Friday, January 29, 2010

Friends of friends

A friend of mine, Switters, has some friends named Tom and Tia who had a daughter named Jane. After a difficult birth, which had serious complications, Jane spent her 6 months of life in the hospital. Jane passed away yesterday.

I've known a few nurses in my life, and one in particular comes to mind at the moment. I'll call her Kim. Kim works in the neo-natal ICU at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. One night while we were sipping wine on the back porch of our apartment building I told Kim about my brother Bill and his wife Diana, and their son David.

It was 1986, and I had just returned from a night class at Loyola. I was carpooling with my brother-in-law Marty and had to drop him off at his parents' (my in-laws) home before returning to my apartment. My wife was waiting for us when we got there. A very unusual thing. For some reason or another, Marty got to the door first, and I watched as Mary briefly spoke to her brother. His head drooped, and his shoulders slumped, and he half-assed his way in the front door.

Then she turned and stared at me sadly as I walked up the driveway. I knew I was in for some very bad news. My mind raced, and I assumed someone in my family had died. My dad was a heavy smoker, and he was the person I suspected had died.

"What is it?" I asked.

"David died."

"David? David who?"

"Our nephew David."

7 months old. Dead of what was called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Babysitter found him in his crib, unresponsive, and not moving.

Needless to say, my brother was in shock when I reached him on the phone. Bill has a way of speaking that some say is a bit....uh....loud. He wasn't loud that night. He was obviously just numb. Bill and Diana, and Switters' friends Tom and Tia, experienced something nobody should ever have to experience.

It's still something of a blur to me now. Words cannot describe the sight of a little white casket, no more than 2 feet long. It's like a punch in the face. A fucking nightmare only it's real.

There were only four pall bearers, as there wasn't room nor need for the usual six. As we carried David from the church that day, I looked at the faces of the people as we passed. Friends of my brother and his wife. My family. Diana's family.

It was like I was carrying some sort of nerve gas or something. People were literally collapsing in the pews. Sobbing.

I'd had serious doubts prior to that, but that was the day I officially stopped believing in God. It happened as I carried a dead child down the aisle of a church.

In the weeks and months and years that followed, I came to believe that it would have been better if David had died during childbirth. In the first 7 months, or in Jane's case 6, a human being develops a personality. The child's parents can spot new facial expressions with each passing day. Infantile gurgling gives way to smiles of recognition when mommy or daddy are there. They start giggling. They become people.

In finally telling my brother my feelings about that not long ago, he explained that he understood what I meant, but he assured me that he was glad that he and Diana had had those 7 months with David.

"If he'd died during childbirth, I'd have never gotten to know him. He was a great little guy."

I'm sure Tom and Tia feel the same way about Jane.

Like I said, after telling Kim the nurse this same story that night on the porch, I told her that I didn't understand how a person could possibly work in an environment filled with sick babies, terminal illnesses. Children dying nearly every day.

"Its about caring for people, and wanting to help. I've had parents of children that didn't survive, come back to the hospital to thank us all for our efforts. That makes it all worthwhile. And sometimes, we save the baby's life Mike. And there's nothing in the world that feels better than that."

I'm sure that's true, and I'll bet Tia and Tom are eternally grateful to the doctors and nurses who helped Jane. I am in awe of people with that sort of dedication. I don't know where people like that come from.

But the loss of a child, and the sadness, has to be, must be, the worst thing anyone can ever feel.

Jane was here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dear Abby,

Good luck!

16 year old Abby Sunderland from Thousand Oaks, CA set sail yesterday from the Del Ray Yacht club in the 40 foot Wild Eyes. Abby's hoping to become the youngest person ever to sail solo around the globe.

Awesome. Abso-frickin-lutely awesome!

Part of me is worried for her.

Part of me is green with envy.

Abby's attempting something I've fantasized about doing ever since I saw the movie The Dove back in the early 70s. One problem, I don't have a sailboat. Another problem, I don't know how to sail. Besides those two minor issues, I think I could do it.

I plan on tracking her journey. I'm going to check in on Abby's progress every day, here.

If you feel like adding Abby's blog to your list of follows, it's over there on the right.

From her website:

Abigail (“Abby”) Sunderland turned sixteen in October 2009. To the outward observer, she is a seemingly cleancut, All-American girl…the second of seven children. But inside of Abby, a passion burns. Since becoming a teenager, she has had her sights set on making history as the youngest person, male or female, to circumnavigate the world. Not only does she plan to accomplish this feat alone and unassisted, she plans to do it without once taking refuge on land. Aboard an Open 40 racing sailboat, Abby will embark on her voyage in January 2010 from Marina del Rey, California. By June 2010, Abby plans to have made history.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I was wrong

I thought for sure Rahm Emanuel was going to strong arm some kind of health care "reform" through Congress long before now.

Positive I was, that the less we saw of Rahm, the more progress he was making in getting something, anything, done on this key Obama platform issue. By Christmas I thought. By Christmas at the latest.

I was certain that whatever legislation got passed, it would be something that nobody would be entirely happy with. I figured that by the time it came out of conference it would have been unrecognizable as "reform" anyway.

And it would have been.

Assuming Brown wins tonight, and I am assuming that, we're looking at a Republican filibuster to block any Dem sponsored health care legislation. Never mind reconciliation, I'm not so sure the Dems can muster 50 votes now.

This is a big defeat for Barack Obama.

Health care reform, for the time being, is dead.

And I'm not so sure that's a bad thing in either case.

There are bigger problems facing the country.

I think it's time that President Obama took control of his own administration. It was a big mistake to turn power over to morons like Pelosi and Reid, and I'm pretty sure that's what Rahm is telling Barack right now.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cross Country

Took a drive to Grand Canyon recently, or The Grand Canyon if you prefer. Somewhere around Tulsa I decided to do the scan test of local radio stations, AM natch.

Not surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh reruns were being rebroadcast by the first stop on my scan test. End of the year, Rush is in Hawai'i, we're replaying the very, very best of Rush.

"Obama sucks. Democrats eat children. Talent on loan from God. EIB network. I love America, and I know all you Dittoheads do too. Obama sucks."

Next came a station rebroadcasting Sean Hannity's very very best programming from 2009.

A Christmas Holiday special.

"Obama is evil and Democrats want to bring this wonderful country down to a Third World level. Obama is an asshole, Democrats are assholes, and Republicans love the United States of America. Health care reform is the work of evil Socialists hiding in the shadows of the evil Obama administration. Happy New Year America!"

Next, and I'm not kidding about this, another station was running Rush Limbaugh reruns.

Obama sucks. Democrats suck. God Bless America. Obama is evil.

Sooners football chat.

Jesus saves.

Fred Thompson Show.

Then, ANOTHER station running Rush reruns.

I tried desperately not to cop an attitude about all Oklahomans, knowing they aren't in charge of radio programming, but in a way...they are. If there was no audience for the sort of ear-bleeding inducement I was hearing, it wouldn't be on almost every station. So I decided that Oklahomans, for the most part, embrace that sort of thing.

As I crossed the border on US 40, and entered the panhandle of Texas, I noticed a huge cross in the distance. A billboard soon explained that I was approaching the "Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere." (Turns out it's the 2nd largest cross, but hey...who's keeping track of such things?)

Groom, Texas is the name of the place that boasts about the size of their holy unit. Turns out the thing is 19 stories tall. Very impressive indeed. 

Very pious people in Texas. Very pious.

They love God and guns.

Scan test.

Rush is in Hawai'i, so we're running the Very Best of Rush Limbaugh, 2009.

Obama sucks. Democrats are evil monsters. We must take back our wonderful country from these Socialists who would have us all taxed into the poorhouse. Obama sucks. Rahm is missing his most important digit, but believe me dear friends, he's flipping us all half-a-bird. God bless America.


Herman Cain is sitting in for Rush, who's on vacation. Herman gives a unique perspective on American politics.

"I'm Herman Cain. I'm black. I'm conservative. Barack Obama is evil. You can find me at That's H-E-R-M-A-N-C-A-I-N dot C-O-M Obama is the devil. Democrats want to take away everything you've worked so hard for in this wonderful blessed country we call home. Thanks to EIB for letting me sit in for Rush, who's spending the holidays in Hawai'i."


Jesus saves.


Longhorn football chat. Colt McCoy is the sort of kid that God would want for his son if he wanted another one.


Rush Limbaugh.

Around that point, just outside of Amarillo, I looked to the north and saw a rather large truck stop. Now that's not unusual in the panhandle of Texas. Simply put, that stretch of highway is the most dreary, endlessly boring ribbon of tedium on Earth. Amarillo. The "Big A". Armpit of the country. It's so boring that I was actually looking forward to the occasional exit ramps to break up the monotony. Words cannot describe just how dreadful the panhandle of Texas really is. No wonder they're all cooking meth in their single-wides.

Oh goody, a truck stop.

The Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center.

Think I'm making this shit up? Nope.

Same exit as the Big Texan Steak Ranch & Opry home of the 72 ounce steak.

The Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center runs ads on the CB radio too.

"Breaker breaker One-Nine. Be sure to visit the Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center in beeeee-autiful Amarillo. Diesel for $2.92 a gallon and we have the cleanest rest rooms this side of Eden. Special on mud flaps this month when you buy a Bible."

They're also very big on right wing talk radio in Texas. You ever wonder where our local idiot gets his material? Stop wondering. It's spoon fed to the rubes 24/7. Signal a little scratchy? Not to worry. It's also, like in Oklahoma, on damned near every channel of AM radio in Texas from what I can tell.

Except of course Longhorn chat.

They love Rush Limbaugh in Texas. More even than in Oklahoma. They love Rush, and they hate Barack Obama. And I do mean hate. It's not just politics with those mouth-breathers. It's cultural. They do not want Barack Obama anywhere near the White House.

Listening to Texas truckers talk was a real eye opener. It's not just that they're a pack of racist crackers (they are), it's that they hate all Yankees, just especially the nigger in the White House. I never believed it before, but I began to wonder if the rumors were true about Texas school kids cheering when JFK got whacked in Dallas. I guarantee you there'd be dry eyes in Texas if something happened to Barack.

New Mexico and Arizona are pretty right wing too, but nothing close to the radical degree displayed in Texas.

I'm not sure, but maybe it's because New Mexico and Arizona are very beautiful states while the Texas panhandle is a shithole in every sense of the word. Maybe the scenery tempers their right wingy leanings a bit. They also ran Rush reruns on their 50,000 watt blow torch stations in AZ and NM, but not with the same frequency that I heard in Texas. I've been told since my return that Houston and San Antonio are lovely places, and so I take some comfort in that.

After a too-short stay at the Canyon, I briefly considered taking another route home. Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa seemed like a wonderful option when I considered the backtrack across Texas. Unfortunately, a blizzard, the same one that had obscured most of the Grand Canyon from my view, was blanketing the midwest. 80 was impassible near Lincoln and Omaha.

So, I was forced to drag myself once more through what is undoubtedly the ugliest place in the United States, and if I consider the crackers who inhabit the panhandle of Texas, probably the ugliest place on Earth. I listened to my CDs while crossing east, I just couldn't take another 260 miles of Texas shit kickin'. I briefly considered listening in after I heard about Rush's chest pains in Hawai'i. then thought better of the idea.

Along the way on my trip, practically every exit had a sign prompting me to see "Historic Route 66" which, if I'd felt like it, I could have taken for almost the entire distance.

I've decided that for my next trip to the Grand Canyon in the summer of 2011, that's what I'm going to do. I can pick up 66 down in Countryside and follow it through the little old towns now essentially forgotten due to the superhighway. It's going to take a lot longer, but I don't care. It's something I feel like I need to do. I'll take 66 through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.

But I'm going to grab 40 through the panhandle of Texas because I want to spend as little time as possible there, and I have absolutely no interest in meeting the local rubes.

I was reminded of that dump again last night when I heard the reports of Rush Limbaugh's remarks about Haiti and Barack Obama. I'm sure they're already queueing that shit up for the Best of Rush 2010.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Down in the clouds

Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

When driving cross-country during the winter, one should be sure to have a CB radio in the car. I never travel without one. Not only do you get up-to-the-minute road conditions from truckers, including traffic congestion, you also get a bit of local flavor as you pass through the various small towns along your route.

For instance, around Tulsa,OK you hear the locals using what my friend Rick tells me are called "big radios." These are extremely powerful CBs that overpower the signals from smaller units (like the one I carry), and allow the user to basically hijack the channel. They are the only thing you hear, as opposed to the cross-chatter you normally pick up when 10 people are trying to talk simultaneously. With my CB, if I talk, you hear a slight hissing in the background. Static. White noise. That's the case with most CBs. Not so with "big radios." They make the user sound like he's sitting in the car with you. Clear as a bell and no background noise at all. Some professional truckers, and believe me after watching them at work for the last week they are professionals, have "big radios" too, but they don't talk all that much. One of the great misconceptions about truckers is that they're a bunch of cowboy boot wearing, big belt-buckle with the belly hangin' over sportin', good-ol'-boys yakking away on their CBs.  They don't talk much at all, and when they do it's something worth saying.

In Tulsa, the locals have big radios that they use to communicate with friends around town. It's the same with St. Louis, Springfield and Joplin,MO., Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Tucumcari, Albuquerque and Flagstaff, but some of the locals in Tulsa have taken it to a new level. They torment the truckers as they drive through Tulsa. From about 10 miles northeast of Tulsa to about 10 miles southwest of Tulsa on US 44 you hear nothing but the endless loop of a recording made by a guy who tells truckers that Tulsa is a place where truckers know to "...keep your mouth shut! This is Tulsa, home of the Golden Crusaders CBC, and this town is where truckers know to keep your mouth shut! This is Tulsa, home of the Golden Crusaders CBC, and this town is where truckers know to keep your mouth shut!"

Someone needs to tell that CB club that Tulsa is the town that I now consider the shit-kicker capital of the United States. I'd have told them as I passed through, but nobody would have heard me because the big radio would have drowned me out.  What local chatter I did pick up centered mostly around pick-up trucks and how much they hate Barack Obama. Fuckin' shit-kickers.

As you proceed through Oklahoma City you pick up US 40 and head due west if you're planning on seeing the Grand Canyon. Some controversy exists as to the use of the word "the" before Grand Canyon. I always called it "the" Grand Canyon, but about 50% of the literature I've read in the last month simply call it Grand Canyon.

Anyway, where was I?...Oh yeah, turning onto US 40 at Okie City. There's a monument there called "The Oklahoma City Memorial" which I decided not to visit, and as I proceeded across the western half of Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas it occurred to me that the United States are not united states. That it's a myth is confirmed when you continue across New Mexico and Arizona. The southwest is filled with crackers who hate anyone who doesn't hate Barack Obama. I'm sure there are some nice people living in those states, but for the most part I felt like I'd entered another country.

My Illinois plates became a concern for me as I listened to the 50,000 watt radio stations pumping year-end reruns of the Best of Rush and the Hannity Show across the vast flat landscape. If it wasn't right-wing shit about Obama being the anti-Christ Muslim who shouldn't be in Hawai'i while the crotch-bomber is trying to crash a Delta/Northwest plane into Detroit, then it was some quack motherfucker talking about taking Jeeeezus as my personal savior.

I hit the scan button on the PT Cruiser (nice ride) and tried to find anything close to "normal" people talking about "normal" shit but it just wasn't there to be found. The southwest is filled with shit-kicking, Yankee-librul hatin' crackers who love god and guns. And did I mention that they fuckin' hate Barack Obama? Being from Illinois, I'm aware of the dislike for the president by some people, but it isn't until immersed in a sea of that absolute hatred did it fully dawn on me just how much some Americans hate other Americans.

30 years ago, I was visually stunned by the American southwest. The mesas are still there as are the endless rolling plains of scrub. But now the drive is marred by commercialism. The billboards are so frequent as to lose any power of advertisement. You can only see "Indian Kachina dolls hand made by REAL Indians 4 miles ahead at Indian Jewelry Depot" so many times before you stop being impressed that the Hopi can sell their heritage in such a fashion, and begin to wonder about the degradation. The open exploitation. Maybe in 150 more years  the cross-country driver will see "Soul Food made by REAL Negroes 4 miles ahead. Atlanta exit 114."

It's fuckin' depressing, and it goes on for most of the 700 or so miles from Okie City to Flagstaff. Such magnificent scenery, and they gotta put those fucking things up every 200 yards.

It is advisable to travel to the Grand Canyon between May and October. In those months the road to the North Rim is open and the South Rim can be approached with confidence from the small town of Williams, about 50 miles due south. During the winter it is recommended to check local weather as storms can blow in quickly and cause hazardous driving conditions as well as obscure the view of Grand Canyon itself.

I wasn't holding out any false hope that the storm that blew in on Tuesday would somehow pass and allow me the view that I'd driven 1749.3 miles to observe on Wednesday. I hadn't heard yet about the van sliding off the South Rim road Tuesday on the local news, but as I climbed US 64 heading north from Williams I knew I was in for some tricky driving and I was more than a little nervous. They don't salt roads in the southwest, they use sand or cinders. Ecological reasons probably, but it does make for some slippery slides. You gain about 1000 feet in altitude from Williams to the South Rim, and that 1000 feet makes a big difference. The small town of Tusayan is about half way between the two, and it's there that I started to notice a distinct reduction in visibility. By the time I reached the park entrance ($25 fee per vehicle, free admission if you come in on foot) I was driving in a cloud of snow and sleet and, and, and, ,,,,cloud.

Climbing to the South Rim on foot was a short walk from the parking lot by the Mather Camp Ground. As I stepped to the edge, directly above the entrance to Bright Angel Trail, and looked down, I was instantly reminded of the massive Georgia O'Keeffe painting called "Sky Above Clouds" that I've stared at for hours at the Art Institute.

Couldn't see a damn thing as I looked down into the abyss, almost a mile deep. The storm had settled in the Canyon, which they tell me is a rather unusual occurrence especially between the months of May-October. If one were on the Canyon floor on Wednesday 12/30/09, one would have seen a cloudy drop-ceiling blocking the sun and the sky and the canyon rims above.

A very strange experience. Standing on the rim, the wind was whistling in my ears, but if I cocked my head a certain way, I could hear the silence from the Canyon. Impossible to accurately describe with words, it's a silence that must be heard. I looked down into the clouds and could feel the immensity of what I couldn't see with my eyes. I could see the sheer drop-off under my boots, but that quickly became whiteout. No matter though, because I could feel the 4900 feet of emptiness directly beneath me. And as I looked across the top of the storm system hanging in the Canyon, I could sense the 7 miles of distance, "as the raven flies", to the North Rim. The fuckin' place exists on an absolutely massive scale.

I picked the wrong day to visit Grand Canyon National Park if I wanted pictures of vistas, but the perfect day if I wanted to feel the power of something I couldn't see. Down there in the clouds were the ghosts of Glen and Bessie Hyde, the echoes of John Wesley Powell, and the legacy of titans like Stephen Mather and Theodore Roosevelt.

Driving home was an adventure all its own. After spending the morning at the Canyon, I set out for Tucumcari and fought icy roads coming all the way down out of the mountains. New Mexico was no better. Thursday, New Year's Eve, was more of the same, with the panhandle of Texas reminding me of what desolation means. You go into a ditch in the middle of Bumfuck,TX in a snow storm, are in serious trouble. Life threatening shit. (Another reason to carry a CB.) The New Year arrived for me in Room 114 of the Motel 6 in Joplin, MO. Oh and, trips like this remind me that the last leg of a vacation is a real challenge when that leg is the full south to north length of my beloved Illinois. Man this is a fucking tall state.

It doesn't matter to me that my first trip to (the) Grand Canyon was missing what I went to see, because I'm going back there, probably many times before I die. Friends told me that I had to see the Grand Canyon to fully grasp the gargantuan scale, but I find that not to be the case. I went there, I didn't see it, but I understood just fine because I could feel it in my bones. I could hear it in the silence down in the clouds.

All in all, this trip is one I'll never forget. Not exactly what most people would consider an ideal vacation, but that's often the case with road trips I've enjoyed throughout my life. It's not really the destination, it's the journey that's the thing. If I'd wanted to max out my time at the Canyon, I'd have taken a plane to Vegas.

"It would be sensible not to go. But to do the sensible would be commonplace, and to be commonplace is unpardonable." ~Margaret Gehrke