unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

In Praise of the Humble Laundry Basket

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For years now, I have had a thing about laundry baskets.  I think they’re about the most versatile item ever.  I have used them to:

  • store outdoor plants temporarily when I’m transplanting them
  • as a container for newspapers before I recycle them
  • as a container for long-term storage (books, clothes, electronics, etc.)
  • in lieu of a suitcase when I go on driving trips

This last use is one that has been a source of mild embarrassment for family members: “There’s dad carrying his laundry basket into the Days Inn–tacky, tacky, tacky.”  I agree it is not elegant, but it makes packing shoes, clothing and my personal pillow so much easier than having to zip everything up tightly in a standard rolling suitcase.  (No, I’ve never used one on a plane.)

This past weekend, I was babysitting my granddaughter.  It had snowed but it wasn’t too cold.  I thought she needed an outing around the block, but I had no stroller or sled.  Then I noticed the laundry basket holding shoes in the mudroom.  Hmm.   The rest, as they say, is history.  When he saw the above photo, son Anthony texted: “An instant classic.”  What can I say?  He has a good eye.

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Even the Great Ones Can Have a Bad Day at the Office

Much of the hype leading up to yesterday’s game was about Peyton Manning and the fact that he is one of the all-time great quarterbacks in NFL history.  Did he need a win yesterday to cement that reputation?  Probably not.

But he was clearly the subject of great expectations; expectations he failed to meet.  (Give credit to Seattle’s defense.)

This year, Manning has been at the top of his game.  No one disputes that.  But whether you’re an elite athlete, musician, bond-trader or bricklayer, every now and then you can have a bad day at work.  For us mere mortals, not that many people notice when we screw up.  Manning’s misfortune is that his bad day was viewed by millions of people, although much fewer at the end of the game, I suspect, than at the beginning (Downton Abbey had excellent ratings.)

I hope that all of us are judged not on the basis of our “worst day at the office” but on the totality of what we do.  Prometheus stumbled; Peyton did, too.  Manning’s human, and so are the rest of us.

Having said that, I thought the great Renee Fleming was spectacular singing the national anthem.  And so was half-time dynamo Bruno Mars.  But then again, they didn’t have Seattle’s defense swarming them.

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Fear Before the Super Bowl

It goes without saying that the Super Bowl has gone well beyond a mere sports event.  For all intents and purposes, it is an unofficial national holiday and cultural event, with parties, attention on the commercials and on the half-time entertainment.

But the game of football itself may be showing signs of vulnerability.  A new NBC News/WSJ poll shows that many Americans are afraid of football concussions.  According to that poll, 40 percent of Americans want their children playing any sport other than football.  The new awareness (and fear) of the dangers of concussion and of repeated small hits is especially strong among parents with higher levels of education and income.

Another possible reflection of that fear:  in recent years, Pop Warner, the country’s biggest youth football program, has seen a drop in participation of almost 10 percent.

This comes as football players at Northwestern are seeking to form a labor union to earn a place at the table to discuss key issues like medical care and health consequences which arise long after a player’s career is over.

Bottom line:  the game is in a state of flux.  Down the road, it could become a game that attracts as players mostly those from poor families with lower levels of education, awareness, and options.  And even if the collegiate unionization effort fails, it’s a shot across the bow from players who want a greater say in what happens to their bodies and their futures.  We talked about the unionization effort on last night’s show.

This should give all of us who watch Sunday’s game much more to munch on then just guacamole and chips.

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This Weather!!!

How many times in the past few days have you thought, said, or heard someone else say, “I. Am. So. Over. This. Weather.”  Count me in that group.  And if one of your chores is to shovel snow, the prospect of even more snow this weekend is, well, draining.

I’ve been trying to rationalize my way out of feeling bummed out about how painfully cold it’s been and the best I can come up with is this:

  • There’s no city I’d rather live in than Chicago.  I love it.
  • All good things come at a price.
  • This weather is the price we pay for living here.

Simplistic, I know.  But there it is.

When discussing this with my esteemed Chicago Tonight colleague, Paris Schutz, he optimistically said, “It just means we’re going to have a great summer and we will appreciate it that much more and not take it for granted.”    Cold comfort now, young Skywalker.  Cold comfort!

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Flu Hubris

Like many people, I dutifully got a flu shot last fall knowing that it wasn’t a guarantee against getting sick–just a safeguard.  And a couple of weeks ago, I got a mild bug that put me out of sorts for about twelve hours–chills and a headache.  But a good night’s sleep seemed to take care of it.  I thought my flu season was over.

But, in the past week, several family members got a much worse stomach bug, one that went well beyond mere chills and a headache.  While making trips to the drugstore for them for flu medicine (and Gatorade!) I mentally patted myself on the back for having avoided a case as bad as theirs.

Ha!  Pride goeth before the fall (or something like that.)  After Tuesday night’s show, I drove home and I could feel chills coming on.  I had a hunch something bad was coming so I barely ate any dinner.  My hunch was right as another bug, much more powerful than the one I had earlier, kept me up all night.  And yesterday I was miserable–a headache, muscle aches and cold sweats.  The cats didn’t know what to make of me curled up on the couch during the day (“Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”)

I’m a lousy and pathetic sick person.  Now it was my turn to have someone bring me medicine and Gatorade.  While at the height of my flusteria, my wife assured me that I would feel much better in 24 hours.  She was right.  I am feeling much better.

And I’m completely confident it couldn’t possibly happen again this winter.  I’m sure of it.  Truly.  You believe me, don’t you?

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What If You Lost Your Memory–Through No Fault of Your Own?

Imagine “waking up” on a train platform in a foreign country and having no idea of who you are, where you are or why you are there.  You are taken to a mental hospital where you hallucinate so severely you have to be tied down.  But you cannot remember family members or even the woman you are told you love.  And, no, you were not experiencing the consequences of recreational drug usage — but rather, it all stemmed from medicine you’d taken to prevent malaria.

And imagine that more than years after the event, you are still trying to fill in gaps of the person you had been.

This is what happened to Chicagoan David MacLean when he was on a Fulbright Scholarship in India.  He tells his remarkable story in a beautifully written and provocative new book, The Answer to the Riddle is Me:  A Memoir of Amnesia.  He was on the show last night to talk about it.  He was fascinating. Watch the interview below and read an excerpt from his book.

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A Geography Lesson

Last weekend, in the midst of a cold spell, I felt stuck at home and went on Facebook and took one of those geography quizzes that people post.  I was appalled at how poorly I did on the Europe quiz.  I was fine on western Europe, but awful with the Balkan countries and some of the eastern European countries.  So I resolved once and for all to learn them all.

It took me an hour or so to nail it, but I finally committed to memory the location of the countries of the former Yugoslavia.  And I also figured out that — going from north to south – the first letters of the largest countries of easternmost Europe spell BURB: Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria. That helped.  And once you figure out the little specks of Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and Liechtenstein, you’ve got it.  So, mission accomplished for one corner of the world.

My next goal is to memorize the provinces of Canada (honestly, how many Americans know them?)  In the meantime, in case you’re interested, click here for a website that helped me learn Europe.  After all, the cold spell ain’t over yet!

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The End of a Relationship

For years now I have been in a close relationship that recently had to end.  It was time.  We both knew it.

This friend and I had been virtually inseparable, and although it feels odd to say it, I spent more time with this friend than with my wife.  (She knew about it and because of her equanimity and self-confidence, was accepting of it.)

There is no denying the strength of our bond; for years my friend was part of my highest highs and my lowest lows; I can’t imagine having gone through either of those extremes without the comfort of this relationship.

When the relationship began, it’s fair to say there was an initial period of infatuation bordering on romance.  Then came a happy plateau when the relationship came to full bloom, and with it, a comfort level and ease that are hallmarks of an integrated relationship.

But, for a couple of years now, it has been evident that the friendship had run its course.  Family members and colleagues (rightfully) pointed out that the relationship had become –not toxic, exactly–but borderline dysfunctional.  Time and and soul-searching brought me to the same conclusion.

So, this past weekend, I ended it.  There were no harsh words or an ugly scene–just a silent parting of the ways.  So clear were the signals that it must have come as no surprise.  Even so, I am still wistful when I look at a picture of a friend who for so long was so true.

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A Lesson From My Gym Teacher When JFK Was Killed

This is a few days late given all the recent coverage, but I continue to think of something that happened on the day JFK was assassinated.  I was in gym class at East Chicago Washington High School when news came the president was dead.  I can’t remember who told us, but I think it was our gym teacher, Mr. Arzumanian.  In any case, the boys immediately gathered in the locker room with him when one of the students–known as a smart mouth–snickered and said, “I’m glad they shot him.”

At that point, Mr. Arzumanian grabbed the boy by the shoulders and threw him against the locker room wall.  Mr. Arzumanian’s face was red and just inches from the boy’s face when he said, with great emotion, “Don’t you wish death on any man!” 

I think the boy was just trying to be “cool” and provocative, but he looked anything but, pinned against the wall by a sturdy and upset gym teacher.  The class suffered two shocks in short order:  news of the president and what was happening in the locker room before us.  No one said a word.

But our teacher’s words stayed with me as they have, I bet, with every person there.  Spoken in that context and in that way, and with that passion, the words were searing and heartbreaking at the same time.

After decades of not seeing him, I happened to bump into Mr. Arzumanian at a civic gathering.  I brought up the incident and thanked him for seizing on a teachable moment.  He knew exactly what I was referring to and even remembered the boy’s name–as do I.  We all say and do stupid things; if we’re lucky, most are forgotten.  I still feel badly for the boy that one of his stupid moments was etched forever in the minds of that gym class because of the indelible event that prompted it.

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A Witness to History

I had the pleasure of interviewing Newt Minow on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.  Minow was the FCC commissioner under JFK and is famously known for his description of television as a “vast wasteland.”  (A term which prompted the producer of Gilligan’s Island to name Gilligan’s boat The S.S. Minnow in “retaliation.”)

Minow knew the Kennedy family well before JFK became president, roomed with RFK on the campaign trail, and was present during key moments in JFK’s public life.  For example, he was with JFK when he called Coretta Scott King to express sympathy over the jailing of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  (Minow also tells the story of his suggesting to JFK that he run for vice president in 1960 — a suggestion JFK snorted at!)

And he tells the tale of the remarkable conversation during a limousine ride with JFK, LBJ and astronaut Alan Shepard.  When JFK was killed, Minow’s 8-year-old daughter, Martha (now dean of Harvard Law School), wrote a poignant poem which Minow read on the air last night.  Minow also weighs in on the Warren Commission and on JFK’s womanizing.

This is one of my favorite interviews ever.  If you missed it, click on it above.

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