spent most of this spring being probed in various places as a cancer patient. Most of the family visited soon after they got the news. I put off my visit till he was rested enough to travel the grocery, hear my Chicagoan's view on Barack Obama, and generally allow my distractions.

These visits have been full of the chatter we use to process big events. Mom got to hear about my birthday plans to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. She got to recall her 1970s trip to see Elvis in Las Vegas, and how the King had wandered offstage mid-performance. Preparing to take on Halloween alone, Dad got to review his trick-or-treat game plan before, with Mom growing tired, it was time for hugs and good-byes.

My parents now visit me at work, from a framed photo at my desk. I now recognize myself in the their portrait, much like used to see myself in their wedding picture. They're familiar in sickness and in health.

I'll see my parents again in person over Thanksgiving, no nearer perfection but making due with the small talk that nurses us to health.

Friday, November 09, 2007

That's life. This is Walgreens.

It seems like a man-bites-dog situation. The neighborhood tells a developer to go big or go home.

WalgreensThe East Village Association has been lobbying for a building at Ashland and Division that would be more of a neighborhood anchor than the chain restaurant it would replace on the southwest corner.

This week the developer presented his concession to the community: a chain drugstore.

Residents were upset. But should it surprise anyone when a large retailer and busy developer make decisions based on short-term profit? And can we blame them for not taking risks when we make it so easy to go for the quick money?

That's how Polish Broadway got paved for a Pizza Hut. And that's how the new gateway to my community is going to be a big red W under glass.

Ald. Manny Flores seemed to have a golden opportunity in reviewing the project. Here was a chance to replace a single-story billboard — a building that couldn't even be vacated till its trademark red mansard roof was papered over. As it turned out, he might as well have told the developer, "No, that's just not good enough. My constituents really want a two-story billboard."

Here was a chance to stiffen the developer's spine, to show how there were smart, profitable ways to fill a community need other than (1) drive-in retail or (2) drive-in retail plus condos, and that the perfect complement to a bank building is not precast concrete.

Instead, the Polish Triangle, one of the few public spaces on Division that hasn't been converted to a sidewalk cafe, most likely will become an arrow pointing to the snack-food aisle.

Still, I can't blame politicians when they build playlots instead of parks, or extract taller store windows as a development concession. After all, this month Flores held hearings in the ward to ask what a new library was worth to us. And we responded: Cash in at the casino. Don't raise taxes. Our kids can find books somewhere else.

Of course, the commercials are right. We don't live anywhere near Perfect. So there's Walgreens.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Commissions of omission

Journalists only write 10 percent of what they know, said my college reporting instructor. Now it must be only 5 percent.

A reporter called me and we must have talked 20 minutes. In his story, I was represented by a one-sentence quote. What surprised me was the sentence he quoted, which displayed neither a central point nor any particular wit.

No wonder politicians place such a premium at staying "on message." Certainly I was getting through to the reporter, but I couldn't predict just what would get through to print.

Alan K.O. Tan spent considerable time in his Journalism 204 lecture at Wisconsin suggesting what reporters can get wrong in an interview, but less on how much to leave out. Since then I am constantly humbled by learning how much of what I say is lost because I'm still warming to a topic when the listener has already moved on.

Tan also introduced his students to the regional synonyms for political patron when he told us reporters should not use the word "Chinaman." But that's another story.