Category Archives: Family

Road Blog: Chicagoland


Chicagoland. Where did that name come from, anyway? I just submitted that question to WBEZ’s Curious City, which is a really interesting project if you haven’t heard it or seen it, so maybe they’ll investigate. I can tell from a brief scan of Google Books that my main assumption about the history — that it was the post-World War II brainchild of some advertising or marketing ace, is apparently incorrect. The name Chicagoland shows up at least as far back as the late 1920s. The favorite title I’ve found listed so far is 1938’s “Chicagoland Household Pests and How to Get Rid of Them.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, and here were my day’s activities in Chicagoland: I breakfasted with my sister Ann’s family on the North Side. I watched it rain. I drove down to the South Side (and a little beyond) to meet my brother Chris and visit the various Brekke, Hogan, O’Malley and Morans graves at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. We went to lunch (Smashburger on 95th Street in Oak Lawn). Then I made a slow northward trek to Mount Olive Cemetery, where much of my dad’s family was buried.

I rounded out the excursion with a drive down Irving Park Road to the Dairy Queen near Central Avenue. I had a chocolate malted and actually said aloud, “Here’s to you, Pop.” He was a longtime DQ customer, and he and I visited that location many times in the last few years before he died.

It was cold out, in the 30s and windy, and after dark, but I wanted to check out a taxidermy place across the street from the Dairy Queen to see if I could get a decent shot of specimens in the windows. I don’t think I did. Then I walked west a couple blocks, cross Irving Park, then walk back east, just looking at what was happening in he storefronts along the way.

Dr. Charlemagne Guerrero, M.D. A music store advertising lessons in guitar and music theory. A dance studio with a kids’ ballet class going on. Several bars — Pub OK and The Martini Club and a couple I didn’t get the names of. A Polish antique store. Dr. M.A. Starsiak, general dentistry. A barber shop. A door bearing a sign reading “Emperor’s Headquarters.” Then I was back across the street from the taxidermy shop.

The warm car afterward was nice.

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Road Blog: Harvest


Visiting Chicago for a few days, I drove down to the south suburbs this afternoon — late in the afternoon, as it turned out — to see my brother Chris and his wife, Patty. They live in Tinley Park, about 25 miles southwest of downtown, within sight of the junction of Interstate 57 and Interstate 80, but far enough away that the highways aren’t present as a constant roar.

I had left early to avoid the worst of the commute traffic and had some time to kill, so I drove on past Tinley Park and got off I-57 a little to the south. Then I wandered west and south, watching the last of the sunset and the dusk come on. Most of the suburban sprawl in the Chicago area over the last 40 years has been to the northwest, west and southwest. Comparatively little has been built due south of the city in the area where I grew up.

Which isn’t to say nothing’s happened out there. Chris and Patty have a big house in a subdivision that was probably mostly corn and soybean fields 15 years ago. As I drove this evening, I wandered through one subdivision in Matteson I’d never seen before, and as I moved on, through the western edge of Richton Park and the farms west of Monee, I kept passing big, newish homes planted in ones and twos on big patches of land — ranchettes, of a sort, I guess, for people who probably work in the city or away in the western suburbs and want to enjoy some relatively splendid isolation.

I needed to answer the call of nature on one of the roadsides, and before I got back in the car, I decided to check out corn planted right up to the bank of a creek. It looked ready to harvest and given the fact the soil looked dry and combines would probably have no problem in the field, I was a little surprised the corn was still standing.

I was surprised as I drove that my sense of the checkerboard geography, or road-ography, was mostly intact. Heading south from Vollmer Road, the first big intersection was U.S. 30. Then Sauk Trail, then Steger Road, where I turned west until I got to 80th Avenue (where the avenue is 80th from, I don’t know). Then south again, past Stuenkel Road and Dralle Road and Monee-Manhattan Road and, sure, a couple roads whose names I didn’t know. Driving this part of eastern Will County, you’re reminded that the country has some contours; 80th Avenue climbs one of the low ridges (glacial moraines, I’m guessing), west and south of Monee, with the terrain falling away in every direction. Some of the ranchettes out there are built in spots that afford long views across the prairie.

Then up ahead, I saw a combine and grain cart working in a cornfield just off the road to the west. I stopped, thinking I might get an iPhone picture in the dark (I didn’t get one worth saving). As I stood there, parked in the road in my Bay Area get-up (shorts and flannel shirt), a man approached me from a truck parked at the edge of the field.

I told him pretty much straight up what I was doing: Just driving aimlessly, taking in the landscape, that I had lived nearby, had been away from the area a while, and was taking a look. Then I asked about the harvest.

To make a long story short, the farmer, a guy named Ron Schubbe, was working with his brother and his brother’s son on a 35-acre cornfield. His own son had a day job nearby but would also be helping out. He said the grain had been too wet to harvest, but now, “We’re hitting it pretty hard.” I didn’t get other salient facts — how long it would take to harvest 35 acres, how big his entire acreage was (because I’m assuming nobody out there in corn and soybean country harvests just 35 acres of anything), how long it would take to harvest the field they were working, how late they’d be working, or what it felt like to be bringing in the crop.

But I did ask how long he’d lived out there. “I was born and raised right here,” he said. How long had his family been out there? He said his great-grandfather had begun farming in the area, north of the town of Peotone, since the 1880s.

So I did find that out, at least. Then I wandered around a little more, noticing a couple of other combines moving through the fields in the dark, and headed to Chris and Patty’s as the night finally fell.

(Conclusion of the foregoing.)



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Just remembering: It was two years ago today that our dad passed on. I’m not sure a day goes by that I don’t have some thought of him (and yes, of our mom, too — she died in August 2003, and it’s hard to believe it’s been that long).

Here’s a reading for them, two lifelong Chicagoans: Carl Sandburg’s “Passers-By,” from “Chicago Poems” (1916):

Out of your many faces
Flash memories to me
Now at the day end
Away from the sidewalks
Where your shoe soles traveled
And your voices rose and blent
To form the city’s afternoon roar
Hindering an old silence.

I remember lean ones among you,
Throats in the clutch of a hope,
Lips written over with strivings,
Mouths that kiss only for love.
Records of great wishes slept with,
Held long
And prayed and toiled for…

Written on
Your mouths
And your throats
I read them
When you passed by.

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No Tools Required

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We have a bathroom sink with a broken stopper — or at least a stopper I’ve been ineffective at fixing. So I followed up on a months-old resolution and bought an old-fashioned rubber stopper. To cover all bets, I got one that fits a range of drain sizes. And it works great. I run water into the sink, and the imperturbable stopper makes sure it just stays there.

I admit I thought the device was self-explanatory. But Kate pointed out after I’d removed the stopper and left the package just lying around on the kitchen counter that it came with installation instructions. Or “installation instructions,” since nothing there really tells you what you need to do with the drain plug to achieve total stopper satisfaction.

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Portrait of a Drought: Lake Oroville


The further adventures of a California reservoir. A year and a week ago — late March 2013 — Kate and I camped in the very nice Loafer Creek campground at Lake Oroville State Recreation Area. The lake, the main reservoir for the State Water Project and the second largest California reservoir after Lake Shasta, was about 85 percent full at the time. If you were following the vagaries of the state’s water season, you might have been a little troubled by the fact the 2012-13 rains had virtually disappeared after the turn of the new year. What wasn’t apparent during the first visit up there was that the rains wouldn’t return in the fall, either, and that the lake would fall to just one-third full by January — low in any season, but especially alarming in that the reservoir levels here and virtually everywhere else across the state continued to decline at a time when they’d usually be filling up with runoff from winter storms.

I drove up to Lake Oroville on January 18, which happened to mark the lake’s low point during the current water year (July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014). The difference in the lake’s appearance was dramatic — see the slideshow below. But when seasonal rains finally returned in early February, the lake began to rise. One way of measuring lake level is the height of the lake surface above sea level. When full, Lake Oroville’s surface is 900 feet above sea level. When Kate and I visited in March 2013, the surface level was 860 feet; when I went back in January, it stood at 701 feet according to the numbers from the state Department of Water Resources. The same source shows the lake at 759 feet now and rising.

Yesterday, Thom and I drove up to Oroville to take a look and take a new set of pictures to show the change since January (they’re incorporated into the slideshow). My impressions:

I suppose this is a “glass half-full/half-empty” exercise on a grand scale, especially since the lake is at almost exactly 50 percent of its total capacity right now. On one hand the lake is up almost 60 feet from the last time I saw it and has added about 40 percent to its storage — it’s added about 500,000 acre-feet since January, enough water for about 1 million California households. More water is coming, too: Even though the forecast for the next couple of weeks and beyond looks pretty dry, and even though we’re nearing the tail end of the rainy season, the snowpack will start too melt and run down the branches of the Feather River that flow into the lake.

The conventional wisdom is that half of the state’s stored water is captured in the Sierra snows that wind up in streams, rivers and reservoirs. One slice of Lake Oroville history shows how dramatic an impact the snowpack can have:

A drier-than-normal water year in 2008-09 reduced the reservoir’s storage to a shade more than 1 million acre-feet, less than 30 percent of capacity, and lowered the surface to 665 feet above sea level by early January 2009; that’s about 20 percent less water and about 45 feet lower than the level we saw this past January. Then storms began arriving and began building the northern Sierra snowpack. The water content of the snow in the Feather River drainage reached about 130 percent of normal by early April 2010, and the lake had come up to virtually the same level as it is this weekend. The reservoir, which had reached its lowest point on January 11, kept rising through June 29, when it reached its high point of about 2.7 million acre-feet and elevation of 843 feet above sea level. That’s a rise of 178 feet in less than six months.

So that’s the glass half-full. It’s normal for our reservoirs to rise and fall, often dramatically (and no, I’m not addressing here the impact of how the reservoirs are operated — how much water is released, when, and why).

Here’s the empty half of the glass for Lake Oroville: This year, the Department of Water Resources estimates that the water content in the thin layer of snow in the Feather River watershed’s high country is just 13 percent of average for this time of year. Thirteen percent. So, we’re not going to see any late season rise in the lake. More likely, we’ll see a scenario more like the one that unfolded in 2007-08, when two drier-than-normal years left the lake at close to the same level we see today — 753 feet. The watershed’s snowpack was lower than normal, and although runoff gave the lake a boost, it topped out at just 760 feet and 50 percent capacity in late May. That dry rain year was followed by another, and in February 2009, the state declared a drought emergency.

None of this is meant to make a single reservoir, even a big one like Lake Oroville, seem more important than it really is. But reservoirs are important to making it possible for 38 million people to live, and for a rich agricultural industry to thrive,in a place where it typically doesn’t rain much for six months of the year. And Lake Oroville’s water storage happens to mirror what’s happening with the state’s water supply picture as a whole at the moment: The Department of Water Resources’ daily summary of 44 key reservoirs shows them collectively at 64.4 percent of average for today’s date. Lake Oroville is at 65 percent.

Here’s the revised slideshow:

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By Way of Explanation

Anyone who has ever read this blog regularly — not a huge group, but one that I sort of know — have seen for awhile that the posts come less and less often (or do I mean more and more infrequently?). Part of the explanation won’t be surprising: Like just about everybody else in the world, I’ve been busy with other stuff.

Part of what I’ve been busy with, though, is another blog. About six months ago, I took over as the proprietor of a daily news blog for my public radio employer. On one hand, can you believe it? I’m getting paid to blog. On the other, I find myself at the keyboard and on the net for sometimes unhealthy amounts of time (when news has actually been happening, such as when we had transit strikes last summer and fall, the job has come dangerously close to being 24/7), a reality that sometimes leaves me feeling a little spent and brain-addled.

What that has meant for this personal blog, which I’ve kept at for more than 10 years, is that I’ve had less energy and attention for it. The time available to sit down and post something thoughtful (or even a nice picture) has grown shorter, and a lot of evenings I feel I need to have that time away from a keyboard and screen.

Among the handful of folks I know who have checked in here over the years are a few I know have been blogging on a daily or nearly daily basis for longer than I have. I know everyone who does that has a lot of stuff going on in their own lives — at work, at school, pursuing other interests or answering other obligations. I have seen the different strategies people have adopted to make the pursuit more manageable. If I wore a hat, it would be off to everyone who keeps on with their personal mission to communicate the news from their small corner of experience or their thoughts about the world beyond to people like me who, even if I can’t (or at any rate don’t) read every day still am fascinated and informed by what they say and suggest.

I’m not announcing the end of this blog or anything portentous like that. But I am just trying to figure out how to maintain some meaningful continuity for myself and for those who have stuck to this small adventure with me for so long.

More later.

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Last of 2013


The main outing for the last day of 2013: Kate and I took The Dog out to Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline, up near Martinez. Having contrived to leave home less than two hours before sunset, we only got a short walk in, up to the top of a ridge with a view out to everywhere — the nearby towns of Martinez and Benicia, the above-mentioned strait and Suisun Bay, Mount Diablo, the mountains in Napa and Solano counties. The light was gorgeous, and as it faded, Scout started studying one of the nearby ridges. There was a cow up there, silhouetted against the twilight. Scout kept his vigil for a couple minutes until the cow ambled off over the hill. Then we all headed back down to the car and into the end of New Year’s Eve.

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Not So Long Ago

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Well, It was actually 28 years ago today, a rainy Sunday afternoon in the Berkeley Hills. Kate and I got married at the preschool where she was working at the time — that’s why the alphabet is on the wall. My mom and dad and my son Eamon were there and a bunch of our best friends: Trapper Byrne, at the left edge of the picture here, worked with Kate and I at the Daily Cal (he’s still going, now as deputy metro editor, I think, at the San Francisco Chronicle). Ursula Stehle is next to him, a close friend since the time our older kids were born; her husband, Larry HIckey, did a reading during our brief ceremony. Beyond Ursula is Bruce Hilton, a news desk colleague of mine from The San Francisco Examiner who was also an ordained Methodist minister and who agreed to officiate once he was satisfied Kate and I were serious about the adventure we were undertaking. Outside the frame of the picture and not yet mentioned were Bill Joyce, whom we had gotten to know through Larry and Ursula; Robin Woods and Jim Tronoff, who have long since decamped to Ripon, Wisconsin; Trapper’s wife, Judy Wong; George Paolini and Jane Paulsen, newspaper friends of mine from Alameda who now live in Carmel or someplace south and west of here; and Vicki and Ross Carlton and their daughter Cedar, who hosted our celebration (it was Vicki’s preschool). It’s been too long since I’ve seen most of these folks.

At the moment the picture was taken, we were singing a funny song that Bill had written for the occasion to the tune of the Irish song “Haul Away, Joe.” I don’t have the lyrics at hand, but it was about me losing my independence. Or something like that. I still have the jacket I wore that day. It’s a tight fit, and I haven’t worn it in years. But the typewritten vows I read that day are still inside the left inside pocket, just where they were that day, not so long ago or far away.

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Road Blog: ‘Bivouac of the Dead’


We’ve spent the last several days making family visits in New Jersey and Pennsylvania: with Kate’s mom and sister in Monmouth County, N.J., with Kate’s cousin Rose north of Philadelphia. Yesterday, we made a long, looping drive back to New Jersey to the home of one of Kate’s closest high school friends, Lisa. On the way, we stopped in Scranton to visit the cemetery where Kate’s dad, Paul Edward Gallagher, is buried.

We’d visited the place, Cathedral Cemetery, just once before, in the summer of 1995. In the interim, I’ve discovered how difficult it is to find gravesites when you’re not intimately familiar with a cemetery’s layout (or even if you are). When we arrived, the cemetery office was already closed for the day, so we couldn’t get directions to the exact spot. I had a vague image of the part of the cemetery where the Gallaghers are interred, and we drove slowly around the place until I found a spot that looked right. We got out and went walking in different directions to see if we could find the site. I figured we’d never find it. But after looking for 15 or 20 minutes, Kate texted me that she’d found the place.

We went through an exercise I’ve gone through before, trying to note landmarks to remember for the next visit years hence. So: that group of five trees to the east of the site. The bee-hive shrine to the west. The prominent Mullaghy plot next to the Gallaghers. And I took pictures for a visual guide. I’ll look up the place on Google’s satellite maps and put an X on the spot. Assuming there is a next time, I’m sure I’ll feel lost again, at least for a little while.

During our search we also passed a section of the cemetery reserved for veterans’ graves. Civil War veterans and veterans of wars up through Vietnam. The largest group was from that first war, though, and a tablet had been put up with a stanza of a poem, “Bivouac of the Dead,” that reportedly appears at Arlington National Cemetery and many other burial places of Civil War soldiers. It’s by Theodore O’Hara, a Kentuckian who wrote it to honor the state’s dead in the Mexican War. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War (click the image below for a larger–readable–version).


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Road Blog: Late Starts, and Walking New York

Advantage to flying east from the western edge of the continent late in the morning: One can enjoy a leisurely morning. Coffee. Walking the dog. Getting the house a little ready for the neighbors (hi, Marie and Steve) who will be looking after things (and the dog) while we’re gone. Finishing packing.

Disadvantage to the late start: You reach your destination pretty late. And even later if your plane is delayed, the way ours was yesterday. We climbed off the jet around 11:45 or so and reached my brother’s place a little after 1 in the morning. The fatigue of the late hour was offset by the exhilaration of finding a parking space within a block of his apartment building near the Brooklyn Bridge.

The late arrival meant we were up until all hours talking with John, my sister-in-law Dawn, nephew Sean, and niece Leah. Then we had a late start this morning (or some of us did–John and Dawn were up pretty early). Eventually, Kate and I went out with Eamon and Sakura (our son and daughter-in-law) and Sean and Leah for lunch, a hike across the Brooklyn Bridge, a visit to the World Trade Center memorial, another hike up to Chinatown for dinner (with John and Dawn), then the eight of us finished with a stroll back to Brooklyn by way of the Manhattan Bridge.

Weather: beautiful. Warm and just enough humidity to remind us what that is without beating us over the head with it. Experiences: wow, were the streets crowded. I need more time to absorb the World Trade Center site. All I can say now is that the site is somber and restrained; that was a pleasant surprise.

Here’s a clutch of pictures from the day:

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