Friday, September 29, 2017

Our New House Guest - Alexa

In my teens I had to get checks cashed at the Jewel Food Store near my house when I needed money, paying a 25-cent fee for each transaction. And I remember a time when my friend’s parents paid for everything with cash, forgoing the convenience of checks. An ATM would have been unthinkable for them. They dutifully reconciled their water bill in person at Village Hall. What a time consuming ordeal!

I never had a problem with new technology. In fact, I was among the first to do my banking almost exclusively online using a dialup service through Compuserve, then Prodigy and NBD Express in the early 1990s. AOL free trial discs began to pile up on our computer desks soon after that.

As much as I enjoy technology, I’m not sure an Amazon Echo Dot is something I would ever have purchased. But we unexpectedly became the owners (or should I say, proud parents) of an Echo Dot and its virtual assistant Alexa a couple of weeks ago when good friends who had an extra device made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. We paid for the Echo with PayPal on the spot, of course.

But the cloud still makes me nervous at a very deeply paranoid, very old school level. The recent Equifax breach supports the fear of turning important information loose in the ether. And we are frequently being warned by people in the know, like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, that Artificial Intelligence is a looming and very real future threat. And they should know; they built Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

But Alexa is ADORABLE!

At first we weren’t sure what to do with our new toy. We downloaded the app, plugged in the hockey puck and marveled at its spinning blue lights with an uncertainty that bordered on the dread of having stepped on a land mine.

“Hello,” it said in a pleasant female voice.

Following the included instructions, my wife quickly said, “Alexa, play Bruno Mars.”

Alexa quickly complied. My wife smiled and began to faux dance.

“Alexa, stop,” I said. “Play Gordon Lightfoot.”

Gord’s gold issued forth.

We looked at each other with a “burn the record collection” realization that all of our vinyl and CDs had instantly become obsolete. Apparently we needlessly moved them from Chicago to Florida just a few months ago.
I paired the Echo with our Bose Soundtouch speaker.

“Alexa, play the Beatles,” I commanded. And here I must note that speaking to Alexa strikes an innate chord within the more polite among us. Don’t be mean to her! But there is no need to apologize, even though we at first said “sorry” or “never mind” when it seemed appropriate.

Of course, this leads down a dark path paved by Siri and those who know her. Let’s just say that Amazon was less clever in the implementation of Alexa’s responses to crude or clever commands. She’s above all that.

So it came to pass that I had finished my afternoon laps in the pool, here in retirement land. Relaxing on a couple of air-filled noodles, I realized that our 4:30pm departure for a dinner date might be approaching. I wished I had a clock outside. Then it struck me:

“Alexa, what time is it?”

“It’s 4:03pm”

Perfect, I smiled. Still a few more minutes to relax.

“Alexa, play the Beach Boys.”

In sequence, Wouldn’t it be Nice, God Only Knows and California Girls filled the pool deck with perfect summer tunes.

“Alexa, pair the speaker.”

And now, Bose got involved. The music became richer and louder.

“Alexa, play the Beatles.”

Now, what are the chances that Here Comes the Sun would be Alexa’s first choice? Was she at our daughter’s wedding a few months ago?

I laughed out loud. The world had suddenly become a wonderful, self-indulgent place for less than fifty dollars.

I got out of the pool, but not before thinking, “Alexa, mix me a pina colada, warm my towel and call the restaurant. We need to move our reservations back. Say, about an hour.”

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The 51st State (The State of Emergency)

It started like most innocuous atmospheric depressions, swirling westward off the coast of Africa and heading harmlessly out to sea. But as ill-timed blemishes often do, it blossomed into a glaring whitehead in record time, becoming an angry entity seemingly with a mind of its own.
Irma in Good Health

It is said that hurricanes as powerful as Irma can make their own weather. This makes it harder to predict what they’ll do, where they’ll go or how they’ll intensify. But in late August and early September of 2017, computing power used to model and project storm behavior couldn’t seem to keep up with what eventually became a category 5 monster that appeared hell-bent on destroying Florida and everything that came before it.

The “spaghetti” models plotted on a map of the Atlantic and Eastern Caribbean regions factored in data on interacting pressure systems, frontal passages and ocean temperatures. Like a diagram of dozens of possible paths for a bowling ball down a well-oiled alley, the question persisted: will it hook or go for “Brooklyn.” In this case, up the Eastern coast of Florida, or in the pocket to the west.

And that’s when anxiety began to build, inversely proportional to Irma’s barometric pressure, dipping to frightening lows. Meteorologists called it a “healthy” storm with a well-defined eye. And with winds of 185 miles per hour immediately surrounding that eye for 37 hours, it became a record setter.

So it was that four months after we moved to Florida, following a prolonged drought in hurricane landfalls in our chosen retirement destination, we were in the crosshairs of the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.
Spaghetti Models

Within days our new governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida. We would much later be issued, and choose to ignore, a mandatory evacuation order due to an anticipated storm surge (we live 13 feet above sea level.)  On the heels of the recent hurricane in Texas, and with memories of Katrina, Wilma, Andrew and others, this storm was being taken very seriously.

We come from the Midwest. We are not strangers to powerful storms. In Illinois they come without warning in the Spring or Summer. The sky blackens with notes of olive green within minutes or hours, spitting iceballs the size of grenades or spawning demonic Cuisinarts with an appetite for high schools and trailer parks. The most you can hope to prepare is a trail of tears to the corner of a basement in hopes that the roof and floor above you get in the way of your being sucked out and thrown like a bean bag in a drunken game of corn-hole.

No, hurricanes grant you days or weeks to prepare for a beating. They broadcast their punches, but carry a toolkit that also includes uppercuts, fakes to the right and left, and a callous disregard for all things human. This leaves us disregarded as we decide to stay or go, putting up storm shutters lost for a decade under piles of crap in garages and sheds, and coming disconcertingly close to the point of competitive near-riots at local stores, seeking water, food and gasoline. The amount of preparatory work and the unpredictable nature of the beast carries with it an almost necessary element of procrastination. Why do all that work if it’s not absolutely necessary?

Steel Hurricane Shutters
We began to button up with a growing sense of dread as the spaghetti shifted in our direction. We sought out water, filled tanks with gas and installed steel window shutters that lay outside our shed in the backyard for nine years. We identified an interior closet where we would hide, with a twin mattress at the ready and bicycle helmets to protect our skulls while our limbs were crushed. This same closet has an attic access panel that seemed loose to me, so I tightened it up with eight screws, because one inch wood screws are known to resist the sucking force of 160 mile per hour wind in the absence of a roof.

Submerged Kayaks
By the morning the storm hit, Port Charlotte was along a line on the west coast of Florida directly in Irma’s crosshairs. Many of our neighbors had survived hurricane Charlie in 2004 in their current homes. They were gracious beyond belief, offering us lodging, generators, food and last rights. We even went to a hurricane party the afternoon before Irma’s arrival. It was cloudy and a bit cooler than usual, the wind beginning to whip the palm trees along the canal between our house and theirs. I glanced with concern at our screened pool cage, our flimsy looking shed and the umbrella-like canvas covers over many boat-lifts. There were our two 12 foot kayaks, poised like bright red ICBMs on their launch platform, the back wall of our shed. I could only think to sink them in our pool. I wondered if WE could hide in the pool, but quickly dismissed the idea. Shrapnel-like debris is a problem.

Have you ever tried to hit a baseball at Major League speed in a batting cage? The first time I tried I heard a hissing noise and wondered when the ball would come. Now imagine objects becoming projectiles at twice that speed! Eventually we retired for the night with profound apprehension over what the morning would bring.

I was up at 6am. Irma’s predicted path had not changed. In almost total darkness I went out onto the pool deck with a box cutter, took a couple of deep breaths, and began cutting the largest row of screens out of our pool cage in hopes of preventing loss of the entire structure. I can only compare this to what it might feel like to take a sledge hammer to your living room walls in order to save the underlying wooden studs. It was a calculated risk based in part on hearsay, and also on the knowledge that our hurricane insurance covers only $10,000 for the cage on what might be a $20,000 repair. Factor in a $5000 deductible and no coverage for the screens – cut away.

To say it would be unfair for Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda to take another hit like the one Hurricane Charlie delivered in 2004 is a poor choice of word. But it would have been doubly tragic for the area and its long time residents. And there is no “fair” in wishing the tragedy elsewhere. But the unfortunate souls who live in Key West, Marco Island, Naples and Bonita Springs eventually took the brunt of the storm, serving to shred the eye wall in such a way that the storm quickly diminished by the time it reached us. We lost power for a week. In Florida. In the summer. So we were uncomfortable, but suffered little else beyond the loss of our refrigerated food. I compare it to a bad camping trip. But we got to stay in the otherwise familiar comfort of our own home with running water and flush toilets. Not that bad.

Our attention immediately turned from our own survival to that of our daughter and son-in-law, who had moved to Jacksonville two months after our move. Early preparations had us considering evacuating to a hotel near them. We searched hotels in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Valdosta to no avail. Similar to our search for water, we waited a little too long and had fallen behind the tidal wave of other evacuees, seven million of them. We eventually canceled the Jacksonville reservation and subsequently heard that its location on a river prompted evacuation of the hotel as well. We would have been evacuated from our evacuation. That left us anticipating a tidal surge that drained our canal and virtually emptied Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay as the storm approached, pulling the tide away similar to the effect a tsunami has on oceans.

By the time Irma hit Jacksonville, it was downgraded to a tropical storm. The dreaded surge never materialized, though our canal filled almost to the top of seawalls by the next morning. The worst damage had occurred elsewhere. We were among the lucky ones.

The islands that were so badly pounded by Irma prior to her arrival in Florida have been ravaged again. Puerto Rico, the Leeward Islands and the Dominican Republic among others may never fully recover. We are reluctant to consider ourselves veterans of a hurricane at this point, but we did have a really effective drill. We’ll know better next time. If the generator we buy is never used, it will be an effective insurance policy. Hopefully, we will be in the position of offering our home and help to others, as others so kindly did with us.

There are those who asked us why we were moving to Florida just in time for summer and hurricane season. On this first day of Autumn, I just shrug and smile and look out over a sparkling pool at a boat gliding toward the Gulf of Mexico. I take a sip from my drink and realize that, all things considered, I wouldn’t trade this experience for even a single blizzard. After a hurricane, the ground is still warm, the sun shines and the pool is inviting. In a few months it will be cold enough to freeze engine oil back home. We’re good.

Monday, September 4, 2017

I Should Have Known Better

We were ten years old, and the Beatles were coming to town!

My parents had recently bought me an unexpected gift, something that rarely happened. 
They returned from a weekend shopping trip with a 45 rpm copy of the Fab Four’s 
I Wanna Hold Your Hand. 

I still have the record, and a turntable that will play it. I guess my folks were marginally caught up in Beatlemania, on the high end of the age spectrum. My friends and I were certainly on the young side. The phenomenon was inescapable. The early era of television was real-time, no time-shifting or later streaming. Sunday night on The Ed Sullivan Show found the entire family gathered in front of a musical debut that captivated the country, young and old.

On September 5, 1964 John, Paul, George and Ringo arrived at O’Hare airport, flying over my house in Park Ridge. At least, that’s what we thought at the time. There are a number of runways at O’Hare, but the one that interrupted conversations, left the stench of diesel fuel settling over the trees on our street and caused us to glance skyward, still marveling at the relatively new Boeing 707, flew frighteningly low over our neighborhood. So low, in fact, that we assumed the musicians would look out the plane window and see us on the ground below. And wave.

And with that in mind, we secured a bedsheet, markers and painting supplies and set to work creating a large banner welcoming the Beatles to Chicago. It was a beautifully sunny late summer day, and the white sheet reflected blindingly as we unleashed our fourth grade creative skills on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s strange to consider that each of the Beatles was only 12-14 years older than us as we spent several hours on my driveway. It was a huge age gap then. Much less so later in life. At ten, the Beatles were yet to pick up musical instruments, but by age 16 Paul had written When I’m 64. Given a time machine, perhaps our ten year old selves could be given a nudge in a new direction, since painting a welcome sign on a bedsheet leads absolutely nowhere other than perhaps a career in graphic design.

When the banner was complete, so was the fun. We speculated, plane after plane, about which one might receive our message. But how would we know if the message had been received? After a little while, we grew bored and dispersed. I don’t recall the bedsheet being discarded or brought back home. It wasn’t mine.

If we had been older we might have been among the lucky attendees at the concert at the International Amphitheater that evening. 

Oh, to have a ticket stub like this:

And if we had, here are the songs they played:

Twist and Shout
You Can’t Do That
All My Loving
She Loves You
Things We Said Today
Roll Over Beethoven
Can’t Buy Me Love
If I Fell
I Want to Hold Your Hand
A Hard Day’s Night
Long Tall Sally

Many years later I went to my first rock concert. A favorite group at the time, Badfinger, was playing at a local high school. When the announcer came on stage, he chose words to bring out that band that invoked visceral memories of an earlier time: "Ladies and gentlemen, from Liverpool, England..."

And with that, four long-haired British lads took the stage and began to play.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

In The Woods

When August comes around I reminisce, much like I get an urge to take a class or watch the new season of This Old House. Thirty years ago this month I went on my first real camping trip. I still get shivers when I recall the experience. While this is hardly noteworthy, it should be pointed out that I was nearly 33 years old as a first timer. I never got the chance to camp in boy scouts or cub scouts. Frankly, my experience in that realm ended quickly. The den mother quit after my first cub scout meeting. No reason, just bad timing, but I do recall the delicious chocolate cupcake we had as a snack.

And yes, I slept in a tent with college friends over a weekend in Florida at John Pennekamp State Park, but that was in order to save money. It was also the weekend I had the worst case of influenza in my life. It redefined “the runs.” All I remember is lying in a tent with a 104 degree fever, gazing up into the eyes of one of my friends’ angelic girlfriend as she wiped my forehead with a cool damp cloth. That weekend I learned that camping sucks, and that some people are genuinely caring.

But the trip recounted here was a family event. Four of my wife’s siblings, one brother-in-law and my father-in-law. We headed to an outfitter in the Canadian boundary waters to be equipped with tents, food and canoes. Oh yeah. It was a canoe trip. What could possibly go wrong?

We had the misfortune (great way to start a sentence) of scheduling our trip following several weeks of rain that left campgrounds soggy, lake levels high, mosquitoes dancing in the moonlight, and whatever you call those areas between campgrounds where you have to carry your canoe, under water. The word for that task is portage. That’s pronounced poor tahj. I think it’s important to at least get the word right.

The first paddle was quite pleasant. We balanced our backpacks in the center of our canoe and glided across a small lake to the island where we would make our first camp. Now, camping dork that I am, I had proudly brought with me an early version of the multi-tool. It was a knife I bought as a souvenir in San Francisco when I was 12 over the protests of my mother. It had a knife, fork, spoon, can opener, well, you get it. It had a faux wood carved handle and weighed about two pounds. It had been in the garage for 18 years.

So, we grounded the canoe on the bank with the scritching sound of sand and gravel under the metal hull and prepared to disembark. By this I mean, my wife jumped out of the unbalanced vessel causing it to dump me into the drink, my knife sinking to the bottom of the lake. Granted, the bottom was a foot away, so my precious was quickly recovered. But I was soaking wet. This was great practice for the rest of the trip. It was our driest day. It was also great marital practice. We were newlyweds.

The first night of camping is a novelty. Locating high ground, setting up your tent for the first time, igniting damp kindling, hanging out damp clothes, realizing that Mom is not along to do the cooking, and getting generally grumpy with a group of people where emotions need not be hidden for long. And the next day, you get to portage.

Did I mention mosquitoes? Boundary water mosquitoes? Honestly, I’m not sure why we needed to carry our canoes. They could have lofted them. They were in sufficient numbers and of Jurassic proportions. For your information, OFF does not phase mosquitoes in the wild. You need concentrated napalm (DEET) that can’t be purchased at Dick’s sporting goods, no matter what they say. When you have an inverted canoe over your head, resting on your shoulders, and you’re trudging through thigh-deep mud, it’s hard to swat a bug. We were not in tears. Family requires that you cry only when everyone else does.

I’m not sure when I asked about the location of the bathrooms, but it got a good laugh. Pretty much everyone made an arm motion like half of the Y in the song YMCA in the direction of the forest. I had been peeing regularly without a problem, but at this point I asked, “Yeah, but what about the, um, other?”

That resulted in the other half of the Y that pointed to a shovel and toilet paper.

“No way. I’ll hold it,” I said.

“For a week?” someone responded.

For the record, I made it until Wednesday. And that’s when, relieved as I haven’t been since, I learned about another camping truism. Things roll down hill. Park yourself facing away from a down slope or in a flat area, not on a scenic overlook with a nice view of the lake. Duh.

I have camped many times since, with our kids, as a leader (imagine that) at my son's boy scout summer camp and with great friends on group sites. We have been evacuated due to midnight storms in the Wisconsin Dells, sweltered under deafening tree frogs in Hannibal, MO and ate more S'Mores than is probably healthy. But the Boundary Water trip in 1987 stands out because it was the first and most difficult. And it's also the kind of experience that makes for great stories and unforgettable memories.

Friday, March 31, 2017

On Thin Ice

Winter in Chicago is always unpredictable. Sure, it gets cold and an occasional snowstorm disrupts routines and even shuts down schools every few years. But ice worthy of skating when I was a child existed for a relatively brief time between mid-December and early March in the best of years.

There were no ice rinks where I grew up until much later. In those days, community groups cooperated with the fire department to flood a couple of smooth local fields when the weather forecast was favorable. And tucked away between my grammar school and a handful of sequestered homes was a small circular pond with a central tree-filled island. Skating there was preferable to the flooded fields. It was liberating to carve up the ice in any direction, not simply traveling around in monitored circles as you would in a roller rink.

Our pond was called Maine Park. When we were small it seemed enormous. Much later visits with my own children proved it to be not much more than a retention pond. But it was in a pretty, although by current standards isolated and creepy, setting.

Nestled in a suburban neighborhood, and being in such close proximity to our school, the crowd that gathered at the park for skating closely resembled the K-6 population. But young adults and parents with small children mixed in, serving as a buffer that prevented much of the clique formation and social structure inherent in gym class or recess. It felt safer.

The Park District constructed a temporary warming house each winter. A small wooden structure with benches along the walls, it provided a sheltered place to rest when tingling fingers began to hurt and toes became completely numb. I recall hot chocolate being available, but that may be a product of revisionist historical embellishment. Nobody really liked being in the warming house. It cut into our skating time.

On January 24th of 1965 Chicago was hit with a crippling ice storm that caused extensive damage, power outages and generally brought things to a halt for a couple of days. The autumn just prior to this, Oakton Street, a thoroughfare through the north side of town, began undergoing widening from two lanes to four. The project was worked on as weather permitted, redirecting traffic to two lanes as the others were paved and sealed with asphalt.

Sometime during the height of the ice storm, those of us at home due to school closure discovered that the cordoned off segment of the street, straight and smooth and flat, was thick with ice as smooth and hard as if it had been carefully conditioned for skating. And skate we did, at first tentatively while we tested the integrity and consistency of the frozen surface, and then with wild abandon, like birds launching into uplifting thermals over a canyon.

If an ice-covered pond provided a sense of liberation, speeding along a quarter mile of frozen road was freedom itself. It felt like dreams I’ve had of flying, or of swimming in impossible rivers painted through improbable locations by my sleeping mind. Our mood was giddy. We waved at smiling passersby, who watched astonished at our clearly innovative but acceptable behavior. A few adults even joined us. We skated and raced, the biting wind in our faces as we flew down the empty roadway. Even kids without skates were having a ball, running and sliding, crouching into a controlled fall and skimming painlessly along for dozens of yards. There was never again anything like it. The nexus of freakish weather and a one-time road construction project were perfectly timed to create a memory for those of us fortunate enough to be its beneficiaries.

Imagine my joy many years later when a mid winter rainstorm and a cold front conspired to flash freeze a large corner of our backyard at an age when my children could bundle up and skid across their own little ice rink from end to end. That too, happened only once and no doubt looms much larger in their child-minds, like a neighborhood pond and a frozen road do in mine.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


My new friend and neighbor in Florida has been threatening to take me out for a ride on his boat for about three years. Last month we finally headed out twelve miles into the Gulf of Mexico for a day of fishing. The cloudless sky was as blue as the nearly flat water on an ideal February day. As we ventured further into open water we eventually lost sight of land, but it didn’t make me nervous. I was in clearly capable hands.

But I was mistaken. I was informed that we weren’t going fishing. We were going catching. I was about to learn the difference, and I swear that this story is true.

Now, I’ve never caught anything bigger than a Bluegill or Sunfish in a local retention pond. Even on fishing charters, I stand with my empty pole, examining the horizon and enduring some kind of sea-curse while others gleefully pull a variety of fish into the boat.

“You’ll be frustrated with me,” I said, “when you find out how bad at this I am.”

My captain tweaked the settings on his astoundingly sophisticated navigational Garmin and just smiled as he throttled up and headed to a favorite spot, pinpointed on a digital chart full of other such locations.

If any idiot can catch a fish, I was the perfect candidate to test the theory.

A clear plastic baggy full of shrimp emerged from a cooler. I pulled the head and tail off of one slimy, gray creature, it’s cold body chilling my fingers as I embedded a hook from one end of the body to the other.

I was taught to hang my pole over the side of the boat and let the line play out until I felt it stop, at a depth of about 50 feet.

“Jig it up a little,” I was instructed. On the Garmin, a colorful sonar profile of the rocky bottom showed peaks and valleys – perfect for fish. I guess I was moving the bait in order to simulate live food.

I prepared for a long wait, settling back in my chair and trying to just enjoy the sound of the water gently lapping at the hull of our boat, rocking gently with a hypnotic rhythm that….BAM!

My line pulled tight, the slender fiberglass rod bending nearly in half from the weight and struggle of a snagged fish. I reeled like crazy, winding fifty feet of line back onto the pole and lifting skyward until a large red snapper broke the water’s surface.
The entire sequence of events had taken only a couple of minutes. We unhooked the fish, tossed it into a live well and repeated the process. And repeated, and repeated. Every time I put a line in the water, another snapper struck. We were both catching, often two at the same time, off of both sides of the boat, in a seemingly choreographed sportsman’s fishing highlights video.

As I lifted a particularly large specimen out of the water, my phone rang. Yes, twelve miles out in the Gulf, I had a signal, and I had to answer. I was on a more difficult fishing expedition back in Chicago. And catching back home was of paramount importance. On land, the bait was a house, and the call was to tell me we had caught a buyer. We had sold!

“This is the best day EVER!” I yelled, as I continued hauling in my fish. And indeed, we continued to load the live well until we’d reached the limit for the day.

So it turns out that there are those who fish, and those who catch. I have joined the ranks of the catching. And I keep in mind the need to be truthful about the adventure I’ve related, because in the words of Mark Twain, "Do not tell fish stories where the people know you. Particularly, don't tell them where they know the fish." And my captain surely knows his fish!