(In which Mary Schmich responds!)

I’ll just leave this here.

mary schmich tweet

(She was responding to this, but I would just like to note that Ms. Schmich does not, typically, reply on Twitter). (Ahem).

/does former papergirl happy dance/

On pumpkin season – in which I seek to allay Mary Schmich’s autumnal worries.

Yesterday I sat in my living room and read the Sunday paper — on actual paper, as one does, if one has any remaining sense of decency and/or culture.

The Chicago Tribune is so small these days, shrunken in both page size and page numbers as bean counters continue to try to mitigate the damage done by Sam Zell and an entire culture that held that it was reasonable to expect a 20-30% return in print news, even as new technologies were changing our very understanding of the word “print.” When I delivered the Tribune as a young girl in sleeply suburban Lake Bluff, the Sunday paper was so massive that the delivery process could break your back, and if not your back then your bike, and if not your bike, then at the very least the panniers in which you had cram-jammed as many copies as you could fit for your first trip out on a frost-aired morning.

I’m sure veteran Tribune columnist Mary Schmich remembers those papers, and I’d guess that like me, she remembers them fondly — aside from her column duties, Schmich was also the writer of Brenda Starr for 25 years, and back when the Sunday paper weighed a ton, the comics pages were broad as a river, their brightness a kind of beacon amid the black and white spread across and tumbling off the coffee table. Although I often argue that the good old days weren’t actually all that good, some things really were better once upon a time. The Sunday paper is a sterling example. Nostalgia isn’t always wrong.

In yesterday’s Sunday paper, though, Mary Schmich argued for a different kind of nostalgia, one with which, alas, I cannot agree. In the course of a sweet rumination on the beauty of October in Chicago, she expressed frustration with the fact that pumpkins have become big business. “There was a time,” she wrote, “when a pumpkin was a pumpkin.”

Carve it up, stick a candle in, make a pumpkin pie. The humble pumpkin, however, has morphed into a marketing monster.

Autumn as Pumpkinpalooza.

There are pumpkin lattes (Starbucks). Pumpkin bagels (Einstein Bros). Pumpkin pie doughnuts (Dunkin’ Donuts). Pumpkin cheesecake doughnuts (Krispy Kreme). Pumpkin pie blizzards (Dairy Queen).

Schmich goes on to present an incomplete list of the pumpkin-flavored items currently available at Trader Joe’s — and though it is incomplete, the list numbers 14 items. It’s hard to argue with her logic.

Indeed, I’ve also been known to shake a metaphorical fist at pumpkins — and also in the general direction of inflatable lawn ornaments, a month’s worth of Halloween programming on Disney Channel, and the annual roll-out of “sexy” costumes for girls aged roughly toddler and up. Gentle reader, if you know me at all, you know me as a shaker of fists.

But lately I find myself taking a different approach to the Pumpkinization and/or Halloweenization Of Everything, because though it represents marketing run amok, though it encourages the sale of neon-green spider “webs” and bedazzled purple “spiders,” though the very idea of pumpkin in coffee is an outrage that should have coffee growers rioting in the streets — it’s all rooted in the season in which we happen to find ourselves, not the one that’s still two months down the road.

Moreover, not only is Pumpkinpalooza an entirely autumnal affair, not only does it fend off the frantic selling of The Holidays until at least November 1, not only does it mean that I can re-stock my supply of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix (note: pumpkin pancakes are not an outrage) — it’s also completely American and utterly without import.

Christmas actually means something, and that something is a thing which many Americans do not celebrate or in which they find no meaning, and much as we rabbit on about “the holidays,” as if to include Hanukkah and the New Year, we all know which holiday is king.

And I’m kind of ok with that. I’m Jewish, but that just means that I’m in the minority — as are the atheists, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Muslims, and all the many, many Americans for whom Christmas is not their jam. The vast majority of our American brothers and sisters celebrate Christmas some way or another, and the captains of industry long ago realized they could make a buck off of joy. So ok: From November 1st, it’s red and green as far as the eye can see.

But in October, everyone can just be a regular American. Whatever All Hallows Eve once meant, modern-day Halloween no longer means anything even remotely similar, and the pumpkin in our foodstuffs means even less. It’s just a kind of collective silliness, an enjoyment of frivolity and sugar, with a nod to the harvest and bounty and your unalienable right to scary yourself silly. I can drive around with my kids, gaping at houses bedecked in Halloween ghoulery, and feel that nothing but my own curmudgeonly and mildly lazy character stands between me and my neighbors. I can love the smell of fall leaves and secretly miss the smell of them burning, eat too much candy corn and be grateful it’s a once-a-year thing, and freely mock Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiasts with fellow cranks everywhere.

So Ms. Schmich, let me just say: I, too, remember the days before Pumpkinpalooza, and I agree there is a certain shine to the memory. But mostly what our new fall traditions have done (in addition to further lining some well-lined pockets) is carve out a little breathing space for the here and now, to be equally shared by all Americans. It’s ok.

And just in case you might want to come over someday for pumpkin-free coffee and an Airing of Grievances about inflatable ghosts, I’ll save you a chair. I’ll even share the comics.

Killed, halfway home.

I live in a lovely, upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago known for its trees, its schools, and its diversity. We’re also known for the safety of our streets, but we live at the edge of chaos, on the literal border of one of the city’s poorest, roughest neighborhoods. Literally: On one side of my town’s eastern border you’ll find our tony little arugula enclave; on the other, abandoned buildings and schools with no libraries.

We are safe here, but occasionally the chaos leaks out and across the street. Over the course of 15 years, I can think of five murders that took place within a few blocks of my home or my regular haunts, all of them Chicago’s violence spread west. These events don’t frighten me, because they don’t belong to me. Someone ran, someone followed. They’re not my story, however heartbreaking they may be.

But last night the chaos leaked out and took the life of a 14 year old boy.

Damani Henard’s family had moved from that rougher, tougher neighborhood to my town, so that he could go to high school here. He had ridden his bike into the city to visit friends and was, according to the Chicago Tribune, “about halfway home” when he was shot in the head and killed, apparently instantly.

That family lives blocks from my home. That boy was enrolled in our high school, would have ridden his bike down the same streets that my boy will walk come fall. His family had done what they could to make him safe, and they probably figured that a 15 minute bike ride down a well-lit, major thoroughfare was safe, too.

But they were wrong. Someone else — also a teenager, a 19 year old young woman named Ashley Hardmon — was shot and killed less than an hour earlier, not far from where Damani was killed. His mom figures her boy was collateral damage. “He coincidentally had on black,” she told reporters — as if, in a functional world, that would in any way consign a boy to death. But the world we live in is not functional.

This is not my story. This was Chicago’s violence. It spilled over again, through the tiny hole of a woman and a family trying to get away. Damani Henard was not my son.

But this is my story. This is my violence. That woman ran to my town to keep her boy alive, and the world in which we both live reached out and snatched him from her. Damani was my boy, just as much as every child in the streets of Chicago and across this grieving nation are my children, the children of all the adults who fail them again and again, unto death. This is what a nation awash with guns looks like: Dead children.

I’ve written before that white privilege is sending your son out into the world without the fear that he will not return — at the time I was referring to state-mandated violence, but race lies deep within the heart of this story, too. Who are Chicago’s poor? What neighborhoods go under-protected by Chicago’s police? What color are the families doing the fleeing? My black neighbors — the upper middle class ones, the professional ones, the ones who dress like me and talk like me and who send their boys to private schools because our high school, the school to which Damani was coming for shelter, doesn’t always serve its black boys well — they know far better than me that class and geography don’t always suffice. Their boys don’t have to be poor, don’t have to be surrounded by gangs, to be in danger. They just have to live inside their skins.

I made my son a cheese sandwich for lunch today. I held him as tight as I could without making him suspicious, without weeping. Damani’s mother will never hold him again.

“Staggering worker caseloads…”.

The Illinois General Assembly is in session this week, and they’re looking at actually putting more than $900 million back into the budget, a small piece of it intended for the Department of Children and Family Services. In a bill sponsored by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago),

nearly $25 million would go to the Department of Children and Family Services [DCFS]. The agency’s budget had been reduced by nearly $90 million.

The increase would allow the agency to avoid deep layoffs that had threatened Director Richard Calica’s reorganization plan, agency spokesman Dave Clarkin said. The ongoing child welfare department shuffle includes shoring up the critical frontline with 138 additional child-protection investigators, reducing middle-management positions and deploying recruitment specialists across the state to help move children more quickly out of the foster care system and into permanent homes.

The Tribune has reported staggering DCFS worker caseloads, overdue investigations, a clogged child abuse hot line, untimely day care inspections and troubling child deaths that raised questions about whether more could have been done to intervene.

“Troubling child deaths…”.

If you live in Illinois, you can help by calling your state representatives to tell them you want to see the DCFS budget restored — and if you don’t know who your state representatives are, or what district you’re in (which I’d say is a pretty regular occurrence at the state level) you can call 217-782-4141 to find out. (Plus which: State legislators get a lot fewer calls than their national counterparts do – your call has an even bigger impact when you’re calling downstate). (Or upstate. You know).

Links:

Please, please: Call.

Tales of an 11 year old papergirl.

(I was, of course, a girl. And on a bike. But just try to find that statue).

(I was, of course, a girl. And on a bike. But just try to find that statue).

Chicago got its first real snow of the season this morning, so I think it’s just the right day for this…. An ode to print media, young girls, and small towns.

*****

I used to deliver newspapers.

First it was the Chicago Daily News, then, when that venerable afternoon institution folded, the Chicago Tribune. I was about 11, 12-ish (the age my boy is now, and I occasionally ask him why he hasn’t yet found gainful employ), though I’m not sure of the exact stop and start dates.

I had a paper-girl’s bike with a huge metal basket in front and metal panniers on the sides; if I didn’t remove the papers evenly as I went along, the bike would topple over, newspaper sections slithering out and sliding across lawns. Sometimes it would topple over anyway.

I always placed each individual paper carefully between the storm and front doors; if a person’s storm was locked, I would find some other safe place to tuck it. By the end of my route, my hands would be blackened by the newsprint, a particular kind of smeary black that dries the skin and transfers itself onto everything you might subsequently touch.

I hated it.

Not just the filthy hands, but the whole experience — oh my God, I hated delivering newspapers.

I remember promising myself that I would never allow my own children to do it, because if they did, I would occasionally get saddled with the task, and I was not going to ever deliver papers again — and this from a girl growing up in a house where the mom only ever took over your job if you were literally unable to do it. It was, after all, my job — unlike some newspaper pansies, my mom didn’t throw me in the station wagon to get it done of a morning.

That was the worst of it, really. The mornings.

I didn’t like the afternoon Daily News route — it was lonely and boring, and kind of embarrassing, if you ran across someone from school, or some damn friendly adult that you knew. I would talk to myself, make up stories, essentially play make-believe at an age when I think most kids weren’t doing that anymore. It was on my paper route that I was Magna Woman, a superhero whose power came from a mysteriously exotic (if cheap) ring that I had purchased at the Field Museum on a field trip.

But the morning route — oh good God, that was just a whole other level of misery. For a child in the Midwest, it not only meant god-awful alarm-clock setting, it also mostly meant Dark.

Even if dawn arrived while I was out, I started my day in pitch black, a lighting scheme that at the time still frightened me. I seem to recall having to talk myself down daily from some inchoate fear.

And the cold. Oh God, I was always cold! I don’t have a single memory of not being cold on my morning route — and surely there were spring and summer mornings, as well. But they don’t remain. Just the cold, and the dark, and the lonely streets, and the whirligig mind of an imaginative 11 year old. Twelve year old.

One day it was about like it is as of this writing (the high for Chicago: 8, the actual temperature: 2, and the windchill? -20), and when I got to the Currens’ house, I found a note. “Emily – Ring the bell. There’s hot cocoa waiting.”

The Currens were my grandparents’ good friends, lovely people who I was always happy to see myself whenever I happened to helping out at one of my grandmother’s famous and well-loved grown-up parties. I would walk around in my best outfit with trays of crackers, and some people would look me in the 11 year old eyes, and some people wouldn’t. Some people would know the right way to be friendly, and some people wouldn’t. The Currens were always in the first group.

But it’s my sense that the Currens would have made hot cocoa for anyone who happened to arrive with a folded newspaper in sub-zero weather — they were that kind of people. When I think of them, pretty much all I see are belted robes, broad smiles, and eyes like welcome signs.

I sat, I drank, and Mr. Curren took me around on the rest of my route (here the grandparent connection might have played a role). If memory serves, they did this for me one other time, as well, each time saying “Oh, you’re welcome, Emily! Any time!”

And I know they meant it, because the one time I knocked in spite of there not being a note, in spite of the fact that it was a balmy 17 degrees or maybe 23, they wiped the sleep from their eyes and put the pot on the stove. They were good people, the Currens.

God I hated that route. But there remains within me a powerful sense of pride that I did it, that I was good at it, and that I later got a chance to actually write for the paper that I had delivered. For the girl with the topple-over bike, that was quite a heady thing.

And the Currens gave me cocoa and smiles on days like today, in the middle of coldest, darkest winter.

Blessings of the season.

My now-annual holiday post, an essay I wrote for the Chicago Tribune a few years back. If you’re celebrating, have a wonderful and very merry Christmas — and if not, I hope you have a really terrific Tuesday!

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem; Christmas c. 1930s

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem; Christmas c. 1930s

It’s about bringing light into dark places, isn’t it?

As I understand the winter holidays, our Holy Days, this is what they mean: Hope, life, tomorrow. Light, where there was none.

That’s what we mean at my house when we light our menorah, and that’s what we talk about with the kids. For eight nights, after saying the blessings, we sing a sweet, rousing song in Hebrew that announces to the darkness that it shall have no quarter: “Each of us is a small candle,” we sing. “Together, we are a great light.”

And though I am not a Christian, it seems to me that that is what Jesus’s birth means, too. Light in dark places, a small baby who brought hope to millions. “The weary world rejoices,” goes Oh Holy Night, one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, “for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

And Kwanza? I’m white, but it seems to me that lighting candles to remember the struggles of the Black people, to reflect on unity, and to anticipate the future triumph over oppression is a statement of hope most deep.

There is so much darkness in the world, there always has been. But God – or Nature, or our own collective Best Self – has given us the tools to drive it back. The Jewish tradition speaks of tikkun olam, repairing the world in conjunction with the Almighty. This is our job, our highest calling. To quote another song, “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.”

And indeed, we are not the same. Our holidays are not the same, and even within our communities, our understanding of those holidays is not always the same. But in our own ways, we all seek a brighter tomorrow, a world without war, without hunger, without despair. And these holidays, even the ones that are not in my own heritage, can serve to remind me of that – as well as reminding me that there are many ways of battling evil and wrong, and that we need all of them.

We were created in a mighty multitude, and I believe God knew what He was doing when He made us different. Different brings creativity, it brings unknown joys, it brings solutions. I don’t need you to light candles at my house to believe that you are doing what you can to make the world a better place.

Every year at about this time, we hear over and over again, as we rush about our business,  that we don’t focus enough on “what really matters.” We hear from Jews who are sick of being wished a Merry Christmas, Christians who believe that one could, actually, take the Christ out of Christmas, and worshippers of the Simple who decry the cultural trappings of the whole thing. Our national anxiety about being made a victim comes to the top, and it isn’t pretty.

We need to stop. Take a nap, maybe have a cookie, and then look at each other. We’re trying our best, almost all of us, I’m certain. Sure we need to focus on “what really matters,” but bottom line, that’s what we’re trying to do.

We’re human, so sometimes we don’t do it very well. But I am certain that when my Christian neighbors tell me “Merry Christmas,” they’re just wishing me well. And when parents buy a lot of plastic for their kids, they’re just hoping for that up-from-the-gut smile that only a kid can give. Neither of these things are bad; neither of them can reduce in any way the power of the Divine to guide and comfort us.

And after all of this is behind us, it will be a new year. Let’s agree to fill it with hope, and with as much light as we can muster, for the victims of Katrina who are still without homes; for the people living with AIDS in African shanty-towns; for Israeli and Palestinian children who are growing up afraid; for the women of Darfur who cannot get water for their families for fear they will be raped. The world is a dark place; we are the ones who can bring the light in.

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer living in Oak Park.

(C) Chicago Tribune, 2005

Tales of an 11 year old papergirl.

I posted this last year, and I think it might become an annual thing…. An ode to print media, young girls, and small towns.

(I was, of course, a girl. And on a bike. But just try to find that statue).

I used to deliver newspapers.

First it was the Chicago Daily News, then, when that venerable afternoon institution folded, the Chicago Tribune. I was about 11, 12-ish (the age my boy is now, and I occasionally ask him why he hasn’t yet found gainful employ), though I’m not sure of the exact stop and start dates.

I had a paper-girl’s bike with a huge metal basket in front and metal panniers on the sides; if I didn’t remove the papers evenly as I went along, the bike would topple over, newspaper sections slithering out and sliding across lawns. Sometimes it would topple over anyway.

I always placed each individual paper carefully between the storm and front doors; if a person’s storm was locked, I would find some other safe place to tuck it. By the end of my route, my hands would be blackened by the newsprint, a particular kind of smeary black that dries the skin and transfers itself onto everything you might subsequently touch.

I hated it.

Not just the filthy hands, but the whole experience — oh my God, I hated delivering newspapers.

I remember promising myself that I would never allow my own children to do it, because if they did, I would occasionally get saddled with the task, and I was not going to ever deliver papers again — and this from a girl growing up in a house where the mom only ever took over your job if you were literally unable to do it. It was, after all, my job — unlike some newspaper pansies, my mom didn’t throw me in the station wagon to get it done of a morning.

That was the worst of it, really. The mornings.

I didn’t like the afternoon Daily News route — it was lonely and boring, and kind of embarrassing, if you ran across someone from school, or some damn friendly adult that you knew. I would talk to myself, make up stories, essentially play make-believe at an age when I think most kids weren’t doing that anymore. It was on my paper route that I was Magna Woman, a superhero whose power came from a mysteriously exotic (if cheap) ring that I had purchased at the Field Museum on a field trip.

But the morning route — oh good God, that was just a whole other level of misery. For a child in the Midwest, it not only meant god-awful alarm-clock setting, it also mostly meant Dark.

Even if dawn arrived while I was out, I started my day in pitch black, a lighting scheme that at the time still frightened me. I seem to recall having to talk myself down daily from some inchoate fear.

And the cold. Oh God, I was always cold! I don’t have a single memory of not being cold on my morning route — and surely there were spring and summer mornings, as well. But they don’t remain. Just the cold, and the dark, and the lonely streets, and the whirligig mind of an imaginative 11 year old. Twelve year old.

One day it was about like it is as of this writing (the high for Chicago: 8, the actual temperature: 2, and the windchill? -20), and when I got to the Currens’ house, I found a note. “Emily – Ring the bell. There’s hot cocoa waiting.”

The Currens were my grandparents’ good friends, lovely people who I was always happy to see myself whenever I happened to helping out at one of my grandmother’s famous and well-loved grown-up parties. I would walk around in my best outfit with trays of crackers, and some people would look me in the 11 year old eyes, and some people wouldn’t. Some people would know the right way to be friendly, and some people wouldn’t. The Currens were always in the first group.

But it’s my sense that the Currens would have made hot cocoa for anyone who happened to arrive with a folded newspaper in sub-zero weather — they were that kind of people. When I think of them, pretty much all I see are belted robes, broad smiles, and eyes like welcome signs.

I sat, I drank, and Mr. Curren took me around on the rest of my route (here the grandparent connection might have played a role). If memory serves, they did this for me one other time, as well, each time saying “Oh, you’re welcome, Emily! Any time!”

And I know they meant it, because the one time I knocked in spite of there not being a note, in spite of the fact that it was a balmy 17 degrees or maybe 23, they wiped the sleep from their eyes and put the pot on the stove. They were good people, the Currens.

God I hated that route. But there remains within me a powerful sense of pride that I did it, that I was good at it, and that I later got a chance to actually write for the paper that I had delivered. For the girl with the topple-over bike, that was quite a heady thing.

And the Currens gave me cocoa and smiles on days like today, in the middle of coldest, darkest winter.

All the news that’s fit.

(I was, of course, a girl. And on a bike. But just try to find that statue).

I used to deliver newspapers.

First it was the Chicago Daily News, then, when that venerable afternoon institution folded, the Chicago Tribune. I was about 11, 12-ish (the age my boy is now, and I occasionally ask him why he hasn’t yet found gainful employ), though I’m not sure of the exact stop and start dates.

I had a paper-girl’s bike with a huge metal basket in front and metal panniers on the sides; if I didn’t remove the papers evenly as I went along, the bike would topple over, newspaper sections slithering out and sliding across lawns. Sometimes it would topple over anyway.

I always placed each individual paper carefully between the storm and front doors; if a person’s storm was locked, I would find some other safe place to tuck it. By the end of my route, my hands would be blackened by the newsprint, a particular kind of smeary black that dries the skin and transfers itself onto everything you might subsequently touch.

I hated it.

Not just the filthy hands, but the whole experience — oh my God, I hated delivering newspapers.

I remember promising myself that I would never allow my own children to do it, because if they did, I would occasionally get saddled with the task, and I was not going to ever deliver papers again — and this from a girl growing up in a house where the mom only ever took over your job if you were literally unable to do it. It was, after all, my job — unlike some newspaper pansies, my mom didn’t throw me in the station wagon to get it done of a morning.

That was the worst of it, really. The mornings.

I didn’t like the afternoon Daily News route — it was lonely and boring, and kind of embarrassing, if you ran across someone from school, or some damn friendly adult that you knew. I would talk to myself, make up stories, essentially play make-believe at an age when I think most kids weren’t doing that anymore. It was on my paper route that I was Magna Woman, a superhero whose power came from a mysteriously exotic (if cheap) ring that I had purchased at the Field Museum on a field trip.

But the morning route — oh good God, that was just a whole other level of misery. For a child in the Midwest, it not only meant god-awful alarm-clock setting, it also mostly meant Dark.

Even if dawn arrived while I was out, I started my day in pitch black, a lighting scheme that at the time still frightened me. I seem to recall having to talk myself down daily from some inchoate fear.

And the cold. Oh God, I was always cold! I don’t have a single memory of not being cold on my morning route — and surely there were spring and summer mornings, as well. But they don’t remain. Just the cold, and the dark, and the lonely streets, and the whirligig mind of an imaginative 11 year old. Twelve year old.

One day it was about like it is right now (at some point today I heard that the high for Chicago was 8, the actual temperature was 2, and the windchill was -20), and when I got to the Currens’ house, I found a note. “Emily – Ring the bell. There’s hot cocoa waiting.”

The Currens were my grandparents’ good friends, lovely people who I was always happy to see myself whenever I happened to helping out at one of my grandmother’s famous and well-loved grown-up parties. I would walk around in my best outfit with trays of crackers, and some people would look me in the 11 year old eyes, and some people wouldn’t. Some people would know the right way to be friendly, and some people wouldn’t. The Currens were always in the first group.

But it’s my sense that the Currens would have made hot cocoa for anyone who happened to arrive with a folded newspaper in sub-zero weather — they were that kind of people. When I think of them, pretty much all I see are belted robes, broad smiles, and eyes like welcome signs.

I sat, I drank, and Mr. Curren took me around on the rest of my route (here the grandparent connection might have played a role). If memory serves, they did this for me one other time, as well, each time saying “Oh, you’re welcome, Emily! Any time!”

And I know they meant it, because the one time I knocked in spite of there not being a note, in spite of the fact that it was a balmy 17 degrees or maybe 23, they wiped the sleep from their eyes and put the pot on the stove. They were good people, the Currens.

God I hated that route. But there remains within me a powerful sense of pride that I did it, that I was good at it, and that I later got a chance to actually write for the paper that I had delivered. For the girl with the topple-over bike, that was quite a heady thing.

And the Currens gave me cocoa and smiles on days like today, in the middle of coldest, darkest winter.

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