Reacting to life: Essay Fiesta – 07.21.14

I haven’t read at Essay Fiesta in three years so it was great to be back at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square last night. It’s now hosted by Willy Nast and Karen Shimmin and benefits 826Chi, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping youth get excited about reading and creativity. Their next event is August 18th at 7pm. You should go.

Or: Come see me read at Tuesday Funk on September 2nd at the Hopleaf.

I’ve had a couple things knocking around in my head recently and writing this piece really helped bring them all together. Saying more about that spoils a couple bits in the below so…

Last week, my grandfather and I were sitting in a steakhouse in the northwest suburbs drinking dry Rob Roys on the rocks, with a twist. It has always been his drink and so in his presence it is mine as well.

We were waiting for our food to arrive and he was telling me the story of how he and my grandmother met. I’ve heard this story at least ten times before but something about the way he told it that night – or maybe it was the second Rob Roy – made me realize how close I came to never being born.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of how my grandparents met because it seemed really complicated but that night it seemed moreso.

grandmaHere’s the gist: This guy from another school (which is all I’m ever told about him) asks my grandfather, who is then just a 17 year old Norwegian kid named Edgar, if he knows a certain girl named Jean, a 14 year old Polish girl. This guy asks Edgar if he knows Jean because he’s trying to find out whether she was in Holstein Park some recent evening. (The reasons why he’s asking have never been made clear to me.) My grandfather says no, he doesn’t know her, but he thinks Jean is in class with his brother, my uncle Hal. Edgar says he’ll ask him. Either Edgar has Hal ask Jean or the two of them ask her together – again, the details are less than clear – but what is made very clear is her emphatic no: She was not in Holstein Park that night because her mother – my great-grandmother Martha – would never allow her to be in Holstein Park at night. But Edgar takes a liking to Jean and so they begin dating and then a few years later they marry, then have my mom and et cetera, et cetera.

So I’m sitting there sipping on that Rob Roy, listening to this story and I suddenly realize after all these years that this story makes no sense.

Confusing the symptoms of Chicago’s violence with the disease

7452178210_4424a362a0_mI swear this blog isn’t going to become “Our Man In Chicago On Crime” but it’s probably going to be on my mind for a couple weeks.

I’m trying to understand the mayor’s mindset when he does things like this:

Emanuel attended an anti-violence vigil in Roseland Monday evening where he said everyone — from parents to police to federal lawmakers — must play a role to curb bloodshed in Chicago.

“A lot of people will say where were the police … and that’s a fair question, but not the only question,” Emanuel said. “Where are the parents? Where is the community?

First of all, I don’t know how you stand there at a anti-violence rally in a community that lost one of its own in a drive-by shooting two nights prior and ask “Where is the community?” That takes some gall.

I also don’t know how you read about the father of the 14-year-old boy shot in a separate incident and ask “Where are the parents?”

“What happens to kids when they’re not with their parents?” said Susan Diaz, whose daughter married into the Rios family. “The kid was 14 years old. The parents do the best that they can. When the kid walks away — he goes to school, the beach, the park, the library — the gangbangers are hanging around waiting to recruit them. … That’s just the way it is.”

When the mayor asks “Where are the parents? Where are the communities?” it implies neither exists where there is gun violence. That’s reductive. And wrong. Especially when the underpinnings of those communities have been ripped apart by lack of economic investment. Gun violence doesn’t start because a kid wakes up and decides not to listen to his parents. It starts when he thinks a gun keeps him alive. And that happens when crime seems like the best – and safest – possible way to earn a living and keep on living.

More police aren’t going to solve the problem. But pointing a finger at parents without talking about why parents aren’t around? Or the economic reasons why parents alone aren’t enough to shout down the other voices kids hear on those streets every day? Not helpful.

When you’re the mayor, your rhetoric frames the way people view a situation. Your words make headlines, they lead the evening news. Demonizing an entire community gives fuel to those who think “those people” are all criminals. It lays the blame for crime at the community’s collective feet, helps keep “them” at arm’s length and convinces people that crime is something that exists in other neighborhoods and won’t affect them.

I’m reminded of last week’s shooting in Lakeview:

The Pride parade revelers who had filled the street earlier were gone, Lane said, and a younger crowd replaced them.

“I doubt any of them was over 30,” Lane said. “A lot of them don’t live around here. They come from other neighborhoods. It’s just the attitude they have, the mentality.”

[snip]

Neighbor Juan Chavez, who’s lived in the area since 2007, said “the majority of people who cause trouble don’t live in the neighborhood.”

People in “safe” Chicago neighborhoods really will go to great lengths to convince themselves that crime isn’t a problem where they live. Saying “they come from other neighborhoods” suggests there’s a leaky faucet of crime you can just turn off and fix the problem.

Instead, we – all of us – need to support crime prevention and economic improvement efforts for all Chicago neighborhoods. Not just our own. That’s not easy, I’ll admit. But it’s the cause of the problem, not a lack of morality or parents or community.

Or to put it another way: morality, parents and community are what get infected by the disease of violence and poverty.

Image via Don Harder/Creative Commons

The latest on the armed robbery

Some news today about the armed robbery I experienced:

I’ll second what the alderman says above. The men and women of the 22nd District were incredibly thorough and supportive throughout this. In particular, Detective Donnelly kept me on an even keel as he moved the investigation forward. When I grow up, I want his professionalism and attention to detail.

Obviously, I’m choosing not to reveal much about the what happened that night because there’s still a long way to go from here. It’s also why I’m not going into detail about my feelings about the two men who did this. It’s not worth it in the short-term and I’d rather focus on end goals.

But I’m very relieved that this is all happening.

Also, today Red Eye ran an excerpt of my blog post. I rewrote a few things in light of some recent criticism of the original post. This seems most relevant and keeps pointing the way forward for me:

We have to stop thinking of neighborhood boundaries as the limit of our interest. When crime happens anywhere in the city, it affects all of us. We have to be willing to help be a part of the solution, however we’re able.

I got robbed at gunpoint in my really nice Chicago neighborhood. What do I do now?

1024px-107th_StreetBeverly_Hills_Metra_StationI’ve lived in the Chicago area my whole life. I’ve lived in the city proper since 1998. I’ve never been robbed at gunpoint.

There’s a first time for everything and last night was my first time. I want it to be my last.

I was walking home from the Metra at 107th St. It’s an eight-minute walk for me. I was on my block, steps from my house when two guys in their late teens/early 20s robbed me. One had a gun. It was big. And it was sticking in my chest.

The whole time I’m thinking “Of course they have a gun. That’s what you do when you want to rob someone. You scare them with a gun so they give up anything of value. A gun turns a struggle into an obvious outcome.” It seemed so typical. Here’s my mugging!

I tried to use a few seconds to stall so I could get my bearings. How much danger am I in? (Quite a bit.) Is there anyone around? (Nope.) Do I have a choice in how this ends? (Hope so.)

They got my wallet, my phone and my work laptop. Physically, I’m fine and safe because I didn’t prize my possessions over my future. And because these guys hoped the long-established storyline would play out exactly as it did.

Crime should not feel inevitable. But it’s felt like that lately in Chicago. For many people, including me. Even though I live in a safe neighborhood. There’s too much of it happening here for it not to affect you, no matter what neighborhood you live in. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that Chicago’s tribalism, enforced by neighborhood boundaries, contributes to the problem. As long as it happens somewhere else, it’s OK. As long as it involves gangs, it’s OK because you’re not in one so it won’t happen to you. Even though it’s only a matter of time until it hits home. It did for me last night.

I am not special. This exact scenario plays out many times across the city. Similar ones happen often with far more lethal results. As someone who closely follows what happens in this city and this neighborhood, I’m aware of the potential danger.

Mine wasn’t the only recent robbery around here. There was another armed robbery last week near the 107th Metra station. According to reports on local community Facebook groups, there was a robbery four blocks south at the 111th station. And one last week at 96th and Damen. There were recent robberies at businesses near the 103rd St. Metra stop. People in our neighborhood are being targeted because they’re comforted by the safety and are more likely to have something worth taking.

More crime is happening here because we live in a safe neighborhood. Mull that one over for a while.

I did all the things you’re supposed to do right after a robbery: called the police, canceled my credit cards, changed the locks (my keys were in my bag and they had my driver’s license). The cops at the 22nd District – five officers and a detective – could not have been more kind, thoughtful and thorough.

Plenty of people will read the above details and use it to support their own conclusions about the causes of crime in Chicago. I know this because I’ve already read comments from people on our neighborhood Facebook groups who are quick to blame it on a particular demographic group (which is a crock because the actions of a few are not indicative of the many) or use it as evidence of why concealed carry should be allowed on trains (which is also a crock because many people, including me, would still choose not to carry even if they could and a good guy with a gun doesn’t always stop a bad guy with a gun).

I’m a bleeding heart liberal and an avid reader. My opinion has been when you don’t give people economic options and don’t make them feel safe and don’t invest in their neighborhoods they’ll do what they can to survive and use crime as an economic opportunity. I still think that.

But I’m also a realist. And I know some people are just assholes.

The real cause is somewhere in the above three paragraphs. Probably the last two.

When my wife posted to our local Facebook groups about what happened – in an effort to find a locksmith who’d come out this evening – people messaged her saying the recent robberies in our neighborhood are making them put their houses up for sale. This is unusual. Folks live here for decades. People don’t move from Beverly, they move to Beverly. Usually because their parents raised them here. Or they’re looking for what it has to offer. Maybe that’s about to change.

I know what happened to me is minor compared to what has happened to others who don’t have the resources or support I have. Or to people who aren’t targets themselves but are caught between the person who is and the person with a gun. I walked away with an unpleasant experience. Most people who have a gun pointed at them in Chicago don’t walk away.

Chicago’s murder rate gets a lot of attention. But the robbery, assault and other crime rates don’t get as many frequent updates even though they hit people where they live, too. And they’re making people leave where they live.

Not me though. I’m staying to fight. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for five years. We have the best burger and best ice cream in the city. There are many other things to recommend it: the churches, the schools, the people.

I’ve already written the alderman – he’s a good guy and cares about the people who live here – and I plan on talking more about this in the future. I’ve told him I’m willing to help, however I’m able, to deal with our neighborhood’s short term crime problem and the city’s larger problems. If you follow me online, you know I’m not exactly quiet about the problems in Chicago and how our priorities are often out of whack. It’s always been personal for me. I love this city so very much; it is my joy but it is also my sorrow.

Tonight Chicago’s crime problem hit me on the street where I live.

It’s not enough for me to talk about it anymore, it’s time for me to do more. If I’m not doing more, I’m not doing enough.

I hope I motivate others to do the same.

UPDATE: I’m no longer publishing comments made on this post, regardless of tone. I don’t have the time to sift through them and keep the discussion from getting out of hand. Thanks to those who sent along their thoughts.

Father’s Day cliches

Last week, a former co-worker told me he and his wife were going to have their first child within a month. I congratulated him and tried to say something that didn’t cover all the usual bases: it changes your life completely in ways you’re not prepared for, you see the world differently forever after, it’s really hard at first but gets easier, etc. In the end I went with a variation on the first – this guy works at a startup and the metaphor seemed apropos – followed by my standard caution of “you will think you are supposed to know what you’re doing but you will not and that is completely normal” and an invitation to let me know if he needs someone to talk to about it. “You are not alone” is the nicest thing you can tell someone about to be a parent.

sweaterandtieThen yesterday, Erin, Abigail and I were at our friend Mike’s annual backyard pig roast. He and his wife have a five-year-old and many of his friends have kids now, too – at one point the party looked to be two-thirds filled with either kids, parents or grandparents. I was catching up with a friend in-between bites of roast pork and running Abigail to the bathroom (we’re in the midst of potty-training her). He has two kids and his youngest is seven months. As talk turned to our kids – specifically the patterns that repeat themselves with the second kid – he said “It’s crazy how cliched it all is.” He said this not as a complaint so much as a matter of fact.

Most people feel very confident in the ways they are not going be like every other parent right up until they actually become a parent. And then it all seems to fall away. Sometimes this is because of all the things I thought about telling my startup friend. Other times it’s because, developmentally speaking, most kids follow a certain timeline in the first year or two. Mostly it’s because parenting is hard and in moments of desperation you fall back on a combination of nature and nurture that combines the brain patterns formed by lifetimes of child-rearing with a few things you saw on TV (shout out to Mr. Cunningham on “Happy Days” and Steven Keaton on “Family Ties”) and some knowledge gleaned from moments when your own father said “OK, pay attention because I’m only going to show you this once and then I want you to do it.”

These cliches stitch themselves into the rest of your life, too. Or mine, anyway. If not for my job, which requires me to have some sense of the reigning cultural zeitgeist, I would be well on my way to filling my free time with Hitler documentaries and clips of Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts DVD (an infomercial I will watch to the end every time I stumble across it). The speed with which my summer plans became ruled not by music festivals but by yard work was astounding. An evening that ends with a glass of scotch is a fine evening indeed. I have no feelings of wistful regret about this. If anything, it feels like “Whew, finally.”

At this point in my life, I’m more interested in helping others set the world on fire than I am doing so myself, which is the perfect mindset to be in as a parent or a person approaching forty. I’d like to say the pleasure I derived from all this would be embarrassing to a younger me but probably not. I was an old person even when I was a young person. More often than not, I find myself considering the parents whose lives are marked by challenges far outside the usual patterns: poverty, violence or extraordinary health and medical needs, for instance. The ones who don’t have the luxury or comfort of cliche. I’m not knowledgeable enough about that intersection to write about it (yet?) but it’s certainly on my mind more now than ever before and I struggle with how to do something about it.

Meanwhile, I came home from work on Friday night with a unexpected desire to wear the t-shirt Abigail got me for Father’s Day last year. It has the words “World’s Best Dad” printed across the top, her handprints in the center and the words “Hands Down” underneath. As Ian has said, these gifts are usually huge lies so I’m not usually drawn to it at the risk of seeming like a hypocrite. Better a t-shirt with “Pretty Good Dad Most Days with Occasional Moments of Brilliance” written on it. But for whatever reason, I really wanted to wear it that night.

Today we’re going to have lunch with my dad and on the way home we’re going to pick up a lawn and weed trimmer I’ve been meaning to get for a couple months now. Next week, I’m going to throw some carpet down on the back porch and paint the back stairs so the backyard will finally look the way I want it for the summer.

I try hard not to be a cliche. But sometimes I can’t help myself.

I like it too much.

A few other notable things I’ve written about fatherhood:

Love is a late-night cheese sandwich
Mark Wahlberg hates America
Learning to climb
Guys like Seth MacFarlane are why I bought my daughter a Tonka truck
And the Scott vs. Pink trilogy: Supergirls, Comic books are for girls and Pink

Startup culture, end of the beginning of the end edition

“One thing that did cut through the exhaustion was a task I’d been anticipating for more than six years: writing the Facebook post in which I announce to friends, former friends, frenemies, ex-girlfriends, college roommates, future wives, and family members that I was not in fact an obscure failure but a new, minor footnote in the annals of Silicon Valley startup successes. Writing it was easy. I’d had six years to plot it in my head.”

- via I Sold My Startup for $25.5 Million. Here’s How I Did It – Slate

Long before 1871 and all the talk about Chicago as a tech hub, Brad Flora bootstrapped his own startups, sacrificing sleep and his own basic needs – food, shelter, etc. – along the way. All of this led to the payoff described above. He does a wonderful job outlining the frenzied banality that made it happen.

And I love he admits thinking about the announcement for the entire six years of the experience.

In the wake of more Techweek sexism, it’s time for Chicago to speak up

I have a guest op-ed in Crain’s Chicago Business about the sexist imagery that Techweek has been using to promote its event.

There’s a lot of context here – it’s not just about Techweek and gave me an opportunity some other things I’ve seen in Chicago’s STEM communities in the last year.

Please go read it in full at Crain’s.  But here’s the call to action at the end:

The responsibility of inclusiveness is borne by everyone, not just Techweek. I’d love to see other Chicago tech events like Built In Chicago, Tech Cocktail and Technori create their own codes of conduct and describe how they will enforce them when they are violated. (The Geek Feminism Wiki offers some good open-source language as a starting point.) Writers and editors of lists featuring local tech luminaries should move beyond the VCs and the C-suiters (who are invariably older, male and white) and showcase the people in the trenches who have much more to do with the code that gets written and the products that get released. Funders should look for opportunities to bankroll women-led companies and incubators — 1871′s FEMTech is an example.

Finally, if you’re a man at a tech program, startup or publication that doesn’t demonstrate inclusion of women or people or color or deliberately uses policies, language or imagery that excludes, speak up.

A community determines what it will tolerate and creates policy to reinforce its beliefs. Now is the time for Chicago’s entire tech community to speak loudly about both.

UPDATE: A few links and events of note since I wrote the above:

* Techweek Chicago held a roundtable discussion about the controversy. They claimed to do so with “the support of Ms. Tech,” a woman-led tech/business group in Chicago but a subsequent story in the Sun-Times said the head of the organization “wasn’t briefed after Wednesday’s round-table despite Techweek organizers telling her she and her organization would be involved in the next action steps.” During the roundtable, the organizers decided to cancel the Black Tie Rave but still donate the expected proceeds to charity. They also created a “fellowship program” so that 50 women could attend Techweek Chicago without having to pay the admission fee. I’m not sure why you’d want to attend an event that doesn’t appear to have your best interests in mind, even if it was for free. At this point, Techweek appears to be trying to buy influence and align themselves with people – like Ms. Tech – who will make them seem interested in solving their problems.

* Melissa Pierce, a prominent figure in Chicago’s tech community, wrote an op-ed for Crain’s detailing how she was “duped” in her participation in last year’s Techweek conference.

* Huffington Post Chicago has a good roundup with commentary from local voices in Chicago tech.

* I didn’t realize it until later but apparently Moshe Tamssot was Patient Zero in this whole thing.

Three summer-related apps I would download to my phone if they existed

* An app that sends you an alert when it’s the perfect day to eat lunch outside. (Version 2.0 could be customizable to your own preferences of temperature, sun and wind speed.)

* An app that periodically reminds you to drink lemonade during the summer. Because it’s delicious and sometimes you forget, especially because it’s not as widely available as, say, pop.

* A GPS-enabled app that tells you to bring a jacket/sweater if you are about to leave the house and the temperature is expected to drop more than 10-15 degrees within three hours of you leaving the house.

Get on this, someone.

This piece isn’t about guns: The Paper Machete – 5.31.2014

Though I’m almost always writing right up until the deadline for The Paper Machete, I usually finish before I leave the house. Not this time. I finished this one sitting at bar at The Green Mill twenty minutes before showtime.  You can see my notes at right.

As always, if you liked this piece, please like The Paper Machete on Fcaebook,  follow it on Twitter, listen to its podcast or - most importantly – attend one of its 3pm Saturday afternoon shows at The Green Mill.

I drew the short straw this week so I’m here to discuss last week’s mass shooting near Santa Barbara, California. I will try to do so in a way that doesn’t make you depressed for the rest of the day.

If you’re worried you’re in for a screed on gun control, don’t worry. This piece isn’t about guns. Not really. That’s not the conversation we had this week.

No, after we spent the Memorial Day weekend remembering the sacrifices others have made to preserve everything good about this country, we were reminded of everything terrible about this country thanks to Joe The Plumber.

How to make native advertising more ethical and effective

Timing is everything.

This piece began as a a conversation I had with a friend who is a former newspaper designer and later became a self-taught digital developer. He has a deep well of experience in print and the web and a love of both. So when he told me he thought native advertising tries to fool readers into believing an ad is news, it was obvious to me that even those most likely to understand the form have concerns about its function. Bob Garfield’s February Guardian article also seemed like it deserved a response. So I decided to put down some thoughts about native advertising that had been brewing in my head since the Atlantic‘s Scientology dustup.

That was two months ago.

For one reason or another, it took a while before the piece was ready to pitch around. By then, Jill Abramson had been fired from the New York Times and native advertising was cited in many of the discussions about the split. I worked with our agency PR director to rewrite it as a peg to that event and what started as something rather navel-gaze-y ended up as timely.

The piece below first ran in PR Week on May 19th, 2014 and was one of its most-shared articles that week.

Many articles about New York Times editor Jill Abramson’s firing discuss her clashes with the business side of the Times organization. One area of conflict was native advertising. According to reports, Abramson’s primary concern with native advertising was her belief that it could mislead readers into thinking the Times was the source of the work rather than an advertiser. Though many questions surround her departure, perhaps it’s worth revisiting why native advertising is often a source of controversy.

Abramson has a point about some native advertising; even marketers who embrace native ads must acknowledge standards aren’t applied across the board. Because of this, the form has an identity problem – perhaps because it too often obscures that identity. When it comes to effective, ethical native advertising, the best of it communicates its intent and meets the reader’s expectations. Here are five suggestions to ensure it does: