‘120 Miles on a Bike’

Wednesday, August 25, 2021
That was the headline bestowed on an “Off the Beat” column I wrote as a college student and occasional stringer for the southwest suburban Star-Herald newspaper, Aug. 26, 1976 (Page 10, to be precise). Here for historical purposes is the full text, lightly edited. Because I’m a little smarter now.

Now that the numbness has left my fingers, the callouses have left my legs and the dust has been washed out of my hair, the story can be typed:

How my friend Roger and I bicycled 120-plus miles from Champaign-Urbana to Orland Park via Route 45—[with me] on a Raleigh Record 10-speed—in just 14 hours and 15 minutes.

And lived.

Despite the 20 mile-an-hour winds from the north, large trucks and small compacts alike edging us off the highway, broken glass and dead skunks in the middle of the road.

IT WAS originally a “let’s get some exercise and discover America” proposal.

I got the exercise–even if Roger, in much better shape and with a much lighter bicycle, had to wait for me to catch up (puff, gasp, wheeze) every two or three miles.

And we discovered America, too.

Two of them.

ONE AMERICA is full of friendly people like the nice grocer in Ashkum (“Where you folks comin’ from and goin’ to?) who sold us lunch (a quart of milk and a box of Pop-Tarts apiece) and let me—a bearded, hippie-type stranger—change clothes in his restroom; the curious high-school kids in Onarga; and the friendly, courteous and curious gas-station attendants in Paxton, Loda, Buckley, Kankakee and all the rest.

I confess: Before undertaking that Illinois odyssey, I had visions of middle-American lynch mobs riding Roger and me out of town on a rail.

It just didn’t happen. People are nice. But there’s another America. And it’s not so nice.

Something happens to all those nice grocers, gas-pumpers and gawking kids when they get behind the wheel of a car or a truck.

I tell you, they’re killers.

FINGERS AND TOES aren’t enough to count the number of times Roger and I nearly lost our left ears to vehicles passing us without giving us even half the leeway they would have given the smallest of cars.

(You’ve got to understand that bicycles—especially racers—can go sprawling any which way if they hit even a little pebble.

(So the gravel shoulder along most of Route 45 is unnavigable for two-wheelers. But there's nowhere else to go when those passing cars barrel past.)

Fortunately for cyclists, we’ve got a little more highway savvy than the average animal wandering down the street.

Lots of our furry friends get cut down mercilessly by that other, sinister, motoring America. Mashed animal, it seems, lined our path, from Urbana all the way to Orland Square.

IN A NUMBER of instances, Roger and I almost joined them:

You’ve never looked fear in the eye until you’ve bicycled toward side-by-side cars zooming at you 55 miles an hour on a curving, two-lane highway.

That strip of shoulder may have been pitifully narrow, but Roger and I were glad we could cling to it as those motorists motored merrily along.

Had we been driving a Volkswagen, you might be able to slide us into your toaster today.

BUT WE made it.

Once we rolled our bikes into the comfortable haven of my garage and showered, Roger and I slumped on a couch, heaving sighs of relief.

“Well,” he asked me in his best sarcastic Glencoe drawl, “did you discover America today?”

The answer is yes.

I discovered America, all right. But I’m not sure I like all of it. It’s a strange society, split by this gas-powered schizophrenia.

For all its commitment to cutting down on fuel use, America still doesn’t provide the basics to its bicycling public.

WE WHO pedal don’t waste fuel and put far less wear and tear on roads than our gas-guzzling fellow travelers.

But we’ve still got to look far and, unfortunately, not so wide to find roads with even a token strip of pavement—not gravel, mind you—that we can call our own.

In a nation where the highway death toll has long since exceeded the number of citizens dead in all our wars, I think it’s time we took a long look at bicycling as one cure to our motor madness.

In the meanwhile, I’m risking the perilous trip back to Champaign with my bicycle.

The bike will be strapped to the trunk.

I hope we both make it.

Ex-Chicago Tribune editor James Squires warned in 1993 about the corporate takeover of America’s newspapers

Tuesday, August 24, 2021
Back in 1993, a former editor of the Chicago Tribune sounded an alarm about the growing conflict between the drive for corporate profits and traditional journalism’s social-reform agenda.

That was close to six years before I joined the Trib and close to two decades before that trend inexorably led to a gutting of the paper’s staff.

As the paper welcomes a new editor, now seems like a good time to revisit the words of Jim Squires, talking about his book Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America’s Newspapers—in an interview recorded Feb. 3, 1993, and aired Feb. 7 on WNUA-FM, Chicago. Listen up.

If you like this, check out more of my conversations with thought-leaders through the years on this website, in Apple Music, on Spotify, via your favorite podcast player and at Chicago Public Square.

How I got the shot

Sunday, February 21, 2021
My recent post about landing my first COVID-19 shot drew the inevitable surge of questions from people asking, “How’d you do it?”

Acknowledging that ever-evolving protocol may have changed by the time you read this—but in the interest of helping others and spotlighting the challenges faced by those who don’t have or aren’t used to computers—here’s the step-by-step I used:

A friend familiar with Rush University Medical Center’s vaccine logistics advised me that Rush sometimes gets (or through cancellations winds up with) extra doses—and that those typically become available at or after 4 or 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays for those ready and willing to snag a last-minute same-day appointment.

My friend explained that the vaccines can go 
not just to Rush patients but also to anyone who’s currently eligible under state or city guidelines* and who’s signed up via Rush’s free online portal, “My Rush powered by MyChart.”

If you’re a Rush patient, you’re probably already in the system. I hadn’t been to Rush for more than a decade, so I signed up as a Guy Nobody Sent:

You simply enter some basic information—including the last four digits of your Social Security number—to get an activation code that puts you in the system within seconds.

Then, it’s just a matter of checking the Rush signup page relentlessly.

But getting to that page isn’t intuitive:

Once you’ve logged in, the trick is to click on the Menu icon in the upper lefthand corner and then the “Schedule an Appointment” dropdown option.

Then, click “COVID Vaccine for Eligible Patients.”

Next, a few quick questions about your eligibility, a pledge to cancel your appointment should your situation change, affirmation you’ve read the fine print, acknowledgment of any allergies you may have … and then you’re on a quest no doubt familiar to anyone who’s been in the hunt for tickets to a big concert. (Remember concerts?)

That includes having to answer those same questions over and over again.

If fate smiles on you, a bunch of same-day appointments will show up right off the bat. In my case, at 4 p.m. Feb. 18, I saw a batch of openings for March 10. But by the time I entered my insurance information—not required, but if you’re going to enter it, do so in advance!—they were all gone.

I tried again around 4:28, and a few dozen appointments appeared for that very evening. Unthinkingly, I grabbed 5:20, before realizing Gee, that’s less than an hour from now!

I bolted out the door—all the while cursing myself, Would it have killed you to wait until 7?—and made it in time.

Note: Rush schedules a second shot at the time you get the first.

To recap: The main obstacles, aside from being lucky—and lucky enough to have a computer and an internet connection—are …

1. Creating a My Rush profile—entering insurance information if you have it—in advance.
2. Clicking that Menu icon in the upper lefthand corner.

Now imagine not having a computer and an internet connection.

And say an extra prayer for those who don’t.

* I’m 66.

Email pioneer Aaron Barnhart interviewed in 1996

Monday, February 8, 2021

Of all the interviews I’ve conducted, none have influenced my career more than this 1996 sit-down with Aaron Barnhart, whose Late Show News newsletter pioneered the email news biz.

Listen to us discuss his model for how, in my words, “a lot of us in this profession will … do our work in the future” and you’ll hear the siren call that two years later would draw me from radio to the internet—and, not much later, to lead the Chicago Tribune’s email program.

Decades later, Barnhart’s work inspired the launch of Chicago Public Square.

First aired June 23, 1996, this show remains great and relevant listening, and it spotlights Aaron as one of the internet’s early visionaries.

Also: A cool time-capsule about the state of late-night TV in 1996.

Listen here.

If you like this, check out more of my conversations with thought-leaders through the years on this website, in Apple Music, on Spotify, via your favorite podcast player and at Chicago Public Square.