Friday, August 7, 2020

Men have long shunned protective gear

A.G. Spalding
.    Albert G. Spalding was a fine specimen of a man: 6-foot-1 with dark hair and a thick mustache. He was also a heck of a pitcher: 47 wins, 12 losses for the Chicago White Stockings in 1876.
     If you read the above and thought, "That's a lot of games" you're right. Spalding pitched 61 of the team's 66 games that season. Most teams only had one pitcher. Spalding not only threw every pitch, but caught every ball, eventually, whether thrown back to him or hit. Unsurprisingly, Spalding’s hands were beat up with “severe bruises.”     
     So Spalding noticed that Boston first baseman, Charles C. Waite. wore something on his hand — a leather glove that matched his skin tone because he was “ashamed to wear it” and hoped fans wouldn’t notice. Men were aghast at the idea of protective equipment. In his 1911 book on baseball, Spalding notes the first catcher’s mask was ridiculed as “babyish” and “cowardly.”
     Spurning personal protective equipment didn’t begin with COVID-19. When you look at the history of PPE, the current uproar over wearing cotton face masks is simple to understand: it’s a guy thing.
     Men take risks. A 2012 National Institutes of Health study found that while toleration of risk has no affect on whether women working on farms wore PPE when spreading dangerous pesticides, it does affect whether men do. Men are prone to underestimate the hazard of any activity and to exaggerate the bother of safety measures, such as seat belts.
     Masks are indeed a bother. Most protective devices are. They diminish the pleasure of an activity: motorcycle helmets and condoms, for instance. Women have an easier time trading comfort for safety: about 60 percent of women wear motorcycle helmets while barely half of male riders do.

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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Flashback 2006: Chuck E. Cheese

     Lord & Taylor went bankrupt this week, the oldest department store in America. Ann Taylor—no relation—too. Just a pair of dozens of retailers—J. Crew, J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus—seeking bankruptcy protection in the COVID-19 era.
     Despite popular perceptions, going bankrupt does not necessarily mean going out of business: just the opposite, it's a last-ditch strategy to survive, using a court to keep your creditors at bay while you try to get your act together. 
    So not the end. But not a good sign either.
     All part of our changing pandemic world, with outsized impact because of the emotional factor. It isn't as if most of us want to rush to Lord & Taylor. Rather, I imagine, many Americans have a little knot of associations with these famous names. I still remember cringingly buying a black polyester suit with my mother at Penney's—where, now that I think of it, I worked, in the catalogue department, pairing product with orders, for one extremely unhappy month when I was 17. So a feeling somewhere between "good riddance" and the death of a high school classmate you knew sort of.
     Then there's Chuck E. Cheese. There was a distinct How-Did-I-Get-Here? hellishness to finding oneself in a Chuck E. Cheese, the kind of sudden realization that makes you want to return to infancy and start life over and see if you can do a little better so as not to end up here.
    At least there was wine...
    Though I did have a memorable moment there, on my son's 3rd birthday. I figured I probably wrote about it in the paper, and did. It's from when the column filled a page, and I've left a few of the earlier items on the page, and the original subheads, as a set up and in case you have time to kill. Or you can just jump to the end.

     Speaking of religion's stranglehold on America, I read Sam Harris' book Letter to a Christian Nation this week. The brief polemic is well worth the hour or so it took to read, if only for his neat dismissal of the Ten Commandments, which are neither the basis for our legal system nor even particularly moral, at least in the sense we understand morality today (the first four are about the need for religious intolerance).
    "It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail," Harris writes.
     Strong stuff. Though I'm not sure who is supposed to benefit from Harris' book. The supposed audience -- zealous American Christians -- are not known for entertaining heretical ideas. They will certainly dismiss this book as mere prejudice.
     And those who sympathize with Harris don't really need further evidence that the country is in the thrall of our own mullahs pressing their beliefs on the unwilling.
     Still, it is bracing to see reality so clearly enunciated and defended, and to be reminded of just how automatically our culture kowtows to the whims of certain faiths.

     There is a counterargument that Harris overlooks, and however unlikely a defender of faith I might be, I feel strongly enough to not only point it out, but to label it the Steinberg Codicil.
     It goes like this:

     Life, despite its brevity, is actually quite long, and often filled with tragedy. One must occupy oneself with something, preferably something that offers comfort and meaning. Religion, despite all the harm it does, is no more delusional than a range of other recreational activities, from following sports to engaging in hobbies. Take thimble collecting, for instance. It, too, is based on a tissue of fantasy: the belief that the collection means something, that it is aesthetic, that the thimbles reflect both your personality and a kind of permanence, that they won't just be promptly sold off on eBay by your shrugging heirs. Whether you believe in angels or Charlie's Angels seems a mere matter of style.
     Science, on the other hand, can be cold comfort. For all its innumerable contributions, science has seldom inspired a great painting or an endurable opera. A keen mind such as Harris' can cut faith off at the knees, but he provides no replacement.
     My older son and I are 72 cantos into Dante's Divine Comedy, though neither of us believe in the eschatological system contained herein. We are not reading the Periodic Table. That is not a bad thing. The good news about religion is its grip around the throat of humanity has been relaxing for 500 years. When Harris writes "We are building a civilization of ignorance," it is one of the rare times when he is 100 percent wrong. We are not building it, we are tearing it down. Or trying to.

     I don't know what clump of neurons have been carrying around "eschatological" all these years, but when I looked the word up, I was a little shocked to see that it actually is the right word for the circumstances: "the part of theology concerned with death, judgment and the final destiny of the soul."
     That makes me feel better about not being able to name a current member of the Cubs. At least I'm using the storage space for something else—whether that something else is worthwhile or not I'll leave to you.

     Critics of the president have a tendency to see signs of his malignancy everywhere—the hidden hand behind the 9/11 attacks, the cynically tumbling gas prices just before the election.
     I thought I was immune from such folly but, speaking of Dante, I was reading Paradiso to the boy the other night and came upon these lines. A sentiment expressed 700 years ago by Beatrice but also one that could have been uttered by Hillary Clinton last week to rebuff the notion of staying the course in Iraq:

Be faithful—not unreasonably so.
Like Jephtha when he made his offering.
Better that he had said, 'I have done wrong.'
Than keeping faith to do a greater ill.

     When my elder son—whose 11th birthday is today—turned 3, we held the party at a Chuck E. Cheese's pizza parlor. It was difficult, for me, because I view the place as hell without the flames —the clanging games, the shrieking kids, the horrible animatronic creatures grinding through their limited repertoire of movements. Being there struck me as indicative of my low status in life. Though the place did serve wine, which helped.
     We were at Chuck E. Cheese's because that's where he wanted the party held. I subscribe to the theory that children should get what they want, at least occasionally, particularly on their birthdays. I was rewarded by one of those moments of parental joy that burn themselves in your mind, when your child establishes, to your relief and delight, that he is turning out exactly like you. The Chuck E. Cheese character was making his dramatic entrance, to the unfettered joy of the gathered 3-year-olds. At that moment my son turned to me and said—I swear —"Dad, do you think it's appropriate to have a mouse in a restaurant?"
     This year—and I pass this along, not just to brag, but to give reason for hope to all those currently enduring Chuck E. Cheese or its equivalent—we're taking him and a small group of friends to the Symphony Center for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago's "spooky musical adventure." Yes, I know. I have no doubt that five years from now I'll be writing about his desire to tattoo a winged skull on the back of his neck. But we ain't there yet, and I'm enjoying every millisecond until the inevitable.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 25, 2006

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Military could keep Trump from nukes

     A reader forwarded an article, “The messed up truth about the Louisiana Purchase,” recasting doubling the size of the United States, not as a bargain securing our nation’s future growth, but as a disastrous prelude to more slavery and persecution of Native Americans. Which it certainly was.
     Once again I felt like a kid caught between two battling parents.
     On one hand, you’ve got the Make America Great crew, to whom everything America does now or ever did is already pretty great, because we did it. U.S. history is a series of triumphs leading up to today’s apex of glory, the Donald Trump administration.
     On the other is history as a stroll through a slaughterhouse, where the creation of our country is a blot upon nature, like a bag of wet trash split open into a field of flowers. The United States is half crime, half blunder.
     Thursday is Aug. 6, a key stop in the latter view’s stations of the cross, the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. At the time, 85% of Americans felt it was the right thing to do, to win the war quickly.
     By 2015, approval had shrunk to 56%, though that might be deceptive.
     “If people were put in a situation like 1945, public opinion changes,” said Scott D. Sagan, a political science professor at Stanford. “In a survey experiment in 2017, people were asked: If we were at war with Iran, and the president is given the options of attacking the second largest city in Iran with nuclear weapons, to shock the Iranian government, or continue a ground war where 20,000 American troops die, versus 100,000 people die in the air attack, 60% of Americans support the air attack. Increase the number to 2 million dying from the nuclear bomb and that number stays the same, 60%.”

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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

But it's my right!

When in Chicago, Col. Ellsworth led a
famed group of Zouave soldiers.
       Americans are justly proud of our liberties.  Alas, over time, that pride has swelled to such an enormous size, it blocks our vision, and causes confusion between what can be done and what should be done.
     For instance. 
     My column Monday juxtaposed an Evanston woman confronting a group displaying a Confederate flag—on a towel, adding that low comedy touch—at the beach there, with Col. Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer to die in the Civil War after taking a stand against what he had called the "Secession Flag."
    Reaction, as you can imagine, was heavy and all over the place. Mostly positive thoughts from readers, I should point out. But also some who seemed more keen to highlight the right to display banners of treason and hate—as if I were unfamiliar with the Constitution—while ignoring the aggressiveness of the act.
     A prime example—and surprising, since it came from a regular reader—was this:
     Today’s column misses an important point, i.e. the Confederate flag displayers' First Amendment right to free speech. Like you and so many others, especially as an Evanston resident, I found the flag display was disgustingly racist. Still to be devil’s advocate, how is this any different than when Nazis marched years ago in Skokie and We’re defended by the ACLU?  Imagine the frustration if everyone at the beach just ignored the yahoos and their racist banner.  Just sayin’...
    I replied this way:
     Your email puzzles me. Of course I didn't "miss" that the oafs displaying their Confederate towel are within their Constitutional rights. What of it? That point seems a red herring. You are waving [the] 1st amendment when it comes to traitorous bigots advertising their creed. Yet urging silence upon decent patriotic Americans whom, last time I checked, enjoy the same 1st amendment rights. Are you certain you've thought this opinion through?  Thanks for writing.
    A number of people stressed this aspect.
    I agree with you about what the flag represents but it’s also there [sic] right to hang it and that’s the bottom line ?
     I replied:
     No one argues that. The losers displaying the flag have the right. Just as the patriotic Americans have the right—I believe the obligation—to pause and pour contempt upon them. Thanks for writing.
     Maybe the unspoken part is this: bigots are broken, frightened people. Airing their prejudices, as if they were a reason to be proud, is the closest they come to strength. Prejudice is a kind of philosophy for morons, and pushing back can seem like setting New York theater critics loose to pick apart the acting in a kindergarten play. 
     Thus silence is not only easier, it can seem kind. The problem is that the haters aren't satisfied. They take everything they can get and a little more. Today's beach towel becomes tomorrow's flag which becomes next week's new law. Having lost the Civil War in 1865, the losers inched back, until it almost seemed like they won. They're inching still. We see the result ,in the White House and all around. Hate is on the rise. Time to stamp it back down where it belongs, back into the sewer of shame from whence it came and must inevitably return.

Monday, August 3, 2020

‘Be brave for 30 seconds’ — and 159 years

Col. Elmer Ellsworth

     Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth and LaShandra Smith-Rayfield do not know each other. Yet. But I would like to introduce them. Well, at least I would like to introduce Col. Ellsworth to Ms. Smith-Rayfield.
     Sadly, I cannot likewise introduce Ms. Smith-Rayfield to Col. Ellsworth, time’s arrow being what it is. But I fancy he would have approved.
     Smith-Rayfield confronted a group displaying a large Confederate battle flag towel on the beach in Evanston last week. She didn’t just happen by. Those who just happened by did what most people do when just happening by something wrong: nothing.
     Smith-Rayfield hurried there and made a stand.
     ”It makes me uncomfortable in a place that I pay taxes and rent,” she told those sprawled before the rebel flag. “That right there is a racist symbol of hate.”
     Someone else at the beach — a “man of color” in Smith-Rayfield’s words — who later said he had hoped to have a private word with those displaying the flag, on the video says he’s a vet, he fought for free expression, the flag’s fine.
     “It’s not fine,” Smith-Rayfield replied. “It’s not fine. You teach your children to speak up about this kind of thing ... You fought for a flag that had 50 stars. They lost the battle.”

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Cancellers can't cancel you without your help

Translation: "A joy it will be someday, perhaps,
to remember even this."
    Honestly? By 8 p.m. Saturday I was feeling pretty brain dead.
    The result of getting up early, working on the book ("Every day," Elvis Costello sings, "Every day, every day I write the book...") Then cutting down Rose of Sharon (no, not cutting down Rose of Sharon Joad, though that's funny to think about. "Geez, girl, do you know how annoying you and your stupid husband are, giggling away like that...?") The bush, in our backyard, which had grown huge these past 20 years and then suddenly was 3/4 dead, but with a lush new Rose of Sharon sprouting up underneath.  Sawed it up, bagged the branches. Took two hours.
      I was going to hop on here and tell you all to pound salt. "Show's over, nothing to see here folks, go about your business..." But I decided to read Eric Zorn's column and see what was on his mind which, I'm glad to report, unlike mine, is fully functioning, one benefit of not having a big ass dead Rose of Sharon in his yard there in Old Irving Park. He took on a subject I haven't gotten past musing about, cancel culture, pointing out that the Right, in characteristic hypocritical fashion, have a lot tougher time with it in college professors than with in their own shut-up-folks-we-don't-like selves.
     Reading Eric's piece squirted some WD-40 into the seized up gears of the old brain. Suddenly it started to whir, albeit while making a high-pitched screeching sound.
     You might want to pause and read Eric's piece here then return, if you are so inclined, and I'll add a coda.
    Hmm-mmm hmm,. hmmma hmm-hmm hmmmmmm...
    Back? Good. The thought I managed to squeeze out after reading Eric's piece was this: those who get cancelled often have a hand in their own downfall, in two ways:
     First, they serve up something that inflames the mob du jour. I could easily write a column that is heartfelt, honest, of-the-moment, and strays into the particular realm of stuff-that-gets-you-fired today. But I don't. Why? Cowardice, maybe, or savvy, but basically  because part of what my boss pays me for is to avoid horseshit dustups over nothing, to not provide anything that might tend to interfere with my ability to draw readers to the paper and add value to it. I can't do that if I've been hounded into retirement.
    Second, when the sans culottes do start baying for your blood—and the above notwithstanding, sometimes you just step into it, sometimes, despite your best efforts, you stomp on that rake unaware—the howl only lasts so long. Then they fold their tents and depart. A lot of folks who wither really didn't have to, and might have survived had they shown a little patience, and just started whistling and gazing at their thumb in mock admiration for a few days and not decide to do an Al Franken and run out of a house that really isn't on fire. Or if their bosses hadn't panicked and thrown them over the side prophylactically. 
     The example Eric mentions is the board of The Poetry Foundation, which bolted like a frightened rabbit, and is probably still zigging and zagging across lawns in Indiana, heading east, even as we speak. Unnecessary. I don't believe that today the board would still be plagued by their not-quite-enthusiastic-enough statement of support for Black Lives Matter had they just stayed off Twitter for a few days. Cancellers are a variety of hater (they hate folks who have ever done something they consider wrong, at the moment, forgetting that the realm of people who have made mistakes includes them, their puffed up sense of righteous infallibility being Mistake Number One). And being haters, they live off fear. So if you don't provide the fear reaction they're looking for, they tear away like a pack of wolves, looking for someone who will.
     Is that insight? God I hope so, because it'll have to do.  

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Texas Notes: Biscuit

     Until I read Caren Jeskey's report from Austin I didn't realize how much I was  hankering for something positive at this perilous moment in our nation's history. I hope you feel the same.

     Barry’s eulogy of John Lewis was as satisfying as taking a bite of cold, crisp, firm apple. A presidential figure speaking in full, coherent sentences gave us a glimpse back to better days gone by. “So we are also going to have to remember what John said: ‘If you don’t do everything you can to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.’”
     We deemed President Obama Barry because he was a part of the family. We wanted him to be. He made us feel seen and heard, and we trusted him. We had a man of integrity at the helm who steered us into safer waters. His imperfections were forgiven as he started to right the ship of our country into one with a deck that was built strongly and promised liberty for all.
     I don’t like to focus on our current POTUS— aka the Screaming Carrot Demon (thank you Samantha Bee of the Daily Show for that one). I will continue to count the days (152) until this dangerous charlatan is out of office. Meanwhile I am making plans to move to Berlin if they will have me, if by some chance the election is rigged and he ends up with the privilege of staying near his comfy bunker for four more terrible years.
     Nicknames can be powerful. They can usurp one’s sense of well-being when they are unwelcome and demeaning. They can also make a person feel more a part of a partnership— Sweetie, Honey, Poopsie-Do— or a group— Sister, Wildcat, Kappa— when they are coined with love.
     A sales manager at my car dealer shared a story with me today. He has nicknames for all of his children including his youngest daughter Biscuit. She once asked him “daddy, why do you call me that?” He sat her down and told her of childhood memories of eating plates piled high with comfort food cooked with love by his mother and other elders in his small Texas town. At the end of those meals it was tradition to sop up the last of the gravy and bits of corn muffins and grits with the last half of the biscuit you’d been saving for that purpose. This indicated that the meal was over. “Honey, since you are going to be my very last child, you are my Biscuit.”

   Let’s make a plan to sop up the remnants of the last four years and start with a clean plate. We will have a lot of work to do to repair the damage that’s been done. While we engage in partisan bickering, Godzilla with Less Foreign Policy Experience (thank you Colbert) is undermining lives of tiny asylum seekers, the United States Postal Service, the CDC, the WHO, the US Census Bureau and doing all he can to kick the legs out from under every single person and institution that protects us from becoming even more of an oligarchy.
  As Barry reminded us in John Lewis’s words, we must change what we can to make 2020 into a year of silver linings, or many of us might just collapse. One such lining for me has been a lot more time for introspection as I was abruptly pushed out of the rat race due to a period of job loss (now remedied). This has led to a greater appreciation for all of the connections and support I have, despite the heavy times. I don't want to lie and pretty it up— I’ve had some very bleak days, yet I am still here and still have hope. 

     When I was a kid my family called me Carrie, Cakey (since I was not able to pronounce Carrie), and Sparkle Plenty. This memory reminds me of how much I am loved. As an adult it’s been Jetski, L’il CJ (my older sister is Christina), L’il J, L’il Dod (due to a typo once), Francine (made up by a very cute surfer on an island so I went with it), Care Bear, Karuna (which means compassion in Sanskrit), Caruna (a variation), Peaches (my favorite), and a few more.
     On top of receiving affection, I have had the privileges of excellent education, music lessons that allow me to escape through playing flutes, literacy, books on my shelf, comfortable shoes, bicycles, a car for day trips, and the ability to walk, run, dance, jump and sing. I have not been forced to take a risky germ-laden two-hour bus ride to get to Goodwill

where I work long shifts with short breaks and have to walk and stand on concrete floors that destroy my legs, like one man I know. I have voted twice this year and will vote at least once more. I may not be a part of the upper percent who owns most of this world, but I enjoy a good amount of freedom. Not everyone does, and they are just as important as I am.
   Let’s help single mothers who work long hours with short breaks get registered and get to the polls. Let’s allow a true representation of eligible voters to take part in an equitable election by being sure everyone is registered and has access. Let’s not let Rome Burning in Man Form (nod to John Oliver for that one) continue wielding his little swords, furiously jabbing in order to destroy all he can from now until the end of the year. Let’s be sure to keep on fighting and work hard to get every last drop of gravy off that plate.