Archive | December, 2012

It’s time to change, America

19 Dec

The Sandy Hook mass murder has me just thinking constantly. In one way, I guess I’m blessed that I don’t have little kids anymore as I just can’t imagine dropping a kid of 7 years old, all sweet and cuddly and happy, at the bus stop or at school, and the next thing you know, that was the last moment you had with your child, ever and you are headed to the morgue to identify that cute, cuddly person’s body, now bloodied and shot full of holes by a deranged man with an assault rifle.  My sons are 20, 17 and 17. Yes, all three of them are still in schools – with Joel at University of Illinois and Alex and Brian finishing up high school this year. In an abstract way, they are still my kids and still in danger, but they are also all three such grown men that again, thinking of them as those kids in Newtown, CT is an abstraction.

Instead, I find myself ruminating on the question that’s boiling around the edges of this tragedy – when are we ever going to learn and enact meaningful regulation and controls on the firearms in this country? How many more Columbines, UVAs, Northern Illinois’s, Auroras, and Sandy Hooks, are we, as a society going to tolerate until we decide enough is enough? And the conversation needs to go beyond guns – it needs to also go to our healthcare system in this country, where still, in this day and age, mental illness is something that we have to fight to be able to fight it.

There are too many issues to tackle in one sitting here, so let’s go to the guns.

As most people that know me, know … I’m very much a liberal. If you have me take one of those tests that gauges where you are on the left-to-right scale, I’m well left of our President and I make even Ralph Nader appear centrist. But one area that confounds most people (and believe me, some of the conservative jackwagons on Facebook have attempted to goad me into arguing on this only to learn they are wrong about me) is that I’m not for banning firearms. I do have to say, I do not believe that the second amendment, as it is interpreted by the guns and ammunition manufacturers’ professional mouthpiece organization, the NRA (which, doesn’t give one shit about gun owners, but instead represents the firearms manufacturing industry), is designed to ensure that we as Americans have a right to own guns and defend our property. Which is absolutely untrue. James Madison specifically wrote that amendment in support of ensuring that as the nation expanded, that locally, we’d have well-armed and equipped militias to defend our newly acquired territories from those who might dispute the fact that we’ve expanded into it. It’s right there in the language of it. The idea of projecting force as widely as was necessary to defend our rapidly expanding borders was absurd, and so this was a way to do it without killing our fledgling government under the weight of a rapidly expanding national military, and empowering those out on the outer edge of the expanding border to be able to defend themselves. A great analysis on this is here: http://news.yahoo.com/madison-never-meant-second-amendment-allow-guns-sandy-174733267–politics.html

So, that brings us to today, in the post-Columbine/Aurora/UVA/Sandy Hook/Tucson/etc. world. And my beliefs, and where I believe we need to go. First, my beliefs on firearms.

I didn’t grow up in a gun-owning family. My mom was firmly in the camp of “Ralphie, you’ll shoot your eye out!” when I feverishly asked for a Daisy “”Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock …”. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying shooting sports whenever I could. I went trap shooting with our neighbors, even went pheasant hunting once with our neighbors, became a pretty damn good shot with other kids’ “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifles”, did “plinking” with my grandfather’s 16 gauge Winchester shotgun out in the country in high school, etc. As an adult, I’ve gone skeet, trap, sporting clay, handgun target, rifle shooting at professional clubs and ranges with friends, and in fact am currently scheduled to go on a Living Social “Shooting and Drinking” experience where they bus you over to Southwest Michigan from Chicago to a range in Benton Harbor, MI, you go shooting for an hour or two, then head to lunch and to have beers at a microbrewery on the way back. Sounds like a fun day!

Additionally, my twin high-school age sons are interested in weaponry and have gotten into Air Soft as a hobby – both of them have bought top-of-the line gas-powered air soft hand guns and rifles, and go to air soft events, which are similar to the para-military, run around a field hiding behind stuff and shooting at people events like paintball but the weapons are far more realistic-looking and also are accurate in weight, feel and operation to “real” guns. They have learned appropriate gun safety with it.

So obviously, I’m OK being around guns, and well, I’m OK with owning them. Within limits. And right now, we have no limits. I think we have to do a number of key things in order to reduce this problem we have here in the United States of too many weapons in too many of the wrong folks’ hands. And unlike the conservative jackwagon faction, I do not believe that more guns in more peoples’ hands is the answer.

That said, let’s make sure that we also point out one simple fact: there is no reason whatsoever that the assault rifle ban should have been allowed to expire in 2004. Someone should grab that fucking idiot George Bush and take him directly to Sandy Hook elementary school and walk him around and rub his nose in all the blood that was spilled as a result of his allowing that ban to expire. That .233 Bushmaster assault rifle was bought legally, post ban-expiration. The 30 and 50-round clips for it and for the 9mm Glock and the 10mm Sig Sauer the shooter used were also bought legally under the failed ban. Make him see the results of his completely-stupid policy decision. If anything angers me the most here about this one, it is this single item. Yes, you can argue “but he would have done it any way” – and maybe so, but he wouldn’t have gotten off hundreds of rounds, little kids wouldn’t have had 12, 15, 20 bullet wounds in them, he probably wouldn’t have even been able to shoot his way through the door to start with if all had were 9mm and 10mm handguns. So the policy: Ban all assault rifles of all kinds, and require a turn-in for anyone who has bought one since the ban. Pissed off you spent the money on it? Tough shit. You shouldn’t have.

So, what do we do?

  1. We have to be diligent about gun ownership in households where there is a mentally-ill person present. I know this is tough to police and a bitch to enforce, but I just don’t get his mother’s judgment – she’s a gun enthusiast, and she has a son who was known to be mentally ill, known to be withdrawn, known to be anti-social and was being treated for mental illness? WTF? REALLY? As we get into licensing, this has to be an issue: No issuing of gun licenses to anyone who lives in a household where there is someone who is currently or has been treated in the last five years for an anti-social mental illness. I’ll let the experts decide what that is. Or at the very least, if you want to own guns and you have someone in the house that’s mentally ill, then you cannot keep the guns there, period.
  2. Licensing: It makes no sense to me that a grandma cannot go into a Walgreens to buy some Sudafed for her stuffy nose without showing her state-issued photo ID card and without hand-signing a registration form, and without a record being kept of it, while in the vast majority of states in the US, you can buy ammunition as easily as you can buy a Snickers bar. The shooter in the Sandy Hook case (I am not using his name on purpose) bought more than 6000 rounds of ammo in the six weeks prior to the event through a combination of retail store visits and online sales. And this was in a state that’s supposedly tighter than most. Can you imagine if this were in Texas? Therefore, I propose the following licensing system:
    1. Anyone who owns or wants to buy firearms or ammunition must apply for and have issued to them a Firearms Owners ID Card – we have these in Illinois – they are called a FOID card. To get a FOID card, you must apply for it online and then law enforcement and the regulatory folks who issue them run a thorough background check on you to ensure you’re someone who should get it. They can mirror the Illinois system and this will work well. This will create a database of legally-registered firearms owners or potential owners. That said, I’d enhance it by requiring annual renewals, which force an automatic background check, and an annual fee to keep it, the scale of which is designed to create the funds to run the background check. It should NOT be cheap – at least $75 per year.
    2. If you own a gun, you must register it with the government and registration of it will be then tracked to your Federally-issued FOID card. To register your gun at either purchase or post-enactment of these new laws, you must:
      1. Pass a federally-designed written firearms safety knowledge test.
      2. Take out and provide proof of coverage of a liability insurance policy that provides for $1 million in liability coverage should you shoot anyone with your gun in either anger or accident.
      3. Provide proof of having taken an NRA-designed and administered/Gov’t approved (see, I cut the NRA in on this so that they now have their sole motivation, money, taken care of and will support this) firearms safety course.
      4. Pay a hefty registration fee that is indexed to your gun’s firepower (cheap 22 cal handguns, not much. 45 cal. Hand cannons … $$$$).
      5. And annually:
        1. Pay the registration fee again to renew it
      6. And every three years:
        1. Take the written test again and qualify it.
      7. For each additional gun you own, you must:
        1. Register it and pay the fee
        2. Demonstrate safe usage to a qualified inspector.
    3. Gun purchases:
      1. Guns may ONLY be purchased by Federally-licensed gun dealers. No gun shows whatsoever unless operated or filled with federally-approved dealers. If indeed gun shows are allowed to happen, every purchase is tracked, and you cannot take the gun home that you bought – the vendor must ship it to you, see point iii below.
      2. Guns may not be sold individual-to-individual. Period. If you want to sell a gun, arrange to have a gun dealer consign it for you for a small fee so that the purchase is tracked. Since the new owner must register it to be legal, that’s effective prohibition against that.
      3. Purchasing ANY gun of any kind is subject to an automatic 2 week waiting period, no exception. You make the purchase, and two weeks later you can pick it up. During those two weeks, you are required to register and if you haven’t done it before, take the test and take the skills class. Can’t get the gun until those items are checked off.
    4. Who can own guns:
      1. 21 years of age or older. If you’re not old enough to drink you’re not old enough to fire a gun. Period.
      2. If you live in a household where there is a mentally-ill person (again, not my job to figure out what that means) then you may not house your guns in that home, period. You must find another place to store them. Not even a gun safe or locker is acceptable.
      3. If you have anyone under the age of 18 living in your home, every gun must have a trigger lock, and your home must have a gun safe. Hard to police, but you can enforce ownership of it at least.
      4. Convicted of any felony, state or federal? Too bad. Turn in your guns and you will never, ever own another one.

I realize that this is very, very far reaching and I could go on and on further with this. But at the end of the day, people who SAY that they are responsible gun owners are going to have to acquiesce that we as a society need to do this. The answer to gun violence is not more guns, it is less, and it is proven across the world. If you want to own a lethal weapon, then license yourself to use it, license the gun itself, pay to take education to know how to use it, renew both your personal license and the gun’s license periodically and you can have it.

Just like that other lethal weapon that you’ll hop in at some point today: Your car.

We have to change. I have sent this blueprint to a number of politicians. I hope some piece of it makes it into law. Even one item is better than the anarchy we have now.

As you were,

Stew

Advertisements

Flexible Holidays

17 Dec

An interesting thing about being someone who made a drastic change in religious faith – Christianity/Protestant to Judaism – is the concept of the holidays. As I was making my very slow progress into choosing to be Jewish – a process that took more than 20 years – much was always talked about with “the December Dilemma” – aka “to tree or not to tree, that is the question.” That’s a topic onto itself, but an additional observance I made is the different viewpoints on the importance of dates to holidays.

As you may or may not know, Jewish life follows a lunar calendar, which means that, in reference to the standard calendar we all follow, Jewish holidays jump all over the place – one year Rosh Hashanah is in early October, another it will be right after Labor Day (2013 happens to be one of those years), Hanukkah sometimes starts right after Thanksgiving, other years practically runs into New Years, etc. Contrast this to the standard calendar and how Christianity has “fixed” dates into the calendar for Christmas (although curiously, the whole Easter season still “floats”), and what that means for celebrations.

Growing up in a Presbyterian household, of course, we were all about Christmas – and my mom and sister’s families still are. The families gather on Christmas eve, and Christmas morning, and everyone gets together for Christmas dinner, etc. All this happens with perfect regularity on December 24th and 25th. Meanwhile, contrast that to our Jewish holiday traditions – now always, we celebrate high holy days on the dates proscribed, and same with Passover – mostly because those are more “outward” holidays, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being devoted to prayer and reflection in the synagogues, and while Passover is “in home”, it is focused on specific dates when we gather with family and friends to retell the ancient stories of Passover and eat the traditional foods.

Hanukkah, being a minor “festival of lights” holiday that somehow got cast to compete with Christmas, and therefore is amplified into something way more important than the sages who created the holiday thought it should be, also though, like all Jewish holidays, floats in date. And of course, because it last 8 days, it also tends to be much more vague in terms of scheduling. Nonetheless, Jewish families in the US (and presumably elsewhere, though the “alternate Christmas” is more of a USA phenomenon than anywhere else) use it as an opportunity to gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, etc.

That said, because it occurs at a time of year that is a) busy as hell, b) already has built in Federal/work holidays, etc., many take the opportunity determine for themselves when they celebrate it. They light the obligatory candles on the proscribed dates of course, and many families do small/daily gift exchanges during that time, but because kids have schedules, families have schedules, etc., doing a big Christmas-style family gathering over a meal and gift exchange is pretty often scheduled conveniently, versus within the “8 crazy nights” of Hanukkah.

Examples of this are everywhere and especially within our family. With our oldest son Joel not getting home from college until next week, even though Saturday night was the “eighth crazy night!”, we’re gathering with the family this coming weekend and doing the big shindig then. Some years, it has shifted after New Years. One year a few years ago, it shifted to MARCH! (we all agreed that was a bit ridiculous). But shift it we do, but we still do all the traditional stuff like lighting the menorah, singing the Dreidel song, having gelt chocolates, frying latkes (fried potato pancakes), etc. etc.

And that is in stark contrast to Christmas – with our Christmas tradition with my family, we pretty much always gather on the 24th and 25th, come hell or high water, and in fact, only once in recent memory did any shifting of date. A few years ago, there was a blizzard in Iowa on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and so we made plans to shift the celebration to the following day – the 26th. Well, my mom was fit to be tied – walked around in a blue funk all day on Christmas day and clearly, the world was out of balance. Meanwhile, for us Jews in the house, it was simple – the holiday is about the celebration, not about the date … but when you’ve never missed the date, you get a bit ferklempt.

This year, we’ve got another conflict, but we’re not shifting the date – much. My sister needs to fly to California to be with her oldest son/my nephew while he has knee surgery the next day. She’s flying on Christmas morning, of course. Me, being the Jewish guy in the family, of course suggested we shift the celebration – and shift we will – to the 23rd in the evening with my sister. I also saw an opportunity – that meant Christmas day could be a free day, so I suggested we have a traditional Jewish Christmas day – sleep in late, go see a movie and have Chinese food for dinner. Let’s just say that while my family found that to be a great idea, my mom shot that down in an instant. So, we’ll still do our traditional Christmas morning of coffee, fresh baked cinnamon rolls and watching the “A Christmas Story” marathon on TBS, followed by my sister’s family arriving, sans my sister, for more gift exchanging, and Christmas dinner.

However you celebrate the holidays, any holiday for that matter, to me it’s all about being with family and friends – gather, share a meal and drinks, tell stories, laugh a lot and just be together. And that is hard to schedule. Which is probably why we have proscribed days to celebrate holidays, so at least, even if we shift it, we’re still sure to get together.

Happy Holidays – Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, etc. etc. etc. Whatever you celebrate, enjoy celebrating it. Regardless of when you do it.

As you were,

Stew


275958-menorah-with-all-9-candles-lit7646846-christmas-tree-with-heap-of-red-gift-boxes-decorated-with-satin-ribbon-isolated-on-white-background

“Graduation Day”

14 Dec

This week, I “graduated” from Cardiac Rehab – one day past two months after my surgery. Cardiac rehab was a really interesting, and well …  an eyeopening experience. I was pretty much the youngest and most fit person there, and when I started, they said that they would be shortening their normal 13 week program to something less – more like 6-8 weeks in consideration of that and the fact that I had not had a heart attack. Last week they told me “so … how about we graduate you next week. You’re clearly in good shape and handling the exercise well, you’re working out well, you’re losing weight and you’re well motivated.” Have to say, yup, that sounds great.

The Cardiac Rehab program in the North Shore health system here in the Chicago area marries up programs at Highland Park Hospital, Evanston Hospital and Northwestern Hospital downtown. Clearly, the program is designed more for folks who have lived completely sedentary lifestyles, have rarely if ever exercised, eat badly, are elderly, etc. As both the youngest and most fit person in the room during all this, I had more than a few folks ask me “So … why are you here?” And I had to tell them pretty simply – because I have heart disease and the repaired a problem with a stent back in October.

That said,  being the youngest, most fit person in that crowd is like being the best behaved kid in after-school detention. You may be at the top of the heap, but you’re still there, aren’t you? I didn’t lose sight of that every day – every morning that I went to this was a slap in the face that I have coronary artery disease and that I cannot live life “as usual” any more. And I think that’s good. Honestly, the people that were there were also a reminder to me, and while this sounds terribly harsh, the thought through my head across the board was “if you don’t change, this is going to be you.”

The goal of Cardiac Rehab is simple – put you on the path to better heart health. That obviously means different things to different people.  But overall, it’s a combination of exercise and education.  The exercise has two goals – get you moving, and see how you respond.  The education is on healthy habits.  Since I “aced” their intake exam on healthy habits, they said I didn’t need to attend the once-weekly education session.  The program is pretty simple – three days a week, we did a monitored workout, wearing a wireless, 3-lead EKG unit in a pouch on our chests, while two nurses guided and monitored us. For those starting out, they are REALLY careful. The first week was pretty humorous. The Friday before, I went there to find the place, check in and get registered, talk to them about the program, etc. Then on day 1, I dutifully showed up, togged up in my exercise gear, water bottle along. First thing I noticed: Most of the people are in their street clothes. Most are well above 60 years old. There’s only one guy there that looks to be in his 50s and in decent shape. There are several that are in profoundly delicate shape – one guy is 350 lbs or more, and can barely walk without getting winded. Ooh boy.  This is not fitness bootcamp.

They directed me to a treadmill with the admonition “start slow” … and followed me there and set up the treadmill for me. 1% grade, 2 mph. It was so slow, I was tripping over my own feet. Before she could leave, I said “you’re joking, right? My WARM UP pace is 3.5 mph.” … and she said “until we know how your heart responds, you follow our lead.” Ookay, boss, OK. Well after 4 minutes of plodding along so slowly I had to work at going slow, she came back and said “well, your heart rate moved only 5 beats above your resting rate, guess we can crank it up a little.” And a “little” it was – still not above 3.0 – five more minutes of that and she said “Ok, put it up where you want it … so to 4.0 mph and 3% grade it went.” Finally, I’m trucking along enough where I’m going to break a sweat! They let me go 30 minutes at that pace, and then moved me to a bike – when I started to pedal at my normal 80-90 RPM pace, they kept telling me “slow down!” – and I’d answer back, “why, do you see anything wrong?” and they’d say “no, but …” and I’d not slow down.

Finally after three days of these struggles – them trying to keep me slowed down, me trying to push, at the end of the first Friday’s workout, Robin, the lead nurse (and not my wife), said “Ok, we talked to your cardiologist and he gave us an authorization to take the chains off you. However, on Monday, we’re going to test you and push you to see how you respond. You up for that?” Yes! PLEASE!

So, the following Monday, they put me on the elliptical machine and proceeded to roundly kick my ass as hard as they could. Their goal? Push my heart to 160 beats per minute and see how it responded, and then watch how fast I could recover. First of all, I was amazed at how high we had to go in terms of resistance and incline on that machine to get me to that point – between the BP meds and the fact that I was already in a bit of physical shape, I really had to push hard. I was sweating from places I didn’t know would sweat! After 30 minutes of this, wow – I had had a workout! They put me on a bike then and let me cool down with an easy ride, and this time, I took their advice and slowed down. But, the EKG and recovery rate and all looked OK. Still some abnormalities in my EKG which they said they’d send to my cardiologist, but overall, I was green light to “self-manage” my workouts.

The rest of the seven weeks of rehab were basically me going for monitored workouts. In week three, they let me start my “couch to 5k” running program – and that felt like such an achievement. I did the first run with them monitoring me, and it felt great. If you’re not familiar with “Couch to 5K”, it’s basically a program designed to take some who is sedentary and in poor condition and turn them into a 5K runner in about 8-10 weeks. It is a programmed series of walk/run interval steps that you follow, three runs a week, until you’re able to run for 30 minutes straight. This idea has been around for quite a while, but with the advent of smartphones and apps, it has taken off.

That said, it was my desire to do “C25K” that flushed my heart problem into the open. Back in June, around my birthday, I downloaded “5K Runner” onto my iPhone and gave it a try. I could not run more than 45 seconds without chest pain coming on, and after the third interval, I decided I shouldn’t do it. Again, then, I thought I was chasing a back problem, but it was that feeling during running, and when I tried to bike this summer, that got me into the Cardiologist to have a stress test. So, thank you, C25K! You probably saved my life.

At rehab, they released me to do my C25K and that first run was so triumphant feeling that I was fist pumping! No chest pain at all, I felt great, energized after doing it. I was back!  Now that said, it was interesting when I started running – the dynamic in the room changed.  At any time, there were about 10-12 people at each day, and that first day that they had me up and running, the other folks in the class were amazed.  Again, this is a group of folks where the average age was probably about 64, and most of them were very sedentary people.  After the third day of running, one gent got to talking to me in the locker room and said “I’ve never exercised before – or at least not since I was a kid.”  He was amazed that I had taken on an diet and exercise program on my own and well, was impressed.  Again, best behaved kid in detention – that’s me.

My fitness level in just 8 weeks has really soared. In addition to the 3X weekly workouts at rehab, I’ve been getting at least two additional workouts in a week, sometimes three or even four.  My goal each week is to exercise at least five of the 7 days and I’m definitely doing it.  I feel so much stronger, lighter, better, it is simply amazing.  I can dash up the stairs without getting winded.  I’m finding I’m having to push my exercise level up to break a sweat now, etc. etc.  All exactly where I wanted to be.

So, where am I after all this? Well on my C25K program, I’m still only at week three – mostly because I’m repeating each day’s program at least three times – both out of an abundance of caution and out of a desire to just progress very slowly and take it at my own pace. My first major fitness goal is to participate in the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle here in Chicago on April 7th – going running with 25,000 of my closest friends! I have a few friends that are going to do it with me, and it should be both fun and a huge feeling of victory. Then, at the end of April, is a 5K in Champaign that I’m going to do with Joel, my oldest son. That should be fun – it finishes at the 50 yard line of Memorial Stadium, where the Illini play.

In terms of weight, I’m down about 15 lbs. since the summer.  Honestly, my goal isn’t weight loss – it is health.  The weightloss will follow along with the fitness.  I am looking at the scale every few days, but it is not ruling me.  My eating habits are dictated more by “what’s healthy to eat” versus “what’s on my diet.”  I still snack too much although I’m getting better with my food choices.  I could cut down more on drinks, but I sure do like my wine with dinner, and that’s good for my sanity.  So again, the focus is on health and fitness. The weight will find its own level.

What’s next?  Well in addition to the 5K runs planned for spring (and more to come in the summer, I think – and I want to be able to do a 10K by end of summer), I intend to buy a road bike sometime this winter and start riding in the spring. I love bicycling – always have – and there is a huge community of cyclists in Buffalo Grove to go ride with and huge networks of roads, trails, etc. to go ride on. Maybe I’ll go on RAGBRAI again in the next year or two … who knows?

All I know is this – this IS my new life. I work out 5-6 days a week. I eat healthy stuff now – my “snack drawer” in my desk is stocked with kale chips, sun-dried tomatoes, almonds, etc. Instead of getting a breakfast sandwich if I don’t eat at home, it is a Clif Bar on the train. Me, Mr. Bacon, Mr. Meat and Potatoes, a guy that never met a burger or steak he didn’t like, is experimenting with Vegan dishes and cooking. It’s all amazing to me.

Of course, my mortality is never too far out of my mind. As I said in another post, I spend a lot of time visualizing the insides of my coronary arteries. I sincerely hope I’m starting to turn back the tide – the reality is that I have heart disease – have – in the present tense. Having a stent placed doesn’t remove the disease, it just unclogs the pipe. It’s like anything – treat the symptom and you feel better. Treat the disease and you get better. The cardiologist’s job was to treat the symptom, and with the meds, the diet, and most importantly, the exercise, it’s up to me to treat my disease. And get better.  And I do feel like I’ve made a great start.

Onwards and upwards. Bottom line: I feel great, and I’m making progress. It’s incremental, and at times feels like a snail’s pace, but I’m in this for the long haul. We will keep bailing the ocean, one teacup at a time. And I hope to be doing this for decades to come.

As you were,

Stew

Finally, a PS to anyone facing this – GO TO THE REHAB PROGRAM. It is good for you. It can change your life for the very positive.

Familiar Strangers

11 Dec

Hey all – sorry I’ve been absent a few weeks – I’ve been really focused on my fitness training, diet and exercise, then of course, Thanksgiving and the week of corporate holiday parties has done some damage to me, but steadily working back to being on track. Overall, feeling great though, and happy with my progress so far. But, this post isn’t about my health – although my activities around it have given rise to this topic.

Familiar Strangers – besides being a song title of a bad Jefferson Starship song from the early 80s – it’s a concept that I’ve always enjoyed observing but have never thought enough about to write about. Until today. I define “familiar strangers’ as people you run into frequently in your life, but by happenstance and circumstance, you’ve never actually met them, or have met them just a little bit. But, because you see these familiar people, you wonder about their stories, who they are, and how they happen to cross your path every day.

I got the idea for this post from my experience with going to Cardiac Rehab the last 8 weeks. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, at 7:00 AM, I’ve been dutifully reporting to the Cardiac Rehab Center at Highland Park Hospital at 6:45 AM for a monitored workout. (This on its own is a blog post, which I’ll do one of these days). Both the class, and, unseemingly, the drive over there, is full of familiar strangers.

Perhaps you’ve also read my Facebook notes item about people watching on the train. That in itself is an exercise in Familiar Strangers. I’m on the train with a bunch of these folks every day – and I enjoy observing them, and honestly, wonder about them when I don’t see them. Occasionally, you’ll befriend a Familiar Stranger – I’ll tell you about that in a moment.

The person that got me thinking about this post and this topic is a person I like to call “Blinky” – simply for the light on his bike. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning as I head off to Cardiac Rehab, rain or shine, nice or cold, I see this guy on his bike – he’s headed westbound on Deerfield Road and usually crosses the Rt 41 Viaduct about 6:30 AM – I see him as I drive eastbound. Depending on how early I leave the house, I encounter him somewhere along that road in either Deerfield or Highland Park – he’s got an intense white LED strobe light on the front of his bike, and well – he’s impossible to miss. I wonder about his circumstances – why doesn’t he just drive? What will he do when it snows? Where is he going – where does he work? Does he do this for fitness, to save money, because he’s an environmentalist? Why doesn’t he take a different route – it seems very dangerous to be at the curb edge of a 45 mph 4-lane suburban arterial street at oh-dark-hundred in the morning. With Blinky, however, there’s been 2 or 3 mornings in the last week where I have not seen him – which of course then concerns me. Is he late? Am I late? Is he OK? Maybe he has the day off? It’s bizarre – I have real human concerns over someone I only see in a fleeting glimpse for just a second each day from 40 feet or more away as I’m driving 40 mph going one way while he’s going 15 mph the other.

My Cardiac Rehab class is full of familiar strangers. You learn everyone’s name as each one of us wears a pouch on our chests carrying a wireless EKG monitor and that pouch has your first name and last initial written in black Sharpie on it. But beyond that, I really haven’t met anyone. At 6:45 AM, no one is talking much. Once we all start waking up and exercising, we do talk a bit, but it’s mostly to joke up about working out. But, I have to wonder – what happened to these folks that brought them to Cardiac Rehab. Now, I have learned a few folks stories – there’s a gent, Gary, who is about 58 years old that started working out to lose weight about 3 years ago and was doing great until he literally dropped dead of his heart going into “V-fib” while blasting away on an elliptical machine. Through the alertness of a person at his fitness club, and a doctor who happened to be working out, plus a well-placed portable defibrillator, he’s alive today. Had bypass surgery and is working out hard and fast again. I learned his story when he talked about how he was going to be in the news and all because of how he was saved. There’s another older gent, about 68 years old by my guess, who rides the train downtown every day after class – he’s on my train. I just learned his story yesterday and told him mine. Have I met him? No. Will I? Not likely.

There’s so many more – for example, there’s a woman on the floor of my office building – her company is the law firm on the other side of the floor from iCrossing. She has a tremendous case of scoliosis – her back literally makes a C-shape starting at her hips. Yet, she seems to get around fine. I see her not only in the office but walking to the train station at night.

At the train station is a very common place for familiar strangers – and well, an opportunity for befriending them. Two familiar strangers, I finally befriended after riding the train downtown for a year – a man and woman about my age, who are friendly and talk on the platform every day. They don’t ride the train together, however. The man, on my first day going to my new job (in 2010 – not so new anymore) at iCrossing, overheard me talking to a friend on the platform and telling him about me starting a new job that day. It turns out he works with my company and works at one of the other ad agencies in Chicago. I said “wow, that’s good to hear, small world”, etc. and never followed through on the conversation until almost a year later when I finally introduced myself. He and I chat on the platform every day now. A few days after I met him, he introduced me to the woman. My friend and colleague, Doug, has met them as well, and when I suddenly became quite absent during my little heart event this fall, they became quite concerned for me. Nice to know they care and I do care for them as well.

One of the most “familiar stranger” things that most anyone who lives in a city encounters is people on the streets who are looking for handouts. I tend not to call them “homeless” because many are not, “panhandlers’ doesn’t seem right, “bums” sure describes some, but not all. There’s this one woman, a stoic, handsome African American woman in her middle 50s. She’s always clean and dressed well and has a smile, a direct eye contact style and well, she is different. She has a laminated, computer-printed sign that says “Hello, my name is Bonnie Franks. I am looking for employment. I can do office administration, bookkeeping, secretarial work and more”. Interestingly, her story came out this fall – in the news. A man had lost his wedding ring by accidentally dropping it into a cup of one of the people seeking handouts near the train station. The next day, the man was trying to find the guy he accidentally gave the ring to – and he talked to Bonnie Franks. Bonnie then over the course of a couple of weeks, found the man who had it – he also didn’t sell it as he figured the guy who accidentally gave it to him would want it back. That guy gave it to Bonnie. A few days later, Bonnie spotted the man among the thousands walking by her every day on the Madison St. bridge and stopped him and gave him his ring back. Amazing story. I gave Bonnie $20 the following day.

There are hundreds and thousands of familiar strangers we see every day. As most people know, people watching is one of my favorite hobbies, and when I see the same person repeatedly,

Does this story have a moral, a meaning, a conclusive thought? Well, yeah, I guess. Familiar Strangers are sort of human landmarks. They are people whom you see, you don’t know about, but you think of and wonder about if you don’t see them. That to me is my definition. And in that, there’s an interesting touch of humanity. It is good to get to know familiar strangers when you can. Doing so broadens your world immensely.

As you were,

Stew

%d bloggers like this: