unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

Seeds of Discontent

What’s wrong with the above picture? I’ll tell you what’s wrong: the trays are supposed to be overflowing with seedlings by now! Anxious to give spring a nudge, I planted one seed in each of the little cubes two-and-a-half weeks ago. The seeds are for a “summer cuttting garden mix” of a variety of sunflowers. I wanted to get them going indoors and then transplant them outside to a sunny spot near a fence.

The seedlings were supposed to have emerged in 7-14 days. But instead of the equivalent of a Chia Pet, I’ve got something that looks like a bad piece of conceptual garden art.

Here’s what my wife says I did wrong. Number one, too much water. She said the trays were water-logged and that some of the seeds rotted. Number two, I placed the seeds too deep in the soil; the instructions said one inch and I planted them about two inches deep. Number three, I was supposed to have put more than one seed in each little cube to account for weaker seeds that might not make it. Instead, I just put in one seed in each cube expecting each one would make it. As a result, my expectations of success were inflated and unrealistic.

Bottom line: if you’re trying to work with something as unpredictable as nature, follow directions. And a message to other eager overachievers: when starting your seedlings, first weed out your hubris, a gardener’s fatal flaw.

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Did You Call?

Recently I returned a friend’s phone call just as soon as I got her message. Unfortunately, she had left the message a week earlier. Why the embarrassing delay? The message was on the voice mail of our home phone.

If you’re like me, you’ve become so reliant on your cell phone for receiving all personal messages that you may be less inclined to check your voice mail at home. And that’s assuming that you even have a “land line.” I don’t know anyone under 30 who even bothers having a “home phone,” do you?

But even people over 30 are clearly less reliant on what people in the phone industry used to call “POTS”- plain old telephone service. I’ve heard more than one of my peers say that anyone who “really needs to get hold of them” (usually meaning their children) has their cell number. As a result, when our home phone rings, my first reaction is that the call can’t be all that important.

In the meantime, some generational differences persist. Most people we know in the generation before us seldom call our cell phones. They mainly call our land line and leave a message. And we promptly call them back. When we get the message. A week or so later.

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Did you see that recent study about the Last Supper? It found that over the past 1000 years, paintings depicting the Last Supper have shown bigger portions and bigger plates to hold them. The bread in modern paintings is 23% larger than the earliest renderings and the entrees grew by 70%. (The measurements were taken relative to the head size of the figures in 52 famous depictions.)

It doesn’t surprise me that portion sizes are growing. A couple of years ago, a colleague showed me a black and white photo of a crowd shot taken on State Street. Judging from the fashions and the cars, it might have been taken in the late 50s or early 60s. We were both shocked at how skinny everyone seemed to be; there were only a couple of people in the photograph who looked overweight.

Paintings or photos–the evidence is out there, folks. We are eating way too much (and I don’t use the term “we” lightly). Maybe with today’s emphasis on healthful eating, future depictions of food in that storied meal will shrink and future photo archivists will look at humans today as hefty aberrations.

But back to the Last Supper. What would Jesus eat? Well, the Last Supper was a Passover seder, so that’s a tip-off. As to the amount, who knows? The artistic representations are just that, and they’re all over the map. But–as others have pointed out– there’s one thing in the paintings that hasn’t changed: the guest list. That’s one dinner party even the Salahis couldn’t have crashed.

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Take a Penny. Leave a Penny

tonyjcase (flickr.com) / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I wasn’t completely honest yesterday about pennies. The fact is I do always pick them up. But I don’t always keep them.

I once heard that if you find a penny, it’s good luck. But ONLY if it’s “heads up,” not tails. So if I find a penny that’s heads up, I take it. Not for its monetary value, but for the luck. On the other hand if the penny is “tails up,” I turn it over and leave it for the next person to find and get the luck. It’s a quirky little practice, I know, but an attempt to spread some good karma.

And I do the same with larger coins. Earlier this week, I was jogging and found a quarter “heads up.” So I got to keep it. Yes!

Up until recently, I had a little tin box in my desk drawer full of “lucky” coins I’d collected over the past year or so. But one day I was just a little short of cash when I headed down to the cafeteria. Those coins came in handy, so I felt lucky to have them. Anyway, those lucky coins are back in circulation now, ready to spread their goodwill. And maybe, coming to a sidewalk near you.

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Free Money!

A couple of days ago, I parked in the Channel 11 parking lot, got out of my car, and there it was: a penny on the pavement. People fall into two groups: people who pick up pennies on sidewalks and streets, and those who don’t. I fall into the first group: if I see a penny I’m all over it. I’m always delighted to find one.

And I seem to find a penny at least once a month. Maybe that’s because I jog a few times a week and have tripped enough times on cracks in the sidewalk that I’ve trained myself to look down a lot. And there they are–little copper pieces of treasure.

I know that many people don’t think it’s worth the trouble to bend over and pick them up. But I can’t understand that way of thinking. After all, it is FREE MONEY! Not much, of course, but it’s free. And because it’s only a penny, you don’t feel badly that someone else lost it.

The most I ever found was a $5 bill. It was when I was a kid. Back then you could buy a new car for about $100, so that was an historic day for me.

One day as an adult, I was walking in a North Shore suburb and there on the sidewalk was a gleaming quarter. Naturally I bent over to pick it up thinking I’d hit the jackpot. But it wouldn’t budge. It had been super-glued to the sidewalk by some prankster. I must have been the 100th person that day to fall for the gag. Ha-hmm-hmm-ha.

No one would bother to do that with a penny. Not worth the glue. Which is good news for me. Come to Papa!

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What a BFD

Vice President Joe Biden is getting some flack for a comment he made yesterday when he congratulated the president at the signing of the health care reform bill. A microphone caught Biden whispering to Obama, “This is a big f—— deal!”

He could’ve easily avoided the flap by using a shorthand term for the same phrase. It’s a term a news executive I used to work for would use when there was a big story in the news. “Boys and girls,” he’d say, “This is a BFD.”

His employees knew what he meant without his having to literally spell it out for us. It’s a term that I’ve come to use occasionally–but maybe more often than I should.

I once taught an interviewing class in which students were assigned to produce a list of questions to ask a hypothetical interviewee. They would then read the questions out loud so the rest of the class could hear what they’d come up with. One of the questions a student came up with was, “When did you first realize your discovery would be a BFD?” It was an obvious dig at the teacher and the class broke out in laughter. (Got me.)

I know it’s not necessarily an admirable phrase to use, but it does have this going for it: plausible deniability. What do I mean by BFD? Why, “big fantastic deal,” of course. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

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Smarty Pants Criminals

There was a stunning news story recently about some intruders who forced a local family to lie down and be rolled up in rugs while the burglars searched the family’s home. The family of four remained rolled up in the rugs for 45 minutes until the bad guys left. The victims must have been terrified, but fortunately no one was hurt.

The article was arresting–not just because the poor victims were temporarily turned into human flautasbut because at least one of the bad guys obviously knew something about history. He must have gotten the idea from the account of how Cleopatra hid inside a rolled-up rug to be presented to Caesar. When the rug was opened, Cleopatra rolled out and dazzled the noble Roman. You know the rest.

It must be a marker of today’s high unemployment when beneficiaries of a fine liberal arts education are unable to find jobs in their chosen fields of study. How awful that they feel compelled to use their knowledge of history and literature for evil purposes.

The terrifying thing is that both history and literature are replete with other examples that can give ideas to today’s literate lawbreakers. Keep ’em away from the classics so they never read about the Trojan horse. The Prince would be a terrible influence. Reading about Harry Potter might inspire them to come up with a real invisibility cloak. Little Red Riding Hood could give someone the idea to dress up like your grandmother to do you harm. And please, let’s keep A Tale of Two Cities from falling into the wrong hands. Who wants to be held up at guillotine-point? Ouch!

Obviously, unemployed liberal arts majors pose a clear and present danger to society. They know way too much! So, if you’re a prospective employer, do the right thing. Do what’s good for the country. Hire an English major today. As for the rest of us, we should probably just stick to wall-to-wall carpeting.

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Hit the Road

As you probably know, our disgraced former governor (the Democrat, not the Republican) continues to be an object of curiosity on national television. Currently he’s a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice” with Donald Trump. Just a few weeks ago, Blagojevich was on the Letterman show–again. All this seems to be part of an energized media campaign that keeps on going and going and going.

Those of us in Illinois may wonder why people keep putting out the welcome mat for him, why the national drawing power, why he seems incapable of fading from public view and instead keeps coming at you like some zombie Howdy-Doody?

It calls to mind the old quotation that “a prophet is not without honor except in his own land.” In other words, if you’re around all the time, nobody thinks you’re special. Most locals have probably heard his rap plenty of times and the novelty has worn off. But there’s a good chance those of us in Illinois may not fully appreciate the enduring entertainment factor the Governor holds for the rest of the country. It must be higher than we think.

Blago’s not the only ex-governor in the same spot. The good folks in Alaska may be scratching their heads over Sarah Palin’s ability to draw big crowds–and generous speaking fees–away from home (she’s currently booked at the Rosemont Theater for a high-profile speaking gig).

I once heard a self-deprecating speaker from out-of-town acknowledge that one reason he’d been invited to speak in Chicago was that “an expert is someone who comes from two time zones away.” He got a nice chuckle from the audience. Same phenomenon at work there, I think.

So if your career (or ego) needs a boost or you just want a little bit of face time, here’s some advice: hit the road. The farther you go and the less they know you, the more they’ll love you. Take it from Rod.

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Now, Follow the H-A-W-K!

Yesterday I extolled Chicago’s street grid and gave you a foolproof way to remember the order of some of the major east-west streets on Chicago’s North Side. Here’s a formula for doing the same with some of the major north-south streets.

Remembering that State and Madison are zero-zero in the grid’s numbering system, note the first four major streets (the ones placed every eight blocks) going west from State Street: Halsted, Ashland, Western and Kedzie. What do their first letters spell? Yes, scholars, they spell “hawk.”

When I noticed this, I wanted to incorporate “hawk” as the centerpiece of a mental image that would include as many of the streets going west from State as my imagination could muster.

Acknowledging that mnemonic rhymes with moronic, I came up with an image of a bird pulling a train. That image incorporates State, Halsted, Ashland, Western, Kedzie, Pulaski, Cicero, Central and Narragansett. Here it is: the State Hawk Pulls the Cicero Central Narrow gauge railroad.

And because they’re placed at 8-block intervals from State, you know that Halsted is 800 west, Ashland is 1600 west, and so forth. So if you’re looking for 2416 West Belmont, you know that it’s just past Western. And from yesterday’s lesson, you know that Belmont–the “bear” in yesterday’s sentence–is 3200 north. Voila, you have your coordinates!

Obviously, these little tools leave chunks of the city uncovered, but short of a GPS system (or a retired cabbie riding shotgun with you), they can come in pretty handy. They have for me; now you, too, can gird yourself for the grid.

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Lost? Follow the Furry Bear!

When I first came to work in Chicago as a street reporter for WBBM-TV in 1982, I barely knew my way around. Having grown up in East Chicago, Indiana, my knowledge of the city pretty much consisted of the Museum of Science and Industry, Comiskey Park, downtown, and Old Town.

Thank goodness for the street grid. Once you know that State and Madison are where the numbering system begins (zero-zero, so to speak), it’s pretty easy to keep from getting completely lost. (That and always knowing where the lake is–if water starts coming up through the floorboards of your car, you’ve probably driven too far east.)

Figuring out the South Side didn’t strike me as worrisome because, for the most part, the major east-west streets are numbered. But I needed an easy way to learn the order of the big east-west streets on the North Side.

So I came up with a nonsense sentence that incorporated the first letters of Madison, Chicago, North, Fullerton, Belmont, Irving, Lawrence, Bryn Mawr, Devon, Touhy, and Oakton–streets that are 8 blocks apart. (My system leaves out major streets such as Division, Addison, and Foster, but back then I was just trying to come up with some major coordinates.)

The sentence I came up with was a directive in which each word corresponds to a major, North Side, east-west street. The nonsense sentence I came up with is: “My cute nice furry bear is lovable, but don’t touch often.”

That goofy sentence has helped me remember the order of North Side streets ever since, especially in tandem with the numbering system. So, for instance, if I had to cover a story at 3316 North Ashland, I would mentally rattle off the sentence until it got me close to my destination.

With the above address, I would ignore “my” (because Madison is point zero) and go another four words into the sentence. Since those streets are eight blocks apart, I know that four times eight is 32. So that told me the address was a block north of Belmont (“bear”), which is 3200 north. Get it?

“Well,” might you ask, “That’s all very well and good, Mr. Grid Lover, but how about finding the big north-south streets?” A good question, scholars. The answer tomorrow.

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