Friday, March 30, 2007

The Films I Never See

I must have missed a thousand film festivals since I’ve lived in the city, because they’re going on all the time. If it’s not the B-Fest—a 24-hour marathon of “B” movies—that my friend looks forward to every year, it’s the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival (CICFF)—the largest festival of films for children in North America.

Actually, I attended my first ever CICFF chaperoning a field trip last October with my daughter’s fifth-grade class. One of the films we saw and loved—The Danish Poet—won this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

Just last weekend, my husband and I ran into some old friends and colleagues of mine at a vintage film series held in the auditorium of a LaSalle Bank on the Northwest side. We, and a whole lot of others, decided it was a night to see a 1937 Warner Bros. film called The Great Garrick.

And last night began a four-night documentary film series on hip-hop music. Though I tried my hardest to figure out a way to make the 7pm show time (I even contemplated bringing my daughters along), it just didn’t work out. But because I have an inexplicable urge to understand the hip-hop genre and culture, I told myself I would try to catch the next three nights.

But today was the beginning of Spring Break, and we had friends over at our house after school. We were drinking cappuccino, and later, wine. After a while, we decided to order Thai food, and open another bottle of wine. I’m afraid I forgot all about the hip-hop film fest.

But I like knowing the fest was running, and that I still have two more chances to catch it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Future of Fresh Water

I just finished reading Peter Annin’s The Great Lakes Water Wars (Island Press, 2006), which examines the stormy history of water management policy in the Great Lakes Basin— from the reversal of the Chicago River in the late 1890s to the landmark Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact of 2005. The author argues that this non-binding regional compact needs to be ratified by all eight states in the basin in order to keep stewardship of Great Lakes water in the region. Otherwise, he contends, the Federal government could step in as steward.

Over the decades these states have cobbled together a water management strategy, but it's starting to disintegrate. Each passing decade brings new legal and political challenges to this policy—challenges such as exporting bottled water out of the region, or the shift in U.S. demographics as people flock to the Southwest.

Minnesota was first to pass the compact, last month.

Illinois is expediting that process right now. Illinois state rep Harry Osterman, from Chicago, is sponsoring HB375 (you can read some testimony here), and Illinois state senator John Cullerton, also from Chicago, is sponsoring a similar measure (SB50) to move this legislation to a full chamber vote.

The author’s website contains a map that shows how other states are progressing.

This ratification process will takes years, and in the meantime, more legal maneuvering for Great Lakes water will occur. Development follows fresh water, after all.

But I love this story; I love following it's various threads backward through U.S. history and forward to. . . who knows where. I got hooked on it a few years ago after reading Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, which examined the history of water management west of the Mississippi.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Spring Tease

There are two things that make me happy when warm weather finally hits Chicago (besides the warm weather, that is). One is the first crocus I see, which coincides with lots of people heading outdoors to work on their landscaping. While I can appreciate the new bloom, and I can feel the urge to garden, I have learned to resist. No sense planting flowers too early. After gazing on that little purple flower, I go inside and check the Farmer’s Almanac for the Last Frost Date. This year, it’s April 22. I have a whole month to dream about and plan my garden. . . .

The second thing that makes me smile is seeing someone 25-50 pounds lighter, and that happens every year. Just yesterday, for example, I saw my neighbor for the first time in five or six months, and she had lost 50 pounds. I like to imagine a magic parka that melts away the extra weight—you put it on in November, take it off in March, and voila! Anyway, these folks look healthier and happier, and that’s contagious!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

History Fair

Last week I served as a History Fair judge for a Chicago public elementary school. This was my second year judging, and I signed on again knowing I would probably be asked to read between 7 and 10 gigantic boards (or other media) on various historical topics related to Illinois/Chicago history.

The projects were impressive, I must say. Each of these students had enough research, documentation, and text to fill a children’s book. In my opinion, many of the projects could be repackaged as such and pitched to a publisher.

I thought I knew what to expect because of last year, but I guess every year the kids up the ante. For example, one of the first boards I looked at this year featured the student’s interview with the former Mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne! There, staring me in the face, was a photograph of them together at a Chicago diner.

I awarded two perfect scores, for two completely different projects. They were beautiful projects. I’m so proud of these kids, and I don’t even know who they are.

In all my years of public schooling, I do not remember ever being asked to complete a History Fair project. So I can honestly say that I do not know if I could have done this level or quality of work at the age of 12-14. I wish someone cared enough to ask me to try.

What makes the History Fair so special, then, is not what the kids learn about history, but what they learn about themselves. These young kids know exactly what they can accomplish and exactly how much effort it takes to accomplish it.

And that is a rare gift.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Chicago and the Small Farm

Certain books are very special to me because they’ve changed the way I want to live. The most recent one I've read is The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. This is a book about where our food comes from today, where it used to come from, and why it matters. It’s a thought provoking, beautifully written book, and I think it’s remarkable that he pulled the whole idea off.

Here’s a review from the author’s website. I’ve chosen this link because after the review, you can read the introduction and first chapter from the book.

After I read what Pollan had to say, I became determined to back community supported agriculture (CSA)—even though I live in a huge city and have been waiting for years for our local Whole Foods to open. Belonging to a CSA farm is kind of like subscribing to your food. You find a local farm, purchase a share of its crop, and take home weekly deliveries grown on that farm. It’s not as convenient, obviously, as stopping by the grocery store, and that’s why our family hasn’t done it yet. You can’t predict what you will get in each delivery, and who knows if you’ll be able to eat it all before the next one arrives. And if the crop fails, guess what?

But I found the online version of the 2007 Chicago CSA Map, which just reminded me that I better start researching this topic if I want to sign up for this year's growing season. Pollan recommends visiting the farm beforehand.

So I guess our family has a little road trip to make—and I bet it will be much more exciting than going to Whole Foods.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Inside the Court Room

I’m a big advocate for going to school and community meetings. I figure it’s better to go to the source when making my own judgments about issues. Unfortunately this means sitting through hours of the Mundane before getting to the Good Stuff.

But sometimes the Good Stuff has little to do with the purpose of the meeting.

Take this week, for example. In the last six days I have attended four school meetings and one major school fundraiser. And while it may be true that during one of those meetings I gleaned some detail that may provide useful to my daughters’ education, by far the most interesting thing I learned is the following:

There is public access to ORAL ARGUMENT RECORDINGS on the United States Court of Appeals website. Check it out—just click on the map and follow the links. The database is searchable by case number or name. So if you're interested in a certain case . . . .

Monday, March 19, 2007

Chess Runs Amok

A thought-provoking movie I like to watch every once in a while is “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” I was thinking about it again after reading last week about the recently botched CPS citywide chess tournament.

Both the movie and this story show how adults often deflate children by ruining something they love.

I wish we could stop doing this.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The CPS You Don't Read about in the Papers

Recently I started reading a blog about Chicago Public Schools. It's "unofficial" and contains mostly anonymous (and occasionally venomouos) comments. But the education reporter who runs it keeps the dialogue moving. I read it because it's something to gauge our family's CPS experience against.

I've added it to my "favorites", at left, because there are many, many voices over there, and each brings passion to a topic of importance to this city.

I know other school districts (and even some principals) have blogs, too, and I encourage those who are interested in their local school districts to seek out these alternative viewpoints. Urban districts have their own special problems, of course, but they are not alone in dealing with the complex business of educating our youth.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

If I Were Alderwoman

When it hits 70 degrees in March in Chicago, like it did yesterday, the whole city comes out. When it happens during the week of ISAT testing in the public schools, even better. Kids can play outside for hours with impunity because teachers don’t assign homework during high-stakes testing. After school, my girls and I took the dog on a walk together, and the neighborhood was filled with that warm-weather energy. I saw a mom friend of mine sitting on her front steps adjusting her son’s bike helmet—kids were getting their gear out!

I was thinking it would be a great day to get an ice cream cone.

One of the first people we met upon buying our house 14 years ago was the 8-year-old daughter of our next-door neighbors. We asked her if there were any good places to eat close by.

“Toots!” she shouted down to us from her perch high in a tree.

A fast food establishment was not what our DINK sensibility was hunting, but who could resist her salesmanship? We walked on over to try it out.

I always think of that little girl (who is now a woman graduating from college) whenever I think of Toots. Over the years our family has eaten countless Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches and milkshakes at this popular out-door establishment, and my daughters have been working their way through its surprising number of flavors of soft-serve ice cream. (The one that turns their mouths a neon blue seems to be the favorite.)

But Toots closed-up shop last October.

I think condos are going in on that corner.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Licorice Fix

My sister introduced me to the new licorice Altoids. They are curiously strong, and barely sweet. I cannot find them at my grocery store, and now I’m craving a product I can’t locate in my part of Chicago.

But while driving around with this craving I can’t shake, I remembered a conversation I had a year or two ago with a friend of mine who grew up in Sweden. She was eating a bag of Swedish-style licorice, and she offered me a piece—with some trepidation.

“I love licorice!” I said.

“This is salted licorice,” she replied. “Americans aren’t usually fans.”

It wasn’t like any licorice I’d ever sampled before—more intensely flavored. An acquired taste, I suppose. But I liked it enough to try it again at her house a few months later.

Last week after a Swedish lunch together, my friends wanted to walk across the street to visit The Sweden Store before they drove home. I had to rush to meet my daughter at the bus stop, and I was disappointed I couldn’t linger in the store and maybe pick up a bag of salted licorice if they had it in stock.

That’s when it occurred to me that I liked the Altoids so much because they reminded me of Swedish licorice.

This afternoon I looked up The Sweden Store in the phone book, gave them a call, and sure enough—they have exactly what I need.

I’ll happily pick some up tomorrow.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Shining Star

Here is a link to Chicago Catalyst, a magazine that published an interview I conducted with Nirupa Mathew—an outstanding teacher in the Chicago Public School system. Nirupa wasn’t feeling well the day we met, but even so, she devoted more than an hour to answering my questions about teaching kids to read. Any school district would be thrilled to hire Nirupa, but she’s staying in the city—where she can have maximum impact. She’s so cool!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Fondue for Who?

My three sisters and I celebrated a milestone birthday in Chicago last weekend. Two of us live here in the city, but the other two had to drive in from out of state. We booked a room in a four-star hotel downtown, and the idea was just to hang out, catch up, and re-energize. The birthday girl (from out of state) had two specific requests after her long trip. She wanted a manicure, and she wanted to eat fondue at Geja’s Café in Lincoln Park.

Manicure—no problem. Geja’s? Well. . . .

Geja’s Café is a popular and beloved restaurant that does not take reservations. Translation: a two-hour wait. And people do wait. It's a different dining experience; fun and very delicious. Geja’s turns up on lists of favorite Chicago restaurants, and it publicizes its “romantic fondue dining.” But since there are plenty of places to eat in Chicago that don't require standing in line forever, I’m not inclinded to wait very often.

One of my sisters had the idea to get to the restaurant early—before 6p.m.—so that we wouldn’t have to wait as long. We made it there by 6:11p.m. (the birthday girl checked her watch). Guess what? Eleven minutes after six isn’t early enough. So we moved to the bar, ordered our $10 drinks, had a birthday toast, and waited about an hour and a half.

When you’re waiting at the bar with your sisters for over an hour, it’s hard not to notice that everyone else in the place is on a date. But we didn't let a little romance cramp our style. We had pysched ourselves up for the wait—we’d do anything for our youngest sister—and we were getting closer to the deep-fried food by the minute.

Finally, we were seated. We spent the next hour or two dipping bread and fruits into melted cheese; shrimp, steak and vegetables into boiling oil; and more fruit and cake into melted chocolate. We snapped photos of each other and asked the waiter to take one of us as a group. We talked and laughed and celebrated. It wasn't romantic at all.

And while I can appreciate that Geja’s might be the best place for a romantic dinner, I know with certainty it is the best place for four sisters to share a precious meal together. Definitely worth the wait.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Midwinter Networking

A Chicago mom I know recently mailed me an invitation to a wine and cheese open house sponsored by Lincoln Square Women in Business. This friend of mine is an attorney with three young boys. She recently started her own law firm so that she could be more available to her children, and since then has become involved in this group.

In my years as a freelance writer I’ve often pushed my networking skills to the side, though I did meet with what I would loosely call a writers’ group consistently for a year. That group consisted of people focusing on a very specific kind of writing (children’s books), and I determined I needed a broader community with a broader voice—which is what I'm always seeking.

In Chicago, there are many networking groups of all types, including online communities. I have joined one of these, but its newsletter is a perfect example of information overload. It lists every group meeting in every part of the city and links to event after event after event. It’s too broad a community, and it’s intimidating.

But my friend’s invitation isn’t. Along with my lawyer friend, the other hosts of this event are a saleswoman, a realtor, a financial planner, an architect, a photographer, and a personal/professional coach.

I like that diversity. And I like the personal, playful voice of this group.

So I’m going to check it out—because I actually enjoy networking, when it feels right.

Olympics Chicago Style

There is much news in Chicago about its bid for the 2016 Olympics. Check out the official Olympic Bid website.

I have yet to make up my mind about bringing the Olympics to this fair city. But the bid process interests me, since I've never before lived in a place that wanted to host the Olympics.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Good Neighbor

It’s a funny thing about Chicago, we all live so close to one another and yet we don’t always meet.

This morning our dog escaped—again. Yep, he’s a Runner (which must be why we found him at the Anti-Cruelty Society in the first place).

At 6:50am we discovered he was gone from the backyard. My husband ran out to look for the dog, while the girls got ready for school in about 3½ minutes. Then we all drove up and down the streets until it was time for the school bus to arrive. I put $1.85 in my daughters’ hands so they could buy the dreaded hot lunch, and I sent them, miserably, off to school. Our plan was to put up “Missing Dog” flyers this afternoon.

By 8am I was home calling the city’s Animal Care & Control service. Viewing hours are from 12pm-7pm. I called the Anti-Cruelty Society, but they didn’t open until 9am.

So I waited for a phone call or a familiar bark or for my dog to find his way back to our door. I opened my front shades to look out at the street, imagining my dog could be miles away. Or worse.

At 9am on the dot I called the Anti-Cruelty Society and added my cell phone number to our file.

At 9:15 an elderly lady called me. She had my dog and she lived in the neighborhood—two blocks away. She told me how she found our dog and how she, too, was waiting for the Anti-Cruelty Society to open at 9am. And she walked the dog over as soon as we hung up. I met her halfway down the street. She’s a great person—responsible, kind, and helpful—someone you’d want living around the corner.

It seemed appropriate to hug my new neighbor, whom I had never met before this morning, even though both of us have lived here for many, many years. I look forward to seeing her soon, under different circumstances.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Great Food Town

One of the great pleasures of my childhood was my Sicilian grandmother’s cooking. On any occasion she could whip up a magnificent plate of spaghetti and meatballs, or veal cutlets, or a pizza, or a pot of what my family called “Grandma’s Soup.” She also made stuffed artichokes I will miss for the rest of my life, now that she’s gone. At the top of her game, she would produce a briciole—a rolled, stuffed flank steak served with her homemade sauce and a plate of pasta.

But that part of my life is over, and now I live in the great food town called Chicago. Over the last 15 years I’ve grown to love Indian food and Thai food and dim sum. And though I’ve reduced my intake of red meat substantially, I still need to hit a Chicago steak house once in a while. I eat differently, now, but there is one hard and fast rule of eating in Chicago that I always follow:

“If briciole is on the menu, order it.”

It turns up in unlikely places. If I was seeking it out, I assume I could find it in the restaurants on Talyor Street or Harlem Avenue, but I’m not usually craving briciole. I don’t really think about it that much. It’s just one of those lovely surprises, like a fond memory, that turns up now and again when I don’t expect it.

That happened on Tuesday night. We were going to an author reading at a bookstore. We arrived a bit early, found street parking, and wandered up and down the street looking for an interesting place to eat. I was thinking pot stickers but wasn’t seeing anything promising, so we went into the bookstore and asked the owner for suggestions.

He said, “Go next door to Jimmy’s, he’ll take care of you. Tell him I sent you.”

So we did, and I opened the menu, and there it was—briciole—right at the top. It’s the best feeling! You don’t even have to read the rest of the menu. And even though every briciole is different (and none are like my Grandma’s), it is always excellent, it always hits the spot, and it makes me deeply, deeply happy.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Oh, to be a teenager. . .

Last Friday, our family attended and volunteered at a fundraiser for my daughter’s school. Conceived to raise money to pay for an art teacher, the school’s first Fine Arts Festival was a hit. It was well attended by parents wanting to see their children perform as well as students wanting to see their friends perform. I worked the front line selling tickets.

This is not something I normally do. (Usually I like to chat with people, and there’s no time for chatting when people are trying to get a good seat in a school auditorium.)

But eventually the line slowed down. My volunteer buddy left to see her son perform, and I sat there in the vicinity of a huddle of teenage girls. My attention was drawn to them because there wasn’t really anything else going on.

It was slightly awkward, but I continued organizing the moneybox as discreetly as I could, trying to blend into the background while the teenagers did their thing. Which included using the F-word.

I looked over at them, and they looked over at me, guiltily. I remembered myself as a teenage girl—stretching the boundaries and all that—and chose not to come down too hard on them.

“I know. I was a kid once,” I said to them.

They looked at me, and then moved away. As they walked up the stairs, one of them muttered under her breath, “You were never a kid.”

Ouch. That was worse than the swearing.