A look at relationships, personal growth, & living/working in the 21st century.


Nous sommes tous Francais.

Farmers have always been an independent breed, self-employed entrepreneurs who relish being their own bosses. Farmers value self-sufficiency and independence above most things. However, those outside the agriculture industry appear to think the government coddles farmers with the farm bill, subsidies, and government-supported crop insurance. To clarify my viewpoint I’d like to discuss crop insurance. There as a safety net in case of natural disaster (e.g., hail storm, severe temperatures, draught/flood), this insurance product helps reduce financial loss in the high risk farming industry. A recent NPR (National Public Radio) report nicely summarized farm bill legislation, and it serves as my source for this post. First, let me stipulate that the farm bill no longer pays farmers for not planting on particular fields, as was once done to encourage conservation of the land. Such a practice has always seemed inappropriate, in my opinion, as it encourages a dependent, parasitic relationship between the farmer and his/her government. And, by the way, many farmers have independently utilized crop rotation, and other conservation techniques, for generations. Currently, farmers are only paid insurance benefits as a result of a crop loss (based on a valid claim). Old-school farmers, such as those in my family, were never willing to take ‘hand-outs’ given for simply being responsible with their land (i.e., rotating crops to protect the soil’s nutrients).

I write this to forward my position that the farm bill should be maintained as a needed support to aid farmers as they pursue economic success. Sadly, financial survival is the farmer’s usual goal in the highly risky agriculture industry. The American banking industry has long had the FDIC, government-supported insurance, and most Americans are aware of the well-publicized bailouts of Freddie-Mac/Fannie-May and portions of the auto industry. Thus, the government is not unaccostomed to stepping in to offer free enterprise a safety net at appropriate times. Therefore, abandoning of the farm industry by ending farm subsidies/crop insurance would only be like cutting off one’s nose to spite the face, so to speak. What do you think?

Modern farming and ranching is dangerous work. It was rated the fourth most dangerous job in America according to 2010 Bureau of Labor statistics (based on fatality rates per 100,000 workers). Farming requires physical labor often involving heavy equipment (tractors, wagons, augers, combines, etc.) and/or sharp implements (hoes, machete, etc.). Given the potential for human error, Murphy’s law, etc., accidents occur. For example, tractors sometimes roll over, causing serious injury or death. Such danger is entirely avoidable with the addition of rollover protection equipment now required on all new tractors built in America. However, farmers tend to treat their equipment like their own bodies, pushing to the limits until they will go no further. Thus, most farms have older tractors in use lacking state-of-the-art protective devices. And farmers tend to relegate the occasional, more hazardous tasks, often done on uneven ground, to their older (unprotected) tractors. Thus, efforts to save money set them up for possible disaster. Combines (large, drivable implements which harvest crops) have many moving, exposed parts capable of mangling limbs. In addition to growing crops, many farmers keep livestock-another part of agriculture which has its dangers. Although more rare than machine-related injuries, improperly managed livestock can cause serious, sometimes fatal injury. Livestock, though domesticated, remain dangerous at times if not handled with caution. To summarize, farming and ranching entails daily duties with many potential risks to safety.
I grew up in an Iowa farming community, and my family on both sides has strong farm roots. My maternal grandmother owns several farms, one of which my uncle and aunt live on and operate, while the others are rented. As a teenager looking for work, I often sought farm work, in bean or hay fields, to earn money. Small towns offer few, if any, jobs for teens. I have pleasant memories of good times spent working with friends in green farm fields. I recall every year, during harvest season, hearing the hum of the loud grain drying fans coming from the local grain elevator. I’ve seen grain put on the ground in giant piles, the size of large homes, when storage space inside a bin was not available. Growing up I heard stories of farmers losing digits, limbs, or sometimes their lives to the perils of farm work. Farm life offers many rewards, along with its hard work and risks, but that’s not something I’m relating at this time. I write all of this to illustrate my first-hand experience with the farm culture.
A recent news series by National Public Radio (NPR) shocked me as it detailed a pattern of unnecessary agriculture workplace deaths. It related an incident where two teenagers were killed and a third narrowly escaped the same fate while working together in a grain bin in northern Illinois. The following statistics were taken from that NPR report. An average of 16 people die by suffocation each year from the illegal practice of ‘walking down corn.’ This is done to break up wet, clustered grain which becomes clogged inside grain bins. Over the last 40 years more than 660 unnecessary deaths have occurred in grain bins. I have been inside such bins, while they were empty, and the experience was nothing a claustrophobic should ever attempt. These circular bins serve a dual purpose, as both storage and drying facilities. They have cement foundations and floors housing vast ventilation systems. The walls are made of steel, with no windows and only a small door. Grain enters the structure through the roof, and a mechanism stirs the kernals as air flows up from the floor to dry and remove moisture from the corn. The potential danger, once grain has entered the bin, is legendary amongst farmers. The costly bins are somewhat of a status symbol as only wealthier farmers can afford to install very many of them. Farmers know that storing their harvest in bins allows them more control of their bottom line in that they can manipulate their profit by holding crops and selling only at the most opportune times. In the last year, farmers have installed an additional 300 million bushels of on-farm storage spaces. Storing crops on their own farm eliminates the storage and drying fees charged by grain processing businesses, often called grain elevators, near their farms. My father, an electrician by trade, used to wire new bins to provide power for their stirring and drying mechanisms. I would often accompany him into these bins for a somewhat surreal experience of what I imagined it must be like if one could shrink oneself and get inside an empty soup can. The bins are often as high as four stories and hold hundreds of thousands of bushels of crop.
Federal Safety Regulations.
Because of the well-known hazards of grain bins, there are federal laws in place requiring that safety practices be utilized when working inside the structures. For example, harnesses, equipment locks, and spotters must be utilized to minimize dangers germane to working around grain enclosures. Thus, the casualties of farm work are often preventable through implementation of current, legally-mandated safety practices. Tragically, such safety regimens are not always employed by those seeking to maximize profit by cutting corners. Further, family-owned farms operate mostly outside the realm of the agriculture industry’s federal mandates. Enforcement of these regulations is seriously lacking in that even the most blatant violations, which led to deaths, to date have never resulted in any responsible party serving a single day in jail. At their most serious, charges following deaths have been misdemeanors-not real deterrants.
Grain bins have not always been as dangerous as they are today. Manually scooping grain with a shovel poses no particular risks. The greatest hazards accompany mechanization. When moist grain becomes clogged it cannot dry properly, which can potentially cause rotting and mold, which renders it worthless. Nor can clogged grain be moved easily for its sale. Thus, breaking up clogs in stored grain is vitally important. The risk to human life lies in the fact that the powerful, quicksand-like flowing grain can very quickly surround and suffocate anyone attempting to manually loosen clogged kernals inside a storage bin. One apparently harmless kernal of corn multiplied by a few million becomes a serious threat to the vulnerable human body. Hopefully recent media exposure of the deaths due to this known danger will force OSHA to enforce the laws already in place to safegard the agriculture workplace and prevent any further injury or loss of life. (image courtesy of http://www.fotosearch.com)


During a recent evening ride on public transit I became suddenly aware of the aroma of baked chicken. Though one of the automated audio messages broadcast on CTA(Chicago Transit Authority) buses and trains addresses a rule against consuming food/drinks while riding, I sometimes observe my fellow riders ingesting various edibles. I will admit having done so on certain occasions (i.e., the occasional granola bar; an errant Milky Way). However, this post will address the most blatant, flagrant, and aromatic violations I have observed, not withstanding those I personally committed. Anyway, back to the aforementioned delicious smelling chicken. The gentleman enjoying the baked chicken thigh had the uncommon social grace to offer chicken to other passengers, though he was speaking with his mouth full. He never elaborated as to whether he was offering a bite of the very thigh on which he was munching-a burning question. Maybe he would have provided a separate chicken part artfully hidden on his person. Unfortunately, my curiosity was not satisfied because no one accepted his offer. Maybe I should have partaken-how would that really have been much different from the many times I’ve bought food from vendors at street fairs? In contrast to chicken, sausage is also a popular offering amongst the CTA menu of entrees. In another blog post I described the scenario of bratwurst being graciously offered on a CTA bus to a rider in response to his solicitation of others for food money. Brats make more practical sense for diners on the go given they likely constitute a less greasy option to manage than chicken.
The beverages I’ve observed being enjoyed while on transit have been pop, water, juice, beer (only once), and coffee/tea(most popular). Given the frequency with which I’ve seen coffee drinks being imbibed, I’d surmise that having paid a premium for a beverage can give one a feeling of privilege or a sense of carte blanche to write your own rules. A case in point, the man I saw with the beer was particularly brazen in that he unapologetically cracked open his can of beer during a lively, humorous conversation with a fellow rider he just met. Every CTA rider, and potential diner, should keep in mind that the CTA neither serves alcohol, nor is a BYOB eatery. In my own small data set personally observed, imbibing caffeinated beverages seems the most frequent way CTA riders break the no-food/drink rule.

In the interest of bringing this topic to a close, I propose that the CTA consider offering a prix fixe menu of appetizers, maybe tapas. This could likely be manageable and still meet the gastronomic needs of hungry travelers. Who says haute cuisine has to be served by a chef? Why not let a CTA employee with food service certification utilize those skills? The selections could be Chicago-themed. For example, Capone crullers, Navy Pier nachos, or even Daley dogs. To make this proposition a more appetizing (excuse the pun) undertaking for the CTA, and feasible, the CTA may want to limit its offerings to only cold beverages and appetizers. For example, they could offer Danish style open-faced sandwiches. Any ideas out there?


A SERIES ON PUBLIC TRANSIT CULTURE-today, Part 3, brats(aka, sausage) on the bus.

While Parts 1 & 2 discussed riding the elevated train, this entry addresses the bus.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am changing my response to when a stranger asks for money for food. Make no mistake, I won’t give up any money. However, I will offer them any extra snacks I’m carrying (I often carry cheese & cracker packs). Recently, on a CTA bus, a man accompanied by a young teenager, asked me if I had anything for he and his son so they could get something to eat. As I had no snacks with me, I told him I had nothing for him. The man then posed his question to the passenger across the aisle. This male passenger, a middle-aged man carrying two grocery bags, stated in a strong Chicago, ‘da Bears’ kind of accent, “Want a brat?” The ‘man-in-need’ declined the kind offer of sausage, and he and his son exited the bus at the next stop. I told my fellow passenger I was also approached for money and I appreciated what he had said. The man then opened his shopping bag to reveal none other than brats-proving he wasn’t kidding. I’ll go out on a limb to say that such a scenario could only happen in Chicago.

Thankfully, altruistic, positive attitudes aren’t uncommon on the bus. I often see people of all types voluntarily giving up their seats for others they see as in need. Whether that means simply standing so another person may sit, or standing and putting forth the effort to raise one of the folding bench seats so that area may be used by someone in a wheelchair. Sure selfish attitudes are present too, but, often, efforts to help others abound. And that’s not only among the passengers. CTA employees are patient professionals committed to making the rides they provide safe and as pleasant as possible. On hot, near triple-digit summer days, I’ve seen bus drivers leave their air-conditioned seats to help weary cyclists get their bikes properly situated in the racks on the front of the bus.

Though there were no sausages exchanged, one evening commute earlier this year proved quite dramatic in other ways. My trip home was complicated by closure of a portion of the train line coupled with blocked streets, all of which related to a stand-off involving Chicago police and reportedly armed individuals. After being asked to exit the train, I boarded the bus to continue my commute. Boarding required another waiting period, and a line, as CTA staff were apparently addressing the practical logistics of transferring multiple train cars of passengers to buses. As the bus began moving I was standing amidst many other crowded commuters. All was going as well as could be expected until the driver on this north-bound bus turned west, and then south. At that point, a man near me began yelling that we were going the wrong way. A few others joined the shouting and added demands to exit the bus. Since we were off our prescribed route, due to additional street closures, the driver was passing bus stops, which a few other riders then began shouting about. Adding to the theatre of the moment, the man standing next to me began a loud cell phone conversation where he told the person on the line that the bus was now out of control due to a rogue driver. The man went on to direct his friend to tell his “northside crew” to cool it on the streets and stop (expletive) with the police so that he could get home. Other riders, like me, quietly observed the goings on, or poked at their smart phones. The melee ended with the bus driver stopping at a train station so we could reboard the train.

For me, on the most typical of travel days, taking the bus is a more tedious, patience-testing ride than the train. I offer several reasons for my view. First, traffic delays. The bus rides the streets and must negotiate the road with other drivers. The train, for the most part, has a continual command of the right-of-way. Its only impediments are the physicalities of the train itself, other trains, and the tracks. Second, human error. Human error certainly affects both types of transport, but many fewer humans are potentially making errors and slowing my commute when I’m on the train. Lastly, an emotional, very personal reason, riding the train just feels less pedestrian. Something about being either up above, or below, the busy streets communicates a certain urban/cosmopolitan panache.

A related note. Recently, on an 87-degree Chicago summer night, I noticed that electrical power appeared to be off on a particular block near me. A fire plug on the same block had been illegally opened and Chicago’s finest were monitoring a giant plume of water which spanned the street. I then saw 2 CTA buses, the articulated (bendy) type, parked along a nearby street. This was an unusual sight, made even more odd given these stationary buses were both full of people and CTA employees were standing alongside each bus. The AC-equipped buses were being used to cool residents of a nearby care facility for the mentally ill. How wonderful to know that in a crisis (no power = no AC) the city rises to the occasion to help those in need. I saw buses used similarly a few years ago when the power to an exclusive, Lake Shore Drive hi-rise was off and residents were left without AC or water. Although, the buses on Lake Shore Drive were well-appointed luxury liners, not city buses.


Chicago Welcomes NATO

Why are so many people so quick to label the upcoming 2012 NATO summit as a disaster in the making? If Chicago truly is the world-class cosmopolitan city it claims to be, why can’t it successfully host an event involving complex logistics and high-level security challenges? After all, New York, though never having hosted a NATO summit, has the United Nations and hosts world leaders on an almost daily basis without shutting down. And, by the way, the US has twice hosted NATO summits in Washington, DC (1978 & 1999). So, America knows how to host NATO.

I met a NATO-related visitor over the weekend outside a downtown hotel. He said he was suffering jet lag, having just flown in from eastern Europe, but he needed to head to Michigan avenue to buy some additional clothes for the week. He asked me for directions to his favorite store. He was friendly, looking and acting like a typical business traveler. As our brief conversation ended, I wished him well and welcomed him to the city. I never asked his particular political viewpoint, so I don’t know if he was a journalist covering the summit or a protester. I didn’t care to even know. I just wanted to offer the assistance he requested. As we parted ways, to my surprise he said he wanted to apologize for any inconvenience he or his colleagues would be causing the citizens of Chicago. How incredibly cordial! I’m no security expert, and appearances can be misleading, but this friendly visitor hardly seemed a threat to anyone. So why are so many people acting so fearful about the upcoming summit. I’ve heard some people say they are planning to leave the city for the days the summit takes place, those who have the means and option to do so, that is. I certainly concede that terrorism is a reality in the world, here as well as abroad. And I acknowledge that NATO certainly puts Chicago in the world’s line of sight for a few days, even more intensely than usual. But I think the other factor at play with this situation is simply change. Change means the unknown, and many people see change in only a negative manner. But the sometimes discomforting unfamiliar feeling accompanying change also broadens our range of experience and promotes growth. Isn’t change one of the few constants in life?

Chicago has never before hosted such a publicly watched, yet privately attended, event as the 2012 NATO summit. President Obama will be hosting many of the world’s most powerful leaders. NATO, founded in 1949, has its headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. According to Wikipedia, NATO uses its summits, as opposed to its more frequent ministerial meetings, to introduce policy, invite new members, launch major initiatives, and to build partnerships with non-NATO countries. Whatever NATO’s particular agenda for this summit may be, I have a hard time believing this summit will be an event those who run this city will regret having hosted. Why not see this event as another opportunity for Chicago to show the world it can be utilized as a great meeting place where people can come together to make history. After all, much earlier in Chicago’s history, we hosted the world in a very successful manner for two world’s fairs (World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; Century of Progress Exposition of 1933). So, if you are a Chicagoan, let’s all keep some positive energy going about the upcoming summit. Because if we’re only looking for problems, then that’s all we’ll see. If you’re not a resident of Chicago, please wish us well as we welcome this historical event. And, please come visit us for great food, great times, and great people. Because when you arrive, as you’ll see on many signs, we’ll show you that we’re glad you’re here!


A SERIES ON PUBLIC TRANSIT CULTURE / Parts 1 & 2: Entry & Slow-Dancing

Part 1: Entry
Let’s begin with some transit-type mayhem of the pre-boarding type – the turnstile. The turnstile can be seen as gatekeeper to the next world, as a portal from the usual urban landscape to the realm of transit utopia (I’m being optimistic-please bear with me). While turnstiles mediate entrance to the trains, commuting via bus involves a looser entrance where the human factor comes into play given a driver controls bus entrance (to be addressed in an upcoming post).

On a recent morning commute, as I approached the turnstyle, I saw a man standing almost directly in front of the fare-card slot. I then had to decide whether to: a) just step around him, which would involve invading his personal space, or b) say excuse me and wait for him to move from my path. As I approached, planning to dodge him without speaking, he said, “Would you put me on the train please?” I made momentary eye contact, and then, sparing him my less-than-civil thoughts, silently walked past him (option ‘a’). He didn’t appear at all phased by my indifference and appeared to be readying himself for his next target. I know the dangers of assumptions, but this ambulatory man, of my race, looked ‘disabled-by-choice.’ The economic times may be hard, but this gentleman’s approach to panhandling left me less than sympathetic toward him.

Part 2: Loss of Personal Space – a.k.a. Slow-Dancing on the El.
When I arrived at work one recent morning, the office manager said, “How are you?” I responded with what I see as the obligatory, “Fine,” and then added, “but I think I just slow-danced with six people on the El.” To explain, the El is what many Chicagoans call the train. This form of public transit has below ground, above ground/elevated (hence the term “El”), and ground level tracks. On some of its elevated tracks this train traverses the Chicago river. But more interestingly, on other routes it travels UNDER the river. Sorry, I digress. Back to the commute. So, on the morning in question, I stepped into a standing-room-only train car to begin what is usually the 10-minute portion or final leg of my 30-minute commute. And, to clarify, not only were all the seats occupied, but open standing space was non-existent. I ended up near one of the doors surrounded by other standing riders. I was able to extend my left arm to grasp a pole – not that this was necessary since falling down was not an option given my body was practically enveloped by the bodies of other riders. With each acceleration or slowing of the train, I tried to brace myself with my left (non-dominant) arm, which was closest to a pole. However, given my arm was almost fully extended, I realized I had little leverage. I finally resigned myself to my sardine-like reality. This situation left me wondering why the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) has not put more thought into reducing the stress of such unpleasant, yet apparently inevitable experiences. My commute left me haphazardly packed in the over-crowded train car. I felt like a cheap, knock-off cell phone accessory thrown into a bag of similarly tacky items, packed by an uninterested bagger at a discount store. So, why can’t the CTA attempt to make its often tightly-packed riders feel packed in a ‘special’ way? Why can’t cramped riders’ feel they were ushered into a transit vessel more similarly to the way a certain fruit-named company places its technology products into well-designed, aesthetically pleasing packaging? Sorry, again I digress. The point of this is that there is simply almost no accounting for the riders’ personal space needs while on public transit. Further, CTA trains and buses both include seating facing the center aisle. Some very recently introduced new CTA train cars have even more aisle-facing seating. Sadly, using such seats is a set-up for getting stepped on if you have adult-size feet. Once again, there’s no accounting for the personal space needs of many Americans.

Public transit need not be uncomfortable. My experience with public transit in northern European countries (Denmark, Holland, and Sweden) has been pleasant in that passenger space and comfort seems to have been at least amongst the list of top-ten priorities for transit vehicle designers. Trains were spacious, silent, and offered a smooth ride. Maybe we can learn something from our European friends about moving people economically AND comfortably.

Turnstile image courtesy of http://www.wikimedia.org