Father’s Day, different angle

Despite my insistence that it was bath time, Abigail – inexplicably dressed in her choice of a red flannel nightgown since 4pm – pleaded for permission to ride her bike around the block. I insisted, she pleaded.

So there we were: me walking, she pedaling. As we hit the halfway mark, we arrived at that spot in the sidewalIMG_4922k where the pavement is missing in large spots, a few tufts of grass growing amongst rocks. It’s not impassable on a bike but it’s intimidating if you’re five and still use training wheels. Abigail sounded her concern and slowed down.

I’ve often said I don’t have a significant quantity of unique insight into parenting. I have plenty of stuff you’d hear and think “Oh that makes sense” but maybe it doesn’t occur in the moment. Timing is everything though. What keeps me from writing more about is this: I know what worked for us but that might not work for you. Most parenting advice should come with the caveat “Here’s a blueprint, expect that you will make changes, build additions.”

Yet as we hit that spot in the sidewalk, the sun coming down on Father’s Day, Abigail questioning her fortitude and me at the end of a five-months-long learning experience, I hit on something universal enough to pass on, if somewhat greeting card-like in its phrasing.

“Abigail, don’t go slow, you’ll get stuck. If you hit rough terrain, just pedal harder and faster. That’s the only way to get through it.”

Rainbow Cone is Chicago’s original family dynasty

rainbowcone1

The piece below is something I wrote for a now-abandoned project about unique Chicago places. With Rainbow Cone‘s grand opening this weekend and the store celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, I thought it was right to publish it now.

If there was any justice in the world, the family name most closely associated with the greatness of Chicago would not be The Daleys.

It would be The Sapps.

Sure, the Daleys built O’Hare, Millennium Park and several other monuments to Chicago’s spirit of ingenuity triumphing over reason. But in 1926, when Old Man Daley was still finding his way around Bridgeport, Joseph Sapp and his wife Katherine built Original Rainbow Cone, a small store at 92nd Street and South Western Avenue that sold a unique, five-flavor ice cream treat of the same name. Some 88 years later, the store is in roughly the same location as when it opened and a Rainbow Cone remains one of the finest desserts known to man, woman or child.

The Rainbow Cone is a both an engineering marvel and a kid’s fantasy come true. Literally. The story goes that the New York-born Sapp grew up as an orphan on an Ohio work farm and had few indulgences, save for the times he could save up enough money for ice cream. At the time, he had two choices: chocolate and vanilla. Rather than a single serving of one or the other, Sapp envisioned a carnival of flavors perched on his cone. As an adult, he brought this vision to life:

Orange Sherbet.
Pistachio.
Palmer House.
Strawberry.
Chocolate.

That’s what it looks like, top to bottom. Five layers of ice cream, which could fairly be called slabs. They are not scoops. In a city once known as Hog Butcher to the World, this seems right. It also seems right that Chicago’s most famous ice cream should be built one level at a time like the skyscrapers the city invented. The slender cone below never seems quite up to the task of supporting it all, but it perseveres.

The Palmer House flavor always intrigued me: Venetian vanilla with cherries and walnuts. For a long time, I assumed it was invented, like the chocolate fudge brownie, by the legendary Chicago hotel of the same name. According to Joseph’s granddaughter Lynn, who has run Rainbow Cone since the 1980s, a New York dairy had a vanilla-and-cherries flavor called Palmer. Joseph added walnuts to the ice cream and “House” in honor of the hotel; he and his wife were equally savvy about marketing and making ice cream.

Once assembled, the ice cream often forms the shape of a scalene triangle, the orange sherbet layer valiantly holding it together over the top. It is possible to order a small Rainbow Cone from the menu but even then its size recalls a slice of Chicago’s famed deep-dish pizza. Lynn says Joseph’s original recipe was designed to be chock full of as much nutrition as possible – mainly from the fruits and nuts. His motto then was “Ice cream is good food. Eat ice cream daily.”

It begins melting immediately, as fleeting as a Chicago summer. And it’s delicious. If I were a proper food critic, I might be able to describe why it works so well or contrast the way it’s made with similar frozen treats. All I can tell you is it tastes like roller coasters and a run through the sprinkler and staying at the park until 9 p.m. and all the joys afforded by the warmth of the sun.

For those with an allergy, there’s a nut-free version that I understand is just as good. You can also get rainbow ice cream cakes and sundaes with various other flavors. I know this because it’s on the menu, but I’ve never had any of it. You can also get quarts of Rainbow Cone through December. I never have. The scarcity is part of the anticipation. What’s the fun in wanting something you can have anytime?

The ice cream aside, it’s important to understand why opening Rainbow Cone was sort of a crazy thing to do though perhaps no more or less crazy than raising up the buildings of downtown Chicago some ten feet through the use of jackscrews so an underground sewage system could be built. (Look it up.)

It gets cold in Chicago. Very cold. For months. So the window of opportunity for convincing people to leave their warm houses and buy something that will make them colder is a small one. Rainbow Cone closes for the season at the beginning of November and opens again in early March, which is so much wishful thinking. This year, I went to Rainbow Cone two weeks after it opened and took a picture of the cone piled high with multi-colored ice cream, my hand wrapped triumphantly around it. “Suck it, winter,” read the caption when I posted it to social media. Nevermind you can see a good foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground in the background of the picture. I think it eventually melted in April.

Also, Rainbow Cone was built in what is now the vibrant neighborhood of Beverly on the Far South Side of Chicago. But back in 1926, that area of the city was still developing and known for the number of cemeteries there. According to Lynn, Joseph realized there was a market in the relatives of those dearly departed who would come to visit them. On their way back into the city, they’d need something to lift their spirits and they’d stop at Rainbow Cone. Even now, Sundays remain Rainbow Cone’s busiest day.

The unique two-story design of the Rainbow Cone store is mean to evoke the fluffy ice cream it serves. Pepto-Bismol pink stucco with orange Spanish-style roof tiles. The doorway trimmed in rainbow-colored bricks. A towering Rainbow Cone on the roof. Neon letters offering “Cakes For Any Occasion.” It stands just across the street from the original location, on the border of Chicago and the village of Evergreen Park. The suburb recently removed acres of trees and green space to build big box stores and a gas station. It is as if Rainbow Cone stands at the entrance of the city, a guardian meant to preserve Chicago’s past.

Rainbow Cone remains a family business. Joseph’s son Bob and his wife Jean ran it in the 1960s and 70s and their daughter Lynn took it over from them. Outlasting the imitators (it’s not called Original Rainbow Cone for nothing), it’s been served up at Taste of Chicago for the last 27 years and functioned as the city’s culinary ambassador at events in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

Rainbow Cone has been a part of South Side childhoods for decades. The ice cream is certainly delicious. But I go back there several times a summer as a reminder of what you can do when you leave behind all the reasons why you shouldn’t do something and think about what you dreamed of making as a kid. Chicago has always given me a place to do that.

I’m sure the Daleys would say the same.

Year Five

agmeskatingAt some point during our shared birthday week last year, I realized I wasn’t going to write my annual post about where Abigail and I were in our lives. Let’s just say it was a tough week

This year has started with some uncertainty, but I’ve found myself fueled by activity and optimism.

And as I re-read the last post I wrote about our birthdays, I was struck by how much hasn’t changed for Abigail and I. She still loves Daniel Tiger, Doc McStuffins, Elmo and tag. I’m still trying to become a healthier, more productive me. So there’s some comfort in the familiar there. We have, however, left sleepovers on the stairs in the past. Amen.

Abigail’s new interests include Peppa Pig, music (specifically Puffy Ami Yumi), playing superheroes vs. bad guys and riding her bike. I’ve swapped Up for Fitbit and come to the realization that my vague attempts at running twice a week needed to be actual workouts four times a week if they’re going to make a difference. I’m reading more. Finding time to write is still a challenge.

Speaking of the familiar, Abigail’s also picked up more than a few phrases favored by Erin and me.

“Actually, the thing is…”
“You know, guys…”
“Can I tell you something?”

Part of me worries about this. Are we making sure she’s given enough space to figure out who she is without too much undue influence from us? On the other hand, when she caught a glimpse of the Oscars opening montage this week and yelled “Dad, that’s Thor!” I was more than a little pleased.

Moreso than in previous years, it’s easier to see how Abigail is our kid through both nature and nurture. She gets frustrated with things she’s not good at and likes staying busy. At various points this year, she’s taken acting, ballet, yoga, swimming, gymnastics and soccer. The latter activity was pretty much a disaster with me spending more time on the field as assistant coach (a.k.a. child wrangler) than she did.

It strikes me that I’m as influenced by having her as a kid as she is in having me as a dad. There’s no way I’d have volunteered to be an assistant coach of anything if not for her. She’s a big part of my motivation for getting on a treadmill. And on and on.

This year Abigail vacillated between becoming a big kid and staying a little kid. She pushed hard for a “big kid bed” only to find that growing up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She’s been telling us she wants her “little bed” back (because the big kid bed is “too tall”) even though I’ve told her many times that’s not possible because we used the pieces of the little bed to assemble the big bed. Due, in part, to this, bedtime’s been a bit of a struggle lately. On the night of her birthday, she was setting up chairs for a “roller skating show” and we made her stop and get ready for bed which led to a twenty-minute epic meltdown. It is the height of emotional conflict as a parent to be angry and exhausted by a child’s tantrum but still holding in a laugh while she screams “BUT THE SHOW MUST GO ON!!!!”

On a related note, her imagination is through the roof and through it she’s exploring more of her world. She loves building with Legos just as much as she loves acting out elaborate stories with her dolls – sometimes both at the same time. She’s not as cowed by new experiences as she used to be – “I know I can do it!” is something she tells herself to get psyched up. She has two very close friends at school this year who she talks about all the time so she’s figuring out who she is in relationships with humans other than the ones telling her to get dressed or line up for computers class.

As for me, this seems like the year that “life’s too short” becomes my mantra. Too much is uncertain and nothing’s ever perfect. Do the thing now instead of putting it off. Nothing to lose except for missed opportunities. Don’t settle.

Some of that’s a by-product of being on the other side of 40. But most of it is seeing myself through Abigail’s eyes. It’s easy for her to look up to me at 5. Doing the work to make sure she’s still doing it at 25 takes a bit more effort.

Pushing back on racism: The Beverly Review, 12.29.15

integration

Screenshot from WBEZ’s Curious City report on Beverly’s 1970s integration efforts. This was from a presentation called “Beverly Now.”

Yesterday I experienced an afternoon of celebration, reflection and conversation at St. Barnabas Church, where I’m a parishioner. The event was “Following Big Shoes – What Is Ours Yet To Do?” It focused on the past, present and future of the civil rights movement. Specifically, we discussed the work that needs to be done for civil rights in Chicago, now, to eradicate the scourge of gun violence in this city. There was passion and the comfort of shared mission.

The event was part of the Thou Shalt Not Murder campaign, led by a group of South Side churches and pastors leading up to a day without murder or shootings: March 27th, Easter Sunday. Please visit the website, read about the upcoming events and consider adding your voice to those who call for a day without murder in this city.

I will write more about this campaign later, but yesterday’s conversation (and specifically the line “what is ours left to do”) reminded me of an op-ed I wrote that originally ran in our neighborhood paper, The Beverly Review, during the last week of 2015. Our neighborhood is one of the few in Chicago that has an integrated population, but it didn’t come without a fight. The events in this country of the last year proved that the fight against racism isn’t over, nor is it enough for neighborhoods like mine to rest on its laurels. This column is specifically about the neighborhood of Beverly/Morgan Park, but likely has some relevance for you no matter where you live.

In all honesty, this column is a lot more gentle than anything I’d normally publish here. It’s absent the anger I feel about the incidents that led to it. And I purposely sidestepped calling out the neighborhood Facebook groups that are rife with stereotypes and some of the worst things I’ve read about anyone. But I wasn’t trying to reach them; I’m trying to reach those who disagree but feel cowed into silence by the hate they see. It’s those whose voices we need the most: the ones who hadn’t ever thought they can play a role in pushing back.

As winter takes hold and the year begins to draw to a close, I’ve been thinking about the past year and taking an inventory of my life in the past twelve months – work and home, good and bad, what I’ve done and what I’ve left undone.

When I’m thinking about the past year’s accomplishments and next year’s priorities, I often find myself thinking in terms of a checklist: which tasks are one-time events that can be forgotten once they’re done and which ones are ongoing tasks that need regular effort?

I’ve thought about this in terms of our neighborhood, too, and how most things we think of as one-and-done really ought to be ongoing matters that always get our attention.

All of which brings me around to matters of diversity and race in our area.

Our community is one of the few in the highly segregated city of Chicago that can claim a measure of racial integration. According to the 2010 census, Beverly’s population is 65% white, 32% black, 3% Hispanic. Morgan Park is 66% black, 29% white, 3% Hispanic. But this mix did not happen naturally.

The racial makeup of Beverly changed only after hard work, court fights and the bravery of those who persevered in the face of stiff opposition. A report last year by WBEZ’s Curious City program detailed this change. Beverly was 99% white in 1970. Members of the Beverly Area Planning Association pushed (and sued) realtors to avoid racially-motivated steering while also speaking to parishes and neighbors about the importance and benefits of an integrated community. A few brave black families began to move here. In the next ten years, the black population in Beverly would grow to 14%.

All of this gives our neighborhood a unique history. But what about our future? Or our present?

Our community’s current racial makeup may lead some of us to think that our efforts at integration can be checked off the list. Yet over the past couple years, it’s distressed me that our neighborhood has too often made local and even national headlines for incidents of racism. Just like in the 1970s, it is not a problem that will go away on its own without the help of people who live here. It will require bravery, honesty and a commitment from those with power.

Of course, our neighborhood is not alone in this struggle. As this country becomes more diverse, it is re-examining its own racial past and asking what work still needs to be done. While we’ve come far as a nation, we have a ways to go before we remove all the structural, economic and cultural barriers that prevent us from living up to the ideals of liberty and justice for all.

We can do this here. And we can do this now.

As with most things, stepping outside of our own experiences is the first step. Our community is tight-knit, which is wonderful. But sometimes it prevents us from seeing beyond what’s happening on our block, in our parish or within our immediate neighborhood. Rather than allow suspicions to form around those whom are unfamiliar, let’s agree to try and get to know each other better instead.

This work continues by not being silent when confronted with racism. We don’t need to be consumed by the hate and anger of others. The simple act of saying “I disagree and that doesn’t reflect my views” in response says far more than silence, which can, too often, be read as agreement.

When something happens to one group in this community, let’s agree that it affects all of us. If a racial incident occurs, we can express our concern and our willingness to help to our alderman Matt O’Shea, the police in the 22nd district, BAPA, our churches, our schools and any other organized group in this community capable of bringing people together in common cause. Moreover, groups like Unity in Diversity, Southsiders for Peace and the Southwest Chicago Diversity Collaborative all operate within this area and are interested in fighting racism and increasing diversity.

Forty years from now, will the next generation read about this neighborhood and say that we were the ones who continued the diversity work of those that came before us? We will make mistakes and it will be messy. But when it comes to pushing back on racism, it’s not enough to have good intentions; it has to be followed by good works.

It’s an ongoing effort, but it’s worth every bit of our attention.

Touchvision ends with a proud legacy

touchvisionYesterday, the staff of Touchvision was informed our company would be shutting down, effective immediately. A bunch of my fantastic and talented colleagues are looking for work today so if you need writers, producers, editors or any other kind of content-slingers, I got a list for you.

A little more than a year ago, Justin Allen – a guy I’d briefly worked with on a video series for Chicago magazine – said he was rebooting the two-year-old company into a place that allowed for creative risks and asked if I wanted to join as the editorial director. For someone who looks for fun and creative challenges in his work, it was perfect. Plus, I got to work with Jessica Galliart again who makes everything she touches better. (Hire her.)

This piece in Crain’s by Lynne Marek talks about what it was like to turn around that company. I give her an enormous amount of credit for getting what we were about and digging into what we do.

While its end may suggest we didn’t succeed (media critic Robert Feder calls it a “noble failure” and says we did “a lot of good work”), I’ll say here that a company trying to move from a traditional TV model to one informed by digital and social media has a lot of challenges. We just ran out of time. Maybe the task was greater than us. But we worked our asses off trying. We had a lot of support from our board and our investors, too.

I still think something like this can work and make money. Touchvision’s end and the shutdown of Al Jazeera America’s TV outlet may seem like a counterargument but I’d point you to its digital arm, AJ+. They do excellent work in the vein of what we were doing at Touchvision and have had a lot of success with it.

Feel free to skip the rest of this if you like but I don’t want to wrap this without calling out some of the excellent things that Touchvision created in little more than a year and would not have been possible without someone like Justin at the helm and many talented people behind-the-scenes.

(Click these links now because I’m not sure how long they will be around).

On my first day, I saw a preview of a feature we did on cleaning up a former meth house. It’s bracing and sad but I knew then that this was a place that was capable of wonderful things.

One of the first things I helped produce was this four-part (!!!) series on Uber and its effects on the economy. If anything, the issues we raised there have become even more prevalent since then. (Check me out in part 4 as I moderate a discussion between our two producers and briefly fulfill my dream to host a news and civic affairs show!)

We also did a great job at making TV seem more like the Internet. This daily news series called Speaking of News started on the live streaming platform Periscope. I’d point an iPhone at the incomparable Molly Adams while she sat in our company’s kitchen talking about whatever important stories and angles she felt were being ignored that day. It evolved into this shot-in-the-newsroom show mainly made for Facebook and YouTube and aired in a shortened form on our daily TV show.

Using that model, we launched another Periscope show called We Should Talk About This with Gwen Purdom and Erik Niewiarowski. It was pop culture-focused and would run for fifteen minutes on Periscope while a three minute version ran on YouTube, Facebook and TV. The show was a joy to watch because of Gwen and Erik’s incredible chemistry and really hit its stride when Gwen brought in a stuffed deer head to hang in the background.

WE PRODUCED A TV SHOW WITH A STUFFED DEER HEAD IN THE BACKGROUND.

Also worth noting here that WSTAT was produced every day by our social and digital producer Angelica Jaime. For years, I’ve been in places that talked a good game but never quite empowered their social/digital teams to make, produce and improve our content. I’m really glad we did and we were the better for it.

We had one of the best social commentators anywhere in Felonious Munk. You’ll see more of him soon as he’s already appeared on The Nightly Show. Working with him on his pieces was always a highlight of my day.

Plus, our docs team – run by Lauren Mialki – did some of the most beautiful, moving work you’ll ever see. A look at youth affected by Chicago violence, a profile of a guy who runs The First Church of Marijuana and what it’s like to be a 25-year-old with cancer. Our special projects group, under the guidance of Julie Svetcoff, cranked out new, experimental projects every week with some of the best comedians in Chicago.

We did long pieces of cultural analysis, we talked about Internet harassment, we had series on everything from science and psychology to marijuana to cocktails to bullying to gender issues.

Every single day we produced a morning news show (with headlines, culture and business news) and figured out how to make it work as social media content.

And we held a Chewbacca impersonation contest.

That’s just a few highlights. We got to hire and work with people I’d long admired. Every single day, I was stunned a place existed that was doing this kind of work and my team and I were a part of it. 

I say all this not to brag on us too much but to tell you that there are some peerlessly talented people out there looking for work. And anyone who tells you it’s not possible to run a high-caliber media company in Chicago is trying to sell you something. We had some pretty solid plans for how to make money at it, too.
And if you’d like to know how…well, I have some time on my hands and I know some other folks who do, too. Get at me.

A year of good intentions 

I should have known my grand plan for this year might hit a snag or two when my most enterprising, driven friend told me he thought my list of 40 goals for 2015 was “really amibitious.”

Almost everyone I talked to – while expressing good wishes and excitement over such a list – said they thought it was too much to pack into a year. It was. But purposely! It was a set of achievable and stretch goals, for sure.

And yet…

In project management, you’re taught to not only account for what needs to be done but also the unforseeable that might push back a project’s schedule.

The other thing they tell you is to create accountability and tracking processes.

Without any of this, most projects are doomed to fail.

From a sheer numbers perspective, this one did.

I know I achieved some of the goals on this list, but trying to remember the details behind them (outings with AG, records I listened to, books I read) is proving somewhat challenging.

The unforseeable played a huge role in my year. No one expected my friend Mark to succumb so quickly to cancer. His death left me sad and angry in ways I’ve only fully accepted over the past month. You know how you injure yourself and the pain subsides but then you realize you healed up all wrong and need to rehabilitate a new injury now? That’s the best way I can describe it.

I’ll also note here that some health issues in my extended family pulled my focus for several months in the spring and summer and left me without a lot of mental or physical energy to knock out some of the more fun things on this list. Superdawg will have to wait for 2016.

Plus, some of these things weren’t fully under my control. A book with one of my essays in it got pushed back a year, some date-specific goals had unavoidable conflicts, etc. And I forgot to anticipate how much starting a new job pushes other things to the background.

Some of the important things on that list did happen though. I did launch a South Side reading series, The Frunchroom (the next one is January 21st, you should come out for it!). Some friends and I created a scholarship fund. I’m about halfway through that bottle of Lagavulin and know about four chords on a ukelele. I appeared on a national TV show (and even though it’s the place I work I’m still counting it).

Unexpected accomplishments also popped up. I went to L.A. for the first time this year. We took Abigail to her first White Sox game. I stood up in a friend’s wedding. I took a photo that made my ice-cream-holding-hand locally famous as the death knell of winter. I coached kids’ soccer despite not really understanding soccer. Erin and I went to Moto. And wrote my first obituary, which will probably go down as one of the most important things I will ever write.

The whole point of this list was to learn new things this year. Whether I expected to or not, I learned a lot about myself. I developed new priorities. I discovered more about what needs my attention.

Looking back on this list, it’s full of some really great things. They’re all worth doing.

I’m just going to push back the due date on some of them.