Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day, 2016





     We do lots of activities over Memorial Day weekend—picnics and barbecues, tent sales and, not to forget the big event itself, the Indianapolis 500. 

      Don't blame the shrug of modern life. When Memorial Day began, right after the Civil War, as Decoration Day, it was a time for families to visit the graves of their knighted Union dead, outings immediately re-purposed by amorous young folk.
     "Decoration Day was also a day of courtship for the young people," notes holiday scholar Jack Santino, pointing out how 19th century couples would wander off to the more remote spots of woodsy cemeteries.
     Given these practical uses of the holiday, we can't be blamed for wondering, as we dip our heads and reflect on the sacrifice of soldiers who gave their lives for the country, for whose benefit do we do this?
     The noble dead? To please those gazing down at us from heaven?

     Pretty to think so. I would suggest, however, that we remember those who yielded their lives, not as a favor to them, but for ourselves. Dignity demands it. Our nation did not form spontaneously, like a mountain range, but was wrested by intention and force from Mother Britain. Nor did it survive for 240 years without the exercise of military power--often in folly, for certain but sometimes crucially, to make sure the Wehrmacht didn't come rolling down Michigan Avenue....

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Boulder, SUVs and goats



   I've spent a lot of time in Colorado: a full year, in bits and pieces, since I was a teenager. I don't love it the way many do. I mean, it's nice. Mountains. Forests. More mountains. Fine if you like that kind of thing.  I'm there now, visiting my parents. So I thought I'd share an observation from a dozen years ago, when SUVs were newer and more something to be remarked upon, as opposed to something accepted with a shrug.

     BOULDER, Colo.--There are fewer sport-utility vehicles on the roads here than in Chicago. That was a surprise. I assumed, with all the mountains, it would be the other way around, and worried I was somehow misperceiving things, perhaps due to the less congested traffic zipping along new, clean highways, plus the wide open spaces. But I quizzed my wife, cleverly not tipping my hand, and she viewed it the same. And we definitely did not spot a single Hummer in a week of driving the kids hither and yon, through the Rockies and back and forth across town.
     I have a theory as to why this is: People in Chicago drive all those Behemoths and Whales and Mountainsides--complete with headlight grills to brush away nonexistent branches and fog lights to cut through the mist of fjords 5,000 miles away--as part of some elaborate interior fantasy, a parody of the life they'd lead if only they weren't working like dray horses in windowless brokerage houses on LaSalle Street.
    But in Colorado, where people actually routinely shun their work and responsibilities and race off to the mountains and climb them, sometimes with their bare hands, they don't need to fantasize. They're busy hiking, riding, paddling, skydiving. They don't need a 3-ton, 11 mpg, $60,000 hunk of junk to prop up their outdoor delusions. They've got the real thing. We pulled over to the side of the road in Rocky Mountain National Park and watched a herd of elk basking in the sun, if not eyeball to eyeball, then as close to a group of elk as I want to be without bars between us.
     And I was driving a sedan.
     Not that Boulderites are without their own fantasies. Living next to smoggy Denver, which is a kind of Cleveland with mountains, and with every acre of farmland rapidly turning into tracts of pre-fab homes, there is a certain frenzy to environmentalism here.
     For instance. We were zipping along Foothills Parkway when we passed a couple hundred goats at the side of the road. We were in residential Boulder, and a glance beyond the goats confirmed that this wasn't some sliver of farm. There were houses around the goats. My wife was puzzled, but my long acquaintance with the People's Republic of Boulder--I've been coming here since the mid-1970s--gave me a hunch what was happening. The goats were mowing the grass, a diligent step on the road to ecological Nirvana. I had to know more.
     
 Recession, not eco-friendliness    

       "I came up with the idea," said Patrick Tarver, median maintenance flood supervisor for the City of Boulder. "We've only had it going about three weeks; it started out as a pilot program."
     To my disappointment, the goat mowers were not inspired directly by some chai-swigging, patchouli-scented macro-organic aversion to internal combustion engine lawnmowing, but because of lawn care services folding in the recession.
     "We couldn't get a mowing contractor," Tarver said. "The budget hit them really hard. They had let people go, sold equipment, and couldn't handle the job."
     Enter the goats.
     "We had a noxious weed problem, and used the goats in the past, and it just kind of came to me to try goats out," he said. "We have real steep berms, and it would take a lot of time to weed wack the whole area."
     A company in a nearby town, "Nip It in the Bud," provides hungry goats at $1 a day each--there are 232 in Boulder's herd, and Tarver said the goats' work compares favorably to human mowers at $10 to $15 an hour. Temporary fencing keeps the goats from wandering away.
     Tarver said that while the primary motive was "an economic thing," there is no question that goat mowing scratches a particular Boulder eco-green itch.
     "It is a Boulder mentality item as well," he said. "We're always looking for alternatives, and the goats don't put out ozone, don't put out noise pollution, don't use any fossil fuels."
     One man's ceiling is another man's floor, however. While I was appreciating Boulder for its wide-open spaces, grass-gobbling goats and zoning that doesn't permit any building that doesn't look like it was made out of mud by Pueblos, I ran into a resident who was thinking of packing it up.
     A few people can be too many
     "I've lived here since 1966," said a deeply-tanned, squinty kind of guy I met on the trail, while his dog and my boys played in what I hoped was a creek but could have also been an open sewer. He didn't have to finish the thought.
     "I suppose it's gotten pretty built up for you," I said.
     "It has," he agreed.
    "There's always North Dakota," I said, nodding sagely and forcing down a smile.
     We flew back into Midway, and saw our first Hummer of the week on the treacherous terrain of Cicero Avenue. I was calm though. I'm trying to get beyond the fist-shaking scorn for SUVs that I've felt over the past five years. I'm trying to replace it with more of a bland, avuncular tolerance just shy of contempt. If kids can play cowboys and Indians (well, just cowboys nowadays) then why shouldn't adults buy big rolling playpens and pretend they're being chased by rhinos in the veldt?
     I just wish they wouldn't feel the need to drive while doing it.


                             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 8, 2003

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Not in jest, but in earnest"



      There is a quote from antiquity that explains half the suffering in the world. It's one of my favorites, all the better because odds are you've never heard it before.
     Ready? 
     Here goes.
     "Little boys throw stones at frogs in jest," the poet Bion wrote in 100 BC, "though the frogs die, not in jest, but in earnest."
     In other words, the powerful do things lightly that have heavy consequences. 
     Great, huh? 
     So why is this quote illustrated by a grainy photo of a mother duck and her seven ducklings in my backyard?
     Our backyard is so wet it attracted ducks. I thought I would get their photo, and since I don't have a camera with a long lens—I don't have a camera at all—I stealthily crept out the back door to get a closer shot with my iPhone. I didn't want to scare the ducks by slamming the door, so I left it open.
     What I forgot, padding across the wooden deck on tiptoe, was the dog, who saw the ducks, and bolted out the open kitchen door, shot across the deck and after the ducks, scattering them in a quacking cloud of confusion and duckling and feathers.
    "Kitty!" I shouted giving pursuit.
     I don't think she hurt any of the ducklings —I once saw her trying to get the better of an overturned cicada and, well, let's put it this way: the cicada won.
      The inter-species scrum disappeared into the pine trees. I eventually tracked the dog down. The momma duck quacked mightily and assembled her charges, and stalked off, highly offended, to find a more hospitable yard. I felt very bad about driving them away. It wasn't my intent. But that's how it goes.
      Little boys throw stones at frogs in jest, though the frogs die, not in jest, but in earnest.  It also works for ducks, and lots of other things too. 



Friday, May 27, 2016

Police plant seeds of trust



 
 


    A piece of turf in Englewood. Young black men and women hanging out. And cops with 
dirty hands, planting something, then covering it up.

     Familiar words. You think you know where this story is going. But you don't.

     "My name is Officer Davis. I work at the 7th District police station," says David Davis, standing beside his partner, Ja'Lance Hunt. "Our mission is to protect and preserve life. We would be glad to answer any questions you have. We're here today to help you plant, to put the flowers in the garden today. We go to all the schools in Englewood and we plant flowers, but we also act as the police too. OK? So who's going to show me how to plant?"

     It was a sunny morning in West Englewood last week at the Southside Occupational Academy High School, 7342 S. Hoyne, a school for students with disabilities. Southside Occupational is a rare Chicago public high school that has its own dog, Louie, a mini-Goldendoodle.

     "Everybody knows Louie," says Joshua Long, the principal.

     It was the school's Earth Day celebration, with outside activities: food grills, art projects and planting their school garden. Officers Hunt and Davis greeted one group after another with enthusiasm, placing tiny seeds into their hands....


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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Out of balance

Wells Fargo History Museum, Los Angeles


     So Hillary Clinton might have violated State Department rules regarding email servers.
     And Donald Trump might have paid no taxes—he won't tell us, even though he promised he would.
    And Hillary, well, she was married to Bill Clinton, who wasn't faithful.
    While Donald Trump would bar Muslims from the country, insulting Islam abroad and at home, violating a core tenet of America.
    Clinton can be robotic.
    Trump can be cruel.
    Clinton lied about coming under fire in Bosnia.
    And Trump lied about giving a million dollars to veterans.
    Do you see a lack of balance here? The media tends to ying-yang politics. We think that's fairness. But some things don't balance. Hillary Clinton's cozy relationship with investment companies increases the chances that big money will get the deference in her administration that it gets under every administration, left right or center. Donald Trump's nationalism and protectionism increases the chances of war with China. 
    I don't see how those balance each other at all. Whenever I catch the attention of someone foaming about Benghazi, for instance, I say that first, there's nothing there, but second, even if there were, I would rather elect a Hillary Clinton who lied about secretly traveling to Libya and killed those Americans, herself, personally, than a Donald Trump who would honestly implement half the policies that he promised he would do. They aren't comparable. They're not two sides of a coin; they're one side of a penny and another side of a silver dollar. Trump's fans waving about Hillary's supposed lapses is like John Wayne Gacy telling a neighbor complaining about all those bodies being dug out of his basement, "Well, yeah, but you didn't mow your lawn...." 
     There are countless non-scandals that Republicans have tried to pin on the Clintons—Trump has already brought up Whitewater, Vince Foster. Meanwhile, Trump has no qualifications to be president, in experience, intellect, temperament, outlook, values, goals or morals. 
     It's a no-brainer. Which usually settles the case. Unless you're dealing with people who have no brains. Then it gets complicated. And scary. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ron Magers: The Last Man Standing

Ron Magers
     They were the generation after the black-and-white TV pioneers, the Floyd Kalbers and Len O'Connors, and before broadcast news shattered into tiny pieces against the Internet.
     Big personalities with big hair and fat 1970s neckties, easy to caricature: Walter Jacobson, feathers flying, squawking indignation. Carol Marin, our avenging angel, wielding her fiery sword of justice. And the king of the roost, Bill Kurtis, orotund and oracular, saved from Ted Baxter pomposity by the glint of self-knowledge.
      All have cut their anchor chains, slowly slipping out of the camera's gaze: Carol bursting into academia. Bill riding off into ranching. Walter, well, slithering someplace even more obscure than CBS.
     And now Ron Magers, the last man standing, takes his bow Wednesday night on WLS Channel 7 after 50 years in broadcasting, 35 of them in Chicago.
     "It's hard for me to take this all in," he said. "People are so nice."
     Since when? What Magers is seeing is his own niceness reflected back at him. If I had to pinpoint what kept Chicago watching Magers, night after night, rather than giving him the bum's rush to Pittsburgh, I would say it was not his niceness — that would get cloying — but his wit, that suppressed grin. Ron Magers was a funny man doing a serious job....

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How much snot can a snot-sucker suck?


     This might be the best idea.
     Or not.
     I really can't tell.
     We don't have a newborn, anymore. Haven't had one for, geez, almost two decades.
    And when we did, I seem to remember a blue bulb, with a nozzle at one end, used—by my wife God bless her—to extract snot from their noses.
    So maybe the "NoseFrida—The SnotSucker" is a huge improvement over the blue bulb system.
   I'll let you judge.
   It certainly caught my eye, as I was trucking through Bed, Bath & Beyond last week. Or its clear, bright Swedish graphics did. No question what's going on here. Though I did, skidding to a stop, think, "What the hell?!?"
     I would recommend a visit to the fridababy web site for all those who find themselves tasked with what they call "sticky situations." The yuck factor is balanced by friendly graphics and unflinching copy help gild over what they're talking about with a shiny veneer of art. The text points out that a filter is involved which keeps the sucked snot from being drawn into the mouth of the parent, which is almost reassuring.
    A NoseFrida, including four all-important filters, is $15.99. They sell them everywhere. Nordstom carries it.
    Notice their other products. NoseFrida is only the flagship device. There is also Windi, "The GasPasser," a valve designed to be inserted in your baby's posterior, to ease its farts out and reduce gas pain. Another product that might be vastly helpful. 
     Or Fridet, "the ButtWasher" designed to replace moist towelettes.
     There's more, but you get the picture.  
     They seem to be trying to corner the gross bodily substances market.
     As a fan of products, and marketing, generally, if not these in specific, I had to pass them along, and seek your thoughts. They're sold all over the world, so someone must buy them.
     My errand at Bed, Bath & Beyond, by the way, was to buy special pants hangers for my 20-year-old, who is spending his summer in Washington, D.C. His mom is under the illusion that only the proper hanger stands between him and hanging up the dress pants he needs to wear every day at his internship.  I assured my wife that, considering how his pants end up with the rest of his clothes, in bunched knots piled on the floor of his bedroom, the type of hanger they aren't being hung upon is really not all that significant. Wire hangers will do the job nicely. But she was adamant, insisting that hangers have powers to draw a man to order, to paraphrase Homer.
    The quote, from Book XIX of the The Odyssey, as translated by Robert Fagles, is: "Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin." I've seen it quoted more poetically as "The blade itself incites to deeds of violence," but I'll be damned if I can find which edition that's from. 
     What they mean, in essence, is: the tool encourages the action. So a SnotSucker draws — quite literally — a baby to better breathing. Or so is the theory. Anybody ever use these things?