Sunday, October 12, 2014

Labels and such

There are certain words, most notably names of people, businesses, or ideas, that raise the hair of people of a certain ilk. You know what and who they are: buzzwords that people of one political ideology or other use to define all that is wrong with the world. To someone of the right wing ilk, words or phrases such as welfare, communism, tax and spend liberal, or Barack Obama are used to stir up the troops because of their power to get like minded people riled up into a tizzy. To those on the left, the names George W. Bush, the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, and Monsanto all have the same effect. When those labels fail to do the job, both sides love to conjure up the sina qua non of labels used to describe objectionable opinions and ideas: Hitler and the Nazis.

I've never had much use for labels; for me they are means to over-simplify complicated issues that deserve nuance and thought.

One of those buzzwords that people on at least one side of the political spectrum use to describe all that is wrong about the world, or at least this part of it, is the big box store Walmart.

The Walmart corporation's success is due to the creation of a sophisticated distribution system and maintaining extremely low overhead (including paying its workers what many consider to be less than a reasonable living wage), which enables them to undercut the prices of all the competition. That in addition to the one-stop convenience of being able to get practically anything you want under one roof in a convenient location with ample parking, makes Walmart THE go to store for tens, maybe hundreds of millions of Americans.

This of course comes at the expense of the competition: establishments that have been around for decades if not centuries in traditional shopping areas. Some people see Walmart as the cause for the downfall of  urban downtowns and small town Main Streets all over the country that today are mostly moribund if not dead.

To some, it's purely an example of business as survival of the fittest, in this case a tremendously successful company who does things bigger and better than anybody else deserving to win. Besides they say, Walmart creates jobs for lots of Americans who have the choice not to work there if they find the wages unacceptable.

To others, Walmart represents nothing less than the destruction of the American landscape and our very way of life.

Whichever side you're on, this article from last November's issue of Salon is well worth the read.

I never much liked Walmart, I've always found their stores extremely depressing places to spend time in and found their business practices to be objectionable.

But I've always thought using their name as a label for all that is wrong about America to be a little excessive.

That is until now.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Drinking and Driving

Times have changed. In one of my favorite movies, Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, released one year after I was born, there is a memorable, at times hysterical scene involving driving while under the influence of alcohol.  It starts when our hero, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is kidnapped, having been mistaken for someone else. He is brought by two thugs to a huge mansion in suburban New York where the boss of the operation, a smuggler of state secrets (James Mason), is under the impression that Roger is a government agent on his trail. Having gotten no information out of Thornhill, the bad guys plan to dispose of him by filling him up with a fifth of bourbon, then placing him behind the wheel of an automobile headed in the direction of a cliff with a several foot drop into Long Island Sound. What they underestimate is Roger's keen sense of self-preservation, and a super-human tolerance for alcohol. In a later scene with a real G-man who intends to take advantage of Roger's accidental relationship with the bad guys, Roger reveals his modus operandi:
Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed.
Anyway, completely tanked but still with his wits about him, Roger with a bad case of the room zooms, somehow gains control of the car before it goes off the cliff, and takes us on hair-raising ride through the back roads of Long Island where he zigs and zags as best he can avoiding oncoming cars while at the same time trying to keep his eyes open and the car on the road. He's taken off to the hoosegow after he slams on the brakes to avoid a bicyclist in his path and is rear-ended by the cop on his tail. After spending the night in the pokey on the charge of drunk driving, he appears before a judge at a hearing accompanied by his lawyer and his mother, none of whom believe his far-fetched tale. Defending his innocence, he pledges to the judge, the police, and all within earshot to "get to the bottom of all this" with or without their help. Upon hearing this his wacky mother throws up her hands and admonishes Roger by saying: "Just pay the two dollars dear."

Twelve years after the movie was released, while the penalty for driving under the influence was more than two bucks, it was still little more than a slap on the wrist. I remember visiting my uncle's family about twenty miles from our home. Since my father came directly from work, my parents drove there separately. My dad could really put away the alcohol back then in his prime, but that evening he drank more than even he could handle and was visibly drunk. As there were only two drivers in our family at the time and absolutely no question that we would leave with as many cars as we arrived in, my drunk father drove home and I drew the short straw as the person who was to accompany him. I may have had more terrifying moments in my life, but I can't remember any. The trip may not have been as hair raising as Cary Grant's joy ride in the Hitchcock movie, but it was bad enough. The funny thing was, even though my dad was completely shit-faced, no one, not even my mother thought twice about sending us off into the night with no more than a giggle noting my dad's condition, and an ironic "drive carefully" to send us on our way. God certainly must have been looking out for us that evening because we somehow made it home without incident.

A dozen years later, DUI penalties were more than just a slap on the wrist. That was the era when thanks to groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), it became unfashionable to chuckle while putting a drunk friend or family member behind the wheel of a car. All that didn't prevent me on occasion from driving when I shouldn't have. One evening when I was on a softball team and the other team didn't show up for a game, our team put that extra two hours to good use by heading straight for the bar. With the head start, by the end of the evening we were all pretty wasted. It just so happened that I drove to work that day and wasn't about to keep my car in the garage overnight, so I drove home in a mild stupor.  Now my father was a very aggressive driver while sober, and even more so when he was drunk. Since I never shared my late father's sense of self-confidence, not by a long shot, I would by and large describe myself as a defensive driver, especially while shall we say, tipsy. That evening I planned my journey very carefully, hoping to minimize any chance of causing anyone harm or getting into trouble by choosing the road less traveled to get home. To this day I can remember practically every moment of that commute home, all two hours or so of what should have been a twenty minute trip, driving half the speed limit with my face about five inches from the steering wheel. My memory of that evening ends the minute I got home when I passed out on the floor.

Flash forward some thirty years to today where there is zero tolerance for drunk driving. A DUI conviction now can result in the indefinite suspension of one's driver's licence, serious time behind bars, and social ostracization. While all that should give pause to reasonable people before they drink and drive, there are still folks who throw all caution to the wind and get behind the wheel when they have no business to do so. According to MADD, that number is about 300,000 per day. Last Saturday night, a husband and wife were driving home to the Milwaukee area after attending a wedding in Chicago. As they were passing through Kenosha, little more than half way home, they were hit head on by a pickup truck going the wrong way on an interstate highway at an estimated speed of 100 miles per hour. The husband died instantly and his wife sustained very critical injuries, but not life threatening. Their two children fortunately were not with them at the time, they were informed that they would never see their father again by their uncles. My wife and I learned of the tragedy Sunday evening. The deceased was my wife's first cousin.

Moments before the accident, the driver of the pickup truck that killed a member of our family fled the police after being stopped, then continued driving south in the northbound lanes of the superhighway.

It's customary to use the word "allegedly" to modify the actions of someone involved in a criminal act who has yet to be convicted of a crime. That small courtesy is seldom given to drunk drivers. The news reports immediately told us that a witness to the accident who offered help to the injured, noticed that the cab of the pickup truck which struck my wife's cousin's car reeked of alcohol. It was also reported that the woman passenger in that vehicle told police that she and the driver had been drinking that night. You may draw your own conclusions but I'll just go out on a limb and say the guy behind the wheel who killed my wife's cousin was drunk.

If he lives, and at this point that's about a fifty-fifty proposition, he'll be in serious trouble. Beyond all the legal charges that will await him should he survive his injuries, if he has any conscience at all, he'll have to live with all the pain and suffering he caused so many people. Because of his stupidity, he'll have to live with the fact that a father will never get the chance to see his boys grow up; he'll never get to meet his grandchildren. Because of his recklessness, he'll have to live with the fact that the boy's mother in addition to fighting for her life through terrible pain, has lost her best friend and soul mate, and will have to raise her children without a father. Because of his criminal behavior, two boys have lost their dad at an age when they need him the most; the rest of his family has lost a loving brother, nephew, cousin and an uncle. Scores of folks have lost a dear friend and colleague, and a couple who got married last week in Chicago will forever be haunted by the fact that a tragedy befell two guests leaving their wedding. I could go on and on about the number of people who have been hit by this particular nightmare. The point of all this is to say that we forget how intricately all of us are connected, our actions not only define us, but other lives as well.

In Illinois the penalties for drunk driving are harsh; a first offense DUI conviction here results in a minimum of one year suspension of the driver's licence, a fine of up to $2,500, and up to one year in jail. Wisconsin's penalties are tough but not nearly as much as those in Illinois, which may explain why the Dairy State according to its own DOT web site, has the highest rate of drunken driving in the nation.

There are some who would argue that laws severely punishing drivers without exception caught driving above the legal limit of alcohol in their veins are unfair. They might argue that having an amount of alcohol above an arbitrary percentage, does not necessarily mean a person will be more likely to cause an accident than someone driving with other distractions, some of which are completely unavoidable. It's not even unreasonable to say that some people are better drivers while tipsy than others are stone sober. Taking away a person's ability to drive is often tantamount to taking away that person's livelihood. Incarceration causes irreparable harm to a reputation, and the fines add insult to injury. Besides, the tough laws already in place didn't prevent the Wisconsin driver from causing the deadly crash last Saturday. Some would argue draconian laws that take away people's rights, their liberty, and the ability to support themselves based on what is essentially a case of bad judgement, are simply bad, unreasonable, and ineffective laws.

I would counter with what should be obvious: driving a car is a privilege, not a right. Getting behind the wheel of a two thousand pound machine that is easily capable of speeds of well over one hundred MPH is a deadly serious proposition. Along with accepting that privilege comes a contract the driver makes with society, pledging to accept and uphold the rules and regulations placed upon all drivers, not just some. In other words those of us (like me) who foolishly believe we're good drunk drivers, don't live by a different set of rules than anybody else. Despite the terrible experience of our family this past week, tough drunk driving laws keep at least some drunks off the road and do in fact save lives. Of all the impairments and distractions that drivers face on a daily basis, drunk driving, (unless you're Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest), is entirely avoidable. Every driver knows the legal consequences of driving under the influence so there is simply no excuse beyond sheer stupidity to put oneself into the position of getting a DUI.

A more important detriment to driving under the influence than getting busted should be the thought of the terrible carnage of fatalities caused by drunk driving. According to MADD, around 10,000 people each year are killed by drunk drivers who account for one third of all traffic accidents in the United States. Just imagine, 10,000 deaths each year that could have easily been prevented if only the people who caused them had thought about the terrible consequences before drinking and driving. A sobering thought indeed.

As we have seen, we are all inexorably connected by our actions. Our cousin and his family were the victims last week. This week it may be a loved one of yours. The way I see it, supporting and abiding by the strict rules we have on the books regarding drinking and driving is a small price to pay, even if they save only one life.

Who knows, that life may be your own.

If you are so moved, the following is the address of a fund to help our cousin's wife and her two boys:

The Robert F. Miller Family Memorial Fund
Landmark Credit Union
2190 Wisconsin Ave. Grafton, WI 53024

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Ken Burns Effect

A recent posting on Facebook of A Trip Down Market Street, this mesmerizing film of a cable car ride down San Francisco's main drag, brought to mind a couple of things:

If this looks familiar, you've probably seen bits of it used as a device in documentary films that deal with a particular time and place: America at the turn of the last century. Coincidentally, this week PBS has been broadcasting the latest Ken Burns film based upon the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Sure enough, in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, one of the thousands of clips from hundreds of films Burns uses is a clip from this movie which was actually shot during Teddy Roosevelt's administration. In fact if you look carefully, you can see the clip over and over again as it is used in a promo for the show and one of its sponsors. I'm quite certain that I've seen portions of this film over the years, used in other works of Burns and his contemporaries.

I suspect most people don't immediately recognize the city depicted in the film. As such it could represent virtually any big American city at the turn of the twentieth century, which is why using clips from it is so attractive to contemporary filmmakers. But there is a story behind this particular film that makes it in its own right much more interesting than the documentary films who exploit it simply to establish a time and place.

The film  was produced by four brothers, Harry, Herbert, Earle and Joe, collectively known as the Miles Brothers. It was shot entirely in one take, not a small accomplishment given that the cameraman, Harry Miles, had to hand crank the film traveling through his camera at a consistent rate for the entire thirteen minute cable car ride. Another not so small feat is the fact that the cable car does not come to a complete stop in the entire film. The film is beautifully choreographed as obstacles including folks standing on the tracks playing "chicken", not moving away until the last possible second, and daredevil motorists darting in between oncoming cars can't stop our cable car as it moves inexorably toward its destination, the San Francisco Ferry Building at the intersection of Market and the Embarcadero, the heart of the city.

One of the many interesting aspects of the film is the way it shows the traffic pattern of a major artery in an American city before the time when vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine reigned supreme. The cable car, itself powered by a mechanism gripping onto an underground cable moving at a constant rate of speed, had to compete with electric powered street cars, horse drawn vehicles of all types, pedestrians, bicyclists, and automobiles. When I first saw the movie in its entirety this week, I was surprised by the amount of cars, given that the number of automobiles in the entire United States in the first decade of the twentieth century was less than ten thousand. Turns out I was not off base, according to the 60 Minutes piece you'll find below, the Miles brothers employed local motorists to appear in the film, (in some cases more than once), so the depiction of Market Street traffic c.1906 is a little deceptive.

As you may notice, there are no traffic lights, they wouldn't come around until a decade later. I guess it's debatable whether they could have used them in 1906 as vehicles with different capabilities of speed and maneuverability are forced to compete for right of way while only tacitly adhering to accepted rules of the road. Yet here everybody seems to get along just fine as the top practical speed of the "horseless carriages" on the road at the time was probably not much more than that of a carriage-less horse.

The most remarkable thing about this film is not apparent from a casual viewing. It was originally assumed that A Trip Down Market Street was filmed in October of 1905. Film historian David Kiehn would become obsessed with the movie shot in his home town and by taking note of many visual clues and doing some historical research which is documented in the 60 Minutes piece, determined conclusively that the film was shot in late March or early April of 1906, only a week or two before the catastrophic earthquake that took place on April 18th of that year. In all around 3,000 lives were lost in that earthquake and the ensuing fire, roughly the same number who perished in New York City, Arlington, VA and Shankesville, PA as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,

It's very likely that in a week or two, some of the people who appeared in the film would be dead and half of them would lose their homes. Most of the buildings would be gone. One exception is the Terminal Building visible throughout the entire movie, the ultimate destination of the cable car. The building survived the earthquake and today is still the focal point of Market Street. To all who care about such things, that building not only lives as a memorial to the 1906 tragedy, but also to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which took the lives of dozens motorists who were crushed when the double deck highway they were driving upon collapsed. A similar freeway which once stood immediately in front of the Terminal Building was significantly damaged during that earthquake and shortly thereafter was demolished.

But the building also survived that earthquake intact; it and the film stand today as testaments to a great city and the indefatigable human spirit.

If there is such a thing as an American documentary filmmaker with a household name, it would be Ken Burns. So popular is his work, many people consider his movies to be the final word on the topics he covers. His films which air on PBS, are devoted to American subjects such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Jazz, Baseball, Prohibition, the Civil War, and now of course, the Roosevelts. No matter what subject, Burns's formulaic style does not vary from film to film. In each work, an authoritative voice-over narration moves along the story line supplemented by readings of quotes from correspondence, speeches or text supplied by notable actors, and comments from experts in the field. To set the mood, a soundtrack of period music plays incessantly in the background from beginning to end.

The bulk of Burns's imagery consists of archive film footage and still photographs. Setting a tone, they serve the same purpose as the soundtrack. What little original footage he supplies are images of un-populated historical sites usually shot romantically at dusk, and the "talking heads" of the experts, speaking reverently about the subject at hand. Never content to allow his visual material to speak for itself, Burns cuts up films (such as A Trip Down Market Street), to suit his needs. In a similar fashion, he seldom shows us a still photograph in its entirety, rather  he selectively crops images then animates them by panning or zooming in and out, usually for dramatic effect.  Burns in no way invented the idea of panning across still images, but he has used and abused the technique so often that Apple Corporation has included what they call the "Ken Burns Effect"  in their video editing software.  The Burns Effect is so successful that it has become the default setting when users choose to include still photographs into their videos. In other words, if you want to show a still image in your video without any pans or zooms in Apple software, you have to turn off the Ken Burns effect. Given his reputation as "the people's historian", I can't think of a more suitable metaphor.

Despite being widely admired, Ken Burns has his detractors. His work has a well deserved reputation for being less than rigorous with the facts. Never content to leave any loose ends, many feel his films package their subjects in neat and tidy bundles, avoiding the inevitable lingering doubts and messy questions that real historians deal with on a daily basis. And then there's that inescapable, plug-in style of his which treats every subject exactly the same.

But my biggest gripe with Ken Burns is the way he appropriates the work of others, without giving the authors due credit. You won't have a hard time finding the names of the "talent" who provide the voiceover narration and readings, nor will you have a problem learning who wrote and produced the films. You certainly won't have a problem spotting Ken Burns's name all over his product. But if you're interested in who provided Burns with the visual theme (or as the fancy people call it, the mise en scène) of his films, that is to say the photographers and filmmakers who are responsible for about 90 percent of what you actually see in a Ken Burns film, not to mention the musicians who provided the soundtrack, forget about it. Burns only pays lip service, and that's a generous term, to the archives where the work was found, but never to the creators of the work itself.

Which in my opinion is inexcusable.

To rectify that if only a bit, as promised, here from a 60 Minutes piece broadcast in 2010, is the story of a work of art that Ken Burns has used and abused time and again. A work that in my opinion, far from being merely a brief clip used to establish a particular time and place, is more ground breaking, powerful, and enlightening than any of the films that the so called "most respected historian in America" has given us to date:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Getting into the act

Just when you thought the Vivian Maier saga couldn't get any wackier, a Virginia lawyer jumped into the fray and has begun legal action that might put at least a temporary halt to the production and sale of prints made from the late Chicago photographer's vast archive of negatives left behind after her death in 2009. As you may recall, several lots of items in lockers containing the life's work of Vivian Maier went up for auction after Miss Maier no longer could afford to pay the storage fees. Her work ended up in the hands of complete strangers including a former real estate agent by the name of John Maloof. Maloof like most of the world, was unaware of Maier when he purchased a large portion of her possessions in 2007. After deep-sixing his haul for a couple of years, Maloof returned to it in 2009 when he Googled the name Vivian Maier and discovered that she had died only a few weeks earlier. Soon he began scanning the negatives in his possession and posted the images on a blog titled: "Vivian Maier - Her Undiscovered Work."

I stumbled across his blog not long after Maloof first put it up as my post from 2009 testifies. Like so many others, I was blown away by the pictures that Maloof uncovered. Spanning five decades, Miss Maier's work, a combination very well seen street photographs. and compelling self-portraits, quickly became the talk of the art world. In 2011 the Chicago Cultural Center mounted a show called "Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer."

My own Vivian Maier bubble was burst by that show. Maier's talent and commitment certainly came through but it had to compete with the show's obsessive fascination with her profession as nanny and her eccentric personality. Along with the photographs on the wall, were cases displaying Miss Maier's belongings: in addition to the expected photographic gear were items of clothing, hats, shoes, and other personal items, which to me anyway had very little to do with her work.  Almost as troubling were the photographs on the wall, the vast majority of them were posthumous prints made in a style that bore little resemblance to the handful of vintage prints on display made by the photographer in the fifties.

This last part is important as I mentioned in my earlier post on Miss Maier, because vintage prints are the key to how an artist sees her work, while posthumous prints, in this case made from negatives some of which which Maier never laid eyes upon, represent the sensibilities of others.

Clearly I thought, the Vivian Maier we were seeing in the exhibition was as much the creation of a legend as it was an honest exploration into the work of a talented artist. That legend has grown exponentially in the subsequent years and Miss Maier has achieved in the words of cultural historian Pamela Bannos, the status of a "cult figure."

Alternate versions of Vivian Maier's life have emerged depending on whose collection you look at.

One might think that the folks who bought all the photographer's earthly possessions, the keepers of the Maier legacy if you will, would pool their resources in order to form a clearer picture of Miss Maier's life. Unfortunately that has not been the case. Each collector seems to hold on to his own piece of turf and we are left with a fragmented picture of a complicated person's life.

As you may expect, there is an economic force driving the Viaian Maier industry. Modern prints are being made in limited editions from Miss Maier's negatives and selling in the two to four thousand dollar range per print. Vintage prints are going for ten thousand dollars and up. With several thousand vintage prints and over one hundred thousand negatives in the hands of collectors in a very favorable market, you can imagine there is some very good money to be made.

I made the point in my previous post that there is nothing illegal about this. Miss Maier had no will and made no provisions for her possessions including her art work. The collectors bought Vivian Maier's work fair and square, yet there is something unsettling about the fact that while Miss Maier was living her last years in destitution, having a roof over her head only through the generosity of some of the children she took care of as a nanny many years earlier, complete strangers were buying up her life's work and upon her death set into motion the process of making a fortune off of it.

Enter from stage left, a knight in shining armor, the true defender of  Vivian Meier's legacy, in his eyes at least, a commercial photographer turned lawyer practicing in Orange, Virginia named David C. Deal. Troubled by perfect strangers cashing in on Miss Maier, Mr. Deal took it upon himself to hire genealogists to track down possible Maier relatives in Europe. Now it so happens that in an attempt to remain entirely above board,  John Maloof found an heir, a first cousin once removed named Sylvain Jaussaud of France with whom Maloof worked out a monetary agreement in exchange for the rights to Miss Maier's work. Mr. Deal's genealogists found yet another cousin, a gentleman by the name of Francis Baille, a retired civil servant in the town of Gap, somewhere in northeastern France.  Deal has filed a petition in Cook County that M.Baille be declared Vivian Maier's heir. Letters have been sent to all the collectors who have profited from the reproduction of Maier's work informing them that those transactions may at some undisclosed time in the future, be subject to lawsuit.

According to this article in the New York Times, M. Baille refused to speak with the press, wisely preferring all comments to be made through his lawyer who said the following:
It’s an extraordinary situation. You can imagine what it’s like to get a telephone call about someone who died that he never knew, with this precious legacy. He is very, very surprised.
One can only imagine.

Mr. Deal claims that he is only interested in doing the right thing and would be perfectly happy to break even in the, pardon the pun, deal. I have no reason (wink wink nudge nudge) to doubt his sincerity.

What I don't understand is this: if David C. Deal is so appalled by the ethics of strangers profiting off Vivian Maier, how is it different if the rights to her work are turned over to another perfect stranger five thousand miles away who was never aware of her existence let alone her work, who just happens to be a distant relative?
Perhaps M. Baille actually has a keen appreciation of his distant first cousin once removed, and for her "precious legacy". Perhaps he sees something terribly unjust that people who had no idea she existed while she was alive, and most likely would not have given her the time of day if they had, are profiting from her work now that she's dead. Perhaps M. Baille will decide that to truly honor his late relative, her work, now that it has come to be known to the world, should be laid to rest beside its maker.

But I doubt it.

From his lawyer's statement, it appears that M. Baille knows he's sitting on top of a gold mine. It seems very likely that M. Baille would certainly like to tap into that gold mine, as it appears to be his legal right. If that's true, it would certainly be in his best interest to support the continued publishing of her work and the promotion of her legend. And who would be better partners in that endeavor than the people who created the market for her work and tapped into it in the first place?

So if you're one of those people who are concerned that Vivian Maier's works will become unavailable to the general public because of her new found heir and the legal actions surrounding him, I would say don't worry.

Thanks to Dave Deal, there will just be another hand or two reaching out for a piece of the action.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The game still matters

In a time when folks are declaring gloom and doom for the sport of baseball, this year's Little League World Series produced no fewer than two powerful, feel good stories that prove the game we still refer to as "The National Pastime" matters.

"Throw like a girl" has been the mantra of baseball fans across this country as one of the highlights of this year's Series was a flame throwing 5'4" 13 year old from Pennsylvania named Mo'ne Davis. Young Ms. Davis, only the 18th girl to participate in the Little League World Series became the first member of the female persuasion to pitch a shutout in the competition held annually in Williamsport, PA. That performance against South Nashville on Friday August 15 turned Mo'ne into a national celebrity.

It was hard not to root for Ms. Davis and her team the Taney Dragons from Center City, Philadelphia. The Dragons team, much like my son's travel baseball team, and decidedly unlike most of their competition in the LLWS is integrated; its players and coaches reflect the multi-cutural population of the city they represent. Also like my son's team, one of its best players happens to be a girl.

But I couldn't root for the Taney Dragons on August 21st because that day the team from Philadelphia faced the team from my home town, Chicago: Jackie Robinson West.

The team that is known affectionately around these parts simply by its initials JRW, is an all-star team, its members chosen from a league of the same name located on the south side of Chicago. Much has been made about this all African American team representing a part of town that lately has gotten more publicity for bad things rather than good. People have expressed amazement at their success given that in our time fewer and fewer African American players play in the Major Leagues and interest in the game in the black community is at an all time low.

But there's nothing at all amazing about the success of JRW. The league was established back in 1971 by Joseph H. Haley, an educator by profession. His league has become one of this city's most cherished institutions, thousands of Chicagoans from all walks of life including a few major leaguers have had the honor of calling themselves members of Jackie Robinson West. In the words of the Illinois General Assembly's official proclamation marking Mr. Haley's passing in 2005:
From a league with just five teams, Jackie Robinson West Little League has grown to more than 1,000 players on 36 teams; the league has instilled the values of good citizenship, perseverance, team effort, sportsmanship,and self-discipline in generations of young people; Mr. Haley wanted the children in his league to get a good education and taught them that school was more important than baseball.
On the evening of August 21st, the alderman of the ward where my son plays baseball, arranged for a viewing party to watch the game between JRW and the Taney Dragons, which would determine who would go on to the US finals. It was one of dozens of such parties around Chicago to support the team that represents not just the south side, but our entire city.

In that game Chicago would never look back after scoring four runs in the bottom of the first. Despite a late rush from Philly who down by one run, loaded the bases in the top of the last inning, the game ended 6-5, JRW.

The mostly white crowd at our event went wild when Philly harmlessly lined out to the Chicago second baseman to end the game.

It took a spectacular double play to win the next game against a strong, highly favored Nevada team who smoked both JRW and the Dragons in their first meetings. But in the end, JRW won that game too and became the US Little League Champions.

Unfortunately, JRW lost the World Championship to South Korea the following day but it hardly mattered. The city of Chicago threw them a huge party that culminated Downtown at the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park. It was the kind of celebration normally held all too infrequently when one of this city's professional sports teams wins a championship. Sadly I missed the event as I was out of town.

Public figures and executives from both of Chicago's major league baseball teams were there to speak words of encouragement to the young players and to all young people of the city, black, brown and white, at least those who cared to listen. The message was simple: their most important job was to get a good education first, and good things most likely will follow.

In both victory and defeat, JRW has represented Chicago honorably. As a result, the team and the league have rightfully been embraced by the entire city.

Coming as it did on the heels of a well publicized national tragedy, some writers could not resist the temptation to frame the story of a Little League baseball team winning the national championship within the subtext of race in America. In a blog for The Nation, directly under a picture of the young members of the JRW team aboard a float being cheered on by throngs of white people during a parade in Williamsport, Dave Zirin wrote this:
... the events of this summer show with bracing clarity that there are huge swaths of this country that love black culture and hate black people.
The whole point of Zirin's piece was to compare the public's reaction to this year's Little League World Series, to that of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Zirin expresses his astonishment over JRW "beating the odds" as an all black team from the inner city where: "the gutting of the social safety net, the explosion of economic inequality and the hollowing out of our cities" has decimated "Little League programs, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers: the very infrastructure baseball demands." These are the very conditions Zirin argues, that paved the way for incidents like the one in Ferguson.

In other words, blacks don't play baseball anymore, so the story goes, because society has taken away the apparatus for them to do so.

If anything, the events of this summer have proved (to anyone who didn't know it already) that theory to be nothing but hooey.

The point Zirin seems to miss is that successful Little League programs, like so many other successful institutions involving children, are not the result of any social safety net, but are the result of the one most important factor in determining the course of a young person's life: parents.

From an article written by Bob Cook in Forbes Magazine, published just before the start of this year's tournament:
What makes Jackie Robinson West succeed as a league is the same as what makes any league succeed, no matter the players’ race, ethnicity or income status. 
“It’s a combination of factors,” said (Joseph Haley's son who took over the league upon his father's death, Bill) Haley, a dispatcher for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Our league has a strong tradition. The coaches were once players. It’s taken hold in the community. You pull kids from a limited area, so there’s a sense of community to start out with. Being state champions (the league has won two Illinois championships in a row) is incidental to what we’re trying to do.”

The key, Haley said, is not the children. “It’s the adults. Baseball is a family game. It starts with just a dad playing catch with his kids. You’ve got a dad who hits pop flies on a Sunday. That’s where the connection comes in.
“That’s how it started for me.”
Those words ring true for anyone who has ever been involved with Little League baseball at any level.

In expressing his amazement over the success of the team from the Jackie Robinson West league, Dave Zirin (who happens to be white), seems to fall into the trap of mistakenly assuming that African American communities are places filled with nothing but hopelessness and despair, fueled by poverty and racism. Implicitly he's saying that it's hard for black folks to do anything on their own without help from above. As such, characterizing the success of JRW as "astonishing" and "against all odds" is parochial at best, patronizing at worst.

The success of the Dragons and JRW teams are tremendous accomplishments to be sure, but no different from those of any other Little League team who reaches those heights. What Zirin and other social commentators fail to take into account is that the stories of Mo'ne Davis, her Taney Dragons teammates, and the team from Jackie Robinson West are not simply triumphs of the human spirit, but like anything worthwhile in life, are the result of countless hours of dedication, hard work, and the pursuit of perfection from everybody involved: the players, the coaches, the community, and especially the parents.

That's a valuable lesson all of us need to learn.

Thank you Dragons and JRW for being such magnificent teachers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gone Ghetto

I belong to a few Facebook groups that focus on particular neighborhoods in Chicago. Some deal with neighborhoods where I have lived, others with neighborhoods that have particular interest to me. Many of the posts deal with the past, featuring long-gone landmarks whose memories speak of a bygone era which almost inevitably according to the members of each group, was better than the one in which we live in now.
A group that focuses on the community in which I currently live, Rogers Park/West Ridge (more commonly referred to as East and West Rogers Park) on Chicago's far north side, is particularly fond of the past. I don't personally know any of the folks whose comments appear on the group's posts, but from what I can tell, most of the people active in the group grew up here, and moved away a long time ago.

Like every neighborhood in Chicago, Rogers Park (from hereon I'll refer to the two communities collectively by the one name), has significantly changed in the past fifty years. Ninety nine and some change percent white as late as 1960 and heavily Jewish, the neighborhood since then has diversified. Immigrants have come from West Africa, all corners of Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. A large contingent of Jews from Russia, as well as a huge concentration of orthodox congregations, have kept the presence of the Diaspora strong up here. The neighborhood has also become racially integrated over the past half century, welcoming African Americans who left some of the troubled segregated neighborhoods on the city's south and west sides. I've often said that ours is one of the most culturally diverse communities in the city if not the nation.

The subject of one post on the Rogers Park Facebook group that received many comments was Devon Avenue, once a street filled with storefronts mostly catering to the Jewish community but today is the commercial hub of Chicago's Indian and Pakistani community. To me Devon is one of the most fascinating streets in the city; stepping onto it you feel that you have just been transported halfway around the world, perhaps to Delhi or Karachi. It turns out that several of the members of the Facebook group don't share my enthusiasm about the street. They understandably miss the street they knew as children, but not understandably, feel threatened when they return. Beyond the shall I say, creative driving styles of some of the area's residents and the slight chance of unintended contact with a motor vehicle on Devon Avenue today, there is nothing threatening about the street, except perhaps that it is different from the way it used to be.

In another post, a regular contributor posted a photograph of a stop sign that was tagged with gang graffiti. One of the responses came from someone who currently lives in California. His comment was this:
Sadly most of Rogers Park & the surrounding areas have gone ghetto.
Now the phrase "gone ghetto" is a humorous street-slang expression describing losing one's cool and going off on an expletive-filled rant. The most famous use of the term was perhaps the golfer Tiger Woods' description of his wife's reaction to the news of his sexual exploits.

Because of the context and the fact that both the writer and most of his audience are white, I can only guess the comment was not intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but to be taken literally.

I was troubled by that statement on many levels, not the least of which is the fact that no homeowner appreciates his neighborhood being labelled a ghetto. I struggled finding the correct words to respond, not wishing to be confrontational or opening myself up to a barrage of comments pointing out statistics that would seem to confirm his sentiment. My response was simply this:
Having lived in this community for the past 11 years I beg to differ.
In our place and time, "the ghetto" is charged term, inextricably tied to three things: race, poverty, and crime. The word has origins that go back nearly one thousand years. It is defined as a distinct area of a community where people of one particular ethnic minority live, specifically to be separated from the rest of the population. More often than not during those thousand years, the ethnic minority forced to live in ghettos was Jewish. That makes the description of the recent transformation of Rogers Park from a Jewish community into a ghetto, particularly ironic.

In this country today, the ethnic minority usually associated with the ghetto is African American. Contrary to the notion that the United States is a "free country", black people regardless of their economic status, have not been free to live wherever they pleased for a very long time. In Chicago and similar cities, perfectly legal housing covenants in white-only communities once prohibited home owners from renting or selling to people of color. Consequently blacks who arrived in Chicago during the "Great Migration" from the South, roughly between 1915 and 1970, were forced to live in restricted parts of town where they found price gouging, substandard housing, and crime. Thus the Chicago neighborhoods that were the homes for generations of this city's black community, were by the strictest definition of the word, appropriately called ghettos.

Laws would eventually do away with restrictive housing covenants, but Chicago remains a segregated city. The reasons for this are complicated. I've been raked over the coals for posts I've written placing at least some of the responsibility on one group or another. Suffice it to say there is lingering bitterness and distrust between groups who prefer to dwell on assumptions of other people rather than face to face contact, and on our differences rather than what we have in common.

The members of the Facebook Rogers Park group have unwittingly tapped into this very issue. Often someone will post a comment saying they wish to visit the old neighborhood but are afraid to because of the threat of crime. "Oh you'll be OK..." is the typical response, "as long you come during the day and don't flaunt any valuables."

They do call this city Chi-raq after all.

I've encountered this attitude often on my travels around small towns in the Midwest when people see my white face then learn I live in Chicago and automatically ask: "which suburb?" When I tell them I live in the city proper, they look at me with apprehension, as if they found out I was just released from prison.

More troubling than the effects of unwarranted assumptions about my city or my neighborhood, is the casual use of labels such as "ghetto" to describe any neighborhood. It is universally assumed that people who live in "the ghetto" are either one of two things: criminals, or helpless victims with no option but to live there. Many of us don't realize that despite the relatively high rates of crime and violence, most of the people who live in places like Englewood and North Lawndale, two Chicago neighborhoods that are labeled ghettos among other much worse things, are honest, law abiding citizens who work for a living, pay their taxes, vote, and have the same needs and hopes for their lives as everybody else. Unfortunately because of the bad press, most of the people I know would never set foot in those neighborhoods let alone talk to the residents in order to find out that simple fact. I dealt with this subject in a post written a couple years ago.

This is not to downplay the rise of violent crime in this city over the past few years. The two neighborhoods mentioned above have been hit particularly hard by the recent spike in violence. We've also been feeling up it here in Rogers Park. A well publicized murder involving an innocent bystander and three gangbangers (who were not from the neighborhood) made the headlines a few weeks ago. Shootings are on the increase; it's not unusual to hear gunshots from our home. Several years ago I was attacked by a group of teenagers behind our building leaving me bloody and pissed off. Believe me, I don't write off crime and violence in the least.

But as I found out in 1968 when my family left the filth and crime of the big city for the clean air, green lawns, and safety of the suburbs, you can never escape reality. Within the first few months in our new home in an all white suburb, for the first time in my life: I heard gunshots, had my bicycle stolen, encountered truly mean and nasty children who no doubt went on to use those skills productively in their adult lives and, heard the word "nigger" used in passing conversation.

The recent tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri have underscored the divisions in our society. Some have expressed surprise, this coming so many years after the triumphs of the civil rights movement and the election of an African American president. But the idea that we live in a post-racial America, one "devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice", however desirable as that may be, is preposterous. If anything, with the rise of technological innovations such as cable TV, the internet, social media, and the blogosphere, where the views of any idiot (such as myself), can be voiced, we are perhaps more divided than ever. Today a person with any viewpoint no matter how imbecilic or irrational, can find some kind of justification, somewhere.

Not only have we separated ourselves physically, but also intellectually into enclaves, ideological ghettos if you prefer, where like-minded people can preach to each other. No longer do we talk to one another face-to-face about important issues, because that would be imprudent. We express our views with our "friends" in the relatively collegial atmosphere of Facebook, where we can "de-friend" people if we don't happen to like what they have to say. Or we can spew our venom anonymously to the world through Twitter and countless other outlets where we have no responsibility for truth or accuracy.

Rather than reading "all the news that's fit to print", people are more likely today to get their news from sources whose motto may as well be: "all the news you want to hear." As a friend pointed out recently, the events in Ferguson: "sadly (are) no longer about truth but rather, each of us being 'right.'"

Those events taking place as we speak in the St. Louis suburb have shown that most of us are still guided by our assumptions rather than facts born out of evidence. The court of public opinion has already weighed in as judge, jury, and jailer over the death of Michael Brown, only divided by ideology. Depending upon your point of view, the teenager was either: a criminal who assaulted a police officer while reaching for his gun which justified his killing or, an innocent, unarmed young man executed by a racist white cop.

That the truth probably lies somewhere between those two scenarios hardly matters; people will stick to their guns, their assumptions, and their prejudices, come hell or high water.

Things are never exactly what they seem and if we Americans, black, white, and everything in between, keep living by our assumptions about our fellow human beings and nothing else, we will continue to live in a bitterly divided society.

Like it or not, the face of this country is rapidly changing and before long, the United States will become a majority-minority country. We all would do well to accept and embrace this fact, rather than continually run away from it. Eventually there will be few places left to hide and the remaining enclaves filled with people separated from the rest of society by choice, will become the new ghettos, and their residents and their like-minded, like-complexioned neighbors, the new ghetto dwellers.

How ironic is that?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A death outside the family

Yesterday I learned of the deaths of two individuals, one of whom I knew personally. The other was Robin Williams

It's hard to explain why the death of a stranger hit me as hard as it did. I was not exactly a fan of Robin Williams although I did admire his work in several movies. As it so often happens with the deaths of notable people, I've spent more time thinking about him in the last 24 hours since learning of his death than in the past thirty years or so that I've been aware of his existence. Since yesterday I learned about his health issues including open heart surgery, profound depression, dependence on drugs and alcohol, and the steps he took over a long period of time to get better. I learned that his off screen persona wasn't all that different from what he presented to the public, and that beyond the wacky, hyper, over-the-top schtick for which he was famous, it seems that deep down he was a wonderful human being.

And like the whole world, I learned that he died by his own hand.

I used to think that suicide was the most selfish act imaginable. Now I'm not so sure. 

It so happened that within the span of a couple years, two people with whom I worked took their own lives. Both were women in their early twenties. Both had scores of friends and loving families, both were exceptionally intelligent, talented, and accomplished for their young ages.

Granted I didn't know either of these individuals very well, but on the surface these two women would have been the last people on earth I would have imagined to have suffered from clinical depression and would eventually kill themselves. The first was someone I never really cared for. I found her to be unpleasant, aloof, and self-assured to a fault. When I learned that she died I felt ambivalent - terribly guilty that I didn't like her in life, but also angry that she would cause so much pain to the family and friends who loved her. Foolishly I resolved in my head that my assumptions about the kind of people who would take their own lives were correct all along.

Although I hardly knew her any better, the second woman was the polar opposite of the first. Her spirit of warmth, kindness, and generosity was palpable. She was not the kind of person who would have intentionally slighted a perfect stranger, let alone the people who loved and cared for her.

As a society we are just now beginning to come to terms with the torments of clinical depresseion. The fact that we all get depressed at times over the anxieties of life makes those of us who don't suffer from this terribly debilitating and deadly disease feel that if only "those people" lightened up a little and looked on the bright side of life, they'd realize they had nothing to be depressed about in the first place. After all, what does someone with all the money, talent and success of someone like Robin Williams have to get depressed over?

While I'm no psychologist and in fact know very little about the subject, unlike the case of my two former colleagues, I can't say that the news of Robin Williams's death shocked me. I knew nothing about the private man until yesterday, but in retrospect I felt that his outrageous, rollicking comic free-spirit must have been tempered by another, much darker force. It's hardly a surprise that most comedians deep down are rather sad individuals. As a friend put it yesterday, their craft serves in part to make some sense out of a "really fucked up world."

You could say that Robin Williams's mental state, both the highs and the lows of it, (not to mention the copious amount of drugs and alcohol he admitted to consuming over the years), contributed significantly to his "genius." Like that sappy Elton John song about another Hollywood icon, that "candle in the wind" was bound to burn out much too soon. This is not to trivialize the tragedy of his death in the least; but the truth is, Robin Williams lived larger than most of us, as his fall was equal in proportion.

It's impossible to imagine what thoughts must have gone through his head in the last moments of his life. I can only guess that his pain must have been unbearable, so much so that it forced him to do the one act that is alien to the very thing all living organisms are programmed to do, survive.

I'm not sure why deep, psychological pain is such a hard concept for so many people to grasp, but it is. We have a friend whose daughter has for several years experienced chronic abdominal pain which has of late become excruciating. She has been hospitalized for weeks now and so far the doctors have been able to come up with absolutely no explanation for what has been causing the pain. They have been able to medicate it which brings only temporary relief for the symptoms, but are nowhere closer to finding the cause of her condition.

No one would have any problem understanding and sympathizing with this young woman's physical pain and the incredible frustration she and her family are experiencing in not finding its source, let alone a cure. As I see it, suffering through the depths of depression is much the same; the source of the pain is inexplicable, and the cure for its symptoms in the form of medication, is fleeting at best. The only difference is that other people simply can't understand.

I can only guess that what was on Robin Williams's mind at the end was not his loving family, his adoring fans, and all the good that he brought to the world. My guess is that the only thought on his mind was how to make the pain stop.

Those of us who do not suffer from clinical depression can learn a great deal from the struggle of Robin Williams. The one good thing that may come out of the tragedy of this beloved public figure and his family is a better public grasp of the disease that took his life. And hopefully those of us with loved ones who suffer from debilitating clinical depression will learn to better understand them, listen to them, and most of all love and care for them.

It may not make their pain go away, but it's sure better than the alternative.