Friday, May 22, 2015

Starting to win the war on drugs

     It was always crazy that you could buy a gallon of vodka at any grocery store, while a joint would land you in a jail.
     But “crazy” is one of the more apt adjectives describing America’s War on Drugs, a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar effort that in the end . . . assuming this is, please God, the beginning of the end . . . produced what? Plentiful, ever cheaper street narcotics and a prison system jammed with drug offenders.
     More than half of the inmates in the federal prison system are there for drug offenses. As are nearly a quarter of those in state prisons.
     True, most are there for hard drugs, which is an actual social problem. About 12 percent of prisoners in the state and federal systems are there for selling marijuana. That’s still more than 100,000 people, all for involvement with a drug that has killed … well, nobody ever.
     On Thursday, the Illinois Senate took another baby step toward sanity by decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. Sure, pot isn’t healthy, and not a very productive use of your time. But if mind-numbing time wastes were crimes, then a whole lot of folks would be in Stateville on an Xbox rap.
     It’s uncertain whether Gov. Bruce Rauner will sign the bill, though as a guy already lashing out at the unions and at Chicago, he might decide to go with the flow, for once, and approve of a popular measure. Americans are tired of this war.
     Anyone concerned about a nation in gridlock — and any patriotic American should fear that more than the Russians and ISIS put together — has to cheer this development, as nearly half the states, including Illinois, have legalized marijuana in some form. Even people who never smoke pot — i.e. me — have to welcome the reduced waste of police and judicial resources, the money saved, the eventual tax bonanza gained, should we follow Colorado, Oregon and Washington State and allow recreational uses.
     There are two ways to view this. It could be seen as a victory for drug culture, for those who want a bit of impairment to help their lives slide by. Or it could be seen as a victory for good government, for allowing American citizens their supposed liberty to do as they please, to indulge in a recreation that harms no one. Maybe we’re at along last starting to win the war, but not in the way we had planned. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Photo atop blog: Venice Beach, California, 2009

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Stealing their souls

    The place, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The time, last February. The museum consists of a number of various buildings and courtyards and, coming out of one, we encountered this installation of yellow plastic string— Jesus Rafael Soto's 1990 "Penetrable"—with children happily scampering through it. It seemed a picture. I whipped out my cell phone.
     "That's creepy," my teenage son said.
     "It's creepy to take photos of other people's children," my wife agreed.
    I was taken aback, surprised, indignant. Yes, I knew where they were coming from—fear of perverts—but didn't agree that this was an intrusion.
    I gestured to proud parents, standing around, also snapping pictures, one assumed of their kids, who were supposed to play in the thing (One critic called it "part geometric abstraction, part day care.")
    "Nobody knows that I'm not the parent of one of these kids," I said.
    Or, now that I think of it, the grandparent.
    It was a sour moment, that left a bad taste in my mouth for an hour, one that came back to me when reading about an incident earlier this month in Australia. A man took a selfie in front of a Darth Vader poster at a mall, and said some benign comment to a group of nearby kids, waiting to take a picture as well, something along the lines of, "I'll be done in a minute." Their mother caught the exchange but not what was said, instantly decided her children were being approached by a would-be molester, snapped his picture, and posted it online identifying him as "a creep." The post was shared thousands of times, the man's complete innocence established, and soon the mom was getting death threats and issuing "a groveling apology" through the Daily Mail.
      Fear spreads instantly but rationality takes its time. Being kidnapped by strangers is a risk, but a minute one. Far greater is the risk of overprotective parents warping their children'a lives by living in a state of constant fear, or blaming innocent persons doing unobjectionable things. I don't consider the above an inappropriate picture, nor the taking it, in a courtyard at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an act of questionable judgment. Or was it?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rahm's zenith of cynicism

     A buddy of mine had Rahm Emanuel's private cellphone number and dialed it by mistake, which he discovered when the mayor's voice barked, "I'm with my family!" from his back pocket.
     When I heard that story, I did not think, "Poor Mayor Emanuel, interrupted while on the floor playing Monopoly with the kids." What I thought is that family is the club he pulls out automatically when fending off the prying gaze of the media, the fire ax behind the glass. A trick he learned from Mayor Daley: Put Maggie in a magic garden with unicorns and bristle indignantly whenever anyone looks over the rose hedge and asks, say, about the fat salaries she draws sitting on corporate boards. How dare you! That's my family!
     But family isn't always of practical use in every occasion, and so other families, particularly other families' kids, are a surrogate, and the mayor uses them continually as the perfect human shield to duck behind for political cover. Emanuel's second inauguration speech Monday continued the trend, evoking, to me, Karen Lewis' classic assessment: "Rahm thinks you're stupid." Not me, personally, though I'm sure he does. But people in general. You'd have to consider the intelligence of the city pretty low to, at a moment of true civic financial crisis, look to the clouds and wax poetic about the intractable problems of urban poverty and Our Young.
     "I want to use this moment to shine a spotlight on preventing another lost generation of our city’s youth."
     He didn't address kids who'll be lost because their schizophrenic parents can't go to the mental health clinics that the city closed, who suffer living in an economically collapsing city, or the disabled kids who've had their support kicked out from under them by his buddy Bruce Rauner in the name of making Illinois a more hospitable place to run businesses
     Rather, he told us that every child holds "the spark of the divine."
     Well thanks for the big reveal, Mr. Mayor, because some weekends it seems like they're the cast of a zombie shooter video game.
     Like "the most American of American cities" line he keeps repeating, Emanuel said a lot that sounds good but falls apart upon examination. "They may have been born in poverty, but poverty was not born in them." Nice chiasmus, your Honor, but what does that even mean?
     I half expected Rahm to trot out a kindergarten class, right there on stage at the Chicago Theatre, and start reading them "Hop on Pop." Delivered by another politician, the inauguration speech would be an unobjectionable effort. But coming from our mayor it is the zenith of cynicism, his standard schtick, children being the shiny watch he hopes to dangle in front of the electorate and the media hoping to mesmerize them.
     This time it was an epic fail. The front-page stories in both Chicago dailies presented schizophrenic coverage of the inauguration, alternating between the mayor's empty city-on-a-hill bromides and the looming economic disaster that he barely mentioned.
     Inaugurations are superfluous. The law doesn't require the mayor to be sworn in. His new term would have begun anyway at noon, with or without the Festiva del Rahm. Compare his one-size-fits-all speech to how powerful it would have been had he said, "You know, we're in a crisis, so rather than throw myself another bar mitzvah party, I'm asking that the money go to fund an after-school program in Roseland." That would have been something to applaud.
     Instead, we got endangered kids and how "we must make them ever present in our conversation."
    Oh, we're going to talk poverty away. Who knew it was that easy? Was there a specific thing in there that the mayor said he'd actually do? Good programs we're already doing, and the importance of parenting and mentoring. The usual suspects.
     The speech left me with this question: If talking about disadvantaged youth puts them on the road to solving their problems, in the mayor's mind if not in hard actuality, then what does not talking about a problem, say the city's finances, mean? That we're nowhere? Exactly. Which is why the mayor isn't talking about it. Maybe it's about time he does. Put down "Hop on Pop." Pick up Crain's. And start talking about the elephant that is not just in the room but in the room standing on the city's neck.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Scouting report

Christine Goerke with Sir Andrew Davis
     Opera must really be an odd taste, because it sticks in readers' minds, festering, and even though I only write a handful of columns about opera, it's often the go-to topic when angry correspondents are looking for something to toss back in my face. Outraged with my position on their pet fixation, they'll snarl, "Stick to opera!"
     Happily, at least for today, though it's a subject that, even after years, I'm still in the early stages of understanding. When someone accuses me of being an opera expert, I instantly correct them: No, I'm an enthusiast. An expert commands a body of knowledge and an acuity of perception that I can't touch. Andrew Patner, may he rest in peace, was an opera expert. Alex Ross is an opera expert. 
     I'm just a fan. I find that opera gives my life unique pleasure, scope and meaning. Opera is my version of following pro sports, only, you know, interesting. Though I'm open to the idea of eventually developing a better grasp of opera. Having dabbled, I've begun to notice certain glimmerings of a more subtle understanding, a few green shoots of insight. When the Lyric announced they'd be doing "The Merry Widow," next year, my first thought was, "What, again?" and then i smiled, realizing, "Ah, Renee Fleming wants to star in it. That's why it's back so soon. Now I see." 
     Or reading Alex Ross's "Musical Events" column in the May 11 New Yorker. I was on familiar ground from the get-go, since it begins talking about one of my favorite operas, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," currently on-stage at the Met, paired, as is typical, with Pietro Masagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."
     Of course, knowing of Cav/Pag isn't much—they're two of everybody's favorite operas, among the most familiar operas of all time. Pagliacci's "Vesti la Giubba" is the soaring aria evoked when popular culture wants to convey "Opera." Cavalleria is only a little less famous.
    Then Ross pivots from those pair of one-hit wonder composers to the workhorse of all opera, Richard Wagner. First Houston, an unexpected oasis of culture in the Texan intellectual desert, where "Die Walkure" is starring Christine Goerke. He moves to Eric Owens, singing "The Flying Dutchman" at the Washington National Opera.  
     Hey, wait a second, I thought. Goerke. Owens. I KNOW those guys. I MET them.  Goerke at a press conference announcing Lyric's ambitious presentation of Wagner's full four opera Ring of the Nibelung cycle, which will be performed at the Lyric Opera beginning in the fall of 2016 with "Das Rheingold." And Owens,  an excellent Porgy in last season's "Porgy and Bess," participating via Skype, will be the Ring's Wotan.
    Not that Ross mentions any of this. I was tempted to wave the oversight as a bloody shirt, more evidence of the unfortunate invisibility of Chicago to the Gotham elite. But Ross once commented on this blog—thank you Andrew— so I decided his heart is pure, and he probably just didn't have the space, and since I hate it when local media fusspots zing me without gathering the courage to ask for my perspective, I checked with Ross: slight to Chicago or not enough room? He replied:
Thanks for the note, and for giving me a chance to respond! Comments about New York ignoring Chicago are seldom unjustified — Andrew Patner might well have chided me on this very point — but in this case I don't feel guilty as charged. I had very little space to discuss the performances, and so I chose to focus entirely on what I heard in DC and Houston. Not only did I omit Goerke and Owens's future engagements in Chicago, but I also made no mention of Goerke's appointment to sing Brünnhilde at the Met in 2018-19. In other words, it was a rare case of New York ignoring both New York and Chicago. Needless to say, I am very eager to hear Owens's Wotan — I've been anticipating the occasion on my blog for several years — and plan to attend the Rheingold in Oct. 2016.
    Fair enough. So to bring this lengthy overture to an end, and get to the point of this: Ross's scouting report from the Grapefruit League in Texas and the swamplands of DC. (New York isn't the only city that gets to snap open the lorgnette and squint at smaller places). How did Goerke and Owens do, Wagner-wise? 
     "Both singers fell short of technical perfection," Ross writes, "at a few moments of high pressure, they issued tremulous, imprecise sounds. Yet they delivered portrayals of acute, pulsing emotion, belying the stereotype of the well-trained American singers who is expert in various styles and native to none."
     Good news, in the main (you should read his entire piece by clicking here).  Ross calls Owens "the most overtly human, openly wounded Dutchman I have heard live" and Goerke's entrance "ricocheted through the house and radiated joyous strength." 
     Joyous strength is good. That's what I go to Wagner to hear. Falling short of technical perfection won't even register on my score card. When I mention Wagner to people and they make a face and talk about his operas, which they haven't heard, taking a long time, I think, So does being alive. Ross said he paired these two singers because they are both "new" to Wagner--Owens first sang Wagner five years ago. It would have been nice if he had the room to tuck in that this duo will share a stage here for years. But his not mentioning it meant that I had to, sort of a gift, which mirrors how I came to writing about opera in the first place. Wynne Delacoma  had retired, yet the opera world somehow carried on, and I said to myself Someone has to pay attention to this

Monday, May 18, 2015

Consumer Reports: "Don't suffer in silence"

   To be a responsible citizen, you ought to vote in each election, raise your children, and subscribe to Consumer Reports.
     Though not in that order.
     If I had to lose one of the three, I'd say skip voting and stick with the magazine. Every month Consumer Reports examines our vast, sprawling, shifting culture of consumption and asks not the standard question we ask ourselves — What should I buy next? — but tougher questions such as "Is this any good? Will it harm you? How can I push back against it?"
     I was reading the June issue.
     And you tend to really read Consumer Reports. Not a lot of skimming, because it tends to be so interesting, even focusing on stuff you never wondered about before, such as this issue's "Special Report: How Safe is Your Shrimp?"
     Like you, my entire thought process about shrimp can be summarized as: Oh there's shrimp? Gimme shrimp. Am I taking too much shrimp? Can I have more shrimp? It never crossed my mind that there might be more to the subject. And I'm a curious guy.
     Seven pages on "choosing the healthiest, tastiest, and most responsibly sourced shrimp." It leaps out of the box with interesting facts about American's love affair with shrimp — four pounds a year per person, three times what we ate 35 years ago.
     I had no idea where shrimp came from. The sea, I assumed. (Wrong: Most is farmed in huge industrial tanks and football-field size artificial ponds.) It never dawned on me that there are different types of shrimp (beyond size, that is, tiny to jumbo). Four thousand varieties, the top six profiled in the magazine.
     By the time I was done reading the article, I felt like an idiot, shrimp-wise, with my snout stuck in a bowl of prawns, never pausing to wonder, Geez, could this stuff be treated with harmful chemicals or silly with disease? (CR: You betcha!)
     And I hadn't even gotten to the cover story, on the gathering peril of the "Internet of Things," as your refrigerator and your thermostat start spying on you and sharing your data with potentially everybody.
     It's cool that your car can talk to your house and tell it to kick in the air conditioning as you near home. But "that convenience comes with a trade-off. The devices can also send a steady flood of personal data to corporate servers, where it's saved and shared, and can be used in ways you can't control." Not only loss of privacy, but exposure to hackers. In Britain, cruel pranksters took over baby monitors to scream at sleeping infants.
     Something for society to look forward to. While it might be too early to truly worry that your Crock-Pot slow cooker is informing on you, it isn't too early to be aware of it.
     There's more. Bicycle helmets. Getting the most out of your used car. And, as always, my favorite part, the back page snickering at the stupidest marketing blunders of the month. Consumer Reports not only takes citizenship seriously, but encourages readers to do the same, with a section, "Actions You can Take In June" ("Ask Congress for safer detergent pods" since thousands of children find them, think they're candy, and eat them). There's a call to arms against inaccurate, illegible unit pricing. "Don't suffer in silence. Tell a store manager."
     And that's just June, with sunscreen and mosquito repellents and more on deck for July.
     Consumer Reports spent nearly a half million dollars testing shrimp. Yet the magazine has no advertisements — itself incredible, in our ever-more-branded world. The government can't get by without selling out to corporations. But Consumer Reports manages. That's why it's important to not just read it, but to subscribe — it's only $29 a year, the cost of a couple pounds of dubious shrimp. It's something that should be supported. I almost called Consumer Reports a fifth branch of government, but then I realized that the press is the fourth branch, and CR is the press, though its gimlet eyed, let's-buy-every-model-and-test-them mentality is so out of keeping with mainstream journalism, and its general, tongue-lolling, seal-clapping applause for whatever junk is being flung at consumers, that it might deserve a category of its own.    

     I don't like focusing on other publications — professional pride. But Consumer Reports is an exception, and if you don't subscribe, you should. And not just for your own good. It's a civic duty.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tsarnaev should die

     When I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, my immediate, unfiltered reaction was "good." I don't think that puts me too far out of the mainstream of American thought.
    That "good" comes despite my opposition to the death penalty
    But not in this case.
    What's the difference?
    If killing is wrong—that's why Tasrnaev's being punished, for murdering three innocent bystanders with the pressure cooker bomb he and his brother built—then isn't it wrong to turn around and kill a killer, even through a deliberative legal process? 
    Good question.
    On one level, the criminal justice system is broken, men are sentenced to death wrongly, as a matter of routine by overzealous prosecutors and colluding cops. It's  skewed against minorities and the poor. If killing is wrong, then the great United States of American should not kill people, for any reason, as an official act. It's bad enough that cops and soldiers kill in the name of society, and how often does that turn out to be error when the smoke clears?
     Let's call that Logic Loop A.
    Logic Loop B goes like this: I'm glad Timothy McVeigh is dead. The Oklahoma City Bomber should not be wondering if there's vanilla cake for dinner, and issuing his occasional manifestos, through his lawyer, explaining why he's glad he blew up the Murrah Federal Building and buried those toddlers alive in the day care center. Society needs a way to express its utter disgust, and jamming him full of poison and letting him die strapped to a gurney just feels right. 
     It's emotional.
     When you look at society's that don't kill such people—Norway sentenced Anders Behring Breivik, the fascist asshat who murdered 77 people, mostly teens, to 21 years in prison—that seems wrong. Justice calls for something more than two decades in a Scandinavian prison. Then again, Norway is Eden compared to the United States, crime-wise, so maybe we should pay more attention to how they do things, and ask ourselves whether killing Tsarnaev feels right because we're a murderous nation of gun nuts who've barely knocked the dust off our Wild West spurs, at least intellectually. Maybe we should worry about this feeling like the right thing. 
     It's a tough judgment call. I can see those who are against capital punishment in any form, far more than I could buy the Texas, kill-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out approach to criminal justice. 
      Bottom line, for me, is that executing terrorists is good for society. I can't pretend it has deterrent value. These are not long-range thinkers and, besides, half the time they intend on killing themselves anyway. At some point we have to re-establish that we're a culture with limits, and the need to not randomly kill others for your psycho nihilistic cause is a fairly low bar to set. 
    Regular life is so precious, and sweet, someone who would shatter in on a clear spring day, at a joyous civic event, how should that person be dealt with? You could argue that an application of the mercy and humanity that is at the core of our Western culture, or should be. I could see that. But emotionally it jars for me. I don't want to see TImothy McVeigh, out after 20 years, as dictated by our Norwegian stands of justice, in downtown Northbrook, licking an ice cream cone. Better that McVeigh is in hell, and good news that Tsarnaev will be joining him. Not every decision should be made by cool reason. Sometimes you have to go with your gut.   

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     I think I take so many pictures of street scenes and inanimate objects because I'm shy about asking people if I can take their photograph. It's awkward for me, makes them self-conscious, and shatters the moment, causing them to stiffen up. Usually I try to photograph people on the sly, while their attention is elsewhere, but something that isn't an option, as with this man enjoying his cigarette in solitude. But I couldn't just pass him by, given his singular outfit. The deep orange jacket is what first caught my attention, and his pork pie hat, rolled jeans, expanse of ankle and dapper mustache. It looks like a costume a child would wear in 1910. I asked if I could shoot his photo, and he said yes, but then his body language was directed at me, and he didn't have the sense of solitude he had when I first saw him. He wouldn't give me his name or other details, beyond the fact that he wasn't visiting, but on a break from his office ... where?
     Where exactly did I notice this young, or youngish man, having his nicotine fix? Guess the correction location—I'm looking for a specific street—and win one of my coveted 2015 blog posters. Any insight into the fashion would be appreciated as well. I can't say I've seen anything like it, other than on gondoliers in Venice. Good luck, and please remember to post your entries below.