Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Ali, Round Two

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.
-Muhammad Ali 

Like the iconic Neil Lifer photograph of Muhammad Ali standing above Sonny Liston after the infamous phantom punch that knocked down the former champ, (seen in my previous post), there's more to Ali than meets the eye.

News of his death this month caused a world wide outpouring of love and adulation for Ali who in all likelihood, was the most recognized person in the world. Appreciations of the man came from people of all races, creeds and political affiliations, not a little amazing given how polarizing and controversial he was during the first half of his life.

Yet even in death, Ali remains controversial. "I never liked Muhammad Ali" said a friend of mine, whose response I admittedly goaded out of him.  "He was a clown with a big mouth, arrogant and disrespectful to his opponents and to his many wives. He broke the law when he resisted the draft, never went to jail for it like he should have, and they forgave him as if nothing happened. Then he got to fight again, became the champion and everybody thought he was the greatest thing in the world." My friend then went on to list all the fighters he thought were better.

Unlike most of the country, my friend never got past the hard feelings many Americans had toward Ali in the sixties. Between the incessant show-boating, his association with the Nation of Islam, and his highly visible role in the Black Power movement, Ali was already a tremendously unpopular personality by 1966 among a significant number of Americans, not all of them white. The last straw for Ali detractors was his refusal to serve the country after being drafted.

Muhammad Ali knew that had he chosen to comply with the United States government and gone into the army when Uncle Sam called, as heavyweight champion of the world and a celebrity of the first magnitude around the world, he would have served miles and miles away from the front line, far out of harm's way. Had he gone into the army and accepted his cushy assignment, he would not have been stripped of his title, denied of his livelihood, prohibited from traveling abroad, arrested, convicted, threatened with imprisonment, and drawn the ire of the vast majority of Americans. Had he complied with the government, he would have been able to return to boxing when his stint in the army was over, barely missing a step, still in the prime of his career. Had Muhammad Ali gone into the army when he was drafted, no one would have thought the lesser of him.

The fact that he defied the government in such a public manner, openly declaring his preference for jail over violating his moral principles, made him a counter-culture hero.

His actions were a watershed moment in the anti-war movement. Shortly after Ali's indictment, massive public demonstrations of the burning of draft cards took place. Ali 's defying the draft and accepting prison if legal efforts failed, sent shock waves through the government who understood that while they could prosecute one man for refusing the draft, there was no way to prosecute tens of thousands of potential draft resisters.

In no time the mood of the nation soured on the Vietnam War when the very symbol of mainstream white America, Walter Cronkite declared to the world on February 27th, 1968:
...it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
In other words, let's cut our losses and get the hell out of Vietnam as quickly as possible, "the most respected man in America" told us.

Shortly after that, President Johnson, knowing if he lost Walter Cronkite, he lost the American people as well, announced he would not seek a second full term in office. 

Then, a little over one month after Cronkite's assessment of the war, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. 

And with that, Muhammad Ali's words found at the top of this post, eloquent as they are powerful, became prophetic. His words and actions transformed him from being merely Ali the sports hero, to Ali the instrument of social change, and ultimately, Ali the social hero.

My friend is not alone in his dissent.

In his critique of the insipid 2001 bio-pic Ali (which starred Will Smith in the title role) Michael Shelden writes:
The transformation of Ali from a great fighter to a celebrated man of conscience and social purpose has succeeded so well because the actual history of his career has been altered to reflect the kinder, gentler man of today. Unpleasant remarks or facts from the past have been swept away or excused. … 
Shelden's article was published in the January, 2002 issue of The Telegraph and is titled:  Let's not Pretend Ali was GandhiThe writer is especially critical of Ali's association in the 1960s with Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad whom he claims put all sorts of nasty thoughts into the boxer's head.
A more historically accurate appraisal of Ali would conclude that he was far from heroic outside the ring and was pitifully misused by his masters in the Nation of Islam. For his purposes, Elijah hijacked the impressionable young man's career and filled his head with racist nonsense. 
Under the influence of Elijah Mohammad — who preached that blacks should refuse to integrate with "white devils" — Ali made a point of dating only black women and lashed out at men and women who engaged in interracial sex. In an interview with Playboy, he declared: "A black man should be killed if he's messing with a white woman." When the interviewer asked about black women crossing the colour barrier, Ali responded: "Then she dies. Kill her, too." 
He continues:
It's unlikely that a white athlete who made such remarks would receive the praise that (Director of the film "Ali") Michael Mann heaps on Ali. He says that the fighter "personified racial pride and self-knowledge". The Playboy journalist, who interviewed the boxer, was closer to the mark when he observed of his subject: "You're beginning to sound like a carbon copy of a white racist." …
Shelden also blames the Black Muslim organization for using Ali to the point that:
By the time he finally broke free of the old Nation of Islam, in the 1970s, his career was in its last stages. He continued to fight long past his prime, in part to recover the money and time he had lost in his misadventures with the Black Muslims.
You can read into that Sheden's belief that the Black Muslims were directly responsible for Ali's descent into Parkinson's Disease, likely caused by too many blows to the head, especially in his later fights.

Shelden is right in saying that today, most of us have all but forgotten the messy details of Muhammad Ali's life. Years of sympathy toward his battle with Parkinson's and the heroic way he unabashedly displayed the toll it took on his body, have turned us soft on the man.

What Shelden fails to take into account is that the public's opinion of Ali had already taken a 180 degree turn way back in the 1970s, when every controversial detail of his life was common public knowledge. Unlike George Foreman, Ali didn't have to reinvent himself to pull off that change, it was America who changed, not Ali.

Here is an excerpt from a 1968 interview with William F. Buckley on his program Firing Line. This clip comes at the end of the show where Ali takes questions from the audience:




Buckley would later admit being moved by Ali's very persuasive argument for his efforts in support of freedom, justice and equality for his people, (if not his adherence to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad). If the arch-conservative William F. Buckley could be so moved, it's not surprising that much of America could be as well. It was a different time than the one in which we live today; a time when public discourse mattered, and free, open and honest debate respecting all points of view was not only encouraged, but considered essential to a healthy society.

Michael Shelden's 2002 deconstruction of Muhammad Ali, speaks volumes about the writer and his times, but little about Ali and his. His piece is a perfect example of the way we demand the press today scrutinize every detail of a celebrity's life to find tidbits of evidence proving they are not worthy. Fortunately for all of us, Ali came of age in a time when the public was not willing and eager to tear down a public figure's character at the slightest hint of an inconvenient thought, word or deed.

As a result, America, torn in pieces in the sixties, perhaps even more than it is today, was able to heal the wounds caused by the racial divide and the Vietnam War, at least for a while. And it was Muhammad Ali whose strong, articulate and persuasive voice, along with the power of his huge personality that helped lead the charge.

After his battles with the government were settled, (the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all charges against him in 1971). it was that larger than life persona, the charm along with the bravado, that attracted the public to Ali. When he finally got a shot to regain his title against the great Joe Frazier in 1971, that fight would be appropriately dubbed, The Fight of the Century. Public sentiment was split between the champ Frazier, and the challenger Ali, although it's likely that more whites supported Frazier, and more blacks supported Ali. As was his nature, Ali stirred the pot to boiling over when he called Frazier, who was also black, "the white people's champion."  Naturally much of the hyperbole out of his mouth was intended to promote interest in the fight as well as to trap his opponent into a tempest of fury which would ultimately destroy him in the ring as it did Sonny Liston. Unlike Liston, Ali found his match in Frazier. The fight lived up to all the hype, fifteen rounds of back and forth, Frazier's intensity versus Ali's athleticism. In the end it was Frazier's devastating left hook that settled the bout, giving Ali his first professional loss, but putting him back at the center of his profession, and back in the public's eye, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Ali would later fight Joe Frazier two more times, winning both contests, one by decision, the other by a technical knockout.

Recalling those days, I'd say Muhammad Ali truly became the people's champion in 1974 when he regained the championship in Kinshasa, Zaire, (today's Democratic Republic of Congo) by beating George Foreman in the fight that bore the name, "the Rumble in the Jungle". Like the first Liston fight ten years before, Ali was a huge underdog to the intimidating Foreman who had absolutely destroyed Joe Frazier in 1973 to become champ. Unlike Liston, Foreman didn't give away any size advantage to Ali, he was actually one inch taller and had a 3" reach advantage. and was seven years Ali's junior. Once again people thought Ali wouldn't last more than a few rounds with the champ but Ali still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Not able to dance his way out of trouble anymore, Ali early on engaged Foreman in the center of the ring. Knowing he could never outlast the champ in a slugfest, Ali retreated to the ropes where he absorbed all of Foreman's fury while letting the ropes, which had been loosened exactly for that purpose, absorb some of the beating. When he wasn't protecting himself in that fashion, he was grabbing Foreman by the neck (an infraction the referee let him get away with), forcing Foreman to expend energy pushing away to free himself. After letting Foreman tire himself out in this pushing and punching frenzy for several rounds, the still relatively fresh Ali went on the offensive, knocking Foreman out in the eighth round. In doing so Ali became the first heavyweight boxer to regain the championship.

In his prime during a period known as the greatest era in boxing's heavyweight division, Ali beat all of the best boxers of that era, Sonny Liston twice, Joe Frazier twice, and George Foreman once. All three of those men make practically every list of top ten heavyweights of all time. Not surprisingly, Muhammad Ali's name is at the top of those lists.

The score had finally been settled. All the talk, all the bombast, all the preening and bragging had been fulfilled. The great pitcher Dizzy Dean was famous for saying, "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up."  In beating George Foreman, Ali could finally back up everything he said about himself.

But it came at a tremendous cost. One of the saddest things in the world of sports is watching a great champion who does not know when to quit. Ali beat Foreman because of his tremendous ability to take a punch. By using his patented "rope-a-dope" style, the abuse he willingly took from Foreman, from Frazier especially in the classic "Thrilla in Manilla" and perhaps most emphatically from Larry Holmes in 1980, no doubt contributed to the Parkinson's Disease that ravaged his body and would ultimately take his life. He could have and probably should have quit after each of those fights, but didn't. Holmes, Ali's former sparring partner, claimed to have held back in his fight with Ali. Nevertheless, the beating he inflicted upon his hero caused that world champion to break down in tears after the fight that should never have taken place. Medical records released much later revealed that Ali was already in the early stages of Parkinson's at the time of the fight. What's more, Ali had one more fight before he hung up the gloves for good, against Canadian Boxer Trevor Berbick which ended for him in defeat by unanimous decision. That made Ali's final professional record, 56 wins, 37 of them by knockout, and 5 losses.

By the time he retired, Ali exhibited very obvious slurring of the speech and other, less obvious physical symptoms. Public appearances diminished but he never entirely disappeared from the public eye even as his condition worsened, lending his support to numerous causes around the world and sent on diplomatic missions on behalf of the US government, some of which resulted in the release of hostages.

Photograph by Vince Caligiuri
Ali's most famous public appearance in his post-boxing life took place in Atlanta, 1996 during the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games. Great secrecy surrounded the name of the person who would be given the honor of lighting the Olympic Torch, and Ali brought down the house when he stepped onto the stage to do the deed. There was hardly a dry eye around the world among those watching the ceremony on TV when they saw the former champ, well into the throes of Parkinson's bravely hold the torch up high despite the severe trembling of his arm. Of all the heroic performances in the great man's life, this certainly has to rate among the best of them.

As we've seen, great champions are judged by the quality of their adversaries. In boxing. Muhammad Ali faced some of the greatest champions in history. Equal in adversarial quality to Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman all put together was the United States government who attempted to crush the man for doing what he believed was right. His resounding victory in that battle ultimately gave him the respect and credibility to transcend the sporting world which originally brought him to our attention. The scourge of racism was another adversary that he battled first through the influence of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, before he discovered he could do it all on his own simply by telling people about his experiences being the champion of the world yet still occasionally barred from using a public bathroom in his own country.  The greatest adversary of all proved to be the illness that consumed him for the last half of his life. Despite that, Muhammad Ali made the most out of the years given to him and the limitations his physical condition placed upon him. He could have easily retreated out of the limelight, leaving  people with the memories of the young, handsome, articulate champion, rather than a victim of a debilitating disease. By allowing himself to be seen in his compromised state, he made it perfectly clear that living with diminished capabilities did not mean living a diminished life.

Finally, the latest controversy to the best of my knowledge, surfaced for the first time after Ali's death. Many tributes made the claim that Muhammad Ali "transcended both race and religion." I have to plead ignorance on this one as frankly I don't know what it means to "transcend race or religion." Sportscaster Chris Fox cast some light on that phrase this way in a tweet:
When you saw #Ali you didn't see color you didn't see religion you saw a gentle man who was a strong fighter, a Champion you could believe in.
Having lived through the sixties and seventies and knowing a thing or two about Ali, the thing that strikes me about that comment is that the writer is either too young to remember him, wasn't paying attention, or has a severe case of historical amnesia. In his day, Muhammad Ali was the very embodiment of the African American Muslim. It's true that he mellowed as he got older, and expanded his sphere of concerns, but his race and religion never took a back seat. The headline of an article by Kara Brown for the online magazine Jezebel tells it like it is: "If You Don't See Blackness, You Didn't See Muhammad Ali."

If by chance you are too young, weren't paying attention, or are suffering from amnesia, and you still believe that Ali transcended race and religion, by all means watch the Buckley/Ali interview. in its entirety.

Here is how Kara Brown concludes her article:
There is no deep and true respect for Muhammad Ali that does not also come with a deep and true respect for his blackness. And to love Muhammad Ali, you must also love his love for his people. Those who attempt to draw attention away from Ali’s blackness—whether deliberately, carelessly, or by delicate omission—do so because they either cannot or choose not to love black people. They can’t understand that Ali’s blackness was integral to what made him great. A white Ali would not have been possible, nor would he have meant nearly as much to the world.
With that I agree one hundred percent. However playing the devil's advocate, I'm not entirely convinced that all the white folks who claim Ali transcended race do not love him for his blackness, or understand that his blackness is what made him great. Brown herself brings up the African American poet Maya Angelou who in 2001 wrote that Muhammad Ali "belonged to everyone." She says:
...his impact recognizes no continent, no language, no colour, no ocean. It belongs to us all just as Muhammad Ali belongs to us all.
Muhammad Ali is, or at least should be loved and respected by anyone who values equality, justice, and the dignity of all human beings. The same can be said of people such as Lech Wałęsa, Mother Theresa or Aung San Suu Kyi. On the other hand, I've never heard anyone say Wałęsa transcended his race, Mother Theresa her religion, or Aung San Suu Kyi her gender.

Clearly, saying that Muhammad Ali transcended race and religion, is a poor choice of words. What can be said of him is that he is a beloved hero who fought many valiant battles in the name of justice. Through his magnetic personality, his biting sense of humor, his unrelenting self-confidence, his unmatched courage in fighting all the battles he encountered, his dedication to telling the truth, and yes his blackness, his religion and the love of his people, Muhammad Ali brought people all over the world together like no one else could.

If I had to sum up the man in a limited number of words, tweet style, I'd use the words I used to sum up the life of another great hero of mine, Vaclav Havel, who was never accused of transcending the Czech blood that ran through his veins.

Like Havel, Ali was not a saint by a long shot, nonetheless he is a man for all seasons.


Click here to return to Round One.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ali

Quick, can you name the current world heavyweight boxing champion? I looked it up a couple days ago and still can't remember his name. When Muhammad Ali died earlier this month, I heard a radio report, probably on NPR who doesn't have a clue about these things, that said the sport of boxing was not very popular before Ali came on the scene, and returned to that state after he retired. That of course is nonsense. To some people, the NPR reporter included. Ali WAS boxing. However prize fighting as it used to be called, was second only to baseball in popularity in the US, up until the early sixties when the NFL began its meteoric rise to the top of the charts. Post-Ali, the heavyweight division of the sport continued to produce household names such as Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, and everyone's favorite (said with a wink and a nudge), Mike Tyson. And let us not forget the reincarnation of George Foreman who transformed himself from a sullen, brutal, one man wrecking crew, into happy-go-lucky Uncle George the Grill Man. Despite looking like a tan version of the Michelin Man whenever he stepped into the ring and despite his advanced age, Foreman could still pack enough of a wallop to become at 45, the oldest heavyweight champion of all time.

Perhaps it was that image of slow, old Uncle George plodding around the ring sending the likes of boxing immortals Terry Anderson and Ken Lakusta to the canvas, punching their one way tickets to Palookaville, that turned people away from the of battleships of boxing, the heavyweights, in favor of the swifter destroyer class of the sport's lighter weight divisions. The hype surrounding, attention given to and money generated from last year's Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao welterweight bout is evidence that the sweet science is still a major attraction around the world.

I'm old enough to remember when Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, aka "the Louisville Lip", notorious for his incessant posturing and braggadocio. His trademark slogan "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" was coined well before either Ali or Clay became household names. He called himself "The Greatest" long before he could back it up.

We forget today that people hated him for it.

Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston during their re-match,   Lewistown, Maine, May 25, 1965
Photograph by Neil Leifer

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That has to be an average number because all the pictures I've taken that have been worth only a groan or at best a "that's interesting" must certainly balance out the millions of words this Neil Leifer photograph evokes.

It is perhaps the most famous sports photograph ever made. The story behind it as well as the life and times of the two individuals in it, and the sport they excelled at, are so twisted and complex, it would take hundreds of thousands of words just to scratch the surface. 

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (named after his father who was named after a 19th Century Kentucky abolitionist), was already well known before the fight that made him a legend. That fight to be exact, took place in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964. By that time, Clay was an Olympic gold medal winner with a 19-0 professional record and considered the top contender for the heavyweight crown. But with several less than stellar fights up to that point, nobody gave him much of a chance to beat the formidable current champ Sonny Liston whose biographer, Paul Gallender called the most gifted heavyweight in the history of boxing. Liston was so feared that seasoned professional boxers trembled at the mention of his name.

Liston, whose style and persona were emulated by George Foreman in his first go-around. was the antithesis of Clay, especially when it came to PR. Mistrustful of anyone not in his inner circle, Liston came off as surly and belligerent with the press. They repaid him in kind by portraying him as a brutal thug, emphasizing his prison record and mob connections. The picture the white press painted of Liston was that of the stereotype ferocious Negro whom you'd cross the street in order to avoid crossing paths with him. The truth is, black folks didn't care much for him either. Liston's reputation was so bad even the NAACP got into the act recommending that previous champ Floyd Patterson not fight him because they feared a possible Liston championship would set the cause of civil rights back decades.

Patterson should have listened to them. Liston annihilated the champ, knocking him out barely two minutes into the first round. When the new champ Sonny Liston returned to his home in Philadelphia after the fight, instead of the grateful throngs he expected to greet him at the airport, he was met by only a handful of press, one of whom publicly suggested a huge ticker tape parade up Broad Street was in order, using torn up arrest warrants for confetti. Liston soon left the City of Brotherly Love for Denver saying he'd rather be a lamp post in that city than mayor of Philadelphia.

The rage that cursed through Liston's veins did not escape the attention of 22 year old Cassius Clay who signed to fight the champ in late 1963. From the get go, Clay mercilessly ragged on Liston, in public and in person. He went so far as rent a bus and displayed on it a sign that read "Liston must go in eight" (rounds). Then in the middle of the night, Clay and his friends parked the bus in front of Liston's Denver home, honking the horn and casting aspersions at the temperamental champion as he tried to sleep.

Liston dismissed Cassius Clay as a second rate fighter and a madman. He barely trained for the fight and was probably in the worst shape of his career. It is rumored that he was up all night before the fight on a drunken bender. Unbeknownst to the general public, Clay's training regime by contrast was scientific and brutally intense. He studied every inch of the champ and understood his every weakness, few of them as there were.

Also unknown to the public was a previous shoulder injury to Liston which should have been grounds to postpone the fight. That injury put him at a disadvantage as did the fact that he was far older than anyone suspected, perhaps as old as George Foreman was when he won his second championship. If that's true, and we still don't know for sure, it would have made Liston twice as old as Clay at the time of their fight. 

The young Cassius was at his most outrageous at the weigh-in the morning of the fight, acting so crazed that people thought he was trying to get out of the fight on a count of insanity. It turned out he was crazy, just like a fox. Cassius Clay knew that Sonny Liston had not fought a fight in quite a while that lasted more than a couple of rounds because of his habit of knocking out opponents before most in attendance had a chance to settle into their seats. Clay also knew that Liston more than likely would not train for a long fight. If he could make the champ angry and impatient enough, then Clay's superior foot speed and agility would enable him to evade Liston's devastating punches and tire out the champ in a long fight. He'd later say: "If Liston wasn't thinking nothing but killing me, he wasn't thinking fighting. You got to think to fight."

At the first bell it was apparent that Clay did mange to get under Liston's skin as the champ came after the challenger with a vengeance. By doing so, Liston fell right into Cassius Clay's trap.

No sport inspires more brilliant poetry and prose than boxing. This account of the first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight, written by Robert Lipsyte, is an except from an article which appeared in the New York Times the day after the fight:
The fight was Clay’s from the start. The tall, swift youngster, his hands carelessly low, backed away from Liston’s jabs, circled around Liston’s dangerous left hook and opened a nasty gash under Liston’s left eye. 
He never let Liston tie him up for short, brutal body punches, and although he faltered several times, he refused to allow himself to be cornered. His long left jab kept bouncing off Liston’s face. From the beginning, it was hard to believe. 
The men had moved briskly into combat, Liston stalking, moving flat-footedly forward. He fell short with two jabs, brushed Clay back with a grazing right to the stomach and landed a solid right to the stomach. The crowd leaned forward for the imminent destruction of the young poet. 
But he hadn’t lied. All those interminable refrains of “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” had been more than foolish songs. The kid was floating. He leaned back from Liston’s jabs and hooks, backed into the ropes, then spun out and away. He moved clockwise around Liston, taunting that terrible left hook, his hands still low. 
Then he stung late in the first round, sticking his left in Liston’s face and following with a quick barrage to Liston’s head. They continued for long seconds after the bell, unable to hear the inadequate ring above the roar of the crowd...

Liston strained forward with overeager hooks that struck only air. For a moment, in the second round, Liston pummeled Clay against the ropes, but again, Cassius spun out and away.

Then the young man began to rumble as he had promised. His quick left jabs penetrated Liston’s defenses, and he followed with right hands. He leaned forward as he fired rights and lefts at Liston’s expressionless face. Liston began to bleed from a crescent-shaped cut high on the left cheekbone.

Like a bull hurt and maddened by the picadors’ lances, Liston charged forward. The heavy muscles worked under his smooth, broad back as he virtually hurled his 218 pounds at the dodging, bobbing, dancing Clay.

His heavy arms swiped forward and he threw illegal backhand punches in his bearlike lunges. Once, Clay leaned the wrong way and Liston tagged him with a long left. Cassius was staggered, but Liston was hurt and tired. He could not move in to press his advantage.

And now, a strange murmur began to ripple through the half-empty arena and people on blue metal chairs began to look at one another. Something like human electricity danced and flowed as the spectators suddenly realized that even if Cassius lost, he was no fraud. His style was unorthodox, but …
Both fighters were sluggish in the fifth round, breathing heavily. Liston’s face was still impassive, but the grooves along his forehead seemed deeper, and the snorting breaths through his nose harsher.

He seemed even more tired in the sixth as Clay’s eyes cleared and the younger man bore in, then leapt away, jabbing and hooking and landing a solid right to Liston’s jaw. Clay’s jabs were slipping through at will now, bouncing off that rocklike face, opening the cut under the left eye.
 
Liston walked heavily back to his corner at the end of the sixth. He did not sit down immediately. Then as Liston did sit down, Clay came dancing out to the center of the ring, waving his arms, all alone. It seemed like a long time before Drew (Bundini) Brown, his assistant trainer, was hugging him and Dundee was dancing up and down, and Jack Nilan, Liston’s adviser, was wrapping yards of tape around the former champion’s left shoulder...
Sonny Liston never answered the bell to the seventh round. The fight was over and the man who would announce to the world the next day that he was a follower of the Nation of Islam and soon change his name to Muhammad Ali, was the champion of the world. Few thought he could go more than a few rounds with Liston, let alone the distance, but his insane prediction that he would knock Liston out in eight rounds proved to be an understatement.

People called that fight the greatest upset in history but not everyone was convinced. Up until the end of the contest which was ruled a technical knockout for Clay, the fight had been even, at least according to the judges and referee's scorecards. Everyone knew that Liston was tied to the mob so surely he must have thrown the fight. Maybe someone from up above told him: "Champ, tonight's not your night." What else could he do?

To this day, no one knows exactly what happened to Liston that night, but it seems likely that his trainer stopped the fight because of the shoulder injury. It's very unlikely that he threw the fight, at least for the sake of gamblers, as the overwhelming odds in favor of him would have plummeted if the fix was in. They didn't. The score would have to be settled in a re-match.

If the first Liston/Clay match was a confusing mess. the Ali/Liston rematch was nothing less than a fiasco.

Clay's announcement that he was affiliated with the Black Muslims and a follower of their leader Elijah Muhammad, went over like a lead balloon among many Americans, black and white. The latter found the group's portrayal of themselves as "blue eyed Devils" not a little disconcerting, while many black Americans, including Martin Luther King, disapproved of their support of segregation. People of both colors considered the group racist. Floyd Patterson, who refused to call him by his new name, went so far as saying that Ali could just as well have joined the KKK.

Liston's popularity didn't exactly soar either as between fights he had a couple of run ins with the law and spent some more time in the pokey.

However to many whites, while they wouldn't want to meet up with Liston on a dark street late at night, Ali was by far the greater threat because of his quick wit, his intelligence, his mouth, and his willingness to use it to speak what was on his mind. He was a double threat because of his allegiance to an organization that had no intention of capitulating to white American values and its expectations of who black people should be and how they should act. "God knows...", you could hear whites in the sixties say in horror, "...a Negro might even one day become president." White America's anxieties were only strengthened when Ali said:
I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.
Surely the world was changing and many white Americans were not ready. Some of course are still not.

By 1965, neither man was riding a crest of popularity and finding a venue to host the rematch proved difficult. The promoters ended up settling for a 4,000 seat hockey arena in the small town of Lewiston, Maine, the smallest venue for a championship fight that anybody could remember. Complicating matters was the company Ali was keeping. During the first fight, Ali's close friend Malcolm X hung out with the contender as he was training. This brought on the consternation of the fight promoters who insisted Ali, at the time still Cassius Clay, renounce any ties he might have had with the Nation of Islam. Clay refused, however Malcolm X did agree to leave the training facility as a concession. After a falling out between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, Ali sided with Muhammad. Nearly a year to the date after the first Liston/Clay fight, Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem, allegedly upon the orders of Elijah Muhammad. Word on the street was out that followers of Malcolm had a hit out on Ali as they felt he betrayed his friend and his cause. Not to be outdone, Liston allegedly received threats from Elijah's people. Both men were accompanied by armed guards during their stay in Maine.

Liston trained hard for the second fight and appeared to be ready. Ali was the same old Ali, only the name had changed. You wouldn't know that from listening to the fight announcers who continued to call him by his old name. The fight's tiny venue was only half full. If the pulse of the nation could be taken from the 2,000 souls in the arena that night, the cheers that Liston received was an indication that he was the public's favorite over Ali, who was resoundingly booed when he entered the arena.

Of the fight itself, there is not much to say. Halfway through the first round, Ali followed a Liston jab with an uppercut that may or may not have made contact. With that punch Liston went down. Former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott the referee that night, had trouble getting Ali to his corner to begin the count. That is the moment captured by Neil Leifer in the photo above. To the uninitiated, it appears that Muhammad Ali is preening and gloating over knocking Liston down. In reality, Ali who knew quite well that the punch he threw could never have brought the great Liston down, was admonishing the former champ to get back up and start fighting. Walcott never got his count off and after Liston got to his feet, the fight resumed briefly, until the official timer told Walcott that he had made a ten count and Liston was down for the entire time. That was good enough for Walcott (although it shouldn't have been), and he stopped the fight. Not only had viewers, either in the small arena in Maine, or all over the world in theaters via closed circuit TV, not settled into their seats, many had not even entered the building.

Ali's punch that may or may not have connected with Liston has gone down in history as the phantom punch. Boxing people have been debating that punch ever since, some insisting that contrary to appearance, it was a deceptively powerful punch. Most however are convinced that Liston took a very obvious dive.

Here's the entire fight, all two minutes and fifteen seconds of it, so you can judge for yourself.

To this day, no one knows exactly what happened, why Liston went down the way he did and if he indeed took a dive, why. Once again there was no indication of any betting irregularity that would imply the fight was fixed. Paul Gallender who spent thirty years gathering information on Liston which resulted in his book Sonny Liston - The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights, tells the far fetched story that members of the Nation of Islam kidnapped Liston's wife and child and told the fighter he'd never see them again if he won the fight. As far as I know, his is the only account of this story so I'd take it with a huge grain of salt.

Needless to say, this fight was the end of Liston's credibility. He left the country and continued to fight unranked boxers in Europe, never getting a chance at another title. Liston did continue to be a celebrity of sorts, making several cameo appearances on TV and in movies. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1970.

The sport of boxing took a hit as people all over the world rolled their eyes at what they considered obvious deception and fraud in the sport. 

And Ali didn't get his due as champion as Liston's performance in the second fight only increased suspicions that the first fight was rigged as well. The new champ went on to defend his title against eight opponents including former champ Floyd Patterson, whom Ali viewed with contempt after Patterson's remarks about him and his religion. Boxing analysts claim that Ali could have put Patterson away early in the fight, but toyed with him until the fight was stopped in the 12th round.

Then came the defining moment of Muhammad Ali's life, he got drafted.

But that's a story for another day.

Click here for Ali, Round Two.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Animal Stories

My daughter was watching a movie the other day called Hachi: A Dog's Tale. When I realized what she was watching, I knew I couldn't sit and watch it with her. The movie is loosely based on a true story about a dog in Tokyo who every evening walked to the local train station to meet his master as he came home from work, and continued to do so, long after the master died. The real dog Hachiko became a Japanese cultural symbol and hero. To this day there is a statue of him in front of Shibuya Staion in the neighborhood of the same name in the Japanese capital.

Like many people, I can withstand stories dealing with the most profound human suffering, misery and death, but I can't handle sad or sentimental tales about animals. Frankly, I have no idea where this feeling comes from. While I have respect for them and like animals just fine, I don't particularly consider myself an animal lover.

Perhaps my feelings come from the attributes most of us value in animals, especially our pets namely, trust, loyalty and unconditional love. Or maybe it is out of compassion for the vulnerability of all non-human animals, both domestic and in the wild, to the whims of nature and especially from their biggest threat, the most dangerous species of all, Homo sapiens.

We human beings have a peculiar relationship with the other species of life forms with whom we share this small planet. Every culture has a different philosophy regarding non-human life ranging from the profound respect found in certain Native American cultures who see all living things as kindred spirits, to many Western European cultures who took these words found in the Bible...
Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
...to mean "and God said: 'the world is your oyster, do whatever the hell you please with it.'".

And Western man did just that.

For example, until well into the twentieth century, it was common for Westerners not to give a second thought about wiping out entire species of plants and animals that were considered useful, dangerous, or simply inconvenient.

That has changed drastically just in my lifetime, brought about not in a small part by the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies which warned of the catastrophic, irreparable destruction we were inflicting upon our planet. Today, most reasonable people understand that all life is connected in one way or other, and the extinction of one species will have drastic repercussions for other forms of life, something Native Americans understood for centuries.

I'd also say it is the evolution, (some might call it devolution) of Western religious thought in recent years, at least in some circles, that enables us to have a more nuanced interpretation of the word"dominion" as found in Genesis 1:28. In other words, to many contemporary Jews and Christians, the phrase "have dominion over" is now closer to "take responsibility for" rather than, "use your capricious will", regarding our fellow travelers aboard Spaceship Earth.

That said, today there is still no common ground, general standard, or set of rules governing how we should feel about or treat animals. That point was was brought home last week after a tragedy that took place at the Cincinnati Zoo. If your memory needs refreshing, a three year old boy snuck away from his mother and found his way into an enclosure which is supposed to separate human visitors from the great apes who call the enclosure home. The boy caught the attention of a 17 year old male western lowland gorilla named Harambe. At first, Harambe went over to the boy and appeared to comfort him as part of the boy's journey into the gorilla's home included a fifteen foot drop into the enclosure. Then, as humans are wont to do in situations like these. witnesses at the scene screamed and carried on, which appeared to startle Harambe who began to drag the boy by his ankles around the enclosure. Zoo officials decided there was nothing they could do but shoot the 450 pound ape to save the little boy, as no one could predict what Harambe's next move would be.

Harambe's death set off a firestorm of protest coming from every point of view along the animal rights vs human sovereignty continuum. Torn as this nation is about politics, I'd say that judging from the articles and comments I've been reading, the struggle over politics is peanuts compared to the emotions stirred by the killing of Harambe.

For starters, there was the natural reaction that questioned why zoo officials couldn't use a tranquilizer dart like they do on TV, rather than live ammunition. The reason given by the zoo made perfect sense, the tranquilizer would take time to take effect, meanwhile the gorilla might have become understandably irascible due to being shot, and take out his anger on the little boy. It's very clear to me that the zoo put every effort they could into insuring the safety of the child, even if it meant putting down one of their most treasured animals. It was a tragic but necessary decision.

That logic was not accepted by scores of individuals who  were appalled by the willful taking of Harambe's life. Some went so far as to say that every effort should have been made to protect the gorilla, even if it meant sacrificing the child. Along those lines, there has been a groundswell of public opinion stating that the mother of the boy should be held liable for Harambe's death. After all, the gorilla did nothing wrong, it was the mother who failed to watch her child properly, or so they say. An online petition called "Justice for Harrambe" was circulated by the organization Change.org and was signed by hundreds of thousands of individuals. The petition states:
This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy's parents did not keep a closer watch on the child. We the undersigned believe that the child would not have been able to enter the enclosure under proper parental supervision. Witnesses claim that they heard the child state that he wished to go into the enclosure and was actively trying to breach the barriers. This should have prompted the parents to immediately remove the child from the vicinity. It is believed that the situation was caused by parental negligence and the zoo is not responsible for the child's injuries and possible trauma.We the undersigned want the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life.
Other individuals blame the zoo for failing to make the enclosure, which apparently has been around many years without incident. more secure. Still others claim the very existence of zoos in the first place is cruel and unnecessary. 

On the other side are the folks who are appalled that so much attention was given to the death of a gorilla. Many are using this story as a jumping off point for advancing their own agenda. Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago, never one to miss an opportunity to get attention, publicly expressed disgust that the death of a gorilla was getting more press than the shooting deaths of scores of young Chicagoans, (I'm not so sure that is true). Pro-lifers are taking the opportunity to say that people are more concerned about one gorilla than the tens of thousands of un-born children who are aborted each year. Even the Black Lives Matter folks have gotten in on the act claiming (in my opinion rightfully so) that the animal rights people seem to value the life of the gorilla more than the little boy, who happened to be black. They go on to condemn the creation of the "Justice for Harambe" petition for its being in their opinion, racially motivated, an idea which I think is absurd.

Mona Charen wrote an article in the conservative publication National Review titled: A Gorilla "Tragedy". The quotes around the word tragedy should tip the reader off that the writer believes tragedy in this case, is a poor choice of words. For Charen, we are "confusing animals with people" and that shame would be a better word to describe what befell Harambe. The fact that Ms. Charen took pains to point out that President Obama called Harambe's death a tragedy, leads me to believe that her concern here is more her own political agenda than philosophy or semantics.

She does make some interesting points however. Here's how she ends her piece:
Concern for animal welfare is not decadent. Some serious people argue that zoos and aquariums are inherently cruel, and they deserve a hearing. What’s so off about the reactions to this sad tale is the confusion about who has moral standing. “Justice” is not something to which animals are entitled, because animals are not moral agents. Those demanding “justice” for a gorilla are saying something nonsensical. Suppose the gorilla had climbed out of the enclosure and grabbed the boy? Would his advocates demand that he be tried for assault? Of course not. The gorilla cannot be held legally or morally liable for his actions, because he is a dumb beast. By the same token, he cannot receive “justice” from anyone. Animals can and should be treated humanely not because they are humane but because we are.
I agree with everything she says in her conclusion with the exception of her own poor choice of these words: "because he is a dumb beast." Here she is using this hopelessly outdated and intentionally provocative expression, in order to taunt certain (i.e.: liberal) readers whom she knew would find the term objectionable and yes, politically incorrect. Indeed it worked, several comments to the article slammed her use of that term.

Yet she is on to something here, namely the issue of justice for animals. It is no accident that our symbol for justice is a blindfolded woman holding a scale, the message being that all under the law are equal. It hasn't always worked that way in practice but that is the very foundation of our system of jurisprudence. 

Simply put, it is impossible to equate the lives of animals with the lives of human beings. If we did, I would be spending my life behind bars charged with, and admittedly guilty of the serial murder of countless creepy crawly animals in my home. You might argue that a gorilla is not the same as a cockroach. With this I agree, but that argument only serves to prove my point. Either all species are equal, or they are not. If in our eyes, the life of a gorilla is as valuable as the life of a human being, why then isn't the life of a cockroach equal to the life of a gorilla? Where do we draw the line?

Harambe - REUTERS/Cincinnati Zoo/Handout via Reuters
Animal lovers in fact are always drawing lines. Harambe has been described over and over again in the most superlative of terms, beautiful, magnificent, majestic, intelligent, and so on. Much has been made of the fact that members of Harambe's species are seriously endangered in the wild. If a child found himself inside say a hyena enclosure and zoo officials decided to shoot one or two of those animals to save that child, would there have been even a fraction of the outrage that resulted after Harambe's death?

Let's face it, plentiful, ugly animals always get the short shrift when it comes to PR, even among animal lovers.

What about the mother, did she neglect her responsibility to keep her child out of harm's way? I don't know, I wasn't there. The same witnesses who were cited in the "Justice for Harambe" petition were also quoted elsewhere as saying the child went from declaring his intention to descend into the gorilla enclosure to actually being there, in the blink of an eye. "The mother was not negligent" were the emphatic words of the people who were actually there. A few days ago Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters declined to press any charges against the mother. 

What I can say as a parent, is that two times my daughter was involved in accidents requiring a visit to the hospital, both of which took place literally right under my nose. In both cases she zigged when she should have zagged, but I'd be lying to you if I claimed there was nothing I could have done to prevent those accidents. What I could have done was prevent her from exploring the world,  from expanding her boundaries, from acting upon her creativity, and from having fun, but I didn't. Unfortunately, accidents happen, it's the way if the world. 

Likewise the little boy's mother could have prevented him from falling into Harambe's enclosure. Had she only tethered him to a leash so she could tend to her other children while preventing him from straying too far away, none of this would have happened. Short of that, she could have wrapped him head to toe in a bubble wrap suit so if he did manage to get away and roll or bounce into the enclosure, Harrambe's dragging him around his confines like a rag doll wouldn't have injured him, and he could have been rescued without the gorilla having to die. Of course the most effective thing the mother could have done was to stay home.

Because this incident concluded with the death of Harambe, people feel the need to blame someone. Had the ending been different, as it was in Chicago a few years ago when a child ended up in the arms of a female gorilla in a similar enclosure who tended to him and gently carried the child to the zookeepers, the attitude of the public would have been, no harm, no foul. That incident, exactly the same situation with a much different result, became the feel good story of the year, so no one batted an eye about those parents' supposed neglect.

Finally, what about our complicated relationship with animals? Is it possible to respect animals and still confine them to zoos, use them for scientific experiments, or eat them? I believe the answer lies in understanding our own place in nature. As I've stated before in this space, nature itself has no value system, nature simply reacts.

As the most successful species we know of, humans now have the power to destroy virtually all life on Planet Earth. We also have the power to save our planet from ourselves. A small part of that is the effort to bring species of plants and animals back from the verge of extinction. Conservatories and zoos play a huge role in that effort through education, research, fund raising and to a lesser extent, reintroducing captive members of an endangered species back into the wild. Zoos are important institutions because they teach us and future generations about animals, their role (and ours) in nature, and the necessity of conservation. All of the nature documentaries in the world can't hold a candle to the impact of seeing a gorilla or lion or any wild animal up close, looking at you straight in the eye. Nature doesn't care about the fate of species of plants and animals. Nature simply adapts, human beings either care, or they don't.

Like it or not, humans are among the animals on this planet who eat other animals. True, unlike certain meat eating animals, we don't have to eat meat in order to survive and it certainly would benefit many of us to eat less of it. As it's part of our nature however, I don't have a moral issue with eating meat. Nor by the same token, do I have a problem with using animals for responsible scientific research. 

The one caveat I would add in regards to our treatment of animals in captivity can be summed up in one word, respect. We need to learn from Native Americans who prayed for the souls of the animals they took for food. We need to be constantly vigilant to insure that the animals we use for our food or for research are treated humanely during their lifetimes. We must remember that everything we eat, plant or animal, was once alive, and we must teach ourselves to be thankful to those living things for giving up their lives so that we may live. Again, nature doesn't care if we live or die, any more than it cares about the lives of the plants and animals we eat. But human beings do care, or at least they should. The word humane sums up all the positive attributes that define us as human beings.

I believe it is not only right, but our moral imperative to take responsibility for the welfare of our world. Integral to that is to treat all life, plant and animal with respect, and to treat all animals, especially those whom we put into our service, be they housed in zoos, laboratories, farms or our homes, humanely. 

If we fail at this, then we are the ones who are the dumb beasts.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Strange Bedfellows Indeed

Poor Donald Trump can't seem to catch a break from the press these days. According to him:
I'm the only one in the world who can raise almost $6 million for the veterans, have uniform applause by the veterans groups, and end up being criticized by press.
Those remarks were made after it was revealed that money he supposedly raised for veterans at a fund raiser held during one of the Republican debates he refused to attend because of an ongoing snit with Fox reporter Megyn Kelly, didn't reach its intended beneficiaries until after reporters publicly questioned where the money was. In response, according to a CNN report, Trump called the press :
"dishonest," "not good people," sleazy, and among the worst human beings he has ever met."
Wow that must have stung.

I'm sure over the duration of his campaign to win the  Republican nomination for president, many tears have been shed on both sides of the on-going struggle between Donald Trump and the press. And every one of those tears has been of the crocodile variety.

The truth is, calling the relationship between Donald Trump and the press mutually beneficial, would be the understatement of the century. 

For the American news media, Donald Trump has been a godsend. Like covering a ballplayer on a torrid hitting streak, every time Trump opens his mouth, be it a racist rant, a sexist slur, or a generous helping of bigoted bluster, every time he lowers the bar on decorum and common decency, it's newsworthy. Every time Trump displays his prodigious ignorance of domestic and foreign policy and even the very purpose and function of the job he allegedly aspires to, people can't get enough of him. Articles on Trump like this one, have a way of writing themselves. All a writer has to do is print the vile garbage that comes out of his mouth and then say: "did he really just say that?" Whether they love or hate him, Donald Trump brought people back to news in an era when at least in this country, interest in current events was at an all time low.

As for Trump, a long time ago he learned there's no such thing as bad publicity. It's almost as if the purpose of Trump's candidacy is simply to prove the point that a candidate needn't spend billions of dollars to become president, so long as gets enough attention. For their part, the press has been more than willing to oblige by giving Trump all the attention he wants, for the mere price of a comment or a diatribe filled with them.

That of course isn't my idea; the notion that Trump really couldn't care less about being president has been bandied about quite frequently in the past year. For the record, I happen to buy into that theory. In my mind the Trump candidacy is a sham, nothing but cynical disregard for our government, our people, and our political process.

Could that in any way be a good thing? God knows our political system is flawed and in need of either repair or complete overhaul. Perhaps the silver lining to all this is that candidate Donald Trump is like a safecracker hired by a bank to figure out the vulnerabilities of its vault.

Safecracker Trump has certainly exposed many of the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of the Republican primary system, as another safecracker, Bernie Sanders has done on the Democratic side. Far more serious, Trump the safecracker has exposed the morally reprehensible, seedy underbelly of the American psyche that some thought had disappeared along with the days of Jim Crow. Trump supporters claim their man is a breath of fresh air who "tells it like it is", destroying the tyranny of "political correctness" as he derides minorities, immigrants, women, and anyone who happens to disagree with him. His slogan "Let's make America great again" is a thinly veiled call for a return to the exclusive white, male hegemony of this country's past. Trump says publicly what millions of frustrated white male Americans have been saying under their collective breath for decades.

For the other side, Trump bashers have the privilege of being able to take the moral high ground without any reservation, intellectual rigor, or in some cases, logic.  Case in point is this open letter to the American People initially signed by 450 notable American writers and subsequently by tens of thousands of citizens.  For eight sentences the letter spells out the power, both good and bad, of language, the values of democracy, justice, diversity and truth, the evils of nativism and bigotry, and the threat of demagogues manipulating "the basest and most violent elements in society." For those eight sentences the writers had me eating out of their hands. Then came the last sentence that completely lost me:
...we, the undersigned, as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States. (emphasis mine)
As far as I know, Donald J. Trump meets all the demands the Constitution specifies for being a candidate for president, namely he was born in the United States, he lived here more than fourteen years, and he is over 35 years of age. We may not like him, agree with him, or think he is qualified for the job. We may think he is in fact entirely unqualified for the job and if elected would be a detriment to the country. The good news is we have a say in whether he gets elected or not, and that doesn't involve a select group of like minded people unequivocally opposing his candidacy.

While it's certainly well within their rights to create a petition expressing their opposition to his candidacy, I'm afraid it will only serve as fodder for Trump as he will no doubt use it as an example of how little concern the liberal establishment has for the democratic process. I can hear him now: "how dare these elite eggheads oppose the will of the people who choose to support me." And in this case he'd be right, democracy allows for people to vote for whomever they please, even a buffoon. It is completely meaningless for a group or individual to oppose the candidacy of someone who meets the constitutional requirements for running for office.

Unlike the character Trump plays in this reality TV version of a presidential campaign, I have a very strong notion that the real Donald Trump is not a buffoon. He knows exactly what he's doing. As he has done continuously throughout his candidacy, Trump has managed to spin viral negativity against him to his favor, and this petition will be no exception.

I also believe that Donald Trump does not believe half of the things he says on the campaign trail. As I said, any publicity is good publicity, and Trump welcomes the bad along with the good. As long as he and his floppy hairdo are on the air and in people's minds, as long as we the people continue to be fascinated with him, he benefits, and so do those who wouldn't vote for him come hell or high water. 

In his excellent book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, author Charles Leerhsen suggests that we need our villains for no other reason than to make us feel better about ourselves. That's why some people took a dead baseball icon with a challenging personality and turned him into a psychopathic monster. The myth of Donald Trump, just like the myth of Ty Cobb the monster is pure bullshit, The only difference is this, it was Trump himself who invented his own myth. And unlike Cobb's reputation, the myth perversely continues to serve Trump well. 

The biggest lesson I suppose we're learning from Safecracker Donald is that getting a candidate before the people early, often, and relentlessly, is an effective strategy for getting votes. We the people have decided that we may not necessarily like Donald Trump, but we sure can't get enough of him. And the press has responded in kind by giving us exactly what we've asked for, more and more Donald. We can probably thank Trump for teaching us the lesson that this is no way to elect a president.

A bank hiring a safecracker is indeed an effective way to discover and correct that institution's weaknesses. That is until the safecracker becomes president of the bank. Then it's time to look for a new bank.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Photographs of the Month

It's a little hard to recall that far back, but I can swear we were still in the throes of winter when May started thirty days ago, and now as June quickly approaches, we're in the middle of summer. 

From the looks of these pictures, once again it would appear that I didn't venture too far off the beaten path; two of them were taken at home and two more at work. I did make it out to my old stomping grounds, Oak Park, sadly the second time this year for the funeral of the parent of an old friend. There I found to my astonishment, Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in mid-restoration, wrapped Christo style in plastic.

For some of the best pictures of the month, I seem to have been inspired by other photographers, myself included. As Picasso supposedly said, "bad artists copy, great artists steal."

You be the judge:

For starters, here I am copying or stealing from the best of the best, Alfred Stieglitz. Here is a picture to use the more polite term, borrowed, from the series he called his Equivalents:

May 2, Howard and Ridge Avenue
Truth be told, for this picture  I was sitting on the couch watching TV when I looked out the window and saw the late day sun breaking through some heavy cloud cover, illuminating the cupola and some details of our building. A good photographer must always be prepared.

May 4, Casa Bonita, Rogers Park
This time I had to wait for something to happen. Fortunately my train was delayed so I had plenty of time.

May 5, Adams and Wabash Elevated station

In the seventies the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, put together an exhibition called Mirrors and Windows. The idea of the show was to examine the two extremes that photographers take with their work: either self-reflevtive (mirrors), or exploring the world outside of themselves (windows). Most photographers Szarkowski concluded, fell somewhere in between. The following two photographs of mine employ literally both mirrors and windows. Where they would put me on Szarkowski's continuum is anybody's guess.

May 8, Garfield Park Conservatory

May 12, Casa Bonita, Rogers Park

Having trouble coming up with my picture of the day, I came across this zebra crossing in the South Loop which reminded me of the most famous zebra crossing in the world, the one in St. John's Wood, London. "Am I really doing this?" I said to myself as I stood in the middle of a fairly busy downtown street during rush hour, waiting for four people to show up, simply in order to make a send-up of one of the most iconic photographs in history. (If you don't believe me, google the words "iconic photographs"). Finally four people showed up waiting for the light to change and I knew I'd have my picture. I positioned myself accordingly and the three men and one woman on foot unbeknownst to them. cooperated perfectly with my plan. Just as they arrived on their marks, the man on the bicycle showed up and cut in.

Without him, this would have been a really dumb photograph trying to imitate an iconic, albeit kind of dumb photograph. With him well, it's at least a little funny. I titled it, "The Fifth Beatle."

May 23, Plymouth Court and Jackson Street
The epitome of 19th Century Chicago, Louis Sullivan's 1881 Jeweler's Building on the left, a facade that has lost the rest of its building and is now part of a residential-hotel complex on the right, and of course the L structure. The reproduction lamp fixtures in the foreground are the only unauthentic (unless you count the facadectomy) feature in the photograph.

May 24, Wabash Avenue
A very lush mid-spring afternoon in the South Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago.

May 26, South Garden, Art Institute of Chicago
Here's the front of my place of business in some lovely late afternoon light.

May 26, Adams Street
Returning from the wake of my friend's father in Oak Park, I encountered this lovely scene between a mother and her young daughter engaged in conversation. Given the circumstances, the tender moment between the two was especially poignant to me.

May 27, Red Line approaching Howard Street
The following day, Mr. Wright meets Mr. Christo in Oak Park:

May 28, Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois

Here copying myself, the neo-classical portico of the Field Museum building shot obliquely in much the same manner that I shot the Second Bank of Philadelphia about thirty years ago. The one big difference, Ionic orders as opposed to Doric.

May 29, Field Museum of Natural History

It turns out that General John Logan, whom this great Augustus Saint-Gaudins/Alexander Phimister Proctor statue honors, proclaimed that the last day of May should be the day in which the fallen soldiers of the Civil War would be honored. Soon the tradition of decorating the graves of those soldiers followed, hence the name Decoration Day, which would later become Memorial Day. Appropriately enough, I came across the monument to Logan decorated with flags for Memorial Day, 2016. Photographing the scene was my one patriotic effort of the holiday.

May 29, General Logan Monument, Grant Park

Happy summer!

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Walk in the Park

The brouhaha surrounding the Lucas Museum makes it easy to forget that the mission of the so-called "elitist" organization, Friends of the Parks, doesn't end at the lakefront. Rather, Friends of the Parks advocates a commitment to and the preservation of the parks and open spaces throughout the entire Chicago area.

The industrial ruins and decaying residential neighborhoods of the west side are the last place you might expect to find the crown jewel of Chicago's storied park system. But there it sits at the intersection of Central Park Boulevard and Lake Street, Garfield Park and its magnificent Conservatory.

Before the Great Fire of 1871, architect and engineer Willam Le Baron Jenney was hired by the commission who oversaw the parks on Chicago's west side to lay out plans for three major landscape parks and the boulevards to connect them. Jenny is most famous for having designed the first multi-story commercial building whose interior metal skeleton would support the outside wall, or in pure Chicago parlance, the world's first skyscraper. Fourteen years before the Home Insurance Building opened, the parks Jenny laid out would become Humboldt Park on the north. Douglas Park on the south, and appropriately enough, Central Park in between. Central Park would get a new name in 1881 after the assassination of the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield.

A tiny bit of the landscape of the Garfield Park community peaking though
the lush plants of the tropical house of the Conservatory.
One might consider Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas Parks and their connecting boulevards to constitute one greater park, much as you would the south side Jackson and Washington Parks and Midway Plaisance, the wide swath of park and boulevard that connects the two. The idea of a Chicago boulevard system creating a ring of parks that would connect the city and the lakefront goes all the way back to the 1840s and was the brainchild of one John S. Wright, an early real estate speculator and developer. Alas politics and the economy got in the way as they usually do, and no action was taken until the idea was picked up upon by the Chicago Times newspaper who in 1866 published a plan of a park system "one quarter mile wide and fourteen miles long" that would encircle the existing city starting at the northernmost part of the Chicago lake shore and ending at the southernmost.

The three west side parks of Jenny's would be among the first sections of the boulevard system to be realized. Unlike today's emphasis on recreation, the west side parks were designed with the typically mid-nineteenth century principle that parks were intended first and foremost to be a relief from the city, in the words of Lewis Mumford, they provided "refuge against the soiled and bedraggled works of man's creation."

Jenny's west side parks did just that. Curving carraige paths and walkways contrasted sharply with Chicago's practical but relentless street grid. Berms and strategically planed flora would wall off the everyday functions of the city from the parks' interiors. Quite the contrast from the typical architecture found in the city, the parks were filled with fanciful, ornate buildings that served as bandstands, conservatories, observation towers and field houses. The limited area set aside for the west side parks inspired Jenny and his associates to import species of plants from all over the world to make up for less than promising land features. Most of all, Jenny's liberal use of water, especially in Humboldt and Douglas Parks resulted in over fifty percent of their respective areas comprised of lagoons and small rivers.

Some of Jenny's plans were realized but yet again, fate, the economy, and a trait at which Chicago particularly excels, political corruption, all got in the way. It would take a scrupulous laborer from Denmark who had a particular talent in horticulture to see the project through to its completion. Along the way, Jens Jensen would become one of the most influential landscape philosophers and architects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It's well known that Jensen began his career in Chicago as a laborer in Humboldt Park then quickly made his way up the ladder to become park supervisor. Just as quickly, he lost that job because he wouldn't play along with the "Chicago way." Soon bygones became bygones and Jensen found himself as the director of the West Parks as well as their chief architect. Jensen, who came to love the prairie landscape of his adopted home, the American Midwest, was a strict advocate of using only native species in his plantings. Unlike his predecessors and many of his peers, Jensen did not believe you could improve upon nature.

"A great Midwestern haystack" The southern facade of the Garfield Park Conservatory
Slowly but surely, Jensen transformed the Humboldt, Garfield, Douglas trifecta into a glorious reflection and tribute to the landscape in which we inhabit. Gone were many of the trappings of Victoriana including the exotic buildings and more exotic flora, replaced by Prairie Style buildings and plantings. Jensen was not only a great landscape architect but he knew his way around a building as well. He designed the current Garfield Park Conservatory along the same principles of adherence to regional influence as his philosophy of planting. In an interesting contrast to the Lincoln Park Conservatory which looks like it could have been plucked straight out of nineteenth century London, Jensen's building, according to Julia Bachrach, author of The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks, is designed "to emulate the simple form of a great Midwestern haystack."

Throughout his career, Jensen had an on again off again relationship with Chicago and the West Park Commission. (The Chicago Park District which consolidated the many different park commissions in the city was not organized until 1934.) During one of those off again times, the baroque style  "Gold Dome Building" was built in 1928 to be the headquarters of the West Park Commission. After the establishment of the CPD, it would become the park's field house. Surely Jensen hated it, despite the fact that it and its eponymous dome are enduring symbols of the Garfield Park neighborhood that has to put it mildly, had its ups and downs over the years.

The Conservatory too has had its ups and downs, but in the last dozen years or so, much effort has been put into its restoration and today, despite being slightly off the beaten path, is one of the premier cultural institutions of this city.

Certainly in my lifetime and perhaps since it was built in 1908, the conservatory and its environs have never looked better. Most recently, several acres of land directly to the west of the conservatory were turned into The City Garden

Bridge spanning the vast lily pond of The City Garden.
As the newest public garden in Chicago, The City Garden, much like the great Palmisano Park on the site of a former limestone quarry in Bridgeport, embraces the industrial landscape surrounding it rather than walling it out. Built upon land that once was the site of tennis courts and a wading pool, The City Garden, according to the Garfield Park Conservatory website,
takes urban greening as its guiding principle, and it gives expression to that principle at multiple levels, from its structure to its materials and plantings. It also provides an important link in an ever-growing lacework of boulevards, gardens, and open spaces scattered beyond its borders.
City Garden in front of reminders of the west side of Chicago's industrial past
It is a little disconcerting to hear the rumbling of the L as you stroll through the multiple "garden communities" of The City Garden, including a grove of hawthorn trees supposedly planted by none other than Jens Jensen. But as Elwood Blues told his brother Jake when he spent the night at his place whose open window was about ten feet from the extremely busy Loop elevated structure, "you get used to it."

Although not as well known nor understood as Chicago's commercial and residential architectural history, Chicago has a distinguished history of landscape architecture. The legacy of Jenny, Jensen, Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, Alfred Caldwell and others, is one we can be proud of, one worth caring for. The City Garden, the Conservatory, Garfield Park and its sister parks Humboldt and Douglas, remain treasures to behold, no small effort, thanks in part to the tireless efforts of groups like Friends of the Parks.

Thanks folks for a job well done.