Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Category: Observations

Looking Up (Literally)

Anyone who has children or owns a dog knows the monotony that can come with walking the same familiar streets for years on end.  When my kids attended grade school there were times when I walked the same four blocks back and forth four times a day.  The same houses.  The same trees.  The same cars.  Sure, sometimes these walks led to a little mind-wandering that was good for the soul, but often I viewed the strolls merely as chores to do, not unlike tackling another load of laundry.  If you live in the mountains you may be spared this plight, but residing in the Chicago suburbs doesn’t lend itself to particularly interesting landscapes – people don’t call Illinoisans flatlanders for nothing. 

But there’s an old adage I once read somewhere that went something like this: if you want to discover something new, walk down a familiar path.  A year ago I took this tidbit to heart and decided to change my mindset by doing something very simple: looking up.  I began to notice the trees of the neighborhood, and I recognized that with a few exceptions I couldn’t name them beyond the most rudimentary level, like asking a three-year-old what those large green things are in the front yard.  “Those are trees.”  Aside from obvious maples and oaks, there’s little I could tell you. 

I purchased a copy of Peterson Field Guides Eastern Trees, watched a few videos on YouTube, and began to challenge myself by learning how to identify the multitude of trees lining the parkways and front yards of Elmhurst, Illinois, attempting to add a few varieties every week or two.  I’m not very good at it – it’s incredible how many species of trees there are and how darn similar they can be to each other – but little by little I’m expanding my knowledge base, and my walks have been enriched greatly as a result.  Now when I walk familiar streets, my mind is focused on something other than whether my dog has peed or pooed.

Trees are varied enough and intricate enough that I could probably spend the next decade on this endeavor alone, but there are other ways to open up your world when taking walks if trees aren’t your thing.  A friend of mine who walks far more than I do has a background in architecture, and for her the suburban streets are the source of endless variations of home styles.  When engaged in conversation with her, she’ll sometimes say something like, “You know that red tudor on the corner of Grace Street?”

No.  No I don’t.

It reminds me of something my buddy Don said to me back in grad school when he purchased flowers for his girlfriend.  I asked him what kind, and he answered, “Purple ones.”

The point is that the world around you is much bigger and interesting than you might realize, and all it takes is a little initiative to tap into your surroundings in new, profound ways.  If trees ever lose their luster, you could start identifying house styles, or makes and models of cars, or types of flowers or birds or the names of colors.  I’m terrible at describing the color of objects, and I’d love to add shades like mauve, chartreuse, azure and fuchsia to my immediate lexicon.  There’s no shortage of ways to mentally challenge yourself as you do your daily strolls.

But for my next challenge, I’m focused on getting our dog to pee on command so that four walks a day aren’t a necessity come wintertime. Here’s hoping.

Pooch Panic

Were you to have recorded my worst moments two weeks ago, you’d surely need no additional evidence to determine that I suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, manifesting itself in extreme panic attacks and severe fits of rage.  It was rough week, and while I plead guilty to the symptoms, if not the diagnosis (yet), it just goes to how hard it can be during times of stress to see the finish line and put things into perspective. 

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My family adopted a pooch two weeks ago – a four-year-old beagle recovering from hip surgery who suffers from her own anxiety issues and is prone to pee in the house – and within a short twenty-four hours of our adoption I was unable to see how this experiment would result in anything other than me packing up and leaving the family, since I know that my wife would never willingly spurn the devotion of a pooch, no matter how much pee she empties onto our carpets.  (And just last night – our couch!)

I panicked.  My wife and I argued.  She calmed me down.  And just when I thought, okay, maybe this will all work out, Piper, our sweet loving pooch who was clearly treated poorly for much of her life, would look at me, plop down on her back, and pee all over the floor, leading me to get amped up all over again until Alice tranquilized me with reason.  This was hard for her to do in person, but especially difficult to do over the phone, juggling normal work-day stresses along with her insane husband yelling while he mopped up pee for the fourth time that day.

And it wasn’t just the pee.  During that first week, Piper suffered from diarrhea (and anxiously deposited one bout onto our living room floor), wouldn’t eat dry food, wouldn’t pee outside, making it impossible to reinforce good behavior, and even if she had peed, she wouldn’t eat any of the treats we offered. (After a few days we resorted to giving her pieces of boiled chicken).  Add to this that she was still getting over hip surgery, so she was unable to walk any distance and we had to initially carry her up and down stairs.  It was all too much.

And then Monday night happened.

I had travelled to Louisville for a day to visit my daughter and get away for a while, and upon returning home came back to the same poor pooch, who immediately peed upon leaving her crate after my son had accidentally slept in too long.  I called Alice yet again on the phone and told her how this wasn’t going to work out.  (I’d like to say that were my exact words.  Not quite.)

And then that night Piper ate dry food.  Gobbled it, devoured it.  And then while on a walk she peed – on the GRASS – and when I offered her a basic store-bought treat to reward her, she ate it.  Gobbled it, devoured it.  Upon returning home she sprinted up the stairs, played with a sock that we’d tied into a knot several days earlier, and acted, well…like a dog. 

Piper has had a few setbacks since then – she peed on the carpet after refusing to climb down the stairs for some reason, and last night she peed on the couch, but the majority of her issues fixed themselves so quickly that now all we’re left with is a really good pooch who has a few issues on occasion.  I wish I could same for her owners!  Piper still is a little jumpy, and we may have some difficulty when it comes to leaving her to go on vacation, but I feel like these are challenges we can face.  Two weeks ago, I couldn’t see any light on the horizon, and all it took was one day before I started to panic.  Woe to my family if I ever have to face real stress for actual weeks or months.

I feel lucky and grateful.  Lucky that my wife forced me to hang in there just a little bit longer, and grateful that Piper is currently sitting by my side on our backroom couch.  And I hope she knows that she’ll never face another difficult day for as long as she lives.  Those days are over.  For your remaining years, dear Piper, all that’s expected of you now is to rest, eat, play, cuddle and act happy when we walk in the door.

And to pee outside.  That’s it.

My Experience with Blue Apron

While recognizing that my somewhat cushy existence as an at-home dad/musician/writer doesn’t give me much leeway for complaining, after being the primary meal planner and preparer of the house for the past twenty years, I decided that I needed a break.  It wasn’t so much the shopping and cooking that bothered me as it was the planning.  Deciding what to eat in order to satisfy everyone’s tastes and restrictions was getting to be a mental chore, so for my 50th birthday I requested a gift certificate to Blue Apron, a meal delivery service that supplies its customers with all the ingredients needed to cook recipes you choose on-line.  Easy peasy, and it seemed like a fine antidote to the meal planning virus I’d contracted. 

While I’ve enjoyed aspects of the service, after eight weeks of using Blue Apron, I’ve decided that the pros don’t outweigh the cons, and this morning I cancelled my service.  Let me preface this by saying that if both my wife and I were working full-time, I might not be so quick to abort the mission.  The fact that I have a lot of flexibility to shop and prepare meals changes the ledger considerably.

So why did I cancel?  There were three things that made me feel uneasy about the service, as good as it might be. 

First, it’s not cheap.  I of course knew that going in, but seeing the bill show up on the credit card each week started to wear on me, especially knowing full-well that I could easily drive to a grocery store to pick up whatever food I needed at a fraction of the cost.  I was paying $10 per person per meal, so $80 a week.  This is not unbelievably expensive, and I doubt a company could do it for much less, but nevertheless, price was one nagging concern.

Second, I found my shopping to be much less frequent, which on the surface is a good thing, but my trips became so infrequent and my habits so poor that our food inventory suffered as a result.  It was so easy to say “I’ve got dinner all set for tonight – we can hang in there one more day before I do another shopping run” that we’d be left to face a breakfast of toast and a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches (not that there's anything wrong with that).  We also kept running out of basic items like milk, yogurt and bananas.  In short, I grew terribly lazy and used Blue Apron as an excuse to avoid shopping at all costs.

But the biggest reason for cancelling the service is the staggering amount of waste created each week by the Blue Apron deliveries.  As a guy who started recycling two decades before curbside pickup was a thing, unnecessary waste is an important point for me.  Ellen Cushing wrote a nice summary of the waste incurred with a service like Blue Apron (competitors have similar issues) and the somewhat disingenuous claim that most of the materials can be recycled.  Blue Apron used to have a free recycling program that allowed customers to send all the contents back to the company, but this has been cancelled, no doubt due to the cost.

If Blue Apron or a service like it could be localized so that – like the Chicago-based Oberweis dairy deliver service – we could have a cooler with reusable ice packs, I would be on-board.  Eliminate the box and the ice packs, include a synthetic insulator to separate cold items from the rest, and this could be a service that yields nothing more than a few small plastic bags.  

There are also grocery delivery businesses like Instacart and Peapod that are good fits for some people, and I may one day yield to that temptation, but for now I’m going to go back to shopping more regularly and forcing my family to share the burden by choosing a few meals each week that they want me to shop and cook for.  At least that’s the plan.  How long before it goes awry?

A Poor Batch of Oscar Nominees

Was it just a year ago that we were discussing the merits of Lion, Hell or High Water, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land and Fences?  I crammed in a boat-load of movies between November and February last winter and was genuinely impressed with the lot.  Prior years weren’t too shabby either, with 2015 bringing us Spotlight, Bridge of Spies and The Big Short, and the preceding year offering Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood.  In short, well-done movies – some of them groundbreaking – with interesting approaches, compelling characters, and important topics.

Not so this year.  I’ve seen eight out of the nine nominees for Best Picture this Oscar season, and only one of them rises to the level that one should expect from Academy Awards nominees.

Recognizing that I don’t see more than a few dozen films a year, here are my favorites for 2017:

Get Out

Wind River

All the Money in the World

I, Tonya

Sadly, only one made it in: the incomparable Get Out, a smart, creepy, important, entertaining and well-executed movie.  It would be a contender for the top prize any given year, but when compared to the other seven entries that I’ve seen, it’s the only one that actually should win.  Which means it probably won’t.

Wind River never stood a chance since it was released by the Weinstein Company in the midst of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse scandal, and Ridley Scott’s reshooting of Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World apparently wasn’t enough to sway voters (perhaps the salary controversy surrounding Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams was a factor?)  Why I, Tonya wasn’t included as a nominee is perplexing, as it was a consistently entertaining story with sharp, snappy dialogue and a lead character who achieved the difficult feat of being both unlikable and sympathetic.

Unfortunately, when compared to those four films, most of this year’s nominees fall far short, at best likable morsels and at worst laborious and flawed.

The Darkest Hour was a great performance surrounded by a poor script with unnecessary scenes and characters and a plot that lacked a compelling arc.  I liken it to The King’s Speech, except there isn’t one monumental speech but three, deflating whatever emotion the final speech was supposed to elicit. 

Better was the film Dunkirk, though this too was flawed with a dearth of urgency despite the obvious importance of the subject matter.  I kept waiting to see an aerial shot of hundreds of boats approaching the shores of France, but was instead led to believe that a dozen vessels rescued over a quarter of a million soldiers.  A missed opportunity.

Similarly, Spielberg’s The Post lacked the suspense and exigency that the real-life drama encompassed.  Coined a political thriller, it contained the politics but not the thrill.  Worse, at no time during the film did I believe that it was taking place in the 1970s.  Instead, it looked like a movie made by present-day actors dressed in 1970s garb.  Why this is the case I can’t entirely say, except that the movie looked too clean, lacking the grit and sweat that other films – Argo comes to mind – have managed to capture.  When one considers how good a newspaper drama can be – Spotlight, All the President’s Men ­– The Post is a disappointment.

My wife, son and I all saw The Shape of Water on Christmas morning, and to a man, we thought it was among the stupidest films we’d ever seen.  I’ve talked to others who’ve really enjoyed it, and it certainly has received numerous critical accolades, so perhaps there’s something seriously flawed not with the movie but with the Heinz family!  Or, perhaps we simply couldn’t accept what was – in essence – a schlocky 1950s monster movie in Oscar-buzz clothing.

Call Me By Your Name benefitted from an excellent ending (I wish Michael Stuhlbarg had been nominated), but suffered from a first half that was coy and plodding. (By the way, Stuhlbarg acted in not one, not two, but three Best Picture nominees this year.  Not bad!)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri began as such an irreverent and funny film with completely unbelievable characters that it was impossible for me to switch gears when the film expected me to take later scenes seriously.  In short, it was disjointed, though again, I’ve talked to some people who really liked it.

And then there’s Lady Bird, an enjoyable coming-of-age story with good performances, but it covers way too much territory and has some oddly extraneous scenes (Father Leviatch’s illness, for example).  I can accept this as an Ocscar nominee as long as it isn’t seriously considered.

Does Paul Thomas Anderon’s Phantom Thread rise to the level of legitimate Oscar contender?  I don’t know.  It’s the one nominated film that I haven’t seen.  I loved Anderson’s Magnolia and really disliked There Will Be Blood and The Master, so it could go either way.

But in the meantime, I will be pulling hard for Jordan Peele and Get Out.  Throw an Oscar in for actor Daniel Kaluuya and I’ll be a happy man (though one could hardly be upset to see Oldman take the prize).

Here’s hoping 2018 births a better batch of films.

Water Shortages Could Make Illinoisans Rich

Today CNN reported on the water crisis in Capetown, where water could run out as soon as April 16th – a day coined "Day Zero" – and how the city is struggling to keep its residents from using more than the daily allotted water amount of approximately thirteen gallons a day. This isn’t a crisis that couldn’t have been predicted, and it’s certainly one we’ll see over and over again in the coming decades as ocean levels rise, severe droughts increase, snowmelt declines, populations grow, and underground aquifers are tapped out. One need only look to recent water shortages in California and Atlanta to understand that the water issue isn’t going to circumvent the United States, though the U.S. may be in a better position than many countries due to financial and natural resources.

The biggest of these natural resources is, of course, the Great Lakes, which account for about one-fifth of the fresh water on the planet, and even though Illinois is currently suffering net-population loss as its citizens flee high taxes, poor services and inept politicians, circumstances that have nothing to do with politics could in time reverse the trend and make Illinois a Destination State. According to the The Chicago Tribune, the fastest-growing state in 2017 was Idaho, followed by Nevada and Utah, with Arizona and Florida in the top five, places where the long-term access to a reliable water supply is in question, and in ten or twenty years it’s conceivable that water could become a determining factor in the migration of U.S. citizens (and also, I believe, a resource over which wars will be fought before this century concludes).

So I’m going to take the long view. I figure it’s only a matter of time before people’s eyes roam northward, and all need to do is hang onto my 1928 bungalow whose value has been stagnant for the past several years, bide my time and wait for rising temperatures to smooth out the more extreme elements of Illinoisan winters and for fresh water supplies to plummet in the south and west where populations are currently increasing.

And then I’m going to cash in, baby.

In the meantime, could we please start taking fresh water supply planning seriously?

Nah. Lower taxes and tougher immigration laws will fix everything. 

 

 

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved