Tag Archives: Illinois

Welcome to the Middle Ground

Springfield, Illinois
End of the legislative session. Springfield, Illinois

“Where y’all from,” asked the big bouncer at a nightclub called Stella Blue.

“Chicago,” someone replied.

“Welcome to the middle ground,” he said after checking our IDs at the door.

Upstairs, the club was an ironic polar opposite of its “Dead” namesake.

American-flag-themed Budweisers, a dance floor with bad dance music, a digital disco ball, five public radio employees and a whisky-voiced, bleach-blond bartender with electric-green-tinged contact lenses.

Continue reading Welcome to the Middle Ground

One Year in Chicago


We moved to Chicago a year ago today. It was 105 degrees and 100 percent humidity when we arrived, so we knew instantly what we were in for. 

When you move to a place where you don’t know anyone, an unfamiliar city with no connections, you might at well throw a dart at a map to pick out where you will live. 

We picked Palos Heights because a friend and former colleague grew up there, and he always spoke highly of the neighborhood, and because my friend and former boss is in Real Estate in Chicago, and she found us a lovely little corner house with a big green lawn that is surrounded by six big oak trees. 

Starting a job in a big city when you’ve been working as a journalist in relatively small markets is scary. Managing a new set of people means starting over from scratch, throwing out the play books and learning everything over again. 

The learning curve is steep, and you must immerse yourself in history, current events and popular culture to try and even understand the daily conversation that is the news in Chicago. 

We spent the second half of our summer learning about the two Chicagos. We explored downtown Chicago as often as we could, and we learned about the suburb we lived in and the suburbs that surround us and which make up Greater Chicago, also known as Chicagoland. 

We found beaches like the Indiana Dunes and North Avenue Beach. 

We spent way too much time going to Ikea to furnish our house. 

And we tried to find ways to stay cool when the temperature topped 90 degrees on 45 separate occasions, which was a record. 

We watched the leaves change color in the fall, a process that took several weeks, as opposed to the two days of fall you might get in Alaska. 

And we battened down the hatches as much as we could when the big storms rolled through, especially when the leftover winds of an East Coast hurricane came howling. 

The kids started at new schools, making them at least the fifth, if not more, new school for each of them. 

But they made friends fast, and soon they were running around the neighborhood in little street gangs terrorizing the squirrels with their bicycles and skateboards. 

Winter didn’t hit hard until after the new year, in fact the weather was rather pleasant through the holidays. The neighborhood grew quiet, and we didn’t see our neighbors or their children for months on end. 

Winter finally dug in its heals at the end of February and into March. 

We used the cold months to go explore Chicago’s famous food scene, especially the ethnic restaurants with menus you cannot pronounce and food so delicious you can’t wait to come back for more. 

We started to explore our surroundings too, opting for a cross country skiing weekend in Madison, Wisconsin and a trip to New Glarus Brewing Company. 

Winter melted into a cool spring, which carried on and on. Our house flooded a few times as the heavy rainwater came up above the foundation. 

But we hunkered down and waited for those first few clear days when you know things have finally turned. 

We planted flowers and went off to explore the natural features of the area at Starved Rock State Park. 

As spring gradually warmed up into summer, albeit a bit late for our taste, we found our neighbors out and about again, and we picked up where we left off last fall. 

Because we missed out on going to see the Cubs and the White Sox last year, we hit both opening days. The boys and I went to see the White Sox, and Cheryl and I went to Wrigley to see the Cubs. 

We have never been hockey fans, but since the Blackhawks went on that undefeated run to start the season, it was hard to ignore. When they made the playoffs, there was a fever in the city, and it seems we caught it. Because by the final game of the Stanley Cup, we were not only fans of Chicago’s team, we were fans of the game. 

Chicago is a fantastic city for many reasons, not the least of which, for me, is the fact that Chicagoans are so hard on the city and relatively unforgiving of it. 

Yes, Chicago has more violent deaths on average than Iraq or Afghanistan. There is no getting around that. Yes, the segregation issues that remain, the physical barriers that still oppress a major portion of the population are an ugly reminder of just how far we are from we should be. 

But, there is also a pervasive hope in the city too, an outlook that you don’t get anywhere else. 

I suppose for me, I see possibility here. I see a chance for real change here, the third largest petri dish in the country. 

But I have been accused of being an outrageous optimist too, so there is that. 

This year in Chicago has been good. 

I still get asked if I like Chicago. The answer is yes. I love Chicago. It’s a great city. I love the people here. It’s teeming with life, especially Navy Pier where I go to work every day. 

I still get asked where we’re going next. And to be honest, I have no idea if or when we’ll move on. Our oldest has asked to be able to finish high school at one school. He has three years left. 

After that, I don’t know what the future holds. 

But I’m glad for the opportunity to work in the city and to live in the tree-lined suburbs for a while. It’s good to experience this part of the American dream. 

Thanks to all of you, my coworkers, my neighbors and the random people I meet here, for making this year such a great one. For giving us the experiences necessary to making Chicago make sense. 


The Landscape of my life –


I was thinking about the different places I’ve lived and how landscapes have influenced me over the years.

The first landscape impression I have is of Austria’s Rax mountain, which towered over the village of Richenau, where I lived until I was seven.

I recall hiking on the mountain’s central plateau as a child and staring down the rugged edges into the Höllental, which was like something out of Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings.”


I have loved mountains ever since.

The second is the verdant Willamette Valley, a green swath running north to south between the Cascade mountains and the coastal range in western Oregon. The volcanic peaks of Mounts Hood and Jefferson to the east, along with the Three Sisters and the flattop of Mount St. Helens to the north form a boundary of sorts, while the wild Pacific Ocean to the west hems you in to the wide valley from which it is very difficult to escape.


The third is the bleak lava fields of the western part of the big island of Hawaii. I spent seventh grade living up on the slopes of Hualalai with my parents and my brother and sisters, and though I was fascinated with the lush vegetation and dank lava tubes near the school I attended and the smell of rotting guavas near the bus stop, it was the dry flats with their moonlike appearance that impacted me most. I loved to read the dates of the most recent lava flows on signs posted along the highway and imagine the stark blackness of the cooled lava highlighted by the vicious red of molten rock flowing toward the ocean. Living in Hawaii is to experience the slow and formidable creation of the world that we know.


The fourth is the crown of the continent, a portion of north central Montana where glaciers scoured out a gem of massive granite walls and deep valleys carved out by dusty blue rivers. Glacier National Park looks nothing like it did when I was a kid and visited with all the wonder of the discovery of the dawn of the world, a time when glaciers and dinosaurs were synonymous and where the ice, even in early summer, was thick and hearkened back to an age when it covered the world.The glaciers are all but gone. A few cling to rocky precipices thousands of feet above your head, but they are trickling away their lifeblood summer after summer.


The fifth is the tundra, which has two very distinct personalities. The tundra that I lived with every day was that which clings to the Chugach mountains high above Anchorage, Alaska. In the spring, the tundra runs wild with the life-giving spring runoff. In the summer, you can watch it almost shimmer with the brilliance of millions of tiny plants clinging to the sides of the otherwise barren mountains. I would take walks in it and rest upon its carpeted softness and wonder if the caribou could taste a difference in the millions of tiny plants that make it up. The second tundra is the flat tundra of the northern realms. outside of Barrow, on the edge of nowhere, the tundra runs beige and dry in summer as snowy owls hunt for lemmings in the 24-hour sunlight. In the fall, the tundra follows the pattern of leaves farther south. It turns a brilliant shade of rusty red with orange and yellow highlights. I’m convinced there is not a painter alive who can mimic the magic of the northern tundra.


And the last, or, I should say, the latest, is the city, sprawling, as it does, from wilderness to wilderness as an organism complete with a vascular system of pipes and wires that connect one part to another. In its own way, the city is as breathtaking as the country side. Where the mountains greeted me upon waking in Anchorage, now the skyline meets me, seemingly rising out of Lake Michigan like a range of mirrored peaks. The difference becoming more defined at night, when the skyscrapers light up with the brilliance of millions of watts of electricity to draw your eyes upward as they would be toward the snow capped peaks in daylight. And if you wander the canyons of the city, they overflow with life at almost any hour. And this is probably my favorite detail. There is no loneliness in the city. Or at least there does not need to be any. The city is like a hive of the best of humanity, the highest achievements in food and lifestyle and community. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. The city can exhibit the basest of human behaviors, the lowest forms of community and food deserts. And all of this, all of this is contained in just a few square miles so that it is condensed and anywhere you look, there is always something new, some detail that went unobserved the last time you looked there. Always there are new faces and interesting stories, and that is why the city is the most fascinating landscape for me. It truly holds more surprise and more adventure per square inch than any landscape that I’ve lived in or near in this short life so far.



The Crisis of Time –

Just passed the three-month mark in Chicago. No matter how old I get, I continue to be blown away at how fast time seems to pass. The plans we make never equal the time in which our minds imagine they can happen. To that end, there were a few beach trips we didn’t take, a visit to the zoo, just a few untried restaurants, downtown streets and parks unexplored and neighbors unmet. I don’t know if it’s the relatively short stays in our previous locals or the general march of time, but we have always suffered from a desire to do too much in too little time. Or the realization that we did not do enough with the time we had. This leads to suffering regret, and I detest suffering regret. Maybe it’s the west or the familiarity of youth, but I know very well the list of undone things even in my own hometown.

The peaks unclimbed, the trails not hiked, the lakes and rivers not fished, the beaches where no sandcastles were built. All of those things were infinitely possible in the span of time I spent there in Cascadia. But I don’t regret the things I did instead. Those things shaped my life. No, I did not enjoy the solitude of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness or the view from Three Fingered Jack. But I did enjoy the benefits of the company of good friends, the hard lessons of childhood and the delights that come with living in a place with no thought of leaving on the horizon. Illinois is my fifth state, a tiny number really, but more than a great many people will see. And even though we moved here to give the kids a more settled lifestyle, there is in me a desire to try and experience it all, just in case the clouds fall again. Maybe it’s a product of being laid off in a bad economy from a dying industry. If that will not make you jumpy, nothing will. The thought of staying home on a weekend and doing nothing but watching some football, making good food and enjoying life is appealing to me in ways my adventurous nature kind of abhors. Is it age? Wisdom? laziness? I have a desire for permanence now that I have not felt before. Just as you might live in Alaska always prepared for the ground to shake under your feet, I still think about fault lines and magnitudes a lot. I was never a Boy Scout, but I have tried to live always prepared. Maybe it’s the wanderlust of my upbringing by missionary parents. When your life looks like a National Geographic magazine, the domesticity of the American Midwest makes life look like it’s lived at the slow crawl of a glacier by comparison. And as much as I always dreamed of seeing the things my father told us stories about, I find that I’m more fascinated by the untold stories next door to me or in the heart of this big, old city these days. And still time passes, and you realize that experiences will never add up to the amount of words you can write about them and analyze them with and carry them into the lobe of memories. Tim

A Tallgrass Prairie in Fall –

The tallgrass prairies are all gone, cut up, as they were, by John Deere’s earth razor.

For good reason. The soil underneath, deposited by ancient glaciers, was rich and stretched for thousands of miles.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” – Aldo Leopold

The land that built American was once a tallgrass prairie. At least some of it was. Some of it was shortgrass and some of it mixed. Much of it, from the rivers of the east to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is steppes, cold steppes.

There is not far from us a remnant, 19,000 acres, of tallgrass prairie. It’s called the Midewin, (pronounced mih-day-win) and you’d miss it were it not for a national designation and signs along Illinois 53.

We rode our bikes through parts of the Midewin, the parts along which the Iron Bridge Trail runs.

It’s a sandy trail, so heavy in spots that your bicycle tires will sink in an inch or two.

At other spots, it’s wind blown and bare and the dirt is packed and hard. And you fly along next to waving stalks of big bluestem, prairie drop seed and Canada wild rye.

In the fall, when the grasses have browned somewhat and the wildflowers like pasture rose, purple prairie clover and the coreopsis stop competing like colors on the rainbow, the effect is a mottled, earthy pallete of beige browns, damp greens, flaxen purples and harvest yellows.

The weather has just turned, as it is expected to do in early October. The air from the north is bitter and biting.

A small garter snake seeks whatever warmth the sandy trail soaked up in the daylight hours. I swerved to miss it.

My wife noticed a small raccoon sleeping in a girder on the iron bridge. I thought, that’s a smart little creature, hiding out from the wind like that.

The Iron Bridge Trail winds through rehabilitated prairie, claimed, as it were, from row cropping. The native grasses slowly choking out the invaders. But it’s difficult to completely buy the premise with the man-made lines just barely visible under the beginner prairie. 

Woodlands intersect the prairie in spots, providing windbreaks and a change of scenery and homes to a host of creatures.

The frog chorus is not as bright as it might have been in summer, the refrain a little more urgent with a hint of sadness, but it’s there as a backdrop nonetheless.

Crunching leaves is the dominant sound until a Swainson’s hawk lets loose a piercing shriek before diving off a tall branch above our heads and making for a better vantage point less crunchy and with fewer humans.

When the trees gave way to the prairie again, the wind was in our faces, and it burned us red like the sun is prone to do.

The cold gray ceiling of clouds was flat and featureless, casting irrelevant shadows around us. A northern harrier hawk winged over us looking for movement on the prairie floor.

The solitude felt good. There were cars at the trail head, but we never spotted another human along the path. We rode through about 6 miles of the prairie, before the cold wind bit down too hard and for too long.

Coming out of the eastern lands, the tallgrass prairie must have seemed somewhat insurmountable to the early pioneers, with grasses reaching over 9 feet in some cases, a good patch of prairie could be as rich in life and diversity as a tropical rainforest.

I can imagine the sighs of relief when the Midwestern tallgrass prairies finally gave way to the mixed and shortgrass prairies farther west.

And I’m glad they’ve set aside this small patch of prairie to enjoy. It being a work in progress, it’s not the beauty that draws me in, it’s the rough concept taking place in my head.

It’s the connection to another time.

“Recreational development is a job not of building roads into the lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” – Aldo Leopold

Out of the Shadows in Chicago

A month ago today we were driving through the badlands of South Dakota stretching our drive time from 12 to 16 hours in order to reach Chicago by the 6th.

We stopped to see where General Custer met his demise, but we zoomed past Mount Rushmore due to imminent darkness.

By mile 3,500, we were anxious to get to the next place we’d call home.

There was a palpable excitement in the car. I told the kids everything I knew of Chicago to try to give them perspective.

But we all hungered to taste it individually.

Today we drove across town to spend some time with my co-workers in the City Room at WBEZ. The kids asked if we’d be going through downtown. And because I do not yet know how to best navigate around this city, I said yes.

The truth is we love to drive under the shadows of the tall buildings in downtown Chicago. We love to cruise up Lakeshore Drive and drink in the sights.

We enjoy the cinematic adventure that takes place in the darkened windows of our Buick SUV as we drive through neighborhoods with distinctive and individualistic names.

We discussed the Willis Tower-once-Sears-Tower conversation for a fifth time today as we drove past its monolithic dominance once again.

This is what I love about living in a city. Although we do not live in the city properly, we feel it’s our own. The kids have already started to fall for the sporting teams, and I have no doubt they’ll be asking for Cubs, Bulls and Blackhawks jerseys by Christmas this year.

We have a favorite beach, and though we’ve only really explored our neighborhood and Chinatown so far, we’ll love taking the double nickle to Cermak to eat dim sum every chance we get.

I took the kids to Navy Pier to drop off some books and desk decorations on Saturday. They were awed at the awesomeness that is the happiest place in Illinois. Truth be told, so am I.

I walk by that Ferris Wheel turning slowly in the afternoon sun and smile every day. I hope I’m doing that 10 years from now. And if you know me, then you know that means something.