Archive for October, 2011

Two TVs: a microbiography

We got a second TV. It was gifted by my dad, who bought 70” of television. It dominates the wall above his fireplace. It is impossible to look away; you must look into the light.

Not long ago I didn’t have TV one or two. TV one was the first TV I ever owned: a 42” Panasonic plasma that we bought as a housewarming for our first marital residence. So six years ago, no TV. No wife, no kids, no career, no car. No clue, my brother would say, then call me a Luddite.

There is something about TV that I don’t trust. Once there, it’s always there. Its omnipotence in front rooms, living rooms, family rooms—whatever you call the room where people gather—is unsettling. The seats in the room are trained on it, the people in the room feel awkward when it’s off because it is such a big looming presence, demanding attention, like drunk Uncle Bob. It can take the place of conversation, which in many ways, like during family parties, can be one of its virtues.

I’m obviously conflicted. I grew up with one TV. Eventually, with the advent of cable television, we even got a remote control. And, thanks to the ingenuity of my brother, we never had a cable bill. In college my roommates had TV, including a 13-inch black and white one freshman year that was used exclusively for Tecmo Bowl. Everyone on our floor wanted to play, so much so that we had to set up times for tournaments. Playing old school video games on an even older school TV was hip. After college, in my bohemian phase, I didn’t want any possessions, especially a TV. Possessions weigh you down, man, keep you tied to one place.

There is truth to that, but it’s a truth whose pertinence has faded with the inability to pack my car and go. For two years in my first apartment, a studio in Chicago that couldn’t hold much more than my car, I had no TV. When I wasn’t bartending or in grad school classes, or doing the two things associated with either (reading, writing, or drinking at other bars), I was sleeping. If there was a game on I’d go to the sports bar where I worked; a political debate I’d go to the bar next to my building. I didn’t miss TV, but significant portions of those two years, in the often quiet times when I wasn’t dating, were lonely. TV staves off the quiet, it blasts out introspection and reflection. Another of its virtues.

Then there was another roommate, a best friend who caught me jerking off at his tv; then the first place I owned, where I lived three more years without a TV. I did have, however, a 16-inch computer screen to watch movies. On closeups the character’s top hairs and lower chins were cut off and every ten minutes I had to click the keyboard to keep it from screen saver mode. It was an interactive experience.

Now we have two TVs. Like most things with age, I’m getting used to it. The old one is in my basement office, which doubles as a guest room. It may become the kids Wii TV. We’ll keep it till it burns out. Last week I was able to work while football games and parts of the World Series played silently on the TV. It was lovely.




Cook County property taxes: What. The. Fuck.

In the red, the very, very red

We were warned a month ago that property taxes in Cook County would rise even though property values were down. Still, with tax bills due next week, there was no cushion that could soften the blow of my 18% tax increase, especially since our house lost 5% of its assessed value.

I’ve spent the week trying to figure out who is responsible for raising taxes in Cook County. The short answer is every taxing body, ranging from the Forest Preserve General Superintendent Arnold Randall (.68% of property tax bill) to the local elementary school board, which receives a whopping 37.6% of our property tax bills.

How it works in Cook County, as far as I can tell, is every local government taxing body submits its budget to the County, who then determines the pool of money needed by all 31 townships including the city. Since almost all property values decreased, there were fewer tax dollars going into the pool. This isn’t news. But instead of planning for the shortfall by trimming budgets, they increased the tax rate from 6.7% to 7.5%. In summary, if your home is worth less (note the space), your tax burden is greater. It’s a double shot right to the nuts. This myopic logic makes foreclosure more attractive for the individual homeowner, thereby creating an even bigger burden on the overtaxed community.

Image ripped off of Cook County Board President Tori Preckwinkle

All I want to know is which figurehead, or which set of elected officials I can target my taxpayer ire in the next election? My hands are tied, my pockets drained, at least give me a target for my rage. Yet the property tax system in Illinois, and specifically Cook County, seems built quixotically to avoid any political responsibility. “The Cook County property tax system is unique in that it is riddled with confusion and is often inconsistent. In fact, former Assessor James M. Houlihan described the assessment process as a “Mystical Maze” in the February 26, 2006 edition of the Chicago Tribune,” says John P. Fitzgerald, a lawyer “serving commerce and industry” in Chicagoland. I don’t know if I’ve ever agreed with or cited a business lawyer, but it sure seems like the system is constructed to confuse.

If the Cook County Clerk David Orr and his office calculate tax rates, and Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios and his office assesses property values, then who the hell actually sets the taxes? According to my “tax advocate” at Wheeling Township, the tax rate is determined by need, which is determined by school boards, village pension plans, road and bridge funds, and a host of other headless incidentals itemized on the tax bill. All in the name of a vibrant community. If you take a walk, they’ll tax your feet.

I accept my tax responsibility for community services as part of the social compact. But I’d also like some transparency and accountability. Everyone I’ve talked to, from my neighbor to my “tax advocate” shrug their shoulders, choking down the what-are-ya-gonna-do shit sandwich. I don’t want to Occupy Wall Street; I want to be able to occupy my goddamned house.

It appears at least one elected official feels my pain. In an effort to rid us of the secretive cronyism of the Stroger Jr. days, Cook County Board President Tori Preckwinkle has an interactive budget deficit website where County residents can see–and even weigh in–on what expenditures should be cut and what revenues should be raised. This interaction and information, along with the grassroots approach of writing and calling elected officials, from the township level to the state congressional representatives, may be a first step.

Here is a link if you live in Cook County to track down all of your elected officials

Here is the Cook County Board Budget proposal for 2012.



O, Panthro, Where Have Ye Gone? guest essay by Mark Brand

Those huge LEGO sets I always drooled at on the top shelves of the toy aisle? They came home with us. Nerf guns, ditto. No toy was too big or too expensive or too awesome for John and me.

courtesy of

I’m that dad, I admit it. I’m the dad where the moment I found out my newborn was a boy, a huge and rusty abacus in the back of my head started ticking off all of the things I told myself I’d do if I ever had a son. Being more the creative/imaginative type of kid myself when I was little, most of these things involved spaceships and dragons and fearless adventuring, and, by some kind twist of fate, as my son’s personality began to show itself I discovered that he was very much that same kind of kid. The ledger of “when I’m a grown up, I’ll do ____” started kicking into overdrive. Those huge LEGO sets I always drooled at on the top shelves of the toy aisle? They came home with us. Nerf guns, ditto. No toy was too big or too expensive or too awesome for John and me. And at some point after having savagely satisfied this cathartic urge several times to the tune of several hundred dollars, I took a breath and came to the realization that all of this was going to take far more time than I had initially thought. John, who was maybe two and a half at the time, and of course too young to truly play with the thousand-piece LEGO castle in the way its creators intended, was nevertheless confident that his dad knew awesome toys when he saw them, my crazy funhouse concept of age-appropriateness notwithstanding.

So for a while we slowed down with the toys. I dialed back the glee of fathering a clever, sincere little clone of myself, and tried instead to be patient. There’d be time for building entire medieval villages or for dressing up like padded foam Terminators and shooting suction-cup darts at each other across the no-man’s-land of my living room. For the time being I settled for Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Duplo, and Fisher Price, as ploddingly simplistic and insipidly educational as they insisted on being. Eventually we’d hit the age for Transformers and ninjas and knights and space adventurers, and then it would be on, as they say, similarly to Donkey Kong.

Well, that time has come, sort of. John is four and a half now, and very much into a few of my old friends from boyhood. Optimus Prime of course is a favorite, as are ninjas and knights and any kind of play involving guns or swords, but there was still something essential that was different or missing that I couldn’t quite put a finger on. I caught a glimpse of this when my parents brought us a large box of my old Transformer toys from the 80’s that they had saved. Even though they were dusty and old and the plastic was brittle in comparison to the new unbreakable ABS that most kids toys are currently made of, John looked when I presented him with these relics as though I had just given him Excalibur. These broken, chewed-on, half-metal friends from my childhood instantly became his favorite toys. He slept with them grasped tightly in each hand, took them to school and showed them off proudly to his pre-school teacher, proclaiming that these were the “real” Transformers from “the olden days.” Aside from the incredible déjà vu whiplash I incurred from watching my son take the same Laserbeak toy to show-and-tell that I tucked in my own coat pocket when I was four or five, it was stunning to me how even at four and a half he could easily discern some qualitative difference between these old toys and their new somehow disappointing counterparts.

John Brand, the author's son, packing Nerf heat

All of this became much clearer when, about two months ago, I discovered that the original animated Voltron and Thundercats are now available on Netflix Streaming. The life of a boy like John is non-stop action, and even when he sits down to rest and take a breath, he likes his TV shows full of action, too. Since we’d watched all of the shows on our DVR at least twice, I said “hey, John, check this out”, and I played him the first episode of Voltron. I don’t remember exactly how many he watched, but we got to at least episode 6 or 7 before we had to stop for dinner. My son was riveted, and I mean riveted, to the screen. I was proud of myself that I’d managed to come up with something he was interested in and enjoyed, and I started to wonder what exactly about Voltron was so much better than what he has on TV now. The show, on an adult re-watch, is every bit as formulaic and repetitive as the new ones he watches. The dialogue is just as simplistic. I mean, “flying robotic lions piloted by five space explorers that merge into a gigantic robot hero with a sword” is going to pass any boyhood litmus test of awesomeness you can come up with, but is that premise really that much better than Rescue Heroes or Dora the Explorer? And then it hit me: it’s the story.

Not the actual storyline, plot, subplots, etc, but more the fact that it had a story at all. Voltron, for all its overused stock-footage and repetitiveness, has a fully-formed story to it. There’s plot continuity. There’s internal logic. There’s (gasp!) antagonists! There’s conflict. A show like Dora the Explorer or the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse has none of these things. I say this fully understanding that today kids’ shows are much more targeted to specific ages than 20-25 years ago, so let’s look at something comparable like the Smurfs. The Smurfs had a very clear, traditional antagonist (Gargamel) and his comical cat henchman (Azreal, which incidentally is one name for the Angel of Death), and they lived in a stereotypical evil lair (Gargamel’s broken-down old wizard house), and their primary goal was to catch the Smurfs with the intention of either eating them, or using them to conjure gold. I guess you could count Swiper or Pete as the antagonists of Dora and Mickey, if you were willing to accept the feasibility of your heroes being forever relatively close friends with your primary antagonists, and the crisis in each episode involving mostly selecting which protagonist gets the task of awkwardly confronting these characters to say “come on, you’re being a douchebag again, stop it.” (Swiper no swiping!) The primary conflict of the show, then, is basically reduced to nothing but a thinly-veiled polemic on the dynamics of positive peer-pressure. Which the Smurfs had too, don’t get me wrong, but that wasn’t all they had.

In the Rescue Heroes, no one ever does anything negative deliberately. There are cops that respond to nothing but kittens stuck in trees, and firefighters that respond to volcanoes instead of arson. The “antagonist” is a character’s own flaws or fears that need to be overcome. Which is all fine and good until you realize the deeply flawed logic of a show specifically about people who do daring, dangerous jobs and yet appear to be a complete pack of sissy-pants-es.

For shows with branded characters with their own backstories, sidekicks, and pets that recur from episode to episode, it surprises me that they make so little effort at continuity. Hot Wheels Battle Force 5, Special Agent Oso, and Jake and the Neverland Pirates ooze potential for thrilling, boy-friendly, epic fun, and even though there are some colorful baddies in there from time to time, they lack a running storyline. Each episode stands on its own as a puzzling sort of narrative island, as if the producers had decided that since no one seemed to notice that Pokemon and Bakugan have no discernable plot that it was okay to do this with other types of shows as well. When they’re not having a talky, pluckily passive-aggressive exercise in getting each other to do what the whole group wants, the characters onscreen are breaking the fourth wall, staring directly at the child watching the show, and waiting for the child to respond like some sort of creepy call-and-answer litany. Is it any big surprise, then, that Sven, Lance, Hunk, Pidge, and Princess Allura are endlessly more entertaining to a kid than this strange mishmash of broken storytelling and cerebral psychosocial conditioning?

Since realizing this, I’ve started applying my own set of standards to the sorts of things John watches. “Does this story have, if not a ‘bad guy’ at least a logical antagonistic character?” Because really, if there isn’t, then how can this show ever effectively evoke classic storytelling tropes that are valuable to kids? Mickey telling Pete to stop playing his tuba while Donald is napping is a nice exercise in getting along with mostly-good people you have a momentary strong negative reaction to, but what about those people you just can’t get along with? What then?

Now that he’s in the last year of preschool before kindergarten, we received a strict edict of “no weapons and no superheroes” for show-and-tell. No weapons I was prepared for. It seems like the same sort of anti-conflict directive that we’ve all been swallowing begrudgingly as correct for the last twenty years or so, despite it being one of those distinctly “boy things” that makes us feel like we’re saying “don’t be a boy” to our boy children, but why no superheroes? I never received an answer from the people at the top, but it makes a sort of sense. Where go superheroes also go villains, and that seems to be an interesting and connected message to the cartoons. There is no need for superheroes or weapons because there is no such thing as antagonists.

Never mind that the show-and-tell ban on weapons and superheroes puts boys at a startling wrongness simply by virtue of one sort of narrative being more appealing than another to them, but who are we as adults to lie to our children and tell them that their lives are going to be full of only rational, understanding people, and conflicts that can be resolved in half an hour with conversation and teamwork, and that taking a stand for what they feel is right is anti-social? I don’t need much more than my son’s instant and strong reaction to the older style of storytelling to know that while times change, stories—true, realistic, logical stories—don’t. Sometimes in life you need Mouse-ke-tools to solve problems, but there are other times when you’ll be glad you brought your nunchucks.


Mark R. Brand is a Chicago-based science-fiction author and the online short fiction editor of Silverthought Press. He is the author of two novels, Life After Sleep (2011), and Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), and he is the editor of the collection Thank You Death Robot (2009), named a Chicago Author favorite by the Chicago Tribune and recipient of the Silver medal 2009 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in the category of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He has published numerous short stories and essays, an exhaustive list of which can be found at He lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son.



In a ten-minute span this morning, my son caught a frog on a hike, I found out I was the first-place winner in the One Book, One Chicago flash fiction contest, and I found out my mother-in-law will be living with us for a few weeks.

The lineup for the event on Thursday, October 13 is as follows:

6:30pm – reception begins, doors/bar opens at Stop Smiling(1371 N. Milwaukee)
7:00 – Annie Tully brief welcome, introduces readers from contest.
– 3rd place, Claire Bartlett
– 2nd place, Beau Golwitzer
– 1st place, Robert Duffer
7:25pm- break for drinks, etc.
7:35 – JC Gabel introduces readers, each individually before they read, 5-10 minutes each
– Achy Obejas
– Jaswinder Bolina
– Natalie Moore
– Stuart Dybek (10-15 minutes)
8:15 – panel discussion with four above writers
8:35 q&a w/ audience
9pm – close
I’m as excited as if I caught my own frog.

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The city and the girl

I got to have a daddy-daughter adventure day downtown yesterday. Another way to say it is I had to drag her to a meeting. We took the Blue Line and though we used to ride the Brown Line for fun when we lived in the city, she did not remember. As she kneeled on the seat, letting the CTA jerk her around, calling out every taxi and shaking with nervous excitement when an oncoming train passed, I tried to remind her of her roots: you were born there, we lived down there, we worked there, played there. I knew there was no city left in her four-year-old blood when, from across the churning tide of the Kennedy, she spotted a Metra train racing by, and said, “Look! There’s our train!”


If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then the possessive defines where you’re from. It’s still in my blood, which might be why I encouraged her to wear her Urlacher jersey. After we moved, whenever I would commute back to the suburbs, bound by a rigid Metra schedule, or use a sophisticated mapping system to avoid driving, I would feel deprived, deported from the convenience of the city. Two years removed, and with the kids more independent, that feeling has lost its edge.

Some winter days we used to ride our favorite seat in the first car opposite the conductor on the Brown Line, my boy pressed to the window like germs. Maria didn’t have the balance to stand on the seat and watch the metal tongue of the city swallow up the train. I had to hold her. I always coveted the idea of raising a city kid, the grit and the glamour, the worldliness and the weariness, especially since it cast such an imposing and alluring specter on my suburban youth. My son used to ask about the old place, the old haunts, to play with our old friends. He doesn’t ask anymore.  Now that we’re fully ensconced in suburbia, raising a city kid seems like a lot more work, a lot more worry. The attention demanded from a child in the wild is that much more intense, more so downtown than the neighborhoods. There’s more of everything, which means more worry.

This is a worry you don’t process, I think, unless you’re on the outside looking in. We go adventuring downtown about once a month and, possibly because I work there, I caught myself, when answering her questions, conjuring up a memory that she didn’t have. I was talking to the city, as if we were still together. But the city doesn’t care. Never has, never will. And that fact made our daddy-daughter adventure that much better, because it was ours alone.

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