Engaging for Sustainability

I know. My very title for this blog post sounds to some like yet another naïve stab at kumbaya. Well, stay with me, anyway. We are talking about solving problems in our communities, and the more people who get behind the solution, the more successful it is likely to be.

Kristin Baja, right, with Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol before her presentation.

What I am really aiming to write about, in the narrowest sense, is a morning keynote presentation by Kristin Baja at the tenth annual Growing Sustainable Communities conference in Dubuque, Iowa, on October 4. The City of Dubuque has been hosting this event from the outset, and I rather like the riverside convention center where they host it. Hell, I rather like the mystique of the Mississippi River, the very reason Dubuque exists. I’m fascinated enough that I thought the conference a good venue for meeting people who might be useful to my pet project since leaving the American Planning Association (APA) at the end of May: a two-book series on the 1993 and 2008 Midwest floods. Dubuque is one of those communities that understands that environmentally healthy communities are a necessary path to the future.

That is why they engaged Kristin Baja, a former planner for the city of Baltimore who was instrumental in effecting significant changes in planning that recognized the fundamental problems that Baltimore needed to address, both socially and environmentally. She openly states that Baltimore was built on a legacy of racism that must be overcome through new approaches that must complement the city’s efforts to address climate change. The poor tend to be more vulnerable to natural hazards. Recently, Baja left her city position to become the Climate Resilience Officer for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. In this new role, she is essentially bringing what she learned at the local level to the national stage.

What she seems to have learned most, and emphasized in her keynote, is the value of empathy, a quality often sorely lacking in national politics. I frankly think we are more likely to relearn its value at the community level, where we can engage directly and personally with our neighbors. Perhaps then we can reapply it to national policy discussions if we can get past the angry tweets and the noise of shouting talk show hosts.

Baja started with a display of many of the same points I have made in this blog before. The climate is changing, and we have plenty of evidence to make this point if we can get people to listen. We cannot afford to continue to confuse weather with climate, for instance, by using one snowstorm to ridicule the entire notion of global warming. “Weather is your mood, climate is your personality,” she suggested, and it is not a bad analogy for helping people to grasp the distinction between short-term and long-term trends. If we are to achieve resilience in our communities, it will be essential to understand that we must build community strength in the face of both shocks, which are sudden and unexpected changes, and stressors, those long-time problems that weaken a community’s social fabric, like high unemployment, poverty, racism, and distrust of authority. If community leaders want to overcome some of that malaise, it is critical that they foster and sustain mutual trust, be accountable, keep promises, share power, value people’s time, and focus on community cohesion. It may be a tall order, but I would add one other factor. When a community finds such leaders, it needs to honor them. Too often, the best intentions are drowned in a tidal wave of vitriol.

I will not reprise every aspect of Baja’s captivating presentation. What I want to share is the underlying logic of her approach. She first came to my attention when I learned about Baltimore’s now well-known DP3 project, which stands for Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project. DP3 resulted in the approval in 2013 of a combined local hazard mitigation plan and climate adaptation plan. Baja participated in a July 2016 webinar I organized for APA on the subject of merging climate adaptation and hazard mitigation plans.

Hazard mitigation plans have been produced by the thousands by state and local governments ever since the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 decreed that they would be ineligible for federal mitigation grants, which pay for many hazard mitigation projects after disasters, unless they adopted a FEMA-approved plan. All states now have such plans, and about 20,000 units of local government have adopted them, often participating in multijurisdictional efforts. But almost universally, until a few creative cities like Baltimore began to outline a new approach, these plans have been backward-looking in identifying local hazards. Why? Because the standard approach is to project future hazards based on historical patterns. The problem is that climate change is disrupting those expectations and exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. The path to resilience lies in using climate science data to anticipate the hazards of the future. Baltimore accomplished that by integrating data about climate trends into its hazard mitigation plan, thus elegantly addressing both existing and future hazards. Baja was at the center of this activity.

But her innovative style goes farther. She worked on the use of vacant lots in cities for development of green infrastructure to help remedy urban flooding. In March of this year, she attended the first of two day-long roundtables APA organized with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on ways to integrate climate science into the local planning process. She was feisty and persuasive as usual, and we all appreciated her contributions.

Ultimately, what Baja discussed with the audience was not merely the policy changes that are needed to produce climate-resilient communities, but the practices of community engagement that would undergird those policies and make them stick, embed them in municipal and regional civic culture. She unleashed her own flood of ideas about how to do this, including training staff, as she has done recently in Dubuque, with training games that make the undertaking fun, such as a “Game of Floods.” The laundry list that rolled from her tongue and flowed from the PowerPoint screen included these tips for engaging members of the community and removing barriers to participation in civic meetings:

  • Go to people
  • Partner with community leaders
  • Provide transportation
  • Provide food and beverages
  • Provide childcare or activities with children
  • Consider language barriers
  • Translate signs and data
  • Insure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Collect stories
  • Approach all stakeholders with empathy
  • Provide interactive and fun ways of engagement
  • Invite participation on advisory committees

One of her approaches, used in Baltimore to give life to these ideas, was to create a community ambassador network to empower the very people who often labor to advance these ideas through small neighborhood organizations with no financial support from the city. Recognizing the contribution these people make to their city goes a long way to strengthening the trust that supports progressive policy making.

There is a method to the madness of making this all work. Baja is not the only person who has discovered the value of empowering volunteers for good planning, but she herself is now a full-time ambassador through USDN. I’d say they found the right person.

Bike tour of Dubuque’s riverfront at the end of the conference.

 

Jim Schwab

Still Room for Improvement in the “Friendly Skies”

It has been almost a month since my last blog post, for a reason. I spent most of the remainder of July at a conference in Colorado, for four days, and then overseas, for nearly two weeks. My wife and I traveled to Norway for a vacation, and I chose to separate myself from my laptop for the duration. In coming weeks, I will produce some travelogue posts about that trip, as I have often done in the past. Norway has a great deal to offer for curious travelers.

But first, I want to describe some issues from an experience I am sure many other travelers have shared. Some aspects of this experience, I am sure, are an inevitable part of travel, which always involves the possibility of delays, whether from weather, traffic accidents, or equipment malfunctions, on highways, in the air, or on water. Other aspects are a function of corporate culture and the way in which airlines or other transportation providers choose to communicate with and respond to their customers.

Our flight from Chicago on July 15 began with United Airlines, on which I had used award miles to book both of us to Frankfurt, Germany, with connection on Lufthansa (a Star Alliance partner of United) to Oslo. United Airlines suffered earlier this year from a tsunami of negative publicity for its ill-considered removal of Dr. David Dao from a flight to Louisville, Kentucky, from O’Hare International Airport. The brutal dragging of this paying customer from his seat to make room for airline staff also besmirched the reputation of the Chicago Department of Aviation’s airport police, whose desire to become armed police suffered a long-term setback because of the incident. Followed by some inadequate corporate explanations before CEO Oscar Munoz finally issued a full apology, the incident made no one look good.

I mention this only because, in my opinion, the situation that evolved on our trip shows that United Airlines still has considerable room to improve in learning how to inform and serve its customers when problems arise. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 2:35 p.m., arriving at Frankfurt at 5:55 a.m., with a 7:05 a.m. connecting flight to Oslo. About one hour before that, I began to notice that no one was arriving to staff the original gate assignment, and the number of people present seemed modest for an international flight. Naturally suspicious, I rechecked the monitor in the hallway to discover that the flight had been moved to another gate. That happens, but I did politely ask at the new gate why I had not gotten a text from United, which routinely happens with all updates.

“You always have to check on gate assignments,” she said. I was aware of that—I have traveled a great deal over the years—but she did not really answer the question of why a routine update had not occurred via text. Instead, I got a reply that implied that I did not know any better. Thanks for the condescension, United.

It went downhill from there, as the United personnel learned that something was apparently awry with the engine on the aircraft and needed inspection. What followed was a slow drip of information that materialized in eight separate text messages that ultimately resulted in a departure at 5:30 p.m. In the absence of more definitive information in place of the assortment of 15- and 30-minute delay announcements, it was impossible to know at what point one’s connections would become impossible or, for that matter, which subsequent rebooked connection would be viable. Predictably, the lines for rebooking at both the gate and the United service center became long. At one point, one of the gate attendants checked on later flights and told me, “I’ve backed you up for 10:00.” What I learned later was that the phrase “backed up,” which I’d never heard before, effectively meant nothing. A new boarding pass in Frankfurt might have been useful. In the confusion and amid the crowd of frustrated passengers, getting better answers proved challenging, to put it mildly. Suddenly, in the end, before any of us knew what connections we would have in Frankfurt, airline personnel announced that boarding would commence. We were in the unenviable position of waiting until we got to Frankfurt to find out how we would get to Oslo. The only advice in Chicago was to go to the Lufthansa desk in Frankfurt (a huge airport) to find out. Our flight finally arrived in Frankfurt around 8:30, as best I recall. By then, I was more interested in facilitating the next leg of our journey than in recording the precise time.

Aboard the plane, those needing to rebook connections were told which gate to go to, but as we deplaned, a woman with a sign was telling the same passengers a slightly different gate. Where to go? Many of us ended up at the gate we were told as we got off, only to find that the Lufthansa attendants seemed even more preoccupied with serving passengers from a flight from Washington, D.C. One challenge in these situations is knowing precisely which line will best expedite your request without being able to just cut to the front to find out. When we did reach the desk, an attendant printed out something other than a boarding pass—I have by now tossed it and can’t remember what useless information it contained—and directed us down the hall to the “gate with the yellow signs.” I soon wondered if she was just getting rid of us because “down the hall” meant nothing. Every Lufthansa desk has yellow logos because that is their corporate color. We began to ask again, but we learned that the 10:00 a.m. flight that had been promised was at A52, which we could reach after going through Passport Control, which went quickly enough. But at A52, we were informed by a somewhat sympathetic Lufthansa agent that the flight in question already had a “wait list” of 30 people. So much for being “backed up” on the 10:00 a.m. flight. Soon, she made clear that she simply could not get both of us on the flight, and we made clear we did not want to fly separately, which would only mean Jean would wait in Oslo for my arrival, adding confusion to an already difficult journey.

When we made clear we would stay together, she directed us to A12 for rebooking. That became another interesting feature of communication involving signage. We reached a hall where signs to the right indicated A11 and below, while Gates 13 and above were to the left. Where was A12? We asked one middle-aged airport employee, who sounded like an American, about the gate and he pointed us to the left. Wrong—when we did not see it and asked at a gate, we were pointed back just behind where he had been. In fact, there was no sign for A12, but it was the Lufthansa service desk, not an actual gate. Why not tell us that to begin with? In any case, one friendly worker there tried to get us new boarding passes from one of the kiosks, but that did not work. We had to take a number (A3108) and wait for the electronic sign to tell us which of five desks would handle our problem. Fortunately, about ten minutes later, we were directed to a lady at the end of the wall. After shaking her head at one point, asking me at another if we had been booked with award miles, and discussing the matter by telephone in German with someone, she finally said, “You’re lucky. These are the last two seats on the 1:15 flight.” I thanked her; she had at least accomplished something for us. As for being lucky, I had mixed feelings. After so much non-direction and misdirection, and some other Lufthansa personnel adding to our growing feeling that customer service was not a high priority, I was no longer sure what “lucky” meant. But at least we knew when we would connect to Oslo.

Exhausted by then, Jean took a short hike down the hall from our new gate while I watched our belongings. We were getting hungry, so she bought hot dogs for both of us. That may have helped revive us a bit. We reached Oslo at about 3:10 p.m., got our luggage by 4 p.m., and caught a shuttle to the downtown Radisson Blu Hotel, and checked in by 5 p.m. We had lost an entire Sunday afternoon of sight-seeing that we may otherwise have enjoyed. Once we had stored everything in our room, we crossed the street to a Spanish restaurant, our only activity for the evening, and enjoyed tapas and Sangria and chatted with the waiter. Upon discovering that the trip was in part a celebration of my retirement, he arranged for a complimentary dessert of delicious flan with caramel sauce.

At least someone still knows what good customer service still looks like. The place is called La Sangria Restaurante Espanol. If you’re ever in Oslo, pay them a visit and tell them I sent you.

 

Jim Schwab

On the Question of 70-Year-Old Men

There is no doubt about it. President Donald Trump’s latest tweets have rightly triggered a firestorm of disgust and angry responses. The personal attacks on MSNBC reporters Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have revealed a level of meanness and misogyny even Trump’s most craven defenders find impossible to ignore, with the exception of his White House press team, whose jobs, of course, depend on continuing to justify whatever he says. Thus, we have deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reminding us that, when Trump feels attacked (read “criticized”), he feels compelled to “fight fire with fire.” The problem is that he typically goes off the rails with comments of little substance or truth that would cause most other people to be fired and led out of their office by security. But he is, after all, the President. The people hired him. Or at least, that portion of the public voting in the right places to comprise a majority of the Electoral College even as he lost the popular vote by roughly three million.

My focus in this essay, however, is different from all that, although connected to it. I do not intend to reprise Trump’s acid tweets or analyze or parse or dissect them. My target is certain members of the television punditocracy who should know better and are insulting senior citizens in the process of criticizing Donald Trump. The fact that Trump is their target does not blind me to the ignorance of one statement some reporters have repeated so often I have not kept track of exactly who has said it or how often: “Donald Trump is a 70-year-old man, and 70-year-old men don’t change.”

Poppycock. This is a lazy excuse for failing to take a closer look at the real problem in his case. It is also a display of ageism that should not go unchallenged, certainly not any more than Trump’s misogyny. It is an expression of bias that needs to stop.

Slicing the cake at my APA retirement party, May 31. Not that was I about to disappear to a Florida golf course. Photos by Jean Schwab

I will reveal a personal stake in this debate. In little less than two and a half years, I will be one of those 70-year-old men. At 67, it is not just that I feel very little in common with Trump’s world view. It is that I know in my gut that I remain capable of change, that I have core principles that I hope will not change, and that I have one fundamental quality that Trump appears to lack—that of spiritual, moral, and intellectual curiosity. I approach 70 in the humble knowledge that I do not know everything, have never known everything that matters, and that I never will know everything that matters. I also approach 70 in the certainty that my thirst for new knowledge must remain until my last breath, barring any mental deterioration that might forestall such curiosity. I recall a friend of mine, who had read a biography of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, telling me of book, Honorable Justice (by Sheldon M. Novick). Although the passage does not appear in that book, he noted a story in which newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt is visiting the retired 92-year-old man and finds him reading Plato.

“Why do you read Plato, Mr. Justice?” Roosevelt asks.

“To improve my mind,” Holmes responds.

Which gets us to the problem of the current President. It is commonly said that he does not spend much time reading. Reading is one activity that informs learning, and learning inspires change, and therein lies the problem. We have a President who is so certain of his own superiority, who, on the wings of inherited wealth, has spent so little time being challenged on his core beliefs, that he has not acquired the habit of intellectual curiosity. This is the only trait that truly explains his poorly informed intransigence on climate change, immigration, election fraud, and numerous other issues where his depth of knowledge often appears paper-thin. It also explains his intense, narcissistic preoccupation with personal image reflected in comments about other nations laughing at “us,” and in his perceived need to strike back at anyone who merely disagrees with him, however honest and honorable that person’s disagreement may be.

To what can we attribute this sad state of affairs? Clearly, not just to Trump himself. After all, despite the distortions in popular will wrought by the Electoral College, no one can win the Electoral College without being at least close to a plurality of the popular vote. No one with a weak base of voter support can even hope to win the nomination of either major party in the United States. Inevitably, we must look at the nature of the support that launched Trump into the White House.

There can be little doubt that some of that support involved a level of dislike or dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton that allowed voters to overlook the manifold shortcomings of Donald Trump, although polls surely indicate that many are now reassessing that comparison. Let’s be honest. Clinton had her own baggage and an imperious style that turned off a large part of the electorate. She could have spent far more time with blue-collar voters in the Midwest but chose not to. Whether Sen. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, we will never know. History does not afford us the luxury of testing such scenarios. Sanders did not win the nomination, and there is little more to be said. Better luck next time.

Colleague Richard Roths (right), still stirring the waters and challenging conventions in his own retirement, alongside Benjamin and Rebecca Leitschuh, former students (of both of us) and co-workers (of mine), at my APA retirement party.

What I want to emphasize, however, is that Trump’s lack of intellectual curiosity, and his remarkable ability to tune into similar qualities among people very unlike him—the working-class voters worried about job security—reflects a sullen streak in American culture that has long glorified ignorance. Mind you, I am not saying that white working-class voters all fall into this category. I emerged from that environment. My father was a truck mechanic. I have met and known many union members and leaders with much more generous and positive attitudes. (I am married to a Chicago Teachers Union activist.) I am speaking of a particular tendency that can be found anywhere but tends to assert itself in uncertain economic times and under certain cultural circumstances, such as those highlighted by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.

There is a cultural tug-of-war within America that is as old as America. It is between the intellectual innovators and their curiosity and all the changes they have wrought that have launched this nation to international leadership in technology, literature, and science, and those who willingly disparage the value of education, knowledge, and curiosity, whether out of jealousy or resentment or stubbornness. There is an element of social class attached to it, but more often it transcends class. Sometimes, aspects of both traits can be found in the same person. For all his innovative genius in science and politics, Thomas Jefferson remained a racist to his dying day. On the other hand, another “70-year-old man,” his contemporary George Washington, rose above his heritage long enough at the end of his life to free his slaves, upon his wife’s death, in his will, believing that the institution of slavery would need to wither away. Jefferson did no such thing.

So, we fight this war within ourselves at times, and as we do, we need to acknowledge it in order to overcome it, so that our biases are not petrified in old age. Trump seems to have chosen the opposite course. Unfortunately, he won election by tapping into an anti-intellectual streak in American politics that runs rampant across age groups, although we can hope that the worst biases are dying off among the young. But beware of the mental calcification that can start at an early age.

Deene Alongi, to my right, will begin managing speaking tours for me this fall. I may have a few things to say!

Seventy-year-old men and women can readily change. Having retired from APA just a month ago, I am rapidly acquiring new routines, setting new goals for the coming years, and trying to think new thoughts. Like Holmes, I cannot wait to read books new and old, and I want to remain intellectually challenged. I hope everyone following this blog has similar aspirations. It is the only way we will keep our nation, and indeed the entire world, moving forward and confronting challenges in a positive way.

And I don’t want to hear one more ignorant reporter talk about how “70-year-old men don’t change.” To them, I say, look inside yourself and ask why you are saying such a thing. Is it because you anticipate being stubborn like Trump when you reach his age? Perhaps you have some biases of your own to overcome.

Beware: From now on, I may start recording reporters’ names when I watch the TV news and hear comments about old men not changing. And I will call them out when they repeat their ageist slurs.

 

Jim Schwab

All’s Well at Burwell’s

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Warmth is a concept with many dimensions. In the realm of physics, it is a relative measure of temperature. In reference to weather, perhaps the most common subject of human conversation, it is a measure of the kinetic energy of the atmosphere around us, which is constantly changing. Mark Twain has been erroneously quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” His friend Charles Dudley Warner sort of said it, but no mind. On Tuesday, February 7, in Charleston, South Carolina, no one around me had any complaints. We were perfectly happy with the kinetic energy of the atmosphere of the day, which brought the city to a very comfortable 75° F. No rain, just a mild breeze. Let it be. (You can accurately take that quote from the Beatles.) Two days later, I would have to return to Chicago, where it was 18° F. when I stepped off the airplane.

Like many other English words, warmth takes on many metaphorical and emotional connotations derived from its physical qualities. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” President Harry Truman used to say, and he was not referring to room temperature in the White House. Conversely, there is the warmth of positive human relationships, just as there is a chill in the air when they are not going well.

That evening, at a downtown Charleston restaurant, Burwell’s, I experienced that warmth at a group dinner organized by some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff for those members of the NOAA Digital Coast Partnership who were attending the Coastal GeoTools Conference. The partnership consists of both NOAA, through its National Ocean Service, and eight national nonprofit organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represented along with a colleague, Joseph DeAngelis, a research associate for the Hazards Planning Center. The conference was hosted for NOAA by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

But enough of the organizational details. Shortly after all our carloads arrived at Burwell’s, and our party of 24 was led upstairs by the wait staff, it became apparent that something special was afoot. Miki Schmidt, Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services at NOAA, attempted to get people’s attention by clinking empty glasses. It wasn’t working, so I decided to use my booming voice to say, “Miki wants your attention.” That worked. Then he announced, to my surprise, that they wanted to honor my upcoming retirement with a few gifts, among which were a framed certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Department of Commerce for my service in supporting Digital Coast and a framed photograph of those who had attended the last full meeting of the partnership in Rhode Island in September 2016, signed by many of the attendees. The warmth of the professional and personal relationships built with colleagues since APA joined the partnership in 2010 became readily apparent to me in this unexpected moment.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Then we sat down, and the “roast” began. More than once, as Miki seemed ready to turn the floor over to me for the final word, someone new would pop up to offer stories both fun and serious. Yes, it was true that I had once, wearing a moveable wolf mask, climbed through the open window of a park shelter in Madison, Wisconsin, during an evening reception for a partnership meeting hosted by ASFPM, asking the whereabouts of “them three little pigs.” Undaunted by the momentary confusion my entrance engendered, Allison Hardin, a planner from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, insisted on posing for a photograph with the wolf, who politely obliged. I was known (though not alone) in trying to provide such moments to enliven the more relaxing moments of partnership gatherings. When my “final word” finally came, I shared not only some enhancements of the recollected moments, but my own plans beyond APA, which I discussed in a recent blog post, “The Fine Art of Stepping Down.”

Still, the Digital Coast Partnership was also built through a great deal of hard work, which was also celebrated. The representatives of the groups involved worked hard over the past decade to build the partnership, which is now celebrating its tenth year. Meetings sometimes involved long discussions of how we could better collaborate, and we now often partner on important proposals and projects in which our complementary strengths facilitate important progress in achieving Digital Coast’s mission. NOAA established Digital Coast to advance the use of geospatial technology by coastal communities to improve and enhance coastal planning and resource management. Much of this consists of a substantial and growing of free, online tools and resources for mapping and visualization purposes. The partnership consists of the user communities that can help vet Digital Coast products and assist in their dissemination. But the operative Digital Coast slogan has been “More than just data.” It is the human dimension that matters, and the science and technology have been means to an end, which is enabling the achievement of noble coastal community goals such as environmental protection, hazard mitigation, economic sustainability, and climate resilience.

And so—I suppose it was appropriate that the organizers of the dinner chose to bring us to Burwell’s Stonefire Grill, which generates its own warmth through its comfort menu of steaks and seafood. Though it certainly can be pricey like any steakhouse (most steak entrees are between $30 and $40), the food is outstanding. Personally, I indulged in the lobster bisque for starters. It offered some of the deepest, most flavorful spoonfuls of joy of any bisque I have had in a long time. Alan, our waiter, was not lying at all when he told me it was great. On the subject of warmth, let me add that the wait staff of Alan, Mat, and Will were very patient and careful in tending to this large crowd, as was bartender Jo Jo Chandler. I did not meet the owner, John Thomas, but he is to be commended for both the staff and the cuisine. The Wagyu flat iron steak that I ordered was tender and delicious. I also indulged in a side order of Brussels sprouts, which I love but which require some attentive preparation to succeed. These were great in part because they were prepared in combination with caramelized onions. Others around me

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell's.

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell’s. Photo by Susan Fox.

enjoyed the seafood offerings, including oysters and scallops, and I heard no complaints and considerable praise. I can assure readers that, if you visit Charleston, Burwell’s is worth a visit for one of your evening outings. It also features a warm and casual atmosphere and a good downstairs bar, from which that amber beer in my hand originated, courtesy of Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM. I wasn’t sure, when we first arrived, why he offered to buy. Now I suspect he was in on the “roast” plan all along. Thanks, I say, to all of my friends at Digital Coast. My actual retirement from APA may have been almost four months away, but they knew this might be the last chance to do it before that day came. I hope they do the same for others when the time comes.

Jim Schwab

 

The Fine Art of Stepping Down

“The cemeteries are full of indispensable people,” or variations thereof, is a quotation that has been attributed to many, including the late French President Charles de Gaulle, but according to Quote Investigator, actually belongs to an American writer Elbert Hubbard in 1907, using the phrase, “people the world cannot do without” and the word “graveyards.” But QI notes numerous sources over the years, many of which may well have borrowed from or built upon the other. The point is clear: None of us lives forever, and the world finds a way to move on without us. We can make an impact, but so can others. And we can come to terms with those facts long before we arrive at the cemetery.

Although it was not made public until January 9, I decided a few months ago that it was time to leave my post at the American Planning Association as manager of the Hazards Planning Center. There are two other such centers at APA—Green Communities, and Planning and Community Health—each of which has had at least three different managers since the National Centers for Planning were established in 2008 as a means of making clear APA’s commitment to certain leading-edge topics in planning. I have so far been the only manager for Hazards.  More importantly, I built that center’s portfolio atop an existing legacy of work in the field of planning for hazards dating back to 1993, when I agreed to manage a project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that led to publication of the landmark report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. I did not at first foresee the ways in which that effort would forever alter the arc of my career in urban planning. Looking back, there was nothing inevitable about it. While I was http://www.statenislandusa.com/heavily involved until then in environmental planning, almost none of it involved disasters. Once I sank my teeth deeply into the subject matter, however, there was no letting go. The Blues Brothers would have said that I was on a mission from God. Increasingly, I became aware of the high stakes for our society in properly planning our communities to cope with natural hazards.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

That quarter-century tenure in the driver’s seat of APA’s initiatives regarding disaster policy and practice made me, in some people’s minds at least, almost inseparable from the position I now hold. Perhaps in part because I was comfortable in working with the news media, I became the public face of APA in the realm of hazards planning. That may have been amplified to some extent by the fact that, until last year, the only APA employees working directly under me on a regular basis were interns, most of whom were graduate planning students. It’s not that I was a one-man show. I enlisted staff within the research department for specific projects with assigned hours. Given the expertise needed in this area, and my own willingness to listen to and learn from the best, most experienced people available, it was generally productive to contract with those people on a consulting basis or through partnerships with other organizations. Because APA is a professional organization with a membership of almost 40,000, those resources were readily available. I could marshal expertise far greater than any we could have hired for most of those years. Last year, however, we came to terms with growth and added research associate Joseph DeAngelis, who joined us after leaving the New York City Planning Department, where he had worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery on Staten Island. He has become a great asset to the organization.

His ability to span the transition to a new manager was one of several preconditions I had in mind over the last two or three years in contemplating my retirement from APA. More important, but a factor in adding him to our staff, was that I wanted to leave my successor with a center that was in good shape. This meant having projects underway, and funded by agreements with sponsors beyond the immediate few months after my departure. By late last year, we had won project grants from FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that will all end between July and December in 2018. That gives my successor, whoever he or she may be, more than adequate opportunity to complete those ongoing projects, maintain APA’s credibility in the realm of hazards, and explore new options and opportunities that will sustain the legacy that is already in place. I understand that people like me sometimes move quickly to another organization, firm, or government agency because a huge opportunity opens on short notice. With retirement, however, there is no need for such haste. We can take time to plan well.

That leads to another precondition in which I can say that I am greatly aided by the management philosophy of APA’s current executive director, James Drinan. He believes that, when possible, we should seek a managerial replacement who can join APA in the last two or three weeks of the tenure of their predecessor. This allows the opportunity for the outgoing person to share how things are done or even answer questions about how they might be done better or differently. I recognize, for one thing, that my own package of skills is unique and unlikely to be replicated. That is fine because someone new may well be much stronger in some other areas than I ever was. And if so, I am happy for them. It is a fool’s errand to seek replacement by a clone. Ultimately, the hiring choice will belong to APA’s research director, David Rouse, but my input on what credentials and experience are most useful is likely to have an impact. We hope to see resumes from some high-quality candidates in coming weeks.

So what is next for me as of June 1? I look forward to an opportunity to explore some new options that simply have not been feasible until now. Elsewhere on this website, I describe my intended work on some future book projects, most immediately focusing on the 1993 and 2008 Midwest floods, but there are other ideas waiting in the wings. APA would like to use my consulting services as needed to aid the transition beyond my retirement, and I have agreed, but there are and may be some other offers. I will certainly continue teaching at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, at least as long as they wish to continue that relationship, which has been very fruitful. And it should surprise no one if people find me on the speaking circuit from time to time. In fact, I may be much freer to accept such invitations if I am not managing a research program for APA. Finally, I shall have considerably greater free time to devote to this blog. In less than four years, its following has grown from virtually nothing to more than 14,000 subscribers as of this week. It has been a great pleasure to share what I learn through that forum.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

But those are all activities that somehow involve work. I may well involve myself in some volunteer activities with APA divisions and its Illinois chapter, the Society of Midland Authors, and other outlets that I may discover. That too sometimes sounds like work, so let me try harder. I have written about the wonderful 606 Trail near my home; I expect to walk and bicycle there and in nearby Humboldt Park. I may well take a great novel to one of the trail’s benches (or to my front patio) and read in the middle of the day. My wife and I may travel, both as we choose and as we are invited. Anyone reading this blog must already know that I love to get around. Despite all its flaws, the world remains a fascinating place, and I want to explore it while I can. I may never get a gig (or want one) like that of Anthony Bourdain, but I will see enough. And, yes, like him, I love to explore different cuisines—in part so that, as an amateur gourmet chef with new time on his hands, I can try them out for guests at home or elsewhere. Like I said, the world is a fascinating place. Explore it while you can.

Jim Schwab

Just an Ounce of Empathy

Free clip art from Bing.com

Free clip art from Bing.com

Disability was one noteworthy theme during the presentations Monday night at the Democratic National Convention—how we perceive it, how we react to it, how we treat those with serious physical and mental limitations. It is no small subject, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump did himself no favors earlier in the year with his mocking imitation of a New York Times reporter, which the Democrats have already been using in ads to question his character. And rightly, for it does make you wonder what prompted such an immature outburst.

But I am not writing to dwell on the missteps of Trump, nor on the virtues of Hillary Clinton in this regard as extolled by speakers with disabilities on the stage in Philadelphia. That comparison is one of many people can decide for themselves. I am about to suggest a simple way of thinking about the issue that all of us can readily use even if we are not among the estimated 56 million Americans afflicted with such shortcomings.

It may be apparent to some that this blog suffered a short hiatus on my part since my last post. To some extent, that was because I found myself very busy chasing deadlines after my return from the Natural Hazards Workshop in Colorado on July 14, a day later than anticipated because of a flight cancellation due to storms in Chicago. I was then squeezed for time, with just six work days left until taking a vacation this week, with two of those largely devoted to participating in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency symposium on urban sustainability. Nonetheless, by last Friday, I managed with some extra effort to clear the most urgent action items from my desk in preparation for a week off.

Then it hit. Maybe I was more vulnerable because of the time pressures, or maybe it was just something that caught up with me. There is no way to know, but my neck grew tight, and by the time I got home, fever and chills set in and my wife insisted on taking me to the emergency room. After three hours of tests and x-rays, strep and tonsillitis and similar problems were ruled out, but it was clear my right-side lymph nodes were inflamed and some sort of infection had taken residence inside my throat. The doctor gave me antibiotics, which I am taking for ten days, and they seem to be effective. But the illness certainly ruined an evening in which I was going to get a haircut and shop for groceries for an outdoor barbecue party in our backyard for my wife’s birthday on Sunday. I was pretty useless on Saturday, worn down and unable to swallow or talk without considerable effort, although I did help shop for groceries, including a birthday cake. I was not good for much more, and I was growing hungry because eating was such a chore.

That remained the case for much of Sunday, though I was energetic enough by then to join the party. I did not have nearly enough energy to play grillmaster in the hot sun, so someone else took over who enjoyed the job, fortunately. But all I could eat and swallow was watermelon and some cake and ice cream, none of which excessively challenged those inflamed lymph nodes.

Why share all this? My illness will pass, but when I watched Anastasia Somoza, a quadriplegic who also suffers from cerebral palsy, discuss attitudes toward disability on stage Monday evening, it reminded me of a thought I have had before. What if the condition I was suffering temporarily were something I had to live with permanently? How would I want to be treated? How would it make me feel, and how would it affect my outlook on life? Admittedly, a viral or bacterial infection generally does not leave lasting impacts, but there are other ways all of us can at least project ourselves into such situations to begin to understand how it feels to be the perennial underdog in life.

This thought actually first occurred to me more than 15 years ago, when I suffered a debilitating herniated disk in my lower back as a result of lifting a box of books the wrong way after having our house repainted. The pain was immediate and agonizing. I had to grab the rails to ascend and descend the stairs in our three-story house. Although I never needed surgery, and I am very glad because back surgery is generally brutal and barbaric (my father underwent it in 1968), I did undergo three months of strenuous rehabilitation therapy that required the discipline on my part to do sets of exercises three times daily between therapy sessions. I was determined not to suffer permanent impacts from the injury and followed the routine to the letter, ultimately achieving release from therapy two weeks early. There is a great deal to be said for willpower, and there is nothing wrong with having the pride in one’s willpower to struggle through such a situation successfully, as I did. I soon resumed jogging, and the experience is certainly a factor in my ongoing effort to remain physically fit.

But there is a great deal wrong with thinking we are better than anyone else because of such success. There is a great deal right with using such examples to encourage others faced with similar circumstances. The one thought that stuck with me afterwards was, What if I had not been able to recover successfully? What if I had suffered a permanent injury, like many veterans or just those born with serious physical limitations over which they never had any control? I know how humbling it was even for those three months to be unable to sleep in comfort, to be wary of being bumped by anyone in close quarters, and the challenge of climbing stairs. It does not seem so hard to me to be able to extrapolate that sort of experience into some empathy for those who may never be able to function as fully as the rest of us.

So, as you listen to this whole discussion about disability rights and how we treat each other, remember that this ought not to be a partisan matter. It was a Democratic U.S. Senator from Iowa, Tom Harkin, one of my personal heroes, who introduced and fought for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it was a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who signed it. Harkin was motivated in part by the experience of his younger brother, Frank, who was deaf. Disabilities cross party lines and so should our empathy and understanding of what it takes to include and respect all those who face challenges. By now this should be as settled an issue as universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Let’s be human, folks. In this particular instance, it does not take much to imagine ourselves in someone else’s wheelchair. Just think of the extraordinary exertions on behalf of others of one of our famous past presidents—Franklin D. Roosevelt. Enough said.

 

Jim Schwab

We Are the Cure, We Are the People

Our nation is suffering from a terrible social disease. It is not a sexually transmitted disease, though it can be spread orally, through the things we say to each other and over the Internet and the air waves. Since everything seems to need a name, I will call it BJ Disease, which stands for blanket judgment. It has been with us for a long, long time, latent in our political system and society, but it has gone viral, it seems, and become an epidemic in a very bad political year.

If there is one thing I personally learned long ago, it was to view people as individuals rather than as monolithic groups. In part, that is because I learned as a Christian that this is the way in which God values us, and it saddens me when I see people use religion as a weapon or a tool of exclusion rather than an opportunity for moral and spiritual growth. It has paved the way for my wife and me adopting two girls of varied backgrounds and becoming grandparents of a passel of children of racially mixed backgrounds, each with their own unique characteristics.

Adopting such an outlook has allowed me to see many more shades of meaning and value in the ways people speak and behave than if I were to see them simply as blacks, whites, Hispanics, or adherents of one faith or another, or of particular ethnic groups or sexual identities. Yes, many people in all these groupings have limited things in common, but there are far more that differentiate them as individuals and many more that we share in common as human beings across all those lines. But far too often, we refuse to see them. It is costing us lives and endleDSCF1345ss heartache, and that is a very sad thing.

Amid the uproar over black lives taken by police officers, most often though not always white officers, there is among a vocal minority of protesters an unfortunate tendency to paint all police as racially biased and prone to violence against minorities. There is, no doubt, a small segment of many of our police departments with such tendencies, though I am inclined to think it is a much smaller segment than it used to be. It is, however, far more visible today as a result of technology. Certain members of police departments have not yet adapted to an era in which the ubiquity of cell phone cameras virtually ensures that bad judgment in handling suspects, often in minor incidents such as traffic stops, will end up on the evening news. But lest I be accused of BJ disease myself, let me note that there are instances in which traffic stops have resulted in the deaths of police who did not soon enough realize that someone had a gun and intended to use it. Traffic stops can escalate, and there are reasons why police may be wary of the drivers they have pulled over.

At the same time, it is also perfectly clear that the shooter in Dallas made statements to the police, as they were trying to negotiate with him, that he hated white people and police. His indiscriminate shooting of officers at the end of what had been a peaceful protest not only bloodied and sullied the message of the protest but made clear that, in his mind, the people he was shooting were not individuals with families and unique perspectives and experiences but a single mass of people not deserving of such differentiation. It is hard to see the difference between that outlook and the views of a white racist who sees blacks as an undifferentiated force for evil. Both perspectives simply deepen the propensity for violence in our society.

At a time when it would be extremely helpful to have political leaders who can help us to escape the bonds of blanket judgment disease, which can become contagious through peer pressure and the desire to conform in the condemnation of outsiders, however they may be defined, it is disappointing in the extreme to have instead candidates for the presidency who engage in spreading the disease through inflammatory rhetoric. Take, for instance, Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. Trump may well understand that many Muslims condemn the violence of terrorists, and that many are fleeing their countries in search of safety, but the careless lumping of all Muslims into a suspect category that must be denied admission to the United States does nothing to further that understanding. It does nothing to foster our awareness of Muslims as distinct individuals, any more than racial fears of American Indians or Mexicans or Asians fostered such understanding in the past. But let’s be clear. While he emerged as the winner of the Republican nomination by dominating debates with such reckless proposals, Trump was hardly the only candidate to offer such blanket condemnations or stoke such fears. In fact, his ascendancy within the Republican party was made possible precisely by years of such pathetic pandering before he chose to take it to another level.

So—I have said my piece for this week in an effort to make peace. There are no links in this particular blog post because the links that matter are not on the Internet but between all of us as Americans and as fellow human beings. We need to foster those connections across racial and political and ethnic and religious lines. We need to reach out even when it takes courage to do so. We need to spend more time understanding each other and less time criticizing each other en masse. We need to focus on the eradication of BJ disease. I will pray for that tonight and every night until we can achieve a more civil and respectful dialogue. Is it too much to ask? Or, as Rodney King once famously asked, “Can’t we all just get along?”

 

Jim Schwab

 

Keeping It Sharp in the Flats

Let’s start with the fact, obvious mostly in retrospect, that I should have printed out a map of the Flats Entertainment District in Cleveland rather than relying on Onstar, the GM dial-in navigation system in our Saturn, for directions. (I could also have used my iPhone for guidance, but I hate looking at such a small screen while driving.) On this one occasion, Onstar stumbled somewhat, but a quick call to Alley Cat Oyster Bar, our choice of location for an anniversary dinner, got us to our destination a mere two blocks away. My point is that the Flats can be mildly confusing if you have not been there before. Onstar told me to go to a traffic circle but failed to detect that another traffic circle preceded the one in front of Alley Cat, but nonetheless insisted “you are near your destination.” Well, sort of.IMG_0258

That said, Onstar has generally served us very well for several years. But in certain anomalous settings like the Flats, it can fall short. The city could also improve its street signage in the area.

The Flats are somewhat anomalous in any event. Here is an area now known for high-end restaurants and entertainment venues along a river that in 1969 caught fire from a train spark and burned. When I was in junior high school in Brecksville, Ohio, in the early 1960s, our class took a field trip on the Goodtime Cruise down the Cuyahoga River and into Lake Erie. One of my classmates asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into industrial filth that filled the river. The guide answered rather calmly that the person “would probably get pneumonia and die.” That answer haunted me into my college days, when I emerged as an environmental activist and founded the first student environmental organization at Cleveland State University.

The movement that grew out of shocking events like the burning river helped trigger the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act, which in turn steadily advanced cleanup of the Cuyahoga River, among many others. In the meantime, foreign competition hammered the once-dominant steel industry, and other industries either died or evolved. It was a classic Rust Belt story. Over ensuring decades, the Cuyahoga River changed dramatically, and the current version of the Flats grew up where industrial sewers used to reign. It is a long story that has been told many times and deserves to be understood in the current political environment because it shows that this nation can succeed in improving its quality of life and the environment when it musters the political will to do so.

IMG_0256But back to dinner at the Flats. With a sense of history that is not yet lost in Cleveland, I sat in Alley Cat with my wife, watching out the window at the nearby river, this time watching a team of kayakers row up and down, a pleasure boat docked at the Alley Cat and another across the water at Shooters, on a sunny June evening in Cleveland, just two hours before Game 3 of the NBA Finals would take place downtown at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavaliers were facing off against the Golden State Warriors in a rematch of the 2015 series. The city’s attention was riveted to the fate of its beloved Cavs.

There are today about a dozen restaurants in the general area of the Flats, but I chose Alley Cat based on its online reviews, which had been stellar. My wife, not a Cleveland native (she grew up in Nebraska), left that decision to me. But we both love seafood, which is Alley Cat’s strong suit, so she was happy. I can happily recommend Alley Cat on several counts.

IMG_0253First, the food is excellent. I enjoyed a Faroe Island salmon entrée, which is draped in Vauduvan curry sauce, accompanied by black rice and yellow squash. I enjoyed it all. My wife opted for the less expensive and more predictable fish sandwich (cod), with pickles and fries, but we cross-fertilized each other’s dinner a bit. The spirits list is impressive, although predictably pricey.  The bottom line is that neither of us was disappointed. Jean, generally a Merlot fan, loved the Syrah that I picked out.

But second, and very important, the wait staff was uniformly gracious and friendly. This is a feature of Cleveland more generally that many outsiders do not appreciate until they experience it, but this is a town that has had good reason at times for a chip on its shoulder yet retains a very welcoming, congenial atmosphere. It is fun to interact with people in the Cleveland metropolitan area. They seem to prefer to enjoy life. At times, they almost made me wonder what I was doing in Chicago. Just the night before, we had met over dinner in Shaker Heights with a former co-worker of mine, now working as a planner with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, who seemed very happy with his move here from Washington, D.C. As for the staff at the Alley Cat Oyster Bar, they were extremely accommodating with our every request.

IMG_0255The final point deals with the scenery. What was once a stinking, unhealthy cesspool a half-century ago is now a remarkably pleasant setting. Our table was right by a window facing west to the river, where we could watch the rippling water pass by along with the kayakers and other floating transportation, in the shadow of highway bridges high overhead, but with a sidewalk that allows one to experience the marine milieu in a refreshing way. There is outdoor seating, but this day had been rather cool for early summer, so we settled for inside dining.

This all served to remind me that the Flats are at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. It is a relatively short reach of a river that stretches upstream to Akron along a beautiful valley that is now preserved, for the most part, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the subject of my next blog post.

 

Jim Schwab

Incident below the 606

The 606 is, if anything, ordinarily a very safe, quiet space full of people enjoying the outdoors. This photo is from opening day in June 2015.

The 606 is, if anything, ordinarily a very safe, quiet space full of people enjoying the outdoors. This photo is from opening day in June 2015.

One of the more disquieting aspects of urban life is an occasional confrontation with the irrational. I have debated telling this story, but I decided that enough other people either have had or will share such experiences that sharing it may have great value. One must be prepared somehow to handle these unexpected situations.

In my very last post a week ago, I noted my workouts with a trainer at XSport Fitness. One of those occurred yesterday, Saturday morning, at 8 a.m., after which I walked home with my gym bag, stopping for a snack and coffee at McDonald’s, after which I crossed Western Avenue by going up the ramp on one side to the 606 Trail, about which I have written more than once, and crossing to the other side. It is when I came down I encountered trouble, in broad daylight in the middle of a sunny, beautiful morning.

I was heading down the sidewalk to my home when a young man stood in front of me and demanded to know where I was going. “I’m going home,” I said in a matter-of-fact voice that was intended to suggest that the rest was no one else’s business. Nothing about his manner suggested that this was a friendly question.

“This is my neighborhood,” he asserted, “and I don’t know you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, and began to move down the sidewalk. But he moved to block my path. I moved out toward the street to pass him, and he moved again. He reasserted that he did not know who I was, and I made clear that was irrelevant to my right to continue on my way home. But he would not get out of the way, prompting me to ask, with increasing exasperation, “What is your problem?”

I had both the gym bag and a mostly full cup of coffee in my hands. Before I could truly absorb just how determined he was, I saw his punch coming toward my jaw. I moved back just as quickly, so that his swing only barely connected with my cheek, but now he had really angered me. I threw the coffee at him, and it splattered across his shirt. But I lost my footing and fell backwards, landing on my rump on the planter strip below the trail 16 feet above. He picked up the gym bag and threw it at me while I was down. I quickly got back up, but it was clear this confrontation was not over, and I might just have to throw a few punches of my own if he continued.

But by then, something else happened that I think is one of the redeeming glories of the 606. A small crowd of witnesses to the scuffle had gathered above, and it was very clear to all of them that he was the aggressor. Some began to try to talk him down, threatening to dial 911 for the police. I would have done that myself, except that it was a rare trip in which I had not brought my cell phone. “Do it,” I yelled to them, signaling, I suppose, that I did not have a phone with me. At that moment, I would have liked nothing better than to see a squad car show up. But it did not happen.

What did happen is that one of the men on the trail had made his way down the ramp to usher me away from the confrontation while the young man watched. Amazingly, considering all the witnesses to what had happened, he loudly protested that I had thrown my coffee at him, to which I replied, “Yes, after you took a damned swing at me!” In effect, I retreated at the other man’s urging, continuing further down the trail and then circling back to my home. Equally interesting, though, someone came out of the nearby building and ushered the young man inside. It was over; no one was hurt.

I subsequently made a police report at the station, cycling there after I got home. As soon as I told my story, the officer behind the desk indicated they knew who it probably was, showed me a picture, and I verified him as the individual who had assaulted me. They told me he was mentally ill. I know his name but will not share it. I know where he lives and will not share it. I have learned from detectives shortly after originally posting this that they are still looking for him. This was not the first time he had accosted someone. Moreover, they said it was consistent with his “M.O.”

One important feature of this story is that it highlights a problem we all know exists, but that our society does a remarkably poor job of confronting: the management of the mentally ill, including, in his case, the apparently violent mentally ill. I do not profess to be an expert in this area. There are social workers and psychologists who are much more conversant with all the issues and bureaucratic complications of a system that copes poorly, in part because most of us do not want to spend much time thinking about such people, let alone funding programs to treat them. Our jails and prisons are full of them. Many of the homeless are victims of mental illness. Yet, in Illinois, we have a governor more focused on union-busting than on funding needed social services, despite persistent pleadings from churches and social service agencies, and a legislature that is more focused on re-election than on finding solutions to our fiscal mess. We are at a standstill.

I am not saying, of course, that there is any foolproof solution that would prevent encounters such as mine. Mental illness is a fact of human life that may never disappear no matter how many medicines we invent. There will always be the problem of someone who needs those medicines not being willing to take them. There will always be those who slip between the cracks. It will fall to those of us with enough poise, enough mental stability, and enough judgment to try to defuse these situations. In this particular case, I am enormously grateful to all those people on the trail because, in their absence, I am not sure what else might have transpired. It was a somewhat unnerving incident in part because, rational creature that I am, it took a minute or two for me to grasp that this individual was simply not operating with the same set of perceptions that were part of my universe. In my universe, the street belongs to anyone who wants to use it, and other people’s rights end at the beginning of my nose, as they say, or in this case at the edge of my jaw. In his universe, I constituted some sort of threat merely by trying to walk past him.

If I had been more elderly than my 66 years, less physically fit, or a mother with a child, the incident could have been terrifying, and I suspect it has happened and may yet happen again. And in the process sometimes, we end up with even more of the walking wounded among us. It is a sobering thought on an otherwise sunny Sunday morning.

 

Jim Schwab

Daydreaming on a Sunday Afternoon

 

Take me out to the ballpark. This is Wrigley Field, but I'll go to the Cell too.

Take me out to the ballpark. This is Wrigley Field, but I’ll go to the Cell too.

Have you ever tried to visualize yourself in a prominent, visible role other than whatever you do for a living? Can you see yourself accepting a Grammy, say, or racing across the goal line with a touchdown pass? Most of us at some point have some fantasy about our lives. Such fantasies are largely harmless things. They inspire us to aspire without making us delusional.

Sometime last night before the stroke of midnight in Chicago, some one of you became the 12,000th subscriber to this blog. I mention the point only because, as this audience grows, so grow the odds that someone out there can relate to what I am saying in a blog post like this, when I grow tired of discussing politics or public policy and just itch to let my imagination roam. I know I’m not the only one, as John Lennon once sang.

Several circumstances have converged to inspire this rumination. One is that I have needed to spend time this weekend on some serious technical writing in order to catch up on work I promised to do, some of which was forestalled Friday by family business. I want to break out of the rut. A second fact is that I have joined nearly the whole city of Chicago in pensively following the almost inconceivable set of daily triumphs this spring that have given our generally luckless baseball city the two best teams in Major League Baseball—at least so far, knock on wood, and may I not jinx either one by speaking too soon. When I’ve had the chance, I have watched both Jake Arrieta of the Cubs and Chris Sale of the White Sox as they have mowed down opposing hitters and built enviable records on the mound. I mean, between them, they have a 15-0 record this season and a combined ERA of about 1.0.

Why do I care? Back to the rumination—they are living a fantasy that I am only beginning to understand, now that I am far too old to hope to achieve anything like it. In fact, I am old enough to be their father. When I was their age, I was only beginning to overcome the intimidation in facing pitchers wrought by the fact that I needed thick glasses by the time I was ten, a story I rendered in my very first blog post on this site about four years ago. I did not understand how people threw curve balls at 90 miles per hour, and I certainly did not understand how anyone swung the bat fast enough to hit such pitches. Having never learned the rapid reactions that allow people even to face such pitchers, let alone hit home runs against them, I could only stand there dumbfounded as the ball whizzed past. It did not matter whether I swung. I was nearly 40 before I started to play competent intramural softball. By that age, most professional athletes have seen their best days and are on the way to retirement.

But that is not really my point. It was about then that my cognitive assets began to kick into gear, at least with regard to some sports, to notice from observation just how these athletes managed to do what they do. I started to follow the path of the ball closely, and the arc of the bat, and other central elements of professional baseball. I have come to realize what kind of arm or reflexes it takes to perform at that level. Even if I was never capable of realizing a daydream of launching a ball out of the park—and believe me, I never was—I at least began to realize how they did it, and the strategies behind the confrontation of hitter and pitcher. Because I have a better grasp of what is happening, I enjoy the game now more than I ever have in the past. I appreciate what Arrieta and Sale do in a way I never could before. I have become a student of the game.

That gets me to my real point. Well, sort of. We can be students of many things in our lives and benefit from it all, somehow. At the end of 2013, an exceedingly hectic year in which I racked up 23 business trips connected with my position at the American Planning Association, two more connected with teaching at the University of Iowa, plus some personal travel, I knew that something had to change. I had not gotten to my fitness club for weeks at a time, and I was wearing down. So I switched clubs to XSport Fitness and signed up to work with a personal trainer, having decided the additional expense would be more than compensated with renewed stamina and physical discipline. Then I had to wait about two months before I could start because, on New Year’s Day 2014 at a Barnes & Noble store, I pinched a shoulder nerve by carelessly tossing an overly heavy laptop bag on my left shoulder as I prepared to leave. That reinforced the logic of why I needed such training in the first place.

Mike Caldwell, trainer at XSport Fitness

Mike Caldwell, trainer at XSport Fitness

I have worked since then and made great strides in personal fitness, including, recently, a string of 150-second planks. More important, however, is what I have been learning through the trainer, Michael Caldwell, with whom I regularly discuss why I am doing what he asks me to do. I am thus gaining both intellectually, with a better understanding of physical fitness technique, and physically, by pursuing higher goals over time—and steadily achieving them. It is an important lesson in perseverance. I realize just how much work professional athletes must perform to condition themselves, no matter what natural talents they begin with. Fitness does not just happen.

It is not, however, as if I had never learned perseverance before. I have merely changed the setting or, to put it another way, added a new setting to those that were already familiar. And what I have learned in life is that loving what we do is what makes perseverance seem worthwhile and endurable. For athletes, it is literally the love of the game—that is not merely a phrase—and when that goes away, it is surely time to retire and find something else to do.

Two nights ago, Friday the 13th, my wife and I attended The King and I at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. We both loved the show. Jean, whose father was at one point in his life a music instructor, loves such musicals and enjoyed every minute of it. I mention it because I have never, in my entire life, tried to envision myself as one of the performers for such a show. I have never imagined that I have the kind of voice that it would take to impress a large audience, and my gift for music is marginal at best. For this, I was and will remain merely a spectator, a member of the consuming public. I cannot imagine myself enjoying the process of developing the necessary talent. It is not part of my rumination. I might add that, having purchased the tickets as a Mother’s Day gift, I should have anticipated that Friday the 13th would be a night in which, after the show, we would have to race five blocks through a downpour to the Blue Line to go home, getting soaked even with a raincoat and umbrella between us. (Forget the taxi line at the Lyric; it was hopeless.) I have never daydreamed about becoming a meteorologist either, not even a handsomely paid one on television. Not my thing. But I digress.

Any savvy reader will grasp by now that I am writing this article because I did find my calling, and I did persevere in developing my skills, however convoluted the path I may have taken in life. As early as the third grade, I was attempting to write science fiction stories. I dreamed of publishing them, although today I am glad that those early manuscripts have mercifully disappeared, their pages rotting in some landfill in northern Ohio. The love of writing took many forms over the years, but it has never left me. In high school, I used my electives to include one-semester courses in both journalism and creative writing. I was a co-founder of the Brecksville High School Writers Club. I began college as an English major, switching to political science only as I became drawn to the turmoil of the 1960s and the elusive prospect of somehow changing the world. I wrote for the student newspaper, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. Later I wrote a handful of op-eds for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and then I moved to Iowa, and continued to write and publish there. I found my way into graduate school at the University of Iowa, and not satisfied simply to get a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, I prolonged my academic efforts by adding a second master’s in journalism. Then came a fateful day when I had to decide on a master’s project in journalism, and I decided that if I had to do such a project, it ought to become a book. Three years after graduation, it emerged between two covers from the University of Illinois Press as Raising Less Corn and More Hell, an oral history of the 1980s Midwest farm credit crisis. At 38 years old, I finally found myself being reviewed in the New York Times. I had envisioned myself as a published author and cared so much about learning the craft that I never noticed just how much perseverance, how much sweat, how many wrong turns turned around I had poured into this and other projects to reach this plateau. Only in looking back do I realize the level of effort I sustained.

Like Arrieta and Sale, though certainly not with their level of fame, I loved my game and was passionate about succeeding.

The great thing about writing is that, at 66, although my energy may flag more than it did 30 years ago, I can keep going. I will not wear out my arm on the keyboard. Studs Terkel published his last book at the ripe age of 94. I can keep getting smarter about my craft without worrying about its physical toll, at least for the foreseeable future. As for that other degree? It built on my background in political science, in a way, and more importantly, it gave me something truly substantive to write about. I didn’t just want to write. I had something to say. I had another passion.

If you are one of my young readers, find your dream. Persevere with it. Trust me, it is worth it. And if you are older, well, hang in there. Life can still be beautiful if you have a purpose.

IMG_0104By the way, as for that mention of Mother’s Day: By the time I finished graduate school, I had met my wife, and we got married. I learned about passion and purpose from her too. She is retired now, but her passion was teaching. And she was happy last week. At a luncheon for its retirees, the Chicago Teachers Union gave her a lifetime achievement award for her activism. I have seldom seen her more pleased.

 

Jim Schwab