Flood of Events in Just Two Weeks

Life can produce very sudden turns of events. The turmoil and destruction dished out by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may have been predictable in the abstract, that is, events that could occur at some point someday, but that means little when the day arrives that a hurricane is bearing down on your shores.

More than three months ago, I retired from the American Planning Association to move into a combination of activities I had tailored to my own skills and interests, which I have previously announced and discussed. Over the summer, I began setting the stage for introducing these new enterprises, but my wife and I also took time for a long-awaited excursion to Norway to celebrate this new phase of our lives. I began to share that story in August with blogs about our journey.

Meanwhile, I began work on the creation of Jim Schwab Consulting LLC, my solo planning practice. Just two weeks ago, with the help of a web designer, Luke Renn, I unveiled a business website that is a companion to this one. You can find it at the link above. But when we began to construct the site in mid-August, I had no idea what would ensue. By the time we had completed the new website, Harvey was making landfall on the Texas coast and dumping unimaginable amounts of rain in the Houston metropolitan area, and then on Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas.

As Harvey was losing steam and moving inland, Irma, initially a Category 5 hurricane, devastated the small island of Barbuda, the smaller part of the tiny Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Officials estimate that 95 percent of the island’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, and residents have been evacuated to the larger island of Antigua, partly in advance of an anticipated second attack by Hurricane Jose, following in Irma’s wake, that mercifully did not come to pass. That would have been bad enough, but the storm also badly rocked St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, sideswiped Puerto Rico and the northern coast of Cuba, and finally passed through the Florida Keys, demolishing much of the community there, and sped up the western coast of Florida through places like Naples and Tampa. Irma was so huge that its waves and winds also buffeted numerous coastal communities in eastern Florida, no doubt shaking many people in Miami Beach to their core.

I will soon complete the tour of Norway on this blog, but it seemed more important to offer some insights, in some small way, into what is happening and will be needed in the recovery in Texas. Irma has been too large an event for me yet to absorb its totality and even begin to understand how I can possibly enhance what people know from the daily news barrage that has accompanied it. I am sure emergency management personnel at all levels are already weary but patriotically staffing their posts.

Planners like me must prepare for the much longer endurance test known as long-term recovery planning. While it is far too easy to say what, if any, role I may be asked to play in this drama, there have been conversations. Recovery, unlike emergency response, will take months to unfold. I will do my best to share what I learn. It is important because long-term recovery provides the opportunity to hash out major questions of the future and the resilience of the surviving communities. It has always been possible to learn from experience and to improve so that we lose fewer lives, suffer fewer losses, and rebound more quickly in future disasters. But possible is not certain. It is up to all of us to decide that we will rebuild with a resilient future in mind.

Jim Schwab

Map of Irma as of 9/12/17 from NOAA website.

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

The Voice of Humility

dscf3255There are times when we lose control of our plans, when we simply surrender to the power of microbes and let things ride. We may have made promises to get things done, and they will not happen. We must ride out the storm instead.

I have posted nothing new in two weeks not for lack of the desire to do so—indeed, I had several books and documents I planned to discuss on this blog—but because I had to surrender to the reality of pneumonia. I am on the rebound now, and I generally have a long history of quick and effective rebounds, but fever, chills, and the hacking cough that are typically prime symptoms of pneumonia had me in their firm grip for a week and a half, starting just a little less than two weeks ago and petering out just three days ago under the impact of antibiotics. As you can imagine, it was no fun.

It was not just a matter of sustaining this blog. I missed six straight days of work at the American Planning Association, and when you count the weekend between those days, you see the overall stretch of futility that ate up my time. I lay on the couch, on the bed, under blankets, alternately sweating and freezing, arranging for a visit with my doctor, then getting a chest x-ray to confirm the diagnosis. It is, of course, impossible to get comfortable, let alone maintain any significant energy level. I also needed to grade papers for a graduate seminar on disaster planning that I teach every fall for the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. The grades are due shortly, yet I had none of the energy or attention span needed that first week to review 15- or 20-page papers that were basically case studies in disaster recovery. I finally got them done in the last few days. Meanwhile, here in Chicago, it was cold outside, not a great outdoor environment for anyone who had elevated temperatures. The fear of experiencing a setback until I was well on the road to recovery kept me from being very adventurous. But by yesterday I was willing and able to shovel snow.

Sometimes it seems that life is piling on. Just as I was descending into illness, without initially knowing it was pneumonia, my 5 ½-year-old laptop suffered the loss of its graphics drive, and the cost of repairs drove me to replace it, but it took me two days after learning this news from the Geek Squad before I could muster the energy to go to Best Buy, which owns Geek Squad, to choose a new computer. Even then, as I stood in the aisle waiting for a sales clerk to complete his business with another customer, I was looking around for a chair for fear I would not be able to stand long enough. But I did, and I chose a new Dell laptop, and then came the business of installing software and transferring my data. I left that to the Geek Squad. But altogether, presuming I would have had much ambition for such things, it meant that I had no functioning computer for almost four days. And then I still had to find the patience to learn how to make certain new features work. But I at least had the ball rolling again.

I will raise my voice again, in this blog and elsewhere, soon enough. But I was reminded that we all have these vulnerabilities. Unlike the Hazards Planning Center at APA, this blog is a one-man show. When that one man is under the weather, it all comes to a halt. But I am back. Happy holidays to all.

 

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

 

The Milestone of 10,000

I don’t do this often. In fact, I’ve done it only once before, when this blog reached 1,000 subscribers back in the summer of 2014. But at about 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, the 10,000th reader registered as a subscriber to “Home of the Brave.” I want to take a moment to acknowledge that because I never started this blog nearly three years ago envisioning such growth in readership. I admit to being surprised by it all.

Early on, around April 2013, as I was trying to decide why I was launching this blog at all, a moment of liberation arrived. I realized I did not need to establish a clear genre, such as book reviews or political commentary, because any such choice would betray my own hard-earned identity by tapping only a portion of what I had to offer. Instead, I decided, the blog would contain “whatever I damn well pleased to write,” not to be cantankerous, but as the only clear way to maintain the integrity of my own moral and intellectual contributions to the world. We are all many things, but we don’t always express them well. I would make it a point to focus my literary and journalistic talents on expressing the complexity of subject matters that interested me, as I saw them. If they defy easy categorization, so be it. At least I would have fun and perhaps even learn in the process.

What I honestly did not expect was how many of you would join this journey. After a whole year, there were about 270 subscribers. After that, for whatever reasons, the blog entered an upward trajectory that is still underway. There is only one way to respond–with more of the heartfelt, deeply thought essays that I hope are becoming my trademark. Writing this blog is still an adventure, still a challenge. I want to cause people to think, to care more about their fellow human beings, and to deepen their curiosity. If I succeed at that, the numbers presumably will take care of themselves. I intend to pay attention to what matters.

And thanks to all of you for taking the time to read what I have to say. I am very deeply appreciative.

Jim Schwab

Holiday Promises

The holiday season is upon us, and despite having a modicum of free time that I have not enjoyed for a while, I confess—I am still struggling to compose as much material for this blog as I would prefer. But I am working on it, on some serious material on a variety of issues, and you will see it all in coming weeks. But before I get to that, I want to express some gratitude.

Although any blogger clearly blogs with the hope of finding an audience, I have been stunned in recent weeks as the number of visitors and registered users has soared, the latter number topping 2,200 as of yesterday. At the current rate of growth, I would not be surprised if there are 10,000 of you a year from now. Finding an audience of that size and on that trajectory is extremely heartwarming, and I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year, as you see fit to celebrate.

Now I shall ask a favor. It has been my assumption that a reason for this growth is that there is a hunger out there for content that goes beyond the obvious, essays that explore beneath the surface, that help make sense out of complicated topics. I cannot write about everything, nor should I try, but there are topics on which I feel I can offer some real depth of analysis and understanding that will be beneficial to others. I think many people are tired of more superficial commentaries that ignore the complexity, the subtleties, and the illuminating details of many issues. But you, as readers, have to be willing to bear with the writer for more than 500 words to get to that depth.

Some time ago, a web editor told me the ideal length for blog articles is 500 to 750 words. I don’t know who has noticed, but I routinely violate that assumption because, if I feel a subject requires greater length for proper explication, I will indulge in that greater length in order to do it justice. I don’t believe in simplistic, jingoistic responses to serious issues, and I deplore the trivialization of public dialogue that I see dominating political discussion these days. Issues like climate change and improving our communities are just not susceptible to such treatment without gross distortion of the truth.

So invite your comments on why you choose to read this blog and what you might like to see, knowing that I choose not to write on a topic unless I have the time and the knowledge to offer something that I can be proud of as an author. This is your holiday gift to me—letting me learn what I am doing or should be doing here that is valuable. I look forward to the comments.

Jim Schwab

Beating the Bug Takes Time

This is not the more substantive discussion I had intended to post this weekend. I had planned some explorations of the concept of community resilience, based on recent travels and meetings that allowed me to help explore such topics, and other initiatives in which I am involved would have allowed me to elaborate on the theme in subsequent posts once I started.

Fate intervened in the form of a microscopic being that somehow manages to waylay us human beings. As early as last Sunday, without knowing the precise cause, I began to sense that unnerving malaise that often precedes a full assault by some sort of virus or bacteria. But I got through the week until Thanksgiving morning, when a slight chill the night before became a sore throat, which was not yet enough to keep me from helping fix dinner for 15 people at our home that day. I took personal responsibility for the turkey, stuffing, salad, and yams, and my wife did the rest. While not terribly energetic, I made it through the dinner, but slowly lost steam into the evening. By the time our guests had left, I was exhausted.

But I had plans for the weekend—lots of work I wanted to catch up on, reviewing proposals for a federal grant competition, writing a briefing paper on the use of visioning exercises in post-disaster recovery planning, and other items that keep me busy. Not that I didn’t plan to relax a bit, but I had things that needed to get done.

For the most part, they are still waiting, and the bug that bit me has taught me yet again that my agenda is not always the one that will prevail. A mild fever kicked in, as did throat and sinus congestion, and an overall feeling that my personal energy level was badly depleted. In short, the last four days have made clear that some of the things I want to attend to will simply have to wait because I lack the immediate resilience to make them happen within my intended time frame. Personal resilience is not always a matter of snapping back into prime condition in a day or two; sometimes it is a matter of outlasting the affliction through sheer patience and persistence. I simply decided that, if I could not maintain adequate mental focus for the tasks that lay ahead, those tasks would have to wait. To persist with a level of exertion that denies your body the restorative rest it needs to put things right may well extend the visitation of the offending bug.

I’m a very poor fatalist, overall, but I do understand that in some cases, it pays to just wait it out.

You’ll hear more from me on community resilience later. For now, personal resilience seems a more appropriate topic.

 

Jim Schwab

Crossing One Thousand

When I first started this blog, one of the nagging questions in my mind was, “Is anybody reading this?” It is a natural enough question for almost anyone. For someone who has published books and reports and hundreds of articles in various periodicals, all with readerships in the thousands to tens of thousands, it is also a question of how best to invest one’s time. The nice thing about a blog, however, is that you can choose your own subject matter. At first, I was inclined to focus more on book reviews, but the pressures of time quickly pushed that notion into the background. I do it, but I do not always have time to do it, and I realized I had a good deal more to offer, given my lengthy background in urban planning.

I made a simple decision. I now jokingly describe the subject matter of this blog as “anything I damned well please.” In truth, it’s more than that. I focus on subjects where I can bring some depth of commentary. I do not wish to rant or ramble, as I feel too many people do in an age where access to the Internet is nearly universal. One ought to be able to offer a useful perspective. But the freedom to decide what that is, outside the constraints of more prescribed frameworks, is a pleasant feature of a personal blog.

I launched this blog in earnest in April 2013, despite having posted one inaugural message a year earlier. A great deal of the frequency and content since then has been a function of my own free time. Sometimes, with the demands of professional life, that has barely existed. Travel has often taken its toll and produced a sudden hiatus here and there where I simply was not heard from. I try to avoid that, but professional responsibilities can and should take priority. I hope that my readers understand; this is, after all, purely a sideline venture. Not only do I not earn a living from blogging; so far I have made no attempt to make any money at all. People presumably have noticed there is no advertising. I don’t promise that forever, but it simply is not important right now.

So what is the point of this missive? To celebrate the simple fact that the audience has clearly grown. I no longer ask whether anyone is reading this blog. It is clear there is an audience. In the last few days of July, the number of registered users for this blog passed 1,000. That is nearly quadruple the number just three months ago. Some sort of momentum kicked in that is sustaining rapid growth in readership, adding anywhere from five to 15 new users every day. I have no way of knowing precisely what is attracting various people, and some of you are scattered around the world, in Europe and Australia particularly. I shall continue to trust that the attraction is simply providing thoughtful, thought-provoking information and commentary on a variety of topics, but most notably how we plan our communities and the ways in which we protect them from natural and man-made hazards. In addition, the occasional review of good books, movies, and restaurants may add some spice to the mix. I want to make and keep this a place for people who believe in good writing on subjects that actually matter.

And thanks for being among the first 1,000 regular readers, and to those other readers, thank you for visiting as well. I know you’re out there. I’ve been tracking this growth with considerable gratitude and appreciation.

 

Jim Schwab

Always Feed the Meter

Those who live in big cities know how unforgiving the parking meters are. Leave your car unattended longer than the time on the meter allows, forget to put that extra money in before time runs out, and here comes a parking ticket, with a hefty fine–$25, $50, or more, depending on the city and the location. In Chicago, we no longer even have the perverse satisfaction of knowing that the money at least helps fill the public coffers and pay for some potential service, perhaps covering police or firefighter wages that might do others some good. Thanks to a quick hustle and a compliant city council, Mayor Richard M. Daley in the waning days of his 22-year tenure managed to lease the parking meters for 75 years to a private company, and then spent our patrimony by filling budget gaps. The meters are now making that company rich while taxpayers are left holding the bag and, even worse, the city has forfeited the ability to use meter pricing strategies as a policy tool to influence urban development. This is the dark side of privatization: poorly considered decisions to squander public assets in the interest of short-term political gains, and sometimes feathering the nests of political allies.

But that is not the real point of this blog essay. I am really writing to say that those who were following this blog closely may have noticed a three-month hiatus since mid-November. The immediate reason for this was that I had simply hit a personal logjam where I allowed the needs of my position at the American Planning Association to chew up so much of my free time that I was unable to develop what I considered satisfactory commentaries, even though I had plenty of ideas and material to draw from. Last year, however, was a very busy year in which I completed 23 trips on APA business, plus two more to Iowa City in connection with teaching for the University of Iowa, and three more for personal reasons. Toward the end of the year, enough pressing tasks had accumulated, with enough pressing deadlines, that I decided I needed to set the blog aside long enough to see them through. This is, after all, a sideline enterprise. And deadlines are deadlines.

Then, as of December 20, which happens to be my birthday, I took a vacation. That Friday evening, my wife and I did what I had long wanted to do on my holiday season birthday. We attended the “Do-It-Yourself” Messiah, conducted by Stephen Sperber at the Harris Theater in Chicago’s Millennium Park. If you have never done this (and have no religious objections to the composition), I urge you to try it. The entire audience accompanies four professional singers and a small orchestra to perform the vast bulk of Handel’s magnificent, sometimes manic, composition over a three-hour span broken by one very welcome intermission. To the extent that people were willing, voices were separated throughout this wonderful underground theater—the altos and sopranos nearer the top, basses and tenors nearer the stage—although my wife and I stayed together in the alto section. You bring your own score, and you follow the music, and you join this magnificent ad hoc choir for the chorus parts, and then take a break during the various solos, performed by the professionals. It is an exhilarating holiday season experience. It was a great start to a holiday season, followed by a visit to relatives in Ohio, and then  . . .

I was planning to post, and had composed one essay for later editing, and was working on all this the morning of December 31 in the café at a Barnes & Noble while my wife entertained two grandsons elsewhere in the store, and was too careless in slinging my laptop bag onto my shoulder when it came time to go, and . . .

I spent New Year’s Eve in some pain with a pinched nerve on my left side, which I spent more than a month remedying with physical therapy and massage in order to get back to my fitness routine. Ironically, the day before, I had switched my fitness club membership to one I thought more convenient, closer to home, in order to turn over a new leaf for the new year. Then I found myself putting that on hold until I could recover well enough to get a medical release.

But that’s not the whole story, either. The rest of the story goes back to feeding the meter. I had gotten a notice in November that the version of WordPress on my blog would not be supported after a certain date, but that was before the hiatus, and I paid it little mind as I had more urgent business to attend to. Bluehost was going to do the update anyway. Then, by the end of December, I found that my WordPress admin site was devoid of content or any means of uploading content, and I was not sure what to do next because, frankly, I am not much of a techie. I learn what I need to know but not always a whole lot more. My niece, who studied graphic design in college, designed this website, but withdrew from the business some time ago in favor of motherhood. I went searching for a web designer in Chicago to assume those tasks. But by then, my luck had run out. I was having difficulty for a few days just sitting at a desk long enough to read my e-mail. I had little energy left for a blog by the time I finished a normal work day, and those therapy appointments ate up time as well. Then my new web designer seemed to disappear as fast as I had found him.

It turned out he had complications from surgery on a broken forearm, a plenty good reason to have gone incommunicado in the short term. But then he got back in touch, and I am happy to welcome Christopher Merrill as the professional who can keep this website and blog in good shape from now on.  And I am once again feeding the meter.

But I have yet to feed another meter. Another notice–from Quicken– that the download function on my Quicken 2011 would no longer be supported as of a date certain if I did not update to Quicken 2014, has taken on new urgency. These guys mean business. They don’t support old software forever.

Feed the meter.

I say this with a newfound humility, even as I have no apologies for understanding professional priorities, and know that I balance more of them better than many people, but not all of them perfectly all of the time. But the software barons are not shy about applying the virtual Denver Boot. I’d best take care of Quicken, but at least the blog is back in operation.

Like our public thoroughfares, the Internet is free only to a point. I have fed the meter.

 

Jim Schwab