white knuckles tightly gripping the steering wheel in Chicago

Soundtrack in my head:  The Eagles, “Life in the Fast Lane”

You could describe me as a veteran city driver.  I could always hold my own on Chicago’s roads and elsewhere.  

I had little problem merging over four lanes on the Kennedy Expressway in less than a minute to ensure that I was heading towards O’Hare Airport and not Milwaukee. Like every good Chicagoan, I’d pass slower drivers by getting into the right lane at stop lights—the lane intended for right turns but not marked as such–and then flooring it when the light turned green.  In addition, I lived in Los Angeles for the better part of a year, and drove up and down the 405 Freeway every day during that time.  In L.A., letting someone else merge ahead of you is a sign of weakness.  I even drove in Manhattan once and didn’t think it was too bad.

But when I moved to Wisconsin, a funny thing happened.  I found myself driving among polite, civilized people.  And I haven’t been the same since.

I didn’t realize the change until nine months after I moved to Wisconsin.   I was driving the Kennedy Expressway between O’Hare and the Loop, when suddenly I realized I was nervous.  Not just nervous, but kind of freaking out.   The average speed around me was 70 mph, despite the posted speed limit of 55.  People would cut in and out of lanes suddenly and often without warning. A couple of people were doing this at 90 mph.  

I found myself wanting to say, “These people are crazy!  These people are crazy!  Where did these people come from?”  As if I had never driven among such people before.  As if I hadn’t driven a lot like them.

Ever since then, I’ve felt the same way every time I go to Chicago.  I keep on hoping I won’t have to go too far into the metropolitan area.  Most of my visits are in the Elgin area, so I get to miss most of Chicago traffic.  

One thing that could explain my newfound fear is that I did have a car accident shortly after moving to Madison.  My little Geo Metro was totaled when a car turned left in front of me at an intersection—luckily, neither of us were hurt.  And right before my last car died, I nearly spun out on John Nolen Drive—along with everyone else around me—because someone municipal or county worker forgot to salt that stretch of roadway during rush hour. So I think perhaps I’ve become more aware of my mortality.  But maybe a little too aware.

Actually one aspect of Chicago driving that is superior to driving in Wisconsin is the efficiency in which road crews plow and salt the roads.  This is because in 1979, Michael Bilandic, the incumbent mayor of Chicago lost an election when blizzards exposed weaknesses in the city’s snow removal system and the city shut down for days.  It’s quite rare for an incumbent Chicago mayor to lose an election, particularly a “Machine” connected politician like Bilandic.  So ever since then, every municipal and county official in the Chicago area has had the fear of God in him or her if so much as a single snowflake falls.  I wish that state, county and municipal officials here in Wisconsin had that fear.

Nevertheless, I’ll take Wisconsin driving over Chicago driving most days.  (Even if many Wisconsinites seem allergic to their own turn signals.)  

Last Saturday night, I came back to Madison in a rental car from Chicago at midnight.  I was just in time to see West Johnson Street backed up because of the Wisconsin Badgers football game letting out.  At one point I found myself in a game of chicken with someone reluctant to let me merge. I outmaneuvered the person.  But I didn’t necessarily feel too good about it.

Ah, civilization.

someone sneezed. it must be a sign from God.

Soundtrack in my head:  Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs”

In re-reading my journals from 1996 and 1997, anyone reading what I wrote back then would have probably considered me to be annoying, neurotic, or both. 

In the spiritual path that I’ve been involved with for eleven years, there is a teaching that says, “Everything on heaven and on earth is the voice of God.”  However, I misinterpreted the teaching as telling me to vigilantly be on the lookout for signs of what God might be trying to communicate to me.  Thus, the pages of my journal often had me latching onto little things that happened and saying, “This must be a sign from God!” and “This must be what God is trying to tell me.”  I chuckle to myself upon reading these things because while a few of these signs that I identified were dead-on accurate, most were not.   Some weren’t even close. 

A few years ago, I was in a heated argument with a close friend of mine while we were walking down Gilman Street in the evening.  As we were walking, a drunken college student came behind my friend, pinched her in the buttocks, and quickly disappeared before we could get a description of him and report him to the police.  Needless to say, that put a rather abrupt end to our argument. 

A couple of hours later, we went to a café in a different part of town.  At one point in our conversation, I said that maybe the incident with the drunken student was a sign that what she and I were arguing about was trivial.  My friend reacted angrily, saying that she was tired of interpreting things as being signs from God. 

She was right. While I clearly believe that such signs from God do exist, I later realized that my interpretation of that incident was more of a reflection the noise in my head than the actual voice of God. Quite frankly, I’m surprised she didn’t read me the riot act. 

I see a lot of spiritually minded people do the same thing I did.  But I think it can become problematic when people decide to take liberties and start giving spiritual interpretations of other people’s experiences for them.  Once in awhile, someone might hit the nail on the head, interpret such experiences accurately, and give their friend new insights.  I think this is quite rare, though.  I think it pretty much only occurs between people who know and trust each other well, and even then, one might still be way off base. 

Looking back at my old journal entries from eleven years ago, I realize now that it’s better not to leap to conclusions about what this or that incident means spiritually.  I’ve learned to simply observe such phenomena over a period of time and see any patterns emerge.  Sometimes they do. 

Might what I’ve written here may be a sign of something relevant in your life, gentle reader?  A sign from God perhaps?  Well, you are free to interpret what I write any way you wish.  And then keep you ears peeled to see if you hear God chuckling.

pleased to meet you. i’ll be living with you for the next year or so

Soundtrack in my head:  The Charlatans UK, “Chewing Gum Weekend”

I’ve had the pleasure of serving as my co-op house’s membership coordinator for the last two years.  This means that I have been in charge of responding to inquiries about joining my co-op house.  Over the last two years, I’ve responded to probably 400 emails, 200 phone calls, given house tours to about 100 people, led about fifty of them through the interview process, resulting in almost 20 people who signed contracts with us and moved in.  Being close to the university campus, our schedule is, for better or worse, tied to the student schedule, resulting in the move-out/move-in chaos I described a few weeks ago.

We’ve had fairly high turnover in recent years-nine new people last year and six new people this year.  Last year, the changeover came fairly gradually.  We had two new people move in last summer who stayed through the follow year, and then in the period between August 15th and September 1st,  people came in gradually-some right around the 15th, others toward the end of the month.  It was sort of like MTV’s “The Real World,” where new characters would be introduced one by one–a little video bio for each of them would be followed by a shot of them walking down they hallway, talking about how nervous they are just seconds before they meet the group for the first time.

(I should note that last year, my co-op and several others in Madison were contacted last year by someone from a TV network who thought that our homes would make great settings for a reality show.  As far as I know, none of us responded.) 

This year was different.  People began to move their stuff into their rooms as early as August 15th, but of the six new people, only one of them settled in right away.  Everyone else either took their own sweet time moving in or didn’t come into town until the end of the month. 

Even though I was the house membership coordinator, I didn’t meet two of the new members until last weekend.  I discovered one of them as I was coming home from work a week ago Friday–I noticed a guy with glasses and a piece of paper walking up to different houses on my block, looking at them, looking at the piece of paper, squinting to read the addresses, and then moving on to the next house.  I wondered if he was the new guy who left a message on my cell phone telling me he was coming that day, and as it turned out he was.  The next day, I walked into my house in the mid-afternon, and as I walked through the doorway, I heard someone walking up the front stairway, stop and turn around.  From the bottom of the stairwell emerged a tall woman with long red hair who greeted me and introduced herself.

As a result, the house dinner and house meeting of Sunday, August 26th was one of the most interesting ones I’d ever attended, as I found myself and another housemate from last year sitting down to dinner with five people who were completely new to the co-op and each other.  Most of the people at dinner had not yet met each other.  And one hour later, other housemates joined us for our first house meeting, which went remarkably smoothly considering that most of us hadn’t worked together before.

I like the new group of people who have moved into the house.  All of them have interesting stories.  I liked the group of housemates we had last year, too, but life happens.  Of the six who ended up leaving, two took jobs out of state, one will be going to school in England, one got married, and two graduate students decided they needed to focus more on their studies. There’s reason to believe that some of our new people will stay a bit longer, and I hope that’s the case.