Monday, July 28, 2014

Basketball has a shot as alternative to gangs

     Back in the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan coined her “Just Say No” campaign to combat drug use. I remember a social worker explaining to me why it was misguided. If you’re a 16-year-old new mother living in the Robert Taylor homes, she said,  with no job, no education and no future, drugs are the best part of your day, the time when you feel most real and alive, and until they come up with a program to counter that, to offer people a life better than drugs, nothing is going to work.
     I thought of that Saturday, sitting at the United Center, watching the South Side beat the West Side, 46-45, in Joakim Noah’s One City Basketball Tournament.
     It happened to be held right after 11-year-old Shamiya Adams, killed last week while she made s’mores at a sleep over, was buried—Gov. Pat Quinn came from the funeral, and talked about how exceptional she was.
     The extreme tragedy of these cases captivates the media and public—the sweet faces of these innocent victims, usually girls, in stark contrast with the mug shots of the older, tougher, young men who kill them. 
     But in order to hope to solve the problem, or rather, to be less ineffectual facing it, we need to care about those young men, too, to understand that, just as people who take drugs have reasons to do so, that it seems in their best interests, so those who join gangs do so, not out of irrational bloodlust or mere greed, but because it makes sense: a grim, skewed sense, but sense nevertheless. In many places, joining a gang is obligatory, kids have to if they want to stay safe. The gangs offer protection, love, respect, a purpose. Who in Chicago really wants poor, young poor black men? Gangs sure do.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hatching a plan, of sorts

     We live about a block from the railroad tracks—really as close as a person wants his house to be. Very convenient when it comes to walking to the train station, which is maybe a block and a half away. Close enough that, as long as the bells aren't actually ringing when I leave the house, I know I'll make it at a brisk stroll. Though a heavy freight train can rattle our windows, I think that is more a function of dry, ancient window frames.
      Heading to the dry cleaners Saturday morning—we're also close to downtown, and I like to walk on errands— I waited while these  ominous black tanker cars rumbled by, with their red "FLAMMABLE" diamonds, and thought about the derailment in Slinger, Wisconsin last Sunday. Nobody was hurt, but 4,000 gallons of fuel spilled, and 100 nearby residents were evacuated, for their own safety, while they cleaned it up.
      I've thought, over the years, we should have some kind of emergency plan, a bug-out bag ready to go when I hear the defending crash and see the fireball swirling up into the sky a block east. But then I try to think what would be in that bag. A change of clothes? A few bottles of water. Power bars Money. Socks.
      It seems so trivial. And then the bag would sit there, taking up room, caution incarnate. And then, should a train accident happen, which it won't, we wouldn't be home, or we'd grab the dog, pile in the car and bolt, forgetting the bag. They sell clothes in plenty of places, and power bars, and bottles of water too. Heck, the Red Cross would give those out. As long I had my wallet—which wouldn't be a in the bug-out bag anyway—we'd all be okay wherever we went.  Slap down the Mastercard. Send the bill to the Canadian National Railway. A true blessing. Trying to take plan to take the sting out of any future happenstance, well, it seems like gilding the lilly. So we'll take our chances, unprepared.
       Which I suppose is a plan of sorts. A plan not to have a plan. An acknowledgement that Fate will toss her dice and our little bag won't help us. We plan so we feel we have a bit of control over events that we really have no control over at all. Our plan is to understand that. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

    One of the sadder manifestations of the general weakening of religious faith in this country is the fate of church buildings, often lovely, charming old structures that find themselves without congregants or purpose, slowly declining over decades before falling into decay, if not ruin, then finally torn down, a loss to architecture and to their individual neighborhoods. 
     The few churches being built today are typically constructed in the suburbs, new homes for urban congregations that have pulled up roots and fled, taking their prosperity elsewhere.   
      But when I investigated these gleaming new copper domes this week, what I found was a brand new construction of considerable size, right next to the old church building that it will replace. The new building is scheduled to be completed next year. 
      What's the name of this Chicago church? Were is it? Since my winner last week got so excited over her book, let's give away another—a copy of "Complete & Utter Failure," perhaps my favorite. Make sure to post your guesses below. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Richard Branson is taking a bath

     Richard Branson is taking a bath.
     Or was, 23 minutes ago.
     I know this as a fact because he tweeted a photo of himself, in the tub, discreetly shielded by bubbles, thank God.
     “Right now I’m delighted to be alive and to have had a nice long bath,” he wrote.
    Oh wait, “had”—the bath might be over by now. In fact, by the time you read this, the bath is certainly over. Let’s start again.
     Richard Branson took a bath.
     In a lovely, oval shaped Turkish stone tub that probably set him back $20,000. But the billionaire owner of Virgin Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and hundreds of other companies in the Virgin Group can certainly afford it.
     Thursday morning he tweeted that message and photo; you can see the nice slat wood of the bathroom, a hint of green—Necker Island?—through a window, to his 4.27 million followers, including myself.
     The photo is what got me thinking. Somebody else had to take it.  It’s not a selfie. An assistant no doubt. “Snap me in the bath, Reginald, and we’ll alert the masses.”
     But I don’t want to mock Branson; a nice, exuberant man, by all indications. Three years ago he came to Chicago to promote Virgin Airlines and rode the Blue Line in from O’Hare, giving free tickets to San Francisco to those riding the L with him. 
    “Life is much richer if you say ‘yes’ than if you say ‘no,’” he told the Sun-Times.
     So an affable fellow, as far as tycoons go. He describes himself on his Twitter account:
     “Tie-loathing adventurer and thrill seeker, who believes in turning ideas into reality.” (Were I his media consultant, I’d lose the “tie-loathing” since it dates him, a blow struck in a battle that ended long ago. He might as well say, “white tie loathing” at this point. The younger generation never had ties to loath, judging from the kids packing the elevators in our building: t-shirts, cargo shorts, sandals. Not much left to hate as a workday imposition, though I suppose they’ll find something.  “Dude, I’m so glad to be out of those flip flops I had to wear to the office,” they’ll say, running barefoot on the weekends. “My big toe felt so isolated...”
     Not that I blame Branson. We live in an age where....

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

"You want war, we want peace"

    "Racists go home! Racists go home!"
     You could not actually hear the Palestinian counter rally from the heart of the pro-Israel rally held in front of the Israeli embassy, in  the middle of Madison Street, just west of Canal, at noon on Tuesday.
    But if you skirted the edges, as I did — less crowded — their amplified chants became clear.
    "Racists go home!"
    Which almost made me smile, because we were home. I suppose they meant in Israel, though it sort of is a universal directive to any situation where Jews find themselves living on a spot. The Germans didn't think they belong there either, and they had lived there for 500 years.
    "Racists go home!" the Palestinians across the street chanted.
     Meanwhile, the pro-Israel side sang "Am Yisrael Chi"— "The nation of Israel lives."
     The official noontime demonstration had broken up and I gravitated along with the mass of blue and white flag wavers across Canal to the unofficial post-demonstration standoff, where the two groups stood shouting at each other, while cops on horses and on foot stood in the street between.
    "Terrorists go home!" the pro-Israel side started up, reactive as always. If there was one major mistake Israel has made in this whole process, is they let the Palestinians, however ill-led, call the shots. Its policy is to wait, see what they do, then respond.
     "Terrorists go home."
     "Racists go home."
     It wasn't lost on me which side I was on, literally. I had gone over to the Palestinians earlier. But their protest was a hotter, more condensed knot of about 150 people on the corner, and I hadn't had the fortitude to insert myself among them. Instead, I snapped a few pictures, talked to one person, and skedaddled away.
     The Israeli gathering was much larger--say 1,000 over a much greater area than the Palestinians': that seemed apt. Not that size matters: Pro-Palestinian rallies have been going on all week, and this was more of a hastily arranged, let's-spoil-their-party kind of thing. I noticed that the police screened the bags of people entering the pro-Israel rally; the unspoken assumption being the Palestinians were safe from bag-carried bombs.
     The "You want war, we want peace," chant threw me a little. Really? And on what do you base that claim? Like much in the Palestinian rhetoric, it had a mere words quality. They way the rockets randomly fired into Israel are called "defensive" or "resistance." Like Republicans, they seem to feel that if they find the right label for something it'll then be okay. The truth is, I've never actually hear anyone in authority on the Palestinian side laying out a map to peace that doesn't involve them magically regaining the country. Even the two-peoples-existing-together rhetoric—the latest and-then-you-give-us-your-country argument—doesn't have a lot of on-the-ground evidence to back it up. If the Palestinians are trying to establish their ability to exist peacefully within a secular state of Israel, they're doing a botch job of it.
     Israel, on the other hand, has a 20 percent non-Jewish minority actually living in peace within its borders. Maybe rather than fighting the Israeli settlers the Palestinians should embrace them and wait. But then that would involve long-range strategic thinking, something the Palestinians are even worse at than the Israelis, which is really saying something.
   "You want war, we want peace," the Palestinians chanted. Others in the pro-Israel faction reacted similarly. Being Jews, they argued, even though the other side couldn't hear. A lady next to me was actually talking to them, almost muttering--even I couldn't hear what she said.
     Eventually the pro-Israel side, again, reflected the Palestinian chant, this time identically, "You want war, we want peace." A little embarrassing, if you ask me. So much for Jewish creativity. But they were improvising on the spot, and the results of that are seldom good, as the situation in Israel shows.
    There was something extra ludicrous at that point, ludicrous about the whole thing. These two groups, screaming their desire for peace at each other. Then get to it, idiots. The idea of protests is to make beliefs known -- the public, telling its careless leaders what the real situation is. If only the czar knew... Though Jews supporting Israel is not exactly an epipheny, nor is Palestinians supporting their own brethren.
     What's the point of protest if nobody but nobody is listening?
      Maybe that's better. Is there a conflict in history where the divisions are not insanely petty and local? Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Serbians and Croatians, Sunnis and Shiites. I couldn't tell a Tutsi from a Hutu if you put a gun to my head, and neither could you.
    Both sides seemed set on proving something to some imaginary impartial arbitrator. The United States? The world? God? They don't realize they're by themselves. The world is not going to bail out the Palestinians. It sure hasn't up to this point. Nor are they going to go away. Both sides are stuck relying on a losing strategy in a game where they both lose, year after year.
     So sad,and, if I may, stupid. Maybe that's the path to peace, the message that the world needs to convey back, loud and clear. Not parse the bottomless grievances of both sides. I think there is more validity to Israel's, but then, I'm on their side, and at some point being right doesn't really matter anymore. It's just another road to folly. Maybe that's the central, unsaid fact of the stand-off. It's stupid. That could be concept strong enough to counterbalance the rebellious zeal of the Palestinians, the military pride of the Israelis. A simple chant back, shouted by the world: you're stupid. You're both stupid. The whole thing is stupid. Why don't you stop being stupid and go figure it out, at long last. Because you're blocking traffic, the both of you, on Madison Street.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Meet Hanan

    After I wrote about land mines a few weeks ago, Lurie Children's Hospital said they had a young patient with a similar sort of injury, sponsored by the Palestine Children's Relief Fund. I knew that aspect would throw a curve to some readers, and decided to just step back and tell the story. Though I wanted to mention that I went to their Iftar Friday night, the day after Israel invaded Gaza, and felt welcomed by everyone I spoke with, which, to be honest, was exactly what I expected.

     Hanan is 7.
     She has a gap-toothed smile and loves Hello Kitty, the intensely cute Japanese cartoon character. A spangled Hello Kitty decorated her pink dress, which she demurely protected with a napkin Friday night, holding it in place with one hand while trying to navigate a fork around her dinner plate with the other, until a helpful tablemate taught her the tuck-the-napkin-into-your-collar trick.
     Hanan is a Palestinian from Syria, and came to Chicago in April for medical treatment for her right leg, which was blown off below the knee by a bomb in the Syrian civil war which, in case you’ve lost track, has cost more than 100,000 lives over the past three years and displaced millions.
     She was brought to Chicago by the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.
     “I met her in Jordan when I was on my way to Gaza for a medical mission in February,” said Sarah Alrayyes, media coordinator for the charity in Chicago. “I’ve met many, many kids, and she is a very special and unique girl. She’s extremely smart. She’s just very captivating, really. Anyone who would meet her could not help falling in love. Before I met her, I was warned by our CEO, Steve Sosebee: ‘You will fall in love.’ I later emailed him: ‘You are completely right.’”
     Hanan limped heavily as she went from hug to hug Friday at an Iftar — a Ramadan break-the-fast community meal — at Reza’s, held to benefit the fund and several others.
     Her parents couldn’t get out, but her grandmother took her to Jordan, where an aunt and uncle live.
     “Our Jordan chapter stumbled upon her case,” Alrayyes said. Chicago’s branch of the non-political, non-religious charity brought her case to the attention of Lurie Children’s Hospital, which issued a letter crucial in getting Hanan, who didn’t have a passport, to the United States for treatment....

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Everthing old is new again

  Silly me. I actually took the bait, flopped my fingers on the keyboard, and wrote a new column about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, when all I had to do was dig back into the archives and pluck out a completely-serviceable old one. Here is a column from ... well, I'll let you guess. Read it, see if there is a comma that is no longer relevant, alas. At the end I'll give you the date, as a sad coda. 

     Whatever your motive, attacking nations is usually bad for you. 
     Dangerous even when you're a big powerful country attacking a 
weaker nation, like Nazi Germany when it invaded Poland in 1939. 
     The Germans had high hopes, rolling across the border. But it did 
not end well for them.

     Even a nation acting on high moral principles, such as the United 
States was supposedly doing five years ago when it invaded Iraq, 
will run into trouble. The war is now universally viewed as folly 
that cost the lives of 4,100 American soldiers and --get ready for 
a statistic you don't read much -- some 100,000 Iraqi civilians.

     As bad an idea as it is for nations, it's an even worse idea for 
non-nations. Were I to decide to wage war on America -- say by 
firing homemade rockets from my back deck into the surrounding 
neighborhood -- retribution would be swift. The local police force 
would no doubt surround the house -- a more powerful force, by the 
way, than myself and my paltry homemade rockets. Even, dare I say 
it, a disproportionate force . . .

     You see where I'm going with this. While nobody wants to see 
civilians die, at some point -- and that point seems to be now, at 
long last -- the world is going to realize that by constantly 
firing missiles into Israel, Hamas is calling hell down upon itself 
and its people. The rocket attacks were not fighting for their new 
nation, but forestalling it. A dispassionate observer would note 
that what Hamas is vowing now after Israel's deadly reply -- to 
visit more destruction upon it -- is exactly what they were vowing 
before. Peace will come the day Palestinians decide they would 
rather build a real, limited nation today than die on the altar of 
a theoretical, unlimited future idyll. That day, alas, tarries.

— first published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 29, 2008