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Monday, May 27

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Airbags

Editor's note: This column originally ran on July 7, 2004, under the title "A View to a Thrill." A new RotSC appears next week.

Sitting on a levee at Chase Street Beach in Rogers Park, I am immune from problems. I am immune from the sorrows of my life. Sitting on the levees at Chase Street Beach, I am invincible and powerful, all of my dreams and hopes take flesh and are as much fact as is the past.

I fall in love with Chicago and with America at the Chase Street Beach, a dark and hairy Assyrian transplanted by fortune and misfortune alike to the shores of Lake Michigan, half a world away from the land of my ancestors.

For once I forget everything I've trained myself to always consider. For once I stop thinking about the suffering, poverty, and sorrows of life that are so easy to push to the side. I forget the lesson of Schoepenhauer:

We should always be mindful of the fact that no man is ever very far from the state in which he would readily want to seize a sword or poison in order to bring his wretched existence to an end... If a God has made this world, then I would not like to be the God; its misery and distress would break my heart.

To my left, a Russian couple in their forties bicker over something-or-other, alternately angry and joking, poking fun at each other and then complaining in Russian. They've taken the day off of work to come to the beach.

The view from Chase Street Beach is captivating in 360 degrees. To the north is the shoreline, cluttered with trees and the low tops of condo buildings and other squat high-rises; to the east you see the never-ending expanse of what must only ironically be called Lake Michigan, the infinite sea that is our ocean. To the south you see the shoreline undulate, cluttered with parks, trees, and more buildings.

To the west is the most precious of all: You see boys and men, from 12 to 30, sweating on the basketball court, competitive juices flowing but great care taken to be fair and careful with the language around the younger kids. You see an extended black family on a cookout picnic not 30 feet from the bickering Russian couple. You see an earnest looking white couple, probably newly minted, nervously linked arm-in-arm behind a yapping dog completely unaware.

You see a very old Puerto Rican man spitting sunflower seeds into his hat and chatting with a white woman no older than 23 in running shorts and a sports bra. You see two Chicago cops leaning against their squad car, eyeing the barbecue until one of the kids runs over and offers them each a burger.

To the west, you hear Assyrian being spoken in the middle of maybe four other languages. Your ears perk up that, half a world away, that tongue can still be overheard in public spaces.

Chase Street Beach refutes the decline of the West. Chase Street Beach is why only the hard-hearted cannot fall in love with our country. A brief respite from all that is terrible and wicked, sure, but one so unique and powerful that even I -- your resident pessimist -- can be sure that things can only get better in life if we have more such places.

It isn't just me, either. Everybody at the beach moves and talks like they're unconquerable. Everybody seems to feel like they have reached the zenith of civilization, like they are emperors of all creations at the Chase Street Beach. You can see it in the stance of the paunchy Bosnian man, standing ankle-deep in the sand, hands on his hips, surveying all around him. You can hear it in the deep, resounding laughter of the mother at the barbecue. We cannot be beaten: we will drink life to the lees.

It reminds me of the words of a governor of Baghdad under the Umayyad Caliphate, Yusef al-Thaqafi, words I've had memorized since I first read them as a little kid, because they were both terrifying and emboldening, the apogee of confidence and strength:

I see heads before me that are ripe and ready for the plucking, and I am the one to pluck them... By God... people of discord and dissembling and evil character! I cannot be squeezed like a fig or scared like a camel with old water skins. By God, what I promise, I fulfill; what I purpose, I accomplish; what I measure, I cut off. I swear by God you will keep strictly to the true path, or I shall punish every man of you in his body.

Thaqafi was a ruthless dictator, but his words can serve us in our own life: being the emperors of our own existence can help us in our everyday little struggles, the little discords and dissembling evil characters that plague us from within and without.

We all have a place, or a person, that gives us that confidence and power in our own lives. The promise and beauty of our city, and our country, are mine, conveniently concentrated within shouting distance of the levee at the Chase Street Beach.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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