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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Plainfield and Joliet still need another hospital

Edward Plainfield
By Ted Slowik

Remember when Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich went to prison for corruption? One of the schemes he was convicted of was shaking down Naperville's Edward Hospital, demanding campaign support in return for state approval of a hospital Edward wanted to build in Plainfield.

After Rod's ouster, Gov. Pat Quinn replaced the entire Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, which nonetheless STILL refused to acknowledge the need for another hospital here in Will County. Since then, Silver Cross Hospital has left Joliet and moved 3 miles east to New Lenox. Need for medical care in Joliet has never been greater.

Take my experience, for example. When I had a heart attack on Feb. 17, I spent four days in the intensive care unit. The doctors said I could be moved to a regular room on the third day but guess what? There were no beds available. The hospital was completely full. By the way, the cost for a night in a regular hospital room is about $5,000. The cost for a night in the ICU is about three times that.

Several weeks into my recovery, my cardiologist cleared me to begin cardio rehab, which takes place at Presence St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet. Demand for service was so great I had to wait more than three weeks for an opening. That's three weeks wasted in my rehabilitation schedule. Three weeks of lost productivity when I might have been able to return to work sooner, all because space was not available to accommodate patients.

You don't hear much anymore about the need for the Plainfield hospital, though three years ago Plainfield's mayor said the project remained a priority for the village. At the time, Edward said it had no plans to revive its proposal. Although the state refused to approve Edward's request to build an eight-story, 162-bed full hospital at 127th Street and Van Dyke Road, Edward did earn state OK to build and operate a cancer center, emergency facility and other medical offices on its 60-acre campus.

I received excellent care at St. Joseph, which took the name Presence when Provena and Resurrection Health Care recently merged. I have no complaints about the staff or facilities, I just wish demand wasn't so great for the services they provide. It's obvious to me that the existing population in Joliet and Plainfield is sufficient to support another full-service hospital in Will County.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Learning music is among life's greatest rewards

By Ted Slowik

New birthday gear
I reached an important milestone last week in my quest to learn blues guitar. I bought myself a Fender Blues Junior amplifier for my birthday. I also bought an electric guitar to keep in an open tuning to play slide guitar more conveniently.

Regular readers of Blues Musings will recall I played bass in a blues band from 2000-2011, and since then have been learning guitar. For the past two or three years most of my development has been with the acoustic instrument: learning scales and chords, understanding the importance of tone, being able to play solos, becoming comfortable performing original material in front of audiences, etc.

Those are all skills better learned acoustically, in my opinion. I'm very happy with the progress and improvement but I look back at tapes of myself just a few years ago and cringe at how poorly I sounded. I hope in a couple years I feel the same way about my performances today. The point is, no need to amplify your mistakes when you're just learning.

Performing at the Uptown with Billy Flynn
I've been lucky enough to "fake" my way through performances where I sounded like I knew what I was doing but was really just parroting other sounds I had heard and repeating them without fully understanding the theory behind the music. Soon after I left the blues band, I went to a Mark Cihlar-hosted jam at The Uptown tap in Westmont. The great Billy Flynn was playing. Among his many blues credits, he plays guitar on the soundtrack for the film "Cadillac Records." After we played a couple songs together, I was leaving and he came outside the club to say how much he enjoyed playing Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" because he hadn't played in F sharp for years! That made me feel really good that a great player like Billy would take the time to say something so kind.

Professional blues players talk about "woodshedding," the concept of going off somewhere quietly out of the public eye and mastering your instrument. The most famous blues player of all, Robert Johnson, is said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to learn guitar. That's how amazed his contemporaries were at his transformation. In reality, he went off on his own and taught himself to play guitar.

Nowadays, the number of guitar prodigies seems countless. Back in the 1990s, artists like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd signed record deals in their teens. Today, Buddy Guy pal Quinn Sullivan seems like a grizzled veteran at 14 when there are kids shredding at ages 7 or 8. How do they become so accomplished at such a young age? Especially in the blues genre, where emotion trumps technical proficiency.

There are many variations of this sentiment (Jimi Hendrix said, "The blues is easy to play but hard to feel,") but basically the gist is this: Someone can show you everything you need to know about the blues in one day, but it'll take you a lifetime to learn it.

My ideal Blues Jr. settings
Back when I was 15, I borrowed a book from the library on how to play guitar. Through the years I mostly learned to play other people's songs by ear. You'd pick up the needle on a the turntable and play a bit of a song over and over again until you figured out the words or musical phrasing as well you could.

Nowadays, the Internet makes everything much more accessible. Need the lyrics or chords to some forgotten favorite tune from the 1960s? Google it, and it's at your fingertips. There are millions of instructional videos, where someone will show you how to play just about any song, from the tuning to the phrasing and tempo and everything in between.

But there's no substitute for personal instruction. Since Christmas I've been studying guitar from Kev Wright of The Righteous Hillbillies. He's an excellent teacher who prepares lessons based on his many students' individual interests. I feel like his tutelage has really accelerated my progress, to the point where I'm now ready to apply what I've learned to the electric guitar.

There are many nuances and subtleties that contribute to attaining excellent sound. Knowledge is key, but repetition is also important. The best way to get good at something is to do it over and over many times. There's no substitute for experience.

My philosophy about music is this: learning creates a sense of accomplishment, which leads to happiness. So long as I continue to practice diligently and expand my repertoire of techniques and sounds, I'm better today than I was yesterday. And that's a great, positive outlook.

Artists should never compare themselves to other artists, because that's a surefire recipe for disappointment. You should only compare yourself to yourself. And the part I've found that's most important is to discover your reason why you create art. Selfish motivations like "I want to be rich and famous" will ultimately reveal themselves in the artist's work, and the artist's legacy will be impermanent regardless of commercial success. But if the artist's heart is pure, and the motivation is something like, "I feel the need to express because I have something important to say," then that artist might just have a chance to someday create something immortal.

Learning electric guitar properly opens up a whole new world, not the least of which involves playing above the 12th fret for the first time (for me). I'm looking forward to learning about distortion, reverb, delay, overdrive and other types of pedals that help make playing electric guitar so much fun.
Kev's pedals

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why making it to this birthday is so special

By Ted Slowik

What a special day! It's my birthday, and this is the 100th post of the Blues Musings blog! Regular readers will know I'm very fortunate to celebrate a birthday this year, having barely survived a heart attack on Feb. 17.

In the nearly 10 weeks since the "widow maker," I've been feeling much better. Physically I'm doing fine. I exercise, mostly by walking. I haven't smoked a cigarette since March 11. I'm eating better, having lost more than 30 pounds and avoiding processed foods, salt, red meat, fried foods, sugar, flour, milk chocolate, bacon and other unhealthy foods. Yeah, it sounds miserable but it's not bad.

I'm also taking lots of meds to help lower cholesterol and thin my blood. This week I finally started cardio rehab and I'm hoping to sail through the next couple weeks so my cardiologist can authorize me to return to work.

Because admittedly I've felt like a fish out of water, not working these past couple months. For most of us, our careers define who we are. Without the structure and discipline of a daily work routine, one easily feels out of sorts. I've done my best to not dwell on factors beyond my control and staying focused on doing all I can do to improve my health and expedite my recovery.

Which brings us to a topic all the medical professionals as well as several friends and family have asked about: depression. Apparently it's quite common for heart attack survivors to experience depression. The American Heart Association even addresses depression on its website, saying it's important for patients to participate in recreation and social events.

I appreciate the concern but can honestly say I've managed to cope with the situation very well, thanks in large part to my huge and very supportive family and many close and caring friends. Being an artist/writer/musician also helps, I believe, since we're used to coping with ups and downs and the creative outlets provide an opportunity to channel those negative thoughts in a healthy way.

I will say I was pretty active until a bout of flu last week kicked my ass and immobilized me for three or four days. THAT was depressing! I couldn't keep down any food, I had the worst aches and chills and couldn't sleep. I'm feeling much better now, but I realized some days it's a struggle for many just to get up, get dressed and leave the house.

I will say that the time off has provided some healthy perspective about what's really important in life: family, health, thinking about others. I try not to take for granted the wonderful opportunities life offers every day--the chances to share love, help others and make a difference in some small way.

Thanks for all the birthday wishes and messages of support!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Cracker to headline Hopstring Fest Aug. 23 in Joliet

Hopstring Fest is held at Silver Cross Field in downtown Joliet
By Ted Slowik

Rock band Cracker will headline the third annual Hopstring Fest on Saturday, Aug. 23 at Silver Cross Field in downtown Joliet.

Presale tickets for the 12-hour celebration of live music, food and craft beer are $20 and will be available in mid-April through and at Chicago Street Pub, 75 N. Chicago St., Joliet.

"With the addition of Cracker this year, there is no guarantee that tickets will be available at the door," Hopstring Fest presenter and Chicago Street Pub owner Mike Trizna said in a post April 8. "We are truly trying to make this the best fest in Illinois"

The first two Hopstring Fests drew thousands of fans to Joliet's downtown for the daylong celebrations. Returning this year are mainstage performers The Righteous Hillbillies, The Steepwater BandMiles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts, John Condron & the Old Gang Orchestra, Edward David Anderson, Chicago Farmer, The Regressors and Alex Hoffer. Bluegrass ensemble Leadfoot and local band The Prairie Ghosts join the mainstage lineup presented by Flipside Works this year.

Along with the expanded mainstage lineup, Hopstring Fest 2014 will feature two side stages showcasing local original artists and performers. 

Alternative rockers Cracker were formed by singer/songwriter David Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman in 1991. Their self-titled debut album featured the hits "Happy Birthday To Me" and "Teen Angst" ("What the World Needs Now'). Their million-selling 1993 album "Kerosene Hat" included the hits "Low" and "Euro-Trash Girl." For the past 20 years, the band has continued touring and releasing 10 studio albums, with "Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey" being the most recent.

More information about ticket sales will be posted soon on the Hopstring Fest website and shared on its Facebook and Twitter pages. The festival will benefit local charities, including the Miracle League of Joliet and Joliet Area Community Hospice. The festival will feature food from six local restaurants and a selection of craft beers and other beverages.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why quitting tobacco is the hardest thing a writer will ever do

By Ted Slowik

Of all the lifestyle changes since the near-fatal heart attack six weeks ago,  quitting tobacco is the most difficult.

Taking meds to lower cholesterol is a no-brainer. I have no problem eating less and healthier--I don't even miss sweets and fats. I now accept an hour a day of exercise as necessary. All this has helped me lose 30 pounds and live healthier.

It's hard to lose weight and not smoke at the same time. Tobacco isn't just a physical addiction, it's a behavioral one. Smoking is social, and most of the jobs I've held include a high percentage of cigarette smokers: restaurant worker, newspaper reporter and editor, musician, publicist. Writer.

Being a writer caused me to identify myself as a smoker of a pack a day for the better part of 30 years. I didn't identify with Hollywood movie stars who smoked, or rock stars. Nonsmokers and nonwriters won't understand this, but there are a few cultural references that illustrate the depth of the addiction.

In the story "Misery" by Stephen King (a two pack-a-day guy for several decades) the protagonist treats himself to a single cigarette upon completion of writing a novel. How's that for incentive? Smokers can relate to the willingness to move mountains to get a fix.

In "The War of the Roses," the ex-smoking character played by Danny Devito keeps a single cigarette enclosed in a glass case until he famously breaks down and smokes it.

That's how it is with smokers. I feel great for not having smoked for weeks, but the temptation is always there. You'll be cruising along just fine, not even thinking of smoking for days, weeks, months or even years and suddenly, out of the blue, the craving will hit you. And it's more intense than any craving you've ever known, for say, chocolate, or White Castles, or alcohol.

I've quit before,  lots of times, including last year for several months because poor circulation almost cost me a fingertip. Quitting is easy; not starting again is hard.

As a writer, smoking helped me think and solve problems. People like Tom Robbins understood this, as shown in this excerpt from his novel "Still Life With Woodpecker":

“Three of the four elements are shared by all creatures, but fire was a gift to humans alone. Smoking cigarettes is as intimate as we can become with fire without immediate excruciation. Every smoker is an embodiment of Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and bringing it on back home. We smoke to capture the power of the sun, to pacify Hell, to identify with the primordial spark, to feed on them arrow of the volcano. It's not the tobacco we're after but the fire. When we smoke, we are performing a version of the fire dance, a ritual as ancient as lightning.”

Another writer who inspired my passion for smoking was Kurt Vonnegut. Here's what Time magazine said when he passed away in 2007:

"I've been smoking Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes since I was 12 or 14," he told Rolling Stone last year. "So I'm going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, who manufactured them. And do you know why? Because I'm 83 years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me."

Yes, tobacco use is a slow form of suicide. And for generations it was socially acceptable. Now, we understand the health risks. When I started smoking, you could smoke in offices, in restaurants and bars, in music venues and ballparks, just about anywhere except church and a few other places. Nowadays it's more difficult to smoke, and frowned upon. I was at a party a couple months ago where I was the only smoker. It felt weird.

I'll try my best to not become a militant ex-smoking asshole, but there are no guarantees in life. Even though I nearly died because of smoking I want a cigarette now and several other times a day. That doesn't mean I'll have one, or any of the crappy nicotine substitutes that simply replace one addiction for another. I just mentally put it out of mind and force myself to think of something else.

I won't condemn people who continue to smoke. I'll look at them wistfully and think, "I used to do that." That's who I was, but it's not who I am. It took a heart attack to get me to quit this time. Hopefully it's for good.