Bicycle Diaries: May 2006

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Ghosts at the dinner table

It's Memorial Day here in Lincoln Square. Folks are getting together to enjoy the first really good weekend in Chicago. It's 86 degrees and sunny with a few puffy clouds. Anywhere you go, a wonderful barbecue smell wafts up from backyards, porches, and decks.

And anyone doing a little shopping near the corner of Western and Leland won't miss the neighborhood's ongoing memorial to our soldiers killed in Iraq. The Chicago Printmakers Collaborative has been putting these pictures in the upper windows of their building since August 2004.

The memorial is very powerful because you can't possibly avoid the pictures. You can see them if you bike north on the east side of Western Ave. You can see them if you're waiting for a citybound train on the platform of the Brownline station. When the pictures started going up there there was only enough space for 648 pictures. Now the windows on each of the three floors are completely covered. And as of last Thursday, the total number of our soldiers killed in Iraq has reached 2464.

Each time I pass it I'm reminded of two relatives who died in WWII. Robert Klippel, my mother's brother, flew P-51s out of Iwo Jima in 1945. This photo was taken a few days before he shipped out to the Pacific. On 1 June 1945, a little over two months before Japan surrendered, he flew escort for the B-29s called up on a last minute bombing mission. Before they reached their targets over Osaka, a tsunami engulfed the planes. Only a few ever returned.

My uncle was one of the unlucky ones. He and his plane were never found. In 1946 his Missing in Action status was changed to Killed in Action.

Some of his friends who survived visited my mother's family soon after the war. They said that the last time they saw his plane it was trying to climb out over the storm. Years later I got my hands on the afteraction peport from a veterans' organization. It states that this mission was the largest loss of life and equipment in the Pacific Theater.

The other relative on my mother's side of the family, Frederick Klippel, was killed in the European Theater. As you can probably tell from the photo here (he's the one with the canteen), Frederick served in the German Wehrmacht. In 1942, his infantry reserve batallion arrived in western Ukraine to consolidate the huge gains made by the German invasion of the Soviet Union the previous year. He was killed by Russian artillery fire on 12 February 1943.

As as a young boy, everytime we visited my grandmother she would show us Robert's Army Air Corps insignia and medals. The stuff was always cool to look at; in fact, I've had a bit of an obsession with this uncle who had died 17 years before I was born. Thanks to the web, I've done a lot of research on his squadron and fighter group. A couple of years ago, I even made contact with the veterans from the figher group. But they were in different squadrons and didn't remember my uncle.

It wasn't until I was an adult, many years later, that I realized that Robert's death had torn the heart out of my mother's family. My grandmother firmly believed that he was still alive somewhere on Pacific island or in Japan. Her eldest daughter, my aunt, started to suffer from bipolar disorder at the end of the war. And my mother still can't talk about my uncle with getting extremely emotional.

As for Frederick's family, I don't really know how much his death has affected them. I've never met them myself. I didn't even know they or Frederick existed until I googled Klippel. One of the results was a Klippel geneaology posted by a distant cousin who lives on Stanton Island. Since then I've visited him several times. Just like with my grandmother, we look at the pictures and documents he got in Germany when he visited Frederick's family.

But I do know that once a soldier's ghost sits down at the dinner table it doesn't ever really go away. The one that started sitting with my mother's family in 1945 now sits with me as well as with my cousins and their children. This is why those 648 faces staring out of the windows of the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative have become an important part of my bike travels along Western Ave.

Today there are too many ghosts sitting at dinner tables or in backyards or on porches and decks around Chicago and the country.

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Why Chicago?

Because it's a city of neighborhoods. Now, lots of folks who hope and work for a more peaceful world usually think in terms of a global village where people live simply (an consciously) so that others might simply live. Everyone is decent and polite, regularly protest against "The Man," and watch PBS. It's all so very, very civil ... and BORING!!!!

But in a global neighborhood, we have our families and our friends, our neurosies and our dramas. We stand on line at the local coffee shop with people distinctly different from ourselves. We go out to hear the latest fad band in world music. Our taxi drivers, waiters, and corner store owners aren't native English speakers.

Every time I write or say village I can't help but think about The Prisoner, that wacky British TV show from the 60s. Or I think back on my home village in Upstate New York where I spent my painful adolescence. The problem wasn't that it was all white. There were difference, big differences, between the French and the Poles and the Irish. Our one exotic, foreign restaraunt was Italian! The problem was that that the economy had sucked for over 100 years and everyone knew all your business. I'll never go back.

Nor would I ever want the world to become a global village either. I prefer a global neighborhood like the one I've discovered here in Chicago. Isn't half the world's population living in cities anyway? In those cities differences are concentrated in neighborhoods. They give you a home without issolating you from everyone else's home. And isolation isn't good for business. Asians go to the blues bars. Africans patronize Thai restaraunts. We all go to the museums, at least in the first few months after we first arrive.

Don't kid yourself, the folks we leave behind in our hometowns hate cities - hate 'em deep down in their guts. Perhaps they're jealous since they weren't brave enough to leave. Perhaps they're uncomfortable with a world where the differences vastly outnumber the similarities. The people we city dwellers leave behind, even family and close friends, just don't get it.

So give me a global neighborhood. Give me all the different people whose lives I may not understand or even like. Give me all the different restaraunts even if I don't like every cuisine. Give me the old neighborhood bars with their cranky regulars. Give me the liquor stores owned by the members of obscure Middle Eastern christian sects. Give me the buses and trains driven by the grandchildren of Southern sharecroppers. Give me the taxi drivers with engineering degress from Lagos, Islamabad, or Bucharest.

Hell, give me a global neighborhood where you could be a racist or a biggot who nonetheless stands on line at the 7-11 and chit-chats with the Gujarati about Chicago's crappy, crazy weather.

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Tools of the trade

I've been a global educator for over a decade. What that means is that I work with American education institutions, mostly colleges and universities, that want their students exposed to the world. And overseas, I work with NGOs (non-governmental organizations or non-profits) that are working to improve local education in the global context.

There are a lot of different ways to do global education. Much of my work concentrates on three areas:
1. Civic Education, encouraging young people to be more engaged politically
2. Leadership Development, preparing them to be the next generation of communiity leaders
3. Education Reform, training educators how to be better teachers inside and outside the classroom

I guess that's why I like biking around Chicago. Every time I get on my bike it's like a little foreign adventure in what is decidedly a global city. Each of the 80 or so neighborhoods in Chicago has its origins in an immigrant community. And over the years while the boundaries of these neighborhoods have remained the same, the faces have changed. For example, Lincoln Square where I live has always been known as the German neighborhood. But since the 1960s it's seen an influx of Greeks, Yougoslavs, Hispanics, and Thais.

If you appreciate and enjoy this kind of diversity, you should definitely read Isaiah Berlin. His work provides the right tools for dealing with difference in our daily encounters with other peoples and communities. He wrote that each community naturally feels its particular values and ways of doing things are the best in the world. How then should each community deal with the fact that all others have their own idea of what is best?

The trick is for every community to accept the reality of fundamental differences while each remains loyal to its own ideals. To explain this, Berlin uses the metaphor of fans along a football pictch. Since they stand throughout the match they have to constantly shift their weight from foot to foot. Basically tolerating diversity is a constant balancing act shifting between the weight of our own community loyalties and our acceptance of other fundamentally different communities. Without it, we would be brawling in the streets!

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Outside Reading

I am not a hermit...

in my dusty apartment surrounded by mountains of books, empty pizza boxes, or cat food tins.

When I first moved to Chicago, freshly divorced and without knowing anyone, I decided I wasn't going to become the creepy, lonely guy in my building. You see, this was the first time I had really ever been on my own. Until 2000, I had been been in one relationship after another, all of them nearly overlapping, going all the way back to junior high school. So what I had to figure out was how to be on my own without being lonely and, more importantly, how to create relationships (family, friends, lovers, etc.) on my own.

Reading in bars, restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops BY MYSELF was the answer. And over the last 6 years I've found a number of perfect places for outside reading.

What I need for a perfect place is:
a) natural light since most places dim their lights to preserve the bar-fly atmosphere for which Chicago is famous
b) comfy seats with plenty of space for my bag, books, palm pilot, notebooks, pens, and, of course, victuals,
c) an accommodating staff that doesn't immediately assume that you're a creepy, lonely guy,
d) a solid contingent of regular customers who also don't immediately assume that you're a creepy, lonely guy and don't take offense when what I'm reading is more interesting than the idle chit-chat, and
e) smoking which is getting more and more difficult with the creeping smoking ban instituted by our otherwise beloved mayor.
Beyond that, each of the perfect places I've found has its own unique and often peculiar qualities from outside reading. The Grafton, for instance, is my favorite by far. It opened just after I got here, replacing a seedy sports bar that was really only good for finding late night, provisional hook ups. The light is phenomenal, the seats comfy, and the staff as well as the regulars are very accommodating. The only problem recently has been it's growing popularity with the kind of folks, typically from the hipster'hoods, coming in to see and be seen.

When I get too many inquiries about what I'm reading; as if the book were an invitation for idle chit-chat rather than a request for solitude, I'll usually head up north to The Leadway. It too used to be a seedy place before Frank, an affable Romanian sculptor, bought it. He's filled it with his huge metal sculptures and tons of watercolors done in the bar by customers for which he provides the materials gratis.

But the really cool thing about it is that the bartenders, mostly Romanians, and the regulars, mostly neighbors, are about as laid back as you can get in a local Chicago bar. If you read, no worries. If you want to talk politics, no hassles. If you want to watch heavy metal videos, you're in like Flynn.

I'll be returning with two other perfect places over the next couple of posts. Since I don't plan the word count, this has turned out longer than I wanted. BTW, if you want to know why I wound up among so many Filipino students you can go here.

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Books, Bicyles, and Isaiah Berlin

When I moved to Chicago in 2000, I brought with me over a thousand books. The challenge for the movers was getting them up four flights of stairs without the benefit of an elevator. They brought the boxes up three or four at a time on their backs supported by a tump line. They asked why I had so many god-damned books. I said they were my tools just like good mechanics who have their own personal set of wrenches they would never go anywhere without. More on that later...

I also came with a red Saturn Coup. It sat in front of the apartment gathering dust and bird shit for two years as I took full advantage of the CTA. I finally got rid of the Saturn when the Connecticut Department of Revenue (where I had moved from) sent me the annual luxury tax assessment on it. I paid the tax and cancelled the lease which was a stupid idea to have in the first place. And then I got a 1957 Raleigh 3-speed Robin Hood from the Working Bikes Co-operative down on the southside. And it's been "two wheels good, four wheels bad" ever since. More on that later...

What does any of this have to do with Sir Isaiah Berlin?

That's what this blog is for. A large proportion of my 1000+ books deals with the very issues Berlin raised in his long career in the UK as the 20th Century's greatest liberal philosopher. Borrowing from the Greek poet, Archilochus, Berlin divided his fellow philosophers into two groups: the foxes who know many things and the hedgehogs who know one big thing. Most of us who love to think about the world around us struggle over whether we're one or the other ... or perhaps both from time to time. And that's why I've started this blog: I'm a fox who wishes that he were a hedgehog. Besides, putting his ideas together with books and bicycles is something your typical fox would do.

DEFINITELY, more on that later...

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