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....

    To continue reading, click here. 

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 

"We plan and God laughs"

     "Maybe," my wife said, "you should wait until after they work on the pipes. They might tear up the sidewalk."
      The Village of Northbrook was about to begin work on the water mains on our block.
      We were on our knees, pulling weeds in the strip of earth between the grass and the sidewalk in front of our house.
      I pondered this suggestion, torn, eager to get a strip of edging down, then fill the front bed with mulch. As a reward, for pulling all those weeds up. We had really cleaned up the front bed nicely.
     The bed was under our struggling spirea. To the left of our front walk, a massive hedge of vanhoutte spirea, turning to a glorious cascade of white in the spring. To the right, a dinky, devastated remnant I keep reinforcing with more spirea, which keep dying. I'm not sure why. The soil. The light.  
      "I only have one goal in life," I told my wife, recently. "I want that spirea hedge to grow."
     And it did. This year, finally, to my delight, it progressed. Bushes that had been languid stirred, perked up -- my wife credits her cutting them way back last autumn. The vinca ground cover that we planted around the spirea also began to take hold, a line of defense against future weeds. Planning ahead. 
     Time, I felt, for a nice black edging, and mulch of some sort, to further keep down the weeds. Hit 'em with all we've got. My wife and fell to our knees and busied ourselves, happily toiling. Put down the edging or not? 
     "I'll wait and see what they do," I said.
     Enter the Village of Northbook.
     Something about the incoming water pipes. The new water tower puts too much pressure—or not enough—so they're replacing the mains. Which is a cruel joke, since it's the drainage on our street that's horrendous. I've considered buying a canoe. 
      Give the workers credit. They have tried, when implanting this enormous steel trenching support in our front yard, directly over where the sidewalk use to be, to save the spirea. The treads of their machinery brush but do not crush them, not yet anyway. The vinca though are gone, true--stout little oval leaved warriors, just starting to spread out and explore, to live their low-lying lives. And a few of the spirea do seem to have vanished. 
      This is the odd part. I took it all with ... equanimity. No grief. No marching to Village Hall, next door, pounding my fist on the counter. "I have been wronged!" One does not garden, one does not presume to nurture nature, without developing a farmer's hardy composure. Stuff happens. Take your successes where you find them. The spirea as yet, survive, mostly. And vinca is still being sold, by the flat, over at Red's. Nothing a bit of spadework won't fix. In the realm of the government showing up at your front door and doing something bad to you, this was pretty minor stuff. "And then the soldiers came and killed our shrubbery."  
      And the weeds? Completely gone along with the earth that had been under them. Where they once were is a six-foot deep trench. Of course we could have saved ourselves the effort had we known the village was going to swoop in and do our weeding for us with a backhoe. But you know what? Those hours we were working, my wife in a big hat, were some of the most fun of the summer. Sure, we did not in fact accomplish anything. But who does when it comes to yardwork? At best you stem the tide for another day. At least my new edging is still in the back, waiting to be installed, the bags of mulch unopened. I could have meticulously put the stuff down only to see it immediately torn up. But I had a hunch. 
     So at least I guessed right, for once. I had a sense that things would not be going as planned. One should always expect that.  And always cling to the process, which can't be taken away, and not the result, which can. As my late mother-in-law liked to say, "We plan and God laughs." Or, in this case, the Village of Northbrook. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Plan B offers a glimpse, maybe, of Palestinian future

Roey Gilad, Israel's consul general in Chicago

     Yes, there is a connection between the downing Thursday of a Malaysian Airlines 777 jet over eastern Ukraine and the Israeli invasion of Gaza the same day.
     And no, it isn’t the inevitable conspiracy theory, the if-it-helps-you-then-you-must-have-caused-it delusion that the Israelis shot down the Malaysian plane in order to divert world attention from their military action, though that is exactly what occurred.
     To be honest, a preliminary check of the lunatic fringes found not a whisper of this, which surprises me. It must be on the way.
     The Israeli/Palestinian standoff is not an area where rational thought is much rewarded.  The Israelis seem content to play jailer to a restive, belligerent and growing population of 4.5 million Palestinians jammed into the West Bank and Gaza. It is a failure of empathy on Israel’s part, which I’d fault them for more except it is enlightened benevolence compared to the Palestinians, nearly a third of whom elected a terror group, Hamas, to lead them, which makes their cries of injustice ring hollow. If Israel is locked in the outdated land-equals-security calculus, Palestinians keep returning to the same tattered 1947 game plan — we fight you and win everything someday — that has been losing consistently for the past 67 years.
     Meanwhile the world, which doesn’t give a fig about much, doesn’t give a fig about this, except for those who hate Israel on a good day and really, really hate Israel now that it’s drawing blood, for reasons they vehemently insist have nothing at all to do with it being Jewish. Reading their emails and fielding their phone calls has left me with one thought: You don’t have to be anti-Semitic to condemn Israel, but it sure helps.
     So while Israel is dismantling Hamas tunnels and accidentally killing civilians — something Hamas is frantically trying to do intentionally — there will be a next month and a next year. Just because there is no hope now, this moment, doesn’t mean nothing will ever happen and this standoff will continue forever. So let’s ask my favorite question, one I like to bring up only because no one else does: How does this end?
     Everyone has a plan....

     To continue reading, click here.

Photo atop blog: Village Hall, Northbrook.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Remembering Neil Armstrong and July 20, 1969

     Today is the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping on the Moon. That he was the first man to do so hardly needs to be mentioned—the act made him one of the most famous men of the 20th century, a distinction that he carried with enormous grace. Like most people, I always admired Armstrong as much for the dignity he showed afterward as for the feat itself. He never sold out or cheapened his accomplishment. I got the chance to learn more about Armstrong two years ago, when he died and I wrote this obituary, which appeared in the Sun-Times on Aug. 25, 2012:

     He was the first man to set foot on the moon, and he lived the rest of his life in such a manner as to never detract from that enormous accomplishment.
     Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of Apollo 11’s “Eagle” lunar landing module and onto the powdery gray lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. EST on July 20, 1969, to the amazement of a breathless world.
     “That’s one small step for [a] man,” he said, famously, the “a” dropping out in the quarter-million mile transmission. “One giant leap for mankind.”
     For the next 43 years, until his death Saturday at 82 after complications from surgery to repair a blocked artery, Armstrong conducted himself as a hero should — modest, self-effacing, neither capitalizing on his global fame nor seeking a return to the spotlight.
     That was not only appreciated, it was apt, because Armstrong’s modest demeanor was what caused NASA administrators to pick him for the honor in the first place, selecting him to achieve the capstone of the United States’ epic quest, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
     In a statement, his family described Armstrong as “a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.”
     Neil Alden Armstrong was born on Aug. 5, 1930, in Wapakoneta, a small town in Western Ohio, 60 miles from the hometown of the Wright Brothers, who were his boyhood heroes. Armstrong received his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday, before he learned to drive, paying for flight lessons with his own money from after-school jobs, and became a naval air cadet the next year.
     He studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue — he always described himself as a “nerdy engineer” — but left college to fight in the Korean War. The youngest fighter pilot in his squadron, he flew 78 combat missions, was shot down once and decorated three times.
     After the war, he finished at Purdue and got his masters degree at the University of Southern California. He joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA, becoming a research pilot at Edwards Air Force base, flying hundreds of different aircraft.
Armstrong retired from the Navy in 1960 and joined the space program in 1962, part of the second class of astronauts. He commanded the Gemini 8 mission in 1966, conducting the first docking of two spacecraft in history, connecting with the Agena spacecraft.
     “Flight we are docked,” Armstrong radioed back. “It’s really a smoothie.” The rest of the flight wasn’t — 30 minutes after docking, a malfunctioning thruster caused the joined spacecraft to spin wildly, required the mission to be aborted and an emergency landing in the Pacific.
     NASA officials, looking for a cool head for the first risky moon mission, remembered Armstrong’s performance under pressure with Gemini 8. He was made commander of Apollo 11, where he was joined by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, who stayed in the command module Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface.
     Armstrong needed his trademark calm during the Eagle’s landing, when a balky computer threatened to put the spidery vehicle into a field of boulders — he switched to manual control, reading out the distance to the uprushing moon, flew past the boulder field and landed softly in a cloud of dust with less than a minute’s worth of fuel remaining in the landing tanks.
    “Houston,” he said. “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
     NASA always said that Armstrong was selected to go out first because his seat was closest to the hatch — but years later, officials admitted that it was his self-effacing demeanor — Aldrin had lobbied for the honor — that caused him to be selected.
     Armstrong spent less than three hours on the moon. He collected rock samples and took photographs — most of them, so he only appears in a few. Armstrong never flew into space again.
     The rest of his life was mostly out of the public eye — Aldrin described him as one of the quietest men he had ever met.
    “On behalf of the Aldrin family we extend our deepest condolences to Carol & the entire Armstrong family on Neil’s passing. He will be missed.,” Aldrin said via Twitter.
     Armstrong taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati and served on corporate boards.
     He did make several rare appearances — in 2010, decrying a NASA budget that shed its human space flight.
     “It has been painful to watch,” he testified to Congress. “I believe the president has been poorly advised.”
      He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal. More than a dozen public schools are named in his honor.
     Armstrong was living in Cincinnati at the time of his death. He was married in 1956 and divorced his first wife, Janet, in 1994, later marrying Carol Held Knight. Survivors include his two sons from his first marriage, Alan and Mark. A daughter, Karen, died of an inoperable brain tumor at age 2 in 1962.
     His family’s statement requested that those wishing to honor Armstrong, “honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Divvy: all good fun until somebody gets hurt

     The city recently marked the first anniversary of its Divvy bike-share program with characteristic self-congratulation: “I encourage everyone to celebrate this milestone by getting on a Divvy bike and going for a ride,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, trotting out the statistics — 1.6 million trips taken, 250,000 day passes sold, 23,000 annual members signed up, including yours truly. I’ve taken over 100 jaunts on the Divvy this past year. It’s a fun, convenient, healthful way to get around town.
     But ...
     In one regard the city has failed in its rollout of the Divvy program, by downplaying the importance of wearing a helmet. Perhaps because bothering with helmets cuts down on usage. Perhaps because they spoil the carefree, hip mellow Divvy is driving for. Perhaps — my theory — that Divvy doesn’t make money from renting helmets, yet.
     Go on Divvy’s website and find barely a whisper about the need for helmets, a bit tucked at the end of “Riding Tips.” Divvy is acting too much like a private business and too little like a responsible part of civic life.
     Not that I’m the Welcome Wagon for bike helmets. I didn’t own a helmet for the first 35 years of my life, having grown up in the era when we drank from garden hoses, rode in the beds of pickup trucks and played with lawn darts.
     But after having kids, I realized that if I wanted them to be wearing
their helmets when some careless motorist came blasting out of a side street, I’d better wear one too.
     It’s a big honking Bell helmet, the kind with the vaguely insectoid shape that makes it bigger and harder to haul around. But I do wear it, mostly. I wore the helmet when I met the mayor for a Divvy ride and was surprised that Rahm, usually attuned to optics, had no helmet. Maybe helmets poll poorly.
     My policy: Try to wear one. Usually. Shoot for 90 percent. OK, 75 percent. But sometimes I’ll go for a ride helmetless.
     I’m beginning to wonder if even those occasional breezy-haired trips are unwise.

      To continue reading, click here. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

      It's Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a time of dawn-to-dusk fasting. Observing the fast is considered one of the "Five Pillars of Islam," but it's also a time of celebration and renewal of community ties, particularly at the Iftar, the post sun-down meal. Friday night I attended an Iftar raising money for the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund  at Reza's on Ontario, a very nice group of Chicagoans, and of course plenty of good food as well. It was a lot of fun, and if you the chance to attend an Iftar—Ramadan runs until July 28—I suggest you grab it.
      This photo was taken, not at the Iftar, but inside a mosque, obviously, but which one? My supply of posters is almost gone, so the winner will receive a signed copy of my recent book, "You Were Never in Chicago." Please be sure to post your guesses in the comments below. Good luck.