Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Chicago Votes

When I moved to Chicago in 1989, my mother said to me, “You’re so lucky. Chicago has the best politics.”

I think about that comment a lot, because I certainly didn’t move to this city for the politics. I craved the city’s energy and what it had to offer a young person starting out. Still, I’ve tried to keep abreast of what’s happening at City Hall.

Yesterday Chicagoans elected their mayor, Richard M. Daley, for the sixth time. After months of political reporting that focused on corruption and scandal within his administration, Daley took all 50 wards easily. If he finishes his term, he will be the longest-serving mayor in Chicago history. That’s quite an achievement.

And yet, voter turnout was an abysmal 32%.

On my ballot there were four votes to cast—for mayor, city clerk, alderman, and city treasurer (unopposed). It took more time to walk down the street to my polling place than it did for me to vote.

Sixty-eight percent of the registered voters in this city couldn’t (or wouldn’t) find that time.

So if you’re listening, Mom, let me ask you. Am I really so lucky?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Another Highway?

In Chicago last week, there was talk again of building the Crosstown Expressway. This is a plan to divert trucking traffic away from the downtown area, thus relieving congestion on the Kennedy and Dan Ryan. Building this expressway would affect me directly because the plans incorporate parts of the city very close to my neighborhood.

Then, this morning on the radio I heard a story about the Heartland Expressway, a four-lane highway to be built between Rapid City, South Dakota and Denver, Colorado. This highway was conceived to spur economic development and improve homeland security in the Great Plains.

Critics of both these highway construction projects say they will destroy something of value to people. But both projects make me think of New York City and the Lower Manhattan Expressway that was never built. Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), who fought that project before I was born, wrote a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I have yet to read it, but I put a hold on it at the library this weekend. Jacobs believed that cities thrive on the energy of the people and neighborhoods, and that people's lifestyles matter.

Jacobs might be out of style now, nostalgic or old-fashioned.

But she might be right.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

News I Missed

Somehow I missed two annual announcements from earlier this year.

The first is a press release from Doctors Without Borders announcing their "Top Ten" Underreported Humanitarian Stories of 2006. The press release is interesting itself, but through it, you can link to longer accounts of the ten crisis situations they feel deserve more media attention. I look forward to this annual list from an organization I admire.

The second announcement I always listen for is the American Library Association's list of children's book award winners. I didn't know until just this moment that Susan Patron won the 2007 Newbery Award for her book The Higher Power of Lucky. I met Susan years ago, and she is a beautiful person and a gifted writer for children. But there is some controversy over the book. Read Susan's response here.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Music with My Morning Coffee

A friend of mine just directed me to his YouTube video.

I’m always interested in learning about music. Joe—who teaches piano in Chicago—has taught me a lot on the subject in the conversations we’ve had waiting for our kids to come out of school. At left, I've linked to him playing Ginastera’s Piano Sonata #1, 4th movement, because I was unfamiliar with this piece of music until now, and I like it a lot.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Cookie Heaven

Whatever possessed me to buy 18 boxes of Girl Scout cookies?

I ask this question partly in jest. But seriously, I know there are far too many organizations for me to support financially. So our family does what it can. And if that means pigging out on Samoas and Thin Mints, then we do it, appreciating that this year they contain 0 grams of trans fats!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chicago Columnist

At left, I've added Mary Mitchell's column to my list of favorite links. Mitchell is a Chicago Sun-Times columnist whose perspective interests me. I am often surprised by what she writes, and I like that feeling. She writes a lot about racial issues in Chicago, and her tone reminds me of the many spirited conversations I had as a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, back in the 1980s.

Not Just Another Test

Last year more than 9,000 students across the country chose to take the National Mythology Exam. This is a test available to 3rd-through-9th-graders in public schools, private schools and home schools. It’s just for fun—an enrichment program to encourage students’ love of mythology and classical literature.

“Just for fun?” I asked myself.

My fifth-grade daughter had never been interested in taking this exam before, and in trying to determine why she wanted to now, I thought about some of the children’s books she’s been reading over the last year or so: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries series.

Some of those books my daughter loves so much she can’t wait to share them with her out-of-town cousins in their new monthly book group. Case in point, next month’s book is Riordan’s Lightening Thief, a novel about a modern-day boy who learns the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus are real.

It seems impossible to me that a public school kid in today’s world of high-stakes testing would want to take another test—and even study for it. But it's hard to predict what will engage a kid’s imagination.

A pleasure of parenting is finding out what does.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fat Tuesday

I have New Orleans on my mind today, as I have for many, many days and months.

At left, I have added a link to The Times-Picayune, a daily newspaper covering the greater New Orleans area. I have also added it to my daily online news roundup.

For those of you who watched Spike Lee's Katrina documentary, I hope you can get your hands on the current (Jan./Feb.) issue of The Atlantic. In it, Amy Waldman has written a fascinating article about the rebuilding of New Orleans' public schools.

This is a story worth following.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Shakespeare Saturday

My 11-year-old daughters and I went with friends to see some Shakespeare on Saturday. I’m a big fan of Kiss Me Kate, and I watch it every time it’s on television, so I thought it might be fun to see the play on which it’s based.

We skipped our Girl Scout meeting and went to a 75-minute production of The Taming of the Shrew (50% of the original text of the play) at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier. My friend introduced me to this family-oriented “Short Shakespeare” series a few years ago when we went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream together.

The beautiful theater is small and intimate, and I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house. I laughed a lot during the show, and the girls laughed, too. I know they didn’t get some of the jokes or even some of the plot intricacies, but because of this venue I know that won’t turn them off Shakespeare in the future.

After the play, the troupe answered questions from the audience with honesty and humor, questions like “How much money did you get paid?” and “Why is Kate always wearing short sleeves?” (That last question came from my daughters’ friend, and so we even learned about the role of costume designer in a production.)

People often ask about the relevancy of Shakespeare in today’s world, and one of the actors on Saturday spoke to that concern. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s English—poetic English. It’s kind of like listening to a new CD. You won’t get it all at once. And even though you might not understand every word, you will understand the feeling of all the words together.”

The way I feel about children and Shakespeare is the way I feel about children and math. I never want to hear my daughters say they hate math, and I never want to hear them say they hate Shakespeare.

And I'll try my best to see they don't.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine and Breakfast with the Principal

On Friday I attended a fifth-grade Breakfast with the Principal. At my daughter's public school, the principal hosts two breakfasts a year, the first at the start of the school year and the second halfway through. I usually try to make the breakfasts because they’re not like other school meetings. They’re not as formal as Local School Council (LSC) meetings or as busy as Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) meetings. They're not like Report Card Pick Up Day or Open House gatherings. At these breakfasts—and this is my twelfth—we can push aside school business for an hour if we choose.

We chose to do just that on Friday, and the other six moms and I listened to our principal reflect on her life and career and her vision for the school. She gave us her specific philosophy of building respect between students and teachers. She explained a new tactic for math class. Then she listened as we talked about why we might allow our kids to watch a movie like Little Miss Sunshine or a TV show like The Simpsons. We talked about Sex Ed (because fifth grade is the year for that) and early-onset puberty. We shared our frustrations with the war in Iraq. We discussed how our children view that war, how they interpret the modern world, what motivates them, and what we learn from them.

In short, we had an adult conversation.

I believe this is what’s missing from many public schools today.

So I applaud this principal, who continues to invite parents in for a chat when she could very easily choose not to. And I admire her for helping me to remember—year after year—that it's important to slow down and listen to each other once in awhile.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Writer and a Dog

My writing life was just about perfect. It had taken me years to get it to that point. I had a large chunk of time to write while my daughters were at school, and in those early morning hours I'm most focused. I had convinced the important people in my life not to call during that time because I was writing. I had pulled back from much of the school volunteering that can take over a parent's life. I was working toward a December 31st deadline on a first novel contest.

And then we rescued a little dog. With a lotta bark.

"It will take time for Fritz to adjust," we told our girls.

Well, he's adjusted fine. It's me who hasn't. I miss those uninterrupted hours of writing. I miss the satisfaction of finishing a piece. Frankly, I miss my attention span. I have to find a new way to write. A way to write when the dog doesn't want me to.

There is an hour or two throughout the day when Fritz settles down and naps in the sun, and as it happens, the spot of sun is next to my computer. I moved his bed there, and I started this blog. When I break, we go for a walk.

So, here I am, a writer with my dog. And we'll get it right, one of these days.