Monday, August 18, 2014

He's baaaaaaaack!


     Two weeks, two thousand miles, Chicago to the Atlantic Ocean and back, showing various Southern and Tidewater colleges to the younger boy—more about that later.
     Lot of trash on the roads, particularly ripped apart tire treads. Lot of crosses too: whitewashed wooden memorial markers, some hung with garlands of flowers, emblazoned with names that register for a moment before they flash by and vanish forever. 
     I wondered about the connection, and concluded: slashed local municipal budgets. Less money to repair roads, never mind clean them. The highway around Gary looks like it's reverting to prairie, with goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace crowding the shoulders. They should just stick a sign on it calling it "The Indiana Prairie Reclamation Project" and pretend it's intentional.
    Oh, and the shell of a high rise hotel right next to the City Hall that I've read three times Gary has begun to tear down. It is still up, untouched.           
     Having been on the road for a solid two weeks, pulling into town late Sunday night, news came to me through the great national conduits of broadcast television and USA Today, which is like trying to breathe through a pair of straws.
     Only two big stories happened, knocking Gaza and Ukraine into the memory hole of oblivion, for now. Two American deaths, one famous, one obscure, blotting out all that foreign carnage which, I assume, is still going on.
    Robin Williams, the famous comedian, and Michael Brown, the 18-year-old Missourian. The first died by his own hand, the other, by a police officer's. 
     First Williams, whose suicide sincerely upset people, to judge from the heartfelt tributes and expressions of shock on social media, which thrives on surprise and bathos. We think we know celebrities, we think we own them, and they owe us fidelity. Reading the keening posts on Facebook about Williams, I almost commented, "Hey, save it for someone you actually know." But why stick your hand into that blender? People are entitled to their emotions, I suppose. 
     The media, scrambling to catch up,  gave him what I long ago dubbed "The Full Diana"—well, not quite the black-bordered, special theme music threnody given to the British princess, but a treacly blast of overkill that reached its nadir, at least for what I saw munching Holiday Inn Express breakfasts, when the Today Show flashed photos of Koko, a gorilla whom Robin Williams once met, being sad at news of his death.
    "Wow, that was powerful," a Today Show newsgal chirped, reminding me why I never watch television, and shouldn't even complain about it, breaking my own adage that complaining about the content of television is like criticizing the wallpaper in a brothel: the validity of whatever point you might have is dwarfed by the fact that you shouldn't be there in the first place. TV is crap, you deserve what you get.  If you want to watch models on CNN trying to deliver and report the news, you should take what you get.
    USA Today had the most shocking story on Williams; shocking in that it was in the hotel freebie publication, yet still conveyed something important and factual that I hadn't known before: that the suicide rate is double the homicide rate, greater even than the number of people who die in car accidents.  My respect for USA Today is such that I immediately double-checked the figures, and they held up, a reminder that the things we're scared of—such as being murdered—are often far less of a threat than fears we usually shrug off, like the risk of killing yourself. 
     We get upset over the rare stuff, and ignore the actual problem. 
     Keep that in mind.
     You'd think that would be something every educated person would know. But I'm not embarrassed to say I didn't because I suspect most people don't know either.
     Speaking of fear, and the way the news twists the actual risks in life, enter the Michael Brown story last weekend. An unarmed 18-year-old shot by a cop in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, a tragedy soon eclipsed by the cycle of protest and official overreaction that captivated the nation.  Lots of shots of tear gas and a dozen or two people standing in the street, and no perspective. Was the city burning down? Or one block having a disturbance?
     What is it about a white officer killing a black youth that so captivates everybody? Is it a chance for urban black communities to off-load their frustration over the horrendous toll that black-on-black crime takes onto a villain more acceptable than themselves? Just as everybody would much rather worry about some monster murdering them than the far more likely chance that they'll murder themselves, so black communities seem to prefer focusing on the anomaly of official violence than the daily routine of black-on-black crime, and the media, obviously, prefers chewing over it. Department of Justice figures over a 30-year-period show that 94 percent of black murder victims are killed by other blacks (the figure for whites is 86 percent). Maybe USA Today has a graph on that—the past few nights have been in a Quality Inn, which doesn't carry it.
     If the story is "about" anything truly significant, it seems to be about how legitimate unrest is blown into crisis by hickburg Barney Fifes armed to the teeth with military weaponry.  What do you expect? One of the many unfortunate repercussions of 9/11 is the federal government flooding flyspeck police departments with funds earmarked for tanks and other heavy weapons, SWAT teams and all sorts of superfluous police state gear that, being cops, they are just itching to use.  To a hammer, the saying goes, every problem looks like a nail. 
      Anyway, grim though the news be, it's good to be back home. If the above seems punchy, slapped together by a guy who drove 350 miles up from Covington, Kentucky on donuts, White Castle sliders, coffee and chocolate, well, it was. I'll be more balanced tomorrow, I hope. Thanks for slogging through two weeks of my 2002 kitchen remodeling series. Sorry about that. In retrospect, it was too long, violating another rule of mine: three columns, tops, on a subject, before it's time for move on. The world is too varied and interesting and fast-changing to fixate. 

     Enough. Sunday's New York Times and Sun-Times were waiting on my doorstep, and I think I'll brew some tea and catch up on what else is going on in the world. See you tomorrow, and every day, onward into eternity. 


  1. I mean his Twitter timeline, of course - @tanehisicoates

  2. So many thought on this.

    1) Agree with you about Robin Wiilliams. Not that big a fan and just don't get it. The only person I don't know deaths that truly make me sad are when thus leaves me sad that no future work will be forthcoming. Roger Ebert , Tim Russet, Steve Jobs. Those guys I truly miss for what they brought to the table and would have going forward.

    2. Disagree with you about Mike Brown. SMG puts it well.

    3. Television news mostly stinks. But television itself truly is in a golden age right now. If you are missing it, that's unfortunate.

    4. Loved Hammered and Nailed.

    5. Can't wait to read more about the college road trip.

    1. By the way. The reason I seldom commented on the Hammered and Nailed columns was that it seemed like doing so would be too much like spending time today trying to tell President Lincoln to skip Our American Cousin

  3. Way to start off your return. This would surely have gotten a lot of response had it been in your column, and it still might. Loved every word.
    I don't have to agree to enjoy your thoughts and opinions, and you probably care little whether I do or not, which is great. Glad you're back!!!
    On an unrelated note: Waiting on my hard copy of Drunkard from Amazon. Your "Where is it?" has gotten a little too tough for me so I decided to break down and finally buy a copy. I'm going through something similar right now and I'm looking for a little insight into how someone who I admire for pragmatism and intelligence dealt with something as tough as chemical addiction.

    1. I'm sorry to hear that (the addiction part). As far as insights, it's pretty simply. Alcoholism is a compulsion. You can focus on drinking, or you can focus on everything else in life, and it's the warped nature of alcoholic thinking that makes that one a tough call that many people get wrong. Good luck.

  4. I agree with anonymous (interesting name) regarding TV. The only 'news' programs I watch regularly are 60 Minutes and the Daily Show. There are many fantastic dramas on television these days.

  5. Hi Neil, I am going to add my middle aged white woman voice to the others calling you out on the blithe dismissal of the black community's response to police killings. Simply put: this rage is understandable and a cumulative reaction to the ongoing and pervasive police tactics across the nation that begin with the premise that young black men are guilty or a danger.

    1. I should add my name: Andrea Durbin. I'm not anonymous really, just can't figure out how to comment otherwise.

  6. The suicide stats are startling to say the least. And the people who kill themselves seem to be the most unlikely candidates: highly successful, intelligent and charming people. At least the famous ones. And they're so desperate to die that they choose such horrible methods. It leads one inexorably to think, "How would I like to die?"

  7. Neil, you're smart enough to know that every racist justifies their actions by "why are you complaining about lil ole me when there's this so much BIGGER problem over there." I remember all-white country clubs defending their exclusionary rules into the late 1980's with the same trope. We heard it with Zimmerman, we're hearing it now. In Chicago, it would be "no reason to complain about police officers in Chicago with a dozen abuse complaints all handled in secret and dismissed (surely just coincidence) - the chance of being robbed or killed by a criminal is far greater. Why are you newspaper folks wasting time and money with those pesky freedom of information act requests?" Of course, those African-Americans' tax dollars aren't paying for the black-on-black criminal the way they are paying for the abusive cop. And there's no potential quick fix for crime as there is for police misconduct: cameras on the squad car.

    Also, your statistic about black-on-black crime is misleading: a middle-class or upper class African-American living in Northbrook probably doesn't stand much chance of being murdered due to black-on-black crime but has a big chance of being racially profiled, pulled over by police, etc. -by the "why are they so upset about this?" logic those African-Americans have a right to complain more about police racism than black-on-black crime given that those stats weigh in the other direction?

    1. We're not talking about "complaining." We're talking about a week of near-riots and riveted national attention. This is not about what the people in Ferguson do or do not feel. Nobody knew where Ferguson was 10 days ago.

  8. Nice column, good to have you back. I miss the old acerbic and sarcastic Neil.

  9. "...complaining about the content of television is like criticizing the wallpaper in a brothel." Nice metaphore, if a bit unfair. Also, having been in London the week following the Princess of Wales' sad demise, I also thought "the full Diana" apt. I like the British practice of calling the people who deliver the news on TV "news readers." Avoiding the American pretense that they're all serious reporters.

    Learning that suicides numerically eclipse murders didn't surprise me. If you don't live in Englewood death by homicide is very unlikely, but I've known some suicides personally. All of them came as devastating surprises to the survivors, even ones that shouldn't have. The family seems to be resisting the urge to join in the public celebration, making the funeral private.

    Interesting that protests against shooting of young black men by Chicago police have not gained much traction. Probably because the kids all were carrying guns and pointed them at the officers. Shooting somebody six times if he is pointing a gun at you seems a reasonable action, but there seems to be no question that the kid in Ferguson was unarmed. And the fact that the majority black town has only three black police officers suggests a "systemic problem."

  10. 1. It's KoKo the gorilla.
    2. The reason Robin Williams suicide hit so many people so hard, was that he managed to be just everywhere. The flop TV show from last season, constant appearances on talk shows where he would just let loose. A new movie every year, an HBO special every few years.
    He made people laugh.
    Years ago, Bob Greene wrote a column about the play "Death Of A Salesman" flopping in Chicago with Brian Dennehy as the star.
    I remember he wrote a column with the responses & they all were the same: My life is depressing, so why should I pay to get even more depressed for 3 hours, I want someone to make me laugh.
    That's why people were sad about Robin Williams.

    1. Clark St.,

      "Death of a Salesman," with Brian Dennehy, "flopped" in Chicago? If Bob Greene actually wrote that -- well, it would have made good "Bobwatch" material, I imagine! Both the play and Dennehy won Tonys for that production, after it went on to Broadway. He, and it, were superb. It's not too surprising, though, that fans of Greene's column could probably be counted on to make the stirring observation that life is too short to spend watching drama -- rather, entertainment should be all comedy, all the time! But then, how did they make it through all those Baby Richard columns? ; )

      The 6:43 "Anonymous" makes a good point about missing "what they brought to the table and would have going forward," when it comes to celebrity deaths, but for some reason then fails to apply that logic to the people grieving about Robin Williams. I wasn't a huge fan, either, but I can understand people being upset that he won't be around to entertain them anymore. Plus, the fact that he struggled so much with addiction and depression for so long makes it sad, regardless of what one thought about his schtick.

      Welcome back, Neil! I have to agree with others that you may be downplaying the legitimacy of the outrage in Ferguson a bit. But I have no insights to offer about that situation. Instead, I'll point to a typo -- surprise! But this time, because it seems like a useful one, that could be adopted into the language. You wrote "...flooding flyspeck police departments with funds earnmarked for tanks and other heavy weapons..." Would that the largesse dispensed by governments really WERE based on being "earned," rather than just being earmarked... ; )

      Also, when I gripe about TV news, I tend to limit the griping to the news itself, which IS generally awful. There's a lot of other programming that's awful, as well, but the earlier commenter is correct that, if one chooses wisely, there's more *really good* TV available right now than anybody with any sense has time to watch.

    2. Fixed, thanks, on both accounts.

    3. @Jakash: Flopping means it lost money & has nothing to do with winning awards.
      Greene was simply interviewing people, I think at the Hot Tix booth as to why they weren't buying tickets to "Salesmen".
      The fact is that it's a deeply depressing play, just like just about anything by Eugene O'Neil.
      When I spend money to be "Entertained", I don't want to walk out of the theater & want to kill myself, which is what I would want to do [but not carry out] after being slammed with such depressing stuff for three hours!

    4. Then by all means, stay glued to "The Price is Right." Great theater -- like "Death of a Salesman," like much by O'Neill — liberates the audience by revealing truths and releasing passions, by power of language. It isn't for everybody. But I wouldn't be proud of being so shallow. Just because you get depressed by it doesn't make it "depressing."

    5. Jackash. I did mean that about Williams. His really thrilling days seemed to me behind him. He comedy was but for me his Schtick now seemed tired. And while his dramatic acting was fine I never found it compelling ennough to miss it. By the way I'm Jara from CoS

  11. The "reader comments" that follow the Ferguson story in the other major daily are interesting. Racism seems to be alive and well in Chicago.

    1. Neil,

      I couldn't make my WordPress ID work. Call me dull_old_man.

      Suicide is largely a disease of older white men, occurring more frequently in the western states.

      Welcome back. You are a much better writer now than when you did the kitchen pieces--I couldn't make it through them. I don't read my clips either. Satchel Paige was right--don't look back.


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